Blobism: The Digital Era Gives Into The Vice of Formalism

The new millennium ushered in an era of computer-enabled shapes increasingly divorced from the real concerns of architecture.

Twelve years ago, on assignment for this magazine, I interviewed Daniel Libeskind for a profile tied to the opening of the Jewish Museum Berlin. It was Libeskind’s first major built work, remember, so a lot of the conversation concerned how he got there: his earlier speculative efforts, the arcane and beautiful drawings through which he secured his fame. One thing in particular about many of those projects caught my eye. Regardless of the uses intended for the buildings in question, regardless of the pressures exerted on them by various sites, Libeskind always reverted to decidedly linear solutions: systems based on long, acutely overlapping or intersecting tubelike forms. This held true when he had to house galleries and create a network of passages, as in Berlin, but also when the program demanded a single, large space for gathering, as in his then well-known entry to the 1998 competition for a music theater in Graz, Austria. My hunch was that Libeskind’s characteristic lines were an artist’s tic—a shape he liked—but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So that day I asked him, “Is there an architectural idea behind your use of tubular extrusions in so many projects, a particular spatial imperative you’re pursuing?” “No,” he answered flatly, “that form comes from my drawings.” I remember following up a bit, just to make sure, but he was comfortable with his answer. I respected Libeskind’s honesty—he was admitting to a short-cut taken by nearly everyone who has ever designed a building—but in that moment I decided that he was not, exactly, an architect. Architects worthy of the name don’t traffic in a priori shapes, don’t subvert their clients’ needs for preconceived artistic agendas, don’t make buildings born from the love of lines, not space. There’s another name for such designers: we call them formalists. We might also, for accuracy and convenience, and in retrospect, call them blobists.

But the Jewish Museum cannot be a blob! you may protest. Its sides are vertical! Its walls, between kinks, are arrow-straight! You’re right, of course, on the surface. Blobs, as we came to know them in the years between, say, 1995 (when Greg Lynn first applied the term to architecture) and 2003 (when Lynn’s team proposed a grandiose blob-towered complex for Ground Zero), are more vague. Blob buildings are soft-edged and rounded. They appear to bubble or flow. They are, in short, blobby. But now that blobism’s media moment is so far past, the hype long gone, the hopes for finding salvation in the amorphous (see Herbert Muschamp’s July 2000 New York Times report “Architecture’s Claim on the Future: The Blob”) forgotten, the truth is easier to see. Blobism and formalism are one.

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It has been clear for some time that almost every building referred to as a blob is an exercise in that much maligned habit of architects to deny the particular contextual demands of a building (not excluding budget, use, and structure) in favor of a passion for expressing a preferred look or announcing a claim on the new. Think of it as a nested Venn diagram, if you’d like. The only difference between the vice of formalism as it has long been known and the products of the once new fashion of blobism is in the power of the means available to make a meaningless shape.

When an artist picks up a new tool, any tool, the urge is always there to invite the tool to move the hand. Relative to the work made through the mastery of previous methods, there is a loss of control. They don’t know it’s hap pening, our artists, our architects; they think they’re still in charge. But who would question that drawing, designing, was different when architects favored hand-cut pencils and gouache, before mechanical lead-holders and Letraset tones took over? A wise observer could probably distinguish between the architectural priorities of the T square and the Mayline. I remember a one-to-one correspondence between the aesthetic of the tools sold at the old Charrette store in Harvard Square and the work coming out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1980s. Of course, the break from ink-on-mylar to Alias Wavefront 15 years later was of a greater degree, and had a greater effect on design, than anything seen previously or since. But that only meant a greater initial reduction of will in the intricate commerce between the architect’s hand and mind.

At the risk of echoing James Murphy’s ageist lament, I was there. I was there at Columbia in 1995 when Lynn, aided by a small corps of students who were years ahead of everyone around them in technical savvy, began to teach his “paperless design” studios, the crib and crucible of the blob aesthetic. It was horrifying. Then it was a visceral repulsion; now I can name it. The new direction, directed by new tools, was fantastically irresponsible. Equally irresponsible was the degree to which media, hungry for change, for heroes, enabled and blindly celebrated architects’ infantile moment with their new tools. The younger generations—mine, but even more so those following—have since made a major course correction, highlighting responsibility (green and otherwise) in their work, finding ways to build buildings that may hark back to blobs superficially but, in the fact of their thoughtful construction and determined use, underscore a postformalist intention. SHoP comes to mind. Dunescape, the folly the firm designed in 2000 at the P.S.1 art center, was not just the first High Blob icon to be built but the first that could be built in life as it appeared on the screen; the blobbiness of SHoP’s Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn is subordinate to the building’s function, does not negate or penalize the spaces its program demands, and is, as it rises now, eminently constructible. A taste for blobs need not preclude the responsible practice of architecture. But in that first moment, with the new, enabling toys at Columbia and elsewhere, it was playtime.

The proof is in the pudding. A quick test: Close your eyes. Picture a blob. Now open them. Did you see the interior of a building, a space designed to arrange action in a deliberate way to an emotive or functional end? Did you see structure resolving gravity’s eternal load? Did you see, in other words, architecture? I’m willing to bet a stack of vintage Zip disks (loaded with vintage Form-Z files) that you did not. I can’t recall a single early project dubbed “blob” in which any spatial objective, any inhabitation, however broadly defined, was proposed, in which any allied technical solution was highlighted—by the designers or the publications promoting the designs. Blob buildings, as in Libeskind’s own blobby thinking, were always driven first and last by the formal urge.

To locate that urge more precisely, it may be useful to look at some buildings that appear to be blobs and are sometimes referred to as protoblobs, but are not in fact blobs at all. Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House experiments, circa 1958? No, they were shaped by ideas of spatial continuity, shown in models built large to allow photography inside. The hippie bubbles and domes of the “inflatable moment,” a decade later? Expressly designed to facilitate pop-up community within. The Kunsthaus Graz, completed in 2003 by Peter Cook et al.? Decidedly tectonic, purposefully spatial; the primary drawings depicting it were exploded and axonometric, favoring the examination of interior over surface.

Though all are rounded and flowing, even gelatinous in spots, these supposed precursors are not empty formalism in the same way that—what? Here I’d mention a specific ur-blob project for contrast, but all I can remember now of that ancient time are the striving iterations on students’ boards, various corpuscles packed off in crates to the 2000 Venice Biennale, and an ill-defined smog of like effort coming east with the wind from SCI-Arc. Carried on the same breeze, a hopeful noise: We can do this now! And it’s new! So let’s do it! Can you remember anything that was done? OK: Yokohama. But that endlessly published port facility by Foreign Office Architects led parallel lives, first as an ideal blob pinup, an object of student desire and professional jealousy for nearly a decade; second as a down-and-dirty piece of infrastructure: detailed to the nines, executed with Japanese care, in teak boards, which come to us from the mill satisfyingly straight. As with Lynn’s infamous Korean Presbyterian Church, the blob did not survive its extraction from the Matrix.

So what was the point, again, of all that hue and cry? At root, the blobism episode was not anomalous—the delirious adoption of tools, terms, and forms in a cycle keyed to the three-year rhythm of the graduate schools is a constant of architecture culture, a recurring commonplace. The anomaly was that blobs and those perpetrating them were picked up as something real, celebrated as something salutary, which speaks less to any power inherent in ray-traced convexity than to a paucity of alternatives and—in what now seems a lost age of insouciant luxury—a poverty of substance. What distinguishes the particular formalist efflorescence we call blobism is that it was promoted as a revolution by its designers (seeking fame), that the press (seeking novelty) swallowed it whole, and that to put it simply, there was nothing else going on. No other heroes. No other news. No other ideas. Apart, perhaps, from a Seinfeldian fascination with nothing. Looking back now from more interesting times, blessed with more purposeful architectures, the ism that best fits the blob spasm of the recent past is the one that begins with “nihil.”

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