There has been recent debate about the apparent ‘ugliness’ of new buildings proposed for Christchurch. It seems that while we are not slow to embrace a new car or telephone, for buildings there is still comfort in the familiar forms of the past, and perhaps unsurprisingly, new models can seem strange or disconcerting.
What has been missing from those conversations is consideration and understanding of the influences that lead to these new forms. Why are those buildings so boxy? It is perhaps timely to shed some light on what formative influences are acting on buildings right now.
Prosperity and Austerity / Substance and Substantial
As architects working today, we know that an understanding of how architecture responds to real-world constraints within an economic and social context is essential in evaluating new buildings. They are not arbitrary forms; rather they are crafted in response to financial, commercial and technological influences, often in clever and innovative ways. In effect, these buildings are new models for a changed world.
This isn’t to argue than every proposed building for Christchurch will be a design standout (or a design mediocrity), but understanding the foundation influences that shape these buildings is important for the conversation to be an informed one. So, what are these influences?
In the past, buildings were generally commissioned in times of prosperity. We can read our cities as markers of good times – steady economic growth between 1890 and 1910, the post-war wool boom, the flashy 1980s and prosperous early 2000s – all shaping the fabric of our cities. In times of recession, by contrast, building all but ceased.
And yet, in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, in a period of austerity, we are beginning one of the most significant building programmes in New Zealand’s history. This alone will enormously influence the execution and appearance of our buildings.
Other, less obvious drivers will affect building appearance. In previous decades, institutions of substance, such as banks, insurers and churches, constructed buildings to match their aspirations and positioning. The more solid and substantial a building, the more permanent and stable the institution would seem. Conversely, any hint of lightweight impermanence would adversely affect the perception of substance.
As we know, in the 1880s the initial proposal for the Christchurch Cathedral was rejected because the timber design wasn’t seen as sufficiently substantial. At that time, lightweight building implied impermanence: Cathedrals must be stone. The twist, more recently, is that the earthquakes have revealed heavyweight “permanence” to be a misnomer. Corporate aspiration has already reacted accordingly.
New buildings are responding to these new influences. And if we design from new first principles, addressing new influences, naturally the ideas and forms will look progressively unlike previous models. When considering future Christchurch we should certainly expect “different”.
Building in New Zealand once took advantage of inexpensive skilled labour coupled with relatively inexpensive materials. Today we are faced with an economic climate in which both materials and labour now carry a very high cost. “Like for like” comparisons inevitably reveal a “less for more” cost structure as we are all coming to understand. This will inevitably affect how buildings are designed.
For a moment, let’s consider examples beyond buildings. An ultra-desirable 2013 Bentley Mulsanne, while still luxurious and “bespoke”, is far less expensive to produce than it once was – the truly hand-crafted build has been replaced with new Audi-derived manufacturing processes that streamline production. High labour and fabrication costs have, by necessity, reshaped the delivery of the product. The core values remain, but to preserve viability, fabrication and assembly have undergone major adjustment.
And other influences have other outcomes: while the contemporary Bentley’s design responds in part to economic pressures, other design forms respond to changing technologies. Consider the new and sinister silhouette of US unmanned “drones” – invisible to radar detection, devoid of a pilot; a drone’s external form has morphed into something significantly different from even the most recent combat aircraft. Once again, a new input generates a new output.
Provincial Council Building
02 + 03
Bentleys 1925 / 2013
Lightness and Speed
Lightness and speed are the two key drivers that most influence contemporary building design. We understand this innately in sport: the radical skeletal form of America’s Cup AC73 boats is an outcome of a desire to strip away as much mass as possible and yet make the structure as strong as possible. As Lotus-boss Colin Chapman famously observed, to gain advantage “just add lightness”. Unsurprisingly, those same drivers are shaping our buildings.
Seismic requirements favour lightweight structures. Additional weight brings additional cost; by reducing the mass of a building’s superstructure, we also reduce its seismic load, and consequently reduce its foundation cost. This realignment in itself has a significant impact on the appearance of new buildings. We might very well observe that for the new Christchurch: “thin is in”.
Building occupants – especially those who have lived through the earthquakes – are wary of heavy masonry. We feel more confident of seismic durability when structure is clearly shown, and easily accessed for repair. We also desire more naturally-lit workspaces, which modern glazing technology can provide. More subliminally, we have a growing expectation for transparency, openness and connection in our offices and business dealings. It is unsurprising, then, that an aesthetic of “lightness” now has currency on a number of levels.
Reducing the high cost of buildings also favours designs that are quick to build and construction methods that promote speed. It may not be apparent to the layman, but building cost is directly related to time on site in today’s high-cost labour market. Reduced site time equals reduced labour cost. So like all volume manufacturing – the car industry being one example – building is embracing mass-production techniques.
While there is no question that the unique features of each site will continue to require tailored design solutions, adoption of unitised, prefabricated, modular elements, made off-site and erected as sub-assemblies, will significantly influence the design of new commercial buildings.
Other technologies respond similarly to new influences. Modern glazing systems allow building facades to be considered as high-performance skins, giving more options for a truly integrated building envelope. So, too, are structural and construction solutions that favour low-damage design, allowing building owners to recover more easily (and quickly) from seismic events without high cost repairs, or worse, total loss of the asset.
How might these influences affect the appearance of buildings? For structure, we can predict that lightweight prefabricated frames in steel or timber will be increasingly used in lieu of heavy concrete frames and shear walls. Claddings will be more lightweight, too, and again fabricated off site as far as possible. Applied decoration (including dramatic roof forms) will inevitably be reduced or eliminated due to cost, leaving the “expressed structure” as the architecture. This structure – emphatic seismic bracing and visible low damage connections – will illustrate the strength and durability of the building, and permit easier maintenance and repair. Agendas of substance have become messages of resilience and “AC73” lightness and strength.
US unmanned "drone"
America's Cup AC73 boat
06 + 07
Lightweight cladding techniques
Proposed new building with an "expressed" lightweight structure
There is, rightly, much hope and optimism that Christchurch’s tragedy can be recast as an opportunity. I emphatically share that optimism, and see the potential of the City Blueprint as both pragmatic and visionary. There is no question that an attractive and bold city can emerge. But we must understand that the city’s aspiration for quality and its ability to pay for it remains a fundamental concern. As architects, we see this disconnect as critical – an invisible gap between what is expected and what is possible, which in some instances may not be able to be bridged.
The secret to success for rebuilding in Christchurch will be a clear understanding of what we want to achieve, what is achievable, and how best to achieve it within limited means. Seemingly impossible, perhaps, but the exact situation we have embraced as New Zealanders when embarking on underdog America’s Cup and Olympic campaigns of the past.
Clever design, embracing these new requirements and making the most of new opportunities that technology offers us, will give us high quality buildings that are good spaces to live and work in, that are durable and flexible, and by necessity, affordable. But they will not look like those buildings they replace. They will be different, necessarily so. And embracing those differences, understanding the reasons for new forms, will go far in bringing our hopes for architectural outcomes and our means to achieve them closer together.
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