Sunday, December 2, 2012

89. What is Good Luck?

Whenever I talk with people about becoming a famous architect, and I ask "well what do you think it takes to become famous?" The responses are wide and varied. Here are some common responses I get:

  • A a combination of luck, timing and who you know...No matter what, when lady luck comes knocking, you'd better be ready to pounce.
  • Well... you need to be talented, hard working and have some luck
  • You have to be lucky enough to have been born to rich parents. 
  • Do your best work and it will happen or it won't
  • There's an element of randomness to it, but becoming famous doesn't happen at random
  • I suppose you to have to be fortunate enough to be friends with already famous people to begin with. 
  • When reading the history of famous architects a common thread is either that they were [lucky enough to be] born rich (like P. johnson...kurokawa, fumihiko maki, shigeru ban, and I hear rumours about Ando too...), had a good teaching job to live off of, or a combination of both.
  • You have to be lucky; meaning being in the right place at the right time and yeah talent helps too 
 ...and the list goes on and on.

 If you haven't already noticed, the one common denominator in all these statements is the magic ingredient of luck. 

So what is luck anyway? 

Below are some common definitions. 
  • Luck: an unknown and unpredictable phenomenon that causes an event to result one way rather than another. 
  • Luck: the force that seems to operate for good or ill in a person's life, as in shaping circumstances, events, or opportunities

From Wikipedia: 

For a lot of people, Luck is a belief that good or bad fortune in life is caused by accident or chance, and attributed by some to reasons of faith or superstition, which happens beyond a person's control. 
Buddhism teaches about karmma; the idea of moral causality; that all things which happen must have a cause, either material or spiritual, and do not occur due to chance or fate. 
Followers of Christianity and Islam believe in the will of a supreme being directing the universe and the affairs of humankind with wise benevolence, theologily refered to as Divine Providence. It varies greatly from one person to another; however, most acknowledge providence as at least a partial, if not complete influence on luck. The concept of "Divine Grace" as it is described by believers closely resembles what is referred to as "luck" by others. One such activity is prayer, a religious practice in which this belief is particularly strong. 
Others associate luck with a strong sense of superstition, that is, a belief that certain taboo or blessed actions will influence how fortune favors them for the future. 

These are all well and good. You can believe what you want. I am not here to question your faith or tell you what to believe. But I can share with you what I believe is a useful perspective on luck.

There is an old Babylonian saying that goes something like this: 

If a man is lucky, bound his hands and feet together and cast him in the Tigris and he will swim out with a fish in his mouth for supper 

To me luck is largely a matter of perception. What I mean is that the situations that we find ourselves in are not essentially fortunate or unfortunate, but rather just situations with various levels of potentials, opportunities and limitations. Each situation comes with its own unique set of circumstances that either limit or open up potentials for what we want or where we want to go. It is up to us to find the fortune and opportunities and act on them. My good man that was lucky enough to be thrown in the Tigris in such a ghastly fashion simply discovered that his situation presented him with a good opportunity to go fishing for dinner. Rather than accepting his predicament as bad luck, he saw the potential in the it and most importantly he took action. 

Obviously this is just a mythic tale, but like most mythic tales it offers a simple lesson. 

Luck in not just seeing the glass half full, it is also taking action; not just seeing the potential but using it. After all, seeing the glass as half full is ultimately meaningless if you don't drink what's in it at some point. Isn't it?

Being an optimist alone isn’t enough; being able to see all the goodness, potential and opportunities around you and then not taking advantage of them has nothing to do with luck. It has to do with day dreaming. It is not really any different from a pessimist with no imagination or who sees only limitations in his situation and subsequently does nothing. The old Babylonian Houdini would not be considered lucky if he figured out how to escape and catch a fish but just never got around to doing it, would he? 

To be truly lucky one not only has to be optimistic enough to recognize the opportunities but also courageous enough to act on them while they last. Not only that, one has to do this constantly. This is the way of the famous architect. 

I can not count the amount of times where I encounter architects who after seeing the newly published project of a famous architect and saying:  

"oh snaps! I had that very same idea" 

Well then I ask you "why didn't you act?"... 
"why didn't you follow through and realize it?" 

The answer is in the question: "what's the difference between you and the famous architect?" 

Is it because he is lucky and you are not? 
Is it because he was able to see the opportunity and put in the work to realize it while you did not? 
Is it because he has the ability to see the greenness of the grass on his side of the fence while you can only see the weeds on yours? 

It comes in the form of statement like: "Oh of-course they can, they are lucky because they have a team of apprentices slaving away at their office for free and I have none." 
 oh he has connections and I don't. 

The way I see it, the optimist who sees the opportunities and potentials around him and do nothing about it is worse than a pessimist:

He is a coward. 

Conrad Newel 

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

88. What is the Venice Biennale of Architecture?

 ...As well as addressing the academic side of architecture, the Biennale is an occasion where big-name architects and designers can showcase new projects, arranged in different pavilions, each with different themes. The Biennale is currently held in the Biennale Gardens.
-crowdsourced / WIKIPEDIA

...the Biennale offers an incredibly diverse and dense display of ideas and responses that aim to provoke us to reconsider the role of the architect and the ways in which we create public life for citizens of the contemporary environment.
-Linda Taalman / DWELL
The Venice Architecture Biennale is the world’s most important celebration of contemporary architecture.
The Biennale is a unique insight into what is happening in the architecture profession around the world at this moment in time.
-Jonathan Davies and Anna Meyer / DESIGN WEEK

If one did not know that the media constantly exaggerates, one could almost conclude ... that the Venice Biennale of Architecture really is the world’s most important architecture exhibition.
... let us not deny the truth. This event is an expensive danse macabre. In a city of plunder (an exhibition of plunder) hordes of tourists (architects) roll along broken infrastructure in order to satisfy their petit bourgeois desire for education (in the case of the architects: vanity, envy, schadenfreude, suspicions). Even the glamour that the visitors are supposed to feel is staid and faked by the media for whom a star architect is like a film star.
In truth it is all hollow, arduous, exhausting, bleak and boring. It is no longer about lively discussion and criticism of topics in contemporary architecture, but rather about empty, conservative and perhaps populist shells that are charged with feigned meaning.

If we are to accept a certain validity in Prix's remarks, it is important not to attribute special privilege to the Venice Biennale — it is only indicative of a more widespread political naivety in contemporary architecture, and the ineffectiveness of its various governing institutions. The failure, if you will, is endemic. However, unlike Prix, I don't think the starchitects are at the heart of the problem. I would prefer to lay the blame elsewhere.
-Jack Self / DOMUS

Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Wolf D. Prix came under fire for this attack (especially when it was realized he didn’t even set foot at this year’s Biennale). And yet, had he written this critique for any other Biennale, he wouldn’t have been so far off. The Biennale is, after all, an expensive affair of prosecco-filled parties and, often, inaccessibly esoteric exhibits
Prix hedged his bets that this Biennale, with its fluffy-sounding name, “Common Ground,” would be just like its precedents. Unluckily for Prix, it wasn’t. In fact, it was probably the most politically-engaged Biennale yet.
...that is exactly what this year’s Venice Biennale was – and should be. Not just a display of architectural ingenuity but a “fresh look, from the [common] ground up, at what architecture really is.” Even if was at times reductive or idealistic, the Biennale grappled with our political reality, reflected our cautious optimism, and put forth the question of our decade: what purpose do we serve?

Vanessa Quirk / ARCH DAILY

Biennales by their nature are sprawling, skin-deep omnibus festivals, contrived above all for tourism and congenitally awkward as a medium for architecture...
It (This year's Bieannale) pays almost no attention to the developing world, to designers from Africa or China, and precious little to female architects, aside from Zaha Hadid, who, like Peter Zumthor, Renzo Piano, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi and a surprising number of the old boldface names, hogs much of the spotlight.
-Micheal Kimmelman / THE NEW YORK TIMES

The Bieannale is a typical gossip place. "who slept with whom?,Who drank too much? Who is on their way down because they drank too much?"..."His last project wasn't very good, he must have been drunk all the time. Maybe he is going blind?" Its a lot of personal gossip.
-Kjetil Thorsen / SNØHETTA 

But the exhibition itself, despite that determinedly optimistic and wide-ranging approach, feels limited, exclusive, stiff, starched and a bit cloistered. And for a show that is so keen to question the value of architectural celebrity — Chipperfield writes in the catalog that he wanted it to "emphasize shared ideas over individual authorship" and reject "solitary and fashionable gestures" — this biennale includes an awful lot of stars, many of them longtime friends and colleagues of Chipperfield's.
Though Chipperfield makes a big show of casting a wide net with this biennale, mostly what he's caught with it are the kind of big fish immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the architectural scene of 20 or 25 years ago. The architects featured most prominently include Norman Foster (given two separate rooms to work with), Renzo Piano, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Peter Eisenman, Rafael Moneo, Alvaro Siza, Peter Zumthor, Bernard Tschumi and Jean Nouvel.

Christopher Hawthorne / THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

Saturday, September 1, 2012

87. You Don't Have to be Good Part 5: The Taxonomy of Architectural Fame

For a long time the diagram above represented how I understood the mechanics of famous architecture.

That all famous architecture was the result of good work that was well promoted. 

While this is more or less a nice truism, it is far from the norm when you look at the full scope of famous works.

The fact is, that like most neatly packaged truisms, it is an oversimplification of a vastly deeper and more complex reality.

A more accurate-to-reality diagram would begin to look something more like this

Because lets face it, not all architecture that is famous is also good: Some are and some are not.

There are a lot of famous architecture out there that are just plain deficient in a lot of respects, but because they are interesting to a few influential people and are well promoted, they receive a lot of attention in the press, and stand a better chance of getting singled out for awards and accolades.

So what do I mean when I say “good architecture” you ask?

As I mentioned in part I of this series, I had a teacher in college that once told me that in order to make really outstanding works, you have got to innovate; push the envelope and do something interesting or you have to go the way of Mies and raise the detailing and craftsmanship to a level of high quality.

However, I always thought that to be really good it should be a combination of the two. Like this:

However, what I have noticed after travelling and seeing more and more architecture both famous and non-famous is that there are a lot of works out there that are famous that is either interesting alone and are poorly crafted (like The New Museum or The Mountain Dwelling ) or conversely, there are others that are very well made alone but does little in the way of innovation (eg. the works of Brazilian architect Isay Weinfeld).

So maybe my old professor was right after all, maybe it just needs to be one or the other...well kind of.

I say kind of because the other thing that I have noticed as well, is that I have never ever in all my life, come across any famous architecture that was not well promoted.

This is something the old guy never told us about. 


Do you think Mies, Corbu or Wright promoted their work?

Yes! Absolutely Yes! and fuck yeah!

The general exception (if you want to call it an exception) is where it was designed by an extraordinarily famous architect. In this case he or she does not really have to make that much of an effort to promote it because the press are usually all over it like a pack of hungry wolves. And if the press is writing about it, ta-da!... it is being promoted!

When you start taking individual works of architecture and begin to look at them through this paradigm, immediately it becomes much more interesting.

Take the mountain dwelling and the new museum for example.
In my view this is where they fit (space #2).

They both have interesting concepts and ideas, but they are constructed and detailed at a  commercial grade quality. So as you can see, I had to create an extra classification to properly define them. 

Both projects are also extremely well promoted, so it should come as no surprise that they are very famous. The lack of quality has no effect and does not tarnish the popularity or the reputation of the work.
And therein lies the essential flaw in this diagram - quality. Quality is no prerequisite for famous architecture.  It is optional and in most cases irrelevant.

As mentioned in part 3 of this series, unless the project specifically discusses quality in craftsmanship, detailing, or construction, this is a non-issue: It is the ideas of the work that takes precedence.

Mies, Pierre Chareau and say Louis Kahn’s work would generally fall in the overlap of quality detailing and interesting ideas.

Now before I could have finished that sentence I felt a massive scream in the universe. It was the voices of all the architects who believe Mies is boring. I hear you. I think his work is boring too in a lot of ways, but I also believe the idea of his work in itself and what he was aiming to accomplish is very interesting.

More importantly though, what I consider interesting really doesn’t matter in this diagram.
What matters is what the architectural community as a whole finds interesting and (as I will argue in a future series of notes) what matters supremely is what key influential members within this community believes is interesting. Form follows taste and so does celebrated works of architecture.

So if we take away this stuff about quality and say exactly what is meant by interesting then we get

You will also notice the addition of the “Celebrated Works” category. It confirms that it is the famous architecture which key influential members of the architectural community finds interesting that are the ones that wins awards and are celebrated. After all, who do you think sits on a jury and decide who will get the awards?

If you remember this line from note number 76 - (Predicting the Pritzker part 2- Take a lesson from Brad & Angelina), then then you will understand exactly where the Pritzker fits into this picture.

The Pritzker only celebrates the celebrated and gives more attention to the already famous. It does not advance architecture or humanity in anyway beyond creating mindless chatter in the hallways and online chat-rooms throughout the architecturally-interested world about whether the latest pick was worthy enough to be crowned America’s top star-architect.

The Pritzker picks it awardees almost exclusively from the architects who have already got a few buildings in this narrow sliver of celebrated works.

The other category that we have up there is Anointed Works. This is a rather strange area, it consists of works that key figures in the architecture community finds interesting and even though it is well promoted, for some reason or another it just does not have enough appeal to make it famous or celebrated.

This I will talk about next week in more detail with some real world examples.

Stay tuned.

Conrad Newel 
Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

86.You don’t have to be good part 4: Form follows Taste

So in the last note in this series, I concluded that idea is king and that it trumps everything in contemporary architecture.  In other words, if your idea is interesting enough, you can bypass quality construction and rigorous design. So in this note, I will start with the question: 

What else is trumped by idea?

One of the first things I immediately thought about was this interview with Peter Eisenman.

In this video from  7 (Seven) Deconstructivist Architects, Eisenman’s arguments gives a sense of how he sees architecture: as a medium to express ideas even if it means subordinating function, people and wholeness to it.

When we think of stability in our society we think of architecture, for example when I work with Jacques Derrida, Jacques always say to me:
“What about people...but what about the functions”
and I said;
“what do you mean what about the people?... Do you ever worry about people who read your books?”
He said;
“no, those were books, this is architecture, this deals with shelter comfort things like that”
and I said;
“that's a really funny thing for the arch-deconstructionist to be concerned with shelter and comfort”
But you see what I said to Jacques was;
“You philosophers are very funny because it's alright for you guys to move the whole telos of the society around, but when it comes to an architect you say: oh no! that's got to stay in place. So that you guys can be radical, [while] architecture remains whole.”

So then the standard counter argument to Eisenman is:
Well if you are reading a philosophy book and you don’t like it, then you can close the book and put it away - even burn it if you like - but with a building, you have to live with it!

That’s my initial reaction as well, but here is another way to look at it: If a client wants to pay Peter Eisenman thousands of dollars to design a building that makes them uncomfortable and they are also willing to pay several millions to build it, then obviously they are motivated by his work and they are getting exactly what they want. That’s their taste.
As long as these ideas are not applied to urban design and city planning, why should that bother me?
Purposely ignoring the idea of form following function, Eisenman created spaces that were quirky and well-lit, but rather unconventional to live with. He made it difficult for the users so that they would have to grow accustom to the architecture and constantly be aware of it. For instance, in the bedroom there is a glass slot in the center of the wall continuing through the floor that divides the room in half, forcing there to be separate beds on either side of the room so that the couple was forced to sleep apart from each other. 

Upside down stair.

If you are of conservative taste don’t worry, this is a conceptual house built with the aim to spark discussion and debate about ideas. Don’t look to see anything like this as the future of housing.

Personally I am not convinced by the argument that Eisenman makes which essentially states that architecture is kind of like infrastructure in the sense that no one really pays attention to it. It is just there like background music in a film. In order for people to pay attention to architecture it has to basically confront them, do something unexpected, and make people uncomfortable. In doing so, they will be forced to pay attention to it and ask why? Why is this door placed in such an odd way, why is this building element sticking out like that? And so on.

To be honest, that does not inspire me to go and take up a book and read about deconstructivism. It would just annoy me. But that’s just me.

Eisenman however, makes a good point: Functionality is not, or should not be the end-all and be-all in determining architectural form. Neither should it necessarily be the most dominant issue in evaluating a work of architecture.

Another way to say that is: in architecture, ideas should be free to transcend function and comfort.

If we take this argument to its logical extension (...and especially in light of the previous notes in this series) then ideas should also be free to transcend just about anything: Quality construction and even good space.

I should at this point say that Eisenman's attempt to liberate form from function is not the same as Bjarke Ingel’s attempt to liberate form from quality detailing and construction or SANAA’s attempt to liberate form from quality space and rigorous design. Eisenman’s attempts are deliberate where Bjarke’s was more out of carelessness or capitulation to commercial interests and SANAA’s was more out of either laziness or timidity.

But to get back to Eisenman’s point: Form does not necessarily need to follow function in the strictest sense of the word.

Look at this chair below:

It is a very functional chair: It is a recliner chair with electric recline and massage features. This is perhaps one of the most comfortable chairs money can buy. Just look on the ear-to-ear smile on that lady’s face.

However, in my view, that chair reminds me of something I would find in my grandmother's home. It is not my style and I would not buy it or have it in my apartment.

Now look at these other chairs below:

It is called the One&One chair designed by Konstantinos Pamporis and is basically formed of two distinct pieces and based on the concept that each of the pieces symbolized one person in a relationship.

“The idea behind this project was to create a piece of furniture that symbolizes the relationship between a couple. A relationship is only possible when there exists dependence. The elements that come with dependence are “faith” and “risk”. Because of that fact, one chair has only on one side a leg which makes it automatically dependent on the other one. As soon as you become dependent on something we can talk automatically about might!” 

These are rather elegant in my opinion, and the concept is delightfully poetic, but I would not want to sit on it, especially the one with the pink edges.

Just like Eisenman’s house, this is a concept project.

These two sets of chairs represent two extremes in a goldilocks scenario.

  • The first one is was way too conventional; it discusses only function and lacks qualities of ingenuity, playfulness, or experimentation. It is too parochial for my tastes.
  • The second sits in the other extreme, it discusses a poetic idea but the notion of comfort and functionality is all but destroyed (albeit deliberately) as a byproduct of the concept.
My ideal chair sits somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. And that’s my point here; I said “my” ideal not “the” ideal.  And there in lies the heart of the matter. It is taste that drives ideas: Form follows taste.

Form does not have to follow function and the most important thing is not necessarily to make the most functional and user friendly everything. Sometimes it’s okay to give up some level of practicality or certain physical comforts for visual or other ones. It is something we all do whether we think we do or not.

How far we are willing to compromise practicality, functionality, good craftsmanship or quality construction for ideas (whether they are visual, philosophical, sociological, esthetic, etc) depends largely on our own personal taste. Consumers of the Mountain Dwellings would much rather give up some of the virtues of quality detailing for the cool and chic that comes from living in a BIG designed apartment, while the people behind The New Museum probably have no idea of what a quality and rigorously designed space looks like even if it fell on top of them like a brick, but they most likely do care about having the white hot Japanese design duo’s name behind their new building and are duly reaping the hype and publicity that comes along with it.

The craftsmanship and quality of the building itself are just there as a supporting substrate for your ideas. As Eisenman pointed out, this is all like infrastructure, stuff that nobody really pays attention to (maybe except for pesky little bloggers like me). What really matter are your ideas (and by logical extrapolation your taste).

Sunday, June 24, 2012

85. Do you really think that all starchitects actively try and brand themselves?

Hi Carlos,

Thanks for the question.

Yes! I do think that all famous architects actively promote and brand themselves. Obviously some do it much more than others.

I am normally skeptical about painting things (especially sociological issues) with such a broad brush, but I have been looking at this for quite some time now (as you can see) and the more I look, the more I am convinced that it is just that way.

Being a famous architect is an extremely difficult thing to pull off. It is something you have to actively work at, and there are many out there who have worked their whole career at it with little or no result. 

To become a starchitect without trying would require a lot of miraculous opportunities to magically fall before you in a perfectly aligned sequence, at the perfect time, while you just happened to be in the perfect places and say just the right things. I am not saying that miracles do not happen or that it is impossible, but it would be extremely rear.

It would be like just whimsically winning the Mr Olympia bodybuilding contest without trying. 

Now if you are talking specifically about branding I will also say yes. Absolutely!. However, when we think about branding we have negative connotations about it. We think of it as some kind of contrived thing that corporations do to deceive people to buy their product; that the brander is really a kind of Dr. Jekyl & Mr Hyde character who brands himself as the good guy meanwhile he is really a hideous monster underneath the cloak. 

This is not necessarily so. Branding, is about putting your best foot forward and making a reputation around your best qualities. It is about standing out from the crowd in light of your most unique and admirable characteristics.

Think about it. You and I brand ourselves all the time without even thinking about it. When you go out on a first date don't you try to show the best side of yourself? You shave off that scruffy beard that you were too lazy to cut for the past 5 days, you take a shower even if you normally shower ever other week, and you don yourself in the clothes that you think you look most attractive in. 

When you meet her, you take her to a nice restaurant that you normally don't go to. You talk more politely than you normally do, and laugh hysterically at things that are nowhere near funny.  

So does, that mean that you are really the boogie man in disguise or that your motives are sinister? No. Unfortunately for some guys it is, but if you are really a descent guy and you are looking for a relationship with this lady, then you go through this process because you want her to come away with a positive impression of you.

Famous architects (and even non famous architects) do this with their careers as well. They build up a public image based on the positive aspects of themselves. If they are very good at it, you don't even know that they are doing it (like Peter Zumthor) and if they are really bad at it ( like Daniel Libeskind) then that's all you see. 

In addition to looking and acting the part (as you and I have done on first dates), star architects have to take their branding/promotion a step further. Since they are courting large communities of architects, students, clients, scholars etc, and not just one person, they have to brand on a massive scale and thus have to use media appropriate to that scale. So they present this positive impression of themselves through publishing, giving many lectures, participating in interviews for magazines, attending symposiums, networking with the right people etc. 

I am sure if you do a little research on Oscar Niemeyer, Kevin Roche, Alvaro Siza,or Eduardo Souto de Moura, you will likely find that they all have done these things as well. 
Best Regards,


Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

On Fri, May 25, 2012 at 9:08 PM, Carlos wrote:

Comment I've thoroughly enjoyed your blog ever since I started reading it a few weeks ago. I have a question though, do you really think that all starchitects actively try and brand themselves to become famous?

There are certain architects that do seem like they seek the fame, but there are others that I believe are genuine. The people that I'm talking about are Oscar Niemeyer, Kevin Roche, Alvaro Siza, Eduardo Souto de Moura. These are all architects that seem to be to be more concerned with the quality of their work than their fame. I'm very interested on what your opinion of this is. 


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

84.You Don't Have to be Good - Part 3: It's about the Idea Stupid!

Looking over the previous two post in this series - Mountain Dwellings and the New Museum - I was contemplating on the idea of quality (...or lack of it ) as seen in these two famous works: Lack of quality detailing and construction in the Mountain Dwellings and lack of spatial quality in the New Museum. So then I remembered this statement by Mies.

 First of all, I was influenced by old buildings. I looked at them, people built them. I don't know the names, and I don't know what it was . . . mostly very simple buildings. When I was really young, not even twenty years old, I was impressed by the strength of these old buildings because they didn't even belong to any epoch. But they were there for one thousand years and still there and still impressive, and nothing could change it. And all the styles, the great styles, passed, but they were still there. They didn't lose anything. They were ignored through certain architectural epochs, but they were still there and still good as they were in the first day they were built. 
The notion of building architecture of lasting quality that he so eloquently described is a very nice idea. It is an idea that I think has escaped a great many of the celebrated architects of our generation. Instead of building monuments to the ages, they seem to be more preoccupied with building monuments to the fleeting moment.

Compared to some in the previous generations of starchitects (Mies, Kahn, Scarpa, Barragan, etc) I think that quite a few of our present generation’s celebrities have sidestepped the notion of quality in the discourse of their work. I am picking on BIG, JDS, and SANAA because I have been to their work and have experienced it for myself, but I suspect that it is a wider phenomenon beyond those stars. I would even argue that it spans beyond architecture and is equally prevalent in other fields such as industrial design. For example, there was a time not long ago when the things that you bought in the store had lasting quality. So much so that that they could outlast both you and your children. It would be normal for people to inherit a cherished product from their parents that they could then pass on to their own children.

Do you remember those days?
Perhaps have you are in possession of such a product?

Of course not, you're too young. Watch the clip below: ( this is how consumer-products used to be, quality-wise).

Now consider this: If that golden watch was made with the same level of detailing and craftsmanship as the VM apartments or the mountain dwellings were designed and made with, how long would you give it to survive up Christopher Walken's ass?

I didn't think so either.

Here is another thing to consider: if Apple were to come out with an i-watch tomorrow, would you imagine wanting to pass that down to your children as a birthright, let alone going through any lengths to ensure that it reaches them?

The standard defense of high-tech low-quality creations is that technology is developing so rapidly that it doesn’t make sense to build things that last for a lifetime. I understand this argument but it is nonsense. Apple could make products of lasting quality, but instead, they chose to make products that are close to disposable. Their products are designed to last for about 3-4 years so that you are forced to constantly buy new ones. My i-phone that I bought 3 years ago is not compatible with a great number of apps on the itunes store and it is almost worthless. Apple does this because they are really not bothered by the idea of having an umbilical cord attached to your wallet.

The technology-moving-too-fast argument does not hold water. I can think of several products that were built in yesteryear that was designed with special care that I can still use and enjoy today; products that gets better with age even though the technology is from another era.

This old record player for example, has a distinct aesthetic quality onto itself both in its sound and its physical design. Not even the latest and most advanced i-pod with the most sophisticated surround sound speaker system can measure up to it, even though it’s technology is mortally outdated.

This BMW from 1938 could never ever go anywhere near as fast as the current models with all their climate control, GPS navigation system etc. but it’s design has made it a thing of lasting quality. I am not a fan of cars and I never was, but it is not very difficult to appreciate and be attracted to the quality and craftsmanship that goes into its making.

This industrial Vornado electric fan built in Wichita, Kansas in the 1940s/50s by the O.A. Sutton Company was not an expensive luxury item like the BMW above. It was just a elegant and thoughtfully designed object. The chips and scratches that it has developed over the years have only added to it’s character.

The technology-moving-too-fast argument is even weaker when we take it back to architecture. The Maison de Verre designed by Pierre Chearu in 1928 is an example of architecture integrated with the technology of its time. More importantly it is an example of quality detailing. Since he started out as a fine furniture designer, Chearu approached the design of the building as such. The result is a meticulously crafted building where even the furniture was designed and integrated into the building. I wouldn't say it was good as the day it was made, but for something close to 100 years old, it's not too shabby.

The simple truth is that quality design and craftsmanship transcends technology.

 So here is my question:
  •  How can some of the most celebrated architects and designers of our time get away with designing works of such low-quality again and again and not only come away unscathed, but win multiple design awards and accolades for them time and time again? 
  • Why is it that no one is saying anything about the quality? 
There are many layers of reasons that I will cover in the upcoming series of notes. For now, I will discuss the one which I believe is the most relevant. The clue can be found in starchitecture school. If you ever remember sitting in a crit and seeing the reaction when a star student present and compared it with the reactions later on when a regular student present, then you will get what I am saying.

When a star student presents an eye popping project that has little relationship to reality, their professors tends to smile and discuss the novelty of the idea, while when a regular student presents a less spectacular project that is well considered in relation to real world concerns, he gets questioned on all the nuances of his details.

This is simply because the critic responds to the prevailing ideas and themes that the project discusses. They respond to how you talk about your work as much as the work itself. Unless you have made some really obvious mistakes that is so distracting from the idea of the project that it can not be ignored, quality will not be discussed.

If the principal architectural idea of your project discusses an issue rooted in reality, then you will be critiqued based on the rules of the real world. You will be asked questions like:
  • How do you deal with the structural issues?
  • That building is right across the street from where the local crack addicts hang out. How do you then deal with issues of security, etc? 
However, If you locate your project in the imaginary world of Harry Potter, for example, then it discusses the world of Hogwarts and wizardry. You will be critiqued based on the rules and reality outlined by J.K. Rowling.

You will not be asked about ventilation, crack addicts, security or how your building engages activity on the pedestrian level. Your professors will discuss how the phenomenology of wizardry permeates contemporary society and its ramifications on urban space. And if you are in a real star-architecture school, they will discuss these issues among themselves in front of you as though you are not in the room. Therefore you will not be asked any questions.

Lebbeus Woods once said that architecture is about ideas. He is right!

The significance of your project lies within the ideas that it discusses. Similarly, famous buildings are usually famous because of the ideas that they discuss.

The Maison de Verre by virtue of its high attention to detail and craftsmanship sets up a framework to discuss the idea of quality and craftsmanship. In a critique or discussion of this work, one will tend to discuss the choice of materials, the types of hinges he used or the placements of the elements in relation to the body and such.

Conversely, if the conceptual idea is not directly about quality or the materials, then quality, space, materials, aging etc is secondary and therefore treated accordingly.

The prevailing ideas behind BIG’s projects, for instance, are generally about taking two or more traditionally independent programs and merging them together to make an interdependent hybrid that benefit from one another. Its about parametric design and not the least, it is about engaging commercialism and economy as a robust feature of their design and branding strategy. The most important thing in these projects is to demonstrate that this concept works at least at a basic level, that it appeases commercial interests and that it looks good enough (at least on the opening day). Long-term quality and detailing is not unimportant, but it is less so relative to the larger issues and concepts at work here.

With the New Museum, the main idea is about challenging the way we think about vertical construction. Again as with the VM and Mountain Dwelling Project, the most important thing about the building as far as its relevance in the larger discourse in architecture is to demonstrate that it can be done. It cements an idea in place and time. When historians, academics, students etc discuss and write about the issue of vertical construction in architecture, it will stand on the timeline of critical references along with Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright building, the Seagrams building, etc In this scheme, spatial quality and outstanding detailing is not unimportant but it is less so relative to the prevailing issue of verticality, and the sculptural iconography of the building’s exterior form. Unless it is underperforming in a major way, quality is not an issue.

By contrast, if you look at Meis’ branding strategy and philosophy (prevailing ideas), you will see that it is all about projecting integrity and quality. He derides any notions of temporality (the styles, fashion, etc), he wants to talk about the longer arc of time, material integrity etc. This is where he situates his work and this is what his brand is all about. Below, he talks about his philosophy (and please do not get hypnotized by his branding machine - take it for what it is - an honest observation smothered in promotional whip-cream):

My architectural philosophy came out of reading philosophical books. I cannot tell you at the moment where I read it, but I know I read it somewhere, that architecture belongs to the epoch and not even to the time, to a real epoch. Since I understood that, I would not be for fashion in architecture. I would look for more profound principles. I was lucky enough, you know, when I came to the Netherlands and I was confronted with Berlage's work. There, was the construction. What made the strongest impression on me was the use of brick and so on, the honesty of materials and so on. I never forget this lesson I got there just by looking at his buildings.

If you look at say his Farnsworth house for example, (as with the Mountain Dwelling and the New Museum) the most important thing about the building (as far as its relevance in the larger discourse in architecture is concerned) is to demonstrate that this concept-philosophy can be materialized in the real world. However the core of this concept was about materiality, timelessness, and quality. So to demonstrate that, it had to be designed and built in such a way that it can withstand aging without losing its integrity.

Long term quality, and detailing is at the center of this philosophy. So if any of Mies’ buildings were made nearly as poorly as the Mountain Dwellings or the VM apartments it would have probably been ruinous to his career and reputation. Conversely, if any of Bjarke’s work were as famously over budget in the way Mies’s Farnsworth house was, it would probably ruin his reputation too.

So what’s my point?

The prevailing ideas of your work and branding trumps all. In the grand scheme of the fame game, quality in material and craftsmanship, even fundamental things like quality of space are simply subordinates to ideas and branding. For celebrated works, they are dispensable attributes, not fundamental prerequisites as I previously thought. So, allow me to retort with the title of this series: You don’t have to be good.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

83. You Don't have to be Good - Part 2: SANAA & The New Museum
82. You Don't Have to be Good - Part 1: BIG, JDS, PLOT

Monday, April 9, 2012

83. You Don't have to be Good - Part 2: SANAA & The New Museum

Why do we visit famous architecture? For me it’s like going to see a movie. I come with an open mind. I want to bring my popcorn, and open my senses to take in the architecture. I expect my emotions to be stimulated in ways that it is not on an everyday basis. I expect to be thrilled, excited, and inspired. When you visit a work in person, you get to see how the big idea is resolved in the spaces and details, not just how it looks on the surface or in the photograph. It is not just about seeing the volume in 3D either. It is to get to the very essence of the building; the space. When I visit famous works or any work for that matter they reveal themselves in ways that can not be revealed in the photographs. You get to experience the non-tangibles; the smells, the sounds, the temperature, the atmosphere, the feel of the context, a sense of the culture and just a whole world of things that can not be understood in any media format. What’s more, you get to see how the architect responded to these things. 

But for famous works in particular, you expect more. Don’t you? It’s like seeing a trailer for a film, it looks great, and you ask people who have seen it; how was it? And they tell you "It was awesome man! You should definitely see it." Everyone you ask says “yeah... that was the bom!” When you go in the theater don’t you just expect a good thing? The same is true for architecture. When you see all the pictures in the magazines and you ask people how it was and they tell you “it was tha bom!” What do you expect? You expect that this is not just a regular building; that this is something special. It was made with special care. It is exceptional and this is why people come to see it: This is why it wins awards and this is why it is famous. 

When I went to see the New Museum in New York, well let’s just say it was not quite what I expected. To beat the hell out of the movie metaphor, I will say that it reminded me of the movie Avatar. With that movie, the main thing was its breakthrough with special effects. There were a myriad of technological advances that was developed and used for the first time in that film. They had special effects - the likes of which we have never seen before. This was the main attraction of the movie and everything else was there to exploit and showcase the marvelous things that you could do with this technology; the story, the character development, etc, etc. It’s like “hey look at this shiny new technology isn’t it awesome?, and oh the way here is a story to tie it all together and keep you interested.” It seems that James Cameron did all the right things there on out. It's as though he had a checklist of all the things the critics normally comment on and made sure it was handled;
  • Good love story. Check
  • Environmental message. Check
  • Entertaining action scenes. Check
  • Blockbuster marketing and promotion. Check
  • and so on.
Cameron who had made a handsome profit on his earlier Titanic production had a nice budget to spend on the marketing and that he did. By the time the movie was ready for release everyone that I knew had already seen the trailer, and was bubbling with excitement to see it. In all, it was a good movie, it made a lot of money at the box office and it thrilled and tantalized the little 5 year old in me. The visuals as a result of the technology were stunning and delightful. It advanced the movie industry in a way that very few other movies before it have done. However, this film is no where profound enough an outlier to be placed in the same category as say The Matrix or Star Wars. Why? Because the story (which is the very essence of a film) though very nice, played a supporting role in the grand scheme of the production not the other way around. 

In this regard there are some strong parallels with the New Museum and this film. The core architectural idea (the main feature) of this building is its exterior sculptural form (the off kilter stacking and its materiality) and everything else is subservient to that. Louis Kahn talks about how in architecture that there are servant spaces and spaces that are served. The exterior sculptural form of this building is the space (or rather form) that is being served by the rest of the spaces. It was in short designed from the outside in, not the other way around. It feels like they put all their creative energy into coming up with this novel idea and then they found their inner Suzanna (read more about Suzanna here) and handed her the task of developing the internals of the project. However, instead of taking it back from her when she was done and looking at it with a critical and creative mind and asking “how could I make this even better?”, they just stopped; they just accepted it as is and sent it straight out to the contractors. 

The first thing that I noticed in the quality of the spaces and the detailing was that it was just good enough. I always thought that if you are going to do minimalist architecture then the excitement has got to be in the details, and in this case there was none. Everything was done correctly; they dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. With the exception of the exterior, everything was done by the book. The interior detailing is safe as yesterday. There was no experimentation, no risks, no joy, just another hard day’s work at the office and then go home. What you get is a series of pretentious minimalist white cube galleries stacked one on top of the other. You don't need to travel to New York to see it, just go to your local commercial art gallery and you experience the same thing. 

Are the details horrible?... No. 
Are they good?... No - They are not good either - they are just standard and generic with a little dash of flair here and there. They are just there like every other white cube gallery in every city. There is nothing more to see architecturally. 

If you compare it with the Guggenheim just up the road, you will see what I am talking about. The two buildings are virtually identical in programs, they are both museums with art galleries, both are white on the inside and out and both contrasts significantly with their contexts. However only one is a genuine outlier as far as architecture is concerned.  

First and most importantly, the Guggenheim was designed from the inside out; like every building should. Architectural space; (the stuff that matters most) was placed in its rightful position as the chief determinant here: It is evident that this was the starting point and everything else flowed from it. What you get is this wonderful interior and oh by the way we get a nice sculptural thingy on the exterior too. 

Secondly, with the Guggenheim, Wright took risks and experimented on every level. He re-examined a lot of things that most architects take for granted. 
"Well how about the way we go through the museum? Maybe we don’t have to wander from one white box to another; maybe there is another way." 
"How about we have visitors view the art going down on a circular ramp? Maybe we give that a try." 
With this architectural idea he developed a plan of using two overlapping circles and rectangles and already he has departed from the conventional. Did he stop there? Of-course not. 

Then there was the exterior, he could have hid the cylindrical volume with conventional rectangular masses on the outside and make it try to fit in to the neighborhood: Throw some brickwork on the outside and use some slick cooperate sales speak and say "Oh yes! I thought I would communicate with the neighboring buildings and make this be like one of the guys on the block". But he did not. He chose to express the architectural idea on the exterior too. Did he stop there? ...No! 

When it came to the details and the smaller auxiliary spaces, he could have just used some standard conventional stuff and went home. But he did not, he did not stop there. He asked: 
"how can I make even more outstanding spaces with this what I have so far?" 
"What kind of spaces can I make with this?"

As a result there is no generic anything here! The architectural idea expresses itself in every stupid room, in every stupid detail. Just go in in there and look around a bit; everything was considered in relationship to the architectural idea and so there is a clear relationship between the exterior, the interior, and every detail. 

The Exterior
The Interior
Ancillary Spaces & Details

You don't have to like Wright (...and he was not a likable guy from what I have heard) and you don't even have to like the building either for that matter to appreciate the rigor, ingenuity and inventiveness that went into the design of this building.

In doing so, Wright made mistakes and offended just about everybody. Right before the museum opened there were artists petitioning against It, claiming that it is a horrible place to display art. But so what? That is what happens when you stick your neck out and take risks. 

The New Museum is the opposite of Guggenheim in this regard. I can only imagine that they were trying to make the interior as neutral and inconspicuous as possible so that the architecture does not compete with the art. God forbid! No starchitect today would want to be criticized for giving credence to the notion that starchitects only care about building ego stroking monuments to themselves at the expense of functionality and the client’s needs. Therefore let's just be safe, follow all the conventional rules and try to offend absolutely no one. What you get is a correctly detailed medium standard white cube gallery that is politically correct and offends me so much I can’t stand it. If it were edible, the interior would taste like a seven course meal of unseasoned plain white rice. All I can ask is: Where is the beef?

A good deal of my friends are of the thought that it is unfair to compare SANAA to Wright, because Wright was a genius that exists on another plain beyond us mortals. My long time readers know exactly what I think of this notion. Just look here and here. Wright was no genius, he was just another star architect who knew the value of space. Since he was a star (he dominated the architectural press) he was in a way an architect to whom his generation looked to for inspiration and leadership. In the same way SANAA among others are the architects that pop up in every other magazine I read. Architects around the world look at them for leadership. So they are among the design leaders of our generation weather you like it or not. So I maintain that it is fair to compare one generation’s leader to another. 

The act of shifting the floor masses off kilter can be seen as an overrated mundane gesture. So you shift a few boxes around like Jenga: What's the big deal? In a way it is not a big deal and in a way it is. What I find magical about it is that it can oscillate between the banal and the profound. On the one hand it seems so simple that it is stupid and on the other, with one simple Zen-like act they questioned a long standing cannon about the way we think about vertical construction. What’s more, it was done in New York City, the city of the tall vertical skyscrapers, of Mies’ Seagram’s Building and right under the shadow of Louis Sullivan’s Bayard-Condict Building just down the road on Bleeker Street. Louis Sullivan! the father of vertical expressionism in tall buildings. Even more profound is that in its elegant simplicity and subtleties it stands defiantly against the wave of bombastic architectural expressionism that was and still is so dominant today. To me that's a big deal and this is where they earn my respect as design leaders. They showed us that there are other less brazen ways to make things interesting. As far as I saw it, they had stolen the ball from the big boys and I was excited to see what they were going to do with it. However, they did nothing. As interesting and beautiful that this idea is, it is not enough to stop there and leave it at that. 

Architecture is ultimately about space and great architecture is about making spaces of outstanding quality. If someday in the distant future the technology allows a building to hover above the ground without columns or any visible means of support and the first architect to develop this unveils a standard detailed box without exploiting its spatial possibilities, I would call it a neat trick. I would ooh and ahh about it for a while, but ultimately it would only be nothing more than a neat trick. 

In this sense, the new museum is just a neat trick at most. It is interesting, playful and experimental in only one dimension: The overall concept and that's it. 

In the art world we call that a one liner piece; a work that makes one unambiguous point and that's it. Nothing more left for contemplation or reflection. You look at it and say “OK, I get it” and then you keep walking. 

Did they try to use or play with the spatial consequences of the uneven stacking to come up with some interesting or unexpected spaces? No. There is a lot of talk about how they made it so that some of the galleries could be up lighted by daylight but it is not detectable. Was the meshing on the facade a foreshadowing somehow of the textural treatment that we will see on the interior; perhaps a hint of the materiality or something else? No, not really, there are some cheap looking wire mesh screening on the curved divider that separates the book shop from the rest of the lobby and some more of it on the ceiling in the lobby and that’s it. It looks as though they picked it up last minute wholesale from one of the restaurant supply stores across the street. 

Critics or should I say their fans in the press applaud it as a move to connect with the grittiness of the neighborhood. - Hogwash! You can slap on all this "Kum-ba-yah" corporate-speak all you want, this building is anything but gritty or has any characteristics of that neighborhood. It might as well have landed from outer space.

Once you get inside you don't get the feeling at all that the building is organized in any way different from a regularly stacked building. It is just a series of plain white cube gallery spaces with no reference what-so-ever to its off kilter stacking. If you are very familiar with the exterior but have never been there before and someone blindfolded you and dropped you on a random floor in this building then asked you to guess which building you are in (after removing the blindfolds of-course), I guarantee that you would never be able to guess that you were in the New Museum. 

Lets play a silly game. Below is a picture of the exterior of the building, immediately below that are 8 pictures of standard generic commercial white-cube galleries around the world and one picture of the world famous New Museum interior designed by Pritzker winning Super-starchitects SANAA. Now here is the question: Can you guess which one is the interior of the New Museum? I will give you a clue; it is white!
The Exterior
Which one these is the fabulously exciting interior of the New Museum?

Here are the answers. Did you get it right?
Well have a cookie. You are obviously a sophisticated connoisseur of high architecture.
Once I arrived there and got past the airport level security ticketing and baggage checkpoints, the first significant thing I noticed was the security presence. It seemed as though they had the equivalent of the Mona Lisa up in there. They were guards dressed in black with snazzy New Museum ID Cards and walkie-talkies chirping in chorus. They were quick to swarm on you at your slightest motion toward your camera phone. You could almost feel the moisture of their breaths on the back of your neck as you look at the art. The silence of the white sterilized galleries was often punctuated by an occasional bark from a security officer.
  • Sir?..Sir!..No pictures allowed!!!
  • Excuse me!..Can you keep a distance from the artwork please?...Thank You.
  • What are you doing?...put that away!!!..there is no pop corn eating in this museum.
In my tour of the museum’s interior, here is a list of the things that defined the experience in order of impact.
  1. the security
  2. the security
  3. the security
  4. the art
As you can see the architecture did not make the list. It comes in some-place or another after one of the dedication name plaques and the fonts on the receipts from the book shop. 

As I walked though out the galleries, I was looking so desperately for an a-ha moment, a little sign that someone was having fun putting this together, that they enjoyed the detailing, or a moment of playfulness. The closest thing to it was a long narrow staircase. Anywhere else it would be the most mundane thing you would just walk by without as much as a glance, but in that context, anything, absolutely anything that slightly departs from the standard white-cube-osity is a source of life. 

At this point I was ready for a little excitement, and if I wasn’t going to get it from the architecture then Gad-damn-it I was going to create some on my own. I reached into my pocket and grabbed my camera without taking it out. I felt for the power button and switched it on, then as inconspicuously as I possibly could, I began roaming in circles in the vicinity of the staircase, silently whistling and pretending to look at the art while the security guards patrolled almost without any logical direction, just like the ghosts in a Pac-Man game. When there was a clear moment, I quickly ran down the stairs and took two pictures. That's them there below.

When I had enough, I shuffled in with everyone into the large elevator that takes you back down to the lobby. Once the large shiny stainless steel doors closed, suddenly all the visitors frantically started taking pictures. I was sincerely baffled. 
What!... am I missing something? 
Its just an elevator. Why are they taking pictures? 
Its just an over-sized-hospital-standard-elevator that they picked out of a catalog. - They didn't even design it. 
What’s all the fuss about?

Repressed by all the security and lack of architectural stimulation in the galleries, the elevator was the only place to release all the tension that they had pent up in their trigger-fingers. It gave Conrad cause for concern.

In hindsight, I thought that perhaps they were just so repressed by all the security and that since the elevator was the only place without a guard there to shout you down, they couldn't help but to release all the tension that they had pent up in their trigger-fingers. Either that or they did it for the same reason that I took a picture of the staircase. That it was so boring that even a catalogue standard elevator painted brightly green was like water in a desert of sensory deprivation. 

It's like the architects had snatched the ball from the big boys and ran, but they somehow fumbled it; they dropped the ball. But instead of calling them on it, the architectural press just seemed to look the other way and kept on praising them. They dropped the ball and crowd kept on cheering like they made a slam dunk, and I am standing there saying Hey! They dropped the ball, didn’t anybody see that? 
They dropped the ball! They dropped the fucking ball!!! 
What am I in the twilight zone here? 
It’s just a bunch of plain old commercial gallery spaces stacked on top of each other! Can’t anybody see that? 

Conrad Newel 
Liberating Minds Since August 2007