Computer Screen Architecture

by Panagiotis Patlakas

Image used under Creative Commons from Zio Paolino

“This building looks like a 3-D model.” Strangely enough, when I looked at it again, when I looked at it after being told it looked like a 3-D model, it did. It should have been me that made that comment—it was I who was supposed to be the professional. My companion holds no interest in architecture whatsoever, not even the Sunday magazine type that seems to be de rigueur amongst the artsy middle classes. When it comes to the tools that aid the production of architectural design, she is by all accounts a layperson who doesn’t know her SketchUp from her 3ds Max. And yet it was she, not I, who picked up on it. Perhaps it was because I arrived at the MAXXI expecting, wanting, to be dazzled. After all, reviewers were ecstatic. In designing this building Zaha Hadid “taps into powerful flows of the Roman past” (Architectural Record); MAXXI “is the perfect Roman building” (Architectural Review); and it “manipulates daylight in an almost mystical way” (the Record, again). Nicolai Ourossoff thought it would make Pope Urban VIII “ecstatic” (NY Times). The RIBA Stirling Prize committee described it as “the quintessence of Zaha’s constant attempt to create a landscape, a series of cavernous spaces drawn with a free, roving line.” And just to ensure there is no confusion on its position, it closes its paean of a summary by stating that, “she was right all along.” Now, with the beautiful lucidity that hindsight handsomely provides, some clues were there from the start. Patrik Schumacher’s writings on the building oscillated between repetition and stretching already far-fetched points. Journalists spent most of their allocated words writing about Rome, in ways not always discernible from Ivy League sophomores on their summer European sojourns. When they did talk about the building they would obey one centrifugal force: the historical significance of an Anglo-Saxon iconic building in the Eternal City, the ultimate stop of any Grand Tour. And yet the building looks like a 3-D model; and not the good kind.

You see it is not any artfully assembled, painstakingly rendered, Softimage masterpiece we are talking about here. The 3-D model of the introductory comment was the flat, bland, texture-less world you get in an ’80s video game aesthetics—or from fooling around in Artlantis for half an hour. Intentionally diffuse white or grayish surfaces engulf the exterior, which you know is not a supersized plaster maquette because it would be next to impossible to get such randomness when molding something by hand. Almost predictably inverse is the situation inside, with surfaces either flat ambient or standard specular. There will probably be some words on paper somewhere defending this as a minimalism of sorts, or maybe a purging of anything that draws the eye away from that mystical fluidity. It’s difficult to see any basis in either point. Minimalism is certainly a lost cause in a building that is maximalist, if not megalomaniac, in practically every aspect. As for fluidity, that is hard to find. Instead, what proponents call fluidity feels more like constant, unending, merciless randomness. Gravity might be mercifully amiss in a CAD screen, but fighting it in the real world results in heavy, unwieldy structural elements that often draw more attention than they should. The elongated, hovering staircases look nice in pictures, but in practice they are an impediment to flow. Even the default focal point, the main external window on the top floor, ends up another empty gesture trapping the view of the courtyard, indicative of a design unencumbered by any thought toward the surroundings, a strange architectural negative of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. The hymns of praise for the use of light also seem strange. Maybe the journalists happened to visit on a cloudy autumn day. Outside those, it’s hard to see if any thought was paid to the use of light. If so, it was on how to strangle it, as it is captured upon entry, and then thrown on absorbent surfaces until it’s beat to obedient blandness. Unlike its sightseeing competitors, this is not a building designed for the sharp, intense, quintessentially Mediterranean, Roman light. Interestingly, one cannot even trace it to the pale, moist atmosphere of Bedford Square. This is the architecture of the computer screen, of the parallel global light.



Images used under Creative Commons from Zio Paolino


There is more if one is inclined to continue, such as the difficulty of employing such an inflexible space as a museum (theoretically there to enforce a dialogue between building and exhibition—in practice, narcissism in cement and steel, the architectural means overriding the artistic ends). But the success of the building is not the point here. You have to take the good with the bad after all, and by definition, grand gestures include the risk of grand failure. The MAXXI might or might not stand the test of time, and we can leave it to the future writers of Lonely Planet: Rome to decide if it merits a boxed entry. No, the interesting bit lies elsewhere, because if one looks carefully, a pattern starts to emerge.

Hadid, a preeminent paper architect for many years, had a radically different approach in her formative years. Her early work has strong constructivist influences, with the inescapable Bauhaus references and some automatic drawing touches thrown in for good measure. Her architecture is a direct product of early OMA, one measure Koolhaas, one Zenghelis. In her unbuilt competition entries there is a very strong sense of the straight line defining the space, separating the concepts. It is not the architecture of the box, but that of the square, fixed forever in two-and-a-half dimensions, slave to the isometric. When there are more experimental forms, as in the case of the Vitra Fire Station, it is not a sculptural feeling that dictates the design, but the plan and the cross-section. As for fluidity, well, this is conveniently confined to the immediate landscape, like the average third semester school project. Then, suddenly, in the late ’90s computers appear. And they bring the gift of the curve.

Hadid is known for many things, but technological wizardry is not among them. This of course has never been a problem for any noughties starchitect, competence being available in abundance if one has the budget to afford it. The implication being of course that it was only technical skills that were being bought, not a whole design philosophy. In this case though, the evidence seem to favor the latter. Granted, Hadid has produced many beautiful buildings, where the possibilities the computer opened simply complement a distinct architectural touch; the Bergisel Ski Jump and Ordrupgaard Museum Extension being but two famous examples. The same period saw works like the Rosenthal Center, which bears a definite link to what could be a coherent design philosophy.


Image used under Creative Commons from ARKNTINA


But by the end of the past decade, this promising thread was ever harder to find. Instead there emerged random architecture, abstract curvilinear forms whose only benefit seem to be a perceived “newness.” Maybe it is the curse of modernity, wanting to stay on the cutting edge through an unquestioning adoption of technology, an architectural echo of the sixty-year-old manager with the iPhone apps. In any case the end result is often questionable. Perhaps frustratingly, the more random the parameters inserted in the computer, the more repetitive the result ends up appearing. Many fields can offer explanations for this, from the philosophy of aesthetics to neurobiology, but the most direct route might simply be that we are witnessing a craftswoman with a limited command of her tools.

That the defining tool is the computer cannot be doubted and perhaps cannot be avoided. MAXXI might be the most obvious example of that, which explains itself all the way to a pompous external form that can only be fully experienced on a computer screen. This is not a building to interact with as either a pedestrian, an admirer of the skyline, or even as a helicopter passenger—this is the architecture of the 3-D orbit, where the camera moves for the benefit of a still user. Outside this, other examples point to even more obvious usages. An appealing, even deceiving, presentation has been an architectural selling point ever since the Académie d'architecture started offering architecture classes. However Hadid seems to slowly rely on the computer more and more. The Lillium Tower in Poland and the New York 2012 Olympic Village, with their misleading transparencies; the Zurich Circle and the New Dance and Music Center in the Hague, with their artificial manipulation of light point to an almost naive fascination with elementary computer graphic effects. Perhaps more worryingly, they lead to an unavoidable homogenization, an obliteration of individual graphic design styles for the newest Mental Ray effect. Where is the avant-garde in the light bulb highlights of the Sunrise Tower?

Maybe this is just a phase; architecture will catch up with technology and the computer will stop leading the design. Maybe the inability to handle the computer makes a more insidious point: perhaps the designers that wore the mantle of the post-postmodern superstar were simply the people that shouted the loudest and wore the coolest clothes (glasses), whose artistic and intellectual depth went as far as the next commission. As for Flaminio, it’s going to be fine. Three hundred meters from the MAXXI is Nervi’s beautiful Palazzetto dello Sport. Not very well kept and unadvertised, yet standing there gentlemanly modest, effortlessly elegant, an argument for structural rationalism and an architecture that is meant to be built, not clicked.


Panagiotis Patlakas, MEng MArchStudies CEng MICE, is an engineer with an interest in architecture and informatics. He specializes in programming applications for the built environment and is involved in both commercial and academic projects in the field. He is Lecturer in Construction Engineering in Southampton Solent University, and Guest Lecturer in CAAD at the School of Architecture of the University of Sheffield (UK).