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 Façade 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


CHAN TT said...

Architecture: Form vs Function

This argument has been in the mind of most of the architectural students (at least in my mind). Since the first year, we were taught and even required to create forms that are eye-catching and impressive. Interesting shapes of the architecture seem like the most fundamental element of a good project. In order to meet the requirement, we begin to reach out for precedents that are exceptional in terms of form. Fortunately, there are plenty of works to be learnt from. And those are all regarded as masterpieces, for example, Zaha Hadid’s, Daniel Libeskind’s and Frank Gehry’s works.
However, are those really great architecture that work and serve the purpose of the buildings?

I have studied some of the above architects’ works. Their works were all developed from brilliant ideas and succeeded to impress the users mostly in a artistic way. However, sadly some of them are not considered as good architecture because of their spatialization or designs that entirely based on appearance but not functionality. Take Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, which is regarded as one of the greatest museums, as an example. This museum was designed in regard to Jewish history, which in some way obeyed the principle of designing architecture. However, the spatialization of the building is quite poor. Firstly, there are several spaces right across the middle of the building, which are not able to use. These spaces were challenged by the client because they were reluctant to pay for some useless space. Secondly, there are some fancy window slits that come across the façade, which Libeskind got them from the map of Berlin. These multi-directional windows resulted a nightmare for the museum operators about how to hang things on the walls.

Other than the problems of spatialization, the cost of the buildings by these architects were also unbelievable, which I think only billionaires or councils, who want to build a landmark, will be able to hire them. Moreover, architecture with exceptional forms usually takes longer to be completed, which means higher cost again.

As Alvar Aalto said, human activities in architecture with good form will be better than that with bad form. To me, form is an important feature of architecture but not everything. Architecture is designed for human. Therefore I think the experience in a building is far more important that the shape of a building.

Anonymous said...

I agree that there is a big twist in the production of architecture graduates in the younger generation where I am from. I have learned this on a first hand basis. When I was researching programs of a university to transfer to, I was quite shocked that most schools either do not have or do not focus on teaching the fundamental skill of an architect – hand drafting. I must say that I am privileged to have attended my first 2 years into architecture at my old university where we were extensively taught how to properly draft with T-squares, triangles and all sorts of stencils. We were even taught how and when to use different kinds and points of ink pens, how to draw single, 2-point and 3-point perspective and even architectural lettering.
Computer-aided design softwares sure are more efficient and make a designer’s life easier. But not fast enough if one had to immediately present the idea on the spot. Nonetheless, both skills are essential and must be learned one after the other. I believe that hand drafting is a craft that builds the very foundation of being able to construct good computer-generated designs.

“Form follows function” is rather one of the most cliché design theory next to “less is more”. With the constant change and fast development of technology, this theory will always be challenged. Take the iPod shuffle for an instance. Looking at its design, which is a tiny metal box, one who is not familiar with the product will question the function of it. It is so small, half the size of the other Apple products, that it actually can pass as one of those clip-on things people put on their clothing. This shows that the iPod Shuffle’s form does not necessarily have to present its main function, which is to play music. Same goes with architecture, there are a lot of new designs that already break this theory. An example would be residential units put in a shipping container. For this case, it seems like “function follows form” as the designers reuse the container without changing its shape and just adjusting the residential plan according to the given form.

A good example of a shipping container turned into a home can be found in this link: