Tag Archives: perception management follows development gain

The Historic Façade

New buildings are usually proposed for reasons of development gain but people remain attached to old buildings because of familiarity, sense of historical continuity, and sometimes even for showing a level of craft and attention to detail unthinkable now. The perfect developer/architectural product would have all the development gain of a new building combined with the perception management of an old one but unfortunately it’s not possible for a new building and an old building to occupy the same space. This doesn’t stop people from trying.

St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church beneath New York’s 1977 Citicorp Center development (now 601 Lexington Avenue) is not an historic church. It’s a rebuild as the church didn’t want to relocate or, if the air rights were to be sold, to have the structural columns of the new development passing through it.

The only historic continuity is one of presence on the site and, for parishioners, this is no small thing. The structural solution proposed by structural engineer William LeMessurier seemed like a good idea at the time but, aesthetically, what we have is a Juxtapose of shapes united only in their occupying different parts of the same column of air.

Atelier Hapsitus’ 2010 proposal for the BLC Headquarters in Beirut manages to conceptually combine an old building and a new building into a new thing but it’s not a nice thing. I have trouble thinking of dumping on a building as a sign of respect.

Mario Botta’s 2010 Galleria Campari in Milan is a new building built above the company’s former headquarters.

It says all the right things about respect for the history of the company and is a superior example because the two parts Conflate to not only produce a new thing but one that has a little bit of Fortunato Depero craziness about it. Botta knew what he was doing.

The new building bridges the old without columns penetrating like they do in this next project that adds two more floors to an existing building on London’s Cornhill. The section explains what’s going on. A separate steel structure rests on basement pads which, being where the former vaults still are, in turn rest on serious concrete. From there up rises what was termed an umbrella structure of significant steel from which the uppermost two floors are suspended.

It’s major trauma for the building, but the net effect is to produce development gain without neatively impacting the façade or the streetscape.

These same tradeoffs between development gain and perception management can be seen in Wuma Street, the historic centre of my new home town Wenzhou. Here’s four views of the recently pedestrianized precinct.

There’s some fine looking buildings from circa 1930 and a balance has tried to be found between under- and over-restoration. I was walking around the area with a local historian friend the other day and we went inside this next building from 1933, the former headquarters of the Wenzhou Chinese Merchandise Company. He told me the original building had been timber frame behind the Western-style stone, brick and stucco facade, but now it is concrete frame with the same Western-style stone, brick and stucco facade. I must have made some remark about authenticity because my friend said, “It’s not a problem – we just think of it as real.”

Over the next few days, I did think that the building’s only existence had only ever been as a facade fronting an expedient structure so, apart from that façade now being an historic one and no longer modern, nothing has changed and everything’s as real now as it ever was.

Did it really matter? Alberti’s Santa Maria Novella is a facade fronting an interior. The other elevations are no great shakes. Besides, design and quality materials are expensive so why not use them sparingly and to greatest effect only where it counts?

This point was not lost on the postmodernists

and, accordingly, postmodernism had little to say about construction, organization or anything else that went on behind those facades. At the time it was believed that the gravity of history could be conjured up simply by referring to it. This meant perception management was no longer hindered by the onerous requirement of physical age. For a while, this blend of internal development gain and external perception management seemed like the perfect architectural product. Not much of this new history as cladding has lasted but Michael Graves’ 1982 Portland Municipal Services Building is one of the better examples.

What lived on was the notion of history as an add-on, and that if it could be applied as a veneer then it could be retained as a veneer without any hand-wringing and without overly impacting development gain. Again in London, this time in Spitalfields where Gun Street meets Artillery Lane, is this next project that doesn’t even attempt to reconcile development gain and perception management. It’s from circa 2006 when London investors and developers were wild about the returns to be gained from foreign student housing. The London School of Economics’ Lillian Knowles House has 360 rooms and is part conversion part new build. Retaining the historic façade was clearly a planning concession and, as such, one of the purest forms of development gain vs. perception management. The gap between new building and historic façade isn’t used as balcony space since development gain precluded making the FF heights align let alone the windows. I used to walk by this on the way to work. I’ve always thought solving a problem in the simplest way possible was a good thing but the problem here is how simplistically the problem was framed before it was solved in the simplest way possible.

This project provokes complex thoughts, but of what? I think the main problem is that the worth of history is seen only in terms of retaining some circa 1700 brick and stonework. That this building fragment has no windows or window frames reminds me of buildings devastated by explosion or fire, with window openings people will never again look out of to survey the street and, for that matter, people on that street will never again look up at those windows and be curious about the lives lived and once lived behind them. The non-alignment between the new windows and the former windows reinforces this conclusion.

This gutting of history from history suggests our relationship with it is now full-on dysfunctional. A real piece of history has been changed into a shallow representation of it. This approved lack of concern for how people once lived in this building might be intended to stop us thinking the past was better. There’s also an element of “why’d they even bother preserving it if this is what they did?” and this too is a dangerous train of thought. This project is an important one if ever someone wanted to write the history of how we got to where we are. Much like the privatization of UK railways and its conceptual separation of (the operating of) trains and track, detaching a façade from its building was never going to be a healthy idea. In managing to both respect history and disrespect history at the same time, it’s proof postmodernism never went away but merely mutated into something worse.

Retaining history as development gain tradeoff is our new normal and brings us to the next shocker from the BIG stable, their King Street West development in Toronto.

Again, retaining only the elevations of existing historical structures while building above, through and around them, is being presented as a means of preserving those structures and respecting their history and, for the most part, it’s seen as that by the municipality. The new parts of a development keep a respectful distance (of exactly five meters) from the street elevations of the historic buildings but behind those facades and elevations are the usual foundations and columns supporting the significant mass of building above. In perfect illustration of the absurdity of the postmodern world, the muncipality has to debate and decide exactly how much of the historic structures can be destroyed, replaced and reconfigured in order to create the appearance of them being preserved. Both developer and municipality want as much development as possible, the developer in order to increase profits and the municipality to increase planning fee income. The only question is how much the public will buy.

You can find the full report on the state of play in July 2018, in this document Alterations to Heritage Properties, Intention to Designate under Part IV, Section 29 of the Ontario Heritage Act and Authority to Enter into Heritage Easement Agreements – 485, 489, 495, 511, 519, 521, 523, 527 and 529 King Street West, you can find here.

Here’s a list of various measures recommended:

  1. all building elevations to be retained
  2. majority of footprint of existing buildings to be kept outside excavation area
  3. limited temporary openings to facilitate construction
  4. replacement for existing floors and roof with new
  5. selective openings in floors and roof to allow for integration of new structure
  6. selective openings in basement slab to allow for pouring of new footings and elevator pit
  7. wall dismantled and rebuilt

All this is being done to preserve identified heritage attributes such as building setback, placement and orientation, scale, form and massing, brick walls (having either regularly spaced brick piers or stone impost blocks), paired windows between brick piers, stone window sills, and store fronts that have wood. Some historic brick side elevations will be rebuilt as new historic brick side elevations.

None of this sounds all that historic but the retention of these heritage attributes – whether in their original form and material or not – is intended to make people feel better about the very ahistorical beast of a building now hovering above in a very ahistorical manner. At least those retained street elevations won’t be dead ones. People on the street will see people coming and going, lights getting turned on and off, and various activities take place behind those facades. Those activities won’t be historic ones but the building will continue to host some form of life and activity. This type of historic continuity is more important and probably the best we can hope for. When my Chinese historian friend said “It’s not a problem – we just think of it as real.” I should’ve just replied “Yeah we do too.”

Much more can be said about BIG’s King Street West project but I wanted to introduce it and get this idea of the historic facade out of the way. In a future post most likely titled Moneymaking Machines #6: King Street West, I want to have a closer look at the internal organization of this building and try to understand why it is the way it is.


The Architect as Ornament

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

This was Louis Sullivan in “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” in Lippincott’s Magazine March 1896. It became part of Functionalist if not Modernist credo.The notion that Architecture is some combination of Form and Function has never really gone away although it has been restated in different ways over the years.

“A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.”

This is Nikolas Pevsner in “An Outline of European Architecture” 1942. Pevsner is making a distinction between buildings driven by objective concerns and those that appeal to our subjective sensitivities/prejudices. He is equating Building with Function and Architecture with Form. He made it easier to think of Building and Architecture as opposites and more difficult to think of an architecture in which Form follows Function yet with a view to aesthetic appeal. This depends of course on what you call aesthetic appeal and, in 1942, people probably believed in a Beauty more absolute than we might today.

In the 1970s the meaning of Form and Function shifted again and it was common to describe Architecture as a combination of The Arts and The Sciences. Architects believed it and in all sincerity described their profession in this way to others. Believing them, students undecided on an Arts major or a Science major would choose Architecture. There was nothing misleading or sinister afoot because The Arts were understood as a creativity something akin to Sculpture and Science was understood as Building Science which was about being good at math(s). It seemed like a happy marriage – a fusion – of two things both considered worthwhile. Seeing Architecture as a fusion of “The Arts” and “The Sciences” restated Sullivan’s Form [as ever] Follows Function but without the deterministic link. The notion that Form and Function Are One gained ground but this only proved the two were indeed opposites that needed not fusing or “reconciling” but conflating.

And in this century, young whippersnapper Patrik Schumacher updated the false opposites of Form vs. Function as the false opposites of Beauty vs. Function and claimed it was the core opposition of Architecture. And maybe it is, but we must remember that reaffirming peoples’ entrenched beliefs is the leitmotif of our era. I smell a rat, especially when Schumacher tells us Beauty is unknowable and this is precisely where its usefulness as a concept lies. [c.f. The Mystery of Beauty] The only use I can imagine for a concept that has no standards by which to measure it is to justify a system that has no standards.

But let’s substitute Art for Beauty and Science for Function and see how opposite they really are. Science pursues scientific knowledge for its own sake and without regard to the application of that knowledge – that’s the job of Applied Science. (Fine) Art is not much different. The belief is that (Fine) Artists are compelled to produce art for the sake of it and without thought to any application including the commercial – for that’s the job of commercial artists and all manner of designers. There’s no such field as Applied Art although there is commercial design and graphic design. (Fine) Art and Science are each driven by their own internal goals and with no obligation to contribute to the well-being of humanity. The seventies notion of architecture as a fusion of Art and Science suddenly doesn’t seem so benign. It opened the door for an architecture detached from ethics and social responsibility.

In 1981 Ronald Munson wrote a paper titled “Why Medicine Cannot be a Science” in response to what he thought was a disturbing trend to consider it one. Munson says the core internal aim of Science is To further knowledge for its own sake as opposed to Applied Science that uses that knowledge to produce some benefit to humankind. However, the internal aim of Medicine is To promote health in individuals and in populations. Medicine therefore needs patients and populations if it is to achieve its core internal aim. There is such a thing as Medical Science, but there is no such thing as Applied Medicine. Unless it’s applied, it’s not Medicine. In short, Medicine has this controlling ethical principle that’s absent in Science.

Munson acknowledges there is much in medicine that is scientific but there is also much that is not, but both are still in agreement with Medicine’s core internal aim of promoting health in individuals or populations. Research into the causes of a disease without concern for how that disease can be eradicated is Science, not Medicine. The emergency administration of a drug that has been known to work but without completely understanding why it works is Medicine, not Science. 

In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Schumacher argues for an architecture for architecture’s sake, devoid of ethics and social and professional responsibilities. Such an architecture is akin to both Art and Science and not at all like Medicine. If only Architecture were less like Science and Art and more like Medicine.

There is such a thing as Building Science but it’s outside the realm of architecture and is the task of consultants, not architects. Research into how to make buildings more comfortable for their occupants or how to building them more inexpensively or more efficiently in order for their benefits to be made available more widely and more readily is an ethical goal and, as such, has more in common with Medicine than it does with Art or even Science. This suggests that Medicine is a better analogy for Architecture than Science – the big “if” being that Architecture has anything to do with providing benefits for humankind.

I don’t think many would disagree if I said the internal aim of Architecture is To enhance the quality of life for this aim is sufficiently wide to include those whose life would be enhanced by any kind of structure or shelter. Many things are wrong with stating this as an internal aim of Architecture but the most glaring is that this aim is not unique to architecture. It could apply equally well to Art or Music yet it is on these grounds that Architecture as an specific artistic pursuit is justified without stating what particular quality of the quality of life it enhances.

Restating Form and Function as Art and Science got us precisely nowhere but we can see a general trend to have all qualitative (and primarily aesthetic) concerns being the realm of Form/Architecture/Beauty/Art and all the quantitative ones in the realm of Function/Building/Science. We can even restate this false opposition as Parametricism vs. BIM with the former taking one set of parameters while Science takes on a different set. The only thing differentiating Beauty and Function now is that one has subjective parameters [?!] subjectively evaluated [??!!] while Function, as ever, has objective ones objectively evaluated. Again, we are back to where we started.

The apparent irreconcilability of Form vs. Function suggests it is not a true opposition but a convenient one whose continued existence serves to deflect further scrutiny of how form and function operate. If we take a look at the architects responsible for forming our perception of architects, we see their main role is not to design but to justify design. Somewhere along the line we gained an awareness of architecture as a kind of branding exercise that usually (but not always) involves buildings. If the main role of the architect is to provide perception management then the accolades accorded those who are good at this tells us where the real Art lies.

What then of Function? Development Gain is what all the planning and layout and other conventional skills of the architect have been reduced to. In a former era, Development Gain would have meant making buildings less expensive so more people could benefit from them but this is still an ethical driver. [Having an ethical driver was the unspoken “crime” of Modernism and what Post-Modernism was invented to put an end to.] In our miserable times, Development Gain is whatever makes a project more attractive to developers and investors. If it’s efficient planning so well and good but if it’s a marketable image then even better.

Perception Management follows Development Gain

This explains the Rem Koolhaases, the Zaha Hadids and the Bjarke Ingelss. The magic of these people was to present development gain as perception management, and Bjarke (“Yes is More”) Ingels stated it most clearly. Development Gain was what it was all about and Art was reduced to convincing others it was clever or novel.

This is perfectly illustrated by this next building that, as we know, is called New York by Gehry. Art is debased when the primary role of the architect is as a perception management and marketing tool. Equally bad is that function is reduced to development gain and left to the architect of record to sort out as many single-aspect apartments off double-loaded corridors as possible.

We know this is the most efficient way to configure an apartment block for maximum spatial efficiency. [c.f. The Big Brush] This is not the maximum spatial efficiency for the social good of providing more housing for more people, and it is not even the maximum spatial efficiency whereby occupants have more useable space in their apartments. The notion of even the functional aspects of a building having a social or ethical component to them has been stripped away or not producing a short-term return on investment. All that remains is development gain. In effect, we have an architecture where form (for what it’s worth) and function (for what that’s worth) are performed by two different parties but for the same ends. I doubt we will ever escape the single aspect apartment along a double-loaded corridor.

This is disheartening but it does explain why planning an apartment or a floor layout is no longer taught at universities. It’s not something architects need to know.

Education is not behind the curve. It’s already adapted with less emphasis on traditional knowledge and skills and more emphasis on the presentation and perception management side of things.

If ever you wonder why there’s no desire to teach or learn about the geometry of planning or the history of architecture it’s because these are not things expected of the modern architect. Giving separate grades for content and presentation is the extension of giving separate grades for the now antiquated function and form. Strelka Institute has announced a new postgrad course called The New Normal. 

Drawings may still be used in the offices of architects of record but they are already obsolete in the offices of perception management architects. The value of education is now shifting to the ability to manipulate the tools of perception management. “Projects will include spatial and architectural proposals, but the Strelka programme also emphasises software, cinema, and strategy as valid and relevant urban design outputs.”

It’s not just the traditional skills of architects that have have been sidelined and relegated to consultants as part of the downgrading of Function. We once thought sustainability and energy performance might change the way we thought about buildings, how they behaved and even how buildings looked but they quickly became the tasks of consultants paid to “make things work”. But sustainability and better energy performance are long-term benefits that produce little short-term development gain. Greenwash is sufficient for the purposes of perception management. Greenwash is perception management in action.

This next project one could easily be Bjarke Ingels but it’s by Winy Maas in Mannheim. Ostensibly for social housing, this demeaning project lowers expectations of both housing and living. When nothing says “Home” like H-O-M-E, what’s the point looking for a place to call home? If it didn’t come with perception management problems, H-E-L-L would’ve been more truthful and a tad easier to build.

Here’s a new Foster+Partners building currently being fast-tracked in Dubai. The real art is the non-spatial development gain resulting from office space coming online earlier.

Architecture is absent apart from the cosmetic diagrid trope, the only function of which is to remind us that Norman Foster is the sole ornament of this building. Once we begin think of name architects in this way then a whole lot of things begin to make sense. I don’t know if people still use the term starchitect but architects as ornament is what they were. Unlike the building above that seems to have been thrown up in eight months, this next one still refuses to be born after a decade of perception management. And when it is it will be known as “a Zaha Hadid building” as if that’s its only worth – or the only worth deemed important – which it seems like it will be.

If we step back a bit and squint at the career meta-trajectory of Rem Koolhaas – Zaha Hadid – Bjarke Ingels, it’s possible to identify a steady cheapening of even the architect as ornament. Until somebody comes along and does it even more brazenly, Bjarke Ingels and BIG are the cutting edge. When Development Gain is the only Function in town, the only role of Perception Management is to present it as Art.

It’s all very nice to think of evolution as having a positive endgame but the reality is the inbreeding of mutants adapted to thrive in newly toxic environments.


Ultimately though, the famed architects of yore, the more recent starchitects, branding in general and the perception management of now are all manifestations of the same thing. The meta-trend is for there to be less and less content of value other than development gain. If famous architects today appear just as big and just as famous as those of the past, it’s only because Architecture has gotten small. I’m finding this notion of The Architect as Ornament and the paired concepts of Development Gain and Perception Management a useful way of understanding the last sorry half century of Architecture.


The Old Guard and The New Decency

The Elizabethan structure that was to become Highclere Castle was given a Georgian makeover in the early 19th century and then, over 1838–1878, another one to become what we know it as today. The point of both exercises was to update the building to bring it into line with contemporary notions of functionality and beauty. Everyone seems to approve of its current incarnation that, for most people, is how it has always been.

The makeover forced upon Edward Durrell Stone’s Columbus Circle hasn’t been received so kindly. It’s difficult to pin down the problem it set out to solve. It must have been an excess of character and integrity because that’s something that can’t be said about what replaced it.

A similar question can be asked with respect to the proposed makeover for Paris’ 1973 La Tour Montparnasse. It’s always been big and despised for being big and also for being brown though some say black.

It disrupts Paris’ historic skyline they say, and indeed it does. It’s the only building that challenges The Eiffel Tower’s assumed right to dominate Paris forever. With the benefit of hindsight, we might have thought better of Montparnasse Tower now if it had had clear mirror glass in a tracery of bronze mullions. Oh well.

Various views of the tower are to be had in and around Montparnasse.

At this point, we might spare a thought for the people and city of Prague and their (and our!) relationship of denial with Žižkov Tower. Cameras always seem to point some other direction. 


What people don’t seem to like is the idea of a building standing up to The Eiffel Tower in any way and this is one of the reasons the building owners Ensemble Immobilier Tour Maine-Montparnasse (EITMM) decided [after 44 years!?] to invite proposals to give the tower a “powerful, dynamic and bold new identity” – a bit like a witness protection scheme but hiding in plain sight.

Yet it’s strange to have a competition to remedy everything but a building’s size which is the one physical attribute that can’t be changed by a makeover and which, it must be remembered, is what most people haven’t liked about this building for most of the past half century. If a problem still remains afterwards, then what was done was not a solution or, if it was, then it was a solution to a different problem. As with Columbus Circle, the problem of La Tour Montparnasse may well be an unapologetic surfeit of character and, if this is the case, then we can expect the proposals to create an anodyne building.  

If the size of the building is what people object to and if that can’t be changed then perhaps it can at least be disguised by using colourless or mirror glazing. This will have the effect of dematerializing the building during certain lighting conditions and may make people momentarily forget that what they are looking at is a building and not some discontinuum in the fabric of space and time. Seven of the eight shortlisted entries opted for this approach and used colourless or mirror glazing to reflect and/or “reflect” the colour of the sky.

MAD:The shortlisted design transforms the huge black monolithic building — positioned in the city center — into an artistic lighting installation that presents an upside down reflection of the city.*they say, updating the misguided overconfidence of architects in 1958 with the misguided overconfidence of architects in 2016.

Studio Gang: Their approach involved rounding off the tower’s “empty” ends to create more floor area and solving the seemingly vexing problem of insufficently laminar airflow at ground level. The visual effect is to make a tall slender brown building into a shimmering stubby one. Many of the proposals include some kind of incentive to fund the makeover but Studio Gang’s considerable addition to the floor area represents stealth development gain that contradicts the stated reason for the competition. Some 700 proposals were received, seven were shortlisted and the final choice came down to the Studio Gang proposal and the proposal that eventually won.

To its owners, there are two very attractive things about La Tour Montparnasse – It’s there and it’s theirs. It’s unlikely anything like it will be built any time in the near future. 

With that insight, the competition brief can now be restated as how to beef up development gain while at the same time renovating and updating the building to meet new requirements for accessibility, comfort, convenience and energy efficiency (and so justify higher rents), and also purporting to do what is best for the city. It’s an interesting problem.

Dominique Perrault Architecture: This proposal solves the problem of a large building by attaching an even larger one to one end and making us forget what the original problem ever was. Clever. All press releases make a point of mentioning that the owners are putting up the €300 mil. for this renovation so this proposal addresses the “unspoken” problem of clawback. The next two images show how it also solves the problem of Paris not having enough buildings glowing warm orange in the early evening.

Architecture Studio: This one is perplexing. The ends of the tower are squared-off with additional office space but the end closer to the Eiffel Tower is a combination of additional office space and gardens basketweaving in varying degrees across the facades, presumably to represent “dematerialization”. In the same way as the Perrault proposal stressed a link with other buildings that have lights on in the early evening, this proposal attempts to forge a link between plants on the ground and plants in the “Nouvelle Ciel”. This oddness on so many levels makes me wonder about the 700 or so projects that weren’t shortlisted.

PLP Architects: What is it with plants? Like Architecture Studio above, PLP have also noticed La Tour Montparnasse doesn’t look sufficiently like the sky or the ground. The gardening is again confined to where it adds questionable value to office space on the Eiffel Tower end. The facade isn’t horrible but the faux randomness trope is again used to represent dematerialization.

The problem of how to make the facade of a tall building appear both of the earth and of the sky was solved in Paris in 1977 by Émile Aillaud and with much more panache.   

OMA: Shunning the shimmering, mirroring and transparency afforted by clear glass as insufficiently recherché, chronic mavericks and serial innovators OMA keep it big and brown and introduce the same old new dimensions of ugliness visual and intellectual.

The design and accompanying text are but equivalent parts of their corporate branding strategy. We not only get a history lesson but contentious statements presented as fact. The next text is from World Architecture.

Embracing more contemporary working conditions, facilities and spaces to extend the offer of its public attractions, OMA’s TM2 appears within the city context as a “Janus-faced icon” overlooking the historic Eiffel Tower – is intentionally set as a golden concrete dilemma, while injecting the current technological and esthetic repertoire for the creation of architectural meaning.

“Skyscrapers are a special case in the history of architectural longevity, and in the history of preservation. It is not because they are so hard to construct that many of them are still alive but because they are so hard to take down. They are around not because they deserve eternal life, but because they refuse to die,” said OMA. [… umm, The Pyramids?]

“That makes the renovation of Paris’ Tour Montparnasse so deeply interesting. The first – as far as we know – renovation of a tower that goes further than mere refenestration [:o<], offering not only a chance to reinvent this particular tower but to think of an entirely new model to face a common but perplexing issue: the redundancy of towers,” added the studio. 

With all due respect to whoever wrote this sophisticated doublespeak, a few points.

  1. The author. The author is not credited. The text reads and sounds Koolhaasian with its contrivedly contrarian thought processes but “said OMA” and “added the studio” deny this. So who is writing Koolhaasian thoughts in a Koolhaasian manner? Is this the new future of architectural language?
  2. The language. I’d like to know more about “the current technological and esthetic repertoire for the creation of architectural meaning”. Is it? Does it? How does it? And (crucially) what is it? The Eiffel Tower is undeniably historic so why mention so? Even if someone knows the “current” – a limited-life concept in itself – “repertoire [ugh!] for the creation of architectural meaning”, why assume the creation of architectural meaning is the be-all and end-all, what is “architectural meaning” anyway, and why should we assume it’s good, just because it exists or is said to (by some unnamed author)?
  3. The branding. The problem posed by this competition is “deeply interesting”, not superficially interesting or (merely) interesting as you or I might find it. The author wants to tell us they see and think on a different, deeper level to other humans and that their concerns and preoccupations continue to be of interest to us all. This is a false assumption.
  4. The formulation of the problem: Instead of demolishing them, I don’t see what’s wrong with fifty-year old buildings being refurbished to extend their lifespan and extract maximum utility. Re-use makes perfect sense even if not adaptive – it was one of the competition’s stated and reasonable goals. It is unclear what’s so deeply interesting about this artificial problem of the redundancy of towers. It’s a common fault of poets (e.g. Philip Larkin) and singer-songwriters to conflate personal peeves with some universal condition. Architectural churn for the sake of it is the scurge of our times. Let’s try to keep buildings away from it. Another thing. A dilemma is an internal contradiction suffered by a single party. It’s not a dilemma if all Paris continues to agree that La Tour Montparnasse is redundant to Paris’ skyline requirements yet its owners continue to see it as a moneymaking machine. The owners however, do have the dilemma of how an ageing and little loved building is going to continue to make them money. It’s finding that magic balance between development gain and perception management that’s the problem – hence the competition.

The OMA proposal offers us an architectural branding spectacle with a veneer of depth and intellectualism summed up by the term “deeply interesting”. But is this proposal deeply useful, deeply relevant or even deeply possible for €300mil? The competition judges didn’t think so. [The proposal and its look owe more than a bit to Mies btw.]

All floor plates are extended 30% on the side facing the Eiffel Tower. Wavy edges increase view “frontage” without increasing maximum window distance all that much. I’m surprised this made the shortlist. I imagine both entrant and organizers alike used this entry for their respective marketing purposes. If Paris never warmed to La Tour Montparnasse, it was unlikely to warm to a 50-storey billboard for OMA.

It might be time to start thinking what Post-Koolhaasian architectural media subversions might be – or, more to the point, what architecture was like before Koolhaas just in case we ever care enough to want to roll the clock back and start again.

Anyway, the shortlist of seven was narrowed down to two and deciding between them took another three months. Press releases and reporting make us imagine a table of judges pondering aesthetic imponderables but I suspect those three months involved independent quantity surveyors putting together detailed cost-benefit comparisons to balance the prospect of increased rental revenue (with its cost and time negatives) against the more modest yet immediate rental uplift from solving the development gain vs. perception management problem in the simplest way possible. The old guard erred on the side of the development-gain-as-spectacle that made them famous. The three months it took to arrive at the final winner must have proven AOM’s approach correct, no doubt because €300 mil. doesn’t go very far these days.

Nouvelle AOM Wins Competition to Redesign Paris’ Tour Montparnasse*

If The OMA proposal is heavyhanded in appearance, theory or what counts as it, and that corporate posturing we now call branding. Nouvelle AOM has a light touch on all three counts.

Their proposal increses the height of the building by 17m so it can have a penthouse hothouse to grow produce that will be eaten in the restaurant. There can’t be much call to reduce the freight miles of a few tomatoes so there’s obviously something else happening on a different level – in fact on the first fourteen where plants on extended lower floors create a green base on a green pedestal to complement the new green capital.

How a tower meets the sky is important but how a tower touches the ground is important too. Shifting the focus significantly alters the perception of the building at close range and on the ground where it’s supposed to count. Even without the growies, the pedestal and base are an inexpensive and effective formal move no other shortlister thought of. I’m curious to know how the new proportions were determined but I like the way we haven’t been told. It’s not important anyway. A public view from a 14th [or 13th, or 15th] floor garden just might appeal to Parisians more than some tourist trap view from the top.

Shaftwise, there’s not much happening apart from some glazing in checkered relief that is probably just difference for the sake of difference. The protruding side panels are gone because the re-entrant corners have been filled in and the upper slabs extended to gain a small amount of extra area and update the shape of the building – a neat and easy win.

All the other shortlisters did the same thing, with the exception of OMA whose obsession with their own perception management and articulating non-existent dilemmas and deep contradictions prevented them from seeing and doing the obvious. Sans its side panels though, La Tour Montparnasse is barely recognizable and the client requirement for a new identity is satisfied. I’m a bit sad to see those panels go because we might better appreciate the makeover if we could remember just a little bit more how it was before.

Branding: Nouvelle AOM moved their “research office” into the 44th floor of La Tour Montparnasse for a year. There was no need to do this in order to find out the elevators, windows and A/C needed replacing but it does show an appreciation of the building’s historic USP.

There are simply no other places and will for the foreseeable future be no other places from which one can have a comparable view over Paris from one’s office. So what if everybody hates looking up at you? You can look down on them. It’s that old question – is it better to live in the most beautiful house in the street or opposite it? It’s the same for tourists. From the observation deck of La Tour Montparnasse tourists are in the unique position of being able to view Paris without La Tour Montparnasse in the frame. They can see Paris as Paris was and this is something no makeover can or will change. 

This photograph says Nouvelle AOM are committed and perceptive, but without saying it. The “AOM” is an acronym of the names of three practices newly combined. They could easily have called themselves Nouvelle OMA but didn’t. AMO and MAO weren’t options and MOA and OAM don’t roll of the tongue. This leaves only the resonant AOM.

Theory: I’m sure all shortlisted proposals did all the right things energy-wise etc. but no shortlister claimed their project to be inexpensive or good value for money. This was no doubt critical in selecting the winner it does not count as theory. Nouvelle AOM’s proposal comes with no theory whatsoever and this is refreshing. It is as if they have designed this building to satisfy the competition requirements and for the benefit of the people who own the building, those who use the building, those that might want to use the building and those that might have to look at it, and that’s how they expect it to be judged. And they’re right – because it will.

Just as with the seemingly innocent photograph, there’s more going on that what we’re told and I like it like that because Nouvelle AOM are designing this building for people who aren’t exposed to architectural media, its heroes, and its preoccupations. The green pedestal, base and capital are no accident. They’re the application of skill and intelligence and if I’ve never read anything about them resembling a column then it’s probably because Nouvelle AOM didn’t think it necessary to say so. It’s more important that the device solves one or more problems, and it does.

I like to think this proposal and the way it has been proposed to people and not architects is a harbinger of a new lightness in architecture, theory and branding. Old deep vs. the new shallow has already played itself out with BIG. Nouvelle AOM appear to value real competence over apparent depth, and to use intelligence to solve problems rather than create new ones for us to be impressed by how well they were solved. Nouvelle AOM may well turn out to be shrewd players and “the new decency” may well turn out to be no less calculating than the status quo it challenges but for now I’m liking their WYSIWYG building for what it is and would like to thank them for that. Someone (was it Aristotle?) said “one swallow does not a summer make” but still, one can hope.

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misfits’ architecture is available for competition judging, conferences, seminars, corporate events, weddings, parties …

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https://www.metalocus.es/en/news/nouvelle-aom-wins-international-architectural-competition-redesign-montparnasse-tower-paris Congratulations to this site for providing more, and more useful information than the names of the shortlisted firms and the press release photographs of their proposals. Recommended.

http://www.nouvelle-aom.com/en/45-2/ The practice website is short on description but, as I just wrote, I like it like that.


The History of Forgetting

All buildings begin as architectural fantasies and perhaps one in a thousand or more get built. In addition to us hearing more and more about the ones that don’t or never will, a steady stream of updates – “X tower receives planning permission!” “Y tower topped out!” – accompanies those that do. Conditioned to living in perpetual anticipation, we’ve little time for the buildings when they actually get around to being completed.

Most buildings that don’t get built are quickly forgotten in our high-churn news cycle but some buildings are as much a part of our intellectual landscape as if they had been built. We must ask why. Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high tower, The Illinois, is a good example of an architect designing something we’ve never been allowed to forget even though it failed to find a client either before or after Mr. “Seagram” Bronfman famously abstained. Perhaps only architects were unaware that elevator cables sufficiently resistant to elongation didn’t yet exist. Thirty years earlier, Russian architects had been designing skyscrapers in a country yet without elevators.

Case in point is El Lissitzky’s 1925 Wolkenbügel. In English, it’s known as either Cloud Iron or Cloud Hangar. El Lissitzky was trying for a horizontal skyscraper and, as he was in Germany at the time, perhaps the names result from using two dictionaries to span three languages.

Despite the conceptual confusion, many people including myself have tried to will El Lissitzky’s proposal into existence.

Wolkenbügel is often mistakenly presented as an example of Constructivism but it’s an example of the contemporaneous structural expressionism known as Rationalism. It doesn’t really matter because in 1928 Constructivists and Rationalists alike were forcibly “unified” into an umbrella organization and former practitioners of both camps adjusted to the new rules of what was to become known as Post-Constructivism if it wasn’t built, or Stalinism if it was.

Late to the party, Le Corbusier’s 1933 entry for the Palace of the Soviets competition went down the structural expressionism route. It was never built but is still discussed and analyzed as if it had been.

It seems the only thing more reprehensible than demolishing an architectural masterpiece is to not build it in the first place.

The urge to compensate for this injustice took rendering to new levels, with virtual textures virtually distressed to simulate age, “camera” angles chosen to simulate period photography, and final outputs distressed to simulate aged photographs supporting false memories.

Unlike The Illinois, Cloud-thing, and Monument to the Third International, Palace of The Soviets at least could have been built because Le Corbusier designed it to win a competition and be built. LC generally made a sharp distinction between the career-builders he never expected to see built and the career-builders he did. His judgment failed him with his 1929 proposal for the Geneva Mundaneum. It’s a dog. It’s acknowledged on the Fondation Le Corbusier website but not in English. As far as I know, Karel Teige is the only person who ever wrote a criticism of it, the full text of which you can read here[c.f. Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige].

1929 was a busy year for Le Corbusier so he probably wasn’t that chagrined it didn’t go ahead. Judging by how it’s been allowed to be forgotten, he wasn’t the only one.

Antonio Gaudí’s unbuilt oeuvre is almost as large as his built but his 1909 Grand Hotel proposal for Manhattan never progressed past concept. Nobody seems to have wondered how Gaudí’s upside down chain method would translate into steel frame construction. Perhaps Gaudí didn’t either for he seems to have misjudged both size and scale. The height was supposed to have been between that of the Chrysler Building and The Empire State Building but perhaps Gaudí can be forgiven since neither existed in 1909.

This hasn’t prevented contemporary visualizers from trying to give his proposal a meaningful scale.

This design doesn’t feature highly in Gaudí’s unbuilt oeuvre, perhaps due to the oddness of a Gaudí building not in Barcelona. Since 2003 when its construction was proposed by Paul Laffoley for the World Trade Center reconstruction competition, it has been mostly confined to the architectural oubliette.

An oubliette is a special kind of dungeon entered and not-so-often exited from a trapdoor in the ceiling. Inconvenient people get put there and forgotten. This brings us to the selective forgetting to support the dominant narrative of the present. Some buildings have the misfortune to arrive at inconvenient times. The McNulty House arrived in 1965 just as the architectural winds were about to blow in the direction of Post Modernism. [c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]

Much started to be forgotten in the 1970s, not least of all the social responsibilities of architects. Erasing all memory that governments once undertook to house their people is mostly completed now. Sydney’s Sirius looks set to go the same way as London’s Robin Hood Estate.

Local MP Margaret Hodge suggested that providing a 3D scan of the building would be enough preservation to legitimize its demolition, raising the question of how much a digital version can really replace a building. Quite a lot apparently, if you’re of the mindset that a representation of something can be as good as the real thing. Charles Jencks’ theoretical whitewash is still brought into play to destroy all memory of the social aspirations of Modernism.  

For all its talk of memory and history, the 1970s were the Golden Age of Forgetting. Any actual learning from history was replaced by consumable representations of learning from history. The world was rich with architectures before 1980 and it wasn’t just the misfits, the fringe and the outliers who were forgotten.

For example, whatever happened to Alvar Aalto? What values did his buildings express that are such anathema today? We already know the answers to these questions. It is only Le Corbusier who is actively and overly remembered. My hunch is that Le Corbusier provided the DNA template for postmodern mutation known as the starchitect. As long as Le Corbusier remains unassailable, then replicant starchitects are the logical consequence. Soon, it won’t be possible to conceive of any other type of architect. It practically is now.

There’s a special architectural oubliette just for projects that are an embarrasment to their architects. Here’s two from Andrew “AEDAS” Bromberg’s portfolio circa 2006.

From around the same time we have Lee “ATKINS” Morris’ Trump International Hotel and Tower. The plug was pulled in the financial winter of 2008-9 just when the building was about to rise above ground. I carried vivid memories of the speedboat image for years. Now I’ve managed to track it down again, I find its power to disturb has only increased.

The building, however, was the product of considerable skill and thought.

Other buildings of the same time and place (and architects) were less blessed. There was Anara Tower. I remember writing of it something like “Avoiding the aspirational reaching and false perspective of stepped pinnacles, it simply towers for 80-odd storeys before culminating in that most perfect of shapes, the circle.” It wasn’t a lie.

The same architects’ Icon Hotel also represented skill of a kind that shouldn’t go unacknowledged.

Working the same patch, OMA had their share of forgotten buildings, though the Death Star did circle around once before heading for oblivion.

After trying so hard for so long, OMA’s only completed project in the UAE is this art shed.

Zaha Hadid Architects have had their share of forgotten buildings but with one completed bridge, two projects currently onsite in Dubai and one rescheduled in Abu Dhabi, look like having a better ratio of hits-to-misses.

There are some spectacular ones that didn’t happen though.

ZH herself said “the world will always have a place for exuberant architecture” and indeed it will as long as there’s the financial “exuberance” to sustain it. Financial exuberance is attracted to architecture and the attraction is mutual. It’s often ill-advised, ill-conceived, impestuous, short-lived, and plauged by broken promises and thwarted expectations.

What is eventually built represents only a small portion of architectural activity at any given time. As with first loves and adolescent tastes in music, the past is often embarassing and the urge to forget is great. Rather than the buildings that are built or the ones we want to remember, it’s the forgotten buildings that provide the truer picture of what the times were actually like.

• • •

Here’s my picks for buildings headed for the architectural oubliette. (I’ll keep adding to this list as I remember to remember them.)

Frank Gehry’s 2012 Hong Kong Opus

It was dutifully acknowledged at the time but since then has since disappeared without trace. It was probably a difficult commission to refuse.

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

From the same 2012, it had an initial burst of media accolades but recent allegations of overly-exuberant money laundering by the government of its namesake’s son should be enough to belatedly start the process of forgetting.

[In 2014] the Design Museum in London […] defended its decision to give its Designs of the Year top prize to a Zaha Hadid building in Azerbaijan, following widespread criticisms of the award on human rights grounds. “It’s a prize about architecture rather than politics and its architectural quality is outstanding,” Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic told Dezeen.

Diller+Scofidio’s Boston Institute of Contemporary Art

Oliver Wainwright’s recent puff piece commemmorating Elizabeth Diller visiting the UK, credited Diller+Scofidio as architects of NY’s High Line as well as a string of other projects yet omitted to mention their trite yet once-hyped ICA.

Makoto Floating School, Nigeria/2016 Venice Biennale

You’ll remember this one now – it was everywhere 2015-6. The link will take you to the website that lists, amongst other things, FAQs about why it collapsed – lack of maintenance, apparently. I remember reading that it collapsed because people stole the bolts holding it together. Regardless of the truth or falsity of this story, the fact it was propagated at all only reinforces the poisonous post-modern belief that architecture is wasted on the poor.


Architecture Myths #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else

MA: “Let me first thank you, Signor Palladio, for agreeing to this interview. To kick things off, would you like to share with misfits’ readers your thoughts on windows?”


AP: “If the windows are made smaller and less numerous than necessary, the rooms will be made gloomy; and if they are made too large the rooms are practically uninhabitable because, since cold and hot air can get in, they will be extremely hot or cold depending on the seasons of the year, at least if the region of the sky to which they are oriented does not afford some relief.”

MA: “I see. Yes. Some rooms will be colder in winter if they are not on the sunny side, or warmer in summer if they are not on the shaded side. So –”

AP: “– for this reason, windows must not be made broader than a quarter of the length of the rooms nor narrower than a fifth, and their height should be made two squares and a sixth of their breadth.”

MA: “Window size depends upon how big the room is then?”

AP: “Because rooms in a house are made large, medium and small, the windows must remain the same size in a given order or storey, when calculating the dimensions of those windows I like very much those rooms which are two-thirds longer than their breadth; that is, if the breadth is eighteen feet then the breadth should be thirty. I divide the breadth into four and a half parts; and with one part I establish the clear breadth of the windows and with the other two, adding a sixth of the breadth, I make all the windows of the other rooms the same size as these windows.”

MA: “So you saying then, that, for the sake of beauty, all windows of a storey must be the same size, even if it means some may be too big for their respective rooms that will therefore be colder in winter if they are not on the sunny side, or warmer in summer if they are not on the shaded side?”

Palladio’s one-size-fits-all approach to design shows the rot had set in even though it was still not even a century since Alberti invented Architecture as aesthetic contrivance. If Palladio saw quantitative building performance and some unsubstainable notion of architectural beauty as working against each other and was willing to compromise the former for the latter then we can’t really be surprised by anything that’s happened since. Compromising performance for beauty is simply hard-wired into the psyche of architecture, part of its very being, its existence and it’s not going to change in a hurry or at least without putting up a very strong fight.

And it does. An architectural climate that broadens the focus of architecture to include building performance occurs only rarely, perhaps only once or twice a century and, when it does, is almost immediately quashed by the forces of Architecture. This suggests building performance is counter to what architecture is. It’s not that Architecture actually defines itself by the denial of physical comfort, it’s just that it competes with the needs of our other senses and all senses aren’t created equal. Our notion of architectural beauty would be very different if humans had evolved to live on the bottom of the ocean.

“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in darkness.”

In the 1920s, as soon as architects had devised ways to house people so everybody had a certain amount of sunlight and ensure an acceptable level of health and well-being, the quality of that light became an indicator of architectural worth [c.f. Getting Some Rays].


Le Corbusier’s Five Points of 1927 seemed to definitively solve the problem of windows in favour of horizontal ones.


It all went well for about 12 months. In the meantime, Richard Neutra completed the Jardinette Apartments in Los Angeles as his first commission in his new country.


Walter Gropius was full-on functionalist when it suited him but, at the first CIAM meeting in 1929, he framed the problem of housing as how to get the most sunlight to horizontal windows, so justifying the taller buildings he seemed to want to design. Richard Neutra reminded everyone present that, in the U.S., tall buildings were not a problem that required solving. That might’ve been the moment Gropius decided he’d better bolster the academic side of his CV.

At the 1931 CIAM meeting in Zürich, it was still being taken for granted that windows were now and would always be horizontal was again taken for granted when, amongst others, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Siegfried Giedion discussed “the importance of solar orientation in governing the directional positioning of low-cost housing on a given site. Le Corbusier couldn’t have not been there, but it’s still unclear why he was because, by 1931, he’d already made considerable progress in subverting Modernism’s quantitative concern for light with his own interpretation of what light was good for. By 1932, Karel Teige’s worst fears for the Five Points were confirmed.

Karel Teige, The Minimal Dwelling (originally published as Nejmenší byt by Václav Petr, Prague, 1932) p.181

All this time, Philip Johnson had been lurking around Europe so, by the time the International Style exhibition came around, he knew which way the wind was blowing. Horizontal windows were stylistic affectation and a symbol of modernity. Together with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson did more to kill off performance-beauty in the US than Hitler did in Germany or Stalin in the U.S.S.R. [c.f. The Things Historians Do


The twentieth century dragged on and it was acceptable for aesthetic reasons to not have windows where additional ones could have improved daylighting and ventilation.  [c.f. The Things Architects Do #1: Compromise

This Palladian Conundrum is insoluble as long as we have five senses and we rely upon the dimensions and quantity of a single building element to satisfy them all.

This doesn’t apply just to windows but to any building element having a tangible function and a visible presence. The problem is apparent in architect quotes such as “I would rather live in a corner of Chartres Cathedral with the nearest bathroom two blocks away than in …. [insert whatever building you care to name that has a bathroom].” I think it was Zaha Hadid who said that, presumably to indicate the strength of her sensitivity to those intangible qualities architects are imagined to be sensitive to. It also implies such sensitivity is incompatible with conveniently located bathrooms. This is not necessarily true. 

It’s the default attitude of starchitects. Frank Gehry is a well known critic of LEED and we assume it’s for reasons similarly artistic but Gehry has no doubt bumped up against LEED criteria a few times with property-developer clients suggesting certification as a selling point.


Despite its forward-thinking architectural design, however, [New York by Gehry] contains few innovative sustainable design features. Although it has implemented some environmentally sound practices such as energy-efficient windows, Energy Star appliances and a greywater filtration system, New York by Gehry is not LEED certified.

The developers found themselves with a choice of selling points and decided to go the Gehry Accreditation route. Their decision raises the tantalising possibility that the value uplift of going with a branded architect is quantifiable in dollar terms. This report

business case


claims the value uplift of a green building is as much as 12.5%. The value uplift offered by a branded architect must therefore be greater, whether a building is green or not. A lot of things begin to make sense. Gehry’s objections now appear defensive, and with good reason. Perception management may be the dominant role of starchitects and development gain may be taken care of by the architect of record [c.f. Architecture Myths #23; Architecturebut if ever the value uplift of a high-performing building should surpass that which a starchitect can supposedly add, then the brand collapses and starchitects have to find something else to do. Palladio may have been the first starchitect.

The same position has been restated at length by Patrik Schumacher in The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I. [c.f. Love You Long Time (Chap. 3.8.1 The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values)]. A November 2014 post, The Mystery of Beauty mulled Schumacher’s argument/need for a concept of beauty. To paraphrase, “a concept of beauty gives architects something to work towards, even if they don’t know what it is. What’s more, attempting to resolve the beauty/function thing is what makes architecture architecture.” He’s right in a weird way but not in a good way. Appearing to aspire to something unknowable yet somehow lofty, is a good way to distance oneself from supposedly more prosaic concerns having definite and optimum solutions.

In our current media environment where the last thing we expect or are presented with are facts, it’s obscene to talk about value per unit area and user value. Things like these are not the stuff architecture wishes to be evaluated on and so are not the stuff of architecture as it gets presented

“Without a vision, architects become no more than technicians, and it is our ability to shape functional requirements to create a piece of “magic” where we can really flourish as a profession.”
Jerry Tate (from an article “Why is Sustainability Boring?
BD Online 6 November 2012)

“But we cannot only be concerned with the objective side of architecture’s performance.”
Patrik Schumacher (The Autopoeisis of Architecture, p38)

It might be too early to speak, but there’s one dim glimmer of hope things might be different in the future. You might remember this image from back in March, when Bjarke Ingels was cross with us for not seeing more than one female director in this picture.

The visible one is Sheena Søgaard, general manager and CEO of BIG. She wrote a piece for DESIGN INTELLIGENCE, outlining the reasons for BIG’s success. It’ll be no surprise to anyone who’s read Yes Is More! but Søgaard’s first point was that design and business go together. So was her second point, “Focus on Financial Health” and which was much more illuminating.

“To rethink the traditional fee approach [!] and to gain our fair share of the value we were creating for our clients, we began to focus on documenting proof of our value creation. We are able to show clients that our projects provide more value per square foot sold, more program to any given site, and better value for the users; all of which helps us achieve a greater share of that value which we assist in unlocking, i.e., better design fees.”

I’d suspected this in June 2105 when I roughly calculated that BIG’s proposal for World Trade Center 2 had 14% more rentable area than the Foster+Partners proposal, yet all we got to read about was the aesthetic backstory of some staggered boxes with plants on top and lights on the bottom. [c.f. Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center.

My problem with this is that value delivered should never have been hidden in the first place, let alone snuck back into public perception and presented to us as corporate revelation. It remains to be seen if this new value is any different from the old value. What is clear is that if the perception management precedes the development gain by too much, then everyone gets to see the ongoing process of development gain engineering at work and the image of industrious creatives fades to one of compliant yes men. 

When there’s one justification for clients and another for those to whom their media face is directed, it shows just how deeply the problem of perception management vs. development gain is embedded in today’s system of architectural production. It’s the Beauty vs. Everything Else thing still playing itself out.

There’s no sign it will end anytime soon, especially when editorials such as that of the Spring 2017 “Pure Beauty” issue of San Rocco are still pushing back. Irénée Scalbert’s essay Beauty Without Taste, is a paean to Foster+Partners’ 1991 Stanstead Terminal building. She praises its beauty as incidental and without admitting any attempt of Foster to create it – as does Foster, for that matter.


This feels like progress but it’s effectively a re-statement of Johnson and Hitchcock’s position that an aesthetic other than one of beauty is still an aesthetic of beauty.

“It is, however, nearly impossible to organize and execute a completed building without making some choices not wholly determined by technics and economics. One may therefore refuse to admit that intentionally functionalist building is quite without a potential æsthetic element. Consciously or unconsciously the architect must make free choices before his design is completed. In these choices the European functionalists follow, rather than go against, the principles of the general contemporary style. Whether they admit it or not is beside the point.”

I usually enjoy San Rocco’s bloggy editorial essays that put provocative ideas out there with nothing but a train of thought to justify them. This one however, repeats the opinion that “Modernism” wanted to erase the notion of beauty from architectural discourse, and that Hannes Meyer sought to eradicate beauty rather than merely pursue a different notion of it.

pure beauty.jpg

It didn’t matter. For the proponents of a single, absolute beauty as pure as it was vague, it amounted to the same thing, and ever since then people have been scrambling to put the cat back into the bag for we can now identify two types of beauty. One is the type of performance-beauty pursued by Meyer and the other is everything else that consciously succeeds at trying to be beautiful. Who’s to say there aren’t more types out there? Emmanuel Kant left room to think the problem may not be with the universal but with the our subjectivity.

kant do that.jpg

Kant leaves open the possibility that our subjectivities can remain subjective yet still respect some universal determinant.

San Rocco, however, prefers to champion the autonomy of the universal rather than question the autonomy of the subjective – and which is no less romantic a notion.

food for thought

Points a~f repeat the Schumacher position in which the existence of a single beauty is posited as a difficult (i.e. impossible) goal in order to validate work towards it. Points e and f do too, but add further qualifications couched in quasi-religious language to lend said work the appearance of virtuous endeavour, if not moral imperative.

• • •

Window Checklist

lunar prisms


Different Strokes

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


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


and Toyo Ito and his dragon-shaped stadium.


You tell me.

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


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

#excess #celebrity #publicity

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtest of mercenary imagineers MIR

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

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

iCloud data center

Meanwhile, this postmodern age drags on. OMA’s Beijing CCTV building showed it’s not possible to police meanings in any meaningful way. People deviate from the script to invent their own.


In response to a 2009 story titled “Architectural Pornography?” at http://newsjunkie.bdonline.co.uk/2009/08/26/architectural-pornography/ OMA denied that the Beijing CCV headquarters building [and its adjacent Mandarin Oriental Hotel] represented anything other than “a positive and shining expression of a changing world order.” People have been saying for decades that any building taller than it is wide is a phallic symbol, so it’s not surprising that we now have a corollary along with its allegedly pornographic implication. 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


On second thought, I’m not so sure.

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

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