Author Archives: Graham McKay and Victor Perunkov

The Domino’s House

The Type A apartment is a result of the 1928 study the Stroykom team of architects did to determine the potential and technology for smart, affordable and universally suitable housing. They focussed on adapting existing residential typologies to new realities. One typology was the double-aspect apartment paired about a landing and their redesign was called the “Type A”, the first of the letter-tagged plans and schemes the team produced.

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There’s much that’s good about the Type A. It’s smart, efficient and hospitable. The dual-aspect living area allows good daylighting and ventilation, not so much because mechanical ventilation was expensive at the time, but because daylight and good ventilation were known to prevent tuberculosis. Planning-wise, the stairwell intrudes into the apartment area to push the front door into a corridor no longer than the two narrowest rooms. It can’t get any better. 

It’s not possible to access two apartments with any less space than a stairway and landing and, since those can’t be made any smaller, smaller apartments need a larger percentage of building volume to access them than do larger apartments. This led to the development of corridor-access plans. The problem of using less resources to build apartments became a problem of reducing the building volume used to access apartments. This was to lead to the development of the famous Type F. [c.f. 1928: The Types Study]

In A-blocks in Yekaterinburg, they have the elevator only in 1 stairwell but you may pass through a gallery in the attic if you live in a top floor. Elevators were defunct and removed way before my birth I think. Galleries were appropriated by upper apartment residences – a feast upon socialism. What we’ve lost is superior and better lit where every room has to have a window for there’s no other way to tuck it into the plan. Victor.

Thanks for that виктор! These images you sent me some while back are very relevant to where I want to take this post.

The Stroykom team knew how building depth affected building volume and spent much time trying to determine the optimum depth for any given set of parameters. 

The text to the right of the parametric depth scheme says “It’s a scheme from architect Klein”. It’s not a Stroykom product, but OSA published it alongside so it’s confusing. Klein must have been a sole practitioner who worked independently to determine the same problem the team were. V.

It was probably the first and last example of socially-driven parametric design. The Type A plan was a brilliant invention but volumetrically inefficient for small apartments. The Stroykom Team would have been amazed by the sheer abundance of stairwells and elevators in this next apartment building I saw on buildingsarecool.com. It’s in Charleston, South Carolina. Much is made of the fact there are views in both directions.

What we have here is the corridor-less apartment. Interestingly, the memory of a corridor remains because if all elevators are on the same floor and their doors and those of the fire escape stairs were all open, then it’d be possible to run from one end of the building to another. It’s not a very sociable building but given how “streets in the sky” came to be regarded, there doesn’t seem to be much point in accessing apartments via corridors. If a configuration such as this directs horizontal pedestrian movement to ground level and into real lobbies and real streets then it might not be such a bad thing.

Once I went to a party at some friend of a friend’s place in Clapham North or Brixton. We went in, and immediately up a flight of stairs with a corridor along one side and with a landing at one end and a similar space at the other. Along the corridor were doors to a bathroom and a kitchen having windows onto a light well down the side of the house. The spaces at each end of the corridor had a single door leading to a living room and, once inside the living room, was another door (in the same wall) leading back to a bedroom I never saw, but which must have had a narrow window opening into the lightwell. This house was probably built sometime 1850-1900 I’d say. Each upstairs tenant thus had a suite of two private rooms, but a shared kitchen and bathroom. It was quite a sensible arrangement for people to share spaces if they weren’t necessarily friends. G.

Rather than isolating people inside buildings it might be better to design apartments that not only allow for multiple occupation but allow for multiple modes of occupation. The rules of occupation were clear. That’s the logic behind this next plan. 

Clapham House

I’ve given two tenants their own bathrooms but downgraded the importance of the kitchen – it’s just a place people go to get cold stuff or to make stuff hot. The preparation and consumption of food is not styled for families. This next one is tighter. The stairs are back outside now but I added a double-door elevator. My logic was that if every two apartments are going to have a stair with two doors and a double-door elevator like in that Charleston project, it makes no difference if they’re shared on the edges or shared in the middle of the plan. I was working my way back to the Type A.

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I can’t stop seeing the elevator opening into kitchen! Given a kitchen share, double elevator door becomes unnecessary and overlapping lobbies of elevator and stair are more efficient. V.

Exactly! DazenTech do quite a nice passenger elevator for US$15,000. G.

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A residential passenger elevator for US$15,000 is nothing compared to building corridors on every floor to pass by two 5m-wide apartments.

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People understood 90 years ago that any Type A variant has a constant ratio of apartment access volume to building volume remains no matter how many storeys – it’s 34% here for the worst imaginable case, but halves if the apartment is doubled to make say, a 3-bedroom 2-bathroom apartment. I think it’s time to revisit the Type A.

You are disclosing one of my very basic mental splits. Should I design plans that could get built easily or should I design the heavenly plans which we’ve lost – with narrow bodies and other indispensable plain and inscrutable traits? V.

As ever, it’s a tough call. G.

One day this will be luxury. It already is for many people but, back to kitchens. Not only has this plan worked its way back to the Type A, it’s also downgraded the kitchen.

Kuhonny Element Kitchen

I once had a Parisian friend, Pascal, who lived above a café in the 11th. His living room had two leather armchairs, a wall of books, a violin hanging on a music stand, and a bottle of Chartreuse – green. On the kitchen floor was a six-pack of Evian. The sink was dry and brown with rust. Clearly, he went out for all other food and drink. 

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Most of us, however, don’t get ourselves dressed and downstairs to get everything to eat, any more than most of us don’t walk along a corridor to a communal kitchen. G.

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Increasingly, the food and drink comes to us, delivered as room service if we live in a hotel or an apartment serviced by a hotel [c.f. The Well-Serviced Apartment], as raw materials or pre-prepared meals from a convenience store, or as fast food or even restaurant fare delivered by in-house or outsourced couriers.

Living like this has crept up on us but we should’ve seen it coming. Having food being delivered to homes isn’t new but it’s now no longer confined to fast food as a weekend treat or an occasional extravagance.

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All that’s left to be done is to cut out any remaining middlemen.

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Drone delivery may have architectural implications for apartment dwellers. Wait! … let me see … yep, someone’s already on the case.

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I clicked on the first link so you won’t have to.

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I’m not sure if this is cutting-edge design responding to our fantastic brave new world, or merely more architect collaboration in the ongoing neoliberal project. Since they both amount to more or less the same thing, we may as well take this idea downmarket immediately and see how it fares in the wild.

The Domino’s House
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But that would be to miss the point, for the Domino’s House is actually the Domino House updated for our times. When an apartment’s spatial functions, service functions and access are all contained in a single core, the enclosing shell becomes arbitrary. It’s a bit like that Joe Colombo prototype except what’s in the middle is the important bit that stays and the walls enclosing it are the consumer item.

If plans and sections are no longer a subject for the application of architectural intelligence, then The Domino’s House allows for Free Architecture – or at least what has come to represent it. The architectural enclosure is now be free to be anything it wants to be as long as it doesn’t compromise anything in the core. An amicable separation of building and architecture would allow an ideal modernism to coexist with an ideal post-modernism.

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Here’s the same plan as a tube of arbitrary height. It still works.

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Here it is as Miesian fantasy. It still works.

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You can bend it, extend it …

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If you repeat the square block you’ll get a wall.

If you multiply the round one you’ll get a forest.

If you multiply this, you’ll get something different again.

Other variations readily accommodate contemporary tropes such as walls faceted or curved in one or two dimensions. Yet other variations could respond to site or environmental factors in real ways or even as representations of real ways. If the Domino’s House represents the architecture vs. building divide, then it is only because

THE DOMINO’S HOUSE IS THE BUILT MANIFESTATION OF THE ARCHITECTURE VS. BUILDING DIVIDE.

Building design and construction are now free to move towards technical, functional and economic perfection, and architecture is now free to go its own way.

• • •

The featured image is Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?”

Talking Shop

This one has to be about architecture school – a general survey of the role of architecture education. Pondering through another letter-swamp of project placement on archdaily I found myself immersed in a mass of architecture school-yak links. Architecture media talks about schools a lot. Isn’t architecture the discipline that pumps its education the most? I’ve never heard of aerospacedaily or carpentrydaily or jurisprudencedaily. Marketing of architecture schools is subtly fused into the existence architecture has in the media. If someone invests a lot into convincing you they can teach you, then there’s room for uncertainty as to whether they actually can. V.

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A good idea! Until now I’ve stayed away from the topic of education, probably because it’s too close to home. I shouldn’t really. This blog only exists because of me, students and education. G.

  • Back in 2011, The Twisted Education of Architects post depicted the frustration a student can develop at an architecture school if they were blind unreceptive to the early twentieth-century abstract imaginal design generation. 2011 is six years and a bachelor and masters ago. Me, I enrolled in 2011 but what did architecture school learn in the time it takes a student to graduate? 
  • In technology, places like MIT are praised and mentioned but usually for the virtue of research work and usually on the topic of that work.
  • In medicine, teaching hospitals are often places where treatments and therapies are pioneered. There are no Harvard GSDs in medicine.
  • What technology school or law school or medical school should teach its students is an interesting question that would have solid and definite answers. “What architecture school should teach its students”, on the contrary, seems to be a slippery ground, despite 100 years in service.

Soon to have 100 years of abstract architecture school (Bauhaus 1919, VKhUTEMAS 1920). We can expect a lot of anniversary recapitulation and probably the wrong conclusions. Don’t forget that Bauhaus only began to teach architecture in 1928, under Hannes Meyer, and then as building science. In a draft for an upcoming post titled “Models of Instruction” dealing with the history of architectural education, I insinuate that Gropius was copying the Montessori style of education that had evolved 20 years earlier, with its emphasis on learning by direct handling of materials. He was to follow Ms. Montessori in exporting it to America, along with himself as a similar innovator in architectural education. 

Bauhaus is accepted with respect and credit. Should it have brought a revolution in human habitat, being the first architecture school totally connected with modernity? The spread of modernism definitely happened after the school’s emergence. Gropius’ genius was to later blur the boundary between himself, architecture, architectural education, and what was actually taught at the Bauhaus under Meyer. The four were always linked via the Dessau building but never in the same place at the same time. Of course, having Mies on the other side of Meyer made it easier to forget the building science bit in the middle even though it was “the meat in the sandwich”.

Mass industrial housing emerged and its virtues outweigh shortcomings, given most of these buildings continue to shelter people. But is it correlation or causation, in relation to school’s existence? Modernism was an inherently cheaper way to build so would probably have happened anyway. J.J.P. Oud and the Dutch were already making it work in The Netherlands. Ernst May provided 15,000 housing units between 1925 and 1932 and independently of whatever was or was not happening at The Bauhaus.

If we take the 20 most renowned architect names, how many of them would be Bauhaus alumni? Meyer, Gropius and Rohe were not immediately displaced by mighty new youths they taught. I had exactly the same thought yesterday. How many people passed through Wright’s office or Le Corbusier’s office and what happened to them? With LC, the two who became most known both left his office after six months and went on to do their own thing rather well. Another three, three decades on, did what Gropius did and promoted themselves as having had special access to privileged knowledge. But what was that knowledge? Or did they just trade off anecdotes? (“Well what Corb would have done was …”) Sure “Bauhaus style” spread around the world, but it is a convenient tag and not what was invented in the school or by its alumni in the field. Exactly. I think that to call something a style is to neuter it. I blame Johnson and Hitchcock, as you know. 

BXYTEMAC [VkHUTEMAS – it took me a while to get what you did there!] taught Ivan Leonidov, who immediately became a poster boy to wrongly attach “constructivism” tag to. After his graduation, Ivan Leonidov led a very tragic life of a person who never acclimated to his context. The fact it was a menacing bloody context is worth mention. Still, the divide between nonconformism for the sake of decency and illicit tragism in everyday life is slippery.  Yes – I worry about this all the time. =) That aside, Ivan Leonidov graduated as an architect inadequate for what lay immeditely beyond the school door. And it did not go shitty just overnight, to be fair.

Andrew Burov was another BXYTEMAC graduate, who shone as a “talented young man”. He abandoned the OCA organization as soon as the sour winds blew and put on the social realist, neoclassical revivalist’s shoes. [I shall investigate. Did he become one of those “Post Constructivists” – those proto-post modernists?] He never showcased any regrets for that and lived a long continuous career, no matter whether flat roofs or gypsum facades, or flat roofs again he was asked to provide. He managed to appear borderline between an actual person and servile rat despite his preference for food, shelter and job before his personal values, if these existed. It’s odd you mention Burov. Less than an hour ago I found this photo of him enjoying a cigarette break with Le Corbusier and Alexander Vesnin in Moscow, 1929. It’s the only photo I’ve ever seen with LC holding a pencil. Why is everyone but Vesnin wearing the same glasses?

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The two cases of Leonidov and Burov might be just two person’s characters, irrelevant to the school itself. I’m not so sure. They may have been one-offs but if they even inadvertently showed others the mechanism of how to leverage buildings to become famous, it was still the birth of modern architectural education as a closed ecosystem of teachers and students. Everyone wanted Leonidov on their team and he was pulled along by events but it sounds like Burov went whichever way the wind was blowing.   

This abstract imaginal education was formed as to “zeitgeist” of early 1920s, with enormous uncertainty over the ashes of a world war and hatching mass machine civilization. The locations where the two schools emerged are not surprising – both Germany and Russia had been mauled by world war and revolution. For each, “machine” became a fantastic entity which would undo the calamities by wonders of invisible mechanisms. It was an ontological drug to endure the hardships of life there, using sorcery of floating transpatial rectangles painted on a canvas, or spiralling pieces of wood forming an antenna for a newly found socialist hivemind. Coping means are good until you make these central pieces of your life – what only indicates how tragic your tragedy really is. Speaking of architectural education as abstract imaginings, this was in an Unbuilt Moscow feature in today’s Guardian. I saved it because I thought the caption was iffy. I find it hard to believe that, with The Russian Revolution not even three years gone, emphasising themes was more important than realising them. Suspect.

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Nikola Ladovsky [VKhUTEMAS instructor], 1920. The spiral structure of Ladovsky’s design emphasised the key Communist party themes of progress and communal living intended to revolutionise family structures.

But having grown up in Australia, I never felt such weight of history. When I was an undergraduate at UWA, I discovered Shinohara’s first book of houses in the library and, impressed, wrote him a letter saying how much I envied him for having had such a spectacular and worthwhile tradition to interpret, or act as a base, or something. In time, I received a short letter back saying that I would surely find my path if I just continued questioning. (I pinned it above my drawing board next to an image of Richard Meier’s Douglas House.) Forty years on, I’m still questioning and I think it’s time for some answers.   

Apparently, the price humankind paid to enter the era of geometrical freedom of free-floating masses put together in light was never seen prior to the non-freedom of humans put together in camps and frontlines. Unprecedented control of mass was brought forth by unforeseen human-powered machines of violence. I think the Futurists have a lot to answer for. Perhaps newness for its own sake supplying “the missing ingredient that allowed Modernism to happen” was never the answer. It may have merely been the missing ingredient that enabled rampant capitalist (and then endless neoliberalist) churn for its own sake. The powerful only need buildings to remind everyone who the powerful are. 

The reliance on abstract composition in schools may only be a means to retrofit the appearance of organic emergence into modernist architecture, whose history is not as clear and actually poorly documented. My new cognitive bias goggles have help me make sense out of a lot of things. Any attempt to introduce abstraction into architecture furthers a neoliberalist agenda where buildings exist for the sake of architecture and not for anyone who might happen to use them or even pay for them. We can backtrack from Patrick Schumacher and the neoliberalist architect dream of an architecture beyond reason, interpretation or criticism, and go back a bit further to Rem Koolhaas and his 1979 “Development is good!” thesis, re-articulated by Bjarke Ingels with fewer words and more pictures in “Yes is more!”) “Abstract painting gave birth to abstract architecture” sure sounds convincing, but actually may be an instance of pareidolia, the desire of human mind to see a pattern where it may not be the case. Probably. Mies’ “Brick Country House” was five years after van Doesburg’s Rhythm of a Russian Dance yet the two often appear on the same page of history books. van Doesburg even made it easy for Mies by demarcating inside and outside.   

What could have been just someone’s thesis statement became useful to form a consensus of persons who could sustain their agenda for the longest using this thesis as a cosmological myth. There wasn’t that much mid-20th century abstraction happening but perhaps De Stijl’s van Doesberg was the first to get there. Some say it may even had been Wright who first hit upon this cheap way to build. 

The fact that the architecture as something with pretensions to being art and not building science suggests it was better at furthering the agenda of its proponents (and clients) by claiming to be so. We don’t remember Peter Eisenman, Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright for their contributions to building science.  Traditionalist architects blame modernism for speaking a “bird language”. Once you knew their complaint and read any piece which featured use of word “space”, you’d never see it the way you did before. Overusing the word “form” is also a symptom. 

In science, 10 years after your graduation is when you have to focus on your research, because you may make studies and discoveries only while your brain is still fresh and regenerating. Your career after 35 is mostly you living off that foundation. My use of word foundation is misleading. This work is not what you stand on, doing your job later after you’ve acquired it, but the actual most valuable work you produce. Which you may later only tinker with or modify. My evidence is James Watson claimed it in his own memoir, he also wrote it was consensus thinking. Interesting. Worrying. I still have a couple of early ideas I haven’t monetised yet. Last week I received an email saying the commissioning editor at XXX had decided not to make a publication offer in response to my book proposal. 

In architecture, a fresh graduate may face their uselessness in the office for them being “that ignorant fresh graduate person” that just graduated from fascinating enterprise which is contemporary architecture school. More often than not, they will toil until their fifties, about which time, they’re told, architects “bloom”. Architecture in many ways is an archaic trade. One of signs of that is the gerontocracy in the upper tier of it. People who think of themselves as sentinels of undermined beings spent a lot of time praising the late ZH but the actual ill social composition existing in the profession, they never question it. The demise of Russian communism was foreshadowed by escalating gerontocracy a  few decades ago. Is architecture heading to the same direction? I suspect so. Experience is good in the case of the integrated design, operation and maintenance of complex systems such as railways but, with architecture, experience seems to be defined more narrowly as people who have simply clung on to fame for the longest.  

Relationship of education to work outside that of “self-referential circle of recommendations and funding” was not yet mentioned in this list yet. It should be. Already on the case in a separate draft. Le Corbusier’s former employees visited the US and were immediately made Professors of Architecture.

Sure, the basic framework never changed and the imaginal conceptual focus is the king. After all, the whole twentieth century saw architecture’s dilution with appearance of structural engineering as a separate trade, and inhabitability systems (i.e. HVAC) consultancy as yet another trade. With two thirds of dreary firmitas-utilitas-venustas trio taken out of the solution, architecture became a fine arts homeopathy. When I read this now, I see now that what you wrote is exactly where I took the Myths post [Architectural Myths #23: Architecture] post – you arrived at the same conclusion well before I did! 

Taking imaginal sophistry out of the curriculum would leave the vessel empty and no one would know what to fill it with. Would we have any abstract-faceted-sculptural sentiment if the first years were “performance design” instead of “affect design”? After a few years of low-level fundamental study would one see any charm in any other design approach? 

Also remember your frustrations with pupils unable to imagine a form, not to mention to document or present it in a projection? In shortcomings of teaching graphics to students you’ve defined a vision. I always like to look for reasons in things. If students can’t draw, or imagine things, then it’s because nobody is asking them to develop these skills that (quite frankly) most of my students will never be asked to use. Education adapts to its market surprisingly quickly. 

Media images melting reality into an post-causal mush you’ve bashed back in Smoke and Mirrors – and in Rendering Ethics on commonedge. The unintelligibly real prospects in form of images are hyper-lurid and captivating. The amount of work required to produce the images gave birth to dedicated visualization industry within the profession. This has only become necessary in order to feed the image digester. In its photo credits, ArchDaily includes visualisations and credits them as if they were photographs. I can’t help thinking something important is being lost. Reality? Online resources get bigger and bigger view counts across a reducing number of domains, and popular ones rule, as to law of accelerating returns. Instead of a multitude of opinions, mindsets and methods, the online architecture that actually emerged appeared to be a hybrid meta-mush of proven modernist tropes (or just stupid lazy design?) and a few recent design effort indicators like shuffly windows. This hybrid nests in an information platform accessible from any connected place. The farther the place is, the more charming the international newsfeed seems. What we have in the end is “archdaily (dezeen, architizer) epidemic”? Internet for ideas, good or bad ones, is what airlines are to viruses. I’ve often wondered about that. You see the same house in Korea or Chile or Bregenz. This trope is a hybrid of Fallingwater and Savoye – a media vernacular for our modern times.

For hundreds of years, the sole key to mastery was a long apprenticeship and recurring repetition – or at least we were told by literature that it was so. Within accelerating and escalating monopoly of the image, we end up having many designs as mere vehicles to create a final presentation image (your phrase). The rhetorical pair of substance vs image appears to have committed an incestual act, as image is the new substance, apparently.

The isolation of architectural academia is not yesterday’s news. Together with starchitecture firms they form a symbiotic circle running in a hermetically sealed cleanroom of waste-free production – potential students are lured by image of creative architectural practice, they enroll into a school, usually in exchange for hefty tuition fees, to be, in the best case, taught in personal studios of ones whose image charmed you in the first place. Somewhere in the middle, school builds a background of “successful student appreciation”, in form of articles with words “workaholic”, “creative” and “over hours”. In the end studios receive creative over-hours workaholics they can underpay because you’re so creative I see you didn’t come in the industry for the money did you? Sometimes these workaholics even paid to enter the job – via a school and personal studio that is. Credit to architectural industry to monetizing a perfect opportunity and wrapping their practitioners around a finger, to their own excitement and gratitude. This is all true and not cognitive bias. Just as education has adapted to what little is being asked of it, so has architecture. The idea of an architecture reflecting the priorities of the global economic elite is not such an absurd one. The International Style certainly came to “represent” progress to local populations as they were colonized by American businesses. OMA and ZHA are the new face of that. We should be pleased Schumacher has made the link between architecture and neoliberalism more obvious to more people. I’m beginning to think that starchitects are created and sustained by the system in order to sustain it. Think about it. If the buildings of a certain class of architect are granted automatic legitimacy regardless of the location or political culture or whose lives it destroys or with whose money it was built, then of course starchitects are going to get called upon to legitimize the unlegitimizable whenever there’s a need. It’s no accident the buildings they get called upon to legitimize tend to be in the dodgier countries, or that rich rulers and property developers (or rich-ruler property developers, or property developer rich rulers) are the clients whose edifices most require legitimizing.

Those currently in school are mostly millenials, who grew up in the presence of internet and the cultural transformation it entailed. One effect of which is “culture” became less about foundational notions and more of a coarsely ground mush of ideas, notions, emotions, and opinions based on such pesky sub-structure. The relationship between content, screen time, attention and worldwide connection naturally selected the most entertaining and least elaborate material which could be provided in a constant dopamine-gratifying stream. “12 books about urbanism”, “13 definitive movies for architects to watch” and whatever other list you can imagine on any topic beside architecture create an appearance of a broadly covered spectrum on a topic of interest, what satisfies the users and makes them believe in their becoming an informed person. The concept of Everything is Architecture is a new way of justifying this. Social media seems to function as a way of reminding people that one is interested in architecture. Putting stuff out there to share for our benefit has in some debased way come to be identified as education.   

What results is a culture of erudite idiots, precisely because long-term programs are not about immediate content. This idiocy is implicitly understood, what is indicated by recent abundance of a word “expert”, which is used wherever to separate audience from the speakers who have an oratorical monopoly. Becoming an expert is then a media vehicle, and there are many people who would help one to become an expert in exchange for money. Yes, we need to monetise this! =) 

• • •

The uncertainty about architectural education may result from profession’s ongoing decomposition. 20th century cemented the dissociation of structural engineering and habitability engineering from architectural design practice, at least in big architecture scene. The role of 20th century architecture school in that has yet to be scrutinized.

  • Decomposition of imaginal public relations practice of perception-management happens along the lines of imagery production competences, one recent case of the process is emergence of architectural visualization as a separate self-contained trade. Bashar once told me he saw an job listing for an “environmental graphics technician” and It amused us to think it meant those people who draw those airflow lines all over building sections. I was recently disappointed to learn it’s the new term for signage and wayfinding.
  • Decomposition continues for the material of architecture as a discipline which engineers a public relations envelope, a desired image for projects built around development gain or the concerns of image itself, as are many “cultural centres”, a typological trope beloved by both architects and their students.
  • Decomposition is an exotermic process. Once it stops, we’ll see stone-cold mineral remains of previously organic discipline. But decompositional heat can be mistaken for metabolic heat, creating a vision of a vibrant living system. hhhh I don’t know why I should be laughing … the analogy is all to apt – this mistaking of energy for life.  

Hazy conceptual soup remains in the profession, but we soon may see “design philosophy consultant” as a next big thing in architecture. We’ll have to watch for Design Philosophy Consultant Masters Program banners on architecture web outlets. It’s only a matter of time. Those three words already occur together in the similarly abstracted field of economic policy. 

design philosophy consultant

Design philosophy consultants may already be walking amongst us, for what’s a design philosophy consultant but a person who uses misleading narratives for perception management? If such people were to exist, they would make pre-emptive announcements of current concerns in anticipation of “proof” by projects only they know are in the pipeline. Those planted pre-emptive narratives would soon, invariably, come to be seen as prophetic.

• • •

To all architecture students out there,
best wishes and good luck!

Fast Tracking

It’s easy enough to make a train go fast but much harder to make it stay on the rails and to give passengers a comfortable ride.

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The 0 Series Shinkansen

These are the ones Japanese remember most fondly and which so amazed the world when the Tokaido Shinkansen [東海道新幹線, lit. New Arterial Line; a.k.a. Bullet Train] connecting Tokyo and Osaka opened on 1st October 1964 just in time for the Tokyo Olympics. These first trains didn’t have any name other than shinkansen and were only called 0 Series when it later became necessary to differentiate them. O Series trains ran at speeds of up to 200 km/h (125 mph), with later increases to 220 km/h (135 mph). More than 3,200 cars were built but by 2008 none remained in service. 

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The buffet car was always a special treat.

The Series 0 shinkansen wouldn’t have been possible without various 1950s innovations that raised bogie performance and reduced weight and vibration so the trains could run safely and comfortably at faster speeds.

  • incorporating springs and oil dampers into the bogie suspension to significantly reduce vibration
  • mounting traction motors on the bogie frame and using flexible couplings and gears to transmit power to the wheels
  • using a press-welded structure to reduce the weight of the bogie frames
  • using disk brakes to increase braking power at greater speeds
  • using air springs in the carriage suspension to increase passenger comfort

 [Refer to this document for more about the early technical innovatoins.]

The 200 series

In 1982 the Tohoku Shinkansen Line and the Joetsu Shinkansen Line opened with 200 Series trains that resembled the earlier 0 Series trains but were lighter and more powerful for mountain routes with steeper gradients. They had small snowplows to handle snowfall and exposed equipment such as the motors and compressors beneath the train was enclosed in sealed cowling to protect it from snow. Another innovation were the special air intakes designed to remove snow from the air. The first 200 trains had a top speed of 210 km/h (130 mph) but later ones could do 240 km/h (150 mph), and some were converted to be capable of 275 km/h (171 mph). By 2007 none remained in service.

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The 100 series

The naming system for new train series gave new trains running east of Tokyo even numbers and those running west of Tokyo odd numbers. [Having 100 come after 200 defeats the purpose of numbering, but not of naming. This post will therefore order the various series according to their chronological date of first introcution and irrespective of any implied numerical value. G.] The 100 Series trains began service in 1985 and had a more pointed nose as well as two double-level cars in the middle and that powered, most likely because there wasn’t sufficient space left between the bogies to do so. By 2012 none remained in service.

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Hat trick: a 100 heading for Osaka passes Mt. Fuji during cherry blossom season.

The 100 Series prompted a remodelled front car for the earlier 200 series. Apart from the livery, the only obvious difference is the snowplow.

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The 400 series

The first mini-shinkansen series was introduced in 1992 on Yamagata Shinkansen route branching from the Tohoku Shinkansen route at Fukushima. The mini-shinkansen concept involved regauging existing 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge lines to standard gauge and linking them to the shinkansen network to allow through-running. [W.] In order to negotiate local rail networks, the 400 Series was designed to have lower clearance and to be narrower. Steps projected from below the doors to bridge the gap between the train and the platform.  The 400s had a maximum speed of 240 km/h but all were withdrawn by April 2010.

The 300 Series

The 300 Series was introduced in 1992. They could carry about 1,300 passengers at a maximum  speed of 270 km/h (170 mph). The 300 Series abandoned the bullet-like nosecone for a more automobile-like styling with wider windscreen and lowered headlights, and also had flared panels protecting the front bogies from snow. It also had bolsterless bogies for greater stability at high speed, higher running performance on curves, less vibration and greater ride comfort, smaller size and lower weight to reduce track wear. All these improvements are to do with issues fundamental to rail transportation

A bolsterless bogie has two air springs directly supporting the carriage without any other cushioning element.

A 300 set the 1991 Japanese speed record of 202.3 mph (325.7 km/h). A total of 69 were built. All were withdrawn from service by March 2012. 

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A 300 on an evening run back to Tokyo.

The unusual shape of the nose of 300X was designed to minimise noise.

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Another 300 X variant pursued aerodynamic advantage. Changes such as these and the incrasingly flush window frames and headlight casings reveal increasing attention being paid to air movement at the leading edges of the train. 

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The 300X research project involved two test runs per week at night on track between Kyoto and Maibara on which revenue-operating trains ran during daytime. Testing covered rolling stock, tracks, overhead lines, and signal communications and involved simulations, constituent technology, and test runs, or combinations of the three. The simulations made it possible to predict situations that up till then could only have been checked with on-track tests, and provided insight into “boundary” problems that span a number of technological fields.

For example, it was found that lightening the unsprung mass affected running stability and ground vibration along the tracks.

Series 300 rolling stock was about 25% lighter than 100 Series, with a 30% lighter unsprung mass.  This led to 1998 track maintenance expenses being only 85% of those in 1993, despite a 50 km/h increase in speed. [ref.]

Boundary problems aren’t uncommon in railway transportation as it depends upon civil engineering, mechanical, electrical, and information systems that need to be designed and administered as a total system in a unified manner. It’s easy to see how boundary phenomena can be difficult to spot as a change seemingly insignificant in one field might have (good or bad) consequences for another.

The E1 Series

This was originally going to be designated the 600 Series. E1 trains were introduced in 1994 to alleviate overcrowding on the Tohoku and Joetsu routes. They had 3+3 seating in standard class and also had double-deck carriages. The first four upper deck non-reserved cars had 3+3 seating without individual armrests and did not recline. All E1 trains were withdrawn by September 2012.

The 500 series

These entered service in 1997 and had an operating speed of 300 km/h (185 mph). Innovations included the use of computer-controlled active suspension for a smoother and safer ride, and yaw dampers fitted between cars to prevent excessive sway. 

It had a revolutionary wing-graph pantograph.

In the case of the pantograph noise, air rushing over the struts and linkages in the mechanism was forming into so-called Karman vortices, also known as a Karman vortex street, and this turbulence was causing most of the noise. Karman vortices are created at all scales, from islands in the ocean to car aerials, and are manifested wherever a single bluff body separates the flow of a fluid. Alternate and opposite eddies swirl downstream of the obstruction, swinging back and forth as the force of one dominates and then the other. 

Vortex streets are a basic dynamic and some animals such as bees are thought to take advantage of it in their flight. Eiji Nakatsu is the bird-enthusiast and engineer credited with applying this physics to train aerodynamics. He studied the owl and its noise-dampening feather parts (fimbriae) that are a comb-like array of serrations grown on the leading edge of the primary wing feathers. They break down the air rushing over the wing foil into micro-turbulences that muffle the sound that typically occurs in wings without this feature. From 1994 a new “wing-graph” replaced the traditional pantograph and was a great success. The train could now run at 320 km/hr and meet the stringent 70dBa noise standard set by the government. [ref.]

There was also the more intractable problem of trains entering tunnels creating sonic booms at the other end of the tunnel. Japan’s rail tunnels are somewhat narrower than their European counterparts and often begin and end vertically, so when the shinkansen enters a tunnel at speeds above 200 kilometres per hour, the sudden increase in air pressure can cause a loud “boom” at the other end of the tunnel. In some cases, such shock waves are thought to have damaged tunnels in Japan, ripping chunks of material from tunnel ceilings.

Its counterintuitive at first for the boom to happen at the exit when the train enters the tunnel.” [It seems to suggest the piston effect can’t be sustained. G] This German video gives both the boom and the train later leaving the tunnel.

The other way around is tweaking tunnel portals to the same considerations. Victor

Nakatsu once again searched for an answer in nature when a junior engineer observed [uncredited, as is the Japanese way] that the test train seemed to “shrink” when it was traveling through the tunnel. Nakatsu reasoned that it must be due to a sudden change in air resistance, from open sky to closed tunnel, and wondered if there was an organism that was adapted to such conditions.

From his birdwatching experiences, Nakatsu remembered the kingfisher, a bird that dives at high speed from one fluid (air) to another that is 800 times denser (water) with barely a splash. He surmised the shape of its bill was what allowed the bird to cut so cleanly into the water. The design reduced the sonic boom effect, and allowed the train to run at higher speeds and still adhere to the standard noise level of 70 dBa. It also reaped further benefits immediately. The new Shinkansen 500 had 30 percent less air resistance than the preceding 300 series. A measured actual train run (maximum 270 km/hr) showed a 13 percent reduction in energy consumption. [ref.]

Sadly, this wonderful story dumbs down to this.

The unhappy ending is that each train cost approx. 5 billion yen and only nine were ever built. Although technologically innovative, the cost-peformance was poor and so the 500 Series thus went the way of the Sukhoi SU-47 and the F22 Raptor [c.f. Architectural Myths #8: Clean Lines].

The E4 series

These dual-level 8-car trains were designed as the second mini-shinkansen to replace the E1. They also began service in 1997 and had a maximum speed of 240 km/h (150 mph). 

The E2 Series

The E2 was introduced in 1997 and had a maximum speed of 275 km/h (170 mph). The most noticeable improvement was the shift from small windows for each seating bay to wide windows as with the E4 . The pantograph now had a single arm with an aerofoil-shaped mounting that did not need shrouding. Its exposed components were only those that had a reason to be exposed to the air. Even the horn of the pantograph (the curved ends of the slider or that top bar thingy that glide on the wire) had wavy holes drilled through them to generate vortices to suppresses the pantograph noise at high speed. [ref.]

A total of 53 were built but withdrawals began in 2013 when they began to be replaced by E7 Series trains.

The E3 Series

This is the fourth of mini-shinkansen designed with reduced width and clearance and to run on gauges for lower loads. Doorway steps fold out to make up the difference width when stopping at regular shinkansen stations. All were replaced by E6 Series trains by March 2014.

The 700 series

Introduced in 1999, with a maximum operating speed of 285 km/h (175 mph), the 700 series is immediately recognisable by its flat ‘duck-bill’ nose designed to reduce the piston effect when the train enters tunnels. The design owes much to the 300X research program. As with the 500 series trains, yaw dampers are fitted between vehicles, and all cars feature semi-active suspension for smooth ride at high speed. These trains were designed to deliver high performance and better ride comfort and interior ambience than the 300 Series but at 20% less cost than the 500 Series. [W.]

Between October 2008 and June 2009, JR Central’s fleet of sixty 700 series sets underwent modifications to increase the acceleration from the original 1.6 km/h/s to 2.0 km/h/s (0.44 m·s−2 to 0.56 m·s−2) on the Tokaido Shinkansen in order to improve timetable planning flexibility.

This trains were the core trains on the mainline shinkansen routes 2006–2011 but were gradually withdrawn and replaced with N700 Series trains and 800 Series trains.   

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An 800 Series Train.

The N700 series

N700 series trains have a maximum speed of 300 km/h (186 mph), and tilting of up to one degree allows the trains to maintain 270 km/h (168 mph) even on 2,500 m (8,200 ft) radius curves that previously had a maximum speed of 255 km/h (158 mph). The enhanced acceleration of the 700 Series (1.6 km/h/s to 2.0 km/h/s ) must have produced significant benefits for timetable flexibility because maximum acceleration rate of the N700 Series is 2.6 km/h/s. This means a 715 tonne train can accelerate from 0–270 km/h (170 mph) in only three minutes, and that it can travel between Tokyo and Osaka in 142 minutes, eight less than before. [W.]

This image of the N700 pantographs shows the (yellow) horn of the pantograph with its small holes that create the noise-surpressing vortices.

The E5 series

The E5 Series was introduced in 2011 and is still in service. Maximum speed is 320 km/h (200 mph). Pantograph improvements continued.

Until the E5, mini-shinkansen innovations had mainly been for width and clearance but the east-west routes through the Japan Alps have more and longer tunnels so the tunnel boom problem was more significant with these trains. The E5 is the latest attempt to solve the problem without incurring the expenses of the 300 Series or the undue attentions of biomimeticists.  

• • •

Doctor Yellow

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“Doctor Yellow” is the name given to trains specially customised for track checking and diagnosis. Doctor Yellow trains are dispatched to check track immediately after earthquakes and also when track sections are experiencing severe weather conditions. Unlike regular shinkansen, these trains are sometimes operated at full speed (up to 443 km/h ~ 275 mph). [ref.]  It’s a good day for a train enthusiast when they see one. Here’s six loving shots of the two 923 Series Doctor Yellow trains developed from the 700 Series, plus a 0 Series Doctor Yellow from fifty years ago.

• • •

Takeways: 

  • Eiji Nakatsu is remarkable for not only for observing Nature but also for listening to the straightforward observations of said junior engineer who was first to articulate the problem in terms of the relevant physics.
  • Boundary phenomena are nasty, especially as it’s not part of our psychology to look out for and take responsibility for the effect our actions have on others. Our culture of subcontracting and outsourcing may make some of them easier to identify but at the same time impossible to do anything about. (“Excuse me, there’s nothing in it for you but would you mind changing your way of doing things to solve a problem we’re having?”) Simply exchanging information between disciplinces is not teamwork.
  • Two boundary phenomena stood out. One was how reducing the unsprung weight led to track maintenance economies. The other was how the sum of mechanical and physical factors that resut in improved acceleration is recognised as allowing for increased timetabling flexibility. This is probably a Japanese euphemism for “more trains more frequently” but identifying that the two are linked is awesome.
  • With different routes needing different solutions for different conditions, the story of technical improvements across the Shinkansen fleets is not linear in the way the development of Sukhoi fighter planes was [c.f. Architectural Myths #8: Clean Lines]. The main revenue-earning lines were not always the identifies or problems or the initiators of innovation, as shown by the tunnel boom solutions.
  • What’s also impressive is that not one shinkansen innovation has been aesthetic for its own sake. Their various noses and front ends have never tried to be beautiful. How a very fast object goes through the air is very important in terms of energy efficiency and the noise it generates, and much research and development understandably went into optimising the shape of Shinkansen lead carriages and the nose in particular. It is a pity these highly visible “faces” of the shinkansen overshadow the effort that went into reducing the noise made by the pantographs that also travel through air at the same high speed.
  • And let’s not forget the research and develpment intelligence embodied in the bogies that make high-speed train travel comfortable as well as make it safe and viable by keeping the train on the tracks in the first place. In fifty years and over 10 billion passengers, there have been no Shinkansen fatalities due to derailments or collisions. That’s some track record.

Acknowledgements:

  • to www.allaboutjapantrains.com and japan-talk.com for helping me make some sense out of the series numbering
  • to Isao OKAMOTO for his 1999 article on Shinkansen Bogies in Railway Technology Today
  • to Hiromasa TANAKA for his 2001 paper, High-speed Rail Technology as Revealed by the Shinkansen
  • to trainoftheweek.blogspot.ae for the interesting stuff about pantographs, and also the many references
  • to www.greenbiz.com for the most convincing version of the kingfisher story.
  • In this post I hope I’ve managed to communicate something of the amount of ongoing and focussed intelligence and research and develpment that has gone into making these trains. Many people out there know much more about them than me. I’ll be grateful to anyone who can help me correct any inaccuracies or who can think of more examples of design intelligence that might not be not immediately visible.

 

 

Learning Curve

If you’ve been wondering what skills were most in demand at the top 50 architecture firms [according to a 2013 Architectural Record Top 300 Architecture Firms study], Black Spectacles has already surveyed 928 job postings and compiled the software and other requirements listed for each job. Well done them!  

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“In summary, for software skills, over 70% of architecture jobs require Revit skills, and over 50% still require AutoCAD skills.  The #3 software skill required is Sketchup.  We must admit that we were disappointed (but not surprised) to see that Grasshopper was only required for 3% of the jobs.  And good old-fashioned hand-sketching was only explicitly called out in 4% of these jobs.

The authors admit that taking only the top firms skews the survey towards the larger ones, which of course implies a certain kind of top-down production system. The demanded software therefore reflects the office hierarchy. Documentation software such as Revit and AutoCAD figure largest. Communications and presentation software not so large, and aids to creative thinking such as sketching hardly at all. Offices don’t need a surfeit of creatives.

• • •

Here’s a quick rundown on some of the programs architects should have experimented with, perhaps adopted, and almost certainly discarded for ones less obsolete.

Computer-Aided Design Programs

Off the top of my head, I can think of MiniCAD, AutoCAD, Vectorworks, Microstation, AutoDesk, EasyCAD and TurboCAD. There’s many more out there and many have C-A-D as part of their name. Equally many people will advise on which is best for you.

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Let’s follow the Architecture link.

Many an architecture student’s first introduction to CAD will be AutoCAD. Most students will have access to several versions and copies and people to teach them how to use it to draw plans, elevations and sections without getting their hands dirty or having to worry too much about accuracy. Making sure the elevations match the plans and the plans match the sections takes as much skill, care and time as it ever did.

Building Information Modelling

ArchiCAD has always been a struggler in the market due to poor choice of diffusion model in the early years. While AutoCAD was being given away to schools and businesses, ArchiCAD was expensive and had a complex system of hardware dongles purposely limiting any dissemination that wasn’t fully paid for. It was a shame because ArchiCAD was the world’s first CAD program with an integrated BIM and 3D functionality that no other program could match until Revit sort of did twenty years later.

Revit has leapt to the forefront very quickly and many people are amazed by how it revolutionalized the production of architectural drawings.

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Visualisation Programs

“2D plans have long been the bane of designers when it comes to communicating ideas to clients, and humble concept boards and elevations can only do so much.  As such, more and more designers are turning to 3D which real, authentic and visual.” 

Some CAD programs have integrated visualization capabilities. It’s good to see cherry trees have finally made it into object libraries. [c.f. The Things Architects Do #11: Cherry Blossoms]

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Google SketchUp has been around since the early 2000’s and was an instant hit with architects and designers who could not or were not able to sketch. 

“[It] is one of the most widely used and easy to learn 3D Modeling software packages on the market today. With SketchUp’s ability to use plug in software, such as V-Ray, iRender and Shaderlight, designers can take a basic 3D and morph into one that can (and will) get their ideas over the line in a manner in which clients can understand.” [ref.]

3D Studio Max was many an architecture student’s first introduction to texture mapping.

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ARtlantis has also been around a while. It was one of the first rendering packages to enable control over lighting and illumination effects, and offered a choice of rendering engines. Maxwell and VRay were popular choices. Here’s a quick tutorial showing you how to set an Artlantis scene to be rendered with [in? by?] Maxwell.

And here’s one on how to export your SketchUp Pro 2013 model to ArtLantis Studio 15.

Here’s one on how to use the new VRay for Revit

Here’s a link to motionographer Alex Roman’s turgid film The Third and the Seventh,

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and another link to an interview.

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Maya was breathtakingly refreshing when it first came out but is now just part of the furniture.

“Bring your imagination to life with Maya® 3D animation, modeling, simulation, and rendering software. Maya helps artists tell their story with one fast, creative toolset.” [ref.]

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You can bring your imagination to life, if you dare.

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You can use time to animate a cube mesh, if that’s your thing.

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Here’s a YouTube tutorial on skinning rigging and applying mocap data.

Lumion

Of all of the rendering sofwares, Lumion was perhaps the most welcome. It produced images that may have been incredibly cheesy but it was difficult to make something look really ugly.

Parametric Modelling Programs

Rhinoceros 5

Rhinoceros is primarily a free form surface modeler that utilizes the NURBS mathematical model. Its application architecture and open SDK makes it modular and enables the user to customize the interface and create custom commands and menus. Dozens of plug-ins available from both McNeel and other software companies complement and expand Rhinoceros’ capabilities in specific fields like rendering and animation, architecture, marine, jewelry, engineering, prototyping, and others.

“You can do anything with Rhino“, they say. “Can one really?” I say.

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Here’s the Grand Staircase of the Titanic.

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Grasshopper

This is a visual scripting language for Rhino. It lets you do things like parametric rosettes and weaves, sine functions and transformations, solid difference, kanagaroo tags, voronoi boxes and lots of other stuff you didn’t even know you couldn’t do.

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“For designers who are exploring new shapes using generative algorithms, Grasshopper® is a graphical algorithm editor tightly integrated with Rhino’s 3-D modeling tools. Unlike RhinoScript, Grasshopper requires no knowledge of programming or scripting, but still allows designers to build form generators from the simple to the awe-inspiring.” 

Their website will get you started with tutorials.

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Energy Modelling Software 

eQUEST is probably the quickest option and is also free. This tutorial will walk you through the basics.

“Keep in mind that it focuses almost solely on energy and that load design in eQUEST should be limited to the experts. Check out this video that shows how awesome eQUEST is!”

TRACE 700 “… is a great option if you need to do Load Design + Energy. Tell your boss to suck it up and buy it for you. It comes with free support.” [ref.]

IES“Investigate suitable bioclimatic strategies even before a line has been drawn, and connect from SketchUp™ or BIM packages. By enabling informed sustainable design decisions you can be confident that the VE for Architects helps you deliver ambitious performance goals while seeking opportunities to keep costs appropriate. In fact, as top engineers use advanced IESVE tools you can easily collaborate and exchange models with them as you progress – facilitating an improved integrated and data driven process.” [ref.]

Here’s a tutorial for how to use IES Light with V-Ray in Sketchup. How awesome is that!

Urban Design Programs

City Engine lets you make bold and sweeping inteventions relating to site density and height across entire cities, and provides you with updated floor areas and thus presumably return-on-investment as you go. If that all sounds a bit mercenary, we are reminded that CityEngine is used by several major animation studios and visual effects houses for the creation of digital sets of urban environments.” [ref.]

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This test image was generated with CityEngine and has 1.135 billion polygons, no instancing and is rendered in 22 gigabytes of RAM.

• • •

A few observations.

1. Nothing’s changed.

No matter how skilled you become at using any or all of these software packages, you’ll still be a technician – someone who executes the ideas of others. No office needs a surfeit of people who can use a felt-tip.

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Person using a felt-tip.

2. Nothing is used to its maximum potential.

All this productivity software results in highly contrived and inefficient workflows as a consequence of offices having legacy software and staff having different types and levels of legacy skills. For example, a head of architecture might “sketch” a building in AutoCAD 2000 because that’s all he knows how to use. That might then get passed to a graduate who has a copy of Rhino to “extrude” it so it can then be exported to SketchUp for preliminary work on elevations while being further embroidered in Revit. None of these programs is being used in the way for which it was designed to be used. And even if they were used in some far superior string of hocus-pocus, everything will ultimately be put onto a USB drive as a PowerPoint presentation to show the client at 1024 x 768 dpi on whatever IT/projection system there is in the boardroom.

The longevity of AutoCAD in the industry shows that software innovation and endless learning are unnecessary. Buildings are still being designed and built using legacy technologies in inefficient and illogical ways, only even more so.

3. Nobody knows it all.

If digital models are exported around the office into formats more suited to the task or the skills of the person actually performing the task, then the same is true for collaborations outside the office. File conversions are routine as is the loss/addition of information along the way. Municipalities may request submissions as Revit files but that doesn’t mean the project was designed using Revit or that Revit will be used for further documentation or detailing.

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Nothing is ever enough

“Software skill requirements fell predictably along experience lines, with lower experience requiring more software skills.  The exceptions were in AutoCAD & Photoshop where the difference between the requirements of 0-3 years & 11-20 years of experience was over 20%.  The next largest difference was in Revit at 14%.” [ref.]

In other words, the most poorly paid are expected to be the most productive. This is no surprise. For a monthly subscription fee, Lynda.com will teach you how to use Revit and many other new packages suddenly indispensible for getting you a new job or letting you keep the one you have.

Lynda is linked to LinkedIn, the site that monetizes job dissatisfaction and insecurity. Just as you can never learn enough, you can never be too dissatisfied or too insecure.

The online software instruction industry has shown sharp growth. Not only are employees agressively targeted and made to feel as if they must stay up-to-date to retain their job, but the unemployed are also preyed upon. Devoted instructors plant ideas like the “self-education trap” and describe in terror-inducing detail how you may not learn of some essential feature if you teach yourself.

Also targeted are the pre-unemployed, a.k.a. students. Students have a natural insecurity about the quality of their education which, coupled with questionable career prospects can easily be leveraged into them paying substantial money in the false hope of being able to design better. The slickest software school setups have a vast media presence promising “cool speakers in free seminars” and all the other paraphernalia of media-fueled architecture practice.

3. ‘Those that can, exploit. Those that can’t, defraud.’

It’s that old adage again, this time expanding downwards into lesser but larger markets. If you’re still unemployed after having paid good money to learn all this software, you can still claw some of it back by taking classes to become a tutor. You’ll learn how to replicate a Shanghai supertall from an image and then move onto some megamansion you’ve almost certainly seen online. Some of the old favourites are still around to let students think they’re getting closer to design.

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This is an example of ArtLantis being used to add texture to SketchUp. [Nobody ever seems to notice the huge hill behind the house.]

It’s rare the class that will pose design problems of increasing complexity that require the software to be creatively used in order to solve them. Mostly, copying is presented as designing and is accepted as designing. It sounds like a scam when aggressive mis-selling meets the suspension of disbelief. Or, it could be we’ve unwittingly reverted to the old Beaux-Arts system of learning by copying. If that’s the case, then two things:

  1. Copying is probably all that was ever necessary.
  2. The Bauhaus-style of architectural education created its own market in a way not so different from today’s software teaching schools. It artificially divided the workforce into a self-replicating system consisting of those who know and those who think they need to know. Those who know could teach others what they knew and, once they did that, could then teach them how to teach others what they knew.

Teaching now means teaching how to use software but how, and to do what? If those software ‘skills’ are best taught by copying then we’ve definitely returned to the Beaux-Arts style of teaching architecture.

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The snag in the system is that the software developers and vendors are better placed to teach people how to use their products, and to teach people how to teach others.

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Institutions of higher education need to think very carefully about the type of value they supposedly add. 

5. Nobody’s saying anything about design.

Software is concerned with the production of production drawings and marketing materials – there’s never mention of anything that stimulates the generation of ideas. This is because there’s no software that replicates the ability of the human brain to take diverse types of information and make both controlled and random associations to indicate where a solution might lie. It’s the creative process in its widest and truest meaning. 

Parametric design approaches are not what I mean because some vital information may resist quantification or even conscious identification. Genetic algorithms are also not what I mean. They also use only quantifiable information yet more closely approximate the creative process by bringing the brute force of computational power to the tried and trusted feedback loop we know as Trial And Error.

Adherents of both approaches claim that being able to explore “entire” [?] universes of possibilities assists the design process. The difference though is the type of design process being assisted. Parametricism tends to be used for form-finding “problems” and the solution found when the process stops and a solution decided upon – as ever it was.  Genetic algorithms tend to be used for multi-variable environmental problems and generate mutations of variable combinations until they converge on the optimum combination. It’s a bit like evolution, hence the name. 

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http://nljones.scripts.mit.edu/thesis.php

Even if we overlook the diminishing importance of the ability to sketch architectural ideas, employers indicate no preference for where or how those architectural ideas are supposed to come from. It’s safe to assume clients don’t either. It adds negligible value to the product. Once again there’s no lack of people offering advice and instruction.

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The generation of concepts provides a welcome relief from existential worries at institutions of higher education and is a source of professional pride for tutors, and grief for students as they attempt to magick a building out of less than nothing.

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“the starting point was ‘bones’ … “

Some job advertisements request “design flair” but this could be just a ruse to flush out those who think they have it. Starchitect employees have already expressed their desire to work for a pittance in order to breathe the same air occasionally. That’s why they’re there.

6. Nobody’s saying anything about anything else.

The ability to hand-sketch was low down the list of desirable qualities for architects to have. A knowledge of history – or even an awareness of the role of buildings in society –wasn’t even identified as a skill let alone rated as one. History is still taught yet nobody knows why. It’s not on any employer’s wish list so it too can’t be anything clients value or would like to see valued.

The rejection of the Beaux-Arts’ revered history, the Modernists’ abstracted history, the Post Modernists’ caricatured history, and even the urban pragmatists’ what’s-already- there view of history means that we’re left with Futurism all over again, only this time it’s a mannerist and pan-global one fuelled by clients with the agendas to encourage it and the money to build it.

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I’ve begun reading this [thanks Tim Waterman]. I expect it’ll be preaching to converted but every now and then it’s good to read a book that articulates what one had been suspecting for a long time. At £67 for the e-book, it’d better be better than good or else I’ll think I’m trapped in a system where thinking about architecture is produced and consumed like software, and with as little to show for it. I don’t expect to be getting my money back any time soon but I’ll let you know if I think you should part with yours.

Career Case Study #7: Serge Chermayeff

The life and career of Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996) were vastly differemt from those of Ivan Leonidov (1902-1959), subject of the previous Career Case Study. They were also much longer.

Chermayeff made a series of good career moves, the first of which was being born into a rich Jewish family in 1900. True, it was in Chechnya in the then Russian Empire but he soon corrected that at age ten by going to England to be educated at Harrow, along the way losing the “i” off Sergei – most likely en-route in France. At seventeen and accepted into Cambridge, the Russian Revolution happened and his family had its fortune confiscated. Miffed, he threw his suitcase of useless cash out the window, and became … a ballroom dancer. All we’re told of the next five years is that he spent them in Argentina learning the tango and that he came back an instant hero.

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In 1928 when Leonidov was being propelled to architectural superstardom on the back of his Lenin Institute of Librarianship, Chermayeff was one of London’s best known young interior designers and a British citizen.

Here’s a side cabinet by Chermayeff, 1930.

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A 1996 Chicago Tribune obituary placed the early 1930’s Chermayeff in a series of architectural firms and on the faculty of the European Mediterranean Academy in Cavaliere, France. [Chermayeff’s parents were now in Paris, living off a big bag of jewelery they left Russia with.] He got around. Spin-off product design from his interior design work was lucrative, and architectural work followed. Here’s a radio he designed, moulded from the then new wonder synthetic plastic, Bakelite (polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride).

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Chermayeff’s career defied the usual progression. He begn with being famous and then moved into product design, then architecture, and finally academia. We often read about people “starting a practice” and it’s made to sound simple but it shows he had 1) promises of at least two jobs, 2) confidence those jobs would happen and 3) some buffer startup capital. Here’s Shann House, one of his first, completed 1933 the same year as the radio.

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http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-to-rent/property-53295644.html

Eric Mendelsohn joined him in partnership 1933–1936. [Mendelsohn became a British citizen in 1938 and three years later emigrated to the US to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. For the record, Marcel Breuer arrived in Great Britain in 1930, leaving in 1937 to teach at Harvard.] Shrubbs Wood was completed 1934 in the Mendelsohn years.

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By ArtDecoSociety – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45178931

There was also the De La Warr Paviliion which Chermayeff and Mendelsohn won the RIBA-run competition for. It was begun and completed [!] in 1935. William Curtis implies Mendelsohn was the brains behind its planning.

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Not that it matters as photographs focus on the lovely staircase

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even though there’s much more to it.

There was also Cohen House (1935-1936). [More photos and a history here.]

In 1972 it had a glass conservatory added by a certain Norman Foster.

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The house in the distance is Levy House, designed by Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry and completed 1936. [Gropius had arrived in the UK in 1934, worked with Fry two years until 1936 when he accepted a job offer from Harvard’s department of architecture, initially teaching but 1938-1952 as chairman.] Chermayeff completed Gilbey House in 1938 in the short time between Mendelsohn’s leaving and his own Brexit in 1940. 

The building as seen from the main approach down Oval Road. The projecting bay marks the main entrance and provides an Architectural stop

Bentley Wood was the house Chermayeff designed for him and his family. Completed in 1938, it is said to be Britain’s first modern house – if one forgets the 1933 Shann House, 1934 Shrubbs House, 1935 Cohen House …

Frank Lloyd Wright came to have a look. Life was good. No-one’s owning up to having designed this extension.

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I doubt Chermayeff would’ve cared, for Bentley Wood proved to be the demise of Chermayeff’s career in England, as the costs of the house made him bankrupt shortly after moving in, forcing him to leave England for America. It’s probably not as simple as that. November 1938 was Kristallnacht and September 1939 the German invasion of Poland. It’s easy to imagine a few spooked clients pulling out of deals, creating cashflow problems. If Chermayeff’s practice was still a partnership, he’d have had to sell his personal assets to honour his debts, including any home loan he may have taken out. Bankruptcy would be a likely result if he couldn’t but trustees would normally prevent a bona-fide bankrupt leaving the country for any length of time. Conclusion: there probably was some sort of financial unpleasantness and, as it was before, Chermayeff’s decision was to change countries.   

Over in America, good friends Walter and Ise looked after the kids while Serge found work teaching at the then California School of Fine Arts 1941-1942. He was simultaneously an associate architect and employee of San Fransiscan residential architect Clarence W. W. Mayhew and co-authored Mayhew’s house. 

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Chermayeff’s California sojourn wasn’t to last long. In 1942 he took up an offer to head the new art department at Brooklyn College, Columbia University. It can’t have suited for Chermayeff applied himself to architectural problems, publishing his Park Type Apartments Study (that we saw earlier in March’s 1+1/2 Floor Apartment post) in 1943, neatly solving a problem from two decades earlier even though there’s nothing in Chermayeff’s history to indicate he had any time for The Constructivists and their concerns with spatial and resource efficiency. [Adding some more width to the corridor level enables the kitchen and dining areas to stay together on that level as a functional unit. The lower apartments have no division between dining and living and the upper apartments have the dining area overlooking the living area in an equally sensible arrangement.]

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Chermayeff bought a cabin in Wellfleet from Jack Philips who, more than anyone else, is responsible for Cape Cod becoming an enclave of emigré modernist architects. Here’s the family there in 1944.

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In 1946 Walter Gropius recommended Chermayeff to serve as president of the Institute of Design in Chicago. In 1952, Chermayeff taught briefly at MIT and designed himself a new house and studio in Wellfleet.

Life was good again. 

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In 1952 Gropius recommended him to head the department of architecture at Harvard. Twenty years earlier, Chermayeff had had no education beyond high school and was yet to design a house. This shows that teaching architecture is something you can just pick up and become good at, like with English and ballroom dancing. 

You could hate him, or dislike him, but you had to respect the man for how he approached the subject. He did not compromise. [His] values were too high. As a result, he could be quite brutal,” said one former student. Chermayeff’s sons were also his students at Harvard, which must have been awkward for everyone. We don’t know why Chermayeff left Harvard but he always seemed to land on his feet. He jointed the architecture faculty at Yale in 1962 and stayed nine years until retiring in 1970. 

From then until he died in 1996, the Chermayeff narrative shifts to his sons and, in turn, to his grandson but you can read about those elsewhere.

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As a career case study, what can we learn from Serge Chermayeff?

Obviously, a belief in one’s own worth is a good thing for any parent to instil in a child. A sense of entitlement doesn’t hurt either. A need for the limelight and adulation doesn’t go astray in fields of showbiz or architecture. And a nose for survival – whether to avoid war or to follow the market – is a good thing and if it means changing countries then so be it. Parents with a big bag of jewelry to sell, aristocratic genes and the connections that go with them are plusses.

Chermayeff did nothing more – and no less – than take advantage of the opportunities that came his way. It’s usually only after architects die that we get to hear about opportunities bestowed and opportunities taken, favours done and favours owed, and the familial duties and friendship obligations that motivated them. We know a lot about Chermayeff’s life for it was bigger than his career. We don’t get to say that about too many architects.

• • •

 

The Dacha

One response to urban lives characterised by work and routine is to take a break from it all. Some people retreat to their country or weekend houses, others perhaps book a hotel or have a timeshare in some foreign country. Urban living in Russia is also characterised by work and routine but Russians don’t do any of the above if they want a break from it. They go to their dacha.

The Russian word dacha (дача) is usually over-translated as country house, implying something grander than usually the case. It was once the case however, for dacha date back to the empire era. The name is said to have the same Latin root as data – that which is given – although the giving was done by a feudal landlord to people in favour. This is Utkina Dacha, the land for which was granted in the middle of the 18th century to Agafokleya Poltoratskaya and her husband Mark Poltoratsky as reward for their involvement in opera productions.

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Here’s a pre-revolution dacha I’ve mentioned before. It was designed by Simon and Leonid Vesnin before and completed a year after Greene & Greene’s 1908 Gamble House.

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As with most country houses and summer weekend houses, the historic dacha treated nature as nothing more than something refreshing to look at.

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The general population was only allowed to have dacha in Khruschev era in the 1960s. Land for this new breed of dacha was gifted by companies, from land that could be used for little other purpose.

Dacha use land that would otherwise be wasted. 

Power companies, for example, gifted land close to or below the high-voltage power lines that criss-cross the country. Railways would gift land near their tracks. Other institutions and companies might purchase land from companies such as these and distribute it. A belt of dachas follows motorways and train lines out of every major city. Dacha are rarely more than an hour away by major transportation route.

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Access is generally by train, but the trains are not commuter trains but non-express intercity trains.

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Dacha can of course be accessed by vehicle but since they exist on land that can often be used for no other purpose, the roads to access them allow for the honest use of off-road vehicles.

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The convenience of accessing dacha is what makes them work.

And work they do. The initial function of these working dacha was food production because of shortages of foodstuffs back then. Vegetables didn’t care if they were close to railway or high-voltage lines. Working dacha are in the countryside, are used on weekends, and people do retreat to them but it is wrong to think of working dacha and historic dacha as the same. 

This gifting of land for practical reasons had a political slant. In 1962 Soviet armed functionaries brutally suppressed local food riots in the event known as the Novocherkassk massacre. Giving people land shifted the onus on food production back to them. They could devote their energies to feeding themselves than rioting. In English we call this killing two birds with one stone. In Russia they say kill two hares in one shot (убить одним выстрелом двух зайцев). This history of food production is why 50% of all Russians and populations of the former Soviet Union have a dacha.

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The production of food is still a major activity. This has two important consequences.

50% of Russians still have a strong connection with Nature. 

The pattern of occupancy of dacha reflects the growing season rather than the season. The cultivation that takes place is not gardening but the growing of food to eat and share. Wild strawberries are a bonus.

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50% of Russians still have a strong connection to food production. 

The economic necessity to grow one’s own food has relaxed somewhat but it was never as if people returned to the city with a week’s worth of groceries. Economic benefits aside, it is a satisfying use of time and energy to grow vegetables as a leisure activity, and extremely satisfying to eat them afterwards,

along with all the drinking of berry-infused beverages that that entails.

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A serious amount of food is nevertheless produced. *

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Peak dacha probably occurred sometime immediately post-1990. The country moved away from apartment+hut and towards suburban house+garden. Nearly every family who desired a dacha could have one. There has been a marked drop-off in field surveying for new dacha plots.

This map shows the distribution of dacha around the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg. Pink is dacha largely within the 60km radius ring road (orange) but the geometry also follows high-voltage lines and railways, particularly to the south. New suburban development is in yellow and follows roads more closely than railways.

Yekaterinburg dacha belt

The working dacha is free from the tyranny of architecture.

Working dacha are pure vernacular. More often than not, the buildings are self-built from salvaged or recycled materials. There is a limited demand for inexpensive transportable and prefabricated structures as these lose their appeal above a definite economic cutoff. The feeling is Why spend all that money on something you can build yourself?

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Amongst a mosaic of huts, you’re therefore likely to see a converted bus or perhaps a railway car. Interiors are a composite of objects  valued for their continued utility.

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The working dacha has no need for architecture. Architecture offers nothing that could improve upon its vernacular intelligence and its handmade, salvaged or ad-hoc imperfections. It is liveable, practical and viable on the personal and social levels and sustainable on the ex-urban level and, as a consequence of that, the urban level.

The contemporary dacha is reverting to its historic origins as a summer weekend house for relaxing. Architects are getting involved. Owners of architecturalized dachas do not need or want to grow their own food and are unaware of themselves being cultivated by architects. You may have seen this one: “A family with two kids wanted a quiet retreat from the everyday busy life in the suburbs of Moscow.”

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This architecturalized dacha is a weekend house as we know it. Nature is nothing more than something to look at. When the dacha becomes architecture, all that is useful is lost.

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The working dacha and the architecturalised dacha are the results of opposing forces that can never be resolved. Downmarket and sensible occupy the opposite end of the spectrum to upmarket and folly, and are nourished by different atmospheres.

Fortunately, the working dacha is unlikely to disappear anytime soon if 50% of the population has one. This is a good thing because the city apartment + country hut combination has a lot more going for it than attempts to directly fuse urban living and Nature. 

1. The suburban house and garden

Working dacha are not primary residences but suburban houses are. The suburban house began with good intentions. This new housing product made possible by the convenience of train travel, took people just far enough out of the city so they could commute back to it. (In one of those twists of history, the unreliability and expense of privatised train travel in the UK is now making them less viable.)  The first suburban houses put more distance between them and urban tenements and less between the country estates further out. They were a perfect product for their times.

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One of the attractions of the suburban house was the affectation of landowner abilities and rights to grow things. Another was to not have to do it to survive. Plants such as the hybrid tea rose were grown not for sustenance but for pleasure in that abstracted cultivation known as gardening. For many people however, gardening is a chore when combined with commuting and a day job. Suburban gardens rarely live up to their historic expectations.

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Land with much potential to enhance life becomes a nuisance, and its capacity to produce either ignored or activelly suppressed.

Perhaps worse is its further abstraction into the world of ‘landscape gardening’.

2. The apartment+allotment

In the UK, an allotment is a piece of land initially allocated to the urban poor to grow food and feed themselves. The system began at the beginning of last century and, to some extent also makes use of land that cannot be used for any other purpose. These allotments are on the periphery of the factory land.

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Although beneficial in many of the same ways as dacha, there are two main failings. The first is that, at  the plots aren’t large enough. The standard size is said to be 250 sq.m which is about the size of a doubles tennis court. If continuously and intensively cultivated it might feed a family of five. (Refer to misfits’ architecture: Caories/m^3) The current average area is 154 sq.m.

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The larger problem is that habitable structures are prohibited. The land may be otherwise unusable land close to railways or liable to flooding but it is too close to the city. Allowing habitable structures could much to promote a different way of living. The British apartment+allotment has many of the advantages of dacha but does not go far enough.

3. Agricultural urbanism

Agricultural urbanism, community gardens, rooftop gardens and verge gardens are a new invention. The shared aim is to produce food on underused land in cities. Community gardens and window boxes provide visible veg. Rooftops can also be pressed into service but the shared goal of these approaches is the reconnection to food, a change of attitude and the awareness that food has to be grown somewhere by someone.

Using land leftover from inappropriate urban form is a good thing but there’s something slightly surreal about verge gardens. These are vegetables I’d definitely want to wash thorougly beforehand, even if I didn’t know that some plants are very good at absorbing and concentrating environmental toxins. Sunflowers, for example, excel at absorbing radioactive isotopes 90Sr and 137Cs. As for the plants, I can’t help thinking they would prefer to be somewhere else.

4. Vertical farming

If we want serious yields and not just herbs, garnishes and a warm fuzzy feeling then verge gardens and window boxes aren’t going to cut it. We need to upscale. Urban vertical farming has been proposed and there’s also much to recommend it. It’s battery farming for plants and, if nutritional value doesn’t suffer, then there might be a place for it. The problem is that food is still grown by someone else and comes from somewhere else, albeit via a shorter distribution system. There’s still serious infrastructure, investment, and numerous middlemen presumably taking their cut.

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5. Tall buildings in parkland

Like the architecturalized dacha, growing food is something other people do. The tall building vision was all about aesthetically modified nature – parkland. Sunlight and fresh air and open space are good. Another good thing about them is that they can be used for many things at once. It is a waste of sunlight, air and land to grow plants such as grass for visual amenity value only.

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Skyscrapers aren’t about to be placed in farmland anytime soon but, if they do, it’ll happen in China where (I forget the actual statistic) something astounding like 50 fifty-storey apartment blocks need to be brought online every week to accommodate net population increase. If land is better suited to growing food than buildings, and if buildings are better suited to housing people than plants, then the vertical village is the logical consequence.

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• • •

None of these attempts to fuse the spaces occupied by plants and people have all of the advantages the apartment+dacha combination has. Those advantages arise from connecting the two types of space rather than attempting to fuse them.  

An urban apartment and a dacha complement each other beautifully. A weekly trip to the dacha to check and maintain the plants seems to fit their cycle as well as ours. It must be psychologically healthy to take a train out of town in the opposite direction to usual, to be in a rural or semi-rural environment and do different things that have their own satisfaction and rewards, and in one’s own time. I can only imagine that, at weekend’s end, one goes back to the city and sees afresh and appreciates anew the things that apartments, cities and infrastructure have to offer.

• • •

If they were lived in full-time, dacha would be a sustainable and resilient way of life very close to what we would call off-grid living.  

  • Dacha  use land that would otherwise be wasted
  • Dacha  use existing infrastructure
  • Dacha recycle and reuse and are an ecological and sustainable use of resources
  • Dacha are used to grow food
  • Dacha have an absence of architecture

When dacha are not lived in full-time, the apartment+dacha combination is a very useful urban unit and additional benefits arise from them being separate yet linked by a short train ride. 

  • Dacha provide the population with sustaining breaks of environment
  • Dacha respect the production of food as a noble human activity
  • Dacha teach an appreciation of Nature that involves working with Nature

By offering a break from full-time urban living, dacha balance it, complement it and thus help sustain it.

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• • •

Further information:

An excellent glimpse into the world of the dacha is here on https://russianotes.com. I loved the opening sentence: “Summer passed very quickly, as it usually does in Central Russia”, and this image.

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See also: 

misfits’ architecture: Home Grown
misfits’ architecture: Calories/m^3
misfits’ architecture: Vertical Farmwash
misfits’ architecture: Food and Shelter

The 1+1/2 Floor Apartment

The first time a one-and-a-half floor apartment featuring a double-height space crossed the architectural horizon was Richard M. Hunt’s Tenth Street Studio building in New York in 1857.

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Designed specifically for artists, it had large windows lighting double-height spaces. Apartments were arranged around a central gallery space that was skylit and that served as an exhibition space. Some apartments also had rooms offside for the artist to live.

As the first American to attend the Ecole des Beux-Arts in Paris, Richard Hunt and his Tenth Street Studios had cred. His new building typology linked ‘the mythic lifestyle of the artist with larger cultural ideals in relation to housing.’* What those larger cultural ideals were, was still unclear however, as New York circa 1865 had a population of about one million and about 15,000 tenement buildings. Society patrons of said artists soon brought some clarity to the matter. Having seen what excellent receptions populated by charming and cultured people could be held in rooms with high ceilings and north light, they began to want some of the space and light they saw in those studios.

Sherwood Studios was completed in 1880 on 57th Street which was soon to become an art and residential hotspot. Its studios were designed specifically for living and included a parlour and bedrooms but no kitchens. Residents, married and single alike, ate at the restaurant downstairs in a successful co-living and working arrangement. First residents were artists but this was soon to change.

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The Sixty Seventh Street Studios were completed in 1901.

Gainsborough Studios, completed 1908, at 222 Central Park South on Central Park South is still a fine place to live or paint.

By 1920, artists were the minority in studio apartment developments. Over in Europe, artists and architects alike were attuned to the New York art market that had so enthusiastically kept the French Impressionists alive but, as far as architecture was concerned, light and a feeling of spaciousness were now a commodity and the new standard by which modern living as set by the fashionable affluent was to be judged. 

Le Corbusier had designed and completed Maison Ozenfant in Paris in 1922. Ozenfant was a mere painter though, but apparently a successful one for his studio was merely a large and well-illuminated room above a sizeable house. It was fit for purpose and implied no new way of living even though there is a mezzanine. You can just see the handrail leading up to it on the right in the photograph below.

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Corbusier’s 1922 Villa Besnus had no mezzanine or studio but studios soon came thick and fast. Villas Lipchitz-Miestchaninoff 1923. Villas La Roche-Jeanneret 1923. Maison Ternisien 1923. All had mezzanine studio spaces for artists we don’t know whether they cared that much for space and light or whether they wanted to attract same patrons in they same way their New York colleagues were.

LC’s 1924 Artisan/Workman Houses were a classic example of a one-and-a-half-floor dwelling. We don’t know if this project was genuinely intended for artists but, if artists studios were being designed for the general market in New York in 1920 then we shouldn’t assume Le Corbusier’s artisan houses of 1924 were any different.

The curious little proposal is nevertheless an inspired marketing masterclass in covering all bases. It was mass produced but for artisans or craftsmen. It could be for workmen if society went that way as it had just in Russia, but could be brought into service for the fashionably wealthy as was the case in America.

Any need for ambiguity was gone by 1925. The Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau at the Paris Exhibition was one-and-three-quarter floors of bourgeois housing. Mezzanine floors and the life of artists had arrived as a housing product in Europe!

The painting displayed on the easel in Pierre Chareau’s 1928-31 Maision de Verre now makes perfect sense. It’s not as if the Dalsaces couldn’t have afforded an extra wall.

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Farther east, Russian architects saw the potential of increased vertical volume to compensate for reduced floor area by way of better lighting, ventilation and this new sense of spaciousness. Double-height spaces and half floors featured in many of the proposals for the 1927 USSR Comradely Competition for Communal Housing. Moisei Ginzburg’s team proposed apartments that began life as one downstairs apartment having a bathroom that could be shared by two people upstairs and one more across the hall. It was a one-floor apartment with about one quarter of the living space double height.

A-1 plans

When the economic situation of the people occupying the main space improved, all three spaces were to be combined to make a one and 3/4 floor apartment with a spiral stair leading to a mezzanine above the grand piano.

A-1 plans

The proposal by Alexander Nikolsky’s team also had a living room double the height of its connecting rooms.

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Nina Vorotynzeva and Raissa Polyak reasoned that if the living space is double height, it doesn’t need to be twice is high as a full-height kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms. Their proposal saves volume by having reduced heights for these spaces and by the living room having a height less than the combined height of those spaces. Reversing the plan on alternate floors repeats that advantage but duplicates vertical pipes.

The proposal of the Ohl team also duplicated servicing but this time all pipes and, importantly, corridors weren’t running along the outside of the building anymore. This made private balconies possible and was a better use of window space. The downside was a reliance on mechanical ventilation for the internal rooms now sharing a shaft.

This idea of a corridor connecting interlocking apartments of one and a half floors was also developed by Ivan Sobolev’s team for the same 1927 competition. Their proposal featured a double-height living room and a design and construction module that could provide 2-, 4- or 6-bedroom apartments.

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Sobolev correctly reasoned that bathrooms need to go above and below the corridor but this wasn’t possible for the kitchen as it needed to be adjacent to the dining area and also to share the floor of the living space and not its ceiling.

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The problem is better seen in this next plan. If we enter from the corridor into the half-floor living room having a kitchen then there is no problem. We go up the stairs to a bedroom level that unfortunately has some space not used very well. However, if we enter from the corridor into the top half of the living room then we have to immediately go downstairs for everything. The kitchen can now go in a that unused space which is good, and although the living room is still double height there is now no mezzanine.

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The competition results were published but, instead of a clear winner, Ginzburg was asked to form and lead a team to continue developing apartment building prototypes by . These developments combined advantages of the competition proposals and created new types of apartments. (See 1928: The Types Study for more.)

The B-Type took the volumetric advantage of the Vorotynzeva and Polyak proposal and simplified its construction. The disadvantage of duplicated pipes still remained.

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The Type F is a combination of all of these ideas plus some more. The middle of the three levels is the corridor from which you either go up one third of a flight of stairs to the living level of the upper apartment, or down two thirds of a flight to the living level of the lower apartment. The lower apartment has a sleeping area on the same level but of reduced height beneath the corridor. The upper apartment has a sleeping area up another third of a flight of stairs at a raised level above the corridor.

This arrangement produced three main advantages.

  • The reduced ceiling heights for non-essential areas resulted in a lower percentage of corridor space for the building as a whole, and thus economies of materials and construction costs.
  • Servicing was more efficient and less expensive as all pipes are down one wall only.
  • All living rooms could be on the same side having afternoon/evening sun and all sleeping areas on the side of the building having morning sun.

As with the Sobolev proposal, inverting the apartments around a shared corridor is always going to produce different results for the two apartments. Paired apartment volumes can be rotationally symmetrical around a shared corridor but staircases can’t because of humans and gravity being how they are.

The Type F appeared in four buildings, most famously at Ginzburg’s Narkomfin  in Moscow where it occurs along with Type K apartments that have a double-height living areas and attendant advantages for heating and illumination but no special volumetric savings other than shorter and fewer corridors.

Welles Coates’ 1939 10 Palace Gate is the next entry in this history of split level apartments.

They have three floors of regular height rooms but the height of one quarter of the apartment is split between the living room and the room above it. The height changes occur on the line of a split in plan but this isn’t used to any spatial advantage. [Here’s one that was on the market.]

The apartment Welles Coates designed and remodelled for himself in 1935 is more interesting. It doesn’t return the idea of artist to the space but it does return the idea of living with reorganised priorities in a smaller space.

The advantages of the Type F were to live on for a while longer. If he is remembered, Serge Chermayeff, is usually remembered as the architect of De La Warr Pavilion of the same 1935 in Bexhill-On-Sea, UK.

delawarr

In 1943, and now in America, Chermayeff published the Park-Type Apartments study that showed how a wide range of apartment sizes and types could be contained within the massing of a conventional apartment block. Here’s a closer look. They’re good.

Park Type Apartments-1

Adding some more width to the corridor level enables the kitchen and dining areas to stay together on that level as a functional unit. The lower apartments have no division between dining and living and the upper apartments have the dining area overlooking the living area in an equally sensible arrangement. This neatly solves the problems Sobolev faced. Moreover, the stair with split flights side by side can be used for both apartments and with the same advantages for internal circulation.

Le Corbusier may have known of Chermayeff’s study for, unlike Sobolev, the apartments in the 1949 Unité d’Habitations in Marseilles are entered on the level of the kitchen-dining area and the relationship with the living area discounted since, as with Chermayeff’s solutions, it is either on the same level as the living room or overlooking it, albeit from a full level above.

CORBGRAPHIC

Rotating a section in this way is all very well but the problem is that humans, unlike flies, can’t flip between walking on floors and walking on ceilings. It’s fine for the main bedroom to overlook the living room in an upper apartment but in a lower apartment the kitchen/dining overlooks the combined main bedroom and living area.

2005_mup_09

This next image is of an apartment of that type, although the master bedroom appears to now be being used as the living room. Judging from the plan above, the master bedroom has been lengthened to where the stair begins. The apartment seems to be available for the holiday season so that bookcase might yet be concealing a bed.

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The Sobolev and Corbusier proposals share this flaw of rotating an apartment section vertically and horizontally around a double-loaded corridor even though the apartment plan can’t be inverted without some loss of functionality. The problem with the Unité planning is that kitchen/dining and main bedroom spaces are spatially but not functionally swappable.

As with the Artisan Housing or Pavilion de L’Espirit Nouveau, there’s no problem having a mezzanine if it is not inverted. Or as Chermayeff and Ginzburg showed, there’s no problem with mirrored double-height spaces if they occur on the line of a split in plan. Le Corbusier’s desire to reprise the mezzanine at Pavilion de L’Espirit Nouveau is what screwed everything up. He wasn’t one to admit an error. The same flawed arrangement is repeated in the ‘classic’ unité apartments at Nantes-Rezé of 1952-5, Briey-en-Foret in 1956, Berlin in 1957 and Firminy in 1960.

Despite Chermayeff’s study showing how spatial efficiencies could be pursued in high-rise housing, 1960s experiments focussed on creating a sense of space through complex internal planning confounding any perception of an enclosing envelope.

The stated rationale for the diabolically complex internal planning at Corringham by Douglas Stephen & Partners in 1960 is to give all residents a view of the communal garden.

ChamCHGC10XSection

With Giovanni Pasanella’s Twin Parks West completed in the Bronx in 1974, the goal again seems to have been internal spatial diversity confounding the perception of an enclosing envelope.

The one and a half floor apartment makes a re-appearance in Charles Correa’s 1983 Kanchanjunga Apartments. A single-level apartment changes into a one-and-a-half floor apartment and then into a two-storey apartment and then a double height outdoor space which becomes a primary living space for this different climate. 

stringio

All these historic ideas and techniques for making life better are still valid .  

Reversing the plan to squeeze the apartment on alternately opposite sides is precisely what  Nina Vorotynzeva and Raissa Polyak were doing in 1928 and Ginzburg too with the Type B a year later. There is still the same principle of having less height where it is least needed and diverting that height to reversed apartments above and/or below.

Many of the other ideas seen in the historic examples feature in this next contemporary proposal having one and a half floors and a double height living space.

  • The sleeping area, bathroom and kitchen have lower heights than usual but the greater height of the living rooms is presented as compensation but, in terms of priorities and benefits, more than compensates. Its anticipated benefits are the same as those seen by many of the Comradely Competition entrants.
  • The double height is not a mezzanine but a split-level and the staircase sensibly follows that split as Chermayeff found best.
  • The corridor is single sided to allow light and cross ventilation to the upper level, but also to the corridor itself.
  • The corridor is more of an enclosed balcony than a conventional corridor.

micro-flat-plansectio_473

You could ask ‘Why not extend the bedroom over the corridor so it can have a full window? And while you’re at it invert the apartments around the same corridor so it’s double loaded for better efficiency? – like Corbusier did in Marseilles.’ This would be possible if the entrance corridor / kitchen activity space came down the centre of the apartment to also access the stair and bathroom.

In fact, it would be a better solution internally as the kitchen activity space would then overlap more circulation space and produce more useable area. Doing this would create no problem for the upper apartments. As ever however, the lower apartments would have the kitchen separated from the table below, this time by eleven rather tricky stairs.

For now, you can’t get any better than the one-and-a-half floor apartment as devised by Ginzburg and perfected by Charmayeff

but let’s not forget Richard M. Hunt and the Tenth Street Studio for causing this whole space and light thing to kick off. 

Who’d have thought the person to first realize the value of what were to become the essential qualities of modern architecture would turn out to be a Beaux-Arts alumnus?

Tenth Street Studios

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Further reading: