Author Archives: Bashar Al Shawa

An Integrative Design Approach

Another problem with today’s architecture is the lack of an integrative approach towards designing buildings. What’s happening is that parts of a building component are designed without taking into account any other parts it may affect, thereby possibly affecting those parts in a negative way. I especially sensed this during my education at architecture school, and it’s not that different in the real world where the part that gets designed first is often the shape of the building.

I remember we were told to first come up with a shape for the building – a stage usually referred to as “3D”, and which came after the ‘concept’ stage. We had to come up with a nice 3D shape that fitted the concept we had chosen. Apart from fitting the concept, this shape had no other reason for being.

“3D” concept and initial form finding

However, in most cases, those shapes were altered until they looked “right” to the instructor and so weren’t even about the so-called concept anymore.

more “form finding”

Now despite all the problems I had and continue to have with that approach – and which I talked about here – there seems to be one very important factor that is neglected in this process and that is integration. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that the 3D shapes architects come up with at the beginning of any design are actually beautiful and actually do help make the building a better one. Would that beautiful shape not screw up all the other things in the building that are at least as important? I believe it would.

Let’s look at planning first. Planning is one of the most important attributes of a building, and yet it comes second to “form finding”. Planning usually gets done so that the building can be used once a nice form has been found, especially if the building is an iconic building at architecture’s high-end. We all saw what a terrible building you get if the planning hasn’t been so well thought out, as in Graham’s earlier posts on the Villa Savoye or the Unité d’Habitation, or my earlier post on the Villa Savoye where I described its terrible daylighting and thermal properties. Here’s another example:

Haramain High Speed Rail Link Station:

It was a competition entry by Atkins in 2008. The building’s “canopies” got me interested, especially when I read about their reason for being there.

In the sketch made by the architect, you can clearly see how the shape of the building was ‘inspired’ by that sketch, and how little it changed since the idea first somehow popped into the architect’s head. The “concept sketch” is usually featured on entries and posters for projects to show you how it all began and is generally regarded as a good thing.

But what this also means is that the design team, regardless of any studies or simulations they might have done for the project (since there’s a bit of talk in the description about cooling loads, daylight, and solar gain) did not use the results of that to optimize the building by perhaps changing its shape slightly, for example.

The canopies provide a bright, dramatic enclosure and reduce the cooling loads, covering a large floor area without introducing the need for daytime artificial lighting.

Well, I’m not so sure about the dramatic enclosure, but I think the cooling load could have been reduced just as much by normal shading devices that might allow better light into the space, rather than by canopies. However, as we know, doing this doesn’t show off your architectural skills and architectural solutions to “problems” so much, and you don’t want that as an architect do you now?

Another good example is the Swiss Re Headquarters in London (1997-2004) by Foster & Partners.

They seem to be saying in their description that it’s a good performing building, and that its shape actually contributed to that.

Conceptually the tower develops ideas explored in the Commerzbank and before that in the Climatroffice, a theoretical project with Buckminster Fuller that suggested a new rapport between nature and the workplace, its energy-conscious enclosure resolving walls and roof into a continuous triangulated skin. Here, the tower’s diagonally braced structural envelope allows column-free floor space and a fully glazed facade, which opens up the building to light and views. Atria between the radiating fingers of each floor link together vertically to form a series of informal break-out spaces that spiral up the building. These spaces are a natural social focus places for refreshment points and meeting areas – and function as the buildings lungs, distributing fresh air drawn in through opening panels in the facade. This system reduces the towers reliance on air conditioning and together with other sustainable measures, means that the building is expected to use up to half the energy consumed by air-conditioned office towers.

Firstly, a lack of integrativity can be spotted in “and a fully glazed facade, which opens up the building to light and views.” Well, it might bring in a little more light, although any window lower than 762mm from the floor is pointless. Doing this will also bring in more heat into the building (or make it lose heat faster), which they haven’t talked about. Perhaps they could have achieved the same amount of energy savings if they thought about the glazing ratio.

Have a look at Lord Norman’s first sketch of the building:

Norman SKetch As in the previous example, the building looks quite like the first sketch. Now unless Lord Foster did a lot of simulations and calculations in his head comparing his approach, with several other approaches that could have brought the same or even a better result, in terms of views, daylighting, ventilation, and solar gain, BEFORE this sketch, then the building is nothing but a meaningless shape that an architect came up with. And after finding an iconic and special form, some engineering company like Arup had to be hired to help the creditability of the architect’s claim about the building being “London’s first ecological tall building”.

Since we’re talking about London, F & P, and sustainability, here’s another building they did:

City Hall, London (1998-2002)

But, in this case, ‘sustainability’ meant stepped floors that are supposed to work as shading devices. It’s hard to think of a more expensive way of shading some windows. I wonder if  Swiss Re is still sustainable, since it hasn’t got any stepped floors as shading devices, or any shading devices at all, for that matter.

Misfits is proud of the building (Stacey) they designed using an integrative design approach. All its systems where designed in parallel so that they all work together in harmony, with no system compromising the functionality of any other. These systems including planning, because enclosing space requires building resources and heating and cooling that space requires energy resources. Inefficient planning wastes both. Good planning makes every square metre work harder and as part of more than one system. These systems include but are not limited to planning, orientation, daylight, views, solar gain, ventilation, renewable energy, and constructions. You can read more about this in Part I, Part II, and Part III. Here’s how the horizontal systems were solved.

Now, designing a building with no regard to all the others systems would be treating the building like a piece of sculpture – something not intended for human use, but for the  momentary pleasure that could be gained by looking at it, or as a monument used to make any kind of statement. This happens too often with current architecture.

It’s easy to see why. If you look on the internet architecture sites at posts of buildings, you can see how carefully-taken photographs or computer graphics from specific angles are the main way that buildings are described. THESE ARE IMAGES. They cannot describe how the light changes, how the air flows, how much heat the building gains or losses, how easy it is to get from one place to another, and whether the planning takes into account the MEP. Images can only tell us how a building looks, and only from certain angles. It’s not surprising that we continue to judge buildings on that basis. We need a way to represent all the other systems and attributes of buildings so we can make better judgments, and maybe have better buildings.

The DARKER Side of Villa Savoye

For Part I

Following on from Graham’s first post on this architectural ‘masterpiece’, and which mainly talked about how bad the planning of the house was, today I’m going to talk about some other things that weren’t so great about this villa.

As soon as it was completed, it was apparent that the house was not comfortable. Between 1929 and 1934 the roof leaked continuously, the heating was not sufficient and, finally, the owners stopped using it.

In June 1930, Madame Savoye wrote a letter to her architect, Le Corbusier, saying:

It is still raining on our garage. (Sbriglio 147)

Earlier in March she’d sent him another one complaining about the skylight saying that it

makes terrible noise […] which prevents us from sleeping during bad weather. (Sbriglio 142)

The contractor, who claimed to have warned Le Corbusier that such a design would cause such problems, refused to take responsibility. All these problems resulted in the house feeling “cold and damp” and subject to “substantial heat loss due to large glazing” as Sbriglio noted.

In 1935, Madame Savoye wrote again to Le Corbusier stating:

It is raining in the hall, it’s raining on the ramp and the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked [….] it’s still raining in my bathroom, which floods in bad weather, as the water comes in through the skylight. The gardener’s walls are also wet through.(Sbriglio 146-7)

Two years later, she sent him another letter full of frustration:

After innumerable demands you have finally accepted that this house which you built in 1929 in uninhabitable…. Please render it inhabitable immediately. I sincerely hope that I will not have to take recourse to legal action. (Sbriglio 147)

The skylight above the bathroom, that made a terrible noise in bad weather.

Le Corbusier was marketing himself as the one who believed that architecture had a potential to increase health and well-being – something nice and noble for architecture to be.  Though, at least one writer states that Roger’s (Madame Savoye’s son) health problems were directly linked to the villa (de Botton 65) mainly because of excessive daylight due to large glazing.

In 1935, an article published in Time states:

Though the great expanses of glass that he favors may occasionally turn his rooms into hothouses, his flat roofs may leak and his plans may be wasteful of space, it was Architect Le Corbusier who in 1923 put the entire philosophy of modern architecture into a single sentence: “A house is a machine to live in.”

During the WWII, the Germans looted it, and the cost of rehabilitation was estimated at $80,000. Madame Savoye decided not to spend the money, and never went back. Later on, the machine for living was turned into a hay barn.

Now, despite all the previously mentioned problems the house had, someone, for some reason, decided that the building should be famous. In 1964 it was listed as a public building. Since then, it has undergone 3 series of restoration, the most recent one being in 1997. Villa Savoye is now a preferred destination for architecture students from all over the world for inspiration for their new projects for the semester.

So then, the 20th century architecture masterpiece, that is supposed to be one of 20th century architecture’s best contribution to humanity and the essence of architectural invention:

had a roof that leaked everywhere;

had a skylight that made a terrible noise, preventing the occupants from sleeping;

felt cold and damp;

suffered from substantial heat-loss due to large glazing (that Le Corbusier loved, and included it in his ‘Five Points for Architecture’);

either caused the owner’s son to be ill, or did nothing to cure him;

and of course, did not make its occupants happy to live in it.

Also, if we looked at the orientation of the building, we can notice that it’s almost (not quite) the worst possible. Knowing that Le Corbusier (originally) had such a big piece of land to play with, it’s a bit mysterious why he put it in such an orientation.

Villa Savoye site aerial view.

I’m sure that, if we cared to look, we would find that other supposed architectural masterpieces would have a similar amount of shitty things, if not more. Nevertheless, the history of architecture is the history of what became famous. However, if this is the best that architecture can do for humanity, I’m not impressed. Actually, I think it’s a disgrace.

The Process Behind A Better Architecture Building STACEY #3: Daylighting & Views

Previous posts: Part I, Part II

Back to STACEY and, this time, with DAYLIGHTING & VIEWS. Daylighting is a very important yet neglected aspect of buildings. In addition to its benefits for energy-saving, it has huge psychological and productivity benefits for a building’s occupants as well.


As for productivity, studies have shown that daylight can have a substantial effect on the performance and productivity of the occupants of the building. A study performed by CEC PIER says the following:

In Seattle Washington and Fort Collins Colorado, where end-of-year test scores were used as the outcome variable, students in classrooms with the most daylighting were found to have 7% to 18% higher scores than those with the least.  In San Juan Capistrano, California, where the study was able to examine the improvement between fall and spring test scores, we found that students with the most daylighting in their classrooms progressed 20% faster on math tests and 26% faster on reading tests in one year than in those with the least.

The same study also concluded that having better views can significantly increase productivity:

Workers in the Call Center were found to process calls 6% to 12% faster when they had the best possible view versus those with no view. Office workers were found to perform 10% to 25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall when they had the best possible view versus those with no view. Furthermore, office worker self reports of better health conditions were strongly associated with better views. Those workers in the Desktop study with the best views were the least likely to report negative health symptoms. Reports of increased fatigue were most strongly associated with a lack of view.

Furthermore, adequate daylighting can produce enormous energy savings over the years. When you have enough daylight coming through your window, you don’t need to turn on the lights during the day. Some studies have shown that having better daylighting in a building’s spaces can decrease energy consumption by 45%.

So yes, it is an excellent thing to have, and it benefits everyone – except architects who, once more, seem to be making everyone’s live a bit harder. I seem to remember that I never turned off the lights in my university dorm room, and that was in the UAE – a country that has one of the highest hours of full-sun per day.

Designing a building without taking daylight into consideration from the very beginning and then trying to somehow compensate for it later is just fixing an architect’s mistake. Such oversights would not happen if, instead of the architect having complete authority over the “form” and shape of the building, an integrative design process (IDP) determined them along with daylighting and views at the same time.

Proudly, Stacey had such a process. The first step was to orient the building to give better year-round daylighting results, as well as minimizing the solar heat gain. That achieved, it was then time for some in-depth daylighting simulations using some cool software – IES <Virtual Environment> – to determine the type, size, and location of these windows so that they met LEED’s recommended illumination levels.

I remember running many simulations for different variations of windows until we had the optimum daylighting that met the LEED benchmark and that also minimized solar gain.  The variables were VLT (Visible Light Transmittance), SHGC (Solar Heat Gain Coefficient), u-values, size of windows, double glazed or triple glazed, their location and height from the ground. Some of these variables were conflicting. For example, higher windows meant deeper light penetration but higher ceilings meant that more energy would be required to air-condition the spaces.

As a reminder, this table shows the baseline and proposed constructions for windows:

And here’s an image of the daylight distribution for one of the apartments (in lux) after the window type and their locations had been optimized.

This is a comparison between south-facing living rooms and north-facing living rooms.

Speaking of daylight and windows, you might be wondering why the south facade doesn’t have any shading devices on it. Many people do. There’s a general expectation for buildings to have some sort of “architectural solution” to the problem of solar gain on windows, regardless of whether it actually is a problem or not. I have seen shading devices shading walls and columns so there seems to be a bit of confusion about what shading devices are for in the first place. Unless a study or simulation is performed, it’s not possible to know if shading devices are necessary or not, and if they are, whether they are actually doing anything to reduce solar gain or  just look like they might be.

As far as I know, shading devices are supposed to decrease the solar gain from sun hitting the windows, usually around midday. However, Stacey has such good windows in terms of their thermal properties (u-value, SHGC) and their ability to allow daylight through them (VLT), that shading devices would would have little effect. If the performance of Stacey’s windows hadn’t been as good, then it would have been necessary to have some sort of shading device on the south facade.

That’s all I have to say about Stacey’s Daylighting & Views. The thing to remember is that windows only need to be shaded if their performance is not very good. Supporting evidence is provided by this Master’s thesis. This is an example of a silly shading device. (I’m sure the sun hits the upper part of the building as well.)

“The stainless steel ‘splash’ is a shading device that eliminates over 30 percent of the sun’s heat before it ever reaches the building, thereby saving on the need for cooling within the building. The splash twists around the building towards the south to shield Capital Gate as much as possible from direct sunlight.”

Culture, History, etc. and BUILDINGS (1)

These days, a lot of what you hear about, or read about on the internet as justification for why a certain building is the way it is, is culture and history. These two words are repeated a lot in many architecture articles that get published. They are usually used in the sense that having a building mimic the culture and history of that particular location is a good thing and would create an excellent building that people could live in. Of course, people writing those articles don’t take the effort to explain how it exactly does that, nor why one would take such an approach to design buildings. This is beginning to irritate me.

I can understand that culture might affect a building via its internal planning – how spaces should be planned with respect to any cultural/privacy concerns that the client might have, or even some of its ‘form’ like the size of windows, their location, etc. which is perfectly fine. However, sadly, that is never the case. It is always “the form” or the shape of the building that is the executive presenter of whatever cultural “concept”, or any other type of silliness the project might use to explain its shape. 

As I was browsing ArchDaily – as I do – I ran into a project in The Philippines that  inspired me to write this. This project set a new record for me in the amount of non-sense any project text could possibly have.


The problem with this type of bullshit is two things. First it says a certain ‘thing’ about a project, which is not true, and cannot be proven, and it doesn’t try to prove it. And second, it doesn’t even try to make an explanation of why such a ‘thing’ should decide what this building must be like, or that using this approach would make up for a good building, or good architecture, or whatever the purpose of architecture is.

Design Concept:
Weaving as Core Concept

The Philippines is known for its hybrid of cultural identities. The descendants hailed from different countries, eventually forming intricate layers of diverse characteristics which now define Filipinos. Their distinctiveness, therefore, lies in that hybridity – they are a unique tapestry of interwoven cultures.

Weaving is a manifestation of coming together to bind, intertwine and strengthen materials. With the help of many interlaced threads, a single thread can form part of an extremely stronger fabric, as evidenced in many artifacts of vernacular culture: strands of Buri thread can form a banig; otherwise delicate Jusi Fiber can form an intricate Barong Tagalog; and a united people can overthrow unjust leaders. This symbolism of coming and standing as one– weaving together different parts to form a coherent and strong whole – is applied in different levels of design proposals to serve as a constant reminder of their collective strength as a country.

Ya ya. The article is giving us some information about threads, and how weaving more threads together makes a strong fabric. After that, it suggests that this ‘symbolism’ has been applied in ‘different levels’ throughout Buensalido Architects’ design proposal.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, one of the things with such prototypes is that they start explaining a certain idea that is supposedly connected somehow to where the building is located, or its use, and then go on to suggest that the building has been designed according to that idea.


In this case that ‘idea’ is weaving threads around each other. I think it looks more like a pile of pancakes than threads, which would have been impossible since you can’t have buildings made out of threads, people will fall out of it, and you don’t want that to happen.

Even if they really ‘looked’ like threads, were they really woven together to form a stronger fabric? And what does weaving threads together have to do with Philippine’s hybrid of cultural identities? Would such a design really remind people of that? Will anyone looking at the building spontaneously say “Oh look Sonny Boy, doesn’t that building remind you of the rich cultural identity our country has!”? No it would not, which leaves that whole article as nothing but a big lie.

The other thing about such prototypes is the question of why would you want to do that? Why would you think such an approach will make your building any better? Or that it will make people’s life easier and more enjoyable when they’re using the building? IT. WONT.

Architects who write such stuff about their buildings probably don’t believe in it themselves, but think they can convince client with it, take his money for doing such a stupid building, and get away with it. It’s a bit like my previous post, The Emperor’s New Clothes if you may. Somebody needs to be that kid and tell those people that they’re not helping humanity in any way at all, but are just wasting their resources.

I’ll cover other similarly misused concepts such as history and ‘hunting the past’ in the second part of this post. Until then.


The Beauty I See in Al Hambra

No. It isn’t the very fancy and expensive decorations or the Court of The Lions, and it certainly isn’t the spiritual feeling that one is supposed to feel when looking at such an enormous built object. Those are not the things that amaze me so much about Al Hambra Palace in Granada, Spain.

What does amaze me, however, is how building such an enormous place was made possible, considering all the difficulties that the Muslim builders faced at the time, and how they tackled them with simple, yet genius solutions.


Located on the high mountains of southern Spain, is the magnificent fortress, Al Hambra قصر الحمراء.  It contains more than 35 gigantic towers, and took over 150 years to build. It is a network of palaces, each built by a different Sultan. This made each part somehow unique and different than the other parts, because each Sultan wanted to make his own mark either by building a new palace or by renovating an older one.

Historical Background

During the 13th century the city of Granada lived under Muslim rule. However, the 500 year-old Muslim Spain was shrinking due to Christian advances from the north. As a result,  the Muslim Kingdom in Spain was indeed collapsing, and at a very critical turning point. Because of this, Mohamad ibn Nasir headed south and took over Granada. He wanted to build a palace that would house him and his family, and protect them from the Christian advance.

Plan & Layout

The fortress was built on Sabika Hill on which a fortress had already been built nearly 100 years earlier. His first step was to rebuild the existing fortress, which was known as Al Qazaba, into a stronghold that was large and strong enough to house the people and troops needed to run the proposed palace.

They would also guard the series of palaces yet to be built. Beside it, there was to be a town known as Al Medina المدينة that would house all the people needed to run this gigantic palace. All that was to be surrounded by a huge wall dotted with guard towers to defend the citadel and fight off attackers.

For all this to be possible, Mohamad ibn Nasir first had to build a tower. The first tower was called Torre Dela Vella (The Watch Tower) by the locals. It was the largest thing that the people of Granada had ever seen. It sent the message from the rulers of Granada to both Muslims and Christians, that “we’re still strong, and we can protect you”.

To function, this tower had to be strong enough to withstand attacks while the builders were constructing the rest of Al Hambra.

Construction & Materials

How to construct a huge citadel on a hill, using nothing but simple tools, was a difficult problem that the Muslim builders had to solve.

The solution to this problem was at the bottom of the Sabika Hill in the form of a useful substance that made Al Hambra possible. A mixture of clay, sand, and stone with a calculated amount of water added to it gave the builders the advantage of an on-site material, and this helped to speed up the construction.

This material also gave the place a red color, and thus it was named The Red City, مدينة الحمراء, or Al Hamra City. The one downside to using this material was that water and wind erode it over the years so that it loses its strength.

To overcome this problem, the Muslim builders applied lime and sand stucco to the walls, like plaster, so it could better withstand water.

The Structural System of the Monument

The core of the towers is supported by tiers of arches transferring the entire load of the building that rests upon them. However, half way through construction, the builders realized that the arches would not be strong enough to carry those loads and that Mohamad’s first tower could collapse at any time. They solved this problem in a simple way by bricking up the arches to provide the support needed.

As a result of this, the Sultan’s vision of light and shadows “playing” through these arches has vanished. Boo hoo. They did what they had to do. It was a brutal monument to the needs of the age.

The need for an Intelligence Network

The Christian advance was a very real danger and so Mohamad needed to install an intelligence network to gather information while his builders continued building his masterpiece.

This system would gather information from people that pass through the area, providing early warning of Christian troops movements. Signals warning of the expected attack would be transmitted from the top of the towers by means of special mirrored plates, smoke, or fire. Those signals were relayed from tower to tower until they reached Al Hambra’s main watch tower.

The water is DOWN here, Al Hambra is UP there..

Al Hambra housed nearly 5000 people. Unfortunately, there is no source of fresh water on Sabika Hill. The closest water source to Al Hambra is the River Darro, which flows to the north of Al Hambra, but the level of River Darro is much lower than the level of Al Hambra.

The most obvious thing to do would be to follow the river, up to a point where it is above the level of Al Hambra, and let the energy of the river itself bring the water to them. But there was no natural lake above the Al Hambra. To solve this problem, the Muslim engineers created one.

They constructed a dam above the level of Al Hambra and this dam would create sufficient water pressure to feed the citadel. The dam is 6 km away from the Al Hambra. It creates a reservoir system capable of providing Al Hambra with enough water to fill an Olympic size pool every 5 seconds! It is hard to believe that this was dug by hand almost 800 years ago.

The dam consists of 2 gates – one that lets the water into the River Darro, and one that lets the water into the reservoir.

Water flows from this reservoir into Al Hambra via a bricked canal. But there’s still one more problem for the Muslim engineers to solve …

Water running through hills and mountains

The reservoir they created runs between 3 hills so, in order for that water to reach Al Hambra, it has to pass along a 6 km long channel running through the hills. This has to carry the equivalent of 7000 Olympic size swimming pools of water each day to support Al Hambra’s growing population. This system would work only if the water flowed downhill at a constant gradient.

The Muslims engineers found a simple and ingenious solution to that problem. Instead of going around the hill, they decided to go through it.

They built a tunnel 1 m wide and 2 m high through the hillside and leading towards Al Hambra. The natural stability of the mountain or hill meant that there was no danger of it ever collapsing.

Keeping the water always fresh and clean

Due to the Muslims’ extensive use of water (ablution), clean and fresh water was a must. Creating a system that would ensure the purity and cleanness of the water was the next challenge that the Muslim engineers had to overcome.

Any visitor to Al Hambra will notice that the water there is almost never still. That is the solution. The movement and the motion of the water is very important for always keeping it fresh and clean.

Another thing they did was to create shallow pools designed to slow the water down. The water streams down the channel carrying silt and sand with it until it reaches a wide and deep part, where it slows down and all the silt and sand falls to the bottom. This keeps all the water in the Al Hambra fresh and clean.

Dealing with too much water

Now that they’ve succeeded in delivering the amount of water needed to run the place, they still have to deal with excess water, which can also be an extremely bad thing. To prevent this from happening, the Muslim engineers installed a safety valve.

Any excess water that might overload the main channel entering the Al Hambra, is funneled along a side channel and diverted into an overflow system built within the walls, where it rejoins the River Darro again.

Dealing with too little water

It soon became apparent to that Muslim engineers that, during the dry season, Al Hambra could run short of water. To prevent this from happening, the engineers built several reservoirs on high ground, so that gravity would ensure a constant flow of water to feed the gardens.

To raise the water up to the level of those reservoirs, the engineers used a mechanism of interlocking wooden gears that were driven by donkeys. When the donkey walked in a circle, it turned the horizontal wheel which turned a gear attached to a water wheel, which dips a line of buckets into the pool below, and deposits it into the reservoir above.

With this final invention, the builders succeeded in making Al Hambra a safe, hygienic and pleasant place where people could now live.  All that remained to do was add some architecture to make the Sultan feel rich and special.


The Twisted Education of Architects

Let’s start by agreeing that, at the end of the day, architecture is supposed to make us good buildings and that architectural education should teach students how to make those good buildings? Sadly, as I experienced it, and I don’t think that architecture schools are much different, it almost succeeded in teaching me how to make bad buildings.

It all began with the “Basic Design” course that you take as the “basis” for how to go about designing your buildings. I don’t know what we were learning to design at that stage, but structures that people are expected to live in or use were not part of the course. A basic design course meant to teach you the basics of how to design good buildings, should at least cover the basics that humans want the place they are going to live in, work, or visit., to satisfy. These things must at least include the following: efficient planning, easy access, efficient daylighting, enjoyable views, good ventilation, a buildable structure, fire escapes, and not having the rainwater cover the floor of your bedroom.

For me, Basic Design covered none of these basic things that a building should do. Instead, the focus was on other stuff such as the shape of the building, its “concept”, whether its organization was “linear” or “central” or something else I’ve already forgotten, the interaction between white and black cubes as they make a bigger cube …  as well as an exercise with strict rules stating that a building should have “positive and negative” volumes that combine to create a 20 cubic meters cube. This exercise seemed designed to enhance skills in making good buildings fit a rather arbitrary criteria.

It does, however, comes in handy for the most difficult problem you are expected to solve – trying to fit a building that people can live in, into some weird shape. Waiting for you after you’ve successfully passed or got past Basic Design, are a series of design courses. Some of these are building-type-specific and some of them are location-specific ones. The thing that brings yet another layer of bullshit to the process of designing a building is when you are told to design a building that somehow relates to its function and to where it is located. This sounds logical and reasonable until you find out what kind of relationship is wanted.

The “inspiration” for my Design II project.
The finished result. See my “inspiration” there in the corner? We were graded on the “process” between “inspiration” and “result”. I think i got a B as well for this project.

The classic location fit is that a building should somehow reflect the culture and history of the place that hosts it. To my mind, the history of a country is a series of events that happened in that country. We know about these through books that tell us about those events that happened at various time. When I want to know about the history of a country I go and read a book about it, and not look at one of their old buildings or especially not one of their new buildings. I don’t understand, and I don’t think its possible, that the shape of a building can tell who killed who, why certain wars started, who got an arrow in his eye in 1066, who was the next king, how many people were killed in some past atrocity, etc. And these are just the big and easy stories out of many others that can’t be told through giving a building fancy shapes.

Culture. If we could all agree on what the word meant and then agree that a particular element of it should represent a country or people, then I’m even more unsure how we can ever expect a building to do that. I don’t want to spend too much time on what kind of ‘culture’ should be expressed in buildings – I’ll get back to that in some later post. For now, let’s just ask if it is really a good thing for humanity to be spending its time and money on trying to represent any kind of culture in its buildings?

In architectural education, these two things – history and culture – form a double layer of bullshit that goes by the name of “concept”. The Concept is the most important part of your project. It’s the first thing you’re asked to think about when the project starts to get serious.  Somewhere along the line, you will have done a “site analysis” and found out that it gets pretty hot here in the UAE but that gets forgotten in the panic to find a “strong” “concept” and “develop” it. I’ll stop using quotation marks on every other word now.

What bees usually do.

Because I was studying architecture in the UAE, some classic concepts that were always popular were tent, palm tree, wind tower (although it was not the Emaratis who invented them but hey), beehive, sand dune and sail. Once you have chosen your concept, the instructor will accept it if it’s strong enough, and ask you to develop it a bit more. And once you’ve done that, you finalize the 3D shape of your building, and then start planning it or at least try to make it into something that people can use.

The thing that’s wrong with this, is that it produces structures that aren’t designed for people to use. It is impossible for them to provide us with the better built environment that, I believe, should be what architecture aspires to.

I don’t know where this whole concept thing came from but I think it has done our built environment a lot of harm. Architects in the industry use a lot of such concepts to justify why their building has a certain shape. Maybe if Le Corbusier focused more on the humans that were going to live in the Villa Savoye, then the Savoye family would have been happier living in their house than they actually were. Maybe if Zaha Hadid took a class in acoustics she wouldn’t have designed Dubai Opera House with such a stupid shape so that ARUP then had to design a new building that worked, inside it. Maybe the original vision for Masdar might have been built if FOSTER & PARTNERS hadn’t designed their buildings with costly meaningless shapes and fancy floors and solar cells not at their optimum angle.

“The plan was to make Masdar the world’s first zero-carbon city, but as the global “cleantech” market stalls in the recession, compromises are made. Foster planned to accommodate 50,000 residents and 40,000 commuters and the city was due be completed by 2016; now the final population will probably not exceed 40,000 and the completion date has been put at 2021 or 2025. The idea of a second Masdar City has been dropped; a $2.2bn hydrogen power project has been called off, as has a “thin film” solar manufacturing plant, intended for Abu Dhabi.” The Guardian

If this is architecture then it doesn’t really need a 5 year course to teach. It is just dreaming up some shapes, attaching a concept, and there you go. Anyone can do that. If we really want to make architecture schools something worth our money and time, then the architecture they teach should be changed to something for the benefit of the people inside those buildings. Something that won’t assume that making a building look like a honeycomb, for example, will be something fit for humans. Something that will make our lives easier, more comfortable, and more sustainable.