Walkie-Talkie via Diego Delso via wiki commons

Functionalist Paens for Formalist Buildings

According to a famous South American saying, “An Argentinian is an Italian who speaks Spanish and believes he’s English.” Today, the architectural equivalent might be: “An architect is an artisan who thinks he’s an ‘artist’—and is being replaced by engineers.” How else to explain the bizarre behavior that causes many of the best-known designers to justify their empty formal experiments in terms that engineers would find hard to believe, using pseudo-functionalist rhetoric?

Jeanne Gang made her well-deserved reputation as a new talent with a Bertram Goldberg–inspired, waveform high rise in Chicago 15 years ago. Her firm has also won praise for pro bono work and for promoting women to leadership positions. But one of her latest forays into tall building design in San Francisco looks a lot like a riff on the designs of her competitors: Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke Ingels, and Steven Holl, all designers obsessed with creating dazzling “new” forms for large buildings. How does Architect magazine portray her bizarre, tortured Mira building? As the perfect answer to the Bay Area’s need for high-rise, multifamily housing with abundant natural light, spectacular views, energy efficiency, and economy, and whose unusual design was driven mainly by those factors.

Mira Building, San Francisco; Studio Gang. Photo by Brock Keeling, via Curbed San Francisco.

This is poppycock. We may as well be reading a Soviet-era announcement for a clean, well-lit housing block in a former shtetl. Like most starchitects, Gang has designed a high-rise building that “twists” so that her firm can claim it has found a new way to sculpt a tower and brand it with a clever meme.

Though the internet is full of new “zines” that provide forums for intelligent writers, most developers who hire name architects can skirt the nontraditional media by going to local newspapers and their online media pages. The default position for both architects and their media apologists has been to offer empty and often false explanations for the materials, forms, and aesthetic conceits behind their “signature” buildings. If a press release lists these features in bullet points, writers turn them into paragraphs and presto: a “feature” article appears.

Before 1985, when several excellent publications such as Architectural Record, Progressive Architecture, Architectural Forum, and Global Architecture were running on all cylinders, with full-time staff writers like Suzanne Stephens, David Morton, Tom Fisher, and John Morris Dixon at the typewriter, the media maintained a critical standard based on decades of established independent journalism. They guarded print media against false advertising and flimsy boasts about the superiority of one “bold form” over another. Most major newspapers also had perceptive architectural critics who would actually write negative reviews of bad buildings.

Such critical journalism emerged during the Progressive Era and continued after World War I. When the first modernistically inclined critics began writing in U.S. journals (A. Lawrence Kocher, Lewis Mumford, and Peter Blake, to name three,) touting the innovations behind European buildings, a balance of opinions was expressed in the leading magazines like Pencil Points, American Architect, and Architectural Forum. Whatever technological advances marked the 1929 PSFS Building as a trendsetter (such as full air conditioning), the building stood out for its visual elegance and strong proportions, aspects that critics took pains to point out. Though functionalism was a watchword for Modernists, seldom were projects described strictly in terms of their economic or technological advantages.

These established journals (there were more in 1910 than in 1945), influenced no doubt by Life magazine, began to feature the work of an emerging generation of architectural photographers such as Norman McGrath, Julius Shulman, Ezra Stoller, and Hedrich Blessing. The photo-essay-with-text format became a model for critics during the 1950s, later featuring color—but only when photographers accepted the new medium. One can trace the typical multipage, full-bleed feature to the early 1960s, with Architectural Record leading the way. The graphics were right in line with the ideas of Charles and Ray Eames and Florence Knoll. Sunset Magazine offered its bucolic West Coast ranch style, and the Case Study houses joined the party in the early 1960s.

It wasn’t that critics in the 1960s eschewed technical terminology when discussing, say, Saarinen’s GM Technical Center or Walter Neff’s Inland Steel Building, but these icons of the corporate industrial complex never got off without some probing queries about their raison d’etre in a capitalist society. I remember the high point of truly pluralistic writing right in the middle of the Vietnam War, when other journalists were also pointing their cameras at the military industrial state in the U.S. What wasn’t always discussed was the instrumentalism and materialism behind “progressive” design in many areas, not just architecture.

That drumbeat continued, through the brief fling with Postmodern ironies, well into the Reagan years. Many design critics seemed to miss the revolution in digital information processing that was going on under the raised floors of giant office complexes. They didn’t expect them to become white elephants in 20 years. Nor did magazine publishers anticipate the demise of professional journals in the wake of an internet-based information landscape.

After Post-Structuralist “text”-mongers began inserting their sophistry into print during the 1980s and 1990s, bewildered readers ran for the exits. Most establishment magazines lost readership; eventually, the backlash from the profession demanded readable English prose, and the print media began a timid march to the same drummer that has continued for decades, passing obsolete templates into online blogs and journals. Architects, meanwhile, clung to ever-thinner ideological strands, failing to justify their increasingly formalistic play with sculptural masses and structural pyrotechnics. If anything can be built that is floating on a digital monitor, why feel constrained by real, functional exigencies?

Eventually, high-design buildings became mere sculpture or structure, either third-rate conceptual art or second-rate bridge technology. What can be said about hollow forms that hardly pretend to house people and their activities?

Eventually, high-design buildings became mere sculpture or structure, either third-rate conceptual art or second-rate bridge technology. What can be said about hollow forms that hardly pretend to house people and their activities? Very little that pertains to humans, cities, or environmental issues can be written about most contemporary high-design buildings, because their architects do not design with those subjects in mind. If the blinkered quest for “new” forms guides their Revit modelers, architects can’t have much to brag about when it comes to the problems facing out cities, rural landscapes, and parks.

According to the hype, Gang’s Mira “responds to the need for dense housing” and “offers new models for sustainability” while also celebrating “the classic bay” window that is found in Victorian row houses around San Francisco. Truth be told, the building is just a box with strip fenestration, small balconies, and white stucco cladding that has been offset using a stepped flat-floor plate on each story, producing an accordion effect that, I think, is jarring to behold from street level.

What really drives the design of many tall buildings today is sculptural novelty: give developers, and a city, something that hasn’t appeared from the computers of other architects, something that will quickly become an icon in the public eye, and you have satisfied all other criteria. BIG is particularly adept at churning out clever variations on the wedge, insisting that each new one is tailor made for its site, urban morphology, and climate. Bjarke’s brain has no more original ideas for big buildings than any other clever young architect, so he has to repackage old ones, just as his predecessors have done.

The tyranny of new form has left many cities with one or two odd ducks for the public to ridicule, with nicknames like “the Big Pants,” the “Gherkin,” and the “Walkie Talkie.” Ducks, you will recall, are the opposite of decorated sheds, in the lexicon of Learning From Las Vegas. They convey meaning as formal one-liners, just the way BIG offers square “logos” for each of its gimmicky designs. Both Bjarke Ingels and Jeanne Gang worked for Rem Koolhaas before striking out on their own. If nothing else, they learned the art of self-promotion from a master.

Readers may recall that it was the slippery Koolhaas who brandished a “U.S. patent” for a “horizontal skyscraper” before trying to construct the ill-fated CCTV building in Beijing. That inane, self-contradictory conceit epitomizes the kind of subterfuge that today’s designers employ to conceal the fashion branding that links the latest Prada sportswear collection to what is appearing on the corporate websites of architects, institutions, and developers the world over. Perhaps Rem should get a Chinese patent for “monumental steel-and-glass men’s trousers.”

Featured image: London skyline; photo by Diego Delso, via Wikipedia Commons.


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to CommonEdge.org, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.