The Alberni Street towers in Vancouver, by Heatherwick Studio
Picture Plane for Heatherwick Studio The Alberni Street towers in Vancouver, by Heatherwick Studio

Lately my friend and erstwhile architecture school classmate Charles Dilworth, FAIA, has been sending me emails with headings such as “Why, dear God, why?” The subject is usually the latest building proposed by Thomas Heatherwick’s or Zaha Hadid’s firms, such as the convoluted towers Heatherwick has announced for Vancouver. The object of Dilworth’s ire is formal: The buildings each have a literal and metaphorical twist to them that is more than just the turn of a staircase or the curve of a roofline, but rather involves the structure changing direction going up, bulging out in ways that until recently would have been impossible. Or, in the case of Hadid Architects' forthcoming tower in Shenzhen, flowing out into the landscape with a seeming insouciance. I call it “look-ma-no-hands” architecture.

The astute critic Rowan Moore has gone further, calling the structures “urban click bait,” “one-liner architecture,” and the built equivalent to bitcoin, while resurrecting the (to me) tired argument about the evils of “iconic architecture.” He notes the “unsubtle wielding of natural and cultural symbolism,” and dismisses these projects as having been produced at the behest of clients who want to “advertise and sell themselves,” or who have the “urge to make a mark, to glorify, to self-aggrandise.”

Michael Huston, in an article for Common Edge, is even more scathing, seeing even in the smallest protuberance of a balcony or overlap of a roof plane a waste of material driven somehow by a combination of “ego” and the perpetual bête noire of architecture moralizers: architecture schools. The examples he gives, though, are so trivial and nonsensical as to undermine his own argument.

Tower C in Shenzhen, by Zaha Hadid Architects
Courtesy Zaha Hadid Architects Tower C in Shenzhen, by Zaha Hadid Architects

Both Huston's and Moore’s cases appear to be rooted in morality and aesthetics. It raises the question: What is wrong with these buildings? Their twisting forms do produce exciting shapes and spaces. And the architects usually have justifications for what they are doing, either claiming that they are maximizing buildable area and views, or the reverse, which is to say minimizing the building’s impact on the neighbors. The designs often seamlessly blend together different uses, including apartments and offices as well as parking, shopping, and public space, and are usually “green” in an almost literal sense, either spreading out onto their site in an ooze of planting or (at least in the renderings) featuring trees and shrubs creeping up their façades.

As I have argued to Dilworth, they are improvements over buildings that house single functions in simple shapes, and that in the process waste material trying to cram uses into the proverbial box. These spaces have no sense of transition or human scale but simply occupy a site and use up concrete. The work of Sir David Chipperfield or any number of corporate firms largely indistinguishable save for their varied acronyms come to mind in this respect. To be clear, that is not the only other approach, but we do seem to have gotten stuck in a “box versus blob” debate.

The designers of the boxes and, to a certain extent, Dilworth, argue for the value of restraint. By posing as good citizens receding into the crowd of other structures, by not showing off their contents, and by generally being forgettable to all those without the eye to notice a certain refinement in proportion or subtle jokes—such as exaggerated or hidden entrances—these buildings justify their banality as good manners.

That does not mean that their expressive counterparts are necessarily any better, although designers such as Heatherwick do make larger claims for the superior sustainability of their work. What the “look-ma-no-handers” do offer is a responsiveness to either structural or local constraints that appeals to some but turns others off, Dilworth included. These buildings also have the sense of being set pieces from science fiction films and thus offer a little snippet of the future, whether utopian or dystopian, that we are already starting to construct.

Paul Rudolph's Burroughs Wellcome Building, now being demolished
Flickr/Creative Commons License/John Buie Paul Rudolph's Burroughs Wellcome Building, now being demolished

In a deviation of his usual rants, Dilworth also sent me an image of Paul Rudolph’s 1972 Burroughs Wellcome Center that is now being demolished. He lamented its loss almost as vehemently as he dreaded the advent of these new structures that, as I pointed out, could well be the monuments whose loss we will similarly rue half a century from now. His justification for defending Rudolph’s work was that this Neo-Brutalist architect designed his buildings according to the logic of structure. That seems to me both far-fetched, given the attenuation of the building’s supports, its overhangs, and the double structure and enclosure that made this stack of tubes possible. It also ignores the fact that Hadid, Heatherwick, and many of the other designers of the buildings Dilworth questions use a logic that can similarly justify the necessity of their forms.

Even stranger to me was that Dilworth also lamented the recent loss of the Ticinese architect Luigi Snozzi, sending me a photograph of his 1975 Casa Kalman. I pointed out the impossible thin stilt of a column on which much of the structure rested, the incredible (to me) waste of concrete that lets the house perch on its precarious site, and the lack of windows and the elongation of interior spaces that were meant only to create dramatic spatial effects. Because the design involved no excessive curves, none of this seemed to bother my friend. (In fact, his own work is marked, at times, by the elegant use of curved and complex shapes, many of them made possible through the use of computer-aided design.)

Casa Kalman
Wikimedia Commons/Hans Juergen Breuning Casa Kalman

I should add that both the distaste for the current round of expressive buildings, and the sadness about the loss of Neo-Brutalist structures, seems to be shared among many of my friends and colleagues at Virginia Tech. So, is it just a question of taste? Rowan Moore for one, points out that this kind of work is more prevalent in Asia or the Arab Peninsula. I wonder whether our reaction to such structures does not have a certain cultural bias. Or is it a generational dislike of the current round of innovation in building form? Certainly, there is some of all that at play here, I believe, mixed with a distrust of the tools these architects use to achieve their aims (computer-based work, in other words). These new means of design boost the architect’s ability to zoom their forms into reality to a degree that my generation could (and did) only imagine. With great power comes great danger—but in some cases, great beauty.

Will some of these "look-ma-no-hands" structures be the beloved monuments of tomorrow, or will they become warnings about the power of designing anything imaginable, at any scale, anywhere in the world? They will continue to use up natural resources at a rate that I believe cannot easily be justified. They will also bring some excitement and pizzazz to their sites. They will not be the kinds of monuments that will reaffirm our faith in shared values and enshrine them in unchanging and elemental form. They will also be better than the boxes they come in, to misquote what Dilworth's and my teacher Vincent Scully said about the Lever House and the Seagram Building. Unlike Dilworth, I am actually eager to see some of them realized. I look forward to a trip to Shenzhen or Vancouver—which seem to attract more of these experiments than most other places—20 years from now with my friend Dilworth to find out which one of us was right.

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.