Tag Archives: what is architectural meaning anyway?

The New Architecture of Austerity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structural Engineering as Art?

One of our earlier posts was titled “What’s the point of architecture?” and it’s true that  many of our posts have mentioned shit shapes and stuff. Recently however, I’ve been wondering what’s the point of engineering. I’ll set out my thinking first.


The Statue of Liberty is a good example of what I’ll call the “traditional” relationship between art, architecture and engineering. Designed by Frédéric Bartholdi, it has a shape that’s arty in that there’s no reason, other than someone’s concept of beauty and meaning, for it being the way it is. The internal structure was, as we know, designed by Gustave Eiffel, and is completely concealed. Its only function is to make the art stand up. The structure also functions as a building in some sense because it’s got some spaces and stairs inside it, but this doesn’t matter as it’s basically bad Neoclassic art, supersized.

Buildings used to be made like this, with an ornamental skin hiding the structure stopping them from falling down. In my last post, I mentioned how less ornament and increasingly unhidden structure was a winning formula for the Chicago School architects. Good for them.

architecture with structural logic showing

Next we have two superstar engineers. The first is Vladimir Shukov (1853-1939). This is part of his impressive CV.

  • The first oil pipeline in Russia (1878)
  • An improved water mains system, probably saving thousands of lives in an era of infectious diseases.
  • Oil tanker barges that used less than half the metal previously required
  • The first ocean-going Russian oil tanker
  • Novel method for metal shell strength analysis
  • Inexpensive oil tanks with base calculated using this method
  • Various chemical patents to do with oil refining
  • Oil pumps that enabled Baku’s oil industry to increase its output.
  • A furnace that used waste oil from the refining process
  • Thin shell structures (around 1896) for water towers and other useful structures
  • About 200 hyperboloid steel towers used for communications
  • Vaults using minimal steel and glass
  • More than 180 bridges across the Volga, Yenisey, Dnieper, and other rivers.

He was the first person to really understand steel. Equations he developed are still being used.

worlds first hyperboloid structure (1896) – photo: Sergei Arssenev

Pier Luigi Nervi‘s (1898-1979) CV isn’t as rounded, but he was the first person to really understand concrete. Many of his shell structures were used as exhibition halls and sports stadiums.

Orvieto Aircraft Hanger, Pier Luigi Nervi 1935

Shell structures. Hmm. Here’s where it starts going bad. The year is 1957. These are Jøern Utzon’s concept sketches for the Sydney Opera House. These sketches are an Australian National Treasure.


Apparently Frank Lloyd Wright saw the plans of the Sydney Opera House and sniffed something about the outside being unrelated to the inside. At the time, he would have been trying to get people excited about his NY Guggenheim where form drags function along behind it but, looking at this sectional model, we can see what the old boy meant. We’re now supposed to use the word interstitial space for this gap between the architecture bits and the engineered bits – but more on this in another post.

An original model of the Sydney Opera House byJoern Utzon was handed over by his daughter Lin Utzon at a ceremony inside the Opera House. Photo: Robert Pearce

Not that the outside bits are any less engineered. Here’s a pic of Utzon holding a wireframe model that shows how Ove Arup rationalized the geometry of the shells, thereby reducing the construction cost from astronomic to stratospheric.


For half a century, this set the pattern for the relationship between architects and structural engineers. It is responsible for articles saying things like Koolhaas and Libeskind could never bring their visions to life without the unsung talents of engineers, when talking about Cecil Balmond – the closest thing the world currently has to a superstar engineer. He’s been responsible for many of the world’s most iconic buildings, a lot of Liebskind’s and just about everything that Rem Koolhaas has ever built. It is now time to ask.

“Was this really such a good thing?”

You could say that structural engineering expertise like his has been responsible for the past decade’s worth of buildings known as iconic because they seem to have some extraordinary shape. Sigh. It seems that the past century of architectural history has been a waste of time. Instead of letting clients show how much money they have by spending it on unnecessary ornamental shit on the outsides of buildings, the most successful architects let clients show how much money they have by contrived shapes that require highly contrived structures. Why bother with ornament on the outside when the entire building is an ornament? One way of wasting money has merely been replaced by another. Well done architects and engineers!

It gets worse.

EXAMPLE 1) Behold the Arcelor-Mittal Orbit by Cecil Balmond and the artist Anish Kapoor for London 2012 Olympic Games. “Anish and I were thinking how do you beat the Eiffel Tower?” says Balmond. … We came up with the idea of an orbiting structure on the edge of the vulnerable, one where the form looks tenuous. A structure that was not obvious to read.”


So there it is, an structure that is nothing but structure, yet doesn’t let you know how it’s standing up even though there’s a lot of stuff doing something. In the latest twist to the relationship between architects and engineers, an architect, Kathryn Findlay, had the job of making this structure function as a building. She said it was a case of integrating all those parts – stairs, service ducts – that make the Orbit habitable, and of seeing it through planning permission.” This time it’s the engineer with the artistic pretensions and the architect who is the one who has to make it work. What would Shukov think? Hasn’t Balmond got better things to do? Apparently not.

EXAMPLE 2) Since he left Arup to start his own studio, Cecil Balmond has gone all arty.  From this, we can assume that this is what he’s really been wanting to do all along, or that it’s where the real money is. Here’s his winning design for a sculpture to commemorate that arbitrary line in the sand otherwise known as the Scotland-England border.”

The Star of Caledonia

  • Mr Balmond said he wanted to capture the “powerful energy, scientific heritage and magnetic pull of Scotland”.
  • “The Star of Caledonia is welcome; its kinetic form and light paths a constant trace of Scotland’s power of invention.”
  • “I am delighted to be collaborating with Charles Jencks [!] to create an integrated idea of this concept in both landscape and form”.

Alan Dunlop (of Glasgow based Alan Dunlop Architect and current Visiting Professor at Scott Sutherland School of Architecture at the Robert Gordon University) is on record as having said  “This landmark is where architecture, artistry and engineering goes to die”.  Exactly. An entire career spent devising structural strategies and for what? To design shit shapes with artistic pretensions? Isn’t that what architects are supposed to do? Or maybe, just maybe, shit shapes with artistic pretensions are the endgame? And that a successful career in either architecture or engineering is just a vehicle to “break into” the more lucrative world of Art. After all, the architectural career of Zaha Hadid has never been short of artistic pretension. It is only a small step from this


to this,


to this,


cleverly doing away with the tedious business of designing buildings.

CONCLUSION: If the ultimate aspiration of architects and structural engineers is to produce art rather than sorting out the built environment, then we need to find a new discipline that’s up to the task. Any ideas?



Culture, History, etc. and BUILDINGS (1)

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

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

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


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

Design Concept:
Weaving as Core Concept

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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