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The Gentle Mashup

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I’ll clarify what a mock mashup isn’t before going on to what one is. The 1998 Chips by Will Allsop is what I’ll call a mock aggregated building, commonly known at the time as a stacked building. The conceit found favor in housing developments because architects could say to nodding municipalities that it “broke down the scale”. I understand this to mean the scale of the building volumes is closer to “human scale” as indicated by the windows and floor levels but the gist is that the building no longer seems as big as it looks. While commercial and governmental clients everywhere tend to favor buildings that appear larger than they actually are, municipalities (and so developers) tend to favour buildings that appear smaller than they actually are.

Commercial practice MVRDV were masters of the mock aggregated building. Their 2003 Silodam and 2005 Mirador were perhaps their best examples, both being quirky for appearing to “break down” the scale only to build it up again into a building of considerable size. Aggregate buildings are designed to elicit municipal favour and commercial advantage in proposals for buildings larger than people expect.

MVRDV are still at it. This is their Radio Tower and Hotel in Manhattan, on track to completion. You can see how the building maintains the scale of the neighbourhood while still managing to be the biggest thing on the block.

Radio Tower & Hotel

It began of course with their stacking of Dutch landscapes in the Dutch pavilion for the 2000 Hanover Expo. Real landscapes are endlessly re-purposable but this mock-landscape building is having a second life as a contemporary ruin.

The typology perhaps reached its zenith with OMA’s (and then later, REX’s) unbuilt 2007 Museum Plaza proposal for Louisville, KY and the 2013 De Rotterdam, in Rotterdam NL. Both could be understood as aggregates of components with independent programs. In both instances, the aesthetic innovation was the aggregated components being readable as individual buildings.

Buildings as fake mountains, hills or topography no longer seem as innovative as they once did. Residential buildings such as BIG’s King Toronto apartments that allude to mountain shapes still have to deal with layout and servicing complexities of floor plates decreasing in depth towards the uppermost levels where development gain would normally be highest. The problem still exists with office buildings, but is less critical.

Building-on-mock-landscape is a contrived juxtaposition of parts of a building over-identifying as buildings resting on parts of a building under-identifying as a building. It’s best illustrated by the building+landscape mock aggregates of MAD and Teranobu Fujimori.

Buildings-as-mock-mountain-landscape is something MVRDV had been trying to crack for years. To date, the closest they’ve come to something being realized is their Long Tan Park proposal for Luzhou, CN. There were mountains there to begin with though.

Ma Yansong and MAD’s Suzhou Sports Park due to be completed this year, look like finishing what MVRDV started.

There’s nothing wrong with more green rooftops for all the good reasons and one day perhaps all large civic structures will be like this but, for indoor spaces that aren’t the size of basketball stadiums or Olympic swimming pools, floorplate depth will always create problems for natural illumination and ventilation. In other words, it’s an architectural approach more suited to prestige projects than residential ones. They generally are.

The Hard Mashup

My first encounter with the idea of the architectural mashup was through a (1980s?) competition that invited people to submit them. It must have been pre-internet because I can find no online trace of the winning entry (finalist?) and their architectural mashup of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Alvar Aalto’s Säynätsalo Town Hall. It might have been Aalto’s Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksennikska Church) but, either way, I’ll leave you to imagine it. I do remember the judging criteria seemed to have been 1) make each of the two parts recognizable and 2) make a new or, if not pleasing, then at least something intriguing out of them – a bit like Umberto Bocchioni’s 1912 Fusion of a Head and a Window or, to a lesser extent, Sir Jacob Epstein’s 1913 The Rock Drill.

Mock mashup is as good a name as any for what happens when buildings appear to intersect. Audiences of the 1956 movie Earth vs. The Flying Saucers were surely shocked upon seeing the US Capitol trashed by the out-of-control flying saucers of hostile aliens intent on global domination. [and thanks to dvg5th for correcting my mistaken movie recollections]

The problem of the non-accidental mashup then, is to create a new thing whilst maintaining a separation of parts. It aims for midway between JUXTAPOSE, where two forms are allowed to sit side by side (or crash, collide or otherwise mangle, as case may be), and CONFLATE which attempts to form a new whole from which new meanings may or may not emerge. Likebskind’s traumatecture is our best example of forced juxtaposition aspiring to that Earth vs. shock. There’s his 2007 Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

And his 2011 addition to the Bundeswehr Military History Museum, in Dresden, Germany. In both cases, something has obviously happened but it’s difficult to say if any new meaning has been produced. If anything, the past remains the past and the present is resolutely attempting to now be seen as having anything to do with the past.

But why does it always have to be so violent? Old buildings still have utility and purpose in the present and this has nothing to do with them being constructed in ways we no longer construct buildings, or for how they happen to look being now out of fashion. Now, when we’re trying to extract maximum utility from existing buildings, it can’t be healthy to consign them to the past aesthetically while the building fabric continues to function in the present. It might be an idea to explore an aesthetic approach where each part simply accepted the existence of the other and didn’t make a fetish of difference or contrast.

The Gentle Mashup

This next project is an apartment development in the historic area of Fremantle, the port city of Perth, WA (Western Australia). It’s not uncommon to see facades being retained to front redevelopment behind but we don’t normally get to see it like we do with this building on its corner site. That side elevation isn’t without thought, but none of it has been taken so far as to be pastiche. Someone has attempted to soften the difference between the two parts, mostly by matching colour and by adding the pediment feature. That single arched window on the side elevation is a mystery and, although I have some doubts about how the new floor levels meet the front facade openings, it’s basically okay. I like how it doesn’t show an over-concern for the bit that had to be retained be demolished. When there’s no easy answer, it’s probably best to make clear what part is the development gain and what part is the perception management. There’s nothing difficult about this whole.

And nor is there with this example in Shanghai. As with many buildings in Shanghai, it’s difficult to tell if this is new-build, restoration or reconstruction.

I can’t believe someone would actually design a new building like this so, for now, I’m inclined to think it’s a combination of restoration and unadaptive re-use. However, that uncharacteristically large opening on the right is an entrance/exit for Nanjing Road West Metro Station and metro station entrances don’t just pop up out of the ground without substantial trauma to the buildings already there. It matters little if the glazed additions were functionally necessary or mere development gain. My guess is that buildings somewhat like the grey-brick buildings existed on-site but were demolished and re-built as-were, and the station entrance and access added. It’s not a violent mashup because that new-build but old-style station entrance forms a podium for the new development above. It’s inconvenient sometimes but Metro stations in Shanghai don’t announce themselves architecturally or with any signage other than the Shanghai Metro logo. They tend to be discreet. This is one of the more prominent ones.


  • I wonder if that Shanghai metro was designed like that. There are some William Whitfield buildings which have a similar combination of traditional brick base or lower levels (to fit in) then overscaled geometric curtain walls dwarfing them above..

  • Great post. However, the film stills are from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), where a frequency scrambles the alien technology. War of the Worlds’ (1953) final sequence is set in Los Angeles, and there are no mash-ups involved. The Art Deco City Hall goes kaflooey and that’s about it.