Dig deeper

I’m beginning to understand why I haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye with most of the UIC faculty – they’re mainly concerned with finding new forms and new ways of generating form, while I’m interested more in the social engineering side of architecture.
This really came to the forefront at yesterday’s debate between Paul Preissner and Alex Lehnerer, in which they covered a variety of subjects, which all, however, revolved around form. Intrigued by the one-dimensionality of the discussion, I asked Paul (I don’t know that much about Alex’s work, but judging by what he said he’s as much of a formalist as Paul is) what he proposed to present to the new audiences he created with his slick and often beautiful forms. The gist of his answer was “nothing” – he has no ambitions for his architecture beyond the purely formal. None.
That’s more or less what I suspected, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment. The school purports to be innovative, but it’s still stuck in the Peter Eisenman mode of architectural autonomy of the 1960s. Architecture for architecture’s sake. Frankly, I find that pretty boring.
For me the promise of great architecture is the creation of a better world. That means architecture that doesn’t limit itself to museums, theaters and rich people’s houses. If it is to have any relevance in the future beyond providing eye candy for architecture fans, it has to deal with the street, with the city, and with the everyday environment. It has to face current issues, with environmental concerns chief among them. Without a deeper substance beyond the flashy facades, it cannot hope to stir a deeper interest, to keep the new audiences its bold forms may be gathering, and it certainly will not have a very significant place in history once the novelty wears off.

It ain’t easy being green

For reasons I’m not going to get into here I’ve been thinking about “sustainability” in architecture – and though the word has become something of a marketing catchphrase, if given a bit of thought it is not as superficial and cynical as it might sound. It doesn’t all end with Da Mayor’s green roof hoopla or sticking “green” technology on otherwise standard-issue buildings.

Though for as long as I can remember I’ve been something of a green freak, my first contact with the specific issues involved in architectural sustainability was at a lecture by David Cook of Behnisch Architekten from Berlin last year. His main assertion was that environmental sustainability was only part of the issue, with economic and civic sustainability being the other two key components needed for the whole to really work.

Economic sustainability pretty much speaks for itself. If you can’t make something work financially, then even if you get to build it, it will quickly fail and be replaced by something else. An economically sustainable building has the opportunity to become a lasting asset. Cook also pointed out the human factor there – since most of the money involved in operating a commercial building goes to people’s salaries, a building that creates a good environment for humans can save its occupants money simply by limiting staff rotation. That translates into benefits and overall satisfaction for all involved.

He also spoke about his firm’s civic sustainability goals, which for him meant mainly respecting people’s inherently social nature. He said that providing public and semi-public space where people could interact – initially expensive – was in fact a good investment in making buildings truly attractive. This in turn helped to make them economically sustainable in the long run, and that again allowed them to continue functioning in an environmentally responsible manner. Obviously not everyone can build Seattle Public Libraries, but it’s definitely a factor to consider. A real win-win, at least on paper.

The lecture made a huge impression on me – frankly, a bigger impression than most of the very good lectures we’ve had at UIC over the past two years. Though in studio we are often directed to deal mostly with formal and programmatic issues, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Cook’s talk was one of the main inspirations for both my bIGfUNtHING project and my current studio efforts. I don’t think this is the end of it, either.

End the wars

As a former US Navy sailor who served during the first war against Iraq, I just wanted to throw in my two cents worth on the anniversary of The Dumbest War Ever Fought by the US. The argumentation for US forces remaining in Iraq is really non-existent – the Iraqis don’t want us there, we (as in the American people, not Haliburton or The-Company-Formerly-Known-As-Blackwater) have nothing to gain there, and – as if it needed repeating – there were never any weapons of mass destruction there. Saddam’s dead. Leave the Iraqis to make Iraq whatever the hell they want it to be, even if it’s no longer a single country. It’s their country, their business.

The rationale for going to Afghanistan was the search for al-Qaida leaders who have been threatening to repeat 9/11 and so on. I’m not sure how invading a whole country was necessary to find a few guys hiding in the mountains. Sounds more like the job for a team of well-trained special ops people. But of course then Dick Chaney and his ilk wouldn’t be making billions on defense contracts, and the military-industrial complex would have to find something other to do. The Soviets, who had no moral compunctions about humane methods could not control all of Afghanistan for many years. There is little chance of the US doing that any time soon, especially that Soviet-style methods were much more effective in the short term. So I say send in the Seals, Green Berets or whatever other secret goons there are in the deepest recesses of the US military, take care of the dozen or so al-Qaida guys this whole thing’s been about all this time, and bring everyone back home. And leave the Afghans to do whatever they want to do with their country – if they want to live under Sharia law, let them. As long as they’re not trying to stone people on Oak Street Beach, what business is it of ours how they live?

Unfortunately, the hopes so many of us had of Obama ending the Republican insanity have gone unanswered. It looks as though Cheney’s boys have won, and the president is now simply a better-spoken, better-looking and slightly taller George W. Bush.

What came out of it

Ron Witte’s guest studio ended yesterday – considering my graphics, it’s no surprise that Bob Somol led off his comments with Sarah Palin, with Italian restaurants as a back-up. Anyway, here’s the goods, as they say – the idea was to use form and graphics to create spaces that connected and disconnected so as to enable you to be in more than one room at a time:

BTW, I presented first because I had to get to the youngest child’s first-ever volleyball game (her team won – they managed to serve properly twice, while their opponents never made it across the net).

Ron Witte

Having a four-day guest studio exercise with Ron Witte (http://wwarchitecture.com). We’re talking about intersecting spaces that allow you to be in two rooms at the same time. In the exercise, we’re manipulating form and graphics to do just that – here’s my second attempt:

That’s it for now. Thank you for your attention.

Back to the drawing board

Just got done with my midterm review – a lot of good feedback, but it looks like I’ll have to start pretty much from scratch.

The project is live-work housing for artists. One thing I think I’ll keep is the communal space on top:

I also kind of like the effect I got on the elevation, but since I’ll be moving circulation space off the facade, it’ll probably stay in the form of loggias or balconies:

Architectural project

I’ve been thinking what my long-term architectural project could be. I don’t care much about form, except as the icing on the functional cake, so to speak. Then again bad icing can spoil a perfectly decent cake. Though I’ve often been accused of being a functionalist, that’s not it either. Functionalism suggests that you either design only for function, which I’ve seen backfire too many times in various ways, or like Koolhaas and his bunch, the use of function/program to suggest a form. While some Koolhaasian architecture (the Seattle Public Library, for one) is admittedly really good, much of it gets stuck in gratuitously weird territory.

OMA’s Hyperbuilding project – fantastic or just weird?

Then there’s the issue of newness – is newness a good thing of itself? Should we strive to come up with “The New”? What’s the point of that? Being new doesn’t guarantee being good, though it hardly seems worthwhile to tread water repeating old patterns. Unless – wait – one understands the goal of architecture to be the design of functional, usable and esthetically pleasing buildings.

What I’m thinking is more of a typological approach – you get standard types, and depart from them only if something forces you to. For instance, an office building would be a typical open-floor stack of slabs dressed in glass, unless some requirement forces you to change something about it. In that instance aesthetics could be taken care of by elevation and interior design. Substantive departures could result from usage and environmental factors, but should be no greater than required to do the job they’re intended for.

I guess I am a functionalist at heart, though I’m thinking this is more of a “reduce-reuse-recycle” architecture than the Modernist version. But is “functionalism with a human face” good enough?

D’Arcy Thompson Strikes Back

Having ridiculed the  literal treatment of D’Arcy Thompson’s esoteric ideas about form on several occasions (not to mention attempts to apply them directly in architecture), I was somewhat dumbstruck when I saw this:

Our world may be a giant hologram – New Scientist

Now if that ain’t the ultimate epigenetic plane story, I don’t know what could be. However, though I’m not sure if I understand it correctly, it seems that unlike Sanford Kwinter’s take on Thompson, this says nothing about individual free will (while Kwinter’s IMO is the apex of determinism).

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Lebbeus Woods on authenticity

Another star performance by Lebbeus Woods:

“Architecture has become more popular today than ever before. Its popularity does not come from the ways it improves the everyday lives of most people—as modernists like Gropius once hoped it would—but rather because of the ‘brand names’ now associated with its status as a consumer product.”


Come to think of it, that’s enough to get ol’ Walter Benjamin doing flips in his grave.

Speaks on design

… or is it >>Design<<? Anyway, food for thought courtesy of Michael K. Speaks and our ever-reliable Ivan Ostapenko:


I really like his thinking about what design can accomplish when applied to real-world problems, and not just sterile games with form.

There are other tasty morsels there too, so be sure to dig around a bit. Not your usual dry architectural fare.