Author Archives: Graham McKay

The Expansible Home

Australia has a history of expandable houses, some of it intrinsic. These two plans from the McNess Housing Report of 1941 had all habitable rooms beneath the main roof and non-habitable one such as bathrooms, laundries and the ubiquitous verandah (often enclosed as a sleep-out) as extensions. The wc was still an outhouse halfway down the back yard.


The document A Thematic History of Government Housing in Western Australia (p87) reports that “Early in 1947, Northam Council had been outraged to have the Workers’ Homes Board permit the construction of ‘half a house. A couple, pregnant with their first child, were granted a permit to build only the back half of their home, in order to get them out of their existing inadequate accommodation. Despite their indignation, the Council allowed the home to be built, as the situation was viewed as an emergency.” This filled a housing need that had hitherto gone unfilled and led to The Expansible Home that was featured in local newspapers.

“From 1948, ‘expansible’ homes were designed by the SHC, also referred to as ‘detached flats’. Ninety were planned under the Commonwealth- State Housing Scheme in the first year, including thirty to a standard plan by a local architectural firm. This design proposed an initial house of hall, bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and external toilet/laundry, with later additions of living room, two further bedrooms, rear verandah and front terrace.

“Expansible homes were promoted as suitable for married couples who could then add rooms as they expanded their families. A 1949 design [below left] included entry hall, living, dining, kitchen and bathrooms, with cupboards and cabinets serving as partitions. Divan beds were planned for the living room. Provision was made for future bedroom additions and a future rear verandah, which would connect the external toilet and laundry with the house. Another 1949 plan [below right] began with bedroom, living room, bathroom and external toilet/laundry, with future kitchen, extra bedroom and rear verandah.” 

This second design had the advantage of presenting a completed street frontage as soon as the core part of the house was built.

The designs received considerable media attention and, although criticised, were recognised as an expedient measure in the housing crisis. These smaller-than-standard homes were designed to put a roof over the heads of as many families as possible, with promises to local authorities that they would be extended to ‘full size’ when the crisis period abated. 


“A 1951 booklet of SHC standard plans included 30 designs, ranging from one to three bedrooms. Most also allowed for a rear sleep-out if required. The larger two-bedroom designs and most of the three- bedroom plans included separate dining and kitchen areas. The smallest homes were ‘expansible’ designs (Types WS302AR, WS304A andT1B). These were designed to be erected with a bare minimum of rooms, with provision made for additional rooms in future. Generally, additional rooms were projected as bedrooms, but the Type T1B residence was planned to have two bedrooms but no kitchen, with temporary sink and stove allowances in the living room. The largest floor plan in the booklet was a three- bedroom home of 1,142 sqft (106m2) and the smallest the Type T1B expansible, at 519 sqft (48m2) (647 sqft/60m2 with kitchen), but most were around 800-900 sqft (74-84m2). These measurements did not include porch, laundry, toilet, sleep-out or verandah, which generally added around 250-400 sqft (23- 37m2) to the overall size. Almost all the designs included a bathroom within the main house rather than in an enclosure on the back verandah, and some also included laundry and toilet within the main house.”

The need for expansible homes lessened towards the end of the 1950s and opportunity for expansion gradually atrophied to space for an additional room at the rear. Whereas a two-storey house was a rarity [in Perth at least] as late as 1970, the smaller plots a few decades on made adding a second storey the only option.

This had always been the case in countries such as Taiwan where the pressure was to go upwards not outwards, and not in the way of architect-homeowners who provide magazines with gushing yet lame insights such as “we couldn’t open up the house horizontally so we opened it up vertically”.

Overall, our houses no longer have the latent ability to be enlarged. Ad-hoc expansion is performed when and where it’s thought needed but this doesn’t necessarily correspond to any functional, structural or servicing logic. This is due to the pressures of construction economy as all walls might not need to be structural ones at some time in the future. any latent ability is a real redundancy until used. One of the conclusions from this next project for a (UAE) house that could be constructed in stages was that functional modules necessarily involve structural redundancy [as they do with shipping containers.] 

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Another problem was the lack of logic to the water supply and drainage systems. All homes require wet areas from the beginning and enlarging a home shouldn’t have to disturb these. This wasn’t a problem in traditional Yemeni houses as the absence of water supply meant room functions weren’t designed but assigned as and when necessary to whatever rooms were available. The allocation changed according to time of day as well as to short-term changes such as visitors and longer-term changes to family composition and size.

Untitled 4Untitled

This next proposal attempts to recreate these advantages in a vertically-expansible building that allows for different forms of tenure.

Extensible House 2.jpg

LEFT: This first attempt could be called an Extended Family House. There is one main entrance but the interior can be divided into different semi-autonomous living zones. It assumes the occupants are related for, if the building were to have differing tenancies (such as sub-let or co-housing), it would be deemed a building of multiple occupancy and different fire escape and other regulations would apply.

MIDDLE: This is the same building divided for multiple occupancy. There’s hardly any difference. The insertion of partitions isolating the stairs is what’s happened to much of London’s terraced housing stock anyway. The provision of elevators and smoke lobbies is not mandatory.

RIGHT: As would any new-build block of apartments, the rightmost proposal requires an elevator and a smoke lobby to the fire stair and, because of that, is now not suited for use as a single family house or as co-housing by like-minded people. At best, it would be a collection of flat-shares.


In the end, I didn’t succeed in deriving a single building type for different types of tenure and that was expansible vertically in a predetermined manner. Other potential emerges. Tiny though it is, this layout pleases me. It’s contained in approximately 32′ x 32′ (10m x 10m). If built as a freestanding structure, slit windows on adjacent sides provide daylighting variation but preserve view inscrutability. If built as a tube structure to the current maximum slenderness of 24:1 it could be around 70 storeys give or take.

Extensible House 2.jpg

“Hey Graham! How about a spare elevator?”


“We may as well make it worth our while! 40′ (12.3m) a side @24:1 gives approx. 100 apartments in 100 storeys with 2 private elevators.” 

I’m not aware of any need for a housing product such as this but some have a tendency to create their own.


432 Park Avenue’s four elevators serve 104 apartments spread over 85 storeys with [as far as I can determine] at least two being private above the 35th floor.

Extensible House comparison.jpg

I’m just putting it out there.

Misfits’ Guide to PERTH

As an intermittent returnee to Perth I’m often asked “Hasn’t The City changed?” The question refers to the skyline and usually something is different but, every fifteen years or so, along comes a building that dramatically alters the shape and scale of the city in the same way Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center did for New York in 1970 or Rafael Viñoly Associates’ 432 Park Avenue is doing currently. In Perth, the game changers were 1962’s 18-storey T&G Building [currently refurbished as Citibank House], the circa 1975 trio of AMP Tower, Allendale Square and St. Martin’s Tower all around 33 storeys, and 1992’s 51-storey Central Park.

Before the use of tinted, reflective and solar glass became widespread, it was common for tall buildings in Perth to have some form of external sun control device. This made them place-sensitive. It also made sense. Some of the first buildings in Western Australia were Georgian cottages with verandahs but other building types received similar enhancements.

Council  HouseHowlett & Bailey, 1963
27–29 St. George’s Terrace, Perth

Without its sun shading, Perth’s Council House would be standard issue International Style. Its T-shaped elements are decorative yet successfully ameliorate all but direct west sun. Once deemed an eyesore and out of keeping with the then government’s plan to make a new heritage [?] precinct, the building was given a makeover in 1999 and, since 2010, multicolour LED light washes have made “the ‘technicolour’ building one of the city’s most appealing night-time landmarks.” 

QV.1, Harry Seidler, 1991
250 St. George’s Terrace, Perth

This was designed by Australian Gropius, Harry SeidlerThere’s much to dislike about this building but not the thoroughness of its passive sun control. QV.1 is currently Perth’s fourth tallest building and is widely known for being both energy efficient and unattractive – something only possible if a building is trying to be beautiful. “… the QV1 building is based on the famous photo where Marilyn Monroe is standing on a grate and air is blowing her skirt up. The twin towers of the QV1 represent her legs, and the rippled awning you walk under when you enter the building is her skirt. The red, curved structure in the forecourt of the building are her lips.”  I fear there may be some truth in this. 

The smoochy floor plate is also suspect.


Despite it’s overeagerness to mean something to anybody, QV.1 remains a good example of vertical shading devices blocking the west sun which is particularly fierce in Perth, and horizontal shading devices blocking the north summer sun. This is something also done with much gusto by the next building that regularly tops ‘Ugliest Building in Perth’ lists.

East Perth Train StationAnthony (Tony) Brand, circa 1970


The building is lazily described as Brutalist because concrete figures somehow but has less to do with Le Corbusier and Maisons Jaoul and more to do with the Brutalism of Greater London Council that liked its buildings sturdy and low maintenance. Brick fins on all sides function as shading devices with the angle of the fins differing for each facade as it should. Mr. Brand may have laid himself open to charges of over-robustness. Perth sunlight may be fierce but, at the end of the day, it’s still only light.

Kessel House, Iwan Iwanoff, 1975
4 Briald Street, Dianella, Perth

Bulgaria-born Iwan Iwanoff’s buildings are lazily described as Brutalist because concrete figures somehow.


Iwanoff studied architecture in Munich but his qualifications weren’t recognized in 1950 when he arrived in Perth as a refugee so he decamped to Melbourne. Fifteen years later and registered, he moved back to Perth where his career proper began. Iwanoff’s belief that architecture was an art would have produced distinctive buildings anyway, but he succeeded in channeling his acquired disrespect for Australia’s architectural establishment into an unconventional architecture of concrete block. His Kessel House is a good example. You can see interior photographs and other work by Iwan Iwanoff on Andrew Murray’s blog perthsbest, and also here and here.

Harold Krantz & Robert Sheldon employed Iwanoff in 1950 when he first arrived, and again in 1965 when he returned from Melbourne. Krantz & Sheldon are notable in their own right. They pioneered European architectural styles in Perth and were prolific designers of apartment blocks. [Harold Krantz will be Architecture Misfit #27.]

Mt. Eliza Apartments, Krantz & Sheldon, 1964
3/71 Mount Street, Perth


My favourite Krantz & Sheldon building, I seem to have admired it forever and, as it was constructed in 1964, probably have. It was the first circular apartment building in Australia, Western Australia’s first modern apartment block and at the time Perth’s 2nd tallest building. Emporis tells me it has 25 apartments, two per floor for floors two through eleven and one each for the top five. The prime location means these were never to be low-cost investment apartments. This real estate listing will hopefully still take you around the interior of one which is as you’d expect.

What’s surprising is not only the extreme economy of plan and structure but how fully integrated they are. These guys were good. Never before have I seen a core where the elevator lobby, access corridor and escape stairwell landing are one and the same thing. Never before have I seen a building where the water tank is part of the design. This is no stylistic affectation as structurally the water tank is in the best possible place. Moreover, that water tank is oversized as the building is on the highest ground in Perth and thus above the level of the nearby Mt. Eliza Service Reservoir.

Speaking of water, Krantz & Sheldon were also responsible for Windsor Towers on other side of Perth Water and which can be glimpsed at the end of the street in the view above.

Windsor Towers, Krantz & Sheldon, 1966
9 Parker Street, South Perth


There are four apartments per floor, as you’d expect. Estate agent websites show no apartment plans but what I really wanted to see was how the core is organised.


The false floor addition makes the view more accessible and the windows non-compliant.

It’s odd nothing taller has been built since. Windsor Towers seems to have become to South Perth what Tour Monparnasse is to Paris. I don’t think it’s due to its scant twenty stories. Its original European White has been overpainted Pale Heritage-y Ochre but the absence of balconies and the egalitarian pinwheel ignoring the pull of the view both mark this building as unAustralian.

Accordingly, there’s a proposal to fully assimilate this building by giving all apartments balconies that add value and restore the Australian birthright to barbecue.

It makes me want to be a planning officer so I could refuse permission on the grounds of the proposal destroying the building’s pinwheel integrity. I would helpfully suggest rotationally-symmetrical balconies on axis with the arms. I would menacingly suggest creating outdoor areas by subtracting volume from the living areas.


Except for when they appear on postcards of capital cities, high buildings and high densities are repectively deemed American or European and thus unAustralian. The City of Subiaco is a local municipality three kilometers from central Perth. Its planning guidelines limit residential development to four storeys as anything higher is deemed not in keeping with the heritage nature of the town centre. Refer to the Draft Subiaco Activity Centre Plan if you enjoy reading planning guidelines and pondering their logic.


This is what happens.

Policies such as these fuel outer-suburb development and pressure inner suburbs to be re-developed at higher densities. The left side of this aerial view of Osborne Park shows residential blocks with a single house while the right side shows blocks the same size block redeveloped with four.

singles and fours.jpg

The result is a reduction in the number of mature trees and very long driveways accessing houses that, incredulously, are still detached.


What we learn from this is that increased density is welcome as long as it involves no increase in height and doesn’t look like increased density. Tricky.

Gen Y Demonstration Housing Project, David Barr, 2016
Corner of Hope Street and Mouquet Vista, White Gum Valley, Perth


White Gum Valley isn’t as far out of town as it sounds, but what is meant by the byline “Density by Stealth”? Is ArchitectureAU for or against this proposal?

This proposal is for a new type of triplex house that gives the appearance of a single-family dwelling.

Rather than the step and repeat of earlier years, this housing type proposes adding a degree of inscrutability rather than any net gain in density. [3 x 1-bed. @ 2 persons max. = 1 x  3-bed. @ 6 persons max.] The difference is that now three kitchens and living rooms are needed. Density is a red herring – this isn’t about land use efficiency or saving of resources.

The name House for Gen Y suggests these are small houses sized and priced to stimulate the housing market by creating more FIRST-TIME BUYERS! to prevent them from wanting to live in apartments or [mercy!] live together with others in a similar situation.

Foyer Oxford, Chindarsi Architects, 2014
Oxford Street, Leederville, Perth


Some people don’t have the choice. Foyer Oxford is co-housing run as a refuge for young people. You can find out more about the building from the architects’ link here, and about what it does from here. This type of project never has a huge budget. Chindarsi Architects have used theirs well, spashing out sparingly but effectively on clustering a range of architectural devices of individually nondescript materials of varying colour and texture around the central space in an abundance of care.


foyer oxford.jpeg

Amana Home Care Services
416 Stirling Hwy, Cottesloe WA 6011, Australia


The building began life as the Sundowner Hotel in the mid-1970s. It’s a good example of the social utility of co-living and generic functionality and is now part of the Amana Group offering various types and levels of care for the aged. The original hotel building is used to provide respite care.   

Co-living exists in Perth as youth refuges, as care facilities and as backpackers hostels. They’re all successful because the residents have an awareness of being in a similar situation. Togetherness is a plus when you find yourself in a situation. Co-living is yet to appear as an option for the general population as there isn’t the sense of a shared society to make it work the way it does in Switzerland.

• • •

Glick House
18 Tennyson Street, Leederville

Glick House was designed in 1999 for the sculptor Rodney Glick in 1999. Its architect was Geoff Warn of Donaldson & Warn. A state heritage listing describes it as being in the Late Twentieth Century Functionalist style. The 1999 Winter Edition of ‘The Architect’ describes it as ‘an engineered aesthetic’ and an ‘ambiguous and confronting house’.



My friend Ruth Durack lived in this house the last five years of her life. The photographs above show the house much as I remember it. To this day it is the most humane house I’ve ever been in.


• • •

Some further information and resources but first, big thanks to Johann and to Josh for their contributions to this post.

• • •

The Inscrutable Apartment

If you know beforehand that a house is a two-up-two-down cottage, then you know its entire layout before you even enter.

The house may be sandwiched between party walls but its layout can nevertheless still be comprehended as “front” and “back” rooms offering not only alternate places to be but different experiences as well because of the different views and daylighting. It’s not possible to even approximate this in a single-aspect apartment. We need double-aspect apartments.

One way to do this is The 1+1/2 Floor Apartment. In 1927, a team led by Ivan Sobolev proposed apartments featuring a double-height living room and a construction module that could provide 2-, 4- or 6-bedroom double-aspect apartments. 

Sobolev correctly reasoned that bathrooms need to go above and below the corridor and that the kitchen needed to be adjacent to the dining area and share the floor of the living space and not its ceiling. Le Corbusier didn’t arrive at the same conclusion in 1949, 1952, 1956, 1957 or 1960. This section sketch by busharchitect rightly labels the apartments supérior and inférior but I doubt LC did.


Nevertheless, all these apartments share the advantage of having one of the two levels having windows facing in a second direction rather than the single direction of the entrance level. This gives rise to cross ventilation but also provides one part of the apartment with a view and daylighting that differ from the other parts. This is not about adventure or surprise. All it means is that a small plan can feel more pleasant if it has more than one experience – or mood, if you prefer. Orthodox 20th century thinking has it that connecting spaces creates the illusion of having more and perhaps it does but that doesn’t mean it’s any more pleasant to live in.

De-connecting spaces is counter to that orthodoxy and so has never been explicitly stated as a good thing but the proliferation of complicated layouts in British 1950s council housing apartment shows it was understood as a principle even if the given justifications were to reduce the volume of space devoted to access (as did The Constructivists) or to somehow create architecture (by doing something “Corb” had tried).

The scissor flat was the most inscrutable of these layouts.

The scissor section flat was developed by David Gregory-Jones and his team at LCC Architects department in 1956-57, with details of the design approach published in a technical article in 1962. The interlocking design provides a way of maximising the space given to flats in any building volume by reducing the space needed for entrance corridors and providing a dual aspect for each dwelling, but the design does have accessibility issues and the complex arrangement has caused confusion for emergency services.

The accessibility issue comes from UK regulations stipulating an accessible wc at entry level but this is impossible. The confusion for emergency services came about from the layout being unorthodox rather than complex but – anything either complex or unorthodox results in increased construction cost.


Scissor apartments have a corridor every other floor so they weren’t all that good at saving apartment access area anyway. So why do it? The new advantage was that all living rooms could be on the same side of the building whether the sunnier one or the one less noisy . This was the stated reason for their use in the upmarket apartment building, Corringham.


What the scissor apartment also does better because of its multiple levels is accentuate the differences of experience already created by the differences in aspect. These apartments feel larger than ones on a simple two levels. The entrance space is used only to enter and leave the apartment. Once inside, the front door is forgotten. It’s not something one’s always passing by.

Unité Marseilles 18th floor studio

These 2010 plans by Al Shawa & McKay also have corridors every other level but the additional advantage is natural ventilation for access corridors as well as (seaparately exhausted) bathrooms and kitchens. This is achieved by leading access corridors through light/air shafts in a manner not unusual in low-rise Andalucian apartment buildings. 

Stacey Section.jpg

The Katana Residences similarly twist and interlock paired apartments.

Double-sided elevators eliminate access corridors and create a false simplicity since three service corridors now run across the building for shared access to fire escape stairs and service elevators. These do nothing to enhance the daily use of the building.

Taking it a step further is Yokohama Apartments by Osamu Nishida + Erika Nakagawa of On Design. Billed as apartments for artists and they may well be, but the building is essentially an exercise in co-living. Entry floor is shared amenities plus four staircases

leading to individual apartments but, Japan being Japan, not in any straightforward manner.

Building on the work of SANAA in monetising access alleyways, these apartments offer  balconies as landings. Private bathrooms and the opportunity for the preparation of simple food suggest they will be lived in as apartments. These apartments definitely have two different (and to our eyes, extreme) spatial experiences but both are intensified by the circuitous route connecting them.

This brings us naturally to the 2014 Alley House by Be Fun Design[Afterwards, check out some of their other projects – they’re not as silly as you might think.]

Untitled 4

They’d already found out with their 2013 Spiral House what happens when you give each tenant equivalent front doors accessing vertical slivers of four storey space. Alley House occupants also have equivalent front doors but this time they access three quarter floors spiralling up and around the building. There’s the same awareness of the perimeter walls as in On Design’s Yokohama Apartments but this time everybody experiences every side of the building. It’s not so silly.

This seems an appropriate time to remember the Double Apartment Building designed in 1921 by Nikolai Krasilnikov at the Vkhutemas studio of Nikolai Ladovsky.


Krasilnikov manages to pre-empt BeFun’s internal experiments with Alley House and Frank Gehry’s volumetric ones with Vitra Design Museum and brings us back to the early 1920s and back to the (former) U.S.S.R. This next is Living Project on Rublevskoye Highway, Mosow, by Sergey Skuratov architects.


The practice’s website is a triumph of substance over image but the many project images also appear on over on along with the unhelpful description “The architectural solution of the towers is simple and dramatic at the same time. Each of the volumes has two “material” and two “penetrable” facades.” This doesn’t tell us why that might be a good idea.


When the corner rooms of those corner apartments DON’T have windows facing in two directions, it becomes possible for the apartment to offer two different and distinct types of experience. All the corner apartments above do this but the effect is most pronounced in north corner apartment indicated as the kitchen is the room with the different daylighting and view. The apartment isn’t large at around 45 sq.m but, because it has more than one experience to offer and doesn’t reveal them both at once, it will always offer two distinct experiences regardless of the time of day, the room or the reason for being in it.

It’s not a thing of huge consequence but it might be time to start forgetting about spaces flowing together for the dubious advantage of creating the impression of having more. Not connecting rooms every possible way and not having windows on every possible surface suggest a different way of appreciating the space inside an apartment and the space outside as well.

It might be time to think about what the concept of spaces “flowing into one another” has actually done for us.

Burden of Proof

First of all, Thank You All and Season’s Greetings. Have you noticed how the end of the year is always rich with lazy content? Here’s the AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Projects 2016 WinnersHere’s Dezeen’s Top 10 Architecture Books of 2016, along with a gratuitous picture. 


The caricaturization of architecture: Seeing how the illustrator has managed to work some sky into the view of Fallingwater’s best side, we can expect similar liberties have been taken with the content. This is one of 2016’s top ten architecture books.

Well before December’s not-entirely-unexpected articles wanting to suddenly tell us about Zaha Hadid’s family life and early paintings, a March 2016 article had already given us Ten Best Zaha Hadid Buildings by way of an obit. December’s Guardian also blessed us with Oliver Wainwright’s top ten buildings of 2016. Designboom contributed TOP 10 architecture projects that integrated nature in 2016 plus Top Ten Reader Submissions of 2016. “News” such as AIA Names Top 10 Most Sustainable Projects of 2016AIA Names 10 Best US Houses of 2016 and DAM Selects the Top 10 Architectural Books of 2016 was thoughtfully re-broadcast by ArchDaily. Getting into the spirit then, here are Misfits’ Top Ten 2016 posts.

1. Architecture Misfits #22: H Arquitectes


This post from May this year is the 18th most accessed post of all time. [Well done guys – keep it up!]

2. The Mat Building


This post from March was a close second at #22.

3. The 1 1/2 Floor Apartment


This post immediately followed the one above and came in at #39.

4. Living Together


The all-time #41 was this February post the first of several dealing with the implications of co-living.

5. Co-living


This post immediately following came in at #47.

6. Architecture Misfit #21: 村野藤吾


I’m glad this post is doing well at #53. There weren’t many architects like Togo Murano then and there certainly aren’t now.

7. The Free Facade


Musings on what the façade has done with its freedom.

8. Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio


A long-overdue tribute tothe work of Rural Studio and their approach to making things better.

9. Misfits’ Guide to DUBAI


It was about time I took a look around.

10. Architecture Misfit #20: Edward T. Potter


There was a lot more to Edward T. Potter than the house he designed for Mark Twain. A fitting misfit.

The 2016 posts are still fresh so I don’t know which will be forgotten, which will be remembered, which will prove to be slow burners, and which will have any lasting relevance. However, some trends are starting to become apparent upon seeing the ten most accessed posts of all-time (since June 2010).

1. The Maximum Dwelling

nilly hall

Who’d have thought the labyrintine plans of 19th century Victorian country houses would have proved such a hit on Pinterest?

2. The Things Architects Do #3: SANAA


This post is surely found by foundation year architecture students searching for assignment resources.

3. Kazuo Shinohara’s Houses


The buildings of Kazuo Shinohara are interesting yet little known. This post has gone on to have further adventures on other blogs.

4. The DARKER Side of Villa Savoye

Villa Savoye bathroom skylight

A post much accessed by students looking for LC or VS resources. [You’re welcome!]

5. Architectural Myths #20: The Villa Savoye



6. It’s Not Rocket Science #3: Yakhchal


This post has been much reblogged in the off-grid community. [A shout-out to Señor Coconut – hope you’re all doing fine.]



The hidden complexities of the Farnsworth House.

8. It’s Not Rocket Science #5: Night Sky Radiant Cooling

ice house chardin

A post about the little understood natural principle Persians used to make ice in the desert a few centuries gone.

9. The Japanese Machiya


From Japan, some sensible housing for a change.

10. The Buildings of YEMEN


A country so un–neoliberal that, instead of Architecture, it has a stunning culture of vernacular building the likes of which we can’t imagine.

I like to think all misfits’ posts have some sort of relevance for our built environment but three of these ten all-time most accessed posts can also be seen as about nothing more than routinely famous architects and buildings – thus inadvertently sustaining the status-quo. Two other posts can be also seen as being about (Japanese) architects with a largeish presence in architectural media culture and this amounts to much the same thing. The post on Victorian country houses can be seen either as a curio or as nostalgia – which is also a worry. Only the Yemen and the yachchal/radiant cooling posts fit into the category of really useful things – but the worry here is that they were best thought forgotten.

• • •


I confess I haven’t read much further than the first chapter of this book. [To be honest, I’m finding it a bit brainy.] I’ll stick with it though as so many of misfits’ themes resonate with its theme that I feel in my gut is true. So then, until I can back up my bloggy conjectures with references and citations, let’s just suppose that neoliberalism does have an architectural manifestation. What evidence would be sufficient to prove such a claim?

1) The End of History

By this I don’t mean the end of buildings, just the end of attaching any sort of importance to them. This project is well underway and in places already complete. ArchDaily. The history of architecture is still taught at universities but no-one knows why as history skills are on no employer’s wish list. [c.f. Learning CurveArchitecture students are pleased history has stopped accumulating. The continual shrinking and condensing of a body of knowledge into a few names and buildings of uncontested regard is not proof of their enduring greatness but a caricature of history and one of learning as well. I used to understand this as the postmodern sickness whereby a thing gets replaced by a representation of itself but postmodernism may have just been a symptom of the greater plague.


If we’re all Futurists now – “Sir, what’s a Futurist?” – then the advantage to neoliberalism of us all wanting to forget the past is that we’re primed to embrace newness for newness’ sake. We’re ready and willing to enjoy constant change and for progress to be measured in terms of how newly something represents change. [c.f. The Autopoiesis of Architecture] An energetic dynamism looping back onto itself and going nowhere is an excellent way to represent such change and happens to be just what your average dictocrat wants. It’s a problem for Architecture when all it has to do is represent something going somewhere but architecture is by far the best means to do it because there’s never any danger something as static and immovable as buildings will actually move on.

3) The Objectification of Architecture

The supposed globalization of architecture was our excuse for rationalising why these buildings tended to get built in other countries and not the “liberal democracies” but it might just be that our societies aren’t fully prepared (yet). The flow of neo-liberal architecture is the reverse of the mid-20th century capitalist one.

Teheran Hilton 1965

Hilton Hotel, Teheran, 1965

3) The Shrinking of History

Buildings and architects get dropped from the history of architecture all the time. Some buildings we saw in every book on modern architecture 50 years ago aren’t even memories now. [c.f. World Architecture 1963 and World Architecture 1963 PART 2]


Central Library, National Autonomous University of Mexico, designed by Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Martínez de Velasco, and opened in April, 1956

If buildings and architects keep getting dropped from history, then sooner or later we’re going to run out of the stuff as we’re not laying down any more architectural history for the future. What will a history e-book look like in 50 years time? What brave person would even dare write one? What buildings will come to epitomise the age in which we lived? We will have to make do with “Top Ten Modern Classics”. History now has no interest for architects beyond being a resource for interesting imagery.


Constructivism the art movement (and graphic inspiration-to-be) should not be confused with Constructivism the architectural movement that had a social(ist) agenda of housing people with an efficiency of resource usage.

History is never mined for interesting ideas that, taken out of context, could have important ramifcations for us now. [c.f. Modest Megastructures] We’re encouraged to convince ourselves that the only good ideas are the newest ones. 


4) The Objectification of Architects 

In 1997 Body Shop‘s Ruby campaign stated “There are three billion women in the world who don’t look like supermodels and eight who do.” [ref.Treading the same path came Dove’s campaignforrealbeauty.


The parallels with architecture and architects are many but here I want to draw attention to the ongoing objectification of architects. Is it just me or are today’s stararchitects more “starry” than ever? [What is driving this? Is it a need of ours or, like the Sony Wallkman, something that once invented creates its own need?] It’s only been necessary to promote a few architects to star status to create and perpetuate the notion that architecture is all about glamorous and shapely buildings. The efforts of architects less stellar who get on with the real business of real building are supposed to be championed by professional organizations that instead reward the elevated few with accolades in the name of awareness-raising. The appearance of success breeds success and success means you don’t have to pretend to be nice anymore.

BIG gentrification.jpeg

5) Gentrification – in general**

6) Gated communities – a highly localized form of gentrification, no matter which side of the fence you are on.

7) Encouraging people to see Brutalism as nothing more than a style has proven a highly effective way of ensuring its social agenda remains forgotten [c.f. High-Rise]

Professional bodies organize petitions protesting the demolition of Brutalist buildings but in doing so effectively support the neoliberal agenda by arguing on the grounds of stylistic worth [… a fine example of the early work of …” etc.] when they should be making a point on the grounds of social worth. August Perret may have used béton brut (unfinished/raw concrete) without any connotations of aesthetic delight or social utility but that is what the argument has become. It doesn’t really matter whether you see raw concrete as beautiful or ugly for, whichever way, you’re not thinking about how the money and resources spent on unnecessary finishes was, for a short while, diverted into providing more and better quality housing for the population.


8) The advent and rise of theories celebrating the consequences of unfettered economic activity, and the complete absence of critical comment thereof.

9) The scary earnestness of architectural evangelists, their scarier eagerness to give audience, and the even scarier ease with which they find one. 

10) The celebration of buildings encouraging people to see themselves as no more than the sum of their assets and investments


11) The continual pressure on us all to do the same with whatever means we have to do it


• • •

We all know how AirB’n’B enables people without their own buildings to contribute to economic activity by monetizing their surplus capacity living space, how Uber enables people to monetize their surplus capacity transport and how Instagram allows people to monetize* their personality or lack of it. Given all these intimate ways in which people are encouraged to value themselves according to their level of economic activity, it seems that neoliberalism has already done all it can with government, business and architecture and is now moving on to mop up the small fry. Whales feeding off plankton is a good analogy, except whales are nice.

• • •

thanks for the link Megan
19 Dec. 2016: I added Nos. 5) and 6) as further evidence.
*20 Dec. 1016:  8) and 9) added.

Need To Know

wasteNow that the 15th Architecture Bienalle in Venice is over, how was it for you? Are you up to speed on all or any of the above topics and resolved to make the world or even your own little corner of it a better place? Or are you well over it? In a now distant November in Athens, outgoing US President Obama asked us to continue to believe democracy was a good thing despite everything. In the same week, post-truth was selected as the new Word of the Year. Beware: The term itself is a post-truism as it implies politicians used to tell us nothing but facts.  


I’m still unsure how to use it. It’s said to describe appeals based more on emotion than fact but seems to refer only to impassioned appeals to our baser instincts. There’s still being led up the garden path for impassioned appeals to our better ones.

This was also the year the term digital occupation entered our lives when Detroit Resists digitally occupied the US pavilion at the Biennale. I’d heard this any number of times without managing to find out what it actually entailed. I imagined something like this minus the projection.


I was sort of right. It was the smartphones that turned out to be significant as the digital occupation was an overlaid exhibition viewable on a smartphone as one went around the actual one. Augmented reality.



Detroit Resists‘ eminently sensible point was that The Architectural Imagination wasn’t perhaps the best lens through which to view complex problems of urban decay and regeneration.

In June this year, the concept of a democratic digital platform entered our lives when Mimi Zeiger called for one in a Dezeen review of the 15th Venice Architecture Bienalle. It’s easy to see that participation in the world of digital architectural media isn’t equal or even symmetrical.

I think we’ve learned our lesson. An architectural digital democracy is not about all people being able to access information – we already have this. And nor is it about all people being able to access balanced information – we already have this too, although not many know it or make use of it. Like any other kind, an architectural digital democracy is about all people wanting to access balanced information. This is something we definitely don’t have.

We’re aware that digital platforms have a few problems. In that same speech, ‘President Barack Obama spoke out about fake news on Facebook and other media platforms, suggesting that it helped undermine the US political process’ [ref.] Speaking in Germany though, he was speaking to the converted.


You’ll recognise the US Berlin Embassy from this post.

Indeed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had had something to say about that very topic two weeks prior.  


Back home, it had already risen to the top of our newsfeeds that Facebook might be playing with our minds, knowingly feeding us fake news in order to increase this thing called engagement in hope of adding value to their advertising model.

Digital protest #1: Create a new Facebook account and add as friends any total strangers they suggest. Add them as fast and often as you can. Before long you’ll get a message saying You are using Facebook in a way for which it wasn’t designed. [!] and blocked for half an hour as punishment. Persist until you have about half a million or so friends and Facebook’s data is irreversibly corrupted by totally meaningless connections. Meanwhile, extend your activism to non-digital forms of protest such as not designing any buildings for Facebook …


… or Google.


Like many aspects of modern life, the internet has exacerbated trends already present in our analog media but it’s not as if newspapers and television channels hadn’t filtered or distorted news for decades in order to increase engagement and for the very same purposes. The technical term for headlines like this is screamer.


The mechanism of tailoring news content in order to deliver targeted advertising to reader demographic is not new. A century ago, did Country Life publish Edwin Lutyen’s houses because its advertisers were targeting people with those aspirations? Probably. They knew.

We used to think magazines had this thing called editorial policy and that news became news when someone decided something was worth knowing about. This is a primitive form of filtering if it was meant to encourage certain people to purchase particular magazines. I suspect it was if magazines also featured buildings featuring the products of their advertisers – as they still do. New big or important buildings by famous architects also shifted copies. It didn’t mean the buildings were any good. We’re wrong to assume it was a nicer world. Our filter bubbles are simply smaller and individually tailored now. As a general rule, when people tell you nothing but what you want to hear, you’re being taken advantage of.

I’ve noticed Twitter and Instagram aren’t particularly good at suggesting what might interest me. Facebook never was. YouTube suggests similar content based on past viewing but its suggestions are obvious and often trite so their algorithms must be as crude as their indexing. Of all the algorithms in my life, Apple Music’s impresses me most. It quickly learned what I like (for, after all, I did tell it) but it’s getting pretty good at suggesting other music I might like to try.


btw the Lang Lang / Herbie Hancock / John Axelrod /LSO version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is as stupendously new and exciting as it must have been once before Bernstein’s interpretation took over

I don’t expect Archdaily will ever reach the level of sophistication where it actually expands our architectural horizons for why should it even aspire to if there’s no need?  Our digital architectural media are no better than they need to be to do the job they exist to do. But what is that, exactly? We might want to wonder a bit more about why they have settled on their current formats.

The day after the US election, I had a look on the “News” section of ArchDaily to see if anything had happened that might have implications for the built environment. Nope. Nada. Nanimo. All I found were annoucements for next half dozen upcoming BIG projects, plus this.


President Obama complains about Facebook the same week he gives the bloke who designed their headquarters a medal – and a Medal Of Freedom at that. FOL.

By broadcasting everything, ArchDaily admits no concepts of editorial or curatorial responsibility. And why should it when it’s simply not possible for any one person to even view everything it publishes let alone process it or, perhaps crucially, have an opinion on it. Occasionally, it inadvertently reminds people of the need to have opinions. It received some heat earlier this year for posting details of a competition to build a US-border wall. Sides were quickly taken.



The complete article is here.

Me, I don’t see anything wrong in attacking a platform, especially one whose stated mission is so vague. The death of architecture will be either a slow one due to overindulgence or a slow one due to accumulated toxins. Too much crap is getting said in the name of “generating debate”.


Yes, it’s the same image but this time the focus is on “Top architectural stories”. An internet news site sponsors an international architecture competition featuring a speaker who predictably generates predictable news. Dezeen then reports on the resultant brouhaha and the story bounces around the world and receives 80 comments within a day.


On the same platform, Mimi Zeiger writes an article intelligently critical of the 15th Bienalle and six months on there’s still not one comment. Without evidence of the balanced and critical consumption of information, it’s impossible to sustain the lie these sites exist to provide some sort of “forum for debate”. We should wean ourselves off any platform that has a business model reliant upon advertising, including global architecture competitions and award get-togethers.

wafEven though the spotlight is currently on digital platforms, we shouldn’t relax about what’s going on in the traditional ones for over in my inbox was this


Sustainability vs. Security? At least apples and oranges were both fruits.


Aravena’s gone from Elemental to governmental via a brief interlude of monumental.

The guy’s clearly a genius if his next project is to get the military-industrial complex to export sustainability to conflict-ravaged countries worldwide. Let’s wish him well in his star trek. It seems that in lecture theatres around the world, the same people are always in our faces delivering the same message. 


This talk in the UAE went unnoticed [Borrring!], unlike the one in Berlin eleven days later.

Proposed as a non-digital forum where architecture can be discussed, Turncoats provides the semblance of open debate conducted without the presence of digital recording media, mobile phones or cameras. The idea is to encourage open and un-selfcensored debate between participants but one of them is a plant – their views may not be what they really think. This makes a travesty not just of discussion but of dissent as well. At the end of the day, having a bunch of media players act out open debate behind closed doors only shows that beyond tragedy and farce is metaphor.


Never before in the history of humankind has there been so much talk about architecture. I can’t blame ArchDaily for everything that’s wrong with the world of architecture so let’s talk about David Basulto. He used couches hooked up to a non-stop video feed in his unintentionally menacing proposition of Architecture as Therapy for the Nordic Pavilion at Venice 2016 . This isn’t architecture as therapy. It’s architecture as sedation. What’s worse is that it was countenanced and endlessly reviewed but I find it too brazenly apt to be comfortable with it. 

Digital platforms for architecture are entering their post-content phase. The new notion that Everything is Architecture conveniently removes conceptual divisions between what is and what isn’t. It is the natural consequence of there being too little genuine architectural content compared with the amount of advertising and marketing that needs to be hung off of it.

The 1920s had a flourishing environment of architectural thought brought about by perhaps at best a couple of dozen magazines reporting occurrences in and around Europe, and in two or three languages as well. There was crossover between disciplines but everything wasn’t architecture and architecture wasn’t everything. Architecture’s products were for everybody but everybody didn’t need to know about its designs or designers. Information about architecture meant information about recently completed buildings and for a while there was a healthy cycle involving the natural generation of information that architects were eager to receive, process and use to produce better buildings and pass on those results to other architects so people everywhere could benefit. It was the most intellectually dynamic and socially progressive decade the world had ever seen. We forget this.

All but one of the slideshow images are from a MoMa exhibition titled THE ELECTRO-LIBRARY: European Avant-Garde Magazines from the 1920s (March 7–June 13, 2016).

Modest Megastructures

Le Corbusier’s 1922 Freehold Maisonettes were stacked and repeated within a column and slab structure. In 1923 the same apartment layout was marketed as a suburban house in Almanach d’Architecture Moderne. In 1925 it reappeared as the Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau. 


Le Corbusier’s 1933 Plan Obus proposal for Algiers had a highway along the roof, suggesting a double-loaded corridor with deep plan, single-aspect apartments on both sides.


Limited daylighting and cross ventilation are just two problems of such a configuration but one virtue that’s never mentioned is the amount of variation in the facade treatments of individual dwellings [and thanks Julius for making me look at it again]. Plan Obus is a megastructure that in principle allows an owner-occupant the same amount of architectural freedom as a detached house along a street would.


Le Corbusier’s depiction of French and Algerians living side by side

Le Corbusier never developed Plan Obus into anything else or used this idea elsewhere. He was to later partially solve the problem of sun penetration and cross ventilation with the double-aspect apartments of the Unités d’Habitation, beginning with the 1949 one in Marseilles that wasn’t a megastructure despite having some serious concrete and a few shops that hinted at self-containment but were never going concerns.

This famous illustration of obscure provenance has forever associated the Unité d’Habitations with the idea of living units lifted into a structure despite this having no basis in fact.


The idea of a habitable megastructure was kept alive by buildings such as Affonso Eduardo Reidy’s Block A of the Pedregulho Neighborhood Redevelopment in Rio de Janeiro circa 1960.



The building’s external configuration has similarities with Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus and an internal configuration similar to Moisei Ginzburg’s 1930 Narkomfin. Reidy’s Block A isn’t a megastructure as things are held up rather than structured. It’s the same with Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1974 Pasadena Heights in Mishima, Japan.

Like the Reidy building, Pasadena Heights also offers no scope for occupants to change, exchange, extend or otherwise alter their living space in accordance with their needs or their desires. How the building is going to be and how it’s going to be lived in have already been 100% designedPasadena Heights was an attempt to bring megastructures down to earth, to make them liveable rather than visionary, to make them useful.

Kikutake deserves credit for this for, in the 1960’s, he’d been one of The Metabolists who, along with Archigram, took the idea of living units attached to a megastructure and ran with it. Living units were called pods or capsules because it suggested plastic and everything modern and in the future was plastic. The thinking went that pods could be upgraded or replaced much like apartments, cars, sofas and mobile phones have come to be today.

isozaki c-in-the-air

City In The Air, Arata Isoaki, 1961


Kiyonori Kikutake, Ocean City, 1968


Archigram, Plug-In City, 1960–1974

Kurokawa’s 1973 Nakagin Capsule Tower is said to be the only built example of such a mega-megastructure and it’s this image we’re encouraged to remember as it articulates the notion, popular in both the UK and Japan at the time, that design for change was A Good Thing. By not being clear about what kind of change or why, these magastructure proposals opened the door for today’s commodification of housing and nowhere is this more true than in the UK and Japan. In contrast, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti megastructures dating from the same period were all crust and no filling. They had no lasting impact. They are ‘not taught’. Remembering change is encouraged, remembering permanence is not.


Images of Arcosanti have long disappeared from history books whereas Plug-In City, Ocean City and City In The Sky continue to be presented as essential knowledge in architecture schools. At the time though, some people did wonder what kind of government would administer such megastructures but Superstudio were in no doubt. Their 1971 Megaton City imagined a homogenized society where even dissenting thought was crushed (quite literally). Their Megaton City was social commentary.

megaton city

Bjarke Ingels’ megastructures however are a comment on our society in that they regard human beings as infill. Portentiously, the megastructure no longer even exists for the sake of the people that support it. The history of contemporary architecture may as well be called the neoliberalist’s history of architecture for if it doesn’t further its agenda, it gets unremembered pretty quickly.

• • •

This is how the flow of the history of things thought to be important has gone. Le Corbusier continues to be vilified for the uniformity represented by his 1922 Ville Contemporaine proposal for Paris but to my knowledge has never been credited with the possibilities for diversity represented by his 1942 Plan Obus proposal for Algiers.


Never one to refrain from blowing his own trumpet, he can’t have wanted it to be remembered. This may be because the “diversity” of French Algiers wasn’t one the Algerians actually cared for or wanted. Alternatively, it could be because architects responding to people’s subjective needs to express themselves or their cultures was still an idea ahead of its time. In the end, Algerians did express themselves and it was called the The Algerian War of Independence. Until November 1942 when Algeria was to cease being under Vichy control, it would have been on-message for Le Corbusier to represent diversity and people of different cultures living side by side. It’s an early case of an architect wanting to be responsible only for the form of the built environment and not its content.

Given Le Corbusier’s propensity to repackage and re-present aspects of earlier work, we would surely have seen Plan Obus again if he’d thought or wanted to take it any further.


Going by what he did do later, it’s likely he let it die because it was a consequence of those specific (political) circumstances and he saw in it no possibility for application elsewhere. It’s also likely he simply didn’t believe in it architecturally. Nevertheless, we can look at this sketch today and see a useful idea in the content of the proposal if not its form.


The story that Post Modernism began with the dynamiting of Pruitt Igoe has been repeated so often it’s futile saying it didn’t. [It didn’t.] What really began was Charles Jencks’ career of saying it did and that Modernism hadn’t paid sufficient attention to people’s subjective needs. Post Modern architects assumed everyone’s subjective needs were for more ornament and decoration on buildings that ‘spoke’ of what they did and where they were or of some place in the history of something. Nobody cared if this was a correct assumption or not. What was important was that buildings were suddenly able to speak, and not only speak but speaking with ambiguity and irony, and telling jokes too.


Arata Isozaki, Team Disney Building, Orlando, Florida, 1990 / Photo by Xinai Liang, tweeted by Adam Nathaniel Furman

When SITE proposed Highrise of Homes in 1981 it was understood as a joke but it’s really Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus on less land with no view of the Med, and serviced by roads on the ground.

The visual expression of the building is the sum of how its individual owners choose to live. The diversity and, by the same token, the uniformity of a suburban street have been replicated in an urban high rise. The surrealness of its appearance results from it looking different from the surrounding buildings, from it being outside our experience and from it not being we expect the appearance of a building to be.

Highrise of Houses should not have seemed so novel and so weird when Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus had represented much the same thing fifty years earlier. My issue isn’t with authorship but about the need to continually revisit history and scan it for ideas that, taken out of context, have relevance for us now for the idea of a modest megastructure allowing individual dwellings and individuality is a recurrent one and a useful one.

The Next21 Building in Osaka was built in 1994 as a project conceived by Osaka Gas Corporation. It uses the Open Building principles as articulated by Dutch architect John Habraken.


“The NEXT21 Construction Committee developed the basic plan and design. Its objectives were:

• using resources more effectively through systemized construction
• creating a variety of residential units to accommodate varying households
• introducing substantial natural greenery throughout a high-rise structure
• creating a wildlife habitat within urban multi-family housing
• treating everyday waste and drainage onsite within the building
• minimizing the building’s compound burden on the environment
• using energy efficiently by means including fuel cells
• making a more comfortable life possible without increasing energy consumption” [ref.]

“Units were designed by 13 different architects. Each unit’s interior and exterior layout was freely designed within a system of coordinating rules for positioning various elements.”[ref.] 

The project seems like a sincere attempt to simulate real diversity in a prototype building even though there’s a conceptual flaw in using thirteen “different” architects to simulate actual conditions of user choice for, as noted in Open Building case studies such as this, apartment layouts aren’t necessarily rational when real occupants are allowed to design them according to what they perceive to be their needs.


These are the plans that were submitted for approval.


The upper plan is the plan given to the contractor, and the lower is what was built according to the occupants’ wishes.

Having an apartment entrance fixed at the corner was never going to produce great plans but the most rational are those most similar to the approval plans. On the other hand, we can’t say the ‘irrational’ plans are wrong for we generally accept that how people choose to live is their business.


Thanks to Tiago for tweeting this.

We encourage Open Buildings and other forms of diversity for the internal arrangements of a building and appreciate a controlled degree of diversity along suburban streets but we still expect the outsides of buildings to show the unifying hand of the architect. Even the Next21 building in Osaka had a uniformity of colour, cladding and window frames. Our architectural culture is loathe to relinquish control over the outsides of buildings. Post Modernism left us preferring fake diversity to organic similarity. Design for real diversity was never on the cards. 

Architecture is better at subjective solutions to subjective needs than it is at real solutions to real ones. However, if subjective needs remain valid even if false, then supposedly the architecture that satisfies them can be so too. The problem is when the satisfaction of subjective needs not only replaces but excludes the satisfaction of real ones as a subject of architecture. What we’re left with is an architecture of empty calories. Another huge problem is that subjective needs don’t need to be satisfied in any real way – it’s sufficient to represent them being satisfied. What we’re left with is an architecture of empty promises.

Herzog de Meuron’s 2010 Beirut Terraces gives us the representation of difference rather than any meaningful reality of it. Its contrived randomness is the sellable appearance of diversity rather than a real diversity or the visual consequence of one.


Architecture has two problems with real diversity. One is that it’s visually messy. That’s bad but it’s not as bad as the other which is that real diversity can’t be generated by architects. Architects can only represent it or, more accurately, the absence of it. By way of proof, the representation of apparent diversity within a revealed structure of columns and slabs is a modern meme. Contriving the appearance of natural processes at work is a skill valued in proportion to how convincing the approximation is. You’ll remember these two buildings from the previous post.

Slabs on load bearing columns are one of mankind’s better inventions and rather than just representing diversity, can actually allow for a real one – if given the chance. Aravena repackaged the problem rather well by designing a modest megastructure in which people could satisfy their real and subjective needs through some weekend DIY and at the same time satisfy our need to believe in an architecture that does that. It worked for them. It worked for him.

But what about us?  If people everywhere started to expect less of architects and to self-build then architecture as we know it will no longer exist. After having come to the same conclusion around Feb. 23 this year, Aravena backpedalled in Western media.

dezeen .jpeg

The cat was out of the bag though for, as seen at the 15th Venice Biennale, “The urban developments designed by German architects BEL (Anne-Julchen Bernhardt and Jörg Leeser) are based upon the concept of incremental urbanization. 


“Compared to past cases, such as those developed in the 1960s in Latin America, the approach by BEL envisages the creation of multistory structures, composed of a simple array of columns and slabs, which can be “completed” and adapted to different functional and cultural schemes, thus fulfilling the specific characteristics and requirements of their inhabitants.” [ref.]

It’s the same combination of self-build within a modest megastructure. It’s using columns and slabs as land multiplied, and letting its purchasers do what they like with it although presumably with restrictions on cantilevering and projections. What’s innovative for us is that it does so without concern for how the end result looks. It has to be this way. The choice is to either suppress diversity by its representation, or to allow diversity and accept the visual consequences of letting it happen. Eighty three years on, we’re almost back to where we could have been.

• • •

This post evolved from a 28 Nov 2016 Twitter exchange between Julius JääskeläinenTiago Baptista and myself.
Further reading 1:
Further reading 2:
Featured image: BeL Sozietät für Architektur, Allotment House, Hamburg, Germany, 2013, Base and Settlers©BeL, as found at 

Ignorance is Bliss

In 1926, the United States’ Foreign Service Buildings Office was formed to oversee the construction of U.S. embassies. In 1954 they implemented an architectural design policy that made embassies worldwide as American as The International Style. This is a photograph circa 1960 of the US Embassy Eero Saarinen designed for Grosvenor Square, London.


This is the 1959 US Embassy at The Hague, designed by Marcel Breuer.


This is the 1961 US New Delhi embassy, designed by Edward Durell Stone.


This is the US Embassy in Athens, completed in 1961 to a design by Walter Gropius and the other architects at TAC.



You don’t see renderings or reflecting pools like these anymore.

A 1983 suicide bombing killed 63 people at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, prompting the State Department to form a panel to set out new guidelines for new embassy construction. It was known as the Inman Report, after the panel’s leader. It recommended

  • building behind a 9-foot security wall (for obvious reasons),
  • a street setback of at least 100 feet (to lessen blast shock waves?),
  • maximum window-to-wall ratio of 15% (to increase building integrity), and
  • ideally, a site of 15 acres or more away from the city centre.

Attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 led to a further tightening of site security precautions at all embassies including existing ones. This is the US Embassy in the UK, with its current assortment of security fences, bollards and resolutely three-dimensional hardscaping.


Similar measures were put in place at the US embassy in Athens although the building itself hasn’t aged well.

“Over the seventy-year life span of the American Embassy in Athens, the building has endured the Mediterranean sun and temperatures, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and the daily activities of the government traffic. However, these aspects have begun to effect [!] the structure. In January 2013, a request for proposal was released by the United States’ government in search of a firm that will complete an entire renovation of the chancery building (Athens Chancery Renovation). Although the design by Walter Gropius and his colleagues at The Architects Collaborative was planned very openly in order to adjust with the changing needs of the embassy, it can no longer function properly as a contemporary office space. Modern systems, not even fathomable in the 1960s [?], need to be installed, structural systems repaired and upgraded, internal layouts reconfigured, and asbestos materials need to be removed and replaced with safer products.” [ref.]

Meanwhile, the US New Delhi embassy is being given a complete refurbishment and re-imagining by Weiss/ Manfredi architects.


The design of individual buildings, resilient gardens, and reflecting pools are inspired by India’s reciprocal tradition of architecture and landscape and will exemplify the spirit of openness, environmental stewardship, and innovation.”


This 2008 photograph of the US Embassy in The Hague shows the usual countermeasures in place prior to a new embassy being commissioned.


By Pvt pauline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In Germany, the new US Berlin Embassy was eventually completed in 2008 but not without conflict.

 John C. Kornblum, US German ambassador from 1997 to 2001, said “For some reason, when we asked for our increased security enhancements a lot of people in this city went crazy. We endured all kinds of taunts and demands. ‘What do you Americans think you’re doing?’ ” [ref.]

In their presentation, Architects Moore Ruble Yudell of Santa Monica went for a watercoloured nostalgia to soften the effect of that 15% maximum window area recommendation.


Berlin is at 52°N so the shading-device like elements seem incongruous on the south elevation and inappropriate on the west one. They could be ornamental, or they could be light shelves, or they could function to interrupt the trajectory of airborne projectiles in the same way eyelashes do. us-embassy_in_berlin_south-west

“The palette of materials and design features have been carefully considered to complement the setting and to provide an open, yet secure, presentation of America.” [ref.]

Moore Ruble Yudell have a way with US embassies.

They all feature a circuitous route from gatehouse to public entrance, as well as vast water features the primary purpose of which is not reflecting. The new US embassy in Beijing was designed by US global architectural ambassadors SOM.


There’s a lot of reflecting going on but we’re being misled. Moats around Mediaeval castles were not trying to look beautiful.


This is the new US Embassy in London, designed by Kieran Timberlake Architects.

“In contrast to high perimeter walls and fences, security requirements are achieved through landscape design—such as the large pond, low garden walls with bench seating, and differences in elevation that create natural, unobtrusive barriers.” [ref.]


At first glance it looks like the rule for 15% maximum area of wall openings has been relaxed – and it has, but only because EFTE “can cope with large (200-300%) deformations beyond its elastic range before breakage, and can take extremely high short-term loading without risk of fracture, breakage or structural overload/collapse.” [ref.] In other words, its better than glass if you’re anticipating explosions. It’s not called an EFTE cushion for nothing – except nobody calls it that lest it give the game away and make people feel bad.


Detailed information on vehicle security at US embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq is difficult to find and, moreover, these days one doesn’t want to be seen to be trying too hard to find it. However, when buildings are designed to withstand actual mortar attack, we’re no longer talking about bunker mentality – we’re talking actual bunkers, although technically they’re blockhouses as bunkers are typically underground.


• • •

I think we can now state the sequence by which we learn to live with the threat of explosive detonations near public buildings.

1. Temporary Measures

These appear overnight in response to some perceived threat. This is outside NYC Trump Tower on 11/9/2016. To would-be perpetrators, the highly-visible ability to satisfy suddenly-necessary performance criteria send the message ‘don’t even think about it’.


Photo courtesy of Chuck Choi.

2. Semi-Permanent Measures

Temporary measures have a habit of becoming semi-permanent. These high-spec flowerboxes grace the perimeter of the US Embassy in Moscow. (This is the stage airport security is currently at and seems destined to remain. Like airport security measures, nobody seems to be able to remember a time they weren’t there.


3. Permanent Measures

Sooner or later, the permanance of semi-permanent measures is accepted and becomes architecturalized. This is when concrete blocks such as those above are re-designed as high-relief hard landscaping such as outside the US Embassy in London. The ability to satisfy performance criteria is still on display but, as is the way with architecture and building performance criteria in general, efforts are made to downplay it.


Somewhat annoyingly for architecture, blast protection performance criteria are different from other building performance criteria such as thermal performance or sustainability. A well-constructed and well-performing green roof, for example, can produce many benefits but the reality is that green roofs get designed and built in order to represent those benefits without actually going to the trouble of delivering them. Architecture is about representation, not delivery.

Blast protection can’t be similarly sacrificed in the name of architectural representation for three reasons, all of them linked. The first is that architectural representation isn’t what’s wanted –some very real performance criteria have to be met if the building is to stay standing and its occupants alive. The second is that the systems of architectural representation we have are incapable of dealing with building performance criteria anyway. If they could, we would already be living in a world of buildings having the beauty of superior energy and ecological performance. The third is that, even if our systems of architectural representation were up to the task, nobody really wants architecture to represent or otherwise remind them of how unsafe this world we live in has become.

4. Forgetting

This is the final stage. Necessary performance criteria are completely assimilated into architecture so that our awareness of them disappears. Everyone is happy. A moat on one side and a trench on the other are nothing more than elements in a park-like space to walk your dog or child without having to think about vehicle-delivered fertilizer bombs and ensuing flying debris and shattered glass. And think about them we won’t. Ignorance is bliss. Architecture has colluded with the powers-that-be to desensitize us to ugly realities.


• • •

This circa 2008 rendering may disingenuously hark back to kinder and gentler times but the realities it depicts are no more pleasant for being sugar-coated with a confident skill and understated elegance we also seem to have lost.


• • • 

[22 Nov 2016] see also this