Thursday, January 19, 2017

Non-Conformist Design Rules


The Wa Shan Guesthouse, completed in 2013 and located in east coast city of Hangzhou, China, is the sort of building that has always fueled my advocacy for architecture being the highest art. This Pritzker-winning structure again came to my attention the other day in the strangest of ways: an architecture video. Maybe that isn't so surprising but it's the video's approach that fell flat. Where was the celebration of architecture? The approach was so reserved and conservative; and while I'm each conservative, boring, and mediocre; celebrating architecture, on the other hand, is something I try to do to excess.


The architect Wang Shu is a really interesting guy. He's actually Dean of the School of Architecture and has had a hand in designing the entire China Academy of Art's Xiangshan campus whose construction has unfolded in several phases under his supervision during the last decade. One of the qualities I most respect about Wang Shu is that he is an admitted non-conformist. Japanese game creator Shigeru Miyamoto (Nintendo) also shares this characteristic. I know from experience that taking an unconventional position, though perhaps prevailing in the end, often produces strong head winds. But one doesn't produce this type of architecture – just so off the charts excellent – without zagging when others zigged. (There's always a time-and-place for probability modelling and value-engineering in the AEC industry; it just happens to be in another post.)

Looking at the layout of the building and extending to its details notice everything is presented as united from one mind. There's not many signs of computational-optimization or value-engineering. This human touch does a great deal in creating the relaxing atmosphere of the complex. If I had more time and resources this is where I would elaborate on elements of Feng Shui I see benefiting the project but will instead skip to the architect's brilliant use of materials. Rammed earth, wood and ceramics are all natural materials which react to kindly to the human-touch. Bonus: super sustainable.

I don't want to move on without noting one use of computational design in the structure: those amazing wood trusses! I actually don't know much about them, but that might not be a good standard since I want to know everything about them. They certainly are unique and guests of the China Academy of Arts will, on the whole, certainly be in for a treat if they get to stay here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Super Good Commercial Office Design


The ongoing Toronto Design Offsite Festival (and upcoming Toronto Interior Design Show) has me thinking about interiors. In the commercial office especially, the subject represents a fascinating intersection of creativity and productivity and I'm sorry to have missed an opportunity to tour some of the coolest design studios in Toronto. Contributing to the celebration of architecture, today we look outward from Toronto toward some of the best, most comfortable, sustainable offices in the world. The thread connecting them all is the expertise of Burohappold Engineering (who I have absolutely no connection to whatsoever, other than my pattern of highlighting excellent architecture).


The first building we visit is the Q22 in Warsaw designed by Architect Kurylowicz and Associates. Management consultants Deloitte – a company I have always liked but has little connection to the architectural field – show excellent design taste, or at least a smart brand strategy, by choosing to locate their Polish headquarters in Q22. The interiors of their office show the excellent potential of the interior spaces. All building services were super-charged to provide world-class efficiency, including waste water and elevators, to achieve a BREEAM rating of excellence. A nice touch was the use of triple-glazed glass in the project, a feature I've called out for before on the blog, and therefore deserves credit here.  

The next example is the dramatic new Emerson College building sitting on Sunset Blvd. where they hope it will become a permanent home for their internship program. If I didn't already know Emerson College was a film school there is scant info available about what internship programs are offered here. Certainly not animal husbandry. The form of this building is as extreme as it is creative and no doubt caused the structural engineers some head scratching at points. Beyond being notable for winning many awards the year it was completed (2016) there was quite a lot of energy modelling, both solar and thermal, which informed the designed. And again, because the form is so unconventional, so too is the challenge of modelling it.


The ambitious architects of the above project, Morphosis Architects, also have a cute connection to Burohappold Engineering in that they were consulted when the firm opened a new studio in Culver City, CA. From the images it looks like a great place to work and I'm always somewhat surprised when other companies don't take such a proactive approach to the health and happiness of their workers. Lots of fresh air and sunlight flood the interior but it's all been executed with great care to limit drafts and annoying high-contrast areas of sunlight throughout the day.

This leads us to Burohappold Engineering's own self-designed offices in L.A. (800 Wilshire Boulevard) which, while perhaps being slightly less ambitious than some of the designs they contribute to, nonetheless shows a strong commitment to the health, wellness and social equity issues the firm represents. The space was also granted a Sustainable Innovation Award in 2016 which recognizes facilities in L.A. that develop and push sustainable design without necessarily strictly adhering to the standardized LEED checklist. While high-profile design might not be available, or even a goal, to everyone, making inviting, comfortable, and healthy work spaces is achievable for any firm.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Engineering 3D Printed Architecture

Last month a small milestone was reached with the erection of a 3D printed concrete bridge over a polite stream in a civic park of Alcobendas, Spain. It caught my attention because it was one of only a few projects I've come across whose engineering was rigorously studied and recorded during the design and construction process, here undertaken by The Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. The bridge is composed of a 40-foot span made in eight sections, made of recycled materials, which I assume is concrete, but what is the glue? Dear goodness to make a bridge out of this product what on earth is holding it together? So as the reader can see I still have questions despite my best internet sleuthing.



Moving to its design, I was a bit underwhelmed compared to what's coming out of the modern Catalonia region. Reports suggest the design was meant to be reminiscence and twigs and branches, which does relate to its civic setting. And though I think there are some amazingly cool applications of biomimicry in architectural 3D printing this was not what I was expecting; then I saw all the happy people on the bridge in the below attached Spanish-language news report and knew we needed to celebrate this piece on the blog.

This project is an important step in studying the engineering characteristics of 3D printed structures. Jurisdictions need evidenced-based data to judge the suitability and safety of these new structures. One important step is dynamic and static analysis of the bridge, which is actually pretty standard stuff in the industry to the best of my knowledge, but specialized. Where we often fly into the unknown are 3D printed structures' long-term behaviour. The worse case scenario is that the bridge starts to decompose in the first rain. Barring that, municipalities and owners want to know what their maintenance responsibilities will be over the life of the structure. Arriving at a narrow topic from the broad probably makes this a good place to stop and I will keep my more detailed thoughts for the major motion picture.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Retail Design Has Changed


The architecture, engineering, and construction sector is particularly susceptible to the type of anxiety and instability remarked on by nearly everyone these days. What client boldly looks at an uncertain future and answers "let's build!"? Hoping 2017 is better, one bright spot to report is the retail sector. Not only is the sector undergoing fascinating changes but people are building, with hints the sector is set to grow in the next year.

In general, people's habits changed to purchase more goods online and old media's influence shrank. It's a credit to the magnitude of change in the retail sector that returns architecture to a relevant role in marketing a brand. I'm rather accepting of the idea clients might want to express their brand in architecture. Some want to express their brand more literally as a style, which I guess is alright – it gets stuff built – but what I rather see is clients trying connecting with the community through good design. I'm not alone in advocating this; whole online magazines are dedicated to this segment and we're going to touch on a few of the best of the best here to encourage more excellent design in our neighbourhoods.  


credit Ed Reeve
The archetype here is the Apple store, the hard work of setting the pace of innovation done by the now well-known firms of Eight Inc. and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. I'm not going to dwell too much on them because there's already been a tonne written about them and the world is big and filled with good design. Ultimately, this is sort of the mould of what a store redesigned as an experience looks like.

I'm a big fan of Herzog & de Meuron's Tate Modern extension and tucked inside is Amsterdam-based UXUS's museum gift shop. The interior looks great through a tall floor-to-ceiling windows even before entering. One inside customers can quickly tell the interior was extremely well-thought out. There's excellent visibility and space to move around; the store is logically laid out and designed to contrast the functions of different areas by using different materials; and the whole thing is flexible and can be rearranged on occasion to keep things fresh.  

Overall, UXUS's portfolio impresses with their examples. Again and again there's a focus on the customer's experience which other designers either miss or is simply not appropriate for the type of commercial project to be undertaken. There's is a blindspot for the firm however, and that's sustainable design, which must be included on any scorecard these days to avoid an architectural retail catastrophe (like all the abandoned big ugly grey boxes built by one giant retailer who shall remain anonymous). Here the sustainable connection would seem rather obvious since Apple continues to march toward 100% renewable energy use while the UXUS website doesn't even use the colour green anywhere I could see (which of course we know really doesn't mean anything anyways).


Thursday, January 05, 2017

Playing Music Loudly in Architecture


I imagine many readers like myself love music. Music reproduction intersects with architecture exactly in the study of acoustics. The field is now extremely software driven but if we had more time to acquaint ourselves with the history of acoustics in architecture it would reveal traditional builders skillful balancing several contradictory functions. It's recognized the best materials for high and low frequencies require different qualities; the highs needing harder surfaces to keep the sound lively while some type of absorbent material helps tame the low end. There is also the matter of "standing waves", having to do with how sound reflects in the environment and is the exact point where the subject starts to become complex. A little reflection is natural, allowing the singer or instrument to be located in a defined space and melody to breath. Too much reflection and the room response becomes uneven.



Starting on the grandest level possible is MAD's Harbin Opera House. Surprisingly, I'm still introducing people to this amazing structure. The thing is completely radical and a tour-de-force inside and out. It looks good from every angle; which is not easy for a 850,000 sq. ft. building. The acoustic engineering was done by the East China Architectural Design & Research Institute which will probably make it difficult to get an appointment for your project.




Luckily there other buildings on our list and now we come to an absolute technical tour-de-force: Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie. The site in Hamburg is much more constricted than the Harbin Opera House site but the architects succeeded in creating a stunning building that stands out at a distance on the horizon. Once inside everything, including the kitchen sink, has been thrown at the venue's acoustics. One nice touch is the dramatic mechanical separation seen in section. The team was lead by acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota who seems to have singlehandedly modelled this entire hall himself from his sci-fi headquarters in Tokyo. A unique feature of this hall are its sound panels. I've never seen anything like them but they immediately reminded me of a natural material (specifically the rock scalloping erosion pattern seen in underground rivers, which has to do with the math turbulence, which gets us back to sound reproduction). It's also the first large scale example I can recall using random parametric design, which beyond the similarities to geometries found in nature also contributes acoustic benefits as well (by breaking up standing waves).



Getting a bit smaller still we come to the lovely interior of Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts at Queens University, Kingston. Architects Snohetta from Norway are getting a lot of international projects and it's easy to see why. The wood paneling here is very well done and does an excellent job defining the forms of the interior. I can just imagine leaning over and listening to a solo piano recital here. The acoustic engineering credit here goes to those ever over-achievers at Arup.

To expand a bit on the software now driving the industry, Arup has been very proactive explaining their technology to the public and prospective clients. Arup calls their software approach "Sound Lab" and it goes way beyond concert halls. This is because our urban sonic environments have become much more complex and municipalities are calling for expertise in judging the sonic implications of civil engineering projects. Returning, however, to software; Aurp's in-house software does pretty much what you'd expect, model the proposed acoustic environment virtually. The size of the hall and aesthetics we demand of interiors means the only reasonable way to reduce the possibility of standing waves is to sonically model the interior. This presents an insurmountable obstacle to those hoping to enter the acoustic engineering market but I have to admit their results are compelling. If you're still interested in learning more about the state-of-the-art of concert hall design please check out the linked video below.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Celebrating Contemporary Latin American Architecture


My interest in contemporary Latin American architecture has grown over the last couple of years because of some of the strong colourful examples coming from the continent are so refreshing. I've kept on top of it all year and plan to hit two of 2016's highlights by the end of the post. 

The San Pedro Garza GarcĂ­a community looks like just a wonderful setting for a hotel. Tall green hedges border the roads, which in turn wind up into the hills, the whole neighbourhood being nestled right under Cumbres de Monterrey National Park which it settles a tranquil atmosphere over area. The Hotel Habita in Monterrey, Mexico is an attractive example of a radically organized building. I find its street views hold up very well and want to add the firm of Landa Architects seems to be absolutely crushing it in the region with a very strong portfolio. Just to be through, double checking the reviews on Tripadvisor the hotel doesn't seem that bad either.  


Explora Park is science museum in Medellin, Mexico. Many readers will have grown up in an era where most municipalities recognize the importance of STEM subjects and at least attempt to engage the topic through public architecture. The obvious connections here are with San Francisco's Exploratorium and California Academy of Sciences (which I blogged about previously). Had to brush up on what a "vivarium" was and wish I had more details on its sustainability measures. Another interesting angle to this building is the strong support the structure received from the local publicly owned utilities. They showed a lot of leadership in establishing technological innovation and high-profile design projects as public priorities. Architect Alejandro Echeverri's firm is doing all sorts of interesting things with parametric design and modular construction but, alas, most of it appears conceptual. The four red boxes are bold exclamation marks to the building's presence but are configured to allow lots of natural light into the interior. 


Also in the past year I've come across the wonderful work of Brazilian architectural photographer Leonardo Finotti. He's working all over the world these days but his collection of South American work shows great creativity and colour and therefore I am embolden to recommend him here.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

6 Qualities of a Building Information Modelling Mandate



I've held a deep interest in the mechanisms which help us design and build for a long time simply because it contributes to the final goal of supporting all who design and build as well. My surveillance of the subject came to an arresting stop last week when I came across the claim some rather exotic research regarding BIM implementation in Australia was "equally well known". What drew me to reread the article instead of ranting against its assumptions was that the author was right; as BIM standards become stronger it will be possible to increase the benefits of collaboration. There were some problems with the article however; the text is dense and dry; and by the time the piece gets to describing what type of BIM mandate should be implemented in North America only the bravest BIM fanboys and fangirls will have lasted to the final page. Therefore, to help spread a good idea, we're going to breakdown the article's six qualities of a BIM mandate here in a more digestible format so that readers can take that information forward into the new year and hopefully build with it. 

The mandate should:
  • Have a clearly defined scope. 
  • Describe all relevant requirements, outcomes, and deliverables.
  • Reference international standards (ISOs, IFCs, etc.) whenever possible. 
  • Work like a national BIM standard building code. 
  • Be scalable to cover various types and levels of implementation. 
  • Evolve as industry implementation matures.  
A shared characteristic of the above suggestions is that they all foster interoperability. If one is looking for a model to follow, one need look no further than the U.K. who – annoyingly for someone who loves to build – continue to advance digital manufacturing techniques beyond Canada. I find the jurisdictional reactions to BIM in Europe comforting, especially as issues of sustainability continue to dominate the design process, because it seems like building information modelling might finally offer an excellent entrance into applying performance based building codes through the analysis of building models.

Not directly addressed in the article but hinted at by the website hosting the piece, the construction industry is really relying on designers to implement the technology first. When using a BIM workflow to design a complex structure, a significant amount of the resulting productivity and quality come from considering the construction phase much earlier in the design process (through the use of manufacturer models etc.).  

Though I'm at pains to stress the cooperative nature of the technology, the process still has a direction to the flow. For the construction industry to see the full benefits of BIM; architects, engineers, and designers will have to bare designing the digital model first. I, for one, am up to the challenge because the world definitely needs more architecture. A good example of this digital collaboration between architects and contractors on a complex project is Calatrava's Oculus World Trade Center Transportation Hub, a fun short video of which sits below. 



Thursday, December 15, 2016

Architectural Statement Recognized For Global Excellence



We're going to be looking at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens today. I've known of this building for while but the idea to post about it was sparked by President Obama's recent visit to the center. Some coverage of the event showcased the venue and it's spectacular; combining a theater, library and park into a single structure. Central to the mission of this blog is to identify patterns of good design. Renzo Piano's Workshop again distinguishes itself by designing a building that is 1) sustainable and 2) extremely well-thought out in its details.

This architectural jewel presents something of a contrast with Greece's current situation. In the larger context, Greece has always led the way in establishing culture and this project shows strong reserves of architectural confidence. It was hard to find a good perspective describing all that's going on in this site. The large green roof of the library which creates the hill is kind of woven into the urban fabric at the bottom which builds toward the west before opening up onto high views of the harbour beyond. In preparing materials for this post I couldn't find reference to what I assume must be one of the structures' antecedents: the Acropolis. Its planes and columns also situated grandly on a hill in the city.


There are more cool details inside the building than I can possibly cover in one post but with limited space wanted to feature a topic we don't often cover on the blog: Landscape architecture. Needless to say, the project thoroughly researched and executed a sustainable landscape design on a high level. I think what the park captures especially well, and what I wish was more often replicated else where, is that exploratory attitude of curiosity and adventure. The park's many paths, playgrounds, pools, and open spaces combine to give each visitor a unique experience. On an urban planning note, the center's park offers much needed green space to Athens which currently has one of the lowest per capita green space rates in Europe. To info dump the good stuff for the horticultural fans:
"Greece’s strong horticultural tradition is celebrated in the open, sunlit Mediterranean Garden. The plant palette alone will make the garden a destination: evergreen and other endemic plants such as boxwood, coronilla, cistus, and lentisc, salvia, oregano, thyme, lavender, rosemary, roses and euphorbias – all add to the sensual pleasure of a visit. Each month will bring a new color, and each season will introduce a different combination of flowers or foliage."


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Mini-Review: Postmodern Residential Design



This article about postmodern residential architecture is the result of my most up-voted Reddit comment of last week. Hadaway House in Whistler B.C., certainly deserves some critical inspection because there's lots we can learn to make good architecture better. It's a striking house – both inside and out – and from the pictures in the linked article there's lots of details to absorb like custom glazing and carpentry which can translate in more average homes as very nice architectural features.

The interior styling is a bit Zen and people are going to fall where they may on whether they like it or not. I like it. The architectural field is so visual somehow it feels appropriate after coming home from the art gallery to feel relaxed around white walls with no clutter. On the other hand, there are the practicalities of daily life to consider and some high-quality high-design built-in shelving would go along way toward making living in an architectural statement more liveable. The third option is that this was just for the photoshoot anyways and after the photographer left all the smartphone cables etc. came out again.


The real genius of the structure, and characteristic my comment captured, is that the interior is very well conceived. As I wrote this post I struggled with exactly how to expand on this characteristic. It's very subtle. A commenter on the Dezeen article noted that the interior was "sympathetically" modelled and I somehow find myself agreeing with this sentiment. To try to nail down a more precise description of why I'd paid Patkau Architects big bucks to design my house (with whom I have absolutely no connection with by the way) I would please draw the reader's attention to how the edges of the walls and ceiling form neat vertices like true facets of a crystal. Headroom and dead space are each maximized and minimized in turn. This is a completely non-trivial mental exercise and one which I'd be very curious to know what, if any, methodologies were behind it. I mean, I have my approach but I'm far from knowing if it's optimal or not. Unfortunately, in reviewing materials for this piece I did not come across exactly from whose mind this design dropped out of but maybe this is because it was a collaborative effort anyways.

Any scorecard considering perfect architecture in the 21st century needs to account for sustainability. Giving the benefit of the doubt to the client all those windows are triple glazed, I'm more concerned with the exact type of wood used for the exterior. Looks good doesn't it? It has a diverse range of tones which adds great depth to the texture. It's a type of South American hardwood called Ipe. I'm not familiar with ipe at all but do know bulk lumber doesn't make it's way to the interior of B.C. without leaving one large carbon footprint behind. Hint: there's renewable pine and spruce out every window (well, not really, but you get the point). And that's just the thing, LEED Platinum or Living Building certification isn't necessary. But some evidence of an attempt in that direction; acknowledgement that it's an issue; would have gone a long way to blunting this criticism and turning this into a bit more of a celebration. That said, maybe we'll be surprised? Maybe this house was built carbon neutral? That would be enough for me to get the party started again, because really, my threshold to celebrate building and architecture is notoriously low.

To read more about the house, the original Reddit thread can be found here.