In Architectural Design, Brains and Talent Trump the Best Software

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fast computers and sophisticated software give architects unprecedented ability to generate powerful designs, but the ability to wield digital might doesn't ensure that these buildings, many of which could never have been drawn with a triangle and T-square, will be great architecture.

The old caveat "GIGO" -- garbage in, garbage out -- is as valid in architectural design as in any other computer-aided activity. Architectural tools may have changed dramatically, but the art of design still depends on the talent, wisdom and creativity of the humans who instruct computers where to draw the lines.

Computers do not relieve designers from obeying the laws of physics -- or the laws of zoning. Designers still have to take into account function, budgets and schedules.

But now architects can digitally describe virtually any form they can dream up, no matter how complex or irrational. While designers relish this expanding realm of possibilities, a key question remains: Which forms are garbage, and which can and should be built?

To show the art of what's possible, MIT's Technology Review magazine recently published a photo essay, "The Building, Digitally Remastered," celebrating the aesthetic freedom bestowed by computers. Some buildings by well-known architects appear bombastic and flamboyant, a few are even scary, and all evoke metaphoric associations.

The Phaeno science center in Wolfsburg, Germany, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, appears to be an immense, recently landed spaceship. The curvilinear concrete behemoth looms ponderously and rests atop an array of inverted concrete cones. Despite its sculptural and structural virtuosity, it is an uninviting hulk.

In London, Foster + Partners tapped digital power in designing the much-publicized "gherkin" tower. The building's curved profile reduces wind load, and its triangulated-glass and structural-steel skin eliminates perimeter columns while allowing daylight to penetrate inside. But like the Phaeno, it looks like something from a sci-fi film. Its scale-covered, pickle-shaped volume is alien to London's skyline and out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.

In Malmo, Sweden, Santiago Calatrava's "Turning Torso," a 54-story apartment tower six times taller than neighboring buildings, twists 90 degrees from bottom to top. Buttressed by an external steel spine, the tower has been labeled "anthropomorphic," but it most resembles a custard-colored licorice stick. Though it is rhombus-shaped to accommodate the twist, the tower's windows at least provide some sense of scale.

Scale readings are elusive at Calatrava's opera house in Tenerife, Canary Islands. A 165-foot high, cantilevered wave -- or is it a mollusk? -- symbolically curls upward and hovers ominously above the curved roof shells enveloping the opera house below. Three-dimensional modeling was the midwife for this maritime metaphor.

A pioneer in digitally crafting unconventional compositions, Frank Gehry built "Dancing House" in Prague 12 years ago. Its pair of corner towers, widely known as Fred and Ginger, have "hourglass bends and tapering profiles displaying the computer-generated irregular geometry that has become Gehry's signature." Fred and Ginger are bizarre but unforgettable.

"Fifteen years ago, it would have been difficult -- and in some cases impossible -- to engineer the buildings in these pages," Technology Review proclaimed. Today, "the rectilinear glass box has become a quaint relic of the pre-digital past."

Characterizing rectilinear geometry and glass boxes as "quaint relics" is a cheap shot. It reflects misguided attitudes shared by some critics and many other people who think that only eye-popping, idiosyncratic architecture deserves attention. It belittles rectilinear, glass-clad buildings that are elegant, beautifully proportioned and artfully detailed.

Even neo-classically inclined Washington can appreciate the quality of rectilinear edifices with glass skins -- the Finnish and German embassies, the Harman Center for the Arts, the Newseum and a number of recently built downtown office buildings -- that hardly look like quaint relics.

The characterization also mistakenly implies that orthogonal geometry is a stylistic choice, and it ignores timeless, non-stylistic architectural determinants. In dense urban environments, rectilinear geometry is often inevitable -- the consequence of block, street and site configurations; height and density constraints; and functional, economic and environmental influences.

The "quaint relic" classification further disregards the extent to which rectilinear geometry permeates lumber, structural steel, aluminum extrusions, masonry, doors, windows and much furniture.

Digital power has transformed architecture, enhancing every aspect of the practice. Nevertheless, computers do not guarantee positive aesthetic results, nor does avoiding right angles and straight lines. In the art of design, computer power will never substitute for brainpower.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company