Wasteful Architecture

Expression and architecture go hand-in-hand.  Being one of the most powerful and experiential art forms, architecture inherently has a sense to impose its (dis)positions upon society even if they are unwarranted.  As technological advances continue to push the envelope to new extremes, formal expression has found its way back into prominence among the brightest of architecture's stars.  Within itself, expressionistic structure is not a bad thing, especially when it progresses society's abilities, views and beliefs.  What has become evident of these new advances in building technologies is the massive amount of waste that is generated from creating such luxurious forms and geometries. In an era where sustainability is jammed down the intellectual throat of any designer maneuvering through universities everywhere, it seems counter-intuitive to encourage wasteful contortions that ultimately do no more than create VE'd monstrosities. While the smell of fresh sustainability is in the air, the discernible deceit of progression threatens to berate any 'green' progress we have made as a profession.  How can architecture be both expressive and sustainable?


Materiality when constructing anything is imperative.  It is what informs the designer how things can be joined together, how something can look and especially how it can perform. Materials are the simplest building blocks that are assembled feverishly while concurrently thinking about multiple aspects.  In architecture, materiality plays a huge role in appearance to the layperson and in performance to those involved in the AEC industries.  Materials express their inherent functions through implementation in an assembly.  Yet today, a metal-clad facade does little more than cover up the inefficiencies architects knowingly designed to preserve the bottom line.  

In a time where natural and raw resources are growing scarce by the second, our broad intention should be to conserve and increase efficiency.  These efficiencies  shouldn't come only from the ASHRAE 90.1, rather through a holistic approach to designing. Materials, performance and aesthetics can all jive together if carefully coordinated and understood.  Instead of decorating the buildings that are growing taller by the day, architects and designers should seek to find solutions that reserve as many resources in favor of a simpler assembly.  This simplicity of making doesn't need to become a bland and detached manifestation either - optimizing materials for their best performances and using the correct ones in the correct scenarios benefits the design, bottom line and most importantly the environment.

Some of the biggest names in architecture today are heavily experimenting with new forms, new materials and new ways of assembling structures.  This beautiful and profound series of experiments lends itself to buildings never thought possible or a cantilever that was once never fathomed by even the most crazed engineer.  But at what cost?  Bjarke Ingels' West 57th Street project just topped off in New York City but its built presence (in its current state) leaves much to be desired and a lot to be - hidden?          

Front view of BIG's new W57 Project

W57 is essentially - like many other buildings - a series of 'pancakes' that seek to maximize floor area and rentable space.  Ingels' expression comes in the way of the contortion-like movement the plates make as they formulate a central courtyard in the middle of New York City.  What really has created the main aesthetic draw are the panels that will clad this building at an angle.  The massive amount of steel that is needed to simply support the envelope is far from efficient - it's a decorative element that hides the most fascinating part of the building.  

BIG's project is a far cry from the wastefulness that architecture is capable of.  As a matter of fact, his approach to sustainable architecture is growing closer to his theories as his buildings grow farther away from his expressionistic style (aesthetic) that has made him world renowned.   Two of the biggest offenders of wasteful architecture are no strangers to criticisms for harsh and overbearing structures - Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid.    

The Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center's exterior space frame is completely separate from the rest of the building.  It's inefficiencies lie in its lack of integration with the rest of the building becoming little more than an expensive 'dress' for the building.

The Guangzhu Opera House isn't Hadid's biggest offender since the structural shell is nearing integration with the rest of the building.  However the pieces that all must come together to form this building are a far cry from sustainable.

Perhaps one of the more warranted uses of excessive material is the London Aquatics Center.  Although the nest of steel was eventually covered, sporting venues are notorious for their overuse of natural materials by their inherent nature.

Hadid's works are magnificent sculptural dichotomies that have grown more daring as technology has progressed.  While these expressions are beautifully-manipulated structural masterpieces, the efficiency of realizing many of her ideas come at the cost of extreme amounts of steel, concrete and glass.  At times, her structures' use of material could easily forge two or three other buildings in its place.  Has this become the ill-begotten reality of the profession?  Does progressive design burn through materials and resources more quickly than conventional building?  Not necessarily.  Innovative uses of the proper structural systems that can efficiently enclose or facilitate the enclosure of a building could easily decrease material use.  An interesting way of combating this would be to physically alter the formulation of materials to work the way the design team intends - a true interdisciplinary experience.  While this may be at a higher cost and longer lead time, it can actually completely alter the way things are constructed while increasing performative efficiency.  Most of the formal expressions that are relevant or popular today are nothing more than a jungle of conventional 'bones' assembled by an algorithm and dressed in the prettiest of robes - a self indulgent architecture created by the self interested architect.       

Frank Gehry outdoes Zaha for wastefulness in many buildings, but especially for the Disney Concert Hall where this steel will never be seen.

Gehry's Disney Music Hall is synonymous with his style.  A series of planar shells seem to effortlessly create a space beyond - there's just a lot more to this building than a pretty face. What's directly behind the facade is a mess of steel as seen above.  There is nothing quite innovative about it besides perhaps the brilliance of the structural engineer's that didn't strangle Frank in his own offices.  It's a beautiful building at it's skin (interior and exterior) but that beauty isn't much farther than skin deep.  This problem could easily fall into the laps of the engineering team working with Gehry, but his lack of attempt to find a more efficient structural system says much more than a engineer's faltered attempts. 

Is architecture today returning to an applique of decorum simply to express emotion?  Is the Disney Concert Hall a reincarnation of the Baroque churches that still stand today adorned in architectural jewelry?  It would seem that many of these architects - Zaha, Gehry, Libeskind -  present a certain dishonesty with their work, almost as if they're forcing a building to be something it simply does not want to be.  By basic nature, materials and their properties should be well-represented and truthfully displayed.  Why do Gehry's buildings have a beautiful maze of steel that is only hidden by simplistic metal panels?  What if those mazes were to be exposed - too much going on?  But it's okay to cover this mess with panels, sweeping it under the metaphoric architectural rug in favor of grand gestures?  The trend-setting architects of today must think of the word integration as they push their structures to new forefronts - a way to preserve what we already have so little of; raw materials. Architecture is about performance as much as an automobile and at this rate, Gehry is building 1989 Impalas while Hadid vengefully attempts to bulk up the early VW Beetles.  They may be attractive on the outside but their performances sing a different tune.  The bottom line is these expressions are lying to us.  They are beautiful and inspiring the same way reality television stars are - nothing more exists beyond the pretty garb.  Ethical stewards should be alarmed at the amount of waste that is permitted to be expelled in favor of creating something that looks cool.   The time has come to stop hiding everything and being more honest with ourselves and the rest of the world - why can't a structural material be the finish material as well?

This may seem familiar to anybody who remembers architectural movements over the course of history.  Ringing along the lines of Modernism, this isn't a call for the lack of expression or an architect's innate dissing of decorum.  Rather, this is a call to restore sustainable and efficient practices in architecture both through performance and fabrication.  Excessive use of any element in architecture turns to gluttony and begs designers to closely examine their hypocritical views on the world.  It's really hard not to gawk at these awe-inspiring structures the role models of architecture have made for us.  There is no doubt that their abilities have influenced generations to break the rules and push society a bit further each time, the only downfall is many of these built environments are wasteful and unnecessary.  What it essentially comes down to is the flaunting of the designer's beliefs at the expense of the planet.  So while there absolutely should be precedent-setting, expressive and daring work going on, it shouldn't stop half way through the process.  Expressive forms are only one part of a complex equation that seeks to use the most efficient methods and means; the examples above stopped short.  So can architecture be both expressive and sustainable?  Yes, but today's client's may not be willing to invest extra capital in the same progression we avidly aspire to achieve day in and day out.   

"Be truthful, nature only sides with truth" - Adolf Loos

VIA | FastCo Design



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