Beyond Buildings


Size Still Matters

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Sirmai-Peterson Residence. Courtsey: Arcstudio


It needs to be bigger. That was my conclusion as I was sitting with a student at the University of Kentucky last week, trying to help him towards the final presentation in the design studio I was co-teaching with Drura Parrish. After all the theoretical discussions and the complexity of translating functional requirements into spatial experience, it came down to the fact that there was something not quite right about the images that were appearing on the screen. They just sat there, or blinked without presence.

It reminded me of my first day working for Frank O. Gehry and Associates. After a morning spent running the blueprint machine (which tells you how long ago it was), one of the associates handed me a façade sketch from the hand of the man himself. I sat down at the drafting table and interpreted the overlapping lines into what I thought was a neat and correct measured drawing. I took it to Greg Walsh, the mercurial and brilliant architect who was then Gehry’s right-hand man. “That’s about right,” he said, unrolling his tracing paper over my sheet, “it just needs a little adjustment like so.” He proceeded to sketch over the drawing until each window and door was slightly taller and broader. Suddenly, a boring façade not only looked monumental, letting the house sit on its site with more confidence, but also showed windows that would provide more generous views from inside, expanding the rooms' sense of space.

I don’t pretend that I could provide the same touch to the student’s drawing, though I think the design turned out better at the final review. It did remind me of what bothers me about a great deal of design I see today. In general, the level of buildings designed by architects (of course only a small proportion of what is built) is much higher than it was in the 1980s, when I was trying to learn the ropes. The attempts to humanize a technology-driven modernism, or to create thin cloaks of historical styles over cheap structures, are generally failed efforts in the past, and architects have learned how to use both technology and cultural knowledge to create reasonably interesting and appropriate designs. 

What is lacking, more often than not, is a sense that the resulting building reaches beyond correctness, beyond just being there, and beyond fulfilling its problem statement. Few buildings today soar, or squat squarely, swell, constrict, or amaze. They are not bigger than they need to be—or smaller, for that matter—in any dimension. They fulfill their program, they have been value-engineered into correctness, or they are afraid to be noticed. 

Being correct is better than being bad, and certainly I applaud the general improvement in what fills our sprawling human-built environment. But where is the architecture? Such correctness only affirms and dulls, rather than opens and challenges the world as we think we know it. We need a few more buildings like the ones Gehry still designs, or Steven Holl, or a younger architect like Brad Cloepfill, or any number of younger still architects who refuse to just do the absolutely necessary. We need a few more architects to lay their tracing paper of our cities and expand our horizons.



Comments (8 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:55 PM Monday, December 27, 2010

    Gehry and Holl are fine (thank you for not mentioning Mayne). I think Mr. Betsky needs to leave the interstate between the airport and where he lectures and attempt to discover real buildings that are indeed architecture without awards or the accolades of publication.

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  • Posted by: WalterK01 | Time: 9:15 AM Monday, December 27, 2010

    During my career, I have run across clients that indeed are afraid that the building will be noticed. In fact, they will pay more to make it look like it has a blank stare. It is a fight with the client most of the time to convince them of concepts that seem like a waste of money, but it's worth the fight at the end.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:28 PM Thursday, December 23, 2010

    I get his point but as practicing architects know; the general public and certainly developers in this country don't want exploratory architecture that challenges they want what they see on HGTV and Martha Stewart-safe and what everyone else is doing. They don't want to pay for architecture that stimulates and challenges or questions normality. Clients want a quick return on their dollar since most of them are in it for the short term, unlike Japanese developers & clients. Building departments aren't capable of providing insight into & approving challenging designs, since most of them are inept and incapable of dealing with changing technology-even if the architect attempts to 'teach' them through the process. Contractors are the same; they're in it for the short term dollar and shy away from challenging designs they can't bury their mystery 20% markup on materials and labor in. If you want vibrant architecture I suggest you buy a plane ticket and fly to Europe, South America or the Middle East. Bad economy or not, this country doesn't want good architecture and certainly doesn't respect its talented architects.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:08 AM Thursday, December 23, 2010

    The problem is NOT correctness, proportion, or monumentality. The problem is $$$$. The public is most willing to spend more for a pair of "designer" pants, but will not spend more for a "designer" building. At we find the empahsis is on the most square footage for the budget, not the design, the correctness, or any other factor than the money involved. I fault the profession for not adqequately educating the public on the monetary value of good building that speak design.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:56 PM Wednesday, December 22, 2010

    Buildings should be showcases besides being functional. That's what architecture is all about. In other words, they should "speak" their forms and presence for being there. And of course today they should also be green. Building design should have no limits on style or form. The more radical the better. That's what makes architecture limitless in design.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:44 PM Wednesday, December 22, 2010

    Good points Aaron, yes the correctness has and can make timid designs and buildings. Yes, boring buildings are all around use- they have many causes or reason for being dumbed down. What most often makes them boring is that they have no proportion, so monumentality, no sense of there wanting to be in a location, not copying context, but celebrating it. We need variety, we need to understand proportion as teachers and teach proportion to our students so that they know how the parts of a design can relate to the whole so that our programs are, no matter the style or designer talent, has a presence that is not boring but confindent. thanks for the article; now lets work to fix the problem.

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  • Posted by: reajackson | Time: 10:57 AM Wednesday, December 22, 2010

    "What is lacking, more often than not, is a sense that the resulting building reaches beyond correctness, beyond just being there, and beyond fulfilling its problem statement". The use of the word CORRECT is in an of itself an indication of what is so very wrong in our times. CORRECTNESS in essence IS the problem - not just in architecture but in life - WE as a nation (Western societies in general) are so consumed with being CORRECT - politically or otherwise that we no longer know how to live or create things that express who we really are - art is just a mere reflectoin of the times we live in. I am saddened that architecture no longer OFFENDS anyone!!! Heaven forbid we should offend anyone - period.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:33 AM Wednesday, December 22, 2010

    Please, no more Gehry's, no more Holl's, there will be another alternative!

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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.