Archive for the 'Making Buildings & Cities' Category

Shallow Begets Deep

We at archinect received this email in response to the Michael Jackson Monument Design Competition that we’re hosting at the moment. As a competition that was intended to challenge the ability of architecture to respond to the overwhelming intricacy of contemporary identity, I think this email may be the best (if unintended) entry yet. Architects: what are you if not religious?

———- Forwarded message ———-
Date: Tue, Aug 25, 2009 at 4:54 PM
Subject: Is the Michael Jackson Competition legal?
To: archinect

Dear Archinect:

It is my opinion that your “Design Competition” is illegal.  The fact that this type of contest is commonplace does not alter the laws that are in place.

I do not intend to enter this contest, nor do I expect you to agree with me or to change anything. Nor is this email a threat of legal action by me.

But the simple fact is that ARCHITECTS ARE NOT ARTISTS under California law. Fine artists engaged in expressive activities – such as painters, dancers, musicians and sculptors – are not regulated by statute.  Architects ARE regulated under the Business & Professions Code, the California Civil Code, and others.

Basically, we are building engineers. A filmmaker may decide that she needs a disabled, 65-year old, African-American, lesbian Hindu and offer $500 to anyone who fits the bill, but an architect may not make similar distinctions in the course of professional activities.

Architectural style, however, is religious expression.  It appears that your contest involves the making of a distinction based on an expression of religious belief.  You are offering money in exchange, and this is being done by people who claim to be architects or are otherwise offering professional opinions.

Just something you might want to think about?


Island Bathroom

Just a quick note that I’ve updated my portfolio with a new project: a 200 square foot master bathroom renovation for a house that sits smack in the middle of 120 acres of Walnut trees.

It was particularly fun to work with the unusual variety of local trades one finds in a rural area to complete this project. A shop that usually makes parts for tractors and bass fishing boats bent the sheet metal base for the island, all the pulls on drawers and doors were fabricated by a saddle maker, and somehow I managed to find a cabinetmaker who was willing to try his hand at milling a solid wood sink.

See the whole project at

Let’s Not Abandon Hardware

I couldn’t agree more with Kazys argument that the last thing we need is fiction about architects and architecture. Not to mention the fact that this is already going well enough without us. For example, The International, a movie which takes full advantage of famous architectural settings and even transposes Hadid’s building in Phaeno to the shores of Italy. And while I admire Geoff’s writing at BLDGBLOG, and enjoy reading it on a regular basis, let’s not confuse this with the act of designing a building.

I know that this will probably be read as a fairly reactionary position at this time (not to mention hypocritical from someone who is not practicing as an architect at the moment), but it’s lazy to let ourselves off the hook for producing buildings. Yes, let’s expand the architect, but at the end of the day we still build buildings and it’s depressing to entertain the notion that we would simply give up on this endeavor because we’ve become collectively bored by recent architectural output.

Sure, let’s have great writing inspired by and inspiring these buildings, but words on a screen (or paper!) do not a building make. If there’s an architectural fiction, it must be a way of thinking about and designing architecture and that definition of architecture better include at least a few things that could nominally be construed as buildings.1

“Performance,” that ugly word, has dominated architectural discussions for too long — and to what end? If architects are serious about performance we need to do much better about actually measuing the results of such works. Where are the post occupancy studies? Where are the charts and graphs of energy savings that wooed the client into signing the check, now refactored to compare expected and actual savings? As a profession we have largely failed to follow through on claims of performance, so in effect we’ve already arrived at an architecture of lies. That’s a bitter pill to swallow. At least fiction is self conscious of its fabrications, flaunting them as an advantage rather than hiding behind speculative chart junk.

For posterity, I’m re-posting my comment from Kazys’ site here:

might it be possible for architecture to shape our experiences in such ways as to approximate the effects of films or fiction? Or better yet, video games?

this sounds a bit like a theme restaurant to me. what is TGIFriday’s but a space carefully crafted to give its visitors an excuse to engage an alternate subjectivity: the post work flair-wearing drunkard?

it comes off sounding sarcastic, but I’m serious. (it’s also interesting to note that those sports bar type restaurants were amongst the first to start issuing guests pager/coasters while they wait for a table, a brutal and peculiar form of locative media.)

at any rate, the point is that novels, films, video games, and theme restaurants invoke immersive environments by issuing rich descriptions *and* story line. “saving energy” is a boring story (green arch). so are “this is a really crazy space” (Liebeskind) and “Oh, shiny curvy” (DS+R) etc, etc. The story line of contemporary architecture is like jumble spam: poetry without reason. unfortunately, spam filters are not so easy to develop for a world without absolutes. If there’s something that excites me about “fiction” (I think of them as fables), it’s that we may feel comfortable making judgments again. we might actually be able to discuss whether a project was a good idea or if it actually does anything rather than going on and on about the techniques used to produce it. if I had a nickel for every time I heard the word voronoi…

I appreciate the interest in architects making things besides buildings, but it’s also the easy way out. perhaps at the moment these other projects are more appealing, but that does not alleviate the burden to create buildings that contribute meaningfully to our world (in whatever definition you want to use for meaningful). although you may have a point about newspapers being in the deadpool, it will be a while before we evolve beyond the idea of constructed shelters that humans dwell in.

(…and this is coming from someone who still writes software on a regular basis)

Read Kazys’ full post and the rest of the comments here.

1. My insistence that an architecture of fiction must result in more than just words is one of the reasons that I was thrilled to get a glimpse of the BLDGBLOG manuscript and see Geoff’s fictions telegraphing through the medium of drawing. Good stuff.

The City Is A Prototyping Engine

The best cities – usually also the largest – are prototyping engines that use the abundance of their density to ceaselessly test new ideas for material accumulations (buildings, vehicles, things), abstract systems (laws, regulations, even languages), and ways of life. This, I argue, is the source of the effervescence that any good city exhibits. The city is exciting because it’s always new in a million little ways. In a similar way the non-city, the rural, is exciting because its vaccuum presents persistant challenges. If the mode of the city is becoming, the mode of the rural is a constant overcoming.


The thing about prototypes is that they are by definition a temporary condition to be replaced by subsequent iterations. Prototypes turn into products and those products get deployed. While 80% of the US may now reside in places nominally deemed “cities,” this is not an undifferentiated term. Amongst the country’s places there are cities which consistently prototype new things, systems, and ways of life and those cities that deploy post-prototype “products.” You’ll have to excuse the brutishness of this line of reasoning, but suffice it to say there are places which tend to prototype new ideas and others which tend to adopt pre-tested ideas from other places. New York City: prototyping engine. Paso Robles, CA: consumption engine.


This came into striking clarity for me as I joined some dear old friends amongst a group of happy Paso Robles residents at a finish line party for the 5th Stage of the Amgen Tour of California. For a few hours the streets of this small town were alive with people – excited people. Jumbotrons and bleachers were erected along the route, television helicopters buzzed overhead, some even awkwardly donned VIP badges. These various control structures all hailed from somewhere else, though: the route fencing was trucked in from Boulder, CO; the helicopter up from LA; the Jumbotron from whoknowswhere.


While Amgen was clearly an economic and cultural triumph for the town, it came pre-tested, deployable, and was temporary. The problem with the prototype/product model of cities is that those places which tend more towards consumption than production become the handmaidens of their bigger brothers and sisters, dependent upon distant places to deliver the equipment and expertise needed to put events in to motion.

If the largest cities are able to churn over constant ptototypes it’s because the abundance of density yields disproportionately large opportunities in the form of financing, know how, and other limited resources. The rural, on the other hand, typically has ample supplies of raw material and time. The rural ethos is to assemble what you have in the best way that you can and this kind of improvisation is is what was missing from Paso Robles. As a place that now thinks of itself as a city, Paso Robles looked to other, larger cities for its missing expertise and equipment rather than taking the imperative of the event to test something new. This opportunity for civitas was treated as a chance to consume.


The glimmer of excitement that came from converting the street into a stage – that old but wonderful architectural cliche – disappeared with the crowd as soon as the race was over. Where was the street food? The hoe down? Anything to prolong the civic moment beyond the bracketed few hours of commercially-sponsored airtime would have given Paso Robles a chance to test out its own ideas for how to be a city. Before you may hope to use the city, you must first create it.

Consider these thoughts half baked, but I continue to feel some responsibility to represent (!!!) the non-urban. This sort of elseplace, as it could be called, makes up a large part of the country’s territory and is a fertile land of opportunity should we decide to change the
fundamentals of the american way of life (like, say, SUVs, obesity, McMansions, et al) These places, too distant from urban centers to be suburbs and too developed to be called rural, are what we need to be prototyping.

Without the warm fuzzies of a humanitarian crisis or the imperative of environmental collapse, when the buzzword of “urban” is nowhere to be found and life seems to be pretty OK, how do we escape the apathy of the comfortable? If the rule of thumb is that 80% of interest comes from 20% of sources, how do we motivate ourselves to work on that 80% that is neither upper echelon nor bottom bin?

The Mediators

Note: Originally intended for the latest copy of loud paper, this essay is posted here as part of my ongoing concern with the acts and instruments of judgment. Ultimately, it’s an argument for being more explicit about the factors that shape design decisions and using that knowledge to inform the specific ways that the architect acts. There’s a wide world of options out there between buildings and books: size matters.

The architect is foremost a mediator–negotiating the desires of the mind and all the contingent specifics of the situation at hand. By working between the abstract realm of possibilities and the concrete world of consequences, the primary skill of the architect is the ability to make the unavoidable compromises of getting things done dissolve into a wash of intention. Regardless of scale, budget, or brief, acts of architecture are always the result of such mediations and introduce new relationships within the participating public.

In this way, what the architect does sounds a lot like McLuhan’s definition of a medium: something behind the scenes that changes the way we relate to each other and the world. That architecture is a medium rather than a thing or quality may help to explain why the discipline never seems to escape that fundamental existential question: What is architecture? Architecture is everything transmitted by the architect… but that doesn’t help us very much.

Sources: left and right.

Precisely because the architect is a mediator–a human instantiation of the medium of architecture–McLuhan’s trusty message about mediums is useless for the discipline. Instead, let’s massage medium into format: The format is the message. Every building, every publication, every bit of output from the architect is formatted for realization and tailored to an audience. Architects no longer enjoy the simple pleasure of designing buildings, they design a library in Caracas for the city government, or a stadium in Belarus for an international magnate. They write books for post-critical academics, pamphlets for North American students, and websites for the image-hungry public to name just a few examples. The work of the architect has never been more tied to all the specificities of client, market, place, and politics nor have the concerns of these groups ever been more enmeshed. Each format has its own set of catalytic constraints, biases, and conventions that the architect must work with.

World of Warcraft figures that have escaped the screen as 3d prints. Source.

Not only is the transmission of ideas and ideologies instant, as McLuhan observed, but the internet and the dropping price of media equipment, from video cameras to 3D printers, has further altered the default mode of content. We can no longer think about things being designed for a single medium, rather they must be formatted for a variety of outlets, existing simultaneously at multiple scales and across multiple media platforms. If globalization has replaced historical time with the flatness of space, we now contend with concurrency and multiplicity.  The formatting of our world is precisely what makes this work: things are formatted differently for specific places, uses, and audiences to allow cohabitation. To truly take advantage of this position as mediator between the world of possibilities and that of consequences, architects must realize that they are not in the business of producing media, but formats.

Mega walmart on the left and a comparatively small Walgreens which has hopes of generating half of each store’s energy needs on site.

Where a medium is scalar, a format is dimensional. By referring to specific numerical ranges rather than orders of magnitude, dimensions contain the information of intentionality and identify critical thresholds. When does a magazine become a book and what’s the difference between a box and a Big Box? Looking at dimensions offers hints towards cultural context as well as describing the size of a thing. Searching out these thresholds helps the designer to understand the possibilities of one format over another, calibrating their efforts to get maximum impact from minimum effort.

Palevsky House (left) by Craig Ellwood who took much from MVDR, author of the Farnsworth House (right).

Where media are defined by their transmission, formats encapsulate. The specificity of a format is in the way that it encloses or captures content, and is thus about what the author decides to include and what editing or compression techniques they use to make everything fit. For the designer, the format is an active tool of control. It focuses on methods of including specific content rather than the exclusion of all that which is beyond the limits of the transmission medium. When value engineering sends the architect scrambling to find new ways of achieving the same effect with lesser means this is precisely an act of formatting–how can the original idea be encapsulated in a new format without losing its potency?

Where a medium is about limits, formats describe conventions. Once you’ve found the limits of a medium you have hit a dead end, but a format defines a central point from which countless offsets may be imagined. By acting as a center of gravity, the conventions of a format define the rules of the game and ultimately help us judge the good from the bad in a world without the comfort of absolutes. The breathless pursuit of new horizons in each project during the past decade has resulted in exhaustion and segregation. Take a look at the proposals for the UAE and you will find a catalog of contemporary archite
ctural interests with each project developing intense knowledge about its own area of specialization but no satisfying way to compare them. Here a greenwashed tower, there a smooth shiny spindle glinting in the sun, yonder a banal engineering marvel. A better understanding of the formatting of these projects–the mediation of the conventions and constraints of politics, place, market, and client into material form–offers the possibility of desegregating the various architectural discussions that have emerged as the discipline shoots in disparate directions.

Size May Vary, an interesting book about formats of all shapes and sizes.

Formatting offers us a way to think constitutionally about the discipline by returning the discussion to what exactly what we are producing, rather than fixating on specialized techniques of production. Instead of pondering what architecture is, we have to ask what architecture is making. How do we format (and judge) our work for those within the discipline differently than the glossy renderings that we produce for the public? Whether buildings, books, or bread, what is the operative value of our output and how are we measuring it? What are the formats that we offer to contemporary society and what good do they provide? Or better yet, what are the formats that contemporary society needs as it attempts to pull itself out of the very real problems of financial and climatological collapse? McLuhan used a structural analysis of media to illuminate and make operable the intricacies of his mid-century world; understanding the potentials and productive constraints of contemporary formats may help us put a little bit of structure back into our own.

Versioning 2009

Over at Archinect – and in great company – I’ve contributed a prediction hopeful plea for what the new year may bring us if we’re lucky. Lots of people are excited about the new presidency and the forceful wake-up call that the economic crisis has delivered to us. Rather than get frothy over green collar jobs, the new-new deal, or any of the other excellent promises we’ve been offered (and I will wait patiently for) I am excited about boredom. Specifically, I’m excited about what can happen when a large pool of supremely talented, motivated, and creative people (some of whom are architects of various ilk) realize that they have nothing better to do than to pursue their own best ideas.

Make sure you check out the predictions from pals Dan, Enrique, Fred, Javier, Kazys, Marcus, Markus, Mimi, and everyone else while you’re there. Got something else filling up your crystal ball for 2009? Leave a comment; let’s discuss.

Form Follows Fable

Globe Plaza

Once all the zoning laws have been cited, the richness of the site exposed as constructed, the minutia of fabrication turn out to be simply minutia, the algorithms run their course, the discipline disbanded, and the history books pillaged bare and then burnt, what is left to stand on? What tiny, shoddy piece of ground may the designer find to plant their feet and grab ahold of their bootstraps?

There’s no ground left at all; we’re all astronauts orbiting a toxic earth, a hunk of rock on which we find it increasingly difficult to agree upon anything. Those who are called “architect” find themselves with the rest of humanity inhabiting billions of tiny spacecraft, a hyper archipelago loosely tethered by the earth’s orbit (its last indisputable attribute). But slowly and inexplicably the designer has been veering into the darkness, adrift and ever more alone. A speck in the vacuum – not dead so much as lost and a little bored. (One can only talk to themselves for so long before they get tired of the company.)

Finding themselves floating, the architect now awakens and does what any sufficiently bored person does: they dream up stories that explain the universe, their place in it, and all its contents. After the excitement and the dread of being totally alone have subsided, the most fantastic of fables are spun. These stories are equal parts logical leap, fabricated detail, exaggerated memory, and hopeful conjecture. Although the origin of the fable is ultimately quite arbitrary and personal, the story is captivating and takes on a life of its own. The fable is a transmission, the first crackle of communication sent across the vacuum for others to hear because it’s the first thing we decide is worth sharing.

From these fables comes form. The desire to explain and to understand gives way to an imperative to extend and elaborate. All of the fleshy details of the fable come to life with each retelling of the story more elaborate and engaging than the last. The fable may not always be recited in exactly the same way, of course, but it is consistent enough – adaptable rather than unstable.

Playland XL

Through its sheer ability to captivate, the fable instantiates a world that is shared between the fabler and the listener. Without benefit of ground or gravity, the fable sketches a possible organization of the universe that offers an explanation of the accumulated matter of space where there is no order. To dwell in space is to continually fabricate your own world and to hone the art of seducing others with the telling of these fables; An understanding is the most that the inhabitants of separate spacesuits may ever hope to share.

To be comfortable telling stories is to desire a shared existence, a “we” amongst the autonomous stars, that is OK with continual re-invention and happy to be part of multiple constellations. The designer who lets form follow fable chooses to organize the material of their little corner of the universe (always an “I” act) and to thoughtfully share with the public how and why they did so (the big “we”). In doing so the designer liberates themselves from the toxicity of the terrestrial without giving up on the necessity of contributing something meaningful to the life of all those spacemen who don’t happen to call themselves “architect.”

It’s not easy to begin telling fables. That instinct has been programmed out of the architect in favor of arguments whose rigor is inversely proportional to the in-disputability of the claims upon which they’re built. These arguments are always quite rigorous. Like argumentation, telling fables takes practice but it promises to reintroduce something that architecture has been missing for a while: fun. If we’re all lost in space, the very least we can do it try to make life a little better and have fun doing it. Are you ready to join us in the vacuum?

The Ism Schism

Sea Of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich via 765

This got cut from a piece I’m writing for publication elsewhere, but it’s a question that is very important to me. Without the time to put it in a more useful context I’ll orphan it here for now:

Strangely, lacking the ghost of Modernism or any other ism to provide a unified theory of architecture, however flawed, the discipline has crumbled into increasingly fundamentalist groups furiously pursuing their specific interests at the expense of all else. While the CNC-fetishists craft ever smoother surfaces, the greens perfect the performance of their building systems, and the do-gooders find policy footholds within government, architecture has nothing to haunt it anymore. Contemporary architecture benefits from deep knowledge in a diverse set of interests but where are the Hopeful Monsters – those productive mutations that barely, but meaningfully, escape the definition of their own species?

The Anti-Explosive Bean

Picture 3.png
Images from Tronic’s animation of 56 Leonard st.

When it was first announced, I have to admit being less than inspired by HdM’s newest pile of boxes. This one, promising to be the tallest residential addition to NYC’s skyline, puts the haphazard stacking to good use by creating terraces which will further drive up prices of the units. In other words, the stacking aesthetic that this office has been exploring for a while now has finally found its explicit benefit in the most fundamental of all programs: only to provide an escape from the building itself does the mismatch of planes come into its own. It’s a really tall condo building which is inherently a little boring, but at least we find in this the final test of the pile and – as a bonus – the aesthetic has been motivated for both affect and effect. The occupants of this tower, like all those who live in good architecture, are unwitting test pilots. As they step onto expensive, windy terraces we, the broader set of architectural observers, vicariously explore the terminus of one thread of contemporary architecture.

Picture 5.png

Picture 7.png
Images from Tronic’s animation of 56 Leonard st.

It’s appropriate, then, that the apotheosis of the pile is presented to us with a myth about the building as a product of explosion in reverse (watch the first animation on the page). Here the terminal violence of the end of the line is rendered quiet and contemplative. The animation opens with an image of a magical silver pea wandering onto the building site like a lost puppy (and let’s face it, for designers silver shiny things and puppies are about equivalent). But lo, it’s not just a random pea! It’s actually an interstellar communication device invoking the sublime assembly of its glass and steel cousins. Assembled by a slow motion collapse, with components and floor plates raining from the sky, the building comes together with eerie aplomb in an artificially quiet New York. The deserted interiors notwithstanding, this animation is exactly the sort of myth McLuhan proposes as:

the instant vision of a complex process that ordinarily extends over a long period. Myth is contraction or implosion of any process, and the instant speed of electricity confers the mythic dimension on ordinary industrial and social action today. We live mythically but continue to think fragmentarily and on single planes.

Moreso than McLuhan could have imagined, we live in an integrated world but most especially in the realm of luxury condos we think fragmentarily, and those in 56 Leonard’s offset boxes will do so quite literally.

Images from a music video for Kid606 by Pleix

The animation trope is borrowed at least from Pleix’s music video for Kid606, where where we see a building undergo transition from piece of the city to celestial monolith. But whereas Pleix‘s animation is a story of rebirth, the 56 Leonard animation by Tronic is decidedly more static.

Images from a music video for Kid606 by Pleix

Late in the clip the camera swirls around a single motionless figure. Is this the legendary last inhabitant in New York? This animation is the creation myth of his world: a terrible swirl of fragments that can only be made bearable by a jocular, squishy ball-bean. With his passing the last living person in NYC will cede the city to a new culture yet to come. Maybe they will be able to move beyond the polarities of bean and building to a world where form follows fable rather than the other way around.

Images from Tronic’s animation of 56 Leonard st.

Oh, also: Remember those contested, giant footsteps over Beijing? I’d like to think that those few seconds of footage were not showing a complete journey, but the beginning of a godly tour of contemporary architecture. Perhaps those invisible feet were connected to a set of invisible hands orchestrating the careening pieces of 56 Leonard St.

Zombies vs. Cartoons

Short version: watch these two short animations and ponder their comparative implications.

Long version: As you may have guessed, one of the things I’m obsessed with is how we represent architecture and, in particular, how we use animation to do so. The inflection point after which architectural animation really came into its own seems to me located at the production of this animation by Brooklyn Digital Foundry for the now defunct Museum Plaza Louisville tower by OMA Rex. Here we see camera tracking, compositing, and a mixture of photo-real and stylized content being combined into one animation that tells a story about both the building and the spirit it hopes to create in Louisville. These fundamental techniques had finally become available in off-the-shelf software architect-animators could easily get their hands on.

Fast forward two years to 2008: London seems to be the current hotbed of experimentation in architectural representation. Squint/Opera and Uniform are both producing loads of interesting work (and sharing it, which is not to be underestimated. How many offices produce awesome work but fail to share it?).

Happening upon this promotion for Renzo Piano’s Shard tower I was filled with horror and curiosity: what London is this animation showing? Devoid of people and seen mostly from the sky, it’s almost as if the Shard were situated in a city of zombies, built by robots that had no idea their human masters had already vanished. The soft music doesn’t help either.

The Shard, London from Uniform on Vimeo.

But the same office also made this antithetical animation, an architecture that is its inhabitants. Nothing more than matter wrapped around their lives. Unfortunately the interest here is purely representational (the architecture is not exactly, you know, great.) Nevertheless, the mix of 2D comic and 3D photo realistic rendering styles allows the video to seamlessly intermingle narrative and spatial explanations. I’d like to see more of this sort of story-telling-through-architecture without letting the design of the spaces suffer as much as they are here.

Nido Barcelona from Uniform on Vimeo.

In other words, somewhere between zombies and cartoons there’s a sweet spot of architectural representation. I’ll be watching.

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