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.

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.

architect’s pet peeve no. 8 – fake quions

“Quoins” are the exposed stone pieces that you sometimes see stacking up only on the corner of a building.  Their use today is odd and usually fake and are trying to allude to traditional masonry construction and presumably the sense of durability, solidity and timelessness that implies.

Quoins provide a kind of emphasis, a visual boldness, to the corners of a building and tend to make the building feel more solid, more object-like. However, like so many elements of architecture that appear to be merely stylistic touches, they have an origin in a construction technology.

Quarrying stone has always been a difficult and expensive proposition. Making a stone building out of the stone that are scattered around the field and forest is a much easier proposition but results in a random rubble type wall.  When that random rubble wall has to turn a corner, the stone of differing sizes and shapes create a visual and technological problem.  Because of its ragged line it collects water, because of the use of small, varied stone, they easily pop off the corner when exposed to the elements from two sides.  Quoins of cut stone were used to contain the edges of stone walls and help solve these exposed corner problems.  Being cut stone they stack nicely and cleanly on each other and their consistent size and shape they solidly and securely hold the corner true and vertical.

However, this technological use of quoins has long been forgotten and they are merely stylistic touches now applied without much subtlety to buildings.  You can see fake stone quoins, face brick quoins, wood quoins trying to look like stone quoins, and best yet, EIFS (fake stucco) quoins, in buildings all over the country.

 

“cast” stone quoins on parade

 

wood "stone" quoins; actually as you can see, quite an old fakery often used by New England ship captains to give their wood houses a sense of class
fake stucco and foam quoins

 

architect's pet peeve no. 8 – fake quions

“Quoins” are the exposed stone pieces that you sometimes see stacking up only on the corner of a building.  Their use today is odd and usually fake and are trying to allude to traditional masonry construction and presumably the sense of durability, solidity and timelessness that implies.

Quoins provide a kind of emphasis, a visual boldness, to the corners of a building and tend to make the building feel more solid, more object-like. However, like so many elements of architecture that appear to be merely stylistic touches, they have an origin in a construction technology.

Quarrying stone has always been a difficult and expensive proposition. Making a stone building out of the stone that are scattered around the field and forest is a much easier proposition but results in a random rubble type wall.  When that random rubble wall has to turn a corner, the stone of differing sizes and shapes create a visual and technological problem.  Because of its ragged line it collects water, because of the use of small, varied stone, they easily pop off the corner when exposed to the elements from two sides.  Quoins of cut stone were used to contain the edges of stone walls and help solve these exposed corner problems.  Being cut stone they stack nicely and cleanly on each other and their consistent size and shape they solidly and securely hold the corner true and vertical.

However, this technological use of quoins has long been forgotten and they are merely stylistic touches now applied without much subtlety to buildings.  You can see fake stone quoins, face brick quoins, wood quoins trying to look like stone quoins, and best yet, EIFS (fake stucco) quoins, in buildings all over the country.

 

“cast” stone quoins on parade

 

wood "stone" quoins; actually as you can see, quite an old fakery often used by New England ship captains to give their wood houses a sense of class
fake stucco and foam quoins

 

stile and rail – architect’s glossary

“Stile and rail” is a type of wood construction for doors and other panel-like objects.  The horizontal piece is called the rail, the vertical piece is called the stile.

door parts, from McFarland Door

In ye olden days, before the advent of plywood and other engineered panel products, doors were made from solid planks of wood.  If you have a wood floor, you may know that gaps appear and disappear throughout the year depending on the season, humidity, species of wood, etc.  For a door or any large panel, this kind of expansion and contraction wreaks havoc on the fit of the door creating gaps and binding.  To overcome this problem, stile and rail construction became the preferred solution for quality carpentry.  The boards that make up the panel, the center part, are slotted into the surrounding stile and rail and can slightly move, expanding and contracting, within this frame without effecting the overall dimensions and stability of the frame. The familiar look of stile and rail, the surrounding “frame” and inset panel, was not simply an aesthetic choice, but the result of a technological solution.

For the last almost 100 years, typical doors and cabinets are made with a variety of materials, often composite wood products, that are dimensionally stable without the need of the use of stile and rail technology.  However, the familiar look of stile and rail has persisted, especially in door styles.

So, remember that “stile” is not “style”, but “stile and rail” has become a style.  Simple.

stile and rail – architect's glossary

“Stile and rail” is a type of wood construction for doors and other panel-like objects.  The horizontal piece is called the rail, the vertical piece is called the stile.

door parts, from McFarland Door

In ye olden days, before the advent of plywood and other engineered panel products, doors were made from solid planks of wood.  If you have a wood floor, you may know that gaps appear and disappear throughout the year depending on the season, humidity, species of wood, etc.  For a door or any large panel, this kind of expansion and contraction wreaks havoc on the fit of the door creating gaps and binding.  To overcome this problem, stile and rail construction became the preferred solution for quality carpentry.  The boards that make up the panel, the center part, are slotted into the surrounding stile and rail and can slightly move, expanding and contracting, within this frame without effecting the overall dimensions and stability of the frame. The familiar look of stile and rail, the surrounding “frame” and inset panel, was not simply an aesthetic choice, but the result of a technological solution.

For the last almost 100 years, typical doors and cabinets are made with a variety of materials, often composite wood products, that are dimensionally stable without the need of the use of stile and rail technology.  However, the familiar look of stile and rail has persisted, especially in door styles.

So, remember that “stile” is not “style”, but “stile and rail” has become a style.  Simple.

enfilade – architect’s glossary

“Enfilade” is an architectural term used to define a long spatial axis usually made up of a series of openings between rooms that all align.

The term has its origins in military usage – an enfilade is a way of describing an enemies exposure to being fired upon.  Firing down along the length of a trench, as opposed to perpendicularly to its “front”, is the genesis of the term enfilade.

In architecture and enfilade is technically the spatial axis but in usage it is used to describe the arrangement of a suite of rooms along a line.  These arrangements were especially prominent in Baroque architecture as  mode of formal composition of rooms.  Obviously as buildings, and especially palaces, became larger, a more formal composition dominated their design as the utility of defense was diminished.

The image above is the UK’s National Gallery designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown.  They created an exaggerated enfilade by aligning a series of openings and slightly diminishing the width of each opening to create a manipulated perspective view and driving the space even more insistently down the axis of circulation.

enfilade – architect's glossary

“Enfilade” is an architectural term used to define a long spatial axis usually made up of a series of openings between rooms that all align.

The term has its origins in military usage – an enfilade is a way of describing an enemies exposure to being fired upon.  Firing down along the length of a trench, as opposed to perpendicularly to its “front”, is the genesis of the term enfilade.

In architecture and enfilade is technically the spatial axis but in usage it is used to describe the arrangement of a suite of rooms along a line.  These arrangements were especially prominent in Baroque architecture as  mode of formal composition of rooms.  Obviously as buildings, and especially palaces, became larger, a more formal composition dominated their design as the utility of defense was diminished.

The image above is the UK’s National Gallery designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown.  They created an exaggerated enfilade by aligning a series of openings and slightly diminishing the width of each opening to create a manipulated perspective view and driving the space even more insistently down the axis of circulation.

critical regionalism – an experiential approach, Part Two

As an extension of the thoughts in Part One, I would like to talk about some of the possible architectural responses to local geology and climate discussed in the previous post.  What is of interest here is how these responses may combine to create a body of work that expresses a kind of regionalism without regard to specific building form or style.  Below are descriptions of the types of architectural responses that might be found in the Rocky Mountains and when synthesized in various combinations, may describe a kind of regionalist architecture.  I have included some photos from a house I designed a couple of years ago to possibly demonstrate the architectural response to a given condition.

Soil Conditions

point loads on posts and lintels

The seasonal expansion and contraction of our local soils and the ability to point load on granite might drive a design to be more expressive of post-and-lintel type construction than continuous wall construction as is typical.  This is obviously very dependent on exact, specific soil conditions and may not express itself in all projects.

Solar gain

Because of the intensity of the sun and general aridity of the mountain West, the roof is often used more as a shading device than a rain protector.  This results in large overhangs which create a kind of interstitial space between the interiority of the building and the purely uncovered exterior space of the landscape.  This middle space of covered outdoor space may also become more formalized as covered terraces or balconies.

Another resultant of the intense solar gain is its effect on building materials.  Untreated wood, left exposed for even a short period, will quickly splinter and decay.  Even when treated, the UV rays of the sun quickly breakdown most stains and paints, making wood a relatively short-lived building material especially when compared to the centuries-old timbers and siding of East Coast houses.

exterior "room", partially roofed

Lastly, the infrequency of rain also coincides with an abundance of sunny days, around 300 or so per year.  Given the general altitude of much of the mountain west, that means that even on a freezing day, a pleasant afternoon can be spent on an outside terrace in direct sunlight.  So, like many California modernist houses, this creates the ability to live outside for much of the year, although this tends to be more for winter afternoons and summer mornings rather than purely seasonally determined.

Windy, dry conditions

very limited use of exposed wood (stone walls, metal roof)

The combination of occasionally fierce winds and frequently very low humidity creates many days of red-flag fire danger days.  These conditions, combined with the intense solar gain, quickly deteriorates wood, making it even more susceptible to even the smallest falling ember.  This may make a strong case for eliminating exposed wood from building exteriors and using much more fire-resistant materials like stone and metals.  Abundant native stone, both granites and sandstones, would reinforce this regional material usage preference.

Aridity

xeriscaping right up to the face of the building

As a possible corollary to the windy, dry conditions listed above is the extreme aridity experienced on the east side of the Continental Divide.  Most of our streams and rivers are charged with snow melt, not rainfall, and the storage of water and its conservation has written much of the history of Western land use.  As differentiated from the damp Midwest or East Coast, the lawns of typical houses are irrigated and with growing awareness of the scarcity of water resources, xeriscaping has become the preferred method for treating the land in the spaces between buildings.  These xeriscaped areas are marked not by low, gound-hugging grasses like prototypical “lawns”, but are combinations of native bushes and tall grasses.  Because of this variety and size of plantings, a building in the mountain West does not sit on a generic, de-natured green tableau but is a built moment in a continuous landscape of native plants.  The building does not sit within its own domesticated space of green lawn, but either interfaces directly with “wilderness” or must use other architectural devices to establish this domesticated zone of semi-public, semi-private space.

I am sure there are a lot of other buildings in the mountain West that demonstrate the same or similar responses to these conditions.  In a future post I will try to find classes of other examples that span many different architectural styles but have in common these traits, including vernacular architectures.

Making models

I often find myself spending entirely too much time making physical models of the designs I am working on.  Not that this is time wasted, but in the professional world, you can not possibly charge enough or financially justify the making of physical models unless you employ shamelessly low-paid interns to do the work.  And that would mistake the product for the process.

Real models (as distinguished from computer models) are very popular.  Prospective clients love looking at them and they have enough of an abstract quality to resist too much projection into them.  They are relatively small and kind of cute.  These kinds of models, crafted from basswood and finely honed, are usually just show models, not the working design tools of architects.  Working models, of torn paper and glue blobs, are generally not dragged out for the public’s viewing, resplendent as they are with the obvious signs of misstakes and decisions taken and abandoned.  But it is those same process models that so many architects love, that are an integral part of learning in architecture school, and that so often get jettisoned from the design process in the professional world.  Some offices still employ model-makers or interns that act as such, but this is usually only for the pretty presentation models described above.  The reality is that most architects as they get older, no longer mess around with scissors and paper, glue and xacto knives.  It takes a really long time to make all the contours that make up the site for a model on a hilly site.  It takes a really long time to cut and paste, recut and re-glue, tear apart and stick back together, all the pieces and parts of a model that, in the end, has meaning for the designer and maker, but its very messiness and palimpset quality, makes it difficult to present to anyone else.

And yet, it is all the dumb time cutting contours, glueing and waiting to dry, that makes physical models worth the effort.  For while all this semi-mindless work is taking place, you are literally spending time with the project, with the nascent design sitting in front of you.  You can not quickly come up with acceptable solutions or fantastically dynamic computer models that you can toggle on and off the sunlight at the proper latittude, longitude and time of year.  Rather you have to sit there, holding two pieces of cardboard together while the glue sets long enough to cut yet another chunk of foam board or such.  You have time to think, to ponder, forced upon you  by the slowness of the making.  The working design model can help to generate great solutions, spatial constructions that drawings and computer models can not quite get at.  But more importantly, making physical models generates time, creates enough engagement with the process to shut out emails and phone calls, but does not give up its ends so easily or quickly.  Making models makes time, more precious than any other tool than wielded, any software employed, any solution quickly grasped.