Illustrations by Steve Cox

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roof wall

The roof/wall.

Each day in my inbox, I receive emails from several design blogs such as Archdaily and Architizer. I’m so inundated with them that I hardly look at my Architectural Records anymore! After years of scanning the explosive proliferation of published architecture from around the world, I’m starting to suffer from Stylistic Redundancy Syndrome (SRS). This psychological disorder occurs when a designer experiences such a plethora of architectural projects that they all start to look the same. The mind begins to amalgamate them into one single building.*

Not only do I see the same aesthetic moves made from Marrakesh to Akron, but they’re everywhere in the Northwest, too. They are employed by virtually every architect, encompassing every project type — the design equivalent of a really cool but WAY overplayed song. And before you think I’m being overly judgmental, let me say that I’ve been there, done that, myself. 

This Side Yard installment is really a public service announcement about avoiding the design traps that are contributing to our region’s growing SRS epidemic. Here are three particularly egregious symptoms — design approaches that are well intentioned but need to take a rest:

THE ROOF/WALL

The whole folded plate strategy baffles me. This might seem obvious, but a roof isn’t a wall and a wall isn’t a roof. I remember using the roof/wall motif years ago for a large project. Because walls are thin, roofs are usually filled with a lot of stuff, and the idea was to make the wall turn into a roof, the whole exercise was enormously awkward. Roof stuff was crammed into all sorts of weird places to make it look . . . natural.

The roof/wall is just counter-intuitive. AND I believe it will be out of style in about five more years. 

THE STACCATO WINDOW

staccato window

The first time I saw this architectural pattern was in Rafael Moneo’s 1994 Murcia City Hall. It was brilliant, complex and innovative . . . over twenty years ago!

My issue with the staccato window is that it is hedonistically self-referential. It really has nothing to do with expressing what’s going on inside. As a matter of fact, in many cases the staccato window is a detriment to the interior. It just seems to be screaming, “Hey, look at me, I’m idiosyncratic! That makes me complex!”

What the staccato window can do is make an otherwise boring façade look less boring. It seems to have become the cliché fallback position for dull walls. But I’m not so sure it will be out of style in five years.

THE BOXY BOX

In my Seattle neighborhood — Columbia City — the last few years of home construction led me to believe that only layered boxes were allowed in residential design. And the more layers, and the less rational they are, the better! I had to read over the zoning code to make sure gables, sheds and hip roofs were still permitted.

The predominant building component in these structures seems to be painted HardiePanel. To add a bit of flare, the outermost box — usually around the entrance — is slatted in a natural wood material to give it that classy look. What they all tell me is: “We make up for in corners what we lack in good materials.”

A close relative to the layered box is the shifty box, a newer fad in commercial buildings. They look like Rubik’s Cubes that only move around the y-axis. In Seattle, the shifty box seems almost anti-contextual. How unnerving that these buildings remind us that we live on dangerous fault lines and that the whole city will look like them after it falls into Puget Sound after the “big one”!

My guess is that the boxy box motif will soon implode.

So what’s the cure for SRS? I see three simple therapies one might employ:

1. Technological: do a Google search for “new architecture in China, India, Europe, US and Africa.” Wait, I just did, and it all looks the same! 

2. Cold Turkey: abstinence from all visual architecture media for up to 12 months.

3. Naturopathic: at the risk of sounding old and boring, maybe stuff like, oh: function, climate, context, materials, light and composition serving as design provocateurs.

There’s no easy way out of SRS. It will take communal strength to ensure that next year’s Washington AIA Awards ceremony won’t slide us into a trance of subliminal stylistic sameness. But it’s worth our collective creativity.

 

* It has been brought to my attention by a coworker who actually studied psychology that I have, in fact, made up this condition.