Architecture Myths #23: Architecture

Structural engineers and quantity surveyors have always been core consultants in the building industry but their roles can often be performed by an architect if the job isn’t too large. With large jobs though, the requirements are too great and diverse for any one architect or practice to handle so it’s both inevitable and desirable to have some separation of roles. This increased separation brings clarity to the role of the architect on large jobs. Sole practitioners with small jobs never had any doubt.

And neither did the general public. Their perception of what a sole practitioner does may be a tad more rosy or stereotyped than it actually is but it’s not too far from the truth. In the case of high-profile jobs and high-profile architects however, that perception is wildly out of sync with reality.

Design generation in the offices of high-profile architects is now taken care of by the intern-farm where every project is given to a group of new recruits to see what they can come up with. That sounds casual, but it’s anything but. Those ideas are then “curated” and the one hitting the most buttons is selected for development.

Designing buildings or even generating ideas for the design of one are no longer tasks performed by high-profile architects.  

The US has the Architect of Record system which “is common when high-profile architects win design bids but find themselves in need of architects with more practical skills or knowledge of local conditions. Or more pragmatically, the high-profile architect simply needs an architect who is local to the project site, facilitating quicker site visits and project oversight.”

Practical skills, knowledge of local conditions, site visits and project oversight are not part of the skill set of high-profile architects.  

There are also Executive Architects that are local firms “responsible for corresponding with city agencies about code compliance, tender documents, client communication and creating up to 90 percent of the construction documents and carry out construction inspections are similar.”

Corresponding with city agencies re. code compliance, producing tender documents, producing construction documents, performing client communication and performing construction inspections are of course not skills required of high-profile architects.

In a recent address reported in the New York Post, Rafael Viñoly said the wide framing around the windows at his recently-completed 432 Park Avenue took up too much floor space and said it was the idea of the developer who wanted the view properly “framed”. Viñoly also wasn’t happy with many bathrooms being at the front of the apartments.

At left above is a window with said problematic viewframe. Me, I never used to mind it when I thought it was solid concrete but I do now I know it’s bullshit boxing. The image on the right shows a window with one of the problematic bathrooms. I don’t really buy into the “eating into the floor area” argument. If something doesn’t eat into the floor area then something else like a freestanding egg-shaped bathtub with Dornbracht polished chrome bath fittings will. Apartment layouts btw are by Deborah Berke Partner, headed by Deborah Berke (who happens to be the new dean at Yale, I hear).

Internal layouts are not something high-profile architects dirty their hands with.

Whoever dirtied their hands with New York by Gehry did an okay job of squeezing the most value out of [into?] the floor plate but Frank Gehry is probably not that person.

The trouble is, it’s accepted. The person living in the $3,150 pcm studio above isn’t paying for Frank Gehry’s skill at apartment planning. They’re paying to be living in New York in a building ostensibly designed by Frank Gehry – a fact rammed home by the building’s current monicker. That Gehry has no time for sustainability suggests the commerical uplift enabled by high-profile architects eclipses any uplift provided by sustainable building construction and practices. For now, anyway.

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Knowledge of the practice and delivery of sustainability is not on the CV of high-profile architects. 

In a December 2013 review of Zaha Hadid Architects’ Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku for the Architectural Review, Peter Cook contributed an 1,850-word review that famously omitted to tell anyone what the building was made out of. This is how the media lowers our standards. People interested in architecture are discouraged from wondering how a building is constructed. According to Peter Cook, all that lay people need do is wonder, preferably in awe at the architect’s genius.

Displaying a sense for materiality and construction are not concerns of high-profile architects. [High-profile architects do of course have a sense for materiality and construction but these both remind us of the labour that goes into the construction of buildings, and displaying evidence of that is not the done thing these days.]   

I recently saw these next images in a YouTube video.

The one on the left is what the architects gave to the visualizer. The one in the middle is the basics in place and the one on the right is the final product. It was all done in 48 hours using a “workflow” of Sketchup, VRay and Photoshop. This process is not a collaboration – it’s just two consultants doing their jobs, sending files back and forth and maybe even communicating only by email.

  • The architects were responsible for designing the development footprint and volume for the sake of the clients and/or financiers who will benefit
  • The visualizers were responsible for managing the perception of the project by those it will exploit. They include municipalities, retailers, workers, shoppers, the general public and anyone else who likes to think they’re stakeholders.

Each of the above images contains some aspect of what might traditionally be called architectural design but, individually, none can be said to be architectural design. With the internal layout examples I mentioned above, it was the inside of the building that was no longer the concern of high-profile architects but, with this example, it’s the exterior.

EUREKA MOMENT: What these seemingly contradictory examples have in common is a split between development gain and perception management.

Bjarke Ingels’s “genius” was to fuse development gain and perception management into one and the same thing and to the exclusion of all else. That in itself was a masterwork of perception management.

Architecture = development gain + perception management

 

Taking credit for development gain used to be thought grubby but it’s now something openly celebrated as architecture or what passes for it. There’s only one conclusion to be made when development gain and perception management have fused so neatly and strongly.

Architecture as anything other than perception management is no longer a concern of high-profile architects. 

Even development gain becomes irrelevant when the buildings themselves are built as exercises in perception management. You could say it was always so, from Knufu through to Hitler, Aliyev, and our new tech overlords.

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Perception management is the basic product starchitects offer. If Azerbaijan, Khazakhstan and China are anything to go by, the level of starchitect activity correlates with a country’s appreciation of the power of (and need for) perception management. The same goes for companies. I’ve avoided using the word starchitect up till now but the fact it gets up the noses of people like Gehry, Schumacher and Koolhaas is reason enough to use it. Speaking of, a disproportionate amount of starchitect noise arrives at us from the Koolhaas Nebula. Former employees inspired by and/or disenchanted with working for RK are said to have gone on to start some 90 practices globally.

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In addition to Rem Koolhaas himself, others whose work is singled out for analysis in Douglas Spencer’s The Architecture of Neoliberalism include Zaha Hadid, Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi. I hope some future book will scrutinize the oeuvre of Bjarke Ingels (for reasons that are becoming increasingly obvious) and also that of Fernando Romero (whose father-in-law was richest person in the world 2010-2013).

For me and anyone else who used to wonder what magical principle RK was communicating to all those people we watched get rewarded with fame for systematically narrowing the notion of architecture to what we’re left with today … well, now we know.

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Here’s some development gain and perception management in action: This is aforementioned Fernando Romero and NBF Sir Norman Foster in matching blue shirts, ignoring their coffees and phones to pose for this important photo of a plan the new Mexico City Airport. Both are doing the “hands-on” thing but Foster’s also doing his trademark “jacket-off” thing.