There has been so many of these "development calculator" scripts floating around, that I'm curious if it's even THAT useful for clients and developers. Perhaps on a very primitive level, it's useful to visualize height impacts. But I feel like it's still all about the finesse and detailing of these massing, which takes up the most time and money for both the architect and the client. And, at the end of the day, CD's will still need to be produced, bids have to be procured. How important is it to make those first preliminary steps clear? And how important are architectural considerations at the initial speculative period, when the financial pro forma isn't even clearly figured out?
I'm stepping away from writing about software for a while. I will be back.
For now, let's get back to the regularly scheduled programming -- passing thoughts about architecture today.
(The really nerdy conceptual stuff that doesn't have much "practical" value)
Gerhard Richter, "Grey Mirrors", Permanent Collection at the St. Louis Art Museum
THE SPACE BETWEEN
Modern Art, really, has had a profound impact on contemporary architectural culture. We're no longer really just talking about how a building looks outwardly, but how it feels, and what visual or spatial relationship it has on the individual. This has always been a major concern of modern art. Since the postwar period, modern western art has transformed from something that exists purely in the visual sphere, to something more metaphysical and sensorial. I remember from high school/college courses, that it's never really about the art piece itself, but the "space" between the art piece and the viewer, that makes all the difference. What is the larger story? What is the impact? How does it engage time and space as a spectacle? In my mind, I imagine a direct lineage from Edward Hopper, whose paintings imagined lonely humans in stark spaces and landscapes, to Mark Rothko, whose color field paintings were really about the lonely VIEWER looking AT a stark color field. These subject-object revolutions in the 20th century transformed art, but it has also transformed architecture. Nowadays, building facades, arrangements, and narratives are driven more by these meta- concerns, rather than the pure aesthetic. The two examples that always come to mind is Gerhard Richter's "Grey Mirrors" series, which is more about the experience of looking at the art rather than the art itself, and Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty", a piece of land art which is so much more about the process of creating the jetty, and then walking on it, rather than the shape itself. It is suggestive, that almost all the things that are important are the things you don't see, that lie under the surface, that gives it true value. Now you often see architects explain their buildings in all these different, non-literal ways, but not always "getting" it.
Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty", 1970.
Aldo Rossi's Drawing of San Cataldo Cemetery, from the 1972 Competition.
SAY SOMETHING YOU MEAN
Something so starkly interesting about 20th century architecture was just how ideological everything was. Architectural movements lived and died throughout the century, from Art Nouveau to Art Deco, Modernism to Deconstructivism. The world was changing so quickly back then, that architects and designers had to "keep up" with the changing times and fashion. This also meant that they often "crystallized" what their work was all about, and how they wanted their buildings to "change" society (Good luck finding any of that heroism now). This meant that, for a while, buildings actually SAID something about what their designers believed and felt about the world. They actually stood for something, and this was embodied in the style of their works. The most prominent example I can think of is Aldo Rossi, an Italian architect active from the 1960's to the 1990's. Rossi had an extremely esoteric take on architecture, and he believed in this notion of architectural archetypes that drew on memory, history, and primitive forms. This was radically different than the technology-oriented modernism of his earlier peers, or even the nostalgic historicism of the later postmodernists. What shows clearly through all of his works, was this clear conviction he had about buildings, and how he sought to make those values and beliefs a reality. This type of honesty and authorship feels so rare now, in a time when we are so warped by consumerist impulses, where we "want it to be everything all at once, but not too much as to be offensive to anyone". Think "Corporate Art Style". So anytime a building feels remotely honest, when it tries to defend a clear world view, it just seems refreshingly old-fashioned, and non-cynical.
KNOW YOUR PLACE. NO, REALLY.
This brings me to my next point - buildings succeed when it really knows what it is. Really. Nothing exists in a vacuum, even when designers sometimes desperately want them to be. Everything stands in relation to its neighbors, its environment, and its users. Good buildings really recognize that -- it never tries too hard, or too little, and finds a way to distinguish itself while creating harmony with the community/landscape. If there are never true greenfield or virgin sites, then there is always something to build upon. There is always a starting point, and the designer's first agenda item is to find that starting point in order to solve the larger space/program problem. Two examples that directly come to mind are Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (1646) and Morris Adjmi's The Emory (2008) --- the latter just because I used to work directly across from the building :D. Borromini's Baroque masterpiece stands at a prominent intersection in the city, complementing the chamfered corners of the other three corner buildings, while signaling its interior geometric intensity with an ornate and undulating main facade. Meanwhile, Adjmi's slender condominium takes its cues and proportions from the surrounding cast-iron buildings in the historic district, but updates the color and materiality to connect it to today's world. For me, this type of subtle boldness is what tells me whether a building, or a designer, knows where it stands in reality. This acceptance, this acknowledgement -- of the challenges and limitations of reality -- is what design is all about.
DIGITAL-ISM IS THE ISM
One time, many years ago, I was interviewing for a college scholarship for architecture. At the end of the interview, I asked the panel of professors -- "So there's been modernism, postmodernism, deconstructivism, and all these -isms...what's next? What's the next great architectural style?" The professors laughed, and said that "contemporary architecture" has no equivalent "ism", and that culture today is way more fragmented than before. There's high-tech, minimalism, green architecture -- you can pick and choose, whatever style floats your boat. Today, we can do any style, and we shouldn't tie ourselves to any ideology.
At first, I was super disappointed. What do you mean that there are no longer any -isms? Does that mean the overriding -ism today is just f*ing market capital-ism??? I refused to believe it. Yet, even after going to architecture school, I still didn't figure it out (though Japanese modernism was all the rage for a couple years).
It turns out that I was half-right. Yes, there are no dominant ideologies today because market capitalism is the one and only system we all believe in, live with, and trust in. We have no other alternative. We will design for whatever the market wants, so there are no longer any large ideological aspirations in the field, other than some vague and aspirational notion of providing for sustainability and social equity.
Today, the dominant ideology is "digital-ism". Go into any office in any part of the world, and you will see the same computers, the same drafting software, and the same types of computer-generated graphics and construction documents. The overarching theme over the past 30 years has been the continuous integration of computer-aided design, which has "flattened" and "standardized" the types of work we build and create. The slow creep of software has silently created a ideology of its own, one driven by seemingly "non-ideological" data, code, and performance optimization. I liken this moment to the Hugh Ferriss renderings of the 1930's and 1940's, when the popular artist would create visualizations of New York City skyscrapers sculpted by zoning setbacks. His services were so popular at the time, that it can be reasonably argued that he had a much greater influence on New York architecture than the architects themselves. Today, the dominant ideological force is the software company Autodesk, whose products are invaluable to everyone in the construction trades. When we start considering projects as databases, templates, and families, rather than walls, columns, and windows, then you have to start questioning who is really in control (the tools or the user). If we can finally recognize that "the digital" is an ideological style of its own, then we can finally accept and move on to the next, hopefully more human and less generic, architectural worldview.
Build an Aesthetic.