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Oppositions and Opportunity

Gordon Gill in conversation with inter·punct

Gordon Gill is one of the world’s foremost experts on performance based architecture. From the worlds tallest buildings to sustainable communities, his work is driven by the philosophy of Form Follows Performance. 

For additional information and to view Gordon’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.

i·p: It seems like a lot of your work tries to expand the kinds of parameters that go into a project – whether that’s contextualism or environmentalism, or sustainability. How do you determine what these inputs are?

GG: We try to absorb as many as parameters as we can into our work. I’m personally very interested in understanding how buildings perform – and so the more parameters that I can layer on that performance, the richer and more precise the project becomes. We’ve tried to question almost every aspect of the building, down to whether or not we even need a building. What we’re finding is that the designs are becoming more interesting to people in many walks of life: insurance companies, utility companies, bankers. I like the approach of engaging different aspects of information to inform the design, because I really think that’s how buildings and cities are ultimately made, whether it’s intentional, designed, or not. I think they get influenced by a lot of these things.

i·p: What happens when a number of parameters come into conflict?

GG: They always do, at some point. There’s always some. I call them “opposing goals.” My thesis in college was called “Oppositions” for that very reason. I think a lot of people use the word “compromise” with negative connotations, because it suggests concessions and impurities – but I don’t see it that way. I would use the word “mediate,” because I think we’re looking for is balance. Just like any well-functioning system, an ecosystem, it finds its perfect balance one way or another, and it finds a way to flourish or exist, under whatever conditions are put upon it. Nature is a great model for that. I think when we find things that appear in conflict, we find ways to balance those equations, so we don’t lose anything. We’re looking for a “ win win” in those scenarios. Let’s take solar gain and views, for example. It would be great to have that view, but if we open that wall up then the solar gain on that wall is going to be murder. So that becomes a design challenge: how do I get the view and cut the solar gain?

I think that is design: you’re constantly mediating time with money, money with program, program with time, expectations with reality, physical environments with abstract environments. It’s a constant balance, and I think the buildings that are more successful are somehow able to perfectly mediate those in some harmonious way. It’s not a hard and fast answer, or a checklist. I think the checklists are kind of death.

i·p: It seems like it results in a very non-linear process, with all of these interconnected problem sets.

GG: Yeah, the process is completely non-linear, especially because those interconnected sets recur – not only is it non-linear, but it’s recurring as well. It requires the input of completely different disciplines. It has sometimes nothing to do with what one might formally think of as architecture. It might be an engineering solution, or it might be a structural solution or it might be an economic solution. Right now we’re talking about design solutions for cities that are modeled through economics. That’s a strange thing for an architect to talk about because we’re not economists, and we don’t pretend to be economists. But truth of the matter is that we are influenced, heavily, by economy. Economic sustainability is one of the measurements that we have to apply.

i·p: I was wondering how you work in typology? I think that its something that for a long time architects stopped thinking about, and they just took, perhaps, some real estate developers working view of this typology, and then the architect would just work within that parameter. But it seems you guys are arguing for the tall building as a typology that has a particular set of advantages, and I think that also the idea of type relates to the economics of things, because that’s sort of one of the dominant determinants in looking at the economics of the city. So, my question is, does the client always give you the building type and you design it? Or do you sometimes go back to the basics and start thinking about, or questioning, typology?

GG: Sometimes we do go back to the basics. Typically, clients are coming with certain parameters that they’re looking for, and all kinds of reasons they want to do a building. From a developer’s standpoint, or from an owner’s, the tall building in particular has a range of demands, and some attractive points depending on where you are in the world. We tend to be in heavily urban conditions. Footprints are small and program is large. So that tends to move things vertically. From a carbon standpoint, our calculations for a vertical stack versus a sprawl stack – the vertical stack is far more efficient. The issue becomes the quality of life. If you’re going to measure the parameters, quality of the environment, for example, the question is, how can you get that quality of the environment into a vertical stack? That’s an area in which I think we challenge things a little bit more – not suggesting that we’ve solved that to any stretch of the imagination, but I think that’s where we see the challenge.

In terms of attacking general typologies of living and working, yes, I think we’re looking at those aspects of design from a planning standpoint, from an architectural, interior design standpoint, mechanical standpoint, and looking at non-traditional means of engaging users in a building. The live aspects of the building may have been imposing doors; maybe the furniture becomes a live aspect of the building, and is able to contribute to an improved quality of life for that user.

Cars have done this. The design of comfort in an automobile has come a long way, from simply just cranking down that window, to everything you have for your seat: your own private ventilation, shades, views. I think you’ve seen cars attack that fifth elevation of the roof, to bring light into the car to improve the quality of the environment for the people in the back seat. It’s very interesting to see.

i·p: Do you think that the automobile industry has a better method for working with multiple parameters, because it’s so interdisciplinary, as opposed to the traditional model of the architect delivering the design to an engineer?

GG: I think so, and that’s something we try to avoid: I call it the “ta-da” effect, where the architect comes down from the mountain with a solution and asks everyone else to adjust his or her thinking towards that solution. I just think its the most benign approach to design you could ever want to pursue. I think the architecture becomes much richer when the input of other professionals becomes part and parcel of the way the building performs. I think that’s true in automobile design. It has a lot to do with the education. I think it’s important, and I think we’re seeing it more and more now, as we’re starting to see the engineering school involved with the art space. That’s what I like about the broader approach of reacting to influences, instead of singularly pursuing a mantra. It’s more fun for me.

i·p: When you’re working with performative issues, do you think that a kind of regional aesthetics, or language results from environmental performance? Or do you also simultaneously work in the aesthetic realm to develop a language that is appropriate to a particular context, or do you think it’s more of a result?

GG: I think there’s no question that the regional influences impact the language of the buildings, and the way that the buildings look. I also think, though, of the technology that’s available to us in the different regions that we work in, now, versus historically. We don’t pursue an aesthetic; you can’t. But, at the end of the day, if we pull up our buildings, and we look at the ones that are performing at very high levels, you can see the consistency behind why they look that way. There’s some basic DNA about them that is consistent, but I wouldn’t say that it’s an aesthetic. I think its more of a language, if that makes any sense. It’s about processing a language more than it is about what the building is actually going to look like, or at least that’s what we strive for.