The economy of words and buildings

Words abound in architectural production and presentation, yet they have somehow lost their meaning and edge. A call to translate words into designs.

Ribbon-cutting at Norra Tornen / from left: Torleif Falk, Stockholm City Architect; Anna König Jerlmyr, Mayor of Stockholm; Reinier De Graaf, OMA Partner; and Oscar Engelbert CEO of Oscar Properties / photo Dominik Hoehn

The correlation between commercial success and persuasive storytelling must surely be high in architecture — as far as anecdotal evidence can confirm. BIG and OMA are two practices where this statement seemingly holds true.
Both practices inaugurated buildings in Stockholm at the end of last year, and the occasion was an excellent opportunity to probe the economy of words and buildings. BIG’s Bjarke Ingels and OMA’s Reinier de Graaf were present to offer their narrative takes on their respective projects, 79&Park and Norra Tornen.

First of all, some context about the occasion: Norra Tornen is a residential project by OMA located in northern Stockholm. The area, where the neighbourhoods of Vasastan and Hagastaden meet, is subject to strategic urban development. According to the area’s development plan for 2025, the aim is to create ‘a science city for life and health’ around biomedical research and knowledge institutions, such as a new hospital and the well-known Karolinska Institutet. Within this planned growth on Stockholm’s borders, Norra Tornen is set to be Stockholm’s tallest residential project. It consists of twin towers: one 125 metres tall called Innovationen, with 182 residential units; and another 110 metres tall called Helix, with 138 residential units. Innovationen has been completed and was officially inaugurated on November 8, 2018. Construction of Helix is still in progress.

Norra Tornen / photo: Laurian Ghinitoiu, Image Courtesy of Oscar Properties and OMA

BIG’s project is also residential, and is located close to the national city park Gärdet in eastern Stockholm. It is a terraced, 169-unit development. 79&Park is clad in cedar wood and glass, and recalls some of BIG’s well-known residential projects in Copenhagen.

This unusual coming together of OMA and BIG happened at the behest of their client, Oscar Properties — a Swedish real estate company founded and headed by its media-savvy CEO, Oscar Engelbert. The official press release quotes Engelbert to this effect: ‘As far as I know, a city has never previously inaugurated two buildings by two world-famous architects on the same day. Norra Tornen and 79&Park are proof that it is possible to change and improve the cityscape of Stockholm.’ Building landmarks designed by well-known foreign architects — another project by the same developer is led by Herzog & de Meuron — is definitely changing the architectural landscape of Stockholm, a city with few built examples of contemporary international brands.

The two projects themselves are undoubtedly high-quality residential buildings. Norra Tornen boasts impressive, protruding floor-length windows and a surprising number of balconies per apartment for a development in chilly Sweden. 79&Park follows BIG’s successful formula for residential buildings as developed in the VM Houses, the Mountain Dwellings and the 8-House, making the most of its park location with terraces and green views. Although the apartments would appear to be valuable assets, the key question for the assembled architectural crowd seemed to be whether the projects will provide good homes for people, or will they be costly investment objects that might stand empty. The prices for apartments in both projects are, even by Swedish standards, mostly at the upper end of the ‘affordable’ category. Indeed, the price tags edge into the luxury segment, including some top-end penthouses with corresponding prices in many millions of euros.

79&Park / photo: Laurian Ghinitoiu, Image Courtesy of Oscar Properties and BIG

Inaugurations are so-called speech acts, in which words not only convey information but also perform actions. Bjarke Ingels joked accordingly at the opening of 79&Park: ‘When you inaugurate a ship, you smash a bottle of champagne against it.’ Oscar Engelbert, the CEO of Oscar Properties, replied and laughed: ‘I don’t know what you smash here.’ Although no bottles were ritualistically smashed, this exchange is reminiscent of the work of language philosopher J. L. Austin (1962), who coined the term ‘speech acts’ and his well-known example of a performative utterance, namely the naming ceremony of a ship that involves stating ‘I name …’ and smashing bottles. Earlier that day, another ritual had taken place, the symbolic cutting of a red ribbon by Anna König Jerlmyr, the mayor of Stockholm, to inaugurate Norra Tornen. Austin’s philosophy — reductively but efficiently summarized as ‘words do things’ — is worth bringing up here to make the point that words indeed do things in architecture, too. (A volume that I regularly keep returning to is Adrian Forty’s Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture (2000). In it, Forty examines some key modernist architectural terms, their usages and histories, and makes a case for the importance of language in thinking and making architectures.)
Words are critical to making buildings happen. Rules, regulations, notes, memos, conversations with clients and so on shape the direct shape and outcome of buildings. From metaphors that spur architectural creativity and description to building convincing narratives and sleek presentations, words are part and parcel of realizing architectural projects. Architects have to build fictive visions through narratives, drawings and renderings before they can build worlds. This work of imagining and then designing alternative worlds and futures is the stuff of architecture; by a stretch, one could call this designing speech acts, or depending on what’s involved and what’s at stake, simply designing actions.

So architects are responsible for their creations. Of course, architecture is a compromise, and whatever gets built is the result of many hands and, most importantly, capital. In De Graaf’s and Ingels’ presentations on ‘the current state of architecture’ at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm on the same day as the inauguration (watch it here), it became painfully obvious how difficult it is to be a practitioner-cum-theorist versus a practitioner-cum-salesman; it is far easier to own your built projects as the latter. The presentations were organized and sponsored by their developer client (including the food afterwards), and without any doubt this was a PR exercise to promote the buildings as well as the developer within Stockholm. Ingels, as ever the slick salesman, willingly obliged and delivered. In his presentation, he completely and unapologetically owned the building his firm created.

Bjarke Ingels in front of his 79&Park project / photo: Dominik Hoehn

De Graaf, by contrast, was disconcertingly aware of the contradictions between his built projects and his written work, which is acutely critical of architecture as merely the helper of capital. After presenting a critique of ‘real estate as an asset class’ and immediately after positing architecture ‘at the forefront of a new revolution for equality and all kinds of other things’, De Graaf clicked through slides of his luxury Norra Tornen project in about a minute in seemingly lacklustre fashion, with barely any commentary. The irony and distancing effect could not have been any greater.

Before the presentations, in a roundtable discussion with journalists, the use of architectural projects as assets for investment was raised. It was to be expected that the developer would blame ‘high land prices’ and ‘costs’, evading the question of profit. De Graaf identified that there is ‘an economic imperative in place, with almost no identifiable perpetrators’, but pointed to political regulation and policies as a way to end land speculation. To rely on pure architectural form alone to do that work is fantasy. Yet rather bizarrely and perhaps sarcastically, De Graaf argued that his team at OMA used ‘brutalist architecture’ to ‘be gatekeepers at the door, that those people are out, in order to live in the tower you have to love the tower and you buy it to live in’. Yet Bjarke Ingels agreed — although he generally avoided the question — by identifying standardized and monotonous ‘luxury’ architecture as a culprit — as he put it, ‘the more cookie-cutter the offering is, the more it’s likely to be an investment subject’. One can’t help but feel that this is to abdicate responsibility.

By contrast, De Graaf’s KTH presentation could be read as a speech act, and an act of defiance in the sense of devoting almost all of his speaking time to his ideas, and almost none to promoting Norra Tornen. But more needs to be done. This economy of words and buildings matters, as crises-cum-buzzwords such as affordability, urbanization, climate change, etc. scream for action. If successful practices like OMA can’t influence their clients and other decision-makers, who in the world of commercial architecture can? Might this be part of a larger professional conundrum? Namely that the production of designed actions (whatever form or medium they might have to take) is somehow secondary to conventional architectural outputs? Put simply, having built buildings matters most. Then what matters after that are models, drawings and other visual material. For this reason, it is not surprising that De Graaf held and presented a model of Norra Tornen during the official ribbon-cutting ceremony, or that this project was taken on by OMA and De Graaf in the first place.

Reinier de Graaf presenting at KTH Institute of Technology / photo: Dominik Hoehn

Allow just one more example to drive home this point. In his essay ‘Four Walls and a Roof’ from the 2017 book of the same name, De Graaf, discusses what he calls ‘the God Complex’ of the architectural profession — essentially, an architectural tendency to know everything (better) — and its paradox: that non-architects rarely listen to architects, and that those who you would think might listen to them, the clients of architects, are mostly just interested in the economic dimensions of architecture (read: costs). ‘Let’s face it: architects speak to architects, and as far as the rest of the world is concerned, they can remain forever silent. They should simply get on with their job of designing buildings, which, if they are any good, should speak for themselves.’ (De Graaf 2017: 15)

When does architecture speak for itself? The answer seems to be as art in the form of sculptural models. Both Ingels and De Graaf likened their buildings to artistic sculptures in their building tours. Bjarke Ingels described 79&Park in no such uncertain terms: ‘Because of this binary logic of the facade as it’s sawtoothing, one side is always almost entirely solid, or almost entirely wood and the other side is almost entirely glass. As you move around the building, it actually changes character quite a bit. If you’re standing out in the middle of Gärdet … and look back, the facade is almost entirely glass. As you then sort of move around it becomes like 50-50. And then if you go into the alley and stand on the north-east corner and look back you have this sort of incredibly abstract, sculptural presence of an all-wood facade, not a single window to be seen even though they are all there. They are just facing away from you.’
Whilst this was to be expected of Ingels, it was surprising to hear De Graaf voicing similar reservations about his own work. Asked about how De Graaf felt about the interior fit-out of Norra Tornen, he replied: ‘Normally when I present a building that we do for a developer, I present it as a sculpture.’
Elegant architectural sculptures are one thing. However, in this context it is noteworthy to remark that even the contemporary art market is more politicized than the architecture market. It might be regarded as ironic subversion to call a project like Norra Tornen ‘Plattenbau for the rich’, as De Graaf did, but real action (even if short of a ‘revolution’) is surely preferable given the problems we as a society are facing, and were named by De Graaf in this book and the lecture. At the end of the inauguration day, no action was to be expected because if we have learned anything about the ‘current state of (commercial) architecture’, it is that it is firmly in the stronghold of real estate and the art of economics.