Skip to content

Motion Sickness

Post date:

The 1970s obsession with “go faster” stripes on cars manifested itself in Australia with the Ford Capri and GM’s Holden Monaro. The stripes didn’t make the cars go any faster but they did indicate the vehicle had a higher-performance specification. In only a few years time, post modernism and signifiers detached from signifieds were to become our default way of looking at the world and stripes on cars lacking the high-performance specification came to be known as “go faster stripes.” This was either “ironic” or facetious, depending on whether you owned said vehicle.

Representing a quality not actually present in a building has, for some time now, been a benchmark for architectural beauty. Transparency and weightlessness have both had a long run but we shouldn’t give up on them just yet. It may seem like everything that can be done has been done to create the illusions of these impossibilities but somebody somewhere is probably working on helium-aerated acrylic concrete or something. Until they perfect it, we have the shadowy world of optical fibre-impregnated precast concrete panels showing us the potential of light passing through concrete yet quickly becoming understood, inevitably, as yet another type of digital display.

Pilotis may have got us off the ground but they never promised to take us anywhere, even though there’s no more imperative for a building to move than there is for one to be up in the air. All the same, the longevity of weightlessness as an architectural aspiration is due to it being impossible to achieve, thereby allowing infinite amounts of money to be shown to be spent trying to create the appearance of it. Even if complete weightlessness were to somehow become possible, the beauty of a weightless building is that it would still be a building – albeit perhaps one with access issues. By contrast, if ever a building that could move were realized, then we’d probably call it a car or a boat or an aircraft because the ability to move enables a new function whereas weightlessness remains a property.

Post-modern architecture being post-modern architecture, successfully representing the potential for a building to move is better than having one actually do so. This is Pavel and Paul Andreev’s Mixed-use Complex, Moscow. Designed in 2007, it hasn’t been completed as far as I know but I do remember seeing a site hoarding in 2015. This building’s shape implies motion or, rather, implies a potential for motion. I don’t hate it but for every “Why?” there’s a “Why not?”

And then there’s legs. Legs imply motion and columns look a bit like legs. We’re used to talking about buildings “resting” or “standing” on columns so we’re already halfway there. The 1990s featured buildings with inclined columns suggestive of legs, none of which had “knees” or “feet”. This trend ran its course.

I did find one example of legs with feet, below. When Nature has been mined for all manner of landscape and plant imagery, then moving on to exploit the animal world had to happen. Animalism or zoomorphism is what it’s called when you make a building look like a bison or give jellyfish a backbone. It never caught on.

Around the same time we had buildings with various bits that move. Such buildings are collectively called kinetic architecture, a name that finally found something to label.

Kinetic architecture not only sounds cool, but promises some cool move or moves to satisfy one requirement. This next, now completed, is more kinetic canopy than building

This next proposal lets you swap between indoors and quasi outdoors without moving yourself. Depressingly, it takes a sequence of four images to convey the idea.

But kinetic architecture and its movey bits aren’t the same as entire buildings in motion. If buildings that appear to move are either lame or go nowhere, then what are we to make of those that do? I’ve always thought the buildings that don’t get built are the ones that give the true measure of an age. There’s a sadness attached to these representations of things that never existed but I think it’s more to do with somebody once thinking they could have. This next was proposed as a building that would actually move, albeit only rotate. Everybody in the world but Rem Koolhaas thought it a bad idea. Years after, RK did admit to “over-egging it”, using the architect’s favourite phrase for admitting to having tried it on and failed. [Frank Gehry also admitted to “over-egging it” when he claimed his Maggie’s Centre was the best building he’d ever designed.]

We also had David Fischer’s rotating tower proposal, again for Dubai. It didn’t happen either but we all contemplated its implications for drainage and utilities, and wondered what would happen if people in different apartments on the same floor all wanted to look in the same direction at the same time.

This next proposal solved the problem of fairness by taking away free choice and fixing the building rotation at once every seven or so days. But that was in 2008.

Later into the 20th century and following on from this, architectural forms that could be called fluid and/or dynamic came to pass. It began with forms that, depending on how you looked at it, was either “moving towards” some ideal form or “moving away from it”. We quickly learned that this was Deconstructivism, a spurious representation of movement, it was also a spurious representation of the literary movement known as Deconstruction, one of its tenets being that an entire text could be understood from a fragment of it. Everything I know about Deconstruction I learned from Italo Calvino’s novel “”If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler”

We had grids straightening (or distorting), shapes colliding (or separating) and architects became famous for buildings without parallel lines at first, and then without lines at all. Describing a form as fluid and dynamic was suddenly high praise.

Although Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid were responsible for many buildings said to be representantive of the style, none contributed much that would help us understand why these buildings were the way they were. There was never any discussion of what forces, real or imagined, were at work. Zaha Hadid once suggested [on page 83 of Simon Richards’ “Architect Knows Best”] that some of those forces might be contextual.

“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”

Some examples of this can be understood in terms of old fashioned desire lines and the very real movement caused by some very real energy (as is its wont). This is actually a very good way to decide the basic parameters of a building configuration. Everything else is is embroidery accentuating those elemental decisions most architects would make. When deconstructing the legacy of Zaha Hadid, the more famous projects such as the Heydar Aliyev Culture Centre are the more Mannerist and their surrounding energy obscure, while the larger bread-and-butter ones such as Milan Citylife Apartments stick to the rules.

I used to believe a site plan was likely to work in reality if it looked good as a two-dimensional composition but now I’m not so sure. It’s easy enough to create a satisfying composition by repeating and echoing boundary conditions but the difference between mannerism and a valid urban response depends on whether people will actually walk along all those paths.

Lines of movement whether real, implied or simply imagined are just one of the forces acting upon a building configuration in plan and the results can either be convincing or suspect but what about the rest? What forces are acting to “push” a building upwards or sideways, or in a curve, curves or some jerky stagger? Well, there are many such forces if we’re being esoteric and giving representation to imaginings, intangibles and other sensitivities, but they all have more in common with the notion of Lines of Force from Futurist sculpture.

My two favourite examples are Umberto Boccioni’s 1912 Bottle Evolving in Space and his 1913 Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. The former often appeared in 1960s architecture history books to illustrate what was called plasticity before we came to know it as fluidity or dynamism. Perhaps this repackaging had to happen by the 1970s when plastic was no longer either modern or cool.

It’s obvious that the forces at work have a purpose in the case of the bottle, even if the title hadn’t told us what was happening and what the outcome would be. And with the other sculpture it’s obvious that the force is movement and that what we’re seeing is its effect. Depicting motion was a preoccupation of The Futurists and it was applicable to art whether two- or three-dimensional. The Boccioni sculptures may be most photographed from the angles you see above but, if you walk around either, you’ll discover something new from whichever direction you look.

This isn’t the case with Cubist sculpture. The Cubists made some very fine paintings representing how something looked from multiple viewpoints. As a style, it made us look and understand paintings in a new way. And it was fine, as long as it stuck to two dimensions. Below are three examples of Cubist sculpture. The first is a three-dimensional styling of motifs taken from Cubist painting. The second is an abstraction doing the same thing and the third is an attempt to show an object – a head – from multiple viewpoints. The Cubist Sculpture Conundrum is that there’s something absurd about imposing the two dimensional limitations of painting upon sculpture which is three-dimensional. If we want to see what the back of a head looks like, we can walk around and have a look. We can walk around any of these sculptures and see something new but it won’t be meaningful. What was revolutionary in two dimensions doesn’t work in any meaningful way in three.

We can see the same thing happening with buildings (that don’t move) and things like automobiles and boats (that do). A style that’s often claimed to making resolutely static buildings appear fluid and dynamic suddenly looks lame when applied to something like an automobile or a boat intended to move. In other words, why bother making something that moves look like it is moving?

It’s not as if anybody even wants anyone to succeed at making buildings move. Think of the problems. [“Hey, where’s my building?!” “Get yourbuilding off my land!” and so on.] [c.f. Living The Dream“]

Lines of Force was a better way of configuring sculpture and it has very real and often beneficial consequences for buildings at least as far as pedestrians are concerned. It’s called best practice. We lack rules for judging whether any notional line of force said to determine the form of a building is any better than any other. In the world of parametric design, such forces can be identified, denoted as attractor points and various weightings assigned to deform a building accordingly. This automated method involves at least four levels of subjectivity: deciding what forces (or “forces”) are relevant, how to denote them, how to assign and manipulate their relative “strengths” and how to know when the “desired” “result” is achieved. It’s actually a fair approximation of a design process, even as far as producing largely predictable and samey results. It’s all done through things known as attractor points, which sound like something we might like. I don’t plan on reading Volume II of Patrik Schumacher’s The Autopoiesis of Architecture to find out if there are such things as repulsion points but I expect repulsion would be defined coyly as negative attraction to which emotionally neutral values are assigned accordingly.

So what’s left to push a building around? From my apartment, I’m currently watching a building designed by UN Studio being constructed across the road. When it’s completed, I’m sure people will say it’s fluid and dynamic. Some may even say the energy of the adjacent road and intersection are pushing and pulling at the building at various levels at various levels.

Such a response to the “response” of the building is hard won. As far as I can understand it, the parametric tomfoolery generates asymmetrical horizontal torsion forces that want to rotate the core and screw it into the ground. This isn’t something you want to happen so, “conventionally,” such forces are resolved by engineering the core – a euphemism for making the core sufficiently massive to resist those forces. Otherwise, these unwanted moments have to be collected at regular intervals and and transferred (via diagonal struts in this case) to some beefed-up peripheral columns. In other words, that fluidity is highly contrived and not cheap. If something is expensive and ostensibly makes a building look good, then what we’re looking at is a modern form of ornament no less superficial for being embedded in the building structure.