Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Inaki Abalos & Juan Herreros: Tower & Office (2003)
“From a technical perspective, only a superficial analysis could view the contemporary building experience as consonant with the ideals formulated in the modern period. To do so would be to ignore the presence of new technical problems and to reduce them to a typological abstraction. For today neither the skyscraper’s constitution as a stack of repetitive floors, nor the form and arrangement of its mechanical equipment, nor the building depth retains a precise connection to the architectural prototypes of the former period, despite their parallel technical logic. Function – which, in its former association with technology, determined modernism’s ‘objective’ methodology – has become irrelevant to the structural and typological definition of the mechanized building, replaced by a preoccupation with mechanical and environmental equipment and demands for an isotropic distribution of energy. The mechanically serviced space has caused the architectural program to lose its specificity and, with this, has undercut the viability of typological classification.” This history of the skyscraper could be seen as a technical companion to Reinhold Martin's The Organizational Complex, but a companion that is much more sensitive to the complexities of historical and technological contingency than Martin's book and its adherence to a Deleuzian "control society" framework. Abalos and Herreros argue that technological and organizational developments over the last century have rendered the modernist conception of the skyscraper obsolete (but not the skyscraper itself). The “destruction of modern technical, typological, and urban paradigms is complete. Neither the translation of the technical into the figural, nor the skyscraper into a single-function ‘type object,’ nor the business center into the model envisaged by Le Corbusier . . . remains pertinent within the contemporary context.” They begin by examining the work of Le Corbusier, who serves as an example of architectural modernism's obsession with the development of building "types" based on a functional logic that transforms necessities into laws and requires a "purification" of form. In subsequent chapters, Abalos and Herreros present a rigorous and detailed survey of technical innovations in the construction of skyscrapers (be warned, there are more diagrams of wall-window joints than any non-practicing architect will want to see). The goal of this technical history is to show how the conception and construction of skyscrapers over the century has come to be guided less by modernist typological ideals than by new kinds of technical concerns. Throughout the book, they show how each technical solution to a problem of the modernist skyscraper leads to new problems and technical developments that become increasingly distant from modernism. They start with the uniform grid of the modernist "reticular structure," and show how the push for even taller skyscrapers led to research into wind-stress and the development of non-reticular, largely hollow, structures. An important side effect of this technical research was a transformation of the interior space of the building: "The reticulated configuration was thus surpassed by a new type of space with no structural presence, one that was completely diaphanous. The column-free space – a pervasive desideratum in all commercial American office space today – emerged precisely where construction conditions were extreme, pushing the structural problematic to its limit.” Abalos and Herreros then discuss the Miesian glass "curtain wall," perhaps the most famous element of office architecture. They show how new developments in heating and cooling technologies and materials research transformed the glass wall from a passive into an active, even interactive, element of architecture. Abbas and Herreros even give a technical account of the development of building floors. New building structures freed floors from many of their structural functions (they no longer necessarily held the building together) and innovations in glass walls, electric lights, and environmental control allowed deeper interiors and larger areas of floor space. The creation of deep "access floors" containing electrical wiring and subsystems that were added to the office building throughout the century allowed greater flexibility in the arrangement of large areas of office space. In a chapter on the history of office layouts, the authors show how changes in building structure, glass walls, and floors interacted with changes in the organization of white-collar work over the century. Whereas early office buildings were functionally arranged so that workers were close to natural light from the outside and spatially arranged by a rigid division of labor, postwar office buildings, no longer needing exterior light and having more open space, allowed for "open-plan offices" in which the minimum unit of the workstation served as the basis for modular rearrangements of the office. By the 1970s, the post-Fordist love-affair with flexibility led to the creation of "office landscapes" that removed even the workstation as the minimum unit of order, allowing often chaotic arrangements of office space based upon the flow of paperwork. Yet the office landscape was soon threatened by the computerization of the office in the 1980s, which allowed the networking of workers independently of their spatial arrangement. In a sense, the computerization of the office is the final blow to the modernist approach to the office building, as the building interior loses any semblance of functional necessity. Abalos and Herreros conclude by arguing that attention to these technical developments is more important for understanding the history of the skyscraper and for developing new architectural forms than the modernist typology of buildings and the postmodernist equation of architecture with "linguistic models and semiotic analogies."