Naked Houses

French novelist Gustave Flaubert had a dim view of the advent of railways in the 19th century. He thought trains would only allow more people to move about, meet and be stupid. It’s easy imagine what he would have thought of the internet. [1] Two years ago I unbookmarked myself from all architectural websites and have since lived without their compulsive addiction. It makes no difference if we hear of architectural ideas immediately or decades down the road because architectural ideas, and especially aesthetic ideas, never change anything because they’re not intended to.

  1. Ideas (such as off-form concrete as a final finish) that are inadvertently and immediately useful are quickly deemed passée and spurned.
  2. Ideas that don’t have immediate application disappear into a kind of limbo, neither forgotten nor applied until the conditions for their application come about, if ever.
  3. Ideas that are before their time are simply wrong ideas.
  4. Ideas that eventually come to pass are often mistaken for prophecies but it’s really the environment changing to make those ideas now useful. They then become like the first type of idea.

This all suggests that, if one wants to find potentially relevant ideas to solve current problems, it is more useful to selectively scan and re-evaluate the past than it is to mass monitor the present. That’s a big “if”. Mainstream architectural media content and the mechanisms for its delivery have evolved to continuously distract and prevent people from thinking about anything that needs thinking about.

Cutting myself loose from all this means I’ll never know what I’ve missed out on and that’s the point. There’s enough to think about anyway, and new things tend to find me anyway via conversations or as general news. Here’s an article that was already two months old when I first saw it.

nakedhouse.org [2] is a not-for-profit organization for builds housing not finished to the degree that new housing in the UK typically is. The objective is to lower that first rung on the property ladder. Most people will find nothing wrong with that last sentence. Naked houses check all the items misfits identified in a December 2015 post that pondered what else architecture could learn to do without. [c.f. Architecture Reductions]

Quality materials 

“The apartments will have no partition walls, no flooring and wall finishes, only basic plumbing and absolutely no decoration.”

This is good, because all these are superficial yet costly indicators of status and an obvious place to start. They’re the things people are most likely to change to suit their real or imagined individuality. In the UK one of the first things people do upon buying a secondhand property is strip the walls of any paint or paper. In new properties, providing surfaces with anything more than a base finish builds-in waste from the outset but does make sense for contractors to do that because of the markup involved. It’s this kind of functional redundancy that naked houses attempt to circumvent. Contractors accept a lesser return on lesser outlay and, if the product is successful, turnover is maintained and the financial threshold for home ownership is lowered. Whether this process will act wide enough or fast enough to make a difference is another matter. Jean Nouvel’s Nemausus Housing in Nîmes is forty years old now. It’s not that it had ideas before its time. Circumstances have changed to make those same ideas make more sense to more people than they did then.

MVRDV introduced plywood and oriented strand board (a.k.a. OSB, flakeboard, sterling board, aspenite) as A Thing, in their Double House of twenty years ago.

Giving aesthetic credibility to lower-cost and lower quality materials is a continuation of the same process that resulted a century ago in upmarket houses being made out of brick instead of stone. Low-quality materials once hidden can have a second life as a layer of history but new-build can’t have this indicator of age as status.

Cooking with low-cost ingredients requires more pre-preparation and time and care and so does building. This blockwork by H Arquitectes has been carefully set out to coordinate vents and switches with the joints and openings. The concrete floor has been precisely poured, ground and polished. It will look like this forever. The materials are inexpensive but the process requires thought and care.

This is not how our construction industry works. The general practice is to build cheaply and quickly using lesser quality materials and as little skilled labour as possible, and to then conceal any imperfections. I have my doubts about how beautiful naked houses’ naked walls will be. We’ll probably want them to cover up.

Rooms, Plans

Even if ideas in Nouvel’s Nemausus Housing never became how things were done, the idea of shell lofts did but had no great impact on the design of houses or apartments or the way we live in them. Apartments were sold as shells with a contractural obligation to complete their interiors within a certain period. However, as long as there was a source of heat, hot water and basic bathroom functions then no further completion was ever needed. Wholesome building fabric had totally fictional interiors inserted.

Naked houses are shell houses without contractural obligations, but not without a certain amount of social pressure to do it up. Getting rid of rooms has been a long time coming. We can’t really claim The Farnsworth House or Glass House as any kind of precursor but, over the past sixty years, living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens have coalesced into a single space in both downmarket and upmarket apartments, if not yet all houses.

Kitchens as a Concept

“The only recognisable part of a kitchen will be a sink.”

This idea has also been a long time coming. It’s been 22 years since Francis Soler’s 9-17 rue Émile Durkheim apartments. [c.f. Misfits’ Guide to PARIS]

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The first thing many people do after buying a secondhand home is rip out the kitchen and install a new one, most likely from Ikea. Ripping out the bathrooms is usually next on the list but open plan bathrooms are only just beginning to catch on, some ninety years after the idea was first floated.

villa savoye bathroom drain

Since 2009, hotels have been incorporating open plan bathrooms. The entire space looks less divided. Because it is.

Bathrooms added to houses that never had them in the first place can be unconventionally large and open but this is more of an upmarket trend.

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Downmarket, it hasn’t been all that long since bathtubs stopped being in kitchens and close to the only source of hot water.

Stripping a building back to its essentials is a good thing to do as there’s much that can be done without and that was never necessary in the first place. The absence of some accepted items only highlights what there is left.

Gratuitous Design Features: The image below doesn’t tell us much in the way of structural information but the lack of cross-bracing suggests it’s not the cheapest way to make what’s essentially an extreme mansard roof. Those non-structural corner windows aren’t going to help reduce the cost any. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio].

Sky: These are houses and not apartments with their sophisticated structures and servicing. The glass roofs tell us so. A one square metre VELUX window costs about £1,000, including installation into an existing roof, and will provide sufficient illumination for that floor area whatever the season. Anything larger is stylistic affectation. It seems like one set of status indicators is being discarded for a another. Living under a glass roof may be an attractive idea but it creates an ugly choice between spending money upfront on decent glazing panels or having higher heating costs forever.

Double-height Space: The most obvious scope for cost saving is to get rid of architecture’s favourite trope – a double-height space with a mezzanine and to not build unuseable volume from the outset.

Sure, people can put a floor in, and flooring too if they want, but building the potential to have a floor if one wants extra floor space is not in the spirit of a home without frills. The first publicized UK naked house encloses all internal volume to begin with, and the only potential present is dividing it into smaller units of liveable volume.

In the past, making more units of liveable volume would have meant adding an extra room at the back where a rear garden always meant the potential to be converted into more useable internal space. The potential to divide internal volume could indicate the potential to have a larger family or, these days, the potential to monetize that new unit of space via Airb’n’b or similar. It’s a long time since having more children meant adding more rooms. It more likely brings about the division of space or the sharing of space as it does most anywhere else in the world. Airb’n’b currently has 300+ listings in Enfield (UK) where the trial project is located.

enfield

“The upside of this spartan approach is a price tag of between £150,000 and £340,000, in reach for buyers on average incomes in a city where the average home now costs £580,000.”

A yearly season ticket from Enfield Lock to London Travelcard Zones 1–6 (with an average journey time of only 23 min!) will cost £2,408.00 – one sixtieth of the cost of the lowest priced house on offer. Who knows anymore if that’s a good deal or not?

Airb’n’b and similar sites attract much criticism for their role in encouraging people to see where they live as something to monetize. This graph shows it’s obviously better to own property than to have a job. It’s all the better if you don’t have to share a bathroom with the non-property owners you exploit, but that’s what makes the new microfeudalism different from the old renting.

Bourgeois Interiors, Design Features

“The idea is to strip out all of the stuff that people don’t want in the first place,” said Simon Chouffot, one of the founders of the not-for-profit developer, Naked House. “People want to do some of the custom building. We can make it affordable by people doing some of the work themselves.” 

Here, the first sentence implies progress. The dream of getting rid of an entire apparatus of unwanted finishings mediating between us and our buildings appears suddenly within our grasp. This opportunity to reject the entire economy-churning trap of home “improvement” will not be taken. If a person wants a house they’ll most likely want all the trappings that have conventionally gone with it. We can’t really claim any progress if the intention is still to have people admire what you’ve done to the space.

Paying less attention to our surroundings might enable us to simplify the relationship between us and the houses we live in. Very few aspects of living require conscious expression as architecture, as part of a building, or as an interior.

Just as the associate director who brings in the most new clients is the one first promoted to director, the shortest route to architectural fame is to create a new market for architecture and to offer it on a plate. The stated objective of Alejandro Aravena’s half-a-houses in Chile was to sell minimal volumes of inhabitable space that people could enlarge themselves when circumstances suggested and finances allowed. The projects achieved their stated objective of housing people inexpensively, and also succeeded in getting people to participate in an economic system. The market for architecture is expanded and with lesser returns but the important thing is that the system continues. (This should not come as a a surprise. Today’s architects don’t busy themselves with commissions for large country houses.) Lowering the financial threshold for home ownership and creating a ongoing demand for home improvements brings to the housing market the same pay-less-upfront-but-more-later plan that sells colour inkjet printers and Nespresso machines. Whether upfront or deferred, people’s lives are still equated to the amount of economic activity they generate [3]. Naked houses are the British incarnation of the half-a-house idea, but with completed exteriors for British suburbs not yet ready for favela chic.

• • •

  1. Here, I’m paraphrasing John Lanchester quoting Julian Barnes paraphrasing Flaubert in an August 17 London Review of Books review titled You Are The Product.
  2. nakedhouse.org
  3. This article is a lengthy but good introduction to how and why neoliberalism and considering the market as a mind is the defining concept of our age. There’s an intellectual elegance to the concept of regarding mankind as an entity whose every need, desire and action occurs within a system of survival as it does for every other living creature. The flaw is that it ignores everything that makes us human.

 

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A New Formalism

This post relates to Architecture Myth #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else and more distantly to Architecture Myth #15: Intellectual vs. Romantic. It’s getting the separate treatment because it follows on from The New Inhumanism and our current Post Modern Revivalism. Its working title was Emotion vs. Reason.

The success of Olivetti’s 1968 Valentine typewriter is attributed to it being designed to encourage people to relate to it emotionally as something more than a mere instrument for typing. I’d agree with that – I bought one, albeit in 1974. The first thing I typed was my Philosophy 100 essay, “Epistemology: What Can We Know?” The Valentine’s emotional appeal didn’t prevent it receiving an F later upgraded to a D after my protest more articulate than the original essay. The Valentine typewriter would also have negative emotional appeal for its designer Ettore Sotsass, miffed at being known best for having designed it.

People forming emotional relationships with consumer products wasn’t new but, previously, it had always occurred organically and mostly with respect to automobiles. VW’s Beetle, Morris’s Mini, Fiat’s 500 – the Bambino” and Citröen’s 2CV all hinted at some bond stronger than reason. The Valentine typewriter was the first product strategically designed to lure people into purchasing it on the basis of emotion.

By 1988 the method was perfected and along came the contrivedly retro Olympus O Product camera of which only 20,000 were made, each numbered. Demand was whipped up by having to register a month or so in advance in order to have the right to purchase one. With a name like O Product, Olympus knew exactly what they were doing and yes, I bought one, and in full knowledge I was being exquisitely suckered.

olympus_o_product_801084290

Since then the process has been updated and dumbed down. Not too long ago, Karla Welch, recent designer of a “revolutionary” T-shirt for Justin Bieber sternly told us “You have to commit to this T-shirt!

It’s still sweet and naïve compared to what we’ve come to know as post-truthism and people relating emotionally to particular words and sentences rather than their meaning. Skilled salespersons, speakers, presenters or even politicians may occasionally make emotional appeals to our better instincts but the techniques are the same as those deployed for emotional appeals to our baser instincts.

Relating to things through emotions is one of the processes Post Modernism set in motion to pave the way for Neoliberalism.

This is being overlooked in the current media enthusiasm to reimagine Post Modernism. One of the following kettles was not designed by Michael Graves. It makes no difference which, as all three were designed to appeal to emotions. Character-branded products and designer-branded products are at opposite ends of the snobbometer but they are false opposites. They both exist to separate you from your disposable income. This is the deceit post-modernism has for the consumer. And when exactly did people become “consumers” anyway, defined by how much of what the bought? I’m guessing circa 1975.

Was it really important for me to relate emotionally to boiling some water? Or was it more important I unthinkingly yet emotively purchased an Alessi kettle? Somebody’s interests were being looked after but they weren’t mine. And yes, in 1991, I bought one. I threw it when it boiled dry one day and stupid birdie melted.

If the Neoliberal mantra is “All that exists is good” then it’s safe to assume all that exists is suspect as well as the thinking and mechanisms that put it there. Encouraging us to see the world through the false opposites of as Modern/Reason/Nasty and PostModern/Emotion/Good does not lead to a greater understanding of the world because it is not meant to.

Example: Architecturally, Modernism was outmodded by Post Modernism which unfolded into Folding architecture and then deconstructed first into shattered Deconstructivists and then into curvy Deconstructivists that recently revealed themselves as the Neoliberal Affectivists. If we see this sequence as the progression of visual styles we’re encouraged to, then each style is the opposite of the one before but, taken together, there’s a macro-trend unmistakably edging towards representation without meaning. Seeing recent history as a chronology of stylistic opposites has taught us nothing. How did that happen? On whose watch was that? 

William Curtis used Jensen-Klint’s Grundtvig’s Church (1927–1940) in Copenhagen to make the point that Post Modernism can be thought of as a reversion to a kind of pre-Modernism that continued a long tradition of buildings meaning things to people. This would be true if 1927 hadn’t already been the beginning of the end of Modernism’s social ideals.

157784_Grundtvigs-Kirke_Martin-Heiberg

Meaning-laden churches and other buildings projecting power and authority did little to alleviate housing crises in Europe and Russia but rational construction and removing the unnecessary did [with Oud in the Netherlands, Hannes Meyer and  Ernst May in Germany, André Lurçat in France, Josef Polášek in Czechoslovakia, and Lacherta & Szanajcę in Poland]. I don’t accept that people who finally had a decent place to live didn’t have an emotional attachment to their dwellings. 

Josef Polasek

It took global crises to make the provision of mass housing a concern that the application of focussed architectural skills could and did solve but the topic was dumped once the immediate crisis was averted. We’re so accustomed to believing architecture works for the greater benefit of society that it’s difficult to conceive of it as a mechanism that repeatedly and consistently works against it. Mass housing is no threat to architecture as long as it’s emergency housing in a foreign country.

Japan had a serious housing problem after WWII and Soviet apartments were taken as the model for rebuilding. That was barely underway when, in 1962, Kazuo Shinohara was to declare that houses are art. (I bought that too, by the way.) If houses were art it was a very elitist art but, had the idea stopped there, it would’ve done no more than ensure we had a constant supply of intruiging Japanese art-houses to beguile us.

However, the powerful attractiveness of such an idea for architecture is that once something is declared art it is placed outside of critical reason. Normal rules no longer apply and one can only talk about whether or not something is good art, and that’s tricky given our degraded vocabulary for talking about such things. All the same, it’s still valid to like or dislike something without having to give a reason. Problems only arise when people try to convince others to like the same thing.

Robert Venturi’s 1968 opener “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture” is a statement of emotion with 90 pages of reasoned observation attached. It must’ve been pleasant wandering around Rome and pondering its Baroque architecture but what we got out of it was the idea that architecture was an art that should stimulate our pleasure centres. This has left us with buildings claiming to be playful, inventive, witty and amusing. We’re also left with the odd belief buildings exist to entertain us. 

I have no problem with either art or with architecture as art for one good thing art does is make us question our reality and re-evaluate our place in the world. In that sense, Roger Scruton saw art as a substitute for religion in increasingly secular post-Renaissance societies. I’m inclined to think so too, despite two adverse side-effects.

  1. The 1970s were the formative years of that intellectual construct, the starchitect. If architecture is art substituting for religion, then the media is no longer its galleries but its places of worship, and architects are not just artists and idols but prophets and deities. (This creates awkward moments when they age, become ill, or die.) 
  2. The other bad side effect is for architecture to be placed on a pedestal as something that can only be appreciated from a distance, and even then not by all. Pop artists produced expensive art that appropriated imagery from popular culture. Their art was neither popular nor for the people. This transfers exactly to architecture. Affordable housing is regarded with the same disdain as affordable art. Affordable architecture becomes an oxymoron.

If our likes don’t need to be justified but worth still needs to be quantified and claimed then we have a means tailored to do just that, with numbers of likes quantifying the degree of (varying degrees of) emotional impact in an open-ended scale of purported worth that has no opposite, not even the false opposite of reason. Emotion wins in a race of one and architecture always likes a winner. Reason has fallen by the wayside, probably dead. I know how this dog feels.

valentine

I’m warming more and more to the idea of a New Formalist mode of architectural criticism that probes how the tangible attributes of buildings are contrived to produce the intangible effects of architecture.

• • •

Oct. 9, 7:32pm: The above image is of a 1968 Olivetti poster by Milton Glaser. From this blog, I just discovered it’s a detail of a 1495 painting by Piero di Cosimo.

Further googling leads me to this site and the bigger picture. It is Piero di Cosimo’s Death of Procris, now ca 1500-1510

None of this lesses the power of Glaser’s graphic, or his skill in choosing this particular image, cropping it and tweaking its lines and colours. I’ve always thought images containing the four primary colours seem complete somehow, whole. I’m aware it’s just a visual trick that can be strategically employed to evoke the emotional response of something being complete and whole but it works for me. It remains a very seductive image. The typewriter is perfect product placement. Its red works too, and beautifully and contrivedly so with the pumped up red of the flowers at the top and that triangulated red flower bottom right.

The message seems to be that the typewriter is incidental but still an integral part in some greater drama, as it is in Glaser’s composition. I also learn that the painting is said to be the first depiction in Western art of an animal appearing to feel emotion. Knowing that, it become easier to think that embedding emotion into a product was some greater corporate brief of Olivetti’s rather and no one-off accident of Mr. Sotsass. Following that train of thought, the post-modern “referencing” of history (and any subsequent emotion evoked) was a strategy to engage a market more monied than those any prior more socially-oriented architecture had catered to.

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The Landscraper

Ownership of land can be indicated by enclosing it, exploiting it (by cultivating it, mining it or tenanting it), reshaping it, and building on it. Owning land or the rights to build on it is a prerequsite for all building activity – buildings built on other people’s land don’t tend to remain for very long. If buildings, as if by definition, indicate the ownership of property then:

  1. There is no need for concepts of architectural beauty to do the same.
  2. The Formalist view on this is bad news for those who wish to believe in an Architecture distinct from building, because even indavertently articulating the possession of land can’t be a valid concern of architecture or architectural aesthetics since building, farming, mining etc. can all perform the same task. One logical way out is to accept that architecture is subservient to building because it merely represents what building already denotes. I don’t remember who said “What’s the point teaching logic in a world where everyone thinks the sun is setting when it’s really the horizon rising?” 

Across the road from me is a four-storey deep hole out of which, over the next two years, a G+63 storey building will grow out of the ground at a rate of about one storey every ten days.

Once it’s complete, no-one will say it appears to have grown out of the ground for that’s praise reserved for buildings with pretensions to being “natural” or “organic”. This seems to be some sort of Wrightian hangover as it’s simply not possible for buildings grow out of the ground in the same way plants do. That impossibility is important to architecture for it offers a new way of displaying how much money can be spent attempting to make a building appear to grow out of the ground. It other words, it is a new form of beauty, the new weightlessness, the new transparency.

In the early-1990s fractal geometries and self similarities were everywhere. Buildings such as Peter Eisenman’s 1991 proposal for Max Reinhart Haus were being designed and, increasingly, constructed with complex curves faceted for ease of fabrication. It was a matter of time before someone would try to create a building that appeared to grow out of the ground and create an architectural product out of what people thought architectural beauty was anyway – it couldn’t fail! I had a crack at it myself. Representing movement in a very static building was a tall order but the Futurist sculpture concept of lines of force and Umberto Bocchioni’s Bottle Evolving in Space seemed a good place to start.

Zaha Hadid got there first though with her 1999 Landscape Formation One one. The ZHA website says it “rejects the concept of building as ‘isolated object’ – bleeding out of and dissolving back into the surrounding landscape …” 47.585843°, 7.62036°. See for yourself.

Later buildings appropriated existing landscape or cityscape features to appear to be growing out of their surroundings as inevitable consequence. In still later projects lacking sufficiently obliging landscapes, the building and the rest of the site morphed into each other to form a single landscape-building objects that were just as isolated as buildings as isolated objects had been. It’s a trope we haven’t seen the last of. 

If any mixed-use building taller than it is wide is a vertical city then, thanks to Zaha Hadid, architectural lore now has it that any building wider than it is tall is now a landscraper. [1]  The bogus conceit of landscrapers is not so much that they grow out of the ground but that they are of the very ground itself. In a world of slender skyscrapers miserly with land, an architecture that takes up as much as it can oozes class or at least abundance. This point was rammed home by OMA with the graphics for the 2007 Ras Al Khaimah Convention Centre proposal. Fat became the new skinny. A building couldn’t be too low or too long.

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The term landscraper already claimed, Thom Mayne had to invent the term hybrid landscape to describe his version of the same product. Lebbeus Woods wrote of touching the ground heavily as if it were the new touching the ground lightly. The man is a legend.

hybrid landscapes.jpeg

This next image is Thom Mayne and Morphosis’ 20010 Giant Group Campus in Shanghai. As insult to both land and language, this one has an affinity for water and becomes airborne at one end.

Trains are notoriously longer than they are high and the buildings they stop at have huge landscraper potential. Unlike the trains it is there to serve, Morphosis’ Vialia Vigo station in Spain’s Galicia is loathe to touch the land. Ideas above its station.

Google’s planned new London HQ – I forget who by – is much longer than it is tall, even longer than the 310-metre high The Shard is high. [Does The Shard even have a proper name? I don’t warm to buildings eager to be known by their nicknames without ever having done anything to earn familiary or affection.]

King’s Cross has two mainline stations and a major confluence of tube lines. It is an ideal location for tall buildings but is forever blighted by being within the Kenwood House to St Paul’s Cathedral protected view corridor[2] It’s easy to imagine how, in two hundred years, London will be carved up by view corridors in much the same way Broadway divides Manhattan or high-voltage lines cross Russian forests. This next graphic is from cargocollective. The view corridor from the viewing gazebo at Kenwood House is the one beginning where that little orange box at top left is. 

Although the view corridor extends some distance past St. Paul’s Cathedral and across the River Thames, “a view of St. Paul’s” can be interpreted as “a direct view of St. Paul’s” and not as “a view of the sihouette of St. Paul’s” which is the most distinctive thing about it. 

Here’s how the building will fit between three other buildings each about 300 metres long but not famous for being landscrapers.

Here’s how the centreline of the Kenwood House View Corridor crosses King’s Cross.

Here’s a link to the planning document history for Application No. 2017/3133/P DEVELOPMENT ZONE A KING’S CROSS CENTRAL YOUR WAY LONDON at the Planning and The Building Environment department of the London Borough of Camden. Document Nos. 170526 parts 1~5 give a good overview of the project. The view corridor restriction is already embedded in Parameter Plan KXC 014 and so doesn’t need to be referred to in the planning application let alone any subsequent press release. People never get to know what values are shaping their environment.

A decision from Historic England dated June 19 recommends no archaelogical requirement. At first I was surprised, and then I wasn’t. London’s first tube line, the Circle Line from Paddington to Farringdon Street was constructed along the course of the former River Fleet. This corner of King’s Cross was one of the only places the river could be forded and legend has it it is where Queen Boudicea famously trounced The Romans in AD60 (giving rise to King’s Cross’ former name of Battlebridge, after the bridge later built.) This is land nobody wants to see scraped too deeply in case the legend turns out to be fact. Excavator operators will be instructed to ignore skeletons.

This could be why this landscraper wears its soil and trees on top. First generation landscrapers pretended they were down with the land. Second generation landscrapers distanced themselves from it. Third generation landscrapers are squat skyscrapers. The only land they acknowlege is the footprint to be replaced by intensive development.

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The header image is of a CAT 637G Wheel-Tractor Scraper.

• • •

  1. Thanks to Sonny Flex for the idea for this post, and also for the heads up on Thom Mayne.
  2. Novelist Peter Ackroyd believes parts of London have a default character that resists change – as if genus locii could go either way. I do also. From 1993 to 1999 I lived at Flat 1, 317 Grays Inn Road. WC1X8PX. As late as 2015 this corner was exactly as I remember it and not that different from what it must have looked circa 1830.

    This terrace was one of the last buildings to be built along Gray’s Inn Road as the site had been used as a construction waste dump prior to 1830. The terrace is longer than it is tall. Instead of appearing to grow out of the ground, it is of the very ground itself as it was constructed with bricks fired from clay dug while excavating the basements.

    The building is what living above shops meant in 1830. Upper floors were split across their depth with a single large room to the front and a smaller room and stairwell to the rear. Around 1960, bathrooms and kitchens were added to convert them into flats. Too much time on my hands, I once colour-coded the walls to highlight this history but, after thinking of the number of people who’d passed through that space over the years, I repainted all walls a drab green I imagined them destined to be. Before doing so, I made this ballpoint sketch I’m still proud of.

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The Vertical City

If you translate loosely, the term vertical city first enters our architectural consciousness with Ludwig Hilberseimer’s 1924 Hochhausstadt. The space between the apartment buildings isn’t an extension of the pedestrian level retail or communal space for the residents but a light well for the offices below. This post is about spaces vertically shared by different types of user.

Architects like to call buildings vertical cities because it implies an ability to fully understand the intelligence of a city and condense it into a single building. The header image is Foster + Partners’ 1989 Millennium Tower proposal for Tokyo Bay.

Rising out of Tokyo Bay, the tower is capable of housing a community of up to 60,000 people, generating its own energy and processing its own waste. A vertical city quarter, it would be self-sustaining and virtually self-sufficient. The lower levels accommodate offices and clean industries such as consumer electronics. Above are apartments, while the uppermost section houses communications systems and wind generators. A high-speed ‘metro’ system − with cars designed to carry 160 people − tracks vertically and horizontally, moving through the building at twice the rate of conventional express lifts. Cars stop at sky centres at every thirtieth floor; from there, individual journeys may be completed via lifts or escalators. This continuous cycle reduces travel times − an important factor in a vertical city, no less than a horizontal one. The five-storey sky centres have different principal functions; one might include a hotel, another one a department store; each is articulated with mezzanines, terraces and gardens to create a sense of place. The project demonstrates [?] that high-density or high-rise living can lead to an improved quality of life, where housing, work and leisure facilities are all conveniently close at hand.

Japan’s economy tanked in 1993 so this breathless combination of greenwash and good intentions was unable to will this building into being. Vertical city proposals come and go. Dubai’s Nakheel Tower did the rounds pre-2008. One trend at 2007 Cityscape Dubai was for mega-models but, alas, this vertical city was also not to be.

Nakheel Tower never lived but was resurrected anyway for a different location as Al Burj. We’re still waiting.

Vertical cities continue to be the stuff of dreams. This is what they do. Everyone is content for them to remain part of the architectural dreamscape.

It’s why people don’t take kindly to them being realised, especially when they are 1) prefabricated, 2) in China and 3) not clad in futurespeak. [c.f. The Shameless Skyscraper] 

The last time I heard the term vertical city mentioned was Rem Koolhaas disinterestedly describing OMA’s Die Rotterdam mixed-used development as one, and so continuing the tradition of calling any mixed used development slightly a bit taller than it is wide a vertical city.

In passing, these next images are of one of the apartments in the top right corner of the apartment tower. On airb’n’b you can probably find a photograph showing the curtains of that second bedroom.

Vertical cities have become progressively smaller, along with our expectations for them. Living in any city, even a vertical one, requires a balance between drawing energy from the city yet keeping a distance from it. These aren’t either-or propositions as, for example, a person can withdraw from the city to their apartment yet still look out over a city and be energized by it. Maybe that’s what these next people are doing. I hope so.

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Opus building in Dubai started out a decade ago as an office building. Two years ago it was to have been a hotel but, last time I looked, is on track to becoming a mixed use building befitting its many floorplates. One could conceivably never leave the building but it fails the taller-than-it-is-wide test.

The Hilberseimer proposal treated the vertical city as a mat but all these others treat it some kind of supercharged architectural object. The mixed use building as vertical city is a red herring. What we’re really talking about it is

Living Above Shops

In Roman times, high net-worth individuals lived in villas and we know much about their architecture. We know little about how the other XCIX per cent lived, except that they lived in insulae. Part of the Roman legacy is the construction of speculative buildings at minimal expense. In those pre-elevator times, insulae were sometimes as high as eight or nine storeys, with apartments on the higher floors least expensive. If an insula could accommodate at least 40 people in 330 sq.m (3,600 sq.ft) in about six or seven apartments, that means approx. 50 sq.m (550 sq.ft) per apartment and 8.25 sq.m (90 sq.ft) per person. This is about the same area as architecture’s favourite capsule apartment or, if you believe Akira Kurowawa, the size of a Japanese tea-ceremony room.

Providence Arcade was refurbished in 2014 to have microapartments half that area (225 sq.ft) but intended for one person instead of 2.5. Two millennia hasn’t made that much of a difference to what just might be a human spatial standard.

It’s not the square footage I want to talk about but the idea of living above a place used by the general public during the day. 

Despite being a building typology that’s existed for millennia, mixed-use buildings are under-represented in the history of architecture. My guess is that architecture is more often called upon to represent the possession of wealth and property when that wealth and property is held by a single person person or entity. Architecture’s not good with mixing and sharing.

In pseudo-pubic projects, the appearance of mixing and sharing (a.k.a. “vitality” and “vibrance”) becomes important for it disguises the fact everything is owned and controlled by a single entity. This is the town of Basingstoke at Festival Place in Hampshire UK. The former town centre has had retail infill along and between streets. It’s a work in progress, but even as long ago as 1999, the citizens of Basingstoke were expelled from their city centre after closing time and the city becomes not just dead but actually ceases to exist.

“Festival Place is a vibrant social hub in the heart of Basingstoke and the centre’s rejuvenation will create an even better visitor experience for locals …”

One way of bringing the appearance of residential usage into a shopping precinct is to fake it. This is Dubai’s Citywalk Phase II. The forced facade variety with its upper level windows is unconvincing and, even from the inside it’s not clear what’s in that volume, if anything.

With Citywalk Phase III it’s still too early to tell. Having five levels of apartments over shops accessed by foot from footpaths is a new concept for Dubai. It’d be insulae all over again if the apartments and shops catered for ordinary people. They don’t.

It’s hard to tell if residential supports retail or vice-versa. The city is spread thin as there’s insufficient classy retail to go around. Sooner or later though, all retail spaces will be let and ideas of shops will be replaced with actual shops but this won’t prevent the ground level being a veneer of shopfronts evoking the feel of a city. Living the dream has never seemed so unreal.

Double-loaded corridords mean apartments not overlooking streets face each other across space that exists to put distance between windows. More than alleyways but less that streets, these spaces are given the low-maintenance landscape treatment.

Victor Gruen is said to have envisioned his 1956 Southdale Centre mall as a community centre. It’s also said he wanted to recreate the vibrance of his hometown Vienna but conceiving of something with car access only, full air conditioning and no housing above shops was a strange way to go about it. He was to later bemoan the proliferation of malls as centres for retail only and surrounded by a sea of car parking but only after his office had built fifty of them in the US alone. 

To be fair, Gruen also invented the pedestrian mall as a open-air shopping street without cars but parking still had to be provided nearby if they were to ever be an attractive option.

Shopping malls as air-conditioned privatized environments precluded housing and the pedestrian mall meant that living with a car nearby simply wasn’t possible. Gruen’s legacy was two seemingly contradictory products both supremely suited to the golden age of capitalism. Both concepts isolated and supersized only those  portions of the city offering a higher return on investment. Shopping malls don’t have apartments integrated into them because it would be of benefit only to the residents and the shoppers. 

Giuseppe Mengoni’s 1877 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan is the real ancestor of all shopping malls and has apartments as well as a hotel overlooking its arcades. It is excellently sited and intensively used as one of Milan’s major pedestrian thoroughfares. It’s existed for 140 years without parking, air conditioning, private security, food court, cineplex or anchor stores.

Between Citywalk Phase III and Burj Khalifa is a somewhat down-at-heel shopping mall called Mazaya.

Two levels of shops are arranged around three atriums. Around the atrium to the south are three levels of office space and around the one on the north are three levels of apartments. There are apartments facing the street and there are apartments facing the atrium.

It’s a cruise liner and, much like a cruise liner, the view outwards may be the more expansive but the view inwards is the more lively [though not on the public holiday when I visited]. In sixty years of shopping malls, ones like this that break the mold are rare. Mazaya shares more DNA with Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel II than other malls that claim ancestry. This is Mall of the Emirates on the left and Mercato on the right. Mercato is interesting for having fake windows on a top storey that’s actually a raised roof. The dummy windows could easily be real ones but to have sunlight from a pseudo-internal space illuminate a quasi-external space would just be bizarre.

Thoroughfares lined with retail can double as visual amenity space for residential. If our future is living above shops in climate-controlled and privately-policed shopping precincts occupying city blocks separated by vehicle traffic, then inward-looking apartments reconnecting these two uses just might be a way of hanging onto some humanity for a bit longer, even if those precincts are only publicly accessible during opening hours. Shopping may have only recently become entertainment but seeing other people going about their business is what living in cities has always been about.

 

 

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Urban Carpet vs. Mat City

Mat buildings have many plusses as a result of them being a single unit solved for function, access, daylighting and ventilation and indefinitely repeated. So let’s supersize one and see what happens. The evolution of mat city is undocumented so this fast and loose history is going to have to do.

Around 5,400 BC, the city of Eridu, not too far from Basra in Iraq, is said to have been the world’s first city. Details are sketchy but, give or take a bit of artistic license, this image will give you an idea. Temples came and went but the urban carpet stayed.

The classic Middle Eastern city has access alleys separating clusters of buildings with inner courtyards that solved problems of internal circulation, daylighting and ventilation and also happened to lessen diurnal temperature extremes.

These cities became mat cities when levels began to differentiate according to urban function. This image of Marrakech shows residential usage in airspace superfluous to the illumination and ventilation requirements of the access level. Streets once fully open to the sky become passageways illuminated by lightwells. Streets that are nothing more than a means of getting from A to B do not need to be better lit and ventilated than buildings.

1914: Futurist City, Mario Chiattone

This looks all fine and Futurist and not all about form and Sant’Elia. Features are:

  • the identical city block repeated indefinitely
  • separation of what is presumably residential above from the commercial and retail below
  • the hierarchical nature of the buildings
  • the resetting of ground level so pedestrian traffic is separated from vehicular. [By the looks of that traffic, fellow Futurist Giaccomo Balla should have offered Chiattone some tips on how to represent dynamics of movement.]
  • there is elevated pedestrian access on the roofs of what’s probably intended as commercial space
  • patches of vegetation make that elevated pedestrian access into a public roof garden

Despite the intensification and repetition, it’s still a conventional city but with blocks now separated now by not one but two levels of access.

1925: Le Plan Voisin, Le Corbusier

A decade on, Le Corbusier’s plan for Paris has trees and café chairs but no Paris. Vision, by the way, is an anagram of Voisin, the name of the car manufacturers that sponsored this proposal. Le Corbusier gained more from the relationship than they did as his career took off circa 1930 while the European market for luxury cars tanked.

1924: Hochhausstadt, Ludwig Hilberseimer 

 

Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt is said to be a response to Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin but has more in common with Chiattone’s Futurist City. Instead of building over roads and traffic, Hilberseimer proposes building over all land not being used for them – something that has since come to pass. Blocks housing commercial functions are still separated by streets. They form podiums for multiple residential slabs and re-set the ground level for pedestrian access. Between pairs of redidntial slabs are what looks like amenity courtyards. All city blocks therefore remain divided by streets but all residential buildings are separated by a street and an communal amenity courtyard.

It’s hard to tell what people do in all three of these cities. The high-rise bits are residential but where do people work? Where do they shop? What do they do on their day off? In the 1920s was human existence already reduced to sleeping, working, shopping and having to be somewhere else in a hurry? 

These precursor cities all have residential and commercial activity plus two ways to travel to and from it but the importance given to transportation suggests that many people have needs better satisified elsewhere. This would not occur in a mat city as most functions would be satisfieed with the repeatable unit, reducing the dependence on the automobile. In the 1920s when hardly anyone owned a car, architects – and not just Futurist ones – were excited by autombiles and the idea of rush hour.

The 1970s were another high point in the history of the mat city.

1971: Megaton City, Superstudio

Superstudio only gave us the big picture [and me the inspiration for my extruded PVC tile beach photoshoot – c.f. The Extruded Mat Building.] Megaton City assumes all human activity is somehow distributed and accommodated within this structure that we imagine encompassing the planet. I’ve always admired its clarity of perceiving and depicting human existence and activity as conceptually distinct from Nature (even though this representation of that autonomy is totally reliant upon Nature for contrast). The continuous landscape makes us see the natural spaces not as large courtyards but as land not built over. Be that as it may, I hope being squashed by the megaton force of one’s ceiling as punishment for having a dissenting thought won’t come to pass. It’s too early to say, but not too soon to start having doubts.

1971: No-Stop City, Archizoom

From the same 1971, No-Stop City was an endless interior in which dayligting and ventilation are solved by artificial means. The concept of functional necessity is also removed from the equation by having everything necessary for life and living provided and evenly distributed within that interior. People are free to move elsewhere but there’s little point doing so since it’s the same wherever they go. 

Megaton City and No-Stop City make architecture redundant as they don’t articulate the possession of space or things. The same physical framework and contents are repeated endlessly, with only human happiness left for people to work out for themselves. The statement “Life is what you make it” is both brutal and optimistic.

This stunning image is from a 2013 AA study titled Hiberseimer Study: Vertical City – Genericalness via Repetition exploring the urban carpet as an exercise in form. Actually owing more to Chiattone than Hilberseimer, it solves the problem of showing us what a urban carpet of the then most expensive building in the world would look like. Anybody know anything about those roof gardens on top of the Four Seasonses?

 

The history of the mat city stopped in 1971. Ubiquitous development didn’t suddenly disappear from the face of the earth but the appearance of it did. The New subUrbanism brought us 1982’s Seaside Florida carpeted with houses for short-term vacation renters all wanting a representation of individuality in a representation of a community.

Me, no. I’ll take the clarity of the mat city anyday, along with the individual and communal responsibility it demands. With that in mind …

La Ville Savoye

The Pilotis Level is the access and service zone. Service industry people live and mostly work in the inhabited pilotis that physically and structurally support The Residential Level.

The Residential Level is up in the air where it can better access sunlight and breezes through Horizontal Windows. Its habitable volume is in the airspace of the Undercroft.

The Roof Gardens on the uppermost level are for resident use.

The Basement Level is for services, storage and distribution.

villa-savoye-basement

One La Ville Savoye unit has a density of 32 persons per residential floor which, over four floors, equates to approx. 94,000 per hectare. That’s a lot of people.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_by_population_density

This means only two residential levels would be needed to house the population of Manila at the same density. Four levels would shrink its area by 50%. Cities with densities of 20,000 persons per hectare could shrink 75%. This is what the 20,000 persons per km² of Malé looks like.

La Ville Savoye would offer better distributed sunlight if it were on or near The Equator. Its energy density is relatively low since residential levels have bathrooms and kitchens naturally lit and ventilated, meaning all services conduits and pipes can be on external surfaces and not hidden in ducts. It doesn’t repeat the Metabolist error of having services penetrate the structural core and preventing proper maintenance and making future additions, replacements and reconfigurations messy, if not impossible. Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower is always used to illustrate the folly of this approach.

Were it to have been built [buildable?], Arata Isozaki’s Clusters in the Sky would surely have been a more heroic failure.

Built representations of Metabolist principles such as Kenzo Tange’s 1966 Yamanashi Broadcasting and Press Center or his 1967 Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center don’t count as these buildings were merely made strange with contrived gaps but were essentially conventional structures with cores with services in shafts.

Unless it’s a location where pipes freeze or pigeons rule, it makes sense to expose services as tidily as possible. It doesn’t have to be made into a fetish by painting the cold water pipes blue and so on. [High-Tech and Post Modernism are both creatures of the same era – the former representing modernity and the latter representing continuity. They are by no means opposites.] IF we are to consider architecture an art, then the plumbing, utilities and drainage that are unique to it have more right to be used as a criteria for its evaluation as art than say, shape-making does. [c.f. Making Strange]

Exposing services is one practical thing we can learn from La Ville Savoye. Much like its namesake, one question it asks but doesn’t answer is what we want ground level to be. After 7,000 years, our cities remain agglomerations of activity spaces overlooking the streets that access and service them. Streets and their traffic compete for space with pedestrians at ground level, and with buildings for the airspace above.

Not all streets are bad and not all traffic is bad. Streets, after all, are a source of pedestrians and coffee-shop urbanism holds that pedestrian traffic brings Retail and Retail brings Vibrance. Masdar City Phase I showed it was possible to completely separate vehicle traffic at impossibly huge cost and succeeded in making both pedestrian and vehicular precincts lifeless.

Streets do have more important things to do than separate one café from another but their absence needs to be put to better use than merely provide a place to have a sandwich. I’m not suggesting ornamental traffic, but perhaps we should be asking what kinds of traffic we don’t mind living with and what kinds we do.

Once we know the answer to that, we need to partially build over those streets and make better use of that airspace.

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Making Strange

Poetry is strange and poetic language is strange. Some words make pleasant or interesting sounds. Other words may sound peculiar while others may be similar – or different – in special ways. Still other words occur in unexpected positions or with some new role or roles. All these poetic devices fall under the general concept of making strange and they all call attention to themselves so we can see something in a new way. This is what poetry does and what art in general does.

Making strange is so intrinsic to poetry that its absence is also a way of making strange. There’s quite a famous poem called “This is Just to Say”. [1] Over the years, people have spent much time trying to work out what makes it poetry. 

If making strange in poetry is about words and language, then making strange in filmmaking is about film as celluloid. I remember De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves as having a scene in which a person walking up some flights of stairs has the same footage briefly repeated three times. The effect was “Did I just see what I think I just saw?” Then there was the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker in which two birds fly away across The Zone but only one of them is seen to have crossed it. It’s a powerful scene made strange by simply removing some footage. Both these techniques are specific to film.

I’ve written elsewhere [c.f. Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINEabout the Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis song Canʼt get you out of my head performed by Kylie Minogue. It’s a pop song made strange by beginning with chorus and a fade-in that allude to the upcoming lyrical content. In the spirit of repetition, let’s appreciate it once more for what it is.

[or vimeo]

Towards the end, the buildings in the background are made strange by lighting up as if they were VU meters, showing us a city made strange getting down.

Light show projections are a new form of public entertainment that shows us buildings in strange new ways even if only for short periods of time. More recent projections involve 3D mappings spectacularly combined with animation – a quality that’s very very strange for a building.

Like anything else that stimulates endorphins, increasingly stronger doses are needed if something is to be made strange and new over and over. In art, once a technique of art has been used to indicate something is art it can’t really be used again in the same way as it won’t be so strange anymore. It might still be art but it probably won’t be good art. This is why artists are under such pressure to continually outdo themselves.

In stage drama, making strange involves preventing the audience from becoming involved in a pretend story and faked emotions. Techniques such as wooden delivery, stilted dialogue, awkward silences, or having the actors carry the scenery onto the stage remind the audience they’re there to concentrate on the content of the play and not its superficialities. Bertold Brecht was the main proponent of this type of theatre. He called it Verfremdungseffekt. In English it’s known as the distancing effect, the alienation effect, the defamiliarization effect, or the estrangement effect. This last is apparently closest in meaning to the priyom ostraneniya (приём остранения) as understood and used by the Russian Formalists. [3]

Viktor Shklovsky was head of OPOJAZ – the Society for the Study of Poetic Language group (1910~1930-ish) was mainly concerned with technique and device. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines: they are the result of an intentional human activity in which a specific skill transforms raw material into a complex mechanism suitable for a particular purpose.” [4] According to Shklovsky, “art is a sum of the literary and artistic devices the artist manipulates to craft his work.”

The Russian Formalists’ literary criticism emphasised how literary or artistic devices unique to imaginative writing actually functioned. There’s an admirable purity to a literature that doesn’t aspire to be painting, a painting that doesn’t aspire to be music, a music that doesn’t aspire to be sculpture, an architecture that doesn’t aspire to be cinema, etc. In other words, Goethe was wrong. It makes no more sense to evaluate architecture according to rhythm and harmony than it does to evaluate music according to site conditions or climate. The Russian Formalists began by not allowing psychology or culture or history to enter into their evaluations of how well the writer used what they did to achieve they set out to do. It’s still a refreshing approach, as shown by Helen Vendler’s analyses of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. [c.f. Twelve Books on Architecture] It’s also the opposite of what we currently have.

Today, when we read a review of a piece of art, we’re almost certain to read a list of references to the choice of thematic material as filtered the artist’s reading of history, politics, gender studies and contemporary society. If no such context readily presents itself, then the fallback context is to discuss the work in terms of everything the artist has done before or is currently working on. [c.f. Conceptual Continuity] Everything seems worthy of our attention except how the artist has mastered the techniques and devices specific to their particular art form.

Understandably, the Russian Formalists were keen to determine exactly what is intrinsic to literary language. If we were to let such an approach transfer to architecture – and it could transfer directly and with better fidelity than the literary concepts of Post-Modern or Deconstruction ever translated – then it would have huge consequences for evaluating architecture.

  • It means harmony and rhythm are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Music.
  • It means composition and proportion are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Painting.
  • It means three-dimensionality and form are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Sculpture.
  • It means transparency and blurring are not valid concepts for producing or  evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Photography.
  • It means organicism and self-similarity are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re qualities intrinsic to Nature.
  • It means history, philosophy, psychology, politics and culture are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re not qualities that influence Architecture alone. Everything has a history or, more precisely, everything has many histories.

What’s left standing?

  • The notion of space seems to survive intact and I’m not the first to suggest it as a fundamental property of architecture. It may well be the real essence of architecture is the void and not the pretend solid enclosing it.
  • Following on from that, there’s moving through a space. The Acropolis and The Villa Savoye have been famously identified and described (yet never evaluated) as sequences of spatial experiences. Nonetheless, those sequences of spatial experiences are still distinct from the flashbacks, flash forwards and other devices intrinsic to Cinema and that evoke similar feelings of anticipation and suspense.
  • Materials, construction, and structure – but only at scales distinct from those of furniture and civil engineering.
  • As long as buildings are constructed objects, the senseable qualities of materials are as valid as their physical ones. This isn’t to argue for a touchy-feely architecture but just to say that, as long as buildings are constructed from materials with qualities, one quality is just as valid as any other.
  • Site.
  • The notion of function survives, in the sense that people still experience a space even if they’re not moving around admiring it.

In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Patrik Schumacher claims function is not a fundamental quality of architecture. In a perversion of the Russian Formalist position, he states that people can use the space inside a cave or a hollowed out tree for shelter as they might a building. From this he jumpily concludes that function is a quality that can be satisfied by something other than architecture, and thus not a quality by which architecture should be evaluated.
[p341, Vol I. if you’re keen.]
perverted formalism

  • Watertightness, servicing, security, durability, sustainability, energy performance and so on, are all specific to Architecture [I know, I know …] despite their current relegation to The Art of Building.
  • The solving of many conflicting requirements together is integrated design and not unique to architecture, but solving the above set is. 

Schumacher would [and did] say that since all these can be solved by engineers, they are not a concern of architects. This is a distortion of a perversion of the Russian Formalist stance and also an example of either ecological fallacy or circular reasoning since what we’re trying to establish is what makes architecture architecture, not what makes architects architects. We can debate whether all architecture is made by architects but it’s contrary to both commonsense and logic to claim all architects make architecture. [5]

These candidates for qualities unique to architecture hit upon all the contentious ones. Why site and not context? If we admit context then why not historical, political and cultural ones? I don’t know.  Perhaps Asnago & Vender got it right by considering history as the site condition of What’s already there. [c.f Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender]

In some later post I’ll try to illustrate how this concept of making strange can be used to evaluate architecture and, by association, the efforts of architects.

To close, this concept of making strange shouldn’t be reduced to shallow novelty or narrowed to mean only aesthetic innovation. Something novel or innovative can only be considered to have been made strange if it employs a device intrinsic to architecture, and even then only until strange becomes the new normal.

If architecture is an art, then its devices must be capable of interrogation in the same way we can talk about painting not by its subject matter or what we presume the intent of the artist to have been, but by the hard and lasting evidence of brushstrokes, their colours and the patterns they make. Seeing architecture in a similar way might even prove useful in the long run. You never know.

• • •

  1. This is Just to Say was written in 1934 by Walter Carlos Williams.
  2. More on the distancing effect and its chief popularizer, Bertold Brecht.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_formalism This entry will probably tell you all you need to know about the differences between Mechanistic Formalism, Organic Formalism, Systemic Formalism and Linguistic Formalism. The differences hardly matter given our conceptual distance from any of these sub-stances.
  4. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines … ” Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. 1925. A poem became a machine for meaning about the same time a house became a machine for living. 
  5. The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I contains no reference to Shklovsky or even to Brecht but the question of what is intrinsic to architecture and nothing else is one Patrik Schumacher had to answer if he was to argue for the autonomy of architecture and for it being a great function system of society rather than a mere subset of the art system. His suggested answer is in the book’s final chapter I still haven’t gotten around to writing about.

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Unimagining the Brick

Frank Lloyd Wright and his Froebel® blocks are the main reason we associate building blocks with the nurturing of architectural creativity. The great man himself told us it was so. The blocks may well have been responsible for Wright’s early mastery of horizontal and vertical massing but they might also explain his persistent aversion to diagonals and his creepy, late-in-life fascinations with circles.

Building blocks such as LEGO® [hereinafter, LEGO] have also been part of the lives of many children who did not all become architects. They could be used in many ways and to make many things. The were important for developing spatial ability in children and parents could also enjoy them in their own way. Parents must also have appreciated them being many toys in one and that requests for more pieces were easily and inexpensively satisfied – a state of affairs beneficial to everyone except the manufacturers. What the Lego company decided it needed was a product that discouraged disassembly and subsequent re-use and instead encouraged repeat purchases of one-off kits.

By 2014 the business turnaround of the Lego company was legendary. [1] The 1977 movie Star Wars had been the first movie to aggressively pursue tie-ins with all manner of products and companies.

The Lego company joined the party in 1999 in time for Star Wars Episode 1The first sets were released under the LEGO System brand and consisted of eight sets from Episode I and five sets from the original trilogy films, including the first LEGO Star Wars X-wing and Snowspeeder. [2]

Being expected to cheer at the Lego company’s business turnaround is yet another manifestation of the neoliberal pandemic that blinds us to seeing anything in terms other than dollar value. We don’t even think it odd anymore to talk about the worth of a movie in terms of its opening weekend gross, a footballer in terms of their transfer fee, or an architectural practice in terms of turnover or how many fee-generating architects it employs. 

Lego’s business problems were solved but it was distressing to watch for anyone raised on the old LEGO that had generic pieces and came without instructions. All the new LEGO required was the ability to follow instructions and diagrams and arrive at somebody else’s result. This used to be called construction – and we still need people who are good at that. What we don’t need is for creativity to be redefined as obedience. Or do we? Children who’ve known nothing else but new LEGO are about to graduate architecture school and we’ll soon see how well they adapt to today’s workforce.

Designing every piece as a special piece discouraged disassembly and the making of anything else but there would always be a steady stream of new kits to buy/make. The potential to creatively combine pieces was still represented by residual studs on larger pieces but the things most likely to be creatively added were minifigure characters that redefined creative play as the re-enactment of scenes from movies.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-04-at-6.39.01-PM.png

The CREATOR and Architecture series [3] came along to show the link between LEGO and architectural creativity remained, even if as one-off kits that could only make one thing. Initial sets such as the 2009 Fallingwater and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the 2011 Farnsworth House and the 2012 Sydney Opera House were spectacularly unlike what they purported to represent, further cementing the belief that shape was the only thing in architecture that mattered.

These representations of architectural creativity made them ideal gifts for architects. The 2013 Sydney Opera House was an improvement in terms of realism but the series name CREATOR was a misnomer.

These next three buildings embody a certain notion of architectural creativity but their shapes simply don’t do what LEGO does best. I don’t think we’ll be seeing them as LEGO kits anytime soon but, after seeing Marina Bay Sands above, who knows? 

LEGO’s limitations may become apparent when representing certain architectural ideas about shape, but it has even greater limitations when representing any architectural idea that isn’t about shape. We won’t be seeing these next buildings immortalized in LEGO anytime soon.

Gary Garvin already did Dessau. [4]

Occasionally, we hear of rogue artists using LEGO in the disobedient ways of art, such as Nathan Sawayas [5] and his deconstructed figures, Jan Vorman’s [5] repairing of war-ravaged walls, and Wei Wei’s use of donated (i.e. unapproved = “non-LEGO”) bricks for an exhibition of portraits of dissidents and political prisoners after the Lego company refused him a bulk purchase [6].

And then there was the LEGO house. Back in 2009 when I didn’t know who James May was, I thought this was an amusing but experimental use of LEGO as a building product until I learned it was built with the expectation of becoming a permanent exhibit at UK’s LEGOLAND®. This means that rather than being conceived of as a good idea, it was conceived as an exhibit and thus no different from any of the buildings at the VITRA zoo. It was stupid of me to imagine it could ever have been anything else. A mass-producible, durable and generic construction material anyone could assemble into buildings of infinite variation was simply too good to be true.

All avenues of escape are being cut off one by one. Even before the circle was finally closed there had been the LEGO meme in architecture [c.f. Architecture Myths #16: Memes]. Buildings were mimicking LEGO before LEGO came to mimic architecture.

It’s as if the world of architecture still wanted us to believe LEGO had a link with creativity long after the Lego company had abandoned its principles for the noisy representation of them. God this postmodern world sucks.

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This refusal of the world of architecture to believe what others already accepted created the market for LEGO Architecture Studio. “Anyone with an interest in architecture can now create their own Lego original designs, as well as building mini architectural masterpieces such as the Eiffel Tower and the Trevi Fountain,” gushed a Lego press release quoted on dezeen, as these things are.

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This architectural LEGO can be used to represent architectural ideas as long as they don’t involve properties other than shape. I wasn’t the only kid who valued colour as a property of the bricks.

Aspiring adults can now express their creativity through monochromatic models using a curated selection of architectural tropes and memes. It’s all too real for comfort. The architect kit comes with a 250-page guidebook [8] for those who still don’t get it. It’s an important document future scholars will study in order to understand precisely how the world turned to shit.

Then there’s the LEGO Master Builder Academy Designer Handbook [pdf] that teaches you how to be a designer of LEGO models …

I’m probably guilty of finding something more interesting than it actually is, but I chuckled anyway at Amy Frearson’s question to Bjarke Ingels, “Was it something of a given that you would use the LEGO brick as the basis of the design?”  

And so we approach the endgame with architecture going one step further than the LEGO meme by aspiring to be real LEGO architecture – or is that “real” LEGO architecture? It’s tricky. I propose we use doubled quotation marks to indicate those situations when reality and representations of it fold in and over each other like pizza dough, e.g. “”LEGO Architecture.””

There’s only one way this can end. We’re slowly but surely working our way towards a modular construction element that can be combined in infinitely many ways to build anything quickly, cheaply and easily. However, before that can become a product of enormous benefit to the world, there’s still some problems such as security, structural integrity, fire safety, thermal properties and moisture proofing that need to be sorted. In the meantime, we can just pretend they don’t exist so, in that sense, LEGO and architecture are already indistinguishable. 

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  1. One of many articles describing the Lego company’s turnaround as one of the greatest business success stories of all time.
  2. A post on starwars.com telling of fifteen years of LEGO® and STAR WARS™ tie-ins
  3. brickset.com is the eBay of architectural LEGO
  4. There’s a book, The LEGO Architect.
  5. More on LEGO artists Nathan Sawaya and Jan Vorman
  6. The Lego company’s refusal to allow Chinese artist Wei Wei to bulk purchase LEGO has been their only major PR misjudgment we know about.
  7. The 250-page guidebook [pdf (be patient)] accompanying the LEGO Architecture Studio Set has an introductory essay by extrusion-hater Winy Maas, followed by essays and exercises to which invited architects have input. There is REX on Scale, Sō Fujimoto on Space and Section, SOM on Modules and Repetition, MAD Architecture Workshop on Surface, Tham & Videgård Arkitekter Workshop on Mass and Density,  Safdie architects on Symmetry, and KRADS architects who are credited as consulting concept editors [!?] One thing I did learn was that Moshe Safdie used many white LEGO blocks in cluster studies for the apartment modules, gardens and streets of Habitat 67. This makes sense because LEGO was a way of understanding an idea well suited to being understood using LEGO. Elsewhere*, Safdie has said the 2:1 bricks offered the perfect scale.1200px-Habitat_panorama
  8. I was thinking a reverse-engineered Habitat 67 LEGO tribute kit at that scale and with only 1:1 and 2:1 bricks would be a piece of history and a useful tool for everybody to learn about scale, space, section, modules, repetition and symmetry in the same way they informed Safdie’s design. Instead, what happened was the limited-edition sale of a partial model pre-created by Nathalie Boucher. Ingenious as it is, it conveys nothing of how the old LEGO was used creatively to produce the wondrous thing “”LEGO Architecture”” merely depicts. Habitat 67 is a genuine example of old LEGO being used as a creative tool in architecture. It’s no surprise then, that the freestyle creativity LEGO once enabled so generously and silently had to be strategically and noisily supplanted with the dutiful construction of a representation of Habitat 67 as a representation of that creativity.

    One redefinition and two degrees of abstraction now insulate the new creativity from the old. The postmodern world sucked but this neoliberal mutation doublesucks.

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