Clarity & Consistency in Architecture

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, I re-read Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.

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First published in 1966, and since translated into 16 languages, this remarkable book has become an essential document of architectural literature. A “gentle manifesto for a nonstraightforward architecture” [.]

But what exactly is an essential document of architectural literature? Is it something that still has something to teach us, or merely something that is famous for having been famous once? If so, when did it become irrelevant? Did anyone ever refute it? Is it beyond criticism? In short, was it a good way for things to go?

In 1977 in a note to the second edition, Venturi himself answers some of these questions by saying he wished the title had been Complexity and Contradiction in Architectural Form. He also suggested “the book might be read today [1977] for its general theories about architectural form but also as a particular document of its time, more historical than topical” but YOU CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS! All books are destined to become particular documents of their time and the same goes for their contents. However, it is possible to read (or even mis-read or mis-understand) something historic and discover something new and of relevance. I hope that will be the case but I don’t warm to the opening sentence.

“I like complexity and contradiction in architecture.”

Everyone has the right to an opinion but, more importantly, when attempting any kind of intellectual exploration into architectural aesthetics, trying to first make some sense out of what one likes is a reasonable and obvious place to begin. Three paragraphs in however we begin get a clearer view of where this is going.

“Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. 

Is MoMA on some sort of mission to publish books reducing architecture to questions of visuals every thirty-five years? If so, we’re well overdue for another. One thing the Post-Modern era taught us was to beware the quotation mark.

I like elements which are hybrid other than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse rather than impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than “simple,” vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear.

We now know hybrid turned out to be “hybrid,” compromising to be “compromising;” distorted, “distorted;” ambiguous, “ambiguous;” perverse, “perverse;” boring, “boring;” conventional, “conventional;” and redundant, “redundant.”

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Here’s a column with some “redundant” structural capacity.

Complexity and contradiction turned out to be “complexity” and “contradiction” as contrived and predictable as the “simplicity” and “straightforwardness” they set out to replace.

Just as Modernism had done fifty years earlier, Venturi was proposing a “new” way to continue the churn of style replacement that stands for progress in architecture. For that, he and his book were rewarded with everlasting fame. What Venturi offered was the easiest option available at the time. Googie was a growing force but it was insufficiently pretentious – it was popular instead of “popular.”

[c.f. Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell

As early as 1937 Haskell had published pieces such as “Architecture on Routes US 40 and 66” and suggested that designers could learn “in the country of the automobile,” by studying places that “are growing with the people themselves”. 

1937–: Haskell observed the architecture of popular culture
1952: Haskell identified Googie architecture
1958: Haskell claimed Times Square was all right
1966: Robert Venturi claimed in C&C “Main Street is almost all right”
1972: RV (now with Denise Scott-Brown) claimed things could be learned from Las Vegas.

Around the same time, dissatisfaction with the status quo was about to produce experiments into temporary and biomorphic architecture at SCI-ARC. [c.f: Career Case Study #3: Glen Howard Small]

Inflatable architecture was a reaction against the rigid lines of what Modernism had become but it was attractive to all the wrong people.
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And some of it was just weird. This is the 1967 Dyodon experimental pneumatic house by Jean-Paul Jungmann. I think I remember this building from UK House & Garden report on the 1969 The House of Today competition. If I remember rightly, Richard Rogers came third with the Zip-Up House he’s been showing us ever since.

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Over in Japan, the Metabolists were doing their thing but they were big on ideas but short on buildability. Plus, they were East not West.

UK’s Archigram always seemed to promise more fun than they were capable of delivering.

America simply wasn’t interested in Brutalism, or in houses built from concrete. [c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]

Over in Venice in 1953, Ignazio Gardella had designed Casa alle Zattere, a studiously polite house contemporary commentators such as Reyner Banham were at a loss to explain as it was neither Modernist nor Historicist.

casa-delle-zattere-ignazio-gardella-venice-1958

Significant mid-sixties buildings didn’t propose the future Venturi was seeing in the past.

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What was needed was something cheap and cheerful, didn’t threaten the 2×4 industry, was achieveable rather than visionary, and carried some authority. It all sounded like a job for … HISTORY! – or at least trickery with arches, columns and cornices.

“Like all original architects, Venturi makes us see the past anew.”

Vincent Scully didn’t backtrack in the 1977 update to his original introduction. It’s all good stuff and I agree wholeheartedly – until the bit highlighted.

The book itself is organised into chapters with the following titles.

  1. Nonstraightforward Architecture: A Gentle Manifesto
  2. Contradiction and Contradiction vs. Simplifiction or Picturesqueness
  3. Ambiguity
  4. Contradictory Levels: The Phenomenon of Both-And in Architecture
  5. Contradicatory Levels Continued: The Double-Functioning Element
  6. Accomodation and the Limitations of Order: The Conventional Element
  7. Contradiction Adapted
  8. Contradiction Juxtaposed
  9. The Inside and the Outside
  10. The Obligation Towards the Difficult Whole

Ambiguity deals with questions such as those posed by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.  “Is it a square plan or not?” Venturi asks to anyone who cares and, in 1966, many people probably still did.

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Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier are mentioned with the reverence accorded the recently deceased. Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn were the new greatest living architects used to represent opposite architectural positions now both closer to the middle. Venturi occasionally used Le Corbusier’s projects to illustrate what wasn’t good, but mostly to illustrate what was. Villa Savoye alone is capable of supporting or contradicting most thoughts about architecture but, as ever, its prime function when referenced in architectural discourse is to show one is talking about Architecture.

  • In Chapter 4 (p23) on Contradictictory Levels, Villa Savoye is mentioned as being simple outside yet complex inside, as if it’s the first building that ever was.
  • In Chapter 6 (p41) on The Conventional Element, “the Villa Savoye accomodates the exceptional circumstantial inconsistencies within an otherwise rigid dominant order.”
  • In Chapter 7 (p52) on Contradiction Adapted, “the exceptional diagonal of the ramp is clearly expedient in serction and elevation and allows Le Corbusier to create a strong opposition to the regular order of column bays and envelope.”

The desire to use dubiously revered examples to justify mundane statements is a major fault of this book. In Chapter 5 (p34) on Contradictory Levels Continued, Le Corbusier’s “Algerian project” gets a mention for “contradictorily” combining an apartment house and a highway.

Venturi praises the P.S.F.S. building for the functional honesty of its various volumetric articulations despite part of the office space being given an expression befitting the hidden elevator shafts. He also gets excited about the sign on top.

The fact it can’t be seen from the street is a plus because it’s a bit like van Brugh’s Cloth House in Bruges which, apparently, relates to the entire town from afar (as big things tend to do) but has a violent change of scale with the lower levels that relate to the square. [What does “relate to” mean, anyway? It seems to be being used as shorthand for “a size appropriate to …” – or are we talking about scale?] Going by this photograph, I’d say it’s not just the lower bit that’s “relating to” the square.

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I wondered how far was afar? This next image is from 250 metres away, although the houses wouldn’t have been there in 1280 when the original building and tower were built. The octagonal upper part of the tower was added in 1486. There was also once a spire destroyed in 1493 and in 1741 for good. The points Venturi makes still stand, but it’s wrong to imply this building is the result of a single mind at work. Extensions to buildings are contradictory by nature.

coth hall bruges.jpg

The sheer number of heavyweight examples over the following fifty pages either bludgeon one into submission or compel one to resist. I formed the impression anything can be used to mean anything. Let me illustrate using what’s on my table at the moment.

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  • The binoculars have a shape that is directional but they point downwards, intruigingly.
  • The surface of the table is there but not there at the same time!
  • A laptop is not atop a lap. Why?
  • There is a plant in a pot – or is it a pot with a plant in it? Such tension!

Now let’s try to make some sense out of it.

  1. When we look at the binoculars and laptop and make those observations, we do so with a knowledge of what those objects are. A person who didn’t know what binoculars were or what they did would see no complexity or contradiction. As a theoretical construct, an architecture of complexity or contradiction is never going to be inclusive. The smug elitism of Post-Modern architecture derives from this. [Remember that highlighted bit in Scully’s notes to the second edition?]
  2. Moreover, when we look at the plant and the pot we assume we’re not looking at some work of art demanding we question the nature or validity of its existence. The potplant is no Duchamp nor even a Koons. A theory of complexity and contradiction only works if things are posited as complex or contradictory, i.e. as art. The pretentiousness of Post-Modern architecture derives from this.
  3. Finally, when we look at the table we are seeing or, more importantly, choosing to see more than one aspect of its existence at the same time. I may appreciate its shiny reflectivity but may not when it’s reflecting glare back at me and, even then, I may still appreciate it stopping things falling to the floor when I let go of them. Venturi recognizes the value of pluralism not just between different observers but even for the same observer at different places or times. He repeats Paul Rudolph’s observation that Mies van der Rohe’s buildings are great only because Mies chose to solve only the few problems he felt required solving. What Venturi is proposing is worse in that there are now infinite variables to set up any problem one wishes to show one has solved. The moveable feast that was Post-Modern architecture derives from this.

Overall, I found it bizarre that Venturi could look at innumerable historic and not-so-historic examples of architecture and make what is a wealth of obaervations yet never mention the very same things in unpretentious buildings not considered architecture. The only worth he sees in the circumstantial is in its capacity to produce an intentional effect. This may be intentional, or it may just be how architects looked at things half a century ago. If the latter, it needs putting right. 

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This lighthouse is not a tower in order to appear more imposing when seen from afar but to ensure its beam of light is visible farther out to sea. Yet, [“intruigingly, bizarrely”] it also has small windows to light the stairs so a person can access the beacon room. There’s no contradiction of the type Venturi sees in Lutyen’s unrealized project for Liverpool Cathedral, for example. 

We shouldn’t be amazed to be told people are smaller than buildings. Ah, but it’s still a difference of city scale and human scale you may say. Indeed, but even the glassiest of curtain walls has those same two differences of scale.

glass curtain wall

Sadly, my own counter-investigation into the Baroque period isn’t as thorough as Venturi’s. I have only one example to show. Earlier, I mentioned Ignzaio Gardella’s 1953 Casa alle Zattere in Venice.

Casa alle Zattere.jpg

This 1703 etching shows two buildings on what was to be its site. Their facades aren’t in the same plane as there is a 5° bend where the two sites meet.

Le fabriche, e vedute di Venetia

Sometime not long after 1703, the two sites were combined and the buildings remodelled to create a single building with a symmetrical tripartite facade as was fashionable at the time.

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A continuous facade was created but the angle remained. The former party wall was extended upwards to make it easier to construct the roof. Venturi would draw our attention to how the continuity of the facade is contradicted by its non-planarity and also by the discontinuity of the roof. However, this building is not trying to be complex or contradictory.  The problem of producing a tripartite facade has been solved. The problem of roofing the building has also been solved. The rooftop altana works against the facade symmetry that’s been set up. A drainpipe draws attention to the very angle the symmetry seeks to downplay.

Speaking of drainpipes, an other example of mine is this building you’ll recognize from Misfits’ Guide to Venice as the Palazzo Fondazione Masieri, the interior of which was remodelled by Carlo Scarpa.

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[You might also recognise this paragraph.] The position of the drainpipe highlights the symmetrical part of the facade, suggesting we disregard the additional bit on the right, but where else could it go? The midpoint of the gutter is the most practical but least-wanted place as it would not only split the building in two but discharge over the entrance. Placing the drainpipe at the end of the gutter would gutter creates practical problems of gutter slope. Three shorter gutters avoiding the chimneys would each require a drainpipe. This minor functional element is doing something of crucial visual importance for Venturi but I doubt whoever put it there gave its placement a second thought.

In both these examples I see not complexity and contradiction but a clear and consistent approach towards the solving of real problems. In both examples, the simplest and easiest way has been chosen and the result is far richer than seemingly contradictory problems selected and studio-farmed for the expressive potential of their “resolutions.”

• • •

Venturi was of the opinion that complexity and contradiction made for buildings that weren’t boring. This single personal preference of one person implied buildings had a duty to entertain and this is how “delight” has been interpreted ever since. Post Modernism was ultimately discarded for its inability to delight outside of its host culture. It was unsuited to the burgeoning global market for trophy architecture by rich rulers and property developers in non-Western countries. Something meaning less to more people was what was required and Deconstruction stepped up to the plate. 

Nevertherless, Robert Venturi and Post-Modernism have a place in the history of architecture’s meta-aesthetics for reducing architecture to a style toolkit once again and kicking the architecture can a bit further down the road. 

What I can’t abide is Venturi representing the inherent honesty and beauty of ordinary buildings to enable an architecture not remembered for either its honesty or beauty. Ordinary buildings were the losers as nobody gave them another look. Job done.

JC

http://www.pritzkerprize.com/1991/jury

Architecture Misfit #29: Fernand Pouillon

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Fernand Pouillon
1912 – 1986

1912
Born May 14, in Cancon, France.

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1934
Palais Albert 1er, (30 apartments, 2 commercial units), avenue Albert 1er, Aix-en-Provence, France, in collaboration with Henri Enjouvin.

Pouillon was 22.

1935
Palais Victor Hugo (28 apartments), avenue Victor Hugo, Aix-en-Provence, France

1936
Groupe Corderie 25 (40 apartments), 27 avenue de la Corse, Marseille, France

The fernandpouillon.com website lists the creation or extension of “co-operative cells” [caves coopèratives”] around this time, in the towns of Rosières, Lussas, Vinezac, Vogue, Lablachère, Senas, Graveson, Maillane, Eygalières, Mallemort, Saint-Andiol, Châteauneuf de Gadagne, Le Thor, La Tour d’Aygues, and Sablet. All were formed in association with Pouillon’s former mentor Henri Enjouvin. I imagine these to be something like architects of record on-call, and with some fee arrangement already in place for fast turnaround. It would have to be because, as you will see, the amount of work attributed to Pouillon is phenomenal. Pouillon was beyond prolific, he had a compulsion to design buildings and get them built.

1938
Mondovi Building (18 apartments), rue de Mondovi, Marseille, France


Villa for Doctor Bernard, quartier Saint-Julien Villa de M. Magallon, avenue Flotte, Marseille, France
Villa for M. Teissier, quartier Saint-Barnabé Villa de M. Terracole, au Roucas Blanc, Marseille, France
Villa for M. Falconetti, Cabriès, France

1939
Group “Résidence” quai de Rive-Neuve (36 apartments), Marseille, France

1940
A group of 70 apartments, Avignon, France

1942 was the end of Vichy Government rule in Algeria and the end of Le Corbusier’s speculative Plan Obus for Algiers. It was also the year Pouillon, now 30, became a registered architect. It had not been necessary to be one in order to build in

1943
Restoration of private mansion of M. Columeau, bd du Redon Immeuble 38 rue Longue des Capucins, Marseille, France

1944 was the liberation of France and the dissolution of the Vichy government.

1945
“Dames de France”, transformation of a store into offices for the American base
Grand Arénas, provisional accommodation for prisoners, deportees and refugees
Gendarmerie Augusto, Marseille, France

1946
The Regional Center for Physical Education and Sport, CREPS, chemin du Guiraudet Gardanne, Aix-en-Provence, France
Casablanca Garden City in Biver, 21 dwellings, Aix-en-Provence, France

1947
Deux écoles déclarées dans les “Mémoires d’un architecte”, Aix-en-Provence, France
Hotel in Cap Manuel, Dakar, Senegal
Stade municipal, avenue des Ecoles Militaires, Aix-en-Provence, France

Pouillon’s 1947 Aix-en-Provence City Stadium is often presented as the project in which his personal “style” began to emerge but (in perfect illustration of how words convert buildings into architecture) this turns out to be nothing more than perfectly normal things that everybody should be doing, like updating traditional construction processes and using several different materials so each does what they do best.

stadium 1946-50.jpeg

1948
Nestlé Factory, chocolate and soluble coffee factory, offices, common services and employee housing, Saint-Menet, France
Restoration of the Villa of Doctor Latil, Aix-en-Provence, France
Station sanitaire maritime, Avenue Vaudoyer, Marseille, France

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1949
Police Building, 2 rue Antoine Becker, Marseille, France
Canebière Building, boulevard de la Canebière, apartments, offices, retail units, Marseille, France
La Tourette, Protis Square, 260 dwellings, shops garages, Marseille, France 

The civic projects increased in scale and importance, leading to the 1948-1953 La Tourette housing complex in Marseille, just behind the Old Port. There’s a glowing description of La Tourette here, along with many fine photographs of it.

With La Tourette project, Pouillon refined his system of co-ordinating all the elements of a project – a system that came to be known as The Pouillon System. Details are sketchy, but it included artists and craftsmen such as cabinetmakers, locksmiths and stonecutters and the invention/use of construction processes intended to reduce the cost of material and labour. One of these was pierre banchée in which stone tiles are used as permanent shuttering.

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Other innovations included a method of providing better soundproofing between apartments. A legend to the section above might be able to tell us more about this. In 1955, Pouillon created the CNL, the Comptoir National du Logement, which was a commercial and legal structure that would allow him to design thousands of housing units in Paris and to build them as a developer.

1950
Reconstruction of the Sablettes, seaside resort, 150 apartments, shops, a hotel, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France
Carrières de Fontvieille, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France
Offices, Garden Dwellings, Atelier, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France
Atelier for the painter, Marchutz, Aix-en-Provence, France
Villa for the mayor of d’Aix-en-Provence, Henri Mouret, Aix-en-Provence, France
Hôtel d’Espagnet, Cours Mirabeau, Headquarters of the University Rectorate plus official housing, Aix-en-Provence, France
Restoration of a listed monument, Aix-en-Provence, France
Saint-Charles University Library, Marseille, France
Library of the Faculty of Sciences, Centre for Administrative Studies, Marseille, France

1951
Building rue Méry, Reconstruction of the Vieux-Port quarter, housing, shops and bars, Marseille, France
Outer areas of the Old Port district, monument surroundings, roads and public spaces, Marseille, France
Shopping Cart District Urban Redevelopment, Marseille, France
Two hundred apartments, 1-6 room apartments for rent, Aix-en-Provence, France
Reconstruction of the Old Port, seafront 1200 m, 350 apartments and shops, Marseille, France

1952
Faculty of Law, resumption of the works for completion of University Library, Aix-en-Provence, France

Villa La Brillanne, residence of the family of Fernand Pouillon, Aix-en-Provence, France
Lycée Colbert, commercial and industrial learning center, Marseille, France

1953
Atelier for the painter André Masson, Aix-en-Provence, France

Administrative City, architectural and urban development program, Avignon, France
Terminal, offices, technical block, control tower, Cassis, Marignane, France
Villa Barthélemy and Villa X., seafront villas, Algiers, Algeria
Diar El Mahçoul, 1800 apartments, Algiers, Algeria

This last was Pouillon’s first project in Algeirs and the project he was invited there for. The hillside site required 100,000 of terracing and huge retaining walls. A main road divided the French side and Algerian side. Two thirds of the 1,454 housing units were on the French side of the road with views of the sea (and huge retaining walls).

The other third were on the Algerian side facing the valley and had small courtyards. We may think this discriminatory but we forget that “view” is a cultural invention (whereas houses in a Mediterranean fishing village, for example, might have a view of the sea for reasons connected with weather and fish). Another such difference showed in sanitation facilities and, again, we can’t say if this is cultural prejudice or cultural preference.

1953 (cont’d)
Diar Es Saada, 800 lodgings, Algiers, Algeria

Villa des Arcades, restaurant, and development of a swimming pool, residence and agency of F. Alger, Algerie
Residential building, regularization of the extension of the course Jean Jaurès in front of the administrative city, Avignon, France

1954
Diar El Mahçoul, Saint-Jean-Baptiste church Climat of France, 3500 dwellings, Algiers, Algiers

Pouillon’s 1954-1957 Climat de France project for Algiers has a touch of what two decades later would be called Post-Modern Classicism. We look at it and see Rossi, unfairly.

The Mayor of Algiers believed a properly housed population made for a happy population and Pouillon obliged by combining the social aspirations of Modernism giving residents something larger to feel a part of, and the proto Post-Modern idea of giving residents something grander to live up to.

Diar Es Saada, girls ‘and boys’ schools, Algiers, Algierie
El Karma, Valmy (near Oran), Agierie
City of 800 houses, Algiers, Algierie
Cité Lescure, Designed for a colleague, Oran, Algiers
Military city for 8000 inhabitants, Magharé, Iran
Military city for 8000 inhabitants, Shahabad, Iran
Iranian Empire Headquarters, Tehran, Iran
Geographical Institute, Tehran, Iran
Railway station, Machad, Iran

This was a project in collaboration with the Iranian architect, Heydar Ghiaï-Chamlou.

Railway station, Tabriz, Iran

As was this.

1955
Cité universitaire les Gazelles, 564 avenue Gaston Berger, 500 beds, Aix-en-Provence, France

La Montagnette social housing, rue Maurice Barrès, Vignon, France
Cité La Croix des Oiseaux, about 800 social housing units with much prefabrication, rue de la Croix des Oiseaux, Avignon, France
Villa for Admiral Jubelin, Sanary, France

1956
Development of the Old Port district, partially completed. Reconstruction of several Old Port buildings, reconstruction, Bastia, France

1957
Charzola Building, 58 rue Emile Zola, 93 dwellings, Paris, France

47 avenue de Friedland, apartment for Fernand Pouillon, Paris, France
Victor Hugo Residences, avenue Jean Lolive, 282 apartments and retail units, Pantin, France

Chalet, Val d’Isere, France
Municipal stadium, rue des Ecoles Militaires, awning above the stands (destroyed in the eighties), Aix-en-Provence, France
Résidence le Parc, 2,635 lodgings, shopping centers, Meudon-la-Forêt, France

Pouillon and the CNL’s first major successes were apartment developments of three hundred units in Pantin (1957) and five hundred units in Montrouge (1958). Despite the stone and marbile finishes, the apartments were affordable on a 25-year plan.

1958
Private apartment, Boulevard Suchet, Paris, France
Le Point du Jour, 2260 logements et équipements, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
Peugeot-quai de Passy, projet d’extension du Point du Jour, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
Résidence du Stade Buffalo, 466 logements et commerces, Montrouge, France

1959
Hôtel des Ursins, île de la Cité, résidence de F. Pouillon Appartement de M. Junot Iéna, Paris, France
Résidence Jules Ferry, 60 logements et garages au rez-de-chaussée, Montrouge, France
Résidence le Parc, 2,635 lodgings, shopping centers, Meudon-la-Forêt, France

Pouillon was to make himself many enemies when the 2,635 apartments of the Résidence du Parc in Meudon-la-Forêt (1959) came online at less than market prices.

1960
Résidence du Quai, 135 apartments and shopping mall, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
Hôtel-restaurant Baumanière, la Cabro d’Or, Les Baux de Provence, France

1961
Hotel, Puerto-Rico

Pouillon’s unorthodox corporate arrangements encouraged financial impropriety and the CNL was unable to pay its contractors in 1959 and was wound up in 1961 and Pouillon charged, arrested, de-registered and jailed. Eighteen months later he escaped but ten months later gave himself up, only to be sentenced to another four years. This was later reduced to three and he was released in February 1964. Charges of breaching the laws of companies, of breaches of trust, fraud and concealment were dismissed but charges of the abuse of social assets, false declaration of release of shares and false notarial declaration remained. During his imprisonment, we was to write Les Pierres Sauvages published in 1964, and Memoirs of an Architect, published 1968.

1962
Domaine de Lanruen (detached houses), partially realized, construction site not monitored, Erquy, France

1964
Masterplan for the new town of Créteil, Créteil, France
La Vallée Moussue, restoration of a house, Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines, France.

1965
Hôtel du Port, for the company Bancaire, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France

 

The masterplan was to be Pouillon’s first major job after jail and, perhaps because of this, he received death threats urging him not to work in France. Jacques Chevallier suggested Pouiloon return to Algeria and he did. For the next twenty years Pouillon was to design hotels to improve the tourism infrastructure of Algeria, as well as many civic and educational buildings. His greatest regret was being being asked to design mass housing again, either in France or in Algeria.

1966
Algerian coastal tourism development plan (partially realized), Algiers, Algeria
Villa des Arcades, restoration and extension, Algiers, Algeria
Diar El Mahçoul, transformation of the church into a mosque, Algiers, Algeria
Hotel Le Caîd, 400 beds, Bou Saada, Algeria
Hotel Marhaba, 300 beds, Laghouat, Algeria
Hotel El Minzah, 300 beds, Moretti, Algeria
Spa and hotel with 200 beds, Saida, Algeria

1967
Pavillon de la Foire d’Alger
, Algiers, Algeria
The Calle (El Kala), Algiers, Algeria
Hotel El Manar, 300 beds, Algiers, Algeria
Tourist complex, 3,000 beds, Moretti, Algeria
Hotel El Mountazah (Ksar du Rocher), 300 beds, Seraïdi, Algeria
Tourist complex, 4,000 beds, Zeralda, Algeria

1968
Restaurant “Maxim’s, air conditioning and facilities, Paris, France
Caravanserai of 150 beds, Ain Sefr, Algeria
Hotel Plaza, 500 beds, Annaba, Algeria
Caravanserai the Rym, 150 beds, Beni-Abbes, Algeria
Hotel with 300 beds, Biskra, Algeria
Hotel school for 1,600 students, Biskra, Algeria
Caravanserai El Boustan, 200 beds Saharan dwellings (detached houses), Biskra, Algeria
Saharan homes (detached houses), Biskra, Algeria
New market and renovation of old market, cinema, theater, 15,000 m2, Biskra, Algeria
Abattoirs, Biskra, Ghardaïa, Algerie
Saharan homes (detached houses), Laghouat, Algeria
Caravanserai El Mehri, 200 beds, Ouargla, Algeria
Prefecture of the Oasis and Administrative City, 15 000 m2 Saharan dwellings (detached houses), Ouargla, Algeria
Tourist complex, 4,000 beds El Riadh Hotel, Sidi Ferruch, Algeria


Tourist complex, shopping center Hôtel les Hammadites, 350 beds, Tichy, Algerie
Caravanserai El Gourara, 150 beds, Timimoun, Algeria


Tourist complex, 2,000 beds, Tipasa Beach, Algeria


Tourist complex, 2,500 beds Arrangement of the harbor, village and barbecue, Tipasa Club, Algeria
Slaughterhouses, Touggourt, Algerie
Caravanserai L’Oasis, 200 beds, Touggourt, Algeria
Saharan homes (detached houses), Touggourt, Algeria
Hotel Les Sables d’Or, 600 beds, Zeralda, Algeria
Hotel with 300 beds, Tamanrasset, Algeria

1969
Prototype “metal house” at the edge of J. Chevallier
, El Ançor, Algeria
Andalusian tourist complex of 2,000 beds, Algiers, Algeria
Hotel with 600 beds, Tipasa Matarès, Algeria
Hotel school for 1600 students, Tizi Ouzou, Algeria

1970
La Breche aux Loups
, 444 detached houses, commercialization, Ozoir-la-Ferrière, France
27 post offices, sorting centers and telephone exchanges, 50,000 m2 realized since, Algeria
Hotel M’Zab (ex-Rostémides), 600 beds, Ghardaïa, Algerie


Several “metallic” houses, Ghazaouate, Algeria
Hotel Les Zianides, 300 beds, Tlemcem, Algeria
43 Villas from 1970 to 1984 in Algiers, Bir Mourad Raïs, Blida, Bouzareah, Draria (Algiers), El Achour, El Biar, Algiers, Kouba, Larbaa, Sahaoula, Sidi Aïch, Sidi Mohammed, Yakouren

1971
Furnishing of an apartment, place des Vosges
, Paris, France
Theater for 3,600, Sidi Ferruch (surroundings of Algiers), Algeria
Tipaza Club (Algiers area), Algeria
Tourist complex, extension and horse-riding center, (Algiers area), Algeria
Tipasa Matarès (near Algiers), Algeria
Tourist complex, extension, (Algiers area), Algeria
Hotel les Hammadites, extension, Tichy, Algeria
Caravanserai El Gourara, extension, Timimoun, Algeria

1972
Tourist complex, extension, Moretti, Algeria
Village artisanal Plage Ouest: 150 shops and workshops, Sidi Ferruch, Algerie
Resort complex, extension Hotel Mazafran, Zeralda, Algeria
Hotel with 300 beds, Saida, Algeria
Thermal Spa, Hammam Rabbi (Saïda), Algeria
City of 200 apartments, Staoueli (near Algiers), Algeria
Villa des Arcades, transformation of stables into living room and dining room, El Madania, Algiers, Algeria
Technical Unit of SONATOUR, Algiers, Algeria

1973
Prototype “metallic” house, on the property of the president of the PUM (Products of Metallurgical Factories), Sologne, France
Caravanserai The Rym, extension, Beni-Abbes, Algeria
Caravanserai El Mehri, extension, Ouargla, Algeria

1974
Furnishings for a small manor, Chennevières / Marne, France
House of M and Mme V., Gueux, France
Five “metallic” houses, Jonchery / Vesle, France
House-witness of the concept “HOME” (metal house), Val-de-Vesle-Thuisy, France
A “metallic” house, Saint-Brice-Courcelles, France
Residence Lion d’Or, place Drouet d’Erlon, housing, cinema, shopping mall, Reims, France
Galerie du Jardin de Flore, 24 place des Vosges, creation of a flower shop in art gallery, for the publishing company created by Fernand Pouillon, Paris, France
Apartment rue des Fontaines, Algiers, Algeria
Cabaret Dar El Alia, Bouzareah (Algiers), Algeria
Housing development of “metallic” houses, Cheraga, Algeria
Caravanserai El Boustan, extension, El Golea, Algeria
Caravanserai, extension, El Oued, Algeria
Hotel El Djanoub, 600 beds, Ghardaïa, Algeria
Villa Paradou for the Ministry of Higher Education, Hydra (Algiers), Algeria
Expansion and development of the port, 200 ships of 10 m, La Madrague (near Algiers), Algeria
Development of the port, 400 boats, Sidi Ferruch (Algiers area), Algeria
West Beach Hotel, Sidi Ferruch (surroundings of Algiers), Algeria
West Beach second hotel, in all 1500 beds, West Beach Civic Center of Animation, Sidi Ferruch (surroundings of Algiers), Algeria
Harbor development, 200 boats of 10 meters Hotel with 152 rooms, Skikda, Algeria

1975
Restoration of a house, Peyrusse-le-Roc, France
Offices of Technal International, Toulouse, France
Cité Universitaire for Young Girls, Ben Aknoun, Algeria
Horse-riding center, multi-purpose hall, Tipaza, Algeria
Shopping and leisure center, Tipaza Plage, Algeria
Amraoua Hotel, Tizi Ouzou, Algeria
Tourist complex, extension, multi-purpose hall and facilities, Zeralda, Algeria
Wilaya (prefecture), landscaping, Tlemcem, Albgerie
Château de Belcastel, restoration (from 1975 to 1983), Belcastel, France

Belcastel1

1976
Monastery for the sisters of Médéa
(Algeria) repatriated to Provence, Cotignac, France
Hotel Plaza, Annaba, Algeria

ab797d597ad3ddb0b8c0b80e33db8e44
Hotel Aurassi, furnishing and decoration, Oued Koreiche (Alger), Algeria
Villa Marguerite, Tlemcem, Algeria

1977
Aménagement du port et extension du centre ville, Saint-Tropez, France
Hôtel, Djemila, Algerie
Cité universitaire, Oran, Algerie

1977-1980
Port development and extension of the city center, Saint-Tropez, France
Hotel, Djemila, Algeria
Cité universitaire, Oran, Algeria

1978
Villas Rochmeboisson
, Ain Benian (Algiers), Algeria
Villa Citroën, Algiers, Algeria
University campus, extension, Ben Aknoun (Algiers), Algeria
Hotel, 600-bed hotel, Constantine, Algeria
Wilaya (prefecture), two projects, Tlemcem, Algeria
Wilaya (prefecture), 3rd project, Tlemcem, Algeria

1979
Cité Universitaire, Ain El Bey (Constantine), Algerie

1979-1982
Cité Universitaire, Ain El Bey (Constantine), Algerie
400 dwellings, Sétif, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 3,000, Alger, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 5,000, Bab Ezzouar (Alger), Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 2,000, Batna, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 2,500, Constantine, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 2,000, Mostaganem, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 2,000, Oran, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 2,000, Sidi Bel Abbès, Algerie

1980
House F, Belcastel, France
Map of the new town, competition, Saint-Quentin-en-Yveline, France
City of 400 dwellings, Boufarik, Algeria
Bus station 40,000 m2, Constantine, Algeria
Spa, extension, Hammam Rabbi (Saïda), Algeria
Post Office, Touggourt, Algerie

1981
Hotel El Djazaïr
(formerly Saint-Georges), resumption and continuation of works, Algiers, Algeria

1982
House extension project, Eschentzwiller, France
Hotel El Djazaïr (ex Saint-Georges), extension, Algiers, Algeria
City of 400 dwellings, Blida, Algeria
Boulevard belt interior, layout plan, Sidi Bel Abbès, Algerie

The Hotel El-Djazaïr was completed in record time to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of Algerian independence but the government never paid the fees, causing Pouillon to default on, in turn, social security contributions, taxes, and then wages. Pouillon abandoned Algeria and returned to France where he was reinstated to the Order of Architects but the tax debt of the CNL was still outstanding. President Mitterrand forgave Pouillon the CNL debt and made him an Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1984.

1984
Computing Center for the Ministry of Culture
, Montigny-le-Bretonneux, France

1985
Thirty detached houses on an air base
, Avord, France
Masterplan for 4,000 housing units, Créteil, France
Europarc activity zone plan, two buildings realized in collaboration with Schott firm), Créteil, France
Music Conservatory, rue Armand Carrel, 19th arrondissement
Social housing 172 avenue Jean-Jaurès, 19th arrondissement
Apartment rue de Bièvre, development and extension, 5th arrondissement
Apartment rue Boissy d’Anglas, development and extension, 8th arrondissement

Undated
Development of an abbey
in a secondary residence, Belhomert-Guehouville, Algerie
Building for SNECMA, Corbeil, France
A swimming pool in the rock by the sea for M and Mme B., Normandy, France
Avenue Montaigne, private apartment, Paris, France
Georges V, Georges V Avenue, after 1970 Private apartment, rue Surcouf, Paris, France
Restoration of
Manoir du Jonchet, Romilly / Aigre, France
Studies for an unidentified program, Monaco, France
Villas “Les Jardins Exotiques”, Monte-Carlo, France
Maxim’s Restaurant, Montreal, Canada
Maxim’s Restaurant, after 1965, Tokyo, Japan
Apartment rue Didouche Mourad, Algiers, Algeria
Hotel, Biskra, Algeria
New Hotel, 600 beds, Constantine, France
Hotel, 150 rooms, Djanet, Algeria
Bordj of the Chevalier family, extension, El Biar (Algiers), Algeria
Caravanserai, Hotel du Souf, El Oued, Algeria
Hotel El Mordjane, La Calle (El Kala), Algeria
Apartment hotel of 1,000 beds, La Calle (El Kala), Algeria
Depot garage, communal Market Cinema Theater, Laghouat, France
Caravanserai, Madakh, Algeria
Villas, Sahaoula, Algeria
La Grande Plage Resort (Sidi Begra), Seraïdi, Algeria
Hotel du Port, Seraïdi, Algeria
Hotel El Marsa Olympic Swimming Pool Quartier du Corsaire Restaurant, Seraïdi, Algeria

Sidi Fredj / Sidi-Ferruch – Alger wilaya – Algeria / AlgÈrie: Hotel El Marsa and Hotel El Manar | HÙtels El Marsa et El Manar – photo by M.Torres

Holiday village, Sidi Okba Oumache, Skikda Aïn Ben Noui, Algeria
Complex: theater, bungalows, restaurant, port, Tipaza La Corne d’Or, Algeria
Hotel Esmeralda, Tipaza Plage, Algeria
Cité Universitaire, Tlemcem, Algeria
Complex of Courbet Marine, Zemmouri, Algeria
Administrative Center One Hotel, Zeralda, Algeria
Hotel La Residence, Zeralda, Algeria
Villas in Ain El Hammam, Ain Taya, Draa Esmar, El Biar (Algiers), In Nadjah, Hydra (Algiers), Kraicia

Unrealized
Additionally, there are approx. 800 unrealized projects in France alone.

prolific!

• • •

Seven possible reasons why Fernand Pouillon is not better remembered than he is.

  1. His main period of activity as an architect was over the period 1932–1961 – a period corresponding to the heyday of Le Corbusier. Perhaps the world of architecture didn’t need another architect from France when they already had someone contributing so much to the mythology of architecture and architects.
  2. Reconstruction and rehabilitation are both good things but both only restore and improve upon what was already present. They don’t add to the mythology of architecture in such a way as did Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations that put Marseille on the map
  3. Or perhaps the world of architecture did not need anything else from Algeria, since it already had Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus which is vastly over-remembered, especially when compared with his earlier proposal for Algiers.LC1
  4. The period 1956–1961 when the Algerian Uprising was changing into the Algerian War and Pouillon, like Chevalier, would have deen (rightly) suspected of having Algerian separatist sympathies. This period coincides with the time people would have been collecting evidence against Pouillon and making a case for his imprisonment.
  5. Not only that, Pouillon was a member of the communist party until about 1943. After that, he would have been remembered as having been a member of the communist party until about 1943. The period 1947–1956 coincided with United States’ doctrine of McCarthyism that persecuted persons suspected of being either communists or of having communist sympathies. Fernand Pouillon may thus have suffered the same fate as Hannes Meyer, Karel Teige and André Lurçat. Architecture prefers fascist governments and their rallying monuments to communist ones and their dreary obsession with mass housing.
  6. Pouillon was never stylistically experimental for the sake of it. If Brutalism had had construction advantages we would no doubt see more Pouillon buildings in concrete. He experimented with metallic housing and prefabrication in the seventies, long after it had been fashionable. His career also overlapped Post Modernism but he had no need for semiotics beyond indicating home and neighbourhood by conventional means. His sensibility towards reconstruction and restoration was also off-trend.
  7. Pouillon is responsible for the design of an enormous number of buildings, many of which are regarded as fine or outstanding. The sheer volume of his output shows he was extremely skilled at promoting his services but that he is not remembered has a lot to do with him being more interested in building than in designing his mythology – a trait he shares with many of the other misfit architects.

• • •

fernand-pouillon

Fernand Pouillon!

Your service to the community began long before your imprisonment
and continued long after.

misfits salutes you!

• • •

  • www.fernandpouillon.com is the most comprehensive resource there is. I’m indebted.
  • http://publishing.cdlib.org a substantial website on post-war housing in Algeria
  • http://www.jeanlucmichel.com is a blog (in French) with a fine collection of images of many otherwise unphotographed Fernand Pouillon buildings. The photographs are more photo-journalism than architectural photography and make you feel as if you had been there walking around looking at the buildings and taken the photographs yourself. The unstaged photographs are real and, because of that, informative and, because of that, refreshing.
  • http://www.bdonline.co.uk links to article about La Tourette inspiring the UK architect Adam Khan
  • Adam Caruso and Helen Thomas (Hg.): The Stones of Fernand Pouillon – An Alternative Modernism in French Architecture. gta Verlag, Zürich 2013, ISBN 978-3-85676-324-4.

 • • •

Pouillon’s infamous system for coordinating all construction activity may have had its flaws but it did produce high quality and affordable housing that, seventy years on, has aged well, is not dated, and is still eminently liveable. A system that could produce results of such high quality under budget and in record time goes is not a system geared towards stakeholders systematically milking the budget by inflating or falsifying invoices. It defies conventional thinking.

Exactly how Pouillon brought the 2,635 apartments of the 1959 Résidence du Parc in Meudon-la-Forêt (1959) online in record time and at less than market prices remains a mystery no-one seems to want to see solved.

2445909041_small_2.jpg

The Massively Big Autopoiesis of Architecture Post

First some snapshots from the journey so far before moving on to the penultimate chapter. I plan to read the final one within a week or two and bring this autopoietic journey to an end. It’s time. At 439 pages it wasn’t such a long journey but, as I began reading the book in 2012, it wasn’t a quick one.

2012 October 26: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol. 1 – Preface, Introduction

We’re not even eight lines into the Preface and the author is saying he sees this work as continuing the tradition begun by Alberti in 1452. I have a bad feeling. 

2012 November 16: Architectural Theory

Most introductions let the reader know what to expect. They’re usually the last part of a book to be finalised because the author has already been to the end and back and has had feedback from friends, family, colleagues and editors. The introduction is an opportunity to assist the reader get more out of the book. This one asks you to suspend judgment until you reach the end of the book! It also asks you to accept that there will be some strangeness of terminology and a possible sense of intellectual queasiness. Indeed, there was quite a bit of both.

2012 December 1: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2 – The Historical Emergence of Architecture (1/2)

THE
AUTHOR,
IN AN ATTEMPT
TO FIT ARCHITECTURE
INTO LUHMANN’S THEORY OF
SOCIAL STRUCTURES, HAS RESTRICTED
HIS DEFINITION OF ARCHITECTURE TO THOSE
BUILDINGS THEORISTS TALK ABOUT OR DEEM WORTH
TALKING ABOUT. THE AUTHOR MAY YET SUCCEED. BUT WHAT IS
HIS REAL PLAN? WHY DOES HE WANT TO DO THIS? AND AT WHAT COST?

2013 January 2: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2.3 – Avant-garde vs. Mainstream

I suddenly realized the book probably is an accurate description of the world of architecture as the author sees it. For the first time, I had the distinct impression the author really believes what he’s writing. In an earlier post, I mentioned my doubts about the validity of the author’s self-description as “avant-garde”. Is it accurate? Why does he insist on using this word if not to evoke ideas of art and artists? Can a commercially successful practice ever be avant-garde? In section 2.3 it became clear that when the author uses the word “avant-garde” he really means “leaders as opposed to followers”. No-one will die because of this mislabelling, but it does make it easy to falsely attribute notions of some brave and heroic journey of artistic endeavour. The author, I imagine, would not be unhappy if this were to happen.  

untitled3

2013 February 2: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chapter 2.4 – Architectural Research

“THESIS 8:  The avant-garde segment of architecture functions as the subsystem within the autopoiesis of architecture that takes on the necessary task of architectural research by converting both architectural commissions and educational institutions into substitute vehicles of research.”

Like many things to do with this book, it seems straightforward but what does it mean? I’m still having a problem with this self-labelling as avant-garde. There’s something not right. It just doesn’t ring true. In previous posts I’ve suggested reasons why the author might have chosen this word but maybe he didn’t want to use the obvious word “starchitect” because it’s too popular, too descriptive. It’s also a bit too closely linked to fame and fortune. But I’ve no such prejudices so, from now on, I’m simply going to use the word starchitect instead of avant-garde architect. You won’t notice the difference.

Apparently, starchitects are the only architects daring enough to experiment and research and come up with different solutions that other people copy and keep architecture EVOLVING. We should thank them. However, they can’t do all this experimenting on their own. (Why not?) They need clients to fund their experiments because buildings are big and complex things.

… a bit further on

“The commissions of starchitects have to function as vehicles of architectural research. Such commissions must afford a playing field for formal research and spatial invention where both functional and economic performance criteria are less stringent than in the ‘commercial sector’ of mainstream architecture. This is possible within a special segment of the architectural market – high-profile cultural buildings. In these special, mostly public landmark buildings, the discipline of architecture becomes conspicuous within society. Here society appreciates architecture as a contribution beyond the mere accommodation of the respective substantial function. Here society also recognizes the legitimacy of an extra investment over and above what technical necessity dictates.”

This says a lot. The author is claiming that, because starchitects are the only people who can fulfil the allegedly important role of architectural research, then they have a natural claim to the most lucrative and least restrictive sector of the architecture market. As I said, it says a lot. 

Around this time, I began to think these posts didn’t have enough pictures.

2013 February 7: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Volume 1 Chapter 2.5 – The Necessity of Demarcation

Karl_Friedrich_Schinkel_-_Schloß_am_Strom_-_Google_Art_Project

“THESIS 9: Any attempt to integrate architecture and art, or architecture and science/engineering, in a unified discourse (autopoiesis) is reactionary and bound to fail.”

Even though Luhmann, the person who put all these ideas in the author’s head, said that architecture existed within the great social system of art, in this sub-chapter (p148), the author says Luhmann only implied that architecture exists within the art system. Either way, the author is having none of it.

“This treatment of architecture has to be rejected today. It reflects the traditional classification of architecture among the arts.”

Hardly a powerful argument. Another reason the author claims it can’t be true is because the theory says it isn’t. Call me a cynic, but I still maintain it’s the job of theory to organise evidence, not refute it. Evidence doesn’t depend on theory.

“It is one of the central, historical theses of the theory of architctural autopoiesis that this treatment of architecture under the umbrella concept of ‘the arts’ is long since an anachronism – at least since the refoundation of the discipline as Modern architecture during the 1920s.”

Here’s some more “proof”.

“A sure empirical indicator for the factual, operational separation of art and architecture is the total absence of double careers. While Michaelangelo and Raphael, and even Schinkel, could still count and convince as both artists and architects this possibility seems to be excluded today.  Examples such as Le Corbusier’s paintings and Hundertwasser’s buildings are no countexamples but only confirm this impossibility.”

That’s a bit bitchy but, yes, Corbusier’s paintings weren’t about the pain, and nor were ZH’s for that matter. But what about her lucrative crossover secondary career in product design? Towards the end of the book, the author solves this latent conundrum by the belated introduction of the term, ‘designed artefacts’.

maison-et-objet-lalique

2013 April 09: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap.3 – Architecture as Autopoietic System: Operations, Structures and Processes

Since I began this book, I’ve managed to read books on the history of the universe, the origins of life on earth and the fallacy of progress, and also found the time to re-read “Portrait of a Lady” and “The Wings of The Dove”.

The Autopoiesis of Architecture is no page-turner. It’s difficult to pick up, and easy to put down. There’s never a right time to read it. It’s not something you read at the beach, in an airport, or carry around with you to read on a train or at lunchtime. 

It’s not just the content. Schumacher’s no Henry James but you’d think someone who’s written approximately 400,000 words would have developed some sort of a way with them. With “The Wings Of The Dove”, I was at first indifferent to the fate of poor Milly Theale but Henry James made me care in the end. Now, 170 pages and (how long has it been already?) six months into The Autopoiesis of Architeture, I really don’t care if architecture is or is not an autopoietic system of communications. I’m constantly questioning what I’m getting out of this book. Perhaps I’m hoping the author will teach me how to become a millionaire or how to make gold out of lead. 

The author must know a thing or two about such things since he trousered a third of a million GB£ from ZHA last year, presumably not including other income from publishing, teaching and other commitments and which are no doubt channelled through a separate company like those of his boss. I don’t expect this book, whilst being part of the process of architectural branding (and hence proving the author’s thesis in a sense), will reveal anything beyond that in the way of practical advice.

2013 May 4: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.1~3.3

la veuve

2013 June 15: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.3~3.4
dorobanti_tower_2_512
2013 July 26: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Pages 237~240 (Chaps. 3.5.6, 3.5.7)
ART
Untitled

As I understand it, the argument goes like this. I’ve marked the dodgy statements in red.

– Designing is difficult, there are many possibilities. We need a way to reduce the complexity/possibilities.
– We can’t do this by getting rid of the idea of beauty because what’s left is insufficient. (‘The reference to performance criteria simply cannot constrain the task sufficiently’.) But the idea of beauty does however reduce complexity because we no longer have to make random choices every time.
– Using criteria of both utility and beauty is ideal because, if a designer doesn’t know what to do, he can resort to functional criteria and, for those times when something has been engineered rather than designed, a designer can come along and add some design to it.

2013 December 15: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 3.6 – Styles

vag crit

A quick shout-out to Marjan Colletti who reviewed The Autopoiesis of Architecture on his blog in September 2010. He’s the only other person I know of who’s admitted to having read the book, let alone finishing it the same year it was published.

2014 March 3: Styles as Research Programmes

van doesburg

About this time, I began to think readers might be being put off by the titles of these posts.

2014 May 30: Love You Long Time (Chap. 3.8.1: The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values)

“The performative vitality of any specific set of aesthetic values is historically limited.”

I don’t understand this. If, as the author’s been saying, aesthetic values have an underlying performativity, then that performativity would still exist irrespective of whether or not those aesthetic values were valued. It’s aesthetics that’s dependent upon performativity, not the other way around. I’m sure Palladian rooms remain well ventilated and their roofs well drained even if their particular architectural stylings aren’t so aspired-to these days.

“Aesthetic values should aestheticize those spatial patterns and architectural morphologies that perform well with respect to the vital life processes of contemporary society.”

This sentence is a huge up-scaling of the original idea. We’ve gone from air and rainwater to the vital life processes of contemporary society. I hope we get to find out what they are. I doubt we’ll be hearing any more about ventilation and roof drainage.

2014 June 12: The Chartreuse Ford

A stealth post pondering what was so wrong with Fordism since Post-Fordism certainly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

fordism

2014 November 16: The Mystery of Beauty  (Chap. 3.8.6: Aesthetic Values: Designers vs. Users)

This post questions the nature of belief in Beauty and its essential unknowability, its value as a prime motivating force, and its need to be continually explained to us by dense texts having elaborate systems of numerical indexing and not many pictures.

Gods-Sunrise

4

“Attention to beauty and aesthetic values demarcates architecture from science and engineering.”

This doesn’t mean that Beauty is real but merely that some people like to believe in it. However, if they do believe in Beauty then they get to feel special – which is fine – but, as is often the case, superior to other people such as scientists and engineers following paths of evidence and fact.

2015 January 11: The Things Architects Do #8: Themes (Chap. 3.9: The Double-nexus of Architectural Communications: Themes vs. Projects)
box1
Untitled
In the 131 pages that followed, there was nothing to suggest any of the “other” major functions systems of society had anything corresponding to the themes and projects of architecture. Either the author’s going off-piste with this project-theme thing or he’s conflating it with the form-function lead distinction he wrote of earlier.
A bit of both probably, but mostly the latter because if form is a theme, then any theme/project dysfunction will show as a form-function dysfunction. It’s only my hypothesis but, if it were true, we would have an architecture concerned with form and not function. Imagine that!
2015 March 29: Inflationary Tendencies (Chap. 4: The Medium of Architecture)
iStock_000028475756Medium

tasks

The first and, for the author, the only one of any importance is the first, the architect’s project and the medium (formerly, the drawing) that the architect uses to talk to himself about the design. The third is the drawings and structural analysis models that the engineers need to make it stand up. The fourth is the drawings that can be understood by the contractors who have to build the thing. It is the second – the client’s project – that I want to concentrate on. Illustrating the design to clients, potential users, or any other non-specialized interested parties is also something that requires specialised drawings that can be outsourced since they are of no concern to the architect who, you will remember, is busy conducting avant garde research. We’ve come across this attitude before in earlier chapters but that’s not the issue now. If illustrating the design to clients is not of any interest to the architects, then WHY ARE THEIR PROJECTS ALWAYS IN OUR FACES?

• • •

• • •

In the 362/439 pages I’ve read so far, there’s been a lot about how form vs. function is the “lead distinction” of architecture – what makes it architecture. I’ve also read how this is analogous to price vs. value as the lead distinction of the economy, norm vs. fact as the lead distinction of the legal system, teaching vs. subject as the lead distinction of education, and so on. I found this handy table on pages 438-439, alas, too late.

chart 1chart 2

It’s a tidy table. But, going back to this beauty vs. function thing, we never really resolved it did we – or at least not to the author’s level of certainty?
Untitled
Shouldn’t the author update his thinking and restate beauty vs. function as perception management vs. development gain? It’s the same thing and though it won’t weaken his argument, it will deflate it somewhat. Another flaw is that none of the other Great Function Systems have a distinction comparable to architecture’s distinction between themes and projects.
What kind of world we would have if they did? If themes were their primary areas of concern, and if a project’s only worth was to test the validity of those themes?
  • We’d have an economic system that sets prices for commodities without regard for their value.
  • We’d have a scientific system in which phenomena are explained without recourse to evidence.
  • We’d have a legal system where laws are applied irrespective of facts.
    We’d have a political system in which positions are taken irrespective of issues.
  • We’d have an education system concerned with teaching rather than students.
  • We’d have a mass media that focusses on reporting rather than events.
In the same vein, if these known function systems of society had a self-reference as detached from their world-reference as architecture’s then  
  • We’d have politicians that support peace as they engage in war.
  • We’d have governments that show their support for freedom by policing it.
  • We’d have an economics that creates wealth by causing poverty.
  • We’d have education systems that maintain pliable levels of ignorance.
=(
On the bright side, even if architecture is a major function system of society, then it’s at least no more dysfunctional than the others. Science is our only evidence this isn’t how the contemporary world works although Bad Science and Pseudo Science are now out there making themselves known.
The title of the final chapter is The Societal Function of Architecture. It’s warning us to not confuse how architecture functions in a societal system with archaic notions of how it might function for society. This is especially meaningful in light of what we’ve come to know about the author.

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• • • 
I’m now eager to get on with the final chapter of this lengthy thought experiment. I genuinely want to know if the author thinks the societal function of architecture is anything more than converting his softly-illuminated scribbles into grey goo to consume the planet and enslave mankind. Or anything less.

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Благоустройство

blagoustroistvo (literal: well-establishment) – site enhancement, including grading, road construction, building of communication, sewage, water, energy infrastructure and measures to clean and repair a territory, control air pollution, protect water bodies and soil, conducted to make a given territory habitable and adequate for the decided use, to create healthy and comfortable conditions for the population. (Technical Translator’s Handbook)

synonmys: order, decorum, propriety, comeliness

Blagoustroistvo is an amusing sequence of letters and an endemic architectural design notion used in any place where Russian is spoken. It is an umbrella tag. Blagoustroistvo covers a broad set of design and construction work done to improve quality and habitability of a building site.

Buildings had always had patches of land between them, some walkways, and maybe paved spots. This makes blagoustroistvo’s emergence harder to track. After all, it’s a notion we can adjust to work in different eras. How it was born is a secret to me.

The 1900s-1910s stand out, with larger buildings built in Moscow and Petersburg maybe having some gardening in the yard, designed by the architect. Smaller buildings lived without these. There was no split yet, and urban environment was formed locally as a pre-machine vernacular. Scope of design projects never exceeded property lots and public-private divide was quite pronounced, but not in a “mine/not-mine” drastic split.

1920s saw the calamities of revolution, civil war, military communism and attempts at restoring order in civil life back into a stable state. 1920s gave us kommunalka — the original co-living where families of apartment owners were forced by police into a single room and every other room housed a family. The unrest in housing has left a permanent and documented mark in the national identity. All building activity sourced austere material to heal it even a little. Architects turned to industrial construction techniques to deliver residential buildings tailored for a gradual resolution of indoor overpopulation. That wasn’t  the time for gardening not agricultural.

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1930s were when “socialist realism” in gypsum decorum brought comely façades to the now established socialist state, and the people were abandoned to fend for themselves in barracks, pits and labour camps. This is the time blagoustroistvo matured into a means to deliver the “complex experience that is architecture to the land of the proletariat”. Its means were unsurprisingly conservative – symmetrical compositions of lawns adorned with vases and gypsum sculpture. Socialist paradise turned out to be poor man’s Versailles.

It’s still with us but remained the status quo until the utilitarian shift under Khruschev. Industrial construction finally was set out for, and patches of new towns emerged over or next to settlements. Blagoustroistvo became “land development”. The only focus of this retroactive urbanisation was laying road networks and providing basic walkways where there used to be grass. It was the blagoustroistvo for the 21st century. The sheer amount of land-development eliminated any ideas of alternative approaches. People became used to abandoned greens inbetween their 5-story slabs. Gardening became inconceivable.

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My hunch is today’s blagoustroistvo was born out of massive residential construction in the 1960s where newly built towns in previous greenfield were just dropped onto wilderness which is not the most useful space to have between your buildings.

Stitched Panorama

Some discipline had to engage in the process of making baseline useable space out of voids in arrays of repeated dwellings. The description in the header has a strong utilitarian tone, and it sounds very mid-century. The intensity of required site improvement helped blagoustroistvo to become a dedicated aspect and notion. Soon it sunk in and no one could imagine living without it. All activity of this type is now done by developers providing the same dreary drieways and playgrounds.

But it was about 2010 that blagoustroistvo began to be seen less as an utility land treatment, but as another face of a property project that boosts quality of its appeal and serves as a marketing vehicle. Architecture adapted quickly, and soon specialized blagoustroistvo bureaus emerged within the scene. Bureaus-of-all-trades joined the feast too, as is the following case. This is part of an interview (in Russian) with Sergei Trukhanov of T+T Architects.

To this date, one of the largest of your projects is blagoustroistvo for “Savelovsky City” residential complex. What stage is it now?

We have been working with this object for several years. Made an accomplishment of the first stage of construction, designed the interiors of the entrance groups of office buildings – both are already implemented. Now the project of an accomplishment of the second stage is ready. The territory is not easy: you need to place a lot of functions, and the area itself is not only small, but also fragmented, spaced apart from each other.

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Therefore, it was very important for us to tie all the logistics into one whole, so as not to violate the logic of the territory. We built a promenade boulevard, which runs along a detached parking lot and connects 2 construction stages. Stringing on it all possible functional zones and points of interest, this solution additionally visually breaks the long promenade, makes it more comfortable to perceive.

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Also, we have specially installed the island’s retaining walls with landscaping from the multi-storey parking lot, to visually isolate it from it, to create a landscaped array at eye level. 

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We paid attention to what the future residents will see from different points. So, for example, we thought about residents of a tower where 6 lower floors face a car parking building. We discussed this issue with developer and decided to put neon signs with quotes of great jazz musicians onto the car park.

Their sufficient portfolio is basic.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, accumulated wealth created demand for quality public space for demonstrative consumption. The firm Wowhaus are the new masters. They reconstructed sheds at Isle Balchug where Strelka Institute is now. The construction story focussed on how they worked with a media tycoon and decided to “promote education for people” thus “europeanizing moscow”, leaving an aftertaste of a thick neoliberal ideology lurking.

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“Best New Place” Arch Bienalle 2010

Years 2011-2012 saw an unrest in the streets of Moscow, and blagoustroistvo was a part of taming strategy, augmenting scary police storms with sweet lawns and wooden sheds to drink ridiculously priced cocktails at and look picturesque. Haussmann’s method of crowd-control was straight avenues fit for raking fire.

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Soon after Strelka was completed, a little up the Moscow River Wowhaus redesigned the Crimean Embankment (Крымская набережная) for Moscow public with mostly the same civil agenda. It’s a schizoid trait to resist being systematized into boxes or “models” which may reproduce you but, in 2015–16, I was in any of those parks and pergolas watching theatrical cinema trying to not fall into those intricate marketing mechanisms. Then, out of boredom, I buy a beer and join the show. 

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Then there are the faces. This is a fragment of Wowhaus’ roster of people. 

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The reassuring man in the check shirt is a spreadsheet specialist. The lady third in the top row is a 30 year old executive director from outside the profession. The founders to the left are mature and established people from the state television designer circuit. They started the firm not out of a need, but as a pet project. The bureau’s public debut was at Strelka, but its founders established themselves in Moscow’s artistic elite decades ago. It’s not a surprise they were commissioned for a Channel One television studio pavilion in Gorky Park, fronting the Moscow river.

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What we ended up with is stage designers from a state TV outlet utilizing their skills to build stage settings where our cities were.

The fact we find these stages lovelier than what they replaced is even more disturbing.

 

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Twelve Books on Architecture

Introducing Architectural Theory [issuu, amazon] is a book that gathers together pieces of writing on various themes in architecture for the purpose of getting people – mainly architecture students – to do the following.

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The first two, a. and b. – are absolutely necessary. So are the next two, c. and d. and must be passed through in order to get to e. have original thoughts.

The texts in the book are mostly well known and organized into functional groups such as Ornament & Austerity, Honesty & Deception, Function & Form and Natural & Constructed. But even if the selection of texts is balanced, the choice of functional groups is not. It implies they will continue to have relevance (for theory at least) and also that how we think about architecture in the future can be informed by how certain people thought about those aspects of it in the past. This isn’t necessarily true. You may as well go it alone and read whatever interests you, spice it up with whatever crosses your path, let it cook, and see what happens.

Here’s some I’ve read. It’s not an exhaustive list as some I haven’t yet finished and others haven’t yet arrived. Other books I’ve given away and some I’ve gifted, sometimes inadvertendly but I’ve learned something from each of the books in even this small selection. One of the things I learned is that just because a thought is original doesn’t mean it’s any good, although it may make it more likely to be taken, or mistaken, as such. Also worth remembering is that not all the writers were architects. For those that were, I’d recommend keeping in mind the difference between what they said and what they did.

• • •

Towards a New Architecture, 1923, Le Corbusier

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Always fun. Read how Le Corbusier praises engineers for their pure thinking and how they applied it to objects that defined the age. See how he takes that thinking, adds to it all that people of the time thought virtuous about the architecture of ancient Greece, and then calls it new. In the chapter “Eyes That Do Not See”, Le Corbusier looks at various machines but sees them only as metaphors for a new architecture obeying old rules, rather than the genuinely purposeful architecture that was sorely wanted at the time.

• • •

The International Style, 1932, Henry-Russel Hitchcock & Philip Johnson

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Another classic, whichever edition you have. Be appalled by the lack of argument, the shameless prejudice and the shallow, mean and self-serving agenda. When reading the image captions, be horrified by what the pair thought worthy of comment, and then by the comments themselves. It’s an ugly book and you’ll feel unclean after having read it but, unfortunately, that’s why it’s essential reading. It is wrong to claim The International Style was the first introduction to modern architecture for the US. Magazines such as Popular Mechanics introduced it first and to far more people. The difference is that Popular Mechanics introduced modern architecture as a new way of building, The International Style reduced it to art.

Related posts:
The International Style 1932
Architecture vs. Building
The Things Historians Do

• • •

The Minimum Dwelling, 1932, Karel Teige

TeigeThe Minimum Dwelling

The fact this translation came so late is a shame, for Teige’s is an actual voice from the past, contradicting the constructed narratives of historians. Karel Teige is Le Corbusier’s only contemporary critic we now know of because this 2002 book, originally published in 1932, was only translated into English seventy years later. Czech, German and Russian architects were blessed with architectural journals translating and communicating American and British developments but the lack of flow in the other direction implies occidental arrogance. You can read what architects of the time were really concerned about, and who actually said what at CIAM meetings. It’s dense with text and thoughts. When read in conjunction with the previous book, it’s shocking to see the difference between how modern architecture was understood in late ’20s/early ’30s Europe and how it came to be communicated.

Related post:
Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige

• • •

 Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 1960, Reyner Banham

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Modern readers will find this book difficult as it’s not written in Banham’s later and more readable journalistic style. It’s still well worth reading though, because Banham is the teacher you wish you’d had. He’s scholarly in a  good way. He doesn’t make unverifiable statements or attribute ideas to people to fit his argument, or without a thorough assessment of what information they could conceivably had had access to. His conclusions as to who thought what and who was influenced by whom are often at odds with accepted histories. The book was written over fifty years ago but is now a refreshing look at the fifty years before that.

• • •

 The Victorian Country House, 1973, Mark Girouard

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This book reminds you why books exist. It tells the story of these huge houses and the people who commissioned them and why. You read about technological advances, their failures and their successes. You learn how social conventions and pretensions were embedded in house plans as well as manifesting themselves in building size, massing and facades. You will learn that these buildings were a product of the people of their time, their aspirations, vanities and pretensions. It’s a bit gloomy when you realise how little has changed but, to counter that, Girouard’s writing is a joy and that’s something you don’t come across very often in books on architecture.

Kept out of polite society through her mother’s second marriage to a drunken clergyman, Lady Charlotte Guest married Sir John Josiah Guest, the Welsh ironmaster, and used his great wealth with skill and determination to establish their social position.

Related posts:
The Maximum Dwelling
The Maximum Dwelling: RESPECT

• • •

Exploding The Myths of Modern Architecture, 2009, Malcolm Millais

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If you want to read what an engineer thinks about architecture and its myths, then Millais is your man. Millais’ rebuttal is founded in the realities of physical forces and so is better than most. Read it and then put Modern Architecture and its myths to rest. The real 20th century architectural crime against humanity is how the definition of architectural worth was shifted away from buildings aspiring to provide a real social utility, and towards buildings providing only the appearance of one.

Related posts:
Architecture Myths #23: Architecture
Architecture Myths #22: Biomimesis
Architecture Myths #21: Total Design
Architecture Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

• • •

 The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 1973, Charles Jencks

I once read an academic paper written about the books of Charles Jencks. I quote from Taylor & Francis Online.

This paper will discuss Jencks’s historiography of Post-Modernism by looking at the seminal texts that he wrote from 1970 until 2007, beginning with Architecture 2000 and ending with Critical Modernism. The main focus of this article is critically to examine his major work, the Language of Post Modernism, and to trace its evolution as a means of evaluating his contribution to the development of this movement, as well as to architectural historiography.

First published in 1973, we’ve all grown up with some edition of The Language of Post Modern Architecture. A succession of covers and revisions created the appearance of prolonged relevance and pushed its rediscovery into the future, thus making space for something even more egregious.

• • •

Yes Is More, 2009 Bjarke Ingels

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The scary brilliance of BIG’s architecture is how it reduces buildings to easily comprehensible images. The scary brilliance of the book is how it reduces architecture to easily comprehensible images. Neither is a healthy development. The book spreads its simplistic message as efficiently and ruthlessly as the plague but do not think the book simplistic. It is a sophisticated and ruthless marketing tool for a hugely successful architecture and publicity machine. Its comic book format is not the first time text was used to ornament images but it hastens the death of language all the same.

Related posts:
YES MAN
Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center (14% More BIG)

• • •

The Autopoiesis of Architecture, 2011, Patrik Schumacher

If you don’t want to buy the book, let me know and I’ll give you my heavily annotated copy as soon as I finish reading it. I should warn you that I began reading Volume I in October 2012! But my offer stands. I’ll toss in a mint-condition Volume II.

• • •

The Architecture of Neoliberalism, 2017, Douglas Spencer

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The antidote to the previous three books or, if you haven’t yet read them, the vaccination.

• • •

Against Architecture, 2012, Franco La Cecla

“A passionate charge against the celebrities of the current architectural world: the “archistars.” La Cecla argues that architecture has lost its way and its true function, as the archistars mold cityscapes to build their brand with no regard for the public good.”  An interesting notion – I think La Cecla might be onto something!  

• • •

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1999, Helen Vendler

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This book has more to do with the guts of architecture than some of the others in this list. Vendler takes each of Shakespeare’s sonnets and identifies and analyzes the poetic devices and mechanisms by which Shakespear managed to construct such breath and depth of poetic meaning and beauty. With some sonnets it’s their structure, with others their rhythm or onomatapaeia, and still others the strength or combinations of allusions, associations or imagery. They all work within the constraints of the sonnet and the conventions of Elizabthean language.

“During the nineteenth century, the study of Shakespeare’s sonnets was governed by a biographical agenda. Later, it was also governed by the “universal wisdom” agenda: the sonnets have been mined for the wisdom of friendship, the wisdom of the acquiescence to time, the wisdom of love. But I’m more interested in them as poems that work. They seem to me to work awfully well (though not everyone thinks so). And each one seems to work differently. Shakespeare was the most easily bored writer that ever lived, and once he had made a sonnet prove out in one way, he began to do something even more ingenious with the next sonnet. It was a kind of task that he set himself: within an invariant form, to do something different—structurally, lexically, rhythmically—in each poem. I thought each one deserved a little commentary of its own, so I’ve written a mini-essay on each one of the one hundred and fifty four.” [from Paris Review]

For her efforts, Vendler has been criticized as “clinical” and her analysis as “forensic”. These days, her book is marketed as a companion volume to understanding the sonnets in order to pacify those who prefer to worship the unknowable magic of creative genius, and whose only wish is that it remain unknowbale. However, for those wanting to see how one man mastered the techniques of his trade and put them to good use, I know no better textbook.

Related Posts:
Aesthetic Effect #3: COMBINE

 

Plan B

This planet has seen some extreme housing density in its time. If you were in The Rookery in New York in 1865 you’d know what 4,700 persons per hectare looks like.

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If you were in Madrid 1930-31 you’d recognize these two buildings in Karel Teige’s 1932 book, The Minimum Dwelling. The lower one has a density of 4,500 persons per hectare and the upper one a density of 6,000.

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If you were in Kowloon Walled City in 1987 you’d have seen 33,000 people living at a density of 12,700 per hectare.

Living at such high densities is now some time in the past but we can’t be sure it won’t be part of our future. Londoners know High Barnet as the northermost station on the Northern Line. These are the plans of a recent permitted development in the London Borough of Barnet.

The more central London Borough Of Camden had denser, unpermitted developments twenty years ago but it’s a slippery slope when 25 sq.m (270 sq.ft) per person becomes permissible, and only a matter of time before legal minimums begin to get nasty. Last year’s Venice Biennale offered some tasters. Here’s a situation from the US pavilion’s The Architectural Imagination exhibit. Ground level is given over to transportation, retail and whatever’s meant by a neighbourhood of common spaces. The rooftop is amenity space. It’s Unité d’Habitations minus the parky bit and the habitations. People live in tents, hopefully before upgrading to some more rigid enclosure that’s no-doubt self-build and locally-sourced but for all the wrong reasons. Multistorey carpark meets favela. Stay classy, America!

Here’s another example, this time from the Taiwan exhibit.

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I was unsure if this uncomfortable juxtaposition of habitation and transportation was proposal or reality but there’s no doubt with this next.

It all points towards a future a bit grittier than Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ lurid celebration of four decades of visionary architecture that never happened.

This ought to be a warning. If A is for Architecture and B is for Building then we need a Plan B to mitigate the likelihood Plan A will fail to deliver. It might be prudent to start to think about how people might live at higher densities should they become the new normal. In places such as Hong Kong they already are and people there seem to manage quite nicely.

The high-density tower block is the best use of land we’ve come up with so far.

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We know how to make them. We don’t know how to make them better.

• • •

The Domino’s House post a few weeks back celebrated the two-apartment-per-landing floor plan. This is one of the layouts of Dubai Duty Free Residence by UA Architects. It’s a good use of the plan’s advantages, and has elevators too.
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The same configuration is popular in India but here it is in some Hong Kong apartments. When you get higher up, it’s a good idea to have that second elevator.

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The stairs are scissor stairs although, with this arrangement, I’m unsure why.

This example also has a service elevator and maid’s quarters and the scissor stairs now function together and separately as main stairs and service (back) stairs for the same apartment.

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This next arrangement stretches the landing between the elevators and stairs to make a corridor that passes two apartments in order to access more apartments. It’s what corridors do.

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Bathroom windows open onto light wells and cross ventilation is compromised but all kitchens still have external windows because of their relationship with the recesses and the front doors. It’s a neat way of doing things and can be seen in many of the layouts that follow. It’s a better idea to put the scissor stairs behind the elevators and use the elevator landing as the corridor but, in this next example, construction expediency has compromised the internal planning.

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This next example is a better way of using a similar core to access four apartments. Increased external surface area is the price you pay for windows and the question becomes one of how much light and ventilation kitchens and bathrooms actually need.

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These next eight layouts all consider that problem and have arrived at much the same solution.

  • All have near-identical cores.
  • All have extended the elevator lobby to create four new corners to allow eight apartments per floor – the maximum possible without adding additional corridor to get past some apartments to access others.
  • All enter directly into the living room rather than into a corridor leading to a living room with a view in two directions.

What we’re looking at is an urban typology that’s evolved naturally by following some basic principles and without regard for architectural beauty – it’s a modern and generic vernacular architecture. The typology is sometimes called the snowflake layout because of its rotationally-symmetrical mirrorings.

The various arms can have different apartment types but let’s compare two that use 45° angles. Entering an apartment at a corner always makes internal planning more difficult but is unavoidable when eight apartments converge on a core. Both layouts sensibly place the kitchen along core walls and at the end of open ventilation shafts shared with all bathrooms. The layout on the right makes better use of the 45° angle with a defined dining space away from the front door. Windows of opposing dining areas are offset from each other.

The desire for construction profit would normally have reduced external wall area by closing the sides of those shafts and turning them into fully enclosed light-wells/ventilation shafts so, because this hasn’t happened, there must be a significant advantage to keeping one side of those shafts open. Air currents around the building must keep the air moving but the kitchen window also has a view. This next example has laundry drying racks outside the windows at the inner ends of long, open shafts. We see elevator lobbies naturally lit and ventilated. We get a feel for the structure and also get a sense for the construction.

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We call ourselves architects but see Hong Kong’s high-rise apartment buildings only in terms of outer appearance (and then only negatively as monotonous, extrusions, etc.) and with no regard for or even acknowledgement of their inner life.

We’re quick to suggest the Chinese are predisposed towards functioning as a cohesive society – and perhaps they are [and when did this become a bad thing?], but this only allows us to ignore how these buildings are configured to facilitate people living their lives at high density and in relative harmony. To labour the point, these buildings are not problems requiring dynamite and/or Post Modermism as solutions.

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In the Repeating Crevice, Revisited post, I noted how Shinohara’s Repeating Crevice house provided its occupants with graded levels of awareness of the presence and movements of other occupants. I suggested this might be useful for co-living and co-housing projects that, typically, offer only the binary choice of fully private space or fully shared space. The result was Repeating Crevice reimagined as co-housing.

I thought if such an arrangement can benefit people living in close quarters, then it might be worthwhile extending the principle to high-rise apartment buildings. The Hong Kong typology does have kitchen windows with views of the sides of the building, and habitable rooms often have sideways views of other habitable room windows. Within the same building there already is a visual awareness of neighbours on the same floor but this doesn’t come via the spaces connecting them. I thought the transition between elevator lobby and apartment lobby could perhaps be more visually permeable but,

for any proposal to be more than a spatial exercise, there should also have 1) eight two-bedroom apartments per floor, 2) naturally ventilated and lit elevator lobbies, 3) naturally ventilated and lit bathrooms and kitchens and 4) laundry drying areas. I’m not yet sure it can be done.

• • •

I’m more certain we’re thinking the wrong way about privacy. We design apartment buildings to exclude all awareness of people living in the same building and sharing corridors and elevators, and then wonder why people think they’re isolating and alienating. Village life may have the opposite downside of everyone knowing what everyone else is doing but, midway between these two densities is suburbia where people can see from their window if their neighbours are in, or chat across a driveway or garden fence if they wish.

We live in cities because we enjoy the opportunites that arise when people live at higher densities but the reality is we live our lives oscillating between our public and private selves. We manically try to achieve balance, not equilibrium. Apartment doors switch us between being private in spaces totally open to the world, and being social in spaces totally closed to it. Something is not right.

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We see our dwellings as refuges from society rather than as places to reassure us we’re part of it. We thus lack the calmness and certainty that comes from feeling part of something greater than ourselves. Instead, we look for it in views but in less than two centuries the notion of a view has quickly degraded from preferred landscape, to any landscape, to suburban garden, to communal garden, to river view, to any large space outside one’s window.

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When the window-to-window distance decreases, people stop being picturesque and become real. We’re not yet back in the village but we’re getting back to the social reality of suburbia. This is not a bad thing.

In the world’s larger cities, the idea that a desirable view can include people is something occurring out of necessity. If we like living in cities and amongst other people then we need to be more aware of each other, not as some kind of substitute or lesser view but out of choice and because it is socially and psychologically good for us.

I suspect this is what happens in Hong Kong where people seem to manage just fine although, it must be said, its excruciatingly beautiful topography is never far away.

• • •

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  • 40% of Hong Kong’s land is natural landscape. 90% of all journeys are by public transport, of which 43% are by the city’s MTR metro system. Hong Kong has a low energy use per capita, only slightly above the world average.

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  • Per capita statistics are averages that deny extremes and using GDP as an indicator of a country’s prosperity has its own liimitations. That said, Hong Kong’s balance between energy efficiency and GDP per capita is the planet’s best – better than Austria and Switzerland and better than the G7 countries by as much again.

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The Fireplace

Fireplace is one of those reliable English language words that don’t leave you guessing. This abridged history begins with the traditional European fireplace of mediaeval times. The one in the image on the left, below, is from a house The Black Knight once stayed in circa 1400, hence the insignia on the mantel – or at least that’s how I remember it from World of Interiors. The house is most definitely that of a nobleman, but I like how it can be lived in with a minimum of apparatus. Rugs and tapestries soften the acoustics and lessen radiant cooling. That 17th century invention, the piano, would always have been by the window for better light but not so close for diurnal temperature variations to affect its tuning. A painting and some flowers in a vase probably always satisfied the human needs for art and nature. Internal shutters kept the wind-owt. The fireplace provided warmth.

The story-arc of the fireplace starts off promisingly with a succession of improvements for better combustion.

The first major change in heating technology came in the early 17th century when Franz Kessler had the idea of using the siphon effect to pull hot air through a ceramic baffle that warmed up and transferred heat to the room.

Taken from the Holzsparkunst (The Art of Saving Wood) by Franz Kessler – published in 1618.

Over four centuries, the ceramic fireplace (a.k.a. masonry heater) with multiple baffles became the dominant continental European way to heat a room. Each country had its variants but common to all was a large mass that heated the room by radiant heat.

A Frenchman, Jean Desaguiliers, noticed that metals such as cast iron conducted heat into the room more effectively. Benjamin Franklin combined these two discoveries into the Franklin Stove he proposed in 1741.

It had the problem of only burning well and without smoke if there was a strong draft, and this was difficult if the flue was still cold. In 1780, David Rittenhouse modified Franklin’s design by adding an L-shaped flue at the top and it’s Rittenhouse improved design that today, unfortunately for Rittenhouse’s memory, is mistakenly referred to as a Franklin Stove.

A little over four years ago, in the Night Sky Radiant Cooling post, I introduced Count von Rumford [a.k.a. Benjamin Thompson] who, in 1796, suggested improvements that became known as the Rumford Fireplace. Rumford must have been sensitive to cold as he’s also credited with the invention of thermal underwear.

The Rumford fireplace created a sensation in London when [Rumford] introduced the idea of restricting the chimney opening to increase the updraught, which was a much more efficient way to heat a room than earlier fireplaces. He and his workers modified fireplaces by inserting bricks into the hearth to make the side walls angled, and added a choke to the chimney to increase the speed of air going up the flue. The effect was to produce a streamlined air flow, so all the smoke would go up into the chimney rather than lingering, entering the room, and often choking the residents. It also had the effect of increasing the efficiency of the fire, and gave extra control of the rate of combustion of the fuel, whether wood or coal. Many fashionable London houses were modified to his instructions, and became smoke-free. [W]

The pot-bellied stove of circa 1860 is one of the world’s great inventions. It could produce 50 kW or more, making them suitable for heating large spaces such as railway station waiting rooms and depots, and even the trains themselves. Warmth went public. 

The story of the domestic fireplace between 1850 and 1950 is that of the shift from combusting wood, to combusting coal, and then gas. Below, the first example is a coal-burning fireplace from circa 1870 and the others are examples of the gas-fired “coal-effect” fireplaces still common in the UK today.

Ceramic “coals” glow a convincing red upon sufficient heat input.

Over the same period, the history of the fireplace split in two. One history charts improvements in the fuel being combusted and how to combust it. The other charts the change from the fireplace being (1) a functional feature structurally integrated into the building, into (2) a functional and symbolic feature integrated into the building and then into (3) a symbolic feature. This history can probably be traced through the fireplaces of Wright alone.

In the 20th century, the fireplace became an architectural feature increasingly detached from the building.

These next images, in no particular order, show the fireplace in various stages on the spectrum of architectural element to objectified object.

Whether this objectification happened because fireplaces were made functionally obsolete by air conditioning, underfloor heating and other forms of active environmental control no longer matters. It continued anyway. An architecture victim at twelve, I looked foward to dancing around the fire in my modern house of the future.

One technical fightback that occurred 1960-1980 was the “heatform” fireplace which was a metal firebox built into a full masonry chimney. They were inexpensive to install because a trained mason didn’t have to construct a firebox. Side or top vents circulated heated air back into the room. Heatform and Heatilator were popular brands.

This is Vulcan oil-fired heater of a type popular in Australia in the 1960s. There was a tank on an outside wall and when its float indicator dropped below a certain level, you’d phone someone and a guy in a boiler suit would come park an oil tanker in your driveway and fill it up again, fuelling oil dependency at the same time. Oil heaters such as these were often enclosed in a masonry–effect fireplace surrounds or inserted into feature walls of masonry effect cladding. Ceramic inserts above the burner glowed orange at full burn.

The 1970s oil crises and a growing awareness that burning oil wasn’t such a good thing led to a revival of interest in wood-burning stoves that had no need for masonry surrounds, even fake ones. Most improved little upon the Rittenhouse Stove. Rectangular shapes were admired for their modern looks rather than for having more radiant surface area than a potbelly.

Freestanding stoves were seen as more modern but placing them in a fireplace meant the masonry would continue to radiate heat for some time after heat input ceased.

Philip Starck solved that problem by placing optional boxes of modular rocks / modular boxes of optional rocks beneath the firebox. Meet Speetbox. Is there anything that has not been reinvented by Philippe Starck?

Speetbox app features include:

  • Control of hot air distribution (on/off)
  • Control of room temperature (optional)
  • Setting of power/speed of combustion
  • Analysis of flue temperatures (safety)
  • Lighting control
  • Control of electric sockets (time setting)
  • Hearth software features update

Since the 1970s, the objectification of the fireplace has intensified but with less dancing. Of the feature object fireplaces, the suspended fireplace was perhaps the most perverse,

but there is also the subcategory of architectural fireplaces,

as well as the one having the fireplace as architecturalized object.

As it happened, it wasn’t the fireplace being objectified after all but fire itself. The frameless Escea DS1400 lets you focus on the flame instead of going to the trouble of making one or using it to make more by periodically adding fuel. The Escea DS1400 operates on either natural gas or propane. Its heat output of 5–5.6 kW might warm 16 sq.m on a cold day.

A downloadable user guide tells you how to connect your fireplace to the internet ffs and warns you not to lose the remote.

We haven’t quite reached the bottom. This next is a bio-ethanol fire experience that provides you with romantic fire art. At least the flames are still flames.

You know how this is going to end.  Dimplex’s Opti Myst® effect uses ultrasonics to create a fine water mist that’s coaxed upwards through the ‘fuel’ to allow moving images of flames to be projected onto it and create a convincing illusion of flames and smoke. The result is an appearance so authentic it will be mistaken for true flames and smoke. To its credit, there is still the presence of a gas-like substance but any conceptual satisfaction is thwarted by their “Just add water!” approach to creating fire. 

Focal Point Fires make much of their realistic fire effects. Dimplex have been at it for some time. Their Optiflame® effect was introduced in 1988.

Their Opti-V Effect is, they say, the perfect blend of magic and realism. This is disturbing. Just when I’ve finally come to accept a reality that’s insufficiently magical, I realise I’ve been neglecting to worry about magic not being realistic enough.

It uses the latest High Definition TV technology to create flames and sparks for a virtual fireplace experience like no other. The unique and patent protected design combines ultra realistic flickering flames with three dimensional LED logs that sporadically spark! With the addition of an audio element of crackling logs, the illusion of a real fire is complete. [snarky boldings mine]

There are many fireplace TV apps available that don’t treat sound as an extra. Their downside is that the only heat you’ll get will be from your flatscreen’s electronics. The fire as fire-effect virtual fireplace is so new our language hasn’t yet adapted to describe it. If left to virtually burn continuously on this 32″ SONY BRAVIA for the three months of winter, such an app would consume 35W of electricity. Most of that 35W would be converted into heat, but you might wish it was a little more especially if, like me, you are a seated adult male generating (i.e. losing) approx. 70W of metabolic heat per hour.

From such proud beginnings to such an ignominious end. I didn’t set out to write a critical para-historic fable about architecture as a projection of an image of a hollowed-out shell of something that once had a purpose, but it’s what I seem to have done.

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