Category Archives: REVIEWS

Four Walls and a Roof

“You can’t tell a book by its cover!” the adage goes. The front one of this book promises insights into the complex nature of a simple profession. There’s a photograph of an orange building that is seemingly simple but we know who this author is and where he’s coming from. In fact, we might not have picked up the book if we didn’t. We know the office he’s associated with has a history of using simplicities to represent complexities. Or vice-versa. In the early 1990s this was called “Dutch-logic.

I remember when architecture was described to students as MIDWAY BETWEEN ART AND SCIENCE and, more shamelessly, as A SYNTHESIS OF ART AND SCIENCE. In the intervening years it looks like we’ve moved on to architecture as THE REPRESENTATION OF COMPLEXITY AND SIMPLICITY RECONCILED.

Twenty or so lines in, de Graaf admits that some of the essays in this book were written earlier and that some were written with a book in mind – much like that other successful business development manager, Le Corbusier. I resisted the impulse to read the last line of the book but let myself be distracted by the back cover recommendations that span the whole gamut of architectural authority from Yale to ZHA. I thought it odd there was nobody from Harvard but, in the end acknowledgments, Harvard University Press is thanked for reaching out to him an offering this opportunity.

Patrick Schumacher: “This book is a frightfully funny and addictive read and probably not only for architects. For us architects, it is also a profoundly annoying account of our profession, debunking its pretensions, reveling in its ironies and paradoxes. The persistence with which it makes my hair stand up musty mean something: De Graaf is real rather than a cynic. Let me annoy him for a change: Renier, you are a brilliant writer.”

If Patrik Schumacher’s commits to print that he found this book “funny and addictive [as a Jilly Cooper or Jackie Collins summer bonkbuster?] then I’m inclined to think the opposite. In my impromptu sample of two, I’ve noticed that architects choosing to work in what I shall unfashionably persist in calling starchitecture, tend to use the word “ironic” to describe something that in any other field would be described as problematic or hypocritical. I wonder what about this supposedly simple profession is so magnificently complex?

At the end of the book is a list of content previously published. It would have been helpful to have had it upfront. The essays are grouped as shown below, with bolded numbers indicating previously unpublished content. The section, Powers That Be contains an essay titled A benevolent dictator with taste describing OMA’s perfect client but the following essay chastises HRH Prince Charles for his undemocratic interventions in the UK planning process, the difference being that HRH is not a client. The last three essays, 42, 43, and 44 distill all the essays into a satisfying conclusion as they were no doubt intended to be. They are probably all you need to read. It’s not a happy ending. An index would have been helpful.

[AUTHORITY] 1 2 3 4
[FOUND CAUSES] 10 11 12 13 14 15
[TRIAL AND ERROR] 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23
[POWERS THAT BE] 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32
[MEGAPOLI(TIC)S] 33 34 35 36 37 38 39
[PROGRESS] 40 41 42 43 44

Even before getting to the list at the back, it was often easy to tell which essays were written and published first and which were written later. For example, Chapter 2 is fun and gossipy. The question asked at the beginning of Chapter 4 becomes the title of the book and we are asked to ponder this question along with the author.

Chapter 5 is a short history of London’s Pimlico School. The author finds it ironic that social optimism manifested itself in a style known (in English) as Brutalism with emphasis on the brutal.

“It is ironic that the benign ideology of the welfare state chose to be represented by an architectural style known as Brutalism. The market economy, it seems, applies the irony in reverse, using a polished, politically correct architectural language to cancel an essentially brutal rule: survival of the fittest under the guise of good taste.” [p.27]

The author reveals which side he is on by not only perpetrating this misappropriation of béton brut from the French, but extending it to fit his analogy. Yet, I know what he means. It’s just that it’s not ironic.

Chapter 5 is a previously published and lengthy essay that follows the DDR’s plan to house its population in apartment blocks built from prefabricated components – a goal that was largely achieved in 1990 when Germany was reunified. A large proportion of the population relocated to the former West Germany, leaving many apartment buildings unoccupied. Gentrification of Berlin forced people to either move to or return to the former East Germany but to cutesy bungalows made from the salvaged components of disassembled apartment blocks. Four Walls and a Roof is thus a metaphor for the combination of comforting post-modernism and neoliberal market forces saving people from their four walls having to share a roof with those of others. The story is presented as a stylistic victory but the big difference is that the housing is no longer provided by the state. De Graaf admits that East Germans now struggle to afford it. Perhaps this is also ironic?

The middle third of the book is a bit dull, unless you enjoy reading about architects trying to drum up business with an unstable consortium of five landowners in London, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, or some opaque clients in an opaque selection process in Moscow. It’s difficult to be sympathetic if a person chooses to swim with the sharks. If this is the complex nature of a simple profession, then it’s only because the author has chosen to make it so.

A note on page 513 states that the names and some identifying details of certain individuals described in this book have been changed to protect their personal privacy. All mention of the BBC is avoided in Chapter 6. The media client that controls access to the rest of the project site is redundantly referred to as the corporation. NDA’s must have still been in place in 2017. The owner of a local shopping centre at the southern end of the project site decided to withdraw from the consortium and go it alone, the outcome being Westfield Mall. Architects would have known of the site and the brouhaha but few others. It made me think this was a book written for other architects and maybe the occasional student.

While I think of it, an architecture school in Moscow is referred to a few times as “our school” – as in “OMA’s school” but even though its location is mentioned its name STRELKA is not. This is odd. I can’t help wondering whose privacy or interests this protects.

Anyway, the London saga all took place just when I was about to leave London but de Graaf had already been in Dubai presenting OMAs proposal for the site that was to have been the centerpiece of Dubai Canal. OMA’s rotating building proposal was called Dubai Renaissance [Dubai Naissance, surely?] was a seriously over-egged slab on a rotating plinth, and with protrusions contradicting its slip-form construction. This is just architects trying it on to see if a client will bite but even pre-2008 Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai must’ve known that even he didn’t have that much money to burn and so the contract went to ZHA and their slightly less dreadful and apparently more achievable Signature Towers proposal that went ahead for a while. Until it didn’t anymore.

The last time I saw this poisoned chalice of a site was mid-2020 and it was still empty. Designed and created for a landmark to occupy, it gave architects the rope to hang themselves. De Graaf is right when he says “it is not what was built but what wasn’t built that is the best indicator of what the time was like”. I’ve said the same.

This whole practice of presenting monied clients with three images as visual options 1, 2 or 3 makes the business end of architecture easy. The person who makes the decisions doesn’t even need a translator to pick which one they want. This is why theory matters little in architecture and why, in architecture school, having ideas that produce flashy imagery counts for so much. It’s a response to what architecture is sold and to whom. It follows the money. It’s why architecture happens mostly in other countries and why the business development manager has so many air miles.

For all the media churn their various proposals for the UAE have generated over the past 15 years, the only building OMA has to show for it in the UAE is the over-egged yet underwhelming Alserkal Avenue art space. It’s a shed.

Getting commissions, and the problems and trials one has to endure in order to maintain a healthy office cashflow is the theme of many of the posts in this book. It is not the story of people trying to save humanity from itself. In Chapter 41, titled The Century That Never Happened, the idea is floated that the 20th century (which ended around 1975 with the “Conservative Revolution” [Rich people unite! Make your voices heard!]) was an historical anomaly with its crazy notions of equality and a more even distribution wealth. The implication is that the future after modernity will be much like it was before with architects condemned to work only for the wealthy, whether it’s a consortium of investors, a benevolent or even not-so-benevolent dictator, or an oppressive tech giant. It’s castles and pyramids all over again. De Graaf is certainly well travelled and well read – two things that go together in business class lounges and long-haul flights. He reads the room. Informed by Fukuyama and Piketty, he has an understanding of how the world works for those whose wealth is not generated by labour. He’s a wealth whisperer, as Chapter 38 reveals.

Close to the end, there was a reference to LC’s famous “Architecture or revolution? Revolution can be avoided.” This quote is generally believed to mean that good housing is a basic human right that should not be denied. Or it could equally well mean that the status quo can be maintained by keeping the little people happy. Nobody knows. It wasn’t peer-reviewed. The last three chapters are a decent attempt to make sense out of one’s life in the world of architectural business development. The answer seems to be to not think too much about the past. It’s one way of dealing with it. Sounds like a plan. I fear his reading is correct. The final sentence was “Perhaps, in the end, this is where history’s resolution lies: In oblivion.

For me, Four Walls and a Roof was best when it was at its most bloggy. Chapter 38, At Your Service: Ten Steps to Becoming A Successful Urban Consultant is written in the irreverent and confessional style of Sam Jacob’s blog How To Be A Famous Architect which, in 2009, was one of the inspirations for this blog. So much so that, the first title of this blog was misfits’ notes on architecture but I soon changed it to misfits’ architecture which is shorter but still not catchy.

The world needs more architecture bloggers and providers of independent content. Four Walls and a Roof would have been better as an insider blog these past ten years. I hope some day these words come back to bite me.

ZHA@MAM, Shanghai

MAM is an acronym of Modern Art Museum Shanghai where there’s currently an exhibition called CLOSE-UP of the built and unbuilt output of British architecture firm Zaha Hadid Architects. Four questions.

  1. Why in an art museum?
  2. Why China?
  3. Why now?
  4. Why?

Starting from the top, Marcel Duchamp said all you need do is put something in an art gallery for it to become art, or at least Dada art. By the same token, if you put a collection of architectural models, visualizations and images in a trade centre with only cursory descriptions and no plans sections, analysis or comment, then what you get is a trade show. I think I’ve just answered the other three questions.

Shanghai has many art museums and art galleries along that famous bend in the Huangpu River known as The Bund. The Museum of Art, Pudong was never going to be a suitable venue. It’s very central and highly visible but was designed by Jean Nouvel.

That’s it with the big window, just to the left of the red funnel.

The West Bund Museum opened in 2019 as centerpiece of a new art sector in Shanghai and is tops for art cred. It’s less central but has beautiful spaces and large galleries but was designed by David Chipperfield. It’s busy anyway May 1 to September 5 with a major Kandinsky exhibition.

Nearby PowerStationOfArt wouldn’t have been suitable were its exhibits not diverse, inclusive and educational.

Lastly, there’s China Art Museum which is China’s 2010 Shanghai Expo pavilion repurposed by a team led by He Jingtang. Its collections and exhibitions are mainly of modern Chinese art but, even if they weren’t, I can’t imagine a ZHA exhibition here.

All in all, ZHA were lucky to be in MAM Shanghai. Designed by Atelier Deshaus. Opened 2016.

Atelier Deshaus is little known outside China but they’re a Shanghai practice with a growing reputation for arts buildings, notably their 2017 Taizhou Contemporary Art Museum. They’re one of a number of Chinese practices reclaiming territory formerly occupied by foreign architects.

Over 600 art galleries and museums were completed in China last year. If architects’ career paths follow the progression we’re led to believe they do, then that’s a lot of career-starters.

MAM Shanghai is conspicuously located on the east bank of The Bund, a pleasant walk down the embankment and a 2-yuan ferry ride across the river. It’s not huge but the airy ground level space leaves you unprepared for the two upper levels into which the CLOSE-UP exhibition has been shoehorned. One gets the feeling the exhibition had to be at MAM Shanghai no matter what.

Cross section courtesy of Atelier Deshaus via ArchDaily

MAM Shanghai is an amazing building. An umbrella structure is used to suspend floors from the original structure. Coal was once carried by conveyor and loaded into the hoppers (that now occupy the middle of the second and third floors) and emptied into trucks at ground level. This ground level is fully glazed and has the museum entrance, shop and cafe. The floor with the angled hopper sides is also fully glazed, while the floor above it has solid walls. Its exhibition area is extended by fitting the hoppers with floors and making openings in some of their upper walls. One has a glass floor at level 3 from which you can see the café two floors below and the level above. Fascinating.

The middle four hopper uppers have been combined into a single space..

Atelier Deshaus took a disused piece of infrastructure that would otherwise have been demolished and, with an economy of physical and technological resources, extracted maximum value from it. I thought this the real future of architecture. Someone somewhere has surely written that the building maintains a connection with Shanghai waterfront’s industrial past, or has layers of time etc. but this is just interpretation for Western architectural media. Adapting this building was simply the most economical thing to do, a cost-benefit calculation as ever it is with buildings no matter how large or small, grand or humble.

Between the ticket counter and the exhibition entrance proper are four shapes suspended in space. This is your first and last opportunity to walk around a model and view it at eye level and in natural light. Already we’re being encouraged to think of these shapes as sculptures and not the oversimplified representations of buildings that they are.

This is probably unfair to sculpture since sculpture isn’t obsessed with denying materials, tectonics and gravity. Me, I don’t understand why a building should aspire to be sculpture in the first place but, if I had to guess, I’d say it’s because Art is one of the most cost-effecient ways of adding value to materials and since buildings can’t be paintings then sculpture it has to be.

The fourth shape is Serpentine but it’s hidden by Aliyev.

We’re told this is the first major exhibition of the work of Zaha Hadid Architects in China.

The Shanghai exhibition begins with two panels, one describing Zaha Hadid’s first trip to China in 1981 and tells us how impressed she was by Chinese painting and Chinese gardens and how the very next year she won the competition for The Peak in Hong Kong which is in China. The other panel describes the achievements of the commercial behemoth that is Zaha Hadid Architects today.

The disused coal hoppers occupy the middle of the exhibition space on the second and third floors. However, all window area on this second floor has been blocked to create more hanging space and a dark and tight space [hence the exhibition title CLOSE-UP?] Illumination has been sacrificed for hanging space. Rather than have the content compete for attention with the city and river outside, the decision was made to limit the exhibition experience to factors that can be controlled. This could be just control freakery but it could also be that the fiction of the models is more difficult to maintain in a real city in the real light of day. A bit of both I’d say.

A wall of photographs along the second floor end corridor commemorates the career highlights of Zaha Hadid the person. Architects generally don’t like having their photo taken with other architects. I didn’t see Rem Koolhaas or Philip Johnson but I did see Patrik Schumacher in two, Margaret Thatcher in one and, in another, billionairess property developer client Zhang Xin (Galaxy Soho, Beijing, 2012; Wangjing SOHO, Beijing, 2014; Lingkong SOHO, Shanghai.2014; Leeza SOHO, in Beijing, 2019).

Leveraging the Zaha Hadid legacy while downplaying its role was never going to be easy and this exhibition is a first attempt to tread that path. I understand why talk of creative evolution is now taboo but, even so, ordering the projects by job number would still tell us something about sequence without implying an end. Perhaps some future scholar will assign ZHA-numbers to the office oeuvre? For now, what we get is an exhibition arranged according to building type, with additional categories for interiors, digital, research, etc. Building categories on display include HIGH-RISE, CULTURAL, MIXED-USE, SPORT, CAMPUS & HQ, TRANSPORT and so on. There’s no HOUSING category because housing only exists as a program item in MIXED-USE and HIGH-RISE developments. A people practice this is not.

The word housing does appear twice in the Graph & Function Representation corner even if the act of living is treated with disdain. Modular Unit Detail: Pocket Living Interior is a hotel room.

It’s bad enough having to peer into dimly lit perspex cases and stoop to read even the inadequate descriptions but I’ve only just noticed that someone thought it important we know what the models are made of, as if the models themselves were works of art.

I’d been tipped off about the other project for Data Drive[n!], Algorithmic Housing. With this project, the spurious text “Undisclosed” makes me think the descriptions were lifted from business development manager project sheets.

Much can be said about this project because there’s sufficient information to understand it. Fire escape distances are satisfied and maximum travel distances minimized but I can’t see what “data” and “algorithms” have brought to it. Solar exposure has been “verified” but nothing done to equalize it. Given that the units are Nakagin-sized with beds up against the window, is facing six apartments around a 6m x 6m lightwell really a good call? The problem I have with data and algorithms is that we’re never told who chose the data, what weightings they gave it, and how the algorithm was designed to link it. Once again, we’re not seeing an over-concern for people. A more immediate grievance is that someone thought this ugly and nasty project worthy of exhibiting. Sorry to be banging on about this but IT’S THE ONLY PLAN IN THE ENTIRE EXHIBITION. People deserve better than this. Even in an exhibition.

Moving on, I saw projects I’d never seen before and now can’t unsee. I wondered what they’d be like to experience as a pedestrian.

All in all, the exhibition seems lifeless and out of place in an art museum. Property trade fairs such as MIPIM or Cityscape at least have a purposeful buzz to them. Art galleries do too when the purpose of the exhibition is to instruct and inform and visitors are encouraged to think about the content.

I recommend the Kandinsky exhibition at West Bund. The exhibition begins with a section on early influences (such as the Oriental art Kandinsky collected) and early works such as this one I’d not known about.

Around the corner was a section on the development of abstraction and I was pleased to see this next one.

Further along was a section on The Bauhaus years and how Kandinsky’s work changed again, even though his abstractions were now beginning to look quite representational. That section culminated in works such as these exhibition design sketches reproduced at scale in a room just before the section devoted to his final Paris years. Wassily Kandinsky died in 1944 but I left feeling I knew a little bit more about the artist and a better understanding of what he did.

ZHA’s disinterest in what information gets fed to the general public is no surprise to anyone who’s read The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol. 1. The firm admits no conceptual space for self-reflection let alone analysis or criticism from outsiders.

I’d seen this next model at 2007 Cityscape Dubai when the project was going to be an office building. I imagine it’s here because it’s a living fossil from pre-crisis times. They just don’t design them like this anymore.

“Located on a prestigious waterfront plot within Dubai’s new masterplanned Business Bay district, this gem-like Opus Tower unites has a diverse program of serviced apartments, luxury hotel rooms, commercial accommodation and offices. The building is conceived as a functional podium and cube which hovers above the ground. Eroded in its centre is a freeform void which is clad in tinted double-glazing, allowing views inside and through the space. Forming a key icon in Dubai’s skyline, the cube accommodates has 110 serviced apartments across the upper floors and a 96-room hotel in the lower floors, with offices sit either side of the central void. The podium levels house a range of bars, restaurants, night clubs and retail spaces as well as a beach deck with pool and shaded terraces. During the day, the cube appears full and the void appears empty. At night, a spectacular lighting design display activates the void and brings the space to life as an iconic presence in Dubai’s skyline.”

The model for Beijing Daxing Airport impressed me more than anything else, even if only because airports are big and serious and have to work well. For decades they were shaped like birds with long wings getting the most gates into the shortest average distance from the passenger and baggage handling terminal. This one’s a starfish for much the same reasons but, unlike a starfish, has a void at its centre echoing, I learn, “principles within traditional Chinese architecture that organize interconnected spaces around a central courtyard”. (The modern traffic roundabout is British invention of the 1960s but Paris’ Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile has been directing traffic from many directions around a central void since 1806.) I don’t know why things like this happen. Is it lazy PR copy? An over-belief in one’s own inventiveness? Or an under-awareness of what others have done? A lack of desire to engage honestly with an intelligent public? Not providing visitors with sufficient and accurate information prevents them from forming their own opinions. It works. A child is more likely to ask why this building is red.

I’d had enough. I left with the impression Zaha Hadid Architects can do anything and everything except design an exhibition. As I was leaving, the first guests were arriving for the opening of the REVERSO watch exhibition on the fourth floor.


NOTSOF [p.1-11]

Big thanks to Anna in Moscow who recommended a podcast to Victor in Yekaterinburg who recommended it to me when I was still in Dubai. I began with #70 – Christopher Alexander – 1/2 Notes on the Synthesis of Form. I’d read it before, or at least think I might have, as I remember sitting in a tutorial where Chris Hilford, our first year master, was trying to get us excited about it. I don’t remember anything of the discussion and nothing of the book except it had diagrams.

The podcast discussion is still fresh in my mind and so, 56 years after the book was first published in 1964 and 46 years after I maybe read it in 1974, I thought I’d revisit it and try to understand why people thought it so important. I can’t un-know everything that’s happened since so I’ll be reading it as an historical document and product of its time and place.

“In 1954, Alexander was awarded the top open scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge University in chemistry and physics, and went on to read mathematics. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture and a Master’s degree in Mathematics. He took his doctorate at Harvard (the first PhD in Architecture ever awarded at Harvard), and was elected a fellow in 1961. During this period he worked at MIT in transportation theory and computer science, and at Harvard in cognition and cognitive studies …”

I’ll stop it there. Alexander’s PhD was the basis for NOTSOF and hands-up I’ve not seen the actual dissertation but I’ll assume it’s the PhD plus some minor revisions. NOTSOF is said to have been required reading for researchers in computer science through the 1960s and, I can attest, for architecture students in the 1970s. But why? Let’s see.

The book’s argument is stated quickly and simply in the first few pages of the introduction which, not wasting any time, is given a title – The Need for Rationality.

Modern design problems are too complex to be solved by intuitive design methods suited to smaller and less complex problems.

In any case, the modern world is too modern and fast-moving to wait for vernacular design processes to arrive at solutions incrementally perfected for their time, place and available resources.

Design problems are like other problems in that they can be broken down into smaller problems that are then solved individually but it is still not possible to do this for large and complex problems.
Computers are good at solving large and complex problems that have been framed in a way they can solve.
5.This book proposes a way of framing those problems.

I’m uneasy about those first two premises because they’re exactly what Patrik Schumacher used to justify parametricism 50 years later in The Autopoiesis of Architecture. I’m not even five pages in yet I feel I know where this book is going. But there are differences. Patrik Schumacher would arrogantly reject any project data not relevant to The Architect’s Project [c.f. The Autopoiesis of Architecure Vol. I] whereas Alexander simply assumes the chosen project parameters are necessary and sufficient. Both claim their approaches to be more rational and efficient compared with those of intuitive designers who do it all in their head. I’m not going to say either approach will produce better results, but only that the two aren’t as different as they’re being set up to appear.

The book’s first sentence is “These notes are about the process of design; the process of inventing physical things which display new physical order, organization, form, in response to function”. The following three sentences tell us how functional problems are becoming more complex all the time and beyond the ability of designers to solve them, and the following eleven go on to talk about conflicts between performance, jointing, simplicity and economy in the design of a simple household object such as a vacuum cleaner. Alexander argues that “The need for simplicity conflicts with the fact that the form will function better if we choose the best material for each purpose separately. But then, on the other hand, functional diversity of materials makes for expensive and expensive joints between components, which is liable to make maintenance less easy.”  This is not necessarily true, as the quest for simplicity of manufacture could equally well result in fewer parts, materials and processes, all of which could conceivably offset other costs and without necessarily affecting performance. I know I know. It’s only an example and what’s the point of examples if not to mislead?

However, it is reasonable to assume manufacturers will always desire economies of manufacture though in 2020 we’re not inclined to think they’ll ever be passed on to consumers. Cynical us can also imagine a world in which quality or performance is sacrificed in order to achieve them. And what of durability? Alexander talks about design from the point of view of manufacturers and with no mention of end users. He’s either naïve in taking for granted that manufacturers will always work to satisfy the needs of consumers, or disingenuous in allowing us to think so. Consumers may appreciate performance but may also be willing to sacrifice it for purchase price. Manufacturers may be willing to sacrifice it for cost of manufacture. Alexander’s first diagram makes some very large assumptions.

Alexander can’t be expected to have known the postmodern counter-revolution was about to begin but, in the 1960s and even before, the strategy of designing and marketing automobiles to appeal not just on functionality and performance but on style and image was firmly in place. Performance, jointing, economy (of manufacture) and simplicity would still be of concern to manufacturers but manufacturers didn’t look back once they discovered consumers would overlook performance and function and even cost if they could be made to sufficiently desire a product. I confess to having owned three of these four products.

By 1970, Alexander’s first sentence stating that “design [is] the process of inventing physical things which display new physical order, organization, form, in response to function” was no longer true, if ever it had been.

Modern design problems are too complex to be solved by intuitive design methods suited to smaller and less complex problems.

In any case, the modern world is too modern and fast-moving to wait for vernacular design processes to arrive at solutions incrementally perfected for their time, place and available resources.

Design problems are like other problems in that they can be broken down into smaller problems that are then solved individually but it is still not possible to do this for large and complex problems.
Computers are good at solving large and complex problems that have been framed in a way they can solve.
5.This book proposes a way of framing those problems.

Moving on, we’re told the human capacity to solve arithmetic problems is limited unless we break them down into smaller problems and solve them. Plato said as much, in the frontispiece. So there.

However, when the problem becomes too large it quickly becomes beyond us and Alexander says – just like Plato did – that we need a way to describe larger problems in terms of simple ones. Using mathematics to illustrate the difference between simple and complex problems and the human ability to solve them is fair enough and, sure enough, any complex mathematical problem can be reduced to simpler mathematical statements that a computer can solve. Lest we think of mathematics simply as arithmetic, Alexander informs us (on p.6) that mathematics deals with questions of order and relation and not only with questions of magnitude.

For now, we’ll have to take his word on that. I’ll ignore the pattern word for which Alexander would later become known. It’s more important to state that now, as then, we simply don’t know the mechanisms and processes by which the human brain collects and organizes data, and extracts and makes what it feels or deduces are relevant connections between that data – but it does, and it’s called designing. If you want to replicate this process digitally, then you’ll first need to collect whatever information you somehow think are relevant, decide which you somehow think are important to the problem, assign parts of that problem a priority you somehow think is appropriate, connect variables you somehow think are connected and in the way you somehow think they are connected, and assign weightings to those connections according to how important you somehow think they are. This process may be digitized but that doesn’t mean it’s any more appropriate or accurate than the intuitive one.

The conceit is that the analogue and subjective world can be completely and accurately translated into data and sets and relations. This isn’t even possible for something as causal and physical as medicine. [If it were, we’d have no such thing as sickness or disease. People are on the case.]

Modern design problems are too complex to be solved by intuitive design methods suited to smaller and less complex problems.

In any case, the modern world is too modern and fast-moving to wait for vernacular design processes to arrive at solutions incrementally perfected for their time, place and available resources.

Design problems are like other problems in that they can be broken down into smaller problems that are then solved individually but it is still not possible to do this for large and complex problems.
Computers are good at solving large and complex problems that have been framed in a way they can solve.
5.This book proposes a way of framing those problems.

It’s true computers can solve many problems once variables have been converted into values and formulae but there’s no guarantee they’ll be solving the right problem or in an appropriate way, or even that the problem has been correctly identified and perfectly and completely converted into a form that can be speedily and efficiently manipulated by computer. Harvard PhD granters may well have decided to brush this huge niggle under the carpet but, for a book that came out in 1964, nobody’s said anything. [Who were Alexander’s supervisors, his reviewers?] To be fair, the same criticism can be levelled at the more intuitive design processes as both, in their own ways, skew data and manipulate it to achieve a desired result. The pseudo-rational design process creates an aura of objectivity and transparency while the psuedo-intuitive design process creates an aura of mystery and opacity. Maybe later chapters will clarify but, for now, it looks like Alexander simply wants to replace one form of hocus-pocus with another. Then again, this is how architectural theory usually refreshes itself.

Alexander was a mathematician and excited about the potential of computers to solve problems dealing with questions of order and relation and it must have been hip in 1960 to say computers were the future. In the early 1960s computing was an emerging technology showing much promise that, it must be said, has for the most part been fulfilled beyond expectations. A patent had just been filed for magnetic storage media that were to come to be known as disks but punch cards and punch tape were to remain the dominant means of data input and storage for at least another decade. Key punch operator was an occupation. The 1960s being the 1960s, you had to be a man to get to play with the big hardware.

Plato’s message may have been to break complex problems down to simpler ones but Alexander’s was that we need to let computers get on with it. Someone must have seen much promise in Alexander’s PhD because, soon after in 1961, he was duly elected a Harvard fellow. He was 25. He’d definitely created a product. It was still an academic one but potentially much much bigger.

It’s said that if you have a hammer then every problem looks like a nail. You need the nails to show how useful the hammer is. What Alexander did was provide those nails.

Modern design problems are too complex to be solved by intuitive design methods suited to smaller and less complex problems.

In any case, the modern world is too modern and fast-moving to wait for vernacular design processes to arrive at solutions incrementally perfected for their time, place and available resources.

Design problems are like other problems in that they can be broken down into smaller problems that are then solved individually but it is still not possible to do this for large and complex problems.
Computers are good at solving large and complex problems that have been framed in a way they can solve.
5.This book proposes a way of framing those problems.

The notion that design could be computerized was a powerful one with huge commercial implications as it would remove designers and their inexplicable and inefficient design methods from the process of design and construction.

It was the most industrially powerful idea to pass through Harvard since Gropius threw craftspersons under the bus of mass production.

On page two and fifteen sentences into the book is the following passage.

We’re now talking about design as the process of inventing physical things which display new physical order, organization, form, in response to function, but function is no longer about performance, jointing, simplicity and economy, but now encompasses ecology, human desire, social expectations, law & order, and food distribution. Alexander is not only implying that all these are candidates for rational analysis, but that he can extract and reformulate these abstract and subjective qualities as functional relationships. I don’t think this is possible and frankly I’m scared to think anyone thought that even though people still do.

I also thought designing a complete environment for a million people was a strange example of a design problem an architect would ever be asked to solve. And then I remembered Chandigarh – Le Corbusier’s masterplan for a city of a mere half a million people. In 1951, the Corbusier had been appointed to take over the city’s masterplanning and Chandigarh was mostly complete by the early 1960s – a period that perfectly overlaps Alexander’s PhD and the publication of NOTSOF. I’m not suggesting NOTSOF can be read as a critique of Le Corbusier. Without mentioning Le C-word, it is a critique of Le Corbusier or, at the very least, a critique of a design approach claimed to be intuitive and widely believed to be intuitive.

And nor is it a particularly veiled critique for, in a nod to the title of the introduction, the final two pages of the introduction are a critique of design decisions unsupported by data.

The emerging Post-Modernists were to accuse Modernists and their descendants of choreographing people’s movements within space [although Post-Modernists have never really been called to account for choreographing peoples’ emotional responses to it]. Harvard and the US architectural media marketplace were shall we say “receptive” to a critique of “intuitive” and “unscientific” – a.k.a. “European” or “Corbusian” design approaches, and especially for a critique leveraging the US’s computing superiority as the way forward. Computers promised to turn Alexander’s academic product into a commercial one on an industrial scale. In passing, future demand for new towns in India must have looked strong in 1960.

An appendix contains a “full” “worked” example for the complex design problem of a new town in India. I don’t know if or how much of the ideas contained in Notes on the Synthesis of Form were ever implemented in India or anywhere else, either with or without computers.

In 1960, masterplanning and big-scale thinking were growth areas for architects. Corbusier had his Chandigarh, Niemeyer his Brasilia. Kenzo Tange had just revealed his Tokyo plan and had Skopje in the pipeline.

Computers of course, were here to stay and it’s said (Wikipedia) that Alexander’s book had an influence on programming language design, modular programming, object-oriented programming, software engineering and other design methodologies. It hardly matters now if this is an overstatement or not. Algorithmic design has automated the less glamorous parts of the design process and parametric techniques have automated the more glamorous parts and in both cases the results are sent directly to production with nary a worker or craftsperson in sight.

That was Chapter I. Introduction: The Need for Rationality. We’re up to page 11. This is going to take longer than I thought.


Architecture In The Emirates

Architecture In The Emirates is one of those TASCHEN books with words by Philip Jodidio. Published on the 1st of November 2007, it’s an historic document. Given the book’s title, I was surprised to find it included buildings in Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The contents suggest Architecture In The Gulf Countries ought to have been the title but it lacks shelf appeal. Architecture In The Middle East suggests something totally different. Architecture In The GCC Countries won’t mean much to many.

The year was 2007 so the purpose of the book was to whip up excitement for rampant development and a world where anything seemed possible. Jodidio voices a few reservations in his intro but the overall and overriding message is how wonderful everything is going to be. The book is divided into chapters not by country or city but by 20 practitioners and their 32 projects. Odd.

This book once purported to show us the future. It’s now February 2020, some twelve and a quarter years on. Let’s see how much of that future came to pass. In the following, I thought it better to respectfully disregard buildings not in the U.A.E. than to disrespectfully regard them. Quotation marks around dates indicate stated expectations in 2007, but we will never know if they were ever realistic.

#1 Dancing Towers Abu Dhabi, AEDAS “2005–2010”

These are a rare example of construction beginning in 2008 of all years, and completing in 2012 but as Shining Towers instead of Dancing Towers.

#2 Pentominium Dubai, AEDAS “2006–2015” (2012)

Construction of this 122-storey building began in 2009. Completion was expected in 2013 but the holding company fell behind on loan repayments and construction stopped at the 22nd floor in 2011. A further nine years on, the building is as you see in in the photo at right.

As long as we’re talking about AEDAS, it’s curious their Dubai Metro stations weren’t mentioned as the designs (by a Serbian architect whose first name was Goran, still working at AEDAS in 2009) were finalized in 2005. I suspect they weren’t fantastical enough to be the future the editors of the book had in mind. I’ve always liked how the design visually absorbs and slows down the linear thrust of the track and its trains viz. the design is such that the stations look like places where trains will come to a stop. It’s also good that that’s all the design does but perhaps other people see that as a fault.

#3 Maritime Museum Abu Dhabi, Tadao Ando “2006–”

These two images from the book are still floating around the internet. The museum was part of the second phase of the Saadiyat Island development, now rescheduled to come after Nouvel’s Abu Dhabi Louvre, along with Hadid’s performing arts centre, Gehry’s Guggenheim and Foster’s National Museum.

#4 Strata Tower Abu Dhabi, Asymptote “2005–2009”

Construction of this 40-storey luxury residential building was to have been completed by 2011 at first, and then by 2013. I’m not finding any images of a completed building and can’t tell you where it was supposed to have been or if construction ever commenced.

#5 Burj Al Arab Dubai ATKINS 1994–1999

This is the one that started it all. It’s still there. Completed in 1999 it turned twenty last December 2. People forget how amazing it was.

#6 Acropolis Universe Behnishch Architects, Dubai, “2004–2005”

With a name like that, this can only be a concept for a sustainable resort city with a name like Senscity and planned for Las Vegas and that won an Architectural Review/Cityscape award in 2005. On page 58 is an amazing example of boomtime architect mediaspeak. It’s difficult to believe anyone ever took it seriously.

Rather than creating traditional buildings, the architects sought to design “elements firmly embedded in the landscape, including a large artificial lake and extensive vegetation. A series of 37-metre-high, 91-metre-wide “flower-like” structures were designed to provide shade and cool air.

The project doesn’t seem to have gone beyond what you see here. It might never have been intended to but you never know.

#7 Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Abu Dhabi, Frank Gehry “2006 – “

If this one was anywhere near being completed we would know about it.

#8 The Gate Building Dubai, Gensler 2003

This one is safely a part of Dubai’s built history now. It’s a very handsome building – probably Gensler’s best in Dubai.

#9 Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Master Plan Dubai, Gensler “2001–2004”

The Gate Building was the signature building for this masterplan that included a series of office buildings (mostly built), a hotel (built) and a retail arcade stretching in the direction of what was to become Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall. In 2008 ATKINS were appointed architects for the retail arcade and perhaps half its length had opened by last year.

#10 Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center Abu Dhabi, Zaha Hadid “2007–2012”

We’re going to have to wait a bit longer for this.

#11 Opus Office Tower Dubai, Zaha Hadid “2007–2010” (2019)

This one took forever but was eventually completed, more or less, last year as a hotel and mixed-use building. It’s almost there. The lobbies are currently being fitted, as are some offices. At night, the hole in the middle has an ever-changing twinkly light display. [c.f. The Vertical City]

#12 Signature Towers Business Bay Dubai, Zaha Hadid “2006 – “

I remember seeing some rather labyrinthine basement car parking plans but construction never began. The site was the very same one as Rem Koolhaas’ prior rotating tower. It remains empty to this day.

#13 Dubai Autodrome Dubai, HOK Sport 2000–2004

This exists as, amongst other things, what seems to be some sort of corporate go-karting place. The phase I building was probably completed in 2004 but, oddly, photographs are few. A curious inclusion. HOK Sport were to later design the stadium for the London Olympics.

#14 ADIA Headquarters KPF 2001–2007

This one is quite a landmark on the Abu Dhabi corniche. The image on the left is the one in the book, the one on the right more recent.

#15 Louvre Abu Dhabi Jean Nouvel “2007–2012” (2007–2017)

Completion was delayed but it exists and looks much as you imagine, although not much expensively dappled light gets past the many-layered dome. The image on the left is in the book, and the one on the right I took a couple of years back. [c.f. AD Louvre vs. LV Foundation]

#16 RAK Convention Exhibition Centre OMA/Rem Koolhaas “2006– “

RAK stands for Ras Al Khaimah, the northernmost of the seven emirates. UAE capital cities have the same names as their respective emirates. e.g. Dubai is the capital city of the emirate of Dubai, etc.

Even back in the day, I don’t think anyone ever expected this one to get built. Some called it The Death Star and, a few years later, it did circle around to show up in the masterplan for the third palm development at Jebel Ali in Dubai’s south.

#17 Porsche Design Buildings OMA “2007–2009”

I don’t know the history of these buildings but there’s something amiss when a design brand outsources the design of a building. It’s a missed opportunity, for a building designed with the intelligence that goes into the design of a Porsche is something I’d like to see. I don’t think it ever broke ground. No new images exist.

It looks like it was to have been somewhere across the road from the O–14 building. And that the large red “self-shading” opening in the office building faces due west.

In passing, here’s the O-14 building (Reiser+Umemoto, completed 2010), and a typical floor of the Porsche Design Buildings apartments. I haven’t seen one like this since Ponte Tower, Johannesburg, 1975. [c.f. More Poor Doors] It’s essentially a deck-access slab curled in on itself. The curiously contrived plans allow for studio, 1-bed and 2-bed apartments in the manner of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City.

#18 Automotive Complex ONL Abu Dhabi, “2006– “

This are all the images I could find of this one, and all of which are in the book. The client and estimated cost were never disclosed. The deadpan text describes it as an architecture influenced by speed.

#19 Manhal Oasis Abu Dhabi “2006– “

This was conceived as a destination city with the three major attractions of (1) a Cultural Gate with two museums and an Experience Landmark Structure, (2) a South East Gate with a shopping mall and wellness centre, and (3) a Downtown and Souk district with four 60-storey towers. I’m paraphrasing the breathless text, the meaning and point of which is now lost to us.

#20 National Bank of Abu Dhabi Abu Dhabi, Carlos Ott 1997–2000

I hadn’t known of Carlos Ott (born Montevideo 1946) but this building is decent and has aged well.

#21 National Bank of Dubai Dubai, Carlos Ott, 1996–1998

This is also one of Ott’s, is also a bank, and has definitely aged well. It’s convex facade compresses water, land and sky into a single picture. It’s a simple idea well worth copying anywhere with similar conditions, but I don’t think it ever was. It’s perhaps my all-time favourite building in Dubai and if I’m passing by I make sure I catch a glimpse of it.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

#22 Shams, Abu Dhabi Abu Dhabi, RNL “2006– ” 2012

Masterplans take time and are often the first casualties of an economic crisis. I can’t find the original images anymore, but left, below is an updated image of something similar to the one in the book. The image in the middle is googleearth and casting the long shadows at the bottom is Arquitectonica’s Shams Gate development. It won an award in 2009 and, at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Cityscape, was judged best completed mixed-use development in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region although only one half of the low-rise elliptical building has been completed.

#23 Burj Dubai Dubai, SOM 2004–2009

This happened, and was renamed Burj Khalifa.

Taken through the tinted windows of a Volvo XC90 the first time I visited Dubai in 2006.
Taken while driving a Ford Focus in 2013.
Taken from Dubai Mall Metro Station in 2019.

So what does all this mean? I’ve mentioned 23 out of the 32 projects in the book. The two notable omissions due to them not being in the UAE are Bahrain World Trade Centre in Manama, Bahrain (ATKINS 2003–2007), and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar (IM Pei, 2003–2008).

Of the 23 projects (72%), twelve were completed either fully or partially so let’s say 50%. This built–to-cancelled ratio stays the same even if I include the non-UAE projects. Of the eleven not built, eight were cancelled outright and the three rescheduled are Gehry’s Guggenheim, Ando’s Museum and the Zaha Hadid building in Abu Dhabi. Here’s the completed twelve.

1998#5 Burj Al Arab
#21 National Bank of Dubai
2000#20 National Bank of Abu Dhabi
2003#8 The Gate Building
2004#9 Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Master Plan
#13 Dubai Autodrome
2007#14 ADIA Headquarters
2009#23 Burj Khalifa (this could not not have been completed on time)
2012#1 Dancing Towers (delayed two years)
#22 Shams Abu Dhabi (delay not disclosed)
2017 #15 Louvre Abu Dhabi (delayed five years)
2019#11 OPUS Office Tower (delayed nine years)

Any survey of architecture in a place and over an era is inescapably as subjective as an end-of-year top ten list and the buildings I’ve bolded in the table above are ones I think ought to be included in any survey – an essential 5 out of 23. To be generous, I could add Arquitectonica’s Shams Abu Dhabi (#22) and Hadid’s OPUS Office Building (#11) but that still leaves two thirds of the book’s contents as either filler, bad calls or media ephemera. True, not everything that’s designed gets built and the book’s editors weren’t to know what would and what wouldn’t but can anyone say they seriously believed any of these three would? [c.f. The History of Forgetting]