Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The new rational architecture

I have been struggling for some time with the idea that much of today's architecture which strikes the casual viewer as arbitrary in form, is in fact no less rational than the stripped down international style boxes of the mid 20th century.  Of course, fundamental to this proposition is that 'rational' does not denote any particular privileged truth, but merely means that something is derived by logical steps from a starting point taken as axiomatic.

I was reminded of this by two separate but related experiences in my work with residential flat buildings (better known in the rest of the world as 'apartments').  The first was coming across a press release promoting a particular Melbourne development.  I quote:
"With extended frontage to the river, Sanctuary features a striking exterior that is inspired by a wind-blown spiral of autumn leaves.  The angular balustrades on the facade are composed of both solid and glazed elements that alternatively reveal and conceal the building behind, in response to the movement around the building. This orchestrated pattern, at first seemingly random, gives the architecture a subtle complexity."
However truthfully it might report the thinking of the designer, in fact the first sentence is a distraction.  The essence of the design process for an apartment building is the 'flat plate' concrete structural solution, that became the dominant construction method for this building type in Australia in the 1970s.  By adding only slightly to the thickness of the concrete slabs, engineers were able to accommodate the additional reinforcing steel to resist shear at the columns and thereby eliminate beams. This approach provides a completely flat soffit, under which walls could be arranged in almost any pattern, without having to pay regard to beams or column heads. The columns are not constrained into any particular regular grid, and the edges can cantilever within a certain range.  Those cantilevers can also be be extended by up-turned or down-turned edge beams.

My second experience of the day came at a project coordination meeting, where one issue discussed was the prescribed minimum ceiling height in our local regulations.  It became quickly apparent that both the developer and the architects considered the floor to floor heights assumed by the planning authorities to be a serious constraint on the total amount of space they could fit into an allowable building envelope.  Yet they also expected to be able to alter the arrangement of individual apartments at will, after planning approval is granted.

When arranging a floor plan, there are certain elements like the elevators, that insist on lining up vertically.  More subtle is the influence of plumbing.  If you don't line up your wet areas vertically above each other, there will be floor waste and shower traps, and possibly unwelcome horizontal waste pipes to be accommodated within the ceiling zone of the storey below.  Quite apart from the unpleasant experience of the sound effects of someone's ablutions while you are perhaps sitting in your dining room, to accommodate such pipework requires additional space which minimum floor to floor heights do not allow.  That is why the authorities insist that planning permission be based on assumptions of greater storey heights.  All up, the discussion reminded me that even with flat floor plates, it isn't altogether a free-for-all when it comes to planning out the apartments.

Still, the net result is that there is no particular tyranny which requires any strict repetition between floors – or certainly not one that constrains the exterior expression of the successive layers of terraces.  What appears at first sight in the Melbourne project to be a gratuitous superimposition of irrelevant metaphor in the design development, turns out to be clear-sighted, rational exploitation of the potential expression of the discipline of form.  Arguably more so than the ascetic aesthetics of early modernism.

Of course, this begs the question of whether there are other constraints, that should become the parameters to which these new, freer forms should respond.  It is the relative weakness of many architects, in identifying the contextual and environmental factors that logically constitute such constraints, that often offends.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Greenwash olympics

Being a Sydneysider and an academic with an interest in sustainability, it has been an article of faith for me that the 2000 Sydney Olympics were deservedly hailed as a milestone in the history of the event.  Sydney pitched for and won the games by emphasizing the sustainability credentials of the bid.

The sustainability initiatives began with the main site itself, a heavily polluted brownfields wasteland.  Former activities had included the city's main abattoir, as well as industries that had apparently specialized in leaking heavy metals, hydrocarbons and dioxins into the silt of the adjacent harbour bays.  To rehabilitate the site involved the development of pioneering encapsulation and other strategies.  The Athletes' Village was watered down by commercial development interests from its idealistic competition winning scheme, but at the time of its construction still managed to be the largest residential building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) installation.  Of course it was overtaken very quickly for that particular title, but the village did do the job of proving real estate agents wrong about the post-games marketability of smaller, better designed, more energy efficient dwellings.  For the main venues, the sustainability initiatives were largely in developing analysis and evaluation tools, including embodied energy inventories of materials, that enabled the application of life cycle thinking in their design.  There were lots of other smaller initiatives as well, like district grey water treatment and duplicate reticulation of recycled water.
All-in-all, it has been suggested that Sydney added a 'third ideal' of sustainability to the two Olympic ideals of sport and culture.  No subsequent pitch for hosting the Games has been able to avoid credentialing its bid with claims of sustainability initiatives.
Of course, one of the issues that has undermined this rosy picture, is the difficulty of maintaining a genuine use for the Olympic Games venues after the closing ceremony cheering dies away.  Unless that long-term use is socially and financially sustainable, even better than normal environmental sustainability practices loose something of their cachet. 

There has been a fairly grim, and relentless reporting, of just how difficult it has been for most cities to avoid the stadia and other crowd pleasers turning into white elephants.  Perhaps the worst is Greece, where the financial crisis has resulted in funds for maintenance being withdrawn, and venues literally abandoned.

My interest in this issue was given a nudge when my Chinese speaking partner mentioned a Taiwanese video which extols the success of the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing, in hosting a sequence of varied events, and the technological wonders the venue provides to make it all possible.  Very large amounts of money as daily rent are mentioned, as well as the suggestion that the venue is booked out through 2015.  This did not seem to accord with my memory of other discussions on the internet.  My first reaction was that all those articles disparaging the post-games use of the stadium were probably a subtle form of anti-Chinese sentiment, perhaps dangerously out of date with reality.

At first, I thought I had guessed right.  Most googled links seemed to be dated 2009 (the year after the Beijing Games), and like a lot of the blogosphere, they seemed to repeat the same few snippets reporting a disastrous lack of bookings.

But after a while, my collated list of events hosted by the Bird's Nest over the four intervening years started to resemble the ones breathlessly touted in the Taiwanese daytime TV show.  I realized again that you can't believe a lot of what you see on the internet, and that daytime TV anywhere is mainly a totally unreliable mashup with a bent towards sensationalism, when they run out of conspiracy theories.  In this case, they managed to put an editorial spin on a bunch of images, that made it look like technical miracles were performed to change overnight from a football pitch to a car racing track, from competitive skiing on artificial snow to a rock concert.  The reality seems to be that an initial interest by local tourists has dramatically waned, with the 50 yuan entry charge too much for many visitors, and the big events few and far between, with any but the rock concerts and Italian league soccer games failing to fill the 98,000 seats.  The revenue falls well short of the outgoings.

It's thought provoking what other factoids turn up. For instance London's stadium is a deliberately 'temporary' structure, that uses only 10,000 tons of comparatively 'ordinary' steel, compared to 42,000 tons of never before seen alloy needed to hold up Beijing’s Bird's Nest.  That would seem to be a telling comparison of embodied energy and other normal sustainability metrics.  But it's hard to be confident of such information even from an engineering trade site, given the same article quotes the circumference of the stadium in square feet, and passes without comment over listing PVC coating on the retractable fabric roof.

What, if anything, can one conclude?  With considerable certainty: sustainability and the Olympics is an oxymoron.  Even if it does have some identifiable effect on tools and design practices employed by building professionals, and possibly sends some positive messages to the general public, the rhetoric is shameless greenwash.


Monday, 7 October 2013

Mysterious mathematics 3

Don't read this if you are sick of rants.

I wanted to do a follow-up of my previous posts on architecture and mathematics.  What better way to start than googling the two terms.  Bad mistake.  It can give you indigestion.  Not the number of hits, but the knotting stomach induced by the sheer inanity of some amateur design journalist grappling with the subject.  If you are masochistic, go to 10 Amazing Examples of Architecture Inspired by Mathematics on Flavorwire. The bloopers make you cringe.

First up, an innocent enough project for a building for an undefined Buddhist program, incorporating a mobius strip surface.  To justify it, the author manages to describe the lumpen stasis of a traditional stupa and its circumambulatory path as a 'twisty space'.  She should visit one sometime.

This introductory example of the mathematical marvels in architecture is also conspicuously a project, not an actual, built building.  I wish they would stop doing that, especially when there is a perfectly good, prize winning built example of a Klein Bottle House (the proper 3D version of the mobius strip) near Melbourne, Australia.

At least Walter Netsch's US Air Force Academy’s Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado has the merit of having been built.This piece of full sized origami is described as shaped like a tetrahedron,which it clearly isn't.But what can you expect from an author who first quotes the definition of a tetrahedron as a four sided object with triangular sides, and then promptly confuses it with pyramids, which have five sides including a square base.

I can afford to gloss over the geodesic domes of the Eden Project because it doesn't have anything offensively wrong.  But I am offended by the breathy, guileless description of Foster's office tower in London known as The Gherkin.  According to the author: "the modern tower was carefully constructed with the help of parametric modeling amongst other math-savvy formulas so the architects could predict how to minimize whirlwinds around its base."  Give me a break!

Yes, parametric modelling is a key feature of the practice's characteristic approach to generating apparently complex shapes.  Which are surprisingly buildable, because of the way the parts can be scheduled for automated manufacture and reliable logistics in assembly.  This use of bespoke software is lucidly explained in Chris Abel's admirable book Architecture, Technology and Process,  and incidentally, compared at length to the way Gerhy uses the CATIA software suite to solve his complex building geometries.

OK.  I am actually grateful for the reminder of the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair. And this time, the author commits no bloopers, probably because she simply names the dominant geometry as the use of hyperbolic paraboloids employing steel tension cables.  Why do I miss mention of Felix Candela and his much earlier experiments with the same form in concrete?  Or the factoid that these curved forms can be generated from repeated straight lines, which made them buildable by conventional building materials.  Therein lay the fascination with their mathematics for architects like Candela, trying to build his formwork out of timber, before casting it in plastic concrete.

Mathematical allusion is getting pretty desperate when the owner of this Toronto home, named the Integral House is "a calculus professor who wrote textbooks and wanted to incorporate the mathematical sign into the home’s name and design. Undulating glass and wood walls also echo the shape of a violin."  Might be delightful, but the maths is in the room acoustics and the material choices and assemblies of the 200 seater performance venue, not in the trite simile.

 I've previously pointed out that any undergraduate architecture student could generate Barcelona’s Endesa Pavilion by trial and error in ten minutes, with the free SketchUp modelling software.  The "mathematical wizardry" is entirely that of the people who make the program run fast enough to use, not in translating the solar geometry algorithms.

I'll gloss over Cube Village, built by Dutch architect Piet Blom, because the author doesn't attempt a mathematical description of it.

And then, joy of joys, a truly worthy project.  Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.

The author enthuses over the virtuoso exercise in numerology, itself unremarkable in the tradition of mystical religion.  She does mention the hyperbolic paraboloids of surfaces, and even the "catenary arches".  She obviously has no idea of the true magic of Gaudi's insight, that the optimum shapes of the compressive structure in masonry could be empirically developed, by modelling them as pure tension, upside down as catenary chains, loaded with intuitive estimates of the superimposed loads.

And so we end with a mathematical whimper, a fractal gas station makeover in Los Angeles.  This might seem a bit unfair.  There is something serious about fractal geometry, and there is definitely something important about how the form generation potential of meshed surfaces has lately influenced architecture everywhere.  My angst is two-fold.

On the one hand, I refer back to the insight that hyperbolic paraboloids can be generated from straight sticks or cables to employ conventional building materials.  Employing a software package like 3D Studio Max automatically creates 'mesh' substitutes for the complex curved surfaces, and thereby turns them into forms that can be clad by combinations of flat sheets cut or folded into triangles, the joints typically filled with generous beads of mastic.  This is the main reason why we can now build all the rendered fantasies that so dominate the architectural magazines.  But it is also the reason why so many of these tortured forms end up with all those slivered triangles all over their surfaces, as they do in the example used.

My second reason for despair?  The author clearly doesn't understand any of this.
Read the original here.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

What is it about Australian architecture?

To judge a building as the best of its kind in the world is a risky business.  By what authority, by what criteria?  And always the shadow of all the buildings that nobody nominated to be considered.  Nevertheless, the World Architecture Festival in Singapore appears to have gained some traction as a competition for recognition as the best each year.  Perhaps this is happening because the WAF is so much more than a magazine promotion, or an endowment by a rich patron.  Unencumbered by the sometimes strange thematic abstractions of the Venice Biennale, the format of the Festival is a celebration, a combination of competitive presentations to juries and a place to hear keynote speakers, an opportunity to be challenged and stimulated.  It is an event that increasing numbers of architects around the world are apparently treating seriously.

The competition is definitely international enough, to take notice of regional strengths.  It is in that context that one realizes just how over-represented are Australian architects amongst the premiated projects.  This year, the supreme prize for buildings went to the Auckland Art Gallery extensions by Sydney firm Frances-Jones Morehen Thorp, who last year collected the prize in the office building category.  The award for the best landscape project has gone to a botanical garden at a former quarry outside Melbourne; The Australian Garden was designed by landscape studio Taylor Cullity Lethlean and plant expert Paul Thompson.  There were numerous other category wins by Australian practices, and a solid representation of high commendations.  Future Building of the Year went to Australian practice Cox Rayner Architects for the National Maritime Museum in China.

All of which begs a few questions.  I will leave the harder task of identifying the complex web of unifying threads to someone who, I hope will write a long-form piece about this. But as an immediate reaction, it's almost like Australian architecture represents a direct line of transmission from early modernism, picking up mid-20th century Scandinavian influences, and eschewing the subversion of traditional ordering systems that has been one of the strident slogans of the new parametrics. I can't help noting that almost without exception, the Australian projects are formally and spatially disciplined, inviting very strong elemental readings of roof, wall and floor, with an enthusiastic display of authentic materiality, and at least an evocation of craft.

Less obvious perhaps, and best exemplified by the winning landscape project, the Australian designs seem to share a propensity for both abstraction and understandable narrative, with strong metaphors but few similes.  Least obvious, and maybe a figment of my hopeful imagination, they also seem to be exceptionally driven by contextual fit, to the point of the best being actually adaptive reuse.....think the reworked harbour infrastructure of JPW's Sydney Cruise Terminal, the disused quarry as botanic gardens, the extensions to the Auckland Art Gallery, the  Left-Over-Space House by Cox Rayner Architects, winner of the House category.  Even in the sole premiated project on American soil, Housing winner 28thStreet Apartments, expatriate Australians Koning Eizenberg rework a historic 1926 YMCA to insert new housing on a small site in south Los Angeles.

I do find it equally interesting that the judges have been rewarding this casual conservatism. Less spectacularly than the post-WW2 identification of design culture with Italy and Scandinavia perhaps, Australian architects seem to be steadily positioning the country as a notable source of considered good design.

Many blog and zine sites have covered the World Architecture Festival.  But the first place to look should be the event's web site.
Click here.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Knowing half or half knowing?

Readers of this blog would know that my over-riding theme is the problem of architectural knowledge: why it is so riddled with half-baked notions of how things work, and why it doesn't get better over time.  
I owe my original concern with this issue to Wayne Attoe's 1978 book Architecture and Critical Imagination and his articles subsequent to its publication.  Attoe diagnosed the principal barriers to the progressive improvement of the shared architectural knowledge base, as revolving around the unhealthy dominance of rhetoric in competitively positioning architecture as a business, a process that is aggressively opposed to the traditions of testing theories against evidence.

Attoe's thesis accounts for the lack of progress in the improvement of architectural knowledge, and might even explain the dominance of oversimplified headline claims for the projected performance of buildings, but it doesn't entirely explain the sheer painful imprecision, the half-knowledge as I call it, of quite simple fundamentals.  I was reminded of this by an article on ArchitectureAU about Making more of our relationship to light, meaning in this case, predictably, daylight.

For a while now, I have been speculating just where in the symbiotic relationship between architects and the 'journalists' of the design media, the blame for the naivete really lies.  In this instance, I got an unpleasant  answer to that  question because the author is described as  the director of a Melbourne based firm of architects, and a graduate lighting student at QUT. who in 2012 traveled to Vicenza to take part in a daylight design workshop run by the University of Florida.  So, as far as I am concerned, he has no excuse if the article is less than elegantly accurate.
I want to try an experiment.  I get too little feedback on this blog, so I thought I would run a little competition this time: spot the good, the bad and the downright dangerously wrong.
The rules are simple:
  1. 'Control-Click' the link to the article.  That brings it up in a new window in your browser, so you can leave this post open at the same time, and switch between the windows any time.
  2. Read the article.
  3. Pick an example of a statement of a lighting principle that you think is genuinely useful, or one that you think is wrong, or one that might be right, but is getting garbled.
  4. Open a Comments panel to this post, quote the bit from the article, and briefly explain why you picked it.

There are no prizes, but I will respond to each comment if it needs further clarification, and I will definitely bestow generous praise on anyone who gets something really, really right!

To access the article, click here.

If my challenge for you readers to do the detective work doesn't inspire, I promise to do the follow-up myself.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Figuring out Zaha

I reacted badly recently, when a comment on some architectural blog, about one more curvy carved 200m tall office tower, questioned "what are they teaching architecture students at university these days?"  I lashed out in reply that to the best of my knowledge, most such buildings (and the even more wildly curvaceous museums or opera houses) that actually managed to get built, were by architects in their sixties and older.  Not by recent graduates..  Then I thought I better check how old was Zaha Hadid, the most curvaceous of them all, and conspicuously the only woman in this company of old (mostly) white men.

It might have been an innocent query on Google asking "how old is Zaha Hadid?" (thanks, Wikipaedia. Born 31 October 1950), but the top rated link told me much more that I also needed to know.  I have singled out Hadid's work on this blog for both exasperated chastisement and grudging admiration.  The ambivalence had not bothered me, in as much as I see no problem in seeing both good and bad in an architectural oeuvre growing so quickly and conspicuously.  But it has bothered me that I have neither the benefit of first-hand contact with the architect, nor opportunity to study her buildings in the flesh, and therefore could not satisfactorily connect them.

And so to the point.  This post is simply to commend an article that does precisely that. THE FIRST GREAT FEMALE ARCHITECT is a recent reprint in The Economist Intelligent Life supplement, of an article written in 2008 by Jonathan Meades, author of Museum Without Walls.  It is an erudite, intimate exploration of not only the architect/artist, but of her milieu in London and in British architecture.  Like all literate critique, it is a construction of allusions, many contentious.  But then, so is Zaha Hadid's architecture, and I now feel like I understand better why.

Without further ado, read it here.