“Architectural memes”: about influence, legacy and hurry in architecture

Architectural memes” was originally posted in Italian last march in our blog.

As a reprint it will be officially published on the Italian architecture webzine “Channelbeta” next week. Here is a preview for our aficionados.

I don’t think it is just my impression.

Global architecture, I mean that of great works and major international firms, that finds space even in non-specialized press, is becoming more and more similar to itself. Perhaps because of the bulk amount of information arriving in real time in our devices always connected to the network, we often are surprised to notice similarities, analogies, contaminations between works designed by architects from different countries, sometimes even from different continents.

Until recently it was commonly believed that, after the end of the Grand Theories and with national identities less and less marked, in fact it was the single architecture firm individualism to emerge, each one committed to grow and boost its brand recognition over competitors:  a Gehry’s building was immediately identifiable, we would have never confused it – citing some other name of the best known – with another one by Jean Nouvel, or Zaha Hadid, or H&DeM, or MVRDV: everyone with their approach, their own personal lexicon. Until recently.

Today it seems that things are getting different: more and more often, works designed by different international architecture firms and conceived for the most remote locations, even thousands of miles away one another, seem to be quite “familiar”.

One cannot deny, for example, that there is more than a similarity between the Amanora Apartment City/Future Towers by MVRDV, in Pune (India), of which the start of the works is announced some week ago, and the World Trade Center (in version 1, but also in the overturned and even more interesting version 2) in Vilnius, Lithuania, designed by the BIG boys in 2008. Both projects are visible in the pictures just below. No doubt about it, they are really similar. I’ll say more: the predecessor is rather motivated by formal choice, even from the theoretical point of view, while the  Future Towers wearily refer to concepts rather vague, if not consumed:

“The Future Towers project introduces lost qualities to mass housing: increased density combined with amenities, public facilities, parks and a mix of inhabitants resulting in a vertical city”

(from the press documentation of the project, ©MVRDV).

Maybe a little bare, for a megastructure of 1.068 housing units, whose size and proportions may be similar – with due respect – to steroidized “Vele di Scampia” in Naples, reassembled elsewhere and rotated in various directions [not to mention the rendering, which seems to be done in two hours …].

MVRDV, Future Towers, 2011. Note the desolate park at the foot of the building, maybe a fast result of a post-production  in Photoshop.

BIG, Vilnius World Trade Center vers. 01 (2007-2008),  from the book “Yes is more”, pp. 152-155, ©2009 BIG A/S

BIG, Vilnius World Trade Center vers. 02 (2008),  from the book “Yes is more”, pp. 156-157, ©2009 BIG A/S

In a more detailed, vis-a-vis comparison of the two projects, we can notice that the proposal by BIG – three/four years earlier than the analogous proposal by MVRDV, as well as published, among the others, in the book-manifesto “Yes Is More” (2009) – looks much better represented, even by means of compositional diagrams and beautiful maquettes at different scales, now established tòpoi of the brand.

We had already tackled this topic in “Bigness” in September 2009  (http://spacelab.it/theblog/2009/09/17/188/ ): in our paper we noted how already in 2008 the winner proposal by the same  MVRDV (joined with the Danish ADEPT firm) for the construction of the Sky Building in Rødovre, municipality of Copenhagen, adopted formal solutions and representation method through diagrams and dry compositional schemes already typical of  BIG. With the strange coincidence that, for a twist of fate, even the practice of Bjarke Ingels was involved in this competition, in fact losing against its own weapons. Furthermore, we underlined how the composition through “derezzed blocks” or “cantilevering tetris voxels” developed by BIG with its “Lego Towers” of 2006 is adopted also by H&DeM for the project “56 Leonard Street” (2008), as well as in part by OMA for the extension of the Municipality Building in Rotterdam (2009) and in another tall building in Manhattan (2008).

BIG, Lego Towers (2006)

MVRDV/ADEPT, Sky Village, Rødovre

H&DeM, 56 Leonard Street, NY

OMA, Mid-rise residential tower, NY

OMA, extension Rotterdam Stadskantoor, NL (2009)

Now, the question is: what is going on?

I mean: is it possible that the rush to get more commissions is, as it often happens, a bad counselor?  Is it justifiable  – talking about the towers of Pune by MVRDV – the sloppiness at certain levels, for such important and impressive projects, moreover presented as strange ashtrays in an anonimous and dead context? (guys, you are always the lights of our profession, make a little more effort ..)

Or, out of being polemic, and referring to the more striking similarities: are we facing perhaps an exchange of courtesies, or more or less plain tributes, more or less conscious testify of respect towards colleagues or competitors? Why “copying” someone else’s project? Back to our example of the  Future Towers: Winy, Nathalie and Jacob are gurus of contemporary architecture, we cannot say that they don’t know how to move autonomously. So what? How do we explain this?

The issue is complex, and needs to be addressed in stages.

Perhaps we could say that these questions, which can be raised by a superficial glance, are ill-posed. The same observations of 2009 on the relations between the works of BIG, OMA and MVRDV could be better investigated. The fundamental question, the key to the reading is, if we think about it,  the transmission of culture: intended as ideas, theories, beliefs, instructions. To which also, why not,  spatial/architectonic/formal languages and solutions belong.

It must be said: times have changed, even compared only to ten years ago. Ideas, theories, beliefs, instructions are transmitted differently today compared to yesterday. And the architectural language evolves, changes faster than before. Let’s try to analyze the reasons.

Until a few years ago the object of attention of architectural criticism and magazines (generally the only media that took care of us)  could be the built work – whose design started years or decades before  – or the theoretical publications/manifestos of architects/authors. Objects in any case poorly related to “today”, to the here and now: yesterday  I saw in the bookshop shelves what perhaps I had written months before; or, I completed/cutted the ribbon for a building which I had been working on for years. Meanwhile I was working on projects that would have seen the light (and the arrows or the laurels of criticism) much later. Yesterday there weren’t yet teasers or sneak-peeks for architectural work in progress. There were no architectural websites, webzines or blogs, where a project or a text could be published in real time and without intermediaries. Today there is. And this changes everything.

It is not a detail: in a few years we witnessed a radical shift in time perspective. Architecture, until a few years ago, was the longest between major arts, in which there was a wide margin – here in Italy, perhaps, even too much – for thought and reflections; and now architecture too has become something enjoyable/shareable in real time. All previous filters were thinned, often nullified. We witness daily to the development of the different stages of a building project of which we are curious, and we can admire or discuss its evolution, even able to observe the construction phases. We can also declare to those we want, or even to the entire world, if we like that project, or we can comment about it. And everybody can do that, not only the so called critics. Someone talked about pornographic voyeurism in the online publication of architecture, and perhaps it is true. It is a sign of the times, I would not be too scandalized: in other words, before today there weren’t technical means to do that.

The same is for theory: today, many theoretical texts and essays, before being published on influent printed books or reviews, were already posted in the blogs of their authors for weeks, and the debate around those ideas perhaps just started with comments below the original post. Even the concept of authority itself is gradually moving from print to the Net, now that the access methods and interfaces become easier to use (let’s think about the e-book readers and iPads). Not today, but in a few months, when someone will seriously begin to spread media contents – and not just mere reprints of  papers in pdf format – to be browsed and manipulated with multi-touch gestures from our iPads, I am afraid that then magazines will be irreplaceable only for the heady scent of paper at the first opening  (thankfully, this isn’t true for books: with them there is still no competition…).

Now, someone may wonder: what the today’s different way of culture and contemporary architecture transmission got to do with the various architectural “clones” that we see – mainly only designed, for now – around the world? It got, really. And they are not clones.

Most of the dominant culture – we are talking also about architectural culture – is not brilliant and original. Ideas, and human thought in general, are formed with the composition/decomposition of information that already existed before us and come sooner or later into our head to be transmitted then again to the others, perhaps with some variation.

Someone has tried successfully to make a similarity with the evolutionary model which explains the way to transmit the genetic inheritance in living organisms and how cultural evolutions occur. If the gene represents the fundamental hereditary unit in living beings, in 1976 Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The selfish gene’ introduces a similar concept to identify the basic unit of transmission and replication of culture, calling it “meme” (actually this concept was already anticipated by William S. Burroughs with the statement “language is a virus”, in the novel “The ticket that exploded” published in 1962). These memes are units of cultural transmission  (or, if you prefer, infection), which may take us or other media – anyway, biological or technological storage support – as vectors.

It is a fascinating theory.  Memes are ideas or parts of ideas – like a language, a cultural tradition, a religion, a melody, an aesthetic value, a theoretical approach, a particular technical, architectonic or formal  solution – which, transmitted from mind to mind and associated with each other, acquire a sort of independent life and show their characteristic ability to spread and replicate. In some cases, it becomes a so-called “infectious repetitiveness” of the meme, assuming the well-known traits of a catchphrase.

It would be more accurate to say, according to the original definition by Dawkins, that a meme – a term that derives from the greek mνήμης (mnimis), “memory” – is “what is imited”. Any information which, when imitated, is affected by changes and then is selected in the evolutionary process, “will produce project” (to use the words of Susan Blackmore), a step forward. I mean: a copy with variation and selection. Thus, compared to the “creationist model” – still widespread in the so-called “creative” environment, – we are poles apart: more often than we think, to look beyond you must go up “on the shoulders of giants”. Isaac Newton had realized it, two centuries before Darwin.

As we can see out there, there are memes with countless imitations attempts, meanwhile other memes, on the other hand, do not raise interest. We could therefore say that there are some strong memes, similar to the dominant characters in the field of genetics, that means with a high capacity of diffusion and replication; and some weak memes, with little or no capacity of diffusion and replication: maybe good ideas in themselves, but not successful. In general, aggressive memes tend to take the place of the weakest (think about the Pritzker 2011 awarded to the refined and quiet Edouardo Souto De Mura…).

The power of replicant information, or, if we prefer, of ideas, or memes – call’em the way you want –  can be potentially devastating: compared to other living species, man is the only creature that sacrifices the advantage of genes (his biological summum bonum) in the name of an idea: think about the idea of unrestrained growth, of progress, capitalism, every form of totalitarism, every idea of career at all costs, every religious belief at the expense of our well-being, even only personal. Thus, a strong meme, which tends to reproduce virally and exponentially through us, manages sometimes  even to overcome our own self-preservation instinct.

To be true, we can say that, even if sometimes they border on ideology, architectural memes are not so dangerous. I would rather say that we live peacefully with these “parasites” in the mind: certainly, someone has suffered for being subjected to the meme of the machine à habiter, but nobody, I think, never died for this thing. At least, I hope so. Someone may have enjoyed memorable moments of suspense in the dark and endless roues intérieures, or actually have lived awkward for a few years, before moving to more comfortable places …

For the reasons we mentioned before, namely the fact that today more than ever any idea can travel from brain to brain, not only by physical means as it always was, but also in real time, through the network and with instantaneous diffusion to a large number of recipients  – as is the case for viruses that spread through air travel from continent to continent – memes now have far greater opportunities to move and take root. And especially in architecture, that, as we have seen, has become a fast form of communication compared to its historical “slowness”. So, it may well happen that clients flying hours from our studio will say that they have seen on ArchDaily or Dezeen – which maybe are representing the “mainstream 2.0” – that building with a particular shape, and will ask us to design for them something like that. Sweeping away, perhaps, more docile memes that we wanted to inoculate them with our proposal.

Obviously, there are around some architectural solutions that work better than others overall, at least in the minds of designers, or commissioners, or competitions jury members. Stronger memes than competitors, formal memes supported by equally strong theoretical memes in the struggle for hegemony until they are supplanted by other memes. And so on.

Therefore.

In defence of almost embarassing similarities of some projects, such as those mentioned above of  OMA, H&DeM, MVRDV with the “archetypes” of BIG (but we could mention more similarities for other projects), it is simplistic to think of facing trivial emulation phenomena, or worse plagiarism: we might rather say that in recent years we witnessed a process of infectious repetition, for example of the “derezzed”/”cantilevering tetris blocks” meme, or the meme of the “tree extruded composition” as the one of the Future Towers/WTC. Our heroes have nothing to do with it: against their will, they were used as carriers, or vectors, by architectural dominant memes that have crept, in a viral and virulent way, into the terminals (and minds) of above suspicion project managers, with the results that we know.

But there is more.

In the examples we have mentioned, and certainly we have not chosen randomly, contagion has occurred even more quickly, perhaps because in a completely automatic and unconscious way, for a more decisive reason.  All the firms – except H&DeM, anyway and somehow suffering from this infection – have a common matrix, a common denominator. That is, in fact, the source of most of the epidemics of architectural memes we are seeing at the time of fast-architecture. This is perhaps the divide after which nothing was, really, the same.

Let’s talk about Rem Koolhaas/OMA, the design studio that has had the largest number of successful spin-offs in the history of architecture of all time. We had been trying to complete this map of links for months, but Paul Makovsky on Metropolis spared us the effort with the following, amazing infographics  (font Metropolis Magazine: http://metropolismag.com/story/20110117/baby-rems )

(“Baby Rems” – courtesy and ©Metropolis Jan 2011; thanks to Conrad Newel for reporting)

Koolhaas/OMA represents, for better or for worse, the most impressive incubator of architectural culture in recent decades, able to inoculate directly or indirectly in his staff an encyclopedic amount of information, approaches, working methods (are they memes?) now widely spread throughout the world, as well as his own merit, even by his heirs/heiresses. It is interesting to note how many Rem’s former employees or apprentices met in his studio, and later formed a human and professional autonomous fellowship (as it happened almost just a century ago in the Peter Behrens office: we remember that the Modern started, basically, from there). Many of them are married or live together as a stable couple. Certainly some of them in particular – as Zaha Hadid or MVRDV, belonging to the  “first generation” of professional sons of Koolhaas, or Jeffrey Inaba or Bjarke Ingels/BIG, of the second generation – have represented and still represent out-and-out memetic research laboratories, where theories, ideas and architectures are produced at full steam, different but similar at the same time, ‘cause all with a single foundational socket at their base.  More or less successful experiments, authoritative mutations by equally authoritative sources, those experiments are exploding, in fact, on the front-pages of the major international sites and magazines, and begin to decisively affect the skylines of our cities around the world.

Now we could say that we are seeing a more intense manifestation of “infectious repetitiveness” – as already said, helped by the web and by real-time multimedia communications – where there are special cultural relations between the infected, as could be that membership of an established network  (same educational background, same membership – past or present – with specific working groups). Moreover. “Same background” and “global network” are two factors that, together, create synergies unthinkable until now.  To complicate matters further, is the fact that head-hunters of world’s largest architectural firms are paid to seduce and attract the best employees of the competitors, with concerning an obvious cultural assets transfer between competitors. In my opinion, this factor can produce even greater enrichment, in other words a further opportunity for cross-pollinations

Needless to say, that the best results  – namely, evolution – occur when this repetitiveness leads to some mutations of the original strain, with the creation of additional, brand-new successful memes. Also for this reason, closing the example, we see similarities of approach  – but also very significant mutations  – in the followers of OMA/Koolhaas of first and second generation.

Conrad Newel, the author of the blog “Notes on becoming a famous architect”, jokingly higly recommends to all young architects who want to pursue a life of success to look for every way to join the staff of Koolhaas: once inside, to get engaged with a colleague, and then open their own office. It seems to bring good luck.

In conclusion.

Are we perhaps facing the exact opposite of the “trivialization” of architecture, namely, the extreme triumphant evolution of brand-individualism, that reproduces itself and spreads virally in its followers, or sub-brands, or spin-offs, almost like a kind of mutant reproductive automatism? Apparently, yes.

What we see is that, occasionally, inside the game of subsequent variations and mutations, also thanks to the compulsive communication that characterizes our times, similar characters surface among apparently different proposals, all, however, debtors to some extent with respect to a common root.

I would like to close by quoting the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own”.

______________________

Post-scriptum

P.S. 1) This paper was prompted by reading an essay (in Italian) entitled “Evoluzione” published by Paolo Bettini in his “lessons”: http://www.unich.it/progettistisidiventa/LEZIONI/Evoluzione.htm

I think that Bettini was the first one who talked about  “architectural memes” in Italy. Apart from his and my text, I am not aware there are in Italian other writings on the subject, at least as shown by the major search engines. In other languages there are many interesting scientific papers on memetic “protoscience”, a fresh topic still to be deepened. There was also some attempt to approach this topic in architecture, but  – for my personal aversion – I don’t recommend the papers (in English) by Nikos Salingaros and his followers: although they also speak about “architectural memes”, they do it with a sad torsion in an anti-modernist key. I am a relativist, they probably have very good reasons, but I would not share them: who wants, can deepen this approach at his own risk. Also because, as a good lover of tradition, for consistency Salingaros should travel in a carriage, rather than – as urban legends telling – in a beautiful Audi A8 .

 

P.S. 2) Here is a interesting talk of the philosopher Dan Dennett, which, starting with the story of an ant, shows the existence of memes and their power as viral ideas diffusers:

 

P.S. 3) Since I often get bored, I did not deliberately penetrate the controversies around the so-called “iconic”architecture and its supposed “drift” (a theme which has already been treated in our note about Marc Augé some time ago: http://spacelab.it/imho/2010/02/15/starchitects/ ): I am simply trying to understand why some formal solutions, in the best cases also supported by interesting thoughts on the relation of those forms with the context, have today more success than other forms on the market (yes, market) of international architecture. And, forgive me, if I have some doubts, it is oviously because – apart from Bettini – nobody treated the topic in a convincing way…

 

P.S. 4) We are obviously talking from the inside of the ivory tower where we architects love to confront between us: if it really is a spread of memes, this “infection” is no longer limited to the narrow circle of the club. I would be much happier if the the pandemic of buildings with the worm of good architectural ideas affected a greater part of the built landscape. If only we had around some Koolhaas, or H&DeM, or Zumthor copycats… If we look around us, unfortunately it is not so: apparently the “meme of mediocrity” is much more virulent than we had hoped.

 

P.S. 5) Maybe they have not copied from anyone, or maybe Luxigon is getting us too well, but with the greatest respect the park of the Future Towers of MVRDV cries out for revenge (to stay in theme, let’s hope it is just a “weak meme” …).

Luca Silenzi, March 2011

www.spacelab.it

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6 Comments

  1. Jenny

    Thank you!
    The similarity of the koolhaas disciples + the role of web2.0 has been something thats been floating around in my head for quite a while.
    Thank you for connecting the dots so eloquently 😀

    I guess archi should strive to be in the “spirit of the age”, but to this extent. Is that really for the best?

  2. Jp

    You’re right, it is not just your impression.

    Very eloquent and coherent interpretation of such a common phenomena.

    Thanks!!

  3. Pingback: “Architectural memes”: about influence, legacy and hurry in architecture | Lazy Review with FIRMAN IRMANSYAH

  4. Pingback: "Know your [archi-]meme": Luca Silenzi featured on Domus #956 | Spacelab Architects

  5. Charles de Cloitre

    this is very similar to a research of wai architecture think tank:

    http://waithinktank.com/what-about-the-shapes-of-hardcore-architecture/

    http://waiarchitecture.blogspot.com/2009/10/what-about-understanding-contemporary.html

    published in also in conditions magazine is their second issue

  6. Congratulation to the fresh ideas!

    I´ve begun to be aware of the concept of memes couple years ago when accomplishing my dissertation thesis.
    I have been interested in this perspective at the field of “product milieu” – of design, which is extremely complex to trace and classify, especially concerning about sustainability.
    I am keen to follow your research in furture.

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