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    Wasteful Architecture

    Vincent DeFazio
    Feb 4, '15 10:12 PM EST

    Expression and architecture go hand-in-hand.  Being one of the most powerful and experiential art forms, architecture inherently has a sense to impose its (dis)positions upon society even if they are unwarranted.  As technological advances continue to push the envelope to new extremes, formal expression has found its way back into prominence among the brightest of architecture's stars.  Within itself, expressionistic structure is not a bad thing, especially when it progresses society's abilities, views and beliefs.  What has become evident of these new advances in building technologies is the massive amount of waste that is generated from creating such luxurious forms and geometries. In an era where sustainability is jammed down the intellectual throat of any designer maneuvering through universities everywhere, it seems counter-intuitive to encourage wasteful contortions that ultimately do no more than create VE'd monstrosities. While the smell of fresh sustainability is in the air, the discernible deceit of progression threatens to berate any 'green' progress we have made as a profession.  How can architecture be both expressive and sustainable?

    Material

    Materiality when constructing anything is imperative.  It is what informs the designer how things can be joined together, how something can look and especially how it can perform. Materials are the simplest building blocks that are assembled feverishly while concurrently thinking about multiple aspects.  In architecture, materiality plays a huge role in appearance to the layperson and in performance to those involved in the AEC industries.  Materials express their inherent functions through implementation in an assembly.  Yet today, a metal-clad facade does little more than cover up the inefficiencies architects knowingly designed to preserve the bottom line.  

    In a time where natural and raw resources are growing scarce by the second, our broad intention should be to conserve and increase efficiency.  These efficiencies  shouldn't come only from the ASHRAE 90.1, rather through a holistic approach to designing. Materials, performance and aesthetics can all jive together if carefully coordinated and understood.  Instead of decorating the buildings that are growing taller by the day, architects and designers should seek to find solutions that reserve as many resources in favor of a simpler assembly.  This simplicity of making doesn't need to become a bland and detached manifestation either - optimizing materials for their best performances and using the correct ones in the correct scenarios benefits the design, bottom line and most importantly the environment.

    BIG's W57 project in NYC

    Some of the biggest names in architecture today are heavily experimenting with new forms, new materials and new ways of assembling structures.  This beautiful and profound series of experiments lends itself to buildings never thought possible or a cantilever that was once never fathomed by even the most crazed engineer.  But at what cost?  Bjarke Ingels' West 57th Street project just topped off in New York City but its built presence (in its current state) leaves much to be desired and a lot to be - hidden?          

    W57 is essentially - like many other buildings - a series of 'pancakes' that seek to maximize floor area and rentable space.  Ingels' expression comes in the way of the contortion-like movement the plates make as they formulate a central courtyard in the middle of New York City.  What really has created the main aesthetic draw are the panels that will clad this building at an angle.  The massive amount of steel that is needed to simply support the envelope is far from efficient - it's a decorative element that hides the most fascinating part of the building.  

    BIG's project is a far cry from the wastefulness that architecture is capable of.  As a matter of fact, his approach to sustainable architecture is growing closer to his theories as his buildings grow farther away from his expressionistic style (aesthetic) that has made him world renowned.   Two of the biggest offenders of wasteful architecture are no strangers to criticisms for harsh and overbearing structures - Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid.  

     The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center's exterior space frame is completely separate from the rest of the building.  It's inefficiencies lie in its lack of integration with the rest of the building becoming little more than an expensive 'dress' for the building.

    The Guangzhu Opera House isn't Hadid's biggest offender since the structural shell is nearing integration with the rest of the building.  However the pieces that all must come together to form this building are a far cry from sustainable.

    Perhaps one of the more warranted uses of excessive material is the London Aquatics Center.  Although the nest of steel was eventually covered, sporting venues are notorious for their overuse of natural materials by their inherent nature.

    Hadid's works are magnificent sculptural dichotomies that have grown more daring as technology has progressed.  While these expressions are beautifully-manipulated structural masterpieces, the efficiency of realizing many of her ideas come at the cost of extreme amounts of steel, concrete and glass.  At times, her structures' use of material could easily forge two or three other buildings in its place.  Has this become the ill-begotten reality of the profession?  Does progressive design burn through materials and resources more quickly than conventional building?  Not necessarily.  Innovative uses of the proper structural systems that can efficiently enclose or facilitate the enclosure of a building could easily decrease material use.  An interesting way of combating this would be to physically alter the formulation of materials to work the way the design team intends - a true interdisciplinary experience.  While this may be at a higher cost and longer lead time, it can actually completely alter the way things are constructed while increasing performative efficiency.  Most of the formal expressions that are relevant or popular today are nothing more than a jungle of conventional 'bones' assembled by an algorithm and dressed in the prettiest of robes - a self indulgent architecture created by the self interested architect. 

    Frank Gehry outdoes Zaha for wastefulness in many buildings, but especially for the Disney Concert Hall where this steel will never be seen.

    Gehry's Disney Music Hall is synonymous with his style.  A series of planar shells seem to effortlessly create a space beyond - there's just a lot more to this building than a pretty face. What's directly behind the facade is a mess of steel as seen above.  There is nothing quite innovative about it besides perhaps the brilliance of the structural engineer's that didn't strangle Frank in his own offices.  It's a beautiful building at it's skin (interior and exterior) but that beauty isn't much farther than skin deep.  This problem could easily fall into the laps of the engineering team working with Gehry, but his lack of attempt to find a more efficient structural system says much more than a engineer's faltered attempts. 

    Is architecture today returning to an applique of decorum simply to express emotion?  Is the Disney Concert Hall a reincarnation of the Baroque churches that still stand today adorned in architectural jewelry?  It would seem that many of these architects - Zaha, Gehry, Libeskind -  present a certain dishonesty with their work, almost as if they're forcing a building to be something it simply does not want to be.  By basic nature, materials and their properties should be well-represented and truthfully displayed.  Why do Gehry's buildings have a beautiful maze of steel that is only hidden by simplistic metal panels?  What if those mazes were to be exposed - too much going on?  But it's okay to cover this mess with panels, sweeping it under the metaphoric architectural rug in favor of grand gestures?  The trend-setting architects of today must think of the word integration as they push their structures to new forefronts, if a building is going to do 'x', it must use 'abc' material that can accomplish 'x', 'y', and 'z'.  Today's designers seem to have forgotten a building is a system, a collection of elements that work together.  Architecture is about performance as much as an automobile and at this rate, Gehry is building 1989 Impalas while Hadid vengefully attempts to bulk up the early VW Beetles to intensify their curvature.  They may be attractive on the outside but their performances sing a different tune.  The bottom line is these expressions are lying to us.  They are beautiful and inspiring the same way a reality television star is- nothing more exists beyond the pretty garb.  Ethical stewards should be alarmed at the amount of waste that is permitted to be expelled in favor of creating something that looks cool and only on the surface.   The time has come to stop hiding everything and being more honest with ourselves and the rest of the world - why can't a structural material be the finish material, why can't we use less materials to do more?

    This may seem familiar to anybody who remembers architectural movements over the course of history.  Ringing along the lines of Modernism, this isn't a call for the lack of expression or an architect's innate dissing of decorum.  Rather, this is a call to restore sustainable and efficient practices in architecture both through performance and fabrication.  Excessive use of any element in architecture turns to gluttony and begs designers to closely examine their hypocritical views on the world.  It's really hard not to gawk at these awe-inspiring structures the role models of architecture have made for us. There is no doubt that their abilities have influenced generations to break the rules and push society a bit further each time, the only downfall is many of these built environments are wasteful and unnecessary.  What it essentially comes down to is the flaunting of the designer's beliefs at the expense of the planet.  So while there absolutely should be precedent-setting, expressive and daring work going on, it shouldn't stop half way through the process.  Expressive forms are only one part of a complex equation that seeks to use the most efficient methods and means; the examples above stopped short. So can architecture be both expressive and sustainable?  Yes, but it will take a lot more than crumpling paper up and screaming "build this!".   

    "Be truthful, nature only sides with truth" - Adolf Loos

    www.vincedefazio.com



     
    • 27 Comments

    • Unfortunately these excesses are the result of a society that is built upon them.

      Bravo for a thoughtful piece on this crucial topic.

      Feb 4, 15 11:40 pm
      midlander

      Is your argument about wastefulness or the aesthetic of wastelfulness? Because the things you're talking about are largely superficial features on very specialized cultural monuments - they really aren't where the big waste is happening in the built world.

      Serious waste goes more than skin deep - it's about planning, operations, usability, and other factors hard to judge from just looking at the form.

      Rhetorically asked - which of these is wasteful architecture?

      I don't want to belittle you - this is obviously an important topic. But I think focusing on the aesthetic of several old-guard designers is bound to miss out on the big part of waste, which is poor planning, inefficient operations, and misuse of a site.

      As to your car analogy: there is no such thing as a 1989 Impala. VW's early Beetles were uncommonly fuel efficient, inexpensive and mechanically simple - hence their popularity and enduring use. That they're curved is actually well suited to the purpose of a car.

      Feb 5, 15 9:37 am
      jla-x

      ^ agree, but these "specialized cultural monuments" could try a little harder to set a good example and reflect/direct the zeitgeist on a more sustainable path. 

      Feb 5, 15 12:01 pm

      While I do respect your points you brought up (they were actually very wellpresented), I wasn't necessarily speaking to wastefulness as a whole. What I wanted to focus more upon was the wastefulness of aesthetics. Yes, there are certainly bigger issues out there, however this is just one small stab at the larger bit. I don't think we should sit around and justify wastefulness even for a cultural monument. Why can't Zaha find a better way of constructing the curves sans excessive steel? Why doesn't Gehry do the same with his crumpled paper messes? There are multiple levels to this wastefulness and this is one that's out in the forefront that the kids in architecture schools look up to and learn from. Thus a sick cycle is formed and these vanguards contribute to the wastefulness you speak of. Thanks for reading and the commentary, if anything we can learn from one another and focus on the most important aspects today. Oh and you did get me on the car analogy, so cheers to that!

      Feb 5, 15 2:29 pm
      davvid

      Its important to approach reducing carbon emissions in a scientific way. We already got greenwashing at the beginning of the 21st century by conflating aesthetics with environmentalism. I'd rather push manufacturers of construction materials to come up with materials that require less energy to manufacture. Or perhaps systems that can be dismantled and reused without going through an intense process of recycling.

      I've been in many offices in NYC that are reusing old industrial buildings (which is great and resourceful) but in order to function in that space, they have layers and layers of material (drop ceilings, raised modular flooring, modular carpet tile) over the original architecture. And now with more and more people working from home, many of these spaces are too large for the number of employees that actually work in the office.

      Feb 5, 15 3:56 pm

      Vincent - I just read this post twice and am still trying to hone in on what it is exactly that you are arguing. Your response above suggests that you are calling for more "efficient" ways of creating architectural expression through structural systems that use less material. However, saying that Hadid/Gehry should find better ways of constructing their curved forms to use less material seems short-sided at best.

      The amount of steel needed to produce the curves in Gehry's Disney Concert Hall pales in comparison to the waste seen in Ghost towns in China (referenced in the image above) or say the construction and destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe. As referenced by a few other comments above, if you really want to argue against waste in architecture there are plenty of more appropriate examples for you to attack.

      I applaud you for starting this blog and putting your thoughts out there, but I would also urge you to move past attacks on Frank Gehry and start looking at larger issues.

      Feb 5, 15 5:51 pm

      The starchitect projects are the most expensive, widely hyped and published architectural works and as such have tremendous impact. These works and pseudo-philosophies are taught in schools. Their vapid styles are widely mimicked - like the Make It Right proposal with the giant gutter roof a la HdM.

      The end result is that the recognized leaders of the profession - the Pritzker Prize winners - are leading in the absolute wrong direction with a focus on style at any cost especially building performance. They set a bogus standard which is contrary to the actual responsibility of the profession.

      The experimentation is for ego and money, or vice verse, instead of for sustainability or even basic professional responsibility.

      Feb 5, 15 6:42 pm
      Olaf Design Ninja_

      I agree with Miles. Most of you are reading into this post incorrectly. Although with good intentions you suggest we look at 'planning' and 'manufacturing', that wasn't the point and you are kind of changing the subject..............honesty of materials and expressionism as represented by the iconic prophets of 'ideologies' of the creators of Architecture is being questioned here, and rightly so. Ideas over materials for expression sake is for one dishonest and worse when wasteful. Some of the iconic trendsetter's clearly are not interested in reality nor sustaining it, and when the opportunity arises force self expression over materials. ..............Another way to think about it. - Your role models who create the built environment disregard the natural environment for their self interest in their self expressions..................although I will agree this piece is a bit hard on Gehry, his crumpling paper was solved by talented and ingenious architects and Engineers and manufacturers, so for that a little appreciation to Gehry may be due....

      Feb 5, 15 7:17 pm
      davvid

      Chris, 

      So its not about reducing carbon emissions?

      "honesty of materials and expressionism as represented by the iconic prophets of 'ideologies' of the creators of Architecture is being questioned here,"

      AND its not about honesty of material?

      Then what is this about?

      Feb 5, 15 8:01 pm
      Olaf Design Ninja_

      Davvid on my phone so hard to double check other than a quick browse,but I don't think Vincent says "carbon emmisions" anywhere. Also I think you completely misunderstood my last sentence. Did you even read this blog post to be quite honest with you.....from last paragraph " Rather, this is a call to restore sustainable and efficient practices in architecture both through performance and fabrication.  Excessive use of any element in architecture turns to....".....he even qoutes Adolf Loos at the end.....so yes honesty of materials.

      Feb 5, 15 8:22 pm
      davvid

      Maybe I don't understand any of it. I did read it though.

      It really seemed like you put "honestly of materials" and "expressionism" together in your last comment. 

      "honesty of materials and expressionism as represented by the iconic prophets of 'ideologies' of the creators of Architecture is being questioned here,"

      And if its not about carbon emissions, then I think the word "efficiency" is confusing. 

      Feb 5, 15 8:44 pm
      midlander

      Hi Vincent,

      In that case (that this is about wastefulness in expression) I think this an interesting topic, but not a matter of ethical imperative. The logic that expressionist high-design can have a pernicious effect on everyday building is suspiciously similar to the logic that underlies censorship. Your statement "Ethical stewards should be alarmed at the amount of waste that is permitted..." implies that there should be someone telling architects what they are and are not allowed to design purely on the basis of image.

      In theory I am 100% against such a sentiment - in practice I can't see how such a notion can or should be implemented. I abhor the idea of some sort of 'bureau of built expression' that reviews designs to decide what is appropriately expressive and what isn't.

      A secondary theme in your argument seems to be seeking a return to structural rationalism. That certainly can be beautiful - but it's again a falsehood to see structural rationalism as inherently less wasteful.

      In the first place you can have rational buildings that work well and suit their purpose - but that purpose is essentially useless.

      Alternately you can encounter the problem that expressive but structurally rational buildings are hard to adapt, and so need to be destroyed to meet future needs - or get preserved as useless monuments.

      There is also the situation where austere and minimally expressive buildings are beautiful in part because they are wasteful. In this case wasteful in process especially.

      So, I disagree strongly on this issue. I'd argue that a certain degree of expressive wastefulness is actually what distinguishes fine architecture from ordinary building - though real waste is something that needs to be measured in a standard way and can't be assessed just by appearances. I do think it's interesting to reflect on how this wastefulness is expressed at different periods of time. Contemporary architecture has no monopoly on wasteful expression.

      I have a different view of nature than Loos. It can be beautiful, wasteful, deceptive and dysfunctional. I'll take the beautiful, whatever that entails.

      Feb 5, 15 9:37 pm

      Ah, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

      Feb 5, 15 9:50 pm
      Olaf Design Ninja_

      Davvid, that sentence was indeed a bit confusing now that I re-review it the way you read it, the [and] was meant to state both topics in one architect and how they rival each other...you know like (a+b)*2 or 2a+2b or however that works...

      I believe Vincent is discussing the "efficiency" of detailing within the craft of architecture.

      Based on Vincent's earlier posts I don't think the 'craft' notion is too far off.  He notes that perhaps Internship should be replaced with Apprenticeship (first post).

      Also, the fact that Miles and I both like this post I would think also indicates the interest in craft of architecture. 

      -----

      But, to get to carbon emissions, I think you could argue that the "efficient" or honest use of materials - fitting, layering, joining, materials in accordance to their inherent qualities together without forcing the 'expression' over the physics and chemistry would lead to less waste in energy on both physical and psychological levels, which in turn would lower carbon emissions. 

      In other words - philosophically, someone like Gehry could say they were into lowering their Carbon Footprint via his designs and sustainability, but in actuality is doing the very opposite by pushing his expressions over the actual function of the material.

      Vincent will probably get back to us, which is great!

      Feb 5, 15 9:57 pm
      midlander

      I was at a lecture a few years back where Zaha spoke about her work.

      One of the audience questions asked her how she addressed sustainability. She made a face that ached with painful contempt, thought for a minute and replied:

      They have windows that open.

      Feb 5, 15 10:51 pm
      midlander

      Chris - what is the waste of energy on a "psychological level", and how does that affect carbon emissions?

      The argument seems to me to mostly about the aesthetic of expressing a structure - Vincent's criticism appears to be that the structures supporting the image of the buildings are essentially dissociated from the structure supporting the usable spaces.

      That's basically true of most of Gehry's work and some of Zaha's. But it's also true of many other buildings, for a whole lot of reasons. Mies famously stuck I-beams as decorative elements on his late modern towers - they really don't do much of anything structural. The whole argument is disingenuous to me as it prioritizes looking efficient over being efficient.

      More productive would be a discussion how to evaluate the material efficiency of buildings, and how to develop standards that could be applied to measuring and controlling waste. Right now the only proxy we have for this is cost - but sometimes waste is cheap.

      Feb 5, 15 11:05 pm

      ^ Waste is sometimes the actual purpose (conspicuous consumption). A hundred years ago being fat was a sign of wealth. 

      Feb 5, 15 11:41 pm
      Lightperson

      I think Shigeru Ban said, if you make a building that is loved, it is sustainable. Vilifying the "Pritzker Prize winners" or any other group of people who bring artistry and humanism to the built world is actually doing the oppossite of what they claim. Are some buildings wasteful? Or are they experminents? The fact that there are endless ways to make a building is kind of reassuring, like we can always find a new and better solution, and it's a constant trial and error. As always they/we build to values of the current societies... unfortunatley if you don't like it, there are deeper issues you have to change first. 

      Feb 6, 15 10:36 am
      Thayer-D

      I tend to agree with midlander's point on beauty.  That being said, I'm not sure most people see the 'artistry and humami' of many Pritzker winners.  On the whole though, I applaud this thoughtful piece, I just think clients will pay for what they want.  Where I think the article has traction is how these 'expressionists' are lionized in schools, as if their approach is worth emulating.  The question becomes, what is the alternative?  If you've closed the range of options though, expect a lot of disgruntled wanna be expressionists trained to do nothing more than giant sculpture.

      Feb 6, 15 12:43 pm
      davvid

      What makes an "aesthetic of efficiency" any different from what is already occurring in the more minimalist architecture circles?

      Feb 6, 15 2:19 pm

      HOLLA!

      Feb 6, 15 3:49 pm
      Olaf Design Ninja_

      "One of the audience questions asked her how she addressed sustainability. She made a face that ached with painful contempt, thought for a minute and replied:

      They have windows that open." ....qoutable midlander

      "aesthetic of efficiency" ?

      (Piano + Rogers, Rogers, Foster)

      or

       


      Glenn Murcutt

       

      or

       

       

      (Kahn, Kahn, Ando, van der Rohe, Zumthor, Zumthor, Zumthor)

      or

      (J. Mayer h, Ball-Nogues, Ball-Nogues, Lynn, winderen + fornes)

      Feb 7, 15 8:42 am
      midlander

      ^unfortunately that's not a verbatim quote... it was 5+ years ago. That was the gist of it.

      Feb 7, 15 9:38 am

      There is a serious dysfunction here in the way some reduce every matter to style.

      aesthetic of efficiency

      a.k.a. The appearance of responsibility.

      Feb 7, 15 9:55 am

      Simply put, if your school is championing starchitects like Gehry and Hadid then you are going to the wrong school. Everyone needs to relax with the notion that with every new starchitect building comes an entire generation of brainwashed students. In my experiences in academia, figures like Gehry and Hadid with their one-off signature styles just aren't part of the theoretical debate. 

      Feb 7, 15 10:53 am
      Olaf Design Ninja_

      Miles sometimes its easier to start the other way around when in discussion.  Ask someone what the style is and then determine what the style actually means, etc...

      Davvid cited some contemporary minimalism....so I threw some some other options out there.

      If aesthetic of efficiency appears in some options and not in others, then it is something different than style.

      responsibility being one inherent trait as you note, which can be exhibited in many styles.
       

      Feb 7, 15 12:17 pm

      I want to thank each and every one of you for your comments...I will be producing a 'wasteful architecture p2" this week with everything you've laid in front of me (if I can sift through all of this by Thursday!).  Thanks again, look for the next one later this week. 

      Feb 16, 15 5:09 pm

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