In this age of over emphasis on subjective approaches to forms of knowledge in the design disciplines Alejandro Zaera Polo’s essay is a refreshing counterpoint. This is not to say that the subjective aspects of both designing and experience of designed things is not important. However, the subjective and experiential dominates contemporary discourse while at the same time denigrating any forms of knowledge that have a hint of objectivity. In architectural design this has led to a lack of interest in form along with a decreasing lack of skill in manipulating physical and spatial form. Polo’s essay makes a clear and simple point – that the basic form of a building largely determines a host of outcomes that range from environmental to political and to social concerns. Although Polo’s focus is on the envelope of the building, this envelope is critical in determining the character or type of basic building form. Polo outlines four types – though he is clear in suggesting that these are not the only ones: spherical (represented by a cube*), vertical or tower block, vertical linear block (or slab block) and flat horizontal (flat slab). While this sounds like yet another reductive formalist categorisation of architecture the precision with which he outlines the implications of each make the socio-political content of these forms very evident. For example, the flat horizontal slab (think airport, mall, warehouse shed, etc.) results in the greatest expanse of roof area and as such present environmental challenges. On the other hand the form is adept at allow for flows of people and objects in a flexible and fluid manner which is critical for the functioning of certain program types. This can be contrasted with the other types which have varying degrees of roof exposure, footprint areas or overall surface area. Interestingly Polo finds possible explanations for the proliferation of certain types (bubbles and blobs) in a mixture of technological, symbolic and security concerns. Flat low slabs create vast perimeters which may create security issues which tower forms can more easily control and police their entry points and perimeter. Blobs (and spheres) contain a positive ratio of interior space versus exterior surface area and thus provide advantages in minimising the use of resources (heating, cooling, and ventilating).
What is critical about Polo’s essay is that he is very attentive a variety of effects and that these are not just about form, shape or morphology, but about the political and social effects of the form choices we make. For example, the undifferentiated facades and disappearance of roof-wall distinction presents problems in terms of what he calls ‘faciality’ or what might have been called in previous decades the ‘symbolic’ aspect or role of facades in communicating their program, use or role in the cityscape. Because the variety of affects exist in many spheres (technical, cultural, constructional, experiential) the choice of the basic form type is not an easy one. What Polo makes us aware of is that that choice is not just about architectural effect, construction or tectonics but that we are also determining more difficult conditions and issues.
What is fascinating and important about this essay is that reminds us that form is significant and not something to be ignored or left to chance. It offers another way of thinking about architecture – or more precisely, it reminds us about forgotten ways of thinking about it – that do not treat the architectural product as merely an outcome of a process, of context or a set of forces. In many cases we can decide the basic form and if we are informed about the political and social implications of form we can take these decisions more carefully and consciously rather than leaving them up to chance, fashion or the computer. Finally, I think that it is important that this essay was written by Polo, founder of Foreign Office Architects, a practice that is known for its experimental, challenging and inventive architecture. There are undoubtedly many others who understand the importance of spatial form but these voices are dismissed as ‘old school thinking’, reactionary points of view, or as the view of traditionalists. Form is there, whether traditional or avant-garde and when we ignore it we deny one of the few things of which we are truly meant to be specialists in.
*The use of the term ‘sphere’ along with the illustration of a cube often confuses students when I present them with this essay. The term sphere refers to a balanced relationship between the dimensions in the x, y & z axis. That is, it is roughly as high as it is wide and long. Cubes, spheres, and anything in between all produce the effects and possess the conditions that Polo describes.
The Politics of the Envelope is published in Volume, Issue 17, March 2008.
Link to essay: here