Author Archives: Graham McKay

Feasibility Study

Here’s where I left it in Sky Rectangle – a proposal for interlocking back-to-back apartments arranged in rows half-stacked and half-terraced, with both the apartments and access corridors illuminated and ventilated by 4m x 8m shafts open to the sky and corridor.

In that post I mentioned how the images above are just my impressions of what I expect the level of illumination to be. Rendering parameters can be adjusted and photographs can be manipulated. The only way of being certain would be to construct a full-scale model for some chosen latitude and observe it for a year. I didn’t do that. However, I was recently in an office four floors (approx. 12 metres) from the top of a lightwell measuring approximately 4 x 8 metres. This is what it looked like from the inside.

And this is what the bottom of the lightwell looked like from the street-level driveway entrance perhaps 20 metres away. In both sets of images you’ll have to allow for a certain amount of ambient light coming from behind just as my proposal will have a certain amount of sideways light contributing to the ambient.

This level of illumination looks sufficient but then, these photographs were taken about midday (Sun alt: ≈ 73°, azimuth 7°) in midsummer (Jan. 31) in Perth, Western Australia (lat. -31.95°. long. -115.86°).


And this is what that proposal is going to be inserted into – five levels of shopping mall floor-plate, each with an area of approximately 35,000 square metres and with the long sides oriented approximately east-west. Within that floor-plate are atriums, openings for escalators, and cores for elevators, fire-escapes and utilities. There are also double height cinemas, a double height ice-skating rink and a swimming pool, all of which I’ll ignore. Conditions on the periphery are not uniform. Unusually, the north and east side also have three levels of external deck access while the western corner has five levels of externally linked terraces. I’ll ignore these special features because I’m attempting to derive general principles.

Basically, the problem is one of inserting a regular spatial system into a structural one that’s regular only in parts. I don’t know how this is going to turn out. Disjunctions between the two systems will occur on the periphery, around the atriums and around the cores where they ought to be of most benefit to the most people.

• • • 

It was a worthy idea, and all the disjunction space was indeed around the periphery, the atriums and the elevators but, as you can see from the Level 2 layout below, there was just too much of it. I was only getting about 100 dwellings per floor. [At this time, I was still assuming an ice-skating rink in the middle on the lower side.]

The area of the floor-plate minus openings is about 30,000 m2. The footprint of each pair of apartments is 128m2, but another 64m2 needs to be added for the access corridor (on one side) as it is be shared by adjacent group of dwellings. The total built footprint for 100 units is therefore 12,800 – a little over one third which is not great. This is largely the result of the basic (paired) residential unit being 8m x 32m. This length creates much disjunction, particularly at the short ends and around elevators. Having occasional unpaired units 24m long instead of paired ones at 32m length also reduces efficiency. Staggering alternate floors doesn’t make much difference as what one gains on the even-numbered levels is lost on the odd-numbered ones. Despite that, or perhaps because of that, the overall environment doesn’t look bad.

This proposal has the views out that I’d envisaged but the best possible situation shown in the image below doesn’t occur often enough or for long enough as the longest “street” has only four units each side.

These apartments are fundamentally different from those in conventional towers. They’re more like townhouses because, although the voids are the primary source of illumination and ventilation, they also function as buffers between the private space of the units and the shared space of the streets.

This next plan is sufficient as proof of concept but I’d like to increase the floor-plate efficiency from one third to at least one half. There are about 600 units here and this doesn’t seem enough for the project to go forward. I’ve identified four problem spots and each of them are caused by the long basic unit encountering an edge or an obstacle. Alternate levels will have the same problems but in different places. Not unrelated is the fact that getting more units in is a bit like designing a car park in that the more double-loaded roads you have, the more efficient it will be. Even looking at this image below, there clearly aren’t enough of those double-loaded access streets shown in the image above. The vertical pattern of streets should be more apparent.

1 The levels above and below have the best fit for the units and this edge condition is the direct result of staggering alternate floors. This can be solved by fitting half-bay (approx. 4m x 8m) two story units between the voids. These units would have no outdoor space save for the void outside their habitable room windows.

2 A different variation could make use of some of the space to the left of the elevators between situations 1 and 2. Nothing can be done about the 16-m spaces either side of the elevators in 2. It might be helpful to have a variation with the standard for unit one half and shortened (by one bay) for the other, interlocking half.

3 This area is isolated by voids and is not large. This suggests breaking the pattern of voids and having standard three-bay units as well as specially designed two-bay units stacked every level.

4 The same might have to be done for all of this sector as none of its areas are large.

The differing overall lengths of these variations account for instances where there are sufficient columns but insufficient length for five-bay paired unis. These variations tidy up the edges and fill in some of the spaces (that would still be necessary even if the unit and corridor positions didn’t alternate). There’s no point rotating the direction of voids and units 90° because larger (longer) areas won’t occur anywhere except the leftmost edge in the above image. Moreover, the streets would be terminated by elevator cores while the same number of variations would still be needed.

On levels 4 and 5 is a two-storey ice-skating rink supported by beams on level 3 but it now makes sense to build over this to provide approximately 24 additional units. Each of the elevator and stair cores is in reality different but I want to keep them generic at this stage and not indicate the internal arrangement. My only conditions are that there be four metres of space on all sides and that their positions not be hidden any more than they currently are.

[In the existing mall, cores on the west side occur along internal corridors that link to the external access corridors. The outward-facing units and the inward-facing units are serviced by a central corridor Similar transverse routes occur on the east side except they terminate at service corridors along the eastern edge.]

For now, I’ll design those more compact variations that ought to squeeze some more efficiency out of the floorplate.

If I don’t reach 50% efficiency, then I’ll scrap the staggering and instead design a typical floor along the lines of the above with units facing outwards, units facing inwards towards the atriums and inner units lit and ventilated only by light wells. The units will still follow the column grid but in the other direction. As a solution, I don’t like having a horizontal hierarchy of light as well as a vertical one. If I adopt this arrangement then, in most instances, the ends of these inner access corridors will have elevator cores and, because of that, indirect light from both inside and outside.

Rather than pursuing that Plan B, I did this.

The yellow units are the main unit type but there are now also five other variations. There will be about 180 units per level which is almost 1,000 not counting the basements. I can still see five instances where paired half-bay units could fit but it’s approaching as good as it gets for its premises. It is now easier to see the long double-sided streets that make most efficient use of space.

I won’t bother doing something similar for the alternate floors as, in the above, you can see there are three different conditions for how the units “meet” the elevator cores. Although the situations for the same core will differ, the principle of using the variations to account for shortfalls in length will still apply, only in different positions.

Another option is to start again, and use this study and the one before as the basis for an optimized Mat-rix House with a primary structure FF of 5.5 m and a column grid of 5.5 x 5.5 m. This would (just) be large enough to to arrange a car park (if required) and would also allow either steel or mass timber structure. This structure would be more regular and, since there is no need for atriums to bring light and air, or to add “incident” for the sake of it, elevators and stairs would best placed on the periphery. This will be for some other time.


The demonstration mall is on the left in the image above, and has approximately 1,000 two-bedroom apartments. The two levels of basement car parking extend two bays past the building’s east and west sides so, if B1 and B2 were opened to the outside by removing the slabs in these extensions, it would be possible to have another 400 additional units, bringing the total to 1,400.

To the right of the mall is a typical high-rise residential complex with each half of a paired tower having 4 apartments x 30 storeys = 120 apartments. Let’s say the mall’s width is equal to three and a half tower halves, and that its length is equal to four rows of three half towers. There are approximately 1,440 units.

The spatial efficiency is about the same but the mall has six 5.5 metre levels (approx. 30 metres) and already exists, while the generic towers have thirty 3.0 metre levels (approx. 90 metres).

The cost of purchasing an abandoned mall and inserting lightweight apartments into the existing megastructure has to be weighed against the (financial and environmental) cost of acquiring and clearing a similar area of land and building anew. Purchasing an abandoned mall, demolishing it and then building a conventional residential development makes no environmental sense and is unlikely to make any financial sense either.

• • • 

The Outback

Last week, the Australian outback briefly captured the internet’s imagination by the seeming impossibility of finding a 6mm x 8 mm dia. piece of highly radioactive material missing along a 1,400 km (870 mile) stretch of road. Even though caesium-137 basically screams “HERE I AM! I’M OVER HERE!” for 120 years or so, many people including myself were disappointed when the capsule was found suspiciously quickly by the mining company Rio Tinto responsible for losing the capsule in the first place. The outback didn’t seem so immense and profound after all.

In Australia, the word outback brings up many associations and many of these have to do with national myths of exploration and pioneering. The Outback is a place defined by not being another place – the place where all the people are. Here’s two population density maps of Australia. The units don’t matter.

There’s not many people out back and those who are, are there because their ancestors lived on that land for millennia, or they’re there to export minerals extracted from often that same land. [Search Rio TInto along with terms destruction, 46,000 years aboriginal cave] For parts of the outback where minerals have yet to be discovered, there’s still a lot of space and, if you have a surfeit, then you can use it to do things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

This next s a render of a concentrated single-tower solar thermal power plant proposed for Port Augusta in South Australia. Mirrors concentrate the sun’s rays on a tower that heats water to drive turbines … The principle is simple but power plants such as this require large areas of land not being used for much else. There are examples in Nevada, Chile, and

The same applies to solar chimneys. They’re also known as solar updraft towers. There’s no need to explain how they work but, like PV arrays and solar thermal towers, they work best in places with few cloudy days.

Economies and efficiencies of scale mean that solar updr`aft towers need to be about 1,000 metres tall but, unlike Burj Khalifa, they can’t (or don’t) twist or taper and the resulting wind load means that mass concrete construction is the best option. Or at least the cheapest option until someone invents a dampened diagrid or cross-braced steel tower that sways in the wind.

A structure as preposterously simple as an upright cylinder with a huge skirt can only be built where there’s land to spare. In 2002 there was a plan to build one near the Australian town of Mildura. It was to have had a planned height of one kilometer (.62 mile) and a diameter of 170 metres. The updraft would have a speed of 54 kilometres per hour that would produce an estimated 200 megawatts of electricity – sufficient to satisfy the yearly energy needs of 200,000 households. It doesn’t seem to have been built. The inhibiting factor is securing finance, not land. Since then, China has built a test one in Inner Mongolia. Let’s wait and see.

Remote deserts with clear skies also make good astronomical observatories because of the lack of light and radio pollution from nearby settlements. The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) is a radio telescope with dish antennas spread over an area of several thousand square kilometers. The AKSAP website says “The site is ideal for radio astronomy as it exhibits excellent sky coverage, superb radio quietness, ionospheric stability and benign tropospheric conditions. The extremely low levels of radio-frequency interference will allow highly sensitive instruments such as ASKAP to conduct ground-breaking astronomy research.” This radio-silent zone is remote but at only 315 km north-east from the town of Geraldton, not as remote as you’d think.

By Ant Schinckel, CSIRO. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

• • • 

The idea of an outback immense and neglected but proudly empty could be seen in Australian suburbs well into the 1960s. Often, these backyards had their rear third or half fenced off and unused. In older houses, the outside toilet would be on the fenceline with grass on one side and weeds on the other. You don’t see these anymore but, country towns still have houses with large backyards waiting to be exploited for their space alone.

Times passes, property values increase. This is more pronounced in more densely populated places and a first response was to build larger houses that could be sold for more. This was suburban sprawl turned inwards on itself. Pedestrians walking along the footpath in upmarket areas can’t see people’s backyards but, going by the numbers of children’s trampolines in front gardens and basketball hoops on driveways, they’re not large.

Other parts of town have flagpole plots subdivided so the house and garden at the front remain intact while the rear portion is sold off as a separate plot accessed by a parallel driveway from the same street. What you get is a long driveway to a piece of land that may be conveniently located but has no outward view apart from down the driveway. In this next photo, the house with the white metal roof is a classic flagpole but the rear gardens of the adjacent plots have also been built on.

This next example in the Perth suburb of Leederville has access from both and rear because the alleyway that would have been first used for carting “night soil” and then for garage access, has been upgraded to a primary access road with streetlights and new house numbers rather than the 33A, 33B, etc. of flagpole plots.

Even alleyways off of those those former alleyways have been made into primary access roads newly fronted by houses on the rear portions of the original plots.

Here’s an example where the existing house retains a connection to the new house, suggesting either a semi-independent family member or, more likely, a short-term rental.

On the other side of the street is this unexploited rear garden, still with garage access from what was the alley and still with an external toilet, probably no longer used but still visible through the gap by the back gate.

This finally brings us to the backyard as the new frontyard, something that happens in the city rather than the suburbs rather than the country and certainly not the outback. We saw it happen with developments such as this next one where what happens behind the street level facade is what we see – at least from a distance.

It was in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture where Venturi made us marvel at some tower in Bruges – Cloth Hall, I think – having an urban scale from a distance but a more human scale closer up. In retrospect and sixty years on, you can say the same thing about the building above, or SOM’s Lever House – or pretty much any tall building anywhere.

In Contempt for History – the post before last – I noted how the unused space at the rear of buildings was taking over the space of the buildings at the front that, if they were lucky, might have their facades retained. What we’re seeing is the space out back becoming more valuable than the space out front and, unsurprisingly, it’s even more valuable when it’s as large as possible. This was painfully obvious with the former Glyde Chambers adjacent to The Royal Hotel along Wellington Street, and the former Commercial Buildings adjacent along William Street.

I say former because the new development occupies all their space except for that their street facades stand on. This can be shockingly clearly seen in the photograph on the right below. The photograph on the left shows us that, apart from some out buildings the other side of the service yard, The Royal Hotel wasn’t much more than a five-metre deep facade with a five-metre high mansard to begin with.

Nevertheless, The Royal Hotel was luckier than its adjacent buildings. What remains of it is more than skin deep, but only by about five metres. The appearance of preservation is maintained by the street facades and roofscape and by the continuing presence of a pub on the corner.

Whether the retained facades are shallow or deep, at least their door and window openings still function as door and window openings. This next example shows a new level of contempt for history.

The above example is in Perth’s port town of Fremantle but the first time I saw this planning approval strategy (!??) was about 2006/7 in London’s Spitalfields. It’s student accommodation which, in a time when farming foreign students was a big money earner, is not surprising. Lilian Knowles House it’s called. I don’t know who Lilian Knowles was but her name is associated with something extremely grubby.

This approach makes this next redevelopment (just across the road) look sensitive by comparison and, apart from the blue feature, is not horrible. At least the facade belongs to a building that’s still being used. Compared with the above, this is not faint praise.

There’s more than one way a suddenly valuable outback can coexist with what’s out front. Some of the ways I’ve described above are more successful than others. Those that attempt to redefine architectural value solely in terms of the visual value of decorative masonry are least successful. This probably has to do with the base motives for doing so being so transparent. Here’s two examples that show a better way.

This first is a development on the block opposite The Royal Hotel across William Street. It’s an outback development that doesn’t try to be part of the streetscape. True, part of that streetscape was demolished to make this entrance but, from the aerial photograph on the left below, all we can tell is that there were two buildings there and neither were very tall.

It was a tricky call, but the entrance to this development has a refreshing clarity. I only hope that the major and clear intervention we see doesn’t function to divert our attention from a dozen minor muddy ones. The compromise is obvious and clear, and was possible because there was sufficient space out back. The only problem was how to give it a presence and access it and the solution was to open up laneways from various directions. Project Name: One40 William Street; Architects: HASSELL

My second example is equally clear and also similar in there being sufficient space out back and the only problem being how to access it.

The entrance to the new hotel is still the entrance to the group of former state government buildings known as the Lands, Titles and Treasury buildings. They’ve been converted into a 5-star hotel called COMO – The Treasury while the space outback has become the new state government offices. The entire development is known as State Buildings.

Building a new and larger building on land still occupied by an old building can’t be done without altering the boundary between outback and outfront, or by making us believe that the facade of an old building is the only part worth keeping (and that we should be thankful!). Where there’s space outback, these last two strategies seem as good as it gets. If I were to make a recommendation, I’d recommend development potential be measured in terms of available space outback rather than attempting to do the impossible.

• • •


This introduction follows on last week’s post and segues into this one because I continued to think about why that particular treatment of old buildings so disturbed me.

If you remember, I preferred the treatment given to these buildings.

I think it has something to do with setting rather than context even though both can mean pretty much whatever you want them to mean. In the above four examples, the unique setting of the building still allows a sense of what the building still is whereas, with the two buildings I started with, there’s only a sense of facades and no sense of there even being a building anymore. This sense is stronger with the example on the left because its uppermost floor doesn’t have the limited three-dimensionality of the second. Both facades are features within the features of the greater facade.

In his 1960 book The Australian Ugliness, architect and writer Robin Boyd defined what he called Featurism as a national obsession with architectural features, more features, and features within features. He saw it as the root cause of the Australian ugliness. I was forced to read the book in first year architecture school and remembered the gist but not the details. In 2023, it’s pointless reviewing a book after sixty years old but, in some future post titled “Re-reading The Australian Ugliness”, I’ll write in detail about how prescient the book was, how well it has aged, and what sense it makes (to me0 now.

At the beginning of the book when Boyd is setting out his stall, is an anecdote about he and some colleague/compatriot in Barcelona marvelling at all that urban vitality and beauty of humanity effortlessly everywhere but totally absent in Australia. Upon hearing that, someone, presumably their guide, said “Hah, come with me tomorrow and let me show the outskirts of Barcelona!” By Boyd’s account, it had more in common with Australia than central Barcelona. This highlights the dangers of comparing an apple with a different kind of apple.

Boyd then goes on to identify the biggest feature of this Australian ugliness as features. He does so without irony because, in 1960, irony had yet to be invented. Boyd’s features were just features pure, simple. They weren’t the knowing features of “If some problem can’t be solved, then just make a feature out of it”, a notion that’s still with us even if it’s now interpreted as seeing a disadvantage as an opportunity. This may sound more honest and virtuous but it’s still about opportunities to show how clever one is. I digress.

I took this photo in the West Australian country town of Busselton last week. It reminded me of what Boyd was writing about but it also made me think of Las Vegas. For Boyd, every sign was an unnecessary feature. Boyd saw them all as not having any meaning whereas, within twelve years, Venturi was to see basically the same things and make us see them in a new way.

Boyd didn’t attempt to find any good in Australian featurism. He saw it as springing from a primitive [hello Loos!] attitude akin to “If something’s going to exist, then it may as well be a feature. At first this sounds like a very positive way of looking at life but, if we take paving as an example, it leads to crazy paving. This is the cover of the February 1960 issue of Home Beautiful, PACE-SETTER FOR AUSTRALIAN HOMEMAKERS.

Crazy paving was a 1950s style of patio and footpath paving where irregularly shaped paving stones were jigsawed into position. The photo agove shows the ideal effect with paving stones of different colours conveying the sense of relaxed informality that Australians of the time liked to see. However, the same intent could be shown with paving stones of irregular shape but regular colour by painting the cement on each side of the stone a different primary colour. This kind of crazy paving did not appear on the covers of national magazines.

Boyd mentions Venetian blinds where five or six muted 1950s colours repeated every fifth or sixth slat. I don’t remember these but can easily imagine. I don’t need to imagine automobile tyres vertically half-buried to indicate the edge of a lawn to stop people parking on it. Each of the tyres making up such a barrier may not have been painted different colours but they would have been painted. I seem to remember white being first choice, and multiple colours second. You don’t see this anymore either. Its sources and references won’t be written about. Let’s just say it was territorial demarcation meets recycling and the Dunlop bridge at Le Mans. This image shows the principle but everything else is wrong.

  • The historic tyres were buried to exactly half of their height.
  • They didn’t touch like these ones do but were spaced by a tyre-width. [This variation of The Renaissance Corner Problem could lead to a weak corner if the spacing was kept full, or a strong Alberti corner if they almost touched. Either way, they were never butted together like these.
  • The colour of these ones is more fizzy sherbet than jellybean.
  • The look was either all white or all primary.
  • The border wouldn’t be for a flower bed but for lawns and demarcating the property line, especially on corner blocks.

Boyd’s main theme was that Australian cities hadn’t yet developed a visual identity. He wasn’t talking about capital city skylines that mostly remain postcard picturesque, but about attitudes towards individual buildings. I finished re-reading the book and concluded that nobody read it or, if they did, never learned anything from it. My preliminary conclusion is that the features have changed but featurism still rules but without a name. It’s not that Australia hadn’t developed a visual identity. It’s just that it happened to be one that Boyd didn’t recognize.

Around 1970, a typical Australian suburban house would have been single story double-brick cavity wall construction with a tile roof. The front entrance would have been recessed in some articulation of mass and next to it would have been a feature panel containing many types of feature stone. This next example with a feature lamp on the stonework feature (with each stone with a different colour, pattern, shape, size and coursing) next to entrance feature is typical of the features embedded in features described by Boyd. The panel itself was referred to as a “freestone” panel, referring to no particular stone, rock or ore.

Other features are often nearby. The image on the left below is a good example of the look that was aspired to.

So far so seventies. Next is a contemporary house that has features upon features within some facade feature. [As in any other place or time, the entrance is the default feature of many a facade.] Features lose their individual meaning when everything is a feature but we don’t have a name for the result. However, if I took a selection of architectural motifs from across the past five hundred years of architectural history and applied them to a building facade, it would probably be called post-modern classicism or some such despite it being much the same animal but meaning much less to more people than contemporary featurism does now.

These examples are not as pure. Both have feature of differing masonry cladding that are functional in the sense that the different colours, materials and textures are there to highlight arbitrary articulations and so make the maxxed-out footprints look more three-dimensional, less ruthless.

Or consider this next example. We know it’s been purpose designed for the corner block because the long side of the plot doesn’t have the row of bedroom windows that occur when a typical long existing plan happens to be on a corner.

We also know this is the front of the house because that’s where all the features are concentrated. The rear has none for, as per regulations, its length of more than nine metres is set back one meter from the boundary and the upper floor set back to lessen overshadowing and has only high-level windows to lessen overlooking.

Now that you have a sense of the sides and corners, let’s look at that front facade. The upper floor corners have become features with feature supports and feature railings top come, but the main aesthetic action is inbetween. What’s probably the stairwell window is set in a wall of exposed brick framed by columns supporting a differently colored and textured gable rendered a different colour. This facade alludes to no known architectural motifs and obeys no rules other than the unwritten ones of the feature. It does look a bit strange but there’s still a sense that some rules have been consistently if not consciously applied. We just don’t know what they are.

This is my final example of Featurism. I won’t call it the New Featurism because it’s been around for at least the past sixty years. This concrete block wall has been a feature from the day it was built. The corner features alludes to quoins and is nothing new but the polychromatic concrete blockwork is-ish. I like this wall. It’s an example of what I called The Misfits Challenge many posts ago.

As for 1), nothing’s changed as far as the thermal and acoustic performance performance of this wall goes.

As for 2), there are the two colours of the same type of concrete block and (assuming they are the same price) the only additional expenditure is the bricklayer picking up a block of one colour instead of another.

As for 3) and whether this feature wall is beautiful, I think it is. However, Boyd would have dismissed it as Featurist while many a contemporary architect would think of it as postmodern. This suggests the existence of an aesthetic approach that’s not as naïve as Featurism but also not as over-aware as Post-modernism.

When I was searching for an image of the cover of the first edition, I saw that a book of essays titled “After: The Australian Ugliness”* had been published. I bought the book but finished this post before opening it because I’d seen on the back cover some words of praise from Denise Scott Brown. I’m obviously not the first person to have made some sort of connection between the thoughts of Robin Boyd and those of Robert Venturi beyond them both happening at roughly the same time. In this post I’ve only mentioned my first thoughts.

Denise Scott Brown may just have been being diplomatic. I don’t remember Boyd writing in any part of “The Australian Ugliness” that the use of architectural or decorative motifs with (shall we say?) “popular meaning” was a good thing.

“It may be possible to imagine that some future Utopia could produce a race so cultivated and rich in creative talent that all of its buildings could be designed at leisure by fine artists, but there is no practical lesson for the twentieth century in this dream.” [p131, 2012 edition]

In Boyd’s perfect world, responsibility for the built environment was split between Artists for premium buildings and Functionalists for everything else. In The Australian Ugliness, Boyd observed the built environment created by those who were neither and didn’t like it. Now in 2023, I think Boyd was ahead of the curve in identifying Featurism but, from the beginning saw only what he didn’t like. Maybe he should have tried a bit harder to find some beauty in it. Call it what you like, but it’s not going away.

  • After: The Australian Ugliness”, by Naomi Stead, Tom Lee, Ewan McEoin, Megan Patty; Thames & Hudson; 30th March 2021, ISBN: 9781760761899

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Contempt for History

Buildings come and go. Some overstay their welcome and some only appreciated when they’re gone. This post is about those buildings whose departure is protracted yet partial. All my examples are from the city of Perth, Western Australia but this post isn’t about Perth because every city will have its examples. Instead, it’s about history and its malleable meaning.

This building at the western end of St. George’s Terrace was built 1863-1866 to house the Enrolled Pensioner Force [!?] and was simply known as “The Barracks”. In 1904, the state government’s Parliament House was completed to its west but, with one war and another and a depression in-between, its eastern extension facing the city down St. George’s Terrace was only completed in 1964.

As early as 1961, the Barracks Defence Council was formed to oppose plans to demolish The Barracks and make way for the northern extension of The Freeway. The government was pro-demolition as it would allow the newly completed Parliament House to be seen from along Perth CBD’s main street. A messy and heated dispute ensued and the compromise was to retain only what is now known as The Barracks Arch on a sliver of land that also had no commercial value.

In 1970, some fountains were added to the east side of Parliament House to make people look at it and, in the evenings, people driving by would make a point of looking before 11:00 PM when the fountains and lights were turned off. In 1980, there was a proposal to make Parliament House more impressive by adding a land bridge providing a direct physical connection to the city as well as a considerable amount of additional accommodation. It didn’t progress but structural issues caused the fountains to be decommissioned in 2005, freeing up the space below for additional accommodation.

There was never any question of the freeway not going through. The only question was how much, if any, of The Barracks would remain. It was a completely emotional Progress vs. History argument with the government on one side and everyone else on the other. A little piece of history remains but it’s the history of the government’s desire for symbolic and physical dominance over the city and everyone else wanting to prevent that. Why the arch remains is the most interesting thing about it. I’ve no special love for the building or its distant history but I’m glad it’s there. Because of how the city and its road pattern developed, the setting of the original building and its remnant have been preserved and so The Arch still makes sense as a thing at the end of a street.

Not too far down St. George’s Terrace at No. 200 is another piece of history known as The Cloisters, built in 1858 as Perth’s first secondary school and for boys only. Apparently, [Wikipedia] “the Tudor embellishments tied the structure to the history of the English monarchy and signified the power and authority of England, while the gothic features signified the moral and temporal authority of the Church.” These virtuous ornamentations were powerless to prevent a 1960 plan for its demolition and redevelopment. At the time, the compromise of retaining and restoring the original building in exchange for being able to build a large building behind was seen as the best possible outcome.

The development was completed in 1971 and both The Cloisters building and the large Port Jackson Fig tree (to the right of the building) were listed in 1995. Unlike the story of The Barracks Arch, the story of The Cloisters is one of commercial interest vs. historic value. Or is it commercial value vs. historic interest? It doesn’t really matter for either way one corner of town is more interesting and richer than it might easily have been. The Cloisters is surrounded on three sides by buildings at a distance and so we can say that a setting has been preserved and the building left with its dignity intact. However, its interior was gutted to create more office space and so history or, in other words, what it is we like about old buildings has been reduced to a building shell and facades with historic references. There’s not much left to like, but facade+historic references was all that buildings both new and old had become anyway. The year was 1971.

In front of Perth Central Railway Station is a fairly recently pedestrianized street called Forrest Place. On its east side, buildings came and went but Perth Central Post Office was completed on the west side in 1923. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia building opened to the north of it in 19331. On the other (south) side of the GPO stood the Central Hotel which was converted from a hostel in 1901, traded until 1953, and was demolished in 1988 to make way for Albert Facey House.

From left to right below are the Commonwealth Bank building, the GPO building and Albert Facey House as they appear today. We can see a bit of lining through happening with floor levels and various cornices. On Albert Facey House we can see columns that aren’t Ionic, paired or as beefy but have approximately the same height and spacing. We can even see a modern take on dentils – or rather, a postmodern take on dentils. The year was 1988.

This corner view better shows what’s going on. Hollein’s Haas House in Vienna wasn’t to open until two years later in 1990.

What we have is a building trying to reconcile development gain and perception management by deploying a set of historic references – a strategy known as postmodernism and applied to the periphery of a building to a depth rarely exceeding one metre.

It’s not as if the commercial buildings of the 1920s were any different. All their ornamentations are applied to the outer one metre of what would have been a ruthlessly commercial building for the time.

Central Hotel can’t have been sufficiently pretentious. And nor was the very real and neighbouring historic building around the corner on Wellington Street. It wasn’t worth acknowledging.

I’m only mentioning Albert Facey House as a built example of postmodernism’s core selling point of allusions to other people’s historic buildings being preferable to preserving or reusing ones already there. Postmodernism as a style may be history now but this attitude towards history is still with us. The Barracks Arch, The Cloisters and Albert Facey House are all different ways of acknowledging history but the approach taken at The Cloisters would probably not happen today. Instead, the facade would be retained or, if doing so would make it structurally unsound, then it would be demolished and rebuilt. Either way, the effect would be something like this next building at the corner of Wellington Street and King Street, two blocks from Forrest Place. It’s not horrible. I read somewhere that the tower is student accommodation so, being kind, we can say there’s a continuity of sorts with its former life as backpackers’ hostel. More details here.

This architectural strategy of retaining the facade of a old building in order to win some development gain is also deployed by architects not generally regarded as postmodernist champions of representations of history. It is what Foster+Partners did with their 2006 Hearst Tower in Manhattan and, more egregiously, what BIG did with their King Toronto project set to complete this Year of the Rabbit. I have increasing respect for Mario Botta borrowing from and building on history with his 2010 Galleria Campari in Milan.

The ground floor coffee shop of the student accommodation building has exposed ductwork and conduits, recycled bricks. There is cement render on the newly inserted columns. All of this is meant to represent a sense of authenticity and of things being what they are.

The facade of the building has had work done. It’s difficult to tell if it was kept or rebuilt but it may have been kept, given that the outer rows of columns are about three metres from the site boundary.

Like I said, I don’t hate it. I can see something similar happening to the building on the corner of King Street and Wellington Street one block to the west.

A few blocks over to the west is an example of how not to do it. It’s already difficult enough trying to reconcile perception management and development gain and think about the difficult whole at the same time. It’s still early days. Going for the appearance of hovering seems likely to produce better results but perhaps that’s just me.

Back in the centre of town and one block to the east of Albert Facey House is the Royal Hotel, built in 1882 on the corner of William Street and Wellington Street and renovated in 1906 to basically what we see today. I was thinking it might be another contender for a similar vertical stack development and that it’d be a shame to lose those sheet metal mansards with their filigree cast iron decoration.

Others must have thought so too because a closer look shows the parts of the building along the street corner (and beneath those mansards) have been kept in their entirety, and everything else demolished to enable the Raine Square development to the rear and sides on both William Street and Wellington Street. In other words, The Royal in the corner L of the site was retained as a sweetener. Below left is a view five metres from the footpath. The part of the building seen from the street is a “deep facade” about as wide as a bar. In November 2019, The Royal pub, reopened in what was left of the building. That new steel framework looks like a response to some changed structural condition.

The Wentworth Hotel on the other corner of the block was retained in what looks like its entirety.

However, the buildings either side of The Royal weren’t as charming or fortunately sited. All that remains are their facades and even those look slightly plastic – as if they’ve been over-zealously restored or, most probably, demolished and rebuilt. This is what’s left of Glyde Chambers (b. 1905) along Wellington Street.

And this is what’s left of Commercial Buildings (b. 1894) along William Street. There’s been no attempt to retain a setting. The historic fragment now looks as tawdry and arbitrary as what surrounds it. I don’t think any of these fragments will survive the next redevelopment in 30 or 40 years.

I was wondering about all those other buildings that didn’t make it were like but these next photos are all I found. Anything could have happened between 1925 (for William Street; left), and circa. 1960 (for Wellington Street: right).

It’s never good to get too upset over what happens in cities. Main Street was never almost all-right and it’s less all-right now. Messy vitality was supposed to look better. If this is how historic facades are going to be preserved then it’s not worth the effort. What was once a building with purpose has been reduced to a length of incongruous cladding. The most poisonous legacy of postmodernism’s reducing history to representations of history is that actual historic buildings were dragged down with it, their worth as historic buildings reduced to the ornamental worth of their facades.

Here’s a more benign example of˜postmodern acknowledgement –circa. 1990 if I had to guess. The building on the right seems stuck in some sort of property appreciation limbo, as if waiting for the CBD or the office or the student housing market to expand westwards a few blocks more. But who’s to know what will happen? Next time I visit perhaps both will fronting some future mega development?

I’ll give it ten years.


• • • 

Sky Rectangle

Daylighting is perhaps the biggest problem when repurposing a shopping mall as residential, and ventilation a close second. If the average width of my demonstration mall is, say, approximately 100 meters, then the closest exterior surface is as much as 60 meters away or, if the atriums are seen as sources of ventilation and daylight, 35. There are seven levels of this, five above ground and two below that, with some contrivance, could also have side lighting. Approximate dimensions are shown below and the simplified column grid is 8.4 x 8.4 metres. The black rectangles indicate elevator and fire escape stair cores.

First thought.

Treating the problem as a conventional one of giving every habitable room a window isn’t going to work as it squanders perimeter (and atrium) surface area and produces apartments 30 metres deep by 4 metres wide on either side of an artificially illuminated and ventilated central access corridor. It’s the energy-hungry Lake Shore Drive typology and would look something like this.

The central access corridors could be widened in places and, say, 8m x 8m sections of the floor removed to create atriums to bring light and create event in much the same way as shopping mall atriums do for rows of storefronts. However, the difference is that stores want to attract the attention of passers-by and to make the transition between corridor and store as invisible as possible. Residential use has different expectations for access, circulation and amenity and this makes it preferable to have individual residential zones separated from “the street” by a third zone neither circulation nor residential. With detached houses, this zone is usually a garden but it could be a porch or some other type of transitional space. I won’t reject this idea outright but it has an inherent unevenness of daylight distribution.

Second thought.

I keep thinking more lightwells are going to have to pierce the slabs in order to bring a necessary minimum of daylighting and ventilation but this would need to be done without removing any of the column and beam structure. I also thought to pinwheel accommodation around vertically shared lightwells in order to reduce the overlooking as in the example at the end of the New Squeeze post. The attempts in the middle of this next sketch made me think it wasn’t going to work. Too much space would be used to access the units and to too little effect. There was little legibility and not that much daylight either, especially on the lower levels where sideways (east-west) daylight penetration would be obstructed by accommodation evenly distributed in two directions.

The New Squeeze proposal didn’t have this problem as the first (ground) floor was dedicated to accessng the three levels above.

Third thought.

My third thought was to arrange the accommodation in “streets” primarily lit by lightwells but with the long sides of the mall (i.e. the ends of those streets) open to the east and west sides of the mall. Noontime sun would illuminate the atriums. Or so I think. As a reference, I drew upon the linear inclined mat section of Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1973 Pasadena Heights that I continue to learn from. Three apartments partially overlap with shared lightwells lighting different parts of the deep plan.

I learned from studies such as Pasadena Heights 3.0 and The Rooftop that it was possible to stack terraced apartments with very deep plans, with the deepest and most internal parts of the building used for car parking still naturally illuminated and ventilated to a degree befitting non-residential use. Whatever this new proposal turns out to be, it will be called the Mat-rix House.

I once lived in a basement flat in Kensington Garden Square near London’s Queensway. The bedroom was at the lowest level of a seven story lightwell approximately 2.5 x 2.5 m. Man, it was dim.

First look.

I thought of have a plan provided with daylight and ventilation via lightwells and for those plans to be overlapped for five or six levels both horizontally and vertically. Instead of each living unit facing open sky as at Pasadena Heights, it would face the rear of another unit across an access street. You can think of it as shikumen in a three-dimensional matrix. Apartments would be primarily lit by ambient light while direct daylight and outward views would become communal amenity at the ends of streets. Something had to give but the question is if there will be any compensating advantages.

The shaded area in the diagram below represents a living unit approximately 150 sq.m in area. This is large, and may turn out to be too large, but is a consequence of the grid dimensions. Living units are arranged on opposite sides of an 8 meter walkway, and accessed from two directions past 8-metre long lightwells separating them from the street. This arrangement will use exactly 50% of the available floor plate, not counting the lightwells. Providing two levels of accommodation per floorplate would give a per level FAR of 1.0 and a per building FAR of 10.0 for five floors, or 14.0 if the two basements are included. The staggering of access corridors and the visual links between them do more than just promote airflow. I think there would be an awareness of actually living in an inhabited matrix and this is much more than streets in the sky ever did.

The largest downside is that bedroom windows of different apartments overlook each other diagonally up and down from a (horizontal) distance of eight meters. This could be solved by stacking the corridors but then the long views through the matrix would be lost and the bedroom windows would still be eight meters away from an access corridor. I won’t forget about this but I won’t fret too much about it either. The compromises of having entire apartments overlooking narrow streets are not new and solutions and workarounds to them are not new either. Mostly, they involve some sort of curtain or blind or shutter at night.    

Third thought, second look

The area per apartment was large and so, rather than having two levels, I arranged two-storey apartments based on a plan I’d already made, back to back. (This was a big decision and perhaps I made it too early because it means that there will now be two service risers per lightwell, instead of one.)

There are four options for apartment planning. All have one bedroom and bathroom at entry level, and another bedroom and the living areas upstairs. There are two positions for the bedrooms and the only variable is where they are placed. The yellow block is the open space for the apartment of the colour above.

NB: I’ve just finished reading Moshe Safdie’s recent book. These next images are not clever photorenders but photographs taken in the garden of configurations of actual (vintage) LEGO-like blocks.

Type I is a two-storey L-shape back-to-back plan I had from a previous project. The garden is replaced by the lightwell, the bedrooms are stacked and both share the lightwell by the outdoor space at entry level. As with any back-to-back plan, there’s no horizontal through ventilation.

Type II is a linear layout with both bedrooms stacked where they share the lightwell with the outdoor space and the living areas of the paired apartment. However, it has horizontal through ventilation on both levels.

Type III has the Type I layout on the lower level and the Type II layout on the upper level. It therefore has horizontal through ventilation on the upper level but the lower bedrooms share the lightwell with the open space of the paired apartment.

Type IV has the Type II layout on the lower level and the Type I layout on the upper level. There is therefore horizontal through ventilation on the lower level but the upper bedrooms share the lightwell with the open space of the paired apartment. This variation.

These four Types have minor differences for under-stair storage and such but the most important is the degree of compromise between ventilation and privacy. Externally, they all look the same. Type II has the best through ventilation but the most compromised privacy. Type I has the least compromised privacy but no horizontal through-ventilation. Type IV has horizontal through ventilation but not for the living areas where it is preferred. Type III is the one I‘m going to proceed with.

It’s not ideal on either count but is the least compromised. This is what those bedroom windows look like from the open area (left) and from the Level 4 access corridor (right) looking up to levels six, eight, and the rooftop. I’ve added utility pipes and conduit runs.

NOTE: Problems with bedroom windows could be avoided by placing both bedrooms above the open space so they face the blank wall on the other side of the lightwell. The bathroom would stay on the entry level, but the living spaces would be split into Types I–IV with the dining-kitchen and living area split across the same four positions. This makes sense because (apart from the kitchens and bathrooms no longer being stacked) all that’s happened is that the areas of the living spaces and bedrooms have been swapped.

In the final fitting into the demonstration mall, no apartment would be more than seven bays away from the outside proper or more than three from either the outside or a large atrium. I don’t generally like the artificiality of “photorenders” and how they overpromise but, given the nature of this project, even inexpert ones such as these give a better idea of the expected level of daylighting. Nevertheless, they are only an approximation of what I expect it would be like. In that sense they’re as true as any other photorender you’ll see. “Realistic” let alone photorealistic has no meaning for things yet unbuilt. I know I can push ambient light as much as I like but I simply don’t know if I’ve pushed it too far or underestimated it with respect to what the built reality would be. I see this proposal more as Walden 7 in Barcelona than Habitat in Montreal.

Having said all that, if this is a reasonable approximation of a level of illumination for apartments seven stories down and lit by lightwells, then it’s not bad. Whether it’s appropriate or not depends upon climate, latitude and – as anywhere – whether it’s day or night.

Access to direct daylight and open “space” is communal rather than private and this is how it must be if an equal distribution of both is desirable. This goes against the history of residential architecture and residential architectural aesthetics framed in terms of the abundance of space and light for some. If we want an acceptable minimum for all, then different rules will apply and a different architecture will result. 

Also worth mentioning is that it’s not unusual for a project to be fitted into some given (or desired) shape. This exercise took a given structure as the starting point and attempted to fit a project into it and, to my mind, was successful in fitting it in a way that adds value to that structure. The next thing is to apply this method with all its known advantages and shortcomings to the actual (demonstration) structure with its various atriums and cores.  

The point of this exercise was to show that some unconventional solution might result. Nobody is going to build a structure like the one I’m taking as a starting point in order to build apartments or any other kind of accommodation. If a residential repurposing of such a structure were to happen, the only financial advantage would be that the accommodation itself can be relatively flimsy. The primary structure is massive and protective and all that’s required of the secondary one is that it support itself.

Any residential proposal for the demonstration mall will be determined by the floor-to-floor height and the dimensions of the structural grid. My attempt to fit accommodation in this way, into the demonstration mall will be a separate post. Optimizing the typology itself will be another and my first thought is to use a floor-to-floor of 3.0–3.5 metres, a structural grid of 5.5 x 5.5 metres (two car parking bays, one-way road) and single-level apartments. It would have infill panels within a lightweight steel or timber frame structure. It would be a mat-rix landscape rolling over pockets of car parking.

• • • 

What is a Megastructure?

The short-lived Japanese architectural movement of Metabolism is, Rem Koolhaas noted, notable for being the only architectural movement that didn’t originate in a Western country. I can’t say this is wrong, but I don’t feel it’s all that true either. Metabolism wasn’t exactly global and who’s to say local architectural movements are happening everywhere all the time? It’s just that we don’t hear about them and, if we do, it’s because they’ve been brought to our attention as a kind of uncritical de-regionalism/homogenization of everything. Metabolism was unique to 1960s Japan. We just made it part of our history, effectively neutering it until Archigram came along and did the same for us in metal.


City in The Air Arata Isozaki


Fun Palace Cedric Price


Plug-in City Archigram

Other than its provenance, Metabolism was defined by two more things. One was megastructure and the other was the notion of growth and changeability. Isozaki’s huge steel spaceframe at Expo ’70 was more Metabolist because of its author than its megaframe. More Fun Palace than Metabolist, it was big structure but not Metabolist megastructure akin to tree trunks serving useful parts such as accommodation with services and a structure at the same time. As ever, the joy of megastructures was the impossibility of them ever being possible. Trees have no problem delivering nutrients to growth areas via a stabilizing structure but mammals do and buildings do. Putting everything inside an exoskeleton works for crustaceans but wouldn’t do for Metabolists as it couldn’t show the potential for growth and change. There’s also the problem of it looking too much like those conventional space-enclosing shells known as walls. The charm of Metabolism may have stemmed from the conceptual incongruity of its two defining characteristics but it also made it impossible to build anything other than representations of them. It was very 1960s in that respect. Expo ’70 is said to have been Metabolism’s swansong. That’d be about right. Ten years seems to be the best-by of any of those representations we call styles.

Although the idea of having services pass through mega structure was a stupid one, the other idea of a structure that allows for units of building volume to be added or replaced wasn’t much better despite buildings often needing to have units of building volume added or replaced. The problem here is one of redundancy. How much structure is going to be built to support and service an arbitrary amount of additional building volume? We can design in some structural redundancy for the additional dead load but we’ll also have to add a bit more if that load is going to be a live (changing) load. It’s a problem. Another conceptual niggle with the growth analogy is that with trees, the structure becomes more massive as the tree grows. This doesn’t happen with buildings (or with molluscs). Sure, Metabolist buildings could be (theoretically) extended with additional structure supporting additional modules of building volume but the building is now less like a tree and more like bamboo that propagates underground. This inconvenient absurdity is probably why in 1962 Izozaki produced another City in the Air proposal with incremental growth for both accommodation and the structure to support and sustain it. However, even if the building is extended horizontally, the vertical cores still need to be designed for an unspecified amount of additional load. City in The Air V2.0 is only slightly more realistic.

By 1969 megastructures were huge. They’ve since gone out of fashion but Paolo Soleri’s megastructure cities outlined in his book Arcology: The City in the Image of Man were truly impossible, visionary stuff. This next image helpfully includes The Empire State Building for comparison. What all this concrete did other than put a city up in the air was never clear. In retrospect, we might see it as a a “touch the ground lightly” move but this would be tempered by our knowledge of the planetary impact of so much concrete for so little purpose.

This has always been the contradiction with megastructures. They are first of all, structures designed for an arbitrary and unspecified amount of building volume to be added. Or are they? Maybe a megastructure is more about attitude than potential, and its primary function to support itself first and foremost? What we do know is that any structure that doesn’t work to capacity is a waste of materials and, perhaps sensing this contradiction, Soleri saw infrastructure such as dams as megastructure as having a satisfying amount of concrete and then proceeded to adorn it with botanical centers, greenhouses and other visionary stuff.

They were examples of hanging program onto an infrastructure for which a justification is assumed. It’s still naïve compared to BIG’s megastructure which monetizes airspace in those mega-infrastructures known as bridges. It assumes surplus structural capacity and that the details can be sorted out later.

If ostensibly practical megastructures such as dams and bridges have a habit of staying just as visionary as the purpose-unbuilt visionary ones, then we’re going to have think about what it is about megastructure proposals that makes them so appealing? Consider this next photograph. Is it a megastructure? It is big and it exists but it doesn’t have the visionary romance we associate with megastructures. The program it was designed for never eventuated but there’s nevertheless the potential for growth and change? I don’t think it matters. It’s all concrete not doing much and China has at least 300 massive structures such as this one which is the New South China Mall in Dongguan. What we see in this photograph is about 20% of it

These are big structures with potential but no purpose. Thinking just in terms of the amount of concrete that went into the building of structures like these, it’s an architect’s duty to repurpose them and extract some utility from all this concrete that’s already been manufactured and poured. The difficulty stems from the fact that these are specialized structures optimized for one purpose only.

In that way they’re a bit like any other highly specialized structure such as aircraft carriers that are excellent at providing a place for military aircraft to take off or land at sea, but not very useful for anything else. There’s not much you can do with a decommissioned aircraft carrier.