Tag Archives: foster & partners

Celebrity Shoot-out

Representatives of four fairly well-known architectural practices pitch their projects for the limited competition for 425 Park Avenue. The original article is by Oliver Wainwright, writing for The Guardian, here. His article really says it all, but the original links were breaking so I collected them from Youtube and am storing them here for safekeeping. Enjoy.

Graham Stirk presenting for Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners

Remment Koolhaas, presenting for OMA

Dame Zaha Hadid & Patrik Schumacher, presenting for Zaha Hadid Architects

Baron Foster of Thames Bank, presenting for Foster + Partners

Man-of-the-people Norm won hands-down, as we know. Let’s see how he did it!

1) Know the competition.

OMA and ZHA are so used to lecture rooms, auditoriums and adoring audiences that it doesn’t take a genius to know what they will produce, what they will think is special about their project, how they will present it, and the attitude with which they present it. So be different! If they use powerpoint, you use boards. If they talk sitting down, you talk standing up. If they leave their jackets on, you take yours off. Clever!

2) Slow architecture

Using boards has several advantages.

  • A stack of boards is bigger than a laptop. It looks like you’ve done more work.
  • You can have your colleagues hand you them when you need them. This shows teamwork.
  • You can use a marker pen to make some insignificant point for dramatic effect. Once.
  • The presentation itself is more leisurely. The audience isn’t forced to pay constant attention. The project appears simpler and easier to comprehend, and this makes the audience not feel stupid. This is always a plus if you want them to be your clients.
  • The boards still have a presence, even when the presentation is over. You can’t just switch them off.

3) Put thoughts in the clients’ heads.

I couldn’t tell if it was a voiceover or at the actual presentation but the line about “”To be distinguished and notable, this building doesn’t have to indulge in a ‘look at me’ hysteria of sculptural shapes and so on.” seemed like pure, gloves-off, stuff. Maybe the others were horrified upon hearing that. Maybe they all got together later over a beer and some good-natured banter and had a laugh. “… and you should have seen your face when I said the bit about ‘look at me’ hysteria …” “Norm I gotta hand it to you – you got the better of us! We’ll get you next time!” “Yeah right – see ya in Shanghai next week.”

4) Provide grounds for comparison

When two of the competition are using the entire building to make their “design” statements, you don’t want the clients to feel as if they’re missing out by choosing you and possibly leaving themselves open to criticism for being too “commercial” or insufficiently “brave”. So give them something to compare. Give them a piece of architectural flim-flam that does the design statement “look-at-me!” thing, but on two conditions.

  1. Emphasise that it’s optional.
  2. Make it obvious that it won’t cost that much.

One of the posters on archidose wrote

Foster’s proposal might be ‘just’ ok .. for Dubai, south east asia, Mumbai – where the skyscraper is still beginning to evolve and the ‘roof element’ shines across the skyline … but why does Manhattan need those 3 ugly antennas on top!!? what was he thinking??

It’s not like that. It’s not about what Manhattan’s skyline ‘needs’ – as if sentient skylines evolve themselves to create a picturesque composition for us all to admire. It’s not even about what Foster thinks Manhattan’s skyline needs (although that’s what he’s saying). It’s about what the clients think they would like to see on Manhattan’s skyline for them to admire. It is they who want to say “look at me – that one’s ours!” and without paying too much to do so. I don’t see what’s that much different from Dubai. Over here, it’s the ostentatiously quieter buildings that scream look-at-me the most. Here’s F+P’s The Index. [Thanks cbtuh for the photo and further info.]


Each office floor plate comprises three 27 x 27 meter (89 x 89 foot) column free bays. These long span structures allow maximum flexibility for space planning, so that the levels are suitable for large international financial corporations or can be subdivided for multiple tenancies.

index 3

The reason why the three towers of 425 Park Avenue appear a surprise in terms of F+P’s oeuvre is that that particular design motif from the F+P Stylebook makes its first media appearance out of sequence. We should all be admiring it as a development and sophisticationing of the triple “penthouse” apartment blocks perched atop The Index which, as far as I know, hasn’t had an official opening. Large international financial corporations have somehow resisted occupying those uninterrupted spans. I do see some lights on in some of the apartments. Some have curtains.

index 2

But, to F+P’s credit,

The tower is oriented exactly along the east-west axis so that the eastern and western concrete cores shelter the floors from the harsh, desert sun and the climatic effects of the area. The concrete cores shelter the building from the low angle, highly penetrating morning and evening sun leaving only the South facade exposed to the high angle, low penetrating midday sun. The south-facing facade utilizes extensive sun shades to lower solar gain.

The Index is one of the first towers in the region to intelligently embrace its climatic surrounding environment within its fundamental design principles. The tower’s environmental strategy significantly lowers the requirement for air conditioning within the building and therefore substantially reduces the energy costs for its tenants. During the height of the summer, without air conditioning, the tower’s internal temperatures will not surpass 28 degrees Celsius. (W)

I’d like to see some data for that. The tower’s A Beast (albeit a lesser one than Burj Khalifa) and those celebrated cores ‘shelter’ only the offices to make for well integrated structure and planning on the office floors.

index-1The apartment levels don’t exhibit those fundamental design principles. Why bother sheltering the east and west elevations with expensive cores if a wardrobe will do the same job? Generally, the apartments fare less well in terms of planning terms but then, apartment planning is generally a moveable feast anyway. It’s usually possible to market an apartment’s shortcomings as a feature to someone. Note how

  • In eight out of the twelve apartments shown above, you have to go to another room to see the other half of the view you paid for.
  • 2m x 10m columns is serious structure. In the four apartments at third-points, you can get up close and personal with it in the comfortingly bijou living rooms.
  • To balcony or not to balcony is a false choice. It all depends how many times a year the windows get washed. It’ll probably be three times a year if the building owners wish to back up their claim to being a premium address. If it’s anything less than that, all a balcony means is that you will be looking through two layers of dusty glass instead of one.
  • In the plans for the corner apartments, we have dining tables for six persons but living room chairs for only four. This usually means too much space in the wrong places.

Overall, the planning is fair. F+P bathrooms and kitchens are usually exquisitely detailed. I’m beginning to sound like a property agent!



Learning From Flying Saucers

This post is about buildings that look like flying saucers. First up, is Matti Suuronen’s Futuro House from the late 1960s. They say only 100 were ever built but wherever I go in the world I seem to see one in some state of disrepair, and I’m not that well travelled. Weburbanist has some ultrafab pics.

And thanks mischief, for the floor plan – I’d never seen it before. Very Jupiter II*!

Next, meet the Evoluon – “a conference centre and former science museum erected by the electronics and electrical company Philips in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, in 1966″. They’ve got the look. Saucerish, strut-like supports, small and regularly-spaced peripheral windows, central domey skylight spacelight. Metallic. Even more Jupiter II-ish.

You’d think many other examples would be from the 60’s as well, but no – these alien buildings are still here among us, PERHAPS EVEN MORE SO! Here’s the Singapore (“To Superintend the Administration of Justice in Singapore”) Supreme Court by (“the building takes its cue from the scale of the neighbouring civic buildings, offering a modern re-interpretation of their colonial vernacular to convey an image of dignity, transparency and openness”) Foster & Partners, circa 2000. What can one say? – “Welcome, alien overlords!”

This jolly little building is the Biblioteca Sandro Penna (2004).

What generally turns people away from libraries is the ‘character’ of the buildings that contain these spaces, frequently evoking an idea of separation, of exclusivity and often a dusty and melancholic idea of literature. By contrast, Italo Rota’s Perugian library, which takes the shape of a large disc, presents itself as a foreign object, though a gentle and delicate one: it is similar to the optimistic 1980s vision of the extra-terrestrial ET. Its form and use of colour, its transparency during the daytime, and the light it emits at night create a new landscape.

Thanks – nice one Mimoa! Keep it up, Italo Rota! Next up, the Shanghai Expo Cultural Centre (2000). Who designs these things? Oh, here were are – Shanghai architect Wang Xiao’an. He won a prize, it says.

I like the way he evokes that “Close Encounters OT3K” lighting effect. Awesome.

More recently (2012),

Roberto Sanchez Rivera built his home in Puerto Rico to look like a spaceship, with lights and audio effects.

Back in high school, he decided that one day he would build a house that was unlike any other. And after getting a degree in fine arts and studying industrial design, he had the ability to do that. [!]

Thank you, New York Times Home and Garden. And thank you, Roberto. Party on!

* * *

What’s one to make of all this? OK. Flying saucer buildings are classic examples of Shape to Alienate. The idea of ‘flying saucer’ itself is an idea that contains a notion of being different – of not being from Earth, and also an idea of not being a what it is – a building, in this case. Whenever these two types of ideas occur together  without any visual OR conceptual unity, what we are left with is the appearance and feeling of “alien”. The idea of flying saucers itself isn’t novel, but comes into and goes out of fashion. It endures however, because ‘not from here’ has meaning for anywhere, anytime. Moreover, the idea of ‘flying saucer’ can be easily evoked by:

  • Colour (by making it metal and shiny)
  • Pattern, (by giving it round windows around the periphery)
  • Shape (by making it saucer-shaped, duh!)
  • Position (by making it look as if it’s just extended its landing gear)
  • Alignment (by making one direction no more important than the others)
  • Size (by either making it mothership large or captain-and-crew small)

Obviously [!?], the attributes of craft capable of intergalactic, interstellar or even interplanetary travel are unlikely to resemble those we expect of mere buildings. The environment in space is far more extreme than anything we can manage here on Earth. The most challenging environments we have down are occupied by structures such as oil rigs,

and polar shelters,

whilst the closest thing we have off Earth is the International Space Station.

None of these are saucer-shaped or streamlined to reduce heat build-up upon re-entry. However, all are designed to allow human beings to survive and function normally in environments that are hostile to human life. We might want to think more about this.

* * *


An Integrative Design Approach

Another problem with today’s architecture is the lack of an integrative approach towards designing buildings. What’s happening is that parts of a building component are designed without taking into account any other parts it may affect, thereby possibly affecting those parts in a negative way. I especially sensed this during my education at architecture school, and it’s not that different in the real world where the part that gets designed first is often the shape of the building.

I remember we were told to first come up with a shape for the building – a stage usually referred to as “3D”, and which came after the ‘concept’ stage. We had to come up with a nice 3D shape that fitted the concept we had chosen. Apart from fitting the concept, this shape had no other reason for being.

“3D” concept and initial form finding

However, in most cases, those shapes were altered until they looked “right” to the instructor and so weren’t even about the so-called concept anymore.

more “form finding”

Now despite all the problems I had and continue to have with that approach – and which I talked about here – there seems to be one very important factor that is neglected in this process and that is integration. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that the 3D shapes architects come up with at the beginning of any design are actually beautiful and actually do help make the building a better one. Would that beautiful shape not screw up all the other things in the building that are at least as important? I believe it would.

Let’s look at planning first. Planning is one of the most important attributes of a building, and yet it comes second to “form finding”. Planning usually gets done so that the building can be used once a nice form has been found, especially if the building is an iconic building at architecture’s high-end. We all saw what a terrible building you get if the planning hasn’t been so well thought out, as in Graham’s earlier posts on the Villa Savoye or the Unité d’Habitation, or my earlier post on the Villa Savoye where I described its terrible daylighting and thermal properties. Here’s another example:

Haramain High Speed Rail Link Station:

It was a competition entry by Atkins in 2008. The building’s “canopies” got me interested, especially when I read about their reason for being there.

In the sketch made by the architect, you can clearly see how the shape of the building was ‘inspired’ by that sketch, and how little it changed since the idea first somehow popped into the architect’s head. The “concept sketch” is usually featured on entries and posters for projects to show you how it all began and is generally regarded as a good thing.

But what this also means is that the design team, regardless of any studies or simulations they might have done for the project (since there’s a bit of talk in the description about cooling loads, daylight, and solar gain) did not use the results of that to optimize the building by perhaps changing its shape slightly, for example.

The canopies provide a bright, dramatic enclosure and reduce the cooling loads, covering a large floor area without introducing the need for daytime artificial lighting.

Well, I’m not so sure about the dramatic enclosure, but I think the cooling load could have been reduced just as much by normal shading devices that might allow better light into the space, rather than by canopies. However, as we know, doing this doesn’t show off your architectural skills and architectural solutions to “problems” so much, and you don’t want that as an architect do you now?

Another good example is the Swiss Re Headquarters in London (1997-2004) by Foster & Partners.

They seem to be saying in their description that it’s a good performing building, and that its shape actually contributed to that.

Conceptually the tower develops ideas explored in the Commerzbank and before that in the Climatroffice, a theoretical project with Buckminster Fuller that suggested a new rapport between nature and the workplace, its energy-conscious enclosure resolving walls and roof into a continuous triangulated skin. Here, the tower’s diagonally braced structural envelope allows column-free floor space and a fully glazed facade, which opens up the building to light and views. Atria between the radiating fingers of each floor link together vertically to form a series of informal break-out spaces that spiral up the building. These spaces are a natural social focus places for refreshment points and meeting areas – and function as the buildings lungs, distributing fresh air drawn in through opening panels in the facade. This system reduces the towers reliance on air conditioning and together with other sustainable measures, means that the building is expected to use up to half the energy consumed by air-conditioned office towers.

Firstly, a lack of integrativity can be spotted in “and a fully glazed facade, which opens up the building to light and views.” Well, it might bring in a little more light, although any window lower than 762mm from the floor is pointless. Doing this will also bring in more heat into the building (or make it lose heat faster), which they haven’t talked about. Perhaps they could have achieved the same amount of energy savings if they thought about the glazing ratio.

Have a look at Lord Norman’s first sketch of the building:

Norman SKetch As in the previous example, the building looks quite like the first sketch. Now unless Lord Foster did a lot of simulations and calculations in his head comparing his approach, with several other approaches that could have brought the same or even a better result, in terms of views, daylighting, ventilation, and solar gain, BEFORE this sketch, then the building is nothing but a meaningless shape that an architect came up with. And after finding an iconic and special form, some engineering company like Arup had to be hired to help the creditability of the architect’s claim about the building being “London’s first ecological tall building”.

Since we’re talking about London, F & P, and sustainability, here’s another building they did:

City Hall, London (1998-2002)

But, in this case, ‘sustainability’ meant stepped floors that are supposed to work as shading devices. It’s hard to think of a more expensive way of shading some windows. I wonder if  Swiss Re is still sustainable, since it hasn’t got any stepped floors as shading devices, or any shading devices at all, for that matter.

Misfits is proud of the building (Stacey) they designed using an integrative design approach. All its systems where designed in parallel so that they all work together in harmony, with no system compromising the functionality of any other. These systems including planning, because enclosing space requires building resources and heating and cooling that space requires energy resources. Inefficient planning wastes both. Good planning makes every square metre work harder and as part of more than one system. These systems include but are not limited to planning, orientation, daylight, views, solar gain, ventilation, renewable energy, and constructions. You can read more about this in Part I, Part II, and Part III. Here’s how the horizontal systems were solved.

Now, designing a building with no regard to all the others systems would be treating the building like a piece of sculpture – something not intended for human use, but for the  momentary pleasure that could be gained by looking at it, or as a monument used to make any kind of statement. This happens too often with current architecture.

It’s easy to see why. If you look on the internet architecture sites at posts of buildings, you can see how carefully-taken photographs or computer graphics from specific angles are the main way that buildings are described. THESE ARE IMAGES. They cannot describe how the light changes, how the air flows, how much heat the building gains or losses, how easy it is to get from one place to another, and whether the planning takes into account the MEP. Images can only tell us how a building looks, and only from certain angles. It’s not surprising that we continue to judge buildings on that basis. We need a way to represent all the other systems and attributes of buildings so we can make better judgments, and maybe have better buildings.

The Twisted Education of Architects

Let’s start by agreeing that, at the end of the day, architecture is supposed to make us good buildings and that architectural education should teach students how to make those good buildings? Sadly, as I experienced it, and I don’t think that architecture schools are much different, it almost succeeded in teaching me how to make bad buildings.

It all began with the “Basic Design” course that you take as the “basis” for how to go about designing your buildings. I don’t know what we were learning to design at that stage, but structures that people are expected to live in or use were not part of the course. A basic design course meant to teach you the basics of how to design good buildings, should at least cover the basics that humans want the place they are going to live in, work, or visit., to satisfy. These things must at least include the following: efficient planning, easy access, efficient daylighting, enjoyable views, good ventilation, a buildable structure, fire escapes, and not having the rainwater cover the floor of your bedroom.

A drawing I did in Basic Design. I hardly spent any time on it the night before, and I got a B for it.

For me, Basic Design covered none of these basic things that a building should do. Instead, the focus was on other stuff such as the shape of the building, its “concept”, whether its organization was “linear” or “central” or something else I’ve already forgotten, the interaction between white and black cubes as they make a bigger cube …  as well as an exercise with strict rules stating that a building should have “positive and negative” volumes that combine to create a 20 cubic meters cube. This exercise seemed designed to enhance skills in making good buildings fit a rather arbitrary criteria.

It does, however, comes in handy for the most difficult problem you are expected to solve – trying to fit a building that people can live in, into some weird shape. Waiting for you after you’ve successfully passed or got past Basic Design, are a series of design courses. Some of these are building-type-specific and some of them are location-specific ones. The thing that brings yet another layer of bullshit to the process of designing a building is when you are told to design a building that somehow relates to its function and to where it is located. This sounds logical and reasonable until you find out what kind of relationship is wanted.

The “inspiration” for my Design II project.

The finished result. See my “inspiration” there in the corner? We were graded on the “process” between “inspiration” and “result”. I think i got a B as well for this project.

The classic location fit is that a building should somehow reflect the culture and history of the place that hosts it. To my mind, the history of a country is a series of events that happened in that country. We know about these through books that tell us about those events that happened at various time. When I want to know about the history of a country I go and read a book about it, and not look at one of their old buildings or especially not one of their new buildings. I don’t understand, and I don’t think its possible, that the shape of a building can tell who killed who, why certain wars started, who got an arrow in his eye in 1066, who was the next king, how many people were killed in some past atrocity, etc. And these are just the big and easy stories out of many others that can’t be told through giving a building fancy shapes.

Culture. If we could all agree on what the word meant and then agree that a particular element of it should represent a country or people, then I’m even more unsure how we can ever expect a building to do that. I don’t want to spend too much time on what kind of ‘culture’ should be expressed in buildings – I’ll get back to that in some later post. For now, let’s just ask if it is really a good thing for humanity to be spending its time and money on trying to represent any kind of culture in its buildings?

In architectural education, these two things – history and culture – form a double layer of bullshit that goes by the name of “concept”. The Concept is the most important part of your project. It’s the first thing you’re asked to think about when the project starts to get serious.  Somewhere along the line, you will have done a “site analysis” and found out that it gets pretty hot here in the UAE but that gets forgotten in the panic to find a “strong” “concept” and “develop” it. I’ll stop using quotation marks on every other word now.

What bees usually do.

Because I was studying architecture in the UAE, some classic concepts that were always popular were tent, palm tree, wind tower (although it was not the Emaratis who invented them but hey), beehive, sand dune and sail. Once you have chosen your concept, the instructor will accept it if it’s strong enough, and ask you to develop it a bit more. And once you’ve done that, you finalize the 3D shape of your building, and then start planning it or at least try to make it into something that people can use.

The thing that’s wrong with this, is that it produces structures that aren’t designed for people to use. It is impossible for them to provide us with the better built environment that, I believe, should be what architecture aspires to.

I don’t know where this whole concept thing came from but I think it has done our built environment a lot of harm. Architects in the industry use a lot of such concepts to justify why their building has a certain shape. Maybe if Le Corbusier focused more on the humans that were going to live in the Villa Savoye, then the Savoye family would have been happier living in their house than they actually were. Maybe if Zaha Hadid took a class in acoustics she wouldn’t have designed Dubai Opera House with such a stupid shape so that ARUP then had to design a new building that worked, inside it. Maybe the original vision for Masdar might have been built if FOSTER & PARTNERS hadn’t designed their buildings with costly meaningless shapes and fancy floors and solar cells not at their optimum angle.

“The plan was to make Masdar the world’s first zero-carbon city, but as the global “cleantech” market stalls in the recession, compromises are made. Foster planned to accommodate 50,000 residents and 40,000 commuters and the city was due be completed by 2016; now the final population will probably not exceed 40,000 and the completion date has been put at 2021 or 2025. The idea of a second Masdar City has been dropped; a $2.2bn hydrogen power project has been called off, as has a “thin film” solar manufacturing plant, intended for Abu Dhabi.” The Guardian

If this is architecture then it doesn’t really need a 5 year course to teach. It is just dreaming up some shapes, attaching a concept, and there you go. Anyone can do that. If we really want to make architecture schools something worth our money and time, then the architecture they teach should be changed to something for the benefit of the people inside those buildings. Something that won’t assume that making a building look like a honeycomb, for example, will be something fit for humans. Something that will make our lives easier, more comfortable, and more sustainable.


Bashar’s post the other day got me thinking “If architects are the new tailors, then who are the new emperors?”After all, to make a building all you need is a client with money, land and a reason for wanting it. Architects always follow the money and, after a respectful time lag so we can forget about the greed that drives it, so does the history of architecture.

Think about it. Around the time Modernism began, there were a lot of new things being made and sold and many people had to keep track of orders and payments and other paperwork. Not every company needed a building to do this so new things called office buildings were invented. These new clients were responsible for a new type of building, architecture. At the same time, lots of people had to sell all these new things but not every seller needed their own store so these new things called department stores were invented. The department store owners were also clients for a new type of building. Without these two new types of client, what we now now as “the origins of Modern architecture” would not have happened.

So let’s test this theory that the architecture follows the money, make a few extrapolations and see where the future of architecture looks likely to be. Who are the new emperors?

Rich Rulers?
Since the pharoahs, rich rulers have always been a favourite of architects. In recent history, the ruler of Dubai paid for Burj Al Arab and, however much it cost, got a fairly good deal since, although Burj Al Arab has been basically ignored as Architecture, it was very successful in branding Dubai as an international destination. It kickstarted much other tourist-based development. This development was either funded by (or was to have been funded by) property developers, and not just Nakheel. It was property speculation, in other words.

A lot of this development now won’t be happening of course, as won’t a lot of similarly-funded development in other emirates such as Ras Al Khaimah, despite OMA’s efforts.

Richer rulers?
Square masterplans in the middle of deserts brings us to Abu Dhabi. If Dubai was broke, then Abu Dhabi was supposed to have had all the money. Masdar was, for a while, proof that it did.

Recent news that the Masdar project expectations have been downwardly adjusted suggest two things: one is that the pockets of sheikhs are not infinitely deep, but the other is that the underlying premise must have been property speculation rather than the more noble-sounding goal of making the world’s first carbon-neutral suburb. Google Masdar occasionally to see what’s going on.

Nevertheless, there’s still some change left for projects like this.

If 1) all you need to make a building are a client with money, land and a reason and 2) if architects always follow the money, then the trail leads next to Astana. Foster & Partners got there first. Here’s a link to some more pictures. The following two examples we already know about.

Rich countries?
China now has a fair stash of icons and attractions with the most recent additions coming with with the Beijing Olympics where little money was spared in order to make a big statement of how well they were doing. It seems likely that buildings representing architecture at the turn of the century are all going to be monuments to the branding of nations with land, money to spare, and the desire to make an impression.

China however, is unique in actually needing a lot of development and a lot of buildings to simply house its growing population. China has cities of 10 million people we’ve never heard of. Google “china masterplan” and you will find a representative selection of a new type of architect moneymaker called a masterplan. Below is a typical example of a small-scale masterplan which typically has a tall, signature building and housing blocks all straining to get a tiny piece of a “view”.

Here’s an example of a larger one.

I predict we’ll be seeing more of these, and not just in China. It is basically rows of housing sold to people who need somewhere to live or invest in and with some sort of central cultural-amenity central feature thing to give the development an ‘identity’. These identities are usually as manufactured as every other part of the development. We just know that the shape or colour of the central feature thing alludes to some local animal, vegetable or mineral to provide an idea of “sense of place”. In the same way as the owners of office buildings and department stores didn’t want to pay for unnecessary ornament, this central feature is no more fancy than it needs to be in order to attract people to ‘buy into’ this city. In other words, the central feature is a marketing and branding gimmick. BIG architects seem to be saying YES whenever they can to the type of clients that wants buildings like this. The fate of architects seems to be to generate images combining novelty and ‘sense of place’ to fuel speculative property development.

150 years ago, nobody would have guessed that the future of architecture would be tall, undecorated glass boxes for doing paperwork in. All I am saying is that if we keep track of who has the money and where, we will find that architects are already there. And that, a few decades later, we will see how the history of architecture has sanitized the never-ending story of architects helping the rich make statements about themselves. I’m not saying this is a good thing, it’s just how it goes. =(