Author Archives: Graham McKay

Twelve Books on Architecture

Introducing Architectural Theory [issuu, amazon] is a book that gathers together pieces of writing on various themes in architecture for the purpose of getting people – mainly architecture students – to do the following.

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The first two, a. and b. – are absolutely necessary. So are the next two, c. and d. and must be passed through in order to get to e. have original thoughts.

The texts in the book are mostly well known and organized into functional groups such as Ornament & Austerity, Honesty & Deception, Function & Form and Natural & Constructed. But even if the selection of texts is balanced, the choice of functional groups is not. It implies they will continue to have relevance (for theory at least) and also that how we think about architecture in the future can be informed by how certain people thought about those aspects of it in the past. This isn’t necessarily true. You may as well go it alone and read whatever interests you, spice it up with whatever crosses your path, let it cook, and see what happens.

Here’s some I’ve read. It’s not an exhaustive list as some I haven’t yet finished and others haven’t yet arrived. Other books I’ve given away and some I’ve gifted, sometimes inadvertendly but I’ve learned something from each of the books in even this small selection. One of the things I learned is that just because a thought is original doesn’t mean it’s any good, although it may make it more likely to be taken, or mistaken, as such. Also worth remembering is that not all the writers were architects. For those that were, I’d recommend keeping in mind the difference between what they said and what they did.

• • •

Towards a New Architecture, 1923, Le Corbusier

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Always fun. Read how Le Corbusier praises engineers for their pure thinking and how they applied it to objects that defined the age. See how he takes that thinking, adds to it all that people of the time thought virtuous about the architecture of ancient Greece, and then calls it new. In the chapter “Eyes That Do Not See”, Le Corbusier looks at various machines but sees them only as metaphors for a new architecture obeying old rules, rather than the genuinely purposeful architecture that was sorely wanted at the time.

• • •

The International Style, 1932, Henry-Russel Hitchcock & Philip Johnson

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Another classic, whichever edition you have. Be appalled by the lack of argument, the shameless prejudice and the shallow, mean and self-serving agenda. When reading the image captions, be horrified by what the pair thought worthy of comment, and then by the comments themselves. It’s an ugly book and you’ll feel unclean after having read it but, unfortunately, that’s why it’s essential reading. It is wrong to claim The International Style was the first introduction to modern architecture for the US. Magazines such as Popular Mechanics introduced it first and to far more people. The difference is that Popular Mechanics introduced modern architecture as a new way of building, The International Style reduced it to art.

Related posts:
The International Style 1932
Architecture vs. Building
The Things Historians Do

• • •

The Minimum Dwelling, 1932, Karel Teige

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The fact this translation came so late is a shame, for Teige’s is an actual voice from the past, contradicting the constructed narratives of historians. Karel Teige is Le Corbusier’s only contemporary critic we now know of because this 2002 book, originally published in 1932, was only translated into English seventy years later. Czech, German and Russian architects were blessed with architectural journals translating and communicating American and British developments but the lack of flow in the other direction implies occidental arrogance. You can read what architects of the time were really concerned about, and who actually said what at CIAM meetings. It’s dense with text and thoughts. When read in conjunction with the previous book, it’s shocking to see the difference between how modern architecture was understood in late ’20s/early ’30s Europe and how it came to be communicated.

Related post:
Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige

• • •

 Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 1960, Reyner Banham

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Modern readers will find this book difficult as it’s not written in Banham’s later and more readable journalistic style. It’s still well worth reading though, because Banham is the teacher you wish you’d had. He’s scholarly in a  good way. He doesn’t make unverifiable statements or attribute ideas to people to fit his argument, or without a thorough assessment of what information they could conceivably had had access to. His conclusions as to who thought what and who was influenced by whom are often at odds with accepted histories. The book was written over fifty years ago but is now a refreshing look at the fifty years before that.

• • •

 The Victorian Country House, 1973, Mark Girouard

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This book reminds you why books exist. It tells the story of these huge houses and the people who commissioned them and why. You read about technological advances, their failures and their successes. You learn how social conventions and pretensions were embedded in house plans as well as manifesting themselves in building size, massing and facades. You will learn that these buildings were a product of the people of their time, their aspirations, vanities and pretensions. It’s a bit gloomy when you realise how little has changed but, to counter that, Girouard’s writing is a joy and that’s something you don’t come across very often in books on architecture.

Kept out of polite society through her mother’s second marriage to a drunken clergyman, Lady Charlotte Guest married Sir John Josiah Guest, the Welsh ironmaster, and used his great wealth with skill and determination to establish their social position.

Related posts:
The Maximum Dwelling
The Maximum Dwelling: RESPECT

• • •

Exploding The Myths of Modern Architecture, 2009, Malcolm Millais

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If you want to read what an engineer thinks about architecture and its myths, then Millais is your man. Millais’ rebuttal is founded in the realities of physical forces and so is better than most. Read it and then put Modern Architecture and its myths to rest. The real 20th century architectural crime against humanity is how the definition of architectural worth was shifted away from buildings aspiring to provide a real social utility, and towards buildings providing only the appearance of one.

Related posts:
Architecture Myths #23: Architecture
Architecture Myths #22: Biomimesis
Architecture Myths #21: Total Design
Architecture Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

• • •

 The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 1973, Charles Jencks

I once read an academic paper written about the books of Charles Jencks. I quote from Taylor & Francis Online.

This paper will discuss Jencks’s historiography of Post-Modernism by looking at the seminal texts that he wrote from 1970 until 2007, beginning with Architecture 2000 and ending with Critical Modernism. The main focus of this article is critically to examine his major work, the Language of Post Modernism, and to trace its evolution as a means of evaluating his contribution to the development of this movement, as well as to architectural historiography.

First published in 1973, we’ve all grown up with some edition of The Language of Post Modern Architecture. A succession of covers and revisions created the appearance of prolonged relevance and pushed its rediscovery into the future, thus making space for something even more egregious.

• • •

Yes Is More, 2009 Bjarke Ingels

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The scary brilliance of BIG’s architecture is how it reduces buildings to easily comprehensible images. The scary brilliance of the book is how it reduces architecture to easily comprehensible images. Neither is a healthy development. The book spreads its simplistic message as efficiently and ruthlessly as the plague but do not think the book simplistic. It is a sophisticated and ruthless marketing tool for a hugely successful architecture and publicity machine. Its comic book format is not the first time text was used to ornament images but it hastens the death of language all the same.

Related posts:
YES MAN
Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center (14% More BIG)

• • •

The Autopoiesis of Architecture, 2011, Patrik Schumacher

If you don’t want to buy the book, let me know and I’ll give you my heavily annotated copy as soon as I finish reading it. I should warn you that I began reading Volume I in October 2012! But my offer stands. I’ll toss in a mint-condition Volume II.

• • •

The Architecture of Neoliberalism, 2017, Douglas Spencer

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The antidote to the previous three books or, if you haven’t yet read them, the vaccination.

• • •

Against Architecture, 2012, Franco La Cecla

“A passionate charge against the celebrities of the current architectural world: the “archistars.” La Cecla argues that architecture has lost its way and its true function, as the archistars mold cityscapes to build their brand with no regard for the public good.”  An interesting notion – I think La Cecla might be onto something!  

• • •

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1999, Helen Vendler

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This book has more to do with the guts of architecture than some of the others in this list. Vendler takes each of Shakespeare’s sonnets and identifies and analyzes the poetic devices and mechanisms by which Shakespear managed to construct such breath and depth of poetic meaning and beauty. With some sonnets it’s their structure, with others their rhythm or onomatapaeia, and still others the strength or combinations of allusions, associations or imagery. They all work within the constraints of the sonnet and the conventions of Elizabthean language.

“During the nineteenth century, the study of Shakespeare’s sonnets was governed by a biographical agenda. Later, it was also governed by the “universal wisdom” agenda: the sonnets have been mined for the wisdom of friendship, the wisdom of the acquiescence to time, the wisdom of love. But I’m more interested in them as poems that work. They seem to me to work awfully well (though not everyone thinks so). And each one seems to work differently. Shakespeare was the most easily bored writer that ever lived, and once he had made a sonnet prove out in one way, he began to do something even more ingenious with the next sonnet. It was a kind of task that he set himself: within an invariant form, to do something different—structurally, lexically, rhythmically—in each poem. I thought each one deserved a little commentary of its own, so I’ve written a mini-essay on each one of the one hundred and fifty four.” [from Paris Review]

For her efforts, Vendler has been criticized as “clinical” and her analysis as “forensic”. These days, her book is marketed as a companion volume to understanding the sonnets in order to pacify those who prefer to worship the unknowable magic of creative genius, and whose only wish is that it remain unknowbale. However, for those wanting to see how one man mastered the techniques of his trade and put them to good use, I know no better textbook.

Related Posts:
Aesthetic Effect #3: COMBINE

 

Plan B

This planet has seen some extreme housing density in its time. If you were in The Rookery in New York in 1865 you’d know what 4,700 persons per hectare looks like.

Rookery

If you were in Madrid 1930-31 you’d recognize these two buildings in Karel Teige’s 1932 book, The Minimum Dwelling. The lower one has a density of 4,500 persons per hectare and the upper one a density of 6,000.

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If you were in Kowloon Walled City in 1987 you’d have seen 33,000 people living at a density of 12,700 per hectare.

Living at such high densities is now some time in the past but we can’t be sure it won’t be part of our future. Londoners know High Barnet as the northermost station on the Northern Line. These are the plans of a recent permitted development in the London Borough of Barnet.

The more central London Borough Of Camden had denser, unpermitted developments twenty years ago but it’s a slippery slope when 25 sq.m (270 sq.ft) per person becomes permissible, and only a matter of time before legal minimums begin to get nasty. Last year’s Venice Biennale offered some tasters. Here’s a situation from the US pavilion’s The Architectural Imagination exhibit. Ground level is given over to transportation, retail and whatever’s meant by a neighbourhood of common spaces. The rooftop is amenity space. It’s Unité d’Habitations minus the parky bit and the habitations. People live in tents, hopefully before upgrading to some more rigid enclosure that’s no-doubt self-build and locally-sourced but for all the wrong reasons. Multistorey carpark meets favela. Stay classy, America!

Here’s another example, this time from the Taiwan exhibit.

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I was unsure if this uncomfortable juxtaposition of habitation and transportation was proposal or reality but there’s no doubt with this next.

It all points towards a future a bit grittier than Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ lurid celebration of four decades of visionary architecture that never happened.

This ought to be a warning. If A is for Architecture and B is for Building then we need a Plan B to mitigate the likelihood Plan A will fail to deliver. It might be prudent to start to think about how people might live at higher densities should they become the new normal. In places such as Hong Kong they already are and people there seem to manage quite nicely.

The high-density tower block is the best use of land we’ve come up with so far.

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We know how to make them. We don’t know how to make them better.

• • •

The Domino’s House post a few weeks back celebrated the two-apartment-per-landing floor plan. This is one of the layouts of Dubai Duty Free Residence by UA Architects. It’s a good use of the plan’s advantages, and has elevators too.
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The same configuration is popular in India but here it is in some Hong Kong apartments. When you get higher up, it’s a good idea to have that second elevator.

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The stairs are scissor stairs although, with this arrangement, I’m unsure why.

This example also has a service elevator and maid’s quarters and the scissor stairs now function together and separately as main stairs and service (back) stairs for the same apartment.

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This next arrangement stretches the landing between the elevators and stairs to make a corridor that passes two apartments in order to access more apartments. It’s what corridors do.

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Bathroom windows open onto light wells and cross ventilation is compromised but all kitchens still have external windows because of their relationship with the recesses and the front doors. It’s a neat way of doing things and can be seen in many of the layouts that follow. It’s a better idea to put the scissor stairs behind the elevators and use the elevator landing as the corridor but, in this next example, construction expediency has compromised the internal planning.

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This next example is a better way of using a similar core to access four apartments. Increased external surface area is the price you pay for windows and the question becomes one of how much light and ventilation kitchens and bathrooms actually need.

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These next eight layouts all consider that problem and have arrived at much the same solution.

  • All have near-identical cores.
  • All have extended the elevator lobby to create four new corners to allow eight apartments per floor – the maximum possible without adding additional corridor to get past some apartments to access others.
  • All enter directly into the living room rather than into a corridor leading to a living room with a view in two directions.

What we’re looking at is an urban typology that’s evolved naturally by following some basic principles and without regard for architectural beauty – it’s a modern and generic vernacular architecture. The typology is sometimes called the snowflake layout because of its rotationally-symmetrical mirrorings.

The various arms can have different apartment types but let’s compare two that use 45° angles. Entering an apartment at a corner always makes internal planning more difficult but is unavoidable when eight apartments converge on a core. Both layouts sensibly place the kitchen along core walls and at the end of open ventilation shafts shared with all bathrooms. The layout on the right makes better use of the 45° angle with a defined dining space away from the front door. Windows of opposing dining areas are offset from each other.

The desire for construction profit would normally have reduced external wall area by closing the sides of those shafts and turning them into fully enclosed light-wells/ventilation shafts so, because this hasn’t happened, there must be a significant advantage to keeping one side of those shafts open. Air currents around the building must keep the air moving but the kitchen window also has a view. This next example has laundry drying racks outside the windows at the inner ends of long, open shafts. We see elevator lobbies naturally lit and ventilated. We get a feel for the structure and also get a sense for the construction.

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We call ourselves architects but see Hong Kong’s high-rise apartment buildings only in terms of outer appearance (and then only negatively as monotonous, extrusions, etc.) and with no regard for or even acknowledgement of their inner life.

We’re quick to suggest the Chinese are predisposed towards functioning as a cohesive society – and perhaps they are [and when did this become a bad thing?], but this only allows us to ignore how these buildings are configured to facilitate people living their lives at high density and in relative harmony. To labour the point, these buildings are not problems requiring dynamite and/or Post Modermism as solutions.

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In the Repeating Crevice, Revisited post, I noted how Shinohara’s Repeating Crevice house provided its occupants with graded levels of awareness of the presence and movements of other occupants. I suggested this might be useful for co-living and co-housing projects that, typically, offer only the binary choice of fully private space or fully shared space. The result was Repeating Crevice reimagined as co-housing.

I thought if such an arrangement can benefit people living in close quarters, then it might be worthwhile extending the principle to high-rise apartment buildings. The Hong Kong typology does have kitchen windows with views of the sides of the building, and habitable rooms often have sideways views of other habitable room windows. Within the same building there already is a visual awareness of neighbours on the same floor but this doesn’t come via the spaces connecting them. I thought the transition between elevator lobby and apartment lobby could perhaps be more visually permeable but,

for any proposal to be more than a spatial exercise, there should also have 1) eight two-bedroom apartments per floor, 2) naturally ventilated and lit elevator lobbies, 3) naturally ventilated and lit bathrooms and kitchens and 4) laundry drying areas. I’m not yet sure it can be done.

• • •

I’m more certain we’re thinking the wrong way about privacy. We design apartment buildings to exclude all awareness of people living in the same building and sharing corridors and elevators, and then wonder why people think they’re isolating and alienating. Village life may have the opposite downside of everyone knowing what everyone else is doing but, midway between these two densities is suburbia where people can see from their window if their neighbours are in, or chat across a driveway or garden fence if they wish.

We live in cities because we enjoy the opportunites that arise when people live at higher densities but the reality is we live our lives oscillating between our public and private selves. We manically try to achieve balance, not equilibrium. Apartment doors switch us between being private in spaces totally open to the world, and being social in spaces totally closed to it. Something is not right.

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We see our dwellings as refuges from society rather than as places to reassure us we’re part of it. We thus lack the calmness and certainty that comes from feeling part of something greater than ourselves. Instead, we look for it in views but in less than two centuries the notion of a view has quickly degraded from preferred landscape, to any landscape, to suburban garden, to communal garden, to river view, to any large space outside one’s window.

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When the window-to-window distance decreases, people stop being picturesque and become real. We’re not yet back in the village but we’re getting back to the social reality of suburbia. This is not a bad thing.

In the world’s larger cities, the idea that a desirable view can include people is something occurring out of necessity. If we like living in cities and amongst other people then we need to be more aware of each other, not as some kind of substitute or lesser view but out of choice and because it is socially and psychologically good for us.

I suspect this is what happens in Hong Kong where people seem to manage just fine although, it must be said, its excruciatingly beautiful topography is never far away.

• • •

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  • 40% of Hong Kong’s land is natural landscape. 90% of all journeys are by public transport, of which 43% are by the city’s MTR metro system. Hong Kong has a low energy use per capita, only slightly above the world average.

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  • Per capita statistics are averages that deny extremes and using GDP as an indicator of a country’s prosperity has its own liimitations. That said, Hong Kong’s balance between energy efficiency and GDP per capita is the planet’s best – better than Austria and Switzerland and better than the G7 countries by as much again.

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The Fireplace

Fireplace is one of those reliable English language words that don’t leave you guessing. This abridged history begins with the traditional European fireplace of mediaeval times. The one in the image on the left, below, is from a house The Black Knight once stayed in circa 1400, hence the insignia on the mantel – or at least that’s how I remember it from World of Interiors. The house is most definitely that of a nobleman, but I like how it can be lived in with a minimum of apparatus. Rugs and tapestries soften the acoustics and lessen radiant cooling. That 17th century invention, the piano, would always have been by the window for better light but not so close for diurnal temperature variations to affect its tuning. A painting and some flowers in a vase probably always satisfied the human needs for art and nature. Internal shutters kept the wind-owt. The fireplace provided warmth.

The story-arc of the fireplace starts off promisingly with a succession of improvements for better combustion.

The first major change in heating technology came in the early 17th century when Franz Kessler had the idea of using the siphon effect to pull hot air through a ceramic baffle that warmed up and transferred heat to the room.

Taken from the Holzsparkunst (The Art of Saving Wood) by Franz Kessler – published in 1618.

Over four centuries, the ceramic fireplace (a.k.a. masonry heater) with multiple baffles became the dominant continental European way to heat a room. Each country had its variants but common to all was a large mass that heated the room by radiant heat.

A Frenchman, Jean Desaguiliers, noticed that metals such as cast iron conducted heat into the room more effectively. Benjamin Franklin combined these two discoveries into the Franklin Stove he proposed in 1741.

It had the problem of only burning well and without smoke if there was a strong draft, and this was difficult if the flue was still cold. In 1780, David Rittenhouse modified Franklin’s design by adding an L-shaped flue at the top and it’s Rittenhouse improved design that today, unfortunately for Rittenhouse’s memory, is mistakenly referred to as a Franklin Stove.

A little over four years ago, in the Night Sky Radiant Cooling post, I introduced Count von Rumford [a.k.a. Benjamin Thompson] who, in 1796, suggested improvements that became known as the Rumford Fireplace. Rumford must have been sensitive to cold as he’s also credited with the invention of thermal underwear.

The Rumford fireplace created a sensation in London when [Rumford] introduced the idea of restricting the chimney opening to increase the updraught, which was a much more efficient way to heat a room than earlier fireplaces. He and his workers modified fireplaces by inserting bricks into the hearth to make the side walls angled, and added a choke to the chimney to increase the speed of air going up the flue. The effect was to produce a streamlined air flow, so all the smoke would go up into the chimney rather than lingering, entering the room, and often choking the residents. It also had the effect of increasing the efficiency of the fire, and gave extra control of the rate of combustion of the fuel, whether wood or coal. Many fashionable London houses were modified to his instructions, and became smoke-free. [W]

The pot-bellied stove of circa 1860 is one of the world’s great inventions. It could produce 50 kW or more, making them suitable for heating large spaces such as railway station waiting rooms and depots, and even the trains themselves. Warmth went public. 

The story of the domestic fireplace between 1850 and 1950 is that of the shift from combusting wood, to combusting coal, and then gas. Below, the first example is a coal-burning fireplace from circa 1870 and the others are examples of the gas-fired “coal-effect” fireplaces still common in the UK today.

Ceramic “coals” glow a convincing red upon sufficient heat input.

Over the same period, the history of the fireplace split in two. One history charts improvements in the fuel being combusted and how to combust it. The other charts the change from the fireplace being (1) a functional feature structurally integrated into the building, into (2) a functional and symbolic feature integrated into the building and then into (3) a symbolic feature. This history can probably be traced through the fireplaces of Wright alone.

In the 20th century, the fireplace became an architectural feature increasingly detached from the building.

These next images, in no particular order, show the fireplace in various stages on the spectrum of architectural element to objectified object.

Whether this objectification happened because fireplaces were made functionally obsolete by air conditioning, underfloor heating and other forms of active environmental control no longer matters. It continued anyway. An architecture victim at twelve, I looked foward to dancing around the fire in my modern house of the future.

One technical fightback that occurred 1960-1980 was the “heatform” fireplace which was a metal firebox built into a full masonry chimney. They were inexpensive to install because a trained mason didn’t have to construct a firebox. Side or top vents circulated heated air back into the room. Heatform and Heatilator were popular brands.

This is Vulcan oil-fired heater of a type popular in Australia in the 1960s. There was a tank on an outside wall and when its float indicator dropped below a certain level, you’d phone someone and a guy in a boiler suit would come park an oil tanker in your driveway and fill it up again, fuelling oil dependency at the same time. Oil heaters such as these were often enclosed in a masonry–effect fireplace surrounds or inserted into feature walls of masonry effect cladding. Ceramic inserts above the burner glowed orange at full burn.

The 1970s oil crises and a growing awareness that burning oil wasn’t such a good thing led to a revival of interest in wood-burning stoves that had no need for masonry surrounds, even fake ones. Most improved little upon the Rittenhouse Stove. Rectangular shapes were admired for their modern looks rather than for having more radiant surface area than a potbelly.

Freestanding stoves were seen as more modern but placing them in a fireplace meant the masonry would continue to radiate heat for some time after heat input ceased.

Philip Starck solved that problem by placing optional boxes of modular rocks / modular boxes of optional rocks beneath the firebox. Meet Speetbox. Is there anything that has not been reinvented by Philippe Starck?

Speetbox app features include:

  • Control of hot air distribution (on/off)
  • Control of room temperature (optional)
  • Setting of power/speed of combustion
  • Analysis of flue temperatures (safety)
  • Lighting control
  • Control of electric sockets (time setting)
  • Hearth software features update

Since the 1970s, the objectification of the fireplace has intensified but with less dancing. Of the feature object fireplaces, the suspended fireplace was perhaps the most perverse,

but there is also the subcategory of architectural fireplaces,

as well as the one having the fireplace as architecturalized object.

As it happened, it wasn’t the fireplace being objectified after all but fire itself. The frameless Escea DS1400 lets you focus on the flame instead of going to the trouble of making one or using it to make more by periodically adding fuel. The Escea DS1400 operates on either natural gas or propane. Its heat output of 5–5.6 kW might warm 16 sq.m on a cold day.

A downloadable user guide tells you how to connect your fireplace to the internet ffs and warns you not to lose the remote.

We haven’t quite reached the bottom. This next is a bio-ethanol fire experience that provides you with romantic fire art. At least the flames are still flames.

You know how this is going to end.  Dimplex’s Opti Myst® effect uses ultrasonics to create a fine water mist that’s coaxed upwards through the ‘fuel’ to allow moving images of flames to be projected onto it and create a convincing illusion of flames and smoke. The result is an appearance so authentic it will be mistaken for true flames and smoke. To its credit, there is still the presence of a gas-like substance but any conceptual satisfaction is thwarted by their “Just add water!” approach to creating fire. 

Focal Point Fires make much of their realistic fire effects. Dimplex have been at it for some time. Their Optiflame® effect was introduced in 1988.

Their Opti-V Effect is, they say, the perfect blend of magic and realism. This is disturbing. Just when I’ve finally come to accept a reality that’s insufficiently magical, I realise I’ve been neglecting to worry about magic not being realistic enough.

It uses the latest High Definition TV technology to create flames and sparks for a virtual fireplace experience like no other. The unique and patent protected design combines ultra realistic flickering flames with three dimensional LED logs that sporadically spark! With the addition of an audio element of crackling logs, the illusion of a real fire is complete. [snarky boldings mine]

There are many fireplace TV apps available that don’t treat sound as an extra. Their downside is that the only heat you’ll get will be from your flatscreen’s electronics. The fire as fire-effect virtual fireplace is so new our language hasn’t yet adapted to describe it. If left to virtually burn continuously on this 32″ SONY BRAVIA for the three months of winter, such an app would consume 35W of electricity. Most of that 35W would be converted into heat, but you might wish it was a little more especially if, like me, you are a seated adult male generating (i.e. losing) approx. 70W of metabolic heat per hour.

From such proud beginnings to such an ignominious end. I didn’t set out to write a critical para-historic fable about architecture as a projection of an image of a hollowed-out shell of something that once had a purpose, but it’s what I seem to have done.

• • •

US 7,540,120

US7540120 is a United States patent for a Multi-Level Apartment Building. Patent attorneys aren’t likely to be apartment plan geeks so I pity the one whose desk this landed on. Perhaps I shouldn’t, because patent attorneys are skilled in untangling real novelty from mere claims to it. They also understand the importance of precise language because patent language is designed to accurately describe all that’s unique about an invention but at the same time be sufficiently encompassing so that protection isn’t lost if someone else makes some minor improvement or change. Phrases such as substantially and arbitrarily occur often because their meaning is defined. The term disposed is used to mean placed or arranged. The term a plurality of is used to mean a few, several, or many.

The structure of a patent application is also defined. At the beginning is a list of patents to which the invention refers or relates to. Then comes the Abstract. The one for US Patent 7,540,120 doesn’t tell us much because we’re not used to imagining buildings from written descriptions. This particular abstract is an accurate and concise description of the invention – it has to be.

A multi-level apartment building includes vertically stacked sections each containing at least one pair of apartments, where each apartment of an apartment pair contains a stairway assembly coupled to a vertically extending stair support wall assembly that contains utility distribution conduits. The stairway assembly for each apartment connects four levels of function space. One apartment of the pair in a vertical section is rotated 180 degrees in plan in relation to the other apartment of the pair which is entered on the opposite side of a public corridor that provides access to the apartments of the pair. The apartments are vertically stacked in alignment where an apartment of a pair is mirrored in plan in relation to a vertically underlying or overlying apartment of another pair, and the stair support assemblies of the respectively vertically stacked apartments are vertically aligned.

What it doesn’t tell us is why somebody would want to do that. Next comes Description of the Invention. This is divided into sub-sections, the first of which is Field of the Invention.

The present invention relates generally to a multi-level structure and, more particularly, to a multi-level apartment building having a plurality of apartments, where each apartment includes a plurality of rooms on levels connected by a stairway system that is coupled to a stair support wall assembly for receiving vertically extending utility services.

There’s a certain comfort that comes from words meaning exactly what they say, and no more or less. 

Next comes Background of the Invention. This sub-section tells you what the existing problems were that led to the invention being proposed as a solution. This is where the case for the invention is made.

The invention itself is described in detail in Summary of the Invention and cross-referenced to Brief Description of the Drawings where each drawing is described in detail. It ought be possible for an architect to fully understand this building from these.

Finally comes the Claims in which everything unique about the invention and worthy of legal protection is isolated and listed in a structured sequence of claims and dependent (sub-) claims. Each claim is written as a single sentence and is not easy reading. Governmental patent offices in the home country and countries around the world make rulings on whether the invention described by the Claims are unique and thus deserving of protection. 

The invention of US 7,540,120 has been granted a patent because it solves some identified problem in a unique and novel manner. If only architecture could always be so clear, with the use of words such as unique, novel and innovative limited to legally recognised and precisely described solutions to specifically identified problems.

If a person can’t call themselves an architect without being legally recognized as such, then why not have a similar requirement for architecture?  

After all, a patent attorney (or any lawyer, for that matter) would be comfortable with the statement “All hatmakers make hats” but not with the statement “All architects create architecture.” And neither should we. Making architects legally liable for false claims to aesthetic innovation would certainly clear the air, eliminate much noise. We can speculate on this some other time because, for now, I want to find out what’s so special about this novel and innovative architectural invention. It’s not every day one comes along. From the section and plan above it seems like a scissor-plan variant.

For reference, here’s the scissor plan of the 1962 Corringham apartments in London Kenneth Frampton had a hand designing. Scissor plans are confusing, even for the people who made these diagrams trying to explain them. The key to the section says 1 is the living and 2 the entry but it’s the other way around. The plan numbering corresponds to its key but not to the section numbering, even when corrected.

Background to the Invention

Multi-level buildings are a favored form of residential construction because they provide for improved land use and a high density alternative to sprawl. The buildings usually include a plurality of apartments where each of the apart ments is occupied by several individuals, such as a family. Such apartments, however, usually do not include all of the features and amenities that are ordinarily present in a detached suburban home. The apartments typically do not include such detached home features as split level living room and dining room function space, duplex height in a living room function space, duplex height windows as part of the living room space and that provide natural lighting to remote interior portions of the apartment, bedrooms located on separate levels to afford privacy from each other and also communal activities, views on opposite sides of a building, through ventilation, an exposed interior duplex height stairway and balconies without shadows and overhangs. The absence of many of the features and amenities usually present in a detached residence makes conventional apartments unappealing to the more mobile class of residential purchasers. […] Therefore, a need exists for a multi-level apartment building that addresses the needs of sprawling development by containing a plurality of apartments that can be fabricated with relative ease and where each apartment creates the illusion of spaciousness while providing expected amenities and consuming a minimum of floor area.

Frankly, I expected more, but this is the problem the inventors have set themselves to solve and it was judged to be a real and valid one. Their problem was that apartments don’t feel housey enough and they intend to solve this by providing:

  1. a split level living room and dining room function space,
  2. duplex height in a living room function space,
  3. duplex height windows as part of the living room space,
  4. bedrooms on separate levels,
  5. views on both sides of a building,
  6. through ventilation,
  7. a dramatic stairway,
  8. a balcony some distance from the one above, and
  9. creating an apartment having the illusion of spaciousness but consuming a minimum of floor area.

Let’s see!

  1. An access corridor runs across the building and apartments either side are mirrored and reversed or, in CADspeak, a copy is horizontally rotated 180° [not vertically around 180° as per a unité].
  2. The kitchen/dining area is on the same level as the entrance.
  3. The living rooms are on a level slightly lower than the kitchen/dining, and have a ceiling height slightly higher.
  4. A staircase in the corner of the living rooms extends upwards to access a minor bedroom above the kitchen/dining of the apartment across the corridor.
  5. The same staircase extends downwards to access the master bedroom beneath the kitchen/dining of the apartment across the corridor.

This basic unit can be repeated horizontally any number of times, and vertically as well if vertically alternate units are reversed, interlocked and stacked an arbitrary number of times. Don’t forget that a patent application describes a general principle and doesn’t need to describe what happens at the end of the building where a living room is minus a kitchen/dining room, or at the other end of the building where the kitchen/dining room lacks corresponding bedrooms and living area.

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The German application for the invention includes the following two helpful diagrams.

Bathrooms of one unit and the kitchen of another are thus sandwiched between living rooms above and below and this is why the stairwell support wall must have services run through it.

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In a patent application, the variation described in most detail is called the preferred embodiment (manifestation) of the invention in order to exclude other inventions that are substantially identical. These are also anticipated in the descriptions of other embodiments. The ones listed all divide the minor bedroom to configure a three-bedroom apartment and also feature alternative arrangments for the staircase – presumably to get the service riser out of the living room.

The inventors have solved most of the problems they set out to solve.

  • There is a split-level living room and dining room.
  • The living room is double-storey height.
  • There are double-storey windows.
  • Bedrooms are on separate levels.
  • The apartment has views in two opposite directions.
  • Some degree of cross ventilation exists.
  • The staircase is indeed dramatic even if it only goes to a minor bedroom.
  • Vertically above and below each double-height living room are two bedroom levels and a kitchen level so there are five floors betwen [vertically adjacent] living room balconies.

However, I’m not sure they have succeeded in creating an apartment having the illusion of spaciousness but consuming a minimum of floor area because, for one, I don’t know how it would be possible to objectively evaluate the success of an illusion. I’m also not sure if it has been done consuming a minimum of floor area. The typical plan below shows how the space (indicated in red) above/below the corridor (green) is not being used for any purpose than to pass over/under the corridor and contrive a double-sided apartment. The solution thus solves one problem but creates another. There may be the illusion of spaciousness and certain amenities (including the benefit of inscrutability) but it can only be said to consume a minimum of floor area until somebody comes along and solves the same problem in less.

The inventors did succeed in what they set out to do but they did not set the bar very high.

  • Apartments might be more attractive to more people if they successfully create the illusion of being more like detached houses but is a split-level living room and dining room, or a dramatic staircase really the best way to go? And if not what is? For some people, for example, a house might be all about opening the kitchen door to let the dog in, or having a basement and an attic. Instead of creating the illusion of an apartment being more like a house, it might be more worthwhile to explore what advantages apartments have that detached houses don’t.
  • A first, I thought the configuration was a scissor plan variant but it turned out not to be so. Having all living rooms on a preferred side of the building was not a problem the invention aimed to solve. There is scope for some other, future invention to incorporate this feature and be a completely new invention. 
  • I also initially expected it would be possible to horizontally extend apartments by making appropriate openings (and/or closures) in party walls to enlarge or reduce the volume of the apartment but this is not the case. We still lack a multi-storey apartment building configuration with the potential to be arbitrarily extended horizontally by having wall openings that can be arbitrarily opened/closed to access different staircases and their adjacent spaces. Such a method of configuring apartments would use similar elements and spaces to configure apartments of varying sizes and shapes and thus have advantages for construction cost and time savings. The challenge would be to do it with a minimum of walls having only latent party wall functionality and, as ever, a minimum of circulation space.

Good luck and let me know how you get on!

Career Case Study #8: Gio Ponti

1921
Graduated with a degree in Architecture from Politecnico di Milano.

1923–1927
Worked in partnership with Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia.
Exhibited at the first Biennial Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Monza.

1924
Ponti House in via Randaccio Gio Ponti, Emilio Lancia
via Randaccio 9, Milano

For many architects, their first built work is a house for their parents. This was Ponti’s.

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1926
Villa Bouilhet
Garches, Paris, France

Two decent houses within five years after graduation.

1927–1933
Continued with Lancia as Studio Ponti e Lancia PL. [In these years he was influenced by and associated with the Milanese neo-classical Novecento Italiano movement. The movement can be said to have done nothing to discourage nationalistic tendencies via its appeals to the past great traditions of Italian art. [Mussolini neither approved or disapproved but, it must be said, the general secretary of the Fascist Party deemed it insufficiently Italian.] Other buildings include the 1926 Bouilhet villa in Garches, Paris, the 1929 Monument to the Fallen with Giovanni Muzio, the Casa Rasini apartment blocks in Milan, and the 1930 Domus Julia–Domus Fausta complex on Via Letizia. [W] I’ve not seen these buildings, but they’re certain to be documented on the Gio Ponti official website. It’s a huge and useful resource.

1928
Founded DOMUS magazine and was its editor from 1928–1941, and again from 1948 until he died.

1928 – 1931
Apartment building
G
io Ponti, Emilio Lancia
via Domenichino 1-3, Milano

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1933-1934
Rasini House and Tower Gio Ponti, Emilio Lancia
Bastioni di Porta Venezia 1, corso Venezia 61, Milano

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The stone, and the stonework is exquisite.

1933–1945
Ponti teamed with engineers, Antonio Fornaroli and Eugenio Soncini and formed Studio Ponti-Fornaroli-Soncini.

1936–1961
Now, fifteen years after graduating and five years after founding DOMUS, Ponti became permanent professor of the Faculty of Architecture at Politecnico di Milano University. I get the feeling he intuitively understood how architectural projects, education and media all feed off each other.  

1936–1938
Casa Marmont
Via Gustavo Modena 36, Milano

From the late 1930s until about 1942, Ponti’s buildings have Rationalist overtones and are not dissimilar from those of Asnago–Vender at that time. The mounting of windows flush with the wall surface is an obvious similarity but may have some non-stylistic justficiation. It’s a notable feature of Pirelli Tower and a design decision more likely to have been Ponti’s than Nervi’s.

1936
Montecatini office building 
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Soncini

largo Donegani 2, Milano

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In 1941 Ponti was to resign his editorship of DOMUS magazine to start the magazine Stile. In one of its early issues, Ponti praised the buildings of Asnago Vender as “The Style of Tomorrow”. [The essay is reproduced in Caruso & Thomas’ book Asnago Vender and the Construction of Modern Milan.]

“For them, modern architecture is a form of free expression that emerges naturally like a science and a technology, a trade and a profession, and is released from any kind of precedent. Asnago & Vender work naturally, in accordance with a firm conviction that lies in their own nature and is as spontaneous as an intrinsic vocation. Their art is ‘just right’: their approach is expressed by the diligence of silent, consistent work, like an almost natural phenomenon that has no more need for system, programmes, or previsions, with no more hidden controversial content of any sort.

“But the two architects are also artists who have natural feelings that they are able to express in their work without any hindrance or wastage – fortunately. This is the additional gift that is necessary and essential to enable one to represent an art – having the ability to do so.”

These are powerful words indicating an industry awareness befitting a magazine editor even though Ponti’s own career did not go in that direction.

1940
House By The Sea
Bordighera, Italy

There’s nothing not to like here.

1940
University commissions for the University of Padua

Ponti himself painted the frescos on the staircase walls. [W]
I can understand an architect helping a country’s war effort by designing industrial buildings but hand-painting frescoes on a university’s walls? Here they are lining the “staircase to knowledge”.

Here’s the professors’ Reading Room at the University of Padua, with the Dean’s Office on the other side of those doors. Look at the floor! Terrazzo never looked so classy – and so it ought. Arranging aggregate in lines only to pour white concrete over it and then grind and polish it was neither fast nor inexpensive to do. Low-quality materials have been given the decadence of process. I know I shouldn’t like things like this and be adding to my list of guilty pleasures.

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And what about that idiosyncratic arched door in the corner? If Ponti had wanted to incorporate it into the aesthetics of this room, I’m sure could have. The difference between the sea green wall colour and the peach beyond makes me think a waiter uses that door to enter the room and take drinks orders.

1942 was only twenty years after Ponti graduated but he had already found his style and it was one of inescapable and relentless good taste. You can be confident that, when those main doors are opened, there will be more of the same.

1951
Montecatini office building 
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Soncini

via Principe Amedeo 2, Milano

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1951-1955
INA Casa Harrar
Via Harrar/Dessié/Via Novarra, Milano

This social housing project is anomalous and you can read more about it here where it says “Ponti developed the master plan along with Luigi Figini, Gino Pollini and Piero Bottoni” and that “Ponti designed two blocks, one facing Via Harrar-Dessiè, and the other, perpendicular to this, extending into the interior of the block.” I can’t find any images of interiors. Although many Ponti projects are collaborations of some sort, this is one of the rare ones that have a greater context.

1954
4P
Milan, Italy

This is another anomalous project during the construction of the Pirelli Tower. There’s no description for the design on the right, which is the more interesting of the two since the enclosed space is not divided into the functional zones of the other design, but into day and night zones that spatially overlap. Ponti was to re-use this device in his own 1964 apartment. The lesser-known iteration of this is rare because it shows a desire to extract maximum spatial utility from a volume.

1952–1961
Pirelli Tower
 
Gio Ponti, Pier Luigi Nervi, Arturo Danusso
Via Fabio Filzi 22, Milan

Ponti won the commission to design the 32-story Pirelli Tower in 1950. It was Milan’s second tall building, the first being Torre Velasca constructed 1956–58. Pirelli Tower became an immediate symbol of a confident and renewed Italy and, with Nervi’s help, remains as idosyncratic and elegant as it was in mid-1950s. The effect of this important commission was felt long before the building was completed. It was the turning point in Ponti’s career, and the beginnings of the post-war phenomenon of Italian design that continues to this day.  With Ponti and Pirelli, Milanese architecture and Italian architecture in general, begins to get more wilful, seeking more than merely local recognition. Whereas Asnago Vender were content to remain Milanese architects for their entire careers, Ponti marks the beginning of international architecture in Italy and of Italian architecture internationally, assissted by Ponti (now back) at DOMUS and Ernesto Rogers (1953–1965) at Casabella.

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One of the first commissions Ponti received because of worldwide attention the tower was for Villa Planchard in Caracas, Venezuela. It’s a Pinterest favourite. Another villa in Caracas, the Villa Areazza, quickly followed, as did another in Teheran. All three are the mature works of someone fully in command.

1955
Villa Planchard
Caracas, Venezuela

The dining area of Villa Planchard is as good a place as any to pause for a while and try to make some sense out of all of this.

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First, look at the supersized terrazzo of that floor! Again, it’s unimaginable decadence of process to get slabs of different stone to do this. Another guilty pleasure. How about that wall on the right? I’ve no idea what timber those panels are, but I’m betting they’re an inch think and oiled and polished to make them last forever. They’re beautiful enough but nevertheless enhanced by at least two ceramic inlays and two wall lamps calling attention to themselves by their differing orientations. Two ceilings each do their own thing. Those bubble-petally things on the far wall are probably Murano glass but the unadorned part needs an image or something to carry us around the corner into presumably the kitchen. But those bubbly things – see how they compress as they approach the ceiling? And what is that curve and angle supposed to do? Does either wall really need shelves with plants? Does the table really need to have to have supports profiled like the Pirelli tower?  And a chair moved out of the way so we can see it?

What plants other than orchids would dare flower in such a room? What clothes would one have to wear to feel at home? The room doesn’t encourage solid colour, or seem to want any more pattern. It seems happy for plates on the table to express the potential for people but I can’t imagine this space accommodating even those stagey lifestyle people in the Julius Schulman Case Study House photographs. It’s difficult to live as fabulously as this house implies. It doesn’t matter in architectural imagery and, as a magazine man, I’m sure Ponti understood this.

1956
Villa Arreazza
Caracas, Venezuela

Villa Namazee 1957 – 1964
Teheran, Iran

Things to note here are the attention paid to sightlines and viewlines in the plan, the shape of the glass display cabinet in the living room, and the confident busy-ness of that internal courtyard.

1956 – 1957
Casa Ponti House in via Dezza Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli
via Dezza 49, Milano

This is where Ponti and his family lived at least some of the time. Folding doors divide rooms at night.

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1923 – 1958
Throughout this period Ponti also designed ceramics, furnishings, vases, dinnerware, chairs, glassware and lamps for various companies. Below are a 1931 lamp for Fontana Arte, one of many glass bottles for Venini in 1949, and the Superleggera chair for Cassini in 1957.

1961
Palazzo del Lavoro Gio Ponti and Pier Luigi Nervi
Torino

My undergraduate history book World Architecture [1963] had upward looking closeups of the famous roof structure as its front and back inner covers. The building seems to be slipping from the history of architecture faster than it is from the history of engineering. It’s a beautiful thing, stunning in its simplicity. Wikipedia lists Ponti as architect and Nervi as engineer but I can’t find it on the Ponti website, presumably because it does nothing to further the mythology. Pirelli may have been Ponti’s but Nervi owns this one.

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1962
Parco de
Rei Principi
Sorrento, Italy

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We should be thankful to Pinterest for allowing us to gain even an inkling of what it is like to stay here. It’s claimed the hotel was the first designer hotel in the world and, going by the profile of those lobby columns, I suspect it’s true.

1963
Politecnico Milano

Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 3, Milano

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The ground level appearance of these buildings has been compromised by the interconnecting bridges installed later, no doubt for reasons of accessibility.

1963-1967
Building for the Istituto Nazionale Assicurazioni 
Gio Ponti, Fornaroli, Rosselli

via San Paolo 7, via Agnello 6/1-8, Milano

With this building we see the first use of textured ceramic tiles.

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1964
Chiesa di San Francesco
via Paolo Giovio 31, Milano

I took three photographs of this next corner so something about it must have disturbed me. As I find with much of Ponti’s later work, I can’t guess at what effect he was aiming to achieve. Now I think about it, what I find it disturbing is how this wall denies the spaces behind it, only acknowledging them when they provide an opportunity for window as ornament for the wall. The same accusation could be made against the central wall as well.

1964-69
Chiesa di San Carlo Borromeo presso l’Ospedale
Milano

1965
Building 14, Politecnico Milan
Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 3, Milano

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In the photograph below you can see the other Politecnico Milano building to the rear. Fifty years on, this is still a handsome building, and is undergoing partial retrofitting for enhanced energy performance.

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But gosh it scrubs up well – it looks as if it’s just been built! Properly made and laid textured ceramic tiles must be the perfect cladding.

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1964-1970
Montedoria building
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli
via Pergolesi 25, Milano

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The building forms one half of a gaetway as is common on many piazzi.

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The tile cladding is highly textured, changes with the light etc. and is, basically, gorgeous.

The third photograph above however, shows gratuitous layering for the sake of it. Surely there’s a better reason for building volume than to create shadows and avoid a planar surface? We’ve become immune to this sort of thing and, like variously offset and sized windows, have come to believe it indicates design effort, if not excellence. My only criticism of this building is that there’s simply too much happening. It’s happening in a highly controlled, competent and elegant manner so it pains me to say it, but every window, by virtue of its shape or position, doesn’t need to state that a designer is on the case. This dusting of gratuitousness might be what makes this building designed and constructed 1964-1970 still appear so contemporary. Its materials and construction are a contradiction. Their sheer quality means we can see this building today as if it were new but it also means the building could never be a product of any other place and time but Italy in the 1960s.

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1969
De Bijenkorf 
Gio Ponti, Theo Boosten
Eindhoven, Netherlands

By now, the glazed ceramic tile had been perfected. Relief becomes bas-relief to make shadows deeper on cloudy days and in low-angle sunlight. Sunlight or rain produce shimmering effects intensified by the glazing being seemingly resistant to dirt, grime and the passage of time.

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1971
Denver Art Museum

100 W 14th Ave Pkwy, Denver, CO 80204, USA

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1971
Taranto Cathedral
Taranto, Italy

Cathedrals aren’t generally known for their restrained interiors so what’s immediately noticeable here is how austere this one is. For the entrance and campanile, the walls are no longer things that exist to accept ornament but things that are constituted from it.

• • •

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Gio Ponti is a phenomenon, a person who touched every corner of Italian design for half a century and the person responsible for making Italian design the international phenomenon it remains to this day. As an architect, he understood how to make spaces and how to decorate them and, as editor of DOMUS, how to publicise them. He knew how to make a building fit well on a site and how to clad it so it looks new forever. Ponti is remembered most for the Pirelli Tower but this is probably more of a reflection on architecture’s obsession with shape and what came to symbolize being an architect for Pirelli Tower is not really representative of Ponti’s interests or his career. He seemed happiest when he had a wall to ornament or decorate. Perhaps he knew this and this is why he makes it so difficult for us to see past the surface. Or even want to.

• • •

The Shape of Green

There’s no lack of ethical or economic arguments for sustainability. Taken in by its promising title, I had high hopes Lance Hosey’s The Shape of Green would finally provide us with an aesthetics of sustainability as part of a larger philosophy of sustainability.

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“The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology and Design” Lance Hosey, Island Press, 2012″

Hosey begins promisingly, claiming beauty and sustainability aren’t as incompatible as they’re commonly believed to be but very soon goes off the rails. If beauty and sustainability aren’t so incompatible, then why identify some buildings as environmentally virtuous but ugly and then suggest that “dressing them up” isn’t the way forward? Why praise Renzo Piano and Norman Foster for synthesising two qualities that aren’t incompatible? I hope Hosey’s not admiring F&P’s Greater London Authority headquarters.

  • Overhanging a building is an expensive way of shading glazing from the torrid London sun.
  • GLA’s eggy shape may theoretically have volumetric efficiencies but, once enclosed, that volume is then squandered on a void around an ornamental staircase. Stupid.

Hosey’s a shapeist. He claims that some sources claim that early, elementary design decisions about shape can influence the environmental impact of a building – up to 90% apparently, but 90% of what we’re not told. 

He’s also a commercial man at heart and offers a commercial justitification for a sustainability that’s phrased in terms of conventional [visual] aesthetics. Here are some of his arguments.

We’re more likely to treasure a thing for longer if we find attractive.

Hosey wants beautiful things to be seen as virtuous rather than the other way around. This statement is the perfect product of a time when the only ideas that get traction are those that articulate in new ways what people believe anyway. Before the Table of Contents is this brave quote.

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Oscar Wilde was an incorrigible aesthete and known for soundbites such as “Any person who doesn’t laugh at the death of Little Nell has a heart of stone.” Wilde’s statement about judging by appearances may well have been disingenuous but Hosey’s using only its latter part definitely is.

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Wilde seems to believe in an absolute beauty and this would have been an common view a century ago. However, if one accepts the modern position that beauty is both pluralist and subjective, then Beauty is no more or less superficial than the thoughts in which it is based. And this brings us back to the book.

Much of nature is about geometry. The shape of a blood cell is optimised for fluid dynamics. The tilt of the Earth’s axis gives us the seasons that shape nearly every living creature.
Things have shapes. It’s what things do. Artificial things also have shapes and geometries.

We prefer to use things that look better, even if they aren’t inherently easier to use.
This is the form vs. function argument restated, with a swipe at utility. (“Trust me, I’m a designer.”)

We don’t love something because it’s non-toxic and biodegradeable – we love it because it moves the head and the heart.
Hosey is attempting to keep beauty and virtue firmly separate. He doesn’t want us to love anything for reasons that aren’t visual. He’s pro-innovation, pro-consumption.

Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern – it’s an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.”
Hosey has trouble linking aesthetic attraction to environmental imperatives. He resorts to the peacock’s feathers and the 300 varieties of nightingale birdsong.

Beauty has the biological function of sustaining existence
is the conclusion only a short jump away. Three hundred varieties of nightingale mating call seems a bit desperate. Do the peacock’s feathers really have to be that large or colourful? Humans have evolved in much the same way but with far less imperative. Ostentatious displays of abundance may faciliate getting laid but any evolutionary advantage remains unproven.

Designers can promote sustainability by embracing what they have always cared about most: the basic shape of things. [Oh dear!] Hosey then attempts to show how Beauty is inherent to the definition and principles of sustainability There’s talk of how the smartness of the Smart Car is in its shape and not its technologies. The conclusion is that design trumps technology. Only a man who wants to have his cake and savour it would write If you could take care of all your daily nutritional needs by ingesting one tasteless capsule, would you be satisfied? Hosey is detaching the aesthetics of eating from the imperatives of nutrition and sustenance.

Q: “If you could personally solve world hunger through one inexpensive capsule that would take care of a person’s daily nutritional needs, would you be satisfied?” 

It doesn’t matter for the conclusion is that Aesthetics are fundamental to both culture and nature, and if sustainability refers to the graceful interaction between them, it must have a sensory dimension. 

All in all, this book is rich – and we’re not even a third of the way in. These arguments claims are amply illustrated with examples from the field of product design. I was getting impatient for some buildings. Skipping a bit, here’s some Hosey singles out as relevant to his argument where he seems to want to take this.

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“The 120° twist cuts wind loads and reduces the amount of steel by 25%, saving $60 mil.” Excellent – so that’s the shape of all future supertall buildings sorted then!? I doubt it. In the world of architecture, that the shape of this building represents 25% less steel is more important than actually having 25% less steel. If the shape of this building had any compelling advantages then we can expect to see it replicated many times in the future just like what happened to rectangular prisms (a.k.a. boxes).

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The Tjibaou Cultural Center (Renzo Piano Workshop, 1992) is singled out for combining the three principles of conservation, attraction and connection. “The shell-shaped wood-slat towers offer a rich tactile image, like banded reeds, that echoes local vernacular traditions while also playing an essential role in ventilation, coaxing the breeze upward in this sticky climate.”

I won’t go too much into too much detal here, but must mention how the representational aspects of this building have little to do with its ventilation strategy that utilizes a combination of Stack Effect and Venturi effect. Either way, behind those timber slats has to be a double skin of something if any breeze is ever going to be coaxed upward. The section shows that this is so.

Those solar chimneys face north-west, which means you must go well out of your way to instagram that famous money shot from across the water. Internally, the circular spaces make reasonable exhibition spaces but externally, none of this representation is for the benefit of actual users – or even for their functional benefit as there’s no need to clad air shafts with timber slats. What we’re meant to perceive as beauty has little to do with this building’s environmental response or user experience.

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Chapter 4 is titled Many Senses and introduces the concept of a connection between aesthetics and ecology and the human body. This might have been a good place to talk about how the other four senses are often neglected by designers but Hosey claims design can appeal to the whole body for we feel with our entire being – a point he illustrates with Zumthor’s Baths at Swiss architectural hotspot Vals. I agree that this building has important lessons for all designers – of buildings that require us to be naked in warm smelly water in misty and acoustically live rooms.

Hosey doesn’t mention that Vals baths’ fully sensory environment of texture, reverberation, light, mist and heat can be appreciated for 80 Swiss Francs (approx. US$77.80) per session but the connection between aesthetics, ecology, the human body and commerce is soon insinuated. Who knew that 7-Up tastes lemony or limey depends on whether the label has more yellow or green, or that a sprig of parsley on the label can make canned meat taste fresher? Who would want to know that and why if it weren’t with a view to exploitation?

I’ve no doubt everyday sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures influence the unconscious mind but that doesn’t mean I want to trust that knowledge with a designer in the paid employ of someone. To captivate consumers longer, designers will need a better understanding of what stimulates emotional longevity. This sinister sentence is evil encapsulated.

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I hadn’t known about this 1979 book and, to be honest, I wish I still didn’t. The aestheticization of thermal comfort will do more than air conditioning ever did to stop passive design ever becoming a driver for a more sane architecture.

The same thinking crops up again in the next chapter Ecology and Imagery. Biophilia is a good thing but Hosey gets excited about fractal patterned wallpaper being just as good as the acacia trees our ancestors so admired. The implications for design are enormous. 

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Indeed.

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Airspace Tokyo facade by Thom Faulders. Who needs trees?

“An enormous mesh umbrella lets dappled sunlight pass through in variegated patterns, like a forest canopy.” 

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Who needs trees? II

“Fractal-like patterns can be used to make very large buildings seem less imposing.”

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Who needs trees? III

There are shapes and patterns that lure [!] the human senses because they participate in larger forces unfolding over time, and eternal choreography not immediately detected but evident everywhere. With science and sensitivity, smart design can beautifully tap into [!!] the abiding wonders and mysteries of the universe. My points of exclamation indicate either careless language or, more worryingly, deliberately ambiguous language carelessly crafted. It seems that buildings are really just very big products and designers should be aware of these new tricks to fool people into responding more positively to buildings than they otherwise might or perhaps ought.

I was going to deal with each chapter sequentially but lost the will. Skimming the rest, Hosey expands his consumerist philosophy of aesthetics to encompass entire buildings in Chapter 7: The Architecture of Difference, puffs it up to urban scale in Chapter 8: The Natural Selection of Cities and, as books like this have a tendency of doing, inflates it to the max to encompass to entire planets in Chapter 9: Visions of Earth.

I skipped to Epilogue: A Beauty Manifesto where there’s not much to dislike but, on the other hand, nothing much of practical use either. Nobody’s going to pin this manifesto on their wall.

Ten principles for advancing an aesthetics of ecology. Every designer everywhere can:

  1. Bridge the divide between “good design” and “green design”.
  2. Turn beauty and sustainability into the same thing.
  3. Erase the distinction between how things look and how things work.
  4. Break down the walls between the arts and the sciences.
  5. Adopt the three principles.
    • Conserve: Shape things to respect resources.
    • Attract: Shape things to be easy to use and deeply satisfying.
    • Connect: Shape things to embrace place.
  6. Start with the napkin sketch, not the technical manual.
  7. Develop a scientific method for design.
  8. Strengthen the ties between form and performance, between image and endurance.
  9. Make things to work as well and to last as long as they should.
  10. Make things better.

In the end, all the cooing over known attributes of known quantities only serves to direct more reverence towards things that represent the link between aesthetics, ecology and design more than they actually link them. Hosay has faith in us believing in the worth of his examples. Whether we regard them high or low, the book manages to be less than their sum. 

Hosey was Chief Sustainability Officer at RTKL before it was swallowed whole by architectural behemoth Arcadis in 2015. He’s now advisory board member to the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment. Whatever message it is this book communicates, the AIA seems to have understood it. 

Misleading Narratives

Two posts back, in Repeating Crevice, Revisited, I wrote If Shinohara was aware of having designed certain possibilities into [a house he designed], he never let on. Now I think about it, he can’t not have known he was designing that house to offer its occupants various levels of awareness of the movements within. Instead, he chose to present an alternative narrative having nothing to do with any real benefits his design may have had

A more consciously misleading narrative has to do with Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus. This sketch shows LC was definitely aware he was designing something that permitted certain possibilities for multicultural living but he chose not to make them part of the narrative for propagation. Later historians have complied.

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The Winslow House is often used as an example of how Frank Lloyd Wright gifted us the open-plan house. Wright’s $5,000 Fireproof House is seen as a lesser embodiment of Wright’s principle of configuring a house around a hearth as the heart of the home and of removing walls to arrive at a new conception of interior space. The first misleading narrative is Wright’s, the second is historians’.

Removing interior walls sounds like there were cost savings to be had, and supporting an upper floor and a roof with a largeish brick structural element in the middle of a symmetrical plan sounds like a very efficient way of using equivalently sized materials at maximum efficiency. If Wright and later historians hadn’t used misleading narratives to describe what was “important” about The $5,000 Fireproof House and the Winslow House and others, then we might not’ve had to wait for Rural Studio to rediscover and make explicit the link between cost performance and architectural beauty.

Economic efficiencies and benefits to society aren’t the opposite of architecture they’re made out to be – they just exist in a parallel yet invisible dimension. The visible world speaks to us of beauty and abundance and the invisible world reminds us how little we want it to cost.

In the decades since Le Corbusier and Shinohara, architects have elevated the misleading narrative to a level of art far exceeding what it exists to describe. The misleading narrative is now the primary means for display of architectural cleverness. In any field other than architecture, goods that please the eye but fail according to indicators of other qualities are called fakes. The English language has the saying “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” and also its more down-to-earth equivalent “You can’t polish a turd.”  Well, actually you can and it’s being done all the time. Since it’s not going to stop anytime soon, I think we should at least explore the mechanism involved.

Many if not all of the misfit architects I’ve listed here over the years have either been totally forgotten, under-remembered or under-acknowledged for not providing misleading narratives to distinguish their noble efforts as architecture. Their innovations have been duly dismissed as idiosyncratic obsession or mere investigations into building science. Last week’s Architecture Misfit#27: Harold Krantz is a perfect example. Perhaps he’d be better remembered as the innovator he was if he’d spent a bit more time designing his narratives to better communicate the real worth of what he was doing.

• • •

For years I’d been trying to track down a Japanese house I vaguely remember – probably from having seen it in Japan Architect in the late 1970s. I never saw or heard of it again so it must have been a one-off, long forgotten and by now long gone. It was titled House With a Sloping Wall because that is what it had. House With a Sloping Wall

I found myself thinking of this house again last week. Perhaps it had something to do with the one-bedroom apartments that were also very much on my mind.

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I spoke about how one-bedroom apartments are usually a bedroom and a living room side-by-side along the only wall that can have windows, and how the bathroom and kitchen are usually against the corridor where they share a shaft.

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I never got to talk about the poetry of architecture and that was a shame since I’ve begun to suspect the poetry of architecture, building science and social utility aren’t as mutually exclusive as we’ve been led to believe. So here’s my memory of House With a Sloping Wall, re-imagined as a one-bedroom apartment.

Sloping Plan

We now come to a fork in the road. Do I present my House With A Sloping Wall as something aesthetically innovative or do I present it as something useful? Do I go for a misleading narrative or do I tell the truth? The former is easy and there’s no lack of impeccable references to work into a misleading narrative.

Firstly, my house has a 45° wall that’s no more wall than it is floor or ceiling – or all three – or two out of three, depending which side of it you are. A reference to Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture seems called for. Going in deeper, I could reference William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, as did Venturi.

There’s a long history of the perception of inside and outside being blurred by making building elements or finishes span the boundary between the warm side and the cold side.

There’s a longer and nobler history of trompe l’oeil attempting the same using only two dimensions. The best examples have the surrealism that comes from things not appearing to be what they are – a virtual outside.

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From the bedroom of my House With A Sloping Wall, the sloping wall doesn’t appear as a sheltering roof – an effect that, prompted by the skylights, is also apparent on the other side. IT ACTUALLY IS a sheltering roof. The perception of inside and outside is not blurred by extension or confused by illusion, but reset by the suggestion of a roof with skylights and chimney. An element that’s normally outside appears inside. This is not so common, but nor is it so rare. These examples below all riff on the idea of clouds indoors. The church is the least surreal because of trompe l’oeil precedents.

Moving away from inside and outside, I suppose I could leverage my CV and mention Kazuo Shinohara and those strange internal spaces in his 1981 House Under High-Tension Lines,

or the inclined roofs of his 1973 House in Seijo or his 1971 Prism House, both of which have spaces that seem to exist only to be visually appreciated. They’re bonsai versions of double-height spaces but their acutely angled corners intensify not light but shadows.

Did somebody say shadows?! I need to mention Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1977 essay In Praise of Shadows even though it’s about a 3.5 on the Japanese 1-7 scale of cultural inscrutability. 

Victor here! I know you’re not into pattern language but, since you’re narrative farming, another argument for lowered bedrooms comes from Christopher Alexander, who had a thing for ceiling height. He argued ceiling height has to vary according to degree of privacy. It sort of required ceiling to comply with “personal space bubble” that gets the largest in public spaces. Hence high ceilings in public lobbies and stores are comfortable. CA argued that tinier rooms and alcoves are cozier and allow humans to feel closer to each other – if they’d allow each other to get together in there.

Thanks for that Victor! I do admire the way Alexander aims to link sociology and aesthetic predelictions but other factors at work mean we must now pass from the floating world of architectural narratives into the objective world of building science.

Moisei Ginzburg and his Stroykom team’s Type B and Type F apartments had reduced ceiling heights for the bedrooms because they were less important than the daytime living rooms. This seems fair because in bedrooms people don’t move around so much. Space as a visual thing is not something appreciated when asleep.

With houses it’s not rocket science. Many vernacular houses have attic bedrooms because it’s a better use of building volume but, with apartments, this is something neither obvious nor easy to do despite the greater pressure to extract maximum value from their smaller volumes. That pressure never dissipates. Those ingenious apartment conversions having a “sleeping loft” above the kitchen and/or bathroom are a modern trope because they stack two zones needing less ceiling height. The four examples below all allow maximum area with maximum height but only one involves sloping surfaces.

If you haven’t already guessed, the real reason for my sloping wall is to return some of that under-appreciated bedroom volume back to the living room where it can be better appreciated during waking hours. Did I say some? 50% is half!

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True, that 50% can’t be used in any meaningful way but then neither can a double height space and look how highly architectural history regards those. Nevertheless, in order to make my diagonally interlocking spaces more appealing, I produced a variation having those crudely approximated diagonals known as steps.

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It’s pointless referencing BeFun’s Alley House – despite being ingenious it’s too little known. It’s far better to reference the space for The Baltic Pavilion in the Giardini at the 2016 Venice Biennalle grounds. Bringing it all back to Venice never did any architectural endeavour any harm.

One last card to play are bleachers. They’re the wild card, the joker in the pack, the ace high or low. People don’t associate bleachers with any grand architectural precedent, distinguised personages or unassailable theory. They just associate them with happy memories and enjoyable experiences. I’m not suggesting we return to the dark days of palliative postmodern iconography. What I am suggesting is that we couch our architectural narratives in essential truths. I can reference bleachers in good faith because they’re all about observing a large space in front of them.

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The view back is equally important.

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Even the space under the bleachers can also be referenced in good faith since, from what I can glean from the internet, many people associate that space with intimacy. Allow me to present Bleacher House.

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Returning some building volume to the living room was the only thing that mattered with this house and, though the idea contained much art its explanation did not. Presenting this idea as architecture didn’t have to involve presenting it as something it wasn’t. This house IS BLEACHER HOUSE because it does the same thing. I suspect that any architectural idea of worth can be communicated more easily by calling attention to something of comparable and real worth.

This is different from those forced and unnatural associations that conceal lack of content behind phrases such as “recalls X” “resonates with X” “references X” “is redolent of X”, where X is the name of some building or architect there was never even the intention let alone the possibility of emulating. The architect Eladio Dieste is often referenced in this way.

• • •

20 Feb. 2017 (11 hours later): HUGE thanks to Daniel Munteanu for solving my mystery. One of the things Daniel does is run the blog OfHouses which “is a collection of old, forgotten houses” so it’s not that surprising he remembered this house. Me, I falsely remembered its name. It’s the Mochizuki House, by Hiroyuki Asai. 1971. I love it. 

Everything has been exquisitely contrived to appear as if it could no way other than the way it is, as all good architecture perhaps should be. If the wall were vertical, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the light from that skylight illuminating that wall. Hiroyuki Asai, wherever you are, thank you.

• • •

There aren’t many kanji variations for the name Hiroyuki Asai. A search in Japanese led me to the site of architect Hiroyuki Asai. Our paths almost crossed.

  • 1970 Graduated from Tokyo Institute of Technology Faculty of Science and Engineering Department of Architecture
  • 1970 – 1976 Studied with Professor Kazuo Shinohara of Tokyo Institute of Technology and learned housing construction through practice

Elsewhere on the site he had this to say about Mochizuki House, his first “work” – everyone called them “works” then.

直方体 内部に屋根の架構を支持する柱一本 それと離れる位置で直方体を壁で垂直に分割 この構成では何も起こらない  分割する壁の頂部を傾ける 何かが起こる 意味の産出 分割という構成により傾斜壁の表裏に出現した空間の関係 <建築> この作品から私の全てが始まる

If a single column supporting a roof frame stands apart from a vertical wall dividing a rectangular parallelepiped, nothing happens. However, if the top of the dividing wall is tilted, something does. Meaning is produced, along with spatial relationships appearing front and back of that tilted wall – Architecture. All of me starts from this work. 

Well done Mr. Asai!