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 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 to it. For example, we could have

“Naturalistic architecture was more celebrated the more contrived the needs it satisfied,”* and

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

“Authorship came to be celebrated in proportion to mediocrity.”

*I’ve always enjoyed this photograph and how the birds use this structure that exists to observe them, to conceal themselves from the birdwatchers.




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 http://criticalifragilistic.blogspot.ae  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.

Teaching & Learning

In my second undergraduate year I decided to learn properly how to play the piano. A music student in the same dorms recommended her teacher who lived nearby. I rang the doorbell. To me at nineteen, Mme. Alice Carrard was as old as only piano teachers can be and, after we chatted for a while, she gave me two tests. For the first, she sang a note and asked me to sing it. For the second, she asked me to extend my right arm, imagine I was holding an apple, and to then lower my arm and raise it again. I didn’t think I passed the first test and didn’t understand the second but she took me on as a pupil anyway.

Perth had only three piano teachers of Alice’s calibre so it was an honour. A fellow pupil I later got to know cheekily suggested it was because my first beard probably reminded her of her son Sandy, a nuclear physicist and violinist who lived on the other side of Australia. I never saw the resemblance. [That’s him in the photograph below the portrait of Alice.]

I soon found out about the apple. I was to not use my elbows to move my hands to or from the keyboard, but to always use my shoulders (to raise the elbows to raise the forearms to raise the wrists) to position my hands where they were needed to be. I learned that a pianist using their body like this makes a different sound. They don’t make huge or florid movements in apparent expression or lunge at the piano in sudden and dramatic displays of apparent emotion. Instead, they produce a very clean and crisp sound that suits Bach and Bàrtok and other highly structured music. It’s the way James Rhodes plays Bach and Piotr Anderszewski plays everything.

Alice was one of Australia’s living treasures. Born in Hungary in 1897 and a child prodigy, she studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music under professor István Thomán who himself had been a protégé of Franz Liszt. In or around 1915, Alice was instructed for a year by Béla Bartók. Were I to have become a great concert pianist, people would have noted my distinguished pedigree and been quick to acknolwedge the source of my talent. It didn’t happen. A necessary condition for greatness is the ability to communicate it.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. During one lesson as I was butchering some Schumann etude, Alice put her hand gently on my wrist to pause me and said, “Gràhàm, do you know you will never be a concert pianist?” I don’t remember my answer but I do remember being shocked. I’d always thought that with sufficient time and application (ok, neither of which I had) it would be possible. Somehow though, I knew she was right.

The key was always in the front door lock and students would quietly let themselves in and wait on the divan for the lesson before to end. From that divan, I saw Alice instructing in French some Vietnamese girl perhaps ten playing Debussy. Another time I saw her ask some angelic Polish boy which Chopin nocturne he’d like to learn next and, when he suggested whichever, Alice replied “No, you cannot play that until you have been in love!” One fateful day, I went in and sat down and David Helfgott was preparing for some upcoming concerto competition or performance, Alice playing the orchestra part on the MUSICA teaching piano, and David on the STEINWAY adjacent. In the middle of some passage Alice made him stop. “No David no – you must knit the notes together more!” David repeated the passage, knitting the notes together more, but again she made him stop. “No David – I said knit the notes but you must leave some air between them!” And I sat there as, dammit, he repeated the passage knitting the notes together more but leaving some air between them. So yes. I knew.

I continued with the lessons but we spent less and less time at the piano and more and more in her kitchen. Alice would rummage through the refrigerator for little tupperware containers containing things like ox tongue slices we would have on rye bread with avyar, accompanied by her special mix of six parts dry vermouth and one part sweet, funneled into a gin bottle and kept chilled in the fridge door and shakily poured into squat, thick-stemmed sherry glasses of a style popular in the 1970s. After, we’d sit under the almond tree in the middle of her garden, she’d bum cigarettes and we’d smoke until the next student arrived.

I’ve made it sound like the music was incidental but it wasn’t. For my first lesson, I was told to bring a copy of the Bartók-Reschovsky Piano Method [1913]. You can still buy it.


It contains graded piano exercises that begin as basic as you can imagine but are already training ears and brains as well as fingers. I can still hear them.

I remember this next page well. It was the first time I could concentrate on expression instead of having to worry about reading the music and getting the notes right. I was to later master a couple of pieces from the Magdalena Bach Notebook, most notably Minuet in G, but these two pieces were my finest moment.

Interspersed among the exercises were snippets of theory for instructors to explain in detail. The Circle of Fifths describes how the musical keys are all related and parts of the same thing. It’s the reason why, in movies at least, when the singer asks the pianist “Do you know such and such?” the pianist always replies, “In which key?” A couple of times I’d seen Alice launch into some piece that was by no means anybody’s standard number only to say “Oh, wrong key!” and begin again. She was seeing structures I wasn’t.

I could however, still appreciate that the atoms and molecules of musical beauty had a higher level of organisation that was able to be comprehended, even if not by me. I still treasure these memories. I am still sensitive to piano music and the enjoyment it can bring. I still suspect the foundation of beauty has something to do with the underlying structures of elements. And more than ever I appreciate what Messrs. Bartòk and Reschovsky did when they converted their knowledge of the piano into a book on how to teach and learn how to play one and, not only that, foster an awareness of what can be done with one.

Bartók was to do it all again on a much grander scale with TheMikrokosmos that ranges from Book 1 and its simple exercises and basic musical effects to Book 6 with its fiendishly difficult and complex pieces sometimes played as concert encores. I’ve only just noticed a method behind the names Bartók gave his 153 exercises.

  • Book I names such as #16: Parallel Motion with Change of Position describe what the hands are doing but very soon names such as #25: Imitation and Inversion begin to describe what the notes as well as the hands are doing.
  • Book II names such as #54: Chromatics describe more complex things the notes are doing.
  • Book III names such as #72: Dragons’ Dance introduce yet more complex effects as well as associations to go with them.
  • Book IV names such as #104a: Wandering through the Keys give associative names to what is being done.
  • Book V names such as #135: Perpetuum mobile still contain associations but they are now completely secondary to the effect.
  • Book VI names such as #142: From the Diary of a Fly are illustrative but absurd while others such as #143: Divided Arpeggios, #144: Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths or #145a: Chromatic Invention (III) are just names of effects we think of as “abstract” only because we don’t yet have any associations for them.

Book I

  • 1. Six Unison Melodies (I)
  • 2a. Six Unison Melodies (II)
  • 2b. Six Unison Melodies (II)
  • 3. Six Unison Melodies (III)
  • 4. Six Unison Melodies (IV)
  • 5. Six Unison Melodies (V)
  • 6. Six Unison Melodies (VI)
  • 7. Dotted Notes
  • 8. Repetition (1)
  • 9. Syncopation (I)
  • 10. With Alternate Hands
  • 11. Parallel Motion
  • 12. Reflection
  • 13. Change of Position
  • 14. Question and Answer
  • 15. Village Song
  • 16. Parallel Motion with Change of Position
  • 17. Contrary Motion
  • 18. Four Unison Melodies (I)
  • 19. Four Unison Melodies (II)
  • 20. Four Unison Melodies (III)
  • 21. Four Unison Melodies (IV)
  • 22. Imitation and Counterpoint
  • 23. Imitation and Inversion (I)
  • 24. Pastorale
  • 25. Imitation and Inversion (II)
  • 26. Repetition (II)
  • 27. Syncopation (II)
  • 28. Canon at the Octave
  • 29. Imitation Reflected
  • 30. Canon at the Lower Fifth
  • 31. Dance in Canon Form
  • 32. In Dorian Mode
  • 33. Slow Dance
  • 34. In Phrygian Mode
  • 35. Chorale
  • 36. Free Canon

Book II

  • 37. In Lydian Mode
  • 38. Staccato and Legato (I)
  • 39. Staccato and Legato (Canon)
  • 40. In Yugoslav Style
  • 41. Melody with Accompaniment
  • 42. Accompaniment in Broken Triads
  • 43a. In Hungarian Style (for two pianos)
  • 43b. In Hungarian Style
  • 44. Contrary Motion (2) (for two pianos)
  • 45. Meditation
  • 46. Increasing-Diminishing
  • 47. County Fair
  • 48. In Mixolydian Mode
  • 49. Crescendo-Diminuendo
  • 50. Minuetto
  • 51. Waves
  • 52. Unison Divided
  • 53. In Transylvanian Style
  • 54. Chromatics
  • 55. Triplets in Lydian Mode (for two pianos)
  • 56. Melody in Tenths
  • 57. Accents
  • 58. In Oriental Style
  • 59. Major and Minor
  • 60. Canon with Sustained Notes
  • 61. Pentatonic Melody
  • 62. Minor Sixths in Parallel Motion
  • 63. Buzzing
  • 64a. Line against Point
  • 64b. Line against Point
  • 65. Dialogue (with voice)
  • 66. Melody Divided

Book III

  • 67. Thirds against a Single Voice
  • 68. Hungarian Dance (for two pianos)
  • 69. Study in Chords
  • 70. Melody against Double Notes
  • 71. Thirds
  • 72. Dragons’ Dance
  • 73. Sixths and Triads
  • 74a. Hungarian Matchmaking Song
  • 74b. Hungarian Matchmaking Song (with voice)
  • 75. Triplets
  • 76. In Three Parts
  • 77. Little Study
  • 78. Five-Tone Scale
  • 79. Hommage à Johann Sebastian Bach
  • 80. Hommage à Robert Schumann
  • 81. Wandering
  • 82. Scherzo
  • 83. Melody with Interruptions
  • 84. Merriment
  • 85. Broken Chords’
  • 86. Two Major Pentachords
  • 87. Variations
  • 88. Duet for Pipes
  • 89. In Four Parts (I)
  • 90. In Russian Style
  • 91. Chromatic Invention (I)
  • 92. Chromatic Invention (II)
  • 93. In Four Parts (II)
  • 94. Once Upon a Time…
  • 95a. Fox Song
  • 95b. Fox Song (with voice)
  • 96. Jolts

Book IV

  • 97. Notturno
  • 98. Thumbs Under
  • 99. Hands Crossing
  • 100. In Folk Song Style
  • 101. Diminished Fifth
  • 102. Harmonics
  • 103. Minor and Major
  • 104a. Wandering through the Keys
  • 104b. Wandering through the Keys
  • 105. Game (with Two Five-Tone Scales)
  • 106. Children’s Song
  • 107. Melody in the Mist
  • 108. Wrestling
  • 109. From the Island of Bali
  • 110. And the Sounds Clash and Clang…
  • 111. Intermezzo
  • 112. Variations on a Folk Tune
  • 113. Bulgarian Rhythm (I)
  • 114. Theme and Inversion
  • 115. Bulgarian Rhythm (II)
  • 116. Song
  • 117. Bourrée
  • 118. Triplets in 9/8 Time
  • 119. Dance in 3/4 Time
  • 120. Triads
  • 121. Two-Part Study

Book V

  • 122. Chords Together and in Opposition
  • 123a. Staccato and Legato (II)
  • 123b. Staccato and Legato (II)
  • 124. Staccato
  • 125. Boating
  • 126. Change of Time
  • 127. New Hungarian Folk Song (with voice)
  • 128. Stamping Dance
  • 129. Alternating Thirds
  • 130. Village Joke
  • 131. Fourths
  • 132. Major Seconds Broken and Together
  • 133. Syncopation (III)
  • 134a. Studies in Double Notes
  • 134b. Studies in Double Notes
  • 134c. Studies in Double Notes
  • 135. Perpetuum mobile
  • 136. Whole-Tone Scales
  • 137. Unison
  • 138. Bagpipe Music
  • 139. Merry Andrew

Book VI

  • 140. Free Variations
  • 141. Subject and Reflection
  • 142. From the Diary of a Fly
  • 143. Divided Arpeggios
  • 144. Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths
  • 145a. Chromatic Invention (III)
  • 145b. Chromatic Invention (III)
  • 146. Ostinato
  • 147. March
  • 148. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (I)
  • 149. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (II)
  • 150. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (III)
  • 151. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (IV)
  • 152. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (V)
  • 153. Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (VI)

Anyone who can play The Mikrokosmos beginning to end will know how to play the piano. They will also have been exposed to a wide range of musical effects the piano can produce. They will also have been given an awareness of what a musical idea is and of what kind of ideas music can evoke. The Mikrokosmos is not called The Mikrokosmos for nothing. It probably does contain everything a pianist will ever need to know but IT DOES NOT TEACH HOW TO HAVE A MUSICAL IDEA. This is not a failing. Leading a person to the edge and leaving them there is all that can be done.  

However, IF a person is gifted to having musical ideas then all they have do is 1) have them and 2) reverse engineer that knowledge to develop, detail and document those ideas for others to benefit.

• • •

• • •

This year there’ll be no Top Ten roundup. Rather than pick favourites or rate this year’s posts, I’m happy to look down the list and remember what an enjoyable year it’s been. 

Thank you, and see you in 2018,


Models of Instruction

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

The Beaux-Arts

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

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

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

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

The Bauhaus

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

Because the Dessau Bauhaus activities focussed around a piece of architecture, architecture students the world over believe the people in these photographs are architecture students. Not so. Gropius continued his own architectural work while director of the Bauhaus but never thought to teach it. [It was Gropius’ successor Hannes Meyer who introduced architecture into the Bauhaus study plan.] Gropius’s and his reputation as an architectural educator and a proponent of arrived in America seven years after the first Montessori school opened.

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

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

Again, more is known about VKhUTEMAS instructors than its students. What’s remarkable about the (Gropius) Bauhaus and the VKhUTEMAS models of instruction is how far they spread.  [We automatically assume this is testament to how good they were but it may just have been testament to how reactionary yet apparently modern they were.] To this day, architecture departments in universities around the world have introductory courses with exercises in pattern and shape. Instructors still tell students to “play with it” in the hope something workable eventuates. 

Taliesin and The Fee-Paying Intern 

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

Le Corbusier’s office

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

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

Frey is said to have worked on the Savoye house that, in 1928, was stalled and going nowhere. Frey was however, and left in the middle of this masterpiece to find work in the USStaff turnover was high 1928-9. Kunio Maekawa arrived in 1928 as a full-time apprentice and fresh graduate from Tokyo Imperial University but was returned to Japan in 1930 to work with Antonin Raymond who’d been a student of Wright’s. Maekawa established his own office in 1935 and was a key figure in post-war Japanese architecture. If you squint at some of Maekawa’s concrete buildings you can see a Le Corbusier. Equally, we can see Unité d’Habitations in Maekawa’s own house from 1942.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn’t seem to be the point anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

• • •






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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The walls are thick for durability as well as to withstand attack. If caravanserai give the impression of being strong and fortified, it is because they were strong and fortified. The Middle Ages everywhere were refreshingly free of semantics. We wrongly call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages but that was only in Europe. Surrounding countries were relatively outward looking. The legacy of this attitude persists. We erroneously attribute the structural and defensive geometry of the caravanserai plan is a European castle innovation but castles and caravanserai probably share a Roman ancestor.

Deserts aren’t known for their abundance of construction materials and labour so the construction of caravanserai can’t have been simple or fast. This is the relatively well-preserved Qasr Kharana in Jordan.

Materials were locally sourced. If rock was available then caravanserai were condtructed of rock and if not, then of mud brick. It made good money for someone to have them constructed, particularly given the lucrative income stream of excise duties. But at what level were they collected? Caravanserai are unlikely to have been privately funded speculative developments. History is silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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The UNESCO website on caravanserai

PS: The book arrived and is fab. The header image is one of Tom Schutyser’s.



Career Case Study #9: José Oubrerie

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

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

Le Corbusier’s office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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