Monday, 26 August 2013

Architecture that works

There is low level disquiet, and there is enthusiastic hope.  There is trenchant distrust, and over-the-top spin.  There is an entrenched profession of older architects, trained in craft and the relatively easy-to-digest theoretical aphorisms of mainstream 20th century modernism.  And there is a younger generation, also trained in craft, but that of the computer produced image, for whom architectural theory has been more about obfuscation than certainty.

The older generation, many of whom operate as sole or small scale practitioners, and still struggle to adopt 3D CAD into their design and documentation workflows, are profoundly suspicious that the advances in digital technologies already impart the power to produce any shape, any material assembly.  And that such power corrupts architecture, absolutely.  For them, the apparently undisciplined excitement of contemporary emphasis on extravagant external form is not architecture at all.  There is a moral tone to that judgement.

The younger architects, now produced by universities in numbers guaranteeing that they will be underpaid and overworked for most of their careers, know rather more about the true consequences of so much computational power.  And there are enough champions of the possible, to make it seem like a revolutionary change is occurring in our relationship to the built environment.  True parametrics are seen as capable of increasing the cognitive span of the master architect.  But the euphoria is tinged by the knowledge that BIM will consolidate production of more and more complex buildings by smaller and smaller teams, requiring fewer employed architects. At least some of this generation are also intensely self-conscious of the loss of empirical building experience from their education.
Of course, it isn't as simple as this binary generational stereotyping.  In particular, the star architects who actually get to build the most visible and most influential form driven buildings are almost all in their sixties, or older. And most of the small firms publishing smaller projects in international digital blogs and zines – in numbers that were the stuff of dreams in the old print media days – seem intensely focused on the material finesse of their work, and lionize older masters of craft like Peter Zumthor.

Be that as it may, the ground is fertile for the re-emergence of architectural manifestos. It seems necessary to make sense of change, while condemning the ease with which it is embraced.  And so it is that New York City architect Curtis B. Wayne has launched his little red book The Shape of Things that Work: The Fourth Architecture, with the avowed purpose of  saving architecture from the current orthodoxy of form-making over substance, or “sculpture you can live in".

Guy Horton, writing a considered review in his 'The Indicator' column on archdaily. summarizes it thus: "in Wayne’s conception, the First Architecture is the Hellenistic, the Second is the Gothic, and the Third is the modern – up to and including our contemporary, formal experimentation with software".  For me, that is immediately problematic, not because a case may not be made for the first two, but because any attempt to argue the third (in order to make way for the fourth) is patently absurd.  And so it seems indeed, if the examples Wayne cites as his paradigms are anything to go by.

“The integration of functional form with the beautiful is as elusive as a conclusive definition of beauty itself,” says Wayne, seeking to explain why there are so few examples of successful Fourth Architecture candidates. He suggests George Fred Keck’s Crystal House, RMJM’s Glaxo-Wellcome building, and the Helicon Building by Sheppard Robson Architects.  I only manage to agree with him on Glaxo-Wellcome, and then only if I willfully ignore the limits the architects placed on properly evaluating the project's actual performance, in order to arrive at its unreconstructed modernist aesthetic.

To narrow his definition, Wayne suggests that buildings that have sensor activated flaps and stuff, like Morphosis' Cooper Union Academic Building, are not 'The Fourth Architecture', apparently because the mechanical bits have failed.  I guess that knocks off Nouvell's Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, too, in spite of its remarkable urbanism. Yet it's hard to spot the conceptual difference, if we are to accept that Wayne is more positive about the HeliOptix Integrated Concentrating Solar Fa├žade developed as part of the proposed design by SHoP Architects for New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.  Let's face it, it's quite possible that the only reason it isn't on the list of refuses, is that it hasn't failed, yet.

But I make it sound like I disagree with Wayne's central thesis that "true architecture is missing when form-making takes precedence over function and performance". Actually, I don't.  I agree with him wholeheartedly.  I wish I could write a manifesto that actually changed the world, and if I could, it would share a lot of themes with Wayne's.  It would be a paean for a simpler architecture, that works.

My problem is that while my thinking is reductionist, my sentiments are far too pluralist.  Not to mention that I happen to think the last wave of manifestos were probably to blame for where we are now.  Think machines for living in, and rhetorical makeovers for Paris now coming true in Beijing or Shanghai or Gargaon.  I don't think the truth is out there.  But I know what I like.

Read Horton's review in 'The Indicator'. 

And if you think Wayne's little red book is likely to make sense of the world, by all means, read it too.  A decent didactic critic can't be worse than most of the drivel architects write about their own work.  It's in very big letters on a very short 100 pages or so.

But be warned.  In the end, Wayne is fundamentally concerned that buildings should look like they work, and never really transcends the 'form follows function' rubric.  He even uses the phrase.  Never mind it was debunked comprehensively as long ago as David Pye's Nature and Art of Workmanship of 1968.  Download a PDF copy, quite legally, here

Saturday, 24 August 2013

When a good regulation goes bad

This one is a bit parochial, and may not mean much to my increasingly international readership.  I have written before about the local planning approval regime for apartment buildings, here in my home state of New South Wales, Australia.  But perhaps I haven't previously confessed that as well as teaching in an Architecture program at university, I run a highly specialized, small but busy practice advising on just solar access and natural ventilation in apartment projects.  Lately, I have been extremely busy, but also increasingly disillusioned. 

There are two potentially sophisticated planning instruments designated as 'State Environmental Planning Policies' (SEPPs), that are supposed to discipline and guide both design and approval of this building type. 

One is SEPP65, a regulation that enumerates ten 'Quality Principles', which are then given effect by a performance based model code called the Residential Flat Design Code. Because it contains textual and illustrated examples of desired principles and built outcomes, the RFDC could also be thought of as a comprehensive design guide. 

The other is SEPP BASIX, given effect as the Building Sustainability Index, an online certification of thermal comfort, energy use and potable water saving.  It relies largely on a simulation based prediction (or more properly a comparison) of likely heating and cooling loads for the individual dwellings in a development.  

This all sounds very progressive.  The problem is that as with all regulatory frameworks, both sides seem to be hell bent on corrupting its purpose.  

To take BASIX first.  The most radical innovation is that it requires obtaining an online certificate based on computed indices.  You cannot get around it, except in the rarest of circumstances, by appealing to 'expert opinion'.  On the other hand, you can ask the software 'what if' questions before committing to a particular range of measures, in almost infinite combinations of minor design decisions. 
All of which, you would expect would encourage interactive use by designers to improve and optimize the performance of buildings.  But that unavoidable on-line and simulation based process has turned out to be BASIX's weakness rather than its strength.  To put it bluntly: design of apartment buildings in New South Wales has become completely insensitive to the requirements of minimum energy efficiency, as calculated by the tool.  
Why?  Because if you can get the on-line answer to be a 'pass', by any means of manipulating the measurements and materials, nobody ever then looks at those figures to see if they make sense.  The developers and their designers don't care, because they have their compulsory certificate.  The local government planning approval staff don't look, because they don't understand any of the numbers, and they can do without the further complication in their lives of accusing the applicant's technical consultants of incompetence or cheating.

What about the vaunted Quality Principles of SEPP65?  I have previously speculated that one can trace to SEPP65 an improvement in local design outcomes, and that there may even be a characteristic 'Sydney apartment' trend, worthy of study by international architects.  But in a more sober assessment, I can recognize that a less kind interpretation is also possible.  Namely, that while paying attention to the Residential Flat Design Code improved matters by eliminating the potential mass of smaller 'undesigned' apartment developments, it has also stripped out real design - by focusing attention on a very few parameters that happen to have numerical guidelines.

That is why an apparently innocent guideline for a minimum of 70% of apartments to have some mid-winter direct sun to their living areas, combines with an almost completely unscientific requirement for 60% of apartments to have 'cross ventilation', to produce a Tetris-like exercise in pushing and pulling apartment spaces between the facades of the available building envelope.  The process persists way past initial design, with local government planning staff, consultant planners, even lawyers altering the mix and the details, sometimes over a period of months if the matter ends up in front of the local appeal court for resolution.  
No wonder that when the results of such an ad hoc process do come before an expert Commissioner of the Land and Environment Court, the judgement sometimes reads like an undergraduate student design 'crit', rather than a planning determination under the relevant legislation.  If there ever was something you could have called a coherent design, that design had long died by a thousand cuts.
This whole process of entropy of well intended regulation of design and performance of buildings sorely needs proper study and brave review.  Right now, the chances of that happening are depressingly low, as governments seem reluctant to fund academic research or to maintain technical expertise in state level public service departments.  Even more of a barrier, an entire industry of consultants has been spawned to slug it out for both sides, using as their preferred weapons the icepicks of individual little rules of thumb, that happen to be expressed as single figure numbers.
I make a personal declaration: I am one of those consultants, and I therefore benefit financially from this sorry state of affairs.  And it makes me feel ill.  

Monday, 19 August 2013

Making mysteries: Why?

I've been off the air for a while, neither irresistibly excited nor sufficiently offended to put it into words.  But an article that appeared to be a cosmic conflation of the way architects seem to prefer the ineffable to the rational left me spluttering.  That it relates to a building right here in Oz is just another cosmic coincidence.

In her article on Inhabitat, Melbourne's One Hot Yoga Uses Energy Efficient Heat Recovery to Make You Sweat, Bridgette Meinhold, gives a sweetly simple description of a sweetly simple adaptive reuse, an all white and Scandinavian raw pine yoga retreat.  But this one happens to promote one of those offshoots of yoga that cunningly accelerates your weight loss, or merely shortens the time you raise a sweat, by making you do it all in tropical temperatures.

In Melbourne, most of the time, that involves artificial heating.  And if you don't want the place to smell like a teenager's old gym sock, you have to have ventilation.  Goodness me, the architects actually realised that it would be a good idea to recover some of that precious heat they had expensively put into the air, before throwing it away and replacing it with the usually decidedly chilly Melbourne air from outside.

And this is where any northern European reader would start to roll around on the floor with disbelieving laughter.  If she is to be believed, Meinhold gets all excited about a ventilation rate of one whole air change per hour, and breathlessly reports:
'When we asked the designers to give us more details about the system, they told us, 'It is the only studio in Australia to have this technology. That is really all we can say without giving away our secret recipe!'”
Obviously never heard of the variety of heat exchangers, including the really simple flat plate type, that are now mandated for ventilation of  houses in colder climates.  And which, tellingly, are capable of significantly higher than one air change per hour if they need to deal with any sort of serious ventilation task.

Why the mystery?  Now if there is some way of avoiding even the relatively small amount of parasitic fan power to drive the ventilation, I might even be interested...... Honestly, when I aw the title, I thought they had it down to recovering the metabolic heat given off by the clients, to run an autonomous system!!


Saturday, 3 August 2013

Who is an architect?

Some time ago, there was a flurry of excitement over the fact that one of the world's most acclaimed architects, Daniel Liebeskind was described as just that, an architect, in a jurisdiction where he was not registered with the local regulatory body.  It was kind of amusing.  Soon after, it became apparent that the British Architects Registration Board (ARB) in particular had for some reason become especially aggressive in the same fruitless endeavour, from memory challenging the great Italian architect Renzo Piano.  And now I read in Dezeen, that they have been given notice for referring to John Pawson as an architect, in the context of an article on his beautiful St Moritz church in in Augsburg, Germany.

Pawson not only consistently produces masterful buildings, but could be described as genuinely influential in the evolution of international architecture through the medium of his so called 'minimalist' work.  But he didn't ever finish his studies at the Architectural Association school in London, and he isn't registered with the ARB.

So the Dezeen article, or more precisely the follow-up article describing their dealings with the ARB over the issue, has elicited many comments.  The poor correspondent who first commented in support of the ARB's adherence to their charter (to police the protection of the title 'architect') got an awful lot of 'dislikes', and ended up actually apologizing for giving offense.

In my view he really didn't need to apologize. I think his comment could have been made more unambiguously in the context of an aggressive critique of Architecture.  Namely, that it is not enough to afford legal protection to the term 'Architect' and then assume that 'Architecture' is that which is produced by 'Architects'. 

To the contrary, Architecture should be able to be distinguished by its quality (something like the Quality discussed by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), and only someone who produces Architecture should be afforded the honorific "Architect'. 

But of course, that doesn't work in any simple credentialing system where what you are trying to do, really, is to afford some crude protections to badly informed consumers, while distorting the market for a particular service.  Which is all that the various architects' registration acts in Commonwealth countries seem to achieve.

This is a long running discussion with no satisfactory resolution in sight.  The article in Dezeen is not exactly a profound exposition on the subject, but it does make lively reading.  Read it here, then look at the original piece on Pawson's church.  Then work out where you stand.