What About Understanding Contemporary Architecture?

The Shapes of Hardcore Architecture

By N. Frankowski and C. García (WAI)


Modern Architecture was a fashion statement. Coated with an ideology of social impromptu and urban reconstruction, it seems undeniable and remarkable that the dominant gene of the Modern Movement’s DNA was its aesthetics.

Everything, from the “hygienic” appearance of its white villas, to its revolutionary materials—glass, steel and concrete, to its grid-restricted urban plans and its desolated tree-less plazas, was a trend; a stylistic straightjacket fiercely defended through an almost endless list of manifestoes and catalogues that prophesied how the modernist Zeitgeist should be portrayed.

Modernism’s plan was to become alchemistic through fashion; it was trying to transform positivism, rationalism, and Cartesianism into an architectural style, and its aesthetics into a science.


Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier introduced modernism from two opposite directions. While Loos anounced the advent of a modern architecture by emphatically denouncing previous styles, Le Corbusier welcome its arrival by creating five categories which would soon become the modernist's ethos.

In 1908, Loos published Crime and Ornament —a written plead for a halt to the use and production of ornamentation. In it he banned the use of ornament in order to instate the “rational” design of the new century.

A decade and a half later, Le Corbusier published the first catalogue of modernist aesthetics. In the Almanach de l’Architecture moderne; les pilotis, le toit-terrasse, le plan libre, la fenêtre en longueur, and la façade libre became the five official organs of the modernist anatomy.

Even though Loos and Le Corbusier sketched different routes to becoming “modern”, the bottom line was that Modernism was still about style.


In total contrast to the modernist dogma, contemporary architecture defies classification. Despite its unprecedented amount of production—both speculative and materialized—it is still waiting for a screen to project its intentions.

The paradox of contemporary architecture is that even though it doesn’t have a written manifesto—like Loos’s or Le Corbusier’s—it does have a shared visual language; an unclaimed common plot.


In 1992, Peter Eisenman presented a “work in progress” in front of a battalion of architects, urbanists, and critics of intimidating gravitas. The project—a looping tower—was being grafted onto the former Max Reinhardt Schauspielhaus site in Berlin, just in front of Mies’s original unrealized glass tower.(1)

In the discussion after the presentation, Rem Koolhaas –who was amongst the observers—tried to disarm Eisenman’s claims, over a project that the Dutch architect found “extremely beautiful.” Thus he found the looping tower appealing; Koolhaas was not convinced by Eisenman’s explanation of the project.

The final conclusion of the debate was that while the project was still a “work in progress” it should be criticized for its image and not for its architect’s words.


Ten years later Koolhaas presented a building in Beijing —a looping tower. Although in a different context and with a totally unrelated program, this project raised eyebrows because of its striking resemblance to Eisenman’s previous proposal.

In Delirious New York, Koolhaas compared Le Corbusier to a magician who gives his trick away when, inside the black velvet pouch he made the American Skyscraper “disappear” and pulled out his “Cartesian rabbit”: the Horizontal Skyscraper. (2)

With his proposal of the headquarters of the CCTV Koolhaas became an impersonation of his own “delirious magician.” He pulled out of his top hat his own version of the looping skyscraper, this time making disappear the corrugated folds of the facade, and sticking the building in Beijing—far from Berlin and from Mies’s ominous presence.


In 2004 the Office for Metropolitan Architecture claimed in their Universal Modernization Patent that they had “invented” the skyscraper loop. (3) Had they forgotten the fact that Eisenman had proposed a similar shape for a building ten years before? Or was the patent a hoax, ironically outlining the fact that contemporary architecture doesn’t invent, only “shares” shapes?


These two versions of the looping tower—the Max Reindhardt Haus and the CCTV—not only marked a revolution in skyscraper design, but in the dialectics of contemporary architecture.

The reappearance of the looping skyscraper reinforced the idea that a tower could be done as a Moebius strip and, more importantly, that after the abolition of concepts like scale, function, site or program, architecture can assume any shape in any place.

Additionally the seducing glitter of the papier couché, the fame of competitions, the glamour of awards and the virulent speed of websites, blogs and other types of e-fiction have propelled and multiplied the amount of images that are produced and consumed, badly outpacing a discipline as slow as architecture.

The result is a subconscious recognition of architecture’s limited amount of “shapes” and consequently their repetition as a fashion trend.


While in hardcore modernism the aesthetics were strongly defended by sharp statements, in contemporary hardcore architecture the shapes don’t have a stated manifesto, they have become the manifesto itself.

There are no doctrinal texts for contemporary architecture. It simply refuels itself visually by modernism and its multiple reincarnations; it draws inspiration from the unrealized schemes of Le Corbusier, Mies, Alexander Vesnin, El Lissitzky and Ivan Leonidov; it reinterprets the social utopias of Ledoux and Boullé; it recycles strategies aborted decades ago, and invokes schemes from totally contrasting historical, political and economic situations.

In contemporary architecture the shapes are indifferently repeated, from the sanded no man’s land in the mid-east, to the bamboo fields in Asia, to the flat landscapes in the Netherlands, to the sheetrock solid soil of New York.

Modernism’s ultimate goal of conquering the world through abstraction and repetition is finally being achieved, albeit on “steroids.” The buildings are twisted, bent, melted; in fact they’ve become the absolute incarnations of software simulacra and Styrofoam models.


Part of an extensive research, The Shapes of Hardcore Architecture proposes an understanding of contemporary architecture through the creation of a taxonomic catalogue of shapes; an ontology of forms. This study shows how leading contemporary practices find their common language without any official statement to justify any political ideology or aesthetic trend.

The following categories are an assemblage of buildings that, grouped according to their share of coincidental similarities and stripped from their original context, are displayed as “evidence” of the condition of contemporary architecture.

The possible categories which can emanate from a classification based on building shapes are to contemporary architecture what the Lecorbusian “five points” were to Modernism.

Sharing the romantic political ideals of the Russian Constructivist that evoked highly mechanized utopias at the advent of a “communal way of life,” the Horizontal Condensers are towers connected through built-on bridges. These horizontal segments once attached to individual towers not only act as physical links but integrate the otherwise isolated programs throughout collective and communal space. (4)

Blow-Up Fonts is a “trend” of buildings whose shapes emulate letters from the alphabet. The use of these typographic buildings can change according to the spelling of its intentions; referring in some recent examples to the name of the designer office (OMA’s “OMA”) or to the city where the project is proposed (JDS Architects’ “BE”).

In Ziggurat-Polis, Hans Konwiarz’s 1966 proposal for an urban intervention in Hamburg is revisited. The general scheme in this category consists of a common ground plan that in its higher levels get separated into a series of individual ziggurat-shaped towers. As in the other categories, the program can vary, from residential apartments, to hotel rooms, to office space.

Another revival of the Constructivist unbuilt proposals, Tower(s) and Box recalls El Lissitzky provocative photomontage for a Wolkenbügel (Cloud Iron). The proposal that showed a tower crowned at the top by a pronounced cantilever, proved to be basically impossible to build under the technological and economic limitations of its period. Meanwhile, further advances in engineering have launched a series of modifications of the Russian’s original design, allowing the cantilevered box to be reshuffled and redistributed at different heights on the building.

The Loop is named after the shape of a tower which instead of going just up and down in a straight vertical line, gets bent and connected to itself at its top and ground levels, creating a continuous Escherean form or a vertical “Moebius Strip.”

Stacking Boxes as the name suggests, simulate a conglomeration of volumes that are collocated one on top of another and next to each other to create the impression of being a random amalgamation of boxes. Highly popular during the 60’s it was one of the preferred shapes of the Japanese Metabolists. Its climax came with Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67 in Montreal. These last years have seen a resurrection on the use of Stacking Boxes as an architectural strategy due to the high flexibility of its uses, as the boxes can be scaled to host an endless variety of programs, ranging from housing schemes (MVRDV’s Skyvillage) to mixed programs (OMA’s Bryghusprojektek), to exhibition space (SANAA’s New New Museum).


1. Peter Eisenman, “(K)nowhere to fold”, Anywhere, ed. Cynthia Davidson, (Rizolli: New York, 1992), 218-235.

2. Rem Koolhaas, “Europeans: Biuer!; Dalí and Le Corbusier Conquer New York”, Delirious New York, (New York: Monacelli Press, 1978), 253.

3. Rem Koolhaas, “Universal Modernization Patent: Skyscraper Loop(2002)”, Content, (Kölhn: Taschen , 2003), 511.

4. Camilla Gray, “1917-21”, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1962), 219.

What About Oslo?

Conditions Magazine #2: Copy and Interpretation release party in the 0047 Gallery in Oslo

14 October 2009

CONDITIONS MAGAZINE and 0047 invite you to the release of

TIME: Thursday 22 October, from 19:00

PLACE: 0047, Schweigaardsgt 34 D, Oslo

WAI is an intellectual collaborator of Conditions Magazine. The second issue contains the article “The Shapes of Hardcore Architecture”, which consist of an abstract of the upcoming book of the same name.


What About Tokyo?

MONU to be exhibited during the TOKYO DESIGN WEEK

MONU magazine on urbanism will be exhibited during the TOKYO DESIGN WEEK from October 30th to November 3rd 2009 inside the main venue of the 100% DESIGN TOKYO hall. The Magazine Library space will be in the center of the main venue.

WAI is an intellectual collaborator of Monu, appearing in the 6th and 11th issues of the acclaimed critical magazine.


What About Conditions?

WAI has been featured in Conditions Magazine

The second issue of the Scandinavian publication centers its attention on the topic “Interpretation and Copy.” The magazine also includes articles, interviews and projects by: Julien de Smedt, Joana Sá Lima and Anders Melsom, Alexander Maymind, Tor Inge Hjemdal, Alv Skogstad Aamo, Piet Vollaard, Baukuh, Rolf Hughes, Sören Grünert, Karen Crequer, Noa Haim, Brian Cavanaugh, Iwan Thomson, Richard Woditch, Quentin Le Guen-Geffroy, Justin Fowler, Anders Melsom and Pawel Druciarek, and Dahl & Uhre, 70°N.


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