What’s New in Architecture

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I’ve just spent a week re-immersing myself in the world of architecture, visiting architects and engineers, end of year student shows and going to the Space Syntax 20th anniversary party.
Some of what is in the Bartlett and Architectural Association shows could have been done 20 years ago. There are still Peter Salter influences in drawings and layered collages are in permanent vogue but there is an important technological shift towards using digital technologies to produce organic results.
At the superficial level of graphic representation, there are 3 new tricks: bas-relief style layered laser cut plans that are somewhere between a model and a collage; combinations of nurbs based modeling with quasi cellular automata style programs and some very interesting uses of 3-D printing. Here, the Bartlett seems to have kept its edge over the AA, stylistically.
Most interesting is an emerging theme linking the less trendy but intellectually more rigorous domain of the planners with the hand waving architects.
This is how that relationship worked until now:
Architecture school is about training people to produce seductive presentation skills which serve to get you a foot in the door in a commercial practice, while looking like you are pretending to be at art school. In the commercial world architecture is often principally about working out optimal geometry to maximize developer revenue, say, and optimize chances of obtaining planning permission. Ironically, actual design in the true sense is often done by people who produce shop drawings for component manufacturers. The degree of value-add architectural ‘design’ varies according to the status of the project, from corporate lobbies to funny shaped curtain walls, however very few building are monuments, and architecture school in many ways teaches people to design monuments. Many architects are therefore left feeling unfulfilled.
Ironically, the town planners who are often considered the less hip cousins of architects, since there is less peacockery involved, get the last laugh because the real intellectual stimulation that is to be gotten from architecture most often comes from looking at cities and how they work. Hipsters yearn to be urbane, and there is nothing more urbane than cities, by definition.
But this is where the world of fancy presentation drawings and sober planning decisions are following the same trend. The connection is that the complexity of cities is based upon simple, iterated, changeable rules just in the same way that an organic looking 3D modeled design is based upon the same.
At the prosaic level of what this involves, in architecture, MicroStation Generative Components and Maya dynamic scripting can produce emergent complexity via iterative mappings in a similar way that some graphic designers using the Processing language have done with displaying quantitative data. Designers are able to produce the organic look and feel of natural objects or the complexity of cities. Planners, on the other hand are able to use iterative analysis of complex environments via methods such as Space Syntax’s, to derive underlying rules or non-obvious patterns from organic complexity.
Emergent, organic design is being produced and understood in both planning and architecture departments where the creationist-like, strict rules of modernist dogma used to dominate.

If Famous Architecture Were Priced Like Paintings, a Le Corbusier Would Cost the Same as the Entire American GDP.

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villa stein

[ If this building was priced like an equivalently famous painting, it would cost more than the entire US GDP ]

The top floor of Corbusier’s Villa Stein (one of perhaps the top 500 most important houses of the late 19th/early 20th centuries – i.e. a Van Gogh of houses) is for sale for the same price per sq.ft. (approx $1400) as buildings in the same area of suburban Paris, designed by nobody in particular. Meanwhile, Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for an inflation adjusted price of $136 million yet a poster of similar square footage and style costs around $10.

In other words, a work of art that you can actually live in has zero premium over a commodity item, but one that you can look at has a premium factor of 13 million over a commodity one.

There are 2 possible conclusions: architecture is vastly under valued or painting prices are almost entirely irrational.

Given that the cost of a single floor of the Villa Stein would be almost exactly the same as entire US GDP ($13 trillion) in the former case, and that Le Corbusier’s mediocre paintings sell at a vast premium compared to the buildings he is famous for, it’s the paintings that are too pricey.

The world’s two most expensive painting purchases were by Steven Cohen the Hedge Fund manager and David Martinez the corporate debt financier. Both work in finance, where the creative output is money rather than painting, quantitative rather than qualitative. Money hidden in a vault, is a less visible form of status than a picture, so the two can be exchanged, where the highest quantitative measure, status, can be accrued by buying the most famous paintings. If it were a purchase based upon qualitative measures such as the highest value to the buyer, then the sentimental subject matter of the painting would override or skew the ownership of the most famous paintings with the richest people, but that tends not to be the case.

Famous painting prices are based upon the idea that fame equals talent and that absolute fame is absolutely priceless. They are bought for quantitative price rather than qualitative value. They are a form or elite rather than mass hysteria where the wealthy attempt to buy prized individual taste, something you can’t really buy, by purchasing mass taste and therefore inevitably get ripped off.

The sub-conscious force that drives this bubble market is that the action of buying famous paintings is not to buy for private enjoyment but for pubic (even if it’s just your friends) prestige. This is perhaps based on the underlying psychosis that actually possessing rather than merely being surrounded by an acknowledged work of art somehow bestows a portion of the artist’s great taste and vision on the one who possesses it. Is this really any different from magical flesh diets such as the primitive practice of swallowing a lion’s heart for strength or eating powdered Rhino horn to get an erection?

The portability and size of paintings allow them to be possessed and coveted in a way that buildings can’t, but there is another factor. You can move a Van Gogh to the Upper East Side, but its more difficult to do that with the Villa Stein. Paintings are an historical, but irrational, standard benchmark of wealth, rather like diamonds. But the reason for their prestige is no more permanent than the prestige of lyre playing which was the pinnacle art form of ancient Greece, but is not coveted today. Painting is the reserve currency of art – but reserve currencies can change.

The fact that the obvious, near total, fallacy of the art market is rarely questioned seems conspicuously odd. Is there a form of sub-conscious cultural censorship at work? Perhaps the preservation of the painting myth is based on the fear that to challenge it means that you can’t appreciate or understand it? To even suggest that the Emperor is naked is to sound cliched.

But perhaps painting is a religion? When you read a book you can enjoy it even if you know its not true, but for the religious, the Bible cannot purely be a work of fiction, it has to have some truth. Art allows you to have a quasi-spiritual feeling by temporarily suspending reason and disbelief, unlike religion which requires you to permanently do so.

Why should art (temporary belief over reason) be any different from religion (permanent belief over reason)? Why is it more surprising that people worship Van Gogh irrespective of true merit when people worship god? Somehow, to suggest that art is largely religion is, well, heresy, or at least philistinism. Bizarrely, in our secular culture, where Madonna has replaced The Madonna, art is more sacrosanct than religion when it comes to questioning value.

Value is difficult to judge, but perhaps it’s the mark of a true Philistine like a money-is-everything Hedge Fund manager to believe in the price of a Van Gogh. Perhaps painting is a specific case of an art form that has become a religion, the opiate of the rich.

What comes after lofts and the suburbs?

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[Living in downtown Manhattan is rather like being in the Walled City of Kowloon]

The place where I live, specifically, the few blocks where I live in New York’s financial district, resembles the fabled Walled City of Kowloon having the highest population density in the world. It is known affectionately as ‘The Canyons’, on account of the combination of an 18th Century organic, narrow street pattern and 20th Century skyscrapers.

nassau st
[The street where I live, in the canyons.]

During weekdays, every horizontal surface takes a beating that compares to a continuous exodus from a stadium event. Road surfaces are a patchwork quilt of tarred repairs, near indestructible travertine slabs outside corporate HQs are cracked and worn and the Fulton St. subway looks like an abandoned ruin, on account of the fact that it is the exact opposite. Even the cookie-cut design of the Starbucks on the corner next to J & R shows signs of decay in the varnish that has worn from the floorboards, rendering it unlike the sanitized Starbucks elsewhere that are stamped from exactly the same mold.

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McMansions are Built With Paper and Staples

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I thought I should find out how a standard McMansion style house is put together – having been an architect and noticing that they seemed to be really badly built. I did some reading up.

The standard construction materials are essentially: timber of the same grade used for temporary hoardings (structure); expensive garbage bags (DPMs); bubble pack grade plastic (siding, soffits, sills); staples; Tyvec envelopes and fly paper (weather proofing).

The principal American domestic architecture of the last 20 years consists of a building type based on ascetic Protestant architecture designed to minimize flamboyance or display of wealth, which is then blown up to a large scale to do just that, complete with neo-baroque trimmings (ironically from catholic architecture) which are made out of plastic.

This same building form spans an entire sub-continent with a climate that ranges from tundra to tropical and culture that varies from Appalachian to Amerindian. It is constructed using materials that are of lower quality that the packaging in most consumer goods. It is an architectural tragedy, whose only saving grace is that, unlike concrete brutalism, it is bio-degradable.

Not so little town of Bethlehem

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When my favorite architecture critic, Ian Nairn, drove around America in the 50s, his favorite towns were in Pennsylvania, particularly Pittsburgh, whose post-industrial transformation he would have been proud of. On our Labor Day excursion to Philadelphia, we explored some towns on the way - particularly Bethlehem, the Moravian town with the legendary steelworks. Bethlehem, has what suburban America, for the most part, does not - a sense of place. It is a town, once rich, once poor, which is a perfect model for viable, sustainable towns of the future. The most stunning thing about Bethlehem is the rusted steel cathedral of the disused blast furnaces that dominate the skyline. Given that Bethlehem, is famous for its Christmas lights, it is surprising that the blast furnaces do not form part of the decoration. When I worked for set designers Fisher Park, there was a project in the office, to illuminate...
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New Googleplex is a Kindergarten

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Metropolis Magazine reviews Google's horrid new offices. It takes the 'working here is so much fun we're so playful' spin to its most simplistic architectural representation - bright colors and toys. All of these, of course, are a thin veneer over the reality - a strip lit, cubicle ridden, hell hole, like a parody of The Office. Google's products are still failry sophisticated - I hope the office environment doesn't rub off.
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How architects build brands

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Architects are good at building brands without people noticing that thats what they are doing, but mostly bad at capitalizing on them by doing mass produced items, such as furniture collections or hardware elements. The Slate article below covers a very interesting topic but the conclusions are completely wrong. "neither Foster nor Piano has a house style; their designs vary considerably from project to project" If anyone has a house style, it is Foster. When I was there someone nearly got fired for not specifying the wrong door handles on a building - they weren't Elementer. The main reason that Foster or Piano buildings vary in style is that they didnt design them all - if you are a big architecture practice its just not possible for the founder to design everything. That not deception, just a function of scale. What keeps the integrity of design is precisely the house...
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Using chewing gum patterns for urban planning

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I'm currently re-reading Christopher Alexander's classic 'A Pattern Language', whose deterministic design approach is the antithesis of Jane Jacobs' in many ways, but less unfashionable than other rules-based systems due to its common sense approach. I've noticed that Alexander's notion of using pools of light to define spaces virtually is born out with alomost any feature. In New York, where the sidewalks are rarely cleaned, one way to measure people flow quantitatively is through the dark spots on the pavement that chewing gum makes. It seems that people will hang around pretty much any pole, lamp-post etc. One the other hand the pole must be high enough to provide 'virtual' shelter, there tends to be much less chewing gum around fire hydrants.
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Architecture’s Scientific Revolution

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When architects steal terms like Post Modernism or Deconstruction from the, shrouded in bullshit, fringes of philosophy called 'literary criticism' and the like, what they really mean is: 'new buildings with decoration' or 'buildings that look like they are falling apart', respectively. That does not mean that the buildings aren't beautiful - just that the justification is pointless and the understanding of other people's field's limited. Because of the nature of the scale and function of architecture, architects can pretend to be scientists when they are poor craftsmen and artists when they are bad engineers. Seed magazine has a new piece on innovations in architecture - its true that composite materials, intelligent skins and energy efficiency concerns have created a scientific edge in some styles, but the combination of the fact that you can pretty much build anything these days with the counter swing against minimalism means that by and...
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LED lighting to transform architecture

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Today's Cribcandy has a list of some of the most recent innovations in LED lighting from being directly embedded into fabrics, bathroom tiles and translucent glass. LED's are currently only in widespread use for applications with high maintenance costs such as traffic lights, but as their performance increases over the next 5 to 10 years, they will eventually replace standard home and office lighting and transform the way that interiors can be designed. Aside from the tiny size of LED's (or the even newer LECs (Light Emitting Capacitors), LED's are approaching the lifespan of standard building materials, making it cost effective to embed them directly in structural components and architectural finishes. The biggest change, however, is that because the currents involved are tiny, LED lighting can be directly controlled, digitally, meaning that there are almost unlimited effects that can be produced cheaply and controlled wirelessly. Given that transparent wiring can...
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Manhattan’s ‘highline’ project is a bad idea

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Josh Rubin points to the preliminary designs for Manhattan's highline, which were unveiled at Monday's opening at MOMA. Manhattan's highline project aims to take a 1.5 mile strip of disused overhead railway and turn it into a linear park. It's a terrible idea. Linear parks were all the rage when I was an architect, because they could use spaces that were generally wastelands, like old railway lines and, more importantly, because the long sweeping shallow curves made it easy to do presentations that looked great and truly modern. The problem is that linear parks don
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