Smarticulation

Smarticulation is facade articulation intended to make a building look purposeful and important.  It is primarily found in large buildings with glass curtainwalls and achieved by crisply projecting or recessing an area of the facade by two or three feet.  This shallow modeling has no impact on the use of the building, so it can be applied as an afterthought to a fully worked out design, and anywhere on the face of the building without impact on function.  Smarticulation is therefore often applied retroactively by designers who worry that their projects look dull. 

 

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The Orion, Cetra/Ruddy Architects’ condominium tower at 350 West 42nd Street, projects smarticulation to liven up and slim down its north facade.   

Smarticulation may or may not actually occur where there’s a special function behind the articulated surface, but it neither serves nor expresses any underlying special use.  This is for the best, given that the details of a large building’s inner workings are almost certain to change during the many years that pass between its design and completion of construction.   

 

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Smarticulation takes a shallow bite out of a corner of the new Bank of America Tower on Bryant Park, designed by Cook+Fox Architects.  (Smarticulation does love to wrap itself around a corner!)  With characteristic promiscuity, lighting and furniture behind the lower floors of this indentation suggest a specialized use, perhaps conference rooms, but its upper floors look like business as usual. 

A function of insecurity, smarticulation can not only juice up what’s seen by the designer as a bland building face, but allow the building itself to say “hey, I’m not just some simple-sided barn full of rentable square footage over here; I’ve got complicated inner workings.”  By refusing to say what these inner workings are, smarticulation turns the tables.  It doesn’t just pathetically say “I am too, smart”, but, “I’m up to important business here that you don’t need to know about.” 

 

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Sources close to SOM’s design for the expansion of John Jay College, currently under construction, say there’s nothing very special going on behind the one-story slice of smarticulation that turns the corner of West 59th Street and Eleventh Avenue.  It animates a blocky shape and provides a smooth horizontal counterpoint to the building’s bristling vertical fins.  But that’s already more than you’re meant to know. 

In addition to being meaningless, a critical distinction of smarticulation is that it must not be part of a regular surface pattern, but seemingly arbitrary and therefore conspicuously indifferent to the comprehension of the man on the street.  

 

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Columbia’s Jerome Greene Hall, above and below, at 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, was designed by Max Abramovitz and completed in 1961.  Is it a progenitor of smarticulation?  The purposeful looking horizontal window boxes on either end of the building play a similar compositional role to John Jay’s horizontal slit.  Mounted outside the horizontal fins, they look as if they might slide up and down the facade.  Denied a hint as to their purpose, the public dubbed this building ”the toaster”.   

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And now, smarticulation Q & A. 

Q:   I live near the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, and with all that building’s architecture has going on and all those fancy people coming and going, I was wondering if it’s what you’d call smarticulate?  Also on Columbus Circle, that new makeover of the old Lollipop Building into a Museum sure has a lot doing on its facade.  Is that smarticulation?

A:   No, and no again.  Time Warner, designed by SOM, suffers from an entirely separate design strategy, conspicu-ticulation, which I’m sure you know stands for conspicuous consumption articulation.  The Museum of Arts and Design merely looks smarticulate, and thus invites unearned sidewalk sniping.  It’s facade actually telegraphs much of the interior layout and therefore has meaning. 

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The Time Warner Center’s condominium entrance features an excrutiatingly expensive high-tech glazing system that mainly covers a blank wall.  This is not smarticulation, but an ego-coddling strategy intended to make the condominium owner feel like he’s lighting a cigar with a hundred dollar bill every time he comes or goes.  This conspicuous consumption articulation is the urban equivalent of the suburban tract mansion’s piling up of dormers, gables, arched windows and pediments.   

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Small vertical windows on the face of the Museum of Arts and Design align with glass strips in its floors that in turn define exhibit areas, the width of which are indicated by the horizontal slot windows.  Familiarity with this public building turns its facade into a map of the interior.  Designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, this building telegraphs what’s happening inside in a way that is smarticulation’s opposite;  it’s enough to warm the hearts of old geezers who still speak of a golden age when exteriors related to interiors and drivers used turn signals.  The building acknowledges the public with a friendly “Hi”, something a smarticulate building would surely never do.

 

Q:   That “Atelier” condo sure has a fancy name for something in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen.  I was wondering if its ins and outs are smarticulation?

A:   No.  Though this building has a highfalutin name, its dance-stepping modulations create a pattern and are therefore not smarticulation.   

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The Atelier condominium at 635 West 42nd Street was designed by Costas Kondylis. 

 

Q:   My husband and I were traveling in Indonesia and saw this fascinating building in Jakarta.  I said, “Bill, there must be something special that goes on way up at the top where that piece sticks out.”  He said “Aw, don’t be a sucker, that’s just smarticulation.”   Who’s right?

A:   If you’re describing the Menara Karya office tower, that’s a tough one.  The rotated portion near the top of the building is said to house the anchor tenant’s corporate board room, which is meaningful, but how would you ever know?  The inflection is more pronounced than the usual throwaway of smarticulation, but there’s an overall air of metallic, alien reticence that’s like a sci-fi version of smarticulation . . . You’re both right!  

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Arquitectonica’s Menara Karya office tower in Jakarta.

  

Q:   Donald Trump is always up to fancy business.  Are any of his projects smarticulate?

A:   The Trump Soho Hotel is covered in smarticulation.

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The Trump Soho Hotel, nearing completion at 246 Spring Street, was designed by Handel Architects.  Will Il Donald address New York from one of the incised balconies at the top?  The building’s answer is, “that’s for Mr. Trump to know”.

 

Q:   Can I be smarticulate even if I’m not a building?

A:   Yes!  Just look purposeful and indifferent to others.  Dance out into the street trying to flag down off-duty cabs and when they pass by, look at your watch, stick out your jaw and shake your head.  You score extra points for wearing a suit or sunglasses, carrying a briefcase or having a cell phone clamped to your head.  In fact, you can be smarticulate just by walking down the sidewalk pretending to use your cell phone. 

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One theory holds that the indifference and feigned purposefulness of smarticulate architecture reflect a world overrun by people on cellphones.   

   

One Response to “Smarticulation”

  1. Galfromdownunder Says:

    While you’re inventing new terminology, you made my brain land on a variant: “smartiface” – suggesting “artifice”.

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