The New City: Role Reversal

With the role of the architect remaining unchanged over the past century, some believe that a paradigm shift is necessary to blur the boundary between resident and architect. In this post I examine an entry by visionary architecture theorist, Lebbeus Woods who depicts a fictitious, dystopian city that operates on values foreign to current American culture.

For centuries, the role of the architect has been to translate the needs of the resident through the designer’s lens and deliver something that adequately addresses those needs. What would our buildings look like if residents were given the tools for design? Architect and researcher, Kent Larson of MIT suggests in his paper, “Open Source Building” that residents should be given simple 3D computer applications to design and customize the buildings they occupy. This will deliver tools of configuration and customization directly into the hands of the homeowner (essentially eliminating the middle-man architect). Larson argues that this leap is necessary to catch up to the manufacturing processes of the automotive industry; “Today auto companies do not ask the consumer to “pick your car,” but rather, they encourage the customer to “build the car of your dreams.” While customization tools may never be fully capable of replacing the unique balance of practical know-how and spatial issues that an architect possesses, Larson presents an intriguing role reversal in which the resident is given design responsibility.

In his blog post, “Drawings, Stories“, Lebbeus Woods addresses democratic notions of architecture using a description of a fictitious, but socially relevant city. In this society, residents are given freedom to “knock down the walls inside and maybe a hole in the floor, or even take out the floor or tilt it in a funny way” to mold their dwelling to their individual needs. The image to the right is an illustration done by Woods of his imagined city.LW2.jpg Instead of an architect dictating the use of designed spaces, “In this town, we have the philosophy, build a building any way you want to, then we’ll move in and figure out how to live in it” as one resident put it. This “bottom-up” process (versus a top-down mandate from the architect) allows the individual to define the architecture he inhabits, relating to Magnus Larson’s proposal of “open-source building”. Lebbeus Woods creates a dream-like vision that is essentially real, regardless of whether the city exists or not. The following comment was posted on Woods’ blog post, “Drawings, Stories”.

Drawings, Stories

This post addresses a fundamental paradox in the conception of architecture design and construction. In most cities, architects design buildings to meet the needs of people, but the inhabitants are subject to the intentions of the architect, given freedom only to “decorate” their dwelling on a superficial level. This excerpt from your Centricity project poses the question; do architects know what people really need? Can a profoundly new approach be applied to the dialogue between architect and client?

As in all of your work, the ability to convey a narrative through compelling images sets the mood for the story, but I wonder if the “mirage” would be even more vivid if the illustrations were omitted. The success of such an approach is evident in “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino. His fictitious written descriptions of cities narrated by Marco Polo not only evoke mental renderings of endless horizons, they initiate curiosity from the reader. The open-endedness of this imageless approach would parallel the open-source architecture that you are describing in the “New City”. Residents are given the opportunity to not only inject meaning into their dwellings, but they are given the freedom to mold their surroundings to meet their needs. There is an existentialist underpinning in the nature of this argument. Philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche pose that humans create their own meaning, instead of inheriting it from an omnipotent source. Just as man creates meaning in his life, he also creates meaning in his dwelling. Both notions are reactions to their respective opposites; man inherits the meaning of life from a higher source, and the resident inherits the use of his dwelling from the architect. The society depicted in the “New City” exhibits a democratic decision-making process in which the community is like a swarm of wasps, who initially must conform to the environment which they are presented, (a tree branch for example) but then shape it with a new agenda of reproduction and egg laying. If architecture has the potential for this role reversal, are architects presumptuous in assuming they can address the needs of the residents they design for?



The “Starchitect”: Wow Factor

In this blog post, I examine the extravagant architecture that has been used throughout the world by “star architects” to create civic icons. Such buildings are hailed for their financial success in attracting investors, but are horribly unsustainable in a budget and environmentally conscious society.

The architecture industry finds itself at a crossroads; will it see the extinction of the glamorous “starchitect”, or will architects be forced to evolve and meet the demands of environmentalists? While in the past, countries have competed to attract tourism and global investment, more recently the focus of branding techniques has been directed toward cities. As planners began to understand the importance of branding a city with an iconic building, they would commission these “starchitects” more frequently to ensure media publicity. The list of these starchitects includes Daniel Libeskind, Zaha HadidJean NouvelRem KoolhaasNorman FosterSantiago Calatrava, and Renzo Piano, among others. For instance, Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall (2003) has become an icon in Los Angeles, but the true success of architecture is not quantified by the number of car commercials it is featured in. In an interview with Holly Williams, Gehry identifies the impact of his Walt Disney Concert Hall, “It doesn’t leak and people love it and it works, and people identify Los Angeles with the building the way people identify Bilbao with the other building”. Gehry was referring to his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that transcended the traditional standards of success and opened the doors to a new league of global tourism.
Bilbao, Spain acts as the perfect case study for this recent phenomenon. The transformation of Bilbao from an impoverished port-city to a globalized cultural center was a calculated endeavor by city planners. Knowing that a cultural, artistic revival was necessary, they commissioned Frank Gehry to design the Guggenheim Museum. UsingCATIA, a computer software previously used in aircraft and naval design, Gehry was able to calculate the curvature necessary for his dramatic titanium-clad surfaces in the museum. Gehry stayed within the budget of $100 Million but the building literally paid for itself in one year with revenue generated from its world-wide reputation. While Gehry’s design was met with initial opposition, its bold presence has created a civic icon and “Put Bilbao on the map” according to newspapers. For this reason, architect, Philip Johnson considers the Guggenheim, “The greatest building of our time”. City planners today refer to the “Bilbao Effect” when considering the power of architecture to transform a city.

Since the creation of the Guggenheim, cities all over the world are seeking the artistic renaissance that Bilbao experienced. Although Milan already has a well-established cultural identity, it is undergoing a transformation that includes the design of iconic buildings by big-name architects. Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, and Arata Isozaki have been commissioned to build three high-rise mixed-use buildings in a historic Milanese neighborhood. These three high-rises will do more than attract flocks of architecture students because of their “Wow factor”. The goal of this vertical housing and commercial project is to create Milan’s first zero-emissions neighborhood. While the names of these architects will generate publicity on their own, the sustainable consideration of promising carbon neutrality is an admirable benchmark. In this project, the architects were forced to be environmentally sensitive, not gaudy for the sake of investment opportunities. Thus, the final building is a byproduct of the challenges that the architect takes on. If the architect confronts and solves issues of sustainability, these will become the focus of the project. In a Newsweek article, Cathleen McGuigan argues that the “death of starchitecture” is imminent as clients begin to cut costs in a budget-conscious economy. She states that sustainable practices both economic and environmental will curtail the “Look what I can do” architecture that is has become prevalent in major cities. However, if the project is commissioned by investors whose bottom line is earning revenue, such sustainable considerations will be disregarded and replaced with motives of seeking attention from a global audience. Such has been the case for the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

When a seemingly bottomless pit of oil was discovered in Dubai, ideas and investors ran wild. A phenomenon unlike any other in the world, “Accelerated Urbanism” took place. Construction cranes spanned the skyline, erecting monumental landmarks including theBurj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Instead of designing buildings that related to their immediate surroundings in Dubai, structures were planned in response to global trends and forces. Thus, notions of creating a civic identity among residents became an agenda of creating a world-wide identity among tourist destinations. The image of Dubai has not only been defined by gargantuan architecture, it has become inundated with it. As the oil well begins to dry up in Dubai, nearby Abu Dhabi is emerging as the next real estate venture based on extravagant architecture. Frank Gehry is also commissioned to do aGuggenheim museum here, but under much different circumstances. Abu Dhabi is already becoming a well-established iconic city, unlike Bilbao that needed a single architectural monument to transform the city.

Not all cities are following the gaudy model of flashy, perpetual expansion. Vancouver, British Columbia has set the standard for sustainable, “green” neighborhoods. vancouver small.jpgThe goal of city planners is to become the world’s most “green” city, with initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and foster live/work communities within dense neighborhoods. Unsustainable cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles are growing horizontally outward, while Vancouver is promoting public transport, and building compact housing in the core of the city. This alternative approach negates the need for a long commute, reducing CO2emissions generated from cars. Since the sustainable initiatives have been enacted, the city has seen a 180% increase in cycling, a 44% increase in walking, and a 50% increase in public transit. Vancouver is harnessing methane gasses emitted from waste to generate much of its power, aiming for carbon neutrality by 2020. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system is using Vancouver as a benchmark for its rating system of Platinum, Gold, and Silver. Vancouver currently features over 1.8 million square feet of LEED Gold and Platinum development including the world’s first LEED Platinum Convention Center (above). The “green” city of Vancouver is no longer an outlier among urban cities, but a model for forward-thinking city planners world-wide. While ostentatious and sustainable architecture may appear incompatible, their ability to coexist will prove crucial in the progression of the architecture dialogue.


Nano Scale: The Living Kitchen

The future of nanotechnology offers many applications in the world of housing. The blog entry I respond to in this post presents a kitchen that morphs out of a wall thanks to microscopic, “claytronic” atoms.

Continuing the theme of innovative domestic dwellings, I examine a project that approaches the world of household design on a nano level. The Living Kitchen, by designer Michael Harboun depicts a vision of the future that has implications in all facets of daily living. His animation and renderings of The Living Kitchen show a faucet and sink that are drawn and extruded from a wall based on the user’s hand movements. Mr. Harboun’s depictions are eerily lifelike, yet remarkably progressive. This technology features nanometer-scale computers that are programmed to aggregate in various formations based on a response to human touch, forming basic household appliances. Not to say that this is the first project or the most groundbreaking in the world of programmable matterand claytronic atoms. On the contrary, it takes the most mundane of activities (cooking) and reimagines it with one of the most potentially innovative technologies being explored, nanotechnology. Currently, explorations into the world of nanoscale robotics are in their infancy, reminiscent of primitive room-filling computers. But the advancements in the world of nanoscale technology are propelling the industry forward. Carnegie Mellon University is one of the leading institutions in nanotechnology research, much of which is still in crude, rudimentary stages.

“The Living Kitchen”


Mr. Harboun’s renderings are so provocative that the viewer loses any sense of reality, and in that moment the world of the possible becomes clear. Nanotechnologies represent a well-prophesied, but seldom articulated direction in the design world. The potential of this theoretical technology is quickly materializing as exhibited in Harboun’s depictions. I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the prospect of interacting with a material that molds to meet my needs. Such animations assume notions of embodied design intelligence, in which forms are conditioned rather than molded. Programmable matter has the potential to re-define the role of the designer as geneticist of microscopic traits.

I am very interested in the potential applications of nanotechnology as it relates to housing. On a functional level, it can make simple, household chores efficient in a spatial planning sense. No longer will a sink exist when it is not in use. Counter space can grow along the length of an entire wall. These are all pipe dreams compared to my current kitchen situation, but they illustrate a very utilitarian fantasy. Conversely, nanotechnology can theoretically be applied to larger-scale design issues in architecture. Building facades could thicken to insulate a house during the winter and become porous during warm months to naturally ventilate. The “claytronic” atoms could be programmed to react to sun paths, resulting in a building that reacts to its environment based on certain design criteria. One day society will look back on our crude, static appliances and wonder how we survived without programmable matter catering to our needs. Nanotechnology may threaten to create the society depicted in Wall-E, in which all rituals of daily life are served to humans reclined in lounge chairs. Or, could the use of nanotechnology redefine the user as designer? Perhaps as members of the mass public become designers, there will be a revolution in the industry in which creative output is a daily ritual. The telling sign that this entry is powerful is that in its descriptions, people are describing all kinds of applications that are not represented in Harboun’s sequence of renderings. Excitement to explore the possibilities of claytronics is palpable.


Beauty: A Death or Rebirth?

This article will consider the question, “Has beauty been eradicated by the machine?” New computer techniques have given rise to a new age in architectural design, but are architects prescribing their own extinction in pushing for such computer advancements?

The profession has almost mastered computer technology in terms of representation. Architects use Computer Aided Design (CAD) software to create drawings of the design they envision. But more recently, the computer is being used as a tool for the genesis of architecture, not merely its representation. Experimental forms can be generated, structurally tested, and prefabricated at an astonishingly efficient rate. Codes are being written into 3D software that can generate thousands of “parametric” design iterations that could never be done by a human. The excitement over this technology is perceivable in the swagger of young design professionals around the world. While even experts have not mastered their full potential, novel tools are opening new avenues in the industry. Zaha Hadid is at the forefront of this paradigm shift due to her success in implementing parametric form in built work. Her rendering for the Performing Arts Centre for Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates is featured below.Zaha1.jpg

In “The Architecture of Happiness“, Alain de Botton poses the question, “How can anyone know what is attractive?” He argues that the creation of beauty, “Once viewed as the central task of the architect, has quietly evaporated from serious professional discussion and retreated to a confused private imperative”. He is referring to the rational justification necessary for any decision made by architects of the modern era. An architect during this period could not justify a window mullion because it was “beautiful”. Beauty was deemed a subjective quality and thus opposed to rational, pristine architecture of the early 1900’s.

Are designers in danger of losing their artistic identity among the prototypical iterations generated by the computer? Architecture is a balance between the conditions of the site context and the ideas generated by the individual. These ideas of the architect often operate in the realm of the subconscious. Does the brain perceive beauty? If so, is it universal or is it subjective and based on our experiences? A blog entry by Maria Lorena Lehman addresses the issue of neuroaesthetics. Lehman poses the question, “can beauty be universally understood?” She sites Seed Magazine, “An object’s beauty may not be universal, but the neural basis for appreciating beauty probably is”. While it is apparent that individuals may base the perception of beauty on their experiences, there is scientific evidence that the “location and dimensions of space will have profound implications for architecture”. Lehman postulates that one day architects might be able to create architecture based on the knowledge of which neurons will fire, resulting in specific reactions. Architecture might take on a calculated beauty.

The most recent developments in architecture technology feature the theme of observing nature to generate structure and forms. The cell structure of soap bubbles was translated into the enclosure of the Water Cube at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A nest of twigs inspired the structural columns in the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. Architects are taking the beauty that is seemingly intrinsic in nature and examining its architectural potential.

This practice of looking at nature to derive form is not new to architects. The famous Catalan Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi began observing nature to generate architectural forms in the late 19th century. The spires of his famous Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona were derived from the natural curvature he found when observing the parabola made by a hanging string model. Another Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava (below) also achieves natural forms (taken from bone structures) in his feats of architecture and engineering. Some may say that architecture simply looks at nature to generate efficient structures, but is there more than meets the eye? There is something aesthetically pleasing about the organizing systems of nature. As the computer allows us to mimic the beauty found in nature, it is not only preserving notions of beauty, it is literally generating it.

Yael Reisner interviews architects such as Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Peter Cook, and Zaha Hadid in her book “Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with architects about a troubled relationship”. Their insight on the relevance of beauty in the 21st century design process was discussed at the “Architecture and Beauty Symposium” at the Southern California Institute of Architecture on Sept. 15th. Frank Gehry (whose design process is revealed in his documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry“) was the first to speak on the topic of self-expression. He stated that if he delivered anything other than his intuitive perspective on beauty, he would be “Talking down to a client”. His process of conceiving architecture begins with his mangled sketch, and then takes the form of a crumpled paper model. Once the model is deemed pleasing to Gehry, it is generated in the computer, with each crease, curve, and fold being precisely calculated with his specially adapted software, Catia. Gehry argues that despite advancements in the computer realm, “you can never remove the self” from the design. There is always the architect who decides which ideas are kept and which are dismissed. The general consensus from the panelists being interviewed was that although new techniques may revolutionize the design process, the ultimate decider will always be the architect. At the very heart of the architect’s design is an aesthetic decision and this can never be replaced.

My own explorations into the world of parametric architecture have yielded similar conclusions. Despite my initial fears that the computer might replace the architect’s aesthetic for beauty, I soon realized that the computer is merely a tool that we implement, a means to an end that we determine as well. This conclusion provides more than the assurance of job security for future architects. It emancipates the designer from the shackles imposed by the strict rules of rationality and opens the door to a new generation of design techniques.

Avant-garde Abode: New Directions in Housing

This first post is a collection of resources both to equip and educate the public with the most innovative projects, policies, and theories that will shape the future of the housing industry. These blogs and websites focus on various topics ranging from sustainability to experimental form-making.

This forum will explore new possibilities in housing that are at the cusp of what is being called a revolution in architecture. The thesis I am postulating is that new methods in building technology are changing the way humans interact with dwellings. The arsenal of this revolution is information and as such, the following links will provide a thorough and provocative database of resources. This collection of resources was compiled using the help of various blog engines including Google Blog Search and Technorati and Meta-Engines such as Metacrawler and Dogpile. The selection of these websites is based on the 6 criteria set forth by the Webby Awards: content, structure and navigation, visual design, functionality, interactivity, and overall experience.

An important consideration of innovative architecture must be to examine the possible impact of natural catastrophes and pose solutions to them. Websites such as Eartharchitecture (from which the image on the left is taken) and Cocoon-housing address the need for housing in extreme conditions. Blogs such as ArchDaily, Inhabitat, Designboom, Evolo, Archithings, Dezeen, and BruteforceCollaborative list current architectural projects that promote ideas of sustainability, prefabrication, and new building methods. Such blogs are gaining world-wide interest among viewers and therefore becoming prime promotional space for architects and designers. Inhabitat is particularly interested in the sustainability aspects of housing. It can be assumed that the architecture of the future will be rooted with such aspirations as carbon neutrality. There are a plethora of “experimental” blogs that architecture students and professionals create to both progress the field of architecture and promote their work. Such blogs include The Very Many, Kokkugia, and NeoArchaic. Their role in the architecture discourse is pivotal in the progress of innovative form-making. Such blogs become open-source databases of information on software techniques that are educating the world-wide audience. SuckerPunch Daily is an avant-garde architecture and design blog that receives international readership. Lastly, websites such as Architecture2030 and USGBC offer resources and incentives for a sustainable building practice.