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Architectural Myths #12: The Daring Cantilever

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Cantilevers have little practical use apart from facilitating the construction of bridges.

sydney harbour bridge under construction

or allowing a bit more floor space past the last row of columns.


As a general rule, it’s easier and less expensive to use columns to support a structure rather than cantilever it over nothing like, for example, this.


With cantilevers, we notice there aren’t any columns. How much we notice that absence depends upon how much simpler and easier it would have been to use them. This is the beautiful and powerful simplicity of the cantilever.

Cantilevers are the original “look at me!” architecture.

Their apparent independence of gravity makes them thrilling to look at but, as it happens, also makes them an effective indicator of not having to do things the simplest and most inexpensive way. Cantilevers are a highly visible way of sucking up excess money. In other words, they are beautiful.

We’re seeing a lot more cantilevers these days. Their visual thrill photographs well and is just what the age of internet architecture wants, but let’s come back to that after a brief (visual) history of cantelevers.

1890: The Forth Bridge
1890: The Forth Bridge (I love these guys – they’re internet naturals!)
1910: The roof of the Robie House
1910: The roof of the Robie House
1923: El Lissitzky's Wolkenbuegel (Cloud Iron)
1923: El Lissitzky’s Wolkenbuegel (Cloud Iron)

This recent building – The Eaton Residence by E Cobb Architects – has more than a touch of Wolkenbugel about it (in a nice way).

eaton residence e cobb architects

The cantilever gained some artistic cred at the Bauhaus thanks to Lazlo Moholy-Nagy (or possibly Albers – it matters little which). One of them correctly noted that materials were more visually exciting when their physical properties were pushed to almost the point of failure.

1923: Photograph of a study in balance

Ever since, cantilevers have been seen as daring and a sign of wild unconventionality, of a distaste for doing things the easy, simple and inexpensive way. This has its price, and flaunting that price is of course the point of the modern cantilever.

1937: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater – “Uncomfortable with what he saw as Wright’s insufficient experience using reinforced concrete, Kaufmann had the architect’s daring cantilever design reviewed by a firm of consulting engineers. Upon receiving their report, Wright took offense and immediately requested Kaufmann to return his drawings and indicated he was withdrawing from the project. Kaufmann relented to Wright’s gambit and the engineer’s report was subsequently buried within a stone wall of the house.
“For the cantilevered floors, Wright and his team used upside down T-shaped beams integrated into a monolithic concrete slab which both formed the ceiling of the space below and provided resistance against compression. The contractor, Walter Hall, also an engineer, produced independent computations and argued for increasing the reinforcing steel in the first floor’s slab. Wright refused the suggestion. While some sources state that it was the contractor who quietly doubled the amount of reinforcement, according to others, it was at Kaufmann’s request that his consulting engineers redrew Wright’s reinforcing drawings and doubled the amount of steel specified by Wright.” (W)

Moholy-Nagy was right about the materials failure thing.

1937: Guiseppe Pettazzi's Fiat Tagliero in Eritrea
1937: Guiseppe Pettazzi’s Fiat Tagliero in Eritrea – The tower supports a pair of 15m cantilevered wings, which are built in reinforced concrete and are structurally unsupported. Although this was Petazzi’s original design, local authorities at the time insisted that each wing should be supported by pillars. This was believed to be a local myth, until proved when the original plans were found in 2001. Another urban legend states that Pettazzi settled the argument by holding a revolver to the main builder’s head, threatened to kill him if they did not remove the supports. In the end the supports were removed and the wings held, just as they do today. (W)

Here’s a wild one by Sergio Bernardes – that other Brazilian architect.

1970: Sergio Bernardes' Palácio da Abolição, Ceará, Brazil
1970: Sergio Bernardes’ Palácio da Abolição, Ceará, Brazil

The Palácio da Abolição ushers in the era of the contemporary cantilever where we notice the absence of columns more because there’s no apparent reason for the columns to be absent in the first place. Don’t be fooled by the pool – I don’t think it’s that deep.

1997: MVRDV's Wozoco Housing
1997: MVRDV’s Wozoco Housing  – The story goes that municipality regulations dictated the height and the footprint. If the municipality allowed a building owner to circumvent their regulations so easily and maximise floor area, then it’s a very different municipality from any I’ve ever had dealings with.
1999: Jean Nouvel’s Lucerne Cultural Centre doesn’t count – it’s only a roof.
2000: MVRDV's balancing barn
2010: The very same MVRDV’s vile balancing barn
shenzen stock exchange
2013: OMA’s heavyhanded Shenzen Stock Exchange – doing the criss-crossy thing again

This next cantilever though, is the essence of cheeky contemporary cantilevery. We have Eduardo Souto de Moura to thank – you’ll remember of course that he won the 2011 Pritzker Prize. And not for nothing he did! By creating something so expensively pointless and pointlessly expensive, he’s communicating with the very soul of architecture. Look and learn my friends!


The flaunting of money has never looked so humble – a true master. This is not a shed.

Souto Moura Valença (2)

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Here’s some out-takes that didn’t make the final edit.



  • …And did they uncover said engineer’s report when they had to do all those remedial works at Fallingwater? (That would be funny.)

    Nice article – had the same sort of scepticism back in 1st year when everyone was pinning up these wild schemes with massive projections. I asked whether cantilevers were a ‘pretentious’ thing; tutors told me to stop being silly, though they did concede that the cantilever is ‘an inherently heroic gesture’. “Gratuitous” is a good word.

    BTW I had an idea for under the category of ‘things architects do” — any way I can send it to you?

  • Graham McKay, you are my new hero. Like Tom Wolfe all those decades ago, you slay the sacred cows. And this piece on cantilevers does this succinctly.