Architectural Criticism

  • Thom Mayne: Architecture IS About Human Connection (Despite Himself)

    Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects had an opportunity to give a TED talk in 2005.  Before diving into the content, it's worth noting that at an event characterized by its animated, compelling, unforgettable speakers, Mr. Mayne's talk falls, well, flat.  He mentions once or twice that he's following a tough act; if you go back and take a look at the agenda you see that his talk, "How Architecture Can Connect Us," came right on the heels of dance duo Pilobolus and their piece "Symbiosis", and not too far after Howard Rheingold and his talk on "The New Power of Collaboration", two vibrant and dynamic acts for which any talk would have been a challenge to come after.

    Compelling themes of integration and accord; funny, then, that the person chosen to continue the conversation was an architect long comfortable with conflict and his spiky affect (and buildings).

    The first entry in Architectstasy's hall of shame, the "Cor-boo Awards", is the Morphosis San Francisco Federal Building.  While unarguably a remarkable piece of skyline furniture and an example worth following in terms of its sustainable interventions, on the human front this building fails in every way.  Of what use a lovingly detailed, undulating concrete ceiling designed by ARUP when the communal space it covers is depressingly empty?  How far removed from the human experience do you have to be to design "intimate" gathering spaces clustering five or six lonely seats at the bottom of a claustrophobic four-story atrium, decorated by one of Ed Ruscha's typically gleefully unnerving oversized banners?

    Nothing about this discordance is new for Mr. Mayne.  The earliest parts of his career included contested material explorations that made early, albeit questionably effective, use of BIM (building information modeling), rapid prototyping, and parametric modeling.  The objects that he created then were critical to the development of his verbal and formal vocabulary in exploring complexity and relationships.  Unfortunately, what he seemed to have learned from those explorations is that any adjacency resulting from a design process gets to constitute a relationship, which is a bit like saying that rhinos and tigers serve the same ecological functions just because you can find them both at the zoo.

    Judging by the talk and the work he's done in the decade since then, hope seems slim that he'll outgrow the phase.  The San Francisco Federal Building has been repeated in New York's 41 Cooper Square and Cal Tech's Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.  Charles Eames, with an edge that seems to run counter to his typical sunny disposition, said of designers that "the extent to which you have a style is the extent to which you have failed to solve the design problem."  Architecture is notorious for having an impossibly long feedback loop - months of design, years of construction, and decades of occupancy pose serious obstacles to obtaining legitimate feedback, and it can be very difficult for architects to have a boots-on-the-ground understanding of how their designs are functioning.  Mr. Mayne's most effective design elements are, not the objects he creates, but how he speaks about design and architecture.  He understands the necessity, power, embodied energy, and extended time required by complexity and successful negotiation.

    At a time when even the Pope is questioning the motives of architects and urbanists, it's up to us to teach people why our disciplines are still so vitally, frighteningly relevant; but that path is not paved with prodigal designs and a mule-headed design process.  Despite Martin Mull's dismissive 'might as well "dance about architecture"' feeling, perhaps it's more instructive to return to Pilobolus after all.  The dance troupe relentlessly manifests spatial and bodily awareness in a way any architect would be proud to accomplish.  Perhaps, on this particular day, there was more to learn architecturally from an interpretive dance on biological symbiosis than there was from an architect.

  • Hearts of the City: Herbert Muschamp will always be one of them

    Here’s the thing about Herbert Muschamp.He’s kind of like this smooth nightclub you don’t know whether you want to be a part of. If you go, then everyone knows: you’re “in”. You’re “cool”. You look like you know the things everyone wishes they knew. You acquire a sort of...

  • Greg Lynn's TED Talk: Organic Algorithms in Architecture

    Greg Lynn has occupied a prominent yet uneasy role in architecture for two decades now; crucial in developing new production processes and ways of thinking, yet always leaving the user experience as an uninteresting side effect of his designs. This talk is an illuminating long glance at his method...

  • How Buildings Collapse

    In 1989, architectural critic Herbert Muschamp wrote an essay for the New York Times, “How Buildings Remember”, that was in part the first review of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  In it, he discussed Modernism, transparency, the uneasy intimate relationship between art and...

  • The Ecology Center

    She can feel like an all-chef/no-cook kitchen, but Ann Arbor wears her heart on her sleeve: you never have to guess what she’s thinking. She speaks her mind and she takes her passions seriously. As a town founded in the wilderness, named after its hallmark greenery, Ann Arbor has a long...

  • All-Inclusive Bookstore Includes Great Design

    There’s something to be said for a bookstore whose theme of inclusivity extends to other species (I’m looking at you, scratch-hound Duke).  There’s a lot to be said for a bookstore that’s managed to survive the tribulations of Amazon and an economy that has led many...

  • When does "historical" begin? reporter Ryan Stanton sums up my response to this proposal in his droll title: “19 new Old West Side-style homes coming to Ann Arbor’s north side”.  I couldn’t agree with Mr. Stanton more. Read the rest here...

  • "Where the old Wal-Mart used to be"

    In the rural South, where I'm from, the big running joke is that directions are often given in landmarks, and the even bigger joke is that those landmarks don't even have to be there any more for them to be used in wayfinding.  Perhaps the biggest joke of all?  I still do it, knowing...

  • The Old Fourth Ward: For Whom the Bell Tolls

    For anyone who doubts its value, this is why urban planning is so very important.   Ask not for whom the bell tolls, friends: it tolls for the Old Fourth Ward.   The headline for this project’s go-ahead reads: “City Council Approves 14-story-highrise to Avoid Potentially...

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About this Blog

Architectstasy is a resource for the current, past, and projected built environments of Ann Arbor, SE Michigan, the U.S., and occasionally the world. Jessica A.S. Letaw and invited critics present critical readings of the city's trajectories that are situated within architectural discourse as well news that is pertinent to residents and citizens.

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