August 01, 2013

It’s OK to Build Stuff

OK, most buildings, even those designed by architects, are not very good.  I think we can all agree on that.  Among those buildings that do have merit, the ideas that make them strong have more to do with arrangements of shapes than they do with the way they are built.  Buildings tend not to express the way they are made. Construction and Form are split.   Although this split is not entirely new to the twenty-first century, the distance between the two has certainly become larger in recent years.

To the Greeks and the Romans, there would have been no difference between the sort of analytic thinking that engineers do and the creative work that architects do. “The first people created things according to their own ideas…by virtue of a wholly corporeal imagination…for which they were called poets which is Greek for ‘Creators’.” To the classical philosophers, the word, “techne”, referred to both the fine arts and the useful arts, which is why Aristotle’s Poetics constantly suggests ideas regarding personal work, arrangement of materials, and structure.  Every creative act upon an object was an attempt by the artist to coax forth the object’s innate nature.

Yes, it is true that architecture is a complicated profession, which is why the most famous architects tend to be older.  It takes a lifetime to acquire the skills that you need to design a building of consequence. Yet, certain practicing architects like Renzo Piano, and certain engineers like Santiago Calatrava, have managed to combine engineering and aesthetics.

In another post I’m certain I will address the role of the computer – especially 3D drawing programs like Rhino and Grasshopper – in creating new ways for architects to determine the way a project is built. And certainly new environmental standards like “LEED”, “Passive House”, and the “Living Building Challenge” have led architects to re-examine the way we build.  I’m interested in these standards and believe them to have strong merit.  That being said, in my opinion most buildings constructed according to these standards exhibit the same faults as do conventional buildings, employing tired form-making strategies that don’t respond in creative ways to the way people actually live.

I’m convinced that that the most effective way architects can address the gap between engineering and form is by addressing the issue with care and skill. Thoughtful architects can surmount the limitations of our profession by taking the time to resolve their ideas.  I agree with the architectural critic, Jeffrey Kipnis, who has written, “The evidence is that we live in a time when the intelligence, the knowledge, the skills, and the talents of architects are at a zenith.”  So why are so many buildings so poor?  We resort to cliches because we design too quickly.  Designing in response to the constraints posed by construction challenges our imaginations. I advise my students and interns to slow down as they work and to think carefully as they make decisions.

In my previous post, The Poetics Of Structure, I talked about how “inherent in the design of construction sequences, means, and methods are the same dramatic possibilities inherent in the design of other building strategies.”  We need to imagine ourselves builders as well as form-makers. It is thoughtless to not consider all aspects of the making of a building as we design. And we are certainly not that…

So how is it that construction has come to be viewed as separate from and secondary to a building’s form?

1) Well, for one thing, Modernism changed architecture forever by separating the enclosure of a building from its structure.  Back in the day, the walls of a building were structural and held up the building roof and walls.  Now, the building enclosure system more often than not plays no role in supporting the building roof.  Most of the time, it can’t even hold itself up!  Increasingly, architects have become designers of building skins while engineers are relegated the design of the structure.

2) Architecture has simply become too complicated for any architect to master completely all aspects of the profession.  I have heard architects say that, because the world has become so convoluted and because building techniques have become so sophisticated, we should leave construction to the builders and engineering to the engineers.  “Let architects concentrate on what they know well, namely coordination, management, and design.”

3) Most buildings are constructed in the most expedient way possible; and any construction that varies from the norm costs more money.  Special details are required if the skin of a building is to be pulled away to expose the structure and details cost money. Structural expression is both tricky and redundant, and is therefore subject to deletion by cost conscious owners.

4) The structure of many new commercial buildings requires spray fireproofing, which cannot be exposed inexpensively.  So, architects are forced by code to express the ideas of their buildings that pertain to construction indirectly, by means of non-loadbearing secondary layers of materials that mimic the primary structure.

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