Skip to content

Triennale Hang-over

Post date:

The first difference I noticed in my recent ArchDaily bingewatch [c.f. Misfits’ Trienniale] was how less intrusive text was. It was now optional with a “Read more” link that, to be accurate, should probably more correctly read “Read?” Clicking it loaded the “story” as images interspersed with text mostly describing those images – the captions, basically. At the very bottom was still space for comments. I had a few interactions there once but it was never that great a forum.

We know the internet doesn’t do text well but sentences like these next don’t help. “Constructions are proposed with a mesured density to provide the highest continuity between woods and neighborhood, and create an unifying landscape axis in varying sequences of ambience.” ? Or how about this? “The theme of the wall is an integral part of the neighbourhood. The project draws inspiration from this theme, taking its cue from existing structures. The wall blends in with the lie of the land, before undergoing a transformation into a sculpted monolith that rises from the top of the hill.” Please – allow me. “The building has a wall, as many do. This wall follows the contours, and then so doesn’t.“ Complementing the general horribleness of textual information is an incredible homogeneity of graphic information. It’s as if architects around the world have adopted the same standards for online presentation of projects. When did this happen? More to the point, why?

I found out I could now save favourite images and projects, so generating data sets that become new content as “interesting groupings by registered users”. Pinterest, basically. There were frequent and frequently repeated “AD Classics” and “Spotlight” features as well as desperate padder content such as “Ten buildings that feature the colour green” or “Five buildings that look like the ArchDaily logo”. It’s not so much a case of everything being architecture but one of there being insufficient interesting or even new buildings to generate new architectural content daily. Unsurprisingly for a platform intent on blurring the difference between promotion, journalism and scholarship, some pieces have authors and citation links while others have “curators” who seem to have their work cut out for them.

On occasion, I found that my browser was incredibly slow and I had to try not to scroll faster than projects can load. One problem is that the ad-servers must do their work first. [With no stronger basis than my IP address, I was targeted as a customer for laser-cut decorative metal sheets.] Another problem is that many projects had more than 35 images, and some over 70. For a small project – or even a large one – it should be possible to communicate the intent of a design with far fewer. It’s one thing to have an image-based media promoting an image-based architecture but even that’s not done efficiently or intelligently. Or even memorably.

Such platforms are one corner in the triangular trade(offs) between architects, platform and users. In return for freely-provided content, architects are given the promise of publicity, of being “discovered”, or of getting more and bigger work. In return for visiting the site and boosting visit numbers and generating other metrics of interest to advertisers, users get to pass some time and leave with a feeling of having passed some time and feel as if they are a part of something bigger. Finally, in a simple transaction, the platform is paid by advertisers for being a platform for advertising. It’s significant that between every two projects on ArchDaily is a list of the three products architects click on the most often.

To be fair, I did see elegant sheds in Australia and some very competent houses in Chile, Brazil, Mexico and China, perhaps reflecting ArchDaily’s four languages of English, Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin but this doesn’t explain the disproportionate amount of projects from Japan, as ever. Clever and sophisticated conceits were everywhere.

Despite statements like “It is now expected of architects to turn away from designing iconic buildings/objects and focus instead on creating engaging built environments; from imagining idealistic, form-driven projects driven by the artistic pursuit to focusing on downright pragmatic solutions” [14th Jan. 2019] it’s not like architecture’s fascination with the object was any less evident. I began to wonder about the purpose of all these houses in the grand scheme of things, and why so many of them had to try so hard. I put it down to the continued faith in the belief that some Exciting Young Talent will burst onto the scene with some amazing design, and be immediately commissioned to do some larger project, and so on until global fame and mega-projects. It’s probably an accurate perception but the preponderance of small houses trying too hard reveals a widespread understanding that media attention is proportional to the degree a project shocks and breaks the rules. This is architecture played out in microcosm and architects that display an understanding of this mechanism will soon find themselves part of an intern farm at some global starchitect practice, and then as regional business development manager, before leaving to replicate the ecosystem for themselves. [My only advice is to sell out as soon as you can. The only problem is to find a level you’re happy with.]

This is probably why I saw much that was attractive or engaging but little in the way of good ideas that deserve to be repeated and perfected. I’m not averse to contemplating the sublime but there wasn’t much of that on show either. I saw some wonderful buildings but I also saw much I wish I hadn’t and can’t unsee.

Another odd thing is how hollow the field is. About 40% of the projects on show were small projects by architects we will probably never hear of again, and another 40% was by the huge commercial juggernauts BIG, OMA, ZHA, UNStudio, Henning Larsen, Foster+Partners, and Arquitectonia [a second time around!] and whose names we’re never allowed to forget. Carlo Ratti Associati are everywhere. Stefano Boeri is on a roll. MAD and Studio Gang are knocking them out. I still have to find out who Bee Breeders are.

So what were the takeaways from this inaugural Misfits’ Trienialle?

It only takes a day to skim through a year of ArchDaily, paying no more attention than what is expected. This is nice to know. It will save a lot of time.

I saw exquisite buildings constructed from locally-sourced and renewable materials put together with vernacular construction techniques. It’s a shame they were luxury resorts in sensitive ecologies. This is business as usual.

I don’t think we’re going to see ethical intention or social payback as criteria for evaluating the worth of buildings anytime soon.

There were many private houses and much big stuff for monied clients yet not much in-between. There were few schools, fewer clinics and fewer hospitals. Nobody seems to be building municipal facilities anymore. Whatever architecture has to offer, it’s clearly got little to offer the middle, and even less for the bottom. All around the world people are being born, educated, living, healed, dying, imprisoned, entertained and cared for in buildings that are not architecture.

Mostly, nobody much notices or cares about architecture.

Apart from the practices of Sergei Tchoban and Sergey Skuratov, there was no news from the Russian Federation other than that competition for new standard housing. For a site in English, the US and the UK were underrepresented compared with Australia, Chile, Argentina and Mexico that were well covered. My three-year sample contained little from Germany, Austria, Italy or Switzerland.

I like to think architects in Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland this are more concerned with making their particular corners of the world better.

Disappointingly few buildings in my three-year sampling were actually necessary for the functioning of any society anywhere. I formed the opinion that whether houses, luxury eco resorts or superslenders, buildings that represent private economic surplus are considered architecture, and buildings such as hospitals and schools, fire stations, police stations that are a public economic defecit (a.k.a. social investment) aren’t. This seemed pretty clear.

It’s not going to happen overnight but I would like to find a website that highlights buildings and building typologies actually representative of our built environment, and in proportion to their actual prevalence. Unlike “Ten buildings featuring the colour green,” this would tell us something useful about the state of the art, and the world. Admittedly, “Ten buildings featuring the colour green” also tells us something about the world.

Another important thing I learned from the selection process for this 1st Misfits’ Trienniale is how often certain themes or topics bubbled up the surface and stayed there. These topics enter our consciousness and, after seeing them often enough, they become real – at least in the sense of being part of our intellectual landscape. This ebb and flow is most likely invisible to a daily user. I saw a disturbing number of proposals for 3D printed buildings and can only watch in horror as new generations of architects bend over for industry. Architecture has a long history of media posturing in anticipation of the needs of industry. It’s often called visionary’ and you can usually find it in any project making a show of “showcasing” new materials and technologies.

The theme of the 2nd MISFITS’ TRIENALLE in August 2022 will be “How is it possible for an architect to do anything worthwhile if recognition and reward are reserved for those who pander to the successive needs of industry (the mechanisation of production, the globalisation of commerce, the ubiquity of telecommunications, the universality of data … ) ??”

Submissions or information on architects and projects attempting to answer this will be welcomed.

It’s a search for more misfit architects – living ones. We need more.