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What is it with architects?

The interesting looking building in the exhibit above was designed for Manhattan internet company IAC by celebrated architect Frank Gehry and completed in 2007. Frank Gehry is of co

IAC building, Manhattan, designed by Frank Gehry (click to look around)

The interesting looking building in the exhibit above was designed for Manhattan internet company IAC by celebrated architect Frank Gehry and completed in 2007. Frank Gehry is of course the designer of the magnificent Guggenheim at Bilbao and the proposed new Dr Chau Chak Wing building at the University of Technology Sydney.

The IAC building reminds me in one critical sense of the Empire State building. Grand entrances with soaring atriums have been a standard component in large buildings for many decades, but despite their imposing proportions and glorious appearance, both the IAC and Empire State buildings have puny entrances.

In the case of the IAC building that’s symptomatic of a serious deficiency. This building simply doesn’t relate well to its context. It offers absolutely nothing to the street at ground level but a solid wall, albeit perhaps an unusual and interesting one. Had the building been “activated” at ground level by (say) cafes, restaurants and shops that opened generously onto the street, it could’ve contributed positively to creating a vibrant street life in this part of Manhattan.

Click this link to wander around the outside of the building courtesy of Google Map’s Street View. I can’t help thinking it looks like a self-storage facility at ground level, albeit a tasty-looking one. Perhaps IAC isn’t entirely comfortable in public with its line of business, which includes the likes of and OKCupid.

This could’ve been a really good building but the ground level doesn’t work. And not just in contextual terms – to my eyes it looks like Gehry’s team didn’t know how to relate those fascinating shapes and that skin to the ground. It’s like they ran out of inspiration when confronted with the reality of the pavement.

41 Cooper Square, Manhattan, by Morphosis architects (click to look around)

Here’s another recent building in Manhattan that also does a poor job of relating to its surroundings. It’s 41 Cooper Square, part of Cooper Union, a privately-funded college in the East Village. It was designed by NY architects Morphosis who say this new academic building:

aspires to manifest the character, culture and vibrancy of both the 150 year-old institution and of the city in which it was founded…… Responding to its urban context, the sculpted facade establishes a distinctive identity for Cooper Square. The building’s corner entry lifts up to draw people into the lobby in a deferential gesture towards the institution’s historic Foundation Building. The facade registers the iconic, curving profile of the central atrium as a glazed figure that appears to be carved out of the Third Avenue facade, connecting the creative and social heart of the building to the street.

Oh dear. You can have a closer look with Google Street View via this link. The building is summed up neatly by Fred Kent from People for Public Spaces: “The Morphosis building in Cooper Square is a disaster at ground level and casts an angry gesture to an historic district recognized the world over as an exciting and unique destination…The East Village”.

Aesthetics is a very subjective topic and you might like the look of this building, but to me it’s as heavy as lead. It doesn’t have the sophistication of Gehry’s effort – it’s all “mum, look at me!” Trouble is, little Johnny looks like a gorilla in a tutu.

There are occasions when an outstanding building that’s visually out of kilter with its surroundings can be justified – for example, Manhattan’s Frank Lloyd Wright designed Solomon R Guggenheim Museum – but this isn’t one of them. Even in a more appropriate setting, 41 Cooper Square would be a building of little consequence.

Victoria Gardens, Richmond, Melbourne (click to look around)

The failure of buildings to give something back at street level isn’t confined to Manhattan. Consider the new Victoria Gardens shopping centre at Richmond in inner city Melbourne. This is a big mall with the standard quota of atriums, movie theatres and chain retailers.

Yet have a look at it from the street using this link, once again courtesy of Google Street View. Although it’s in the inner city and on a tram line, there’s little sense of “activation” at street level. Most of the opposite side of Burnley St has been developed since the Google camera car took these pictures, but the new neighbours mostly look into car park. The entrances for cars are appropriately obvious, but like the ICA building, there’s not much sense of an entrance for anyone on foot.

There are doubtless many examples in Australian cities of buildings that spurn the street. There’s a little chain link symbol in Google Street View that, when pressed, gives the URL of the current view. If anyone has an example of excruciatingly poor urban design, please provide the link in Comments.

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22 thoughts on “What is it with architects?

  1. M Jeffreson

    Contemporary architecture such as that cited here reflects the modernist tendency to regard buildings as singular objects.

    If you look at buildings prior to modernism, extending back to antiquity, they are conceived as compositions of smaller, human scaled components, arranged according to a set of rules (styles) and also according to a certain structural logic that creates a hierarchy of components from street level to the top of the building. This results in architecture that ‘sits on the ground’, and which offers discrete components (such as colonnades, bay windows, façade details) that offer some delight and interest at close range.

    These buildings are also seen as subservient components of a broader urban composition. This is why high quality urban settings are typically made up of visually quiet, elegant buildings that relate strongly together to create coherent and activated urban ‘rooms’. If you put a series of modernist ‘object buildings’ together you get not coherent urban sentences, but a disjointed series of statements, each marked by an exclamation point.

    Similarly, the tendency of modern buildings to emphasise overall form also leads to a preference for repression of anything that would detract from the surface of the building volume, and by the same token the cliché of the ‘floating’ building form. In the case of the examples shown the sculptural form can only work by ‘floating’ the form above the street, which in effect treats the street interface as a shadowline or void, not a rich, activated, humane environment. This is, then, an inevitable consequence of this kind of architectural conception. And it has to be said, this is the dominant design ethos among architects today.

    What is needed then, is a fresh look at ‘component based’ architecture and urban composition, not with the intent of slavish replication, but with a realization that this rich heritage offers examples successful urban form making adaptable to the vital, low energy, walkable, mixed use urban environments of the future.

  2. Cam Head

    Here’s and idea – Go to the building, experience it, talk to people who use the building, and then write an article. An opinion piece on architecture and urban planning informed by your experience in google maps is farcical.
    Wonderful journalism.

  3. Venise Alstergren

    Moderating machine, you have to be blöödy joking!

  4. Venise Alstergren

    ALAN DAVIES: You asked for horrors, and I’ll give you one: Tooronga Village (?) Shopping Centre, Cnr Tooronga Rd and Toorak Roads, Melbourne. (Site of the old drive-in movies) aka Coles Supermarket.

    IMHO it is grotesque. It dominates an area of oldish houses and well kept gardens. Coles got away with this monstrosity because opposite, on the other corner, is a big glass bldg which houses big corporations.

    PS: Why do all big bldgs have to be glass, I dare say it’s all about costs? There are a couple of terrific buildings in South Melbourne near the turnoff to the adjacent freeway.

  5. IkaInk


    As Alan has said in his piece about Fed Square, the location of the building is a big reason for its success. Birrarung Marr is a quiet nice escape from the city, but part of the reason this is true is because very few people use the area, except when events are held. Federation Square would have been far less accessible and therefore far less trafficked had it been pushed into that area.

    On another point, both of the Melbourne buildings you have mentioned are very popular pieces of architecture, so whilst you may not find them aesthetically pleasing, plenty of people do, locations and all.

  6. supermundane

    Nikos Salingaros expresses it well:’s-influence-society-and-consu

    “NS. Actually, all revolutionary movements following World War I wanted a break with the past, and especially with the look of the past, so they embraced buildings that looked sleek, white, and metallic like the machines of the time. They implemented the world revolution that would rebuild humanity through industrialization. This is the link to consumerism, since industry can only produce if the population consumes. Marxism and capitalist consumerism are antithetical, but the socialist state like the capitalist state was fixated upon massive industrial output. And the modernist architectural pioneers were willing agents of industry, making up wild explanations for why the “new” materials were superior, practically and ethically. They sold an industrial product and were rewarded with commissions, fame, and academic positions. Coincidentally, they put traditional construction techniques and a vast network of local building and craft traditions out of business. States, both on the left and on the right, just loved this depersonalized approach to building, where the individual no longer matters and everything is sacrificed to an imposed utopian vision. So you lose the human checks and balances and the industrial system takes over.”

    Enough of the totalist, top-down utopian impositions.

  7. supermundane

    Dispense with the totalitarian thinking, that should’ve been.

  8. supermundane

    @spalding nick
    ‘we aren’t there to copy the past in live in the here and now. We should be looking at how we think we should live in the future….not the next five to ten years, but the next century or two, or all we are doing is rehashing what is already around.’


    Its this notion that you can disregard centuries of practice and unilaterally impose your vision upon the rest of us from above which is the source of so much that’s wrong with the current crop of architects and their work. Dispense with the human and totalitarian thinking. Be modest; humbly standing on top of the shoulders of previous generations and acknowledging the debt you owe; understanding that there are forms and symmetries which resonate universally with human-beings throughout the ages, and that human beings and human society, contrary to your belief and contrary to all the gadgetry isn’t all that different now than in previous generations is a good place to start. We also need to dispense with this false notion that progress is linear and that new necessarily equates with ‘progress’. Start with how human-beings really are and work from there.

  9. spalding nick

    Why do we feel its necessary to own up to being architects or designers before we comment. Sorry but I’m loud and proud….but only a student and that in itself means nothing. I don’t want to rain on parades but there are good and great designers in the world. Sometimes we make mistakes, or don’t listen, or fail to recognise the one truth which should matter most of all…we aren’t there to copy the past in live in the here and now. We should be looking at how we think we should live in the future….not the next five to ten years, but the next century or two, or all we are doing is rehashing what is already around. Far too much design we see today is already out-dated and badly fitting in the world we live in currently, much less decades into the future.

    If we accept failure in design and call it anything but what it is, we are all guilty of collusion. It is Le Corbusier or anyone else’s fault. We inhabit an aging urbanism in our every pore and create ways to blame someone else, when we aren’t out there on the streets shouting from the rooftops that its wrong.

  10. supermundane


    “The architects have clearly forgotten about any integration with the footpath and the street. Why are there no street trees for shade and to lessen the negative impacts of a high speed and high volume highway adjacent?”

    Blame Le Corbusier. The man positively hated people yet remains supremely influential. Many modern architects take Le Corb’s radical authoritarianism and misanthropy as an objective and intrinsic architectural value. Cities hostile to people are his legacy: people were to be cocooned in machines – be they automobiles or buildings. In the emerging peak-oil world a rethink of the assumptions stemming from Le Corb’s loathing of the human-scale desperately needs to take place and the authoritarian tendencies of modern architecture need to be challenged.

  11. supermundane

    Daniel Libeskind’s ‘renovations’ to the Bundeswehr Military History Museum in Dresden, Germany is a particularly pertinent example of what I’ve described:

    While the original building is hardly exemplary the Libeskind additions, like so many modern constructions planted in historic areas or modifications to older buildings it attempts to parasitically hitch a ‘free ride’.

  12. supermundane

    Why do so many of the current generation of architects think that they can scornfully discard centuries of practice? So much of what I witness being built recently feels charmless and trite (and increasingly predictable) and while I wouldn’t consider myself conservative, increasingly I’m beginning to hunger for the classical proportions of our older built environment – I find myself appreciating them all the more for their principles of symmetry which evolved over centuries for good reason, for the human-scale in hand-crafted detail and ornamentation which I find playful, uplifting, and human.

    So many modern constructions clearly work as objects in CAD; 3D models floating in a distended space viewed from angles which the average punter will never experience but fail spectacularly at the street level in context with the pre-existing built environment. They are lazy thought-bubbles of the self-obsessed; cold, heartless, violent and charmless intrusions into the commons and increasingly they evoke the sense in me that they’re mirror-reflections of a civilisation which no longer values anything and no longer holds to any higher intrinsic principles. Often these buildings fail to marry overall grand form with an intricacy of detail which invariably provides food for the eye the longer one gazes upon it. Such ornamentation denotes care on the part of the creators and builders alike – a statement of care for the public good.

    A building which successfully marries overall form with human-scale detail needn’t be ‘articulated’ for articulation is an admission of failure as well as a declaration that base commercial interests are paramount. Our ancestors could build grand public spaces and grand public buildings (of private buildings which serve a public purpose) without the need to transform as much of the real estate as possible into Subways, Supre’s and Safeways so why can’t we?

  13. Jason

    Hi Alan

    Congrats on making the move over here. Deserved reward for such quality output, and I hope they’ve turned their cash firehose on you ! 😉

    I am tired of buildings made into funny shapes. I think the Eureka Tower in Melbourne, with its redundant yellow bit, is a great example of function following form. Pushing the boundaries of what shape an office block can be is starting to be a formulaic pursuit, and I suspect buildings built to function well rather than look striking e.g. the Fairfax building on Collins and Spencer Sts in Melbourne, will endure better.

  14. Holden Back


    There are several separate issues to identify in this; the relations to the street which your examples sem to handle poorly, their aesthetic and its approach to relations with the buildings’ context, and the particular conditions of commercial building in Manhattan, the local planning instruments, and the clients’ brief, all of which could be better discussed in isolation to explain particular aims and outcomes.

    To take the fairly commonly undertsood example of Fed Square: I have issue with the level of finish and the underlying aesthetic, but the site planning and the relation to the transport hub and the creation of an urban living space and a gateway to the city from the south work well. In large part because the location makes these things possible.

  15. Leo

    The architects have clearly forgotten about any integration with the footpath and the street. Why are there no street trees for shade and to lessen the negative impacts of a high speed and high volume highway adjacent? Too often projects are built along the lines of what’s “in” scope and the footpaths are something done by others.

  16. Johanna

    You should do a review of the new Ai Weiwei documentary film coming out in the US this month, on the persecuted artist who designed the Birds Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing.


  17. Alan Davies

    Sam G – I’ve written about Federation Square before, here.

    Peter J – agree strongly that we can’t “activate” everything, but I reckon ACI and Cooper Square would’ve been a doddle. Urban designers do overdo “activation” and, especially, the anti-crime properties of “eyes on the street”. BTW, my first degree is in architecture.

  18. Peter J

    Hi Alan,
    congratulations on your shift to Crikey. Keep up the good work!

    Disclaimer: I’m an architect.

    I think the title is a little unfair – not all Australian architects are unable to articulate a proper street entry. That shopping centre you refer to is a shocker, and I’m sure is accepted as being so by everyone who doesn’t arrive by car and so actually has to negotiate its exterior. But newer examples like QV and Melbourne Central’s redevelopment show that there are architects who can do shopping centres a lot better. I do remember QV’s master architects saying that they had to kick and scream with the developers to pull the laneways through and have an open plaza. So perhaps it’s as much about them as us. And of course it’s about the economics of providing underground carparks compared to above ground.

    This word ‘activation’ is very popular these days, and makes it seem as though every street frontage needs to be lined with cafes and shops in order to attain a certain buzz that deems it successful. Civic buildings seem to be exempt from this but the bar is moving. I didn’t mind at all having to walk past the Melbourne Concert Hall as it was, a moment of peace in the surrounding bustle. Now it is also being ‘fixed’. I wonder if we might regret this full tilt commercialisation of the street frontage in the future?

  19. John Smith

    Examples of poor design in addressing the street? Gosh, how much time have you got? Personal favorite – Belconnen mall , west side of Benjamin Way Belconnen, Canberra – the effective main street of Belconnen town centre – or what could have been a main street (that is, for people not just cars) if properly planned. (sorry, don’t know how to link to street view).

    And this was highly planned town centre erected not by a corrupt or ignorant local council but by a presumably well intentioned government authority full of expert planners. What were they thinking?

    As one who has watched these issues for 30 years but never worked in the profession, what fascinates me is, why do they keep on doing it? The council that approved Victoria Gardens no doubt has a town plan that says all the right things about being pedestrian friendly and activating the street. Yet still they approve such obvious rubbish. Do the council planners think it’s alright? If so, what is the education that has led them to this? Or do they know that it’s rubbish too, but are stymied by the traffic engineers? Or stymied by don’t care elected councillors who are in the pocket of don’t care developers, as in Jim Wright’s comment?

    I’d love to be able to eavesdrop on the gossip around the water cooler in the planning department, about developments like Victoria Gardens. The scenario must be repeated in a thousand Council planning departments around the country. What is the morale of the town plannining profession? To be a planner who cares about outcomes in Australia must be one long torture.

  20. Sam G

    Hi Alan

    Welcome to Crikey.

    I actually love Fed Square (and I’m not a parochial local).

    There are sides of the precinct that don’t seem to have regard for ground level (Eastwrn part of Flinders Street frontage) but it is countered by a genuinely interesting building I regularly stop at to read (LED messages) or check out what is happening at ACMI / Potter.

    Perhaps the main improvement I can suggest is an increase in trees shade as the square temperature in summer is a killer.

  21. Kate

    welcome to your new home

    I have had the same concerns with this building – a University Design Centre no less – RMIT’s new building on Swanston Street, Melbourne. Street View hasn’t caught up with the completed building but you can view renders here:;ID=vk2dipqcc5t71;STATUS=A;PAGE_AUTHOR=Elise%20Mallory;SECTION=5;

    And photos here –

    It makes a bold statement but it frustrates me that a university buildings in particular is so insular and fail to invite the public into the building space. Maybe it’s intentional!

  22. Jim Wright

    I think that I detect a sort of arrogance in the behaviour of the current generation of architects and this is displayed in the fact that many buildings of quite acceptable quality are located without any respect for the existing streetscape. Federation Square in Melbourne is a somewhat brutalist design which conflicts with the 19th century cathedral and railway station. It would be much more acceptable if it had been located further downstream alongside the Yarra River in much the same way as Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. With space around it on all sideswould have made its own statement without the visual noise from the older buildings. Another, less dramatic, conflict is between the Melbourne Museum and the elegant housing on the opposite side of the road in Carlton.
    I worked for a prestigious firm of town planners back in the 1970s, engaged in a consortium with other firms to provide a master plan for Melbourne. BHP submitted a very interesting design for its new headquarters built out of the then new Corten steel, which weathered, but did not rust. We liked the building for itself, but believed that, with its proposed dimensions, it was inappropriately overpowering in its location. When we complained to the city planners, they said that BHP had threatened to move its operations to Sydney if it was not allowed to erect the building exactly in accordance with their design and, so far as the Council was concerned “business is business”!
    I suspect that not much has changed since then.