Form, Function, or just Ego?

Written on March 27, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Philosophy

Rolf Strom-Olsen


I have yet to pass through the newest terminal that British superstarchitect Richard Rogers has perpetrated at Heathrow, but based on his contribution in Madrid, I’m not encouraged. Don’t get me wrong – this is not curmudgeonly aesthetic grumblings from an unreconstructed traditionalist who can only stomach designs that conform to a 19th century Greek-revival style: Rogers’ terminal certainly looks – no question – spectacular.

But every time I have had to go up, then down, then up, then up again and then down and down and then across and then up and another down and up and then finally – finally – arrive at my gate at Madrid’s Terminal 4, I feel like Rogers owes me an apology, or at least a beer for having made me trek so far and across so many planes of altitude. Perhaps from a design perspective, this labyrinthine, multi-level, filo pastry of an airport terminal is innovative, bold and daring.  But frankly, when you are rushing to catch a flight lugging a heavy bag behind you, it is beyond annoying. Forty minutes of legging it from check-in to gate? Who approved these designs? I want names.

Yes, this is perhaps a minor peccadillo, missed flights from Rogers Bataan Death March-inspired design notwithstanding. But the recent designs approved for Madrid’s new Civil Court again bring to mind whether, in in the name of difference and innovation, architects too often sacrifice the mundane, functional nature of buildings. Baghdad-born, London-based Zaha Hadid makes a prominent living off of blighting the landscape, and the Spanish capital will be the scene of her next glass and steel extravaganza. You can see the design here.

Hadid embraces this kind of brash design. Check out the pavilion that she designed to house the Chanel exhibition in Hong Kong, as if some oversized Dali-designed blazer lost a huge button and it landed in an empty lot and started melting. Hadid is quoted as saying "Architecture requires 100% dedication; if it doesn’t kill you, then you’re no good." Not only does that make no sense (should Brunelleschi have keeled over midway through his career, fatally blighted by ability?), I am not even sure, reading it twice, it even sounds good.

The problem with the architectural vanguard is that the vanguard part lasts so long. Denizens of Easter Europe will be suffering the wretched eyesores of the communist-era, usually bland concrete bunkers of a faceless apparatchik regime. Parisians will have to cope with the underwear-worn-on-the-outside nonsense of the Pompidou center for generations. Showing a building’s breeches was vanguard stuff in the 1960s, sure. But decades on, it just looks ugly and slightly sophomoric, like some kind of college-prank.

As I say, I think boldness of design and innovative thinking about space should be encouraged and even beyond that, buildings can serve as important historical texts . The distinctive architecture of Mussolini’s Rome or that of Washington DC or modern-day Shanghai tells us a great deal about the values and beliefs of those cultures. But, to echo (*gulp*) Prince Charles (who IS a curmudgeonly traditionalist), I think city planners and architects alike need to think about the long-term consequences of the buildings they approve for construction. Too often, far too often, cutting-edge architectural design seems simply to be ego by other, steel-bricks-and-mortar means.


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