Friday, February 3, 2012

82. You Don't Have to be Good - Part 1: BIG, JDS, PLOT

I don't want to be interesting, I want to be good
-Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Good work + good promotion = fame in architecture
-Conrad Newel

Good: That is the common denominator in the two quotes above, and that is what I would like to zero in on in this note; specifically the former part of the equation "good work" which I have so endearingly engrained in the consciousness of all my long time readers.

I had a teacher in college that once told me that to be a good architect you have got to innovate; push the envelope and do something interesting or you have to go the way of Mies and raise the level of precision and craftsmanship to a level of high quality. I have always respected Mies but I also felt he was too extreme in his insistence on quality to the point that it was quite often boring for me, so I tended towards architecture that was attempting to do something interesting. My preference for interesting works however did not mean that I did not appreciate quality in craftsmanship and detail. To the contrary, for me good architecture means a combination of both.

So earlier this year I went on a trip to Copenhagen and I thought naturally I would grab my copy of "Yes Is More" to read on the flight over. With the book in one hand and a map of Copenhagen with all of BIG's projects clearly circled on the other, I embarked on finding and seeing all of these exciting works first hand.
The first stop was the harbor bath project that was done under PLOT with Julien De Smedt. As I approached, I recognized the profile from all the images I have seen of it before, but as I got closer it became strangely unfamiliar. The bright golden color of the wooden planks that made up the structure has aged to a dirty splintered gray. [Addendum: february 9, 2012: Some of my readers have informed me that this may be because the wood used here was either larch or some other kind of local Scandinavian wood that resists natural forces without need for any finish. It turns gray naturally and was most likely intentional by the architects. If that's the case I concede this point and kudos to the architects here] There was a roughness and uncraftly quality to it that was not present in any of the photographs or images that was seen in the publications. It seemed somewhat crooked and shabby. This brought to mind another maxim that was impressed upon me while I was still in school:

A good building should enhance in character with age like a fine wine; Since most buildings will last about 100 years or more, a good building should be designed with that in mind and consideration should be given to how it will appear as it ages.
Time and the effects of its aging was not considered here. I was disappointed but not deflated. Surely this was a fluke, BIG and JDS are arguably among the world’s most celebrated and exciting architects today.

The next stop was the VM apartments also done under PLOT. The buildings are located in a new suburban development just outside of Copenhagen called Ørestad. You can read more about it here. While on the monorail that takes you out there I saw quite a few interesting apartment buildings that caught my eyes. The area seemed recently developed and quite a lot of the buildings out there were attempting to do something interesting in some way or form. Though I did not know who the architects were, they were attention worthy and I wanted to at least go over and take a closer look. However, my time was limited and I was here to see the VM Apartments and the Mountain dwellings that I had read so much about.

Arriving was akin to seeing the statue of liberty for the first time. I have seen the images so many times before it felt like I knew it very intensely yet there it was; a strange yet familiar icon. Approaching it from a distance was exciting, it was just as how I imagined it: the genius man made mountain stood there shining in the Scandinavian light. It was a beautiful thing to see. Then there was the jeweled array of razor-sharp Leanardo DeCaprio balconies gallantly defending their facade.

As I got off the train and started approaching it up close I began to see another side of the project that I had hoped not to see. Just by looking at the quality of the detailing of the elements used; the fixtures, the handrails, etc. I could only imagine that someone was trying to save money. Either the developers were pressuring the architects to be thrifty or there wasn't much money in the project to begin with.

Little or no thought given to how the building or its materials ages and transforms as it weathers over time. The wood as you can see is already water-rotted and beginning to lose its integrity over just a few winter cycles. This demonstrates a gross lack of understanding of the properties of wood and its behavior in winter climates or capitulation to economic pressures to cut costs by using inappropriate wood sans proper finishing and correct detailing.

Facade elements already beginning to fall apart

Long institutional corridor with poor day lighting and fluorescent light strips glaring directly into your eyes.

Optimistic colors and snazzy graphics painted on top of sloppy concrete-work and cheap metal fittings: Clearly visible in the foreground is efflorescence leaking from grotesque concrete surfaces. Further in the background are water puddles accumulating because of shoddy leveling and grading work on the parking deck.

 Either way, at close range certain parts of the structures looks one grade up from the temporary utilitarian structures one might find at a construction site. There seemed to be no consideration or strategy for how the building's material would appear over time as it ages or how it would look after the first two weeks or so after the building was finished and after all the press photos were taken: Pieces were already falling apart and the materials used made it feel more like a temporary Hollywood stage set.

Whether Bjarke and Julian were simply making the best of what resources and budget they had is a whole other discussion. It could very well be that the both of them had a modest budget and they passionately worked their asses off to make something reasonably decent; in which case they should be commended for that deed. I tend to lean towards this theory, but since I have never seen a report that compares what the proposed budgets were and what the actual cost of the building turned out to be then I really don't know.
My point here is not to denounce BIG, JDS or PLOT as bad architects. To the contrary, I think they are probably better than most of the unknown Joe Blow architects out there that you have never heard about. The point I am trying to make is that famous architecture and quality architecture are not necessarily synonymous.

What BIG has been able to do is create buildings animated by playful and innovative ideas, poorly detailed with cheap commercial grade materials and clearly present/promote them with contagious enthusiasm and nifty little diagrams. The bottom line of this formula is that you can produce very interesting and popular buildings on the cheap. It wins you lots of competitions and makes you the darling of developers looking to turn a nice profit. This very project have received more awards and accolades than I can count. They are the inspiration for a great part of all the new projects that are being copied and pasted throughout the architectural hemispheres. I see copies of them in almost every architecture school I visit, and a lot of new residential projects all over the world. Just go to ArchDaily and browse around a bit and you will see the influence of these buildings. The ideas and main concepts are very interesting and admittedly worth inspiring the world, but qualitatively speaking, they are not very different from the crappy commercial office building that you can easily find at any strip mall down the road from where you live. This is simply put wonderful and interesting ideas built of crudely detailed shit: And that's a pity because I think the ideas and concepts that they represent deserve better.

I have never relay met Julian but I have met Bjarke and to be honest, he seems like a genuinely nice fellow. His personality, enthusiasm and mere force of character spits in the face of the notion that you have to be a conceited archi-speaking dick-head in order to be a successful starchitect. That's one of the major reasons I root for him and that is why I want to see him succeed.

However to continue to heap praises and accolades on these projects of his without pointing out their obvious deficiencies is to really do a disservice to architecture. It sends a message to the younger architects who take inspiration from it that this is acceptable, that this is something to strive for, not something to surpass.

After seeing these works from up close, the best conclusion I can come to is that the level of quality and craftsmanship was disappointingly shitty while the marketing and presentation of ideas was absolute genius. I am hereby disputing (or modifying) the maxim that I often touted on this blog

Now I will have to say something like this:

Good (and /or interesting) work + Good Promotion = Fame in Architecture

The one thing I now know with all certainty is that the only thing that is invariably consistent with famous architecture is just good marketing and publicity.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007


Anonymous said...

In response the the aging of the wood that you have seen, the wood used in both the harbor baths and mountain dwellings might have been larch, a popular wood in Scandinavia for its ability to resist natural forces such as snow and rain without the use of chemicals. As larch ages, it turns gray. Most people in Scandinavia know this, and it may have very well been intentional and known that the wood would have turned gray.

If the architects did chose larch, then they should be commended for using a local natural resource instead of choosing to use other woods or chemicals, even if you can see the aging of the wood.

Conrad Newel said...

Thanks anonymous,

If that's case then I am dead wrong and I gladly take back everything I said about the wood work.

This just goes to show how little I know about Scandinavian wood :)

Now all I need is for someone to show me that I do not know what I am talking about when it comes to concrete, grading work, quality fittings, and institutional corridors.

Anonymous said...

I'm not the first anonymous...

I worked as a pool lifeguard for three years during undergrad, and I can tell you that pools can turn pretty shabby pretty quickly if not maintained. I'm guessing your photos were taken in the middle of winter? The harbour baths are seasonal so I think a better indication would be to see how they're looking in the summer. You can clearly see the buildup of scum and debris in water in the picture's foreground, which suggests the pool has not been cleaned or used in a long time. I think the greying of the timber may well have been intentional - down here in New Zealand we have a pretty harsh climate, and the extent to which materials weather over time is often an active decision rather than an afterthought.

I think you're on the money though with your other criticisms... from what I can tell (at a distance) most of BIG's buildings are fairly typical commercial fitouts with a twist. Which is good, I think. In a a way. I would rather see something like the Mountain go up than a typical block of apartments, presuming that the standard of detailing and construction work remains constant irrespective of design intent. Better that developers and the public see architecture and big architectural ideas as a selling point rather than a few flourishes condensed into one 'design flair moment' on the building's facade.

Anonymous said...

i think you'll find with most of the work from OMA and OMA's kids are strong ideas, good designs and mediocre details/craftsmanship.

i'm fairly certain the wood used is larch as well.

Anonymous said...

I don't think some of these problems are the fault of the architect. Particularly complaints about concrete finishing. A poor finishing job is almost always going to be the fault of the contractor placing the concrete or engineer doing the mix design. Unfortunately the culture in construction is to get things done as fast as possible and to make things just "good enough".

That corridor is pretty bad though, the architect can't escape blame for that eyesore.

harry said...

You make a point here that fits with my own thoughts on architecture- it is a discipline all too rarely practised with an eye to future use, maintenance and longevity. An example would be the bike rack seen in the last picture. These became obsolete with the introduction of the quick release axle 30 years ago. No modern bike over £100 is supplied without them. the attention to detail which this points to is somewhat underwhelming

Anonymous said...

Conrad, in one of your pithiest earlier posts, you described how architectural glory is currently won by creating highly entertaining designs. That is to say, a project's utility and craftsmanship are often distinctly secondary considerations. True for the moment, but ultimately the tests of time may prove more decisive. Take, for example, Charles Moore's Piazza d'Italia, once lauded in the architectural press (there is no denying it) and now a derided, crumbling eyesore. I applaud you, Conrad, for visiting these buldings "in the flesh", as it were, and writing about these issues. It can be argued that, at the end of the day, an award like the AIA's 25-year award is much more meaningful than recognition in the PA Awards.

Anonymous said...

quick someone send this to the Kimball Art Center. BIG has chosen to show major wood there !

JH said...

Although the use of larch is very popular and it has merit as a durable, local resource in Scandinavia an important aspect of the natural behavior of larch is often overlooked.

Larch does turn a lovely silvery grey color when exposed to the elements but detailing is extremely important. Larch warps and moves about under the influence of weather and this is what is very apparent at the mountain. Furthermore larch only turns silvery grey where sunlight and rain hits it. So under protruding building elements, grates, windows etc. the red colour remains somewhat as a tongue of what looks like discolouration. Not so attractive.

When it comes to the architecture of the actual buildings I'll agree to the institutional character of the corridors of the VM building but another aspect of the mountain, which I rarely see mentioned, is the urban impact of the project.

As you move along the building at street level it is one of the least welcoming housing projects I can think of in Copenhagen. I'm sure the view from the terraces is lovely and the apartments are probably nice too, but for the rest of the world, who happen to not live there, there is a parking structure clad in slightly perforated metal sheets and with absolutely no thought for the urban qualities of the space surrounding it.

Ørestad is a new(ish) development of suburban character at the moment but it is turning into a disaster as the mistakes of the past are remade. Apparently nobody has learnt from history in this case. Sad.

Michelle said...

I am often disappointed by the quality of famous projects when I see them in person, especially the newer ones. It seems that all that counts is flashy renderings and pretty photos when the project is new. The architecture community seems to forget that buildings have long lifespans.

shawn said...

Great post. I feel some of the issues with performance of materials over time is the lack of collaboration throughout the design process with the contractors - who are often far more expert in materials and appropriate detailing options. Unfortunately the double edge sword for the architect (and starchitects in particular), is that people want and expect them to know EVERYTHING and solve ALL the issues related to constructing a building. Architects egos often mean they can't admit their shortcomings or limited knowledge, so the building gets designed, detailed, and built - with many of the long term shortcomings you are talking about. Lawyers and liability issues aside, one can only hope this kind of nonsense be becomes less common as BIM really starts to change the nature of how teams collaborate from initial stages to handing over the keys, and then onto long term maintenance.

Francois said...

The wood does not look like larch at all. I am rather sure it's not pine neither local. It might be Western Red Cedar or a tropical hardwood (FSC) which is most likely. The details shown on the photos show that the architect choose to use a wood type that is durable enough to withstand these architecturaly engineered details. The result is what happens over some time when the sun and rain do their work. The wood is deforming because of too little protection from the rain and too few fasteners. The black and grey is caused by weathering, it is not rotting. The wood is probably durable enough to remain untreated without it rotting. I often used this wood but only when the grey/black weathered look was what I was looking for.
Given the architects fame you have to assume these photos show exactly what the architect was hoping for. Also his clients are looking for buildings like this.

For all big works clients usually visit projects before they choose for an architect. What they see is creativety and modernism and maybe some bad contracting that needs finetuning in future construction contracts. Very few people actually know what the architects role is here. I don't think James Cutlers projects would look like this.

Thanks for your work on this site.