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The inevitable box: architecture’s main achievement and its main trauma

One major revolution in architecture is presented each year, and yet the four walls, floor and ceiling of the box are inevitable

Can a body of work be built on the basis of one good idea? If so, what makes such an idea? Is the measure of a good idea how much it renders further ideas unnecessary? When something good is invented, what reason can there be against applying it until something better comes along? Once the ideal paradigm is established, we repeat it. Everything unfolds from there; further choices are self-evident.

There are many ideas; there are few good ideas. Good ideas occur infrequently. Technology, the media and the internet do nothing to change that. Sometimes centuries pass before the next good idea presents itself. Entire generations are forgotten by history because they didn’t have a good idea. 

Malevich5

Malevich5

‘Black Square’ by Kazimir Malevich, 1915

If architecture is both the consequence and the expression of technological breakthroughs, one wonders which technological breakthroughs shape architecture today. The information revolution – the revolution of our time –doesn’t change buildings, it changes the way we use them. Its effects on architecture are limited. In allowing us to be productive regardless of circumstances or location, it even reduces the demand for buildings. We do whatever, wherever, whenever. Anything can happen in any space. By further disengaging buildings from what goes on inside them, the digital (more about that later) makes architecture less important, not more. 

Architecture promotes itself as a creative discipline. In so far as creativity is predicated on the new, on invention, it is different from logic, which is predicated on deduction. Sometimes creativity and logic meet in perfect sync; more often they clash. The love affair between creativity and logic is at best turbulent, of limited importance for the majority of architectural production. Ever since industrial production began, architecture has followed an ethos of repetition and reduction. Creativity occurs in the margins, if at all. 

In the name of creativity, architecture sides with the masterpiece against the cliché, with the unique against the common, with the specific against the generic. Creativity prioritises the exception over the rule and chooses the margins over the mainstream. In doing so, it leaves a vast territory unaddressed. It forever compels architecture to operate against the odds, confronted with an unbridgeable gap between its pretences and its legacy. Given that creativity is about ideas, any architecture dependent on it is inevitably a losing proposition. Not only are there too few ideas to cover the number of projects in progress (the same applies to careers), but creativity also bars architecture from using the ideas of others, denying it access to its collective memory. 

At least one major revolution in architecture is presented each year. The sheer frequency of revolutions negates their validity. Contemporary architecture is like a dog chasing its tail, reinventing itself every decade, every year, every month, every week, with every new internet post. 

The internet gives rise to unprecedented individual presence, but it highlights our similarities more than our differences; the great equaliser, it destroys the notion of the unique. There is no point in trying: whatever is designed, a quick Google search inevitably returns similar projects, algorithmically aligned. What we thought was a first has a following even before it is finished; emulation precedes the original. Dates are studied in the desperate hope of reconstructing a chronology that could allow us to preserve the illusion, but this usually proves to be a precarious effort. Google doesn’t honour masterpieces; it knows only categories, tags, ‘search engine optimisation’. Any hope of being original is instantaneously reduced to a fleeting illusion. Where we thought there was one, there are many. Unwittingly, an old notion in architecture returns: that of style. Our new modernity reinforces old ideas. 

Still, originality remains our driver. To be the first, not the best, is what we aspire to. After the first, there is nothing. (This conveniently ensures that the first is also the best.) In our frantic search for newness, progress becomes the first casualty. Architecture becomes instant; evolution impossible. 

Where do we go from here? 

Ha40gx

Ha40gx

Detail of electronic circuit board. Source: Ognian Setchanov / Alamy

Rationale 

Four walls, a floor and a ceiling: architecture’s ur-space, the room, is inevitably a variation of the same theme. Its most common iteration is based on the use of 90-degree angles between wall and floor, ceiling and wall, and wall and wall.

The 90-degree angle inevitably leads to its mirrored other, a perpendicular parallel. It becomes the only angle, the one compositional act that leaves an identical residue, where the primary product equals its own waste – two for the price of one.

Any space structured on the 90-degree angle triggers a chain reaction in which each step implies the next. In its fractal repetition, any series of such spaces creates a theoretically ideal condition: zero waste of space. Any such (series of) space(s) is called ‘a box’.

The box has existed for some time. He who designs a box will not be the first. Originality and the box are incompatible. 

The box is the natural outcome of all rational parameters combined, the form in which geometry and economy meet in perfect sync. The box doesn’t resist; it complies. It is easy. It suits any use and any size. It offers multiple options to expand in length, height and width. (It can rely on the same options to shrink.) It serves no other intent than its intended purpose. The box is architecture liberated from peripheral considerations – not least the obligation to produce masterpieces. 

The box is where architecture stops being a matter of individual creation. In allowing comprehensible instructions, it invites the participation of others. Further design work can be delegated, remaining decisions can be conveyed over the phone; the only challenge for the architect is the extent to which he can still credibly consider himself the ‘author’. The box renders real the work of architecture once again. No longer reliant on unpredictable bursts of inspiration, it can be productive, meet quotas and be delivered on time and on budget. 

Henry Ford + architecture = the inevitable box. 

Gettyimages 186107328

Gettyimages 186107328

‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, Berlin by Peter Eisenman, 2005. Source: Sean Gallup / Getty

Beauty 

Some boxes are beautiful; many are ugly. Beauty is not something the world can afford to wait for. We must accept the outcome of our systems and declare whatever occurs as a result beautiful. Beauty can exist only as a retroactive concept, a form of surrender to the inevitable. Like good sportsmanship, beauty is in the graceful admission of defeat. 

The box happens both by design and by default. A focus on proportions delayed this inevitable conclusion, at least for a while: slender boxes, boxes based on certain proportional systems, even cubes. But no matter how hard we try to reclaim the default as design, all attempts to appeal to the senses suffer defeat in the face of the box’s provable optimum: the outcome of calculation, not of composition. The best box is a box. 

Computer programs have been developed to design the box with an ever-increasing degree of sophistication: MicroStation, AutoCAD, Rhino, Revit, BIM. Still, the ultimate box is designed in Excel. 

Only the aesthetic of chance survives, yet another speculation. Only one in 12,487 boxes has a hope of being a beautiful box. The box is architecture’s main achievement. It is also its main trauma – both the result of an extreme effort and of no effort whatsoever. It exists with or without architects. All roads lead to the box. 

F8cm5g

F8cm5g

The ‘black box’ flight recorder. Source: ITAR-TASS Photo Agency / Alamy 

Didactics 

Can the box be taught? The box is a stack of typical plans, which consist of (1) a core of vertical transport surrounded by (2) a ring of lettable space, the depth of which is determined by rules regarding access to daylight (which vary from country to country). Sometimes the permissible length of a dead-end corridor also plays a role (this also varies from country to country). The total required floor space divided by the available space per floor gives the total number of floors. The number of floors checked against fire-department regulations may affect the size of the core, which in turn affects the size of the typical floor plan. The box’s proportions are the outcome of these simple equations. To contain building costs, the box must be wrapped in a skin made from the largest possible repetition of standard elements. The structural system? A grid, of course. The logic is the same for offices as it is for residential buildings. Other functions – theatres, libraries, concert halls, museums – because of their introverted nature, only make the box more probable, not less. 

The proper mathematical definition of the box is a ‘rectangular prism’: a six-faced volume with each face set at 90-degree angles to the adjoining ones. Still, when it is referred to as ‘a box’, an important semantic shift occurs. Where the rectangular prism denotes volume and mass as a single entity, the box separates these. The rectangular prism is a finite entity; the box is by definition incomplete: a container, something empty and in need of filling. The box exists only by virtue of what it contains – in a state of anticipation, waiting for content, whatever that may turn out to be. In architectural terms, the box is not a matter of form following function but of form preceding function – a way to capture the largest possible multiplicity of uses. 

Block, slab, tower, hall: architecture has multiple names for the box. But since they all describe the same form, their effect on form is limited. No matter what height, length or width it is, a box is still a box. Neither a focus on a proportional system nor an insistence on typological purity fundamentally changes the box. In obeying the laws of both art and science, the box is ultimately neither.

The box has two mirror axes, three if you count the horizontal. Yet it is most often as an ‘off-balance’ composition that we encounter the box: an eccentric entrance, an off-axis lift core, an asymmetric juxtaposition of two symmetrical boxes. Paradoxically, the emergence of the box as the ultimate typology has coincided with the denial of its most defining feature: symmetry. 

When did the pitched roof stop being a necessity? The dirty secret of modern architecture is that it never did. We stopped using it without any superior solution having presented itself. The omission of the pitched roof is an intentional technological regression, a deliberate forgoing of the best solution in favour of an aesthetic ideal, eschewing function for form – the symbol of a desire for progress instead of progress itself. We choose to endure the inconvenience. After all, architecture and the box have had an inconvenient relation for centuries. The pitched roof helped them avoid seeing eye to eye. It was what stood between architecture and the naked truth, what prevented the box from being a box. In our drift toward the box, the pitched roof was a necessary casualty – no progress without cruelty! With bigger things at stake, the pitched roof had to go. 

Da44yd

Da44yd

In Finland, ‘baby boxes’ are given to expectant mothers by the state. Source: Milla Kontkanen / Alamy

Freedom

The box allows for the simple translation of regulations; that is, it allows itself to be read as such. In so far as regulations exist to encourage demonstrations that they are being followed, the box is the penultimate outcome: the architectural equivalent of the model citizen. Allowing for the easy reconstruction of each design decision that goes into it, the box is the ideal subject for bureaucratic scrutiny. (The fact that most bureaucrats work in one probably helps.) 

Safety is key; the box’s fundamental creativity lies in how it allows for the elimination of risk. In the same way in which the computer systems of a car force drivers to remain within certain limits, the box allows the creativity of designers to be contained. It allows the possibility for co-drivers. Whenever we stray beyond its confines, an invisible second hand simply overrules our decisions. The box is a form that effortlessly surrenders to criteria other than our own. Still, it is a form, and as such, it allows us to retain the notion of the architect as its author. The box is the perfect preemptive strike against our own marginalisation. 

The more prescriptive the functional requirements, the more the box approaches its ideal state. Not in its guise as the office or the industrial warehouse, but as the still more anonymous form of the parking garage is the box at its most profound (closely followed by the budget hotel). In the parking garage – a miracle of typological purity – the box acquires the status of a masterpiece. Here, the design of essentially a storage facility, is void of ego: it serves only to accommodate the maximum number of cars. Space is a paradigmatic feature, but only in the sense that there needs to be as little of it as possible. 

Designing a parking garage is like solving a mathematical equation, one of the few instances where the architect’s brief is unequivocally clear, and where the provision of quality is in perfect tandem with the provision of quantity. It is not his or her peers who pass the verdict, but numbers alone. At last, there is the possibility to be the unequivocal best. (When it comes to the design of a parking garage, any hope to be the first is in vain.) 

Despite their strict functional requirements, parking garages have given rise to a surprising number of typological inventions. There are continuous-ramp ones, split-level ones, flat ones with an external spiral, corkscrew ones. The parking garage is a straitjacket that allows multiple solutions, one that inspires creative freedom precisely because there is none. 

Dbatbday 1

Dbatbday 1

‘Above the Below’ by David Blaine, 2003. Source: James Spector / Wikimedia

Flexibility

The box is flexible. Flexibility admits the possibility of the unexpected. The box can be used for anything; the element of surprise is its main delight. Boxes house bowling alleys, shooting ranges, ice rinks, snow ramps and music concerts requiring earplugs, even if outside there is only deafening silence. Sex happens in boxes. In fact, the best sex happens in boxes in anonymous industrial parks, traceable only via obscure internet sites. With no visible indication on the outside (apart from the unusually large number of expensive cars parked in front), few would suspect. 

In its drive to ultimate flexibility, the box absorbs an ever-larger number of unlikely typologies: the theatre, opera, concert hall; even the ideal football stadium, for example Anfield and Stamford Bridge in the UK, Westfalenstadion in Germany, and more recently Bordeaux Stadium in France. A simple offset of the rectangular pitch – unburdened of the stadium’s outdated Roman heritage: no more arena – the box is a direct extension of the game. It involves audiences in a way no other stadium type does. In doing away with the traditional opposition between spectator and spectacle, the box appeals to players and audience alike, propelling the popularity of football to unprecedented heights. 

Despite its professed open-endedness, the box exposes flexibility as a zero-sum game: a curious form of full circle, in which full tolerance of activities inside implies complete intolerance of anything in the way of their unfolding. In pursuit of the perfect abstract space, the box no longer endures the presence of its enablers. Columns, beams, pipes, ducts, wiring and other structural and mechanical necessities are banished to the exterior, like intestines rejected by the body. That which was to have only the most discreet presence becomes a form of exterior decoration by default. Ornament und Verbrechen: the box concedes to having broken modern architecture’s ground rule. With its perfect, perpendicular skin now riddled by a baroque human-made tangle of services, the box has stopped being a box. The search for flexibility has reached the end. 

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Unadjustednonraw thumb 3abwalterryceusethis

‘Infinity Mirrors’ by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, 2017. Source: Walter Ryce. Originally published in Monterey County Weekly

Modernity

The box is the common manifestation of all modernity’s miracles – the idiot box (television), the boom box (the cassette player), the juke box (the juke box), the black box (both a form of experimental theatre and the data recorder of an aeroplane), the magic box (whatever). What God was to the traditional world, the box is to the modern world. Christians worship God; atheists worship the box. (This is why Christian churches in the form of a box never work.) However, that doesn’t make the box a pagan symbol. Rather, it makes it a symbol of overcoming the need for a god: the most powerful signal that God is indeed dead, replaced by rational perfection. (Is it a coincidence that the box was so emphatically embraced by the Communist world?) 

The box is the perfect antimyth. (Even the box’s best-known myth, Pandora’s box, exists only because Erasmus made an error translating Hesiod’s tale of Pandora, confusing pithoi, a large jar, with pyxis, a box). For defenders of the sacrosanct, the box is a derogatory term. Sanctuaries are often rectangular prisms, but to refer to them as boxes would be disrespectful. The box is appropriate only as a nom de guerre, as a collective name (a container?) for all that is discarded: an object of worship for the disenfranchised. 

The box is without identity. That is usually viewed as something negative. Still, it is precisely in its anonymity that the general appeal of the box resides. ‘Here Rests in Honored Glory, a Soldier, Known but to God’ reads the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery. There is no family, no next of kin to pay their last respects. With no possibility for personal remembering, his memory becomes collective, all-powerful, universal. He who is known but to God belongs to all of us. 

‘Not beauty but profit is architecture’s main driver. Without it, there would be no buildings.’

The box should be photographed only in black and white. This grants even recent boxes an aura of history. In black and white the box approaches its pure state. It is dematerialised: its walls and floors – generally reinforced concrete – can be anything. The difference between concrete and a natural stone – let’s say travertine – becomes indistinguishable. Black-and-white photographs reinforce the box’s general indifference toward the effort invested in it. Any trace of expenditure is erased; the box becomes the product both of money and of a lack of money. There is no more evidence of rich or poor. The classless society is best represented not through socialist red but through a black-and-white box.

The box is without allegiance. It defies loyalties to any political system. (During the Cold War, both sides built their fair share of boxes, often supplied by the same manufacturers.) The box offers no guarantees other than the predictability of its geometry. It is both the most and the least ideological form of architecture, an expression both of vision and of an utter lack thereof. Neither its unconditional embrace nor its outright rejection will affect the box. Like modernity, the box is inevitable. 

The box is the beloved subject of abstract art, the ultimate ‘non-reference’ ‘Untitled’, referred to by Donald Judd only as ‘specific object’, displayed as part of a series, produced in factories, with all traceable hand of the artist removed. It is not a symbol, and it is definitely not Minimalism, because those terms would attribute too much intention. The box just is. Only silence is appropriate. Yet the less we say about the box, the more mythical is the aura it acquires. Honouring the box is inescapable and inevitable; it is our origin and our destiny – all there ever was, all there ever will be. 

Superstudio07

Superstudio07

‘Third City: New York of Brains’ by Superstudio, 1971. Source: Superstudio

Consensus

Few admit to liking the box, yet it is the outcome of all consensual processes. Decisions need to be argued, preferably with hard figures. But the triumph of the quantifiable has coincided with a crisis of numbers. The numerical has become promiscuous, supporting multiple hypotheses at once. Any conclusion can be drawn from any set of figures. Conclusions and figures have gone through a divorce, meeting again only by chance. When they do – if they do – it will most likely be in a box. 

There are good clients and bad clients. Good clients want boxes; bad clients want boxes. There are those who know about building; there are those who don’t. From the ones who do, we expect sympathy; from the ones who don’t, we demand trust. The majority offer neither. 

Le Corbusier’s buildings had voids; Mies’s had space; Kahn’s had light. It is safe to assume that many of architecture’s past triumphs have, at least partially, come about because of the ignorance of its patrons. As soon as those who commission us become educated, they will see through our sophisms. They will find their own ways to optimise buildings, make efficiency gains and reduce expenditure. From then on, buildings will have just floors and walls; the immaterial in architecture will become immaterial. 

Not beauty but profit is architecture’s main driver. They are different things, but the equation of the two is the basis of all client-architect relations. Without it, there would be no buildings. Still, how real is this equation? We think we agree, but where we see abstraction, clients see the absence of complication. Where we see consistency, they see repetition. Where we see minimalism, they see minimal effort. Both sides leave the table with a sense of complete victory. 

‘Sex happens in boxes. In fact, the best sex happens in boxes in anonymous industrial parks, traceable only via obscure internet sites.’

Like any proposition, the box needs to be discussed. But in which terms, and more important, on whose? A language problem ensues. (PR consultants prefer to call it a communication problem.) The services of mediators are called on to help convert economic logic into architectural considerations and vice versa. Occasionally, the help of another architect is sought, directly employed by the client: a special type of architect, accustomed to discerning beauty in the profitable. (The reverse never happens.) He talks at length about the box, even if he is careful never to refer to it as such. Instead, he speaks of a ‘prismatic volume’, a ‘compact mass’, an ‘efficient machine’. It is in language, not drawings, that he and his colleagues find common ground. 

There is no evidence like self-evidence. 

Asymmetry – modernity’s great contribution to architecture – remains only in the relations of power. For every word the client utters, the architect utters at least five; one voice is deep, the other high; one is calm, the other nervous; one operates through reason, the other through association; one demands a suspension of disbelief, the other simply does not believe. Conviction comes with the absence of power; power, in contrast, can be achieved only through the suspension of conviction. Like the ideal box, power is a product of calculation. 

Charisma is a last resort. It helps conceal our lack of power. Like a state of hypnosis, it has the capacity to suspend reality, to put off the inevitable. Therefore, charisma doesn’t prevent the eventual triumph of the box but delays it, hopefully long enough to pass off its inevitable emergence as deliberate. Charisma takes personal credit for the generic; it allows retroactive attribution in the absence of an identifiable author. 

R0125

R0125

‘Villa in Beroun’, Czech Republic, by HŠH architekti, 2005. Source: Ester Havel

Money

Some boxes are cheap; some are expensive. Mies’s Seagram Building was 50 per cent over budget; Trump Tower was 50 per cent under. Combined, these two buildings prove that the box allows for a 100 per cent margin, covering the entire spectrum from full-budget compliance to full-budget defiance. The two extremes do not so much demonstrate the box’s flexibility in the face of money as its ultimate indifference to it.

Architecture, or more precisely real estate, is governed by a simple law: maximising return while minimising cost. Money is not an alien subject to architects, but their exposure to it is partial, exclusively determined by a focus on the second half of the mantra. If knowledge equals power, the architect works on the basis of a 50 per cent handicap, making the fight for his own reward inevitably a losing battle. With an average fee of 5 per cent of construction cost with a 10 per cent profit margin, the overall profit of an architect equals 0.5 per cent of the total construction budget of a building. The average real-estate developer takes home a profit of 10 per cent of that budget. Even the real-estate agent and the bank, with virtually no labour invested in the process, outrank the architect with respective percentages of 3.5 per cent and 2 per cent. We get paid; they get rich. 

Where other professions operate on a basis of maximising financial return while minimising labour, architecture is predicated on the reverse. When it comes to money, architecture has developed its own theory of relativity. Einstein offered the possibility to become younger with time; architecture offers the possibility of becoming poorer by working.

Still, we shouldn’t complain. The box is the product of both much and little work. If we can’t change the reward for our labour, we can always reconsider how much of our labour we reward it with. We do have a choice. 

11 cooling plant, 2009 35x28 300dpi adobergb98

11 cooling plant, 2009 35x28 300dpi adobergb98

‘Cooling Plant (Dubai)’ by Bas Princen, 2009. Source: Bas Princen

History

When did the box start to inspire the search for the box? When did it become (part of) a deliberate ideology? It is hard to construct a genealogy of the box. There is no manifesto; it never needed one (unless you count Cubism). In emphatically standing for something, manifestos are automatically against something else. In its ubiquity, the box has nothing to stand against except itself. A manifesto of the box can be directed only at the futility of any effort to find an alternative: not a manifesto but a declaration of victory. 

Does the box originate from the rectangular plan? ‘Typical Plan is an architecture of the rectangle; any other shape makes it atypical – even the square’, states Koolhaas in S,M,L,XL. The box offers the next evolutionary stage: all shapes predicated on the 90-degree angle qualify. The box is all-encompassing. 

Still, there must be an ideal box somewhere. The search for the ideal box is in fact the reason that the box exists. From a Platonic ideal to Laugier’s enlightened hut, or from Durand’s typology to Viollet-le-Duc’s box diagrams, the box is most celebrated in its abstract form, linked to neither place nor time but applicable to any situation. The box becomes synonymous with architecture’s future. If the traditional city accommodated the box, the ideal city exists because of it. The box becomes the urban planner’s obvious first choice (Haussmann thought in boxes despite the Parisian spiral of arrondissements), applicable to various scales, each one triggering the next: from room to house, from building to city block. The box acts like a contract; it allows objects and spaces to coexist without interfering in the other’s business. Each new addition hardly limits the space of the next; on the contrary, it provides ever-greater legitimacy. The advent of industrialisation meant that mass production, standardisation, modularity and repetition became the reality of architectural production. The more the box can approximate its pure state, the more it becomes an ideological feature. The avant-garde considers industrialised society best represented through its most elemental figures. The box is essential to the syntax of this new language: from Kazimir Malevich’s Architektons to Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus; from Adolf Loos’s Raumplan to Le Corbusier’s Plan Libre. 

And then there was Mies. The evolution of the box ended in 1948 with the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. After Mies, there was no more point in doing a box. The best box had been made. It is unlikely that another burst of inspiration will change this. To paraphrase Baudrillard in Cool Memories, Mies is where the rest of history begins. 

In substituting glass for four of its six faces, Mies’s box (in theory) is no longer a box. It dissolves into a single horizontal space sandwiched between a floor and roof, a momentary framing of a continuous outside. Man is one with the cosmos. Despite its seeming dissolution, what this box does is expand the ideology of the box beyond its confines. In revealing its inside to the outside, it doesn’t so much surrender to the outside as claim the outside as part of its interior. Enjoyed from comfortable conditions inside, the outside becomes domesticated – part of the perfect world of the home. (Who needs privacy in a perfect world?) 

Bh23bk

Bh23bk

‘Apple Store on Fifth Avenue’, NYC, by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, 2006. Source: Patrick Batchelder / Alamy

The box met its end twice. If the first time it did so as an unappreciated success, the second time it did so as an overblown failure: the Pruitt-Igoe estate in St Louis, Missouri, seen by Charles Jencks as the end of modern architecture. After Pruitt-Igoe, there was no more point in doing a box. The worst box had been made. The rest of history must decide whether to give the box another chance. 

Pruitt-Igoe has been demolished; Mies has vanished in a forest of clones. Their legacy is ubiquitous, their original untraceable. They simultaneously exist forever and don’t exist at all. There is a void at the heart of history, from which the best and the worst have gone missing. Without absolute references, disorientation ensues. Denied its memory, architecture opts for nostalgia. History becomes a new source of inspiration. Sampling, mixing, reconfiguring and continuously borrowing from its past, architecture induces a strange form of temporal confusion. History is never over; by constantly recycling it, architecture hopes to avenge its fleeting nature, granting itself eternal life. 

The box goes undercover. In a momentary lapse of confidence, it becomes apologetic, disguising itself as multiple smaller versions of its former self – atomised, fractal editions of its previous boldness. In abandoning the box in favour of many boxes, this plural box doesn’t necessarily address the box’s perceived crisis. In the name of ‘the people’, people’s real needs are being overlooked: a proliferation of corners (one for every user) spells the end of orientation; forests of boxes are turned 45 degrees to balance on a single point; logic is ignored. 

‘The ultimate box is the one we all end up in.’

Gradually, the box’s first life – as the emergence of the ideal form – is being superseded by a second that celebrates the irrelevance of form in the face of numbers. Only the measurable survives – not form but size. Only in its most extreme form can the box still represent an ideological attitude – in giant, infinite boxes such as those of the Continuous Monument and No-Stop City, both of which were conceived half a century ago. Sometimes a more recent creation comes close, such as Atlanta Airport, a wonder of the utilitarian, the perfect diagram of the machine age: a masterpiece, largely despite (or maybe because of) the lack of awareness on the part of those presiding over its creation. 

Lately the box has seen a revival. As a trend in architecture, however, this is misleading. Architecture no longer really proposes the box; it cites it. History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The 20th century’s love affair between ethics and aesthetics has become no more than a marriage of convenience in the 21st. Sobriety, abstraction, simplicity and other Modernist dogmas make their second appearance, but only as folly. From the deconstructed box to the Großform box to the Swiss box, from the glass box to the white plastered box, and from the Minimalist box to the High-Tech box, contemporary architecture is in love with the idea of being in love with the box. 

Boxes cannot be remade; they can only be made over. Boldness can give way only to shame: pitched roofs, add-on porticos, portes-cochères and giant facade paintings all de-emphasise the box’s Platonic and repetitive nature, only to reinforce it. More reverent attempts at reconstruction have also been made, but no matter how much respect is paid, the original box seems definitively out of reach. Our respect seems only to push it away further. Dilapidated modern buildings restored to their original state invariably transition to tributary pastiche. A restored Le Corbusier feels like a Richard Meier, a restored Mies like a John Pawson. We cannot relive history. There are only memories of memories. Postmodernism, with its tongue firmly in cheek, is the only remaining style, forever. Simplicity has lost out to SimplicityTM.

02 jvc rc m90

02 jvc rc m90

JVC RC-M90, manufactured in 1981

The antibox 

The box, perhaps predictably, has provoked a reaction. Ever since Vitra and Bilbao, the benefits of another type of architecture have been discovered: a more extravagant architecture, driven by macroeconomic ambitions, tourism, legacy and city branding. A big global market calls for big thinking. To register on the global radar, one should not propose the norm but the exception. Architecture becomes about unsettling the habitual, a form of disruption – not the box but the antibox. 

The antibox is accompanied by a new philosophical imperative: ‘Think outside the box!’ The box has come to stand between us and freedom. ‘We think out of the box, so you don’t have to live in one’, as developer Limitless avers. Yet at one point it was the box that liberated architecture from outdated straitjackets. Our new visionaries, it seems, lack memory. 

Form followed function. Then, according to Peter Blake, modern architecture didn’t work and form followed fiasco. Now form just follows form. Form operates on the basis of escalation: the more you have of it, the more of it you need. Form breeds form. In our eternal quest to be original, each new form becomes a reaction to the previous one. The explanation of each building resides in the building that preceded it. When the logic of each object is deferred to another, architecture becomes a matter of perpetual second-guessing. 

In partially delegating the production of form to the computer, the antibox has seemingly boosted the production of extravagant shapes beyond any apparent limits. What started as a deliberate meditation on the notion of form in the early antiboxes has turned into a game of chance. Authorship has become relative: with creation now delegated to algorithms, the antibox’s main delight is the surprise it causes to the designers. (The term ‘autopoiesis’ is a dead give-away.) In insisting on the digital as just another source of form, the antibox has blinded itself to its implications, which are not formal at all. In describing the compositional logic of an essentially virtual domain, ‘digital architecture’ represents the overcoming of the physical – the definitive triumph of the metaphysical. Therefore, it is the antithesis of architecture. 

‘Some boxes are beautiful; many are ugly. Beauty is not something the world can afford to wait for.’

Digital architecture ≠ architecture; digital architecture = the digital

The antibox celebrates the death of the 90-degree angle – in fact, of every angle. Only curves remain. Floor, walls and roof smoothly morph into a single continuous surface that only the most complex geometrical equations can capture. In its attempts to achieve a perfect ergonomic architecture – enveloping the body and its movement like a glove – the antibox falls into an age-old trap, only with more sophistication and virtuosity. The antibox is nothing more than form follows function 2.0, that is, a perfectly executed mistake. Strangely, in celebrating complex geometries, the antibox has highlighted the relevance of simple geometries, the essence of which resides not in the perfect accommodation of a single function but in accommodating the greatest degree of uncertainty: the largest possible array of as-yet-unknown functions. 

It is questionable how long the antibox will endure. In time, form will prove to be a finite resource. By further accelerating design production, the antibox will only expedite its inevitable exhaustion. In a context where everything is iconic, ultimately nothing is iconic. Form is set free, only to find itself orphaned. Every exception thrives on the existence of a rule: without a norm, there is no exception. The greatest blow the box could strike against the antibox would be to disappear altogether – without the box, no antibox. The dreamed outcome of the antibox’s ideological programme would equal its own destruction. This, perhaps unexpectedly, opens an exciting prospect for the box. Boxes have moved from rule to exception. The non-iconic has become the new iconic. The box has come full circle. Soon it will appear strikingly exotic again. 

Azoom 003 14 01 e2

Azoom 003 14 01 e2

‘No-Stop City’ by Archizoom Associati, 1969. Source: Frac Centre-Val de Loire Collection / Philippe Magnon

Review 

We all know him; he has spent the better part of his career defying the box. He has won numerous awards doing so. Now he is back in school, as a teacher. The university where he teaches? Most likely American (home to both the most extreme embrace of the box and its most vehement rejection). The discussion is about sloping floors, curved walls, absent corners, exploded roofs. There are no criteria and therefore no conclusions. (The antibox doesn’t solicit debate, only its simulation.) Marks are limited to pass and fail. Everyone passes, but not before being subjected to the ritual agony of a long review. 

He is unhappy: too many of the antiboxes presented still carry the box’s DNA. No amount of morphing, animating or scripting is able to conceal that when one traces the various antiboxes’ origins, they invariably owe their assaulted, deformed state to the box. Exasperated after reviewing the fifth or even the sixth student team, he exclaims, ‘Every form need not begin as a box!’ His students rebel. More out of annoyance than conviction, they start proposing more straightforward, sometimes even deliberately dull boxes. It works. These boxes prove immune to his feedback. They successfully resist the esoteric comments that more intricate projects typically tend to solicit. There is nothing to discuss beyond the initial premise. It’s a box. Take it or leave it.

Fame 

All masters did a box. 

Anyone can do a box. 

Anyone can be a master. 

When everyone is a master, no one is a master.

The machine box 

Located in places no one has ever heard of, their existence is now vital to ours. Shipping containers are the preferred method of construction. In constant danger of overheating, they are generally in a cold climate, preferably near cold water. There is invariably a wind farm next door. These boxes are not for humans but for machines, ‘stuff’. In a recent iteration, the box’s poignancy has become inversely proportional to human presence: good where habitation is temporary (the budget hotel), excellent where it is secondary (the parking garage), outstanding when it is non-existent (the mechanical storage facility). If information constitutes the main revolution of our time, it is in its main spatial component – the data centre or, at another scale, the memory chip – that the box reaches its apotheosis. It would take a surface five times that of the surface of the earth to store the contents of the machine box in the form of a traditional library. Data centres are giant boxes housing other boxes, which in turn house endless rows of interconnected little boxes. The smaller the replica, the fewer the people who understand what goes on inside. The machine box represents a vanishing point. Its fractal nature is mirrored by its security diagram: progressive rings of evacuation formed by the level of security clearance required to enter. The more central your position, the fewer people there are around you. A journey from edge to centre doesn’t offer a progression of intimacy but, instead, an ever-greater alienation. The heart is abandoned as in an emergency fire drill. The interior, although exclusively human made, gives the impression of untarnished nature: a neatly choreographed jungle of wires, cables and ducts, each coded with a different colour to allow reconstruction of their precise role in the system. Somehow this box is both primordial and futuristic, nature and anti-nature. There is beauty for sure – yet one cannot be sure whether this beauty has preceded or will outlive us. 

‘At least one major revolution in architecture is presented each year. The sheer frequency of revolutions negates their validity.’

Is the machine box the outcome of a Nietzschean prediction, an epistemological journey to the epicentre of civilisation, only to find a void? A nihilistic trick? Like a Russian doll, there is only the tautological, fractal reproduction of the container itself, a box in a box in a box. There is no more inhabitation, only intrusion. What parking garages manifested on a more primitive level, the new, humanless boxes manifest in the extreme. Form follows machine. People and their behaviour are unpredictable. The box is better off without them. Man becomes a guest in his own creation, entering only on the condition that he is externalised. Welcome to the box, the box, the box.

Plot 

Imagine a Hollywood film scenario. The protagonist is a retired detective. Much of his career has been dedicated to a single murder case, one of those pesky ones that has defied resolution. It still does. Through a flashback, we witness the police investigation some 30 years earlier. It is slow; the methods used are clumsy; communication among police officers is flawed; important clues are overlooked; and wrong suspects are arrested, only to be released again. Then, in an unexpected twist, it is revealed that the murder has been committed by the main character. Suddenly, his clumsy, seemingly ineffective detours make perfect sense: not failed attempts to resolve a case but strategic moves to prevent its resolution. He doesn’t want to go to prison, but he also doesn’t want to frame anybody else. He is trapped between the immorality of his deed and the moral implications of his guilt. His only option is to continue the search. His freedom depends simultaneously on the display of motivation and the absence of results. 

Does the character in this script resemble the contemporary architect? To what extent is his work a form of denial, an attempt to delay the truth, possibly forever? Like the detective, the architect lives on borrowed time; his promises of progress, of new and improved versions are only a fragile alibi. Barred from destiny, his work becomes a ritual act. He is like the monk rewriting the holy scripture over and over again. Words are changed, votes are taken on which parts ought to be kept, language is used to change the meaning of words, and moral codes are applied to omit parts considered too vulgar. With each reproduction, he finds himself further removed from the original. As more perfect, celebratory (beautiful?) versions are created, the original meaning recedes further and further. His only option is to keep working. 

Gravesignal1894.0

Gravesignal1894.0

‘Grave Signal’ by H Deveau, patented in the US, 26 June 1894. Source: H Deveau

End 

Osaka, Japan. A crucifix is cut into the concrete wall behind the altar. It is backlit in the morning as it faces east. This box has no material content, only space. It cannot be optimised; it can only be experienced. Its emptiness is an invitation for the spiritual to enter. The implied function – a church – is denoted only through material absence. It is manifested through light entering space; it is immaterial. Zen meets Christ. Does it always take an encounter with ‘the other’ to comprehend the nature of things? Who is the other when it comes to the box? Is it in churches, whose very mission it was meant to replace, that the box ultimately finds refuge? 

Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 1975. Black boxes are being stacked in a frame of prefabricated concrete junctions to become an old people’s home. It takes an established critic to identify the symbolic implication: crosses and coffins. The building goes on to acquire global fame. It is meanwhile demolished. 

The ultimate box is the one we all end up in.

References

1 Examples are Anfield and Stamford Bridge in England, Westfalenstadion in Germany, and more recently Bordeaux Stadium in France. 

2 The original Greek word for the box in ‘Pandora’s box’ was pithos, a large jar. Erasmus, in translating Hesiod’s tale of Pandora into Latin, confused pithos with the Greek pyxis, meaning ‘box’. The phrase ‘Pandora’s box’ has endured ever since. 

3 Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery. 

4 Donald Judd, ‘Specific Objects’, in Donald Judd: Early Work, 1955-1968, Thomas Kellein (New York: DAP, 2002).

5 Rem Koolhaas, ‘Typical Plan’, in S,M,L,XL (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1995), 334-353. 

6 Cf. Genesis 3:1. 

7 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois, 1948. 

8 Paraphrase of Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories (London: Verso 1990), 3.  

9 Paraphrase of Baudrillard, Cool Memories, 3.  

10 Limitless, Dubai, http://limitless.com/en-GB/home.aspx 

11 Peter Blake, Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1977). 

This is an excerpt from Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession by Reinier de Graaf, Harvard University Press, September 2017