Monday, February 28, 2011

The Metamorphosis

BIG has finally made its North America debut with a 600-unit condo tower on West 57th Street at the Manhattan riverfront. The design takes a funny distorted shape. According to BIG, it's trying to merge the forms of a typical Manhattan tower-podium typology and a European-style perimeter block.

As usual, BIG tells the story through a series of diagrams, showing how the building morphs into shape. This reminds me of the recently completed 8 House project in Copenhagen, where Bjarke explains in a
video how the design becomes a figure 8 knot. If we look further back, the same approach can be seen back in the PLOT days like in the VM Houses.

The morphing of W57
The morphing of 8 House
The morphing of VM Houses

This is certainly a pretty convincing presentation technique. But the more I see it, the more I find it problematic. Let's run though the process again.

The origin
Where do butterflies come from? There are always origins. It could be the building envelope regulated by zoning, but it's not what BIG chooses to start with. Sometimes it's a platonic shape (like a cube or an extruded trapezoid) and sometimes it's a kind of architectural type (bar building or perimeter block). This suggests a bias towards simple forms. It seems in BIG's philosophy, the default solutions have no potential for good architecture. Architecture is all about strange forms.

Driving forces
As we've seen so far, BIG uses sun, privacy, view, and urban connections as parameters that drive the morphing process. It seems objective and analytical. But are these all we need to consider when we design? Clearly there are already personal decisions made here in terms of preferences and priorities. The bigger problem is, this seemingly objective process makes design always a passive act. It seems architecture can only respond to external forces. I don't think architecture should be purely subjective. But at least it should be more active. It should do more than just react to constraints.

The result
A simplified narrative of morphing omits layers of information behind usually complicated design decisions. It appears to be a linear cause-effect development, and the end result inevitably appears to be an easy one-liner. It's just a "big gesture" and it's almost purely geometric. (You see they can only name the project after its shape.) The plain straightforwardness makes the design attractive at first glance. But over time, the lack of sophistication actually makes it boring and dated pretty soon.

Conceptual clarity is important, and optimism and playfulness are good qualities for a designer. But I think it's a very fine line between that and being superficial and naive.


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