Career Case Study #5: Richard Leplastrier


1939: Born in Melbourne, Australia
1963: Graduated from Sydney University
1964–1966: Worked in the Sydney office of Jørn Utzon.

In 1963, Utzon set up office in Sydney for one reason only, so Leplastrier did something related to the Sydney Opera House. As a 25 year-old graduate, it probably wasn’t any decision-making but the atmosphere at the time must have been electric given the controversy the building generated. The RIBA website says “[Leplastrier] had an extraordinary apprenticeship with Jørn Utzon, with whom he worked at the time of the Sydney Opera House and they became good friends.” If the third image below is actually from 1964 it shows construction beginning for the geometry rationalised by ARUP.

Joern-Utzon-unpacking-SydneJoern Utzon displays a diagram of a detail of the Sydney Opera House.531465-the-sydney-opera-house

Utzon’s design concept for the Sydney Opera House was of something heavy and seemingly floating

content_aboutus_utzondesignprinciples (dragged)

but Utzon brought with him to Australia other, more useful, ideas that had their root in Japan. Here’s his 1953 Middelboe House.


If one were to have had long conversations with Jørn Utzon between 1964 and 1966, it would have been great to learn what Utzon knew about the selection the assembly of materials. We don’t know if Leplastrier learned anything from the design or construction of the Sydney Opera House itself. The Sydney Opera House was to open in 1973 but Utzon left the project in 1966 –as did Leplastrier who went to Kyoto University where Tomoya Masuda was teaching.

Masuda was more traditionalist than Metabolist despite his Matsumura Oil Company Offices of 1967.

Matsumura Oil Head Office, 196751Z5etDEvRL._SX490_BO1,204,203,200_920190

No degree is mentioned so I’m guessing it was one of those informal arrangements that existed at the time in Japanese universities. And in companies too, for between Kyoto University and 1966 and 1970, Leplastrier also spent time in the Tokyo office of Kenzo Tange.


Tange’s office were at the time responsible for the upcoming Expo ’70 masterplan and already had a reputation for large masterplanning projects around the world.

1970: Leplastrier returned to Australia and started his own practice. We hear no more of Tange.

1974-76: Palm Garden House, Northern Beaches, Sydney


1981-84 1989-90: Belligen House and Studio, New South Wales
1988-91: Rainforest House, Mapleton, Queensland

Rainforest House

1988-92: Tom Uren House, Balmain, Sydney
1994: Lovett Bay House, Sydney

lovett bay

1996: Cloudy Bay Retreat, Bruny Island, Tasmania

Cloudy Bay Retreat

1997: Watson’s Bay House, Sydney


1997-8, 2000: Blue Mountains House and Studio, Leura, New South Wales
2002 Design Centre Tasmania, Launceston (with David Travalia)


2004–2006: Public Toilets, George’s Head (part of the George’s Head Lookout project)


You can find out more about the projects here, at the Offical Website of Architecture Foundation Australia and the Glenn Murcutt Masterclasses which Leplastrier also teaches. The Architecture Foundation Australia is a not-for-profit organisation and the Glenn Murcutt Masterclasses are a two-week residential summer program for 32 participants. FAQ here.

Richard Leplastrier is a key figure in Australian architecture and architectural education. His architecture is sensitive to place and to culture and he uses his studio as a teaching room as well as a place to make architecture. 

Richard is always spoken about in relation to Glenn Murcutt and his reputation is possibly diminished by this.

It does not help that he shies away from publicity and has little interest in having his projects published. Yet he is the key philosophical influence behind much of the best work we see from Australia today. He provides the backbone of thinking and belief. 

These are some things I’ve read.

  • His buildings are sensitive to issues of culture and place.
  • Oriental philosophy tempers his outlook on life and, in particular, his understanding of the meaning and role of shelter.
  • His buildings interpret and explore the notion of the primal shed through simple, minimal constructions in which alcoves, sleeping niches, work desks, and dining spaces are worked and reworked, taking on the minimal, multi-functional character of a ship’s interior.
  • His buildings offer intriguing and insightful interpretations of natural ventilation, solar shading, and the tectonic accommodation of the changing weather and seasons.”

I find more to admire in the following.

  • He constantly asks himself “How little do we need?” and designs his buildings accordingly. I read somewhere that Leplastrier also lives accordingly. This too is virtuous but I don’t need to know that. I can appreciate the buildings just as well without a cult of personality being erected around them. 
  • He is renowned and recognized for only using resources close by in an endeavor to minimize the impact on the environment as much as possible. This is good.
  • His building can be easily disassembled, thereby fulfilling the touch-the-ground-lightly dictum. This too is good on the surface but in a previous post I questioned why a useful building should need to be disassembled. There aren’t getting any fewer people in the world and that land is unlikely to revert to primordial landscape.
  • Leplastrier seems to have little or no taste for marketing and publicity. This is both good and bad. I applaud his distaste for the whole nasty business. Some might say that teaching is a form of publicity and it’s true, some architects so teach as a means of marketing and publicity. Some of those hold teaching positions more for the imagined prestige rather than any pedagogic drive. Some teach to smooth out the cashflow and there are some who teach because they feel they have something to teach. In a canny inversion of the basic business contract, some architects ask people to pay to do their work under the guise of education.


Whatever Leplastrier’s reasons for teaching, coming into contact with thirty-two people for two weeks once or twice a year doesn’t seem much. I can’t help feeling that if one really has ideas and attitudes of real use to the world, then one has a duty to broadcast them generally and globally in the hope others in non-specific places might find those ideas or approaches of benefit.

• • •

The more I try to find out about Lepastrier the more I sense journalism rushing to fill a vacuum.

The Cult of Craft

It’s a shame to see Leplastrier’s buildings celebrated so much for their cult of craft that owes so much to the Japanese. I see it in things such as the circular window openings at the Lovett’s Bay house, the staircase and its “stone” landing in the Watson’s Bay house, and the curved RSJ above the entrance at the design centre in Tasmania, or its fancy screen timber work, lovely though it is. Only the Japanese can use simplicity as ornament signifying a cultural refinement – theirs. This is not a very useful trait for architecture. I can’t help thinking there’s more to be gained from trying to replicate the sublime ordinariness Leplastrier generates in his buildings rather than focussing on how personal or cultural, idiosyncratic or overthought certain details may be.


The Japanese system of constructing buildings continues to be worthy of learning from but what we don’t remember is that Utzon’s houses predate Tange’s and Shinohara’s.

It wasn’t just Utzon. His Danish contemporaries also took ordinary pieces of timber and infill panels, arranged them with the economy and clarity of Japanese construction but without the cult of culture, and made it into what’s now remembered as the Golden Age of Danish Architecture. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #15: Knud Peter Harboe] They had a good thing going for a while. I wonder if those Danish architects had any awareness they were making Golden Danish Architecture?

The Cult of Culture

To firmly link attitudes and ideas and buildings to a specific country is to place them squarely in the world as national cultural artefacts, discouraging them from being perceived in terms of value as prototypes for wider application worldwide.

“There is a growing movement in Australian architecture that stems from a recognition of the uniqueness of this land. A recognition of the indigenous culture’s management of this continent for tens of thousands of years, and that this embodied knowledge forms a powerful cultural base for our future development. A recognition also, that it was this very land that formed their society in the first place, and that this land has primacy in forging of our character.”

This is all true. What never gets mentioned is that the indigenous culture lived for millennia without concepts of money or the possession of property. Needless to say, they managed to also do without an architecture poetically articulating the possession of money and property. I don’t think this circle can be squared.

The Cult of Personality


• • •

I would like to see someone apply the worthy attitudes and sublime ordinariness of Leplastrier’s buildings to suburban housing or an urban apartment building, something, anything, that doesn’t rely upon the celebration of land for its aesthetic worth. 

Until that time, I have to remain open to the notion that we as Australians are merely approving cultural artefacts that project to the world an impossibly idealised image of ourselves vis-á-vis architecture and our country.




Advance of the Sheds

For every force there is an equal and opposite reaction. As the level of amenity, let alone luxury, people can reasonably aspire to steadily lessens, the market for Architecture must continually expand downwards by appropriating materials, configurations and concepts formerly the realm of Building.

The absence of applied finishes occurs in vernacular buildings as the expedient use of resources but when appropriated by architecture becomes a value-adding vernacular revival.

The rational forms of engineering design seen in bridges, ships, rural buildings and the replicated products of industrial design are incorporated into isolated architectural statements.


The rational buildings of industrial design became the reluctant carriers of architectural statements.


No sooner had a minimum quantity of daylight been recognised as promoting health and well-being in the mid-1920s, the quality of that light became a definition of architecture.


The concept of prefabrication is a useful one for building but Architecture has been very wary of adopting it as anything but a metaphor for a modern society that somehow never seems to arrive.

Eames House - 05

Prefabrication implies replication for diverse purposes and locations. Prefabrication is not when non-identical glazing panels are fabricated offsite. Many building components are fabricated beforehand elsewhere.


Prefabrication seems incompatible with a concept of Architecture.  If Architecture grapples with it at all, it is on the level of “exploring ways to make it socially acceptable” or “to obtain as much variation as possible from prefabricated components”. Either way, the result is to pretty it up without challenging any prejudices, and destroying its virtues in the process.

The spirit of living with fewer possessions was artfully articulated by Pawsonesque Minimalism that not only hides all your vulgar possessions but vulgar construction joins as well. $ublime.


Green roofs had the capacity to do useful things for both internal energy performance as well as the greater environment but came to be regarded as a metaphor for those things detached from any tangible benefits they may have or have had.

Environmental parameters, being quantifiable, ought to have a place in a Parametric architecture, but no. Parametricism steers well clear of any parameter that could generate genuine building form.


Sheds are useful and, as they are in the sights of an ever-downwardly shifting Architecture, are prime candidates for assimilation into Architecture.

The Advance of the Sheds

As part of its downward spread, Architecture is beginning to assimilate sheds and lumbering them with cultural and intellectual baggage.

Here’s a recent German shed. It’s a well mannered shed but not without architectural pretensions such as the square windows, the inside-outside thing, the heavy-on-light thing, the dark-on-bright thing.


This one, in Japan, is very sheddy on the outside but very Skandi-Muji on the inside. Square windows again.


Here’s Go Hasegawa’s House in Komae from 2009,

house in komae

his House in a Forest from 2006,

Go Hasegawa & Associates . House in a Forest . Nagano (3)

and Pilotis in a Forest from 2011.


This next shed featured in an earlier post.


The previous two houses had an air of primitive hut about them but it’s not so easy to say anything pretentious about this one. If you said “pilotis” you’d only make a fool of yourself. “Takes advantage of the view”? It’s on a hill. The site looks large enough to not need a two storey building. “Touches the ground lightly”?

“A bicycle shed is a building. Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture” goes Nicholas Pevsners’ famous definition. We knew what he meant,


but he spelt it out anyway.“Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.” 

Pevsner displays his century’s prejudices by his choice of examples. For him, a bicycle is an item useful for the satisfactory performance of the physical aspects of daily life and thus deserves no more than a building. A church, on the other hand is big-A Architecture because it does not cater to any meaningful physical reality so it must therefore enhance the spiritual aspects of daily life. It’s a fair expansion of something flawed.

Times have changed. Some people keep their bicycles to stop them getting stolen but also because they might like to be able to care for their machines better. A cycle is not something used only on post-war England schooldays but is an integral part of their lives. On some level, there is an non-visual aesthetic pleasure to be gained from a well-maintained cycle.

Another non-visual aesthetic pleasure comes from living with fewer things and less need to find the space or things to store them. Some people choose a life of consumption agnosticism. They don’t believe happiness comes from buying things or, if they have them, from hiding them or displaying them in some ingenious storage solution that also costs money and space.

The clients for this next shed are people like that. They used to live in what in Japan is called a danchi – a high-density residential estate. 

sodegaura danchi

Horrible you may think, but after living there for a few decades one might just begin to appreciate the closeness of other people and the comforting smallness of the spaces.


The clients requested a house that recreated the feeling of a danchi apartment even though a larger house could have been designed for the site. You enter into the garage


(like you do in the Porsche Design tower in Miami)


but then go up some stairs to three rooms and a bathroom. 40.5 sq.m.


Interior finishes aren’t lavish.

The windows of the three main rooms face south and directly into the windows of the neighbouring house. The kitchen is that one wall you see in the central image above. No attempt has been made to hide the basin or the washing machine that will go beside it. This house defies explanation in terms of Western housing aspirations as articulated by Western architects. 

The text supplied to Dezeen and Architizer by the architects, Yoshihiro Yamamoto Architects Atelier says the clients wanted a house which was narrow – a typical mistranslation of the Japanese word semai that describe houses that are small, cramped. The text mentions how the danchi lifestyle was something precious to the clients and how they wanted to preserve it.

Going by Pevsner’s definition, this building is not architecture because it has not been designed with a view to having any visual aesthetic appeal. Two points. One. IT WAS DESIGNED FOR ITS OCCUPANTS, NOT PEVSNER. NOT YOU. NOT ME.  The aesthetic appeal of this house is a psychological one the occupants are sensitive to. The owners are happy.

Any problems we have with this house are ours.

  • Given what we now know about the crazy economics of Japanese housing. and their ephemerality, the architect has not used this opportunity to build as an excuse to be sensationalist for the sake of foreign media. We have no right to be outraged by this.
  • This house will probably not be there in 20 years but its touch-the-plot-lightliness is not being presented as a virtue. No building lasts forever. Permanence vs. impermanence is a false opposition. Symbols of impermanence are no more virtuous than symbols of permanence.
  • This house has been named Danchi-Hutch. The word danchi does not have good connotations for us now, and also for many Japanese. The word “hutch” translates as goya (ごや、小屋) It means a small, simple and crudely-built building, often temporary. In the 1960s when many people were visiting Japan for the Tokyo Olympics, some journalist, the story goes, described Japanese houses as akin to  “rabbit hutches” (ウサギ小屋). Every Japanese knows this story. It stung, and it stung at a time when the Japanese wanted to be seen as worldly. Naming this building danchi-hutch suggests the Japanese are over it, and are re-evaluating the aesthetic virtues of living with less land, less space, fewer things and less architecture.

These are dangerous concepts. Lacaton & Vassal have already experienced the displeasure that happens when you build something inexpensive, useful, good value for money, and without regard for conventional notions of what constitutes architectural beauty.

Lapatie House

This building was not conventionally beautiful according to accepted criteria. Normally this is no big deal but it is when it provides a low-cost alternative to an unachiveable future of glossy parametrics and datascapes. The Lapatie House proposed going back a bit as the way forward.

Kengo Kuma has suffered no such opprobrium with his big shed in Tokyo called La Kagu.


It comes with a tree and a timber deck and stair treads. Even shed haters have something to like.

I’m not surprised Kengo Kuma did this. I hope it means the Japanese have tired of providing a culturally unassailable basis for seamless minimalism, exquisite concrete work and unfeasibly large timbers craftily joined. Isolated pockets of resistance remain.


The Japanese can make an aesthetic out of anything. It’s what they’re good at and we love them for it – albeit often recklessly. Even Kengo Kuma’s shed above has signs of stealth Shedism – look at these coathanger rails. Are they pseudo-found objects as stylistic affectation? Examples of Lo-Tech as affordable Hi-Tech? Are they beyond aesthetics?


I doubt it, mainly because it’s Kengo Kuma. But it could have just as easily been Waro Kishi. We can safely and without cynicism update Pevsner’s definition: Architecture is a shed designed by Kengo Kuma or Go Hasegawa or Waro Kishi. A building is a shed designed for IKEA. 


The Fightback 

There will be a fightback against the shed and the threat it poses to Architecture for Architecture, as we know, takes good and useful ideas and neuters them by turning them into architectural statements.


This house resists all such attempts. It undermines all that architecture holds precious. Accordingly, it is singled out for special attack.

I usually love how Japanese houses combine refined materials and nice interiors into a seemingly simple exterior. This one is actually horrible on all fronts. The wood is cheap underlayment. The windows force you to look into the neighbours bedroom (and vice versa). The space: I don’t see anything noteworthy. And there are all those things and boxes sticking on the facade: what are those? Get rid of it. It’s also absolutely ignorant of it’s surroundings. Even when taking the assignment of building a small and narrow house on a corner plot in mind, this could have been improved on all fronts.


This is just a website comment. Normally, it’s journalists who initiate the process of death by architecture by seeing useful ideas only in terms of their visual effect while ignoring or begrudgingly acknowledging less photogenic but useful characteristics or ideas.


Baracco and Wright Architects’ Garden House blurs the boundaries between garden and home while redefining what it means to be minimal.


The form of the shed enclosure, as dematerialized and undressed as possible, is intended less as a reference toward economy or utility, although it does do that, than as a framework to be colonized by vegetation over time, both inside and out. The architecture can be envisaged in this way as a seamless part of a landscape and vegetation strategy, a mere step on a longer trajectory toward restoration, and one that can be almost as easily reversed – a scaffold upon which vegetation must grow in order to complete the functions of, for example, shading and cooling.

We’re going to have to expect more of this kind of nonsense festooning sheds with cultural and intellectual ornamentation, killing all that is good about them, assimilating them into the world of Architecture. 


Architecture Misfit #19: Illarion Ivanov-Schitz

Since 2010, misfits’ architecture has identified eighteen architecture misfits who seem to have little in common. Not all are or were architects. No.16: Douglas Haskell, had a life in architecture, but mostly as journalist and commentator. No.5: The Futurists, had little interest in architecture but nevertheless managed to greatly influence it. No.1: Hannes Meyer, No.2: Irving Gill, No.8: Hassan Fathy, and No.12: Nader Khalili, No.14: Eladio Dieste, No.15: Knud Peter Harboe, and No.17: Moisei Ginzburg all had an intimate knowledge of building construction. No. 4: SUPERSTUDIO and No.9: Karel Teige gave us new thoughts about how architecture should relate to society.

All these people had a curiosity about how to make buildings better. For No.2: Irving Gill, No.6: George Fred Keck and No.12: Nader Khalili, this resulted in the development and refinement of a particular system of construction. Others such as No.10: Colin Lucas and No.17: Moisei Ginzburg focussed on improving the internal planning of buildings for the efficient use of space and, because of that, the more efficient use of the construction materials that enclose it.

Their fields of interest and activity are different but all of these architecture misfits have in common a passionate interest in some aspect of the craft of designing and making buildings.

With No.3: Eileen Gray and No.18: Ignazio Gardella, this seems to have been a personal endeavour and something done for their own satisfaction and love of the art rather than for personal glory.

None were interested in creating a media presence and this is one reason why, on the whole, they remain relatively unknown. Having said that, architecture misfits No.9: Karel Teige, No.16: Douglas Haskell and No.17: Moisei Ginzburg were all comfortable with and competent in engaging with architectural media society in their respective eras. What they didn’t do was use it as a vehicle for fame in the way Frank Lloyd Wright invented and Le Corbusier perfected. The buildings came first. In a world where it’s easy to think architects are driven by nothing but media impact and commercial success, this has become increasingly difficult for us to imagine.


Illarion Ivanov-Schitz
(March 28, 1865 – December 7, 1937)

The fact most people will not have heard of Illarion Ivanov-Schitz is alone insufficient evidence to consider him an architecture misfit. Most people have not heard of most architects. But is it possible for an architect whose uniqueness lay in “developing a unique personal style” (w) to even qualify as one? Many architects develop a unique personal style but it’s also true that many do so in order to merely have something that differentiates them in the market – a USP.


The situation we have now is one where a Unique Selling Point is generated, presented, and unquestioningly accepted, as a Unique Personal Style. The two have become interchangeable to the extent their meanings have now completely overlapped. Be that as it may. If however, an architect develops a unique personal style as part of an ongoing quest for a particular kind of architectural truth, then they most definitely qualify as an architectural misfit. Ivanov-Schitz was most active in the years 1900–1910. We’ll have to move now to William Craft Brumfield’s book “The Origins of Modernism in Russian Architecture” to better understand what was going on at the time.



“Every major architecture style was imitated or paraphrased on the facades of commercial and housing structures in [St.] Petersburg during the late nineteenth century: neo-Renaissance, neobaroque, neo-Greek, Louis XVI, Russian Revival, and Moorish. Mixed or unrecognizable styles, however, may in fact have predominated. 

A good example might be Fedor Shekhtel’s Vikula Morozov house of 1895,


the same year as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Nathan Moore House.


British people would understand both as late-Victorian eclecticism.

BRICK: As well as all this, there was a growing appreciation for unadorned brick, initiated by Webb and Morris’s Red House from 1859.


One of the best examples of the non-historicist use of brick is Viktor Shreter’s 1872 apartment building in St. Petersburg.

  • ft1g5004bj_00016Shreter advocated brick without stucco for its “durability, originality, and rationality”. It was also economical and relatively easy to maintain.
  • In “Brick Architecture,” published in Zodchii in 1872, Leronim Kitner joined Shreter in advocating a brick style, saying “A facade of brick facing is incomparably more rational than one of stucco. In our climate a structure with brick facing has greater durability and can be erected in a much shorter period.”
  • The architect-critic V. Kuroedov predicted a great future for brick because of its structural qualities rather than its decorative uses.
  • Both Kuroedov and Kitner were disciples of Apollinarii Krasovskii (1816–1875), the leader in Russian architectural education during the nineteenth century. The following is an excerpt from Krasovskii’s 1851 textbook Civil Architecture: Architecture should not tend exclusively toward either the useful or the beautiful; its basic rule is the transformation of the one into the other. . . .  Tectonics or construction is the main source of architectural forms. The role of art in the composition consists only in conveying artistic finish to the crude forms of tectonics. . . . The property of a material and the best possible means of applying it determine the means of construction, and construction itself determines the external form of both parts and buildings.”

THE SHINGLE STYLE: America’s Shingle Style was well known through the work of Henry Hobson Richardson—one of the few American architects whose work appeared frequently in Russian journals. His Watts Sherman House is from 1874.


ART NOUVEAU: In one of the October 1899 issues of Nedelia stroitelia there was a brief unsigned article describing two Petersburg apartment buildings with art nouveau affectations. “Decadence in architecture is beginning to appear also among us. . . . The striving for new forms, for a rejection of the cliché, should of course yield quite varied results, some more or less successful. Having created an entire range of new architectural goals, life persistently demands new forms for their expression.” In the March 1900 issue of Zodchii, V. Shmor raised the question of “style or fashion?” and criticized the eager imitation of foreign design in the name of progress and questioned the durability of the new style, “which seems . . . at present . . . only the unsubstantial blending of various fashions.”

VERNACULAR: The turn of the century saw a global drift away from eclecticism and the exploration of less expensive vernacular materials and methods. The shift towards unpretentious structures with simple logic owes much to the thinking embodied in vernacular architecture whatever the country. Greene and Greene’s Gamble House was 1908.

Gamble House

V.A. Simov and Leonid Vesnin’s Nosikov Dacha was 1909. It’s not worlds apart.


MODERNISED NEOCLASSICISM (aka “THE GERMAN STYLE”): This is Peter Behrens’ 1911-12 German embassy in St. Petersburg. “The residents of Saint Petersburg didn’t take kindly to the new building – the German style was quite alien to the rest of Saint Petersburg.”


STYLE MODERNE: Other articles of the time reported on the competition to design the new campus at the University of California. There was also a survey of the English vernacular revival  with mention of Charles Voysey and M. H. Baillie Scott. In 1901 there was a report of Joseph Olbrich’s 1897-98 Secession House in Vienna as well as detailed reports of the 1900 Paris Exhibition. On the whole, everyone was pretty well connected, considering. There was also a flourishing system of international architectural competitions. One of the first modernist buildings in Moscow was the 1898–1905 Hotel Metropole by British architect William Walcott.

Hotel Metropole

In the February 1902 issues of Zodchii, Pavel Makarov defined the new style as having “Freshness, simplicity, lack of pretension, and a complete rejection of old form…” His first article focussed on  England and the Arts and Crafts designers. The second was on Belgium and Henry van de Velde, and the third was on Austria and the Vienna Secession, giving priority to Otto Wagner. Makarov issued the challenge of a socially responsible architecture ennobling and beautifying life for the poor as well as the rich.

NEOCLASSICAL REVIVAL: A tussle began – one of those cyclic competitions to lay claim to the soul of architecture. Some interpreted a neo-classical revival in Petersburg as a rejection of the moderne. Evgenii Baumgarten raised the stakes in 1902 in his review of Otto Wagner’s recently published Moderne Architecture, taking issue with Wagner’s statement that “Nothing impractical can be beautiful.” 

“Although Professor Wagner’s instructions are practical, we are compelled to take a negative view of this theoretical argument. In leaning toward the utilitarian, he falls into an obvious absurdity. Proposing that the contemporary architect “come to terms” with the statement nothing that is not practical can be beautiful, he lowers the architectural art, praised with such feeling, to the level of an applied craft. With such criteria for appraising the beautiful, there is nothing left to say about original artistic creativity. … Of course it is necessary to build houses solidly, cheaply, quickly, and conveniently, but the beauty of a house has no relation to the technique of construction. The human soul requires architectonic beauty just as human vision requires good illumination.”

We’re still arguing over this a century later. Back then it was still early days. Baumgarten wouldn’t have liked Wagner’s 1904 Postparkasse (Austrian Postal Savings Bank) of 1904

© Bwag/Commons

© Bwag/Commons

or the Otto Wagner Spital from 1907. Otto_wagner_spital

and definitely not Adolf Loos’ Goldman & Salatsch Building from 1910. Even the Viennese found it difficult to accept the starkness of this building. I like to believe the story the window boxes were a last-minute compromise to gain planning approval.

The most famous Russian architects of 1900-1910 worked in ALL these styles, often at the same time, sometimes in the same building. 

Fyodor Schechtel began Gothic-Romantic but during the 1890s oscillated between Gothic and Russian Revival, turned to art nouveau at the beginning of the century, and chose between art nouveau and neoclassical revival for the rest of the decade, with random dalliances with style moderne inbetween.

Ivan Fomin, similarly, was initially enthusiastic about art nouveau but switched to neoclassical and later, in turn, Soviet neoclassical, Stalinist neoclassical, plus something known at the time with, in hindsight, scary prescience, as Postconstructivism.

Illarion Ivanov-Schitz was not architecturally promiscuous like superstars Schechtel and Fomin. True, he did eclectic buildings in the 1890s but, in fairness, Eclecticism was the style of the 1890s. 

Devichye Pole Orphanage, Moscow, 1892


This building is now the Embassy of Vietnam. It is the only Ivanov-Schitz’ building of the 1900s that has a different use today.


6, Kuznetky Most Street, Moscow, 1898

This was originally the Muir and Mirillies department store. It is now the Khomyakov Trading House.


From about this time, Ivanov-Schitz began to develop his distinctive style that has been said to use a modernised form of classical tectonics. Others simply called it “A Greek sort of Wagner”.

Offices of the State Savings Banks, Moscow, 1898 

This was Ivanov-Schitz’ first major post-eclectic building. Despite the Ionic columns it was regarded as unusually modern. Here it is under construction.

The building of the Office of the state savings banks, erected in 1914-1920 under the project of IA Ivanov-Shicai

The corner of Kuznetsky Most and Petrovka Street is in the historic centre of Moscow,

and is a painter’s favourite.

It is still a bank. Office space is currently renting.


We get to see the rear of the building.


And also get a sense for at least how the interior might once have been.

(Wagner’s Austrian Postal Savings Bank was 1904.)


Moscow Savings Bank, Rakhmanovsky Lane, Moscow, 1903


There are many excellent photographs to be found here.

1903-1906 Abrikosov’s Maternity Hospital in Miusskaya Square


It’s still a maternity hospital, but now renamed the Nadezhda Krupskaya Maternity Hospital, after Lenin’s wife.

230211 005

Vvedensky People’s House, Vvedenskaya Square, Moscow, 1904. 

People’s houses were Soviet cultural centers (clubs) that were built in the early twentieth century on the outskirts of the city, in order to educate workers and poor and population. Cinematograph and library were open, free morning shows, musical evenings, variety of lectures conducted in the People’s House.

The building was rebuilt beyond recognition by architect BV Efimovich in 1947. Since then nothing reminds of a refined Viennese Secession. As a result there was a palace of the typical of the late- Stalinist architectural style. Some critics jokingly referred to this architectural style as ” the Elephant’s Empire” due to very large forms and details.


The building was refurbished in 2008 to become the “Yauza Palace” concert venue it is today. This is the only example of an Ivanov-Schitz building being “modernised” but it’s easy to imagine this modernisation had more to do with updating the perception of government priorities. The building continues to exist as a concert hall and theatre.


Morozov Hospital, Moscow, 1905. 

Moscow,_Morozov_Hospital,_I.A.Ivanov-Schitz,_1900-1905This is now Morozov Children’s Hospital.Morozov_Children_Hospital_in_Moscow

Merchants’ Club, Moscow 1907–1908


The advanced style is even more evident inside, where decorative shapes—streamlined, abstract—resemble those of contemporary Viennese design and anticipate modern design in the West during the 1920s (Brumfield)

The building served as a hospital during WWI


and is now the Lenkom Theatre. Moscow_Malaya_Dmitrovka_Street_6

“The recessed Ionic portico of his Merchants’ Club on the Dmitrovka is flanked by square towers with classical elements whose form owes much to the Vienna Secession.” (Brumfield)

[Maybe. With its focus on form, architectural history is always quick to talk of “influences” rather than “good and useful ideas that quickly found wider application”. Getting rid of ornament is always presented as local stylistic choices rather than universal economic imperative.]

Soldatenkovskaya Hospital, Moscow.


It’s now the Hospital Botkin. Between 1908 and 1928, Ivanov-Schitz was officially employed as the architect of Botkin Hospital in Moscow.

Orlikov Lane Flophouse, Moscow, 1909


According to one unconfirmed report, it is still standing and now known as the Bugrov Hostel.

Shanyavsky University, Miusskaya Square, Moscow, 1910-1912


This is now part of the campus of Russian State University of the Humanities (RSUH).


• • •

Over the period 1900-1910 Ivanov-Schitz used the same block-like massing with various degrees of relief and ornament on buildings having widely different briefs and budgets. Ivanov-Schitz’ combined the clarity and rationality of Wagner with the dignity of Greek classicism and  produced something that was at the same time modern and timeless. This understandably appealed to the financial institutions and charities who were his main clients. Just as it is difficult for us now to appreciate the simplicity of Georgian architecture unless we compare it to the excesses of the Victorian era, it is difficult for us now to appreciate the simplicity and the radicalness of Wagner. We find Loos easier to understand – and consequently dismiss – because of his famously noisy essay.

What’s remarkable about the output of Illarion Ivanov-Schitz is that so many of his buildings still exist, but also they are still being used and appreciated in much the same way they were meant to be used and appreciated. Apart from the orphanage now used as an embassy, a bank is still a bank, a hospital still a hospital, a university a university, a flophouse a hostel. Even Yauza Palace is still an active part of the city. In terms of whole life-cycle performance these buildings are doing amazingly well.

Illarion Ivanov-Schitz’ buildings are too easily dismissed as neoclassic or as ‘a Greek sort of Wagner’ but to see buildings in terms of arbitrary stylistic categories such as these misses the point of why buildings are built. There is something we can learn from this. If Ivanov-Schitz’ intention was to develop a durable aesthetic for buildings he could imagine being needed and used for a long time to come, then he did very well. 

• • •

Illarion Ivanov-Schitz


For reminding us what it’s supposed to be about,

misfits salutes you!

• • •

A special thanks to Dmitry Panov for suggesting I write about Illarion Ivanov-Schitz and for his help along the way. The post began with a long-overdue clarification on what makes a misfit architect. I was open minded at the beginning, and it was only when I learned more about the riotously innovative first decade of the century (that was just as directionless as the previous) did I begin to appreciate how unique Ivanov-Schitz was. Much later I was surprised to learn most of his buildings were still being used as they were intended. I was then surprised I was surprised at that. Today, we accept a high churn ratio and have invented concepts like adaptive re-use to make ourselves feel better about buildings that become obsolete too soon. It would be better to design so adaptive re-use is never necessary. Realistically though, no building lasts forever. Renovations and restorations have been made to Ivanov-Schitz’ buildings over the years but nobody ever thought it would be better to knock them down and building something more functional or more fashionable. They still made sense. And they still do. This is timelessness at a level more profound than how we’ve come to use the word.


The New Japanese House

Summer last year in one of Hyannis’ many secondhand bookstores, I found a copy of this 1980 book I had to have. Memories.


It describes the then new Japanese houses in terms of our preconceptions of Japanese culture in 1980 when everything was rich in meaning. It’s heavy on terms such as “ritual”, “ritual-affirming”, “ritual disaffirming” and, at the end, annoyingly asks “Is there a ritual affirming architecture?” “Is there a ritual disaffirming architecture?” I don’t miss the 1980s. But there was an energy about the 1970s I haven’t forgotten. If ever we look at current Japanese houses and think they’re weird and overly experimental for no great reason we can see, this book is a reminder it’s been going on for fifty years now. They’re not doing it to keep us amused.

• • •

Yoii Watanabe, Nishida House, 1966

Think of this one as Japan’s Vanna Venturi house with Tange’s respectful concrete timberings giving way to self-referential anarchy. In 1972, Watanabe was to design the beautifully unlovely New Sky Building #3 last seen in The Microflat.

• • •

Takemitsu Azuma, Own House, 1967

• • •

Monta Mozuna, Anti-Dwelling, 1971-2

• • •

Takefumi Aida, Annhilation House, 1972

Takefumi Aida, Nirvana House, 1972

• • •

Mayumi Miyawaki, Blue Box House, 1971

• • •

Tatsuhiko Kuramoto, House in Hokkaido, 1974


• • •

Toyo Ito, House in Nakano, 1976
[c.f. Can Architecture Heal Loss?]

• • •

Here, I must include
Tadao Ando’s Sumiyoshi House, 1976
[c.f. Architectural Myths #6: Purity of Form]

• • •

Takefumi Aida, Stepped Platform House, 1976

• • •

Kazuo Shinohara, House in Uehara, 1976
[see here for more]

• • •

Hiroshi Hara, Own House, 1979


• • •

Yoii Watanabe, Nakano House, 1979

• • •

There’s also this one that always gets a mention in books like on, say, The Language of Post Modern Architecture, p116.

Kazumasa Yamashita, Face House, 1974


• • •

Finally, there’s this one I have no name or date for. If you do know its name, architect and year of completion, then please let me know – it’s been bugging me for years. A plan please too if you can. It’s pointless googling glass box house japan.

• • •

Some of these houses have become internet staples. Others have been forgotten. Some may even still exist! The ones above you just saw are mostly examples from the seventies. Open any magazine today – MARK, let’s say and you’ll probably find at least one Japanese contemporary reimagining of the house. THIS HAS BEEN GOING ON FOR FIFTY YEARS!

Some months ago when I first began this post, I imagined I would conclude that what we see as a ferocious inventiveness is actually a reflection of land values dwarfing the value of anything built on that land, and to the extent that what eventually does get built is valueless by comparison. That is the reality for the people who own land. Many don’t. As with former feudal societies such as Britain, a disproportionately large amount of urban land on which these houses we may admire or delight in or be outraged at, is most likely leased from major landowners for a fixed term, even though the “consideration” may be so small as to be token. It does not encourage permanence.

Either way, the people who commission these houses know their houses are not going to last forever. Many of the ones you saw above no longer exist. It matters little if they were designed by a famous architect or not – that doesn’t tend to add that much value. Toyo Ito’s early U-House, aka House in Nagano for example, no longer exists – and that belonged to family!

In my imagined conclusion, I was in danger of repeating something I’d touched upon in the post “Can Architecture Heal Loss?” In any case, someone else published the same insight here while my post languished in the drafts folder. Rats. So, to move it forward, I propose that:

ONE: “We in the West” stop looking at Japanese houses according to our own criteria as if those houses are going to get lived in for generations, maybe even by the same family. They’re not.

TWO: We think a bit more about the dysfunction between “building” value and “architectural” value. Why should a house for one set of occupants be of little or no value to the next set of occupants is  question for the Japanese to ponder? What we need to ponder is if we should really be finding daily delight in houses as personal as underwear and as replaceable as sofas?

THREE: “We in the West” have the opposite problem to the Japanese for we design and build for eternity or, if not for eternity, then for the next best thing – future resale value. Our obsession with permanence – this “value that lasts” – has its own shortcomings. For one, we tend to over-evaluate anything that goes against it. Pink Lamborghini Desktop Background

Is the owner of this Lamborghini:
A. So very rich they don’t care about resale value?
B. Very rich but needs to show you they don’t care about resale value?
C. Rich but wants to show you they don’t care what you think?
D. All of the above, but enviable anyway?

We look at Japanese houses in the same “If-I-had-that-sort-of-money-I-wouldn’t-have-done-that” kind of way. On the other side of the same coin, we also tend to over-rate architectural individuality or creativity in the form of buildings of value as architectural possessions but, beyond that, little value as buildings to live in. farnsworth-flooded

In short, we have our very own dysfunction between architectural value and building value.

FOUR: We also need to update our notion of permanence. Demolishing a building nobody wants for no good reason is wasteful. And let’s not start talking about Isé Shrine just because it’s another intruiging phenomenon from Japan. If Isé (Grand) Shrine had been continuously rebuilt in exactly the same place (i.e. rebuilt as rebuilt actually means) every twenty years since the year 692AD then yes, I would meditate upon tradition and write haiku on the transitory nature of existence. But it is not. Replicas are endlessly built on alternating adjacent sites. This is cheating. I don’t mean to knock tradition or denigrate the beliefs of others but, if it were to have been rebuilt in exactly the same place then perhaps this wasteful practice would not have been undertaken so frequently or for so long.  ise-shrine-04

More than anything Isé Shrine may mean to those commenters who invoke its infinite unfathomableness every time they see a big roof, Isé Shrine tells me Japanese like new things because they are new, even if they’re still the same. 

FIVE: Back here in the Occident however, we might do well to also rethink our notions of impermanence. Buildings don’t have to be forever. To design them to have an extended functioning life is a good idea. The degree to which this can be done without incurring prohibitively extra initial costs is the crux of the problem since whole life-cycle costing necessarily pits one set of assumptions against another.

SIX: “Touching the ground lightly” is, on first thought, a noble idea but this assumes future generations will use the land more wisely than we did. A false assumption. People quickly get used to all sorts of bad things happening. Look at Canada.


“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same” is precisely what successive generations of Japanese are doing rebuilding buildings for the ongoing needs of capital gain (landowners) and artistic posturing (owners, architects).

We need to tighten up the definition of sustainable development. As it stands, it includes all forms of unnecessary development and the natural right to conduct it. Forever. The problem seems to be with how “needs” is defined.


Future Nature

At least The Futurists were honest about it. Nature sucked for being too natural, too simple and too uncontrived. And, worst of all, because they hadn’t designed it – a situation they quickly remedied.

ballas flowers

Nature’s making a comeback – not in its abhors-a-vacuum sense but the more sinister sense of being an object of design once again. This time though, we’re approaching The Futurist position from the opposite direction, and by stealth. It’s a very noisy stealth as this year has already seen a rash of Nature-flaunting projects cross our screens and consciousnesses. They leave a telltale trail.

Future Nature will be everything Nature wasn’t. Think fat-free strawberry-flavoured milk with added calcium, vitamins and probiotics. Future Nature is not natural.

Future Nature will have more and better plants. There will be no sickness or disease. There will be no ugliness as plants will be chosen for looks rather than utility or biodiversity. There will be many flowering plants but no birds or insects. There will be no sex. As soon as they’re past their prime, plants will be replaced with new ones on the verge of it.

How man regards Nature is probably a good indicator of level of civilisation. A brief history.

STAGE 1: Working with Nature: In some long-lost agrarian past, people used local technologies and resources to build what they needed. Nature was what one had to work with and accumulate knowledge on how to do so using less labour, time and other resources.


STAGE 2: Objectifying Architecture 1: Nature and building are juxtaposed in order to observe and appreciate each other.


PHASE 3: Objectifying Architecture 2: This is the same as Objectifying Nature in that the more artificial the building and the more natural the landscape the better, but the viewpoint is shifted. We are now the strangers in the forest observing the building in Nature, not the Nature.

These views are the majority. The house, framed by trees, is iconified, made central, the main event.


This is what the Kaufmanns saw. Pretty lame by comparison, isn’t it?

Phase 4: Objectification of Architecture as Nature

This is Nature as a new kind of architectural ornament. First there were green roofs. We used to think they were a good idea. We still do, but no longer care if they don’t really work. Or even if they do.


We moved on. In cities, roof gardens and sky gardens can be pleasant places to be like this Foster & Partners’ one in Spitalfields. It’s not a public garden and there’s no real reason why it should be. It’s a bee-buzzing biodiverse place to have a sandwich.

secret garden

When they’re not value-adding private space [c.f. Architectural Myths #4: Gardens in the Sky], rooftop gardens can be value-adding pseudo-public space such as this next [c.f. Cherry Blossom Season].


Future Nature will be privately owned and policed. Let’s not even start to talk about The Garden Bridge that, at the cost to the UK taxpayer of £60mil. will offer Londoners a “new view of London” according to its designer, Thomas Heatherwick. But maybe we should. It’s one of a recent run of plant-themed proposals from the Heatherwick stable.

Heatherwick’s thing for the Bombay Gin distillery is a classic example of the objectification of Nature, both Mediterranean and tropical, contained and on display as ornament

Bombay-Sapphire-by-Thomas-Heatherwick-Hufton-and-Crow_dezeen_784_17like a Victorian stuffed owl under a glass dome

in that something totally unnecessary is being done to objectify Nature and make some sort a statement of authenticity like the growing basil you see at Italian restaurants. This is another annoying aspect of Future Nature – we can’t be left untold about it.   

And not like this.

This one has been quiet recently. Those trees grown yet? [psst. The latitude of Cupertino is 37.3175° N and thus north of the Tropic of Cancer. Angling PVs north is not a great idea.]


There’s a lot of green stuff happening and, to be sure, it looks like there is going to be if the following drawing is truthful. The primary purpose of the peripheral trees is for visual privacy (a.k.a. security). They’re not so close to the fence people can use them to climb over.


Foster & Partners do have a history of using Nature to soften their tecchy-ness with a touch of environmental whimsy.

St. Mary Axe even seemed credible until we were suddenly asked to believe the same story without one of its main characters.


F&P make no such grand claims about how Nature is being used at Apple Headquarters apart from saying lots of trees and grass outside your window is a good thing for natural ventilation. Pity us poor souls who dare open a window with less benign climates and/or less and/or lesser Nature outside! A barrier of trees is a logical and inexpensive choice to provide visually inoffensive privacy and security but it’s an expensive yet environmentally friendly way of providing the appearance of cleaner air. It’s difficult to visualise a more wholesome environment.


By comparison, real Nature looks spooky and threatening.

As with St. Mary Axe, Foster & Partners have again created a building where the Nature bits can’t be taken away without destroying the stated premise of the exercise. The visualisers may have gotten overexcited with their primordial savanna vs. building-beyond-time conceit but that’s just visualisers doing what they do.


Lady late for work.

What’s annoying is being made to feel these people are so fortunate despite none this Future Nature being public but, as with the London lavender garden, no compelling reason why it should be. It’s just being shoved in our faces as a symbol of some perfect future world Foster & Partners have designed but are unlikely to influence anyone to create for the rest of us.

It’s a little more real with Gehry’s Facebook. Online, there’s far too many images like these next three. When there’s a camera around we all like to show our best corner.

And why not?

Facebook must have banned employees from posting images of the rooftop garden. This one was put out by Gehry’s office and reposted by the New York Times


along with this more informative aerial drone shot that reassures us we’re not missing out on much.  


With two of our modern media overlords already accounted for, it’d be a shame to forget the third – Google. But how can we when Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick are on the case? February 2015 treated us to the first media announcements such as this.

News: Google has released a movie detailing its plans for a new California headquarters designed by the studios of Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick.

In the movie, you may have noticed David Radcliffe (Vice President, Real Estate and Workplace Services, Google) of Google saying “Tech really hasn’t adopted a particular language for buildings.” Oh yeah?


Google Data Center, Mayes County

Google Data Center, The Dalles, Oregon

Google Data Center, The Dalles, Oregon

Google Data Center, Pryor, Oklahoma (note the Nature)

Google Data Center, Pryor, Oklahoma

In the movie, both designers emphasise the importance of nature in their proposal.

I’m not saying that because Ingels and Heatherwick say it it’s necessarily a lie, but I do smell a rat. Everybody likes Nature when it’s reduced to blue skies, grassy clearing, green trees and cherry-coloured blossoms. I can’t help thinking that evoking Nature in these three projects is nothing more than a smiley interface for the purposely opaque business end of these operations  carried out in real and imperfect nature made fit for purpose with knockdown prices, tax breaks and various business concessions. We might be forgiven for thinking all this talk of Nature is some sort of corporate penance but that would assume such a thing as corporate guilt exists. Since it doesn’t, we can only conclude that Future Nature is a red herring

Future Nature is not our friend. We may be currently infatuated with datascapes and city digital footprints but they’re a trivial sideshow. If Future Nature succeeds in making us dissatisfied with the imperfections of real Nature, then we’re well on the way back to believing air conditioning and artificial illumination are better than ventilation and lighting provided by Nature. Game over, basically.

• • •

The main evil of Future Nature is that it’s Nature loaded with dubious meanings. It’s Post Modernism applied to plants. One Nature is objectified, then an ironic Nature is not far away. Once that’s allowed, we can ponder the meaning of Nature deconstructed? Or what Parametric Nature might be. We’re somewhere about here now. Having to carry needless meanings never did buildings any good. These next images are of my special places. This Nature is not trying to be beautiful. I recommend you find some special places of your own and preserve them in your minds as reference points in a future world gone mad.



Architectural Myths #20: Total Design

“Who needs architecture critics?” was the rhetorical question of the title


but, as with most rhetorical questions, the answer wasn’t long forthcoming. We all do, it seems.Untitled 18

I might have guessed for the previous six months I’d been continually reminded I was missing out on the full value of my subscription.


Gradually, these reminders became more closely spaced and increasingly desperate renewal reminders. Hands up, I was one of those who simply lost interest.


It wasn’t always like that. Ever since Peter Davey left, I continued to subscribe whenever I could afford it, mostly out of sentimental memories of better days. But Peter Davey left in 2003! I’m all cried out now. Over it. Outgrown it.


Former freemasonry? Fixed they definitely seem to be, but colossi?

AR Editorial Board

And who exactly are they these titanic colossi? William Curtis? Charles Jencks? Aaron Betsky? Michael Sorkin? Farshid Moussavi? Peter Cook? Please. I too object to architectural worth being reduced to a number count of likes and dislikes, but I also have an issue with what AR considers to be substance. In any case, titan or otherwise, the idea of an architecture critic is outdated.



I would love nothing more than a rational basis for the appreciation and evaluation of architecture. Unfortunately, what we still have is a battle for the supremacy of one individual’s subjectivities over another’s. The Victorian notion of an all-knowledgeable critic to whose opinion everyone else must defer is still alive in this whizz-bang digital age of ours. It’s there in the belief an objective opinion “about a piece of art” can only be arrived at by ideal (“knowledgeable”, “educated”, etc.) observer under ideal conditions. Roger Scruton is of this view – once prompting some wag to say Roger Scruton’s “ideal observer” is Roger Scruton on vacation in Italy.


William “Titan-Of-Yore” Curtis continues the tradition. In September 2014, AR published his piece on RCR Arquitectes’ Musée Soulages in Rodez, France. Curtis made much of the fact that the building is a bit dark and gloomy – not unlike a Soulage painting, and triumphantly recalls a child saying “It’s like being in a painting!” If this is an old-skool critic evaluating a building for us on our behalf, well FML.

To merely list items from the bag of tricks architects deploy to gain commissions and afterwards imply appropriateness is neither criticism nor praise. Yet it counts as it. RCR clearly know what side their commission is buttered on. But is a building that mimics its contents really the way to go as Curtis seems to believe or at least make us want to think matters?

The artist, Pierre Moulages.

The artist, Pierre Soulages.

The outside.

The Musée Soulages.

A Soulages.

A Soulages.

The things architects do.

The things architects do.

A Soulages courtyard.

A Soulages courtyard.

A Soulages café.


A Soulages café in action.


Chefs preparing Soulages food.


Soulages food.


Soulages dessert.

Total design as we used to understand/tolerate it, used to be about the things inside a building being designed by the same hand that designed the building – or at least acknowledging it like the café food does, for example. With Musée Soulages the building however, what we have is a building appropriating for its own purposes whatever depth and gravitas people grant the art it contains. What the architects have done is create a Soulages theme park. Entry €7. Download the brochure.

• • •

Oddly, the Heironymus Bosch Art Centre is housed in a former church in Bosch’s home town of Hertogenbosch, NL. Sadly, it contains only reproductions as the originals were spirited away long ago. But as you can see, something’s not right. The intention must have been for the architecture to enhance the experience of the art by prompting recollections of quivering fear or reassuring faith. Instead, the paintings jolly up the church quite nicely.


They obviously need RCR Arquitectes on the case to provide a total Hieronymus Bosch experience.


That’s one architectural competition I’d like to see. Perhaps it could coincide with next year’s Heironymus Bosch 500 Festival?


Honorary Architecture Misfits: Bernd and Hilla Becher

This was the header image for yesterday’s post on lighthouses. It’s from a book Coastwise Lights of China: an illustrated account of the Chinese Maritime Customs Lights Service by T. Roger Banister, published in 1932. You can read more about the book here. This image though, says the same thing I used 1,500 words to describe.


Earlier this evening, I saw this tweet that reminded me of the image above.


Bernhard “Bernd” Becher August 20, 1931 – June 22, 2007), and Hilla Becher, (September 2 1934 – October 13, 2015), were German conceptual artists and photographers working as a collaborative duo. They are best known for their extensive series of photographic images, or typologies, of industrial buildings and structures, often organised in grids.

Meeting as students at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1957, Bernd and Hilla Becher first collaborated on photographing and documenting the disappearing German industrial architecture in 1959. The Ruhr Valley, where Becher’s family had worked in the steel and mining industries, was their initial focus. They were fascinated by the similar shapes in which certain buildings were designed. After collating thousands of pictures of individual structures, they noticed that the various edifices – of cooling towers, gas tanks and coal bunkers, for instance – shared many distinctive formal qualities. In addition, they were intrigued by the fact that so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with a great deal of attention toward design.

Together, the Bechers went out with a large 8 x 10-inch view camera and photographed these buildings from a number of different angles, but always with a straightforward “objective” point of view. They shot only on overcast days, so as to avoid shadows, and early in the morning during the seasons of spring and fall. Objects included barns, water towers, coal tipples, cooling towers, grain elevators, coal bunkers, coke ovens, oil refineries, blast furnaces, gas tanks, storage silos, and warehouses.

Two things.

  1. “they noticed that the various edifices – of cooling towers, gas tanks and coal bunkers, for instance – shared many distinctive formal qualities.” We shouldn’t automatically assume something is distinctive because it has some formal quality. It could be distinctive because it has no formal quality. I think this is what they, but not their commentators, may have observed.
  2. “they were intrigued by the fact that so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with a great deal of attention toward design”. Again, and related to the first point, not necessarily. They may have been intrigued by the fact so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with no attention at all paid to design. Nevertheless, something there intrigued them. We’ll never know if it was the absence of pretentious design or the presence of unpretentious design. There’s a world of difference between those two but … some other time.

For now, I’d just like to say that Bernd and Hilla Becher were misfits’ kind of people! They were artists first of all but, through their art, they drew attention to the unpretentious beauty created by others. We need more like them.

 • • •

Bernd and Hilla Becher,


Misfits’ salutes you!