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Architecture Myths #14: The Difficult Whole

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The phrase “the difficult whole” comes at us via Robert Venturi, as quoted by Jean La Marche’s in “The Familiar and the Unfamiliar in Twentieth-century Architecture”,

the difficult whole

with reference to Venturi’s “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”.


The important bits are

the difficult whole is “the difficult unity through inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion”.

I guess this is a dig at Mies, of whom it was once said that it’s easy to create a perfect object if you ignore a lot of problems. Venturi went on to say

the difficult whole in an architecture of complexity and contradiction includes multiplicity and diversity of elements in relationships that are inconsistent or among the weaker kinds perceptually”

But then he would. It’s a recipe for anything goes and it was all good. Until it went bad. Venturi was promoting

the organisation of a unique whole through conventional parts and the judicious introduction of new parts.


What were the conventional bits? A chimney? A driveway? It doesn’t really matter anymore. But I must say it’s nice to see this house has some neighbours. Who’d have ever known these past fifty years? Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was written in 1966. It’s all history now. With the advent of Deconstructionism, The Difficult Whole was to become The Inscrutable Whole as entire buildings were contrived to imply they were either evolving away from or perhaps towards some state of conceptual, if not physical, wholeness.


This kind of did it for the difficult whole but, given the dead-end Deconstructivism led us into (dynamic shapes that signify change for clients totally uninterested in change in any real sense), the difficult whole still has relevance today if we shift the meaning of “conventional” to “existing”.

For in 2014, recycling, refurbishing, reusing and repurposing are all good. Sometimes and still more often than not, perfectly good buildings are demolished and replaced with lesser buildings because:

  • they aren’t large enough
  • they don’t exploit the site enough to provide maximum return on investment
  • they aren’t fashionable enough

Makeovers can sometimes overcome the third but, sometimes not.


Overcoming the first two though, requires extending or adding onto the building.

We have no theory, policy, or any way of evaluating extensions and additions to buildings. 

With extensions and additions, what was once whole is under pressure to become a new whole. Destroying an aesthetic whole to create a new and larger one is not easy. I’ll say it now. I’m predisposed to thinking the idea of the (aesthetic) whole is a myth anyway but the myth only becomes apparent when an attempt is made to enlarge it or add to it. Forming a new aesthetic “whole” is logically impossible. But that’s me. Let’s look at some examples.

• • •

Extending a building is conventionally performed in ways that are contextually sensitive – whatever that means. What’s good in one situation isn’t necessarily good in another. What’s more, what’s good in one situation may be good and the completely opposite thing in the same situation may also be good. It’s a moveable feast, like “Big-B beauty”. One interpretation of contextual sensitivity is to be unobtrusive, preferably invisible. This is the avoidance of creating a new whole. It might be the most honest way of adding to a building in “we can’t improve it so let’s pretend we didn’t try” kind of way.


• • •

A more common way is to take cues of colour and/or pattern and/or shape and/or position and/or alignment and/or size/scale from the existing structure. This is generally regarded as safe, if not good.

There are other ways of creating associations more forced but that nevertheless maintain a distinction between new and old. We’re of course assuming that maintaining that distinction is a good thing. To me, these are all unsuccessful for, without something to bounce off, they are nothing. They don’t know what they want to be. Their inoffensiveness is offensive.


One of the principles of “modern” architecture is that buildings be true to their time. I suspect this is just a market driver that applauds obsolescence and encourages pointless production but, all the same, we’ll have none of that contrived historicism or attempts to make buildings appear older than they actually were thank you very much.

Fake pedigree: George Devey was the master of a technique whereby a house was organised into different wings to give the impression the house at that point in time was the result of a series of additions and extensions over decades, if not centuries. Here’s his Betteshanger, built around 1861.

George Devey – Betteshanger

He provided the house with a complete and entirely bogus pedigree which ran somewhat as follows. All that remained of the medieval house was a curious old tower, which had been re-windowed and repaired with different materials over the centuries.

Untitlbetteshanger detail 1

A low rambling wing had been added in Elizabethan times, entered by a quaint Renaissance porch with a carved oriel window over its archway.

No. This post is about the opposite. It’s about those extensions to buildings that don’t give a damn about contextualism or suiting or pleasing anyone AND THAT ARE ALL THE BETTER FOR IT.

But I don’t mean the likes of this. This is a parasite piggybacking on its host. It’s a separate thing. It doesn’t combine to create anything new. It’s following some rules and breaking others.  It doesn’t know whether it wants to be on the building it is, or not. It’s not telling us where it stands or what it really wants to be.


On the other hand, there’s too much synergy happening in this next example from Valparaiso, Chile … It’s an attempt to create a “difficult whole” and it’s trying too hard. The host building has been assimilated and lost its soul in the process. Have you ever been kept awake by someone trying to be quiet? This building is annoying in that way.


At least it actually adds some extra space – unlike this next example that may just as well have been a new building adjacent to the ruin. As it is, the new 100% addition refuses to let the ruin be a ruin. The existing structure lends gravitas but receives nothing in return.


This next well-known example is annoying for the much the same reasons. Its effect IS DEPENDENT UPON forced contrast. The building exists solely as something to bounce off of. The real objective is to showcase the architects’ “sensitivity” to context. With this Libeskind building, the parts exist at the same location but don’t want to be together either visually or conceptually. It’s further loaded with murky meaning.


At least this next one doesn’t suck the blood out of its host as it does the contrasty thing.


Sculpture likes a plinth. It gets it up in the air where it can be seen.


Additions like this next treat the host building as nothing more than a piece of real estate, a plinth and nothing more.

wrok house 1983

It belongs to the same family as lesser-known buildings like this. See here for more.


And this, which I’d forgotten about. Cheers MVRDV.


Here’s an existing building used as a horizontal plinth to showcase … something.


Despite all these parasitic buildings using the host building as real estate, they destroy the existing wholeness as they attempt to assimilate it into its own. They couldn’t not. Here’s an example. Can we say the new whole is any better than the former? Is it even built yet?


 • • •

This concept of the difficult whole is responsible for screwing things up. If extensions and additions aren’t being demeaned and denigrated by unwarranted subservience then they’re being demeaned and denigrated by unwarranted arrogance. I conclude it’s the attempt to create the whole that’s the problem. This isn’t ever pointed out as the problem because – whether the route of subservience or arrogance is chosen – it showcases the architect’s skills in dealing with it. This, I suspect, is what accounts for the persistence of the myth of “The Difficult Whole”.

• • •

But what if there was no such thing as the myth of “The Difficult Whole”? These next two buidings ignore it. They play the cards they’re dealt and manage to be what they are and do what they do whilst acknowledging their hosts. They’re obviously additions. Whilst accepting of their circumstances, they’re not slaves to them. Furthermore, they’re not trying to be anything they’re not. All this time we’ve been preoccupied with the difficult bit of The Difficult Whole but I’m suggesting it’s The Difficult Whole that’s the myth. [That old charlatan Venturi!] After all, who but architects say that architects should presume to control the whole? Here’s two misfits.

First up is the National Architecture Union Headquarters Building, in Bucharest, Romania.


Fab – especially when compared with the heartless and bloodless Valparaiso building. This approach has a refreshing candour that all the above examples of approaches to extensions and additions lack. And here’s the Campari Headquarters in Milan.


Thank you Campari, and thank you Fortunato Depero for, it would seem, giving Mario Botta the winning idea.