Architect of the Young

A Professional Narrative

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    Context: disregard

    Vincent DeFazio
    Apr 15, '15 10:04 PM EST

    MORPHOSIS - the LA-based architecture firm popular for the San Francisco Federal Building and Cooper Union's 41 Cooper Square - has been selected from a total of 8 shortlisted firms to design a monstrosity in Vals, Switzerland.  Vals may sound familiar to many architecture enthusiasts because perhaps one of Peter Zumthor's most influential works lies at the foothills that carve the cascading valleys of the small town.  A village with a population barely cresting 1,000 inhabitants, Vals has seen a recent explosion in tourism partially due to the Thermal Baths but also for its scenic backdrops and remoteness.  With a new 1,250 foot high tower moving in, there may be many more people flocking to this quiet village negatively impacting its agricultural practices and quaint old-country atmosphere.

    Contextualism in architecture has fluctuated in importance and focus over time.  Many of the most popular 'starchitects' of their days flagrantly disregarded context (apologies Mr. Frampton) seeking the right mixtures of expressionistic form and personal stylistic voyages.  Many times it was received with adoring eyes, especially in cases where the architect was correct in their design intentions - that is their risky forays were widely accepted by both intellects and the general population.  Even Frank Ghery has endured harsh criticism with some projects only to gain adoration on others such as the Bilbao Guggenheim. Contextualism however has become increasingly concerning with the rapid expansion of Western culture and continued globalization.  The concept of place has now been altered to feel like we're always in a New York City, or there is something much like it close by.  No longer can we escape to many different places around the world and feel what it's like to actually be there, our connection with our devices and disinterest in cultures is growing at an unabated pace.  Enter (A)rchitecture and its ability to immerse its audiences and change their perceptions even for but a minute - its innate abilities to create place have never been in question.  Architecture in its most basic forms defines place, it often is what many people use to characterize a city.  As we continue to forge forward thinking we require a consistent aesthetic and feel everywhere, our architecture speaks worlds about its singular dimensions concerned singularly with Westernized comfort and ideals.


    Vals is a beautiful place.  Some of the images above capture its beauty that seemed to be doing just fine prior to architectural enhancements.  That being said, Zumthor's Thermal Baths were so successful primarily because of their connection back to nature.  Their spaces worked well with capturing important exterior views while concurrently not interrupting too much of the natural environment outside.  Anytime a new piece of architecture is born from the earth it immediately expends vast resources and provides an invasive blockage in the ecosystem.  Vals is a place of much uninterrupted natural beauty, but the construction of a nearly quarter-mile high tower is sure to cause more disruptions than enhancements both before and after construction. Many pieces of machinery must be brought in to construct such a larger structure not to mention the number of workers and cleared land for the complex to exist.  Not only will the peaceful citizens of Vals have to deal with loud noises and depleted air quality due to exponential increases of traffic through their remote village, but they will then be losing some more of their natural landscape and views.  This loss of land does little to benefit them, rather it seeks to appease those who throw thousands of dollars per night at a luxury room with a hell of a view of mountains they are much too lazy to climb.  This massive disruption is not only disrespectful to those who live directly around it but also a testament to the world's continued voyage to bring modern amenities and comforts to places too far removed from Westernized society to effectively survive within it.  This project demonstrates Thom Mayne's beliefs that architecture should be something controversial and daring but also discredits his avid claims to a push for the most sustainable architecture.  No matter what kind of systems this tower has, its materiality and size will never be sustainable for the site it inhabits.

    Zumthor's Thermal Baths in Vals


    Reflectivity for MORPHOSIS was a huge part of the studio's ability to win the jury's vote. Their concept pushed the idea of invisibility to conceal their 1,250 foot tower using a highly-reflective curtain wall.  While the material palate is simple and honest, it does little to respond to its context besides attempting to refute its existence with a mirrored facade that stretches above the clouds.  While a slightly thoughtful gesture, do not forget the Walkie Talkie building's death ray in London.  Although MORPHOSIS' building goes without Viñoly's curvature, it still has the ability to effectively blind people and increase the localized temperature from different angles throughout the day. To build upon that point even more, the immense heating loads that will be incurred by such a massive amount of glass in the Swiss countryside will require more highly electromagnetic infrastructure to be brought into the quaint village.

    The most obvious disaster that may have been out of MORPHOSIS' hands is the sheer scale of the new proposal.  71 32 ltd., the client for the project is working to finish up a Vals resort that they believed wouldn't be completed without 107 hotel rooms, library, restaurants and a sky bar.  Remo Stoffel, a native Vals businessman is at the heart of all of the decisions being made about the new campus which includes Tadao Ando's park (2017) and Zumthor's Thermal Baths (1996).  Programmatically, the resort may make sense but the asinine scale at which it is being built has absolutely no connection to the vernacular or the site itself.  Mayne himself has asserted that the scale of the project is not as offensive as it initially seems due to the smaller footprint - the only problem is the giant reflective quarter-mile phallus will cast one hell of a shadow on the picturesque Swiss mountain homes.

      7132 Tower's mountainside presence is a paradigm of our current leading architects' concern with contextualism and raw sustainability - that is their lack of having such concerns.  The misuse of materials and lack of reference to contextualism that was selected as the winner is as much of the local jury's fault as it is Thom Mayne's. There is no need to provide such large amounts of amenities to a town with so little residents and only a single curvy road to access it at its base elevation of 4,100 feet.  What makes this place so special is its remoteness, its natural beauty and of course its cultural identity that includes its vernacular architecture.  71 32's request and Mayne's subsequent response doesn't actually celebrate Vals, it celebrates the idea of watching the Grammy's from a room 850 feet in the clouds wondering what hiking must feel like.  While the overall gesture of 7132 Tower isn't quite parasitic, its presence presents an invasive species in a sea of healthy locals that aren't quite aware of the damage they could soon fall victim to.  Whether it will be a successful venture or not has yet to be seen, but the new complex's strain on the ecosystem and local residents may never quite be seen from the shadows of the Western culture's glitz and glamour.


    At the end of the day, 7132 Tower will probably be an awesome experience,  but at what cost? The concept of the resort certainly is not a terrible idea in the small picturesque village, but it presents itself in a way that trashes its context.  Zumthor found a way to respectfully balance a luxury spa with the natural beauty sans a poor architectural metaphor.  While MORPHOSIS' proposal seems to have good intentions, its final implementation will look severely different than the dreamy, volumetricly-lit renderings and models - will it be as celebrated when it interrupts clear views across the valley? What will this big city edifice do to the feeling of Vals and how will it change over time as it begins to show its age? MORPHOSIS missed their opportunity to investigate a much more contextual material palate. No matter how it's viewed whether reflective or not this tower still is a solid existence and will ultimately ruin or vastly (negatively) change the Vals valley.  How can we continue to sustainably fuel progression while synthesizing public opinion and creating a meaningful response all while providing a contextual place?  Does this project effectively address the design problem or will it create a much bigger one in its wake?  The materials may be 'simple' as Mayne was quoted saying, but simplicity has no substance if it is improperly implemented.  Who will be using this fitness center and luxury sky bar when the majority of the Vals residents are out enjoying the natural beauty of their mountainside paradise and the single road to the village is covered with snow for the next week?  Stoffel's attempt to beautify and increase the value of his hometown contradicts and insults its natural beauty.  As of now, the world has lost yet another unique and non-globalized place in the interests of consumerist luxuries; a reality that is fueling too many important projects today.

    VIA | 71 32 ltd

    VIA | Designboom


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      This qualifies as architectural criticism, just need Patrick Schumacher ' opinion to confirm (kidding about PS).....................last night in conversation I realized that a 'commodity' is pretty much just visual and experiential eye candy - ephemeral media hype. Architecture has been a 'commodity' for a while, but had maintained qualities of physical substance long past most other items had become obsolete .........this post kind of sums it up for me in one building - a supposed to be invisible building through reflection that ruins the place it is selling the ephemeral experience of (mountains). The experiment is inevitable though, it's pushing the envelope of what are called 'western' values as described above into the remotest of contexts, it's proving capital can go anywhere and make more capital. With that said I think they should do it, fuck it, fuck everything, fuck context - see what happens.

      Apr 16, 15 8:21 am  · 

      Right on Olaf!

      Apr 16, 15 8:39 am  · 

      Vincent I think it would be quite well deserved for a country that benefits greatly from a stealthy banking system to have their comfortable culture bastardized by capital, an intricate part to this nations success in the Western I am not totally joking in my last sentence......and I like how you put all the stuff going on in the world architecture and society into this post on one proposed building.

      Apr 16, 15 6:01 pm  · 

      ...celebrates the idea of watching the Grammy's from a room 850 feet in the clouds wondering what hiking must feel like.

      Love this.

      Apr 17, 15 3:32 pm  · 
      ☭ ☭ ☭ ☭ ☭ ☭ ☭ ☭

      Did you ask the town of Vals what they thought of Morphosis project? Did Thom force this on Vals? Just curious.

      Apr 17, 15 9:34 pm  · 

      Beta I think it would be more interesting if Vincent interviewed  Remo Stoffel, maybe under the guise of a blogger for Archinect?

      It says he is a native, which reminds me of stuff I did as a kid and still do until this day. 

      I wonder if he grew-up there and would day dream about absurd things like having a skyscraper in the small village?               

      One of the stranger day dreams I had in high school was to put a 50 foot concrete and glass tower on a 30' equilateral triangle between two highways in a very small town with a deck on top to watch high school football games....I re-designed Fayette, Mo multiple times in my head, Lawrence, KS I imagined apartments by Ando, Holl, Morphosis, Hadid, all on Ohio street or something - all next to each other, I worked the design through in my head many many times, and New York city with cities above cities, sky-ways, parks in towers, etc......

      It seems like a very natural thing to do, to just imagine something quite impossible in a place you are living?  Wondering if this would be the root of the entire issue?  and wonder if someone who isn't a trained architect can play out their imagination beyond being just imagination? like how does it effect reality?  this type of imagination I don't describe as rational, it's just this drive for a vision....

      Apr 17, 15 11:20 pm  · 

      ^ I get that...i do this often...there is an element of surrealism in there...

      Apr 18, 15 5:10 pm  · 

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As architecture continues to lose members, it's ever-important to empower and give voices to those young designers in the field. This blog does exactly just that, seeking a powerful young voice among those with many more years in the profession.

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