Category Archives: Writings

My Cornell “Chats in the Stacks” book talk video posted

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.

Op-Ed on Bad Building in The Architect’s Newspaper

Logo for the Architect's Newspaper digital editionI wrote an op-ed that was just published in The Architect’s Newspaper with the rather unwieldy, but nevertheless accurate, title, “Bad Building: Architecture’s Aesthetics Should Support, rather than Sabotage, a Building’s Function.” The argument in the op-ed derives from my book, Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression.

Book talk for CSI Syracuse

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

CSI Syracuse logo

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)

Sign up to attend the talk here.

Information about the book is here.

Launchpad book event at Cornell (Oct. 25, 2021 5pm)

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.

New version of Ballad of Building Bad

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.

Links to all my music and music videos are here.

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.

July 14, 2021, update: You can also purchase a Kindle e-book version on Amazon, and read the first three chapters for free!

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.

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.


Cornell Rolls the COVID Dice (Part 2): Flawed Reasoning for an In-Person Semester

Parody image of Cornell Provost Kotlikoff shooting craps with COVID

Cornell Provost Michael Kotlikoff rolls the COVID dice with (from left to right) Lisa Nishii, Peter Frazier, Gary Koretzky, Madelyn Wessel, and Martha Pollack looking on. Photoshopped by Jonathan Ochshorn.

Administrators at Cornell University are going to extraordinary lengths to mitigate the negative impacts of viral transmission as they plan for an in-person start to the fall 2020 semester. They have created a Behavioral Compact that will require students engaged in in-person instruction to follow various safety protocols and to submit to asymptomatic testing once or twice per week. By reducing the density of classrooms and requiring social distancing and mask wearing, the expected number of infections, while still quite large, is considered by the University to be acceptable and manageable.

I am not arguing against the steps Cornell has proposed in order to bring students back on campus. Rather, my complaint is that Cornell administrators are being disingenuous when they claim to be “following the science” to minimize negative health impacts. Their basic argument, reiterated recently by Cornell President Pollack, can be summarized as follows:

  • Cornell is “relying on the best available science” to “limit the spread of the coronavirus, on our campus and across the Ithaca region.”
  • An online semester, “counterintuitive though it may be,” would have worse outcomes than an in-person semester.
  • The reason for this paradoxical result is that “Cornell has no legal authority” over the conduct of registered students taking courses online.

Cornell’s “science” derives from the work of faculty in Operations Research and their PhD students, led by Prof. Peter Frazier, who have created a model—constantly being updated—that measures the amount of COVID-19 infections under various scenarios. It is beyond my expertise to critique this model, but it is also unnecessary. Even assuming that all the “scientific” or “medical” assumptions underlying the model are correct, there are flaws in the nonscientific and nonmedical assumptions imported into the interpretation of the model’s results.

Cornell’s “counterintuitive” decision to hold in-person instruction is justified by Frazier in the July 17 “Addendum” to his original June 15, 2020 report, entitled “COVID-19 Mathematical Modeling for Cornell’s Fall Semester.” For the online-only scenario to significantly outperform the in-person scenario, Cornell would need to test “at least 20% of the [Ithaca-based online] population per day, which seems out of reach with optional testing.”

This is actually an incredible admission: Frazier states unequivocally that implementing an online semester would “significantly [outperform] the residential scenario” if testing of Ithaca-area students occurred at a rate comparable to the rate already envisioned for the in-person scenario, for which adequate testing capacity is available. An online semester was rejected, even though it would “significantly outperform” the in-person scenario, not because there would be inadequate testing capacity. Rather, it was rejected based on the contention that “Cornell has no legal authority” over the conduct of online students and—even if they had the authority—Cornell could not adequately enforce a testing regime on students living in the Ithaca area and taking courses online. We’ll examine these arguments in turn, starting with the claim that “Cornell has no legal authority” to mandate asymptomatic testing of online students, a claim for which no legal evidence has been provided.

Finding myself at this impasse, I wrote to Madelyn F. Wessel, Cornell University Counsel and Secretary of the Corporation, and asked: “Why wouldn’t Cornell have the authority to block an Ithaca-based student’s access to online course participation if that student failed to comply with Behavioral Compact stipulations for asymptomatic COVID-19 testing?” The University Counsel’s reply, dated August 11, 2020, focused not on the question of authority, but on the practicality of implementation and enforcement, which we will discuss later. Only in the last paragraph of her long email she did finally acknowledge that Cornell has the authority to require testing of online-only students in the Ithaca area, contradicting statements made by the President and by Frazier: “Bottom line, yes,” she wrote, “we could exhort online students living locally to engage with the university’s significant health and safety protocols; we could probably make public statements to the effect that we were requiring testing and related compliance.”

Therefore, the only remaining questions concern practicality and enforcement. The following excerpts from Counsel Wessel’s email response are representative of the arguments made also by Cornell’s Provost and by Prof. Frazier; they are followed by my commentary in italics.

“Our assessment was that identifying which online students were ‘local’ and which were not would be exceptionally difficult to establish with specificity.” Cornell has already identified which students are local and which are remote, simply by requiring them to provide the address at which they are residing. This is not rocket science.

“And, any student who wished to evade university controls could easily do so by not disclosing their return to Ithaca.” Cornell could require that students provide proof of their residency—this could take many forms but would not be difficult to devise or implement. And, as in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, merely the threat of verification would be sufficient to deter infringement. It’s simply not reasonable to conclude that many students would go to all this trouble and risk disciplinary action, while simultaneously forging proof of residency documents, all to avoid asymptomatic testing. 

“Additionally, to penalize – through academic disenrollment – an online student living in private housing in the Ithaca region, but not an online student living privately beyond whatever radius was necessarily established for the behavioral and testing regime, did not seem to us to be either practical or fair.” This argument has two parts: in terms of practicality, it would be easy to establish a boundary within which students are considered to be in the Ithaca area and subject to asymptomatic testing. Cornell is doing a lot of things to prepare for this upcoming semester that are far more complex. In terms of fairness, there is no ethical issue raised by protecting the Ithaca community from spread of this virus: this is, in fact, exactly what Cornell intends to do with in-person instruction. The idea, in both scenarios, is to reduce the health impact of instruction within the local Ithaca community—not within the entire planet. This ethical premise doesn’t change by altering the mode of instruction.

“It is precisely because Cornell is conditioning access to our physical campus, eateries, libraries, classrooms, dorms, student activities and more … that enables the university to require that they register their local address, adhere to testing, sign the behavioral compact, get their student ID activated for campus access, and become subject to the behavioral compact we are enforcing on Ithaca area residential students.” It is hardly necessary that students physically attend classes or use facilities in order to require adherence to a behavioral compact. Nor does enforcement require physical access to campus facilities; it would be quite simple to revoke online access if online-only Ithaca-based students did not comply with the testing protocol.

I therefore reach the following conclusions:

  • The “science” developed by Frazier et al. suggests that asymptomatic testing of Ithaca-area students during an online-only semester could create health outcomes that “significantly outperform” those of an in-person semester.
  • There are no practical, legal, or ethical barriers to enforcing a testing protocol on Ithaca-area students during an online-only semester.
  • Therefore, if Cornell administrators claim to be following “the science,” they should move immediately to an all-online semester.
  • Alternatively, if Cornell administrators feel that there is value in having an in-person semester that outweighs the health benefits of an online-only semester, then they should tell the truth: specifically, they should acknowledge that their decision not to follow “the science” puts more people at risk of infection, hospitalization, and even death, but that they will attempt to minimize those health risks in order to gain what they feel are benefits of in-person instruction.

Links to all my Cornell-COVID writings are here.