Monthly Archives: July 2012

Robert Indiana’s 1928 HOPE, partner of LOVE, in front of the Sears Tower, Chicago / Credit: Gwen Webber

The Modernist idea that technology can democratise production and liberate workers has been eroded by the lack of risk-taking and experimentation on a large scale. Although the d-shape 3D-layering machine has the potential to revolutionise the way buildings are produced, in trying to gain support from investors its inventor Enrico Dini came up against emphatic rejection. Having touted the technology around architectural practices and private equity firms in London, Dini appears finally to have found a customer in the Architectural Association School of Architecture, which has expressed interest in testing a working prototype. But others’ reluctance to get involved with the technology highlights an attitude that is endemic in both construction and mass-production.

The situation is symptomatic of a wider problem of parochialism in architecture. Historically, technology was used in Modernist ideology as a tool to improve the quality of life through labour-saving devices and the democratisation of production. When Reyner Banham wrote A House is Not a Home in 1965, it was with the intention of highlighting the possibilities of a specific technological phenomenon, services such as heating and ventilation, to create new ways of building. As with Buckminster Fuller, this enthusiasm for experimentation to bring about change reflected a belief in technology’s ability to create alternative living environments. Experimental architecture should not necessarily imply just the shapely buildings and attention-seeking landmark architecture that has been built over the past 12 years. In most cases it is the product of a climate of social change in which risks are taken with novel modes of practice.

It was through forward-thinking investors that Le Corbusier made manifest his claims to modern living in the Unité d’Habitation; and a sense of excitement about what architecture could symbolise that enabled Richard Rogers to build the Lloyds building, the first high-profile high-tech architecture in the UK. Today there is little evidence of enthusiasm for experimental architecture. Instead, ambitious projects are tainted by vitriolic criticism on moral grounds, as in the case of the recently completed Burj Khalifa, now the world’s tallest building. It often falls to engineers to maintain a sense of ambition about the future. Discussing the controversy over the Burj Khalifa, its engineer Bill Baker who is a partner in architect SOM (the firm that designed the building before chief architect Adrian Smith took it over in his own name) said defiantly: ‘I think all skyscrapers are symbols of hope. People who build skyscrapers are optimistic about their times and their future. Skyscrapers are dreams rendered in steel and concrete.’

It seems a gross contradiction that technological experiments in the production of luxury commodities are deemed acceptable, while large-scale building projects that may bring wider benefits directly or indirectly, are not. Thomas Heatherwick’s use of manufacturing machinery from the aerospace industry to make limited edition art works, and Basso and Brooke’s digital printing process that creates bespoke high-fashion find themselves exempt from such carping.

So where is the democratic impetus of Modernism? Where is the ambition to use those technologies to make building components and inexpensive products for mass production? In 1853, when the elevator was unveiled in New York, its inventor Elisha Otis offered a chance to change the existing concept of inhabitable space. The sky really did become the limit. Now that ambition had access to technology, people were able to raise the bar. By the middle of the 20th Century, with the failure of social revolutions and growing dissolution with the project of socialism, Modernism become bound up with technological determinism. Later, the link between technology and dystopia became a favourite subject for writers and filmmakers, and by the 1970s modernist architecture was being held up as a warning of the danger of experimentation.

One area in which technology-driven design still has a firm footing is in the consumer goods market, where constant innovation means that access to relatively inexpensive, novel products is wider than ever before. Amazon’s most ‘gifted’ item last Christmas was its inelegant Kindle e-reader, while the iPhone’s inexhaustible apps are changing how we navigate our environment, as well as affecting how we communicate.

Often it seems that designers are held back by the conservativism of builders, yet there is new evidence that contractors are introducing technology for economic reasons. Contractor Laing O’Rourke recently announced plans for a factory using Japanese robotic technology to make prefabricated housing. In January the firm was given a boost by the announcement of a government agreement to build several thousand new homes, laying the basis for the firm to make a multi-million pound investment in the technology. However the design of the homes, which is based on a timber and steel-frame system and looks identical to homes built using traditional techniques, is at odds with the technology behind it. Architects should be knocking at their door with ideas about how to use this construction method in ways that no one has yet imagined.

This article was published as the View opener in Blueprint magazine, March 2010.


There’s something that really works about architecture on film (and vice versa). Even the dry stuff is compelling. I think this is partly because they are kindred in their obsession with choreographing space and defying dimensions. There’s also something attractive about follies. This week I visited Philip Johnson’s New Canaan retreat and seeing that the egotism that often pervades architecture’s most prolific makers can be directly paralleled to the way 18th Century monarchs behaved and orchestrated their land with pavilions for entertainment and pleasure gardens was a revelation to me. Continuing this tradition – a recent screening at the Noguchi Museum, NY, focused on two very different approaches to pavilion building.

The spectacular museum in Long Island City showed two short films – Public Farm 1 and Ghost – as part of its First Fridays summer screenings. Focusing on two design-build projects, they give the audience rare access into the workings of two North American practices, WorkAC of New York and Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects of Canada. The shorts, which will be screened at the New York Architecture and Design Film Festival (ADFF) 18-21 October, join a growing archive of films being used as a device for exploring architecture and unpicking the discipline. They are small gestures, but, like Johnson’s follies, provide entertainment and a glimpse into what architects can do when given a space to play with.

Unlike the rather drab 2010 film, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? and the triumphant 2008 Koolhaas HouseLifethese lower budget documentaries pin the personalities and vulnerabilities of the architects to the process of making. Here, the architects get their hands dirty. And then have a beer.

PF1 at MoMA PS1 by Work Architecture Company, 2011

Lilibet Foster’s Public Farm 1, is an energetic and personal narrative that follows the architects Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of WorkAC as they grapple with the structural challenges and fallibility of building their temporary city farm, Public Farm 1 (PF1), which won MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program in 2011. This fallibility is never more evident than when the duo realize that their inspiration behind the cardboard-tube building, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, never used the material as the only structural component. The comedic drama is delightful and the approach of the two architects endearing. However, it is never revealed how they overcome this challenge.

The film starts somewhere in the middle, which makes it both compelling as well as disorientating. There is so much to be gained from understanding where design ideas and forms stem from and what pushes an architect to make the decisions that shape our environment, albeit in the short-term. It is clear, though, that these architects understand their role in this, and the premise of PF1 is to bridge the divide between context and user by building a structure that gives something to the locals as well as the fly-by-night hipsters who have chosen to visit the Long Island City gallery before heading home to the comfort of cool in Williamsburg or Greenpoint.

The value in portraying the human side of a Man-made craft and using a fly-on-the-wall approach that makes it accessible is undermined by the lack of ‘formal’ interviewing – leaving more questions than answers. One can’t help but feel a bit dissatisfied with what seem obvious questions: How is the structure put together? Why did they choose to do it this way? What did they learn? Did it work as a ‘connector’. The work itself is part of a bigger picture and the film denies the audience even a brief glimpse at this. The film does achieve a level of intimacy not experienced in other architecture flicks – the wonderful personalities behind WorkAC glow as do their anxieties – but whether this project is a microcosm of how the practice works is left unexplored. It is a bonus, however, that as a viewer I want to know more.

PF1’s cardboard-tube structure was planted with vegetables / Photo credit: Raymond Adams

Complementing this DIY theme, Ghost introduces architect Brian Mackay-Lyons’ design-build summer programme. Every year, a group of students apply the skills they are taught at architecture schools across the world. Called an “experimental architecture laboratory” by Mackay-Lyons, the expectation is that the work being created from scratch will push the boundaries of design or technique in some way, but it is hard to tell whether this is the focus or the purpose and success of the annual project is something much less grand.

Ghost Lab cabins started by students at the 2005 summer workshop, completed by Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple, they are rented out during the rest of the year

There is an appeal to the programme and a value to it: it is his own land in Nova Scotia and it is a permanent building. In its earlier years, Ghost buildings would be torn down and its materials used for the current year’s project but Mackay-Lyons says it began to get more serious and eventually people wanted longevity to drive the project as well as experimentation. By the looks of it, the result is more sober buildings. Perhaps less interesting and playful. But they are considered and the team must respond to changes and modify the design accordingly. Surely one of the advantages of a project without a client?

While in Ghost, we are told that changes must be made, in PF1 we actually see the struggle of the architects’s ambitions not quite matching the material’s integrity. Buildings are fallible and vulnerable and at the whim of the designer’s ability to cut, bolt and sand their follies into reality.