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The Artless Plan

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What has architecture as Art ever done for us? “Lifted the human spirit!” you may say. Okay but whose? And for how long? Tricky questions. This post is about artlessness in architectural layouts, what it might mean, and what it might mean for us. The artlessness I’m in favour of is not what’s come to be known since the 1980s as simplicity – a visual bareness resulting from the expensive decluttering of construction joints and differences of materials from buildings. It didn’t bring many of us joy. Only the very few could afford to deny a building’s existence as an assemblage of variously convenient materials.

Artlessness goes beyond surfaces and into the fundamental space they enclose. If one had arrived at a perfect simple, artless plan, how could anyone ever appreciate the skill or cumulative intelligence that went into reducing that plan to a state where it was all it was ever meant to be? How could one convince anyone that it does the job not only just as well, but perhaps even better? Just as paid architecture writers often get paid by the word and as a consequence tend to be a bit wordy, it might be the case that architects overestimate what a layout is actually required to do and cram an excess of art into them.

I’ve nothing against inhabitable art and can accept that art must interfere with the act of living and in a good way. It should not detract or impede. The question is how. My spin is that the architecture should provide a conceputual space (or freedom, if you prefer) for the occupants to live how they want with what they want and where they want it. [c.f. Art In Space!, Houses as Art, Living as Art, Art as Houses] Some of the residential architecture of Peso von Ellrichshausen offers little in this respect. Their artistic penchant for symmetries of structure, skylights and doors conflicts with some aspects of living.


Their 2012 Solo House introduces the problem of the main entrance. Houses usually only have one and here the solution was to create a new, diagonal symmetry to accommodate the spiral stair. Assuming those small circles in front of the doors are drains, the challenging shower rooms might have been better split into separate shower and wc/basin rooms. (This would have maintained symmetry with the closets either side of the beds and might actually been easier to use.) Solo House also introduces the problem of a kitchen door between the sink and cooker.

Stunning view notwithstanding, there’s a stepping-stone like step between the cooker and the sink. But not everyone in the world cooks pasta I suppose. Or rice. Or potatoes.

Their 2014 Guna House again creates a diagonal axis for a main and a secondary entrance now. Wardrobes are present in abundance but there is now a functionally redundant door, again between the cooker and the kitchen sink. Introducing a secondary grid creates a geometry more accommodating of (narrow) passageways and storage cupboards.

From the same 2014 is Casa Meri with the activities of daily living split across two rows of five structural units having 14 identical exterior wall openings. Four of the nine internal doors aren’t essential. Having a door to a children’s bedroom between a sink and a cooker is probably not the cleverest idea.

I see PvE as raising fundamental architectural ideas to increasingly higher levels of contrivance and moving progressively away from the original advantages of simple plans – simplification of materials and construction. Casa Meri is still softer than Hiromi Fujii’s 1968 Project E2 but it’s still pretty harsh.

I’ve mentioned the similarities and differences between H Arquitectes‘ Casa Barcelona and Peso von Ellrichshausen’s Casa Meri before. Casa Barcelona accomodates a car and a storeroom and the activities of daily living in two rows of five structural units. Despite economies to be had by having things the same, four out of thirteen external wall openings aren’t identical.

Osawald Unger’s House Without Qualities has a different kind of simplicity. Things resistant to symmetry such as stairs, kitchens, bathrooms and storage are made conceptually irrelevant by incorporating them into walls.

It’s still an extremely controlled and controlling environment in terms of the positions of furniture but there’s a clear distinction between which bits are art and which are not. Everything has its place. It has little in common with this next plan apart from a straight flight of stairs between two walls. It’s a two-up-two-down cottage, as reported on the Vernacular Architecture Forum website. It’s been drawn from a description in a novel but it’s a perfect example of the type even if these days we’d like a bathroom. It is my first example of an artless plan. It is not and cannot be anything other than what it is. We’re looking at intelligence, not art.

My second example is a shotgun house – which is a house with a linear plan usually involving a linear passage, if not always a corridor, front to back. Typically associated with New Orleans, the type seems to have arrived from West Africa via Haiti. I’m not the only one who thought these houses were called shotgun houses because a bullet fired through the front door would go right out the back without hitting a wall, but it’s more likely the name is a corruption of the word “sho’gon” which, in West Africa, means “God’s House”. Fellow blogger Roland Arriaga, over on archi-dinamica architects llc can tell you much more about them than I can but this plan is the simplest I can find.

On the outside, they look like this, with varying space between. Shotgun houses are sometimes paired as semi-detached houses but then the central room or rooms aren’t as well ventilated in the warm humid climate where these houses predominate. The shotgun house never developed into a terrace as this would mean central rooms having through-ventilation only.

The shotgun house plan has much to offer in the way of efficiency of enclosure and economy of construction but these days we don’t generally pass through bedrooms to get to other rooms, as in this house by Chasm Homes.

This is usually solved by reducing the width of the central rooms to create a corridor, as with the Napoleon II from the buildnownola website.

This next modern variation is true to shotgun principles but uses the living spaces as the corridor while a sub-corridor reduces the number of openings off it. It’s good, although the spacious bathrooms and walk-in closest aren’t exactly in the spirit of shotgun houses.


I once lived in a semi-detached terrace that had two bedrooms with back-to-back fireplaces at the front alongside a corridor that led to a full-width living room and then into a full-width kitchen-dining room, again with back-to-back fireplaces. The bathroom was a lean-to extension at the rear and the semi-detached wc was halfway up the rear yard. The plan I just described can still be seen in this once-similar house recently for sale just up the street.

Other Australian solutions generally followed the British one by having a reduced rear width that essentially created a long, single-storey lightwell. This still shows in this example even though the rest of the plan has been substantially modified.

The Japanese solved the same problem by using shōji to partition internal rooms from the corridor and internal courtyards to bring light and a degree of ventilation to the central rooms.

These innovations can be seen in this plan for a “double Machiya” from theworkhome website. It’s brilliant and, as a typology, I feel its time has come in many other places around the world. [c.f. The Japanese Machiya]

This next plan for four apartments by Zurich architects E2A is pretty good too. In the two-bedroom apartments, entering into the middle of the U-shape means there’s no passage through bedrooms. See how the odd angle is absorbed by the bathrooms and the entrance hallways? [c.f. The Odd Angle] It’s the most intelligent thinking I’ve seen in a long time. [See more here.]

I don’t know if artlessness will ever catch on as a concept but what it is I’m trying to pin down is not unlike vernacular intelligence that arrives at a solution it sees no need to change nor way to improve. I’m all for less art and more intelligence.

• • • 

for the redevelopment of the NPAK building in Yerevan, Armenia

Last week I had an email from Gagik Khachatryan of urbanlab, an independent urban lab based in Yerevan, Armenia. They’re holding an open international architectural competition for the redevelopment of the key contemporary art venue NPAK, known internationally as the Armenian Centre for Contemporary Experimental Art. Here it is now. It’s bold and proud.


The full competition guidebook with requirements and rules is downloadable from here. It’s in English and Armenian, a language we don’t get to see very often. The competition looks well thought-out and structured, with additional and potentially useful site and building information available for entrants. The submission deadline is June 25. Good luck!



  • says:

    These plans, especially the Machiya, remind me of the Courtyard House in London by De Rosee Sa–a long, narrow lot with limited opportunity for windows on the exterior walls, thus a plan with a long open corridor connecting living spaces separated by room-sized courtyards. (Though perhaps the size of the courts (and the climate?) mean that the day/night thermal effects are less?)

    I have spent time in a version of the two-up-two-down cottage you cite as your first example of intelligent design. In my case it was a three-floor, two-over-two-over-two rowhouse but was nonetheless immediately brought to mind by the plan you posted. It had a one-floor extension added to the back for a kitchen, allowing the original kitchen to become a dining room, but still the only bathroom in the place was at the back end of the basement!