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dysfunctionalism

DYSFUNCTIONALISM: Current state of architecture; characterised by an absence of relationship between form and stated reasons for its generation.

It’s the start of a new year and I feel the need to make sense of the one gone. Sometimes it’s clearer if you squint a bit, lose focus. Sometimes it’s better to not try to observe things directly and instead compare a current state with a previous state, try to work out what’s different. As with quantum phenomena.

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Historians have made it their job to look at the past, selectively filter it, and arrive at various conclusions such as the wonderfulness or crapness of The Modern Movement, Frank Lloyd Wright’s spatial system or Le Corbusier’s entire output seen through his Five Points. As yesterday’s tomorrow inevitably becomes today’s yesterday, what’s hyped today becomes recent history, and, in turn, history which is but a record of what we once thought important.

So what’s changed? How’s what we once thought important or were impressed by silently segued into what we now think is important or are impressed by? Think back a decade and remember what counted as Architecture when we didn’t know what we do now.

See what I mean? All of these buildings seem to have been around for much longer. They’re already slipping into history. Out of this selection, one person who’s noticeable by their absence is Dame Zaha Hadid.

DYSFUNCTION #1: SELLING OUT AS ENDGAME

Back in 2004 DameZ was busy collecting her Pritzker.

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Here’s the full announcement. This page shows the built works until then. In 2004, the Phaeno Science Centre was still under construction. How did we ever live?! Since 2004 however, ZH the superbrand has branched out into many other fields of design, most of which you either know about or I’ve written about. Lalique’s a new’un.


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I guess you worked out that that very long 60 seconds had something to do with “fluidity”. I blame Goethe. If architecture is frozen music then why shouldn’t glass vases be frozen silicates? I only get it now. This is why I’m unfamous. And unrich. Prices start at $16,400. So go on, show you care, put your money where your “Like” is.

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Lalique’s current catalogue quotes ZH as saying she’s been a collector of pieces since an early age. So much for my stamp collection =(

Just as haute couture houses add value to perfumes, architectural brands add value to whatever goods they’re paid to add value to. This phenomenon has always existed, but it seems to be becoming the endgame and not beer money anymore. “Architectural” prominence seems to be becoming a mere vehicle for more lucrative opportunities in the same way as being president or prime minister is just a stepping stone to the more lucrative speaking and advising circuit.

I can’t help thinking 2014 was the year that the satellites eclipsed the mothership. There’s a dysfunction between what architects say they do and what they do. This is not a sign of a healthy system.

DYSFUNCTION #2: FORM FOLLOWS DYSFUNCTION

2004 was a slack year for Frank Gehry, apart from being one of the judges giving ZH her PP. Here’s one of Gehry’s from back then. Its physical deterioration is another matter, but it’s amazing how little Gehry’s buildings have aged aesthetically in a decade.

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The secret of the relative longevity of his aesthetic is its resistance to downmarket copying and subsequent loss of cachet. Speaking of French…

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just in case anyone even thought about making replica Gehrys, the above is his latest value-addification of his equally unuseful Serpentine Pavilion – of 2008 if I remember right.

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This new Gehry style will only ever be a prototype for other Gehrys. Whether that’s intellectual or artistic I don’t know. It’s unique and, at his age, maybe that’s all he wants to do.

In The Big Brush I accused Gehry of being a window dresser for the bread and butter side of his business. I’m sure he’s aware of that. His job is to sprinkle some stardust over the outside and, if he’s allowed, to track some through the lobby.

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2014 was the year the outsides of buildings became totally separated from their insides IN TERMS OF THEIR MARKETING. “Who needs to know what happens inside a Gehry building? It’s cool on the outside!” We need to redefine what architecture is and what we expect of it. Expectations are low. All I’m sayin’s that

There’s a dysfunction between the “architectural” features of a building and the real-estate they hang off of. 

DYSFUNCTION #3: MEDIA SELF-POLICING

Versatile architects can work at all scales, it’s said, and so does media policing. Contrast this next Gehry. One apartment per floor. Hong Kong.

This building could never have slipped under the radar but it’s of little press value outside China. We didn’t hear as much about it as we might have expected. This is strange so some dark force is obviously at work. The simplest possible explanation is that the client was enamoured of Gehry’s 1996 [1996!] Fred & Ginger. Beekman Place was allowed to suck up all the media attention lest cynical media observers look at Hong Kong OPUS and say things like it seems as if the client was enamoured of Fred & Ginger.

More plans? You’re welcome!

Disturbingly, our own quest for architectural kicks means we’re content to not be curious about buildings architects wish to downplay because they don’t fit their media narrative of artistic progression. This is why my fascination with those dinosaur buildings that have slipped in time.

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I get that the architectural internet adds value to brands by churning the triangular transactions of content makers, content dealers and content addicts to create “buzz”.

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However,

There’s a dysfunction between architectural news and meaningful information. 

This increasing reluctance of traditional media outlets to say or publish anything architects might not want to be said or published is deeply disturbing. 

DYSFUNCTION #4: DYSFUNCTIONAL PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT AGENDAS

Property development has always been around and it’s not going to go away. Ever. Apart from rich rulers, property developers are the only major clients left in the world. It’s only natural that architects should exploit them. However, to be seen to be taking property development concerns such as return on investment seriously, is to place oneself outside the realm of architecture. The opposite of Intellectual and Artist is Commercial.

The opposite of Intellectual and Artist is also Clever. BIG have made themselves a successful business model by taking property development concerns onboard. They have also made themselves a successful media model telling us about it. It’s not a bad thing to have property development and return-on-investment back into an architectural agenda – which is to say, a business agenda with architectural appeal. Famous architects have always known this but BIG were the first to say the unspeakable.

Before we heap excessive praise, let’s take a look at how even the dubious PR benefit of apparent property development can be easily subverted for media gain.

Take a step back and think it through. Don’t you think the structural demands of a cross-harbour bridge might perhaps be more demanding than those of your average 8-storey block of apartments? It’s a bit more tricky than just running a road along the roof of Karl Marx Hof.

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The bridge is not for free. Monetising the volume enclosed by the bridge superstructure may well offset some of the cost of the bridge but could never pay for it. Ergo: This project is a media construct. Who’s gained what from this exercise? The architects have gained a reputation for thinking outside the box. It’s cost them nothing. It’s a scam. Yes is never more.

There’s a dysfunction between stated agendas and real agendas. 

INCREDIBLY BEAUTIFUL

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DYSFUNCTION #5: DYSFUNCTIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL AGENDAS

Environmental concerns might yet turn out to be a subset of property development market tracking – it’s still too early to tell. We all know about greenwash. It was the name given to architectural devices that gave the impression of being environmentally virtuous but didn’t live up to the performance claims made for them. “Greenwash” the term quickly became derogatory and was not always applied fairly. What happened as a result? People stopped making claims about improved performance and environmental benefit and all we were left with was the look. See The Demise of the Green Roof.

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If art school was in our future we might opt to study under, or on top of, the amazing green roof at the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This 5 story facility sweeps a wooded corner of the campus with an organic, vegetated form that blends landscape and structure, nature and high-tech and symbolizes the creativity it houses. (Cheers for this, Inhabitat! :o<<<)

In The Demise of the Green Roof, my objection then was that something with the capability to do some good in the world was being appropriated as an architectural affectation that gave back nothing. Remember 48 St. Mary Axe – The Gherkin? Its internal configuration for which the office layouts were so severely compromised, was generated by the touted ecological imperative of reduced A/C running costs.

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Or something whatever it didn’t matter. We assumed air was moving around inside, and perhaps it was, and that IT WAS A GOOD THING. F+P were never really called on this.

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To expensively enclose space and not rent it means the owner is taking one hell of a hit.

About 13% less by area, I calculate. Even if the A/C bill is a bit lower – a fact we’ll never know – the owners are well out of pocket. No wonder this building is having trouble keeping an owner. It’s a dog. As far as greenwash went, that was baby steps. Greenwash Level I at least pretended to have an environmental concern based on actual environmental phenomena.

Greenwash Level I made claims that did not live up to closer scrutiny but at least there was scrutiny!

Greenwash Level II is blatant lies that nobody even cares to verify.

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“Haters gonna hate” I’m told by straw men who don’t let facts stand in their way.

1. In Sharjah, U.A.E., the sun will never be more than 2.8° north of directly up.
2. The shamal winds are not the prevailing winds. 
3. Shamal winds do not blow from the south.
 (Shamal is arabic for “north”.)
5. The water table at  25°17’44.26″N  55°38’56.45″E is too low for palm trees to grow.

None of this is open to interpretation. The text accompanying the above image appropriates environmental determinants in order to intensify an emotional response to the image. Ignoring the realities of its location, the image can never depict the reality it claims it might. IT’S A LIE. 

Now Zaha Hadid does have a history of saying meaningless things about context, as quoted on page 83 of Simon Richards’ Architect Knows Best. In this sense, “context” is what we used to know as “inspiration” – whatever an artist thinks of when presented with something, anything.

I think context affects the design … as clues come from the surroundings. I’ll work with context on a more esoteric level. Our work isn’t meant to fit-in in the conventional way, but to key in and accentuate the energy of what’s around it.

Are you feeling the energy?

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Of greater long-term concern is the fact that wind response, sun response, and water response, are being aestheticised and defanged, in the same way green roofs were. If ZHA is paying attention to things like wind and sun, then it shows that wind and sun are IN DANGER OF becoming an architectural agenda. I see this as an attempt to reduce environmental determinants to an aesthetic agenda which is the only one companies like that are comfortable with. It’s still a recognition that environmental determinants exist I guess. Nevertheless, the fact remains.

There’s a dysfunction between the shape of a building and the stated ENVIRONMENTAL reasons for its generation. 



CONCLUSION

Media relations departments of global commercial practices are spinning out of control.

They’ve learned that false reasons people would like to believe are better than the truth.

In the past, when a project was announced, any accompanying text would convey additional, non-visual information to the readers.

Now however, any accompanying text is put to use as a fictional narrative for the sole purpose of intensifying the impact of the images that, in some perverse way, actually do represent the state of architecture.

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