Architecture

VALUE ADDED

Developer and building owner Bruce C. Ratner toasts Frank Gehry on the 52nd floor of New York by Gehry. Photo: Philip Greenberg.

Developer and building owner Bruce C. Ratner toasts Frank Gehry on the 52nd floor of New York by Gehry.
Photo: Philip Greenberg.

The standing of a profession is a measurable calculus, a function of what it brings to the table. Doctors heal, lawyers navigate the complexity of the law, accountants do the same for the tax system, engineers solve problems, whether it is going to the moon or shrinking the size of a computer. What do architects do? Design buildings, of course. A key privilege of a professional is being granted a monopoly in his field. But, as Garry Stevens writes in his 1998 sociological study of architecture, The Favored Circle, “since the products of architects and non-architects are functionally indistinguishable, the profession has never been able to construct an ideological justification sufficiently convincing to persuade the state to allow it to monopolize the design of buildings.” Architects would argue that their buildings are more beautiful, but since there is no consensus about what is beautiful–neither in the profession, nor among the public–that is not much help. Perhaps this conundrum explains the growth of two dissimilar but related phenomena: LEED-ratings and celebrity architects. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but a LEED platinum rating is a widely recognized (at least in the US) measure of a building’s greenness.  Moreover, it is valued by many building owners, whether they are corporations, developers, municipalities, or educational institutions. Architects themselves can also be LEED-certified. “A LEED plaque is analogous to a college diploma,” observed an architect on a blog, although I can’t remember the last time I saw a framed diploma in an architect’s office. What about architectural stars? Stars don’t have numerical ratings, but they are, in effect, certified–by the media, by prize and award juries, by museum curators, by the academy, and by critics. A certified star can demand higher fees since his or her presence can raise public interest in a project, whether it is aiding fund-raising for a university, increasing attendance for a museum, or promoting sales for a condominium tower. LEED architects and celebrity architects both add demonstrable value to a project.

CREAM RISES

keep_calm_and_use_your_t_square_sticker-rdf59da2584e348b78f40f89c4a5cf004_v9waf_8byvr_512A friend who is a composer and musician, wrote to me recently after reading my essay on parametric design in Architect. “What I found surprising is that in the Sixties music was going through much the same thing,” he wrote. “Composers dealt only in parameters, and arranged them according to Set Theory. Milton Babbitt, who had a degree in math before concentrating on music, held forth at Princeton about the use of the Set, as derived from Schoenberg’s twelve-tone theory. Alan Forte at Yale wrote a book called Set Theory, in which you could look up all possible sets, 2 through 12 notes, all categorized and logically laid out. So you didn’t need a computer. Of course Set Theory could be applied to the other parameters, not just pitch.”

Unlike music, architecture is not a theoretical subject, that is, it’s an applied art–an old but still useful term. As such, architecture is based on practice; what succeeds, becomes the canon. That’s why architects have always traveled to look at the great works, since whatever we know about how to build great buildings expands the recognized achievements of the past. As James Stirling wisely observed, “Architects have always looked back in order to move forward.” Nevertheless, from time to time, academically-inclined architects–or architects who simply have time on their hands, that is, architects who are not building–become fascinated by theory. Despite surviving Renaissance treatises, architecture lacks a theoretical foundation, so they look for inspiration in other fields: philosophy, linguistics, biology, morphology, geometry, fine art, perhaps even music.

TOO MANY WORDS

KrierI was listening to a lecture on YouTube by Léon Krier. He was in full apocalyptic mode, his rousing talk illustrated by his charming but barbed drawings. At one point he recounted a quotation: “I wish I could speak a language where no word is repeated.” Krier couldn’t remember the source–it sounds like Marcel Duchamp or Max Ernst to me. In any case, Krier’s point was that this could serve as a maxim for today’s modernist architects, who judge themselves–and are judged–almost solely on their originality. What makes the metaphor so cutting is that a language of unrepeated words would be simply meaningless gobbledygook, which encapsulates Krier’s opinion of the architectural avant-garde. He maintains that meaning in buildings emerges not from the maker’s imagination but from a shared tradition. He characterizes this tradition as a blend (in the proportion of about 20:1) of vernacular and classical. (This formula is an implicit criticism of modern classicists, who drape the orders on everything–big and small, important and humble–with sometimes reckless abandon.) While I was fruitlessly trying to identify the no-repeated-word quotation I came across another. This one from Alexander Pope:

In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
Alike fantastic, if too new, or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

FANTASY FACTORIES

Dream_Castle_by_SukhRiarOliver Wainwright writes an excellent article on architectural education in The Guardian. He is particularly good describing the distortions that have accumulated in the so-called academy. Here are some highlights:

Wiry contraptions hang from the ceiling, while globular fungal forms nestle on tables between the spidery legs of 3D-printed creatures. A post-apocalyptic confetti of scalpel blades, empty Pot Noodles and cans of Coke is scattered among this landscape of foreign objects, while a sleeping bag pokes out from under a desk – perhaps with someone still in it.

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Attending final presentations as an external critic, it has been striking quite how far students are marshalled under the prescriptive dogma of their tutors in a lot of schools, producing projects with astounding graphic flair, but with a tenuous grip on reality, and often little sign of a critical position. Taught by the same people who mark their work, many students said the safest thing was to keep their heads down and follow the prevailing agenda – or else literally pay for the consequences.

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With all energies directed towards the climax of the final exhibition – conceived as a salesroom for students and tutors alike – the emphasis is too often weighted on creating a dazzling polished product, rather than the rigour of the process of getting there. Seductive alien imagery trumps the perceived banality of buildings, with the visual cacophony masking the lack of underlying spatial ideas.

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 The common retreat into introspective dreamworlds can be directly correlated against the dissolution of the architect’s powers, which are increasingly superseded by specialist consultants for every stage of the process.

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 No one has the answer yet, but at least students’ plaintive pleas for relevant teaching are finally being taken seriously – and they may soon have an alternative to costly years trapped in fantasy factories.

 

SAVE THE STACKS

nyplI am lending my voice to those who are calling for a reconsideration of the plan to demolish the stacks beneath the Reading Room of the New York Public Library. While it is true that these stacks are not generally open to the public, they are an integral part of this extraordinary building, a Beaux-Arts design but truly a machine for reading in. As a writer and researcher, libraries–especially public libraries–remain for me special places. Library stacks, even more than reading rooms, are their symbolic heart. I think that one of the things that drew me to writing was the experience of wandering the stacks of McGill’s old Redpath Library, an Erector set of steel shelves, glass-block floors, and low ceilings, clanging steel spiral stairs, murky light, and the smell of old paper. In those days, entering the stacks was a rare privilege reserved for graduate students. I remember the ever-present feeling of surprise whenever I found the book I was looking for, the mysterious LCCN numbers hand-lettered on the spine. And then discovering something even more interesting farther down on the same shelf.