How Architecture Works

This post has remained in the drafts folder for quite some time. It describes workings that must be acknowledged even though they may not be noble. Some of its points have been made or hinted at in past posts. And some will almost certainly be backgrounding, if not repeated, in other posts yet to come. It can be endlessly expanded upon.

Building upon land is a fundamental political act by which people indicate the ownership of that land. It happens and has been happening for a long time. Enclosing land is another – and that still happens too. Cultivating land is often a political act that indicates the ownership of land, and that still happens too. Exploiting land for timber, animals, minerals, petroleum or any other resource is yet another way of indicating ownership of land, or at least of the rights to exploit that land. Just because these are all political acts that have been happening for a long time, doesn’t mean we’re not doing them anymore. If none of us are farmers anymore, then gardening can still be a political act that shows people what you can do with your land, whether it’s a productive allotment, a polite front garden or the Charles Jencks brand of landscape defacing.

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Don’t try this at home.

If you’ve been following this blog you should have a certain idea of what kind of buildings us misfits would like to see more of. Here’s how it all fits into the history of everything that has ever been built.

The Misfits way of understanding Architecture is simple. Like Zaera Polo, we accept that building is a political act. Even if the main purpose of a building isn’t to indicate the ownership of land or (inasmuch as it is separable) money, a building will do this anyway. This should not come as a surprise because, just as fire needs oxygen, fuel and a source of heat in order to exist,  buildings need 1) clients who want to make a political statement, and 2) the money and 3) the land to realize it. This goes back a long way.

In medieval Europe, castles indicated land ownership. They had a defensible location and shape, and a construction that withstood attacks by other people wanting to own and control that land. Here’s Harlech Castle, built in the late 13th century.

Harlech Castle - A general view of the castle

Later, when Europe – or Italy at least – calmed down a bit, land ownership was indicated by less defensible buildings prominently sited, and by neoclassical styles that symbolized a more enlightened society. These new buildings were called villas. They weren’t for kings anymore, but for people kings had given land as reward for services rendered.

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The stylistic inspiration was this Greek temple. Notice how the villa is also built on a high piece of land so that others can “look up to it”. 

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Inigo Jones (1573 – 1652) saw these new villas and thought the wealthy landowners in England might like them too. He was right. Here’s Chiswick House (1729), built by the third Earl of Burlington (1694-1753) on land purchased by his grandfather. 

A bit later, more rich people needed to live in the city closer to the dockyards that were the source of the new wealth. There wasn’t space for every rich person to have much land, so architects joined the houses together to make terraced houses that looked like one large mansion/villa, and with the individual dwellings overlooking a communal garden that only the owners could overlook and use. Here’s John Nash’s Cumberland House (1826) overlooking Regent’s Park in London.

Before this, only poor people lived in “joined-up” houses. Joining houses together was a useful idea because it saved materials and, although they didn’t worry too much about it at the time, it must have also saved energy. Here, we won’t worry too much about the buildings of people who had less money, but ideas from low-cost housing will find their way into expensive housing later on.

The idea of a single house on a single piece of land is a primitive but popular one. Here’s a building that flaunts its owner’s possession of an enviable piece of property.

It does this, first of all, by being there – for buildings built on other people’s land don’t tend to stay around for very long. It also makes many other connections with the landscape, most famously through the horizontal cantilevered elements supposedly “echoing” the shape of the rock ledges. There’s also a rotational symmetry that unifies building and landscape into a single composition. And there’s also the “calm” horizontal lines and the “dynamic” vertical lines – as they’re usually called in art and architecture schools – mirroring the horizontal and calm pools, and the vertical and dynamic falling water. Clever.

This house is frequently praised using words such as “is an extension of Nature”, “looks like it is growing out of the ground” etc. and this is all well and good for (from this angle) it is a masterful composition. It’s America’s most famous house and its most photographed one. The image we see above has been designed to travel. It panders not only to the American myth of the pioneering house in raw nature, but also to the rich man’s desire to show off the land he owns.

There are probably many spectacular pieces of land in the world. They are just not where we want them to be. There are many other ways of giving a physical shape to money and decadence of fabrication is one of them. (Refer to The Fabergé Egg.)

Adam Smith wrote

“With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches, which in their eye is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves.”

You can rely on this. You will find many houses praised for looking and feeling larger than they really are or for visually owning a picturesque view of unowned landscape or cityscape. You will not find many houses that look and feel smaller than they really are, or ignoring a view of anything that adds value. This is what people look for when buying a house. Some people call this beauty. Others call it simple application of architectural skill to articulate the possession of land. New ways of doing it (big windows, pilotis, etc.) are called progress. Buildings that are outside this paradigm are called ugly. The documentation of new ways of architecturally indicating the possession of land is a study in itself.

Another interesting study is ways of misrepresenting the amount of money possessed. You will find many houses praised for using less expensive materials to look like expensive materials. This was generally frowned upon and regarded as dishonest, and then it became referential or ironic and thus okay. As a general rule, there are no buildings in which expensive materials are made to look like cheap materials. Why? Because the job of architects is to add value to real estate. This in turn, adds status to a person or a company. You don’t believe me?

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Its $6.7 million total cost for its replacement represents a cost of $67,000 per sq.m, making it the most expensive “building” in the world on a per-square-metre basis. Trying to make a building look as if it is barely there is a very expensive business.

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Antilia, you’ll remember, comes in next at approximately $53,000 per sqm that makes it more than four times the cost/sq.m of Yankee Stadium ($12,230 sqm) and more than ten times more expensive per square meter than Burj Khalifa ($4,847 per sqm). And all this for a building that says little more than that one has 100 sqm worth of rights to surface access an underground space on Fifth Avenue. Does it advance the cause of architecture? The answer depends on how honest we are about what that cause really is. We strive to compress the technologies at hand into much less land.

I’ll embroider this theory in further posts and show how it accommodates notions of technological progress, beauty, status, progress, evolution and social utility. It’s not rocket science. We strive to compress the technologies at hand onto far less land. And so we progress the drivers of yesterday some fancy new way.