"YES IS MORE": Kind of a BIG Deal

March 9, 2013

I finally finished reading YES IS MORE: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution (2009), which is the monograph by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) in Denmark (company website). My overall feeling from reading the book, which is in comic-book format, complete with endless images of Bjarke Ingels himself speaking in speech bubbles, is that it’s like watching a train wreck: terrifying and somewhat sickening but you can’t look away. It’s organized into a series of apparently chronological chapters, each of which covers one design. I understand that this book is directed to a general public, not to architects, which accounts for some of the vast oversimplification that occurs in its descriptions of the architectural design process; and that it’s a manifesto of sorts, which explains its overly enthusiastic tone and sweeping generalizations. And yet, there were many points at which I didn’t want to continue reading any further, didn’t want to look at any more of the endless number of Lego-brick swoopy skyscraper models. The triumphalism in the description of each design, and seemingly inevitable failure of each project (the book claims that BIG has designed hundreds of buildings but only built a handful), left me feeling unsatisfied at the end of every chapter. Every design is only schematic - there are few stories in here with any real conclusions, few buildings that actually survived the challenging process of accommodation to the real world that BIG claims to embrace. The manifesto of “YES IS MORE” is that accepting the design constraints of the real world, like sustainability, zoning, politics, money, and marketing, can enhance rather than detract from one’s design. This is only a revelation if you are an architect who thinks the form is the (only) thing; this is common sense for everyone else. The fake radicalism of this embrace of what everyone does anyway (ie, work within real-world constraints) continued to wear on me as I waded through all 400 pages of the book. The (possibly cynical) disguisal of pure form-making with a veneer of accommodation to things like climate, regulation, and programmatic needs (the most annoying of which was the constant refrain of “housing needs sun! offices don’t like sun!") was most obvious in the cases where a really conscientious approach might have been to turn down the project to begin with, or to try to influence the program or approach of the client. Far too many of the projects were designed for virgin sites, known as greenfields, which is the antithesis of sustainable design. I suspect that the “yes is more” manifesto may be a way to avoid taking responsibility for one’s design; for example, the projects presented on virgin desert sites in Dubai never questioned the need for these buildings built in the middle of nowhere - they only asked how best to mitigate severe climate concerns using formal devices (overhanging shading, etc).

I don’t mind formalism per se, and some of BIG’s designs in the book are quite compelling; the Maritime Youth House and Danish Maritime Museum come to mind, the latter built creatively into the footprint of a dry dock. BIG has a distinct formal style that comes through in all of their projects. What bothers me is the attempt in this book to conceal the formalism with a “radical” manifesto that says, in effect, “we do typical corporate architecture” while pretending that this is an amazing innovation. Perhaps the clearest indication of this stance is the slogan of “revolution or evolution!” that gets thrown around quite often in the text. The famous “Architecture or Revolution?” rhetorical question posed by Le Corbusier in *Towards an Architecture *is meant to show that architecture - by placating the unruly masses - can help us avoid revolution and maintain the conservative order. “Revolution or Evolution?” seems to me to be the same kind of rhetorical question - it points not to a (radical) revolution but to a (conservative) evolution, that is, to formalism as a solution to all our problems.

I suppose I should be thankful to read something that prompts me to such a passionate response, but I can’t say I recommend this book as general reading. Proceed at your own risk.