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. Estranger 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


Architcture Misfits #26: Asnago Vender

That’s Claudio Vender [1904–1986] on the left and Mario Asnago [1896–1981] on the right. We can tell from the photograph that these two gentlement are stylish but haven’t been contemporary for quite some time. Their buildings however, remain both. You won’t find much information on them or their buildings. Here’s a bit from the NY site of furniture company Flexform.

Both Mario and Claudio received Architecture Certification at the Bologna Institute of Fine Arts in 1922. The first joint projects were for competitions, such as the Como War Memorial. In 1928, after obtaining the right to practice as architects, together they opened the Studio Asnago-Vender Architetti. 

Here’s some tables they exhibited at the Trienniale Exhibition of Milan in 1936.


Here’s the Moka chair Vender designed for Flexform in 1985.   

Their partnership lasted from 1928 until Asnago retired in 1971. This post is about what happened inbetween. Their earliest projects show a simplicity that reflects the increasing influence of Rationalism and the decreasing influence of Novocento eclecticism.

Villa Arnaldo Marelli 1933
Cantù, Milan


Palazzo di via Manin 1933
Via Daniele Manin 33, Milan


Apartment Building 1934
Via Euripide 7, Milan

Apartment Building 1934
via Mosè Bianchi 22, Milan

Mixed-use Building 1935
viale Tunisia 50, Milan

Villa Molin 1935
via Previati 85, Luogo, Milan

Apartment Building 1935
via Col Moschin 3, Milan

Case Coloniche 1937
Tenuta Castello, Pavia [32km south of Milan]

S. Rita Apartment Building 1937-1938
via Euripide 1, Milan


Three Interior Design Projects 1939

Villa Clerici 1940
Chiesa In Valmalenco [95km NNE of Milan]

Mixed-use Building 1939-1941
via Albricci 8, Milan

The corner of this building may be a 1941 extension or a completely independent building designed to appear as both extension and partial mirror of the building on the opposite corner. This is the first example we see of Asnago Vender’s urban contextualism achieved with nothing more than materials and window types and spacings. 1940.


 Fabbrica Trattori Vender 1940
Via Manzoni, Cusano Milanino, Milan

Stabilimento Zanoletti 1940
Viale Ortles, Milan


Cormano e Cusano Milanino 1942
via Manzoni, Milan


The factories are only in the post-war reconstruction years. Most of Asnago Vender’s later buildings are apartment buildings or mixed use buildings. There are perhaps a dozen villas, one school, two churches and three factories. All are in and around Milan. Asnago Vender were content to repeat themselves, with differences guided only by the dictates of the brief and the site. There is aesthetic innovation but it is always low-key and always subservient to the building itself. Their buildings are not statement buildings.

Vezzani Storefront 1946
via Dante, Milan


Apartment Building 1948
piazza S. Ambrogio 14, Milan


All Asnago Vender buildings are part of their surroundings. This building is an apartment building from 1948. It manages to be part of its context yet at the same time have an identity of its own, resulting in a simple juxtaposition. This doesn’t seem such an amazing feat when the neighbouring buildings are also residential buildings but the fact this apartment building has this kind of fenestration and not some other, is a design decision just as conscious as those instances where the pattern is broken. This is characteristic of many of their buildings.

XXI Aprile Apartment Building 1949
via Lanzone 4, Milan


Villa Bellioni 1950
Seveso, Milan


Villa Roberto Strada 1952
Cesano Maderno, Milan

Mixed-use Building 1950-52
Piazza Velasca 4, Milan

Note the attention paid to the entrance mullion positions, the window spacing and how the stone is cut to suit, the two types of transom …

Apartment Building 1952
via Plutarco 15, Milan


XXI Aprile Apartment Building 1953
via Lanzone 4, Milan


Apartment building 195?
via Euripide 9, Milan


Villa Vegni 1954
Barlassina, Milano


Apartment Building 1954
via Faruffini 6, Milan


Apartment & Retail Mixed-use Building 1954-58
via Foscolo 4, Milan

Elementary School 1955–59
Seveso, Milan


Villa Fiorilli 1955
Seveso, Milan

Apartment Building 1956
via Senofonte 9, Milan

Isolato tra via Albricci e piazza Velasca 1958
via Albricci, Milan


Apartment & Retail Mixed-use Building 1959
viale Caterina da Forlì 40, Milan


This 1959 mixed-use building above introduces new variations with window size and presence/absence. The corner with the windows within screens on the street side of cantilevered balconies is seemingly the most irrational thing I’ve seen Asnago Vender do. They seem to be calling our attention to the gap between the buildings and the fact there’s a private space on the other side. It’s unlike them to call our attention to things like this. I suspect it’s a Vender touch.


I say that because this is Villa Conti (in Barlassina, Monza e Brianza, Italy). It uses commonplace elements in a decorative manner, each of them calling attention to themselves. It was designed independently by Vender in 1959. We don’t know why, but it provides us with an opportunity to see what Vender brought to Asnago Vender and, indirectly, what Asnago brought to the partnership. You can see more images here on OfHouses.

Villa Lanzuolo 1960
Barlassina, Milan


Mixed-use Office & Residential Building 1961
Corso Sempione 75, Milan

Casa del Contadino 1961
Sirtori [35km NE of Milan]


Stabilimento Ceita 1961–64
via Fratelli Bandiera 12, Milan


Building on via Rossini 1962
Via Rossini, Milan


Casa Albergo 1963
Corso di Porta Nuova 52, Milano

Mixed-use Building 1962-1964
via Verga 4, Milan


Mixed-use Residential, Retail & Office Building 1966
ant’Ilario d’Enza, Reggio Emilia [120km SE of Milan]

Apartment Building 1966
via Pisanello 8, Milan

Wohnhaus 1967
Via Veneto 31-33, Milan

Condominio Via della Signora 1966
Via della Signora 2A, Milan

Villa Brenna 1968
Como [40km N of Milan]

Mixed-use Building 1969
Piazza Ss. Trinità 6, via Giannone 9, Milan

• • •

Nearly all of these buildings are mixed-use or residential buildings in Milan or within 50km of it. Over the decades, the commissions became larger and more frequent but Asnago Vender had little appetite to design building types for which they had no experience, or in places with which they weren’t familiar. They did what they knew best in the place they knew best. They never had a media profile or a desire to be known beyond the people they worked for. They worked for their clients and their buildings worked for the city. 

The architecture of Asnago Vender is now almost completely unintelligible to us and what’s worse is we don’t even know what it is we’re not understanding. Asnago Vender did not prosthelytize, publicize, theorize, lecture or teach. It is up to us to learn what we can from their buildings and their professionalism. These are my suggestions.


The 1941 extension terminating this 1939 building has different window sizes but continues the same mullion pattern of the earlier building. This is all that identifies it as an Asnago Vender building. Note also how that one irregular gap in the window spacing mirrors the building opposite. The colour also changes to match, as if stitching the streetscape together.



I’ll use the term commitment (to a place) to indicate a different dimension of contextuality. It’s a better term than regionalism which has come to mean nothing more than localized stylistic affections resulting from climate and materials. Apart from the excellent construction and finish, the appearance of an Asnago Vender building has nothing that is identifiably Italian or Milanese. All their buildings have structures and building elements common to buildings everywhere. However, their apartment building in via Lanzone is adjacent to another of their buildings.


Via Euripide has three of their buildings, two of them adjacent.


A block away on the corner of via Senofonte and via Plutarco 15 are two more adjacent. 


The three sides of the block bounded by Piazza Velasca, via Albricci and via Cannobio (in the distance) has four adjacent buildings constructed within ten years of each other. I have never heard of this happening anywhere else.

Occasionally, architects design monolithic buildings as apparent assemblages of smaller buildings. It’s a known device to reduce the visual impact of a single large building and maintain a scale more in keeping with some historic one. It’s also dishonest.


The instances of adjacent Asnago Vender buildings are all natural occurrences due to them being commissioned by either the same or neighbouring clients. This shows that both the landowners and clients know how to work with each other for the long-term good of their city. Situations like this do not occur when either the client or architect is short-termist or opportunistic. They also do not occur when architects are chasing fame and prestige through the publicity associated with overseas commissions. [Who started this? When did it become the norm? Why? And why is it thought to be a good thing?]



Returning to this building on via Albricci, at the top of the building is a open frame that, by being there and not being there, bridges the height difference between the left and right buildings. I expect that a curved boundary on one side of the corner site accounts for the slight curve on that side. However, the spacing between the windows increases almost imperceptibly towards the corner but on that side only. The building to the left is probably why.


Photo by Filipo Poli

Note also how the corner is turned at street level. We’re probably looking at a maximum permissible cantilever being used to determine the curve. To the left, two of the far piers are recessed ever so slightly, possibly due to the influence of its neighbour. A transom is repeated but not in the same line.


At the corner on the first and second floors are those vertically-paired, offset windows that are the only remant of the lower-level banding along via Albricci. Let’s take a closer look at the adjacent building to the left, on Piazza Velasca.


The horizontal spacing of the windows appears regular but you will have to look very hard to find repeats or symmetries. The irregularities are below the Venturi threshold for complexity and contradiction. Perhaps these slight differences are things we respond to even if we don’t notice them, like those asymmetries of the human face? I mentioned in the MILAN post how this building maintains the floor heights of the adjacent buildings yet makes no attempt at lining through of lintels, cills or masonry joins. It works – something of identifiably the same scale results.

None of this is noticed when walking along the street. The question we must ask ourselves is: Is there such a thing anymore as design that is not meant to be noticed? See the slight angles on the balconies to the front of this building? It’s subtle.cd901370e575ecbbba9176699f12f8f1Something not so subtle is happening and a great many times on the (ZHA) building opposite.


Redeeming the Trivial

The following quote [googletranslated from the Italian] is from here.

The research area of Asnago and Vender is still dictated by the city and by its rules: they have to operate within the framework of economic and housing laws need that imposed detailed rules and conditions for new buildings; these charges were not seen as limits by the two designers, but rather as an opportunity to redeem the trivial. The buildings of Asnago and Vender, mostly intended for the good Milanese bourgeoisie, do not break with the desire of urban homes comfortable and dignified, but that the nourish, to ennoble they can be studied with interventions and elegant. This conciliatory attitude is foreign to elite choices or controversy; the building techniques are sublimated into a pure language, abstract, where you avoid a break with the habits they can be redeemed for the inside; by doing so the two Milanese architects manage to redeem the trivial, the already seen, the usual, giving a renewed quality where details count and clarity of purpose.


Early Asnago Vender buildings had forms of decoration not surprising for the time.


Both these buildings of theirs can be said to have decorative balustrades.


Many Asnago Vender buildings have some complex things happening with offsets and windows sizes and these are decoration of sorts. I’d previously said a 1970 house of Kazunari Sakamoto’s was the first instance I knew of offset windows being used as a decorative device and then I found a 1966 building of Togo Murano’s with offset windows. I now place the origin further back to 1940 and name Asnago Vender the inventors.


Seventy-five years on, offset windows have become a kind of shorthand for design effort that doesn’t need to be justified in terms of plan or context. The following examples are just four I saw over the course of a few days. The two buildings on the right probably have plans causing the fenestration hiccups, the two on the left probably not.

arxyre3p6rp5l0kyvuw6We’ve become accustomed to think of offset windows as contemporary and not as a form of decoration that costs next to nothing because it is not applied. Asnago Vender mostly used various window positions and shapes to add a contextual liveliness and meaning to the facades of utilitarian and much-needed buildings in the post-war Italian economy. They did not waste resources. Around the time when the architectural world was debating the relative merits of Farnsworth House and Glass House, Asnago & Vender were making useful buildings with inexpensive contextual devices that, like the buildings themselves, have staying power.

Design Flair

Design flair is the skill of doing something unjustifiable yet perfect. Togo Murano had it. Luigi Moretti had it. Asnago Vender had it. These mullions are from a 1969 mixed use building of theirs. It was to be one of their largest, and one of their last. There’s no reason why these mullions should have this pattern rather than any other. I notice a square, and another square, and perhaps a few golden rectangles but it is not intended to be clever, or probably even noticed. It is simply like this and it is good.


Design flair is nothing more than the sense of knowing when it’s okay to do something unjustifiable, and when to stop.


• • •


Signori Asagno e Vender,

for showing us how to do it

misfits salutes you!

• • •

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 14.40.33


Movies are high-res imagery of elaborate fictions and thus fit naturally into this new media landscape where everything is architecture. It’s not even necessary for a movie to be set in or around a building but, when a movie like High-Rise comes along with a lot of people in a building and one of them’s an architect, it’s like content from heaven. Unfortunately, most of the people in that building behave badly and kill each other and, on the surface, it looks like the fault of the architecture.


This is a big problem for, in this post-depth world, people only pay attention to the surface of things and people might think a building full of corpses reflects badly upon the magic and mystery of architecture. The challenge then, for today’s architecture media content providers, is to write about a movie in which most of the characters end up dead, but in a way that keeps that magic and mystery of architecture alive. Let’s see how they do.

high rise.jpg

The Architecture Foundation‘s sole concern is how architecture is represented to the general public. It has some unnamed writer giving us a string of trivial observations such as the improbability of the off-form concrete and the organisation of the development itself, and basically dismisses the movie as poorly-researched and poorly-styled fluff.


Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 14.40.33

Questions such as the effect a building or its typology may or may not have on people are simply ignored. OK it’s true there’s no evidence good buildings produce good people or bad ones produce bad people, but faith in architectural determinism one way or the other still remains the basis for much architectural activity. The Architecture Foundation doesn’t care if exposed concrete and ducting cause social degeneracy, embody an architectural one, or symbolise a soon-to-be not-so-latent human one. It objects to it as cliché.  

Colin Martin, writing for ArchitectureAU, under the promising title of The Brutality of Vertical Livinggives us a movie review with two closing paragraphs saying something about Brutalism to link back to the title. Martin’s interest in Brutalism also goes no further than the degree it impinges upon our consciousness as a style. Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock would be proud.

Architecture AU

Martin’s quick to link the nastiness depicted in the film with Brutalism and thus reinforce the painstakingly-fostered and maintained negative associations that Brutalism has come to have with post-war British council housing. Thought: half a century on, why is this continual vilification necessary? After all, people don’t continually remind us to associate Post Modernism with shoddy construction, Deconstructivism with bubble economies and Parametricism with the hollowing-out of architecture. I sense politics is at work. The never-ending demonization of Brutalism serves to validate not only the destruction of social housing, but to ensure that social housing as a concept is dead and stays buried. We’re meant to think social housing was just an aesthetic fad we grew out of.


Image by Sandra Lousada, 1972 © The Smithson Family Collection

Dezeen quotes the director, Ben Wheatley as rejecting the suggestion the set and the egomaniacal architect character Royal were a direct comment on late Modernism. “The film is not a criticism of post-war architecture,” he said. “It’s more that the building is a metaphor.” 


This sounds like it could be true but metaphor can be used with critical intent. [I wouldn’t want Wheatley to be my lawyer.] “I think whenever you try to take a god-like view and try to force social stuff [!] on to people and have an overarching idea of how people are going to live, you’re opening yourself up for trouble,” he said. “Not to say you couldn’t get it right, but I wouldn’t be surprised when you got it really, really wrong.” This to me sounds like a criticism of attempts to provide “social stuff” like social housing.

A few reviewers mentioned Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower as a symbol of Brutalism the style but not as the gentrified council housing it is now. The high-rises of Colin Lucas, Brutalist in both apperance and social function, are not remembered.

The Barbican doesn’t get a mention either despite being most definitely Brutalist and of the same vintage but it was housing for the middle classes. It is a recognizable inspiration for the set design and it’s right that it should be. To ignore The Barbican is to miss the point of the book.

In his 2014 introduction to the iBook edition of High-Rise, Ned Beauman writes that the book would not shock if council housing tenants descended into barbarism for this would only confirm what many want to believe anyway. It only works, as Lord of the Flies did, because we believe, also falsely, that the middle-classes are more civilised. He finishes by saying that “any time in human history that two or more households have tried to share the same space, they have lived in the High-Rise.”  In that sense, High-Rise is a very contemporary British novel about the inability to share, especially when times get tough. Societal decay begins in shared spaces such as corridors, elevators and stairwells, and comes to a head in scenes set in the shared amenities of supermarket and swimming pool.

A.O. Scott reviews the film for the New York Times without any mention of Brutalism, Britain, or British housing policy.


Zach Mortise, writing for Metropolis 2 (May 24), offers a solid synopsis of the film and notes how the balconies refer to those of the The Barbican.

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His closing thoughts emphasise how the architecture of the movie is inspiring but incidental to the thrust of the plot. There’s a lack of Brutalism bashing and attempts to negatively associate it with British council housing.

Zach Mortice.jpg

Shumi Bose steps up to the plate one month later to rectify this deficiency, and delivers Metropolis Magazine‘s second review of the same film, and which is immediately broadcast by ArchDaily.


Despite being in Metropolis’ Culture section and not its Architecture section, Bose’s article has much description of buildings already well illustrated. Let’s not forget that these buildings are someone’s imagining of buildings described in a novel. As I think I mentioned, they’re no less real or less architecture [sic.] than what gets presented to us as architecture anyway. Seen worse.


Instead of hearing about The Barbican, we get given a history lesson on Britain’s post-war housing policy. The word Brutalism occurs only once in the header but Brutalism the style and Brutalism the ambition are conflated and the implication is that Brutalism and social housing are both things of the past.

Bose 3

I doubt we’ll recognise ourselves. The idea of different socio-economic classes inhabiting the same building is unthinkable now. [ref. Poor Doors]

Julia Ingall, writing for Archinect, unsurprisingly sees the high-rise building as a WYSIWYG allegory and her review is given the racy title Devastation is in the Details. For the first time we learn the interesting fact that the movie was filmed in the real-life Bangor Leisure Center designed by Hugo Simpson in Belfast, Northern Ireland”. Uh-oh. 

Chris Hall, writing for The Guardian noted that Ballard’s most psychologically fulfilled characters look to transcend their physical surroundings, however hostile, by embracing them. … Ballard argued that “people aren’t moving into gated communities simply to avoid muggers and housebreakers – they’re moving in … to get away from other people. Even people like themselves.” In this way, Ballardian environments actively select for psychopathic traits and it’s the egocentric Laing who is best adapted to the high-rise who ultimately survives all the tower can throw at him.” 

Wilder: “Living in a high-rise requires a special type of behaviour .. aquiesent … restrained … absolutely slightly mad. The ones who are the real danger are the self-contained types … impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life … professionally detached … thriving, like an advanced species in a neutral atmosphere.
Laing: I am sorry you think that.
Wilder: No you’re not.
Laing: Perhaps you’re right.



Laura Mark in Architects Journal wasn’t given much space but she managed a good summary and to also link its message to contemporary society.laura mark

This is a new and refreshing slant. I’m glad she noticed EVERYTHING WAS FINE UNTIL THE LIFTS STARTED TO FAIL. If we buy into the hierarchical allegory and the superior classes being at the top, then failing lifts mean no prospects for social mobility. But without such overthinking, the novel and film could easily be read as a cautionary tale arguing for backup systems and better maintenance regimes for residential buildings. Sadly, this doesn’t make for good novels, movies or architecture media content. It’s a shame, because we have one well-documented precedent for poor maintenance leading to the breakdown of societal norms, and we were taught the wrong lessons from that. 

Pruitt-Igoe was demolished three years before High-Rise was published. Well before 1975, inadequate maintenance was a thing. Had it not been demolished, Pruitt-Igoe would surely have been repaired, refurbished and gentrified by now. The site still lacks replacement buildings of any kind. Anyone who achieves anything on this site that’s been systematically stigmatized for decades deserves more than some miserable Pritzker.   

As it remains with Brutalism even now, what happened because of the absence of backup systems and ongoing maintenance is wrongly thought of today as an aeshetic failure. This over-concern for the aesthetics of social housing projects seems confined to the English-speaking countries. It’s as if their occupants aren’t allowed aesthetics of any kind, let alone decent maintenance. The elevators in The Barbican seem to work fine. Stylistically, some of Brutalism’s architectural ideas such as raw finishes and the absence of ornament weren’t bad ones but it’s the social optimism of Brutalism that really needs keeping going. It’s precisely this that’s under continual attack. 

Patrick Sisson, writing for Curbed, was the only person who wanted to see more of that optimism before the movie revels in its unravelling.

• • •

In the closing scenes of total social and mechanical breakdown within the building, the Wilder character [one of the lower-floor tenants] makes his way to the penthouse where he kills the architect he sees responsible for the dysfunction. His assault on the integrity and authority of the architect is swiftly avenged by those still in thrall to his magic and power. This observation seems to be mine alone but you try saying something less than completely praiseworthy about any renowned architect living or dead, and see what happens.


• • •

FUN FACT 1: Nearly all reviews mention the architect character living in the penthouse. Some mentioned the architect Erno Goldfinger who famously lived on the top floor of his Balfron Tower – but only for two months, as some troublemaker mischievously repeated.


FUN FACT 2: Not a single reviewer mentioned the architect Ian Simpson and his fantastical apartment at the top of the 47-storey Beetham Tower he designed in Manchester, 2004. This’ll be it.


Two-hundred year old olive trees were helicoptered up there one by one, I remember reading at the time.

• • •

• • •

29/09/2016: An article, published on the same day, encouraging us to consider Brutalism as a style devoid of social content or application.


Architecture Misfit #25: Ernst May

Zur ausschließlichen Verwendung in der Online-Ausstellung "Künste im Exil" ( Originaldateiname: VA_KIE_DKA_0084_May.tif Eindeutiger Identifier: VA_KIE_DKA_0084_May.jpg

Ernst May
[July 1886 — September 1970]

New Frankfurt [in German, Neues Frankfurt] was an affordable public housing program in Frankfurt started in 1925 and completed in 1930. The mayor of Frankfurt hired Ernst May as general manager of the project to bring together architects to work on it. The goal was housing that could be rented for no more than 25% of a person’s monthly income.

May’s developments were remarkable for their time for being compact. The 60 sq.m. area of a typical three-room apartment was fifteen sq.m. less than the standard for the time. Economic pressures led to two-room apartments for four people having an area of 40  sq.m. These were known as transitional minimum subsistence dwellings. The plan was to later combine them into larger units.

The housing units were semi-independent, well-equipped with community elements like playgrounds, schools, theatres, and common washing areas. This is admirable.

May used simplified, prefabricated forms for the sake of economy and construction speed. This shows a comprehension of the scale and urgency of the problem.


The settlements were planned to have new ideals such as equal access to sunlight, air, and common areas. This was most progressive.

The settlement layouts and the dwellings and their spaces were highly functional. This was not the pursuit of functionalism as a style, but a means of not wasting space and the building materials to enclose it.


The development of the Frankfurt Kitchen in 1926 by Austrian architect Margarete (Grete) Schütte-Lihotzky was one of the offshoots of their joint research. It was the first unit kitchen.

May was responsible for the production of approximately 15,000 housing units between 1925 and 1932. This is a huge achievement for any person in any country in any era, but was in Germany during a period of INCREASING POLITICAL TURMOIL – a period that, as it happened, coincided with the heyday of the Bauhaus.

Here’s what happened.


Estate Höhenblick, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1927


Estate Bruchfeldstraße (Zickzackhausen), Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1927


Estate Praunheim, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1928


Estate Römerstadt, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1928


Estate Bornheimer Hang, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1930


Estate Heimatsiedlung, Frankfurt am Main, 1927–1934


Estate Westhausen, Frankfurt am Main, 1929–1931


Estate Westhausen, Frankfurt am Main, 1929–1931

Johnson & Hitchcock have nothing to say about May, save for this parenthesised reference on p233 of The International Style. 

Ernst May.png

Others however noticed. May achievements were recognised at the 1929 CIAM conference. This brought him to the attention of the Soviet Union.

In 1930 May took virtually his entire New Frankfurt-team to Russia. … The promise of the “Socialist paradise” was still fresh, and May’s Brigade and other groups of western planners had the hope of constructing entire cities. The first was to be Magnitogorsk. Although May’s group is indeed credited with building 20 cities in three years, the reality was that May found Magnitogorsk already under construction and the town site dominated by the mine. Officials were indecisive, then distrustful, corruption and delay frustrated their efforts, and May himself made misjudgements about the climate. May’s contract expired in 1933, and he left for Kenya (then British East Africa).

May’s reputation thus went the same way as Architecture Misfit #1: Hannes Meyer and Architecture Misfit #23: André LurçatMay is not mentioned much in the history of modern architecture. It’s not just because he went to the Soviet Union when other German architects were busy brushing up their English. May was a professional who, when given the problem of providing housing for the country’s population, didn’t see his role as developing prototypes for mass production, but to actually make it happen. And he did. 15,000 of them. And they’re still lived in.


Despite existing from 1919–1932, the Bauhaus contributed little to solving Germany’s housing problem. Gropius’ Dessau-Törten Estate of 1926–1928 provided 317 dwellings with areas of 57–75 sqm but it was a job on the side, independent of his 1919–1928 stint as Bauhaus director. Gropius put the experience to good use and, immediately upon leaving the Bauhaus in 1928, won a competition for the design of Dammerstock Colony. In 1934 he was to leave Germany and its mass housing problems behind him forever.


For the period 1926–1928 at the very least, Gropius was involved with both architectural education and the solving of real-world housing problems but, for a person renowned as an educator, the thought that education might be about training people to solve real-world problems never seems to have crossed his mind. He kept education and real-world problems very separate. It didn’t do his career any harm but, if we were to ask when the rot set in, it would be here. I use the term architectural education loosely, as Gropius must have on his CV, for it was Hannes Meyer who added architecture to the Bauhaus curriculum. And it was Meyer who connected architecture with the solving of real-world problems, only for Mies to separate it again. What happened afterwards – and, unfortunately for us –  is not history.

It’s often said Hitler’s preference for pitched roofs was responsible for the dissolution of the Bauhaus. Perhaps it was, but Ernst May still managed to get 15,000 flat-roofed housey things built before leaving Germany in 1930, four years before Gropius and eight years before Mies. May’s leaving was the greater loss for Germany. In 1954 he was invited back and began work at the planning department of the City of Hamburg.

• • •


Ernst May!

for knowing what had to be done in order to deliver,
and doing it.

misfits salutes you!

Version 2

Misfits’ Guide to MILAN

The 20th century chronology of attention-getting buildings is over represented by America. It was only Le Corbusier who presented a sustained individual challenge to total American architectural dominance. Sustained national challenges were mounted by Scandinavia, Japan and Italy but, whether we were paying attention or not, Italy never ceased being a source of architectural intelligence and construction excellence. In Milan, I will look for evidence to back up this claim.



Ca’ BruttaVittorino Colonnese, Giovanni Muzio, Pier Fausto Barelli, 1922
Via della Moscova, Milano


This perimeter apartment block was one of the first reinforced concrete frame buildings in Italy. It had underground car parking, and heating and hot water were centrally provided. It lack of ornament borrowed from the Secessionists in reacting to Art Nouveau but earned it the name ‘Ugly House’.  What ornament there was was variously accused of being inconsistent, playful, ironic, a detachment from reality, a primitive mysticism and a reaction to rationality. Decades later, bizarrely and without irony, post-modernists would scour this pre-modern building for proof they were right. Papers would be written. 

Palazzo dell’ArteGiovanni Muzio
Viale Alemagna 6, Milano

Another Muzio building. Whether by coincidence, contemporaneity, association, design, or sheer bad luck, this building gets described as fascist architecture even though masonry arches with little or no decoration are typical of Muzio whose style seemed fully formed with his 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte and wasn’t noticeably different thirteen years later with his Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo. I think I’d prefer to see Ignzaio Gardella’s 1934 proposal there instead. Either would be unthinkable now.


Casa Toninello, Guiseppe Terragni
Via Perasto 3, Milano


The upper floor has been filled in but this building is still doing what it was meant to do.


This period was the one where Rationalist design met urban verncaular construction to became mainstream. This suggests that Rationalism and its emphasis on structure and configuration was a more useful way of understanding the same technical advances than was style. The result is that many of these buildings look very ordinary today. They’re easy to pass by. This is either a virtue or a failing, depending on what you expect of buildings in a city.

Casa dei GiornalistiGiovanni Muzio
via Appiani, 23-25, Milano

This is the third of five Muzio buildings here, all except the Palazzo dell’Arte being within a few hundred metres of each other and each on a prominent intersection. This suggests a close connection with a local landowner. Note with this one how the end windows are slightly larger. We find this strange, as if expression and denial are the only two choices.


Casa Rustici-Comolli, Giuseppe Terragni
Guglielmo Pepe 32, Milano


Check those paired side balconies executed as a reinforced concrete truss. We’re looking at an idea we are to see again in Casa Rustica.

Casa Ghiringhelli, Guiseppe Terragni, 1933-35
Piazzale Lagosta 2, Milano


Here we see the protruding central portion of the previous two Terragni buildings, as well as paired central balconies on the symmetrical main facade. The top floor is again set back and defined as was the original roof on Casa Toninello. The same pieces are being continunally rearranged according to site, program and budget. There’s no compulsion to be inventive beyond that. These four buildings are in the same corner of town, again suggesting either a single landowner or word-of-mouth referrals between local landowners.

asa LavezzariGuiseppe Terragni, 1934-35
piazza Morbegno 3, Milano

This one’s a favourite, and for that reason.


Following the streets allows rectilinear construction except for the elevator lobby and entrance hallways where it is an asset, and for the stairwell where it doesn’t matter.


Casa al Villaggio dei giornalisti (House in Milan)Figini & Pollini, 1933–35
via Perrone di San Martino 8, Milano


This is all we get to see of this house that previously appeared in the Pilotis post. You can find more information and the plans on

Casa Bonaiti, Giovanni Muzio, 1935-36
Piazza della Repubblica, Milan


These apartments are of the same time as Muzio’s other ones and solve much the same problem using a symmetrical layout with various adjustments. It was here I first began to notice the Milanese love for balcony planting. You’ll see many impressive and sometimes extreme examples.

Partly because of this and partly because Stefano Boeri is Milanese, I began to warm to his Bosco Verticale, a building I’d previously thought overly tricksy. The planting on this building is only slightly more outrageous than much of what you will see on balconies around town. I noticed that taller trees are prevented from blowing over by ventical cable stays suspended from the balconies above.

Bosco Verticale is part of a much larger new commercial centre development called Porta Nuova, west of Repubblica.

Off to one side of the park area beside Boscso Verticale is this building that looked rather interesting and built to last.

Casa Rustici, Pietro Lingeri & Giuseppe Terragni, 1935
Corso Sempione 26, Milano


There’s not much rusticity on show at Casa Rustici. The building is urban and urbane. It’s parade of balconies have more than a hint of Terragni’s Casa del Fascio completed the following year.

Villa Pestarini, Franco Albini, 1937-38
Via Mogadiscio 2-4


The top floor is an addition but I get the feeling Albini would have approved. Here’s what it looked like in 1938.


Edificio per abitazioni e uffici, Luigi Figini & Gino Pollini, 1947–48
via Broletto 37, Milano


Much of what you see in Milan will just look ordinary and decent – in a good way. Figini & Pollini were well-known architects but this looks just like any other sturdily-built 1930s building in Milan. On the other hand, it’s often the case when walking you’ll see buildings such as this next one that look like you ought to know who it is by. If someone had told me this was Terragni from 1928 I would’ve believed them. Instead, it’s just the natural result of architectural innovation and vernacular construction both having something to give each other to become the new normal.


Casa AlbergoLuigi Moretti, 1946-1951
via Corridoni, Milano


Why am I mentioning this? It’s an example of a post-war apartment hotel designed as a city-in-a-city with a entrance lobby, access corridors, a restaurant, library and shared amenities in a podium linking the twin high blocks and the single lower one. The building was designed as a repeatable typology with the shape of the podium altering to suit different site geometries. It’s good contemporary thinking. It’s 1946.

Casa Tognella (Casa dal Parco)Ignazio Gardella, 1947-54
Via Jacini Milan


It’s often mentioned how the design and construction of this building took seven years but, considering its location on a single block of land overlooking Milan’s most central and largest historic park, seven years seems surprisingly short to sort out permissions. Either Gardella had a gift for dealing with municipalities or the clients had some serious money and influence. The alternate name Casa dal Parco is not wrong, but seems somehow diminutive.

Casa dal Parco.jpg

Internal planning has the strict public and private division typical of the class and era but is relatively relaxed regarding staff and occupants sharing corridors and stairs (but not elevators). The service areas of the apartment are zoned, rather than compartmentalized. The lady of the house might even enter the kitchen.


There’s little reason to break the rectilinearity, apart from getting more south light bouncing off the master bedroom wall, and getting more west sun into the living and dining room. Gardella took a Rationalist approach as the starting point for many buildings, but adapted it as circumstances dictated such as with Casa alle Zattere in Venice four years later.

Condominio di v. Marchiondi a Milano
Ignazio Gardella, Roberto Menghi & Anna Castelli Ferrieri, 1949-1953
via Marchiondi, 7, Milano


That’s it in the back. It faces a private park and is completely hidden at the back by other buildings and at the front by trees.

The planning is clearly Gardella’s – it’s beautiful! Only he can plan elevator lobbies and entrance halls like this, and extract maximum effect from angled walls whether he’s forced to or not. They never result in peculiar or wasted spaces.


Edificio per abitazioni ed uffici (mixed-use building)
Mario Asnago & Claudio Vender, 1950
Piazza Velasca 4, Milan


A ground floor with three floors of offices above, four floors of apartments and what looks like a recessed top floor. The offices have a stone facade and office windows, the apartments have a brick facade and apartment windows. The office window grid aligns with the upper left corners of the apartment window grid, but that grid isn’t regular. We don’t see the trope of lining through windows and masonry with adjacent buildings. Instead, identical floor heights are maintained and the buiding naturally assumes a complementary scale regardless of wind0w size and proportion. It’s subtly and quietly brilliant. Asnago & Vender buildings are ego-less architecture and, as such, near invisible.


Quartiere Mangiagalli, Ignazio Gardella & Franco Albini, 1950
via De Predis, via Jacopino da Tradate


The intelligent use of external angles immediately marks this building as one of Gardella’s.

So does the planning. He would normally have narrowed the stair landings towards the entrances but instead has made a screened void to keep the access balcony away from the bathroom windows. Once inside however, the entrance hall characteristically narrows towards to the living room and the living room narrows towards the view. The only internal triangular space created by the unusual geometry is used to widen the passage from living to kitchen. Note also how the bedrooms have their own corridor, separate from the entrance corridor? And how that circulation space below the bathrooms can be configured to make either two x 2-bed apartments, or 1 x  1-bed + 1 x 3-bed? Clever.


On the way there from Lotto (M1) Station, you’ll probably pass by this development on via Roberto Sambonet. It’s worth a look.

Corso Italia Complex, Luigi Moretti, 1951 & 1956
Corso Italia 13-17, Milano


The two office and residential towers at the rear of the site came first in 1951 and the two front blocks later in 1956. The pointed one overhanging the street and containing three apartments per level is perhaps the most wilful of all the buildings so far. [Plan from archidiap.]


The mixed-use building is a common typology in Milan and, like the 1950 Asnago & Vender mixed-use building, effortlessly combine the two. There’s no logic to those three well-placed subtractions on some of the balcony ends. Moretti has that gift we call ‘design flair’.


It’s also evident in the subtle bend of the north side having those balconies. Moretti pulls off that difficult feat of making the unnecessary seem right.


The four grouped flues at the end of the building don’t appear to be original but they’ve been added in a good way.

Pirelli Tower, Gio Ponti, 1953
Via Fabio Filzi 22, Milan


This building remains as idosyncratic and elegant as it was in 1953. Gio Ponti achieved international fame with this building that’s the only one of his I’m going to mention here. He “put Italian architecture on the map”, as they say. This was good for him and good for us because modern buildings in Italy became Italian architecture worldwide. It wasn’t necessarily a good thing for Italians as architecture wasn’t a local activity anymore. Italian architects now had their eyes on international recognition. The more Italian architecture became, the less concerned it was with Italians. In short, it lost its innocence, albeit not all at once and not across the board. Career Case Study #7: Gio Ponti is forthcoming.

Torre Velasca
BBPR (Gian Luigi Banfi, Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Enrico Peressutti, & Ernesto Nathan Rogers) architectural partnership, 1954
Piazza Velasca 5, Milano


This 1954 building is also claimed, in hindsight, to be a precursor to Post Modernism because of its alleged historical reference to Milanese towers, the closest I suppose being the tower of the Castello Sforzesco but I’ll save that thought for some other time. I’d never really noticed the offset windows before. It might be the result of different internal layouts or it may be totally gratuitous for all I know. For now, it seems to be another case of someone making no effort to either hide something or express it.

The history of accidentally or contrivedly offset windows now goes back to the 1950s. Curtain walling doesn’t feature largely in Milan and there aren’t that many examples of the contemporary type we’re so familiar with.


Casa del Cedro, Giulio Minoletti, 1951-1957
via Fatebenefratelli 3, Milano


Having earlier admired the architectural insouciance of Asnago & Vender, I was prepared to dislike this proud little building but couldn’t. For pushing 70, it’s looking fantastic and in good health. I’d be surprised if it has any solar gain, thermal bridging or waterproofing issues.


Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista alla CretaGiovanni Muzio, 1956-1958
Piazza S. Giovanni Battista alla Creta, 11, 20147 Milano


This is a curious little building – Muzio again! He always had a feel for brick and now he’s making something that’s obviously decorative yet can’t have been Post Modernism because Post Modernism wasn’t supposed to have been around in 1956. I find it easier to think of Post Modernism as a resurgence of what there was pre-Modernism. Muzio was always a bit behind the times but then the times went back to meet him, as with Ca’ Brutta. I’m not sure if any Italian architect has ever been a ‘modernist’ but at one stage Figini & Pollini, the authors of this next building, were very identifiably Rationalists.

Edificio per albergo e abitazioni (mixed-use building)
Luigi Figini & Gino Pollini, 1961-1965
Largo Augusto 2, Milano


I include this to show how Figini & Pollini became less shy about decoration as the century progressed. I have no evidence, but wouldn’t be surprised if the decorative balconies have a Venetian ancestor for they recall the ones Gardella was to use on Casa alle Zattera in 1958. Here, the absence of balconies from one floor seems irrational and difficult to justify as design flair despite it being the dominant aesthetic decision.

Torre Turati, Giovanni Muzio, 1966

Via Turati 40, Milano


This is the last Muzio building here. That’s it on the left, forming one half of a gateway to Piazza Repubblica. The building cantilevers out to provide increasingly large balconies to the upper apartments but this is not obvious when seen from along the street.

These two buildings show two different ways of working to the same rules but the one on the far side extracts maximum volume from the cantilever concession. It also produces that building-on-top-of-another-building effect that found recent popular affectation.

Edificio Residenziale al GallarateseAldo Rossi, 1969-1970
via Enrico Falck 53, Milan

If Gio Ponti put the new architecture of Italy on the map, Rossi was the Italian face of Neo Rationalism that was, rightfully or wrongly, presented and understood internationally as Italy’s spin on post modernism. People saw whatever they wanted to see in it. Italians presumably saw the rational side and non-Italians saw a kind of classicism stripped down even more than Muzio’s as this time there were no arches. The most disturbing new development is Theory. In Rossi’s case, the theory was about urban artefacts being responsibile for the essential nature of the city. This is a convenient truth for an architect to claim but my perception of Milan is that it is not the sum of its landmarks but the sum of everything else.

This one project is all I have to show of Rossi’s buildings in Milan, and even with this there wasn’t much to see.


The famous elevation on the other side is now completely obscured by planting, somewhat oddly as the building faces a park, but I suspect it’s to deter the architectural paparazzi.

I remember the building more from the endless graphics that announced it.

The apartment layouts however, are archetypal.

I preferred the neighbouring Aymonino Buildings [Via Cilea 34, Via Falck 37], designed by Carlo Aymonino & Studio Ayde (Aymonino & Rossi), and constructed between 1967-74. We can at least see them as they look over the street to the playing fields and parks beyond.


To be fair, the Rossi’s Gallaratese Apartments also did at one time and he’s not to blame for their current vegetative state. Nevertheless, his famous building exists only for its occupants and even then not how it does in our collective imagination. This can’t be a good thing.

The entire area around Bonono station however is a delight. On a late summer’s afternoon, the dream of high-density buildings set in parkland seems to have been realized. There’s an abundance of well-kept towers, grassy areas, parks, sports grounds, and people walking dogs. It seems like a nice place to live.


Edificio Polifunzionale in piazza San Marco, Ludovico Magistretti, 1969 – 1971
piazza San Marco 1, Milano


This also seems like a nice place to live but now there’s external ornament that places these buildings firmly as self-conscious, post-modern Italian architecture. Its very clever with its revealed frame and its various rhythms but that cleverness is what now dates it. Despite that, life goes on.

• • •

I’ll stop it there. The only buildings I’ve mentioned are the ones I can put an architect’s name to. What struck me most about all of these buildings was how many of them were produced by local architects working within a very small radius. There’s no building here that can’t be visited with a day pass on the Milan metro. Terragni did most of his work in Como and Milan. Gardella worked mainly in Milan even though one of his early successes was his 1938 Dispensario Antitubercolare 75 km to the south-west in Allesandria.


As his reputation spread, Gardella worked as far east as Venice and as far West as Genoa, neither more than 300km away. If I’d extended my range to Seveso 20km to the north of Milan I could have included Terragni’s Casa Bianca.


If I’d gone on to Como another 20km north, I could have included Terragni’s 1936 Casa del Fascia, and if I’d gone the extra mile and a half I could have included Cesare Cattaneo’s 1939 Casa d’affitto a Cernobbio, a favourite.

But they can wait for some other time. What I like about Milan is that architects working locally had access to connections and knowledge and perhaps sensitivities others didn’t. It explains the buildings of Asnago & Vender that give shape to unspoken expectations so well that we don’t even notice them doing it. There’s client loyalty.

Local architects are more likely to have an innate respect and affection for a place that’s their home town. They’re unlikely to grandstand. For the first time in my life I had a feel for the ‘fabric’ of a city as a tapestry of old and new, of adjustments and allowances for materials and technologies that, though they may appear different, are still being used to for the same ends. It’s a rare thing to appreciate and a tricky thing for an architect to aspire to, let alone achieve. I leave Milan thinking that designing buildings for people is an honorable thing to do.

• • •

Since the 1970s, more Milan buildings are being designed by architects who aren’t local and whose first architectural obligation is not necessarily to the city or its citizens. In the image below, the building on the left is by Asnago & Vender whom we shall meet again in Architecture Misfits #26. The building in the distance is Generali Tower by Zaha Hadid Architects.


• • •


• • •



Living the Dream

This is a utility vehicle, an RV – a recreational vehicle. Depending on how you look at it, it’s a vehicle with some accommodation added, or some accommodation that’s mobile. It can move from place to place and perhaps hook up to some infrastructure when it gets there. Here’s a quick guide to RV terminology, courtesy of Happy Camper.

happy camper

This next is a top-end motorized called an XP Camper.


Utility vehicles aren’t architecture for they don’t – can’t – articulate the possession of property. It’s something to do with them having wheels. What utility vehicles can do however is have an excellent use of internal space. Interiors are tightly designed to accommodate specific functions. Life boils down to sitting, shitting, showering, cooking and sleeping. Some have separated bathrooms and some like one of the above right have pop-up roofs for improved aerodynamics.

Planning-wise, the trend seems to be towards less multipurposing. A table and chairs might morph into an extra bed-space but not the main bed. This is good. It makes going to bed special although, in all honesty, there’s little else the space above the cab could be used for. Sometimes things work out how they should.

In terms of accommodating basic life functions, you’re better off in an RV than a Nakagin capsule. You’ve also got more windows.


Several current trends seem to be converging on the R in RV coming to mean Residential rather than Recreational. These trends, in order of how much they’re in-our-faces, are …

The glamorization of tiny houses.

 The architectural assimilation of tiny houses.

The private monetization of tiny houses.

The corporate monetization of tiny houses.

Tiny house co-housing filling a real housing need

vs. the corporate monetization of co-housing.

Tiny houses meet the representation of a mobile lifestyle

vs. tiny mobile houses meeting a real housing need. 

Vehicles have no problem escaping the tyranny of property. That’s what they do. The downside is that it’s difficult to sustain a concept of architecture if there isn’t any property to articulate possession of. While it’s unlikely utility vehicles will ever be considered architecture, they can still be used to represent its traditional signifieds.

They can be functional and aesthetically austere like this one that’s widely misrepresented on the internet as being the sole home of origami artist Won Park.


Or they can be post-modern utility vehicles laden with meaning even though nobody’s sure what it all means.  


My guess is that the ‘cabin-in-the-woods’ aesthetic popular with tiny travel trailers is all about using a representation of a building to represent having the rights to enjoy land as if one were a landowner. It’s a desperate look for desperate times. Our new mobile lifestyle didn’t turn out how visionary visionaries of yore envisioned it. Two decades ago though, and not knowing why, I scanned this next image that nailed it. Rear porches seem important. If you just woke up and went outside and stood on the porch with the mist clearing and the early morning sunlight filtering through the trees, it’s quite possible you could suspend disbelief for a few seconds.


This next image, also from decades gone, could be our future suburbia.


The principle is already a reality in Los Angeles as both legal initiatives and as not.  It’s an issue, and designating car parks as temporary campsites seems to overcome it. Unsurprisingly, there’s considerable local resistance.


There’s no such problem with these artists-in-residence who are doing much the same thing, except not for real. People can smile or smirk, and go by.


Some people however, are already living the dream with neither compromise or affectation. Decades ago, the elderly were early adopters of co-living. Retirees are now early adopters of mobile living. There’s a few reasons.

Cost: A decent parked RV house costs about $30,000.


Job Mobility: Retirees don’t have to worry about job mobility and, if they don’t want to live the full-on gypsy life, can drive from one RV camp to another according to season and whim. Living in Wisconsin or Cape Cod in summer, and Florida in winter is a popular choice.

Property tenure: Park model mobile homes are still classified as recreational vehicles which means they can be set up on leased sites in campgrounds and RV parks and used as weekend retreats or seasonal vacation dwellings. There’s already a legal framework for understanding this as a way of living. This is one of the properties run by Yukon Trails Camping.


This type of vehicle parked on land in leased campgrounds is not without its disadvantages that include depreciation of the ‘vehicle’ itself, lack of actual mobility, lack of control over what happens to the land, and laws that favour landlords over tenants.

These risks are reduced by limited equity housing cooperative in which residents don’t directly own a piece of land that’s theirs alone but instead have a membership in the corporation that owns it. This makes them both lessees and owners entitled to a long-term lease and a vote in how the corporation is run. They have control over the rents and have a vested interest in community upkeep. Importantly, the risk of redevelopment by profit-driven landlords is reduced. Judging by how nicely the hillside has been mown, I’d say this below is a limited equity housing cooperative but I’d be wrong – it’s a field monetised as a tiny mobile house hotel farming campers.


It’ll always happen, but the rules are gradually changing to bring part-time Recreational Vehicles into play as full-time Residential Vehicles. Social acceptance isn’t changing as fast but a sea-change isn’t required. We’re more than halfway there anyway. This last image is Quartzsite in Arizona, US. The town is a popular campsite for RV owners. Its permanent population of about 5,000 temporarily increases to about 1.5 million in January and February. Thanks to Daniel [of OfHouses] for letting me know about this. It’s very relevant.


• • • 

just one RV site on Pinterest
silly stuff
more silly stuff
A 06 Sept. NYT article on ‘long-term parking’ at LAX  (Nice timing!)


Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio

A 308 sq.ft Katrina Cottage can be delivered for $70,000 including construction. That works out at $227/sq.ft.

The affordable IVRV House designed by SCI-ARC students for a low-income Los Angeles neighbourhood was constructed for $200,000 ÷ 1,185 sq.ft = US$165/sq.ft.  

The 2015 house designed by Yale architecture students as part of the Jim Vlock Building Project was 1,000 sq.ft and had a budget of $130,000 – excluding labour which was provided by students. Assuming labour at 60% of the cost-in-place, that’s $217/sq.ft. (*1)

The ÁPH80 transportable house by Madrid firm ÁBATON offers 291 sq.ft of living space and sells for €32,000 (US$40,000) which is $138/sq.ft. 

Diogene by Renzo Piano Workshop is 81 sq.ft. and sells for $45,000 which represents $555/sq.ft. A deluxe model with rooftop photovoltaic panels costs $75,000 and works out at $926/sq.ft

Rural Studio’s 20K House costs US$20,000 but, they explain, it would have to sell for more in order to pay a living wage to builders. Materials cost $14,000. At 500 sq.ft the $20K represents $40/sq.ft.


Rural Studio have been attempting to perfect the 20K house since 2005.

These houses aren’t the end product of a journey of aesthetic discovery but represent twenty years of research and the refinement of the design approach and of prototypes.

The 20K House program evolved out of frustration at starting from scratch each year on each client house. The new program’s current instructional model is to test typologies, rather than producing idiosyncratic individual houses, which allows us to build iteratively on previous and concurrent work. In fact, each year’s 20K House outreach team passes on a book of information for the following class, exemplifying Rural Studio’s founding premise of learning both by practice and from reflection. [Slate 19/05/2014] 

This house below is a refinement of the 2009 (v8) Dave’s Home which itself is a refinement of the 2006 (v2) Franks’s Home. 


Rural Studio’s 20K houses look low-tech but associate director Rusty Smith says “They’re built more like airplanes than houses, which allows us to have them far exceed structural requirements.” This I believe. I’ve mentioned before how the aircraft maker Sukhoi treats every aircraft as a prototype for the better performance of the next one. Iterative design aims for perfection rather than preconceived notions of beauty.

The Sukhoi S-47 [on the left, below] proved impractical to develop and maintain as a production aircraft. The T-50 [on the right] that succeeded it is the 1985 SU-27, substantially modified. Engines are the 117S derivative of the economical and high-performance AL-31 engine. The T-50 is economically efficient, low maintenance and has a planned service life of 35 years.

In the same way and for the same reasons, Rural Studio made the decision to test typologies but concentrate on building iteratively on previous work. Such an approach still requires high-level and densely-packed design intelligence. In the case of residential buildings, it amounts to a conscious process of vernacular design accelerated over decades rather than centuries. We can all learn from this. Some of the rules can be identified from decisions made.

Economy of means

The self-imposed cost limit of $20K forces attention towards the cost of every element and design design. Windows are a major cost item. “We are very precise in the placement of windows of doors,” says Andrew Freear, studio director. “Typically, we can afford two doors and seven windows, and how do you use those the fullest? Cross-ventilation, bouncing light, putting a window near a table as a reflective surface. In Joanne’s House, in the kitchen, the refrigerator is perpendicular to a window and bounces natural light into the space.

A single waste pipe runs beneath the porch to link all wet areas. The layout is determined by this as much as anything else. Siteworks are a major cost item and cantilevering the floor joists past the foundation piles reduces the area of sitewaorks.

Maximum efficiency of each element

Cantilevered floor girders act more efficiently as beams, making smaller and less expensive timber sections sufficient. Floor joists are cantilevered from the girders for the same reason.

Conventional technologies and standard parts

Standard components are easier and less expensive to source, maintain, repair and replace.Windows and doors are more obvious examples of standard components but the 2×4 framing system is itself an example of conventional technology and standard parts. It’s a construction system and, once the cladding is on, a structural system as well.


In passing, the 2 x 4 construction system is also a technology with minimal waste as the log is sawn to leave little waste timber.


There’s also little waste within the system as cutoffs can be re-used as jack studs or nogging.

Design without waste

In my previous post I mentioned how Rural Studio were the only US practice invited to participate in the 15th Venice Biennale 2016, and how they used the money they’d been given to purchase local products to create a theatre that could be dismantled and its components used elsewhere afterwards.

It is possible to eliminate building waste by regarding every component as something with a potential future use. Native Americans famously used every part of the buffalo they hunted – meat for food, bones for implements and weapons, hides for clothing and so on. It’s no accident that this is called being resourceful. Resourceful cooks can save money and resources by making a meal out of scraps and leftovers.

Identifying Inefficiencies of Process

It’s often the case that new and better ways of doing something bump up against resistance due to instituional inertia, psychological resistance, or perhaps due to simple lack of knowledge. This last can be overcome by taking the time and making the effort to explain and educate. Rural Studio found that more effort needs to be made to change local zoning laws that regulate against small houses. They also noted that banks charge the same for a loan regardless of whether that loan is for a small house or a large house. This makes loans for less expensive houses proportionally more expensive.


Without the $20K cost limit forcing scrutiny of all cost items, no-one would ever have known this or thought it relevant to the provision of housing.

• • •

The process of edcuation should not stop there. If design intelligence has been spent tweaking minor things to make them more efficient or to multi-task some component, then the general public and the world of architecture at large, also needs to be educated to appreciate that design intelligence and the benefits it can bring.


As it stands now, Rural Studio are widely admired for doing what they do but are destined to exist outside of mainstream architectural consciousness. For one, Rural Studio is not a practice. It is an undergraduate program of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University in Hale County, Alabama. You can read more about its history here.

The program for low-cost and socially-useful housing was begun by Dennis (D.K.) Ruth and Samuel Mockbee in 1993. Andrew Freear became director upon Mockbee’s death. This coming semester, Xavier Vendrell will be Acting Director while Freear goes on sabbatical. Rural Studio has a director but no figurehead. It is not personality-driven. It is not media driven.

Rural Studio are ineligible for a Pritzker Prize, for what it’s worth.

  1. Mockbee died in 2001 and Ruth in 2009. The Pritzker Prize is awarded to a living architect.
  2. Not only that, the Pritzker Prize is awarded to a living architect who has produced a singular body of work. The output of Rural Studio is a singular body of work that has consistency and development and many other qualities that mark it as the output of a single consciousness. It is not awarded to a team, let alone an amorphous team that includes a ever-changing roster of students. This condition seems particularly unfair when starchitect practice figureheads routinely curate and claim authorship of ideas generated by an intern farm.

In our current cultural landscape it is usual for architects with any degree of fame to rush into teaching to extend their media reach, ideally at an Ivy-League university. Rural Studio is doing things the other way around. It is in Alabama not New England. It is not staffed by architects who teach but by teachers who build. They are teaching us as well, as their direction of twenty years has now been appropriated – perhaps maliciously so, but time will tell – by architecture at large. Rural Studio’s presence at VB2016 shows they are continuing to do what they do as best they can and guided by what they think is right.

• • •

tumblr_lgm5beEDCU1qdugrxrural studio staff

Rural Studio!

to all of you whoever you are at any given time

for your ceaseless work of genuine benefit to fellow human beings,
for showing us how to make things better by making better things,
and, most importantly, for making it about building,

misfits’ salutes you!

• • •

their site
their 2015 newsletter
Slate article

*1 Thanks CBW!