Tag Archives: pseudo-cultural bullshit

Architecture Myths #7: Purity of Form

1976 was quite a year for houses in Japan. There was Toyo Ito’s White U which we’ve already seen. There was Kazuo Shinohara’s House in Uehara – a steady favourite of mine, for reasons I may one day post.

House in Uehara And there was Tadao Ando’s Sumiyoshi HouseThis next photo was quite popular at the time, although the purpose of those two boxes either side of the light well over the entrance remains a mystery to this day.

485f2ad68aeebe915ed49c499812d6bcb11f3898_m This black and white photo seemed to convey the required association with tradition more than the colour ones of the time did.

Azuma house 住吉 Tadao Ando 安藤忠雄 2 Of course, the area has changed a lot since 1976.

azuma-1 Streetmap tells us it looks like this in 2013.

streetview 1 sumiyoshi 2 That makes this next photograph all the more remarkable. (How did they do that?) Note the 50cm side boundary setback, the meter box.

6152852388_de08e363c6_b Here’s the location map on greatbuildings.com or, if you prefer, 34°36’37.93″N 135°29’32.39″E. It gets you to here. The name on the pin (Azuma-tei) translates as Azuma Residence – which what the house is known as in Japanese.

sumiyoshi house Zooming in now, have a look at the south-east corner (at the bottom right).

closeupOr, on GoogleMaps.

cropped-sumiyoshi-house1

Yes, the Sumiyoshi House is not the shape we always thought it was. Never was, never has been. GoogleEarth service began 2005.

住吉の長屋

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:住吉の長屋.JPG

The reason for this missing corner could be the gas-fired boiler for the bath. When space is in such short supply, it’s a major decision to not gain that extra 8 cubic metres or an additional 5% of the total internal floor area. I suspect there’s a regulation for boiler venting at work. In 1980 in Tokyo, I lived in a ground-floor apartment with a similar heater inside the bathroom (but with an external flue) so there might have been some sudden – very sudden – tightening of regulations for the location of such boilers in new-build properties.

Or perhaps the land was never rectangular to start with? This might explain why the upper floor bedroom isn’t cantilevered over the boiler which does, after all, have a concrete roof directly above it anyway. In this next image, there slight kink in the concrete fence means it might be a minimum setback issue.

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Or perhaps there was a covenant attached to the land, only discovered at the last minute? It’s been known to happen. Japan, like Britain still has many vestiges of a feudal system of land ownership.

Or perhaps the builders just read the drawing incorrectly and everyone decided to keep quiet about it. You know, like this.

construction_errors_error_mistake_rev_cloud_technical_drawing

More likely, someone thought “Who’ll ever care? It’s only a boiler! What’s that got to do with architecture?”

This next drawing is the closest to a construction drawing I’ve been able to find. (Thanks ideamsg.

row-house-in-sumiyoshi-7The much-publicised perspective cutaway section shows a complete rectangle. The plan for both levels shows a complete rectangle. The plan shows the boiler as internal, but at least it’s shown. This either implies a last-minute understanding of the regulations, a last-minute change to them, or an unsuccessful appeal if both. The rear bedroom is also rectangular. For the first time we learn that we can access the roof via that rear skylight. Behind/above the beds in the other bedroom are wardrobes – imagine! I feel really sorry for all those students who made physical models or CAD models of this house as part of their architecture course. There are some fine renders and models out there, all wrong.

swfupload4e574562d6d8c

This incorrect model found it’s way to the 2014 Venice Bienalle.

Venice-Architecture-Biennale-2014-Japanese-pavilion_dezeen_468_13

And I feel sorry for all those people who have redrawn those plans incorrectly for various publications. Forgive me for asking, but from where does misinformation like this spread?

602445_428065923920897_1019664922_n Azumahouse-drawing And I feel a bit sorry for the rest of us too having, since 1976, been led to believe this house was somehow purer than it really is. Part of the myth surrounding certain architects relies upon them being thought of as more exacting, more singleminded in their pursuit of some sort of purity of expression or form. Misguided though that belief may be, it was nice to believe in it and, regardless of Ando’s later work, it was nice to believe in this house. Because of this house, adjectives such as “strong”, “uncompromising” and “pure” became part of the myth of Ando. This doesn’t excuse the conscious deceit and the misconceptions the plans and elevations continue to propagate. Personally, I believe it’s better to know the facts than believe something that’s not true. Some people will want to continue believing the myth of purity, saying that it doesn’t matter since what the house represents is more important than what it is. For them, the fact that the plans don’t represent the reality IS PROOF OF THAT, despite the evidence suggesting a clumsy compromise resulting from a legal oversight.  It looks like Ando got away with it.

建築データ 住吉の長屋(東邸) 所在地/住所 大阪府大阪市住吉区 設計 安藤忠雄/貴志雅樹(安藤忠雄建築研究所) 設計期間 1975年1月-1975年8月 工事期間 1975年10月-1976年2月 – four month construction period! 施工 まこと建設(大阪市西区) 構造設計 アスコラル構造研究所 面積 敷地面積:57.3㎡ – site area 建築面積:33.7㎡ – building area 延床面積:64.7㎡(1階33.70㎡ 2階31.0㎡) – total floor area (I wonder what accounts for the upper floor area being 2.6m2 smaller than the lower?) 高さ/階高 5,800mm/2,250mm – this second value is hopefully floor-to-floor height 建物間口 3,450mm – building width 建物奥行き 14,250mm – building depth 規模/構造 地上2階/RC造 – 2 floors; above ground, reinforced concrete 備考 第31回日本建築学会賞(作品賞)受賞[1979年]

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By way of postscript, http://yongoichi.exblog.jp/i4/ tells us that we can find the above image in this book. I doubt you’ll find it elsewhere.

1969-1996

Misfits’ Midsummernights’ Quiz

To fill in those long midsummer (or, for our southern hemisphere friends, mid-winter) nights, here’s some quick brainteasers. The answers are at the bottom – no cheating!

QUESTION 1: Which is older?

A: Villa Savoye?

or B: Joan Collins …

QUESTION 2: What did Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother give him to play with?

A. LEGO?

B. SUPERCITY?

C. Froebel Blocks?

QUESTION 3: Which architect didn’t pay enough attention to sun shading? And for which house? QUESTION 4: How much does a copy of Patrik Schumacher’s “The Autopoesis of Architecture” (Vol.I) weigh?

QUESTION 5: How many rooms on the top floor of Fallingwater? Hmm? Hmm? ••• ANSWERS •••

QUESTION 1: Which is older? Okay everybody, calm down and listen. One point for those who chose A: The Villa Savoye. Nice try. It was constructed over the period 1928-1931 but, two years on, the owners were  claiming it was still uninhabitable. So … this then makes A: Joan Collins the correct answer. Two points! She was born on 23 May, 1933 and, looking a wonderful 79 years old in the above photograph. Well done Joan! Joan Collins and Villa Savoye are both tributes – no! monuments, to the power of restorative work.

QUESTION 2: Which toy did Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother give him to keep him quiet?: Froebel Blocks is the correct answer but, for anyone who chose LEGO, half points for making me laugh. (Have long and happy lives!) B, I’m sorry, is wrong because skyscrapers weren’t invented in 1876 when little Frankie’s mother is said to have come back from the Centennial Exposition with the famous toy. “Indeed, Wright’s own mother had brought him as a child into contact with the educational ideas of Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel founder of kindergarten. His philosophy was that children, when cherished and nurtured, would grow into beautiful grown-ups each unique in his or her own characteristics and qualities [bless]. Wright never failed to credit Froebel for his earliest architectural yearnings for he later stated,”The maple-wood blocks…all are in my fingers to this day.” (look here if you think I’m making this up)

QUESTION 3: Which architect didn’t pay enough attention to sun shading? And for which house? The correct answers are Peter Eisenman and House III. QUESTION 4: How much does a copy of Patrik Schumacher’s “The Autopoesis of Architecture” weigh? The book is the first of two volumes, contains 478 pages and “only” 18 illustrations (how effing pretentious is that!). It’s also “said” (quotation marks frenzy here – apologies) to contain “a unified theory of architecture that suggests a framework for the discipline’s next phase of development…” It is unquestionably a heavy read. I stupidly thought it would be a good idea to carry it in my hand luggage so I could tackle it on a recent long-haul flight but, once aboard, for some reason preferred to watch The Hunger Games directly followed by The Avengers instead. For the return flight, I wasn’t keen to lug it around an airport once again so I packed it. When checking in, I was told my luggage was 1.5kg overweight and that the problem could probably be solved by removing “a book or something” and carrying it in my hand luggage instead. This was good advice. So, although I haven’t weighed “The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Volume I”, any answer in the realm of 1.5kg is correct. (btw: Volume II has 774 pages which strikes me as too much information.)

QUESTION 5: How many rooms on the top floor of Fallingwater? One – the study. The remainder is a waste of space – which is why it’s there, of course. It’s unclear what the third floor actually does. But then, it’s a rich man’s house. It doesn’t really have to do anything except generate complexity and the artistic (and hence, unquestionable) “certainty”  it had to be that way. Cheers.

The Beauty of the Higgs Boson

I just copied this article and added emphases where it meant something to me – mostly about missing pieces fitting.

The Beauty of the Higgs Boson

“The dust is beginning to settle – a new particle has been discovered using the Large Hadron Collider. Discovering new particles of nature is not an everyday occurrence and we are reasonably entitled to proclaim that this is the arrival of the Higgs. We aren’t certain, though: more careful examination of the particle’s properties is needed before we can be – we want to know that it has spin zero and that it couples to other particles with a strength that is in proportion to their mass. Answers to those questions and to many others will follow over the coming months and years. This is all very important – but why? Why is the discovery of a new type of particle something to get so excited about?

“The best way to appreciate the beauty of a discovery is to get stuck in, learn some mathematics and see those dazzling equations in all their glory. Examples include Einstein’s equation of general relativity, Dirac’s equation for the electron and the Lagrangian at the heart of the standard model of particle physics. But it is possible to get the gist of what a physicist means when they speak of a beautiful theory without the hard work. Before doing that let’s be clear – this is a kind of life-changing beauty. This is not titillation and it is not a conceit of the human mind – it leaves everyone who has studied these things with an overwhelming sense that the natural world operates according to some beautiful rules and that we are very fortunate to be able to appreciate them. To spend time contemplating this is thrilling. We believe that these are universal rules that would also be uncovered by sufficiently intelligent aliens on a distant planet: we are discovering something at the heart of things.

“The situation is extreme enough for greats such as Einstein and Hawking to invoke God. But they were certainly using the word to express the intimate relationship between the human mind and the glorious intelligibility of the universe. It feels like a personal thing – like we are relating to something very special. This is the sense in which Hawking once spoke of knowing the mind of God, but it doesn’t really have anything to say about the existence or not of a creator, and I’d be surprised if science will ever have anything much to say about that.

“A beautiful piece of physics is elegant. An elegant theory has the capacity to explain many apparently different things simultaneously – it means that rather than needing a library full of textbooks to explain the workings of the universe we can manage with just one book. In fact the situation is better than that – the fundamental equations that underpin all known natural phenomena can be written down on the back of an envelope. That is really true – the nature of light, the workings of the sun, the laws of electricity and magnetism, the explanation for atoms, gravity and much more can all be expressed with breathtaking economy. It is like we are in the business of discovering the rules of an elaborate game and we have figured out that they are really very simple, despite the rich variety of phenomena we see around us. Uncovering the rules of the game is exciting, and maybe one day we will know all of the rules accessible to us – that is what people are referring to when they speak about a “theory of everything”. It sounds very arrogant to speak about a theory of everything but those in pursuit of it are not so dumb. They are well aware that knowing the rules is not the whole story. A child can know the rules of chess but exploiting them to produce a classic game is far from easy. This is an illustration of how simple rules can lead to something very complicated. The study of complex phenomena and their emergence is another very exciting area of modern physics.

“Beautiful physics is also compelling. It is as if nature possesses a kind of perfection that is guiding us in our pursuit of the rules of the game. The result is that we very often have little or no choice when figuring out what equations to write down. That is a very satisfying situation to be in. It means that when we try to figure out an equation to describe something important, such as how an electron behaves, instead of saying, “Well… the equation might look like this… or maybe it looks like that… or…” we have no choice and nature simply screams out at us: “The equation simply must look like this.” Dirac’s beautiful equation is just like that – it describes the electron and predicts the existence of its anti-matter partner, the positron. Our understanding of the origins of inter-particle interactions (aka force) is like this too – starting from a very dull theory in which particles do not interact with one another (so no stars or people) and the idea that nature is symmetric in a certain way we are absolutely compelled to introduce interactions into the theory – the symmetry forces our hand and dictates how the theory should look. Symmetry is so often the device that leads to elegant and compelling theories. A snowflake is symmetric – if I draw part of one you could probably do a good job of sketching the rest. Likewise equations can be symmetric, which means we only need part of one in order to figure out the rest. In the case of particle interactions, symmetry means we can infer their necessary existence starting from the simpler equations that describe a world without any interactions at all… and that really is beautiful.

“The genius of Peter Higgs and the other physicists who proposed the existence of the Higgs boson was to take the idea of symmetry seriously. The same symmetry that gives us “for free” the theory of inter-particle interactions also appears, at first glance, to predict that nature’s elementary particles should all be without mass. That is flatly wrong and we are faced either with ditching a symmetry that has delivered so much (although that was not known when the Higgs pioneers were beavering away in the early 1960s) or figuring out an ingenious solution.

“The Higgs idea is that solution – it says empty space is jammed full of Higgs particles that deflect otherwise massless particles as they move – the more a particle is jiggled by the Higgs particles the more it has mass. As a result, the fundamental equations maintain their precious symmetry while the particles gain mass. Faith in the idea that nature’s laws should be elegant and compelling has, yet again, delivered insight. The Higgs discovery is the jewel in the crown of particle physics and a worthy testament to nature’s astonishing beauty.”

The New Architecture of Austerity

First, a quick look of what The New Architecture of Austerity is not. Even before the worst of the current economic “downturn” became evident, there had been murmurs that, considering the amount of steel it took to build, the Beijing National Stadium wasn’t perhaps the most economical or sustainable of buildings. It’s old news that the BNS’s apparently random lattice of additional steel members was intended to disguise the parallel members that were to have supported a retractable roof that was ultimately omitted.

Although the stadium’s curving steel nest grabs the most attention, the building actually combines a pair of structures: a bright-red concrete bowl for seating and the iconic steel frame around it. Sight lines from the seats to the playing field helped determine the form and dimensions of the concrete bowl, while the need to include a heavy retractable roof (a requirement in the competition brief) informed the giant crisscrossing steel members on the outside of the building. Because the architects disliked the massive parallel beams necessary to support the retractable roof, they developed a lacy pattern for the other steel elements to disguise them.
http://archrecord.construction.com/projects/portfolio/archives/0807nationalstadium-1.asp

It’s difficult to see where these massive parallel beams are, but this photo gives you an idea of how the structure is organised around some 24 very large vertical columns, and how the infill “tertiary” structure is going to fit in.

It’s more obvious from these images from www.thestructuralengineer.info that the building’s structure is a series of linked portal frames.

Apparently, it’s the bird spit that makes their nests so delicious. And so with buildings, it seems. A bit of ornamental steel hasn’t done China’s or Herzog de Meuron’s reputations any harm. Nor OMA’s for that matter.

It’s never good to quote Rem Koolhaas too much since repetition might make some of the things he says become true – this quote from Junkspace, for example.

“Minimum is the ultimate ornament, a self-righteous crime, the contemporary Baroque. It does not signify beauty, but guilt. Its demonstrative earnestness drives whole civilizations in the welcoming arms of camp and kitsch. Ostensibly a relief from constant sensorial onslaught, minimum is maximum in drag, a stealth laundering of luxury: the stricter the lines, the more irresistible the seductions. Its role is not to approximate the sublime, but to minimize the shame of consumption, drain embarassment, to lower the higher.”

There’s two versions of this quote. One says “minimum is maximum in drag, a stealth laundering of luxury.” The other says “minimum is … a stealth repression of luxury”. It doesn’t matter which is intended because minimum is just another way to waste money making a building appear as something it is not. Just as buildings are opaque and not transparent, and heavy instead of weightless, buildings are objects constructed from many smaller bits, not carved from plastic white matter. In typical journalist style, RK gets you to agree with something first, and then lulls you into agreeing with what comes next. Having made us suspect minimalism quite rightly, but for the wrong reasons, RK offers us stealth ornament, justified in terms of structure.

In an earlier post, I talked about how, as well as being just one big ornament in itself, how parts of the structure of the CCTV building also ornamental. I used this image to show how some parts of what appears to be the structure, can’t possibly be structural.

Actually, none of what we see is structural. Check out this section.

The main structure of the CCTV is a continuous grid of diagonal steel beams – called a structural diagrid – which cover the whole building. Where the loads are too big, the diagrid is doubled or even quadrupled. In addition to this structure there is a orthogonal structure which consists of vertical load-bearing columns and horizontal perimeter edge beams. These two grids penetrate the concrete slab at a certain distance from the façade. The diagrid is repeated on the outside where it holds the windows in place – this is actually what we see from the outside.
http://design.epfl.ch/piraeus/tag/cctv

The box beams inside the building are the bits that, together with the columns and horizontal beams, are doing all the work. On the facade, decorative channel beams generally indicate the positions of these box beams, except for some joke places where they don’t. What is one to make of all this? At first I thought it was no worse than Ludwig Mies’ non-structural I-beams on the Seagram Building.

But it is. The Seagram Building’s non-structural I-beams are not pretending to be structural, although I imagine they keep the glazing frames rather rigid. With Seagram we have a structural element used as ornament, divorced from any meaningful structural role. One could argue that every part of a building is structural in the sense that it at least supports itself but, with CCTV, what we have is a decorative structure that tells us where the actually functioning structure is but even this is not telling the full truth. As well as parts of that virtual structure being playfully missing, the bits of it that we see are only the diagonal beams – the equally important load bearing columns and horizontal perimeter edge beams are not part of the story of this building’s struggle to stand up. What we see is “based on a true story” rather than the truth.

I’m not trying to make a case for some new kind of structural purism or some revival of “honesty” of structural expression. The whole concept of structural “expression” is dishonest anyway. As soon as it became less expensive to hide it, out it came and expression had little to do with it. The inside of CCTV is all about the structure (as it has to be) yet the outside is all about the expression of a structure. To put it another way, the structure is being expressed, but it requires another structure to do it. It’s a strange world, this world of architecture.

It seems that architects are programmed to do things “for effect”. Exceptions are rare, but here’s one. It’s easy to make a high-cost house but, here, the idea was to make a low-cost house. Much thought and skill has gone into it. Misfits salutes H Arquitectes.

This clarity of thought can also be seen in some of their other buildings where the only ornament results from the process of construction. See how these timbers turn the corner? See how evenly the nails are spaced? Somebody has thought about the construction and, with no use of extra materials, made it into a thing of beauty. I think this might be a core principle of The New Architecture of Austerity.

Culture, History, etc. and BUILDINGS (1)

These days, a lot of what you hear about, or read about on the internet as justification for why a certain building is the way it is, is culture and history. These two words are repeated a lot in many architecture articles that get published. They are usually used in the sense that having a building mimic the culture and history of that particular location is a good thing and would create an excellent building that people could live in. Of course, people writing those articles don’t take the effort to explain how it exactly does that, nor why one would take such an approach to design buildings. This is beginning to irritate me.

I can understand that culture might affect a building via its internal planning – how spaces should be planned with respect to any cultural/privacy concerns that the client might have, or even some of its ‘form’ like the size of windows, their location, etc. which is perfectly fine. However, sadly, that is never the case. It is always “the form” or the shape of the building that is the executive presenter of whatever cultural “concept”, or any other type of silliness the project might use to explain its shape. 

As I was browsing ArchDaily – as I do – I ran into a project in The Philippines that  inspired me to write this. This project set a new record for me in the amount of non-sense any project text could possibly have.

1310575242-3-artists-center-buensalido-architects-528x239

The problem with this type of bullshit is two things. First it says a certain ‘thing’ about a project, which is not true, and cannot be proven, and it doesn’t try to prove it. And second, it doesn’t even try to make an explanation of why such a ‘thing’ should decide what this building must be like, or that using this approach would make up for a good building, or good architecture, or whatever the purpose of architecture is.

Design Concept:
“A TAPESTRY OF THE FILIPINO CULTURE”
Weaving as Core Concept

The Philippines is known for its hybrid of cultural identities. The descendants hailed from different countries, eventually forming intricate layers of diverse characteristics which now define Filipinos. Their distinctiveness, therefore, lies in that hybridity – they are a unique tapestry of interwoven cultures.

Weaving is a manifestation of coming together to bind, intertwine and strengthen materials. With the help of many interlaced threads, a single thread can form part of an extremely stronger fabric, as evidenced in many artifacts of vernacular culture: strands of Buri thread can form a banig; otherwise delicate Jusi Fiber can form an intricate Barong Tagalog; and a united people can overthrow unjust leaders. This symbolism of coming and standing as one– weaving together different parts to form a coherent and strong whole – is applied in different levels of design proposals to serve as a constant reminder of their collective strength as a country.

Ya ya. The article is giving us some information about threads, and how weaving more threads together makes a strong fabric. After that, it suggests that this ‘symbolism’ has been applied in ‘different levels’ throughout Buensalido Architects’ design proposal.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, one of the things with such prototypes is that they start explaining a certain idea that is supposedly connected somehow to where the building is located, or its use, and then go on to suggest that the building has been designed according to that idea.

1310575246-4-artists-center-buensalido-architects-1000x536

In this case that ‘idea’ is weaving threads around each other. I think it looks more like a pile of pancakes than threads, which would have been impossible since you can’t have buildings made out of threads, people will fall out of it, and you don’t want that to happen.

Even if they really ‘looked’ like threads, were they really woven together to form a stronger fabric? And what does weaving threads together have to do with Philippine’s hybrid of cultural identities? Would such a design really remind people of that? Will anyone looking at the building spontaneously say “Oh look Sonny Boy, doesn’t that building remind you of the rich cultural identity our country has!”? No it would not, which leaves that whole article as nothing but a big lie.

The other thing about such prototypes is the question of why would you want to do that? Why would you think such an approach will make your building any better? Or that it will make people’s life easier and more enjoyable when they’re using the building? IT. WONT.

Architects who write such stuff about their buildings probably don’t believe in it themselves, but think they can convince client with it, take his money for doing such a stupid building, and get away with it. It’s a bit like my previous post, The Emperor’s New Clothes if you may. Somebody needs to be that kid and tell those people that they’re not helping humanity in any way at all, but are just wasting their resources.

I’ll cover other similarly misused concepts such as history and ‘hunting the past’ in the second part of this post. Until then.

Cheers

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.


Where Architecture went wrong

Mainly known for his writings, Vitruvius was himself an architect. In Roman times architecture was a broader subject than at present including the modern fields of architecture,construction management, construction engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, materials engineering, mechanical engineering, military engineering and urban planning.

Vitruvius is the author of De architectura, known today as The Ten Books on Architecture, a treatise written of Latin and Greek on architecture, dedicated to the emperor Augustus. This text “influenced deeply from the Early Renaissance onwards artists, thinkers, and architects, among them Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), and Michelangelo (1475-1564).”

Vitruvius is famous for asserting in his book De architectura that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas — that is, it must be solid, useful, beautiful. According to Vitruvius, architecture is an imitation of nature. As birds and bees built their nests, so humans constructed housing from natural materials, that gave them shelter against the elements.

Vitruvius didn’t say buildings have to actually look like birds’ nests or bees’ nests. It’s more likely he meant that similar principles of using available resources efficiently should apply. This leads to an entirely different view of architecture.

Exhibit A

Graham McKay