Architecture of Responsibility

Wasteful Architecture: A Clarification

Wasteful Architecture received quite a large amount of critical response - much of which mirrored the basic questions being asked in that specific piece.  Just a few of those:

  • Wastefulness of aesthetic or wastefulness in general?
  • Architectural efficiency of materials or sustainable efficiency?
  • Structural rationalism or minimalism?

Applauding the thoughtful repertoire of the general audience, there seemed to be a general consensus regarding the entire argument of the negativity of waste that architecture produces, but at the end of the day it kept coming back to two simple questions.  What is wastefulness in architecture?  How can it be solved?  Specific to Wasteful Architecture, wastefulness was defined as excessive celebration of style or brand for the sake of self promotion and hollow expressionism.  Zaha and Gehry were mentioned at length - a duo to be expected when speaking of architectural expression and iconic styles. The last piece even went as far as pointing the finger at both architects to a response that should be expected by an enamored architectural community.  To digress, this blame for the issue of wasteful architecture should not be placed on the shoulders of two artists who have discovered profound success in a world muddled with codes and laws. The issue that exists here is much larger and deeper than two vanguards who have pushed progression in architecture beyond plausibility.  Rather, wasteful and irrational design as a trend can only be placed on the architecture community as a whole.  

Wasteful Architecture morphed itself into an essay regarding the responsibility and ethical approach architects have when it comes to waste (as defined above).  While the idea was only subconscious at the time of writing, it has become clear through numerous remarks and conversations - there are going to be architects who take responsibility for the environment, society and practice, and there will be others who emphasize only themselves.  Is it okay to be selfish and design to a specific stylistic approach?  Once again, how can architecture be both expressionistic while being responsible?  The real question that was raised and under the surface of the last post was really one of liability of design.  There is a thin line that defines responsible practice and aberrant implementation of self-imposed designs.  This debate has shifted to how to effectively juggle progressive ideals that may consume many resources versus conservative responses that boast sustainability. What is an architect's true duty to the world?

Nature

Sustainability has come to the forefront of importance, largely at first in the architecture industry but recently growing ever more important in society.  Wasteful Architecture sought to identify a more efficient architecture that utilized less materials and strove to be more honest with its expressions (inherently).  While it may seem that all buildings would adopt a married stylistic approach of Modernistic Sustainability (21st century's attempt), this more stringent way of building would reduce the consumption of materials and fabricate structures from only what is needed.  It is left up to the designer to work with a kit of parts and make them unique; note this kit would contain millions of different pieces.  Zaha and Gehry may be guilty of over-zealously utilizing materials in (possibly) inefficient manners but to their advantage, steel falls between 25-90% recycled material. Does that mean it is open to be overused at the designer's discretion?  Not necessarily, but as many peers pointed out, there is much worse happening in the world right now.  

An example of this at a much larger scale than the Disney Concert Hall are the Olympic games which come and go every two years. Both the Summer and Winter games have grown to epic proportions which requires epicly proportioned stadiums, facilities and even entirely new cities.  New cities are being constructed for a series of games that last a little over a month! Not only is land disrupted for the purpose of constructing new developments but raw materials must be tapped for the billions of tons of materials going into these buildings.  At the end of the day, many of these Olympic villages have been found to be abandoned and unused after their lifetime is complete, thus the materials and efforts put into them have gone to complete waste.  Atop this, developments such as the UAE's project Dubai have become an architectural playground boasting overly poignant buildings while trying to condition the spaces behind thousands of feet of glass in the middle of the desert.  When will the grotesque facts of global warming sway developers and architects alike to invigorate their designs to incorporate systems that make sense and materials that add up to net zero?  Our responsibilities go well past avoiding development on greenfields, we should be concerned about the materials (what are they, how were they extracted or obtained, and why do they make sense), siting (why site a building a certain way and in a certain location, how can it take maximum advantage of its natural context), and operability (what are the systems, why do they make sense, how will the be the most efficient use of energy) of the buildings we construct. Building's account for 40% of energy  consumption and a large portion of materials extracted from the earth - what can be done to cut back and improve performance besides tacking on a bike rack for a few extra LEED points?             

Society

Without a doubt, our biggest clients are not our clients at all.  The permanent scars we impose affect a large amount of people - whether it's a positive or negative experience lies in the hands of the collective decisions made by first the architect and then the owner.  Skipping the obvious responsibilities that belie architects to society such as health, safety and well-being - the experiential elements of each project we construct have impacts that go well beyond the surface of human interaction.  

Contextual interaction with both other structures and those humans using the building have impacts that can be profound yet daunting.  Since Zaha has been on the forefront of the discussion thus far, let's bring her proposed design for the Tokyo Olympic Stadium into the conversation.  Slammed by many and loved by her infatuated followers, the stadium will overtake a community and massively outweigh itself against its context.  While part of this blame is to fall on the planning committee for siting the stadium in a contrasting area of the city, the architect's job as a designer and problem solver is to figure out how to make everything work in harmony, even when everything seems weighed against their future project.  Stadiums are very large, but is there a way it can be more efficient?  Not only structurally, but perhaps in how it presents itself to its surroundings, here there is a blatant disregard for that immediate community for the enjoyment of "society" for a few short weeks.  Disregarding her overuse of materials for her own branding and style, Zaha has failed to provide to perform all of her duties as an architect for society.  

Hadid's design for the Tokyo Olympic Stadium 'plopped' in the middle of everything

This is perhaps where the line becomes the thinnest.  As many readers have mentioned, cultural and landmark buildings/objects are usually some of the most expressionistic pieces. These objects are said to represent a certain portion of a given society, but how well are they doing if those directly in contact with it on a daily basis despise its existence?  At the same time, buildings such as the Sydney Opera House have become iconic expressionistic (decorative) pieces of architecture that cities have come to identify with.  Massive public input is an absolute necessity that is born when a proposal is initiated for anything that is for the public.  An architect's responsibilities for society stretch far beyond those the AIA preaches - they lie in the regard of how the objects we materialize affect even the smallest activities on a daily basis.

Practice

An architect's responsibilities to professional practice are far too many to recount in a short essay.  Rather, let's focus on a couple of the most important obligations that befall an architect today.  

Progressive ideals and virtuous work ethic.

There are several other things that fall beneath an architect's wings when it comes to the profession, but two of the most intrinsic duties are to be progressive and to be virtuous (to everything).  A progressive mind in a field that often defines trends and movements is a valuable thing.  As many architects can see the profession becomes stagnant after lulls in the economy or lack of new projects due to over-concentration, but what's most important in these times is to redefine the wheel.  Our jobs as problem solvers, creative thinkers and trendsetters is to find new things that inspire those around us.  Inspiration directly leads to new opportunities to employ our minds - something that is always welcome in any studio around the world.  Taking this progressive mindset and being virtuous in all aspects of its creation and implementation is what sets an architect aside from many other designers.  The two other responsibilities listed above (nature and society) don't always broadly apply to industrial designers or graphic designers such as they do to architects.  We have a standard to uphold and maintain, the ideas can continuously flow out of our minds like a Hadid building flows from the ground, but we must know how to properly plan, design and build these ideas else we've not completed our equation.  An incomplete equation represents a lackluster and mistrusted practice with little external value.  

At the end of the day, it really wasn't about wastefulness to begin with.  It was about the obligations architects have.  As a practicing member of one of the most esteemed professional communities in the world, an architect should find no issues falling into each category above.  This argument was never quite about how steel can be misused to make 'set-design architecture', rather the impacts those decisions can have on the profession and society and nature as a whole.  Architecture is the most impactful art form, it can not be allowed to escape the grasp of the responsible architect for it can wreak havoc on an already faltering social, economic and natural ecosystem.  How can you be wasteless?  How can you ensure all that you (help) create is what it must be, nothing more and nothing less?