Monday, November 24, 2014

Architects Behaving Badly

It's been a while since I wrote about architecture, so here's a bit of catching up.

Starchitect Frank Gehry made headlines recently by behaving badly. In a photo that I predict will become as iconic as Einstein sticking out his tongue, the great architect expressed his opinion in physical form:

Frank Gehry responds to the critics.
If I ever publish my long-delayed critical look at Modernism, or if anyone else does so in the meantime, please use this image as the cover photo.

He then appears to do Sturgeon's Law one better:
"Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98 per cent of everything that is built and designed today is pure sh*t. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it. Once in a while, however, there’s a small group of people who does something special. Very few. But good god, leave us alone!"
Leave us alone, Godammit! People forget that at base, even the great genius starchitect is just a cranky, old Jewish guy with jet lag. Oy!

"The Flower." Break out the sealant!
The indispensible Lloyd Alter has some thoughts:
Now I don't think Frank is far off the mark with the 98%. The problem is, much of his own work fits right in there, particularly his residential buildings. 
In a world where architects are trying to figure out how to build resilient buildings, how to address climate change, trying to think about the 2030 challenge, Frank Gehry is designing buildings that couldn't be built before there were computers and the tools that connect to them, what's known as parametric design. 
Parametric design is a wonderful thing, and can be great for green building. Allison Arieff wrote in the MIT Technology Review: 
"If it seems there's some immensely complicated system being used to engineer these gravity-­defying arcs, ramps, and curves, that's because there is. But that technology, known as parametric modeling, can do much more than facilitate the fantastic creations of Gehry, Hadid, and their ilk. Increasingly, parametric design is being used not just to make buildings more visually compelling but to precisely tune nearly every aspect of their performance, from acoustics to energy efficiency. It's not as sexy an application, but it will become far more valuable to architecture and the way we live and work." 
Architects like Perkins + Will use parametric tools to model thermal performance, daylighting, and more; Allison continues: 
"They could simulate the thermal performance of different wall, roof, and window assemblies—and evaluate the performance against the cost. They could study how different types of glass would perform—not just in general but on the northeast wall at the building's exact location, under conditions suggested by long-term weather data."  
Frank Gehry uses parametric tools to design impossible facades where the cladding is folding and twisting, dramatically increasing the surface area of the building. Making every part of the building as individual as a snowflake. Making it just about impossible to wash the windows. That often leak. That are so expensive that not even the One Percent can afford it, this is for the 1/100th of One Percent. That, to my mind, shows no respect for humanity or for anything else. 
Passive house consultant Bronwyn Barry has a term that I like: BBB, or Boxy But Beautiful. Because every jog, every bend and every joint is a source of air leakage or thermal bridging. That's why passive houses tend to be boxy. 
Some of Frank Gehry's buildings are among the most beautiful on earth, but others, like many by Zaha Hadid or Bjarke Ingels, are technical and thermal nightmares that will turn into money pits for their owners as they try to keep the rain out and the heat in. So lets not talk about respect for humanity, Frank Gehry, and lets not complain about other architects building sh*t.
Frank Gehry gives the finger to 98% of architects. Why he should look in the mirror. (Treehugger)

Lloyd beat me to a post I've been meaning to write - Square Is Beautiful (the reference is of course to to E.F. Schumacher). The point I wanted to make is that, same as the passive house above, that the ideal shape for building in climates like where I live (the Upper Midwest) is a cube, since it holds the maximum interior volume for the minimum surface area (technically a sphere does, but spherical buildings tend to have problems of rolling away). Also, restricting the amount of projections and ins-and-outs keeps the insulation and exterior surfaces as continuous as possible. Finally, instead of all glass walls (which have the R-value of plywood even with insulated glazing), it's best to have just enough windows to let in the light and let users control airflow in the summer months without mechanical means.

And when I take a look around at the buildings built before we had mechanical systems to take care of everything and before the need for endless novelty, what do I find? Lo and behold:

Note that areas like this (in this case Milwaukee's Third Ward) are usually the most desirable places in any city with the highest property values and rents. Who needs Modernism?

When you look at the Gehry design Lloyd features in the article, you can't help but recall James Howard Kunstler's comment that modern-day architects, "strive to confound people in order to appear supernaturally the service of grandiosity and narcissism." If that doesn't describe Gehry to a tee, I don't know what does. Sadly, most architects today have followed suit to make a name for themselves, each trying to outdo the other with crazy shapes and contorted structures. And the elite architecture schools teach students to design this way (while paying lip service to 'green' design, of course).

And I also ran across this fascinating article: The Brain on Architecture (The Atlantic). There seems to be a whole host of investigation using techniques of science and mathematics to understand the effects of the built environment on the human brain and put it on a more objective basis than just the ad-hoc whims of "genius" architects. The article starts out with the usual pillorying of Brutalism:
At a particular moment during every tour of Georgetown’s campus, it becomes necessary for the student guide to acknowledge the singular blight in an otherwise idyllic environment. 

“Lauinger Library was designed to be a modern abstraction of Healy Hall”: a sentence that inevitably trails off with an apologetic shrug, inviting the crowd to arrive at their own conclusions about how well it turned out. Much of the student population would likely agree that the library’s menacing figure on the quad is nothing short of soul-crushing. New research conducted by a team of architects and neuroscientists suggests that architecture may indeed affect mental states, although they choose to focus on the positive.
Lauinger Library is a Brutalist building:

The attempt to match Healy Hall didn't work out too well
But it seems there is actual science behind the types of buildings that make us feel calm and spiritual, like a Gothic Cathedral or country cottage, and buildings that fill us with sense of dread, like concrete bunkers, gridded towers, and dark all-glass Darth Vader helmets:
I spoke with Dr. Julio Bermudez, the lead of a new study that uses fMRI to capture the effects of architecture on the brain. His team operates with the goal of using the scientific method to transform something opaque—the qualitative “phenomenologies of our built environment”—into neuroscientific observations that architects and city planners can deliberately design for. Bermudez and his team’s research question focuses on buildings and sites designed to elicit contemplation: They theorize that the presence of “contemplative architecture” in one’s environment may over time produce the same health benefits as traditional “internally-induced” meditation, except with much less effort by the individual.

Contemplative architecture contains a series of design elements that have historically been employed in religious settings: Bermudez noted that it is “logical to expect societies not only to notice [the link between built beauty and experience] over time, but to exploit it as much as possible in their places for holy purposes.” These elements may be used in any place intended for contemplation or discovery, whether of a spiritual, personal, or even scientific nature.
It's not all bad news for Brutalism; the Salk Institute is listed as a contemplative building, meaning that even concrete can be humane if used properly, as in this case by Louis Kahn:

"Spiritual" Brutalism?
Bermudez and his team expected that architecturally-induced contemplative states would be strong, non-evaluative aesthetic experiences— eliciting more activity in areas associated with emotion and pleasure, but less activity in the orbital frontal cortex.

The presence of an external stimulus (the photos of the buildings) also removes the tedious self-regulation that occurs in the prefrontal cortex during traditional meditation. The interviews of the 12 subjects revealed that “peacefulness and relaxation, lessening of mind wandering, increasing of attention, and deepening of experience” were all common effects of viewing the photos—also common was a slight element of aesthetic judgment, seemingly inescapable in the crowd of critics.

The provisional conclusions of the study are that the brain behaves differently when exposed to contemplative and non-contemplative buildings, contemplative states elicited through “architectural aesthetics” are similar to the contemplation of traditional meditation in some ways, and different in other ways, and, finally, that “architectural design matters.”

That last conclusion sounds anticlimactic after all this talk of lobes and cortices, but it reinforces a growing trend in architecture and design as researchers are beginning to study how the built environment affects the people who live in it. ANFA proclaims that “some observers have characterized what is happening in neuroscience as the most exciting frontier of human discovery since the Renaissance.”

Other findings discussed at ANFA’s conference get even more into the gritty details: the optimal ceiling heights for different cognitive functions; the best city design for eliciting our natural exploratory tendencies and making way-finding easier; the ideal hospital layout to improve memory-related tasks in patients recovering from certain brain injuries; the influence of different types and quantities of light within a built space on mood and performance.
This is a fascinating avenue of explanation, and may give us a better idea of why people flock to places like Paris and San Fransisco, and mass shootings tend to take place in American suburbia. I wonder if the architecture profession will pay attention. It would fascinating to see this combined with Christopher Alexander's a pattern language to show the effect of his theories on the human brain and societal well-being. I can't help but wonder which part of the brain lights up in response to Gehry's creations above - the threat region perhaps? After all, the early deconstructionists were intentionally trying to signify the disjointed and fragmentary nature of society with their work (or so they said - it was probably just a justification).

It also ties in nicely with the work of Nikos Salingaros, whose work attempts to use mathematics to explain how our brains process the built environment and why Modernism, with it's rigid geometrical fundamentalism, boxiness, sleek surfaces free of decoration, and endlessly novel forms at odds with their surroundings are inherently disturbing to human perception and social cohesion:
Up to about 1900, architects were understood to be practicing an adaptive craft, in which a building was an inseparable part of a dynamic streetscape and a neighborhood. “Blending in” respects the extant complex connective geometry, where components contribute to overall coherence. A building was assumed to meet the physiological and social needs of the people of that neighborhood first and foremost, and only then it would express its artistic qualities.

With the coming of the industrial revolution, and its emphasis on interchangeable parts, the traditional conception of architecture that was adaptive to context began to change. A building became an interchangeable industrial design product, conveying an image, and it mattered a great deal how attention-getting that image was. The building itself became a kind of advertisement for the client company and for the architect (and in the case of residences, for the homeowner seeking a status symbol). The context was at best a side issue, and at worst a distraction, from the visual excitement generated by the object.

Peter Behrens, the father of corporate branding, was given the challenge of developing the first architectural “branding” for the buildings of the German Electrical Equipment Firm AEG. He did so by using elementary industrial geometries, formed into a romantic and iconic expressive shape. The building itself was now a kind of billboard for the company—an attention-getting new product design in its own right. It was not a coincidence that three of his young colleagues went on to profoundly shape architecture in the 20th Century: Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius

Their buildings all certainly celebrated the individuated form, as objects standing dramatically apart from context. To heighten this drama, those architects masterfully employed the then-alien new language of early industrial technology (cubes, planes, cylinders, repeated rectangles, etc). As we have written elsewhere, this was a kind of “geometrical fundamentalism”, combining these elementary forms to create dramatic, attention-getting objects, fundamentally different from the model for architecture up to that time (Salingaros, 2006). Coherence was abandoned.
Michael Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros: The Architect Has No Clothes (Guernica Magazine)

1 comment:

  1. I am continually astonished at how all criticism just washes off these guys. They are teflon.

    Me me me!
    I am speshul!
    I am entitled!
    You are not!
    So bugger off!

    Effing narcissists.


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