Wednesday, May 26, 2010


In a recent article, the Spanish architect Carlos Martí Arís defined the present architectural scene in the following way.

“There are only two kinds of architecture: that which resembles the costume of a flamenco ballerina, a mountain range or the aftermath of train crash, and that which looks like other architectures. The latter is what we call ‘cultured architecture’ as it is generated within a shared culture and requires some skill to discern what is at first sight similar, skill that is not in the reach of everyone”.

I propose, for the purpose of this brief reflection, to call the first kind ‘spectacular architecture’ and the second ‘craft architecture’, terms that I will try to define in what follows.

‘Spectacular architecture’ is characterized by formal complication – a feature very different from complexity –, too many elements, arbitrariness, the use of non-architectural references and obscure geometries, resulting in objects that bear little resemblance with buildings and have little to do with the activities people perform in them. This kind of production is based on an equivocal understanding of what is creativity in architecture, forgoing its ability to answer well-defined demands to become something that aspires to be unusual, unprecedented and even weird. It is evident that this phenomenon reflects the cultural present, dominated as it is by values and principles from marketing and advertising, with the consequence that architecture became more interested in causing visual impact than in serving more crucial needs of society.

A paradoxical aspect of the so-called ‘spectacular architecture’ is the fact that it is a direct relative of the postmodern trends that used to accuse modern architecture for its alleged abandonment of tradition as the starting point of any project and incessant search of novelty. By the beginning of the 1970’s architectural modernity’s critics claimed the way to overcome those limitations was to recover historical formal values and to produce an architecture with which the public could identify more easily.

However, what one sees today on the pages of magazines and on the streets does not show any of those characteristics deemed essential to overcome modern architecture, although the authors of the iconic projects we find in several North American, European and Asian cities are the very champions of ‘architecture parlante’, postmodernism, ‘architecture for the people’ or at least some of their star pupils. Much on the contrary: in any manifestation of the brighter stars of today’s architectural firmament we find the most banal metaphors to explain their creations and the exaltation of the new as a primordial principle.

Notwithstanding the above, the reader may ask about what is really wrong about an architecture that is so praised and published everywhere. Beyond the fact that very often its formal stridency comes associated with a scant attention to program and context, the main problems with ‘spectacular architecture’ are: exacerbation of the visual chaos that constitutes most of the cities of the world; lack of perceivable systematic order – opposite to the monumental buildings of the past, which served as models for non-monumental construction, today’s monuments are an end in themselves, do not teach anything and are not reproducible –; and incapacity to become a part of ordered although heterogeneous environments. Even worse, this production is the total antithesis of architecture conceived as a discipline and a craft, a practice based on knowledge that can be transmitted and learned. In this architecture one cannot find universal values nor perceivable criteria, thus preventing the exercise of aesthetic evaluation by an observer not intimidated by its appearance.

The opposite practice to ‘spectacular architecture’ is the one that considers architecture as a discipline, a craft developed through centuries, in which creativity only makes sense in the face of a real problem. In the ‘architecture of craft’ the creative – or artistic, if you will – side of architecture reveals itself as a superior way of solving – through form – the practical problems that define a given architectural situation.

However, there is something that sets apart this two ways of understanding architecture in an irreconcilable way: the origin of its forms. In the architecture made primarily to create visual impact – and to be ‘artistic’– form comes from metaphors that are in general alien to the problem at hand and the whole design process is geared to materialize those images, to the detriment of any closer attention to program – Koolhaas went as far as publishing an articled entitled “Fuck the Program” –, place – no longer a source of inspiration – and construction, which is deprived of all perceivable logic and is forced to adapt to shapes that are preposterous and incoherent from the technical and economic points of view. On the other hand, in architecture as craft a design is a formal synthesis of the program’s requirements – in the broadest of senses –, the suggestions of the site and of the discipline of construction, at the same time as it possesses historical authenticity.

The resolution of a program into form and space is the essence of architecture. It is important not to understand the program as a list of dimensional requirements as it is much more than that: an embodiment of human actions, a structured material upon which the designer establishes a spatial order that, although irreducible to its conditions, is never indifferent to them. As Helio Piñón has said, “architecture appears when the sense of form encompasses the program while not being subordinate to it”. This double relationship between form and program – the first responds to the second while transcending it – is what makes it possible for a work of architecture to keep its quality as object intact even when its original program has become obsolete.

To design is also to establish relationships between the parts of a whole; this is true for the internal relationships as well as for the ones any building establishes with its context, of which it is a part. This relationship with the place where it is built is of fundamental importance to architecture: no competent design can afford to be indifferent to its surroundings, as any intervention brings changes to the site’s previous situations, no matter how small they can be. However, even the most powerful places cannot determine what a design will be. In the same way as there is no direct relation between program and form, the relations between place and form will always depend on the designer’s interpretation of it. A close attention to place can result in a visual-spatial structure related to it but autonomous, in the sense of possessing a formal identity whose identification by an observer is independent from the perception of any relations between object and site.

Construction – here understood as the technical aspect of architecture – is so important to architecture that it could be stated that there is no conception without constructive conscience, that is, without the command of building techniques, materials and structural systems. It is this very conscience that sets apart true architecture from pure geometry and the trends that prefer to elude the physical reality of the artifacts they design. One of the central problems of architectural creation is the friction between the visual and physical structures of any object; the development of any design consists mostly in the continual adjustment between these two structures. Far from constituting an obstacle to creation in architecture, construction introduces in the design a discipline that benefits all good architecture. The importance of construction in the process of design becomes evident when one understands the role that can be played by the load-bearing elements in the definition of the spatial structure of a building and in the configuration of its individual spaces. In some exemplary cases, the formal and resistant structures are totally coincident.

In the above I briefly discussed the three inescapable internal aspects of any design: program, site and construction. Now it is time to discuss that which makes possible the formal synthesis of them into a design and, later, an object: the design materials, a repertory that have served architects in the effort to give form and materiality to programs.

If making architecture has to do with ordering elements, this ordering role of the architect presupposes the existence of some raw material – the object of the structuring activity of a designer – and some ordering criteria derived from the aesthetic values of the idea of architecture within which one works. Architecture’s raw material, the repertory of elements and relationships – formal structures – accumulated throughout the history of architecture, is what is called design materials.

This notion of design material leads to the concept of design as (re)construction, that is, the creation of a new order derived from raw material acquired empirically.[2] The historicity inherent in the notion of design materials means the impossibility of confusing it with imitation or literal reproduction. The specific identity of the new artifact – condition of utmost importance in modern architecture – presupposes to have transcended both the formal consistency and the historical meaning of the architecture used as reference, in such a way that the result – if it is to be called architecture – will be totally different from the reality that is assumed in the design as its raw material.

To put it more precisely, the notion of design materials encompasses strategies for the ordering of a building or a group of buildings, for the relationship between a new building and its pre-existent context, structural systems – seen from both formal and constructive points of view –, relationships between parts of buildings and specific constructive solutions.

Let us see a few examples, going from large to smaller scales. The design for Lafayette Park (Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer, Detroit, 1956) is an important reference as it shows several kinds of residential and service buildings distributed on a park and organized in a way that is surprising to many, considering it is a modern urban project: nature and artifice are parts of a single whole, the buildings are close together and create an appropriate domestic scale in which a clear hierarchy of public, semi-public and private spaces is perceivable. 

1. Lafayette Park, Mies van der Rohe and Ludwig Hilberseimer, Detroit, 1956. Source: Hilberseimer/Mies van der Rohe Lafayette Park Detroit, Charles Waldheim, ed., Prestel, New York, 2004. 

Lake Shore Drive, 860 (Mies van der Rohe, Chicago, 1948-51) is a lesson on how to place buildings on a triangular small site, how to coordinate the load-bearing structure of several buildings, how to create flexible residential plans, and so on.

Going from collective housing to individual houses in the 20th century, no study can fail to mention the contribution of architects such as Richard Neutra and Marcel Breuer, especially regarding the integration of houses into natural contexts – generally allowing the interpenetration of both – or how to divide the house into functional sectors while creating open intermediary spaces between house and nature.  

2. Lake Shore Drive 860, Mies van der Rohe, Chicago, 1948-51. Source: Mies van der Rohe at work, Peter Carter, Phaidon, London, 1999 

3. Kaufmann House, Richard Neutra, Palm Springs, 1946-47. Source: Richard Neutra Complete Works, Barbara Mac Lamprecht, Taschen, Koln, 2000. 

4. Robinson House, Marcel Breuer, Williamstown, 1946-48. Source: Marcel Breuer. Casas Americanas, 2G Revista Internacional de Arquitectura, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2001.

In the Yale Center for British Art (Louis Kahn, New Haven, 1969-77) one of the most noticeable features is the way the load-bearing structure becomes formal structure: its presence defines and modulates the facades, which is completed by a system of openings that establishes multiple relationships with the structural skeleton. In the Benissa Town Hall project (Helio Piñón, Benissa, Spain, 2005) the same formal solution is employed in a building related to very different circumstances, showing that its usefulness transcends the event of its creation. 



5. Yale Center for British Art, Louis Kahn, New Haven, 1969-77. Source: The Art Museums of Louis Kahn, Patricia Cummings Loud, Duke University Press, Durhan and London, 1989. 

6. Benissa Town Hall, Alicante, Spain, Helio Piñón and Nicanor Garcia, 2005. Source: Helio Piñón. 

There are two common misunderstandings when it comes to the notion of design materials. The first is to think that they are restricted to the category of global – generic – strategies, leaving the solution of partial problems to the development of the design. This is not so as many times what interests one in a design is the specific relationship between two elements or a way of solving a localized problem as, for instance, the structures developed by Le Corbusier to serve as transition between the pilotis and upper body of buildings like his Unités d’Habitacion and the Brazilian and Swiss Pavillions at the Cité Universitaire in Paris. What is appropriate for the upper stories not always is the best solution for the encounter between building and ground. 

7. Casa do Brasil, Cité Universitaire, Paris, Le Corbusier and Lúcio Costa, 1957-59. Source: Edson Mahfuz. 

Another partial solution that is widely applicable is the way the Pepsico Building (SOM, New York, 1956-60) relates to its neighbor: a ‘joint’that consists essentially in a recessed gap whose width is that of the service block of the building. 


8. PepsiCo Building, SOM/Gordon Bunshaft, New York, 1956-60. Source: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. SOM since 1936, Nicholas Adams, Electa, Milan, 2006. 

The second misunderstanding about the notion of design materials is that they all derive from architecture of the highest quality, generally that practiced by the great masters. Nothing could be further from the truth. For those who look and see there can be design materials everywhere. A few examples from my hometown – Porto Alegre – will suffice, but the chosen city could be anyone.

The Roma and 333 buildings – designed by local architects – teach a lesson on how to combine vertical and horizontal elements into residential facades: in the Roma building they are balanced, creating a grid of balconies – a very common feature in the 1950’s and 1960’s – whereas in the 333 the verticals predominate in the more private area of the apartments. 

9. Edifício Roma, Porto Alegre. Source: Edson Mahfuz. 

10. Edifício 333, Porto Alegre. Source: Edson Mahfuz

In the same Roma building one finds a brilliant solution for the entry to an urban apartment building. The raised terrace gives more privacy to the act of entry as well as it allows the underground parking level to be well ventilated. 


11. Edifício Roma, Porto Alegre. Source: Edson Mahfuz. 

Even from anonymous constructions there are lessons to be learned. The succession of horizontal planes that jut out from a recessed and transparent ground floor is a formal structure that transcends the fact it has been found in a nondescript neighborhood supermarket. A few meters down the road, the Plaza Catedral Hotel, has its own lessons to share. The relationship between the yellow beams and the end of the side walls – in different planes – and the way the balconies change sides to create double height spaces and to aid the circulation of air are short but not insignificant design lessons, available to the ones who attentive and have developed a skill to see that most people lack. 

12. Supermarket, Porto Alegre. Source: Edson Mahfuz. 

13. Plaza Catedral Hotel, Porto Alegre. Source: Edson Mahfuz. 

The 20th century has been didactic in many ways. On one hand, it showed the futility of looking for sources of architectural form in nature, philosophy, mathematics, sociology and literature. On the other, by showing the true nature of modern architecture it called attention once more to a way of designing that generates new knowledge from existing information, as any study of the professional practice developed in the 1950’s and 1960’s will show.

In other words, great architecture can only come from architecture itself. 


[1] Originally published in Arquitetura e Urbanismo, 178, São Paulo, January, 2009.
On the subject of design as (re)construction see Helio Piñón, El proyecto como (re)construcción, Barcelona: Edicions UPC, 2005. 

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