Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#11) — On ‘plonk work’

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, by Frank Gehry.

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On ‘plonk work’

In a recent interview with Dezeen, Australian architect Kerry Hill, who was recognised with an AHEAD Asia award for his 40-year career, during which he has pioneered a range of resorts in Asia and beyond, tells that he doesn’t believe in ‘plonk architecture.’ “What I mean by that,” he adds, “is ‘a Gehry here, a Gehry there’ — architecture at home everywhere and nowhere.”

What Hill refers to is a sameness that Kyle Chayka calls ‘AirSpace.’ And also the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas already wondered in his essay The Generic City (published in the 1995 book S,M,L,XL) if the contemporary city is like the contemporary airport — ‘all the same.’ “What if this seemingly accidental — and usually regretted — homogenization were an intentional process, a conscious movement away from difference toward similarity?,” he wrote.

In the interview, Hill says he believes that his success is due in part to his practice’s focus on creating contextually sensitive buildings that draw on local styles, building techniques and materials. He and his team don’t have a common architectural language, unlike so many other architects. “We like to think that each building is especially designed for its place,” Hill adds.

Aman Tokyo in Tokyo, Japan, by Kerry Hill Architects.
Desert Palm, Dubai, by Kerry Hill Architects.

Pondering over Hill’s words, and looking at the wonderful buildings he has designed, I wondered whether ‘plonk’ is limited to design and architecture. The plain and simple answer is, of course, “Far from it.” ‘Plonk work’ is all around us.

Take consultancy and consultants who, with their ready-made models, have a solution to every single problem. The “local styles, building techniques and materials” of their clients hardly seem to matter. If a solution has proven to work here, they simply ‘plonk’ it there, regardless of context and place. It isn’t difficult to recognise the work — the ‘fingerprint’ — of a consultancy, just as you can easily spot ‘a Gehry or a Hadid’ from a mile away. It doesn’t make it bad consultancy, or bad architecture per se. Personally, I like most of Gehry’s work, and recognise it for what it actually is — great architecture. But I must admit that it’s often also lacking a form of relationship with its surroundings — contextless architecture.

In a recent post, Peter Vander Auwera wondered whether organisations can change — really change — at all. “I am starting to think about a metaphor based on architecture, and the notion of ‘patrimony’ of a building, which has to do with knowledge stored as inheritance material in physical objects,” he writes. Instead of breaking a building down, you can also try to respects and preserve its patrimony, and combine old with new — new structures and new flows.

“The structure is not only the brick and mortar building itself, but includes the whole site, the landscape, the empty spaces, the social contracts, the tacit and non-tacit agreements of flow. It comes alive when people live in it, add furniture, decoration, color, organise their areas for work, for creativity, for reflection,” Vander Auwera writes.

La Fabrica Cement Factory Home, by Ricardo Bofill who, together with local Catalan craftsmen, transformed the sprawling structure of silos and compounds into “a place of work par excellence.”

As far as metaphors go, the idea of preserving an organisation’s patrimony, and of working with, and also within the context of “local styles, building techniques and materials,” is a strong guideline for what I would like to call ‘humane change.’ It links past, present and future in such a way that people never feel lost or alienated. Or even left behind.

Hill tells about a project in Bhutan. Just before he arrived, Bhutan had been struck by a major earthquake, which made him realise that he couldn’t build in a traditional way. So, instead of rammed mud, he used stabalised earth, which is earthquake resistant. The material tradition has remained in place, however. “It’s a structurally worthy replacement for it,” he says.

What this tells me, is that we should forget about ‘plonk work,’ and, instead, design and craft new, yet contextually sensitive organisations with a familiar feel, and on a human scale — thoughtful and humane design.

Amankora resort in Thimpu, Bhutan, by Kerry Hill Architects.

“This confluence of style is being accelerated by companies that foster a sense of placelessness, using technology to break down geography. Airbnb is a prominent example. Even as it markets unique places as consumable goods, Airbnb helps its users to travel without actually having to change their environment, or leave the warm embrace of ‘AirSpace.’” — Kyle Chayka in Welcome to AirSpace