What’s With Our Obsession with Stacked-Boxes?

Buildings are unique. They are designed by and for living humans in a vital culture, but the buildings (sometimes) live on, beyond the lifespans of the people and the society that produced them. As a result, the motivations of the moment can eventually betray the beauty of buildings. Jenga is a game of stacking, removing and maintaining the balance of boxes on a tabletop—and in this moment, a tabletop game has become a way to mass buildings. Why?

Architecture uniquely crystallizes the moment. It freeze-frames how we see our world, and tries to turn the movie of life into a photograph. We try to cast a dancer into a statue. And yes, architects try to freeze music.

When did designers start to conspire to simulate random stacking? Whether it was Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 or Paul Rudolph’s Oriental Masonic Gardens, designed a year later, more than a half-century ago architects began to spend countless hours of careful design, engineering, and coordination, in an effort to mimic spontaneity. This effort was akin to Shakespeare being performed as improv, free-form expression, when in fact the script was meticulously written. Is it dishonest? Is the effort inherently hypocritical? I think it is—and yet many love it.

With so many trying so hard to create colossi of gigantism based on a tabletop game, this eddy of aesthetic effort must have an appeal beyond cheap thrills. Humans are drawn to drama—when we see a hideous accident on the highway we slow down to gawk. A simple box tower—like those marching down Sixth Avenue in New York— offers the most square feet for the least amount of money, so the appeal of Jenga massing is not about saving money. 

Stacked-Box Architecture is just the next shallow simulation of kinetic energy, we see in the singularities of a Frank Gehry frozen explosion, or a Michael Graves PoMo pastiche of parts. Some of us love the professional wrestling aspect of architecture, where every move is calculated to appear as though it’s spontaneous. This desire is not limited to architecture. Food is an essential, and we watch cooking programs that present insane creations that are art pieces that just happen to be edible. We all wear clothes, and yet some are fascinated by the distorted and extreme runway fashion exhibitions.



Perhaps we’re just bored. In architecture this means the “decorated sheds” that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown defined in Learning From Las Vegas are not enough. As a culture, the value of the stoic neoclassical temple that is reused endlessly as a courthouse, library, or museum has become tiresome for many. The swooping shapes of parametricism, which devotes itself to becoming poetic distillation—devoid of scale, material, or context—are becoming a trope as well. Part of our culture may be growing weary of the carefully woven tweed of a High Modernist ensemble, as uptight and “correct” as any cookbook creation.

In this life of internet oversharing, architects are ho-humming these been-there/done-that buildings. So some delight in playing architectural Jenga, not as a one-off idiosyncrasy, but as a type, a “style,” the built manifestation of attempting to freeze motion in form, an oxymoron.

Regardless of the motivations, the outcomes of cheap thrills kineticism are not cheap. Rudolph’s Masonic Oriental Gardens soon went unoccupied, and then were torn down because the ad hoc became fertile ground for rot, caused by leaks. In 2018, those same issues received extreme repair under the supervision of Safdie at Habitat ’67, as the condominium project is extremely desirable to its owners, unlike the low-income tenants of Rudolph’s work.

The larger message of architecture’s ability to be distracted by shallow trifles is the result of the 21st century’s desperation for a direction. The 20th century is now (finally) over, the Modernist mantra is now one competing take, not the defining canon. The last century’s buildings have become a box-step waltz, when humanity has come to prize mosh pits. In the creation of architecture as image, novelty has value, to the point where virtual architecture, the absurd aesthetic equivalence of 2D fantasy and 3D culture, has credibility.

The 21st century’s economic, political, and aesthetic spasms are reflected in architecture’s aesthetic flip-flopping. Whether it’s the austere pretension of High Modern, the earnest morality of “green,” or the thrills of Hadidian shapes, we’re aesthetically channel surfing between visual sound-bites. Amid the internet’s acceleration of our visual appetite, the innocently ad hoc appearance of the Jenga tower almost feels sincere, despite the extreme effort needed to fake casual coincidence.

Everyone is drowning in the TMI of the internet. Architects are exposed to endless images of everything, and the visual cacophony creates a bizarro world of aesthetic speed dating. Every image is a Rorschach test, where we feel compelled to go/no-go judge at the instant of presentation. Competitions are becoming meaningless. No editorial board effectively sanctions anything when all publications are dwarfed by aesthetically egalitarian websites. The remaining institutions that scream for relevance—a few magazines, organizations, and critics—are becoming ignored in favor of the 24/7 mob, an electronically connected culture that amplifies the loudest voices in the room.

Expressing power is part of who we are, whether it’s Robert Moses proposing a bridge across Long Island Sound or John F. Kennedy promising to go to the Moon. That bridge was never built, and we stopped going to Earth’s orbiting companion almost 50 years ago. Our central motivation to manifest control may not have a sustaining outcome, but the eye candy of arbitrary allusion creates a high that gets built.

As Safdie and Rudolph (and Gehry) found out, architectural break-dancing creates endless opportunities for leaks, increased costs and time in construction, ongoing repairs, or even early obsolescence. But for some that price is worth the effort. People prize control, and the thrill of its manifestation. Whether it’s the spiraling wrestling moves on WWF, the insane shoulder pads of a Paris runway, or the spun sugar creating a waterfall on the Food Network, humans love the drama we create. Like stacked, arbitrarily composed boxes becoming skyscrapers.

Featured image: The Epic, Dallas, Texas. Photo by Leonard Furmansky.


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