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Holes in Buildings

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Holes in buildings have been around for a while – at least since 1982 when Arquitectonica’s The Atlantis was completed and most definitely since 1984 when the building was featured in the opening credits of Miami Vice that ran for five seasons from 1984. I just read that one of the five founding members in 1977 was Andrés Duany before he went rogue. I also read that the building won the AIA Test of Time Award in both the 10 year and 25 year categories. Now that’s a concept! Anyway, Arquitectonica made that square void (a.k.a. sky courtyard) into a branding device and went on to have a fine business doing what some people call commercial architecture as if it somehow inhabits a different universe than every other kind of architecture that fills our screens. Arquitectonica have had relatively media presence in the intervening years and, as far as I know, have never called themselves a research based practice. This endears them to me immensely.

The Atlantis Condominium, Miami, Florida, 8007

MVRDV’s 2018 Future Towers in Pune, India refresh the hole for a new century, adding a mountain meme and a hexagon meme.

There is one three storey hole but most of them are two storeys high so they don’t screw up the fire escape. I imagine a corridor at the lower level of the hole and accessing the lower level of two storey maisonette, and another corridor on the level above the hole, accessing the upper level of two storey maisonettes – that old Corbusian device. Here’s the entry level plan that makes it happen. It’s not clear who gets to use those holes. If my assumption is correct, that space of the hole is accessed and overlooked by kitchens. I doubt there’s a jacuzzi.


Here’s some more floor plans. All are single aspect, and it looks like those holes don’t go all the way through although some do connect opposite sides of the corridor.

The downside of these holes – or any holes in buildings for that matter – is that they’re structurally enclosed space that can’t be sold full-price and, in this case, doesn’t add much in the way of amenity value. The upside is that being seen to not monetise every possible cubic metre is an indicator of prestige, especially with Future Towers that was said to be low-cost housing. It’s like admitting to a small lie in order to get away with a big one. You only have to sacrifice a few unremarkable apartments to make people believe this development is a luxury development – or at least not as ruthlessly exploitative as it could have been. Well done MVRDV! Maybe that’s what Arquitectonica cottoned on to over 50 years ago. By the way, Arquitectonica are still working it. Here’s their Gate Towers development in Abu Dhabi.

It’s a bit memey I know, but I do respect Arquitectonica for staying with the square void branding device. Back in the day – 2006 – this next was their proposal for the Four Seasons Hotel in Dubai. Still running with the square void, this is a virtual void whose completion is suggested by the facade patten and the truncations during the day, and completed at night by lasers (and most likely the relief on the cladding). I still admire this building as an example of branding, structural and aesthetic efficiency. Offhand, I think it’s the only time I’ve ever seen building illumination used to reinforce a concept. It was never built and, even amongst the category of buildings that were never built – of which Dubai has many – this one isn’t remembered. I expect it’s because it shows that building concepts don’t always have to be about shape expensively contrived by structure. This went against the flow in the run-up to 2008.

Postponed in 2008, and then killed and buried early 2009, Atkins’ no-show Icon Hotel is a virtual void created by bridging two towers. Technically, this isn’t a hole in the same sense that cut-and-cover is a way of building a tunnel and not a tunnelling technique but then, the same can be said about most of the buildings in this post. The only thing I’ll mention about the structure creating these holes is the degree of contrivance. On that score, the Four Seasons Hotel has none apart from that small cantilever at the top, Future Towers only needs a few beefed-up beams to span voids in a regular column grid, as does Shams Abu Dhabi. With The Icon Hotel however, the floor plates shift relative to vertical access to create huge complications in its internal layouts even though its structure is relatively simple.


I’m in two minds about this next one. It looks like a hole but can be used as a bridge. It’s a muted precursor to Silodam with fire escape routes picked out in red, I guess because fire engines are red and everybody likes fire engines.

China has a wealth of buildings with holes in them. Often, it’s to help dragons descend mountains on their daily trip to the ocean.

I couldn’t find a character for “dragons moving through holes in buildings” but the one on the left is for “dragons flying” and the one on the right is used to denote “dragons flying through clouds”. It’s complicated.  

Sometimes, assisted by a reflection, the purpose of the hole is to create an image of lucky number eight, as in this example on the left below or, with less room for misinterpretation, it could represent coinage and, by association, prosperity and good fortune as in the example on the right. These Chinese examples of holes are all exceptions in that they mean something. All the others are examples of structure being contrived to denote, if anything, that the structure has been contrived.

It’s getting silly now. Here’s a building wrap creating a virtual hole. The image is from a newspaper clipping I scanned as soon as scanners were invented.It’s advertising the 1979 movie Meteor. Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Martin Landau (from Mission Impossible the TV series), and Henry Fonda no less! Disaster movies were big at the time. Offhand I can remember Towering Inferno, Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, … I’m guessing the meteor never struck Earth as the day and planet were saved by firing a shedload of rockets at it.

“After the asteroid Orpheus is hit by a comet, a five-mile chunk of Orpheus is sent on a collision course towards Earth, which will cause an extinction-level event …”

But who’s working to keep the hole-in-a-building meme alive? Well, there’s OMA for one, albeit not recently. Their Beijing CCTV has both a vertical hole and a horizontal hole running through it. Regarding the shape of this building and the shape of its holes much has been said – mostly by Charles Jencks and mostly – but not only – in his 2005 book The Iconic Building in which he informs us he was a member of the jury responsible for its selection.

“… it was obvious that Koolhaas’s entry suggested both pertinent references to China and the media, as well as extraordinary overtones. A good icon has to work with opposite codes. As the accompanying sketches [below] show, the distant view looks like a moon gate, the ornamental surround that punctuates eery Chinese garden. This frame also bears resemblance to the pi-shape that goes back to the origins of China, a form that was normally made in bronze or jade. Even more suggestive is the exposed structure. This recalls the famous Chinese bracket construction, as well as the lattice windows that can be found in traditional homes. Others compared the structure and laminated glass-mesh skin to Chinese calligraphy. Koohaas never mentioned these overtones, nor the bizarre but appealing Pop images.”

The Iconic Building pp107, 110

Compared with OMA’S CCTV building and Jenck’s criticsplaining, it’s almost a relief to see the meaningless holes in ZHA buildings such as their 2014 City of Dreams in Macau. It’s part of the City of Dreams casino complex and an excellent example of gratuitous structural contrivance. I don’t remember hearing much about it but it looks like it was built after all.

And then there was their THE OPUS in Dubai, designed first but completed many years after City of Dreams. The THE OPUS’s structure changes from concrete to steel to achieve this vertically asymmetrical hole at a great cost to the internal planning. It’s actually rotationally symmetrical front and back not that you’d notice or care. However, it does indicate that some unsung someone was tasked with making some construction economies.

Just around the corner and up the road in Dubai is the Museum of The Future which would be unremarkable were it not for the hole arounds which the entire building is contrived. The structure is of course steel, and a second fire escape stair snakes down the thin end of the distorted torus (?).

But apart from (expensively) contrived structure enabling the decadent wastage of building volume, do these holes do anything else? Of course, any hole in a building will let you see to the other side but, if there’s nothing crucial to see, then the hole only brings attention to itself and expensively contrived structure for the sake of it. At least The Atlantis, gave us some wonderful framed vies of Miami sky completing a satisfying colour wheel of primaries. Or at least it did before its neighbors arrived. Holes in buildings frame and thus promise to show us something as if they had something in common with windows, those other holes in buildings.

You could of course think of OMA’S Beijing CCTV building as a hole on three axes or, more simply as the Boolean subtract of two truncated pyramids, but the idea of a hole with more than one axis shows promise. A hole running through a building top to bottom is better known as a courtyard or an open atrium but we don’t have any special name for holes running though buildings side to side.

One suggestion from Taller Bofill was urban window – or at least that’s what they called the horizontal holes piercing Walden 7 and intersecting the holes running through it horizontally.

The name urban window isn’t inaccurate because, from the outside, these horizontal holes allow views of the inside the building just as regular windows do but, more importantly, they bring daylight in and enable views out of the building, again just as regular windows do. That all this was done without enormous structural contrivance deserves more recognition than it gets.

In a previous proposal of mine for the repurposing of a shopping mall as housing [c.f.] , I think I made the lightwells too small and, in another previous proposal for housing grouped around courtyards for daylighting and ventilation [c.f.] I think I made them too large. The idea of a matrix residential building with horizontal holes allowing for access and vertical ones allowing daylighting and ventilation has fascinated me for a while now. A matrix building is always going to have a boundary of some kind where the holes will meet outside air and light. What if Walden 7 is not seen as an isolated building but as module for horizontal repetition? What changes would have to be made? I’ll have to attempt a mashup of Walden 7 and the two proposals I just mentioned.

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    • I confess I didn’t know of that one, but the Atlantis in Dubai does look a bit similar. I wondered a lot about buildings like this and was in two minds about thinking of them as buildings interrupted by bridges, even though I’m not sure it makes that much of a difference. There’s also buildings like RMJM’s building in Suzhou – it’s a bridge but of a type commonly called a “pants building”. Another one that’s difficult to classify is Atlantis The Royal next to Atlantis Dubai. The list goes on. Perhaps in another post. Thanks. Graham

      RMJM in Suzhou, China

      The Atlantis, Dubai, U.A.E.

      The Royal Atlantis, Dubai, U.A.E.

  • buildings, so much more than places to live, reflection of our dreams, and sometimes true inspiration….
    thank you for allowing us to see.

  • Nice article. I would have appreciated the building names to be actual links and not simply red highlights so I can easily dig deeper into the buildings you explore.

    Similarly, as someone who is not familiar with these buildings, it would help to title or caption the photos to make it clear which building was being referred to in the text.

    • Thanks Lucas,
      In the future I will definitely provide better links between the text and the images, especially when I’m saying something specific about a specific building. The red highlights are just how italics get represented in this particular WordPress theme. I think it’s an unnecessary affectation, as is having quoted text so much larger. I’m not entirely happy with this theme and need to get on with learning how to customize it. But thanks for emailing to tell me this. You can probably tell that I like buildings and writing about them and I’m happy to help you find out more about what interests you. Cheers, Graham.

    • I should have added, if ever there’s any building you see on my blog that you want to know more about, just ask me. I’m happy to help. G.