Abstract: Several architects all over the world are creating buildings which look much different from the traditional buildings. The main goal of architecture should be to satisfy the client’s needs and consider the utility, rather than producing structures of architectural beauty, which will not serve the purpose. Starting with the definition of architectural transparency, this paper explores examples of buildings which are non-traditional, beautiful and at the same time satisfy the client’s needs. Some recent examples of structures which are stunning but do not consider functionality, harmony with their surroundings, local climate, and economy are also presented. It is shown that aesthetic buildings should first be functional and need not necessarily be expensive and stunning.
Architectural transparency is one of the pervasive aspects of twentieth-century building practice. Giedion (1957) stated that transparency is a fundamental quality of artistic production that can be traced back to the origins of art and architecture. In optics, transparency may refer to a material that transmits light so that we can see through it. In architecture, transparency may mean the use of glass as the primary building material; however there are other materials like crystal or finely woven and diaphanous fabrics that are also transparent.
The Bauhaus, designed by the architect, Walter Gropius, is the first building to effectively consider transparency (see Fig. 1). It comprised of three blocks all connected by bridges. The school and workshop spaces are connected by a large two-story bridge, which creates the roof of the administration located on the underside of the bridge. The housing units and school building are connected through a wing to create easy access to the assembly hall and dining rooms. The educational wing contains administration and classrooms, staff room, library, physics laboratory, model rooms, fully finished basement, raised ground-floor and two upper floors.
The huge curtain window facade of the workshop building became an integral part of the building’s design. To create transparency, the wall emphasized the ‘mechanical’ and open spatial nature of the building. These vast windows enabled sunlight to pour in throughout the day, although creating a negative effect on warmer summer days. In order to preserve the curtain wall as one expanse,the load bearing columns were recessed back from the main walls [http://www.archdaily.com/]. The Bauhaus style later became one of the most influential factors in modern design, modernist architecture and art, design and architectural education (Fleming et al., 1999).
Rowe and Slutzky (1993) were the first to introduce two types of transparency: literal and phenomenal. Literal transparency may mean a simultaneous perception of different spatial locations by using translucent materials like glass or building volumes. On the other hand, phenomenal transparency may be used to describe the planar qualities of translucent materials or to describe a certain level of ‘readability’ within a building design [Rowe and Slutzky,1993]. In other words, the concept of literal transparency is the fascination of making interior and exterior spaces continuous. Rowe and Slutzky (1993) describe the workshop wing of the Bauhaus as a case of literal transparency whereas Le Corbusier’s villa at Garches as an example of phenomenal transparency. Gropius wanted the glass curtain facade of Bauhaus building to be completely ‘translucent’ in the sense that he wanted to make a visual connection between the interior and exterior. Whereas, the vertical layer-like stratification of Le Corbusier’s villa at Garches produces a layering of the interior space of the house and creates a succession or sequence of laterally extended spaces travelling one behind the other (Rowe & Slutzky, 1993).
The aesthetics of a building, in contrast to the aesthetics of a sculpture has to be judged according to how well a building fulfills a client’s goals and the requirement of those who live and work within it. For example, the unconventional building exteriors designed by the architect Antonio Gaudi [for example the roof vents and chimneys and even the façade of the Casa Milà (1906-1910), shown in Fig. 2 or the façade and dragon roof of the Casa Batlló, shown in Fig. 3] are all functional, harmonious and offer no offence to their neighbours. Both these buildings are located at Barcelona, Spain.
Casa Milà is considered by many as architecturally innovative work. It is a structure of columns and floors and is free of load bearing walls. The front portion made of stone is also self-supporting. Another innovative aspect at that time was the construction of the underground garage. One of the most significant parts of this building is the roof, crowned with skylights or staircase exits, fans, and chimneys. All of these elements, constructed with timber coated with limestone, broken marble or glass, have a specific architectural function, but at the same time look like real sculptures integrated into the building [see Fig. 2(b)]. The building is also unique in the sense that the shape of the exterior continues into the interior. The ceiling of this building has plaster reliefs of great dynamism, and was provided with handcrafted wooden doors, windows, and different ornamental elements. In 1984, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Casa Batlló, located in the center of Barcelona and is one of Gaudí’s masterpieces. It was redesigned by Gaudí during 1904 and has been refurbished several times later. Like everything Gaudí designed, it is considered as Art Nouveau in the broadest sense. The ground floor has irregular oval windows and flowing sculpted stone work. There are few straight lines, and much of the façade is decorated with a colorful mosaic made of broken ceramic tiles. The façade has three distinct sections which are harmoniously integrated. One of the highlights of the facade is a tower topped with a cross of four arms oriented to the cardinal directions. The roof is arched like the back of a dragon. It has a bulbous, root-like structure that evokes plant life. There is a second bulb-shaped structure reminiscent of a thalamus flower, which is represented by a cross with arms that are actually buds announcing the next flowering (see Fig. 3)
Another interesting design by Gaudi is the Sagrada Família Church in Barcelona, Spain (see Fig.4). Construction of Sagrada Família started in 1882 and Gaudí became involved during 1883. He combined Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau forms to build it. The work progressed slowly as it relied on private donations and was also interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. When Gaudí died at the age of 73 in 1926 only 25 percent of the project was completed. The Church was consecrated in November 2010, but the Construction is estimated to be completed around 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death. Since 1940 the architects Francesc Quintana, Isidre Puig Boada, Lluís Bonet i Gari and Francesc Cardoner have carried on the work. Together with six other Gaudí buildings in Barcelona, part of la Sagrada Família is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as testifying “to Gaudí’s exceptional creative contribution to the development of architecture and building technology”. The canting of supporting columns was a result of creative engineering, to support the demands of the structure. He determined the angles of his columns based on the requirements of his design. Sagrada Família revealed Gaudí’s genius in finding novel solutions to achieve his vision, which are functional, harmonious, inspiring and beautiful.
Another structure comparable to Gaudí’s Sagrada Família is Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angels, CA, USA (see Fig.5) The Watts Towers, consisting of seventeen major sculptures, were built personally by Simon Rodia using scrap metal and wire covered with mortar. Porcelain shards were implanted decoratively in these towers, in a way similar to the Sagrada Família. Rodia worked single-handedly, for 34 years, to build his towers without using any machine equipment, scaffolding, bolts, rivets, welds or drawing board designs! Besides his own ingenuity, he used simple tools, pipe fitter pliers and a window-washer’s belt and buckle. While the Towers do not fall strictly into any art category, International authorities have lauded them as a unique monument to the human spirit and the persistence of a singular vision. When the towers were tested during 1960s by Bud Goldstone, they proved to be stronger than the test equipment. The the 30 m tall towers, when tested, withstood winds of 320 kmph (Silber, 2007).
Absurdity in Architectural Practice
John Silber, former President and Chancellor of Boston University, and also an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects in his book Architecture of the Absurd, explains how some great architects disfigured a practical art. Some of these examples are presented below.
The architect I.M. Pei designed the 60-story, 240 m tall John Hancock Tower at Boston, Massachusetts, USA, which was constructed during 1969-76[see Fig. 6(a)]. Though this tower was designed with the assistance of structural engineers after exhaustive planning, the beauty of the building was marred, when several of its 1.2 x 3.4 m windowpanes (each weighing 227 kg) detached from the building and crashed to the sidewalk hundreds of feet below during 1972-73. Due to this, the openings were covered with plywood before the repair work could be done [see Fig. 6(b)], causing this beautiful building to be nick named Plywood Palace; some even called it as the world’s tallest plywood building. Police closed off surrounding streets whenever winds reached 72 km/h.
Initially, many design professionals thought that the glass panes broke because the tower swayed excessively due to wind. Although the tower swayed substantially, this was not the reason for the glass breakage. Others theorized that there were some wind “hot spots,” which caused overstressing of the glass. Investigations showed that there were substantial “hot spots”, but only a small percentage of the glass was subject to the stresses considered in the design.
An independent laboratory investigation confirmed that the failure of the glass was due to oscillations and repeated thermal stresses caused by the expansion and contraction of the air between the inner and outer glass panels which formed each window. The resilient bonding between the inner glass, reflective material, and outer glass was so stiff that it was transmitting the force to the outer glass (instead of absorbing it), thus causing the glass to fail.
Arthur Metcalf, CEO of Electronic Corporation of America suggested replacing each 4’ x 11’ glass pane with three smaller panes. However, in October 1973, I.M. Pei & Partners announced that all 10,344 window panes would each be replaced by single paned, heat-treated panels at a total cost between $5 million and $7 million. In addition to this problem, the building’s upper-floor occupants suffered from motion sickness when the building swayed in the wind. To stabilize the movement, contractors installed two 300 ton tuned mass dampers on the 58th floor at a cost of $3 million. Later engineers discovered that, despite the mass damper, the building could have fallen over under a certain kind of wind loading. The structure was assessed as more unstable on its narrow sides than on the big flat sides. Some 1,500 tons of diagonal steel bracing, costing $5 million, were added to prevent such an event. Correcting the tower’s flaws eventually cost the Hancock Company $34 million, or about 25% of the buildings original cost of construction. Thus, this project illustrated absurdity in architectural practice, because the architect did not consider structural aspects in his design (Silber, 2007).
Architect I.M. Pei relocated the entrance to the Louvre through a pyramid (see Fig. 7). This pyramid is covered with glass segments, has a height of 21.6 m and square base with sides of 35 m. It consists of 603 rhombus-shaped and 70 triangular glass segments. The pyramid was engineered by Nicolet Chartrand Knoll Ltd. of Montreal and Rice Francis Ritchie of Paris. The pyramid and the underground lobby beneath it were created because of a series of problems with the Louvre’s original main entrance, which could not handle the huge number of visitors. Now, visitors entering through the pyramid descend into the spacious lobby and then re-ascend into the main Louvre buildings.
Even though the pyramid is aesthetic when looked at it alone, the futuristic edifice looks quite out of place in front of the Louvre Museum with its classical architecture (see Fig.7). Many feel that the Architect should not have spoiled the view of the magnificent classical building.
The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 –1959) produced excellent examples of organic architecture like the Fallingwater, Pennsylvania [Fig. 8] and Taliesin West, which was his winter home in Arizona. Both these are masterpieces and merge with the surrounding atmosphere fittingly.
Fallingwater seems to spring organically from the hillside of layered rock. Wright’s design enhanced the beauty of both the hill side and the house of Mr. Kaufmann. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. In 1991, members of the American Institute of Architects named this private house as the “best all-time work of American architecture”. However, Fallingwater’s structural system, consisting of a series of long span reinforced concrete cantilevered balconies, had problems from the beginning. As soon as the formwork was removed, these cantilevers deflected considerably and cracked. Due to creep and high compressive stresses in concrete, this deflection continued to increase over time, and eventually reached 175 mm (over a span of 4.57 m). Wright and his team used inverted T-beams so that the monolithic concrete slab provided resistance against compression. Interestingly, the contractor, who is also an engineer, did independent calculations and argued for increasing the reinforcing steel; but Wright refused the suggestion. It is believed that Kaufmann hired his own engineers, who concluded that the cantilevers required more reinforcement than those specified by Wright and hence doubled the amount of steel. Moreover, the contractor did not consider the camber specified by Wright to counteract the effect of the deflection of cantilevers.
In 1995, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy ordered an investigation to study the structural integrity of Fallingwater. Structural engineers analyzed the movement of the cantilevers over time and conducted radar studies of the cantilevers to locate and quantify the reinforcement. They found that in spite of the added reinforcement by the contractor over Wright’s plan, the cantilevers were still insufficiently reinforced. In fact, both the concrete and its steel reinforcement were close to their failure limits. The architecture firm Robert Silman Associates of New York was hired to fix the problem. in 1977, they installed temporary girders beneath the cantilevers to carry their weight [Feldmann and Silman, 2005]. In 2002, the structure was repaired permanently using post-tensioning. The floors and walls were then restored, without affecting the interior and exterior appearance of Fallingwater. Now, the cantilevers have sufficient stiffness, and the deflection is controlled.
Some architects think that they have discovered universal scientific principles of design and apply it under all circumstances. They design buildings which look alike without regard to their differences in location and function. For example, one of Le Corbusier’s disciples, Joseph Lluis Sert (1902-83), designed two buildings in Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Peabody Terrace and Boston University Law school tower. Both these buildings, shown in Fig. 9, look alike and reveal the lazy and arrogant attitude of the designer (Silber, 2007).
Sert also designed the Boston University Mugar Memorial library (1861-66) and the Harvard University Science Center, Cambridge (1968-73), both in Massachusetts, USA, which also look similar in design and appearance. In addition Sert designed a large, unprotected entrance to the Mugar Library facing northeast toward the Charles River. The cold harsh weather of Boston made this entrance unusable. To avoid flooding the ground floor with rain and snow, the entrances were permanently sealed and a temporary entrance was provided through the adjacent student union. Two decades later, the Boston architect William D. Adams designed a new protected entrance facing south. His design is so thoughtfully and harmoniously conceived that a new visitor will think that it is a part of Sert’s original design (Silber, 2007). Silber (2007) also discusses the flaws in the design of Boston University Law School tower, which required constant and expensive maintenance. Silber (2007) also exposes the design flaws in Boston University’s George Sherman Union (1961-66), which was designed by Sert, around an open patio, surrounded on all sides by high walls. Sert conceived it in such a way because of his affection to the benign climate of Spain, where he was born and practiced during 1929-37. This wasted, expensive courtyard was transformed in 1983 by Rothman Partners Architects into a ballroom, whose roof sheds water and snow and hence now requires little maintenance (Silber, 2007).
Shapes without Any Purpose
The Polish-American architect Libeskind (1946-) designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin (1992-99), which is one of the first buildings designed after the reunification of Germany. According to Libeskind this building is based on the broken Star of David (i.e. comprised of abstract letters “J” and “D” denoting the word Jude). However, as Silber (2007) notes, there is no star, broken or whole found in the structure of the building (see Fig.10). Form does not follow function in this museum. The cuts on the exterior of this building (which does not have any purpose or reasoning) also appear in the design of Michael Lee-Chin Crystal which is an extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, and is shown in Fig.11.
Public opinion about Libeskind’s design of the Crystal was divided concerning the merits of its angular design. Some architecture critics criticized that the design is oppressive and hellish, while others hailed it as a monument. Members and editors at VirtualTourist.com ranked it as one of the ten ugliest buildings in the world. The project also experienced budget and construction time over-runs, and drew comparisons to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao for using the so-called “starchitecture” to attract tourism.
User satisfaction Vs Architectural Expression
Simmons Hall located in the Campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was designed by architect Steven Holl (1947-) and dedicated in 2002. At the cost of $78.5 million, it is MIT’s most expensive dormitory built in the MIT Campus since Baker House. The structure is a massive reinforced concrete block, perforated with approximately 5,500 square windows each measuring 0.60 m on a side, plus additional larger and irregularly shaped windows (see Fig.12). It is constructed using 291 customized precast, steel-reinforced Perfcon panels. A wall depth of 0.46 m is designed to allow the winter sun to help heat the building while providing shade in summer, without air conditioning. An average single room has nine windows each with its own small curtain.
The building has been nicknamed “The Sponge”, because the architect consciously modeled its shape and internal structure on a sea sponge. The holes of the sea sponge serve a function. The same can’t be said of the holes in Holl’s building (Silber,2007). Opinions on the aesthetics of the building remain strongly divided. Simmons Hall has won multiple architecture awards for its looks, functionality, and energy efficiency. On the other hand, the building has been criticized as being ugly. Moreover, the students and their parents consider Simmons Hall as being a fortress, a metal block, and a metal sponge. The residents view Simmons Hall to be a cold, sterile, and undesirable living space. Simmons hall stands as a testimony to the fact that architectural success is not attained by physical forms, color compositions, or concept diagrams, but in the way the users appreciate and interact with the spaces.
The Canadian-American Pritzker Prize–winning architect Frank Owen Gehry (1929-) first made his name with the Vitra Design Museum at Weil-am-Rheine in Germany (1988). His powerful expressionist architecture achieved a world-wide fame after the Guggenheim Museum, which opened in Bilbao, Spain during 1997. The museum is seamlessly integrated into the urban context, unfolding its interconnecting shapes of stone, glass and titanium along the Nervión River in the old industrial heart of the city of Bilbao. Although the appearance of the Museum is modest from street level, it is most impressive when viewed from the river (see Fig.13). The curves on the exterior of the building were designed by Gehry to appear random. The building was constructed on time and budget, which is rare for architecture of this type. This audacious building was intended to bring new investment into the declining industrial city, as well as to emphasize the cultural identity of the Basque county itself. Soon it became known as ‘Bilbao effect’ and the Guggenheim Foundation received numerous requests for museums, from city authorities ranging from Rio de Janeiro to New York (Risebro, 2001). It is interesting to note that Gehry used his own Digital Project software (normally used in airplane design) to develop the geometry of this complicated structure.
In Los Angeles, Gehry’s concert hall for the Los Angeles Philharmonic regenerated interest in classical music in a city whose rich musical tradition has gone neglected. It may be noted that the exterior of this building has similarities with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (see Fig.14).
Neighbours of the Disney Hall suffered glare caused by sunlight that was reflected off the shimmering stainless steel surfaces, which concentrated the light in a manner similar to a parabolic mirror. The resulting heat made some rooms of nearby condominiums unbearably warm (the temperature was increased by about 15 degrees), increasing their air-conditioning costs considerably. It also created hot spots on adjacent sidewalks of as much as 60 °C. There was also an increased risk of traffic accidents due to blinding sunlight reflected from the polished surfaces. After complaints from neighboring buildings and residents, the owners asked Gehry Partners to come up with a solution. Their response was a computer analysis of the building’s surfaces identifying the offending panels. In 2005 these were dulled by lightly sanding the panels to eliminate unwanted glare.
A recent and glaring example of absurdity in architecture is the Stata Centre at MIT, designed by Gehry (see Fig. 15). This Center, which features angular sections that appear to be falling on top of one another, opened to great acclaim in the spring of 2004. Mr. Gehry once said that it “looks like a party of drunken robots got together to celebrate.” The biggest goal for the project was to get MIT scientists-and that includes students-to meet one another openly. Gehry may be ignorant of or indifferent to the needs and methods of researchers. Hence, in order to meet the goal of MIT, he created the center’s rooms without walls. But his arrogance was opposed by professors who insisted that he close their spaces with glass (Silber, 2007).
In 2007, MIT sued the architect Frank Gehry and the construction company Skanska USA Building Inc., claiming that the design and construction failures in the institute’s $300 million Stata Center resulted in pervasive leaks, cracks and drainage problems that required costly repairs. The institute also discovered additional problems, like sliding ice and snow from the building’s window boxes and other projecting roof areas, blocking emergency exits and damaging other building elements. The case was eventually settled out of court.
Much of Gehry’s work falls within the style of Deconstructivism, which is often referred to as post-structuralist in nature for its ability to go beyond current modalities of structural definition. However, many of the Gehry’s iconic buildings do not have the benefit of excellent form. Criticism of his work includes that his buildings waste structural resources by creating functionless forms, do not seem to belong in their surroundings and are apparently designed without considering the local climate. Gehry’s style at times seems unfinished or even crude. The undulating metal forms have become the trademark of Gehry’s buildings, resulting in skyrocketing costs. His twisted metal shapes too often make no sense, are out of scale, wastefully expensive (Silber, 2007). Moreover, these complicated structures, often require expensive three dimensional modeling, three-dimensional structural analysis, and development of joints at acute angles, whose behaviour might not have been well understood. The complicated curved surfaces result in wasteful of spaces inside the buildings.
It may be interesting to note that the buildings of architects like Euine Fay Jones (1921-2004), Moshe Safdie (1938-), and Hugh Asher Stubbins Jr. of Stubbins Associates (1912-2006) are as contemporary as those of Gehry, Holl, and Libeskid. For example, Jones’ Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel at Bella Vista, Arkansas (1988), Safdie’s Yitzhak Rabin Center at Tel Aviv, Israel (2002) and Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri (2011) and Stubbins Associates’ Novartis Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2004) have been designed to give their clients beautiful buildings that are not expensive in either design or cost and are well suited for their functions. These architects considered beauty, utility, and economy over extravagancy, stunning looks, exorbitant structure, and wastefulness (Silber, 2007).
The aesthetics of a building, in contrast to the aesthetics of a sculpture has to be judged according to how well a building fulfills a client’s goals and the requirement of those who live and work within it. A few architects like Gaudi built functional buildings, which were harmonious to their surroundings, even though they had certain unconventional elements in their design. But some modern buildings designed by architects like I.M. Pei, Sert, Libeskind, Steven Holl, and Frank Gehry designed buildings that wasted structural resources by creating functionless forms, did not have harmony with their surroundings and were designed without considering the local climate. Even Wright’s famous building of Fallingwater had structural problems, which created problems to the client, and resulted in costly repairs over several years. These examples show that the utility, economy and performance are more important than aesthetics.
– Feldmann, G.C. and Silman, R., “Fallingwater is no Longer Falling”, STRUCTURE Magazine, ASCE, Sept. 2005, pp. 47-50.
– Fleming, J., Honour, H., & Pevsner, N., ed. (1999). A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. 5th edition, Penguin Books, London. pp. 880.
– Giedion, S., The Eternal Present: the Beginnings of Art, Pantheon Books, Kingsport, TN,1957, pp. 45;
– Levy, M. and Salvadori, M. (1992). Why Buildings Fall Down, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, pp. 203–205.
– Risebero, B., The Storey of Western Architecture, Third Edition, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001,320 pp.
– Rowe, C., and R.Slutzky, Transparency, Birkhäuser Architecture, Basel, Switzerland, 1993, 119 pp.
– Silber, J., Architecture of the Absurd-How ‘Genius’ Disfigured a Practical Art, The Quantuck Lane Press, New York, 2007, 97 pp.