I’ve been working on my “Critique of Milstein Hall,” a project started in 2012, but — until now — missing the final section on “Function and Flexibility.” Well, that final section is still missing, but as I was working on it, I realized that I should really add a short section on accessibility.
So, I did.
Milstein Hall, the last building constructed for Cornell University’s architecture program, was designed by OMA, and is connected to two older campus buildings — Sibley Hall and Rand Hall. The Critique now has four sections: nonstructural failure, fire safety, accessibility, and sustainability. Function and flexibility should appear soon. Find links to all these sections on the Critique homepage here.
Title: “Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression”
Cornell’s YouTube video of my April 14, 2022, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM “Chats in the Stacks” book talk (a virtual event) was posted today.
In a free, live, virtual “Chats in the Stacks” book talk, Jonathan Ochshorn discusses his latest book, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression (Lund Humphries, 2021), where he examines how utilitarian function in architecture can be thwarted by political and economic forces, and undermined by artistic expression. In considering several contemporary buildings and projects, Ochshorn avoids advocating for a specific style or practice but provides an objective framework for analyzing architecture through the lens of utility.
Sponsored by the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library, Cornell University, the talk is followed by a live Q&A.
I’ll be giving a talk on “Control Layers, Abstraction, and Utilitarian Dysfunction,” based on my book, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression. Details follow:
Date: March 3, 2022, 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM
Format: Zoom meeting / Webinar
This continuing education program is FREE for CSI members, and $20 for non-members (Notice: Any money raised will go towards the Edward Goldberg Memorial Scholarship Fund). This program has AIA Continuing Education Credits PENDING (1 LU/HSW Credit).
Sponsored by the Syracuse Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI)
The Milstein Hall “dome” or “crit room” takes the form of a whispering gallery, where sound is projected, reflected, and reinforced in a surprising and dysfunctional manner, such that the utilitarian function of the space — to hold critiques, receptions, and other events — is compromised. This lack of attention to the acoustical quality of the space reflects the architects’ evolving ideology rooted in formal expression, abstracted from most utilitarian considerations. Aside from its acoustic shortcomings, the crit room was also designed and built with only a single compliant fire exit, even though its occupancy and floor area required three such exits. (Cornell was forced to provide these missing, but required, exits by literally cutting through a reinforced concrete and glass wall that had originally been designed to separate the crit room from the adjacent auditorium.)
Thus, Milstein Hall’s crit room — its “dome” — is a perfect example of a space in which architectural utility is doubly damaged: first by utilitarian dysfunction (inadequate exits) and second, by the competition driving dysfunctional expression (resulting, here, in an acoustical travesty).
It it therefore fittingly ironic that the AAP “Launchpad” event, in which my book — Building Bad — will be one of eleven AAP faculty books being “launched,” has been scheduled for Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, from 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm, precisely in this dysfunctional space. Faculty presenters were asked to prepare a 5-minute Pecha Kucha-style slide show, but I was given permission to show a 5-minute music video instead, based on a song that I wrote to celebrate the publication of my book.
I announce this with great trepidation, since there is no way to know how badly the acoustic qualities of the crit room space will mangle whatever musical qualities the song possesses. I therefore recommend that you not only attend the Launchpad event if you are in the Ithaca area (after all, there will be food and drinks served in that dark and abysmal space with the plastic bubbles that has been rebranded as the “Duane and Dalia Stiller Arcade” at 5:00 pm) but that you also check out my “Ballad of Building Bad” music video with headphones or an adequate sound system.
In anticipation of the official U.S. release of my book, Building Bad, on Sept. 30, 2021, I made a more fully orchestrated version of my song, Ballad of Building Bad, along with a new, more elaborated, music video.
The original “live” version of the song, along with some fun facts and lyrics, can be found on this prior blog post.
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.
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.
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.