Friday, 14 December 2012

Architecture “no longer interested in anything but its own image”

There seems to be an outbreak of introspection in the online architectural media.  Two posts ago I praised ARCHITECTURE.AU for hosting an article reflecting on the limited usefulness of the ‘hero shot’.  Today, Deezeen magazine leads with the above headline linking an article by UK critic Owen Hatherley.  It's hard to do better than to quote from that post:
Hatherley says sites like Dezeen and Archdaily “provide little but glossy images of buildings that you will never visit, lovingly formed into photoshopped, freeze-dried glimmers of non-orthogonal perfection, in locations where the sun, of course, is always shining.”
He adds: “In art, this approach to reproduction is dubious enough, but in architecture – where both physical experience and location in an actual place are so important – it’s often utterly disastrous, a handmaiden to an architectural culture that no longer has an interest in anything but its own image.”
Of course, there is irony in that this elegant summary of a much more complex article – written for The Photographers’ Gallery in London as part of a series of critical essays on photography in the 21st Century – is itself published on one of the two sites named and shamed.  That the irony is intended is made obvious by the image of the preening critic chosen to headline the report.

As must be obvious by now, I share Hatherley’s concern.  But if I am to be honest I have to declare that I am a voracious consumer of both Dezeen and Archdaily, because without them I simply would not be able to keep up with what is going on in architecture.  And to be fair, they can only maintain the flood of architectural news through the medium of text and image, mainly supplied to them by self promoting practitioners.  It would be nice to think that the material could be appropriately editorialised, and supplemented by much more contextual and performance information.   But in the real world such editorial resources cost real money and require sometimes deep and elusive expertise, neither of which are easily available in the new world of advertisement supported online magazine publishing.
That said by way of excuse for the image peddling media, the architectural profession itself has much more to answer for.  If Hatherley is right in his characterisation of architectural culture, and by implication its practitioners as actual and aspiring narcissistic prima donnas, it augurs badly for the future of the profession.  I wish I knew the answer to how that perception might be tempered. I wish I knew how to fix the corruption of architectural knowledge which is the other inevitable by-product of this relentless image making


Ryan C said...

Coming from a background in architecture, i cannot confirm or deny that architecture has indeed lost its sense of purpose and necessity, embracing a point of view and direction that seeks to do nothing but improve its outward appearance and image.

However,i would also like to point out that there are still quite a number of architects out there who are still actively seeking to make a purposeful difference in this world. For example, the 'Pleats. M Wedding Facility' located in Saitama Japan, designed by Hironaka Ogawa and Associates (Sources from Archdaily) still seeks to reflect the sense of purpose in the architecture that has been created and not solely the aesthetic nature of the structure.

Whilst, the unique design of the architecture does reflect the requested purpose of the facility, it also runs along purposefully into the interior to make any being that walks through the space within feel as though they in a space of union. This in essence is the core of architecture, designing with purpose and efficiency. Though arguably, the location at which this building is standing has questionable respect to the surrounding architectural language to the built forms around it.

On another side of the spectrum, architecture has also been used to not only produce visually pleasing and mouth dropping forms but also to proudly boast of the engineering feats and achievements that the world has yet to see. A prime example of this would be the 'Marina Bay Sands' located in Singapore and designed by Safdie Architects (Sourced from Archdaily). To this date, the Marina Bay Sands has been labelled as an architectural masterpiece and feat. I am no engineer but having read through some of the posts and reviews on the Marina Bay Sands, and having been there myself, the technology required and perfection is the putting together of this built form is phenomenal and will definitely be a beacon of both architectural and engineering breakthroughs for next decade to come.

As such, i do believe that as much as architecture has to date, lost a major portion of its design for purpose value, there are still a handful of architects out there who are fighting to lift up the name of architecture, proving to the world that designing a building is not all about the aesthetics of the exterior form, but also designing to maximise life both on the internal and external aspects of the building.

Anonymous said...

When you ask yourself the question; is architecture becoming all about achieving or portraying a certain image? One would have to admit that it is a very interesting concept and sadly I would have to say, I’m leaning towards agreeing with Hatherley and King’s concerns.

Arguably architecture is heading in a direction where there is a need to catch attention and provide a ‘wow’ factor in order to be successful, but as a current architectural student I know that this definitely does not make for good design.

In broad terms, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, there is a deep richness to the architecture that resolves all of the issues in the spectrum from place and site, down to the finer detail. This creates not only something that is architecturally beautiful on the outside, but also the inside. How the experience of space unfolds with a play of light and material starts to provide an architecture that is ‘organic’.

In contrast to the architecture magazines providing ‘hero shots’ to almost make the viewer judge a book by its cover, a later post by yourself provided evidence to suggest that using rubbish (not literally) to construct the Villa Welpeloo by Superuse Studios can achieve an architecturally resolved solution that performs well.

Could the problem lie deeper within the issue and be linked back to one’s early days in architecture school and the emphasis placed on the presentation of drawings etc. through the use of digital software such as Photoshop? Does producing a ‘better looking’ presentation really have an effect on what the finished product is?

Anonymous said...

I believe the culture of architecture has been increasingly expressed by the internet, where the consumption of images has become necessary to reach a broad public. Besides, communication through such methods become the only way to share when it is impossible for anyone to be physically traveling around the world and “experience and location in an actual place”, hence sites like Dezeen and Archdaily are great platforms to present and discuss architecture. It is undeniable that these sites occasionally may be unable to grasp the ideas with the lack of descriptions, and that the “perfect” images displayed may not be fully representative of what is in reality. Despite so, I would have to agree that it is a great platform to show what is going in architecture and it will allow discussion among the community, and promote creativity.

It may be true that architecture has lost its sense of purpose, and has gradually shifted its focus on creating “perfect” images. I believe Hatherley’s concern is not the problem of consumption on “perfect” images but architecture firms producing buildings that are meant to be experienced as images. Towards the end this leads to a complex question of what is the purpose of architecture? Aesthetic or functional? I would advocate to saying that it should be the balance of both. For example the “Yin-yang House” by Brooks + Scarpa, which is aesthetically pleasing yet “proving to be entirely self-sufficient.” Another example in “Mitsulift HQ” by Raed Abillama Architects, the facades and windows help minimising thermal consumption as well as designed by taking advantages from the natural environment in Lebanon. The last example in Netherlands, “Fire Station Doetinchem” by Bekkering Adams architects, has obtained an A+ energy label.

In contrast, an example that may have just designed to experience as images, “All Saints’ Academy” by Nicholas Hare which have been claimed as “A failure to create functional spaces” and more concerns by the Government.

“Yin-yang House” by Brooks + Scarpa (
“Mitsulift HQ” by Raed Abillama Architects (
“Fire Station Doetinchem” by Bekkering Adams architects (
“All Saints’ Academy” by Nicholas Hare Architects (