Is this building offensive?

"The Cloud" - Proposed building in South Korea by MVRDV Architects

The exhibit shows a proposed residential development in South Korea by Dutch architects MVRDV. The architects call it The Cloud because they want to create a sense of buildings rising through “the clouds”.

Critics however reckon they look like the twin towers exploding. I see what they mean, but I’m not certain that would’ve been my first thought. Had I not had the WTC meme inserted in my brain from the outset, I might’ve interpreted it first as some form of cancerous growth – a sarcoma – growing out of the façade of an otherwise benign host.

This guy calls it “Safde/Habitat on uppers”. It certainly reminds me of Moshe Safde’s famous Habitat 67 housing project in Montreal. It’s like an enthusiastic gardener grafted Safde’s DNA on to Mies van der Rohe’s and this is the result. Maybe it should be interpreted as the architectural equivalent of sampling in music!

Still, it’s hard to believe the architects didn’t see the twin towers connection themselves (this observer reckons they did but aren’t owning up to it). The way observers have reacted isn’t surprising really: there’s a picture in MVRDV’s PR material of two cloud-wrapped, generic looking towers – the inspiration for the idea – that look remarkably reminiscent of the WTC.

I’m not convinced emulating clouds is a compelling way to go about designing buildings that are literally tall enough to be in the clouds. Seems a bit like double counting. Still, clouds is a less pretentious explanation than the ludicrous guff offered by the architects of this similar-looking building.

Nor do I think the design does well on its own terms. As an expression of cloud-wreathed towers, MVRDV’s design is an unmitigated flop. There’s nothing in that heavy, concrete “growth” that comes even close to evoking the wispy, ethereal sense of clouds. They’re delicate, light, insubstantial and wraithlike – this proposal isn’t. It’s no wonder many people think of the twin towers.

But unlike some others, I don’t accept the design is in any way immoral, insulting to the USA, or a free ride for Al Qaeda. The human mind seems to have a special talent for projecting associations onto the slightest suggestion or stimulus. I accept the architect’s explanation that the 9/11 interpretation wasn’t intended – it’s something we’re projecting from our experience. It wouldn’t get past first base in the US, but I suspect the vast bulk of the world’s population wouldn’t see it in terms of 9/11, or care.

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Is the Flinders St Station design competition just about…..design?

Melbourne's iconic Flinders St Station (this gorgeous photo by Gillian at Melbournecurious.blogspot.com)

The Premier gave the Flinders St Station International Design Competition another nudge this week, announcing entries will be formally invited from architects mid next year, with the winner to be announced mid 2013.

Mr Baillieu indicated the project for the 4.7 ha site has two basic components. One involves “restoring and renovating the building” and the other is about “releasing any opportunities for further development”. According to The Age:

Mr Baillieu said renovation of the heritage-listed station would be very expensive, and the government was looking for ways to ”release some value” to help bankroll the development, including the possibility of a public-private partnership. A property developer will sit on the competition judging panel, as well as Victoria’s government architect, Geoffrey London.

I’ve previously questioned the sense of running this project as a design competition, but there are a couple of other aspects that also worry me.

One is that this isn’t really first and foremost an “architectural design competition”. That’s a convenient way to market the project because it sounds innocuous – everyone knows architects are sensitive characters who care about design, heritage and place.

But all the signs suggests this is really a search for commercial uses that will generate revenue for the Government – at least enough to pay for the restoration and renovation, but hopefully more. The key players will be organisations with the wherewithal to “release some value” – i.e. to identify, develop and finance new uses that generate profits.

These sorts of players are traditionally called property developers or merchant bankers, not design professionals. Architects will still have a key role in the physical expression of the new Flinders St Station precinct but they won’t be the motive force determining what sort of activities take place there.

So-called competition entries will primarily be commercial bids, rather than primarily design submissions. The novelty is the bid consortia will presumably all have to be led by architects, at least nominally.

The project is likely to be as much about the redevelopment, as the restoration, of the precinct. Redevelopment can be positive provided it is handled in a way that’re sympathetic to the transport, heritage and civic importance of this precinct. And there’s certainly plenty that needs to be done – addressing that horrible concourse-cum-food court for a start.

However redevelopment can also mean some of the values that define the precinct might be put at risk. Mr Baillieu recognises there could be new buildings but says they will have a “common sense” height limit. Hmmm……I doubt we all have the same number in mind!

Another key issue is the “competition” shouldn’t be conceived as a fishing expedition. A potential danger with competitions is officials, politicians and the public could be seduced by a spectacular proposal – a one trick pony – that fails in other important respects. The brief is thus supremely important. Read the rest of this entry »


Flinders St Station: is a design competition a smart idea?

Fawcett and Ashworth's design for the Swanston Street facade (unbuilt)

It now seems clear the Government’s Flinders Street Station Design Competition is about much more than merely restoring the station to its former glory. This could be a redevelopment project, albeit one that respects heritage values. According to this statement from Major Projects Victoria, the Government will be looking for:

The best ideas from around the world to re-energise the station and its surrounds while making sure critical heritage values are maintained. Designs will be expected to address the station’s transport function, heritage requirements, urban design and integration with its surrounds as well as providing a value for money construction proposal.

At first glance a design competition seems like a good idea, but on further reflection I’m not so sure.

Architectural competitions have several advantages. If they’re open to all comers they allow for a range of interpretations of the brief and are more likely to draw in unusual, spectacular and ‘left field’ entries. It is unarguable that a radical conception like Utzon’s vision for Sydney’s Opera House would not have been selected in the absence of an international competition.

Competitions are a useful way to excite public interest in a project. They can also give up and coming architectural practices the chance to enter an otherwise exclusive club. Some of our most applauded buildings – like the Opera House and Federation Square – were the result of international competitions.

But they also have their risks. Designing a building to win a competition is not quite the same task as designing one strictly on the basis of fulfilling the brief. Competitions favour ideas that stand out from the crowd – they favour high impact visions. Sometimes the basic function, practicality and financial viability of the building can be compromised – the Sydney Opera House is one of the better known examples of this phenomenon.

There’s also a risk that entries will not be prepared with an appropriate level of diligence. Entrants don’t know they’re going to win, so rationally they’re going to make compromises to limit costs. That might not be so bad if the winner can correct the shortcomings, but once a proposal is selected the major parameters are often locked in, immediately limiting the scope for adaptation (I know short-listed entrants are often paid, but it’s usually not enough).

Some functional compromise might possibly be a price worth paying if the new Flinders Street Station were to became as iconic as the Opera House, Bilbao or the Guggenheim, but the odds on that are astronomical. No one really understands why a handful of buildings become international symbols, but the fact is millions don’t.

The key thing about this project is it will be extremely complex. Any use of the site is constrained by four key factors. First, there’s the need to protect perhaps the most iconic building in Melbourne, with high historic values. Second, it’s Melbourne’s busiest rail station – functional efficiency really, really matters and transit operations can’t be disturbed during construction. Three, if it proceeds, the proposed Melbourne Metro rail line also has to be incorporated within the complex. Four, the setting is a limiting factor – it includes the river, Princes Bridge, Fed Square, St Pauls, the view of the station across the river from Southbank, and more. Whatever’s built at the station has to take account and give due respect to the neighbours.

When it comes down to it, I doubt there’d be many projects more unsuitable for a design competition. There’s much more at stake here than a potentially functionally compromised opera house. This is the sort of extraordinarily complex project where a solution needs to be developed very, very carefully. There must be considerable research, testing and consultation with all the parties and interests involved. Theoretically this might be sorted out during the development of the brief but I think a much better outcome would be achieved if all parties, including the architects, were intimately involved from the outset.

In fact this just highlights that the key issue here isn’t “design” but “use”. What really matters is what sort of activities, commercial and public, could possibly work at Flinders Street Station without compromising the existing building, the entire metropolitan rail system and the integrity and value of the surrounding uses. A huge effort is needed to get the brief right. My expectation is that what will work here – given all the constraints – won’t be the kind of potentially spectacular stuff that in design terms would traditionally be put out to a competition.  Read the rest of this entry »


Why don’t architects use colour more?

Not much power anymore in North Korea

About a month ago I was asked by a reporter for The Age, Susy Freeman-Green, why architects are so tentative with colour on the exteriors of buildings.

She’d observed many small apartment buildings going up in the inner city were made of grey slabs of concrete. On an overcast day, Melbourne could seem awfully leaden. “What is it with the colour grey?” she asked,”and why is it so popular with architects?”

My initial conjecture was it had a lot to do with the capital and maintenance costs of buildings. The common use of concrete is the obvious example. It’s a relatively economical material and maintenance costs are lower if it’s left unfinished (“off-form”) or with a stone aggregate finish.

However I added that this was likely to be only a partial explanation. If architects as a group were minded to dress their buildings in bigger, brighter and bolder colours, then over time they’d have convinced their clients accordingly. My best guess is they don’t for one or more of the following reasons:

Most architects see form, space and texture as the key elements of design; they think in 3D – strong colour could distract from the visual message (of course if used judiciously it could also reinforce the message!)

Strong colour used creatively can be dangerous – it can date easily and go out of fashion; clients might find it too confronting; and local government authorities and neighbours might find it too dominating

The modernist ideology stresses truth in materials – show them as they are. The contemporary stress on sustainability as a driving force of design reinforces this view

Many architects aren’t confident with colour – it seems to be a specialist talent (could that be why so many architects wear black?)

Strong and bold colours might be seen as too crass for the refined sensibilities of architects. The over-use of colour by advertisers and popular media has made it distinctly unfashionable.

I don’t know if there’s any objective data to support this contention, but it seems to me strong colour is used more extensively in warm climates where the light is brighter. Colour may look more vibrant on Mediterranean islands, but it surprises me there isn’t a greater demand for it in colder, overcast places like Melbourne where it might have a psychological bonus.

I also have a hypothesis (again, untested) that strong colours are more likely to be used in Melbourne if the building is cost-constrained to a simple form like a plain rectangular solid. Examples that spring to mind are the Macleod Netball Centre and the A’Beckett Tower. Even the NAB building in Docklands is a relatively simple form. This would be an interesting project for a student to test – if the hypothesis is true it suggests architects, on average, see colour as a residual medium.

While I think there’s room for architects to use colour more boldly than they seem to want to, I also think excessive colour is the last thing most of us want to see in our streetscapes. There could be visual cacophony if the great bulk of the urban landscape isn’t coloured in a relatively neutral way. There’s a straightforward analogy here with the look of the natural landscape, most of which tends to be in a limited, often muted, palette (I think it’s plausible we’ve evolved to prefer a subdued background).

So maybe architects are instinctively reflecting a human preference for what the outside world should look like. If so, good exterior colour design doesn’t have to be confined to the ubiquitous grey, but it needs to be relatively neutral – to form a background. Read the rest of this entry »


Where are architects going with housing?

A'Beckett Tower - Winner 2011 Victorian Architect's Institute Award for multiple residential (two bed unit)

Victoria’s architects had their annual awards ceremony last Friday, handing out gongs in a range of categories. Curiously, the official AIA site shows the happy faces of the winning architects, but no pictures of the winning buildings. It should have both! Nevertheless, I finally succeeded in locating a file showing pictures of all the winning buildings in all categories – see Award Winners 2011.

Given the pressing housing issues facing our cities – like declining affordability and the need for higher densities in established suburbs – I was curious to see what the best architects in the State were doing in housing design, so I took a look at the winners in the New Residential Architecture category.

The premier honour for residential architecture in Victoria – The Harold Desbrowe-Annear Award – was won by NMBW Architecture Studio for a house in Sorrento. This is a detached house on a relatively large lot. In fact it could be is an up-market beach house.

There were three other winners in the New Residential category. Two of them – Beached House, by BKK Architects, and Westernport House, by Sally Draper Architects – are also detached houses in relatively remote (from Melbourne) locations, seemingly on even larger lots.

The only winner located in a metropolitan setting is the Law Street house, built for their own use by husband and wife architects, Amy Muir and Bruno Mendes. I like it, but architect’s own houses don’t generally provide a template for addressing the wider task of housing the population at large.

In contrast, there were only two awards for higher density housing. The premier Best Overend Award for Multiple Residential went to architects Elenberg Fraser for the A’Beckett Tower (see exhibits) and the other to Hayball architects for a three storey development in John Street, Doncaster. Read the rest of this entry »


Why are new buildings so…..modern?

Railways administration building, Spencer St

Many Australians admire old buildings like the Windsor and Parliament House, so I’m a little surprised there’re so few new commercial and public buildings with the elaborate decoration and classical references common in nineteenth century buildings. I was schooled in the modernist tradition so I don’t personally regret this absence all that much, but that doesn’t mean I’m not intrigued why there’s so little of it. Here are a couple of conjectures:

The first and probably obvious reason is that high labour costs mean highly wrought decoration simply isn’t affordable anymore. Modernism had to be invented after WW1 because historical styles were simply getting too expensive to emulate. Nowadays, workers with the requisite skills and artistic talent can get better pay and/or status in other areas. Artisans have been crowded out of the building industry by “new” industries like film, theatre, commercial design, media, advertising and, more lately, the web.

But with contemporary technology like CNC machines and the ability to import prefabricated components from low labour cost countries, this isn’t such a convincing explanation anymore. If there’s demand for greater visual complexity, a country like China – which has plenty of flamboyant modernist buildings – could be using its low cost base to construct buildings rich in decoration. These wouldn’t necessarily need to hark back to earlier periods, they might simply celebrate ornamentation and embellishment.

Another reason could be that large organisations are simply not as prepared to invest in the public domain – provide a positive externality – as they were a century ago. Expectations of proper civic behaviour might be much lower now than they were then. As mentioned here by Ajay Shah, companies and governments now have many other ways of signalling their wealth, power and prestige and accordingly don’t have to rely so much on buildings as a key form of communication.

Yet that argument isn’t entirely convincing either. Major buildings are more spectacular in form and scale than they’ve probably ever been (not least in China) – there seem to be an infinite supply of new architectural feats that apparently defy the laws of physics and mechanics (‘feat-urism’?). There still seems to be plenty of demand for buildings that put a lot of effort into how they look to outside observers — it seems like every city in the world wants a gleaming new art musuem designed by Frank Gehry. Read the rest of this entry »


Why do we love old buildings so much?

Demolished! - Melbourne Town Hall Chambers, 1968, cnr Swanston and Little Collins (picture by K.J. Halla, State Library). H/T Melbourne Curious

In The Land Boomers, Michael Cannon reports how the ‘era of extravagance’ was climaxed in 1890 by the construction of a brand new edifice for railway officials in Spencer Street at a cost of £130,000. Writing in 1966, Cannon says this “remarkably ugly building….still houses civil servants…..within its dun-coloured walls”.

There’s little doubting the historical value of the building (now a hotel), but it’s surprising to hear any building more than a hundred years old described as ugly or lacking in architectural merit. People are quick to criticise new buildings but seem far more forgiving of old ones.

Even architects are soft on old buildings. For example, The Age conducted a survey last month of 140 architects to find Melbourne’s “best” buildings and its “ugliest” ones (not available online). You might think architects would be loath to criticise their colleagues, but in fact all of the ten “ugliest” buildings were constructed post 1990 and five were built in the noughties.

I don’t think the reason we find old buildings attractive is because only the very best have survived. While some buildings of great historical importance are still around, unfortunately demolition was driven primarily by development potential, not lack of architectural merit. Like Cannon, I think some of what we now value so highly was probably ordinary in its day.

One of the reasons old buildings are attractive to us might simply be that they’re old and irreplaceable. We like old things – hence ‘antiques’ – and buildings are probably no exception. They’re also historical. They speak to us of another time, of particular events, of old crafts, and even of particular historical characters. Perhaps they’re the product of a nostalgia for an idealised past.

People will often say they admire the ornate detail of old buildings, particularly pre modern ones. They like decoration, especially if it’s elaborate and complex. Perhaps we value it more because so many modern buildings have largely abandoned any designed surface intricacy and elaboration.

Older buildings are visually distinctive, not so much because they shout out but rather because they’re different, often in a way that’s restrained and formal by contemporary standards. Few new buildings look anything like, for example, the former Melbourne Town Hall Chambers (pictured), Treasury Place or Parliament House. There’re very few buildings if any being built today in (say) the renaissance or gothic styles.

There’s also a romantic dimension to old buildings. Some traditional architectural styles evoke literary and emotional associations, probably based on what we’ve read or seen. Some also have decoration and relief sculpture based on, or drawn from, life. Figurative and non-abstract imagery isn’t common in modern buildings but resonates with us more easily and in more complex ways than abstract images. Read the rest of this entry »


What makes great architecture?

House of Mukesh Ambani, richest person in India

I’ve written the odd bit about architecture and design before (see here) but I always intended to write more. I’d especially like to review buildings, but it’s hard to get any hard information on how buildings perform for their owners and users – that’s one reason why so much architectural writing is either self-serving or vacuous.

So this interesting piece by Indian economist, Ajay Shah, offers another way to approach the subject of architecture. He poses the question: “when and where do great feats of architecture come about?…… Why do some places achieve great feats of architecture, while others routinely opt for merely functional structures?”.

He says that he is instinctively unsatisfied with the claim that the USA lacks great architecture because Americans have poor taste. Instead, he offers the following five explanations for “great feats of architecture”:

Surplus — To go beyond merely functional structures requires resources to spare. At low levels of income, people are likely to merely try to get some land and brick and stone together. In these things, we have nonlinear Engel curves. Pratapgarh looks picayune because Shivaji lacked surplus

The desire to make a statement and to impress — Ozymandius wanted to make a point: He wanted ye Mighty to look at his works and despair. I have often felt this was one of the motivations for the structures on Raisina Hill or the Taj Mahal

Arms races — There may also be an element of an arms race in these things. Perhaps the chaps who built the Qutub Minar (1193-1368) in Delhi set off an arms race, where each new potentate who came along was keen to outdo the achievement of the predecessor. I used to think that the Taj Mahal (1632-1648) was so perfect, that it could not be matched, and thus it put an end to this arms race. But then I saw the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore (1671-1673), and I had to revise my opinion……

Transparency — You only need to impress someone when there is asymmetric information, where that someone does not know how great you are. Shah Jahan needed to build big because the targets of his attention did not know the GDP of his dominion and his tax/GDP ratio. In this age of Forbes league tables, Mukesh Ambani does not need to build a fabulous structure for you to know he’s the richest guy in India. A merely functional house suffices; a great feat of architecture is not undertaken

Accountability — The incremental expense of going from a merely functional structure to a great feat of architecture is generally hard to justify. Hence, one might expect to see more interesting architecture from autocratic places+periods, where decision makers wield discretionary power with weak checks and balances. As an example, I think that Britain had the greatest empire, but the architecture of the European continent is superior: this may have to do with the early flowering of democracy in the UK. Read the rest of this entry »


– When is a building worth protecting?

Growth of Costco, 1976 - 2010 (animation)

The planning Tribunal’s decision on the former AMPOL building highlights a couple of issues about preserving significant buildings. In reaching its decision that demolition could proceed, VCAT’s thinking was that ”a greater community benefit for present and future generations will ensue from the establishment of the Peter Doherty Institute than from retention of the former Ampol House”.

I think this highlights a couple of issues over and above what I discussed last time. It implicitly says that what a building is worth is a function of what’s planned to replace it. We now know VCAT doesn’t think the AMPOL building is worth preserving when the alternative use is an immunology and infectious diseases research centre, but what if the alternative were (say) an apartment or office building? Might VCAT have concluded under those circumstances that AMPOL house is in fact worth saving?

It seems to me that if a building truly is worth protecting (a broader ambit than ‘preserving’) on the basis of its architectural and/or historical significance then it is, by definition, worth saving. That value has nothing to do with alternative uses (they’re about the land it’s sitting on, not the building itself). A significant building isn’t any less valuable if the proposed alternative use is something worthy — like a park, social housing, a memorial, a shrine, a research centre — than it is if the alternative is something prosaic, like a car showroom, a shop or apartments.

If planning schemes weren’t muddled with so many “it depends”, there might be less money and time wasted on court battles. If there were a clear statement of what must be protected, councils would have to think a lot more rigorously about what is worth protecting and what isn’t. Developers, owners and the wider community might appreciate clearer guidance.

Another issue the VCAT decision highlights in my view is that understanding the social costs of preservation (or other regulations, like height limits) is too often overlooked. That’s not saying we shouldn’t protect appropriate buildings, but we should know what it’s costing and we should know who’s paying. Read the rest of this entry »


Should the old AMPOL building be demolished?

Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge, Parkville (formerly AMPOL)

The key issue arising from the Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge case isn’t that the building can now be demolished, but rather what’s proposed to replace it.

The former AMPOL headquarters building is noted for its dramatic circular staircase, but its claims to historical significance aren’t compelling. According to the National Trust:

Historically, it is of interest as a building that is designed in a style that appears to belong to the early modernist period of twenty years previously, and is by far the last major building designed in this tradition in Victoria. It is also of interest as the headquarters of one of the major petrol companies in Victoria, which were all undergoing great expansion at that time, and for originally incorporating a petrol station at the ground level.

So, it is the last building designed in a style that was already passé when it was constructed in 1958. And the fact that it was occupied by a major corporation – even a petrol company – shouldn’t be surprising for a building located in the city centre. That’s possibly fascinating, but it’s not the sort of history that justifies preservation when there are alternative uses for the site.

Appearance is always a very subjective topic, but to my eye and, it seems, many others, the staircase is interesting. It’s a sort of melange of Russian Constructivism meets Disney Tomorrowland. Some have labelled it (wrongly) as ‘iconic’. But as visually arresting as it is to the citizens of 2011, it’s neither architecturally nor historically an especially significant staircase.

In fact I suspect it’s much more attractive to contemporary sensibilities that it ever was in its day (would Robin Boyd have labelled the staircase Austerican featurism?). That however is not a compelling reason for preservation because ‘interesting’ looking buildings needn’t be in short supply – we can always build new ones, maybe even more interesting ones.

Stripped of the bunkum about ‘significance’, the streetscape would be no worse off if Elizabeth Tower were replaced by a building that is at least as visually interesting. And that brings us to the core issue – judging by the only picture I could find of it (see picture under fold), the appearance of the proposed replacement building is, to put it nicely, a little bland compared to that dramatic staircase. I’ve no reason to doubt the new building is a tour de force in all other respects and a credit to its designers, but it will inevitably be compared to its predecessor and on that score it appears somewhat underwhelming.

Read the rest of this entry »


Is architectural criticism critical?

Reviews can sometimes be very scathing. Consider this reviewer’s reaction to a recently released philosophy book:

“Self-important, pompous, pretentious, solipsistic, often obscure, sometimes barely coherent, his book seems to address itself only to those in the know. The translation by Jane Marie Todd renders all these faults with exemplary accuracy”

Cutting! Architectural criticism however is customarily astonishingly polite. This review by Sarah Williams Goldhagen therefore caught my eye because it said something unusual in an architectural critique:

“This is a modest building, however, and it is not perfect. At 30,000 square feet, it cost $11.5 million, more than it should have to build. Owing to bad value-engineering rather than the architects’ miscalculations, some of the attempts at sustainability failed, including a green roof that was never installed (CRI is still raising the money), and a geothermal heating system that was cost-cut into irrelevance (only one well was dug, not enough to heat the building, so they use gas)”

This is only a minor part of her review – most of it is on the safe ground of aesthetic metaphor. But what’s striking is that Goldhagen is actually prepared to comment, in however limited a way, on topics that actually go directly to the interests of the owner and users of a building.

Think about any major new building. Right at the top of the client’s priorities is: does it meet its intended purpose? Has it delivered value for money? What is it completed on time? Did it come in on budget? Right at the top of the user’s priorities is: does it do what I expect it to? Read the rest of this entry »