Unsustainable Architecture

As a photographer of architecture, I often reflect on the nature of the built environment. One question I often ponder is what makes a building great. I find it interesting that some architectural works that are widely praised when initially proposed or build, later reveal some glaring flaws. It almost feels that their designers were unaware of the realities of the context of their works.  

In the past few weeks, the Apple store in Chicago, designed by Sir Norman Foster, was featured in the news because it became an avalanche hazard to the customers . And you may recall the story from a few years ago when a concave facade of the “Walkie Talkie Building” in London became a reflective parabolic mirror, concentrating sunlight with enough power to melt a car. Then there is Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York. To me, it is a beautiful building, with a wast, airy, light-filled public space that also adds much-need architectural boldness to the otherwise uninspiring new construction at the former World Trade Center site. But when I learned that it cost $4 billion to build, and that was entirely footed by taxpayers, I started to wonder if it was a wise investment.

Unfortunately, these are not just isolated cases. While Chicago has long been an architectural laboratory, its brutal climate does not seem to be considered a significant factor by the architects working there. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, one of the most welcoming religious building in my opinion, had to undergo a costly renovation in recent years to repair its crumbling concrete walls and roof. When Wright designed the building, he decided to skip the expansion joints in the concrete structure for aesthetic reasons, but that was a terrible design decision for the wild annual temperature fluctuations in the Windy City. Likewise, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s S.R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) had to undergo a controversial renovation at around the same time, one of the reasons for which was accumulated weather damage over fifty years of its existence. For example, the travertine marble on its steps had to be replaced because it has crumbled, while in   Italy the same materials holds up pretty well for millennia in a milder environment. And cost overruns are probably as old as architecture itself. The iconic Sydney Opera House is a classic example, not least due to the architectural design not being entirely finished when the construction started. 

Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois

Unity Temple (Interior), Oak Park, Illinois

S.R. Crown Hall, Chicago

S.R. Crown Hall (Interior), Chicago

But nothing is easier than making sweeping critical judgements about the work of others from the comfort of a couch while safely hiding behind a computer screen and having no professional expertise in field. To be fair, everyone makes mistakes, and innovation is impossible without experimentation, not all of which will be successful. Despite of all I have said above, I have the deepest respect for the hard work, groundbreaking vision and innovation that architects, engineers and their numerous teammates put into their projects.  

Yet I wonder if we, as a society, should formulate expectations for architecture that is sustainable not just in the environmental and energy saving sense, but from the perspective of practicality and realism as well. Would the proposed design last a century or more, or would it require costly emergency repairs in a few decades? What would it take to keep the building’s appearance as intended in the long run?Are there any issues that an architect failed to foresee? Have the innovative solutions and materials been tested by independent experts and in realistic circumstances? Would custom-made construction equipment be required to erect this building? This is especially critical for public and publicly-funded project, where the people at large are the ultimate clients, or for the ones built in the public context, like a city, where the general public is an important stakeholder. And I know these factors are already been considered by architects and their clients, all I am suggesting is that we look at them in greater depth. Would the aesthetic and emotional impacts of the buildings take a hit as a result? Possibly, but creativity also flourishes under constraints. As Lois Sullivan famously said, form ever follows function. We just need to define more broadly what function is, to include the building’s context in space and time as well. 

Happy New Year!

Happy new year! One of my new year’s resolutions is to restart this blog and update it regularly. But first, I would like to reflect on the past year. 

While I have been photographing for many years, this was the year when I have started treating it more seriously, both from artistic and business perspectives. It has been a challenging endeavor, but it was also an amazing learning experience. And there is still a lot more to learn in the coming year. One of the more unusual lessons is how the business and artistic side of photography are intertwined: while I have initally joined Instagram largely to promote my prints store, it ended up being a great way to explore the field. I am now addicted to my daily dose of inspiration. 

I have been incredibly blessed this year to have the time, resources, and company to explore the world like never before. When I just try to think of all the places I have visited this year, I end up pinching myself. It would probably be a long while before I match the travel level of 2017. Photographically, it was definitely a year of nature and landscape photography, so if the next year will turn out to be more low-key, I hope to catch up on another subject that fascinates me: architecture. 

Of all the places I have visited and photographed this year, one destination stands out, and that is Hawaii, specifically the Big Island. On my first day there, driving along the Kohala Coast, I thought I would have to de-staurate my photos, because nobody would believe those vivid colors are real. The natural diversity of the island is unbelievable, and I would say that if you can only visit one place in your lifetime, make it be the Big Island. You will not be disappointed. And Kauai, by the way, is close behind. 

Big Island, Hawaii

Big Island, Hawaii

Big Island, Hawaii

Big Island, Hawaii

Big Island, Hawaii

Big Island, Hawaii

Big Island, Hawaii

I was also lucky to see several unique natural phenomena, and all in the space of less than six months. It was glowing caldera and active lava flows of the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island in Hawaii, aurora borealis over Iceland, and the total solar eclipse in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Witnessing each was a unique, stunning experience, and while I feel I did an OK job capturing them on camera, a lot was left outside of the frame. If I get a chance to witness such events again, I will try focus on capturing them in context. For example, I wish I had thought in advance of the setup to take a photo of my family all wearing the eclipse glasses and pointing excitedly at the sky.  

Lava flows from Kilauea Volcano, Big Island, Hawaii

Kilauea Volcano, Big Island, Hawaii

Aurora borealis, Iceland

Solar eclipse a moment before totality, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina

And even though many photos I took this year convey a joyous, festive mood, many of them are also a reminder of the fleeting nature of all things on Earth. Only a couple of minutes would separate the peaceful, snow-capped Hekla volcano in Iceland from turning into the active inferno like Kilauea. Likewise, only a few days separated the tropical Caribbean paradise on St. Martin and Anguilla, which I have visited earlier this year, from total destruction by hurricane Irma.

Hekla Volcano, iceland

Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii

Grand Case, St. Martin

Grand Case, St. Martin

Maho Beach, St. Maarten

As I mentioned earlier, I hope that next year would be a little less hectic and will give me an opportunity to focus on photographing subtler things closer to home. Stay tuned and all the best to you in the coming year! 

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Na Pali Coast

Full Gallery

Na Pali Coast is one of the most famous attractions on Kauai. In terms of scale, it is only about fifteen miles long, but it is remarkably isolated and pristine. 

Ancient Hawaiians lived in the valleys there, but the ridges are so rugged, the only way to get there would by by sea or  by a handful of vertiginous trails. And even in the summer, the seas could be rough. It is not uncommon for the tourists on boat tours today to get seasick and “travel by rail”, that is, bending over the rail of the boat. That fate has not escaped yours truly, and I was only able to capture a few views. 

But the views of the cliffs and valleys in the rays of the setting sun were stunning nonetheless. If many vistas on the Big Island evoked the thoghts of different planets, Na Pali Coast appeared very Earthly, but from a much earlier, primordial time. Perhaps it is why it is so popular with filmmakers, as you can recognize the scenery from the movies such as Jurassic Park, King Kong, and many others. And the challenges of accessing the land of Na Pali Coast must have required some skills from the crew! 

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