They rise up in pumps and jumps, pushing in and out of the sky while they teeter on bases that seem too small for the pulsations of the shaft. No, get your mind out of gutter, I am talking about the Jenga towers that have become all the rage for developers around the globe.
In addition to the most famous of them, Herzog & de Meuron's 56 Leonard in New York, such stacks of off-set pixels of glass and steel have or will be rising in Bangkok, Vancouver, Frankfurt, Austin, London, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Seoul, Copenhagen and Los Angeles – and lord knows where else. Where do they come from, what do they mean, and why should we care?
On one level, we are just seeing the latest fashion in the design of office buildings. This is a subtype of the architecture enterprise that is very good at taking whatever the avant garde throws up, and turning it into signature bump-and-grind on the skin of an otherwise typical building with structure and floor plan like all the rest.
Once it was the Gothic bell tower that stood as the model, then the art deco setbacks were all the rage, then grids of glass, then (and I am skipping a few) it was the turn of the S-curve, a gesture first developed by either Diller Scofidio + Renfro or OMA, depending on who you talk to, as a continuous surface.
In more recent years, the swerve has become the thing, with Bjarke Ingels emerging as the King of the Curve or twisting tower. However, such sinuous structures, which have been made possible by advances in design and construction technology – as well as by our fondness for expressive forms – are still difficult to carry out and expensive, as they actually involve deforming most of the building. Offices become deformed, and you need all kinds of special glass and steel to make those curves work.
Jenga towers have become all the rage for developers around the globe
That is the genius of the Jenga theme: if you don't push it too far and balance things just so, you gain back every square foot pushing out from the volume that you lose from pushing in, and you can use all of an office building's standard elements with just a little reinforcement. You get a high-tech effect, and one that can mask the mass and scale of a tower, without too much effort.
Even then, however, the pixelation soon becomes just a surface effect: 56 Leonard looks great from a distance, but, get any closer, and you will see that the base was value engineered into a shaft like any other.
As far as I can tell, the origins of the Jenga Towers lie not in the game in which you try to pile blocks up as high as possible, thus educating a generation or two of future architects away from the classicism of the cube, pyramid, and globe of the Froebel blocks and towards ever larger erections, but in the logic of the computer itself. It seems that the pixelation and the graphic representation formats developed for the computer led naturally to the push and pull of volumes.
The closest I have found to an incubator for the Jenga Tower is the experiments that the Dutch firm MVRDV embarked on around the turn of the millennium with architecture as a data game, in which the representation of volumes of say, agricultural or residential land, developed – as if by its own logic – into landscape of stacks in which all of the Netherlands (in Farmax, 1998, or Metacity/Datatown in 2001) could be reduced to a single block made up countless such cubes.
The firm turned these analyses, on the one hand, into such complex games as the Functionmixer of 2004 and, on the other hand, into proposals for real buildings. The earliest ones date back to 1992, but it was around 2004 that these stacked boxes elongated and coalesced into projects such as the tower they proposed for the site of Milan's Fiera or exposition centre, as well as the DNB Bank Building in Oslo.
Pixelation produces variety, both on the inside and the outside of the building
In the same year, Rem Koolhaas' Office for Metropolitan Architecture proposed a Vertical Campus for Shinjyuku. They claimed it was based not on computer games, but on Michelangelo's unfinished slaves, in which the block of marble from which they were being subtracted remains visible.
Truth be told, there are actually quite a few proto-pixel buildings that date from way before the computer let you slip and slide volumes so easily. The Japanese Metabolists, from Kisho Kurakawa (his Capsule tower of 1972 is the most famous example) to Kenzo Tange, were fond of them, but (as my trusted research assistant, Richard Quittenton pointed out to me) you could take your source-ery back as far as the Russian constructivist Kazimir Malevich's Architektons of 1919-1925.
Between 2004 and 2008, the idea spread, I think not only through publications of the projects, but also because of the traffic of young designers moving back and forth between firms such as OMA, MVRDV, and Herzog & de Meuron. 56 Leonard was actually designed in 2008, but the recession delayed its construction considerably. In the meantime, MVRDV proposed quite a few Jenga Towers, but the ones they have proposed for Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, and Seoul are only now beginning to see the light of day.
While Herzog & de Meuron was aiming high, OMA went low, producing what is still the most expressive of all the pixel buildings, the residential complex Interlace in Singapore. More a game of pick-up stacks than a Jenga blow-up, it showed, when it opened in 2013, what the possibilities of the idea might be in terms of creating an interplay of open and enclosed space and breaking down the mass of modern complexes.
The project architect there, Ole Scheeren, went on to found his own firm, Buro Ole Scheeren, and I would say he is now the Prince of Pixels. His MahaNakhon Tower in Bangkok is the so far the tower that goes furthest in pixelation, and he is designing similar efforts for, among other places, Vancouver and Frankfurt.
With luck, we will see a few Chrysler or Seagram Buildings of pixels
While these good architects are pushing the idea along, the meme has already morphed into a skin disease. Bland towers in Austin (The Independent, by Rhode Partners) and London (AYKON London One, by KPF) show what happens when you let the cost cutters and image-pasters loose on developer specials.
In Chicago, Goetsch Partners reduced the Interlace to three blocks stacked next to the highway. I predict that soon enough you will see blocks on airport approach roads that push out six inches this way, pull back six inches the other, and call it a day.
For all that, there are ideas there that I hope get developed at least a bit further. Pixelation produces variety, both on the inside and the outside of the building, and breaks down their scale. It allows them to respond to particular views or rhythms in their surroundings.
It could even let designers maximise where the most sellable piece are – though, when MVRDV tried that in Seoul with their Cloud Towers proposal, the result looked too much like the Twin Towers when they had been hit by the planes that brought them down to allow the project to, um, stand.
Beyond such a massaging of the tower form and logic, pixelation could lead – as MVRDV and the prophets before them proposed – to the complete dissolution of solid form into clouds of planes or data becoming form. Unlike the swerve, which emphasises the mass of corporate might with its twists and turns, Jenga architecture proposes the unstable, the tentative, and that which tends to dissolution.
That, at least, is the promise. The reality will be that, with luck, we will see a few Chrysler or Seagram Buildings of pixels, proclaiming their originality and daring, while the rest of the towers will only titillate or stretch themselves to ever greater heights of anorexia with only minimal nips and tucks.
Photograph of 56 Leonard is by Hufton + Crow.