Friday, 4 April 2014

BIG deal!

On the whole, I admire what I know of the work of the Bjarke Ingels Group. They do hyper-rational 'schemes' with headline social agendas that seem to translate to realisable buildings. Think municipal powerplants that serve as ski slopes in a flat country, multi-storey carparks that are veneered with housing like a walkable hill-town, New York high rise offices that ignore the stepped slab prototypes but work magic with sun, daylight and view angles. I have remarked before that particularly when he presents, Ingels reminds me of a young John Andrews, in the way he can communicate with a strident diagram and a finely plausible story. I am an unreconstructed late modernist; I like that sort of stuff.

So I am not often disappointed, but like all fans, I get doubly upset when I feel let down. And so it is with the latest BIG scheme superficially but enthusiastically covered by Inhabitat. This one is for a seniors' residential complex in Taiwan.

Hey, it's a bit of an ask to intelligently critique a sensitive building type, across cultural divides, and only having rendered images to go on. That is why the images upset me so

But images matter. They are worth more than a thousand glib words. Even more to the point, as an architect, you are supposed to look at your own images, because they might tell you when a design is going wrong, BIG time.

Here is a dump of my top three irritants:
  • The renderings are populated by a range of hip Japanese looking youngsters. I finally found one old lady hugging a cat, in a Scandinavian modern apartment of jagged cantilevered bookshelves and no evidence of a lifetime's memories. Is it so hard to dig deeper in their entourage collections for people and things that look even vaguely more like the elderly that the complex is supposed to house?
  • Multi-storey apartment interiors with cantilever stairs and open risers, no handrail but suspension rods. Spindly metal legged chairs?
  • And then that disaster of an international hotel lobby, replete with escalators and blinding white light! 
Taiwan has some of the most successful prototypes of large apartment complexes, functioning like gently gated communities, typically entered through an appropriately scaled lobby with concierge staff who can see out into the street, and into much of the interior courtyard. The apartments themselves include typologies I never see in my Australian context, and can't remember seeing in the European apartment pattern books. My favourite: entry to the apartment through a courtyard-like open terrace, onto which the main full height glazing opens.  Nothing that clever and well suited to the local climate and culture to be seen in the BIG scheme.
The whole thing looks like it was done by a recent graduate in the office, who has never traveled east of Prague. And who hasn't actually visited an apartment complex intended for the old, or for those who are ready to 'age in place'. I hope I am wrong, and it all turns out to be wonderfully sensitive and radically empowering for all its occupants.

See the Inhabited article and slide show here.


Tasman Shen said...

Personally I have been to Hualien and it is quite an amazing place; it has an evidence of the history/culture of the city. It really isn't like the urban city you’d find in for example Taipei. Nature is much more of the focus than the traditional cityscape which most cities attempt to develop. So it is understandable the type of design BIG is going for.
Your first point: “Flat plate apartment buildings with floor to ceiling glass”, I don’t quite grasp the problem. Is it from an aesthetic perspective? Or not a complaint all together? Apparently there is a careful consideration of the placement of the Glass. “frame optimal views while providing a shading system; accommodating to the tropical climate. green roofs further mitigate heat gain and combined into the design of the striping to create a low energy incentive.” ( As for difficult maintenance of the grass, it very much depends on the type of grass they use. It seems there are some very low maintenance grasses available (also known as no mow grass types). Although they probably won’t look as nice and ‘fluffy’ as it does in the renders due to its tough nature. But yes agreed that if it does require maintenance it is going to be very difficult.
Second Point: Yes agreed that it lacks old people. The second image in the inhabitat article almost seems as though that it is a picture shot of the apartments opening rather than what it would look like on a daily basis. “Hip Japanese looking youngsters”, to be honest it seems as though most of them aren't even Asian… let alone old people. I also noticed in the image that on the balcony next to it there are flowers growing on the green strip, not quite sure how viable that is…
Third Point: The point about the cantilever stairs with open risers and suspension rods. I can see the problem, especially with old people I can only imagine all the problems which could be caused. No handrail = higher chance of falling, and the fact that the treads have are open risers, makes it even less understandable. I can only visualise a foot slipping on or a hand going through when falling. Perhaps the blinding light in the lobby is so they don’t’ have to model the details beyond it? (Very much an assumption)
The first image on this site, ( ) it appears it provides a very large resort type pool. Not sure why such a large pool is needed considering most of the residents are elderly. There aren't that many elderly that go swimming, even more so in Taiwan where swimming is nowhere near deemed an important skill as much as it is here.

Morgan said...

I also quite admire Bjarke Ingels and the work his group does, his work to me is an architecture of BIG ideas i.e. Each and every design is able to be communicated clearly and succinctly with diagrams and an accompanying paragraph of compact text. I also think that critiquing a building based on a few very select images is extremely difficult and instead of assessing the building I have delved into an investigation into the visual representation and communication.

After watching his TED talk “3 warp-speed architecture tales” a seamless presentation littered with humour, beautiful images and concise diagrams, it is clear to see that Bjarke Ingels is a very accomplished communicator. His verbal charisma is combined with his background in architectural illustration is an immensely favourable skill set to have for any architect. Logically this lead me to believe that each of his diagrams and renders play a specific part in the successful communication of the overall scheme and are all vital parts. Thus trying to judge the quality of this building based on the coverage by Inhabitat (A two sentence summary of the project alongside 8 randomly chosen images) is a monumental task. Coming to a definitive conclusion about the merits of the project based on that article is much like taste-testing and judging a cake made without all the ingredients.

A look at the project on his website ( reveals a much larger amount of information. 42 slides of diagrams, text and renders carefully created, ordered and chosen in such a way to convey BIG's proposal in a way Bjarke intends it to be seen. Each ingredient (slide) playing it's own role in the successful creation of this 120000²m cake.

A good example of the individual roles played by different images is the depiction of the impossibly steep ribbons of vegetation and resulting speculation regarding their use and aesthetic. Most of the renders themselves offer no help in the explanation of the role these strips play other than aesthetically pleasing sloped walls. It is only when we see diagrams in conjunction with photos of the scale model that the nature of the movement through these strips is apparent. Instead of using individual strips as paths the external circulation above the ground plane has been designed against the length of the strips. Layered strips all meet at certain heights to create a paths against the grain. This allows for both circulation and the dynamic angles within the strips to coexist successfully.

All in all personally I find his proposal exciting, the scheme is presented in a way that is evocative and inspirational. This being said I am a little critical of the functional aspects and whether it will actually work (like you said, the lobby does seem a little dubious). In any case I much look forward to the completion of the project as then it will have to stand up to the truest judgement, inhabitance. Only then I feel can I make an accurate judgement.

Steve King said...

You are right. The front end of the slide show on BIG's site is compellingly rational, and I can see it going somewhere exciting and admirable.
But the photorealistic renderings, of both apartments and shared space, are even worse than the selection on the archipop sites. The people depicted are the grown up grandchildren who might inherit the apartments, and the apartments look like hey are designed for that hip young community.
I almost change my mind, only to be dropped into a deeper melancholy.

Morgan said...

The choice of people in the renderings is definitely an interesting one, as at some point someone made a deliberate decision to choose the people they did. Admittedly I have approached this favouring BIG so whether these are just answers I wanted to find as opposed to objective assumptions is open to debate.

The coverage across the internet of these Hualien Residences often mentions the aging population demographic and their need for housing so I think it is safe to assume that the majority of the housing in this commission is targeting the "aging population" however as you mentioned the people depicted within the renders are far from the proposed residents.

The concept pushed most with this design both by BIG and the archipop sites is the idea that the architecture is encouraging a “healthy active lifestyle” within the complex. Therefore I think it is safe to assume that one of the goals of the photorealistic renders is to depict and really emphasise the way of living the architecture is promoting. Although the choice of younger people is probably realistically inaccurate it does definitely does further the ideals of an active lifestyle. To me these renders function almost as a marketing tool, selling the architecture to an audience that aspires to be like those depicted within – healthy, active and even ‘hip’ (as status is becoming an increasingly important value to the population in Asia who are aging with increasing affluence).

So to conclude, I agree that these photorealistic renders definitely lack realism but ironically I don’t think that’s the role they’ve been created to play.

Steve King said...

Morgan, I think you are pushing the rhetorical limits. I quote:
"BIG’s Hualien Wellness & Residential development in Taiwan is an eco-friendly home for the elderly that is designed to encourage a health-conscious and productive community of seniors."

Read more: BIG's Hualien Residences Look Like Gigantic Green-Roofed Mountains | Inhabitat

Hayden Wooldridge said...

Having been a fan of BIG for several years, in particular Bjarke’s charismatic public lectures, I feel myself inclined to give the firm the benefit of the doubt with this project.
Like Morgan I would like to focus on BIG’s visual representation. A good render conveys a mood. Although not all details in a render are always plausible. The idea is that the intent of the project is to create a similar feeling in reality. This is why I generally don’t like to criticise minute details in renders such as the chair legs. However I will agree that multi-storey apartments for the elderly is a ridiculous idea.
Yes the choice of people at first glance appears inappropriate to the use. However perhaps there was some rationale behind this decision. Maybe BIG is suggesting that their design is aimed at enticing the younger population to visit their elderly family more often, if not to see them at least to use their great new swimming pool. I personally like this idea because I like swimming pools. Also the young population of today is the old population of tomorrow and perhaps BIG has this in mind.

Sunny said...

My opinion of this scheme is largely similar to Steve's. The scheme seems like it was designed for anyone but the elderly. Firstly what strikes me the most is the depiction of the lobby space. ( Not only does it remind me of a large office block, it is also unnecessary large filled with young people depicted as if going to work. The design emphasizes how it "brings nature closer" but the lobby's glazing shows no signs of exterior landscape. This is a missed opportunity to further support their stance on an eco-friendly design.

I believe this is an example of an exciting scheme with bad renderings. The proposal and ideas itself are refreshing and innovative, however they are just wrongly illustrated.

There are also some practicality issues of the design that caught my attention. Looking at the other images, it seems the building has around 15 floors. How will they clean the exterior of the windows, particularly those at the top? Furthermore, most of the interior shots show 2 storey apartments. ( Considering the fact that it is designed for the elderly and retired, perhaps it would have been a better decision to provide single storey, spacious apartments.

Nonetheless, it is no doubt that the scheme is creative and exciting. What needs to be fixed are the decisions and techniques that go into rendering. I am sure that a less photorealistic render will provide and convey the same information required to attract customers.