Smoke & Mirrors

At least 20 hours have passed so the entire architectural universe must now be familiar with this image.


It’s the new headquarters of the waste management company Bee’ah, based in Sharjah, UAE.

Although there’s a lot of sand around that way, it’s not exactly desert. The Bee’ah Waste Management Complex is on the same side of Al Dhaid Road as Emirates Industrial City. Across the road is land earmarked for the new Al Juwaiza’a suburban development that will be like the Al Suyoh Suburb just over the dune.

Al Suyoh

It was a lazy Friday morning so I drove over to take a look. Here’s the Bee’ah Waste Management Complex.

This is Al Suyoh Suburb.


The Bee’ah Waste Management Complex is 39km (24 miles) from Burj Khalifa and precisely downwind from Sharjah International Airport.


Here’s the yearly average wind direction and strength data for Sharjah International Airport.


This tells us that prevailing winds are west-north-west, with occasional squalls from due west and less occasionally from the east. Here’s the wind direction data for February.

OMSJ_febIt would therefore be incorrect for me to say that this building is not shaped in response to the wind for the wind is occasionally from the south. Even a stopped clock tells the correct time twice a day. However, I would be correct in saying the building is not shaped in response to the prevailing wind.


Some commenters have gone as far as to say (or repeat) that the building is shaped in response to the Shamal winds – which are indeed very squally. Trouble is, those winds characteristically come from the north or north-west. Not south. Any Iraqi knows that and any Arab knows that – probably because shamal is Arabic for “north”.


But all this misunderstanding could just be mindless repetition of a press release. Let’s try to get to the bottom of it.

designboom has the following sentence.

formal context

ArchDaily has this, noting that it’s “From the Architects:”


It didn’t take long to find the source, did it? Let’s just google “informed by its desert context as a series of intersecting dunes orientated to optimize the prevailing Shamal winds”

ADF Architects’ Data File note that the information was submitted by ZHA.

dezeen places it in quotation marks.


architect magazine at least rewrites it, even if it doesn’t make sense.

architect magazine

As we’ve seen, the words “surrounding desert context” and “oriented according to the prevailing Shamal wind direction” play fast and loose with the truth. “Conceptual driver” is a scary new concept. On the other hand, the phrase “settling upon the notion of …” seems to me to accurately describe the creative process at work here.

As well as the poor grammar and sentence structure, there’s also a logic error in the source PR release, if not the concept itself, or – God forbid! – its driver. How can two intersecting dunes both be oriented according to the same wind direction? Or to put it another way, aren’t adjacent dunes formed by the same wind? And even if they weren’t, wouldn’t they just combine rather than intersect? Life is short. Let’s talk about the renders.

zaha-hadid-bee’ah-headquarters-sharjah-uae-designboom-03They were done by the Norweigian firm MIR. MIR have a philosophy of Natural Visualisation. Its core principles are:

  1. Natural light
    A sensible relationship between light and shadow is the foundation of every Mir image. Architecture “becomes itself” when lit naturally.
  2. Unforced process
    All our best work has started with the freedom to explore and invent. The industry standard of ordering specific viewpoints with mood references does not take into account the interdependence of lighting, composition and colour.
  3. Unstaged entourage
    Staged and unnatural-looking people can reduce art to kitsch in an instant. We believe that entourage should be an integral and unimposing part of the story in the image.
  4. Natural setting
    Nature provides a sense of time and place. Natural elements from the specific location sets the scene for the architecture.
    – A rugged urban street in soft morning fog.
    – Heatwaves from a scorching sun in the desert.

This is the first philosophy of visualisation I’ve come across and it seems good. The results are certainly amazing. What this philosophy doesn’t mention is also interesting. The only connection with reality is the logical relationship between the sun and the shadows it produces.

  • Here’s the aerial render. We’re looking north-west with Emirates Industrial City immediately behind. Not. The angle and length of the palm-tree and vehicle shadows lower right imply sun from the south-west around November just before sunset. The north-west sky is thus unnaturally bright for that time of year. So much for philosophy.


  • The sun it seems, much like the wind, can come from whatever direction makes for a nice image. One good thing about the Bee’ah design is that there’s no glazing to the south. In this next image, the sky’s concentric gradations imply the sun is just out of the frame. If you look due north from 25°17’41.18″N anywhere on the planet, you will not see the effect this image is hinting at.


  • “Natural elements from the specific location set the scene for the architecture.” Okay. Here, the question is “how specific does specific have to be?” Yes, there is wind in the UAE and yes there is sand and yes there are palm trees. A scene is set but it’s total fiction.


  • Those trees however, do look more like date palms than coconut palms so MIR have not made that all-too-common error. Unfortunately for the naturalistic approach to visualizations, there’s not a palm tree to be seen anywhere near the site. The water table in that area is too low to support trees as thirsty as date palms. There’s a reason they grow in oases such as Al Ain.

Al ain


  • There’s also rimth (Haloxylon salicornicum). The next image shows some rimth outside the waste management facility.

P1020710Both the ghaf tree and the rimth are extremely clever plants but not very attractive and so they don’t exist for visualisers and the internet. Besides, scene setting only works with what people think they know. Or want to think they know. Either way, it’s the raw material for scene setting inasmuch as it constructs the image of the building in the greenfields of our minds.

Here’s what I make of all this.

The proposal won a competition so on some level it must work. It’s not on the level of artistic concept for there’s nothing essentially artistic about two intersecting dunes. And it’s not on the level of a building responding to its environment for the building is depicted as responding to an environment that doesn’t exist. (Virtual passive design – hooray!)

It seems to work best on the level of iconography. The impression generated from a few misleading images and a few misleading thoughts put into our heads, is that a building has been shaped in response to its environment. This is true only for the dimension of iconography as perceived by the competition organisers, how they want to perceive themselves, how they want to perceive we perceive them, and how they want to perceive each other. Oddly, none of this is odd. We lived through the eighties. I never thought I’d say I long for the days when signifiers were enigmatic.



As a stab at bigging ZHA’s scientific cred, the press release claims the building will have zero net energy. ArchDaily parrots:

The building systems of the new Headquarters have been developed in conjunction with Atelier Ten to minimize both the energy required for cooling and the need for potable water consumption. In milder months, the façade is operable to allow natural ventilation – minimizing the need to provide cooling to the building.

“Operable facade elements that allow natural ventilation and minimise the need to provide cooling” eh? What strange new world is this? Soon we’ll be invited to marvel at glazed facade elements that allow sunlight to penetrate so we don’t need to turn the lights on. Has nobody yet invented an emoticon for despair?

In conclusion, this recent news snippet is just another example of the imagery production behemoth that is ZHA. It was distributed to media outlets worldwide and, within 18 hours, is now part of our common cultural heritage. This is not a story of lazy or ill-conceived concepts. It is not even a story of sloppy editing or poor PR management practices. Whatever was done was good enough to do the job it was meant to do. It wouldn’t have happened if it had been otherwise. We’ve yet to find out about the building.

• • •

This link will to take you to the Bee’ah company site where you’ll find information about all the good things they do, such as constructing a plasma-arc gasification plant that will generate 85MW from every 400,000 tonnes of waste. The website also has other images more descriptive of their new headquarters even though they don’t have the panache of MIR’s. It’s now clear that mother dune shades a drop-off area and that baby dunes shade plants and 16 parking spaces. It’s also clear how little building there actually is.



Personally, I think it’s a shame Bee’ah chose to give hackneyed imagery another life instead of giving us an example of how to make a building out of the recycled rubber tyres and the many other products they process.



I accidentally published the Architectural Myths #13: Memes post on December 12and not half an hour ago when I thought it finally time to press “Publish”.

Sorry for any bafflement my undercooked post might have caused.

Below’s how it turned out.

Graham Misfit McKay

Architectural Myths #15: Memes

Over at spacelab‘s imho, Luca Silenzi posted some ideas on why our brightest and best seem to keep coming up with the same ideas. He proposed the concept of architectural memes.


Two examples he used to illustrate the concept were the pixellated building and the mountain building. OMA’s 2009 Stadskantoor building is an example of a pixellated building,


as is MVRDV’s 2009 DnB NOR Headquarters building.


MVRDV’s 2011 Future Towers proposal for Pune in India is an example of a mountain building.


Though Silenzi used the example of BIG’s 2008 Vilnius World Trade Centre, the leftmost building [“Savalan” ref. p167 YES IS MORE] from BIG’s 2009 Zira Island Masterplan is screaming out to be compared.


Silenzi sees the large amount of staff crossover between starchitect offices as one of the main carriers of these cultural ideas, symbols and practices. People like to liken this process to cross pollination but architectural offices aren’t isolated by oceans waiting for new ideas to arrive like Frank Lloyd Wright with the Wasmuth Portfolio. The production of architectural imagery is no less global than its consumption. Silenzi acknowledges the email internetty thing.

Today, now that ideas and information can travel from one brain to another instantaneously through the Internet—somewhat akin to how viruses can be spread by intercontinental flights—memes have a much greater ability to move around and take root. And so it is with architecture as well. Indeed, it is clear that some architectural solutions work better on a global scale than others, at least in the minds of designers, or contractors, or competition juries, and therefore they “replicate” themselves.

Over on Notes On How To Be A Famous Architect, Conrad Newel also notes that incestuous staff movement does

spread a certain culture with its own set of values, procedures and norms that are accepted globally within these firms.

This does indeed happen – at least with the middle-ranking staff who know the system and how to motivate the minions.


A great deal of starchitect office endeavour does indeed involve the production of novel imagery and getting it out there but these same offices are actually involved in the messy process of producing ideas for building that keep the fees coming in. If there are similarities in the outward appearance of buildings from different authors and for different clients, then it must in part be because these new forms work on some fundamental yet unacknowledgeable level. Why, I’ll get to later. I agree with the meme thesis in that something of cultural value has been transmitted and found fertile ground elsewhere. But what is this cultural value? And for what “culture”?

(My only doubts about Silenzi’s thesis is that he sees cultural value in architectural imagery itself, and the target culture as the consumers of that imagery. This is highly dubious but, to be fair, it describes the status quo precisely.)


When I say these new forms “work”, all I mean is that they satisfy:

  1. some basic client requirements regarding product spec and return-on-investment,
  2. the architects’ desire to generate some new content, and
  3. our desire to be delighted by such new content.

It’s only the first condition that interests me because it’s never acknowledged, even though it’s nothing to be ashamed of – UNLESS ONE IS PRESENTING THEMSELVES AS AN INTELLECTUAL OR AN ARTIST. If one wants to present oneself as an intellectual or an artist, then being seen to produce buildings that actually give value for money is a definite no-no. Spoiler alert!: This will be my conclusion.

The history of architecture has many exceptional buildings. THEY’RE EXCEPTIONS FFS! Does this need saying? YES, IT DOES. As a general rule, if a building gets built – especially for a property developer – then it’s because the numbers add up. It’s this aspect of building that I’d like to bring back into – pardon my language – “architectural discourse”.

I’ll deal with pixellated buildings first. All tend to play the “miniature city” angle. MVRDV’s 2011 ill-judged “The Cloud” is the most infamous of the pixellated buildings, but it does illustrate some points nicely.


The main design feature is upscaled corbeling and I imagine that as soon as engineers understood how to design such a structural system, it quickly opened up design possibilities for architects everywhere to explore. The structural principles are thus the meme, not the characteristic forms they produce. Repeating basically identical building elements always has a positive effect on budgets and a degree of apparent randomness in the arrangement of those units makes a building look less pragmatic and assists marketing. Win win. Corbeling is essentially cantilevers upon cantilevers and was traditionally performed to support an enlarged floorspace above.


Since these days one isn’t generally allowed to build on or over land one doesn’t own, the contemporary rationale for extreme corbeling is more “public space” at ground level. But just as it was in Tudor times, it’s still possible to support more floorplate on the same foundations. It makes sense. This good idea is countered however by the disadvantage of more of that floorspace being further away from natural light, making it unsuitable for office leasing or apartment planning.

MVRDV’s non-solution was to open a few holes and let some light in.


Converting the volume thus gain into a value-attractor space would have been self-defeating as the cost of building that space was unlikely to have been compensated for by any value it may have added to the spaces around it or the building as a whole. MVRDV has past form of such shenanigans.

A similar light and distance problem occurs with BIG’s 2006 pseudo-ingenious pixellated mountain building variant, LEGO Towers. If the built reality is not to have value-subtracted spaces like MVRDV’s above, then it’s really really going to need that inbuilt illumination we see here.


In the all-too-real pseudo-reality of media this matters not a bit but, I’ll repeat, the history of architecture is a parade of buildings that got built because the numbers stacked up. Mountain buildings stack up.

  • Their double-loaded apartment corridors mean these buildings are basically painted on a site plan with a 20-22m wide brush.


  • Apartment variations are limited to internal corners. 120° angles at those internal corners means none of the overlooking problems inherent in a rectangular grid.
  • The hexagonal site geometry is harsh, but at least it’s not right angles. The above site plan reminds me of this next, except it’s the building that’s flat and the landscape that’s undulating. See how far we’ve come since nineteen seventy one.

  • The height variation of mountain buildings makes the hexagonal grid marketably mountainesque … almost Romantic.
  • The highest point of the mountain is the ideal position for central access and vertical circulation.
  • Unencloseable rooftop space can be marketed as private terraces attracting a greater premium than rooftop communal space ever would. IT MAKES ECONOMIC SENSE TO TERRACE THE ROOFTOP AND MONETISE IT. “Mountains” don’t just happen by accident or because of designer whim. These buildings make sense!


  • Terraces may monetise the rooftop but, although it’s not clear from the schematic above, our mountain slopes at constant angles in all directions so that no more rooftop is wasted on sub-premium space than absolutely necessary. Future Towers is quite a ruthless building.
  • The site boundary truncates the wings to produce the value-added variations shown in the marketing video further down.


  • Mountains don’t generally do an anti-gravity thing, even if public amenity space is at stake. The heavily truncated lower levels visible in the schematic above were never going to last. I’m not sure if the faux fauna will satisfy any biophilic urges


but it just may.


The habitation innately preferred by people has had a significant effect upon landscape architecture. believed by many researchers to have originated during prehuman evolution in the African savanna forest, the predilection includes dwelling on a height that is near a body of water and looks down on fruitful parkland (with large animals in sight, even if only represented by sculpture).

  • What I particularly like about MVRDV’s Future Towers are the efforts taken to ensure the bathrooms and kitchens are naturally ventilated via vertical airshafts. You have to put the following images together in your head to work that out though. This is a useful idea worth communicating. MVRDV! If you actually did the detailed design, we’d just like to say it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t be shy! Show us more! 

Here’s that marketing vid I promised.

The actual experience is more like this – 56m2 one-bedroom apartments you can find anywhere and probably better done. Given there’s no place to eat, I think the kitchen is oversized. On the plus side, you can watch TV while showering or shitting. This plan’s plain nasty. It’s everything you expect and nothing more. Is this you MVRDV?


My point is that if anything’s a meme, it’s a 600 sq.ft apartment offering value for money for sellers, if not buyers. More plans here. 


• • •

I don’t mean to be critical of this meme thing but it’s hiding the more important and interesting stuff. The mountain building “concept” is Pruitt-Igoe for the 2010s.

But whether the meme is acknowledged or not, Misfits is glad architects are starting to refine the okay ideas that have a chance of working instead of the spectacular ones that never will. Misfits understands this may just be a sign of economic desperation and a “Fuck-plaigiarmsm!” attitude towards winning commissions.

Nevertheless, whatever the driver, Misfits applauds any effort spent trying to improve buildings. Their only wish is that the better-known practices could publicly acknowledge the skill and ruthlessness that went into designing these buildings to the satisfaction of a property developer. Sadly, they accept that that’s never going to happen for that would risk a practice being seen as commercial rather than as “intellectual” or “artistic”.

• • •

 Here’s an image from MVRDV’s “research” arm, The Why Factory.


the why factory project: new leisure landscapes by mick van gemert and tanya martinez the death of leisure city/ graduation lab

Is this a meme? Possibly. Liking it? Good. Are you a property developer? If you want the maximum number of hotel rooms having a view of the ocean, or a maximum number of apartments having a view of anything, then this elevation is what you get.


Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for the mesa meme.

Architectural Myths #14: Intellectual vs. Romantic

I glossed over the apparent dichotomy of  “intellectual” and “romantic” in my previous post but Classical vs. Romantic and Intellectual vs. Artist would have done just as well.


Classical vs. Romantic can be applied to many things of which architecture is one, and we know Intellectual vs. Artist can be applied to many types of people. To divide architects and, by corollary, the works they produce into Intellectual vs. Romantic merely perpetuates this false division AS IF the only choices we have are to produce an architecture based on rules that can be clearly defined and expressed, or on feelings that can be defined and expressed only vaguely.

At first, it appears more accountable to say

“It’s like this because of A, B and C”

rather than

“In this work what I wanted to express was …”

With the first, it depends upon what the A, B and C are and, with the second, it depends upon the degree of legitimacy the perceiver grants the speaker. My Autopoiesis of Architecture posts are an attempt to determine what camp Parametricism really is in. My provisional conclusion is that Parametricism is Romanticism dressed up as Classicism.

  1. First there’s an artistic process of selecting variables to give a desired conclusion or conclusions.
  2. This is followed by an automated process of manipulating them and that’s presented as intellectual whereas it’s merely logical consequence in the very narrow computational sense.
  3. Lastly, there’s a second artistic process of knowing when to either halt that process and/or choose from its results.
If there’s one thing I learned from midterm, it’s that it’s hard as hell to explain these projects to a jury in less than six minutes, and unfortunately a lot of the discussions invariably include detours into how the process works and what exactly the parametric inputs and geometric objectives were meant to show. The general gist of the attached image is showing that after 23 generations of designs (100 designs per generation) the form started optimizing for structure and placed the columns at opposite ends of the space frame to minimize deflection. The columns include programmatic space and another goal was that they begin to clump together and cease to be columns, but begin to evolve into stalagmite forms hanging from the roof. The challenge moving forward becomes to begin to wrap the design possibilities into a coherent narrative regarding an airport in the completely insane site in Mumbai.

If there’s one thing I learned from midterm, it’s that it’s hard as hell to explain these projects to a jury in less than six minutes, and unfortunately a lot of the discussions invariably include detours into how the process works and what exactly the parametric inputs and geometric objectives were meant to show. The general gist of the attached image is showing that after 23 generations of designs (100 designs per generation) the form started optimizing for structure and placed the columns at opposite ends of the space frame to minimize deflection. The columns include programmatic space and another goal was that they begin to clump together and cease to be columns, but begin to evolve into stalagmite forms hanging from the roof. The challenge moving forward becomes to begin to wrap the design possibilities into a coherent narrative regarding an airport in the completely insane site in Mumbai.

The jury was right to question what the parametric inputs and geometric objectives were meant to show because those choices are design decisions that affect the output. They’re not called parameters for nothing! It was heartbreaking to read that although the form started optimising after 2,300 iterations, there still remained the challenge of “wrapping the design possibilities into a coherent narrative” regarding an airport in the completely insane site in Mumbai”. Good luck with the final! 

But, 2,300 iterations! The human brain may be slower at generating iterations but it  might be better at not generating iterations that clearly aren’t going to work. “Inspiration” could just be the experienced rejection of non-crucial parameters and their unconscious working through by the brain according to algorithms that aren’t explicitly defined. In this sense, experience is the result of neuroplasticity strengthening those parts of the brain given most exercise.

What we have is a situation where the Intellectuals deny their dependence upon artistic choice, and Artists deny that inspiration occurs without a synthesis of possibilities. This appears to be supported by the theory of Left Brain vs. Right Brain dominance where the right side of the brain is supposed to be best at expressive and creative tasks such as, recognizing faces, expressing emotions, music, reading emotions, color perception, images, intuition and creativity whilst the left-side of the brain is considered to be better at tasks that involve logic, language, critical thinking, numbers and reasoning.

2014-08-26-right_brain_left_brainExcept that theory’s bollocks too.  1) 2)

Classicism was just one set of rules that seemed to work for certain people for a while. Everyone who claims their product is the result of working through a problem according to a set of rules is in a sense, a classicist.


Did I read that right? Architect, unused to rejection, leaves wife for woman 20 years younger? Scurrilous journalists!

The word “Classical” has gone out of vogue these days. We prefer to use the word Intellectual or, if that still sounds pejorative, then Theoretical, Abstract, Architect’s Architect.


Have a look at this if you’d like to understand the process of House VI’s design.

Speaking of…


If Eisenman placed himself on the intellectual side of the fence, then the names he gave his houses suggest otherwise. The supposedly uncompromising artists however, fared no better on the water front.

  • At “Fallingwater”, Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t give waterproofing the attention it deserved. (How Mr. Kaufmann must have learned to hate that name.)

Given the humid environment directly over running water, mold had proven to be a problem. The elder Kaufmann called Fallingwater “a seven-bucket building” for its leaks, and nicknamed it “Rising Mildew”. Condensation under roofing membranes was also an issue, due to the lack of damp proofing or thermal breaks.


• • •

With the workings of the human brain, there’s a lot more interplay between the two hemispheres than people like to accept. We prefer clear-cut divisions, even if they’re false. There’s essentially no difference between an architect who brands themselves as an “Intellectual informed by art” or one who brands themselves an “Artist informed by intellect”. They’re both content providers and media likes a bandwagon. The one thing an architect can’t do is say that they’re both at the same time.

Here I could mention the career of Frederick Keisler again, but I won’t. Consider this house – the Casa Sperimentale (1968–1971) – by Guiseppe Perugini. I hadn’t even heard of Perugini until yesterday.


There not much information available. The below text is googletranslated from the Italian.

The tree house or experimental house designed by Giuseppe Perugini, Perugini and Raynaldo Uga De Plaisant is built in Fregene in the late 60s. This is an experimental project in both form and use of materials, which refer brutalist architecture characterized by the use of rough concrete façade. The building seems suspended between the tall trees that surround it, at the same time evoking the archetype of the “nest” as a safe place to hide, study, get your strength back. The building, in decided contrast to the traditional surrounding homes, impresses with its unique appearance, with the texture of the beams and columns to view supporting volumes prefabricated, the system does not adjust, as well as the concrete fence of the lot with embedded steel strips dyed red which follow the curved shape of the enclosure itself. Few materials are used for the construction: concrete, glass and steel. Perugini then rejects the traditional materials of construction and chooses the reinforced concrete, which is fulfilling the function to support / sustain the volumes that contain the various rooms of the house, arranged in an apparently random order. The main beams are placed side by side of the secondary beams positioned above and below the modules that support the weight of these elements through particular cruciform steel painted red. The main beams have variable heights and at some points the overhang of a beam is supported by a beam above with the hooks particular, also in steel. The windows, painted red like all the iron elements of the house, take up the overall composition of the house, repeating the pattern of the cube, is projecting outwards is coming back inside the house. The ladder / walkway, a detail of the composition indicated by the red color of the railings, to the entrance of the house and looks like a foreign element, added to the structure. It is conceived as a moving walkway that you can also turn up, completely isolating the inhabitants from the outside world. The facades of the volumes have also protrusions and recesses: in some cases contain fixtures, other elements are filled: cubic conglomerate that shape plastically outside housing accentuating the use of the chosen material. Characteristic façade elements are rounded, real containers of services that characterize the architecture softening its look “boxy”. The functions of the house are enclosed as mentioned in “shells” of concrete that are at different heights and provide steps to overcome the slight unevenness interior.Even the interior of the house does not conceal the spatial complexity that is perceived from the outside, with the open-plan living room with double height and articulation of the fixtures inside that accentuate their looks elaborate. Another staircase, spiral and anchored to the pillars, this time leads to the roof and part of the raised level of housing. Some environments are distributed in the park surrounding the house, such as the meditation room, characterized by a sphere of concrete, or the pool located under the house. In this work is the desire to create a contrast between the structure, with its pillars that rise into the sky, expressing the desire for freedom, the shells hanging that accentuate the idea of ​​lightness of the composition and the raw material, concrete, which alludes to the heaviness. The house is meant to represent a synthesis of all the design intent of the family Perugini. As recalled by the son of Joseph, Raynaldo: “Since all three architects (also the mother Uga de Plaisant) was a little ‘toy of the family, in the moment of creation we each proposed solutions and discussions were born … was kind of a big laboratory … imagine a plastic scale! This was the home of Fregene, a plastic true where everyone put his. A sort of global workshop in which we worked all and for every problem there were an infinite number of possible solutions. In fact, the attention to detail and the development of all those solutions that led to the house as it is today were addressed in the implementation. The special design feature makes it a great game of buildings … “.

Here’s a vid

some pics,

and some more recent photographs from an Italian blogger. Casa Sperimentale is a curious animal – a hybrid of equal parts art and intellect. It didn’t set the world on fire.

• • •

“Well, hell man, buildings aren’t going to design themselves! What’s it to be?”

Classicism and Romanticism aren’t the only choices. During all the 19th century’s reported flip-flopping between classical architecture and romantic architecture as dominant styles, ordinary people were grubbing around in buildings like this


None of these are Classical or Romantic. They belong to the tradition of housing people in the best possible way using whatever land, materials and other resources are available. They are all examples of vernacular architecture as much as this


Other sets of rules exist and they are equally if not more valid than those heavyweight ones called Classical/Intellectual and those fluffy ones called Romantic/Artistic.

They’re not a middle ground or a compromise, but a completely different way of designing buildings. The intelligence these buildings embody is accumulated empirical knowledge. Vernacular approaches to building are scientific in the sense that innovation is incorporated into a continuous quest to make buildings better in the sense of using fewer resources for equal or better performance as far as constructing and using buildings is concerned. This is completely contrary to the intellectual approach or the artistic approach that have their own, self-referential agendas. So lets have a closer look at these other sets of rules and see what despicable agendas they perpetrate.


Waterproofing is a fundamental requirement of Shelter. With House VI, it seems like some intellectual window and skylight details didn’t work.



This is a shelter thing too in the sense that sometimes you need it and sometimes you don’t. It seems that someone who wasn’t the architect thought it might be nice to have a door to access the garden from the living room.


That door isn’t something that should have had to have been sacrificed because some complex system of rules didn’t allow for it. If a system of rules can allow for an upside-down staircase then it ought to have been able to contrive a second door somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, I like an abstract object floating in space as much as the next person but, with House X, it struck me as odd how there always managed to be a wall where a bathroom or closet was required. If the system can be selectively manipulated, then it’s art, not intellect.


I could have chosen other examples, but here’s another one from Eisenman’s oeuvre. House III – The Miller House.

peter eisenman miller house


By 1995, House III (1971) was a ruin. Using plastic-coated timber was not a great idea. “Ahh but that could have happened to anyone!” you may say. But no. It couldn’t have.


House III for the hapless Millers was still standing in 2000. This article will tell you the story of the house. However, this link will take you to a Harvard Design Magazine article that intellectualises that story. It’s menacingly titled The Theory and Practice of Impermanence. The introduction is called The Illusion of Durability”. Unravelling this article is worth a post on its own but I don’t want to get too autopoietic about it. It’s Zennish point seems to be that everything is impermanent anyway. [Note: The famously-rebuilt-every-20-years Ise Shrine is invoked but Ise Shrine is Shinto not Buddhist.] Scarily, “If a house is a machine, then machines must be maintained accordingly” is written. This might induce rows of head-nodding assent in lecture halls even though machines aren’t generally made of stuccoed plywood. This cheap point is made by conflating an abstract idea of a machine with the physical expectations of one. They’re not the first to do so and won’t be the last so, if you’ll excuse me, I’d think I’d rather link to one of my own posts. Specifically, a previous post about architectural dogma – the rules we choose to follow.

I conclude:

  1. Intellectuals add false value in exactly the same way Artists do.
  2. We’re presented with a false choice between the products of intellectual inspiration and the products of artistic inspiration.
  3. The real opposition is between Inspiration and Intelligence. 

intangible vs. tangible

subjective vs. objective
complex vs. simple
unmeasurable vs. measurable
unique vs. reproducible
“perfection” vs. improvable
inflated value vs. real value
seen by the eye vs. experienced by the body
venerated by the mind vs. appreciated by the body
transitory vs. everlasting

If so, and I suspect this is true, intelligence isn’t necessary to be either an artist or an intellectual. This’d also explain why the applications of intelligence (vernacular architecture, functionality, environmental performance, building science) have been and continue to be ignored and or derided by architects of arty and intellectual persuasions alike.

Career Case Study #2: Norman Jaffe

It’s hard to get a handle on 1970s architecture. SOM were on a roll as their John Hancock Centre in Chicago had completed in 1969.


Osaka’s Expo ’70 showed off a multiplicity of styles and approaches that, with the exception of inflatable structures, correctly predicted the riot of the following ten years. There were megastructures, the neo-historic, the nationalistic, metabolistic, the crassly symbolic, ducks galore and some tensile supported sheds decorated redwhite’n’blue. That’ll be Great Britain lower left then.

Expo '70, Osaka, Japan

Expo ’70, Osaka, Japan

The Nakagin Capsule Tower – Tokyo, 1972.


Over in the US, the New York Five were doing their respective things. Here’s Richard Meier’s Douglas House. 1973.



The World Trade Centre opened the same year.


Essentially a creature of the fifties, The Sydney Opera House opened October 1973.


Aldo Rossi was big in Europe in the seventies and Japan in the eighties.


The Pompidou Centre opened 1977

440px-Pompidou_centerclosely followed by The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts 1978.


Mies even der Rohe didn’t live to the 70’s but here’s his Kluczynski_Federal_Building designed 1960 but completed 1974 minus his vaunted sense of proportion.


Corporate buildings – or rather, corporate clients – were big. Here’s Roche-Dinkeloo‘s 1974 The Pyramids for the College Life Insurance Company of America Headquarters in Indianapolis.


In 1977 some guy called Frank Gehry did something weird to his house.

gehry house

  • Historians will remember the 1970s for Post-Modernism – mainly due to the never-ending efforts of Charles Jencks but, truth is, the seventies were everything and nothing. Big corporate architecture ruled and, though SOM were on trend, it would have been difficult to imagine the architecture of two, or even one, decade into the future. We, however, know what happened. Post-modernism overheated and made itself unpopular with clients with serious money – it’s flippancy appealing only to Disney.
  • Post-modern Classicism was the hasty adaption more suited to corporate and municipal images of themselves.
  • Simultaneously, High-tech was claiming to be a style for the future rather than the past. In the 1960’s prefabrication had been thought a bit iffy and downmarketish but High-Tech overcame this by prefabricating everything only once, thus making itself reassuringly expensive.
  • Nobody knew that the Sydney Opera House was an “iconic” building.

In all, it was a difficult decade in which to be an architect.

RULE #1: Choose your decade well. 

Norman Jaffe (1932–1993) did just that. Reimagining Wright is never a bad way to start a career. In the seventies at least, it combined a client-winning respect for the ‘old masters’ with a don’t-scare-the-horses progressiveness.


Wright was still well remembered and missed. The old boy had never been lacking in media-savvy but, as the century wore on, his media handling became increasingly out-of-touch.

Gropius, for example, had done the “smug architect in front of visionary design” thing way back in ’22.


What the decade needed was someone to update Wright and with a bit of flair. Norman Jaffe was probably that man.

Man with an Image: two-page spread from Men's Bazaar, 1967.

In all likelihood, Jaffe picked up a bit of media nous during the short time he worked in the office of Philip Johnson before starting his own Manhattan practice. Johnson later remembered Jaffe as “too talented to stay with him long“, inadvertently slighting those who did.


Jaffe had begun visiting Long Island in the 1960s, and in 1973 he moved to Bridgehampton where he opened an architectural practice. He became the most prolific architect in the Hamptons at that time, designing more than 50 local houses, from small summer homes to large estates. 

The sentence

in 1973 he moved to Bridgehampton where he opened an architectural practice

doesn’t reveal much. People just don’t go places and open architectural practices. Between the 1960’s and 1973, Jaffe probably networked like hell, stashed away a bit of cash and, like any other architect starting out, as soon as he had one job on the go and the next one lined up, he made the move. The story goes that Jaffe didn’t want his young son to grow up in Manhattan and there’s probably some truth in that too since I hear that 1970s New York wasn’t such a great place. Although, to be fair, there’ll always be those who say New York lost its soul as soon as walking through Central Park after dark no longer meant certain death. In any case,

RULE #2: Choose your catchment area strategically. 

The Schulman House of 1968 was Jaffe’s first major project in The Hamptons.


Now the Hamptons isn’t a bad place to choose to open an architectural practice and get a reputation as a local architect. The summer there is pleasant, the pace no doubt relaxed, but more importantly it’s both remote from yet convenient to Manhattan and thus home-away-from-home for the rich and/or celebrated. It’s well moneyed.


By 1979 it was reported that Jaffe had become so popular and well known that he was able to choose what jobs he would take and was turning down nine out of 10 prospective clients attending his offices. There’s a full list of works here, on the site of the practice continued by aforementioned son Miles.

Jaffe also made Wright’s way with clients his own. Whether this reads as “uncompromising visionary” or “diva” depends on how many enemies one has. Jaffe made a few, notably actor Alan Alda whom you may remember from M*A*S*H (1972–1983), and his wife.


Five hundred letters regarding requested change orders were produced in court that had to judge upon matters such as whether the sound of a toilet flushing upstairs could be heard in the kitchen below. First world problems yes, but then The Hamptons is about as First World as it gets. [About this time, over in Palm Springs, John Lautner was having problems with a house for celebrity client Bob Hope and his wife.]


The Hope House was recently put on the market for US$50 mil. but, as of January 2014 there were still no takers at US$34 mil. 

RULE #3: Don’t sue celebrities. 

With the success of these early works came bigger commissions and even more spectacular projects. It was no longer the avant-garde who wanted Jaffe houses, it was those who wanted to be avant-garde. By the 1980’s much of the work became ostentatious (or as noted by Paul Goldberger in his book Houses of the Hamptons, ‘vulgar and bombastic’). Many of these projects were an exercise in ego, as much the client’s as the architect’s.

Hmm. I guessing this house might be one of them. “Priceupped”!? =(<<

meadow lane

Paul Goldberger wrote in Houses of the Hamptons, “He couldn’t reconcile anymore the millions of dollars spent on single-family dwellings used on weekends” but I don’t see why that should have been a problem for a neo-Wrightian.

Many architects do work of questionable quality for clients with too much money. In the seventies we used to call this “selling out”. These days we call it “success”.

RULE #4: Hold your nose.

The word ‘romantic’ is often used to describe Jaffe and his work. There’s a book, “The Romantic Modernist”.


‘Romantic’ in its architectural sense, is an adjective often applied to architects lacking a theory or rational explanation for why their buildings are the way they are. This went against the flow of 1970s. Intellectual, or pretending to be it, was in vogue. Post Modernism was intellectual. The NY5 were intellectual. Confession: In 1979, I thought Eisenman’s House X was the coolest thing – not that I could get my head around the plans or Eisenman’s concept – or at least the name – of “deep structure” appropriated from Chomsky.


With romantics, a roof might be flat because the architect feels a flat roof best “mediates” between the land and the sky. A roof might also be pitched for the same reason but the point is that architect knows best. It’s hard to know whether this attitude owes more to Frank Lloyd Wright, Howard Roark or, for all we know, Mike Brady (1969-1974).


Meier’s 1970s output might have looked a bit samey but Jaffe designed tens of houses for much the same people with much the same brief and on much the same sites in the same place. It’s easy to imagine that inspiration gets put under serious strain. How many ways can a roof mediate between the sky and whatever? If one doesn’t explore some kind of intellectual agenda then it becomes very difficult to be differently and convincingly romantic every time. The intellectual route may be bullshit but it is self-perpetuating, endless bullshit.

Ultimately, the New York Five and Venturi had more staying power. Eisenman, Gwathmey and, spectacularly, Graves, one by one gave up the white stuff and went with the flow. Meier kept going, presumably because he’d already consolidated a base of clients who liked to know what they’ll be getting. Here’s one of Meier’s recents.


From 1975 until he died in 2000 (cancer), the fifth New York Fiver, Hejduk, was more of an educator.

 RULE #5: Don’t swim against the current.

Jaffe drowned on August 19, 1993. The more I read about Jaffe the more I’m moved by the degree of personal interest and public speculation his death evoked. Neighbour and friend Tony Leichter said “He was an overconfident but poor swimmer.” There was speculation of suicide.

Other friends noted Jaffe’s late-life and sudden interest in Buddhism, Indian studies, the Cabala, whole-grain pancakes, miso soup, tofu, vegetarian hot dogs and lemon and mint tea and tried to find some sense out of that. I’m not sure sure. It seems like Jaffe discovered the seventies in the nineties.

Media post-mortems speculated about whether Jaffe had been truly fulfilled. Charles Gwathmey is quoted as saying “I don’t think Norman thought he’d fulfilled either his potential or his subconscious aspirations, which I think is a terrible thing to confront in oneself. He was always conflicted about whether he was going to take the heavy jump and try to be a world-renowned architect as opposed to hanging out on the East End. Sometimes he liked the fact that he was regarded as the premier architect in a certain location. Other times he felt it that wasn’t enough.”

• • •

Nobody ever said of the man sometimes known as Le Corbusier that he was an overconfident but poor swimmer even though there’s no evidence LC died of a heart attack. Jaffe’s death was a very human one and it evoked some very human responses.

The world in 1993 already seems like a far nicer place. I know I know. Blame it on the internet! Take a look at our current crop of architects who have come of a certain age. And take a look at us. Do we wonder if Rem Koolhaas is personally fulfilled from what he does? Do we speculate whether Zaha Hadid is happy with her life? Do we ponder care if Frank Gehry feels respect or contempt for his clients? No. We don’t. We don’t care who these people are or what they think or feel. The personas we see are media constructs and what we might think we know is no more than what we’re told in order to keep their brands alive and relevant in our minds. Brand founders are rarely in the office as it is. Their inevitable deaths and permanent absences won’t necessarily mean the death of the brand.

I predict posthumous buildings will be big this century.

Architecture Myths #13: The Difficult Whole

The phrase “the difficult whole” comes at us via Robert Venturi, as quoted by Jean La Marche’s in “The Familiar and the Unfamiliar in Twentieth-century Architecture”,

the difficult wholewith reference to Venturi’s “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”.


The important bits are

the difficult whole is “the difficult unity through inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion”.

I guess this is a dig at Mies, of whom it was once said that it’s easy to create a perfect object if you ignore a lot of problems. Venturi went on to say

the difficult whole in an architecture of complexity and contradiction includes multiplicity and diversity of elements in relationships that are inconsistent or among the weaker kinds perceptually”

But then he would. It’s a recipe for anything goes and it was all good. Until it went bad. Venturi was promoting

the organisation of a unique whole through conventional parts and the judicious introduction of new parts.


What were the conventional bits? A chimney? A driveway? It doesn’t really matter anymore. But I must say it’s nice to see this house has some neighbours. Who’d have ever known these past fifty years? Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was written in 1966. It’s all history now. With the advent of Deconstructionism, The Difficult Whole was to become The Inscrutable Whole as entire buildings were contrived to imply they were either evolving away from or perhaps towards some state of conceptual, if not physical, wholeness.

Lou_Ruvo_Brain_InstituteThis kind of did it for the difficult whole but, given the dead-end Deconstructivism led us into (dynamic shapes that signify change for clients totally uninterested in change in any real sense), the difficult whole still has relevance today if we shift the meaning of “conventional” to “existing”.

For in 2014, recycling, refurbishing, reusing and repurposing are all good. Sometimes and still more often than not, perfectly good buildings are demolished and replaced with lesser buildings because:

  • they aren’t large enough
  • they don’t exploit the site enough to provide maximum return on investment
  • they aren’t fashionable enough

Makeovers can sometimes overcome the third but, sometimes not.


Overcoming the first two though, requires extending or adding onto the building.

We have no theory, policy, or any way of evaluating extensions and additions to buildings. 

With extensions and additions, what was once whole is under pressure to become a new whole. Destroying an aesthetic whole to create a new and larger one is not easy. I’ll say it now. I’m predisposed to thinking the idea of the (aesthetic) whole is a myth anyway but the myth only becomes apparent when an attempt is made to enlarge it or add to it. Forming a new aesthetic “whole” is logically impossible. But that’s me. Let’s look at some examples.

• • •

Extending a building is conventionally performed in ways that are contextually sensitive – whatever that means. What’s good in one situation isn’t necessarily good in another. What’s more, what’s good in one situation may be good and the completely opposite thing in the same situation may also be good. It’s a moveable feast, like “Big-B beauty”. One interpretation of contextual sensitivity is to be unobtrusive, preferably invisible. This is the avoidance of creating a new whole. It might be the most honest way of adding to a building in “we can’t improve it so let’s pretend we didn’t try” kind of way.


• • •

A more common way is to take cues of colour and/or pattern and/or shape and/or position and/or alignment and/or size/scale from the existing structure. This is generally regarded as safe, if not good.


There are other ways of creating associations more forced but that nevertheless maintain a distinction between new and old. We’re of course assuming that maintaining that distinction is a good thing. To me, these are all unsuccessful for, without something to bounce off, they are nothing. They don’t know what they want to be. Their inoffensiveness is offensive.


One of the principles of “modern” architecture is that buildings be true to their time. I suspect this is just a market driver that applauds obsolescence and encourages pointless production but, all the same, we’ll have none of that contrived historicism or attempts to make buildings appear older than they actually were thank you very much.

Fake pedigree: George Devey was the master of a technique whereby a house was organised into different
wings to give the impression that the house at that point in time was the result of a series of additions and extensions over decades, if not centuries. Here’s his Betteshanger, built around 1861.

George Devey – BetteshangerHe provided the house with a complete and entirely bogus pedigree which ran somewhat as follows. All that remained of the medieval house was a curious old tower, which had been re-windowed and repaired with different materials over the centuries.

Untitlbetteshanger detail 1A low rambling wing had been added in Elizabethan times, entered by a quaint Renaissance porch with a carved oriel window over its archway.

No. This post is about the opposite. It’s about those extensions to buildings that don’t give a damn about contextualism or suiting or pleasing anyone AND THAT ARE ALL THE BETTER FOR IT.

But I don’t mean the likes of this. This is a parasite piggybacking on its host. It’s a separate thing. It doesn’t combine to create anything new. It’s following some rules and breaking others.  It doesn’t know whether it wants to be on the building it is, or not. It’s not telling us where it stands or what it really wants to be.


On the other hand, there’s too much synergy happening in this next example from Valparaiso, Chile … It’s an attempt to create a “difficult whole” and it’s trying too hard. The host building has been assimilated and lost its soul in the process. Have you ever been kept awake by someone trying to be quiet? This building is annoying in that way.


At least it actually adds some extra space – unlike this next example that may just as well have been a new building adjacent to the ruin. As it is, the new 100% addition refuses to let the ruin be a ruin. The existing structure adds gravitas but nothing else.


This next well-known example is annoying for the much the same reasons. Its effect IS DEPENDENT UPON forced contrast. The building exists solely as something to bounce off of. The real objective is to showcase the architects’ “sensitivity” to context. With this Libeskind building, the parts exist at the same location but don’t want to be together either visually or conceptually. It’s further loaded with murky meaning.


At least this next one doesn’t suck the blood out of its host as it does the contrasty thing.


Sculpture likes a plinth. It gets it up in the air where it can be seen.


Additions like this next treat the host building as nothing more than a piece of real estate, a plinth and nothing more.

wrok house 1983

It belongs to the same family as lesser-known buildings like this. See here for more.


And this, which I’d forgotten about. Cheers MVRDV.


Here’s an existing building used as a horizontal plinth to showcase … something.


Despite all these parasitic buildings using the host building as real estate, they destroy the existing wholeness as they attempt to assimilate it into its own. They couldn’t not. Here’s an example. Can we say the new whole is any better than the former? Is it even built yet?

 • • •

This concept of the difficult whole is responsible for screwing things up. If extensions and additions aren’t being demeaned and denigrated by unwarranted subservience then they’re being demeaned and denigrated by unwarranted arrogance. I conclude it’s the attempt to create the whole that’s the problem. This isn’t ever pointed out as the problem because – whether the route of subservience or arrogance is chosen – it showcases the architect’s skills in dealing with it. This, I suspect, is what accounts for the persistence of the myth of “The Difficult Whole”.

• • •

But what if there was no such thing as the myth of “The Difficult Whole”? These next two buidings ignore it. They play the cards they’re dealt and manage to be what they are and do what they do whilst acknowledging their hosts. They’re obviously additions. Whilst accepting of their circumstances, they’re not slaves to them. Furthermore, they’re not trying to be anything they’re not.

All the time, we’ve been preoccupied with the difficult bit of The Difficult Whole but I’m suggesting it’s The Difficult Whole that’s the myth. [That old charlatan Venturi!] After all, who but architects say that architects should presume to control the whole? Here’s two misfits.

First up is the National Architecture Union Headquarters Building, in Bucharest, Romania.


Fab – especially when compared with the heartless and bloodless Valparaiso building. This approach has a refreshing candour that all the above examples of approaches to extensions and additions lack. And here’s the Campari Headquarters in Milan.


Thank you Campari, and thank you Fortunato Depero for, it would seem, giving Mario Botta the winning idea.




The Mystery of Beauty

We’d all like to believe in some everlasting unchanging measure of worth, architectural or otherwise, but it’s a losing battle. The old Vitruvian warhorse of Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas has been patched and updated for centuries now. Yet still it’s around.


Sure we can think of Firmitas in terms of structure and stability and Utilitas in terms of function or usefulness, but the third quality of Venustas (modernly mistranslated as Delight rather than the more accurate Beautiful because it is moral) is as distant as ever. It is slipping away even further now no-one can believe in Objectivism.

For like most thinkers two millennia ago, Vitruvius was an Objectivist. He believed that certain works of art and architecture had this thing called Beauty that existed, like a spirit in a rock (ffs!), independent of any observer. Later Subjectivists maintained that Beauty is whatever people said it was and a particular brand of Subjectivists called Post-Kantian pluralists took this further and claimed anyone is entitled to have an opinion and, what’s more, it didn’t matter how much that view is shared by others. This seems to best describe the world as we experience it.

To show how modern they were and allow more scope for individual interpretation, Post-Modern architects loaded their buildings with multiple “readings”. They championed freedom of choice but stayed in control of what the choices were.


One recent attempt to incorporate genuine subjectivity into Venustas/Beauty/Delight says it exists when a building communicates the spirit of its purpose. This sounds like it’s being defined in terms of function but to ‘communicate a spirit’ is subjectivity squared. And then multiplied, as we have to accept that buildings communicate different things to different people. There’s still the Post-Modernist smugness in the assumption those communications are always going to be of value at the one end, and accurately and passively received at the other, but the fact remains: If Delight’ exists when the spirit of a building’s purpose is communicated to a target audience, then it seems like it’s really just another name for another type of Utility.

These next bits come from A.C. Grayling’s “Philosophy 1” (Oxford University Press, 1998.)

Past attempts to explain architectural beauty have taken what was conventionally regarded as beautiful as their starting point and dissected them in terms of building elements manipulated to create qualities such as ‘harmony’, ‘proportion’, ‘rhythm’, ‘scale’ and so on.

Identifying what one likes about the things one likes is not a bad place to start, after all.

This classic philosophical stance assumes that beauty is the only, or at least the fundamental, aesthetic quality. Ugliness, blandness, mediocrity are defined negatively as the absence of those qualities. However, even within the same field of art, things considered beautiful are so diverse it’s difficult to imagine a single quality common to them all. This is often given as proof of the mystical and unknowable nature of beauty.

Objectivist philosophers like Vitruvius maintained that some works of art were inherently beautiful regardless of who is observing them. This implies that beauty is governed by rules.

Subjectivist philosophers believe that objects have no aesthetic qualities other than being able to produce certain responses in the person experiencing them. This is what Hume summed up as ‘beauty is no quality in things themselves – it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them’. Hume and, later,  Kant didn’t want to allow beauty to be completely subjective and suggested that differences of aesthetic opinion at least indicate the existence of a something on which opinions differ. They still had to describe the subjective character of aesthetic judgments without permitting a riot of aesthetic opinions.

Either way, the problem remains that 

if aesthetic judgments are to be distinct from mere likings and qualify in some sense as rational, then they must in some sense be open to justification. 

• • •


In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, the concept of Beauty makes its first appearance on page 157.Untitled

Two footnotes point us (forward, annoyingly) towards further explanation

Untitled 2but, for the time being, we’re meant to

  1. Believe in Beauty and that
  2. Beauty, in conjunction with Function, drives architecture.

No justification or evidence. We’re just asked to believe.

double code






The author is obviously an Objectivist at heart for, on the same page, he defines Beauty as “formal resolution” and by doing so implying that Beauty has rules that are followed to a conclusion called a “resolution”. It would be nice to be told what those rules are but I already know without yet having read Vol. II that we’re not going to be.

3.8.3 The Mystery of Beauty.

Here’s the first two paragraphs.

4Did you see that? “Attention to beauty and aesthetic values demarcates architecture from science and engineering.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that Beauty is real, merely that some people like to believe in it. However, if they do believe in Beauty, then they get to feel special – which is fine – but, as is often the case, superior to other people such as scientists and engineers following more rational and provable doctrines.

Here’s the full chapter.

That’s all we get. The last sentence is particularly worrying. Apparently, reflecting upon what Beauty is can’t be done whilst designing, even though Beauty is guiding the design process by (supposedly) telling the designer when he/she/her Dameship has arrived at it. We end the chapter no wiser than we were at the beginning when the author stated “Beauty must be shrouded in mystery in order to fulfil its function in the design process … to bring the design decision process to conclusion …” Total shiite, IMO.

• • •

There’s a lot about this book that worries me and a lot of that has to do with creating the appearance of knowledge and of projecting authority. The methods aren’t new.

The plain cover: This implies that what’s inside is important enough in itself and does not need added fanciness. It’s all about the contents.


There aren’t any pictures: They say a picture’s worth a thousand words and we know what’s meant by that. But why use a picture when you can say it in a thousand words? Another way a book can convey an air of authority is by having a lot of words and by making it appear as if every word is essential.

An intricate system of numerical indexing: This is a way of creating the appearance that every word is not only essential but worth quoting and referencing. Making them easy to find implies they are important enough to be searched for. We’ve just seen how little 3.8.3 had to offer.

Length: I’m estimating The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I weighs in at 180,000 words which is about the same as the 181,253 of the New Testament, but the approx. 300,000 of  Vol. II is well short of the 593,493 words of the Old Testament. A combined total of 480,00 for the Autopoieses against 774,746 for the Old and New Testaments. TAoAI+II is still short of The Good Book OT+NT, but it’s making a challenge.

Difficult to follow: A book of authority is not a page turner. It’s not even meant to be read sequentially. It’s not meant to be taken on holiday to wile away the time in pleasant It commands complete attention and anything less is disrespectful. The continuation of that attention is challenged by contents that morph from thought to thought with scant regard for continuity. But nor are books of authority designed to dipped into every now and then like a box set when the fancy takes one.

Tone: In the same way as sadists and masochists unerringly find each other and call it love, imagined authority finds its natural partner with imagined inferiority. An authoritarian author will make a submissive reader feel they must be stupid if they don’t understand, that they’re lacking in intellect or dedication if the words they read pass before their eyes but the meaning doesn’t penetrate or their argument unfold. Writer and reader are locked in mutually symbiotic relationship.

To this list we can now add

Adopting the structures of religious texts: In The Mystery of Beauty, the author is asking us to:

  1. believe in something whose existence requires an act of faith, 
  2. allow that belief to guide our (design) behaviour and determine when we’ve done good and not bad,
  3. accept that that something we believe in can never be known and 
  4. that it has to be that way in order for the system to work.

This sounds like a religion to me! The real narrative of The Autopoiesis of Architecture is to convey the weight of authority to people willing to believe. If it makes people feel happy and special, then this is not such a bad thing. Schumacher can believe whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t think other people are scum for not thinking the same. Except he does. Ref: Bad Form.

From the first witch doctor onwards, power has been linked to creating the impression of possessing privileged knowledge about how the world works – about what rules have to be followed and how. Mayan priests, for example, convinced their populations that a live person had to be sacrificed every morning if the sun was to rise. It wasn’t the case. 

• • •

Early on in The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Schumacher dismissed the idea that Religion was a Great Communications System on par with art, economics, politics and law and went on to formulate his loose-fit extended analogy illustrating how architecture is one.


Footnote 6, p75

Back then, I didn’t understand why he felt that that was a statement that needed making. I still don’t. If Schumacher doesn’t think that Religion is one of the great functions systems of society, then I don’t think he should adopt the look, feel, argument and purpose of Religion to claim that Architecture is one and, by corollary, position himself as a deliverer of truth.

Gods-SunriseI’m still failing to see the light.