That extra something

Greebling will pep up your models, advises Will Wiles

Drawing, computer visualisation and model-making could be considered architecture’s subordinate arts – arts that serve the making of buildings. Even in the service of architecture, they can still be of significant artistic worth in their own right, as RIBA Journal’s Eye Line award for drawing shows each year. But to what extent do they feed back into architecture and shape the buildings they reflect? 

In his intemperate classic From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe suggests that one of the reasons architecture students came out so strongly for modernism in the 1930s and ‘40s was that they were impatient with the ‘laborious washes of china ink’ of the Beaux-Arts manner: ‘No more tedious Renaissance renderings! After all, look at Mies’ drawings. He used no shading at all, just quick crisp, straight lines, clean and to the point.’

As it’s Tom Wolfe, we have to take this with a grain of salt, but it’s a diverting thought. Similarly, was the architecture of the first year of the 21st century guided by the peculiar graphical qualities of computer visualisation? Frank Gehry’s curves and angles were made possible by CATIA, opening the door for the decon and iconism of that era, but I’m thinking more of the renderings than the underlying design. Where would the early 2000s have been without the exotic, intangible quality surfaces flush with a jillion colours on an iMac screen? The end result might be anodised or galvanised under a Luton sky, but the computerised version could have the shine of Eldorado or the glimmer of Mithril, it could take a Death Valley dawn and merge it with a Canaletto sunset – the results varied, but those seductive oily sheens must have shaped a few decisions in the minds of clients and funding bodies.

Think of the giant spaceships in science fiction films, covered in pipes, grooves, panels, widgets, dishes...

But what can model-making donate to architecture? There’s one concept that I hope might spread into the profession. It came to mind when I saw the renders of HeatherBIG’s Google HQ for King’s Cross, and photos of COBE’s transformation of a grain silo in Copenhagen. The Google landscraper has a very long street frontage, and on the renders it looks like there’s a lot of activity there: some shops, yes, but also a good number of bulges, pods, boxes and recesses that could be anything. Meanwhile COBE’s silo is a remarkably featureless concrete box given a busy faceted facade of windows and balconies through the addition of galvanised steel modules.

The word that occurred both times is a fine one: Greebling. ‘Greebles’ are the model-maker’s word for the functionless details that are added to a large, plain volume to give it a sense of scale. Think of the giant spaceships in science fiction films, covered in pipes, grooves, panels, widgets, dishes, none clearly identified but all giving an impression of vastness, importance and complexity. Did the Bjarkewick nodules and vitrines for Google have assigned purpose, I wondered, or were they just greebles to make the immense street front look more interesting than it would prove to be? And though COBE’s additions to the Copenhagen silo had purpose, they were also energetically faceted and angled and different, as if in (over-?)reaction to the blank orthogonality of the underlying structure: they were somewhat greebley. 

In my second novel, I used the hard, cryptic cladding of a modern hotel as a metaphor for the opaque corporate structures within. That was 2014 – today that hotel would likely be clad in brick panels. The pendulum has swung against the silken facades of the noughties and back towards the detail and decoration insisted upon by the counter-modernists. Brick, once structure, is now mostly no more than a surface treatment to be affixed to a concrete frame. That’s not a bad thing, but it needs a name. The sheen age is over – the age of greebling has arrived. •

Will Wiles is a journalist and author.


JUNK on the roof

The computer game SimCity 4 (2003) has endured remarkably well, in part because of an energetic community of ‘modders’, who are still making new buildings for it. Because the game presents an isometric top-down view of a city, you get to see a lot of roofs in play – and as a charming result, the modders are connoissiers of what they call “roof junk”, giving air-conditioning units, ducts and stained weatherproof felt as much attention and realism as any terracotta or marble details on a facade.