Tag Archives: The architect as ornament

The Architect as Ornament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perception Management follows Development Gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


AD Louvre vs. LV Foundation

Just as ex-smokers appreciate the flavour of food more after quitting, I find I’m more appreciative of buildings since I overcame my addiction to architectural news. It’s not a total break however for, every now and then, a rogue Dezeen email or something will blog smoke in my face. And so it was I learned a couple of months ago that Jean Nouvel’s Abu Dhabi Louvre was ready to fawn over. Last summer I roamed the periphery of Paris admiring successful social housing projects and forgot Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation even existed. I finally saw it last January and last week drove down to Abu Dhabi to have a look at Abu Dhabi Louvre.

It’s Heavyweight Fight Time!

Site disturbance: LV Foundation sits in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne in a corner clearing that’s been a long time in the making.

No forests were harmed in the making of AD Louvre. Its site was probably never even mangrove swamp as it looks like it was reclaimed, surrounded by a seawall and then drained and the building built in something akin to a swimming pool that was subsequently flooded. It’s no prototype for new coastal buildings, but I was curious to see if it was worth the trouble.

Access: The closest metro station to LV Foundation is Les Sablons on the 9th. There’s a brasserie on the corner where you can wait for friends to join you in what, in summer, would be a pleasant ten-minute walk.

AD Louvre’s closest metro station is UAE Exchange 100 km away in Dubai. You could walk the six kilometres from the edge of Abu Dhabi proper but, when the temperature is 42°C as it was the day I visited, you’re going to want to either take your car or a taxi or bus from your hotel.

First glimpse: My heart didn’t skip a beat upon my first glimpse of LV Foundataion. The entrance is around the corner from a dramatically angled curve of glass with the building on the wrong side of it. “They’re sails you know?” I heard a passerby mansplain.

I first glimpsed the top of the dome of AD Louvre as I was driving across the bridge on the E12. I’m glad I did it because, expecting signage, I drove by Exits 07 and 08 and guessed my way back from Exit 09. Exasperatingly, direction signs appear once you no longer need them. The parking area stretches half a kilometre away from the building and alongside it the path to the entrance. Electric buggies will save you the walk.

I walked and, as I walked, I began to anticipate some that famously dappled sunlight as I approached the entrance in time to witness its canopy’s window of perfect uselessness one hour either side of midday one month either side of the summer solstice.

Getting in: LV Foundation had three queues: online booking, walk-ins and some mysterious third queue. There was a 90-munite wait for walk-ins. Plastic raincoats were distributed so people wouldn’t lose their place running for shelter from the squally rain. Unforeseen and unsympathetically housed security measures were in place and the cursory scan each bag received made the length and slowness of the queue even more of a mystery. Crowd control?

Getting inside AD Louvre was quick and easy with three times the number of scanners for maybe a twentieth of the people. The enclosure for the security measures looks like part of the original design but could easily be a late addition as the route from security to galleries is not straightforward.

Entrance & Layout: 

It’s not straightfoward at LV Foundation either. You enter the lobby with galleries on the left and a museum of the building and its design on the right. You must progress upwards through this before checking out the galleries on your way down. One third of the building is devoted to the building which is both monument and poem to itself. I don’t know how Art feels about this.

Gehry has called the stairwell mass The Iceberg, suggesting there’s more to it than what we see. There is in a sense. For a building intent on amplifying disjunctions between enclosure and contents, these were most uncontrived in the stairwell where the stairs were free to be stairs. Any unavoidably flat surface displayed more sketches and drawings.

Fire Escape: The fire-escape diagrams at LV Foundation no doubt satisfied requirements but, in an environment calculated to disorient and with self-referential ones the only points of reference, they were stunningly opaque. At AD Louvre I forgot to look for a fire-escape plan.

God help us!

Rainwater: Drainage is no problem at AD Louvre but leakage into the lower levels of service corridors, toilets and archive storage [!] might be as a few of the ornamental pools were empty.

Downpipes must be internal so those flat roofs had better be periodically swept just in case it does rain. At LV Foundation you can have fun trying to work out where the water goes because its many surfaces collect water on the outside or inside or both, and that water can drop onto people trying to shelter from the rain and/or the building. Nothing can be done about runoff when roof surfaces project down to a point but other situations show an astonishing degree of contrivance and I can’t help thinking there might be structural drainpipes or drainpipes as pseudo-structure.

ArtificeThe reason I think that is becauase some of the structure seems arbitrary. The equal amounts and constant distribution of metal and timber members defies rationalization in terms of structure, construction, weight or maintenance. Beams sometimes extend for the sake of it, or switch from one material to another. Mixed in with all this are non-compositional concerns as I saw one place [bottom right, below] where an exposed timber beam was protected by metal sheeting.

Here, I’m using the word artifice to describe any contrivance necessary to make the building work as designed. The design itself is of course 100% artifice.


It’s no less so at AD Louvre. The idea of having some archetypal Middle Eastern village beneath the grand and sheltering arc of the heavens isn’t without its problems. The good thing is that each gallery can have its own external volume.

Those exquisitely articulated volumes are overclad in mosaics of large panels that give this archetypal Middle Eastern village an incongruous futuro-prefab look confounding an already confounding scale. I see no reason for this, other than to indicate design effort to stop this archetypal Middle Eastern village looking too archetypal and Middle Eastern.

Navigation: I was the only one referring to the museum map as I walked around AD Louvre. The route is polylinear yet obvious. At LV Foundation, nobody seemed to know where they were going next nor how to get there. Fortunately, the incredibly helpful staff know their way around the building and can provide precise directions. Make sure you understand those directions before you thank them and go off on your own.

Toilets: Those at AD Louvre were stunning and spacious with a basin for every cubicle and unexpected side entry.  By comparison, those at LV Foundation seemed mean. Access panels mocked the wall cladding .  

Art: Let’s not forget why we’re here. More crowd control measures and a secondary queue made LV Foundation’s special exhibition a non-started. This is a problem. The building attracts people in record numbers but prevents them from seeing much – not that there’s all that much exhibition space anyway. The largest gallery at ground level had some things on loan from MoMA.

There was less of a frenzy at AD Louvre. The galleries were beautifully constructed and fitted and were probably the most beautiful and beautifully lit I’ve ever seen, although they are dim. [I’m longsighted, so I expect descriptions to be readable if I’m wearing my glasses.] The basic design decision means there are many largely unused and unappreciated external spaces between them but this allows natural light in as well as obscured views out. These links may prevent gallery fatigue but there are too many. The museum experience never really gets going. AD Louvre is not a museum like The British Museum or The Louvre where you can run in to avoid the rain and emerge hours later.

Gift Shop: The gift shop at LV Foundation isn’t large but crammed with stuff you might enjoy considering buying (but don’t buy the fritted Gehry mug unless you plan to always wash it by hand.) As is the way, you get to pass by the gift shop both on the way in and the way out. It was expensive pickings at AD Louvre and not a fridge magnet in sight!  

Restaurant: The gallery café at LV Foundation is called Le Frank and makes a big thing of fish. The one at AD Louvre has an entrance at one end for à la carte and another at the other end for take-away selections. Seating is separate but the view’s the same.


Leaving LV Foundation is simple. You just push the revolving door, it revolves and you’re out. With AD Louvre you’ve actually been outside since you left the last gallery and there’s no going back. The muesum behind you, you can now wander around taking photographs of the dome once your glasses have unsteamed.

Not much light gets past the dome. What looked like a filigree and a reprise of Institut du monde arabe but this time with no moving parts, is actually more like a Brillo pad. Many of the spaces between the galleries are accessible but deserted dead-ends. When you’ve had enough you can leave through the gift shop or via the toilets downstairs that will lead you back up to the gift shop, or you can bypass both by taking the external path to the turnstiles of no-return.

Raison d’etre: Asking why a building exists is always a good question but one rarely asked. Some people are of the opinion the Gulf States need starchitect buildings in order to establish cultural legitimacy [1] and bring in the tourists. Perhaps, but then what’s the excuse of Paris that needs neither? Grand words accompany both LV Foundation and AD Louvre but one thing they share and that we can say with the weight of history behind us is that clients with money who want to build something for whatever reason will have no trouble finding architects to help them to realize their dream.

At a reported €780 million, LV Foundation was’nt cheap but the deal is that, after 55 years, Bernard Arnault, Chairman of LVMH and France’s richest man (at US$80 bil.), will donate the building to France. We’ll never know if Mon. Arnault simply gifted the state 1% of his fortune or if there were concessions to be had from him doing so. Abu Dhabi Louvre is said to have cost €93 mil. which seems unreasonably low until you factor in the rights to use the Louvre name that cost another €500 mil. Cost-wise, the two work about the same, allowing for respective margins of obscurity. The rights [and I use the word without quotation marks] for Louis Vuitton Foundation to invoke the Gehry brand come at similarly huge cost except in this case it is folded into the cost of the building. What else could or would have been down with those monies is impossible to say.

What I can say is that judging a building on the basis of its play of surfaces and materials or its play of light and shade is obscene and to think of comparing buildings on that basis even more so. Abu Dhabi Louvre vs. LV Foundation? It’s a draw.

• • •

• • •

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jul/21/landmark-buildings-weapons-in-new-gulf-war


The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2.3 – Avant-garde vs. Mainstream

Increasingly, I’m beginning to think that what the book describes is probably an accurate description of the world of architecture the author sees. In this chapter, for the first time, I had the distinct impression that the author really believes what he is writing. In a previous Book Club post, I mentioned my doubts about the validity of the author’s self description as “avant-garde”. Is it accurate? Why does he insist on using this word if not to evoke ideas of art and artists? Can commercially successful architects ever be avant-garde? From the first part of section 2.3, it becomes clear that when the author uses the word “avant-garde” he really means “leaders, as opposed to followers”. No-one will die because of this mislabelling, but it does make it easy to falsely attribute notions of some brave and heroic journey of artistic endeavour. The author, I imagine, would not be unhappy if this were to happen. 

Anyway, to paraphrase a page or two:

the avant-garde care what their colleagues think but the mainstream care what their clients think.

On the surface, this is true. However, even the most apparently non-commercial of architects are still selling something. Even the author has a product of which this book is but one part for, like any architect who writes, this book is advertising for the architectural products associated with it. This holds true until a certain threshold is reached. Once past that threshold, the architectural products are mere vehicles to sustain an aggressive campaign of global branding that can be more efficiently applied to market things that are not buildings. But this is another story.

To get back to the point, avant-garde architects are not starving in their attics for the sake of their art. The author mentions some examples of avant-garde architects and none of them have too badly. Professor Sir Peter Cook (Archigram) is still designing and lecturing. Adolfo Natalini (Superstudio) is still in business. OMA isn’t begging for work and ZHA aren’t desperate for work, at least not until we saw them in action for the Park Avenue job. [Here’s a link to information on ZHA’s latest company accounts – http://www.bdonline.co.uk/news/job-cuts-help-profits-rise-at-zaha-hadid/5048172.article.] Architects such as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind make a lot of media noise but have no place in this book since, according to the author, they don’t write or make any contribution to theory. This seems ungracious since Chapter 2.3 mentions that Parametricism is a development of “Folding” architecture and we can definitely accuse FG and DL of encouraging that. Foster + Partners, apparently, are both avant-garde and mainstream. Although F+P do not write or make any contribution to theory, they apparently have a section (= a few workstations?) reserved for “parametric research”.

The author’s definitions of avant-garde and mainstream are opposing yet symbiotic. The radical and brave avant-garde experimenters provide the ideas for the mainstream to execute and make mainstream. This thought was presented more credibly, albeit in a less positive light, by Robert Adam in his article Globalisation and Architecture (The Architectural Review of March 2008. Read.

Globalised commercial architecture has developed a symbiotic relationship with a new breed of global star architects. As cities, more than nations, now compete to attract global investment and global tourism, they seek brand differentiation and symbolic modernity. The commissioning of public buildings by star architects is now an established marketing technique. The buildings must be (in the literal sense of the word) extra-ordinary and designed by one of a small band of global architects whose nationality is more accidental than significant.

The names are familiar and include Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaus, Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava and Renzo Piano. The personal status of these architects is now so great and the demand for their presence so high – from students, the lecture circuit and competitions as well as the cities themselves – that their work is almost by necessity strongly conceptual and cannot rely on any detailed study of fine grain or culture of the locality. Indeed, as it is the intention that the building should be an iconic global product, local distinctiveness is often not a desirable characteristic.

The competitive marketing of these buildings by cities has set up an upward demand spiral. Out of the work of the star architects, design types and styles emerge and become identified with successful cities, even before they are built. As star architects are, by definition, limited in number, demand for symbolic and extraordinary buildings far outstrips the capacity of the star group to provide their own designs, however conceptual their original input may be. The conceptual nature of the star product allows global commercial firms (who have sometimes been acting as the executive architects for star architects) to clone the trademark design characteristics of the star product. The reproduction of the spiral or twisted forms, globular glass, planar intersection and so on is facilitated by the use of the same sophisticated computer graphics employed by the offices of the star architects to develop and present their concepts.

Having read this, it becomes easier to believe that an architect who gives the appearance of not caring about money and buildability is attractive to a certain type of client – they always have been. It becomes easier to see that avant-garde architects and mainstream architects are both swimming in the same stream but feeding at different levels. But how do you feel about this next statement?

Architecture and the design disciplines on the one hand and the sciences on the other hand are very different communications systems, differentiated by fundamentally different societal functions and specialised around fundamentally different codes: the code of truth (or perhaps the double code of truth-novelty, demanding new truth) in the case of the sciences and the double code of utility-beauty (or the triple code of utility-beauty-novelty), demanding new, functional beauty, for the avant-garde segment) in the case of architecture/design. The fact that both science and architecture, and indeed the art system as well, share the code of novelty does not dissolve the sharp demarcation between these autopoietic function systems.

I understand how science is interested in new truth, updated truth, better truth, deeper truth, but I’m not so sure what “new functional beauty” is or whether it being demanded (or even supplied) is a good thing. In science, new usually means better but I can’t say the same for architecture or art. I may change my mind when I learn more about what this “new, functional beauty” is but, for now, I simply don’t believe, can’t believe that “science and architecture, and indeed the art system as well, share the code of novelty”. I put a big wobbly red underline under that entire paragraph.

minor quibble: I think we should be told why “architecture/design” occur together.

minor quibble: I can’t let phrases like “… between these autopoietic function systems” pass without comment. The author is neglecting his duty to convince me that architecture is an autopoietic function system. I am not assuming it is and refuse to suspend disbelief, go along for the ride and see how I feel when I come to the end.

major quibble: For the following, we’re back to using the language of evolution again.

In architecture, the mechanism of selection that is interposed between variation and retention is operated by the early adopters that bring avant-garde results into the mainstream. This role is also played by avant-garde firms that mature and grow as their success in the avant-garde arena opens up wider opportunities towards participation within the mainstream.

I get the feeling that this book is going to be a justification for everything. It is of course fine for maturity and growth to bring success but why should “avant-garde” architects want it so badly? Time will of course tell how accurate this ‘avant-garde’ label proves. The word ‘starchitect’ could just as easily be used without too much forcing around the edges. So, in my opinion, having “avant-garde” pretensions is nothing more than an alternative way to enter the field where the big boys play for big bucks.

The individual names/careers often move from the avant-garde to the mainstream segment. This is frequently due to the combination of the very success of the respective architect and a further paradigm shift within the avant-garde.

Seriously, does anybody ever go the opposite direction? p104-105 make a cracking read. It’s difficult to take the author seriously. I can’t pretend anymore, even to myself, that I am the intended audience for this book.

Final thought: The average age of these avant-garde architects is about 60-65 isn’t it? Shouldn’t they be a bit younger? The whole thing reeks of a Philip Johnson-esque attempt to remain relevant within a system of branding and media feeding (call it the autopoiesis of architecture if you will) that PJ was largely responsible for perfecting. Will history repeat itself? Probably. These systems are self-sustaining, after all. That much is true.


I posted the above because I thought this chapter had too many thoughts for a single post. Here are some of the other parts I had a problem with.

p96 The crisis of Modernism – as symbolized by the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St Louis in 1972 only 17 years after its construction – required a radical rethinking of the values and methods of architecture.

Firstly, when did anything written by Charles Jencks start to become truth? I doubt the problems faced by the residents of Pruitt-Igoe were solved by ducks and decorated sheds.  What Charles Jencks succeeded in doing was killing of the remnants of any social agenda architecture might once have had, and that weren’t killed off by Johnson and Hitchcock 50 years earlier. About 2022, people might start to think once more that architecture should at least try to fix social problems. Watch out for the backlash!

p98 The ability to procure permanent innovation is a necessary prerequisite for the ongoing survival of the autopoeisis of architecture.

I prefer to view this need for change as the usual built-in redundancy that sustains production and consumption the global economy. For the first time I began to wonder if innovation in architecture is a good thing. If one accepts the author’s definition of architecture, then I don’t think that architecture is a good thing.

p99 The avant-garde work is primarily addressed to an expert audience of other architects, with only a minimal and indirect engagement with a larger, non-expert audience.


p105 contains an passage on how the avant-garde provide stuff for the mainstream to copy and ‘dumb-down’. The author puts it like this.

To the extent the avant-garde and mainstream are differentiated, this transmission of achievements from one to the other implies that the discursive embedding of the transmitted elements (concepts, techniques and formal repertoires) changes. This re-embedding implies a certain loss of meaning or ‘dumbing down’, ie a loss of certain discursive connections.  Although the recontextualized concepts, techniques and formal repertoires also gain specific new concerns and relevances, there is an overall net loss of meaning measure in terms both of the density of discursive connections and in terms of the thematic scope of contexts in which the respective innovations are embedded. This re-embedding also implies a reduction of complexity. This reduction of complexity should be no occasion for regret, but is rather an inevitable consequence – and indeed the raison d’être – of the division of labour that is structured by the differentiation of avant-garde and mainstream.

I don’t suppose then, that ZHA can complain about one of their China jobs being copied, even though I don’t think the author was thinking of such a literal ‘re-embedding’.

The Things Architects Do #2: Ornament

Hello again. I’d like to talk about ornament. But first, I have a friend who’d like to say something.


You can find Adolf Loos saying the same thing in more words here but he did make two important points. The first is that ornament is unnecessary – he believed that ornament on buildings was the sign of a decadent society. His second point is that ornament was “a crime against the national economy in that it is a waste of human labour, money and material”. He was right about it being the sign of a decadent society but then, architects like to spend clients’ money for them – and clients, for their part, prefer architects who spend their money in very visible ways because it lets other people see how much money they have to waste. What’s hard to understand about that? Anyway, to Adolf Loos and us at Misfits, ornament is a waste of resources that provides only a dubious visual pleasure, if anything, in return. It’s not nice.

Buildings like this one made Loos angry. It’s an example of Austrian Art Nouveau.

Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station, Vienna (1899) by Otto Wagner

Here’s one of Loos’ buildings. It made everyone else angry because, for the time, it had no ornament. It was bare and shocking. Loos added the window boxes later, as a compromise.

House of Michaelerplatz, Vienna (1910) by Adolf Loos

House on Michaelerplatz, Vienna (1911) by Adolf Loos

Here’s a house Loos designed a year earlier.

Steiner House, Vienna (1911) Adolf Loos

It’s the first example of a white building with (relatively) no ornament. The curvy roof is there because, in that part of Vienna, houses had to look like they were one storey but they could have windows in the roof. It’s the back of this house that usually gets all the attention.

Rear view of Steiner House

Sixteen years later – that’s one-six years later – we have this.

Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (1926) Le Corbusier

Oops – sorry, I meant this.

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

There is not much additional stuff – or is there? The shape of the “blank box” has become important and sexy shadows have become the new ornament. Shadows might not cost as much as stone ornament used to, but they are still expensive to make because curved white walls make “better” shadows. Corbusier invented a new way to waste human labour, money and material”. Nice one, Corby! 

Moving on, Ludwig Mies (van der Rohe was his wife’s name) remains an inspiration to modern-day minimalists like John Pawson. Here’s an example of LM’s contribution to architectural ornament. Use uniquely green marble. Have stainless steel columns. Polish them. Include a bronze sculpture. Say it’s the simple beauty of materials. Don’t say it’s the simple beauty of expensive materials and extremely contrived processes. Well done LM for finding a new way to make those basic architectural elements of walls and columns into something expensive and ornamental!

Bacelona Pavilion, Barcelona (originally 1929, demolished 1930, rebuilt 1986)

Here, we could go into a short diversion into Post-Modernism but it was basically a return to sticking stuff to the outsides of buildings once again. It was all unnecessary, but at least it was only on the outside of buildings. Nothing much changed on the insides.

15 storeys of columns and slabs, with some stuff on the outside

Here’s a hotel at Disney World by the same Michael Graves. Life goes on.

12 storeys of columns and slabs, with some stuff on the outside

From here on, the history of ornament gets interesting. Study the diagrams below. In the front “building” there are at least six places where the supposedly structural framework seems to go nowhere. In other places, there are squares within squares. Of course, the loads are carried by the floors instead, as this article says.  

“An unfolded elevational diagram was sent back and forth between Arup and OMA, mapping various investigations until the best solution was found. This dialogue produced some interesting results: for example, the highly unusual appearance where lines of the diagrid appear to be broken. Here, unreadable on the facade, the floor plates make the triangulation. This was mostly the result of the optimisation process, but OMA included one or two as moments of architectural playfulness.”

Moments of “architectural playfulness” eh? This sounds like ornament to me, because what we see has been designed for our supposed amusement. Someone has made a distinction between the bits of structure that are sexy and playful and the equally important structural bits that aren’t.

the full structural diagram

Admittedly, they have not added much additional cost in doing this, but why would one want to create a building that is shaped like this anyway? What’s really new here is that a lot of expensive structure has been used to create a building that, in its entirety, is one big ornament for a city. THE ENTIRE BUILDING IS ONE BIG ORNAMENT! This type of ornament is often called an iconic building. Sydney has one. Beijing has a few. Dubai has a couple. All these buildings have very expensive structure to create a decorative shape.

We seem to be getting out of this phase now since the world is in a bit of a mess and even rich clients don’t want to waste money upon buildings designed to look good on postcards. So what’s next? What new types of ornament can we look forward to?

I’ll write more about this in some later post, but I think we can expect to see a few more buildings like this one that are basic useful buildings on the inside, with an ornamental mask on the outside. 

Yas Hotel, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Here’s another example. It’s your basic building, minus the thermal cladding.

this is part of Masdar, on the inside

the finished building (on the shady side)

Both of these examples are from Abu Dhabi but that’s irrelevant. The important thing is that the main architectural expression is created by the bits that aren’t necessary. This is why they are always justified in terms of “shading” and “privacy” etc. Sure, they do this, but other simpler ways could do it just as well. 

Pseudo-functional ornament

What we are seeing is the physical gap between the necessary bits and the unnecessary bits becoming more noticeable. I believe that none other than Remment Koolhaas has called it “junkspace” and making it sound as if it’s some fantastic new thing that he invented for us, but it’s really just the fancy bits becoming isolated add-ons as the result of economic necessity. What’s interesting is that “design” (as in, the “architectural effect”) is becoming an add-on.

* * *

Years ago, John Ruskin praised architecture by saying “Architecture is about what is not necessary”. From even the few examples above, it’s obvious he was right. Architecture is concerned with and has always been concerned with finding new and unnecessary ways to make buildings more expensive. If so, then we should stop pretending that it is anything more than that. This means that buildings with nothing wasteful about them can’t be called Architecture. Bashar and I are fine with that. We would rather lose the concept of Architecture and have buildings that are useful. As for “Architecture”, it can carry on as it is and risk becoming even more irrelevant than it is now.