The Shameless Skyscraper


Before anything’s even been said in this BBC news report, the title “Flatpack Skyscrapers” makes this building sound like something cheap and mass-produced, and definitely not something handmade and of quality and classy like, say, William Morris wallpaper. We’re not even past the title and already we’ve encountered the reaction to the very same Industrial Revolution that was supposed to make useful things less expensive and more available. 

Despite the report being bandwidth-hungry for no good reason, it somehow manages to describe the work of a certain Mr. Zhang who’s making headlines because he and his team can erect buildings faster than anyone else on the planet. I say “erect” because most of the work is done offsite and, once the foundations are in place, site work is limited to assembling the pieces at a rate of about three floors per day. Mr. Zhang’s integrated system for building design and construction has many advantages.


  • It’s faster than conventional design and construction and so the benefits of the building are available earlier.
  • It’s less expensive. The shorter time until the building is providing a return-on-investment means that total financing costs are less. This should also, in theory, it should also free up more capital to provide more buildings.
  • It’s safer to build than conventional construction. Prefabricating parts of the building complete with services offsite should, again in theory, be safer and allow for higher quality.

sky city one construction method

Now, for many, being cheaper, faster and safer isn’t good enough. This article, for example, raises doubts about the theory with regards to safety, timing, funding, and need. The main objection seems to be that it will be in the middle of farmland.


Even if renders could be trusted to reliably depict future realities, the argument seems to be that skyscrapers are ok in Manhattan where the economics of land necessitates tall buildings. This doesn’t mean those tall buildings are any more necessary – a question that’s being raised now the new slew of superslender supertalls is casting superlong shadows across Central Park.


The “need” argument seems to be a form of veiled prejudice. Shanghai isn’t Manhattan either but it doesn’t attract this prejudice because it looks like more like a city than say, Dubai, another attractor of the same prejudice.


The potential problem of cashflow needed to maintain Sky City One is mentioned, as is the problem of supplying it with food everyday. These things do need thinking about and I hope someone has.

But what if that farmland stayed farmland and some of Sky City One’s residents farmed it? We don’t know – we’ve never actually given it a try. It could just be a viable way to live on this planet. Why shouldn’t those green spaces be productive farmland instead of the traditional lawns and parkland? The supposed reason for the existence of tall buildings was land pressure in cities such as Chicago and New York meant people had to work closer together in this new thing called office work. Food was missing from the equation. Perhaps, just perhaps, it might be a good idea to sort out food and shelter at the same time, and then see how office work can fit in?

The Western press has been predictably negative regarding this project. The usual social angst about non-millionaires living in tall buildings is mentioned. The fact that windows will be non-operable is mentioned even though this is standard for buildings that height for it lessens wind resistance. Me, I’m actually not too keen on some of the apartment plans.


This next image implies they’re thinking about mixing uses on each floor. Horizontal mixing of use in vertical buildings could be a good idea.

deep plan

After all, our horizontally organised cities have always had some sort of vertical mixed use

No, the biggest crime of this building and the one I suspect is really driving the negativity and criticism is summed up in the statement “Its blocky glass and steel form may be unlikely to win any architectural beauty awards”. Sky City One’s crime is to not do the twisty, growy thing like Gentler’s latest for Shanghai.


Or the bright and shiny future thing like Foster’s vertical city proposal for offshore Tokyo. img0Or do the symbolic climbing, striving, aspiring thing like skyscrapers have done since way back when. Instead, Sky City One is what it is and no more or less than the processes that made it. It is totally free of metaphorical and allegorical baggage. It has an existential beautysky-city-one-04


Misfits’ Guide to Moscow


Moscow is a big and mighty city made up of a few big roads and many little corners. The Moskva River winds its way across.


Moscow not trying to look beautiful. Or even attractive, to tourists. I saw no Я♥Москву t-shirts or St. Basil’s fridge magnets. It’s a place people go to to live and work and get on with what they have to do. It’s always a good thing for a city to be full of people with a good reason to be there. It’s why the on-foot experience of Moscow is so variegated and intimate.

Tretyakovskaya Gallery of 20th Century Russian Art



An unassuming building alongside the river and, if you go in August, a pleasant park full of summery crowds eating ice creams and splashing in fountains. There’s an amazing collection of 20th century art inside and an equally amazing sculpture garden outside.

The Novodevichy Cemetery



This is Moscow’s premier cemetery next to the Novodevichy Convent which is Moscow’s third most popular tourist site. If you’ve heard of them, they’re buried here – Chekov, Prokofiev, Bulgakov, Chekhov, Gogol …  The tower was scaffolded in August, hence the Streetview.

MOGES Central Thermal Power Station

Chocolate Factory


On 7 November 1923, avant-garde composer Arseny Asraamov conducted the second performance of his Symphony of Factory Sirens from its rooftop.

Asraamov 2


Krasny Oktyabr (Red October) Chocolate Factory & Museum

The chocolate factory is next to the power station, at the fork of the river. You can’t miss it.


1928 RZSKT Commune Building


The RZSKT Commune building was the first application of the principles and apartments developed in The Types Study. The building was immediately home to many artists and architects including Ginzburg himself but the current plaque outside only commemorates Ivan Leonidov. Two additional storeys have been added in the manner of the original. Rather than being seen as “ruining the original intent of the architect”, I prefer to think this proves the continuing viability of its social intent. The earlier post, Architecture Misfit #17: Moisei Ginzburg contains some photographs of the apartments and their current interiors.

The large building to the south-east on the map is where the Palace of the Soviets was to have been built. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that was demolished to make way for the Palace of the Soviets has since been rebuilt.


Gosstrakh Apartments 

Gosstrakt apartments

Moisei Ginzburg’s 1926 apartments were introduced in The Constructivists. They’re still there, with the original rooftop converted into apartments.

Nearby is the only remaining pond of Patriarshiye Ponds (Patriarch’s Ponds) where the beginning of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is set. You couldn’t find a more pleasant spot to read it.

The novel itself is wicked and no way seems like it was written between 1928 and 1940.

Central Tracking Substation T-3



Moscow Metro station platform halls are famous but couldn’t exist without substations, some of which were seen as significant buildings in their own right. This one’s by D.F. Friedmann, from 1935.

This building is extraordinary not only for its detail, but for the inventiveness of that detail. The window framing is oddly contemporary, the ornamental classicism stripped down to Art Deco. Columns were back in 1935 but acanthus leaves and entasis superfluous to requirements.


Atomic House

atomic house

atomic house

This building on Bolshaya Tulskaya is informally known as Atomic House as many of its original residents were employed in the nuclear industry. Legend has it the building is constructed from reactor-grade concrete and was fitted with 6mm glass. A beast of a building at first sight, it’s nine 16-storey buildings joined together with individual entrances at the rear. It’s a big brush making little strokes.


Ground level is retail, the next two floors commercial, and residential above. The nine entrances lead to elevator lobbies accessing corridors with single-aspect apartments along their length and larger, double-aspect apartments at their ends. Some apartments are advertised as short-term lets on Rooms are a decent size. Kitchens have windows, as is the Russian way.

If you were to give Superstudio‘s Megaton City a similar internal organisation, the problem of human habitation on this planet would be largely solved.

megaton city

Shukov Tower

shukov's tower

shukovs tower

An old favourite. A landmark when it was built in 1922 as a communications tower, it’s still a landmark and still a communications tower currently supporting a cluster of cellular network antennas.

Krymsky Bridge

Crimea Bridge

Krymsky Bridge was designed by engineer V. P. Konstantinov and architect A. V. Vlasov. It’s from 1938 and the only suspension bridge in Moscow. It’s slightly wasteful in terms of the amount of steel used to the square metreage of deck provided but this only goes to prove that even together, Konstantinov and Vlasov were not Shukov. The bridge nevertheless has a satisfying purposefulness about it, possibly due to it being the colour of metal – not a dull grey like the 1930 Sydney Harbour Bridge or orange like the 1933 Golden Gate Bridge.

Kremlin Petrol Station

kremlin gas

Not to be confused with Midway Station, 14413 N Highway 81, Kremlin, Oklahoma, USA. This petrol station is only for the use of cars from The Kremlin and is rumored to have been designed by the great Moscow Metro architect Alexey Dushkin.

The Narkomfin Building


It’s currently in a bad way, as misfits’ has mentioned before and countless others seem to enjoy photodocumenting. Sure, the building is an important part of Constructivist history and it was an attempt to come up with an architectural solution for housing in the new post-Revolution  society. Ironically, it’s buildings of this type that cities like London currently need right now – single- or double-occupancy 30 sq.m apartments with minimal kitchens. Street level dining rooms open to the public. Misfits has previously commented (c.f. Fun!tionalism) on how apartments with communal facilities have become a standard upmarket urban typology.

Narkomfin Building

I’m not going to argue for Narkomfin’s restoration and preservation. Its social aspirations are still relevant, if not more so but if they’re not going to be heeded then it doesn’t really matter if it’s demolished and forgotten, or restored and neutered as a shrine to a right idea at the right time that turned out to be the wrong time.

In Moscow, the preservation and restoration of buildings of historical interest is, as in many other cities, the domain where conflicting interests play themselves out. In the UK, Brutalist buildings get demolished to make it difficult for people to remember that things such as government housing and social agendas once existed. The other way to destroy the memory of an ‘inconvenient’ social agenda is to preserve the building to death. If Narkomfin were fully restored it would definitely not be as the low-cost housing solution it was intended to be. For a building to be judged “of historical interest” is another way to kill it. Like a Coliseum without gladiators, the building remains but only to make us feel smug about having moved on. The objectification of history is controlled forgetting just as destructive as demolition.


Here’s some people taking of a restored drugstore sign at the corner where the Gosstrakh apartments are.


There’s a statue of LC installed at Centrosoyuz as part of the street’s recent pedestrian conversion.

Narkomfin is a building that was ahead of its time. It’s still waiting for us to make up our minds if the potential for that time to come has gone forever, or if we’re still waiting for that time to come.

• • •


  1. Research. The Discover Moscow (architecture) website is good.
    There’s an app. APPLE  ANDROID  WINDOWS
  2. Sensible shoes.
  3. Learn the alphabet. Metro signage and guidance are Russian only.


It’s not as difficult as you might think. Here’s two to get you started.

P1040251 P1040334• • •



Performance Beauty

It’s good to take a break from architecture every now and then. 

So one evening last week I powered down the laptop and fired up YouTube on the flatscreen. I was in the mood for opera!  “Sure,” you may say, “but opera’s still about organizing people and how they move and interact in and around a space!”  “True,” I would reply, “but it’s got music and singing and drama and merrymaking, all of which architecture tends not to.” I wanted modern staging with simple means employed to maximum effect. I’ve nothing against minimal stagings such as this one for The Metropolitan Opera‘s 2012 production of La Traviata


but object to starchitect product placement presented as either news or art, such as with this Don Giovanni set design by Frank Gehry

or this Cosi fan Tutte set design by Zaha Hadid.

I settled down to watch this production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte. It’s always inspiring to watch things done by people good at their game and Mozart was definitely one of those. 

It was jolly enough and the simple set worked well and didn’t get in the way. When it ended, I let YouTube suggest what next. It turned out to be Cosi fan Tutte again, but this time with a rotating set having three scenes. Now, the set itself became part of the action. It was interesting to see what two different directors and set designers can come up with when given the same brief of satisfying some necessary requirements yet at the same time make something seem new and fresh again.

For some years I’d been trying to identify a particular piece of music that turned out to be the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Christophe Willibald Gluck‘s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. I wanted to check it out and now was that time. My first find was this from choreographer Pina Bausch’s 2008 production. Pina Bausch is another person good at their game but, awesome as this is, it’s about dance not opera.

Now. In 1755, Francesco Algarotti had written his Essay on the Opera, calling for its simplification and for the emphasis to be on the drama instead of the music, dance or staging. Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi were the first to make it work. If they hadn’t, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) would no doubt have.

Orefo and Euridice was first performed in Vienna in 1762. Mozart’s fourth opera, Mitridate – Re di Punto from 1770 still had lengthy recitative and continuo bridges and is not as musically inventive or dramatically tight. He was fourteen when he wrote it though, and he had written only four operas before.

Gluck’s reforms were controversial at the time but they were good and timely ones that would change opera forever. The most important was to simplify the music. Gluck did away with long recitatives separating virtuoso arias. He did away with virtuosity – it was no longer about the star singers. Conductor Sir Roger Norrington said of him,

“Gluck’s significance is deeper than just his attempts at musical revolution. Gluck’s influence arose from his melodic genius as much as from his reforming zeal.  The touching honesty of his arias gives them tremendous power. I admire the way Gluck risks great simplicity in his musical methods, at a time when elaboration and show were taken to such lengths…” 

Keeping the music going was a major step in the development of modern opera but, more importantly, Gluck kept the plot moving. In the third act we even see a glimpse of that thing Verdi was to later perfect – the simultaneous singing of plural psychologies for dramatic effect. With Orfeo ed Euridice, the art was now in the drama and not in the dramatization. It was the first modern opera. The first version I came across had Janet Baker as Orpheus at Glyndebourne in 1982. Its staging seemed over-contrived.

janet baker

“Overly-contrived” is an accusation frequently leveled at opera staging. The Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 production of Orfeo ed Euridice came in for a bashing on that count.


A 2008 French production erred in the other direction, also mistaking inadequate illumination for darkness. Drama is only dramatic if we can see it.

If anything’s going to be dramatic, then the scene where Orpheus pleads to be allowed to pass through The Underworld must surely be one of those instances?

“O, have mercy on me!

Ye Furies! Ye spectres! Ye angry shades!
May my cruel grief
at least earn your pity!

“Like you, O troubled shades,
a thousand pangs I too suffer.
I carry my hell with me,
I feel it in the depths of my heart.”

This production got it right. Along with everything else.


The film was shot entirely on location in the historic Baroque Theatre of the Český Krumlov Castle. The theatre dates from 1680, and maintains today the stage equipment and machinery from the 1765-66 renovation, making it one of the oldest functioning Baroque theatres in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is not a film of a staged opera production for a public audience. This is an opera production designed specifically for film. There was no audience, all takes were sung live, and the entire spectrum of the theatre was used, including the backstage space, the flyspace, hallways, cellars, and the auditorium itself.

It’s a joy. We get to wander around an old theatre, hear some wonderful singing and get our fill of drama. We also get to watch some people very good at their game. It’s a great night in.

  • The stage staging is genuine Baroque, not some trendy re-imagining. amore2
  • Another improvement Gluck would’ve approved of is the elimination of the extended dance sequences. Nobody knows for sure what Baroque dance actually looked like anyway. Dance of the Blessed Spirits, lovely as it must have been, had to go. This production is lean, fast, and more dramatic and drama is the currency of opera as we now know it thanks to Gluck.
  • The part of Orfeo was originally written for a haute-contra (high-tenor) voice popular in the Baroque era. It’s more common for the part of Orfeo to be sung by either a contralto, mezzo-soprano or castrato – all of which are, to my mind, cheating. This production restores the lead role to a high tenor voice known these days as a counter-tenor (a.k.a. contratenor) and the male equivalent of contralto.
  • Getting rid of the audience is another innovation. This production is sung live, but not for the benefit of an audience of theatre-goers but for us out here. Film’s immediacy and closeness intensify drama.
  • Every now and then, we’re jolted into modernity by a glance, smile, nod, hesitancy or shrug we can relate to. Drama isn’t dramatic if we can’t relate to it.
  • The Underworld seems human, The Furies a bit harsh at first but okay once you get to know them.
  • There’s no fire or gates in this production. Hell is other peoplethe only obstruction.


  • Elysium is made to seem as if it might become a bit tedious and start to get on our nerves after a while. This is nice to know.


  • Amor (a.k.a. Cupid) seems to just to screw people around.
  • But poor Orpheus! He goes through Hell only to find two new types of it after he’s reunited with his wife.
  • At the end, Euridice gets her priorities wrong, enjoying her moment of media glory to much. Orpheus walks away, leaving her to it. True hero.

Much of this art must be due to the Director, Ondřej Havelka and to to Bejun Mehta who sang Orfeo and was also artistic advisor, but something like this is the result of many persons’ skill, time, teamwork and dedication.

    Much use is made of candles but modern lighting is also used to dramatic effect – lights are dimmed for intense feelings, colour of light emphasises the difference between the dead and the living and in the same frame.
    The Baroque sets have a simplicity that’s charming in their quiet inventiveness but, as Gluck would have liked, are not the main event.

    Act 3The second time around for Eurydice, she ends up in the same place as the scenery whose time ‘onstage’ is over. This isn’t accidental – somebody devised it to be so. Somewhere, someone is thinking beautiful thoughts about the power of scenery and moving it around. It’s both delightful and shocking to see such quiet creativity at work – to see that there even still is such a thing.

    treesAlso, in nearly every frame you can see the colours red, blue, green and yellow. I don’t know why, but this seems to generate subliminal feelings of warmth towards a frame. (The last time I saw such an awareness of drama by colour was Paris, Texas.) The proportions of the colours of course change to intensify the drama of the scene. Hell is mostly blue, but never completely. There’s not much blue in Elysium and we sense something lacking. Also.

    Mehta’s costume is a balance of muted primaries – skin tone providing the yellow. The most striking colours in the entire performance are the ones most off balance. His red sash always denotes him on the stage as the most important character. Amor, as you would expect, is another important exception with her brilliant gold breastplate and bow.

An art of this kind is the result of a shared LOVE FOR THE ART – and working to produce a tribute to that art. As either architects or image consumers, we don’t get to see that very often.
The performance wears its art and its artifice lightly. We’re also unaccustomed to that. The power and – I will say it – beauty of this performance come not from some forced newness for the sake of it but from a respect for the fundamentals. It gets its priorities right.

• • •

The opera is on YouTube for me or anyone else to watch anytime. I don’t have a DVD player and don’t intend to get one but I purchased the DVD all the same. This won’t restore any sense of fair reward to the world, but these people already have my respect and admiration. I needed them to have my money as well.


Career Case Study #4: Sir Roy Grounds

This is Sir Roy Grounds, “one of Australia’s leading architects of the modern movement”.

roy groundsRoy Grounds (1905 – 1981)

For someone born in Australia and who’s spent a large amount of their life learning about buildings, I’ve never known his name until recently. His Wikipedia entry seems to say all there seems to be to say and, for that matter, all we seem to need to know. It’s odd then, that he was awarded the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1968, made a life member of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1969 and the same year made Sir Roy Grounds by Queen Elizabeth in 1969. It’s fair to assume he was knighted for his services to architecture but strange there’s no memory of what those services might have been.

It’s not the case with his contemporaries Robyn Boyd and Harry Seidler – two names I do remember. Robyn Boyd was born into the Boyd dynasty of Australian artists and painters. His first job was a studio for his cousin, the painter Arthur Boyd. Robyn Boyd developed a low-slung regional style with lots of timber. Although this was sometimes derided as the “nuts and berries” school, this high-fibre architecture appealed to Australians in general and university tutors in particular.


sketch design for the Baker House – Barcelona Pavilion meets gumnut babies

Boyd completed about 200 mostly small scale projects but is better known for being a prolific writer, commentator, content provider and The Voice of Australian Architecture. His 1960 book The Australian Ugliness was widely praised and admired for railing against suburban sprawl but, going by what’s happened in the 65 years since, was totally useless IF its true object was actually to change things for the better. If. We shouldn’t assume courting media controversy was something invented with the internet.

McClune House, Robyn Boyd

Harry Seidler was born in Austria in 1923. After attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius, being Marcel Breuer‘s first assistant, doing vacation work for Alvaar Aalto, doing a stint at Oscar Niemeyer’s studio and being taught art by Joseph Albers, he and his parents rocked up in Australia in 1948. Seidler was 25. His parents immediately asked him to design their new house in their new country. I’d love to know more about these parents of his. The preliminaries over, Seidler’s career proper began.


Although only ten when the Bauhaus closed shop, Seidler positioned himself as the first architect to fully express its principles in Australia. In short, he became The Other Voice of Australian Architecture. He wore bow ties, spoke in quotes, seemed to live forever, and was Australia’s Gropius.

As part of a double act though, he was the Le Corbusier to Boyd’s Frank Lloyd Wright and all Australian architectural debate whether in magazines, schools or office, could be framed in terms of one or the other. The media history of Australian architecture, Australian architecture and Australian architects had no need for Roy Grounds and his or any other third way.

Roy Grounds

1905: Born in Melbourne
–1932: His work at a a firm called Blackett, Forster and Craig led him to receive an award that let him work in the UK and the US for two years.
1934: Returned to form a partnership with Geoffrey Mewton that is said to have introduced the international style to Melbourne.
1936: Partnership dissolved (why, we don’t know) and Grounds returns to the UK.
1939–1942: Sole practitioner between 1939 and 1942 and designed a series of houses and flats including Moonbria (1940–41) which established his reputation.
1953: Formed a successful and influential practice with Frederick Romberg and Robin Boyd who were also well established at the time.
1962: Grounds left the practice “acrimoniously” Wikipedia tells us.

It’s not much to go on. Let’s take a look at the buildings. First is Moonbria. It has its own website these days.

MoonbriaIt’s a building with 21 apartments arranged around a courtyard and a circular stair feature.

Circles were to feature largely Grounds’ work. Here’s a 1953 house.


Grounds designed the Roy Grounds House for himself and his family in 1953.


The main house is at the front of the site and there are three ‘investment houses’ at the rear. (In the late 20th century, many single detached dwelling were to be demolished and replaced by triple-houses occupying a greater percentage of the site and contributing to the ongoing deforestation of Australia.)

Roy Grounds House planThe main design feature is the circular internal courtyard within a square plan. The house was widely publicized and praised at the time, winning the Victorian Architecture Medal in 1954.

Ground’s first major public building was the Shine Dome of the Australian Academy of Science, Canberra (1959).

3815768067_f76a3b8b41_oThis building has a special place in my heart for it was probably the first building I remember thinking was pretty cool. (I might have been about eight.) By the time I came to know Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Olympic stadiums I’d become more aware of this thing called architecture.

I’d never seen Shine Dome mentioned anywhere outside of Australia. It’s from 1959, it’s  completion coinciding with the conception of the Sydney Opera House. It’s a dinosaur – no, more of a fossil. It’s the missing link between Googie and Post-Modernism some 20 years earlier than claimed – and, ultimately, the iconic building. It satisfies all the criteria.

  1. It looks different from anything seen around it.
  2. It looks different from anything known to exist at the time, including Eero Saarinen’s 1955 Kresge Auditorium and Pier Luigi Nervi’s 1957 Palazzetto dello Sporto. 
  3. It looks like something not a building – a bit like it landed from the future.

When these three conditions are satisfied, the result is a building that merely looks alien, not iconic. Yet, it’s this alien-ness about it that satisfies the fourth condition for an iconic building – 4. It has an association of place – or at least it does if you know that Canberra is Australia’s diplomatic capital. This is no enigmatic signifier. It is the Martian Embassy.

WOBLTD06-500x500Anyway. There’s a lot of circles happening. Grounds did a lot with circles. And rectangles. Here’s his 1959–1968 National Gallery of Victoria. Grounds was appointed the sole architect for this building, usually considered his masterwork. This seems to have been the reason for  aforementioned acrimonious split.

EPUB000157The National Gallery is the high-lighted box of his own house with some Martian Embassy entrances. It has three square courtyards. The spire in the model was to be later redesigned by Grounds to become The Arts Centre.

There’s nothing wrong with reusing motifs. Many architects do. It’s no secret, but neither is it common knowledge that Fallingwater is Wright’s first Usonian House, the 1940 Pew House, pimped.

pewhouse_perspectivecolor2In the same vein, SANAA have repeatedly used thin roofs on many slender columns, the only wonder coming from the absence of visible cross-bracing. It works for them.



History is a curious thing. Just as the Futurists always get to fill the gap in history because the 1920s was a slow decade for architectural history, things tend to get simplified when there’s too much happening. Boyd and Seidler were all that was needed. We’ll never know if the acrimonious split with Grounds hurt Boyd’s career but it certainly didn’t hurt his reputation. The Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture is an Australian architectural prize presented by the Australian Institute of Architects since 1981.

One thing many of the misfit architects featured in this blog have in common with Sir Roy Grounds is a lack of interest in media, marketing and self-promotion.

However, Grounds is a Career Case Study #4 and not Architecture Misfit #19 because he seems to have fitted in rather well. He didn’t go against any grain. He did a few things well and had a few ideas typical of the time and place. He was well-connected enough to obtain decent commissions. Media-wise, all he really had to do was impress his peers and not offend the public and he seems to have done this.

Boyd and Seidler reached a little bit further into the mass-media landscape of general circulation newspapers and magazines – which was all the media landscape there was. There, they were easily pigeonhole-able as Aussie-Regionalist vs. Euro-Modernist. Roy Grounds was neither. Compared to these two, his branding was vague.

Nor did Grounds appear to offer an agenda for Australian architecture at a time when it seemed to be wanting one. Together, this is what Boyd and Seidler did as a pair of media constructs, each defined in terms of what they weren’t as much as for what they were. It worked better with two and it did work co-dependent synergy until Glenn Murcutt came along and became both of them.


Further reading

further reading



Architectural phenomena are like quantum interactions and solar eclipses. You see more when you don’t observe them directly. The relationship between architecture and the media has now left the Chicken-Egg Era and firmly entered the Cart-Horse Era. In the past, I’ve used the World Architecture Festival as a symbol of an increasingly dysfunctional architecture. This year’s is the 4th-6th of November at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. It must be one huge prize-fest as there are 31 categories with between 5 and 18 projects shortlisted. The website has a handy search field. wf

Commercial Mixed-Use – Future Projects (17 shortlisted) Competition Entries – Future Projects  (9 shortlisted) Culture – Future Projects (10 shortlisted) Education – Future Projects (6 shortlisted) Experimental – Future Projects (7 shortlisted) Health Projects – Future Projects (6 shortlisted) House – Future Projects (6 shortlisted) Infrastructure – Future Projects (5 shortlisted) Leisure Led Development – Future Projects (8 shortlisted) Masterplanning – Future Projects (11 shortlisted) Office – Future Projects (9 shortlisted) Residential – Future Projects (17 shortlisted) Civic and Community – Completed Buildings (13 shortlisted) Culture – Completed Buildings (11 shortlisted) Display – Completed Buildings (7 shortlisted) Health – Completed Buildings (11 shortlisted) Higher Education And Research – Completed Buildings (17 shortlisted) Hotel And Leisure – Completed Buildings (12 shortlisted) House – Completed Buildings (18 shortlisted) Housing – Completed Buildings (14 shortlisted) Mixed Use – Completed Buildings (6 shortlisted) New And Old – Completed Buildings (18 shortlisted) Office – Completed Buildings (16 shortlisted) Production Energy And Recycling (8 shortlisted) Religion – Completed Buildings (9 shortlisted) Schools – Completed Buildings (13 shortlisted) Shopping – Completed Buildings (5 shortlisted) Sport – Completed Buildings (10 shortlisted) Transport – Completed Buildings (5 shortlisted) Urban Projects – Landscape (7 shortlisted)

First, some general observations.

I was liking this project until I saw the video. It’s a shame because it looks worthwhile, but it does show the games even architects of worthwhile projects have to play in order to have them and their projects taken seriously. And why does OMA even bother? Do they really need to say they’re an award-winning practice? Are they afraid of being forgotten? Or do they get paid or otherwise enticed to participate and so lend an air of legitimacy to the proceedings?

  • New and Old is a strange category. I haven’t checked to see if entries could be nominated for multiple categories like at The Oscars.
  • It’s perhaps because of the international nature of the World Architecture Festival that there’s no Retail category but “Shopping”. A sad day for language as well as architecture.

With so many awards being handed out annually, being an award-wining practice has come to mean as little as “As seen on ArchDaily!” archdaily ArchDaily has, at last count 206 categories of building ranging from Adaptive reuse to Zoo. Housing is the largest with 5,971 projects (as of 18/07/2015) and Bottling Plant, Charging Station and Emergency Services Facility smallest with one each. There’s a sophisticated search function.

With scary honesty, ArchDaily doesn’t claim to be doing anything other than “Broadcasting Architecture Worldwide”, or to be anything other than “the world’s most visited architecture website” (to its viewers), or to captivate more architects than any other website in the world (to its advertisers). AD This makes them more self-aware than Architectural Review that still claims to be “the world’s leading authority on contemporary architecture”. AR The magazine itself seems to be being repositioned as a loss-leader branding vehicle for an increased internet presence. Subscribers are treated to weekly “Viewsletters”  containing a digest of past articles circling around a theme.

This one was particularly irksome with its message that “utilitarian” buildings need dressing up and that is what architects are meant to do. I don’t know which is in the sorrier state, architecture or the reporting of it. 


This could all be a sign of a healthy diversity but I doubt it. New content is being created all the time but people forget. The stuff people never really read before is practically as good as new the second or third time around. There’s a lot of writing about architecture but, as you might guess from the above, very little that’s constructive. This is an excerpt from the final editorial by departing editor, Catherine Slessor in AR’s March 2015 issue. GORGED copy I’m not so confident. The April 2015 issue is packed with the usual writers with their usual intellectual products to shift, inadvertently mirroring the situation they claim to be reporting on. Let’s take a closer look. Between pages 26 and 27, WILLIAM CURTIS gets a special insert and around a thousand words in which to vent his OUTRAGE at Herzog de Meuron’s Tour Triangle en Paris.IMG_2022 YET, over pp 79-89, all Rowan Moore has to say about Tour Triangle is that it is of “dubious public benefit – the only three negative words in his ten-page, 2,000-word love song celebrating “Twenty Years of Herzog de Meuron”. (It feels like more, somehow.)IMG_0143

These ten pages contain the following. This is what this post, and probably this blog, is about.

HdMHdM are praised for their skill in producing media-friendly imagery as if it were some sort of absolute contextual determinant like budget or environment. Shouldn’t someone be asking if this is really such a good thing? Moore seems to be implying that, if they want to survive, to be successful, architects HAVE A DUTY to provide the spectacle desired by clients for media mileage. Mmm. Didn’t Speer do that?

But back in his own personal outrage bubble, Curtis spends three paragraphs telling us what icons and shit shapes mean for society only to conclude, in a bad day for historians, that they’re devoid of meaning – or at least the type of meaning he gets paid to find.

YET, over pages 90-99, Charles Jencks, as ever, is still getting paid to find meaning in anything and everything as he reviews a new book by Farshid Moussavi

AR Editorial Board

who, for her part, back on page 25, is on record as saying things like… Untitled 4 Confession time: Once in my undergraduate years, I objected to listening to anything a man wearing a horrible necktie had to say about aesthetics. I feel exactly the same way about Ms. Moussavi. Anyone who can’t plan an apartment shouldn’t be allowed to teach or even comment on anything architectural. If you missed it, this might be a good time to revisit The Real Function of Form.

The only sense in the issue seemed to be written by Peter Buchanan who suggested the “oxygen of publicity” be denied to architects who abuse it. QUALIFICATION: It should also be denied to those who can pay for it, for accompanying the April issue is an 82-PAGE bumper supplement featuring the work of the practice spark*. The preface implies that having guiding principles is a hindrance when there are more than 80 mouths to feed. We suspected that anyway, but thanks.

YET, the oxygen of publicity isn’t only for the already famous or those who can pay for it. On p.14, Phil Pawlett Jackson and Phineas Harper warn against fetishising “Young Architects” with a new slew of architecture awards

YET, on pp 53-65, young architecture students from MIT are given a twelve-page spread. True, Tomà Berlanda does raise important “questions about the ethics of educational tourism in relation to the needs of the Global South” and we should thank him for that. 

shade of meaning

In what went to print though, this next statement is curious and makes me wonder what truth it’s not succeeding concealing.


First, why did it need to be redesigned? What kind of walls could they have been if they had to be simplified to vertical ones made of concrete bricks? There doesn’t seem to be much two “groups” of students couldn’t have done themselves. Second, why did this need to be said? It strikes me as odd that construction should have to rely on the help and skills of the local community to the extent a re-design was necessary. The students seem over keen to engage the local people in construction. My guess is they were desperate to gain the added Ethical Standards and Social Equity points when this project invariably gets submitted to the Holcim Awards Next Generation category. Or whatever. This architourism is basically exploitation of local people for the media benefit of all but the local people. Vaccinations are but crumbs in this tradeoff. I’ve nothing against an architectural BEAUTY that restores the moral component of VIRTUE, but this ain’t it. Even what’s touted as virtue these days, is dysfunctional, taking it to the next level. Down.

STILL YET, this project manages to get photographed by none other than celebrity snapper Iwan Baan in one of his much-publicised CV-balancing exercises essentially no different from what MIT and its students are doing. I’m curious how such charity work works. Was Baan in the area? Or is it flights and hotels only? And who thought this might be a good idea? Why? Nevertheless, Baan’s professional eye has astutely noted and duly recorded for our benefit that the nice students have built the good people some pretend trees. 


Can it be worse? Yes. This photograph then gets selected as the cover image representing the good that architecture creates for the architectural media to report. My all-too-predictable conclusion is that genuine needs, no matter how modest, are still opportunity for architects to contort building materials into shapes that sell magazines in the name of architectural enlightenment. You knew that.

• • •

Like a “dynamic” architecture that neither goes anywhere or posit even a metaphorical way forward, the media dissemination of architecture has become the endless generation and broadcasting of content as business model. At least ArchDaily – the media trailblazer here, is honest about it. They’re the ones who stripped the business model of unnecessary baggage such as consistency, editorial policy or, for that matter, a belief in anything. The rest are racing to catch up. Sadly, the same is true for the usual suspects providing its content. The media is but a mirror.

… as if the production of media-friendly imagery were some sort of absolute contextual determinant like budget or environment …

Maybe we should just admit this is the case, and that architecture is media-driven, end of story. Too late we realize this is the big truth Rem Koolhaas was secretly conveying all those years to all those architects so in our faces now. So why don’t we now just proceed EXPLICITLY on this basis and see what happens? It will be like an Olympic Games in which performance-enhancing drugs are mandatory and the winners merely those who happened to have access to the best ones.  Instead of tiresome architecture vs. building debates and handwringing over the soul of architecture, we could just sit back and enjoy watching everyone burn out.

This seems to me to be the only sane attitude with which to observe the present, in anticipation of a post-media future.


Architectural Myths #19: The Villa Savoye

This is Sneferu Shining in the South Pyramid also known as The Bent Pyramid built circa 2600 BC for Pharoah Snefuru, eternal dude.


2,600 BC is a while back. Frankly, no-one has has any idea why this pyramid was built the way but, people being people, they speculate.

  • Some archaeologists believe the Bent Pyramid is a transitional form between step-sided and more “perfectly shaped” pyramids. 
  • It has been suggested that the steepness of the original angle of inclination the structure caused the structure to become unstable during construction, forcing the builders to adopt a shallower angle to avert the structure’s collapse.
  • An alternative theory states the angle was changed in order to prevent a catastrophic collapse such as had happened during the construction of the Meidum Pyramid.
  • For a while it was believed the shallower angle meant the construction could be completed in time for the Pharoah’s approaching death.

Nobody has ever suggested SnefP_V1 was pushing the boundaries of pyramid aesthetics. Rather, all these speculations assume the intention was to aim for some sort of geometric perfection and the as-built is some sort of compromise. It’s what we want to believe. It’s our nature. Here’s another building for which we have incomplete information. Oddly, the opposite occurs. This is an image that's as close to completion as I've ever seen.We like to think this building was always meant to be what we see. Much of what’s been written about it assumes it was exquisitely inspired and designed to be precisely the way it is, and that nothing was left to chance or compromise. This is wrong.

In Modern Architecture Since 1900, William J.R. Curtis devotes Chapter 16 (pages 275–285) to the image and idea of le corbusier’s villa savoye at poissy. (FFS.) No less than seven pages in, on p.282, he lets us know the design process was not straightforward.

apology copyTo him, this is all evidence LC knew all along what he was doing.

illusionI’m not so sure. It’s true the history of architecture is, mainly, a record of things that got built but it’s also true we tend to ignore how susceptible to chance that record is. Not unlike Snefuru’s pyramid builders, huge edifices of words and analysis get built upon the most insubstantial of foundations.


  • 1928, September. A few sketches. The one below at top right is not unlike the as-built – from that angle. But look immediately below and see how what we today know as the rooftop was originally only what could be seen of a second floor. This seemed important to LC.

  • 1928, November. Two months on, the whole thing is looking decidedly iffy. (Out of the office, obviously.)

classic sketch

  • 1928, CIAM I, La Sarraz, Switzerland, Foundation of CIAM
  • 1929, CIAM II, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on The Minimum Dwelling
  • 1929. Overseeing the production of Vol.I of his Oeuvre Complete 1910-1929.
  • 1929, April. Construction of the Villa Savoye begins.
  • 1929, September. Writing the introduction to Vol.I of his Oeuvre Complete 1910-1929.

Let’s pause it here. Construction of VS began in April 1929 and Vol.I of LC’s complete works was published in 1929. The next image shows Villa Savoye as it appears in Vol.I. If construction commenced in April 1929 and LC was still writing the introduction to Vol.I in September, then it’s safe to say this is what the builders were digging the basement and laying the drainage for. Disclaimer: The ground floor slab might not yet have yet been poured in September because the revised design has a couple of columns we’ve not seen before.Le_Corbusier_Vol_1_1910_1929 183Le_Corbusier_Vol_1_1910_1929 184

  • The main difference is that the master bedroom and bathroom are on what we now know as the roof.
  • The internal staircase is straight and, though it links all floors, is service stairs for on the basement, ground and first floor levels, but the bedroom stairs between first and second.
  • There are many curious storage spaces lining the ground floor service corridor.
  • The position of the chimney suggests the basement was much larger.
  • There’s a totally different feature bathtub above a feature w.c. below.
  • There’s not that column in the garage, or the one at the end of the maid’s bed.
  • The master bedroom has curved walls but no the bed has no direct view out.
  • Another curve contains a spiral stair that continues roofwards.
  • A third curve is presumably a wind-shield for a quasi-secluded sunbathing area.
  • There’s an external stair linking the terrace with the garden on the garage (east) side.

Le_Corbusier_Vol_1_1910_1929 185LC was on a roll in 1929. Part of it was spent in South America, not to mention getting there and back. Some more of 1929 was spent sketching Josephine Baker – naked, salacious reports salaciously report. Sometime during 1929, LC also found the time to find someone to marry him.

ml_JosephineBakerHouse_07_xAs if that’s not enough for any media star, there was still work to be done. [Thanks ncmodernist!]

For someone already publishing volume un of their oeuvre complète, 1929 was the year LC’s career really – I mean really – took off. His thoughts however, and much of the time the man himself, were in Moscow. Since his first visit in 1928, LC saw himself as Moscow’s urban saviour and allied himself with the proponents of the Green City movement. [I’ll come back to this again in a future post.] However, by May 1930, he’d produced his own 60-page report and 22 drawings for the reconstruction of Moscow. No less. This is only significant (in this post) because LC’s 1928–1932 infatuation with the Soviet Union perfectly overlaps the design and build timeline of Villa Savoye. It’s easy to imagine VS was not high up on his to-do list. I’ve no doubt his clients sensed this, for the design of VS was changed during construction.

To change the design of a building once its construction has begun is a big thing and only happens when clients are desperate for an architect’s attention. Occam’s Razor suggests the Savoyes were annoyed with LC being uncontactable and preoccupied. But get LC’s attention they did for, better or worse, VS was promptly redesigned and construction continued according to the VS–LITE design. The VS we know today is the consequence of clients wanting their project finished on time and on budget. Here’s how the plan appeared in Vol.II of LC’s complete works 1929–1934

Pages from Le_Corbusier_Vol_2_1929_1934See how the sectional view is incorrect? You just can’t get the staff! These days architects pay people to incompetently manage their social media pages. When I last had a facebook site, Zaha Hadid’s people once friended me. More recently, Patrik Schumacher’s people have reposted images from misfits ffs.


btw, misfits is now on Pinterest and Instagram and there’s also a Facebook page somewhere. Anyway, let’s see how far construction progressed before the Savoyes sent LC their wake-up call. This next photo claims to be from the summer of 1929 and it may well be.

tumblr_ljvq08rxzu1qe0nlvo1_500The only two other construction photos I can find show construction progressing according to the post-1929 design.

tumblr_lrfmmcdWzz1qe0nlvo1_500 construction-de-la-villa-savoye-par-le-corbusier_5332281We need to dig deeper, and enter the realm of architectural forensics. If the design changed between five and eight months after construction began then it’s unlikely to have progressed farther than preliminary site works and perhaps the ground floor slab but, even so, that’s still major pain. Here’s the only drawing I’ve ever seen of the basement as-built.villa savoye basementJudging by the position of the furnace chimney and where the basement stairs were to have ended, the basement was shrunk from two structural bays to one.

flueFilling in an already-excavated basement is wasteful but is still preferable to having the position of the stairs multiply that waste over the levels above. Those straight stairs had to go! Creating some sort of lobby sculptural element à la Villa Stein was never the intention. But more interesting is what happened to the drainage. In the early 1929 plans above, there’s a curved wall concealing the washbasin for the “front-of-house” domestiques to wash their hands before touching anything belonging to the guests. 1920s Parisian outer suburbs being 1920s Parisian outer suburbs, that washbasin is on the main line to a septic tank that’s already been dug.

It would have been too time consuming to shift the drainage pipe. The redesign has two toilets placed immediately above where that washbasin was to have been. One constant in architecture is that the shit has to go somewhere. You can learn a lot about the art of architecture by studying drainage design.  Here’s that waste pipe.

fe0754a3e7e012c2604a5def0871d0ceProto High-Tech? I think not. I’m surprised no-one’s written a PhD about it. Perhaps, deep down, people know it’s crap.

This hurried and careless redesign seems more and more like a botch job. That exposed furnace flue now seems more happenstance than contrivance. Let’s have a look at what happened to the master bedroom bathroom now it’s shifted down a level. The intended plan had two bathrooms on the outer wall but the quick fix plan now has bathroom in the middle. You know the one.

If all these people would get out the way, we’d see a black door for the wc that contributes to the exposed soil pipe we’re already familiar with.

The adjacent wc does as well. It’s the main wc for the salon level and thus all visitors. (Overnight guests in the guest room across the corridor have an en-suite bidet and washbasin but no wc.)  It’s that fancy relocated bath that’s the problem. It drains from the bed end.

villa savoye bathroom drainIn the next image, this column in the ground level has always been drawn egg-shaped. It’s not in the greatest of positions if you’re living in that room but, let’s not forget, you’re a laundry-maid and you should think yourself lucky to have your employers’ bathwater draining down a rendered attachment to the column at the end of your bed.

Remember how in the originally intended design, some serious bathroom drainage had been anticipated in that part of the house? Its groundwork wasn’t going to change. It’s responsible for the drain being in the domestique’s rejigged room and (in for a penny, in for a pound) its off-grid column supporting the column artfully framing the relocated master bed above.superimpose FWIW, the guest bedroom’s bidet and washbasin drain through the wc provided off the lobby for guests caught short.

3It’s all a bit messy. It stinks of compromise and of decisions made hastily because the Savoyes had turned off the money. What this all means for us is that the huge architectural cultural construct that is the Villa Savoye, rests on a building that was never intended to happen. We’re led to believe LC cared about VS when, given what else was on the cards for him careerwise, it’s more likely he wanted VS done and forgotten. Au contraire! you may say but, as a conjectural history of VS’s design, it’s conjectures are at least based on physical evidence.

The VS we know today and endlessly analyze and ponder would not exist if the Savoyes hadn’t been so short on patience and money. True, given LC’s formidable media footprint at the time, the Villa Savoye would still have become an architectural cultural phenomena of similar magnitude, but the same things would have been written about a totally different building – reminding us once again of how the history of architecture floats above any foundations. tumblr_l4gi4ajOj91qb1pf0


The Homestead Myth

Representing a myth a people like to believe about themselves is a sure-fire path to everlasting fame as an architect. Frank Lloyd Wright did it with Fallingwater which is not so much a poem to bountiful American Nature but to the pioneers claiming and taming it. Tadao Ando did it with his Sumiyoshi House that perpetrated the Japanese ascetic aesthetic myth we like to believe in even if the Japanese struggle to. And Glenn Murcutt did it with his Mangey House on Bingie Road at Bingie Point, New South Wales, Australia. The Homestead Myth requires it be surrounded by pasture and so this is what we get to see.

Sydney, April 15, 2002. Magney House at Bingie Bingie on the NSW South Coast designed by Australian Architect Glenn Murcutt. Murcutt has won the The Pritzker Architecture Prize 2002 recognised as world's most prestigious architecture prize. (AAP Image/Anthony Browell) NO ARCHIVING, NO MAGS, NO SALESLittle matter the house exists on land unsuited to either livestock or crops.

Magney HouseOr even full-time living it seems as the house is listed on for short-term vacation letting.


Weekend houses and summer weekend houses neither located nor suited to full-time living are over-represented in the architectural hall of fame. It’s bad enough such buildings are presented as unrealistic models for full-time buildings but what makes Murcutt’s Magney House more offensive is that it perpetrates a myth responsible for destroying large tracts of Australia. This is Alkimos – currently one of Perth’s more northern suburbs.


It’s just north of Jindalee

and just south of somewhere that doesn’t have a name yet as there’s hardly a there, let alone a there there.

no name yet

The demand for such development isn’t the result of the motherland’s top-down garden city myth where an Englishman’s garden is an estate in miniature. Instead, it’s the result of the homestead myth according to which everyone not only has the right but their duty to live on as much land as they can put a fence around. Those fences, however, are closing in to the point of absurdity.

Perth, Australia spreads 60km up and down the coast and 30km inland, has a population of almost 2 million and an average population density of around 800 persons per In the photograph below, it extends as far as the eye can see.

Perth_CBD_from_airIts north-south arterial roads will be forever inadequate.

P1040467Yekaterinburg, Russia is roughly 10km by 20km, and its 1.4 million people live at an average density of 2,700 persons per In the photograph below, it extends to where the sunlight is breaking through the clouds. Beyond that is forest.

YekaterinburgIt has an efficient, affordable and adequate public transportation system of trolley buses, trams and buses.

The reason for this huge difference is that Yekaterinburg has no homestead myth. Its people are happy to live in linear, L-shaped or U-shaped apartment blocks of between five- to nine-storeys.

apartment courtyard yekaterinburgBetween buildings is semi-private open space. They worked all this out long ago.

In Australia, nothing is being done to discredit the homestead myth. The notion of high-rise living is viewed with suspicion and is acceptable only if land has expensive views and is good for nothing else.

mounts bay roadProposals to build market apartments near inner-city railway stations are seen by residents and councilors alike as imminent slummification. Rental flats are seen as slums. Behind every entrenched myth is an entrenched prejudice.

• • •

Eyrie is a recent novel by West Australian author Tim Winton.

Its three main characters live in ten-storey flats in Perth’s port town of Fremantle. Called The Mirador in the novel, the building is easily identifiable as Johnson Court in Adelaide Street. That’s it in the foreground below.

Johnson Court

Johnson Court is the type of flats you can find in any Australian city. It’s Australian Brutalism. Concrete slabs and unfinished, load-bearing cream brick. External corridor access. Paint on brick inside. Here’s a one-bed plan that’s as rational as a plan can be. There’s no fat anywhere on this building. It’s offence is that it’s not trying to be aspirational and that’s an offence against society, against Australia.


From the first few pages of the novel, the implication is that people who live in flats such as these have either fallen on hard times and can’t or, worse, can’t be bothered to aspire to anything better. In short, they are people with stories.

Untitled 2Untitled

Worse still is that the characters aren’t even allowed to enjoy what’s good about where they live. They live on the top floor but there’s no mention of the pleasures of the view across rooftops to the harbour, the ocean and the islands beyond, only descriptions of what can be seen. This is the high-rise prejudice. These people aren’t entitled to look down or over people like the people owning high-rise “apartments” over Peppermint Grove, Mount’s Bay Road, the South Perth foreshore or King’s Park. Buildings like Johnson Court don’t exploit or take advantage of their views for the aesthetic and/or financial benefit of their occupants.


  • There’s no mention of Perth sunsets which are stunningly fiery and, as they’re over water, doubly amazing.
  • Instead and moreover, living high up is seen as dangerous and the reader is constantly reminded the characters always have somewhere further to fall (as the cover of the book implies). Although someone owns these flats, they’re not the occupants for the word “flat” invariably implies rental.


  • Even the paint gets a hard time. “To steady himself he gripped the iron balustrade. “The metal was lumpy from decades of paint, as scaled and lime-caked as the taff-rail of a tramp steamer.” (p13)


  • Flats are unfriendly. Flats are dangerous. “along the open walkway of the tenth floor, on the eastern face of the building, all doors were shut …” (p13) We’re constantly reminded that there’s just one door between the safety of home and the nastiness outside that extends right up to the other side of the door. Lacking low brick fence, rosebed, lawn and veranda, these people are defenceless against what the world throws at them. To be in their flats is to be vulnerable. Outside characters cause all the bad stuff but it all happens inside the building. To escape the flat (to the main character’s mother’s detached and cottage in Mosman Park) is to be safe.

mosman park cottage

  • Flats mean living too close to others, passing each other in the forecourt, going in and out. Initially, the main character doesn’t want to get involved with anyone else’s lives but the building throws them together. We’re constantly reminded of the smells (cultural diversity) and sounds (social diversity) other tenants. The implication is that the 9” thick brick walls are inadequate and the construction poor. To go onto one’s balcony is to be in full view of anyone else who is.

  • Unlike the real Johnson Court which has its habitable rooms facing south-west because of site exigencies, The Mirador of the novel faces east-west. Cooking smells feature despite the cross ventilation despite Fremantle being possibly the tenth windiest city in the world by yearly average wind speed. Unsecured doors slam. In summer, the entire west coast is cooled by the local sea breeze known as the Fremantle Doctor yet despite being at optimum location and height, the characters receive no benefit as wind is “harsh and pitiless” (p8) or “roasting” (p13).

• • •

One back cover review claims the book deals with the impossibility of being able to do the right thing in an imperfect world. It’s true. The characters are left with bigger problems than they began the novel with. What we’re left with is the impression the building is to blame for throwing them together and exacerbating their problems. 

back cover

• • •

Fats at Johnson Court are currently available as holiday lets on the same site that lists Murcutt’s Mangey House.

johnson court let

Only Mangey House makes a claim to being architecture but Johnson Court probably brings more money into the local community and, unless it’s 100% let as holiday rentals, fulfils more of an actual housing need. Notwithstanding, Johnson Court still comes away better for its potential to solve an urban problem rather than perpetuate one.

Myths and prejudices are two sides of the same coin. Myths are perpetuated by architects representing them and prejudices are perpetuated by novelists representing them. They may be lauded for doing so but, in the case of the homestead myth and its flipside the high-rise prejudice, huge swathes of Australia are being destroyed.