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Conceptual Continuity

1. Since Inflationary Tendencies of March this year, I’ve been pondering this notion of architecture killing off good ideas by representing them. I was sad at first, because for a long time I’d believed architecture was a force for good and food for the soul but I’ve gotten over that historic hangover.

FRANCE / CHARTRES / CATHEDRALE (28) (SIPA IMAGE) (VOIR SUITE)

2. Our media diet doesn’t help. If architecture has become nothing more than a representation of architecture, we can’t expect architectural media to be anything more than a representation of architectural media. There’s little danger of that. User-generated content such as “One reader thinks that …. ” is paired with user-supplied images of buildings to fund platforms farming clickers to purchase own-brand goods and generate advertising revenue.

3. If the internet’s bad, magazines are worse and offer little reason for optimism. One recent upstart makes much of wanting to pay its contributors, claiming “good writing is paid for” thus taking a shot at internet independents rather than the complacent establishment periodicals they claim to be taking on. Unfriendly fire.

4. It’s little wonder architects have gotten into the habit of controlling their own media profiles and footprints, making that into the art of design and buildings into mere vehicles for fame.

5. Two weeks back I noted the use of applied narrative as ornamentation with respect to ZHA’s New Tokyo Stadium proposals. Important decisions based on structural or constructional logic had contexts for understanding them blithely generated and applied as if it would transform those decisions into Architecture.

6. I’ve begun to suspect two things.

  • The first is that it actually does.

  • The second is that this is all architecture is.

Now that much architectural activity takes place independently of any local, social, cultural or historic context, any stated context is probably going to be false. It’s our own fault if, out of habit or fear of the unknown, we wish to believe these traditional modes of understanding buildings as architecture still apply.   

In 1974 if I’d known what the question was I might have seen the answer. To be fair, Frank Zappa’s lyrics weren’t always clear. Forty years later his son Dweezil wrote “the significance of the apostrophe is that it doesn’t need a context in order to exist but it has to have one in order to be understood.” Don’t fret if none of this makes sense – all it means is that you weren’t listening to Frank Zappa in 1974.

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In this post I want to test the hypothesis of Architecture As Apostrophe – that buildings don’t need contexts in order to exist but must have one if they’re to be understood as architecture.  This is the crux of the biscuit

1. The Cultural Context

We used to think The Cultural Context was a good thing. Buildings looking much the same around the world was what Post Modernism was supposed to fix. It didn’t. Post Modern buildings didn’t do local culture any better.

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Anything can be said to belong to a cultural context of some sort, at some level and a whole new language told us how to say it.

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One day we might come to see Post Modern Architecture and everything since as various manifestations of the forces of internationalisation even if we now prefer to call it globalisation (= an uncritical non-regionalism). If International Style was devoid of cultural context and resulted in buildings that looked much the same regardless of location, then our New Globalism has landed us back in the same place and hello-o for exactly the same reasons. Clever, that.

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The Local Context is an added extra, a kind of architectural ornament existing only in our heads to make us feel better about a building. Offered associations may be true, but they’re Irrelevant, Insincere and an Insult to Intelligence.

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2. The Environmental Context

Remember this next from Vertical Farmwash? It won a prize for generating architecture out of thin air. All it did was apply The Environmental Context to a building. It’s not built and never will be. The building is so economical with its design energy there’s actually nothing to see but, in someone’s mind, it worked for them.

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Moving into reality, DOMUS‘ twitter alerted me to this next building even though I’ve driven past it maybe twenty times without stopping. Once, I did swing by but it was to check out that villa development the other side of the faux palm tree mobile mast.

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Everything after “LED projectors …” may be fact but nothing before is verifiable. Some is simply not true since the building faces more west than north. I wouldn’t have noticed or even cared if northness and southness hadn’t cropped up four times in three sentences.

al zorah pavilion

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What this piece of writing does is provide readers with The Environmental Context for understanding the building. It’s not true, but, unless you have first-hand knowledge, it’s credible. I find this more offensive than mere ignorant dysfunctionalism. When contexts that don’t actually exist are being alluded to, it’s the magicking of architecture on false pretences.

The more successful practices understand how architecture can be conjured up from nothing more substantial than a render and press release and I suspect this is why they’re successful. For our part, we’ve fallen into the habit of giving these practices the benefit of the doubt for leaving too much to outsourced “visualisers”. Everyone knows very well the sun is at some improbable latitude, the wind from some unprevailing direction, and the vegetation and for that matter the landscape improbable. The Environmental Context is a virtual context. We create it in our heads on the basis of information we’re told. It is probably not true.   

What’s odious about The Environmental Context being is that IT’S NOT HELPING! A genuine response to a genuine environmental context is a good and useful thing. Instead, something useful is being killed twice – first by being represented, and again by being falsely represented. It gives environmental contexts a bad name.

3. The Local Context

Sometime over the past decade or two, the use of pseudo-qualitative contexts to explain away quite rational decisions became the default way for architects to communicate designs to the general public. How can people understand why buildings are the way they are if they are fed information that, even if not demonstrably false, has no connection to reality?

This phenomena is especially strong with buildings whose design owes little or nothing to their locations. Since this is now the global norm, The Local Context is a quick and easy way to generate architecture.

SOM’s website says about Burj Khalifa that “the tower’s overall design was inspired by the geometries of a regional desert flower and the patterning systems embodied in Islamic architecture.”

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Here’s that desert flower. I’ve never seen one. I live in Dubai and no-one I know has ever seen one. However, many people in Dubai, the UAE and in many other places believe the footprint of Burj Khalifa was inspired by this flower.

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Hymenocallis

All this means is that people want to believe in architectural inspiration.

Meanwhile, in the back office, the engineers developed a new structural system called the buttressed core, which consists of a hexagonal core reinforced by three buttresses that form the ‘Y’ shape. This structural system enables the building to support itself laterally and keeps it from twisting. Moreover, the Y-shaped plan is ideal for residential and hotel usage, with the wings allowing maximum outward views and inward natural light.

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4. The Historic Context

We’ll stay with Burj Khalifa for this. The patterning system embodied in Islamic architecture and cultural and historical elements particular to the region apparently refers to the minaret of The Great Mosque of Samarra, Iraq. This minaret narrative was never released for consumption here.

“As the tower rises from the flat desert base there are 27 setbacks in a spiralling pattern, decreasing the cross section of the tower as it reaches toward the sky and creating convenient outdoor terraces.”

There’s a story that Adrian Smith, the architect, wanted it to be more spirally but the wind-load engineer said “No.” “The spiral stepping turned out to be a good move,” says Smith, inadvertently admitting the post-contextualisation.

“It gave more variation to the profile of the building from the point of view of the wind. Each time you have a different width or setback, it changes the frequency or the size of the vortex created on the rear of the building when the wind passes around it.”

The important and very real environmental context of wind loading is being explained by another building somewhere where even the wind is different. A basic denial of Cause and Effect. 

• • •

Knowing a social, cultural, environmental or historic context for a building used to be important for understanding a building as architecture. Could we have been mistaken? If all SITE did was decorate a shed, and all Peter Behrens did was decorate a shed, then who’s to say what Alberti did was any different?

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5. The Fallback Context

There’s no real reason why any building should have to be understood as architecture – unless one’s in the business of making buildings to be understood as architecture, or the business of writing about buildings to be understood as architecture.

Architects, architectural writers, architectural journalists and architectural historians are all skilled at conjuring up all of the contexts mentioned above. This is their product. If they can’t conjure up some context, The Fallback Context can always be applied. it describes what other architects were doing at the same time in the case of historians, or of an architect’s artistic journey in the case of journalists.

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Here’s a recent example. It’s Owen Hatherley writing about OMA’s newly completed Timmerhuis in Rotterdam.

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Much text is devoted to understanding this building in terms of the architects’

Being able to find and say things such as these is another way of generating architecture. 

[psst Owen! Rather than blame the client for changing their mind, why not question OMA’s habit of taking the design possibilities of one particular aspect of a building to the extreme? It’s been called “Dutch logic” but it makes for buildings extremely vulnerable to change.]

• • •

Anyone who’s ever learned a foreign language knows that understanding what someone is saying doesn’t necessarily mean their statements are true. This is where we’ve been lax. Something as complex as a building can be presented to us in an easily understood and simplistic manner but it doesn’t mean any of what’s being said is either A) true or B) a good thing.

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Standards have slipped. Much has been written about the nature of architectural communications [and I will pick up that book again before too long] but I can’t help feeling architectural communications should consist of things of value rather than whatever we find easy to understand and want to believe. This wanting to believe is a weakness being taken advantage of.

 I can think of three choices. There may be others. 

  1. Live with it.
  2. Accept it, but admit architecture has become an exercise in promoting contexts representing relevance rather than having any actual relevance.  
  3. Abandon the notion of architecture if that’s all it’s going to be. 

• • •

1974: Frank Zappa released Apostrophe.

1975: Rem Koolhaas founded OMA

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