The Formalist Canon

We all know what The Canon is but no longer know whether it’s taught because it’s important or important because it’s taught. Even the teaching is iffy if it refers to the perfection of ideas rather than the messy and imperfect realities of the buildings that represent rather than physically embody the grandiose claims made for them.

By perpetrating the notion that architecture is about the display of artistic genius, The Canon is about art and not architecture anyway and is thus invalid. I therefore propose The Formalist Canon (a.k.a. The Misfits’ Canon) as an alternate canon consisting solely of works by architecture misfits identified so far by this blog. All buildings in The Formalist Canon embody spatial or tectonic qualities unique to architecture. They don’t mimic those of sculpture, pretend to be those of music or allude to those of painting.

The misfit architects themselves are formalist in that they were preoccupied with buildings and their design, development and provision, and not with the fame and branding that characterises the non-architecture worlds of fashion, pop music and art. It is telling that none of these buildings or architects are “taught” today, or that it’s even thought they have anything to offer. To state the obvious: Formalist architects produce formalist architecture – buildings with characteristics that are unique to architecture. Everything else is churn for the sake of froth.

The Type F Apartment, Moisei Ginzburg and STROYKOM, 1927
Lesson: How to use minimal building resources to enclose useful building volume
Lesson: Imagining all aspects of the user experience

How to enclose useful space with the minimum of building resources will forever display the application of spatial and architectural intelligence. Vernacular examples abound but the Type F apartment illustrates how architects can apply themselves to the problem even if today’s conditions differ in elevators not being as prohibitively expensive as they were in 1927. If we are serious about the application of architectural intelligence to the problem of global resource depletion and how to manage what’s left, then we should be learning how to extract the maximum spatial and social benefit from the resources we have. The importance of the Type F is not that it can be objectified as a perfect object from its time and place but that it can teach us how we should be thinking.

How the floor and ceiling joists alternate to save building height and mitigate noise transmission is an example of how building construction can produce volumetric economies yet still embody consideration for the people who will live there.

The 20K House, Rural Studio, 2005–2017
Lesson: Incremental design improvement
Lesson: Economy of means
Lesson: Maximum efficiency of each element
Lesson: Integration of all components and elements
Lesson: Conventional technologies and standardized parts
Lesson: Design for minimal waste
Lesson: Identifying inefficiencies of process
Lesson: Architecture is about making life better for others

That’s a lot of lessons. These simple houses have much in common with high-tech fieleds of endeavour such as aircraft or spacecraft design that we are so proud as a society to associate ourselves with. These houses are prototypes but the incremental improvement of anything is not something that is or should be particular to any field. I only mention it because it’s curiously not a characteristic of architecture as we currently know it.

I’m told Rural Studio’s Andrew Freear is currently Loeb Fellow at Harvard GSD. The recognition is nice but I can’t help feeling homogenization at work. GSD students should be going to Auburn University rather than Auburn University instructors going to GSD.

Frais Vallon Housing, André Devin, 1955
Lesson: The application of spatial intelligence to produce variety within a system

I’m still not 100% certain I can attribute the design of this housing to André Devin but Devin was there at the right time. These plans are pure genius – a simple configuration enables four dual-aspect four-bedroom apartments to be accessed from a single corridor while leaving open the possibility of creating studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments. Moreover, all bedrooms are on one side of the building and all living rooms on the other.

This building has much to teach. Like the Type F, it shows how the application of spatial intelligence can produce building configurations in which minimal space (i.e. resources) is used to access apartments and to move around inside them. Again, this has implications for resource management but what’s also noteworthy here is that all apartments are decent and none is better than any other in any way. The only differences are whether one goes up to the living room or down to the living room, and whether the stairs enter the 4 sq.m of necessary circulation space at the living room end of the apartment or at the bedroom end. It amazes me that such a perfect configuration never found wider application, or even wider recognition. This project sets the standard for the social and humane application of spatial intelligence. People need to be taught to appreciate what this building is doing, in the hope that it will encourage some gifted student somewhere to aspire to someday improve upon it.

Casa Borsalino, Ignazio Gardella, 1952 
Lesson: How to reconcile construction expediency and enhanced spatial experience

Gardella is the master of extracting every square centimetre of tangible and intangible value from a plan. Architecture “grasshoppers,” look and learn! In Gardella’s Casa Borsalino, the angle of every wall and the placement of every window and door makes perfect sense. Nothing is gratuitous, nothing is accidental. Notice how naturally bathroom and kitchen items find the angles the need to accommodate them? See how walls are angled to guide people through the spaces exquisitely contrived to be wide where they need to be wider and narrower where they need to be narrower? These spaces are alive – they breathe. They are at the same time minimal spaces in that they are no more than what they need to be. It’s just that Gardella had a different idea of what they needed to be. It might even be the case that these slight angles subtract from the net amount of space to achieve some net economy of resources but I can’t tell where or how.

Lassen House, Knud Peter Harboe, 1954
Lesson: The beauty of generic solutions
Lesson: The intelligence of planning for modules and repetition
Lesson: Designing for simplicity and clarity of construction
Lesson: Rejecting the “cult of craft”

To be honest, this house would probably not have been the same without Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House or PJ’s Glass House putting the idea in people’s heads that small houses could be architecture too. There the similarity ends because Lassen House doesn’t exist on infinite property and is not the result of precious materials such as travertine or contrivedly precious mechanicals and construction processes that don’t actually work. We look at houses like this and think their humanity comes from a bit of polished timber or painted brickwork, but it goes deeper than that.

E1027 Eileen Gray, 1927
Lesson: All architects aren’t men.
Lesson: Vernacular construction is fine.
Lesson: Solar orientation has a sensual aspect to it.
Lesson: Good things happen by not being so uptight about architecture.

Eileen Gray – the original femisfit. E1027 – the house that so spooked Le Corbusier that he set up shack behind it so as to faciltate stalking it and its owner. I’ve always struggled with the psychology of that, especially the bit where Le Corbusier defaced the house with his dubious murals.

I guess one man’s wanton vandalism is another man’s non-consensual defilement. No-one’s asking, but if they did, I’d like to see the house restored to a time prior to the murals but what I expect is that they’ll be restored and presented as “part of the story of the house”. Apart from the moral wrongness of this, it’s also a crime of educational negligence because the story of E1027 is a distraction that teaches nothing of actual use and deflects attention from the many useful things the house itself can teach us. 

Aligning a house so bedrooms face east and main rooms face south is the right thing to do. Illuminating the living room by a shaft of horizontal sunlight signalling the day’s end (and alerting anyone still napping on the day bed) is a thoughtful and poetic thing to do.

The old maxim “Don’t experiment on guests!” refers to new recipes and dinner parties but the same applies to architecture. There’s a relaxing comfort to be found in tried and true methods of vernacular construction, and sun and ventilation control. These don’t need reinventing.

Casa alle Zattere, Ignazio Gardella, 1958 
Lesson: Respect what’s already there
Lesson: Lose the ego, do your job well

An essay* I wrote about a year ago began “Not many architects are asked to build in Venice …” Ignazio Gardella was one of the few and he took that responsibility seriously, and discharged it admirably and to the best of his considerable skill. The internal planning of this building is a feat in itself, with rooms distorted ever so slightly to guide (from behind) the attention of their occupants to the view of Il Redentore [Palladio, 1592] across the Giudecca Canal. This is the construction of space for reasons not to do with the space itself, but its effect on the people in the space. It’s a development of the principles in Gardella’s 1952 Casa Borsolino. In the image below, the angle of the wall at the rear of the primary rooms on the south-west corner is inclined to oppose that of the external wall directing people to look away from Il Redentore across the canal to the south-east. This is not a forgotten skill. It was never taught.

Such spatial manipulation is so rare it’s not even a topic. We might marvel at Michaelangelo’s distortion of perspective in the Laurentian Library but forget to ask why it was necessary. What we are really admiring is Michaelangelo’s brilliance. Gardella’s used the quiet power of mute walls to solve actual problems and enhance the user experience. Those problems are not even apparent to other architects.

But that’s just on the inside. The exterior of this building was designed to be merge and become part of Venice. I won’t expand here on the many ways it does that. The building is not denying its presence by hiding through copycat contextualism, but nor is it an ostentatious display of good manners. It’s a building both of its time and not. It’s never been understood, appreciated, or taught. It’s Baroque in its technique (in all the best ways) but prior to the arrival of complexity and contradiction (and all the bad ways). It’s just doing its best to relate to its neighbours and respect what’s already there. This is the genius of Italy. Living with architectural history means a sensitivity that whatever one does might be seen to be part of it. It’s time Gardella was remembered as the architect who didn’t screw up Venice. Architects are still faced with problems such as the one Gardella faced yet nobody is teaching anyone how to approach a solution. He used a technique, not a style.

Isolato tra via Albricci e piazza Velasca Asnago & Vender, 1958
Lesson: Respect what is already there
Lesson: Lose the ego, do your job well

In this next image are four Asnago Vender buildings. They’re the four connected ones in the middle – there’s a sliver of the fourth at the far end of the block. Let’s have a look.

The corner sliver building is mirroring – but not exactly – the building on the corner opposite, its 2nd and 3rd floors are borrowing the colour of the masonry and the glazing is picking up the proportions. The blank wall on the side wall is picking up the proportions of the blank wall of the chamfer wall opposite. But it holds its own – as does the building next to it. And as does the last building on the corner of via Albricci and piazza Velasca.

The earlier buildings on either side are remarkable in their own ways but this corner building is representative of Asnago & Vender’s attitude towards architecture, the city and history. On two sides of this corner, the architects are working within a context they themselves have made, although they could not have been certain they would be the ones to add the final piece. The corner building is not a simple extension of the earlier adjacent buildings because now there’s a new building across a new corner to consider. And consider it does with its eccentric window sizing and spacing differing in increasing degrees as the corner is approached along its slight curve. Two windows break the sequence and alert us to the fact there is in fact a sequence. This is not Victorian “incident” for the sake of it. These two windows are the event that marks the corner and are the culmination of everything that has been set up along both facades. It’s not shouting, but it’s not total silence either – it’s there for you if you notice it.

I confess I love this building but don’t want to objectify it. It contains clues for how to build in the city and how to approach any building on any site. That my last two examples of The Formalist Canon are Italian from the late 1950s is probably no accident. There was something good going on back then. It wasn’t lost or forgotten. It’s just that the world that followed had no need for an architecture that was timeless, that effortlessly became a part of its context, or that was devoid of ego.

• • •

The Formalist Canon still has use for buildings from the traditional canon. For example, Villa Savoye is a good case study to illustrate what happens when design management and client management go wrong, as evidenced by the design changing after construction, with attendant complications and compromises for drainage and er … sewage.

• • •

A New Formalism

The Types Study (The Type F)
Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio (The 20K House)
Detective Story (Frais Vallon Housing)
Architecture Misfit #18: Ignazio Gardella (Casa Borsolino)
Architecture Misfit #15: Knud Peter Harboe (Lassen House)
Architecture Misfit #3: Eileen Gray (E1027)
*A Rationalist in Venice (Casa alle Zattere)
Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender (Building on via Albricci)
Architecture Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

Career Case Study #10: 嶋田 優

The name’s pronounced Yo Shimada despite “Yu” being more usual. Mr. Shimada also bucks convention by not having had a conventional architectural education. I don’t think we can hold this against him. Frank Lloyd Wright never had one. Wright’s thirty or so “bootleg” houses completed while moonlighting in Sullivan’s office prove he thought he could do the same or better. Le Corbusier also never graduated. He learned the art of enamelling and engraving watches at the La Chaux-de-Fonds Arts Décoratifs and it was his mentor L’Eplattenier (whom LC was to later refer to as his only teacher) who made the young Charles-Edouard aware of things such as painting and architecture, ultimately leading him to conclude that designing luxury houses was a better proposition than engraving and enamelling luxury watches. It’s too early to tell if Yo Shimada will be ever considered alongside Wright and Le Corbusier but lack of an architectural education is no handicap. Shimada’s completed more than thirty houses since 2000 so something’s clearly going on.

Shimada CV.jpg

Here’s the timeline so far. The yellow indicates things that could be taken to be an architectural education although these days most anything counts.

YS CV copy

Shimada designed a house and, when it was completed, was asked to design two more. It appers as a natural and gradual discovery of enjoying creating these things called buildings and is why I first thought Yo Shimada would be Architecture Misfit #31.

2012: House in Rokko

We already know this house. [c.f. The Shed Is Not Trying To Be Beautiful, Advance of the Sheds] Designing a house as a horizontal platform on vertical supports never hurt the career of any architect, Japanese or not.

2012: House in Itami

2013: The Blend Inn

2013: House in Ishikiri

2012–2014 was a busy period with at least four projects on the go and the beginning of a recognition that would turn into fame. 2013 was the year his career took off. Already with House in Kawanishi there’s some strange things happening with separated voids but it’s countered by insights on the intelligence of vernacular architecture.

An essay in the book titled Making a Connection with Anonymouse Intelligence describes coincidental similarities between themes already evident in House in Rokko and an Australian vernacular house typology known as The Queenslander.

2016: House in Hamilton

House in Hamilton (Queensland, Australia) was the conscious fusion of the two and is where it starts getting weird. People begin to say things like “The experimental home has a ‘treehouse-like playfulness’, featuring an origami ceiling.”

It seems to be the start of Shimada’s explorations into utilizing the spaces above and below staircases. I’ll come back to this later.

House in Rokko is the house by which Shimada wants to be marketed. It features on the cover of the only book about him, along with this photograph but this could just be the publisher with an eye on sales.

Japanese “next-generation” architects are under intense pressure to design precious houses, write profound text, and endlessly promote them not only in the Japanese press but all media everywhere. There’s little evidence Yo Shimada started out to concoct a media presence. Houses appear on ArchDaily soon after completion but that’s to be expected these days. The website of TATO Architects / Yo Shimada is simple and modern in having next to no commentary. I don’t look for artful explanations or hype but sometimes the history and context of a project is best communicated by words and, if they’re not there, I just assume I’m not the targeted audience. Visitors are encouraged to evaluate these buildings on the basis of photographs and everything is beautifully photographed. Many interior photographs feature people and the paraphenalia of daily life but, after decades of photos of Japanese houses with both contrivedly absent, this may just be a different type of contrivance for the audience of public opinion.

I recommend the book as it’s unlike first monographs of other architects. If you read Shimada’s timeline-CV above, you’d have noticed its personal and conversational tone is not how you expect architects to communicate. This tone pervades the book. Shimada admits to having been at a loss to write text to accompany the photographs of some of the buildings. This is refreshing, especially after decades of everyone, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, trying to work out what Japanese architects were meaning yet not saying. Having said that, Shimada then attempts to generate profound text about buildings that can stand without it. Where does this pressure to do this come from?

Q: If an architect designs a building but doesn’t make a noise about it, can it exist as architecture? 

Shimada’s 2008 House in Midorigaoka is a good example of architectural intelligence going into a simple and possibly useful plan that needs no explanation. Eight equally-sized rooms on two floors can be arbitrarily opened and closed to each other and without a post where all four spaces meet.

It’s a nice and simple idea, the advantages of which can even be appreciated and understood from photographs. If it is a genuinely useful idea, we would expect to it enter the mainstream, disappear from architectural sight. and text such as the following will be as irrelevant as ever. If however the goal is to place the house as art, then this is the way it has always been done, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of the sentences. To the credit of the translators, the sense of apparent directness mirrors the Japanese precisely but, as with any language, sentences that are easy to understand may aren’t necessarily true even though they may appear to not be hiding anything.

Untitled 2

Untitled 3

Unlike the often elliptical sentences of architects past, these simple sentences appear to convey meaning and perhaps that’s the one and only function of the architectural sentence – to “save us the trouble” of forming an opinion of our own. Shimada overcomes his initial bashfulness with chapter headings such as

  • Stopping the world from becoming a consumer product
  • Take of your shoes / Take off your kimono please
  • Form and Perception
  • The Freedom of an Autonomous Form
  • Seemingly Continuing Forever

Kaidan dansu [step chest] were pieces of furniture that functioned as staircases and were popular in merchant and samurai houses in Japan circa 1850. As standalone objects, they’re a staple in Japanese antique stores targeting foreigners but here are two in-situ examples.

Kazuo Shinohara’s 1971 Sea Stairway had a three three-step unit (with treader drawers) leading to a storage room. I thought it an exquisitely contrived thing – as many things in Japan are.

Somewhere there exists a photo like this sketch on the right.

I thought of it when I saw these next three examples.

Staircases that morph into furniture and vice-versa seem to feature in many Shimada houses. Me, I think I prefer furniture I can place wherever I want it but this might just be me. Whatever the century or country, the space under and above the stairs is unusable because it is too low or too out-of-reach and kaidan dansu were as good a solution as any, but I can’t see much practical advantage in a sofa turning into a cabinet and then into a stair, or disappearing up a wardrobe and popping out under a table. Shimada is correct to identify that the space beneath and above stairs can be put to better use spatially, both functionally and aesthetically but trying to do all three at once, repeatedly but without repeating oneself is either a USP or a gimmick.

The closest I came to an explanation was that Shimada’s stairs choreograph movement through the space in way not dissimilar to how the size and angle of stones functions in a Japanese garden.

I’m not sure why I find this so disturbing. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned to like Shinohara’s staircases that, though often no less precarious, are almost without exception sandwiched between two walls. The exceptions are the external staircases such as at Uehara and Sky Rectangle and the pseudo-external one at Higashi-Tamagawa. Apart from the circular staircases and the stair leading to the tatami room at Higashi-Tamagawa, ALL Shinohara staircases are straight, full-flight stairs. None have “landings” of any kind.  

It’s this look-at-me stair cleverness that makes Yo Shimada Career Case Study #10 rather than Misfit Architect #31. Shimada is in demand on the lecture circuit. All in all, it’s an interesting career trajectory but who or what is responsible for this huge homogenizing force?

Each time the idea of an architecture of components articulated to do what they each have to do surfaces, it is soon abandoned in favour of an architecture of space and surface. In each case, the architecture of articulated components (and that can be rightfully called to be traditional and Japanese) simply has too much in common with what we in the west call “industrial” architecture. This homogenizing force always seems to push things in the direction of an architecture of surface decorated with self-justifying theories. It’s as if people look at buildings like that of the model above and think “yes we like this” and then a second later say “but we don’t want it”.

The homogenizing force doesn’t stop there. If the goal is for all important architects to ultimately conform to the same model then it doesn’t matter where one starts from or how one gets there. Shimada’s case reveals the additional pressure on the exceptions to conform. I feel like an astronomer watching the death of a misfit and the birth of a star. I wouldn’t be surprised if the plainspeaking Yo Shimada becomes Japan’s Bjarke Ingels, if he’s not already.




The Old Guard and The New Decency

The Elizabethan structure that was to become Highclere Castle was given a Georgian makeover in the early 19th century and then, over 1838–1878, another one to become what we know it as today. The point of both exercises was to update the building to bring it into line with contemporary notions of functionality and beauty. Everyone seems to approve of its current incarnation that, for most people, is how it has always been.

The makeover forced upon Edward Durrell Stone’s Columbus Circle hasn’t been received so kindly. It’s difficult to pin down the problem it set out to solve. It must have been an excess of character and integrity because that’s something that can’t be said about what replaced it.

A similar question can be asked with respect to the proposed makeover for Paris’ 1973 La Tour Montparnasse. It’s always been big and despised for being big and also for being brown though some say black.

It disrupts Paris’ historic skyline they say, and indeed it does. It’s the only building that challenges The Eiffel Tower’s assumed right to dominate Paris forever. With the benefit of hindsight, we might have thought better of Montparnasse Tower now if it had had clear mirror glass in a tracery of bronze mullions. Oh well.

Various views of the tower are to be had in and around Montparnasse.

At this point, we might spare a thought for the people and city of Prague and their (and our!) relationship of denial with Žižkov Tower. Cameras always seem to point some other direction. 

What people don’t seem to like is the idea of a building standing up to The Eiffel Tower in any way and this is one of the reasons the building owners Ensemble Immobilier Tour Maine-Montparnasse (EITMM) decided [after 44 years!?] to invite proposals to give the tower a “powerful, dynamic and bold new identity” – a bit like a witness protection scheme but hiding in plain sight.

Yet it’s strange to have a competition to remedy everything but a building’s size which is the one physical attribute that can’t be changed by a makeover and which, it must be remembered, is what most people haven’t liked about this building for most of the past half century. If a problem still remains afterwards, then what was done was not a solution or, if it was, then it was a solution to a different problem. As with Columbus Circle, the problem of La Tour Montparnasse may well be an unapologetic surfeit of character and, if this is the case, then we can expect the proposals to create an anodyne building.  

If the size of the building is what people object to and if that can’t be changed then perhaps it can at least be disguised by using colourless or mirror glazing. This will have the effect of dematerializing the building during certain lighting conditions and may make people momentarily forget that what they are looking at is a building and not some discontinuum in the fabric of space and time. Seven of the eight shortlisted entries opted for this approach and used colourless or mirror glazing to reflect and/or “reflect” the colour of the sky.

MAD:The shortlisted design transforms the huge black monolithic building — positioned in the city center — into an artistic lighting installation that presents an upside down reflection of the city.*they say, updating the misguided overconfidence of architects in 1958 with the misguided overconfidence of architects in 2016.

Studio Gang: Their approach involved rounding off the tower’s “empty” ends to create more floor area and solving the seemingly vexing problem of insufficently laminar airflow at ground level. The visual effect is to make a tall slender brown building into a shimmering stubby one. Many of the proposals include some kind of incentive to fund the makeover but Studio Gang’s considerable addition to the floor area represents stealth development gain that contradicts the stated reason for the competition. Some 700 proposals were received, seven were shortlisted and the final choice came down to the Studio Gang proposal and the proposal that eventually won.

To its owners, there are two very attractive things about La Tour Montparnasse – It’s there and it’s theirs. It’s unlikely anything like it will be built any time in the near future. 

With that insight, the competition brief can now be restated as how to beef up development gain while at the same time renovating and updating the building to meet new requirements for accessibility, comfort, convenience and energy efficiency (and so justify higher rents), and also purporting to do what is best for the city. It’s an interesting problem.

Dominique Perrault Architecture: This proposal solves the problem of a large building by attaching an even larger one to one end and making us forget what the original problem ever was. Clever. All press releases make a point of mentioning that the owners are putting up the €300 mil. for this renovation so this proposal addresses the “unspoken” problem of clawback. The next two images show how it also solves the problem of Paris not having enough buildings glowing warm orange in the early evening.

Architecture Studio: This one is perplexing. The ends of the tower are squared-off with additional office space but the end closer to the Eiffel Tower is a combination of additional office space and gardens basketweaving in varying degrees across the facades, presumably to represent “dematerialization”. In the same way as the Perrault proposal stressed a link with other buildings that have lights on in the early evening, this proposal attempts to forge a link between plants on the ground and plants in the “Nouvelle Ciel”. This oddness on so many levels makes me wonder about the 700 or so projects that weren’t shortlisted.

PLP Architects: What is it with plants? Like Architecture Studio above, PLP have also noticed La Tour Montparnasse doesn’t look sufficiently like the sky or the ground. The gardening is again confined to where it adds questionable value to office space on the Eiffel Tower end. The facade isn’t horrible but the fake randomness trope is again used to represent dematerialization.

The problem of how to make the facade of a tall building appear both of the earth and of the sky was solved in Paris in 1977 by Émile Aillaud and with much more panache.   

OMA: Shunning the shimmering, mirroring and transparency afforted by clear glass as insufficiently recherché, chronic mavericks and serial innovators OMA keep it big and brown and introduce the same old new dimensions of ugliness visual and intellectual.

The design and accompanying text are but equivalent parts of their corporate branding strategy. We not only get a history lesson but contentious statements presented as fact. The next text is from World Architecture.

Embracing more contemporary working conditions, facilities and spaces to extend the offer of its public attractions, OMA’s TM2 appears within the city context as a “Janus-faced icon” overlooking the historic Eiffel Tower – is intentionally set as a golden concrete dilemma, while injecting the current technological and esthetic repertoire for the creation of architectural meaning.

“Skyscrapers are a special case in the history of architectural longevity, and in the history of preservation. It is not because they are so hard to construct that many of them are still alive but because they are so hard to take down. They are around not because they deserve eternal life, but because they refuse to die,” said OMA. [… umm, The Pyramids?]

“That makes the renovation of Paris’ Tour Montparnasse so deeply interesting. The first – as far as we know – renovation of a tower that goes further than mere refenestration [:o<], offering not only a chance to reinvent this particular tower but to think of an entirely new model to face a common but perplexing issue: the redundancy of towers,” added the studio. 

With all due respect to whoever wrote this sophisticated doublespeak, a few points.

  1. The author. The author is not credited. The text reads and sounds Koolhaasian with its contrivedly contrarian thought processes but “said OMA” and “added the studio” deny this. So who is writing Koolhaasian thoughts in a Koolhaasian manner? Is this the new future of architectural language?
  2. The language. I’d like to know more about “the current technological and esthetic repertoire for the creation of architectural meaning”. Is it? Does it? How does it? And (crucially) what is it? The Eiffel Tower is undeniably historic so why mention so? Even if someone knows the “current” – a limited-life concept in itself – “repertoire [ugh!] for the creation of architectural meaning”, why assume the creation of architectural meaning is the be-all and end-all, what is “architectural meaning” anyway, and why should we assume it’s good, just because it exists or is said to (by some unnamed author)?
  3. The branding. The problem posed by this competition is “deeply interesting”, not superficially interesting or (merely) interesting as you or I might find it. The author wants to tell us they see and think on a different, deeper level to other humans and that their concerns and preoccupations continue to be of interest to us all. This is a false assumption.
  4. The formulation of the problem: Instead of demolishing them, I don’t see what’s wrong with fifty-year old buildings being refurbished to extend their lifespan and extract maximum utility. Re-use makes perfect sense even if not adaptive – it was one of the competition’s stated and reasonable goals. It is unclear what’s so deeply interesting about this artificial problem of the redundancy of towers. It’s a common fault of poets (e.g. Philip Larkin) and singer-songwriters to conflate personal peeves with some universal condition. Architectural churn for the sake of it is the scurge of our times. Let’s try to keep buildings away from it. Another thing. A dilemma is an internal contradiction suffered by a single party. It’s not a dilemma if all Paris continues to agree that La Tour Montparnasse is redundant to Paris’ skyline requirements yet its owners continue to see it as a moneymaking machine. The owners however, do have the dilemma of how an ageing and little loved building is going to continue to make them money. It’s finding that magic balance between development gain and perception management that’s the problem – hence the competition.

The OMA proposal offers us an architectural branding spectacle with a veneer of depth and intellectualism summed up by the term “deeply interesting”. But is this proposal deeply useful, deeply relevant or even deeply possible for €300mil? The competition judges didn’t think so. [The proposal and its look owe more than a bit to Mies btw.]

All floor plates are extended 30% on the side facing the Eiffel Tower. Wavy edges increase view “frontage” without increasing maximum window distance all that much. I’m surprised this made the shortlist. I imagine both entrant and organizers alike used this entry for their respective marketing purposes. If Paris never warmed to La Tour Montparnasse, it was unlikely to warm to a 50-storey billboard for OMA.

It might be time to start thinking what Post-Koolhaasian architectural media subversions might be – or, more to the point, what architecture was like before Koolhaas just in case we ever care enough to want to roll the clock back and start again.

Anyway, the shortlist of seven was narrowed down to two and deciding between them took another three months. Press releases and reporting make us imagine a table of judges pondering aesthetic imponderables but I suspect those three months involved independent quantity surveyors putting together detailed cost-benefit comparisons to balance the prospect of increased rental revenue (with its cost and time negatives) against the more modest yet immediate rental uplift from solving the development gain vs. perception management problem in the simplest way possible. The old guard erred on the side of the development-gain-as-spectacle that made them famous. The three months it took to arrive at the final winner must have proven AOM’s approach correct, no doubt because €300 mil. doesn’t go very far these days.

Nouvelle AOM Wins Competition to Redesign Paris’ Tour Montparnasse*

If The OMA proposal is heavyhanded in appearance, theory or what counts as it, and that corporate posturing we now call branding. Nouvelle AOM has a light touch on all three counts.

Their proposal increses the height of the building by 17m so it can have a penthouse hothouse to grow produce that will be eaten in the restaurant. There can’t be much call to reduce the freight miles of a few tomatoes so there’s obviously something else happening on a different level – in fact on the first fourteen where plants on extended lower floors create a green base on a green pedestal to complement the new green capital.

How a tower meets the sky is important but how a tower touches the ground is important too. Shifting the focus significantly alters the perception of the building at close range and on the ground where it’s supposed to count. Even without the growies, the pedestal and base are an inexpensive and effective formal move no other shortlister thought of. I’m curious to know how the new proportions were determined but I like the way we haven’t been told. It’s not important anyway. A public view from a 14th [or 13th, or 15th] floor garden just might appeal to Parisians more than some tourist trap view from the top.

Shaftwise, there’s not much happening apart from some glazing in checkered relief that is probably just difference for the sake of difference. The protruding side panels are gone because the re-entrant corners have been filled in and the upper slabs extended to gain a small amount of extra area and update the shape of the building – a neat and easy win.

All the other shortlisters did the same thing, with the exception of OMA whose obsession with their own perception management and articulating non-existent dilemmas and deep contradictions prevented them from seeing and doing the obvious. Sans its side panels though, La Tour Montparnasse is barely recognizable and the client requirement for a new identity is satisfied. I’m a bit sad to see those panels go because we might better appreciate the makeover if we could remember just a little bit more how it was before.

Branding: Nouvelle AOM moved their “research office” into the 44th floor of La Tour Montparnasse for a year. There was no need to do this in order to find out the elevators, windows and A/C needed replacing but it does show an appreciation of the building’s historic USP.

There are simply no other places and will for the foreseeable future be no other places from which one can have a comparable view over Paris from one’s office. So what if everybody hates looking up at you? You can look down on them. It’s that old question – is it better to live in the most beautiful house in the street or opposite it? It’s the same for tourists. From the observation deck of La Tour Montparnasse tourists are in the unique position of being able to view Paris without La Tour Montparnasse in the frame. They can see Paris as Paris was and this is something no makeover can or will change. 

This photograph says Nouvelle AOM are committed and perceptive, but without saying it. The “AOM” is an acronym of the names of three practices newly combined. They could easily have called themselves Nouvelle OMA but didn’t. AMO and MAO weren’t options and MOA and OAM don’t roll of the tongue. This leaves only the resonant AOM.

Theory: I’m sure all shortlisted proposals did all the right things energy-wise etc. but no shortlister claimed their project to be inexpensive or good value for money. This was no doubt critical in selecting the winner it does not count as theory. Nouvelle AOM’s proposal comes with no theory whatsoever and this is refreshing. It is as if they have designed this building to satisfy the competition requirements and for the benefit of the people who own the building, those who use the building, those that might want to use the building and those that might have to look at it, and that’s how they expect it to be judged. And they’re right – because it will.

Just as with the seemingly innocent photograph, there’s more going on that what we’re told and I like it like that because Nouvelle AOM are designing this building for people who aren’t exposed to architectural media, its heroes, and its preoccupations. The green pedestal, base and capital are no accident. They’re the application of skill and intelligence and if I’ve never read anything about them resembling a column then it’s probably because Nouvelle AOM didn’t think it necessary to say so. It’s more important that the device solves one or more problems, and it does.

I like to think this proposal and the way it has been proposed to people and not architects is a harbinger of a new lightness in architecture, theory and branding. Old deep vs. the new shallow has already played itself out with BIG. Nouvelle AOM appear to value real competence over apparent depth, and to use intelligence to solve problems rather than create new ones for us to be impressed by how well they were solved. Nouvelle AOM may well turn out to be shrewd players and “the new decency” may well turn out to be no less calculating than the status quo it challenges but for now I’m liking their WYSIWYG building for what it is and would like to thank them for that. Someone (was it Aristotle?) said “one swallow does not a summer make” but still, one can hope.

• • •

misfits’ architecture is available for competition judging, conferences, seminars, corporate events, weddings, parties …

• • • Congratulations to this site for providing more, and more useful information than the names of the shortlisted firms and the press release photographs of their proposals. Recommended. The practice website is short on description but, as I just wrote, I like it like that.

The Spaces Between Buildings

I’d never been a big fan of the spaces between buildings and once said as much in order to get the conversation started at some “round table” urban workshop. It wasn’t just me who never saw the point of the spaces between buildings. A whole industry seems to have grown up around the need to make them look as if they’re not as incidental as they are [c.f. Благоустройство]. 

Perhaps it’s something to do with the notion of architecture as The Object. The very phrase “spaces between buildings” even implies buildings first and that the spaces between them are some unplanned consequence.

What if it were the other way around and buildings were evaluated not by the volumes they occupy but by the volumes they don’t?  

It’s worth thinking about, and might even suggest a new and challenging way for Architecture to be. It will never catch on because spaces are notoriously not as Instagrammable as masses. An architecture of space would have to be evaluated by real observers and not on the basis of images moving or otherwise.

It’s not that the world of Art hasn’t been suggesting alternatives. How long ago did Matisse say he painted the space between things rather than the things themselves? I never really wondered what this would mean for a city.

Shortly into 2018 I revisited this corner of Paris. That’s Place de Catalogne in the middle. On the left are train lines entering Montparnasse Station. To the south is the Ricardo Bofill social/market housing I mentioned in last summer’s Misfits’ Guide to PARIS.

There’s something nice about a place and I suspect it’s got something to do with them not being square or squarish like oh, Union Square, that are unfilled gaps in a road grid designed for traffic. A place, on the other hand, contrives both buildings and traffic into a unifying and satisfying configuration. The buildings create the space and this is why Place de Catalogne doesn’t feel empty even though there’s nothing at its centre.

In these photographs is Ricardo Bofill’s 1985 les Échelles du Baroque. One criticism I read of it said “It’s just a building around a roundabout” – which is like saying a street is just buildings either side of a road. The point being missed is that with a place, the building creates the space that is then occupied by the roundabout. A street’s a street regardless of whether or not it’s lined with buildings.

Les Échelles du Baroque comes after Bofill’s 1982 Les Espaces d’Abraxas and before his 1986 Les Colonnes St Christophe Housing and his 1991 PA Soder Crescent in Stockholm. All use the shape of the building to create the space and give it meaning.

Internally, all these projects have multiple stairwells with two double-sided apartments per landing as at Les Espaces d’Abraxas.

Les Échelles du Baroque, however, does it with concave curves on two sides, defining a public place on one side and two communal private places on the other, separated by a public thoroughfare linking the public with a less public and pedestrian place on the other side.

I didn’t think this could have wider application until I saw these next buildings up the road and that create a place anyway and without bending the traffic to its will.

A city can’t have a roundabout on every corner so adding this variation to the Bofill mix just might allow the configuration of urban blocks of a workable size. My hunch is that it will also enable the following.

  • An urban unit that incorporates traffic as part of a vibrant city and not something that needs to be excluded or separated from the problem by putting it underground so its presence and its contribution can be ignored. [c.f. The Extruded Mat Building]
  • An urban unit that provides an alternative to a grid of streets separating perimeter blocks, and in which buildings and traffic coexist visually as well as functionally.
  • An urban unit having graded transitions of space between public and private.
  • An urban unit that has daylighting, ventilation and access solved for a repeatable unit.
  • A density comparable to Paris’ which is a phenomenal 21,600/km².

So then, just for fun, now that architecture is for all intents and purposes dead, I want to have another crack at a city composed not of buildings but of the spaces between them.

PlāceMat City

A proof-of-concept study for a mat city using a mirrored and triple-rotated repeat of les Échelles du Baroque around a 100m-radius place looked promising, especially if each major place didn’t have to contain a roundabout and each roundabout didn’t have to be a junction of six roads. It was still ideal for all apartments to be dual-aspect with one side facing the communal property of the negative-space courtyard, and the other side facing either the negative-space public vehicular place or a secondary public pedestrian place linked to others of the same.

The huge advantage of this configuration is that it’s already a complete and repeatable urban unit that solves traffic and access along with daylighting, ventilation and view. One could argue this is what a city grid with perimeter buildings always did, but that configuration existed for traffic and gave no thought to poncy concerns such as the allocation and gradation of public and private space.

But is there some sort of natural principle at work? As Bofill understood, the primary, secondary and tertiary places fit well with notions of public vehicular thoroughfare, communal space and public pedestrian space. The doughnut shaped building units will invariably settle into some shape that’s either a circle, a hexagon or some picturesque Baroque hybrid such as Bofill’s project for the Antigone district of Montpellier (below). This is fine as long as the entire external surface area can overlook one of the three types of public space and the internal surface area can overlook the “private” communal space.

The layout of Les Espaces d’Abraxas is a reasonable place to start if one ignores the unrealistic amount of space given over to elevator lobbies.

The reference footprint will have an outer diameter of 100m and an inner diameter of 50m – it’s basically the larger of the two buildings in this next lovely drawing. The central planting didn’t happen, and neither did the separated buildings or the orchards they were to open onto. The principle is sound though.

The A2: Taking Bofill’s lead, the first configuration to try is apartments paired around elevator lobbies [c.f. The Domino’s House].

A party wall angle of 9° provides 240 apartments over six floors, and with areas of between approx. 60m² to 130m². There are no problems as long as the depth of the apartment is greater than 12m and the minimum width greater than 3m. Pairs of additional rooms can be inserted between apartments to configure 2-bed and 3-bed apartments. G+6 buildings configured this way will give a population density of 40,600 persons/km² and which is about two-thirds that of Manila’s 70,000+/km²still.

Two apartments per landing is totally reasonable now the cost of elevators has fallen to less than the cost of providing corridors to access them but we might want to do clever things with corridors every third floor just because we might want to be aware of people moving around a building [c.f. The Landscape Within].

The D [c.f. Detective Story]: These apartments require 16m depth as shown, and a minimum 12m internal width for a party wall angle of 6.5°. There are only sixteen of these three-storey units in 360° but four six-person apartments in each of them.The density of 43,300 persons/km² is still about two-thirds of Manila’s yet bathrooms and kitchens can still be naturally ventilated, and the plan allows for individual living rooms to be on either side.

The U [c.f. The Piano and the Double Sided Apartment]: Party walls angled at 9° give 38 three-storey units containing a studio apartment, a 1-bed apartment, and a 2-bed apartment.

Thirty-eight divisions with three apartments over three floors give a density of over 38,000 persons/km².


The F V3 [c.f. Critical Spatiality]: These apartments have living rooms with additional height, and that are on whichever side of the building is more pleasant, while the corridors can be on the side where visible activity is more desirable.

Party walls rotationally spread at 16° gives 40 x 3/4-person apartments vertically paired over three stories and a total of 80 over six. Configuring a G+6 building with these apartments produces a population density of about 24,000 persons/m² and which is lower than the density of Kathmandu or Kolkata but still higher than that of Paris.

Paris. We’re now back there with a workable urban unit that accepts the presence of vehicular traffic that has to do with the functioning of the unit. Choosing a configuration that provides a higher density means our city now has space to spare for parks and other large-scale public spaces. It means the individual urban units don’t have to all be seven stories high and they don’t have to be so dense. As Bofill had originally planned for les Échelles du Baroque, it is now possible to open up these rings of buildings towards the shared pedestrian space between them and to perhaps plant those orchards after all.

• • •

Unlike parametric models that veil notions of economic hierarchy and subservience with naturalistic analogies of growth, Plāce-mat City is unapologetically artificial and defiantly non-hierarchical. Roads exist solely to service the buildings and the people and functions they house. Roads are not given representation (as either arteries or tentacles) supporting a central nervous system command centre. Plāce-mat City and its buildings are egalitarian and autonomous. They do not give meaning to or derive meaning from centres of power. They reject the notion that everywhere must be articulated within a single hierarchical system of organization and control. By rejecting new ways of representing relationships of power/subservience, they are not complicit in sustaining them.


History Repeating #1: Tragedy

Yess – it’s The French Revolution! In his book, Russian and French Revolutionary Architecture, Adolf Max Vogt saw a parallel between what happened to French architecture after the French Revolution and what happened to Soviet architecture after the Russian one. In Architecture in the age of StalinCulture TwoVladimir Paperny put it like this:

This next example is a Soviet example of those conservative, representative forms from 1934. It’s usually called Post-Constructivism because it happened next rather than because of any continuity of approach.

Post-constructivism, 1934

But what is this Culture Two?

The first type of culture – and that includes the Constructivist architects – was a Culture One and the culture that replaced it – that of Stalinist architecture – was a Culture Two. It’s a tidy model that organises so much information into a very dense book that, for almost three years now, I’ve been putting off trying to summarize in less than 2,000 words.

Instead, I will focus here on the shift in the use to which architecture is put when there’s a shift from a Culture One to a Culture Two. Basically, it’s the shift away from the rational use of building materials and volume for useful social purposes such as housing people,

to the expressive use of shape and ornament for the social purpose of reminding people who their oppressors are –  thus keeping them in line.

The former is good for people. The latter is good for oppressors.

We might want to think a bit more about the power structures to which architecture has traditionally given shape, and about what today’s might be. 

We don’t know if Le Corbusier’s proposal for the 1932 Palace of the Soviets Competition would’ve been any better for the people than the building that eventually won the competition, but 1932 is generally regarded as the year the wind changed.

In 1934 it was still not clear what was going on.

Some of the clarity of Paperny’s book comes from him being able to look back from the distance of 2002. In 1937 there was still no clarity, but positions had solidified somewhat.

Why FLW was invited to Russia and why he accepted are no great mystery. It’s tempting to think there was some giant ego vacuum to be filled now LC had vowed never to return, but the tedious truth is business had been slack since Midway Hotel (1923) and wasn’t to pick up until Fallingwater came online (1937). Saying yes to everything was the prudent thing to do.

Culture One and Culture Two aren’t just different – they’re complete opposites and Paperny’s book is organised according to them.

  • Centrifugal vs. Centripetal: This is the fundamental, all-encompassing opposition. Culture One wanted everything dispersed and spread horizontally and equally. Culture Two wanted it centralised (controllable) and dispersed hierachically. This opposition played itself out with De-urbanism, fatally so for Mikhail Okhotovich who proposed buildings for 100 persons, dispersed in a an isotropic grid with every place connected to every other place.

    Culture One/Culture Two may be a model but what it describes weren’t abstractions.

  • Uniform vs. Hierarchical: Culture One wanted everything to be evenly spread amongst all and across all. It wanted to erase differences between city and country and replace it with uniformly distributed agri-cities.  It wanted minimum standards for human occupation so everybody could be assured of a certain amount. A. Pasternak wrote in the first issue of Contemporary Architecture that “It is incorrect and impractical to think that only … a city’s business centre is the place for tall buildings. We believe that our new life compels us to place skyscrapers in the rest of the city as well.”  The first declaration, in 1928, of the Association of Architects-Urbanists mentions the “complete destruction of social inequalities, the simplification and gradual extinction of the class structure, and the nationalisation of land.” (p74)In contrast, Culture Two formalised the idea of hierarchy, with Moscow as the major city, St. Petersburg second, and Kharkov third. Each city had a centre of power and a subservient periphery.  Proximity to Moscow, and to the centre of Moscow was an indicator of power. Something that was possible in Moscow was, by definition, impossible elsewhere. Even within Moscow, architectural ideas were judged on their appropriateness for their position within the spatial hierarchy. As Paperny put it, “the value of selected parts (Moscow, for example, or the centre of the city, or the facades of a building, or the main axis of a facade) becomes significantly higher than the value of all remaining space.
  • Horizontal vs. Vertical:  This is easily understood architecturally but it went further. The horizontality of Culture One went beyond borders. Magazines were printed with titles in three languages and their contents in two. Articles from foreign magazines were translated. People were curious about other places. This stopped with Culture Two as it was thought nothing could be learned from other places. 
  • Beginning vs. Ending: Culture One rejected everything that went before it. The basic stance was, like The Futurists, to trash it all and begin again. Culture One saw itself as standing at the beginning of a new history. It was interested in the future. Culture Two regarded itself as perfection and as standing at the end of all that went before. Culture Two’s interest in the past was only to find out how it came to be so perfect.
  • Movement vs. Immobility: Culture One wanted culture and population spread across the entire country. In 1929 Ginzburg and Okhitovich’s proposed mobile and transportable dwelling units for the new town of Magnitogorsk. Culture Two rejected anything that would facilitate the movement and dispersal of the population or their desire for it.

Okhitovich theory

As part of this desire for permanence and immovability, Culture Two rejected all buildings that, like Le Corbusier’s newly completed Tcentrosoyuz Building raised on columns, did not “grow naturally out of the ground” – that implied mobility. LC was never a fan of de-urbanism but, for many, pilotis meant legs and legs meant movement.

LC desurbanism

  • Collective vs. Individual: Culture One saw people as inherently equal. Collective housing with communal facilities enabled women to be equal members of the workforce. This was to disappear with the ascendance of Culture Two when, in 1930, the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued its resolution “About Work on the Reconstruction of Daily Life: We are seeing extremely unfounded, almost fantastic, and therefore, extremely harmful attempts of some compares … to jump ‘in a single leap’ over the barriers on the path to the socialist reconstruction of daily life.” Whilst not naming names, the gist was clear. The family unit, and its accompanying hierarchies, was back in vogue. Culture Two valued individuality, but only as affirmation of the specific place, person, or building within the hierarchy. As always, Paperny puts it well.

Moscow State University

Group collaborations were characteristic of Culture One. In Culture Two, authorship was celebrated in proportion to mediocrity. 

  • Mechanism vs. Human Here’s where it starts to get nasty. “Buildings were regarded more as humans as humans became less so”. Culture Two accused Culture One with its focus on technical solutions and minimum specifications, of having a mechanistic view of humanity. Attempting to a provide a minimum level of housing was seen as being in thrall to technology rather than the wanting to do so representing a concern for humanity. The word “living” was also misconstrued, with a decrease in the thickness of panels from three millimeters to one millimeter being presented as “living people being motivated by a living task”. Building became anthropomorphicised, culminating in the 1950s when the facades of all building were finished in rose-pink tiles.
    Being denouced as mechanical”, “logical” or “abstract” was a precursor to arrest. “Merriment”, “joy” and “warmth” were the new qualities desired of architecture, with “warmth” being most valued. This is Ivan Sobolev’s 1938-9 Apartment House of the Peoples’ Commissariat of Sovkhozes. Despite filling up with snow for five months of the year, the balconies of this building radiate warmth, or rather a cooling Mediterranean outlook, rather than the mechanistic coldness of Culture One architecture.  Moscow streets in the 1930s were alive year-round with vendors for ice-cream and sold drinks. Beer would first be warmed to allow it to be drunk. [p131] Balconies are a persistent feature of Soviet architecture 1930-1950. In general, Culture Two celebrated warmth as a concept rather than as keeping warm as such.

The differences between a Culture One worldview and a Culture Two worldview are so many and so completely opposite that, at times, it seems as if any pair of opposites can be brought into service. The third part Lyrical-Epic contains chapters titled Mutism-Word, Improvisation-Notation, Efficatious-Artistic, Business-Miracle, Realistic-Truth.

  • Improvisation vs. Notation: Culture One believed that the result of an activity cannot be known beforehand and that the difference between spontaneity and calculation was merely one of method as either would give a true result. Culture Two believed the result was known prior to an activity and that the only point of the activity was to lead to the desired result. Culture One would have insisted the path at least agree with some rule or method, but for Culture Two the path had to agree with the result that was already known. Culture Two believed that “not only do events in the present influence those in the past, but the result precedes the activity that leads to it.”
  • Realistic vs. Truth Culture One understood truth to be what exists in the world. Architects were encouraged to take steps towards reality. It was thought architecture could not exist outside of real demands. Truth for Culture One was the truth of purpose, function, construction, material and perception. Culture Two believed that representations of something not only conveyed but contained the qualities of the original. For example, something that was large could only be represented by something that was large. The representation took on the qualities of the thing represented, as we have seen.

Also, Culture Two believed that “truth” had nothing to do with fact and truth of that kind was derided as pathetic factographysomething we have come to identify today as “truthiness”. Paperny relates a story of how the architecct Burov designed a building to have a band of stone slabs that, classically, had been used to distribute weight better across the masonry even though that task was no longer required of it. A Culture One critric would call this band illegitimate but a Culture Two critic would call it valid because it could exist. For Culture One, truth was that which is or that which will be. For Culture Two, truth was that which could be. 

Clarity of construction was not something that could be unlearned, and so Post-constructivism was rendered more truthful by ornament representing clarity of construction and which looks like something from our own not-too-distant past.

Post-constructivism, 1934

• • •

Culture Two in the Soviet Union ended with the death of Stalin and the country embarked on a program of housing that, by the end of the 1970s saw the entire population housed in blocks such as the 1-447C and its variants.

In the West however, Culture Two was just beginning. In his introduction, Paperny draws a parallel not with Stalinism but with the neoliberalism of which Post-Modernism was the opening act.

Untitled 12

• • •

History Repeating #2: Farce will be the title of a follow-on post that will take a set of Paperny’s oppositions and map them to our present. I expect it will be possible to identify any recent trend and find a pair of oppositions that will map cleanly – for example: 

“Naturalistic architecture was more celebrated the more contrived the needs it satisfied,” [I’ve always enjoyed this photograph and how the birds use the structure that exists to observe them, to conceal themselves from the birdwatchers] or, in a similar vein,

“The projects most awarded did the least for the greatest amount of people” 

and not to forget the haunting,“Authorship came to be celebrated in proportion to mediocrity.”




Criticism is in bit of a pickle. Nobody seems to agree what it is or what it should be. Media, Industry and Academia – the three dominant forces in the architecture ecosystem all claim it for themselves but when criticism becomes the sole preserve of any one of them, it becomes something else and no longer criticism.


Traditional print media formats such as newspapers and magazines are the last place one can find architecture critics modelled on the Victorian era art critic paid to provide opinions and evaluations of works in established genres such as books, art, music and drama. Such evaluations were called reviews and could be be positive or negative. A positive one wouldn’t necessarily make a reader purchase the reviewed experience and a negative one wouldn’t necessarily dissuade them. Both generate a level of curiousity about the topic in line with the variously attributed English phrase “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” and the French “Succès de scandale.” 

Damning reviews once forced the re-working of operas, symphonies and plays but architecture is not opera, music or drama and reviews of buildings do not function as a feedback loop. The most a review can claim to do is suggest to an audience the worth of a work or the author’s intentions. Nobody uses the word educate anymore.

In today’s world, the traditional architecture critic has to create content that genuinely informs and, at the same time, cultivate an audience that genuinely wants to be informed. Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, seems to get the balance right.

Generally though, the traditional architecture critic model is failing along with traditional print media, as in-house critics become conduits for paid content rather than being paid to generate it. These next two images from a 2014 newspaper piece illustrate both the ethical problem and its workaround.


This New Yorker piece talks about the trend for media reviews insufficiently positive to be regarded as hostile criticism for not taking the commercial interests of the producer sufficiently to heart. It suggests we’re being coerced into sustaining other people’s media bubbles.

The architectural PRs of global architecture content providers must have a similarly short fuse because negative criticism of today’s big names is practically nonexistent. Providers of content that brings in the readers, can withhold that content and so pressure media outlets with advertising-based business models to stay on message. This asymmetrical and unsymmetrical standoff is where the relationship between industry and the commercial media is currently at and it seems to be holding. Commercial architectural media are in business to stay in business and make money, not to inform. So too are global architectural content providers. When industry and media collude, the first casualty is criticism.

The traditional symbiosis between Industry and Media worked well for about a century when there was only print. Architects provided content to magazines and newspapers in return for the benefits of publicity and the hope of future commissions. The news consumer makes this relationship into a triangle by paying for newspapers and magazines containing the wanted news and information. They receive nothing from “Industry” apart from a vague sense of being “interested in architecture” but it’s these people, not industry peers, that bestow Fame – which all means little until some client wanting a trophy building asks their project manager “Who’s hot right now?”


Academia used to be a world largely separate from Industry and Media. Critical evaluations of buildings and architects existed in the form of academic research but the resultant publications existed more for the purpose of academic promotion than they did for general elucidation. Neverthelss, universities could still transmit a knowledge of what was important along with fostering a capacity for discerning it and hopefully some skills for how to realize it,

When universities call upon global architectural design practitioners to provide course content in the form of design workshops and modules, it is time to ask whether design problems are set to instil in students a capacity for critical thinking or to recreate themselves in their visiting instructor’s image. In addition to the kudos of being regarded as having something worth imparting, visiting practitioners also get to enthuse a pool of future interns.

The three divisions of (1) Global Architectural Design Practice, (2) Commercial Media, and (3) Academia still exist as discrete entities but their traditional interdependence has gone. The dominant players are the Global Architectural Design Practices that manage that own perception directly, but also indirectly via a parasitic media and a symbiotic academia that both know their place. There’s no jostling to occupy the same territory. It’s a stable ecosystem that has no place for criticism. 



The relationship between Industry and Media began to fall apart about when global architectural content providers discovered they could create their global architectural media presence themselves, circumvent traditional media channels and provide their own consistenly praiseworthy newsfeeds.


Content can be proposals or completed buildings for, even buildings not built or not built according to plan can still be used to illustrate how visionary architects are thwarted by short-sighted tightwad clients lacking imagination. One recent development is to do away with the idea of a building altogether since most any content can be presented as tangentially architectural in some sense. Impresssed, the targeted audience returns their adulation in the form of a quantifiable buzz assumed to be some metric of worth.

It’s bad enough that the end result is a virtual architecture of smoke and mirrors. What makes it worse is that it creates a public (1) that has no interest in architecture beyond its diversionary value as entertainment, (2) believes architecture is something that happens to other people and (3) has no expectation for it to ever impact their lives. This is the situation we have and it has mostly been created and maintained by those global architectural practices and their overbearing media presence. When bad, poor or lukewarm reviews become a thing of the past, criticism can no longer be said to exist.


The selection and validation of things deemed worth contemplation involves the discarding and marginalization of things deemed not. Curating conventionally refers to this minimal critical act applied to collections of objects or art. The selection and juxtaposition of items was meant to suggest new ways of looking at the items in question, perhaps by revealing macro-similarities not apparent when things are considered in isolation or in chronological sequence. Curating was once confined to galleries, museums and exhibitions but now describes an edited sample of just about anything. [This blog, for example, can be thought of as a curated archive of architects who don’t fit the conventional narrative and, in that sense, is a criticism of that conventional narrative.] Curating has become the defining act of our young century, with companies and individuals “curating” their identities and selecting and disseminating information that reinforces how they wish to be perceived. Criticism still exists as self-criticism but only for the “curator”. The receiver of such curated content accepts it uncritically even while knowing it to be perception management, or what we used to call advertising. 


A case for the continued existence of architecture critics is repeatedly made by saying that, in today’s media environment,

This however is no guarantee of uninterrupted and lasting worth.

The fact nobody seems to want criticism hasn’t gone unnoticed and there has been a slow but observable reaction. Michael Sorkin’s 8,000-word [sheesh!] Critical Mass: Why Criticism Matters, was a “Thinkpiece” in Architectural Review June 2014. The gist was that criticism still mattered, particularly when written by him. [c.f. Too Clever for Words]

This was followed, two years later, in December 2016 by Steve Parnell’s Post-truth Architectureanother Architectural Review “Thinkpiece” but a shorter and more lucid version of the same. I suspect the mindset that thinks good criticism must be paid for is the same that thinks good healthcare and good education must be paid for.


The built environment is an interesting thing and there’s no end of interesting things that can be written about it. Academic writing not finding its way into the academic journals can often be found in the subscription format of a review that allows people to write and read interesting things about architecture. Articles may be curated/edited around the theme of an introductory editorial but unless there is an editorial agenda more expansive than to merely inform, they remain bubbles of apparent discourse and an end in itself.


Steve Parnell’s notion that architecture is constructed in the discourse is an interesting one, but the critic is still expected to serve the architect who serves society, humanity, and so on. It remains up to the architects to do what they like with the fruit of that discourse. This stance differs little from that of Manfredo Tafuri who, in his 1967 essay The Tasks of Criticismsaw the role of the critic as subservient, offering the architect “an endless vista of new and unsolved problems”.

Tafuri was also against rogue critics attempting to directly engage the public with architectural ideas. I get the impression he had Reyner Banham in mind.

But if architects can have an agenda then why not critics? If talking about a building is taken to mean it’s worth talking about, then surely the ideas underlying a building can be talked about, and the building only used to illustrate the argument? Constructing and selling architectural ideas on the page and with the goal of improving the built environment seems like a reasonable and honourable thing to do. Moreover, in this age where everything is now supposed to be architecture, it also seems more valid than most. (I’ll not pursue this concept of “everything is architecture” further here – it’s not so much minefield but quicksand.)

Rather than expecting an essay fifty years old to illuminate the present, perhaps we should all be paying more attention and taking better notes so future people won’t have to guess at what went down now? Neoliberalism snuck up on us yet has been around since 1975, perhaps even since 1965. On whose watch was that? As architecture became bewitched with clients demanding trophy buildings and redevelopment and regeneration, we were all led to believe it was a good thing … until it wasn’t anymore. Critics were as complicit as architects. It’s more difficult than ever to see the forest.

What does all this mean for architecture? It is easier and faster to communicate images of buildings than it has ever been. We suffer a surfeit of images that, since nobody is pre-curating it, makes it impossible to process using even the simplistic criteria of “like” and the increasingly not-an-option “dislike”.

“When architects value image over substance, it’s easy to see why the likerati/dislikerati do as well. People are more sensitive to the purported content of architecture than architects and the people who write their press releases give them credit for. If architecture has become money-shot images of proposed realities, then people are free to like or dislike them as they feel, and to say so as they wish. There’s no need for opinions to be constrained by having any meaningful relationship with reality.  It’s all subjective reactions to images of proposed realities bouncing around in virtual space. Let’s keep it real.” [from Architecture Myths #16: Genius Loci]

This is all a bit of a shame, because the combination of reading, writing and criticism is the only way non-visual aspects of architecture can ever be accessed or discussed. 

You’re welcome.

• • •

  • * What’re the odds of that happening? A shout-out to theatre criticism blog  Readers keen to know more about the associations of this word could click here [Wikipedia] or here [YouTube]. I’m not suggesting they should.
  • The header image is of Giacommo Balla’s 1923 painting, Pessimism and Optimism – a name that makes the blue bits look like the force for the good. I’m not so sure. When everything’s a blue bit and the only choice is to like it or stay silent, the blue bits deserve every brick thrown at them.



Architecture Misfit 31: 広瀬 鎌二

Kenji Hirose (1922–2012) graduated in 1942 from Musashi Engineering School and, after the war ended, shifted to architecture in a few simple moves.

1945: Naval Facilities Engineering Division
1946-51: Tokyo Mokko (Timber Structures)
1949-51: Masachika Architects
1952: Founded Kenji Hirose Architect & Associates
1966: Professor at Musashi Technical College Department of Architecture

He designed this house in 1949 during his time at Masachika Architects.

It’s known as A Small House for Mr. T and is said to owe something to the mid-thirties siedlung houses of Chikatada Kurata (蔵田周忠) [1895-1966].

This is going way back to before Japanese architecture was a thing, to before the post-war reconstruction years, and to before the war itself. After he began his own practice, Hirose’s houses no longer aspired to the modernist trends and expectations of the times and instead became engineered objects designed to extract maximum performance from a minimum of materials. Throughout the post-war reconstruction decade he worked continuously to perfect that.

Kenji Hirose is not a name in the history of modern architecture. His posts beams and modules can’t be seen as interpretations or abstractions of Japanese architecture. Instead, they perform the task they exist to perform because it is useful for them to do so.

In Japan as most everywhere else, residential projects were usually named after the location or the client. [The now common practice of giving houses titles as if they were works of art was still a way off.] Hirose was clearly influenced by the goals of the Case Study House program and gave his S-Series houses sequential numbers – from one to sixty-five! There’s nothing wrong with thinking of him as a one-man Case Study House program.

The August 1963 edition of Kenchiku [Architecture] magazine was a Kenji Hirosespecial issue and is where this list of the SH houses comes from.

1953/1954: SH-1
1952/1954: SH-2, 3, 4, 6,
1955: SH-5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
1956/1957: SH-13
1956/1957: SH-12, 14, 15, 16, 20
1956/1957: SH-18, 19, 21, 22, 23
1958/1959: SH-25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 32, 33, 34
1960: SH-30
1960: SH-29, 35, 38, 39, 40, 51
1961: SH-41, 43, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 53
1962: SH-52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 62
1963: SH-49, 58, 60, 63, 64, 65

The first house, the 1953 SH-1, had a lightweight steel frame with brick infill. If you look closely at the end elevation photograph below you can see tensile cross-bracing. It’s often said that masonry architecture never developed in Japan because of the earthquakes, and that a timber architecture allowing a degree of bending and shaking was a more natural consequence. Perhaps, but putting heavy roofs on spindly timbers lacking cross bracing does not embody a vernacular intelligence. The end walls of SH-1 have brick infill and tensile cross bracing. The central glass panel of the long elevation has the same cross bracing. There is the lightest of horizontal tensile members framing the roof.

The plan is a series of spaces divided by furniture and delineated by floor finishes. There is only one internal door. There’s a structural module at work but it’s just a structural module and not some essential Japaneseness that non-Japanese houses such as The Eames House are often claimed to allude to.

SH–13 1957

SH–25~34? (上小沢邸) 1959

This page details a renovation carried out in 1974.

A quiet addition has been constructed to the rear and the building now functions as the Kamikozawa-tei shabu-shabu restaurant*.

SH–30 (牧田邸) 1959

It’s impossible to look at SH-30 [left] and not see Pierre Koenig’s 1959 Case Study House #21, the Bailey House [right].


text and photos

To certain Japanese, Hirose’s houses must have suggested a new kind of lifestyle, just as the Case Study Houses were intended to but somewhere between 1959 and 1963, Hirose must have realized the lifestyle allusions wasn’t working in Japan the same way as they had in the US.

SH-30 may have been a daring and innovative experiment in prefabrication and standardization but, like some of the later Case Study Houses, was too land-hungry to ever be a viable model for housing in Japan. The Case Study House program had lost the plot as early as 1949 with Case Study House #8: The Eames House, built cleverly and cheaply on a sizeable slice of Pacific Palisades property gifted to Ray. In 1960, Pierre Koenig’s 1960 Case Study House #22: The Stahl House gave architectural representation to the new lifestyle no longer being about property size or location but about having a great view, a point hammered home the same year by John Lautner’s Chemosphere (Malin House). This re-defining of desirable property exquisitely negated the benefits of low cost materials, prefabrication and modular construction and redefined architecture as architectural churn.

SH–60 1963

Anyway, that’s my take on why SH-60 is the way it is. It’s easy to think its configuration was dictated by site constraints and, at some level, it was. It’s also easy to remember that Hirose was an engineering school graduate and that engineers do like a bridge. I don’t doubt this solution’s structural ingenuity or the integrity or clarity of its construction but I can’t see what problem it was the solution to. Could it have been the simplest and quickest way to create a large flat outdoor space outside one’s window?

However, I don’t believe the view, such as it is, is totally obscured in order to maintain the integrity of those infill panels. I feel a statement is being made and that this anti-Stahl house is a rejection of the new values articulated by the Case Study House program.

The S-Series was soon to end. It had begun with the noble goal of offering prototype solutions for the post-war reconstruction decade and its ending marked the beginning of the decade of the economic miracle. In the meantime, Japanese architecture had been discovered by the west and quickly become a very crowded field. The Case Study House program had long abandoned its principles and was finally killed off by post-modernism swapping one lie for another. I imagine Hirose saw the age of economic austerity had ended and realized the futility of producing a product no-one wanted.

If the SH-60 dates from 1963 and the series goes up to 65, then perhaps there were no more Kenji Hirose houses as, from 1966 he was Professor at Musashi Technical College Department of Architecture. Other Kenji Hirose houses have been documented in the Japanese press over the years but I’ve yet to find a complete list.

There’s some internet speculation as to whether this house is one.

Perhaps these two books will help.

Hirose’s S-Series is often likened to the Case Study House Program since both aimed, at least at their beginnings, to apply standardization and prefabrication to post-war housing problems. Hirose’s S-Series (1953–1963) lasted only half as long as the Case Study Program (1945–1966) but he achieved those aims with far better continuity and consistency because he was one person and not twenty or so.

This links to a research paper by 末包 伸吾 [umm … Shingo Suekane?] of Osaka University, discussing the construction and spatial configuration of the SH-Series houses. It shows how Hirose chose structural systems and plan configurations according to site and topography, as well as how the use of structural connections developed over time. Other graphs chart the evolution of components, materials and finishes. It shows that the choice and development of structure, plan, materials and techniques was not strictly linear but was roughly linear. This implies some vision of perfection was being worked towards.

SH–67 has a timber frame and marks the end of the S-Series.

肆木の家 [Shimoku no ie] 2001 

The name is never translated into English and this makes me think the house belongs to Mr. Shimoku [though I did see it once transliterated as Kaki]. Designed with Seijiro Yamamoto, the house restates the beauty of timber and Japan’s traditional timber construction. It may have philosophic or even tectonic similarities with the S-Series houses but Shimoku no ie is a house lovingly and expensively handcrafted by artisans. It can’t be more removed from the ideals of the S-Series but I understand why Hirose felt he had to do it.

Apart from Hirose’s use of tensile cross bracing, I don’t feel he ever departed from the sensibility of traditional architecture in the first place. In Shimoku House, every surface, element, and connection has a clarity of purpose no different from those in his steel-framed houses. It’s basically what he’d been doing all along. The way I see it, Shimoku House is not Hirose rejecting his S-series, but his way of telling us the two were never that different.

• • •


広瀬 鎌二
Kenji Hirose
[1922 – 2012]

For solving the same problem sixty times
and not forgetting why.

misfits’ salutes you!

• • •

It’s a pity Kenji Hirose is not remembered better than he is but that’s the way of the misfit architect. Notions of austerity associated with the efficient use of minimal materials in small houses went out of favour in the 1960s as Japanese began to think more about how they were perceived internationally, particularly after the rabbit-hutch incident around the time of the Tokyo Olympics. The Japanese wished the world to see them as progressive yet traditional and Hirose’s architecture was never going to fit the bill. Shinohara and Tange both stepped up to the plate.

“Though tradition may be a person’s starting point, it is not always the point to which he returns.” Kazuo Shinohara, 1967

“Tradition is like a millstone around our necks. It is our job to smash it to pieces and reassemble it in new ways.” Kenzo Tange, circa. 1968

Modern interpretations of traditional architecture have been in vogue ever since, simultaneously reminding the Japanese of their proud tradition and us of how we perverted it. [c.f. Madame Butterfly

Both statements imply tradition is something to be left “behind” if one is to “progress” and both statements also take a very superficial view of tradition. There’s a chance they were statements of genuine belief, but it’s not inconceiveable they were designed to play well overseas, or to play well in Japan as a consequence of playing well overseas. I can see Tange and Shinohara silently nodding approval of Ando’s 1976 Sumiyoshi House as a modern interpretation of tradition in line with their statements and whether or not they liked the actual architecture, but to make a building out of a monolithic material with no connections or joins is not part of any Japanese architecture tradition.

In terms of its approach to materials and how they are put together, I find Waro Kishi’s 1987 Kim House more essentially Japanese than Sumiyoshi House and I suspect Hirose would have too.