The Piano and the Double-Sided Apartment

All double-sided apartments have windows on opposite sides enabling views in opposite directions, cross-ventilation, and variations in daylighting. There aren’t many ways to configure a double-sided apartments and most have at least one of the following flaws.

Multiple cores

It’s almost impossible not to make a double-sided apartment if there are only two apartments per stairwell or core,

when they’re at the end of a (longer) corridor [c.f. 1928: The Types Study, The Domino’s House]

albion riverside plan

or when there’s no corridor [c.f. The Dominos House].


Preferred view on the wrong side for half the apartments

Some configurations have paired apartments with living areas facing different directions. This is no problem if views in both directions are equally preferable. It was also not a problem for many of the 1920s proposals because preventing tuberculosis with adequate daylighting and cross ventilation was more important than view. Many were never built. [c.f. 1928: The Types StudyThe 1+1/2 Floor Apartment]

Low site coverage

Four buildings were however built with Type F apartments, the most famous being Moisei Ginzburg and team’s Narkomfin building completed 1930 in Moscow.

  • Reduced ceiling heights of non-essential areas meant lower % of building volume for access, and resultant economies of materials and construction cost.
  • All living rooms were on one side and sleeping areas the other.

The main fault of Type F apartment was a building was narrow so it couldn’t produce a site efficiency as high as possible with double-loaded corridors. [c.f. Critical Spatiality]

Dining and kitchen areas separated from the living area

This may or may not be a problem, depending upon the configuration. With Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations it is, as half the primary type of apartment have a living area combined with the master bedroom area. It’s less of a problem with Chermayeff’s apartments or with US 7,540,120 where the kitchen/dining area overlooks the living area. [c.f. The 1+1/2 Floor ApartmentUS 7,540,120].



Poor use of space over/under the corridor

Using this space for bathrooms and kitchens can create problems with shafts but there still remains the problem of no daylighting or cross-ventilation for the very spaces that could most benefit from them. [c.f. US 7,540,120

upper copy

Limited variety of apartment types

It is easier to solve the problem of corridor-access double-sided apartments if only one or two types of apartment are provided in pairs. Variations occur naturally when those pairs don’t fit around ‘circumstantial’ elements like elevator lobbies and escape stairs. Chermayeff’s variations don’t have this problem but his variations are fixed customizations that can’t be arbitrarily configured from standardized plan components.


The title of this post does not refer to any of the pianos in these plans.

Miserable entrances

One way to avoid crossing over or under the corridor is to get out of it as soon as possible and use that necessary space within the apartment. In this next arrangement, that space has been cleverly used to create entrance and kitchen areas linking both sides. What I also like are the two equivalent living areas, the use of which is left up to the occupant.


This plan appears to be an embryo unité d’habitations. The overall intention, the end apartments with their different orientation, the way the elevator lobby has been accommodated, and the lax attitude towards fire escape all suggest the hand of Le Corbusier but whether it’s firsthand or secondhand I don’t know.

Alternately reversing the apartments to avoid duplicating shafts both sides of the corridor seems an unnecessary complication, especially when it takes seven single-sided apartments (plus six end ones) to create ten double-sided apartments, two of which don’t even use the corridor. Additionally, the main part of the building has 10 structural bays so three-bay apartments were never going to work, whether reversed or not. Those single sided apartments are conspicuous for not fitting neatly. The appearance of an inelegant solution could be avoided by incorporating that volume into apartments reversed not side-by-side but above and below, and using that space to enter them (“Voilà!”) but whether this plan predates Unité or not is unknown.  

If prior, then Unité becomes an illustration of “If a problem can’t be solved then call it a feature!”. Two decades on, expressing such intractable problems came to be called an “architectural joke”. Five decades on, representing the non-solution of such problems came to be called “embracing complexity.” Sadly, it’s the closest thing to architectural theory we have.

This all assumes this arrangement is pre-Unité but it could be somebody’s post-Unité attempt to improve upon it.

Complex sections

The corridor has to be passed over or under some way or another and the scissor plan is perhaps the most ingenious way yet devised to do this. All living rooms are on one side and all bedrooms on the other.


Corringham, London, 1960, Douglas Stephen & Partners

Scissor plans have the disadvantage of being complex to construct, as well as difficult to comprehend.


I found this graphic helpful even though it is incorrect. The “down-going” apartments (entered from the upper entrance corridor) don’t have stairs linking to the lower entrance corridor and the “up-going” apartments (entered from the lower corridor) don’t have stairs linking them to the upper entrance corridor. Thanks anyway, wikiwand!

The scissor plan is no oddity but a serious attempt to achieve better use of building volume and building resources. Rather than create double or even 1+1/2 height volumes and calling them a feature, the scissor plan took the building volume either side of the corridor and used it as the topmost level of one apartment and the bottommost level of another. It solved the problem it set out to, and did so with very elegant shafts. I have more respect for it than I did.

Additional shafts

It’s possible to utilise the space above and below the corridor but at the cost of an extra shaft to service the inevitable single aspect apartment on the other side of the corridor [left, below], or the rotationally mirrored apartment adjacent/opposite it [right]. If one’s willing to accept a full shaft on either side of the corridor then various configurations become possible. The scissor plan doesn’t have this problem.

• • •

If one overlooks the apartment entrances, then this next is a very decent arrangement within the residential development known as Cité Frais Vallon (1960~) in Marseille. It has two 4-bed and two 2-bed double-sided apartments for every one 1-bed single-sided apartment, and all living rooms on the same side – not bad! Stacking internal staircases both sides of the corridor and offsetting apartment upper levels from their lower ones is a brilliant idea. The entire plan is generated from those stacked and horizontally and rotationally symmetrical staircases. The only difference is the position at which the staircase enters the central circulation space. I don’t think it can be done any better than this.


Impressive. Completely ignored. It’s as if nothing of architectural interest is ever allowed to happen again in Marseille [c.f. Architectural Misfit #28: Fernand Pouillon.] The coordinating architect is listed as André Devin [thanks Daniel!] If I’d known of this project earlier, I wouldn’t have been so proud of “My Best Shot”. To be fair, we both agree stacking staircases is the way forward.

My Best Shot

Because a corridor-access 100% double-sided apartment is an unresolveable contradiction, the problem becomes one of what to do with the building volume either side of the corridor. It can be either

  1. single-sided apartments,
  2. incorporated into the adjacent apartments above and below as single-sided spaces, or
  3. have one side as the lowest level of one apartment and the other side as the highest level of another – the scissor plan solution.

The configurations above all solve the same problem in one of these three ways. My decision to solve the problem with a horizontal asymmetry around the corridor inevitably caused a problem for the ‘minor’ shaft. In the lower apartment, the space between the upper kitchen cupboards and the ceiling is used to cross the corridor, avoiding a false ceiling.

  • Off the corridor are a studio, stairs down to a 2-bed apartment and to stairs up to a 1-bed apartment. The 1-bed apartment can be down stairs and the 2-bed up stairs.
  • Elements farther from the corridor become more arbitrary.
  • The determining dimension is the total length of the stair and entrances on the corridor level.
  • Mirroring apartments around the left party wall and reconfiguring the corridors makes it possible for the bedroom or bedrooms of a double-sided apartment to appropriate those of an adjacent apartment. [See here for variations.]
  • It’s money for old trope but, the volume of the existing studio apartment could be used to create a double-height living area for the apartment below.
  • Another possibility is to divide the volume of the existing studio horizontally across both upper and lower apartments. This would give the lower apartment a 1+1/2 storey living area while the upper apartment would require a half-flight of stairs to access its sunken floor. The same volume could be divided vertically across upper and lower apartments but I can’t see any advantage in doing so.

• • •

Nor can I see any advantage of doing it in this next proposal either that, I now see, mine owes a substantial debt to. It’s Moisei Ginzburg’s team’s proposal for the 1928 competition held by the Soviet magazine SA [Contemporary Architecture] [c.f. 1927: The Competition.] The corridor level had single-sided apartments on both sides but a stair accessed off the corridor leads down to a larger double-sided apartment. All apartments were to be reconfigured into more generous accommodations when the economic situation of the occupants [i.e. the U.S.S.R.] improved.

Once the competition was over, the government almost immediately responded by appointing Ginzburg head of a STROIKOM (Construction Committee of the Russian Republic) specially formed to create standardized unit types. In 1928 though, things were already taking a turn for the worse

There was a sweeping shift toward Stalinist conservatism in all spheres. 1928 was the start of the First Five-Year Plan towards massive industrialization and away from cultural reforms such as the design and construction of highly-socialized living in general and the communal house in particular. On May 16, the VKP(b) Central Committee of issued a directive regarding: “On the Work Concerning the Restructuring of Everyday Life.”

“The Central Committee of the VKP(b) warns against the attempts of certain comrades to construct a new everyday life by forced administrative means; administratively separating children from parents, socialized dining, etc. The new normal must be built by taking into full account existing material conditions, and in no way must it run off and devise plans for which there exists neither the means nor the possibility of their realization.”

The directive made it clear that the time for an aspirational architecture for a new society had passed. In a scramble to mirror the shifting tide, SA blurred its position. The above directive was published in SA 1930, accompanied by a wavering editorial titled “Where to Go?” In addition, Moisei Ginzburg wrote in 1932, and published in 1934, a book Zhilishche (Housing), in which he categorized his work over the previous five years as experimental and producing “extreme conclusions and schematic solutions.”

top view.jpg

The Piano and the Double-Sided Apartment

To design an improved double-sided apartment plan in 1927 in anticipation of improved economic circumstances was a good thing, but indicating a grand piano in the plan took it too far. An upright piano for accompanying tavern tunes or patriotic anthems would have gone unnoticed. No authority would have wanted factory workers to aspire to becoming bourgeois families with grand pianos in their living rooms. Classical music in Soviet Russia in the mid-twenties was already alarmingly progressive to those for whom dissonance meant dissidents.

Igor Stravinsky was the most notoriously dissonant of the Russian-born composers since the 1913 Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring.


Stravinsky had lived in France all the 1920s and, whether he followed prospects or instinct, continued to in the 1930s. Sergei Prokofiev had been living in America since 1918 but returned to the U.S.S.R. in 1925, only to be interrogated by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians. Nevertheless, he stayed and did some of his best work [i.e my favourites] during the Stalin years: 1931 – Piano Concerto No. 4 (for Left Hand); 1932 – Piano Concerto No.5; 1939-42 – Piano Sonata No. 7; 1944 – Fifth Symphony. Dmitri Shostakovich disappointed his early teachers by admiring both Stravinsky and Prokofiev. He spent most of the 1920s and 1930s avoiding offending the authorities with his Mahlerian tendencies and ambivalent tonality and was mostly successful at it until 1936. Aram Khachaturian was still too young to be a concern in 1928. Nikolai Myaskovsky was more popular than progressive but, in 1947, was accused along with the others, of writing anti-Soviet music that “renounces the basic principles of classical music in favour of muddled, nerve-racking sounds that “turn music into cacophony”.

My hunch is that the reason the STROIKOM committee was formed so quickly after the 1927 competition not because of any government enthusiasm for innovative housing solutions but so that the activities of Ginzburg and his associates could be more closely watched. This also explains the generally cool reception his team’s proposals received when they presented their findings later the same year, and also explains the presence at the meeting of NKVD officer Cde. Sadovsky who made direct reference to the directive. [c.f. 1928: The Meeting]


The crackdown first made itself felt with the directive but by 1930 all architects’ collectives were disbanded. When Mikhail Okhotovich and De–urbanism came on the scene, it became a matter of not just the workers getting ideas above their station but the farmers as well. “Who’d stick around to grow stuff if everybody got to move around wherever they wanted? Nobody would be satisfied doing what they were supposed to do.” It would only end badly. It did anyway. [c.f. 1930: De-urbanism]

Nikolay Milyutin, the former Commissar of Finance and influential proponent of the Narkomfin building, contrived to fade into peaceful insignificance with a succession of jobs, each one further off the radar. Ginzburg moved back to The Ukraine he originally hailed from and lived out a quiet life. The Vesnins went post-Constructivist. Artists such as Malevich toned it down. Irrepressible de-urbanist, Okhotovich didn’t and got himself shot. Hapless creative, Ivan Leonidov passed the time with The City of The Sun and painkillers. [c.f. Career Case Study #6: Ivan Illich Leonidov]


This layout is dedicated to Nikokay Milyutin, Moisei Ginzburg, Sergei Prokofiev and all others of that time who achieved work-life balance.