Modest Megastructures

Le Corbusier’s 1922 Freehold Maisonettes were stacked and repeated within a column and slab structure. In 1923 the same apartment layout was marketed as a suburban house in Almanach d’Architecture Moderne. In 1925 it reappeared as the Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau. 


Le Corbusier’s 1933 Plan Obus proposal for Algiers had a highway along the roof, suggesting a double-loaded corridor with deep plan, single-aspect apartments on both sides.


Limited daylighting and cross ventilation are just two problems of such a configuration but one virtue that’s never mentioned is the amount of variation in the facade treatments of individual dwellings [and thanks Julius for making me look at it again]. Plan Obus is a megastructure that in principle allows an owner-occupant the same amount of architectural freedom as a detached house along a street would.


Le Corbusier’s depiction of French and Algerians living side by side

Le Corbusier never developed Plan Obus into anything else or used this idea elsewhere. He was to later partially solve the problem of sun penetration and cross ventilation with the double-aspect apartments of the Unités d’Habitation, beginning with the 1949 one in Marseilles that wasn’t a megastructure despite having some serious concrete and a few shops that hinted at self-containment but were never going concerns.

This famous illustration of forgotten provenance has forever associated the Unité d’Habitations with the idea of living units lifted into a structure despite this having no basis in fact.


The idea of a habitable megastructure was kept alive by buildings such as Affonso Eduardo Reidy’s Block A of the Pedregulho Neighborhood Redevelopment in Rio de Janeiro circa 1960.



The building’s external configuration has similarities with Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus and an internal configuration similar to Moisei Ginzburg’s 1930 Narkomfin. Reidy’s Block A isn’t a megastructure as things are held up rather than structured. It’s the same with Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1974 Pasadena Heights in Mishima, Japan.

Like the Reidy building, Pasadena Heights also offers no scope for occupants to change, exchange, extend or otherwise alter their living space in accordance with their needs or their desires. How the building is going to be and how it’s going to be lived in have already been 100% designedPasadena Heights was an attempt to bring megastructures down to earth, to make them liveable rather than visionary, to make them useful.

Kikutake deserves credit for this for, in the 1960’s, he had been one of The Metabolists who, along with Archigram, took the idea of living units attached to a megastructure and ran with it. Living units were called pods or capsules because it suggested plastic and everything in the future was plastic. The thinking went that pods could be upgraded or replaced like apartments, cars, sofas and mobile phones are today.

isozaki c-in-the-air

City In The Air, Arata Isoaki, 1961


Kiyonori Kikutake, Ocean City, 1968


Archigram, Plug-In City, 1960–1974

Kurokawa’s 1973 Nakagin Capsule Tower is said to be the only built example of such a mega-megastructure and it’s this image we’re encouraged to remember as it articulates the notion, popular in both the UK and Japan at the time, that design for change was a good thing. By not being clear about what kind of change or why, these magastructure proposals opened the door for today’s commodification of housing and nowhere is this more true than in the UK and Japan. In contrast, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti megastructures dating from the same period were all crust and no filling. They represented permanence and not change and have had no lasting impact of any kind.


Images of them have long disappeared from history books whereas Plug-In City, Ocean City and City In The Sky continue to be remembered as important in architecture schools. At the time, people did wonder what kind of government would administer such megastructures but Superstudio were in no doubt. Their 1971 Megaton City imagined a homogenized society where even dissenting thought was crushed (quite literally). Their Megaton City was social commentary.

megaton city

Bjarke Ingels’ megastructures however are a comment on our society in that they regard human beings as infill. Chillingly, the megastructure doesn’t even exist for the sake of the people that support it. The history of contemporary architecture may as well be called the neoliberalist’s history of architecture. If it doesn’t further its agenda, it gets unremembered pretty quickly.

• • •

This is how the flow of the history of things thought to be important has gone. Le Corbusier continues to be vilified for the uniformity represented by his 1922 Ville Contemporaine proposal for Paris but to my knowledge the possibilities for diversity represented by his 1942 Plan Obus proposal for Algiers have never been acknowledged.


This could be because the diversity of French Algiers wasn’t one the Algerians actually cared for. Or it could be because it was still an idea ahead of its time for architects to respond to people’s subjective needs to express themselves or their cultures. Eventually, Algerians did express themselves and it was called the The Algerian War of Independence. Until November 1942 when Algeria was to cease being under the control of the Vichy government, it would have been astute of Le Corbusier to represent diversity and people of different cultures living side by side. It’s an early case of an architect wanting to be responsible only for the form of the built environment and not its content.

Given Le Corbusier’s propensity to repackage and re-present aspects of earlier work, we would surely have seen Plan Obus again if he’d thought or wanted to take it any further.


Going by what he did do later, it’s likely he let it die because it was a consequence of those specific (political) circumstances and held no possibilities for application elsewhere. It’s also likely he simply didn’t believe in it architecturally. Nevertheless, we can look at this sketch today and see a useful idea in the content of the proposal if not its form.


The story that Post Modernism began with the dynamiting of Pruitt Igoe has been repeated so often it’s futile saying it didn’t. [It didn’t.] What really began was Charles Jencks’ career of saying it did and that Modernism hadn’t paid sufficient attention to people’s subjective needs. Post Modern architects assumed everyone’s subjective needs were for more ornament and decoration on buildings that ‘spoke’ of what they did and where they were or of some place in the history of something. Nobody cared if this was a correct assumption or not. What was important was that buildings were suddenly able to speak, and not only speak but speaking with ambiguity and irony, and telling jokes too.


Arata Isozaki, Team Disney Building, Orlando, Florida, 1990 / Photo by Xinai Liang, tweeted by Adam Nathaniel Furman

When SITE proposed Highrise of Homes in 1981 it was understood as a joke but it’s really Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus on less land with no view of the Med, and serviced by roads on the ground.

The visual expression of the building is the sum of how its individual owners choose to live. The diversity and, by the same token, the uniformity of a suburban street have been replicated in an urban high rise. The surrealness of its appearance results from it looking different from the surrounding buildings, from it being outside our experience and from it not being we expect the appearance of a building to be.

Highrise of Houses should not have seemed so novel and so weird when Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus had represented much the same thing fifty years earlier. My issue isn’t with authorship but about the need to continually revisit history and scan it for ideas that, taken out of context, have relevance for us now for the idea of a modest megastructure allowing individual dwellings and individuality is a recurrent one and a useful one.

The Next21 Building in Osaka was built in 1994 as a project conceived by Osaka Gas Corporation. It uses the Open Building principles as articulated by Dutch architect John Habraken.


“The NEXT21 Construction Committee developed the basic plan and design. Its objectives were:

• using resources more effectively through systemized construction
• creating a variety of residential units to accommodate varying households
• introducing substantial natural greenery throughout a high-rise structure
• creating a wildlife habitat within urban multi-family housing
• treating everyday waste and drainage onsite within the building
• minimizing the building’s compound burden on the environment
• using energy efficiently by means including fuel cells
• making a more comfortable life possible without increasing energy consumption” [ref.]

“Units were designed by 13 different architects. Each unit’s interior and exterior layout was freely designed within a system of coordinating rules for positioning various elements.”[ref.] 

The project seems like a sincere attempt to simulate real diversity in a prototype building even though there’s a slight flaw in using thirteen different [?] architects to simulate actual conditions of user choice for, as noted in Open Building case studies such as this, apartment layouts aren’t necessarily rational when real occupants are allowed to design them according to what they perceive to be their needs.


These are the plans that were submitted for approval.


The upper plan is the plan given to the contractor, and the lower is what was built according to the occupants’ wishes.

Having the apartment entrance fixed at the corner was never going to produce great plans but the most rational are those most similar to the approval plans. On the other hand, we can’t say the ‘irrational’ plans are wrong for we generally accept that how people choose to live is their business.


Thanks to Tiago for tweeting this.

We encourage Open Buildings and other forms of diversity for the internal arrangements of a building and appreciate a controlled degree of diversity along suburban streets but we still expect the outsides of buildings to show the unifying hand of the architect. Even the Next21 building in Osaka had a uniformity of colour, cladding and window frames. Our architectural culture is loathe to relinquish control over the outsides of buildings. Post Modernism left us preferring fake diversity to organic similarity. Design for real diversity was never on the cards. 

Architecture is better at subjective solutions to subjective needs than it is at real solutions to real ones. However, if subjective needs remain valid even if false, then supposedly the architecture that satisfies them can be so too. The problem is when the satisfaction of subjective needs not only replaces but excludes the satisfaction of real ones as a subject of architecture. What we’re left with is an architecture of empty calories. Another huge problem is that subjective needs don’t need to be satisfied in any real way – it’s sufficient to represent them being satisfied. What we’re left with is an architecture of empty promises.

Herzog de Meuron’s 2010 Beirut Terraces gives us the representation of difference rather than any meaningful reality of it. Its contrived randomness is the sellable appearance of diversity rather than a real diversity or the visual consequence of one.


Architecture has two problems with real diversity. One is that it’s visually messy. That’s bad but it’s not as bad as the other which is that real diversity can’t be generated by architects. Architects can only represent it or, rather, the absence of it. And in fact representing apparent diversity within a revealed structure of columns and slabs is a modern meme. Contriving the appearance of natural processes at work is a skill valued in proportion to how convincing the approximation is. You’ll remember these two buildings from the previous post.

Slabs on load bearing columns are one of mankind’s better inventions and rather than just representing diversity, can actually allow for a real one – if given the chance. Aravena repackaged the problem rather well by designing a modest megastructure in which people could satisfy their real and subjective needs through some weekend DIY and at the same time satisfy our need to believe in an architecture that does that. It worked for them. It worked for him.

But what about us?  If people everywhere started to expect less of architects and to self-build then architecture as we know it will no longer exist. After having come to the same conclusion around Feb. 23 this year, Aravena backpedalled in Western media.

dezeen .jpeg

The cat was out of the bag though for, as seen at the 15th Venice Biennale, “The urban developments designed by German architects BEL (Anne-Julchen Bernhardt and Jörg Leeser) are based upon the concept of incremental urbanization. 


“Compared to past cases, such as those developed in the 1960s in Latin America, the approach by BEL envisages the creation of multistory structures, composed of a simple array of columns and slabs, which can be “completed” and adapted to different functional and cultural schemes, thus fulfilling the specific characteristics and requirements of their inhabitants.” [ref.]

It’s the same combination of self-build within a modest megastructure. It’s using columns and slabs as land multiplied, and letting its purchasers do what they like with it although presumably with restrictions on cantilevering and projections. What’s innovative for us is that it does so without concern for how the end result looks. It has to be this way. The choice is to either suppress diversity by its representation, or to allow diversity and accept the visual consequences of letting it happen. Eighty three years on, we’re almost back to where we could have been.

• • •

This post evolved from a 28 Nov 2016 Twitter exchange between Julius JääskeläinenTiago Baptista and myself.
Further reading 1:
Further reading 2:
Featured image: BeL Sozietät für Architektur, Allotment House, Hamburg, Germany, 2013, Base and Settlers©BeL, as found at 

Learning Curve

If you’ve been wondering what skills were most in demand at the top 50 architecture firms [according to a 2013 Architectural Record Top 300 Architecture Firms study], Black Spectacles has already surveyed 928 job postings and compiled the software and other requirements listed for each job. Well done them!  


“In summary, for software skills, over 70% of architecture jobs require Revit skills, and over 50% still require AutoCAD skills.  The #3 software skill required is Sketchup.  We must admit that we were disappointed (but not surprised) to see that Grasshopper was only required for 3% of the jobs.  And good old-fashioned hand-sketching was only explicitly called out in 4% of these jobs.

The authors admit that taking only the top firms skews the survey towards the larger ones, which of course implies a certain kind of top-down production system. The demanded software therefore reflects the office hierarchy. Documentation software such as Revit and AutoCAD figure largest. Communications and presentation software not so large, and aids to creative thinking such as sketching hardly at all. Offices don’t need a surfeit of creatives.

• • •

Here’s a quick rundown on some of the programs architects should have experimented with, perhaps adopted, and almost certainly discarded for ones less obsolete.

Computer-Aided Design Programs

Off the top of my head, I can think of MiniCAD, AutoCAD, Vectorworks, Microstation, AutoDesk, EasyCAD and TurboCAD. There’s many more out there and many have C-A-D as part of their name. Equally many people will advise on which is best for you.


Let’s follow the Architecture link.

Many an architecture student’s first introduction to CAD will be AutoCAD. Most students will have access to several versions and copies and people to teach them how to use it to draw plans, elevations and sections without getting their hands dirty or having to worry too much about accuracy. Making sure the elevations match the plans and the plans match the sections takes as much skill, care and time as it ever did.

Building Information Modelling

ArchiCAD has always been a struggler in the market due to poor choice of diffusion model in the early years. While AutoCAD was being given away to schools and businesses, ArchiCAD was expensive and had a complex system of hardware dongles purposely limiting any dissemination that wasn’t fully paid for. It was a shame because ArchiCAD was the world’s first CAD program with an integrated BIM and 3D functionality that no other program could match until Revit sort of did twenty years later.

Revit has leapt to the forefront very quickly and many people are amazed by how it revolutionalized the production of architectural drawings.


Visualisation Programs

“2D plans have long been the bane of designers when it comes to communicating ideas to clients, and humble concept boards and elevations can only do so much.  As such, more and more designers are turning to 3D which real, authentic and visual.” 

Some CAD programs have integrated visualization capabilities. It’s good to see cherry trees have finally made it into object libraries. [c.f. The Things Architects Do #11: Cherry Blossoms]


Google SketchUp has been around since the early 2000’s and was an instant hit with architects and designers who could not or were not able to sketch. 

“[It] is one of the most widely used and easy to learn 3D Modeling software packages on the market today. With SketchUp’s ability to use plug in software, such as V-Ray, iRender and Shaderlight, designers can take a basic 3D and morph into one that can (and will) get their ideas over the line in a manner in which clients can understand.” [ref.]

3D Studio Max was many an architecture student’s first introduction to texture mapping.


ARtlantis has also been around a while. It was one of the first rendering packages to enable control over lighting and illumination effects, and offered a choice of rendering engines. Maxwell and VRay were popular choices. Here’s a quick tutorial showing you how to set an Artlantis scene to be rendered with [in? by?] Maxwell.

And here’s one on how to export your SketchUp Pro 2013 model to ArtLantis Studio 15.

Here’s one on how to use the new VRay for Revit

Here’s a link to motionographer Alex Roman’s turgid film The Third and the Seventh,


and another link to an interview.


Maya was breathtakingly refreshing when it first came out but is now just part of the furniture.

“Bring your imagination to life with Maya® 3D animation, modeling, simulation, and rendering software. Maya helps artists tell their story with one fast, creative toolset.” [ref.]


You can bring your imagination to life.


You can use time to animate a cube mesh.


Here’s a YouTube tutorial on skinning rigging and applying mocap data.


Of all of the rendering sofwares, Lumion was perhaps the most welcome. It produced images that may have been incredibly cheesy but it was difficult to make something look really ugly.

Parametric Modelling Programs

Rhinoceros 5

Rhinoceros is primarily a free form surface modeler that utilizes the NURBS mathematical model. Its application architecture and open SDK makes it modular and enables the user to customize the interface and create custom commands and menus. Dozens of plug-ins available from both McNeel and other software companies complement and expand Rhinoceros’ capabilities in specific fields like rendering and animation, architecture, marine, jewelry, engineering, prototyping, and others.

You can do anything with Rhino.


Here’s the Grand Staircase of the Titanic.



This is a visual scripting language for Rhino. It lets you do things like parametric rosettes and weaves, sine functions and transformations, solid difference, kanagaroo tags, voronoi boxes and lots of other stuff you didn’t even know you couldn’t do.


“For designers who are exploring new shapes using generative algorithms, Grasshopper® is a graphical algorithm editor tightly integrated with Rhino’s 3-D modeling tools. Unlike RhinoScript, Grasshopper requires no knowledge of programming or scripting, but still allows designers to build form generators from the simple to the awe-inspiring.” 

Their website will get you started with tutorials.


Energy Modelling Software 

eQUEST is probably the quickest option and is also free. This tutorial will walk you through the basics.

“Keep in mind that it focuses almost solely on energy and that load design in eQUEST should be limited to the experts. Check out this video that shows how awesome eQUEST is!”

TRACE 700 “… is a great option if you need to do Load Design + Energy. Tell your boss to suck it up and buy it for you. It comes with free support.” [ref.]

IES“Investigate suitable bioclimatic strategies even before a line has been drawn, and connect from SketchUp™ or BIM packages. By enabling informed sustainable design decisions you can be confident that the VE for Architects helps you deliver ambitious performance goals while seeking opportunities to keep costs appropriate. In fact, as top engineers use advanced IESVE tools you can easily collaborate and exchange models with them as you progress – facilitating an improved integrated and data driven process.” [ref.]

Here’s a tutorial for how to use IES Light with V-Ray in Sketchup. How awesome is that!

Urban Design Programs

City Engine lets you make bold and sweeping inteventions relating to site density and height across entire cities, and provides you with updated floor areas and thus presumably return-on-investment as you go. If that all sounds a bit mercenary, we are reminded that CityEngine is used by several major animation studios and visual effects houses for the creation of digital sets of urban environments.” [ref.]


This test image was generated with CityEngine and has 1.135 billion polygons, no instancing and is rendered in 22 gigabytes of RAM.

• • •

A few observations.

1. Nothing’s changed.

No matter how skilled you become at using any or all of these software packages, you will be a technician – someone who executes the ideas of others. No office needs a surfeit of people who can use a felt-tip.


Person using a felt-tip.

2. Nothing is used to its maximum potential.

All this productivity software results in highly contrived and inefficient workflows as a consequence of offices having legacy software and staff having different types and levels of legacy skills. For example, a head of architecture might “sketch” a building in AutoCAD 2000 because that’s all he knows how to use. That might then get passed to a graduate who has a copy of Rhino to “extrude” it so it can then be exported to SketchUp for preliminary work on elevations while being further embroidered in Revit. None of these programs is being used in the way for which it was designed to be used. And even if they were used in some far superior string of hocus-pocus, everything will ultimately be put onto a USB drive as a PowerPoint presentation to show the client at 1024 x 768 dpi on whatever IT/projection system there is in the boardroom.

The longevity of AutoCAD in the industry shows that software innovation and endless learning are unnecessary. Buildings are still being designed and built using legacy technologies in inefficient and illogical ways, only even more so.

3. Nobody knows it all.

If digital models are exported around the office into formats more suited to the task or the skills of the person actually performing the task, then the same is true for collaborations outside the office. File conversions are routine as is the loss/addition of information along the way. Municipalities may request submissions as Revit files but that doesn’t mean the project was designed using Revit or that Revit will be used for further documentation or detailing.


Nothing is ever enough

“Software skill requirements fell predictably along experience lines, with lower experience requiring more software skills.  The exceptions were in AutoCAD & Photoshop where the difference between the requirements of 0-3 years & 11-20 years of experience was over 20%.  The next largest difference was in Revit at 14%.” [ref.]

In other words, the most poorly paid are expected to be the most productive. This is no surprise. For a monthly subscription fee, will teach you how to use Revit and many other new software skills suddenly indispensible for getting you a new job or letting you keep the one you have.

Lynda is linked to LinkedIn, the site that monetizes job dissatisfaction and insecurity. Just as you can never learn enough, you can never be too dissatisfied or too insecure.

The online software instruction industry has shown sharp growth. Not only are employees agressively targeted and made to feel as if they must stay up-to-date to retain their job, but the unemployed are also preyed upon. Devoted instructors plant ideas like the “self-education trap” and describe in terror-inducing detail how you may not learn of some essential feature if you teach yourself.

Also targeted are the pre-unemployed, a.k.a. students. Students have a natural insecurity about the quality of their education which, coupled with questionable career prospects can easily be leveraged into them paying substantial money in the false hope of being able to design better. The slickest software school setups have a vast media presence promising “cool speakers in free seminars” and all the other paraphernalia of media-fueled architecture practice.

3. ‘Those that can, exploit. Those that can’t, defraud.’

It’s that old adage again, this time expanding downwards into lesser but larger markets. If you’re still unemployed after having paid good money to learn all this software, you can still claw some of it back by taking classes to become a tutor. You’ll learn how to replicate a Shanghai supertall from an image and then move onto some megamansion you’ve almost certainly seen online. Some of the old favourites are still around to let students think they’re getting closer to design.


This is an example of ArtLantis being used to add texture to SketchUp. [Nobody ever seems to notice the huge hill behind the house.]

It’s rare the class that will pose design problems of increasing complexity that require the software to be creatively used in order to solve them. Mostly, copying is presented as designing and is accepted as designing. It sounds like a scam when aggressive mis-selling meets the suspension of disbelief. Or, it could be we’ve unwittingly reverted to the old Beaux-Arts system of learning by copying. If that’s the case, then two things:

  1. Copying is probably all that was ever necessary.
  2. The Bauhaus-style of architectural education created its own market in a way not so different from today’s software teaching schools. It artificially divided the workforce into a self-replicating system consisting of those who know and those who think they need to know. Those who know could teach others what they knew and, once they did that, could then teach them how to teach others what they knew.

Teaching now means teaching how to use software but how, and to do what? If those software ‘skills’ are best taught by copying then we’ve definitely returned to the Beaux-Arts style of teaching architecture.


The snag in the system is that the software developers and vendors are better placed to teach people how to use their products, and to teach people how to teach others.


Institutions of higher education need to think very carefully about the type of value they supposedly add. 

5. Nobody’s saying anything about design.

Software is concerned with the production of production drawings and marketing materials – there’s never mention of anything that stimulates the generation of ideas. This is because there’s no software that replicates the ability of the human brain to take diverse types of information and make both controlled and random associations to indicate where a solution might lie. It’s the creative process in its widest and truest meaning. 

Parametric design approaches are not what I mean because some vital information may resist quantification or even conscious identification. Genetic algorithms are also not what I mean. They also use only quantifiable information yet more closely approximate the creative process by bringing the brute force of computational power to the tried and trusted feedback loop we know as Trial And Error.

Adherents of both approaches claim that being able to explore “entire” [?] universes of possibilities assists the design process. The difference though is the type of design process being assisted. Parametricism tends to be used for form-finding “problems” and the solution found when the process stops and a solution decided upon – as ever it was.  Genetic algorithms tend to be used for multi-variable environmental problems and generate mutations of variable combinations until they converge on the optimum combination. It’s a bit like evolution, hence the name. 

Even if we overlook the diminishing importance of the ability to sketch architectural ideas, employers indicate no preference for where or how those architectural ideas are supposed to come from. It’s safe to assume clients don’t either. It adds negligible value to the product. Once again there’s no lack of people offering advice and instruction.


The generation of concepts provides a welcome relief from existential worries at institutions of higher education and is a source of professional pride for tutors, and grief for students as they attempt to magick a building out of less than nothing.


“the starting point was ‘bones’ … “

Some job advertisements request “design flair” but this could be just a ruse to flush out those who think they have it. Starchitect employees have already expressed their desire to work for a pittance in order to breathe the same air occasionally. That’s why they’re there.

6. Nobody’s saying anything about anything else.

The ability to hand-sketch was low down the list of desirable qualities for architects to have. A knowledge of history – or even an awareness of the role of buildings in society –wasn’t even identified as a skill let alone rated as one. History is still taught yet nobody knows why. It’s not on any employer’s wish list so it too can’t be anything clients value or would like to see valued.

The rejection of the Beaux-Arts’ revered history, the Modernists’ abstracted history, the Post Modernists’ caricatured history, and even the urban pragmatists’ what’s-already- there view of history means that we’re left with Futurism all over again, only this time it’s a mannerist and pan-global one fuelled by clients with the agendas to encourage it and the money to build it.


I’ve begun reading this [thanks Tim Waterman]. I expect it’ll be preaching to converted but every now and then it’s good to read a book that articulates what one had been suspecting for a long time. At £67 for the e-book, it’d better be better than good or else I’ll think I’m trapped in a system where thinking about architecture is produced and consumed like software, and with as little to show for it. I don’t expect to be getting my money back any time soon but I’ll let you know if I think you should part with yours.


Ignorance is Bliss

In 1926, the United States’ Foreign Service Buildings Office was formed to oversee the construction of U.S. embassies. In 1954 they implemented an architectural design policy that made embassies worldwide as American as The International Style. This is a photograph circa 1960 of the US Embassy Eero Saarinen designed for Grosvenor Square, London.


This is the 1959 US Embassy at The Hague, designed by Marcel Breuer.


This is the 1961 US New Delhi embassy, designed by Edward Durell Stone.


This is the US Embassy in Athens, completed in 1961 to a design by Walter Gropius and the other architects at TAC.



You don’t see renderings or reflecting pools like these anymore.

A 1983 suicide bombing killed 63 people at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, prompting the State Department to form a panel to set out new guidelines for new embassy construction. It was known as the Inman Report, after the panel’s leader. It recommended

  • building behind a 9-foot security wall (for obvious reasons),
  • a street setback of at least 100 feet (to lessen blast shock waves?),
  • maximum window-to-wall ratio of 15% (to increase building integrity), and
  • ideally, a site of 15 acres or more away from the city centre.

Attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 led to a further tightening of site security precautions at all embassies including existing ones. This is the US Embassy in the UK, with its current assortment of security fences, bollards and resolutely three-dimensional hardscaping.


Similar measures were put in place at the US embassy in Athens although the building itself hasn’t aged well.

“Over the seventy-year life span of the American Embassy in Athens, the building has endured the Mediterranean sun and temperatures, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and the daily activities of the government traffic. However, these aspects have begun to effect [!] the structure. In January 2013, a request for proposal was released by the United States’ government in search of a firm that will complete an entire renovation of the chancery building (Athens Chancery Renovation). Although the design by Walter Gropius and his colleagues at The Architects Collaborative was planned very openly in order to adjust with the changing needs of the embassy, it can no longer function properly as a contemporary office space. Modern systems, not even fathomable in the 1960s [?], need to be installed, structural systems repaired and upgraded, internal layouts reconfigured, and asbestos materials need to be removed and replaced with safer products.” [ref.]


Meanwhile, the US New Delhi embassy is being given a complete refurbishment and re-imagining by Weiss/ Manfredi architects.


The design of individual buildings, resilient gardens, and reflecting pools are inspired by India’s reciprocal tradition of architecture and landscape and will exemplify the spirit of openness, environmental stewardship, and innovation.”


This 2008 photograph of the US Embassy in The Hague shows the usual countermeasures in place prior to a new embassy being commissioned.


By Pvt pauline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In Germany, the new US Berlin Embassy was eventually completed in 2008 but not without conflict.

 John C. Kornblum, US German ambassador from 1997 to 2001, said “For some reason, when we asked for our increased security enhancements a lot of people in this city went crazy. We endured all kinds of taunts and demands. ‘What do you Americans think you’re doing?’ ” [ref.]

In their presentation, Architects Moore Ruble Yudell of Santa Monica went for a watercoloured nostalgia to soften the effect of that 15% maximum window area recommendation.


Berlin is at 52°N so the shading-device like elements seem incongruous on the south elevation and inappropriate on the west one. They could be ornamental, or they could be light shelves, or they could function to interrupt the trajectory of airborne projectiles in the same way eyelashes do. us-embassy_in_berlin_south-west

“The palette of materials and design features have been carefully considered to complement the setting and to provide an open, yet secure, presentation of America.” [ref.]

Moore Ruble Yudell have a way with US embassies.

They all feature a circuitous route from gatehouse to public entrance, as well as vast water features the primary purpose of which is not reflecting. The new US embassy in Beijing was designed by US global architectural ambassadors SOM.


There’s a lot of reflecting going on but we’re being misled. Moats around Mediaeval castles were not trying to look beautiful.


This is the new US Embassy in London, designed by Kieran Timberlake Architects.

“In contrast to high perimeter walls and fences, security requirements are achieved through landscape design—such as the large pond, low garden walls with bench seating, and differences in elevation that create natural, unobtrusive barriers.” [ref.]


At first glance it looks like the rule for 15% maximum area of wall openings has been relaxed – and it has, but only because EFTE “can cope with large (200-300%) deformations beyond its elastic range before breakage, and can take extremely high short-term loading without risk of fracture, breakage or structural overload/collapse.” [ref.] In other words, its better than glass if you’re anticipating explosions. It’s not called an EFTE cushion for nothing – except nobody calls it that lest it give the game away and make people feel bad.


Detailed information on vehicle security at US embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq is difficult to find and, moreover, these days one doesn’t want to be seen to be trying too hard to find it. However, when buildings are designed to withstand actual mortar attack, we’re no longer talking about bunker mentality – we’re talking actual bunkers, although technically they’re blockhouses as bunkers are typically underground.


• • •

I think we can now state the sequence by which we learn to live with the threat of explosive detonations near public buildings.

1. Temporary Measures

These appear overnight in response to some perceived threat. This is outside NYC Trump Tower on 11/9/2016. To would-be perpetrators, the highly-visible ability to satisfy suddenly-necessary performance criteria send the message ‘don’t even think about it’.


Photo courtesy of Chuck Choi.

2. Semi-Permanent Measures

Temporary measures have a habit of becoming semi-permanent. These high-spec flowerboxes grace the perimeter of the US Embassy in Moscow. (This is the stage airport security is currently at and seems destined to remain. Like airport security measures, nobody seems to be able to remember a time they weren’t there.


3. Permanent Measures

Sooner or later, the permanance of semi-permanent measures is accepted and becomes architecturalized. This is when concrete blocks such as those above are re-designed as high-relief hard landscaping such as outside the US Embassy in London. The ability to satisfy performance criteria is still on display but, as is the way with architecture and building performance criteria in general, efforts are made to downplay it.


Somewhat annoyingly for architecture, blast protection performance criteria are different from other building performance criteria such as thermal performance or sustainability. A well-constructed and well-performing green roof, for example, can produce many benefits but the reality is that green roofs get designed and built in order to represent those benefits without actually going to the trouble of delivering them. Architecture is about representation, not delivery.

Blast protection can’t be similarly sacrificed in the name of architectural representation for three reasons, all of them linked. The first is that architectural representation isn’t what’s wanted –some very real performance criteria have to be met if the building is to stay standing and its occupants alive. The second is that the systems of architectural representation we have are incapable of dealing with building performance criteria anyway. If they could, we would already be living in a world of buildings having the beauty of superior energy and ecological performance. The third is that, even if our systems of architectural representation were up to the task, nobody really wants architecture to represent or otherwise remind them of how unsafe this world we live in has become.

4. Forgetting

This is the final stage. Necessary performance criteria are completely assimilated into architecture so that our awareness of them disappears. Everyone is happy. A moat on one side and a trench on the other are nothing more than elements in a park-like space to walk your dog or child without having to think about vehicle-delivered fertilizer bombs and ensuing flying debris and shattered glass. And think about them we won’t. Ignorance is bliss. Architecture has colluded with the powers-that-be to desensitize us to ugly realities.


• • •

This circa 2008 rendering may disingenuously hark back to kinder and gentler times but the realities it depicts are no more pleasant for being sugar-coated with a confident skill and understated elegance we also seem to have lost.


• • • 

[22 Nov 2016] see also this



Buildings That Lean

When we look at buildings or even at images of them, we barely register their shapes and surfaces before moving on to consider the next. Building alignment seems to only ever matter when it attracts our attention and one way it can do that is by thwarting our expectations.


Why is Le Grande Arche not looking straight down the Champs Elysées? What’s gone wrong? Where’s it looking instead? Why are we personifying buildings? [And what’s with all the questions?] Back in 1985 reasons were indeed given for its non-alignment but they’ve become lost in the mists of time along with the purpose of Maccu Piccu and how the pyramids were constructed. There’s a chance we’d still remember if they’d been that important. It’s clearer with mosques. If we know a building is one then we know it’ll be facing Mecca even though it might not be aligned with anything else we see.


Another way alignment makes us aware of it is when something isn’t in vertical alignment – as in leaning, tilted, skewed, listing … askew … squiffy. The dish of this next building doesn’t look like it’s facing anything in particular but, if we know what this building is and does, we will reasonably assume it’s aligned with something out there. We simply can’t see what. Awesome yet useful structures like this and those fancy solar collectors that track the sun aren’t considered architecture because their alignments are comprehended through knowledge, not conjecture.


The Iconic Tilt

Snøhetta’s Alexandria Library is another matter. Its cylindrical volume and single inclined surface make it look as if it rotates and tilts to track the sun. This illusion is sufficient for its alignment to be iconic, and for the whole thing to be considered architecture. I’m using the word iconic only for convenience. It’s more correct to say its alignment designates – in that it’s being used to make some sort of statement, i.e. “say something”. But what?


First of all, we notice its alignment because it looks different from that of everything else we can see. Its alignment also seems different by virtue of it being with respect to The Sun and not with respect to ephemeral things such as roads, buildings, and coastlines. This building’s alignment creates an association of place if we know that this building is in Egypt with its long history of Sun worship. By aligning itself towards The Sun, the building has the alignment of things that are not buildings – such as sunflowers, solar collectors and sun worshippers

The Iconic Skew

The lean of the Marine Traffic Control Tower for the Port of Lisbon Authority (1997, Gonçalo Byrne Architects) also satisfies all conditions for iconic alignment. 


Its alignment looks different from that of everything else we can see and it also seems different from anything we may know of. We sense it is a controlled lean. It’s alignment has a unity with its location in that it is leaning towards the harbour we know it is there to observe. Finally, it has the alignment of something not a building in that buildings don’t generally lean forward like a person trying to get a better view of something.


from the architects’ website

This tower is very photogenic and part of the reason we feel comfortable with its lean is because every ‘vertical’ is inclined to produce an even and meaningful skew. The structure and plan are exactly what you’d expect.

The Statement Lean

Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s twin La Peuerta Europa [a.k.a. Gate of Europe, KIA] Towers in Plaza Castilla, Madrid date from 1989. Visually, it’s unclear whether they want to be leaning or not as their shapes are telling us one thing and their patterns another.

Structurally, they’re as you’d expect, with a vertical structural core where topmost floor plate overlaps footprint. These were the world’s first inclined tall buildings, and leaning at 15°. The lean is said to have come about by the requirement to have a large setback at the front of the site in order to clear a subway interchange but, when Philip Johnson’s involved, you can never be sure.

Again the alignment looks different from that of everything else we can see, and it also seems (or at least at the time, seemed) novel and different from anything we know. This is a strong combination of factors but any association of alignment is a weak one because it’s self-contained about the thoroughfare and so could be reproduced anywhere. There’s nothing strongly binding the two buildings to this particular place. Neverthless, the building alignment is not like that of a building in that buildings don’t as a rule lean forward as if to oversee a portal. Subjective associations that are absent are just as important as the ones that are present and the result here is a pair of buildings that are alien to their surroundings.

The Not-So Meaningful Lean

It is the same with this proposal by Vasily Klyukin. It doesn’t matter what for, for the proposal’s title, In Love, says everything we need to know.


The intention may have been to create something iconic [ugh!] but, again, there’s no notion of association that links the alignment of this building to its surroundings. It alignment still looks different however. It also seems different in that it’s (mercifully, still,) unusual for the alignment of a building to make such a facile pointOnce more, there’s no association of alignment that binds this building to this particular place. A building having this alignment could be built anywhere and to exactly the same effect. Finally though, its alignment is unlike that of a building in that buildings don’t love other buildings let alone express it by leaning against them

Like the Johnson-Burgee towers above, it’s not iconic – merely alien. The same can be said for these next three buildings, none of evoke ideas binding their alignment to where the building is.

The Enigmatic Lean

Jurgen Meyer H’s 1999 Townhall in Scharnhauser Park, Germany is inclined 5° lean to the east. (Its atrium also has a 5° lean to the north.) As is the case with many Jurgen Mayer H. buildings, nobody knows why.  


Cantilevering as The New Leaning

Here, the building now appears to be leaning into some serious headwind as propels itself forward. From nowhere in particular.


The Because-we-can Lean


Me, I prefer a linear lean but this is Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi, billed by people more knowledgeable than I as the world’s furthest leaning building. It becomes difficult now to determine what’s a lean and what’s a cantilever but degrees from the verticla are its units of measurement. With this building, the floors farthest out there are occupited by a hotel Hyatt – the same people who devised the Pritzker Prize to thank architecture for increased footfall. RMJM, the Scottish architectural firm famous for its nine lives, designed Capital Gate to have a lean of 18°.


The Capital Gate project was able to achieve its record inclination through a special engineering breakthrough that allows floor plates to be stacked vertically up to the 12th storey and staggered over each other by between 300mm to 1400mm, which allows for the tower’s dramatic lean. 

This must be that special engineering breakthrough although I’d prefer to save that word to describe momentous discoveries such as cures for cancer.

The gravitational pressure caused by the 18 degree incline is countered by the world’s first “pre-cambered core”; a technique that utilizes 15,000 cubic metres of concrete reinforced with 10,000 tons of steel with the core deliberately built slightly off centre. It straightened as the building rose …, moving into (vertical) position as the weight of the floors has been added.

But just in case,

The building has an extra-ordinary exoskeleton or “diagrid” to absorb and channel the forces created by wind and seismic pressure as well as the gradient of Capital Gate

The Unitentional Lean #1


Most famously leaning is the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the campanile for the adjacent cathedral. We never appreciate the architect’s success at harmonizing the Gothic elements of the bell-chamber with the Romanesque style of the tower. We appreciate how its alignment looks different from what’s around it. It’s something that occurred naturally. Nobody designed it to be that way. Its alignment is free of aesthetic baggage. How refreshing is that!?  

The tower’s foundations were laid in 1173 and this is where problems began since those foundations were improper for ground that was, it turned out, softer on one side. Unsurprisingly, the name of this original architect is not known. Construction was delayed for a century or so while the Republic of Pisa was battling neighbouring city-states. When construction resumed in 1272, the new architect Giovanni di Simone built the remaining floors with one side taller than the other to produce a tower that’s somewhat banana shaped.

It wasn’t the best idea to concentrate on the visual aspects of the problem without considering the [clue!] underlying reasons for it. The additional material on the side of the lean might have pushed the tower’s centre of gravity further in the wrong direction for the tower continued to lean. Adding seven large and rather heavy bells to the bell chamber completed in 1372 can’t have helped.

Over the centuries, various attempts to correct the lean were made but it kept increasing to 5.5°. It was only in 2001 people finally understood what was going on. [ref.]


The exact cause of the tilt was not fully understood until 2001, when a serious stabilization effort (which began in the 1990’s) was completed. It was known prior to the start of this stabilization effort that the tower had been built atop an inadequate foundation (which was only 3 meters thick); and was constructed on very soft silty soil. Had these been the only factors at work, uniform settlement of the tower could have been expected; and the city of Pisa would play host to a significantly less famous (albeit more vertical) tower. The 800 year old mystery was finally solved by John Burland, an English geotechnical engineer, who discovered that the primary cause of the tilt was a fluctuating water table which would perch higher on the tower’s north side, causing the tower’s characteristic slant to the south. []

As is the way with many intractable problems, an open call for solutions was held. One person suggested freezing the soil around the tower solid – an idea wacky enough to have worked if it hadn’t required the soil to be liquidified first. One child cutely suggested digging a hole on one side and letting the tower sink into it. This is basically what was done.


Nowadays the tower’s lean is basically constant at 3.97° and future shifts in either direction can be predicted with reasonable accuracy. 

The Unintentional Lean #2

Two of the twenty or so remaining Towers of Bologna have similar problems. As was the way, 12th century engineers believed a foundation 3m thick was sufficient to support anything. The taller of the two towers in the image below is 97m Torre Asinelli and the shorter is Torre Garisenda at 48m. Both were built to about the same height but Torre Garisenda began to lean so alarmingly its height was reduced to 48m in the 14th century. Nowadays it sports an impressive 3° lean but Torre Asinelli is none too vertical either.


What we like about the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Asinelli Tower and Garisanda Tower is that they weren’t designed to be like that. Their alignments look different and that’s it – that’s all there is. They weren’t designed to have alignments that were novel or unusual or different in any way whatsoever. Those alignments weren’t designed to celebrate Italian Mediaval history or attract tourists to Bologna. Any associations we may make were never there. Although the Bologna towers are out of vertical alignment, their alignments are still very much the alignments of buildings.

The Unintentional Lean #3

San Francisco’s Millennium Tower is 654ft (197m) tall. Since its completion in 2009 it has sunk 16 inches and now has a two inch tilt at the base and an approximately six inch tilt at the top. This works out at about 0.04° so it’s not appreciable yet and, even if it becomes appreciable, there won’t be much appreciating going on. Here’s a New York Times report of the current state of the legals. Fingers are being pointed.


So far, the noisiest threats involve residents who stand to lose on their investment. Millennium tower still looks vertical. It’ll be some time before its lean interrupts a game of pool or otherwise inconveniences the daily lives of its occupants. Of more immediate concern ought to be soil liquification which is a term you’d prefer to not have enter your consciousness when your building is built on friction piles in an earthquake zone having a 72% likelihood of at least one earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater before 2043.


The lean of Millennium Tower will be easy to check against adjacent and more resolutely vertical buildings. For reference, the (intentional) lean of this curtain wall is quite appreciable at 1°.


The next video was taken during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

I can’t identify the building with the dark cladding but some Shiunjuku Towers such as the Mitsui Building and Tokyo City Hall leaned up to 3’3″. Over 55 office floors this represents a lean of around 0.6°, each way, repeatedly, and for about 10 minutes. We need to remember that these were self-correcting, temporary and designed-for misalignments.

millennium-tower.jpgITALY. Pisa. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. From 'Small World'. 1990.

As we’ve discovered over the centuries, buildings with unintentional leans don’t fix themselves. It’s one thing to dig a hole under a twelfth century unoccupied tower in a grassy clearing and hope for the best, and quite another to attempt something similar for a 58-storey occupied building in a crowded city.

• • •

This post grew from a suggestion by Chuck Choi – thanks Chuck!


Different Strokes

It’s not just the Chinese authorities who are fed up with novelty buildings. I hope they’ve learned their lesson.


I fear however, that the recent Chinese edict will only serve to drive symbolic references underground. Downplayed symbolism was already evident in, for example, Pritzker Prizers Zaha Hadid for ‘pebbles on a stream’ Guangzhou Opera House


and Toyo Ito and his dragon-shaped stadium.


You tell me.

I don’t know who’s being scammed more with this enigmatic meme scheme. Ito might have pitched “The scales are actually solar panels. Imagine that! – a dragon that makes its own energy from the fire of the sun!” Or perhaps such duplicity wasn’t even necessary for he equally well may have said “It covers all bases. You can emphasise the dragon bit here because your people like things like that but my press release will emphasise the sustainable angle because that plays well in the Western media.” Deal.


Such one-size-fits-all concepts are creatures of our times. Pre-Beijing Olympics, I imagine the Chinese authorities approved the birds’ nest idea in an as-long-as-the-Western-media-is-happy-we’re-happy kind of way. This is the economic and marketing logic behind the enigmatic signifier. Everyone’s happy. In this next image, it looks like Herzog, de Meuron and artistic advisor Wei-Wei have all just received word their clever ploy worked. Everything about this image is sad.


#excess #celebrity #publicity

The Chinese are now exporting sustainable hedonism imagery back at us.

Duplicity of intent is most obvious when the PR value of highly visible and large buildings has to be exploited globally in different markets. It’s history now, but take Kazakstan’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Its description on F+P’s website never fails to appall.

As a non-denominational contemporary building form, the pyramid is resonant of both a spiritual history that dates back to ancient Egypt as well as a symbol of amity for the future. It will accommodate a permanent venue for the Congress, and houses a 1,500- seat opera house, a university faculty, meeting spaces and a national spiritual centre. This programmatic diversity is unified within the pure form of a pyramid, 62 metres high with a 62 x 62-metre base.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan said he wanted a pyramid and F+P damn well gave him one as it was “well suited to the hierarchical nature of the program.” Sure pal.

Google’s new tent has a similar “top-down decision” feel to it because it’s so un-demonstrative and therefore unlike anything either Heatherwick or Ingels have produced in the cause of furthering their respective brands. From what we’ve come to expect of Heatherwick’s output, it’s not weird enough and, as far as BIG goes, it’s incapable of being reduced to a simple graphic for their website – though I’m sure someone’s trying. It’s easy to imagine Googleboss calling the two of them into his office and saying “I want something the opposite of Apple’s donut!” How it’s played to the media is not his problem.


Image courtest of mercenary imagineers MIR

And here it is on YouTube where everything is these days. I was reminded of BIG’s Baku mountains, but that could be just me. Must give credit where it’s due though. The two of them are catching some very big fish of late.

Googleguy David Ratcliffe adds, “Tech hasn’t really adopted a visual language for buildings.” Oh yeah?

iCloud data center

Meanwhile, this postmodern age drags on. OMA’s Beijing CCTV building showed it’s not possible to police meanings in any meaningful way. People deviate from the script to invent their own.
In response to a 2009 story titled “Architectural Pornography?” at OMA denied that the Beijhadquarters building [and its adjacent Mandarin Oriental Hotel] represented anything other than “a positive and shining expression of a changing world order.” People have been saying for decades that any building taller than it is wide is a phallic symbol, so it’s not surprising that we now have a corollary along with its allegedly pornographic implication. 

Like Lord Foster who also keeps his head down when it comes to what his buildings might actually mean to commoners, Koolhaas never objected when Jencks wrote [p.111 of his The Iconic Building] of his CCTV building

“the distant view looks like a moon gate, the ornamental surround that punctuates every Chinese garden. This frame also bears resemblance to the pi-shape that goes back to the origins of China, a form that was normally made in bronze or jade. Even more suggestive is the exposed structure. This recalls the famous Chinese bracket construction, as well as the lattice windows that can be found in traditional homes”.

If I remember rightly, I believe Koolhaas’ wife produced some of the illustrations. All of the above associations may well be true for Jencks and I have no problem with that – he can write what he wants – but I’ve also no interest in whether or not this building suggests something far less esoteric and infinitely more universal to others, Chinese and the rest of the world included.

But by his now historic silence to Jenck’s gushings, Koolhaas showed had no problem with his building being labelled an enigmatic signifier yet he was later compelled to say its shape had no hidden meanings. But he can’t say that. He can only say it has no hidden meanings he was aware of having designed into it. This shows him to be a post-modernist – someone who believes meaning is something architects design into a building, and not something people ascribe to a building. 

This website encourages people to post images of what the CCTV building means to them. This may be against the spirit of Post Modernism but it’s fully in line with Post-structuralist Pluralism where  ‘building as text’ is read as what YOU want it to read, not what an architect says it does (or does not). At one stage, “Big Underpants” was favourite. 


We either have to accept that architects design meanings into buildings, or that people are free to make whatever associations they choose. Jenck’s track record places him clearly in the former camp. Remember double coding? One meaning for the cognoscenti and another for the hoi-polloi? And how clever architects were for sneaking in some intellectual allusion ‘under the radar’ of the less knowing? 

This was all very eighties when you think of it. Suddenly, there was a apparent freedom of choice as to what buildings could mean but there was still an elite imagining themselves in charge of what the choices were. It also mirrors the political-economic concept known as ‘privatisation’ – another eighties concept architecture is still suffering the consequences of.

Architects may enjoy the plaudits when they make a good design call that happens to “resonate” with a local audience and that bounce around the internet and reverberate in their own way and to their benefit back home, but they simply have to take it on the chin when people think for themselves. 

• • •

This next image appeared on the RIBA website to illustrate the news that the 2016 annual Charles Jencks Award went to Niall McLauglin. The essential shed-ness of this building made me think McLaughlin was a good choice for an award but that this was perhaps the wrong award.


On second thought, I’m not so sure.

The metal shed roof is a red herring for, in time-honoured tradition, this building uses excess to represent simplicity. “Why does a building above water needs guttering in the first place?” is a question worth asking. It could be to stop rainwater from destroying the timber beams supporting the guttering. [!?] Or it could be the real function of the unnecessary guttering is to extend past the roof to complete the parallel line of the deck and so bring out its essential Farnsworth-ness.

I’m surprised to find I don’t even care to find out what this building actually is or does – I’m guessing sunset-viewing platform, and that McLaughlin received the award for using tried and trusted references to indicate the presence of serious money and property to some, and to represent economy, simplicity and appreciation of nature to others.

Different strokes, as ever.


Brands as Architectural Legacy

I never expected to look back at the 1990’s and think it was a kinder, gentler era.

Behind the Postmodern Facade
Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America
Magali Sarfatti Larson, 1993

How architecture has changed and how the systems for its production have changed along with it is an important topic but the book itself is somewhat dated. This post will attempt to update it but first, a bit of background.

Many people imagine the making of buildings to take place in a situation where a group of architects is happy working away for a figurehead personality who is the creative force. This is partially correct.

Le Corbusier

In the case of Le Corbusier however, we’re not even aware of there ever having been an office and a largeish team of people getting all those buildings drawn, detailed, site-managed and built. History is only concerned with authorship and not the process or mechanics of getting it done. On the other hand, with Le Corbusier, we can reasonably suspect he was the author of projects attributed to him.   


Who were these people? What happened to them?

Frank Lloyd Wright

With Frank Lloyd Wright, the contributions of employees such as Marion Griffin have been systematically underrated or misaccredited. It wasn’t he who did those lovely drawings he took on his extended trip to Europe.


Of the Taliesin alumni, John Lautner is the one who most made a name for himself. As mentioned in What happens when architects die?, Wright’s office continued on for a while after the posthumous completions were exhausted.


The Architects’ Collaborative

In Dessau, Walter Gropius detached the teaching of architecture from its documentation and construction quite literally as well. The much-photographed design students and their various antics in the workshop and studio buildings were architecturally separated from the income-generating students learning drafting and construction skills in the standard classrooms of the technical school.  

In America, Gropius extended this innovation into the professional sphere by detaching the promotion of architectural ideas from their generation, allowing figurehead personalities to sell themselves and their brand without having to be involved with the tiresome processes of building creation, documentation and construction. [This seems to have been a consistent and lifelong theme of his.] The Architects’ Collaborative (1945-1995) consisted of seven architects led and guided by Walter Gropius as figurehead personality. It’s impossible to name any member who was not Walter Gropius. 


Originally, each of the eight partners [!?] would hold weekly meetings on a Thursday to discuss their projects and be open to design input and ideas. However, as the firm grew larger there were many more people on a team and it was more difficult to consolidate into one group. Therefore, many other “groups” of architects within the firm were formed and carried out the same original objective.

The status quo

This system of nested hierarchices is what we have today with offices divided into teams with a team leader and those who execute their instructions.  


A design idea is still likely to come from a Head of Architecture outside the team, but more likely to have met the clients and had a hand in winning the commission in the first place. When a job is landed, the Head of Architecture assesses each team’s skills and stage of completion of their project, and chooses to either reallocate staff or projects or, if the project is a major one, to cannibalize teams and configure a new one having the appropriate skills and size.

Frank Gehry

At Frank Gehry’s office, designers are encouraged to design in the style of Frank Gehry and those designs are then run by him for approval. Sometimes he even changes them completely [!], it is said. This is no different from any commercial practice with a house style.

Of course it’s frustrating for workers to be taken off one job and assigned to another so, in order to motivate those who became architects because they wanted to design, they’re tossed occasional design bones in the form of an internal competitions for some new project. They work on this in their own time and so reveal to their boss the degree to which they have bought into the myth of the ambitious yet overworked and underpaid creative.

The system initiated by Gropius has left us a situation where it’s no longer obvious where architectural ideas are coming from. This has its advantages. If a practice wants to win work from high-profile competitions, one design brain simply isn’t enough.

Has there ever been a time in the history of architecture when there are so many competitions? This is where the theme of the book at the head of this post becomes relevant. An environment rich in competitions produces a system of architectural production exquisitely evolved (with all the pros and cons that that implies) to produce architectural firms that feed off them. Competition-driven practices like to call themselves research-driven practices. They also like to tell us they are research-driven practices as this makes it seems a noble endeavour to have much activity yet nothing to show for it. Clients, for their part, like competitions not only because they increase their options and allow for a ‘prescreening’m, but also because the promotional efforts of several practices contributes to the media circus that anyway surrounds high-profile competitions. [c.f. Celebrity Shootout] It’s a symbiotic relationship.


Back in the 1990s, practices that could afford to, formed ‘elite’ teams for the purpose of winning competitions, but when the ideal form of practice becomes the kind that produces the kind of architecture that wins competitions, every project starts to be treated as a competition and all staff start to get tossed design bones on a regular basis in order to keep them keen. This leaves figurehead personalities free to concentrate on curating those ideas and marketing them, and the workers happy to generate concepts and live the dream. A large number of interns guarantees low overheads, a freshness that grizzled and experienced staff don’t have and, importantly, wild ideas that, if ever realized, make us wonder anew at the mystery of architecture by making us redefine yet again what it is a building can be. Over and over again. It’s a new kind of hell, basically. 



Occasional reports such as this by a former intern at OMA’s Hong Kong office do the media circuit. The story is always the same. Intense. Long hours. Pressure. Exilarating. Unforgettable. Burnout. 


Bjarke Ingels describes his experience at OMA in these now standard terms and, despite claiming to have left because he disapproved of the relentless pressure to produce, seems to have replicated OMA system of battery farming ideas for buildings. He now describes himself as a curator of ideas.

 • • •

Many employees, especially those who have just graduated, accept such high-pressure work as normal until they realize they are 1) overworked, 2) underpaid, and 3) under-appreciated. It’s not just the minions. Senior staff also jump ship if they have observed the food chain long enough to understand how it works and have come to the conclusion “I can do that!” They’re not driven by the desire to create architecture but by the desire to have the benefits of  having their own branding machine. [c.f. Monetising Architectural Fame] Ken Shuttleworth famously departed Foster + Partners in 2004 to set up MAKE. How many of F+P’s designers jumped with him was never made public but rumours at the time put it around 30%. Within weeks, MAKE’s debut press release was a multicoloured building conspicuously not shaped like a gherkin.

Architecture Building of The Vortex in London by Make Architects copy

Equally sensationally, Joshua Prince Ramus, departed as head of OMA’s NY operation in 2000 to set up REX. The then website took pains to put some distance between them and OMA. Their current About page is not much different.

We design collaborations rather than dictate solutions. The media sells simple, catchy ideas; it reduces teams to individuals and their collaborative work to genius sketches. The proliferation of this false notion of “starchitecture” diminishes the real teamwork that drives celebrated architecture. REX believes architects should guide collaboration rather than impose solutions.

We replace the traditional notion of authorship: “I created this object,” with a new one: “We nurtured this process.”We embrace responsibility in order to implement vision.The implementation of good ideas demands as much, if not more, creativity than their conceptualization. Increasingly reluctant to assume liability, architects have retreated from the accountability (and productivity) of Master Builders to the safety (and impotence) of stylists. To execute vision and retain the insight that facilitates architectural invention, REX re-engages responsibility. Processes, including contractual relationships, project schedules, and procurement strategies, are the stuff with which we design.

Former OMA partner Ole Scheeren has trod the same path.



Of all the OMA spawn, ZHA is unique in leaving no confusion as to where authorship lies – although the definition of authorship is stretched somewhat when the original creative idea is not even called a concept. 


It is called an irritant – in the hope of evoking notions of oysters and pearls and of something initiating a process to creates something of value. The big advantage of the irritant is that it allows its generator to technically claim the right to be recognised as author.


• • •

If one is going to stop one’s best people drifting off to set up shop for themselves, it pays to keep them on a long leash. Shohei Shigematsu, current partner and head of OMA’s NY operation since 2008 is allowed to outline his plan to bring new dimensions to the NY OMA brand. Let’s see how that goes.


There’s no denying the number of people who have worked for OMA and thought “I can do that!”


OMA seems destined to never become the brand umbrella of architectural design in the same way that LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) is for luxury goods, or architecture behemoth AECOM is for the less glamorous side of the building business.

• • •

I’ve come to admire Asnago & Vender all the more for buying into none of this. Instead, they left us a large and coherent legacy of useful buildings designed and built over five decades, mostly in the same city. I admire them for refusing to conceive of their buildings as vehicles for their self-promotion. They didn’t have a brand, they had a reputation. This distinction is no longer important. It’s not even that having a strong brand is now seen as better than having a good reputation. Having a strong brand is seen as an end in itself. Nothing else exists, let alone matters.

• • •

23 Oct. 2016: Thom Brisco kindly tweeted me this today, saying it gives “an insight on the Corb-gap from Polish-born Swedish architect Léonie Geisendorf who worked in his office in the 1930s.” It does indeed. 



Keeping it Real

If the history of the decline and fall of architecture ever gets written, it’ll mean we finally cared enough to learn from it, perhaps even restore it to being a noble activity. In that history, the name of Philip Johnson will feature prominently for introducing into architecture now-standard practices such as equating celebrity with worth and detaching publicity from truth. Johnson didn’t invent these practices but he did show architects how to use them. He was awarded the first Pritzker Prize in 1979.


Rockefeller Guest House, Philip Johnson, 1950

Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House was never going to be a house as the rest of us might imagine one to be. There’s a kitchen, but it’s not part of the architecture. There’s stairs, but to where we don’t know. It’s another Johnsonian salon, this time for Blanchette Rockefeller to show art and groom guests into becoming MoMA patrons. It was she who called it her Guest House. A certain type of extremely wealthy person understands how the display of very little can be both opulent and understated at the same time. Blanchette Rockefeller was one of those persons, as shown by her pearls and simple neckline in this 1996 photograph by Bill Cunningham.


Rockefeller Guest House has an existence as architecture yet there’s zero evidence of its ever having been designed, documented or constructed as a building. I’ve never seen an upper floor plan, let alone a basement plan or a section. Even the building volume lacks conventional justification. Philip Johnson claimed the second floor was only added to give the house more presence from the street, thereby indicating to everyone his sensitivity to aesthetic problems and his ability to solve them regardless of cost. Money well spent is the message.


The Landmarks Preservation Commission report of 2000 repeats Johnson’s claim and, although it gives it equal importance, does provide some new information .


Even the Landmarks Preservation Committee has no interest in the second floor. I assume the street facade of that second floor does interest them otherwise we’d have the curious situation of a landmark without presence. Anyway, those unheated bedrooms face the interior courtyard across a flat and inaccessible roof. In this next photograph is all you and I are ever going to see of them.


The image shows the stairs leading up to the first floor corridor spanning the width of the building immediately behind those curtains. Opening off that corridor are either three doors – one for each bedroom and one for the bathroom – or, alternatively, there is one central door leading to a lobby with three more doors. This would mean that going to the bathroom doesn’t involve a nocturnal walk along E52nd should anyone ever open those inner curtains and not draw them again. But how any upper floor bathroom might drain is a mystery. Any internal drain would be visible and the ground floor walls of painted brick of course naturally show no chases.


Behind the front door is the kitchen. Panels conceal it when it’s not being used and, when it is, they fold out to screen it and the caterers from guests being greeted at the entrance. When the house was in party mode, guests must have thought this crude screen charmingly bohemian. It encapsulates Philip Johnson’s all-too-influential concept of what architecture is and does, as illustrated by this next photograph with a cooker and kitchen fan representing the workers and services on one side, and a sculpture and plinth representing wealth and culture on the other. My money’s on the sculpture being a Gaston Lachaise – the sculptor of the friezes on the Rockefeller Centre. At least that was public art.


Where the kitchen fan could exhaust to is a mystery as it’s not directly to the front of the house.



What I find curious about this house is the disjunction between how important it’s supposed to be in terms of fallback contexts such as the first example of Modernist architecture in New York, Philip Johnson’s only residential work in New York and so on, yet we never get shown the upper floor plan let alone the basement, the existence of which is only obvious from the break line across the staircase.

If the upper floor plan wasn’t necessary for programmatic reasons, then why not just have a double height space with a thick window rail as implied by the elevation? In other words, why not just build at the outset what one wants to show, rather than fake it with curtains?


Johnson knew people would believe anything he said. He could have answered “but the proportions would have been all wrong!” but this would’ve sounded like Mies. That Mies didn’t do double-height spaces was reason enough, though Mies was probably more annoyed Corbusier – Wright, actually – did them first rather than any distaste for their inherent wastefulness. Mies also didn’t do basements – most conspicuously for Edith – so neither did Johnson – at least not in public. Locating the basement servicing Glass House beneath Brick House eliminates the need for a tacky trapdoor.

The preservation report I mentioned earlier, refers to Rockefeller Guest House as having the same volumetric configuration as the previous 1870 house, and that it had a full basement. The kitchen fan might then be ducted down and into the basement and then out through the non-historic metal grate in the footpath.

Rockefeller Guest House

Perhaps the original basement had a coal chute opening onto the street where the non-historic metal grate now is. We must remember that the term non-historic, in this case, means anything that’s not a part of the house being considered by the Landmarks Preservation Committee and, perversely, not anything that might have been there before.


The report also mentions that the drawings for Rockefeller Guest House were submitted for approval as alterations to the 1870 house and this is an interesting for it means the Rockefeller Guest House would have had to retain those original building volumes. Submitting plans for approval as alterations is a clever call for various practical reasons but it does change how we view those volumes. We now know why Rockefeller Guest House has a basement, a second floor, and an internal courtyard.

One works with what one has. The space between the building and the outhouse (where the bathroom still is) was made to appear as if it were a consciously-contrived design feature. The presence of the basement and any unpleasant associations to Old World architecture and/or utilitarian concerns was simply denied. And rather than admit the history of the building and that what we saw was less than 100% original design, Philip Johnson invented a disingenuous and self-serving reason for the existence of the second floor. Merely ensuring a building has bedrooms and bathrooms does nothing in the way of personal or architectural myth making.

Philip Cortleyou Johnson lied about the second floor being there to create a presence on the street. He never looked back.


Philip Johnson Birthday Celebration, Four Seasons Restaurant, New York, New York, July 9, 1996
Seated on the Floor: Peter Eisenman and Jacquelin Robertson
First Row: Michael Graves, Arata Isozaki, Philip Johnson, Phyllis Bronfman Lambert and Richard Meier
Second Row: Zaha Hadid, Robert A.M. Stern, Hans Hollein, Stanley Tigerman, Henry Cobb and Kevin Roche Third Row: Charles Gwathmey, Terrence Riley, David Childs, Frank O. Ghery and Rem Koolhaas
Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

The primary purpose of Rockefeller Guest House was to facilitate soirées for future MoMA patrons. Original drawings may yet show an upper floor with multiple powder rooms, and a basement having capacious cloakrooms for minks and a full caterers’ kitchen for churning out trayloads of canapés and brandy alexanders. If the history of how the architectural media failed architecture ever gets written, it will conclude that the internet only exacerbated what was already accepted practice.


• • •

[This post was expanded from a contribution to OfHouses 18/01/2016–07/02/2016.]

16 Oct 2016: My friend Curtis tells me it looks like the first floor floor has sufficient thickness to conceal a 4″ waste pipe until it reaches the side wall where it would invariably be chased into the wall, brought down, and then led back to the location of the site’s sewer connection indicated by the position of this vent.


Also, this is the only photograph I’ve ever seen with the curtains opened. We can tell now that the glass is frosted, that the corridor is about 1 metre wide, and that the leftmost third of it appears to belong to a room, although we still can’t say if it is the original layout.


Also noticeable is the safety railing. I’m surprised it’s there as it doesn’t appear to be an historic safety railing. It’s still there though. That black box now on the roof suggests those upper bedrooms are now heated.


18 Oct. 2016: My friend Jonathan tells me (in the comments to this post) that there is, or was, a clause in the NYC building code that allowed any building work to any building to be classed an alteration if the 1st (ground) floor was retained. This allowed significant advantage particularly with respect to planning requirements particularly into relation to site coverage, the provision of rear yards and so on. Although I suspect Mr Johnson was able to work comfortably with the municipal employees to resolve particular points of disagreement. What work might have been submitted to the Building Department in 1950 is probably of little value, if anything ever was.
The volumetric equality between previous and present is more likely to have been a furphy. Estranged Australian me googled furphy to find it was 

Australian slang for an erroneous or improbable story that is claimed to be factual. Furphies are supposedly ‘heard’ from reputable sources, sometimes secondhand or thirdhand, and widely believed until discounted. Wikipedia