Category Archives: AESTHETICS


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other features are often nearby. The image on the left below is a good example.

So far so seventies. Next is a contemporary house that has features upon features within some facade feature. [As in any other place or time, the entrance is the default feature of many a facade.] Features lose their individual meaning when everything is intended to be a feature but we don’t have a name for what results. However, if I took a selection of architectural motifs from across the past five hundred years of architectural history and applied them to a building facade, it would probably be called post-modern classicism or some such despite there being no great difference with contemporary featurism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

Split Systems

Now, when energy is either scarce or expensive, it’s worth remembering that air conditioning accounts for one fifth of all electricity used by buildings. It’s also worth remembering that air conditioning really only means heating air or cooling air because, if you want your air filtered, purified, humidified or dehumidified, then what you need is an AHU – an air handling unit. Air conditioners come in all shapes and sizes but the first experience of domestic air conditioning for many people last century was an evaporative air cooler.

It was possible to build them into a hole in a wall but it was also was common to see them fitted into part of a window opening. Evaporative air coolers still exist and, for example, you can still see them in many places such as the poorer or more traditional areas of Dubai.

In apartments more upmarket they’ll be concealed in louvred enclosures on the underside of the balcony above. This enclosures are sometimes part of the external design but never so much as to be a distinct design element. In this next image, they’re the wood-coloured enclosures along the the balcony ceilings.

You’re also likely to see evaporative air coolers in places such as the tropics or the Middle East where heating isn’t typically requied. Or in cities such as New York where cooling is occasionally required even if heating is traditionally provided separately. Even so, split system air conditioning is still the preferred choice for summer-only use in places such as central Russia (upper left), Damascus (upper right) and Moscow (lower).

Split system reverse cycle air conditioners are also the preferred choice in the temperate climates that requires only moderate and occasional heating and cooling. Passive heating and cooling and for lowering the energy requirements of buildings are all good things and, if these measures are implemented along with a sensible degree of usage restraint, then split system air conditioners aren’t such a bad option.

The first mini-split systems were sold in 1954–1968 by Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba in Japan, where its development was motivated by the small size of homes. Multi-zone ductless systems were invented by Daikin in 1973, and variable refrigerant flow systems (which can be thought of as larger multi-split systems) were also invented by Daikin in 1982. Both were first sold in Japan. Variable refrigerant flow systems when compared with central plant cooling from an air handler, eliminate the need for large cool air ducts, air handlers, and chillers; instead cool refrigerant is transported through much smaller pipes to the indoor units in the spaces to be conditioned, thus allowing for less space above dropped ceilings and a lower structural impact, while also allowing for more individual and independent temperature control of spaces, and the outdoor and indoor units can be spread across the building.

  • Split-system reverse-cycle air conditioners don’t occupy window space.
  • They’re relatively inexpensive to purchase.
  • They’re simple to install and can be retroactively fitted.
  • They can provide heating as well as cooling.

Split system air conditioners aren’t as energy-efficient as chilled and ducted systems, but their low overheads make them ideal for reducing the initial cost of new builds, and for existing owners wanting a temperature-controlled environment at low cost. In this next photograph, the building on the left is a hotel that’s been retrofitted with ducted air conditioning. The identical building on the right is an office building that relies upon split systems. Its exterior isn’t as pretty but this building is more likely to have the original interiors still intact. Both buildings most likely had window mounted evaporative air coolers until the 1980s.

  • The outdoor and inner units can be spread across the building.

Hmm. The condensers of split system air conditioning systems are installed on the outside of buildings and are generally regarded as either ugly or a necessary evil because they’re additions to existing structures and (thus) outside any aesthetic “wholeness”. Buildings aren’t generally designed with the locations of split system condensers in mind. Apartment balconies are the most unobtrusive and convenient place to put the condenser but there is the obvious disadvantage of them taking up balcony space. Another is that condenser noise is easily transmitted through the balcony doors. There’s not much that can be done about that other than to install them above or outside the balcony. This is fine if there is one but, if not, the most likely location is on the wall next to or below a window, as in the example above.

These next two examples have the condensers placed in surrounds of a material vaguely the same colour as the masonry. These enclosures seem to be a readily accepted compromise – the status quo – the state-of-the art, as it were. The surrounds don’t make the condensers invisible but are regarded as an improvement aesthetically. Condensers are still installed where it is easiest. The surrounds are sometimes given a degree of design input but they invariably remain afterthoughts separate from the building’s design. This is understandable because the charm of split system air conditioners is that they can be installed without any thought before construction or after.

The building is 1924 Normandie Apartments [or the Wukang Building] by Shanghai architect Lazlo Hudec.

These next three examples don’t disguise the condensers but instead draw attention to them by geometrically linking their positions to the facade design. It’s a different way of architecturalizing them. For me the third example is the most successful but ornament these condensers are not.

The next level of bringing condensers into the design of the building involves creating places for them that aren’t balconies but purpose-built shelves. The shelves in this next example could still be read as balconies and, as above, the controlling geometry is an architectural one.

It’s the same with this next example but the condenser surrounds are no longer balconies. It reminds me of that old adage “If you can’t avoid something then make a feature out of it!” That stock photography exists for these geometrically controlled condensers suggests they’re not as inconspicuous as their designers imagine.

Many Chinese multi-storey residential buildings have condenser shelves but, as the spurious condensers in these next photographs show, there’s no obligation to use them.

More recent apartment buildings are more likely to have partially screened shallow shelves. These screens can’t fully screen the condensers for that would reduce their efficiency. Instead, token screens indicate the condensers aren’t meant to be seen. In a way I get it.

Some apartment buildings have their condenser shelves recessed and this seems like a good compromise if you have a floor plate with deep-set rooms requiring windows.

In this next example, condensers of the same size and type are distributed across a facade of a different colour. It looks like there are rules for the installation height and position on the outside of a balcony. This method attempts to regulate all the visual attributes (Colour, Pattern, Shape, Position, Alignment and Size) of the compressors while accepting an uneven distribution across the facade. It’s not bad. The irregularity becomes an incidental feature.

This next example (from Hong Kong) is also a good compromise. The condensers are exposed in an orderly array on what’s obviously the rear of the building. There’s a controlling geometry but not an architectural one. They’re in full view yet where they are tells you they’re not intended to be looked at. Arrangements such as this are only possible if there’s a sole management entity. I imagine this building is a hotel.

Some buildings luck out with deep window reveals or, in the case of this next building, a cornice! The condensers have been randomly bought and installed in the easiest possible location – although it’s fortunate that the 1st (2nd) floor is double-height. The success of this method lies in the primary aesthetic function of the reveal/cornice not being to disguise the condensers. The condensers are given a physical place but denied a conceptual one as far as the aesthetics of the facade are concerned. Unlike the example above, the condenser shelf doesn’t look like a condenser shelf. Despite having a secondary practical function, the architectural device stays firmly architectural and overridingly aesthetic. This is probably as good as it gets and moreover, as good as it needs to be.

• • • 

The Art Extension

Buildings around the world are being extended all the time but the challenges are more visible with art museums and any deficiencies less forgivable. Art museum extensions are over-represented in the media landscape. This could be because art museums are usually prestigious commissions to begin within so art museum extensions must be too. Or, art museums might be more prone to extensions because there’s more art now. After all, it’s quite likely there’s more art being produced than lost. All this art needs to be put somewhere and it’s a problem. We can’t insist that no new art be produced, we can’t just throw away some of the old stuff, and we can’t ask museums with a surfeit to donate some to those without. It’s not going to happen and so we build new art museums and extend existing ones. These extensions often involve reworking entrances and circulation so when museum directors and architects talk about improving access and circulation, what they’re really talking about is increasing capacity, throughput and ultimately revenue.

Horizontal and vertical extensions are both ways of enhancing the utility and extending the life of a building. If there’s the land, extending sideways is always the better way to enlarge a building since it involves no structural load assessment and consequent limitations on weight, structure, and construction. It also causes less trauma to both building and tenants. It may be simpler to build horizontally but it’s more difficult to pull off aesthetically. With vertical additions, the additional storeys build upon a base and make that difficult whole less difficult, even if it is taller. This can’t be said of sideways extensions that upset a wholeness supposed to have existed, especially if there was a symmetry to begin with. What to do?

Horizontal extensions must either 1) forge some new unity by conflating with the old to form a new whole, 2) sit alongside it in some new juxtaposition that preserves the aesthetic integrity of the older building or 3) extend the original building in the same materials and style. This last option is rarely exercised as it destroys the integrity of the original and replaces it with something neither genuinely new nor old. There’s also the problem of the materials and skills to manipulate them either no longer being available or, if they are, expensive to procure. Even if this is overcome, the new extension will still be the result of new requirements and thus sit uneasily in time.

The main design problem Gwathmey Siegel faced with their 1992 Solomon R. Guggenheim Addition was how to make the larger and taller extension not appear attention-getting or overbearing. It’s no small task. Gwathmey Siegel did well by creating a separate volume with no obvious physical links to the existing building and by allow us to sense a relationship via neutral colors, not too much visible glass, and the barest minimum of shared motifs. It’s all about that E89th St. corner view. Nobody cares about the view from E88th St. although it once looked like it was going to be the main one.

Having said that, since the extension was completed, the number of photographs taken from the E88th corner so that the museum obscures the extension shows that not everyone approves. All the same, it’s a rare instance of architects extending an art gallery and displaying some art rather than attempting to create some.

Paul Rudolph’s 1963 Yale Architcture and Design building is not an art gallery and was never as precious as Solomon R Guggenheim but Gwathmey Siegel’s addition is aesthetically serviceable and, who knows, might have been approved by the stakeholders for being no more than that? Underegging is better than over. Gwathmey Siegel have reused that Solomon R device of the overscaled window opening but in response to what I can’t say. The six grouped windows look a bit domestic but maybe it’s not about the windows but the grouping that creates some “verticality” from the white render. [If so, it’s underplayed, but extending the “opening” down another level might have overplayed it.] What we can be sure of is that nothing in this elevation is an accident, even if we don’t understand the intended effect. It’s definitely not upstaging the older building.

It’s clear which of the three approaches was taken by the then Richard Rogers Partnership’s 1982 proposed extension to London’s National Gallery. I’m a great believer in fire escapes and an occasional tower but I don’t think anyone’s sorry this proposal wasn’t built. The future always ages badly.

The same can be said about (and probably for) ZHA’s Sackler Gallery extension to London’s Serpentine Gallery. It’s a strange parasite that denies the host that magnifies its effect.

Somewhat softer, there’s also Manuelle Gautrand Architecture’s addition to Roland Simounet’s 1983 Lille Modern Art Museum. Above is a before and below are two afters. Size and scale agree but little else. It seems sensitive when compared with the previous three examples.

One important subset of extensions includes those that don’t seem like extensions because it and any existing building are not freestanding volumes but part of a streetscape, allowing the connection between them to be either hidden or downplayed. Daniel Libeskind’s 1996 V&A Museum Extension proposal is the best example. The question is now one of aesthetic (i.e. physical+conceptual) unity (or lack of) with the street rather than any particular building.

His 2004 London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre building on London’s Holloway Road does the same thing with building stock more difficult to love but is none the less effective for it.

Project managers say the best way to solve a problem is to avoid it and that’s what Studio Libeskind did with their 2006 extension to Denver Art Museum. It avoids the aesthetic pitfalls of extensions by ignoring the problem and being a detached building with no conceptual connection to the existing building and the only physical one being an enclosed walkway like many an airport terminal building.

The studio’s 2007 Royal Ontario Museum mashup intersects old and new rather than conflating them or juxtaposing them to create something new. The effect relies on the contrast. Mashups like this add but also take away.

It wouldn’t be much of an extension (or even expansion) if two buildings were to occupy the same place but this aerial photograph shows we’re only looking at the tip of the iceberg.

The 2000 Swiss Embassy Extension in Berlin by Diener & Diener Architeckten is my only non art museum example. Clearly, it has been extended yet the end openings create a new symmetry and implied whole. On the building already there, it looks as if the rightmost bay has been extended out and a door opening blocked in order to reduce relief and so downplay an existing symmetry.

However, this photo from 1945 shows the building with that bay already extended and bomb damage to what might have been an earlier extension.

In the Diener & Diener’s extension and remodelling, there’s other stuff happening around the back and on oblique views where the main facade is either unseen or less dominant. I understand this next oblique view as the extensions and remodeling saying “the past is the past” while still being respectful of that past.

Swiss Embassy Berlin_Diener & Diener Architects_Photo Christian Richters

I.M. Pei’s 1984 extension to The Louvre is a mostly underground lobby and circulation space accessed via the famous pyramid which reads as an apparently detached addition. Although different in material and shape, the pyramid has reassuring associations of antiquity and its position announces it as “the key that unlocks the entrance to The Louvre”. It manages to be both new and old. A good call.

Venturi and Scott-Brown also didn’t have an easy job proposing an extension to London’s National Gallery. Their 1991 Sainsbury Wing extension is in the news again for Selldorf Architects proposed remodelling to make it “more visible and easier to navigate”. Regardless, as a building mass it does the right thing by joining two different street frontages, hiding the connection deep within a gap, and by mirroring the existing building on the other side of that gap, but with less (and less identical) mirroring with distance. It’s a complex but comprehensible device. It’s contextualism, but not as we knew it or even as we know it now.

This idea of mirroring about a gap and the extension doing its own thing (whatever that turns out to be) at a distance gives good results. This is what happens with the 1995 extension to Kazuo Shinohara’s 1983 Ukiyoe Museum in Matsumoto. That’s it on the left, mirrored across the gap, but variation increasing with distance.

I find references to this extension having been designed by architect Kuniharu Haba but can’t verify this. I’d never heard of him and can also find no other mention of him. [I had the intriguing thought that maybe Kuniharu Haba is a pseudonym?] But whomever Kuniharu Haba is, it was a tricky commission if ever there was one. I can’t help wondering why Shinohara wasn’t asked. Or perhaps he was and had to refuse the job for some reason, perhaps because it was two years before his effective retirement. To be honest, I’d always thought this extension was designed by Shinohara because of the apparently [to me, anyway] contrivedly uncharacteristic “playfulness” of the extension’s brushstroke gla`zing. Shinohara could never been seen to be copying anyone, including himself. Even the existing and new end walls are the same in different ways.

After Libeskind’s Studio proposal for London ’s V&A Museum, Hufton + Crow kept their heads down and didn’t scare the horses with their 2017 mostly underground extension.

New York’s MoMA has a history of extensions to its original 1939 building by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone. In the 1950s and 1960s came additions by Philip Johnson. In 1984 came a doubling of exhibition space and a residential tower dumped on it by Cesar Pelli and Associates. In 2004, Yoshio Taniguchi reorganized the sculpture garden, added 630,000 sq.ft (58.5 sq.m) of space and unified the by then several facades. The latest extension and reworking by Diller Scofidio and Renfro increases the area by 30% and reworks access and circulation yet again. Facade changes are largely cosmetic but here’s a YouTube link to all the other work done.

We can expect to see more buildings but especially art museums extended and their access and circulation reworked. It will always be a challenge with prestige projects such as art museums. Yoshio Taniguchi’s extension and remodelling was highly praised at the time but, in the end, was around for only 16 years. I think we’re being taught to not get too attached to buildings.

• • • 

Non-Referential Architecture

Sometime around the 5th of August 2020, I saw a reference to a book called Non-Referential Architecture and thought it sounded interesting but, as I was just about to leave Dubai, I never ordered a copy. A few weeks ago the book found me. The front cover tells us it was ideated by Valerio Olgiati, and the back cover tells us it was written by Markus Breitschmid. I’m not sure what this means.

Ideate seems like one of those words that’s been invested with more meaning than it can carry – much like what happened to curate. I understand the relationship between ideated and written in much the same way as I do architect and architect of record despite the use of “we” in the preface.

The preface lays the justification for the book and the approach the authors – let’s call them – took when writing it. We’re told there are no citations and few names unless it seemed absolutely necessary to orientate the reader. I suppose this makes it an exercise in non-referential writing. What’s more, images are avoided as much as possible so their “thesis of a non-referential architecture will not be interpreted as a stylistic recipe. Instead, it allows for the emergence of multiple formal possibilities in the mind of the reader”. Ugh – but okay. I’m invited to make of it what I will. So I shall.

Introduction to Non-Referential Architecture

Non-Referential Architecture

The first two sentences were a bad start. We live in a non-referential world. Therefore, architecture must be non-referential”. The third sentence restated the first two. “Non-referentiality is the only way to conceive buildings that make sense in a world in which simple attributions of meaning no longer exist”. It’s easy to object to this and ask why architecture should mirror the world, and it’s only when I remember Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock saying “an architecture without an aesthetic still has an aesthetic” that I check myself. The ideological roots of non-referential architecture are in the 20th century and the first of those simple attributions of meaning was the social mission of modernism, now seen as no longer existing. The authors probably aren’t wrong on that. The other simple 20th century attribution of meaning was of course post-modernism and its flatulence of references. Me, I still believe a social mission is not some “simple attribution of meaning” but the bigger question is in what sense do we want our buildings to make sense?

The authors object to “imbuing buildings with meaning from extra-architectural sources” and I agree but what’s an extra-architectural source? They exclude the economic, the ecological and the political as the chief bases for making an architecture they see as “imbued with relevance and moral righteousness.” Hmm, but if you can’t acknowledge the political, the economic, and the ecological, then there’s not going to be much left to work with. I’m assuming the word ecological is being used as a catch-all for energy performance, thermal comfort, selection of materials and their efficiency of use but aren’t these all intrinsic rather than referential? They’re only referential if it’s greenwashing. Before I forget, for a building to refer to its context is a no-no.

“Architecture is first and foremost the conception, construction and building of rooms; it deals with scenography and movements through rooms” p.15

“… a building, for and by itself, has the innate capability not only of being purely architectonic, it can also be sense making. In that respect, non-referential architecture relies on and is justified by the basis of the most fundamental quality and characteristic of what a building can be, namely, it is its own sense-making thing”. p.19

Nor do they recognize “building as an overly artistic endeavour by means of permeation with esoteric-rhetoric concepts” for even the artistic approach “cannot be the answer either because it propagates that the precise and well-conceived existence of architectonic order alone will engage human being in a meaningful way”. (I’m not sure the authors don’t contradict themselves later on this question of order.) On p.29 we learn what “gives a building its spatial and formal sense-making expression“. “We say that the best thing about buildings is that one can physically experience their rooms. Such experience of space is the “raw” material with which any building must deal. It is the key to non-referential architecture”. Now we’re getting somewhere, even if space and rooms aren’t always interchangeable.

“… the forms of rooms – both inside and outside – ultimately remains the most general architectonic of a building. It is form that brings to people an added cultural value and it is form that sets individuals and society in motion.” [p.30]

“… non-referential architecture can only be of general validity if it expresses something that is real and actual, as generally valid as possible, and as close as possible to be true … non-referential architecture is a question of form, namely, the conceiving of rooms on the outside and the inside.” [p.30-31]

I have no problem with these either, although this book might just be one of those texts that lets you read into it anything you like. I think Adrian Forty said in Words and Meanings that “whenever you hear the word form, you can be fairly certain you’re listening to a modernist discourse”. I’m still onboard if the authors use the word form to mean no more than some configuration of building elements in space. If they’re not, then it means we’re talking about art after all.

The conceiving of rooms on the inside and outside, how we experience that inside and outside, and what sense we make of it is what the 1,700 words of last week’s Architecture of Sharing post were all about. I’m maybe a fifth of the way through this book now. I understand what a non-referential architecture is for me. It’s an architecture that doesn’t refer to things outside of the experience of rooms and spaces. Although, in my case, it’s not about the rooms or the spaces but the walls and floors that create them, which side of those walls and floors you are on, and how you know and experience that. I’ve made my peace so, I’ll skim the rest of the book for the author’s position on how they imagine us experiencing these non-referential rooms and spaces. I won’t be sensitive to what “sense” those spaces make or don’t make, but to what sense they make to persons inside them or outside them. For me, it’s all about what inside and outside mean.

After Postmodernity: Non-Referential World [p.32–41]

Nothing here, apart from the last sentence (that restates the previous chapter).

“With its independence of extra-architectural contents and its liberty from being a vessel of some moral paradigm, non-referential architecture can express – by means of its form – not only something that exists in actuality but also something that is as general as possible and as true as possible.” [p.41]

There’s that word form again! I’m wondering what counts as a moral paradigm, and I’m still lacking specifics on what “extra-architectural” is. Coming back to this idea of rooms or, to see it my way, the elements that configure those rooms, I don’t believe it’s possible for a room to not be a political statement. For one, in order for a room to exist, it is necessary to own the property and to have the resources to build it. This is fact, whether or not architecture is used to articulate it. And once that room is constructed, it makes a different sort of sense depending on whether you are inside it or outside it. And even then, that sense will differ according to whether you are that space’s owner, tenant or a squatter. None of this has anything to do with form, whatever it’s supposed to mean.

Geneaology of Architectonic Ordering Systems [p.42–50]

Here, we meet a sentence that reads “We can surmise that the formal space-constellation of buildings contains everything that is necessary to understand a building” and I wonder in what sense we’re to understand the word understand? It becomes slightly clearer when we see the sole image in the book, a plan of the Temple of Mitla in Oaxaca, Mexico.

We’re told the experience of the central, inner space is that it is higher than the lobby space because one doesn’t enter it on axis (i.e. within the “formal” organization of the building). I’m disappointed. Is this all there is? Presumably, that experience is a good thing. Or was to the authors who seem to have a thing about roofless buildings.

Doors that exist outside the formal organization of a space aren’t unknown in architecture. Look at the door, presumably to the waiters’ pantry, at Gio Ponti’s 1940 Professors’ Reading Room at the University of Padua. Or how about the door to the upstairs bedroom in Kazuo Shinohara’s 1966 House in White?

The Ponti door refers to a social hierarchy while the Shinohara one refers to a spatial hierarchy or, more to the point, his prioritization of living rooms over bedrooms or kitchens as carriers of (his) architectural meaning. Doors such as these may exist outside the formal organization of the house, but they aren’t independent of social references.

The authors tell us that the architectural experience of space is universal, even for persons of different cultures and educations and that understanding the history and context of a building has nothing to do with appreciation of its “space-constellation”. Not so fast! Even the off-axis door at the Temple of Mitla is off-axis because it is, after all, a temple. If I visited the Temple of Mitla, carrying my copy of Non-Referential Architecture, then I would wager that my experience of entering that centre space now would be very different than if I were a preist there 600 years ago, or the next in line to be sacrificed. There are more important things than the experience of architecture. I don’t claim to know what these are but the experience of oneself in society might be one of them if – one believes architecture can help mediate that.

The Idea in Non-Referential Architecture [p.51]

There are two qualities that an idea for a building must have: an idea must be form-generative and sense making. [p51]

Because we find ourselves in a situation in which these believable ideas do not exist in the non-referential world, tghe architect is no longer supplied with a set of guidelines on how to design a building. It is now the responsibility of the architect to author an idea for a building. The situation in which each building requires its very own idea is a consequence of the liberating non-referential world. [p.52]

As I said earlier, if we remove climate and context and social, political and individual circumstance from the equation, there’s not going to be much left to have architectural ideas about. Olgiati may well have achieved this with his own architecture. Without any references to people or why those building elements are there, it’s a bit dead to me.

The Principles of Non-Referential Architecture

I could at this stage complete the book and give you a run-through of what they are, but I’ll just provide a quick summary in case you want to give it a try.

  • First Principle: Experience of Space
    “In what way? And to what end?” And what of the virtual experience of space via images? It doesn’t make sense for a non-referential architecture to exist or even be virtually experienced as images.
  • Second Principle: Oneness
  • Third Principle: Newness
    Some of us might know this as its lesser cousin, novelty. The authors claim that Gaudi was too new, but Gehry was just new enough for his times. I won’t get drawn on that. The closing paragraphs of the book stress the importance of Authorship, and the sole creator, thereby placing the creation of non-referential architecture on the treadmill of artistic production.
  • Fourth Principle: Construction:
    Having said that, using a single material is better than multiple, presumably because to use materials in the way best fit for them would be to refer to specific materials rather than some formal-esque materiality.
  • Fifth Principle: Contradiction
  • Sixth Principle: Order (This seems to overlap “architectonic” and the grisly “space-constellation” of earlier.)
  • Seventh Principle: Sensemaking

Having reached the end, I still have doubts. Is designing a building that takes say, the climate or the context into account really about the introduction of extra-architectural matters into architecture? My thinking is that climate and context don’t need their real or imagined meanings referenced. Id’ve thought some tangible response to their physical realities more in order. This experience of space that’s so fundamental to the authors’ argument is a kind of aesthetic one-on-one contemplative experience so there’s nothing new there. What’s more, all this experiencing is never about how a different space might be experienced differently by different persons one inside and one outside the space, or by one that owns it and one who doesn’t. The possession of land on which to build, and the resources with which to build to me seem hardwired into the making of architecture and then, once it’s made, are equally hardwired questions of who gets to experience that space and how and from where? If we accept that all of this isn’t external to architecture after all, then wen might see it as the basis for a different, less formal, kinder kind of formalism.

Learning From Tower Clusters

Some views are expansive and profound. Most aren’t.

I used the image on the left below in the recent Performance Anxiety post, and the house it describes from Associative Design, the post before. The collage on the right better describes why the view allowed by these high-level windows was so important to me and my design.

Recently, I’ve also repeated that old office maxim “If there’s something you don’t like about hour project or can’t solve, then make a feature out of it!” but while these towers aren’t as majestic as the mountain in the first image, I never regarded the view of these towers as a negative.


My first tower was Selworthy House in Battersea, London. I lived seven years on the 18th floor.

taken with an early iPhone

My apartment had views across Battersea Park towards London in the distance but the apartments on the diagonally opposite corner faced the second tower. I found the view of this other tower and its life and activity within more exciting than my distant view of London or a view of what was happening on the street below.

My next tower was Liberty House in Dubai. Studio apartment 1603 faced east. In the distance I could see the headlights of traffic on what then was called Emirates Road, but I also watched Damac Park Towers and F+P’s The Index being constructed. Or rather, not being constructed, because it was 2009 and fallout from 2008 was still falling. I never got to see my neighbours.

The next three years I lived on-campus but, in 2013, I moved to Burj Gate in Dubai. The view from my 35 m2 studio apartment 4504 was big and expansive.

I saw some amazing things but overall the view was unsatisfying for two reasons. The first is that the air in Dubai is so hot it can hold a lot of moisture. This, combined with pollution not so much from the traffic but from the flaring of gas in the Gulf oil wells, means that the horizon is shrouded in haze apart from mid-November to mid-February. For the rest of the year you never see the sun vanish into the horizon. It just fizzles out. The less important reason is that Dubai has little rain and the windows were only cleaned (by abseilers) three times a year. My inclined glazing was a dust collector.

The view up the street was far more interesting with the life of buildings and a river of red tail lights and brake lights in rush hour.

I watched the construction of UN Studio’s Wasl Tower across the road but, once again, I left for China before it was completed and anyone moved in.

One is never alone in China. This is a panorama of the view from my apartment at night.

These next two images provide a bit more information.

And this is what would be “the main view” looking west, in the daytime. “Online Protracor” [] tells me the angle of the “open” view is about 18°. The view angle may be only one tenth of 180° but the view is equally if not more satisfying to look at than the view from my apartment in Dubai. What’s going on? Why should these narrow view corridors be sufficient?

The value of traditional property is set primarily by area, and that value is magnified by location and scarcity. In the past, the value of that property might have been inflated by landscape preference but, these days, it is more likely to be inflated by a view of property one doesn’t own. A view is a kind of virtual property and, as is the way with property of any kind, the more the better. Apartments on higher floors typically sell for more than apartments on lower floors because one can survey a greater area, even if the view itself might not be conventionally attractive. My apartment in Dubai was like this, as are many others. But horizontally and with all other factors equal, it’s easy to understand why an apartment with 180° of view might be seen as “worth more” than one with a view of only 18°, but it would not be worth ten times more. The narrow view is good value.

This is the final iteration of my Tower House. Forgive the shakiness of the fly-through. When I designed this house I was still thinking of a view of the towers as an end in itself – a new thing to look at. I was trying to identify a new mode of aesthetic appreciation –not unlike what Venturi and DSB did, with perfect timing for the nascent neoliberal economy, for Las Vegas.

When I designed this house I was more concerned with the night-time view and the presence of life illuminated. I wanted to be continually reminded of the presence of other people.

The marketing of about-to-be completed towers appeals to this perception. In this photo, the building is still being fitted out but the interior lights are switched on in a way that mimics a pattern of human occupation in order to help us to imagine what it might be like to live there.

But what of the daytime?

There are narrow views everywhere and, in and around Wenzhou, many of them terminate satisfyingly with a mountain.

This is a 6° view. It’s still okay, and my eyes are drawn to it when I’m sitting on the balcony.

Allowing for slight telephoto, this next view is about 8° but funnels to 2°.

These next two views look like they’re about 1°. In the image on the left, the view corridor is blocked by new construction but it opens up again by moving only one metre to the right. A slight horizontal displacement can create a large difference to the perception of enclosure and openness. There’s geometry to this.

What happens on the ground in terms of view is more important for lower levels. Here, the distant view is blocked by buildings but the satisfying curve of the street hints at depth beyond.

The buildings in this next image have a pleasing combination of differences of height and distance that less likely to happen now as clusters tend to have towers all the same height. I can’t say if it’s correct or masterly but there’s something magnificent about this play of masses brought together in light.

This is all about maximizing view not so much as an asset but as a resource that also happens to promote well being. There’s probably something primal or biophilic about our eyes wanting to scan long distances, if not the horizon. When pressure on views becomes intense, even being able to see a long way becomes something of value. Dubai is a city of many towers and not that much to look at in the way of views. What views there are are either built out or in danger of being built out. One way of creating a new view is to build new islands offshore and to look back at the city and treat it as a view. There are obvious and serious limitations to this.

Another way is to create artificial focal points. Golf-course and marina developments anywhere in the world do this. Burj Khalifa is, in a sense, a symbolic centre of what is called “New Dubai” but it is also a man-made focal point for the rings of residential development around it.

In the lower right corner of this next image is a development called Paramount Towers. It comprises four towers elliptical in plan, one of which is a hotel and the other three residential. Most apartments are single aspect along double-loaded corridors. The outwards facing apartments have conventional views of whatever there is to see in that particular direction. In passing, these views are unlikely to be built out as the development is in an island surrounded by highways.

The apartments at the ends of the ellipses have conventional views as well as (mutually) close views of their neighbours in the tower adjacent. Apartments further inwards will have low-angle outwards views but varying degrees of two narrow inwards views and the only view of the innermost facing apartments will be two narrow views between towers, as shown in the diagram below. I look at these narrow views differently now, and think this elliptical plan no accident. If the tower floorplates were circular then a constant angle of view would be maintained for the largest range of horizontal viewpoints but such a floorplate would not be efficient. The ellipse is a compromise between a circle and a rectangle.

Paramount Towers is an example of building geometry applied to maximizing view (angles) and, as a consequence, market value. Its single-aspect apartments opening off a double-loaded corridor are unlikely to find favor in China where the overwhelmingly dominant preference is for dual-aspect apartments oriented north-south. Other factors influencing building position are maximum site usage, boundary setbacks, fire tender reach distances, ground level daylighting and window-to-window distances.

There’s probably already some algorithm to optimize these conflicting requirements. Maintaining view corridors both inside and outside the project site isn’t going to be a priority if the ideal orientation is north-south regardless of whether or not there’s a view. However, in situations where there’s a choice between Option A or Option B, the algorithm could decide in favour of the one that maintains the most view corridors . The only question is what it should look for. Cities are messy. Towers aren’t clustered like pine plantations with their trees at regular distances in regularly spaced rows but the experience of turning your head or changing your position ever so slightly and have some long but narrow vista suddenly open up is the same.

Wearable Architecture

The walls are closing in.

Around 1900 it suddenly dawned upon architects that the market for Palladian knock-off mansions in picturesque countryside was getting smaller and smaller. There simply weren’t enough landed gentry to go around. A crop of newly rich industrialists brought about a short-lived rebound in the late-19th century but sooner or later new markets were going to have to be found. The Arts & Crafts movement in Britain made an aesthetic case for smaller houses on less land and styles such as Voysey’s influenced many a house in London’s new suburbs. Even small buildings had to have internal space of some sort and so, circa 1900, space was discovered. Space didn’t need discovering. It’s more correct to say that space was identified and promoted as the new criteria for the evaluation of architectural worth.

The idea had been kicking around for some time. The Edwardian architect Edwin Lutyens, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, characteristically designed the reception rooms of his houses as a sequence of spatial events. However, this more of an elaboration of the existing Victorian preference for sensations of suspense, anticipation and surprise when showing guests around the house. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Winslow House had the three front rooms linked by sliding doors enabling them to be perceived as a single space. It was an early example of a new type of big space.

The notion of space “flowing” didn’t yet exist but, when it finally did, it was as space flowing between this new inside space and a greatly reduced amount of outside space-property. This marketable notion first found favor as high-end theory and then in practice in the suburban houses that were now the focus of architecture and architects’ services.

The century wore on. By the time the 1970s came around, architects couldn’t shut up about space. Most of Kazuo Shinohara’s houses, for example, are configured around a single spatial device that, more often than not, is a living room or central corridor. The architecture of these houses is almost completely internal. External space only figures if it’s worth drawing attention to.

The fifty years since have seen much architectural energy devoted to spatial invention for increasingly smaller quantities of architectural space, especially in Japan. Atelier Bow-Wow, Shinohara’s descendants at Tokyo Institute of Technology, are responsible for a series of houses that, anywhere else in the world, would be known as tiny houses.

They’re still detached houses because of Japan’s still-feudal system of land tenure and so still have an external presence but, on the inside, the plan and the enclosing walls are much the same thing even if the walls haven’t quite closed in to the extent of Hong Kong apartments.

Hong Kong is also notorious for its coffin apartments where it’s not just the walls closing in but the ceiling as well.

Other parts of the world are racing to get to the same place. Only a few weeks back [c.f. New Squeeze], I showed an apartment that was essentialy a bed in a kitchen. More recently, I learned here about a seven square meter “dwelling” on the market in London for £50,000 (and here that it sold for £90,000) and that attempts to shoehorn the amenity of an apartment into an area little larger than a moderately sized bathroom. These things exist, I learned, because banks don’t generally lend on properties less than 30 sq.m. Thus, this property will be cash purchased by someone who will recoup their investment in five years. It’s grim but made more grim by the attempt to make the room look like a normal room. Particularly sad are the timber-finish cabinet, the fold-down table and the white paint chosen for the “sense of space” it brings. I wonder if the shelves are also a ladder, and how deep those drawers are – I doubt they’re custom made. Or if there’s dead space behind the microwave? [all photos: Jill Mead]

Apartments in Nakagin Apartments were 10 sq.m. I don’t know when this next photograph of the rental offer was taken but ¥60,000/month is approx. US$500 – about half the £10,000/year of the 7sq.m London dwelling.

The difference is that, despite the Metabolist posturing, Kurosawa did at least try to devise a new way for people to live in a small space and, compared to where we’re heading, it’s still looking pretty good. One can imagine being there and comfortable for some length of time. There are four different things to be. You can be in the bathroom, standing in front of the front door doing something, sitting at the desk, or laying/sitting on the bed. It wasn’t intended a place to crash and, furthermore, it wasn’t some land-hungry detached tiny house but also a proposal for aggregating tens of units. Unlike the Hong Kong apartments above and the 7 sq.m London one, the Nakagin apartments are proposed as an ideal way for one person to live. It was a solution driven by a housing shortage but not as an expedient one or a stopgap measure. These days we call this idealistic.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this building was the affection its residents had for it and which was significant in delaying its demolition for so long. But from where did this affection come? I doubt it had anything to do Metabolism or its ideals but something more physical. Basically, when the walls come close, there’s no choice but to interact with them. This is most apparent in the bathroom where the surfaces form a basin, wc and bath but is also apparent around the bed and where it becomes a seat with the wall as a backrest.

If the walls are going to continue to get closer, then it’s about time we explored ways of being more comfortable living with them.

This is not about gratuitous phenomenology to justify the use of expensive materials and construction to appreciate the reverberation of marble walls, the weight of a solid timber door, or the lustre of tadelakt etc. I’m thinking more of phenomenology applied to a more up close and intimate relationship between us an our buildings – one not unlike we have with the clothes we wear.

People are quick to find parallels between the worlds of fashion and architecture – perhaps because both are creative endeavors catering to high-end consumers and where the high-end product exists in a different universe to the lower-end one. The world of fashion at least has a semblance of crossover between haute couture and pre-à-porter but not so architecture where the worlds of high-end and everything else remain stubbornly distinct. I’m not going to argue for housing for all. Instead, I’m going to argue for accommodation that may be minimal in size but still offers a pleasure of occupancy and use more akin to the wearing of clothes. First, I’ll first try to pin down this notion of wearable architecture.

A suit such as the one one above is essential for survival in space. It’s shelter in an environment as extreme as it gets but can’t in any sense be said to be architecture or even habitation. The enclosure fits the body too well and there’s no sense of the body independent of what envelops it. It’s not designed for reading a book or for curling up and going to sleep in.

Wearable architecture envelops the body but still permits the body to move around inside.

So let’s have zippers running down the inside of the legs and cross-zip then to make the two legs into a single space for both legs. We can do the same for zippers along the sides of the body and the insides of the sleeves so that our arms can now move next to our body in something resembling a sleeping bag (or a body bag). This may be sufficient for sleeping but it won’t be much good for doing anything else. This isn’t to say there’s no place for this kind of thinking. The homeless shelter is now a design school staple. Here’s some images from this site which lists 15 portable homeless shelters. “Home away from home!” is the somewhat insensitive tagline.

These proposals may be well-intentioned but surely the more noble goal is to eradicate homelessness, not make it less uncomfortable? This next coat that turns into a tent with built in sleeping bag is ingenious but still misguided in the same sense.

The wearable architecture I’m thinking of won’t be wearable in the sense of having to carry it around. It’ll be something that is physiologically and psychologically comfortable when you are in it, but you can still go outside it, lock it up and leave it. My kind of wearable architecture still offers a physical place to retreat from the world which is something more than a zippable psychological one.

SUV can be locked up and walked away from and they have all the life-support functions and conveniences. Everything’s packed in but it’s all a bit heartless. They can be used as homes but only with some degree of discipline can they be thought of as one.

Many tiny houses overcompensate, and not just for the dispossessed for whom it is understandable.

Approaching wearable architecture from the angle of architecture isn’t taking us anywhere elsewhere than the utilitarian, the homeless, or the kitsch. Let’s see what the world of fashion has to offer. In 2018 Moncler teamed with various designers to reinterpret their down jacket in various ways referred to as architectural – at least on Dezeen. Offerings by Pierpaolo Piccioli from Valentino, and Craig Green may have been architectural but they weren’t in any sense habitable.

Designer Hussein Chalayan has often had his designs called architectural. His Fall/Winter 2000 London show where a model wore a coffee table was, according to many fashion websites, an extraordinary fashion moment.

Another from the same show was his range of wearable sofa covers.

His most architectural invention was perhaps his 2011 dance Gravity Fatigue that was more about the shapes of the costumes than the dance.

If Hi-Tech could establish itself as a new way of making buildings using the following as a mood board,

  • the idea of prefabrication – Joseph Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace
  • the idea of industrial components – Pierre Chareau’s 1932 Maison de Verre
  • the idea of metal as the material of the future (Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 and 1945 Dymaxion House)
  • the fetishization of mechanical services
  • the representation of flexibility and change

then there features of Wearable Architecture are:

  • accepting the inevitability of increased body contact and designing for it – as with Nakagin