year end roundup of architectural trends we love to hate (and some good stuff too)

At the end of another year and another oh-so-typical list of the year’s best and worst.  Not Best-Dressed, as I am not even vaguely qualified, not even Worst-Dressed, which I might even have a shot at.  No, it is the year-end,

ARCHITECTURAL TRENDS WE LOVE TO HATE (and some good stuff as well)

first, let’s throw out our usual qualifier:  as I am not exactly in one of the world’s architectural hot-spots, my notion of what is over-exposed and trendy comes from the webinet and trade magazines.  So this is not a list so much of the good and bad in the year’s architecture as it is a gleaning of the architectural press and their obsessions, good and bad over the last 12 months.

The Good

This year definitely has seen an increase in the number of architect blogs – not the strictly professional type, but more personal.  Replacing, or at least supplementing the design-candy pages of aggregator sites like materialicious, or the vaguely academic tone and personal remoteness of BLDGBLOG, these sites tend to discuss the nature of being an architect and have been heavily weighted toward the concerns of a profession in an economic and moral decline.  I find these refreshing and a recognition that though we are architects, we are also human beings, and our thoughts, desires and concerns come to bear on our projects, not just our fancy educations and “natural born talent”.

The proliferation of the pavilion as the focus of architectural fascination and experimentation has been all too apparent this year.  Many of these are executed by unknown, young architects as a way of getting exposure.  Young architects need every foothold they can secure in a profession where usually only the well-heeled designers get the best commissions and usually reproduce previous work.

The Bad

The most disturbing trend of the year, and I think a clear result of too many architects with too much time on their hands, has been the return of the megalopolis project designed by architects.  In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s these ginormous projects were either horribly designed and generally racist urban renewal projects or architectural fantasies envisioning a utopic post-WWII world.  They at least had some charm in their naivete’ as long as they weren’t actually built.  When the were built, or partially so like Paul Rudolph’s Government Center in Boston, they more often than not displaced vibrant communities with dreadful environments.  It has always been my belief that one of the most gratifying and positive outcomes of the critique of Modernism after this era was the realization that the will-to-power that these projects embody was the last death cry of a kind of technocratic fascism.  Great places are made up of the small accretions of many buildings over many years, not planned by a few elitist experts and plopped down on the unsuspecting, and unsolicited, public.  Lesson learned.

Or may not.  It seems like any time an architect has too big a site and budget or too much time, they come up with these things.  In 2009 there were giant projects that resembled some eco-architecture mountain or forest.  Now, in the guise of planning sustainable communities and re-thinking our relationship to the earth, we get these ridiculous and ultimately disastrous monster projects.  You may say that there is no threat that these will actually get built, but their proliferation makes it all the more acceptable to think in these terms and it is only a matter of time before some politician or corporation starts to execute such a scheme.  After all, the architectural press has given breathless praise to these megalopoli, so why not build one.  It seems Sir Norman and Apple may have already started.

One of the trends which has been increasing in 2010 is the frankly awful names that have sprung up for architecture firms.  This was a subject of an earlier post, so I won’t dwell on it here, but I will be glad when the recession is over and architect’s can afford some quality graphic design and brand consultants to put an end to this.

With the good comes the bad, and I think the pavilion as the ground for architectural expression and experimentation has a dark side as well. As I mentioned above, pavilions can be a great way for clients, be they cities or institutions, to try out the talent of young architects at a moderate cost and risk.  However, just as many have been by well-established star-architects, like Zaha Hadid, and I think represent an ongoing trend of architectural consumerism.  Call it a mini-Bilbao effect, but it seems like every city wants a star-architect building, and the recession has put an end to extraganzas like the Denver Art Museum by Libeskind and given us instead more affordable, and frankly disposable, star-architect pavilions.  If it turns out that the city leaders don’t like it, trash it.  If it leaks, no problem, it’s just a pavilion, it wasn’t really meant to last.  I’m not knocking the architects who design these – they are given a project like a pavilion and they work at that.  But we should not loose perspective that a fully functioning building places significantly more demands on its architecture than any pavilion.  Pavilions are great architectural appetizers, but a meal they do not make.

And, not to step up on the same old soap box once again, but the trade rags have continued in their appraisal of architecture as a merely visual phenomena to the exclusion of actually visiting and experiencing a building as something other than an eyeball.  To some extent the exclusively visual analysis has begun to be supplemented by the usual slue of green stats – energy consumption, energy production, etc.  However, for me this is still not even scratching the surface of the totality of what a building is, how it effects us, and what it may mean for us as individuals and a culture.  How about talking to people who use the building and what it’s like to be there?  Maybe too much work for architectural “journalists”?

The Ugly

The economy.  Even though the AIA Billing Index may have begun to tilt up a bit in the last few months, it is still ugly out there.  I know too many unemployed architects, too many architects working for less, working more and sweating it every day.  Now there is no reason why architects should be immune to the ravages of the economy, but I am very concerned about how hard this sector of the economy has been hit and what the future of the profession might hold.  There probably were too many architects out there.  On the other hand, there is no question that there are too many badly designed and poorly built buildings filling our cities, towns and countryside.  For a better built environment we need more and better architects, not fewer and more scared.

The dire economy has lead many architects to question the most basic underlying foundations of the profession:

What is architecture? Why is architecture so undervalued?  Do people want architecture?  Are all architect’s educations fundamentally alienated from both the everyday practice of architecture and the needs and desires of people?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions and it may be a good outcome of the bad financial times that we are asking these questions.  But frankly I fear some of the answers, none more so than the increasing speed at which people will feel the need and desire to throw architecture under the bus when even the whiff of economic hard times flutters by.

On a cheerier note, the new year is upon us and with that will come a new form and format for this blog.  We will be combining the blog with M. Gerwing Architect’s website and another blog to hopefully make a more cogent place for understanding architecture and our approach to it.  And it looks way cooler too.

what’s in a name – architect’s monikers

There is a recent, and growing trend that I find somewhat odd and certainly annoying.  It is the deliberate choice of odd and unusual names, and especially spelling, of architectural firm names.  Up until about 10 years or so ago, most firms of more than one principal simply used their names or intials as the identity of the organization. Actually, even longer ago, prior to WWII, architects used their full names as the office descriptor:

Shepley, Bullfinch       Holabird and Root       McKim, Mead and White

With the increasing size and ubiquity of multi-national firms it seems the old list-of-names gave sway to initials, and so in the post-WWII years up to about the 1980’s we get:

KPF     HOK     SOM     NBBJ    (at least three initials needed here)

Some creative folks liked to use the visually insistent ampersand, W&J, and that was even replaced in later years with the considerably hipper + sign, P+B+J.  (I actually worked one brief summer for P+B+J, which was Pearson, Bender and Jolly before the sandwich moniker and plus signs)

Some time in the 1970’s, possibly as a rejection of the notion of the hero architect of recognizable name, firms began to make up names.  The first I can think of was Superstudio, but a number of others quickly followed.  This first wave of nuevo names were usually actual words or close variants and often explicitly called out their collaborative studio culture.  In many ways this was not dissimilar to the wave of high-tech and pharmaceutical firms that adopted new words for identities to highlight their forward-looking natures and embracing of new technologies.

archimuse     archizoom      superstudio     archigram      morphosis       arquitectonica      coop himmelb(l)au

Of late, maybe because the availability of words without some negative connotations have all been used up, architects have been opting for unique and odd spellings to set themselves off from the crowd.  This is a particular affliction of Dutch architects from whom Mecanoo, OMA (“Office of Metropolitan Architecture”, not the principal’s names) and UNStudio are examples.

+31Architects     i29    NEXT    DP6   COEN!    B(h)uis    eneead    ArC    2Ton     3DIkon    SHoP    00:/     WHAT_

When I see so many of these names I do not conjure up the image of a new, hip design firm but rather of so many kid’s toys.

I probably have no right to kind of make fun of other architect’s corporate names when “M. Gerwing Architects” is so wrought with self-consciousness.  I have worked for architects for whom the company name made no mention of the team that actually made the projects and I have worked for a firm whose made up name could have been used for a new software product or anti-depressant.  But in all these places what has held true has been that the quality of work that came out of the office, collective or otherwise, was almost always the passionate and tireless effort of a real person.  There may have been many hands that helped guide the project, but it was always the experience, judgement and vigilance of a single person that has brought a good project into a building.  So M. Gerwing Architects is me.  I am the M.  No one calls me that, “M” is my own sort of joke – a laughing reflection that there is not a long string of famous architects named Mark.  M is me, more typically called “Mark”, the “markitect” or “Daddy”. But by any name when a project is in the office it is worked primarily by me, not staff, and anything good or bad that happens on the project rests with me.  I think people should hire architects, not architecture offices.  And certainly not typographic experimentalists.

(I am thinking of changing our firm’s name to:  <!> what do think?)

poche’ – architect’s glossary

Pronounced with an exaggerated accent on the final “e”, “poche'” is a French architectural term for the all the stuff that is inside the walls between spaces.  In architectural drawings, it is the stuff blackened in on the plans.

John Soane's House Museum in London

For typical construction where all the walls are about the same thickness and both sides run parallel to each other, poche’ isn’t really a design element.  However, back in the days of predominantly stone masonry buildings, the thickness of stone walls gave them a relative presence that allowed for their manipulation as architectural entities.

niche spaces in the poche'

The simplest treatment of poche’ and the base cause of the terms use is when architects describe carving into a wall to create a niche.  In those cases they may describe using the poche’ space of the building.  In a sense, it is carving into the “solid” mass of the wall space even though in modern construction this space of the wall is certainly not stone or solid mass.

Baroque plans are especially rich in their interesting manipulation of poche’ to create geometrically shaped rooms.  The resultant wall shapes between rooms, the poche’, takes on a presence that is as “shaped” as the rooms and certainly more interesting than simply the space between two wall surfaces.

upcoming – year end round up of architectural trends we love to hate

It is the odious time of year again when the spewing of year-end lists clogs the internets.  So by all means, let me jump in with your help.

If you have any particularly gruesome trends that you would like to skewer or slander, send them my way and I will try to distill these down to only the most dreadful.  Individual buildings are always welcome, but what we are really looking for is trends, architectural fads, that have dominated the trade journals and publications, sucked the wind away from good, genuine work and will hopefully fade away as fast as Dubai towers projects.

Some candidates for inclusion on this year’s list include:

ANNOYING NAMES FOR ARCHITECTURE FIRMS (think “SHoP” and other typographic horrors)

THE EXTREMELY SMALL (the proliferation of “pavilions” as architectural harbingers)

THE EXTREMELY LARGE (a frightening increase in the number and size of really large Google-sized  mega-structures)

CONSOLIDATION (at the business end of architecture, the buying up and concentration of offices into larger and larger entities)

Send in your suggestions and our large and dedicated staff (I have actually lost weight this year so we are not so large as last), will compile them and try to present them back in a couple of weeks as the definitive list of the trends of 2010 we loved to hate.

aedicula – architect’s glossary

an “aedicula” is a term used to describe a small shrine within another building.  As in the photo above, it typically is a multi-columned structure, open on three or four sides and serves to focus attention and define a smaller space within a much larger one.

Over the years the religious dimension of an aedicula has diminished and it has become a term to define simply the formal structure of a columned little building within a larger space.  Because the aedicula focuses the space into a much smaller area of the room, it still in a sense, acts  like a shrine, differentiating the small space and ceremoniously highlighting the space within.

aedicula over bath in Charles Moore's Orinda house

Of course the aedicula serves most of all to create a smaller, more intimate space while still being a part of the larger room.  This type of construction has become more relevant in residential design as the desire for larger, more open living spaces has proliferated.  Creating an aedicula within the family’s living space can celebrate what small function the family most honors being it a small reading space and library, a huge home theatre or, in the example above, the bath as a retreat.

Second grade urbanism

Direct from the wee urban planners of Mrs. Burger’s second grade class at Bear Creek Elementary School comes a new vision of city living:

Icicle City

The small, tall buildings are individual houses and the city is divided into distinct neighborhoods, each with its own collection of civic buildings – police station, fire station, airport, library, and because this is Boulder: the recycling center and Humane Society.    Actually the substructure of each building is a milk carton and the whole thing is a creative re-use project, making art (and urbanism) out of the collected used milk and juice cartons of the class.

(Boulder’s anti-density, NIMBYs might note that Icicle City is quite nice and the density is quite high – even 8 year olds know that much)

drawing as practice – hand and eye and mind

I often make idea drawings at some time during the duration of the design phase of a project.

Similar to making a physical model of the project, idea drawings take time and are a kind of meditative practice focusing on the nascent building but shedding the usual constraints of setbacks, budgets and functionalism.  There certainly is a kind of mind/body thinking that is enacted only when the hands are engaged in making whether that be cardboard and glue or pencil and paper.

On occasion these drawings are more explicit imaginings of the project space itself, like the image above.  At maybe the other extreme, they can be drawings of just the site or something on the property that sparks the imagination and may not directly influence the project but place you on the site for some concentrated time.

In all cases, they are akin to a slow marinating of the project, stepping away from the quick prep of all the necessary requirements of utility, function, structure and budgets.