May 18, 2010

Materialism: a new movement in architecture

by Lucas Gray
originally published in the March - May 2010 edition of Design Exchange Magazine.

Weingut Gantenbein by Gramazio & Kohler
Photograph by Ralph Feiner
An iconic building in today's cities stands out like a lone tree in an old growth forest, like a single tower in the saturated Shanghai skyline. In other words, not at all. In the past few years a wave of architects have been trying to out-iconize each other to the point where buildings blend into a tacky mess of kitsch. People, cities and companies have been demanding bold designs, grasping for the "Guggenheim affect" (referring to Gehry's museum in Bilbao although perhaps asking after Frank Lloyd Wright would be better served) not realizing they are buying into a flawed mentality; looking for a shortsighted blast of publicity over long term value. They then sit on a glowing pedestal with their new edifice until the next starchitect creation swallows the headlines.

The age of bigger and flashier is over. Blobitecture has lost whatever luster it once had. As economic affluence wanes in these post-recession years so too will the mentality that flashier is necessary, and that excess is the best choice. As organizations and individuals pare down their lifestyles focus is shifting to quality rather than quantity, to true value over an entire lifespan rather than that initial 15 minutes of fame.

Think about how our children will view the Burj Khalifa, the glass clad super tower in the middle of the Dubai desert. Think about the burden this and other vain edifices are going to be to their inheritors. They consumed immense resources in their construction, bankrupting investors, banks and governments. They will continue to drain resources as long as we continue to pump cool air into overheated offices, irrigate the radiant green lawns, and fill the lavish fountains where once a desert stood. This is the legacy left by the past decade of architectural extravagance, commissioned by a narrow minded elite without a thought of the future. Architects, given huge budgets, were too happy to oblige.

As examples, Zaha Hadid's sensual but aimless forms and Libeskind's jagged monstrosities neglect the importance of context, environment, function and materiality in exchange for sexy images and bold icons. At least Gehry's forms, still with lack of attention to context, have a childlike playfulness, embracing the whimsical with an almost ironic smirk. These famous figures are just a few of many, yet are easy targets of criticism with their headline grabbing personalities and flamboyant designs.

Royal Ontario Museum by Studio Daniel Libeskind
Photograph by Sam Javanrouh
Yet cities deceive themselves by hiring these starchitects, believing that the resulting attention, headlines and magazine covers, will be worth the cost. In the end they are laden with overpriced, under functioning buildings often despised by the local residents. Meanwhile other architects, once talented explorers of form and materiality have been dragged into this game, trying to outshine the sun rather than focusing on the talents and rigor that got them to the top of the pedestal - that earned them the prestige of designing at an Olympic scale.

To highlight this argument I look to the Royal Ontario Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind. It's a disappointing design using inferior materials, that cost the Toronto taxpayers more than 100 million dollars. The interior, although complex in form, is fairly dull, being mostly white-washed dry wall covering huge oddly-shaped voids that remain empty, without purpose. Wouldn't Toronto have been better served by a pared-down, elegant intervention that actually was influenced by the surrounding urban context? The city wanted to capture some of the buzz generated by the Berlin Jewish Museum and instead received a structure that most would gladly return. The seriousness of the design and it's author even managed to eliminate the fun element that makes Gehry's buildings so popular among the public. The jagged crystal forms and sharp cutting windows might suit the Jewish Museum in Berlin, reflecting their troubled history, but I would argue it is not an appropriate design for a provincial museum in Canada's largest city. Re-appropriating this heavy design vocabulary in the ROM in fact diminishes that original symbolism and makes it a gimmick rather than a reponse to context and program. Just to be clear, here I criticize the ROM* but by no means does it stand alone. Dozens of other buildings by various architects can seamlessly take its place within this argument – The BMW World Building in Munich, The Federal Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon; The Millennium Dome in London among others.

*After contacting Studio Daniel Libeskind for images to accompany this article I received this response concerning the ROM design: "...it might be worth mentioning that while the ROM represents a radical shift in architecture in Toronto, many people have been thrilled to experience it, resulting in a 60 percent increase in attendance since its completion and 2009 visitor numbers reaching 1,024,964. We are incredibly proud of this project and the new vitality it has brought to Toronto’s precinct of Bloor Street and Avenue Road." Perhaps this increase is just because they opened a new building and people wanted to see the crazy design. I would be very interested to see if this increase is a sustainable improvement or will those numbers return to lower numbers once the buzz has diminished. I also have heard more criticism than praise of the project from residents of and visitors to Toronto

Nelson Atkins Museum of Art by Steven Holl
Photograph by Andy Ryan
Rising above this fascination with the absurd are talented architects like Peter Zumthor and Steven Holl, both of whom integrate an in-depth knowledge of materials and light, and design in concert with the surroundings, be they urban or natural landscapes. Famed for his Phenomenological approach to design, Zumthor's attention to materiality, light and mood focus on the user experience of his architecture rather than on the icon his building may become in the media. This is what all great buildings should do: transport a person to a new place, influence their emotions, and have them experience the specific time and place in a unique way. This is what makes Zumthor's buildings so much more powerful and important to architectural discourse than Hadid, Libeskind or Gehry. Holl likewise is a master at manipulating light and exploring textures and materiality. His forms are bold and captivating but have a restrained elegance many other architects lack. In many ways this is the future of architecture, and what the coming decade will support and reward. This is where architecture is moving - into a world where buildings are an instrument to illuminate beauty in nature, as well as a dynamic entity that allows us to better understand our place in the world.

Aqua Tower by Studio Gang Architects
Photograph by Steve Hall at Hedrich Blessing
To assist with this shift a new wave of creative firms are emerging, blending digital design tools with a sensitive approach to environmental issues, creating architecture that is beautiful, grounded in context, and meaningful. Studio Gang, for example, just completed a fantastic building in Chicago called the Aqua Tower with undulating balconies that resemble waves. Keeping the form relatively simple and manipulating the balconies creates a powerful image that is graceful and yet responds to solar orientation. Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis is another firm that is making elegant designs integrating digital technology with an attention to materiality and craftsmanship. Their MSK Art Installation is a direct response to the view points of users as they move through the space, mapping their cones of vision and piercing a wall of steel. The Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler use a robot assembly arm developed through their research at the ETH Z├╝rich to create stunning brick work based on forms derived from computer modeling - creating solid walls that flow like fabric and have phenomenal translucency. These firms and others like them are shifting architecture into a new style, one focused on how the digital tools available with new technology can help bridge the gap between design, materiality and manufacture. These explorations delve into the fundamental properties of materials and make use of the unique characteristics, their strengths, their weaknesses. Through this work, these firms and others like them are ushering in a new style of architecture - "Materialism."

Weingut Gantenbein by Gramazio & Kohler
Photograph by Ralph Feiner
As our new decade begins with the world's economy in turmoil and people rethinking their priorities I predict a return of elegance to the design world. Elegance is something that has been sorely lacking over the past 10 years as architects tried to top each other, producing Icon after Icon, where forms trumped function, turning architecture into an elaborate series of billion dollar sculptures. Moreover, the cost to society, both in dollars and in our inheritance of once trendy and functionless blobs that will soon fall out of style, is immense. Ernest Dimnet stated that “Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul." I argue that for the past 10 years architectural extravagance has slowly been sucking the soul out of both our cities and our lives. Hopefully the new decade will see architecture recapture its essence and bring intimacy back into the design vocabulary. Focusing on Materiality as a means to explore architecture is a a great start and a theme I see growing over the coming years.

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