Sunday, August 28, 2005
The Anxiety of Influence
MODERN ARCHITECTURE was a great social reform movement. The avantgardism that masquerades as Modernism today is little more than shallow, narcissistic, fickle fashion.
In the right situation, with the right designer, it occasionally produces great or interesting buildings. But the current avantgardism's constant search for the unprecedented more typically produces bad buildings like the two above.
They're mentioned in an article about architectural plagiarism in today's New York Times. Looking at them immediately raises three quick points:
- The two "folded plane" designs are both competition entries, designed at the same time for the same place by two different architects. They have nothing to do with their context, and were clearly designed to be unprecedented. Looking at their similarities, one ask to ask: How well is that working?
- The first role of a building is to shape and contribute to the public realm. Anyone but an architect can see these are like Alien Space Invaders. Recent studies have shown that architects are trained to see objects rather than the larger whole: no wonder our cities are falling apart.
- The emphasis on "unprecedented reality" takes the designer into uncharted territory where judgement becomes difficult. In contrast, a Traditional or NeoModern building builds on and improves precedent, and even the non-architect can tell the great Classical building from the merely good. But if one had to improve one of the designs above, what would be the criteria for doing that? Raise your hand if you think they're beautiful.
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» Nice summary from City Comforts, the blog
MODERN ARCHITECTURE was a great social reform movement. The avantgardism that masquerades as Modernism today is little more than shallow, narcissistic, fickle fashion.. [Read More]
Tracked on Aug 29, 2005 10:43:18 AM
» Nice summary from City Comforts, the blog
MODERN ARCHITECTURE was a great social reform movement. The avantgardism that masquerades as Modernism today is little more than shallow, narcissistic, fickle fashion. [Read More]
Tracked on Aug 30, 2005 4:26:35 PM
» Experimentation from That Brutal Joint
At his blog Veritas et Venustas, John Massengale says this about contemporary architecture: Modern architecture was a great social reform movement. The avantgardism that masquerades as Modernism today is little more than shallow, narcissistic, fickl... [Read More]
Tracked on Aug 30, 2005 10:59:51 PM
Are those designs really all that bad, though? They don't disengage the street and they add a certain whimsical flair. Think of Gaudi's work in Barcelona -- they remain an important part of the urban fabric while adding unique touches that can not be produced by classical architecture.
I certainly am not equating these designs to those of Gaudi's, as Gaudi was a master to these infants, but his work can be used to demonstrate how such designs can be beneficial.
Posted by: Joshua Wharton at Aug 29, 2005 8:48:05 AM
I think they're very bad. Their scale and detail are inhuman.
They're so grossly scaled that they make the buildings already on the street look like toys. And their lack of any intermediary detail makes it hard for humans to relate to them.
Posted by: john massengale at Aug 29, 2005 9:56:48 AM
I very much like your summary -- "MODERN ARCHITECTURE was a great social reform movement. The avantgardism that masquerades as Modernism today is little more than shallow, narcissistic, fickle fashion." -- but I wonder if it is timely to make a judgment about how these designs meet the street. I suspect that it is pretty unlikely that they are any good -- but I can't make out from the sketches what is really happening at ground-level.
Posted by: David Sucher at Aug 29, 2005 10:47:37 AM
Click on the picture for a larger image, or go to the New York Times link for the slideshow. Then look at 1) the relationship between the new buildings and the buildings next to them, and 2) the size of the people inside the new buildings.
Re the scale of the new to the old: Scientists are discovering the importance for humans of fractal scales and relationships, scales that intermediate between the mass of the building and the human. These buildings only have one scale: the large. The slabs are large and crude (the architets would say "functional" or "bold"), the windows have no intermediate detail, etc.
Traditional and Classical architects have always known what the scientists are saying. Classicism in particular is a language of fractal scales.
Re the size of the people in the buildings: One of the architects, probably the architect of the building on the left, has the scale wrong, i.e., his computer scaled people are too small in relation to the building next to them. This is sympomatic of the lack of scale in both buildings.
This is similar to the problem of the Koolhaas Seattle Library. Compared to these two, however, that building has more detail and intermediate scale.
Posted by: john massengale at Aug 29, 2005 11:07:29 AM
These designs don't have much detail or intermediate scale because they are just conceptual renderings. Almost every design project begins with massing studies and slowly progresses to finer and finer details (certainly the Seattle library did). I agree that every building needs details, but I don't think it is necessary to have them all worked out for a schematic proposal.
More generally, I question your ability to evaluate whether a building is "good" or "bad" based on a Photoshop image. I think David is right to withhold judgment until better design documents are available.
Posted by: Joseph at Aug 29, 2005 5:15:26 PM
In many situations I would agree with you. But the conception of these buildings is that they have minimal exterior detail. To put it another way, one would ruin the concept by adding detail to the folded planes or the glass -- and what else is there on the exterior of these buildings?
And, these are 3D Cad renderings which are accurate to a thousandth of an inch. This is what these buildings would look like.
Posted by: john massengale at Aug 29, 2005 6:05:14 PM
These were competition entries, probably thrown together in a matter of weeks. Architects almost never work out details at this stage of the process, because even a competition-winning design is likely to undergo major changes.
In the Diller + Scofidio scheme, for example, the glass will obviously need some mullions - and doors, for that matter. And according to Arcspace, the architects now plan to detail the folded surfaces with a pattern of precast service jacks and modular panels. Whether these will solve the problem of the building's scale is impossible to say at this point.
Posted by: Joseph at Aug 30, 2005 12:30:05 AM
Methinks thou doth protest too much.
These buildings speak for themselves. They don't want detail.
Posted by: john massengale at Aug 30, 2005 12:52:15 AM
BTW, these forms have nothing to do with their construction. Their pure formalism is like the formalism of another pair in the Times slideshow, in which a screen has the form of a large tower.
About the only thing these have in common with the great buildings of early Modernism is that they are anti-Traditional.
Posted by: john massengale at Aug 30, 2005 12:56:46 AM
John Massengale is absolutely correct in his analysis of the lack of fractal qualities of the displayed graphics. I also agree with him that it is highly improbable that such detail or connectivity is going to appear in the finished building, for the simple reason that the whole aim is to produce an anti-fractal form. That's the fashion.
Removing fractal qualities from the environment kills it, if it were alive in the first place. Here, however, we have a different phenomenon: the construction of forms that can never and could never be alive. Is there anything morally, legally, or ethically wrong with this? Is someone guilty for creating a Zombie (a dead body that is animated by magic to walk around)? This question is not asked in architectural discourse.
What I'm worried about is simply the confusion between living structure (with richly fractal qualities) and dead structure, and the media applause at the latter. I'm also bothered -- as is John Massengale -- that traditional architecture (which is intrinsically fractal) is relegated to the margins by today's architectural avant-garde.
Posted by: Nikos Salingaros at Aug 30, 2005 1:12:37 PM
What I find fascinating about these proposals - in the way that a pathologist might find some exotic neoplasms fascinating - is that in human terms, they are responses to the problem in a deliberately extreme and unproductive area of solution-space. That is, their morphologies are not in any real way emergent responses to the actual set of human needs that such a structure needs to fulfill over the life of a building. They are rather - to put it charitably - almost exclusively exuberant adventures in novel expression of the day. (Apart from a perfunctory market-based program, of course.)
Don't get me wrong, there is a place for that kind of exuberant expression - a , as part of a broader coherent response to the complex set of human problems. It seems to me that such a broader approach is a prerequisite to a "sustainable" architecture in any meaningful sense of the word. But on the contrary, because they are based so exclusively on expressive fashions - a very narrow and peculiar part of solution-space - these buildings are looking like they're quickly headed for the fashion dustbin of "yesterday's future".
This is a dangerous condition for the profession, I think - and so, apparently do many leading "starchitects" themselves. (Eisenman: "we're into looney tunes." Koolhaas: "modernism's alchemistic promise to transform quantity into quality through abstraction and repetition has been a failure, a hoax: magic that didn't work." Memo to Diller+Scofido et al.)
If we are going to adapt successfully to the complex set of conditions of contemporary humanity - like the biosphere, the public realm, the patterns of human activity etc. - I submit that we are going to have to find a more robust, more adaptive kind of architecture. That is not going to be built upon images, copied or invented. It will rather be built upon a system of evolved responses, adapted to varying contexts. This is, after all, how nature problem-solves and achieves sustainable equillibrium - through "collective intelligence" over time.
The current design practice is, if you like, to cut off the collective response and continually start over, start over, start over. That is, from an evolutionary point of view, behavior likely to produce extinction in short order.
On the other hand, evolutionary accumulation and refinement is what real traditions are all about: they function as a kind of open-source system that evolves and improves over time. And that is what traditional archtecture - as a methodology and not as a style - also does.
But note, again, that such evolutionary adaptations are from currently acceptable solution-space under the reigning fashion - very peculiar. In software terms, such a system is likely to crash pretty quickly.
Posted by: Michael Mehaffy at Aug 30, 2005 4:13:44 PM
Nikos's comment about "life" is an interesting one. It references the work of Christopher Alexander, who has been working to show that there is a such a thing as an objective state of energy in a building, which individuals can individually verify. It relates to some genuine avant-garde thought, the current cutting-edge research in quantum physics.
Joseph has written on his blog that architects should experiment. Of course this is what they teach at his school, and at many schools today: that the architect should be the Heroic Genius, reinventing the world. That is the Howard Roark legacy of Modernism, but it has been stripped of its social responsibility, leaving just narcissism and self-indulgence.
That's rather common in today's art world, and I suppose if somone can hang their monument to themselves on the wall of Saatchi's gallery and get someone to pay $5 million for it, they pretty much feel their point of view has been confirmed.
But no one has to go to Saatchi's gallery, while architecture is a public art, whose first role is the making of the public realm. And these buildings fail their first role.
You can see the results of this at Joseph's school, which has a collection of Starchitect buildings but no sense of campus. All the monuments to the Starchitects are incapable of making a place greater than the individual building.
Posted by: john massengale at Aug 30, 2005 5:36:26 PM
John: Nobody taught me to be a "Heroic Genius" - I picked that up on my own :)
Seriously, though, I'll believe Christopher Alexander's Grand Unified Theory of Beauty when I see it. I'm interested in some of Alexander's work: for instance, the concept of pattern language is quite intriguing and has applications far beyond architecture, even if many of his architectural patterns are needlessly prescriptive (I took a required studio on pattern language at school, incidentally). His ideas about complexity are equally interesting, and deserve to be taken seriously. But I don't see how they are arguments against experimentation.
Nikos: I'm not sure why we would want buildings that look like they are alive. I am quite interested in fractals. One of the fortunate developments of Postmodern architecture has been the rediscovery of ornament/decoration, which Modern architecture had discarded. Many newer firms such as SHoP Architects, as well as some established architects such as Peter Eisenman, have developed sophisticated styles of ornament that engage different scales.
"I'm also bothered...that traditional architecture (which is intrinsically fractal) is relegated to the margins by today's architectural avant-garde."
Every avant-garde is, by definition, opposed to traditionalism.
Posted by: Joseph Clarke at Aug 31, 2005 1:00:52 AM
John, I'm really curious about your comment regarding the importance of fractals to humans. Sounds fascinating, and to a certain extent, rather intutive. Could you point to any works in particular that explore the subject in greater detail?
Posted by: D. Archer at Aug 31, 2005 7:32:32 PM
OK, I'll play the bad guy. The buildings are ugly, even from a purely "design" sense. They look high concept Tupperware. If they were pieces of furniture or little porcelain table sculptures instead of buildings, they might be worth a camp laugh or two. I wouldn't mind someone feeling fond of them, in the way one can be fond of kitschy dated styles -- Jetsons, anyone? Harmless, if a little bizarre.
But ugliness in the aesthetic sense is debatable, I suppose. What's really ugly is the idea of imposing this kind of thing on the public -- on a neighborhood, on passersby, on the people who share the block, and on the people who actually use the building. So I conclude that these buildings are an offense on moral, aesthetic and simple human terms. The hell with 'em. Ridicule and outrage are the only sensible responses.
But I'll even take issue with your benign characterization of early modernism as a great social reform movement. In my view, it was utopianism from start to finish, essentially a form of wiping-the-slate-clean totalitarianism. Were a few of the buildings rather pretty? I suppose so, though I've never had the taste for them. But, y'know, there were probably a few nice things about life in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia too. And we don't go around cutting either of those regimes any slack. So why should anyone cut architectural modernism any slack?
Who are the True Believers who can't let go of the attempt to redeem modernism? Architectural modernism was a tragic mistake, right from the outset. I can't see any reason not to be frank about this. Throw architectural modernism on the junkheap where it belongs.
Posted by: Michael Blowhard at Sep 1, 2005 12:49:02 PM
It seems some readers are finding out the basic importance of fractals in architecture for the first time. That's great! I cannot help it, even if it goes against my publisher Umbau-Verlag who is producing my new book "A Theory of Architecture", to point to two chapters that are available for free. They are published in the Nexus Network Journal:
I also recommend anyone who is seriously interested in Architecture to read Christopher Alexander's four-volume "The Nature of Order", which goes beyond mathematical fractals, into complexity theory. Also wait a few months until my own book is out.
To Joseph Clarke: There is more here than meets the eye. Sure, the CAD image is a small rendering of what eventually will be a large building. But the images we see also establish a definite "gestalt" that will guide the full scale. There is an unmistakable alien "look" that will be pursued as closely as possible, so as to match the impression of the initial small sketch. To do otherwise would disappoint the client. Materials and surfaces will be carefully chosen and finished (or left unfinished) so as to remain faithful to the original image.
As for Peter Eisenman "having developed sophisticated styles of ornament that engage different scales", I disagree. I have written in detail about what defines ornament (in my unpublished book), and all I have seen from Eisenman fails to qualify. This is not the place to discuss his work, however, as the original buildings heading this discussion are not his. I do discuss some of his buildings in my other book "Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction", published last year.
Best wishes to all.
Posted by: Nikos Salingaros at Sep 1, 2005 3:09:10 PM
I like them. They're fun. They appeal as a reaction to the War Against Fun.
Posted by: dc at Sep 5, 2005 9:03:45 PM
A survey of local architects in Columbus put the Wexner Center (a documented disaster--high cost, ugly, dysfunctional, requiring closing for a multi-million retrofit) on a list of best buildings in Columbus, OH. They also put the new Knowlton School of Architecture building at the Ohio State University, which also won an AIA award. Yet, as my Critic at Large piece in the September Landscape Architecture Magazine indicates that its site design stands another modernist cliche'. And my post occupancy evaluation of the interior also finds a dysfunctional design.
Posted by: Jack Nasar at Sep 8, 2005 3:21:54 PM