Category Archives: COMMENT


It was a flying visit to Dubai for a two-day conference and an opportunity to revisit the city I’d lived in from September 2008 to September 2020. It’s not always a good idea to revisit overly familiar places from one’s past where every road and building has a memory of being travelled or seen. One either gravitates to those places that have fond memories, or make a point of avoiding those that don’t. I didn’t expect to be given a hotel room from which I had a view of the hotel I spent my final three (lockdown) months in Dubai during my delayed relocation to China, and also of the apartment I lived in for the seven years before that. I learned that my gravitation/avoidance theory of places past wasn’t a good way of describing the world as my former apartment was just an anonymous bit of curtain wall and I was happy to be where I was.

My other theory about revisiting places from one’s past had to do with change. After any period of time, things are going to have either changed or they won’t have. It was already dark when I boarded the Metro from the airport but even from the train I still noted that such and such a building with the hugely cantilevered skybridge held between two towers like a cigarette between two fingers had been completed, etc.

From my apartment across Sheikh Zayed Road, I’d watched the construction of the hotel I was now staying in but also that of UN Studio’s Wasl Tower and had been looking forward in some guilty pleasure way of seeing it completed with some inevitable light show spiralling up and around its curvy sides. After all, three years had passed. It was not to be. Cladding had just begun when I left and hadn’t progressed much between 2020 [left, below] and last Sunday [right].

Construction workers are still being bussed in at 6:30am and the crane was still present and moving. [The presence of a crane used to indicate that a project hadn’t been cancelled.] At this rate though, construction could be spun out for a decade or so until some financial calculus returns the right answer.

Buildings don’t catch Covid but their financing does, and that financial calculus had obviously been upset by the pandemic stress-testing the economy. With the 2008 financial crisis, some building projects were cancelled outright if they were not yet onsite. Others had their completion delayed by up to a decade and still others were abandoned mid-construction. [c.f. The Aftermath, The Uncompleted] The pre-opening publicity for building projects may appear much the same but the financing is invisible and so it’s impossible to predict which way a project will go when the market collapses. Once-prestige projects such as Dubai Pearl have suffered the indignity of being deconstructed.

Now alerted to this, I noticed that Meera’s Central Park development is cautiously proceeding with off-plan sales one-building at a time.

This is wise because mid-2020 its future was not looking good.

The future of another residential development along Dubai Water Canal is less clear. Cranes are still in place but this situation could last for years were it not for the fact that the land and project may revert to the government if left unfinished for too long. This new message to developers seems to be “Don’t start a project you can’t finish”. When making one kilogram of concrete creates one kilogram of carbon emissions, it’s upsetting to see buildings come and go while others with uncertain futures remain in various stages of incompletion.

Apart from Wasl Tower, there were few other surprises In the corner of town I was most familiar with. Given three years and a bit of water, plants had grown, as is their nature. I learned you can make delicious tea from three bougainvillea flowers steeped in hot water, but I’ve yet to try it.

About 2017 or so, people had given up trying to keep the letters of the famous Toyota neon sign along Sheikh Zayed Road lit and alternately flashing TOYOA in Arabic and English and so the signi was taken down. There must have been some sort of outcry over this piece of history being removed and so there’s now a static, un-illuminated sign in its place as a memory of what once was. I’ve witnessed what a nightmare to maintain neon in hot and humid climates but they did manage it in Hong Kong for many years. I couldn’t help feeling that even one of the new pseudo-neon LED reproduction would have been better. Over time, people will forget, but this lifeless sign will never engender the fondness its predecessor did.

Speaking of Hong Kong, Dubai Mall now has a Chinatown complete with much pseudo-neon LED signage. Questions of authenticity hardly matter. Inasmuch as there’s a Heidilao hotpot restaurant and a Xiaomi store it’s as authentic as the real thing.

Thinking about China in general, I noticed over breakfast how strange it was to now be in a country mostly populated by people not from there. This is neither good nor bad – it’s just different. It is strange though that I’d never paid much attention to this before. But after breakfast when I set out to meet the people I was there to meet, I noticed my payments and communications were now adapted to Chinese systems and no longer working let alone in sync. I’m used to things like this but it was a reminder I was now a tourist, a fact further confirmed by me turning up at the university I was supposed to go to and the building being vacant. I found out it had relocated two years earlier to a nearby shopping mall to two buildings, one of which had formerly been a department store if I remember correctly, and the other a gaming plaza. It seemed to work. Maybe even appropriate.

The hotel I stayed in was one of a popular budget chain and the familiar use of colour and graphics reminded me of popular budget chains in Europe. I didn’t see any plaques indicating a number of stars and this itself was a change. In older parts of town, even two-star hotels had felt the need to tell everyone.

The use of many colors to indicate a lightness of heart had begun to creep into the built environment. This too was new.

In the end, none of this mattered. The things I remember most were bumping into not one but two students I’d previously taught, and within one minute of each other. These two happy moments probably lasted less than two minutes in total. From Metro windows, I also thought I’d recognized three more former students walking along platforms. I also remember chats over coffee and breakfast with a long-time friend who was briefly in town, even though I was defeated by the German Bee Sting cake (so named because the caramelized almond topping is as irresistable to bees as it is to us). And not to forget Aleksr who gave me the best haircut, and Rashad and Alireza and the other new friends I made over the two days of the conference. Irrespective of what the built environment was doing, these are the things that made my stay, and the things I took away with me.

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Authenticity is probably the wrong word as it’s been severely debased and overused for some time now, especially with respect to those marketable things known as experiences, particularly if they take place in foreign countries. Remember the photos of the long queue of people with their identical bucket lists of authentic experiences waiting to get to the summit of Mount Everest? If you don’t, here’s what it looked like.

Authentic is real as opposed to fake and usually regarded as better. Accordingly, our responses towards something that’s authentic are usually more positive than they are towards the obviously inauthentic. History is always authentic if it’s a chronicle – a full account of what happened in the past – but this never happens. The record is always only partial as it chronicles only who and what was thought important at any given time. It’s subjective to begin with and it remains subject to the agendas and emphases of people in the present interpreting it or possibly even teaching it. Occasionally some future historian or researcher may accurately relink events with actual reasons and consequences but, even then, this may only be for them to be forgotten once again. Now and then in this blog I Identify certain architects as misfit architects in an attempt to stop us dismissing their work too quickly and having them drop out of history. That is, if they ever entered it.

As someone who’s just finished teaching an introductory course on the history of architecture to first year students, I’m guilty of condensing about four thousand years of architectural history into fourteen lectures that I thought covered the essentials and prompted students to see history in terms of solutions to problems at various times and places. Some problems aren’t even tied down to one time or place.

For at least the past five hundred years, clients have enjoyed mansard roofs as a relatively inexpensive way of adding another level of floor and making a building more imposing while maintaining an integrity of the whole. A great invention.

Or consider another great invention – the flying buttress. Originally intended to transfer dead load to the ground so that maximum wall area could be used for large openings …

… we still have columns at right angles to walls being used to transfer dead load to the ground so that maximum wall area can be used for large openings.

Every century or so, architects are encouraged to learn from history but what needs to be learned is never explicit. The last time around was post-modernism which, in the end, was selective and individual interpretations of bits of history in tune with some marketing agenda. But what was the problem post-modernism was invented to solve? Robert “I-like-complexity-and-contradiction-in-architecture” Venturi isn’t exactly blameless but Charles Jencks made his name promoting the notion that the purpose of post-modernism was to redress an imagined lack of meaning with the visuals of the social housing that went before. Result? Social housing became uncool. Corporations were the new clients.

This was the beginning of representations of something being as good as if not better than the real thing. To architects at least, Seaside, FL was presented as an example of new urbanism and promoted as a new way for towns to be. To everyone else it was timeshare and holiday-let city – a place to pretend you were living in the town you never had or even knew you missed. Is inauthentic nostalgia still nostalgia? It doesn’t matter. The aesthetic was designed to evoke meanings more correctly called fantasies. Not too far away from Seaside, Post-modernism and Disneyworld quickly found each other.

But at least the fantasies were overlaid onto tangible objects called buildings that were in some sense authentic carriers of meaning. The next level of inauthenticity was to dispense with buildings as tangible objects, because fantasies could just as effectively be overlaid onto images of virtual buildings. Online architectural media is clogged with visualizations of proposed buildings that most likely will never be realized. We don’t really care.

This subset of building that were never realized used to consist of the drawings of Sant’Elia, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mile High Skyscraper proposal, Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House proposal, and Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International as well as, sometimes, the unbuilt work of Buckminster Fuller and that’s about it. Although unbuilt, these proposals appeared in history books because they were indicative of what we were told were the mood and aspirations of the time. We can’t say this about the surfeit of unbuilt proposals we’re obliged to scroll through these days. We consume architectural imagery in different ways now and architectural imagery has obliged to suit us.

1990–2008 Dubai was responsible for an explosion in the amount of virtual architecture in the online landscape. For architects, two-dimensional representations of buildings are all that’s necessary for the purposes of branding and to show people one’s still alive and open for business. As ever, occasional visionary projects with no hope of ever being realized are always proof of one’s visionary credentials. Mars is in retrograde this year but not too long ago we had Foster+Partners, BIG and Stefano Boeri all showing us their fantastic visions for life on Mars. To mis-paraphrase comedian George Burns, if you can fake authenticity then you’ve got it made. It’s much the same as redefining fake as authentic but we’ll talk about AI in architecture in a bit.

Remember the house Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1951 for Petra Island in Lake Mahopac (only 15 minutes from Manhattan by helicopter, Dezeen helpfully tells us)? The owners of the island discovered their land came with plans for house designed by Frank Llloyd Wright house and promptly had it built. At first, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation refused to acknowledge it as a work of Frank Lloyd Wright. It still doesn’t appear on their website although Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center does even though it was designed in 1959, finally built with a much different layout in 1995, and opening in 1997. I don’t know why some of Wright’s posthumous work is acknowledged and some not. Some of the poured masonry at Petra Island is hideous so, in my gut, I feel it this house is an authentic work. If construction drawings show it was built as intended, then Frank Lloyd Wright was clearly no Gio Ponti when it came to putting stone and concrete together.

It seems a bit arbitrary, but The Foundation may have objected because construction of the house was not begun during Wright’s lifetime, but forty-plus years after his death. But how often would FLW have visited the site and overseen construction anyway? Site supervision by the architect should be a guarantee of authenticity but we’ve no way of knowing how much FLW did. Unless we comb company accounts for the number of site supervision hours billed to Frank Lloyd Wright, we can only make an informed guess.

In 1950 Wright completed sixteen houses [three in California, two in Minnesota, Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, and one in Missouri, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Ohio, Texas and Tennessee], nine in 1951 [two in Michigan, and one in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Arizona, Mississippi, California, South Carolina and New York], and eleven in 1952 [one each in Michigan, Arizona, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho, Minnesota, Connecticut, California, Florida, Virginia and Oklahoma]. If you’re knocking out houses at a rate from one every three weeks (1950) to one every six weeks (1951) across the US from Wisconsin to California to South Carolina to New York as in 1951 when the above house was designed, then my informed guess is “not much, if any.” If that’s the case, then it matters very little if Frank Lloyd Wright was dead or alive when they were built.

And so we come to AI. An employee of Zaha Hadid Architects has been posting to LinkedIn his attempts to bring Zaha Hadid back to life and continue adding value to the employee-owned company.

ChatGPT-4/Midjourney have obviously been trained on too much Vincent Callebut.

Apart from the fact that the design moves of Zaha Hadid will sooner or later become as outdated as those of Antonio Gaudí or Frank Lloyd Wright or even Bramante for that matter, this endeavor raises important legal as well as ethical questions. Visual artists and writers are understandably angry their work has been data scraped without their consent and used to train AI but it’s already too late to stop that process and, given the requirement for legal proof, probably impossible to reverse. When a founding partner of an architectural firm dies, it’s not unusual for its designers to continue designing in same manner. It’s also not unusual for other practitioners to design in a similar way as some de-facto “school”. Either way, it’s called a legacy.

Perhaps Zaha Hadid wouldn’t have objected to her work being used in this way to generate revenue for the company, but what if that legacy (or similar training data) is used to generate posthumous knock-offs and income for some other company? Either way, it’s not a good look to exploit the dead for commercial gain. Does one party have a stronger moral or legal right, or do both have none? We’re talking levels of inauthenticity here.

How much homage can a market take, especially now that cutting differently-shaped cookies has become that much easier? If an AI work produced in this way is ever marketed to imply that it is “what Zaha Hadid would have designed had she been alive” – and this looks like the way it’s going – then there’s a big problem with authenticity regardless of who claims it. What’s more, if a work that’s been AI-generated comes to be generally accepted as “authentic” then will the resultant profits be split between the company and the estate of Zaha Hadid because Zaha Hadid is effectively still working?

Death is supposed to give meaning to life. In our rush to exploit AI for short-term profiteering, we seem to be willing to give up our humanity quicker and far more easily than AI has prompted us. And all of our own accord.

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Different Places

From December last year to February this year, I was in Perth, Australia for the first time since 2019. It was nice to take a flight and enjoy airports and travel again.

I flew Shanghai-Hong Kong and Hong Kong-Perth so I had to finish watching the movie Drive My Car after the transfer. I probably wouldn’t have watched it if I’d known the screenplay was a mashup of two Murakami short stories but the thought did cross my mind that it had his characteristic cross of whimsy and stylization. I let myself be taken along for the ride and would have watched it again but the plane had already crossed the north-west coastline and there wasn’t the time before landing.

In the first few days after arriving there was catching up with family and friends as well as Covid finally catching up with me.

Christmas was subdued but once I was okay, I didn’t have to go too far out of my way to pass by places I’d lived in and other familiar streets.

This post is a collection of observations and thoughts mainly to do with the built environment. I won’t repeat things I’ve already said in other posts. One thing I noticed and appreciated was the abundance of birdlife.

Apart from the quality of the air and the blueness of the sky, it was good to see so many trees, even if they’re increasingly confined to municipality-owned land such as parks, open space, roadside verges and median strips. The part of town I stayed in is blessed with a large amount of open space for walkers, joggers, picnickers, dog walkers, horse riders and sportspeople. It’s appreciated but also taken for granted. It’s not something I’ve seen in other countries I’ve lived in. There’s also a lot of other open space such as median strips with significant trees and ample roadside verges between the road and the footpath. I’m not used to this either. It even seems a bit wasteful, especially when housing plots and the houses on them are becoming smaller and smaller. There’s a mismatch between the generosity of public space and the meagreness of private ownership.

Fewer large trees exist on new residential subdivisions because any special design adaptation would hinder the rate of building. And fewer large trees exist on newly subdivided blocks because there’s simply not the space. The past twenty years have seen many developments such as this next one where four houses have been built on land formerly occupied by one. Even though this site has a slope, a shared underground driveway and car park would destroy the illusion of houses that feel independent, if not detached. This is why 20% of the plot is used for a driveway rather than garden.

Here’s the process in motion. The photograph on the right is the rear of the five houses on the right side of the plot subdivisions up for sale. The sign says the agent speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s a nice place to live if you like a temperate climate and nearby open space. The Joondalup area further north has a large lake and is popular with Brits who can have a house with a swimming pool (but not much else) in the backyard, and also with Chinese who like being close to a lake.

Even in the garden centre, I didn’t see that many large plants or trees on sale and assumed this was because fewer people have large gardens anymore. The plants for sale were mostly for borders or to grow against fences.

I’d never seen a solar-powered garden owl before although an aunt of mine did have a small goldfish pond with a knome sitting on a rock.

I do like a bit of DIY. Despite not being particularly adept at it, the sense of achievement at wanting to do something and finding out that you can do it yourself is incredible. I’ve never paid anybody to assemble something from IKEA, although I’m sure they’d do it faster and probably better.

You see less lawn and grassed roadside verges and more gardens such as this formed by native plants surrounded by bark chips. It’s low maintenance, and though during summer it’s still watered in the evening every third day, it requires far less water. A variation involves plants surrounded by a layer of black plastic (to discourage weed growth) covered with large black or white pebbles. This was more popular in the 1970s.

Native plants don’t take kindly to being transplanted and so some initial care is needed. If one is going to hand-water, then a retractable garden hose is the business. I wish they’d existed when I was a kid.

For two nights, I was in the town of Busselton, a few hours from Perth by train and bus. The hotel was relaxed.

The train passed through farmland with a mix of agriculture and livestock and all this was new to me as the coastal town itself.

Australian country towns are like time capsules of architecture you don’t see any more in the cities. Most houses still have lawns. I saw many beds of roses and nostalgic shrubs.

Back in the city, seeing this sign cheered me up. It was good to see simple expedience and the urgency of information triumph over graphic design and design as branding. Sure, I’d have noticed the fancy new sign of some new establishment anyway and I may even have appreciated the cleverness of the name of the graphics of a logo but it wouldn’t have occurred to me how unnecessarily over-designed its was. This sign made me think what else could benefit from similar enlightenment.

New Objective Reality?

While in Perth, I bought Chinese science fiction writer Cixin LIU’s novels The Supernova Era which I finished in Busselton, and his The Three Body Problem trilogy [praised by Barack Obama] to read on the way back. I learned that Netflix has finished filming an English language version of The Three Body Problem. A 30-episode Chinese television adaptation of the first novel began in China on January 15.

Many pages later, I reached my familiar surroundings of Wenzhou, China by way of a transfer in Kuala Lumpur and a two-day stopover in Guangzhou, two places different again.

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Meatspace is a word I first heard a few weeks ago. It’s used to describe the human realm that’s not capitalizing artificial intelligence. It’s slightly derogatory and its users slightly smug. It implies that that part of the human realm is full of losers. Not on the winning team. I know I’m being repetitive but it’s what Water Gropius must have thought of craftspersons exactly one hundred years ago. Architecture’s relationship to new technologies hasn’t changed.

The saying “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. seems to have been around since the 1960s and is usually attributed to Maslow. It means that If a person is familiar with a certain, single subject, or has with them a certain, single instrument, they may have a confirmation bias to believe that it is the answer to/involved in everything. I feel it describes the current mood towards artificial intelligence and architecture. The only difference is that the nails don’t quite fit our new hammer. Architecture will work to redefine nails until they do.

It’s not just those of us who teach it who think so, but this thing called the design process is often assumed to begin with a definition of the problem. It’s not a bad way to start because, at the end of the process, it provides a standard for knowing if the problem has been satisfactorily solved. Ideally, decisions taken along the way will have worked towards solving the problem and not away from it. It means that the beginning of the design process is there at the end. It also means that the end of the design process is already folded in at the beginning and, by extension, that open-ended design problems don’t exist. [Where do the self-called “research-based practices” find their clients? Only the monied collector or PR-driven client would pay for research only tangentially related to getting them a building.] Nevertheless, different types of problem produce different types of architecture and there’s room for them all. No one of them is intrinsically superior. Was it Paul Rudolph who said of Mies van Der Rohe that he made wonderful buildings only because he chose to solve so few problems?

The stage of the design processafter definition is usually called analysis and usually includes a study of ways similar problems have been solved and, if (like Mies) one has experience of solving problems one sees as similar, then so much the better. Here again, if one has jn the past successfully solved design problems according to some personalized design process or system, then the hammer and nail analogy kicks in again. No two problems are ever exactly the same but unnecessary reinvention of the wheel isn’t the answer either. Some people call this dataset “case studies” and, at least in universities, they strongly influence the outcome even though the data can often be more of a wish list. The word “precedent studies” is in play at other institutions but, in addition to simply denoting something that happened prior, it invests the case study with an almost legal authority to determine the outcome. Even the term “reference” is dubious because it implies pre-selection and a somewhat predetermined outcome. What turned out to be useful is something one only knows at the end. Data scraping is said to be analogous and it probably is inasmuch as it draws conclusions from a necessarily limited and preselected data set.

The third and final stage is said to be synthesis and is where all the data is somehow synthesized but it’s really just a word we use to describe something we no nothing about. [c.f. The Mystery of Beauty]

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One useful concept in the field of project management is that of dependencies between different tasks in a process. There are four types.

Finish to StartFinish to StartPredecessor must finish before Successor can start. [Land must be purchased before road building can start]
Start to StartStart to StartPredecessor must start before Successor can start. [Road excavating must start before Asphalt can be laid]
Finish to FinishFinish to FinishPredecessor must finish before Successor can finish. [Laying Asphalt must be complete before line painting can be completed]
Start to FinishStart to FinishPredecessor must start before Successor can finish. [Road excavating must start before line painting can be completed]

The first is Finish to Start. It’s the easiest to understand and is generally how we imagine those three main tasks in the design process to be connected. Life is simple when one thing finishes and another starts. Calling design a process implies some sort of connections between what we see as the three main tasks. But there are four ways each of those tasks can be connected. In the above, I described them in the sequence they are conventionally understood to occur, even if there is some recursiveness along the way. Thinking of the three stages of the design process as a sequence makes sense and seems to fit our observations but those three tasks have two links that each could be one of four ways. This is already sixteen different ways that can potentially describe the design process. Synthesis could begin the moment the problem is defined. It could take place at the same time as analysis. And so on. Moreover, if synthesis prompts a redefinition of the problem, then there’s a third link between tasks and now 32 different ways the process can go. Sometimes it’s the case that solutions go looking for problems. It’s more complicated than we thought but it’s not unknowable.

Start to Finish could be an equally good fit for a design process that only begins once the end result is known. In this case, the desired outcome is embedded in how the problem is framed and drives both the analysis and synthesis. It’s working towards a known conclusion that could be totally wrong but who’s to know that? It happens all the time in architectural education and it’s difficult to explain that, although designing what you want to design might work sometimes, it’s no guarantee it always will. As soon as a project begins, a student might already have an idea of what they’d like to do. It’s often just impetuousness but intuition can sometimes be right. Architects with more experience do this all the time and we call them experienced if they’re not famous and creative if they are.

If the design process were rigidly sequential and always using the same references and parameters then we’d expect the results of limited competitions to converge but this never happens. An OMA building is never going to look like an SOM or a ZHA building or a HOK building. If an infinite number of Frank Gehrys and OMAs were given an infinite number of projects and a sequential define-analyze-synthesize design process, then sooner or later you’d expect OMA to design a Frank Gehry building and Frank Gehry to design an OMA. We don’t expect this to ever happen. The definition-analysis-synthesis model may be useful as an educational model but it doesn’t account for architecture as it is performed. It might even be an architectural myth.

More relevantly, if the end of the design process is already there at the beginning, then there’s little point scraping datasets to train algorithms to mimic a design process that’s either bogus or misunderstood to begin with. However, there’s still the possibility that intuition and inspiration are just different names for the same old one-two-three design process we understand, but compressed to the extent that the solution appears to come from nowhere and instantly. This simpler explanation involves no torturous logic and hints at the awesome processing power of the human brain when we put our mind to something.

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All the above has assumed this process is conscious even if it cannot be explained. Now I’ve come to the end of this post, I realize that the project I ended the previous post with was a mat-building iteration of Ricardo Bofill’s Les Teraces du Lac. Where did that come from? I don’t know, but it is. Now I know this, I might take the project more in that direction but, if I’d started out by wanting to recreate Les Teraces du Lac as a mat building, it probably wouldn’t have worked. I’m not trying to raise the bar in the synthesis vs. pattern-matching stakes but our model of how the brain functions and creativity works could be more than highly cognitive, cold-blooded rationalism and also have a component that’s not only inexplicable but unconscious as well. This would mean that, when we perform a creative task, we scan our personal databases for not only what we think is relevant but everything that’s potentially irrelevant as well. This is a huge problem for coders because the creativity database just became unknowably large. This isn’t to say that a wonderful solution could still be found if, like Mies, we ignore entire dimensions of the problem.

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What is a Megastructure?

The short-lived Japanese architectural movement of Metabolism is, Rem Koolhaas noted, notable for being the only architectural movement that didn’t originate in a Western country. I can’t say this is wrong, but I don’t feel it’s all that true either. Metabolism wasn’t exactly global and who’s to say local architectural movements are happening everywhere all the time? It’s just that we don’t hear about them and, if we do, it’s because they’ve been brought to our attention as a kind of uncritical de-regionalism/homogenization of everything. Metabolism was unique to 1960s Japan. We just made it part of our history, effectively neutering it until Archigram came along and did the same for us in metal.


City in The Air Arata Isozaki


Fun Palace Cedric Price


Plug-in City Archigram

Other than its provenance, Metabolism was defined by two more things. One was megastructure and the other was the notion of growth and changeability. Isozaki’s huge steel spaceframe at Expo ’70 was more Metabolist because of its author than its megaframe. More Fun Palace than Metabolist, it was big structure but not Metabolist megastructure akin to tree trunks serving useful parts such as accommodation with services and a structure at the same time. As ever, the joy of megastructures was the impossibility of them ever being possible. Trees have no problem delivering nutrients to growth areas via a stabilizing structure but mammals do and buildings do. Putting everything inside an exoskeleton works for crustaceans but wouldn’t do for Metabolists as it couldn’t show the potential for growth and change. There’s also the problem of it looking too much like those conventional space-enclosing shells known as walls. The charm of Metabolism may have stemmed from the conceptual incongruity of its two defining characteristics but it also made it impossible to build anything other than representations of them. It was very 1960s in that respect. Expo ’70 is said to have been Metabolism’s swansong. That’d be about right. Ten years seems to be the best-by of any of those representations we call styles.

Although the idea of having services pass through mega structure was a stupid one, the other idea of a structure that allows for units of building volume to be added or replaced wasn’t much better despite buildings often needing to have units of building volume added or replaced. The problem here is one of redundancy. How much structure is going to be built to support and service an arbitrary amount of additional building volume? We can design in some structural redundancy for the additional dead load but we’ll also have to add a bit more if that load is going to be a live (changing) load. It’s a problem. Another conceptual niggle with the growth analogy is that with trees, the structure becomes more massive as the tree grows. This doesn’t happen with buildings (or with molluscs). Sure, Metabolist buildings could be (theoretically) extended with additional structure supporting additional modules of building volume but the building is now less like a tree and more like bamboo that propagates underground. This inconvenient absurdity is probably why in 1962 Izozaki produced another City in the Air proposal with incremental growth for both accommodation and the structure to support and sustain it. However, even if the building is extended horizontally, the vertical cores still need to be designed for an unspecified amount of additional load. City in The Air V2.0 is only slightly more realistic.

By 1969 megastructures were huge. They’ve since gone out of fashion but Paolo Soleri’s megastructure cities outlined in his book Arcology: The City in the Image of Man were truly impossible, visionary stuff. This next image helpfully includes The Empire State Building for comparison. What all this concrete did other than put a city up in the air was never clear. In retrospect, we might see it as a a “touch the ground lightly” move but this would be tempered by our knowledge of the planetary impact of so much concrete for so little purpose.

This has always been the contradiction with megastructures. They are first of all, structures designed for an arbitrary and unspecified amount of building volume to be added. Or are they? Maybe a megastructure is more about attitude than potential, and its primary function to support itself first and foremost? What we do know is that any structure that doesn’t work to capacity is a waste of materials and, perhaps sensing this contradiction, Soleri saw infrastructure such as dams as megastructure as having a satisfying amount of concrete and then proceeded to adorn it with botanical centers, greenhouses and other visionary stuff.

They were examples of hanging program onto an infrastructure for which a justification is assumed. It’s still naïve compared to BIG’s megastructure which monetizes airspace in those mega-infrastructures known as bridges. It assumes surplus structural capacity and that the details can be sorted out later.

If ostensibly practical megastructures such as dams and bridges have a habit of staying just as visionary as the purpose-unbuilt visionary ones, then we’re going to have think about what it is about megastructure proposals that makes them so appealing? Consider this next photograph. Is it a megastructure? It is big and it exists but it doesn’t have the visionary romance we associate with megastructures. The program it was designed for never eventuated but there’s nevertheless the potential for growth and change? I don’t think it matters. It’s all concrete not doing much and China has at least 300 massive structures such as this one which is the New South China Mall in Dongguan. What we see in this photograph is about 20% of it

These are big structures with potential but no purpose. Thinking just in terms of the amount of concrete that went into the building of structures like these, it’s an architect’s duty to repurpose them and extract some utility from all this concrete that’s already been manufactured and poured. The difficulty stems from the fact that these are specialized structures optimized for one purpose only.

In that way they’re a bit like any other highly specialized structure such as aircraft carriers that are excellent at providing a place for military aircraft to take off or land at sea, but not very useful for anything else. There’s not much you can do with a decommissioned aircraft carrier.

So yes, this post is just me arranging the the furniture here for a demonstration project to convert a shopping mall into housing. This will of course be proof-of-concept and it will involve various assumptions that will hopefully be realistic. I don’t have data or dimensions for New South China Mall so I will be using the mall I mentioned in the Mallville post as my demonstration megastructure. The mall is approximately 350 metres long and approximately 70 meters wide on average. China’s second aircraft carrier The Shandong is 305 meters long and 75 meters wide. (For reference, the USS George H.W. Bush is 332 m long x 42.8 m wide.)

Far from being abandoned, my demonstration mall is completed and fully-functioning neighborhood mall. From memory, about 50% of its retail space is food and beverage, approximately 25% is children’s after-school activities and the remainder is everything else. There are two basement parking levels, five levels above ground, and a rooftop garden.

The mall is unusual in having ten entry points at ground level, external access to all levels on the south-west side (1) and two levels of external gallery access and shops on the east side. (2) One corner has direct access to B1. (3) There are three IN ramps and two OUT ramps. All this permeability would improve liveability were it to actually be converted into housing, but I don’t expect it to make any difference to actually fitting the housing into it.

I used store directory boards and fire escape plans to create a working model.

This image of the B2 car park gave column positions. There was much variation for both the positions and the thickness of the columns, particularly around the atriums. Most of this was undecipherable using the positions and sizes of columns in the car park levels but occasional more detailed information was used for cross checkin . These next two images of B1 were vital for scaling. The basic column grid is 8.4 meters x 8.4 meters.

Car park beam depths ranged from 50 cm to 70cm but longer beams on large columns span the upper level spaces between atriums to produce column free circulation corridors on all upper levels. For the working model, I will assume that floor slabs and supporting beams are accommodated within a 1-metre thick “slab” and, for the time being, will assume an additional headroom of 70cm in places where there are no beams. A model of an assumed structure isn’t any more accurate despite being modeled in detail.

The mall levels around the atriums will have cantilevered beams as well as hidden transfer beams to deal with local events. Some rationalization and simplification would be necessary and, in order to continue, a regularized column grid of 8.4 m x 8.4 m was used but keeping the one change of direction. Floor levels of the actual mall varied between approx. four metres high for B2 to six metres high for B1 (because of sewage and water supply) and generally five meters high for all the other levels. I used a uniform FF height of 5.5 meters.

Despite the change of use, I will keep the elevator cores and fire escape stairs. I’m imagining a low-energy building but won’t make a decision on whether or not to keep the escalators functioning. Facades will be removed and the atriums naturally ventilated. Services and utilities will need a rethink.

• • •

Keeping it Real

The capabilities of BIM continue to grow incrementally through improvements to algorithms and hardware. About this time last year, I wrote about how I thought BIM packages that offered the real-time estimation of energy performance, carbon impact or cost would be an incredibly useful for the verification of design decisions. Rather than that becoming a reality, ongoing advances in architectural visualization applications and increased computer processing power now enable the real-time visualization of building imagery. One of the more useful examples of this is the insertion of BIM or CAD models into a site context mapped from OpenStreetMap data. This lets important or critical viewpoints be identified and the proposal evaluated for its visual impact on those surroundings.

At the same time, it is becoming easier to select materials for mapping to a white model for render purposes. Materials libraries are becoming larger. Being able to edit these materials for colour, texture, reflections and transparency is standard.

“As well as being able to import materials directly from the Material Library into the … Material Editor, you can batch import and export material packages. This is particularly useful for individuals and teams who want to access certain pre-prepared materials from other projects.”

This technology can be used in two different ways, depending on the stage of the project workflow. In the design phase, it could be used by designers to verify a design and, depending on the project and client, could also be used to offer a client choice of options without too much additional work. However, in the later stages of a project, glossy visualizations are more likely to be used to gain the approval of a client board of directors.

In 2005 I was responsible for the overall design of a project for a pedestrian road linking a main village road to a cultural centre via a supermarket, restaurants, gym and miscellaneous retail, all within a perimeter of apartment buildings. The chief planning officer wanted one small pocket of open land to have the feeling of “a London square”. This was the drawing I showed him. He approved, and the £STG 60 mil. project progressed to the design stage.

In the next meeting, the municipality historian requested the development “tell stories of local history” so my initial sketch (below) included a “theme building” and a vertical axis wind turbine that symbolically replaced the windmill that had existed on the site until 100 years earlier. It looked like this.

The facade of the apartment building on the left alluded to the main local crop of wheat. This is the facade and on the right is a photograph I’m sure I used used when presenting it to the municipality historian. The historian approved and the design stage progressed.

Everyone around the table at project management meetings likes drawings like these next ones because they provide building information in a form that’s easily understood and communicated. Few words are necessary. Architects are entrusted with jobs because clients trust them to know what they are doing.

We all know the story of how Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have drawn all the drawings for Fallingwater in the evening before a visit at short notice by the client. The only visualization was this hand-drawn rendering that, because we don’t know who drew it, was probably not by Wright himself. Regardless of its shortcomings in accuracy and resolution, it was sufficient to convince the client to build the house.

My undergraduate instructors were educated in the 1960s so I was encouraged to produce ink drawings like those heroic Yale architecture school ink drawings from Paul Rudolph’s studio. This was just how architecture was communicated in the sixties. This drawing is of the US Embassy in Athens, completed in 1961 to a design by Walter Gropius and TAC.

This trust between architect and client lasted into the 1960s. I particularly like this artists’ impression of a mixed-used building in Milan, designed by Gustavo e Vito Letis (1953-1955). Whoever is responsible for this drawing impression was confident the building would appear far better in real life, and the client was also equally confident it would too.


Of course, if you go to Milan’s via Filipo Turati you’ll see how the real building (still) looks far better than the image of it. This is of course how it should be, and it is characteristic of many Italian mid-20th century buildings.

Both of these mid-20th century visualizations are stylizations for which the conventions were shared. They were understood as artists’ impressions and that the final reality of the building in its surroundings might differ. These next drawings are of Moore Ruble Young’s US Embassy in Berlin. The conservative nature of these watercolour renderings are evocative of a conservative era of international politics and with what the clients of embassy buildings usually want. The choice of rendering medium has been chosen to conform to client expectations.

In the early 2010s, architect sketches and drawings were sent to outside companies to produce “final approval” renders and animations such as these. These images are more photo-real than anything I’ve showed you so far but the choice of sky and people to “animate” the scene is still very stylized.

Virtual reality began with animations called walk-throughs and fly throughs but setting them up and rendering them to the desired resolution was time-consuming, expensive and usually outsourced. More powerful chips and algorithms mean it is now possible to generate real-time moving images so a client holding a powerful tablet computer can have a virtual walk-through. It is also possible to have more accurate texture mapping using large libraries of materials that can be edited for colour, texture, reflections, and transparency. And it is also possible to render reflections, vegetation and water more convincingly and all in something close to realtime. Improvements such as these are claimed to result in more accurate and realistic visualizations but these visualizations still need to be “signed off” by the client to prevent clients asking a court to rule on whether the built reality lives up to the expectations resulting from the virtual reality.

Computationally, real-time photo-rendering remains subject to the limits of processing power. One VR application manufacturer recommends a NVIDIA GeForce GTX1080 or Quadro P5000 as entry-level but the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti/Titan or Quadro P6000 if the project is large or if the motion requires smooth movement and accurate lighting. Not all architects believe project presentations require motion at all, let alone whether that motion requires smooth movement or accurate lighting. Some situations might, although I can’t imagine what they would be. It’s even less easy to imagine why processor power-hungry features such as animated vegetation are required. 

Animated vegetation impresses clients and conveys solutions to audiences who might have trouble fully conceptualizing your ideas.

Manufacturers of BIM packages and extensions that provide these functionalities, emphasize their value for business development rather than their potential to facilitate design.

Virtual reality is the key for modern and innovative architects that want to add more value for clients. It’s more immersive and emotional than a presentation based on renderings alone. There is no better way for customers to perceive their projects up close.

Having said that, I quite like this next use of in-graphic motion even though its charm doesn’t come from being realistic of anything other than a manga. This graphic generates a lot of atmosphere from something as small and primitive as a gif. We should be wary of any first application of increases in processing power. As soon as it became possible for animators to have realistic depictions of the motion of feathers, flames, hair and fur, there came a slew of animated movies featuring feathers, flames, hair and fur. I’ve been reading reviews of Avatar: The Way of Water, and it seems the real star of the movie is its “realistic” depiction of underwater worlds. The real news is that avatars can now have children, presumably by functioning avatar genitalia. Somebody should tell Mark Zuckerberg. If he can nail, that then all of Meta’s problems will be over. Just don’t post any images of them.

Visual communication is devalued when it’s presented and intended to be understood as a perfect image of an imagined future reality. More to the point, design itself is devalued when the only qualities that require communicating are those which can be seen. A project manager may see a certain kind of beauty in a spreadsheet, a quantity surveyor in a bill of quantities, a structural consultant in a carbon analysis. Real-time virtual reality photo-renders may become a new but stylized means of communicating the visual aspects of an architectural idea to clients.

The commercial world will operate as it sees fit, but when universities attempt to equip their students for participation in that world, there is a danger that imagination and design skills will be devalued if students think they must develop an idea in virtual reality before presenting it for critical evaluation.