Architecture Myths #13: The Difficult Whole

The phrase “the difficult whole” comes at us via Robert Venturi, as quoted by Jean La Marche’s in “The Familiar and the Unfamiliar in Twentieth-century Architecture”,

the difficult wholewith reference to Venturi’s “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”.


The important bits are

the difficult whole is “the difficult unity through inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion”.

I guess this is a dig at Mies, of whom it was once said that it’s easy to create a perfect object if you ignore a lot of problems. Venturi went on to say

the difficult whole in an architecture of complexity and contradiction includes multiplicity and diversity of elements in relationships that are inconsistent or among the weaker kinds perceptually”

But then he would. It’s a recipe for anything goes and it was all good. Until it went bad. Venturi was promoting

the organisation of a unique whole through conventional parts and the judicious introduction of new parts.


What were the conventional bits? A chimney? A driveway? It doesn’t really matter anymore. But I must say it’s nice to see this house has some neighbours. Who’d have ever known these past fifty years? Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was written in 1966. It’s all history now. With the advent of Deconstructionism, The Difficult Whole was to become The Inscrutable Whole as entire buildings were contrived to imply they were either evolving away from or perhaps towards some state of conceptual, if not physical, wholeness.

Lou_Ruvo_Brain_InstituteThis kind of did it for the difficult whole but, given the dead-end Deconstructivism led us into (dynamic shapes that signify change for clients totally uninterested in change in any real sense), the difficult whole still has relevance today if we shift the meaning of “conventional” to “existing”.

For in 2014, recycling, refurbishing, reusing and repurposing are all good. Sometimes and still more often than not, perfectly good buildings are demolished and replaced with lesser buildings because:

  • they aren’t large enough
  • they don’t exploit the site enough to provide maximum return on investment
  • they aren’t fashionable enough

Makeovers can sometimes overcome the third but, sometimes not.


Overcoming the first two though, requires extending or adding onto the building.

We have no theory, policy, or any way of evaluating extensions and additions to buildings. 

With extensions and additions, what was once whole is under pressure to become a new whole. Destroying an aesthetic whole to create a new and larger one is not easy. I’ll say it now. I’m predisposed to thinking the idea of the (aesthetic) whole is a myth anyway but the myth only becomes apparent when an attempt is made to enlarge it or add to it. Forming a new aesthetic “whole” is logically impossible. But that’s me. Let’s look at some examples.

• • •

Extending a building is conventionally performed in ways that are contextually sensitive – whatever that means. What’s good in one situation isn’t necessarily good in another. What’s more, what’s good in one situation may be good and the completely opposite thing in the same situation may also be good. It’s a moveable feast, like “Big-B beauty”. One interpretation of contextual sensitivity is to be unobtrusive, preferably invisible. This is the avoidance of creating a new whole. It might be the most honest way of adding to a building in “we can’t improve it so let’s pretend we didn’t try” kind of way.


• • •

A more common way is to take cues of colour and/or pattern and/or shape and/or position and/or alignment and/or size/scale from the existing structure. This is generally regarded as safe, if not good.


There are other ways of creating associations more forced but that nevertheless maintain a distinction between new and old. We’re of course assuming that maintaining that distinction is a good thing. To me, these are all unsuccessful for, without something to bounce off, they are nothing. They don’t know what they want to be. Their inoffensiveness is offensive.


One of the principles of “modern” architecture is that buildings be true to their time. I suspect this is just a market driver that applauds obsolescence and encourages pointless production but, all the same, we’ll have none of that contrived historicism or attempts to make buildings appear older than they actually were thank you very much.

Fake pedigree: George Devey was the master of a technique whereby a house was organised into different
wings to give the impression that the house at that point in time was the result of a series of additions and extensions over decades, if not centuries. Here’s his Betteshanger, built around 1861.

George Devey – BetteshangerHe provided the house with a complete and entirely bogus pedigree which ran somewhat as follows. All that remained of the medieval house was a curious old tower, which had been re-windowed and repaired with different materials over the centuries.

Untitlbetteshanger detail 1A low rambling wing had been added in Elizabethan times, entered by a quaint Renaissance porch with a carved oriel window over its archway.

No. This post is about the opposite. It’s about those extensions to buildings that don’t give a damn about contextualism or suiting or pleasing anyone AND THAT ARE ALL THE BETTER FOR IT.

But I don’t mean the likes of this. This is a parasite piggybacking on its host. It’s a separate thing. It doesn’t combine to create anything new. It’s following some rules and breaking others.  It doesn’t know whether it wants to be on the building it is, or not. It’s not telling us where it stands or what it really wants to be.


On the other hand, there’s too much synergy happening in this next example from Valparaiso, Chile … It’s an attempt to create a “difficult whole” and it’s trying too hard. The host building has been assimilated and lost its soul in the process. Have you ever been kept awake by someone trying to be quiet? This building is annoying in that way.


At least it actually adds some extra space – unlike this next example that may just as well have been a new building adjacent to the ruin. As it is, the new 100% addition refuses to let the ruin be a ruin. The existing structure adds gravitas but nothing else.


This next well-known example is annoying for the much the same reasons. Its effect IS DEPENDENT UPON forced contrast. The building exists solely as something to bounce off of. The real objective is to showcase the architects’ “sensitivity” to context. With this Libeskind building, the parts exist at the same location but don’t want to be together either visually or conceptually. It’s further loaded with murky meaning.


At least this next one doesn’t suck the blood out of its host as it does the contrasty thing.


Sculpture likes a plinth. It gets it up in the air where it can be seen.


Additions like this next treat the host building as nothing more than a piece of real estate, a plinth and nothing more.

wrok house 1983

It belongs to the same family as lesser-known buildings like this. See here for more.


And this, which I’d forgotten about. Cheers MVRDV.


Here’s an existing building used as a horizontal plinth to showcase … something.


Despite all these parasitic buildings using the host building as real estate, they destroy the existing wholeness as they attempt to assimilate it into its own. They couldn’t not. Here’s an example. Can we say the new whole is any better than the former? Is it even built yet?

 • • •

This concept of the difficult whole is responsible for screwing things up. If extensions and additions aren’t being demeaned and denigrated by unwarranted subservience then they’re being demeaned and denigrated by unwarranted arrogance. I conclude it’s the attempt to create the whole that’s the problem. This isn’t ever pointed out as the problem because – whether the route of subservience or arrogance is chosen – it showcases the architect’s skills in dealing with it. This, I suspect, is what accounts for the persistence of the myth of “The Difficult Whole”.

• • •

But what if there was no such thing as the myth of “The Difficult Whole”? These next two buidings ignore it. They play the cards they’re dealt and manage to be what they are and do what they do whilst acknowledging their hosts. They’re obviously additions. Whilst accepting of their circumstances, they’re not slaves to them. Furthermore, they’re not trying to be anything they’re not.

All the time, we’ve been preoccupied with the difficult bit of The Difficult Whole but I’m suggesting it’s bit about The Whole that’s the myth. After all, who but architects say that architects should presume to control the whole? Here’s two misfits.

First up is the National Architecture Union Headquarters Building, in Bucharest, Romania.


Fab – especially when compared with the heartless Valparaiso building. This approach has a refreshing candour that all the above examples of approaches to extensions and additions lack. And here’s the Campari Headquarters in Milan.


Thank you Campari, and thank you Fortunato Depero for, it would seem, giving Mario Botta the winning idea.




The Mystery of Beauty

We’d all like to believe in some everlasting unchanging measure of worth, architectural or otherwise, but it’s a losing battle. The old Vitruvian warhorse of Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas has been patched and updated for centuries now. Yet still it’s around.


Sure we can think of Firmitas in terms of structure and stability and Utilitas in terms of function or usefulness, but the third quality of Venustas (modernly mistranslated as Delight rather than the more accurate Beautiful because it is moral) is as distant as ever. It is slipping away even further now no-one can believe in Objectivism.

For like most thinkers two millennia ago, Vitruvius was an Objectivist. He believed that certain works of art and architecture had this thing called Beauty that existed, like a spirit in a rock (ffs!), independent of any observer. Later Subjectivists maintained that Beauty is whatever people said it was and a particular brand of Subjectivists called Post-Kantian pluralists took this further and claimed anyone is entitled to have an opinion and, what’s more, it didn’t matter how much that view is shared by others. This seems to best describe the world as we experience it.

To show how modern they were and allow more scope for individual interpretation, Post-Modern architects loaded their buildings with multiple “readings”. They championed freedom of choice but stayed in control of what the choices were.


One recent attempt to incorporate genuine subjectivity into Venustas/Beauty/Delight says it exists when a building communicates the spirit of its purpose. This sounds like it’s being defined in terms of function but to ‘communicate a spirit’ is subjectivity squared. And then multiplied, as we have to accept that buildings communicate different things to different people. There’s still the Post-Modernist smugness in the assumption those communications are always going to be of value at the one end, and accurately and passively received at the other, but the fact remains: If Delight’ exists when the spirit of a building’s purpose is communicated to a target audience, then it seems like it’s really just another name for another type of Utility.

These next bits come from A.C. Grayling’s “Philosophy 1” (Oxford University Press, 1998.)

Past attempts to explain architectural beauty have taken what was conventionally regarded as beautiful as their starting point and dissected them in terms of building elements manipulated to create qualities such as ‘harmony’, ‘proportion’, ‘rhythm’, ‘scale’ and so on.

Identifying what one likes about the things one likes is not a bad place to start, after all.

This classic philosophical stance assumes that beauty is the only, or at least the fundamental, aesthetic quality. Ugliness, blandness, mediocrity are defined negatively as the absence of those qualities. However, even within the same field of art, things considered beautiful are so diverse it’s difficult to imagine a single quality common to them all. This is often given as proof of the mystical and unknowable nature of beauty.

Objectivist philosophers like Vitruvius maintained that some works of art were inherently beautiful regardless of who is observing them. This implies that beauty is governed by rules.

Subjectivist philosophers believe that objects have no aesthetic qualities other than being able to produce certain responses in the person experiencing them. This is what Hume summed up as ‘beauty is no quality in things themselves – it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them’. Hume and, later,  Kant didn’t want to allow beauty to be completely subjective and suggested that differences of aesthetic opinion at least indicate the existence of a something on which opinions differ. They still had to describe the subjective character of aesthetic judgments without permitting a riot of aesthetic opinions.

Either way, the problem remains that 

if aesthetic judgments are to be distinct from mere likings and qualify in some sense as rational, then they must in some sense be open to justification. 

• • •


In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, the concept of Beauty makes its first appearance on page 157.Untitled

Two footnotes point us (forward, annoyingly) towards further explanation

Untitled 2but, for the time being, we’re meant to

  1. Believe in Beauty and that
  2. Beauty, in conjunction with Function, drives architecture.

No justification or evidence. We’re just asked to believe.

double code






The author is obviously an Objectivist at heart for, on the same page, he defines Beauty as “formal resolution” and by doing so implying that Beauty has rules that are followed to a conclusion called a “resolution”. It would be nice to be told what those rules are but I already know without yet having read Vol. II that we’re not going to be.

3.8.3 The Mystery of Beauty.

Here’s the first two paragraphs.

4Did you see that? “Attention to beauty and aesthetic values demarcates architecture from science and engineering.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that Beauty is real, merely that some people like to believe in it. However, if they do believe in Beauty, then they get to feel special – which is fine – but, as is often the case, superior to other people such as scientists and engineers following more rational and provable doctrines.

Here’s the full chapter.

That’s all we get. The last sentence is particularly worrying. Apparently, reflecting upon what Beauty is can’t be done whilst designing, even though Beauty is guiding the design process by (supposedly) telling the designer when he/she/her Dameship has arrived at it. We end the chapter no wiser than we were at the beginning when the author stated “Beauty must be shrouded in mystery in order to fulfil its function in the design process … to bring the design decision process to conclusion …” Total shiite, IMO.

• • •

There’s a lot about this book that worries me and a lot of that has to do with creating the appearance of knowledge and of projecting authority. The methods aren’t new.

The plain cover: This implies that what’s inside is important enough in itself and does not need added fanciness. It’s all about the contents.


There aren’t any pictures: They say a picture’s worth a thousand words and we know what’s meant by that. But why use a picture when you can say it in a thousand words? Another way a book can convey an air of authority is by having a lot of words and by making it appear as if every word is essential.

An intricate system of numerical indexing: This is a way of creating the appearance that every word is not only essential but worth quoting and referencing. Making them easy to find implies they are important enough to be searched for. We’ve just seen how little 3.8.3 had to offer.

Length: I’m estimating The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I weighs in at 180,000 words which is about the same as the 181,253 of the New Testament, but the approx. 300,000 of  Vol. II is well short of the 593,493 words of the Old Testament. A combined total of 480,00 for the Autopoieses against 774,746 for the Old and New Testaments. TAoAI+II is still short of The Good Book OT+NT, but it’s making a challenge.

Difficult to follow: A book of authority is not a page turner. It’s not even meant to be read sequentially. It’s not meant to be taken on holiday to wile away the time in pleasant It commands complete attention and anything less is disrespectful. The continuation of that attention is challenged by contents that morph from thought to thought with scant regard for continuity. But nor are books of authority designed to dipped into every now and then like a box set when the fancy takes one.

Tone: In the same way as sadists and masochists unerringly find each other and call it love, imagined authority finds its natural partner with imagined inferiority. An authoritarian author will make a submissive reader feel they must be stupid if they don’t understand, that they’re lacking in intellect or dedication if the words they read pass before their eyes but the meaning doesn’t penetrate or their argument unfold. Writer and reader are locked in mutually symbiotic relationship.

To this list we can now add

Adopting the structures of religious texts: In The Mystery of Beauty, the author is asking us to:

  1. believe in something whose existence requires an act of faith, 
  2. allow that belief to guide our (design) behaviour and determine when we’ve done good and not bad,
  3. accept that that something we believe in can never be known and 
  4. that it has to be that way in order for the system to work.

This sounds like a religion to me! The real narrative of The Autopoiesis of Architecture is to convey the weight of authority to people willing to believe. If it makes people feel happy and special, then this is not such a bad thing. Schumacher can believe whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t think other people are scum for not thinking the same. Except he does. Ref: Bad Form.

From the first witch doctor onwards, power has been linked to creating the impression of possessing privileged knowledge about how the world works – about what rules have to be followed and how. Mayan priests, for example, convinced their populations that a live person had to be sacrificed every morning if the sun was to rise. It wasn’t the case. 

• • •

Early on in The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Schumacher dismissed the idea that Religion was a Great Communications System on par with art, economics, politics and law and went on to formulate his loose-fit extended analogy illustrating how architecture is one.


Footnote 6, p75

Back then, I didn’t understand why he felt that that was a statement that needed making. I still don’t. If Schumacher doesn’t think that Religion is one of the great functions systems of society, then I don’t think he should adopt the look, feel, argument and purpose of Religion to claim that Architecture is one and, by corollary, position himself as a deliverer of truth.

Gods-SunriseI’m still failing to see the light.


Slum Porn

It might not be true that all architects do is add value to property but, as a yardstick for judging real world results, it’s never done me wrong. In the unreal world of the very rich, it’s all about the amount of money spent on creating something of no actual value other than an as indicator of the amount of money spent to create it. This is often confused with beauty.


And so with architecture. Frank Gehry’s in our faces again. First for being in Spain getting pissed off at a journalist asking if his architecture is about spectacle.

frankgehryfingerI think that’s a “yes”. The week before had seen the media unveiling of his new building thingy for the Louis Vuitton guy, Bernard Arnault Net Worth US$35.3 billion. A building shaped, ostensibly, like a cloud. It’s been a while since the world’s had a cloud-shaped building. It’s not really a cloud of course. Or anything like one to tell the truth.  It just passes for one in the world of architecture because clouds are “natural”, “freeform” and a bit white sometimes. They also have no obvious relationship with the ground.


But you gotta hand it to Gehry. He’s a crafty old dog good at his game which is extracting money from people with too much of it. He’s also skilled at spotting an opportunity to throw that money at a building that will never be a prototype for anything useful. This building sees the conceptual removal of floors. Sweet. This animated gif neatly shows the difference between functional space and architectural space although the  purpose of much of the functional space is no doubt to provide vantage points from which to admire the architectural space.


It has to be so, otherwise the architectural money space is wasted – at least on the inside.


I fully understand what Khrushchev was getting at when he said “We are not against beauty, we are against useless things.”

If you’re not as rich as Bernard Arnault, you can still show people you have a lot of money to spend on somewhere to live – as many times and in as many places as you want or need to be.

russia house

Some people have houses built just to spend summer weekends in.

But the rest can perhaps only ever afford one house or an apartment in which to live.


For those people, their property is probably the largest investment they will ever make but they still think of it as their home and not as an investment vehicle. It’s quite common for people these days to purchase a property as a buy-to-let investment. The end effect of this is to return the UK to a feudal system of landlords and tenants – except this time around the tenants are what’s being farmed.


It makes the old system where people with a bit of spare cash would buy a second house to use as a vacation or holiday house rather quaint even if they did make a bit of money renting it out to other people when they weren’t using it. 

Commodification of supplementary housing on the leisure market takes many forms. With time-share, many-unrelated investors purchase a share of a vacation house and occupy it for negotiated periods of time. An entire industry evolved to build, market and manage such properties.


All these investments still require a significant amount of capital. Another way of staying  someplace you don’t normally live is to stay in a hotel. Hotels are good. They do the same things they always did. They typically have a view, food, bedlinen and hot water better than you’re probably used to.

7492_ho_05_p_1024x768In times gone, some people used to just live in hotels. London’s Savoy Hotel opened in 1889 and had the world’s first serviced apartments. Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress the world had ever known, promptly moved in.


The problem with hotels is that they’re usually too expensive to be a viable form of long-term accommodation. Or, for a lot of us, even short-term accommodation. There are hotels for all budgets but small-scale hotels known as a B&B’s (for bed and breakfast) are popular with budget-conscious travellers and, depending on the location, with vacationers. These are typically people’s houses run as a business. The owner lives there and may even do all the cleaning and cooking. Here’s a particularly nice one if ever you’re in Hertford, Hertfordshire, UK.


With B&B’s, the occupants of the house are running most of the rooms of their house as a hotel and, as with all hotels, the boundaries between owner and guest are clear. It is not a home. It is the commodification of residential space.


Airbnb further blurs those boundaries. In the October 2014 Architectural Review, Luis Ortega Govela notes that

in five years, Airbnb has re-purposed an unprecedented amount of architecture around the world. What used to be the fortress of the family and the individual is now a marketable asset.

The principle already existed in post-war times in many countries when many people took in paying lodgers to monetise a room they might for some reason have spare. It worked well for people looking in other locations for both short or longer-term work. These people were, in a sense, part of the family. Taking in lodgers is a pre-internet example of commodification of the domestic space. Owner/guest boundaries blurred.


The difference is that the internet speeds up and intensifies the process of joining up people wanting to monetise their space with people wanting to pay less for a place to stay. There’s nothing wrong with that. Municipalities worldwide though are miffed at money moving without them taking a cut. Ditto governments.

Airbnb is morphing quickly. People are buying properties in order to rent them via Airbnb and furnishing them with the trappings of attractiveness and authenticity. It’s a fairly conventional relationship between landlord and tenant/guest if the former doesn’t live there. But what if they do? If there are now chatboards sharing advice on how to make one’s living room look more authentic, then what about one’s personality? The commodification of domestic space is nothing compared to the commodification of all those things that make us who we are. In order to make a few extra $$$, will an owner avoid certain topics of conversation, perhaps dress a tad more bohemian than they really are, pretend to be more laidback than they really are, strategically pimp their bookshelves with ecelcticism, suddenly start leaving the olive oil on the kitchen counter if they didn’t already? YOU BET THEY WILL! In our working lives it’s not uncommon to tone it down a bit and adopt an appropriate persona, look and behaviour. When domestic space becomes a money earner, it’s reasonable to expect that the personalities we show others will adapt to suit. Home life, for what it’s worth, will be the same as work life. The domestic sphere becomes a stage-set for staging domesticity for financial gain. We are essentially selling our souls.

Once domestic space is commodified, there’s only personal space left to sell. Sharing one’s bed with paying strangers is probably where this trend is heading. Now, there’s an idea! (I wonder if anyone’s ever thought of that?) As soon as the commodification of personal space is socially acceptable, the only space we’ll have left to be ourselves is in our dreams.

• • •

The August 2014 issue of Architecture Review carried an article calling for an end to the fetishisation of the architecture of the poor. I think they really mean the buildings poor people live in. In all their other writings, what poor people live in isn’t usually counted as architecture but suddenly it’s getting a look-in, or at least a look at. Obviously, there’s money to be made from slum porn somewhere. Despite the talk, there’s little in the way of inquiry into why architecture students and architecture magazines find slum porn so fascinating. This is the cover of October’s Architectural Review.

slum porn cover

My guess is that the buildings the poor live in are the only examples of pure housing left in the world, the only buildings where housing is housing and not somebody’s investment vehicle. Looking at such buildings is the only time we can actually see structures truly function as places for people to live. All the frontmen, middlemen and endmen are absent. It’s a shame that many of those structures are unsafe, unsanitary and unhealthy but there’s an honesty of purpose and dependency. The people need the buildings in order to live with a degree of decency. The buildings need such people to give them a moral reason for existing.

I see this current interest in slum porn as a good thing. It means we haven’t completely lost the capacity to admire the symbiotic good that buildings and people can create, even if we can’t say it out loud. But instead of being architectural voyeurs, we should get a life and experience it for ourselves.

It’s Not Rocket Science #10: Integrated Sanitation and Nutrition

1969: Apollo 11 photographs such as this one were a new way of looking at Earth and making its inhabitants feel special, if a little isolated.

earth-in space

They also heightened awareness of our planet being a self-contained bubble and in the early 1970s, something called “environmental pollution” was identified as a bit of a problem. See here for a brief history of polluting the planet. We’ve come a long way.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada.

1971: The movie Silent Running was set

in a future where all flora is extinct on Earth. An astronaut is given orders to destroy the last of Earth’s botany, kept in a greenhouse aboard a spacecraft.

Woooo man, that’s heavy!


But it’s good people began to think about the long-term consequences of this thing called pollution. Silent Running is “a sci-fi classic”. It’s also dire. It’s future scenario is nowhere near as dismal as the movie itself. Everything about it is bad: the premise, the casting, the acting, the plot, the costumes, Bruce Dern’s facial hair, Bruce Dern’s hair, the mysterious ubiquity of gravity and, well, hell, it’s technical consultation in general.


The lead spaceship is the Valley Forge, it’s very name a metaphoric minefield. Imagine arch-metabolist Kiyonori Kikutake’s Expo ’70 Expo Tower recumbent.


Recycling was in the air already it seems – and just as well.


1973: With the First Oil Crisis, the mood was gloomier but more real. Professor Frank Bowerman was technical consultant for the movie Soylent Green.


With the world ravaged by the greenhouse effect and overpopulation, an NYPD detective investigates the murder of a CEO with ties to the world’s main food supply.


Professor Frank R. Bowerman was

former director of environmental engineering programs, at the University of Southern California, and former president of the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and the American Academy for Environmental Protection. 

They named the mother of all landfills after him, but that’s another story.


We don’t know the content of Professor Bowman’s technical consultations but, given the theme of the movie, they’d have had something to do with an integrated waste and food cycle. [SPOLIER ALERT!]


These next people do it better, with fewer ethical problems but a lot less drama. It’s one of those occasional things that give one hope.

What’s not so encouraging is that it was 1988. The kids in this movie are maybe in their mid-30s now. I hope they made it. I haven’t heard much about the non-technology lately.


I think the reason why is that although we might say we’re concerned about food miles, shitting into a bioreactor is just too close for comfort. We say “Waste is a Valuable Resource” but we really don’t understand what it means to walk the walk. No matter how artificially it’s produced, we prefer the feelgood factor of a bit of homegrown and are going to endless lengths to keep the dream alive.


We’re simply too emotionally attached to eating plants to have time for scum like algae.

Since 1974, the United Nations has strongly supported Spirulina “as the best food for the future”,[44] and established the Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition in 2003.

Ever heard of it? I hadn’t either.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, both NASA (CELSS)[46] and the European Space Agency (MELISSA)[47] proposed Spirulina as one of the primary foods to be cultivated during long-term space missions.

What happened? They found out how to make coffee in space, and how to heat up pasta. Here’s a brief history of food in space. One of the first off-planet misdemeanours we know about was when the crew of Gemini III snuck a corned beef sandwich on their spaceflight. 

2014: “Interstellar”. 


A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.  

Now why would they want to do this? Yep, Earth’s screwed. Again. It’s food is running out. The wheat is blighted, the okra’s out. Every able body is needed to help grow corn. tells us that

part of the space exploration that takes place in Interstellar happens because we are in need of new soil to grow crops. 



But CORN! They’re growing corn FFS! Old habits die hard. If they die at all. Here’s the nutritional data for maize – “corn” if you like.


Here’s a corn yield calculator. Do the mathematics and it’ll be clear


Those first photographs of Earth from space made people think of our planet as “Spaceship Earth”. It was a good thing. But if spaceship food is nutritionally adequate but in culturally comforting shapes, colours and textures, then the future of nutrition on earth (as well as architecture, FWIW) doesn’t look that promising either. If ever somewhere (other than Earth, that is) needed an integrated sanitation and nutrition system it’s the International Space Station. Instead, everything gets frozen and compressed and brought back here.


Even if we accept that we’re only going to pay attention to high and expensive technology instead of the simple and inexpensive things that not only work but do some human good, the International Space Station is not setting a very good example for Spaceship Earth.


Home Growin’

So what’s for dinner then?

Over on (Prudent Reasonable Emergency Preparedness) Thoreau has done the groundwork for how much land you need to feed one person per year. He allows 145 kg of carbs (55% of total calories), 35 kg per year of fats (35%) and 35 kg per year of proteins (15%) per person, and reckons that 4,700 sq.m (1.16 acres) per person is sufficient.

This amounts to 2,500 sq.m for the main carb and protein crops, another 400 sq.m for supplemental protein in the form of legumes, 1,750 sq.m for dietary fat as oilseed and 50 sq.m for the vitamins and minerals of miscellaneous fruit and vegetables. 100% vegan. He bases his calculations on 2,740 calories per day which, if you’re going to be fully occupied growing your own food, you’re probably going to need. You’ll survive then, if you have 4,700 sq.m of land.


photo courtesy

As ever, the landed have it going for them. But what about us city dwellers? =(


We’re still going to need approx. 2,000 calories as 50% carbs, 25% fats, and 25% proteins. This menu, courtesy of, provides 1,929 calories as 250 grams carbohydrate, 140 grams protein, and 41 grams fat. Looks good.


Egg’n Muffin: 1 egg, 1/2 ounce ham, 1 slice low-fat cheese, 1 English muffin, 1 tsp. reduced-fat margarine
Orange Juice (1 cup)


Fruit Yogurt (1 cup) & Bran Mix (1 T.)
Water with Lime Twist (1 cup)


Tropical Chicken Salad: 1.5 ounce chicken breast, 1/8 cup low-fat cottage cheese, 1.5 ounces pineapple, 1 teaspoon reduced-calorie mayonnaise, orange peel, 1/4 cup grapes, 1/8 cup waterchestnuts, chives, 1/8 cup tangerines, 1 cup spinach, 1 tsp. almonds)
Three Bean Salad: 1/3 cup each green beans, yellow beans and kidney beans; onion, vinegar, sugar substitute)
Reduced-Fat Wheat Crackers (4 crackers)
Baked Apple (1/2 large)
Iced Tea with Lemon (1 cup)


Fat-Free Fig Bars (2 bars)
Skim Milk (1 cup)


Garlic Chicken: 5 ounces cooked chicken breast, 1/4 cup light wheat bread crumbs, 1/8 cup skim milk, 1/4 garlic clove, 1 tsp. tabasco, lemon juice
Wild Rice (1 cup)
Zucchini/Summer Squash Medley (1 cup)
Light Pound Cake: 1 serving, topped with strawberries (1/4 cup) and whipped topping (2 T.)
Diet Soda (12 ounces)

Mmm – garlic chicken!

I don’t know what you were imagining, but here’s what the world looks like for chickens (and eggs!) labelled “free range”. How many do you think you’re going to be able to humanely keep per square metre?


I’m not promoting battery chicken farms, but we’ve got an ethical problem heading our way.


Let’s keep it real. Unless we’re seriously thinking of keeping chickens and pigs, growing orange trees and harvesting grain in our urban gardenfarmettes, we’re going to have to forego breakfast. And morning snack. Things start looking up around lunchtime as we should to be able to grow spinach and at least one type of bean. For dinner, we can have garlic, zucchini and squash followed by strawberries.


Okay. Let’s see what a 2,000-calorie vegan diet looks like. They’ve made it easy.


It’s not going to happen either. In all likelihood, in our urban farms, we’re not going to grow tea, coffee, nuts, grains, seaweed, fruit trees or vines. We might be able to grow bok choi, cucumbers, tomatoes, chrysanthemums (but why?), berries, soy beans, carrots, celery, strawberries, chick peas and melons. Even with a vegan diet it’s going to be impossible to be self-sufficient in protein. It makes one wonder how the human race ever survived long enough to get to where we are now.


And even if the Japanese invent the electric tofu maker (whoops, they have), we’ll have to eat at least a kilo of the stuff per day to get our 125g. First though, we’ll need to make soy milk.

Actually, first we’re going to need some soybeans. They’re good nutritional value. Let’s see if they’re spatial value too. If their calories/m3/month don’t stack up, we might be better off keeping chickens. Here’s some soybean yield data. Let’s say it peaks at 40 bushels per acre, whatever that is.


1 bushel/acre = 67 kg/10,000m2 Thank you so much, even though it’s bad news. It’s equivalent to 6.7 grams/m2. We’re going to get only 30 calories (and only 2.4g of protein) per square meter every three to five months it takes the crop to mature. We’re screwed. Conventional food and conventional (soil based) means of food production aren’t going to do it. We need huge increases in protein yield per square (or cubic) metre.

What about taking another look at algae – or spirulina? It’s looking good!


Here‘s how to grow it. It’s not rocket science.


6-10g of spirulina per square metre per day. Taking the high end of 10, that’s 5.7 grams of protein per square metre per day. That’s a better bet than the 6.7 grams of soybean protein per square metre every 90-120 days. Soybeans, even though we’ve sort of just gotten used to them, are going to be retro food for reactionaries.

Even if we gear up for spirulina to satisfy our functional protein requirements, people will still want to shape and colour it to look like roast beef, chicken or fish much like Post Modernism did for functional arrangements of columns and slabs.


But this is not a post about the aesthetics or the cultural meanings of food. It’s about what we need to get in us. I’d like to separate these two concepts before they get totally muddled. Japanese people, for example, eat a lot of rice. It’s not because they have to. They can eat anything they wish but they like to eat rice because Japanese people eat rice. Eating rice makes them feel more Japanese. So before we get all Post-Modern and cultural referency about food requirements real or imagined, physiological or culturo-tribal, I’d just like to repeat that this post is purely about physiological nutrition and not about cultural sustenance (W/eTF that is) or socio-cultural well-being (DittoTF) in any sense other than that.

• • •

Even though it must have been common knowledge once, there’s probably a PhD in it for someone who can find out how much growing needs to be done and in how much space. If we assume everything we grow is at least as nutrient dense as a carrot (and that everything combined makes for a balanced diet – two huge assumptions), then two square metres per person just might do it. With a bit of soil and supplementary lighting, this area you may recognise might be more than enough for four persons. Some nutritionally dubious things are already growing there.



The UK is in two minds about large supermarkets.

Mind #1.

big retail

Mind #2. 


There’s nothing romantic about what’s replaced it either


although some attempt faux-countryside Tesco, Meir Park, Stoke-on-Trent

or equally faux architectural-media stylings. Here’s an eco-friendly, sustainable supermarket designed by the CHQ Partnership. It didn’t stop the rot.


And nor did smaller stores in central London, partly because the limited range of goods on offer didn’t satisfy any nutritional need other than a fast lunch. From this photo, you can’t even tell the store sells food.


Urban farmers’ markets are often given as a virtuous alternative to large supermarkets – and a fun day out too! – but have a reputation for being expensive, selling niche produce and not being open all the time.


This is Chapel Market, near Angel Islington, London.

Angel_chapel_market_1It’s been selling vegetables, fish and other useful food since about 1880.


This traditional typology had all but disappeared in London. It was only Chapel Market’s merger with the more expensive and upmarket farmer’s markets that made people realise it’s not such a bad way to shop after all (unless it’s a Mondays, or a Thursday or Sunday afternoon).

The US has its Walmarts and its Ralphs, but its history of food retail typologies has been less tumultuous for New Yorkers, or at least it has for those living Upper West Side.


The traditional grocer typology has adapted well, although these stores aren’t small or all independent anymore. The range of products behind their fruity frontages is enormous. They’re 24-hour and have free delivery. Their aisles may be narrow, but they are truly convenient. It looks like they sell food.

With the superstore typology, sellers ask consumers to bear the cost of collecting their food from the point of purchase. With the New York model, it’s irrelevant. It’s true that, in NY, the point of purchase may be closer to the point of consumption but how far the goods have actually travelled to get there is another matter. It’s the distance between the point of production of food and the point of consumption that’s the problem with food miles, not where it’s paid for. Even on the basis that food and shelter are both primary human requirements, it makes sense to bring food production closer to where it is consumed. The good arguments for this have been made elsewhere by people other than me.

• • •

It’s what Tyler Caine is suggesting when he writes on, that vertical farms need a residential piggyback. In another post describing a recent vertical farm proposal, Caine makes the reasonable point that not all vertical farming proposals have to be for Manhattan. Most cities don’t have Manhattan’s density or the land values that generates it but, the mindset goes, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

Hive-Inn City Farm NYC

The problem is that the reasons Manhattan is dense are the same reasons land values are high. And vice-versa. Any non-residential use has to compete for land with residential. This is how the law of the jungle works in cities.   

Now IF the growing of fruit and vegetables is to be actually integrated with, and presumably add some sort of value to, residential space, then the options are:

  1. near where people live (like an remote allotment) and/or
  2. within the living space itself, and/or
  3. adjacent to the living space itself, and/or
  4. on top of the living space itself.

I’ll think about this in some later post. First of all though what do we plant? And how much of it do we need to plant? Lebbeus Woods and several generations of architecture students since have visually prepared us for any manner of post-apocalyptic architectural scenarios but WHAT’S FOR DINNER? Seriously, what’s the point of living in a monochromatic dystopian future if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from? These things need thinking about too.


We’ll be fine for wheatgrass and strawberries it seems, but, if we’re going to get serious about feeding ourselves, we’d be better off considering the problem of food from the other direction and first determining how much of what we’re going to need to eat and then going about trying to ensure we’ll be able to grow it. The following is a chart showing the elements humans need to survive. Traditionally, we get these from food. It’s a good system.

elementsThese elements have to be provided as a certain number of calories. Here’s a list. Let’s assume each of us needs 2,000 (k)cals per day even though this will be too much for some and insufficient for others.

caloriesThere’s disagreement of course as to how those calories should be provided.

Photo Feb 12, 2013, 10_42 AM

The popular smartphone app MyFitnessPal suggests 55% carbs, 30% fat, 15% protein but the Mayo Clinic suggests 45-65% carbs, 20-35% fat and 10-35% protein. In order to outline a way of thinking as well as for ease of calculation, I’ll use 50% carbs, 25% fat and 25% protein. This means that each day, to maintain weight, our average person needs a minimum amount of those necessary elements provided as

1000 calories from carbs, 500 calories from fats, and 500 calories from protein.

Next, we take this on board per gram of each.

Macronutrient Calories Kilojoules
Protein 4 16.7
Fat 9 37.7
Carbohydrate 4 16.7

This means

250g of carbs from natural, nutrient-dense carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, and whole grains.

125g of proteins from mainly plant sources of protein, such as beans, lentils, soy products and unsalted nuts, or seafood, lean or low-fat meat, poultry and dairy.

56g of unsaturated fats from healthier sources, such as lean poultry, fish and healthy oils, such as olive, canola and nut oils.

Every. Day.

The thing is, we know our minimal nutrient requirements. They’re not a problem. What we don’t yet know is what plants and how much of them can satisfy those minimal nutrient requirements in ways that are economically and spatially viable for urban farming, vertical or otherwise.  We need to know this before we rush ahead and start designing vertical farms. If we don’t, then all we’ll end up with is symbols for vertical farm architecture, instead of vertical farm architecture that achieves it. It’ll all go tits up the same way green roofs did. 

If this seems familiar, it should. Remember what Radical Functionalism tried to do for housing? Personally, I don’t see what’s so radical about

  1. Determining what the minimum standards are.
  2. Satisfying them.
  3. Trying to do it better.

Well, let’s try it again and see what we can do for food. I’m not saying everyone should eat the minimum and no more. Or denying a place in the world for food as performance art or decadent pleasure. All I’m suggesting is that we should determine a baseline for minimum performance so that strategies to achieve that minimum can be devised, compared and refined.

Okay? Good. Let’s now plan a menu and, on the basis of that, a harvesting list so we know what we need to go out and get. To make things easier, we’ll eat the same things every day. We need 250g of carbs, 56g of fats, and 125g of proteins from the things we grow.

100g carrot = 10g carbs and 40 calories

Now, your average carrot is 75g and 30 calories. One carrot plant doesn’t take up much space, but if I need five carrots every four days then I have to plant five carrots for the four days I eat one. The amount of time it takes them to reach maturity will determine the size of my carrot patch.

A carrot takes twelve weeks to grow to maturity. I can plant carrot seedlings 5cm apart.

To get 10g of carbs in 40 calories per day from carrots alone, I need to plant 12 (weeks) x 7 days = 84 days, x 1.25 carrots/day = 105 carrots, @ 5cm x 5cm = √105 (= 10.24) x (5cm x 5cm) ≈ 0.25 sq.m. Just for me. Of course, I’d plant and harvest all the carrots at the same time and store them to use as I needed but the point is that, at full yield and constant cultivation, that 0.25 sq.m (2.6 sq. ft) of space is only providing me with 15% of my daily calories. This is where spatial footprint and efficiency of cultivation enter the equation.

This is the reason why things get grown in out-of-town places and foreign countries. This is why fertilisers and pesticides are used. This is why much production is mechanised. This is why farms are large. Urban agriculture will have to have a superior cost efficiency if it is to ever supplant conventional farming practices.

I’ll explore this more in my next post but, for now, I’ll just say that we need to view fancy architectural proposals for urban and/or vertical farms in terms of some standardised index of nutritional efficiency. Even a metric as simple as calories per cubic metre per month would enable us to meaningfully compare proposals like this


against what we have now. Sometime in the the future, we might have to decide between architecture or sustenance.

Meijer Mastronardi Photo 8

The Orangery

Some of mankind’s earliest attempts to understand climate came from observing simple natural phenomena such as slope aspect. The slope on the left faces north and supports a different type of vegetation from the slope on the right which faces south and is drier. Slope_effect It didn’t take long in the history of civilisation to figure out that tall plants like olive trees are best grown on south facing slopes as they receive more light. Planting them in north-south rows meant less mutual shading. Olive_trees_reflected_waters_Barragem_Alqueva_Portugal_20120908 Low plants such as grape vines were best planted on south-facing slopes in rows running east-west. Grape vines produce more sugar in proportion to the sunlight they receive – a fact exploited by winemakers since about the 2nd century. 080110_zell_mosel Grape vines are also an example of espalier which is the practice of training fruit trees to grow in only two dimensions such as this. It’s another way of getting more light to the fruit. 2380032802_e367608223_o The next step in the evolution of this knowledge was the fruit wall. Not this fruitwall®!


It’s true that not everything has to be kept in the refrigerator but misfits readers will know that the ethylene given off by the apples will facilitate the ripening and premature decay of the other fruit.

A fruit wall is when espalier happens against a wall. The wall provides support and, if it faces south, reflects light back to the plant whilst its thermal mass absorbs and then emits heat that extends the growing season of the plant.

This now brings us to oranges! We think the orange was first cultivated in China around 2500 BC but, sometime in the 16th century, Portuguese merchants introduced the sweet orange to the Mediterranean countries.

The word entered Late Middle English in the fourteenth century via Old French orenge (in the phrase pomme d’orenge). The French word, in turn, comes from Old Provençal auranja, based on Arabic nāranj. In several languages, the initial n present in earlier forms of the word dropped off because it may have been mistaken as part of an indefinite article ending in an n sound—in French, for example, une norenge may have been heard as une orange. The sweet orange quickly was adopted as an edible fruit. It also was considered a luxury item and wealthy people grew oranges in private conservatories, called orangeries. By 1646, the sweet orange was well known throughout Europe.

Orangeries wouldn’t have been possible without the development of glass.

The orangery originated from the Renaissance gardens of Italy, when glass-making technology enabled sufficient expanses of clear glass to be produced. In the north, the Dutch led the way in developing expanses of window glass in orangeries.

Their elevated internal temperatures of orangeries were the result of what we now know as solar gain, and the sun hitting the thermal mass of the floor. Wealthy people were delighted to have a new function to add to already oversized houses but, although orangeries started off as showing off your oranges and that you were wealthy enough to grow them, they soon became full-time places for banqueting and showing off in general.

The orangery, however, was not just a greenhouse but a symbol of prestige and wealth and a feature of gardens, in the same way as a summerhouse, folly or “Grecian temple”. Owners would conduct their guests there on tours of the garden to admire not only the fruits within but the architecture without. Often the orangery would contain fountains, grottos, and an area in which to entertain in inclement weather.

This orangery in Kuskovo circa 1760 was never used for orange trees even though its sloping walls – a Dutch innovation – allow more light than regular glazing. The Russian for orange, btw, is apelsin (апельсин).Kuskovo_orangerie Even today, it is a common Russian courtesy to offer guests an orange – or so we were told in 2008 when Foster & Partners were hyping this project that was quickly dubbed “Project Orange”. Check out the model. The project gets no mention on the F&P website. All that remains is a bit of internet debris on e-architect.

2008 Project Orange, Moscow, Russia Feasibility Study The 80,000 sqm scheme for a contemporary art museum with commercial elements and housing is for development firm Inteco. The project is influenced by natural structures including that of the orange, a historic symbol of opulence in Russia. The circular plan, with five segments rising to 15 storeys, is designed to protect against the cold winter climate while allowing light deep into the building through glazed slots in the elevation.project_orange_fosters160408_2

I remember reading somewhere that this is what Foster & Partners are good at – dressing up high-tech PoMo whimsy with eco-justifications. I’ve never forgotten it. Technically speaking, an orangery is a greenhouse attached to a house. It’s heated by solar gain only. They enabled orange trees to be cultivated in locations where they’d otherwise not survive the winter frosts. Even today, gardeners will uproot their geraniums (an import from South Africa) and store them in a greenhouse for replanting in spring. Click here for tips on how to over-winter your geraniums. geraniums Hothouses are greenhouses that are artificially heated to create an internal environmentthat enables the cultivation and appreciation of exotic plants that would otherwise not survive whatever the season. The Orangery at Schöenbrunn Palace is a hothouse as it was heated by a hypocaust system. That’s underfloor heating such as used by the Romans. Here’s the principle. Hypocaust This orangery was used for overwintering orange trees but a fair share of entertaining took place as well. historische

For as long as the time of the Habsburgs the Orangery was a place of musical and artistic festivities. During one of these events, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri competed in a musical contest at court – a contest still considered unique in music history.

The advent of steam boilers coupled with the Victorian passion for colonialism and the attendant bounties/curios it brings, led to a boom in botany as well as hothouses, even though they usually came to be called conservatories. A conservatory is a basically a sunroom with decorative plants to create or enhance the illusion of being outside. This is a conservatory. conservatory 2 If a greenhouse is specially heated for the sake of the plants it contains, then it is a hothouse. If a greenhouse is heated for the sake of its human users, then it is a conservatory – a substantially glazed room that may or may not contain plants exotic. Even though one of the first uses of skylights was Burlington Arcade in 1719, it was at least another hundred years before glass skylights became a standard feature of orangeries, hothouses and conservatories. These days, we think of a hothouses as where vegetables – especially tomatoes – are grown for profit. Flowers too. Meijer Mastronardi Photo 8 These days, an orangery is probably where someone you know will have their wedding reception. 4671_Orangery-Reception-medium-resOr ceremony. margam-orangery-wedding-16 And these days, a conservatory is what your suburban neighbour is requesting planning permission for. It probably looks like this – an addition, substantially glazed, aesthetically external to the “main composition” yet attached to it on one side, preferably south. The parapet wall and internal gutter are residual stylistic affectations. orangery-pic-2 Inside, your neighbour’s conservatory will probably look like this – some extra living space with a bit more glazing than usual. orangery-culcheth-warrington-cheshire-001 It was never going to end well for orangeries. What began as an exercise in reducing food miles by providing oranges with conditions for their growth ended with people wanting that warmth and light for themselves. Thomas Jefferson engraving after painting by Rembrandt Peale. The demise of the orangery was played out many times but the “orangery” Thomas Jefferson had built at Monticello was a precursor for them all, going from functioning greenhouse to family sitting room over the twenty years from 1807–1827. 3445111406_8b0817a4e9_z Jefferson, like many gentlemen of the time, was an amateur botanist and people around the world shipped him specimens.

Whether or not these strange species from a distant land thrived or were even planted remains a mystery. As with a multitude of plants Jefferson received from his friends throughout his life, he did not record their fate. What Jefferson did record made the prospect of maintaining any sort of tender plant doubtful. His weather observations from January 1810 noted his bedroom temperature at 37 degrees Fahrenheit and the greenhouse at 21 degrees. In April 1811, a year before the Cape bulbs arrived, he wrote to McMahon [the man sending Jefferson plants from South Africa]:
“You enquire whether I have a hot house, greenhouse, or to what extent I pay attention to these things. I have only a green house and have used that only for a very few articles. My frequent and long absences at a distant possession render my efforts even for the few greenhouse plants I aim at abortive. During my last absence in the winter, every plant I had in it perished.”
Jefferson’s admission to McMahon himself of this inhospitable environment suggests that perhaps McMahon was encouraging Jefferson to make an effort to provide some heat. In any case, by 1816 most references to plants for the “green house department” were in the distant past. Jefferson’s South Piazza was serving more as a storage space and utilitarian room where he kept his large rectangular work bench and chest of tools that he had acquired in London. 

Correspondence between Jefferson’s granddaughters in later years indicated that plants were actually removed from the frigid greenhouse during winter months. Cornelia Randolph wrote to her sister Virginia on December 1, 1820, “I had all our plants moved into the dining room before I left home and yours along with them. I hope they may be able to bear this bitter cold weather.” Again, on October 31, 1825, Cornelia would write, this time to her sister Ellen, “Mary and myself are established in mama’s room with all her furniture and the sunny window in which I shall range my green house plants when the weather is cold enough to take them in . . .”
By the end of his life, Jefferson’s greenhouse appears to have functioned more as an enclosed porch, Seven months after his death, Mary Jefferson Randolph wrote to Nicholas Trist that “the green house had been used so long as a common sitting room for the whole family that there were many of our things in it and in packing up some may have escaped our observation.” The following year she described again the transformation of the greenhouse space in a letter to Ellen Randolph Coolidge: “How often I wish I could see your two sweet babies, added to the four that now run about the house or roll and tumble on the floor in the green house, which serves as a very pleasant little sitting room for us, during part of the day (when the sun does not shine upon the windows) and is at all times a favourite play place for the children.”

The question then is, why didn’t he just build a house with a space like that to start with? And why doesn’t everybody else? True, at 21°F (-6.1°C) in January, it probably wasn’t a favourite place to play, but it seems like it wasn’t such a bad place to be otherwise. You don’t have to be an orange to appreciate some sunlight and warmth during the day. This then brings us back to Lacaton & Vassal’s Lapatie House. lapatie house interior Lapatie HouseWhen it gets too cold for sitting you can withdraw and let your orange trees winter there .