All posts by DoD

The practicality of the impossible

Market Hall, MVRDV (2014). Social housing combined with a public market.

The increasing emphasis on performance criteria as the measure of design value stunts architecture in many ways. One of the more insidious is the reification of current conditions of building production, that is assuming that

  1. current economic and political constraints on the construction, financing, use and planning of the built environment will always prevail; and
  2. architecture must be “realistic,” meaning that it must operate within them.

Put another way, architecture’s job is to figure out how to contort (I would not say “meet”) the needs of society so as to be amenable to these reified constraints.

Yes, people’s need for buildings is immediate and pressing and cannot wait for a possible future in which the conditions of building construction may be different. Further, it is possible to create buildings under current conditions with more or less concern for ordinary people, more or less imagination, more or less awareness of the many scales and modes by which buildings shape our environment. That is to say, it is possible to design well or badly, to do it out of concern for people’s well-being or for personal gain.

Many architects amplify the prevailing market into a rationale for following the path of least resistance in their practices. If I had a nickel for every time someone has “reminded” me that architects need to make a living- well,I’d have a lot of nickels. I will stipulate that architects need to make a living. But this does not justify adopting the market as rationale for ceasing to think about how we live in larger terms. Our true purpose is to engage in this kind of questioning. We often underestimate the scope our projects offer for doing this.

(An aside- our collective preoccupation with buildings as formal objects, often justified as “exploring new possibilities of inhabitable space,” is not the kind of questioning I’m talking about. Being honest with ourselves, we should recognize that much of the work done under this guise is at best equating architecture with sculpture. At worst, it is mindless idolatry of newness for its own sake.)

Winy Maas of MVRDV has posted a video of a presentation he made to urban planners in Glasgow that is inspiring in this regard. You could call it “the architecture of the impossible”. The issues his ideas address are very real: global warming, with its consequences for energy and water consumption, urbanization and population growth, mass population migrations, and the cost of infrastructure among others. What is remarkable is not only the imagination of his solutions, but the fact that, under present conditions, they are impossible. Not physically impossible, but politically impossible. In many cases this is because the level of political organization needed to carry out a project does not exist (yet). It makes sense for water-rich SwWiny Maas map of Switzerlanditzerland to build a network of reservoirs to supply water to drier parts of Europe (see left), if only the political infrastructure existed to plan and build the accompanying distribution system. Why not cover south-facing mountainsides with photovoltaic panels? Well, again you would need a continent-wide distribution network to make the project economically feasible, not to mention a financial structure to pay for the project. Maas’s projects are impossible, but they argue for themselves as solutions to real problems and force us to ask, “Why are these things impossible? What is holding society back from realizing them?” Once there, the projects become arguments for changing the political and economic structures that make them impossible so that they become possible. In other words, the projects themselves become forces for change.

This model for making architecture a force for social change involves two steps. First, architects must address problems that affect people’s lives (and no, “new possibilities of inhabitable space” is not such a problem). These problems must be sufficiently pressing to get people to think seriously about solutions they have never considered before, that may at first seem outlandish. Second, architects have to decide which of the conditions that circumscribe their work are actually not carved in stone, but could be changed if the necessary political will existed. Architecture thus works towards social change by demonstrating its benefits.

The scale of Maas’s projects in the video are vast- far beyond the scope of most architects’ practices (imagine having Switzerland as a commission!). But the model still works. On every project, we need to ask ourselves if we have accepted some constraint as immutable, when in fact it could be eased or removed by altering some human institution. This may not be possible immediately, but once we have demonstrated with a project that making such a change would be beneficial, we can begin to persuade people to make the change.

What we are talking about here is challenging current performance criteria. The all-too-common mindset, abetted by BIM and related developments, is to accept and quantify performance criteria as given, and to maximize a design with respect to those criteria. As I have argued in The Death of Drawing and on this blog, this mindset is fatal to architecture as a cultural and social force. Architects must challenge performativity in any way they can. One way to do this, suggested by Maas’s projects, is to turn performativity against itself by asking whether better answers can be found by suspending accepted performance standards.


Data-driven to distraction

plan usageThe notion of “data-driven” design gets a lot of press these days, as if what contemporary architects need is more quantitative knowledge about how people use buildings and spaces. This idea rests on misunderstandings of architecture so profound as to beggar belief. But since the idea is so common these days, it appears worthwhile to spell out exactly why it is not only wrong but harmful.

Our culture is obsessed with quantification. Data ultimately consists of numbers. As a culture, we love numbers. They are so clear, such a relief from the unremitting confusion of everyday life. Yet we all know that numbers can lie. More precisely, it is not the numbers themselves that lie, but the way they are produced and used. In spite of this, we can’t resist the urge to believe numbers. If I take something ambiguous or complex, such as people’s reactions to a movie, and ask them to rate it on a scale of five stars, suddenly the value of a (potential) work of art is reduced to a number on a five point scale. We know this is a totally bogus procedure, yet everyone pays attention to these ratings. There is a companion phenomenon that makes the process even sillier- the dilution of the ratings. Rarely do you see a movie that gets one star or five. Most get three or four. This is partly the result of our collective distaste for extreme judgments, but also, I think, from an unspoken recognition that this spurious scale is not a sufficient basis for making real judgments.

The practice of quantifying the unquantifiable is sometimes justified by the argument that the system used to quantify X may be flawed, but it’s the best we can do. This is saying that the goal of quantifying X is so important that we’re better off doing it badly than not doing it at all. The possibility that X fundamentally eludes quantification and that trying to quantify it distorts it beyond recognition is not considered.

This fallacy is especially deadly in any discussion of a cultural form such as architecture. Quantifiable measures do not even come close to describing the qualities and values of how people perceive and use space. Architecture is fundamentally ambiguous. I hope I’m not ruining anybody’s day by saying this. I’m almost embarrassed to find myself having to say it so plainly, but consider this article by David Friedlander.

Friedlander summarizes studies of how people use their homes that show that there are some spaces- formal dining rooms, outdoor patios- that are rarely used. Scandal! Inefficiency! Why do our homes include spaces we don’t use often? Well, Mr. Friedlander, let me explain. Spaces have symbolic as well as practical functions. I may not use my dining room very often, but the fact that I have one makes it possible to contemplate and engage in a particular form of socialization. This reflects my belief (which is part of my culture) in the importance of sharing meals in a formal setting for creating and maintaining important relationships with people. Devoting a space to it in my home expresses this belief.

Of course, endowing formal dining with this importance is a value not universally shared, even within my own culture. That is why many houses built in in the U.S. in the last few decades do not have dining rooms. This is as it should be. It is wrong, however, to conclude from such a study that a dining room is a waste of space.

In fairness, Mr. Friedlander goes on to make many excellent points about unsustainable patterns in the amount of land and other resources our culture consumes due to our notions of housing. He puts the cart before the horse, however, in starting from the supposed waste in our living arrangements. The unsustainable nature of how we live is the proper starting point. There we will find the true reasons for changing how we build our homes.

“Technical” vs. “Creative” in Architecture- an untenable distinction

Many architects continue to make a distinction between the “technical” and “creative” aspects of practice. Real architecture, of course, is assumed to reside in the latter. The former is often relegated to new graduates who are technically facile but inexperienced in every other way. One would think that the examples of firms like Gehry and Morphosis (whose work depends on deep understandings of technology that are of a piece with their design processes) would have dispelled this untenable distinction, but there are still many architects who insist upon it. I had an experience yesterday that reminded me of this.

The AIA California Council (AIACC) recently announced a very interesting conference titled “Now Next Future”. Unfortunately, it is scheduled to conflict with the annual ACADIA (Association of Computer-Aided Design in Architecture) conference. I say unfortunately because both of these conferences offer valuable content to any architect who is interested in the future of the discipline, which I hope is everyone. I wondered whether this conflict came about accidentally or knowingly, so I sent the AIACC organizers a note through their website. I got a very obliging and revealing response from Nicki Dennis Stevens, a Senior Director at AIACC. She told me that AIACC  did in fact try to coordinate their dates with ACADIA but in the end was unable to do so. I’m sympathetic- having organized a few conferences myself I know how difficult it is to accommodate speakers’ schedules and avoid conflicts with other events. But in justifying the decision to schedule their conference in conflict with ACADIA, she wrote the following: “After discussion and deliberation, the consensus was we were targeting different audiences with the event (ACADIA’s being much more ‘technical’ in scope).”

This rationale reveals a double misunderstanding. First, it implies that architects need only concern themselves with technology to a certain degree- that there are aspects of architecture too “technical” to be of general interest. Second, it assumes that the technological sophistication of much of the work presented at ACADIA means that they must somehow be a sideshow to “real” architecture- interesting from a technical perspective but not for architecture proper. Anyone who has attended an ACADIA conference knows that this is categorically untrue. But the point I want to emphasize here is the profound misunderstanding this attitude represents of the current situation of architecture, both as a discipline and as a profession.

Whether one looks at it from a professional or a disciplinary perspective, there is no avoiding the fact that computation is profoundly changing the nature of architectural thought and production. On the professional side, the now obligatory use of BIM for all but the smallest projects has upended the traditional hierarchy of design decision-making, placing design proposals under performative scrutiny much earlier and making project information available to a wider group of people without the architect’s intervention. On the disciplinary side, the generation of design “solutions” by parametric methods has radically changed the relationship of the architect to design, removing him or her a step from the direct manipulation of form to the indirect framing of design problems in terms of parametric systems.

These and related trends introduced by computation should be the focus of all serious discussion about the future (or the present, for that matter) of architecture. Their implications are far more profound and far-reaching than most architects realize. The real problem with the conflict of “Now Next Future” with ACADIA is that it perpetuates a fundamentally mistaken understanding of the the relationship that architects must have to technology in order to maintain their relevance. ACADIANs indulge in speculation whose relevance to practice is not always evident, but at least they understand where the challenges lie. Drawing, as the principal means of communication in the building industry, is dead. Computation is our new medium. Architects cannot remain mere “users”. We need to study and critically evaluate the effects and inherent tendencies of computation.

Architecture as an Ethics of Technology

Among the professionals involved in the building industry, architects have a unique ability- even a duty- to apply a broad range of criteria in making design decisions. This is the essence of the traditional role of architects in building- not only to know about how things are built, but also to question assumptions and conventions of building in light of their larger effects on human life. The philosopher Karsten Harries has called this broad questioning of goals and means of building the ethical function of architecture, and it is precisely what distinguishes architecture from other building design disciplines.

The proliferation of building and design technologies has made technology an area of particular importance for this aspect of architecture. Technology is vital to our society, culture and economy. Unfortunately, it has no built-in guide as to what problems to take on and limited criteria to apply in finding solutions. It’s like a precocious child- capable of amazing things but lacking the basic sense not to play in traffic. Like a child, it needs to be allowed to explore while being guided by wisdom and experience. The problems we ask technology to solve, both the goals and the means used to achieve them, need to be chosen according to a broad range of criteria. In the domain of building and design technology, only architects have the training and the professional culture that allow them to do this.

New technologies are created in response to a perceived market. A key criterion is their potential profitability. The “needs” they meet are fungible if not created out of whole cloth. Clever marketing can create desires and transform them into felt needs. There’s an enormous market for trucks and SUV’s that burn much more fuel than most cars and release correspondingly larger amounts of pollutants. These vehicles can have a legitimate purpose, but they don’t owe their gigantic sales volume to the need of a typical family to haul bales of hay or climb glaciers. The first question about any technology should always be about its purpose. Economy is always a consideration, but an ethics of technology requires a broader critical questioning of the end to which it is created.

Apart from effectively fulfilling a purpose, the only criterion technology innately recognizes is performance: functional (accomplishing the assigned purpose as efficiently as possible), and economic (generating profits for its creators). The net result is that technology naturally seeks to achieve maximum effect for minimal cost. Using the market alone to assess performance neglects many impacts of technological methods that we might want to challenge on ethical grounds, such as environmental degradation and labor exploitation. Ethical judgments in fact do sometimes come into play. Opposition to the destruction of embryos has impeded genetic research. Revelations about the scope of the NSA’s data gathering have at least placed limits on the use of certain technologies. These examples involve public opinion, but it is also possible for individuals and small groups to assert other criteria in selecting technologies and influencing their development.

The clearest example of this in the building industry is sustainable design. Architects played a major role in establishing sustainability as an accepted design criterion. Given its present widespread acceptance, it’s easy to forget how recently and rapidly sustainability achieved this status. Sustainable design can often be defended on the basis of lifecycle cost, but at bottom it is an ethical value. As an ethical principle, sustainability is readily justified on utilitarian grounds (“the greatest good for the greatest number”). Since it mitigates such things as greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and water pollution that harm every person on the planet, it clearly works to increase our collective well-being. Sustainability also has the virtue of being quantifiable (in some respects). One can calculate kilowatt hours saved, volume of emitted CO2 avoided and so on. Once the basic principle is accepted, this provides a basis for agreement among diverse individuals about what is more or less sustainable. However, not many ethical principles can be as clearly justified or applied.

Modern construction is a highly technical enterprise. With the coming of BIM and other computational tools, building design has also become technology-intensive. In both arenas architects are constantly confronted with decisions about technologies, what to use and how to use it. Amid the rush towards greater efficiency that our world demands and technology promotes, it is difficult but essential for architects to maintain a critical stance towards building and design technologies. Indeed, they are the only building professionals with a mandate to do this in keeping with the ethical function that is the hallmark of their discipline.

Architects face some serious difficulties in questioning technology. One is the paradox of challenging technology on its own turf. As technology becomes more pervasive in building and design, its imperatives of efficiency and enhanced performance become more deeply embedded in the ethos of the building industry. Architects are under great pressure to adopt these values. Who can object to buildings that are cheaper and faster to build while performing the same functions as well or better? Sometimes it’s possible to come up with an idea that both asserts non-technological values and succeeds on technology’s own terms. In rare cases, an architect may assert other values as a condition of his or her work. In general, however, the value of more efficient, better-performing buildings is so universally accepted that it can’t be directly opposed. Asserting other values must involve redefining performance– changing the criteria a technology must satisfy. As the example of sustainable design shows, these new criteria can be ethical, although it helps if they can be couched in performative terms. It also helps if the market and/or regulation adopt these criteria. These change the economics of design decisions, by reducing their cost or making it unavoidable.

The newly technological nature of design media creates another order of difficulty for architects. These complex pieces of software contain both capabilities and limitations that influence how architects approach design problems, often without their being aware of it. They profoundly change the relationship between the architect and his/her work, in terms of both design and building. They require new skills and render some traditional ones obsolete. They create changes in how architects work in design teams that transform their role in the design process. Most importantly, the products of these media have a powerful innate tendency to be understood as simulations by designers- virtual equivalents of the building. This is radically different than the abstraction of drawings, focusing designers’ attention on the (simulated) experience of the spaces and construction, at the expense of conceptual relationships. The categorical differences between a digital model and the eventual reality of the building are blurred by the seductive appeal of simulation.

These problems are challenging but not insurmountable. Their solution requires architects to understand how apparently useful and innocent technologies can impose values on a project. This is the first step. The next is to relearn to formulate and explore design ideas using a wide range of criteria, performative and otherwise, taking control of their tools rather than simply following their tendencies. There is a place for performative criteria in developing a design, but only taking the time to explore it fully according to a larger set of values.

Among building professionals, architects traditionally have a unique background that prepares and motivates them to apply diverse criteria to the uses of technology. This professional mandate is being undermined by pressure to adopt the same performative values as the rest of the industry. To maintain their cultural and social relevance, architects must be critically aware of technology and the values it entails. Architects must judge, select and apply technology according to the broadest possible range of criteria to obtain its benefits without falling for its blandishments and the vacuous utopia it promises.

The Death of Drawing- Thoughts on its publication

CoverAfter what seems like an eternity, The Death of Drawing: Architecture in the Age of Simulation has been published. It will shortly available for purchase on Amazon (July 27) and through Routledge (July 25) as well as in many bookstores.  Now that the book is public, it takes on a life of its own. This prospect is both exciting and anxiety-provoking. It’s not that I’m worried about people disagreeing with me. I expect and welcome that. The question that keeps me awake at night is whether they will understand what I tried to say.

The book’s subject is fraught. Discussions of the effects of building information modeling and computational design on architecture are often polarizing. Older architects tend to view these technologies as either new ways of doing the same work or as unwarranted intrusions into a process they understood. Younger ones tend to be advocates of the new technologies without considering their effects on the work. Add to this the perennial tendency of every new generation of architects to consider themselves young lions and every older generation to resist change, and you have a perfect storm of misunderstandings. I hope the book will help both groups gain insight into what is going on, but I realize that’s a steep hill to climb.

I believe that architecture is undergoing profound change that architects need to understand lest we become its passive victims. Neither older nor younger architects can easily understand the changes taking place. Older ones have trouble grasping the new technologies while younger ones have little understanding of what is being replaced by them.

One of my greatest fears is that The Death of Drawing will be understood as a plea for a return to drawing. Nothing could be further from my intention. In the book I explain that the rise of BIM and computational design is grounded in modern building economics and certain pervasive cultural developments. These technologies are not going away- they can help solve real problems for building owners and users. The book’s central thesis is that these technologies promote certain tendencies that run counter to architecture’s ability to comprehend and assert essential but unquantifiable values. I try to show how drawing enabled us to do this. What I’m advocating is not a return to drawing, but a search for ways to use the new technologies to continue to assert such values. I believe that a thorough understanding of the historical role of drawing will help us do that.

Another of the book’s central arguments concerns the the effects of the materiality of drawing on how we understand architecture. Drawings are made things, physical artifacts that are as much about the materials that compose them as they are about the ideas they represent. The intimate experience of materials provided by drawing carries over into building. Despite the obvious differences between drawing and building materials, the experience of making, of the productive encounter between an idea and the physical qualities of the media used to express it, is common to building and design through drawing. Going forward, this is a challenge for interface design which is already being studied by many people.

It may very well turn out that the best way to do all this is to preserve a place for drawing in our new, technology-enabled design processes. This is what I do in my own practice and there are many other architects who do this as well. But incorporating drawing in any fashion requires an architect to have experienced design through drawing. When I see digital techniques being used by architecture students with little or no experience of drawing, I lose hope that this will be possible.

Anyway, buy the book, read it and see what you make of it. Please post your thoughts on this blog. I look forward to a lively discussion.

David Ross Scheer

Rediscovering architecture at the 2014 Venice Biennale

The theme of the 2014 Venice BIennale of architecture chosen by curator Rem Koolhaas is “Fundamentals”. Koolhaas says “Fundamentals will be a Biennale about architecture, not architects.”  After years of featuring hermetic “explorations”, this year’s entries will return to those elements of building that are eternal and inevitable: doors, walls, ceilings, floors and so on. This rappelle à l’ordre is long overdue and sorely needed. These “fundamentals” are concrete reminders of why we build in the first place: to create spaces for ourselves that shelter, respond to our needs and frame our actions.  Through specific spatial accommodations of these our most basic, and therefore universally human, requirements, architecture demonstrates their various cultural interpretations and reflects on the timeless question of the relationship between nature and culture: how what we are is reflected in and affected by what we create.

The suddenly re-remembered importance of architecture’s grounding is continued in the theme of the  National Pavilions: “Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014”, looking at how different countries evolved away from distinctive national architectures towards a singular global esthetic. According to the Biennale’s website, “The transition to what seems like a universal architectural language is a more complex process than we typically recognize, involving significant encounters between cultures, technical inventions and imperceptible ways of remaining ‘national.'” Torre Velasca, Milan, Italy
Reconstructing these national histories is crucial lest we forget that our present condition is the result of specific developments in economics, technology, politics and culture. Every country has taken a different path to reach this point, each with a unique story about how and to what extent its specific culture has been effaced and subsumed by a global culture. The Torre Velasca in Milan (above), designed by Architects Studio BBPR in 1957, is an instructive example of a place-specific response to Modernism.

One of the results of this event will be a new appreciation for the differences among the modernisms in each country. A closer examination will reveal significant variation among “modernist” buildings in various countries beyond their overt stylistic and organizational similarities. Globalization in architecture, as in its other manifestations, is not (yet?) total. There have always been forces opposed to it that re-emerge periodically as particular traditions rediscover and assert themselves. The different building techniques, industry organization  and level of technical sophistication found in each country have had inevitable effects on what is built there. Comparisons among countries should have a great deal to teach us about the complex relationships between architecture and the material and institutional conditions of building, as well as the influence of cultural factors on the assimilation of global trends.

The 9-11 memorial: Reminders for architects

GROUNDZERO1-master675The article in today’s New York Times about the upcoming opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum describes an architectural experience of the first order. Since buildings, or rather their destruction, are the objects around which the tangle of grief, anger, fear, personal loss and public outrage of 9/11 coalesced, this memorial presents a unique opportunity to explore and experience some of the many ways architecture can embody and express such emotions.

What role do the original intentions of the towers’ architects play in creating the meanings they now carry? Of course, the architects could not foresee the fate of their creation, but it is not by chance that the towers were targeted by the terrorists. A plaque near the entrance to the exhibits quotes architect Minoru Yamasaki to the effect that the towers represent “a monument to peace”, an excruciatingly ironic sentiment in light of their ultimate end and its consequences. Here is a first reminder to architects: communicating our intentions depends on contexts over which we have no control. The towers will go down in history, not as monuments to peace, but to pain, loss and national tragedy. Mr. Yamasaki’s benevolent intentions were inverted by history.

But of course an architect’s intentions depend for their intelligibility on the form and material of the building, as well as its relationship to its surroundings. The raw fact of the design was that it consisted of two enormous identical towers set in a vast open space. Peaceful or no, everything about the design proclaimed the triumph of post-industrial capitalism. They were the tallest buildings in the world at the time of their completion, a quantitative superlative that also bespoke the mastery of their engineering (which contributed tragically to their collapse). They occupied an enormous piece of the world’s most expensive real estate for no other purpose than to set them apart from the city. Unlike many of their New York precedents, they were starkly rectangular, asserting a belief in the power of pure geometric forms to elicit a universal response. This was a commonplace among architects of thetrylon_perisphere Modern Movement, carried to an extreme. And there were two of them, doubling down on the claim of universality. No trylon-and-perisphere dialectic here: there was only one idea to represent.

It is doubtful that the architects developed their design deliberately to communicate these ideas. Nevertheless, such ideas were part of the intellectual equipment most architects of the time carried, often cloaked in ideology. And whether or not the terrorists who destroyed the towers thought in these terms, the potency of the towers’ symbolic representation of capitalist triumphalism made them the perfect target. What more powerful expression of their hatred of modern Western civilization could the terrorists have found?

If Yamasaki and his collaborators set out explicitly to make an enduring symbol of Western capitalism, they clearly succeeded. It seems more likely, though, that they were expressing ideals that they felt were implicit in the building’s program (peace, freedom, etc.) Architects tend to deal in positives, since the effort of building seems justified only if the ends are beneficial. So it appears that the architects’ intentions that made the World Trade Center the complex and powerful symbol that it has become were not exactly what they were thinking about, although not far from the surface. If nothing else, this is a reminder to architects that they need to examine their thinking critically and understand what truly motivates their intentions. But try as they might, some of their intellectual and emotional apparatus is bound to remain obscure to them. After all, Yamasaki et al. were attacked on 9-11 with the rest of us.

The wealtThe-original-slurry-wall-of-the-World-Trade-Centerh meanings of 9/11 holds for millions of people have the physical site as their nexus. It appears the architects of the memorial were wise enough to understand the power of the artifacts they had before them to build their design around them. A portion of the towers’ exterior wall plays an important role in the design of the museum. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that the concrete slurry retaining wall (image at right) that protects the site from being flooded by the Hudson River has taken on an equal if not greater significance. Why? This wall was never meant to be seen. It was a purely functional piece of civil engineering that the architects probably paid very little attention to and certainly never considered as part of their design. When the towers collapsed, however, the slurry wall stood, soldiering on, so to speak, after the towers fell.  All was not lost: the site remained, the wall permitted its rebuilding and sanctification as testimony to our collective strength and wisdom. The elevation of this humble wall to iconic status should remind architects that the act of building in itself is always an expression of human will; any built object can register history and acquire meaning as a record of humanity’s trials and triumphs. The intention of building itself is easily overlooked because it is always present. One of the purposes of architecture is to ensure that it is felt.

The deeper, enduring meanings of the attacks on the World Trade Center and their aftermath are perhaps clearer in the architectural artifacts than anywhere else. The remains of the original structures, the new memorial museum and park, as well as the Freedom Tower, form a group that must be read in its ensemble with an understanding of the physical, social, political and economic factors that surround and condition any building. Architecture clears away the obfuscations of politics and power to reveal what is essential: human life in all its complexity, recorded in exquisite detail.

Is Computational Design Anti-Urban?

5370d828c07a800c9e0000c5_jockey-club-innovation-tower-zaha-hadid-architects_jcit_hkpu_ib_04-530x795Nearly all projects whose form is computationally derived require open space surrounding them so that their form can be appreciated. Each defines a geometry which is sui generis, unrelated to the geometry of the spaces surrounding their site. While a certain number of projects have a site or program that supports such freestanding treatment, allowing every building in a city to be designed this way leads to urban chaos. The ethos prevalent among architects who design in this vein is to treat the requirements of each project in isolation from its urban context. Yes, such factors as zoning restrictions, shadow-casting and view corridors can be incorporated into the design algorithms, but this is a limited and functionalized understanding of the urban context. The spatial coherence of the city is inevitably undermined and its experience reduced to that of a collection of self-involved objects that make no reference to each other and do not submit to a higher order which is that of the collective, i.e. the city.
SOM-unveils-Indonesian-skyscraper-that-will-harness-wind-power-_dezeen_1sqSuch fragmentation of urban space in the interest of individual property owners is of course nothing new. What is new is a design technique (some would elevate it to a design philosophy) that can seemingly create nothing else. Computational design, as it has been applied to large-scale building so far, is a method for producing towers in the park. Unlike those of the Ville Radieuse, each is unique, which softens the mechanistic image of of Le Corbusier’s project without altering its essentially anti-urban vision.

under-construction-towers-01The urban realm is the domain of the polity. The right to the city proclaimed by Henri Lefebvre must be realized in the city’s spatial order and architecture. These must provide a flexible framework within which the multitude of interests and lives being lead can be accommodated and, if possible, enriched. The failure to recognize this essential diversity was the essential flaw of the Ville Radieuse, as it is of the deployment of large-scale computational design so far. Such architecture may be suited to the totalitarian sheikdoms of the Middle East or the emerging oligarchy in China, but it should not be the model for urban architecture in democratic societies. I hope that the practitioners of computational design can demonstrate that their approach can serve the interests of a society as well as it does those of private capital.

Graves article lasting relevance

02GRAVES1-articleLargeThe article by Michael Graves that appeared in the New York Times on September 1, 2012 created quite a furor, demonstrating how important this issue is  in the minds of architects. The discussion in the architecture press subsided far too quickly. The role of drawing in architecture that he articulates and the consequences of its fading from practice should be a constant topic of conversation among architects. Take the time to read (or re-read) the article.