16 August 2012

London Olympics 2012

London Olympic Village 2012

Last week was the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic games.  The United States did well, leading all countries in total medals as well as gold medals, a proud moment indeed.  I'm not much of a sports fan so I didn't watch many events, I did see some and I did watch a portion of the opening ceremonies.  But now that the games are over I think it's a good time to review what we did see. 

As I said, I only watched a part of the opening ceremonies, beginning with rolling grass fields filled with farm animals and people living the rural life, quite a difference from the high tech opening we witnessed in Beijing four years ago. The field of the stadium transformed from this lush green landscape to a black and gray soot filled city when the grass carpet was literally rolled up to make way for the paving beneath, demonstrating how we have moved the land and conquered nature to make way for industry and its hulking smoke stacks.  Even the cast of characters changed, in one fell swoop the country folk tending the land and their animals were replaced by business men and factory workers, who worked the foundry to forge the Olympic rings which were raised overhead.  It's funny how we look at industrial revolution as a time of great progress but when the transformation takes a brief few minutes it seems less so.  Oh yeah, how can I forget the Queen dropping in along with super spy 007 a sign that popular culture play as important a role in culture as does history. 

So after the celebration of the history of England and the official opening of the 30th Olympic games it was time to check out some events.  Many of the few events I did watch I had completely forgotten about since the 2008 Olympics.  The first weekend I saw some of the men's and women's cycling road race.  These are some of the televised events where you get to see a good part of the city, and the countryside as they close down the streets along the route of the event.  This is a race over 150 miles so there is a lot of ground to cover.  The fact that London is an old city made watching it all the more enjoyable as the cyclists went through both urban areas as well as rural areas so dense with trees you didn’t see the riders from the aerial shots, it was a great way to see how the scale of the city changes.  I also saw some track and field, swimming, gymnastics and a bit of the team sports like volleyball and basketball.  As an architect one thing I like to see when watching the Olympics is all the new buildings that went up for the games. 

London was chosen for this year's Olympics back in 2005 when world economies were stronger, but despite the economic fallout since then a enormous amount had to be accomplished to prepare for the games.  The majority of the buildings constructed for the game are located in the East End, an area known for its large immigrant and working class population.  The city saw the Olympics, and the large cash outflow that accompanies its preparation as an opportunity to help revitalize the area.  Additionally London attempted to make the 2012 Olympics sustainable to some degree, included in this is the adaptability and, in one case, transportability of the buildings.  Some buildings accomplish this noble goal better than others. 

The focus of media coverage during the games seemed to be the large Olympic Stadium by Populous Architects.  The Stadium is characterized by the large compression truss and triangular light towers encircling it, quite an elegant design.  It wasn't apparent, by looking at the building, that it was designed for disassembly.  These light towers and circular truss are designed to be easily removed along with the upper levels of seating leaving a stadium with a capacity less than half that of the one where people watched Olympic events.  It is apparent that the design was considered in both forms, something that cannot be said of the Aquatic Center.

Like the Olympic Stadium the Aquatic Center was also designed to hold more spectators during the games than it would after.  However, I cringed after seeing the Zaha Hadid designed Center.  There was no asking where the temporary seating was here, the building looked as if it was still under construction or as if a cube was being eaten by a hyperbolic paraboloid, a mathematicians nightmare, not an elegant solution.  I understand the building was designed primarily for its life after the Olympics but there should have been more consideration for the short time it was in the spotlight.  It seems apparent to me that no consideration was given to the possibility of the Aquatic Center remaining as it is after the Olympics.  What if it is decided to keep the Aquatic Center as it is, with its full capacity, after the Olympics, would the architect stand by her design?  I would guess not, Hadid, a Londoner, did herself a disservice with this design. 

One other building worth noting is the Basketball Arena, designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects.  The arena is designed to be completely deconstructed after the Olympics and transported for reconstruction and reuse during the 2016 Olympic games in Brazil.  The design appears to be temporary as it is a fabric structure with its skin stretched over vertical trusses with varying profiles to give it texture, the roof in more regular and tent like.  This structure was designed for the two weeks it was in use and it served its function well.  Whether or not the building will actually be reused only time will tell but this is the type of thinking needed when designing for an event like the Olympics. 

Events like the quadrennial Olympic games require both long and short term planning.  It is a time when cities build new sports stadiums and entertainment venues, master plan new communities, and update existing infrastructure and transit.  It has to accommodate a large influx of people for two short weeks and decide what will come of those accommodations when those people have left.  City planners, designers, and architects, should always consider different scales and anticipate future changes or adjustments, not only when they are known in advance.  When designing for an event like the Olympics, that is temporary, there is more of an opportunity to demonstrate this awareness and create buildings that are adaptable.  London has both good and bad examples of this and I hope we call all learn from them.

03 August 2012

Firmness, Utility, Delight

Vitruvius, the original author on architecture, stated that architectures function is firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, that is firmness, utility, and delight.  Firmness, of course, refers to the ability to stand up and resist the forces of man and nature, whether they be the heavy stone of the buildings of Vitruvius's time, wind, rain, snow, furnishings, or people.  Utility, again quite obviously, speaks to the fact that architecture serves a specific function.  This can be a very specific function as in a residential building that has rooms or areas designated for specific uses or a large community space that can accommodate many different functions.  This brings us to delight, a more ambiguous or subjective quality.  Certainly when Vitruvius wrote of delight he was pointing to the form, order, and proportion used in his day, the subject of his Ten Books on Architecture.  However, since the time of Vitruvius, some 500 years ago, our opinions of what brings delight have changed.  

Delight from architecture, or anything else for that matter, reflects personal taste, style, and culture.  Looking through a book on art history illustrates how much taste and culture has changed.  The fact that architecture is experienced in many different ways using all the senses it is important to point out that its delight may come in many forms.  One may enjoy the form from the outside, the view from the inside, its usefulness, the materials employed or countless other characteristics, but not others.  This leads me to wonder, what defines "delightful" architecture?  Put another way I could ask what defines “good” architecture.  Again, this can be quite subjective but I believe there are a number of characteristics of good architecture that could be agreed upon, looking beyond the firmness and utility of course.

The first characteristic of good architecture is that it respects its context.  Every piece of architecture exists in a specific place at a specific time and addressing this is paramount.  Context should be considered completely from the community through to the site and even on-site microclimates.  The siting of a building should consider orientation as it relates to its environmental context; the climate of the region, the sun, wind, the ecology of the site and surroundings, water bodies or wetlands, and migration patterns of local wildlife.  Likewise there is the man made infrastructure context; this can include utilities like power, water and sanitation, roads and public transportation, as well as nearby buildings and community resources.  Cultural context is also important to remember, this includes the character of the community, whether it is rural or urban, residential or commercial, what the local customs are and even the massing of the surrounding buildings and the predominant architectural styles.  

In addition to respecting context good architecture should respect its users, after all without users there is probably not much need for the architecture to begin with.  Speaking of which good architecture should address its primary function in direct relation with the people who will be using it.  This means bringing in the users during the design process to learn how the building will really be used, not designing it how you think it should be used.  To truly respect its users architecture needs to have comfortable and healthy interiors.  Much of this will relate to respecting its context, which I addressed above.  For instance, a building that has been poorly sited in its context and is left exposed to harsh summer sun may overheat and cause its occupants discomfort, so it should be stated that all these items relate to each other and should be considered holistically.  Providing a healthy indoor environment may include providing fresh air, access to daylight, and non-toxic finishes.  The fact that buildings cost money should also be a consideration.  A building may have a bold form or display an innovative use of materials but if its users can’t afford its operations and maintenance than it can’t serve its function.

I have a strong belief that architecture should also respect its time.  I have worked on both modern and historic buildings and find part of my love for architecture is in the fact that they are different.  Each with its own massing, form, materials, details, layout, character, I can go on and on, the point is that good buildings are of their time.  To build a modern building to look like a historic building to me is disrespecting both the past and the present.  On the one hand it’s like telling our predecessors, “we can do better than you” and on the other we are telling our contemporaries “you’re not good enough”.  So I think good architecture respects its own time and the issues of the day.  

Finally, good architecture should consider the future.  Buildings have a long life, hopefully beyond the lifetime of their designers and builders so they will be part of the future and so must consider that from the beginning.  Through its lifetime a building may serve many functions.  In New York City the Church of the Holy Communion, finished in 1845 has gone through many changes since it was a church it has become a nightclub and now a market, the Limelight Marketplace.  Surely if this wasn’t good architecture it would have been torn down a while ago.  This brings up another point when considering the future; what will happen to the materials when the building is demolished?  Is it full of toxic materials that have no value and will be thrown in a landfill to pollute our air and water, or can it be deconstructed or reused?

Green building has been growing over the past decade, it has had some false starts in past decades but it looks like it’s finally catching on.  These buildings, in my view, best demonstrate the qualities I described above.  Apart from a certification or a label I think defining good architecture is still subjective but we should hold it to certain high standards, it must respect its context, its users, its time, and it must consider the future.  I might be so bold to update Vitruvius and say regardless of style in order for architecture to be considered good, or even great, it must be useful, appropriate, and thoughtful.