Design critic and instructor at the Design Criticism MFA program, School of Visual Arts, New York
Architect and critic; partner, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism
Artist and writer; coufounder of The Serving Library
Artist and writer; member of Bernadette Corporation, author of Rich Texts
For the next round of discussion I’d like to shift the subject to the physical environment, posing the question, Is architecture rational?
Much of the newer work we see as we walk the streets of the city whether it’s New York, Seattle, Dubai, or the newer sections of Copenhagen, is more dramatic than architecture once was: taller, swoopier, twistier, less symmetrical. Architectural language, informed by the capabilities of parametric software and computerized fabrication tools, has become more fluid and less rectilinear.
From the onlooker’s perspective, it looks a lot like style. But when you talk to an architect, you often wind up having a conversation about how utterly pragmatic the building in question is.
For instance, the Seattle Central Library by OMA, completed in 2004. The lead architect on the project, Joshua Prince-Ramus, once told me: “Style freaks us out, the very word style.” He went on to explain the strange shape of the building—it looks like a monstrous mechanical jaw—by showing a diagram made by the library’s administrators of all the functions they required in the new building. Prince-Ramus claimed the architects translated the librarians’ chart directly into architectural form. He called this method “hyperrational.”
A couple of years ago on the outskirts of Copenhagen I toured the mixed-use complex 8 House, a decapitated pyramid merged with a Möbius strip by BIG/Bjarke Ingels. I was informed that it looked the way it did because it was a purely rational scheme for maximizing sunlight, air, and views for the apartments while using the commercial space on lower floors to enhance the street life. Oh, and the Möbius-like pathway that wends through the complex is actually a ramp that allows bicycle-loving Copenhageners to pedal directly to their front doors.
Just recently the New York firm SHoP released renderings of a master plan for the eleven-acre Domino Sugar site in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which involves a series of structures that are twenty stories taller than in the previous plan. The buildings depicted—placeholders for buildings that have yet to be designed—are tall, skinny, loop-shaped towers, as if someone had stretched OMA’s CCTV Tower like a rubber band. But SHoP partner Vishaan Chakrabarti told me that the shape was about making the buildings “porous,” about not building a solid wall between the neighborhood and the river.
Often these days, the most elaborate architectural gestures claim to be about maximizing energy efficiency or production (I heard that a lot in Dubai, of all places) or about creating space for collaboration (programs for new science buildings always demand space for unplanned interdisciplinary encounters, for example). There is always a reason. Rarely will an architect say, My building is shaped this way because I like it. But reasons often have the ring of rationalization. Some buildings must look the way they do for the time-honored reason that they provide aesthetic satisfaction to someone: the architect, the client, the local planning commission. But nobody can afford to admit that. In a world increasingly driven by data, we have to pretend that there is a quantifiable justification for everything. Style seems to freak a lot of people out. There is no metric for beauty.
One issue must be clearly understood: regardless of its form, due to the complexity of its execution and use, architectural value is, unquestionably, never justified only by aesthetic principals.
To put a building out into the world means to negotiate with sponsors, building companies, politicians, engineers, environmental experts, facade consultants, lighting consultants, other architects, lawyers, press, etc. just to name a few of the players involved. But most important, due to the fact that we are not talking about sculptures, for instance, but constructions inhabited by people that build our urban fabric and cut into our city skylines, they need to function perfectly well.
It’s another question entirely to look at the degree of rationality with which certain architectural forms can be justified. We can't compare the deep programmatic investigation in the Seattle library, where OMA transforms the typical dark book stacks in an open and lit descending public circulation never interrupted by the structure (which is concentrated in the facade), with the questionable explanations by BiG of its 8 House or, worse, with justifications for SHoP's destructive corporate intervention in Williamsburg. And we can't compare any of these three examples with parametric architecture, whose logic is based in random computer-generated combinations that more than frequently lead to disastrous, and also random, results.
One thing is nevertheless incontestable: If sustainability, efficiency, or participation are nowadays justification for the most dubious architectural projects—such as the SHoP work mentioned above —they are also the explanation for better design that may hided a double intention. To put on the table a sensitive example, we could look at the High Line, a green, beautiful project that nevertheless is a Real State operation. It is a project now surrounded by new buildings identical except for different facades designed by different Pritzker Prize winners; a park with a long list of prohibitions like eating, listening to music, big gatherings, biking etc.; a platform more and more used by tourists and the millionaires that can afford an apartment around it.
At the end of the day, the question is then how to train ourselves to look beyond aesthetics, beyond cliché justifications, and of course beyond corporate ambitions, in order to be able to concentrate in the value of the construction of semiautonomous architecture. That is, an architecture that seriously pushes the boundaries of the discipline but that always has an interesting and intense lasting relation with the public, and that joins the conversation about the construction of cities in all its complexity and with its many contending voices.
I doubt we should take the architect’s disavowal of style seriously. I remember OMA’s Seattle library described as a building in fishnet stockings, as if the first thing the reviewer saw was an outfit choice, a seduction strategy. It’s funny that a library would be sexed up like this. I’m sure the architects had rational reasons to put her in fishnets too.
In the Bloomberg era, new buildings feel dragged and dropped into the city, which itself works more and more like a screen. And as much as rationality may explain the appearance of folded, twisted, inside-out forms, there’s an excessive, stylish, and entertaining aspect that seems to celebrate complexity for complexity’s sake, promoting the elastic, mutational, outside-the-box qualities of info-capitalism. On the other hand, architecture seems to announce its own disappearance within media channels, emitting these fantastic signs of itself at the very moment that buildings become information. New buildings strike brutalist or complex poses against the backdrop of the old bricky infrastructure, seeming more and more like hallucinations.
When Bernard Tschumi’s weird condo tower, Blue, first appeared on the Lower East Side, a friend said, “It’s a building that poses the question: what shall we do with the rich?” This makes me think of a Frederick Seidel poem where he writes about doing yoga in his high-rise condo while meditating on tiny homeless people below: a cruel joke about lifestyles. Similarly, we could say the crusty occupation of Zuccotti Park had a way of joking back at the bankers in the towers above. Meanwhile, the new towers they’re planning to replace the old sugar factory are not just about porous vistas, they’re about porous, see-through subjectivities and rubber-band life-forms, made for the citizens of Grindr and Seamless.com.
I remember reading about a shoot-out in a Frank Gehry building somewhere in the Midwest. The police were tracking a lone sniper in this complex space with no right angles and it took hours to finally catch him, because the way the gunshots echoed around the twisted interior was even more disorienting than the floor plan the cops were consulting. I guess this is a case of style as a police problem. I also think of J. G. Ballard’s 2000 novel Super-Cannes, in which new gated communities built around complex multilevels of Zen reflecting pools and integrated security systems provoke a collective psychosis, with sex crimes and pharmaceutical abuse. This is high-security architecture that asks: what shall we do with sex and death? Or: how can we really inhabit this nonplace?
As architecture formalizes and extends a metropolitan screen that promotes transparency and circulation above all, we also notice the trend for reclaimed wood and vintage decors in contemporary restaurant and retail design, the nostalgia for material density and grain, for dim corners and rough edges. I think these two styles go hand in hand in New York now; they require each other. And on the other side of Williamsburg, Hasidic culture spreads block by block with low-slung bunker style housing, which includes communal play areas for children, keeping an archaic life-form intact somehow, with or without design software. This is maybe the style of indifference that walls itself off against the new cyber-woodsy style but that still can’t stop the penetration of hipster bike paths.
Rationality is not an on-off quality intrinsic to a building or any other object. It’s a property of interpretation. Any choice can be rationalized, more or less persuasively, any number of ways, which means rationalization itself is subject to style. Yet while individual opinions about whether or not any nonmathematical argument is rational are, strictly speaking, only ever opinions, in the aggregate these opinions (including opinions about aggregate opinions) are entirely significant—philosophically, economically, and materially.
“The constant morphing of aggregate opinion” is another way of saying “fashion,” though many people call it “thought,” and with good reason: aggregate opinion holds that fashion is trivial. That “nobody can afford to admit” that fashion underlies rationalized decision making is an observation worth pondering. What could be the cost of this confession?
Also: Why does fashion (in architecture, in discourse, in politics, in consumption) obtain? Or, Why have prevalent styles of rationalization changed in the particular ways they have during particular times in particular places? And, How will they change next? Data is expensive because there is money to be made by correctly anticipating answers to this last question, and influencing them.
Keynes’ beauty contest has for decades occupied economists and game theorists seeking to model reasoning processes and learning over time:
“Professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one's judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practise the fourth, fifth, and higher degrees.” (p. 140, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes, 1936.)
A first wave of researchers tested the effects of many vs. few subjects and the influence of outliers. Subsequent efforts expanded to include wider ranges of participants, teams vs. individuals, players with varying degrees of experience, and differing parameters. What subjects learn is to anticipate what other subjects learn (and whether and how they will behave accordingly) in given circumstances. According to a recent paper published by economist Rosemarie Nagel, the most significant finding of all the experiments has been that Keynes was right. “Subjects apply only 0 to 3 levels of reasoning,” she writes, and it is primarily economists who operate on the third, deepest level. Practically speaking, they know the metrics for beauty.