According to Aristotle’s either-or Logic (A=A; A≠B), we can say that there are two kinds of buildings in the world: those that reach a conclusion or an end, and those that open up new possibilities or a beginning. This is an important distinction when evaluating any work of architecture, because it establishes the criteria by which we can judge a building’s failure or success.

An example of the latter type of building would be Thom Mayne’s recently completed Giant Corporate Campus in Shanghai, about which I will write extensively in an upcoming post, but will show an image or two here. What makes it a beginning is simply this: it demonstrates a way of thinking and a lucid method of design that can yet be applied to many projects and in many different ways. An example of the former type of building—the conclusion or ending—is Zaha Hadid’s Spittelau Viaduct Housing in Vienna. What this means is the complex of buildings intended as social housing sums up an idea and way of working, offering little for the design of future buildings.

The architecture of Zaha Hadid tends to aim for a category of conclusion called ‘the masterpiece.’ Each building is a summation of a particular thought, a zenith of imagination and talent, leaving those who try to learn something from her buildings with nowhere to go—she has said it all. The 19th century music critic Eduard Hanslick once wrote of the operas of Richard Wagner, who claimed they were the “Music of the Future,” that “they are all superlatives, and superlatives have no future.” The best, the finest, the most exciting, the most original—what, indeed, can follow them along the same line? Nothing. One can only create a new line altogether, taking nothing from the one already conquered.

So it is with Zaha’s Spittelau housing. She has taken the conventional blocks of social housing seen everywhere in Austria and Germany—rationalist white masses with ribbon and punched windows—twisted and cut them at acute angles to create interesting shapes and spaces between. The result is a visually stunning and novel architectural ensemble that is instantly recognizable as her design. We can appreciate and admire, or criticize and detest, but it all ends there. Coming away, we can imagine nearly infinite variations of twisting and cutting the conventional, but little else. She has, with a masterstroke, summed up the thought and concluded the idea. Anywhere we might take it will only be an echo or an imitation.

We certainly need such masterstrokes in the world, and rather urgently, as we survey the dreary constructed landscapes engulfing the planet. Yet we know that they are not nearly enough to sufficiently assert our humanity against the rising tide of mediocrity and worse. We need architects who give us beginnings and not endings, and whose buildings not only inspire, but also give us the tools for thinking and working to go forward.


The following are images of the Spittelau Viaduct Social Housing project, Vienna, by Zaha Hadid Architects:



The following are photographs of the Giant Corporate Campus, Shanghai, by Morphosis Architects:


The cover of the book by Morphosis Architects, “Combinatory Urbanism: the Complex Behavior of Collective Form,” putting forward a new methodology of designing urban architecture, with many examples from the firm’s practice, including the Giant Corporate Campus:

About this entry