Hacking The City

This post is not so much a reworking of the 2020 post, Reconstructivism, but an attempt to put its ideas back out there in 2023 as it’s good to have a Plan B.

We all remember the carnage that the 2008 financial crisis dealt the construction industry. This was painfully evident in Dubai with projects being put on hold, others being cancelled, still others having their completion delayed by up to a decade, others left uncompleted and still others being demolished before they were even completed. Dubai still has monuments to that.

And then there was that other hiccup called the pandemic. Again, projects were put on hold for extended periods of time, and others had their construction delayed.

But it’s not the buildings that caught Covid. Their unconstruction was the result of the financial downturn that accompanied Covid. That’s two (relatively) unexpected and very different global catastrophes within twelve years. The “next” global catastrophe looks like being our increasingly changing climate bringing increasingly chatoic weather patterns. Climate change is already bringing havoc to economies and populations worldwide but difference between this crisis and the others is that this next one is not a surprise.

In 2021, the UK government announced it would cut emissions by 78% by the year 2035, and be carbon zero by 2050. This is ambitious but, in line with the commonly believed fallacy that the problems caused by technology will be solved by more technology, the announcement said “The government will look to meet this reduction target through investing and capitalising on new green technologies and innovation.”

It’s reckless to hope the technologies we desperately need will be invented or invented in time to avert a average 1.5°C rise in global temperature by 2050, especially when that limit looks like being exceeded in 2027. But science advances incrementally. Nobody is expecting a lithium ion battery capable of powering a Boeing 737 for 1,000 kilometers to be available by 2050. Nobody is expecting to have electricity produced by nuclear fusion commercially available before 2050. Nobody is expecting quantum computing until quite a while after that. The reason for this is that quantum computing requires huge amounts of energy to supercool atomic particles to near absolute zero in order for it to work. The problem is that quantum computing is supposed to solve the substantial containment problems that, in essence, making small suns on Earth will necessarily involve. We used to call situations like this a Catch 22 after the 1961 book of the same name.

If you go by your media exposure, you’d think the world has many buildings that are net zero for both construction and operation but the problem is they don’t make a single bit of difference in absolute terms. That much-vaunted sea change never happened and efforts directed towards making it happen are beginning to look like denial. This is not to say that innovation or some mass change of opinion won’t occur, but we can’t expect it to be when and where we need it – which, basically, is everywhere and now. Besides, even if all those technologies were available before 2050, they’d still need to implemented immediately and universally and there are huge economic and political obstacles to that happening. In short, placing one’s hopes on future innovation isn’t a strategy. It’s a way of coping. We need a Plan B.

The word innovation tends to be used to describe new technologies but it can also describe innovative non-technological ideas, processes and strategies we might need in order to adapt to our changing circumstances. Innovation needs to be less about maintaining the status quo and more about solving problems in the here and now and planning what we’re going to do should things become truly catastrophic. So then, let’s set a scenario.

It’s now 2045 and carbon targets weren’t anywhere near met. The climate is out of control. All new construction is prohibited, there’s no air or vehicle travel, and the possession and combustion of fossil fuels is outlawed. What happens next? Where do we live? How do we live? What’s for dinner? How much of our built environment can be repurposed to provide minimum standards of food and shelter?

It’s going to be messy. Entire populations will be displaced and this never works out well. Even stability within societies can’t be take for granted when people have to live at higher densities in order to pool labour, resources and accommodation.

So let’s think about how we might be able to re-use our built and natural environment for survival. Even if some of these proposals turn out to be unworkable, it’s a different way of approaching the same problems and may prove a useful backup. I’ll use the example of the city of Dubai because it’s just south of the city of Kuwait that has already had the lethal 35°C wet-bulb temperature. All the suggestions that follow are for a situation in which the climate of Dubai stays fairly much the same and might not even be applicable if the climate of Dubai moves in that direction. Even so, the way of thinking is still valid.

A representative building type in Dubai is the high-rise tower paired with a multi-storey car park. Each has a footprint of 40m x 40m. The car park has about 40 cars per floor on ten or eleven floors so let’s say 500 spaces. The tower has 40-60 floors, each with about 1,000 sq.m of residential or office space. A fifty-storey tower therefore has about 100 sq.m of useable area for each car parking space. This is a favorable proportion because, assuming ideal growing conditions, it takes about 50 sq.m of land to grow sufficient food to feed one person, suggesting that the tower should become a vertical farm and the multi-storey car park become residential space allocated at one car parking space per person.

  • At first, we might want to sleep in our cars but, over time, mud bricks might be used to partition the covered space in a way that doesn’t obstruct natural windflow. Traditional towns used to do this.
  • Communal kitchens, bathrooms and laundries are located around the perimeter of the car park, with grey water feeding reed beds at ground level and blackwater feeding anaerobic digesters. We don’t know if we would be allowed to burn the biogas produced.
  • Let’s hope so because it will make it easier for atmospheric water generators to cool humid air and condense drinking water. An active generator requires 310Wh (111kJ) of energy to make one liter of water but we can use passive ones because Dubai has an average temperature above 19.7° and an average relative humidity above 53%. These are perfect conditions as lower temperatures in winter are compensated for by higher humidities, and vice-versa.
  • Water for agriculture comes from seawater greenhouses that humidify and cool air that’s then distilled by solar heating. The windward side of the tower uses a porous membrane evaporative cooler whilethe sunny side has solar collectors. 
  • Sewage is fed to local anaerobic digesters so Dubai’s new sewer system [to be completed in 2025] can be flooded with seawater to supply seawater greenhouses for the production and supply of fresh water over a greater area. Or, warm humid air could be forced into the sewer system to make it function as one large atmospheric water generator. Either way, the current inspection manholes will become community wells.
  • Glazing panels are hacked and conveted into one or the other. Still others are filled with water and a small pump added to cultivate spirulina. 
  • And let’s not forget evaporative cooling. There used to be an Autralian invention called a Coolgardie Safe. It was a box with hessian sides kept moist by their upper edges resting in a tray of water on top of the box. Latent heat of evaporation kept perishables cool. These devices could be found in Australian houses into the 20th century before the advent of refrigerators run on kerosene. The important thing is that it was a simple and failsafe technology that worked.

These are all known technologies but how to make them work together needs fine tuning. We need to know now what will grow and what won’t, and we need nutritional efficiency to guide our selections. Fortunately, The Sun will provide most of the energy by heating the air so it can hold all that water. As long as there’s not a wet-bulb temperature of 35°C, we can rely upon wind – when it happens – to bring cooling and fresh water. Architecture as we know it will cease to exist for a while but architectural intelligence can still be applied so that mud-brick residences in the former car park have good cross ventilation and a minimum level of illumination.

Importantly, all these technologies exist now and it might be an idea to refine and better integrate them and see how society might possibly continue in the defunct superstructures we will be left with. This is not adaptive re-use anymore. It is hacking things – a sewer system, a building, an entire city – and using it for a purpose it was not designed for.

There are enormous challenges in growing plants indoors to provide a minimum level of nutrition. An existence of subsistence farming will not be easy. Children’s education will suffer and society may collapse anyway but at least we won’t be on Mars, dependent on complex technologies and corporate benevolence for the very air we breathe as we crush rocks to squeeze water to feed the 3D printers printing ice igloos for us. 

Who knows? We might find we like living in sync with the seasons. Our hacked cities might produce a surplus to support educational, commercial and even artistic crossover. If that happens, these hacked buildings will have ensured the continuation of civilization. Our hacked buildings could turn out to be a new type of social condenser for our times. The only reason I’m optimistic is that other peoples have done it in the past.

We know about the 17th century walled houses of the Hakka people of China’s Fujian Province. There are also U-shaped ones so those thick walls may be more structural than defensive, as is usually assumed. They had their own wells, sewerage system and grain stores but it could just be that the Hakka people opted to live like this because it left more land free for agriculture.

• • •


It was a flying visit to Dubai for a two-day conference and an opportunity to revisit the city I’d lived in from September 2008 to September 2020. It’s not always a good idea to revisit overly familiar places from one’s past where every road and building has a memory of being travelled or seen. One either gravitates to those places that have fond memories, or make a point of avoiding those that don’t. I didn’t expect to be given a hotel room from which I had a view of the hotel I spent my final three (lockdown) months in Dubai during my delayed relocation to China, and also of the apartment I lived in for the seven years before that. I learned that my gravitation/avoidance theory of places past wasn’t a good way of describing the world as my former apartment was just an anonymous bit of curtain wall and I was happy to be where I was.

My other theory about revisiting places from one’s past had to do with change. After any period of time, things are going to have either changed or they won’t have. It was already dark when I boarded the Metro from the airport but even from the train I still noted that such and such a building with the hugely cantilevered skybridge held between two towers like a cigarette between two fingers had been completed, etc.

From my apartment across Sheikh Zayed Road, I’d watched the construction of the hotel I was now staying in but also that of UN Studio’s Wasl Tower and had been looking forward in some guilty pleasure way of seeing it completed with some inevitable light show spiralling up and around its curvy sides. After all, three years had passed. It was not to be. Cladding had just begun when I left and hadn’t progressed much between 2020 [left, below] and last Sunday [right].

Construction workers are still being bussed in at 6:30am and the crane was still present and moving. [The presence of a crane used to indicate that a project hadn’t been cancelled.] At this rate though, construction could be spun out for a decade or so until some financial calculus returns the right answer.

Buildings don’t catch Covid but their financing does, and that financial calculus had obviously been upset by the pandemic stress-testing the economy. With the 2008 financial crisis, some building projects were cancelled outright if they were not yet onsite. Others had their completion delayed by up to a decade and still others were abandoned mid-construction. [c.f. The Aftermath, The Uncompleted] The pre-opening publicity for building projects may appear much the same but the financing is invisible and so it’s impossible to predict which way a project will go when the market collapses. Once-prestige projects such as Dubai Pearl have suffered the indignity of being deconstructed.

Now alerted to this, I noticed that Meera’s Central Park development is cautiously proceeding with off-plan sales one-building at a time.

This is wise because mid-2020 its future was not looking good.

The future of another residential development along Dubai Water Canal is less clear. Cranes are still in place but this situation could last for years were it not for the fact that the land and project may revert to the government if left unfinished for too long. This new message to developers seems to be “Don’t start a project you can’t finish”. When making one kilogram of concrete creates one kilogram of carbon emissions, it’s upsetting to see buildings come and go while others with uncertain futures remain in various stages of incompletion.

Apart from Wasl Tower, there were few other surprises In the corner of town I was most familiar with. Given three years and a bit of water, plants had grown, as is their nature. I learned you can make delicious tea from three bougainvillea flowers steeped in hot water, but I’ve yet to try it.

About 2017 or so, people had given up trying to keep the letters of the famous Toyota neon sign along Sheikh Zayed Road lit and alternately flashing TOYOA in Arabic and English and so the signi was taken down. There must have been some sort of outcry over this piece of history being removed and so there’s now a static, un-illuminated sign in its place as a memory of what once was. I’ve witnessed what a nightmare to maintain neon in hot and humid climates but they did manage it in Hong Kong for many years. I couldn’t help feeling that even one of the new pseudo-neon LED reproduction would have been better. Over time, people will forget, but this lifeless sign will never engender the fondness its predecessor did.

Speaking of Hong Kong, Dubai Mall now has a Chinatown complete with much pseudo-neon LED signage. Questions of authenticity hardly matter. Inasmuch as there’s a Heidilao hotpot restaurant and a Xiaomi store it’s as authentic as the real thing.

Thinking about China in general, I noticed over breakfast how strange it was to now be in a country mostly populated by people not from there. This is neither good nor bad – it’s just different. It is strange though that I’d never paid much attention to this before. But after breakfast when I set out to meet the people I was there to meet, I noticed my payments and communications were now adapted to Chinese systems and no longer working let alone in sync. I’m used to things like this but it was a reminder I was now a tourist, a fact further confirmed by me turning up at the university I was supposed to go to and the building being vacant. I found out it had relocated two years earlier to a nearby shopping mall to two buildings, one of which had formerly been a department store if I remember correctly, and the other a gaming plaza. It seemed to work. Maybe even appropriate.

The hotel I stayed in was one of a popular budget chain and the familiar use of colour and graphics reminded me of popular budget chains in Europe. I didn’t see any plaques indicating a number of stars and this itself was a change. In older parts of town, even two-star hotels had felt the need to tell everyone.

The use of many colors to indicate a lightness of heart had begun to creep into the built environment. This too was new.

In the end, none of this mattered. The things I remember most were bumping into not one but two students I’d previously taught, and within one minute of each other. These two happy moments probably lasted less than two minutes in total. From Metro windows, I also thought I’d recognized three more former students walking along platforms. I also remember chats over coffee and breakfast with a long-time friend who was briefly in town, even though I was defeated by the German Bee Sting cake (so named because the caramelized almond topping is as irresistable to bees as it is to us). And not to forget Aleksr who gave me the best haircut, and Rashad and Alireza and the other new friends I made over the two days of the conference. Irrespective of what the built environment was doing, these are the things that made my stay, and the things I took away with me.

• • • 

• • • 

An Architecture of Sharing (2’nd Attempt)

This post is a reworking of a post of almost exactly one year ago, in an attempt to find a better way of approaching the subject. It’s mostly the preamble that’s different as the manifestations remain much the same although some of my examples are more extreme. This is because an architecture of sharing isn’t so much about people using/sharing out of kindness the building elements and the spaces they create, but about the need to benefit from the positive environmental and social effects of doing so.

Here I’m not talking about sharing as in a cake or pizza where using the object depletes it at twice the rate and each person has only half of the whole. I’m taking about sharing as in walls that are party walls and not external walls, and slabs that are one person’s ceiling and another person’s floor at the same time. In this sense, if two people share something, they only need one thing and not two. The economic sense of this is not lost on builders and developers. The environmental sense of sharing is not fully recognized. (The first letter of sharing is not R.) Instead of focussing solely on concepts such as defensible space in response to negative aspects of people living in close proximity, equal attention should at least be paid to simple tweaks to our building fabric that could bring positive social benefits for those same people.

An Architecture of Sharing is thus about building elements shared by multiple persons. It’s about a way of seeing and thinking about building elements in terms of what they do rather than in terms of what they are. It is about not seeing walls in terms of visual characteristics such as colour, texture or shape, physical properties such as strength, availability or economy, or even in terms of any historical or cultural associations that wall may evoke. With all that now in the background, the architecture that results is going to be different from anything we had in the 20th century or anything we’ve ever had before. If we can think of walls in terms of how they accentuate differences between the values of persons on each side, then we should be able to think of them in terms of how they might reinforce what values they may share.

But historically ingrained habits are difficult to fix, especially when they’ve been codified by architecture. As soon as space is divided, it has tended to become political. For millennia, walls have divided space into that on one side and that on the other and, by extension, the people on those respective sides. Walls not only physically divide and separate but are also statements of division and differentiation.

At the most basic level, enclosing space by building a wall articulates the possession of the enclosed space as well as the resources to enclose it. This has left us with a history of architecture articulating the possession of property and wealth. Such an architecture (and the aesthetic and moral codes for its evaluation) are proving unable, or at least resistant, to responding to new environmental, climatic, and social challenges. 

If you encounter a blank wall, you’ll know you’re not welcome or even entitled to know whether anyone is on the other side or what happens there. Walls such as these have existed for the protection of those on the outside (as with the case of jails and other places of confinement) but they more commonly exist for the protection of the people and things on the inside. The wall of Syrian supercastle Krak des Chevaliers doesn’t give much away apart from telling you you’re not welcome.

Now think of that same wall but now it has a door. It’s not important what type of door it is. What’s important is whether you have the means and rights to pass through that door. The extent of those rights will differ according to whether you are the owner, a resident, an employee, invited guest or visitor, or none of these.

The walls of a hotel room corridor are much like this. The doors are numbered and your cards has the number of your room on it, conferring you the right to occupy that room for a number of nights. A person in the corridor isn’t aware of other guests, cleaners, porters and room service who use that corridor, and a person in the room is similarly unaware of the internal life of the hotel. The hotel corridor is used by different people but is not shared. We accept this in hotels because hotels are for short-term stays, privacy and rest are these are more important than feeling one is sharing a floor and a building with many other people. There are lobbies and dining and leisure amenities for that. However, this configuration is also extremely common in residential buildings with single-aspect apartments. Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartments is probably not prototypical but may as well be. It’s an example of everything that’s inadequate about 20th century apartment design.

This Architecture of Sharing I’m proposing doesn’t see a wall as something that divides people or groups of people but as something shared by those on each side. It’s not necessary for those two groups of people to have the same expectations with respect to that wall, but their expectations will be shaped by how much or how little they know about each other and that knowledge will largely come from what can be seen through openings in that wall. 

The 20th century obsession with architecture as space skewed debate towards the difference between inside space and outside space and “blurring the distinction” between the two. In the Architecture of Sharing, this is a false distinction when inside space and outside space are both owned by the same person. (Glass walls were never going to be a solution when one side of the wall was private space and the other side of the wall was public or even communal space.)

Higher housing densities and a more efficient use of resources are possible because apartment buildings share building elements. Two people or two groups of people share the same wall. The same stairwell and elevator is used to access apartments on different levels. An architecture of sharing promotes the efficient use of resources, whatever they are. Entrance and elevator lobbies are spaces shared by all occupants of a building. Corridors are spaces shared by the occupants of  all apartments on the same floor. Negative spaces such as courtyards and light-wells can be horizontally shared by multiple persons and also can be shared vertically by multiple persons. None of this is new, but having an awareness of it is.

The Architecture of Sharing is not only about building elements such as walls and floors but also about the spaces they create. The Architecture of Sharing is concerned with making people more aware they are sharing these elements and spaces with other people. Its purpose is to configuring residential units that are more socially permeable. Closing the front door does not necessarily isolate residents from the building or its internal life. 

An idea of an architecture of sharing was contained in the now-disused term “streets in the sky”. That well-known photograph of Park Hill (1957–61) in Sheffield by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith showed children playing and housewives chatting along a deck access corridor. The implication is that these corridors would be regarded as and used as social amenity space. However, apart from the solid panel front doors themselves, the only awareness the residents had of the corridor on the other side was via the narrow panel of obscured-glass beside the front door. Streets were always much more than this.

One theme shared by many of the proposals here is how to make the shared spaces of multiple occupation residential buildings more like actual streets and what we like about them. We all know of shared surfaces where pedestrians and vehicles traverse the same surface at the same time. They work because drivers and pedestrians are each aware of the presence of the other. This mutual awareness is something that can be applied not only to horizontal surfaces but also to the spaces on either side of those vertical surfaces known as walls. I’m going to try to define some of the ways in which building elements can work together to create what I’ll call An Architecture of Sharing.

Horizontally Shared Walls

I’ve written a lot about walls already but the wall of the next example divides a single internal space into two internal spaces that, though un-equivalent, complement each other. The space on one side is snug and comforting and conducive to rest, while the space on the other side is more expansive and brighter and conducive to activity despite having the same floor area. Moreover, the window in the inclined wall allows a person on one side to be aware of the presence or absence of a person on the other. It is a simple example but it is what the Architecture of Sharing is about.

Vertically Shared Floors

Vertically shared floors happen when the ceiling of one level becomes the floor for the one above. It allows more floor area to be created on the same amount of land. A residential building with one residential unit per floor is the simplest case but, even then, noise transmission – usually from above – can still make people aware their floor slabs are vertically shared.

Vertically Shared Floors and Horizontally Shared Walls

Most residential buildings have a combination of vertically shared floors and horizontally shared walls known as party walls. In this next example, the only horizontally shared wall is the one separating the two areas indicated as sleeping areas. It is a wall that should not allow an awareness of persons on the other side yet, a person or persons on one side are expected to behave in consideration of a person or persons on the other and to not make noise to a level that will disturb people on the other side of that wall. On the other side of the plan are two walls that separate areas indicated as private living space from the stairwell which is communal access space. Walls such as these should also not allow an awareness of persons on the other side yet, but more so in the case of people using the stairwell and who are also expected not make noise to a level that will disturb people in their living rooms.

This is also an example of the simplest possible configuration of communal access and a communal stairwell and where the access corridor is also the stair landing. It’s a configuration that was standard in low-cost housing in many countries around the world but perhaps most commonly in Eastern Europe in buildings without elevators. As stairwells were relatively expensive to build, there came deck access with some rooms fronting the open corridor, and then to corridor access (as in Lake Point Drive). Shared access has sub-categories but the communal corridor is probably the most typical.

Communal Corridors

Communal corridors are an important element of the configuration of a conventional multi-household multi-storey residential building that also has horizontally shared walls + vertically shared floors. The communal corridor enables the walls and floors to be shared but the norm is for the corridor to be enclosed. There’s no need to talk about communal corridors because they are mainly used by different people and different times and so not shared in any meaningful way.

Shared Access + Shared Outdoor Space #1

This is when the access spaces such as corridors and elevator lobbies are used to provide not only ventilation and daylighting but a view of the internal life of the building, of people coming and going. Apartment entrance halls are the first and most obvious place to have these views of the communal access space. This mutual viewing and awareness of who is coming and going and who is at home or not is not about surveillance but about fostering a sense of people living together. Sometimes just knowing that other people are at home is sufficient.

The example here is a variation of deck access but the residential units could also be mirrored about the deck to create a double loaded deck lit and ventilated by light-wells. This proposal has bathroom and kitchen/living area windows opening onto light-wells adjacent to the deck. It puts a distance between the deck and openable kitchen and bathroom windows. The plan is tight and probably more suited to student or key-worker accommodation.

In this example, the access deck is also treated as a kind of outdoor space at half-level to the unit windows to minimize unnecessary eye contact while allowing people on either side of those windows to have an awareness of people in and moving around the building.

Shared Outdoor Space

In this next example, a conventional Australian suburban house is reconfigured as a house for a nuclear family or a boarding house house or some other house for multiple occupation. Once again, there is private space with a view of the communal outdoor space and the (mostly) communal indoor space by which that private space is accessed.

Shared Indoor Space

Shared inside spaces are generally about domesticity and so domestic rules apply. The market for private housing still assumes a nuclear family as the norm and that persons who aren’t part of a nuclear family will still aspire to live as if they were in a dwelling designed for one. This proposal is for a residential unit for either two or four non-related persons forming a non-traditional household. Instead of everyone entering into the “publiuc” or communal part of the unit, each person enters their private space space from which they then access the shared indoor space. The small internal corridors are transitions between communal space and private space, and between private space and shared space.

This is important, because people using the deck can have an awareness of who is at home and, from the kitchen/living room windows residents can have an awareness of who is coming and going – as with a traditional street. For example, when approaching a person’s house, seeing a room with a light on shows that someone is home. A person inside that house might be able to see the front gate and garden path and will therefore know if someone is about to visit them. If it’s someone they know then they might pre-emptively open the front door to greet them. Occurrences such as these are normal for persons living in detached houses because they are permitted by openings in the wall between inside and outside. The arriving person knows someone is home and the receiving person also knows someone is there. This won’t happen if the window isn’t positioned to allow it.

Shared Access + Shared Outdoor Space I

This is when the access spaces such as corridors and elevator lobbies are used to provide not only ventilation and daylighting but a view of the internal life of the building, of people coming and going. Residential unit entrance halls are the first and most obvious place to have these views of the communal access space. This mutual viewing and awareness of who is coming and going and who is at home or not is not about surveillance but about fostering a sense of people living together. Arrangements such as these have no more or less opportunities for direct contact. Sometimes just knowing that other people are at home is sufficient. This example has kitchens and entrance halls overviewing the three-storey high elevator lobby.

This is a lobby level of a circular apartment tower with two elevators. Each stairwell links to one floor up and down, meaning that these elevator lobbies are voids three stories high and square in plan. That void (and people coming and going) is overlooked by kitchen windows and entrance hall windows. On the lobby level, voids with railings keep people in the lobby at a distance from those windows and foster and awareness of activity in the lobbies above and below. Internally, all apartments have a kitchen, a bathroom, a living area and one bedroom but this bedroom can be taken from or given to the adjacent apartment to convert two one-bedroom apartments into a studio plus a two-bedroom apartment. This is also an example of Horizontally Shared Walls + Vertically Shared Floors.

Shared Access + Shared Outdoor Space II

This proposal from the past year has the shared access as shared outdoor space but it also has the light-well as communal light-well as far as the access corridors are concerned but as open space (for illumination and ventilation) shared across different residential units on different levels. It is dense. All slabs and walls are shared to some degree, as are horizontal access shaft and the vertical ventilation and illumination shafts. This proposal was imagined in concrete but were a shopping mall to actually be converted into residential use, could easily be partitioned in mud brick.

I imagine the entire thing could be reconfigured as a six-storey mud brick habitation but the units would probably change to single-storey units to make better use of the light-well.

Shared Access + Shared Stairwells

This set of proposals began with the Stacked Stairs proposal that used internal stairwells to enlarge an apartment into the floor above, the floor below, or both. These proposals all use internal stairwells in the same way, but now recognize that the landings can be split and the same staircase used to upwardly enlarge the apartment on one side, and to downwardly enlarge the apartment on the other. Shared access is the same stairs being used in the same way by different persons, but shared stairwells is about the same stairwell having divided landings so persons on one side can use the stair to go up a level, while persons on the other use it to go down one. Various apartment configurations are possible according to whether the landing is divided and has two, one or no doors opening into it.

These are two iterations of the same idea. On the left, the stairwell at the bottom can be used so the occupants of the apartment on left can share (or appropriate) the bedroom space of the apartment above, while the occupants of the apartment on the right can use the stair to go down and do the same for the apartment below. The iteration on the right is based on a Yemeni mud-brick house that its functionality improved in the same way. In this case, the stairwell at the bottom of the plan is the shared access while the staircase at the top is the shared one.

Shared Access + Shared Outside Space

This proposal is very tight. It has the entire ground level as a shared access level and vertical light-wells as shared outside space and the only view out from the dwellings. This is only possible by contriving the window positions and shapes for maximum area yet minimum view into windows on adjacent and opposite walls. It’s a clear example of shared communal outdoor space yet individual dwellings have no walls in common.

Shared Access + Shared Stairwells + Shared Outside Space

This proposal is a combination of the two above, with stairs in the internal stairwells capable of being assigned to different apartments or even shared between apartments adjacent either horizontally or vertically, therefore allowing the one layout to be used for households, live-work, or other different types of tenure and occupation. I’ve talked about this before. This goes beyond the sharing of individual building elements or spaces as it proposes the flexible allocation of elements and spaces already shared.

• • • 

This idea of an architecture of sharing still needs more explanation. It’s nothing complicated but it is a little strange looking at the same building elements in a different way and seeing what possibilities they have that we didn’t see before.

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Authenticity is probably the wrong word as it’s been severely debased and overused for some time now, especially with respect to those marketable things known as experiences, particularly if they take place in foreign countries. Remember the photos of the long queue of people with their identical bucket lists of authentic experiences waiting to get to the summit of Mount Everest? If you don’t, here’s what it looked like.

Authentic is real as opposed to fake and usually regarded as better. Accordingly, our responses towards something that’s authentic are usually more positive than they are towards the obviously inauthentic. History is always authentic if it’s a chronicle – a full account of what happened in the past – but this never happens. The record is always only partial as it chronicles only who and what was thought important at any given time. It’s subjective to begin with and it remains subject to the agendas and emphases of people in the present interpreting it or possibly even teaching it. Occasionally some future historian or researcher may accurately relink events with actual reasons and consequences but, even then, this may only be for them to be forgotten once again. Now and then in this blog I Identify certain architects as misfit architects in an attempt to stop us dismissing their work too quickly and having them drop out of history. That is, if they ever entered it.

As someone who’s just finished teaching an introductory course on the history of architecture to first year students, I’m guilty of condensing about four thousand years of architectural history into fourteen lectures that I thought covered the essentials and prompted students to see history in terms of solutions to problems at various times and places. Some problems aren’t even tied down to one time or place.

For at least the past five hundred years, clients have enjoyed mansard roofs as a relatively inexpensive way of adding another level of floor and making a building more imposing while maintaining an integrity of the whole. A great invention.

Or consider another great invention – the flying buttress. Originally intended to transfer dead load to the ground so that maximum wall area could be used for large openings …

… we still have columns at right angles to walls being used to transfer dead load to the ground so that maximum wall area can be used for large openings.

Every century or so, architects are encouraged to learn from history but what needs to be learned is never explicit. The last time around was post-modernism which, in the end, was selective and individual interpretations of bits of history in tune with some marketing agenda. But what was the problem post-modernism was invented to solve? Robert “I-like-complexity-and-contradiction-in-architecture” Venturi isn’t exactly blameless but Charles Jencks made his name promoting the notion that the purpose of post-modernism was to redress an imagined lack of meaning with the visuals of the social housing that went before. Result? Social housing became uncool. Corporations were the new clients.

This was the beginning of representations of something being as good as if not better than the real thing. To architects at least, Seaside, FL was presented as an example of new urbanism and promoted as a new way for towns to be. To everyone else it was timeshare and holiday-let city – a place to pretend you were living in the town you never had or even knew you missed. Is inauthentic nostalgia still nostalgia? It doesn’t matter. The aesthetic was designed to evoke meanings more correctly called fantasies. Not too far away from Seaside, Post-modernism and Disneyworld quickly found each other.

But at least the fantasies were overlaid onto tangible objects called buildings that were in some sense authentic carriers of meaning. The next level of inauthenticity was to dispense with buildings as tangible objects, because fantasies could just as effectively be overlaid onto images of virtual buildings. Online architectural media is clogged with visualizations of proposed buildings that most likely will never be realized. We don’t really care.

This subset of building that were never realized used to consist of the drawings of Sant’Elia, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mile High Skyscraper proposal, Mies van der Rohe’s Brick Country House proposal, and Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International as well as, sometimes, the unbuilt work of Buckminster Fuller and that’s about it. Although unbuilt, these proposals appeared in history books because they were indicative of what we were told were the mood and aspirations of the time. We can’t say this about the surfeit of unbuilt proposals we’re obliged to scroll through these days. We consume architectural imagery in different ways now and architectural imagery has obliged to suit us.

1990–2008 Dubai was responsible for an explosion in the amount of virtual architecture in the online landscape. For architects, two-dimensional representations of buildings are all that’s necessary for the purposes of branding and to show people one’s still alive and open for business. As ever, occasional visionary projects with no hope of ever being realized are always proof of one’s visionary credentials. Mars is in retrograde this year but not too long ago we had Foster+Partners, BIG and Stefano Boeri all showing us their fantastic visions for life on Mars. To mis-paraphrase comedian George Burns, if you can fake authenticity then you’ve got it made. It’s much the same as redefining fake as authentic but we’ll talk about AI in architecture in a bit.

Remember the house Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1951 for Petra Island in Lake Mahopac (only 15 minutes from Manhattan by helicopter, Dezeen helpfully tells us)? The owners of the island discovered their land came with plans for house designed by Frank Llloyd Wright house and promptly had it built. At first, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation refused to acknowledge it as a work of Frank Lloyd Wright. It still doesn’t appear on their website although Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center does even though it was designed in 1959, finally built with a much different layout in 1995, and opening in 1997. I don’t know why some of Wright’s posthumous work is acknowledged and some not. Some of the poured masonry at Petra Island is hideous so, in my gut, I feel it this house is an authentic work. If construction drawings show it was built as intended, then Frank Lloyd Wright was clearly no Gio Ponti when it came to putting stone and concrete together.

It seems a bit arbitrary, but The Foundation may have objected because construction of the house was not begun during Wright’s lifetime, but forty-plus years after his death. But how often would FLW have visited the site and overseen construction anyway? Site supervision by the architect should be a guarantee of authenticity but we’ve no way of knowing how much FLW did. Unless we comb company accounts for the number of site supervision hours billed to Frank Lloyd Wright, we can only make an informed guess.

In 1950 Wright completed sixteen houses [three in California, two in Minnesota, Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, and one in Missouri, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Ohio, Texas and Tennessee], nine in 1951 [two in Michigan, and one in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Arizona, Mississippi, California, South Carolina and New York], and eleven in 1952 [one each in Michigan, Arizona, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho, Minnesota, Connecticut, California, Florida, Virginia and Oklahoma]. If you’re knocking out houses at a rate from one every three weeks (1950) to one every six weeks (1951) across the US from Wisconsin to California to South Carolina to New York as in 1951 when the above house was designed, then my informed guess is “not much, if any.” If that’s the case, then it matters very little if Frank Lloyd Wright was dead or alive when they were built.

And so we come to AI. An employee of Zaha Hadid Architects has been posting to LinkedIn his attempts to bring Zaha Hadid back to life and continue adding value to the employee-owned company.

ChatGPT-4/Midjourney have obviously been trained on too much Vincent Callebut.

Apart from the fact that the design moves of Zaha Hadid will sooner or later become as outdated as those of Antonio Gaudí or Frank Lloyd Wright or even Bramante for that matter, this endeavor raises important legal as well as ethical questions. Visual artists and writers are understandably angry their work has been data scraped without their consent and used to train AI but it’s already too late to stop that process and, given the requirement for legal proof, probably impossible to reverse. When a founding partner of an architectural firm dies, it’s not unusual for its designers to continue designing in same manner. It’s also not unusual for other practitioners to design in a similar way as some de-facto “school”. Either way, it’s called a legacy.

Perhaps Zaha Hadid wouldn’t have objected to her work being used in this way to generate revenue for the company, but what if that legacy (or similar training data) is used to generate posthumous knock-offs and income for some other company? Either way, it’s not a good look to exploit the dead for commercial gain. Does one party have a stronger moral or legal right, or do both have none? We’re talking levels of inauthenticity here.

How much homage can a market take, especially now that cutting differently-shaped cookies has become that much easier? If an AI work produced in this way is ever marketed to imply that it is “what Zaha Hadid would have designed had she been alive” – and this looks like the way it’s going – then there’s a big problem with authenticity regardless of who claims it. What’s more, if a work that’s been AI-generated comes to be generally accepted as “authentic” then will the resultant profits be split between the company and the estate of Zaha Hadid because Zaha Hadid is effectively still working?

Death is supposed to give meaning to life. In our rush to exploit AI for short-term profiteering, we seem to be willing to give up our humanity quicker and far more easily than AI has prompted us. And all of our own accord.

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A Field of Towers

In the English language, we usually use the words twin or paired to describe instances of two things and collective nouns to describe instances of three or more. Although they’re not exactly words we use every day, all English speakers of a certain age know some collective nouns such as a flock of birds, a school of fish, a pride of lions and a gaggle of geese because they remember them from elementary school. Others are less well known and still others completely obscure. Sometimes, a collective noun seems to be anything that fits the image of what you want to say, as with a tower of giraffes or a wickedness of ravens.

I didn’t know the collective noun for high-rises so I searched it and learned you can have a huddle of high-rises and the somewhat less evocative a cluster of high-rises. Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers are thus twin towers and not a huddle or cluster. In the spirit of a collective noun being anything that suits the image you want to evoke, I’m going to call a huddle/cluster of towers a field of towers because it suggests the presence of some kind of force generated by the towers to create something more than the sum of them individually. See below.

Plan Voisin Mockup of Paris © Clemens Gritl (@ https://www.messynessychic.com/2022/02/18/the-paris-of-tomorrow-that-thankfully-never-was/)

With Plan Voisin/Ville Radieuse, Le Corbusier optimistically proposed towers separated by a distance approximately equal to their height. Perhaps because the proposal was for office towers, no attempt was made to provide long views between the towers or to make them create an informal landscape. Because of the huge amount of amenity space at ground level and the ostensible justification for the towers in the first place, I always thought this proposal was for residential use. [How was any work going to get done if everyone’s outdoors sitting on café chairs?] Usage aside, Ville Radieuse could be a special case of a tower field so, for now, I’ll reserve the term tower grid to describe projects with gridded towers.

This mood sketch is difficult to reconcile with the above collage presumably generated from the plans.
It’s difficult to make out what’s on the tables. The left one seems to have half a dozen oysters on ice but the right one is anyone’s guess. A typewriter and a whisky?

Chronologically next in this potted history of tower fields is World’s End Estate in London’s Chelsea with its seven identical towers identically oriented. The mostly blank walls facing the river are broken only by doors off kitchens and leading to small balconies while living room windows look either up or down the river. This is perverse to contemporary thinking but I can see how it’s far better to have a long view up or down a river than a sliver of a view perpendicularly across The Thames as has been standard practice for the 50 years since.

More importantly, the designer of World’s End Estate must have reasoned that gridded towers are oppressive and so deliberately contrived the layout so that no three towers form a line. The external view is relaxed and informal, perhaps even inviting.

Before I go any further, I want to test this. Here’s a site my second year students are currently involved with. There’s a main road to the north-east, business and innovation parks to the north-west and south-west, and views across water to the south and south-east. The nicest part of the view is split across the ends of the 360° panorama but we’ll see slivers of in some later post when I’ll get on to views of water and south-facing views but, for now, all I want to do is place eight 44-storey residential towers on this site to achieve an FAR of 2.5.

  • I’ll place one set in a grid and another set so that no three towers form a line.
  • I’ll model the towers as blank cylinders to avoid the effects of scale and directionality for now.
  • I’ll also make them the same height to remove any compositional gain of different heights.

The layout on the left below is a tower grid – a diagrid including three lines of three towers. The layout on the right is a tower field with no such lines. It wasn’t as easy as I’d thought to move some towers so that no three were in a clear line.

The next four pairs of images have the tower grid on the left and the tower field on the right. Cameras were positioned 350 metres away due South, East, West and North. In all four left images, the three lines of three towers are all perceivable, albeit to varying degrees depending on the angle.





  • Three of the left images show clear view corridors through the site, as would be expected of a grid, while only the WEST view for the tower field shows shows a similar view corridor (for these four cardinal views, at least).
  • A greater number of view corridors through the site means more towers are blocking views of other towers – again, as is the nature of a tower grid.
  • My preliminary conclusion is that towers are ideally arranged as tower fields rather than tower grids because
    • 1) this avoids the regimented or oppressive effect because the towers appear as a single giant group when seen from outside and
    • 2) although the tower field shown in the views on the right can hardly be called “relaxed” or “organic”, it is when compared to the tower grid on the left, and again when seen from outside the tower field. Moreover
    • 3) because the tower field has no view corridors, fewer buildings are blocking the view of other buildings, allowing more residents to have more views out of the site, with corresponding benefits for daylighting and well being, even if most of these views are between towers and with varying view angles.

Just to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything, I produced another comparison, this time using a square grid. The results are much the same, only more pronounced. As expected. Again, it wasn’t easy to have nine towers with no three almost being in the same line. This comparison has one extra tower forming a line of four in the left instance.

The Wyndham Estate in Camberwell, London has five identical towers designed around the mid-60s by London Country Council architect Colin Lucas [c.f. Architecture Misfit #10]. Note the difference between how the towers are perceived from outside the tower field, and how they are perceived from a tower within it. One’s never alone in a tower field as you’re always aware of other people going about their lives.

And it’s just as well there’s this upside because if, for example, if the average size of suburban plots in Australian cities has decreased to less than a fifth of what it was 50 years ago, the distance between residential towers anywhere in the world isn’t going to get any greater.

Arquitectonica’s Gate Towers in Abu Dhabi are more tower wall than tower field. The three towers are basically in line and, though the towers and the people in them are connected via the bridge, the mute walls facing the gaps aren’t meant to facilitate any awareness of other people. Tower walls result when the awareness of the proximity of other towers (and their residents) is intended to be as little as possible.


The same can be said for Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.


Safdie’s Raffles City Chongqing, however, is definitely a tower field. The client for Marina Bay Sands unsuccessfully tried to sue Safdie for some kind of design infringement, claiming Raffles City Chongqing was overly similar. Safdie’s lawyers successfully argued, “Yes, there are similar elements, but the design overall is within the grounds of artistic development”. They should’ve just said Marina Bay Sands is a tower wall while Raffles City Chongqing is a tower field.


I don’t think these things we now for some reason call “skybridges” make that much difference to the tower field effect other than the towers having a “supporting role” that consequently diminishes their perception as towers.

I might have to create another category for buildings such as Dubai Pearl which would have been a tower grid/tower wall hybrid had it been completed. What was built has now been demolished. A grouping of towers?

Dubai’s Paramount Towers are a grouping of towers because although they’re not in a grid, their rotational symmetry creates a new and macro group in much the way as step and repeat does to create a grid.

My most recent example of a tower group is The Sail Selaka I posted a short video of in the previous post.

Perhaps in the future we’ll be exploring the optimum spacing and disposition of tower groups?

This quick history of tower fields has been roughly chronological but the obvious omission is China where lines of tower walls are a standard development typology. My university is nowhere near the centre of Wenzhou but here’s three such arrangements I can see from my office window.

Whether you get a tower grid or multiple tower walls depends on the shape and dimensions of the site. To the right of the photograph above are some triple-core towers with three double-core towers to the left. Single-core buildings can also be used to fill in spaces too small for double-core buildings. Combinations of single-, double- and triple-core buildings can vary the length of tower walls to fit across trapezoidal, rhomboid or other irregularly shaped sites while maintaining the same orientation and spacing between walls. Optimally filling the site with towers at the minimum spacing has precedence over providing even narrow view corridors between the towers. Or, to put it the other way around, providing view corridors is not as important as optimally filling the site.

Having said that and, in theory at least, the placement of single-, double- and triple-core towers along tower walls can be syncopated to allow more apartments to have long views between towers to the south in which all towers will ideally be aligned (because doing that enables minimal spacing between tower walls). This should be able to be done without lowering the FAR. My next test will begin by placing triple-core towers in tower wall formation at minimal spacing, starting with the longest side of the most perpendicular corner as you would when laying out a car park. It’s still too early to think about other important things like the presence of favorable long views outside the boundaries of the site.

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Different Places

From December last year to February this year, I was in Perth, Australia for the first time since 2019. It was nice to take a flight and enjoy airports and travel again.

I flew Shanghai-Hong Kong and Hong Kong-Perth so I had to finish watching the movie Drive My Car after the transfer. I probably wouldn’t have watched it if I’d known the screenplay was a mashup of two Murakami short stories but the thought did cross my mind that it had his characteristic cross of whimsy and stylization. I let myself be taken along for the ride and would have watched it again but the plane had already crossed the north-west coastline and there wasn’t the time before landing.

In the first few days after arriving there was catching up with family and friends as well as Covid finally catching up with me.

Christmas was subdued but once I was okay, I didn’t have to go too far out of my way to pass by places I’d lived in and other familiar streets.

This post is a collection of observations and thoughts mainly to do with the built environment. I won’t repeat things I’ve already said in other posts. One thing I noticed and appreciated was the abundance of birdlife.

Apart from the quality of the air and the blueness of the sky, it was good to see so many trees, even if they’re increasingly confined to municipality-owned land such as parks, open space, roadside verges and median strips. The part of town I stayed in is blessed with a large amount of open space for walkers, joggers, picnickers, dog walkers, horse riders and sportspeople. It’s appreciated but also taken for granted. It’s not something I’ve seen in other countries I’ve lived in. There’s also a lot of other open space such as median strips with significant trees and ample roadside verges between the road and the footpath. I’m not used to this either. It even seems a bit wasteful, especially when housing plots and the houses on them are becoming smaller and smaller. There’s a mismatch between the generosity of public space and the meagreness of private ownership.

Fewer large trees exist on new residential subdivisions because any special design adaptation would hinder the rate of building. And fewer large trees exist on newly subdivided blocks because there’s simply not the space. The past twenty years have seen many developments such as this next one where four houses have been built on land formerly occupied by one. Even though this site has a slope, a shared underground driveway and car park would destroy the illusion of houses that feel independent, if not detached. This is why 20% of the plot is used for a driveway rather than garden.

Here’s the process in motion. The photograph on the right is the rear of the five houses on the right side of the plot subdivisions up for sale. The sign says the agent speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese. It’s a nice place to live if you like a temperate climate and nearby open space. The Joondalup area further north has a large lake and is popular with Brits who can have a house with a swimming pool (but not much else) in the backyard, and also with Chinese who like being close to a lake.

Even in the garden centre, I didn’t see that many large plants or trees on sale and assumed this was because fewer people have large gardens anymore. The plants for sale were mostly for borders or to grow against fences.

I’d never seen a solar-powered garden owl before although an aunt of mine did have a small goldfish pond with a knome sitting on a rock.

I do like a bit of DIY. Despite not being particularly adept at it, the sense of achievement at wanting to do something and finding out that you can do it yourself is incredible. I’ve never paid anybody to assemble something from IKEA, although I’m sure they’d do it faster and probably better.

You see less lawn and grassed roadside verges and more gardens such as this formed by native plants surrounded by bark chips. It’s low maintenance, and though during summer it’s still watered in the evening every third day, it requires far less water. A variation involves plants surrounded by a layer of black plastic (to discourage weed growth) covered with large black or white pebbles. This was more popular in the 1970s.

Native plants don’t take kindly to being transplanted and so some initial care is needed. If one is going to hand-water, then a retractable garden hose is the business. I wish they’d existed when I was a kid.

For two nights, I was in the town of Busselton, a few hours from Perth by train and bus. The hotel was relaxed.

The train passed through farmland with a mix of agriculture and livestock and all this was new to me as the coastal town itself.

Australian country towns are like time capsules of architecture you don’t see any more in the cities. Most houses still have lawns. I saw many beds of roses and nostalgic shrubs.

Back in the city, seeing this sign cheered me up. It was good to see simple expedience and the urgency of information triumph over graphic design and design as branding. Sure, I’d have noticed the fancy new sign of some new establishment anyway and I may even have appreciated the cleverness of the name of the graphics of a logo but it wouldn’t have occurred to me how unnecessarily over-designed its was. This sign made me think what else could benefit from similar enlightenment.

New Objective Reality?

While in Perth, I bought Chinese science fiction writer Cixin LIU’s novels The Supernova Era which I finished in Busselton, and his The Three Body Problem trilogy [praised by Barack Obama] to read on the way back. I learned that Netflix has finished filming an English language version of The Three Body Problem. A 30-episode Chinese television adaptation of the first novel began in China on January 15.

Many pages later, I reached my familiar surroundings of Wenzhou, China by way of a transfer in Kuala Lumpur and a two-day stopover in Guangzhou, two places different again.

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