Category Archives: Media Machinations

how the architectural media function to create buildings, architects, their careers, and their reputations – not necessarily in this order of importance

The Shape of Green

There’s no lack of ethical or economic arguments for sustainability. Taken in by its promising title, I had high hopes Lance Hosey’s The Shape of Green would finally provide us with an aesthetics of sustainability as part of a larger philosophy of sustainability.

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“The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology and Design” Lance Hosey, Island Press, 2012″

Hosey begins promisingly, claiming beauty and sustainability aren’t as incompatible as they’re commonly believed to be but very soon goes off the rails. If beauty and sustainability aren’t so incompatible, then why identify some buildings as environmentally virtuous but ugly and then suggest that “dressing them up” isn’t the way forward? Why praise Renzo Piano and Norman Foster for synthesising two qualities that aren’t incompatible? I hope Hosey’s not admiring F&P’s Greater London Authority headquarters.

  • Overhanging a building is an expensive way of shading glazing from the torrid London sun.
  • GLA’s eggy shape may theoretically have volumetric efficiencies but, once enclosed, that volume is then squandered on a void around an ornamental staircase. Stupid.

Hosey’s a shapeist. He claims that some sources claim that early, elementary design decisions about shape can influence the environmental impact of a building – up to 90% apparently, but 90% of what we’re not told. 

He’s also a commercial man at heart and offers a commercial justitification for a sustainability that’s phrased in terms of conventional [visual] aesthetics. Here are some of his arguments.

We’re more likely to treasure a thing for longer if we find attractive.

Hosey wants beautiful things to be seen as virtuous rather than the other way around. This statement is the perfect product of a time when the only ideas that get traction are those that articulate in new ways what people believe anyway. Before the Table of Contents is this brave quote.

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Oscar Wilde was an incorrigible aesthete and known for soundbites such as “Any person who doesn’t laugh at the death of Little Nell has a heart of stone.” Wilde’s statement about judging by appearances may well have been disingenuous but Hosey’s using only its latter part definitely is.

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Wilde seems to believe in an absolute beauty and this would have been an common view a century ago. However, if one accepts the modern position that beauty is both pluralist and subjective, then Beauty is no more or less superficial than the thoughts in which it is based. And this brings us back to the book.

Much of nature is about geometry. The shape of a blood cell is optimised for fluid dynamics. The tilt of the Earth’s axis gives us the seasons that shape nearly every living creature.
Things have shapes. It’s what things do. Artificial things also have shapes and geometries.

We prefer to use things that look better, even if they aren’t inherently easier to use.
This is the form vs. function argument restated, with a swipe at utility. (“Trust me, I’m a designer.”)

We don’t love something because it’s non-toxic and biodegradeable – we love it because it moves the head and the heart.
Hosey is attempting to keep beauty and virtue firmly separate. He doesn’t want us to love anything for reasons that aren’t visual. He’s pro-innovation, pro-consumption.

Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern – it’s an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.”
Hosey has trouble linking aesthetic attraction to environmental imperatives. He resorts to the peacock’s feathers and the 300 varieties of nightingale birdsong.

Beauty has the biological function of sustaining existence
is the conclusion only a short jump away. Three hundred varieties of nightingale mating call seems a bit desperate. Do the peacock’s feathers really have to be that large or colourful? Humans have evolved in much the same way but with far less imperative. Ostentatious displays of abundance may faciliate getting laid but any evolutionary advantage remains unproven.

Designers can promote sustainability by embracing what they have always cared about most: the basic shape of things. [Oh dear!] Hosey then attempts to show how Beauty is inherent to the definition and principles of sustainability There’s talk of how the smartness of the Smart Car is in its shape and not its technologies. The conclusion is that design trumps technology. Only a man who wants to have his cake and savour it would write If you could take care of all your daily nutritional needs by ingesting one tasteless capsule, would you be satisfied? Hosey is detaching the aesthetics of eating from the imperatives of nutrition and sustenance.

Q: “If you could personally solve world hunger through one inexpensive capsule that would take care of a person’s daily nutritional needs, would you be satisfied?” 

It doesn’t matter for the conclusion is that Aesthetics are fundamental to both culture and nature, and if sustainability refers to the graceful interaction between them, it must have a sensory dimension. 

All in all, this book is rich – and we’re not even a third of the way in. These arguments claims are amply illustrated with examples from the field of product design. I was getting impatient for some buildings. Skipping a bit, here’s some Hosey singles out as relevant to his argument where he seems to want to take this.

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“The 120° twist cuts wind loads and reduces the amount of steel by 25%, saving $60 mil.” Excellent – so that’s the shape of all future supertall buildings sorted then!? I doubt it. In the world of architecture, that the shape of this building represents 25% less steel is more important than actually having 25% less steel. If the shape of this building had any compelling advantages then we can expect to see it replicated many times in the future just like what happened to rectangular prisms (a.k.a. boxes).

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The Tjibaou Cultural Center (Renzo Piano Workshop, 1992) is singled out for combining the three principles of conservation, attraction and connection. “The shell-shaped wood-slat towers offer a rich tactile image, like banded reeds, that echoes local vernacular traditions while also playing an essential role in ventilation, coaxing the breeze upward in this sticky climate.”

I won’t go too much into too much detal here, but must mention how the representational aspects of this building have little to do with its ventilation strategy that utilizes a combination of Stack Effect and Venturi effect. Either way, behind those timber slats has to be a double skin of something if any breeze is ever going to be coaxed upward. The section shows that this is so.

Those solar chimneys face north-west, which means you must go well out of your way to instagram that famous money shot from across the water. Internally, the circular spaces make reasonable exhibition spaces but externally, none of this representation is for the benefit of actual users – or even for their functional benefit as there’s no need to clad air shafts with timber slats. What we’re meant to perceive as beauty has little to do with this building’s environmental response or user experience.

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Chapter 4 is titled Many Senses and introduces the concept of a connection between aesthetics and ecology and the human body. This might have been a good place to talk about how the other four senses are often neglected by designers but Hosey claims design can appeal to the whole body for we feel with our entire being – a point he illustrates with Zumthor’s Baths at Swiss architectural hotspot Vals. I agree that this building has important lessons for all designers – of buildings that require us to be naked in warm smelly water in misty and acoustically live rooms.

Hosey doesn’t mention that Vals baths’ fully sensory environment of texture, reverberation, light, mist and heat can be appreciated for 80 Swiss Francs (approx. US$77.80) per session but the connection between aesthetics, ecology, the human body and commerce is soon insinuated. Who knew that 7-Up tastes lemony or limey depends on whether the label has more yellow or green, or that a sprig of parsley on the label can make canned meat taste fresher? Who would want to know that and why if it weren’t with a view to exploitation?

I’ve no doubt everyday sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures influence the unconscious mind but that doesn’t mean I want to trust that knowledge with a designer in the paid employ of someone. To captivate consumers longer, designers will need a better understanding of what stimulates emotional longevity. This sinister sentence is evil encapsulated.

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I hadn’t known about this 1979 book and, to be honest, I wish I still didn’t. The aestheticization of thermal comfort will do more than air conditioning ever did to stop passive design ever becoming a driver for a more sane architecture.

The same thinking crops up again in the next chapter Ecology and Imagery. Biophilia is a good thing but Hosey gets excited about fractal patterned wallpaper being just as good as the acacia trees our ancestors so admired. The implications for design are enormous. 

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Indeed.

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Airspace Tokyo facade by Thom Faulders. Who needs trees?

“An enormous mesh umbrella lets dappled sunlight pass through in variegated patterns, like a forest canopy.” 

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Who needs trees? II

“Fractal-like patterns can be used to make very large buildings seem less imposing.”

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Who needs trees? III

There are shapes and patterns that lure [!] the human senses because they participate in larger forces unfolding over time, and eternal choreography not immediately detected but evident everywhere. With science and sensitivity, smart design can beautifully tap into [!!] the abiding wonders and mysteries of the universe. My points of exclamation indicate either careless language or, more worryingly, deliberately ambiguous language carelessly crafted. It seems that buildings are really just very big products and designers should be aware of these new tricks to fool people into responding more positively to buildings than they otherwise might or perhaps ought.

I was going to deal with each chapter sequentially but lost the will. Skimming the rest, Hosey expands his consumerist philosophy of aesthetics to encompass entire buildings in Chapter 7: The Architecture of Difference, puffs it up to urban scale in Chapter 8: The Natural Selection of Cities and, as books like this have a tendency of doing, inflates it to the max to encompass to entire planets in Chapter 9: Visions of Earth.

I skipped to Epilogue: A Beauty Manifesto where there’s not much to dislike but, on the other hand, nothing much of practical use either. Nobody’s going to pin this manifesto on their wall.

Ten principles for advancing an aesthetics of ecology. Every designer everywhere can:

  1. Bridge the divide between “good design” and “green design”.
  2. Turn beauty and sustainability into the same thing.
  3. Erase the distinction between how things look and how things work.
  4. Break down the walls between the arts and the sciences.
  5. Adopt the three principles.
    • Conserve: Shape things to respect resources.
    • Attract: Shape things to be easy to use and deeply satisfying.
    • Connect: Shape things to embrace place.
  6. Start with the napkin sketch, not the technical manual.
  7. Develop a scientific method for design.
  8. Strengthen the ties between form and performance, between image and endurance.
  9. Make things to work as well and to last as long as they should.
  10. Make things better.

In the end, all the cooing over known attributes of known quantities only serves to direct more reverence towards things that represent the link between aesthetics, ecology and design more than they actually link them. Hosay has faith in us believing in the worth of his examples. Whether we regard them high or low, the book manages to be less than their sum. 

Hosey was Chief Sustainability Officer at RTKL before it was swallowed whole by architectural behemoth Arcadis in 2015. He’s now advisory board member to the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment. Whatever message it is this book communicates, the AIA seems to have understood it. 

Burden of Proof

First of all, Thank You All and Season’s Greetings. Have you noticed how the end of the year is always rich with lazy content? Here’s the AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Projects 2016 WinnersHere’s Dezeen’s Top 10 Architecture Books of 2016, along with a gratuitous picture. 

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The caricaturization of architecture: Seeing how the illustrator has managed to work some sky into the view of Fallingwater’s best side, we can expect similar liberties have been taken with the content. This is one of 2016’s top ten architecture books.

Well before December’s not-entirely-unexpected articles wanting to suddenly tell us about Zaha Hadid’s family life and early paintings, a March 2016 article had already given us Ten Best Zaha Hadid Buildings by way of an obit. December’s Guardian also blessed us with Oliver Wainwright’s top ten buildings of 2016. Designboom contributed TOP 10 architecture projects that integrated nature in 2016 plus Top Ten Reader Submissions of 2016. “News” such as AIA Names Top 10 Most Sustainable Projects of 2016AIA Names 10 Best US Houses of 2016 and DAM Selects the Top 10 Architectural Books of 2016 was thoughtfully re-broadcast by ArchDaily. Getting into the spirit then, here are Misfits’ Top Ten 2016 posts.

1. Architecture Misfits #22: H Arquitectes

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This post from May this year is the 18th most accessed post of all time. [Well done guys – keep it up!]

2. The Mat Building

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This post from March was a close second at #22.

3. The 1 1/2 Floor Apartment

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This post immediately followed the one above and came in at #39.

4. Living Together

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The all-time #41 was this February post the first of several dealing with the implications of co-living.

5. Co-living

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This post immediately following came in at #47.

6. Architecture Misfit #21: 村野藤吾

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I’m glad this post is doing well at #53. There weren’t many architects like Togo Murano then and there certainly aren’t now.

7. The Free Facade

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Musings on what the façade has done with its freedom.

8. Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio

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A long-overdue tribute tothe work of Rural Studio and their approach to making things better.

9. Misfits’ Guide to DUBAI

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It was about time I took a look around.

10. Architecture Misfit #20: Edward T. Potter

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There was a lot more to Edward T. Potter than the house he designed for Mark Twain. A fitting misfit.

The 2016 posts are still fresh so I don’t know which will be forgotten, which will be remembered, which will prove to be slow burners, and which will have any lasting relevance. However, some trends are starting to become apparent upon seeing the ten most accessed posts of all-time (since June 2010).

1. The Maximum Dwelling

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Who’d have thought the labyrintine plans of 19th century Victorian country houses would have proved such a hit on Pinterest?

2. The Things Architects Do #3: SANAA

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This post is surely found by foundation year architecture students searching for assignment resources.

3. Kazuo Shinohara’s Houses

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The buildings of Kazuo Shinohara are interesting yet little known. This post has gone on to have further adventures on other blogs.

4. The DARKER Side of Villa Savoye

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A post much accessed by students looking for LC or VS resources. [You’re welcome!]

5. Architectural Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

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Ditto.

6. It’s Not Rocket Science #3: Yakhchal

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This post has been much reblogged in the off-grid community. [A shout-out to Señor Coconut – hope you’re all doing fine.]

7. THE KISS PRINCIPLE

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The hidden complexities of the Farnsworth House.

8. It’s Not Rocket Science #5: Night Sky Radiant Cooling

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A post about the little understood natural principle Persians used to make ice in the desert a few centuries gone.

9. The Japanese Machiya

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From Japan, some sensible housing for a change.

10. The Buildings of YEMEN

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A country so un–neoliberal that, instead of Architecture, it has a stunning culture of vernacular building the likes of which we can’t imagine.

I like to think all misfits’ posts have some sort of relevance for our built environment but three of these ten all-time most accessed posts can also be seen as about nothing more than routinely famous architects and buildings – thus inadvertently sustaining the status-quo. Two other posts can be also seen as being about (Japanese) architects with a largeish presence in architectural media culture and this amounts to much the same thing. The post on Victorian country houses can be seen either as a curio or as nostalgia – which is also a worry. Only the Yemen and the yachchal/radiant cooling posts fit into the category of really useful things – but the worry here is that they were best thought forgotten.

• • •

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I confess I haven’t read much further than the first chapter of this book. [To be honest, I’m finding it a bit brainy.] I’ll stick with it though as so many of misfits’ themes resonate with its theme that I feel in my gut is true. So then, until I can back up my bloggy conjectures with references and citations, let’s just suppose that neoliberalism does have an architectural manifestation. What evidence would be sufficient to prove such a claim?

1) The End of History

By this I don’t mean the end of buildings, just the end of attaching any sort of importance to them. This project is well underway and in places already complete. ArchDaily. The history of architecture is still taught at universities but no-one knows why as history skills are on no employer’s wish list. [c.f. Learning CurveArchitecture students are pleased history has stopped accumulating. The continual shrinking and condensing of a body of knowledge into a few names and buildings of uncontested regard is not proof of their enduring greatness but a caricature of history and one of learning as well. I used to understand this as the postmodern sickness whereby a thing gets replaced by a representation of itself but postmodernism may have just been a symptom of the greater plague.

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If we’re all Futurists now – “Sir, what’s a Futurist?” – then the advantage to neoliberalism of us all wanting to forget the past is that we’re primed to embrace newness for newness’ sake. We’re ready and willing to enjoy constant change and for progress to be measured in terms of how newly something represents change. [c.f. The Autopoiesis of Architecture] An energetic dynamism looping back onto itself and going nowhere is an excellent way to represent such change and happens to be just what your average dictocrat wants. It’s a problem for Architecture when all it has to do is represent something going somewhere but architecture is by far the best means to do it because there’s never any danger something as static and immovable as buildings will actually move on.

3) The Objectification of Architecture

The supposed globalization of architecture was our excuse for rationalising why these buildings tended to get built in other countries and not the “liberal democracies” but it might just be that our societies aren’t fully prepared (yet). The flow of neo-liberal architecture is the reverse of the mid-20th century capitalist one.

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Hilton Hotel, Teheran, 1965

3) The Shrinking of History

Buildings and architects get dropped from the history of architecture all the time. Some buildings we saw in every book on modern architecture 50 years ago aren’t even memories now. [c.f. World Architecture 1963 and World Architecture 1963 PART 2]

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Central Library, National Autonomous University of Mexico, designed by Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Martínez de Velasco, and opened in April, 1956

If buildings and architects keep getting dropped from history, then sooner or later we’re going to run out of the stuff as we’re not laying down any more architectural history for the future. What will a history e-book look like in 50 years time? What brave person would even dare write one? What buildings will come to epitomise the age in which we lived? We will have to make do with “Top Ten Modern Classics”. History now has no interest for architects beyond being a resource for interesting imagery.

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Constructivism the art movement (and graphic inspiration-to-be) should not be confused with Constructivism the architectural movement that had a social(ist) agenda of housing people with an efficiency of resource usage.

History is never mined for interesting ideas that, taken out of context, could have important ramifcations for us now. [c.f. Modest Megastructures] We’re encouraged to convince ourselves that the only good ideas are the newest ones. 

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4) The Objectification of Architects 

In 1997 Body Shop‘s Ruby campaign stated “There are three billion women in the world who don’t look like supermodels and eight who do.” [ref.Treading the same path came Dove’s campaignforrealbeauty.

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The parallels with architecture and architects are many but here I want to draw attention to the ongoing objectification of architects. Is it just me or are today’s stararchitects more “starry” than ever? [What is driving this? Is it a need of ours or, like the Sony Wallkman, something that once invented creates its own need?] It’s only been necessary to promote a few architects to star status to create and perpetuate the notion that architecture is all about glamorous and shapely buildings. The efforts of architects less stellar who get on with the real business of real building are supposed to be championed by professional organizations that instead reward the elevated few with accolades in the name of awareness-raising. The appearance of success breeds success and success means you don’t have to pretend to be nice anymore.

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5) Gentrification – in general**

6) Gated communities – a highly localized form of gentrification, no matter which side of the fence you are on.

7) Encouraging people to see Brutalism as nothing more than a style has proven a highly effective way of ensuring its social agenda remains forgotten [c.f. High-Rise]

Professional bodies organize petitions protesting the demolition of Brutalist buildings but in doing so effectively support the neoliberal agenda by arguing on the grounds of stylistic worth [… a fine example of the early work of …” etc.] when they should be making a point on the grounds of social worth. August Perret may have used béton brut (unfinished/raw concrete) without any connotations of aesthetic delight or social utility but that is what the argument has become. It doesn’t really matter whether you see raw concrete as beautiful or ugly for, whichever way, you’re not thinking about how the money and resources spent on unnecessary finishes was, for a short while, diverted into providing more and better quality housing for the population.

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8) The advent and rise of theories celebrating the consequences of unfettered economic activity, and the complete absence of critical comment thereof.

9) The scary earnestness of architectural evangelists, their scarier eagerness to give audience, and the even scarier ease with which they find one. 

10) The celebration of buildings encouraging people to see themselves as no more than the sum of their assets and investments

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11) The continual pressure on us all to do the same with whatever means we have to do it

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• • •

We all know how AirB’n’B enables people without their own buildings to contribute to economic activity by monetizing their surplus capacity living space, how Uber enables people to monetize their surplus capacity transport and how Instagram allows people to monetize* their personality or lack of it. Given all these intimate ways in which people are encouraged to value themselves according to their level of economic activity, it seems that neoliberalism has already done all it can with government, business and architecture and is now moving on to mop up the small fry. Whales feeding off plankton is a good analogy, except whales are nice.

• • •

thanks for the link Megan
19 Dec. 2016: I added Nos. 5) and 6) as further evidence.
*20 Dec. 1016:  8) and 9) added.

Need To Know

wasteNow that the 15th Architecture Bienalle in Venice is over, how was it for you? Are you up to speed on all or any of the above topics and resolved to make the world or even your own little corner of it a better place? Or are you well over it? In a now distant November in Athens, outgoing US President Obama asked us to continue to believe democracy was a good thing despite everything. In the same week, post-truth was selected as the new Word of the Year. Beware: The term itself is a post-truism as it implies politicians used to tell us nothing but facts.  

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I’m still unsure how to use it. It’s said to describe appeals based more on emotion than fact but seems to refer only to impassioned appeals to our baser instincts. There’s still being led up the garden path for impassioned appeals to our better ones.

This was also the year the term digital occupation entered our lives when Detroit Resists digitally occupied the US pavilion at the Biennale. I’d heard this any number of times without managing to find out what it actually entailed. I imagined something like this minus the projection.

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I was sort of right. It was the smartphones that turned out to be significant as the digital occupation was an overlaid exhibition viewable on a smartphone as one went around the actual one. Augmented reality.

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Detroit Resists‘ eminently sensible point was that The Architectural Imagination wasn’t perhaps the best lens through which to view complex problems of urban decay and regeneration.

In June this year, the concept of a democratic digital platform entered our lives when Mimi Zeiger called for one in a Dezeen review of the 15th Venice Architecture Bienalle. It’s easy to see that participation in the world of digital architectural media isn’t equal or even symmetrical.

I think we’ve learned our lesson. An architectural digital democracy is not about all people being able to access information – we already have this. And nor is it about all people being able to access balanced information – we already have this too, although not many know it or make use of it. Like any other kind, an architectural digital democracy is about all people wanting to access balanced information. This is something we definitely don’t have.

We’re aware that digital platforms have a few problems. In that same speech, ‘President Barack Obama spoke out about fake news on Facebook and other media platforms, suggesting that it helped undermine the US political process’ [ref.] Speaking in Germany though, he was speaking to the converted.

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You’ll recognise the US Berlin Embassy from this post.

Indeed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had had something to say about that very topic two weeks prior.  

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Back home, it had already risen to the top of our newsfeeds that Facebook might be playing with our minds, knowingly feeding us fake news in order to increase this thing called engagement in hope of adding value to their advertising model.

Digital protest #1: Create a new Facebook account and add as friends any total strangers they suggest. Add them as fast and often as you can. Before long you’ll get a message saying You are using Facebook in a way for which it wasn’t designed. [!] and blocked for half an hour as punishment. Persist until you have about half a million or so friends and Facebook’s data is irreversibly corrupted by totally meaningless connections. Meanwhile, extend your activism to non-digital forms of protest such as not designing any buildings for Facebook …

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… or Google.

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Like many aspects of modern life, the internet has exacerbated trends already present in our analog media but it’s not as if newspapers and television channels hadn’t filtered or distorted news for decades in order to increase engagement and for the very same purposes. The technical term for headlines like this is screamer.

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The mechanism of tailoring news content in order to deliver targeted advertising to reader demographic is not new. A century ago, did Country Life publish Edwin Lutyen’s houses because its advertisers were targeting people with those aspirations? Probably. They knew.

We used to think magazines had this thing called editorial policy and that news became news when someone decided something was worth knowing about. This is a primitive form of filtering if it was meant to encourage certain people to purchase particular magazines. I suspect it was if magazines also featured buildings featuring the products of their advertisers – as they still do. New big or important buildings by famous architects also shifted copies. It didn’t mean the buildings were any good. We’re wrong to assume it was a nicer world. Our filter bubbles are simply smaller and individually tailored now. As a general rule, when people tell you nothing but what you want to hear, you’re being taken advantage of.

I’ve noticed Twitter and Instagram aren’t particularly good at suggesting what might interest me. Facebook never was. YouTube suggests similar content based on past viewing but its suggestions are obvious and often trite so their algorithms must be as crude as their indexing. Of all the algorithms in my life, Apple Music’s impresses me most. It quickly learned what I like (for, after all, I did tell it) but it’s getting pretty good at suggesting other music I might like to try.

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btw the Lang Lang / Herbie Hancock / John Axelrod /LSO version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is as stupendously new and exciting as it must have been once before Bernstein’s interpretation took over

I don’t expect Archdaily will ever reach the level of sophistication where it actually expands our architectural horizons for why should it even aspire to if there’s no need?  Our digital architectural media are no better than they need to be to do the job they exist to do. But what is that, exactly? We might want to wonder a bit more about why they have settled on their current formats.

The day after the US election, I had a look on the “News” section of ArchDaily to see if anything had happened that might have implications for the built environment. Nope. Nada. Nanimo. All I found were annoucements for next half dozen upcoming BIG projects, plus this.

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President Obama complains about Facebook the same week he gives the bloke who designed their headquarters a medal – and a Medal Of Freedom at that. FOL.

By broadcasting everything, ArchDaily admits no concepts of editorial or curatorial responsibility. And why should it when it’s simply not possible for any one person to even view everything it publishes let alone process it or, perhaps crucially, have an opinion on it. Occasionally, it inadvertently reminds people of the need to have opinions. It received some heat earlier this year for posting details of a competition to build a US-border wall. Sides were quickly taken.

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The complete article is here.

Me, I don’t see anything wrong in attacking a platform, especially one whose stated mission is so vague. The death of architecture will be either a slow one due to overindulgence or a slow one due to accumulated toxins. Too much crap is getting said in the name of “generating debate”.

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Yes, it’s the same image but this time the focus is on “Top architectural stories”. An internet news site sponsors an international architecture competition featuring a speaker who predictably generates predictable news. Dezeen then reports on the resultant brouhaha and the story bounces around the world and receives 80 comments within a day.

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On the same platform, Mimi Zeiger writes an article intelligently critical of the 15th Bienalle and six months on there’s still not one comment. Without evidence of the balanced and critical consumption of information, it’s impossible to sustain the lie these sites exist to provide some sort of “forum for debate”. We should wean ourselves off any platform that has a business model reliant upon advertising, including global architecture competitions and award get-togethers.

wafEven though the spotlight is currently on digital platforms, we shouldn’t relax about what’s going on in the traditional ones for over in my inbox was this

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Sustainability vs. Security? At least apples and oranges were both fruits.

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Aravena’s gone from Elemental to governmental via a brief interlude of monumental.

The guy’s clearly a genius if his next project is to get the military-industrial complex to export sustainability to conflict-ravaged countries worldwide. Let’s wish him well in his star trek. It seems that in lecture theatres around the world, the same people are always in our faces delivering the same message. 

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This talk in the UAE went unnoticed [Borrring!], unlike the one in Berlin eleven days later.

Proposed as a non-digital forum where architecture can be discussed, Turncoats provides the semblance of open debate conducted without the presence of digital recording media, mobile phones or cameras. The idea is to encourage open and un-selfcensored debate between participants but one of them is a plant – their views may not be what they really think. This makes a travesty not just of discussion but of dissent as well. At the end of the day, having a bunch of media players act out open debate behind closed doors only shows that beyond tragedy and farce is metaphor.

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Never before in the history of humankind has there been so much talk about architecture. I can’t blame ArchDaily for everything that’s wrong with the world of architecture so let’s talk about David Basulto. He used couches hooked up to a non-stop video feed in his unintentionally menacing proposition of Architecture as Therapy for the Nordic Pavilion at Venice 2016 . This isn’t architecture as therapy. It’s architecture as sedation. What’s worse is that it was countenanced and endlessly reviewed but I find it too brazenly apt to be comfortable with it. 

Digital platforms for architecture are entering their post-content phase. The new notion that Everything is Architecture conveniently removes conceptual divisions between what is and what isn’t. It is the natural consequence of there being too little genuine architectural content compared with the amount of advertising and marketing that needs to be hung off of it.

The 1920s had a flourishing environment of architectural thought brought about by perhaps at best a couple of dozen magazines reporting occurrences in and around Europe, and in two or three languages as well. There was crossover between disciplines but everything wasn’t architecture and architecture wasn’t everything. Architecture’s products were for everybody but everybody didn’t need to know about its designs or designers. Information about architecture meant information about recently completed buildings and for a while there was a healthy cycle involving the natural generation of information that architects were eager to receive, process and use to produce better buildings and pass on those results to other architects so people everywhere could benefit. It was the most intellectually dynamic and socially progressive decade the world had ever seen. We forget this.


All but one of the slideshow images are from a MoMa exhibition titled THE ELECTRO-LIBRARY: European Avant-Garde Magazines from the 1920s (March 7–June 13, 2016).

Ignorance is Bliss

In 1926, the United States’ Foreign Service Buildings Office was formed to oversee the construction of U.S. embassies. In 1954 they implemented an architectural design policy that made embassies worldwide as American as The International Style. This is a photograph circa 1960 of the US Embassy Eero Saarinen designed for Grosvenor Square, London.

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This is the 1959 US Embassy at The Hague, designed by Marcel Breuer.

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This is the 1961 US New Delhi embassy, designed by Edward Durell Stone.

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This is the US Embassy in Athens, completed in 1961 to a design by Walter Gropius and the other architects at TAC.

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You don’t see renderings or reflecting pools like these anymore.

A 1983 suicide bombing killed 63 people at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, prompting the State Department to form a panel to set out new guidelines for new embassy construction. It was known as the Inman Report, after the panel’s leader. It recommended

  • building behind a 9-foot security wall (for obvious reasons),
  • a street setback of at least 100 feet (to lessen blast shock waves?),
  • maximum window-to-wall ratio of 15% (to increase building integrity), and
  • ideally, a site of 15 acres or more away from the city centre.

Attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 led to a further tightening of site security precautions at all embassies including existing ones. This is the US Embassy in the UK, with its current assortment of security fences, bollards and resolutely three-dimensional hardscaping.

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Similar measures were put in place at the US embassy in Athens although the building itself hasn’t aged well.

“Over the seventy-year life span of the American Embassy in Athens, the building has endured the Mediterranean sun and temperatures, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and the daily activities of the government traffic. However, these aspects have begun to effect [!] the structure. In January 2013, a request for proposal was released by the United States’ government in search of a firm that will complete an entire renovation of the chancery building (Athens Chancery Renovation). Although the design by Walter Gropius and his colleagues at The Architects Collaborative was planned very openly in order to adjust with the changing needs of the embassy, it can no longer function properly as a contemporary office space. Modern systems, not even fathomable in the 1960s [?], need to be installed, structural systems repaired and upgraded, internal layouts reconfigured, and asbestos materials need to be removed and replaced with safer products.” [ref.]

Meanwhile, the US New Delhi embassy is being given a complete refurbishment and re-imagining by Weiss/ Manfredi architects.

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The design of individual buildings, resilient gardens, and reflecting pools are inspired by India’s reciprocal tradition of architecture and landscape and will exemplify the spirit of openness, environmental stewardship, and innovation.”

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This 2008 photograph of the US Embassy in The Hague shows the usual countermeasures in place prior to a new embassy being commissioned.

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By Pvt pauline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7185830

In Germany, the new US Berlin Embassy was eventually completed in 2008 but not without conflict.

 John C. Kornblum, US German ambassador from 1997 to 2001, said “For some reason, when we asked for our increased security enhancements a lot of people in this city went crazy. We endured all kinds of taunts and demands. ‘What do you Americans think you’re doing?’ ” [ref.]

In their presentation, Architects Moore Ruble Yudell of Santa Monica went for a watercoloured nostalgia to soften the effect of that 15% maximum window area recommendation.

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Berlin is at 52°N so the shading-device like elements seem incongruous on the south elevation and inappropriate on the west one. They could be ornamental, or they could be light shelves, or they could function to interrupt the trajectory of airborne projectiles in the same way eyelashes do. us-embassy_in_berlin_south-west

“The palette of materials and design features have been carefully considered to complement the setting and to provide an open, yet secure, presentation of America.” [ref.]

Moore Ruble Yudell have a way with US embassies.

They all feature a circuitous route from gatehouse to public entrance, as well as vast reflection pools the primary purpose of which is not reflecting. The new US embassy in Beijing was designed by US global architectural ambassadors SOM.

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Architecture is said to always love a reflection. Here, there’s a lot of reflecting going on but we’re being misled. Moats around Mediaeval castles were not trying to look beautiful.

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This is the new US Embassy in London, designed by Kieran Timberlake Architects.

“In contrast to high perimeter walls and fences, security requirements are achieved through landscape design—such as the large pond, low garden walls with bench seating, and differences in elevation that create natural, unobtrusive barriers.” [ref.]

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At first glance it looks like the rule for 15% maximum area of wall openings has been relaxed – and it has, but only because EFTE “can cope with large (200-300%) deformations beyond its elastic range before breakage, and can take extremely high short-term loading without risk of fracture, breakage or structural overload/collapse.” [ref.] In other words, its better than glass if you’re anticipating explosions. It’s not called an EFTE cushion for nothing – except nobody calls it that lest it give the game away and make people feel bad.

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Detailed information on vehicle security at US embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq is difficult to find and one doesn’t want to be seen to be trying too hard to find it. However, when buildings are designed to withstand actual mortar attack, we’re no longer talking about bunker mentality – we’re talking actual bunkers, although technically they’re blockhouses as bunkers are typically underground.

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• • •

I think we can now state the sequence by which we learn to live with the threat of explosive detonations near public buildings.

1. Temporary Measures

These appear overnight in response to some perceived threat. This is outside NYC Trump Tower on 11/9/2016. To would-be perpetrators, the highly-visible ability to satisfy suddenly-necessary performance criteria with high-mass deterrents send the message ‘don’t even think about it’.

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Photo courtesy of Chuck Choi.

2. Semi-Permanent Measures

Temporary measures have a habit of becoming semi-permanent. These high-spec flowerboxes grace the perimeter of the US Embassy in Moscow. In passing, this is the stage airport security is currently at and seems destined to remain. Like airport security measures, nobody seems to be able to remember a time they weren’t there. A deterrent that doesn’t look like a deterrent to the people it’s meant to deter, might not be a good idea.

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3. Permanent Measures

Sooner or later, the permanance of semi-permanent measures is accepted and becomes architecturalized. This is when concrete blocks such as those above are re-designed as high-relief hard landscaping such as outside the US Embassy in London. The ability to satisfy performance criteria is still on display but, as is the way with architecture and building performance criteria in general, efforts are made to downplay it.

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Somewhat annoyingly for architecture, blast protection performance criteria are different from other building performance criteria such as thermal performance or sustainability. A well-constructed and well-performing green roof, for example, can produce many benefits but the reality is that green roofs get designed and built in order to represent those benefits without actually going to the trouble of delivering them. Architecture is about representation, not delivery.

Blast protection can’t be similarly sacrificed in the name of architectural representation for three reasons, all of them linked. The first is that architectural representation isn’t what’s wanted –some very real performance criteria have to be met if the building is to stay standing and its occupants alive. The second is that the systems of architectural representation we have are incapable of dealing with building performance criteria anyway. If they could, we would already be living in a world of buildings having the beauty of superior energy and ecological performance. The third is that, even if our systems of architectural representation were up to the task, nobody really wants architecture to represent or otherwise remind them of how unsafe this world we live in has become.

4. Forgetting

This is the final stage. Necessary performance criteria are completely assimilated into architecture so that our awareness of them disappears. Everyone is happy. A moat on one side and a trench on the other are nothing more than elements in a park-like space to walk your dog or child without having to think about vehicle-delivered fertilizer bombs and the ensuing flying debris and shattered glass. And think about them we won’t. Ignorance is bliss. Architecture has colluded with the powers-that-be to desensitize us to ugly realities.

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• • •

This circa 2008 rendering may disingenuously hark back to kinder and gentler times but the realities it depicts are no more pleasant for being sugar-coated with a confident skill and understated elegance we also seem to have lost.

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• • • 

[22 Nov 2016] see also this

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Different Strokes

It’s not just the Chinese authorities who are fed up with novelty buildings. I hope they’ve learned their lesson.

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I fear however, that the recent Chinese edict will only serve to drive symbolic references underground. Downplayed symbolism was already evident in, for example, Pritzker Prizers Zaha Hadid for ‘pebbles on a stream’ Guangzhou Opera House

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and Toyo Ito and his dragon-shaped stadium.

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You tell me.

I don’t know who’s being scammed more with this enigmatic meme scheme. Ito might have pitched “The scales are actually solar panels. Imagine that! – a dragon that makes its own energy from the fire of the sun!” Or perhaps such duplicity wasn’t even necessary for he equally well may have said “It covers all bases. You can emphasise the dragon bit here because your people like things like that but my press release will emphasise the sustainable angle because that plays well in the Western media.” Deal.

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Such one-size-fits-all concepts are creatures of our times. Pre-Beijing Olympics, I imagine the Chinese authorities approved the birds’ nest idea in an as-long-as-the-Western-media-is-happy-we’re-happy kind of way. This is the economic and marketing logic behind the enigmatic signifier. Everyone’s happy. In this next image, it looks like Herzog, de Meuron and artistic advisor Wei-Wei have all just received word their clever ploy worked. Everything about this image is sad.

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#excess #celebrity #publicity

The Chinese are now exporting sustainable hedonism imagery back at us.

Duplicity of intent is most obvious when the PR value of highly visible and large buildings has to be exploited globally in different markets. It’s history now, but take Kazakstan’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Its description on F+P’s website never fails to appall.

As a non-denominational contemporary building form, the pyramid is resonant of both a spiritual history that dates back to ancient Egypt as well as a symbol of amity for the future. It will accommodate a permanent venue for the Congress, and houses a 1,500- seat opera house, a university faculty, meeting spaces and a national spiritual centre. This programmatic diversity is unified within the pure form of a pyramid, 62 metres high with a 62 x 62-metre base.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan said he wanted a pyramid and F+P damn well gave him one as it was “well suited to the hierarchical nature of the program.” Sure pal.

Google’s new tent has a similar “top-down decision” feel to it because it’s so un-demonstrative and therefore unlike anything either Heatherwick or Ingels have produced in the cause of furthering their respective brands. From what we’ve come to expect of Heatherwick’s output, it’s not weird enough and, as far as BIG goes, it’s incapable of being reduced to a simple graphic for their website – though I’m sure someone’s trying. It’s easy to imagine Googleboss calling the two of them into his office and saying “I want something the opposite of Apple’s donut!” How it’s played to the media is not his problem.

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Image courtest of mercenary imagineers MIR

And here it is on YouTube where everything is these days. I was reminded of BIG’s Baku mountains, but that could be just me. Must give credit where it’s due though. The two of them are catching some very big fish of late.

Googleguy David Ratcliffe adds, “Tech hasn’t really adopted a visual language for buildings.” Oh yeah?

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Meanwhile, this postmodern age drags on. OMA’s Beijing CCTV building showed it’s not possible to police meanings in any meaningful way. People deviate from the script to invent their own.
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In response to a 2009 story titled “Architectural Pornography?” at http://newsjunkie.bdonline.co.uk/2009/08/26/architectural-pornography/ OMA denied that the Beijhadquarters building [and its adjacent Mandarin Oriental Hotel] represented anything other than “a positive and shining expression of a changing world order.” People have been saying for decades that any building taller than it is wide is a phallic symbol, so it’s not surprising that we now have a corollary along with its allegedly pornographic implication. 

Like Lord Foster who also keeps his head down when it comes to what his buildings might actually mean to commoners, Koolhaas never objected when Jencks wrote [p.111 of his The Iconic Building] of his CCTV building

“the distant view looks like a moon gate, the ornamental surround that punctuates every Chinese garden. This frame also bears resemblance to the pi-shape that goes back to the origins of China, a form that was normally made in bronze or jade. Even more suggestive is the exposed structure. This recalls the famous Chinese bracket construction, as well as the lattice windows that can be found in traditional homes”.

If I remember rightly, I believe Koolhaas’ wife produced some of the illustrations. All of the above associations may well be true for Jencks and I have no problem with that – he can write what he wants – but I’ve also no interest in whether or not this building suggests something far less esoteric and infinitely more universal to others, Chinese and the rest of the world included.

But by his now historic silence to Jenck’s gushings, Koolhaas showed had no problem with his building being labelled an enigmatic signifier yet he was later compelled to say its shape had no hidden meanings. But he can’t say that. He can only say it has no hidden meanings he was aware of having designed into it. This shows him to be a post-modernist – someone who believes meaning is something architects design into a building, and not something people ascribe to a building. 

This website encourages people to post images of what the CCTV building means to them. This may be against the spirit of Post Modernism but it’s fully in line with Post-structuralist Pluralism where  ‘building as text’ is read as what YOU want it to read, not what an architect says it does (or does not). At one stage, “Big Underpants” was favourite. 

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We either have to accept that architects design meanings into buildings, or that people are free to make whatever associations they choose. Jencks’ track record places him clearly in the former camp. Remember double coding? One meaning for the cognoscenti and another for the hoi-polloi? And how clever architects were for sneaking in some intellectual allusion ‘under the radar’ of the less knowing? 

This was all very eighties when you think of it. Suddenly, there was a apparent freedom of choice as to what buildings could mean but there was still an elite imagining themselves in charge of what the choices were. It also mirrors the political-economic concept known as ‘privatisation’ – another eighties concept architecture is still suffering the consequences of.

Architects may enjoy the plaudits when they make a good design call that happens to “resonate” with a local audience and that bounce around the internet and reverberate in their own way and to their benefit back home, but they simply have to take it on the chin when people think for themselves. 

• • •

This next image appeared on the RIBA website to illustrate the news that the 2016 annual Charles Jencks Award went to Niall McLauglin. The essential shed-ness of this building made me think McLaughlin was a good choice for an award but that this was perhaps the wrong award.

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On second thought, I’m not so sure.

The metal shed roof is a red herring for, in time-honoured tradition, this building uses excess to represent simplicity. “Why does a building above water needs guttering in the first place?” is a question worth asking. It could be to stop rainwater from destroying the timber beams supporting the guttering. [!?] Or it could be the real function of the unnecessary guttering is to extend past the roof to complete the parallel line of the deck and so bring out its essential Farnsworth-ness.

I’m surprised to find I don’t even care to find out what this building actually is or does – I’m guessing sunset-viewing platform, and that McLaughlin received the award for using tried and trusted references to indicate the presence of serious money and property to some, and to represent economy, simplicity and appreciation of nature to others.

Different strokes, as ever.

Brands as Architectural Legacy

I never expected to look back at the 1990’s and think it was a kinder, gentler era.

Behind the Postmodern Facade
Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America
Magali Sarfatti Larson, 1993

How architecture has changed and how the systems for its production have changed along with it is an important topic but the book itself is somewhat dated. This post will attempt to update it but first, a bit of background.

Many people imagine the making of buildings to take place in a situation where a group of architects is happy working away for a figurehead personality who is the creative force. This is partially correct.

Le Corbusier

In the case of Le Corbusier however, we’re not even aware of there ever having been an office and a largeish team of people getting all those buildings drawn, detailed, site-managed and built. History is only concerned with authorship and not the process or mechanics of getting it done. On the other hand, with Le Corbusier, we can reasonably suspect he was the author of projects attributed to him.   

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Who were these people? What happened to them?

Frank Lloyd Wright

With Frank Lloyd Wright, the contributions of employees such as Marion Griffin have been systematically underrated or misaccredited. It wasn’t he who did those lovely drawings he took on his extended trip to Europe.

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Of the Taliesin alumni, John Lautner is the one who most made a name for himself. As mentioned in What happens when architects die?, Wright’s office continued on for a while after the posthumous completions were exhausted.

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The Architects’ Collaborative

In Dessau, Walter Gropius detached the teaching of architecture from its documentation and construction quite literally as well. The much-photographed design students and their various antics in the workshop and studio buildings were architecturally separated from the income-generating students learning drafting and construction skills in the standard classrooms of the technical school.  

In America, Gropius extended this innovation into the professional sphere by detaching the promotion of architectural ideas from their generation, allowing figurehead personalities to sell themselves and their brand without having to be involved with the tiresome processes of building creation, documentation and construction. [This seems to have been a consistent and lifelong theme of his.] The Architects’ Collaborative (1945-1995) consisted of seven architects led and guided by Walter Gropius as figurehead personality. It’s impossible to name any member who was not Walter Gropius. 

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Originally, each of the eight partners [!?] would hold weekly meetings on a Thursday to discuss their projects and be open to design input and ideas. However, as the firm grew larger there were many more people on a team and it was more difficult to consolidate into one group. Therefore, many other “groups” of architects within the firm were formed and carried out the same original objective.

The status quo

This system of nested hierarchices is what we have today with offices divided into teams with a team leader and those who execute their instructions.  

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A design idea is still likely to come from a Head of Architecture outside the team, but more likely to have met the clients and had a hand in winning the commission in the first place. When a job is landed, the Head of Architecture assesses each team’s skills and stage of completion of their project, and chooses to either reallocate staff or projects or, if the project is a major one, to cannibalize teams and configure a new one having the appropriate skills and size.

Frank Gehry

At Frank Gehry’s office, designers are encouraged to design in the style of Frank Gehry and those designs are then run by him for approval. Sometimes he even changes them completely [!], it is said. This is no different from any commercial practice with a house style.

Of course it’s frustrating for workers to be taken off one job and assigned to another so, in order to motivate those who became architects because they wanted to design, they’re tossed occasional design bones in the form of an internal competitions for some new project. They work on this in their own time and so reveal to their boss the degree to which they have bought into the myth of the ambitious yet overworked and underpaid creative.

The system initiated by Gropius has left us a situation where it’s no longer obvious where architectural ideas are coming from. This has its advantages. If a practice wants to win work from high-profile competitions, one design brain simply isn’t enough.

Has there ever been a time in the history of architecture when there are so many competitions? This is where the theme of the book at the head of this post becomes relevant. An environment rich in competitions produces a system of architectural production exquisitely evolved (with all the pros and cons that that implies) to produce architectural firms that feed off them. Competition-driven practices like to call themselves research-driven practices. They also like to tell us they are research-driven practices as this makes it seems a noble endeavour to have much activity yet nothing to show for it. Clients, for their part, like competitions not only because they increase their options and allow for a ‘prescreening’, but also because the promotional efforts of several practices contributes to the media circus that anyway surrounds high-profile competitions. [c.f. Celebrity Shootout] It’s a symbiotic relationship.

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Back in the 1990s, practices that could afford to, formed ‘elite’ teams for the purpose of winning competitions, but when the ideal form of practice becomes the kind that produces the kind of architecture that wins competitions, every project starts to be treated as a competition and all staff start to get tossed design bones on a regular basis in order to keep them keen. This leaves figurehead personalities free to concentrate on curating those ideas and marketing them, and the workers happy to generate concepts and live the dream. A large number of interns guarantees low overheads, a freshness that grizzled and experienced staff don’t have and, importantly, wild ideas that, if ever realized, make us wonder anew at the mystery of architecture by making us redefine yet again what it is a building can be. Over and over again. It’s a new kind of hell, basically. 

OMA

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Occasional reports such as this by a former intern at OMA’s Hong Kong office do the media circuit. The story is always the same. Intense. Long hours. Pressure. Exilarating. Unforgettable. Burnout. 

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Bjarke Ingels describes his experience at OMA in these now standard terms and, despite claiming to have left because he disapproved of the relentless pressure to produce, seems to have replicated OMA system of battery farming ideas for buildings. He now describes himself as a curator of ideas.

 • • •

Many employees, especially those who have just graduated, accept such high-pressure work as normal until they realize they are 1) overworked, 2) underpaid, and 3) under-appreciated. It’s not just the minions. Senior staff also jump ship if they have observed the food chain long enough to understand how it works and have come to the conclusion “I can do that!” They’re not driven by the desire to create architecture but by the desire to have the benefits of  having their own branding machine. [c.f. Monetising Architectural Fame] Ken Shuttleworth famously departed Foster + Partners in 2004 to set up MAKE. How many of F+P’s designers jumped with him was never made public but rumours at the time put it around 30%. Within weeks, MAKE’s debut press release was a multicoloured building conspicuously shaped not like a gherkin.

Architecture Building of The Vortex in London by Make Architects copy

Equally sensationally, Joshua Prince Ramus, departed as head of OMA’s NY operation in 2000 to set up REX. The then website took pains to put some distance between them and OMA. Their current About page is not much different.

We design collaborations rather than dictate solutions. The media sells simple, catchy ideas; it reduces teams to individuals and their collaborative work to genius sketches. The proliferation of this false notion of “starchitecture” diminishes the real teamwork that drives celebrated architecture. REX believes architects should guide collaboration rather than impose solutions.

We replace the traditional notion of authorship: “I created this object,” with a new one: “We nurtured this process.”We embrace responsibility in order to implement vision.The implementation of good ideas demands as much, if not more, creativity than their conceptualization. Increasingly reluctant to assume liability, architects have retreated from the accountability (and productivity) of Master Builders to the safety (and impotence) of stylists. To execute vision and retain the insight that facilitates architectural invention, REX re-engages responsibility. Processes, including contractual relationships, project schedules, and procurement strategies, are the stuff with which we design.

Former OMA partner Ole Scheeren has trod the same path.

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ZHA

Of all the OMA spawn, ZHA is unique in leaving no confusion as to where authorship lies – although the definition of authorship is stretched somewhat when the original creative idea is not even called a concept. 

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It is called an irritant – in the hope of evoking notions of oysters and pearls and of something initiating a process to creates something of value. The big advantage of the irritant is that it allows its generator to technically claim the right to be recognised as author.

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If one is going to stop one’s best people drifting off to set up shop for themselves, it pays to keep them on a long leash. Shohei Shigematsu, current partner and head of OMA’s NY operation since 2008 is allowed to outline his plan to bring new dimensions to the NY OMA brand. Let’s see how that goes.

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There’s no denying the number of people who have worked for OMA and thought “I can do that!”

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OMA seems destined to never become the brand umbrella of architectural design in the same way that LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) is for luxury goods, or architecture behemoth AECOM is for the less glamorous side of the building business.

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I’ve come to admire Asnago & Vender all the more for buying into none of this. Instead, they left us a large and coherent legacy of useful buildings designed and built over five decades, mostly in the same city. I admire them for refusing to conceive of their buildings as vehicles for their self-promotion. They made themselves a reputation, not a brand. This distinction is no longer important. It’s not even that having a strong brand is now seen as better than having a good reputation. Having a strong brand is seen as an end in itself. Nothing else exists or matters.

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23 Oct. 2016: Thom Brisco kindly tweeted me this today, saying it gives “an insight on the Corb-gap from Polish-born Swedish architect Léonie Geisendorf who worked in his office in the 1930s.” It does indeed. 

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Keeping it Real

If the history of the decline and fall of architecture ever gets written, it’ll mean we finally cared enough to learn from it, perhaps even restore it to being a noble activity. In that history, the name of Philip Johnson will feature prominently for introducing into architecture now-standard practices such as equating celebrity with worth and detaching publicity from truth. Johnson didn’t invent these practices but he did show architects how to use them. He was awarded the first Pritzker Prize in 1979.

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Rockefeller Guest House, Philip Johnson, 1950

Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House was never going to be a house as the rest of us might imagine one to be. There’s a kitchen, but it’s not part of the architecture. There’s stairs, but to where we don’t know. It’s another Johnsonian salon, this time for Blanchette Rockefeller to show art and groom guests into becoming MoMA patrons. It was she who called it her Guest House. A certain type of extremely wealthy person understands how the display of very little can be both opulent and understated at the same time. Blanchette Rockefeller was one of those persons, as shown by her pearls and simple neckline in this 1996 photograph by Bill Cunningham.

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Rockefeller Guest House has an existence as architecture yet there’s zero evidence of its ever having been designed, documented or constructed as a building. I’ve never seen an upper floor plan, let alone a basement plan or a section. Even the building volume lacks conventional justification. Philip Johnson claimed the second floor was only added to give the house more presence from the street, thereby indicating to everyone his sensitivity to aesthetic problems and his ability to solve them regardless of cost. Money well spent is the message.

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The Landmarks Preservation Commission report of 2000 repeats Johnson’s claim and, although it gives it equal importance, does provide some new information .

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Even the Landmarks Preservation Committee has no interest in the second floor. I assume the street facade of that second floor does interest them otherwise we’d have the curious situation of a landmark without presence. Anyway, those unheated bedrooms face the interior courtyard across a flat and inaccessible roof. In this next photograph is all you and I are ever going to see of them.

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The image shows the stairs leading up to the first floor corridor spanning the width of the building immediately behind those curtains. Opening off that corridor are either three doors – one for each bedroom and one for the bathroom – or, alternatively, there is one central door leading to a lobby with three more doors. This would mean that going to the bathroom doesn’t involve a nocturnal walk along E52nd should anyone ever open those inner curtains and not draw them again. But how any upper floor bathroom might drain is a mystery. Any internal drain would be visible and the ground floor walls of painted brick of course naturally show no chases.

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Behind the front door is the kitchen. Panels conceal it when it’s not being used and, when it is, they fold out to screen it and the caterers from guests being greeted at the entrance. When the house was in party mode, guests must have thought this crude screen charmingly bohemian. It encapsulates Philip Johnson’s all-too-influential concept of what architecture is and does, as illustrated by this next photograph with a cooker and kitchen fan representing the workers and services on one side, and a sculpture and plinth representing wealth and culture on the other. My money’s on the sculpture being a Gaston Lachaise – the sculptor of the friezes on the Rockefeller Centre. At least that was public art.

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Where the kitchen fan could exhaust to is a mystery as it’s not directly to the front of the house.

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What I find curious about this house is the disjunction between how important it’s supposed to be in terms of fallback contexts such as the first example of Modernist architecture in New York, Philip Johnson’s only residential work in New York and so on, yet we never get shown the upper floor plan let alone the basement, the existence of which is only obvious from the break line across the staircase.

If the upper floor plan wasn’t necessary for programmatic reasons, then why not just have a double height space with a thick window rail as implied by the elevation? In other words, why not just build at the outset what one wants to show, rather than fake it with curtains?

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Johnson knew people would believe anything he said. He could have answered “but the proportions would have been all wrong!” but this would’ve sounded like Mies. That Mies didn’t do double-height spaces was reason enough, though Mies was probably more annoyed Corbusier – Wright, actually – did them first rather than any distaste for their inherent wastefulness. Mies also didn’t do basements – most conspicuously for Edith – so neither did Johnson – at least not in public. Locating the basement servicing Glass House beneath Brick House eliminates the need for a tacky trapdoor.

The preservation report I mentioned earlier, refers to Rockefeller Guest House as having the same volumetric configuration as the previous 1870 house, and that it had a full basement. The kitchen fan might then be ducted down and into the basement and then out through the non-historic metal grate in the footpath.

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Perhaps the original basement had a coal chute opening onto the street where the non-historic metal grate now is. We must remember that the term non-historic, in this case, means anything that’s not a part of the house being considered by the Landmarks Preservation Committee and, perversely, not anything that might have been there before.

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The report also mentions that the drawings for Rockefeller Guest House were submitted for approval as alterations to the 1870 house and this is an interesting for it means the Rockefeller Guest House would have had to retain those original building volumes. Submitting plans for approval as alterations is a clever call for various practical reasons but it does change how we view those volumes. We now know why Rockefeller Guest House has a basement, a second floor, and an internal courtyard.

One works with what one has. The space between the building and the outhouse (where the bathroom still is) was made to appear as if it were a consciously-contrived design feature. The presence of the basement and any unpleasant associations to Old World architecture and/or utilitarian concerns was simply denied. And rather than admit the history of the building and that what we saw was less than 100% original design, Philip Johnson invented a disingenuous and self-serving reason for the existence of the second floor. Merely ensuring a building has bedrooms and bathrooms does nothing in the way of personal or architectural myth making.

Philip Cortleyou Johnson lied about the second floor being there to create a presence on the street. He never looked back.

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Philip Johnson Birthday Celebration, Four Seasons Restaurant, New York, New York, July 9, 1996
Seated on the Floor: Peter Eisenman and Jacquelin Robertson
First Row: Michael Graves, Arata Isozaki, Philip Johnson, Phyllis Bronfman Lambert and Richard Meier
Second Row: Zaha Hadid, Robert A.M. Stern, Hans Hollein, Stanley Tigerman, Henry Cobb and Kevin Roche Third Row: Charles Gwathmey, Terrence Riley, David Childs, Frank O. Ghery and Rem Koolhaas
Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

The primary purpose of Rockefeller Guest House was to facilitate soirées for future MoMA patrons. Original drawings may yet show an upper floor with multiple powder rooms, and a basement having capacious cloakrooms for minks and a full caterers’ kitchen for churning out trayloads of canapés and brandy alexanders. If the history of how the architectural media failed architecture ever gets written, it will conclude that the internet only exacerbated what was already accepted practice.

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[This post was expanded from a contribution to OfHouses 18/01/2016–07/02/2016.]

16 Oct 2016: My friend Curtis tells me it looks like the first floor floor has sufficient thickness to conceal a 4″ waste pipe until it reaches the side wall where it would invariably be chased into the wall, brought down, and then led back to the location of the site’s sewer connection indicated by the position of this vent.

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Also, this is the only photograph I’ve ever seen with the curtains opened. We can tell now that the glass is frosted, that the corridor is about 1 metre wide, and that the leftmost third of it appears to belong to a room, although we still can’t say if it is the original layout.

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Also noticeable is the safety railing. I’m surprised it’s there as it doesn’t appear to be an historic safety railing. It’s still there though. That black box now on the roof suggests those upper bedrooms are now heated.

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18 Oct. 2016: My friend Jonathan tells me (in the comments to this post) that there is, or was, a clause in the NYC building code that allowed any building work to any building to be classed an alteration if the 1st (ground) floor was retained. This allowed significant advantage particularly with respect to planning requirements particularly into relation to site coverage, the provision of rear yards and so on. Although I suspect Mr Johnson was able to work comfortably with the municipal employees to resolve particular points of disagreement. What work might have been submitted to the Building Department in 1950 is probably of little value, if anything ever was.
The volumetric equality between previous and present is more likely to have been a furphy. Estranged Australian me googled furphy to find it was 

Australian slang for an erroneous or improbable story that is claimed to be factual. Furphies are supposedly ‘heard’ from reputable sources, sometimes secondhand or thirdhand, and widely believed until discounted. Wikipedia