Tag Archives: form vs. performance

New Ugly vs. New Cute

When it seems that everything that can be done has been done, what new territory is there left to explore? Shape has lost its ability to shock and amaze and, around the same time, people began to think it wasn’t really worth the money anyway. Nobody believed those architects quick to embrace laser cut facades and claim that Surface was the new Shape. All so 2009. Since then, we’ve had newer technologies with buzzwords such as “ceramic” or “3D-printed” so for a while 3D-printed ceramic facades were a thing.

IF we continue to demand or be encouraged to demand an architecture of spectacle that’s supposed to amuse and entertain if not exactly move us then, as is the way with dopamine and addiction, we’re going to need it in increasingly higher doses even if, or rather especially if, we only experience that gratification momentarily and predominantly online. Architectures generated from user considerations, pragmatics, site conditions or any other dimension resistant to imaging simply aren’t going to cut it. And being beautiful isn’t going to either. For one, we never bothered to pin down what it was, preferring to remain in the dark about it while clinging to it as a concept even though it’s not proven a very useful one.

While we were obsessed with Beauty, everything that wasn’t considered Beautiful was – binary creatures that we are – by definition Ugly if it aspired to be Beautiful or Irrelevant if it didn’t. The New Ugliness pretends to not obsess about Beauty but, by being an anti-Beauty, is still as controlled by its imagined rules as it was when it was aspiring to follow them. As a working definition, The New Ugliness aspires to pushing the boundaries of accepted taste I the hope we will mistake it for redefining it. Examples. I’ll start with the unashamedly and defiantly ugly. ZHA’s Antwerp Port House is a shocker. Designed 2006 but built 2009–2016, it was a difficult birth. Try as I may, I can’t unsee it so perhaps I can analyze it to death.

In a nutshell, the three Surface characteristics all look different from anything around or beneath the extension, and they also all have that early 20C Modernist sense of being “new” or “novel”. Shape is most forceful characteristic and the pattern of that triangulated facade the weakest despite Shape and Pattern aligning at the lower truncation and at the aggressive “prow”. The Surface characteristics are unquestionably Consistent, each containing the components of DETACH, even if 1) the superstructure muddies the effect with Colour capable of being seen as associating with either the sky or the water, and even if 2) Pattern is a bit Sketchuppy and not as novel or new as it’s hoped we’ll believe. Rock and hard place. The lower portion is overscaled and the upper portion is underscaled and both sit uneasily with the historic building but, if the upper part showed floor slabs and conventional windows we’d see how five floors of office space have been crammed into a height than three floors of the historic building below. It was never going to be happy.

DETACH is a separating effect that emphasizes difference but the two Placement characteristics are both uniting effects and this, I think, is the strongest source of the visual discomfort. Whether you think of this dissimilar extension as two parts or one, it sits squarely and symmetrically on the historic building even if the contrived gap between the two and that aggressive and directional prow make it look like it doesn’t want to. Things aren’t working together. The Surface characteristics of this addition are all independent of the historic building but the Placement characteristics are totally dependent on it. So, given that, how can we make sense of it? Is the new building trying to detach itself and escape from the historic one? Or is it trying to drag it into the future? There may be more ways. All the same, I think we’re all a bit tired of directional and dynamic architecture that, if you look away for a second and then look back, is still in exactly the same place. Photographs capture but a single moment in time. Video makes it less easy for us to suspend disbelief when viewing supposedly “dynamic” architecture. So, for that matter, would going to have a look in person.

Frank Gehry’s Luma Arles Tower is my next example. It’s a dog, no disrespect to dogs etc.

And it’s as dog from all angles, including above. We once thought The Whole was at least one part of our understanding of Beauty and that nothing could be added or taken away without detracting from that whole. If The Whole was “difficult” to achieve, it could well have been because it was a fiction anyway. Anyway, Gehry’s Luma refuses to play. It’s neither proof nor refutation of the whole whether difficult or not.

I’m sorry I can’t tell you where this one is or who’s responsible for it, but it shares some DNA with the Gehry above. It’s easy to see what the design idea was. You decide if it was a good one or not.

Jan 2, 2022: Many thanks to Pierre Eyban in Brussels who let me know that this building is in Amsterdam, is by MVRDV, and is known as “The Valley”. It’s by a highway and in an array of buildings probably designed to be appreciated at speed while driving past. Googie Without A Cause?

Moving on to The New Cute, Terunobu Fujimori’s been pushing these buttons for a while now. Here’s his  Tokyo Plan 2101 that was shown at the 2006 Venice Bienalle. It has, umm, a certain sense of whimsy missing in the Tange plan for Tokyo. Tange used to say “it doesn’t matter if it isn’t realized, at least I made them think.” This is a good sentence to remember. Fujimori could say the same. Both plans are marketing exercises but Fujimori was more aware of his being one.

Since then, Fujimori’s been busy designing cute and whimsical buildings that people want built. I’m not sure what this next one but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter. Offhand, I’d say it’s a library and community centre. First of all it creates a landscape and a depression in it through which people walk along a curved path to the entrance. It’s both strange and familiar at the same time. We are not talking about some brave new world. The building is very much grounded – there’s no anti-gravity stuff happening – it’s staying where it is. The colors are earthy tones. The windows are small and few and tell us this is no Modernist building. The shape is vaguely that of a mountain but the chimney tells us otherwise. The roofline is bordered with plants that don’t make some ecological point. We understand the size and scale of this building only by the height of the entrance door and the path leading to it.

What we’re left with is a building that looks like it was built and it inhabited by people not like us. Whoever they are they look friendly and we’d like to visit. This next building of Fujimori’s is less extreme but still manages a similar sense of whimsy. It’s his La Collina Omihachiman. This time we have a straight path leading to the entrance at the compositional middle of the building. Farmland, building and mountains are on-axis and each covered with vegetation. The high-pitched roof isn’t unusual for the Japanese countryside and, for that matter, nor is thatch. That pitch makes three roofs with regular geometry but that, like the mountains, irregular in shape and size. The windows and their relationship to this roof remind us that is not a mountain but a building and a very welcoming one. On the basis of my examples so far, the difference between The New Ugliness and The New Cute is that The New Ugliness attempts to update the old warhorses of weightlessness and modern-ness with technology and geometry whereas The New Cute goes for groundedness and an affinity with Nature that, importantly, can be a real one and not a representation. These buildings are what they are. I hope we’re seeing the end of the post-modern era and not some deeper level of it. Too early to tell.

This third example is another Fujimori building, this time a hotel where the building is a representation of Nature housing hotel rooms that form a virtual landscape for three hotel rooms that, representational as they seem, are still real buildings. I’ll write more about this one in some future post about building/fake landscape mashups. For now, it’s way cuter than BIG’s first mountain building and MAD’s recent LA apartments.

You might have seen this one on designboom or any of the other usual places. It’s the Dalezhiye Kindergarten by dika design for the city of Leshan in China. It’s still a proposal but our future could feature more colour and less self-similarity.

dika design are busy. This is their Lollipop Ideal Kindergarten in Yunnan Province, China, 2019. It may be pink, but it’s a serious educational building.

Here’s another dika design kindergarten from this year, again in Yunnan.

Here’s a link to a China ArchDaily article showing ten new kindergartens. ArchDaily being ArchDaily, you’ve probably already seen the same content in some other language. One of the ten is MAD architects’ 2017 Lecheng Courtyard Kindergarten. a

It’s not so cute but I include it to show that kindergarten design and the education of children is taken seriously in China. I’m always loathe to use the word playful with respect to the design of buildings because buildings do serious things and none more so than those that look after and educate children. It’s not surprising that kindergartens make good examples of The New Cute but behind all the colours and shapes are educational buildings with a serious purpose. How these buildings look actually makes little difference to what they do. Any childminding centre can look after children so their parents can perform the economic function of work but this emphasis on kindergarten design is to produce social capital rather than exploit it. However childish The New Cute might appear to us, children will grow out of it like they do clothes and toys. I’m looking forward to what happens when they do.

New Radical Pragmatism

Ev’rybody’s talking about
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m.

Art: Classicism, Romanticism, Expressionism, Impressionism, Primitivism, Futurism, Cubism, Purism, Abstractionism, Minimalism

Literature: Classicism, Romanticism, Expressionism, Futurism, Post-Modern, Deconstructivism

Architecture: Classicism, Romanticism, Historicism, Eclecticism, Expressionism, Constuctivism, Futurisim, Functionalism, Rationalism, Modernism, Brutalism, Metabolism, High-Tech, Post-Modernism, Deconstructivism, Minimalism, Parametricism.

I left out Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Googie not because they’re not isms but because they’re surface styles. We never liked them anyway and that’s sort of the point of this post – we think less of them because they’re not isms. Post-Modernism’s greatest invention was to be a parasitic ism. I included Functionalism and Brutalism because they have certain distinctive visual characteristics as a consequence of being physical objects, even though they weren’t designed to have those visual characteristics.

High-Tech’s pretty much the only exception. I suppose one could say “High-Techism” but it’d mean something different and minus the gravitas a bona-fide Art-ism brings. All the same, High-Tech does snatch at historical cred by claiming it is the heir to Paxton’s Crystal Palance, Chareau’s Maison de Verre and the more aspirational of the Case Study Houses.


(Patrik Schumacher makes a similar point over in The Autopoiesis of Architecture, but of course assumes – must assume – that architecture continues to have the gravitas attributed to Art in the first half of the 20th century even though it’s doubtful even Art has it anymore. Despite claiming that Architecture is a Great Social Function System separate from the Art Function System, Schumacher’s artistic notion of big-B beauty as “formal resolution” is one aspect of Beaux Arts thinking he finds convenient to maintain. I’ll have more to say on this in a coming post.)

Meanwhile, the names keep coming! Another recent one is New Radical Pragmatism. The reality may or may not exist but the name certainly does, looking for an reality to attach itself to. Lacking anything concrete, ArchDaily seems to think this isn’t an entirely random illustration. Such is the nature of dissemination of architectural ideas these days.

rad prag

The article, getting back to it, is a fair survey of x-isms where x is any adjective you care to name. For me tbough, it falls flat at the end with its lazy rhetorical question as conclusion. This is a device all too common in internet journalism.

The New Radical Pragmatist is meticulous in the appropriation of systems and factual data, so as to allow for outcomes to architectural problems. They embrace all forms of technological codification, planning and design-based policies, stratagem, regulations and economic constraints as the justification for design. They project manage and tick boxes. They play into the hand of the client by using buzzwords such as “Green Star”. A radically pragmatic architect will refrain from discussing the visual impact without fact; for example, the facade is “structurally efficient in its radical form as it only uses four different panel types made from recycled material”. Theory, conceptualisation and preconceived notions or retroactive research is not necessary to the radical pragmatist. What is important is the validation of fact. But this fact is commonly deriving from outside the discipline: from planning, from sustainability councils and from regulatory governing bodies. Which begs the question: are architects giving away too much in this new form of validation?

I confess I like this idea of New Radical Pragmatism, although it’s neither new nor radical. It’s what I thought I was doing anyway but in answer to that last question I’d say “No, nothing is given away.” With the new breed of PM/client/contractor, it’s just a fact that design decisions need to be justifiable.

The mistake the author makes is to assume that every design decision MUST BE EXPLICITLY VALIDATED IN AESTHETIC TERMS. I disagree for if  something gets approved and paid for because it meets certain criteria for certain people and (hopefully) appreciated because it meets certain other criteria for other criteria, then I don’t see what the problem is. Here’s an example.

In order to increase the sale price of a piece of land, I was once asked to maximise the apartment development potential on the historically sensitive site of Fort Pitt. As a job, it sounds like trouble, eh? Here’s an engraving of Fort Pitt back in the day, upper left. It protected not only the motherland but Chatham’s 18th century ship-building industry that prospered because there were lots of nice seaworthy oak trees nearby.

Copy of Fort Pitt copy

Fort Pitt was one of a series of coastal forts built when Napoleon was thought to be about to attack England. Fort Pitt is also the location of the fictional duel between Mr. Tracy Tupman and Dr. Slammer in Charles Dickens’ novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. (Citation needed.) Fort Pitt is usually claimed by nearby Rochester because of the Dickens connection but overlooks the more historic but less quaint town of Chatham more.

Here’s Fort Pitt nowish.


As you’d expect of a fort anticipating warships, it has a very grand view of the River Medway as it winds around.

City Way

That’s our site in that green triangle in the middle of the lower-right quadrant. For an architect, it’s a total nightmare. It can be seen from everywhere. Everyone and their councillor was going to have an opinion on what goes there.  aerial MAIN

In a way it worked to my advantage for a while as nobody had great expectations that anything could be achieved on such a highly visible and historic site. My job was also made a bit easier by some very unlovely educational buildings nearby. I could not build higher for reasons of added visual impact and I could not build outside the footprint for fear of disturbing the possibly important historical artefacts possibly waiting to discovered.

what happened

There’s more. On the train from London to Rochester and Chatham, the site is seen behind both Rochester Cathedral and Rochester Castle. That’s Rochester Cathedral on the left, Rochester Castle on the right. High visual impact was not what I thought was needed. In the middle at the back is my little building.

It’s basically the former Unisys building near Wembley Stadium.


Just after Wembley Junction, the train from Watford passes by these buildings at a distance and, as it does, the buildings appear to rotate slowly around their vertical axes. I’m not sure how to explain this but I think it’s because, as the train passes, the angular distances between the viewer and the ends of the buildings changes faster than the angular distance between the viewer and the axes. It’s a lovely effect – a genuine architectural event – and if ever you’re on the train to Watford look out for it on the right. Recreating that effect was what I had in mind and it stayed there. I kept it secret.

Instead, I generated a building within the allowable footprint and with a similar geometry. The curved buildings fitted the allowable building footprint better and the longer buildings meant I could achieve more apartments.

3420_003 RevC

I paid attention to public and communal open space requirements as well as parking ratios. I calculated numbers of apartments for various market and social housing parameters, with options for both five-storey and seven-storey buildings.


I did a quick plan to make sure I could get all the apartments in. I considered fire escape and disabled access & parking.


I stacked apartments of similar types for maximum efficiency of construction and servicing. HOUSING 1I had arguments and reasons for everything the stakeholders were concerned about. Nobody objected to how it looked, so I didn’t feel compelled to justify why the building really was the way it was. I thought it’d just be asking for trouble by announcing I wanted to make the project into something special and enhance the environment, etc. etc.

I almost pulled it off.

Since no-one was objecting, English Heritage suddenly decided to list the site as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, effectively killing all hope of development. Here’s what it looks like now. (It seems like the grammar school still managed to parcel off some of the site for new development.)

fort pitt

So there you have it. There’s no need for what you as an architect might really want and think ought to exist, to be made explicit as long as it can be justified to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. If everyone’s happy according to their own criteria, then why can’t the architect can’t be happy according to theirs? The drawback is that (and this will sound familiar) whatever your secret stealth design idea is

  1. it can’t use additional resources or cost anything extra (for if it get value-engineered out by some stakeholder)
  2. it can’t negatively affect the performance of the building in any way (for if it get value-engineered out by some consultant), and
  3. once it exists, it’d be nice if it was actually appreciated for what it is by the people who are going to have to live with it

* * * 

The reason why author of the article that prompted this post, asked that silly rhetorical question is because she can’t imagine a world in which a design idea exists without the communications that market it. For her, a design idea which can’t have a promotional song and dance and that doesn’t play a part in some grand brand promotional strategy isn’t a design idea worth having. Such an attitude only serves to reinforce the perception that good design is expensive and unjustifiable on any grounds other than aesthetic. For me, I like it when stakeholders approve design ideas without actually realizing they’re looking at one.

It’s like what Christo (of Christo and Jean-Claude) says of their artworks. I paraphrase, “the finished product is nice but the real art is in overcoming the infinite obstacles to achieve it.” I get that.

* * * 

Postscript: I left out part of the story because it would have been a diversion too long and too far. After my proposal had been granted planning permission in principle, the client invited two other architects to come up with alternative (less expensive) proposals which the project manager asked for my thoughts on. Here’s that letter. I include it just as an illustration of what architects have to do. You know how the story ended. This bit was just missing from the middle.

Not the Sagrada Familia

Antoni Gaudí is credited with having a school built on the site of La Sagrada Familia.

not the sagrada familia

That’s it bottom right. Nobody’s telling us if this school is there out of true concern or the display of concern in order to boost donations. You may think this cynical of me, but if I were soliciting donations from the pious in order to fund a building program for a cathedral, I’d also want to construct the heavily encrusted Nativity Facade first to give patrons a sense of being there at the beginning of a story in the hope they’ll stick around to help fund the end of the story as well. It’s a funding strategy. I don’t think Gaudí was stupid.

nativity facade

All the same, I don’t think many of his patrons were there to see the inauguration of the Passion (west) facade but this post is not about the Sagrada Familia. This is about the school.

Perhaps the school is there as a planning concession (a.k.a. planning gain) in the same way developers today pay for libraries and parks under Section 106 agreements in the UK. It happens.

Or perhaps it’s there as a creche for co-parenting fathers. In 1910 Spain? This would eliminate the school run and reduce traffic congestion. It did say that Gaudí was ahead of his time. School from sunrise to sunset must have been a bit harsh but still preferable to being a chimney sweep as had been legal in England until 1875.

Or perhaps Gaudí was just being politically correct. Political correctness was to have various meanings over the following seventy years in Spain, but … it did say that Gaudí was ahead of his time.

Me, I think that if Gaudí was that ahead of his time, he’d surely have given a bit more thought to health and safety and not put an elementary school on a construction site. They’re dangerous places, especially for kids. To be fair, there’s not much construction or schooling happening in this next image.


When it was schooly though, it was very very schooly as this publicity shot shows.

in school

Fortunately, this post is only concerned with the integrated structure, materials and construction that, for me, as a Gaudí agnostic, were a bit of a surprise. Here’s the plan.


Here’s the geometry that links shell and its elevations.


And here’s a CAD model, because that’s what people do these days.

structural diagram

The building was relocated to its current position in 1985. This gave people the opportunity to pull it apart and rebuild it. You get the idea.

And here’s some current general views of it, give or take a few weeks.

The double-curvature walls support a double-curvature roof. Openings in the walls are heavily linteled to not upset the flow of forces.

Using inexpensive materials economically and to maximum structural effect was an aspect of Gaudí I’d never known. Using the inherent strength and economy of double curved surfaces for (at least ostensibly) social ends makes Gaudí the predecessor of misfits’ favourites Eladio Dieste and Laurie Baker. It’s such a shame Gaudí went over to The Dark Side. This school shows he could do it when he wanted. It’s worth a look.


The Process Behind A Better Architecture Building STACEY #1: Site

A result of all these thoughts is till now one project. We gave it a code name of STACEY. It was basically for my graduation project, which was for 2 semesters; the 1st semester being for the theory bits, and the 2nd semester being for the practical bits. STACEY was submitted for 2 competitions so far; SRD 2010, and Holcim Regional Awards 2011. It did not win anything with the SRD (sadly), and we’re still waiting for the Holcim results which should be out in June/July. Through these posts, I am going to track down the process of engineering Stacey, from the very beginning. Let’s get started.

The unique thing about Stacey is that all its components have been designed in-parallel. That is, for example, while we were doing some simulations to calculate the amount of heat that gets into the building through the exterior walls and windows, we were also considering the amount of light that comes through these windows. The ultimate result would be walls and windows that have a low u-value, as well as windows that have a high VLT value (relative light transmittance) to allow for maximized daylighting. This way of engineering has been followed for all the components of the buildings, to ensure that no component compromises the performance of another, and instead, adds to it.

To take the initiative, I am going to start talking about the site. One of the 1st ideas I had was to have a “virtual site”, by which that building can be put nearly anywhere, and it could. But, because we wanted from the beginning to use LEED for Core & Shell as a criteria to follow for most of the decisions, we had to choose a site. LEED does not allow for the building to move at any stage of its lifetime, and the location should be decided.

Many factors did affect the decision of choosing the site (we’re not talking about making wanky statements with our building here; like making it more iconic from a certain street or locating it next to a mountain so that we can later say that its a natural extension to that mountain, which it wouldn’t). The site had to be close to at least 10 basic services (a laundry, a bank, a gym, a public park, etc.) The site also had to be preferably on a a previously developed land, and close to public transportation, as well as its contribution to decrease the heat island effect. Which, if you thought about it, would make up for a good site, that would benefit the people who are going to live in that building, as well as piece of land that hosts the building.

Al Karama Metro Station
Al Madina Supermarket

The site of the building is located in Al Karama district in Dubai, UAE. It has been chosen due to its proximity to local amenities, public transportation, not being a greenfield, and its ability to enhance the natural habitat.

The design of the site had taken many factors into consideration. Decreasing the heat island effect was a critical thing that had to be eliminated. The heat island effect is when a certain area of land has a higher temperature than it’s surroundings. That can be caused by have large areas of asphalt, or covering the roof with conventional low SRI value materials. The amount of asphalt on the site has been minimized to optimize open space and thus decreasing the heat island effect. That has been done through using a 2-level robotic parking system inside the building that uses at least 50% less space and 26% less energy than a conventional on-site parking. At that stage we didnt decide about the PV cells on the roof yet, but we did make sure that the roof was to be covered with vegetation (not so it looks green, but to decrease the heat island effect and the solar gain) or a high SRI material, which the PV structure later on contributed to.

Open space on the site not only contributes to the minimizing the heat island effect, but it also decreases the amount of storm water run-off, by absorbing all the rainwater into the ground. The plants used on the site are the traditional Ghaaf Trees (Prosopis cineraria) which require hardly any water to grow and their roots can find water 30m below sand dunes, which would contribute to decreasing the amount of water used for landscaping. These trees had been used to provide shade to visitor’s parking and amenity areas, as well as to enhance the habitat for less-robust plants and various types of indigenous birds and insects.

The traditional Ghaaf tree (Prosopis cineraria)

During the site design, we also kept in mind that in this part of the world, the optimum orientation would be East-West. That orientation alone decreased the solar gain on the exterior envelope of the building by 53%, which had a large positive impact on the cooling load.

Here’s the final outcome of the site:

Site Plan

This is the first post on the process behind the engineering of Stacey. There will probably be 6 more; energy efficiency, water system, apartment systems, daylighting, natural ventilation, and combined building systems. So, stay tuned!