Smoke & Mirrors
At least 20 hours have passed so the entire architectural universe must now be familiar with this image.
It’s the new headquarters of the waste management company Bee’ah, based in Sharjah, UAE.
Although there’s a lot of sand around that way, it’s not exactly desert. The Bee’ah Waste Management Complex is on the same side of Al Dhaid Road* as Emirates Industrial City. Across the road is the new Al Juwaiza’a suburban development that promises to be like the Al Suyoh Suburb further away.
It was a lazy Friday morning so I drove over to take a look. Here’s the Bee’ah Waste Management Complex.
This is Al Suyoh Suburb.
The Bee’ah Waste Management Complex is 39km (24 miles) from Burj Khalifa and precisely downwind from Sharjah International Airport.
Here’s the yearly average wind direction and strength data for Sharjah International Airport.
This tells us the prevailing winds are west-north-west, with occasional squalls from due west and none from the north, northeast or south. Here’s the wind direction data for February.
It would be incorrect for me to say this building is not shaped in response to the wind for the wind is occasionally from the north. Even a stopped clock tells the correct time twice a day. However, I’d be correct in saying the building is not shaped in response to the prevailing winds. Some commenters have gone as far as to say that the building is shaped in response to the Shamal winds The trouble is, the shamal winds characteristically come from the west or north-west. Not north, even though shamal is Arabic for “north”.
But all this misunderstanding could just be mindless repetition of a press release. Let’s try to get to the bottom of it.
designboom has the following sentence.
ArchDaily has this, noting that it’s “From the architects”
It didn’t take long to find the source, did it? Shall we just google “informed by its desert context as a series of intersecting dunes orientated to optimize the prevailing Shamal winds”?
ADF Architects’ Data File notes that the information was submitted by ZHA.
dezeen places it in quotation marks.
architect magazine at least rewrites it, even if it doesn’t make sense.
As we’ve seen, the words “surrounding desert context” and “oriented according to the prevailing Shamal wind direction” play fast and loose with the truth. “Conceptual driver” is a scary new concept. On the other hand, the phrase “settling upon the notion of …” seems to me to accurately describe the creative process at work here.
As well as the poor grammar and sentence structure, there’s also a logic error in the source PR release, if not the concept itself, or – God forbid! – its driver. How can two intersecting dunes both be oriented according to the same wind direction? Or to put it another way, aren’t adjacent dunes formed by the same wind? And even if they weren’t, wouldn’t they just combine rather than intersect? Life’s short. Let’s talk about the renders.
They were done by the Norweigian firm MIR. MIR have a philosophy of what they call “Natural Visualisation”. Its core principles are:
- Natural light
A sensible relationship between light and shadow is the foundation of every Mir image. Architecture “becomes itself” when lit naturally.
- Unforced process
All our best work has started with the freedom to explore and invent. The industry standard of ordering specific viewpoints with mood references does not take into account the interdependence of lighting, composition and colour.
- Unstaged entourage
Staged and unnatural-looking people can reduce art to kitsch in an instant. We believe that entourage should be an integral and unimposing part of the story in the image.
- Natural setting
Nature provides a sense of time and place. Natural elements from the specific location sets the scene for the architecture.
– A rugged urban street in soft morning fog.
– Heatwaves from a scorching sun in the desert.
This is the first philosophy of visualisation I’ve come across and it seems good. The results are certainly amazing. What this philosophy doesn’t mention is also interesting. The only connection with reality is the logical relationship between light and the shadows it produces.
- Here’s the aerial render. We’re looking south-east. Not. The angle and length of the palm-tree and vehicle shadows in the lower right imply sun from due east in June or thereabouts but the azimuth is too high for that time of year. So much for philosophy.
- “Natural elements from the specific location set the scene for the architecture.” Okay. Here, my question is “how specific does specific have to be?” Yes, there is wind in the UAE and yes there is sand and yes there are palm trees. A scene is set but, once again, it’s total fiction.
- Thankfully, those trees do look more like date palms than coconut palms. MIR have not made that all-too-common error. Unfortunately for the naturalistic approach to visualizations, there’s not a palm tree to be seen anywhere near the site. The water table in that area is too low to support trees as thirsty as date palms. There’s a reason palm trees grow in oases such as Al Ain.
- Actual vegetation includes the ghaf tree (pictured below) and which is a truly remarkable tree. The ghaf tree has been mentioned in this blog before.
- There’s also rimth (Haloxylon salicornicum). The next image shows some rimth outside the waste management facility.
Both the ghaf tree and the rimth are extremely clever plants but not very attractive and so they are of no value for visualisers as internet content. Besides, scene setting only works with what people think they know. Or want to think they know. Either way, it’s the raw material for scene setting inasmuch as it constructs the image of the building in the greenfields of our minds.
Here’s what I make of all this.
The proposal won a competition so on some level it must work. It doesn’t work on the level of artistic concept for there’s nothing essentially artistic about two intersecting dunes. And it doesn’t work on the level of a building responding to its environment for the environment this building is depicted as responding to doesn’t exist.
It seems to work best on the level of iconography. The impression generated from a few images and a few thoughts put into our heads, is that a building has been shaped in response to its environment. This is true only for the dimension of iconography as perceived by the competition organisers, how they want to perceive themselves, how they want to perceive we perceive them, and how they want to perceive each other. Oddly, none of this is odd. We lived through the eighties. I never thought I’d say I long for the days when signifiers were enigmatic.
As a stab at bigging ZHA’s scientific cred, the press release claims the building will have zero net energy. ArchDaily parrots:
“The building systems of the new Headquarters have been developed in conjunction with Atelier Ten to minimize both the energy required for cooling and the need for potable water consumption. In milder months, the façade is operable to allow natural ventilation – minimizing the need to provide cooling to the building.“
“Operable facade elements that allow natural ventilation and minimise the need to provide cooling” eh? What strange new world is this? Soon we’ll be invited to marvel at glazed facade elements that allow sunlight to penetrate so we don’t need to turn the lights on. Has nobody yet invented an emoticon for despair?
In conclusion, this recent news snippet is just another example of the imagery production behemoth that is ZHA. It was distributed to media outlets worldwide and, within 18 hours, is now part of our common cultural heritage. This is not a story of lazy or ill-conceived concepts. It is not even a story of sloppy editing or poor PR management practices. Whatever was done was good enough to do whatever job it was meant to do. It wouldn’t have happened if it had been otherwise. And that includes the design of the imagery, the design of the press release and, finally, the design of the building. The building comes last. We’ve yet to find out about how it will work and how those palm trees are going to get watered.
• • •
This link will to take you to the Bee’ah company site where you’ll find information about all the good things they do, such as constructing a plasma-arc gasification plant that will generate 85MW from every 400,000 tonnes of waste as well as a LEED Platinum rating for the project within the LEED boundary. The website also has other images more descriptive of their new headquarters even though they don’t have the panache of MIR’s. It’s now clear that mother dune shades a drop-off area and that baby dunes shade plants and 16 parking spaces. It’s also clear how little building there actually is.
Personally, I think it’s a shame Bee’ah chose to give hackneyed imagery another life instead of showing us how to make buildings out of recycled rubber tyres and the many other products they process.
• • •
June 2016: I’ve learned that this building is now not going to be built on the competition site alongside the Bee’ah Waste Recycling Facility (just up the road from the Sharjah Cement Factory), but across the road where this sign now appears.
This means that the shamal wind narrative makes slightly more sense even if the prevailing winds are still from the west. On the other hand, it also means that the large glazed surfaces face south. This must also complicate the energy evaluation. Some high level of building performance rating was being aimed for by linking the building energy use to plasma arc gasification plants and such but I imagine achieving this (let alone claiming it) is going to be more complex now all the fun stuff is on the other side of the road. There will be scope for better pictures as it will take a while for the Al Suyoh Suburb housing subdivision to fill in.
Whether on the north side of the road or south, the water table still won’t support palm trees. Even grass and petunias do not grow naturally.