Excel Architecture

Wry

Recently Esquire’s Scott Raab had a chat with Joshua Prince-Ramus, architecture’s grumpy young man. Raab’s take on Prince-Ramus centers around the obligatory anti-starchitect rant, a standard element of a  architect’s profile in the popular press that manages to work in a recognizable name architect to sell the piece. Prince-Ramus himself isn’t above using this gambit: a photo caption quotes his observation about the Seattle Central Library: “The whole skin of that project was designed to keep that building standing, and to build the building for a low cost. It was great engineering.” The implication is that the innovation was Prince-Ramus’s alone, when in fact the primary designer was starchitect Rem Koolhaas, Prince-Ramus’s boss at OMA when the building was designed. Prince-Ramus ran OMA’s US operations during the project.

Prince-Ramus’s rant against Frank Gehry and other starchitects is familiar and boring, but the younger architect does have a point: “When Calatrava and Gehry die, it’s done–no one’s gonna pay us to [create trademark scribble buildings]. So it’s terrifying for me to look at schools trying to bring out your personal vision.” Looking at the experience of literary studies, it’s unlikely that a new breed of starchitects will replace the current crop. The profession needs its star system too much, and it will overproduce edgy geniuses and therefore dilute the value of the star system as a whole.

“I’ve never seen a client give a shit about my personal vision,” Prince-Ramus sneers. Instead, Prince-Ramus advocates a kind of collaborative rationality. In this talk about designing the Seattle Central Library Prince-Ramus takes great pains to demonstrate the essential rationality behind all the crazy box spaces he creates. For Prince-Ramus, architecture isn’t about an idiosyncratic artistic vision—the architect alone with his sketchpad—but a supremely rational enterprise. Prince-Ramus’s accounts of three projects—the Seattle Library, the Charles Wyly Theater in Dallas, and the Museum Plaza in Louisville—share the same theme: clients are blind to their own processes and cities are irrational accretions of unstable elements. The architect’s team swoops in and feeds everything into an Excel spreadsheet and—voilà!—a building emerges. The genuis’s moment of inspiration has been replaced by the obscure magic of technology. The architect is less Frank Gehry doodling on a scrap of paper than Ludwig Wittgenstein bringing clarity and order to discursive practices.

Prince-Ramus achieves a rational design process by obscuring the hand of the artist. As a result, his designs are both irrational and hyper-rational. The Wyly Theater in Dallas (image above) perfectly reproduces the theatergoer’s voyeuristic experience. The building’s street-level windows and curtains gradually peel back to reveal a void. The striptease is complete when the stage has disappeared all together, with the theater company’s repressed unconscious—the administrative offices—looming heavily above. Prince-Ramus even chortles proudly that the denuded space can host a monster truck exhibition. The Museum Plaza in Louisville, on the other hand, looks like an Excel spreadsheet graph rendered in steel. Two banal towers rise like bar charts from a base consisting of more bar charts rotated so that they look less like what they really are: a literal depiction of data sets. The building is awkward and static, in sharp contrast to OMA’s Seattle Library, which is enlivened by the paralogical genius of Rem Koolhaas.

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