Category Archives: Architecture

Building Bad released in UK

After what seemed like a long editorial process — copyediting, queries and responses, typesetting, layouts, proofreading corrections, final layouts, indexing, and so forth — my book has finally been officially released in the UK.

Author Jonathan Ochshorn with copy of his book, Building Bad

I display my advanced copy of Building Bad

The official release date in the U.S. is Oct. 1, 2021, but the book can be purchased from the publisher’s UK website and mailed anywhere right now! Use offer code BUILDINGBAD20 at the checkout to apply a 20% discount (and, if mailed to an address in the UK, take advantage of free postage as well). Special offer is valid until Sept. 30, 2021.

Find more information about the book on my website.

Building Bad

I’ve written a book called Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression. Although the book won’t be released until June 15, 2021, the publisher, Lund Humphries, has decided to “introduce” it through various social media (Twitter, blogs, and so on). I created a short video “trailer” for that purpose which was embedded in the publisher’s blog post, but you can also view it here.

The Lund Humphries blog also features a short “reflections” piece that I wrote:

My interest in architectural utility — as it relates to both expression and what might be called “politics” — evolved over many years. In 1983, I began considering the perverse logic of competition that drives architectural fashion. Several years later, I argued that the strategic separation of architecture into its “art” and “science” components allows architects to largely abstract from technical content in the process of designing expressive buildings. While there is still some truth in that hypothesis, I began to see the split between art and science as increasingly problematic, not because it threatens some ideal of aesthetic integrity, but rather because, in its very nature, it compromises the utilitarian functionality of buildings.

By 2006, I began systematically writing about the dangers of separating architecture’s expressive and utilitarian functions within the design process, and also began to examine the two characteristics of architectural utility brought together in this book: first, that lower and upper limits on utilitarian function are established by politics and economics; and second, that utilitarian functionality is sacrificed at the altar of avant-garde architectural expression.

In Building Bad, I cite many buildings and projects as examples of utilitarian dysfunction or compromise, some close at hand (Rem Koolhaas’s architecture building and I.M. Pei’s art museum are both at Cornell University, where I have been teaching since 1988), and others farther removed in time or space, including Mies van der Rohe’s campus buildings at I.I.T. in Chicago, Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center at Ohio State University; Frank Gehry’s Stata Center at M.I.T., Zaha Hadid’s Pierresvives in Montpellier, Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower, and many others.

In analyzing such buildings in terms of architectural expression and utility, my goal is neither to advocate for a particular architectural style — least of all my own — nor to condemn contemporary practice on the basis of its moral shortcomings. Instead, I examine architecture from an objective standpoint, and explain what it is, not what it should be. For that reason, I make no attempt to show how architectural expression and utility might be made more useful — less dysfunctional — since such idealism runs up against the very culture within which this dysfunction is valued.

The book’s subtitle — how architectural utility is constrained by politics and damaged by expression — is therefore not intended as a call to action to promote reform. The question posed in the epilogue — ”whether and how the art of architecture can adjust its trajectory so that it aligns with the most fundamental requirements of building science” — remains unanswered, as it must: Architecture’s dysfunction, running parallel to the dysfunction of society as a whole, constitutes an essential feature of avant-garde production, not a flaw. This dysfunction is consistent with and, in fact, thrives within the ethos of human and environmental damage that undergirds modern democratic states.

Mui Ho Fine Arts Library Code Appeal filed

Why would an architect place an occupied roof deck adjacent to smoke exhaust vents?

Animation gif by Jonathan Ochshorn illustrating potential problems with atrium smoke exhaust vents forming the northern boundary of a roof-top assembly space.

Smoke exhaust vents for the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library atrium form the northern boundary of a roof-top assembly space, as discussed in Exhibit 2 (Violation #5) of my Code Appeal. Animation and underlying photo by Jonathan Ochshorn.

For the full answer, you’ll need to read my forthcoming book, in which I explain how architectural utility is constrained by politics and damaged by expression (published by @LHArtBooks) and due in early 2021.

But the short answer is that this building—the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University—was designed from a purely aesthetic standpoint (for all the reasons that motivate artists to “defamiliarize” their work and heroically court danger by pushing the envelope in order to claim avant-garde status). This is often done under the mistaken impression that errors and omissions can be fixed later by engineering and fire safety consultants. However, it turns out that when you combine that sort of arrogance with a lack of interest in mundane concerns like life- and fire-safety—and when those dangerous attitudes are validated by your powerful client and by a code enforcement infrastructure that doesn’t have the time or expertise to ensure adequate enforcement—the violations often remain, placing students, staff, faculty, and visitors in danger.

You can read about these smoke exhaust vents and all nine alleged Code violations in my Appeal Application.

Links to all my articles and blog posts on the Fine Arts Library are here.

Palestine and academic censorship

Illustration for lecture by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: "Palestine is There, Where it Has Always Been," Palmach Photographic Collection (Album of the Har’el Brigade, Fourth Battalion), probably April 1948
Lecture by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay: “Palestine is There, Where it Has Always Been,” Palmach Photographic Collection (Album of the Har’el Brigade, Fourth Battalion), probably April 1948

My open letter to the Dean of Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art & Planning, on the subject of academic censorship and intimidation, was recently published in The Funambulist. Here’s a link.

 

NYS Code Appeal: Life safety issues at Cornell’s Fine Arts Library

[Updated Nov. 26, 2020 here] Life safety issues—and not just due to the coronavirus—continue to threaten the safety of students, staff, faculty, and visitors at Cornell. I am appealing determinations by the City of Ithaca Building Division and the NYS Division of Building Standards and Codes Oversight Unit concerning the compliance of the Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University with the 2015 New York State Building Code. My entire appeal application including all exhibits can be found here. Links to all my writings about the Fine Arts Library are here.

Rand, Sibley, and Milstein Halls at Cornell University
Milstein Hall, Cornell, Ithaca, July 19, 2012, Photo by Jonathan Ochshorn

Update on life- and fire-safety violations in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell

I have identified nine serious life- and fire-safety violations in the newly-opened Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell University and am still unable to appeal the ruling of New York State’s Division of Building Standards and Codes (DBSC) because the DBSC has not completed their “re-opened” review of the case. Here is what I wrote to them today:

It has been three months since our last conversation in which you said that some aspects of the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library case had been “re-opened,” that you were not “leaving any stone unturned,” and that your work was close to being done (i.e., that you would likely be finished before January 2020). I have also been told … that “there has been a request by DBSC for additional information from the consultants that provided the smoke control modeling for the project.” As I wrote in my email copied to you on Feb. 11, 2020, I believe that my complaint should be adjudicated based on whether the City of Ithaca appropriately granted a building permit, irrespective of whatever documentation may have been provided after my complaint was filed.

It has been eleven months since I submitted a formal code complaint with the City of Ithaca Building Division and nine months since I filed a formal complaint with the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes. In all this time, I have still not received a single substantive response to any of the nine code violations that I described in my complaints.

The Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University remains unsafe, noncompliant, and presents a clear danger to its occupants. For that reason, I am eager to appeal the ruling of the DBSC Oversight Unit (Complaint #4660). Please let me know (1) the status of my complaint, (2) when your “work” will be completed, and (3) your specific reasoning for discounting each of the nine code violations that I described in detail. Please provide answers in writing: your prior requests to “give me a call at your earliest convenience”—on Nov. 5, 2019 and Dec. 3, 2019—have proven to be unsatisfactory.

Links to all of my writings on Cornell’s Fine Arts Library can be found here.

Updated Sept. 22, 2020: I finally got the go-ahead to file an appeal. Details here.

Upskirting at Cornell’s Fine Arts Library

I asked about the upskirting potential of the Fine Arts Library at Cornell University before it opened, and was told that the issue had been carefully studied and that the architects insisted that the floor grating could not be seen through. Well, reality has a nasty habit of correcting such obvious falsehoods, as you can see in this video I took of myself in February 2020.

Status report on code violations in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library at Cornell

[Updated below] Having not heard back from the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes about appealing their ruling about my complaint concerning code violations in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University, I sent this email to Brian Tollisen, Deputy Director of the New York State Division of Building Standards & Codes, on December 3, 2019:

It’s been a month since our last conversation in which you said that a “response letter” was being finished up and would be sent to me. We discussed waiting for this letter to be sent, and resolving the question of whether I had standing, before I submitted a formal appeal to the Syracuse Regional Office.

Please let me know when this response letter will be completed and whether your “legal people” have determined if I have standing to bring a complaint.

It has been eight months since I submitted a formal code complaint with the City of Ithaca Building Division and six months since I filed a formal complaint with the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes. In all this time, I have not received a single substantive response to any of the nine code violations that I described in my complaints. I have shown in each of these nine instances how specific sections of the New York State Building Code have been violated. Not even one specific allegation that I have made has been challenged with a coherent counter-argument. In fact, James Harding of the New York State Division of Building Standards and Codes has confirmed that my reasoning in Violation #1 (Unenclosed egress stair in the atrium) and Violation #4 (Lack of 1-hour fire-rated construction between the atrium and roof-top spaces) is correct.  

In my view, the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University is unsafe, noncompliant, and presents a clear danger to its occupants. For that reason,  I am eager to appeal the ruling of the DBSC Oversight Unit (Complaint #4660), and await your response letter in order to pursue this appeal.

[Update Dec. 4, 2019: I spoke to Brian Tollisen, at his suggestion, later on Dec. 3, 2019. He said that some aspects of the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library case had been “re-opened” and that they were not “leaving any stone unturned.” He also said that their work was close to being done, so that I should expect to hear from them in the near future. We’ll see.]

[Update March 3, 2020 can be found here.]

[Update Sept. 22, 2020 can be found here. Code appeal submitted.

All my writings about the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library are linked from this webpage.

Cornell Daily Sun reports on dysfunctionality of Mui Ho Fine Arts Library

An article in the Cornell Daily Sun reports on the obvious: that the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library that was recently completed in Rand Hall at Cornell University is, in many ways, dysfunctional. The Sun mentioned the architect’s specification of see-through steel grating for all stack-level floors. I have written previously about the fire-safety implications of such floor construction, but the Sun article focuses on the ability of people to look up through the gratings at women wearing dresses. (I’m mentioned in the Sun article as Prof. “Oschorn.”)

Transparent grated floors in the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library in Rand Hall at Cornell University. Photo by J. Ochshorn.

All of my writings about the Rand Hall Fine Arts Library can be found here.

Reforming Cornell’s architecture curriculum: a manifesto

Architecture students, as future professionals, need real guidance on how to make zero-carbon (aka sustainable) buildings. This needs to be implemented primarily through Environmental Systems courses, but also—importantly—through Design Studio courses. My feeling is that the current design sequence at Cornell adequately addresses virtually none of the important architectural issues discussed within the Environmental Systems/Construction/Structures sequences in a coherent and systematic manner, focusing instead on design as a means of formal expression.* This is increasingly anachronistic, as the planet spirals into some sort of climate-change catastrophe. Michael Pollen famously summarized his dietary advice in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” One could summarize viable strategies for sustainable building design, per Joseph Lstiburek, in a similarly concise manner: “Use lots of insulation, airtight construction, controlled ventilation, and not a lot of glass.” Similarly concise words of wisdom could certainly be found for life safety, structural design, and construction. But such sage advice needs to be reinforced within all the design studios (and not just one “sustainable” or “integrative” studio). Of course, this poses a threat to the way we foster design consciousness in our students.

So be it. It’s the only way I know of to make a curriculum that takes issues of human and environmental well-being—including global warming—seriously.

* To the objection that our design studios actually deal with issues affecting human and environmental well-being, I offer this passage from Veblen: “The psychological law has already been pointed out that all men—and women perhaps even in a higher degree—abhor futility, whether of effort or of expenditure,—much as Nature was once said to abhor a vacuum. But the principle of conspicuous waste requires an obviously futile expenditure; and the resulting conspicuous expensiveness of dress is therefore intrinsically ugly. Hence we find that in all innovations in dress, each added or altered detail strives to avoid instant condemnation by showing some ostensible purpose, at the same time that the requirement of conspicuous waste prevents the purposefulness of these innovations from becoming anything more than a somewhat transparent pretense.”
— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1912—originally published 1899), 176–77. (Emphasis added.)