Author Archives: Graham McKay

Modern Vernacular

A vernacular of performance …

Microprocessor research and technological application is always concerned with the pursuit of higher performance for the same or lower energy input, manufacture using simpler and fewer mechanical and chemical processes, the discovery of processes having higher degrees of tolerance, the elimination of ecologically unsound and toxic processes, the search for elements and compounds which are less expensive either in themselves or to synthesize, three dimensional layout design to maximize compactness, increase speed of operation and minimize electron loss, and so on. In addition to all of these concerns, miniaturization and cost efficiency are also pursued in order to maximize applicability and marketability. Form is irrelevant. They are simple rectangular solids covered in resin to protect and insulate, and also to hide their workings from competitors. Rather than a beauty of form, there is a beauty of the synthesis of isolated, composite and integrated function, the exploration of materials with multiple properties, the processes of manufacture, and the economics and integration of it all. Most of this is pursued at the sub-electron level.

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The result is a high-performance product with very specific and highly-defined functions. It has a form but that was not the goal. It carries no notions of status. Microprocessors and their manufacture are the product of continuing refinement towards more performance for less input, all the time shunning waste, excess, redun-dancy and design for the sake of it. The beauty of a microprocessor is not one of simple function, but an integrated performance of the whole and its parts in themselves and in the course of their manufacture. The pursuit of this is a commercial one for a market is assured. As there is for housing. However, in terms of its consequences for the production process, there is an important difference between a house as a machine for living in, and a house as a metaphor of a machine for living in.

car

… encompasses building materials, …

property

The vernacular use of local materials in rural areas is not intended to be quaint, rustic or to glorify the aesthetic qualities of natural materials. It is merely an obvious and expedient use of available materials, labour resources and techniques. Loadbearing walls support loads, provide thermal and acoustic insulation and provide spatial delimitors. They are also relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, instead of us seeing the beauty of the thought processes by which vernacular buildings came about, we more readily see their beauty in terms of the property they tend to be standing on, in much the same way as the “beauty” of ships and grain silos is dependent upon the vastness of the empty (but no less justifying) spaces around them. Selection and use of materials should be in terms of how many of their properties can be made use of to satisfy multiple functions. It would expedite the rational selection and use of building materials and methods today if a similar thought processes were applied.

murcutt

Glen Murcutt and Rem Koohaus have used corrugated iron for the inherent properties it has, and in doing so, have restored its place as a building mateial.  This is a step back towards a vernacular approach to materials and their use. Natural materials are already objects of status so unless we are to either import building materials or quarry every rock and fell every tree in the country, a modern vernacular will sooner or later have to use substitutes. A day will come when corrugated iron will be seen as decadent a building material as carved stone is now.  Sooner or later we will have to relearn.

… interior finishes, …

Internal finishes contribute significantly to the cost of a building. A modern vernacular building would be designed ot use inexpensive and multi-functional finishes were any to be used at all. The walls of log cabins and traditional Japanese rooms (and their houses, for the two were integral) did not have any applied finishes.

raw

Timber having become the commodity of status it is, building such a house is a statement of affluence in Japan today. We have to learn to appreciate the beauty that less expensive and status-laden materials also have in their raw state. This process can already be seen operating in the field of product design. Whereas most hi-fi components used to be housed in timber cabinets, only top-quality ones remain so today. Office furniture is being continually being redesigned to use less expensive materials. Over the past twelve months, the use of less-expensive transparent plastics has beome widespread, but marketed as an indicator of some new awareness. Validated by their use in the iMac, their use quickly spread to kitchen equipment such as electric kettles and toasters.

imac

… building components, …

If passed on, the cost benefits of mass production are more pronounced if products are standardized and their design and manufacture tailored for maximum cost efficiency. Countering this is the value-added component restored by offering a wide selection of products and marketing them with emphasis on ‘individuality’. Double-glazed windows and conservatories are two examples where this operates to negate consumer benefit. CD players used to be made with lasers having lenses of glass. The current use of plastic is the result of design for cost-efficient manufacture rather than audio considerations. Some designs are easier to produce than others. This is reflected in the cost of the final goods whether the means of production is a factory machine, skilled worker, unskilled worker or craftsman. What has to be remembered is that a building can use prefabricated and mass-produced products designed for ease of assembly, but if these are to produce a building having an aesthetic that is dependent upon the possession of property for its effect, then it will never be applicable to realistic housing needs .The desirability will be there because of reduced construction, but those benefits will be negated by the price of the property necessary to sustain the aesthetic.

case study

… methods of construction, …

Similarly, construction by highly skilled technicians, craftsmen or artisans was simple process involving available materials. It is not anymore. The use of highly skilled labour as a means of production continues to indicate status. That it produces goods of high quality is not disputed.

gothic

This is the same value and status investing process of art. Design for less-expensive methods of construction has to take into account the inherent imprecision of techniques requiring less skill. Modernism did not translate well when its construction techniques were applied to low-cost housing. Flat roofs were technically vulnerable to imprecise methods. A simple and available means of achieving something is preferable to a complex one. In addition, each component of the building should be designed to have more than one function, both when the building is complete and in the course of its construction.

… building fittings and services, …

Building fittings continue to be marketed as status-generating consumer items, particularly with regard to kitchens. In terms of aesthetics derived from function and status, a £3,500 stainless steel cooker is more beautiful than a £50 reconditioned gas cooker, but in terms of cost-effective performance, the opposite is true.

pawson

In general, be it a sofa or a cupboard, built-in furniture is a means of adding value to buildings. Justifying this in terms of saving space, returns the argument to one of property. Be this as it may,the process of building items in complicates and lengthens the building process. Concealing anything in a building costs money, whether it be hardware (structure, construction joints), firmware (conduits, services) or software (all furniture, light fittings, saucepans and all objects having an element of consumer choice). The evolution of techniques to incorporate hardware and firmware elements into a design should be encouraged.

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… the building type, …

If a vernacular aesthetic of performance is to be applicable to buildings, then a building itself must also satisfy as many functions as possible – a concept which runs counter to this century’s architectural thought. Last century’s gave us the notion of separating functions and classes in a city. This century’s gave it form, the initial applications of which were new towns and mass housing schemes separating residential and retail areas. Compare the cities of Europe where, during the 19th century, having shops at street level and apartments above become sufficiently well established as a pattern of high-density urban living to survive industrialization and Modernism separating them as they did in Britain.

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An equivalent building type still survives here but it dates from before the Industrial Revolution when this split occurred. It is the lower-class Georgian residential/retail building. Remaining largely on high streets, it is a building of four or five storeys providing mixed usage along streets which actually function as part of a city. The needs for shelter and food have not changed that much over the past couple of hundred years to warrant new types of structures built in totally different locations and dependent upon public or private transport to link them.

… and the city. 

Modern needs are not that modern. The public amenity of shopping is privatized and concentrated in shopping centres and malls which separate the retail function of the city. The price advantages of large chain stores is sufficient for us to accept the inconvenience of location, the neces-sity to drive or otherwise get there, and the dehumanization of the act of selling, the act of buying, and to a certain extent, the goods themselves. Catalogue shopping, home delivery services, television and online shopping and video deliveries are only manifestations of a modern life-style because our local access to them has been taken away. They are commercial responses to restoring something which our buildings don’t provide any more.

warehouse

The Georigan mixed use buildings are useful urban forms which should be regarded as a prototype, and like a microprocessor, have their design, structure and process subject to continual refinement in order to extract maximum performance from it. This is unlikely to happen while residual social prejudice remains in the form of separation of classes, and institutionalized architectural prejudice remains in the form of separation of functions. However, if a former Victorian sweatshop or mews building can be marketed as a desirable form of urban living, then so can living above a shop. In addition, if we are to avoid people being housed with no alternative but to look at each other, the only unexploited form of public property left for housing to overlook is the street, and it is in the interest of the entire city and society that streets remain interesting and active enough for people to not only use them to travel along and buy food, but also interact with them as a neighbourhood and derive sustenance from them. This form of urban use should also allow us to extract more performance from our streets than we are either currently receiving or are being led to expect in the future.

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• • •

This post complements and concludes the previous Meta-Aesthetics post and is the third and final installment of misfits’ prehistory. Normal programming resumes next week.

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Meta-Aesthetics

This second installment of misfits’ prehistory builds upon some of the ideas in last week’s Property, Time & Architecture from 1999. I remastered the file from an InDesign package created February 2010. The original was probably made in Quark XPress a decade earlier because all images were .tif files. Bold headings summarize the text. Blockquotes are diversions and expansions.

In this essay, I use the word aesthetics in the usual sense and the term an aesthetic to denote a set of architectural devices united by an underlying philosophy and purpose. I only mention this because since this essay was written, the term has been largely supplanted by the word style even though (or, more likely, because) it makes us expect neither.

• • •

Aesthetics is the study of notions of beauty.
These notions change over time.
This essay is about architecture in general and architectural beauty in particular.
It identifies what successive notions of architectural beauty have had in common.
It identifies why certain aesthetics fall into and out of favour.
It provides a framework for understanding how aesthetics operate over time.
It is a meta-aesthetics.

• • •

Aesthetics give shape to our values and aspirations. This is not necessarily a good thing.

By 1850 in Britain, property and people had been divided into three classes. The upper class (still) had property in the country. The middle class had property subdivided in the form of townhouses and, later, as suburban houses. The working class had property stacked, as tenements. The middle classes overlooked communal property in the form of the squares or parks recreating country estates, and the more fortunate of the lower classes had communal property in the form of basic facilities provided by humanitarian industrialists.

 

The success or failure of any aesthetic is an expression of the values generating it.

19th and early 20th notions of an Ideal City separating the functions of the city also served to separate the classes for the two were the same. Over the course of the Industrial Revolution, the upper classes built townhouses but anchored themselves on their land. The middle classes were to build their townhouses in locations such as Belgravia, Paddington and Kensington, separating themselves and their new wealth from the docks, mills and railways that were the sources of it, as well as from where the workers lived. In a consistent expression of this attitude, convicts were separated as far away as Australia. The style of the 19th century urban townhouse was the Classicism of the country house and the square or park recreated the impression of property outside one’s window, even if it was communal.

regent's

The style was successively simplified for houses of the lower classes. Within the larger townhouses, there was a similar separation of function/class, with servants having their own working spaces, stairs and living quarters, within which, location and quantity of space established a similar separation amongst servant classes. The use of servants also enabled the functions within the building to be separated. Whereas the lower class could only bathe in a tub in front of the fire, servants duplicated the roles of pipes and conduits, transporting hot and cold water throughout the building, maintaining and lighting the lamps, and carrying away waste.

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Servants also isolated the household as a class unit within society since they performed necessary tasks such as shopping by either going to the markets or dealing with cart vendors for milk, bread, vegetables, meat and fish. The physical and social separation of classes inside the house replicated the physical and social separation of the house from other classes in the city. Separation by function was separation by function in society. Status of the owners was denoted by the location and size of the house, the design of its facade, and the number and decoration of its major rooms.

Buildings require money and land to build. The history of architectural aesthetics is the history of articulating the ownership of wealth and property.

The use of decorative ornament in the 19th century indicated the rich man’s surplus and the poor man’s lack of it. In the 20th century, the architectural aesthetic of Modernism was to shun decorative ornament as bourgeois and attempt to generate form from the separation of physical functions. In patterns of living however, it maintained the class values inherent in the forms it replaced. The Georgian square miniaturized the pleasure of overlooking property. Although many of those townhouses were subdivided into flats in the 1920s and even today remain prime properties because it still possible to overlook the property of the square as if it were one’s own.

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In 1922, Le Corbusier arrived at an identical form in his Immeuble Villa unit for the élite in his Ville Contemporaine, planned, ‘as a capitalist city of administration and control, with garden cities for the workers being sited, along with industry, beyond the ‘security zone’ of the green belt encompassing the city.’ Le Corbusier also designed 19th century notions of social segregation into both his urban plans and his private houses such as the Villa Stein (1926-7) and Villa Savoye (1928-9), two buildings commonly regarded as seminal works of the Modern movement.

An aesthetic loses its usefulness when its connotations of status are lost, and any process of refinement stops

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations of 1947-53 was never going to be a realistic prototype for low-cost, high density living. Needing to be surrounded by sufficient Nature/property, it was self-defeating in the city and absurd in the country. Despite its claimed advantages, shop space was not let immediately and few shop-owners were keen to relocate there. The fact that what was once the outskirts of Marseilles is now a popular address indicates that property prices in central Marseilles have risen in the meantime, and that a view of the ocean from there is better than none at all. It also means that instead of being located in “Nature” it is now located in a thriving suburb with sufficient population density to make stores within the building viable. If such buildings have large sites, then the cost-effectiveness of site use is less compromised by siting such buildings alongside virtual property such as public parks or bodies of water, but these sites are usually occupied by premium high-rise dwellings or hotels.

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Having one’s own estate in the country downscaled to communally-owned squares in the city or smaller properties of the suburbs, with the virtual property of converted flats remaining preferable to that of purpose-built flats. Public property such as parks or bodies of water became virtual country estates, and views of one’s neighbours did not rank. Modernism presented light, space and a view of Nature as universal rights, but in reality, continued to treat them as commodities of status, their absence signalling poverty. Another problem had to do with materials. While concrete and prefabrication feature largely in the technical history of Modern architecture, it was not until Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul of 1954 that concrete slabs were combined with bare load-bearing brick walls and presented as an aesthetic.

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Despite Stirling’s use of this in the 1955~8 Ham Common flats and the attempts of the Brutalists to develop it, the sheer applicability of concrete slabs and load-bearing brick had sent them straight to low-cost housing worldwide, making Modernism the aesthetic of the poor. This fact did not pass unnoticed by the poor. Pruitt-Igoe. Built 1958. Dynamited 1972. The providers of public housing formed the last remaining market for Modernism. Any product becomes unmarketable when the market becomes disenchanted with the brand.

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An aesthetic must continue to adapt in order to maintain status …

Internationalism was to escape being condemned along with Modernism because in the hands of Mies van der Rohe, it combined metal and other materials with a status-inducing Classicism such as in the German Pavilion at the Barcelona World Exhibition (1929) or the Tugendhat House (1930).

barcelona

Purged of any ideological content it may have had in Europe, Modernism in the United States became the preferred institutional and corporate style. Curtain walls became a lattice of structure and window, effectively creating a visual barrier. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1946-50) and Johnson’s Glass House (1949) were excellent solutions to this problem and restored the status of privately-owned Nature to the aesthetic.  Concern for privacy was for people with neighbours. Mies’ went for overkill, using expensive materials and methods. The steps, terrace and floor were faced in travertine, and welding joins were ground away before the steel was painted. Whereas the Farnsworth house stepped over Nature, Johnson’s house, the more spartan of the two, was the more decadent in that it sat on its lawn and indicated possession.

The near absence of house emphasized where the real status lay. The adjacent guest house had no windows for even visually possessing the estate at any time was the owner’s right alone. Modernist derivatives (Meier, Eisenman, Graves, etc.) restored status through similar means, but all have in common the necessity for big property.

meier

… or another will quickly replace it.

If Modernism combined the human factor in terms of plan, with the built factor in terms of structural logic, then Post-Modernism combined the human factor of a populist vocabulary of building terms, and the built factor as a grammar of their usage. The result was something akin to a toff swearing in order to be popular at the pub – patronizing. From the start, the aesthetic was defined by generating and sustaining two aesthetics which, times being the times, were called levels of meaning. Its goal was never to bridge them for then it would cease to exist. Maintaining this aesthetic double standard was both its means and its end in public. In private however, the familiar indicators of status and wealth were to reassert themselves and by 1985, intoxicated with its imagined popularity, the aesthetic of Post-Modernism spoke only in double-entendres to itself. One of which was to take a material formerly regarded as unworthy for use in buildings of all but the most temporary and lowly nature, and to use it ‘out-of-context’ in a sophisticated manner, thus making a point about duality of meaning. Without exception, it was the materials such as concrete or Formica carrying the low and form the high. This led to High-Touch and Creative Salvage aesthetics of the late 80s, which found their beauty in the visual and tactile qualities present in any materials. The result was self-consciously designed, expensive one-off objects. This new materialism turned out to be not so new. Chicken wire, exposed 2 x 4s, and gypsum board have found little appeal, but polished concrete, terrazzo and Formica are being invested with status once again by finding their way into commercial interiors such as shops and restaurants en route to private residences.

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Once connotations of negative status are lost or forgotten, a new value-adding aesthetic can be applied and marketed.

Property pressures and availability led to interior space making do for property in the 60s, and neglected building types being converted as a means of attaining more space than provided by contemporary building types. Former prejudice was disregarded and mews buildings, coach houses and warehouses were given a new lease of life as premium dwellings.

canada

Being only a pre-existing building providing space, juxtaposed with a human factor of use, such buildings remained outside the realm of architecture. However, once possession and use began to carry notions of status such as more space and enlightened freedom from the tyranny of plan, it became possible to subdivide any large building and market it for more than a comparably sized flat. Interior partition walls then become a separately marketable commodity, as they had already become in office buildings.

all sold

Whilst an aesthetic of space and light is essentially one of property, aesthetics can also add value by how they enclose space.

Gideon saw modern architecture as an increasing perception of space as a quantity in itself. Whilst this is not untrue, it ignores the fact that that space must belong to somebody. In other words, it ignores the political dimension of space and property. Space, the stuff between the walls, and the space outside them as well, is a commodity of status because space is merely enclosed property. As the amount of property people can have has decreased, ways of creating the impression of having more have developed from closed plan to free plan, free plan to open plan, and finally open plan to no plan. A blurring of the distinction between inside and outside assumes that there is an outside of one’s own to blur. Large areas of glazing indicate no neighbours nearby.

mies

Light is an indirect commodity of status because of its connection with property and density of land utilization but the conversion of warehouses has shown that people are prepared to sacrifice light and location for space. A building envelope enclosing a physically and visually finite space and with no plan would seem to be resistant to notions of status, but as long as there is an enclosing structure, an aesthetic can still operate through the use of materials and methods in new value-adding ways to indicate status.

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High-tech is aesthetic which has little social mobility, thereby allowing it to remain an aesthetic of status.

The aesthetic of High-tech finds its purest expression in the spanning of large areas without internal supports, making it a horizontal Gothic exploting the tensile limits of steel.

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This makes it inherently suitable for buildings that are only perimeter walls within which either culture or machines set the spatial agenda.

hangar

When relatively mundane spaces for human activity are required to be housed, it resorts to vertical Gothic with full-height atrium spaces displaying engineering prowess being justified on the grounds of providing light.

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The high levels of accuracy and craftsmanship involved render high-tech inapplicable to the relatively modest spatial and structural requirements of living. High-tech also has a large research and development component tailored to individual projects in the same way as in civil engineering structures. Its lavish and visible use of resources to achieve large, dubiously justified spaces, maintains its status as an aesthetic and consequently ensures its inapplicability to anything other than prestige projects.

Minimalism is another.

The Minimalist aesthetic is that of an en-closure creating the sensation of infinite space, a concept the Japanese found attractive even when both space and Nature were abundant. But feudalism in the past and overcrowding in the present have led to owning any space, let along property, being an object of status, and if space is a commodity, then appearing to have infinitely more is better even if it isn’t real.

minimal

In Minimalist buildings, windows overlook a courtyard or whatever property remains, and infinite property (“space”) is ‘seen’ in the walls. Light enters through slits to exaggerate its value. If it doesn’t use exquisitely executed concrete, the building process is denied through the expensive and contrived elimination or concealment of joins and lines.

ando

Minimalism is much money being used to create the impression of having little except a sense of infinite space, a trompe l’oeil of nothing. It is an expensive aesthetic of denial of both the envelope and use, and an apparent denial of possession when linked to the concept of voluntary poverty. It is not an aesthetic for the actual poor.   

Successive aesthetics use progressively less expensive means to indicate wealth and property, but status-laden materials and processes then work to make them less accessible.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the buildings of the upper classes took the style sanctioned by the church or state while buildings of the lower classes were the result of the expedient use of available materials, techniques and labour. With middle-class country estates in the later 19th century, architects such as Shaw, Webb, Lutyens, Voysey and Wright were to use vernacular materials combined with their respective Post-Classic aesthetics to indicate wealth and property, thus furnishing the new suburbs with motifs.

voysey

Modernism took functional industrial forms and structures and used them to indicate wealth and property. Post-Modernism took its visual techniques from roadside cafés and other structures not in the realm of ‘high’ architecture, and did the same. As soon as the Case Study houses made a cheaper aesthetic available through the use of ready-made ‘industrial’ materials, Internationalism used expensive materials and the restoration of a Classical relationship to property to distance itself again. High-tech did the same through refined materials and technology. Its applicability to spanning large spaces assumes a large space to span. Minimalism takes the very idea of looking and one’s walls and living with very little and makes it into an aesthetic of wealth and property. Loft living takes a former worker’s reality and makes it into an aesthetic of space, but being ‘fitted to the highest standard’ maintains status. The attraction of each new aesthetic is that it uses a progressively less expensive means of indicating wealth and property, or the aspiration to it. This makes them inherently vulnerable to marketing in less expensive and accessible forms. As an aesthetic cascades through society in this way, status and corresponding aspiration are artificially maintained in a carrot-on-a-stick fashion by increasingly mannerist use of expensive materials, finishes and processes.

vase

20th century aesthetics are irrelevant to future housing and even current housing problems.

The alleged virtues of Modernism disappeared when it was applied to less bourgeois housing problems in general, and to less property in particular. Its legacy was structural rationality and lack of decorative ornament, and (due to property pressures) a view of activities taking place in spaces rather than rooms.

isokon

Post-Modernism largely treated social identification at the public level rather than the individual. The Taller Bofill “Let them eat cake!” approach refers beyond even the public aspirations of the individual. Aesthetics as a palliative. Post Modernism’s twin legacies were to alter certain pre-conceptions about what buildings could look like and to pave the way for a re-evaluation of the fundmental properties of materials (once the status/historical meanings had been stripped away). Its major socially applicable benefit was a re-evaluation of materials which sooner or later would have occurred anyway (due to decreasing availability or affordability).

lasdun

Metabolism correctly identified buildings as organisms in the city, but was content with expressing it at the metaphorical level. Brutalism supposedly made ordinary materials into an aesthetic which allowed materials and construction to be appreciated for what they were. This made it inherently inapplicable when lesser standards of materials and labour were used. Minimalism took the status aspects of appearing to have more space and owning less but relied for its effect on expensive materials contrasted with expensive effects achieved via contrived construction processes and finishes. In effect, it was a metaphor for the elleged virtues of historical examples of simplicity. High-tech isolated functions and satisfied them using expensive materials and processes and became in effect, a metaphor for the economies that mass-produced industrial components could theoretically offer.

It is necessary to have a way of seeing beauty which, for once, does not derive from wealth and property.

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Consider Le Corbusier’s inspiration for the machine aesthetic – the ocean liner and the the grain silo. Both have in common a certain technical and functional sophistication, but they also have in common a necessary relationship with large amounts of open space. Although the visual implications were revolutionary for architecture, the relationship between those built objects to the spacesurrounding them continued to link beauty with the ownership of property. There is nothing inherently wrong with technical analogies since housing is the result of a production process.

grain

Whereas ocean liners and grain silos taught us about function and form, other inherent (and these days, more useful) factors such as construction process, sourcing and design optimisation were ignored. Unsurprisingly, aesthetics derived from the display of the wealth or property associated with private houses on private land, prove inapplicable to low-cost housing using public money on public land.

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Those 20th century aesthetics which have been applied to mass housing have had their deficiencies highlighted. This is not a problem of aesthetics per-se. It is a problem of where they come from and the criteria by which beauty is defined. The marketability of an aesthetic is related to the desirability of its product, which has changed very little. This means that low-cost housing, being neither an indicator of wealth or property, can never benefit from aesthetics. Ever.

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However, if successive aesthetics are evolving from criteria which are less and less expensive to achieve, it ought to be possible to shortcut this process and determine a way of seeing beauty by concentrating attention and techniques on other articulating the possession of wealth or property,and thereby arrive more quickly at a modern vernacular aesthetic towards which we are moving anyway. This would be an aesthetic applicable to everyone, not just the providers and occupants of low-cost housing. Warehouse conversions have indicated that people are willing to sacrifice light and location for space. It is only a matter of time before other qualities that have been essential considerations in private housing so far will also come to be devalued. Location, quantities, materials, processes and contents will always remain indicators of whatever level of status people can afford to display or aspire to.

An architectural aesthetics independent of wealth and property will mean traditional displays of status will for once be explicit, not mistaken for beauty, and the aspiration to them will be less attractive to those who can ill afford to.

• • •

This essay will conclude next week with Part II, Modern Vernacular.

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Property, Time & Architecture

To commemmorate seven years of not fitting in, misfits would like to present some of the early thinking that led to its formation. This visual essay dates from around 1998. It was put together between occasional bouts of paid work, using Quark XPress 3.2 and a PowerMac G3 with 64MB of RAM.

The file was stored on iomega 100MB Zip “backup” disks which is why what you’ll see here is a scan of an A3 laser-print hard copy. It’s as-was, complete with original typos, proofreading failures, plus a numbering error I’ve only just noticed – there’s no 10.1.1. The font is Trebuchet which, for some reason, was popular at the time.

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Detective Story

Sunday, May 28, 8:00 am: I publish a post titled The Piano and The Double-Sided Apartment and refer to this next plan as “an embryo unité d’habitations.” I go on to say that, “the overall intention, the end apartments with their different orientation, the way the elevator lobby has been accommodated, and the lax attitude towards fire escape all suggest the hand of Le Corbusier but whether firsthand or secondhand I don’t know.”

unite

I still don’t – all lines of enquiry turned up nothing. A trusted source [Merci!] informed me an authoritative source had doubted the plans were by Le Corbusier. This alone was strong proof they weren’t.

In the same post, I also made reference to the following plans from the Cité Frais Vallon project because of their similarly stacked stairs. Their architect was also unknown.

Frais-Vallon

12:45 pm: I receive intelligence from Det. Daniel.

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15:30 pm: I learn Devin worked with Fernand Pouillon on the 1955 Quartier du Vieux-Port project, thus locating him in Marseille shortly after the completion of Le Corbusier’s first Unité d’Habitation.

20:45 pm: For now I have only circumstantial evidence, but comparing both plans leads me to suspect André Devin as author of both.

  • The pairing of apartments over three levels and the stacking of stairs on both sides of a corridor is common to both.
  • The space used to cross over/under the corridor is the only circulation space within the mystery plans and also in the larger floor of the Frais Vallon double-sided apartment. Apart from these two examples, I’ve never seen this done before and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
  • Both projects attempt to create a plan with the advantages of Le Corbusier’s Unité but without its faults. The person who devised these plans has obviously studied the Unité closely and , in the mystery plans, judging by the contrived end apartments and how other problems such as the secondary fire escape stair are solved in similar manner, is clearly an admirer. This is part of the Frais Vallon project with which André Devin’s name is linked.

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After Le Corbusier’s Marseille Unité, there was a 1950s fashion for towers with a similar treatment for the apartments at one end (and, as part of the same thing, ingoring any possible benefit additional windows may have provided). Fernand Pouillon did so in 1958 at Le Point de Jour in Billancourt. London County Council did so in 1955 with the Loughborough Estate in Brixton.

  • Frais Vallon has pilotis, though not as hefty as LC’s.
  • The fact Devin worked on housing projects with Fernand Pouillon suggests a comradely familiarity with 1920’s Soviet housing proposals such as the STROIKOM team’s 1928 Type E apartments and their stacked stairs leading to apartments up/down from one side of a corridor space. [c.f. 1928: The Types Study.]

Let’s take a closer look at those plans.

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The top half of these plans is the rear half of Devin’s. Mirroring the right plan about the corridor gives us the corridor level of the Frais Vallon plan. We’re looking at some sort of basic principle.

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André Devin is almost certainly the architect of Cité Frais Vallon but there was still nothing linking it to the mystery plan – until this next. The floor plate size is the same. The apartment layouts may be different but their disposition has been contrived to produce building elevations with exactly the same intent. We saw what they looked like just above.

Ultimately, the clever arrangement of double-sided apartments wasn’t used in the towers but for the nearby low-rise blocks. The stacked staircases that had been in the corridors now lead off private entry halls along with two bedrooms linked to the remainder of the apartment above/below. 

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The severe treatment of the elevations brings to mind the Nikolsky team’s entry for the 1927 competition,

but, with low-cost housing, there’s little else other than the position of windows to work with. At first I thought the gratuitous checkerboard was a precursor to today’s gratuitously shuffly window but there’s nothing gratuitous about these facades.

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One thing my years of detective work has taught me is try to get into the mind of the architect. Anything that strikes me as odd is likely to have a logic behind it. With the far facade in the photograph above, the top and bottom rows of horizontal windows are curious, and so are the obsessively paired windows inbetween. “Did someone say Horizontal Windows?” The windows top and bottom do a little Villa Savoye thing and the windows in the middle are paired to emphasize the column structure.

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• • •

This is where the case stands right now. André Devin is a person of interest I believe can help with my enquiries.

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Tuesday, May 30

Before that investigation can be closed, another must begin to see if this low-rise configuration – whoever’s responsible – really can’t be improved upon.

  1. Spanning the corridor with necessary circulation spaces is brilliant, but also doing it with general storage rooms seems a bit too easy.
  2. The one-bedroom apartment does not seem part of an integrated solution.
  3. There are shafts next to the bathrooms on all floors, and also on both sides of the corridor alongside the staircases (but it is not clear why).
  4. It is difficult to imagine how furniture would be arranged in the long living areas.
  5. As with many configurations of this type, it is taken for granted that bathrooms will have mechanical ventilation and artificial light. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a fault since doing without both wasn’t a problem the design set out to solve.
  6. Nowadays, a kitchen/dining/living room or dining/living area are more common than an eat-in kitchen with the extra space and window it requires. This is also not a fault. The plans are just a product of their time, and probably place too.

Frais-Vallon

  • It’s easy to take away the incongruous one-bedroom apartment and provide two more bedrooms for two more apartments but this is something the architect would have known was possible.
  • Those extra bedrooms would need their own bathroom which would need to stack with the ones above and below. (Whatever’s in those hallway cupboards can go somewhere else.)
  • Those bathrooms are also going to need a shaft, ideally accessible from the corridor, but we need to go upstairs first and find out what’s going on up there.
  • The kitchen/dining/living area has to fit in the same area as two bedrooms and a bathroom, and the kitchen needs to share a shaft.
  • The large central storage cupboard isn’t essential but I don’t think anyone wanting a four-bedroom apartment would sacrifice a large storage cupboard for an interesting little alcove where the stairs enter the living area.

The main challenge was to find an alternative use for this space that doesn’t involve shafts, and that also keeps the stair landings overlapping the circulation space.

My first attempt was clearly flawed. It still had the large storage rooms adjacent to the stairs (plus understairs storage on the lower level) plus more storage cupboards next to the bedroom. So, rather than fight the corridor I decided to accept its difficult “crossover” space and stretch the apartments away from it, creating gaps and voids for daylight, ventilation and internal views.

Converting a flaw into real advantages is different from making a flaw into an architectural feature. The real disadvantage is increased external wall area. I can’t see any way around this. If one wants the real advantages of real windows then one has to accept an increased area of real external walls. Otherwise, one is stuck with mechanical ventilation, artificial light and representations of [a.k.a. “a sense of”] exterior space.

virtual_balcony

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Anyway, this idea didn’t spring from nowhere. It’s a development of Stacey from one of misfits’ first posts, and incorporating the concerns mentioned in Plan B, one of the more recent, in which I say it might be a good idea to make apartment dwellers more aware of sharing a building with others.

  1. Small kitchen windows and staircase windows overlook the triple-height space of the access level,
  2. High bathroom windows open onto this same space, and
  3. The internal passageway becomes a bridge overlooking the triple-height space of the access corridor on one side, with a small ‘internal’ balcony (laundry drying?) overlooking the access level on the other side.

Basically, the building volume “saved” by only having one corridor per three floors has been externalized to become a type of communal space mostly appreciated from inside the apartments. It may not be as cheap to construct as SANAA‘s value-added alleyways, but it seems to me to give more back to more people and generally be a more positive way forward for buildings too.

This is not architecture – for architecture is in decline, seemingly terminal. This is a building, and buildings still have life left in them.

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I still need to find a place for the washing machine.

• • •

Today’s Guardian carries a story on how the LEGO company reinvented itself. I would just like to say that this is totally coincidental, and that I have never received money from the LEGO company for this post’s header image or any  inadvertent advertisement.  

Clarity & Consistency in Architecture

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, I re-read Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.

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First published in 1966, and since translated into 16 languages, this remarkable book has become an essential document of architectural literature. A “gentle manifesto for a nonstraightforward architecture” [.]

But what exactly is an essential document of architectural literature? Is it something that still has something to teach us, or merely something that is famous for having been famous once? If so, when did it become irrelevant? Did anyone ever refute it? Is it beyond criticism? In short, was it a good way for things to go?

In 1977 in a note to the second edition, Venturi himself answers some of these questions by saying he wished the title had been Complexity and Contradiction in Architectural Form. He also suggested “the book might be read today [1977] for its general theories about architectural form but also as a particular document of its time, more historical than topical” but YOU CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS! All books are destined to become particular documents of their time and the same goes for their contents. However, it is possible to read (or even mis-read or mis-understand) something historic and discover something new and of relevance. I hope that will be the case but I don’t warm to the opening sentence.

“I like complexity and contradiction in architecture.”

Everyone has the right to an opinion but, more importantly, when attempting any kind of intellectual exploration into architectural aesthetics, trying to first make some sense out of what one likes is a reasonable and obvious place to begin. Three paragraphs in however we begin get a clearer view of where this is going.

“Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. 

Is MoMA on some sort of mission to publish books reducing architecture to questions of visuals every thirty-five years? If so, we’re well overdue for another. One thing the Post-Modern era taught us was to beware the quotation mark.

I like elements which are hybrid other than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse rather than impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than “simple,” vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear.

We now know hybrid turned out to be “hybrid,” compromising to be “compromising;” distorted, “distorted;” ambiguous, “ambiguous;” perverse, “perverse;” boring, “boring;” conventional, “conventional;” and redundant, “redundant.”

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Here’s a column with some “redundant” structural capacity.

Complexity and contradiction turned out to be “complexity” and “contradiction” as contrived and predictable as the “simplicity” and “straightforwardness” they set out to replace.

Just as Modernism had done fifty years earlier, Venturi was proposing a “new” way to continue the churn of style replacement that stands for progress in architecture. For that, he and his book were rewarded with everlasting fame. What Venturi offered was the easiest option available at the time. Googie was a growing force but it was insufficiently pretentious – it was popular instead of “popular.”

[c.f. Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell

As early as 1937 Haskell had published pieces such as “Architecture on Routes US 40 and 66” and suggested that designers could learn “in the country of the automobile,” by studying places that “are growing with the people themselves”. 

1937–: Haskell observed the architecture of popular culture
1952: Haskell identified Googie architecture
1958: Haskell claimed Times Square was all right
1966: Robert Venturi claimed in C&C “Main Street is almost all right”
1972: RV (now with Denise Scott-Brown) claimed things could be learned from Las Vegas.

Around the same time, dissatisfaction with the status quo was about to produce experiments into temporary and biomorphic architecture at SCI-ARC. [c.f: Career Case Study #3: Glen Howard Small]

Inflatable architecture was a reaction against the rigid lines of what Modernism had become but it was attractive to all the wrong people.
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And some of it was just weird. This is the 1967 Dyodon experimental pneumatic house by Jean-Paul Jungmann. I think I remember this building from UK House & Garden report on the 1969 The House of Today competition. If I remember rightly, Richard Rogers came third with the Zip-Up House he’s been showing us ever since.

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Over in Japan, the Metabolists were doing their thing but they were big on ideas but short on buildability. Plus, they were East not West.

UK’s Archigram always seemed to promise more fun than they were capable of delivering.

America simply wasn’t interested in Brutalism, or in houses built from concrete. [c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]

Over in Venice in 1953, Ignazio Gardella had designed Casa alle Zattere, a studiously polite house contemporary commentators such as Reyner Banham were at a loss to explain as it was neither Modernist nor Historicist.

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Significant mid-sixties buildings didn’t propose the future Venturi was seeing in the past.

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What was needed was something cheap and cheerful, didn’t threaten the 2×4 industry, was achieveable rather than visionary, and carried some authority. It all sounded like a job for … HISTORY! – or at least trickery with arches, columns and cornices.

“Like all original architects, Venturi makes us see the past anew.”

Vincent Scully didn’t backtrack in the 1977 update to his original introduction. It’s all good stuff and I agree wholeheartedly – until the bit highlighted.

The book itself is organised into chapters with the following titles.

  1. Nonstraightforward Architecture: A Gentle Manifesto
  2. Contradiction and Contradiction vs. Simplifiction or Picturesqueness
  3. Ambiguity
  4. Contradictory Levels: The Phenomenon of Both-And in Architecture
  5. Contradicatory Levels Continued: The Double-Functioning Element
  6. Accomodation and the Limitations of Order: The Conventional Element
  7. Contradiction Adapted
  8. Contradiction Juxtaposed
  9. The Inside and the Outside
  10. The Obligation Towards the Difficult Whole

Ambiguity deals with questions such as those posed by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.  “Is it a square plan or not?” Venturi asks to anyone who cares and, in 1966, many people probably still did.

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Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier are mentioned with the reverence accorded the recently deceased. Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn were the new greatest living architects used to represent opposite architectural positions now both closer to the middle. Venturi occasionally used Le Corbusier’s projects to illustrate what wasn’t good, but mostly to illustrate what was. Villa Savoye alone is capable of supporting or contradicting most thoughts about architecture but, as ever, its prime function when referenced in architectural discourse is to show one is talking about Architecture.

  • In Chapter 4 (p23) on Contradictictory Levels, Villa Savoye is mentioned as being simple outside yet complex inside, as if it’s the first building that ever was.
  • In Chapter 6 (p41) on The Conventional Element, “the Villa Savoye accomodates the exceptional circumstantial inconsistencies within an otherwise rigid dominant order.”
  • In Chapter 7 (p52) on Contradiction Adapted, “the exceptional diagonal of the ramp is clearly expedient in serction and elevation and allows Le Corbusier to create a strong opposition to the regular order of column bays and envelope.”

The desire to use dubiously revered examples to justify mundane statements is a major fault of this book. In Chapter 5 (p34) on Contradictory Levels Continued, Le Corbusier’s “Algerian project” gets a mention for “contradictorily” combining an apartment house and a highway.

Venturi praises the P.S.F.S. building for the functional honesty of its various volumetric articulations despite part of the office space being given an expression befitting the hidden elevator shafts. He also gets excited about the sign on top.

The fact it can’t be seen from the street is a plus because it’s a bit like van Brugh’s Cloth House in Bruges which, apparently, relates to the entire town from afar (as big things tend to do) but has a violent change of scale with the lower levels that relate to the square. [What does “relate to” mean, anyway? It seems to be being used as shorthand for “a size appropriate to …” – or are we talking about scale?] Going by this photograph, I’d say it’s not just the lower bit that’s “relating to” the square.

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I wondered how far was afar? This next image is from 250 metres away, although the houses wouldn’t have been there in 1280 when the original building and tower were built. The octagonal upper part of the tower was added in 1486. There was also once a spire destroyed in 1493 and in 1741 for good. The points Venturi makes still stand, but it’s wrong to imply this building is the result of a single mind at work. Extensions to buildings are contradictory by nature.

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The sheer number of heavyweight examples over the following fifty pages either bludgeon one into submission or compel one to resist. I formed the impression anything can be used to mean anything. Let me illustrate using what’s on my table at the moment.

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  • The binoculars have a shape that is directional but they point downwards, intruigingly.
  • The surface of the table is there but not there at the same time!
  • A laptop is not atop a lap. Why?
  • There is a plant in a pot – or is it a pot with a plant in it? Such tension!

Now let’s try to make some sense out of it.

  1. When we look at the binoculars and laptop and make those observations, we do so with a knowledge of what those objects are. A person who didn’t know what binoculars were or what they did would see no complexity or contradiction. As a theoretical construct, an architecture of complexity or contradiction is never going to be inclusive. The smug elitism of Post-Modern architecture derives from this. [Remember that highlighted bit in Scully’s notes to the second edition?]
  2. Moreover, when we look at the plant and the pot we assume we’re not looking at some work of art demanding we question the nature or validity of its existence. The potplant is no Duchamp nor even a Koons. A theory of complexity and contradiction only works if things are posited as complex or contradictory, i.e. as art. The pretentiousness of Post-Modern architecture derives from this.
  3. Finally, when we look at the table we are seeing or, more importantly, choosing to see more than one aspect of its existence at the same time. I may appreciate its shiny reflectivity but may not when it’s reflecting glare back at me and, even then, I may still appreciate it stopping things falling to the floor when I let go of them. Venturi recognizes the value of pluralism not just between different observers but even for the same observer at different places or times. He repeats Paul Rudolph’s observation that Mies van der Rohe’s buildings are great only because Mies chose to solve only the few problems he felt required solving. What Venturi is proposing is worse in that there are now infinite variables to set up any problem one wishes to show one has solved. The moveable feast that was Post-Modern architecture derives from this.

Overall, I found it bizarre that Venturi could look at innumerable historic and not-so-historic examples of architecture and make what is a wealth of obaervations yet never mention the very same things in unpretentious buildings not considered architecture. The only worth he sees in the circumstantial is in its capacity to produce an intentional effect. This may be intentional, or it may just be how architects looked at things half a century ago. If the latter, it needs putting right. 

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This lighthouse is not a tower in order to appear more imposing when seen from afar but to ensure its beam of light is visible farther out to sea. Yet, [“intruigingly, bizarrely”] it also has small windows to light the stairs so a person can access the beacon room. There’s no contradiction of the type Venturi sees in Lutyen’s unrealized project for Liverpool Cathedral, for example. 

We shouldn’t be amazed to be told people are smaller than buildings. Ah, but it’s still a difference of city scale and human scale you may say. Indeed, but even the glassiest of curtain walls has those same two differences of scale.

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Sadly, my own counter-investigation into the Baroque period isn’t as thorough as Venturi’s. I have only one example to show. Earlier, I mentioned Ignzaio Gardella’s 1953 Casa alle Zattere in Venice.

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This 1703 etching shows two buildings on what was to be its site. Their facades aren’t in the same plane as there is a 5° bend where the two sites meet.

Le fabriche, e vedute di Venetia

Sometime not long after 1703, the two sites were combined and the buildings remodelled to create a single building with a symmetrical tripartite facade as was fashionable at the time.

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A continuous facade was created but the angle remained. The former party wall was extended upwards to make it easier to construct the roof. Venturi would draw our attention to how the continuity of the facade is contradicted by its non-planarity and also by the discontinuity of the roof. However, this building is not trying to be complex or contradictory.  The problem of producing a tripartite facade has been solved. The problem of roofing the building has also been solved. The rooftop altana works against the facade symmetry that’s been set up. A drainpipe draws attention to the very angle the symmetry seeks to downplay.

Speaking of drainpipes, an other example of mine is this building you’ll recognize from Misfits’ Guide to Venice as the Palazzo Fondazione Masieri, the interior of which was remodelled by Carlo Scarpa.

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[You might also recognise this paragraph.] The position of the drainpipe highlights the symmetrical part of the facade, suggesting we disregard the additional bit on the right, but where else could it go? The midpoint of the gutter is the most practical but least-wanted place as it would not only split the building in two but discharge over the entrance. Placing the drainpipe at the end of the gutter would gutter creates practical problems of gutter slope. Three shorter gutters avoiding the chimneys would each require a drainpipe. This minor functional element is doing something of crucial visual importance for Venturi but I doubt whoever put it there gave its placement a second thought.

In both these examples I see not complexity and contradiction but a clear and consistent approach towards the solving of real problems. In both examples, the simplest and easiest way has been chosen and the result is far richer than seemingly contradictory problems selected and studio-farmed for the expressive potential of their “resolutions.”

• • •

Venturi was of the opinion that complexity and contradiction made for buildings that weren’t boring. This single personal preference of one person implied buildings had a duty to entertain and this is how “delight” has been interpreted ever since. Post Modernism was ultimately discarded for its inability to delight outside of its host culture. It was unsuited to the burgeoning global market for trophy architecture by rich rulers and property developers in non-Western countries. Something meaning less to more people was what was required and Deconstruction stepped up to the plate. 

Nevertherless, Robert Venturi and Post-Modernism have a place in the history of architecture’s meta-aesthetics for reducing architecture to a style toolkit once again and kicking the architecture can a bit further down the road. 

What I can’t abide is Venturi representing the inherent honesty and beauty of ordinary buildings to enable an architecture not remembered for either its honesty or beauty. Ordinary buildings were the losers as nobody gave them another look. Job done.

JC

http://www.pritzkerprize.com/1991/jury

Architecture Misfit #29: Fernand Pouillon

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Fernand Pouillon
1912 – 1986

1912
Born May 14, in Cancon, France.

🎂

1934
Palais Albert 1er, (30 apartments, 2 commercial units), avenue Albert 1er, Aix-en-Provence, France, in collaboration with Henri Enjouvin.

Pouillon was 22.

1935
Palais Victor Hugo (28 apartments), avenue Victor Hugo, Aix-en-Provence, France

1936
Groupe Corderie 25 (40 apartments), 27 avenue de la Corse, Marseille, France

The fernandpouillon.com website lists the creation or extension of “co-operative cells” [caves coopèratives”] around this time, in the towns of Rosières, Lussas, Vinezac, Vogue, Lablachère, Senas, Graveson, Maillane, Eygalières, Mallemort, Saint-Andiol, Châteauneuf de Gadagne, Le Thor, La Tour d’Aygues, and Sablet. All were formed in association with Pouillon’s former mentor Henri Enjouvin. I imagine these to be something like architects of record on-call, and with some fee arrangement already in place for fast turnaround. It would have to be because, as you will see, the amount of work attributed to Pouillon is phenomenal. Pouillon was beyond prolific, he had a compulsion to design buildings and get them built.

1938
Mondovi Building (18 apartments), rue de Mondovi, Marseille, France


Villa for Doctor Bernard, quartier Saint-Julien Villa de M. Magallon, avenue Flotte, Marseille, France
Villa for M. Teissier, quartier Saint-Barnabé Villa de M. Terracole, au Roucas Blanc, Marseille, France
Villa for M. Falconetti, Cabriès, France

1939
Group “Résidence” quai de Rive-Neuve (36 apartments), Marseille, France

1940
A group of 70 apartments, Avignon, France

1942 was the end of Vichy Government rule in Algeria and the end of Le Corbusier’s speculative Plan Obus for Algiers. It was also the year Pouillon, now 30, became a registered architect. It had not been necessary to be one in order to build in

1943
Restoration of private mansion of M. Columeau, bd du Redon Immeuble 38 rue Longue des Capucins, Marseille, France

1944 was the liberation of France and the dissolution of the Vichy government.

1945
“Dames de France”, transformation of a store into offices for the American base
Grand Arénas, provisional accommodation for prisoners, deportees and refugees
Gendarmerie Augusto, Marseille, France

1946
The Regional Center for Physical Education and Sport, CREPS, chemin du Guiraudet Gardanne, Aix-en-Provence, France
Casablanca Garden City in Biver, 21 dwellings, Aix-en-Provence, France

1947
Deux écoles déclarées dans les “Mémoires d’un architecte”, Aix-en-Provence, France
Hotel in Cap Manuel, Dakar, Senegal
Stade municipal, avenue des Ecoles Militaires, Aix-en-Provence, France

Pouillon’s 1947 Aix-en-Provence City Stadium is often presented as the project in which his personal “style” began to emerge but (in perfect illustration of how words convert buildings into architecture) this turns out to be nothing more than perfectly normal things that everybody should be doing, like updating traditional construction processes and using several different materials so each does what they do best.

stadium 1946-50.jpeg

1948
Nestlé Factory, chocolate and soluble coffee factory, offices, common services and employee housing, Saint-Menet, France
Restoration of the Villa of Doctor Latil, Aix-en-Provence, France
Station sanitaire maritime, Avenue Vaudoyer, Marseille, France

0008

1949
Police Building, 2 rue Antoine Becker, Marseille, France
Canebière Building, boulevard de la Canebière, apartments, offices, retail units, Marseille, France
La Tourette, Protis Square, 260 dwellings, shops garages, Marseille, France 

The civic projects increased in scale and importance, leading to the 1948-1953 La Tourette housing complex in Marseille, just behind the Old Port. There’s a glowing description of La Tourette here, along with many fine photographs of it.

With La Tourette project, Pouillon refined his system of co-ordinating all the elements of a project – a system that came to be known as The Pouillon System. Details are sketchy, but it included artists and craftsmen such as cabinetmakers, locksmiths and stonecutters and the invention/use of construction processes intended to reduce the cost of material and labour. One of these was pierre banchée in which stone tiles are used as permanent shuttering.

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Other innovations included a method of providing better soundproofing between apartments. A legend to the section above might be able to tell us more about this. In 1955, Pouillon created the CNL, the Comptoir National du Logement, which was a commercial and legal structure that would allow him to design thousands of housing units in Paris and to build them as a developer.

1950
Reconstruction of the Sablettes, seaside resort, 150 apartments, shops, a hotel, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France
Carrières de Fontvieille, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France
Offices, Garden Dwellings, Atelier, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France
Atelier for the painter, Marchutz, Aix-en-Provence, France
Villa for the mayor of d’Aix-en-Provence, Henri Mouret, Aix-en-Provence, France
Hôtel d’Espagnet, Cours Mirabeau, Headquarters of the University Rectorate plus official housing, Aix-en-Provence, France
Restoration of a listed monument, Aix-en-Provence, France
Saint-Charles University Library, Marseille, France
Library of the Faculty of Sciences, Centre for Administrative Studies, Marseille, France

1951
Building rue Méry, Reconstruction of the Vieux-Port quarter, housing, shops and bars, Marseille, France
Outer areas of the Old Port district, monument surroundings, roads and public spaces, Marseille, France
Shopping Cart District Urban Redevelopment, Marseille, France
Two hundred apartments, 1-6 room apartments for rent, Aix-en-Provence, France
Reconstruction of the Old Port, seafront 1200 m, 350 apartments and shops, Marseille, France

1952
Faculty of Law, resumption of the works for completion of University Library, Aix-en-Provence, France

Villa La Brillanne, residence of the family of Fernand Pouillon, Aix-en-Provence, France
Lycée Colbert, commercial and industrial learning center, Marseille, France

1953
Atelier for the painter André Masson, Aix-en-Provence, France

Administrative City, architectural and urban development program, Avignon, France
Terminal, offices, technical block, control tower, Cassis, Marignane, France
Villa Barthélemy and Villa X., seafront villas, Algiers, Algeria
Diar El Mahçoul, 1800 apartments, Algiers, Algeria

This last was Pouillon’s first project in Algeirs and the project he was invited there for. The hillside site required 100,000 of terracing and huge retaining walls. A main road divided the French side and Algerian side. Two thirds of the 1,454 housing units were on the French side of the road with views of the sea (and huge retaining walls).

The other third were on the Algerian side facing the valley and had small courtyards. We may think this discriminatory but we forget that “view” is a cultural invention (whereas houses in a Mediterranean fishing village, for example, might have a view of the sea for reasons connected with weather and fish). Another such difference showed in sanitation facilities and, again, we can’t say if this is cultural prejudice or cultural preference.

1953 (cont’d)
Diar Es Saada, 800 lodgings, Algiers, Algeria

Villa des Arcades, restaurant, and development of a swimming pool, residence and agency of F. Alger, Algerie
Residential building, regularization of the extension of the course Jean Jaurès in front of the administrative city, Avignon, France

1954
Diar El Mahçoul, Saint-Jean-Baptiste church Climat of France, 3500 dwellings, Algiers, Algiers

Pouillon’s 1954-1957 Climat de France project for Algiers has a touch of what two decades later would be called Post-Modern Classicism. We look at it and see Rossi, unfairly.

The Mayor of Algiers believed a properly housed population made for a happy population and Pouillon obliged by combining the social aspirations of Modernism giving residents something larger to feel a part of, and the proto Post-Modern idea of giving residents something grander to live up to.

Diar Es Saada, girls ‘and boys’ schools, Algiers, Algierie
El Karma, Valmy (near Oran), Agierie
City of 800 houses, Algiers, Algierie
Cité Lescure, Designed for a colleague, Oran, Algiers
Military city for 8000 inhabitants, Magharé, Iran
Military city for 8000 inhabitants, Shahabad, Iran
Iranian Empire Headquarters, Tehran, Iran
Geographical Institute, Tehran, Iran
Railway station, Machad, Iran

This was a project in collaboration with the Iranian architect, Heydar Ghiaï-Chamlou.

Railway station, Tabriz, Iran

As was this.

1955
Cité universitaire les Gazelles, 564 avenue Gaston Berger, 500 beds, Aix-en-Provence, France

La Montagnette social housing, rue Maurice Barrès, Vignon, France
Cité La Croix des Oiseaux, about 800 social housing units with much prefabrication, rue de la Croix des Oiseaux, Avignon, France
Villa for Admiral Jubelin, Sanary, France

1956
Development of the Old Port district, partially completed. Reconstruction of several Old Port buildings, reconstruction, Bastia, France

1957
Charzola Building, 58 rue Emile Zola, 93 dwellings, Paris, France

47 avenue de Friedland, apartment for Fernand Pouillon, Paris, France
Victor Hugo Residences, avenue Jean Lolive, 282 apartments and retail units, Pantin, France

Chalet, Val d’Isere, France
Municipal stadium, rue des Ecoles Militaires, awning above the stands (destroyed in the eighties), Aix-en-Provence, France
Résidence le Parc, 2,635 lodgings, shopping centers, Meudon-la-Forêt, France

Pouillon and the CNL’s first major successes were apartment developments of three hundred units in Pantin (1957) and five hundred units in Montrouge (1958). Despite the stone and marbile finishes, the apartments were affordable on a 25-year plan.

1958
Private apartment, Boulevard Suchet, Paris, France
Le Point du Jour, 2260 logements et équipements, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
Peugeot-quai de Passy, projet d’extension du Point du Jour, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
Résidence du Stade Buffalo, 466 logements et commerces, Montrouge, France

1959
Hôtel des Ursins, île de la Cité, résidence de F. Pouillon Appartement de M. Junot Iéna, Paris, France
Résidence Jules Ferry, 60 logements et garages au rez-de-chaussée, Montrouge, France
Résidence le Parc, 2,635 lodgings, shopping centers, Meudon-la-Forêt, France

Pouillon was to make himself many enemies when the 2,635 apartments of the Résidence du Parc in Meudon-la-Forêt (1959) came online at less than market prices.

1960
Résidence du Quai, 135 apartments and shopping mall, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
Hôtel-restaurant Baumanière, la Cabro d’Or, Les Baux de Provence, France

1961
Hotel, Puerto-Rico

Pouillon’s unorthodox corporate arrangements encouraged financial impropriety and the CNL was unable to pay its contractors in 1959 and was wound up in 1961 and Pouillon charged, arrested, de-registered and jailed. Eighteen months later he escaped but ten months later gave himself up, only to be sentenced to another four years. This was later reduced to three and he was released in February 1964. Charges of breaching the laws of companies, of breaches of trust, fraud and concealment were dismissed but charges of the abuse of social assets, false declaration of release of shares and false notarial declaration remained. During his imprisonment, we was to write Les Pierres Sauvages published in 1964, and Memoirs of an Architect, published 1968.

1962
Domaine de Lanruen (detached houses), partially realized, construction site not monitored, Erquy, France

1964
Masterplan for the new town of Créteil, Créteil, France
La Vallée Moussue, restoration of a house, Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines, France.

1965
Hôtel du Port, for the company Bancaire, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France

 

The masterplan was to be Pouillon’s first major job after jail and, perhaps because of this, he received death threats urging him not to work in France. Jacques Chevallier suggested Pouiloon return to Algeria and he did. For the next twenty years Pouillon was to design hotels to improve the tourism infrastructure of Algeria, as well as many civic and educational buildings. His greatest regret was being being asked to design mass housing again, either in France or in Algeria.

1966
Algerian coastal tourism development plan (partially realized), Algiers, Algeria
Villa des Arcades, restoration and extension, Algiers, Algeria
Diar El Mahçoul, transformation of the church into a mosque, Algiers, Algeria
Hotel Le Caîd, 400 beds, Bou Saada, Algeria
Hotel Marhaba, 300 beds, Laghouat, Algeria
Hotel El Minzah, 300 beds, Moretti, Algeria
Spa and hotel with 200 beds, Saida, Algeria

1967
Pavillon de la Foire d’Alger
, Algiers, Algeria
The Calle (El Kala), Algiers, Algeria
Hotel El Manar, 300 beds, Algiers, Algeria
Tourist complex, 3,000 beds, Moretti, Algeria
Hotel El Mountazah (Ksar du Rocher), 300 beds, Seraïdi, Algeria
Tourist complex, 4,000 beds, Zeralda, Algeria

1968
Restaurant “Maxim’s, air conditioning and facilities, Paris, France
Caravanserai of 150 beds, Ain Sefr, Algeria
Hotel Plaza, 500 beds, Annaba, Algeria
Caravanserai the Rym, 150 beds, Beni-Abbes, Algeria
Hotel with 300 beds, Biskra, Algeria
Hotel school for 1,600 students, Biskra, Algeria
Caravanserai El Boustan, 200 beds Saharan dwellings (detached houses), Biskra, Algeria
Saharan homes (detached houses), Biskra, Algeria
New market and renovation of old market, cinema, theater, 15,000 m2, Biskra, Algeria
Abattoirs, Biskra, Ghardaïa, Algerie
Saharan homes (detached houses), Laghouat, Algeria
Caravanserai El Mehri, 200 beds, Ouargla, Algeria
Prefecture of the Oasis and Administrative City, 15 000 m2 Saharan dwellings (detached houses), Ouargla, Algeria
Tourist complex, 4,000 beds El Riadh Hotel, Sidi Ferruch, Algeria


Tourist complex, shopping center Hôtel les Hammadites, 350 beds, Tichy, Algerie
Caravanserai El Gourara, 150 beds, Timimoun, Algeria


Tourist complex, 2,000 beds, Tipasa Beach, Algeria


Tourist complex, 2,500 beds Arrangement of the harbor, village and barbecue, Tipasa Club, Algeria
Slaughterhouses, Touggourt, Algerie
Caravanserai L’Oasis, 200 beds, Touggourt, Algeria
Saharan homes (detached houses), Touggourt, Algeria
Hotel Les Sables d’Or, 600 beds, Zeralda, Algeria
Hotel with 300 beds, Tamanrasset, Algeria

1969
Prototype “metal house” at the edge of J. Chevallier
, El Ançor, Algeria
Andalusian tourist complex of 2,000 beds, Algiers, Algeria
Hotel with 600 beds, Tipasa Matarès, Algeria
Hotel school for 1600 students, Tizi Ouzou, Algeria

1970
La Breche aux Loups
, 444 detached houses, commercialization, Ozoir-la-Ferrière, France
27 post offices, sorting centers and telephone exchanges, 50,000 m2 realized since, Algeria
Hotel M’Zab (ex-Rostémides), 600 beds, Ghardaïa, Algerie


Several “metallic” houses, Ghazaouate, Algeria
Hotel Les Zianides, 300 beds, Tlemcem, Algeria
43 Villas from 1970 to 1984 in Algiers, Bir Mourad Raïs, Blida, Bouzareah, Draria (Algiers), El Achour, El Biar, Algiers, Kouba, Larbaa, Sahaoula, Sidi Aïch, Sidi Mohammed, Yakouren

1971
Furnishing of an apartment, place des Vosges
, Paris, France
Theater for 3,600, Sidi Ferruch (surroundings of Algiers), Algeria
Tipaza Club (Algiers area), Algeria
Tourist complex, extension and horse-riding center, (Algiers area), Algeria
Tipasa Matarès (near Algiers), Algeria
Tourist complex, extension, (Algiers area), Algeria
Hotel les Hammadites, extension, Tichy, Algeria
Caravanserai El Gourara, extension, Timimoun, Algeria

1972
Tourist complex, extension, Moretti, Algeria
Village artisanal Plage Ouest: 150 shops and workshops, Sidi Ferruch, Algerie
Resort complex, extension Hotel Mazafran, Zeralda, Algeria
Hotel with 300 beds, Saida, Algeria
Thermal Spa, Hammam Rabbi (Saïda), Algeria
City of 200 apartments, Staoueli (near Algiers), Algeria
Villa des Arcades, transformation of stables into living room and dining room, El Madania, Algiers, Algeria
Technical Unit of SONATOUR, Algiers, Algeria

1973
Prototype “metallic” house, on the property of the president of the PUM (Products of Metallurgical Factories), Sologne, France
Caravanserai The Rym, extension, Beni-Abbes, Algeria
Caravanserai El Mehri, extension, Ouargla, Algeria

1974
Furnishings for a small manor, Chennevières / Marne, France
House of M and Mme V., Gueux, France
Five “metallic” houses, Jonchery / Vesle, France
House-witness of the concept “HOME” (metal house), Val-de-Vesle-Thuisy, France
A “metallic” house, Saint-Brice-Courcelles, France
Residence Lion d’Or, place Drouet d’Erlon, housing, cinema, shopping mall, Reims, France
Galerie du Jardin de Flore, 24 place des Vosges, creation of a flower shop in art gallery, for the publishing company created by Fernand Pouillon, Paris, France
Apartment rue des Fontaines, Algiers, Algeria
Cabaret Dar El Alia, Bouzareah (Algiers), Algeria
Housing development of “metallic” houses, Cheraga, Algeria
Caravanserai El Boustan, extension, El Golea, Algeria
Caravanserai, extension, El Oued, Algeria
Hotel El Djanoub, 600 beds, Ghardaïa, Algeria
Villa Paradou for the Ministry of Higher Education, Hydra (Algiers), Algeria
Expansion and development of the port, 200 ships of 10 m, La Madrague (near Algiers), Algeria
Development of the port, 400 boats, Sidi Ferruch (Algiers area), Algeria
West Beach Hotel, Sidi Ferruch (surroundings of Algiers), Algeria
West Beach second hotel, in all 1500 beds, West Beach Civic Center of Animation, Sidi Ferruch (surroundings of Algiers), Algeria
Harbor development, 200 boats of 10 meters Hotel with 152 rooms, Skikda, Algeria

1975
Restoration of a house, Peyrusse-le-Roc, France
Offices of Technal International, Toulouse, France
Cité Universitaire for Young Girls, Ben Aknoun, Algeria
Horse-riding center, multi-purpose hall, Tipaza, Algeria
Shopping and leisure center, Tipaza Plage, Algeria
Amraoua Hotel, Tizi Ouzou, Algeria
Tourist complex, extension, multi-purpose hall and facilities, Zeralda, Algeria
Wilaya (prefecture), landscaping, Tlemcem, Albgerie
Château de Belcastel, restoration (from 1975 to 1983), Belcastel, France

Belcastel1

1976
Monastery for the sisters of Médéa
(Algeria) repatriated to Provence, Cotignac, France
Hotel Plaza, Annaba, Algeria

ab797d597ad3ddb0b8c0b80e33db8e44
Hotel Aurassi, furnishing and decoration, Oued Koreiche (Alger), Algeria
Villa Marguerite, Tlemcem, Algeria

1977
Aménagement du port et extension du centre ville, Saint-Tropez, France
Hôtel, Djemila, Algerie
Cité universitaire, Oran, Algerie

1977-1980
Port development and extension of the city center, Saint-Tropez, France
Hotel, Djemila, Algeria
Cité universitaire, Oran, Algeria

1978
Villas Rochmeboisson
, Ain Benian (Algiers), Algeria
Villa Citroën, Algiers, Algeria
University campus, extension, Ben Aknoun (Algiers), Algeria
Hotel, 600-bed hotel, Constantine, Algeria
Wilaya (prefecture), two projects, Tlemcem, Algeria
Wilaya (prefecture), 3rd project, Tlemcem, Algeria

1979
Cité Universitaire, Ain El Bey (Constantine), Algerie

1979-1982
Cité Universitaire, Ain El Bey (Constantine), Algerie
400 dwellings, Sétif, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 3,000, Alger, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 5,000, Bab Ezzouar (Alger), Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 2,000, Batna, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 2,500, Constantine, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 2,000, Mostaganem, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 2,000, Oran, Algerie
Cité Universitaire for 2,000, Sidi Bel Abbès, Algerie

1980
House F, Belcastel, France
Map of the new town, competition, Saint-Quentin-en-Yveline, France
City of 400 dwellings, Boufarik, Algeria
Bus station 40,000 m2, Constantine, Algeria
Spa, extension, Hammam Rabbi (Saïda), Algeria
Post Office, Touggourt, Algerie

1981
Hotel El Djazaïr
(formerly Saint-Georges), resumption and continuation of works, Algiers, Algeria

1982
House extension project, Eschentzwiller, France
Hotel El Djazaïr (ex Saint-Georges), extension, Algiers, Algeria
City of 400 dwellings, Blida, Algeria
Boulevard belt interior, layout plan, Sidi Bel Abbès, Algerie

The Hotel El-Djazaïr was completed in record time to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of Algerian independence but the government never paid the fees, causing Pouillon to default on, in turn, social security contributions, taxes, and then wages. Pouillon abandoned Algeria and returned to France where he was reinstated to the Order of Architects but the tax debt of the CNL was still outstanding. President Mitterrand forgave Pouillon the CNL debt and made him an Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1984.

1984
Computing Center for the Ministry of Culture
, Montigny-le-Bretonneux, France

1985
Thirty detached houses on an air base
, Avord, France
Masterplan for 4,000 housing units, Créteil, France
Europarc activity zone plan, two buildings realized in collaboration with Schott firm), Créteil, France
Music Conservatory, rue Armand Carrel, 19th arrondissement
Social housing 172 avenue Jean-Jaurès, 19th arrondissement
Apartment rue de Bièvre, development and extension, 5th arrondissement
Apartment rue Boissy d’Anglas, development and extension, 8th arrondissement

Undated
Development of an abbey
in a secondary residence, Belhomert-Guehouville, Algerie
Building for SNECMA, Corbeil, France
A swimming pool in the rock by the sea for M and Mme B., Normandy, France
Avenue Montaigne, private apartment, Paris, France
Georges V, Georges V Avenue, after 1970 Private apartment, rue Surcouf, Paris, France
Restoration of
Manoir du Jonchet, Romilly / Aigre, France
Studies for an unidentified program, Monaco, France
Villas “Les Jardins Exotiques”, Monte-Carlo, France
Maxim’s Restaurant, Montreal, Canada
Maxim’s Restaurant, after 1965, Tokyo, Japan
Apartment rue Didouche Mourad, Algiers, Algeria
Hotel, Biskra, Algeria
New Hotel, 600 beds, Constantine, France
Hotel, 150 rooms, Djanet, Algeria
Bordj of the Chevalier family, extension, El Biar (Algiers), Algeria
Caravanserai, Hotel du Souf, El Oued, Algeria
Hotel El Mordjane, La Calle (El Kala), Algeria
Apartment hotel of 1,000 beds, La Calle (El Kala), Algeria
Depot garage, communal Market Cinema Theater, Laghouat, France
Caravanserai, Madakh, Algeria
Villas, Sahaoula, Algeria
La Grande Plage Resort (Sidi Begra), Seraïdi, Algeria
Hotel du Port, Seraïdi, Algeria
Hotel El Marsa Olympic Swimming Pool Quartier du Corsaire Restaurant, Seraïdi, Algeria

Sidi Fredj / Sidi-Ferruch – Alger wilaya – Algeria / AlgÈrie: Hotel El Marsa and Hotel El Manar | HÙtels El Marsa et El Manar – photo by M.Torres

Holiday village, Sidi Okba Oumache, Skikda Aïn Ben Noui, Algeria
Complex: theater, bungalows, restaurant, port, Tipaza La Corne d’Or, Algeria
Hotel Esmeralda, Tipaza Plage, Algeria
Cité Universitaire, Tlemcem, Algeria
Complex of Courbet Marine, Zemmouri, Algeria
Administrative Center One Hotel, Zeralda, Algeria
Hotel La Residence, Zeralda, Algeria
Villas in Ain El Hammam, Ain Taya, Draa Esmar, El Biar (Algiers), In Nadjah, Hydra (Algiers), Kraicia

Unrealized
Additionally, there are approx. 800 unrealized projects in France alone.

prolific!

• • •

Seven possible reasons why Fernand Pouillon is not better remembered than he is.

  1. His main period of activity as an architect was over the period 1932–1961 – a period corresponding to the heyday of Le Corbusier. Perhaps the world of architecture didn’t need another architect from France when they already had someone contributing so much to the mythology of architecture and architects.
  2. Reconstruction and rehabilitation are both good things but both only restore and improve upon what was already present. They don’t add to the mythology of architecture in such a way as did Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations that put Marseille on the map
  3. Or perhaps the world of architecture did not need anything else from Algeria, since it already had Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus which is vastly over-remembered, especially when compared with his earlier proposal for Algiers.LC1
  4. The period 1956–1961 when the Algerian Uprising was changing into the Algerian War and Pouillon, like Chevalier, would have deen (rightly) suspected of having Algerian separatist sympathies. This period coincides with the time people would have been collecting evidence against Pouillon and making a case for his imprisonment.
  5. Not only that, Pouillon was a member of the communist party until about 1943. After that, he would have been remembered as having been a member of the communist party until about 1943. The period 1947–1956 coincided with United States’ doctrine of McCarthyism that persecuted persons suspected of being either communists or of having communist sympathies. Fernand Pouillon may thus have suffered the same fate as Hannes Meyer, Karel Teige and André Lurçat. Architecture prefers fascist governments and their rallying monuments to communist ones and their dreary obsession with mass housing.
  6. Pouillon was never stylistically experimental for the sake of it. If Brutalism had had construction advantages we would no doubt see more Pouillon buildings in concrete. He experimented with metallic housing and prefabrication in the seventies, long after it had been fashionable. His career also overlapped Post Modernism but he had no need for semiotics beyond indicating home and neighbourhood by conventional means. His sensibility towards reconstruction and restoration was also off-trend.
  7. Pouillon is responsible for the design of an enormous number of buildings, many of which are regarded as fine or outstanding. The sheer volume of his output shows he was extremely skilled at promoting his services but that he is not remembered has a lot to do with him being more interested in building than in designing his mythology – a trait he shares with many of the other misfit architects.

• • •

fernand-pouillon

Fernand Pouillon!

Your service to the community began long before your imprisonment
and continued long after.

misfits salutes you!

• • •

  • www.fernandpouillon.com is the most comprehensive resource there is. I’m indebted.
  • http://publishing.cdlib.org a substantial website on post-war housing in Algeria
  • http://www.jeanlucmichel.com is a blog (in French) with a fine collection of images of many otherwise unphotographed Fernand Pouillon buildings. The photographs are more photo-journalism than architectural photography and make you feel as if you had been there walking around looking at the buildings and taken the photographs yourself. The unstaged photographs are real and, because of that, informative and, because of that, refreshing.
  • http://www.bdonline.co.uk links to article about La Tourette inspiring the UK architect Adam Khan
  • Adam Caruso and Helen Thomas (Hg.): The Stones of Fernand Pouillon – An Alternative Modernism in French Architecture. gta Verlag, Zürich 2013, ISBN 978-3-85676-324-4.

 • • •

Pouillon’s infamous system for coordinating all construction activity may have had its flaws but it did produce high quality and affordable housing that, seventy years on, has aged well, is not dated, and is still eminently liveable. A system that could produce results of such high quality under budget and in record time goes is not a system geared towards stakeholders systematically milking the budget by inflating or falsifying invoices. It defies conventional thinking.

Exactly how Pouillon brought the 2,635 apartments of the 1959 Résidence du Parc in Meudon-la-Forêt (1959) online in record time and at less than market prices remains a mystery no-one seems to want to see solved.

2445909041_small_2.jpg

The Massively Big Autopoiesis of Architecture Post

First some snapshots from the journey so far before moving on to the penultimate chapter. I plan to read the final one within a week or two and bring this autopoietic journey to an end. It’s time. At 439 pages it wasn’t such a long journey but, as I began reading the book in 2012, it wasn’t a quick one.

2012 October 26: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol. 1 – Preface, Introduction

We’re not even eight lines into the Preface and the author is saying he sees this work as continuing the tradition begun by Alberti in 1452. I have a bad feeling. 

2012 November 16: Architectural Theory

Most introductions let the reader know what to expect. They’re usually the last part of a book to be finalised because the author has already been to the end and back and has had feedback from friends, family, colleagues and editors. The introduction is an opportunity to assist the reader get more out of the book. This one asks you to suspend judgment until you reach the end of the book! It also asks you to accept that there will be some strangeness of terminology and a possible sense of intellectual queasiness. Indeed, there was quite a bit of both.

2012 December 1: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2 – The Historical Emergence of Architecture (1/2)

THE
AUTHOR,
IN AN ATTEMPT
TO FIT ARCHITECTURE
INTO LUHMANN’S THEORY OF
SOCIAL STRUCTURES, HAS RESTRICTED
HIS DEFINITION OF ARCHITECTURE TO THOSE
BUILDINGS THEORISTS TALK ABOUT OR DEEM WORTH
TALKING ABOUT. THE AUTHOR MAY YET SUCCEED. BUT WHAT IS
HIS REAL PLAN? WHY DOES HE WANT TO DO THIS? AND AT WHAT COST?

2013 January 2: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2.3 – Avant-garde vs. Mainstream

I suddenly realized the book probably is an accurate description of the world of architecture as the author sees it. For the first time, I had the distinct impression the author really believes what he’s writing. In an earlier post, I mentioned my doubts about the validity of the author’s self-description as “avant-garde”. Is it accurate? Why does he insist on using this word if not to evoke ideas of art and artists? Can a commercially successful practice ever be avant-garde? In section 2.3 it became clear that when the author uses the word “avant-garde” he really means “leaders as opposed to followers”. No-one will die because of this mislabelling, but it does make it easy to falsely attribute notions of some brave and heroic journey of artistic endeavour. The author, I imagine, would not be unhappy if this were to happen.  

untitled3

2013 February 2: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chapter 2.4 – Architectural Research

“THESIS 8:  The avant-garde segment of architecture functions as the subsystem within the autopoiesis of architecture that takes on the necessary task of architectural research by converting both architectural commissions and educational institutions into substitute vehicles of research.”

Like many things to do with this book, it seems straightforward but what does it mean? I’m still having a problem with this self-labelling as avant-garde. There’s something not right. It just doesn’t ring true. In previous posts I’ve suggested reasons why the author might have chosen this word but maybe he didn’t want to use the obvious word “starchitect” because it’s too popular, too descriptive. It’s also a bit too closely linked to fame and fortune. But I’ve no such prejudices so, from now on, I’m simply going to use the word starchitect instead of avant-garde architect. You won’t notice the difference.

Apparently, starchitects are the only architects daring enough to experiment and research and come up with different solutions that other people copy and keep architecture EVOLVING. We should thank them. However, they can’t do all this experimenting on their own. (Why not?) They need clients to fund their experiments because buildings are big and complex things.

… a bit further on

“The commissions of starchitects have to function as vehicles of architectural research. Such commissions must afford a playing field for formal research and spatial invention where both functional and economic performance criteria are less stringent than in the ‘commercial sector’ of mainstream architecture. This is possible within a special segment of the architectural market – high-profile cultural buildings. In these special, mostly public landmark buildings, the discipline of architecture becomes conspicuous within society. Here society appreciates architecture as a contribution beyond the mere accommodation of the respective substantial function. Here society also recognizes the legitimacy of an extra investment over and above what technical necessity dictates.”

This says a lot. The author is claiming that, because starchitects are the only people who can fulfil the allegedly important role of architectural research, then they have a natural claim to the most lucrative and least restrictive sector of the architecture market. As I said, it says a lot. 

Around this time, I began to think these posts didn’t have enough pictures.

2013 February 7: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Volume 1 Chapter 2.5 – The Necessity of Demarcation

Karl_Friedrich_Schinkel_-_Schloß_am_Strom_-_Google_Art_Project

“THESIS 9: Any attempt to integrate architecture and art, or architecture and science/engineering, in a unified discourse (autopoiesis) is reactionary and bound to fail.”

Even though Luhmann, the person who put all these ideas in the author’s head, said that architecture existed within the great social system of art, in this sub-chapter (p148), the author says Luhmann only implied that architecture exists within the art system. Either way, the author is having none of it.

“This treatment of architecture has to be rejected today. It reflects the traditional classification of architecture among the arts.”

Hardly a powerful argument. Another reason the author claims it can’t be true is because the theory says it isn’t. Call me a cynic, but I still maintain it’s the job of theory to organise evidence, not refute it. Evidence doesn’t depend on theory.

“It is one of the central, historical theses of the theory of architctural autopoiesis that this treatment of architecture under the umbrella concept of ‘the arts’ is long since an anachronism – at least since the refoundation of the discipline as Modern architecture during the 1920s.”

Here’s some more “proof”.

“A sure empirical indicator for the factual, operational separation of art and architecture is the total absence of double careers. While Michaelangelo and Raphael, and even Schinkel, could still count and convince as both artists and architects this possibility seems to be excluded today.  Examples such as Le Corbusier’s paintings and Hundertwasser’s buildings are no countexamples but only confirm this impossibility.”

That’s a bit bitchy but, yes, Corbusier’s paintings weren’t about the pain, and nor were ZH’s for that matter. But what about her lucrative crossover secondary career in product design? Towards the end of the book, the author solves this latent conundrum by the belated introduction of the term, ‘designed artefacts’.

maison-et-objet-lalique

2013 April 09: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap.3 – Architecture as Autopoietic System: Operations, Structures and Processes

Since I began this book, I’ve managed to read books on the history of the universe, the origins of life on earth and the fallacy of progress, and also found the time to re-read “Portrait of a Lady” and “The Wings of The Dove”.

The Autopoiesis of Architecture is no page-turner. It’s difficult to pick up, and easy to put down. There’s never a right time to read it. It’s not something you read at the beach, in an airport, or carry around with you to read on a train or at lunchtime. 

It’s not just the content. Schumacher’s no Henry James but you’d think someone who’s written approximately 400,000 words would have developed some sort of a way with them. With “The Wings Of The Dove”, I was at first indifferent to the fate of poor Milly Theale but Henry James made me care in the end. Now, 170 pages and (how long has it been already?) six months into The Autopoiesis of Architeture, I really don’t care if architecture is or is not an autopoietic system of communications. I’m constantly questioning what I’m getting out of this book. Perhaps I’m hoping the author will teach me how to become a millionaire or how to make gold out of lead. 

The author must know a thing or two about such things since he trousered a third of a million GB£ from ZHA last year, presumably not including other income from publishing, teaching and other commitments and which are no doubt channelled through a separate company like those of his boss. I don’t expect this book, whilst being part of the process of architectural branding (and hence proving the author’s thesis in a sense), will reveal anything beyond that in the way of practical advice.

2013 May 4: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.1~3.3

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2013 June 15: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.3~3.4
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2013 July 26: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Pages 237~240 (Chaps. 3.5.6, 3.5.7)
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As I understand it, the argument goes like this. I’ve marked the dodgy statements in red.

– Designing is difficult, there are many possibilities. We need a way to reduce the complexity/possibilities.
– We can’t do this by getting rid of the idea of beauty because what’s left is insufficient. (‘The reference to performance criteria simply cannot constrain the task sufficiently’.) But the idea of beauty does however reduce complexity because we no longer have to make random choices every time.
– Using criteria of both utility and beauty is ideal because, if a designer doesn’t know what to do, he can resort to functional criteria and, for those times when something has been engineered rather than designed, a designer can come along and add some design to it.

2013 December 15: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 3.6 – Styles

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A quick shout-out to Marjan Colletti who reviewed The Autopoiesis of Architecture on his blog in September 2010. He’s the only other person I know of who’s admitted to having read the book, let alone finishing it the same year it was published.

2014 March 3: Styles as Research Programmes

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About this time, I began to think readers might be being put off by the titles of these posts.

2014 May 30: Love You Long Time (Chap. 3.8.1: The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values)

“The performative vitality of any specific set of aesthetic values is historically limited.”

I don’t understand this. If, as the author’s been saying, aesthetic values have an underlying performativity, then that performativity would still exist irrespective of whether or not those aesthetic values were valued. It’s aesthetics that’s dependent upon performativity, not the other way around. I’m sure Palladian rooms remain well ventilated and their roofs well drained even if their particular architectural stylings aren’t so aspired-to these days.

“Aesthetic values should aestheticize those spatial patterns and architectural morphologies that perform well with respect to the vital life processes of contemporary society.”

This sentence is a huge up-scaling of the original idea. We’ve gone from air and rainwater to the vital life processes of contemporary society. I hope we get to find out what they are. I doubt we’ll be hearing any more about ventilation and roof drainage.

2014 June 12: The Chartreuse Ford

A stealth post pondering what was so wrong with Fordism since Post-Fordism certainly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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2014 November 16: The Mystery of Beauty  (Chap. 3.8.6: Aesthetic Values: Designers vs. Users)

This post questions the nature of belief in Beauty and its essential unknowability, its value as a prime motivating force, and its need to be continually explained to us by dense texts having elaborate systems of numerical indexing and not many pictures.

Gods-Sunrise

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“Attention to beauty and aesthetic values demarcates architecture from science and engineering.”

This doesn’t mean that Beauty is real but merely that some people like to believe in it. However, if they do believe in Beauty then they get to feel special – which is fine – but, as is often the case, superior to other people such as scientists and engineers following paths of evidence and fact.

2015 January 11: The Things Architects Do #8: Themes (Chap. 3.9: The Double-nexus of Architectural Communications: Themes vs. Projects)
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In the 131 pages that followed, there was nothing to suggest any of the “other” major functions systems of society had anything corresponding to the themes and projects of architecture. Either the author’s going off-piste with this project-theme thing or he’s conflating it with the form-function lead distinction he wrote of earlier.
A bit of both probably, but mostly the latter because if form is a theme, then any theme/project dysfunction will show as a form-function dysfunction. It’s only my hypothesis but, if it were true, we would have an architecture concerned with form and not function. Imagine that!
2015 March 29: Inflationary Tendencies (Chap. 4: The Medium of Architecture)
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The first and, for the author, the only one of any importance is the first, the architect’s project and the medium (formerly, the drawing) that the architect uses to talk to himself about the design. The third is the drawings and structural analysis models that the engineers need to make it stand up. The fourth is the drawings that can be understood by the contractors who have to build the thing. It is the second – the client’s project – that I want to concentrate on. Illustrating the design to clients, potential users, or any other non-specialized interested parties is also something that requires specialised drawings that can be outsourced since they are of no concern to the architect who, you will remember, is busy conducting avant garde research. We’ve come across this attitude before in earlier chapters but that’s not the issue now. If illustrating the design to clients is not of any interest to the architects, then WHY ARE THEIR PROJECTS ALWAYS IN OUR FACES?

• • •

• • •

In the 362/439 pages I’ve read so far, there’s been a lot about how form vs. function is the “lead distinction” of architecture – what makes it architecture. I’ve also read how this is analogous to price vs. value as the lead distinction of the economy, norm vs. fact as the lead distinction of the legal system, teaching vs. subject as the lead distinction of education, and so on. I found this handy table on pages 438-439, alas, too late.

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It’s a tidy table. But, going back to this beauty vs. function thing, we never really resolved it did we – or at least not to the author’s level of certainty?
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Shouldn’t the author update his thinking and restate beauty vs. function as perception management vs. development gain? It’s the same thing and though it won’t weaken his argument, it will deflate it somewhat. Another flaw is that none of the other Great Function Systems have a distinction comparable to architecture’s distinction between themes and projects.
What kind of world we would have if they did? If themes were their primary areas of concern, and if a project’s only worth was to test the validity of those themes?
  • We’d have an economic system that sets prices for commodities without regard for their value.
  • We’d have a scientific system in which phenomena are explained without recourse to evidence.
  • We’d have a legal system where laws are applied irrespective of facts.
    We’d have a political system in which positions are taken irrespective of issues.
  • We’d have an education system concerned with teaching rather than students.
  • We’d have a mass media that focusses on reporting rather than events.
In the same vein, if these known function systems of society had a self-reference as detached from their world-reference as architecture’s then  
  • We’d have politicians that support peace as they engage in war.
  • We’d have governments that show their support for freedom by policing it.
  • We’d have an economics that creates wealth by causing poverty.
  • We’d have education systems that maintain pliable levels of ignorance.
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On the bright side, even if architecture is a major function system of society, then it’s at least no more dysfunctional than the others. Science is our only evidence this isn’t how the contemporary world works although Bad Science and Pseudo Science are now out there making themselves known.
The title of the final chapter is The Societal Function of Architecture. It’s warning us to not confuse how architecture functions in a societal system with archaic notions of how it might function for society. This is especially meaningful in light of what we’ve come to know about the author.

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• • • 
I’m now eager to get on with the final chapter of this lengthy thought experiment. I genuinely want to know if the author thinks the societal function of architecture is anything more than converting his softly-illuminated scribbles into grey goo to consume the planet and enslave mankind. Or anything less.

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