Is good architecture all about marketing?

I don’t know why the proposed Gehry-designed Dr Chau Chak Wing building at UTS looks like a microwaved chocolate castle, but it certainly does “bizarre” to a T. It’s unusual

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The Frank Gehry' designed Dr Chau Chak Wing at University of Technology Sydney

I don’t know why the proposed Gehry-designed Dr Chau Chak Wing building at UTS looks like a microwaved chocolate castle, but it certainly does “bizarre” to a T. It’s unusual, unconventional, strange, odd, extraordinary……it’s everything you’d expect to get when you buy Gehry.

I’ve been an admirer of Frank Gehry ever since I first saw an article about the superb house in Santa Monica he designed for himself and his family earlier in his career. It’s not generally known that Gehry had quite a measure of fame in architectural circles well before he hit the big time with the Guggenheim Bilbao in the late 90s.

I can’t know for sure, but the new premises for the Business School certainly looks like it could be awfully expensive. Emulating all that squashed plasticine – or ‘crumpled brown bag’ or ‘broken pottery’ – could cost a pretty penny. This report in the Sydney Morning Herald suggests it might. The story says the new building for Sydney’s University of Technology is expected to be completed in early 2014, provided:

the university and its builder can work out how to lay bricks in keeping with the design of wildly unconventional angles that typify many of the architect’s buildings. “The undulating brickwork of the east facade is a complex structure and one of the key project challenges,” conceded Nigel Oliver, the director of UTS’s program management office. “We have been working closely with the project team and facade contractors to find the best way of building a physical structure that reflects Gehry’s vision.”

It surprises me that any university would be constructing a high-cost building like this in these financially straitened times in the higher education sector. Then again I hear UTS is flush with cash owing at least in part to some wise or lucky investment decisions in the past. Moreover Frank Gehry has a reputation for financial responsibility, so while the design might be inherently costly, it’s not likely to turn into another Opera House with a 1400% budget overrun.

I’ve no reason to doubt Gehry is as responsive to his client’s needs as any other architect, but modern clients don’t pay the Gehry premium because they’re looking for functional perfection. Clients go to “starchitects” like Gehry for marketing reasons. They want to be noticed.

UTS might, for example, think it will lift the university’s brand with the overseas and domestic student markets. Or perhaps the administrative and academic staff think it will enhance the institutions general reputation in the national and international university status race.

I wonder if any such expectations will be fully met. While there’s always going to be something special about any Frank Gehry building – and he is a brilliant architect there’s no two ways about it – there’re quite a few “Gehry’s” scattered around various cities now. It’s not like UTS is getting a Sydney Opera House or a Bilbao Guggenheim. The Dr Chau Chak Wing building will have cachet but maybe not as much as UTS hopes.

I think the proposed design is visually arresting – as it’s meant to be – but I don’t find it especially exciting or, more importantly, satisfying. For one thing, it’s a little too reminiscent of other Gehry buildings to be really electrifying or thrilling. It might be argued that all Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie houses look similar too, but starchitecture is a new and different game – it’s brand identification. Uniqueness matters.

For another, it’s not obvious to me how the “blitz aesthetic” of this design – or whatever one chooses to call it – relates to UTS’s mission or to the location. I like an underpinning theory or rationale for virtually everything and in this case I can’t see what it is. If there’s a theory there, I don’t get it.

According to the UTS PR blurb, the design is inspired by “the concept of a tree-house structure”. It’s “a cluster of ‘tree houses’ or vertical stacks of floors with spatial ‘cracks’ in between”.  Just why tree houses and cracks makes sense for this particular function in this particular location is anyone’s guess. That’s not ‘a theory’ in any meaningful sense – it’s more of an analogy. In any event, it certainly doesn’t look much like a tree house!

Notwithstanding some desultory references to local brick and sandstone building materials, there isn’t much of a sense of place to this building either so far as I can see. It could be built pretty much anywhere. It’s truly an international design. Maybe that’s what Gehry’s clients want.

Naturally there’s the customary long list of sustainability initiatives in the PR blurb, as if they’re something extra special rather than something we should be able to take for granted. Both Gehry and UTS are probably a little sensitive to any criticism that the expressionistic design has compromised sustainability.

Much as I like Gehry (and he comes across as an engaging fellow) I’m disappointed UTS felt it necessary to commission a “starchitect”. That ruled out the local talent immediately. It gave priority to architecture as marketing. That might be OK for a corporate building but this is a public building. I also think it’s dangerous because a building is a pretty risky way to go about marketing. It costs a lot and you have to live a long time with the design compromises.

Of course there’s always been a tradition of innovation in architecture – “the shock of the new” and all that. The trouble is I don’t think of this design as innovative. It’s more about wanting to be “different” for the sake of it. And I don’t think it’s a complete success on that score anyway.

But most of all I can’t help thinking UTS should be more prudent with its spending. Good architecture isn’t about spending a lot more. It’s about optimising brilliantly and creatively subject to constraints.

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4 thoughts on “Is good architecture all about marketing?

  1. John_Proctor

    interesting comments re: the ‘theory’ of the architecture…

    its interesting that RMIT has such a reputation in Melbourne for their quirky/interesting architecture at the top end of Swanston which started with Story Hall and shifting to Design Hub and Swanston Academic Building (SAB) and yet noone could tell you who the architects were on any of those buildings.

    The buildings set up the university as an institution that is prepared to push the boundaries but also one that respects the past (both Storey Hall and SAB incorporate heritage buildings)…

    What does this building and starchitects generally say about those that ‘commision’ them?? that they want/need to be seen, that the building/institution itself isn’t enough so we need a personality to drive it?

    I suppose the other parallel is with apartment towers which are always ‘architect designed’ even when its just a square box that I could draw up. In Melbourne every second tower is by ‘Fender Katsalidis the architects behind Eureka Tower’ – does that make this new building any better/worse?

  2. Jim Wright

    Yet another skirmish in the war between Form and Function. The Bilbao Museum works because the building is in essence a backdrop for the display of other artistic endeavours. However, to produce a design such as this for a building which has mundane uses is not really a very good idea. I once considered buying a unit in an apartment block in Melbourne’s docklands, because I was taken with the very sculpturesque appearance on the outside. However, when I came to look at the layout of the actual apartments, I decided against the purchase. Some of the major rooms were either triangles or at the least had non-parallel walls. Unless you were prepared to invest in a lot of fitted furnishings, the maximum size of rectangle which could be fitted into the rooms reduced the usable space by half. It would be interesting to see the floor plans and the access routes for the UTS building.
    I have reached the opinion that today, the more prominent an architectural group becomes, the greater its lack of respect for function on the inside and streetscape on the outside. The UTS building would probably be a lot more acceptable if it was in an open space and not fighting visually against other more “normal” buildings nearby. Other buildings which would also benefit from a more open location are Federation Square and the Museum in Melbourne.
    I notice that in London, there seems to be a tighter control over the visual aspects of architecure in the CBD. Most new buildings include details (e.g window proportions) which chime in with the older buildings alongside them. The more radical buildings are located in open spaces or alongside the river.

  3. Holden Back

    Empty is the new meaningful.

  4. michael r james

    Indeed there is much wrong with this whole starchitect phenomenon. I am very much in two minds about Gehry and his buildings.

    Yes, the Bilbao Guggenheim is spectacular eye candy (though no way do I accept it as better than the SOH as some try to suggest) but as for its actual function: meh. Inside it has a sterile gargantuanism and as curators and art critics have pointed out, it cannot be used for anything other than equally gigantic artworks–which means a lot of very dubious stuff (eg Serra’s gigantic wavy rusting steel plates; left me unmoved; the only other thing I remember is Jeff Koon’s giant flower dog which was in an outside courtyard).

    The other thing I don’t quite appreciate about Gehry is that he doesn’t really design “his” buildings. He does a bunch of squiggles on paper. If he gets a commission he then gets a team of experts to turn into something that can be built. While all modern architects have to work with large teams it is not the way of the architects I really admire, not just Utzon (is there anything Gehry has actually done himself, even conceptually, that compares with either Utzon’s original vision or his solution of the shells, even if Arup want to grab a lot of the credit?) but especially Foster. But also, to take another controversial architect whose facades are famous for their quirkiness, Gaudi; however his buildings are truly marvellous, inside and out, and very carefully designed and crafted–neither is true of Gehry buildings no matter how many computer hours are expended in working out to build such impractical shapes.

    And I agree about the cost issue: it is merely for two things, fancy cosmetics when viewed from certain angles, and the recursive nonsense of having a building designed by a starchitect. And there are other costs too. MIT are currently suing Gehry over their Stata building (a mere $300M, no doubt partly funded by a rich benefactor who was wooed partly by promising a starchitect building) because of structural problems. An example: “Mr. Gehry had rejected (the) formal request to revise the design for the center’s 350-seat outdoor amphitheater, whose poor drainage has been a large part of the problem. The suit says that within months of the center’s opening, it essentially started coming apart, with “considerable masonry cracking” in the amphitheater’s seating areas.”
    The Disney auditorium in LA which is a clone of Bilbao, has had to put drapery over some of those titanium walls because they were so reflective at certain times of day that the buildings around it ended up suing Disney over it (they were being blinded).

    And now it is not just Gehry but the whole army of imitators in his footsteps. For all the wrong reasons as Alan says. Merely the desire to be “different” (though copying a style is hardly that) and essentially ignoring the most important thing in a building, its function, or at least always compromising function over a dubious form.

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