inconvenient architecture

31 December 2012

 Guggenheim_New_York

If you watch the video below of Inconvenient Space, you should find Maziar Behrooz very engaging and his talk entertaining yet poignant all the same. I recently met Maziar at our First Year reviews at CMU and found him to be a wonderful person with very strong work. However despite his humor and intentional hyperbole, his video made me think broader about this idea that ‘architecture’ often has had some weakness, Achilles heel, or other flaw in it that today most would find unacceptable at worst, inconvenient at best. Despite this weakness, many works of architecture are excused and remain great in our minds and records. I don’t think that greatness and convenience are mutually exclusive. We can have both.

History, (more specifically the past century), has given us projects that we herald as masterpieces that we place on all of our pilgrimage lists or ‘bucket lists’ which are occasionally the product of large egos and ridiculous expenditures of money. For the most part I am going to excuse projects older than the past century that may also fall into this category for the lack of contemporary building technology. However, if we pick up a book of modern or contemporary architecture we can find buildings whose roofs leak, are poorly insulated, have formal manipulations that cause strange functional relationships, interior spaces that are disorienting or difficult to maneuver, construction assemblies that are hard to maintain and glass boxes that are difficult to use most of the year. Despite our veneration of the architecture and architect, they are simply inconvenient. Is Maziar right in his jesting that the more inconvenient the greater the work?

Architecture is simply not the same today as it was even a century ago and quite frankly it shouldn’t be. Today our clients expect so much more for so much less and apart from a rare eccentric wealthy owner or nonconforming visionary, our projects have little room for anything that can be labeled as inconvenient. Budgets are too tight, owners are too discerning and fortunately technology has overcome many of the challenges our predecessors couldn’t solve.

I am not trying to ‘dumb down’ architecture or relieve it from design features that provide intangible value or unique experience. Nevertheless, how do you evaluate great architecture? Can we overlook projects or aspects that clearly don’t work? Should we hold each other more accountable? Should the media give credit, awards, or print space to work that may appear visionary yet clearly has overlooked something obvious? How should we educate in our schools of architecture? Can we challenge students to think innovatively yet hold them accountable to resolve basic function?

In this time where our profession and the AIA is working to reposition itself, struggling to demonstrate value and securing ourselves a future and relevancy in the AEC industry, should we even suggest an architecture of inconvenience?

I suppose 2013 will reveal a lot about our future as architects.

john-hedjuk-wall-house

photo of Guggenheim NYC is from the Wikimedia Commons (used under the Creative Common License)

About these ads

8 Responses to “inconvenient architecture”


  1. The Einsenmann’s House III was clearly one of the favorite architecture of the professors during my university years.
    It is hard to access correctly all the images of great buildings that lay deep in our subconscious minds. So we tend to envy and admire the architects that sacrifice “some” functionality to achieve “visionary” architecture.

    But I see the beauty as an aesthetic function of the building and the architecture as a functionalist way to solve living/working problems.

    I consider a bad trick to design “inconvenient” spaces just for the disputable beauty of the “great architecture”. I tend to agree with solutions that maybe failed to proper work, but not to the idea of neglecting such problems from the beginning.

    Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasil is a clear example of a trial and error design. Despite it’s wonderful modern beauty, the city is now surrounded by favellas because the architect designed the city as a one stage city, with no development future.
    But in this case, the great architect tried a new solution, he had some traditional society problems in mind and he tried to solve them.

    The museum that looks like a giant sculpture is not architecture. it is an architectural sculpture and nothing more. It is the victory of an hipper ego against the function of the building.

    But such “great architecture” should not be censored by media, because the freedom of the word is more important than anything. Instead I would prefer to see such “great architecture” not in the main university teachings, but into a footnote.

    I wish you a happy new year!

    • leecalisti Says:

      I think we generally agree. Many works of architecture had experimental features associated with them and in some cases, they didn’t work as intended but the experimentation led to other discoveries. I am not advocating the loss of experimentation, but we have such little room for error in this economy. On the other hand, we are too often swayed by what we think is visionary, excusing the inconveniences as architects. However, the general public is not so forgiving.

  2. Ted Rusnak Says:

    “impractical and inconvenient to be brave”.
    True enough were I to be asked to design a structure that would be an artwork. And there are clients who desire this result.

    The Frank Gehry / Peter Lewis collaboration is an example.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A64064-2004Aug13.html

    Through a series of fortunate events I was given the opportunity to see the models mentioned in the article. There were actually a series of seven presentation level models. And knowing/seeing the sequence of their development it became very evident that Gehry was honing his skills and vision.

    Isn’t it our challenge to create artwork/architecture that is in some way habitable? (Gehry’s Weatherhead successfully goes to that).
    Isn’t it our challenge to appear impractical and inconvenient yet make an architectural statement?
    Were our work hung on a wall to be admired we would obviously have a freer hand/mind over the result.
    You know, if we didn’t have to work around humans this would be a lot more fun. t.

    • leecalisti Says:

      We are in agreement. I have had clients actually say “I don’t want to make a statement.” However, I refrained from asking “then why did you hire me?”

  3. Ed Garbee Says:

    Fantastic video. Your order of greatness is automatically linked to your name. I visited the Denver Art Museum last fall. Really cool being able to walk inside a sculpture. Not so good for displaying art.

    • leecalisti Says:

      I would never want to give up sculptural projects. However, when we can make it sculptural and make the form serve its purpose, then we’re really doing something special. Otherwise, we perpetuate the poor egoist stereotypes.


  4. Dear Lee,

    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary.

    My talk conflates two different types of inconvenience….Yes, to entertain. But beneath the hyperbole is a serious observation as you point out.

    One type of inconvenience is technical -a leak for example. No architecture should tolerate this though it must be admitted that experimentation usually comes at a cost.

    The more interesting, even vital, type of inconvenience is intentional and universally present in any great building, in my opinion. The length of the passageway in John Hedjuk’s 3/4 house, for example, is an intentional inconvenience…..It is a desired effect and the dominant experience of the building. .

    It is this latter type of inconvenience which interests me. It is born from a commitment to and the dominance of a single guiding principle or idea and the discarding of any secondary or tertiary gestures that may dilute it. Naturally, in this process of discarding of less important ideas (read functionalities), inconvenience is born and we should be ready to embrace it.

    For a nice read of this subject, take a look at http://www.architakes.com/?p=8807

    To use a Colin Rowe analogy, perhaps we ought to distinguish between literal and phenomenal inconvenience.

    Yours,

    Maziar Behrooz

    • leecalisti Says:

      Maziar,
      Thank you for taking time to respond to my blog and join the conversation.

      I took the time to read the article you suggested and I would say I think we are generally on the same page here. I re-read my blog and spent a week thinking about what my overall point was when I wrote that. I did find your reference humorous despite knowing there was more theory and intention behind these architects’s works.

      I would say my big problem was largely in the concept of literal inconvenience. Oftentimes architects design grand projects or even modest projects with the intention of doing something noble or even shocking for their own egotistical pursuits. They may have a polemic or philosophical position behind the building or their work in general. However, they make rookie mistakes with large sums of money that can’t simply be dismissed in the spirit of experimentation or genius (i.e. building a glass box in Arizona).

      Who is charged with deciding on whether the inconvenience is worth it? The general public has a different expectation and value system than most architects. We tend to appreciate and at times venerate buildings and spaces that most others judge differently. Some people find it more important to be able to go to the bathroom easily than spend five minutes in a life changing space like a medieval cathedral. It’s a reality that architects must come to grips with yet remain idealistic. Buildings cost large sums of money so our fiduciary duty and ethical responsibility must trump our personal ambitions.

      When I think of the article you shared and the quest for phenomenal inconvenience, I think we agree. As architects, we must deliver more than mere shelter, code compliance and a place to store your stuff. However, this can only be measured with the assistance and cooperation of the client. Often the architect experiments with this concept on their own house so there is complete cooperation. Yet to design a glass box in the middle of the woods for an uncooperative client raises ethical issues. Ask Edith Farnsworth if she thinks her house is as great as all architects believe it to be.

      I’ve lost many battles with clients but I’ve been fortunate to win a few. In those few and rare cases, the client thought it worth the effort to set aside one thing for the greater experience or result. It takes a willing client, typically a reasonable budget and an architect who can explain it well.


Please leave a reply, and consider sharing this with a friend.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,512 other followers

%d bloggers like this: