Old Ideas for New Architectures

This part of a two-part post will quickly revisit some ideas used to lend credence to some of last century’s new architectures – in preparation for part two to follow. Radical Functionalism.

  • The idea of a building being configured according to certain useful criteria relating to buildings and their occupants’ needs didn’t last very long.
  • Functionalism had an essential humanism at its core but this fact never made it across the Atlantic.
  • Functionalist buildings took into account the construction of buildings and the spatial, illumination and ventilation needs of their occupants.
  • It was accused of failing to respond to their aesthetic needs.

josef polášek municipal housing in brno Futurism.

  • Architect Sant’Elia is poster boy but would’ve been overlooked had it not been a slow decade for architectural history.
  • Sant’Elia advocated the sensible use of modern materials to adapt to mobility and change. His interests were in sync with those of his artist colleagues rather than being derived from them.


  • Futurism/Sant’Elia and Functionalism share the view that materials and methods of construction might be important for buildings.
  • Instead, architects latched onto the Futurist ART notion it was best to create everything new and unlike anything that had ever existed.  Thus …

A New Architecture. 

  • The Futurist notion of “New is good” had architectural staying power but the idea of buildings doing useful things was corrupted almost immediately.
  • The New Architecture’s ostensibly functional inspirations were the luxury transatlantic ocean liners to which Le Big C was no étranger, and American grain elevators.

ml_JosephineBakerHouse_07_x 3925989201_30b329de6d_z

  • Le Corbusier saw all the right things yet still managed to not see anything but geometric primitives casting shadows.


  • His architectural genius and his architectural crime was to appropriate things that were fit-for-purpose and reappropriate them as a metaphor for functionality in things that weren’tBuildings do more than block the sun in picturesque ways.


  • Corbusier even claimed functional justification for his paintings, saying they were what the eye really wanted to see. Never trust an architect who paints.

The 1940s. 

Ralph rapson

  • However, oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938 and, by 1950, exported so we could build the energy-dependent architecture of International Modernism.

International Modernism.

  • This is the style of corporate America post WWII, the style of offices, hotels, airports and other symbols of dollar capitalism. These buildings represented progress and modernity.
  • It was international because it represented the aspirations of clients and client nations worldwide to the symbols of modernity and progress whereas it was really a vehicle for the projection of American corporate might and political influence worldwide.
  • These days we call this globalisation. We accept that sequences of similar buildings will appear in diverse countries having nothing in common except rich clients with a desire to impress.
  • Discussion of International Modernism fussed with aesthetic trivia such as curtain walling proportions, and spandrel and mullion minutiae as if they mattered.
Teheran Hilton 1965

Tehran Hilton 1965, fourteen years before the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

  • Internationalism is understood in terms of rational structure and lack of ornament etc. but its core driver was Globalism inasmuch as the commercial and political are ever separate.
  • The International Style represented a truth still playing itself out.

Danish Modernism.

  • Danish Modernism is an outlier, but only it that it doesn’t fit Charles Jenck’s Modernism-bad-Post-Modernism-necessary thesis. It’s pointless arguing about it now. The damage is done.
  • Danish Modernism integrated construction, function, economy of means, fundamental passive design, natural materials and a humanistic approach to living into an architecture of rare beauty.
  • Its development stopped when the Danish government discontinued the practice of granting loans for the construction of houses of less than a certain area.

Untitled 11 Metabolism

  • The only architectural movement that didn’t originate west of “The Orient”.
  • Metabolism championed large megastructures organised as if by a process of organic growth. It was architecturalised nature, 3D Art Nouveau writ large, “organic” architecture reprised.
  • Easier theorised than done, its ambitions reached further than its cantilevers.
  • Its unbuildability was proof of its visionaries’ visionairiness.


  • Lack of theory should have made it travel better than it did. Metabolism’s notions of adaptive urbanisation enjoyed vicarious favour when seen to be emanating from London’s Architectural Association.
  • Its unbuildability was proof of its visionaries’ visionairiness.

51d719a5e8e44ebb50000029_ad-classics-the-plug-in-city-peter-cook-archigram-_749_medium High-tech. 

  • An idea-free architecture for the times. In place of actual principles was a mood board inviting us to take whatever we thought was good about Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, Pierre Chareau’s Maison de VerreArchiGram and the Case Study Houses.
  • What all these had in common was the use of stock industrial or prefabricated components as metaphors for speed, economy and change – in much the same way as Roy Lichtenstein’s or Andy Warhol’s art were metaphors for mass production and consumption rather than – God forbid! – actually being mass produced or mass consumed.

  • In a classic demonstration of how architecture subverts what is good in the world, Hi-Tech prefabrication became the new bespoke, limited to single projects with new ways to make them expensive one-offs. CNC was used to explain how the cost would have been far more had all those pieces been fabricated by hand.
  • Richard Rogers has a few Warhols in his living room.

Eric Morin

  • High-tech’s celebration of large spans was attractive to clients for airports and other big sheds.

Madrid_barajas_airport_terminal_t41 London_Stansted_Airport_Terminal Post Modernism.

  • Post Modernism co-existed with High-Tech, mopping up the Artist (or was it the Intellectual?) end of the market.
  • PM was a late 20th century architectural movement based on opportunistic analogies with Post-modern Literature. The blurring of “high” and “low” culture was the one architects took and ran with.
  • Buildings were re-evaluated as things that carry messages and signs That Mean Things. Architects started reading Roland Barthes.
  • Post Modernism was crap. We’re still cleaning up after it.


  • A niche movement, Minimalism borrowed ideas from Minimalist Art of which Donald Judd is representative. The main idea is to strive for an essential objectness that emphasises some ‘fundamental’ relationship between it and a viewer.

The most notable critique of minimalism was produced by Michael Fried, a formalist critic, who objected to the work on the basis of its “theatricality”. In Art and Objecthood (published in Artforum in June 1967) he declared that the minimal work of art, particularly minimal sculpture, was based on an engagement with the physicality of the spectator. He argued that work like Robert Morris‘s transformed the act of viewing into a type of spectacle, in which the artifice of the act of observation and the viewer’s participation in the work were unveiled. Fried saw this displacement of the viewer’s experience from an aesthetic engagement within, to an event outside of the artwork as a failure of minimal art.

  • Minimalist architecture is also open to this criticism.


  • Minimalist architects endeavour to reduce architecture to its essential qualities which, for some reasonare always “space” and “light”.
  • The label Minimalism can be applied to whatever anyone thinks the essentials of architecture are.
oil rig close

Here’s a minimalist building that’s all about keeping people safe and comfortable in a harsh environment. It has an essential objectness emphasising the fundamental relationship between it and its occupants.

  • Also significant is the amount of money it takes to contrive construction details to make a building appear as if only made of space and light.
  • Minimalism was a new way to make buildings more expensive.


  • Like Post Modernism, Deconstructivism selected it’s inspirations from a literary movement – Deconstruction. Deconstructivist buildings are built representations of one or more of its ideas.
  • Those ideas actually have little to do with Deconstruction. Any name containing the word “construction” obviously has something to do with buildings. If only.
  • The most abused idea was the one saying a complete “text” could be understood from a fragment of it. This led to buildings looking as if they were in the process of becoming something or, depending on how you look at it, of unbecoming something.
  • As an idea to kickstart some new way for buildings to look, it was sufficient. 
  • Like Post modernism, DeCon was pretty tricksy.
  • D-con was another way of making buildings pretentious and expensive.
  • As with Post Modernism, it didn’t matter what it was telling us.

The facade above isn’t really “falling into place”. Beneath all these apparently not-quite-there-yet surfaces is a very real and stable reality of columns, slabs and enclosing walls.

  • As with Internationalism, it didn’t matter where a building was. This was to be the link with …


  • Parametricism’s endgame is to cover the planet with grey goo.


  • Patrick Schumacher, its irrepressible populist, has described Parametricism in terms of Niklas Lurmann‘s social theories of communications. Despite his efforts, people still respond to Parametricism without the burden of theory. Zipless architecture.
  • Ostensibly an offshoot of angular deconstructivism, this new Internationalism is perfect for global power players to whom the old signifiers weren’t signifying anything. The local and culture-specific meanings of Post Modernism were too external and angular D-con too aggressively challenging. Never a good message for your average globalist.
  • What these dudes wanted was a style that could represent their new shared global economic and political agenda – motion without progress, a directionless dynamism with neither beginning nor end.
  • And lo, this style came to pass. 


• • •

Ideas come and go, one after another. It’s convenient for some new and more attractive idea to come along before we tire of one or before its failings become obvious. Nothing ever gets improved. This has parallels with the world of fashion. It actually doesn’t really matter what the inspiration for the next one is if it’s only ever going to be about surface form.

Of all the ideas listed above, Radical Functionalism was the only architecture whose principles didn’t imply a specific visual articulation. It was a philosophy of building rather than some new reason to make buildings look different. This was its strength but, as it turned out, the reason for its failure.

The next post will take some ideas from Philosophy and use them as the basis for an architecture that includes EVERYTHING MISFITS’ LIKES and excludes EVERYTHING ELSE.

• • •

Doing this will convert misfits’ manifesto into a theory. This theory will identify buildings that are actual manifestations (rather than analogies) of its ideas. It will be – more easily transferable to buildings than anything we’ve seen in the past – simpler to understand and easier to implement than anything currently on offer, and – more honest than anything we can expect to be offered in the future. It’s time. It’s time we had something like this.

It’s Not Rocket Science #11: Keeping the Water Out

Back in February 2013 I wrote about the ancient Persian yakchal buildings for making ice in winter and storing it until summer.


These buildings used a combination of night sky radiant cooing in conjunction with the thermal mass and insulating properties of mud brick. I wrote

Insulation: The walls of the dome were at least two metres thick at the base, and made of mud brick coated with a special waterproofing mortar composed of sand, clay, egg whites, lime, goat hair, and ash. This render had excellent insulating properties. I can’t find any information for how the optimum ingredients or mix for the mortar were discovered. I can imagine the goat hair may have functioned like the glass fibres do in fibreglass, but what properties do the egg whites add to the render? And how did anyone know they had those properties? 

Erica [Ritter] Wisner tracked me down and kindly explained what’s going on. It’s more fascinating than I’d imagined.

I suggest an answer in two parts:

Protein gels and starch gels are among the general categories of materials known to be compatible with clay-based plaster mixtures. Bodily fluids of all kinds have been used as paint fixatives and binders since the stone age; traces of blood, saliva, urine, egg, milk, etc. have been found in ancient petroglyphs and cave art. Vegetable materials like cactus juices/gels, wheat paste, and oils are also used.These binders are still used for natural paints, some more than others, and also can be added to finish plasters to make them more durable or more compatible with a given paint.  

For clay-based plaster work, these materials act as improved binders, adding hardness and resistance to erosion (and sometimes also for glossier finishes). Proteins and starch gels can be used in larger proportions than oils, without disrupting the clay-based bonds which makes an earthen plaster work. Clay swells with moisture to seal out further erosive moisture incursion; using too much oil (or mixing with too much Portland cement) reduces this self-sealing property, while the natural gel-type materials can work in tandem with the clay in a similar way. This wet-condition self-sealing prevents water erosion, yet allows breathability and release of moisture in dry conditions.

It’s not hard to see why the plaster for the ice domes should be extra erosion resistant.  Most desert climates are subject to the occasional storm deluge. The cold of the ice could also cause increased moisture condensation, and possibly (in combination with night-time cooling) lead to frost damage. The process you suggested of covering with straw would also call for a durable finish plaster.
Eggs are definitely in this category, one of the higher-performing additives for hardening natural paints and plasters. They are expensive but highly effective. 

But why egg whites particularly?

Egg whites are one of those things that get left over when someone is using egg yolks elsewhere. Egg yolk is an emulsifier, contains richer-tasting oils, and in general has more food value than egg whites. Egg yolks are used as an emulsifier and binder in natural paints, most famously the Italian frescos. Egg white is a protein gel. Its ability to hold a froth suggests relatively tough long-chain molecules such as are also found in glutinous flour and plastic polymers. 

Its very dearth of nutritive value might be a plus for structural uses, since it would not be as “tasty” to vermin as the whole egg. You would be in a better position than I am to verify whether the Persians used large quantities of egg yolk in paints, desserts, or other artisan or culinary uses, but I would not be surprised. There are just not that many natural emulsifiers that are as easily identified and produced. 

This I did. There’s a kind of Persian quiche that’s fairly popular but this next dish is also good candidate for producing a surfeit of egg whites.

Chelow kabab or Chelo kabab (Persian: چلوکباب‎) is the national dish of Iran. The meal is simple, consisting of steamed, saffroned basmati or Persian rice (چلو chelow) and kabab, of which there are several distinct Persian varieties. It is an old north-western tradition that a raw egg yolk be placed on top of the rice.


Erica also provided a conjectural history for the origins of yakhchal.

You are an ancient Persian entrepreneur, working on a building design that basically makes its own weather. You run into plaster/mortar performance problems, and after a few experiments, you call on a local master plaster-and-paint artist for help with the formulation of a high-performing plaster. He might be recommended by your patrons because his family did the excellent and durable plaster work on a favorite folly, or an artist of good reputation who also does decorative fresco, faux-painting, mural, and sculptural plaster. As a master tradesman, one would expect him already to know a number of excellent plaster formulae for both indoor and outdoor work. He would know the value, use, and price of performance-enhancing additives. He might even be in the position to personally procure significant quantities of egg whites at the right price, after using the egg yolks in mural or fresco projects for other high-end clients.

I haven’t found any examples of ancient Persian frescoes but the frescoes in the Baptistry of the Dura-Europa Church in Syria are probably the oldest Christian paintings in existence, dating as they do from sometime between 233 and 256AD. Here’s Christ walking on water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe nearby Dura-Europaos Synagogue also dates from 250AD but its paintings were painted onto dry plaster and so technically aren’t frescoes.

Goat hair (or any animal hair) is a very common ingredient in both lime and clay-based plasters. The cheaper clay-based plasters often use straw or dung for the cellulose-type fiber, but animal hair lasts longer, is finer to work with, and makes it easier to get a solid, erosion-resistant, crack-free surface with plenty of fiber and binder. Any of the materials you mentioned would be stock-in-trade for a master craftsman in an era where natural plasters were state of the art.

Erica also mentioned anecdotal suggestions that the civilizations of the Middle East used blood to strengthen mortars (the Western sailors’ rumors being that it was slaves’ blood). There remains a high-end Spanish technique for earthen floor finishing using bulls’ blood, freshly slaughtered onto the floor.

I don’t have a Spanish example, but traces of blood were found in this clay floor from mid-18th century Montpelier. Here’s the floor, reconstructed.

clay_floor_dm_jpg_42010-60 In countries with a history of the ritual slaughter of animals, it’s easy to imagine how blood would be used to waterproof clay floors. As a general rule, if your dishwasher or washing machine struggle to remove it, then it’s probably a good candidate for a natural binder for a paint or plaster. 

So much for clay-based plasters and renders. Tadelakt (a transliteration of the Arabic “تدلاكت”, meaning “massaged”or “rubbed”) is a traditional Moroccan waterproof surface created by polishing a lime-based plaster with a stone and then rubbing it olive oil soap into it. The olive oil soap provides oleic acid which, I learn, is “a fatty acid that occurs naturally in various animal and vegetable fats and oils.” Making tadelakt is very labour intensive and time consuming.

Tadelakt-ouarzazate-morocco-1 This example is probably synthetic tadelakt as it looks rather high-end with those recessed halogens. We’ve know the look of tadelakt even if we’ve never seen the real thing.

Les Grands Bains du Monêtier, le hammam Another reason for tadelakt substitutes is that the real thing is made from tadelakt lime washed downstream from the Marrakech Plateau. Over at realfinishes, Patrick Webb writes

The limestone is argillaceous, meaning it contains a relatively high percentage of clay. Also, there is a small infiltration of amorphous silica making Tadelakt lime slightly hydraulic. Combining its natural properties with traditional application methods, Tadelakt’s waterproofing qualities were subsequently put to decorative use in exterior façades, small drinking vessels and famously the “hammams” or public bath houses.

moroccan.plasterer writes of the medluk of Fez, quoting David Amster’s site A House in Fez,

“…the outer walls of houses were finished with medluk, made of extremely fine sand, lime (jeer), egg white, and sabon beldi (traditional soft soap made from olive by-products). Medluk develops a beautiful marbled effect over time. Simple geometric patterns are sometimes pressed or carved into the medluk. In Marrakech this mixture is called tadlakt, which is slightly finer and shinier due to the difference in the sand and lime from the two cities.

These fine regional distinctions and different names for the same substance or technique are typical of vernacular. Erica suggested there might be some similarly fortuitous geology upstream to account for the Yemeni people’s many ways with render.

11yemen-span-articleLarge-v3I wonder about that waterproofing material derived from river sediment. Is it because of the size of particles, the sifting action of the river? Something the water deposits along with the minerals that makes it work better, like a hard water or algae coating on the silt particles?  I wouldn’t be surprised. I returned to Salma Samar Damluji’s The Architecture of Yemen – my only reference.

51IA7URwmvL._SY300_The transliterations of the various names in Arabic below probably barely approximate the regional Yemeni Arabic but it’s not going to matter. All I want to show is the detail, the many classifications and the regionality of the thing named, and a glimpse of the general knowledge, built up over centuries, of the properties of local materials. The builders may not know why sand taken from a certain river at a certain time has those properties but they’ve learned how to make good use of them.

  • khulb: the general term for mud coating but the quality depends upon the type of turab (earth or clay) and the place of its extraction.
  • khulbah: a mixture of earth and water used for plastering the exterior of a flat roof. Inside, khulbah is mixed from soft or ‘light’ mud with water and used for plastering or finishing the walls.
  • tibil: the chopped straw, hay or chaff mixed with clay to make mud bricks
  • haddah: soft stalks of the tamarind tree mixed with clay to make mud bricks
  • mahdah: mud plastering carried out in the kitchen and living room during the month of Sha’ban.
    • In the area of Ghayl Ba Wazir, the mud is extracted from the saylah flood course silt that is fine and viscid.
    • In Yafi, a white-coloured earth from mountains called quri is known to give the best results. It is strengthened with wheat, chaff or animal dung.
  • qiddah: used for damp proofing. It is made by quarrying stone, cutting it into small pieces, firing it over wood and then burying it until it turns to a fine powder which is then mixed with water and small pebbles.
  • qatat: a grey-blue coloured clay extracted from the bed of Ghayl Habban in the area of Ghurayr and mixed with fine bullrushes to make a damp-proof course.
  • nays: sea sand
  • ruwaynah: fine red sea sand with soft grain
  • kafi nafsahu:  sea sand with medium-sized grains that doesn’t require mixing with any other kind of sand
  • nurah: a refined lime whitewash and plaster used as a damp-proof course. In some places, nurah is used internally and polished with a stone as with Moroccan tadelakt. After burning, nurah is pounded and left to soak and “ferment” before being beaten to a creamy paste.

nurah is generally preferred by master builders as it takes other plasters and renders better than cement, is malleable for longer, ages well without losing its shape and hardens over time. The downside is it takes much longer to dry. Small sections of wall have to be left for maybe as much as two months. This means a house rendered in nurah takes three years to build whereas one using cement render takes only one year. The general trend is for cement-based mortars and renders to replace traditional renders.

It is a similar story with paints. The Buqshun Palance is the major building in Khalyah. It was overpainted with oil-based “emulsion” rather than rendered with time-consuming nurah and its inherently softer pastels.

This is the fate of the vernacular. The same process that led people to use one type of sand taken from a particular river at a particular time to produce a building more suited to immediate but largely unchanging circumstances, is the same process that leads people to eschew it in favour of another product with obvious advantages for circumstances newly immediate. We do it all the time and call it progress but, if cement render, oil-based paint and, for that matter, parametric rainscreens were to disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow, there’d still be some people who could make good use of what’s at hand to keep the water out.
• • •

Moneymaking Machines #1: New York by Gehry

This post is the first of a new series about the seamy underbelly of architectural delight – where architect Tinseltown meets developer Chinatown. Expect sordid tales of greed, ambition, power, influence and betrayal. And that’s just the architects.

Property developers are one of the two significant species of client not yet extinct. Clients with money, property and a desire to build are the basis for all building activity. Architects naturally want a piece of the action. It’s time to shine some light on their marriage of convenience and see what’s in it for whom.

• • •

Before I go further, let me say I’ve no problem with the concept of housing as moneymaking machines for living in. Property developers don’t either – they develop property. It’s what they do. They don’t care if it’s residential, commercial or retail.

The architect’s job is to add value to that property and they don’t care either whether it’s residential, commercial or retail property. My only problem – and it’s a sign of The Great Dysfunctionalism – is that they won’t, can’t admit to either of these things.


Frank Gehry, Santa Monica Place, 1980. (“Get a reputation as a local architect. Choose your catchment area strategically.”)

My choice of Gehry’s not-so-early* Santa Monica Place shopping mall prettification to illustrate this point is no accident. (the Big G was 51 in 1980)

• • •

Thirty five years on, it was the size of the apartments that gave it away.

I’m talking about this dysfunctional building.

Residential Residence House Houses Housing

8 Spruce Street, originally known as Beekman Tower and currently marketed as New York by Gehry contains only rental apartments.

The 898 apartments range from 500 square feet (46 m2) to 1,600 square feet (150 m2), and consist of studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom units. All units are priced at market-rate, with no low or moderate income-restricted apartments. It does not contain any units for purchase.

Let’s have a close-up.

12M0A is on Renthop already for $2,815 per month.


You’ll always have company in The Big City, never feel alone – but this is what I was really looking for.

A penthouse will set you back 60,000 clams a month. In The Economics of The Ideal Penthouse, I suggested these “luxury penthouses” are loss leaders that add “prestige” and (thus) further value to the lesser apartments below. Once price per square foot becomes inversely proportional to size, IT’S SHOWTIME! – it makes perfect property development sense to build small, and for rental. Building small gives you a greater density of profit. Building for rental means you never cash in your chips unless the exchange is in your favour.

The 76th floor Penthouses at New York by Gehry – the highest residences within the tallest residential building in North America – are among the only individual homes designed by Frank Gehry, aside from his personal residence.These rare spaces offer a once in a lifetime experience above the New York skyline in the most acclaimed building of recent times. Each of the three Penthouse residences occupies its own wing with every detail designed to cater to the most privileged lifestyle by the master himself, Frank Gehry.

* Really? There’s more at http://www.ncmodernist.org/gehry.htm Thank you ncmodernist, for helping us remember it wasn’t always like what we’re being told it is. People forget that architecture is like pop music – people never just “burst onto the scene”. There’s years of hard graft before their various treks to stardom.

In New York by Gehry, I reckon the first studio apartment (a few galleries back now) has a gross floor area of 350 sq.ft. If the living area is 16′ across, then the 15’3″ vertical dimension is to the window glass, not the wall! (Oh those property developers are such rascally scamps!) What we’re looking at here folks, is micro-dwellings.


To be fair, New York by Gehry wasn’t always going to be rental. According to re-review, the developer, Forest City Ratner, decided to switch from condominiums for sale to apartments for rent. This meant a change in the floor-to-floor height. Those ceilings aren’t looking terrifically high here. A one foot height reduction over 76 floors would, hmmm, give another six, seven floors of apartments.

©2011 PHILIP GREENBERG   917 804 8385 pjgreen4@aol.com   JulyOther than the penthouses and this apartment, we’ve never been given the opportunity to think too much about what goes on inside of this piece of architecture. (And who is this person in red* with five friends? Did she receive that sofa and the Arco Floor Lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni for being first to move in?) Just so the residents don’t for a single day ever forget what they’re paying for, all apartments feature Gehry-designed door handles. [* see comments]


Fishy furniture aside, there’s lots of useful history about the planning process and the building here on the website of the Urban Land Institute – they’re thorough! These are the bits I find interesting.


The first five floors of the 76-story tower house the new Public School 397… By building the school, the developer, Forest City Ratner Companies, was able to secure $203.9 million in tax-exempt Liberty Bonds to finance construction.


The developer made a series of good decisions.

It’s only natural then, that Forest City Ratner should re-name the building New York by Gehry by way of thanks. The Bilbao Guggenheim could be renamed Bilbao by Gehry, OPUS in Hong Kong Hong Kong by Gehry, etc. But this will obviously work best with residential buildings. Now Gehry has outed himself to Forest City Ratner as an architect who delivers practical, efficient and manageable buildings, the team and the formula are in place to roll out a succession of like buildings across North America and, then the world. What are the odds on Miami by Gehry?

I don’t how Gehry could square the commercial lucrativeness of such a venture with the artistic cred needed to sustain it, but he’s managed so far. This is his true genius.


The Things Architects Do #8: Themes

There’s only two and a bit chapters to go in The Autopoiesis of Architecture Volumo Uno. Every now and then I scare myself when the author inadvertently makes some terrifying kind of sense. It happened again with this bit before the penultimate chapter. It’s about projects and themes. Let me summarise – I’m getting better at it.

DON’T HAVE just projects,
HAVE themes as well as projects.


WORRY if your project doesn’t have a theme or if your theme can’t find a project.

Untitled 4

DON’T WORRY if the right project doesn’t come along to fit your current theme. You or someone else can always look back and find an “underlying implicit conceptual framework” somewhere – especially with those three helpful qualifiers.

Untitled 2


[Gosh, they’re keeping those Norwegians busy rendering what we imagine will be real :S]

AVANT-GARDE ARCHITECTS do too, but only to nurture their themes.

Untitled 3

DON’T SAY: “I’m working on my client’s house.”
DO SAY: “I’m working on new principles of habitation for the 21st century.” / “I’m using this luxury condo development / hotel / trophy cultural landmark / oligarch villa / mixed use development / stadium to test the limits of space as a gradient field-condition.”

Untitled 5

REMEMBER that the significance of the avant-garde architect’s work is a function of the originality, generality and epochal pertinence of the themes his/her projects are tackling.
DON’T FORGET to attach some cod narrative for public consumption when you upload your images to ArchDaily or Dezeen or wherever.

I’m not sure which is more destructive: pretentious opinion vs. poisonous practice? I’ll go with the latter.

    • If avant-garde architects aren’t solving particular problems posed by particular projects, then why pretend they are? Why not let us join the exciting journey? More to the point, why not share those themes so we can judge for ourselves if a particular articulation of a particular theme is or is not a success?
    • OR, IF, at some level, avant-garde architects are actually solving problems posed by particular projects then it’d be nice to be shown how they do it. But it won’t happen. Plebeian concerns must always be seen to be beneath the dignity of avant-garde architects. But, as I’ve always said,

“Even The Farnsworth House has a pipe to take the shit away.”
                                                             Graham McKay, misfits’ architecture


Unless there comes a day when self-styled avant-garde architects tell us what it is they’re attempting to do, this dysfunction will continue to affect, infect new generations of architects and further reduce the amount of good that can be done in the world.

Here’s three examples of how this dysfunction between projects and themes is killing the opinion people have of “Architecture”. “Architecture’s” on the defensive I think. People are on the verge of discovering they can live without it. I’ll have more to say on this.

Example 1

A recent Forbes article titled Architecture Continues To Implode: More Insiders Admit The Profession Is Failing caused a bit of a brouhaha recently. Personally, I wouldn’t quote Frank Gehry to strengthen my case or begin my article as I feel he’s more part of the problem than the solution. Gehry’s basically showing his disdain for any building that isn’t his or his 2% friends.

gehry problem

The article claims the Make It Right” charity program of post-Katrina housing was a failure. Here’s a 2008 Dezeen report from before we knew this. The housing, many designed by “avant garde” architects was weird, self-serving, unloved, expensive to build, difficult to maintain and, on the whole, not very designed or built. Here’s MVRDV’s effort. It doesn’t seem to have ever been built.


Here’s the project on their website.


This is what they say about it.

MVRDV’s proposal reinterpres the classic shotgun house to be resistant to water.  Lifted in different ways, each house has its own quality, adding to the areas diversity while remaining safe.

Maybe. Or it could just be MVRDV’s trademark house motif repeated 13 times.

Example 2

Here’s a project for a low-cost housing prototype. It seems to have an innovative and ingenious self-build model. It’s had moments on both curbed and on ArchDaily.


All photos © Alejandro Cartagena on ArchDaily.

ArchDaily says

this project aims to generate a typology of competitive and feasible housing for a low and medium income market.

curbed says

With labor costs dissolved, the house then becomes more affordable, with a total cost of about $11,600 for materials and basic blacksmithing and glass installation services.

The structure, built from non-overlapping concrete blocks, has a simple layout, with interior living spaces composed like “boxes within a box.”

misfits says

Despite the seemingly noble intentions of the architects and their innovative self-build model, the real theme of this project seems to be to make something that can be recognised as architecture. This is not the most original, general or epochally pertinent theme that ever was but it’s there and it’s there to the detriment of the project.

  1. I like stack bond as much as the next architect, but stretcher bond is stronger and needs little or no reinforcement. If you check the images above, stretcher bond was good enough for the stairwell balustrade and it was good enough for that fence. To use stack bond for the shell of low-cost housing seems irresponsible and contrary to the stated objectives of the project. 
  2. I also enjoy a bit of inside-outside interpenetration as much as the next architect but the installation of those large fixed glass panels is an identified high-cost item. They’re probably not the greatest use of limited money as far as the project’s concerned but, as far as the theme’s concerned … well, that’s another matter.
  3. With block construction, long horizontal windows require longer and more expensive lintels. The low-cost option is full height narrow windows much like those upstairs on the side elevation. A long horizontal window on the lower level at the front might be justifiable for some social, neighbourhood reason, but the same window for the bedroom above seems to be just an elevational device.
  4. The kitchen is concealed behind a curtain but I wonder what it is those two vents are venting? An exhaust fan or two could vent directly outside without the need for the retro-Meierism.
  5. Does a low-cost, three-bedroom family house really need four wcs, three showers and two living areas? The project seems to be designed so rooms can be sub-let.
  6. If so, the refrigerator is the owners’, behind that door that’s presumably lockable.
  7. “In this hotel apartment you have your own shower and toilet. We cook you dinner but you do your own laundry outside ¿comprende?

In return for a bit of income, the family still get to sleep in one room. Maybe that’s progress. If so, then tell us – we want to know.

Example 3

It won’t happen for that will mean crossover between themes and projects. The default stance seems to be to keep themes and projects well apart and to separately satisfy their respective clients/audiences. This is apparent in this next video. Click – it’s a link.


The occupants seem happy with the project but the theme of the project seems to be about the architects’ social engineering genius and how to convey a sense of it to us via an overproduced video.

Did you notice that any interaction the architects might have had with the occupants is distanced with stills? We never saw the architects actually talking to or interacting with the occupants? To be seen to be doing so would be uncool. What’s worse, in the final product, the architects don’t seem to take any pleasure from this good thing they supposedly did. ُShowing us they’re pleased it turned out okay should be a natural thing to do and not something to be ashamed.

All I took away from the video was a sense of creepy earnestness.


As the deluded and abused lover says, “He cares – he just has a problem showing it.” Don’t get me wrong!

  • It’s quite natural and right for architects to use their projects as advertising for future projects.
  • It’s less right but no less common for architects to select their projects in terms of their advertising potential.
  • It would of course be wrong for architects to take on projects with a potential for social good in order to be seen to be socially virtuous.

If proper architects are supposed to be fully occupied with pursuing their themes then it means they can never get any pleasure from a well-executed project that benefits its users. Now I think of it, when was the last time you heard an architect claim they were happy to have been of use to society? Or humanity (Pritzker excepted)? It doesn’t feature much in contemporary architectural communications, does it? Such signs of humanity as opposed to God-like qualities aren’t part of the psyche for architects to aspire to. I blame Wright, and then Corbusier, and then Koolhaas. Emotional involvement is irrelevant to the pursuit of the theme and being seen to be in pursuit of it.

The Elemental project above is a competent display of thought and skill and its users are proud and grateful for what they have. For the architects, this should be something to be proud of as human beings but no. The video is overproduced and oversincere and desperate for our approval. This is sick as well as sad. Dysfunctional.

• • •

It’s not right to pick on the little guys I know, but mismatches between Project and Theme are a sure sign of dysfunctional architecture. The smug “double coding” of Jencksian Post-Modernism has mutated into self-serving Schumacherian Project/Theme distinctions.

Once Post Modern double-coding was released into the ecosystem all hell broke loose. As soon as architects learned a project could convey architectural meanings separate from those of the project that hosted it, it was a matter of time before those architectural meanings moved away from general architectural references and converged on references specific to certain practices. Themes. 

Architects had USPs well before they were called themes but at least they had their basis in the projects and their implied benefits for users. It’s no surprise the branding advantages of separating them was globally understood by the commercial big boys and girl, but it’s shocking to see the lessons learned so quickly by smaller practices aiming for the big-time.

Despite architecture’s radical restylings, under the hood it’s still the same engine.

Patrick Schumacher identified themes as what proper architects are interested in. He sees this as a healthy thing for architecture despite an increasing amount of evidence suggesting otherwise.

• • •

It’s okay if you don’t remember this helpful table I scanned and posted June, 2013. 

UntitledIn the 131 pages that followed, there was nothing to suggest any of the “other” major functions systems of society had anything corresponding to the themes and projects of architecture. Either the author’s going off-piste with this project-theme thing, or he’s conflating it with the form-function lead distinction he wrote of earlier.
A bit of both probably, but mostly the latter because if form is a theme, then any theme/project dysfunction will show as a form-function dysfunction. It’s a theory. But it fits the evidence. If this were true
  • We would have an architecture concerned with form and not function – imagine that!

So now let’s imagine what kind of world we would have if each of society’s major function systems had themes and projects. And if those themes were the primary areas of concern? And if a projects’ only worth was to test the validity of those themes?

  • We’d have an economic system that sets prices for commodities without regard for their value.
  • We’d have a scientific system in which phenomena are explained without recourse to evidence.
  • We’d have a legal system where laws are applied irrespective of facts.
  • We’d have a political system in which positions are taken irrespective of issues.
  • We’d have an education system concerned with teaching rather than students.
  • We’d have a mass media that focusses on reporting rather than events.
I’m getting scared here. But on the bright side, IF architecture is a major function system of society, then it’s at least no more dysfunctional than all the others. Science is the only example this has that this isn’t how the contemporary world works.
Niklas Luhmann died in 1998. Had he lived longer he might have arrived at the same conclusions.


DYSFUNCTIONALISM: Current state of architecture; characterised by an absence of relationship between form and stated reasons for its generation.

It’s the start of a new year and I feel the need to make sense of the one gone. Sometimes it’s clearer if you squint a bit, lose focus. Sometimes it’s better to not try to observe things directly and instead compare a current state with a previous state, try to work out what’s different. As with quantum phenomena.

quantum cat

Historians have made it their job to look at the past, selectively filter it, and arrive at various conclusions such as the wonderfulness or crapness of The Modern Movement, Frank Lloyd Wright’s spatial system or Le Corbusier’s entire output seen through his Five Points. As yesterday’s tomorrow inevitably becomes today’s yesterday, what’s hyped today becomes recent history, and, in turn, history which is but a record of what we once thought important.

So what’s changed? How’s what we once thought important or were impressed by silently segued into what we now think is important or are impressed by? Think back a decade and remember what counted as Architecture when we didn’t know what we do now.

See what I mean? All of these buildings seem to have been around for much longer. They’re already slipping into history. Out of this selection, one person who’s noticeable by their absence is Dame Zaha Hadid.


Back in 2004 DameZ was busy collecting her Pritzker.


Here’s the full announcement. This page shows the built works until then. In 2004, the Phaeno Science Centre was still under construction. How did we ever live?! Since 2004 however, ZH the superbrand has branched out into many other fields of design, most of which you either know about or I’ve written about. Lalique’s a new’un.

I guess you worked out that that very long 60 seconds had something to do with “fluidity”. I blame Goethe. If architecture is frozen music then why shouldn’t glass vases be frozen silicates? I only get it now. This is why I’m unfamous. An unrich. Prices start at $16,400. So show you care, put your money where your “Like” is.


Lalique’s current catalogue quotes ZH as saying she’s been a collector of pieces since an early age. So much for my stamp collection =(

Just as haute couture houses add value to perfumes, architectural brands add value to whatever goods they’re compensated for to add value to. This phenomenon has always existed, but it seems to be becoming the endgame and not beer money anymore. “Architectural” prominence seems to be becoming a mere vehicle for more lucrative opportunities in the same way as being president or prime minister is just a stepping stone to the more lucrative speaking and advising circuit.

I can’t help thinking 2014 was the year that the satellites eclipsed the mothership. There’s a dysfunction between what architects say they do and what they do. This is not a sign of a healthy system.


2004 was a slack year for Frank Gehry, apart from being one of the judges giving ZH her PP. Here’s one of Gehry’s from back then. Its physical deterioration is another matter, but it’s amazing how little Gehry’s buildings have aged aesthetically in a decade.


The secret of the relative longevity of his aesthetic is its resistance to downmarket copying and subsequent loss of cachet. Speaking of French…


just in case anyone even thought about making replica Gehrys, the above is his latest value-addification of his equally unuseful Serpentine Pavilion – of 2008 if I remember right.


This new Gehry style will only ever be a prototype for other Gehrys. Whether that’s intellectual or artistic I don’t know. It’s unique and, at his age, maybe that’s all he wants to do.

In The Big Brush I accused Gehry of being a window dresser for the bread and butter side of his business. I’m sure he’s aware of that. His job is to sprinkle some stardust over the outside and, if he’s allowed, to track some through the lobby.


2014 was the year the outsides of buildings became totally separated from their insides IN TERMS OF THEIR MARKETING. “Who needs to know what happens inside a Gehry building? It’s cool on the outside!” We need to redefine what architecture is and what we expect of it. Expectations are low. All I’m sayin’s that

There’s a dysfunction between the “architectural” features of a building and the real-estate they hang off of. 


Versatile architects can work at all scales, it’s said, and so does media policing. Contrast this next Gehry. One apartment per floor. Hong Kong.

This building could never have slipped under the radar but it’s of little press value outside China. We didn’t hear as much about it as we might have expected. This is strange so some dark force is obviously at work. The simplest possible explanation is that the client was enamoured of Gehry’s 1996 [1996!] Fred & Ginger. Beekman Place was allowed to suck up all the media attention lest cynical media observers look at Hong Kong OPUS and say things like it seems as if the client was enamoured of Fred & Ginger.

More plans? You’re welcome!

Disturbingly, our own quest for architectural kicks means we’re content to not be curious about buildings architects wish to downplay because they don’t fit their media narrative of artistic progression. This is why my fascination with those dinosaur buildings that have slipped in time.


I get that the architectural internet adds value to brands by churning the triangular transactions of content makers, content dealers and content addicts to create “buzz”.



There’s a dysfunction between architectural news and meaningful information. 

This increasing reluctance of traditional media outlets to say or publish anything architects might not want to be said or published is deeply disturbing. 


Property development has always been around and it’s not going to go away. Ever. Apart from rich rulers, property developers are the only major clients left in the world. It’s only natural that architects should exploit them. However, to be seen to be taking property development concerns such as return on investment seriously, is to place oneself outside the realm of architecture. The opposite of Intellectual and Artist is Commercial.

The opposite of Intellectual and Artist is also Clever. BIG have made themselves a successful business model by taking property development concerns onboard. They have also made themselves a successful media model telling us about it. It’s not a bad thing to have property development and return-on-investment back into an architectural agenda – which is to say, a business agenda with architectural appeal. Famous architects have always known this but BIG were the first to say the unspeakable.

Before we heap excessive praise, let’s take a look at how even the dubious PR benefit of apparent property development can be easily subverted for media gain.

Take a step back and think it through. Don’t you think the structural demands of a cross-harbour bridge might perhaps be more demanding than those of your average 8-storey block of apartments? It’s a bit more tricky than just running a road along the roof of Karl Marx Hof.


The bridge is not for free. Monetising the volume enclosed by the bridge superstructure may well offset some of the cost of the bridge but could never pay for it. Ergo: This project is a media construct. Who’s gained what from this exercise? The architects have gained a reputation for thinking outside the box. It’s cost them nothing. It’s a scam. Yes is never more.

There’s a dysfunction between stated agendas and real agendas. 




Environmental concerns might yet turn out to be a subset of property development market tracking – it’s still too early to tell. We all know about greenwash. It was the name given to architectural devices that gave the impression of being environmentally virtuous but didn’t live up to the performance claims made for them. “Greenwash” the term quickly became derogatory and was not always applied fairly. What happened as a result? People stopped making claims about improved performance and environmental benefit and all we were left with was the look. See The Demise of the Green Roof.


If art school was in our future we might opt to study under, or on top of, the amazing green roof at the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This 5 story facility sweeps a wooded corner of the campus with an organic, vegetated form that blends landscape and structure, nature and high-tech and symbolizes the creativity it houses. (Cheers for this, Inhabitat! :o<<<)

In The Demise of the Green Roof, my objection then was that something with the capability to do some good in the world was being appropriated as an architectural affectation that gave back nothing. Remember 48 St. Mary Axe – The Gherkin? Its internal configuration for which the office layouts were so severely compromised, was generated by the touted ecological imperative of reduced A/C running costs.


Or something whatever it didn’t matter. We assumed air was moving around inside, and perhaps it was, and that IT WAS A GOOD THING. F+P were never really called on this.


To expensively enclose space and not rent it means the owner is taking one hell of a hit.

About 13% less by area, I calculate. Even if the A/C bill is a bit lower – a fact we’ll never know – the owners are well out of pocket. No wonder this building is having trouble keeping an owner. It’s a dog. As far as greenwash went, that was baby steps. Greenwash Level I at least pretended to have an environmental concern based on actual environmental phenomena.

Greenwash Level I made claims that did not live up to closer scrutiny but at least there was scrutiny!

Greenwash Level II is blatant lies that nobody even cares to verify.


“Haters gonna hate” I’m told by straw men who don’t let facts stand in their way.

1. In Sharjah, U.A.E., the sun will never be more than 2.8° north of directly up.
2. The shamal winds are not the prevailing winds. 
3. Shamal winds do not blow from the south.
 (Shamal is arabic for “north”.)
5. The water table at  25°17’44.26″N  55°38’56.45″E is too low for palm trees to grow.

None of this is open to interpretation. The text accompanying the above image appropriates environmental determinants in order to intensify an emotional response to the image. Ignoring the realities of its location, the image can never depict the reality it claims it might. IT’S A LIE. 

Now Zaha Hadid does have a history of saying meaningless things about context, as quoted on page 83 of Simon Richards’ Architect Knows Best. In this sense, “context” is what we used to know as “inspiration” – whatever an artist thinks of when presented with something, anything.

I think context affects the design … as clues come from the surroundings. I’ll work with context on a more esoteric level. Our work isn’t meant to fit-in in the conventional way, but to key in and accentuate the energy of what’s around it.

Are you feeling the energy?


Of greater long-term concern is the fact that wind response, sun response, and water response, are being aestheticised and defanged, in the same way green roofs were. If ZHA is paying attention to things like wind and sun, then it shows that wind and sun are IN DANGER OF becoming an architectural agenda. I see this as an attempt to reduce environmental determinants to an aesthetic agenda which is they only one companies like that are comfortable with. It’s still a recognition that environmental determinants exist I guess. Nevertheless, the fact remains.

There’s a dysfunction between the shape of a building and the stated ENVIRONMENTAL reasons for its generation. 


Media relations departments of global commercial practices are spinning out of control.

They’ve learned that false reasons people would like to believe are better than the truth.

In the past, when a project was announced, any accompanying text would convey additional, non-visual information to the readers.

Now however, any accompanying text is put to use as a fictional narrative for the sole purpose of intensifying the impact of the images that, in some perverse way, actually do represent the state of architecture.


Architecture Misfit #15: Knud Peter Harboe

Architecture Misfit #14 was Eladio Dieste, back in March 2014. There’s not many out there. Here’s one more.

Knud Peter Harboe

Knud Peter Harboe (2 november 1925 i København – 27 oktober 2002) var en dansk arkitekt og professor.

There’s very little information to be found but we can learn a lot from a few drawings and images. Here’s a list of Harboe’s works translated from Danish wikipedia.

  • Own house, Skovvangen 14-16 in Charlottenlund (1958)
  • Several single-family homes, mainly in Charlottenlund, Klampenborg and Holte
  • Laboratory and office building, A / S N. Foss Electric, Hillerød (1961)
  • Production hall and warehouse, Pharmacia, Ølby (1964)
  • Medicine Factory and Administration building, Pharmacia, Hillingdon (1967)
  • Roskilde Airport in Tune at Roskilde (1970)
  • Laboratory Building, Science Park at Hørsholm (1971)
  • Factory for Bing & Grondahl, Vesterbrogade 149, Copenhagen (1972, closed)
  • Busses School, Moses Triomphe 1, Gentofte (1972)
  • 0-energy house, the Technical University, Lundtofte (1974)
  • Museum of Bing & Grondahl, Vesterbrogade (1978, claims)
  • Shop, Bing and Grondahl, Amager Torv 4, Copenhagen (1981)
  • Housing for Danish Salaried Boligselskab Ordrup Jagtvej, Charlottenlund (1983)
  • Office Building, Old King’s Road 11, Copenhagen (1986)
  • Office building for Sophus Berendsen, Klausdalsbrovej 1 Gladsaxe (1986)
  • Housing, Pile Alle 9, Frederiksberg (1987)
  • Porch and the ad department, Berlingske Tidende, Pilestræde 34, Copenhagen (1990, later rebuilt)

In 1954 Harboe won a competition for the Canadian Home of Tomorrow. He was 29.

cc Some of the images are floating around the internet but this link will take you to the complete drawings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I think it speaks for itself. Notice the repeated module of three groups of three, plus one for the entrance and kitchen? Divided into half, and half again? How he’s simplified the plumbing to a single run? How he’s fused structure, construction and layout? It’s fully formed and it’s all good, and he hadn’t even begun his career yet. What we’re looking at is Danish modernism. It’s the fusion of vernacular craft, the use of natural materials, the spatial freedom of Frank Lloyd Wright, the modular planning of Frank Lloyd Wright (as filtered through the Usonian Houses) and the regular structure of Mies van der Rohe. Think Mies van der Rohe designing Usonian houses in timber, only with a Japanese clarity of construction as well as structure. Jørn Utzon was the first to bring all this together with his 1952 house for himself in Hellebæk, Denmark.

CroppedWatermarkImage1170700-arkitektens_hus_1 CroppedWatermarkImage1170700-arkitektens_hus_drawing_1 Harboe’s own interest in Miesian ideas is attributed to his having worked for Erik Christian Sørensen (1922–2011). Here’s Sørensen’s Lipsøe House of 1958. Nice. Many of these images I scanned from a wonderful book I’ll tell you about later.

Untitled 11

Here’s Sørenson’s own house of 1954-1955. It was hugely influential. It was a good way to build. I love this stuff.

Untitled 12

If there’s anything Miesian about it, it’s precision. The timber is not trying to be steel. It’s treated with a dark preservative that’s characteristic of Danish vernacular. One could get all Post-modern about it, but timber is timber. It still needs to be preserved.

Anne_Hvides_Gaard_Svendborg Here’s the interior of Harboe’s (own) Bendix-Harboe House of 1958-59.


In 1958-59 built Knud Peter Harboe house with its studio for himself and his family. The house and courtyard spaces around together a small self-contained world that opens up towards the sky. A house whose interior is simple and precise in a calm and unpretentious manner.

Here’s the house on street view. Harboe’s is the one on the left, mostly hidden.

Untitled There’s more photos here. There were many Danish architects doing similar things in the 1950s – Sørensen and Utzon are just two more of many – but here’s why I think Harboe is a misfit among misfits.

  • In his residential work, Harboe pursued general solutions that could be repeated and adapted to suit various situations. He wanted his clients to benefit from solutions that had been tried and tested. His house plans mostly look the same. He valued refinement over novelty. There’s little that can be improved upon. Even the house he built for himself has a mostly identical neighbour.

Untitled 10

  • Modular planning simplified construction and lowered costs.

Untitled 4

  • Harboe was not interested in publicising his work.
  • Harboe was not interested in “artistic flourishes” or stylistic gestures.
  • Harboe was not interested in the “cult of craft”. Here’s what I mean. All of the panelled surfaces in this 1958-1959 house by Halldor Gunnløgsson are mahogany painted black and sanded down and painted black and sanded down seven times to “determine the character of the reflected light”.

Untitled 2

  • I think it’s how, in that first competition house, Harboe simplified the plumbing run in that’s impressed me most. It’s that he felt this was important, that it was a better house for it. Nobody could see it or appreciate it, but it meant less cost, easier construction and perhaps more reliable plumbing. It mattered.

pipes Harboe wrote a book of his own. It was late in his career – about 1995.

funktion-n-form-n-konstruktion18_1You don’t need to read it to see what interested him. Here’s his Pharmacy of 1967–1971.

This looks like a Harboe. Roskilde Airport, 1973.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Zero Energy House from 1976.

048_800_379_1d9fb24adeThis text is googletranslated from here.

An early example of activities aimed at autonomy solar architecture was the “ZeroEnergy House“, which established three institutes of the Technical University of Denmark, 1976 Lyngby, CopenhagenTwo 60 m2from 30-40 cm thick insulated sandwich panels constructed building halves are joined together by a largeglass-enclosed atriumIn the southern front vertical generate 42 m2 thermal solar panels hot water for the building. The latter is stored at a temperature of 43 ° C in a 30 cubic meter underground tankBoth the exhaust air and the waste water are connected to a heat pump which uses the waste heat to heat the buildingFull “zero energy” but this house was farIn the first year of operation 730 kWh of energy for the operation of the heat pump and the ventilation was neededCompared with a then usual heating via gas or coal that meant at least an energy savings of about 60 percent.
Nice work nevertheless! 1976. There’s another book, by Michael Sheridan who’s an authority on Danish modernism.
The human being was at the center of Danish Modernism. Traditional craftsmanship and a high degree of quality influenced both design and architecture. Besides numerous groundbreaking public buildings, the fifties and sixties saw the design of many nearly ideal single-family homes based on an aesthetic that focused on being true to the materials, honesty in construction, and the reduction of form. Built of wood and brick and with practical, informal floor plans and large glass surfaces that opened up the interior of the house to nature, the best of these homes still fulfill their tasks to this day.

This next sentence is a translation of part of a review. “Sheridan writes about Knud Peter Harboe family housing that it is the only one of the 14 restored houses that have the opportunity of building as the theme.” ? Possible mistranslation aside, I understood this to mean a building is designed to be the result of the process of building it. Now there’s a mind-boggling idea! Sheridan writes

Harboe’s greatest skill was an ability to coordinate all the practical matters in such a refined way that the original problem disappeared and the solution appeared inevitable. 

I agree. Harboe’s theme certainly does appear to be to design buildings that were the result of the process of building them. This statement too, makes you wonder what the original problem ever was. Why did architecture ever have to be so difficult? 

• • •

Sheridan’s book has an excellent essay that will quickly bring you up to speed on the history, the importance and the continuing relevance of 1950s Danish residential architecture. Sheridan sums it up in what’s essentially a misfits’ manifesto.

Untitled 2 Architects! Buy this book. Architecture students! Find it in your library or get somebody to give you a copy. This last project is one of Harboe’s early houses, It’s the Lassen House of 1954 found in the 1958 book Wohnen In Scandinavien. 

57984884 plans and elevations

Untitled 13Knud Peter Harboe.

For fusing function, form and construction to create an honest beauty,

For designing buildings to be the result of the process of building them, and

For wanting people to benefit from tried and tested solutions –

Misfits salutes you!

The Big Brush

The Big Brush is the practice of treating apartment housing as 20-25 metre wide lines drawn across a site 3D. The 20-25 metres comes from the 10–12 metre maximum depth for a habitable room backed by a non-habitable room plus an extra 2 metres for a double-loaded corridor. Here’s Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Apartments. Detroit, 1956.

Lafayette tower

Here’s SOM’s Lake Meadow. Chicago, 1961. These plans are from that wonderful site, housing prototypes.org.

lake-mead-typ-plan_03BThe Big Brush is a winning formula and difficult to improve upon. Here’s an example from Dublin in 2001. Pay no attention to the second entrance lobby on the first floor. The drawing doesn’t appear to have been checked by anyone.


Nevertheless, blocks configured like this can look rather samey


and the corridors can be a bit gloomy.


One solution is to combine short blocks to make A New Shape.


Remember Frank Gehry Beekman Tower?


Here’s a plan of levels 9-22.

“Geez, Frankie, for a supposedly luxury development, those internal corner apartments are f**king nasty!”

Especially M0F and M0G.

“Couldn’t you, with your infinite knowledge, wisdom and benevolence, have combined them into a possibly okay 1-bed apartment?”

From this plan, it’s clear Gehry was just the window dresser. Sure, people can see some sky as they wait for the elevator but the developer knows exactly how much that window is costing. This is another quietly ruthless building. It obviously fulfils some kind of housing need but that aspect of its existence receives no coverage. It’s not the kind of thing an office puts in a press release. It’s innovation is superficial. Window dressing is, sadly, all too accurate.

All that mediacized windy-effect curviness does nothing for the occupants – especially those poor internal corner people. In passing, out of twenty apartments, there is 1 x 2-bed apartment, 12 x 1-bed apartments and 7 x studio apartments. None are any nicer than they need to be. “Architecture” exists in a different dimension, a parallel universe. The reluctance of traditional media outlets to say or publish anything in the form of criticism is deeply disturbing.

To summarise. The Big Brush lets you paint in lines,


around corners,


in curves [one from the personal archive!],


make shapes,



or any random squiggle you like. This next one’s that easily-excited shapeist Oscar Niemeyer’s bootylicious Copan building.

It’s true – there’s no visible advertising in Sao Paulo!

But just look at that unexploited roof space! Whether Pune or New York, we know what to do with that!


Here’s a newish twist! The monetised roof space that is the terraces and balconies, is made to appear as a twisted wall instead of a terraced roof. It’s a brilliant way of disguising a truncated courtyard block. This excellent image is from the website of Allesandro Ronfini.


Here’s a plan. Dits.


It’s actually a bit of an untruth to say all residents have a view of the Hudson River, but this plan is the hardcore application of tried-and-tested property development principles. It’s a predictable shame all the attention will be diverted to the “let-the-roof-be-a-roof” roof.


There’s some more recent pics here.

BIG does have a history of playing down The Big Brush and why not? There’s no need to destroy one’s image as a creative. Developers instinctively understand The Big Brush anyway for anything else is lower return on investment. When Bjarke Ingels says Yes Is More, he’s showing developers he gets it. The real art is is to disguise the strategic commercialism underlying it. This isn’t criticism. As I’ve said, “the history of architecture is full of buildings that got built because the numbers stacked up”. Most of those buildings are famous for the wrong reasons. Let’s check BIG’s back catalogue for The Big Brush! This is the World Village of Women Sports 2009. The above W57 project doesn’t seem such a surprise now.


BIG take The Big Brush to its logical extreme is Yes is More, ever escalating.

If you believe BIG, The Big Brush is the solution to social housing, transportation problems and entertainment voids. As long as buildings have to be built on ground, it can’t get any more extreme. Here’s where MVRDV step up to the plate.

Technically, this isn’t The Big Brush as there’s only one double-loaded corridor at the top where the width finally permits. It’s A Small Brush, in mid-air, extruded.


You can find a full set of plans in the current issue of MARK magazine.

rotterdam market mark

This next photo hints at exciting new property development possibilities once people such as that mother (not to mention the child) think of this as normal. =(

Untitled 2Other rooms on the other side of this double-sided apartment face a conventional outside but here we have a quasi-public space being used to add value. The Big Brush no longer has to have outdoors on both sides. This moves it on a bit from BIG’s so-yesterday perimeter block monetizations premised on two outsides. What we used to know as space-enclosing walls is now money-earning real estate. Respect, MVRDV.

Rather than merely enclosing space, walls have been monetised.  Rather, why not exploit the structure that encloses the space to exploit the property? Brilliant! Why didn’t we think of this before? Why has nobody called it for what it is?

Shopping malls are good candidates for this sort of development. Any atrium could just be extended up a few storeys and the view from it monetised.



Dubai Airport, United Arab Emirates

Hotel lobbies.


Railway stations.


This could be be the final nail in the coffin for Modern Architecture and that schtick about “internal space” as the new subject of architecture. Space was only ever just poor mans’ land anyway not that we weren’t grateful to own a few square metres of it. Now that any large space with a bit of activity can be marketed as a value-adding view, the agenda for architecture this century might be about the monetisation of the enclosing elements themselves.

I have a lot of respect for large global commercial architecture enterprises such BIG and MVRDV. They continue to invent and develop new ways to exploit property space and now, it seems, building elements to secure profits and prestige for their clients and themselves.