# ARCHITECTURAL THEORIES /// Critique of a new “post-ideological” Architectural Paradigm

Diagram for a residential building on West 57th Street in New York by Bjarke Ingels Group (2011). See on official website for full credits

A part of the most influential and popular architects of this decade constitutes the  second generation of “disciples” of the “Koolhaasian” school among which we can find people like Bjarke Ingels (BIG), Julien De Smedt (JDS) or Joshua Prince-Ramus (REX). The critique I would like to propose here does not want to focus on their design methods in the production of any given building – the approach in the conception phase is after all very personal – but rather I will attempt to interrogate these same methods for the way they consider architecture, and therefore communicate and inspire other people in their own approach to this discipline.

What these architects seems to have learned beside Rem Koolhaas is a form of political and economical pragmatism and a precise care for the program of a building that makes their projects consensual and easy to understand. In this regard, one could hardly find a more pedagogical mean of explaining the formation of their architecture than the multitude of simple diagrams (see at the end of this article) they use in their presentations.

The problem is that those diagrams are not simply a pedagogical mean of representation but rather, they constitute a systematic design process – we might want to say a “recipe” – that forms the essence of each building. The reason why Rem Koolhaas, for better or for worse, remains one of the most interesting architect to listen to, while this second generation of disciples struggles to create a valuable theoretical discourse, is that the latter, despite a good sense of design, has an approach of architecture that is as simplified as their diagrams are.

These diagrams often shows a cubic form from which the architects will list a certain amount of operations driven by programmatic, climatic, or urbanistic purposes. Architecture is thus conceived as a original volume (maybe the reminiscence of an older paradigm) that saw itself more or less geometrically modified to achieve another volume. Of course, it would be inaccurate to say that those architects stops their design process here, as they have been consistently proving that their office was able to achieve a decent work in terms of materials and details – that might not be true for their own followers. However, the essence of each architecture created through this process lies in this series of volumetric transformations – the proof is that we can always recognize buildings that have been created this way. What happens at the human scale is  post-rationalized and, of course, no vision of local culture, society or politics are being expressed in this process, which makes it perfectly appropriate for any given established system of production of value to swallow it.

This new generation of architects is the happily product of a society that defines itself as “post-ideological” but, on the contrary fully embraces an ideology that is based on the passive participation of its subjects. The consensus that these methods seem to embody should not blind us from the fact that architecture – and the construction of the city in general – is complex and therefore should not start from a simplified vision (symbolized here by the white cubic volume view from the top) but rather from the acknowledgment of this complexity. There is no “right answer” for it and an ideological debate is therefore preferable to the apparent consensus of an illusory post-ideological world.  We might want to be thankful to offices of this generation like BIG, Diller & Scofidio, or Jürgen Mayer for introducing a certain form of quality of design to a broader audience; however we must remain aware that an architecture is primarily the result of an individual or collective ethics that proposes, whether we want it or not, a stance about the society it is embedded in.

Diagrams for a residential building on West 57th Street in New York by Bjarke Ingels Group (2011). See on official website for full credits

Diagrams for the Beijing Green Visitor Center by Julien De Smedt Architects (2012). See on official website for full credits

Diagrams for Yongsan International Business district “Project R6″ in Seoul by REX (2011). See on official website for full credits

Diagram for Activision/Blizzard Headquarters in Santa Monica by REX (2011). See on official website for full credits

Diagram for the CLC & MSFL Towers in Shenzhen by REX (2012). See on official website for full credits

15 Comments on “# ARCHITECTURAL THEORIES /// Critique of a new “post-ideological” Architectural Paradigm

  1. I think we can trace the origins of this sort of approach back in the 1970s with the massive withdraw of architects from political concerns and their retreat to formal abstraction and architecture-as-representation. The bankruptcy of modernism meant at least a double response in this regard, one towards “academicist” formal abstraction (Eisenman, Tschumi, Libeskind), and another trend towards populism and the uncritical “celebration of complexity” (Venturi, Graves, Moore). Maybe a third trend could be that of the heritage of techno-utopian architects (Friedman, Price). I think what you have with Koolhaas is a sort of synthesis of all of these, and these new “young” architects are that “on (postmodern) steroids”. It is not too hard to see how these approaches “mirror” our current ideological conditions, but it seems to me they are a bit out-of-date, especially when you have in mind the current economic crisis -we could say they fit perfectly the 1990s. They seem a bit of a joke, but we might rightly add a “killing joke”. I think you hit the point with this: “What happens at the human scale is post-rationalized and, of course, no vision of local culture, society or politics are being expressed in this process, which makes it perfectly appropriate for any given established system of production of value to swallow it.” Which perfectly fits Lefebvre’s definition of ABSTRACT SPACE -the strategic space developed by the bourgeoisie, the space of capitalism, a weapon which operates through the reality of abstractions. I think this could be seen as the ultimate commodification of architecture, and as such, it goes way beyond an ideological issue, it has its base in a fetishized social practice which engenders a fetishized built environment.

  2. Merely simplification for the simplified man (public). To most, architecture is an abstraction and these methods aim to bridge the gap. The question remains whether or not the architect is willing reveal the depth past the diagram. I see many architects falling into this trap of over simplification, not fully understanding the complexities beyond. BIG, JDS and REX understand and take on this complexity yet choose to veil it. This method must be taken with a grain of salt, or at least some perspective on the reality of processes.

  3. Perhaps this design approach has its origins in the past, as Patricio suggests, but the diagrams through which it communicates feel contemporary. They seem out of a children’s book or a cartoon strip, an ‘Architecture for Dummies’ self-help book or DIY guide to design: lots of small arrows, emoticons of faces both happy and sad, cute little suns casting joyful rays onto the city below. The building depicted as a small model, held gingerly in hand, conveys the architect as an innocent child at play, and invites the viewer to share in this experience. The architecture is typically represented in axonometric, a projection that suggests the control screen of construction simulation video games like SimCity. The axon narrates a fiction of ‘omniscience’ to the layman viewer (with total comprehension comes control…with control, the erasure of fear… lacking fear, happiness) while, conveniently, conveying an air of criticality and disciplinary legitimacy.

    Despite their playfulness (or childishness), I imagine these diagrams are intentional and self-conscious. They act as ‘spoonfuls of sugar’ to make our effective lack of control over such buildings and the forces that shape them go down smoothly. Perhaps we should read these representations as early symptoms of ‘Kawaii,’ the aesthetic culture of cuteness from Japan that has assimilated nearly everything there, turning even power into something cuddly (see ‘Pipo-Kun,’ the cheerful bear-like mascot of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police)…

  4. Leopold I like that you took this on and find both Patricio and Tyler’s posts good summarys. Will do best to add to this.

    For the purposes of putting dailogue over some techno music (similar delivery of information as above, happy raving techno faces with some intellectualism in the background) I found this Peter Eisenman clip where for the first time I agree with him – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XFACVgD9YA – What makes great architecture? In short good architects have a theory about what they do, he cites Koolhaas. As I think you suggest above Koolhaas worked out his theory and now his “disciples” are going full-on (full-on a new term for 90’s psytrance apparently). BUT I always thought Koolhass theory was at the same cynical observations about capitalicism etc.., in short half of his kool-aid wasn’t ideology but just pessimistic observations about the apparent inevitable future. somehow these observations have become theory for his “disciples” or at least it appears so?

    In theme with these childish (cool) zoning study diagrams above I want to remind people Hugh Ferriss did it first for for the NYC 1916 zoning ordinance – http://www.skyscraper.org/EXHIBITIONS/FUTURE_CITY/NEW_YORK_MODERN/walkthrough_1916.php

    The challenge is to offer a real alternative. As far as investors see it – a city is a landscape that offers increased profits for investments in real estate; bounded only by volumes and codes. The zoning often allows (NYC) for additional over maximizing of the building zoning envelope if you in return put a park or plaza at the base, so in some regard the city took on the “local” scale issue on, but ultimately it’s just a form of currency for the developer.

  5. Provocative post, and equally insightful comments. Tyler, you make a great reference to Ferriss and the zoning envelope (something which Koolhaas disciple MVRDV have pursued to great length) but I think there is a difference between illustrating the maximum legal volume of a particular site through simple geometry, and commencing a diagrammatic series with a 2- or 3-dimensional rectilinear volume. The question remains why are these spaces originally shown as cubic in the diagrams, especially when the resulting architecture is so often fantastically not a box? The Seattle Public Library program diagrams, with their basic-Illustrator monochrome bar graphs of use, and the resulting trapezoidal form, come to mind. Is it just simpler to put them in right-angled frames? Is this just a riff on the modernist boxes? Certainly part of the resulting architecture’s impact is its contrast with more common block-like buildings (again, Seattle). Is this just more irony? The diagrams don’t really explain the process of evolving from the original to the final. As has been pointed out, this might be intentional– the theatricality of their showmanship is undoubtedly a big part of what keeps them as magician/Starchitects, and keeps the jobs and the money coming in.

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  7. What a fantastic post, i want to respond to this, but will have to pen something a bit more coherent when i’ve got a bit of time to properly sift through the rage and disgust these diagrams have revived.

  8. To your point, I have it from the mouth of a directly participating architect in the project, that the beloved and much touted generating diagram of the Seattle Public Library was created post facto in order to explain the project and glorify a “rational” design process. In other words, it was at best the formal presentation of an idealized design process under false pretenses, a piece of architectural myth-making and salesmanship, albeit a fairly well-conceived and well-executed one. How many times has that diagram been referenced in a studio or class (or firm’s meeting room) as a beacon of clarity and rational “program-driven” architecture, and how many times has JPR presented it as the primal generating idea of that project?

    • REVOKE thank you for the info, I had my suspicions…and you confirmed it.

      Once in undergrad, my studio partner and I spent sleepless hours developing a project and after working it through thoroughly until the final hours of the morning, shortly before the studio presentation I did a napkin like sketch of the concept and whipped up some fantastic conceptual language. Besides other people in studio, no one knew the genius like sketch was post-rationalized and to a certain degree bull shit!

      Awaiting Terrapols penned comment.

  9. Il est bien cet article sur les diagrammes, il faudrait aussi parler de leur contagion sur le mode de communication des architectes aujourd’hui.
    Le procédé didactique proche de l’histoire racontée -par son coté enfantin et cartoonesque- étant devenu une norme chez les jeunes et moins jeunes architectes français (notamment) souhaitant s’approprier ce qui apparaît comme un outil puissant de persuasion des décideurs.
    Alors que les possibilités offertes par les nouveaux modes de conception issus de ces jeux diagrammatiques apparurent comme une source de renouvellement de l’architecture à la fin des années 70, elles apparaissent aujourd’hui comme des recettes de séductions, un nouveau “hat-trick” architectural, par lequel chaque bâtiment se doit de définir un nouveau paradigme (formel).

  10. Well i think there’s been some terrific replies to the original post, notably from Tyler and Patricio.

    I’m interested in the way that the reductive tendency displayed in these diagrams is operating to stifle or nullify critique. In terms of architectural representation, there’s always existed a delicate balancing act in deciding how much of a project to reveal in an image – too much and you risk exposing yourself (and more importantly the scheme) to an undesired reaction, too little and you can’t communicate the concept.

    In that vein, these diagrams feel perfectly stage managed, or pitched to the lay consumer, inoffensive enough to not arouse concern, but with just enough detail to cover the very basics. To me they read as prompts to be used in a powerpoint presentation, an image which doesn’t really stand on its own merit but relies on the discursive skill of the architect to operate as a convincer.

    I used to work for a large company that made images like these, and invariably we got the sense that we were simply covering our bases with regards to the client. We needed to provide the “environmental story” the “security story” the “structural story” and so on. In this way all the aspects of the design were reduced to these saccharine vignettes, re-inforcing a message of positivity through the use of bright colours and familiar symbols whilst remaining *purposefully* devoid of meaningful content, allowing the space for the real story – the architect’s sales pitch – to flourish.

    Like the 1:1000 blue foam massing models that these architects all seem so fond of, these diagrams are completely disposable. The lack of formal definition allows the project to remain conceptually flexible right up until the point where it absolutely must be defined. This hesitation to commit to a firm concept is a completely logical and extremely pragmatic reaction to the process of ‘design by options’ that is so common in the larger offices where the iterative process of design seems to take place more for the sake of contractual cover than a desire for focused experimentation.

    One last comment that the innocence – kawaii – nature of these images is absolutely intended to be disarming but in fact exposes the sinister aspect of the entire process more acutely than any railing polemic could. As pieces of architectural propaganda (which they undoubtedly are) they tell a very particular truth regarding the buildings they depict, one totally controlled by the innocent hand of the benevolent architect. As Patricio pointed out, these diagrams feel somewhat outmoded in the face of the current economic crisis, but these diagrams, this mode of representation is all too modern. The disconect between the representation of the architects work, mediated to the public through images like these, and the reality on the street is only increasing in starkness. Subversion through absurdity and contrast has long been a powerful political method – this form of nihilistic reductivism to the logic of the market could well return to haunt the reality these buildings will have to occupy.

    • Thanks for your sharing your take Daniel,

      the thing that I blame those diagrams for being however, is not so much their representative aspect than the fact that the concerned buildings (the diagram’s materialization) are simplistic diagrams themselves. The representation is only the visible symptom of this “disease”.

      Leopold

      • I wonder, if one could make a general critique, perhaps will end up in that the ‘operational language’ architects use to project and communicate to other social agents (drawings, diagrams, plans, etc) has an specific ideological function, which as you suggest, leaves its traces on the build work. It follows then that the mystifying and reductive nature of these devices result in mystified and reductive architecture as well.
        Still, I tend to think that since architects have historically been identified with the bourgeoisie, their preferred mode of thinking is IDEALISM, in the sense that they believe that ‘ideas’ are primordial, and that they shape our world, hence abstraction reigns supreme. Perhaps, this is also the reason why most people (including architects) see ‘architectural theory’ or ‘discourse’ as just another bullshit rhetoric designed to cover up the ‘real operations’ of the architectural work within the flow of capital in the city.
        Lefebvre makes a great point regarding the illusory nature of the architect’s discourse:
        “As for the eye of the architect, it is no more innocent than the lot he is given to build on or the blank sheet of paper on which he makes his first sketch. His ‘subjective’ space is freighted with all-too-objective meanings. It is a visual space, a space reduced to blueprints, to mere images – to that ‘world of the image’ which is the enemy of the imagination. These reductions are accentuated and justified by the rule of linear perspective. Such sterilizing tendencies were denounced long ago by Gromort, who demonstrated how they served to fetishize the façade — a volume made up of planes and lent spurious depth by means of decorative motifs (…) It may thus be said of architectural discourse that it too often imitates or caricatures the discourse of power, and that it suffers from the delusion that ‘objective’ knowledge of ‘reality’ can be attained by means of graphic representations.” (The production of space, 361)
        And from the standpoint of social practice:
        “For all that architectural projects have a seeming objectivity, for all that the producers of space may occasionally have the best intentions in the world, the fact is that volumes are invariably dealt with in a way that refers the space in question back to the land, to a land that is still privately (and privatively) owned; built-up space is thus emancipated from the land in appearance only. At the same time, it is treated as an empty abstraction, at once geometric and visual in character. This relationship — a real connection concealed beneath an apparent separ-ation and constituting a veritable Gordian knot — is both a practice and an ideology: an ideology whose practitioners are unaware that their activity is of an ideological nature, even though their every gesture makes this fact concrete.” (The production of space, 338)

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