Mickey Mao’s Playhouse (or why weird architecture isn’t that new, and why we need this weird crap)


Can weird architecture contribute to society? It depends on your definition of weird, and if that definition of weird includes any reference to starships, phallic symbols, and teapots.

I came across this article (http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/20/travel/gallery/china-weird-buildings-2015/index.html) regarding some recent unique architecture being built in China. Is it weird? Yeah, you could say that. Is that bad? Kinda, kinda not.

“Weird” architecture has always been around. The first time a nomadic civilization came across a permanent settlement one of those nomads declared, “Holy crap that’s weird.” (Imagine a Sumerian accent.) And when people first saw the completion of the Pyramids of Giza and The Sphinx someone uttered, “Holy crap that’s weird.” (Let’s go with a Hittite accent.) And when the Europeans in the Middle Ages were constructing buildings within the ruins of ancient Roman stadiums you know someone thought, “These ancient structures provideth us with stable and firm foundations to buildeth our homes.” (Okay, maybe not the best example of my point, but only because saying “Holy crap that’s weird” in Europe during the Middle Ages usually meant being excommunicated by The Church.)

So where was I… yes, there has always been weird architecture. More recent historical weirdness includes Antoni Gaudi, Buckminster Fuller, and Robert Venturi. And maybe their weirdness came across as kitsch or gimcrack (my word of the day), but within the DNA of this weirdness came a new perspective in design, architecture, structure, and perception. Yes, Gaudi is weird, but it gave us Santiago Calatrava. Bucky was way the hell out there, but it gave us Renzo Piano. And Bob, yeah, he had these weird ideas of ducks and decorated sheds, which basically has led to all of the images in the above link to Chinese architecture.

Weird architecture is not only good, it’s necessary. It’s the architectural proving ground to all future ideologies that will define how we live, how we worship, how we do business, and how we ultimately shape who we are now and in the future.

Live long and prosper.

The built environment and its occupants (or why Gymkata is the greatest gymnast-themed movie dealing with the American ‘Star Wars’ program)

I’m a guy, so I like stupid stuff. A 1989 Ford Escort painted neon green with a five foot tall spoiler and an exhaust system louder than most NASA rockets at takeoff? Like it. A video of an elderly man nearly snapping his spinal cord after falling off an obstacle during his run at American Ninja Warrior? Definitely smitten. An American gymnast being chased by cannibalistic villagers in the fictional country of Parmistan and confronting these “foodies” in Pommel Horse Square? You had me at cannibalistic.

I could write about how architecture is shaped by its occupants, and how this relationship ultimately shapes societies, but that would take time away from you watching the above video and I know you only had a few minutes before you needed to walk away from the computer to 1) go to bed, 2) get back to work, or 3) head off to gymnastic practice.

Seriously though, what are the odds that Johnathan Cabot, the champion gymnast working for the United States government, would face his pursuers here? How many villages in the world have a pommel horse in the middle of a square, and under what search term on Kayak.com can I find them?

Again, you had me at cannibalistic.

Architecture shaped by none other than that person in the mirror

Yes, I did find my WordPress log-in and password information. Thank you for asking.

Above is a video about architecture being shaped by you, the person, the individual that eats your food and spends your paycheck. Do yourself and everyone else on this planet a favor and shape everything around you, especially the architecture, before the apes take over. The last thing we all need is architecture shaped by simians that fling their feces around (no offense Mr. Libeskind).

When fenestration was a fad


Architecture, like fashion and music, is driven by fads. I don’t think architects intend to follow another architect’s lead, but it’s very easy to see something you like and try to emulate it. Sometimes these fads promote revolutions that redefine how we design and construct buildings, and ultimately how we live our lives. Other times these fads make us vomit in our mouths.

I live close to a middle school that is in the process of being demolished. I’ve been trying to think of an eloquent segue into why it’s being demolished, but it really comes down to the fact that the damn thing was built without windows and doors.

When this building was being designed, someone (which it’s safe to say the architect whose stamp is on the drawings and the client who paid for its construction) thought that windows and interior doors leading into the classrooms were a bad idea.

I can begin to somewhat understand that maybe this school was an experiment in teaching methodologies, and they (whoever they are) wanted to observe if windows were a distraction to learning, and if doors leading into the classroom were a distraction to learning. There’s a part of me that can see the logic of this thinking, just like how I can see the logic for a drunk person to run head-first into traffic.

I actually know a few people who attended this middle school, and they each said the same thing–the school sucked. There were no windows. The classes were basically in a large open space separated only by thin partitions and no doors, so half the class could hear their teacher while the other half heard the teacher in the adjacent space.

The new school building that replaced the school-of-no-windows is a huge improvement (here are some images of the new school). Of course this new school follows its own fads (mix of mass and space, technology integration, and apparently desks that promote collaboration and cheating).

Fads come and go, and sometimes they come back. But living without fenestration is a fad that apparently ended with a wrecking ball.

Proposed Raised House in New Orleans

I just added a new design under Past Projects–something that was inspired by the homes I saw built for the Make It Right organization in New Orleans.

I think Make It Right is an incredibly noble cause, and Brad Pitt and everyone else associated with it should be commended.

I also think some of the houses can be designed better.

What to ask when designing

I’ve written numerous posts about design and how it’s defined, but I wanted to share the two questions I ask myself (as well as my students) when starting a design:

1) What problem does it solve?

If the design doesn’t solve a problem, then it’s art. (Art does have a purpose, but solving problems isn’t one of them.) If it doesn’t solve a problem, then why would anyone want to buy your design?

2) How is it better than anything else out there?

Design shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. If you spend time coming up with a design and someone has already done it better than you, then why would anyone want to buy your design?

People buy problem solvers, whether it’s an energy-efficient home, or a music player that fits in your pocket, or a car that efficiently makes doughnuts in the Dairy Queen parking lot. Making money isn’t necessarily a measuring stick for the success of a design, but a great design is something that people should be buying.

Answer those two questions, and then the only thing you need to worry about is your marketing.

Why the American dream is a tribute band

“Helloooooooo, Suburbia! (The audience goes wild.)

“When the tour bus got into town this morning we drove by some Santa Barbara-styled homes (loud roar from the audience) on our way to lunch at a post-modern strip mall (another loud roar).

“Now who’s ready to rock? (Yet another loud roar.) And who’s ready to rock AND roll? (Loud roar, with a hint of bewilderment.) Let’s get this party started with some Rick Springfield! (Guitar riff; thunderous roar; mosh pit ensues; tear gas fills the air.)

This is what entered my head as I looked upon the “Foreclosed” article and slide show at Architectural Record.

Suburbia needs help. It was designed with the mindset that energy and resources will always be inexpensive and abundant. The amount of energy and resources used per capita is proving to be unsustainable. So what do we do?

We can’t continue to build suburbia the way we’ve been building it. But we can’t build it in a manner that won’t be accepted by contemporary society. Our culture moves forward by being nudged, not by being thrown over a cliff. The short-term goal of redesigning suburbia should involve a nudge, and the long-term goal should involve a series of nudges.

In regards to city planning, one could argue that we’ve seen it all. These nudges are going to push the designs of our cities towards something we’ve seen in the past, but should it resemble something that’s worked before (i.e. a city plan that’s been inhabited for hundreds of years) or something that’s been proposed (i.e. a city plan that’s been drawn and not built, or that’s been built and rejected by its inhabitants).

Does this design by Studio Gang Architects really differ from this by Archigram? Is the Simultaneous City really that much different from Pruitt Igoe? Is this neighborhood really just this neighborhood plus Frank Gehry?

We’re stuck with suburbia (think of the environmental impact if we wiped the slate clean), but there’s no reason why it has to be a bad place. (Bad is highly subjective, although my use of bad involves its complete dependency on inexpensive energy and resources.)

Suburbia will become better by taking advantage of what’s already there with more density (not high-rises–remember, just a nudge), making purposeful use of the spaces between circulation and destinations (just a fancy way of saying design and make use of the wide open spaces throughout suburbia that currently are a waste of unoccupied lawns and parking lots), and subdue the car-centric attitude of design and focus on alternate means for people to get around if they want to walk (and accomplish something by walking other than burning some calories).

We have seen it all. Suburbia will always be a tribute band and, if successful, will probably look like something from the 80s–the 1780s.

“Rock me Amadeus!”