Starchitecture

from a top comment on HN (funnily enough about a building right in the heart of the insurance world in London):

A developer hires an international ‘starchitect’ like Viñoly to design them an office block because the architects reputation for design helps them to get away with a larger building on the site and therefore get more net lettable area for their investment in land.

I don’t know anyone who works for Vinoly, I’ve no idea what it’s like to work for him, but I know other people who have worked in similar ‘gesture architecture’ practices and this is how it usually plays out:

The big boss will do a nice sketch of how he thinks a walkie talkie shaped skyscraper (or whatever shape is in fashion in the office) will fit on the site and then hand it off to a more junior member of staff to solve all the real problems. Meanwhile, he will have to go back to the international lecture/meet/greet circuit that pulls in the jobs and maintains their reputation for world class architecture.

The project team will then usually have a very tight deadline to produce the initial design, probably mostly drawn up by a team of recent architecture graduates who would be pretty low paid[1], and who will almost always end up working very long hours and weekends unpaid overtime to meet the deadline. Where the lead architectural practice is not based in the UK there will also be a local architect who will advise on local regulations, prepare the submissions for planning permission and generally deal with other regulatory authorities.

There will also be a large consultant team on a project of this scale. Probably consisting of two teams of civil engineers; one for superstructure and one for substructure. A geotechnical expert for the foundation design. A whole spread of HVAC engineers, probably separate mechanical, electrical, drainage and ventilation specialists. A facade engineer who specialises in problems specifically to do with the design of the glass cladding system. A fire engineer to design the fire escape strategy and help negotiate the fire fighting strategy with the local fire brigade. A vertical circulation engineer to design the lift and escalator strategy. A bomb blast engineer to model the effects of various bomb attack scenarios on the cladding and structure. A security consultant to advise on how defendable the building is and to design the cctv, active tramp deterrent systems 😦 etc. Finally a quantity surveyor will advise on how much this will all cost.

All of these people will have been consulted briefly, probably mostly by video conference, across a couple of time zones, before the planning permission submission[2]. All their requirements have to be juggled between the different disciplines by the architect. As an architect who has done services coordination on skyscrapers and international airports, I can tell you it’s not easy. One of the most frustrating things is that engineers from different disciplines don’t talk to each other, even if they are working for the same firm. On top of this, the time allowed to prepare the planning submission will be a few months at most, and a lot of the effort will be spent on optimising the design and more importantly the presentation strategy to get through the planning permission process.

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