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 »