Friday, 16 February 2018

Dishonest structures?

One of the most powerful tenets of modern architecture was 'honesty' in structural expression.

The merits of this proposition were traced back to antiquity. For Bannister Fletcher,  the long influential architectural historian, direct expression of the structural system formed the basis of classification for architectural form. In his view, Architecture evolved from 'trabeated' (post-and-lintel) classical, through refinements of the arch and vault in the Romanesque and Gothic. 

The mediaeval cathedral, searching for lightness in a heavy material, with its flying buttresses and delicate tracery, became the ultimate moral compass for this dogma. 

With the introduction of new materials such as steel and steel reinforced concrete, the range of possible building forms dramatically increased. These buildings came generally from the collaboration of adventurous architects and inventive structural engineers: the thinnest shells, the articulated rotating joints in 3-point portal frames, the most daring cable stayed suspension roofs became photogenic expressions of the spirit of modern times.  

Of course, things were never that straightforward.

A hint of what was to come could already be found in the most iconic of 'structure as building form', the Sydney Opera House. The famous shells are not shells at all, but arches leaning against each other – a small but important point in any discussion of structural honesty.

I am in no position to trace the origin or evolution of the counter proposition:
..... in fact the most important function of structure is merely to hold up the planes and surfaces which enclose space.  
Suffice to say that such a less moralistic attitude was a convenient starting point for the true revolution. 

Arguably, the greatest exponent of the new freedom was the late Zaha Hadid.  I might dislike many of her parametrically generated squishy building forms, but her Riverside Museum in Glasgow is a masterful exercise in making lots of little sticks work together  to produce large spatial effects.  Ironically, these folds and twists teasingly suggest higher orders of structural rationale.

The pragmatism in structure and construction quickly spread to more humble buildings.  

The lower pair of images are of a small regional community library at Moe, Victoria.  In the hands of FJMT Architects the formal expression is of simple stacked boxes, but masterfully clad in beautiful materials. The image of the building under construction makes it clear just how ordinary is the construction under the extraordinary skin.

My personal reaction to this liberation from the moral imperative of honest, legible structure, is ambivalent.
As an architect, I welcome the freedom in design, which lets you assume that anything is possible. 
 As an observer of what I call journeyman architecture (such as medium rise apartment buildings), I see mainly a very particular extrapolation of that freedom – the almost universal use of flat plate construction.  I wrote in my blog post The new rational architecture that this can lead to new and exciting typologies, or more often to a cavalier lack of discipline in floor layouts.

As a teacher of architecture, I became quite uncomfortable. In my dealings with students, I found that it became much more difficult to have meaningful, rational discussions about design quality and design principles. 

I used to ask my students to "draw me the building, not the cardboard model of the building".  But, that favourite aphorism lost all its moral authority, once the actual buildings they saw around them more and more resembled stacked shoe boxes with invisible structure.  And some nice materials pasted on as decorative veneers.

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