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The Tops of Buildings

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The first thing many people younger than me probably thought of when they saw the title of this post is the song Mansard Roof by epic New York indie band Vampire Weekend. This link is to the video accompanying the studio version of the song that, I think as a statement of musical intent is perfect but, this could just be me as the live performance has its own charm, as this recording from Reading Festival 2008 shows. Everyone please take a position.

Mansard Roof

I see a mansard roof through the trees
I see a salty message written in the eaves
The ground beneath my feet,
the hot garbage and concrete
And now the tops of buildings, I can see them too


The Argentines collapse in defeat
The admiralty surveys the remnants of the fleet
The ground beneath their feet
is a nautically mapped sheet
As thin as paper while it slips away from view

Lyrics of “Mansard Roof” by Vampire Weekend, 2008

This position I just asked you to take is a position of one kind of real over another kind of real. I think that, with all this recent crap about architecture and AI, we’re being asked to choose between one kind of fake and a different kind of fake – the same old shit, in other words. So I think it’s important we remember the difference between studio and live performance. In which does the real art lie? Is it the concept or the performance of it? Which kind of artistry do we prefer? Or want? Music shows us there’s a place for both. The live performance confirms the joy the studio version brought to the people at the live concert. Music is structured and, probably because of that, fluid in that it’s free to be interpreted. Mansard Roof is a very structured song that allows lossless reinterpretation. I’m sorry Goethe, but architecture isn’t frozen music. I know you meant this as praise but both architecture and music have changed. The most exciting thing about music is its ability to be re-performed. It has structures – and not particularly “deep” ones – where the creativity lies and that enable it to be re-interpreted and re-performed. It’d be nice if architecture had some.

Last week I thought of this song when I gave a lecture on French Renaissance Architecture to my first year architecture history class. I don’t normally free associate about mansard roofs but they had been entering my life a lot recently. Hence this post and why I put this digression at the beginning before I get to the point.

Sorry – another digression. I don’t think ChatGPT has generated any deepfake misfitsarchitecture texts yet but it’s only a matter of time as this blog has been publicly available – and for free 🫤 – on the www for more than ten years now. The early posts have most almost certainly been data “scraped” – this new and neutralized word we have to describe the ethical equivalent of strip mining and sea bottom trawling. Thusly, I’m experimenting with new words, idiosyncratic grammar, punctuation and syntax in order to buy myself some more time. Resistance. Wish us luck. It’s forcing me to up my game. It’s not a bad thing.

Wikipedia tells me the first use of the mansard roof was by Pierre Lescot around 1550 on part of the then private art gallery known as The Louvre but only became popular in the next century under King Louis III when a certain François Mansart promoted it amongst the aristocracy.

Par Pedro P. Palazzo 26 juillet 2015 — wikimedia commons, Domaine public,

Mansard roofs also happened to be a good and inexpensive way of building an additional storey and were widely employed when Paris was being rebuilt in the mid 19th. It was the time of Napoleon III and Haussman and the architectural style these new mansard roofs were a part of became known in history books as French Second Empire style. It was highly ornamented – though some might say ostentatious – but this didn’t stop it being used for palaces and grand houses. It’s what we see when we look at Paris today.

Promoting his new architectural invention to rich people guaranteed it widespread “emulation” shall we say, in countries and their citizens with aspirations. On the one hand, the mansard roof is a relatively simple and expedient way of adding another storey to your building if you need some extra space but, on the other, it’s also a relatively simple and expedient means of making your building look more impressive than you probably could have otherwise afforded. It was thus a brilliant architectural invention and so these cheap yet impressive roofs took Europe by storm. As is the way, it was perhaps an overabundance of these cheap but impressive roofs that made them less popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was of course a short hop Across The Channel to England. This is Waddesdon Manor, built in England in 1874 for one of the Rothschilds.

Mansard roofs continued to be built for reasons of expedience even after the French Second Empire Style was no longer fashionable in France and England and Art Nouveau was. Undeterred, the style went g on to have further adventures in America where it was thought classy.
Search “Second Empire America”.

And not just America. The octagonal mansards of Tokyo Station, completed 1914, are French Second Empire by way of Germany from where Japan imported much railway technology.

Second Empire mansard roofs reached Australia via England about 1900 but never caught on to the extent they had in the United States and almost never on houses. In this blog, we last saw a mansard roof on The Royal Hotel (on the left below) in the Contempt for History post. This building was completed in 1882 but in 1906 was renovated to what we see today. This photo is from 1965. A little bit of France in Perth, Australia.

Mansard roofs came and went throughout the 20th century. 1970s Western Australia had a fashion for mansard roofs having orange ceramic roof tiles for the more vertical face. My university dormitory, long demolished, had a roof of this type. Here’s a more recent example of the style for Telstra, Australia’s main telecoms provider.

The roof is constructed with surfaces at two different angles, one more vertical and one practically horizontal. It has no windows, so this mansard seems to have been built to increase the floor height rather than adding another floor. It’s not particularly impressive but the material change and shadow gap reduce the scale of the building in what’s a residential area. A second mansard roof (this time with overhangs) has been built on top of the original. This later mansard extension is true to the principle of mansard roofs in being an expedient way to add more floor space but, rather than having ornamented windows and drawing attention to itself, this one has near vertical lower surfaces for more useable area and is painted green so we won’t notice it.

The more vertical the lower surfaces of a mansard roof becomes, the more the building begins to resemble a two storey building with different materials for each floor. This was the look in Talahassee Fl. in this 1970s building with four apartments and mansard with quasi-Colonial windows.

Something similar was to become standard residential construction in Western Australia with lightweight roofs having vertical lower surfaces and no longer pretending to be either a roof or impressive.

This would mark the Death of the Mansard if mansard roofs didn’t live on in China as an acceptable way of topping residential tower complex. I pass by the one in this next photo most weekdays and have come to think it’s actually quite clever. You could think of it as post-modern neo-second-empire except it’s not a joke and it’s not a fashion. Someone has reasoned that it’s not a bad look for these buildings and I think they’re right.

A mansard roof combied with some typical-floor protrusions and banded cornices is not a bad way of giving a slab tower with multiple cores a gravitas appropriate for their height and bulk. It makes sense, especially when grouped as they invariably are. Since the 16th century, making a building look larger than it actually is and for very little additional outlay, has never been discouraged by clients and has never been a bad move in architecture. It’s as if the mansard roof was invented in the 16th century so that we could accommodate elevator over-runs and rooftop water tanks on tower blocks in a way that makes aesthetic and practical sense to us today.

This is why we have history and can learn from it. History is great. The names, dates and countries of these architectural inventions aren’t important, but it’s extremely important to think about THINGS THAT HAPPENED in terms of what problems they solved just in case we find ourselves with similar ones. This is why History exists and why we, our at least I, resist in teaching it. Clients being clients, how to enclose space inexpensively yet have their building look more impressive at the same time is one of those timeless problems architecture exists to solve over and over again. Google “modern mansard” and I’m sure both Google and Pinterest will oblige. But probably not with Chinese examples.

I look forward to a future of Neo-Second-Empire and possibly even Neo-(neo)-Gothic residential towers. Foster+Partners inexplicably under-celebrated The Index in Dubai had buttresses. They’re not exactly flying but these supports are perpendicular to the enclosure so the windows can be bigger. It looks like it’s for different reasons but it just depends on what is important to the client. In that sense, it’s the same shit.

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