Architecture’s aesthetics should support, rather than sabotage, a building’s function

Bad Building

Architecture’s aesthetics should support, rather than sabotage, a building’s function

The Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences at MIT was the subject of a lawsuit between MIT, Frank O. Gehry & Associates, and Skanska USA Building Inc. The lawsuit was amicably resolved in 2010. (Tony Webster/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Building failure is ubiquitous in the United States: A condominium tower collapses in the suburbs of Miami; another sinks and tilts precariously in San Francisco. In January of this year, devastating apartment fires in Philadelphia and New York killed residents who were unable to escape. And, with less fatal outcomes, countless high-profile buildings experience cracks, leaks, mold, and other problems. These are hardly isolated instances: In 2007, one expert estimated that something like a third of architectural insurance policies were subject to insurance claims based on their “errors and omissions” every year. Contemporary architectural culture often embraces bad building as a routine—even necessary—outcome of realizing conceptually advanced architectural designs. In 2005, Peter Eisenman proudly told the New York Times that all the architects he knows have designed buildings with notable problems (he includes not only himself, but also Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe). The admission is both alarming and accurate.

To make matters worse, architectural critics rarely acknowledge that utilitarian considerations are relevant to their definitions of good architecture. Paul Goldberger, reviewing the opening of the Bronx Twin Parks Housing Projects in 1973, argued that the buildings constituted “good architecture.” One of the towers, designed by Prentice & Chan, Ohlhausen, burned earlier this year, resulting in the deaths of 19 residents. The various design decisions that contributed to these deaths—the fact that there were no automatic fire sprinklers or that both egress stairs shared a single shaft at the center of the building, for example—were not mentioned in Goldberger’s original critique.

That these items complied with building codes in effect at the time is precisely the point: Building codes are political documents that constrain safety (the preferred word is “balance”) within upper and lower bounds based on a cost-benefit analysis consistent with profitability and the private accumulation of wealth. Designing buildings in compliance with codes should not be confused with adopting best practices for fire safety (e.g., using sprinklers and configuring fire stairs as smokeproof towers placed at opposite ends of the double-loaded corridor).

Architectural theory and criticism often validate the distance between good architecture and bad building, between poetic expression and utilitarian function. Generally, the former is valued while the latter is explained away—as if being good in one respect absolves the architect from being bad in the other. In abstracting from utilitarian considerations—including not only fire- and life-safety but also aspects of accessibility, sustainability, flexibility, acoustic control, the use of nontoxic materials, and the proper deployment of building control layers (which regulate leakage, condensation, energy use, and occupant comfort)—theorists and critics enable a culture of bad building.

The term “bad building,” in this sense, is not a critical judgement about how buildings look; in fact, a critic’s refined or reactionary sense of fashion and taste can never produce a useful theory of architecture. Rather, successful architectural theory must reconcile utility with the various modes of expression through which buildings are understood as architecture. And, such a theory must explain how and why the utility of a work of architecture is often impaired, not only by politics and economics, but also by the dysfunctional competition that has powered fashionable aesthetic expression for the last hundred years.

Of course, architectural creativity also serves the function of distinguishing a building within the built environment, even when utility is diminished as a result. But arguments for the function of dysfunction, whether framed in terms of status signaling or conspicuous consumption, or explained on the basis of an “attention economy” where notoriety is valued for its own sake, inevitably fail to consider the damage brought about by the practice itself.

Limits placed on utility—i.e., how systems like fire-safety, sustainability, and accessibility are constrained in buildings—are predictable outcomes under capitalism, an economic system based on private property and the competition to accumulate wealth. The negative outcomes of such a system are well known, both for people and the environment, and need not be belabored.

The dysfunctional consequences of increasingly peculiar forms of architectural expression are also clear, but the reasons driving this phenomenon are, perhaps, less evident. In my book Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression, I argue that extreme forms of abstraction, associated with the formal/spatial innovations of early 20th century modernism, which continue today, are of particular importance in the split between appearance and operation. In breaking from prior conceptual underpinnings of building form constituting the Western historical canon, modernist abstraction disavows and defamiliarizes conventional building elements while still embracing a heroic model of expression. This increasingly comes into conflict with the decidedly nonheroic deployment and proper configuration of control layers that regulate the flow of heat, air, rainwater, and vapor through building envelopes.

While proper control layer deployment benefits from continuity, many contemporary forms of expression exploit formal discontinuity or, equally problematic, a kind of hyper-continuity where differences between vertical, horizontal, or inclined surfaces are not adequately accounted for. Architects engaged in this type of expression may, in some cases, enter into a never-ending and counterproductive hero’s journey in which an inattention to building science, along with an aversion to other “bourgeois” notions of utility and functional logic, become a badge of honor.

In my book, I argue that “in a world of architectural production driven by competition, any logical constraint on a designer’s freedom of expression leads the designer—perversely but inevitably—to explore precisely those forbidden places outlawed by prevailing conventions.” In other words, the conventional expression and, more importantly, the logical configuration of building elements—having lost their power to elicit an aesthetic response and therefore to serve as a mode of competition—are defamiliarized in ways that often damage a building’s performance.

Clearly, the value of architecture lies both in its expression and in its performance, yet it is important for architects to ensure that Vitruvius’s venustas—the aesthetic or expressive side of architecture—supports, rather than sabotages, a building’s functional logic. This is increasingly important given the urgency of climate change. Yes, a designer’s freedom is thereby constrained, but it is not entirely destroyed. The radical functionalism of Hannes Meyer, the second director of the Bauhaus who wrote in 1928 that “the idea of the ‘composition of a dock’ is enough to make a cat laugh,” hardly captures the unique aesthetic impulses of humans. “The question, therefore,” as I write in the book’s epilogue, “is not whether art should be eliminated from architecture—art is unavoidable. The more important question considered herein is whether and how the art of architecture can adjust its trajectory so that it aligns with the most fundamental requirements of building science.”

Jonathan Ochshorn, an architect with a background in structural engineering and urban design and a professor of architecture at Cornell University since 1988, is the author of Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression (Lund Humphries, 2021).