ken shuttleworth and shapiness

A sort of shocking interview with former Foster Partner and make founder in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph conjures up all sorts of questions.  Shuttleworth was the driving force behind a lot of Foster’s “shapier” work (to borrow a phrase that a good friend says was a widely used pejorative during her time at a similarly intense firm), and in the interview he admits (?) that a lot of the firm’s obsession with form had been misdirected.  In particular, St. Mary’s Axe (or, if you prefer, the “gherkin,” the “glass testicle” or worse…) was for him in hindsight an invitation to all manner of environmental issues, as any all glass, round tower be.

The interview encapsulates a debate not only within Foster’s while I was there in the 90s, but a larger question about practice in an age when virtually any form is achievable (economically or not) with what seem to be immensely sophisticated digital production methods.  Just because one can build a complexly curved glass-skinned tower using parametric modeling and digital fabrication methods, should one?  While there are plenty of examples of these technologies producing measurable efficiencies, there are also plenty that seem willful and arbitrary.  Or, in the case of the gherkin, unfortunately and unintentionally metaphorical.

A lot of the work I came into contact with at Foster’s benefitted enormously from the tension between wanting to make singular, evocative forms and wanting to understand the total balance between function and construction.  It’s probably too glib to see the former tendency as overtly rationalist and ultimately a descendant of Beaux-Arts methodology and the latter as a more empirical approach, but there’s almost certainly some truth to it.  The projects I worked on all had moments where months of grinding out programmatic relationships or constructability issues vanished in a flash when a single vision of an immediately graspable, tangible form emerged–sometimes, in fact, from Ken’s desk, even if it wasn’t his project.  The result was often a blend of top-down and bottom-up design, something that I think defines what’s often been erroneously called ‘high tech’ but resonates better with an obscure sixties term, the ‘precisionist strain.’  The idea that logically conceived architecture follows both paths–striking form-making and painstaking detailing, often simultaneously–is an idea that underlies a lot of my own writing, and finds some resonance in the current Chicago work.