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Architecture Myths #30: Analysis

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Identifying and defining the problem in the first stage of this thing called the design process is already loaded with assumptions such as, for one, the need being one an architectural response can satisfy. Already I’m not so keen to use terms such as problem and solution, let alone assume a causal relationship between them. At the end of the previous post on The Problem I floated the idea that this thing called the design process doesn’t even begin until the outcome is largely known. After all, clients don’t pay architects to perform open-ended research into unspecified results. [Then who does? Architecture Myths #31: The Research-Driven Practice?] A design process that doesn’t begin until the result is known doesn’t bode well for the second stage, Analysis or the third stage, Synthesis that’s supposed to bring it all together. Somehow, something credible AS A BUILDING in a particular place and time results from arbitrarily following this apparently arbitrary process.

We’d better keep quiet about all this as we’ve signed the contract and have legally and professionally committed to having the skills and resources to produce that desirable outcome. Together, the client and I have narrowed the range of possibilities in the hope they converge into something we’ll agree was the inevitable and best outcome. Separately, the client may expect and encourage me to leverage their project for my own media purposes and, as far as they’re concerned, I can expect and encourage them to leverage my architectural profile for theirs. It’s consensual. Back in the office, we start to think about what we’re going to do. We remember the project we just finished and agree it’d be good to make this new one look as if there was some sort of design progression even if nobody’s going to ask towards what. Riffing on some previous project means the same teams, the same techniques and much the same spec can be used to produce something that looks new. Referencing oneself is always good as long as it’s not from too far back.

I’ve heard OMA’s intern farm isn’t allowed to be inspired by any part of the oeuvre older than two years. Presumably, the clock starts ticking from the initial media reveal.

Architects and architect offices these days aren’t expected to have signature styles. Being known for having a certain approach to the task of designing is less limiting in terms of size and type of project and companies without a signature style are generally perceived by clients and markets to be modern and adaptable. Jean Nouvel and Herzog de Meuron were trailblazers in that respect. All this musing is getting our project nowhere!

I gave the class a choice of three different ways of approaching the theme of the city.

  • A refinement, reorganization or redesign of one part or aspect of a city. Making one corner of it a city better is never a bad thing.
  • An urban module that, theoretically, could be repeated across an entire city. These typically change nothing , but they’re good theoretical and practical exercises.
  • A city designed on the basis of a single premise. These too typically go nowhere as it’s rare these days to have a single factor operating. Again, they’re thought exercises.

This next was my interpretation of the problem. You can see how it gives me scope to recycle many of my design inventions from late last year and early this year.

  1. To use a single architectural device to configure high-density urban housing,
  2. For this single architectural device to provide access, daylight and ventilation to all rooms and not just habitable rooms,
  3. For the configuration of the entire building to let inhabitants retain an awareness of their living with other people, but not to the extent that privacy suffers, and
  4. For the configuration of the entire building should ideally have the potential to be mass produced and erected quickly and at low cost.

A university design studio is not like an architectural office with decades of projects representing accumulated experience and knowledge. To substitute for student lack of knowledge and experience, instructors traditionally invoke existing buildings from which it is thought something can be learned. One and a half centuries ago these would have been Classical buildings, often in Ancient Greece. It’s a moveable feast. Such buildings are referred to as “The Canon” if they’ve been around long enough for us to forget what we’re supposed to be learning from them, or Case Studies if they’re a similar typology to the one we think we are dealing with. In universities, choice of case studies assumes a project direction, if not the final proposal.

The problem with case studies is that there are many buildings in the world and one can never know if the problem some prior architect had solved is equivalent to the one one’s set oneself. Oversimplified correspondences can be made on the spatial or functional level but it’s wrong to assume they’re correct or even adequate. Referring to case studies as precedents is worse as it implies they have the authority of some prior legal ruling. Legally, a precedent only applies if the circumstances are the same, and whether or not they are is the source of much legal wrangling. In architecture, worthy precedents tend to not produce worthy proposals.

To be sure, many case studies and precedent analyses have been done for both buildings but I’ve never had anyone explain to me how the apartments in Habitat ’67 are accessed. Safdie’s fantastic sectional drawings exist but every year they become more and more inscrutable to others. [This article on Architectural Review gives the most information I’ve ever seen about access and entrances.]

It’s one of architecure’s mysteries how Safdie was able to comprehend this building so completely without visualizations, document it without CAD and build it without BIM. How did he do it?

Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7 is simple by comparison but cellular planning had been an interest of Bofill’s for decades. I admire students’ admiration for these buildings but they’re not good examples from which to learn, let alone attempt to improve upon. Not that they can’t be – just that it’s probably not going to happen in a learning situation. Having said that, they can still be “part of the mix”.

Here’s the projects I decided had something of potential value for mine. No. I decided first what I wanted my project to do, and then looked for projects that succeeded in doing what I wanted mine to do. This makes it a results-oriented, problem-solving approach to case study selection. i.e. “State the problem against which the solution will be judged (not the solutions to which the project will refer).”

Daylighting and natural ventilation

Hong Kong Housing Authority Concord cruciform tower block

NegativesAlthough daylighting and natural ventilation is solved for all apartments and the shared spaces, the orientation of some apartments is more favorable than that of others. There is also the problem common to apartment buildings, of the shared spaces being disconnected from the apartments and vice-versa, save for the entrance door.

The Scissor Apartment configuration

PositivesThe scissor apartment configuration was invented by the Greater London Housing Authority in the 1950s. It is way of configuring apartments and their access corridors so that all living rooms are on one side of the building and all bedrooms are on the other. This is possible by each apartment having an internal staircase that either passes over the access corridor or under the access corridor to the other side. These staircases pass by the apartment bathrooms that are above and below access corridors on every other floor. It is best explained in section. The pink apartment is entered from the upper entrance (access) corridor and the staircase goes downwards and has a fire escape door at the lower entrance corridors. The white apartment is entered from the lower entrance corridor and the staircase goes up to have a fire escape exiting to the upper corridor. Both apartments have bathrooms on the floor between those two corridors.

NegativesApart from the configuration not being easily understood, the main problem is not that there are two levels of internal stairs, even though half of the second flight is intended for use only as a fire escape. This is in itself not a problem but because stairs are required to enter the apartments and to pass over or under the access corridor, it is impossible to have barrier-free (universal) access. Furthermore, because the landings are used for internal circulation, it is important to have the stairs as close to the access corridor as possible. This means that the apartment entrance is small, and that the habitable rooms have L-shaped spaces that, while useable, are not ideal. Also, the wet-spaces are in the centre of the plan and, while this makes for efficient drainage, it means that bathrooms and kitchens need to be artificially lit and ventilated.


Recent versions of Hong Kong Housing Authority’s Concord and other cruciform towers

These use a system of construction whereby prefabricated room or apartment components are stacked and attached to a slimmed-down core. The example on the left is configured with smaller apartments opening off corridors on each arm, while the example at right is a composite with larger apartments in the conventional arrangement as well as smaller apartments with the corridor arrangement. Both are configured from unitized parts and both also retain the lighting and ventilation to elevator lobbies.

PositivesApartment modules can be prefabricated elsewhere and assembled on site, with obvious advantages for quality control, construction cost, and speed of construction. The modules are to a certain extent self supporting in the same way that shipping containers are, meaning that the central core can be slimmed down.

Negatives: The layouts become even more regular. When the internal layout is over-tailored to a one-size-fits-all solution, it ends up fitting no-one. The example of the right however, shows that each wing can have either two three-bedroom apartments or three two-bedroom apartments. Although the wings of these towers now have internal access corridors, those corridors do not link to those of adjacent buildings, meaning that their length is limited to maximum fire escape distances, and they become progressively darker away from the core.

Neighbourly Interaction

Making “Streets in the Sky” more worthy of the term

What we think of when we here the term “Streets in the Sky” never really lived up to its name. Only entrance doors opened onto open corridors and, once inside, occupants turned their backs on the life of the building. Streets are about more than casual encounters between neighbours. From the windows of houses and apartments we look out onto the street and observe what is going on. From this we gain an awareness of living with other people and there may even be an awareness and self-identification as a community or neighborhood. Even if there is no direct interaction between nearby residents, there is still an awareness of their routines and their comings and goings. This is still a type of positive interaction that is absent if there is only a blank door as the interface between apartment and street. How to provide some of these social and indirectly social benefits of streets in an apartment building has been a concern of mine for some time. All of the following projects of mine tackle this problem to a degree.

This is one of my first attempts at making the movement within a tall building more visible. There is an elevator lobby every three floors and you either enter your apartment on that level, or go up or down a level to enter a different apartment or to enter your own from a different level as there are also internal stairs in addition to the open fire and access stairs. The windows overlooking this central space are hallway and kitchen windows. When you step out of the elevator you know who’s home. The glass window to the elevator shafts also indicates activity within the building.  []

This is another version of the same. This time, slit living room windows look up and down the access corridor. []

This is a smaller-scale example that has an overlooked access corridor, as well as daylighting and natural ventilation to all rooms. [c.f.] With this configuration, bathrooms are lit and ventilated by what is essentially a light well, while the kitchen/dining window overlooks the access corridor from either half a floor above or below. From a window one may see only people’s feet or their heads but it is sufficient to know that other people are in the building.

HKHA Standard Block Twin Tower corridor configuration

Positives: The typical floor of the HKHA Standard Block Twin Tower type has single-sided access corridors linked around a lightwell that provides a degree of cross ventilation to the habitable rooms. This configuration also has the potential for more towers to be horizontally linked. This arrangement has open corridors arranged around voids in an arrangement promoting an awareness of people circulating within the building.

Negatives: The main problem with this arrangement is the inequality of orientation.

Metabolism meets Hong Kong Housing Authority

The recent versions of HKHA’s cruciform tower blocks separate the functions of core and wings, with the core remaining s slip-form concrete structure that anchors and stabilizes the stacks of prefabricated units that configure the wings. The standard twin-tower configuration above could be configured in a similar way with accommodation wings linking stabilizing access cores at each corner. This is not the same as Metabolist notions of structure because the cores are only for vertical circulation and structural stability. They contain no services. However, the idea of cores linking corridors both horizontally and vertically to configure a city is shared.

Positives: There’s a distinct separation between the accommodation and the support system and this shoudl make for certain efficiencies.

Negatives: Except it doesn’t. Tange’s 1966 Yamanashi Press Centre represents a structural idea rather than being one. As does Isozaki’s, even if that structural idea is expressed over time. Both exemplify the Metabolism conundrum. The metabolism referred to is not that of vertebrates where the life-support metabolism is enclosed and protected by structure but that of a tree. In buildings, conceptually separating accommodation from a supporting structure requires services to pass through that structure and Metabolism never addressed this. [The failings of Nakagin, the only Metabolist building actually built, stem largely from problems with services, not that this matters much now]

Confession 1: I added the positives and negatives just then. The separation of accommodation and support is relevant to my project though and it will be my job to solve it rather than pretend it will go away as the Metabolists did..
Confession 2: This last was a late inclusion to justify where I already knew where the project was heading. Neither are great examples of solving my stated problems but nobody’s going to pull me up on that. Both are worthy enough for what they are, but putting them here was pre-emptive justification. Students will learn this soon enough. Sadly, they’ll also learn that it works.

Now semester is over and a new one begun, I can see how the entire design process can be reverse engineered to make the solution appear the inevitable outcome. This probably happens more often than we’re aware of, and we’ll never know when it’s the case. We can’t rely on anyone to tell us or, if they do, to tell us the truth. All we can do is ask ourselves “How does it?” or “Is it really?” and make up our own minds.



  • I’ve long argued to my students that there is a distinction between a ‘reference’ and a ‘precedent’. References point to similar cases by others; most often accompanied by “XYZ did a hospital once too, with wavy bits”. Precedents, by contrast, are approaches or solutions by others who have already addressed the germane issue in a substantive way. These are like moving sidewalks in airport terminals: they zip you along further towards your destination as a helpful device. This dovetails neatly with your far more elegant phrasing of devices against which your project will be judged. Hats off once again!