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  • DESIGN FAILS: VIENNA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

    Main photo by Werner Huthmacher

    As an addition to the last article about airport designs in general, I want to take the opportunity to take an in-depth look at our local Vienna International airport. How does this airport perform in terms of functionality and design?

    Vienna international airport old main hall – photo by Timothy Claassens

    In terms of style, this airport clearly offers a wild mix. There are fragments of the original building from the sixties, which now form the unused Terminal 2. Like Saarinen’s TWA building, the original structure celebrated the new mode of transportation with an elegant building, featuring a main hall with a suspended, gently curved roof, large open spaces, big glass windows and open decks with unobstructed views to the airfield.

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    The original building from the sixties was remodeled, extended and turned into a labyrinthine shopping mall with a central plaza, that tried to mimic the density and atmosphere of Vienna's first district

    The mid-nineties saw a series of extensions, with a new check-in area and two new concourses. The original building from the sixties was remodeled, extended and turned into a labyrinthine shopping mall with a central plaza, that tried to mimic the density and atmosphere of Vienna’s first district.

    However, local architect Franz Fehringer seemed to have more interest in creating superficial effects, rather than spatial qualities., He used a broad formal repertoire of postmodern motives that were certainly in fashion for the season, like diamond shaped tilings, circular windows, decorative pillars as well as an eclectic mix of expensive, yet tasteless materials. The architectural highlight, if you want, was the new airside facade that connected the concourses. It consisted of a slightly curved curtain wall that got interrupted by an articulated, meandering crack. Postmodernism galore!

    COMMERCIAL DECORATION

    Terminal „3“ is the airports’ latest addition and was designed by an Austrian and Swiss planning partnership, namely Baumschlager Eberle and Itten Brechbühel. Its distinct, minimalist style reflects a western Austrian and Swiss attitude on architecture but stands in harsh contrast to Fehringer’s postmodern interventions, making it impossible for the different terminals to „melange“ into one complex and instead remain as unfitting, detached pieces.

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    When minimalism is not appreciated in the sense of „less is more“, but rather seen as „less is a bore“, it opens the possibility for subsequent "enrichment" that is not in the hands of architects and designers anymore

    What is worse, is that no one involved in the planning process of terminal 3 seemed to understand the impact of minimalism, let alone foresaw, that this style is still not well-understood in the city of baroque. Viennese do not have a Swiss mindset, but quite the contrary and there lies a danger: When minimalism is not appreciated in the sense of „less is more“, but rather seen as „less is a bore“, it opens the possibility for subsequent enrichment of sorts, that is not in the hands of architects and designers anymore. The lack of form and visual sophistication is seen as a weakness.

    Terminal 3 – photo by Roman Boensch

    Under these circumstances, a big white surface is like an invitation for decorative use. Within our capitalistic system, this decoration is likely a commercial one. Advertisements, once bound to poster-, screen- or billboard formats, have now befallen complete architectural elements in terminal 3.

    The facades of parking garages are fully covered in advertisements, ceilings are used to hang an armada of commercial banners and even the pedestrian bridges that connect the driveway with the check-in hall get fully branded by a local tabloid. The formal minimalism and the abundance of any colors followed the well-intended idea, that people would fill the building with color and life, yet this conception simply abetted the advance of commercial junk space. At terminal 3, every attempt to create architectural integrity is nipped in the bud.

    Terminal 3 arrival hall – photo by Owen Ricpolidish

    LACK OF INTUITIVE ORIENTATION

    While the importance of intuitive orientation has already been mentioned, Vienna airport seems to aim for the opposite. Between the entrances on the landside and the gates on the airside lies a confusing and disorienting complex, a collection of buildings from the last 60 years, all weirdly connected by angled, narrow corridors, low ceilings, curvy ramps, and weirdly proportioned halls. A walk from the train station to the gate can easily require six level changes on a zigzag path as if this building wanted to refine the baroque art of disorientation by creating a sense of dizziness in its users.

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    A walk from the train station to the gate can easily require six level changes on a zigzag path

    Finding the right way can be a challenge in itself, since the labeling of parking garages, terminals and concourses turns out to be quite kafkaesque: While the terminals are numbered with „1“, „1a“ and „3“, there is currently no number „2“ in operation. Passengers may depart from any of these terminals, but all passengers arrive in terminal „3“.

    Gate labels start with the letters „B“, „C“, „D“, „F“ and „G“ plus an added number, but there are no „A“ or „E“ gates. „B“, „C“ and „D“ gates have their own concourse, while „F“ and „G“ gates share one. Ultimately, garages and parking lots get ordered by an illogical combination of letters and numbers, that are „K1“, „K3“, „K4“, „P3“, „P4“ and „Pc“, again skipping the numbers and letters between.

    Vienna international airport signage – photo by Skyscrapercity

    Interestingly, the lack of intuitive orientation gets addressed by two contradicting strategies: While a walk from the underground train station to Terminals 1 and 1a deliberately intensifies the confusion by letting important signage fade at neuralgic crossing points, the concourse in Terminal 3 clearly tries to overcompensate the architectural deficits with an overwhelming amount of signs, letting the ceiling vanish in an unappealing sea of color-coded letters and numbers.

    VIENNESE WALTZ

    The list of design fails goes on: Once the disoriented passenger has made it through security checks, he finds himself in a maze-like shopping mall, as described above. At the same time, airline lounges and even restrooms are reliably located in the remotest of places, hard to find and only reachable through ridiculously narrow stairs and corridors.

    Vienna international airport corridors – photo by Skyscrapercity

    In terms of functionality, narrowness seems to be the airports’ greatest weak point. After disembarking the plane in terminal 3, arriving passengers must separate from transferring ones in a hip width corridor by finding a poorly signposted junction, make a sharp turn, then take a narrow escalator, make more turns, walk a claustrophobic corridor towards the main building, then take another escalator to reach the baggage reclaim. Some more turns through customs will finally release you into the, you can guess it by now, narrow and tubular arrival hall. Welcome to Austria, you just swirled your first waltz!

    Christian Schwarzwimmer is an Austrian architect and designer. In his posts, he is discussing the complexities of our built environment and highlighting whether architects and designers are finding the right solutions to our urging problems.

  • AIRPORT DESIGNS

    On the frontier of every technological innovation, a high level of excitement about design solutions and possible applications can be found. When Eero Saarinen’s futuristic TWA Flight Center opened at New Yorks’ JFK airport in 1962, the aviation industry was at the peak of excitement. Flying, as a means of transportation, was still fairly new and had just started to become affordable for the broad middle-class. Around the world, some impressive terminals were erected that celebrated this human achievement, just like grand train stations did some decades ago.

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    Once icons of a modern era of global transportation and symbols for a society in flux, most airports have now become generic and soulless places.

    The early beginnings of the industry allowed for playfulness and rigor in design and an unbiased and fresh attitude that created masterpieces like Saarinen’s TWA terminal. With its’ self-supporting shell construction and seamless design, it quickly became a showcase for the rising aviation industry. Yet unlike train stations, many of those early airports did not survive, let alone manage to stay in service until today.

    While the TWA building has become a heritage site that is currently being transformed into a hotel, many others have been demolished or dramatically remodeled to serve the tightened demands of today’s industry. Once icons of a modern era of global transportation and symbols for a society in flux, most airports have now become generic and soulless places. What happened?

    Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal – photo by Ezra Stoller

    With the advent of jumbo jets, increased passenger traffic and raised security issues, both the industry and the legislators found new technologies that would cope with these challenges, yet overrule aesthetics at once. For planners, airports have become the most complex building tasks. In fact, it would not be too far off to simply call them gigantic, engineered machines.

    TODAY'S AIRPORTS

    Today’s airports keep a strict regime over its users, transforming them into mere objects. Passengers are other-directed into the demeaning choreography of standard procedures within highly restricted transit areas, while being closely monitored along the way. Like in prison, it strongly limits the free will of its occupants, however, on a voluntary basis. Transit areas are highly restricted zones that can only be entered or left if the building authority permits.

    Even if we think about nerve-wracking waiting times at numerous counters, security checkpoints or gates, an airport is a building efficiently designed around flows. Flows of humans, cargo, energy or information. All architectural elements must be subordinate to these principles. Levels, escalators, one-way corridors, containers, walls or other barriers must constantly sort and separate the flow of matter into various categories. Under such conditions, a humans’ freewill gets completely oppressed.

    Heathrow Airport duty free shops – photo by Marc Smith

    It gets a little worse: Apparently, places that keep their users like chickens in a slaughterhouse provide fertile soil for shady profiteering. Cunning capitalists have found subtle strategies to turn transit areas into profit machines, giving passengers the illusion of free will through shopping opportunities.

    Many airports have finally lifted the already unstable boundaries between the once public mall space and the privately owned retail space. After the security screening, departing passengers are now directly released into a labyrinth of shelves that is a duty-free shop. What a cynical name! On the way to their gate, passengers have no other choice but to run past a series of intense perfumes, shiny jewelry, and oversized chocolate bars and while the gate numbers do not get revealed until the last second before departure, there is plenty of time to linger.

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    It is no wonder that airports rank amongst the least popular buildings. If done right, a good airport can be rewarding for millions of users.

    „The unconsciously bewildered shopper, rendered docile, cannot help but drift into the prepared pathways and patterns of immersed into externally induced consumer activity, unfocused but exquisitely suggestible to gentle but firm environmental cues.“ writes Sanford Kwinter in Wiring and Waning of the World. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that airports rank amongst the least popular buildings. As designers, we should question these developments and look at the few good examples. Eventually, if done right, a good airport can be rewarding for millions of users.

    AIRPORT QUALITY

    Good airports maintain a smooth flow. They allow passengers to run the gauntlet of procedures in a dignified manner. The worlds’ best airports even do a little more. They show mercy to the tormented travelers by offering escape routes from the controlled pathways.

    Singapore airport, for example, features lush gardens and a rooftop swimming pool, Helsinki airport provides a sauna for its passengers, whereas the airports of Bangkok and Seoul have opened golf courses within their premises. These services are not just smart sources for extra income, they provide an experience that is fundamentally different to the ordeal of standard airport procedures. Carrying luggage, undergoing security screenings and finding the correct ways in a vast building demands concentration, while being in a garden, a pool or on a golf course fosters contemplation.

    Singapore Changi Airport – photo by Steve Lacey

    What could be more dignifying for a human body than a plain natural sensation, like being immersed in the elements of the local climate, water or vegetation, after countless hours spent in a fully controlled high-tech machine?

    THE ROOF

    When talking about successful airport designs, one must look at Norman Foster’s contributions, particularly Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport. Opened more than 20 years ago in 1998, it is still a benchmark in airport design. There are two reasons.

    Firstly, its formal language proved to be timeless thanks to Foster’s technophile approach to architecture. His particular style still seems to be the most appropriate for this task. Secondly, its internal organization was carefully designed around a smooth passenger flow. Thanks to its intuitive layout and design, navigation through the building is a breeze. From the arrival on the landside to the departure on the airside, there are almost no turns to make and hardly any escalators to use. If so, they are laid out in the direction of flow.

    Since most passengers were expected to arrive by train, the attached station was designed with vertically separate platforms, so that departing passengers would disembark the trains from Hong Kong right on the departure level, arriving passengers embark the trains directly on the lower arrival level.

    Hong Kong Airport – photo by Andre Sitoy

    Once you enter the terminal, the ceiling of the barrel-vaulted roof dominates the vast, open space and emphasizes the direction of flow by creating parallel intersection lines that serve as subtle directory leading to the airplane. Foster managed to leave the roof almost unobstructed from any signage or commercial billboards to show its full effect and beauty. At certain spots, passengers arrive in balcony-like situations, allowing an overview of the vast building and beyond through a fully glazed facade onto the airfield, further enhancing a sense of scale and orientation.

    Hong Kong Airport roof – photo by Tsuo-Chien Chung

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    While floor plans have become increasingly occupied by technical equipment, the roof may serve as the last remaining architectural authority.

    What’s important to note is that Foster was one of the first designers to understand the importance of the roof as the quintessential architectural element of every modern airport. While floor plans have become increasingly occupied by technical equipment, the roof may serve as the last remaining architectural authority. Foster has repeated this motive for the consecutive airport designs of London’s Stansted and Beijing’s Capital Airport.

    Meanwhile, other designers have incorporated similar ideas: Zaha Hadid architects will open yet another brand-new airport in Beijing’s south later this year and it goes without saying that the star-shaped terminal will easily surpass Norman Foster’s dragon-shaped terminal, which currently ranks as the world’s largest structure, in size, costs and roof extravaganza.

    Christian Schwarzwimmer is an Austrian architect and designer. In his posts, he is discussing the complexities of our built environment and highlighting whether architects and designers are finding the right solutions to our urging problems.

  • WU LEARNING CENTER, ZAHA HADID, VIENNA

    Main photo by Martin Schachermayer

    Close your eyes. Now think about the most modern building that you came across in Vienna recently. No matter, if you are Viennese, a visitor or Google, chances are that you are thinking about the following object:

    The „WU Learning Center“ by Zaha Hadid.

    With its huge cantilevering gesture, sharp angles and dynamic three-dimensional curves, it clearly makes a dramatic appearance at first sight and has became a much loved building, prominent photo motive and icon for the Viennese tourism board.

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    The campus has brought the neighborhood into the spotlight, now showing signs of gentrification.

    In a city that is dominated by the „Gründerzeit“ (Viennas golden age that lasted roughly from the seventies of the 19th century until the beginning of WWI), this building serves as a more-than-welcome counterpoint in the architectural narrative. Located next to the vast „Prater“ green, the Learning Center is the core of the new WU campus, the University of Economics, Europes biggest institution of its kind. Buildings from Peter Cook, Hitoshi Abe, NO.MAD Arquitectos, Estudio Carme Pinós and local BUS-Architektur (which also won the previous Masterplan competition) complement the campus.

    WU Campus  – rednder by BOA

    When opened in 2013, the whole university was relocated from their former site in the bourgeois Alsergrund district to what used to be a rather remote and unpopular part of Leopoldstadt. Considering the scale and the amount of design studios involved, it is surprising that the planning and construction process went fast, in budget and scandal-free. Together with the extension of the subway, the campus has brought the neighborhood into the spotlight, now showing signs of gentrification.

    ECONOMIES OF ATTENTION

    A campus is a collection of buildings that form a village-like entity. Naturally, this entity is primarily concerned with its inner workings and relations within its limits. The founders of Stanford University in California, for example, have picked a distinct romanesque style for their buildings and applied a catalogue of materials and architectural motives: sandstone and archways, to name only two. Architecture and style were deliberately used as instruments to create distinction and identity in the first place.

    Looking back at the fundamental design principles for the WU campus, it immediately gets clear, that those methods, consciously or not, were not seeked here. Instead, one was surpised to learn about the amount of international star-architects, each known for their distinct styles, that would contribute to the campus. The result could be expected: All buildings differ widely in style, materials, spatial qualities, scale and proportions. While the single projects reveal various levels of vanity, one cannot dismiss the fact, that all buildings disregard each other equally.

    Teaching Center by BUS Architekten – photo by Wojtek Gurak

    Walking through the campus, gazing at architecture, feels like watching exotic animals in a zoo- each of them somewhat pretty and cute individually, but not fitting into a single habitat as a collective. I remember that my first campus walk quickly evoked the question: „Which building do I like the most?“ since they are so heavily competing for sympathy and attention.

    Instead of using strict design guidelines for the overall campus, like Stanford did in the beginning, the WU campus was driven by the forces of the so-called „economies of attention“.

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    Walking through the campus, gazing at architecture, feels like watching exotic animals in a zoo.

    Attention is a limited good. We only have so much on a day before our consciousness surrenders.

    RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FORM AND CONTENT

    Modernity and globalization have created a fragmented world, freed from all certainties and have led to a crisis in the relationship of signal and the signified (content). In pre-modern times, when all architecture was vernacular, a church was a nave and a bell tower that carried a cross on top, easy to distinguish from a farm or a town house. Once learned, there was not much attention needed to navigate through the world. This is no longer the case. A today’s’ church in Las Vegas is most likely just a simple shed, not any different than the casinos around it. Only a billboard or sign along the road will reveal its function.

    That does not mean that all buildings are built the same way, quite the contrary! The point is that the once natural relationship between form and content is no longer trustworthy. Modernity has ruined it through its indifference on form and Postmodernism was not able to fix it. To make things worse, capitalism and its free market have found mechanisms to deal with fierce competition by fostering stronger, even more detached and superficial signifiers. In a world full of signals without direct link to the signified, our attention is challenged rigorously to bridge the gap. Whether we like it or not, this is the prerequisite that we as architects and designers must accept.

    WU Library & Learning Center – photo by Wojtek Gurak

    Now, we can probably all agree that Zaha Hadid was a master of drawing attention. Her buildings still function brilliantly within the „attention industry“. This is largely due to the fact that she was celebrating form so unashamedly. She turned the hierarchical „form follows function“ claim of modernity into „form is function“ and she was basically right! What her buildings signify is no longer content, but context. They celebrate the fact that a woman can become a star architect, they celebrate the advances of computational design, the engineering achievements of huge cantilevers and so on.

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    She turned the hierarchical „form follows function“ claim of modernity into „form is function“.

    However, if we do not accept Hadid’s dominating formalism as a valid variable in the form / function equation, arguably because of its potentially sinister entanglement with the inner workings of the „attention economies“, then there are not so many qualities left. Her apparent failure to cooperate architecturally, her egocentric and overly dominant, sometimes even brutal attitude are representative, not only for large parts of the architectural and design profession, but for a hyper-individualized, modern society in general. Neither the architects, nor the clients conceived the campus as a typology of compound, where the value of the whole could ideally be much bigger than the value of its single parts.

    Christian Schwarzwimmer is an Austrian architect and designer. In his posts, he is discussing the complexities of our built environment and highlighting whether architects and designers are finding the right solutions to our urging problems.

  • BIG BANG

    It started with a big bang, a sudden eruption of an enormous amount of energy and matter. This eruption resulted in a preliminary order of things. Dust was formed into planets, planets formed galaxies – but nothing stopped there.

    The big bang marked only the beginning of the evolution of things. What followed, was not the appearance of new things out of nowhere, but the emergence of increasing complexities of the existing matter through adaptations and transformations. However, just like birthmarks, the big bang event stayed apparent in matter and time, deeply inscribed into all things, allowing us to trace it back and learn from it.

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    What is there, has always been there, just in a different variation and for a different purpose.

    What is there, has always been there, just in a different variation and for a different purpose. What can be distinguished, however, is the degree of complexities by which the single elements are assembled.

    In „A thousand years of nonlinear history“ Manuel de Landa argues that over the course of mankind, there were several peaks in the amount of aggregated energy. These peaks resulted in major revolutions and innovations. He identifies urban settlements, which are complexities themselves, as the key environment for aggregated energy. To give a clear picture, urban settlements can be compared to pressure cookers. Constraints in space and time, as well as densities cause exponential cumulation of energy that lead to sudden eruptions and pressure release.

    DELIRIOUS NEW YORK

    In „Delirious New York“, Rem Koolhaas describes the emergence of New York’s skyscrapers at the beginning of the last century in a similar manner. As Koolhaas points out, it was neither the quest for profit by multiplying usable square-meters that drove the development in the first place, nor the increasing density of population that demanded more living space. Although these obvious problems existed, the real driver was a different crisis.

    This crisis was rooted in the fact that there was no adequate space to date, that would cater for an emerging modern society that wanted to dwell and play and, ultimately, find happiness. The real innovation, Koolhaas argues, is that New Yorks` planners started to comprehend modern urban living as a multi-layered, individual endeavor that would manifest itself in a new building typology: the skyscraper.
    Famously described in the Downtown Athletic Club, a tower dedicated to the personal fitness and social gathering of upper class New Yorkers. Every floor would feature a sensation, different from the one below, offering various sports and recreational infrastructures as well as other pleasures to cater for the individualized needs, all connected by a single element: the elevator. Only this technical innovation allowed for a quick transportation between the worlds.

    It took a city as big as New York, with its dense population, its innovative planners and brave entrepreneurs, as well as a real crisis and unquenched desires in order to bring this innovation forward that then conquered the world. The skyscraper, however, can only serve as one of many exemplified developments of complexities that helped reshape todays` urban environments around the globe.

    History shows us, that we live in the most complex of times and we can easily see why: We never handled more complex machines, (just like the elevator), realized bigger and higher buildings, we never occupied more land, used more natural resources, communicated and travelled faster, than today. The division of labor has never been more fragmented. Our individual life stories have never been more varied. Or in other terms: We have never been that urban.

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    We must see that crisis is only a sign that the new has not come into being yet

    So here we are, at the beginning of the year 2019, in a hypercomplex, pressured world, still dealing with the effects of the last big eruptions, the industrial revolution and capitalism, but we sense that we stand at the dawn of something new. We feel the crises, but we must see that crisis is only a sign that the new has not come into being yet.

    COMPLEXITIES OF OUR BUILT ENVIRONMENT

    This is the starting point of my blog. It will deal with the complexities of our built environment. It will ask, whether we as architects and designers are doing a good job in finding the right solutions to our urging problems. I will look at design examples (mostly buildings, but not exclusively) in my surrounding, that I have experienced personally.

    Furthermore, this blog shall also have an interest in the speculative field of future developments. If we, as a global society, are under such heavy pressure, chances for a new big eruption of aggregated energy are real. I will offer my visions on what can be seen as possible outcomes of future outbursts. In this sense, the blog shall fulfill two things: deciphering the complexities of what is already there and proposing what could be there.

    As a starting point, we are looking at a prominent building in Vienna that certainly carries a „big bang“ momentum.

    Christian Schwarzwimmer is an Austrian architect and designer. In his posts, he is discussing the complexities of our built environment and highlighting whether architects and designers are finding the right solutions to our urging problems.