Another God Trick in Architecture
Fetishes & Obsessions & Trends, Oh My!
November 7, 2019
“We started by mapping all of the constraints,” Bjarke Ingels begins in describing BIG’s Vancouver House project to the Royal Academy. “Setbacks from the street, setbacks from the bridges… another setback not to cast shadows on the park,” he describes as the twelve-step diagram flashes in the background, chronicling the building’s brief journey from conception to completion.
We’ve seen these kinds of diagram all too many times. The hero-architect begins with a site, the site reveals a set of parameters (usually 3-5) to him/her/they, and the digital play-dough on the screen contorts until a final building form is reached. The hallmark of these ‘build-up diagrams,’ which have been used by countless firms, is simplicity, legibility, succinctness. On first glance, they may seem democratic: easily understood by the layperson who will live with this building in their midst. Across all project types and locations, though, an unwaveringly limited set of parameters are portrayed: building set-backs, daylighting, views, relationship to the street, entry. As designers, we know that these are but a few of the parameters that these firms must have considered. But what does this post-rationalized editing say about how architects narrativize the built-environment?
A notable theme of the build-up diagrams is the position of the viewer. Perched above from the bleachers of Heaven, the viewer sits alongside the architect and watches as he/she/they designs their newest gift to the urban landscape. From up above, people are ants, trees are tiny dots, and the complex social issues of the city are rendered near invisible. The architect performs what Donna Haraway has called a “god trick,” an act that gives us “tempting myths of vision as a route to disembodiment.” This god trick is present in all build-up diagrams, but it also constitutes a broader trend. We are all familiar with the punchy, brightly-colored axonometric diagrams which place buildings in the context of an unidentifiable, utopic city. The presence of human activity in these drawings indicates that the proposed design ‘activates’ the space. While the popularity of the build-up diagram may be dwindling in architecture schools (though it is alive and well in commercial firms), this new ‘activation-diagram’ has taken hold, and is equally dubious.
In the build-up diagram, we learn nothing about the architect’s class, race, gender, income, political orientation, or biases. We are forced to understand the power of the architect not through their personal being, but through the omniscient vision. We understand the building not through experience, but rather detached surveillance.
Feminist writers like Donna Haraway, Joan W. Scott, and Chandra Mohanty have long theorized objective vision as a mechanism of patriarchal power. Go back to your elementary school classroom with me for a moment, and recall learning the scientific method: form a question, write a hypothesis, do research, form a conclusion. Objectivity is critical to this process: you (the 10-year-old scientist) must separate yourself from your object of inquiry (a bottle of Coca-Cola and a mento) in order to produce legitimate, scientific knowledge. A similar argument is implicit in the build-up diagram. The architect must be removed from the object-building and its site to produce a natural, scientific conclusion. Here, proximity means emotional attachment, partial blindness, and loss of the whole, and as Joan W. Scott discusses in her piece “The Evidence of Experience,” there is an obvious gendering of embodied experience at play. Objectivity is typically masculinized and validated, while experience is feminized and invalidated.
This is not to say that architects intend to further patriarchal modes of production when drawing build up diagrams. We are all subject to unconscious copying of style, or as writer and architect Dagmar Richter calls it, “making representations of representations.” And how could we not be? As students of architecture, we are inundated by architectural representations every time we scroll through Instagram, Pinterest, and ISSUU. But we should be aware that emulating someone else’s graphic vocabulary may also mean adopting the exclusionary tactics embedded within it. Some representational trends may innocuously perpetuate new typefaces, line weights, and color palettes, others more perniciously alter our design goals.
The ‘build-up diagram’ is guilty of this. Let’s pick on BIG a little longer, since the firm is a frequent user of this typology. The firm’s animation of Via 57, a residential project along New York City’s West Side Highway, delineates twelve simple design operations. Implicit in these operations are only five parameters: square footage, vehicular access, pedestrian access, daylighting, and views. This diagrammatic sequence exists in a design visualization echo-chamber, reaffirming certain parameters which are continuously represented across the starchitecture scene. It contributes to a broader design discourse that legitimizes a small array of design considerations, and excludes the rest.
Why are the aforementioned parameters the ones that are circulated? One answer may be a desire to keep up with the Jones’. The build-up diagram is a common traupe amongst starchitects, and as such, designers may use build-up diagrams to signify their entry into this starchitecture scene. Perhaps more saliently, though, the parameters represented in these diagrams are also ones that architects are quite comfortable with. They are a-political—who doesn’t like a good view of the Hudson River or a prime parking spot? Naturally, many architects are far less comfortable with the issues of gentrification, global sea-level rise, the continuing subjugation of women to uncompensated domestic work, the conditions of maintenance staff in buildings, the binary gender delineation of bathrooms, etc. As Nishat Awan astutely notes in Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture, “the definition of architecture in terms of object-buildings thus excludes just those aspects of the world that cause architects discomfort.” The object-building gives the architect a controlled system in which to operate, but it is necessarily a limiting construct.
Though the architect may not claim political intention when designing a building, architecture is always politicized. As our urban environment evolves into an ever-denser web of contingencies, architects are continually forced to take a stance on who our buildings are designed for and what kind of experiences they enable. The practice of setting parameters is necessary to the design process. To take it away would be to neutralize the architect’s agency—a dangerous proposition.
What I am arguing for is an active recentering of our visual production, based on what Haraway calls a “radical multiplicity of local knowledges.” As designers, we are trained to think critically about the built environment. This criticality is founded in our perspective on the world and informed by the perspectives of others that we collect along the way. Abandoning the god-trick of heroic urbanism will certainly require a participatory approach to design, but beyond that, it will require architects to honestly claim their biases and promote a broadened dialogue amongst diverse actors.
In the case of the build-up diagram, perhaps we can take architect Henri T. Beall’s notion of “misperformativity” as a revisionary strategy. By misperforming the build-up diagram, we can offer design parameters that lead to the “displacement of assumptions and habits lurking in the serious practices” and reinvigorate this enervated diagram typology. Following this kind of logic, we shouldn’t totally abandon the build-up diagram typology. Our power as designers lies in subversion: if we actively change the input values of the build-up diagram, we can de-center our visual discourse to productive, more inclusive ends.
 Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” In Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 581-582.
 Joan W. Scott,“The Evidence of Experience” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (1991): 773-797.
 Dagmar Richter, “A Practice of One’s Own: The Critical Copy and Translation of Space” in The Architect: Reconstructing Her Practice (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1996): 117.
 Nishat Awan, Tatjana Schneider, and Jeremy Till, Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011): 27-28.
 Haraway, 579.
 Brady Burroughs, Beda Ring, and Henri T. Beall, Architectural Flirtations: A Love Storey, (Stockholm: Arkitektur-och designcentrum, 2016): 40.