It’s Not Rocket Science #8: Repetition
IF YOU CAN’T MAKE IT BETTER THEN MAKE IT THE SAME!
Uniqueness is overrated, the quest for uniqueness unjustifiable. With buildings or any other product, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making the same thing exactly the same way again if it’s good, or trying to improve it if not. Many a fine building landscape developed just that way. You’ll remember this image from Architecture Without Architects.
Or, for a more contemporary image, how about this?
There’s simply no need to force everything to be different when topographic and microclimatic response will suggest variations anyway. Economic and technological changes over time will do the same job for different places and over time. Instead, we kid ourselves that buildings are a consequence of their time and place when, in reality, it is a moveable feast.
How finely does the TIME & PLACE EXPRESSOMETER really need to be set?
If, say, St. Mary Axe was such a great building solution, then WHY DON’T WE HAVE MORE THAN ONE?
How many times does the same building problem really need to be solved?
This is more than just aversion to repetition. It’s addiction to difference and, until we overcome it, we’re unlikely to improve upon what we have. It’s worse with housing. Do our dwellings really express our individuality more so than, say, our other possessions, clothing, speech, languages, interests, activities or personalities do? We’re not encouraged to believe it’s possible to be a fully rounded human being yet still live in a dwelling the same as many others. Things like this don’t help.
This post is about the virtue of repetition, of doing the same thing again, and of not being afraid to do the same thing again. Of not being afraid to admit that something wasn’t perfect the last time, and to change it only when it’s a good idea to do so. This is how things get better. Here’s a test. How do you feel about this image?
And how about this next image? I imagine that if you hadn’t seen the image above first, you would have felt the same way about this next one.
Now how about this next one? Can we say that each house is different?
Obviously yes, but there’s still a sense in which we can think of them as all being the same. Worse, we all too easily extrapolate this to the people who live in them. No doubt those people all look different and do different things, but we all too easily think they all have much the same lives and do and think much the same things. It comes as a surprise then, to discover when it blows up that some innocuous house was in fact a meth lab. In Australia, this is not as surprising as you’d think.
OK. Compare these next two images. The upper one is chocolate-boxey and the lower one shoe-boxey but what else is different?
For what it’s worth, here’s a plan of the latter. They’re hard to come by. (Thanks Proyectos 4. Me gusta su websitio.)
The only difference I can see is that the buildings at the Törten Siedlung aren’t detached. Somewhere along the way, repetition became bad. This next building was good, and a fair attempt at something newish.
The four later iterations of the Marseilles Unité (1945) are nowhere near as well known. There was Unité d’Habitation Nantes-Rezé in 1952-5, Briey-en-Foret in 1956, Berlin in 1957 and Firminy in 1960. (See here.)
There was also to have been a fifth (or really, a co-third) iteration at Meaux in 1957, but it never happened. Here it is. Were its pilotis an improvement in any sense?
LC’s changes over the five iterations were minor and, if one may say so, not necessarily improvements. Here’s a corridor at Marseilles (1949)
and here’s a corridor at the Berlin Unité of 1957.
Neither have windows at the end where they could have. In Berlin, the distribution of apartment types changes, but this is likely to be a developer request. See?
Only two levels that have the famous double-height living room (blue). Their interlocking nonidentical twins have either height bedrooms (not coloured). There are also single-aspect single-storey studios (yellow) and single-aspect two-storey one-bedroom apartments (red).
In all six iterations, LC kept the lateral bays that, because of how they complicate both access and fire escape, can only be there for compositional reasons. (Think about it. The Marseilles floor plan shown above occurs once every three levels. The stairwell at the top of the T must link sideways to short corridors on every other floor if the apartments they access are studio apartments.)
In other countries however, architects did try to improve upon the Marseilles unité. This is the Loughborough Estate in Brixton, London, designed in 1955 by Leslie Martin of the London County Council.
Martin seems to have solved that problem at Loughborough, as the short corridors on every floor are well lit and ventilated. I imagine the square side windows are kitchen windows – another improvement, but only for some apartments. Three of the nine slab block on the estate are like this.
But all of this is to miss the most important feature. There are five identical slab buildings, not one. There are almost twenty identical point blocks at Roehampton Estate.
Irrespective of whether something is repeated on the same site, or in different places over time, there is a difference between the repeating of something useful and the repeating of something of doubtful use or desirability. It is not the repetition itself that is wrong, but the fact we don’t know how these basic units are each going to work individually. Example. We have our doubts, and rightly so.
Similarly with this next example. Leaving aside the fact that central Paris is razed in this 1923 Corbu reimagining, we don’t know how each of these basic units is going to work.
Ludwig Hilberseimer was a fan of repetition. His mantra was if it’s okay, just do it again. This, later decades would tell us, is ‘Fordist‘ mentality. The slab-block typology is basically okay, he thought – and indeed it is. Here’s his Vertical City of 1924. Do-able.
He was also a fan of vertical repetition. Here, we have repeats of repeats. These blocks however, are a bit more convincing than Corby’s although those re-entrant corners are always tricky to fill.
And then there’s this. Many think Sant’Elia circa 1914 but it’s Mario Chiattone. The unit is that of the urban block, endlessly repeated.
This is Chiattone circa 1914. His drawing style wasn’t as cutesy as Sant’Elia’s.
Here’s something closer to the present. If it’s Brasilia, then it could only by Oscar Niemeyer. And it is. Circa 1956. Looks quite nice.
Here’s another look.
This sums it up totally! I can’t find any plans for these apartment buildings but how many times have we seen this ‘catedral’ when it’s a one-off and not a useful prototype?
Difference and dubious novelty is lauded yet repetition, for all the benefits it has for the saving of time and resources, seems to be a dirty word.
Uniqueness is king. It’s not that the saving of time and resources has become a bad thing – it’s at least as important as it ever was. What we have in its place is fake difference. Fake difference first became apparent in the late 20th century with the architectural device best described as pseudo-random windows. We know it well.
It then went upmarket. Here’s some pseudo-random windows jollying up the rear of Foster & Partners’ Albion Riverside circa 2000.
Pseudo-randomness then spread to buildings themselves, with heights being ‘played with’ to create variation for the sake of variation. Once again, this phenomena isn’t limited to low-cost mass housing. Here’s the same thing happening on some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
Or how about this, David Chipperfield’s City of Justice? Barcelona. 2009. “Legible at every scale,” says Rory Olcayto. Of the six visual building attributes of Colour, Pattern, Shape, Position, Alignment and Size, every one of them but Pattern is contriving to be different and Pttern is the one that’s overbearing. It’s definitely a sophisticated composition, but why does self-similarity have to substitute for repetition?
Self-similarity. A couple of weeks back, I posted this next image and drew attention to how the cores were identical, repeated. Three of the office towers are (as they say in the language of patent documentation) substantially similar. If one is going to rotate and flip them, then they could just as easily have been the same.
With the lower two, only the building rotation and few column spacings are different.
The real similarities (as opposed to self-similarities) between the office buildings are best seen in section. Underneath it all, it’s columns and slabs. Columns are on top of each other wherever they can be. Cores and atriums are vertical and identical. It reminds me of Chipperfield’s City of Justice in that any differences between the pieces are superficial and arbitrary.
What was remarkable about the first wave of Post Modernism was how little it had to do with the insides of buildings. Apart from the stair-chimney collision at the Vanna Venturi House, all the PM action was on the outside. PM had nothing new to say about how a building is configured or used.
What we’re looking at here folks, is a new type of surface ornament where the ornament is the surface itself. Elephant in the room, etc.
It’s clearly going to take a long time for us to see the sense in making buildings the same, and only changing the way we design and build them when we can think of ways to do it better. I accept that it may not be the social function of architecture to improve upon useful prototypes. What worries me is that architecture is not adding to society’s stock of useful prototypes worth improving or, for that matter, even worth repeating.