Thinking About Architecture by Larry Speck

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    What role for architects in planning future cities?

    By lawrencewspeck
    Jun 11, '13 10:12 PM EST

    A recent article by Aaron Betsky in Architect magazine took issue with a New York Times-sponsored program called the Energy For Tomorrow Conference.  Betsky was specifically concerned that the Times had not included any “urbanists, planners, or even an architect” but did include “leading urban expert Jeremy Irons.” He queried, “What are architects when we’re thinking about the future of the designed environment… chopped liver?”  Betsky suggested several prominent architects would have been an appropriate addition, including OMA and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, among others.  While I agree we should expect some architects and urbanists at such a conference, I question some of Betsky’s suggestions.  Are the starchitects he mentioned really contributing to energy efficient, sustainable cities?

    Early in his career, Rem Koolhaas of OMA advocated for density and intense urban vitality, but then seems to have decided object buildings were the thing.  He has done projects that seem remarkably anti-urban and marked his career with buildings that don’t make great cities.  The gargantuan CCTV tower in Beijing is a prime example.  That building required demolishing an entire neighborhood in order to install a prominent object.  The streetscape and pedestrian quality suffer in order to create a geometric, one-liner statement that has a crushing scale at ground level. Do snazzy object building with poor pedestrian environments around them really make a sustainable city?

    Above: The CCTV complex in Beijing

    I have written before about the problems of the accumulated object buildings by starchitects in the Dallas Arts District that fail to create a good urban environment.  OMA was involved there as well with the Wyly Theatre where both the main entry and lobby (the most lively parts that might enrich an urban neighborhood) are submerged a level below the street, but easily accessed via underground parking.  Creating an auto-centric building in a downtown environment – one that is desperately trying to make real headway toward mass transit and pedestrian-friendly movement – hardly seems the sort of decision one would want to hear about in a conference dedicated to energy savings and sustainable cities.

    Above and below: The Wyly Theatre in Dallas

    Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times recently slammed the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in the same Dallas district, calling it “bullhorn urbanism.”  That’s what we, as architects, have become known for: big, loud, sexy object that are more about themselves than about making a city.

    Above: The Perrot Museum in Dallas

    Look at Dubai and dozens of huge cities across China which have received huge press in architectural circles. They are what we have touted as great successes, but they are not sustainable urban environments.  If that’s the best we can do, then we don’t deserve to be at the tables of forward-thinking conferences.

    Above: The Dubai skyline

    To Betsky’s credit, he observes a little later in his piece, “Perhaps they are right.  The one bit of designed infrastructure going in up in New York right now, the Calatrava station at ground zero, is a farce…” I wonder if this is the reason they’ve left architects out of the discussion.  We have got to start talking about real issues that are important to a larger society and not just about glitzy structures.  We need architects and planners to speak up on this topic – and loudly.  We need our media to be focused on real, relevant issues the larger culture cares about.  Then we will be invited to the table when those important matters are being discussed about the future of our cities.

    Thinking About Building Technology, Contemporary Practices, Sustainability, Texas Architecture, Urbanism
    Posted June 11, 2013


    • Thayer-D

      Your absolutely right about your criticism, but I'm afraid the whole discussion has become so politicized that one spends more time trading barbs with ideologues than actually tackling the problem head on.  Like our politics in Washington, people seem more interested in scoring points for their own aesthetic camps than dealing with problems people on the street actually deal with.  Not sure what's the answer beyond pointing to the elephant in the room as you are doing here.  Unfortunatley the media sells images and these object buildings make for startling photos unlike the actual 3-d experience of living around one of these monstrocities. 

      Jun 12, 13 7:06 am  · 

      A completely different take on future ec0-cities

      Jun 12, 13 3:35 pm  · 

      ..... and another completely different take on future cities that promotes a Utopian existence for all!

      Jun 15, 13 11:45 am  · 

      Mr. Speck:

      While I agree with this article’s premise that architects like Rem Koolhaus and Santiago Calatrava fall short in sustainability performance and, as a result, remove themselves from involvement in energy discussions, I persist that there still are Architects that should have been included in the New York Times Energy for Tomorrow Conference. As an architecture student creating an interactive exhibition this semester, I have discovered architects like David Gerber who are researching and analyzing the complexity of transportation as it yields a new building strategy that deals with complex and ineffective behaviors of urban systems. His research leads me to believe that the value of architecture increasingly stems from analysis and prediction of human behavior and systems. Since seventy percent of people will reside in cities by 2050, it becomes increasingly important for architects to study human behavior as a strategy to manage building conditioning and deal with increasing density. Another Civil Engineer and Architect named Burcin Becerik presents a successful example of architecture and computational convergence in her design of algorithms that negotiate energy efficient settings in buildings to deal with the increasing density of space. Becerik has proven that her system cuts a building’s energy use by a third. While the physical form of buildings is important to reduce energy consumption, it is my understanding that the most innovative research in energy consumption studies human behaviors and applies technologies that optimize usage of already existing forms of architecture. When architects are presented in this way, it seems much more shocking that the New York Times excluded them in energy discussions.


      Even though I absolutely agree that architects should join this discussion on energy consumption and sustainability, I do not believe that simply speaking up about the topic will change perception of the value of architects. Architects can establish a louder voice in the media, but I see more effective technologies such as interactive games as a better model  for creatively engaging people with the value of architecture. Rather than establishing a media buzz around architectural issues, I point to a provocative idea by Edwin Gardner in which building code is turned into “an open standards object-oriented programming platform…that empowers civilians and city authorities” to simulate implications of changing building codes. While Gardner’s idea focuses on how architects, city planners and concerned citizens might collaborate on city planning issues, I see this idea applying to a potential iPhone game where people can interact and create new zoning laws in a city that they build. Currently, Internet applications only inform users on current zoning and code laws, but this interactive format presents a greater potential to educate and reform public thought about how zoning laws prevent progress in creating sustainable cities. Already, game designers capitalize on the idea of putting city design in the hands of any iPhone owner with games such as Simcity and Tiny Village; all that I encourage is the creation of a game that engages people with how building code shapes cities. Architects should not focus too heavily on media for social change, but instead should perceptively anticipate new technologies such as mobile app development and capitalize on creative opportunities to shift perception of the role of architecture.

      Nov 5, 13 2:44 pm  · 
      chatter of clouds

      good gosh, first you attempt to make paper architects guilty for staying on paper and being too far ahead of the world then you make them feel guilty for straying out into the world and having been outpaced.

      in my opinion, a valid criticism must depart from a historical contextualization and not from a flippant dismissal (specifically in relation to the Perrot musuem - and its not because i like or dislike the building). architecture is a slow art and the built environment does not keep up, naturally, with latter day perception. a more intelligent criticism would reflect on how the building fits in a school of thought and how that school of thought was relevant at one time and was a precursor. a more sage, calm and informative criticism that takes this lag into mind, that take the peculair engendering imagining and then bridges to the recommended reimagination. not a one liner pseudo criticism riding the wave of mass furor. even if its a bad building...please provide a good criticism. at one time, there was a facination with object buildings. recall Alsop. recall Archigram, recall Peter Cook...and i recall quite a few very amusing buildings and projects that alleviated the sense of place. as such, "object architecture" need not be a condemnation and it need not imply a lack of interaction with site.

      in fact, i would say that architectural thought (in the way we imagine the its isometrics, its axonometrics..etc) necessarily includes an object-oriented way of thinking about architecture (that does not preclude other more diffusive ways of thiniing, perspectival thinking, relational on).

      Nov 6, 13 1:08 pm  · 

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About this Blog

Although it may sound cliched, I live, eat and breathe architecture. I’m currently a principal in the architectural firm of PageSoutherlandPage and a professor, as well as the former dean, in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. My teaching and my blog are aimed at educating people on the importance of great architecture in contemporary American culture.

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