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Architectural Assimilation

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Architecturally, nothing can be said about it” is what we hear when there’s no fallback context. For most people this is a truism but it’s really only a tautology. Not having a context for understanding a building as architecture means it can’t be architecture. This’d be no problem if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that buildings with no value as Architecture can still have value for humanity.

Some other post will document the Architecture vs. Architecture for Humanity spat over the right to claim concern for humanity. In this post though, and to introduce the concept of architectural assimilation, I’d like focus on more tangible matters and those buildings that simply need to do important things or accommodate unusual requirements to ensure the safety and well being of humans.

These buildings can be one-offs like the Princess Elizabeth Antarctic research centre or specialised typologies such as lighthouses that, incidentally, have proven curiously resistant to architectural assimilation despite being Durable, Useful and Picturesque. I suspect this is because they don’t wear excess well and can’t be reinvented. Moreover, they have only one context for being understood and it’s a functional one. For not playing the game, lighthouses are relegated to being part of the scenery.


Other buildings of value for humanity but not as Architecture threaten to expose the game. They trigger a process of assimilation into the Architecture canon. Lighthouses are a lost cause but, every now and then, along comes a building accommodating some totally new and useful function and almost immediately Architecture wants to add it to the Services to Humanity section of its CV. Factories were once such special buildings.

The more a useful building is determined by criteria outside the realm of architecture, the more urgent the task of assimilating it into Architecture by providing it with a context for being understood as architecture. We learned that these contexts don’t have to be true.

1. Assimilation by Context Transplant

My first example is of how something meaningful but without meaningful visual presence is vulnerable to architectural assimilation by a parfait of contexts. This perfectly illustrates how architecture works. CERN‘s supercooled particle accelerator was built underground in order to shield it from interference from sub-atomic particles. It’s big.


The proton synchrotron is the smaller ring on the south.

It’s also big, but begins to be comprehensible as a series of spaces.


Here’s the Linac (Linear Accelerator) II duoplasmatron source.


Here’s  what a linear accelerator that boosts negative hydrogen ions to high energies looks like.


This is the antiproton decelerator that produces low-energy antiprotons for the study of antimatter.


This is part of the 27-kilometer ring of superconducting magnets forming the Large Haldron Collider which is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.


This is what a super proton synchrotron looks like.


And this is a compact muon solenoid (a general-purpose detector) used for various things including searching for extra dimensions and particles that could make up dark matter. Images of the CMS are usually used to illustrate articles about CERN. It’s colourful, symmetrical and awesome. 


The facility has portions above ground but they’re not so interesting either visually or conceptually. And nor do they have to be. The entrance and admin buildings look like admin buildings for anything, anywhere.


The fact something so large and important could have no visual impact or offended Charles Jencks who went off to design something he thought more appropriate.  Here’s his best shot at representing an understanding of the mysteries of the cosmos – as opposed to actually understanding them and which is what the facility is about.


Green Oasis, landforms and underground buildings for CERN.  The design surrounds The Globe and protects it from the high speed traffic to its south, providing a buffer to noise and industrial landscape impinging from any side.  To communicate the discoveries at CERN we have developed two iconographic programmes.  One concerns a circular walk of mounds around the edge of the site based on the cosmic uroboros.  These also depict the units of the universe at all sizes growing from the tiniest objects to the universe as a whole.  This ‘ring’ relates to a 27 kilometre underground accelerator and the fact that the universe has architectural structure from the quark to the great wall of gallaxies [sic.].  The second set of symbols present the everyday collisions of the accelerator as a striking icon, which relates directly to the measuring instruments that surround the explosions.  Also it is a good analogy of the eye which measures the universe – a new eyeconology. [ ! ]

2. Cosmetic or Prosthetic Assimilation

If context transplant isn’t on the cards, the addition of elements known to be architecture is a less-expensive and time-proven tradition of creating architectural context.   


Yes, we’re talking ornament – the borrowing of forms and motifs from things to let people know we’re talking about architecture. If buildings were people, we’d call it social climbing but it’s what Peter Behrens did with the factory, earning himself a place in architecture history books for his “services to architecture”.


The Falkirk Wheel is a strange beast. It’s like a dinosaur designed by a committee. In fact, a 20-strong team of architects and engineers was assembled by British Waterways. Led by Tony Kettle from architects RMJM, the initial concepts and images were created with the mechanical concept proposed by the design team from Butterley and M G Bennetts. The final design was a cooperative effort between the British Waterways Board, engineering consultants Arup, Butterley Engineering and RMJM.

The plan was to connect two canals at different heights. Ostensibly, it’s a useful thing but, being a UK Millennium Project,

planners decided early on to create a dramatic 21st-century landmark structure to reconnect the canals, instead of simply recreating the historic lock flight.

Things claimed to be inspirations for the design include

a double headed (Celtic) axe,
a double headed (Celtic) axe,
the propellor of a ship,
the propellor of a ship,
and the rib cage of a whale.
and the rib cage of a whale.

Kettle described the Wheel as “a beautiful, organic flowing thing, like 

the spine of a fish"
the spine of a fish”

and the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland described it as

"a form of contemporary sculpture."
“a form of contemporary sculpture.”

This selection of associations touches all bases, plus a few more. We have:

  • the Celts, history, metal, metalworking, metal swinging
  • water, engineering, rotation
  • water, Jonah, boats (hurrah!)
  • boats swallowed by large structures
  • art, engineering as architecture

This’ll be the allusion to the whale rib cage then.

The double-headed axe confuses me for The Falkirk Wheel is rotationally symmetrical about a centre rather than mirrored about an axis. The context for rotational symmetry is further confounded by the fact the wheel rotates five times in one direction and then five times the other for reasons metallurgical.

Due to the changing load as the wheel rotates in alternating directions, some sections experience total stress reversals. In order to avoid fatigue that could lead to cracks, sections were bolted rather than welded, using over 14,000 bolts and 45,000 bolt holes.

What I find odd about all this contextualisation is that The Falkirk Wheel contains people, in boats, in a container of water, openable at both ends, being rotated and lifted 20 metres up in the air and not once is safety mentioned. This next image is a flight of locks that solves the same problem with less risk, less technology, very little metal and no energy input other than human.


3. Assimilation by Memory Implant

Assimilation into architecture can also occur after the event by later attempts to make some pseudo-qualitative context stick. This is the approach taken by much of what counts as architectural criticism as well as a lot of writing about architectural history. Abstruseness of the proferred contexts is presented as, and often mistaken for, critical worth.

Having a revival this year was Ludwig Leo, often taken to be the architect of the following building, Circulation Tank #2, another strange beast.


With its remarkable form and odd colours, the “Pink Pipe” (1967-1974) is one of Berlin’s strangest buildings. It is commonly attributed to architect Ludwig Leo (1924-2012), but in fact Leo’s role in the project was limited. The project for a new Umlauftank (cavitation tunnel) for the Research Institute for Hydraulic Engineering and Shipbuilding was conceived and developed by the shipbuilding engineer Christian Boës, as a testing place for waterborne objects (a.k.a. boats). The layout of the facility, with its vertically oriented pipe and a testing hall riding on top, was determined by the physical requirements of the scientific facility.

This I believe. The point of this structure is to test models of ship hulls in an artificial water flow. It is understandably preferable to have equal forces acting on port and starboard sides. This can’t happen with a horizontal loop – or at least not a small one.


Leo was invited to provide artistic direction for the project. The ensuing collaboration between Boës and Leo resulted in a unique engineering/architecture hybrid. Leo succeeded in integrating his wide-ranging architectural sensibility seamlessly with Boës’ engineering concept. Leo gave the Umlauftank a sculptural and monumental presence by raising it on a concrete plinth and designing a mysterious, subtly anthropomorphic box, thus bringing the Umlauftank into dialogue with its urban context. No clear explanation has ever been given for the colours blue and pink, though oblique references to contemporary Pop Art and Archigram seem the most likely. [uncube]

What we have here is an attempt to claim an architectural context – a pseudo-qualitative one – for something already determined by basic hydraulics. It is true that the concrete plinth gives a sculptural and monumental presence but concrete plinths are also very good at distributing the dead and live loads of pipes containing several hundred tons of moving water. FFS. A shed raised to where it needs to be to do its job becomes slightly anthropomorphic and in dialogue with its urban context. Credit is given where credit is not due. The only checkable statement in the second paragraph is Leo was invited to provide artistic direction for the project. This might be true, but the rest confuses artistic direction with architectural services.

But hey who cares? The building is now Architecture.


Assimilation by memory implant is basically revisionist history, the after-the-event provision of a context for understanding something that was ignored at the time because the course of history deemed worth recording went some other direction.

• • •

The process of architectural assimilation isn’t confined to buildings of value for humanity although such buildings are primary targets. The addition of a viable context for understanding can bring any building into, or back into, the collective memory for no reason other than to enrich the collective memory.  

“your diversity will be added to our own!”

My best example of this is Thomas McNulty and Mary Otis Stevens’ Lincoln House. There’s some wonderful images here on OfHouses, and taken by Julius Schulman, no less.

Thanks to new contexts reinterpreting the building in terms of space and energy, this 1965 house, long demolished, has had an afterlife on the lecture circuit and in academic journals.

“The curves were throwing you out rather than holding you in. Each projected its energy into nature. [Stevens & McNulty] used the invisible power of the concave walls to relate the building beyond its site to the woods and fields of rural Lincoln— and beyond to the universe itself.”

Less expansively and in an attempt to provide a historical context for understanding, the house is also claimed to be the first reinforced concrete house in the United States although I think Architecture Misfit #2Irving Gill’s 1914 Dodge House has a stronger claim.