Sunday, December 20, 2009

Size shouldn't matter...(except when it does)

In what is possibly the most difficult of times for the architecture profession, firms are scurrying around the globe to land any securely funded project that has weathered the speculation-fueled real estate crisis. With the U.S. market in the tank for at least the next couple of years, firms large enough to have foreign offices are redoubling efforts in snatching projects in markets where money is concentrated by powerful ruling families, business partnerships with large cash reserves, government and entities with close ties to the government. Smaller developers that rely on bank credit no longer available to them are sitting it out, which leaves the overall new project landscape in an ironic state of affairs: instead of an abandonment of large, iconic, sometimes megalomaniacal projects and a return to the smaller, simpler, more socially responsible that the current recession portended, continuing the large and iconic is more important than ever for a large number of design firms. Size matters-the more square-footage, the more fee and the more staff that can be spared.

Bigger is not always better, to be frank. In tough times, the things one has to do to get by can seem a bit below one's integrity. We're in no position to choose the projects we want to design, and we're ready to do anything to keep ourselves busy. Clients, feeling the financial pinch, are forced to scale back, trimming a project's original scope and thus eliminating what little architectural flourish that is left. As in any business driven by an artistic spirit, the ultimate goal is less about making more money than in building prestige. In good times, competition for big projects is not as competitive since most firms would be trying to pursue opportunities that would enhance their visibility among their peers (other designers). In bad times, competition for these lackluster, yet paying, projects is fierce but few would willingly put this work in their portfolio.

One reason there is an unsavory feeling in doing this work has to do with architects' uneasy relationship with size. Sure it pays the bills, but many designers struggle in making the proposed vastness of a project work decently with reasonable proportions. It takes a supreme amount of self-confidence to comfortably design with extreme size in mind, which probably explains why certain 'starchitects' and heroic visionary architects (eg. Le Corbusier) were able to embrace projects of significant scope (often with disappointing results). From most architects' perspective, the greatest buildings are rarely huge or well-known, with many of the profession's most beloved gems remaining unnoticed by common people. They like to assume as much control on a design, which smaller projects tend to offer, even as building is really a collaborative endeavour between many disciplines. When a project grows to a certain size and scope, many other players are brought in to complete it, which takes more from the architect to coordinate and less time and focus to solve design problems. Bigger projects have bigger budgets, with lots of room to find ways to compromise the overall integrity of the design. This is further compounded by the scale of construction, as it is more difficult to closely oversee the quality of what is being erected.

Still, much of the architectural profession as we know it today would be nothing without big commissions. In more market-driven economies (eg. US, UK, Australia, Canada), there has been an inexorable rise in the number of large firms (over 50 people) in response to executing large projects more effectively while managing a steady volume of work. In countries where the government is the major patron, an architecture firm is run less as businesses than as an informal collaborative studio of unpaid designers, unless they are able to win a steady stream of sizeable public projects. There is simply too little private work available to cultivate more than a dozen staff. While growth is generally a good thing, there lurks the perception that as a firm grows in size, its identity and reputation becomes homogenized. What begins as the reflection of a talented individual becomes over time a faceless brand. For example Norman Foster, who conceived of influential high-tech works earlier in his career, is now Foster + Partners, generator of high-quality but relatively conservative work that is less a refection of him than the manifestation of 200+ designers guided by a homogeous melding of slick engineering welded to an ethos of sustainability.

Outside looking in, the general public naturally perceives architects as almost exclusively concerned with big projects. Firms that specialize in smaller projects, such as low- to mid-rise apartment blocks, office complexes, municipal buildings and schools, though profitable and even respected by other architects, seem completely invisible to the public. In news stories about a construction project underway, the architect is often never mentioned, unless when the project's significance partly depends on who was chosen to design it. Big buildings are a major investment in the community, and therefore the selection of the architect becomes worthy of import to the community as well. This leads to a common problem that communities face when planning their built environment: the public's myopic view of what architects are supposed to do (that is, design big, important buildings) tends to neglect the smaller but often more critical pieces that improve one's experience of a neighborhood or city district. These are the urban blocks in between the iconic and monumental buildings, and which contain mundane but necessary functions such as residences, offices, convenience retail, restaurants, cafes and bars and adquate park life. Many of these pieces are relatively modest, being neither tall, nor architecturally distinct. Cities cited for their pedestrian-friendly planning and "liveability" such as Portland and Austin have solidly supported the development of these modest urban infill projects, or what I call architecture with a lower-case "a". All building is architecture to a degree, but there is undoubtedly a hierarchy as to what constitutes important work over everyday and unremarkable structures.

Architecture with an upper-case "A" thus refers to projects of relatively large size or monumental importance. Those include landmark-worthy high-rises, halls of government, cultural palaces and major sacred places. Architecture with an upper case "A" has a potentially high symbolic value, which makes them vehicles for political opportunism, public relations, and civic pride. Successful excecution and completion of such projects bring instant rewards to those who stake their reputations on them, but their impact on the surrounding urban environs can be damaging or negligible at best. Cities that crave instant visibility from outside its limits tend to devote lots of energy in building one significant piece of architecture after another. My hometown of Dallas is especially beholden to this idea, its civic leaders proudly boasting about every new museum, performance hall, stadium and all the Pritzker-winning architects it has recruited to design them. Underneath this parading naturally lies an a feeling of insecurity about whether the city "measures up" to its peers - namely, the world's "greatest" cities. With every new building that goes up, the chatter seems to address the question of whether our city can compare to New York or London. Rather than seeking comfort in establishing a unique and genuine urban identity, we pin our hopes on becoming some sort of "great" city.

Conversely there are a number of cities that are quite comfortable in their own skin, who are quick to highlight their residents' happiness in living there. A "high quality (as opposed to quantity) of life" is what these cities are after, where work, education and leisure are conveniently nearby, and the typical negative externalities of city life such as traffic, pollution crime and innadequate services are avoided. They are often depicted in the media as "charming", "smart" and of course, "sustainable". What goes often missing in such accounts though is any mention of significant pieces of architecture. Portland's skyline is unexceptional and unrecognizable. Austin's skyline has been marred by speculative and dull high-rise condos, and proportionally fussy office towers and hotels. Denver's downtown commercial high-rises are unmemorable, its sky-line completely lacking some sort visual coherence were it not for its elegant state capitol (the same can be said for Austin). Even less impressive is these likeable cities' indifference to the architectural quality of their cultural institutions. Portland unfortunately bought into the iconoclastic strain of Postmodernism of Michael Graves and Seattle succumbed to the irreverant musings of Robert Venturi. Graves can be prominently found in Denver as well, whose library sits adjacent to a strange and dated art museum building by Gio Ponti. The Mile-High city's performance venues are lackluster as well, its opera and symphony hall lacking a decent prefunction space (and its auditorium interior replete with tastless 70's decor).

And not surprisingly in a city that revels in its role as a champion of casual culture, what with its reputation as the "live music capital of the world", Austin doesn't have a real fine art museum at all. It faltered in its effort to build a world-class perfrormance venue, when the budget of Long Center for the Performing Arts was stripped to such a degree that the pre-function space was relegated to the outdoors. Austinites who love the fine arts turn to the University of Texas, and even there, with all its rich endowment, has failed to take advantage of the opportunities. One example in particular involves the tragic mistreatment of Herzog & Demeuron in the design of a museum for the university's extensive Renaissance art collection. After enduring one humiliation after another, the Swiss masters abandoned the commission to go on to better things and earning the Pritzker Prize the following year. What now sits in its place are two neo-traditional Spanish Renaissance buildings that no one cares to visit since no one seems to notice them from the rest of the matching campus architecture.

It's easy to argue that such criticism is too elite in nature and that what matters are the opinions of the people that live in these places. There are plenty of people who proudly eschew grand monuments to big egos that convey a shallow desperation to show off. But to fastidiously impose this thinking at every opportunity to build big and boldly prevents a city to claim the mantel of greatness. This is an understandably loaded term, but it should remind us of a certain kind of significance that cities (and the many individuals that have shaped them) throughout human history have constantly pursued. There is tremendous risk in building big and boldly because there are tremendous urban and cultural ramifications in doing so. What is the reward? Is it a permanent source of inspiration, or an awe at the vision and intensity of the human spirit when it builds and creates? These are part of what makes cities the most uniquely human of all our creations: they act as a cauldron to our imaginations, a stage on which our social and collaborative natures bring about the construction of a scale that surpasses many times over our own physical size and strength.

By contrast, the countryside is where you will find people at their most natural state, or in a sense, at their least human. Here, engaging with nature takes precedence over socializing with others. Solutions that help solve the fundamental problem of how humans coexist with nature are designed primarily to be functional and modest in scale so as to rely only on one or a few to manage. The world's pastoral landscapes show the beauty and richness in the variety of ingenious solutions that man has a come up with in responding to the land and unforgiving natural forces. In the country, we are humbled by nature, which probably explains why we refer to going to the countryside as a seach for the 'simpler things'. The city does the opposite: it emboldens us. It affirms our innermost yearning to express ourselves and transcend our physical limits. Function has a role as well, but it must compete with a need to make a statement about who we are.

By the urban planning community's own measures, certain cities like Portland and Austin are highly regarded because they function well. They provide high-quality housing, green belts, bike-paths and and multiple options for transit. But from my own judgement, they make few grand and memorable gestures, symbols of a larger economic and cultural dynamism at work. Likewise, some cities like Dubai are all about grand gestures and nothing else. The quality of the urbanism is pretty awful, what with their bad car traffic, unwalkable blocks and segregated population. But for the last decade before the recent real-estate crash, Dubai inspired the imagination of outside observers like nothing else in daring to build structures once considered unbuildable not too long ago. The city served as a mirror of contemporary globalism, mixed with a heaping of superficial postmodernism and a dash of status-seeking. It might not result in happy citizens, but everyone knows that their built legacy will survive. The Chinese know this as well, if last year's Olympics were any indication. The results of this thinking might be awful, such as Ceausescu's palace in Bucharest (the second largest building in the world), but the city would be worse off were it to flatten the one thing that makes it unique to all other places in the world.

It is commendable for architects to understand function, budgets and aesthetics. It is a privilege yet a big responsibility to express the community's hopes and give it a building that serves as an image of that community. Architects should always educate the client and the public about the importance of all pieces of the city both large small. But they should not be afraid acknowledge that size matters, even if they'd rather that it doesn't.


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