Tag Archives: built environment

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.

Highways connect as well as disconnect

When the Interstate Highway System was first constructed in this country, it was envisioned that limited-access divided highways would provide faster, and thus more direct, connections between cities. These highways would promote free trade (quicker delivery times between farming communities and the major metropolitan areas) and provide a means for deploying defensive forces in case of a nuclear attack. (Notice how the loop highways around major cities are beyond the blast zone of an atomic/nuclear explosion when detonated downtown.)

The interstate highways have also provided connections between business districts (within a city as well as suburban areas) and residential zones. Despite these meaningful connections the highways have provided a permanent disconnect between adjacent areas. Interstate highways have typically reduced the vehicular and pedestrian connections between each side of the highways (overpasses and underpasses cost money).

One great example of this disconnect is in downtown St. Louis. The postcard image of downtown St. Louis always shows the Jefferson Expansion Memorial (known as “The Arch” to all of its friends) standing tall along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, with the modest skyline residing behind. What the postcard doesn’t illustrate is the chasm separating the Arch grounds from downtown – Interstate 70. Highways are wide vehicular friendly areas that for some reason dissuade people from crossing. (Maybe it’s something in our DNA that goes back tens of thousands of years ago when we weren’t at the top of the food chain, and any time we walked across an expansive open plain we would typically be eaten by something higher up on the food chain.)

There is an architectural competition hoping to solve the interstate chasm between downtown St. Louis and The Arch. Of course this issue isn’t just in St. Louis, but also in most major cities with an interstate highway dissecting one vital neighborhood from another (which includes all major cities).

The solution needs to solve two issues – provide a connection between one end of the highway and the opposite end, and provide a connection between one side of the highway and the opposite side. The solution goes away from the either/or attitude that was predominant for designing our built environment after World War II (a circulation path is for either cars or pedestrians) and begins to embrace the pre-World War II attitude of both/and (a circulation path is for both cars and pedestrians).

One more hint that the City of Tomorrow will look like the City of Yesteryear.

The words of an architect: Daniel Libeskind

Everyone knows a picture is worth a thousand words, yet architects typically like to add onto that number. Architects can not stand next to every building they’ve ever designed and tell passersby what was the driving concept for the building’s mass and how the location of the plumbing fixtures promote a positive feng shui throughout the restroom. So instead we give talks to anyone willing to listen to us.

I posted this talk to give people an idea of what one of the most popular architects (starachitects) sounds like. Now “most popular” does not necessarily mean “best” or even “above competent.” Libeskind does provide an opportunity to compare what he says with what he has designed.

In fact one of the best pieces of advice I can give someone relating to understanding architecture is something I heard Scott Bayless on ESPN ask – “what are your eyes telling you?” A lot of people by default will merely nod in agreement to an explanation they feel is above their heads, but architecture allows people to judge buildings with what they see as well.

Libeskind’s talk alludes to the function versus form argument where a purely functional architecture is a strip mall (you can park your car and shop, but is devoid of most emotional and spiritual [i.e. human] characteristics) and the purely formal architecture is something close to the designs of Libeskind (abstract of most historical context but lacks the integration and progression of the building’s function and inhabitants, and apparently the wherewithal for keeping the natural elements out).

Architecture should not be conveyed (especially not by architects) as a mystical art only understood by a black turtleneck wearing subculture. If you’ve ever lived inside of a building or have ever seen a building, then you have the foundation for understanding and appreciating architecture. Libeskind actually speaks in a more layman tone than most “starchitects”, but there still exists a level of contradiction and ambiguity in his talk.

So, what are your eyes telling you about Libeskind? Does he create an architecture that responds directly with the history of the construction site and the culture of the area’s inhabitants, or is his architecture a post-rationalization of a singular formal expression where every one of his buildings looks like one of his previous designs?

The video can be seen at TED’s website – www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/daniel_libeskind_s_17_words_of_architectural_inspiration.html