The Futures of Architecture

Why buildings smothered in signs are actually good for the profession.

Jet packs and flying cars notwithstanding, when we think of the future we think of architecture. From the long lines of skyscrapers laden with iron skyways and dirigible docks imagined for New York City to the streamlined highway-and-glass-tower utopias proposed (and sometimes built) since the 1960s, the world to come has long been described in the language of buildings. In more recent visions, however, architecture has had a formidable rival in representing the face of the future: advertising.

Here, of course, we return once again to the still reigning benchmark image of where, as a physical culture, we have long been heading. Each year the world of Blade Runner becomes less of a speculative proposition—less in the mind and more in your face. Until I went to Tokyo in the early 1990s, I thought it was just an intriguing possibility: a city so overcome with brilliant advertising that the voice of its architecture is completely drowned out. But while Times Square was still a study in rickety neon and floodlit posters—the zipper wrapping the little tower at the southern crux of the square the only nod to fleeter technologies—Tokyo was already well on its way to becoming Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk Los Angeles. The city read as a single blinding display of high-tech signage, with even the most minor intersections revving up to a lumen count that put Times Square to shame. From the recent evidence of Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation—with its endlessly alluring scenes of Scarlett Johansson wandering beneath supercharged holographic signage projected onto the banal buildings all around—the city is still light-years ahead.

In some cases, such as the latest crop of buildings in Times Square, old-fashioned architecture has been adapted to carry the ever grander marquees that contemporary commerce (and perhaps consumers’ calloused eyes) seems to demand. These buildings are designed as they might be for a less media-rich location, only with stubby steel beams cantilevered out to accept the latest creation from Artkraft Strauss. In other instances, sign and building have long been merging. The ten-story drum at the base of the otherwise anodyne tower at 7th Avenue and 43rd Street was shaped expressly for the awe-inspiring NASDAQ sign that wraps it—perhaps the greatest expanse of ganged LED screens anywhere outside of a stadium. That building, 4 Times Square, is very instructive. Like most architecture in a public setting, it is trying to convey meaning: its mix of stone and steel are somehow intended to cue a response that will prepare the viewer for the nature of the functions confronted inside. It is supposed to say something—perhaps nothing more profound than “I’m a good corporate neighbor” or “Ain’t Manhattan grand!”—but something nonetheless. To some limited, whispering degree it succeeds. But the only part of the building that can really be understood is that sign.

This is the present from which the civic architecture of the future will evolve: modern buildings, never able to make themselves well understood, ceding their communicative function to an appliqué of blinking lights. There are two ways this could go—either/or and both/and—and we’ll probably see both. The story of architecture in the last ten years is that of a desperate love affair with silicon. New technologies have allowed architects to design in an ever more fluid fashion and to conjure forms that would have been tedious (if not impossible) with less powerful tools. At the same time many of the trend-setting firms (viz Diller+Scofidio) sought ways to appropriate technology, usually video, into the architecture itself. In some cases, as in Diller+Scofidio’s design for a San Francisco convention center with a rolling video monitor touring the facade, the electronica seems to be integrated as a totem, signaling a generic high-tech. Other firms have recently taken a shot at integrating cheap, reliable, searingly bright, and multihued LEDs—one of the most transformative new technologies to effect the city in recent years—not in a spectacular sign, but as a kind of reactive living ornament.

In seeking to investigate or critique the intersection of the built and the digital, architecture’s academic elite are naturally playing catch-up with Shinjuku, Piccadilly Circus, and Times Square. That’s a losing game. They’ll never have the budgets to match the real thing, and “good taste” might keep them from doing it right—though here we may see a rare example of architecture’s avant-garde pioneers serving their ostensible constituents: everyone else. Lessons learned in experimentation of the kind favored by Diller+Scofidio, LOT/EK, or Greg Lynn’s FORM should be easy for commercially minded offices to appropriate if they find themselves with a client looking for some dazzle on the facade.

I say, party on. The departure of the profession’s thrill seekers into the data smog might give some breathing room to another, minor school of architectural investigation—thriving in its way—that is always in danger of getting lost in the hustle. Regular readers of this column will recognize this other direction as the strain of architecture for which I have never been able to figure out a good name. I can describe it—designers concerned with the native problems and opportunities of space and building working with the lasting bones of architecture (physical and theoretical), not merely its passing fancies. If pressed I could list a few participating firms (Shigeru Ban, Architecture Research Office, and a handful of others). One of the best things written about architecture in the last 20 years—in an otherwise conflicted book—is this motto from architect Michael Benedikt, circa 1987: “In our media-saturated times it falls to architecture to have the direct esthetic experience of the real at the center of its concerns.”

I once heard Peter Eisenman give a stirring defense for the “honesty” of faked-up construction in C-studs and wallboard. The same line could be taken to argue that video and other light effects are as material as concrete and Cor-Ten steel. But without getting too bogged down in what is real and what is not these days (a useful sanity-preserving habit to bring with you into the second term of the Bush administration), it’s safe to say that physical materials are central to physical architecture. Or, to cut it another way, it can’t exist without them. The investigation of such things—plainly, how stuff goes together to make structures and spaces with varying effects—is where the future of architecture qua architecture remains. And there’s an argument to be made, as the crazy, media-saturated times continue, that architects have a moral obligation to safeguard that terrain. That’s probably not what most architects, and all students, want to hear. But if that’s too boring for you, consider the Media Lab at MIT. Or film school.

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