Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions


A Vast Conspiracy

Stanley Tookie Williams awoke for the last time on December 13, 2005. San Quentin State Prison’s maximum-security cells had been on lockdown since midnight, as is customary on the day of an execution. Within this environment of intensified imprisonment, Williams was relatively free. He spent the day walking the cell blocks and meeting with friends and family in the prison visiting room. (more…)

More Is Better

As writers often do, I’d like to start my essay with a quote. It comes from a TED talk by Tim Brown, CEO of the San Francisco-based innovation consultancy IDEO. Speaking before a multidisciplinary crowd in 2009, Brown announced that “Design has become too important to be left to designers.” (more…)

It’s an Empirical Life

Let me begin by retelling a story told by Nikesh Arora, Google’s Senior Vice President and Chief Business Officer, in the pages of Fast Company. Speaking of his company’s cofounder and CEO Larry Page, Arora recalled, “I was talking to Larry on Saturday. I told him that I’d gotten back from nine cities in 12 days—Munich, Copenhagen, Davos, Zurich, New Delhi, Bombay, London, San Francisco. There’s a silence for five seconds. And then he’s like, ‘That’s only eight.’” (more…)

Design Your Life

At a certain point in our conversation, the architect, author and TED conference founder Richard Saul Wurman decides to inform me of how little he stands to gain from the experience. “I’ve never met you before,” he says, truthfully. “I don’t know your family. You’re not gonna do any good for me. You’re not gonna get me jobs or get me a grant. There is nothing that I can see that has a direct result of pleasing you.” He explains all this about an hour into our interview and shortly after my ears tune out and I find myself scanning the bookshelves just above his head. There are maps and journals, drawings and photos of Wurman and others. On a low shelf is a magazine apparently called Successful. Beneath the word – rendered in red, all caps – is a portrait of the man himself, slightly younger but more or less the same: silver crew cut hair, round face with beard and bulbous nose, mischievous smirk, light appraising eyes. Just above his left eyebrow, in much smaller letters, so small that they span only the space beneath FUL, it reads MEETINGS. Apparently that is a magazine. Successful Meetings magazine. Wurman is their cover boy and deservedly so – he is an absolutely first rate meeting maker, a visionary in fact. (more…)

Why Wang Shu

Could it be coincidence that in the same year that the Oscar for best picture goes to a silent film, architecture’s top prize goes to a designer who disdains computers and claims “craftsmen are smarter than architects”? Was the Pritzker committee struck with the same guilty feelings that apparently inspired the Academy to, at long last, acknowledge the massive backward leap from Billy Wilder to James Cameron? Is the selection of Wang Shu, a noncommercial, nonfamous architect, as 2012 Laureate an attempt to absolve architecture of its greed and vanity and restore its self-image as a serious, civic-minded profession? (more…)

Where is Ai Weiwei?

The making of an Un-Named exhibition (more…)

In Search of Life

At what point is a building complete? Is it when construction ends? When users move in? And how does one factor in the contributions of its occupants when assessing a building? Does an apparent conflict between the architects’ vision and the residents’ tastes indicate a failure? An opportunity? An inevitability? (more…)

Everything is Necessary

I arrive at Ai Weiwei’s studio on a weekday in June. It’s a warm, uncharacteristically clear morning in Beijing and I find Ai sitting outside, in a T-shirt and shorts, with three young assistants. We exchange pleasantries and then the talk turns to business. (more…)

Brick and Silver

A strange new presence recently popped up in the Nan Luo Gu Xiang section of Beijing. Its form is vague and its function is limited. It is modest in size, but nevertheless demands attention, first for itself and then for its neighborhood, a patchwork of grayscale courtyard homes commonly known as a hutong. (more…)

Developing Country

Is it possible, at this late hour, to salvage the term ‘sustainable development’? Could we, through some shift in perspective, redefine an idea that seems to decline in value as it increases in popularity? Or do we cast it out, onto the pile of once meaningful words killed by conceptual decay and strategic misuse? (more…)

Ai Weiwei & Norman Foster: An overview in detail

It is tempting to portray Ai Weiwei and Norman Foster as a pair of polar opposites.

What was lost

For those intimate with its creation, it is impossible to think of the blackened shell of TVCC as a ruined object. To do so would demean it and deny all that contributed to its creation. This structure – frequently referred to as a “luxury hotel” – is, like all buildings but more than most, a chimera, a composite comprised of the toil, hope, pride, and sacrifice of people from around the world. It is the physical manifestation of countless tiny considerations, thrills, instructions, regrets, risks, experiments – over the angle of a staircase, the feel of a door handle, the light at sundown, burgundy vs maroon. (more…)

Barack Obama Inauguration Address Autopsy

The inaugural address is the most and least significant expression of a presidency. Delivered at the opening of a new term, at the close of a bloated ceremony, it articulates a four-year agenda in the vaguest possible terms. It states a President’s primary interests and establishes a set of pledges to which he cannot be held accountable. It is a vision of the future, written for the history books, and expressed in a language of familiar metaphors and century-old quotations. (more…)

Money Macau: The upside of the downturn

One of the most dispiriting aspects of the International Financial Crisis is the insufficiency of its depiction in the news. Perhaps because no one knows its full scope or duration, a global calamity is portrayed as a bunch of disconnected panics spread across various trades and territories. As fretful observers, we get neither a sense of why these things happen or what might happen next. Those who feel direct effects become illustrations, evidence for a prosecution that will never take place. In recent months Macau has taken a position of prominence within the lengthening list of negative case studies. A spate of stories describe a city that had it all and went too far, a powerhouse now having trouble keeping the lights on. They appear in the news and just as quickly disappear – “Macau Mothballed” (Financial Times, 11.11.08), “From Boom to Gloom” (Washington Post, 16.12.08) – a city’s traumas reduced to few downward projections and bad betting metaphors quickly absorbed into the toxic sludge that seeps from the business section onto the front page each day. (more…)

Built from memory

The Ningbo Museum sits on massive unpopulated plaza in Yinzhou, a territory with a 5000 year history that looks like it was established last year. The streets that surround it are wide enough to accommodate six lanes of traffic, but are virtually car-free. The sidewalk is lined with skinny leafless trees, shrubs, and disconnected tiles of brownish-yellow grass. In the distance, the silhouettes of newly built residential towers and half-finished office buildings imply a bustling future, but for the moment the area exists in a kind of temporal limbo – its past abandoned, its future not yet arrived. (more…)


ARTFARM is the nickname given to New York’s most stylish storage shed. It is located on the country estate of a NY-based art dealer named Chris Mao, who commissioned it in 2006 from the Swiss firm HHF. (more…)

House and Home

The strange thing about Beijing’s diplomatic district is that, while it is the city’s most diverse neighborhood culturally, it is one of its most homogeneous architecturally. Most of the buildings were constructed around the same time, the 1950s, when the leaders of the newly formed PRC decided to move the city’s diplomatic center from the Legation Quarter, a walled territory that had been the site of bloodshed during the Boxer rebellion and was tainted with connotations of foreign aggression, to its current location in a neighorhood known as Sanlitun. (more…)

Hello Stranger

The most impressive thing about Arata Isozaki’s new museum for China Central Academy of Fine Arts is its loud aloofness. It is the crown jewel of CAFA’s campus, a world class building by a world famous architect for an institution seeking world renown. It is positioned prominently, at the campus’s north-eastern corner, next to its main entrance. From the road, its strange boomerang-shaped footprint marks it out immediately, but as you approach not much else is revealed. The exterior is obstinate and gray with few windows and no signage. It sits on a patch of green which it distances itself from with a moat of white pebbles. Once passed, it’s hard to remember what the building looks like. (more…)

Favela Painting

A couple of weeks ago a minor miracle took place in Rio. In Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in the Penha section, hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the completion of a painting. Along a winding concrete staircase that extends from the favela’s main street Rua Santa Helena, a duo of Dutch artists known as Haas & Hahn created a 2000 square-metre mural. With the help of three friends from the neighborhood, Haas & Hahn had spent nine months meticulously painting a carp-filled river in the style of a Japanese tattoo, and as the unveiling party started some parts of the painting were still wet. (more…)

Build and Destroy (and Build)

To fully appreciate Wang Shu’s new campus for the China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, it’s useful to travel to the city by bus. For much of the trip, your view is dominated by the unindustrialized agriculture that occupies so much of the Chinese countryside. You will see very little nature, and a great deal of mud, divided into tiny, meticulously parceled plots, some of which extend to within centimeters of the expressway. Small clusters of buildings appear every few hundred meters. They are mostly constructed of locally-produced brick and mirror the ruddy brownness of the earth from which they came, giving the scene a tranquilizing chromatic consistency. (more…)

Searching Near

“Basically I don’t like these ‘stamp architects’ like Tadao Ando or Richard Meyer,” Zhang Lei tells me as we drive through the agri-industrial countryside of Jiangsu Province. “They are doing the same thing in different contexts. They always use the same approaches, and I don’t think that’s good.” (more…)


On my second day in the office, it was announced that OMA had been selected to design the new CCTV headquarters in Beijing. The scheme – a siamese skyscraper, twisted into a loop, supported by its skin like a spider – was already a legend within the office. Woeful tales of the toil that preceded the presentation, talk of the sudden need for a second, less abstract model to convince government officials, vague rumors of frenzied all night efforts in a Beijing archi-sweatshop were already circulating when the announcement came through the office intercom that we’d won. The message was quickly followed by a jubilant champagne toast on the roof of the building. Glasses in hand, we were giddy, it seemed like a watershed. After years of disappointment in Europe and America, “China,” the already familiar and absolutely unfamiliar past and future superpower had embraced OMA architecture. It felt like we were entering a new, immensely fertile territory, where rapid development, supported by private interests and public expectations, fueled by the free market, stabilized by a strong state, could combine to create the 21st century’s first prototypes of modern life. (more…)

Art Pilgrimage Beijing

Is it possible to comment on art or China in 2006 without resorting to the word boom?

After several intense consultations with Roget’s, I became convinced that it is possible, and so dutifully report the following: In 2006, the Beijing art scene is prospering! It is active and robust – if somewhat rambunctious. (more…)

炫国 | Bling Kingdom

Guangzhou at night is an unnatural wonder. During the day it is usually grey, pinned under a blanket of smog produced by the coal-burning factories that surround the city. Its buildings, typically painted in the happy-go-lucky tones of the tropics, are faded and soot-covered. At night it all disappears. (more…)