Models of Instruction

LinkedIn and Lynda have cornered the market for delivering software credentials to job-insecure technicians [c.f. Learning Curve] but the delivery systems for architectural design skills remain primitive. This is because nobody’s really sure what architectural design skills are, let alone how to teach them. It’s not for lack of trying.

The Beaux-Arts

Over the centuries, many worthy architects received their education at the École des BeauxArts in Paris. The first American to do so was Richard M. Hunt who introduced the idea of the studio apartment to New York with his 1857 Tenth Street Studio. Henry Hobson Richardson was next to arrive back. 

Hunt sucessfully used the allure of the artist lifestyle to launch a new and useful housing product into the contemporary New York housing market. [c.f. The 1+1/2 Floor Apartment] Richardson’s contribution to American architecture is huge in a different way and his 1887 Marshall Field Store is a Chicago School classic.

For most architecture students, a Beaux-Arts education is disparagingly spoken of as copying the works of acknowledged masters, and to inevitably result in the heavily ornamented neoclassical architecture known as Beaux-Arts style.

Hunt and Richardson show that learning how to creatively apply knowedge to new problems is all one can ask of any education. It was possible to have a Beaux-Arts architectural education until 1968.

The Bauhaus

The curriculum and the teaching methods of Gropius’ Bauhaus are often contrasted with those of the Beaux-Arts but rarely compared with the educational model Dr. Maria Montessori had been developing since 1897 (and which she successfully exported to America with the first Montessori school opening in 1930). Bauhaus students were not given direct instruction but were encouraged to learn concepts from working with materials. Bauhaus students also made their own, well-documented fun.

Because the Dessau Bauhaus activities focussed around a piece of architecture, architecture students the world over believe the people in these photographs are architecture students. Gropius continued his own architectural work while director of the Bauhaus but never thought to teach it. [It was Gropius’ successor Hannes Meyer who introduced architecture into the Bauhaus study plan.] Gropius’s and his reputation as an architectural educator and a proponent of arrived in America seven years after the first Montessori school opened.

We know more about Dessau Bauhaus teaching staff and where they went and what they went on to do than we know about any of its former students. No alumni famously benefited from this famous education spring to mind so, on this basis, The Bauhaus model of instruction wasn’t a success. We can also say the same for the Bauhaus under Meyer, and also under van der Rohe.

VKhUTEMAS is the name of the Russian state art and technical school that existed in Moscow since 1920. It’s called the Soviet Bauhaus because it had an architecture curriculum that taught architecture as shape-making but this is plain wrong because when Meyer introduced architecture to the Bauhaus curriculum he introduced it as building science.

Again, more is known about VKhUTEMAS instructors than its students. What’s remarkable about the (Gropius) Bauhaus and the VKhUTEMAS models of instruction is how far they spread.  To this day, architecture departments in universities around the world still have introductory courses with exercises in pattern and shape. Instructors still tell students to “play with it” in the hope something workable eventuates. 

Taliesin and The Fee-Paying Intern 

Frank Lloyd Wright went and formed his own technical school, for that’s what it is when students pay fees to learn a trade. I suspect Taliesin was called a fellowship and not a school to avoiding licensing and accreditation rules by having to deliver an approved curriculum. All the same, Wright must have delivered something of value if he could charge students to do his work for him. The graduate we heard most of is John Lautner. That’s him sitting down behind FLW in the image at right, above.

Le Corbusier’s office

Wright’s workers paid for the privilege but Le Corbusier’s worked for nothing, thus solving the age-old argument of who was the more progressive. José Oubrerie I’ve already mentioned [c.f. Career Case Study #9: José Oubrerie] along with Léonie Geisendorf who spent maybe six months in LC’s office as an intern but returned to Sweden in 1938. Would we look at her 1970 Villa Delin in Djursholm, Sweden, any differently if we didn’t know that?

Albert Frey began working in Le Corbusier (and Pierre Jeanneret’s) office in 1928 as one of two full-time employees. Frey’s wiki claims Josep Lluís Sert as a coworker but this contradicts Sert’s, so the other full-time co-worker may have been Kunio Maekawa as it was unlikely to have been the angelically objectifed Charlotte Perriand.

Frey is said to have worked on the Savoye villa which wasn’t going anywhere in 1928. Frey was however, and left to work in the USStaff turnover was high 1928-9. Kunio Maekawa arrived in 1928 as a full-time apprentice and fresh graduate from Tokyo Imperial University but was gone by 1930 when he returned to Japan to work with Antonin Raymond who’d been a student of Wright’s. Maekawa established his own office in 1935 and was a key figure in post-war Japanese architecture. In some of Maekawa’s concrete buildings you can see Le Corbusier if you look hard. By the same token, we can see Unité d’Habitations in Maekawa’s own house from 1942.

José Louis Sert already had an office in Barcelona in 1929 when he received an invitation from Le Corbusier to work for him, for no pay, in Paris. Le Corbusier wasn’t in the office much 1928–1933 and in 1929 alone had seven projects on the go, not including the stalled Villa Savoye, and not to mention completing Volume I of his complete works, competition work such as for Palace Of The Soviets, and putting together a masterplan for Moscow. 1929 would have been a bad year to be left running the office and it’s easy to see why Sert was back in Barcelona within a year. He moved to America in 1939 to begin urban planning for South American cities. In 1952 he had a visiting professorship at Yale, from 1953-1969 was Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and from 1953 had his own studio famous for many buildings and not just at Harvard. He received the AIA Gold Medal in 1981. [condensed from W.] I get the impression Sert would have had an outstanding career anyway. 

Jerzy Sołtan went to work in Le Corbusier’s office from 1944–1949 after he was released from a prisoner-of-war camp. Soltan was invited by Sert to be a visiting critic at Harvard GSD in 1959, made Professor of Architecture soon after, served as chairman of the Department of Architecture from 1967 to 1974, and stayed another five years after that. This obituary in Harvard Gazette states that “Throughout his tenure at the GSD, Soltan was an enthusiastic advocate for the design philosophy of Le Corbusier, which he summarized as “an architecture of imagination, metaphor, poetics.” Many of his students were to become well known architects, amongst them Michael Graves. At least one house (in Laconia, New Hampshire) exists from a two-year partnership (Soltan and Szabo) with another Harvard GSD professor, Albert Szabo.

Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente arrived in 1959 and (his wiki claims) was for six months Le Corbusier’s only employee after he’d fired all his previous collaborators. He was in the office for Carpenter Center, Bagdhad Stadium, and Venice Hospital, with work on that continuing at Atelier Jullian (and not at Le Corbusier’s atelier as I had imagined). He moved to America in the mid-1980s and had a successful career with a combination of teaching and practice

I mention all these people because this notion of education by osmosis seems to be the dominant paradigm today even though it’s hard to imagine what realtime design action there is to watch and learn from if everything is go-go-go in the office and every now and then the creative force breezes through on the way to somewhere, curating ideas along the way. 

Although much of the grunt work is outsourced today, starchitects still need trusty lieutenants to run the office just as much if not more than Le Corbusier ever did. The drill can’t change much. A new project comes in and a bunch of lowly-paid interns are asked to generate concepts that are unique yet at the same time identifiable as an office product but also work with a projected marketing arc. This model of production is not world’s apart from the Beaux-Arts purported model of instruction by copying.

It’s a sad endgame for architectural education when architectural ability is harnessed for purposes so crass as corporate perception management but this new model for architectural production is perfectly suited to serve architecture’s new clients and provide a media sideshow for the rest of us. What a student-employee gains from working for a starchitect is learn how to replicate the same thing for themselves. At LC’s office, Sert and Maekawa soon realised they were overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. The moment any employee realizes the three necessary and sufficient conditions to move on are present, they do. It’s slightly different with the modern starchitect office. Once someone has figured out how the system works and how to replicate the magic oneself there’s simply no point staying. The system obviously works for never in the history of the world have we had so many famous architects at any given time and they are replicating very quickly.Baby_REMS

Universities have no part in this new system of architectural replication yet unwittingly validate it by having famous practitioners teach or give lectures. One would think that famous practitioners would prefer to remain in the office teaching and nurturing their own employees either directly or by example but it is wrong to think such employers are in business to educate or nuture employee skills and talents. They are in business to exploit skills for commercial advantage, along with other attributes such as enthusiasm and the willingness to believe in the mystery of architecture. It’s a basic business contract both parties enter into with the expectation of mutual benefit. Once all the skilled enthusiastic people are busy at work, the practioners can go off around the universities teaching. It’s a odd situation with things not taking place where you’d expect them to. Students are exposed to big aspirations and expectations they may have not yet have the ability to comprehend or the skills or opportunity to apply, but are impressed nonetheless. Employees, on the other hand, have the skills and the opportunity to apply them but only within a very narrow set of aspirations and expectations. Such a system places more value on high employee intake than on high employee retention, ensuring maximum “fresh idea” yield per square metre for minimum payroll.

Never having professed any interest in imparting architectural knowledge to anyone but Brad Pitt, Frank Gehry is doing his bit for architectural education with his new video course that costs US$90 for lifetime [!] access to 15 video tutorials. Internet delivery of video instruction gets top marks for accessibility and speed but fails on fundamental teaching methods such as interactivity and questions and answers that we’re encouraged to see as archaic. Having been around since at least the time of Socrates, they most definitely are. But they are not redundant. The absence of any need to read, take notes or even think critically about the content is also worrying. It says “FRANK GEHRY TEACHES DESIGN AND ARCHITECTURE” but teaching ought to imply learning and it’s difficult to see how students will be taught to creatively reassemble knowledge to solve new problems.

That doesn’t seem to be the point anyway.

“I have tried to give the students [!] insight into my process – how and why I did things,” Gehry says. “I hope this gives them the wings to explore and the courage to create their own language.”

The sole stated course learning outcome is for students to create their own language – hopefully. I suspect that that “I hope” is a legal disclaimer. If not, it’s an admission that expectations are low. The teaching methodology is similarly fuzzy. [bolding mine]

In his 15-part online course, Gehry will discuss his unconventional philosophy on design and architecture using case studies, progressive models and storytelling. He will also share his insights on the universal lessons he has learnt throughout his career as an architect and an artist. The course will also offer students glimpses of Gehry’s previously unseen architecture models and access to his creative process. 

If, as opposed to the virtual, the actual glimpsing of models, and the actual participation in real discussions of design philosophy, and actual access to (supposed) insights into (supposedly) universal lessons were sufficient to empower people to create their own language, then we would expect some of Gehry’s former employees to have done so by now. No names spring to mind. Gehry employees design in the style of Gehry with Gehry either tweaking their designs or sometimes even changing them completely! Again, we have a return to the Beaux-Arts model of instruction by imitation. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, only that we should call it for what it is.

The only aim of videos such as Gehry’s is to represent a concern for nurturing architectural creativity. The aim is not to instruct so one may as well speed-read Oeuvre Complete. Besides, knowledge of substance is not going to be given away for a one-off fee of US$90 when it could be formulated into course learning objectives and then into a curriculum that could then be approved and accredited and six hundred times that amount charged over a period of five years. If something can be packaged and taught then it can be learned and evaluated. Gehry’s not spending his weekends grading submissions.

• • •

the bauhaus and america


Caravanserai were roadside inns where people travelling in caravans (camel trains) could rest after a day’s travel for, between the third and seventeenth centuries, hauling precious goods across Asia, North Africa and southeast Europe was something best done during daylight.

Even the name caravanserai crosses Arabia, as it is the Persian words kārvān (a group of travelers) and sara (an enclosed building) to which the Turkish suffix –yi has been added. Palmyra in Syria has one of the earliest known ones, dating from the third century. This is not surprising given what a well-traversed corner of the world Syria is.

We don’t know much about cavaranserai but we do owe them a huge debt for it’s these simple buildings we have to thank for keeping what little was left of the civilized world civilized. For travellers and their horses and camels, caravanserai functioned as a combination of service station and hotel providing water, food, and places to rest. Caravanserai also functioned as trade centres with retailers selling goods to travellers as well as purchasing from them. They also functioned as customs offices for the movement of goods for commercial purposes attracts customs and excise duties whatever the century or continent.


Al-Muqaddasi the Arab geographer wrote in 985 CE about the hostelries, or wayfarers’ inns, in the Province of Palestine, a country that was at the time considered as part of Syria. He wrote “Taxes are not heavy in Syria, with the exception of those levied on the Caravanserais (Fanduk); Here, however, the duties are oppressive…” He is referring to the duties charged by government officials on the importation of goods and merchandise, the importers of which and their beasts of burden usually stopping to take rest in these places. Guards were stationed at every gate to ensure that taxes for these goods be paid in full, while the revenues therefrom accruing to the Fatimid kingdom of Egypt.

I haven’t read Marco Polo’s Book of the Marvels of the World [a.k.a. The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300] but, given his outbound route, caravans and caravanserai must feature largely. Some glaring omissions in M-P’s supposed observations in China suggest to some scurrilous scholars that M-P never went further than the far side of Persia but, nevertheless, his Book of Marvels was an inspiration for countless others including one Christopher Columbus. 

Caravans feature most definitely in the writings of Arab compulsive traveller Ibn Battuta. Setting out from Morocco in 1325, his first trip lasted twenty-four years before he returned but was off again within a year, returning fifteen years later, to spend three years (presumably) documenting his previous journeys before setting out on his third journey that lasted a mere six.

Sea travel carried different risks so overland travel by caravan was the preferred option. Caravanserai were safe shelters fortified against attack and were quasi-closed systems that could withstand seige for short periods, much like the castles that operated in Europe over the same period.

As trade routes developed and became more lucrative, caravanserai became more of a necessity, and their construction intensified across Central Asia from the 10th century onwards, particularly during periods of political and social stability, and continued until as late as the 19th century. This resulted in a network of caravanserai that stretched from China to the Indian subcontinent, Iran, the Caucasus, Turkey, North Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe. Many of these still stand today.*

These typical plans tell us they look a bit like forts and have thick walls, a square plan, and a single entrance only wide enough for laden camels to pass. Architecture is absent, presumably because it hadn’t been invented yet, but there wouldn’t have been much need for it even if it had been.

The walls are thick for durability as well as to withstand attack. If caravanserai give the impression of being strong and fortified, it is because they were strong and fortified. The Middle Ages everywhere were refreshingly free of semantics.We wrongly call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages but that was only in Europe. Surrounding countries were relatively outward looking. The legacy of this attitude persists. We erroneously attribute the successful combination of defensive geometry and circular lookout towers as European castle innovations.

Deserts aren’t known for their abundance of construction materials and labour so the construction of caravanserai can’t have been simple or fast. Nevertheless, it obviously made someone good money to have them constructed, particularly given the lucrative income stream of excise duties. But at what level were they collected? Caravanserai are unlikely to have been privately funded speculative developments. History is silent on this.

What’s still apparent today is that construction materials were used efficiently. The square footprint has rooms around its perimeter, a large open space in the middle for animals, and intermediate spaces where owners could offload their goods and keep an eye on them. Structurally, the perimeter walls are strengthened by the walls separating the rooms. If the goal was simply to use a minimum amount of construction material to enclose a maximum area then we would expect to see more circular or octagonal plans than we do. The square plan is a beneficial trade-off  between construction efficiency and maximising the number of money-earning rooms. Supporting this theory, larger caravanserai had an additional level of rooms rather than quadruple the area of parking. The point of that space was that it had secure boundaries and the only rationalisation possible was for those boundaries. Resting camels don’t naturally form orderly rows and it was probably not worth the lost rest time to coerce them to do so for the sake of some marginal space advantage. The space had no layout and in busy times simply became more densely packed, as happens today with people and elevators.

Desert climates typically have large diurnal temperature ranges. In the tenth century, it was Bagdhad that was the hub of the intellectual and commercial world but here’s the climatic data for Basra a bit south. There’s an almost constant diurnal spread of 20°C but the thermal mass of thick walls will work to lessen it.

Another example of vernacular intelligence is the closed courtyard with only a single narrow entrance opening. This will work to ensure a pool of cool night air remains trapped in that courtyard for as long as possible into the day. The internal space of caravanserai have no trees for shade but the inner ring of sheltered areas for the storage of goods will keep more of that internal volume shaded for longer.

It may be coincidence but both these next examples have their entrances facing south. Now, Persian villa orientation and planning acknowledged seasonal changes in the incident angle of sunlight with some rooms optimized for summer and others winter but it’s difficult to imagine well-lit rooms attracting a premium in caravanserai. If caravanserai entrances are indeed characteristically on the south side, then I’m guessing it’s because the side having the first and last light facilitated late arrivals and early departures.

This seems reasonable because caravanserai existed to prevent merchants and their goods from being exposed to the dangers of the road at night. A south-facing entrance would be a selling point if caravanserai were spaced at a day’s journey along important routes. Getting to the next stop on time meant getting there safely and this was important, particularly if transporting valuable cargo such as silk from China, gold from Saudia Arabia, frankincense from Yemen, and myrrh from Oman.

As well as reminding me Christmas is coming, this is also starting to feel quite close to home. Caravanserai can’t have been that rare if they were spaced a day’s camel trek apart across Africa, Arabia and Asia. Turns out there’s the remains of one within 3 km of me.

Jumeirah Archaeological Site in Dubai is the 10th century remains of a caravan station that existed since the 6th century as part of a trade route linking Oman with Iraq. The station developed into mixed-use complex of residential units, marketplace, mosque and caravanserai.

Unlike with castles, the primary and lasting value of caravanserai comes from them having been open to receiving the world outside. Castles may have projected political and military power but caravanserai were the ports, the airports and the communications infrastructure of their time, sustaining not only commerce and the movement of goods and people across Eastern Europe, Asia and North Africa but of knowledge in the form of books and news and communications in the form of conversations and stories.

More important and lasting was the role of caravanserai as places for cultural, intellectual and social exchange. [What and where are their equivalents today?] In Europe, castles gradually lost their defensive function as the Renaissance began but let’s remember it’s only because of caravanserai that there was a Renaissance in the first place, let alone that upstart Renaissance affectation known as architecture.

Castles closed to the outside world were refuges against barbarism but, all throughout the Middle Ages, caravanserai had been an open and civilizing force countering the forces of barbarism.

Renaissance architecture may symbolize a more civilized Europe but merely represented existing power structures lowering their defenses when it was safe to do so. By updating the representation of existing power structures architecture may represent the progress of civilization but it can never be a civilizing force.

The incentive and the credit for Europe being dragged back into civilization belongs to open buildings such as caravanserai. 

Even if we still haven’t learned this most important lesson of the caravanserai, we should still pay them some respect for they are under-represented in global histories of architecture. As well as enabling the continuation of civilization and all that, they did what they did very well and for a period of about fifteen hundred years 300–1800 plus or minus a century or two.

• • •

The following text I paraphrase from the publisher’s page for this book with photography and text by Tom Schutyser, an introduction by Andrew Lawler, and contributions by Reza Aslan, Rachid al-Daif, Robert Fisk, Dominique Moïsi and Paul Salem. [I’m excitedly awaiting my copy.] 

“Caravanserai were vital nodes in what was in effect the first globalized overland network and trading system. Thousands were built and successfully operated. They survived empires, caliphates and wars until the demise of the caravan trade. Those that have not vanished or become ruins, survive as hotels, museums, shops, storage space, living quarters, or military outposts. In the tumultuous state of relations between the Western and Muslim worlds today, caravanserai are evidence of ancient multicultural exchange and trade and inspire the quest to find such new platforms of multicultural dialogue for the future.”

• • •

This is the Zein-o-din Caravanserai a two-day camel ride (60km) south of Yazd, Iran. Built in the 16th century just prior to the Silk Road no longer being the major trade route between Europe and Asia, it was recently restored and, though it once more functions as a hotel, we must remember hotels today aren’t what they used to be.

• • •


The UNESCO website on caravanserai


Career Case Study #9: José Oubrerie

I’ve always wondered about the value of working for famous architects for education and/or work experience. If it’s to be anything more than a CV builder, then what is the information actually transferred and what is the actual mechanism of information transferal? Frank Lloyd Wright was in no doubt as to the value of the information transferred and had people pay to do his work. This never really took hold as a business model but it did morph into a system where bona-fide students pay bona-fide universities to pay practicing architects to be visiting or guest educators. (The situation where bona-fide students pay a bona-fide university to pay a practicing architect to be a practicing architect seems peculiar to Japan.)

Le Corbusier didn’t make his workforce pay but he did think people should work for him for nothing. If ever we wonder today why so many architects are paid so little and are prepared to work for so little in the name of gaining experience, then we need look no further than Le Corbusier who, amongst his many other contributions to architecture, took the business fundamentals of marketing and cashflow to new levels. Building on the groundbreaking work of Wright, we know much about what Le Corbusier did for marketing and self-promotion but very little of his innovative approach to cashflow and reducing fixed expenses by paying little, if anything. The intern farm is one of Le Corbusier’s less recognized but more ubiquitous legacies. Starchitect clones are well aware the right to underpay is one of the perks of fame.

Le Corbusier’s office

Judging by Le Corbusier’s suit and hair in the header photograph, these two images look like from the late thirties. Were all these people content with just doing their job or did they believe proximity to Le Corbusier and observing and learning how those buildings came into being constituted an architectural education? We know what happened to a few of them. Louis Sert worked unpaid in 1929 but was back in Barcelona within a year. Léonie Geisendorf worked unpaid during the 1930s. [c.f. Brands as Architectural Legacy]

We don’t know if José Oubrerie was paid or not.

He arrived at Le Corbusier’s office in 1963, eighteen months before Le Corbusier’s death in 1965. Oubrerie is said to have carried the Venice Hospital project forward until it was finally cancelled in 1972. [c.f. The Mat Building] He also completed LC’s French Cultural Center in Damascus in 1988. This is one of those inconvenient and thus forgotten buildings.

The Damascus project is conceived of as a continuous interior surface. Its enclosed continuous interiority relates in part to the formal complexity of Le Corbusier’s Villa La Roche, and, in part, to a new architectural topology, a “Moebiusian” one. *

Baghdad Gymnasium was designed by Le Corbusier in 1956 but completed in 1980 without input from Oubrerie.

Better known is Le Corbusier’s Le Église Saint-Pierre in Firminy, completed by Oubrerie in 2006, or 1996 according to the Knowlton School website.  Peter Eisenman said it was the most important structure built since 1980. [? I can’t imagine what that 1980 structure could have been.] Unlike some of the posthumously completed works of Frank Lloyd Wright, the fidelity and authenticity of Firminy as a genuine work of Le Corbusier is never questioned despite the forty-year hiatus. If it had been faithfully constructed with period materials, technologies and services then I guess we would’ve been told. Nevertheless, I’m keen to find out how this kind of real authenticity differs from the merely authentic.

The thing I find most interesting about Oubrerie is this house, his 1992 Miller House in Lexington Kentucky. It’s his only built work and it’s rather fabulous in all its LC meets NY5 glory.

And is probably why we hear nothing of it. It’s got motifs from the whole bunch of five and asks uncomfortable questions such as who exactly is appropriating whom and for what ends? It’s very much a statement building but nobody’s asking what it’s stating or why.

It also has a surfeit of colour, pattern and texture – something the “whites” eschewed in their timber-framed reworkings of the plasticity implied by Corbusian stucco on brick.

Miller House post-dates the New York Five by two decades, so I can only assume Oubrerie is showing them how it ought to have been done and what would have been the better lessons to have learned. For this impertinence he has been roundly ignored. I’m still unconvinced every single surface and element has to show the trace of an architect’s hand. In the case of the Miller House, those timber shelves seem a bit over-the-top. I also doubt every single element needs its own colour and, even if they must, are these the right ones?

With all that colour, pattern and materiality all over the place, the debt to Maisons Jaoul is obvious. It’s everything the NY5 eschewed with their designs that existed as ideas over and above any construction-based reality. I confess to liking Oubrerie’s Miller House, but my feelings towards the NY5 have varied over the years. In 1979 I thought Peter Eisenman’s House X the ultimate whereas in 1977 I had a page, torn from Progressive Architecture, of Richard Meier’s 1973 Douglas House pinned above my drawing board.

I enjoy the relentless design of Oubrerie’s Miller House in the same way I enjoy Carlo Scarpa’s art piece Olivetti Store in Venice, or Gio Ponti’s 1955 Villa Planchard. All three invoke the concept of “total design” as probably invented by Victor Horta circa 1890 and later co-opted by Wright, Gropius, etc. Even now, the concept of total design is still used to imply the “attention to detail” and “obsessive perfectionism” of the artist-architect.

When compared with Douglas House, the physicality of Miller House is obvious but I find it no more human for all that colour, pattern and texture. Both houses leave no conceptual space for people as whatever furniture, rugs or art one possessed, or even the clothes one wore, would clash. In representing the pleasures of colour and materials, Oubrerie has forgotten to involve the people who are to appreciate them. I don’t know if that makes him better or worse than the bunch of five who succeeded by aiming lower.

All in all, Oubrerie’s is a curious career involving five built buildings only one of them his and even then only in a sense.

The Chapel, commissioned and encouraged by Steven Holl for his residential and gallery complex in Rhinebeck, New York, features a light-water diagonal conduit that pierces the roof and floor and is a contemporary interpretation of a ladder in a kiva — a traditional round Pueblo Indian form — in which the ladder joins the sky and earth. There is no real sipapu, the round hole in the kiva’s floor through which the spirits of the ancients can exude. However, in the Chapel, the ground is visible and the floor sometimes retracts; it practically enters inside, or reciprocally, the floor extends and reaches the outside.

• • •


The History of Forgetting

All buildings begin as architectural fantasies and perhaps one in a thousand or more get built. In addition to us hearing more and more about the ones that don’t or never will, a steady stream of updates – “X tower receives planning permission!” “Y tower topped out!” – accompanies those that do. Conditioned to living in perpetual anticipation, we’ve little time for the buildings when they actually get around to being completed.

Most buildings that don’t get built are quickly forgotten in our high-churn news cycle but some buildings are as much a part of our intellectual landscape as if they had been built. We must ask why. Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high tower, The Illinois, is a good example of an architect designing something we’ve never been allowed to forget even though it failed to find a client either before or after Mr. “Seagram” Bronfman famously abstained. Perhaps only architects were unaware that elevator cables sufficiently resistant to elongation didn’t yet exist. Thirty years earlier, Russian architects had been designing skyscrapers in a country yet without elevators.

Case in point is El Lissitzky’s 1925 Wolkenbügel. In English, it’s known as either Cloud Iron or Cloud Hangar. El Lissitzky was trying for a horizontal skyscraper and, as he was in Germany at the time, perhaps the names result from using two dictionaries to span three languages.

Despite the conceptual confusion, many people including myself have tried to will El Lissitzky’s proposal into existence.

Wolkenbügel is often mistakenly presented as an example of Constructivism but it’s an example of the contemporaneous structural expressionism known as Rationalism. It doesn’t really matter because in 1928 Constructivists and Rationalists alike were forcibly “unified” into an umbrella organization and former practitioners of both camps adjusted to the new rules of what was to become known as Post-Constructivism if it wasn’t built, or Stalinism if it was.

Late to the party, Le Corbusier’s 1933 entry for the Palace of the Soviets competition went down the structural expressionism. It was never built but is still discussed and analyzed as if it had been.

It seems the only thing more reprehensible than demolishing an architectural masterpiece is to not build it in the first place.

The urge to compensate for this injustice took rendering to new levels, with virtual textures virtually distressed to simulate age, “camera” angles chosen to simulate period photography, and final outputs distressed to simulate aged photographs supporting false memories.

Unlike The Illinois, Cloud-bügel, and Monument to the Third International, Palace of The Soviets at least could have been built because Le Corbusier designed it to win a competition and be built. LC generally made a sharp distinction between the career-builders he never expected to see built and the career-builders he did. His judgment failed him with his 1929 proposal for the Geneva Mundaneum. It’s a dog. It’s acknowledged on the Fondation Le Corbusier website but not in English. As far as I know, Karel Teige is the only person who ever wrote a criticism of it, the full text of which you can read here[c.f. Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige].

1929 was a busy year for Le Corbusier so he probably wasn’t that chagrined it didn’t go ahead. Judging by how it’s been allowed to be forgotten, he wasn’t the only one.

Antonio Gaudí’s unbuilt oeuvre is almost as large as his built but his 1909 Grand Hotel proposal for Manhattan never progressed past concept. Nobody seems to have wondered how Gaudí’s upside down chain method would translate into steel frame construction? Perhaps Gaudí didn’t either for he seems to have misjudged both size and scale. The height was supposed to have been between that of the Chrysler Building and The Empire State Building but perhaps Gaudí can be forgiven since neither existed in 1909.

This hasn’t prevented contemporary visualizers from trying to give his proposal a meaningful scale.

This design doesn’t feature highly in Gaudí’s unbuilt oeuvre, perhaps due to the incongruity of a Gaudí building not in Barcelona. Since 2003 when its construction was proposed by Paul Laffoley for the World Trade Center reconstruction competition, it has been mostly confined to the architectural oubliette.

An oubliette is a special kind of dungeon entered and not-so-often exited from a trapdoor in the ceiling. Inconvenient people get put there and forgotten. This brings us to the selective forgetting to support the dominant narrative of the present. Some buildings have the misfortune to arrive at inconvenient times. The McNulty House arrived in 1965 just as the architectural winds were about to blow in the direction of Post Modernism. [c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]

Much started to be forgotten in the 1970s, not least of all the social responsibilities of architects. Erasing all memory that governments once undertook to house their people is mostly completed now. Sydney’s Sirius looks set to go the same way as London’s Robin Hood Estate.

Local MP Margaret Hodge suggested that providing a 3D scan of the building would be enough preservation to legitimize its demolition, raising the question of how much a digital version can really replace a building. Quite a lot apparently, if you’re of the mindset that a representation of something can be as good as the real thing. Charles Jencks’ theoretical whitewash is still brought into play to destroy all memory of the social aspirations of Modernism.  

For all its talk of memory and history, the 1970s were the Golden Age of Forgetting. Any actual learning from history was replaced by consumable representations of learning from history. The world was rich with architectures before 1980 and it wasn’t just the misfits, the fringe and the outliers who were forgotten.

For example, what happened to Alvar Aalto? What values did his buildings express that are such anathema today? We already know the answers to these questions. It is only Le Corbusier who is actively and overly remembered. My hunch is that Le Corbusier provided the DNA template for postmodern mutation known as the starchitect. As long as Le Corbusier remains unassailable, then replicant starchitects are the logical consequence. Soon, it won’t be possible to conceive of any other type of architect. It practically is now.

There’s a special architectural oubliette just for projects that are an embarrasment to their architects. Here’s two from Andrew “AEDAS” Bromberg’s portfolio circa 2006.

From around the same time we have Lee “ATKINS” Morris’ Trump International Hotel and Tower. The plug was pulled in the financial winter of 2008-9 just when the building was about to rise above ground. I carried vivid memories of the speedboat image for years. Now I’ve managed to track it down again, I find its power to disturb has only increased.

The building, however, was the product of considerable skill and thought.

Other buildings of the same time and place (and architects) were less blessed. There was Anara Tower. I remember writing of it something like “Avoiding the aspirational reaching and false perspective of stepped pinnacles, it simply towers for 80-odd storeys before culminating in that most perfect of shapes, the circle.” It wasn’t a lie.

The same architects’ Icon Hotel also represented skill of a kind that shouldn’t go unacknowledged.

Working the same patch, OMA had their share of forgotten buildings, though the Death Star did circle around once before heading for oblivion.

After trying so hard for so long, OMA’s only completed project in the UAE is this art shed.

Zaha Hadid Architects have had their share of forgotten buildings but with one completed bridge, two projects currently onsite in Dubai and one rescheduled in Abu Dhabi, look like having a better ratio of hits-to-misses.

There are some spectacular ones that didn’t happen though.

ZH herself said “the world will always have a place for exuberant architecture” and indeed it will as long as there’s the financial “exuberance” to sustain it. Financial exuberance is attracted to architecture and the attraction is mutual. It’s often ill-advised, ill-conceived, impestuous, short-lived, and plauged by broken promises and thwarted expectations.

What is eventually built represents only a small portion of architectural activity at any given time. As with first loves and adolescent tastes in music, the past is often embarassing and the urge to forget is great. Rather than the buildings that are built or the ones we want to remember, it’s the forgotten buildings that provide the truer picture of what the times were actually like.

• • •

Here’s my picks for buildings headed for the architectural oubliette. (I’ll keep adding to this list as I remember to remember them.)

Frank Gehry’s 2012 Hong Kong Opus

It was dutifully acknowledged at the time but since then has since disappeared without trace. It was probably a difficult commission to refuse.

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

From the same 2012, it had an initial burst of media accolades but recent allegations of overly-exuberant money laundering by the government of its namesake’s son should be enough to belatedly start the process of forgetting.

[In 2014] the Design Museum in London […] defended its decision to give its Designs of the Year top prize to a Zaha Hadid building in Azerbaijan, following widespread criticisms of the award on human rights grounds. “It’s a prize about architecture rather than politics and its architectural quality is outstanding,” Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic told Dezeen.

Diller+Scofidio’s Boston Institute of Contemporary Art

Oliver Wainwright’s recent puff piece commemmorating Elizabeth Diller visiting the UK, credited Diller+Scofidio as architects of NY’s High Line as well as a string of other projects yet omitted to mention their trite yet once-hyped ICA.

Makoto Floating School, Nigeria/2016 Venice Biennale

You’ll remember this one now – it was everywhere 2015-6. The link will take you to the website that lists, amongst other things, FAQs about why it collapsed – lack of maintenance, apparently. I remember reading that it collapsed because people stole the bolts holding it together. Regardless of the truth of falsity of this story, the fact it was spread only reinforces the poisonous post-modern belief that architecture is wasted on the poor.

A Consistency of Contradictions

In 1937, Douglas Haskell drove across the US and identified elements of a popular architecture. He thought Route 66 was okay. His 1958 essay “Architecture and Popular Taste” probed what people who were unschooled in architeture said they liked. Haskell has been actively forgotten because he believed in a popular architecture as a  true vernacular architecture and not one invented by architects. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell].

In 1966, Robert Venturi strolled around Rome identifying and enjoying the visual complexities and contradictions of its Baroque architecture. He documented his thoughts and will always be remembered for making us believe our built environment was reducible to a set of visual complexities and contradications [c.f. Clarity and Consistency in Architecture]. Venturi did later say he wished he’d made the title of his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architectural Form but that was only to set it apart from his 1972 book on architectural meaning that had us believe architecture was reducible to ducks and decorated sheds. Venturi said Main Street was almost all right.

Venturi was to also later claim he was never a post-modernist but, prior to his book, architecture at least had the remnants of a social conscience. Whether inadvertently or by design, Venturi’s C&C reduced the built environment to a set of visual stimuli and his second reduced it to a set of meanings evoked by them. There’s nothing wrong with that but there’s a lot wrong when architecture comes to be seen as only that. And that’s what happened for Venturi begat Jencks whose populist message was that buildings should be judged by how popular they appeared to want to be and not by whether they were ever intended to serve society in any tangible way. The first of the Pruitt-Igoe apartment blocks came down in 1972 a year after Learning from Las Vegas and the last came down in 1976 a year before Charles Jencks’ The Language of Post Modern Architecture.

In 1928, Le Corbusier had a problem with a door on axis with a column but solved it with a transfer beam. Ever since then we have applauded his creative breaking of the rules.

In 1960, Robert Venturi had a problem with a door on axis with a column but solved it by making people go around the column. Ever since then we have applauded his creative breaking of the rules.

It was never about style. All buildings may be modernist or post-modernist and all buildings may be of use to society or they may not be but these oppositions aren’t incompatible. It didn’t matter. It’s wasn’t possible to unlearn rational and economical construction and it also wasn’t possible to invalidate a moral responsibility to do the greatest good for the greatest number, but it was possible to divert people’s attention away from it. And that’s what happened.

On page 147 of the fourth edition of The Language of Post Modern Architecture, CJ does say of Taller Bofill’s 1983 Les Espaces d’Abraxas that “It is a popular architecture”. Finally having a home at last can’t have counted for nothing in a social housing project but all Jencks ever championed was a sense of palace.

Having got that off my chest, I’d just like to show that our built enviroment was never only about visual complexities and contradictions, and we don’t have to walk around Rome to encounter them or to read a half-century old book to appreciate them. They’re everywhere and there’s a lot we can learn from them. For example, this “sunken island” is a visual contradiction but a clever way of routing non-construction traffic around it and construction traffic across it.

Some complexities and contradictions are unintentional complications of cause and effect. Here, some fresh grass “stepping stones” exacerbate the very problem they’re put in place to solve.

Contradictions such as this next twixt building and lamp-post are to be found in cities around the world and our built environment is so much richer for having them. We must appreciate them for what they are.

This next image you saw a few posts back. A photograph of a building is digitally distressed to not look like the photograph it is, and then applied as a building wrap to make a building not look like the building it is. The something lighthearted about this deception. There’s no need to take it too seriously in what is, after all, an outdoor bar.

This next example of a secret door to a not-so-secret corridor is pure urban Magritte* and slightly more complex. Once again, a portion of a building is disguised to not look like the building it is, but this time the temporary suspension of reality is a depiction of the building that it will be. The real and present doorway exists within the virtual portal of the future, adding temporal complexity and contradiction to the visual complexity and contradiction.

But here’s where it begins to get sinister. There’s nothing intruiging or funny about the contradiction of an air-conditioned, open air street.

This next and apparently benign example clarifies what’s happening. It’s not the notice “For Display Only” that’s contradicatory here as that would stay true (although redundant) even if the flowers were real flowers and for sale. What we have here is real flowers being replaced with a representation of real flowers and being used to market something that has nothing to do with flowers or people who might want them.

In this next image we have an open air shopping mall as a representation of a city experience, as if all cities had incessant lighting effects, miniature trains, pop-up clothing stores, Turkish ice cream vendors, and balloon sellers galore (with Doraemon balloons for the discerning child and groundscraper balloons for keen-eyed toddlers). It’s no more a living functioning city than Seaside Florida was a real community. But it’s popular.

In this next image, the sign at the travelator says “Equipment switched off for energy conservation.” This is a noble thought until you realize all the equipment in this expensive construction was put in place to conserve the energy of public transport users as they traverse this air-conditioned walkway spanning nineteen lanes of traffic.

The representation of energy conservation has priority over encouraging the use of public transport and the real energy savings it brings for everyone. The new and sinister twist is that the people who now don’t get to use the travelator are encouraged to feel it’s somehow their energy that’s being saved. This sign is a confident and assertive illustration of the powerlessness of reason.

We outgrew the contrived visual complexities and contradictions of post-modernism but Jencks’s message of removing things of real value and replacing them with representations of intangible worth took root and to this day, is still regarded as truth, and probably even taught as truth. A product of its time, it meshed perfectly with the emerging neoliberal agenda of promising virtual benefits while taking away real ones. 

As we know, Pruitt-Igoe was never replaced, let alone with anything more “popular”. St. Louis housing projects weren’t the only urban areas blighted by street crime. 1970s Manhattan was also an antisocial battlefield but it nevertheless managed to avoid being dynamited. The movie, Escape From New York, in which Manhattan had been turned into a giant prison dates from 1981.

No architectural speculation is complete without an example from Venice. Here, a hoarding conceals a building only to depict a virtual one that’s then negated by an advertisement. It’s like the secret corridor in that a building wrap is applied to a building to make it make it look like the building it will be but, in this case, it’s the same as the building it once was. Between those past and future realities, the virtuous virtual building is obscured by a message very much in the here and now.

This is the neoliberalist agenda encapsulated. Replace something of real value with a representation of it and then use it to market something of zero benefit to those whose thing was replaced. Post Modernism taught us to value the representation more than the thing itself. Neoliberalism taught us to prefer the advertisements. This is where we are now. The only buildings that get presented to us as architecture are those that advertise their sponsors and their architects. Clearly, we are not living in a Renaissance.

• • •

Thanks Jae, for alerting me to urban surrealism and starting me on this train of thought.

• • •

• • •

2 Nov. 2017: I just saw this article by Sean Griffiths on Dezeen. We seem to be on the same page except by his using the term “post-modern revivalism” he implies that something knowable is being resurrected when, in reality, the processes it set in motion are still being played out and we have no idea where it’s going to end.


Naked Houses

French novelist Gustave Flaubert was unimpressed by 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 to 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. [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]


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.


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.


“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.
  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.







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, chagrined at being best remembered 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.


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 they bought? I’m guessing 1975, give or take a year.

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.


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.


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.