The Masochistic Serpent Disappeared from Modern Architecture

zaha_squareToday’s post is about the fold, and topological surfaces. Both were exemplified by Zaha Hadid better than any other architect. After the tragic news of Zaha Hadid’s unexpected passing yesterday, this post is in honor of her work.

Topological Surfaces

Technology has created a new rift in our human interactions. Accessibility to the internet has enabled a virtual dimension in parallel to our built environment. Therefore, new architectural ideologies needed to accommodate our complex and shifting interactions. Just like the Baroque was an artistic period in response to Mannerism during the Rennaissance. New forms were hypothesized to accommodate this shift. Namely, topological surfaces. A topological surface is a mathematical object that can most readily be represented as a rubberized sheet that can stretch or bend, but never tear.

A topological surface was explained to me this way: If you tie a string around a donut, or torus, and shrink the donut down to an infinitesimally smaller (less savory) donut, the string will never collapse because the hole in the donut will always be a hole. However, if you tie a string around a sphere, and shrink the sphere down to infinity, the string would eventually collapse into a singular point. Therefore, a sphere is not a Topological Surface, but a Euclidean Geometry.

Topology refers to keeping the intrinsic properties of the object at all scales, and has most readily been symbolized in the image of the Ouroboros – a serpent eating its own tail. One would think that a snake eating its own tail would be a masochistic, suicidal animal. If I ever saw a human chewing on his own foot I would think, “Ewww, that person has a severe mental disorder.” But apparently, mythology maintains that the serpent eating its own tail sustains its life. Therefore, the Ouroboros follows Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Return. An everlasting cycle of renewal.


Yummmmm! Everlasting Sustenance.

Topological surfaces, and more notably The Fold, were once on the forefront of architectural philosophy. However, the most recent prominent architectural projects seem to follow the same building typologies as Gordon Bunshaft from the 1950’s.

The intrinsic characteristic of Modernism was to bring the exterior, nature, inside. Therefore, The Fold and Topological Surfaces are natural extensions of modernism; continuous surfaces that blend the transition of exterior to interior. Just as the crease between two folds is a fold itself, topology allows for nature to seamlessly integrate with architecture. But many new American buildings still follow the rigid Euclidean geometry of our former Modern Architectural Masters.

2016 Prickster Prize Bracket

All of this input on The Fold led me to reconsider several architecture projects. 

The original intent of this blog was to not produce click-bait articles about architecture, but rather to provide some slightly sarcastic, yet highly relevant discussions about the improvement of the built environment. However, in accordance to the NCAA Tourney Bracket, I thought I’d lower my standards and produce a fun bracket on the World’s Worst Architecture. I thought everyone loved just clicking on items within brackets. After trying to find other “fun” brackets on the Internet I found some very silly brackets that still had a lot of votes. There was a bracket for the Most Important Political Figure in Minnesota History.1 And in architectural related brackets there was a bracket produced by the United States General Service Administration’s Blog. Yes. The USGSA has a blog, and they produced a bracket for Best Federal Building. I would not think that the USGSA blog would have a dedicated readership, yet every bracket entry had 10,000 votes!2

Therefore, I was filled with anticipation for this year’s bracket. I was like, “Oh. I should make a fun architecture bracket based upon mis-interpretations of The Fold.” So, I spent hours Googling “pointy” buildings. “How refreshing” I thought. “To actually have people realize how The Fold can become a great architectural theme.”

After my countless hours of “research,” I began to notice two “pointy” themes emerge that were counter-intuitive to The Fold. I dubbed these two iconographic symbols as The Spire. And The Shard.

Both can be heinous architectural features.

The Spire is most often planted atop skyscrapers. Pretentiously acting as a beacon, spires oftentimes are tacked-on appendages by developers clamoring for recognition within The Guinness Book of World Records.

The Shard is usually an angular appendage. A remote stand-alone building with acute angles oftentimes is a proper solution to emerge within a rural environment. However, within a city grid, acute angles impede upon the existing urban structures – solely boasting of their uniqueness.

Doubtlessly, when un-knowledgeable architects mimic the prickly form of The Fold, without exploiting its intrinsic properties, a crappy building with a pointed appendage is the outcome. However, in response to this year’s bracket, the entire World was like, “Your stupid architecture bracket on buildings I don’t care about is dumb. Furthermore, why aren’t you like Architect Magazine and just do a famous Architects Bracket again.”

Even though I had a couple hundred votes for last year’s World’s Worst Architecture Bracket. 190 of those votes came from one individual in Pennsylvania. I was hoping to build on last years silly success, yet the person in Pennsylvania apparently could care less about buildings he doesn’t know about (or want to read about). There are currently 4 lonely votes for the Final Four round of voting. I voted. My wife voted. And my cat accidentally walked across the keyboard and voted. So technically one other person has voted. My countless hours of Googling pointy things was apparently fruitless.

Note to self: Do not raise standards.

Having stated that, this is my blog and my nomination to win the 2016 Prickster Prize for Prickliest Building is tied between One World Trade Center and any building ever designed by Santiago Calatrava.

One World Trade Center

1wtc  The Great Recession momentarily seemed to slow the progression of Blobitecture designed by Starchitects, so maybe The Fold was eliminated from the architectural lexicon due to budgetary constraints, because when New York City attempted to re-build they constructed the most mundane… YAWN… skyscraper possible. I must admit, I have a slight hesitancy to criticize One World Trade Center. While Banksy can criticize the blandness of 1WTC, I seem like a Communist Anti-American when I criticize it. Just mentioning that the symbolism that literally rose out of the ashes of 9/11 is an uninspiring poorly conceptualized object is akin to refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at a City Commission Meeting,3 or throwing away the Bible.4 

Originally dubbed “Freedom Tower”,5 the building now officially known as One World Trade Center is 1,368 feet tall to the top of the steel parapet. But SOM’s Project Architect, David Childs, convinced the leading authority on tall buildings that the height should actually be the contrived height of 1,776 feet.

“With respect to the events of 9/11 and what this building commemorates with 1776 and democracy and freedom … we were very happy to find that the building fit our criteria to be 1,776 feet tall.”

-David Childs

The Council on Tall Buildings records the height of the building, not on actual occupiable height – which would make sense since buildings are still only designed for humans – but the height based upon the original intent of the architect. Therefore, if a radio antennae is put on top of the roof, it won’t be counted in the height. But if a non-functioning metal antennae were put on top of the building and David Childs states that they intentionally designed a shitty appendage solely to reach a certain height – then that apparently is reasonable. 

So, if I’m only 5’11”,6 but I state that wearing a top-hat is integral to my overall appearance, then I will now claim I am 7’2” tall.

Attaching an appendage to the top of 1WTC should not be classified as an architectural fixture integral to the design. If the appendage were conceived following The Fold, then it could be an integral geometry to the curtain wall system or a modified structural component; because, along with creating unique spaces, the fold increases structural support – just as if you folded a sheet a paper. Skyscrapers, currently, cannot be created to mimic a Möbius strip or a Klein bottle, but spaces and curtain wall systems influenced by the fold have been constructed on European skyscrapers for decades. Thus, 1WTC is a simplified box that appears more antiquated and less majestic than its predecessor(s).

Santiago Calatrava

transitSpeaking of buildings at the World Trade Center site. The newest addition to this urban landscape is Santiago Calatrava’s WTC Transportation Hub. While most people have been impressed by the elaborate structure (yet have forgotten about the unfathomable price tag) I take issue with Santiago Calatrava’s metaphorical imagery. I find it hard to believe that buildings in disparate parts of the world, with varying cultures and local conditions, should all be based upon a bird metaphor:

  • Sondika Airport in Spain resembles “a giant bird about to take flight.”
  • The WTC Transportation Hub in New York is designed to “look like a bird in flight.”
  • The Milwaukee Art Museum has two converging steel arches that “resemble a bird in flight.”

Calatrava should’ve stuck to designing eloquent bridges. All of his bridge designs were dreamlike creations. An effortless motion seemed to be captured within these bridges, as if they were delicate swans about to take flight. 

While the Baroque period had an exaggerated movement, The Fold provides a natural transition with an inherent motion. This is what Santiago Calatrava fails to embrace in his over-budget building concepts. His bridges were composed of delicate steel cables, yet conditioned environments forced Santiago Calatrava to devise contrived spaces with mechanical operations to mimic movement. Santiago Calatrava doesn’t design the serpent, but more like the serpent’s exoskeleton.7 There is a subtle movement to his work, but he still always wants his white bones to mechanically flap. But with cost overruns already implied with a Calatrava project, it would probably be another $4 billion dollars just to make the bones move three meters.

Indeed, the one drawback of topological surfaces in current building construction is architecture’s static inflexibility. Topological architecture could transform in accordance to user inputs. – expanding and contracting to local conditions. However, unlike an iOS update, you currently can’t update a building to physically respond to external stimuli without resorting to gimmicky mechanical systems. Doubtlessly, Calatrava has implied the latter approach.


Big courtyard. Wait. Topologically modified personal-sized courtyard.

Infamously, Calatrava’s gigantic Conference and Exhibition Center in Oviedo partially collapsed during construction. And the hall’s mechanical visor has never worked due to hydraulic problems – remaining forever fixed-in-place. Nevertheless, the hydraulics on his Bris Soleil at the Milwaukee Art Museum move and cast shadows – but are ineffective as an actual solar shade.

The Masochistic Serpent Disappeared from Modern Architecture partly because David Childs put him in a box, but also because Santiago Calatrava creates over-budget projects that fail to embrace the implied movement of the Ouroboros – without resorting to contrived mechanical motion.

Maybe topological structures aren’t meant to become human creations, but merely a mathematical concept. In the meantime, we will have to settle for 400’ (non)radio towers and pointed sculptures attached to structures with billion-dollar budgets, crumbling façades, and broken hydraulics.


Vote Here for the Championship Round of the 2016 Prickster Prize Bracket between 1WTC & Westin Hotel


Click the purple numerals to transport between hyperlinks

1 And if you are wondering, Hubert Humphrey won.
2 The United Nations Plaza in San Francisco ultimately won the US Federal Building Bracket.
3 Even if I just forgot the words after Elementary School.
4 Even if the man on campus was handing out things – and you love free things – until you realized you didn’t really need another free bible; furthermore, you didn’t appreciate the anti-abortion brochure with graphic images placed inside the free bible.
5 The colloquial nickname “Freedom Tower” lasted about as long as people ordering “Freedom Fries” at McDonalds.
6 5’10 ⅜” on my health records rounds up to 5’11” on my self-reported driver’s license height.
7 And no, a snake is not an Arthropod, but don’t waste time Googling “Do snakes have bones?” Because yes. Yes, they do.

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