Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Picking up after Frank

Frank Gehry says today’s architecture is “pure shit”*

You have to agree with him, of course, but with a very important caveat.  Based on the quotes, Frank actually did suggest that what he means is different from what his tired off-the-cuff comment sounds like.

The fundamental problem is that ARCHITECTURE is, if you like, the figure that needs to exist against a background.  If so, then as Frank infers it should be architectural art brought to bear on the important monuments and landmarks of a city – a city that is otherwise made up of buildings more subservient to their role as the necessarily self-effacing setting.  Such 'background buildings' might be made by architects, but more in the tradition of a vernacular.  In other words, architecture is not defined simply by the fact that it was designed by a journeyman architect.

If that proposition holds, then Frank is describing a situation particular to architects and their values in the contemporary era.  The profession and the schools today make every architect aspire to differentiate every building as if it is ARCHITECTURE, and demean the relative anonymity of the journeyman building.  That makes every outwardly self-promoting building (other than appropriate monuments and landmarks) bad architecture.  Because such buildings are the major proportion of contemporary architectural production, Frank may well be right in his estimate of 98%.

So what is a journeyman architect to do?  I would say concentrate on making the experience of ordinary buildings continuously delightful, pleasantly surprising at the level of intimacy that affirms everyday life.  Every such building, done well, can contribute to wellbeing, and more.  A good school room can enhance learning, a good hospital can accelerate healing, a good workplace can promote cooperation while achieving greater productivity, a good apartment can make you feel special every time you walk into it. That sort of architecture requires very significant knowledge and skill, but also requires a certain humility.

That Frank is not humble in response to an innocent but poorly thought out question, should not detract from his essentially incisive reflection on a profession that should be.

*  The headline is from Architecture and Design, but the press conference in Spain is widely reported.  Read The Independent version, here.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Zombie architecture

Keeping it cool: how Melbourne’s Council House 2 took advantage of the night

That is the headline of a large article in Architecture & Design, on 16 October 2014.

I don't want to poop on their parade, but the article on CH2 repeats uncritically the descriptions of what the building was designed to do, not what the performance actually achieves. In particular, it is a rewrite of the 30 June 2013 post in Archdaily, which was already criticised in its comments for not providing more recent information on achieved performance.

The authors of both articles are either unaware of, or deliberately ignore the study commissioned by the City of Melbourne in 2012, by Paul Bannister of Exergy*.  A long article reporting the study was published in the AIRAH magazine Ecolibrium, and is downloadable by anyone.

The commissioning and design of CH2 was a brave initiative by the City of Melbourne, to explore and provide an example of better performing, healthier commercial office developments. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Apartment Design Guide: Update

This may be of very parochial interest.  I have previously posted about various aspects of the local planning approvals regime here in my home state of New South Wales, Australia.  We have a particularly powerful policy and model code relating to apartment buildings, which has been very influential, but which has been overdue for a proper review.

In Review of SEPP65: Design Quality in Residential Apartments way back in 2011, I described the first stage of that review, and linked the working papers.  Then everything went quiet.

Finally, and quite suddenly, a draft of the revised model code has been released, with no explanation of the reasons for the delay.  My personal opinion is that the proposed revised code, now renamed the Apartment Design Guide, contains enough flaws that if released it will actually cause more problems than continuing use of the older version it would replace.

For the moment, I will not write in detail about my concerns, but I thought it important to post the otherwise hard-to-find link to the download.  For anyone seriously interested in apartment design, it is an interesting resource.  For anyone in NSW actually developing or designing apartments, it is critical to look at, and possibly to contribute to the feedback during the 'exhibition period'.

Download the Draft Apartment Design Guide, together with some related documents, at
Improving apartment design and affordability_ State Environmental Planning Policy No 65(5).

By the way, the headline image is the Altair Apartments, judged at the 2002 World Architecture Festival as the 'Best Housing Scheme in the World'.  And indeed, at its best, SEPP65 and the Residential Flat Design Code have been credited with producing a significant transformation of the Sydney apartment building standards.  See my previous posts:

Monday, 13 October 2014

Looks good, doesn't work

The Folly of Building-Integrated Wind

That was the title of an article in Building Green back in 2009.  As author, and most prolific contributor, Alex Wilson said at the time:
The appeal of integrating wind turbines into our buildings is strong. Rooftops are elevated above ground, where it’s windier; the electricity is generated right where it’s needed; and wind energy can make a strong visual statement. Dozens of start-up wind turbine manufacturers have latched onto this idea since it fits well with a strong public sentiment to shift from fossil fuels to renewables....What’s not to like about it?

Friday, 10 October 2014

Architecture and Einstein

Riehen Natural Swimming Pool by Herzog & de Meuron

Teaching architecture for over 40 years, I have had endless opportunity to consider the elegance of architectural solutions, to a huge variety of problems.  And to try and explain to my students why that concept might be applicable to architectural criticism.

My point, of course, is that elegance is not a matter of fashion, style, or a subjective taste, but the most appropriate word to describe a key part of the western intellectual tradition. Because of my background, I tend to draw on science, rather than art historicists writings.

So I start with any of the definitions of Occam's Razor, but usually find myself quoting Einstein:  “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”  Of course, I know that this is a paraphrase.  But it is a very good paraphrase, because it captures not only the rigour of reduction, but the warning against the simplistic.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Housing celebrated

When we sometimes discuss what 'themes' are relevant in architectural education today,  I have been surprised at the vehemence with which some of my younger academic colleagues dismiss 'housing' as worthy of being one of those themes.  Their criticism seems to be summed up as 'housing is just a building type', apparently oblivious of the heavy theoretical and political baggage that 'type' carried throughout the hegemony of 20th century modernism.

So I was particularly sensitized to this spectacular post on Dezeen, reporting from the World Architecture Festival 2014, where architect Ole Scheeren discussed The Interlace, an upmarket Singapore housing development.  The unmissable distinguishing feature of The Interlace is that it is not a collection of towers, or even towers with tenuous elevated bridges.  In a self-proclaimed attempt to subvert the stereotype, it is described instead as 'horizontal buildings stacked diagonally across one another to frame terraces, gardens and plazas'.  To quote Sheeren:
"Housing – through the quantities that it has been produced in, and the formulaic nature it has taken out of an almost lethal mix of building regulations, efficiency and profit concerns – has become simply compressed into a very standardised format. I think this project shows in a really dramatic way, and also in a significant scale, that something else is possible."