A Point In Design

Commentary – Trends in Architecture
February 28, 2012, 9:14 pm
Filed under: Commentary/Reviews

The big news in Architecture this week was the announcement of the winner of the annual Pritzker Prize for Architecture for 2012. This year’s winner was Chinese architect Wang Shu. For those unfamiliar with the award it is Architecture’s highest honor, similar to a Nobel prize. The award was created by the Pritzker family from Chicago to recognize truly exceptional architects. The past couple of years the Pritzker Prize has been awarded to relatively unknown architects who are doing quality work in their respective region or country. Also of significance, the prize recipients have generally tended to create their own ascetic rather than follow trends. Trends are what this post is all about.

Architecture like fashion is very trendy and ephemeral. It is interesting to drive through older neighborhoods and see what was considered ‘avant garde’ 40 years ago compared to what is being celebrated today. For example in the 1970s, clerestory windows were all the rage. Similarly, the 1950s were all about tract housing, ranches, and car ports. The 1960s were are all about round skylights and the early 80s architects were hot on glass block. Looking through the pages of architectural publications I have picked out a few trends that seem to be everywhere on buildings today, but in my mind have been done to death. They are the following:

The stock market chart roofline (zig zag roofs)

Museum of Cultures Hertzog & deMeuron

These roofs seem to be everywhere, even this year’s winner Wang Shu is guilty of using it. I will admit it looks cool, but it serves no real purpose other than eye candy and I am sure that such a roof doesn’t shed snow well.

The Research and Technology Innovation Park by Brooks + Scarpa

Residential Project By Wang Shu

Compare the zig zag roof with the older saw-tooth roofline design found on Alvar Aalto’s Riola Parish Church or this mill building in Great Britain. The saw-tooth design captured light from above and filtered it down into the space below while the zig zag roof serves no function other than to draw the eye to it.

Corus Rotherham, the Bright Bar rolling mill

Arctic Ice Cave Monumentality
Frank Geary started this trend as seen in the entrance to the Disney Concert Hall in LA but other architects have borrowed it and it keeps reappearing.

Disney Concert Hall by Frank Geary

Magma Arts & Congress Center by Atrengo Mis Pastrana

I suppose one could argue that this is a revisiting of Brutalism of the 1970s, but done with more rustication than the plain concrete monolithic structures of the 1970s. To me it feels like the entrance to the polar bear exhibit at the zoo.

Storage Containers as Housing
I absolutely despise this trend. Yes, a crate is cheap ($2000) and yes it can be stacked to create architectural forms, but it is not meant to be inhabitable, even if you spend extra money to outfit the inside, it is still going to feel like the inside of a corrugated box. Stupid trend. Disappear from the pages of my magazines.

Photo taken from Jan 2012 issue of Dwell Magazine

The recessed curtain wall within a box
This is my winner for the most overdone, over copied, over used detail in architecture. Literally every single new design published uses this. Its origins can be traced to the Karmoy Fishing Museum project by Snøhetta where a linear plan was terminated with a big picture window as seen below.

I completely get why this detail is so popular; the view from the inside looking out is great, but there are other ways of connecting the outside with the inside.

ICA Boston view looking out on Boston harbor

Hadid's Maxi Museum, Italy

This photo of Jyvaskyla University in Finland by Alvar Aalto is just one alternative.

The Arriva headquarters (a public transport bldg) in Portugal by RVDM architects was the first project I came across that exhibited the boxed curtain wall idea, but there are literally thousands just like it.

RVDM architect's transport building

All of these design details are very current, but how many will be around in 2013. I personally hope none of the above. Often when clients interview an architect they ask if they specialize in a particular style, and the standard response is we design to meet the needs of the client/the site/the culture, etc. yet all of these trendy details seem to find their way into their clients’ projects regardless. Are today’s architects really just trend whores copying the trends of a handful of starchitects? If so then perhaps the Pritzker jury’s nomination choices are justified, awarding the prize to the architect who is his own artist.

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