Architects: it can’t be Santa Claus forever…

Around 150 years ago, started the big party for architects . Except for the elevator, the consequences of which I wrote in a previous article , many new other inventions came available, thanks to fossil energy: (reinforced) concrete, steel, glass, plastics. And the architects celebrated , what ever they designed , it could be built. Or the engineers found ways to make it. It was like Santa Claus, and in fact they are still celebrating. Still experimenting , making one of a kind. No common single language of form or materialization has developed since then. On the other side, even any distinction in location due to local climates and resources has disappeared. And buildings are on their own, no relation with the neighboring building, which prevents unity at street or neighborhood level.

One of the main rogues was Le Corbusier, who lost himself in megalomane projects, like the towers in ‘ plan Voisin’ for Paris , in which ‘man’ became inferior to architecture, or part of ’the delusions of the architect’. And urban planning is still hampered by this .For example in the density of cities discussion. Most dense cities in history where low-rise cities, like for instance Venice, which housed 150.000 people a km2 in the Renaissance. Even in 1960 it was still 100.000, and nowadays 65000. Compared this to New York and Paris inner cities with 21.000 , which are among the most dense in the world. And to know that Paris inner cities low-rise style of 5 to 6 levels has the most energy efficient lay out of many cities compared. Both were way out of sight for le Corbusier. What he caused however with his towers, was to take public space and make it private space around his towers. In the more dense and livable cities, there is hardly private space, private and public space are united and intermingled used which is what makes these cities livable and lively. *

At building level we also still have to deal with delusions of architects. The most disastrous example of that time is the Rietveld Schröder house. World famous, but slapped together by a carpenter in love, without much knowledge of construction. He wanted to show of, to copy modernism, to impress his client with whom he later married. And inspired by another not-architect, the painter Mondriaan. And he made a puppet-house, that was intended to be made of concrete, but couldn’t,: it was impossible to make the castings for his forms. So it ended up to be constructed without a drop of concrete, made of steel, bricks and wooden beams, hided behind plaster to suggest its was concrete. Until up today, millions of tourists buy the story. Its a sham of modernism. Which at the same time creates the biggest problem of the house: it has sheer endless need of maintenance, structurally, and to keep up appearances. Its the Dutch house with the largest maintenance demand.

There are even girders located above window-frames. The biggest mortal sin a architect can make.

And, as I mentioned speaking with Rietveld’s former assistant and at the time responsible for restoration of the house, ‘ it has some cold-bridges, does it? ‘. ‘What?’, he reacted,’ its one big cooling machine’. And besides its as leak as a sieve.

There have been made calculations with different scenario’s to make the house more energy efficient, and with a combination of every measure thinkable. Which came out for a energy performance factor of 1,92 At a time in the Netherlands the standard was 1,2 , now 0,4, and in short 0. ( without measures its was above 6) It was impossible to come close to a reasonable performance, even for that time. A proof that architecture is not free: Its impossible to have architectural freedom prevail over reasonable energy and material performances.

This ‘rubbish’ of a building, entered the UN world heritage list, and still acts as a iconic archetype for many students worldwide. Even in a time when no-one was aware of resource scarcity and climate change, this was already a horrible building, which in my view should be demolished, and all pictures destroyed. The more today. Or maybe even better: make it a monument for megalomania, to learn how it not should be done.

I once presented this argumentation for an audience of hundreds of Brazilian architecture students in Sao Paulo, and I have never been questioned so much afterwards in my life. They queued up to convince me it was beautiful and innovative , and I should have understanding for that. But what if its disastrous to construct like that for climate and resources, should we let prevail and stick to the subjective beauty of things? ( And what is beauty anyhow…)

Besides, his famous chair, which I had to re-make during my studies, is a torturing device, you can’t spent more then two minutes sitting in it. The argument, that this is not the intention, but that its a icon in search of modernism, is an example of the blasé world many designers live in. Its really indulging in luxury, leading to excesses and unprecedented energy and materials use, which will cause big problems to the future generations. Louis XIV, the ‘Louis-from-apres-nous-le-deluge’ would be stunned even.

There is also a modern copy of Rietveld and le Corbusier: being Calatrava. His first work as an engineer, since thats what he is, was promising: a door in Dublin, that when opened created a graceful cover. Brilliant, I was impressed. Bit that was a door/gate. Soon after he became too confident and lost sight . After some bridges, he started designing buildings. His tower for Malmö, named Turning Torso, since its was copied from his twisted body view in a mirror, was a disaster. From cost point of view, it was intended for social housing but became far too expensive ( as all of his designs) and had to be sold as luxury apartments, but even more in material impact. The tower weighs a stunning 3500 kg/m2 useful floor, mainly due to a double construction, while a standard apartment building does 1000 kg or around. (And that even can be much less). Its resources thrown around. His opera building for Valencia ( estimated from public sources) even hits 5000 kg/m2 . And , apart from some exceptions, weight is a reasonable indicator for impact of materials. In those years he also designed the roof for the Olympic stadium in Athens. Normally you would use the shortest span, but not Calatrava, He took the largest span, nearing 300 meter, in tubes of 3 meter cross, you can walk in. And if it would have made sense… A cover in Athens mainly has to protect spectators from the sun, but the cover of the south-west facing stand does all except this. Its materials investments only to impress. Even the Romans already new how to deal with this: using cloth and cables to cover the Colosseum. (and in the modern Football stadium of Frankfurt they understood this, and did it in a modern way, with cloth again. )

No wonder every client has lawsuits against Calatrava, Its megalomania, and resources squandered.

If everyone would design and build like Calatrava, we were out of resources three times faster, or in other words, we would need an extra 3 earths for architecture only.

And you can see the consequences of these adored examples still in todays architects attitudes and buildings constructed. Still most roofs are not optimized for solar energy applications. And materializing buildings is still made from a luxury position, have no relation with the potential impact whatsoever, in weight or production energy. High-rise is still favored in urban centres, regardless its disadvantages. (see the elevator article)

After 150 years, its about time that architects, except for a minority that has understood this, develop a design language that fits the knowledge and science of our time. That design with respect for what earth can deliver, and what a building can receive as energy. Clear frameworks, stop squandering resources, and as such contribute to reducing climate change effects and resource depletion. It can’t be Santa Claus forever.


* courtesy of Serge Salat

picture:  “bal des beaux arts”, New York 1931. van Alen, van der Rohe, and other architects celebrating and dressed as their designed skyscrapers.

le Corbusier:


Calatrava Athens:

Calatrava Malmo:


Author: ronald rovers