Tainan Public Library by Mecanoo
Yu-Chen Chao Tainan Public Library by Mecanoo

Can boxes be beautiful? Can they be right? Are they the basis for architecture from which you should only deviate with good cause? These are the questions that have been raised by various articles and awards in the last few weeks. A survey of most of the design magazines and websites out there shows a dearth of the blobs and blips that were so popular a few years ago. Professionals feel a strong distrust toward such forms, as I wrote here. Mecanoo, a firm I have a long admired, has reverted in its recent commissions to designing decorated boxes. Even Frank Gehry, FAIA, has gone boxy in the latest version of his Toronto mixed-use towers, as Mark Alan Hewitt noted. And the U.S. Wood Awards, which highlight how you can shape that material into any form and use it for just about anything, showcased nothing but boxes.

As I have written before, there is a logic to making it simple and pure. Theoretically, you waste less material, and you allow for the most flexibility, both in the interior and in terms of whatever you apply to the façade to make the building conform to codes or to communicate in correct (contextual or representative) manner. There is a beauty in keeping things simple and mining the economy of means and shape for the subtle emphases on details, light, or material that can make a building come alive.

Gehry's King Street project in Toronto

The problem is that it does not always work that way. First of all, you have to be good at it, and experience has shown that we can’t count on the necessary talent being present or rising above the conflicts and restrictions that architects face during any design process as they strive to produce a beautiful box. Second, trying to cram different uses into a uniform shape is not always easy. The necessity of various details—to keep the rain flowing off the building, for instance, or to accommodate the structure that enables the box to be open—distort the building structure itself. It is often as much work—and a waste of material—to hide those aspects of the building with parapets or thick walls as it is to let them hang or slope out. On a deeper level, people do not move or congregate in straight lines. It is one thing to form a framework or background for our activities, another to accommodate and even encourage them.

Even the Big Box Men, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, knew this, adding curves and expressing structure in almost all of their most famous buildings. It was the corporate architects who found that the box was cheap and easy to build if you forgot about inconsistencies in function or structure and did not spend money on those fancy curves.

Le Corbusier's chapel in Ronchamp
Flickr/Creative Commons License/foundin_a_attic Le Corbusier's chapel in Ronchamp

Mark Alan Hewitt’s article on Gehry’s Toronto project, and boxy skyscrapers in general, appeared in Common Edge, a site which has now established itself as the voice of conservatism in design, featuring traditional approaches to architecture and urbanism, simple forms, a distrust of innovation and anything related to computer technology, and an appeal to common sense and vernacular. Hewitt laments the resurgence of the boxy skyscraper, with its 1960s sensibility: extruding up to heights that only the rich can afford and imposing itself unduly on the skyline and the surrounding neighborhoods. He starts with the oft-cited quote from Louis Sullivan’s early essay on skyscrapers, in which he points out that the building should be “every inch a soaring thing.” The logic of the skyscraper—fed by function (large floorplates, structure, and mechanical needs below, smaller ones above), structure, and contextual needs—suggests tapering or off-set forms with refinements that reduce wind load and swirl, and that fit the building as well as possible into its context. What Hewitt wants is a box that behaves.

The problem is not with the box, I think, but with breaking it—or even tapering it. From the get-go, anything but a box is difficult: Watching my students run to the beauty of the angle or the curve and then get lost in trying to resolve its complexities indicates as much. It takes a very good architect to make complex forms work, both in and of themselves and as part of a larger whole. It also means a clear understanding of everything from function to structure to what curves or angles suggest to those who experience them. On top of all of that, most formal complexities add costs and make it more difficult to see a design realized.

The question is to figure out where expression is worth it, and to use such deviate forms with care and economy. Even architects we remember for their love of curves, such as Alvar Aalto, reserved them for just parts of their buildings. We forget that Gehry’s structures are mainly simple boxes or stacks of boxes, with tears, curves, and billows he adds for various functional and expressive purposes. For every out-of-control angler such as Santiago Calatrava, Hon. FAIA, or constipated boxster such as David Chipperfield, Hon. FAIA, there are architects who know when to step out of the straight and narrow and make something beautiful from that move.

In other words, we should celebrate complexity where it is warranted and praise simplicity where appropriate, but never assume that there is a single solution to the design of a building. There are no rules that fit all situations, only good or bad architects who are either using the right tactics or giving up on the necessity of doing the right thing.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.