The emperor of starchitecture, Mr. Frank Gehry (as seen on The Simpsons), is really quite naked when you lean in to take a closer look at any of his buildings. While he has made himself famous by defining his own characteristic style, flowing metal shells and mid-collapse building frames, the complexity of his buildings is there only in name. Here is how Science Magazine describes Gehry’s MIT Stata Center in an article entitled Constructing Complexity in the Digital Age.
Just down the street, the Stata Center will be completed, to a design by Frank Gehry, early in 2004. This building is both large and complex. The ability to provide a higher ratio of design content to construction content through use of advanced computer- aided design and manufacturing technology–particularly for the steelwork and sheet metal cladding–has allowed the architect to be far more sensitive and responsive to the future occupants’ needs. He has been able to break down the massive bulk of the building and gracefully integrate it into the campus pedestrian environment, respond in subtle and varied ways to microclimatic considerations and the forms of surrounding buildings, effectively accommodate the requirements of diverse and specialized activities, and create an environment of incident and surprise rather than monotonous repetition.
Since then, MIT has sued Frank Gehry because his Stata Center design leaks. That is to say, Gehry was unable to solve the most fundamental problem faced by builders since the dawn of times, providing shelter from the elements. This forces us to ask what problems the forms Gehry defined provide a solution to.
The criticism doesn’t end there. Let’s take a look at the window design for the Stata Center. A window is a nested scale of design within the greater whole of the building itself. A maximally-complex design will have windows that are just as complex as the whole building itself.
The Stata Center features boring, standardized windows that were most likely bought in bulk from the Home Depot. Gehry’s complexity happens only at one scale, the shell of the building.
Incident and surprise, which Science Magazine associates with a complex building, are not the product of architectural effort. They are a physical fact of the universe that good architecture attempts to resolve. The architectural solutions to these problems create complex designs through simple acts, and their beauty comes from the fact that they are representations of the complexity of nature.
Because it is simple acts that create complex buildings, the use of highly sophisticated computer-aided design tools is likely to make a building less complex and more complicated. That is not to say that computer software is not useful to design, but it means that tools like Sketchup may be more capable of enabling complexity than whatever it is was used to make the Stata Center.