Beyond Buildings


For Universal Knowledge to QR Chaos: Knotty Buildings

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How do we recognize things? The always erudite and amusing Alice Rawsthorn, who vies with Michael Bierut as being the most insightful writer about design working today, recently noted the move from the Universal Product Code (UPC) to the QR (Quick Response) codes now showing up everywhere. Whereas “everything about the those black-and-white lines [on the UPC] screams order, precision and efficiency, she points out, the QRs “look like uncontrollable explosions of toxic bacterial spores.” Not something that I associate with the seduction of commerce.

As Rawsthorne goes on to point out however, “…the chaos is illusory. The exact size and location of each QR square and the spaces between them are chosen with the same specificity as the components of the bar code.” She ends by saying that each era gets the symbol it deserves, so surely we must value “idiosyncrasy and spontaneity,” at least in appearance.

What is interesting to me is the fact that order now appears in a manner that is unintelligible. I always imagined that, if I had enough information, I would somehow be able to figure out the UPC. The rhythms of those lines seemed like a Morse code, and the numbers below them surely referred to a giant book somewhere in which you could look it all up. That illusion was in itself already a far cry from the numbers and labels on the products, which were themselves, let us not forget, an abstraction of the actual things, graphic pointers that became necessary when we started packaging and marketing mass produced goods.

More and more, things disappear. We are left with signs and screens, on which icons float. The QR code, to which we hold up that little black screen of our smartphone, is an obscure portal into a world of information. Our objects and signs are just placeholders, scrims, or frames for that knowledge.

Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Image credit: Preston Scott Cohen.

What about buildings? Certainly the current trend is towards the same sort of visual complexity and even unintelligibility as is the visual reality of the QR code. After a period of retro-modernism that coincided with the reign of the UPC, we are now twisting, turning, folding, and otherwise obfuscating form with abandon. At least, that is the case in the avant-garde, where folded plates, swerves, and blobs have become commonplace. Such shape-shifting is also showing up in more generic structures, however. In Asia, just about every self-respecting skyscraper curves, and some seem to defy gravity. Here, the Freedom Tower, nearing completion in New York, promises at least some deflections to the norms of orthogonal modernism.

When such shapes have justifications, they are usually responses to wind conditions or other peculiarities of loads that are as abstract as the references on bar or QR codes. It is not just shape that is becoming more chaotic, however. Buildings are hiding their contents, and interiors are becoming filled with odd objects. Even in as banal a place as the shopping mall, many stores are trading in their open fronts for closed facades that only give you a hint of what is for sale inside. Offices these days dot their open expanses that have been denuded of the still nicely modernist grid of cubicles with pods, retreats, and other places of seclusion where you can do whatever it is that cannot stand the scrutiny of your fellow workers in safe and unseen isolation.

At the building’s core we are finding more and more intersections of floors and spaces that do not stack up in piles that display the sequence of plates. Instead, knots are appearing, like in the OMA-designed Seattle Public Library, or, with greater complexity, in the manner of Preston Scott Cohen’s Tel Aviv Museum of Art. I predict that, as we mix and match functions, delight in computer-assisted design, and answer to the complexities of modern life, we will see many more such knotty hearts to answer the tortured facades of our buildings.

I also predict that, if the structures that are on the drawings boards in universities and at the studios of many of our most inventive architects reach the mainstream, our built environment will need some equivalent of a QR reader just to decipher what a building is. That could be good news for critics: a whole new line of work could open up. In reality, however, it is just another manner in which architecture is disappearing, and signs are taking over. Wayfinding will make sense of all.


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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.