Having navigated West Bay Doha for some months now, I have become more and more impressed by the towers I have been passing by when doing shopping at City Center, coming home from the Qatar University and returning from Doha City to our home in the Falcon Tower along the Corniche.
At first sight the West Bay towers look like a randomly placed bunch of individuals, begging for my attention. To realize that most towers in the skyline are built in the last 10-15 years, helps me to understand the nature of this development. The Doha towers are branding themselves in a brand new down town.
I will not write a report here on the historic development of Doha, many have done that before me, there are some excellent websites abundant of information and [photo]graphic reports on West Bay. West Bay is known as Al Dafna in Arabic, meaning something like reclaimed land. You might want to check www.catnaps.org by John Lockerbie, a planning consultant who worked in Doha to experience the rapid growth of the metropolis of Doha, to acquire very detailed information on the development of Doha. Instead, I wish to understand the nature of their being seen from the perspective of the towers themselves. What do these towers communicate by their existence, and more specifically by their marketing ?
Perfume bottles and real estate
Visiting the Radwani House in the new 760.000 m2 Msheireb development in the older part of Doha, one detail caught my attention: series of sanitary bottles on a recessed part of the wall of the bathroom in the house of a well-to-do Qatari family, built in the 1920’s, unknowingly foreshadowing the explosive growth to come. These shampoo and perfume bottles are distinguishing themselves from their competitors. In much the same fashion the West Bay towers distinguish themselves from their immediate neighbors, some of them very successfully.
Base, shaft, capital
Such bottles necessarily have similar characteristics as the real estate towers: base, shaft and capital, and a distinguishable shape. The difference is of course that the characteristics of the West Bay towers are operational on the urban scale, not the domestic scale. The shampoo and perfume bottles operate on the scale of the shelves in the supermarket, while the towers operate on the scale of the down town city. The bottles simply seem to have pumped up their volume to become a real estate shaped container. The base of the bottle / tower keeps them from toppling / respectively connects them to the urban context. The shaft holds the substance, whether we are looking at the liquid shampoo or at the leaseable surfaces, while the upper part is the interface with the city navigator, the crown functions as the attracting point for the eye of the beholder. The cap on the bottle is the attraction point where the hands go, and similarly the crown on the tower forms the attraction point where the eyes of the beholder are drawn to.
Simple, often curved lines define the shape of the branded containers, whether a household product or a real estate investment vehicle. Both the bottles and the towers are shaped containers of strange substance. What substance do they really contain? It feels as if the uniqueness of the shape brings about a positive effect on the nature of the substance. Substance seems to improve when the branding of the product [bottle, tower] has been successful. In the end a successful branding of individual towers feeds back on the down town area as a whole. Despite an estimated percentage of 70% initial vacancy, I believe that in the long run West Bay Doha will become a vibrant down town to work and to live in, with substance.
I was – together with Ilona Lénárd – visiting the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy for discussing future art projects in preparation of the the FIFA championship. We were welcomed on the 33th floor in one of the most prominent towers, namely the 40 storey high Al Bidda Tower. The many offices related tot the FIFA 2022 form the solid yet temporary substance for the Al Bidda Tower. Not one of the highest but certainly one of the most striking ones. The sharp edged and fragmented plectrum shaped floor plan of the Al Bidda Tower rises up in a rotating movement. The semi-structural facade is triangulated as to follow the slightly doubly curved torqued shape.
The triangulated facade is of my particular interest since I have designed and built the Liwa Tower in Abu Dhabi using a parametric diagrid system for the load bearing structural facade of the smoothly shaped tower. From the inside of the Al Bidda Tower I could unriddle was how it has been built by the Dutch company BAM / Higgs & Hill. The first thing I noticed were the oversized slanting concrete columns, at least one meter in diameter, and that on the 33th floor! The structural engineers [or was it the architect?] have chosen to have a main structure in concrete, a secondary structure using braced steel beams, and another heavy layer for the glass facade. In comparison, in my design for the Liwa Tower in Abu Dhabi  I managed to synchronize the dimensions of a much more fine-grained diagrid structure with the large triangular steel sandwich facade panels, therewith saving at least half of the costs of the facade structure + skin.
Between the brand and the substance there is the skin. The skin is the interface between city and user, a membrane between open outdoor and enclosed indoor environment. The quality of the materials that are used for the skin in combination with the level of design thinking tells the story of how a real estate brand send its message to its immediate environment, at the one hand towards the city, at the other hand towards the user.
The Al Bidda Tower is just one example out of 150 other towers in West Bay in Doha, which all can be analysed in a similar way with respect to their own branding, substance and interfacing membrane. The message is in the bottle.
The metropolitan citizen adopts a lifestyle that takes advantage of smart robotics to customize their adaptive compact city habitats.
Imagine a 50 m2 room that can adapt to different use. Imagine this 50 m2 space to be completely empty as its initial condition, like a Zen space with a pleasant wooden floor and clean finishings on all surfaces and with generous glass walls. Not a single piece of furniture is there to see. But then, you can customize – via an app on your mobile – this space in a bedroom, a living room, a bathroom, a toilet, a home cinema, your fitness room.
There is only a kitchen / bed / table / bath / toilet when you need one
Imagine, all 50 square meters just for the bedroom. After your own preferences and choices using your pop-up app you can transform it in a matter of seconds in your kitchen, your 50 M2 bathroom, and even in your 50 m2 toilet. Function on demand. More spacious than that it can not get, and that in a mere 50 m2.
Physically this pop-up loft concept can be built in almost in any place where there is enough headroom. the double floor would measure max 80-90 cm, with a possibility to reduce that to 50cm when using foldable legs for kitchen and tables.
The kitchen, the bed, the bath,the toilet, the dining tabel pop up on demand, just by chosing the icon on your app. You may chose to have them all at once, and when there lives more than one person in the room, they may chose to have 2 or more functions operational at the same time.
Full height closets and a huge LED screen slide along the sides, as to store and display clothes, books, and personal items. They take little space and by sliding back and forth they facilitate redefining the use of the space in real time.
In summer 1978 one year before finishing my studies at the TU Delft I wrote a letter to architect Peter Gerssen as to apply for a 3 month internship. He called me back and I came to see him in his modest mansarde roofed house with a free flowing space combined home and office in Kralingen, Rotterdam. I showed him a design for a townhouse in Amsterdam , which I did together with my friend Onno de Vries, of which design he was critical since it looked to him too typical modernist. Then at the end of the interview I picked a handmade 3d model out of my backpack [I biked 15 km to reach his home-office], which he liked instantly. This model was a much bolder statement with its silvery body featuring a vertical black glass volume jutting out of it. I was hired.
Peter Gerssen was flattered that my letter included an very positive appraisal of his revolutionary Fläkt Building  featuring 3 round aluminum cylindrical volumes connected together by a triangular core. It was designed as a showcase of extreme prefabrication and smart integration of sustainable climatic concepts. Peter Gerssen worked as from the early design phase together with MEP consultant Willem Schuringa and mobility expert Ad Luitwieler. The client Fläkt was initially skeptical about the costs of the cylindrical design scheme, they did not think it would fit in their budget. Peter Gerssen revealed to me his secret how he managed to get things done. He had his technical designer Ries Marcus, whom he knew from his period as lead designer in the Rotterdam based office of the renowned architect Hugh Maaskant, draw an isometric 3D model of 3 distinct concrete components only: a central column, a pie-shaped floor element and a load-bearing wall element, and asked for a quote from prefab builders for some hundreds of exactly the same, without showing the building as whole, just the components. This is how he got the price right, don’t tell more than strictly necessary, an ultimate example of analogue lean and mean data exchange.
In his compact home office the drawing tabel where I did my job as his sole trainee, Peter Gerssen was proud to show an artisan work of his wife Carla Maaskant [yes, Hugh Maaskant’s daughter], who tragically died untimely the year before I came in. A large macrame assembly of raw rugs and colored fabric, in the form a large layered three-leafed flower, notably his inspiration for the lay-out of the Fläkt Building.
The lay-out of the floor plan is extremely efficient, short connections from stairs and elevators to offices and between office clusters, a very cool communication scheme. It also shows an early version of open office plans, with the possibility to have private offices. The 3-flight stairs are placed such that the tenants would be tempted to use stairs rather then the elevators, a strategy that now has become mainstream as to enhance people’s mobility and hence their health. The interplay of shafts, sanitary units, elevators, stairs and fire resistant doors on electromagnets is absolutely brilliant. The facade is clad in 6 mm thick bent aluminum plates, is effectively acting as a solar radiation shield, in combination with relatively small windows – yet providing for a generous panoramic view – reducing the incoming heat drastically. The energy performance of the Fläkt Building was unheard of in 1973. Even now it would easily earn its LEED platinum rating.
The Fläkt Building is well on its way to become a modern monument, 6 years to go before it has reached the monumental age of 50, which is the criterium in The Netherlands before a building might be declared a modern monument. The painful side of the story is that the Fläkt Building is no longer in use since years because its location in a rather desolate industrial area is no longer a desired one, meaning that it the building is in real danger of being demolished.
During my internship I got the task to make shop drawings for his new invention: the Stolpwoning. A “stolp” in Dutch is the bell shaped cover to protect food like cheese from flies. His vision was to design a truly prefabricated home, using wooden sandwich elements for floors and walls alike. The geometry of the Stolpwoning basically is a cube cut in half over the diagonal, which results in a hexagonal floor plan. To draw and calculate the trapezoid elements in horizontal plan, featuring 45 degrees chamfer where they connect in the edges of the cube, was a very precise engineering task, which I enjoyed to do and executed almost without failures using a technical calculator. At that time in the late seventies I started experimenting with CAD software on large mainframe workstations, but it was not yet feasible to get a proper positioning of the diagonally cut cube on the horizontal plane, tilted as to form the hexagonal basis of the house, and hence to make proper working drawings. What we actually did was analogue file to factory, design to production avant la lettre. Design and the engineering were the same thing, the details from the materials and the technology how to compose the well insulated sandwich elements directly informed the design process.
Gerssen has delivered hundreds of his Stolpwoningen, 3 of them executed as an assembly of 10 cm steel sandwich panels with high insulation polyethylene foam, for floors and interior / exterior walls, while both interior and exterior finishing had the white coated steel sheet of the sandwichpanels exposed. The Stolpwoning is a most radical and true form of a prefabricated home [not a holiday home] I have ever seen, radically sustainable without any form of nostalgia.
That is why I acknowledge Peter Gerssen as my one and only great teacher.
After finishing my studies I worked with Peter Gerssen for many years, resulting in jointly designed buildings like the Zwolsche Algemeene in Nieuwegein near Utrecht  and BRN Catering in Capelle a/d IJssel near Rotterdam , both examples of innovative use of extreme prefabrication and innovative glass cladding systems. Zwolsche Algemeene featured Europe’s first structural glazing glass facade, for which I travelled to the USA to check out the early applications of this PPG system. On the image the pillow effect of the heat-strengthened production process is clearly visible.
The smaller BRN Catering headquarters featured – among many other innovations – a bespoke frameless open joint breathing glass shield made of in-the-mass-colored grey glass covering both the double height warehouse and the two office floors on top of the storage spaces, and built for a very competitive price. At the time BRN Catering was the most energy efficient building in The Netherlands. BRN Catering was the first [and the last] building where we collaborated as partners in business.
Having assessed our police clearance, diploma’s and marriage certificate by the Dutch authorities, and having these assessed again by the Embassy of Qatar, and having them accepted by Qatar University’s HR department, we got our one way tickets to Doha. Sounds easy but it took us almost three months to get everything done correctly.
We sold our beach house in the Netherlands, sold our car, packed and went for Doha to find a place to call our home the coming year[s]. When we arrived in the middle of the night we were most courteously welcomed by a hospitality service bureau who led us through customs in a most smooth way. Then another hospitality service drove us to the temporary housing they had reserved for us. Being tired and expecting a nice suite, instead we ended up in one of the compounds hired by Qatar University. “Compound” meaning a gated community with joint facilities, sharing almost everything from kitchen to front door, with 3 very Spartan basic suites behind the shared front door, felt like regular staff housing, desolate yet spacious. Not exactly what we expected, so we called it off and asked us to drive to a the Mövenpick Hotel in West Bay instead. From there we moved to the massive Ezdan complex in West Bay containing a more 3000 units and an Olympic sized swimming pool, ca 300 QAR/night. We heard that many staff of Qatar University and other companies actually live their expat lives there. We stayed for 10 days, had many viewing in West Bay and the Pearl, we were determined to find the best option. Finally we hit home with a furnished 1 bedroom apartment in Falcon Tower on Diplomatic Street in West Bay, an absolute premium location for a reasonable price, coincidentally managed by the same Al Mirqab company that manages the first compound we found ourselves dropped into.
In the first two weeks in Doha we managed to go through all process to get the Qatari ID, residence permit, bank account at QNB to do our shopping, the chequebook to pay the rent, the driving license. Most people were surprised that we managed to get all licenses, home and car within the span of two weeks, it turned out to be extremely effective, we spoke to a number of people who said it could take months. Since the job at Qatar University – and therewith the first payment – first starts the 10th of September, we pre-invested a lot of money for one month rent, complete the furnishing of the otherwise furnished apartment and daily living expenses before settling down. Before we could rent the car we used Uber for almost all trips. Uber service is great here, usually 3 minutes before they arrive on your exact location, only 2.50 € for a city ride using the simple UberGo, driving economy cars like Honda City, and max 10 € to bring us to the outskirts of the city, which we had to do quite frequently to get our licenses.
The first thing we had to do is to have a medical examination at the Medical Commission, which is as we found out a state-owned facility at the south end of Doha, adjacent to a not yet developed part of Doha’s rocky desert. Early morning we took off on a 30 minute ride with a driver from Qatar University [they have 20+ Toyota Avalon luxury cars available for staff transportation], expected to be delivered at a modern hospital of some sort as we had seen under way, but it turned out to be a rather nondescript low-rise facility, processing all immigrant expats. We are workers after all, and all workers are treated equal. To be processed one has to know a number of things in advance, which we had to find out ourselves: first, dress according to formal Qatari rules, meaning covering legs and arms completely, and second pay by special credit card. Ilona was not allowed to enter, the from Sri Lanka originating QU driver took us back, Ilona got changed, returned again we bought credit on a temporary card, and went through the blood sample and X-ray tests. Passing the test means becoming eligible for getting a residence permit. All in all it took us a day, and gave us a first-hand experience of how the Qatari community operates.
After medical check we were sent the other day to The Forensic Laboratory to take fingerprints. They took all our fingers, left and right, and as if that is not enough evidence, they copied our hand palms as well. You give them one finger, they take the whole hand. We are definitely in the system now. As we heard later, all personal data are connected to one’s Qatari ID. All information on any expat worker is available to the authorities. I know my ID number by heart now.
Before we went we were told to bring enough portrait photo’s, which we had made in the Netherlands. So we went well prepared to the HR Department at Qatar University to apply for the Qatari ID. However the rules for the formal portrait photo’s had changed recently and to get our Qatari ID they told us that we would need a photo with a clear blue background. They could not tell us where to get those, they suggested one place in a nearby mall, but the driver of Qatar University got confused, and I was able through Google Maps to find one not too far from where we were lost in some residential neighborhood. Luckily the found studio that was specialised in bridal reports, could help us and one hour later we got our portraits with the mandatory clear blue background, by contrast giving more color to one’s skin. The photo’s were accepted, we handed in our passports to HR and we could fetch our residence permits some days later.
Not The Pearl
To rent an apartment and to apply for a driving license one needs the Qatari ID first. We used the days in waiting for our ID’s to contact some property agents through propertyfinder.qa and went to see apartments in the Zig-Zag towers at the Lagoona Mall first. At first sight from a distance rather tempting, at closer inspection the rooms were not sufficiently spacious, great views but no balconies, but the main problem obviously was the quality of maintenance, especially with respect to the cooling. So we continued our search, guided by a young Moroccan broker girl, who showed us a rather nice furnished apartment in Tower 21 at Porto Arabia at The Pearl. But, small balcony, neighboring tower too close, so we continued our search through a number of other agents. After having viewed almost ten other apartments in The Pearl, we almost signed up for an unfurnished one in Tower 3 with a very large balcony.
Falcon Tower !
The very afternoon that we were on our way to signing the contract to a Algerian agent working for the Majestic managers, we spotted browsing propertyfinder.qa for a last check an apartment in West Bay that looked attractive. We made an appointment for viewing directly with the Al Mirqab management that operates the Falcon Tower, and yes, this definitely was the right choice, spacious 1 bedroom with splendid sea view overlooking the whole 7 km long Corniche bay, great balcony, big 25 m pool, cooling sea breezes, and in very good condition. This apartment in the Falcon Tower, perfectly located between the Hilton and the Four Seasons, felt immediately like a home due to its high level of finishing, more modest and intimate dimensions of the entrance hall, corridors, and the apartment itself, much better than most hastily finished apartments in the Pearl towers. Just in time, we have hit home, otherwise we would have lived in the Pearl which feels like an artificial environment yet without an identity of itself, while West Bay has that Metropolitan feeling of living in a vibrant city.
Rules keep changing. Now having acquired the Qatari ID my Dutch driving license is declared no longer valid. I found this out when signing in for a one year leased car. They told me to go Traffic Headquarters, a brand new classical brownstone building at some other outskirts westwards of the fast expanding city of Doha. Not knowing what to expect exactly, we went there hoping to get the license on the spot. Not so, after having paid 90 QAR or so for the intake document, they told me to go one of the private driving schools to do the “test”. The first driving school we went to was a private facility run in chaos probably by Egyptian staff, after strong persistence especially from Ilona’s side I could go through the so-called Signal Test, 20 multiple choice questions on specific Qatari traffic sign that I had never seen before. By calculated guesswork I passed nevertheless without any mistake. So I thought that was it to het the license in the neighboring building of a local traffic department, it was in the Khalifa district near the Aspire Dome. Not so, they gave me an appointment for a Road Test for the 24th of October. But I needed it the next week, so we asked around whether we could speed up, one younger English speaking staff advised us to go to the United Driving School in another district close to the Villagio shopping mall. The regular staff in these rather shabby sheds told us the same: 24th of October, or otherwise talk to the Captain. That we did, and after some more massaging, I could do the Road Test the next morning. I miraculously passed in the automatic geared car, as all cars are here, by driving two times round the corner in a quiet residential neighborhood, I did not even had to start the car, but as was advised on internet sites I took care of adjusting the mirrors, keeping my two hands firmly on the steering wheel and extensively looking into all possible mirrors, left, right and middle. Next day our car, an almost new Honda Civic model 2015, was delivered to our residence with a half full tank.
Under permanent construction
Now having got a feeling of how Qatar keeps going thanks to 90€ expats, predominantly from Sri Lanka, Philippines and India, having the car we are using it intensively to do further shopping at Carrefour in the very well functioning City Center close to us in West Bay, the giant Mall of Qatar 20 km west of West Bay, the IKEA 20 km north-west. All roads between West Bay, Katara, The Pearl and Lusail are heavily under construction, meaning that each day the route can be different. In fact the whole country is under an intense reconstruction, to be continued at least until the Football Games of 2022, and up to the years of harvesting and consolidating after the Games. Google Maps updates only once a month and does not give correct info, instead we use the app Waze which gives much more accurate information based on daily feedback info from its users. Our longest trip so far was 30km westward to the extra large museum collection of Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani almost in the exact middle of the Qatar peninsula, stand-alone in the desert. Non unlikely the now isolated museum lot will be urbanized within a decade. Sheikh Faisal is assumedly the richest member of the ruling Al Thani family. Sheik Faisal owns many large real estate projects in Doha, both lowrise and highrise, and owns a variety of companies in construction, hospitality, trading, transportation, entertainment, education, services and information technology. He is the personification of diversifying the Qatar economy, and in his personal life he is a vigorous collector of almost everything from cars to carpets, art to complete house, from weapons to symbols of a broad scala of religions other than Islam. This is makes his enormous, to a large extent undocumented collection, very special, as explained to us by the new Dutch director Kees Wieringa, who is also a professional classical piano performer, whom we know from his famous recordings of the piano works “Proeven van Stijlkunst” of Jacob van Domselaer, as he gave us the full tour. We have hit home indeed.
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Coming years I will find myself in a challenging new position, while I have accepted a full professorship at the Qatar University in Doha. I intend to give a renewed boost to Hyperbody there at the Qatar University after the inevitable closing down of Hyperbody at TU Delft. At TU Delft one ‘s contract simply expires when you’re 65, independent from whether one heads a successful master design course track or not. It was decided that my chair will not be continued. Then Qatar University has been eager to have me, to assist them in redefining their architectural and engineering curriculum. In general the Gulf Region definitely has a more ambitious forward looking state of mind than the cynical, polarizing scheme of things the West has adopted in the past decades.
On the 5th of May I was invited to lecture at the 2nd Mosque Design & Development Conference in Dubai. My participation was kindly sponsored by the Dutch Creative Industry PIB progam. A small conference but in many ways worth the attendance. It provided for ample insight in the normality and daily use of mosques, deepened by a number of both historical analyses and forward looking concepts for mosque designs. There were a number of presentations that were straightforward critical on how mosque design has been trivialized in recent years, especially in the West. Prof Ali Alraouf evaluated the growing Islamophobia and Mosquephobia in the West, and blamed the mosque designers and builders to have triggered the phobia by adopting utterly cheap and banal imagery for the mosque designs. From the side of the investors a cool proprietary wind has blown into the functioning of mosques, and hence in mosque designs, supposedly reducing them to places for efficient 10 minute prayers and the Friday elevation speech, no longer functioning as the active colorful social hub that it once was.
This down-draining of the social function of the mosque reaches its extreme in the prayer spaces in the shopping malls. A researcher of The American University of Sharjah identified the problem and became interested in how take avoid crossing people flow in the dark backspaces of the shopping malls as to enhance the efficiency, avoid queuing and jamming at the ablutions spaces. But all of that without even considering the design concept, therewith assuming that nothing more could be done than a flow diagram in a black box away from the public. Therefore his research becomes instrumental in institutionalizing the pitiful situation. The mono-cultural segregation of functions that devastated western urban planning and building concepts has obviously done its destructive work the Middle East as well. There is a clear relation between poor downward cycled mosque design and the blind attraction that some of these places have to more traditional interpretations of the faith. Poor backward looking designs by and large go hand in hand with societal narrow-mindedness, and therewith give rise to further segregation and polarization. In this context it is instructive to read Marwa Al Sebouni‘s book The Battle for Home on the relation between poor urban planning and building in Homs in Syria and the heartless fights between the various political factions in recent years, where she finds herself caught in the middle of it. In her view urban segregation accelerated political polarization and eventually destruction.
There was inevitably a strong emphasis by most speakers on sustainability, circular building, energy saving, retrofitting etc. But again without much relation to the design language and syntax itself, while it must be obvious that the very first design thought is the most important to define the possible success of any green building concept. Some presentations rightfully argued for the integration of large surfaces of running water for natural cooling purposes, therewith doing away with the need for air-conditioning, which usually feels either too chilly or not cool enough.
The common opinion at the 2nd Mosque Design & Development conference was that the mosques should become social hubs again, attracting a variety of activities and functions, well integrated in the social fabric, while the design of the mosques should take advantage of the most modern technologies available. A rather nice example of a modern approach to mosque design is the Center for Islamic Studies in Qatar Education City, designed by architect Ali Mangera. That impressive building features dynamic sweeps to define the rocketing minarets and the swirling domed interior spaces includes everything that defines a social hub: café’s, outdoor meeting places, library, place for prayer, place to play around, a park to stroll around. The modern mosque is an open mosque, every aspect of the design is open for design, and open for social interaction. It is a true relief to see such optimistic forward looking approach in built form in the heart of a country, which is in the western world considered as conservative. In reality Qatar is a country of many speeds, both more advanced and more rooted. To feel the manifold of speeds in development makes it a dynamic society, open for innovation and respect for the old at the same time.
According to the conference management team my lecture was considered the most interesting contribution. My examples of built projects based on parametric design – which I explained as the building of relations between people and things – data driven building techniques like parametric design, file to factory processes, design to production, mass customization, robotic building, 3d printing and adaptive environments was generally accepted as the way to go. When asked to design a mosque – as a matter of fact I am currently pitching for one particular one – I would, from the very first conceptual idea, establish dynamic links of social, spatial, climatic and financial parameters to the swarm of constituting building components as to be in dynamic control of the design & development of the mosque, as to be prepared to guarantee the desired performance, both socially, technically and aesthetically.
After having completed the LIWA tower some years ago in Abu Dhabi, and after having been commissioned several urban design studies by project developers like Aldar Properties, I am looking forward to contribute in further design development for building in the Gulf Region. A lot of innovations still have not infiltrated the building industry there yet, but the general mood is one of an open eye to radical new developments. At the same time one should become aware of the severe constraints to innovation by relying on cheap labor too long. Robotic techniques will replace the cheap workforce in due time, while prefabrication – including 3dprinting – will eventually replace the now dominant technique of on site pouring of concrete.
It was a real pleasure to meet like-minded designers and researchers in that fascinating part of the world, which superficially seems to be at odds with the western world. I am convinced that the power of a game changing design proposal can make a substantial difference, as to start constructing and synthesizing a new precious inclusive societal fabric, not only for mosques, but basically for every building project.
kas oosterhuis | written in A380 flight from dubai to amsterdam| 5 may 2017
The Body Chair is shown at Dubai Design Days in Design District D3 from 13-17 March 2017, presented by the Dutch Creative Industry [DCI] in 3 bespoke configurations: BYYU 30 FABRIC, BYYU 60 WOOD and BYYU 60 MONDRIAN, and at the Salone di Mobile from 4-9 April, presented by Masterly at the Palazzo Francesco Turati in the center of Milan.
Some days ago I shared a video of a swarm of thousands of starlings. This shared video quickly has over hundred likes, it sure appeals to people’s expectations of what is beautiful. I added two words:swarm architecture. In other words I linked the image of the swarm to architecture, notably my own.
Now how can a recording of a dynamic swarm possibly link to something that is as static as architecture? [the answer is literally blowing in the wind]. I certainly did not refer to the swarm as a superficial reference only, and it is explicitly not meant as a metaphor. I hate metaphors, my design attitude is based on what it is, not what it looks like.
So what is the swarm in my architecture? It really started 20 years ago when we were designing and executing the Waterpavilion at Neeltje Jans in Zeeland. To actually build the steel structure we found out that describing [scripting] the exact geometric relations between the reference points on the control curves would form the best basis for the communication with the production machines. We realized that CNC production machines do not read drawings but process data instead. So we decided to produce data which were directly used by the algorithms running the machines. It was the birth of deep parametric design to production.
Now we learned how to describe the relations between reference points of the point cloud, we realized that we were actually doing something very similar to what birds do in a flock. The birds follow some simple rules as to form the flock. Yet the birds execute their rules as a player in a running complex adaptive system, similar to being a player in a game. This triggered me to think of architecture as a dynamic system, not only in the design phase where everything is still moldable, but also in its behavior as a built structure. That being noted, I invented the Trans-Ports multimodal pavilion in the years 1999 – 2000. The Trans-ports pavilion is a structure that changes shape and content in real time as to accommodate changing use over time. Keywords that I used from then on: time based architecture, real time behavior, multimodality, interactive architecture. The nodes of the dynamic structure act as in a swarm, they look to their immediate neighbors as to change position and information content.
realtime behavior| trans-ports version 3.0| design kas oosterhuis | 1999
In that same year I was invited to make an interactive installation for the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2000. As proof of concept for multimodality and real time behavior I designed together with Ilona Lénárd the interactive painting titled Handdrawspace, 360 degrees projected on the 3 curved screens around the central arena for the interaction with the public. The public would move between center and periphery of the arena and trigger arrays of sensors informing the algorithms. The algorithms controlled the number of dots, the size of dots, and the background colors.
Everything we have done since, whether interactive installations or built structures, notably the Web of North-Holland, the A2 Cockpit, the Bálna Budapest, the LIWA tower in Abu Dhabi are further steps in the development of that basic concept of the swarm. Without compromise, the logic of the swarm functioned as the very genetic material facilitating our design language.
NB: I have written since quite a number of articles on swarm architecture [google entry: swarm architecture kas oosterhuis].
sketch of the information omniverse | Kas Oosterhuis | 2017
Knowing the Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, zooming out into the macrocosmos, zooming in into the microcosmos, the feeling which it leaves behind is the experience of vast seemingly empty spaces. Empty between the stars and galaxies, empty between the atoms and quarks. At the same time the feeling imposes on us that in effect matter does not exist, it only exists because we are built the way we are built. Meaning that we see and feel matter as matter since our sense organs are evolved as to feel what we feel, and see what we see.
The earth, the cosmos and the nano worlds are seen by our sense organs and the instruments lifeforms like people have built since ages. So this is the extended reality that is created to be seen by our eyes only. Let’s have a look at a smaller creature, for example a bacterium, what does a bacterium actually senses, feels, what does it see without having eyes? One thing is sure, they explore their environment in similar way as we do, while they see different things, they have a different worldview, not per se more restricted, but different.
Let’s apply this methods of empathy to other scales on the bandwidth from macrocosmos to microcosmos. What does galaxy feel, how does it explore its environment? You may already notice that I assume that a galaxy indeed actively explores its environment. For sure it exchanges information with other nearby galaxies, for sure it absorbs information, it processes information and it sends out information in a customised format. Like any vehicle – people, bacteria, cars, atoms – a galaxy processes information.
So all people, bacteria, cars, galaxies, atoms etc are information processing vehicles, with their own particular way of seeing, feeling, sensing, living in their own information bubble, exploring their own worlds within their sensing boundaries, developing their own worldviews. At the same time they are intensively interacting with innumerate other information bubbles. This way of looking at the world, on any imaginable scale, is the basis of swarm theory, which I have embraced in my architectural theory and practice.
Back to the Powers of Ten, I have been wondering for much of my life, to start with my essays in the Dutch magazine Wiederhall in the eighties, whether the seemingly empty space on macroscale somehow could be connected to the vast empty space on microscale. What is particularly difficult for our limited worldview is that we ourselves are caught in our [extended] worldview. We are sort of flatland people, not equipped to see or feel beyond flatland. Yes, we can extend flatland almost endlessly but it will never become spaceland, or any other dimension we would wish to reach out to.
My hunch is that that unreachable spaceland is the realm of information. Information as a primary driving force of what we may label as the omniverse, and of which we see and feel only a section. Very much like plans and sections of a building are mere one-dimensional cut-outs of an otherwise three-dimensional space, a single section can never include the amount of information the three-dimensional model has. Information as a primary driving force I consider as something similar to the concept of Richard Dawkins selfish gene. So I am tempted to develop empathy with the selfish information. Information that can not stand still, but always is on its way the be read, processed and passed on in tweaked form. Information as an executable, as suggested by Stephen Wolfram.
The above speculation means that we are living on a delicate membrane in an information omniverse which bridges both far ends of our extended human vision. Imagine that from our own randomly local, temporal position in the information omniverse our outward vision propagates on a curved flatland surface, as on the surface of a doughnut, climbing up and curving downward towards an imaginary equator. Now imagine the same for our inward looking vision, looking deep into each and every atom, imagine a downward curving surface of the same doughnut, eventually curving up towards its equator. Now connect the upper and lower half of the doughnut.
There we are, making ends meet, trying to live with our limited ability to understand the endless world of information. I have always had the feeling that macrocosmos and microcosmos must be two sides of the same coin. That coin being the for us people unfathomable universe of selfish information. That coin being inflated to become an endlessly scalable doughnut. The crux of this thought experiment is that the two ends will actually merge in the world of information [but not in our flatland view, while one can imagine any life form on any location perpendicular to the surface of that doughnut. Other lifeforms are perfectly possible on other sections, forms of life that we can not see or feel, neither would we be able to understand alien crystallised form of information.
This speculative thought experiments does not give a clue to what life actually is, but it teaches me that life as we know it is only one of many possible crystallised forms of accumulated information, increasing its entropy level by consuming certain crystalline forms into higher organised forms of information. In the same way as we people process food to feed our brains. The second law of thermodynamics goes hand in hand with the unlikely increase in information content. This for sure we experience on an everyday basis when we achieve something, preparing our food, designing our buildings, writing our blogs. We process information and bring it to a higher level of organisation, thus contributing to the increase of entropy of what is left behind.
It would not be overly audacious to consider information processing as the deeper form of life and assume that after a very long period of time all we sense as tangible matter will eventually be converted into an highly organised highly unlikely immaterial form of information. Than indeed what we experience as ourselves in relation to matter is in fact a transitory phase in a giant information processing machine called the information omniverse. Whatever, I like that idea, and it makes me feel perfectly at home in the universe. All we have to do is making ends meet.
My attention was triggered when reading on Facebook a discussion between Archis / Volume critic Arjen Oosterman and Geert Bekaert Prize winner Mark Minkjan. The discussion circled around the value and misleading tendencies of architectural rendering, taking a MVRDV project as an example. Although I sympathize with Arjen Oosterman, who rightfully was blaming Minkjan for an easy twist of populism, my immediate professional reflex was: why not discussing the meaning of the design itself instead? The architectural discourse should in my opinion address the inspirations, intentions and possible implications of the actually proposed design as to be able to discuss in public the impact on the design practice. Therefore, to put the money where the mouth is, here are my observations of the very design itself, interlaced with some explicit opinions.
Real science fiction
Knowing the MVRDV lead designers – Jacob van Rijs en Nathalie de Vries invited me to be their design tutor – I wish to take their design intentions seriously. I am familiar with their original fascinations for bold design concepts, very much encouraged by myself back then in the early nineties, and I have seen how they were subsequently influenced by OMA’s hyperbolic turbo language and lightweight cynism. The Ravel Plaza design stands for something I think is worthwhile reflecting upon, however not for the reasons Mark Minkjan was awarded his prize for.
When looking at the design I am not shocked by the abundance of greenery on the balconies, neither on an assumed absence of balustrades, but I am not so much shocked as well as straightforwardly disagreeing with a design intention that destructs, collapses, erodes and explodes. I simply can not raise empathy with the act of eating away bits and pieces of a World Trade style tower. Instead of developing an original concept for a residential tower with lush balconies, which would be an absolute important thing to do, they chose to erode something they criticize as to define their design goal. Therewith the design intent becomes a built form of critique of something they do not want. But, if one doesn’t not want it, why taking that as a starting point at all? Just to to tell a story? But what story? Looking at the design, I see a resemblance with the crash of the World Trade towers. Why taking a disaster – whether an unconsciously or consciously made design decision – as the inspiration for the visual effect? Having watched many sci-fi movies and having seen the twin towers coming down as a real form of science fiction, I realize that the visual impact of the image of destruction can be so strong that it somehow burns into the designer’s mind. Somehow there is no escape from it, at least not when takes a straightforward tower design as the starting point for the storytelling. My critique on MVRDV’s design is that it confirms a destructive Hollywood driven self-fulfilling prophecy rather than offering an alternative tio it.
Erosion and explosion
As to indicate that the Ravel Plaza design concept is not an isolated incident, I refer to other recent designs featuring similar gnawing characteristics. OMA’s Asian spin-off Ole Scheeren [OS] has designed an evocative MahaNakhon tower in Bangkok, Thailand, indeed evoking the erosion of a once-has-been straightforward tower design. Needless to say that it evokes much more emotion than the simple rectangular tower would have been able to produce, but that is not the point. The point is what sort of emotion Scheeren – using the power of the proposal – has chosen to trigger. He chose to snag modernism, which I consider as a form of violation, meaning that first he needs something he is critical of to violate, and only then be able to then tell his story of erosion and destruction.
The extreme version of erosion is explosion, which is the design story line MVRDV has chosen when designing their Cloud tower in Seoul. An exploded mid section, spitting out the low resolution voxels into all directions, strongly reminiscent of the effect of the violent Ground Zero impact. Although Winy Maas denies that there is such direct relation, it is obvious that the image of violent destruction has captured the designer’s mind, and that he unconsciously can not do otherwise than express the sign of times in this way. My own scheme of things tells me that the design for a skyscraper should come from the internal logic of the design to production process itself, rather than wrapping an otherwise traditional tower with a cosmetic intervention based on lighthearted storytelling. In my worldview a good design will express itself, instead of being an illustration to a story.
Poisonous combination of erosion and voxelisation
What troubles me particularly is the poisonous combination of the erosive approach to design with the aesthetics of voxelisation. Both the designs of MVRDV, OMA, OS and BIG share the same fascination for what is often referred to as pixelation, which is in effect is voxelisation in a very low resolution. Not surprisingly the Why Factory led by Winy Maas asks their students to build towers using white lego blocks. These lego towers are built up using structural voxels. In contrast, my own scheme of things is based on high resolution complex geometry combined with a strong internal structural logic, a well balanced marriage between top-down and bottom-up approach. Now what is popular among OMA and their spin-offs MVRDV, OS, BIG and many more – while these successful offices jointly have been dominatoing the architectural discourse for decades – stands almost opposite to what I stand for. The road I have taken, together with many of my peers of the Transarchitectures movement formed end of nineties by Marcos Novak and Odile Fillion and the participants of the earliest Archilab Conferences, headed by Marie-Ange Brayer, Zeynep Mennan and Frédéric Migayrou, who is now Head of Architecture at the Bartlett in London, is the interlacing of digital technology with architectural theory and practice. It is instrumental to note that these truly new fundamental developments were completely ignored by Rem Koolhaas in his 2014 “Fundamentals” Venice Biennale. His timeline of – in his view – relevant movements in architectural theory ended when he left the AA, that is end of eighties. Everything that happened after that was not included nor respected, neither in the selected “fundamentals” in that particularly retro-active Biennale. my base point of critique that the selected subjects like stairs, walls, ceilings, balconies etc are derivates rather than fundamentals. He intentionally missed the point by completely ignoring the richness and beauty of dynamic adaptive systems and complexity, which fields of research and practice – ONL’s LIWA tower serves as a representative of applied complex adaptive systems cq associative information modeling – are dealing with fundamental issues in architectural theory, understanding and working with the actual state of digital technology.
In conclusion, I consider voxelisation for design concepts on the grand scale of architecture as a deceivingly reductive simplification of building technology, counterproductive to present advancements in architectural theory and practice. The combination of sympathy with destruction and erosion with voxelisation is outright alarming for its uncanny parallels to populism in politics using hyperbolic forms of expression in combination with simplified language.
My notes by page number reading The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly
10 continuous updates
18 ted nelson: hypertext 1984, intertwingularity, transclusion
19 hyperlinks enabled sharing
21 the web merged in physical world
21 anticipate intentions
27 2050: AI in everything
30 cognifying by distributed intelligence
33 AI enlivens inert objects
34 tools first were electrified, now are cognified
38 AI breakthrough unleashed by 1) neural networks 2) big data 3) smart algorithms
48 our human job is to create alien intelligence
50 robots are inevitable
53 cheap robotic production favors local production to cut transportation costs
62 the flow of copies is inevitable
64 from batches to daily to real time
65 nouns become verbs
65 flows, tags, clouds
66 everything yhat can be copied will be free
68 72 immediacy personalization interpretation authenticity accessibility embodiment patronage discoverability
76 as music streams it expands, as design streams it will expand and become abundant
83 the soft will trump the hard, knowledge will rule atoms
89 screening = reading + watching
93 ebook connects readers, authors, characters, ideas, facts, notions and stories
93 books are byproducts of the booking process
102 all linked words and texts form the umiversal book
104 screening nurtures thinking and acting in real time
110 accessibility replaces ownership
111 software eats everything
112 services disencourage ownership
113 alvin toffler: 1980 prosumer, consumer acts as producer
113 product becomes service
115 matching pros with joes
116 crowdspring bid with a design
117 a connected crowd of amateurs can be as good a the average solo professional
124 firms, marketplaces, platforms
125 platforms are factories for services
125 services favor access over ownership
125 the cloud is almost organic healing
127 where does the I end and the cloud start?
128 the cloud is the Backup
133 without ownership one is free to move like the hunter gatherer
144 increased sharing is inevitable
154 decentralised connected dumbs things can become smarter than we think
156 millions of niche markets
156 crowdfunding funds the creative niche markets
160 can a crowd make a car? 150.000 car fanatics designed 3d printed electric car for Local Motors
162 micropayments, electronic voting
164 we share the process not just the end product
164 share not only success but also failure
174 my avatar is managed by Universal You
176 information consumes attention
207 we will record everything, creating a new culture where everyone’s past is recallable (total recall)
215 cellphones saved VR immersion
217 presence in VR is the basis for interactivity
217 interactivity spreads out to the rest of the tech world
223 if something is not interactive it is broken
226 more sensors more intimacy more immersion: technology becomes a second skin
235 your body is your password
236 our interactions will become our password
232 buildings will be reskinned with altermative facades inside VR
232 the city will look different each time you walk through it
230 my quantifiable self
241 a quantifiable-self experiment is n=1
257 information is epandong faster than anything else
259 bits want to duplicate, replicate, be linked
260 david brin: the tranparant society 1999
260 civilising coveillance
262 vanity trumps privacy
264 tera peta exa zetta yotta bytes
265 bits can be arranged into complicated structures just as atoms are arranged into molecules
266 by raising the level of complexity we elevate bits from data to information to knwlowledge
266 bits want to be linked
266 unbundling allows the elements to be rearranged into a new chemistry
268 machine readable information
271 can wikipedia be mapped to political governance
271 radical embrace of the common wealth
273 technium is the modern system of culture and technology
277 the improbable is the new normal
278 mass media make people ready to try something extraordinary
279 because of global connectivity all facts have their antifacts challenging the truth and reality
280 superlatives and extremes are the new normal
279 certainty about anything has decreased
279 requires constant questioning, leaping into scenarios, provisional beliefs, subjective hunches
280 roaming the web is like tapping into our collective unconsiousness like dreams
284 knowledge is expanding exponentionally, questions are expanding exponentionally faster
284 science is a method that chiefly expands our ignorance rather than our knowledge
289 a good question is the seed of innovation
289 questioning is more powerful than answering
296 we can’t live without what we’ve made
297 the beginning is just beginning