MARTHA WALKER: Hello, everyone and welcome. For those of you who do not yet know me, I'm Martha Walker, the Architectural Librarian and Coordinator of Collections at the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library. And I'm very happy to be here with you for today's "Chats in the Stacks" book talk featuring the first edition of Jonathan Ochshorn's recent publication "Building Bad, How Architecture or Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression".
As with all of our book talks this academic year, today's event is a webinar that will involve a discussion by our speaker, Professor Ochshorn, followed by questions posed by our audience. You're warmly invited to post questions to our speaker at any time during today's event using the Chat function in this webinar. My colleague Lenora Schneller will be monitoring the questions arriving in Chat, which I will then present to our speaker during the Q&A portion of today's program.
But first, I'd like to pause for a moment to acknowledge that Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the--
the Cayuga Nation. The--
are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of--
dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of--
people, past and present, to these lands and waters. And now it is my honor and pleasure to introduce today's speaker. Jonathan Ochshorn is a registered architect with an academic background in structural engineering and urban design, as well as architecture. He has been ensconced at Cornell University since 1988, and previously taught at the City College of New York while working with community groups in New York City.
In addition to "Building Bad," he is the author of three editions of the textbook, "Structural Elements for Architects and Builders," and has also written on the relationship of design theory to technical practice. Professor Ochshorn teaches required courses in construction, technology, and structures. And his elective courses have examined life safety principles, as well as the science and politics of green building. And now I'll turn the program over to Professor Ochshorn.
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: Thank you. I think I have to wait for the screen to change so I can share my own. There we go.
So thank you Martha for that introduction and all the rest of the library staff that made this webinar possible. I also want to thank all the administrators at Cornell who provided so many bad buildings for me to examine as I developed my book about building bad. So when I say bad buildings, I'm not talking about how they look or referring to the type of critique popularized by luminaries like Prince Charles or Donald Trump, where particular aesthetic systems or styles come under attack.
Clearly, we all have our own subjective appraisals that we bring to the built environment. But indulging in such subjectivity, critiquing buildings solely on the basis of one's own refined or reactionary sense of fashion and taste can never produce a useful theory of architecture. So I have tried my best to avoid subjective judgments in my book.
Instead, my intention is to outline an objective theory of architecture. When I talk about building bad, I start with utility. That is the objective functional basis for which buildings are built in the first place. And I argue that the utility of a work of architecture can be damaged not only by politics and economics, but also by the dysfunctional competition that drives fashionable expression. And yes, I recognize that fashion and expression also have a function. And therefore, a kind of utility within the built environment.
But as I'll show in some examples that follow, such arguments for the function of dysfunction are really no different from the arguments raised to justify any number of damaging practices intended to foster group identity or reinforce status hierarchies. They abstract from the competitive social conditions in which such dysfunction is deemed useful. So let's start with the politics and economics of bad building and then talk a bit about dysfunctional forms of expression, topics that correspond to the two parts of my book.
Now, I began thinking about this talk back in January right after a devastating fire in a Bronx apartment building that killed 17 residents. I'm not quite sure why the headline in The Times says 19. This particular fire started with a defective space heater, but there were other contributing factors. Certainly, the lack of maintenance that allowed self-closing fire doors to remain open so that smoke could spread the upper floors, or the lack of adequate heat that forced tenants to plug-in space heaters in the first place. Both point to the pervasive economic incentive in capitalist society to cut costs in order to maximize profit.
But there are also political decisions that permitted a dysfunctional architectural design to be built. Decisions that also contributed to this disaster in what was considered at the time a notable building that was even reviewed in The New York Times by architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who pronounced it an "example of good architecture".
Now, journalist and best-selling author Susan Orlean wrote about an earlier fire that devastated the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986, damaging or destroying more than a million books. And she quotes the LA fire chief at the time, Donald Manning, who also implies that good architecture is somehow possible in a bad building saying, "the architect of this building may have been a great architect, but he didn't know his fanny from a hot rock when it came to fire protection".
Architectural theory and criticism consistently supports this between good architecture and bad building, between poetic expression and utilitarian function, primarily valuing the former while abstracting from the latter. As if being bad in one respect has nothing to do with being good in the other. For example, I will be mentioning several buildings in this talk that had serious problems. Yet, all of them were designed by prominent architects and all of them have been understood as examples of good architecture, whether it's Frank Gehry's Stata Center at MIT, Peter Eisenman and his Wexner Center at Ohio State University, or Rem Koolhaas and OMAs Milstein Hall right here at Cornell. In all three of these cases, significant parts of the building needed to be literally removed and rebuilt in order to correct an array of deficiencies that were discovered after construction was completed.
Now, in my book, I make the case that utilitarian function is not only denigrated or ignored in conventional architectural theory, but that it suffers additionally both from the constraints imposed by politics and by the competition driving dysfunctional forms of expression. Safety measures, for example, are implemented only to the extent that they are consistent with a cost benefit mentality intended to promote economic growth even when the prevailing state of fire, science, and engineering points to safer modes of construction. So back to the Bronx fire.
A glimpse at the prevailing state of fire science when this apartment building was designed and built can be found by examining the 1969 Fire Protection Handbook, published by the National Fire Protection Association, which came out several years before the construction of the Bronx apartment building. Now, this reference book is not a building code. And therefore, it has no legal status. Rather, it is a compilation of fire safety principles based on contemporary engineering and fire science research.
So what were the fire safety principles advocated in the handbook that were excluded from the building code and that were not implemented in the building. First, as can be seen in this animation that I made based on floor plans of the Bronx apartment building published in 1973, the building had legal, dead end corridors, even though as the handbook states, "a dead end forms of pocket in which occupants may be trapped. Since there is only one access to an exit from a dead end, a fire in a dead end between an exit and an occupant prevents the occupant from reaching the exit. Ideally, dead ends should be prohibited".
Second, the building had no automatic fire sprinklers, which were not required at the time, and which most likely would have put out the fire before it became deadly. But the handbook said in 1969, "automatic sprinklers where a complete standard system is installed do have a major influence on life safety. In addition to providing an automatic alarm of fire, they quickly discharge water on the fire before smoke has spread dangerously". Now third, and perhaps most importantly, the buildings fire stairs were not designed to keep as much smoke out as possible.
All of the 17 initial deaths in the Bronx fire were due to smoke inhalation. Many occurring in the fire stairs themselves. The handbook reflecting the prevailing state of knowledge states that the safest form of stair enclosure should not be placed in the middle of the building, but rather configured as so-called "smoke proof towers," as I've drawn in this hypothetical three-dimensional extrusion of the floor plan with the two required exit stairs moved to the outside of the building. So that, as explained in the handbook, "access to the stair tower is only by balconies open to the outside air, so that smoke and fire will not readily spread into the tower even though the doors are accidentally left open".
This is just one example of many that could have been taken from the news reports. All of which have the same underlying message-- it is not a lack of knowledge, but rather the competitive drive for profitability, cutting corners to save money that leads inexorably to these disasters, whether we're talking about the Bronx fire in January 2022, the Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017, the collapse of the Champlain Towers Condo in the suburbs of Miami in 2021, or even the sinking and tilting of the upscale Millennium Tower in San Francisco beginning in 2009, and continuing into 2022, even as it is being repaired at a cost of $100 million.
Now, in Part One of my book, I look not only at the politics of fire safety and structure, but also at the politics of accessibility, security, light and air, and sustainability, with the first chapter providing an Overview of Health, Safety, and Welfare in Capitalist Society. I argue that politics and economics set upper and lower limits on architectural utility wherever health, safety, and welfare issues are at stake. What is perhaps more interesting and less self-evident is that the utility or functionality of buildings is also damaged by contemporary forms of architectural expression. I examine this phenomenon in Part Two of the book.
So perhaps the easiest way to frame my argument is by first presenting some examples outside of architecture, where forms of expression or fashion driven in part by the desire to reinforce social or class distinctions can overwhelm conditions or considerations of function. I'll read a short excerpt about birds from Chapter 15 of my book on Fashionable Building. Utility of fashion for competition has two aspects. First, architectural fashion provides visual clues that indicate one's membership within a group, class, or subculture. And second, within a particular group or class or subculture fashion acts as a means of competition. Since the first aspect is a prerequisite to the second, it is necessary to be in a group acknowledged as being in fashion before one can compete within that group. The utility of fashion for competition is absolute and unequivocal.
That the same phenomenon shows up in various nonhuman species-- for example, in the sexual ornaments and displays of certain birds-- can be taken as evidence in support of the argument, but also as evidence of its dysfunctionality. According to the evolutionary ornithologist Richard Prum, "there is no necessary evolutionary benefit in the use of fashion within avian culture, other than enabling sexual selection-- that is competition-- on the basis of arbitrary aesthetic criteria. And these criteria may well be maladaptive, he argues, resulting in a worse fit between the organism and its environment".
Now, this insight was captured by Theodor Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss, in his 1958 story about a girl bird named Gertrude McFuzz, who, competing with another female bird, decides to grow dysfunctional quantities of tail feathers that ultimately prevent her from flying. The Austrian born art historian, E.H. Gombrich, argues that such unintended and disastrous outcomes of competition characterized by a "threat summed up in the word escalation are often found in human societies".
OK, that ends the short excerpt from the book. But it might be useful to provide one more example of damage associated with fashionable expression within the human realm. Foot-binding is a practice that existed in China for thousand years. Amanda Foreman writing in Smithsonian Magazine describes the process as follows. "First, her feet were plunged into hot water. Then all the toes, except the big toes, were broken and bound flat against the sole, making a triangle shape. Next, her arch was strained as the foot was bent double. Finally, the feet were bound in place using a silk strip measuring 10 feet long and two inches wide. These wrappings were briefly removed every two days to prevent blood and pus from infecting the foot".
The architectural expression similarly may contort a building's form in ways that are damaging to utilitarian function. For example, Frank Gehry Stata Center was subject to a lawsuit by MIT that cited design and construction failures in the building, including masonry cracking and poor drainage in the amphitheater, mold growth at various locations on the brick exterior vertical elevations, persistent leaks throughout the building, and sliding ice and snow. And this bad behavior is in many ways analogous to the example of foot-binding. In both cases, it is the competition for fashionable expression that drives this kind of dysfunction, whether or not the dysfunction itself is the attraction or just an unintended predictable consequence.
Here's another short excerpt on this subject from Chapter 11 on Modernist Abstraction and Dysfunction. Architecture cannot be understood without reference to the notion of abstraction. We discuss buildings in terms of form, space, geometry, context, color, meaning, or anything else only to the extent that we abstract from the qualities that are actually present in its material. Tabulating or adding up the objective qualities of building elements does not get you any closer to an understanding of architecture. So abstraction is a fundamental necessity in both critiquing and producing architecture. Understanding architecture as having a conceptual basis is the same as understanding architecture as an abstraction.
A concept describes what the architecture is by abstracting from what it is not. As an example, if the concept of the Pantheon in Rome is of a sphere within a cube, such a description simultaneously abstracts from all that is not relevant to this concept-- the particular qualities of each brick, stone, and concrete elements from which it is constructed, the ornamentation of the exterior and interior surfaces, and so on. If a designer is unable to abstract from these useful and specific material qualities, a design concept will never emerge.
Now, that architecture has a conceptual basis. It does not mean that prosaic material properties and material relationships are not important. It only means that to the extent that architecture is understood conceptually such information is placed in a different file folder.
If it is accepted that abstraction is a requirement for the appreciation, understanding, and creation of architecture, the question remains as to how all the elements abstracted from those things placed in our metaphorical file folder become part of the building as they must. For as the philosopher Hegel wrote almost 200 years ago, "one cannot build an abstraction". Up until the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries, the type of abstraction underlying architectural design was generally built upon paradoxically an acceptance of conventional building elements, building materials, and building construction techniques.
Windows remained windows. Doors remained doors. Walls remained walls. And roofs remained roofs. In general, structural forces were resolved in conventional ways. Construction proceeded along conventional lines and environmental constraints on site planning, building orientation, and so forth were respected. The conceptual basis of such architecture neither challenged nor threatened these prosaic elements and conventions, but was rather developed with these elements in mind.
Window openings may have been elaborated or framed with ionic columns and decorated with various ornamental forms. And the geometric organization of the facade may have abstracted from the material or constructional logic of brick, stone, or plaster surfaces from which its expression emerged. But the window was still understood as a window and the wall was still understood as a wall.
That architecture took as its point of departure walls, columns, windows, and roofs was rarely questioned. Alberti and other 15th to 19th century architects and writers maintained a conventional and uncontroversial attitude towards such building elements even as they explored issues of architectural design and abstraction. The origins of a more radically abstract way of understanding architecture were already present, but were not recognized as serious alternative strategies for designing buildings.
Rather, examples of conceptually pure forms devoid of references to conventional building elements appear almost exclusively in works of monumental scale, expressing the most unfathomable and sublime concept of all-- death. The Great Pyramid of Giza completed in 2560 BCE and the Cenotaph for Newton designed but never built by Etienne-Louis Boullee in the late 18th century can be cited as precursors to the radically abstract forms characteristic of later works of architecture.
However, such precedents were not considered at the time to be legitimate role models for non-funerary building types. Architectural abstraction as a mere elaboration or ordering of conventional building elements began to be challenged in the late 19th century, and especially in the early 20th century. And while the canonical houses of 20th century modernism were hardly representative of domestic building then or now, they were extraordinarily influential in creating a kind of beachhead from which radical attitudes towards abstraction could take root and ultimately become major factors in both the pedagogy and practice of architecture.
Now, this new form of abstraction differed markedly from traditional forms of abstraction. Le Corbusier's Five Points of Architecture described the potential of new technologies. In particular, the replacement of load-bearing walls by a structural framework to overcome what were considered insufferable constraints of traditional construction. In many of his buildings, windows are abstracted as rectangular openings or voids. Other conventional building elements are defamiliarized or eliminated entirely. Stucco replaces clapboard as it portrays no material origin and can be more easily understood as abstract surface.
Roof shingles, along with sloped roofs of any sort are simply eliminated as they contain such strong references to the traditional tectonic geometry of attics and gables. Brick chimneys are replaced with painted metal cylindrical pipes. And all traditional ornamental or decorative embellishments are banished.
Now, I'm not interested in criticizing any particular aesthetic outcome or to propose a return to any particular stylistic tendency. The key change from the standpoint of building failure and building function is that for the first time, architectural abstraction was made independent of building construction and building conventions. The important point is this, in spite of an abstract conception of buildings, which eschewed conventional building elements and conventional material expression, modern buildings still needed to be actually and physically constructed. And moreover, modern architects had hardly given up or gone beyond a traditional understanding of building construction as consisting fundamentally of physical things whose value was measured as it had always been measured, by their strength, by their resistance to movement, and by their durability.
Expressing such characteristics of building materials as heroic elements that were both visible and tangible may not always have been a formal preoccupation of modern architects, but the heroic quality of constructional elements remained for modern architects and unchallenged model for putting together for building their abstract concepts. The belief that traditional or heroic materials constituted the basis of building construction, if not always the conceptual basis of the architecture, became increasingly untenable in the 20th century, because the underlying basis of architectural technology underwent a radical transformation. The reasons for and the results of this transformation can be summarized as follows.
Steel and reinforced concrete frameworks, together with newly invented elevators, made it possible to develop tall commercial and residential buildings. The obsolescence of load bearing masonry walls in this context created both the possibility and the incentive for reducing the thickness and weight of cladding systems. Air conditioning as part of mechanical ventilation systems, and therefore the ability to eliminate natural ventilation, made it possible to think of the building enclosure as skin or envelope rather than as wall and window, while the elimination of the requirement for natural ventilation also permitted deep floor plates and formal geometries that were no longer constrained by the need to create rooms with windows.
The relatively high cost of mechanical air conditioning provided an incentive to develop and deploy thermal control layers or insulation at the building perimeter. Problems with failed ceiling joints, condensation, polluted outside air, increasing energy costs and water intrusion led to the conceptualization and deployment of rigorous control layers for vapor, rainwater, and air, in addition to the thermal control layer. It is important to emphasize the fact that what had previously controlled rainwater, vapor, air, and heat loss, those thick and more or less monolithic masonry walls of traditional construction were the very same elements that largely defined the architectural expression of traditional buildings. That is architecture grew out of and supported this underlying technology just as the technology supported the architectural expression.
However, while the technology of control layers has migrated from the heroic materials of traditional architecture to the separate optimized and non-heroic membranes and insulated materials characteristic of contemporary construction, formal architectural design in the 20th and early 21st centuries remained stuck in the paradigm of traditional and heroic material expression not only ignoring this profound technological shift, but actually moving in directions that exacerbate problems of vapor, air, and rainwater intrusion, as well as energy efficiency. Now, these problems can be resolved not by relying on traditional heroic materials of construction, things like brick, stone, steel, and concrete, but by using and correctly configuring the non-heroic membranes and insulative materials that control the movement of heat, water, vapor, and air in modern construction.
In other words, architects must now design buildings on the basis of non-heroic and relatively insubstantial materials known collectively as control layers. The logic of control layer design in modern construction cannot simply be ignored. Describing the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University designed by Peter Eisenman in 1989, Robin Pogrebin wrote that "it would seem embarrassing for any architect, let alone one as prominent as Peter Eisenman. You design a museum-- your first large-scale work, a breakout project whose exterior scaffolding design, a virtual celebration of impermanence, sets the architectural world buzzing. Within just a few years, however, cracks start to show. Quite literally-- the skylight leaks. The glass curtain wall lets in too much light, threatening to damage delicate artwork. The interior temperature swings by as much as 40 degrees some days".
The problem is that in a world of architectural production driven by competition, any logical constraint on a designer's freedom of expression leads the designer perversely, but inevitably to explore precisely those forbidden places outlawed by prevailing conventions. In defying such logic, the designer seeks to defamiliarize what has become so commonplace that it is no longer capable of eliciting an aesthetic response and therefore serving as a useful mode of competition. This is the heroic conceit of the contemporary avant-garde, to confront danger in whichever of its manifestations appears as an appropriate target at any given point in time.
Joseph Campbell, the American theorist who wrote about shared world mythologies-- in particular, the journey of the archetypal hero-- abstracts from the culture of competition that motivates artists to embark on such counterproductive hero's journeys, seeing only the mythical and idealized shell of heroism in such attempts. Artists are magical helpers, he writes, "evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves that can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure. You are called to new horizons. Each time there is the same problem. Do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment, or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss".
Ironically, an inattention to building science is precisely what this version of heroism entails. Architects are not so much helping us along the heroic journey of our own lives, but rather creating out of thin air a heroic journey for themselves, leaving the world of safe, predictable constructions, proposing buildings that have both the appearance and the reality of danger. Where danger comes from challenging conventional notions of aesthetic, sometimes literal comfort, challenging class-based conventions regarding economy of means, and especially challenging forces of nature, such as gravity or rain or snow, and returning in glory after having confronted the agents of conformity, whether owners, users, public officials, and so forth. For such heroes, having proposed or built such a brave thing with all the attendant risks of failure, is a badge of honor.
I'll end by reading a final excerpt dealing with the expression of freedom. This one from Chapter 14, entitled The Communal Being and the Private Individual. Humans in developed capitalist societies, as a young Karl Marx argued in 1844, lived two lives. He wrote, "where the political state has attained its full degree of development man leads a double life, a life in heaven and a life on Earth, not only in his mind in his consciousness, but in reality. He lives in the political community, where he regards himself as a communal being, and in civil society, where he is active as a private individual, regards other men as means, degrades himself to a means and becomes a plaything of alien powers".
This split personality manifests itself in the realm of art and architecture, where one finds both types of expression, the idealism of the communal being, as well as the self-interested behavior of the private individual, but not necessarily so neatly bracketed within the two realms of man's double life. Rather than finding the expression of freedom, democracy, equality, and community exclusively in the public or communal domain, and the expression of wealth, power, and status exclusively in private or corporate architecture, all forms of expression may at times appear in all buildings. Each individual, corporate, or public entity manifests this split identity so the types of expression consistent with both sides-- that is both the private self-interested and the political communal-- may well show up in commercial buildings and private residences while public or communal architecture also exists in a competitive environment.
Cities and states engage in economic competition against other cities and states, nations engage in global competition against other nation states so that symbolic evidence of wealth and power often becomes fused with the ideals of democracy, freedom, and community in public architecture. While architecture's materials and geometries do not contain within themselves symbolic or expressive content, there is nevertheless some objective basis for identifying freedom, democracy, community wealth, and power as common expressive tropes. For example, as argued by Brian Sahotsky, when the Romans deployed massive monolithic columns not only were they a "symbol for the domination of Rome, but an equal degree of power was displayed in their transport and erection".
In other words, the necessary expertise, wealth, and power that made these structures possible was understood at the time immediately and objectively by rich and poor alike, not by decoding messages hidden in the forms or by accessing repressed or unconscious psychological motivations, but simply by observing and drawing logical conclusions from the size and weight of the stones and the effort requiring wealth and literal power necessary to quarry them, transport them, and erect them. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Epic Abstraction Pollock to Herrera show, which opened in 2018 in New York City, the following curatorial text appeared on the wall. "Abstract expressionism was promoted as exemplary of American democracy and freedom during the early years of the Cold War. And Pollock's art began exerting an international influence in this context. He reinvented the medium of painting as experiential, a kind of performance. Well over 50 years after their creation, these works retain their audacious dynamism and sense of daring".
From these three sentences may be gleaned many of the principal means and purposes relating to the expression of democracy and freedom. Most importantly, there is Pollock's audacious dynamism and sense of daring, which expresses the ideal of freedom precisely by breaking conventions. To repeat and reprise what has gone before is, of course, just as valid in exercise in freedom as to break boundaries and defy conventions. Freedom is, after all, the ability to do whatever you want to do-- albeit subject to your control over the property that you are doing something to while not transgressing the boundaries of someone else's property.
But doing nothing new or daring, while an example of freedom, is not typically a viable expression of freedom. In other words, the ideal of freedom is to break free of existing constraints and not merely to use one's property to further one's own interests against all others. It is that ideal that is expressed in paintings, such as Pollock's. According to the curatorial gloss, this expression of freedom was promoted during the early years of the Cold War. This shows that ideals of freedom can be deployed as propaganda not only to reinforce and express competitive values within the home country, but also against rival economic systems. And the use of art or architecture as propaganda has no necessary or intrinsic relationship to the actual formal characteristics of the work itself.
Deborah Howell-Ardila citing another instance of Cold War competition, argues that "built forms convey no inherent political meaning. The same modernist style of the FRGs that is West Germany's first transparent, and thus, Democratic Bundestag in Bonn, for example, had been used to fine effect by Benito Mussolini for the Fascist Party headquarters in Como, Italy". Not only that, she argued that "tow heroes of the modern movement, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, both of whom played prominent roles in shaping the new Democratic architecture of the FRG, had entered Nazi-sponsored design competitions. Thus, acknowledging the flexibility of architecture's political significance".
In abstracting from painting to architecture, there is only one minor disclaimer. Architecture, unlike painting, is not only a means of expression, but is also a vehicle to support various utilitarian activities. And this by its very nature constrains the unfettered expression of freedom. But also paradoxically, makes that expression where it occurs all the more potent.
As an example, consider the rebuilding of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Daniel Libeskind's unbuilt proposal, described by Elizabeth Greenspan in The New Yorker, as a sharp-angled skyscraper, topped with a twisting spire deploys two modes of expression, each of which gained quite a bit of public support. One type of symbolism is gratuitous and inane. That is setting the towers height at exactly 1,776 feet. This height of course, references the date of America's Declaration of Independence-- at least when the height is measured in imperial units.
The same height expressed as 541 meters would be perceived as unremarkable. Unless one was commemorating for example, the year when, according to Wikipedia, "bubonic plague appears suddenly in the Egyptian port of Pelusium". The other form of expression is more analogous to Pollack's audacious dynamism and sense of daring. The unexpected distortion of the tower's form from what is considered economically, structurally, and functionally appropriate.
Yet, although Libeskind won the competition for the new World Trade Center Master Plan. His expressive Freedom Tower design intended by the competition's organizers only to illustrate the potential of the master plan was never seriously considered. Greenspan explains that "there was no guarantee that the architecture from the master plan competition would be built. It was intended to get people excited about a master plan. In fact, by the time Libeskind had won, developer Larry Silverstein had already hired David Childs', an architect at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill".
Whereas Libeskind's proposal was an inefficient and expensive expression of freedom, Childs' design was precisely the opposite, prioritizing structural and functional efficiency. Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for The New York Times, contrasted the expression of freedom that could have been "to show New York's indomitable spirit, the defiant city transfigured from the ashes". With the attitude actually taken one that "implies wrongly a metropolis adrift of fresh ideas".
Instead of acknowledging the essence of defamiliarization as the expression of freedom, historians and critics often prefer to wallow in the subjectivity of psychological or pseudoscientific speculation, whether invoking Freud's speculative theories of a death drive or Siegfried Gideon's cosmic vision linking art and Einsteinian relativity. The point is not to validate what architects or beholders think about their motivations or intentions in creating or interpreting defamiliarized buildings.
On the one hand, one cannot peer into someone's brain to uncover a true motive. On the other hand, whether a motive is articulated at the moment of creation or extracted on a psychoanalysts couch only reveals to what extent that motive has been informed by personal experience or appropriate cultural frameworks. Immersed within an architectural culture in which defamiliarized formal strategies have become prevalent, the desire, the necessity of architects and beholders to compete within that culture will, in and of itself, motivate them to internalize the critical frameworks that have emerged within that culture.
These critical frameworks are adopted like the phenomenon they purport to explain not because they are true, but because within their own competitive critical sphere they have proven themselves effective in promoting a particular stylistic tendency. The point then is to find an objective explanation of defamiliarized architectural production within modern capitalist democracies that does not rely on the self-serving subjectivity of critical artistic frameworks. And this brings us to the observation that all instances of the avant-garde can be explained as expressions of capitalist freedom.
Those architects and their clients who choose to deviate from cultural norms by defamiliarizing their architectural production do so first in a competitive environment where being noticed, having notoriety is deemed useful. And second, where freedom, the permission, the compulsion to do what one wants with one's property is enshrined as a basic tenet of capitalism. Thus, the idealization of freedom as a heroic refusal to accept Bourgeois conventions rather than representing some threatening or revolutionary impulse, has an entirely reactionary content. This is not because the freedom being invoked is an illusion, but to the contrary, because it is real precisely because it is real and oppressive.
So that ends the excerpt taken from Chapter 14. In closing, I certainly don't want to leave you with the impression that artistic expression can be or should be abolished in works of Architecture. So I'll end by reading the final two paragraphs of the book's Epilogue on Architectural Education.
Hannes Meyer, the Swiss architect who directed the Bauhaus from 1928 to 1930, famously attempted to devalue the role of the artist, while emphasizing functional and technological issues within the curriculum of the Bauhaus. Such an extreme formulation of the art science duality is only marginally relevant to the argument advanced here since there is no reason to abolish or even to denigrate the role of artistic expression within the design process. Even if, as Meyer wrote in 1928, "the idea of the composition of a dock is enough to make a cat laugh". Such a finding should not be extrapolated into the realm of human cognition.
Now, let me pause for a moment for a quick digression. Hannes Meyer is challenging the practice of applying artistic criteria to the design of a purely utilitarian object. The composition of a dock in his example. And he considers the idea so ridiculous that in his view even a cat would laugh.
But even if a cat would laugh at the idea of mixing up functional utility and artistic expression, humans aren't cats. And we mix up such things all the time. So continuing with this last excerpt from the book. To an extent unique among all creatures, humans construct, and in doing so, compose our world irrespective of any desire, however rational, to prioritize function and technology. The American neuroanthropologist Terrence Deacon argues that not only is the compulsion to treat objects or actions as signs a characteristic of the human aesthetic faculty, but most importantly "we almost can't help ourselves".
The question therefore is not whether art should be eliminated from architecture. Art is unavoidable. The more important question considered herein is whether and how the art of architecture can adjust its trajectory so that it aligns with the most fundamental requirements of building science. Thank you. You're muted, Martha.
MARTHA WALKER: Thank you, Jonathan. That was just wonderful. I'm furiously taking notes. And I'm so glad that it was recorded because certainly parts I want to go back to and listen to again. Some questions have come in, OK? And so I will read the first name of the person asking the question.
And this is from Andras. And Andras indicates or asks, architectural peacocking is costing lives. In the US, what has been the most common reaction to your idea of reprioritizing functional utility and safety in built environments? Is there-- OK, I could follow up with a second part of that.
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: I have trouble with two questions at the same time. Better to leave it. And it's an excellent question, but maybe a bit premature.
I think I would need to have a lot of reviews of the book, which haven't happened before I could really answer the question. Because typically when I say these things, it's almost like talking into a void. And I don't really get a lot of blowback or specific objections. So I could only speculate that the freedom to design is something that architects and architectural critics are reluctant to let go of.
And I'm not suggesting that they should. I'm suggesting that it perhaps needs to be tempered. That rather than starting with abstract concepts and then trying to fit in a kind of a technological fix, which I've shown in my book is very difficult, if not impossible, one should build a kind of architectural expression on the basis of the underlying functionality or technology. So I wish I could answer the question more directly, but I haven't gotten that kind of feedback yet.
MARTHA WALKER: OK. Well, just when the feedback comes starts coming in, the second part of the question had to do with whether or not there was a different reaction from international readers versus, I'm assuming, US readers. And so that's just maybe thinking--
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: I can only speculate that architectural culture is effectively international. I don't expect a big difference. The American attitude maybe is somewhat extreme in its relationship to freedom, but hardly unique. So to various degrees, I think this notion of freedom and the notion of defamiliarizing forms, to making them strange on purpose, is a very strong motivation. Hard to overcome that.
MARTHA WALKER: OK, that makes sense. OK, the second question is from Elizabeth. And she's asking about your use of the word "heroic" regarding building materials, and wondering a little bit more, hoping you can talk a little bit more about the use of this adjective and its meaning in this particular context.
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: Yeah, another great question. And it is admittedly a word used metaphorically. So perhaps the way I intend it can be explained by giving you some contrasting examples. The heroic materials are the ones that are cut from stone or baked as bricks, that have a kind of a tangible nature you can touch. They are kind of awe-inspiring potentially in their hardness and their durability.
The non-heroic materials, in contrast, are the things that really inform modern construction. Things like air barriers and vapor barriers, these thin membranes or insulative materials which tend to be puffy fiberglass or rigid insulation, the stuff that doesn't have the same heroic quality in terms of the hardness, the durability. So think of it, I guess, in terms of hardness, durability. And that's what I mean by the heroic materials. And that, in fact, is how traditional architecture was constructed.
And my point is that there has been a paradigm shift, if you will, where no longer do those heroic materials govern the technological construction of buildings. And yet, the architectural expression is still relying upon those kinds of traditional modes of construction even if the modes of expression have changed.
MARTHA WALKER: OK, thank you. Thank you. That helps me as well. Actually, Jonathan, I have a question. And it has to do with architectural education. I reread the epilogue a few times thinking, oh, this is very fascinating trying to imagine-- well, first, I'll quote something specific.
You talk about the tension between the art and science of architecture and how this dynamic translates to the studio and the curriculum. So I'm wondering about the future of architectural education. Well, what's happening now? And do you see major changes perhaps in the coming years to curriculum, to study of architecture?
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: Well, I'm unable to read the future. I could say that I don't see major changes in the present. There's always a lot of lip service paid to structural issues. And the issue du jour is, of course, sustainability.
So there's a lot of talk about sustainability. But I'm seeing the same kind of methods of designing that are fostered within studio culture, which is that you basically design stuff on the basis of some expressive idea. And then you use various tools or you just talk your way through it. You say this is glass. Therefore, it lets daylighting in without kind of doing the actual tough calculations of, yes, it's letting daylighting in, but what happens at night? And how does its thermal behavior compare with, let's say, a solid insulated wall?
In other words, there's a lot of talk, but I don't think architects are yet walking the walk in practice or in school. And probably there's more going on in practice because there are maybe a few serious firms that are actually designing, let's say, net 0 or truly sustainable buildings. The other point I made in the book, since I have a couple of chapters on sustainability-- both the politics and the expression-- is that-- now, I've forgotten what I was going to say. There are constraints against making a sustainable world that architects cannot escape from.
In other words, looking at buildings one building at a time does not make a sustainable world.
MARTHA WALKER: Right.
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: And so there's a lot of problems. And I find that architectural culture is constantly shifting, but more in the sense of style, in the sense of fashion, and in the sense of the underlying technologies that allow architecture to be produced. So the 3D printers and the laser cutters and the modeling software in particular, which open up whole new worlds of architectural expression. They have the potential to make better buildings, but I don't see that that's being used yet as effectively as it could be used.
MARTHA WALKER: OK, having it be translated from the model and the drawing to what's actually being built.
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: There's so many useful tools. I'm most familiar with the tools in structural engineering. So for many years, there's been very powerful structural engineering software so that you can basically model any shape, any size, and build it. Things that would have been absolutely impossible 100 years ago.
And my sense about it is that such structural engineering software could be used to make much better buildings, more efficient buildings, more rational buildings. But really in avant-garde architecture, it's used to make outlandish buildings. And the same is true with the sustainability software in many cases, not in every case.
In other words, it's a tool that has the potential to be good, to work for good, or for evil. And not to try to put this moralistic tone on it, but in general, the software is used in order to enable outlandish expressive buildings rather than sensible buildings.
MARTHA WALKER: OK. OK, we have another question. And this is from Margaret. As a former student of architecture at Cornell in the 1960s, I really enjoyed Jonathan's talk. If Jonathan had been teaching at Cornell then, I might have stuck with architecture instead of switching to interdisciplinary social sciences. And his thank you to Cornell for so many bad buildings reminded me of the geology professor who accused Cornell of having an edifice complex. I'm sorry.
I didn't read this-- I didn't read this ahead of time. That's hilarious. Anyway, that led them to ignore geology and their site planning versus using Ian McHarg's principles. I hope I got those names correctly. So I guess there's not really a question in there. It's a thank you.
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: Definitely in 1960, I would not have been teaching at Cornell. In 1960, I would have been still in elementary school and starting to think about architecture. But it's a nice thought. And I appreciate it.
MARTHA WALKER: Right. It's interesting, you can go back and read the courses of studies from earlier years. And that's an interesting study one to itself. So, yes.
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: And the architecture curriculum as a whole hasn't really shifted much for 100 years. Most American schools are outgrowths of the Beaux-Arts tradition in which the studio is the centerpiece and separated from the more technical courses, or courses in history, or courses in theory. And in principle, this is a reasonable way if the studio is thought of as a point of synthesis. But in practice, the studio typically abstracts from many of the other technical or historical or theoretical concerns.
And so integration is left to the practitioner after they graduate for better or for worse. And we don't really model the actual practice of architecture very well. Or you can take the other point of view and say that we modeled it all too well, and that's the reason that actual buildings built in practice have the problems that they do have. Because some of them follow the pedagogy that they've learned in school, designing from a kind of schematic level on the basis of expression and just assuming that everything can get fixed through modern science and engineering.
And what I've tried to show is that the probability of failure increases dramatically when you start with a kind of dysfunctional geometry. So that's the main complaint about the current trend in architectural fashion. It's exacerbating elements of discontinuity where what you really want in control layers is continuity. It makes everything harder. Not impossible, but a lot harder.
MARTHA WALKER: People are holding back. We're not getting many questions here.
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: Well, I think we're about done at our 5:00 limit. We may need to say goodbye in any case.
MARTHA WALKER: OK, well I've got one more. How about one more? One just popped in, OK? And this is from Steve. Can we have outlandish and strange and utilitarian buildings? That's a great question.
It sounded like maybe you said that was impossible. To your point, early, that expression has a function to.
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: And the answer is, yes. So to clarify, I'm dealing with a probabilistic environment. So when you make things, let's say, discontinuous, outlandish in various ways, you're increasing the probability of failure. And if you have the money, and the resources, and the patience, and the research infrastructure, you can make an outlandish building work. It's been done.
The problem is in a profit-driven world where the architects have limits on and how much time they can spend, the contractors want to get things done as quickly and as expediently as possible. The probability of having something wrong when you're doing all of these new things, which are untried, unfamiliar to the contractor, where the architect doesn't have the time to detail every little corner and intersection, it's a probabilistic thing. And so the answer is, no, you can do it if you are willing to spend the time and the money and do the research necessary. But you are increasing the probability of failure.
So I'm not I'm not saying it's not possible. And I don't have a problem per se, with the expenditure of extravagant amounts of money. I mean, this is what architecture is. I'm suggesting that unless you back it up with time, research, and effort, you're going to have a building with a lot of problems.
MARTHA WALKER: OK, well, it's 5:01. A few more have come in. I'm kind of curious. May I ask you one of them? One more question?
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: Well, I think we should do maybe just one more because I like the idea that things end on time. So one more.
MARTHA WALKER: OK, one more. And this may not be brief. What motivated you to write this book?
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: You have to put me on the psychoanalyst couch for that one. And the truth is I think I already know, but I'm not sure I want to disclose it. It goes deep down into my past. It has something to do with the building I grew up in. But I think that is a source of motivation, actually, as well as all of the buildings that I experienced right here in the architecture program. Each one of which was disastrous in its own way.
So I've been exposed to it. But I did have this underlying motivation about the relationship between building technology and the art of architecture. And probably, some inherent insecurities, if you really want me to get on that psychoanalyst couch about my own capacity as an expressive designer.
MARTHA WALKER: Well, I'll say that wasn't my question. That was from Sarah. But it's a lot of work to write a book. And I really appreciate what you have done here. The ideas, the information you have shared with us.
So I think I will end it there. And as everyone will see, there are some links in the chat that have been entered. So again, thank you Jonathan for writing this book. And I know I'm not alone in appreciating the opportunity you've given all of us to gain a better understanding of building processes and the results that have such a significant impact on our individual and collective lives and activities.
And I'll thank my colleagues Lenora and others, Shawn, who are making this webinar possible. To our audience members, I should note that this is the library's last book talk for the spring semester. There's a link in the Chat box that will go to previous book talks-- all the way back to fall 2011. And with that, Professor Ochshorn, I want to thank you and our audience members for joining us at today's program and wish you all a good evening. Thank you.
JONATHAN OCHSHORN: Thank you, and goodbye.
MARTHA WALKER: Bye.
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What happens when buildings are designed as political or artistic statements? In a live, virtual Chats in the Stacks talk, Jonathan Ochshorn discusses his latest book, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression (Lund Humphries, 2021), where he examines how utilitarian function in architecture can be thwarted by political and economic forces and undermined by artistic expression. In considering several contemporary buildings and projects, Ochshorn avoids advocating for a specific style or practice but provides an objective framework for analyzing architecture through the lens of utility.Sponsored by the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library, the talk is followed by a live Q&A.Ochshorn, a Fulbright Scholar (2016) and professor in the architecture department at Cornell University, is also a registered architect with a background in structural engineering and urban design. His numerous publications focus on the relationship between utility and expression in the built environment.