Friday, March 17, 2017

Architectural Cage Match: MAD vs. BIG

In this article we try to exercise our good judgement by comparing two works each from two rival design studios. Each firm has expanded their branches all over the world but I still find where their home base is located informs their style. Copenhagen has been driving European style and technology trends for years now so it should be no surprise the Bjarke Ingels Group emerged as a leader in the field as clients looked around to hire some of that avantgarde postmodern appeal themselves. MAD Architects continues to open satellite offices from their Beijing headquarters, infusing their projects with that perfect sense of asymmetrical balance Asian art is known for. While trying to pick strong candidates to represent each, I'm definitely bias toward MAD Architects on the account of having lived overseas in Asia for years, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot we can learn from BIG Architects as well.

To my eye, a lot of BIG Architects' portfolio strikes me as quite monolithic; and not the good type of Minecraft monolithic, but rather a more sinister dystopian future type monolithic. Modern designs' demand to be multi-functional highlights the fact some of the spaces created around their buildings become very inhospitable to humans under certain conditions. That said, one project where the monolithic forms create a balanced impression is the soon to be completed LEGO House in Billund, Denmark. Set to open later this year to hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, here I think the placement of shapes to echo the placement of LEGO bricks was appropriate and successful. There is a restraint in the design characteristic of traditional and modern Japanese architecture but missing in other BIG projects. The Grove at Grand Bay, Miami, is another tower complex which BIG Architects executed successfully. Some might be getting tired of white parametric designs going up all over the world, but I really identify with the style's rhythm. It's very musical to me. The Miami example also thankfully transitions away from being a strict rectangular prism skyscraper by including a dramatic twist at the bottom which is both visually playful and structurally challenging. This is another way BIG distinguishes themselves: they relish technical challenges, having recently opened a multidisciplinary engineering services firm under the Bjarke Ingels Group umbrella. And architectural and engineering challenges is always something we always champion here on the blog. 

A close comparison of the style is offered by MAD Architects' Absolute Towers of Mississauga, ON. Here the floor plate shape, in addition to structure, is manipulated to artistic and aesthetic ends through parametric modelling. The design pulls ahead of the BIG example because the curvilinear form smartly breaks away from monolithic characteristics. Again, the flowing rhythm and music of the design is excellent. Lastly, we come to MAD Architects' Harbin Opera House of Harbin, China, completed in 2015. The structure is a true tour de force of design, especially in its attention to detail. I really have to give credit to the studio for being able keep the aesthetic style consistent and functional at all scales. This represents a completely non-trivial challenge which many structures don't even attempt to solve, explaining why so many of our buildings end up looking the way they do and falling short on creativity. The Harbin Opera House is certainly a good example of the level of execution expected to be truly worthy of celebration and study. No one said being at the sharp point of design was going to be easy.

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