no Ya-Ya, people want architecture at a Great Value

No ya-ya, People want Architecture at a Great ValueA few months ago I began to contemplate the effect of the Great Recession on our profession and to define for myself the current, past and future status of architecture in the United States. There have been many movements and styles to evolve in architecture since the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe. It seems that since the death of Modernism that stylistic periods in architecture have increasingly become shorter and shorter, approaching a period of brevity in which we have to question whether or not we should even call these movements architectural styles.

Today, architects are trading in their architectural styles for an architecture of fashion, one which parallels the seasonal trends and fads of the fashion industry itself. The change from an architecture of style to one of fashion could be a result of the fact that information is exchanged at a rapid pace due to the worldwide acceptance of the internet. This new form of rapid communication and publication has created a situation that renders a design obsolete to the current discourse by the time a building is completely constructed, because the renderings were published ten years earlier on a blog somewhere on the web. What if historians and critics are examining these architectural styles incorrectly? The truth may be that perhaps historians have attempted to identify these movements prior to allowing the context of history to fully unfold, and lack the hindsight required to reflect upon the recent past with an understanding of these movements in relation to larger social and cultural events. To clearly state, sometimes effects in history are critiqued without fully understanding their cause. Architectural critics and historians have struggled to make sense of the apparent infinite styles and movements within contemporary architecture. Until recently it has been difficult to find a common thread linking the aesthetic differences between the many movements of the late 20th century and early 21st. Although the aesthetics of the numerous architectural styles that have emerged since the dot-com boom vary, the one consistent trait that all of these structures share is a recklessness for the apparent limits of architecture, and an increasing emphasis on imageability and form. Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne,  Asymptote and European power firms like UN Studio have benefited from an unprecedented growth of wealth at the scale of the entire world. The same technology that spurred this growth in wealth has also given these and other architects the tools necessary to design and build nearly anything imaginable. Although this condition in recent history is unprecedented in scale, it is not without precedent. These architects are master of ya-ya, and the ya-ya movement is coming to a close, but what will come after this movement, is already here.

Historical Precedence:

The fascination with all things cool by architects of the era of ya-ya is similar to a movement that occurred in architecture prior to another American financial disaster, the Great Depression. Prior to the Great Depression the architectural profession was fragmented in terms of style, it seemed that there was no singular movement in architecture. The aesthetic styles of architecture in the 19th century and early 20th century ranged from Greek Revival to Baroque Revival, to Egyptian Revival, to just about any other historical style you can imagine, however the spirit of the period could be traced back to a singular driving force. The impetus behind the revival of the many styles from the past was the desire of Americans to display their excessive amounts of wealth in reference to the styles associated with the wealthy nations of history. Similar to our recent past, the Great Depression was preempted by the ‘Roaring Twenties.’ The great amounts of wealth generated during the 1920′s was the result of Main Street having easy access to Wall Street (specifically the ability to buy stocks with credit), in conjunction with the fact that America was benefiting from the growth caused by the industrial revolution that takes place when a youthful capitalistic country begins its rise, similar to the growth that we are seeing today in modern China. The overriding theme of the period prior to the Great Depression was not one of ‘style’ but a period of Revivalism in which architects and Americans used historical precedents as a means of displaying their wealth. It was not an aesthetic movement, but a spirit of the times. The chief difference between Revivalism and ya-ya is the availability of technology. This availability of technology has shifted the importance society places on architecture and its design. During the period of Revivalism, people were concerned with extravagance in decoration, and today ya-ya is concerned with extravagance in form and image.

It is important to note that transitions in history are generally long and drawn out. History is rarely clear and succinct like the game changing plays in a football game, and like a football game it is difficult to discern the full ramifications of any one event until the game is over. The observations in this article are nothing more than conjectures based on my observations of the current state of architecture compared to past trends in history. Enough time has passed since the Great Depression to fully understand the cultural and social context of the architectural movements that occurred at that point in time in history, and we can finally discuss this condition with some degree of resoluteness. While researching for this article and examining the beginnings of the International Style (a term coined by Alfred Barr, which I prefer over Modern Architecture) it becomes evident that there is a significant overlap between the peak of Revivalism in America and the beginning of the International Style. In fact, many of the modern masterpieces, which are revered by many architects today, were completed prior to the Great Depression. The full embrace of the International Style by the mainstream architectural profession did not occur until the Great Depression came to a close.

In terms of architectural styles it seems that the intellectual leaders of the architectural professions are constantly rivaling the styles of the past, or the master architects that came before them. Modernism discounted Revivalism, Post-Modernism was the antithesis to Modernism, yet while there are movements against movements within the profession of architecture, there are larger socio-economic movements taking place at a much larger scale. The experiment of capitalism in America has been in progress for over two-hundred years and it seems that the cyclical nature of the markets translates into larger cycles in time, socially. There are movements within American culture that place an emphasis on wealth, status, and fame when times are good and the markets are growing. It also appears that after an economic disaster, society rejects the previous social arrogance to display ones wealth and the focus again shifts back to one of value and function. As resources become scarce and as the world becomes ever smaller due to an increase in technology and the global population, people will demand an architecture of Great Value.

The Great Depression marks a point in time in the history of American culture where wealth and style were overcome by function and value. In terms of architecture it marked a transition in which American Revivalism gave way to the International Style. Today we can infer that a similar change is taking place in American culture and in architecture. Again the display of wealth is giving way to function, and in terms of architecture, the period of ya-ya must succeed to an architecture of Great Value. Unlike before this transition is taking place at a rapid rate, and on a global scale.

a period of Ya-Ya:

The period of ya-ya is highlighted with the acceptance of the internet and the birth of the first global economy. The wealth generated by the dot-com boom and computer revolution fueled fifteen years of architectural extravagance, experimentation, and the destruction of limits that many thought could never be broken, see Burj Khalifa in Dubai. A side note for those of you that would like to know what the name given to the tallest building in the world stand for, burj means “tower”, and Khalifa Bin Zayed is the name of the UAE President, but forget the burj for now. The city of Dubai is just one of many examples of such unprecedented limits being broken. Culture and the values of society changed during this period of growth, and displaying one’s wealth became acceptable again, and thus the architecture of the pre-Great Recession responded appropriately. Architecture was cool for the sake of being cool.  Architects everywhere were attempting to build the tallest and coolest buildings in the world. Don’t believe me? Try and find a design posted on DeZeen that focuses on developing a rigorous formal language like Louis I. Kahn, Richard Meier or Michael Graves. Being cool was so important during the era of ya-ya that you could find a career in a new profession focused on cool hunting.

The primary design driver that has made the period of ya-ya so damaging to the profession of architecture is that the architectural one-liner was back and in a big way. This is damaging, because young students studying architecture in universities focus on developing clever solutions to architectural problems rather than learning a critical design process that they can use and develop as they grow as an architect. It seems like every week the blogs are flooded with dozens of cool and clever buildings that feature a new architectural one-liner that has not been built before, or even worse, one that has. The one-liner serves a purpose and throughout time there have been many one-liner works of architecture that played an important role in bringing architecture to the mainstream, for instance a series of BEST Products stores were completed by a young firm called SITE (see figure 1.1) in the early 70′s that changed the way many consumers thought about the role of architecture in strip mall design, and the effects of their work can be seen in Las Vegas and even today in Chicago. Although many critics and architects have grouped their works under the title of Post Modernism, I believe that this is an incorrect description of their work. Their work could be seen as the earliest movers in the spirit of ya-ya. Ya-ya is not all about one-liners, although the one-liner is the preferred design tool of the ya-ya designer. I will elaborate after the below photos more upon the ya-ya movement.

Best Products Store Design by Site

Figure 1.1: The Indeterminate Facade Building in Houston Texas is one of a series of  nine  stores designed by SITE for the now deceased BEST stores. It is one of the earliest examples of the architectural one-liner, it brought architecture to the mainstream. The ‘big box’ would never be the same as SITE continued to craft clever one-liners that questioned the new typology for nearly a decade. These BEST products stores by SITE and other architects are the earliest examples of ya-ya. In the future I will examine the BEST product stores and their importance not just those designed by SITE, but proposals from a series of significant architects in the 1970′s and 1980′s.

Studio Gang Aqua Tower

Figure 1.2: Aqua Tower designed by Studio Gang Architects is a newly constructed one-liner and a may serve as a symbol to the end of the one-liner, but only the passage of time will allow us to make such an inference. Although nearly forty years separates the structures designed by SITE and the recently completed Aqua Tower, one cannot help but to sense a commonality it their spirit, the one-liner. These clever solutions are capable of creating unique and memorable architecture, but they lack the rigor in form and function that modern architects obsessed over.

Perhaps the period of ya-ya was a response to the intellectual rigor that became the driving forces behind movements such as the International Style and Post-Modernism. Although the extravagant structures built during the period of ya-ya may have been constructed due to unprecedented global wealth, ya-ya also exemplifies another trend within our new global society. The internet is partly responsible for the changes we are seeing in society, but the information revolution is the key driving force behind the ya-ya movement. The information age has also birthed a new generation of architects, designers, and consumers: Generation Y. This new generation must be constantly stimulated with information. They don’t have time to listen to a whole album, watch an entire movie, or experience architecture. They listen to singles, watch movie trailers and do not want to bother with architecture unless it can be spoon fed to them in the form of an architectural one-liner. Architecture like information, music, fashion and viral videos, must constantly be changing, new, inventive, but most importantly stimulate the brain and body rapidly. Generation Y wants information and they want it fast, they want instant gratification. The image and icons of architecture are evolving at a pace which is faster than architecture can sustain. Even fast-tracked design/build projects are giving way to a new hyper design/build process in which construction begins concurrent with the design process. The distillation of the architectural construction and design process is in fact the major cause of the rapid growth in architectural one-liners. The architectural one-liners are also the result of Generation Y designers whom are not capable of developing architectural concepts in the same meaningful way that Louis Kahn was able to elaborate upon a simple concept like ‘bringing the book from darkness to light’ in his design for Exeter Library, which is unquestionable a masterwork of architecture. They are concerned with image, because that is what they know. Once the image is created they cannot be bothered with developing it, and move on to the next image in the same ADD manner that they consume information on the internet.

This period of ya-ya in architectural history will be remembered not just for its cool architecture, but also as a period in which architects became star-chitects, as critics of the profession attempt to thrust these architectural stars into the forefront, in hopes that they gain the same celebrity status as their Hollywood counterparts. But why identify this period in time as the period of ya-ya? The term yaya according to the French is an expression of arrogance, which best describes the cool buildings and one-liners of this period. The English dictionary defines yah, a homophone  of ya, as ‘used to express derision, defiance, or disgust.’ In the context of this article, the period of ya-ya is an architectural movement which acts to defy the rigor of the modern and post modern movements in architecture. To claim that the period of ya-ya in architecture lacks rigor completely, would be a naive and gross misunderstatement. The rigor of the ya-ya s is one of the one-liner, whimsy, image, and figure, not function and rational. Ya-ya architecture is arrogant and bold. If the one-liner is the chief tool of a ya-ya designer, a great ya-ya designer is a starchitect, and their celebrity leader is Frank Gehry. Gehry’s architecture is more than a one-liner or a simple figure as in the work of SITE and the figure of the Aqua Tower (see figure 1.2 & 1.3).

Experience Music in Seattle Washington designed by Frank Gehry

Figure 1.3: Experience Music Project in Seattle Washington is a ya-ya masterpiece designed by celebrity starchitect Frank Gehry. The forms sculpted by Frank Gehry lack function, their purpose is to create a distinct image, a memorable figure. It is an example of a ya-ya masterpiece and is arrogant in spirit.

The period of ya-ya in architecture can be classified as the period of time between the dot-com boom and the Great Recession. If we begin to classify architecture during the period specified above as a response to the economic conditions of our time, rather than specific stylistic trends, then we have to ask ourselves one more question, what next?

an architecture of Great Value:

History has shown that there are certain trends and cycles that occur in economics, society, and even in architecture. There are precedents for our current economic condition, but those precedents lack the scale of a global economic collapse. The historic event that most closely resembles that of the Great Recession is its predecessor the Great Depression, which consumed the 1930s. As stated earlier, the world changed during the Great Depression. Revivalism and its concern for decoration and wealth was abandoned in favor of an International Style that focused on function and its expression. I believe that a similar trend will emerge after the Great Recession. Decoration will be forgotten and function will again rule, but this time architecture must respond in a way that it has not had to in the past. The next movement in architecture must be not be only concerned with function alone, architects will be pushed to provide an architecture of Great Value.

The next significant style to emerge after the Great Recession will be that will deliver Great Value.

First, what is Great Value? Great Value is the response to social and environmental demands of today’s consumers. The “green” movement is one force that has architects examining value. The 21st century more so than any other century is concerned with creating an architecture that is sensitive to the fact that the resources on the Earth are limited, and that we should maximize their use in a manor that yields the greatest value. Another movement that is fueling the need for an architecture of Great Value is the demand from consumers on manufacturers to produce goods that are not only inexpensive but offer value. Greatest value means that architects have to begin to understand their architectural tactics in terms of highest and best use, and not just in terms of dollars. This means that function, sustainability, and social factors must be weighed against monetary considerations.

The first field that began to understand that American culture was shifting from a ya-ya centered society, to one that was focused on Great Value was graphic design, specifically for product packaging. Manufacturers have slowly realized that cheap is actually a good thing, and that their products should look generic. Regardless of what you think about Walmart the company is run be a group of geniuses that understand how to respond to changes in culture and society better than just about anybody else. For years Walmart’s Great Value brand attempted to mimic the style, design and color of name brand products in an attempt to suggest to buyers that their product is just as good as the name brands, but cheaper. Early this year,Walmart completely revamped their Great Value brand, and the only way to describe it is generic, but clever.

Walmart realized that people were concerned with one thing and one thing only after spending nearly two years in the Great Recession, and that is value (see figure 2.1). The design of the Great Value brand is simple and beautiful. The name of the brand Great Value is placed on the packaging in a way that creates an interesting visual play of words, the word ‘great’ is larger than the word ‘value’, but the fact that the product is great, is not nearly as important as the product’s value. The word ‘value’ is bold and blue and is the first thing that you notice walking down the aisles of Walmart, regardless of the product. Checkout Walmart’s website to see what I mean, the page is loaded with value. The background of every product’s package is white, which stands out compared to other products. The white background serves at making the product appear even more generic. White also reflects more light and makes products appear brighter, thus drawing the consumer’s attention compared to other products. The only additional information on the package is the name of the product, a picture of the product, and nutritional facts, but all of these items are composed in a way that does not even come close to competing with the product’s ‘value’.

Great Value Branding by Walmart

Figure 2.1: Great Value product branding by Walmart is an example of how society is moving from one that is based on brands, image, and unique identities to one that is concerned with value. The aisles of Walmart now conjure up images of the experiments drawn up by Superstudio proposing a generic order of gridded whiteness that would take over the world.

What does Great Value mean for architecture? Like I said earlier, architecture is slower to respond to changes in culture than other fields, but right now architecture is experiencing a transitional period in which ya-ya is fading and Great Value Architecture is emerging, and may last much longer in time than the period of ya-ya. In fact the Great Value Architecture movement may last for a very long time.

Great Value Architecture has already emerged as a legitimate style and will continue to emerge in stature and popularity as did the International Style. There are two projects that come to mind when thinking about architecture of the Great Value movement. The New Contemporary Museum of Art in New York City by SANAA, and the Wyly Theatre in Dallas Texas by REX. The New Contemporary Museum of Art (see figure 2.2) is graphic in the same sense as the Great Value packaging for the 250 count toothpicks above. The museum features clean lines, simple orthogonal shapes, and functional surfaces. The building’s ornament is a resultant of its function: allowing diffused light into the gallery so that the works of art are not damaged. The building like the Great Value packaging does not compete with the product or the artwork, it functions for it. The building features the artwork of Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone who’s work proclaims “Hell, Yes!”. It is clear that the artwork is the feature here, and the buildings function must not subside to its form or figure. The lobby is identified by planes of glass that identifies the entry and change of function at the ground floor. The building offers value in that every piece, every gesture serves a function.

The Wyly Theatre is similar in aesthetics to the New Contemporary Museum of Art. The key difference in the design of the structures is that the Wyly Theatre offers its users more value than the SANAA designed museum. The Wyly Theatre is a:

575-seat “multi-form” theater with the ability to transform between proscenium, thrust, arena, traverse, studio, and flat floor configurations with only a small crew in a few hours; and to open the performance space to its urban surroundings.

Like many of the structures completed by REX, the Wyly Theatre solves the problem of the theater typology with a solution that offers the greatest value! (see figure 2.3) Rather than designing multiple theaters, one for each type of performance, the architecture is capable of changing functions and responding to the needs of the individual performances. The design is orthogonal and is composed of clean lines like the New Contemporary Museum of Art. The design also makes use of innovative curtain wall technologies that responds to the functional needs of the space that it encloses, but the key difference is the embedded value that the architects have added to the design. The Wyly Theatre is a masterpiece that is instilled with the very spirit of the Great Value movement.

New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City designed by Sanaa

Figure 2.2: New Contemporary Museum of Art in New York City designed by SANAA. The form and use of materials offers the client and city an architecture of Great Value, the artwork is featured on the exterior serving as a signifier to the building’s function.

Wyly Theatre in Dallas Texas designed by REX

Figure 2.3: Wyly Theatre in Dallas Texas designed by REX. The diagram overlayed on the above photo explains that to offer the greatest value, the structure is capable of meeting the needs of four different theaters through the careful design of a singular theater. The Wyly Theatre offers the city the greatest value.

A Current State of Transition:

Architecture tends to respond to conditions slightly slower than other creative fields such as art, fashion design, graphic design, and industrial design due to the nature of the architecture. It simply takes time to produce architecture. At a time when many people are struggling just to put food on the table, the construction of buildings in the style of ya-ya is of very poor taste and is culturally unacceptable during this period of change. Whenever a change in style occurs there is state of transition and overlap. The transition from an architecture of ya-ya to one that offers architecture at a Great Value is the now. It is difficult fully understand this state of transition and it is even more difficult to project the future of the profession, but one thing is clear, people will continue to want architecture at a Great Value.