Archive for ‘Architecture’ Category

Form Follows Function – A Truism That Isn’t True

Posted by Robert Weitz on March 21, 2013 11:25 AM

Put two or more designers, or one journalist and a designer, in a room and the subject of form and function inevitably comes up. “Form follows function” has always made me uncomfortable. As a craftsman/designer, I have found that form and function exists as a flow rather than a causal relationship.

The discussion of form and function in modern times has its origins in the nascent industrial education system forming in Europe in the late 19th century. Differing schools of thought touted either “classical orders” or a return to agrarian regional design. The latter as represented by Ruskin and Morris’ Arts and Crafts and the European Art Nouveau movements were primary influences on one of the fathers of modern design, Louis Sullivan.

Transom Ornament—Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building—Louis Sullivan


Fallingwater or Kaufmann Residence—Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935

“Form follows function” is based on “Form ever follows function,” a quote from Louis Sullivan’s Autobiography of an Idea. It was an era were iconography and narrative so overshadowed functional concerns that buildings and objects were expensive, dark and inhuman. I have no doubt that Sullivan and his protégé Frank Lloyd Wright sought to bring the delicate dance of form and function back into balance and harmony.

Both of their works and writings celebrate an organic, fluid relationship between form and function. Form follows function implies a causal relationship between form and function, where form ever follows function implies a delicate balance and a need for both to be emphasized.

Both Sullivan and Wright knew that they were creating iconography as well as shelter and that the iconography came first. Both also came under critical fire for faking technology in order to demonstrate their ideological principles. Function often accommodates form.

As a craftsman/designer, I am constantly doing a delicate dance between form and function—form exists hand and hand with function.

The chicken and the egg are always evolving!

What came first the chicken or the egg? The answer is obscured by the question. Neither came first. There was a long evolutionary process that resulted in a chicken. A chicken and an egg are the same thing at a different level of development!

When I am designing or building, I might pick up a stick and its function and form will do a little dance of intention, discovery, accident and imagination. That stick might morph from a window picket, to chopsticks, to a glue applicator and later to kindling. Even the most mechanical design process is often driven by poetry, craft, fetish, technological prejudice and budgets. I have been in many design meetings when faced with daunting technical challenges, we opted to break our backs to preserve intangibles like joy or lightness.

The Uffizi Gallery—Designed to function as offices and converted to a museum.


Saint Peter’s Basilica—Function: To be sublime!

Poetry and narrative are a primary cause for even the most rudimentary seemingly practical designs. Poetry and narrative are the most important aspect of any design. People will go to great lengths to celebrate their culture with their buildings, cities, churches and objects. Emotional connection to form usually overrides functional imperatives, even when the original use changes.

Corinthian dentils were ornamental elements that emulate structural elements of older temples

Architectural history is resplendent with examples of form forcing function. Ancient cultures often keep the design details of their traditional culture even though their building technology had advanced significantly. Stone elements would be fashioned to emulate the wooden structural elements of the older buildings.

Colonialism’s failure to adapt their form to the functions of nature resulted in rapid deterioration

Colonial architecture was constructed using details and architectural typologies that crumbled because the weather and materials were completely different than Europe’s. When I design, I dream and I analyze, but the line blurs as to what is driving what?

“Form ever follows function” allows us to start with our emotions, gesture or happenstance and create designs where we can conceive of something that is completely impossible and somehow figure out how to make it function. This relationship of form and function has always inspired and troubled me—form for form’s sake is close to my heart, but I make objects and interactive systems that must function well. Our online projects are highly responsive to the communities they serve and the form is driven directly by their emotions.

I found this eloquent article in the NY Times The Demise of ‘Form Follows Function’ when I was checking to see what Louis Sullivan actually said. Alice Rawsthorn tells this story in more detail and explains how the relationship between these two old friends will get even blurrier in the world of cyber environments and real-time networks.

Modifying Mecca – An Elegant Plan Revealed

Posted by Robert Weitz on June 8, 2009 11:40 AM

One of the five sacred duties (Five Pillars) for an “able-bodied” Muslim who can afford the trip is to perform the ritual pilgrimage known as the Hajj at least once in a lifetime.

Combine the fact that there are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide and the availability of relatively inexpensive easy transportation and you have a big 21st century problem – about 1.7 million pilgrims converge on Mecca every year.

Sadly, the infrastructure has been overburdened for many years and has resulted in deaths due to trampling and overcrowding. Fast Company magazine recently featured a short article revealing the existence of a YouTube video that is a fly-through of the master plan to modify Mecca. It caught our eye because it is an amazing scheme, a melding of ancient and contemporary ideas along with a state of the art digital presentation.

The video clearly demonstrates an elegant employment of the radial “parti” and a 21st century feel, echoing the shapes of Utzon’s Sidney Opera House, Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall and the structural rationalism of Nervi and Calatrava, while acting like an ancient amphitheater affording pilgrims view and access to the sacred Kaaba, which is the focal center of the plan.

In keeping with the Islamic love of mathematics, as reflected in the magnificent pattern language of Islamic architecture, this redo promises to be one of world’s wonders. We will keep you posted as we learn more.

A Wonderful Day In The Neighborhood – Reflections On Steel and Glass

Posted by Robert Weitz on May 20, 2009 9:48 AM

The Annenberg Space for Photography – Not a Museum!

Posted by Robert Weitz on April 24, 2009 10:28 AM

We have a new neighborhood community center! It’s not what you are imagining—it doesn’t have basketball hoops or a pool. And while the councilman who brokered the deal, the developer and the Annenberg Foundation would probably like you to imagine that The Annenberg Space for Photography serves a wide range of citizens, it is smack dab in the middle of “the land of lawyers, CPAs and bankers” called Century City.

The Annenberg Space for Photography

That complaint out of the way, I really love the fact that I can walk over to this incredible exhibition space for photography, take in a show, snap a few pictures and be back in time for tea! I think the building is beautiful. It is sited in horizontal juxtaposition to the now almost stately twin Century Plaza Towers. (The towers are short stubby cousins of the World Trade Center designed by Minoru Yamasaki.)

Designed by AECOM Design (formerly DMJM Design) the building is, in my opinion, a “rare bird.” It is a singularly-conceived modernist building in the style of Mies at IIT, but detailed and built in a way that could only be done in the 21st century. I was stunned by the building’s grace and presence, and was really taken with its architectural integrity and brilliant siting.

Somehow the internal space is a little less successful, although I applaud the spirit of the thing. The obvious metaphor for the interior is wrapped up in the workings of the camera optics, but I think the interior team forced the issue. The point of the “parti,” I would assume, is to provide many opportunities to live with and spend time with photographic images.

The problem for many photography exhibitions and galleries is that collections most often exceed the size of available wall space. Using various digital playback devices, the “space” (not a museum) offers some wonderfully rich opportunities to see lot of digital images. The “rotunda” of the space features super high-res 14’ x 7’ 4k screens that offer an engaging way to see photography.

Beyond the amazing digital presentation in the rotunda, there are some real misses. There is precious little space for looking at actual photographs, and the entry has a west facing window wall that is cooking and bleaching out the photos during the midday. They have attempted to use a solar shade, but the result is hot and glary to say the least.

Also, we all had a good laugh over the Microsoft Surface 30-inch table monitors. It’s great for seeing how collection works in ensemble, but the resolution is awful, and what’s worse is that it is bleached out by the sun problem.

The Annenberg Space for Photography, which opened on March 27, is the brainchild of a real photography lover, Wallis Annenberg, and IMO a great idea. Maybe they will fix some of the shortcomings, and even if they don’t, it’s still a wonderful place to visit often.

I love the fact that they have created a bridge between the analog and digital worlds. Unfortunately, the analog got short-changed, which is a shame since no matter what, you can’t capture the full nature of a print digitally and there in lies the value of displaying the analog photos in a more careful and thought-out way.

Check out the inaugural exhibit “L8S ANG3LES,” featuring 11 top-notch LA photographers, through June 28, 2009. Admission is free.

AIG SunAmerica – The brand identity tells the story

Posted by Robert Weitz on March 12, 2009 1:28 PM

I have learned all of my best lessons on the meaning and importance of “brand” from my clients. One of our earliest clients, Mike Katz, CEO of ICE Inc., and I were cruising around the Santa Monica Promenade one day looking for something “unusual” to snack on.

The two of us have spent hundreds of hours cruising around looking for snacks since the time we met traveling in Europe. Mike is particularly great at this pursuit since his early career included having opened, managed and cooked in some of San Francisco’s finest restaurants.

Snacking with Mike usually starts with the hunt and rarely ends in disappointment. The reason is that, between the two of us, we have a great sense of what is good, and how that manifests itself in the look and feel, the smell and the general vibe of the restaurant.

As we started winding down a few of the hidden little side streets that flow into the more touristy Promenade, we noticed an Egyptian restaurant. Our immediate reaction was “Wow, Egyptian food!” Within seconds, however, Mike was shaking his head. “Look at the sign,” he said sadly, “it’s crooked and dirty… I can only imagine how filthy the kitchen is if that’s how they keep their sign.”

AIG SunAmerica

When SunAmerica merged with AIG in 1998, somebody scabbed a lightbox-style sign (think laundry, fast food and used cars) onto the SunAmerica building in Century City, which is visible from my studio. The original SunAmerica logo and sign is well-crafted and suited to the modern tower they are bolted to. I always thought that the AIG part was a temporary fix, since the sign is dull, oftentimes looks dirty, is in a different style, and not even attached on the same plane.

Without any due diligence or knowing anything about the company, I could tell you that something was not right. Here is a sign that tops off a tower that can be seen for miles around, and it screams impermanence, shoddy branding and lack of interest in public perception.

The sign speaks eons about a corporate culture more interested in opulent internal incentive programs, exotic investments and executive payouts than a long-term relationship with their customers and shareholders. Why spend a couple of thousand dollars on a sign that tells everyone that our company plans to be around for a while and is proud to be an established business with long-term objectives?

If the brand is a herald that represents the attitude and standing of a company, AIG SunAmerica’s tacky, ill-conceived sign teaches us a lot about their attitude, culture and how much they care about what the public thinks.

Imagination – President Obama Opens the Door

Posted by Robert Weitz on January 23, 2009 12:35 PM


“There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.” – Barack Obama

President Obama’s inaugural address moved me in many ways, but the word that jumped out and grabbed my “designer’s mind” was…”imagination.” It’s something that has been misused and suppressed in the last eight years. In fact, it seems that so much energy was given to subverting the rule of law and hiding inadequacies that there was no imagination left for building and planning for our future.

Design is about nuance and planning. Designers are asked to “imagine” that which does not exist. We are asked to explain and organize chaos, excite the senses while abiding by the laws of physics and nature.

As we emerge from the first decade of the 21st century we will need to understand the role that the human imagination plays in bettering our lives and inspiring great deeds.

The last years have been dumbed down by our fear of expansive ideas, nuance and imagination. Those who boldly looked to the future in the sciences and the arts and social sciences were loudly ridiculed, stifled and sidelined. People who called for nuanced information gathering, analysis and planning were poo-pooed and the “just slam it” school took center stage, often leaving a wake of destruction and debt in their path.

“Imagination is joined to common purpose” well defines so many human endeavors. I would add that it is the balance between imagination and purpose that defines our values. Cultures and political movements that suppress imagination, choice and individuality are cruel, inefficient and hopeless. In all fairness, too much imagination coupled with a lack of purpose can result in chaos and disillusion.

It is the mix of imagination and purpose that will determine what our next century will look like and how good our lives will be. As a designer/communicator, I can see that we need to develop better ways of accessing information, improving human connectivity and conflict resolution, all towards an end “purpose” of world peace and a decent life for all of our inhabitants.

It’s a lofty goal but worth imagining.

Renzo Piano’s Green Museum – A Modern Idea Reborn

Posted by Robert Weitz on January 12, 2009 10:18 AM

There are countless examples of brilliant ideas that are way before their time. I’m always fascinated when the idea is finally doable. Human flight, space travel and wireless communications were all fanciful ideas way before they could be actualized.

In postulating a new set of rules to govern architectural design for the modern industrial world, Le Corbusier came up with the idea that a home is a “machine for living.” His five rules were: (1) Lift the supporting floor slabs up onto columns, this allows (2) A free facade (3) A free floor plan (4) Unencumbered views, and (5) A roof garden so that we give back to the landscape what we’ve taken away.

Oddly, the first four points have enjoyed fairly universal adoption and have been doable for many years. Also, we are well on our way to being able to make highly efficient machines for living in. The missing partner has been the “giving back” part: The roof garden.

While roof gardens have been around for quite a while, roof gardens that really work are a rarity, can leak and are usually decorative and not necessarily environmentally sensitive. Le Corbusier’s idea was to create a machine for living that is efficient, healthful and spiritually uplifting and that is what Renzo Piano has done with his design for the new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

california academy of sciences

I think I could say that this building is a kind of Holy Grail for the modern movement in architecture. It takes the “machine for living” concept a step further – it is a living machine! It’s a beautiful building that teaches us how we can live with nature by being intelligent, efficient and sensitive.

It teaches and shelters by example, having attained a LEED-Platinum rating, making it the only public building of its scale to do so globally. This makes it the greenest large building – and most sustainable museum – in the world. Oh, and the roof garden seems to be working too.