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  Cornell University

Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

4. For the Hope of Something Greater

Eduardo Arroyo gave all of the Architecture students a wonderful talk about his approach to architecture, his principals of design, and the overall goal we should strive to achieve with our creations. Photo/Maria Ford

Architects are a unique species of human being, and last week’s lecture by the renowned Eduardo Arroyo from NO. MAD architects proved it. Arroyo gave the students a brief overview of his firm’s diverse range of projects from park interventions to football stadiums, emphatic about one concept throughout; the danger of ‘metaphor’ in architecture.

This idea takes some unpacking. The use of metaphor in architecture can be explained by the hypothetical approach a designer takes to one’s project as if it is something else rather than having merely taken inspiration from some external source. This building is a landscape, this house is a time machine, that park is a river and its tributaries. For non-architects, this may seem unfamiliar, but these metaphors are ubiquitous in the profession, where architecture is made to seem much more than what it really is, just a building, house or park.

Arroyo points to the inherent duplicity in such thinking; designing metaphorically means that the designer is not being truthful about his or her decisions in making the building. This designer’s choices aren’t made based on functionality or user ability, but rather a fantasy. Arroyo gave us a vivid example to illustrate this: The voluminous curve of a building built to imitate and recall the appearance of a cloud is completely different in both intentionality and execution than the curve of a highway, the latter designed according the changing rate of speed at a bend. The highway curve is designed to benefit its users, in contrast to the divergence between the appearance of ‘cloud-like’ architecture and its reality.

Arroyo argues that his firm’s work replaces the void of metaphor in his work with the brunt of pure technical expertise and analysis, designing buildings that are formally (geometrically) adventurous but also honest; each space and line is there for a reason. He gives the example of their design of the Baribal House in Monteprincipe (linked below) where at first glance, the crazed angular structure seems extra-terrestrial, but is in fact built that way so that its foundations carefully avoid the roots of the trees surrounding it. In this way, the building shades in the area left empty by the forest, building a relationship between the indoor and the outdoor space.

Arroyo gives his architecture the hope or the value of something much greater than fantastical geometry and ambitious construction. In a way, his argument gives us students hope too, that designing architecture isn’t just shots in the dark and pure imagination, but concrete and reasoned problem solving.

However, the idealism of Arroyo’s argument wasn’t missed by a lot of students. The first question we all asked was, does it matter if your design is honest if your audience (your users) does not have the expertise or the intention of understanding why you made such a curved wall or an angled ceiling? What gives architecture its meaning, the designer’s intention or the user’s behavior? This is a point of contention that this blog post cannot resolve.

I’d love to know your thoughts. – Baribal house in Monteprincipe

Signing off,

Ami Mehta

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