Tag Archives: Rem Koolhaas

The New Inhumanism

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It’s almost twelve months to the day since I scared myself reading a 2013 book that, it was claimed, re-theorized Post Modernism. “FML,” I thought, “of all the things that need new life breathed into them, we get this one!” Anxiously watching for further signs, I began a draft.

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About the book, The Graham Foundation wrote [underlines mine]:

“In this fascinating reassessment of postmodern architecture at the end of the twentieth century, Emmanuel Petit addresses the role of irony and finds a vitality and depth of dialectics largely ignored by historical critiques. A look at five proponents of postmodernism—Peter Eisenman (b. 1932), Arata Isozaki (b. 1931), Rem Koolhaas (b. 1944), Stanley Tigerman (b. 1930), and Robert Venturi (b. 1925)— reveals the beginning of a phenomenology of irony in architecture. As Petit explains, irony is manifested in the work of these architects in a variety of ways, including its use as an aesthetic tool, as existential comedy, as Romantic tragedy, and as cultural satire.

BDOnline  July 2013, wrote:

“It explores the condition beyond that of “neither/nor” to “both/and” … seeks to convey something beyond that which can be directly seen, through overlayering of experience, historical recollection and tactility. They show something deliberately yet falsely constructed, removed from use, something which goes beyond the idea of the “natural” and reveals itself as artifice.”

“Even for those not keen on this particular ism though, it investigates a time when architects questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society, unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction – a thesis surely worth reevaluating by today’s practitioners, regardless of their stylistic inclinations.”

The source of my disquiet was my new knowledge that Post Modernism and Neoliberalism are creatures of the same era.

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Seen in this light, the statement “Even for those not keen on this particular ism though, this book investigates a time when architects questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society, unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction – a thesis surely worth re-evaluating by today’s practitioners, regardless of their stylistic inclinations” is light with the truth. Yes, Post Modern architects may have questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society but their answer was to redefine their field of endeavour to exclude responsibility for real action and, in its place

  1. show something deliberately yet falsely constructed, removed from use, something which goes beyond the idea of the “natural” and reveals itself as artifice,
  2. seek to convey something beyond that which can be directly seen, through overlayering of experience, historical recollection and tactility, and
  3. in a variety of ways, including its use as an aesthetic tool, as existential comedy, as Romantic tragedy, and as cultural satire.

In short, Architects now thought of themselves as cultural commentators rather than cultural facilitators. And, as for “… unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction …”, we shouldn’t assume the correct weaknesses were ever unmasked – just the convenient ones. e.g. The cure for the alienation famously supposedly felt by the residents of Pruitt Igoe wasn’t a programme of preventive maintenance to fix things, but a new look for corporate architecture across the western world and beyond.

There’s also something intellectually and morally offensive about anyone giving anyone cause to write “defining the heyday of irony as the period between the demolition of Pruit Igoe and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers” but I’ll get over it. I no longer care about Post Modernism being re-theorized. I’m more worried about Post Modernism being de-theorized and remembered and presented to us as having been nothing more than a style. We see the decorative arts as the advance guard grooming us to see post modernism as only haptic pleasure, and what a frenzy there currently is to do it! We’re being love-bombed with high-profile exhibitions and glowing reviews.

After the groundwork is done, the production of contemporary artefacts in the style of Post Modernism finishes the job.

The surest way to kill off any architectural movement of social worth is to make people think of it as a style that can then be summarily dismissed as outdated. Recent renewed interest in Brutalism considered it only as a visual style, with no mention of it ever having been part of any wider social agenda. [c.f. HIGH-RISE]

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At first, I found it difficult to imagine what inconvenient ideas Post Modernism may have ever had in order to warrant this sudden neutering by revival but there is one, and it has nothing to do with any specific meaning or meanings. It’s the notion that buildings could convey meaning at all that needed killing, and it’s no accident this process is now taking place now.

This LA Review of Books review of Douglas Spencer’s The Architecture of Neoliberalism will bring you up to speed on architecture and neoliberalism.

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Mention is made of “the affective turn” architecture took around 1975.

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Basically,

IF WE CAN FORGET THAT THINGS WERE ONCE THOUGHT TO CONVEY MEANING,

WE WILL BE MORE RECEPTIVE TO AN ARCHITECTURE OF AFFECT THAT AIMS TO KILL OUR CAPACITY FOR CRITICAL THINKING.

I actually doubt it’s possible to devise an architecture of pure affect (and rid the world of pesky criticism once and for all as per the gameplan) but, as with most things, a crude approximation will probably do the trick anyway despite it being no more possible to wish away semiotics than it is to unlearn rational construction. Even poster post-modernist buildings were constructed rationally, with columns and slabs like many a good modernist building before.

If you’re finding it hard to accept that contemporary architecture has become an instrument of control and compliance then consider this next example of Late Koolhaas. As a contribution to the architecture of affect, it doesn’t appear to be saying anything but this doesn’t make it impervious to criticism for – and this is the conceptual leap – who trusts what an architect’s stated intentions are anymore anyway? It’s easier to retrieve the real intentions of a Renaissance architect than it is for any of our current lot. Perhaps that transparency is what made the Renaissance a renaissance? We’re clearly not living in one.

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Semiotics won’t just die because somebody wants it to, or says it has. Just as an anti-aesthetic is still an aesthetic because things doggedly persist in having physical properties, those same physical properties mean that any building purporting to be an architecture of affect still has a visual presence we can interpret and criticise as we wish.

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The defining characteristic of Neoliberalist Style is to deny buildings their identity as things built for humans to even appreciate, let alone be used by. Buildings look as if they came from another planet and with subjugation in mind. [No surprise there.] Omrania & Associates / Ellerbe Becket’s Kingdom Centre Tower in Riyadh nailed the look back in 2002.

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  1. COLOUR: Greyscale denies any association with the natural world.
  2. PATTERN: No indication of floor heights or windows for use by humans. This denial of human scale is more than the absence of alleged feelgood factors. It’s a demonstration of contempt for humanity per se. This includes denying the building has even been constructed by the labour of humans.
  3. SHAPE: Shape is determined by factors other than what goes on inside. It cannot be “read” in terms of function or who or what may perform those functions. The shape acknowledges no external factors. Environment and context mean nothing.
  4. POSITION: Positioning with respect to an axis or axes brings immediate surroundings into the composition, extending the building’s “reach” and making it the focal point of its new home.
  5. ALIGNMENT: Alignment reinforces positioning. The combination of axes and symmetries are the tried and tested indicators of power and authority. (“You are an extension of me. I give you meaning.”)
  6. SIZE: Size seems to not have been determined by any human program. Again, this is a denial of humans and their various needs. Buildings whose size has no obvious reason show dismiss human scale (and humans) by either having either no indicators of it, or by having a monumental scale in contempt of it.

Meaning, whether intentional or not, can only evoked by these six physical attributes architects manipulate when they design buildings.

In the case of Kingdom Centre Tower, all six are accounted for and all are saying much the same thing. All or most of those characteristics are shared by the following buildings, most of which seem to be coming at us from the Koolhaas constellation of the Architectural Association nebula.

• • •

  • Landscaping and masterplanning exist to dominate and assimilate, not to integrate, or even to conflate. (i.e. “You exist for me. I am your reason for being. You are part of my plan.”)
  • The New Inhumanism’s fascination with complex curves begins to make sense. Adult humans stand upright to move – it’s what makes us human – and humans don’t require anything more than vertical walls and a constant minimum headroom to do that. Any building without that, or appearing to do without that is most likely New Inhumanist.
  • Shapes tell nothing of what the building does or why it is there. (i.e. “You do not need to know.”)
  • Colours and materials have no associations with the natural world. You are not likely to see a New Inhumanist building of rock, brick or timber.
  • These airport examples are the weakest in this selection. Surface, Placement and Size characteristics are all New Inhumanist in appearance but authoritarian Placement is overridden by us knowing a functional relationship exists with surrounding infrastructure, preventing the necessary opacity of presence and intent. Airports may look New Inhumanist but we still know them to exist for the sake of people.
  • Monolithic, static and geometrically determined shapes denote authority, strength, and solidity, and with none of the contrivance involved in using angles and curves to represent dynamism but without implying progress.
  • Obfuscation of scale denies any intent to relate to humans, whether inside or outside. (i.e. “You are nothing.”)

• • •

Resistance may be futile but, as long as we continue to celebrate The New Inhumanism, it’s not even conceivable.

 

 

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Architecture Myths #23: Architecture

Structural engineers and quantity surveyors have always been core consultants in the building industry but their roles can often be performed by an architect if the job isn’t too large. With large jobs though, the requirements are too great and diverse for any one architect or practice to handle so it’s both inevitable and desirable to have some separation of roles. This increased separation brings clarity to the role of the architect on large jobs. Sole practitioners with small jobs never had any doubt.

And neither did the general public. Their perception of what a sole practitioner does may be a tad more rosy or stereotyped than it actually is but it’s not too far from the truth. In the case of high-profile jobs and high-profile architects however, that perception is wildly out of sync with reality.

Design generation in the offices of high-profile architects is now taken care of by the intern-farm where every project is given to a group of new recruits to see what they can come up with. That sounds casual, but it’s anything but. Those ideas are then “curated” and the one hitting the most buttons is selected for development.

Designing buildings or even generating ideas for the design of one are no longer tasks performed by high-profile architects.  

The US has the Architect of Record system which “is common when high-profile architects win design bids but find themselves in need of architects with more practical skills or knowledge of local conditions. Or more pragmatically, the high-profile architect simply needs an architect who is local to the project site, facilitating quicker site visits and project oversight.”

Practical skills, knowledge of local conditions, site visits and project oversight are not part of the skill set of high-profile architects.  

There are also Executive Architects that are local firms “responsible for corresponding with city agencies about code compliance, tender documents, client communication and creating up to 90 percent of the construction documents and carry out construction inspections are similar.”

Corresponding with city agencies re. code compliance, producing tender documents, producing construction documents, performing client communication and performing construction inspections are of course not skills required of high-profile architects.

In a recent address reported in the New York Post, Rafael Viñoly said the wide framing around the windows at his recently-completed 432 Park Avenue took up too much floor space and said it was the idea of the developer who wanted the view properly “framed”. Viñoly also wasn’t happy with many bathrooms being at the front of the apartments.

At left above is a window with said problematic viewframe. Me, I never used to mind it when I thought it was solid concrete but I do now I know it’s bullshit boxing. The image on the right shows a window with one of the problematic bathrooms. I don’t really buy into the “eating into the floor area” argument. If something doesn’t eat into the floor area then something else like a freestanding egg-shaped bathtub with Dornbracht polished chrome bath fittings will. Apartment layouts btw are by Deborah Berke Partner, headed by Deborah Berke (who happens to be the new dean at Yale, I hear).

Internal layouts are not something high-profile architects dirty their hands with.

Whoever dirtied their hands with New York by Gehry did an okay job of squeezing the most value out of [into?] the floor plate but Frank Gehry is probably not that person.

The trouble is, it’s accepted. The person living in the $3,150 pcm studio above isn’t paying for Frank Gehry’s skill at apartment planning. They’re paying to be living in New York in a building ostensibly designed by Frank Gehry – a fact rammed home by the building’s current monicker. That Gehry has no time for sustainability suggests the commerical uplift enabled by high-profile architects eclipses any uplift provided by sustainable building construction and practices. For now, anyway.

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Knowledge of the practice and delivery of sustainability is not on the CV of high-profile architects. 

In a December 2013 review of Zaha Hadid Architects’ Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku for the Architectural Review, Peter Cook contributed an 1,850-word review that famously omitted to tell anyone what the building was made out of. This is how the media lowers our standards. People interested in architecture are discouraged from wondering how a building is constructed. According to Peter Cook, all that lay people need do is wonder, preferably in awe at the architect’s genius.

Displaying a sense for materiality and construction are not concerns of high-profile architects. [High-profile architects do of course have a sense for materiality and construction but these both remind us of the labour that goes into the construction of buildings, and displaying evidence of that is not the done thing these days.]   

I recently saw these next images in a YouTube video.

The one on the left is what the architects gave to the visualizer. The one in the middle is the basics in place and the one on the right is the final product. It was all done in 48 hours using a “workflow” of Sketchup, VRay and Photoshop. This process is not a collaboration – it’s just two consultants doing their jobs, sending files back and forth and maybe even communicating only by email.

  • The architects were responsible for designing the development footprint and volume for the sake of the clients and/or financiers who will benefit
  • The visualizers were responsible for managing the perception of the project by those it will exploit. They include municipalities, retailers, workers, shoppers, the general public and anyone else who likes to think they’re stakeholders.

Each of the above images contains some aspect of what might traditionally be called architectural design but, individually, none can be said to be architectural design. With the internal layout examples I mentioned above, it was the inside of the building that was no longer the concern of high-profile architects but, with this example, it’s the exterior.

EUREKA MOMENT: What these seemingly contradictory examples have in common is a split between development gain and perception management.

Bjarke Ingels’s “genius” was to fuse development gain and perception management into one and the same thing and to the exclusion of all else. That in itself was a masterwork of perception management.

Architecture = development gain + perception management

 

Taking credit for development gain used to be thought grubby but it’s now something openly celebrated as architecture or what passes for it. There’s only one conclusion to be made when development gain and perception management have fused so neatly and strongly.

Architecture as anything other than perception management is no longer a concern of high-profile architects. 

Even development gain becomes irrelevant when the buildings themselves are built as exercises in perception management. You could say it was always so, from Knufu through to Hitler, Aliyev, and our new tech overlords.

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Perception management is the basic product starchitects offer. If Azerbaijan, Khazakhstan and China are anything to go by, the level of starchitect activity correlates with a country’s appreciation of the power of (and need for) perception management. The same goes for companies. I’ve avoided using the word starchitect up till now but the fact it gets up the noses of people like Gehry, Schumacher and Koolhaas is reason enough to use it. Speaking of, a disproportionate amount of starchitect noise arrives at us from the Koolhaas Nebula. Former employees inspired by and/or disenchanted with working for RK are said to have gone on to start some 90 practices globally.

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In addition to Rem Koolhaas himself, others whose work is singled out for analysis in Douglas Spencer’s The Architecture of Neoliberalism include Zaha Hadid, Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi. I hope some future book will scrutinize the oeuvre of Bjarke Ingels (for reasons that are becoming increasingly obvious) and also that of Fernando Romero (whose father-in-law was richest person in the world 2010-2013).

For me and anyone else who used to wonder what magical principle RK was communicating to all those people we watched get rewarded with fame for systematically narrowing the notion of architecture to what we’re left with today … well, now we know.

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Here’s some development gain and perception management in action: This is aforementioned Fernando Romero and NBF Sir Norman Foster in matching blue shirts, ignoring their coffees and phones to pose for this important photo of a plan the new Mexico City Airport. Both are doing the “hands-on” thing but Foster’s also doing his trademark “jacket-off” thing.

Different Strokes

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

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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

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and Toyo Ito and his dragon-shaped stadium.

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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.

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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.

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#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.

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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?

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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.
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In response to a 2009 story titled “Architectural Pornography?” at http://newsjunkie.bdonline.co.uk/2009/08/26/architectural-pornography/ OMA denied that the Beijhadquarters 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, I believe Koolhaas’ wife produced some of the illustrations. All of the above associations may well 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. 

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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. 

• • •

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.

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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.

Brands as Architectural Legacy

I never expected to look back at the 1990’s and think it was a kinder, gentler era.

Behind the Postmodern Facade
Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America
Magali Sarfatti Larson, 1993

How architecture has changed and how the systems for its production have changed along with it is an important topic but the book itself is somewhat dated. This post will attempt to update it but first, a bit of background.

Many people imagine the making of buildings to take place in a situation where a group of architects is happy working away for a figurehead personality who is the creative force. This is partially correct.

Le Corbusier

In the case of Le Corbusier however, we’re not even aware of there ever having been an office and a largeish team of people getting all those buildings drawn, detailed, site-managed and built. History is only concerned with authorship and not the process or mechanics of getting it done. On the other hand, with Le Corbusier, we can reasonably suspect he was the author of projects attributed to him.   

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Who were these people? What happened to them?

Frank Lloyd Wright

With Frank Lloyd Wright, the contributions of employees such as Marion Griffin have been systematically underrated or misaccredited. It wasn’t he who did those lovely drawings he took on his extended trip to Europe.

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Of the Taliesin alumni, John Lautner is the one who most made a name for himself. As mentioned in What happens when architects die?, Wright’s office continued on for a while after the posthumous completions were exhausted.

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The Architects’ Collaborative

In Dessau, Walter Gropius detached the teaching of architecture from its documentation and construction quite literally as well. The much-photographed design students and their various antics in the workshop and studio buildings were architecturally separated from the income-generating students learning drafting and construction skills in the standard classrooms of the technical school.  

In America, Gropius extended this innovation into the professional sphere by detaching the promotion of architectural ideas from their generation, allowing figurehead personalities to sell themselves and their brand without having to be involved with the tiresome processes of building creation, documentation and construction. [This seems to have been a consistent and lifelong theme of his.] The Architects’ Collaborative (1945-1995) consisted of seven architects led and guided by Walter Gropius as figurehead personality. It’s impossible to name any member who was not Walter Gropius. 

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Originally, each of the eight partners [!?] would hold weekly meetings on a Thursday to discuss their projects and be open to design input and ideas. However, as the firm grew larger there were many more people on a team and it was more difficult to consolidate into one group. Therefore, many other “groups” of architects within the firm were formed and carried out the same original objective.

The status quo

This system of nested hierarchices is what we have today with offices divided into teams with a team leader and those who execute their instructions.  

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A design idea is still likely to come from a Head of Architecture outside the team, but more likely to have met the clients and had a hand in winning the commission in the first place. When a job is landed, the Head of Architecture assesses each team’s skills and stage of completion of their project, and chooses to either reallocate staff or projects or, if the project is a major one, to cannibalize teams and configure a new one having the appropriate skills and size.

Frank Gehry

At Frank Gehry’s office, designers are encouraged to design in the style of Frank Gehry and those designs are then run by him for approval. Sometimes he even changes them completely [!], it is said. This is no different from any commercial practice with a house style.

Of course it’s frustrating for workers to be taken off one job and assigned to another so, in order to motivate those who became architects because they wanted to design, they’re tossed occasional design bones in the form of an internal competitions for some new project. They work on this in their own time and so reveal to their boss the degree to which they have bought into the myth of the ambitious yet overworked and underpaid creative.

The system initiated by Gropius has left us a situation where it’s no longer obvious where architectural ideas are coming from. This has its advantages. If a practice wants to win work from high-profile competitions, one design brain simply isn’t enough.

Has there ever been a time in the history of architecture when there are so many competitions? This is where the theme of the book at the head of this post becomes relevant. An environment rich in competitions produces a system of architectural production exquisitely evolved (with all the pros and cons that that implies) to produce architectural firms that feed off them. Competition-driven practices like to call themselves research-driven practices. They also like to tell us they are research-driven practices as this makes it seems a noble endeavour to have much activity yet nothing to show for it. Clients, for their part, like competitions not only because they increase their options and allow for a ‘prescreening’, but also because the promotional efforts of several practices contributes to the media circus that anyway surrounds high-profile competitions. [c.f. Celebrity Shootout] It’s a symbiotic relationship.

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Back in the 1990s, practices that could afford to, formed ‘elite’ teams for the purpose of winning competitions, but when the ideal form of practice becomes the kind that produces the kind of architecture that wins competitions, every project starts to be treated as a competition and all staff start to get tossed design bones on a regular basis in order to keep them keen. This leaves figurehead personalities free to concentrate on curating those ideas and marketing them, and the workers happy to generate concepts and live the dream. A large number of interns guarantees low overheads, a freshness that grizzled and experienced staff don’t have and, importantly, wild ideas that, if ever realized, make us wonder anew at the mystery of architecture by making us redefine yet again what it is a building can be. Over and over again. It’s a new kind of hell, basically. 

OMA

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Occasional reports such as this by a former intern at OMA’s Hong Kong office do the media circuit. The story is always the same. Intense. Long hours. Pressure. Exilarating. Unforgettable. Burnout. 

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Bjarke Ingels describes his experience at OMA in these now standard terms and, despite claiming to have left because he disapproved of the relentless pressure to produce, seems to have replicated OMA system of battery farming ideas for buildings. He now describes himself as a curator of ideas.

 • • •

Many employees, especially those who have just graduated, accept such high-pressure work as normal until they realize they are 1) overworked, 2) underpaid, and 3) under-appreciated. It’s not just the minions. Senior staff also jump ship if they have observed the food chain long enough to understand how it works and have come to the conclusion “I can do that!” They’re not driven by the desire to create architecture but by the desire to have the benefits of  having their own branding machine. [c.f. Monetising Architectural Fame] Ken Shuttleworth famously departed Foster + Partners in 2004 to set up MAKE. How many of F+P’s designers jumped with him was never made public but rumours at the time put it around 30%. Within weeks, MAKE’s debut press release was a multicoloured building conspicuously shaped not like a gherkin.

Architecture Building of The Vortex in London by Make Architects copy

Equally sensationally, Joshua Prince Ramus, departed as head of OMA’s NY operation in 2000 to set up REX. The then website took pains to put some distance between them and OMA. Their current About page is not much different.

We design collaborations rather than dictate solutions. The media sells simple, catchy ideas; it reduces teams to individuals and their collaborative work to genius sketches. The proliferation of this false notion of “starchitecture” diminishes the real teamwork that drives celebrated architecture. REX believes architects should guide collaboration rather than impose solutions.

We replace the traditional notion of authorship: “I created this object,” with a new one: “We nurtured this process.”We embrace responsibility in order to implement vision.The implementation of good ideas demands as much, if not more, creativity than their conceptualization. Increasingly reluctant to assume liability, architects have retreated from the accountability (and productivity) of Master Builders to the safety (and impotence) of stylists. To execute vision and retain the insight that facilitates architectural invention, REX re-engages responsibility. Processes, including contractual relationships, project schedules, and procurement strategies, are the stuff with which we design.

Former OMA partner Ole Scheeren has trod the same path.

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ZHA

Of all the OMA spawn, ZHA is unique in leaving no confusion as to where authorship lies – although the definition of authorship is stretched somewhat when the original creative idea is not even called a concept. 

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It is called an irritant – in the hope of evoking notions of oysters and pearls and of something initiating a process to creates something of value. The big advantage of the irritant is that it allows its generator to technically claim the right to be recognised as author.

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• • •

If one is going to stop one’s best people drifting off to set up shop for themselves, it pays to keep them on a long leash. Shohei Shigematsu, current partner and head of OMA’s NY operation since 2008 is allowed to outline his plan to bring new dimensions to the NY OMA brand. Let’s see how that goes.

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There’s no denying the number of people who have worked for OMA and thought “I can do that!”

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OMA seems destined to never become the brand umbrella of architectural design in the same way that LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) is for luxury goods, or architecture behemoth AECOM is for the less glamorous side of the building business.

• • •

I’ve come to admire Asnago & Vender all the more for buying into none of this. Instead, they left us a large and coherent legacy of useful buildings designed and built over five decades, mostly in the same city. I admire them for refusing to conceive of their buildings as vehicles for their self-promotion. They made themselves a reputation, not a brand. This distinction is no longer important. It’s not even that having a strong brand is now seen as better than having a good reputation. Having a strong brand is seen as an end in itself. Nothing else exists or matters.

• • •

23 Oct. 2016: Thom Brisco kindly tweeted me this today, saying it gives “an insight on the Corb-gap from Polish-born Swedish architect Léonie Geisendorf who worked in his office in the 1930s.” It does indeed. 

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The Red Igloo

Once upon a time, all Inuit people made igloos the same way. They made them out of snow because snow didn’t cost anything, it was there, they had a lot of it, and there would always be more tomorrowThey pressed snow into block shapes and laid them one by one in a spiral that became smaller and smaller until it made a dome.

They made a little entrance to keep the wind out. It always faced away from the wind. And they made a little hole in the wall to let the light in. It always faced the sun. It was as perfect as it could be. For a very long time, everyone made their igloos like this.

Every now and then there was a small change that made igloos even better. Putting a piece of plastic over the hole let the light in and kept the wind out. It was better than a sealskin curtain.

Apart from these small changes, igloos remained much the same. Nobody could really make them that much better.

* * *

Inuit people still tell stories of a man called Biisaiyowaq. He is famous. He is part of the history of igloos. This is what happened.

* * *

One day, when Biisaiyowaq was out hunting, he came across a dead polar bear. He took two bowls of its blood, mixed it with about a cubic metre of snow, and used it to make a red igloo for himself.

A short time after, people came to look at what Biisaiyowaq had done.

They all looked at his red igloo and thought the same thing. The first person to say it out loud was a child. The child said, “It’s red! Everything else is white. It looks DIFFERENT!” Everyone was quiet for a while.

* * *

Then one of the adults suddenly said, “It’s NEW!”

Almost at the same time, another said, “It’s MODERN!”

Another said, “It’s BEAUTIFUL!”

People were now all saying things at the same time. “You’re a GENIUS!” “It’s so ORIGINAL!” “You’re so CREATIVE!”

One person holding a pencil and paper said, “A truly bold and original artistic statement!”

* * *

One old woman said, “I remember a story my grandmother once told me about a red igloo. You have brought this story alive, made it real for me. I feel RECONNECTED WITH WHO I AM!”

Another person said, “People, we all know it’s not all snow white out there. There’s polar bear blood, whale blood, walrus blood and seal blood splattered everywhere. White is just what we have to live with.  Red is WHO WE ARE! Red is HOW WE LIVE.”

While everyone was thinking this over, someone at the back said, “I don’t like it.”

Another said, “Me neither. That IS NOT an igloo!”

The man with the pencil and paper said, “Don’t you see? This red igloo opens up a new world of possibilities for igloos! It redefines IGLOOS FOR OUR TIMES! It makes us think again about EVERYTHING an igloo can be.”

* * *

Biisaiyowaq went inside his igloo and sat down.

He remembered how much EASIER it had been to shape the snow when it had polar bear blood mixed in. It had saved him a lot of time. He thought about all the time everyone else could save. They could spend that time hunting for more food, or inside their igloos eating ice cream and sharing stories with their friends and families.

He remembered how much STRONGER the red snow had been. He hadn’t needed to use as much of the pure white snow. He had been able to leave more of it where it was, looking pretty.

He remembered how polar bears stayed away from his red igloo and how much SAFER he felt because of that. He thought about how much safer everyone else could be too.

He remembered how the red snow made the inside of the igloo WARMER. He didn’t know why, but he knew he didn’t have to use as much whale oil to keep it warm. He thought about all the whale oil the others would save. He thought about all the whales that would not have to be killed.

He remembered all these things but, most of all, he remembered how simple it had been. All he had to do was tell everyone to mix two bowls of polar bear blood into about a cubic metre of snow. He stood up and went outside.

* * *

There was a big crowd now. They all rushed towards Biisaiyowaq. “I want a red igloo!” “I want one too!” “We all want one!” “Please show us all how to make them!”

* * *

They stopped talking when they saw Biisaiyowaq was about to speak. Biisaiyowaq said, “I’m sorry, I can’t teach you. This is something only I can do. You have to know how to choose the right polar bear and kill it in a certain way and at a certain time. I can’t explain how I know this, but I do. It’s an art. Trust me.”

* * *

Everyone was disappointed. One big person suddenly shouted, “It doesn’t matter! I’ll pay you to make a red igloo for me.” Another, bigger one, said, “I will pay you more!” The man with the pencil and paper (who was actually bigger than them all) said, “Once I tell everyone else, you will be FAMOUS. You will never have to hunt again!” And he rushed off to tell everyone else.

* * *

And so it came to be that, apart from killing the occasional seal for blood to make his red igloos, Biisaiyowaq never had to hunt again.

Graham McKay
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