Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression
Jonathan Ochshorn

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book cover

Architecture cannot be understood without reference to the notion of abstraction.1 We discuss buildings in terms of form, space, geometry, context, color, meaning, or anything else only to the extent that we abstract from the infinite qualities that are actually present in its material. Tabulating or adding up the infinite objective qualities of building elements does not get you any closer to an understanding of architecture, so abstraction is a fundamental necessity in both critiquing and producing architecture. Understanding architecture as having a conceptual basis is the same as understanding architecture as an abstraction: a concept describes what the architecture is by abstracting from what it is not. As an example: if the concept of the Pantheon in Rome is of a sphere within a cube, such a description simultaneously abstracts from all that is not relevant to this concept—the particular qualities of each brick, stone, and concrete element from which it is constructed, the ornamentation of the exterior and interior surfaces, and so on. If a designer is unable to abstract from these useful and specific material qualities, a design concept will never emerge.

That architecture has a conceptual basis does not mean that prosaic material properties and material relationships are not important. It only means that, to the extent that architecture is understood conceptually, such information is placed in a different file folder. If it is accepted that abstraction is a requirement for the appreciation, understanding, and creation of architecture, the question remains as to how all the elements abstracted from—those things placed in our metaphorical file folder—become part of the building, as they must: for one cannot build an abstraction.2

Up until the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th centuries, the type of abstraction underlying architectural design was generally built upon—paradoxically—an acceptance of conventional building elements, building materials, and building construction techniques. Windows remained windows, doors remained doors, walls remained walls, and roofs remained roofs. In general, structural forces were resolved in conventional ways, construction proceeded along conventional lines, and environmental constraints on site planning, building orientation, and so forth were respected.

The conceptual basis of such architecture neither challenged, nor threatened, these prosaic elements and conventions, but was rather developed with these elements in mind. Window openings may have been elaborated or framed with Ionic columns and decorated with various ornamental forms, and the geometric organization of the facade may have abstracted from the material or constructional logic of brick, stone, or plaster surfaces from which its expression emerged, but the window was still understood as a window, and the wall was still understood as a wall. That architecture took as its point of departure walls, columns, windows, and roofs was rarely questioned; Alberti and other 15th- to 19th-century architects and writers maintained a conventional and uncontroversial attitude towards such building elements even as they explored issues of architectural design and abstraction.

The origins of a more radically abstract way of understanding architecture were already present but were not recognized as serious alternative strategies for designing buildings. Rather, examples of conceptually pure forms devoid of references to conventional building elements appear almost exclusively in works of monumental scale, expressing the most unfathomable and sublime concept of all: death. The Great Pyramid of Giza, completed in 2560 BCE, and the Cenotaph for Newton designed—but never built—by Étienne-Louis Boullée in the late 18th century, can be cited as precursors to the radically abstract forms characteristic of later works of architecture. However, such precedents were not considered, at the time, to be legitimate role models for non-funerary building types.

Architectural abstraction as a mere elaboration, or ordering, of conventional building elements began to be challenged in the late 19th century, and especially in the early 20th century. While the canonical houses of 20th-century modernism were hardly representative of domestic building, then or now, they were extraordinarily influential in creating a kind of beachhead from which radical attitudes towards abstraction could take root and ultimately become major factors in both the pedagogy and practice of architecture. This new form of abstraction differed markedly from traditional forms of abstraction. Le Corbusier's five points of architecture describe the potential of new technologies—in particular, the replacement of loadbearing walls by a structural framework—to overcome what were considered insufferable constraints of traditional construction. In many of his buildings, windows are abstracted as rectangular openings, or voids. Other conventional building elements are defamiliarized or eliminated entirely: stucco replaces clapboards as it betrays no material origin and can be more easily understood as abstract surface. Roof shingles, along with sloped roofs of any sort, are simply eliminated, as they contain such strong references to the traditional tectonic geometry of attics and gables. Brick chimneys are replaced with painted metal cylindrical pipes. And all traditional ornamental or decorative embellishments are banished. The point here is not to criticize any particular aesthetic outcome, or to propose a return to any particular stylistic tendency. The key change, from the standpoint of building failure and building function, is that—for the first time—architectural abstraction was made independent of building construction and building conventions.

Many advances in building technology can be cited to explain the motivation, as well as the potential, for changes in architectural form and construction associated with modernism. Perhaps the most obvious were major improvements in the production of ferrous metals used to create structural frameworks, leading to the widespread use of standard I-beams and, later, wide-flange sections made from rolled steel. At about the same time, near the turn of the 19th (into the 20th) century, reinforced concrete also became, for the first time, a viable structural material. It is hardly accidental that the formal inventions of modern architecture drew upon the structural potential of these new materials.

Other materials used in modern buildings were not particularly new, but—at least in some cases—were becoming available as mass-produced commodities. However, unlike structural frameworks that used steel or reinforced concrete to create formal typologies associated with modernism, it is not as easy to make explicit connections between these other building materials and this type of formal abstraction. Even glass, which served as a necessary bridge between the spatial ideals of modernism and the realities of enclosure, was not exactly a new material at the beginning of the 20th century, although incremental improvements in its manufacture did permit greater experimentation with formal compositions that relied on large "voids."

If structure were abstract grid (or abstract plane, in the case of loadbearing walls), and if glass were abstract void, other constructional elements or materials required to complete the desired abstract compositions of modern design were harder to find. The neutral solid surface had to consist of something, but nothing new was available, except perhaps the mottled gray surface of reinforced concrete. More often, such surfaces were created as they had been for thousands of years—by applying a layer of stucco to an underlying substrate of brick or, later, concrete block.

The important point is this: in spite of an abstract conception of buildings which eschewed conventional building elements and conventional material expression, modern buildings still needed to be actually and physically constructed. Moreover, modern architects had hardly given up, or gone beyond, a traditional understanding of building construction as consisting fundamentally of physical things whose value was measured as it had always been measured: by their strength, by their resistance to movement, and by their durability. Expressing such characteristics of building materials—as heroic elements that were both visible and tangible—may not always have been a formal preoccupation of modern architects, but the heroic quality of constructional elements remained for modern architects an unchallenged model for putting together, for building, their abstract concepts.

The belief that traditional (heroic) materials constituted the basis of building construction, if not always the conceptual basis of the architecture, became increasingly untenable in the 20th century because the underlying basis of architectural technology underwent a radical transformation. The reasons for, and results of, this transformation can be summarized as follows:

It is important to emphasize the fact that what had previously controlled rainwater, vapor, air, and heat loss—the thick and more-or-less monolithic masonry walls of traditional construction—were the same elements that largely defined the "architectural expression" of traditional buildings. That is, architecture grew out of, and supported, this underlying technology, just as the technology supported the architectural expression. However, while the technology of control layers has migrated from the "heroic" materials of traditional architecture to the separate, optimized, and non-heroic membranes and insulative materials characteristic of contemporary construction, formal architectural design in the 20th and early 21st centuries remains stuck in the paradigm of traditional and heroic material expression, not only ignoring this profound technological shift, but actually moving in directions that exacerbate problems of vapor, air, and rainwater intrusion, as well as energy efficiency.

n the new paradigm for architectural technology, four control layers need to occur consistently at the boundary between inside and outside space in order to control these four environmental factors: rainwater, vapor, air, and heat. Wherever a control layer's integrity is violated along that boundary, the potential for problems increases, in the following ways:

Assuming that the various control layers are properly configured with respect to each other—so that, for example, an air barrier is not positioned within the enclosure wall assembly in such a way that it prevents water or vapor from draining or drying out—the primary task is to make these control layers continuous. This is not particularly easy to do; because control layers are most efficiently deployed outside the building's structural frame (so that they are not constantly interrupted by interior partitions and floor–ceiling assemblies and so that the building's structure is protected from thermal changes and other environmental damage), they must be supported by, or connected to, the building's structure in some way. Unless they are adhered to the building's structure (or to some sort of back-up surface or substrate supported by the building's structure), then their means of support (clip angles, bolts, screws, nails, etc.) invariably penetrate not only the control layer being supported, but also any control layers positioned between the control layer being supported and the structural substrate. And even if all the control layers are light enough so that they may be adhered without the use of penetrating fasteners, the outer "rain screen" cladding material—needed not only to establish some sort of architectural presence for the building, but also to protect relatively delicate control layers from various forms of damage and, in some cases, to create an air cavity or pressure-equalization chamber—still requires some sort of fastening system that invariably must penetrate the control layers it covers and protects.

Roof systems require the same control layers, but have different problems to reconcile—in particular, problems with penetrations for mechanical equipment or skylights, and transitions between vertical, sloping, or horizontal surfaces.

This illustrates a fundamental contradiction in the theory of control layers, but it is a contradiction that can be largely overcome both by minimizing these inevitable penetrations, and by detailing them explicitly where they occur (e.g., at windows or other openings, penetrations, and at the fasteners themselves) to maintain the continuity of the various control layers that would otherwise be interrupted. This strategy, however, is compromised when the architectural design itself—not just the inevitable encounters with windows, penetrations, and fasteners for cladding support—has a conceptual basis rooted in the expression of discontinuity.

Such discontinuity takes many forms, and it is not my purpose to document them all, or to suggest that all contemporary architectural expression is aligned with this tendency. The important point is this: where conceptual or schematic design is understood as a process of abstraction in which formal ideas can be developed without any consideration of control layer continuity, where contemporary modes of representation can capture virtually any formal geometry, where structural and energy analysis software can provide numerical validation for the most complex and indeterminate geometric models imaginable, and where architectural culture in general, and generative design methods in particular, encourage a disjunction between formal conceits and constructional logic, the probability of encountering problems with control layer discontinuities dramatically increases.

The logic of control layer design in modern construction cannot simply be ignored. Describing the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, designed by Peter Eisenman in 1989 (Fig. 11.1 left), Robin Pogrebin wrote that

it would seem embarrassing for any architect, let alone one as prominent as Peter Eisenman. You design a museum—your first large-scale work, a breakout project whose exterior scaffolding design, a virtual celebration of impermanence, sets the architecture world buzzing. Within just a few years, however, cracks start to show. Quite literally: the skylight leaks. The glass curtain wall lets in too much light, threatening to damage delicate artwork. The interior temperature swings by as much 40 degrees some days.4

Different control layer problems plagued the Stata Center at M.I.T., designed by Frank Gehry in 2004 (Fig. 11.1 right):

MIT has settled its 2007 lawsuit against the architects and builders of the Ray and Maria Stata Center. … MIT's lawsuit cited design and construction failures in the building. These included masonry cracking and poor drainage in the amphitheater; 'mold growth at various locations on the brick exterior vertical elevations'; 'persistent leaks' throughout the building; and sliding ice and snow.5

Photos of Wexner Center and Stata Center.

Figure 11.1. Problems with abstraction: The Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University (left, opened 1989) designed by Peter Eisenman; and the Ray and Maria Stata Center at M.I.T. (right, opened 2004) designed by Frank Gehry.

Paradoxically, not only the expression of discontinuity, but also the expression of a kind of hyper-continuity can lead to control layer problems—this may occur when walls and roofs become indistinguishable from each other as morphed and flowing building enclosure surfaces turn the conventional understanding of "facade" or "roof" into quaint anachronisms. Potential problems with such hyper-continuity come about because necessary connections at vertical walls are different from those at steep-slope or low-slope roofs. Control layer penetrations that are required for fastening cladding panels may be tolerable in the vertical surface of a metal rain screen wall, for example, but may well become increasingly risky as the enclosure surface bends or curves from a vertical to a more horizontal position. The orientation of enclosure surfaces with respect to the force of gravity matters, and it is dangerous to confuse the abstract formal desire for "continuity" with the practical requirement for control layer continuity derived from building science principles.

Some would argue that it's no big deal if a few buildings leak—better to live in a world with formal design freedom (even if accompanied by various forms of building failure) than in a dull, repetitive world where everything functions properly. There is some truth, and a number of fallacies, in the argument that accepting and applying principles of building science within the design process prevents a designer from heroically pursuing an avant-garde agenda. The truth is that such considerations do constrain design freedom. A "paper" architecture conceived without gravity, for example, will surely be frustrated when confronted with the reality of, and requirements for, vertical equilibrium.

Yet it is equally true that the constraints brought about by what might be termed "reality"—not only gravity, but also the necessary control of air, vapor, rainwater, and heat at the building's perimeter—can be reconciled with a desire to create new architectural forms of expression. Yes, freedom is constrained, but it is not entirely destroyed. The problem is 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 defying such logic, the designer seeks to defamiliarize what has become so commonplace that it is no longer capable of eliciting an aesthetic response and, therefore, serving as a useful mode of competition. This is the heroic conceit of the contemporary avant-garde: to confront "danger" in whichever of its manifestations appears as an appropriate target at any given point in time.

Joseph Campbell abstracts from the culture of competition that motivates artists to embark on such counterproductive hero's journeys, seeing only the mythical and idealized shell of heroism in such attempts:

Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives. … Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss.6

Ironically, an inattention to building science is—precisely—what this version of heroism entails. Architects (qua artists) are not so much "help[ing] us along the heroic journey of our own lives" but rather creating, out of thin air, a heroic journey for themselves: leaving the world of safe, predictable constructions; proposing buildings that have both the appearance and the reality of danger (where danger comes from challenging conventional notions of aesthetic, and sometimes literal, comfort; challenging class-based conventions regarding economy of means; and especially, challenging forces of nature such as gravity, or rain, or snow); and returning in glory after having confronted the agents of conformity (whether owners, users, public officials, etc.). For such heroes, having proposed, or built, such a brave thing with all the attendant risks of failure is a badge of honor. Peter Eisenman, in his interview with Robin Pogrebin, boasts that "there's not an architect I know that doesn't have problems with important buildings."7

Abstraction, in and of itself, is not directly the cause of non-structural building failure. Rather, problems emerge due to the interaction of several factors, outlined below, that relate to the use of abstraction in modern architecture—not all of which are necessarily present in any given instance.


Abstract ideas tend to precede, rather than evolve from, considerations of a technical or functional nature. This is partly a result of a misplaced confidence in the power of science to compensate for any a priori design decisions, and partly a result of an education in construction derived from empirically based rules that provide neither the theory to grasp, nor even the vocabulary to define, the issues that have become relevant in the design of enclosure systems. As a result, abstract "volumes brought together in light," Le Corbusier's idealized definition of architecture first published in 1920 ("volumes assemblés sous la lumière"8), often experience problems when they are also, invariably, brought together in rain, wind, and snow, and subject to unanticipated environmental pressures.


Whereas a steel or concrete structural framework (or an environmental control system) can be conceptually and physically separated from the rest of the building, permitting a specialized process of engineering design that supports the architectural concept, it is difficult to see how the enclosure of a building can be dealt with in an analogous manner without reducing the architect's role to a purely schematic one. From the standpoint of both traditional and modern architecture, the enclosure, to a great extent, is the architecture. Delegating the detailed design of enclosure to others (aside from loss of prestige and remuneration) opens up the risk of compromising the abstract basis of the design. Vertical surfaces may terminate in unwanted copings; what was conceived as abstract void may appear as conventional window; and the precise articulation of formal elements, based on subtleties of alignment and proportion, may suffer.


The architect, while maintaining control over the building's external surfaces, tends to resist serious application of "engineering" criteria to the design of building envelopes. Within the academic design studio as well as in practice, such criteria are perceived as threats to the freedom of formal invention that are characteristic of modernist abstraction. In the words of the Dutch painter and theoretician Piet Mondrian: "If one takes technique, utilitarian requirements, etc., as the point of departure, there is a risk of losing every chance of success, for intuition is then troubled by intelligence."9


The risk of enclosure failure is neither as obvious, immediate, nor usually as catastrophic, as is the case with structural failure, so there is less pressure to develop the necessary theoretical or empirical basis. Details often seem reasonable when initially conceived and executed, as their intrinsic defects may be far from obvious. In fact, "obvious" or "common-sense" solutions are sometimes problematic. For example, the popularity of non-redundant barrier walls "may result from a common-sense approach to the problem of rain exclusion—when it is raining, we wear a mackintosh, so why not treat our buildings likewise?"10

Additionally, many non-structural failures take years to manifest themselves. Even "short-term or accelerated tests may give misleading indications. A tentative judgment only may be possible, based on technical knowledge and subject to confirmation in due course by observation."11 Cracking and bowing of marble cladding panels on the Standard Oil Company Headquarters in Chicago were first noticed almost seven years after initial construction, became increasingly prevalent only within 13 years of construction, and finally led to complete replacement after 19 years.12 Such non-structural failures are often costly, inconvenient, and dangerous, but they are rarely catastrophic.


Because the traditional means of dealing with enclosure is primarily based on empirical rather than on scientific knowledge, modern architects do not necessarily know what they don't know about the subject, and are thus more inclined to either extrapolate inappropriately from prior experience, or simply invent constructional details based on a superficial understanding (i.e., a misunderstanding) of the complex forces at work. In other words, the empirical basis for much prior construction success, having little basis in a theory of building science, is discarded without the modern architect knowing exactly (or even approximately) what is being lost. If a 24-inch-thick (600 mm) loadbearing masonry wall seems to work well at keeping water out, it may not be clear why 8-inch-thick (200 mm) cladding supported on a structural frame wouldn't keep water out just as well. The process of abstraction, unmediated by any serious building science, reduces the complex behavior of specific wall-types to formal ideas: the "wall" becomes a "plane," a "surface," or a constituent part of a "volume" or "mass." Even the origin and purpose of the pitched roof, understood traditionally as a culturally specific response to environmental conditions, is dismissed by R.S. Yorke, architect and author of The Modern House, as a structural anachronism made obsolete by the employment of "frame construction and concrete slabs."13


In the modern conception of construction, visible and "heroic" elements of building are seen either as purely formal elements (enclosure) or as abstract manifestations of "structure," while the subtle realities of material behavior and their relationship to the construction of buildings are often ignored. As a more rigorous building science develops, these attitudes become increasingly untenable.


With neither a working knowledge of building science, nor empirically based standards for reliable detailing, it is not surprising that the modern architect may be incapable of inventing reliable strategies for enclosing buildings. Yet it is still common for architects to creatively "invent" construction details. Some of the reasons for this have already been given: the risk of failure is not fully appreciated. The lack of theory associated with an empirically based construction practice makes it difficult to know what one does not know. And the state of building science itself may be relatively undeveloped. Additionally, an attitude of heroic contempt for the conventional may be present. The Architects' Journal wondered in 1975 whether the cause of misguided architectural invention lay "in a disdain for the 'standard solution' or the principle, perhaps, that any designer worth his salt should be able to work everything out from first principles?"14


There is also a tendency to overestimate the durability of many modern systems and materials; as "modern" becomes identified in popular culture with overcoming traditional labor-intensive practices, habits of maintenance characteristic of traditional building practice (continual repair, replacement, pointing, painting, etc.) are loosened from their bearings. While expectations of permanence, toughness, and resiliency become part of the culture, if not the reality, of modern materials, two other factors make decisions regarding durability more difficult for the architect. First, it is not easy to obtain definitive information on the performance characteristics of complex components, equipment, and systems. Knowledge is limited because those who have it tend to view it in a proprietary manner and are reluctant to share it. Competing manufacturers vying for market share may not always be inclined to objectively compare their products with others. Second, the desire to extract the maximum profit from investments in commercial building tends to encourage both marginal construction practices and deferred maintenance.


Many 20th-century texts on construction practice lack both a coherent theory of building science as well as a base of empirical knowledge corresponding to the new architectural forms, materials, and systems that are emerging. Charles Ramsey and Harold Sleeper describe a situation in which "facts are so deeply buried in the body of technical literature that they only come to light in the course of research." Their Architectural Graphic Standards, first published in 1932, is intended to overcome the "pressure of time [that] often forces the making of assumptions and trusting to luck."15 But there are at least two problems with these assertions. First, it is not clear that the "research" referred to is yet capable of dealing with the complexity of modern materials and systems. For example, effective utilization of insulating material, vapor retarders, and air barriers was still, after more than 80 years of discussion and research, subject to uncertainty and inconsistent practice.16 Second, it is not clear that available "state-of-the-art" research is being incorporated consistently into the graphic details. Research into the relationships among insulation, vapor migration, and condensation, already available in 1923, does not begin to appear in Architectural Graphic Standards until 1951.17 Even when such research conclusions finally appear, they are not consistently applied to the details; for example, generic advice on condensation does not prevent the continued reprinting of numerous details that contradict the theory.

Publishing graphically oriented material with little explicit theoretical grounding also makes the underlying premise—that of providing a "core of skeleton data useful for further development, design, or improvement"18—a dangerous proposition. For how can one modify or extrapolate from a detailed drawing if the underlying logic is not known? Details supplied by manufacturers of specific systems are also often difficult to incorporate properly into an overall building design, but for a different reason. Perhaps to avoid liability for providing information about elements over which they have no control, many manufacturers avoid showing precisely how their systems connect to adjacent construction.


Even where familiar materials are used, many problems in modern construction arise from the untested interactions among those materials. Viollet-le-Duc, in his Lectures on Architecture (Lecture XI), refers to this potential, already manifested in 19th-century construction, as being proportional to the variation in component materials. Contemporary practice, with its proliferation of new materials, makes the problem worse. Even familiar materials may cause problems when used in new contexts. Not only individual materials may interact to cause failure, but individual factors, each by itself perhaps acting below the threshold of damage, can combine to trigger failure.


A disdain for conventional applications of technology may seem somewhat paradoxical, in light of modernism's invocation of precisely this technology in its manifestos opposing traditional modes of building, but several factors are at play. There is, first, a distrust of, and backlash against, technical solutions within postmodern culture, and this phenomenon lends support to architectural forms that express these feelings by literally distorting that which appears as logical within modernist practice. Second, with the victory of modernism over traditional construction practices, what was "heroic" and "radical" in the deployment of steel and reinforced concrete frames becomes conventional. Given the cyclic movement of fashion, it is inevitable that an avant-garde style, once integrated and accepted within popular culture, must give way to something new—the negation of the logic embedded within modernist conventions becomes the stylistic path of least resistance. Third, technology is still expressed, even fetishized, in its irrational manifestations. Glass is reimagined, no longer merely as the "void" in modernist abstraction, but as the visible and universal boundary between inside and outside; cladding is similarly abstracted as universal surface; structure is bent, angled, cantilevered, hyper-articulated, and so on, using techniques based on distortion or other forms of defamiliarization.


Modern attitudes to construction tend to focus on structure and cladding as "heroic" materials through which the ideas of the designer are made visible. In the postmodern reaction to modernism, such attitudes survive largely intact: critiques of modernist idealism still rely on structure and cladding as expressive formal elements. Yet as building science evolves, the failure to acknowledge an emerging paradigm shift in the actual requirements of building—from the use of relatively unsophisticated enclosure strategies characteristic of modernism to the more subtle application of non-heroic systems based on control layers (to control air, vapor, water, and heat flow) and incorporating issues of sustainability—is increasingly problematic.


At the same time, even as the expression of technology as a manifestation of rationality is subjected to formal critique, technology itself is not actually rejected, but in fact assumes an almost mystical aura. If the engineer of modernism, "inspired by the law of Economy and governed by mathematical calculation, puts us in accord with universal law [and] achieves harmony,"19 the postmodern engineer rejects the constraints of economy, values ambiguity over harmony, and relies on complex numerical methods programmed within the "black box" of sophisticated analytical software to transcend the limitations of traditional mathematical calculation. "Structure need not be comprehensible and explicit. There is no creed or absolute. … It can be subtle and more revealing. It is a richer experience … if a puzzle is set or a layer of ambiguity lies over the reading of 'structure.'"20

Technology in this context is thought to possess almost limitless power to overcome problems originating in any predetermined form, no matter how arbitrary and illogical. Form, in other words, can be abstracted from virtually all considerations of a technical nature; and technology, much like the digital "improvements" common in photography, music, and film, can compensate for what might have been a hopelessly misconceived or inadequate performance. The singer-songwriter-producer Ben Folds captures this sentiment perfectly in his 2001 song: "I'm rockin' the suburbs / I take the cheques and face the facts / that some producer with computers fixes all my shitty tracks."21

The problem with this attitude, at least in architecture, is twofold. First, such technical "solutions," focusing only on internal criteria of success, may lose sight of other criteria external to the immediate problem. For example, a "solution" to a problem of environmental control may require excessive energy use. Second, such an attitude is unrealistic. Unlike structural frameworks or other relatively straightforward technical systems within buildings, the reliability of the building envelope is threatened by thousands of highly complex, and often unpredictable, interactions among building materials and systems subjected to differential movement, chemical reactions, environmental agents, construction and maintenance operations, and so on. Architectural form based upon empirically validated principles of building science—form that minimizes the collisions among these countless variables—has a greater probability of success than does architectural form that either willfully distorts these principles or operates as if such principles can be applied after the fact.

Architects learn to prioritize formal abstraction over utilitarian functionality when they go to school. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that such abstraction, independent of serious consideration of technical/functional issues, typifies academic design studio pedagogy: we will look more closely at architectural education in the epilogue.


1 Parts of this chapter have been previously published in Ochshorn, "Architecture's Dysfunctional Couple" and Ochshorn, "Designing Building Failures."

2 Hegel, Lectures on The History of Philosophy, 25. Hegel argued, in the context of French representations of the absolute, that "to make abstractions hold good in actuality means to destroy reality."

3 Joseph Lstiburek, "But I Was So Much Younger Then (I'm So Much Older Than That Now)," BSI-065, Building Science Insights, here.

4 Robin Pogrebin, "Extreme Makeover: Museum Edition," New York Times, September 18, 2005, here.

5 John A. Hawkinson, "MIT Settles with Gehry over Stata Ctr. Defects," The Tech, online edition, March 19, 2010, .

6 Campbell, Pathways to Bliss, 132–33.

7 Robin Pogrebin, "Extreme Makeover: Museum Edition," New York Times, September 18, 2005, here.

8 Le Corbusier, "Trois Rappels," 92, translated and republished in Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture.

9 Piet Mondrian, L'Architecture Vivante, Autumn, 1925, 11, quoted in Collins, Concrete, 281.

10 [Fitzmaurice], Principles of Modern Building, 198.

11 [Fitzmaurice], Principles of Modern Building, 81.

12 Deborah Snoonian, "Sleuthing Out Building Failure," Architectural Record, August 2000, 168.

13 Yorke, The Modern House, 55.

14 "Building Failure Patterns and Their Implications," The Architects' Journal, February 5, 1975, 308.

15 Ramsey and Sleeper, "Preface," in Ramsey and Sleeper, Architectural Graphic Standards.

16 Lawton and Brown, "Considering the Use of Polyethylene Vapour Barriers."

17 William B. Rose, "Moisture Control in the Modern Building Envelope: History of the Vapor Barrier in the U.S., 1923–52," APT Bulletin 28, no. 4 (1997): 13–19.

18 Ramsey and Sleeper, "Preface," in Ramsey and Sleeper, Architectural Graphic Standards.

19 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1.

20 Balmond with Smith, Informal, 64.

21 Ben Folds, "Rockin' the Suburbs," Rockin' the Suburbs, Audio CD, Sony, 2001. Permission for the use of this quotation is gratefully acknowledged.

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