Urban Carpet vs. Mat City

Mat buildings have many plusses as a result of them being a single unit solved for function, access, daylighting and ventilation and indefinitely repeated. So let’s supersize one and see what happens. The evolution of mat city is undocumented so this fast and loose history is going to have to do.

Around 5,400 BC, the city of Eridu, not too far from Basra in Iraq, is said to have been the world’s first city. Details are sketchy but, give or take a bit of artistic license, this image will give you an idea. Temples came and went but the urban carpet stayed.

The classic Middle Eastern city has access alleys separating clusters of buildings with inner courtyards that solved problems of internal circulation, daylighting and ventilation and also happened to lessen diurnal temperature extremes.

These cities became mat cities when levels began to differentiate according to urban function. This image of Marrakech shows residential usage in airspace superfluous to the illumination and ventilation requirements of the access level. Streets once fully open to the sky become passageways illuminated by lightwells. Streets that are nothing more than a means of getting from A to B do not need to be better lit and ventilated than buildings.

1914: Futurist City, Mario Chiattone

This looks all fine and Futurist and not all about form and Sant’Elia. Features are:

  • the identical city block repeated indefinitely
  • separation of what is presumably residential above from the commercial and retail below
  • the hierarchical nature of the buildings
  • the resetting of ground level so pedestrian traffic is separated from vehicular. [By the looks of that traffic, fellow Futurist Giaccomo Balla should have offered Chiattone some tips on how to represent dynamics of movement.]
  • there is elevated pedestrian access on the roofs of what’s probably intended as commercial space
  • patches of vegetation make that elevated pedestrian access into a public roof garden

Despite the intensification and repetition, it’s still a conventional city but with blocks now separated now by not one but two levels of access.

1925: Le Plan Voisin, Le Corbusier

A decade on, Le Corbusier’s plan for Paris has trees and café chairs but no Paris. Vision, by the way, is an anagram of Voisin, the name of the car manufacturers that sponsored this proposal. Le Corbusier gained more from the relationship than they did as his career took off circa 1930 while the European market for luxury cars tanked.

1924: Hochhausstadt, Ludwig Hilberseimer 

 

Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt is said to be a response to Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin but has more in common with Chiattone’s Futurist City. Instead of building over roads and traffic, Hilberseimer proposes building over all land not being used for them – something that has since come to pass. Blocks housing commercial functions are still separated by streets. They form podiums for multiple residential slabs and re-set the ground level for pedestrian access. Between pairs of redidntial slabs are what looks like amenity courtyards. All city blocks therefore remain divided by streets but all residential buildings are separated by a street and an communal amenity courtyard.

It’s hard to tell what people do in all three of these cities. The high-rise bits are residential but where do people work? Where do they shop? What do they do on their day off? In the 1920s was human existence already reduced to sleeping, working, shopping and having to be somewhere else in a hurry? 

These precursor cities all have residential and commercial activity plus two ways to travel to and from it but the importance given to transportation suggests that many people have needs better satisified elsewhere. This would not occur in a mat city as most functions would be satisfieed with the repeatable unit, reducing the dependence on the automobile. In the 1920s when hardly anyone owned a car, architects – and not just Futurist ones – were excited by autombiles and the idea of rush hour.

The 1970s were another high point in the history of the mat city.

1971: Megaton City, Superstudio

Superstudio only gave us the big picture [and me the inspiration for my extruded PVC tile beach photoshoot – c.f. The Extruded Mat Building.] Megaton City assumes all human activity is somehow distributed and accommodated within this structure that we imagine encompassing the planet. I’ve always admired its clarity of perceiving and depicting human existence and activity as conceptually distinct from Nature (even though this representation of that autonomy is totally reliant upon Nature for contrast). The continuous landscape makes us see the natural spaces not as large courtyards but as land not built over. Be that as it may, I hope being squashed by the megaton force of one’s ceiling as punishment for having a dissenting thought won’t come to pass. It’s too early to say, but not too soon to start having doubts.

1971: No-Stop City, Archizoom

From the same 1971, No-Stop City was an endless interior in which dayligting and ventilation are solved by artificial means. The concept of functional necessity is also removed from the equation by having everything necessary for life and living provided and evenly distributed within that interior. People are free to move elsewhere but there’s little point doing so since it’s the same wherever they go. 

Megaton City and No-Stop City make architecture redundant as they don’t articulate the possession of space or things. The same physical framework and contents are repeated endlessly, with only human happiness left for people to work out for themselves. The statement “Life is what you make it” is both brutal and optimistic.

This stunning image is from a 2013 AA study titled Hiberseimer Study: Vertical City – Genericalness via Repetition exploring the urban carpet as an exercise in form. Actually owing more to Chiattone than Hilberseimer, it solves the problem of showing us what a urban carpet of the then most expensive building in the world would look like. Anybody know anything about those roof gardens on top of the Four Seasonses?

 

The history of the mat city stopped in 1971. Ubiquitous development didn’t suddenly disappear from the face of the earth but the appearance of it did. The New subUrbanism brought us 1982’s Seaside Florida carpeted with houses for short-term vacation renters all wanting a representation of individuality in a representation of a community.

Me, no. I’ll take the clarity of the mat city anyday, along with the individual and communal responsibility it demands. With that in mind …

La Ville Savoye

The Pilotis Level is the access and service zone. Service industry people live and mostly work in the inhabited pilotis that physically and structurally support The Residential Level.

The Residential Level is up in the air where it can better access sunlight and breezes through Horizontal Windows. Its habitable volume is in the airspace of the Undercroft.

The Roof Gardens on the uppermost level are for resident use.

The Basement Level is for services, storage and distribution.

villa-savoye-basement

One La Ville Savoye unit has a density of 32 persons per residential floor which, over four floors, equates to approx. 94,000 per hectare. That’s a lot of people.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_by_population_density

This means only two residential levels would be needed to house the population of Manila at the same density. Four levels would shrink its area by 50%. Cities with densities of 20,000 persons per hectare could shrink 75%. This is what the 20,000 persons per km² of Malé looks like.

La Ville Savoye would offer better distributed sunlight if it were on or near The Equator. Its energy density is relatively low since residential levels have bathrooms and kitchens naturally lit and ventilated, meaning all services conduits and pipes can be on external surfaces and not hidden in ducts. It doesn’t repeat the Metabolist error of having services penetrate the structural core and preventing proper maintenance and making future additions, replacements and reconfigurations messy, if not impossible. Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower is always used to illustrate the folly of this approach.

Were it to have been built [buildable?], Arata Isozaki’s Clusters in the Sky would surely have been a more heroic failure.

Built representations of Metabolist principles such as Kenzo Tange’s 1966 Yamanashi Broadcasting and Press Center or his 1967 Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center don’t count as these buildings were merely made strange with contrived gaps but were essentially conventional structures with cores with services in shafts.

Unless it’s a location where pipes freeze or pigeons rule, it makes sense to expose services as tidily as possible. It doesn’t have to be made into a fetish by painting the cold water pipes blue and so on. [High-Tech and Post Modernism are both creatures of the same era – the former representing modernity and the latter representing continuity. They are by no means opposites.] IF we are to consider architecture an art, then the plumbing, utilities and drainage that are unique to it have more right to be used as a criteria for its evaluation as art than say, shape-making does. [c.f. Making Strange]

Exposing services is one practical thing we can learn from La Ville Savoye. Much like its namesake, one question it asks but doesn’t answer is what we want ground level to be. After 7,000 years, our cities remain agglomerations of activity spaces overlooking the streets that access and service them. Streets and their traffic compete for space with pedestrians at ground level, and with buildings for the airspace above.

Not all streets are bad and not all traffic is bad. Streets, after all, are a source of pedestrians and coffee-shop urbanism holds that pedestrian traffic brings Retail and Retail brings Vibrance. Masdar City Phase I showed it was possible to completely separate vehicle traffic at impossibly huge cost and succeeded in making both pedestrian and vehicular precincts lifeless.

Streets do have more important things to do than separate one café from another but their absence needs to be put to better use than merely provide a place to have a sandwich. I’m not suggesting ornamental traffic, but perhaps we should be asking what kinds of traffic we don’t mind living with and what kinds we do.

Once we know the answer to that, we need to partially build over those streets and make better use of that airspace.

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Making Strange

Poetry is strange and poetic language is strange. Some words make pleasant or interesting sounds. Other words may sound peculiar while others may be similar – or different – in special ways. Still other words occur in unexpected positions or with some new role or roles. All these poetic devices fall under the general concept of making strange and they all call attention to themselves so we can see something in a new way. This is what poetry does and what art in general does.

Making strange is so intrinsic to poetry that its absence is also a way of making strange. There’s quite a famous poem called “This is Just to Say”. [1] Over the years, people have spent much time trying to work out what makes it poetry. 

If making strange in poetry is about words and language, then making strange in filmmaking is about film as celluloid. I remember De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves as having a scene in which a person walking up some flights of stairs has the same footage briefly repeated three times. The effect was “Did I just see what I think I just saw?” Then there was the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker in which two birds fly away across The Zone but only one of them is seen to have crossed it. It’s a powerful scene made strange by simply removing some footage. Both these techniques are specific to film.

I’ve written elsewhere [c.f. Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINEabout the Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis song Canʼt get you out of my head performed by Kylie Minogue. It’s a pop song made strange by beginning with chorus and a fade-in that allude to the upcoming lyrical content. In the spirit of repetition, let’s appreciate it once more for what it is.

[or vimeo]

Towards the end, the buildings in the background are made strange by lighting up as if they were VU meters, showing us a city made strange getting down.

Light show projections are a new form of public entertainment that shows us buildings in strange new ways even if only for short periods of time. More recent projections involve 3D mappings spectacularly combined with animation – a quality that’s very very strange for a building.

Like anything else that stimulates endorphins, increasingly stronger doses are needed if something is to be made strange and new over and over. In art, once a technique of art has been used to indicate something is art it can’t really be used again in the same way as it won’t be so strange anymore. It might still be art but it probably won’t be good art. This is why artists are under such pressure to continually outdo themselves.

In stage drama, making strange involves preventing the audience from becoming involved in a pretend story and faked emotions. Techniques such as wooden delivery, stilted dialogue, awkward silences, or having the actors carry the scenery onto the stage remind the audience they’re there to concentrate on the content of the play and not its superficialities. Bertold Brecht was the main proponent of this type of theatre. He called it Verfremdungseffekt. In English it’s known as the distancing effect, the alienation effect, the defamiliarization effect, or the estrangement effect. This last is apparently closest in meaning to the priyom ostraneniya (приём остранения) as understood and used by the Russian Formalists. [3]

Viktor Shklovsky was head of OPOJAZ – the Society for the Study of Poetic Language group (1910~1930-ish) was mainly concerned with technique and device. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines: they are the result of an intentional human activity in which a specific skill transforms raw material into a complex mechanism suitable for a particular purpose.” [4] According to Shklovsky, “art is a sum of the literary and artistic devices the artist manipulates to craft his work.”

The Russian Formalists’ literary criticism emphasised how literary or artistic devices unique to imaginative writing actually functioned. There’s an admirable purity to a literature that doesn’t aspire to be painting, a painting that doesn’t aspire to be music, a music that doesn’t aspire to be sculpture, an architecture that doesn’t aspire to be cinema, etc. In other words, Goethe was wrong. It makes no more sense to evaluate architecture according to rhythm and harmony than it does to evaluate music according to site conditions or climate. The Russian Formalists began by not allowing psychology or culture or history to enter into their evaluations of how well the writer used what they did to achieve they set out to do. It’s still a refreshing approach, as shown by Helen Vendler’s analyses of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. [c.f. Twelve Books on Architecture] It’s also the opposite of what we currently have.

Today, when we read a review of a piece of art, we’re almost certain to read a list of references to the choice of thematic material as filtered the artist’s reading of history, politics, gender studies and contemporary society. If no such context readily presents itself, then the fallback context is to discuss the work in terms of everything the artist has done before or is currently working on. [c.f. Conceptual Continuity] Everything seems worthy of our attention except how the artist has mastered the techniques and devices specific to their particular art form.

Understandably, the Russian Formalists were keen to determine exactly what is intrinsic to literary language. If we were to let such an approach transfer to architecture – and it could transfer directly and with better fidelity than the literary concepts of Post-Modern or Deconstruction ever translated – then it would have huge consequences for evaluating architecture.

  • It means harmony and rhythm are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Music.
  • It means composition and proportion are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Painting.
  • It means three-dimensionality and form are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Sculpture.
  • It means transparency and blurring are not valid concepts for producing or  evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Photography.
  • It means organicism and self-similarity are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re qualities intrinsic to Nature.
  • It means history, philosophy, psychology, politics and culture are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re not qualities that influence Architecture alone. Everything has a history or, more precisely, everything has many histories.

What’s left standing?

  • The notion of space seems to survive intact and I’m not the first to suggest it as a fundamental property of architecture. It may well be the real essence of architecture is the void and not the pretend solid enclosing it.
  • Following on from that, there’s moving through a space. The Acropolis and The Villa Savoye have been famously identified and described (yet never evaluated) as sequences of spatial experiences. Nonetheless, those sequences of spatial experiences are still distinct from the flashbacks, flash forwards and other devices intrinsic to Cinema and that evoke similar feelings of anticipation and suspense.
  • Materials, construction, and structure – but only at scales distinct from those of furniture and civil engineering.
  • As long as buildings are constructed objects, the senseable qualities of materials are as valid as their physical ones. This isn’t to argue for a touchy-feely architecture but just to say that, as long as buildings are constructed from materials with qualities, one quality is just as valid as any other.
  • Site.
  • The notion of function survives, in the sense that people still experience a space even if they’re not moving around admiring it.

In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Patrik Schumacher claims function is not a fundamental quality of architecture. In a perversion of the Russian Formalist position, he states that people can use the space inside a cave or a hollowed out tree for shelter as they might a building. From this he jumpily concludes that function is a quality that can be satisfied by something other than architecture, and thus not a quality by which architecture should be evaluated.
[p341, Vol I. if you’re keen.]
perverted formalism

  • Watertightness, servicing, security, durability, sustainability, energy performance and so on, are all specific to Architecture [I know, I know …] despite their current relegation to The Art of Building.
  • The solving of many conflicting requirements together is integrated design and not unique to architecture, but solving the above set is. 

Schumacher would [and did] say that since all these can be solved by engineers, they are not a concern of architects. This is a distortion of a perversion of the Russian Formalist stance and also an example of either ecological fallacy or circular reasoning since what we’re trying to establish is what makes architecture architecture, not what makes architects architects. We can debate whether all architecture is made by architects but it’s contrary to both commonsense and logic to claim all architects make architecture. [5]

These candidates for qualities unique to architecture hit upon all the contentious ones. Why site and not context? If we admit context then why not historical, political and cultural ones? I don’t know.  Perhaps Asnago & Vender got it right by considering history as the site condition of What’s already there. [c.f Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender]

In some later post I’ll try to illustrate how this concept of making strange can be used to evaluate architecture and, by association, the efforts of architects.

To close, this concept of making strange shouldn’t be reduced to shallow novelty or narrowed to mean only aesthetic innovation. Something novel or innovative can only be considered to have been made strange if it employs a device intrinsic to architecture, and even then only until strange becomes the new normal.

If architecture is an art, then its devices must be capable of interrogation in the same way we can talk about painting not by its subject matter or what we presume the intent of the artist to have been, but by the hard and lasting evidence of brushstrokes, their colours and the patterns they make. Seeing architecture in a similar way might even prove useful in the long run. You never know.

• • •

  1. This is Just to Say was written in 1934 by Walter Carlos Williams.
  2. More on the distancing effect and its chief popularizer, Bertold Brecht.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_formalism This entry will probably tell you all you need to know about the differences between Mechanistic Formalism, Organic Formalism, Systemic Formalism and Linguistic Formalism. The differences hardly matter given our conceptual distance from any of these sub-stances.
  4. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines … ” Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. 1925. A poem became a machine for meaning about the same time a house became a machine for living. 
  5. The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I contains no reference to Shklovsky or even to Brecht but the question of what is intrinsic to architecture and nothing else is one Patrik Schumacher had to answer if he was to argue for the autonomy of architecture and for it being a great function system of society rather than a mere subset of the art system. His suggested answer is in the book’s final chapter I still haven’t gotten around to writing about.

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Unimagining the Brick

Frank Lloyd Wright and his Froebel® blocks are the main reason we associate building blocks with the nurturing of architectural creativity. The great man himself told us it was so. The blocks may well have been responsible for Wright’s early mastery of horizontal and vertical massing but they might also explain his persistent aversion to diagonals and his creepy, late-in-life fascinations with circles.

Building blocks such as LEGO® [hereinafter, LEGO] have also been part of the lives of many children who did not all become architects. They could be used in many ways and to make many things. The were important for developing spatial ability in children and parents could also enjoy them in their own way. Parents must also have appreciated them being many toys in one and that requests for more pieces were easily and inexpensively satisfied – a state of affairs beneficial to everyone except the manufacturers. What the Lego company decided it needed was a product that discouraged disassembly and subsequent re-use and instead encouraged repeat purchases of one-off kits.

By 2014 the business turnaround of the Lego company was legendary. [1] The 1977 movie Star Wars had been the first movie to aggressively pursue tie-ins with all manner of products and companies.

The Lego company joined the party in 1999 in time for Star Wars Episode 1The first sets were released under the LEGO System brand and consisted of eight sets from Episode I and five sets from the original trilogy films, including the first LEGO Star Wars X-wing and Snowspeeder. [2]

Being expected to cheer at the Lego company’s business turnaround is yet another manifestation of the neoliberal pandemic that blinds us to seeing anything in terms other than dollar value. We don’t even think it odd anymore to talk about the worth of a movie in terms of its opening weekend gross, a footballer in terms of their transfer fee, or an architectural practice in terms of turnover or how many fee-generating architects it employs. 

Lego’s business problems were solved but it was distressing to watch for anyone raised on the old LEGO that had generic pieces and came without instructions. All the new LEGO required was the ability to follow instructions and diagrams and arrive at somebody else’s result. This used to be called construction – and we still need people who are good at that. What we don’t need is for creativity to be redefined as obedience. Or do we? Children who’ve known nothing else but new LEGO are about to graduate architecture school and we’ll soon see how well they adapt to today’s workforce.

Designing every piece as a special piece discouraged disassembly and the making of anything else but there would always be a steady stream of new kits to buy/make. The potential to creatively combine pieces was still represented by residual studs on larger pieces but the things most likely to be creatively added were minifigure characters that redefined creative play as the re-enactment of scenes from movies.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-04-at-6.39.01-PM.png

The CREATOR and Architecture series [3] came along to show the link between LEGO and architectural creativity remained, even if as one-off kits that could only make one thing. Initial sets such as the 2009 Fallingwater and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the 2011 Farnsworth House and the 2012 Sydney Opera House were spectacularly unlike what they purported to represent, further cementing the belief that shape was the only thing in architecture that mattered.

These representations of architectural creativity made them ideal gifts for architects. The 2013 Sydney Opera House was an improvement in terms of realism but the series name CREATOR was a misnomer.

These next three buildings embody a certain notion of architectural creativity but their shapes simply don’t do what LEGO does best. I don’t think we’ll be seeing them as LEGO kits anytime soon but, after seeing Marina Bay Sands above, who knows? 

LEGO’s limitations may become apparent when representing certain architectural ideas about shape, but it has even greater limitations when representing any architectural idea that isn’t about shape. We won’t be seeing these next buildings immortalized in LEGO anytime soon.

Gary Garvin already did Dessau. [4]

Occasionally, we hear of rogue artists using LEGO in the disobedient ways of art, such as Nathan Sawayas [5] and his deconstructed figures, Jan Vorman’s [5] repairing of war-ravaged walls, and Wei Wei’s use of donated (i.e. unapproved = “non-LEGO”) bricks for an exhibition of portraits of dissidents and political prisoners after the Lego company refused him a bulk purchase [6].

And then there was the LEGO house. Back in 2009 when I didn’t know who James May was, I thought this was an amusing but experimental use of LEGO as a building product until I learned it was built with the expectation of becoming a permanent exhibit at UK’s LEGOLAND®. This means that rather than being conceived of as a good idea, it was conceived as an exhibit and thus no different from any of the buildings at the VITRA zoo. It was stupid of me to imagine it could ever have been anything else. A mass-producible, durable and generic construction material anyone could assemble into buildings of infinite variation was simply too good to be true.

All avenues of escape are being cut off one by one. Even before the circle was finally closed there had been the LEGO meme in architecture [c.f. Architecture Myths #16: Memes]. Buildings were mimicking LEGO before LEGO came to mimic architecture.

It’s as if the world of architecture still wanted us to believe LEGO had a link with creativity long after the Lego company had abandoned its principles for the noisy representation of them. God this postmodern world sucks.

lego-groundbreaking-brian-yang-dezeen

This refusal of the world of architecture to believe what others already accepted created the market for LEGO Architecture Studio. “Anyone with an interest in architecture can now create their own Lego original designs, as well as building mini architectural masterpieces such as the Eiffel Tower and the Trevi Fountain,” gushed a Lego press release quoted on dezeen, as these things are.

Lego-Architecture-studio_dezeen_468_6

This architectural LEGO can be used to represent architectural ideas as long as they don’t involve properties other than shape. I wasn’t the only kid who valued colour as a property of the bricks.

Aspiring adults can now express their creativity through monochromatic models using a curated selection of architectural tropes and memes. It’s all too real for comfort. The architect kit comes with a 250-page guidebook [8] for those who still don’t get it. It’s an important document future scholars will study in order to understand precisely how the world turned to shit.

Then there’s the LEGO Master Builder Academy Designer Handbook [pdf] that teaches you how to be a designer of LEGO models …

I’m probably guilty of finding something more interesting than it actually is, but I chuckled anyway at Amy Frearson’s question to Bjarke Ingels, “Was it something of a given that you would use the LEGO brick as the basis of the design?”  

And so we approach the endgame with architecture going one step further than the LEGO meme by aspiring to be real LEGO architecture – or is that “real” LEGO architecture? It’s tricky. I propose we use doubled quotation marks to indicate those situations when reality and representations of it fold in and over each other like pizza dough, e.g. “”LEGO Architecture.””

There’s only one way this can end. We’re slowly but surely working our way towards a modular construction element that can be combined in infinitely many ways to build anything quickly, cheaply and easily. However, before that can become a product of enormous benefit to the world, there’s still some problems such as security, structural integrity, fire safety, thermal properties and moisture proofing that need to be sorted. In the meantime, we can just pretend they don’t exist so, in that sense, LEGO and architecture are already indistinguishable. 

• • •

  1. One of many articles describing the Lego company’s turnaround as one of the greatest business success stories of all time.
  2. A post on starwars.com telling of fifteen years of LEGO® and STAR WARS™ tie-ins
  3. brickset.com is the eBay of architectural LEGO
  4. There’s a book, The LEGO Architect.
  5. More on LEGO artists Nathan Sawaya and Jan Vorman
  6. The Lego company’s refusal to allow Chinese artist Wei Wei to bulk purchase LEGO has been their only major PR misjudgment we know about.
  7. The 250-page guidebook [pdf (be patient)] accompanying the LEGO Architecture Studio Set has an introductory essay by extrusion-hater Winy Maas, followed by essays and exercises to which invited architects have input. There is REX on Scale, Sō Fujimoto on Space and Section, SOM on Modules and Repetition, MAD Architecture Workshop on Surface, Tham & Videgård Arkitekter Workshop on Mass and Density,  Safdie architects on Symmetry, and KRADS architects who are credited as consulting concept editors [!?] One thing I did learn was that Moshe Safdie used many white LEGO blocks in cluster studies for the apartment modules, gardens and streets of Habitat 67. This makes sense because LEGO was a way of understanding an idea well suited to being understood using LEGO. Elsewhere*, Safdie has said the 2:1 bricks offered the perfect scale.1200px-Habitat_panorama
  8. I was thinking a reverse-engineered Habitat 67 LEGO tribute kit at that scale and with only 1:1 and 2:1 bricks would be a piece of history and a useful tool for everybody to learn about scale, space, section, modules, repetition and symmetry in the same way they informed Safdie’s design. Instead, what happened was the limited-edition sale of a partial model pre-created by Nathalie Boucher. Ingenious as it is, it conveys nothing of how the old LEGO was used creatively to produce the wondrous thing “”LEGO Architecture”” merely depicts. Habitat 67 is a genuine example of old LEGO being used as a creative tool in architecture. It’s no surprise then, that the freestyle creativity LEGO once enabled so generously and silently had to be strategically and noisily supplanted with the dutiful construction of a representation of Habitat 67 as a representation of that creativity.

    One redefinition and two degrees of abstraction now insulate the new creativity from the old. The postmodern world sucked but this neoliberal mutation doublesucks.

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The Extruded Mat Building

Extrusions have been having a hard time lately because their constant cross sections are uncool. I’d like to say a few words in their defence. For starters, many useful things are extrusions. PVC conduits are extrusions and their constant cross sections use a minimum of material to protect the cables within.

Extruded beams use metals less expensive than steel to achieve the same strength as rolled beams. This is more than just a matter of cost because additional functions can be designed into sections that are impossible to fabricate by rolling.

image004.gif

Extruded aluminum or PVC sections for window frames are incredibly complex, with small sectional changes permitting new functions and enabling new properties. Each tiny protrusion works with air gaps and insulation to use the minimum amount of material to bear load, prevent twisting and limit thermal bridging. It is a field of specialist research and design to which people devote careers.

Sausages aren’t extrusions because they assume their final shape after being stuffed into a mold rather than extruded from one.

Concrete columns aren’t extrusions either as they’re made by concrete being poured into a mold and allowed to harden.

Slip-form concrete structures may appear to grow but they’re not extrusions because concrete is set in a formwork mold in a dynamic process but it’s the mold that moves and not the concrete. It’s still a good way of producing concrete structures having constant cross sections useful for elevators, stairs and all manner of shafts. The structures may look the same top to bottom but that’s rarely the case within because stresses such as those caused by uneven wind loading mean the amount and placement of reinforcment is never uniform.

Page 39 of the structural analysis peer review report for 432 Park Avenue recommended the local addition of reinforcement to the northeast corners on levels 25 and 39 in order to handle uplift under certain wind conditions. [c.f. Moneymaking Machines #1 : 432 Park Avenue]

Yes, extrusions are great, but what I object to is people thinking them dull and unimaginative simply because they look the same top to bottom. The word extrusion has come to take on a derogatory meaning that derives from those 3D modelling functions that convert polygons into prisms of arbitrary length. The insinuation is that a building with a repeated floorplate is the result of a simple operation executed thoughlessly and without the input of “creativity”. 

This isn’t saying much because all you have to do to not make your building look like an extrusion is change the plan every now and then to show your building can’t be constructed in the easiest way possible. Whether this is creative or not I don’t know. Some non-extrusions are better value than others but we don’t live in a world that’s ready to have architectural concepts rated in terms of aesthetic efficiency.

Until it ever is, it might be more useful to explore what can be done with extrusions. If they can’t embody creativity as it’s currently defined then it might still be possible for them to embody intelligence or even a certain kind of creative intelligence that doesn’t have to be kept a secret. [c.f. Architecture Myths #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else]

The following layout is of one of those Hong Kong apartment towers typically maligned as extrusions. It has differently-sized apartments arranged around a central core having access and services. All kitchens and bathrooms are naturally ventilated. It needs no ducts for apartment utilities. The only major fault is those living room windows adjacent at 90°.

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With this next configuration, kitchens face into the internal corners and push living room windows away from each other but kitchen odours are more likely to reach them. The dining area has a rear window for cross-ventilation. As long as adjacent buildings aren’t connected, there remains a degree of turbulence that dries laundry on racks accessed from that rear window.

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This next layout uses the same principles but separates the living rooms by 120° instead of 90° and places the kitchens inbetween and thus closer still to the living room windows.

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This next layout takes the kitchens back away from the living room windows that are now mirrored and angled like the previous kitchen ones were. It’s the best solution. Concentric walls allow for various combinations of monolithic and prefabricated construction. As a configuration that integrates sightlines, ventilation, servicing, structure and construction with a functioning floorplan, it’s as close to perfect as anything you’ll ever see.

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Towers having layouts like this are often laid out like at Whampoa Gardens Estate in Hong Kong [and yes, that is a decommissioned ship – I don’t know why]. Here and there you’ll see two buildings linked across one side of the service lightwells but this hasn’t become general practice. It’s easy to see how it would reduce air movement.

At the internal corners of these superblocks, adjacent living rooms face a gap where a fourth building would complete a habitable room light well. This is the principle of the following proposal.

Imagine a city of perimeter blocks where all habitable rooms now face the courtyards and streets are overbuilt apart from shafts servicing the non-habitable rooms. What we get is a building experienced around negative space. Instead of buildings interrupting space, we have space interrupting a building.

The Extruded Mat Building

1. Take a perfect layout.

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2. Extrude 5-7 storeys. Repeat horizontally to make a mat building.

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3. Elevate to activate access, airflow, and vegetation.

The elevated mat building makes its own context. It is not experienced as a building object in a landscape or city but from within apartments arranged around extruded shafts of airspace. This isn’t a new idea.  

What is new is that those shafts are now 360° and the only views out are up to the sky and down to the ground. And it’s ok. Diagonally opposite living room windows face each other across a distance of about 26.6m which is about ten metres more than the distance at which subtle facial expressions are supposed to cease to be readable, thus ensuring emotional if not visual privacy. The distance between opposing bedroom windows is 20.9m which is almost five metres greater than the UK standards I’m familiar with. These distances aren’t setbacks or spacings liable to violation – they’re inbuilt and permanent. 

The extruded mat building is its own view and its own streets and its own city irrespective of site and location. It exists already as shopping malls and might be a useful typology in a future in which the good sites are all taken and the good views all built out.

Having more storeys means the sky and ground become further away and though this will limit daylight penetration it may well enhance ventilation. The tradefoff is a no-brainer in the higher latitudes but, if we’re in the tropics, better ventilation is preferable to sunlight streaming through the windows.

According to Obrist and Koolhaas, architecture is A) a Western construct and B) about stylistic “movements” because C) Japanese Metabolism was the first time a non-Western movement “contributed” to Architecture. If one accepts A and B then C is true but it’s still one temperate-zone architecture contributing to another. A significant amount of the planet’s population lives between 23°26’22″S and 23°26’22″N where the sun passes directly overhead.

The tropics have their own truths that a Western, northern-hemisphere, higher-latitude centric architecture that values sunlight is insensitive to. Even a conception of architecture as masses brought together in light makes little sense in places where the sun shines straight down.

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Misfits’ Guide to HONG KONG

The previous post began with an exhibition about the Japanese house, architecture and life after 1945. This one begins with an exhibition about the Hong Kong apartment, buildings and living after 1945.

Housing Authority Exhibition Centre
4F, Block 3, Housing Authority Headquarters, 80 Fat Kwong St, Ho Man Tin, Kowloon

The exhibition deals with the story of public housing in Hong Kong. In 1945 its population was 600,000. Over the next five years, 1.5 million people would either return to it or flee to it. 

The exhibition describes the incremental improvements to facilities and increases in floor area per person and the differences they made. It explains how the method of construction changed to keep up with demand and how management and maintenance regimes adapted to extract maximum performance from precious housing stock.

There’s information on changes in housing policy, home ownership schemes, design for the elderly, sustainable practices and site-specific design. Airflow around buildings is now an important part of sustainable practices and site-specific design is becoming more important now it’s no longer possible to create large sites through reclamation.

Over fifty years, tower design has evolved (in the true sense of the word) to embody an enormous amount of intelligence I’ll write about some other time.

The story of Hong Kong is inseparable from the story of public housing and the exhibition was a clear and simple illustration of how people’s lives were changed for the better. A group of junior-school childen was entering as I was leaving. Half of them will live in public housing but for every one of them it’s a part of their history and culture and it cheered me no end to see it being recognized and taught as such.

State Theatre
1952
227-291 Kings Road, Hong Kong

This 1,400 seat theatre with exposed concrete roof truses was the cultural hub of Hong Kong’s classical music scene for many years. Currently derelict, its future is looking very iffy. A developer is circling.

Chungking Mansions, 1962
Lamb Halzeland & Co.
36-44 Nathan Road, TST Kowloon

Chungking Mansions is famous for being a high-density mixed-use housing and retail development although that was never the intention. There are thirteen floors of highly subdivided apartments above two levels of small retail spaces. This is what it looks like without any divisions into retail units, retail spaces, sublets and bedspaces.

Many people who work in the building also live in the building that continues to be an important entry point for immigrants or, in ourspeak, a business incubator. Its vibrance is legendary. It is policed as an extension of the city streets that it is.

There’s something good there. The ground floor has laundries, grocers, fast food, restaurants, and everything else a person might need on a daily basis. Mobile phone and consumer electronics stores let immigrants monetize forgotten skills such as how to fix things and make them last. People might wait for elevators between a Western Union and a grocer. Chungking Mansions works and for reasons that have little to with architecture, shopfitting, interiors and public open space. Retailers who live in the building have a natural and organic attachment to it. This doesn’t happen with the later and more strategically contrived juxtapositions of typologies.

Choi Hung Estate
P&T Architects, 1965
Choi Hung Estate, Wan Tai, Kowloon

The Choi Hung (rainbow, in Cantonese) Estate is from the same era and everybody knows it as one of Hong Kong’s first housing estates. It’s rainbow colours have been maintained and the roof of the car park is host to photographers and other life.

The estate houses about 43,000 people. This is probably why the ground level can sustain a large variety of shops that not only include butchers and various grocery stores, but hairdressers, shoe stores, a store selling only plastic stools, and another only acoustic guitars. This is not a mall. It is housing combined with stores with a full range of daily essentials. Stores are small and their owners seem to spend much time chatting with customers. Despite this development receiving a Hong Kong Association of Architects’ Silver Award in 1965, we fail to recognise anything here that resembles architecture as we now know it. This is our loss because residents and retailers combine to make something special. Perhaps all that’s needed is for architecture to not work against it.

Montane Mansion
Hong Kong Housing Authority 1972
1028 King’s Rd, Quarry Bay

Montane Mansion is big and densely-packed E-shaped building fronting King’s Road. Around the back it’s a photographer magnet responsible for this building’s huge presence on Instagram. The classic shot is the rectangle of sky, preferably in early evening when apartment lights are coming on. At eye level however are laundries, hairdressers, stores selling oranges, and shopkeepers observing the strange behaviour of visitors.

Montane Mansion ends the street well despite its long side not following the curve of the street in order to be beautiful.

The Hong Kong Tram
Hong Kong Island

Hong Kong Island has the world’s only double-decker tram fleet of 163 trams that carry around 230,000 passengers per day. Their design has had various updates since they were first introduced in 1904 but all still have the same boxy teak carriages and oddly short wheelbase. The most recent change is the addition of a smile [see image above]. A single journey costs HK$2.30 (US$0.30) irrespective of journey length.

Exits A1 and C1, HKU Station
MTR (Mass Transit Railway), Hong Kong
Exits A1, A2 and C1, HKU Station, Hong Kong

With two stops and eighteen floors from subway concourse to university concourse, these subway exits are a useful means of public transport and vertical extensions of the subway itself. They’re free. Elevator displays show destinations rather than levels. Exit A2 is the express.

Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate (勵德邨)
Hong Kong Housing Authority 1975
2 – 38 Lai Tak Tsuen Road, Tai Hang, Wan Chai District, Hong Kong

It’s not unusual for a Hong Kong apartment tower to have a light well at its middle but having a circular one is. This estate has two pairs of circular buildings, connected like binoculars, with elevators in the middle and open stairs at opposite ends.

Access balconies open directly onto the light well and the open stairs enable roof access. It seems apartment ventilation would be enhanced by such an arrangement but the Venturi Effect [the principle by which a spray gun operates] would only operate in moderate-high winds if the stairwalls were enclosed. The typology was never developed.

Tai Koo Estate
Swire Properties (Developer) 1982 (Phase 1)
18 Taikoo Shing Road, Taikoo Shing

Phase 2 is the block labelled CITY PLAZA in the image below. Imagine a mall covering a city block with three levels above ground and one below, and with parking below that. This forms a podium for nine 100m apartment towers known as HORIZON GARDENS.

The upper three levels are standard mall fare and the basement contains daily essentials. Apartment building entry lobbies are accessed from the sidewalks on the long sides of the mall.

Residents could just cross the street to access the Phase 1 mall and through that Taikoo MTR Station and Kornhill Plaza mall beyond, or they could enter the Phase 2 mall and access it via the wide bridge crossing Taikoo Shing Road.

Peripheral streets are fairly busy with pedestrians because of these access arrangements and amenities such as the waterside Quarry Bay Park are not far away.

Two office buildings linked to the mall by elevated walkways comprise Phases 3 and 4 that replace four apartment towers. This not-so-stealthy gentrification is obvious when older apartment blocks exist in close proximity to the retail and amenity spaces typical of commerical areas.

Pacific Place
Swire Properties (Developer), Wong & Ouyang (Architects), Heatherwick Studio (refurbishment)
88 Queensway, Admiralty, Hong Kong

This mall has no obvious gimmicks so I was surprised to learn that most of what I liked is the result of a 2007 refurbishment by Heatherwick Studio. The format for mall and store signage is unified throughout but those rules are broken for the more exclusive stores on the uppermost and lowers floors, as well as for the cineplex anchor.

There is timber on soffits and clear (curved!) glass balustrades with curved timber handrails, and a palette of neutrals. Escalator grab rails are brown.

There aren’t any concessions monetizing walkways as they obstruct them. There is only one double-sided display advertising in-mall promotions. The one event space is not constantly in use. All this is refreshing. Food and beverage outlets on the lowest level do not become a Food Court. A Starbucks is tucked away in a corner beneath escalators. Background music was slightly up-tempo around lunchtime but is generally low-key and low-volume. Think Julee Cruise’s Floating Into The Night.

The layout is easily understood and non-coercive. Contrary to the tenets of mall design, elevators and escalators are positioned where people might need them and without devious diversions. How to get where you want to is obvious, even if it’s outside. There’s an absence of free attractors such as aquariums or musical fountains animating walkways for the sake of paying people watchers. 

There’s also no attempt to artificially create zones through different flooring or soffit finishes. The one flooring is used throughout with subtle changes in direction of laying and the size of stone. The two-coloured flagstones are laid so the mix changes from “stone” to blue, emphasizing the shopfronts in the same way that waves emphasize a beach.

Glass panels in the rooftop drop-off zone allow a surprising amount of light into the mall. Natural light is all that’s needed to show natural materials to advantage but delicate chandeliers display clouds of pink and blue light that add base and top notes to the colour balance. They’re a thing to behold.

Artificial light also complements natural light elsewhere. Where skyligthts aren’t possible, light fittings in ceiling coffers continue the pattern.

At podium level are entrances to two office towers, three hotels and a hotel apartment tower. All except this last have direct access to the mall and metro station, as well as other buildings connected either above or below ground as is the Hong Kong way.

Queensway Plaza
Queensway, Hong Kong

Even though the experience is almost entirely internal, Pacific Place still has a sense of being a building with site boundaries and a shape and identity. Queensway Plaza doesn’t. You could pass through it without even knowing it. It’s still very much a mall with space either side of thoroughfares monetized as retail. Its thoroughfares link Pacific Place and at least three other office towers horizontally but also the bus station at ground level and the Admiralty MTR station below. It’s at the centre of everything in the map below but has next to zero external physical presence.

The internal experience is like those duty-free corridors that now line most major airports. You’re not expected to linger but to buy and move on. I wouldn’t be surprised if footfall makes it the most cost-effective retail space in Hong Kong.

The exterior turned out to be unimportant. Corbusian spouts pointlessly pour water as paint peels off the architectural stairwell. A light well remains defiantly magical.

Nam Long Shan Road Cooked Food Market
Nam Long Shan Road, Aberdeen, Hong Kong

This building is also unprepossessing from the street. Two wings of three floors are separated by a sliver of courtyard. It’s where people come to eat, and the building lets them do that with a bit of ceremony and in all the comfort they need.

Hong Kong Electric Building
Connaught Road Central, Hong Kong

I know nothing about this building but I’ve called it the Hong Kong Electric Building because of the logo on it. It has the mystery of a utilities building and appears slightly sinister due to its unrevealing exterior and dominant position along Connaught Road Central [c.f. The New Inhumanism]. Much like a Shin Takamatsu building, it is decorative and symbolic in ways we can’t relate to, as if it was an artefact from the future.

Asia Society
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects 2012
9 Justice Dr, Admiralty, Hong Kong

This building is difficult to photograph because it’s not so much a building but a program of additions to “a group of four former British military buildings originally built by the British Army in the mid-19th century for explosives and ammunition production and storage. It was then expanded and taken over by the Royal Navy in the early 20th century. The site was later abandoned in 1990s until it was granted to the Asia Society Hong Kong for adaptive reuse.”*  There are many of the juxtapositions of new and old that characterize adaptive reuse.

As it’s an art gallery, those additions involve an entrance lobby, cafeteria, store and a small amphitheatere. A new bridge elbows around a breeding ground for fruit bats and leads to the galleries.

The star attraction is Hong Kong itself. To one side of the bridge is the steep mountainside host to the bat habitat, and on the other is airspace and beyond that the city. Hong Kong is full of such juxtapositions but the boundaries were as soft and blurred as they could ever be on a bridge. I like that the bridge balustrade does its fencing thing and that plants do their growing thing in the same place.

The open upper level of the two-storey bridge leads back to a roof garden event space and the elevator down.

Union Square Development
Terry Farrel & Partners (masterplanners), ongoing
1 Austin Road West, West Kowloon

The MTR (Mass Transit Railway) is now Hong Kong’s dominant player in housing development since it can sell the air rights above newly-built subway stations in much the same way as happened with Grand Central Station. The mall+apartment tower hybrid is now a subway+mall+apartment tower hybrid and the result is privately owned public infrastructure. On the surface, everybody seems to win.

Between the station and the apartment towers is public open space as well as outdoors F&B outlets. It wasn’t horrible. There was security and card access to the residential towers via some communal open space, but the public open space is of limited use as open space even when it is open to the public between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm.

This development was rightly criticised for being an island with no connection to its surroundings. I searched in vain for an exit to a street. Union Square is up against the Hong Kong Island cross-harbour road/tunnel entry to its west but, when the time comes to do so, future foobridges will no doubt connect it to developments currently being constructed to the south, north and east.

Opus Hong Kong
Frank Gehry, 2012
53 Stubbs Road, Hong Kong

Frank Gehry’s Fred and Ginger reprise spawned Asia’s most expensive residences. The building is often photographed as a solitary blot on a pristine mountainside. I was pleased that’s not exactly the case but even relatively isolated developments such as this will attract infill development and further dilute Hong Kong’s unique juxtapositions of nature and artifice.

Clague Garden Estate (祈德尊新邨)
P&T Architects, 1989
Tsuen Wan

Three 40-storey apartment towers contain 552 apartments for rent and 926 for sale. Additional low-rise buildings mean some 6,700 people live in 1,800 apartments having areas between 21m²  and 55 m². I’ve doctored this generic plan to show how apartment access is configured

Towers with H-shaped corridors have been split, the two halves offset and every third level reconnected with bridges, elevators and garbage rooms. Every 36 apartments share a communal volume internally overlooked by all stairs as well as some kitchens and bedrooms [c.f. The Landscape Within].

Stairwells serve as fire stairs and have apartments at half landings so as to minimise unlit corridor length. Balustrades are solid where there is a building-height void but are open railings when there is a three-storey void. This next image is an enlargement of the top right image above. Deep beams supporting the bridges have openings to lessen the enclosure of the uppermost stairs, creating sight lines to the stairs beyond.

This may be feng-shui at work or it may just be a nice thing to do. On both sides every thirteen or so floors are circular moon-gates. These might have been provided to guide dragons descending the nearby mountains or they might have been provided to give a public scale to the building when seen from the street.

The building has three different scales and each is appropriate for the scale at which the building is comprehended. Occupants are aware of all three as they move from their own space to have an awareness of their own place within their community of 36 apartments, of their community’s place within the building, and of their building’s place in the city and landscape. We can’t really ask a building to do more.

• • •

Thanks: 

  • to Gabriel for letting me know about Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate and for the heads up on trends in estate development
  • to Sebastien for taking me to see Clague Garden Estate and for suggesting I visit Nam Long Shan Road Cooked Food Market and Queensway Plaza
  • to Nik for suggesting I see State Theatre and for taking me to J. Boroski Hong Kong
  • to Tom for introducing me to Macau
  • to Nasrine for suggesting I visit Pacific Place and Asia Society
  • to Trent and all the utopian urbanists from the University of Queensland
  • to everyone at the Hong Kong Housing Authority Exhibition Centre

 

Madame Butterfly

Japanese people don’t all live in houses like the one above but how are we ever going to know? I left the recent Barbican exhibition The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 wondering what anyone can ever know about anything but decided to defer judgment until I’d gone through the catalogue.

Pippo Ciorra told of Bruno Taut’s first trip to Japan in 1933. I imagined Taut taking off his shoes, being amazed at the shoji slid open for him, sitting uncomfortably on a zabuton around a low square table in the centre of the reception room. Later, he would have been offered a yukata, instructed in how to use the furo, been appalled by the benjo and, unused to futon, sleeping fitfully. In the morning, he would have looked in the kitchen and seen mackerel being grilled and misoshiru and rice prepared for breakfast back at the same low table now set with plates of nori and (as it was Kansai) bowls of nattō.

The novelty of things new and foreign would have compensated for much, but Taut was having to adapt to every single one of the basic activities of living being satisfied in ways totally different to what he was used to. That next day, his friend took him to see Katsura Imperial Palace and Taut had some sort of epiphany, seeing proto-modern architecture and clarity and beauty everywhere. It was the beginning of our love affair with Japanese architecture. Even now it has little to do with the houses in which people actually live.

Two years prior, Japan had invaded and annexed Manchuria but that’s not another story because, if there hadn’t been a 1931 there wouldn’t have been a 1945 for this exhibition to pick up from and show us what happened after modernity arrived in Japan in the form of Western influence. This exhibition is about our history of the Japanese house and its relationship to architecture and life. It is about us. We never get to find out what Japanese houses were like before 1945.

Just as Taut saw Modernism at Katsura, Japanese people saw Japan in Kenzo Tange’s 1953 own house. Everyone else saw something a Japanese acolyte of Le Corbusier might design. The same could be said for Kazuo Shinohara’s first house, the 1954 House in Kugayama but, using steel as it did, more with respect to Mies. We’re predisposed towards liking things that suggest how we should understand them.

These most widely circulated photographs of these houses conceal their pitched roofs from us. As for the Shinohara house, we have only this illicit photograph of a model.

Both houses were completed within a year of each other and this closeness in time suggests we understand them as the Farnsworth House and Glass House of the Far East. The two are always presented together as having equivalent historical importance despite Tange never designing another in his long career and Shinohara doing little else for the first thirty years of his. In 1962 Shinohara made the claim that “Houses are Art” and we’ve being seeing Japanese houses as art ever since. This exhibition did nothing to discourage us.

There was much architecture on display but little life apart from some vintage photographs of non-Japanese inside houses,

and a photo of Tange in his garden, encapsulating the exhibition title in a single staged shot. [It doesn’t look like Tange was very good at throwing balls – at least not in the proximity of early Tarō Okamoto sculptures.] 

The absence of people and traces of living is nothing new in architectural photography but Shinohara was also to make that into an art. This book claims it was to recreate the same degree of abstraction as Japanese life and the syntax of Japanese architecture he had extracted.

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Maybe. I just remember him saying he had no interest in his houses after the clients moved in. This statement doesn’t travel as well, but it’s not a contradiction. Either way, it’s a shame because interesting things happen when real living collides with some of Shinohara’s houses. Architecture and life shouldn’t be incompatible, but nor should they be forced to become an interior representing both while being neither.

Such an attitude doesn’t fit our image of what Japanese architecture should be and Shinohara (left) and later architects (right) have obliged us ever since with photographs such as these.

Our history of Japanese architecture was presented back at us, such as the story about Toyo Ito’s U-House for his sister after the death of her husband. Can Architecture Heal Loss? Apparently it can, because the family moved out when it was time, the house was demolished and an apartment block built in its place.

Poor us though! We’ve been grieving for this house ever since, keeping it alive in our memories and, last year, even reincarnating it for this same exhibition when it appeared at MAXXI.

It’s enough to make one think architecture has little to do with actual buildings, that people’s lives and architecture exist independently of the buildings that once nurtured them, and that the purpose of buildings is to enable lives to be lived as a footnote to the goal of generating architecture. Other suspicions we have of Japanese houses were also confirmed.

Japanese houses are small

Japanese houses are different

Attempting to extract the wisdom of vernacular and anonymous architecture is now a hot topic East and West. For example, the 2017 recipient of the Wheelwright Prize intends to “study the traditions and methods that enable formal architecture to operate within the paradigm of projectless environments, sensitive to the potential cultural frictions associated with restructuring problematic settlements.”  I hope this turns out to be part of a genuine movement to apply the embodied intelligence of vernacular architectures and not some quest akin to combing the rainforests for patentable products instead of cures.

Japanese live in unorthodox ways

The exhibition had animations and movie clips with houses and people moving around (or not) but the takeaway was fuzzy. Soon after, I watached Ozu’s Tokyo Story that has much sitting and moving around. I saw the [“うらら“] beauty salon Koichi’s wife runs from the ground floor of their house, with occupants and clients sharing the same entrance. Having a home business on the ground floor was the norm with machiya [c.f. The Japanese Machiya] but also extremely common in houses in the post-war years.

Once, I went to the house of a friend and, in the space where I expected the reception room to be, his wife was pouring buckets of plastic pellets into a huge injection molding machine that made orange plastic stays to keep the tone arms of record players in place during transit.  

A single anecdote of mine isn’t conclusive but saying Atelier Bow Wow’s combining of office and living functions recalls traditional urban building types doesn’t say much either. Even the tradition being alluded to is that of machiya and not the heroic live/work units that existed well into the 1980s.

Japanese appreciate Purity of Form

No they don’t – we do! The model of Ando’s Sumiyoshi House on display was the same one last seen at the 2014 Venice Bienalle.

It was still perpetrating our belief that Japanese appreciate purity of form rather than letting us accept the as-built reality of the house. [c.f. Architectural Myths #6: Purity of Form] Our understanding of the Japanese house is what we want our understanding of the Japanese house to be. Japanese architects understand that but we still don’t.

Japanese people live with their stuff artfully arranged

Japanese would see the bathroom below as a Western-style bathroom but to us it’s just a bathroom, albeit a spartan one. Even if this mock-up does approximate the bathroom at Moriyama House (towards the centre of the plan below), it tells us nothing of Japanese bathing habits, or of any shift in bathing habits that may have occurred since 1945.

Similarly, the kitchen tableau (of the room at the top left in the plan above) confirms our belief Japanese live with not much stuff and in a super-organized way. I have my own doubts as to its fidelity but won’t nitpick. I feel for the curators – it must have been like trying to improvise a Henry VIII costume using only things in your living room and wardrobe.

SANAA’s Moriyama House is neither representative of Japanese houses or even how they’re lived in and, because of that, was an excellent choice to reinforce what we like to believe about both. People moved in and around the downstairs mock-ups as if they were in IKEA bemused at how “A family of six lives in this 30m² house!”

Japanese have an aesthetic non-Japanese are incapable of understanding

Balancing the selective mock-ups of SANAA’s Moriyama House was a setting, the primary purpose of which was to make real some kind of mythical Japan-land that exists in the Western psyche. A rock garden is suggested by an abundance of coarse gravel islands bounded by rope. Curious mossy mounds suggest Chinese landscapes. For such a major element of Japanese living, tatami were oddly absent, even in Terunobu Fujimori’s charred-timber clad tea-house-esque construction.

And so it was I wondered if it was really possible to know anything about anything unless it’s presented to us as what we know already. It’s cliché to say travel writing tells more about the traveller than the place but so do travelling exhibitions.

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I’ve written all this as if the exhibition were still on at The Barbican – it’s not. Here’s a preview from before the exhibition opened on March 23,

high tea

and here’s another from The Guardian, after the opening. This review on Archinect, is best of the three.

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The catalogue turned out to be very interesting, covering topics and providing information the exhibit could only hint at.

Apart from the four introductory essays at the beginning and some architect biographies at the end, the same content will appear as this ja+u special issue.

 

Seventy-five houses are organized into themes that are somewhat arbitrary but, (if they’re not going to use sleeping, cooking, eating, bathing, sitting and shitting) then they’re as good as any others. Japaneseness is an important one, and illustrated by the Tange and Shinohara houses already mentioned. Mass Production was perfunctorily dealt with. Lightness might have told us more if it’d stuck to physical lightness rather than overstretch it to include Kikutake’s concrete-y Sky House. Truth is though, there’s so much diversity in these modern architect-designed Japanese house that no set of categories is ever going to suffice.

The invention and diversity in Japanese houses post-1945 can be thought of as the Japanese idea that houses are Art coupling with the Western notion that houses are for the display of Individuality. For non-Japanese, the idea that a house is art is an extremely seductive one and, for Japanese, the idea that a house can be used to express individuality is equally powerful. This marriage of convenience gave us the Japanese house as a conceptual post-war baby and we’re endlessly fascinated seeing ourselves in the fruit of this union.

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The Sheltering Sky

Last century, mechanical services and artificial lighting enabled environmental control to levels previously unimaginable. Eliminating windows from non-habitable rooms enabled deep office floor plans. Apartment buildings such as Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive clustered non-habitable rooms for ease of servicing. [c.f. The Big Brush] With office buildings, reduced surface area allowed volume to be enclosed more efficiently and, with apartment buildings, the proportionally more surface area for value-adding views enabled higher returns on investment. All this was known as the International Style.

Prior to mechanical services, trompe l’oeil artificially fulfilled one of the functions of windows by simulating the appearance of windows and sky. It made no difference to daylight or ventilation but provided the sensation of a landscape more desirable beyond.

Techniques and preferences have changed over the centuries but our current preference is for floor-to-ceiling photographs in which idyllic landscapes feature bigly.

Murals and wraps do the same for building exteriors. Here’s something you don’t see very often: a photograph of a building, distressed to make it look like a mural and not the photograph it is, applied as a wrap to a building to make it not look like the building it is.

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The last time we saw internal trompe l’oeil variants however, was the realtime virtual windows adding value amidships on cruise liners. [c.f. Machine for Living]

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Doing without windows through choice as with the home cinemas of Australian suburban houses, is something different. When present at all, windows face boundary fences, guaranteeing the real window is kept curtained so as to not distract from the more appealing virtual experiences onscreen.

Modern electronics stores have arrays of enormous screens displaying various drone flyovers, tropical birds, fish, flowers, flashy graphics and hairy monsters all competing to impress us with real black, vibrant colours and the illusion of depth. This modern trompe l’oeil offers us windows to virtual realities more entertaining than the real ones we have.

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If it’s only a matter of illumination and not view, ventilation or entertainment, then light tubes (a.k.a. solar tubes) can be employed to bring daylight into deep plans and internal rooms. They are popular in Australia.

The desire to have additional illumination entering a space from above is usually satisfied by skylights but not everyone is lucky enough to live beneath a roof having the sky directly above.

Skylights therefore indicate that you don’t live in an apartment building or, if you do, that you live in the penthouse. If skylights are sufficiently large then indoors becomes virtual outdoors as suggested by this next slightly surreal photograph shot as part of an advertisement. Sharp shadows suggest it was set up and taken outdoors so as to convey the effect of being outside.

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[What follows is not a paid advertisement btw. GM]

The Italian company CoeLux now produces “artificial windows” that reproduce the effect of daylight and, going by these photographs, are very convincing. All images are from their website.

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I don’t have technical details and I doubt too many will be forthcoming, but “nanotechnology is employed to create the effect of  a realistic sun perceived at infinite distance and surrounded by a clear deep blue sky”. We’re told it’s the result of “comprehensive work carried on by an interdisciplinary team of researchers in the fields of optical physics, numerical modelling, chemistry, material science, architecture and design.” I’m sure it is and well done everybody! Installation requires a certain but not unreasonable depth of ceiling, but these fittings aren’t conventional light boxes. I’m intrigued by how parallel the rays are. I’m guessing that’s nanoparticles on the reflector at work.

It seems like the best way we have so far to bring light to windowless rooms. Cruise liners will be a large market, but there might be real health and/or psychological benefits to be gained in crew quarters and workspaces of not just cruise liners but of seagoing vessels in general and submarines in particular.

We really shouldn’t be calling them artificial windows but light fittings, for that’s what they are. As with the real sky, the familiar blue results from other wavelengths being absorbed so that’s no cheat. CoeLux deserve credit for producing solar elevation and colour temperature variations. It may not be possible to dim the light source but it will be someday. A timer-controlled dimmer simulating the diurnal cycle might provide further benefits for well-being. This would need syncing with the solar angle for, in the lower latitudes, the sun dives down into the horizon almost vertically and the transition between day and night is fast. The photograph below is from Dubai (at 25.2°N). I took it at 1858 on July 30. Sunset was at 1905. Forty minutes later it was night.

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But how real does a window simulator need to be?

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We don’t yet know what the architectural implications will turn out to be. Daylighting to habitable rooms is already covered by building regulations and, for that reason, it is important this invention remain classified a light fitting and not a window. Nonetheless:

  1. It might be less jarring and more psychologically comfortable to have transition zones between internal spaces that are sunny mediterranean and perimeter ones that most likely are not. Seeing both at once doesn’t seem like a good idea.
  2. The purpose of these devices is not to show us realtime video of the sky for doing so would involve a trade-off between environmental simulation and effectiveness as a light fitting. (There’s no point entering a room and switching on the sky only to find it black with realtime rain – or night.)
  3. Similarly, there’s little point switching on the sky when all you want to do is use the bathroom and get back to sleep. We’re now used to electronic devices having night-shift so our sleep patterns are disturbed less but the real sun and sky don’t have night-shift and there’s probably a reason for that. We’ll need to learn when to use this new technology and when artificial light is sufficient. We probably won’t. 

We also need to remember that these artificial windows are designed to deliver light having an incident angle and colour temperate characteristics similar to what we’re used to. They’re not trying to be beautiful and they’re not trying to be Art – unlike James Turrell’s real hyper-real windows that are. Their knife-edge thin frames make us see the sky as a surreal high-definition projection and, counter-intuitive as that sounds, make us appreciate it anew as the stunningly changeable three-dimensional event it is.

If only all windows could be like that.

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Still on the subject of windows, it’s big thanks and hats off to Alex Hummel Lee [PhD. Fellow of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture] for alerting me to the orientation of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda [c.f. Architecture Myths #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else]. Contrary to what I’d unthinkingly assumed from every plan I’d ever seen, the four porticos do not face the cardinal points.

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What this means is that daylighting to all rooms is as equalized as much as it’s ever going to be. My point about Palladio using the same window size for all windows of a floor regardless of their orientation still holds, but the differences are less. Orienting the building in this manner is the right thing to do but we shouldn’t forget this is a problem Palladio made for himself – probably because of the site.

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Since Palladio thought it relevant to mention “The most beautiful vistas on every side,” I imagine that’s where the idea of having four sides identical came from.

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The room on the due-north corner is unlikely to have been a kitchen but, if the principal daytime room is the room on the corner facing due south, then we can probably say Palladio had an awareness of solar orientation. I say probably because the direction of approach and the direction of the views from the major rooms would still have been considerations.

We know the main approach was from the north-west but, without a north point and information on room allocation, it’s anyone’s guess how the plan was oriented. We know Palladio knew some rooms would be more comfortable than others at certain times and seasons [c.f. Architecture Myths #224: Beauty vs. Everything Else] so it’s possible the usage of the various rooms was never defined. [There’s no point if you have servants to set food and relevant furniture wherever you wish to eat, for example.] The villa was lived in full-time by Paolo Almerico [Vicenza, 1514–1589] so it was no decadent folly for summer weekends only. More information about what went on inside might tell us more about how skilled Palladio was at enabling it but, rather than lurk around dim and fusty libraries, here’s a better way of finding out.

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