Monday, March 1, 2010

Everything is envelope

Alejandro Zaera-Polo gave a lecture titled "Cheapness" at the Cooper Union last Friday. The narrative went like this:

Somebody said I didn't have much political sense, so I made the following observation: political movements in the last century were primarily about equality - social, geopolitical, class, race, gender, etc... Then a bunch of businessmen operated within the capitalist system and actually achieved equality through cheapness. Cheap food, cheap clothes, cheap furniture, cheap flights... I think instead of asking for more and more luxury, architects should think about cheapness too... There is a shift from plan and section as organizational devices to the envelope, which is the assemblage of massing and the construction of it... Now I will show you some projects.

Hmm... OK. Let me try to make sense of this. I think the "political statements" are valid and quite interesting. But how do they influence design decisions in projects? If "cheapness" is the conclusion, how does dressing an existing building with shiny wavy stainless steel illustrate the choice of cheapness? If the claims of intelligence are all about "I can make this sophisticated-looking pattern with only three types of tiles," or "the pattern is scaled in relation to the human head," I'll ask, do we need those patterns in the first place?

New Street Station Redevelopment, Birmingham
"The new envelope reflects different fragments of the context."

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, London
"The facade pattern consists of only three types of tiles."

John Lewis Department Store, Leicester
"The smallest circle in the pattern is the size of a head."

I saw a problematic theory/practice schism that prevails our profession now. It just sounds silly that everybody is trying to intellectualize things no matter how obvious or superficial they actually are. More disturbingly, these so-called theories are usually so stretched to include the whole world with one simple word or phrase - in AZP's case, "envelope." I couldn't keep from rolling my eyes when I heard "the city is envelope." AZP's logic is, envelope is almost the only thing architects are commissioned to do these days, so you'd better focus on it and try to get some theory out of it. A false premise can only result in unsound strategies. Architects are degraded from spatial creators to facade decorators. "What's your project about?" "Textile patterns from the John Lewis Archive!" "Nice!" "William Morris wallpaper!" "Cool!"

I also saw an effort to differentiate "envelope" from "skin," but I was not convinced. AZP kept saying that his concept of "envelope" integrates the pragmatics of construction. But the rhetorical efficiency of the three-tile inventory in Ravensbourne College is not even about the construction of the exterior walls. It could be interesting if the three shapes are building aggregates and they actually form the circular windows. But judging from the construction photos, they just form a thin layer of decorative pattern. How come this applied wallpaper dictates the shape of the windows and doors and therefore the type of wall construction behind? Oh, sorry. I forgot "ornaments have functions."

Ravensbourne College under construction

1 comment:

Ivan said...

like that critics. theorytizing of superficiality is the fake sport.