SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Import/Export: Delivering Architecture In A Public-Friendly Format – SVA MA Design Research

Becky Quintal

Import/Export: Delivering Architecture In A Public-Friendly Format

One of the problems is that people see complexity and the flexing of architectural muscle—a product of rich and open-minded clients—as extravagant, irrelevant and generally devoid of greater meaning.

There appears to be an import/export dilemma when it comes to architecture. Most architectural discourse increasingly employs research beyond what would normally be considered architecturally relevant in order to create buildings most appropriate and responsive to the reality of urban life. However, once a design is ready to be placed back into the “real world,” an architect can encounter an export dilemma—how to best situate these findings in the media for public consumption.

This research examines the way in which the Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s (OMA) Mexico City project, the Torre Bicentenario (Bicentennial Tower), was communicated to the public. This project provides a point of departure for a larger discourse, one that brings the architect’s role as a communicator into sharper focus. Taking a closer look at examples of architectural output that continually rely on the use of complex language in text-based information and visual materials that merely show the building as a piece of sculpture in the urban landscape reveals that many architects fail to adequately or comprehensively address issues of public communication of their work. It is a call to improve how architect-led initiatives attempt to communicate, educate, and persuade the public.

The result of the continued reduction of buildings to renderings and the loud volume of community activists’ voices has created a public that simultaneously wants, expects and then rejects images of architecture. The practice then feeds this desire through eerily realistic rendered drawings. Media discussion of an architect’s work can be set in motion beginning with the architect himself; he can choose to illustrate and clarify reasons why a building has been designed a certain way.

Returning to the export dilemma, we must touch on the role of representation. Design begins as a representation and whether or not it is built, it continues to exist as representation. The media influences architects’ decisions about how to represent their projects; they can either go against the norm or stick to producing what people are used to or want to see. Representation has been discussed within the practice as an undeniable barometer of the state of architecture, with theorists even suggesting that it is only representation that constitutes/connotes high architecture.

As Beatriz Colomina explains in her essay “Architectureproduction,” Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier represent two different ideologies in the use of image and representation in architecture. Loos believed that architecture was getting confused with its own image (thereby changing not only the scale of the project, but also its use and program); this inevitably happens when renderings are published. On the other hand, Le Corbusier did not distinguish building sites from blank pages. So perhaps Koolhaas, like Le Corbusier, is content to have the Torre Bicentenario reside in the pages of OMA publications. Other OMA projects remain in the world of fancy, or at the very least on the outskirts of possibility. However, the same tactics that make OMA books very successful may not necessarily translate favorably for built projects.

The non-realization of this tower allows us to look deeper into how architectural representation, both visual and non-visual, can be modified to enhance the public’s knowledge of architecture. With OMA in Mexico City the issue is not so much one of the loss of a specific architectural project, but the inhospitable climate for this architecture (grand, big, avant-garde, new, different, etc.) in a developing country that is trying to advance its standing in global affairs.

Bruno Latour’s methods of inquiry in his book Aramis, or The Love of Technology provide a productive lens through which we can examine the Torre Bicentenario incident. He dissects a failed transit project in order to “offer humanists a detailed analysis of a technology sufficiently magnificent and spiritual to convince them that the machines by which they are surrounded are cultural objects worthy of their attention and respect.” Substitute “machines” with “buildings” (a practice already suggested by Le Corbusier); with this, Latour’s assessment of the demise of a proposed technological advancement in urban transport reveals certain sociological issues at play in the reception of new architecture (or new anything, for that matter). More specifically, Latour identifies society’s tenuous relationship to innovation, citing a particularly poignant remark by M. Henne, head of the Bureau of Technological Studies of Aeroport de Paris. When discussing reasons why a new transit system failed, Henne says,

But you know, I still tell myself that if somebody came up with the idea of the automobile today and had to go before a safety commission and explain, I don’t know, let’s say how to get started on a hill! Just think how complicated it is: shifting gears, using the hand brake and so on. He wouldn’t stand a chance! He’d be told: “It can’t be done.” Well, everybody knows how to start on a hill!

There is a preoccupation with being certain that something can work given current limitations or abilities of a specific time. Sometimes new architecture will appear as unsettling as Henne’s car example. The dominant mentality that comes with the existence and prevalence of these types of regulatory bodies, such as those dedicated to preservation, planning and safety, do provide a necessary level of caution – invaluable in what might otherwise be a society of chaos. Yet the challenge of the architect or the innovator should not be necessarily to operate within the restrictions that have been imposed on him, but to suggest a different solution and foster support for his proposals.

As an advocate for change, the architect can run into yet another hurdle with issues of translation. In order to convince or demonstrate the benefits of replacing one building with another, a series of claims emerge, almost in the form of a mathematical proof, with the intention of demonstrating a logical argument. With the Torre Bicentenario, the proposal, in its most basic and stripped down form, is something like this: Build the Torre Bicentenario and Mexico will gain economic relevance. Surely, the issue is more complex, but as Bruno Latour would contend, for the architect and client, it “is not logically correct, but it is sociologically accurate.” The reality exposes the difficulties and other steps involved in steering a project down a socio-logically accurate path in order to achieve the goal.

It is hard to deny the importance of the endgame; any Mexican would identify an improved economy as a welcome success. Reaching this goal, however, would not exactly be easy; the citizens—politicians included—would have to trust the mayor, accept an unfamiliar addition to their city, demolish a building of indeterminate cultural significance and believe that Mexico City’s infrastructure could support a building of this scale. Rumblings in the press mentioned the inability of the water and electricity systems in the area to sustain the tower. A building like the Torre Bicentenario may or may not have contributed to a positive change in Mexico, but this is not the point—the relevant issue for architects is the great rift that shelved projects bring to the forefront. As in Aramis, identifying the culpable party that killed the Torre Bicentenario is not the most important question to answer. Latour reveals up front that explaining the “why” is not a question of placing fault. Rather, it is an opportunity to examine representational practices and perhaps expose otherwise imperceptible or overlooked steps in the process of getting something built.


At the heart of this issue, the productive value of OMA’s released images and explanations must be questioned.  The images are not construction drawings and therefore provide little value to the actual physical execution of the project; renderings and diagrams exist outside of required construction documents as visualizations and further interpretations of a technical plan for construction. So if a drawing isn’t going to inform those who will (literally) build the building, who is it for?

Following the release of images of the Torre Bicentenario, bloggers and commentators began to assail the building design and the government, seeing the tower as unnecessary architectural showboating—a contributing factor to its ultimate demise. None of this is to suggest that provocation and controversy should be avoided. In fact, it can be quite generative. Yet it also becomes cause for concern when architectural output never makes it to a physical manifestation. Paper architecture has its place, but it should work to sustain an architectural agenda, not hold it back.

There are a large number of buildings that, despite the fact that they only reside on paper, have been invaluable parts of historical and theoretical architecture dialogues. But the most famous ones have encountered more extreme “roadblocks” than the OMA tower. The Torre Bicentenario did not stretch engineering to the impossible, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high Illinois tower.  The commissioning parties cannot be reasonably labeled hideous or insane, modifiers that come to mind when describing Hitler and Stalin and their ambitious architectural plans.

In spite of the bitter stalemate, all sides seem to agree that this missed opportunity for development was not good for Mexico. As arguably the largest metropolis in the world, Mexico City remains divided as to the trajectory of the future of the built environment.  José Luis Lezama, a journalist for the Mexican newspaper Reforma  expressed what the tower debacle exposed about Mexico City. In his article “Tower of Discord”—which opens with the line, “Probably no one else could have been a more appropriate designer for the frustrated Torre Bicentenario than its own author, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas”—he recognizes the merit of the architect as an active researcher of other chaotic urban developments. Lezama refers to him as appropriate by citing Koolhaas’ previous works that challenge norms, what he calls “exercises in rupture.” The article, which appeared in October 2007 after the project had been shelved, was perhaps the first in-depth reflection on Koolhaas and his previous work that ran at the time.

The article also points out that the reality of the tension between politicians and planners will make it impossible to ever build any project on any site because there will always be someone who feels that they have the right to impede it. Lezama closes by saying, “if there isn’t a substantial change that adjusts the conduct of governing bodies to a lawful state then even the most creative and advanced urban ideas (national or international) will be condemned to failure.”

Even as one of the project’s opponents, journalist Fernanda Canales, observes, “between the overbearing urgencies or total paralysis, no middle ground seems to exist.”She is absolutely right in identifying the lack of a middle ground when it comes to Mexican developments.  But could this be a result of an ill-informed public?

This unbuilt project sparked public debate that illuminated key issues in Mexican policy that would prevent other structures from being built.  Lezama, like other journalists and INBA (Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes), looks back and absolves Koolhaas of any wrongdoing for the design. It is disturbing that these opinions and thoughts were not mentioned earlier in the process.

If writers and critics are not going to be the first to take action, then it is the duty of the architect to provide information for wider publication. Instead of fostering the perception of confusing, obscure and at-times ridiculous writing by architects, the profession should embrace and encourage widespread dissemination of its work. Instead of circulating pseudo-realistic renderings and vacant press releases, designers could insist on providing transparent, well-written information.

The idea of better architecture journalism is to create a solid faction of public interest that can not only propel the practice of architecture and building, but eventually educate the public. The ideal is that a well-informed public will demand—and become patrons and supporters of—larger projects that can then impact places that don’t have a strong architecture institution.

There is also an enormous gap in the logic of architecture writing. When a piece serves purely to inform the reader about a building or master plan without inserting opinion or commentary, it is considered useless, boring or pandering to the architect.  Yet, in order to educate the public and foster interest in the capabilities of architecture, there needs to be more informative reportage.

One of the problems is that people see complexity and the flexing of architectural muscle—a product of rich and open-minded clients—as extravagant, irrelevant and generally devoid of greater meaning. This is quite a bizarre stance to assume, especially since people fail to realize that the modern monuments that architects and nations create today impact the overall development of building and material technologies that can then be applied to less recognized projects. More importantly, these popular works impact public perception of architecture. Without a public, architecture means nothing. And without public support, architecture can’t progress. So it is particularly disturbing that much of the mainstream architectural criticism that is aimed at the general public fails to recognize the paramount importance of revolutionary design (outside of aesthetic judgments).

Architects: It’s time to revolutionize the communication of your craft.