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The Formalist Canon

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We all know what The Canon is but no longer know whether it’s taught because it’s important or important because it’s taught. Even the teaching is iffy if it refers to the perfection of ideas rather than the messy and imperfect realities of the buildings that represent rather than physically embody the grandiose claims made for them.

By perpetrating the notion that architecture is about the display of artistic genius, The Canon is about art and not architecture anyway and is thus invalid. I therefore propose The Formalist Canon (a.k.a. The Misfits’ Canon) as an alternate canon consisting solely of works by architecture misfits identified so far by this blog. All buildings in The Formalist Canon embody spatial or tectonic qualities unique to architecture. They don’t mimic those of sculpture, pretend to be those of music or allude to those of painting.

The misfit architects themselves are formalist in that they were preoccupied with buildings and their design, development and provision, and not with the fame and branding that characterises the non-architecture worlds of fashion, pop music and art. It is telling that none of these buildings or architects are “taught” today, or that it’s even thought they have anything to offer. To state the obvious: Formalist architects produce formalist architecture – buildings with characteristics that are unique to architecture. Everything else is churn for the sake of froth.

The Type F Apartment, Moisei Ginzburg and STROYKOM, 1927
Lesson: How to use minimal building resources to enclose useful building volume
Lesson: Imagining all aspects of the user experience

How to enclose useful space with the minimum of building resources will forever display the application of spatial and architectural intelligence. Vernacular examples abound but the Type F apartment illustrates how architects can apply themselves to the problem even if today’s conditions differ in elevators not being as prohibitively expensive as they were in 1927. If we are serious about the application of architectural intelligence to the problem of global resource depletion and how to manage what’s left, then we should be learning how to extract the maximum spatial and social benefit from the resources we have. The importance of the Type F is not that it can be objectified as a perfect object from its time and place but that it can teach us how we should be thinking.

How the floor and ceiling joists alternate to save building height and mitigate noise transmission is an example of how building construction can produce volumetric economies yet still embody consideration for the people who will live there.

The 20K House, Rural Studio, 2005–2017
Lesson: Incremental design improvement
Lesson: Economy of means
Lesson: Maximum efficiency of each element
Lesson: Integration of all components and elements
Lesson: Conventional technologies and standardized parts
Lesson: Design for minimal waste
Lesson: Identifying inefficiencies of process
Lesson: Architecture is about making life better for others

That’s a lot of lessons. These simple houses have much in common with high-tech fieleds of endeavour such as aircraft or spacecraft design that we are so proud as a society to associate ourselves with. These houses are prototypes but the incremental improvement of anything is not something that is or should be particular to any field. I only mention it because it’s curiously not a characteristic of architecture as we currently know it.

I’m told Rural Studio’s Andrew Freear is currently Loeb Fellow at Harvard GSD. The recognition is nice but I can’t help feeling homogenization at work. GSD students should be going to Auburn University rather than Auburn University instructors going to GSD.

Frais Vallon Housing, André Devin, 1955
Lesson: The application of spatial intelligence to produce variety within a system

I’m still not 100% certain I can attribute the design of this housing to André Devin but Devin was there at the right time. These plans are pure genius – a simple configuration enables four dual-aspect four-bedroom apartments to be accessed from a single corridor while leaving open the possibility of creating studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments. Moreover, all bedrooms are on one side of the building and all living rooms on the other.

This building has much to teach. Like the Type F, it shows how the application of spatial intelligence can produce building configurations in which minimal space (i.e. resources) is used to access apartments and to move around inside them. Again, this has implications for resource management but what’s also noteworthy here is that all apartments are decent and none is better than any other in any way. The only differences are whether one goes up to the living room or down to the living room, and whether the stairs enter the 4 sq.m of necessary circulation space at the living room end of the apartment or at the bedroom end. It amazes me that such a perfect configuration never found wider application, or even wider recognition. This project sets the standard for the social and humane application of spatial intelligence. People need to be taught to appreciate what this building is doing, in the hope that it will encourage some gifted student somewhere to aspire to someday improve upon it.

Casa Borsalino, Ignazio Gardella, 1952 
Lesson: How to reconcile construction expediency and enhanced spatial experience

Gardella is the master of extracting every square centimetre of tangible and intangible value from a plan. Architecture “grasshoppers,” look and learn! In Gardella’s Casa Borsalino, the angle of every wall and the placement of every window and door makes perfect sense. Nothing is gratuitous, nothing is accidental. Notice how naturally bathroom and kitchen items find the angles the need to accommodate them? See how walls are angled to guide people through the spaces exquisitely contrived to be wide where they need to be wider and narrower where they need to be narrower? These spaces are alive – they breathe. They are at the same time minimal spaces in that they are no more than what they need to be. It’s just that Gardella had a different idea of what they needed to be. It might even be the case that these slight angles subtract from the net amount of space to achieve some net economy of resources but I can’t tell where or how.

Lassen House, Knud Peter Harboe, 1954
Lesson: The beauty of generic solutions
Lesson: The intelligence of planning for modules and repetition
Lesson: Designing for simplicity and clarity of construction
Lesson: Rejecting the “cult of craft”

To be honest, this house would probably not have been the same without Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House or PJ’s Glass House putting the idea in people’s heads that small houses could be architecture too. There the similarity ends because Lassen House doesn’t exist on infinite property and is not the result of precious materials such as travertine or contrivedly precious mechanicals and construction processes that don’t actually work. We look at houses like this and think their humanity comes from a bit of polished timber or painted brickwork, but it goes deeper than that.

E1027 Eileen Gray, 1927
Lesson: All architects aren’t men.
Lesson: Vernacular construction is fine.
Lesson: Solar orientation has a sensual aspect to it.
Lesson: Good things happen by not being so uptight about architecture.

Eileen Gray – the original femisfit. E1027 – the house that so spooked Le Corbusier that he set up shack behind it so as to faciltate stalking it and its owner. I’ve always struggled with the psychology of that, especially the bit where Le Corbusier defaced the house with his dubious murals.

I guess one man’s wanton vandalism is another man’s non-consensual defilement. No-one’s asking, but if they did, I’d like to see the house restored to a time prior to the murals but what I expect is that they’ll be restored and presented as “part of the story of the house”. Apart from the moral wrongness of this, it’s also a crime of educational negligence because the story of E1027 is a distraction that teaches nothing of actual use and deflects attention from the many useful things the house itself can teach us. 

Aligning a house so bedrooms face east and main rooms face south is the right thing to do. Illuminating the living room by a shaft of horizontal sunlight signalling the day’s end (and alerting anyone still napping on the day bed) is a thoughtful and poetic thing to do.

The old maxim “Don’t experiment on guests!” refers to new recipes and dinner parties but the same applies to architecture. There’s a relaxing comfort to be found in tried and true methods of vernacular construction, and sun and ventilation control. These don’t need reinventing.

Casa alle Zattere, Ignazio Gardella, 1958 
Lesson: Respect what’s already there
Lesson: Lose the ego, do your job well

An essay* I wrote about a year ago began “Not many architects are asked to build in Venice …” Ignazio Gardella was one of the few and he took that responsibility seriously, and discharged it admirably and to the best of his considerable skill. The internal planning of this building is a feat in itself, with rooms distorted ever so slightly to guide (from behind) the attention of their occupants to the view of Il Redentore [Palladio, 1592] across the Giudecca Canal. This is the construction of space for reasons not to do with the space itself, but its effect on the people in the space. It’s a development of the principles in Gardella’s 1952 Casa Borsolino. In the image below, the angle of the wall at the rear of the primary rooms on the south-west corner is inclined to oppose that of the external wall directing people to look away from Il Redentore across the canal to the south-east. This is not a forgotten skill. It was never taught.

Such spatial manipulation is so rare it’s not even a topic. We might marvel at Michaelangelo’s distortion of perspective in the Laurentian Library but forget to ask why it was necessary. What we are really admiring is Michaelangelo’s brilliance. Gardella’s used the quiet power of mute walls to solve actual problems and enhance the user experience. Those problems are not even apparent to other architects.

But that’s just on the inside. The exterior of this building was designed to be merge and become part of Venice. I won’t expand here on the many ways it does that. The building is not denying its presence by hiding through copycat contextualism, but nor is it an ostentatious display of good manners. It’s a building both of its time and not. It’s never been understood, appreciated, or taught. It’s Baroque in its technique (in all the best ways) but prior to the arrival of complexity and contradiction (and all the bad ways). It’s just doing its best to relate to its neighbours and respect what’s already there. This is the genius of Italy. Living with architectural history means a sensitivity that whatever one does might be seen to be part of it. It’s time Gardella was remembered as the architect who didn’t screw up Venice. Architects are still faced with problems such as the one Gardella faced yet nobody is teaching anyone how to approach a solution. He used a technique, not a style.

Isolato tra via Albricci e piazza Velasca Asnago & Vender, 1958
Lesson: Respect what is already there
Lesson: Lose the ego, do your job well

In this next image are four Asnago Vender buildings. They’re the four connected ones in the middle – there’s a sliver of the fourth at the far end of the block. Let’s have a look.

The corner sliver building is mirroring – but not exactly – the building on the corner opposite, its 2nd and 3rd floors are borrowing the colour of the masonry and the glazing is picking up the proportions. The blank wall on the side wall is picking up the proportions of the blank wall of the chamfer wall opposite. But it holds its own – as does the building next to it. And as does the last building on the corner of via Albricci and piazza Velasca.

The earlier buildings on either side are remarkable in their own ways but this corner building is representative of Asnago & Vender’s attitude towards architecture, the city and history. On two sides of this corner, the architects are working within a context they themselves have made, although they could not have been certain they would be the ones to add the final piece. The corner building is not a simple extension of the earlier adjacent buildings because now there’s a new building across a new corner to consider. And consider it does with its eccentric window sizing and spacing differing in increasing degrees as the corner is approached along its slight curve. Two windows break the sequence and alert us to the fact there is in fact a sequence. This is not Victorian “incident” for the sake of it. These two windows are the event that marks the corner and are the culmination of everything that has been set up along both facades. It’s not shouting, but it’s not total silence either – it’s there for you if you notice it.

I confess I love this building but don’t want to objectify it. It contains clues for how to build in the city and how to approach any building on any site. That my last two examples of The Formalist Canon are Italian from the late 1950s is probably no accident. There was something good going on back then. It wasn’t lost or forgotten. It’s just that the world that followed had no need for an architecture that was timeless, that effortlessly became a part of its context, or that was devoid of ego.

• • •

The Formalist Canon still has use for buildings from the traditional canon. For example, Villa Savoye is a good case study to illustrate what happens when design management and client management go wrong, as evidenced by the design changing after construction, with attendant complications and compromises for drainage and er … sewage.

• • •

A New Formalism
The Types Study (The Type F)
Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio (The 20K House)
Detective Story (Frais Vallon Housing)
Architecture Misfit #18: Ignazio Gardella (Casa Borsolino)
Architecture Misfit #15: Knud Peter Harboe (Lassen House)
Architecture Misfit #3: Eileen Gray (E1027)
*A Rationalist in Venice (Casa alle Zattere)
Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender (Building on via Albricci)
Architecture Myths #20: The Villa Savoye



  • Peace to you.

    Should this:

    Lesson: All architects aren’t men.

    …be this?

    Lesson: Architects are not restricted by gender.

    • Mr Qayyum, you may be underthinking Graham’s notation of ‘men’. I think he is using the “men” in his Lesson to highlight the male-centric nature of the profession.