Skip to content

The Big Brush

Post date:

The Big Brush is the practice of treating apartment housing as 20-25 metre wide lines drawn across a site 3D. The 20-25 metres comes from the 10–12 metre maximum depth for a habitable room backed by a non-habitable room plus an extra 2 metres for a double-loaded corridor. Here’s Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Apartments. Detroit, 1956.

Lafayette tower

Here’s SOM’s Lake Meadow. Chicago, 1961. These plans are from that wonderful site, housing


The Big Brush is a winning formula and difficult to improve upon. Here’s an example from Dublin in 2001. Pay no attention to the second entrance lobby on the first floor. The drawing doesn’t appear to have been checked by anyone.


Nevertheless, blocks configured like this can look rather samey


and the corridors can be a bit gloomy.


One solution is to combine short blocks to make A New Shape.


Remember Frank Gehry Beekman Tower?


Here’s a plan of levels 9-22.

“Geez, Frankie, for a supposedly luxury development, those internal corner apartments are f**king nasty!”

Especially M0F and M0G.

“Couldn’t you, with your infinite knowledge, wisdom and benevolence, have combined them into a possibly okay 1-bed apartment?”

From this plan, it’s clear Gehry was just the window dresser. Sure, people can see some sky as they wait for the elevator but the developer knows exactly how much that window is costing. This is another quietly ruthless building. It obviously fulfils some kind of housing need but that aspect of its existence receives no coverage. It’s not the kind of thing an office puts in a press release. It’s innovation is superficial. Window dressing is, sadly, all too accurate.

All that mediacized windy-effect curviness does nothing for the occupants – especially those poor internal corner people. In passing, out of twenty apartments, there is 1 x 2-bed apartment, 12 x 1-bed apartments and 7 x studio apartments. None are any nicer than they need to be. “Architecture” exists in a different dimension, a parallel universe. The reluctance of traditional media outlets to say or publish anything in the form of criticism is deeply disturbing.

To summarise. The Big Brush lets you paint in lines,


around corners,


in curves [one from the personal archive!],


make shapes, honeycomb,


or any random squiggle you like. This next one’s that easily-excited shapeist Oscar Niemeyer’s bootylicious Copan building.

It’s true – there’s no visible advertising in Sao Paulo!

But just look at that unexploited roof space! Whether Pune or New York, we know what to do with that!


Here’s a newish twist! The monetised roof space that is the terraces and balconies, is made to appear as a twisted wall instead of a terraced roof. It’s a brilliant way of disguising a truncated courtyard block. This excellent image is from the website of Allesandro Ronfini.


Here’s a plan. Dits.


It’s actually a bit of an untruth to say all residents have a view of the Hudson River, but this plan is the hardcore application of tried-and-tested property development principles. It’s a predictable shame all the attention will be diverted to the “let-the-roof-be-a-roof” roof.


There’s some more recent pics here.

BIG does have a history of playing down The Big Brush and why not? There’s no need to destroy one’s image as a creative. Developers instinctively understand The Big Brush anyway for anything else is lower return on investment. When Bjarke Ingels says Yes Is More, he’s showing developers he gets it. The real art is is to disguise the strategic commercialism underlying it. This isn’t criticism. As I’ve said, “the history of architecture is full of buildings that got built because the numbers stacked up”. Most of those buildings are famous for the wrong reasons. Let’s check BIG’s back catalogue for The Big Brush! This is the World Village of Women Sports 2009. The above W57 project doesn’t seem such a surprise now.


BIG take The Big Brush to its logical extreme is Yes is More, ever escalating.

If you believe BIG, The Big Brush is the solution to social housing, transportation problems and entertainment voids. As long as buildings have to be built on ground, it can’t get any more extreme. Here’s where MVRDV step up to the plate.

Technically, this isn’t The Big Brush as there’s only one double-loaded corridor at the top where the width finally permits. It’s A Small Brush, in mid-air, extruded.


You can find a full set of plans in the current issue of MARK magazine.

rotterdam market mark

This next photo hints at exciting new property development possibilities once people such as that mother (not to mention the child) think of this as normal. =(

Untitled 2

Other rooms on the other side of this double-sided apartment face a conventional outside but here we have a quasi-public space being used to add value. The Big Brush no longer has to have outdoors on both sides. This moves it on a bit from BIG’s so-yesterday perimeter block monetizations premised on two outsides. What we used to know as space-enclosing walls is now money-earning real estate. Respect, MVRDV.

Rather than merely enclosing space, walls have been monetised.  Rather, why not exploit the structure that encloses the space to exploit the property? Brilliant! Why didn’t we think of this before? Why has nobody called it for what it is?

Shopping malls are good candidates for this sort of development. Any atrium could just be extended up a few storeys and the view from it monetised.



Dubai Airport, United Arab Emirates

Hotel lobbies.


Railway stations.


This could be be the final nail in the coffin for Modern Architecture and that schtick about “internal space” as the new subject of architecture. Space was only ever just poor mans’ land anyway not that we weren’t grateful to own a few square metres of it. Now that any large space with a bit of activity can be marketed as a value-adding view, the agenda for architecture this century might be about the monetisation of the enclosing elements themselves.

I have a lot of respect for large global commercial architecture enterprises such BIG and MVRDV. They continue to invent and develop new ways to exploit property space and now, it seems, building elements to secure profits and prestige for their clients and themselves. 


  • I found your blog some months ago and have been following it with fervor. You have managed to put to words the thing has annoyed me so much about contemporary architecture.

    On the topic of habitation, I though I would bring an architect/project to your mind, that seems to fit quite well the principles, that you are arguing for. In Chile there is an architect Alejandro Aravena and the project is called Elemental. He has come up with a kind of social housing, where the government only builds half of the house (the part that’s more tecnical) and leaves the construction of the rest to the inhabitants themselves. I didn’t find any mention of them in the blog. Here is their website and a video that explains the project

    It seems they are really trying to improve the wellbeing of the people in the favelas. At the same time I’m a bit sceptical if that really is their objective of if it actually works as well as they claim. Claiming to do something doesn’t guarantee this is actually achieved or even aimed for. I haven’t found a single piece that would criticise the project. For example I wonder why one of the partners of the company is the Chilean national oil company COPEC.

    • Thanks David,

      I’ve been seeing images of this project – Quinta Monroy – on and off for the past year. It all seems good on the surface doesn’t it? I’ve just watched the video but, before I did, I was thinking about your comment that you’d never heard anyone say anything bad about this project. I automatically thought that “We’re only shown what architects want to show us in order to satisfy their own media agendas.” It’s my new axiom for our times. I actually think it’s worse, but that will be the theme of not my next post, but the one after.

      The VIMEO vid is very well produced. (Why?) The first third is scene setting with music with gravitas in the back. It’s difficult to object to anything we’re presented with. The second third is testimonials from people who have benefited from the project – or so I imagine. I believe them too.

      The bits I don’t believe are what the architect says. Aravena implies 50% of the house is built by government funds and the other 50% of the house is up to the tenant to create. But this is true only if we talk VOLUME. If we’re talking about COST then it’s a different matter because two parallel structural walls outside your window (and the right to enclose that space) mean that the other half of your house is half-built already. The government is paying for 80% or more BY COST yet the owners receive 50% BY VOLUME. But everyone seems happy. I think we’re the ones being scammed.

      ELEMENTAL seem to have been involved in several projects dealing with high-density low-income housing and this is encouraging, but we’ll have to see what they do in the future before we decide whether they were sincere about housing the poor, or merely using it as a stepping stone to something greater. Elemental’s latest – that blocky thing in Santiago – is featured in the current MARK. I remember reading about it just a few minutes ago – ahh it was here (their own website).

      In this way, strategies like natural cross ventilation or protecting windows against solar radiation combine with the great thermal mass of the building’s solid enclosure to reduce its energy consumption proportionally to its energy needs, which thanks to these environmental measures drops from 120 to 45 kWh/m2/year.

      Maybe for heating and cooling but what about illumination? The claim wasn’t repeated in the MARK article. More and more, I’m beginning to understand how “narratives” are tailored to fit whatever people wish to read.

      Aravena was at the AA in London in 1999 which puts him suspiciously close to Rem Koolhaas and his dastardly legacy. Aravena is going from strength to strengh. Check this.

      For fun, I put Aravena and Koolhaas into google. One could always check around twitter to see who tweets and follows who or who his media people like him to appear to be associated with. Niemeyer?!

      Thanks David for alerting me to this.



  • forgot to include, those f’n awful NYC bathrooms with the standard 5’0 bath and shower over to comply with the demented accessabilty codes.
    luxury indeed……….
    Coober Pedy here I come

  • spot on.
    the prime issue with almost all NYC apartments is the crap planning, particularly of those spaces that require a certain functionality to work, generally known as bathrooms and kitchens.
    the planning is usually done by the architect of record or the architect who does the zoning diagram, in NYC probably 90% of all large apartment blocks are by 2 firms, where the aim is too achieve max square footage regardless of the functionality of the rooms and apartment created.
    If you lucky, like FoG was, you then get to mess withy the facades and ground floor lobby. your design is then interpreted by the architect of record, so you can end up anywhere.
    living is an apartment looking pout at the shopping mall with no real sunlight, no real air and a fake sky. fuck me.

  • it could be waste in your viewpoint but significant for others. It is experience that are valued there brought by these ideas. although i agree that not all projects respond to needed requirements and simply aesthetics making it truly impractical and useless.. but please don’t generalize that most design throwing just space for wastage because they have implications beyond our ideas…try to put your asthmatic patients in hospital in coffin like size room,hope you wont kill it or try to fit all people in airport with mezzanine like height. or to make more compact and space savings for everyone and ignore all other preferences and freedom. lets arranged all buildings overlapping like tombs.. lets imagine how ruthless our lifetime would be. Personally, i want free space… i dont want to get confined in conventional space savings designs. it this design disturb you.. make your own building. narrow it as much you want and you live there alone. don’t drag us with your hallucinations.

    • I agree to some level.. I think?

      One of my favourite buildings in Perth is the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
      It is purely because of the huge open atrium in the centre of the building, to which all hotel room doors face onto, that it breaks completely free of the typical dingy, long dimly lit corridors, and unpleasant feelings of so many other hotels (EG The Duxton). The whole hotel consequently changes in brightness and lighting as the day goes on. It is bright and white in the morning as you walk out of your room. Then pleasant in the evening with the warm tinted lighting. Never dingy, never eerie and no unpleasant hotel vibes.

      I was thinking about just how much (1/3.. 1/8?) of the potential floor space (or maybe more importantly budget etc) had been sacrificed for it, while at the same time thinking how ever much that figure was, it was completely worth it.

      It was space well used.

  • Interesting post as usual.
    Just reading Mark 53 now. Thought you might have also been interested by the Rural Studio 20K house projects as I was reading it.

    • Hi Josh,

      I’m thinking Rural Studio might have to be Architecture Misfits #16. (#15 is coming soon). Or perhaps starting a Misfits’ Prize just for them because it’s unlikely they’ll receive The Pritzker even though they fit the criteria. Ostensibly.

      To honor a living architect or architects whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.

      Despite their clear commitment, I used to think their buildings always happened to have one unnecessary detail that betrayed architectural pretensions (though it’s unfair to criticise otherwise totally virtuous buildings when … well, you know). I’m pleased to see they’re moving away from prototypes and into the field of production. I really hope Rural Studio are awarded the Pritzker Prize someday. We can make popcorn, pull up chairs and watch Patrik Schumacher implode online.

      I also appreciated the article on Be-Fun architects. I never knew about them. There’s a logic at work, albeit an unfamiliar one. I’m amazed at the degree of architectural invention that can be applied to four tiny apartments without compromising buildability. I like how all four apartments are equal. None is “the best.” Many people fail to understand that the Japanese don’t really choose to live in apartments as small as these. These tiny apartments are, on some level, fulfilling a real housing need.

      I’ll upload some images so that others can see what I’m on about. Cheers.