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Modern Tropes

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Some architectural fixations are easily achieved, some boundaries easily pushed. For example and whether by accident or design, the world has always had and always will have a tallest building. I’m guessing it was the Great Pyramid at Giza 4,500 years ago but I’m more sure of recent tallest buildings such as the World Trade Center towers, Chicago’s Sears/Willis Tower in 1973, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers in 1999, Taipei’s Taipei 101 in 2004, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2010 but there must have been a succession of others between Lincoln Cathedral in 1311 and the Empire State Building in 1931. There’s a separate list for world’s tallest buildings that never happened. These include Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1957-ish proposal for The Illinois and Foster+Partners’ 1989 Millennium Tower proposal for offshore Tokyo. Both were intended to flaunt their architect’s “visionariness” by being impossible to realize on technical grounds in the case of the former, or economic ones in the case of the latter. “Economic grounds” is a catchall term for many factors. Jeddah Tower was designed to be the world’s next tallest building but “labour problems” halted construction at 60 of 167 or maybe as many as 200 floors in 2018 and it’s not certain if or when the building will be completed. The amount of money and resources a client company or nation is willing to throw at a building is now the limiting factor for building height and it’s possible to reasonably estimate what the going amount is. (Somewhere north of US$1.5bn.) When this happens, height for height’s sake becomes just another cost-benefit calculation.

Not much progress has been made with transparency. Various products are called transparent concrete but are mainly used for nighttime illumination effects. Glass remains the most transparent material we have and the current incarnation of the Fifth Avenue Apple Store is far more transparent than I.M. Pei’s clunky Louvre Pyramid. Even if both succeeded in being transparent (but not transparent enough so we couldn’t see or marvel at them) there’s still the problem of us being able to see their contents. Until transparency becomes cloaking, the only solution to this ambient non-transparency is for transparent buildings to have no contents and to hustle the people out of the way as soon as possible.

Weightlessness is trickier. Gravity has been around a long time and looks like being around for a lot longer. Almost a hundred or so years ago now, buildings more massive at places where they didn’t touch the ground were a thing. Their dead loads were still transferred to the ground, but what was thought to be the natural order of things was upset and so these buildings looked new in most places except the Soviet Union where they were seen as hostile. Referring to Le Corbusier’s 1933 Tsentrosoyuz building in Moscow, Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam wrote “Into crystal palaces on chicken legs, I will not enter even as a slight shadow.”

Defying gravity is up there with transparency and weightlessness as another of those things that are physically impossible to achieve, making them all excellent subjects for extreme representations and approximations. Worse, attempts to achieve what is physically impossible are seen as heroic and “pushing the boundary” when they’re really just the continuation of architecture’s traditional role of articulating client overabundance of resources and their willingness to project it. Has anything changed in the past ten years? Or even a hundred? Cantilevers remain expensive ways of making part of your building appear to stay in the air, unaffected by gravity and without cheap tricks such as columns. Cantilevers would lose this appeal the second it ever became possible for entire buildings to be effortlessly suspended in the air. That time is still a long way off, but is becoming imaginable. When the maglev airport train into Shanghai can zip along at 460km/h at a height of up to ten centimeters, it ought to be possible to get a small villa a bit further up. However much energy could and ought to be seen as enivonmentally irresponsible but that’s a moveable feast when we have soil freezing to increase its bearing capacity and air curtains proposed once every ten years or so as an alternative to glass windows. So far, I haven’t been able to find any information on magnetically levitated buildings or building proposals but Thyssen Krupp is developing maglev elevators for dubious architectural cantilevery.

Cantilevery. It’s been about eight years since the misfits’ post Pilotis, and more than ten since Architectural Myths #12: The Daring Cantilever that mulled over modern architecture’s enduring obsession with cantilevers. We can blame The Bauhaus for most things wrong with architecture over the past century, but I’d like to call out Lazlo Moholy-Nagy in particular for noting that materials were more visually exciting when their physical properties were pushed to almost the point of failure. He wasn’t wrong, but the problem is really us for still wanting architectural thrills from impossible looking structures. For as long as a mass will fall to earth at 9.81 meters per second squared, I don’t see this architectural affectation and our attraction to it lessening. (Take particular note of the middle image, below.)

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1991 La Defense masterplan proposal (unbuilt): Classic late 20th century over-eggery. A balanced cantilever structure, unbalanced. Visionary.

1991 Zac Danton office tower (unbuilt): This proposal might be pushing the limits of cantilevery or, as the images show, the limits of a Vierendeel truss space frame two-thirds sandwiched. We don’t have a building to show this was possible.

1985–1991 Villa dall’ava: Another balanced cantilever. The upper storey would pivot on the middle concrete columns but it held in equilibrium by those two external columns in tension along the right-side edge. Encasing tension members in concrete is never a good idea so (I hope) what we see is only cladding protecting cables, or perhaps chains.

1998 House in Bordeaux: The circular stairwell does most of the heavy lifting despite its mirror cladding saying otherwise.

2004 Seattle Central Library The roof level cantilever of this building is an optical illusion for the benefit of people at ground level.

2005 Seoul National University Museum of Art:

2007–8 Museum Plaza, Louisville: We first saw this when it had a mildly cantilevered blocky mass and a largely cantilevered low rectangular mass for the galleries and public plaza. The design was later rationalized by bringing the tallest tower forward to reduce the cantilever of those plaza levels (middle image), suggesting that some structural and/or financial limit was being approached. Cantilevering even small-sized yet over-scaled building masses such as these still had its limits. The project was halted in 2008 and abandoned in 2011.

2008 Jebel Al Jais Mountain Resort: This one was proposed for the UAE in 2008. Many things were being proposed for the UAE in 2008.

2012 Shenzen Stock Exchange: This is classic trussy cantilevery all round and all the more effective for having no apparent imperative.

2012 CCTV Headquarters, Beijing: Something like this is what you get when you link cantilevers. Being more visible, those upper elbow connections most of the attention but the lower ones must be working at least as hard.

2012 Milstein Hall, Cornell University: Twelve years after the event, I only just learned about this one.

2013 Die Rotterdam: The image on the right shows the inclined members transferring the dead load of the cantilevered mass back to the column grid. Both visually and structurally, the extension of the cantilever is secondary to both the apparent (not to mention the real) mass of the cantilever. The rest of the building falls into column line and row, the gaps supposedly reducing the wind resistance. They probably do.

2016 Beaux Arts Museum, Quebec:

2018 Qatar National Library: The wannabe cantilever with its shameless and aesthetically downplayed supports.

2020 Brighton College: Another “I’m not really being supported” cantilever.

2020 Tencent Headquarters, Beijing: At first I thought this was yet another BIG building and yet another cantilever as a representation of weightlessness.

Eduardo Souto de Moura did it simpler, more elegantly and more audaciously in Valencia I believe.

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  • Very good! Have you written about corner windows? I can’t find anything. A gravity defying cantilevery cliche that was elegant and easy to with direct glazed single panes and reinforced concrete, if you don’t care about keeping the heat in or the weather out, or the concrete intact . . .

    The ’emergency architect’ in the BBC mockumentary, 2012 used a lovely but underused phrase ‘laughing in the face of physics’


    • Hello Nick and thanks for the suggestion! Short answer is no, I haven’t, but I’ll start collecting examples. First on my list will probably be the ones in the kitchen and study at Fallingwater. These are the first I remember. I’m not sure if the one in the living room count as they’re already sandwiched between some rather iffy cantilevers. I can’t believe their mullions are really structural, but who’m I to say? I do remember that, as a second year undergraduate, I did design a two-storey house (our first real design!) that had a re-entrant corner window on the landing where the projecting stairwell met the upper floor corridor. I did wonder how it would be constructed. I’d like to think I thought of a lintel that also spanned the landing at door height, but it’s more likely my instructor told me.