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 García 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.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Annual Update 2016

The Birdsell Family & Friends Brain Cancer Research Fund has a lot to be grateful for in 2016. Past the halfway mark in our five year commitment, we're happy to report the fund is ahead of pace. This comes as a relief to the organizers but also represents an achievement the whole family can all be proud of this Christmas season. In September I held a successful DJ fundraiser in Calgary and my Mom supported the fund throughout the year by parting with many beautiful Chigiri-e pictures in exchange for donations (Chigiri-e is a Japanese art that my Mom does which uses high-quality paper to create images). Aunt Judy and Uncle Terry did yeoman's work raising awareness of the fund within their circle of friends and we wish to extend a warm thanks to all who contributed.

Donations to the BFFBCRF support the Impact Grant Program established by the Canadian Cancer Society which targets brain cancer research in Canada with a high probability of significant progress in the near future. As my knowledge of cancer research grows, it's intimidating how complex the challenge is: Post-graduate students hunch over lab benches investigating the most minute interactions of cancer and the brain; the interconnectedness of the human body is a constant source of mystery as to whether scientists are seeing a cause-and-effect relationship or simply a correlation in their data. But even if such challenges lay ahead it's time such attention was paid: firstly, survivorship rates of brain cancer continue to lag behind that of other types of cancer; and secondly, the late-term effects of brain cancer tend to be more severe and can include psychological or social problems, learning disabilities, growth and developmental issues, and hearing difficulties.

But here is the great thing if readers should wish to honour the BFFBCRF with a donation: Brain Canada, a national non-profit, will match our family's contribution meaning we as a group have the power to affect brain cancer research in Canada to a tune of $50 000! Amazing! We hope family and friends have a great 2017 and begin to fortify themselves against the final push to reach our goal in 2018 – a goal which now appears increasingly doable! 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Skyscrapers Effect on the Urban Fabric

Skyscrapers and high rise buildings represent large investments and therefore should demand the very best of architectural criticism. In a jarring experience last week I was reminded that sometimes websites rush to feed the content treadmill before considering the reader. All readers are of immense value and I'm grateful for each. Now more than ever tall structures need our scrutiny. London has something like 119 applications in the pipeline (thought it's expected not all will be built) and juggernauts like Gehry and Foster are facing off in downtown Toronto. Who's the one who's going to go out on a limb and pick favourites?

Below is a composite of several diagrid structures. I'll send you to writer and subject matter expert @TerriBoake for more specifics on that but the point which bares reflection is that urban planners negative reaction to skyscrapers appears to be somewhat justified. We've covered on the blog before the somewhat dubious thermal properties of high rise buildings clad in glass and current research in the urban design field is only starting to come to grips with some of the negative quality-of-life issues arising from letting the free market totally dictate the form of our cities. 

Skirting the economic issues we return to the aesthetic. It pains me greatly such a great symbol of human's propensity to create is so flawed. And specifically, if we must accept some flaws to just get anything built, then can't we at least push the design further? Foster's daigrid skyscrapers to the center and and right fair much better against Eric Parry Architects' 1 Undershaft. The pressure from the developers here is very evident. One can imagine design meetings where the developer, in this case representatives from Singapore property developers Aroland Holdings, is basically giving ultimatums to Eric Parry to maximize the floor plate no matter what. That's how we end up with a boring rectangular prism for our great expense. I guess staying positive there could be awesome interior design and retail architecture. Plus one can at least still implement some sustainable technology.

In the running for best daigird high rise is Hearst Tower out of New York. I've always felt a bit iffy about the structure's connection to the historic base but at least above there is a lot going on. At least there trying something here. In case you'd like to see more urban high rise architecture, please check out the excellent feed of @tectonicphoto!

A photo posted by Tectonic (@tectonicphoto) on

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Very Best Architectural Model Making

A wonderful new museum in Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo makes me want to return again as soon as possible. Reminiscing about my old life in Japan I need not feel guilty about missing this highlight last time since the museum wasn't established until this year. Archi-Depot's goal is to try to restore and display architectural models from some of Japan's leading architects; architects I've been studying for quite a long time actually. International artists are also being included as the collection develops. Lots of different types of architectural model are represented; massing models, site models, architectural features, conceptual etc. The museum, run by Yuta Tokunaga, is apparently soliciting for financial support as well which is something I will definitely look into doing in the future because it's somewhere I'd definitely want to visit. These small pieces are wonderful!

Competing with these stunning handmade models in the 21st century is a new technology and it's time we highlight a studio doing all the right things with 3D printing. MATT Architecture of London has done an excellent job leveraging the rapid prototyping capabilities of 3D printing to design better. Daniel Lauand, architect at MATT Architecture, hits the nail on the head when he explains in the article:

“Whilst architects have always constructed physical models to test and evaluate design decisions, 3D printing opened up the possibility of increasing the frequency and complexity of this iterative process between digital model and physical artefact.”

Increasing the frequency and complexity of the iterations has a significant impact on improving the quality of a design. Or another way of looking at it; making more mistakes in the design process allows more mistakes to be fixed. I always thank the Mythbusters for championing the claim "failure is always an option" and that goes to the heart of why physical massing models etc. are so helpful whether 3D printed or handmade. The complexities are grasped more quickly and problems identified. But only with a 3D printing workflow can that iteration cycle be compressed and costs reduced. The included video narrates MATT Architecture's 3D printing process and features an upcoming project. Props to @all3dp for releasing their article under CC4.0. 

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Urban Planning Controversy Stalks Architecture Festival

Not Patrik Schumacher
I was looking at posting something about architectural 3D printing but instead was lured to post about the recent comments of Patrik Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, at the World Architecture Festival. This is the most excitement the World Architecture Festival has had in years! And though I don't often post about urban planning nor court controversy on the blog now that some time has past and dust settled we can return to ask: what was he thinking?!?!?

Schumacher has since walked back his statements on slashing public housing and privatizing public spaces. He retreated to the common position others have taken that he was just trying to raise awareness of the issue. I will take him at his word on that. But a lot can be perceived from other's reactions to his statement about the forces which shaped what he said and why people supported it. U.K. developers, for instance, seem to be siding with Schumacher that there is too much regulation. I feel safe in assuming Schumacher has never need avail himself of subsidized housing which, at least in part, explains why he was so dismissive of a whole group of people in coming to his conclusion. In walking his statements back he continued to suggest too much regulation is hurting the development of low income housing. I'm sympathetic toward this argument since I sit next to a copy of the National Building Code and it's a beast to build with. That said, if less regulations were a panacea for better social housing, non-profits were non-existent in their support if it. Public housing advocates knew he was out to lunch; economists as well. The free market does many things well but it's a mistake to think it's perfect and low-income housing is one of those pragmatic necessities for a city that defies an easy market solution. I actually don't think I'm saying anything particularly controversial in the field of economics but in many ways this breaks down to a classic Marxist analysis and many do not like mixing politics and architecture.

Schumacher will live to design another day but apparently he has taken a position only he himself will be able to resolve the contradictions of.