Commentary – Making Faces on Buildings

Manhattan's west side rail yards development-popup

A recent project for the development of Manhattan’s west side rail yards raised an important if not really discussed issue in design, putting faces on buildings. My post on facade based design touched on this issue but didn’t really explore it in depth.

When I was in design school this technique (making the building look like a face or using features associated with faces) was heavily critiqued as being childish and unrefined. I have also heard other critics speak of it glowingly referring to the architect’s work as ‘playful’ or full of ‘wit’. Edwin Lutyens and John Hejduk were two of the more famous architects who put faces on many of their buildings. While I don’t think anyone would refer to their collective works as amateur, the more recent examples like this Manhattan project leave me wondering about the wisdom of the technique. When I saw the project shown above yesterday for the first time I was immediately reminded of the iconic cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz. See the resemblance. I doubt that the developer of said project would want their tower to be associated with cowardliness or fragility, yet that is the image I am left with.

Manhattan's west side rail yards development-popup
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Another project in Australia made the entire building into the profile of a face. This is more clever but in a way creepy like something out of novel 1984 as if Big Brother was looking down on you from above.
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If I can draw anything from the successful face projects versus the less successful ones is that the architectural elements used to created the faces have to have a specific use or purpose rather than being just pastiche (superfluous ornament). These two examples by Lutyens and Hejduk illustrate how the window and the awning can be used to make a powerful statement while providing utility to the building.

Lutyens Cottage with its window 'eyes'
Lutyens Cottage with its window ‘eyes’

The face created by the awnings on Hejduk's  Kreuzberg Tower
The face created by the awnings on Hejduk’s Kreuzberg Tower

Readers what do you think about faces on buildings? Does it look like child’s play or is it sophisticated design?

Child's drawing of a house
Child’s drawing of a house

Also check out this image gallery of other buildings with faces.

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