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

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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.

• • •

US 7,540,120

US7540120 is a United States patent for a Multi-Level Apartment Building. Patent attorneys aren’t likely to be apartment plan geeks so I pity the one whose desk this landed on. Perhaps I shouldn’t, because patent attorneys are skilled in untangling real novelty from mere claims to it. They also understand the importance of precise language because patent language is designed to accurately describe all that’s unique about an invention but at the same time be sufficiently encompassing so that protection isn’t lost if someone else makes some minor improvement or change. Phrases such as substantially and arbitrarily occur often because their meaning is defined. The term disposed is used to mean placed or arranged. The term a plurality of is used to mean a few, several, or many.

The structure of a patent application is also defined. At the beginning is a list of patents to which the invention refers or relates to. Then comes the Abstract. The one for US Patent 7,540,120 doesn’t tell us much because we’re not used to imagining buildings from written descriptions. This particular abstract is an accurate and concise description of the invention – it has to be.

A multi-level apartment building includes vertically stacked sections each containing at least one pair of apartments, where each apartment of an apartment pair contains a stairway assembly coupled to a vertically extending stair support wall assembly that contains utility distribution conduits. The stairway assembly for each apartment connects four levels of function space. One apartment of the pair in a vertical section is rotated 180 degrees in plan in relation to the other apartment of the pair which is entered on the opposite side of a public corridor that provides access to the apartments of the pair. The apartments are vertically stacked in alignment where an apartment of a pair is mirrored in plan in relation to a vertically underlying or overlying apartment of another pair, and the stair support assemblies of the respectively vertically stacked apartments are vertically aligned.

What it doesn’t tell us is why somebody would want to do that. Next comes Description of the Invention. This is divided into sub-sections, the first of which is Field of the Invention.

The present invention relates generally to a multi-level structure and, more particularly, to a multi-level apartment building having a plurality of apartments, where each apartment includes a plurality of rooms on levels connected by a stairway system that is coupled to a stair support wall assembly for receiving vertically extending utility services.

There’s a certain comfort that comes from words meaning exactly what they say, and no more or less. 

Next comes Background of the Invention. This sub-section tells you what the existing problems were that led to the invention being proposed as a solution. This is where the case for the invention is made.

The invention itself is described in detail in Summary of the Invention and cross-referenced to Brief Description of the Drawings where each drawing is described in detail. It ought be possible for an architect to fully understand this building from these.

Finally comes the Claims in which everything unique about the invention and worthy of legal protection is isolated and listed in a structured sequence of claims and dependent (sub-) claims. Each claim is written as a single sentence and is not easy reading. Governmental patent offices in the home country and countries around the world make rulings on whether the invention described by the Claims are unique and thus deserving of protection. 

The invention of US 7,540,120 has been granted a patent because it solves some identified problem in a unique and novel manner. If only architecture could always be so clear, with the use of words such as unique, novel and innovative limited to legally recognised and precisely described solutions to specifically identified problems.

If a person can’t call themselves an architect without being legally recognized as such, then why not have a similar requirement for architecture?  

After all, a patent attorney (or any lawyer, for that matter) would be comfortable with the statement “All hatmakers make hats” but not with the statement “All architects create architecture.” And neither should we. Making architects legally liable for false claims to aesthetic innovation would certainly clear the air, eliminate much noise. We can speculate on this some other time because, for now, I want to find out what’s so special about this novel and innovative architectural invention. It’s not every day one comes along. From the section and plan above it seems like a scissor-plan variant.

For reference, here’s the scissor plan of the 1962 Corringham apartments in London Kenneth Frampton had a hand designing. Scissor plans are confusing, even for the people who made these diagrams trying to explain them. The key to the section says 1 is the living and 2 the entry but it’s the other way around. The plan numbering corresponds to its key but not to the section numbering, even when corrected.

Background to the Invention

Multi-level buildings are a favored form of residential construction because they provide for improved land use and a high density alternative to sprawl. The buildings usually include a plurality of apartments where each of the apart ments is occupied by several individuals, such as a family. Such apartments, however, usually do not include all of the features and amenities that are ordinarily present in a detached suburban home. The apartments typically do not include such detached home features as split level living room and dining room function space, duplex height in a living room function space, duplex height windows as part of the living room space and that provide natural lighting to remote interior portions of the apartment, bedrooms located on separate levels to afford privacy from each other and also communal activities, views on opposite sides of a building, through ventilation, an exposed interior duplex height stairway and balconies without shadows and overhangs. The absence of many of the features and amenities usually present in a detached residence makes conventional apartments unappealing to the more mobile class of residential purchasers. […] Therefore, a need exists for a multi-level apartment building that addresses the needs of sprawling development by containing a plurality of apartments that can be fabricated with relative ease and where each apartment creates the illusion of spaciousness while providing expected amenities and consuming a minimum of floor area.

Frankly, I expected more, but this is the problem the inventors have set themselves to solve and it was judged to be a real and valid one. Their problem was that apartments don’t feel housey enough and they intend to solve this by providing:

  1. a split level living room and dining room function space,
  2. duplex height in a living room function space,
  3. duplex height windows as part of the living room space,
  4. bedrooms on separate levels,
  5. views on both sides of a building,
  6. through ventilation,
  7. a dramatic stairway,
  8. a balcony some distance from the one above, and
  9. creating an apartment having the illusion of spaciousness but consuming a minimum of floor area.

Let’s see!

  1. An access corridor runs across the building and apartments either side are mirrored and reversed or, in CADspeak, a copy is horizontally rotated 180° [not vertically around 180° as per a unité].
  2. The kitchen/dining area is on the same level as the entrance.
  3. The living rooms are on a level slightly lower than the kitchen/dining, and have a ceiling height slightly higher.
  4. A staircase in the corner of the living rooms extends upwards to access a minor bedroom above the kitchen/dining of the apartment across the corridor.
  5. The same staircase extends downwards to access the master bedroom beneath the kitchen/dining of the apartment across the corridor.

This basic unit can be repeated horizontally any number of times, and vertically as well if vertically alternate units are reversed, interlocked and stacked an arbitrary number of times. Don’t forget that a patent application describes a general principle and doesn’t need to describe what happens at the end of the building where a living room is minus a kitchen/dining room, or at the other end of the building where the kitchen/dining room lacks corresponding bedrooms and living area.

US07540120-20090602-D00014
The German application for the invention includes the following two helpful diagrams.

Bathrooms of one unit and the kitchen of another are thus sandwiched between living rooms above and below and this is why the stairwell support wall must have services run through it.

US07540120-20090602-D00000

In a patent application, the variation described in most detail is called the preferred embodiment (manifestation) of the invention in order to exclude other inventions that are substantially identical. These are also anticipated in the descriptions of other embodiments. The ones listed all divide the minor bedroom to configure a three-bedroom apartment and also feature alternative arrangments for the staircase – presumably to get the service riser out of the living room.

The inventors have solved most of the problems they set out to solve.

  • There is a split-level living room and dining room.
  • The living room is double-storey height.
  • There are double-storey windows.
  • Bedrooms are on separate levels.
  • The apartment has views in two opposite directions.
  • Some degree of cross ventilation exists.
  • The staircase is indeed dramatic even if it only goes to a minor bedroom.
  • Vertically above and below each double-height living room are two bedroom levels and a kitchen level so there are five floors betwen [vertically adjacent] living room balconies.

However, I’m not sure they have succeeded in creating an apartment having the illusion of spaciousness but consuming a minimum of floor area because, for one, I don’t know how it would be possible to objectively evaluate the success of an illusion. I’m also not sure if it has been done consuming a minimum of floor area. The typical plan below shows how the space (indicated in red) above/below the corridor (green) is not being used for any purpose than to pass over/under the corridor and contrive a double-sided apartment. The solution thus solves one problem but creates another. There may be the illusion of spaciousness and certain amenities (including the benefit of inscrutability) but it can only be said to consume a minimum of floor area until somebody comes along and solves the same problem in less.

The inventors did succeed in what they set out to do but they did not set the bar very high.

  • Apartments might be more attractive to more people if they successfully create the illusion of being more like detached houses but is a split-level living room and dining room, or a dramatic staircase really the best way to go? And if not what is? For some people, for example, a house might be all about opening the kitchen door to let the dog in, or having a basement and an attic. Instead of creating the illusion of an apartment being more like a house, it might be more worthwhile to explore what advantages apartments have that detached houses don’t.
  • A first, I thought the configuration was a scissor plan variant but it turned out not to be so. Having all living rooms on a preferred side of the building was not a problem the invention aimed to solve. There is scope for some other, future invention to incorporate this feature and be a completely new invention. 
  • I also initially expected it would be possible to horizontally extend apartments by making appropriate openings (and/or closures) in party walls to enlarge or reduce the volume of the apartment but this is not the case. We still lack a multi-storey apartment building configuration with the potential to be arbitrarily extended horizontally by having wall openings that can be arbitrarily opened/closed to access different staircases and their adjacent spaces. Such a method of configuring apartments would use similar elements and spaces to configure apartments of varying sizes and shapes and thus have advantages for construction cost and time savings. The challenge would be to do it with a minimum of walls having only latent party wall functionality and, as ever, a minimum of circulation space.

Good luck and let me know how you get on!

The Domino’s House

The Type A apartment is a result of the 1928 study the Stroykom team of architects did to determine the potential and technology for smart, affordable and universally suitable housing. They focussed on adapting existing residential typologies to new realities. One typology was the double-aspect apartment paired about a landing and their redesign was called the “Type A”, the first of the letter-tagged plans and schemes the team produced.

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There’s much that’s good about the Type A. It’s smart, efficient and hospitable. The dual-aspect living area allows good daylighting and ventilation, not so much because mechanical ventilation was expensive at the time, but because daylight and good ventilation were known to prevent tuberculosis. Planning-wise, the stairwell intrudes into the apartment area to push the front door into a corridor no longer than the two narrowest rooms. It can’t get any better. 

It’s not possible to access two apartments with any less space than a stairway and landing and, since those can’t be made any smaller, smaller apartments need a larger percentage of building volume to access them than do larger apartments. This led to the development of corridor-access plans. The problem of using less resources to build apartments became a problem of reducing the building volume used to access apartments. This was to lead to the development of the famous Type F. [c.f. 1928: The Types Study]

In A-blocks in Yekaterinburg, they have the elevator only in 1 stairwell but you may pass through a gallery in the attic if you live in a top floor. Elevators were defunct and removed way before my birth I think. Galleries were appropriated by upper apartment residences – a feast upon socialism. What we’ve lost is superior and better lit where every room has to have a window for there’s no other way to tuck it into the plan. Victor.

Thanks for that виктор! These images you sent me some while back are very relevant to where I want to take this post.

The Stroykom team knew how building depth affected building volume and spent much time trying to determine the optimum depth for any given set of parameters. 

The text to the right of the parametric depth scheme says “It’s a scheme from architect Klein”. It’s not a Stroykom product, but OSA published it alongside so it’s confusing. Klein must have been a sole practitioner who worked independently to determine the same problem the team were. V.

It was probably the first and last example of socially-driven parametric design. The Type A plan was a brilliant invention but volumetrically inefficient for small apartments. The Stroykom Team would have been amazed by the sheer abundance of stairwells and elevators in this next apartment building I saw on buildingsarecool.com. It’s in Charleston, South Carolina. Much is made of the fact there are views in both directions.

What we have here is the corridor-less apartment. Interestingly, the memory of a corridor remains because if all elevators are on the same floor and their doors and those of the fire escape stairs were all open, then it’d be possible to run from one end of the building to another. It’s not a very sociable building but given how “streets in the sky” came to be regarded, there doesn’t seem to be much point in accessing apartments via corridors. If a configuration such as this directs horizontal pedestrian movement to ground level and into real lobbies and real streets then it might not be such a bad thing.

Once I went to a party at some friend of a friend’s place in Clapham North or Brixton. We went in, and immediately up a flight of stairs with a corridor along one side and with a landing at one end and a similar space at the other. Along the corridor were doors to a bathroom and a kitchen having windows onto a light well down the side of the house. The spaces at each end of the corridor had a single door leading to a living room and, once inside the living room, was another door (in the same wall) leading back to a bedroom I never saw, but which must have had a narrow window opening into the lightwell. This house was probably built sometime 1850-1900 I’d say. Each upstairs tenant thus had a suite of two private rooms, but a shared kitchen and bathroom. It was quite a sensible arrangement for people to share spaces if they weren’t necessarily friends. G.

Rather than isolating people inside buildings it might be better to design apartments that not only allow for multiple occupation but allow for multiple modes of occupation. The rules of occupation were clear. That’s the logic behind this next plan. 

Clapham House

I’ve given two tenants their own bathrooms but downgraded the importance of the kitchen – it’s just a place people go to get cold stuff or to make stuff hot. The preparation and consumption of food is not styled for families. This next one is tighter. The stairs are back outside now but I added a double-door elevator. My logic was that if every two apartments are going to have a stair with two doors and a double-door elevator like in that Charleston project, it makes no difference if they’re shared on the edges or shared in the middle of the plan. I was working my way back to the Type A.

Clapham House3

I can’t stop seeing the elevator opening into kitchen! Given a kitchen share, double elevator door becomes unnecessary and overlapping lobbies of elevator and stair are more efficient. V.

Exactly! DazenTech do quite a nice passenger elevator for US$15,000. G.

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A residential passenger elevator for US$15,000 is nothing compared to building corridors on every floor to pass by two 5m-wide apartments.

Clapham House2

People understood 90 years ago that any Type A variant has a constant ratio of apartment access volume to building volume remains no matter how many storeys – it’s 34% here for the worst imaginable case, but halves if the apartment is doubled to make say, a 3-bedroom 2-bathroom apartment. I think it’s time to revisit the Type A.

You are disclosing one of my very basic mental splits. Should I design plans that could get built easily or should I design the heavenly plans which we’ve lost – with narrow bodies and other indispensable plain and inscrutable traits? V.

As ever, it’s a tough call. G.

One day this will be luxury. It already is for many people but, back to kitchens. Not only has this plan worked its way back to the Type A, it’s also downgraded the kitchen.

Kuhonny Element Kitchen

I once had a Parisian friend, Pascal, who lived above a café in the 11th. His living room had two leather armchairs, a wall of books, a violin hanging on a music stand, and a bottle of Chartreuse – green. On the kitchen floor was a six-pack of Evian. The sink was dry and brown with rust. Clearly, he went out for all other food and drink. 

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Most of us, however, don’t get ourselves dressed and downstairs to get everything to eat, any more than most of us don’t walk along a corridor to a communal kitchen. G.

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Increasingly, the food and drink comes to us, delivered as room service if we live in a hotel or an apartment serviced by a hotel [c.f. The Well-Serviced Apartment], as raw materials or pre-prepared meals from a convenience store, or as fast food or even restaurant fare delivered by in-house or outsourced couriers.

Living like this has crept up on us but we should’ve seen it coming. Having food being delivered to homes isn’t new but it’s now no longer confined to fast food as a weekend treat or an occasional extravagance.

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All that’s left to be done is to cut out any remaining middlemen.

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Drone delivery may have architectural implications for apartment dwellers. Wait! … let me see … yep, someone’s already on the case.

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I clicked on the first link so you won’t have to.

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I’m not sure if this is cutting-edge design responding to our fantastic brave new world, or merely more architect collaboration in the ongoing neoliberal project. Since they both amount to more or less the same thing, we may as well take this idea downmarket immediately and see how it fares in the wild.

The Domino’s House
dominos-house

But that would be to miss the point, for the Domino’s House is actually the Domino House updated for our times. When an apartment’s spatial functions, service functions and access are all contained in a single core, the enclosing shell becomes arbitrary. It’s a bit like that Joe Colombo prototype except what’s in the middle is the important bit that stays and the walls enclosing it are the consumer item.

If plans and sections are no longer a subject for the application of architectural intelligence, then The Domino’s House allows for Free Architecture – or at least what has come to represent it. The architectural enclosure is now be free to be anything it wants to be as long as it doesn’t compromise anything in the core. An amicable separation of building and architecture would allow an ideal modernism to coexist with an ideal post-modernism.

A2 round dot

Here’s the same plan as a tube of arbitrary height. It still works.

A2 round copy
Here it is as Miesian fantasy. It still works.

mies

You can bend it, extend it …

A2 bent

If you repeat the square block you’ll get a wall.

If you multiply the round one you’ll get a forest.

If you multiply this, you’ll get something different again.

Other variations readily accommodate contemporary tropes such as walls faceted or curved in one or two dimensions. Yet other variations could respond to site or environmental factors in real ways or even as representations of real ways. If the Domino’s House represents the architecture vs. building divide, then it is only because

THE DOMINO’S HOUSE IS THE BUILT MANIFESTATION OF THE ARCHITECTURE VS. BUILDING DIVIDE.

Building design and construction are now free to move towards technical, functional and economic perfection, and architecture is now free to go its own way.

• • •

The featured image is Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?”

Career Case Study #8: Gio Ponti

1921
Graduated with a degree in Architecture from the Politecnico di Milano University

1923–1927
Worked in partnership with Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia.
Exhibited at the first Biennial Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Monza.

1924
Ponti House in via Randaccio Gio Ponti, Emilio Lancia
via Randaccio 9, Milano

For many architects, their first built work is a house for their parents. This was Ponti’s.

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1926
Villa Bouilhet
Garches, Paris, France

Two decent houses in the five years after graduation.

1927–1933
Continued with Lancia as Studio Ponti e Lancia PL. [In these years he was influenced by and associated with the Milanese neo-classical Novecento Italiano movement. The movement can be said to have done nothing to discourage nationalistic tendencies via its appeals to the past great traditions of Italian art. Mussolini neither approved or disapproved but, it must be said, the general secretary of the Fascist Party deemed it insufficiently Italian.] Other buildings include the 1926 Bouilhet villa in Garches, Paris, the 1929 Monument to the Fallen with Giovanni Muzio, the Casa Rasini apartment blocks in Milan, and the 1930 Domus Julia–Domus Fausta complex on Via Letizia. [W] I’ve not seen these buildings, but they’re certain to be documented on the Gio Ponti official website. It’s a huge and useful resource.

1928
Founded DOMUS magazine and was its editor from 1928–1941, and from 1948 until he died.

1928 – 1931
Apartment building
G
io Ponti, Emilio Lancia
via Domenichino 1-3, Milano

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1933-1934
Rasini House and Tower Gio Ponti, Emilio Lancia
Bastioni di Porta Venezia 1, corso Venezia 61, Milano

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The stone, and the stonework is exquisite.

1933–1945
Ponti teamed with engineers, Antonio Fornaroli and Eugenio Soncini and formed Studio Ponti-Fornaroli-Soncini.

1936–1961
Now, fifteen years after graduating and five years after founding DOMUS, Ponti became permanent professor of the Faculty of Architecture at Politecnico di Milano University. I get the feeling he intuitively understood how architectural projects, education and media all feed off each other.  

1936–1938
Casa Marmont
Via Gustavo Modena 36, Milano

From the late 1930s until about 1942, Ponti’s buildings have Rationalist overtones and are not dissimilar from those of Asnago–Vender at that time. The mounting of windows flush with the wall surface is an obvious similarity but may have some non-stylistic justficiation. It’s a notable feature of Pirelli Tower and a design decision more likely to have been Ponti’s than Nervi’s.

1936
Montecatini office building 
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Soncini

largo Donegani 2, Milano

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In 1941 Ponti was to resign his editorship of DOMUS magazine to start the magazine Stile. In one of its early issues, Ponti praised the buildings of Asnago Vender as “The Style of Tomorrow”. [The essay is reproduced in Casuro & Thomas’ book Asnago Vender and the Construction of Modern Milan.]

“For them, modern architecture is a form of free expression that emerges naturally like a science and a technology, a trade and a profession, and is released from any kind of precedent. Asnago & Vender work naturally, in accordance with a firm conviction that lies in their own nature and is a spontaneous as an intrinsic vocation. Their art is ‘just right’: their approach is expressed by the diligence of silent, consistent work, like ann almost natural phenomenon that has no more need for system, programmes, or previsions, with no more hidden controversial content of any sort.

“But the two architects are also artists who have natural feelings that they are able to express in their work without any hindrance or wastage – fortunately. This is the additional gift that is necessary and essential enable one to represent an art – having the ability to do so.”

These are powerful words indicating an industry awareness befitting a magazine editor even though Ponti’s own career did not go in that direction.

1940
House By The Sea
Bordighera, Italy

There’s nothing not to like here.

1940
University commissions for the University of Padua

Ponti himself painted the frescos on the staircase walls. [W]
I can understand an architect helping a country’s war effort by designing industrial buildings but hand-painting frescoes on a university’s walls? Here they are lining the “staircase to knowledge”.

Here’s the professors’ Reading Room at the University of Padua, with the Dean’s Office on the other side of those doors. Look at the floor! Terrazzo never looked so classy – and so it ought. Arranging aggregate in lines only to pour white concrete over it and then grind and polish it was neither fast nor cheap to do. Inexpensive materials have been given the decadence of process. I know I shouldn’t like things like this and be adding to my list of guilty pleasures.

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And what about that idiosyncratic arched door in the corner? If Ponti had wanted to incorporate it into the aesthetics of this room, I’ve no doubt he could have. I’m guessing a waiter uses that door to enter the room and take drinks orders.

1942 was only twenty years after Ponti graduated but he had already found his style and it was one of inescapable and relentless good taste. You can be confident that, when those main doors are opened, that there will be more of the same.

1951
Montecatini office building 
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Soncini

via Principe Amedeo 2, Milano

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1951-1955
INA Casa Harrar
Via Harrar/Dessié/Via Novarra, Milano

This social housing project is anomalous and you can read more about it here where it says “Ponti developed the master plan along with Luigi Figini, Gino Pollini and Piero Bottoni” and that “Ponti designed two blocks, one facing Via Harrar-Dessiè, and the other, perpendicular to this, extending into the interior of the block.” I can’t find any images of interiors. Although many Ponti projects are collaborations of some sort, this is one of the rare ones that have a greater context.

1954
4P
Milan, Italy

This is another anomalous project during the construction of the Pirelli Tower. There is no description for the design on the right, which is the more interesting of the two since the enclosed space is not divided into the functional zones of the other design, but into day and night zones that functionally overlap. Ponti was to re-use this device in his own 1964 apartment. The lesser-known iteration of this is rare because it shows a desire to extract maximum spatial utility from a volume.

1952–1961
Pirelli Tower
 
Gio Ponti, Pier Luigi Nervi, Arturo Danusso
Via Fabio Filzi 22, Milan

Ponti won the commission to design the 32-story Pirelli Tower in 1950. It was Milan’s second tall building, the first being Torre Velasca constructed 1956–58. Pirelli Tower became an immediate symbol of a confident and renewed Italy and, with Nervi’s help, remains as idosyncratic and elegant as it was in mid-1950s. The effect of this important commission was felt long before the building was completed. It was the turning point in Ponti’s career, and the beginnings of the post-war phenomenon of Italian design that continues to this day.  With Ponti and Pirelli, Milanese architecture and Italian architecture in general, begins to get more wilful, seeking more than merely local recognition. Whereas Asnago Vender were content to remain Milanese architects for their entire careers, Ponti marks the beginning of international architecture in Italy and of Italian architecture internationally, assissted by Ponti (now back) at DOMUS and Ernesto Rogers (1953–1965) at Casabella.

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One of the first commissions Ponti received because of worldwide attention the tower was gaining was for Villa Planchard in Caracas, Venezuela. It’s a Pinterest favourite. Another villa in Caracas, the Villa Areazza, quickly followed, as did another in Teheran. All three are the mature works of someone fully in command.

1955
Villa Planchard
Caracas, Venezuela

The dining area of Villa Planchard is as good a place as any to pause for a while and try to make some sense out of all of this.

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First, look at the supersized terrazzo of that floor! Again, it’s unimaginable decadence of process to get slabs of different stone to do this. Another guilty pleasure. How about that wall on the right? I’ve no idea what timber those panels are, but I’m betting they’re an inch think and oiled and polished to make them last forever. They’re beautiful enough but nevertheless enhanced by at least two ceramic inlays and two wall lamps calling attention to themselves by their differing orientations. Two ceilings each do their own thing. Those bubble-petally things on the far wall are probably Murano glass but the unadorned part needs an image or something to carry us around the corner into presumably the kitchen. But those bubbly things – see how they compress as they approach the ceiling? And what is that curve and angle supposed to do? Does either wall really need shelves with plants? Does the table really need to have to have supports profiled like the Pirelli tower?  And a chair moved out of the way so we can see it?

What plants other than orchids would dare flower in such a room? What clothes would one have to wear to feel at home? The room doesn’t encourage solid colour, or seem to want any more pattern. It seems happy for plates on the table to express the potential for people but I can’t imagine this space accommodating even those stagey lifestyle people in the Julius Schulman Case Study House photographs. It’s difficult to live as fabulously as this house implies. It doesn’t matter in architectural imagery and, as a magazine man, I’m sure Ponti understood this.

1956
Villa Arreazza
Caracas, Venezuela

Villa Namazee 1957 – 1964
Teheran, Iran

Things to note here are the attention paid to sightlines and viewlines in the plan, the shape of the glass display cabinet in the living room, and the confident busy-ness of that internal courtyard.

1956 – 1957
Casa Ponti House in via Dezza Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli
via Dezza 49, Milano

This is where Ponti and his family lived at least some of the time. Folding doors divide rooms at night.

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1923 – 1958
Throughout this period Ponti also designed ceramics, furnishings, vases, dinnerware, chairs, glassware and lamps for various companies. Below are a 1931 lamp for Fontana Arte, one of many glass bottles for Venini in 1949, and the Superleggera chair for Cassini in 1957.

1961
Palazzo del Lavoro Gio Ponti and Pier Luigi Nervi
Torino

My undergraduate history book World Architecture [1963] had upward looking closeups of the famous roof structure as its front and back inner covers. The building seems to be slipping from the history of architecture faster than it is from the history of engineering. It’s a beautiful thing, stunning in its simplicity. Wikipedia lists Ponti as architect and Nervi as engineer but I can’t find it on the Ponti website, presumably because it does nothing to further the mythology. Pirelli was Ponti’s but Nervi owns this one.

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1962
Parco de
Rei Principi
Sorrento, Italy

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We should be thankful to Pinterest for allowing us to gain even an inkling of what it would be like to stay here. It’s claimed the hotel was the first designer hotel in the world and, going by the profile of those lobby columns, I imagine that’s true.

1963
Politecnico Milano

Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 3, Milano

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The ground level appearance of these buildings has been compromised by the interconnecting bridges installed later, no doubt for reasons of accessibility.

1963-1967
Building for the Istituto Nazionale Assicurazioni 
Gio Ponti, Fornaroli, Rosselli

via San Paolo 7, via Agnello 6/1-8, Milano

With this building we see the first use of textured ceramic tiles.

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1964
Chiesa di San Francesco
via Paolo Giovio 31, Milano

I took three photographs of this next corner so something about it must have disturbed me. As I find with much of Ponti’s later work, I can’t imagine what effect he was aiming to achieve. Now I think about it, what I find it disturbing is how this wall denies the spaces behind it, only acknowledging them when they provide an opportunity for window as ornament for the wall. The same accusation could be made against the central wall as well.

1964-69
Chiesa di San Carlo Borromeo presso l’Ospedale
Milano

1965
Building 14, Politecnico Milan
Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 3, Milano

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In the photograph below you can see the other Politecnico Milano building to the rear. Fifty years on, this is still a handsome building, and is undergoing partial retrofitting for enhanced energy performance.

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But gosh it scrubs up well – it looks as if it’s just been built! Properly made and laid textured ceramic tiles must be the perfect cladding.

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1964-1970
Montedoria building
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli
via Pergolesi 25, Milano

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The building forms one half of a gaetway as is common on many piazzi.

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The tile cladding is highly textured, changes with the light etc. and is, basically, gorgeous.

The third photograph above however, shows gratuitous layering for the sake of it. Surely there’s a better reason for building volume than to create shadows and avoid a planar surface? We’ve become immune to this sort of thing and, like variously offset and sized windows, have come to believe it indicates design effort, if not excellence. My only criticism of this building is that there’s simply too much happening. It’s happening in a highly controlled, competent and elegant manner so it pains me to say it, but every window, by virtue of its shape or position, doesn’t need to state that a designer is on the case. This dusting of gratuitousness might be what makes this building designed and constructed 1964-1970 still appear so contemporary. Its materials and construction are a contradiction. Their sheer quality means we can see this building today as if it were new but it also means the building could never be a product of any other time but Italy in the 1960s.

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1969
De Bijenkorf 
Gio Ponti, Theo Boosten
Eindhoven, Netherlands

By now, the glazed ceramic tile had been perfected. Relief becomes bas-relief to make shadows deeper on cloudy days and in low-angle sunlight. Sunlight or rain produce shimmering effects intensified by the glazing being seemingly resistant to dirt, grime and the passage of time.

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1971
Denver Art Museum

100 W 14th Ave Pkwy, Denver, CO 80204, USA

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1971
Taranto Cathedral
Taranto, Italy

Cathedrals aren’t generally known for their restrained interiors so what’s immediately noticeable here is how austere this one is. For the entrance and campanile, the walls are no longer things that exist to accept ornament but things that are constituted from it.

• • •

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Gio Ponti is a phenomenon, a person who touched every corner of Italian design for half a century and the person responsible for making Italian design the international phenomenon it remains to this day. As an architect, he understood how to make spaces and how to decorate them and, as editor of DOMUS, how to publicise them. He knew how to make a building fit well on a site and how to clad it so it looks new forever. Ponti is remembered most for the Pirelli Tower but this is probably more of a reflection on architecture’s obsession with shape and what buildings come to symbolize for Pirelli Tower is not really representative of Ponti’s interests or his career. He seemed happiest when he had a wall to ornament or decorate. Perhaps he knew this and this is why he makes it so difficult for us to see past the surface. Or even want to.

• • •

Talking Shop

This one has to be about architecture school – a general survey of the role of architecture education. Pondering through another letter-swamp of project placement on archdaily I found myself immersed in a mass of architecture school-yak links. Architecture media talks about schools a lot. Isn’t architecture the discipline that pumps its education the most? I’ve never heard of aerospacedaily or carpentrydaily or jurisprudencedaily. Marketing of architecture schools is subtly fused into the existence architecture has in the media. If someone invests a lot into convincing you they can teach you, then there’s room for uncertainty as to whether they actually can. V.

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A good idea! Until now I’ve stayed away from the topic of education, probably because it’s too close to home. I shouldn’t really. This blog only exists because of me, students and education. G.

  • Back in 2011, The Twisted Education of Architects post depicted the frustration a student can develop at an architecture school if they were blind unreceptive to the early twentieth-century abstract imaginal design generation. 2011 is six years and a bachelor and masters ago. Me, I enrolled in 2011 but what did architecture school learn in the time it takes a student to graduate? 
  • In technology, places like MIT are praised and mentioned but usually for the virtue of research work and usually on the topic of that work.
  • In medicine, teaching hospitals are often places where treatments and therapies are pioneered. There are no Harvard GSDs in medicine.
  • What technology school or law school or medical school should teach its students is an interesting question that would have solid and definite answers. “What architecture school should teach its students”, on the contrary, seems to be a slippery ground, despite 100 years in service.

Soon to have 100 years of abstract architecture school (Bauhaus 1919, VKhUTEMAS 1920). We can expect a lot of anniversary recapitulation and probably the wrong conclusions. Don’t forget that Bauhaus only began to teach architecture in 1928, under Hannes Meyer, and then as building science. In a draft for an upcoming post titled “Models of Instruction” dealing with the history of architectural education, I insinuate that Gropius was copying the Montessori style of education that had evolved 20 years earlier, with its emphasis on learning by direct handling of materials. He was to follow Ms. Montessori in exporting it to America, along with himself as a similar innovator in architectural education. 

Bauhaus is accepted with respect and credit. Should it have brought a revolution in human habitat, being the first architecture school totally connected with modernity? The spread of modernism definitely happened after the school’s emergence. Gropius’ genius was to later blur the boundary between himself, architecture, architectural education, and what was actually taught at the Bauhaus under Meyer. The four were always linked via the Dessau building but never in the same place at the same time. Of course, having Mies on the other side of Meyer made it easier to forget the building science bit in the middle even though it was “the meat in the sandwich”.

Mass industrial housing emerged and its virtues outweigh shortcomings, given most of these buildings continue to shelter people. But is it correlation or causation, in relation to school’s existence? Modernism was an inherently cheaper way to build so would probably have happened anyway. J.J.P. Oud and the Dutch were already making it work in The Netherlands. Ernst May provided 15,000 housing units between 1925 and 1932 and independently of whatever was or was not happening at The Bauhaus.

If we take the 20 most renowned architect names, how many of them would be Bauhaus alumni? Meyer, Gropius and Rohe were not immediately displaced by mighty new youths they taught. I had exactly the same thought yesterday. How many people passed through Wright’s office or Le Corbusier’s office and what happened to them? With LC, the two who became most known both left his office after six months and went on to do their own thing rather well. Another three, three decades on, did what Gropius did and promoted themselves as having had special access to privileged knowledge. But what was that knowledge? Or did they just trade off anecdotes? (“Well what Corb would have done was …”) Sure “Bauhaus style” spread around the world, but it is a convenient tag and not what was invented in the school or by its alumni in the field. Exactly. I think that to call something a style is to neuter it. I blame Johnson and Hitchcock, as you know. 

BXYTEMAC [VkHUTEMAS – it took me a while to get what you did there!] taught Ivan Leonidov, who immediately became a poster boy to wrongly attach “constructivism” tag to. After his graduation, Ivan Leonidov led a very tragic life of a person who never acclimated to his context. The fact it was a menacing bloody context is worth mention. Still, the divide between nonconformism for the sake of decency and illicit tragism in everyday life is slippery.  Yes – I worry about this all the time. =) That aside, Ivan Leonidov graduated as an architect inadequate for what lay immeditely beyond the school door. And it did not go shitty just overnight, to be fair.

Andrew Burov was another BXYTEMAC graduate, who shone as a “talented young man”. He abandoned the OCA organization as soon as the sour winds blew and put on the social realist, neoclassical revivalist’s shoes. [I shall investigate. Did he become one of those “Post Constructivists” – those proto-post modernists?] He never showcased any regrets for that and lived a long continuous career, no matter whether flat roofs or gypsum facades, or flat roofs again he was asked to provide. He managed to appear borderline between an actual person and servile rat despite his preference for food, shelter and job before his personal values, if these existed. It’s odd you mention Burov. Less than an hour ago I found this photo of him enjoying a cigarette break with Le Corbusier and Alexander Vesnin in Moscow, 1929. It’s the only photo I’ve ever seen with LC holding a pencil. Why is everyone but Vesnin wearing the same glasses?

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The two cases of Leonidov and Burov might be just two person’s characters, irrelevant to the school itself. I’m not so sure. They may have been one-offs but if they even inadvertently showed others the mechanism of how to leverage buildings to become famous, it was still the birth of modern architectural education as a closed ecosystem of teachers and students. Everyone wanted Leonidov on their team and he was pulled along by events but it sounds like Burov went whichever way the wind was blowing.   

This abstract imaginal education was formed as to “zeitgeist” of early 1920s, with enormous uncertainty over the ashes of a world war and hatching mass machine civilization. The locations where the two schools emerged are not surprising – both Germany and Russia had been mauled by world war and revolution. For each, “machine” became a fantastic entity which would undo the calamities by wonders of invisible mechanisms. It was an ontological drug to endure the hardships of life there, using sorcery of floating transpatial rectangles painted on a canvas, or spiralling pieces of wood forming an antenna for a newly found socialist hivemind. Coping means are good until you make these central pieces of your life – what only indicates how tragic your tragedy really is. Speaking of architectural education as abstract imaginings, this was in an Unbuilt Moscow feature in today’s Guardian. I saved it because I thought the caption was iffy. I find it hard to believe that, with The Russian Revolution not even three years gone, emphasising themes was more important than realising them. Suspect.

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Nikola Ladovsky [VKhUTEMAS instructor], 1920. The spiral structure of Ladovsky’s design emphasised the key Communist party themes of progress and communal living intended to revolutionise family structures.

But having grown up in Australia, I never felt such weight of history. When I was an undergraduate at UWA, I discovered Shinohara’s first book of houses in the library and, impressed, wrote him a letter saying how much I envied him for having had such a spectacular and worthwhile tradition to interpret, or act as a base, or something. In time, I received a short letter back saying that I would surely find my path if I just continued questioning. (I pinned it above my drawing board next to an image of Richard Meier’s Douglas House.) Forty years on, I’m still questioning and I think it’s time for some answers.   

Apparently, the price humankind paid to enter the era of geometrical freedom of free-floating masses put together in light was never seen prior to the non-freedom of humans put together in camps and frontlines. Unprecedented control of mass was brought forth by unforeseen human-powered machines of violence. I think the Futurists have a lot to answer for. Perhaps newness for its own sake supplying “the missing ingredient that allowed Modernism to happen” was never the answer. It may have merely been the missing ingredient that enabled rampant capitalist (and then endless neoliberalist) churn for its own sake. The powerful only need buildings to remind everyone who the powerful are. 

The reliance on abstract composition in schools may only be a means to retrofit the appearance of organic emergence into modernist architecture, whose history is not as clear and actually poorly documented. My new cognitive bias goggles have help me make sense out of a lot of things. Any attempt to introduce abstraction into architecture furthers a neoliberalist agenda where buildings exist for the sake of architecture and not for anyone who might happen to use them or even pay for them. We can backtrack from Patrick Schumacher and the neoliberalist architect dream of an architecture beyond reason, interpretation or criticism, and go back a bit further to Rem Koolhaas and his 1979 “Development is good!” thesis, re-articulated by Bjarke Ingels with fewer words and more pictures in “Yes is more!”) “Abstract painting gave birth to abstract architecture” sure sounds convincing, but actually may be an instance of pareidolia, the desire of human mind to see a pattern where it may not be the case. Probably. Mies’ “Brick Country House” was five years after van Doesburg’s Rhythm of a Russian Dance yet the two often appear on the same page of history books. van Doesburg even made it easy for Mies by demarcating inside and outside.   

What could have been just someone’s thesis statement became useful to form a consensus of persons who could sustain their agenda for the longest using this thesis as a cosmological myth. There wasn’t that much mid-20th century abstraction happening but perhaps De Stijl’s van Doesberg was the first to get there. Some say it may even had been Wright who first hit upon this cheap way to build. 

The fact that the architecture as something with pretensions to being art and not building science suggests it was better at furthering the agenda of its proponents (and clients) by claiming to be so. We don’t remember Peter Eisenman, Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright for their contributions to building science.  Traditionalist architects blame modernism for speaking a “bird language”. Once you knew their complaint and read any piece which featured use of word “space”, you’d never see it the way you did before. Overusing the word “form” is also a symptom. 

In science, 10 years after your graduation is when you have to focus on your research, because you may make studies and discoveries only while your brain is still fresh and regenerating. Your career after 35 is mostly you living off that foundation. My use of word foundation is misleading. This work is not what you stand on, doing your job later after you’ve acquired it, but the actual most valuable work you produce. Which you may later only tinker with or modify. My evidence is James Watson claimed it in his own memoir, he also wrote it was consensus thinking. Interesting. Worrying. I still have a couple of early ideas I haven’t monetised yet. Last week I received an email saying the commissioning editor at XXX had decided not to make a publication offer in response to my book proposal. 

In architecture, a fresh graduate may face their uselessness in the office for them being “that ignorant fresh graduate person” that just graduated from fascinating enterprise which is contemporary architecture school. More often than not, they will toil until their fifties, about which time, they’re told, architects “bloom”. Architecture in many ways is an archaic trade. One of signs of that is the gerontocracy in the upper tier of it. People who think of themselves as sentinels of undermined beings spent a lot of time praising the late ZH but the actual ill social composition existing in the profession, they never question it. The demise of Russian communism was foreshadowed by escalating gerontocracy a  few decades ago. Is architecture heading to the same direction? I suspect so. Experience is good in the case of the integrated design, operation and maintenance of complex systems such as railways but, with architecture, experience seems to be defined more narrowly as people who have simply clung on to fame for the longest.  

Relationship of education to work outside that of “self-referential circle of recommendations and funding” was not yet mentioned in this list yet. It should be. Already on the case in a separate draft. Le Corbusier’s former employees visited the US and were immediately made Professors of Architecture.

Sure, the basic framework never changed and the imaginal conceptual focus is the king. After all, the whole twentieth century saw architecture’s dilution with appearance of structural engineering as a separate trade, and inhabitability systems (i.e. HVAC) consultancy as yet another trade. With two thirds of dreary firmitas-utilitas-venustas trio taken out of the solution, architecture became a fine arts homeopathy. When I read this now, I see now that what you wrote is exactly where I took the Myths post [Architectural Myths #23: Architecture] post – you arrived at the same conclusion well before I did! 

Taking imaginal sophistry out of the curriculum would leave the vessel empty and no one would know what to fill it with. Would we have any abstract-faceted-sculptural sentiment if the first years were “performance design” instead of “affect design”? After a few years of low-level fundamental study would one see any charm in any other design approach? 

Also remember your frustrations with pupils unable to imagine a form, not to mention to document or present it in a projection? In shortcomings of teaching graphics to students you’ve defined a vision. I always like to look for reasons in things. If students can’t draw, or imagine things, then it’s because nobody is asking them to develop these skills that (quite frankly) most of my students will never be asked to use. Education adapts to its market surprisingly quickly. 

Media images melting reality into an post-causal mush you’ve bashed back in Smoke and Mirrors – and in Rendering Ethics on commonedge. The unintelligibly real prospects in form of images are hyper-lurid and captivating. The amount of work required to produce the images gave birth to dedicated visualization industry within the profession. This has only become necessary in order to feed the image digester. In its photo credits, ArchDaily includes visualisations and credits them as if they were photographs. I can’t help thinking something important is being lost. Reality? Online resources get bigger and bigger view counts across a reducing number of domains, and popular ones rule, as to law of accelerating returns. Instead of a multitude of opinions, mindsets and methods, the online architecture that actually emerged appeared to be a hybrid meta-mush of proven modernist tropes (or just stupid lazy design?) and a few recent design effort indicators like shuffly windows. This hybrid nests in an information platform accessible from any connected place. The farther the place is, the more charming the international newsfeed seems. What we have in the end is “archdaily (dezeen, architizer) epidemic”? Internet for ideas, good or bad ones, is what airlines are to viruses. I’ve often wondered about that. You see the same house in Korea or Chile or Bregenz. This trope is a hybrid of Fallingwater and Savoye – a media vernacular for our modern times.

For hundreds of years, the sole key to mastery was a long apprenticeship and recurring repetition – or at least we were told by literature that it was so. Within accelerating and escalating monopoly of the image, we end up having many designs as mere vehicles to create a final presentation image (your phrase). The rhetorical pair of substance vs image appears to have committed an incestual act, as image is the new substance, apparently.

The isolation of architectural academia is not yesterday’s news. Together with starchitecture firms they form a symbiotic circle running in a hermetically sealed cleanroom of waste-free production – potential students are lured by image of creative architectural practice, they enroll into a school, usually in exchange for hefty tuition fees, to be, in the best case, taught in personal studios of ones whose image charmed you in the first place. Somewhere in the middle, school builds a background of “successful student appreciation”, in form of articles with words “workaholic”, “creative” and “over hours”. In the end studios receive creative over-hours workaholics they can underpay because you’re so creative I see you didn’t come in the industry for the money did you? Sometimes these workaholics even paid to enter the job – via a school and personal studio that is. Credit to architectural industry to monetizing a perfect opportunity and wrapping their practitioners around a finger, to their own excitement and gratitude. This is all true and not cognitive bias. Just as education has adapted to what little is being asked of it, so has architecture. The idea of an architecture reflecting the priorities of the global economic elite is not such an absurd one. The International Style certainly came to “represent” progress to local populations as they were colonized by American businesses. OMA and ZHA are the new face of that. We should be pleased Schumacher has made the link between architecture and neoliberalism more obvious to more people. I’m beginning to think that starchitects are created and sustained by the system in order to sustain it. Think about it. If the buildings of a certain class of architect are granted automatic legitimacy regardless of the location or political culture or whose lives it destroys or with whose money it was built, then of course starchitects are going to get called upon to legitimize the unlegitimizable whenever there’s a need. It’s no accident the buildings they get called upon to legitimize tend to be in the dodgier countries, or that rich rulers and property developers (or rich-ruler property developers, or property developer rich rulers) are the clients whose edifices most require legitimizing.

Those currently in school are mostly millenials, who grew up in the presence of internet and the cultural transformation it entailed. One effect of which is “culture” became less about foundational notions and more of a coarsely ground mush of ideas, notions, emotions, and opinions based on such pesky sub-structure. The relationship between content, screen time, attention and worldwide connection naturally selected the most entertaining and least elaborate material which could be provided in a constant dopamine-gratifying stream. “12 books about urbanism”, “13 definitive movies for architects to watch” and whatever other list you can imagine on any topic beside architecture create an appearance of a broadly covered spectrum on a topic of interest, what satisfies the users and makes them believe in their becoming an informed person. The concept of Everything is Architecture is a new way of justifying this. Social media seems to function as a way of reminding people that one is interested in architecture. Putting stuff out there to share for our benefit has in some debased way come to be identified as education.   

What results is a culture of erudite idiots, precisely because long-term programs are not about immediate content. This idiocy is implicitly understood, what is indicated by recent abundance of a word “expert”, which is used wherever to separate audience from the speakers who have an oratorical monopoly. Becoming an expert is then a media vehicle, and there are many people who would help one to become an expert in exchange for money. Yes, we need to monetise this! =) 

• • •

The uncertainty about architectural education may result from profession’s ongoing decomposition. 20th century cemented the dissociation of structural engineering and habitability engineering from architectural design practice, at least in big architecture scene. The role of 20th century architecture school in that has yet to be scrutinized.

  • Decomposition of imaginal public relations practice of perception-management happens along the lines of imagery production competences, one recent case of the process is emergence of architectural visualization as a separate self-contained trade. Bashar once told me he saw an job listing for an “environmental graphics technician” and It amused us to think it meant those people who draw those airflow lines all over building sections. I was recently disappointed to learn it’s the new term for signage and wayfinding.
  • Decomposition continues for the material of architecture as a discipline which engineers a public relations envelope, a desired image for projects built around development gain or the concerns of image itself, as are many “cultural centres”, a typological trope beloved by both architects and their students.
  • Decomposition is an exotermic process. Once it stops, we’ll see stone-cold mineral remains of previously organic discipline. But decompositional heat can be mistaken for metabolic heat, creating a vision of a vibrant living system. hhhh I don’t know why I should be laughing … the analogy is all to apt – this mistaking of energy for life.  

Hazy conceptual soup remains in the profession, but we soon may see “design philosophy consultant” as a next big thing in architecture. We’ll have to watch for Design Philosophy Consultant Masters Program banners on architecture web outlets. It’s only a matter of time. Those three words already occur together in the similarly abstracted field of economic policy. 

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Design philosophy consultants may already be walking amongst us, for what’s a design philosophy consultant but a person who uses misleading narratives for perception management? If such people were to exist, they would make pre-emptive announcements of current concerns in anticipation of “proof” by projects only they know are in the pipeline. Those planted pre-emptive narratives would soon, invariably, come to be seen as prophetic.

• • •

To all architecture students out there,
best wishes and good luck!