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Machines for Living Longer

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Neuschwanstein Castle was completed in 1882 as a retreat for King Ludwig II of Bavaria but was also lived in by many servants and courtiers. Some servants may have been there as families and some courtiers may have been Ludwig’s relatives, but Neuschwanstein Castle was no residential palace. It was one man’s architectural fantasy alluding to the romance of knights but speaking clearly and loudly of the privilege of kings.


It’s a surprise to learn it’s only three years older than Chicago’s Reliance Building


Neuschwanstein Castle is called a castle but wasn’t designed or built to be defended as one. It was sited somewhere that looked like it could be defended as part of The Look, as were its ramparts that look fit for purpose. The late ninteenth century liked its follies authentic.

The rot had set in sometime around the fourteenth when the military importance of castles lessened because of 1) Europe generally calming down, and 2) because of the impossibility of constructing masonry walls to resist sustained cannon fire. Even so, fifteenth century lords and landowners continued to like the message an imposing and impressive castle sent to those below.

The twelfth century was the golden age of castle building. Castles were sited on high ground not to be picturesque or exploit a view, but because it was easier to spot invading forces. In those pre-Architecture times, it wasn’t possible to conceive of a castle that merely looked strong and impregnable or that represented strength and impregnability. Things were what they were. There was no difference between a thing and what it denoted. A castle looked impregnable if it was. It may well have sent a powerful message of deterrence, but only because of having the visible means to back it up.

Castles are machines for surviving to function in hostile and life-threatening environments. They have much in common with offshore oil-rigs, antarctic research stations, the International Space Station and Harmony of the Seas.  

Here’s Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers near Homs in Syria, close to the border with Lebanon.


Over the years, it’s been controlled by the Kurdish troops of the Mirdasids (1031–1099), the County of Tripoli (1110–1143), the Knights Hospitaller (1143–1271), the Mamluk Sutanate (1271-1516), the Ottoman Empire (1516–1918), the Alawite State (1920–1936), the Syrian Republic (1936–1958), the United Arab Republic (1958–1961), the Syrian Arab Republic (1961–2012), the Syrian opposition (2012–2014) and, since then, again by the Syrian Arab Republic.

Castles have a habit of being in war zones. Taking control of strategically-placed fertile land is one thing, keeping control of it for centuries is another. Exemplary performance in the case of castles means an uninterrupted history but even supercastle Krak des Chevaliers shows it doesn’t always happen. Europe has also had its Levant moments but, once the assorted Goths, Huns, Visigoths and Vandals had dispersed into history, levels of castle defence could be downgraded. In France from the fifteenth century onwards, castles morphed into chateaux. This is Chateau Harcourt.


Castles in Italy morphed into that Italianate affectation called Architecture but Germanic ones weren’t so quick to shed their defences. This next is Prunn Castle, dating from around 1200. Never particularly large, it passed out of the family after a few hundred years and has had a succession of owners since. Because castles were meant to last, many have been converted into repositories of local history. This makes perfect sense for that’s exactly what they are.


More often than not, that history amounts to no more than transitions of land ownership but Lerici Castle, itself from 1152, now houses a paleontological museum after the discovery of fossilized dinosaur footprints nearby.


Wildegg Castle in Switzerland is a hotel.


Over the 11th and 12th centuries, Lenzburg Castle passed from the Lenzburgs to other aristocratic dynasties such as the Kyburgs and the Habsburgs, and was later the private home of a wealthy American family before becoming the museum and visitor centre it is today. 


Here’s Colditz Castle from the 12th century. The Lords of Colditz sold it in 1404. Over the next two hundred years it was enlarged to have 700 rooms. Those many rooms and solid construction led to it being used as a workhouse between 1803 to 1829, and various types of hospital between 1829 and 1924. 


We must remember that the same means that prevent people from breaching castles also work to prevent people escaping them. The Nazis turned Colditz Castle into a prison that famously included prisoners of war from 1939 until 1945 when US forces retook the castle. Then began a period of Soviet control during which the castle was used as a prison for local criminals, a nursing home, a hospital and a psychiatric clinic. After a 2006-2007 restoration, the building is now a youth hostel and, understandably, a museum of itself.

Other castles make impressive venues for weddings and conferences. This is Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva.


“There are four formal great halls in the castle, whose windows all look out over the marvellous view of  Lake Geneva. The Savoy family held sumptuous banquets in them, whilst the Bernese administered justice in some of them.”


Level I is the administration level with its dungeon, gallows and prison. Functionally, and also as far as circulation is concerned, it’s rather perverse for the torture chamber [24] to be on Level IV adjacent to the bedroom [25].

In Eltz, some 400 km to the north, days and nights were uneventful. Built in the 1200’s and never once overrun or seiged, Eltz Castle is still lived in by Eltzes some 33 generations on.

joint heirs.jpg

It’s actually three slender castles with party walls. A shared courtyard allows access and deliveries, and shared fortifications serve to discourage hostile access and hostile deliveries. It has around a hundred rooms. 


It’s interesting that, in Germany, different branches of the same family decided to connect their diminished castles for communal defence but, in Italy, wealthy Bolognese were reluctant to trust their relatives even/especially when it came to matters of defence.

Bologna 11th c

The better survival rate of German castles suggests that a shared structure and communal amenities are things any building ought to have if it is to remain viable for the long-term

Even if building defence is something owners expect their governments to provide, building security these days is handled on a municipal level by police but on a building level by security personnel as a communal amenity. We may put bars or shutters across windows and other openings to discourage opportunistic burglary but we generally have less to worry about. Our greatest threat is increasingly the one posed by hostile weather and it makes sense for buildings to offer shared defences to that as a communal amenity.

A shared structure and communal amenities make it possible for a building to be more of a closed system. This is another useful characteristic for a building to have.

The military importance of castles declined rapidly with the use of cannons but, prior to that, the largest threat to a castle was seige. Castles had to be capable of being closed systems for extended periods of time. We can do that. Generating a certain amount of power in-house is do-able, as is a certain level of waste management. Food production and water supply remain mediaevally problematic.

In hostile environments, mediaeval castles struck a balance between structural resources, communal amenity, and functionality as a closed system.

These days we use the words durable and sustainable in much the same way to talk about our newly hostile environment but we tend to use communal amenity only to describe facilities that are desirable rather than those that are essential. This is a huge mistake.

Occasionally we think some contemporary building comes close to striking the right balance between functional necessity, occupant amenity and operation as a system.


Such buildings are duly awarded and the implication is that the world would be a better place if there were more such exemplary buildings. This fundamental premise of building rating systems is true only if we compare like with like – if a world full of, say, LEED-Platinum single-family detached houses is compared with a world full of conventional single-family detached houses. However, compared to a larger building doing all the same things for a larger number of people, there must be economies of scale (and hence of resources, and hence of efficiency of use of resources) to be had. One average apartment building for 100 people may perform better than 20 exemplary houses housing five apiece. It’s time to compare apples and oranges. Here, I’m just using LEED Platinum as an example of virtuousness, but

If LEED Platinum is an acceptable indicator of building virtue, then Efficiency of Attaining LEED Platinum is a better one.

For a short while, each of the towers of Bologna achieved some ideal balance between durability, communal amenity, and being a sustainably closed system.


They became obsolete when that balance between durability, communal amenity and being a closed system was upset. Their narrow view of communal amenity became untenable with the advent of cannon-fire as it was beyond the means of any one family to fortify their defences to sufficiently withstand it. The City of Siena found out the hard way. They thought they’d be safer spending an enormous amount of money on fortifications but, after doing that, had no money left to pay an army to man them. There’s two lessons we can we learn from this.

  1. A balance between structural durability, communal amenity and being a closed system has to be found.
  2. That balance has to be at an appropriate scale.

There’s no reason to think the size of a suburban residential plot or some arbitrary urban office building or apartment site is the optimum scale for this to take place. We don’t know. What worries me is that nobody seems interested in finding out.


  • Great article; had no idea that you would continue on the thoughts about closed systems through meditation on castles. Your site is such a rich resource. Every article is insightful. 1927, dacha, Yemen, were fascinating. You are brilliant!

  • says:

    Ah, now I get the fascination with castles – I could have sent you more photos… P.S. A bit ironic to include the Krak!