Notes on quality in Architecture

This following write up is from the Blog of Conrad Newel:

http://famousarchitect.blogspot.in/2012/05/84you-dont-have-to-be-good-part-3-its.html

Looking over the previous two post in this series – Mountain Dwellings and the New Museum – I was contemplating on the idea of quality (…or lack of it ) as seen in these two famous works: Lack of quality detailing and construction in the Mountain Dwellings and lack of spatial quality in the New Museum. So then I remembered this statement by Mies.

 First of all, I was influenced by old buildings. I looked at them, people built them. I don’t know the names, and I don’t know what it was . . . mostly very simple buildings. When I was really young, not even twenty years old, I was impressed by the strength of these old buildings because they didn’t even belong to any epoch. But they were there for one thousand years and still there and still impressive, and nothing could change it. And all the styles, the great styles, passed, but they were still there. They didn’t lose anything. They were ignored through certain architectural epochs, but they were still there and still good as they were in the first day they were built. 

The notion of building architecture of lasting quality that he so eloquently described is a very nice idea. It is an idea that I think has escaped a great many of the celebrated architects of our generation. Instead of building monuments to the ages, they seem to be more preoccupied with building monuments to the fleeting moment.

Compared to some in the previous generations of starchitects (Mies, Kahn, Scarpa, Barragan, etc) I think that quite a few of our present generation’s celebrities have sidestepped the notion of quality in the discourse of their work. I am picking on BIG, JDS, and SANAA because I have been to their work and have experienced it for myself, but I suspect that it is a wider phenomenon beyond those stars. I would even argue that it spans beyond architecture and is equally prevalent in other fields such as industrial design. For example, there was a time not long ago when the things that you bought in the store had lasting quality. So much so that that they could outlast both you and your children. It would be normal for people to inherit a cherished product from their parents that they could then pass on to their own children.

Do you remember those days?
Perhaps have you are in possession of such a product?

Of course not, you’re too young. Watch the clip below: ( this is how consumer-products used to be, quality-wise).

Now consider this: If that golden watch was made with the same level of detailing and craftsmanship as the VM apartments or the mountain dwellings were designed and made with, how long would you give it to survive up Christopher Walken’s ass?

I didn’t think so either.

Here is another thing to consider: if Apple were to come out with an i-watch tomorrow, would you imagine wanting to pass that down to your children as a birthright, let alone going through any lengths to ensure that it reaches them?

The standard defense of high-tech low-quality creations is that technology is developing so rapidly that it doesn’t make sense to build things that last for a lifetime. I understand this argument but it is nonsense. Apple could make products of lasting quality, but instead, they chose to make products that are close to disposable. Their products are designed to last for about 3-4 years so that you are forced to constantly buy new ones. My i-phone that I bought 3 years ago is not compatible with a great number of apps on the itunes store and it is almost worthless. Apple does this because they are really not bothered by the idea of having an umbilical cord attached to your wallet.

The technology-moving-too-fast argument does not hold water. I can think of several products that were built in yesteryear that was designed with special care that I can still use and enjoy today; products that gets better with age even though the technology is from another era.

This old record player for example, has a distinct aesthetic quality onto itself both in its sound and its physical design. Not even the latest and most advanced i-pod with the most sophisticated surround sound speaker system can measure up to it, even though it’s technology is mortally outdated.

This BMW from 1938 could never ever go anywhere near as fast as the current models with all their climate control, GPS navigation system etc. but it’s design has made it a thing of lasting quality. I am not a fan of cars and I never was, but it is not very difficult to appreciate and be attracted to the quality and craftsmanship that goes into its making.

This industrial Vornado electric fan built in Wichita, Kansas in the 1940s/50s by the O.A. Sutton Company was not an expensive luxury item like the BMW above. It was just a elegant and thoughtfully designed object. The chips and scratches that it has developed over the years have only added to it’s character.

The technology-moving-too-fast argument is even weaker when we take it back to architecture. The Maison de Verre designed by Pierre Chearu in 1928 is an example of architecture integrated with the technology of its time. More importantly it is an example of quality detailing. Since he started out as a fine furniture designer, Chearu approached the design of the building as such. The result is a meticulously crafted building where even the furniture was designed and integrated into the building. I wouldn’t say it was good as the day it was made, but for something close to 100 years old, it’s not too shabby.

The simple truth is that quality design and craftsmanship transcends technology.

So here is my question:

  •  How can some of the most celebrated architects and designers of our time get away with designing works of such low-quality again and again and not only come away unscathed, but win multiple design awards and accolades for them time and time again?
  • Why is it that no one is saying anything about the quality?

There are many layers of reasons that I will cover in the upcoming series of notes. For now, I will discuss the one which I believe is the most relevant. The clue can be found in starchitecture school. If you ever remember sitting in a crit and seeing the reaction when a star student present and compared it with the reactions later on when a regular student present, then you will get what I am saying.

When a star student presents an eye popping project that has little relationship to reality, their professors tends to smile and discuss the novelty of the idea, while when a regular student presents a less spectacular project that is well considered in relation to real world concerns, he gets questioned on all the nuances of his details.

This is simply because the critic responds to the prevailing ideas and themes that the project discusses. They respond to how you talk about your work as much as the work itself. Unless you have made some really obvious mistakes that is so distracting from the idea of the project that it can not be ignored, quality will not be discussed.

If the principal architectural idea of your project discusses an issue rooted in reality, then you will be critiqued based on the rules of the real world. You will be asked questions like:

  • How do you deal with the structural issues?
  • That building is right across the street from where the local crack addicts hang out. How do you then deal with issues of security, etc?

However, If you locate your project in the imaginary world of Harry Potter, for example, then it discusses the world of Hogwarts and wizardry. You will be critiqued based on the rules and reality outlined by J.K. Rowling.

You will not be asked about ventilation, crack addicts, security or how your building engages activity on the pedestrian level. Your professors will discuss how the phenomenology of wizardry permeates contemporary society and its ramifications on urban space. And if you are in a real star-architecture school, they will discuss these issues among themselves in front of you as though you are not in the room. Therefore you will not be asked any questions.

Lebbeus Woods once said that architecture is about ideas. He is right!

The significance of your project lies within the ideas that it discusses. Similarly, famous buildings are usually famous because of the ideas that they discuss.

The Maison de Verre by virtue of its high attention to detail and craftsmanship sets up a framework to discuss the idea of quality and craftsmanship. In a critique or discussion of this work, one will tend to discuss the choice of materials, the types of hinges he used or the placements of the elements in relation to the body and such.

Conversely, if the conceptual idea is not directly about quality or the materials, then quality, space, materials, aging etc is secondary and therefore treated accordingly.

The prevailing ideas behind BIG’s projects, for instance, are generally about taking two or more traditionally independent programs and merging them together to make an interdependent hybrid that benefit from one another. Its about parametric design and not the least, it is about engaging commercialism and economy as a robust feature of their design and branding strategy. The most important thing in these projects is to demonstrate that this concept works at least at a basic level, that it appeases commercial interests and that it looks good enough (at least on the opening day). Long-term quality and detailing is not unimportant, but it is less so relative to the larger issues and concepts at work here.

With the New Museum, the main idea is about challenging the way we think about vertical construction. Again as with the VM and Mountain Dwelling Project, the most important thing about the building as far as its relevance in the larger discourse in architecture is to demonstrate that it can be done. It cements an idea in place and time. When historians, academics, students etc discuss and write about the issue of vertical construction in architecture, it will stand on the timeline of critical references along with Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright building, the Seagrams building, etc In this scheme, spatial quality and outstanding detailing is not unimportant but it is less so relative to the prevailing issue of verticality, and the sculptural iconography of the building’s exterior form. Unless it is underperforming in a major way, quality is not an issue.

By contrast, if you look at Meis’ branding strategy and philosophy (prevailing ideas), you will see that it is all about projecting integrity and quality. He derides any notions of temporality (the styles, fashion, etc), he wants to talk about the longer arc of time, material integrity etc. This is where he situates his work and this is what his brand is all about. Below, he talks about his philosophy (and please do not get hypnotized by his branding machine – take it for what it is – an honest observation smothered in promotional whip-cream):

My architectural philosophy came out of reading philosophical books. I cannot tell you at the moment where I read it, but I know I read it somewhere, that architecture belongs to the epoch and not even to the time, to a real epoch. Since I understood that, I would not be for fashion in architecture. I would look for more profound principles. I was lucky enough, you know, when I came to the Netherlands and I was confronted with Berlage’s work. There, was the construction. What made the strongest impression on me was the use of brick and so on, the honesty of materials and so on. I never forget this lesson I got there just by looking at his buildings.

If you look at say his Farnsworth house for example, (as with the Mountain Dwelling and the New Museum) the most important thing about the building (as far as its relevance in the larger discourse in architecture is concerned) is to demonstrate that this concept-philosophy can be materialized in the real world. However the core of this concept was about materiality, timelessness, and quality. So to demonstrate that, it had to be designed and built in such a way that it can withstand aging without losing its integrity.

Long term quality, and detailing is at the center of this philosophy. So if any of Mies’ buildings were made nearly as poorly as the Mountain Dwellings or the VM apartments it would have probably been ruinous to his career and reputation. Conversely, if any of Bjarke’s work were as famously over budget in the way Mies’s Farnsworth house was, it would probably ruin his reputation too.

So what’s my point?

The prevailing ideas of your work and branding trumps all. In the grand scheme of the fame game, quality in material and craftsmanship, even fundamental things like quality of space are simply subordinates to ideas and branding. For celebrated works, they are dispensable attributes, not fundamental prerequisites as I previously thought. So, allow me to retort with the title of this series: You don’t have to be good.

Conrad Newel

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