Misleading Narratives

Two posts back, in Repeating Crevice, Revisited, I wrote If Shinohara was aware of having designed certain possibilities into [a house he designed], he never let on. Now I think about it, he can’t not have known he was designing that house to offer its occupants various levels of awareness of the movements within. Instead, he chose to present an alternative narrative having nothing to do with any real benefits his design may have had

A more consciously misleading narrative has to do with Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus. This sketch shows LC was definitely aware he was designing something that permitted certain possibilities but he chose not to make them part of the narrative for propagation. Later historians have complied.

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The Winslow House is often used as an example of how Frank Lloyd Wright gifted us the open-plan house. Wright’s $5,000 Fireproof House is seen as a lesser embodiment of Wrights principle of configure a house around a hearth as the heart of the home and of removing walls to arrive at a new conception of interior space. The first misleading narrative is Wright’s, the second is historians’.

Removing interior walls sounds like there were cost savings to be had, and supporting an upper floor and a roof with a largeish brick structural element in the middle of a symmetrical plan sounds like a very efficient way of using equivalently sized materials at maximum efficiency. If Wright and later historians hadn’t used misleading narratives to describe what was “important” about The $5,000 Fireproof House and the Winslow House and others, then we might not’ve had to wait for Rural Studio to rediscover and make explicit the link between cost performance and architectural beauty.

Economic efficiencies and benefits to society aren’t the opposite of architecture they’re made out to be – they just exist in a parallel yet invisible dimension. The visible world speaks to us of beauty and abundance and the invisible world reminds us how little we want it to cost.

In the decades since Le Corbusier and Shinohara, architects have elevated the misleading narrative to a level of art far exceeding what it exists to describe. The misleading narrative is now the primary means for display of architectural cleverness. In any field other than architecture, goods that please the eye but fail according to indicators of other qualities are called fakes. The English language has the saying “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” and also its more down-to-earth equivalent “You can’t polish a turd.”  Well, actually you can and it’s being done all the time. Since it’s not going to stop anytime soon, I think we should at least explore the mechanism involved.

Many if not all of the misfit architects I’ve listed here over the years have either been totally forgotten, under-remembered or under-acknowledged for not providing misleading narratives to distinguish their noble efforts as architecture. Their innovations have been duly dismissed as idiosyncratic obsession or mere investigations into building science. Last week’s Architecture Misfit#27: Harold Krantz is a perfect example. Perhaps he’d be better remembered as the innovator he was if he’d spent a bit more time designing his narratives to better communicate the real worth of what he was doing.

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For years I’d been trying to track down a Japanese house I vaguely remember – probably from having seen it in Japan Architect in the late 1970s. I never saw or heard of it again so it must have been a one-off, long forgotten and by now long gone. It was titled House With a Sloping Wall because that is what it had. House With a Sloping Wall

I found myself thinking of this house again last week. Perhaps it had something to do with the one-bedroom apartments that were also very much on my mind.

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I spoke about how one-bedroom apartments are usually a bedroom and a living room side-by-side along the only wall that can have windows, and how the bathroom and kitchen are usually against the corridor where they share a shaft.

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I never got to talk about the poetry of architecture and that was a shame since I’ve begun to suspect the poetry of architecture, building science and social utility aren’t as mutually exclusive as we’ve been led to believe. Here’s House With a Sloping Wall, Reimagined as a one-bedroom apartment.

Sloping Plan

We now come to a fork in the road. Do I present my re-imagined House With A Sloping Wall as something aesthetically innovative or do I present it as something useful? Do I go for a misleading narrative or do I tell the truth? The former is easy and there’s no lack of impeccable references to work into a misleading narrative.

Firstly, my house has a 45° wall that’s no more wall than it is floor or ceiling – or all three – or two out of three, depending which side of it you are. A reference to Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture seems called for. Going in deeper, I could reference William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, as did Venturi.

There’s a long history of the perception of inside and outside being blurred by making building elements or finishes span the boundary between the warm side and the cold side.

There’s a longer and nobler history of trompe l’oeil attempting the same using only two dimensions. The best examples have the surrealism that comes from things not appearing to be what they are – a virtual outside.

trompe l'oeil

From the bedroom of my House With A Sloping Wall, the sloping wall doesn’t appear as a sheltering roof – an effect that, prompted by the skylights, is also apparent on the other side. IT ACTUALLY IS a sheltering roof. The perception of inside and outside is not blurred by extension or confused by illusion, but reset by the suggestion of a roof with skylights and chimney. An element that’s normally outside appears inside. This is not so common, but nor is it so rare. These examples below all riff on the idea of clouds indoors. The church is the least surreal because of trompe l’oeil precedents.

Moving away from inside and outside, I suppose I ought to leverage my CV and mention Kazuo Shinohara and those strange internal spaces in his 1981 House Under High-Tension Lines,

or the inclined roofs of his 1973 House in Seijo or his 1971 Prism House, both of which have spaces that seem to exist only to be visually appreciated. They’re bonsai versions of double-height spaces but their acutely angled corners intensify not light but shadows.

Did somebody say shadows?! I need to mention Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1977 essay In Praise of Shadows even though it’s about a 3.5 on the Japanese 1-7 scale of cultural inscrutability. 

Victor here! I know you’re not into pattern language but, since you’re narrative farming, another argument for lowered bedrooms comes from Christopher Alexander, who had a thing for ceiling height. He argued ceiling height has to vary according to degree of privacy. It sort of required ceiling to comply with “personal space bubble” that gets the largest in public spaces. Hence high ceilings in public lobbies and stores are comfortable. CA argued that tinier rooms and alcoves are cozier and allow humans to feel closer to each other – if they’d allow each other to get together in there.

Thanks for that Victor! I do admire the way Alexander aims to link sociology and aesthetic predelictions but other factors at work mean we must now pass from the floating world of architectural narratives into the objective world of building science.

Moisei Ginzburg and his Stroykom team’s Type B and Type F apartments had reduced ceiling heights for the bedrooms because they were less important than the daytime living rooms. This seems fair because in bedrooms people don’t move around so much. Space as a visual thing is not something appreciated when asleep.

With houses it’s not rocket science. Many vernacular houses have attic bedrooms because it’s a better use of building volume but, with apartments, this is something neither obvious nor easy to do despite the greater pressure to extract maximum value from their smaller volumes. That pressure never dissipates. Those ingenious apartment conversions having a “sleeping loft” above the kitchen and/or bathroom are a modern trope because they stack two zones needing less ceiling height. The four examples below all allow maximum area with maximum height but only one involves sloping surfaces.

If you haven’t already guessed, the real reason for my sloping wall is to return some of that under-appreciated bedroom volume back to the living room where it can be better appreciated during waking hours. Did I say some? 50% is half!

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True, that 50% can’t be used in any meaningful way but then neither can a double height space and look how highly architectural history regards those. Nevertheless, in order to make my diagonally interlocking spaces more appealing, I produced a variation having those crudely approximated diagonals known as steps.

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It’s pointless referencing BeFun’s Alley House – despite being ingenious it’s too little known. It’s far better to reference the space for The Baltic Pavilion in the Giardini at the 2016 Venice Biennalle grounds. Bringing it all back to Venice never did any architectural endeavour any harm.

One last card to play are bleachers. They’re the wild card, the joker in the pack, the ace high or low. People don’t associate bleachers with any grand architectural precedent, distinguised personages or unassailable theory. They just associate them with happy memories and enjoyable experiences. I’m not suggesting we return to the dark days of palliative postmodern iconography. What I am suggesting is that we couch our architectural narratives in essential truths. I can reference bleachers in good faith because they’re all about observing a large space in front of them.

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The view back is equally important.

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Even the space under the bleachers can also be referenced in good faith since, from what I can glean from the internet, many people associate that space with intimacy. Allow me to present Bleacher House.

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Returning some building volume to the living room was the only thing that mattered with this house and, though the idea contained much art its explanation did not. Presenting this idea as architecture didn’t have to involve presenting it as something it wasn’t. This house IS BLEACHER HOUSE because it does the same thing. I suspect that any architectural idea of worth can be communicated more easily by calling attention to something of comparable and real worth.

This is different from those forced and unnatural associations that conceal lack of content behind phrases such as “recalls X” “resonates with X” “references X” “is redolent of X”, where X is the name of some building or architect there was never even the intention let alone the possibility of emulating. The architect Eladio Dieste is often referenced in this way.

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20 Feb. 2017 (11 hours later): HUGE thanks to Daniel Munteanu for solving my mystery. One of the things Daniel does is run the blog OfHouses which “is a collection of old, forgotten houses” so it’s not that surprising he remembered this house. Me, I falsely remembered its name. It’s the Mochizuki House, by Hiroyuki Asai. 1971. I love it. 

Everything has been exquisitely contrived to appear as if it could no way other than the way it is, as all good architecture perhaps should be. If the wall were vertical, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the light from that skylight illuminating that wall. Hiroyuki Arai, wherever you are, thank you.

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There aren’t many kanji variations for the name Hiroyuki Asai. A search in Japanese led me to the site of architect Hiroyuki Asai. Our paths almost crossed.

  • 1970 Graduated from Tokyo Institute of Technology Faculty of Science and Engineering Department of Architecture
  • 1970 – 1976 Studied with Professor Kazuo Shinohara of Tokyo Institute of Technology and learned housing construction through practice

Elsewhere on the site he had this to say about Mochizuki House, his first “work” – everyone called them “works” then.

直方体 内部に屋根の架構を支持する柱一本 それと離れる位置で直方体を壁で垂直に分割 この構成では何も起こらない  分割する壁の頂部を傾ける 何かが起こる 意味の産出 分割という構成により傾斜壁の表裏に出現した空間の関係 <建築> この作品から私の全てが始まる

If a single column supporting a roof frame stands apart from a vertical wall dividing a rectangular parallelepiped, nothing happens. However, if the top of the dividing wall is tilted, something does. Meaning is produced, along with spatial relationships appearing front and back of that tilted wall – Architecture. All of me starts from this work. 

Well done Mr. Asai!

One thought on “Misleading Narratives

  1. victorperunkov

    The narratives designs carry are simultaneously boldly in our faces and too omnipresent to keep noticing these. Beyond design scale, more general (and as dubious) narratives exist too. Misfits’ has covered interpretation of modernism’s history, and this theme is just one example.

    Nevertheless, historical interpretation was not this post’s element. But it reminds me of what I recently noted in mainstream interpretation of Russia’s endemic 1920-1930 modernism. Essentially, it’s a rooftop story.

    Here is a picture of Tyazhpromural Residential Complex in Yekaterinburg, Russia:
    tyazhpromural

    Buildings of this era made use of a slightly pitched hip roof. Actually, it’s a pretty conventional pitch to my eye. Frankly, these roofs get rebuilt every few decades, so the roof we see must be a totally different one. Nevertheless, it’s nowhere near a gable or mansard roof.

    When buildings of 1920s are described, this roof design is expectedly explained as a mimicry of the flat roof trope.

    What is left out is 1920s Russia’s being a ravaged country where timber and steel had many other uses for communist machine rather than building roofs. In a few years after 1917 masses of people dislocated to cities. A housing catastrophe gave birth to kommunalkas aka piggyback co-housing at gunpoint.

    Roof pitch obviously correlates with cover area and truss dimensions. A sensible lowering of the ridge might cut demand for roof steel and truss timber, allowing to make use of whatever supply was available.

    I have made a little geometrical research on a primitive digital model. I’ve tested varying hip roof pitches from 40° to 10° on a three-wing plan of 2200 sq. m. A ten-degree roof has only 80% surface area of a 40-degree one. It turned out to offer actual economical advantage. But you only can reduce large angles. Which you’d never use since you know a shallow roof is way more economical. So the “revelation” probably happened in more ancient times.

    After all, roofs of Saint-Petersburg were shallow way before twentieth century was a concern.
    sp roofs

    Reply

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