Catching cold

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Every time I catch a cold I wonder why science has failed so miserably to find a cure, or even an effective palliative, to relieve a cold’s more unpleasant symptoms.
In an architectural context, I recently read a Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective by Trewin Copplestone in which he noted: “While all aspects of society and culture have seen dramatic developments, the matter of architectural advance has not been as evident.”

You might say that as with the cure for the common cold, design and construction are areas of human endeavour that science and technology seem to have passed by.
Or, at least the pace of my industry’s acceptance of available and viable technological advances can be snail-like.

At the turn of the previous century (yes, that’s the 1890s — 120 years ago!) Wright and his mentor Louis Sullivan were already pushing the boundaries of current technology.
Sullivan was designing and building massive steel-framed skyscrapers in Chicago, while out in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Wright was designing houses containing ductwork for air conditioning systems and installing electric wiring, before either were common features of domestic construction.

Proving engineers wrong
Move forward to the 1930s (Wright wasted far too much of his time in the early part of that century chasing after his clients’ wives), and he was busy proving Racine’s local authority engineers wrong with his innovative structural design for the now famous mushroom-shaped columns and perspex-tubed skylighting for the Johnson Wax Building.
Wright died in 1959, just before the first Guggenheim Museum — the one in New York — was completed.

It could be argued that both aesthetically and in terms of structural innovation, Wright’s Guggenheim left Geary’s more recent version for dead.
As an expression through design of the technology of the time, it was much more of a revelation than a series of random titanium petals.
Similarly with Geary’s Disney Theatre, designed before the Bilbao Guggenheim but for economic reasons — and Walt Disney’s death — was not built until a decade later.

Here, the form was based on Mrs Disney’s love of roses, and the resulting shape was little more than a light carapace over the solid, rectangular concrete theatre box within.
Dare I mention style over substance? I can feel the architectural arrows piercing my back as I type.

So where are we in a technological sense today? I first heard about Building Information Modelling (BIM) in 2000 during a conference in Kyoto — and at that time the IAI (now called BuildingSMART) had already been in existence for five years.
What happened? Why the delay? Why are we still struggling to take the first baby steps into what is by now, frankly, middle-aged technology?

Brave enough
If we were brave enough we could revolutionise the design and construction of building projects overnight. The technology is there, but our industry is so disorganised, so poor at co-operative working methods, that I despair that we will ever see a truly modern industry.
We could, if we wished, take a giant leap ahead in design and construction planning, but we are either too scared or too conservative to do the necessary groundwork to allow this to happen.

I’m sorry, but my industry is just bad at collaboration — and without collaboration technological advances such as BIM simply won’t get off the ground.
So is that the core of the problem? Do members of my industry just not get on with each other?
And why are we still up to the tops of our muddy boots on the building site today?

Why are we still using tools that were invented by the Egyptians in 4000BC to cut up and then hammer bits of timber together, or to place bricks one on top of the other? Where is the serious development of off-site construction techniques?
I recall that some 30-plus years ago, prefabricated bathroom units were all the go for installation in multi-storeyed hotel units.

Stone-age methods
Today we seem to have reverted back to stone-age methods of on-site installation of services and completion of finishes. Why?
During my last year at the Auckland School of Architecture, the final design programme was for student accommodation on a steep site in the upper part of Grafton Road.

Ian Athfield’s design was based, in his words, on somebody accidentally dropping a few dozen eggs down the site.
Each moulded plastic egg formed a perfect little student bedroom and study, linked together by dinky little covered ways.
Outrageous, impractical, probably prohibitively expensive at the time — however, it was an early hint at Ath’s genius and, more importantly, illustrated the potential for employing factory-built living units.

Hasn’t happened, probably won’t happen. But Ath, maybe you need to get those eggs out of your memory cupboard once more.