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The Mat Building

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A mat building is a building that has access, layout, daylighting and ventilation solved for a plan unit that’s repeated as often as needed. Variations are allowed. A quick search on the term usually returns the same examples.

The Free University of Berlin, Candilis, Josic, Woods and Scheidhelm, 1963

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Venice Hospital proposal, Le Corbusier, 1964


It’s easy to imagine LC stepping off the train in Venice and proclaiming “Your pilotis are too low!” The architectural media footprint of LC’s Venice Hospital flares up and goes away again like a rash. It’s big right now as people find much to say about it as mat building field space or both. It may be a mat building but it’s not a good one.


Patients’ rooms are on the top level of this four-storey building where they can be illuminated solely by skylights but daylighting hasn’t really been solved.

Those skylights pinwheel in four different directions which makes each room a lottery for quality and quantity of illumination. If awake, perhaps one-eighth of patients get a chance to see move across the wall at the foot of their beds, shadows cast by plants as vestigial roof garden. So no, daylighting hasn’t been solved.

Circulation is iffy too. Was it really a good idea to place the corridors necessary for the hospital’s functioning on the third level yet the patients’ rooms on the fourth?* And link them by ramps as vestigial architectural promenades? This decision doubled the width of all four corridors changing the arterial circulation efficiency from 10% to 19%.


Once in the wards, layout and circulation aren’t good for all wards have parallel dead-end corridors doubling staff walking distances and making a mockery of ‘doing the rounds’. The outermost of the three ward corridors are single-loaded to allow roofs above them to end with a vertical window rather than a sloping roof.


This decision reduces the already poor spatial efficiency of ward circulation by 17%. For a four-ward hub, the circulation space to reach the entrances to the wards is 18% but total circulation space required to reach the sides of the beds within is 44.6%. This rises to 48.21% for the building average of 3.1 wards per hub. The spatial arrangement is fundamentally flawed.

Venice circulation

The Venetian authorities were initially enthusiastic about how, by means of the horizontal disposition of the hospital, Le Corbusier had tried to avoid any influence upon the historical skyline of Venice.  It took eight years for them to realise (or be forcefully told) how poorly planned this proposal was both spatially and functionally. The project was kept alive until 1972 when the plug was finally pulled. The stated reason is because of “a shift in the city government.” In other words, the clients woke up to the poor value for money they were on track to receive unless something was done.


You must be wondering how the Venetian ill, injured and infirm were ever able to manage without this small city concretely blurring the limits between urban planning and architecture. Venice’s main hospital now, as it was then, is the Santi Giovanni e Paolo Municipal Hospital. In 1819 it was built inside the Scuola Grande di San Marco building (which dates from the late 1400s) but, over the centuries, has grown and continues to grow as hospitals tend to, around a series of linear wards linked to create courtyards with windows having a view of trees.

• • •

Olivetti Centre proposal, Le Corbusier, 1962


Above ground are variously contrived Corbisms but again, the ground level is claimed to be a mat building with corridors connecting ‘cells’, some of which have no external wall surface. One can’t really say light and ventilation have been solved here either.


Whereas it’s clear they have in this schematic of historic Algiers.


Mat buildings still weren’t heard of in 1933 when LC produced his first proposal for Algiers – or even by 1942 when what turned out to be his final iteration was rejected. This rejection may have been due to a different kind of shift in the city government for in November 1942 French Algeria was to cease being under Vichy control.


Urban Study and Demonstration Mat-Building, Kuwait, Alison and Peter Smithson, 1968-1972


Once more we have architects mucking about in the Middle East. A’n’P correctly saw the Middle Eastern city as embodying mat building principles


but despite claiming to be returning the mat building to the Middle East they seemed to have had something different in mind. [thanks loveyousomat]

California Polytechnic

Many mat buildings seem to end up looking like universities. It’s probably no accident as universities need to be compact to keep costs down and use less land and be easy to walk around, legible so students arrive on time, etc. Moreover, as long as there’s daylight and ventilation, universities aren’t too concerned with overlooking or views from those windows. Even so, there’s a difference between mat buildings and full-on carpeting.

Universitat Politècnica de Valencia, L35, 1970–1974.


• • •

L35 have done nicely since and, if you wish, you can delve a bit deeper into mat buildings here and if you’d like to write a paper, jump straight to the shortcut of Footnote 1.

1. Since the Harvard Design School published Case: Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital and the Mat Building Revival, Hashim Sarkis (ed), Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2001, many academic articles have been published in different journals.

One of those many academic articles was probably this one. There’s also this.


Given the lucrative business masterplanning is these days, I can see why Arch. Inc. might be revisiting mat buildings. Cities also need things to be solved in units that can be repeated, usually horizontally, and with variations. If you look hard at it for long enough, you can see such a notion of the mat building present in today’s fungal carpet approach to urbanization.


• • •

The principles of mat buildings found fertile ground in Italy in the 1970s. Superstudio‘s 1971 Megaton City proposed a vertically integrated configuration repeated horizon-to-horizon. What makes Megaton City superior to the proposal above is that it proposes real Nature with real leaves whereas Paragoo City only represents them with no benefit for either wayfinding or the water cycle.


I doubt any academic paper includes this mat building proposal by Archizoom. Italians again! And the same 1971! [The excerpt is from Vladimir Paperny’s book, Culture Two, which I hope to do justice to later this year.]


Here’s another Archizoom interpretation of the mat building. No-stop City they called it. It’s oddly familiar.


If megamat buildings were destined to never be built, Archizoom at least did something interesting, memorable, intellectually honest, and that brings us and the mat building back to where we began. A mat building is a building that has access, layout, daylighting and ventilation solved for a plan unit that’s repeated as often as needed. Mat buildings have real and immediate advantages. Their integration of construction and human needs facilitates the efficient use of resources and land. This works against Architecture’s preference for unique object-products having defined boundaries. In other words, mat buildings don’t photograph well. Images of them are difficult to commodify. (To us, accustomed to commodifiable imagery as we are, mat buildings may thus look dated but this is a problem of ours, not of mat buildings.)

But suppose access, layout, daylighting and ventilation were all solved for a plan unit that could be endlessly repeated? The Smithsons didn’t manage it. They overprioritized access to produce an easybuild Metabolism of two-dimensional hierarchies.


All mat and no building, they led mat buildings into an urban dead-end and left them there. Despite them giving mat buildings a bad name, it is still a good idea to solve access, layout, daylighting and ventilation solved for a plan unit and repeat that as often as needed. So let’s do it – let’s let the mat building be a building for once and see what can be done. 

Competition for a Housing Estate, Mario Botta 1974

Frankly, it’s hard to tell what’s going on here. I’d like to see floor plans and how access is integrated. It seems like a single level that can be repeated indefinitely. And that it has courtyards rather than views out. Learning from Algeria?


The same thinking is also present in Botta’s 1970 Project for a Master Plan of the New Lausanne Polytechnic, Lausanne, Switzerland. No plans again.


but there is this which is very mat.


What I like about this project is that the mat building stays a building and its relationship to its greater context is (presumably) solved through the intersecting grid. Botta has not tried to make the mat building into more than it’s meant to be.

We have more information for this next mat building with horizontal flexibility and partially offset repetition up a slope. A misfits’ favourite, there’s more information here and, frankly, you’re going to need it to have a chance of understanding how this building works in plan and section.

Pasadena Heights, Kiyonori Kikutake 1974

All apartments are bright and airy, have front and rear access, and outdoor areas open to the sky. The apartments have a familiar relationship with the pedestrian street. It’s not perfect. Access is by foot – cars are left at the top and bottom of the hill. Staggering the units in section increases the exposed surface area and thus construction and heating costs. One of the two bedrooms will never have direct sunlight.

pasadena living

This type of inclined mat building has the advantages of detached houses in having direct access and proper outdoor space but at the same time they also have the construction and servicing advantages of apartments. Land use density is somewhere inbetween.

Pasadena Heights was a useful building prototype that, possibly due to underinsulation and the first oil crisis, was never developed further. This final example is a proposal for the U.A.E. that aimed to develop Kitutake’s Pasadena Heights into a building with enhanced climatic and land-use advantages. A secondary goal was to lessen Emirati aversion to living at higher densities.

PROJECT X (original 2)

For now, this still means direct vehicle access and parking for two cars outside the front door. Large outdoor areas have high levels of visual privacy. Internal spaces are organised according to their need for daylight.


Each apartment is mirrored and offset from the one below to create four-storey lightwells that allocate light to spaces according to their position in the dwelling.

  • Proof of concept was established.
  • The preferred relationship between geography and plan depth was understood.
  • Geometric limitations to offsetting plans reversed on alternate levels were understood.
  • Living rooms have windows on three sides.
  • It still wasn’t possible to get direct sun to the second bedroom.
  • Waste drains to soil stacks (vent pipes) along the walls in two different light wells. These vent in the towers beyond the ends of the terraces.
  • A reduced level of visual privacy (habitable room windows ≈ 6m from a public access way) will allow more flexibility in planning and more daylight to the parking and access level.
  • Rooftop outdoor areas have potential to be used more productively and/or environmentally as green roofs.
  • The surface area of each apartment is less than a two storey villa of comparable area and volume.
  • A full energy model is needed to determine the extent of artificial climate control.
  • The underside of the building may have other microclimatic advantages yet unknown.
  • Exterior stylings inspired by Yakov Chernikov‘s ‘PRINCIPLES OF ARCHITECTURE’: Fantasy on the theme ‘City Of The East’

 • • •

[March 12, 2016]

Thanks to Tom for alerting me to the work of Benson & Forsyth for the borough of Camden in in London. This is their Branch Hill Housing from 1978.

Thanks also to Iago for alerting me to this example from 1963, the earliest yet known. It is Viviendas Escalonadas en Montbau (Terraced houses in Montbau) by Joan Bosch Agustí. Montbau is in Barcelona, roughly behind Parc Güell.