Tag Archives: Sustainability and aesthetics

The Shape of Green

There’s no lack of ethical or economic arguments for sustainability. Taken in by its promising title, I had high hopes Lance Hosey’s The Shape of Green would finally provide us with an aesthetics of sustainability as part of a larger philosophy of sustainability.

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“The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology and Design” Lance Hosey, Island Press, 2012″

Hosey begins promisingly, claiming beauty and sustainability aren’t as incompatible as they’re commonly believed to be but very soon goes off the rails. If beauty and sustainability aren’t so incompatible, then why identify some buildings as environmentally virtuous but ugly and then suggest that “dressing them up” isn’t the way forward? Why praise Renzo Piano and Norman Foster for synthesising two qualities that aren’t incompatible? I hope Hosey’s not admiring F&P’s Greater London Authority headquarters.

  • Overhanging a building is an expensive way of shading glazing from the torrid London sun.
  • GLA’s eggy shape may theoretically have volumetric efficiencies but, once enclosed, that volume is then squandered on a void around an ornamental staircase. Stupid.

Hosey’s a shapeist. He claims that some sources claim that early, elementary design decisions about shape can influence the environmental impact of a building – up to 90% apparently, but 90% of what we’re not told. 

He’s also a commercial man at heart and offers a commercial justitification for a sustainability that’s phrased in terms of conventional [visual] aesthetics. Here are some of his arguments.

We’re more likely to treasure a thing for longer if we find attractive.

Hosey wants beautiful things to be seen as virtuous rather than the other way around. This statement is the perfect product of a time when the only ideas that get traction are those that articulate in new ways what people believe anyway. Before the Table of Contents is this brave quote.

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Oscar Wilde was an incorrigible aesthete and known for soundbites such as “Any person who doesn’t laugh at the death of Little Nell has a heart of stone.” Wilde’s statement about judging by appearances may well have been disingenuous but Hosey’s using only its latter part definitely is.

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Wilde seems to believe in an absolute beauty and this would have been an common view a century ago. However, if one accepts the modern position that beauty is both pluralist and subjective, then Beauty is no more or less superficial than the thoughts in which it is based. And this brings us back to the book.

Much of nature is about geometry. The shape of a blood cell is optimised for fluid dynamics. The tilt of the Earth’s axis gives us the seasons that shape nearly every living creature.
Things have shapes. It’s what things do. Artificial things also have shapes and geometries.

We prefer to use things that look better, even if they aren’t inherently easier to use.
This is the form vs. function argument restated, with a swipe at utility. (“Trust me, I’m a designer.”)

We don’t love something because it’s non-toxic and biodegradeable – we love it because it moves the head and the heart.
Hosey is attempting to keep beauty and virtue firmly separate. He doesn’t want us to love anything for reasons that aren’t visual. He’s pro-innovation, pro-consumption.

Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern – it’s an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.”
Hosey has trouble linking aesthetic attraction to environmental imperatives. He resorts to the peacock’s feathers and the 300 varieties of nightingale birdsong.

Beauty has the biological function of sustaining existence
is the conclusion only a short jump away. Three hundred varieties of nightingale mating call seems a bit desperate. Do the peacock’s feathers really have to be that large or colourful? Humans have evolved in much the same way but with far less imperative. Ostentatious displays of abundance may faciliate getting laid but any evolutionary advantage remains unproven.

Designers can promote sustainability by embracing what they have always cared about most: the basic shape of things. [Oh dear!] Hosey then attempts to show how Beauty is inherent to the definition and principles of sustainability There’s talk of how the smartness of the Smart Car is in its shape and not its technologies. The conclusion is that design trumps technology. Only a man who wants to have his cake and savour it would write If you could take care of all your daily nutritional needs by ingesting one tasteless capsule, would you be satisfied? Hosey is detaching the aesthetics of eating from the imperatives of nutrition and sustenance.

Q: “If you could personally solve world hunger through one inexpensive capsule that would take care of a person’s daily nutritional needs, would you be satisfied?” 

It doesn’t matter for the conclusion is that Aesthetics are fundamental to both culture and nature, and if sustainability refers to the graceful interaction between them, it must have a sensory dimension. 

All in all, this book is rich – and we’re not even a third of the way in. These arguments claims are amply illustrated with examples from the field of product design. I was getting impatient for some buildings. Skipping a bit, here’s some Hosey singles out as relevant to his argument where he seems to want to take this.

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“The 120° twist cuts wind loads and reduces the amount of steel by 25%, saving $60 mil.” Excellent – so that’s the shape of all future supertall buildings sorted then!? I doubt it. In the world of architecture, that the shape of this building represents 25% less steel is more important than actually having 25% less steel. If the shape of this building had any compelling advantages then we can expect to see it replicated many times in the future just like what happened to rectangular prisms (a.k.a. boxes).

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The Tjibaou Cultural Center (Renzo Piano Workshop, 1992) is singled out for combining the three principles of conservation, attraction and connection. “The shell-shaped wood-slat towers offer a rich tactile image, like banded reeds, that echoes local vernacular traditions while also playing an essential role in ventilation, coaxing the breeze upward in this sticky climate.”

I won’t go too much into too much detal here, but must mention how the representational aspects of this building have little to do with its ventilation strategy that utilizes a combination of Stack Effect and Venturi effect. Either way, behind those timber slats has to be a double skin of something if any breeze is ever going to be coaxed upward. The section shows that this is so.

Those solar chimneys face north-west, which means you must go well out of your way to instagram that famous money shot from across the water. Internally, the circular spaces make reasonable exhibition spaces but externally, none of this representation is for the benefit of actual users – or even for their functional benefit as there’s no need to clad air shafts with timber slats. What we’re meant to perceive as beauty has little to do with this building’s environmental response or user experience.

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Chapter 4 is titled Many Senses and introduces the concept of a connection between aesthetics and ecology and the human body. This might have been a good place to talk about how the other four senses are often neglected by designers but Hosey claims design can appeal to the whole body for we feel with our entire being – a point he illustrates with Zumthor’s Baths at Swiss architectural hotspot Vals. I agree that this building has important lessons for all designers – of buildings that require us to be naked in warm smelly water in misty and acoustically live rooms.

Hosey doesn’t mention that Vals baths’ fully sensory environment of texture, reverberation, light, mist and heat can be appreciated for 80 Swiss Francs (approx. US$77.80) per session but the connection between aesthetics, ecology, the human body and commerce is soon insinuated. Who knew that 7-Up tastes lemony or limey depends on whether the label has more yellow or green, or that a sprig of parsley on the label can make canned meat taste fresher? Who would want to know that and why if it weren’t with a view to exploitation?

I’ve no doubt everyday sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures influence the unconscious mind but that doesn’t mean I want to trust that knowledge with a designer in the paid employ of someone. To captivate consumers longer, designers will need a better understanding of what stimulates emotional longevity. This sinister sentence is evil encapsulated.

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I hadn’t known about this 1979 book and, to be honest, I wish I still didn’t. The aestheticization of thermal comfort will do more than air conditioning ever did to stop passive design ever becoming a driver for a more sane architecture.

The same thinking crops up again in the next chapter Ecology and Imagery. Biophilia is a good thing but Hosey gets excited about fractal patterned wallpaper being just as good as the acacia trees our ancestors so admired. The implications for design are enormous. 

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Indeed.

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Airspace Tokyo facade by Thom Faulders. Who needs trees?

“An enormous mesh umbrella lets dappled sunlight pass through in variegated patterns, like a forest canopy.” 

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Who needs trees? II

“Fractal-like patterns can be used to make very large buildings seem less imposing.”

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Who needs trees? III

There are shapes and patterns that lure [!] the human senses because they participate in larger forces unfolding over time, and eternal choreography not immediately detected but evident everywhere. With science and sensitivity, smart design can beautifully tap into [!!] the abiding wonders and mysteries of the universe. My points of exclamation indicate either careless language or, more worryingly, deliberately ambiguous language carelessly crafted. It seems that buildings are really just very big products and designers should be aware of these new tricks to fool people into responding more positively to buildings than they otherwise might or perhaps ought.

I was going to deal with each chapter sequentially but lost the will. Skimming the rest, Hosey expands his consumerist philosophy of aesthetics to encompass entire buildings in Chapter 7: The Architecture of Difference, puffs it up to urban scale in Chapter 8: The Natural Selection of Cities and, as books like this have a tendency of doing, inflates it to the max to encompass to entire planets in Chapter 9: Visions of Earth.

I skipped to Epilogue: A Beauty Manifesto where there’s not much to dislike but, on the other hand, nothing much of practical use either. Nobody’s going to pin this manifesto on their wall.

Ten principles for advancing an aesthetics of ecology. Every designer everywhere can:

  1. Bridge the divide between “good design” and “green design”.
  2. Turn beauty and sustainability into the same thing.
  3. Erase the distinction between how things look and how things work.
  4. Break down the walls between the arts and the sciences.
  5. Adopt the three principles.
    • Conserve: Shape things to respect resources.
    • Attract: Shape things to be easy to use and deeply satisfying.
    • Connect: Shape things to embrace place.
  6. Start with the napkin sketch, not the technical manual.
  7. Develop a scientific method for design.
  8. Strengthen the ties between form and performance, between image and endurance.
  9. Make things to work as well and to last as long as they should.
  10. Make things better.

In the end, all the cooing over known attributes of known quantities only serves to direct more reverence towards things that represent the link between aesthetics, ecology and design more than they actually link them. Hosay has faith in us believing in the worth of his examples. Whether we regard them high or low, the book manages to be less than their sum. 

Hosey was Chief Sustainability Officer at RTKL before it was swallowed whole by architectural behemoth Arcadis in 2015. He’s now advisory board member to the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment. Whatever message it is this book communicates, the AIA seems to have understood it. 

Is Aesthetics Sustainable? (No.)

This entire field of aesthetics and sustainability needs a bit of a tidy up and – once again – I’m grateful to Dr. Glen Hill for going a long way towards sorting it out in his essay “The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption”, in “Aesthetics of Sustainable Architecture“.

The question “what should sustainable buildings look like?” is almost as trivial as “in what style shall we build?” for why should buildings that don’t screw up the planet have to look like anything? They’re obviously going to have visual properties for this is just the nature of matter, but the question implies they must have a visual aesthetic agenda as well. This isn’t necessarily true. An aesthetic agenda is an optional add-on that adds a different kind of value to some.

One reason I found Dr. Hill’s essay so refreshing is that it asks the question “Is Aesthetics Sustainable?” Have a read. I’ve scanned it in individual pages so you can read it without my bloggy mutterings. Or, if you want, you can download the entire book here and get a feel for how people are trying to process a way of building that, despite being good in many ways, is resistant to being thought of as architecture in an aesthetic sense. Something’s up. The question “Is aesthetics sustainable?” is the elephant in the room.

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In the opening paragraphs, Dr. Hill gives some examples of how our buildings are making us consume more and more. In case you’re not familiar with the floor plan of Australian suburban houses, here’s some not-so-extreme examples.

You’ll see the pool tables, bars, cinemas, pools that used to be part of a community’s social, recreation and entertainment offerings. One thing that hasn’t been incorporated is parks – why? The plans show little evidence of enjoyment of any part of a garden other than the bit that’s become an “outdoor room”. Houses have become independent of their land, and the amount of that land associated with them has shrunk.

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Gardens aren’t large anymore because houses stimulate the economy more than land. The amount of money that can be spent on a garden is relatively small compared to that which can be spent on a house. Over and over. Gardens don’t wear out and they are difficult to tire of. Instead, they grow with no input other than water and labour, and improve with age. Dammit. They’re inexpensive pleasures the modern economy has no need for. Here’s the rules.

  1. Things you can buy are better than things you can’t.
  2. Things that wear out are better than things that don’t.
  3. Things you get tired of are better than things you don’t.

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Fine. But how did it come to this? Hill identifies the turning point as The Enlightenment. We’re all modern beings with no particular commitment to the physical or social place we were born. We’ve lost the security and certainty that belonging to an established order brought. The upside of this of course was that we became free to make our own place in the world.

The birth of consumerism

The consumption of aesthetics is how we’ve come to assert our place in the world and, as an example, Hill uses the late 15th century example of servants and their aspirational copying of their masters’ and mistresses’ modes of fashion.

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Although art might have been the first item for the display of status real or imagined, clothing was probably one of the first items anyone could/have to have and that was on display to the public. It was a likely first candidate for the lower classes to use to mimic their superiors in the hope of appropriating some of their status. In short, clothing became what we know as the endless cycle of fashion turnover. Within hours of any royal wedding, a copy of the wedding dress is usually available. For sale.

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With aspirational copy-catting rampant, style-setters had no choice but to keep changing the rules as soon as the style-followers began to catch up. The endless production and consumption of new styles began. Social pressure to reuse, reduce, and recycle diminished. This alone explains why sustainable architecture is having such a hard time gaining acceptance and why attempts to give sustainable architecture an aesthetic must fail.

All architectural aesthetics are consumable aesthetics, looks, fashions. There’s no such thing as an architectural aesthetic that does not convey notions of wealth, status and power. To me, Hill’s is an entirely reasonable reading of history. I’d long wondered about the similarities between the consumption of clothing styles and the consumption of architectural styles, and have noted before how the various classes of Georgian terrace house facade styles meant everybody could play this game in a controlled manner without wrecking the social order.

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Architectural aesthetics had become a consumer/aspirational item long before the 20th century. Mock Tudor buildings were being built well into the 19th century in the new aspiration of old money. Stucco came into and out of fashion several times that century but, at the end of the century we had Art Nouveau. It was in the decorative arts that its impact was felt most. If you couldn’t afford to buy the house you could at least afford the Art Nouveau teapot, the tapestry, the stained glass, the wallpaper, the chair, the lamp, the trinkets …

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The process became faster and more ruthless with Art Deco. Its emphasis on geometric shapes and patterns suggests it was a style designed for the quick and easy production of more stuff for more people to buy.

art deco teapotsRather than ubiquitous styles pervading all types of goods across society we now have the phenomenon of designer goods allowing people to show their allegiance to star designers or other premium brands. This phenomenon exists independent of architecture. Hill sums it up by saying

The aesthetic economy of late modernity, freed from any necessary relation with program or context, now offers a vast range of aesthetic trajectories that can be exploited in the constant search for place and the regard of others.

The near ubiquitous diffusion of electronic personal devices has obvious advantages for entertainment and communications, but it is also a very efficient way of getting people to spend money on objects that they don’t even need a building, or even a room, in order to possess.

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Ownership of a SONY Walkman® once indicated belonging to a new and select group of people who suddenly found it necessary to listen to music whilst walking. Copycat devices soon appeared at lower cost. SONY upped the ante by adding further functions. Very quickly the market was flooded with a messy plurality [my favourite phrase of late; a.k.a. the old “eclecticism”] of devices doing much the same thing until the one you had either broke or the next model came out. A SONY Walkman® did cost a bit more but they did work better for longer. Erasing the slur of previous decades, SONY ensured they were always “Made in Japan”.

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That process too has become much more transparent with mobile phones. And the replacement cycle has quickened. There’s now nothing odd at all about ‘upgrading’ one’s phone every year. Manufacturers must be delighted when copycat products spur the refreshment of half-hearted product cycles. 

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The death of tradition

Hill suggests that the ‘loss’ of the Western Classical tradition might also be at work.

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More and more means less and less to us. The same patterns of aesthetic consumerism are also seen in places where the Western Classical tradition never really took root. Japan has always been a law unto itself aesthetically but came online just in time for the age of aesthetic consumerism on the national level, where countries wish to show the world they’ve arrived and equal to, if not better than, the rest (as is Deyan Sudjik’s thesis in Edifice Complex.)

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Since we’re talking about tradition, it’s not just the certainty of the Western Classical tradition that’s absent. Entire histories of vernacular architecture are equally absent. Whereas the classical traditions were concerned with sustaining an existing social order and its power structures, traditions of vernacular architecture were concerned with using available resources to produce buildings as functional and comfortable as needs demanded and resources permitted. These buildings are not only irrelevant to aesthetic consumerism – they work against it. Why change something that’s already as good as it can be? No wonder Schumacher dismisses vernacular buildings as antithetical to architecture.  They are – or at least they are to architectural aesthetic consumerism.

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Aesthetic consumer tribes

We also have the growth of consumer tribes. Hill offers Stanley Fish‘s concept of “interpretive communities” to explain this. We’re familiar with the concept of urban tribes but consumer tribes are less stable and with fewer values apart from them sharing a certain way of experiencing a particular experience. (Fish claims it’s not so much the people actively sharing the experience but the experience farming the people.) Talk of the pros and cons of different operating systems take on the fervour of pub football rivalry. Product and brand fansites, feeds chatboards let people display their brand loyalty and feel loved by their product. A product becomes something to believe in. This Enlightenment is turning out to be not so enlightened.

Just as an exercise in aesthetic consumer tribalism, go to an architecture website and make a negative comment about any project by the architectural aesthetic behemoth that is Zaha Hadid Architects. Any project will do. Your comment will generate a flurry of follow-on comments, often abusive, but all indicative of which consumer tribe their writer belongs to. Check the comments here for this next building.

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Alternatively, try saying anything less than adulatory about Gaudí.

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I’ll wager the number of people who know what goes on inside this next building is far less than the number of people who have an opinion on it.

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At least with personal stereos and mobile phones there was some element of performance, durability and fitness for purpose involved. It’s hard to say the same for architecture. As far as human situation goes, I guess it’s still on-the-whole better than pre-Enlightenment but as far as the planet goes I’m not so sure.

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Latin Lesson

I’d long ago learned to distrust Vitruvius’ dictums of firmness commodity and delight. Undergraduate classes usually ponder contemporary meanings of these – I know I did and for far too long to be either healthy or normal. I wish I’d taken Latin. This next sentence was a revelation.

Sir Henry Wotton’s now familiar seventeenth century translation of the Vitruvian term venustas (Latin, meaning beauty) as delight is symptomatic of the shift toward the modern sensorial notion of aesthetics.

For the pre-Moderns, to be beautiful was to be good in a moral sense, not attractive in a visual sense. For the Goths, a cathedral was beautiful because it was charged with the moral task of educating and enlightening the illiterate (or at least making them cower into submission). This was the pre-modern world. 

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Here we have another reason why architectural aesthetics and architectural sustainability are at odds – it’s no wonder we’re in this mess we are now.  Let’s not be scared by the word ‘moral’ to denote a worth that is less than totally visual. Better energy performance, more prudent use of resources and less-contaminating production processes are all moral imperatives in the sense that it IS a good thing to not screw up the planet and it IS a good thing to not waste resources.

What we have to do is to undo five centuries of post-Enlightenment consumerist thinking telling us it IS a good thing to waste resources. To keep things simple, I’m using the word sustainability as a catch-all for all the moral imperatives a building can respond to, all the energy it can save, all the resources it doesn’t need to use, etc. Sustainability as a form of moral beauty appears to be in opposition to an aesthetics of visual beauty. All the evidence led us to suspect this anyway.

482px-Philip_Johnson3Early last century, Johnson & Hitchcock argued against radical functionalism and its moral claim to rightness. I still wonder about the intensity of those attacks and why they felt the need to destroy the social/moral basis of the new architecture. Perhaps Johnson correctly saw that the modern world was going for visual rather than good, and that all people really wanted was to have a new look put in front of them to consume. Given the later careers of both, this seems fair. In volume one of his big book, Patrik Schumacher restates their arguments and, I venture, with much the same agenda.

What we have now is a situation where buildings praised for their aesthetic innovation are not good in any moral sense. Conversely, buildings that try to do the right thing are criticised for not having an orthodox aesthetic agenda. It would seem that sustainable buildings are not what the world wants. Meanwhile, “the forces of aesthetic consumption” are telling us an endless proliferation of stylistic diversions is not only good for society, but necessary. The vast machinery of aesthetic production is more than happy to oblige.

The most effective way for an architect to ensure their work remains noticed is to maintain the production of difference; that is, to keep producing fresh work.

This must be a burden. Occasionally, architects get lazy and recycle old designs, reprise old themes but disappointed followers and rival aesthetic tribes are quick to notice. Any new motif by Frank Gehry, for example, simultaneously appears in three cities at once – a selection of recent offerings.

The neutering of goodness

Last century, Hannes Meyer and the proponents of radical functionalism obviously underestimated what they were up against. Good doesn’t always win. But even today the forces of aesthetic consumerism are still responsible for useful architectural devices (such as green roofs, for example ) being presented as visual devices stripped of moral content. I call this the Johnson-Hitchcock effect. I’ve used this next image before. It has been much posted, cross-posted and pinterested. Nobody cares if this roof actually has some sort of energy/environmental function. 

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Even the virtues of vernacular architecture aren’t immune from being turned into aesthetic commodities.

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Perception Design

I’ve mentioned before how I don’t mind if Architecture lays claim to all the visual aspects of buildings. It pretty much has anyway. Those that are good in a moral sense can be called something else. The word Architecture has devalued and is struggling to retain the little authority it is still credited with. Here’s something interesting.

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This quote is by Kevin E. Kelley, “Architecture For Sale(s): An Unabashed Apologia,” in Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture: A Harvard Design Magazine Reader, William S Saunders, ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). as quoted in Franco La Cecla’s essay, “Why I did not become an architect” in Franco La Cecla, “Against Architecture”, PM Press, 2012.

And is this not precisely what our brightest and best are doing, yet calling it Architecture? Try to remember when Architecture was not this? What Rem Koolhaas has done is to take what Philippe Starck was doing in the 1980s and call it Architecture. For those of you too young to remember, Philippe Starck was a French designer who also designed buildings. He never claimed to be an architect. We can respect him for that.

He was doing the stylistic brand management thing long ago.  

He took shameless self-promotion to levels architects have yet to reach, try as they may.

He is of course no stranger to the design of apartment buildings as lifestyle choices.

I almost respect the guy – not for filling the world with useless crap, but for figuring out how it all worked. Apparently he underwent some sort of an eco-conversion – I’ll try to ascertain if this was genuine, or just a clever foray into untapped markets.

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Conclusion

Some that say architecture is by its very nature an aesthetic endeavour and that a building that doesn’t deal with aesthetic matters is not only not beautiful, but is not architecture either. They’re right. It’s like saying that haute couture fashion has to consider thermal comfort, or utility, the use of readily-available materials or minimal labour. Fashion doesn’t work that way and, regrettably, neither does what we now know as Architecture.

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The impracticality and decadence that we take for granted in the world of fashion is a useful and easy way to think about the kind of buildings that have come to represent the architecture we have now. Keep it in mind. You can find your own parallels.

  • Fashion is a highly visible and expensive consumer item. 
  • Fashion is never about thermal comfort or utility.
  • Fashion employs gimmicks of little value other than to shock.
  • Fashion features a decadent use of materials and quantities of labour and other resources in the hope they will be impossible to replicate downmarket.
  • Fashion has no need to remember what was useful and what wasn’t – previous seasons offerings are, by definition, passé.
  • Fashion has no need of history other than as a “reference” for something new.
  • Fashion is one of the few businesses it’s believed to be not totally about the money.
  • Fashion does not progress – it just renews itself endlessly for no particular purpose other than to provide something new for us to consume the look of.

The trouble with buildings is they last too long! In this brave new world of architecture as communications, their real function as media objects is mostly performed by the time they’re constructed. The creation of hype, the building of expectation and the actual construction of the thing have to proceed simultaneously and come together in one perfect moment of media and branding frenzy.

Here’s that dress again.

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