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Sunday, October 23, 2016

WOW Architecture

WOW is when you look at an example and your first reactions becomes,
"What is it?" In this case it's the robotic bartenders aboard the MS Harmony of the Seas. Those are liquor bottles hanging from the ceiling
by the way.
How do I define "WOW" architecture? It's any structure designed for human occupancy that makes you say, "WOW!", of course. I don't know who coined the concept known today as the "WOW factor." I don't know when, either. Maybe it's been around for years; but Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL) has latched onto it in the advertising of their newer and newer cruise ships, and made the most of it. You might call it the ultimate superlative; and in advertising, perhaps a dangerous move unless the product and the human experience in using it lives up to such a high standard. In RCCL's case, it does. As one who has sailed on two out of three of the company's largest vessels, they tend to make every other cruise ship a rather "ho-hum" experience (the opposite of WOW, I guess). The robotic bartenders (top) aboard RCCL's new Harmony of the Seas (though technically not architecture) are just one example of RCCL's WOW factor. The ship is loaded with such innovative design features.
WOW is not always dependent on size. About the only thing this
houseboat has in common with RCCL's behemoth's is its fresh,
daring disregard for what a houseboat should look like.

I'm not here to talk about maritime architecture, only the WOW factor. RCCL's Oasis Class ships are simply the most convenient examples and the only ones with which I've had any personal contact. In terms of architecture (floating or otherwise) WOW has a fairly short "shelf life" in today's world. At one time, the United States virtually "owned" the WOW factor, even before anyone actually thought up the concept. Today, the WOW factor involving our one-time architectural eye-poppers has pretty much worn thin--St. Louis' Gateway Arch, for example. Today, most such architecture is situated in places like China, the United Arab Emirates, and various European countries. Designing and building WOW architecture takes three elements all coming together at once--daring designers, excess cash, and an optimistic attitude on the part of the people paying the cash so that architects can flamboyantly "strut their stuff." All three of these are conspicuously lacking in the U.S. today.

Ribbon Chapel, Hiroshi Nakamura, Hiroshima, Japan
Andy Cao’s Silk Lantern
Japanese garden shelter.
The WOW concept is not limited simply to appearances, though that is often the major factor, as seen in Hiroshi Nakamura's Ribbon Chapel (above), Hiroshima, Japan. As architects adaptation of new building materials often frees the mind of past preconceptions, allowing the WOW factor to bloom in quite modest projects such as Andy Cao's Silk Lantern Japanese garden shelter (right). And sometimes, quite apart from appearances, the simple concept imbued within the structure is enough to make one say "WOW!" as seen in the Flower Tower (below), in Paris. Completed in 2004 by architect, Christian de Portzamparc, his environmentally friendly structure looks like nothing so much as a carefully manicured boxwood hedge. Yet, overlying it's reinforced concrete skeleton, is a skin-like mass of living, breathing floral plant-life serving to beautify as well as purify--a WOW concept if there ever was one.

Paris' Flower Tower (2004) by architect, Christian de Portzamparc
Although WOW architecture is primarily a sculptural approach to the exterior of the building, never is the WOW as powerful as when it moves to smaller spaces inside, reflecting an overall design unity. Of course, inasmuch as architecture today often stops at the front door, allowing the Interior designer to take over from there, it's hard to know where one profession ends and the other begins. True WOW, however is when the two designers work seamlessly together, or are, in fact, a single individual, an architect equally at home inside his building as on the outside. The Golf House in Costa Esmeralda, Argentina (so called simply because it overlooks a golf course), was designed by Luciano Kruk Architects. The client wanted something that required little maintenance. What he got was a geometric structure with three floors, defined by three pure reinforced concrete boxes with large glass walls (windows don't do them justice). Surface textures reflect the rough lumber used to form the concrete. In some cases, the forms remain, adding a warm touch to the unfinished concrete. Incidentally, Frank Lloyd Wright, as far back as 1937, co-opted the WOW factor in his Fallingwater through the daring use (for its time) of reinforced concrete.

When the interior and exterior blend together
seamlessly, the results are often WOW! 
In the examples below, its likely the architect and the interior designer were not one and the same, but simply fed off one another's creative inspiration. Such an intimate design relationship may actually be better than if they were one person. Each brings to the table different design sensibilities, talents, and knowledge, coupled with a will to compromise as to costs and practical considerations when the need arises. Many architectural design firms today, though they operate from separate departments, employ architects as well as engineers and interior (sometimes called environmental) designers. Some level of WOW is often the end result.

When once stairways were a minor inconvenience, today they
often constitute a major role in creating the WOW factor.
Once upon a time bedrooms were intended mostly for those in an
unconscious state. Waking up in one of these environments might
take a few moments to separate dreams from reality.
(The lower bedroom is underwater.)
Originally I stated that ready cash and a positive attitude were as much a prerequisite for WOW as the work of a daring, talented designer. That's never more the case than when such architecture mounts into the hundreds of millions or billions of (name your favorite currency). Departing from traditional design and engineering practices requires an overcoming of both physics and government rules and regulations (often imposed for very good reasons of health and safety)--Dubai's high-rise fires, for example. Materiel tests have to be conducted when new construction materials become available and/or cost efficient, or when traditional materials are used in an innovative manner. Likewise there is a traditional bias involving the public and public officials against that which is seen as WOW radical. The WOW architect thus has to "sell" the project three times, to the client, to the public, and to those whose job it is to protect the public. In the process, the WOW luster can easily be dulled. That's also why you find so much WOW architecture in countries with authoritarian regimes, which (for better or worse) can more easily cut through these obstacles.

Thomas-Heatherwick, Nanyang Technological University,
Singapore, Indonesia.
Dubai Towers, The Lagoons
in Dubai, UAE, Thompson,
Ventulett, Stainback
Associates, Architects,
57 floors, height, 1800 feet
(550 meters)
Wave skyscraper,
Gold Coast, Australia


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