Those modern architectural statements might look great, but do the buildings actually function well?

Posted: May 11, 2009 in creativity

The answer very often seems to be NO. Famous architects like Albert Kahn, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Alvar Aalto, Antonio Gaudi, Carlo Scarpa and many others have become cultural icons and architectural gods, but many if not most of them have created buildings that do not work – either as structures or for the people working and living in them.

The French National Library for example had to skimp on buying books because fixing and maintaining the building after it was constructed became too expensive. The John Hancock Tower in Boston, after its completion, had its internal structure totally redesigned and all its windows replaced because they couldn’t stand wind loads, detached and fell hundreds of feet down onto the food path (the architects though were rewarded with a National Honour Award by their peers). Frank Gehry’s famous Dancing House in Prague needs to employ mountaineers because Gehry had not thought about processes and mechanisms for cleaning the windows.

These are just a few examples mentioned in the first part of Stuart Brand’s “How buildings learn” series. The BBC screened the six part documentary in 1997, but its findings and conclusions are still relevant today. Architects and often their clients are more interested in the flashiness of the visual experience rather than the functionality of the building. Despite tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars spent on those monuments to the architect’s and the building’s owner’s vanity, more often than not little research goes into how the building will perform and stand the test of time.

Even more amazing than the relative incompetence of those famous architects is their attitude. Le Corbusier, when criticised that his buildings lack functionality once said that this is not his problem – people have to learn to adapt to them. Architects receiving complaints in relation to either functionality or building quality have been know to shrug them off by declaring these shortcoming have to be expected because building are not works of perfection but works of art. Frank Gehry who is well known for designing buildings whose walls crack and roofs leak once said something along the lines of ‘leaking roofs proof they are roofs’.

The video quotes a survey reflecting the result of such arrogance and self-delusion: 70% of people working in architect-designed office buildings complained about security, poor signage, window cleaning and air conditioning. Yet only one in ten architects ever returns to a completed building to learn from his or her mistakes. Which leads to the conclusion of the first part of the series: what we need for architects to do is to design and build ‘learning buildings’. Before beginning their design, architects need to thoroughly research the needs of the people who work and live in their buildings, and they then have to design structures that meet these needs and also can be easily changed as people’s needs change over time. A brilliant example from the past: Palazzo Publico, Siena – it took 500 years to achieve the look and design the building has now, and it is still being changed.

Architects want to create final realities, but reality is forever changing. Buildings therefore need to be created so that they can adapt to those changes. But it’s not just evolutionary design that is needed; buildings also have to be spaces that are friendly, allow people to stay healthy, be productive, creative and happy. Office buildings for example need to allow its part-time inhabitants to create their own private territories, they have to provide spaces for easy communication and chance encounters, engender feelings of pleasure, allow for light, air and natural features (such as plants and water), and so on. Buildings have to stop being monuments and instead become genuine places for human habitation, which includes openess to learn and therefore to last forever.

A few words about the background of this six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. Stuart Brand presented and co-wrote it and it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno. It was based on Brand’s 1994 book “HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built”. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which seems to indicate that architects still are not as alert as computer people. But Brand knew that; that’s part of why he wrote the book.

He says that anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. “Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project” he writes. Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital— shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that the team seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought they were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

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  1. Yeah, I think the building is looking great , but something is missing there. is it?

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