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Architecture futures 2

beauty scoreFuture I  Part 2:  Performance enhancement- a dead end

In the last post, I described how performance enhancement is increasingly becoming a core mission of many architectural practices. Performance enhancement, however, goes far beyond being a practical goal; it is an attitude, almost a design philosophy. If the architect is not careful, it becomes the sole design criterion , eclipsing essential but unquantifiable factors such as social, ethical and expressive considerations.

Architects often blithely claim that there is no conflict between maximizing performance and “other” design goals. I’m not so sure. Performance is based on measurable metrics: how many kilowatt hours per square foot per year, foot-candles of daylight, dollars per square foot, etc. Although performance always involves trade-offs (you can’t optimize everything- or even very many things- at once) comparisons among alternatives are straightforward calculations. In this value system, the status of design qualities that can’t be quantified is uncertain. Even if architects believe that some such qualities are necessary for a good building, weighing their value against hard numbers is difficult.

I believe that there is an implicit conflict between performance and other design values.  Performance deprives non-performative values of any rationale, any basis for discussion that could elevate them above questions of individual preference. Performance becomes an ideology, valuing buildings solely on the basis of how well they meet performance metrics. Architecture cannot serve its social and cultural purposes if performance is the metric by which it is judged.

visual preference survey
A slide from a visual preference survey- assigning a number to intangible design qualities.

One approach to this problem is to substitute measurable proxies for non- performance- based qualities. For example, esthetics can be treated as a matter of opinion and measured by polls. This is what “visual preference surveys” do (see above photo). A group of people are shown alternative designs (or design elements) and the one that gets the highest score is chosen. The obvious shortcomings of this particular process are typical of the strategy: a proxy always distorts the quality it’s meant to represent. It places measurability above fidelity to a particular value. This seems to me to ensure the ultimate triumph of performance as the sole criterion for design, and the loss of the intangible qualities that distinguish architecture from mere functional building.

A way out?

Performance enhancement as a goal of architectural design is here to stay. It’s hard to argue with the benefits of better performance when it comes to energy consumption, embodied energy, carbon footprint, lowered cost (up to a point), faster construction, etc. What we need is a way to incorporate performance analysis in a more holistic design process. Parametric design offers a possible answer. As currently practiced, parametric design usually focuses only on a building’s form and structure. However, this is not an inherent limitation of the method. Almost anything can serve as a parameter if it can be made computable. Computability is not nearly as narrow a constraint as being strictly quantifiable. Recursive iteration allows algorithmic systems to seek solutions that are not the product of straightforward calculations but rather “satisfice” many criteria (i.e. come as close as possible to meeting them all while actually meeting none). Many of the explorations in computational design being carried out today can be seen as efforts to understand how the constraint of computability affects design outcomes. This question needs direct investigation. Another insufficiently explored dimension of parametric design is the role of the human designer. A human designer affects the algorithmic design process both in designing the algorithmic system itself and in choosing “winners” for further exploration from a set of algorithmically produced solutions. This allows- compels- a designer to explore her ideas beyond those explicitly embodied in the algorithmic system. There’s a great deal of work to be done to reconceive design is this way.

One way or another, architects must find a way to avoid the performance “trap” and maintain the value of other types criteria in the design process. We can’t be satisfied with simply wrapping a performative object in an interesting form, or dressing it up with nice materials. As problematic and unfashionable an idea as it may be, a meaningful built environment is architecture’s ultimate product. Left unaddressed, the architecture future of performance enhancement will lead to the replacement of architecture by engineering.


Architecture futures

The explosion of technologies that are transforming architecture is changing everything about it- how it is viewed by clients, the services architects offer, the economics of the office, how projects are designed and documented, how architects market their services, the skills architects need to have to be successful, etc. None of this is news to you, I’m sure. There’s an avalanche of information and advice out there about how to handle all this change (often promising to figure it out for you- for a price), but have you stopped for a minute to think about where this is going in the long run? These developments in design and construction are not taking place in a vacuum; they are of a piece with the cultural transformations being created by social media, computer-generated entertainment, online media distribution, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and a raft of other phenomena made possible by ubiquitous, cheap computation. We are only beginning to understand their scope and significance.
In the next several posts, I’ll offer some architecture futures I can foresee under these conditions. They’re based on my 32 years in practice, many years of reading and teaching, my involvement with the AIA Technology in Architectural Practice knowledge community, and finally the research that became The Death of Drawing. These futures aren’t exclusive. I actually think most or all of them- and probably others- will happen. Each has different implications for how we should think about what we do and prepare ourselves for a career that will be very different from the one we imagined when we dreamed about becoming architects.
Net-zero Walgreens in Evanston, IL
Net-zero Walgreens in Evanston, IL
Future I: Architecture as performance enhancement
The current trend

So far, the most common use of new architectural technologies has been to improve the performance of projects. Performance has both technical and financial aspects. On the technical side, various kinds of simulations are becoming both more routine and more sophisticated. Energy and daylighting analysis are probably the most common, and there are many others as well. Other software allows engineers to optimize structural and MEP systems. In fact, with the increasing emphasis on technical performance, architectural design is starting to resemble engineering design in some practices.

From a financial standpoint, both our internal operations and construction economics are affected. Building information modeling is transforming our role in many ways, as has been discussed ad nauseam. As has been frequently pointed out, one general tendency of these changes is to create a more level design team in which information is more freely shared and design decisions are more often taken jointly by several members of the team. This changes workflows in our offices, requiring information on various aspects of a design at different stages and levels of detail compared with traditional practice. BIM also affects our productivity. BIM vendors maintain that this is positive, but the reality is that it can cut both ways depending on how a firm implements the technology and how prepared its staff is to use it effectively. BIM and related software also expand the range of services we can offer, going as far as creating entirely different business models for our firms.

In the past, building owners’ greatest complaint about the design and construction process was the uncertainty about the cost and duration of their projects. Technology has done a great deal to reduce this uncertainty. BIM-based design coordination is important in this regard, but perhaps a more significant factor has been the ability of contractors to play a greater role during design. Automated quantity take-offs provide rapid, accurate cost estimates early and often. Modeling the construction process allows contractors to identify opportunities to save time and money. With all of this cost information available, architects must respond to financial considerations sooner and more stringently than before. These contractor-driven cost savings encourage building owners to give contractors a more prominent role during design. This drives the growing use of project delivery methods such as design-build, CMGC (construction manager as general contractor) and integrated project delivery, all of which involve architects in contractual relationships with builders. The traditional firewall between design and construction is gone. This has enormous potential financial benefits for building owners. It also subjects architectural design to new pressures and changes its priorities.

In spite of these changes, many American architects have seized upon performance enhancement as the salvation of the profession. Phrases like “high performance building” and “evidence-based design” have entered our vocabulary and our marketing materials. After years of watching contractors and construction managers eat our lunch, we finally have something to offer our clients that can compete in tangible value with control of the construction process! A quick look at your inbox (be sure to check your junk mail folder) will confirm this trend. And why not? It makes utter economic sense. It even has an ethical rationale when applied to sustainability or duty to our clients. At long last, it seems, we can honestly say that we have no other goal than to serve our clients’ best interests.

But something about this newfound zeal for performance makes me uneasy. Can architecture be reduced to performance? If not, can other values co-exist with performance enhancement?

Next: Architecture futures: Performance- Can We Have Our Cake and Eat It Too?

Peter Eisenman- Architecture as Idea (part 2)

In my previoEisenman supports architectureus post I argued that, by awarding Peter Eisenman the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, the architectural establishment tacitly recognized the need for architecture to appeal to ideas that transcend the pragmatic demands of building. This is what distinguishes architecture from other building design disciplines. Such ideas engage the social, political, historical and philosophical questions raised by the activity and products of building.

Most architects believe this but have difficulty defending the notion that architecture represents ideas.

For business purposes, our mission is to serve the interests of our clients. For our own purposes (and for a select group of clients) we serve society at large. We are thus in the position of having to maintain a precarious balance between being a technical design discipline and a creative activity that can, under the right conditions, move people to feel and think in new ways.

Eisenman and others like him play a vital role in this balancing act. In this context, the ideas themselves are unimportant. What is important is gaining acceptance for notion that architecture embodies ideas. By whatever means (a fascinating subject in itself for another time) Eisenman has achieved this acceptance. This is true not only within the profession, but crucially among a small but influential group of critics and patrons as well. By lionizing Eisenman, the profession shares his elevation of architecture. He provides credibility for the idea that architecture represents ideals distinct from the pecuniary and performative interests of clients- a central part of the profession’s identity.

In celebrating Eisenman, the profession also proclaims its intellectual bona fides by embracing challenges to its prevailing doctrines. Furthermore, Eisenman diverts attention from the profession’s essentially economic function. He recognizes architecture’s social context only in terms of abstract historical transformations; he does not address the specifics of the interaction between architecture and a given social or cultural condition. He avoids any overt critique of economic and political bases of the existing system of building production. That would be tantamount to criticizing clients, which the profession could never embrace.

Eisenman’s radical challenge to the profession paradoxically allows architects to accept their situation and negotiate the difficult space between a noble vision of architecture and the daily realities of their work.

His ideas are safe, except insofar as they cause architects to question themselves (no small thing). They carry no real weight for practice, being manifestly unconcerned with actual work. They do, however, allow architects to see themselves as engaged in something transcendent. His ideas are like caged tigers- thrilling to contemplate yet posing no real danger.

I think that the heat with which many architects reject Eisenman and theory in general results from a profound disappointment. While they believe that architecture should embody ideas, the practical demands of maintaining a practice leave little room for intellectual exploration. They want to be reaffirmed in this belief- they want ideas that they can apply to their work. By their very nature, Eisenman’s cannot be. On the contrary, he dismisses their work to the point of saying it is not architecture at all. No wonder they’re angry. It’s sad, really. Architects are hungry for ideas, but it’s as if Eisenman is offering us cheese and we are lactose-intolerant.

Peter Eisenman: Architecture as Idea (part 1)

Eisenman and students-sAs his former student, I was delighted with the news that Peter Eisenman was awarded the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education last week.

For those unfamiliar with this honor, it is an annual award made jointly by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) in recognition of a lifetime of achievement in architectural education. It thus represents a rare moment of concord between architectural professionals and academics.

Awarding the Topaz Medallion to Eisenman was an extraordinary thing to do. In the first place, most of its past recipients are or were full-time academics for a significant portion of their careers. Eisenman, despite his prolific teaching, has never held a full-time academic position. But more importantly, it is what he taught that makes this award remarkable. Although his specific ideas have undergone periodic revisions, he has consistently argued against the most basic principles that sustain the contemporary practice of architecture. In one form or another, the idea that architecture attempts to artfully reconcile form and function dominates the profession today. In his 1977 editorial “Post-Functionalism” in the journal Oppositions, Eisenman outlined his program of deriving principles for architectural design from the historical conditions that create the grounds of meaning (or lack thereof) of cultural products in general. He explicitly rejected traditional notions of both form and function as based on obsolete ideals. By awarding Eisenman the Topaz Medal, the AIA and ASCA apparently recognized the influence of his profoundly subversive approach to architecture.

One reason to give Eisenman this award is that there are many architects like me who are his former students and who cannot help but acknowledge his influence on their thinking.

He has a unique passion for architecture and sees it as a demanding intellectual discipline. It is a field of action where the forces of history contend and its practice is a kind of spatial historiography. It is difficult to experience Eisenman’s teaching and not come away with the conviction that architecture is the most important thing in the world. Studying it is therefore a very serious business. Eisenman endows his students with his level of passion and seriousness (if not knowledge), making their work important. I can tell you from experience that this is tremendously exciting for a student. Simply put, he is a great teacher, provided one thinks that the proper concern of a teacher is conveying knowledge and passion, not nurturing students’ supposedly fragile egos. Peter didn’t hesitate to couch his criticism in-well, critical terms. I took this as a token of his respect for the seriousness of my work and my ability to approach it critically. I know that many students have been hurt by his sometimes caustic manner, but even these have often recognized after the fact that they learned a great deal from him.

However great Eisenman’s influence on his students, we had to put most of it aside when we began working.

Even the most “stellar” firms need to concern themselves with their clients’ programs. Budgets tend to reify pre-existing “ideals” of form, since straying too far from formal precedents is usually expensive. Clients stubbornly insist on seeing their buildings as practical tools rather than as contributions to critical discourse on architecture. Yet Eisenman’s teaching has stayed with us, in spirit if not in the details. The image of architecture as a serious intellectual undertaking with its own principles and, dare I say, ideals has a powerful hold on our imaginations. And not only on those of his former students- I would argue that every architect bases some of his or her self-image on ideas such as Eisenman’s. Most of us draw a distinction between what we do for a living every day and some idea of architecture as it would exist under ideal conditions. By understanding our daily work as a pursuit of a pure idea which is inevitably doomed to fail, architects both maintain the ideal and the ability to justify the distinctly non-ideal work we do. Without such an ideal, architecture becomes a form of engineering: finding effective solutions to concrete problems. There is nothing wrong with engineering, but most architects believe that that is not what we do.

By giving the Topaz Medal to Peter Eisenman, the architectural establishment recognized the need for such an ideal, for an image of architecture as a high-minded pursuit that follows its own precepts, that exists independently of any of its instantiations.

To be continued…

The fig leaf of performance

COSMOS H2O night rendering. Performance was not why it was selected.
COSMO H2O, Andres Jaque, Office for Political Innovation. Night rendering.

I’ve noticed a trend lately of architectural projects getting prizes and other attention based- for public consumption at least- on some aspect of their performance. Looking at such projects, it’s often obvious that this function is either trivial or beside the point, given their formal interest. Why has function- performance more generally- become the dominant narrative of architectural value?

To see what I mean, consider COSMO H2O, a project by architect Andres Jaque and his firm Office for Political Innovation (see photos). This project was just announced as the winner of the prestigious Museum of Modern Art’s Young Architects Program and will be installed at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens this summer. The main virtue of the project, according to its announcements, is that it purifies water. According to The Architect’s Newspaper, submissions were required to “provide shade, seating, and water for the museum’s Warm Up summer music series—a season-long dance party—while also addressing environmental issues.” (The subordination of environmental concerns to a “season-long dance party” evident in this statement shall pass without comment for now.)

However, the project purifies a trivial amount of water- 3000 gallons every four days. For reference, the average American family uses about 300 gallons a day according to the EPA. Even allowing for our profligate and unsustainable level of water consumption, 750 gallons a day is the proverbial drop in the bucket in the context of the real problem. Jaque claims that “COSMO is intended as a prototype that can be easily reproduced around the world to deliver drinking water where it is needed most.” But given its minuscule output, COSMO is not a prototype of useful practical water purification system. Perhaps it’s scalable, but no mention is made of this crucial fact if indeed it is true.

COSMOS H2O day rendering. Performance is not why it was selected.
COSMO H2O, day rendering.

The point is not to quibble with the architect’s claims or MoMA’s selection of the project. What I find interesting is the importance assigned this token function. A quick look at the renderings (see above) shows very different, and more plausible, reasons why the project was chosen: it’s a playful, fanciful object that promises visual delight, especially at night (although to get the effect shown in the night rendering, the installation would have to take place in the Hayden Planetarium, not PS1). Of course, MoMA could not give this as the reason for its selection. This august institution must give more serious grounds for its decisions.

The MoMA committee could have tried to evaluate the form itself in artistic terms. It does so with the paintings and sculptures it exhibits and has done so with works of architecture in the past. Why not in this instance? I’d suggest there are two forces at work. One is the bewildering nature of recent developments in architectural design. Parametric design tools and computer-driven fabrication have unleashed a tidal wave of seductive forms that have, for the moment at least, overwhelmed the collective critical capacities of the masters of the artistic universe. Yet critics are rightly hesitant to judge this new “style” and institutions neglect it at the risk of appearing out of touch.

Second, we are experiencing a resurgence of a restrictive type of functionalism. Everything must now have a performative justification. This tendency is always lurking in American culture- we have always been suspicious of anything not absolutely required to achieve some practical purpose. Why it has flared recently is open to speculation. I would suggest that the increasing dominance of technology in our culture and economy is partly responsible. A piece of technology is characterized by being an efficient solution to a defined problem. “Good design” has been redefined within this framework. Why is the iPhone a good design? Because people buy it in droves. In a previous post, I proposed that architecture see itself as an ethics of technology. Clearly, we must have some way of judging the purposes and means of technology , not only its effectiveness in achieving its goals.

The core of MoMA’s program for the competition (enlivening a “season-long dance party”) shows that its ultimate goal is to attract visitors to PS1 and generate excitement about contemporary art. This is all to the good. However, their approach to COSMO implies that as an institution they are unwilling or unable to address its qualities as an object or environment. They happily exploit its visual charms behind a fig leaf of performance. The work is no less meaningful for that, but the museum has declared its disinterest, or worse, in addressing it as a work of art.

“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.

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.