Dis-integrating technology and design

Jonathan Ochshorn

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"In 1937 architect Frank Lloyd Wright built a house for industrialist Hibbard Johnson. One rainy evening Johnson was entertaining distinguished guests for dinner when the roof began to leak. The water seeped through directly above Johnson himself, dripping steadily onto his bald head. Irate, he called Wright in Phoenix, Arizona. 'Frank,' he said, 'you built this beautiful house for me and we enjoy it very much. But I have told you the roof leaks, and right now I am with some friends and distinguished guests and it is leaking right on top of my head.' Wright's reply was heard by all of the guests. 'Well, Hib, why don't you move your chair?'"1


Practicing architects often display a reckless disregard for building technology, preferring to wrestle with the abstractions which inform their designs. Within schools of architecture, the lack of interest in building science — either as a set of methodologies to solve problems, or as a source for formal expression — sets the stage for the "cardboard architecture" of the studio and the inevitable calls for greater integration of technology and design. That it is possible to separate technology and design; that there is a tradition of, and reason for, understanding the "art" of architecture as being independent of its technological basis is not here at issue.2 The questions asked in this paper are these: is there an inherent incompatibility between the requirements for creative design and the integration of building technology; and what is the nature of the motivation to willfully distort conventions of building technology in the pursuit of design objectives? Such a discussion has implications for the practice of architecture as well as design pedagogy within schools of architecture.


Evidence for the claim that buildings suffer from a lack of attention paid by architects to the various building technologies is of two types. First are specific reports, or anecdotal stories, in which famous architects and their buildings are implicated: Frank Lloyd Wright's "textile-block housing"; or I. M. Pei's Hancock Building may serve as examples. It should be noted that, in these cases, failure of various building technologies is not simply due to a "lack of attention" but is at times compounded by a design agenda antithetical to the prevailing or conventional application of building technology.

Millard House and Hancock Building

Wright, Millard House (left); Pei, Hancock Building (right)

For example, Wright's blocks were fabricated on site, so that "construction became a time-consuming, demanding exercise. Consistent quality was difficult to achieve in the concrete and this has resulted in uneven weathering and crumbling of most exterior surfaces. Furthermore, the reinforcing was often inadequately covered by mortar or became exposed with uneven earth settlement."3 The Hancock Building by Pei "suffered not one but four technical failures or potential failures, and none of them had anything to do, in principle, with any of the others. The first was a cave-in of the excavation for the building... The second was excessive movement of the building in the wind... The third - and most remarkable - was the danger that the building might topple over on its long axis... The fourth was the breaking of the glass, solved by reglazing."4 This fourth failure most clearly demonstrates a "depart[ure] from established practice" motivated by a design agenda: the use of a reflective coating in a detail designed for clear glass together with the large size of the glass lites seems to have resulted in microscopic cracking at the bond between the lead spacers and reflective coating, leading to systemic failure of the glass.

That this could also be construed as "pushing the envelope," or, in the words of curtain-wall consultant Victor Mahler, "reaching really to the edge of the state of the art,"5 cannot be denied. Building failures and disasters have often acted as stimuli for improvements in building technology. According to structural consultant William LeMessurier, the Hancock fiasco "spawned a whole new profession of skin consultants" while also leading to the growth of the "science of wind tunnel investigation and surface forces...[and to] an enormous amount of academic interest in more refined structural analysis…"6 But firms with the resources and motivation to engage in cutting edge research that advances the state of building art before such disasters occur are certainly exceptional. The more common (and heroic) practice of attempting to build abstract concepts in defiance of technological rationality is a syndrome that infects not only the practice of architecture, but the design studio as well.

A second, and more important, indication of systemic building failure comes from larger-scale studies, usually motivated by some particular product or system failure. Ronald Brand cites several Canadian reports of widespread facade and roof failures;7 EIFS failures, particularly in North Carolina, have led to law suits and building code changes;8 even the Wall Street Journal has written about the developing crisis in building envelope failures associated with the building boom of the 1980s.9

In the face of such problems, calls for the integration of building technology within the design studio are common. For example, Mark Gelernter complains that many "student design projects in modern schools of architecture show little evidence of coherent structural or HVAC systems, nor do they fully explore the constructional or aesthetic qualities of building materials..." Gelernter proposes a "closer union" or "integration" of design and technology within the studio.10

But focusing on technology, even in a superficial way, can overwhelm the task of fostering design consciousness in the beginning student of architecture. Such design consciousness appears not only as a particular sensitivity or attitude toward formal relationships but, more fundamentally, in the very idea that such attitudes are themselves creative constructs of designers, working within a multiplicity of cultural contexts which, in turn, are constantly transformed through design. Not only is this process of re-inventing culture underdetermined by technology; the coherence, rationality, order, and accessibility of technology (at least, the kind of "technology-as-template" available to the beginning design student) may act as a distraction from the more difficult and sometimes painful search for cultural identity. It is this search, manifesting itself as the development of an attitude toward the deployment of form and space, that constitutes the primary task of the design studio.


"…noises delight me; each one of them interests me; and time interests me. And when I saw that time was the proper basis of music, since it included both sounds and silence, I saw that pitch and harmony and counterpoint and all those things that had been the basis of European Music were improperly so and had made it into the boring thing that for the most part it symphonically became."11

The question still remains: Why and to what extent is the design process necessarily antagonistic to the kind of rationality inherent in building technology? Is the heroic art of design finding in building technology such a "boring thing" that no reconciliation is possible? Certainly design exists on a continuum from the mundane to the avant-garde, so that the discussion that follows does not apply equally well to all design attitudes, but design as the creative and heroic pursuit of cultural identity through the creation of form often brings into play the same issues of distortion, alienation, displacement, irony, pain, boredom, self-consciousness and so on that characterize certain aspects of contemporary culture. In such a design environment, the conventional or normative condition becomes, not a goal, but rather a point of departure. Defying, distorting, or contradicting the conventional becomes an appropriate (and within some sub-cultures, an imperative) posture or attitude.

That technology plays the "conservative" or "conventional" role in this cultural drama is, of course, paradoxical, given its previous status as co-conspirator in the overthrow of 19th-century eclecticism and in the creation of an entirely new cultural paradigm. But the canonical forms of steel and reinforced concrete that served as icons of modernity are now endlessly reproduced as generic "templates" within architectural references. Its victory complete, the relentless logic of building technology has become suffocating for the culturally-sensitive designer. Unlike design, technology is measured and constrained by cost, efficiency, and performance. It's profitable utilization encourages precisely the kind of standards and conventions — the kind of reliability and predictability — anathema to the heroic design consciousness. Chris Abel argues, against this point of view, that computers and numerical control allow building technology to become almost craft-like, with little or no need for standardization.12 While his critique of the Industrialized Building Movement and its flawed vision of modularity is convincing, writing off standardization as a relic of the industrial age is premature. Whether or not the numerically-controlled industrial landscape is capable of producing individually-crafted components as easily as mass-produced components is not the crucial issue: rather, the fact that standards allow people to think less, know less, spend less time on a given problem, and have less skill is what guarantees them a secure future.13

So, while general "principles" of building science can be articulated, such principles tend, in practice, to be reified as standard details used in conventional applications. For example, the underlying logic of building insulation — trapping small volumes of air — is well known and independent of any particular conventional system; but the specific applications of this principle tend to be routine and standardized. The reasons are clear: individual architects, clients, and developers do not generally have the resources, expertise nor the motivation to invent new technologies. What remains for the designer is either to manipulate the formal shell around the technical core;14 or to willfully violate technological principles as a design conceit.

utzon, piano & rogers

Utzon, Sydney Opera House (left); Piano & Rogers, Centre Pompidou (right)

But such design conceits — whether their concern is with materiality, tectonics, ecology, environmental sensitivity, etc. — are still just attitudes about form, even when masquerading as an interest in some rational aspect of building. The virtual deification of sun, earth, stone, water; the search for meaning in materials; the cult of the articulated joint; the advancement of the extraordinary and precious, or the ordinary and commonplace; all these attitudes towards technology as cultural signifier have little in common with a concern for technology as building science, the application of which is subtle, rigorous, nonheroic, largely invisible (because it is either literally hidden from view, or, in its ubiquitous presence, no longer noticed), and therefore of no particular utility as a carrier of formal agendas. Peter Rice, referring to the Centre Pompidou and the Sydney Opera House, makes a similar point: "...in no way are those buildings representative of fundamental structural approaches. They're using the structure as part of the aesthetic framework in much the same way people did with brick and stone in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now we use steel and concrete, and it's inevitable that one of the ways of architecturally expressing the character of those materials is to let their use as part of structure be evident, even though it may not be a logical structure in the first place."15


Conflicts of interest between the "art" and "science" of architecture will not be resolved by integrating technology within the studio (whether superficially as a formal canon of "techno-types," rigorously as the methodical application of building science, or symbolically as cultural signifier). Not only has the "cutting edge" of design long ago severed all ties to rationality; the problem is compounded by contractors, developers, and owners pressuring designers to reduce costs. As an example, the Flamingo Hilton in Nevada "leaked so much water through its walls that its lounge and dozens of rooms would get wet every time it rained... Hilton admits some responsibility. It pressured the contractor to do the job in less time and for less money than originally planned."16 According to Stephen Ruggiero of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Consulting Engineers, the facades of many commercial office buildings built during the 1980s show "significant leakage and deterioration" caused by an "over-reliance on sealants and lack of back-up (redundancy) against water penetration…": i.e., the elimination of flashing to save money.17

brick veneer

Detail of brick veneer with metal drip edge flashing

In other cases, problems emerge in which the drive to cut costs is more clearly reinforced by the designer's heroic attitude toward form. The common practice of using cheaper, but concealed, PVC roll flashing instead of protruding metal drip edge through-wall flashings in brick masonry walls is one of many examples where the aesthetic bias of designers, combined with the cost-cutting instincts of contractors and developers, work against the rational implementation of building technology standards.18

The key to resolving such conflicts lies in further dis-integrating technological considerations from the practice of architecture. Two governing principles of such a resolution are, in fact, already well established: first, to require that design decisions reflect minimum standards for building comfort, health, safety, and so on; and second, to encourage consulting engineers, rather than architects, to design technical systems. Whether such principles should take the form of legal mandates or industry-sponsored guidelines is unclear. The prohibition outlined in the 14th amendment against the deprivation of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" makes any explicit regulation of building performance in the United States, if not unconstitutional, at least controversial. In any case, it is clear that where such principles have been established (for example, with structural design and fire safety), building performance generally corresponds to the expectations of its users, owners and designers. On the other hand, where these principles have not yet been established (for example, with the design of exterior wall and roofing systems) problems involving building technology continue to be the rule rather than the exception.


1 This well-known anecdote appeared in Today in the Word, Moody Bible Institute, Jan, 1992, p.14, published at the following web address: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/stubborn.htm (the second of 11,534 web pages found by querying the AltaVista search engine with the keywords: "architect," "leak," and "roof") [This citation is no longer available online; for comparable anecdodal Wright quotes, see the Wikiquote entry for Frank Lloyd Wright (accessed 1/25/08): "Move the table. Wright's response to a client who phoned him to complain of rain leaking through the roof of the house onto the dining table; also quoted as 'Move the chair.'"]

2 Jonathan Ochshorn, "Separating Science from Architecture: Why Technology is Taught Outside the Design Studio," The Architecture of the In-Between: Proceedings of the 78th Annual Meeting of the ACSA, 1990, San Francisco, CA

3 James Tice, "The Concrete Block Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright: Plastic Idea Vs. Pragmatic Fact," Proceedings of the Symposium on Architecture and ACSA Technology Conference, 1989, Baton Rouge, LA, February 2-4, 1989, pp.249

4 Robert Campbell, "Learning from the Hancock," Architecture, March 1988, p.68

5 ibid., p.75

6 ibid., p.75

7 Ronald Brand, Architectural Details for Insulated Buildings, Van Nostrand Reinhold (New York: 1990). See the "Prolegomenon," p.1

8 Sherie Winston, "Coming Unglued over Siding," Engineering News Record, May 27, 1996, p.12

9 Neal Templin, "Leaks Cause Buckets of Woes," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 12, 1997

10 Mark Gelernter, "Beyond the Bauhaus: Integrating Technology and Design in the Studio," On Architecture, the City, and Technology, Marc M. Angelil, ed., Butterworth (Stoneham, MA: 1990), pp.135-138

11 John Cage, quoted in Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, Limelight Editions (New York, 1988), p.60

12 Chris Abel, "Ditching the Dinosaur Sanctuary," and "Return to Craft Manufacture," Architecture and Identity: Towards a Global Eco-Culture, Architectural Press (Boston: 1997)

13 For a discussion of the impact of technology on "skill," see Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Monthly Review Press (New York: 1974)

14 Stanford Anderson traces the origin of this attitude towards industrial design in his article: "Modern Architecture and Industry: Peter Behrens, the AEG, and Industrial Design," Oppositions, Summer 1980

15 Peter Rice, quoted in Charles H. Thorton, Richard L. Tomasetti et. al., Exposed Structure in Building Design, McGraw-Hill (New York: 1993), p.154

16 op. cit., Templin

17 Stephen Ruggiero, "Cladding's Ticking Time-Bombs," Progressive Architecture, Dec. 1995, p.90

18 "Technical Notes published by the Brick Institute of America (BIA) in the 1960s and 1970s suggested the use of drip edges on through-wall flashings in brick masonry walls, but noted that some designers preferred to conceal the front edge of the flashing for aesthetic reasons. Over time, many buildings with flashings that terminated behind the face of the cladding experienced water leakage. Updates to BIA Technical Note 7 in 1985 painted a different picture of the importance of a drip edge on flashings in brick curtain walls: 'All flashing should extend beyond the face of the wall to form a drip...' Despite such warnings, some designers still underestimate the leakage from water flowing off the concealed front edge of the flashing and returning underneath it, and they continue to specify flashing materials (such as PVC roll flashing) that cannot be exposed or formed into a drip edge." James C. Myers and Stephen Ruggiero, "Building Facade Watertightness," Progressive Architecture, November 1991, p.116