Beyond Buildings


The Cliché

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As a failed or former architect, it has been a long time since I got to take part in the nitty-gritty of how buildings are made and unmade, but recently I was invited to be a fly on the wall for the presentation of a huge project the architect was presenting to their client. I agreed to keep it confidential, so I cannot tell you what it is. It was a progress meeting, in which the team concentrated on presenting the interior development of a large transportation facility for which piles were being driven while the meeting was going on. What I witnessed was the continual assault on spatial vision and the architect’s desperate attempt to maintain it in that process.

They had already lost one of their major battles before I got there: having designed a mainly underground station that was to support an array of speculative office buildings, they had arranged their columns and core sites so that buildings would rise out of the landscraper’s curving geometry. Though they could show how this would allow developers to produce generic and flexible space, the client still insisted on a completely regular column grid, which marched through what were meant to be sinuous areas with little regard for the space.

While the columns were pounding through the space, the facilities planners were eating up what in the competition design had been open space. More and more specialized rooms and storage facilities were spreading across the floor, with the result that travelers will at one point have to go from a generous departure space through a windowless neck only 30 feet across.

To mitigate these conditions, the designers were proposing a ceiling baffle system that would repeat the overall building geometry of bundled, splayed structural snakes. They let them just intersect the columns as necessary and guide people around the bottlenecks. In waiting areas they proposed carpet. The facilities managers at the meeting sniffed, sneered, and waved their hands. Too difficult to maintain. Too difficult to replace. Too many separate parts that might have to be stockpiled.

Finally, there was the public space itself. There the designers were trying to come up with as many ways as they could think of to keep advertising off whatever surface was not already given over to stores and signage. Waterfalls were one solution, a sharp curve another—but the client was already thinking of projection techniques to get around these obstructions.

Of course the client was right, as they always are. They need functional space, they need to mitigate the cost of this public infrastructure through development and advertising, and they need to be able to maintain it at minimal cost. What was astonishing was that, after all these decades of management theories about teamwork, and improvements in technology that allow for flexible and integrated design as well as specialized manufacturing with just-in-time delivery, the architect and client were still in the same rut. The architect was exaggerating his vision and pushing for perhaps overly expressive forms because they were in an inherently antagonistic relationship with a client, who was relentlessly trying to regularize the building. There must be a better way. I would invite suggestions. And I will wait to see how this structure turns out.



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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.