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Ma Yansong


This is an interesting, if somewhat older, discussion of the Chinese architect Ma Yansong and his so-called “organic architecture.” The piece focuses on his so-called “Marilyn Monroe” building in Mississagua, Ontario.

Reading about this drove home a few points about architecture to this somewhat educated person (though by no means any kind of expert) on the subject.

First, buildings like this are a nice counterweight to the boring box apartment tower that dominates in the early 21st century. This is as true in China as in soulless North American developments.

Second, I am skeptical of grand architectural theory, even when articulated by someone as seemingly innocuous as Ma. I neglected to comment on Oscar Niemeyer’s passing last week, but his design of Brasilia is contemptible as a place for human beings. Nothing reeks of the worst of high modernism as the complete disinterest by architects in the needs of people in their buildings. The too-common phenomenon of people-free architectural models in the pre-building process is a sign of how pervasive this is within architecture. Probably the most architecturally important building with which I have an intimate familiarity is the Rem Koolhaas designed Seattle Public Library. It’s pretty cool in many ways. It does a lot of things well. It also shows some shocking disregard for how people use space, ranging from an odd lack of bathrooms to the fact that following the stacks to the end puts you in the middle of nowhere, so much so that staff have taped signs to walls leading you to the exit from that point. So grand architectural ideas make me, well, worried.

Seattle Public Library

Third, even the best of this kind of architectural thought shows major problems within the planning of human settlements. Ma I think rightfully centers ideas of nature in his buildings. But you know what would be better than buildings that simulate nature? Nature. Take this:

The human relationship to nature is one of Ma’s fixations; lately, he has been particularly interested in traditional Chinese gardens, which harness nature to spiritual ends. “You can imagine one person sitting in a pavilion looking out to the pond and listening to music,” he says. “Real nature and artificial nature all mix together to create this scene. Those trees, rocks and pavilions are what you see, but what you feel is what’s special.”

These days, of course, traditional gardens are overrun by tourists, so Ma wants to incorporate that feeling of spiritual connection to nature into modern buildings. He has already done this in Fake Hills, a vast seaside residential complex in Beihai, Guangxi. Originally, the developer wanted a box-standard collection of towers, but Ma realized this would prevent many apartments from having a sea view, so he transformed the entire project into an long, thin mountain range, whose peaks and valleys create space for large garden terraces and whose shape allows each apartment to face the ocean.

Fake Hills indeed. Traditional gardens would probably be less overrun if China mandated the construction of gardens and parks within its cities.

I know it’s not within the mandate of capitalism and the profit motive (and for the love of god please no one promote the fiction that China is not capitalist) to create living spaces that promote the traditional spaces between houses that provide much needed tiny green spaces. But Fake Hills is nothing more than fake hills. It’s cool and harmless. But actual trees and such would be a lot cooler. To be fair, it does look the one photo of the model in the article at least includes trees on top of the building, which is something.

This isn’t to take anything away from Ma’s buildings, which seem important, popular, and refreshing. But it is a worthy entry point into discussing some of the issues with high-end architecture.

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  • somethingblue

    If you write a bad novel, no one has to read it.

    If you compose a bad symphony, no one has to listen to it.

    But people have to live and work in the buildings.

    • Fraxin

      Not to mention look at them!

    • ajay

      Another way I’ve heard this put is “Novelists can pulp their mistakes, doctors can bury theirs, but all architects can do is recommend that their clients put in a hedge.”

  • cpinva

    sorry, i can’t see any trees, on the top of mr. ma’s building. i see green space around the building, but nothing on the building itself.

    you raise an important point, and high-end building architecture isn’t the only culprit. high-end car design suffers some of the same problems: sacrificing actual human comfort & usability, for the sake of artistic aesthetic.

    don’t get me wrong, i appreciate a well designed building as much as the next guy (heck, i may be one of the very few people who actually likes I.M. Pei’s entrance to the Louvre), but, like cars, if they lack basic comfort and usability, then the architect has, in my opinion, failed in his/her mission.

    until we start constructing buildings as art works, instead of for actual use, failing to account for the people using those buildings will be a black mark in the architect’s record. worse yet, someone else had to approve these plans, which means there were (probably) entire groups who just forgot all about the people who actually were going to be in the buildings.

    not a comforting thought.

    frank lloyd wright seemed to, overall, get it.

    • joel hanes


      I grew up in a town with several semi-famous Prairie School homes and a FLW-designed hotel on the courthouse square. They’re lovely, and create beautiful human-scale, human-centered spaces.

      But without exception, the flat roofs have persistent problems with leaks and drainage.

      • Tehanu

        In college I lived for a year with two other girls in what I (much later) found out was a Richard Neutra apartment building. Was oblivious at the time, but couldn’t help but notice that the three of us never seemed to get in each other’s way, had plenty of storage space, and had air and sunshine even though the layout prevented us from having a view. Good architecture is something most people don’t even realize they need.

      • cpinva

        having never seen/been in one of those, i can only go by what’s in my area (DC metro). there are a couple of FLW designed homes around here, that get put in the style section of the post every so many years. quite lovely, and i haven’t heard of any roof leak issues, other than the normal, time to repair the old stuff things.

        but hey, i wasn’t, by any stretch, suggesting he was perfect. just that he seemed, overall, to appreciate that actual people, as opposed to mannequins, would be using the structures he designed.

        • daveNYC

          The only thing I’ve heard about Wright (other than the roofs issue) is that some of his spaces aren’t very flexible. Lots of built in furniture and the like.

          I do really like the fact that his bedrooms are just that, bedrooms, and not 600sqft mini-homes that one never needs to leave. Modern master bedrooms are just silly.

        • JustRuss

          Wright had a thing against garages, as he felt they encouraged people to collect too much junk. As the owner of a Wright-inspired home with no attic, cellar, or garage, I’d like to say F-U Frank. But I love the house.

    • Manju

      sorry, i can’t see any trees, on the top of mr. ma’s building.

      There are trees all over the top:


      Its a freeking treefest.

      • cpinva

        in the picture you linked to, much, much easier to see, especially since it shows the actual TOP of the building, where the trees are. the picture at the top of this post is:

        a. much farther away., and
        b. is a frontal view. a much different thing, as i’m certain you’ll agree.

        yep, lots o’ trees, on the top of the building, which is kind of weird place for them to be. since it’s supposed to be mountains though, i guess it makes sense, kind of.

  • Interesting comments about the Seattle Public Library interior — but I don’t use it enough to opine.

    But you missed the Library’s very worst aspect (I think) — it is terrible urban design and doesn’t meet the street well. The Library Board knew it and ddn’t care.

    • Gone2Ground

      Yes. I haven’t been inside it, but just from the driver’s seat, it seems imposing and inorganic. The rest of the neighborhood is a mix of old and new, which seems more real than the big glass box that looks like it is going to tumble down the hill.
      I always feel as though there is a serious case of one ups manship (and I do mean man) in a lot of modern architecture.

      And even after over 15 years in construction, I still don’t get a lot of it. At all.

      • greylocks

        Often it’s the client, not the architect, who wants a big glass and concrete status symbol.

        Architects like Ma get the commissions they do because there are clients who want buildings who look like that. No one is forcing anyone to build Ma’s or anyone else’s designs.

        (I’m not necessarily trashing the designs here — some turn out just fine.)

    • john

      Seattle can’t seem to get a break when it comes to high profile projects. First it was the EMP, and know the Public Library. I actually worked down the street from the Library when construction first started. When I went back years later to see the finished project, I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Inside and out, I just don’t like it.

      • Walt

        I actually like the exterior of the EMP, but I seem to be literally the only person on Earth who likes it.

        • Jameson Quinn

          I lived in Seattle when they were building it, and it seemed fun to me at the time. Not sure how I’d react to it in context today. But c’mon, it’s next to the “Space Needle”.

        • Gone2Ground

          Me, too. I liked watching it go up, and I like the museum and the spaces inside, too.

        • howard

          i’m not crazy about emp, but i don’t hate it: i think it falls more in the category of “interesting” than “likeable.”

          as it happens, i’m told that when gehry discusses emp, he says “this is what happens when you have too much money.”

  • This is a pretty fascinating article from Guernica Magazine that seems relevant:

    Environmental psychologists have long known about this widespread and puzzling phenomenon. Laboratory results show conclusively that architects literally see the world differently from non-architects. Not only do architects notice and look for different aspects of the environment than other people; their brains seem to synthesize an understanding of the world that has notable differences from natural reality. Instead of a contextual world of harmonious geometric relationships and connectedness, architects tend to see a world of objects set apart from their contexts, with distinctive, attention-getting qualities.

    • So what I’m hearing is that we should let architects build monuments and leave the construction of actual buildings where people live and work and play to someone else. Maybe some type of engineer.

      Makes sense to me.

      • greylocks

        Coming from a family of architects (both parents) and engineers (uncle, aunt, brother, sister, cousin), I would say…uh, no.

        I’m not going to defend bad architecture, and FSM knows there’s enough of it, but the problem here is not architects. The problem is bad architects who have somehow managed to make a name for themselves and the status-seeking egotists who throw money at them to keep designing more shitty buildings.

        There’s a tremendous amount of brilliant or even just plain good architecture out there. It’s just that the eyesores and the oddballs stand out and get more attention.

        • Ken

          There’s an old joke: If the architects built it, it would fall down; if the engineers built it, people would tear it down.

          I do wonder what it’s like being a civil engineer tasked with turning some of the… odder buildings into blueprints that meet code. I imagine computers are essential. It can’t be easy for the construction firms, either.

          • greylocks

            Civil engineers do highways and sewer systems and stuff like that. You’re probably thinking structural engineers.

            Also, in most if not all states in the US, architects have to pass exam sections on structural, mechanical and electrical engineering to get their licenses and are licensed to practice engineering. I don’t think most people are aware of that.

            My father did all his own engineering on smaller projects. On bigger ones, where he had to job the engineering out for the sake of time constraints, he often had to fix the stuff he got back. It wasn’t uncommon, for example, for the ME to put a sprinkler head in a light fixture, or for the EE to run electrical conduit through a structural member. On structural plans, he often found himself removing beams and joists because SEs notoriously overengineer everything.

            • Gone2Ground

              And nowadays the subcontractors do a lot of the design work! It’s cheaper, I suppose, than in the old days.

              You hardly ever see an actual, fully designed set of plans anymore, except for government work.

              Not counting industrial or medical, of course….

            • cpinva

              ok, i’m neither an architect or an engineer (of any kind), but this just seems blatantly, obviously wrong, even to me.

              It wasn’t uncommon, for example, for the ME to put a sprinkler head in a light fixture

              i did take science in high school/college, and know, through all those courses, that mr. electricity doesn’t get along, or play well, with mr. water.

              • greylocks

                A lot of people in the building trade can’t read technical blueprints. Or they hand the engineering work off to a “plumbing designer” or “electrical designer” who makes $20/hr and doesn’t give a shit.

                It’s probably not as bad as it used to be, because everything’s done on much smarter software these days.

              • asdfsdf

                “”mr. electricity doesn’t get along, or play well, with mr. water.””

                Weeellll, if you’re using distilled water, it can act as an insulator, and salt water can be pretty electrically conductive. It’s still all very sub-ideal, though.

            • Cheap Wino

              My father did all his own engineering on smaller projects. On bigger ones, where he had to job the engineering out for the sake of time constraints, he often had to fix the stuff he got back. It wasn’t uncommon, for example, for the ME to put a sprinkler head in a light fixture, or for the EE to run electrical conduit through a structural member. On structural plans, he often found himself removing beams and joists because SEs notoriously overengineer everything.

              My father was also an architect and used to run into this kind of stuff all the time. Engineering services range from useful to necessary depending on the scale of the project but engineers are decidedly not architects — design is not part of their utility.

          • greylocks

            I meant to answer your other point but hit the submit button too fast.

            Except in earthquake and hurricane-prone areas, old buildings rarely need major structural upgrades. The bigger challenges are with the utilities, and most especially with old heating systems. It’s no simple matter, for example, to replace a boiler and steam radiator system with a modern central hot-air gas furnace and the attendant ductwork.

          • howard

            the pioneer in organic forms in modern architecture is, of course, frank gehry, and he originally used “catia,” which was an airplane design software, in order to deal with the compound curves.

            he has since developed his own adaptation as a product, but yes, one way or another, there’s a computer involved in solving the structural engineering of any of these sculptural forms.

            • ajay

              the pioneer in organic forms in modern architecture is, of course, frank gehry

              Antoni Gaudi, surely?

              • howard

                well, in the sense that gaudi embarked on a new direction in form, yes, but what i was specifically referencing was the use of compound curves, which is gehry’s particular embellishment, shall we say.

            • JL

              Ugh, Gehry. Speaking of architects who care more about their grand artistic vision than the function of their building…

              • howard

                ok, let us speak indeed.

                i’m not going to claim to familiarity with every gehry building, nor that every gehry building is equally sucessful, but the 3 gehry buildings i know reasonably well – the aerospace hall at the california science center, the emp, and disney concert hall – in fact function quite well.

                so what are you talking about?

    • john

      Thanks for the link. Pretty much hit every point re: my complaints about modern architecture.

  • Big ol’ box-shaped office buildings still provide the most flexibility in terms of internal layout. (I don’t really mind that, because I like the look of a big tall shiny impersonal skyscraper, but that might just be me.)

    • Cities, from the beginning, have been closely linked to worker specialization, making flexibility in internal layout less important there.

      Which is convenient, because it would cost a lot of money to assemble the land for a wide box in a city.

      • greylocks

        Nevertheless, it’s a fact that skyscrapers often have trouble matching tenants’ requirements to available space. It’s quite common, even in high-demand places like Manhattan, for many floors of a skyscraper to be only partially occupied.

  • sparks

    Thanks for the reminder of Brasilia. It was one of the most shocking things I remember seeing in the 1964 film That Man From Rio. Well, that and the bulldozing of rainforest at the end of the film.

  • Anderson

    OT, I wish this blog had a hunky guy in briefs on the front, to balance the women in panties who continually grace its ads.

    • Dave

      You do know that those ads are tied to YOUR browsing history, don’t you?

      • Cody


    • Informant

      Uh, all I’m getting right now are two Tempur-pedic mattress ads and an ad showing the Capitol building with the caption “Reach millions of liberals.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad on this site that featured women in their panties.

    • rea

      Oddly, I often get hunky guys modeling t shirts.

      • djillionsmix

        I get nothing b/c adblock

        thats right stealing the shit outta all the internet idgaf

        • Patrick

          You fool! Soon the site will only be Lawyers and Guns!

          • If there’s no Money, there’s no NEED for Guns or Lawyers.

  • Fraxin

    At some point around 1920 architects seem to have collectively forgotten they create buildings for the general public, not for display in art galleries. A lot of them got caught up in the modernist pursuit of pure forms. That works well for painters like Picasso, Mondrian, Rothko, etc. but for a building? Not so much. For someone with an art education, a cube for the sake of a cube can be interesting, but if you haven’t spent time studying and thinking about art why would it be?

    Even with an art education all I get out of a lot of modern architecture is “I see what you did there.”

    Architects need to stop thinking of themselves as artists, or at least separate themselves from the contemporary art world.

    As for Ma in particular, his designs sure beat boxes but still seem to me like “hey look at this cool idea I had for a building.” And that Marilyn Monroe building is a wonderful monument to women as sex objects, seems to me…

    • UserGoogol

      The Marilyn Monroe building is only a nickname. It’s no more a tribute to Marilyn Monroe than the Swiss Re building in London is a tribute to pickles.

      • Keaaukane

        I thought it was an Easter egg.

    • Richard Hershberger

      ‘As for Ma in particular, his designs sure beat boxes but still seem to me like “hey look at this cool idea I had for a building.”’

      My thought exactly. It is possible to design buildings that are neither boxes nor exercises in self-promotion.

    • Even with an art education all I get out of a lot of modern architecture is “I see what you did there.”

      Hm. I thought being able to say, “I see what you did there” was all ANYBODY got out of an art education.

      ….Or education in general, come to think of it.

  • heckblazer

    I had an anthropology professor in college who wrote a whole book detailing all the ways the modernism of Brasilia failed to account for how people actually live.

    Ah, found it. The Modernist City by James Holston.

    • Anonymous

      The recent documentary Urbanized has wonderful visual overview of Brasilia. Long straight roads through empty space filled with stopped cars, empty sidewalks, neglected public spaces, an aging architect stubbornly defending the city plan, that sort of thing.

      • ajay

        One of the most terrifying things I saw in Barcelona was a model of Le Corbusier’s plan for Barcelona. Essentially, every building was to be levelled, and replaced with rank after rank of identical block-sized apartment buildings. Thank God for Franco – the Spanish Civil War intervened and stopped the plan being put into effect.

        • Jameson Quinn

          Barcelona???? Wow. Le Corbusier: culturally almost worse than invading Iraq.

          • ajay

            Yeah. You could see where the Barrio Gotico was because that was where the buildings weren’t arranged on a perfect grid. He kept the street plan, at least.

          • howard

            now, if we want to talk about “antihuman” architects, corbusier belongs in the conversation; as i noted last night, architecture in the name of utopia is almost always going to be a disaster by definition.

        • MikeJake

          Here was Corbusier’s grand vision for Paris:

          His utter contempt for humanity seems pretty clear.

  • Lige

    As an architect I wish we had the power attributed to us! There are a lot of actors in the creation of the built environment including local zoning codes, lenders and most importantly the clients themselves. Architecture education is, and has been for a long time, very focused on creating livable environments

    • What do you think of Ma’s work? Or the Seattle Public Library?

      • JRoth

        As another architect, I have little interest in Koolhaas or the vast majority of other famous architects (Gehry’s buildings make me seethe). I don’t know if ordinary architects have the alternate perceptions that a commenter upthread ascribed to us, but I do know that we’re trained to look at the panoply of problems posed by most construction projects (from site constraints to client needs to budget to context and beyond) and to synthesize a solution that resolves them as best as possible and, hopefully, provides some delight. I don’t actually understand the attraction of a lot of the more anti-human design out there, except that there’s an eternal human hunger for novelty.

        In the meantime, I view my job (and duty) as trying to get people the best built environments I can manage within eternally constricted budgets. And yes, the more nature, the better.

        • howard

          jroth, i’m going to make a longer comment below, but if you don’t see the poetry in bilbao or the disney concert hall, you’re missing out.

          • Dave

            One can see the poetry, and still think it’s antihuman shit. As with much real poetry, for example.

            • howard

              i can’t begin to understand what that means.

              let’s put bilbao aside, since i’ve never been there, and maybe the pictures and visitors have all been lying.

              but i’ve been at disney concert hall a few times, and know people with season tickets: it’s a beautiful piece of sculpture. the acoustics are excellent. the crazy pipe organ is as human as it gets. the orchestra loves performing there. the audiences enjoy coming there. that part of town has been revitalized by its presence.

              so please explain what makes it antihuman shit?

              • MattT

                I’m certainly not as anti-Disney Concert Hall as that, but most of the complaints my friends had about it were not about the interior but how it functions outside from street level. It looks nice from a distance, but when you are actually walking past it, you often just get this big wall next to you and this sense that building is attacking the street. So it’s not really that the building is ugly or functions poorly as a concert hall, but it’s designed to be a place people drive to and then drive away from, not part of a community where people actually live and work.

                • howard

                  well, personally, every time i’ve gone to disney concert hall, i’ve driven (which i assume 99.9% of customers do) and then walked out of the building and across the street to get something to eat, then walked back, and i can’t say i’ve reacted the way you do.

                  but that is certainly a valid critique and far different from simply accusing a wonderful concert hall of being “antihuman.”

                • etv13

                  Are we talking about the same Walt Disney Concert Hall? The one with the wide steps leading up to the garden on the north side, and all the glass doors leading in to the cafe and eating/lobby area on the east (Grand Avenue)side? I actually do work nearby from time to time (trying cases at the courthouse), and it seems pretty inviting to me. Maybe the people who live in the condos to the west have a different experience, and it’s true there is nothing much on the south side except the entrance to the Red Cat theater.

                • MattT

                  Yeah, I haven’t been in a few years, but my memory was that you only get that effect from one side, and the main entrance is pretty nice. I think I noticed the effect in the one area more because I’d had that reaction previously to a couple of Gehry’s building (liking them from a distance and then standing next to large walls on the sidewalk and finding them very aggressive towards pedestrians).

    • I don’t think it works the same way for Ma Yansoung and his Marilyn Monroe building as it does for you.

  • Lige

    but it is pretty hard sometimes to get people pay for these sorts of things. Not that architects don’t bear their share of responsibility.

  • Excellent post.

    The picture of Ma Yasong’s organic architecture makes me want to never, ever go to that horrible place with the buildings like Lovecraft gods and the huge roads with speeding cars.

    The ultimate expression of the high-modernist contempt for how people use space is found outside the buildings.

  • joel hanes

    I follow and enjoy James Howard Kunstler’s tendentious but (I think) right-on-the-money Architectural Eyesore of the Month

    (The link I provide points to the Oct entry; go back in time from there. The Nov entry is apparently missing, which breaks the “previous” button from this month’s Dec entry)

    • Anonymous

      I dunno, this guy seems good at knocking down obvious blah-tastic boxes or car-centric travesties, but he seems to have an irrational hatred of anything unconventional.

      • UberMitch

        Stupid iPad chrome, not remembering my login

      • Halloween Jack

        Kuntsler has come close to being a serious voice regarding the depredations of car culture and the virtues of new urbanism, but he slides too often and easily into the role of bitter nostalgist crank. He wrote a blog post some years back on how the alternate-universe Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life was better than the real Bedford Falls because the former had a thriving urban center and the latter had Bailey Park, a post-war subdivision development. And here he is mooning over the lost glories of the Industrial Revolution in a decaying small town.

  • justaguy

    I’m guessing when he’s talking about traditional gardens being overrun with tourists its a reference to places like Suzhou, where people go to specifically to see the gardens. The Chinese city I’m most familiar with is Beijing, which certainly has its share of architectural monstrosities, soulless box buildings and poor high modernist planning. And the big issue is the destruction of traditional alleyway neighborhoods in favor of new development, and the attendant eviction of people to the suburbs. But its got plenty of parks – some of which are enormous and fairly beautiful, and all of which are well used. You seldom see an urban park in the US as full of activity as Beijing parks early in the morning. Most neighborhoods also have spaces with exercise machines of various sorts for the public to use, and other spaces for people to congregate, practice fan dancing, tai chi or whatever. If you can overlook the traffic, crowds, pollution and food quality issues, (and lets not even bring the Chinese state into this conversation) its actually a very livable city.

  • Manju

    Fake Hills looks really cool. I see more rollercoster (and maybe 2 vaginas) than hills, but whatever…it works. I’m sure kids love it.

    You guys sound like Prince Charles opening his window at Buckingham Palace an yelling; “Get off of my Lawn” to Frank Gehry. Does this have something to do with The Fountainhead?

    • rea

      No, all the architecture in Fountainhead is Frank Lloyd Wright.

      • Not really. He was approached to do the drawings and models for the Foutainhead, but he wanted to be paid his full fee, so they just had a studio modelmaker do them, inspired by Wright and other modern architects.

        • rea

          Uh, I was talking about the book, which I read when I was 14, but which I remember rather clearly was based on Wright’s career and ideas, with Rand’s own philosophy added.

      • JRoth

        The movie designs are ersatz Wright, but what Rand describes in the book is much closer to International Style, “ornament is a crime” stuff. That said, she did hang out with Wright for awhile, so the fanatical ego (although not the contempt for humanity) are in part his.

    • Fake Hills looks really cool.

      From several miles away, sure it does.

      That’s sort of the point.

  • RhZ

    Interesting that you wrote Ma’s name in the correct order.

    I really wonder what we should do about Chinese names. Unlike Japanese, which seems to commonly have a clear difference between first and last names, in Chinese its going to cause major confusion if you switch the order of the names, at least some of the time.

    Many Chinese have two character given names, so that’s relatively easy (although a small number of Chinese have two character family names, but this is quite rare). But when people have one character given names, then if they start switching, no one will know what is going on.

    My personal recommendation is that Chinese should not switch their names, and we US folks will just have to get used to it. It seems the only sensible way.

    In China, the names especially for those with one character given names are fixed, what I mean is that if the person’s name is Liu Hua, everyone will call him or her Liu Hua. Not Hua, although formally it would be Mr. Liu of course.

    To change that to Hua Liu…its like inverting a western given name, like rickpat or bertrob…and no one will know if she is Ms. Liu or Ms. Hua…

  • Lige

    I think in context the fake hills work they are on a large greenfield site next to the sea rather than in the center of a city. The terraces seem like a reasonable way to add usable exterior space in the midst of a large development. I feel like ive read a sci fi book where the characters lived in a similar structure. I’m not really a fan of bigness in building projects in general though which is a real feature of contemporary building practice including the normal day to day residential subdivisions, apartment complexes and office parks that make up our built environment. One entity controlling that much territory tends to lead to an I humane environment. Rem Koolhaas is on the other side of that debate but I would like to visit the librarary in Seattle sometime. I did attend a presentation with the contractor who built and he said that the drawings they were given were not really sufficient to build the building – really more conceptual and this may account for the less than polished interior layout – I don’t think that rem was really concerned with this part of the project. The fact that the drawings were probably prepared by recently graduated unpaid interns (exploitation of interns is rampant in the field).

    • Gone2Ground

      “I did attend a presentation with the contractor who built and he said that the drawings they were given were not really sufficient to build the building – really more conceptual and this may account for the less than polished interior layout…”

      As a contractor, I have to say this is far, far from uncommon. And yet universally frustrating….I am a builder, NOT a designer. Please don’t ask me to take on yet more (unpaid) responsibility (and potential for disaster) by making me pick out paint colors (always a bad idea), or design some major aspect of the project. I’m already going to have to design a thousand fixes just to get the building put together…..the aesthetics and functionality really are in the A’s court.

      • greylocks

        I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my parents were licensed architects. Contractors frequently brought them plans from other architects and asked them to fill in the missing pieces. It’s pretty pathetic that there are so many bad and lazy architects, but the competition’s ineptness was good for my parents’ small family firm.

      • I’ve found an excellent workaround to that with a recent Construction Manager on my projects…he claims to be color blind.

      • JRoth

        Good Lord, I would never ask a contractor to pick paint colors. I mean no offense, but it’s pretty far out of their area of competitive advantage.

        My experience is that it doesn’t much matter what I draw, the contractor will build it according to his preference, so I try not to waste my time drawing details that might as well be abstract drawings for all the real world impact they’ll have. But I suppose that’s just the nature of seeing things from the other side of the fence.

        I should add here that I spent most of my first 4 years out of college doing construction, and have done a lot of renovations and repairs to my 100-y.o. residence; I have nothing but respect for the building trades. Well, the good ones, anyway.

      • agorabum

        I’ve seen older building plans; far less detailed then modern plans. But the architect took a more hands on approach in the field, and the subcontractors viewed themselves more as skilled craftsmen (and often were thanks to unions).
        It seems like today there is this expectation of a ‘perfect’ set of plans that must be produced. But really, what matters is making sure the structural elements will work and the waterproofing works. A problem today is that the trades often do not coordinate their work when implementing the mechnical / electrical systems, leading to field conflicts.

        • howard

          agrobaum, you can’t discuss the change in the architect’s role in the field from the evolving insurance and legal state of play, but that’s right: architects once were “master builders” but are now draw-ers, and coordination is where we distinguish the good ones from the not-so-good….

    • Gone2Ground

      And yes, I know about the architect galley…it is just like the slave ships of old, only with pens. Ya’ll have my sympathies, truly.

  • Lige

    In the case of the Seattle librarary with all the strange geometry the contractor actually constructed a 3 d compurer model of the building frame so that they could fabricate all the steel. Many if these newer iconic buildings are so expensive to design and build , because of this sort of complexity, that they are really not models for how the vast majority of buildings are designed. Say what you will about the tenets of Modernism but at least one if them was trying to design building with logical and efficient construction systems.

    • JRoth

      This, a thousand times.

    • howard

      the problem with this critique is that the seattle public library was stunningly inexpensive to build (considerably below $300/square foot at a time when construction costs were exploding and other comparable new libraries were costing much more) and is highly popular among both staff and residents.

      • I should say that I actually like the SPL quite a bit. It’s just that there’s a couple of obvious problems. But I do like to work there.

        • howard

          erik, i think that’s a very fair comment and in keeping with your original posting: as i said last night, making a building is hard.

          making a perfect building is probably impossible.

          but seattle public library is a very successful building.

          • Jason

            It’s one of the places I always take visitor’s from out of town. While I like the building and enjoy exploring and reading there, the stacks just confuse the hell out of me.

      • lige

        That’s fascinating that they were able to keep costs so low. Makes me believe in the value of BIM (Building Information Modelingg) a little more.

        • howard

          i recall reading that part of why they selected koolhaas was because he actually has a good track record on working with modest budgets that some starchitects wouldn’t deign to touch.

      • The project went way over-budget and it was by no stretch a cost-effective, inexpensive building. Not even close. We’ll be laughing at it in 20 years.

  • Lige

    Brasilia was designed to be traversed by car based on a utopian vision of total freedom based on universal possession of the automobile. Sort of a monumental version of basic suburban sprawl – not saying that I agree with this design intent but they definitely made a choice not to design for the pedestrian. A feature not a bug.

    • howard

      lige, you beat me to one of the points i wanted to make: a lot of terrible design decisions resulted from utopian fantasies.

    • Funkhauser

      The layout of Brasilia is due to Lucio Costa, not Niemeyer. Oscar just put up the buildings, which range from ridiculous to sublime.

      • lige

        Costa always gets left out in American stories about Brasilia.

  • howard

    a lot of interesting comments here, and i’m just going to make some free associative further ones!

    first, i should say that along the way in my professional life i have worked on projects designed by frank gehry, thom mayne, joe esherick (and his partner chuck davis of ehdd), bob frasca (and his partner dos mabe of zgf), gyo obata (co-founder of hok), and fred fisher, and i’ve also had interactions with larry scarpa and steve ehrlich.

    while hardly a comprehensive set of starchitects, this is certainly a reasonable cross-section of among the best known american architects, and i can say, quite sincerely, that this is a group of highly cultured amd thoughtful people, who whatever mistakes they have made (and we’ve all made them, after all) have never done so in the name of imposing a grand theory or without consideration of user behavior.

    the fact is, making a building is hard: it’s virtually impossible to forsee all the varied use patterns associated, particularly in a large scale form.

    that said, while it’s certainly conceivable that a client would simply say to an architect “let me know when it’s done,” it’s important to remember that there is a client, whose role it is to have a program and knowledge of what he/she is looking for as an outcome.

    many problems that do arise with building functionality do so because the owner never established a program in the first place.

    as for form itself, look, i like jazz and punk rock and hiphop and modern classical music, so unsurprisingly, i’m uninterested in over-valuing “fitting in” to context and standard forms and materials; what i (over)value is individual character and a form/function marriage, which is just as possible in a gehry building as in the perfectly pleasant fire station designed by the architect down the street.

    obviously, tastes differ on this but building are, among other things, sculptures, and while you wouldn’t want every sculptor to be henry moore, you certainly want some around!

    none of which is to say that architects aren’t fully capable of being stubborn, or unrealistic, or inflexible, or unwilling to listen: no surprise there since we see the same thing in other creative endeavors. ultimately, though, in that kind of situation, it is still the job of the client to say “this isn’t working and either you change or we find someone else.”

    • john


      • Jameson Quinn

        lesson: no caps is certainly less annoying than the reverse.

        • greylocks

          we are all e.e. cummings here

    • agorabum

      I’m always amazed at how the architectural contracts typically require a program…and one is never provided by the Owner. There is just a conglomeration of inputs from various meetings, that results in a contradictory sort of ‘mission creep.’ Then, because the goals are contradictory, something has to get cut, and the offended stake-holder will complain that their key request was ignored (while not knowing the owner’s project manager directed a higher priority to an alternative goal).

      • howard

        agorabum: exactly right. it’s really important in discussing architecture to remember that generally speaking, there is a client, and just as there is a bell-shaped curve of architectural competency, there is an equally bell-shaped curve of client competency.

        since you show an interest in program, you might like this clip someone passed along to me a few weeks ago of the great second-generation california modernist a quincy jones discussing the role of program.

      • But as an architect, if you enter into a contract without identifying a program, even if it’s preliminary, you have no way of basing when your work is edging into Additional Services. It’s just a poor business decision.

        Even if I have to make up the program, I put it in there. The client has the opportunity to revise it if they feel I am constraining it too much.

        Or, sometimes I do preliminary programmatic design on a T&M basis, and once we’ve agreed on the scope of the project, a fully-fledged contract.

        • howard

          zombie rotten mcdonald, i have long said that one of the reasons that architects act out in certain other ways is because they are such terrible business people, and god knows, nothing is done in architectural training that prepares architects to, you know, run a business.

  • ajay

    the perfectly pleasant fire station designed by the architect down the street.

    Which reminds me of reading about Zaha Hadid’s attempt to design a fire station in England early in her career, which resulted in something so insanely unusable that the fire brigade refused to move into it and stayed in the old fire station next door until it was gutted and rebuilt. (Glass walls in the locker rooms were a particularly innovative idea, IIRC. Also, walls that didn’t quite meet the roof and allowed the rain and wind to come in.)

    • rea
      • ajay

        Very possibly that one. Though that’s in Germany. I may be misremembering the location – I read about it some years ago in Private Eye.

        • ajay

          I was trying to find the Private Eye piece on Google, but no luck – though I did come across the news that the Hadid-designed aquatic centre at the London Olympic Park had a ceiling that dipped down excitingly in the middle, which meant that the people in the audience couldn’t see the diving board because the ceiling got in the way.

    • Lurker

      Actually, in modern Finnish architecture, building saunas with the wall towards the bathroom made of glass is very popular. So, the persons in sauna have a direct view to the showers in the bathroom and vice versa. In Finland, this is considered acceptable, but I believe that most American would consider it perverse.

      It is also economic, as it allows one to build a sauna in the middle of the building, with no additional windows and with maximal heat usage.

  • Halloween Jack

    The problems with the SPL (notwithstanding its apparent popularity, as noted above) are seen at other libraries; I recall the San Francisco main library having to have staff-made signs at least for a while after its opening, ditto for the Memphis public library, and as far as overall exterior design, dig if U will the San Antonio PL, with its basic geometric shapes and primary colors that recall school supplies from the nineties. Libraries are supposed to be resolutely and ultimately functional above all else, but you get people in city government who get carried away by sexy new architectural concepts, and who probably don’t use the library that much themselves, so that they’ll go for flash over substance, and you end up with things like leaky roofs, which as you might imagine pose a unique problem for buildings full of paper.

  • Richard Hershberger

    We should put in a word about architecture critics, too. I was living in Philadelphia when the new baseball stadium and the new concert hall opened, and both were reviewed by the newspaper’s architecture critic. I was struck by how little intersection there was between stuff he cared about and stuff I cared about.

    Stuff I cared about: Are the seats adequately comfortable, with sufficient leg room? Are the sight lines good? Are the seats angled properly? How close can I get with reasonably priced tickets to what I came to see? Is the facility well designed for large numbers of people moving in or out of it at once, or will I have to give it an extra half hour before and after the event? How about the bathrooms and concession stands? Are they sufficient and convenient? And not least of all, how are the acoustics (obviously critical for the concert hall, but a legitimate concern for a ballpark as well)?

    Stuff the architecture critic cared about: These can be summarized as “Is the building pretty?” and “Does the building fit in well with the surrounding buildings?”

    I am willing to give the critic a pass on the acoustics. These need to be fine tuned, and you can’t really legitimately judge them until a year or so after the concert hall has been opened. But all the other stuff that I cared about were readily available for comment.

    This isn’t to say that the stuff the critic cared about aren’t legitimate topics as well. But to talk about them to the exclusion of questions of how well the building functions for its intended purpose suggests a severe disconnection from reality.

    I have no idea how much, if at all, actual architects respond to incentives from architecture critics. But to the extent that they do, this is part of the problem.

  • rdale

    I’m going to copy this post and save it! I’ve always said that I used to respect architects until I had to work with them. I’ve gone through a couple of major (multimillion dollar) renovations in the library I work in, and dealing with architects and their “visions” and “grand designs” left me sputtering with rage most of the time. They designed what they wanted, and when forced to sit down with us, who would be walking in and out of the building for years, they were rude and supercilious and ended up doing what they wanted anyway. So we spend our careers in a space that’s not well-laid out for, you know, how we actually planned to use it, but hey! They got to indulge their “VIZZZZ-ions.” Another glaring example of this is the Salt Lake City Public Library, designed by superstar architect Moshe Safdie. Yeah, it’s a beautiful building but I know many of the people who work there and they are constantly dealing with problems inherent in the design that look great but just don’t work in the real world. The theme of the whole place is “transparency,” so there are few walls, and it’s incredibly noisy. The elevators are all glass and he even wanted to have the floors of the elevators glass; given that a large part of the clientele are homeless men, the librarians said “We don’t think so!” And he insisted that the plaza outside be made of sandstone shipped from Israel; as if most of the whole freakin’ state of Utah isn’t made of sandstone! The Israeli sandstone is always cracking and coming up in big chunks; it’s a mess. So whenever I hear the word “architect” I think of the old Vaudeville routine about Niagara Falls: “slowly I turned, step by step…”

    • howard

      so rdale, this is the kind of thing that fascinates me: if your organization hired a supercilious architect who didn’t listen, why didn’t you fire him/her?

      • Dave

        Because the people they don’t listen to are the ones paid less than them?

        • howard

          i think what you’re saying is that “revealed preference shows that funders like being associated with starchitects much more than they care about staff,” which i can hardly dispute, but which therefore is an organizational and not an architectural problem.

    • Not all architects are cut from the same cloth. My projects have been successful enough from budgetary, functional, AND aesthetic aspects that most of my work comes from repeat clients. It’s the only thing that has kept me practicing over the past few years.

      • howard

        maybe i’ve just been lucky, but i’ve been involved on a wide variety of projects with a wide variety of architects, including the big names i mentioned earlier, and none of them ever fit the mold that rdale described. i think that is the exception, not the rule.

    • Halloween Jack

      Sometimes I feel like the whole history of big-city central library architecture is like a version of The Fountainhead where Howard Roark designs libraries, which get built exactly the way that he wants, and when librarians complain about how the building doesn’t really work, Roark just tells them to look up his big speech and wanders off to find someone to sexually harass.

  • OlderThanDirt

    My favorite book about architecture and planning spaces around what feels good is A Pattern Language

    I would loooove living in a place designed with these concepts in mind. Architects, if you’re still around, what do you think of it?

    • marijane

      Don’t forget The Timeless Way of Building, which is the predecessor to A Pattern Language and possibly a better introduction. I too would like to hear what other architects think of them.

      Interestingly, Christopher Alexander’s ideas have been hugely influential in software engineering over the last couple decades, possibly moreso than in the field of architecture.

      • Both books in the ZRM professional library.

        They are not instruction books, but help you to re-focus on the users and the context of your designs, and kind of turn away from the Starchitect model of practice.

        Also of interest is How Buildings Learn, if you are curious about adapting older structures to new uses, as I am.

        • Also, The Old Way Of Seeing, about how untrained carpenters can sometimes come up with better, more pleasing building designs than architects with more theoretical knowledge.

    • I would loooove living in a place designed with these concepts in mind.

      Give me a call….

  • Incredible points. Great arguments. Keep up the
    great work.

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