Touching the ground – how?

For the past couple of years I’ve been proudly cultivating a theory of architecture and sustainability which I believed bridged all of the gaps between my various interests in the field and which could usher in a truly new way of seeing things to unite designers, engineers, and the inhabitant. In essence, it espouses physical closeness to nature and celebrates common building systems which mediate the relationship between natural resources and dwelling, all in order to elevate the status of ‘sustainability’ in our consciousness. One basic example that follows this instruction is a green roof, since conceptually, moving the ground that would be displaced by the building footprint up to the roof preserves the total surface area of the ground (if viewed from above, a house with a green roof would blend in with its surroundings). Another variation of this example is earth-sheltering, where instead the building itself is partially sunk into the ground to take advantage of the earth’s high R-value. Both of these approaches force the designer and builder to consider what they are displacing, and continuously strive for balance and homeostasis as nature does.

The Centre Pompidou in Paris does this as well, embracing the building’s lifeblood and turning it out for all to see. When we learned about this building in architecture school the upshot (to be memorized for the final exam) was that it’s the apotheosis of postmodernism, which may be true, but it’s much more than that. In light of the sustainability struggle, the Centre Pompidou takes the important first step of bringing us in direct contact with the elements that flow within the earth itself: water, gas, electricity. Forcing us to confront these elements directly will hopefully lead us to value them more– so rather than shoving them out of sight, we put the space allotted for them on equal ground with the space allotted for us. All this serves to bind our fate as a species with the fate of the planet. Therein, my core principle of what it is to be human.

Image via centrepompidou.fr.
Jacobs House II; Frank Lloyd Wright; 1948; the berm on the right side of the photo is evidence of earth sheltering. Image via columbia.edu.
A temazcal, the traditional bathhouse of the Pre-Columbian people of Mesoamerica. These were typically designed as domes or small hills with very low ceilings. Inside was pitch dark. Entering a temazcal is symbolic of going underground into the core of the Earth, of burial and rebirth, and of a mother’s womb. Inside, one chants to the god Mother Earth. — Particularly after the arrival of the Spanish and the persecution and destruction of the indigenous population and their traditions, temazcals had to be built quickly and surreptitiously, often being half-buried in the ground to avoid being identified. Image via Sputnik Mundo.

But in April in Mexico I picked up a book of Buckminster Fuller’s lectures, and my mind was changed. There are other ways to be sustainable– in fact, there are situations in which the act of ‘digging in’ and immersing oneself into the earth does more harm than good. In those situations, one has to do the opposite. Instead of assuming that he needs to directly contact the earth to dwell in it, Fuller instead is interested in “touching the earth lightly,” floating above it, creating space between us and it (like the inevitable gaps you get when you fill a jar with marbles). In Fuller’s worldview, the next stage of human evolution will discard the old violent instinct of displacing earth in place for a more aerodynamic lifestyle, controlled by those invisible forces that we’ve learned to manipulate like magnetism and gravity, closer resembling the greater cosmos itself. He also predicts we will have prefabricated houses installed by helicopter and that our resources to be used for the benefit of 100% of mankind.

And what follows that? The cosmos, naturally. Buckminster Fuller sees no reason why humans shouldn’t begin inhabiting other planets once technology allows it. He is binding humanity to scales both atomic and cosmic.

Buckmister Fuller’s chart showing the relationship between world population and its percentage of slaves, or, “have nots.” Image via grahamfoundation.org.
Buckmister Fuller’s done home in Carbondale, IL. Image via architectmagazine.com.

I mentioned this flip in my mind to Justin, and he said that his structural engineering firm is becoming more and more interested lately in design for disaster relief. He traveled to Kathmandu shortly after the earthquake in 2015 and was struck by how the overwhelming majority of houses were built of unreinforced masonry (practically the worst construction type to resist the lateral forces of earthquakes). Simply switching to lighter timber frames with moment connections would make the population a degree of magnitude more resilient. Furthermore, if an when a disaster does strike, the first thing most relief organizations do is air-drop food and shelter. Touching the earth lightly suddenly becomes a most valuable asset. I’m unsure if Buckminster Fuller specifically had disaster relief in mind, but it’s certainly becoming a reality for a wider and wider range of people than ever. Geodesic relief domes, delivered by helicopter, assembled in two hours by two people, may by necessity become the dwelling place of the future.

Garrison Architects; NYC Emergency Housing Prototype. As visible in the photo, the entire house sits on small concrete spot footings, as minimally invasive to the ground as possible. Image via garrisonarchitects.com.
A Geodesic Dome being transported by helicopter. Image via smithsonianmag.com.
Assmebling a Geodesic Dome. Image via phaidon.com.

Placing

In my version of the Hippocratic Oath for architects (which I decided should be called the Vitruvian Oath), I noticed a challenge: if architects and doctors are equals, what is the former’s analog for “healing” and “sick?” What is the core action, the operative verb, without which architecture wouldn’t exist?

Not an easy question to answer. Thinking about it only for a second, one realizes that “sheltering” may be the closest thing (which I chose to use), but that word is like a machete to most of the profession. Essentially any architectural endeavor that is cultural, commercial, industrial, sculptural, outdoors (that is, not residential) is excluded.

So what could the core principle be then? Doug Patt, with his book How To Architect, makes a strong case for turning the word “architect” into a verb, and using that. But I think this is heavy-handed, and brings up another problem which is teaching the layperson what “architecting” even implies. No, one must find a word that already has meaning to the Average Joe. I propose “placing.” That is: cultivating a sense of place for an inhabitant. For Average Joe, what does “being placed” mean? It means an awareness of and connection to one’s environment, a desire to visit it and participate in its life after construction, a pride and pleasure in it. This definition would include all types of works: outdoor & indoor, renovations & new construction, cultural & infrastructural, permanent & temporary, monumental & incremental, and all the rest.

The core question an architect should ask is “is my solution cultivating a sense of place for the people it will affect?” The Vitruvian Oath would then read something like:

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those with cultivated senses of place as well as the unplaced… may I long experience the joy of placing those who seek my help.

I could get used to that.

The Hippocratic Oath, for Architects

Doctors and architects all too often lumped together as roommates in the penthouse of the apartment building of educated society. One particular quality they share is the obligation to serve the public, to improve the livelihoods of others. Doctors, for various reasons, are more front and center in the eyes of the very society they serve than architects. Part of this is that life-and-death struggles are laid more bare in the emergency room than in the design studio– which makes doctors’ stories easier to transform into soap operas and other commercial enterprises. But part of it comes from the inside– doctors, upon receiving their MD, must take a verbal oath. This oath was originally conceived by Hippocrates in Hellenic Greece, and has taken various forms, the most common of which was written by Louis Lasagna in the 1960s. I won’t write it out here, for reasons below, but it’s available on the Johns Hopkins website (where Lasagna was Dean at the time he wrote his version of the oath).

It begs the question: why do doctors have this oath, and architects don’t? The latter are certainly made exhaustively aware of the responsibility because printed versions of this oath, none of them official, cross your eye at every stage of the path to licensure. Are architects too shy? Not a chance. Louis Sullivan and Hugh Hardy, who have each taught me quite a few things, brought a performative quality to their work. Sullivan lectured broadly and bombastically on this topic of architects’ code of conduct one hundred years ago. Hardy was a glittering personality who always sought to bring out the theatrical qualities of architecture– in both the built form and the emotions of its inhabitants. It remains a mystery why an official version of an architect’s implicit code of public conduct is missing from our records, and why we never take an oath.

It therefore occurred to me to simply write one, in the exact mold of Lasagna’s Hippocratic Oath. Below is that same oath, with certain words replaced and emphasized to address architecture instead of medicine.

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those architects in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the unsheltered, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overdesign and cookie-cutter solutions.

I will remember that there is art to architecture as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the architect’s pen or the engineer’s calculator.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a problem’s solution.

I will respect the privacy of my clients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to build something, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to demolish something; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not serve a floor plan, a contract, but an unsheltered human being, whose dreams may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the unsheltered.

I will conserve the existing environment whenever I can, for conservation is preferable to replacement.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those with cultivated senses of place as well as the unsheltered.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of sheltering those who seek my help.

“Unsheltered” here was used to replace “sick,” “infirm,” and terms like that. It might sound funny because the reality for some architects is the design of housing for the already-sheltered (high-end residential, I’m looking at you)– but I think this oath helps remind us of the “public service” part that is fundamental to the practice. Providing shelter is really the leading candidate for the most essential, basic service that architecture provides. High-end residential may be lucrative, but one should use it as a vehicle to get to design public housing. See Alexander Gorlin.

Many might recoil at the idea of taking a verbal oath, because it smacks of religion, of adherence to a belief or dogma, a notion that many young people today are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. In response to that niggle, I invoke David Foster Wallace. In his wonderful commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College called This Is Water, he said:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

I find it very hard to participate in this complex yet organized society, much less ascend to the higher, more respected, and burdensome positions in it, without having chosen something to steady the rudder, be a guiding light, or whatever metaphor you wish to use. I would say that, for the most part, architects already carry this guiding principle in their minds. The only difference I’m proposing is for some ceremony to exist, just like the MD’s donning of the white coats or the hand-on-heart when becoming a naturalized citizen. A ceremony would give the architect community some extra glue, and remind us of the responsibility we all share.

Lastly, what should this oath be called? The Hestian Oath? The Vitruvian Oath? The Sullivan Oath?

Fixing a hole

A model lives and dies just like the building it poses for. It’s preceded by dreams and drawings and logistics and a budget and a construction schedule…….. and of course a sharp drop in market value shortly after its completion. After that the name of the game is either find a can of spraypaint and a prominent shelf, or be dismantled for parts.

Learning to build a physical model is also learning how a building gets physically put together, though this is never emphasized. Without realizing it, I’ve been the Architect, Owner, GC, and Building Super of a hundred microcosmic architectural works throughout the past decade.

I was part way through building a light fixture model at half scale when I realized a problem: scoring & folding 1/2″ thick foamcore, while stable, exposes the crackling foam innards inside valleys with gaping shadowlines which at this scale can no longer be ignored. If the thickness of a sheet of museum board telescopes through a site model of a house, no one is expected to ask annoying questions about whether you actually intend for that joint to be part of the design. But I’ll be a dog if they don’t ask it of the 1/2″ vales and glens I’ve now proposed in their light fixture… which is another annoyance: every single thing you present to a client can be assumed to be your “proposal,” and boy does it irk me when they say things like “so, are you proposing the walls to be this color?” “So, are you proposing the walls to be made out of foam?” No, assface, I am not. We got two realities overlapping here in this model, you better get your 3D glasses on or stop asking dumb questions.

Back at my model, in deft anticipation of those questions that would inevitably happen, and already sweating about it, I had a choice about fixing the holes: I could either cover them with a thin layer of paper before painting, or I could fill them with joint compound. Now this may seem like a simple choice, resolved based on what’s around me and how much time I have, but at the root of it is actually an important distinction. If I went with the former, I would be doing something that would never happen in real life, only in the life of this microcosmic architectural work. If I went with the latter, I would be mimicking the actual contractor as he troweled paste into all the cracks when the eventual GFRG emerges from the mold. This, then, is the distinction between “model” and “mockup.” And I reached for the joint compound, because I had to treat this object as closely to its final form as I reasonably could.

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Despite of all this, however, there was a diagram on the back of the container that said not to use it for surface imperfections deeper than 1/8″.

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Dammit.

The Noble Shed

Transportation Centre, Incheon Airport, Korea by Terry Farrell
‘Tropical Islands’, Berlin, Germany
Will Pryce’s large photographs, his large subjects, and the title of his book all point to a purer kind of architecture. An architecture unburdened by program. It may be difficult to imagine such an existence, but there indeed was a time when the builder was not concerned with shaping a building precisely to fit the needs of its future inhabitants. As a matter of fact, in that time the boundaries between architect, builder, and client were quite blurred themselves. The dwellers built the dwelling. With such a setup, it’s easier to see how rigid expectations of ‘occupancy’ and ‘program’ were not even part of the picture. But even though times have changed, I believe there is still a chance to return to that. The sheds photographed by Will Pryce are evidence that it still happens, given the right circumstances.
I recently read an article in Science magazine about how humans are coping with urbanism and congestion. It says that our Paleolithic brains are unaccustomed to living in huge clusters with other strangers, that the human brain is only capable of maintaining about 150 meaningful relationships at a time (this is the famous Dunbar Number). So to cope with this, we developed things like fashion and dialects and architecture — in order to help sort strangers into known categories, and make life comfortably predictable. From my point of view it is an intriguing theory because it liberates architecture from prescriptions of program by pointing to a rather arbitrary heritage. If “facades” and “bedrooms” and “bathrooms” developed mainly for that reason, then there is absolutely no reason to hang on to it. Architectural program is not as hard-wired as it may seem. If humans could be nudged into this new state of freedom, we could start making buildings more like Hundertwasser imagined, or the rest of the 20th century for that matter: where the architect designs the “shell,” and the inhabitants come in and fill in the details themselves. Not only does it remove an unnecessary step from the making of solid buildings, but it gives everyday people the opportunity to participate in the making of their own dwellings. Then, the architectural shell itself would be liberated, free to explore form and materials that before weren’t practical because of use restrictions. It might not be so bad to live in a city composed only of noble sheds.
Laban Centre, London, UK by Herzog de Meuron

Architects – the backup band

This will be both an album review of Vulfpeck’s The Beautiful Game and a general thought on architectural practice.

In general, Vulpeck, the four-or-five-or-six-or-more-piece band from Michigan, has been solidly my favorite band for the past couple of years. Their music infuses funk, R&B, rock, jazz, and you never know what else (Klezmer? Bach? Swing?)– they back it up with undeniable chops, too– and they just seem like they’re having a good time making music.

Take a listen to their latest release and try to give me a definite answer on what genre it could fall into. Hard to do, right? As evidence, Vulfpeck’s music has appeared in as broad a range of music Top Ten charts as German Pop:

2016-10-26-itopchart-german-pop-vulfpeck
Wait. What?

….. and R&B!

2016-10-26-billboard-rb-hip-hop-albums-vulfpeck-the-beautiful-game
WAIT. WHAAAAAT?!

Part of the band’s essence is versatility. And it’s useful here to think of it not in terms of genres, but more in terms of the kind of music they want to play. Sometimes a musical mind thinks of a tune, and the art is in figuring out how to physically create that sound. Or, say a band starts jamming, and something that just sounds good emerges from that session. If it’s improvised, that good sound may have emerged from a specific hook or beat that the guitarist or drummer heard. This deft skill allows a band freedom to create a palette of sound that transcends categories. Listen to Animal Spirits, the opening track. You hear all kinds of genres in there. The tight drums sound funky for sure, the piano vamps are poppy, the vocals R&B, but then the syncopated claps and the jingly keys make it sound like a theme song from a kid’s TV show. But for a band that sees itself first as a rhythm section, that’s par for the course. Like The Wrecking Crew, The JB’s, or The Muscle Shoals house band, you’re supposed to be able to perform for anyone at anytime. It’s how you 1) sell your services, and 2) make pure music come first. I remember Genres are just gloss anyway, right?

NOW. In architecture, the challenge is the same. You spend your years in school learning Greek column orders, Roman concrete vaults, and cruciform churches from the Middle Ages, you mimic Le Corbusier with cube-houses Mies van der Rohe with kissing planes, you master the art of the airbrushed axonometric like Peter Eisenman, the glossy disjunction of Tschumi or Stirling… then you spend much of your career as a member of the backup band for a famous frontman like Bjarke Ingels, Michael Maltzan, Tom Kundig, Cecil Balmond, or Patrik Schumacher, adapting to their style. If you have foresight you get licensed behind the scenes, studying on the tour bus. Then after a couple of decades, the moment of truth arrives and you start your own firm, the first step of which is having a conscious direction of your own. By now you have absorbed enough variety for something personal to emerge. You have acquired an ability to work with a range of building types, clients, budgets, and styles, depending on the demands of the project.

A purist would say that by definition, this ability transcends style because it runs deep. Everything you design yourself from then on has the weight of all your training behind it, and therefore is coming not from mimicry, but from a palette of experiences.

I’ve spent years as a drummer, a bassist, a backing vocalist, an audio engineer, a marketer, even a groupie, and hopefully in the next few years I will start my own band. A band that can top the high-end residential, performing arts, and research Hot 100 Charts.

On Standing

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects On Slowness.

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Billlllllllie Tsiennnnnnn and Todddddd Willlllllllliams

Using Tod Williams & Billie Tsien’s outlook on architectural practice as an opening chapter, you could write a whole book about the importance of treating yourself right physically, being present in the world around you, in order to improve your work. Architects always wax philosophic about “the body in space,” and yet we spend 90% of our time sitting in chairs. Unless we can consciously treat our bodies well (and connect that to the way we run our offices), our license to discuss others’ should be revoked.

The thesis of the book would be that the best experiences of architecture by architects take place during times of physical activity. Times like:

  • Jogging through the park at dawn.
  • Site walk-throughs.
  • Taking the stairs to your walk-up apartment.
  • Going to the dog run and conversing with fellow local dog owners.
  • Bicycle-commuting over a bridge.
  • Traveling to a foreign city, walking around for 6 hours.
  • Standing while drawing.

You can imagine the body as a largely unused vehicle. A deep-sea vessel that only gets used for snorkeling. A turbocharged V8 engine that never goes above 40mph. At the very least, you should try to keep the joints well-greased. The more moments of physical activity you can insert into your working day at the architecture office, the better. At the Bauhaus, students dedicated time before class to stretch and meditate. I imagine these warm-ups were quite tai-chi or yoga-esque: not strenuous, but using minute shifts to invigorate the muscles. The practice was closely tied to the school’s love of dance.

A stretching session before Johannes Itten's class. Weimar. Image via kaufmann-mercantile.com
A stretching session before Johannes Itten’s class. Weimar. Image via kaufmann-mercantile.com
Bauhaus Gesture Dance, feat. Oskar Schlemmer, Werner Siedhoff, Walter Kaminskii. c. 1925. Image via thecharnelhouse.com

Frank Whitford’s book Bauhaus (Thames & Hudson, 1984) mentions Johannes Itten’s forcing students to stand in order to loosen their bodies.

Two of Itten’s exercises were especially important. The first required students to play with various textures, forms, colors, and tones in both two and three dimensions. The second demanded the analysis of works of art in terms of rhythmic lines which were meant to capture the spirit, the expressive content of the original. Before attempting such exercises the students were asked to limber up their bodies and minds by physical jerks, controlled breathing and meditation.

Alfred Arndt remembered attending Itten’s Vorkurs on his first day at the school. Itten made the students repeat their ‘Good morning’ to him but ‘thought that we were still sleepy, cramped. “Please stand up. You must loosen up, get really loose, otherwise you can’t work! Turn your head! So! Still further! Your neck’s still asleep…”‘

Going deeper, I realize that our whole paradigm for architectural representation is linked to standing. Plans, sections, and elevations are artificial views of buildings which are never actually experienced but which are 100% better at carrying information about how to build. They are orthogonal projections, that is they collapse all of the points, lines, and surfaces of a building onto a flat plane: e.g. a piece of paper or a computer screen. And ideally, to preserve that flatness, I have to position my eye perpendicular to, and centered on, the surface. But if you consider the way we sometimes work– seated at a desk, with the drawing facing up to the ceiling– that perfect position is impossible. KM_C654e-20161109132532

In a way, working like this is an ineffective hybrid of old-school ergonomics and new-school drawing techniques. Look at the way old-school architects draft: on a vertical or slightly inclined table, standing or sitting on a tall stool.

The COVER IMAGE of Wikipedia’s page on “Architect”.

Then look at how new-school architects draft: seated in an office chair, 3 feet in front of a computer screen. Both of these satisfy the perpendicular-viewing rule that preserves the accuracy of our drawings. But if we want to keep blood flowing as Johannes Itten demanded, slow down as Tod Williams and Billie Tsien demand, we have to stand up again. Hoorah for standing desks.

I experienced the same today while sketching a markup of an elevation. What I thought were beautiful receding lines suddenly became parallel!!

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Architecture or Rap Lyrics

Entering the 11th hour, the ground beneath the brain thins out. What in daylight was a pleasant stroll along a train of thought now becomes a tightrope walk. All it takes is one slip for focus to collapse completely. Architecture is full of these triggers: double entendres that turn work flow to turn into uncontrollable giggling. I’ve started calling it Architecture or Rap Lyrics.

If stone facing is deemed the most appropriate method, proper detailing of joints is critical.”

“Because long span members are usually large, correspondingly large erection stresses can be developed.

For small jobs, hand compaction can be used. More typically, it is done with vibrators.

“When it is away from the joint, the member is in tension.”

“For proper bearing in wood members, nuts should be tightened using the turn-of-nut method and in uniform contact with the wood surface.” 

“The standard approach of nesting, sometimes called Butt And Run, combined with the Six-Course, Six-Inch, Stepped-Off Diagonal Method…”

50_cent_in_concert - Butt and Run

DMX in concert - Stone Facing

This Will Kill That

Once a year or so, which is as frequently as my pride will concede, an old lesson from a professor pops out of my memory and hits me with a that’s-what-they-were-talking-about! moment.
The most recent one came while walking around Paris, the professor was Anthony Vidler, and the lesson was a pantomime of Claude Frollo’s “THIS WILL KILL THAT” line, from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, on a dull evening in his Modern Architectural Concepts seminar.
Poster from 250List, illustrating Aaron Sorkin’s “What Victor Hugo really meant by this will kill that.”
hunchback-of-the-notre-dame-disneyscreencaps.com-2292-claude frollo
The gist of this moment in the book is the declaration that the printed word will usurp architecture as the prime conveyor of information to the masses. Up to that point, buildings were designed always with the illiterate inhabitant in mind. Through their placement in the city, their facilitation of public assembly, their material connection to the earth, and their ornamentation (gargoyles, friezes, mosaics, stained glass windows), they told a story about themselves and their world. These stories were told in pictures, sculpture, sound, and more. We believe that people were likewise more attuned to these messages when words and written language was not front and center. But then it did become front and center, and architecture lost its need to tell stories in pictures– why bother meticulously crafting a work of art through the collaboration of a stonemason and a painter when you can more easily etch words onto a blank wall? Even further– why bother carving words when you can print them and hand them out as pamphlets at the building entrance?
A time when architecture and pictorial storytelling were still intertwined. The life of Joseph, depicted in stained glass in Chartres Cathedral. Image via wikipedia.
How fitting is it that such a poignant statement in literature is set in Paris?

Paris is very well-decorated. It is ingrained in the spirit of the city. “How do I make it beautiful?” is a separate but equal question with “How do I build it?” They don’t call it the City of Lights for nothing. But there came a time, in the 20th century, when Paris became so saturated with historic architecture that it became like a huge museum. I imagine myself as a Paris city planner. For fear of destroying its history, I avoided new additions to the urban fabric. I forgot that the very history I was preserving was founded on baroque sensibilities– whimsy, emotion, sparkle, darkness– that prefer volatility over permanence. Worse, I no longer spoke the language of pictorial architecture, so I couldn’t see this plain fact literally carved into the city around me. When I looked up, I saw beautiful containers worth preserving when I should’ve seen living, breathing artworks that are unafraid of death.

If I look at it the way Victor Hugo did– that books have killed buildings by sapping them of their beauty– modernism was not a great revolution in architecture, but more like designers grasping for straws, realizing that austere aesthetics are inevitably becoming the status quo, and reactively finding justification for it. But it is harder that it seems to eliminate ornament entirely.

I took a morning to visit the Centre Georges Pompidou. The museum was described in the guidebook thus: “by exposing the plumbing, HVAC, and other systems that run the building, the architects put form before function and found the ultimate expression of modern architecture.”
I thought wait wait wait. No one required Piano & Rogers to paint the pipes different colors. Au contraire, the systems were exposed in order to become decorative!  The reason Pompidou is a great building is that it goes against the form-before-function tenet of modernism. It recognizes that each building contains thousands of opportunities to add a little humor, whimsy, or emotion to our environment. Like all multilingual buildings it speaks through light, sculpture, painting, ceramics, metalsmithing, botany, weaving, plumbing, all the details of craftsmen, rather than just architectonics (the English of built languages). Richness of ornament is tied to richness of spirit. Pompidou helps revive the baroque qualities of Paris that once made it playful and alive.
This may be the best lesson of post-modernism.

How fitting is it that such a poignant statement in architecture is set in Paris?

View of Paris from Centre Pompidou.

Why do we gamble for human architecture?

How do you win a design competition? Stand out, right? Present ideas and illuminate things unique to your proposal, right? Don’t trod the beaten path?
What do most of us think of when we think “architectural competition proposal”? We think of a single building, viewed from about one hundred feet, with a clear sense of massing, materiality, and light. Just look at 95% of the submissions for Guggenheim Helsinki, for example. Whenever we design a building, it would make sense for us to design only a building, right?
Not necessarily. Not when you remember that the deeper reason for building a museum or a theater is to benefit the city at large– it needs to draw people inward, and strengthen the sense of place outward. However, that part is always really hard to design, so architects just dabble in it. Using their usual tools, they suggest the potential ways the building at hand will serve the community. This is where the cognitive break happens. There is no way a single architect can know in advance how a civic building will affect its city, especially not with simply arranging walls or choosing materials or even controlling pedestrian flow. Greater forces are at play here, and there is no shame in admitting that we cannot know it all in advance. Architects should see their schematic designs and competition proposals as mere catalysts for further discussion with the operators of the institution, those who make a civic building the living entity it should be after its construction. I’m talking about curators, donors, superintendents, administrators, performers, artists, security guards… the lot.
In order to approach a building design like this, obviously one has to do more than draw. One has to gather, question, talk, and listen.
H3 took this very approach in a recent competition for the University of Auburn, and sadly it backfired. In short, the university was seeking a design architect to lead the construction of a new Performing Arts Center. Each of the shortlisted firms were to fly to Auburn, set up shop in a private room for 4 days, come up with a proposal, then present it to the board and donors. During those 4 days, members of the public were allowed to drop in and interact with the architects, in what was intended to be a very transparent and engaging competition. This charrette-y approach was the idea of university architect Jim Carroll.
Auburn University master plan.
H3’s team, upon arriving at the university, were on the lookout for opportunities and needs on the school-wide scale. Their proposal focused as much on master planning and event programming as it did on the new PAC itself. To convey these big, long-term ideas, they used a mix of site plans, rendered perspectives, physical models, flow charts, diagrams, and even video interviews.
Wilson Butler, the eventual winners, focused fully on designing a building and drawing the audience in with specific architectural details like a large operable door, wood balconies, and a ceiling with a specific lighting scheme. Their deliverables consisted mainly of smaller-scale 3D models, plans, and hand-drawn perspectives.

H3HC’s proposal looked something like this….:

National University of Singapore. Sasaki Associates.

…while Wilson Butler’s proposal looked something like this:

PGI, University of Illinois. CUH2A Architects.
H3’s proposal stood out among the four submissions, without a doubt. They were the unofficial crowd favorite by a large margin. And yet, they didn’t win. Which personally hits a funny bone– on the one hand, they did absolutely the right thing, by focusing on how the building would improve campus life on many fronts; but on the other, by having a less concrete one building in their proposal, they were making a gamble. How can a proposal that gets at the heart of the matter be the odd one out? Shouldn’t all the proposals have considered the big picture?
My recent post about the conversations we have with our surroundings is about the crux of this very matter: the need to balance large-scale, community-based, long-term planning with more human-scale, short-term phenomena that are relatable to each individual in a community.
Humans are each capable of perceiving patterns, forces, systems, and physical qualities of the world that affect us daily but are hidden in plain sight. Mostly, though, we do not seek them out because we are busy with our personal affairs. Further, even if we did seek them out, we would not know where to look. Visions of these patterns must be coaxed out.
The strength of design lies with revealing and ameliorating the issues that we experience every day but may feel powerless to change. But for the same reason that it pervades everyday life so thoroughly, the methods for illuminating it need to be kind of amorphous. A designer needs to use many different media in order to properly link the issue at hand and the people it affects. This is all to say that sometimes (more often than you might think), taking the default path to a design solution is lazy. That laziness is exactly the same criticism usually leveled at architects.
Coming to the first round-table discussion with a design already set is a dick move– it says to the client “you don’t know what’s good for you. I know what kind of building you need here.” Is that the right way to design? But, if we as architects acknowledge how little we actually know in the grand scheme of things, we might then find peace with our drawings. Our raison d’etre then becomes simply space making, which is a deliciously vague idea, but is still mostly understood and allowed by non-architects. But is space making enough? Isn’t space just the white noise on the radio of everyday life?
I’m beginning to generalize, but the frustration was palpable in the conference room when the partners recapped the ordeal. Fortunately, the takeaway is twofold: 1) that H3 will continue to stick to its guns, and 2) those guns are standard issue that for some reason almost no one else wields.
“Architecture is not about a building. Architecture is about people inhabiting a building.”