In defence of heroes

Mar 26, 2009
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

‘Well building hath three conditions: commodity, firmness and delight. It is true that skilled contractors and engineers are now often better than some architects at “firmness” – the technics of building. But only architects of all the building professions are trained and practised in the two skills of “commodity” – the shaping and arranging of spaces in convenient and economic ways; and “delight” – the creation of buildings which, both inside and out, lift the spirits of their occupants, their visitors and the passerby, whether prince or pauper.’ Sir Henry Wooten

In his commentary ‘Predators and False Heroes’ (printed in an abridged format as False Idols) Lawrence Nield paints a dark picture of trends in contemporary architecture. Using the international modernist architecture of the Middle East as the springboard for his argument, he cites examples of globalisation coupled with technology that in his view is out of control, producing buildings, suburbs and cities bereft of either spirit or soul. Whether it’s at the behest of egocentric developers of tall buildings, or misguided corporations and governments snatching for the tourist dollar, he sees the combined effect on architecture as devastating, creating an architecture that’s globalised and homogenised. He cites Dubai as the epicentre of this self-conscious theatre, where tall buildings and tourism converge, screaming out in competition with one another to ‘look at me, look at me!’.

Perhaps architectural movements operate as continuums rather than parallel universes. Nield speaks of the spell of the wilful gaze under which architects purportedly operate at present, a will without reason. Could it be that as a movement this is not the first of its type? Current trends in architecture appear to mirror the modernist movements of the early 20th century, which were just as removed from real human needs in the 1920s as this movement is now. The guiding aesthetic of that time was that buildings should be machine-like and of an undecorated, rational flat-surfaced style. By the time Le Corbusier created houses that were ‘machines for living’ and Walter Gropius wrote his Bauhaus Manifesto, architecture was seen as a platform for political revolution, which impacted as greatly then on built form as globalisation does today. Might the only difference be that our planet could bear the impost in those times and, sadly, it can no longer?

I am more optimistic about the future than Mr Nield, and take the view that if architects strive for and expect good outcomes, we are more likely to achieve them. I believe that there are at least as many good examples of architecture around today as there are bad, and propose that our society’s values, organisational cultures and the way architects are educated will have a greater impact on built form than commercial avarice. Architects can learn from history, both ancient and recent, to advance our art. In the new millennium there is a growing appreciation of what we have lost, a genuine desire to recapture what we had and repair what we’ve damaged. This can be achieved through Nield’s so-called ‘predator’ organisations, which offer much more than ‘starchitecture’ – including integrated, collaborative approaches that protect local landscapes and preserve cultural heritages.

I studied architecture in the late 1970s, a quaint period in time when architects were deferred to by clients, listened to as head consultants of teams and generally valued for their abilities to bring ‘commodity, firmness and delight’ to the building projects they led. Generally speaking we were coached to produce buildings displaying a universally applicable modern style, reproducible anywhere, equally pertinent to all cultures, regardless of local context and environment. Unfortunately this resulted in designs where craftsmanship was less valued than the ability to harness the latest in engineering and cost-effective, mass-produced, industrial methods.

There were some then who sounded out warnings much like Nield does now, about how there was little sense of life, human scale or community in the building designs and town planning schemes that were being produced. One of the best-known critics was Christopher Alexander. In his book The Timeless Way of Building he wrote, ‘Throughout the ages, the order of a building or a town grew directly from the inner nature of the people, and the animals and plants, and matter, which are in it.’ He cited examples of man-made objects, landscapes, buildings and towns that appeared to contain a sleepy awkward grace he put down to ‘perfect ease’. We don’t know what it is, but we know we experience pleasure when we occupy these places.

The architectural landscape has drastically changed, with dramatic advances in technology and the speed with which we can communicate ideas, and new collaborative ways in which design professionals can work together and with their clients. And what have we learned along the way? Apparently not too much, according to Nield. Architectural critic Charles Jencks once said that modernism died in 1972, on the day the Pruitt-Igoe public housing development, a prize-winning apartment block in St Louis, Missouri, was demolished after being declared not fit to live in for the low income population it was meant to house. What Alexander warned about, and the modernists didn’t see, was the peril of rejecting regional traditional architecture in favour of a universal modern style, the legacy of which plays out today as Nield reports. This style turned its back on the rich cultural heritage of a country or region (represented by its art, buildings and architecture), the worlds that tourists now search for and yearn to experience.

The criticism that can be made of architectural post-modernists and their protégés is that up until recently the vast majority, by continuing to use the construction materials and mass production techniques of modernism, have not gone beyond the self imposed limitations and reductionist uniformity of previous generations. Further, it is suggested that until quite recently, the current generation has not used the tools of the computer age available to them to change the flawed assumptions underlying this uniformity as they might have, and are seen by those like Nield to be as much victims of the pressures of global economics and corporate greed as their forbears. I propose that with new age advances in building information modelling (BIM technology, enabled by a single technology framework using an integrated database), we are now much better able to produce an integrated collaborative approach to design that is more fluid and organic, and is much more likely to produce better built sustainable outcomes.

I lead a team of architectural professionals at GHD, an international professional services company. Our multidisciplinary approach and technology platforms enable all stakeholders to be more involved in the complete design and build process, using a much richer language than just two-dimensional drawings. We can now model almost anything, including the proportions found in nature or the pattern language that Alexander described. This can provide the link to an alternative to modular design and create form through subdivision or differentiation (through techniques such as biomimicry, which is only now coming onto the radar).

It is increasingly apparent that ‘smart’ building and engineering techniques, together with a better considered use of natural resources, make for good business in today’s environmentally sensitive property marketplace. Becoming aware and tapping into the construct of the living world, as people did hundreds of years ago, leads to a natural way to design and build. All the principles of sustainability and green buildings fit very comfortably with this model. Going green is a very powerful cultural issue both locally and globally. It is still not universally understood; however, it holds promise for a better world. It increasingly underlies everything GHD does, even in the United Arab Emirates.

Jencks said that iconic buildings achieve that delicate balance between ‘explicit signs and implicit symbols’ resulting in an unusual or memorable form and the images it conjures up. He says that in this increasingly heterogeneous world of shopping malls and monolithic glass boxes, multiple and sometimes even mysterious meanings are precisely what turns a building into a popular icon, displaying characteristics that can unwittingly delight us. This new marketplace can provide architects with the opportunity to demonstrate their design leadership through iconic buildings, which counter to Nield’s argument, is the best antidote to the commodification of the design professions .

In summary I disagree with Nield’s pessimistic view of where architecture has ended up and the role large architectural firms have played in bringing about the demise of the profession. GHD employs over 6000 people in a global network of offices, 600 of whom are architects and designers. Nield’s generalisations do not hold true for us, and most likely for many of the other companies he mentions. In our case we are a mix of many disciplines; over two-thirds of our numbers are engineers and architects, but we are also economists, biologists and sustainability specialists amongst many other professions. We bring a holistic view that promotes, rather than hinders, social and architectural conscience.

Behind the numbers are the people, and behind the generic view of organisations are their actual missions and vision of their place in the world. At GHD we can think and work globally, and act and work locally.

One does not preclude the other. Speaking on behalf of the 40 architects and designers in Melbourne (no starchitects!), we care about what we produce. Good design creates good experiences that clients demand, appreciate and reward. This practice, with its network of city and regional country offices, works on a range of projects as small as a school extension in regional Victoria, to a multibillion-dollar new city in Abu Dhabi. In each of our offices, design leadership is very much driven by the individuals entrusted with that role, and our local projects are tailored to local environments on a sustainability platform to which our company is totally committed. We are living proof that a global scale consultancy can enable its individuals to deliver innovative and sustainable solutions and still prosper commercially.

I suppose all architects, if they were really honest with themselves, fantasise that they will produce at least one piece of iconic architecture during their careers, a Sydney Opera House for which they will be remembered after they die. The culture of the organisation they work with will determine how they measure their success and, despite what Nield believes, large organisations can be a positive platform for raising heroes and heroines.

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