Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Surface vs Structure

Do you think scripting can be a tool for structural innovation or just for surface articulation? Any real life constructed examples?

With regard to scripting, I talk about this in Feedback Loop in the chapter Refutation of Arguments against Scripting. This discussion occurs in the section on the Argument from Decorative Effects. However, I think there is a larger question here, which goes beyond scripting: Is contemporary experimental architecture overly concerned with the production of surfaces and surface effects, rather than with structure? Below are some thoughts on this larger question.

How can designers accentuate surface? In what state does the surface aspect of architecture dominate? Surface dominates when architecture contains large expanses of smooth, continuous, opaque areas, whether flat or curved. The typical painted drywall surface (wall, ceiling) is a common example. This is surface accentuated to an extreme. It reduces the experience of wall or ceiling to a thin plane devoid of depth and materiality, and with no way to perceive its structural anatomy or thickness. In a typical drywall house, structure is seen nowhere, and instead, everywhere is pure surface planes. Much Modern architecture accentuates surface. Consider the Barcelona Pavilion: an environment of free-slipping, pristinely smooth surfaces with a negated sense of structure. Or consider the typical curtainwall enclosure: conceived of as a taut, flat, continuous “skin” stretched over a largely hidden structural framework. Post-Modern architecture aggressively sought to detach surface from structure. The surface was conceived of as an impenetrable or distorting veil. Consider Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall or Experience Music Museum, in which there is no intelligible relationship between visible surface and underlying structure. Seeing the surface tells you nothing about what lies beneath. (In his more recent projects such as the Chicago park pavilion, Gehry reveals the structure that holds up the surface, but they remain two completely incongruous sub-systems.)

Despite the widespread efforts to make surface architecture in previous decades, and despite the fact that conservative mainstream designers continue to perpetuate surface architecture today through the conventional curtainwall, these opponents of experimental work like to accuse experimental designers of a surface bias. This is nothing but a smear tactic, since in fact, the trend in current experimental work is to reject surface architecture. This is one way contemporary work breaks with the Modern and Post-Modern past. So rather than have a surface bias, experimental designers today tend to have a strong bias against the surface. Instead, they seek to accentuate structure.

Consider the many recent studies for interior systems: partition systems and ceiling systems. They share a goal: to structuralize the smooth, continuous surface, breaking it down and converting it into a highly articulated structure. When a wall or ceiling gets componentized, and when the joinery between components is articulated, and when the components are given overt materiality, and when, due to this materiality, they have visible thickness and weight, then what was once a thin, intangible surface becomes a deep, tectonic, corporeal entity (i.e., a structure). Experimental designers today have such a strong aversion to the pristine, detached surface that they have devoted significant research to figuring out how to treat every surface as a structure, even in those places where plain surfaces have historically been taken for granted, as in non-structural interior systems. The articulated surface is the structuralized surface. In this work no surface is allowed to remain a surface. Everything is treated as structure.

This renewed love of structure, which is an outgrowth of the renewed love of Nature as a model for architecture, can be seen everywhere in experimental work, at every scale, not just interior partition systems. Consider the Caltrans Headquarters by Morphosis. A taut curtainwall “skin” covers one side of the building, but at its lower edge the “skin” metaphorically unravels, buckling into a folded plate roof structure at ground level to cover a public plaza and bus terminal. Banal surface mutates into complex, multifunctional structure. In this new way of thinking, even when surface remains smooth and continuous, it is used structurally. Consider Richard Rogers’ Law Courts in Bordeaux. A series of smooth-surfaced, conical “barrels” hold the courtrooms, and they are covered by a giant-scale smoothly undulating roof surface. Yet these surfaces are actually crucial components in the structural system. They possess conical and undulating curves in order to enhance rigidity and spanning capability. So to the extent smooth surface still exists in experimental work, it is used for its structural capabilities, integrated into a structural system rather than concealing or subverting it. Norman Foster’s undulating curved roof above the British Museum Court is another example. Its curvature is so integral to its structural performance that a parametric system was developed, which automatically recalculated the size of spanning members whenever the curvature was adjusted.

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