Sunday, August 18, 2013

Architecure Is Not Sculpture - Continued

I hope my readers not interested in architecture will indulge me, because I'd like to explore this topic a bit further. This will be something of an addendum to my last post, and a grab-bag. Those not interested can move on. Hopefully non-architects will find the discussion illuminating.

Regarding the practicality of architectural education, I meant to  include this excellent interview of Joe Lstiburek of Building Science from Inhabitat, which I think emphasizes some important points I tried to make:
Inhabitat: What does building science really mean? Did it not exist 50 years ago?

Joe Lstiburek: Well, it always existed. It’s really the technical side of architecture that architects gave up. If architects did their job there wouldn’t be any need for building science. You know, I’m flabbergasted by the architectural profession giving up control of such a profitable part of the industry, which is the interaction of the building enclosure with the climate and the people and the mechanical system.

You know, this occurred because of the change in the focus on the education of the architects, the school. They’re focused – they’re trained in art. They’re not trained in physics and material science to actually execute their designs.

Back in the day, 100 years ago, or maybe 50 years ago in Europe, architects were trained like master builders. They understood structure. They understood mechanical. They understood physics. They understood material science. They understood how everything worked together. The focus now on the architectural education is all art and what’s missing are all of those other pieces — one of those missing pieces is building science or building physics.

Inhabitat: Do they feel like it’s not their problem? Such as how a building envelope will necessarily function in the real world — that if it’s down on paper and it’s been done before, then that’s okay?

Joe Lstiburek: I can’t speak for the architectural community, although I often try to – that is I think the arrogance of the profession drives me crazy. I think they feel it’s beneath their dignity to worry about these little, minor problems, like how to keep the rain out of the building, how to keep the air in and the air out. Let somebody else worry about that. I’m here to make an uplifting building to society to basically send a message about how this building is going to make this place a better place to live, and the people that live and work in it are better people. That’s what my mission is. This other stuff somebody else will worry about.

Inhabitat: One of my favorite things you  talk about is how highrises eighty years ago were more energy efficient than just about anything built today, especially with curtain walls and glass.

Joe Lstiburek: Well, it’s real easy. It’s just glass. I mean we have glass boxes and glass and steel are inefficient. Back in the day we had glazing ratios that were 10 and 15 percent and mass walls. An R2 curtain wall can’t compare to an R8 mass wall assembly. It’s not even close.

Inhabitat: So we talk about these advanced materials, advanced glazing options we have now and, you know, they go on and on and on. They are still nothing compared to a masonry wall as far as energy efficiency?

Joe Lstiburek: They’re nothing to the old approaches, but in the last 50 years the architectural profession has managed to piss away every energy advance that the rest of us have made because of all of the glass. I mean it’s just amazing to me.

And the hypocrisy is stunning. They blame everything. We’re here to save the planet. We’re here because it’s real important for our carbon footprint. And yet they turn out one glass box after another glass box after another glass box and they’re interested in what the emission rate of the paint is, and what the embodied energy of the carpet is, and the biggest problem is their original design. That just drives me crazy. LEED is a colossal joke for that reason. They equate a bike rack with the same efficiency as the enclosure.
INTERVIEW: Building Science Pioneer Dr. Joe Lstiburek on the Good, Bad and Ugly Side of Buildings (Inhabitat) I recommend the whole thing.

Here are some other miscellaneous items:

A Discourse on Emerging Tectonic Visualization and the Effects of Materiality on Praxis, Or an essay on the ridiculous way architects talk. Witold Rybczynski, Slate Magazine
Architecture is a relatively young profession—the American Institute of Architects was not founded until 1857. Seeking to distinguish themselves from lowly builders and carpenters, architects adopted a specialized vocabulary, often substituting complicated Latin-based words for their simpler Anglo-Saxon equivalents, for example, fenestration for window, entrance for door, chamber for room, trabeation for beam, planar for flat. Then there were the mysteries of Ionic columns and egg-and-dart moldings.

When Modernist architects revolutionized the art of building in the 1920s, they scrubbed classical decoration—and classical terms. In the process of simplification that followed, language, too, was stripped down, and the pronouncements of architects such as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier were lucid and to the point. After all, if a house was a machine for living in, then the house-maker should speak the straightforward language of the engineer.
Are Renderings Bad for Architecture? (ArchDaily)
The idea of the perfect architectural image is not only propagated by professors who prioritize the rendering over its practical implications (causing students to spend hours perfecting visuals instead of perfecting the design), but also by the architecture media (and yes, we include ourselves in that category)," observes Vanessa Quirk. "Architecture media presents a flood of glossy shots that 'sell' an idealized architecture to the public and, frankly, architects themselves.

In an age in which the rendering (and the architecture media in general) has already set expectations far higher than reality could achieve, is the realistic rendering (forgive the pun) rendered useless? Could a stylized rendering actually be bad for the project, and bad for architecture in general?
Should we attempt to present architecture as realistically as possible, in both images and renderings, in order to eliminate unrealistic expectations (for clients and ourselves)?
Slumlord Nation. Eric Zencey, The Daly News:
According to architectural critic Charles Jencks, modern architecture died forty one years ago, on March 16, 1972. That’s the day that dynamite charges brought down the first of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing towers in St. Louis, Missouri. You’ve probably seen the pictures: a cloud of dust swirls out into the street while the tops of the buildings, still square, sag and tilt crazily. The photo captures rectilinear form giving way to dust and rubble: an iconic moment, an image that reminds us that entropy — the law of increasing disorder — haunts all our acts and works. In the distance you can make out another St. Louis icon, Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, that gleaming stainless steel monument to the city’s role as mustering yard for the nation’s western expansion.

Jencks was wrong about modern architecture. So are those who blamed the residents of Pruitt-Igoe for the buildings’ decay and destruction. What brought those buildings down is a dynamic that’s very familiar in our modern economies — a dynamic that the conceptual lens of ecological economics lets us understand very clearly.
Hey Middle East: Enough With the Regional Architectural Clich├ęs, Already (The Atlantic):
Though many of these new buildings are exciting, innovative, sustainable, and awe-inspiring, for whatever reason, whether because of the lack of existing context or a pesky contextuality clause in a competition brief, their architects feel the need to resort to cliched references in order to assure clients and future inhabitants that the buildings relate to their sites.

Many of these references are to natural phenomena: the wind-blown sand dunes of the desert or the sanctuary of an oasis; others refer to a way of life seemingly passing beyond recall: the dhows used for trade and pearl diving, or the tents of the nomadic Bedouins. These are, in fact, inspirational images, but they are also two-dimensional, as if the entire essence of a place and culture can be boiled down to a single formal metaphor, and they also become tired when repeated by a firm, much less five of them.
I also thought I'd include a gallery of the "bad" - where starchitects are indulged to create buildings that are not very usable, are expensive, and are not very environmentally-friendly or fossil-fuel sensitive (and yes, I'm cherry-picking here):

Frank Gehry:

BIG (Bjarke-Ingalls Group):

Zaha Hadid:

Daniel Libeskind ('Mr. Shard'):

Architects MQA (context? what context?):

Morphosis (Thom Mayne)

Plasma Studio (yes, really):

MAD Architects (yes, really. This is the 'Absolute Towers.' These guys also did the famous bean-shaped museum in the empty city of Ordos):

OMA (Ren Koohaas, who did this iconic building):

Stephen Holl:

Meanwhile, in suburbia:

My point is not to critique these works per se, only to point out that all of them owe far more to modern sculpture than they do to any historical building or style. they don't really signify what's going on in them, either.

I received a very thoughtful comment in the comments section of the previous post, and the response is probably too long to include there, so I include it here:

Thanks for your thoughtful response. Yes, I am a licensed architect. I've been practicing for nearly twenty years and have worked on jobs from small to AIA award winners.

The original article touched a nerve for me as well. The objects in the article passing themselves off as architecture to me seemed unreasonable, and it reminded me of a lot of nonsense I see in the field these days. Now, of course, my experience is quite limited. I've been out of school for some time, my knowledge of current schooling comes from my coworkers, and all schools are not the same.

I personally did not feel at all prepared for an architecture career upon leaving school. And if that's not the purpose of school, then what is? I don't think we need universities (and their attendant loads of debt) to foment design or exploration, I think there was plenty of that before them. There are always more theoretical "out there" parts of any field, and I fully support that. I just don't think this should be the main focus. When I took my exams, I had to teach myself everything, practically for the first time. What sense does that make?

In the post-war period, theoreticians came to the fore (such as Le Corbusier and Gropius), and I do not think we've been well-served by this. This gave us glass-skinned skyscrapers, brutalist buildings that can't keep out rain, freeways slicing out the hearts of cities, and the Pruit-Igoe project. The purpose of school is to train people to be architects. The innovators used to be people who actually worked on buildings, rather than people who only wrote abstract theory.

I never understood the point about using school for design "freedom." How can you do that at the beginning of your career? That seems like a silly way to train architects. It's like training surgeons by operating on non-humans. I think of it like science. Einstein had to know his shit and be a damned good physicist before he could push the boundaries. You don't learn Relativity or string theory before you've mastered basic physics. We have so many digital tools now, we can explore as we wish, when we wish. But it seems like the innovations that are truly making more exciting buildings are being made by engineers rather than architects (like materials scientists and mechanical engineers for example).

In my experience, "designers" tend to all too often be kids right out of prestigious design universities whose main ability is to create fantastic renderings. Often the abilities of this rendering and graphics software is what drives the design. That's why you see so many hyperbolic swoopy amoeba forms emanating from design schools these days, along with Photoshopped trees over everything. Rather than a dialogue with other architects, clients and engineers, they come up with visionary renderings which are sold to the client before anyone has really determined feasibility. Then they are told to push thorough their "vision" against any and all opposition (shades of Howard Roarke). The amount of time and energy put in to get these buildings to "work" do not create value for the client, nor do they lead to better buildings overall.

Nor need this mean just slavish repetition of Neoclassical forms. In the pre-war period. There were a lot of innovative designs that were buildable. I'm fond of Otto Wagner and Viennese secession, C.R. Mackintosh, Edward Lutyens (especially in India) Art Deco, Tony Garnier, etc. And, of course Frank Lloyd Wright, especially the early works (yes, he had some contructability issues, but they're still more functional than a lot of today's stuff). Here are some other designs from a competion I find very well done:Timber in the City.

To cite an example, we're working with a client who is very concerned about snow falling on people on their campus. Yet 'designers" have created a building with snow ledges all over the place. The form also led to a lot of problems with the interior layout - what should have been repetitive rooms transformed into all sort of unique shapes leading to problems we're still dealing with. All this could have been avoided with some forethought and a more collaborative approach.

Here's another terrific example of what I'm talking about from Lloyd Alter (himself an architect and professor): The Aqua building in Chicago. As he points out, the form of this building mimics a radiator, a form specifically designed to radiate heat away from an engine. Yet this building is in Chicago! This is the perfect example of what I mean when I say we design for "effect" rather than functionality. Had this been built in Miami, it would have made much more sense. But it got the architect noticed, and that was the driving factor - a bad driving factor in my opinion. One engineer called it 'architectural pornography.' Ouch. In an age of declining fossil fuels and other resources, that's a great way to become irrelevant.

To cite yet another example from my professional experience, buildings need some sort of lateral support systems to keep the building up. This needs to be taken into account in the design from an early point (we used to have an exam just about lateral forces). Yet these systems are not integrated into designs and are often put in as an after thought. Structural systems can and should be integral to design solutions from the start. On the building cited above, the lateral systems created yet more plan headaches that we're trying to solve. I've seen some very good buildings where structural systems were integrated into the design. This used to be standard practice for architects. Not anymore.
Another example: Oops! Design Flaw In Zaha's Olympic Aquatic Center Could Lead To 4,800 Ticket Refunds
Now I deliberately focused on the bad. And yes, I cherry-picked to make a point. There are a heck of a lot of architects doing terrific work. Often times, these designers are unknown and unheralded. Usually, they are in the trenches working to create intelligent, sensitive, contextual architecture that enhances the urban fabric. This should be the focus of architecture. To cite an example from another art form - Nicholas Meyer, who directed several of the best Star Trek films on tight budgets, was fond of saying that limitations are necessary create great art, because they force you to innovate. Comparing his movies to big-budget spectacles of today, I'm inclined to agree. That's what we should be teaching students. I think they, and the public, would be better served by this approach.

If there is a true "genius" to architecture, it's rectifying multiple disparate requirements into an inspiring solution, not ignoring those requirements. But first, you have to know what they are.My trip to Europe only reinforced my belief that aesthetics and practicality are not mutually exclusive. Why are buildings built a hundred years ago on historic preservation registers, more repurposeable, more functional, and more loved than buildings built today? Were it not for the lack of insulation, they would probably perform better energy-wise too (assuming new windows).

Your son's point about budgets is right on. In fact, that's one of the reasons I always argue that money is not a facilitator, it is in fact usually a limiting factor, and a lousy one at that, one that we impose on ourselves. Everyone in this field sees exciting, innovative projects every day that will never exist because a "lack" of money and nothing else. That's a point I often try to make about economics. One of my main criticisms of Kunstler is that he lays way too much blame for our current built environment at the feet of architects, where we are only a minor player in the disaster of suburbia. The irony is (most) architects hate suburbia; in fact I first heard of Kunstler's work in architecture school. Yet he pillories us at every turn when we are all too often just hirelings who don't control the purse strings. Personally, I think design professionals should have more control over the built environment, but we think "centralized control,"equals communism, so that probably won't happen.

The statements actually reinforce what I was saying, rather than contradict it. Most architects have to labor in the real world with limited budgets and clients and contractors who are constantly trying to cut corners. But on the other hand, we have "starchitects" who are given (practically) unlimited budgets to create status symbols for today's modern corporate oligarchs (e.g. Dubai) and repressive kleptocracies (e.g. China). Of course, that is not the fault of architects, but we've bought into and celebrated this system rather than criticized it. The result has led to a public alienated from their built environment, and that's something we need to be concerned with as a profession.

I'm sorry I made them angry, but on the other hand I'm not. That was the point - to get people to start talking and start thinking. I think the profession is too thin-skinned. We need criticism if we are to move forward, not self-satisfaction.
And finally: Can Architecture Improve Our Sex Lives? (Aeon Magazine). If you're looking for a thesis project, I recommend. I think I need to do some extensive research...


  1. "Seeking to distinguish themselves from lowly builders and carpenters, architects adopted a specialized vocabulary, often substituting complicated Latin-based words for their simpler Anglo-Saxon equivalents"

    And we are back to the problem of power. The puffed up procession of professions pilloried by Mary Daly and others. The doctors setting themselves up over the midwives, herbalists, and barber-surgeons. The lawyers setting themselves up over the scribes and clerks. The jargon is one part of it. Discrediting the others, and monopolizing the field (only those approved by us can practice) are others.

    What I don't understand is this: all those books you see in supermarkets and bookstores, those collections of houses that regular people dream over... I used to pore over them looking for really small houses. Very few, no matter what the cover said. But after a while, I realized that the designs were rehashed from book to book, run off by some drafting hacks for profit. Real designs by architects who care about ship-shape, practical living were very few (once internet happened, some came into existence). Why don't architects publish such books? Why are all those houses the same kind of ticky tacky box/mcmansion? Most people, even folks with some money, have a local builder build their house, and that local builder will use some form of those dull cookie-cutter designs. If architects hate suburbia, why didn't they pitch in with something better that local builders could just tap into?

  2. Honestly, I'm flabbergasted. My bone with modern architecture is aesthetic, but I've never imagined it so bad that someone out there has to spell the utterly obvious: that buildings are shelters first and foremost. How could a trade, which by nature takes place in hard reality, become so self-indulgent? I don't think there is a matching example in any other -- maybe except economists and politicians. As you've pointed out, there is probably a connection.

  3. I think fundamentally architecture should be a branch of engineering. Some have argued we should just eliminate the field of architecture entirely and just have engineers create buildings. I think this may be going a bit too far – the skill sets overlap but are still different – architects have to think about usability, efficient plan layouts, social issues, history, and yes, context and aesthetics. Because we do shape the entire building concept, our role has to be as holistic thinkers. For better or worse, we have become primarily ringleaders to a bevy of consultants. Well, complexity and all that, so it’s probably inevitable.

    So I do think we need our own track that takes these into account. But I think engineering should be the base – note that engineering schools don’t have this self-indulgent “studio” system, not do engineers require a bare minimum of five years of expensive education for a profession that pays practically minimum wage at the entry level; only a four-year degree. Requiring a five-year bachelors or Master’s degree to practice reflects architects’ arrogance more than anything else. You learn far more on the job than in school anyway. Education requirements for architecture are outrageous, and I’ve said many times before are designed primarily to keep people out of the profession, especially people of moderate means, as well as being a gravy-train for the architecture professorial caste. We may end up with more architecture professors than practicing architects if this continues. Architecture school should not be primarily art school. If you want to study art or sculpture, than be all means do that. We need good artists and sculptors too.

    But I think we’ve lost our way by elevating an elite core of sculptors trained primarily in abstract art to be “starchitects,” and celebrating their while elephants as design achievements. But it’s part and parcel of the whole modern “superstar culture” – look at chefs for example, or businessmen or personal trainers. Prior to the last fifty years, most architects, except for a handful of notables like Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnahm, H.H. Richardson and Stanford White, were fairly anonymous. Even their buildings were not that flamboyant. They were more about creating great spaces than “getting noticed.”

  4. Again, to reiterate, I am not against theory. I am not against proposals that push the envelope. I am not advocating just making boring “practical” buildings and never exploring new frontiers. All I’m saying is that they should not be the foundation of an architectural education, nor for architecture in general. Nor should looks and novelty be the only or the primary driving factors in architectural design. Art and sculpture can inform us, but we should not confuse the two. And the greenwashing has become outrageous. If you want to design an all-glass energy hog, that’s certainly your prerogative if you have the money, but don’t claim it’s “green” simply because it has the best mechanical system money can buy, a few solar panels, low VOC paint, or trees from a certified forest somewhere.

    What’s sad is that the rules for making environmentally-responsive architecture have not changed for thousands of years. See for example, Sun Wind and Light, or the Environmental Design Pocketbook, or this post from Low Tech Magazine. But this research is neglected, while firms generate endless ad-hoc forms in an attempt to stand out from the crowd

    If you look at the buildings of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, you’ll note that while each one is unique, they tend to all be fairly similar in design and layout, because the rules for good design and layout do not really change all that much or that fast. Yet the buildings are all beautiful and usable, as well as cost effective. I’m a big fan of vernacular buildings of the nineteenth century, particularly factories, schools and office buildings, and I’m always amazed at how much variation there is, and how well they harvest daylight with only a small range of types and morphologies. Construction money was spent on high-quality materials and finishes instead of contorted forms that spring leaks shortly after construction. At the same time, you not have the suburban crud you see today; even small town had beautiful buildings.

    Today, instead, we try to produce “cutting edge” architecture like this: And believe me, this is influencing a generation of architecture students.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.