Tag Archives: what is architectural meaning anyway?

An Ordinary Beauty

I remember MUJI in Japan from the early 1980s as retailers of relatively inexpensive and basic items of clothing that were either white or black. Only afterwards came things like the pencil cases, files, folders and storage units that are such a huge part of Japanese living but, even so, MUJI products remain difficult to mistake for DAISO products.

By the late 1980s MUJI had their own shows during Tokyo Fashion Week and people could look at your collarless plain white shirt and say “Oh that’s MUJI isn’t it?” When everything else has an identifiable logo then not having one is invariably seen as an identifiable characteristic even if it’s not intended as such.

It could be that brands are threatened by non-brands. It’s easy to see why a brand whose existence depends on apparent difference, would fear a product with an actual difference resulting organically from an actual ethos. But threatened brands have nothing to fear because all they need do is encourage people to see the non-brand as a brand and have it judged by the same superficial qualities brands are. Brands may appear to promote difference but what they really do is ensure conformity. In architecture, the sadder consequence is that having an ethos works against recognition and The Misfit Architects are proof of that 

We’ve been here before. Henry-Russel Hitchcock’s 1932 introduction to The International Style claimed Hannes Meyer’s radical functionalism was a denial of aesthetics and, as such, an aesthetic in itself. There’s a logical fallacy here – non sequitur I think. It’s like saying a willingness to be transparent only proves how much one has to hide.

Radical Functionalism was an architectural approach that disregarded the visual properties of materials and thus placed itself outside the scope of conventional aesthetic judgments. Even so, buildings will always have visual properties and so there’ll always be people who will judge them. The real question is “are visible qualities the only qualities capable of being an aesthetic and carrying notions of beauty?” Empirical observations suggest so but we still don’t know – there’s no theory and nobody’s looking for one.     

Still. When we see something that isn’t consciously aesthetic, are we seeing a specific type of formal quality, or the absence of a formal quality?

This is the question posed by the photographs of Bernd & Hilla Becher. [1] The Bechers’ photographs aren’t of a single crane or water tower or lighthouse but composite photographs of usually nine, twelve or fifteen. We easily spot minor differences in shape and proportion but the Bechers have made it more difficult for us to see how they differ because they are showing us identical structural and functional typologies, they are using similar camera angles and distances, taking photographs under similar flat grey skies and with the sun at a similar altitude and azimuth. Furthermore, the black and white prints eliminate colour as a differentiator. We’re encouraged to look for similarities. 

If the Bechers had wanted us to discover some shared “formal” aesthetic quality they might have chosen to photograph Gothic cathedrals or Baroque palaces or any other type of structure manifesting some “formal” aesthetic quality usually manifest as “architectural” pretensions. Instead, I believe they photographed what they did because they wanted to show us what happens when none of those are present. I believe they wanted us to see beauty in artificial things devoid of aesthetic pretence.

Contemporary photographer Andreas Gursky was taught by Bernd and Hilla Becher though in what sense he was taught I don’t know. [4] This is one of his photographs.

As for what this photograph and those of the Bechers have in common, we can say both make us look more closely at things we wouldn’t normally look more closely at. The Becher’s photographs may display a quiet dignity but Gursky’s show a quiet power and heroism that’s somehow epic. Somebody must like it because Gursky is the most financially successful photographer the world has ever known. The photograph above was recently auctioned for somewhere between US$1 mil. and US$15 mil. I don’t know the reason for the spread of these numbers but the order of magnitude is impressive.

Here’s four more of Gursky’s photographs, each epic in its own way.

The dimensions are also epic. Price aside, I would love to own and hang Rhine II [above] in my living room to look at everyday but it measures 2063 x 3575 x 50 mm and even my longest wall falls short by 50cm. Any photograph with dimensions such as these is saying its proper place is in a gallery.

It’s the job of art to make us notice it but there’s little that’s mundane about any of these photographs. The closest any comes to being a usual sight is the façade I unwittingly took a photo of in January when I didn’t even know of Andreas Gursky. You’re welcome.

The building may be mundane and beautiful but my photograph is just mundane. Unlike the Bechers, what I suspect Gursky is doing is mining overlooked subject matter for its novelty. Not that it matters much if a building that most people are indifferent to is the subject of a multimillion dollar photograph. When photographs are auctioned for millions there’s more at work than questions of formal aesthetic qualities or even their absence. Where does the value lie?

Just as property developers don’t care what type of property they develop, art investors don’t care what type of art they invest in. They may have their preferences but whether they’re aesthetic or financial we don’t need to know. What if they’re both? Perhaps art investors see a different kind of beauty in potential financial return? Does this make them philistines? shrewd investors? clever ones? or all three?

Even if we suspend objections such as these, we still need to ask “Why should photographers have to teach us to appreciate the beauty of the ordinary, when we could be doing it ourselves?” This is the big question and it’s the job of Art to make us continually question our reality. But does it ever reach so deep? With Duchamp, the surrealism of the found object as sculpture arose from mundane objects being exhibited as if they were art. This, we discovered, was sufficient to make it art. Dadaism didn’t make us appreciate the beauty of bicycle wheels and kitchen stools. It made us question the nature of Art.

Gursky may be showing us a new type of beauty in “mundane” scenes but, rather than being rewarded for teaching us how to find and appreciate it for ourselves, I suspect he is being rewarded for objectifying it and so making sure we never do. I suspect fame and its consequent financial reward are bestowed on people who ensure potentially useful ideas never gain popular currency.*

  • For neglecting to mention the human concerns of Modernism when he introduced it to the US in 1932, Philip Johnson was awarded the first Pritzker Prize.
  • If we look at Le Corbusier’s buildings and proposals in terms of their value as vehicles for his career, then this next proposal worked wonders. Never mind that it did more to discredit high-rise living than it ever did to promote it. Better living conditions for more people in Paris or anywhere else was not its concern and certainly not the result. 

I could pick any of the misfits architects to illustrate the other side of the same point but I’ll use Mario Asnago & Claudio Vender as they worked closest to the idea of an ordinary beauty.

Because we’re not taught to see beauty unless we’re being told to see it, seeing beauty in ordinary things such as the position and spacing of windows means we first need to be alerted to its presence and this is what Asnago & Vender did. They made small parts of their buildings perceptibly strange in order to make us look and appreciate what they had done. It was a useful idea, and also a polite and economical one. This is not the kind of idea architecture cares to remember.

Moreover, they saw the history of Milan in terms of “what’s already there” and didn’t use these “lesser” architectural devices for decoration but in order to knit their buildings into streetscapes in a way that was respectful without being deferential. This is not the kind of attitude architecture cares to recognize. 

  • Despite what Italian architects Asnago & Vender had been doing in and for Italian cities since 1930, in the 1960s Robert Venturi cleared the path for the plunder of Italian historic architectural motifs as a source of superficial architectural meaning first in America, and then around the world. In 1991 Robert Venturi received the Pritzker Prize.
  • We might also consider what has happened since and how Rem Koolhaas and his stable of architects have successfully promoted architecture as spectacle devoid of content.
  • Concurrent with this we have content as spectacle with the rise of virtual architecture, datascapes as architecture, “everything is architecture,” and vizualizations as a form of virtual architecture with only a tenuous link to reality.

US President Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon is credited with the rallying call “Flood the zone with shit!” – the idea being that people will become incapable of judging for themselves what’s real and what’s not. Architectural media had already adjusted to these new circumstances in which politics and much of our lives is now conducted and the daily spew of architectural imagery continues to dull our ability to judge what is virtuous and what is unacceptable. Or even care. Our threshold for stimulus is now so high that, mistaking stridency for skill, we think something good simply because we noticed it.

• • •

*Some future post will re-state this blog’s theme and lay out evidence for how architectural fame and fortune are granted in inverse proportion to moral content, ethical principles and humanitarian benefit. (The inverse proportion arises from representations of moral content, ethical principles and humanitarian benefit being the inverse of actual moral content, ethical principles and humanitarian benefit.)

• • •

Related Posts:

  1. Honorary Architecture Misfits: Bernd and Hilla Becher
  2. Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender
  3. Making Strange
  4. more on Andreas Gursky: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jan/18/andreas-gursky-each-photograph-is-a-world-of-its-own-best-photograph-salerno-harbour?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other



Art comes with its own conceptual space observers are expected to enter. If this weren’t the case, then a person wouldn’t even know they were in the vincity of an artwork. [1]

Boundaries exist to be broken but an artwork’s conceptual space is usually congruent with the physical space it’s displayed in. You can be reasonably sure something is art if it’s in an art gallery.

Or at least a painting because paintings need the conceptual space of a space displaying them, even though there was a moment when paintings tried to deny it. [2]

Sculpture was never that attached. It had an existence independent of space-enclosing elements but, regardless of how the sculpture relates to its intrinsic conceptual space [called the “sculptural field”, I learn], its external conceptual space is still likely to be the physical space of a museum or gallery where you may be shocked by the encounter but not by the fact you encountered it.

Strange things begin to happen when the congruency of physical space and conceptual space is upset by artworks not appearing where they’re expected to appear or by objects not considered artworks occupying physical spaces in which we expect artworks. [3]

Tazro Niscino gives artworks alternative contexts that contradict their given conceptual spaces. His 2002 Villa Victoria in Liverpool was a temporary hotel room constructed around Liverpool’s Victoria Monument. The strength of his artwork spaces depends on how credible they are as living spaces.

Rather than exhibit art as an everyday occurrence, the Dadaists exhibited everyday occurrence as art. It was probably always necessary to propose and exhibit something as art in order to create the conceptual space for it to be considered Art but what the Dadaists did was prove it was sufficient. Moreover, once that conceptual space is created, it can’t be uncreated. The found object can’t be unfound. [4]

The threshold for shock is higher these days as we become numbed to “but-is-it-art?” artworks appearing in public spaces to enliven them or at least indicate the commercial intent to. Guerilla art may once have prompted reflection on the nature of art and existence but commercial interventions seem to err on the site of bright colours and whimsy.

Public space is a lost cause when driven by coffee shops and footfall. It’s time to retreat inside and think about the manner in which art is placed in physical spaces, what it gives and what it takes away. If Art is never accidental then neither is its position in space.

The most unselfconscious positioning an artwork can ever have is in the artist’s studio. Here’s two photographs of Piet Mondrian in his, one with canvasses leaning against the wall and the other having a more self-conscious arrangement for display.

In the second photograph, there contrived surface similarities of colour and pattern between the artworks and the room, and there are also contrivances of placement. Some paintings draw attention to architectural features such as the door. Monochrome shapes blend the sofa into and out of the room and, via a cushion, red shapes morph into cupboards. The chimney breast is treated as an extension of the stove (that, come to think of it, it is) with black and grey squares for whimsical soot and whimsical smoke showing us not Mondrian the abstractionist but Mondrian the representationist.

We don’t know if Mondrian was consciously trying to make his studio into a total work of art but we like it anyway and Mondrian exhibitions typically reconstruct it. This next photo also contains a black square in another space that’s often reconstructed for exhibitions. This time it’s Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 Black Square in its special corner.

In any room, a corner is a special position not normally occupied by paintings but the allusion to an icon corner would not be lost on persons of the Eastern Orthodox or Russian Orthodox faith.

But what did this association-heavy positioning mean? Was Malevich asking us to worship Art? His painting? Himself? In 1930 Malevich was accused of “degenerate art” and subsequent works until his (natural) death in 1935 posed no more unsettling questions. We’re always told what the positioning of Black Square alludes to but we still have no idea what it was supposed to have meant. All we’re left with is a sense it’s important.

Implied importance is always the case when an artwork occupies a singular position such as the corner of a room or the midpoint of a wall – it’s as if the space exists for the sake of the artwork. The sensation is heightened if the artwork is large, apparently heavy, and weighty in content. Less substantial artworks can employ Position to Unite for synthetic gravitas.

The centre of a room is the intersection of all axes passing through corners and wall midpoints. It’s the primary spatial hotspot.

Donald Judd’s art is often based on the sculptural field between the artwork and the observer – or so I remember reading once. It’s basically the relationship we have with furniture before we use it. Furniture as art pays lip service to the notion of art for the people. These are artworks waiting for patron-collectors with spaces to fill. They might appear less like artworks and more like furniture if the spaces containing them looked less like galleries.

It’s not unknown for people to purchase an painting or a print in order to “fill a space” that appears to be “needing something”. Sometimes the opposite happens and specific spaces are created for the display of specific artworks.

The Bilbao Guggenheim website says “The entire room is part of the sculptural field. As he has done in other sculptures composed of many pieces, the artist has arranged the works deliberately in order to move the viewer through them and through the space surrounding them. The layout of the works along the gallery creates corridors with different, always unexpected proportions (wide, narrow, long, compressed, high, low).” [5]

Even if the room is part of the sculptural field, the distinction between art and space is clear, muddied only by a shared curviness. It’s sometimes the case that shared surface characteristics of colour and pattern tell us the elements enclosing the space around the artwork aren’t just the sculptural field but very obviously part of the artwork itself.

Yayoi Kusama Dots Obsession September 18 – November 2, 1997 Rice University Art Gallery

In her infinity room series, Yayoi Kusama uses mirrors to negate the physical space to create art with a infinite sculptural field even the observer is external to.

In this next example a found space has been made an integral part of an artwork. Artwork and space are one and people are invited. This is not a simple juxtaposition of art in space but nor is it space as art or architecture as art. It’s an artwork that could exist nowhere else but in this space.

Now we’re finally beginning to approach where we want to be.

A space constructed of elements unique to Architecture.
A space that has its existence as Art.
A space that admits the presence of People.

Here’s another.

photo: Knight Rise by James Turrell photo by Sean Deckert

In all his works that I know of, artist James Turrell uses our perception of light to conjure up spatial experiences as artworks one contemplates and ponders accordingly. In this next image the volume is created out of nothing but light.

These next ones admit people and are also constructed from light but lack the usual spatial delimiters of surfaces with shadows.

Turrell’s Skyscape series have a chamber with an opening to the sky and, because the frame of that opening has no apparent thickness, it makes the sky appear as if on a screen. It’s bizarre how this makes it seem more real to us but most art is about making something strange in order to gain our attention and focus it. Within, Without is one of Turrell’s skyscapes and is part of the permanent collection of the Australian National Gallery in Canberra.

The approach path slopes down below the surface of the moat-pond as you cross it to enter the truncated pyramid at a corner. You realize you’re not as indoors as you thought you’d be as you find it’s hollow, see a square of sky, and find yourself external to another raised pool of water pond with an object-structure at its centre. Either of two inclined L-shaped ramps will take you to its entrance and the space within from which you view the space without (and by doing that, I venture, your space within). It’s a series of thresholds leading to one you can contemplate but not cross. The entire thing is a work of art.

This artwork uses much of the stuff of Architecture to make something that is very clearly Art and not Architecture.

  • There’s spatial anticipation and progression.
  • There’s the play of light and shadow on simple spaces as well as masses.
  • There’s more materiality than you can shake a stick at.
  • There’s a sequence of spatial experiences as you progress inwards.
  • There’s the heat of the summer air and the cool sound of water.
  • There’s the view of the sky that never before looked so stunning as it does now.

The question then is In what sense is architectural space Art? And what makes it Architectural and not Sculptural?

I don’t want to get diverted by arguments of the Function vs. Form kind because I’d like to leave open the possibility of Function (or Performance, etc.) simply being a different form of beauty even if our era has no appetite for such ideas. But the issue of Function isn’t irrelevant. The sole function of Turrell’s Within, Without is for persons to enter and contemplate it or the sky or themselves etc. It doesn’t exist for them to have a sit down, a lie down or a sandwich, chat or nap though it could be used for any of those.

Let’s suppose Within, Without wasn’t part of an gallery compound but on privately-owned land. It would still have the same existence as Art, and it won’t suddenly become architecture if utilities, plumbing and some items of furniture were added to make it habitable. It’ll still be the same artwork but with people living in it. It’ll be as if – if you’ll excuse me – the accoutrements of living are conceptually external to the artwork. The existence of the artwork remains conceptually separate from the people camping inside. All the same, that existence is a fragile thing and is easily compromised by the physical requirements for (the function of) habitation. For example, adding a glass roof to Within, Without for purposes of climate control would diminish the gradations of inside and outside that have been so thoughtfully set up and the artwork would suffer more from that than it would from a bed or a sock or toaster lying around.

Many people offer opinions on what makes architecture different from buildings but the question What makes art different from architecture? remains unanswered and, until now, unasked. What if it was possible to live in art? Where does that leave architecture? Is it possible to live in art that stays art and does not become or claim to be architecture? After half a century of increasingly joyless iterations, we’ve probably reached the end of the road with Houses are Art. Art as Houses opens up new frontiers.

So then. We began with ART IN SPACE! and ended up with Art as Space or, to be preceise, selected architectural devices used to create spatial experience as Art. The goal now is to find the conditions for intersecting a basic habitability with that and in doing so create Art as Houses. 

How it’s going to happen is another question. How to add people to an artwork without making it into or reducing it to architecture is going to need some more thought so this post is the first of four. The plan is to follow it with Houses as Art, Living as Art and Art as Houses.

• • •

[1] Urban Camouflage, IKEA, Stockhom, 2008
[2] Left: Robert Rauschenberg,; Right: Robert Rauschenberg, Pilgrim, 1960
[3] From the Tatsu Nishi exhibition, Sometimes Extraordinary, Sometimes Less than Common, Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Aichi, Japan, Gallery, 2006 (Photos by Yoshihiro Kikuyama)
[4] Ji Lee, Duchamp Reloaded
[5] The Matter of Time, Richard Serra, 1994–2005


Tall Food

Tall food is a nineties restaurant plating affectation that came and went. Whatever was destined by looks or flavour to be on the same plate was stacked as high as it could be. The tall food in the feature photograph has the following layers that are, as far as I can ascertain, from bottom to top:

1) A jus, because things came with them back then. The colour makes me think it might be a salmon jus but it’s flecked with two types of sesame seed, possibly referencing the eighties’ love for differently coloured peppercorns.
2) To  the front is some picked ginger in what, circa 1997, might have been called a garnish construction in the style of Frank Gehry.

Pickled Ginger
– Peel the skin off the ginger root or, if it is very fresh, use a spoon to scrape it off.
– Slice it as thinly as you can.
– Leave the slices in warm water for about a minute.
– Dry them by pressing between two pieces of kitchen towel.
– Pack into a glass jar, cover with a mixture of sushi vinegar and sugar to taste.
– Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

3) The base is spinach – sautéed not wilted.
4) I’m guessing here, but the fact the steamed and green-ended carrot sticks are pointed and crossed suggests the chef/plater is trying for an ironic chopsticks thing because everything was ironic back then. [Note: The food in the photograph is arranged too “casually” to be authentic nineties but they’ve got the retro cheesy irony right. But no, I don’t miss the nineties.]
The salmon. It’s glazed with something that looks like a combination of butter, soy sauce and honey.

This is also good glaze for steamed carrots. The three ingredients have a powerful affinity like that between balsamic vinegar, black pepper and strawberries.

In passing, pickled plum and shisō [ume shisō; 梅しそう] also have an amazing affinity. The pickled plum brings sweetness and bitterness while shisō brings umami to the table. Add salt and you have an addictive combination that hits all taste buds.

6) To top it off, a piece of steamed pak-choi that, like the pickled ginger, would would go well with the salmon.

I won’t deconstruct this next, but food rings were the equivalent of slip-form shuttering and gave height to amorphous foods resistant to stacking. Kitchens had sets of various diameters and depths.

Tall food never delivered its promised cross-section of flavours. A single prod would compromise whatever structural integrity there was, and the construction would unceremoniously collapse or topple. It didn’t matter because, for one wondrous minute, tall food existed as an impressive and magical edifice. Few images survive. The ninetees had no smartphones, Instagram or culture of photographing food and thinking everyone cared what you ate. It’s thus all the more important to remember tall food because its legacy lives on. Fastcodesign beat me to it by a few years [rats!] and made the salient point that tall food was a way of making new American restaurant output look different from that of the rest of the world, and thus identifiable as a thing.

I first became aware of this trend jumping the species barrier to architecture with MVRDV’s Netherlands’ Pavilion for the 2010 Hannover EXPO. MVRDV had been working up to this with their 1997 Leidschenveen Town Center project but the Hannover pavilion represented various Dutch landscapes stacked into a pavilion and people saw in it a Dutch ingenuity to make the most of available land. There’s no way of knowing now whether people actually believed this or if it was just some PR thought implant.

What we do know is that the stacked look took off and, within five years, everyone was doing it. You could make your building look deconstructed yet constructed at the same time, escewing expensive curves in favour of easybuild blocks having a degree of cantilever limited only by your budget.

MVRDV are still doing it. For an image-thirsty audience raised on novely, the only real challenge architectural image providers have these days is to see how much coverage can be generated by regulation cantilevers not erring on the side of mundanity. [c.f. Architectural Myths #12: The Daring Cantilever]

OMA made great contributions to the genre, with their Museum Plaza (left, below) in Louisiana first hitting our screens in 2003. After the divorce, REX couldn’t get it up. Stacked buildings hit a ceiling, or at least their engineering consultancy fees and estimated construction costs did.

By the time ZHA added curvy stacks to the genre, there were already new buildings that were horizontal stacks [the new landscraper?!] or a bit of both.

We’re now working our way through the variants.

[The semester after the New Inhumanism post, I amused myself riffing on post-and-lintel construction in the style of OMA.]

There’s not all that many ways buildings can be made strange. The persistence of building stacks is testament to the eternal architect challenge to deny the intrinsic sense of column and slab construction but within budgetary constraints. This game has two levels: the higher one has the larger budgets and sheer unlikeliness of cantilver is presented as – and obediently taken to be – an indicator of design excellence.

Even if the other level achieves everything with budgets less stellar, the dogged pursuit of maximum cantilever to budget ratio is still presented and accepted as an indicator of design effort. As long as images such as these next flood the internet, stacked buildings will live on as a student trope and not just another item in an architect’s bag of tricks.

Municipalities like stacked buildings, or at least allow themselves to be convinced the device breaks down the mass of a building that is most likely to be significantly larger than anything around it. The power of this narrative as an indicator of design effort shouldn’t be underestimated because it gives stakeholders and non-stakeholders alike a means of comprehending and, if need be, defending the building. Big money is at stake.


[c.f. Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center (a.k.a. 14% MORE BIG!!)]

What we have then, is another way of making buildings not appear as big as they are. Existentially speaking, this is a denial of facticity, as is choosing to represent a number of tenants or functions that may not correspond with its reality, or implying a sequence of construction/assemblage that didn’t happen. These all indicate an absence of authenticity. [c.f. Existential Architecture: Being There] This is no surprise.

In the nineties, breaking down the mass would have been spoken or written with quotation marks around it to show the writer wanted to convey the meaning of creating the appearance of a smaller apparent mass. This wouldn’t happen now. Post Modernism cared more about the representation of something than its reality and, although the style may have gone the way of tall food, its lasting damage was to make us comfortable using language formerly used to describe reality, to describe representations of it. This is not ending well.  

In the meantime, the artful composition and the objet d’art are our currently prefered ways of making breakfast and dessert look different. The former is faux-architectural and the latter faux-natural – which makes it faux-architectural as well.

• • •

Searching for images of tall food wasn’t easy but this one caught my eye. Hats off to Mattia Salvia over on VICE, who decided to cook some of the recipes from Marinetti’s 1932 Futurist Cookbook (reissued in 2014 as a Penguin Modern Classic.) Making food look like buildings predates making buildings look like food by more than half a century.

Salvador Dalí had his own take on tall food as artistic statement.

Although it still needs curating and the weight of an accompanying manifesto, the Misfits’ Cookbook is a collection of nineties’ recipes labouriously compiled circa 1995 in Word on a Powerbook 140. It has no photographs but, even just glancing through the section for poultry, Chicken stew with white wine (p15) is a stunning dish in the old-school French style. Chicken in lime, ginger and soy sauce (p20) is delicious and quick. Chicken Pascal (p23) is a recipe that arrived in Tokyo from Paris and should really be named in honour of Pascal’s girlfriend’s Moroccan grandmother. Duck with Campari and orange (p20) was mentioned in Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel, The Secret History. I immediately imagined how wonderful it would but never made it. The sweet & sour sauce (p50) I still make occasionally.

• • •

This next photograph appeared in a May 11 Guardian article.  Yuk hwae is, starting from the bottom, cucumber, raw beef, Asian pear, and egg yolk. The two colours of sesame seeds never went away.


Architecture Myths #21: Total Design

“Who needs architecture critics?” was the rhetorical question of the title

Untitled 18

but, as with most rhetorical questions, the answer wasn’t long forthcoming. We all do, it seems.I might have guessed for, the previous six months, I’d been continually reminded I was missing out on the full value of my subscription.


Gradually, these reminders became more closely spaced and increasingly desperate renewal reminders. Hands up, I was one of those who simply lost interest.


It wasn’t always like that. Ever since Peter Davey left, I continued to subscribe whenever I could afford it, mostly out of sentimental memories of better days. But Peter Davey left in 2003! I’m all cried out now. Over it. Outgrown it.


Former freemasonry? Fixed they definitely seem to be, but colossi?

AR Editorial Board

And who exactly are they these titanic colossi? William Curtis? Charles Jencks? Aaron Betsky? Michael Sorkin? Farshid Moussavi? Peter Cook? Please. I too object to architectural worth being reduced to a number count of likes and dislikes, but I also have an issue with what AR considers to be substance. In any case, titan or otherwise, the idea of an architecture critic is outdated.


I would love nothing more than a rational basis for the appreciation and evaluation of architecture. Unfortunately, what we still have is a battle for the supremacy of one individual’s subjectivities over another’s. The Victorian notion of an all-knowledgeable critic to whose opinion everyone else must defer is still alive in this whizz-bang digital age of ours. It’s there in the belief an objective opinion “about a piece of art” can only be arrived at by ideal (“knowledgeable”, “educated”, etc.) observer under ideal conditions. Roger Scruton is of this view – once prompting some wag to say Roger Scruton’s “ideal observer” is Roger Scruton on vacation in Italy.


William “Titan-Of-Yore” Curtis continues the tradition. In September 2014, AR published his piece on RCR Arquitectes’ Musée Soulages in Rodez, France. Curtis made much of the fact that the building is a bit dark and gloomy – not unlike a Soulage painting, and triumphantly recalls a child saying “It’s like being in a painting!” If this is an old-skool critic evaluating a building for us on our behalf, well, God help us all.

To merely list items from the bag of tricks architects deploy to gain commissions and afterwards imply appropriateness is neither criticism nor praise. Yet it counts as it. RCR clearly know what side their commission is buttered on. But is a building that mimics its contents really the way to go as Curtis seems to believe or at least make us want to think matters?

The artist, Pierre Moulages.
Pierre Soulages.
The outside.
The Musée Soulages.
A Soulages.
A Soulages.
The things architects do.
The things architects do.
A Soulages courtyard.
A Soulages courtyard.
A Soulages café.
A Soulages café in action.
Chefs preparing Soulages food.
Soulages food.
Soulages dessert.

Total design as we used to understand/tolerate it, used to be about the things inside a building being designed by the same hand that designed the building – or at least acknowledging it like the café food does, for example. With Musée Soulages the building however, what we have is a building appropriating for its own purposes whatever depth and gravitas people grant the art it contains. What the architects have done is create a Soulages theme park. Entry €7.

• • •

Oddly, the Heironymus Bosch Art Centre is housed in a former church in Bosch’s home town of Hertogenbosch, NL. Sadly, it contains only reproductions as the originals were spirited away long ago. But as you can see, something’s not right. The intention must have been for the architecture to enhance the experience of the art by prompting recollections of quivering fear or reassuring faith. Instead, the paintings jolly up the church quite nicely.


They obviously need RCR Arquitectes on the case to provide a total Hieronymus Bosch experience.


That’s one architectural competition I’d like to see. Perhaps it could coincide with next year’s Heironymus Bosch 500 Festival?


Learning From Flying Saucers

This post is about buildings that look like flying saucers. First up, is Matti Suuronen’s Futuro House from the late 1960s. They say only 100 were ever built but wherever I go in the world I seem to see one in some state of disrepair, and I’m not that well travelled. Weburbanist has some ultrafab pics.

And thanks mischief, for the floor plan – I’d never seen it before. Very Jupiter II*!

Next, meet the Evoluon – “a conference centre and former science museum erected by the electronics and electrical company Philips in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, in 1966″. They’ve got the look. Saucerish, strut-like supports, small and regularly-spaced peripheral windows, central domey skylight spacelight. Metallic. Even more Jupiter II-ish.

You’d think many other examples would be from the 60’s as well, but no – these alien buildings are still here among us, PERHAPS EVEN MORE SO! Here’s the Singapore (“To Superintend the Administration of Justice in Singapore”) Supreme Court by (“the building takes its cue from the scale of the neighbouring civic buildings, offering a modern re-interpretation of their colonial vernacular to convey an image of dignity, transparency and openness”) Foster & Partners, circa 2000. What can one say? – “Welcome, alien overlords!”

This jolly little building is the Biblioteca Sandro Penna (2004).

What generally turns people away from libraries is the ‘character’ of the buildings that contain these spaces, frequently evoking an idea of separation, of exclusivity and often a dusty and melancholic idea of literature. By contrast, Italo Rota’s Perugian library, which takes the shape of a large disc, presents itself as a foreign object, though a gentle and delicate one: it is similar to the optimistic 1980s vision of the extra-terrestrial ET. Its form and use of colour, its transparency during the daytime, and the light it emits at night create a new landscape.

Thanks – nice one Mimoa! Keep it up, Italo Rota! Next up, the Shanghai Expo Cultural Centre (2000). Who designs these things? Oh, here were are – Shanghai architect Wang Xiao’an. He won a prize, it says.

I like the way he evokes that “Close Encounters OT3K” lighting effect. Awesome.

More recently (2012),

Roberto Sanchez Rivera built his home in Puerto Rico to look like a spaceship, with lights and audio effects.

Back in high school, he decided that one day he would build a house that was unlike any other. And after getting a degree in fine arts and studying industrial design, he had the ability to do that. [!]

Thank you, New York Times Home and Garden. And thank you, Roberto. Party on!

* * *

What’s one to make of all this? OK. Flying saucer buildings are classic examples of Shape to Alienate. The idea of ‘flying saucer’ itself is an idea that contains a notion of being different – of not being from Earth, and also an idea of not being a what it is – a building, in this case. Whenever these two types of ideas occur together  without any visual OR conceptual unity, what we are left with is the appearance and feeling of “alien”. The idea of flying saucers itself isn’t novel, but comes into and goes out of fashion. It endures however, because ‘not from here’ has meaning for anywhere, anytime. Moreover, the idea of ‘flying saucer’ can be easily evoked by:

  • Colour (by making it metal and shiny)
  • Pattern, (by giving it round windows around the periphery)
  • Shape (by making it saucer-shaped, duh!)
  • Position (by making it look as if it’s just extended its landing gear)
  • Alignment (by making one direction no more important than the others)
  • Size (by either making it mothership large or captain-and-crew small)

Obviously [!?], the attributes of craft capable of intergalactic, interstellar or even interplanetary travel are unlikely to resemble those we expect of mere buildings. The environment in space is far more extreme than anything we can manage here on Earth. The most challenging environments we have down are occupied by structures such as oil rigs,

and polar shelters,

whilst the closest thing we have off Earth is the International Space Station.

None of these are saucer-shaped or streamlined to reduce heat build-up upon re-entry. However, all are designed to allow human beings to survive and function normally in environments that are hostile to human life. We might want to think more about this.

* * *


News from Overseas

I’m not sure which bothers me more, bad architecture or bad copywriting. Probably copywriting. It puts ideas in our heads. And closing our eyes doesn’t make them go away. You’d think bad architecture is responsible for bad copywriting but it’s the other way around. Architects think of what their press kit will say and then CAD it up. Recently, my sister sent me a booklet of a local building she thought I might be interested in. She thought the building fussy, too many things happening. Agree. How much inspiration does a building need to have? Clue: It’s a shed.

The booklet itself is an anachronism. This printed paper matter wasn’t designed to be read, let alone air mailed around the world. I was not an intended reader. Too late.  

This link recycles much of the booklet text but let’s start where the booklet does – with “the architect’s vision”.

There is a specific philosophy behind the form and function of the building. Designed by Melbourne architects Lyons, in partnership with Perth company T&Z, 30 Aberdeen Street also mirrors elements of the vast West Australian landscape. Stratified open cut mines, precious metals, turtle shells, blackened sticks, metal mining bridges, black and white striped shadows in the atria, termite mounds in the red desert serve as a rich visual narrative to inform the aesthetics of the building. The horizontal striations on the facade are representative of an open cut mine or natural erosions in the landscape like the Bungle Bungle ranges). The copper, silver and coloured metallic facade panels reflect the wealth of natural resources in WA.

Shamefully, I had to google “Bungle Bungle Ranges”. The list of inspirations was exhaustive. Exhausting. The black swans are happy. Consigned now, as they are, to the anonymous dustbin of parochial cliché.

Confession. I didn’t understand how a function could have a philosophy either. Maybe I could raise an eyebrow at the use of the words “mirrors” and “reflect” as meaningful verbs, the compound misuse of “narrative” and “aesthetic”, the relative accuracies of “striation” vs. “strata”, the position of the apostrophe in “architect’s”, the newly-coined plural “erosions” and whether “natural resources in WA” is actually correct English.

I know, I know. Let’s just enjoy it for what it is.

The copper, silver and coloured metallic facade panels reflect the wealth of natural resources in WA.

An open-cut mine near Kalgoorlie. Impressive? Very. Poetic? No.

Upon entry, the library service desk greeting clients mirrors a downscaled outback Wave Rock.

Wave Rock is a 27-million year old natural wonder. It’s seen a lot of shit happen. It must be thinking that now is a good time to die. Let’s have another look at that library service desk above, reflect upon the meaning and purpose of human life on this planet, etc.

The Social Heart triples the size of the implied urban space and connects with Campus’ older buildings along Aberdeen Street. The Social Heart is half inside, half outside, barely separated visually by a large clear glazed facade wall running diagonal to the street. The space is designed as one space, indoor and outdoor, connecting together structural, formal and material elements to create a larger urban space. Stairs, ramps and lifts are all visible and highly accessible to make way finding easy. There is the presence of continual movement.

Reading this paragraph is like learning a new piece of piano music. There’s tricky passages, hidden themes, ornamental flourishes. It has to be comprehended and practiced one phrase – no, one word – at a time before taking a deep breath and trying to put it all together and make something coherent out of it. Tripling an implied space? Large clear glazed facade wall? Indoor space + outdoor space = urban space? I know, I know. Let’s let it go. The structural, formal and material elements have the urban space pretty much to themselves after dark. And, mostly, in the broad daylight as well.

I love this bit.

the cloud and pool of history

The public art feature hovering over the main entrance, by Jurek Wybrianec and Stephen Neille has been the cause of much public discussion.

The intriguing ‘Cloud’ is part of two separate but interconnected artworks commissioned specially for the new building under the Percent for Art scheme. The second element, inside the foyer, is a sandblasted cobblestone floor work entitleed ‘Pool of History’. It mirrors the kidney shape of the cloud.

Perhaps it was a mistake to have “cloud” and “pool” so interconnected, so mirrory. All it takes to jump the analogy barrier is the fibreglass swimming pool, another feature of life in Western Australia.

Most of all, I love that telling faint praise, “the cause of much public discussion”. I can imagine the tenor of most of it. A town divided over whether the ‘Cloud’ is the Postmodern social comment of the gold-plated TV antenna on Robert Venturi’s 1961 Guild House?

Or the Dadaist found-object irony of Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain? 


“Art, my arse!”

Too right.

Cheers, sis! Hi Jonathan! =)