Author Archives: Graham McKay and Victor Perunkov

Career Case Study #7: Serge Chermayeff

The life and career of Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996) were vastly different 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.

the argentina years.jpg

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.


A 1996 Chicago Tribune obituary placed the early 1930’s Chermayeffin  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).


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.


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.

By ArtDecoSociety – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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. Not that it matters as photographs tend to focus on the lovely staircase


even though there’s much more to the building.

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

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


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 it’s 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.


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 and 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 had been before, Chermayeff’s solution 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. 


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.]


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.


In 1946 Walter Gropius recommended Chermayeffto 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. 


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 joined 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.


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. 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, aristocratic genes and the connections that go with them are all 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 go to 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 is 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 – with the giving 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.


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


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


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 redistribute 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.


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


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.


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. Gifting people land shifted the onus on food production back to them. They could devote their energies to feeding themselves rather 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 riot suppression is why 50% of all Russians and populations of the former Soviet Union have a dacha.


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.


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.


A serious amount of food is nevertheless produced. *


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 below a definite economic threshold. The feeling is Why spend all that money on something you can build yourself?


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


Although beneficial in many of the same ways as dacha, there are two main failings. The first is that 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.


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 do 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.


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.


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.


• • •

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.


• • •

Further information:

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


See also: 

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


17 Sept. 2020 update.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Sobolov axo

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.

sobolev section

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.

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

• • •


Architecture Myths #22: Biomimesis

Learning From Nature introduced aspects of the troubled and confused history of architecture’s relationship with the natural world.


The concept of biomimesis was never going to make it any clearer.


On reading this, I did bristle at contemporary philosophy and wonder what was meant by sustainability in nature but the rest was good. I approved of the bit about not by replicating natural forms, but by understanding the rules governing those forms and the bit about following a set of principles rather than stylistic codes. However, given architecture’s historic appetite for reducing potentially useful ideas to representations of useful ideas, the concept of a biomimetic architecture is just asking for trouble.

ONE. A clear definition of a term is a good thing but mightn’t a term like biolearning been better? Learning isn’t synonymous with mindless copying and repetition. Mimicking is.  

TWO. Biomimicry is easily misunderstood as referring to appearance – shape – FORM if you will. Despite the disclaimers, the definition aims to learn from forms and for that learning  to inform architectural form. This practically guarantees we will miss everything of value. The most valuable thing we can learn from the biological processes of Nature is that they randomly rearrange matter and any forms that result, result because they are good at doing something. It follows that there is something that can be learned from every form that results from the processes of Nature. How are we to know where to look, and for what? Sometimes it’s easy.

• • •

Birds have wings and tails to help them move through space but there’s nothing especially architectural to be learned from that. There’s a difference between biomimicry and zoomorphism. Axially symmetrical airport buildings as tedious metaphors for flight is zoomorphism.

Buildings, even those at airports, don’t move through space. However, arranging things in space is one thing the processes of Nature and the processes of Architecture do have in common. A study on how birds use air turbulence to their advantage when flying in formation might provide some insights into better ways for air to move around buildings. Perhaps – but so far we haven’t found a problem we can apply this knowledge to. I’m not sure anyone’s looking.

Flock of White-faced Whistling ducks flying in 'V' formation

The field of aviation however, has many problems to which it can apply the mechanics of birdflight for both deal with objects powering through air. Aircraft have tails and wings not because they’re mimicking the form of birds but because they’re required to do much the same thing in much the same environment. There are important similarities that have to do with aerodynamics, but there are also crucial differences such as aircraft having fixed wings. Bio-mimicry was the first avenue of exploration but not the best place to start.


Although airships forever seem to be on the verge of making a comeback they never actually return. The fixed aerofoil wing coupled to a means of thrust remains our preferred way of getting something into the air and making it move through it. Developments in commercial aviation have concentrated on factors such as lower weight, improved safety, increased passenger capacity, and more powerful and efficient engines – all of which are directly linked to commercial advantages. One of the features of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the use of carbon fibre composites for the fuselage, wings and other major components. Their higher strength-to-weight ratio makes the 787 lighter and more fuel efficient. $$.


It’s a different story for fighter aircraft. The dogfight isn’t so common a form of military engagement these days but development of fighters continues as a matter of national prestige. Some birds hunt and attack. Some aircraft hunt and attack. Range and speed are important but manoeuvrability is now top priority and birds, especially birds of prey, suddenly have a lot to offer. Have a look at this.

242 mph is 390 kmph. The bird was able to decelerate and turn so quickly because of alula. These are the small “winglets” at the front of the wing. Birds of prey tend to have more pronounced ones as they improve manoeuvrability.


Alula function in more than one way. When flying at slow speeds or landing, the bird moves its alula slightly upwards and forward, which creates a small slot on the wing’s leading edge. This functions in the same way as the slats on the wing of an aircraft, allowing the wing to achieve a higher than normal angle of attack – and thus lift – without stalling. The leading edge slats on this Airbus A318 function as alula.


Manoeuvrability is about maintaining laminar airflow by not exceeding the angle of attack (alpha) of the wing. It’s a serious design problem.


Solving this problem of laminar flow is why people go “oooh” at airshows when aircraft do impossible looking turns without falling out of the sky.


Also important for both birds and aircraft but particularly fighter aircraft is a very low wing-loading. This is the loaded weight of the aircraft ÷ area of the wing. Aircraft with low wing loadings produce more lift per unit area of wing, have better agility and higher landing and take-off speeds.


This means bigger wings. With its tiny wings optimised for supersonic flight, the Lockheed F104 Starfighter was the hummingbird of fighter aircraft. It was very stable at high speeds but required high speeds to turn, take off and land. “Banking, with intent to turn” was an in-joke for F-104 pilots.


Hummingbird wings have no alula.


There is no need to compromise between speed and manoeuvrability and this is where a bit of selective biomimicry is a very useful thing. At high speeds, alula function differently. They generate vortexes that suppress flow separation over the wing surface and so provide increased lift and better manoeuvrability when flying at high angles of attack. In this next image you can see vortexes doing just that, being generated by the wing leading edge parts extending forward to beside the cockpit.


These vortexes are created by airflow changes where the circular fuselage meets the leading edge extensions. We see them because of the water vapour that forms when air is suddenly compressed, expands again.


These vortexes are powerful and stable air streams having mass and inertia. They keep air flowing across the part of the wing where it is most useful. They follow the surface of the wing and, even if we can’t see them, remain in the air long after the aircraft has passed.

The canard is the aviation equivalent that best mimics how birds use their alula to improve lift, control or stability.


But canard? Why the French word for “duck”? Here’s why.


Static canards optimise one of these three but operable canards can optimise any of the three as required. This is a SAAB Viggen, the first production canard aircraft.


Canard design continued to evolve with the Sukhoi T-50 to the extent that its operable forward-facing leading edge extensions are now something entirely new, enabling vortex control for better stability or the controlled instability linked to better manoeuvrability.


It’s a sad fact of life that anything that might offer military advantage is enthusiastically researched and applied. Even if we despise the end goals of military research and application, we should admire its focus and rigour. The goal of military aircraft design has never been to create things that look threatening, although the Sukhoi S-37 manages to do that,

sukhoi su-47

as also, for that matter, does the B2 bomber – although now we’re no longer talking about manoeuvrability.

 • • •

For both bird and machine however, flight is an energy-intensive activity and saving energy is one crucial area where research into birdflight does offer something to commercial aviation – at least as far as freight transport is concerned. When pelicans fly just above water, they are making use of something known as ground effect.

What happens is this. Vortexes generated at the wingtips of a flying bird or aircraft create something called downwash that acts to push the airflow behind the wing downwards. This isn’t good if the aircraft is trying to take off as it reduces lift and can only be countered by increasing the angle of attack, which increases drag and the likelihood of stalling.


When the bird flies just above the surface of the water, trailing vortexes are blocked to reduce the amount of downwash with the effect of producing more lift. This “ground effect” increases with speed and is why pelicans and other heavy birds such as swans fly close to the surface of the water until they reach take-off velocity. The effect is most pronounced when the bird flies at a height of one tenth its wingspan.

These birds are using ground effect to improve their lift-to-drag ratio and make themselves more efficient. Any bird or aircraft that used ground effect all the time would be more efficient than one at cruising altitude. You can read more about the history of ground effect aircraft here. Rostislav Alexeiev provided proof of concept with this 1966 aircraft. It’s an aircraft because it’s making use of aerodynamic principles to move through air unlike hovercraft that use the brute force of airflow for lift prior to propulsion kicking in.


Here’s a more recent Boeing prototype aimed at low-cost cargo transport. It’s called Pelican.


• • •

Aviation is a good biolearner because it admits to using the same physics, encountering the same constraints and operating in the same medium for much the same ends as birds. So much for air. What about water? Many people including me, here, wanted to believe Speedo’s new range of swimsuit was the intelligent application of biomimicry to facilitate a human body moving through water. It was enthusiastically announced as resulting from an understanding of the skin of sharks functions to facilitate movement through water.

Handout photo of Michael Phelps hologram overlooking (L-R:) Bronte Barratt, Moss Burmeister, Jessica Schipper, Dean Kent, Leisel Jones, Eamonn Sullivan, Stephanie Rice and Grant Hackett at the Launch of the new Speedo futuristic swim suit in Sydney, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008. The Speedo LZR Racer suits are seamless and boast five per cent less passive drag than the Speedo FS-PRO which was launched just under a year ago. (AAP Image/Sportshoot, Delly Carr) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

You can read the science here but it turns out the swimsuits didn’t mimic shark skin after all. Whilst it’s true shark skin does have an amazing structure that assists sharks’ movement by reducing drag, the effect only occurs if you have the body of a shark and move as sharks do – literally, not metaphorically. Speedo’s fancy swimsuits still had to be banned because of other competitive advantages they offered, but those advantages had nothing to do with sharks.

This swimsuit example highlights the dangers budding biomimeticists face when they select an inappropriate object for biomimetic study in anticipation of a certain result. Architecture is particularly susceptible this fundamentally flawed approach. The chain of thought goes something like  “Shells are good – things live in shells – we live in things – let’s make shells!”

From seeing what gets presented as biomimetic architecture, one might think its endgame is for humans to someday secrete self-hardening goo and become their own 3D printers.

Both approaches are misguided. We really seem be getting good at looking at Nature and making shapes and patterns we struggle to find a use for.

• • •

I was going to finish by saying that Nature doesn’t make random things and then try to find a use for them but, actually, Nature does make random things. Some of them happen to fit some evolutionary niche and so survive and earn a chance to repeat the same trick. The last three examples are like genetic mutations supremely adapted to flourish in academic environments. It’s by no means certain they’ll evolve beyond.


Misfits’ Guide to MOSCOW


Moscow is a big and mighty city made up of a few big roads and many little corners. The Moskva River winds its way across.


Moscow is not trying to look beautiful or even attractive to tourists. I saw no Я♥Москву t-shirts or St. Basil’s fridge magnets. It’s a place people go to to live and work and get on with what they have to do. It’s always a good thing for a city to be full of people with a good reason to be there. It’s why the on-foot experience of Moscow is so variegated and intimate.

Tretyakovskaya Gallery of 20th Century Russian Art


An unassuming building alongside the river and, if you go in August, a pleasant park full of summery crowds eating ice creams and splashing in fountains. There’s an amazing collection of 20th century art inside and an equally amazing sculpture garden outside.

The Novodevichy Cemetery


This is Moscow’s premier cemetery next to the Novodevichy Convent which is Moscow’s third most popular tourist site. If you’ve heard of them, they’re buried here – Chekov, Prokofiev, Bulgakov, Chekhov, Gogol …  The tower was scaffolded in August, hence the Streetview.

MOGES Central Thermal Power Station

Chocolate Factory

On 7 November 1923, avant-garde composer Arseny Asraamov conducted the second performance of his Symphony of Factory Sirens from its rooftop.

Asraamov 2