Category Archives: Architectural Myths

architectural ideas that persist despite lack of evidence or usefulness

Architecture Myths #23: Architecture

Structural engineers and quantity surveyors have always been core consultants in the building industry but their roles can often be performed by an architect if the job isn’t too large. With large jobs though, the requirements are too great and diverse for any one architect or practice to handle so it’s both inevitable and desirable to have some separation of roles. This increased separation brings clarity to the role of the architect on large jobs. Sole practitioners with small jobs never had any doubt.

And neither did the general public. Their perception of what a sole practitioner does may be a tad more rosy or stereotyped than it actually is but it’s not too far from the truth. In the case of high-profile jobs and high-profile architects however, that perception is wildly out of sync with reality.

Design generation in the offices of high-profile architects is now taken care of by the intern-farm where every project is given to a group of new recruits to see what they can come up with. That sounds casual, but it’s anything but. Those ideas are then “curated” and the one hitting the most buttons is selected for development.

Designing buildings or even generating ideas for the design of one are no longer tasks performed by high-profile architects.  

The US has the Architect of Record system which “is common when high-profile architects win design bids but find themselves in need of architects with more practical skills or knowledge of local conditions. Or more pragmatically, the high-profile architect simply needs an architect who is local to the project site, facilitating quicker site visits and project oversight.”

Practical skills, knowledge of local conditions, site visits and project oversight are not part of the skill set of high-profile architects.  

There are also Executive Architects that are local firms “responsible for corresponding with city agencies about code compliance, tender documents, client communication and creating up to 90 percent of the construction documents and carry out construction inspections are similar.”

Corresponding with city agencies re. code compliance, producing tender documents, producing construction documents, performing client communication and performing construction inspections are of course not skills required of high-profile architects.

In a recent address reported in the New York Post, Rafael Viñoly said the wide framing around the windows at his recently-completed 432 Park Avenue took up too much floor space and said it was the idea of the developer who wanted the view properly “framed”. Viñoly also wasn’t happy with many bathrooms being at the front of the apartments.

At left above is a window with said problematic viewframe. Me, I never used to mind it when I thought it was solid concrete but I do now I know it’s bullshit boxing. The image on the right shows a window with one of the problematic bathrooms. I don’t really buy into the “eating into the floor area” argument. If something doesn’t eat into the floor area then something else like a freestanding egg-shaped bathtub with Dornbracht polished chrome bath fittings will. Apartment layouts btw are by Deborah Berke Partner, headed by Deborah Berke (who happens to be the new dean at Yale, I hear).

Internal layouts are not something high-profile architects dirty their hands with.

Whoever dirtied their hands with New York by Gehry did an okay job of squeezing the most value out of [into?] the floor plate but Frank Gehry is probably not that person.

The trouble is, it’s accepted. The person living in the $3,150 pcm studio above isn’t paying for Frank Gehry’s skill at apartment planning. They’re paying to be living in New York in a building ostensibly designed by Frank Gehry – a fact rammed home by the building’s current monicker. That Gehry has no time for sustainability suggests the commerical uplift enabled by high-profile architects eclipses any uplift provided by sustainable building construction and practices. For now, anyway.


Knowledge of the practice and delivery of sustainability is not on the CV of high-profile architects. 

In a December 2013 review of Zaha Hadid Architects’ Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku for the Architectural Review, Peter Cook contributed an 1,850-word review that famously omitted to tell anyone what the building was made out of. This is how the media lowers our standards. People interested in architecture are discouraged from wondering how a building is constructed. According to Peter Cook, all that lay people need do is wonder, preferably in awe at the architect’s genius.

Displaying a sense for materiality and construction are not concerns of high-profile architects. [High-profile architects do of course have a sense for materiality and construction but these both remind us of the labour that goes into the construction of buildings, and displaying evidence of that is not the done thing these days.]   

I recently saw these next images in a YouTube video.

The one on the left is what the architects gave to the visualizer. The one in the middle is the basics in place and the one on the right is the final product. It was all done in 48 hours using a “workflow” of Sketchup, VRay and Photoshop. This process is not a collaboration – it’s just two consultants doing their jobs, sending files back and forth and maybe even communicating only by email.

  • The architects were responsible for designing the development footprint and volume for the sake of the clients and/or financiers who will benefit
  • The visualizers were responsible for managing the perception of the project by those it will exploit. They include municipalities, retailers, workers, shoppers, the general public and anyone else who likes to think they’re stakeholders.

Each of the above images contains some aspect of what might traditionally be called architectural design but, individually, none can be said to be architectural design. With the internal layout examples I mentioned above, it was the inside of the building that was no longer the concern of high-profile architects but, with this example, it’s the exterior.

EUREKA MOMENT: What these seemingly contradictory examples have in common is a split between development gain and perception management.

Bjarke Ingels’s “genius” was to fuse development gain and perception management into one and the same thing and to the exclusion of all else. That in itself was a masterwork of perception management.

Architecture = development gain + perception management


Taking credit for development gain used to be thought grubby but it’s now something openly celebrated as architecture or what passes for it. There’s only one conclusion to be made when development gain and perception management have fused so neatly and strongly.

Architecture as anything other than perception management is no longer a concern of high-profile architects. 

Even development gain becomes irrelevant when the buildings themselves are built as exercises in perception management. You could say it was always so, from Knufu through to Hitler, Aliyev, and our new tech overlords.


Perception management is the basic product starchitects offer. If Azerbaijan, Khazakhstan and China are anything to go by, the level of starchitect activity correlates with a country’s appreciation of the power of (and need for) perception management. The same goes for companies. I’ve avoided using the word starchitect up till now but the fact it gets up the noses of people like Gehry, Schumacher and Koolhaas is reason enough to use it. Speaking of, a disproportionate amount of starchitect noise arrives at us from the Koolhaas Nebula. Former employees inspired by and/or disenchanted with working for RK are said to have gone on to start some 90 practices globally.


In addition to Rem Koolhaas himself, others whose work is singled out for analysis in Douglas Spencer’s The Architecture of Neoliberalism include Zaha Hadid, Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi. I hope some future book will scrutinize the oeuvre of Bjarke Ingels (for reasons that are becoming increasingly obvious) and also that of Fernando Romero (whose father-in-law was richest person in the world 2010-2013).

For me and anyone else who used to wonder what magical principle RK was communicating to all those people we watched get rewarded with fame for systematically narrowing the notion of architecture to what we’re left with today … well, now we know.


Here’s some development gain and perception management in action: This is aforementioned Fernando Romero and NBF Sir Norman Foster in matching blue shirts, ignoring their coffees and phones to pose for this important photo of a plan the new Mexico City Airport. Both are doing the “hands-on” thing but Foster’s also doing his trademark “jacket-off” thing.

Architectural 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.

Airfoil_angle_of_attack-2 anglesen loverd

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.

Architectural Myths #21: Total Design

“Who needs architecture critics?” was the rhetorical question of the title


but, as with most rhetorical questions, the answer wasn’t long forthcoming. We all do, it seems.Untitled 18

I might have guessed for the previous six months I’d been continually reminded I was missing out on the full value of my subscription.


Gradually, these reminders became more closely spaced and increasingly desperate renewal reminders. Hands up, I was one of those who simply lost interest.


It wasn’t always like that. Ever since Peter Davey left, I continued to subscribe whenever I could afford it, mostly out of sentimental memories of better days. But Peter Davey left in 2003! I’m all cried out now. Over it. Outgrown it.


Former freemasonry? Fixed they definitely seem to be, but colossi?

AR Editorial Board

And who exactly are they these titanic colossi? William Curtis? Charles Jencks? Aaron Betsky? Michael Sorkin? Farshid Moussavi? Peter Cook? Please. I too object to architectural worth being reduced to a number count of likes and dislikes, but I also have an issue with what AR considers to be substance. In any case, titan or otherwise, the idea of an architecture critic is outdated.



I would love nothing more than a rational basis for the appreciation and evaluation of architecture. Unfortunately, what we still have is a battle for the supremacy of one individual’s subjectivities over another’s. The Victorian notion of an all-knowledgeable critic to whose opinion everyone else must defer is still alive in this whizz-bang digital age of ours. It’s there in the belief an objective opinion “about a piece of art” can only be arrived at by ideal (“knowledgeable”, “educated”, etc.) observer under ideal conditions. Roger Scruton is of this view – once prompting some wag to say Roger Scruton’s “ideal observer” is Roger Scruton on vacation in Italy.


William “Titan-Of-Yore” Curtis continues the tradition. In September 2014, AR published his piece on RCR Arquitectes’ Musée Soulages in Rodez, France. Curtis made much of the fact that the building is a bit dark and gloomy – not unlike a Soulage painting, and triumphantly recalls a child saying “It’s like being in a painting!” If this is an old-skool critic evaluating a building for us on our behalf, well FML.

To merely list items from the bag of tricks architects deploy to gain commissions and afterwards imply appropriateness is neither criticism nor praise. Yet it counts as it. RCR clearly know what side their commission is buttered on. But is a building that mimics its contents really the way to go as Curtis seems to believe or at least make us want to think matters?

The artist, Pierre Moulages.

The artist, Pierre Soulages.

The outside.

The Musée Soulages.

A Soulages.

A Soulages.

The things architects do.

The things architects do.

A Soulages courtyard.

A Soulages courtyard.

A Soulages café.


A Soulages café in action.


Chefs preparing Soulages food.


Soulages food.


Soulages dessert.

Total design as we used to understand/tolerate it, used to be about the things inside a building being designed by the same hand that designed the building – or at least acknowledging it like the café food does, for example. With Musée Soulages the building however, what we have is a building appropriating for its own purposes whatever depth and gravitas people grant the art it contains. What the architects have done is create a Soulages theme park. Entry €7. Download the brochure.

• • •

Oddly, the Heironymus Bosch Art Centre is housed in a former church in Bosch’s home town of Hertogenbosch, NL. Sadly, it contains only reproductions as the originals were spirited away long ago. But as you can see, something’s not right. The intention must have been for the architecture to enhance the experience of the art by prompting recollections of quivering fear or reassuring faith. Instead, the paintings jolly up the church quite nicely.


They obviously need RCR Arquitectes on the case to provide a total Hieronymus Bosch experience.


That’s one architectural competition I’d like to see. Perhaps it could coincide with next year’s Heironymus Bosch 500 Festival?

Architectural Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

This is Sneferu Shining in the South Pyramid also known as The Bent Pyramid built circa 2600 BC for Pharoah Snefuru, Priest of Bastet, Guardian of Nekhen, eternal dude.


2,600 BC is a while back. Frankly, no-one has any idea why this pyramid was built the way it was but, people being people, they speculate.

  • Some archaeologists believe the Bent Pyramid is a transitional form between step-sided and more “perfectly shaped” pyramids. 
  • It has been suggested that the steepness of the original angle of inclination the structure caused the structure to become unstable during construction, forcing the builders to adopt a shallower angle to avert the structure’s collapse, such as had happened during the construction of the Meidum Pyramid.
  • For a while it was believed the shallower angle meant the construction could be completed in time for the Pharoah’s approaching death.

Nobody has ever suggested Snef.P_V1 was pushing the boundaries of pyramid aesthetics. Rather, these speculations all assume the intention was to aim for some sort of geometric perfection and that the as-built edifice is some sort of compromise. It’s what we want to believe. It’s our nature. Here’s another building for which we have incomplete information. Oddly, the opposite occurs.

This is an image that's as close to completion as I've ever seen.

We like to think this building was always meant to be what we see. Much of what’s been written about it assumes it was exquisitely inspired and designed to be precisely the way it is, and that nothing was left to chance or compromise. This is wrong.

In Modern Architecture Since 1900, William J.R. Curtis devotes Chapter 16 (pages 275–285) to the image and idea of le corbusier’s villa savoye at Poissy. No less than seven pages in, on p.282, he lets us know the design process was not straightforward.

apology copy

To him, this is evidence enough that LC knew what he was doing.


I’m not so sure. It’s true the history of architecture is, mainly, a record of things that got built but it’s also true we tend to ignore how susceptible to chance that record is. Not unlike Snefuru’s pyramid builders, huge edifices of words and analysis get built upon the most insubstantial of foundations.


  • 1928, September. A few sketches. The one below at top right is not unlike the as-built – from that angle. But look immediately below and see how what we today know as the rooftop was originally only what could be seen of a second floor. This seemed important to LC, perhaps because he’d said Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light back in 1923 and the only evidence his buildings had offered were:
    • an external stair of the Ozenfant Atelier/house (1922),
    • a fireplace alcove in La Petit Maison (1923),
    • an enclosed spiral staircase and a curvy corner in Villas Lipchitz-Miestchaninoff (1923),
    • the gentle curved wall of Villas La Roche-Jeanneret (1923),
    • a fully curved wall in Maison Ternisien (1923),
    • the curved ends of the annex to Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau (1924),
    • many things at Villa Cook and Villa Stein–de Monzie (both 1926) but all in the shade,
    • a curved landing wall on an external stair at Villa Church No. 1 (1927),
    • grand external staircase at Villa Church No. 2 (1927),
    • another curved landing wall at a Weissenhofsiedlung Villa No 1 (1927) and
    • a master bedroom with a full-height semicircular wall on the uppermost floor at the Villa Baizeau (Tunisia, 1927). Significantly, this semicircular wall has no window openings.  It’s an obvious precursor but is unfortunately shaded by a roof slab.

So yes, getting that big curve out and under the sun seemed to be a driver.

  • 1928, November. Two months on, the whole thing is looking decidedly iffy. LC is not in the office much.

classic sketch

  • 1928, CIAM I, La Sarraz, Switzerland, Foundation of CIAM
  • 1929, CIAM II, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on The Minimum Dwelling
  • 1929. Overseeing the production of Vol.I of his Oeuvre Complete 1910-1929.
  • 1929, April. Construction of the Villa Savoye begins.
  • 1929, September. Writing the introduction to Vol.I of his Oeuvre Complete 1910-1929.

Let’s pause it here. Construction of VS began in April 1929 and Vol.I of LC’s complete works was published in 1929. The next image shows Villa Savoye as it appears in Vol.I. If construction commenced in April 1929 and LC was still writing the introduction to Vol.I in September, then it’s safe to say this is what the builders were digging the basement and laying the drainage for. Note: The ground floor slab might not yet have yet been poured in September because the revised design has a couple of columns we’ve not seen before.Le_Corbusier_Vol_1_1910_1929 183Le_Corbusier_Vol_1_1910_1929 184

  • The main difference is that the master bedroom and bathroom are on what we now know as the roof.
  • The internal staircase is straight and, though it links all floors, is service stairs on the basement, ground and first floor levels, but bedroom stairs between first and second.
  • There are many curious storage spaces lining the ground floor service corridor.
  • The position of the chimney suggests the basement was much larger.
  • There’s a totally different feature bathtub above a feature w.c. below.
  • There’s not that column in the garage, or the one at the end of the maid’s bed.
  • The master bedroom has curved walls but no the bed has no direct view out.
  • Another curve contains a spiral stair that continues roofwards.
  • A third curve is presumably a wind-shield for a quasi-secluded sunbathing area.
  • There’s an external stair linking the terrace with the garden on the garage (east) side.

Le_Corbusier_Vol_1_1910_1929 185

LC was on a roll in 1929. Part of it was spent in South America, not to mention getting there and back. Some more of 1929 was spent sketching a naked Josephine Baker salacious reports salaciously report, but there are a few things like this floating around the internet that aren’t included in LC’s usual bios.

Sometime during 1929, LC also found the time to find someone to marry him. As if that’s not enough for any media star, there was still work to be done. [Thanks ncmodernist!]

For someone already publishing volume un of their oeuvre complète, 1929 was the year LC’s career took off. His thoughts however, and much of the time the man himself, were in Moscow. Since his first visit in 1928, LC saw himself as Moscow’s urban saviour and allied himself with the proponents of the Green City movement. However, by May 1930, he’d produced his own 60-page report and 22 drawings for the reconstruction of Moscow. I only mention this in this post because LC’s 1928–1932 infatuation with the Soviet Union perfectly overlaps the design and build timeline of Villa Savoye. It’s easy to imagine VS and its troublesome clients were not high up on his to-do list. I’ve no doubt the Savoyes sensed this, for the design of VS was changed during construction.

To change the design of a building once construction has begun is A BIG THING and only happens when clients are desperate to get an architect’s attention. Occam’s Razor suggests the Savoyes were annoyed with LC being uncontactable and preoccupied. But get LC’s attention they did for, better or worse, VS was promptly redesigned and construction continued according to the VS–LITE design. The VS we know today is the consequence of clients wanting their project finished on time and on budget. Here’s how the plan appeared in Vol.II of LC’s complete works 1929–1934

Pages from Le_Corbusier_Vol_2_1929_1934

The sectional view hasn’t been updated – you just can’t get the staff! These days architects pay people to incompetently manage their social media pages. When I last had a facebook site, Zaha Hadid’s people once friended me. More recently, Patrik Schumacher’s people have reposted images from misfits. Ffs.


[Btw, misfits is now on Pinterest and Instagram and there’s also a Facebook page.] Anyway, let’s see how far construction progressed before the Savoyes sent LC their wake-up call. This next photo claims to be from the summer of 1929 and it may well be.


The only two other construction photos I can find show construction progressing according to the post-1929 design.

tumblr_lrfmmcdWzz1qe0nlvo1_500 construction-de-la-villa-savoye-par-le-corbusier_5332281

We need to dig deeper, and enter the realm of architectural forensics. If the design changed between five and eight months after construction began then it’s unlikely to have progressed farther than preliminary site works and perhaps the ground floor slab but, even so, that’s still major pain. Here’s the only drawing I’ve ever seen of the basement as-built.

villa savoye basement

Judging by the position of the furnace chimney and where the basement stairs were to have ended, the basement was shrunk from two structural bays to one.


Filling in an already-excavated basement is wasteful but is still preferable to having the position of the stairs multiply that waste over the levels above. Those straight stairs had to go! Creating some sort of lobby sculptural element à la Villa Stein was never the intention. But more interesting is what happened to the drainage. In the early 1929 plans above, there’s a curved wall concealing the washbasin for the “front-of-house” domestiques to wash their hands before touching anything belonging to the guests. 1920s Parisian outer suburbs being 1920s Parisian outer suburbs, that washbasin is on the main line to a septic tank that’s already been dug.

It would have been too time consuming to shift the drainage pipe. The redesign has two toilets placed immediately above where that washbasin was to have been. One constant in architecture is that the shit has to go somewhere. You can learn a lot about the art of architecture by studying drainage design.

Here’s some views of that waste pipe.

Proto High-Tech? I think not. I’m surprised no-one’s written a PhD about it. Perhaps, deep down, people know it’s crap. This hurried and careless redesign seems more and more like a botch job. That exposed furnace flue now seems more happenstance than artful contrivance. Let’s have a look at what happened to the master bedroom bathroom now it’s shifted down a level. The intended plan had two bathrooms on the outer wall but the quick fix plan now has bathroom in the middle. You know the one.

If all these people would get out the way, we’d see a black door for the wc that contributes to the exposed soil pipe we’re already familiar with.

The adjacent wc does as well. It’s the main wc for the salon level and thus all visitors. (Overnight guests in the guest room across the corridor have an en-suite bidet and washbasin but no wc.)  It’s that fancy relocated bath that’s the problem. It drains from the bed end.

villa savoye bathroom drain

In the next image, this column in the ground level has always been drawn egg-shaped. It’s not in the greatest of positions if you’re living in that room but, let’s not forget, you’re a laundry-maid and you should think yourself lucky to have your employers’ bathwater draining down a rendered attachment to the column at the end of your bed.

Remember how in the originally intended design, some serious bathroom drainage had been anticipated in that part of the house? Its groundwork wasn’t going to change. It’s responsible for the drain being in the domestique’s rejigged room and (in for a penny, in for a pound) its off-grid column supporting the column artfully framing the relocated master bed above.


FWIW, the guest bedroom’s bidet and washbasin drain through the wc provided off the lobby for guests caught short.


It’s all a bit messy. It stinks of compromise and of decisions made hastily because Les Savoyes had turned off the money. What this all means for us is that the huge architectural cultural construct that is the Villa Savoye, rests on a building that was never intended to happen. We’re led to believe LC cared about VS when, given what else was on the cards for him careerwise, it’s more likely he wanted VS done and forgotten. Au contraire! you may say but, as a conjectural history of VS’s design, its conjectures are at least based on physical evidence.

The VS we know today and endlessly analyze and ponder would not exist if the Savoyes hadn’t been so short on patience and money. True, given LC’s formidable media footprint at the time, the Villa Savoye would still have become an architectural cultural phenomena of similar magnitude, but the same things would have been written about a totally different building – reminding us once again of how the history of architecture is built upon foundations that aren’t as solid as we think.


Architecture Myths #19: Popular Culture

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) lived through Impressionism but, rather than taking the delicate play of light upon whatever as the subject for his art, is best known for his graphic paintings and illustrations of people in their working environments. Much of his work was for advertising. This particular poster is from 1891. Lautrec_moulin_rouge,_la_goulue_(poster)_1891

This next image is possibly the first instance of a household brand being used in art. Still life no longer had to be about artfully arranged flowers, vases, wine bottles, wineglasses, guitars… Thank you, Futurists.

Gino Severini, Cubist Still Life (1917)

Gino Severini, Cubist Still Life (1917)

The Futurists, or at least Fortunate Depero, followed Lautrec’s lead and his work for Campari appeared as advertising posters in public places.

2012 11_58 AM

Constructivist artists also did this as part of their quest for a socially useful art. We don’t know how popular these posters were but, if advertising’s involved, it’s not good for them not to be.

Textile design was another field of Constructivist artist endeavour. People could at least have nice curtains. Well done, Varvara Stepanova!


Curtains and the idea of art for the people is the link between 1920s Russia and 1950s America. The idea of soft furnishings as art for the people driving the economy before the war, crossed the ocean and transmuted into idea of soft furnishings as consumer goods for the people driving the economy after the war, later being reimported to the UK and Scandinavia.


The 1950s were the decade when the culture of the people became the dominant culture in America. Befitting the magpie instincts of artists, collage was an appropriate medium to represent it as a subject. The following collage is not meant to be a popular form of art, it merely appropriates aspects of popular culture as subject matter and represents them to those who can afford it and/or appreciate it.


Richard Hamilton “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” (1956)

Roy Lichtenstein‘s take on this was to represent popular culture using meticulously handprinted dots to reproduce frames from comic books.


Andy Warhol was the most adept at exploiting popular culture for artistic ends.

dollar-sign andy-warhol

While all this was going on, many people who knew nothing about Hamilton, Lichtenstein or Warhol were finding joy in LP covers


Artist: Pedro Bell

Artist: Pedro Bell

and (though probably not the same people) black-light posters such as this on their walls.


Jeff Koons mined popular culture to new depths by taking kitcsh as his subject matter, discovering an entire new universe of found objects in the process. This next sculpture is popular in the sense that it engages people who have travelled to see an art gallery for entertainment. It is not however, popular art in the sense that it satisfies any art-for-the-people need. Koons has done well. In passing, it’s been noticed he’s assembling a possible development site on W52nd St.

Bilbao.Koons02 jeff koons yacht luxury culture dot com

All this art is the result of the observation, appropriation and representation of popular culture. It is not and never was generated for it, or an expression of it. This finally brings us to architecture. The observation-appropriation-representation cycle in architecture is even longer so it’s no wonder architecture is always behind the curve. “Hey – we just passed by the Bilbao Guggenheim! Let’s go back and take a look.” The Bilbao Guggenheim is nothing more than googie architecture to attract people in planes, not cars. 


In Easter Hill, Haskell identified characteristics new urbanists were to claim for their own. 

  • Winning government approval proved difficult because what they wanted to build broke the mold for public housing. “We started out from the beginning to plan a village,” Hardison [one of the original architects] says. They wanted units to feel like individual homes. “What we were trying to design violated some standards of the time,” he says. It was low-rise, not high, curved roads, not straight, and with varied textures and colors to avoid a barracks look. Hardison fought for amenities ignored in other projects — front yards, fenced backyards.
  • Easter Hill was a dream of a better future for people who live in public housing.
  • It was a dream shared by socially conscious post-World War II architects — that good design could produce livable neighbourhoods, even for poor people.

In 2003, fifty-six years later, Easter Hill, was in bad need of repair, and is probably gone by now.


Instead of this useful thinking from 1954 being put to better use to provide more people with more real housing with more dignity, that thinking made its way into the Post-Modern retro-smalltown-themed holiday village known as Seaside, Florida.


Seaside Florida is a pretend town often invoked in discussions of New Urbanism – the new mantra more attuned to speculative property development than social housing. Like Philip Johnson and Henry-Russel Hitchcock before him, Charles Jenck’s agenda was to discredit the social aspirations of Modern(ism) architecture.

You can make your booking here. “There’s something to suit every budget.”


What Haskell saw as something of genuine value to people was quickly turned into a representation of something of genuine value to people. Instead of actually being the kind of person who sits on porches and says howdy to strangers passing by, people get to go on holiday and pretend they’re the the kind of person who sits on porches and says howdy to strangers passing by. Segueing backwards, Pruitt-Igoe was a theoretical smokescreen. If it were really the alleged death of Modernism, then the onus would have been on Post-Modernism to replace it with something more suitable? Or at least a better maintenance plan. It didn’t. The site remains empty. 



The actual housing was never replaced. The destruction was real but but its replacement metaphorical. The conceit was that a representation of an idea of housing should be, could replace some something as useful as real housing, however flawed. Guild House at least provided some socially useful shelter behind its popularesque facade.


But those were early days. Before too long, all facades would be brought into play, concealing all evidence of a building as even a carrier for representation and making it that much easier for representation to come to be mistaken for architecture.


Architectural Myths #18: The Free Plan

Like me, you probably first heard about the free plan in connection with this sketch by the man his mother knew as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris. Domino House V2 Or maybe it was this 1929 house with a basement. villa savoye basement Let’s take a closer look at that famous plan, free to wriggle around inside its cage. t0108nw9yr6oe7ah POINT #1: Freedom has little meaning when the cage is so accommodating.   The ground floor plan has a 5 x 5 column grid but only 18 out of 25 locations have columns. 15 of those columns are exposed. One is on the periphery, 2 are embedded on the periphery and 1 is next to the chauffeur’s bed. This last one is the only visible internal on-grid column. There’s a total of 32 (> 25) structural supports. Downstairs, the periphery has 16 on-grid columns but within it are 14 off-grid columns and only 5 on-grid. Why do universities make students produce things like this? It’s so wrong. P1040847 In the garage, the missing column and the offset column make it possible for the Savoyes to park a second and a third car. The Savoye family was the first to own a car in the area, and LC included features in the design of the house to accommodate the automobile. Did someone say bourgeoise? b9e33-groundfloorplan As an marketing/cashflow thing, it makes good sense for an architect to contrive a plan and a structure to show the nouveau riche how to spend their money. corbu POINT #2: The free plan is free to to be determined by other things.   b9e33-groundfloorplan The entire upper floor of the house has become a porte cochére and thus a very expensive way to shelter a drop-off zone. Nevertheless, curving the hallway wall does make life easier for the chauffeur. The curve of that hallway wall is famously determined by the turning circle of a 1927 Citroën – that’ll be the B14 then. Or was it? What we do know is the following. citrohan

Le Corbusier chose the name Citrohan when he was searching for a sponsor to realize this project, and he tried with Citroen. At first it seemed like Citroen was pleased about it, but in the end nothing came out of it.  At the time cars were still considered quite a novelty, which is why Le Corbusier was searching for a car manufacturer since his houses were conceived to be ‘smart’ as cars, and because he had a general thought about cities that involved cars as some kind of ‘saviours’.

The naming is driven by sponsorship as much as admiration. These days we’d call it a “marketing tie-up creating a synergy of brand values”. By 1925, LC had got it right and a certain Gabriel Viosin sponsored LC’s Plan Voisin at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Art. 410x480_2049_1703

One early champion of Voisin autos was Gabriel [Voisin]’s friend, the French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris (more commonly known as “Le Corbusier“). In fact, so enamored was Jeanneret-Gris with Voisin’s advanced engineering and rationalist design philosophy that not only did he own a series of Voisin automobiles, but his seminal Villa Savoie was designed around the turning radius of his Voisin sedan; the first house designed with a carport. Jeanneret-Gris also designed the door handles and other trim pieces for his friend Voisin. 

We don’t know if the Savoye’s owned a 1927 Citroën – or a Voisin for that matter. But if we assume a kernel of truth in the turning circle story, parking was not “straight forward” as we say in English.

PARKING This next photo shows a 6-cylinder C11 Voisin sedan. If you follow this link you’ll learn why this is a Voisin and not a Citroën. It may even belong to LC himself. The photo is obviously staged – looking at the front wheels – the driver’s not making much of an effort to turn. Or maybe he’s just trying to avoid that cheeky column in the driveway? Either way,


a Voisin was the auto of choice when one wanted to show off not only ones means for being able to afford such an expensive vehicle, but also to demonstrate ones intellect, sophistication and individuality. 

CONCLUSION: The hallway wall curve may or may not be determined by the turning circle of some automobile but the basic configuration of the plan is an attempt to fuse automobile and house into a total upmarket consumer package.

POINT #3: The plan doesn’t know what to do with its new freedom. The plan is quite human. Once freed, the first thing it does is tell the structure where to go. savoye4 vstable Observe, in the above two photographs, how the structural grid has been compromised to bridge over the front door that simply must be placed symmetrically? This newly contrived arrangement becomes the grid for the columns supporting the axial ramp. I’m sure much academic airtime has been spent explaining how this bridge “bridges” between exterior space and interior space but my point is that, here, it’s the plan that’s now pushing the structure around. Suddenly now the plan is free, it’s the structure that’s oppressed. Horizontally, this 5:3:2:3:5 grid works better the full length of the house, apart from upstairs in the living room that has to be seen to be precisely three structural bays. The column forcibly displaced from in front of the entrance now reappears in the living room at the far left of this photo, embedded in the wall. savsal02l This column – the closest one on the right – is supported by the beam bridging the columns moved out of the way to make way for the entrance and ramp downstairs. Now you know what to look for, you can see this contrivance in this photo. 0133 Messy. LC’s genius was clearly not planning or structure.

POINT #3:  The only thing the plan does with its new freedom is represent it.  b9e33-groundfloorplan Again, this is a human trait, but not one of our better ones. Those two columns remain in the driveway to show us how independent the plan is. [The turning circle story is disingenuous – you don’t pull back a wall to leave a column in the way. It’s like those movies that are “based on a true story”.] The position of the wall is as much a result of the position of the column as it ever was. It’s like a messy divorce where both parties pretend to be doing just fine without each other. columns Let’s go inside!  See that column next to the double bed? It would make for a better plan and probably structure if the new column grid that accommodates the entrance and ramp continued for this one last bay. Let’s go upstairs and see if this proposed improvement would have made much difference. savoye-corbusier-1928-31 Nope. The downstairs column would appear one bay closer to the master bed where Mme may appreciate almost as much as the chauffeur. inter 7 The most likely reason this column is where it is on both floors is that it’s visible from the outside. It’s effectively external. See? 04_0004112_0 As long as the driver keeps his curtains open, the grid is evident. villa_savoye Notwithstanding, the master bedroom and bathroom are where the representation of freedom is most apparent. Walls could just as easily have accommodated the columns rather than ornamentally skirting around them. True, the columns do make a nice niche for the bed – not that that helped Mme sleep any better.

The column closest to the bathroom appears downstairs at the foot of the bed of the head maid. This too is messy. I doubt LC spent much time thinking about the architectural experiences of servants. The design phase of VS was lengthy – the Savoyes were in no hurry. My best guess is LC couldn’t be bothered to properly resolve the downstairs rooms. Maybe fees were drying up. Maybe LC submitted a fee proposal to fix it and Monsieur Pierre said “Don’t bother – just leave it as it is.” These things happen.

POINT #4: Too much freedom is not a good thing. This house just keeps on giving! In this next photo, the boiler flue is next to what must have been the warmest radiator in the house. In the same way as the walls broke free from the tyranny of structure, the flue broke free from the tyranny of walls. In the middle of the photo is a soil vent pipe (SVP a.k.a. DWP) that has also broken free from the tyranny of walls. However, it can’t escape being linked to the two toilets directly above it. Let’s hope it never does.

18Savoye-IntStairs-2 POINT #5: Freedom without the freedom to move is not freedom.   Back in the chauffeur’s room, I noticed for the first time that bed tucked behind the double bed. [Who’s it for? A sixth staff member? A child? An elderly parent?] Rene Burri‘s 1959 photo shows the chauffeur’s room partitioned.


Former chauffeur’s room on the ground floor. 1959. © Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

This next photo showing the same windows has some boxing/partition not apparent from the outside. Untitled

Also, there now seems to be a door connecting the chauffeur’s room and laundry room. This door isn’t original but nobody cares because it helps shift tourists through the place faster and so keep the Corbusier industry alive.


POINT #6: The plan is never that free.  Moving away and on from VS, this next plan is derived from the structural, constructional and social dictates of its time.

bear wood plan

And so is this next plan next plan, but in a different time. philip-johnson-glass-house-floor-plan-hd-wallpaper-pictures-top-home-apartments-photo-modern-glass-house-plans

Socially, this house is equivalent to the reception wing to the right of the Victorian mansion above. It’s purely for show. The bathroom is still positioned in the traditional place close to the entrance, its door pointing discreetly away from the living and dining areas, yet convenient to where the bed is. Everything in this room is locked into compositional balance, the centre of which is the living area, the centre of which is the on-axis coffee table, the centre of which is the ashtray.


POINT #7: Freedom is what you make it.  Unfortunately, one man’s freedom is another man’s tyranny. Given a choice, a Japanese person would prefer to have their reception room at the end of some multi-cornered corridor leading “deep into” the house as a sign of respect. An Arab would prefer the reception room as close as possible to the front door or, ideally, separately accessible from the outside. Given a choice, many Russians would prefer a separate kitchen to a separate bedroom,

posle but a separate bedroom is also good.

Where rooms go is a matter of cultural preference as much as anything else, and that preference is subject to change. This next image is of what, in the UK, is known as a “through-lounge”.


The room at the front of the house used to be called just that – the “front room” – and it was the reception room, the parlour. Pressure on space and the decline of receiving visitors as a way to spend one’s weekends meant these underused spaces came to be joined to the more “lived-in” parts of the house. This usually has the opposite effect of “hollowing out” the house as activity shifts to the (old) front and (new) rear where it’s most pleasant to be. The “through-lounge+kitchen extension” is a typical first job for many architects and, as such, they’re generally overcooked. This is not a bad thing for the architects.


In the 1980s, the plan became less a matter of cultural preference and more a matter of personal preference with the real-estate phenomenon of lofts. The idea was that you would buy some disused industrial warehouse space and live in it largely as you found it.


Thirty years on, even without there being any walls, the selection and arrangement of furniture can once more determine a plan at least as rigid as determined as one created by structural walls.

The loft “phenomenon” also led to the phenomenon of shell apartments that purchasers were expected to “fit out” however they wished. Some were more shell than others.

This led to completely arbitrary plans being inserted into whatever volume of self-supporting space one could afford.

Maintaining the “feel” of a loft while providing the features of modern apartment plans is an architectural genre in itself. What it comes down to is an ordinary apartment having little or no corridor space, and a large living area with an exposed column or two.

The plan can be anything. It doesn’t matter. It has become as inconsequential as the partitions in an office tower. With a few communal catering and spa facilities in the core, what we see below might well be the apartment building of the future. low-plan POINT #8: Freedom is an illusion.  In this post I wrote of an approach to freer planning that I noticed in the plan of one of Kazuo Shinohara’s houses.

uehara upperuehara free plan

See how the wall dividing the house vertically is not aligned with the window openings as implied by the plan? See how that wall makes a path with added headroom around that angled column? These are things the plan has freedom to do, and it uses that freedom to do them.  This isn’t a representation of freedom. It is adapting to circumstances. The structure is doing what structure does – creating an enclosure – albeit rather uncompromisingly so. The plan exists only to make that enclosure liveable. The plan is not the generator. It deals with any given situation as best it can. The Existentialist perspective is that the freedom to make choices and to take responsibility for them is the only freedom there is. The plan is thus condemned to be free. 

Architectural Myths #17: Genius Loci

The ancient Romans believed genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. Here’s genius in the middle, fresco-bombed by a serpent circa 70BC Pompeii. 


These days we’re too modern to believe in spirits. Instead, we like to think genius loci refers to a place’s distinctive atmosphere or feel or spirit, rather than any guardian spiri per se. In 2,000 years we’ve gone from one type of intangible spirit to another type of intangible spirit. Great. 


Mostly, we have the poet, Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) to blame for this. He made genius loci an important principle in garden and landscape design with the following lines from Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington:

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, is the bloke who had Chiswick House built in Chiswick, W4 2RP, UK in the Italian, pseudo-Greek style usually known as Palladian.


Chiswick House had an Italian-inspired waterfall and symbolic grotto inspired by God-knows-where.


Pope’s Epistle IV was written in 1731. Chiswick House was completed in 1729. We must assume Pope was either asked for or, more likely, was offering his views on landscape design in the hope of a lucrative commission. He didn’t get the job – that poem of his wasn’t the greatest – but Pope did like a grotto as he’d had one installed earlier at his own house in Twickenham.


Pope decorated the grotto with alabaster, marbles, and ores such as mundic and crystals. He also used Cornish diamonds, stalactites, spars, snakestones and spongestone. Here and there in the grotto he placed mirrors, expensive embellishments for the time. A camera obscura was installed to delight his visitors, of whom there were many. The serendipitous discovery of a spring during the subterranean retreat’s excavations enabled it to be filled with the relaxing sound of trickling water, which would quietly echo around the chambers. Pope was said to have remarked that: “Were it to have nymphs as well – it would be complete in everything.”

Sadly for Pope, he died 150 years before the golden age of water nymphs, themselves a Greek myth, but touchingly painted by John William Waterhouse and his pre-Raphaelite brethren.


If Pope saw business opportunity in Italianate mock Greek architecture in Chiswick and in his spare time built nymph attractors in Twickenham, misfits must conclude that genius loci is a fairly dodgy idea. When the very concept is a moveable feast we can’t expect much better from its invocation. Consulting the genius loci becomes just another way of saying “it’s what I think should be there”.

Our modern approximation of “context” is no less loaded and no less elastic. The grandpaw of modern architectural theory, Sigfried Gideon, wrote that all architecture is a product of its time and place. [This is proto-Koolhaasian in restating the bleeding obvious as amazing insight.] Gideon told us why, when they built a temple, Heian-era Japanese built Heian temples. In Japan. Or why 1960s international American corporates built 1960s American corporate architecture. Internationally.


Every building is and remains a consequence of its time and place – as it must be if Time and Place are to retain any meaning in our daily understanding of the universe. Even this next construction is a product of its time and place for where else but New Orleans in 1978 could it possibly have been built?


Gideon did not anticipate the language of the global capitalist economy or its various dialects and he did not, for example, anticipate the Internet and how some inconsequential building in Seattle, Shenzen, Singapore, or Sydney would contribute to global architectural debate or what passes for it. In Gideon’s primitive time, the primary existence of buildings was IN THEIR PHYSICAL LOCATIONS. People not in those locations understood them as being SOMEWHERE ELSE and that a photograph of a building was just a photograph of a building and that, if they were really interested in finding out what it was like then they’d have to go to that other place and check it out.


For better or worse, criticism accepted this too. A person was regarded as having greater critical authority if they’d actually been to see a building before mouthing off about it. This no longer matters. After all, when architects value image over substance, it’s easy to see why the bloggerati and likerati/dislikerati do as well. People are more sensitive to the purported content of architecture than architects and the people who write their press releases give them credit for. If architecture has become money-shot images of proposed realities, then people are free to like or dislike them as they feel, and to say so as they wish. There’s no need for opinions to be constrained by having any meaningful relationship with reality.  It’s all subjective reactions to images of proposed realities bouncing around in virtual space. Let’s keep it real.

After all, When an image of some wacky house in Japan is content in Abu Dhabi, Adelaide, Amsterdam or Atlanta, the context of that image is global. The physical context of these houses may be Japan where their neighbours might think whatever of them but, as images, they exist to amuse us when the magazines finally circulate to our desk or when we want to veg out on ArchDaily or Dezeen and not think for a while. In 1966, 15 minutes referred to fame that was short-lived. It’s an eternity on the internet where giving something fifteen seconds of your time is enough to brand it “attention getting”.

In the context of modern architectural theory, genius loci has profound implications for place-making, falling within the philosophical branch of “phenomenology“. This field of architectural discourse is explored most notably by the theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz in his book, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture.

Profund implications! Maybe, but – I’m sorry Mr. Norbert-Schulz – who is ever going to care? Phenomenology is the opposite of image-based architecture. Alerting us to a credible alternative isn’t sufficient if it exists in a dimension no-one’s ever going to know exists. Meanwhile, representations of genius loci abound. What could be more right than this next image? The little stream doesn’t call for a “Fallingwater”. There’s no clearing calling for a Farnsworth. The genius loci is obviously saying “keep it simple”. Many other factors were probably “saying” the same thing but do we ever hear about genius budget? genius schedule? genius brief? genii materials and construction?  Unless its owners really wanted a mixed-use high rise, a palace or a cultural centre, this building probably makes its existential best of its site.

01 Hasegawa House_in_a_Forest

The following image is of another black-painted house in Japan, but I like the way it also makes its existential best of its site.


Here, the architects were dealt a harder hand to play, but they do so with confidence and with respect for this site whose genius is harder to find, if there at all. Compositionally (errr, as an image) the size of the building mediates between its neighbours, but its colour and pattern bring the building to the far right into the composition as well. As for that dark building on the right – you couldn’t make up a pattern of windows like that if you tried.


All too often, the attractiveness/desirability of owning/experiencing a site/property is unfairly factored into our evaluation of the building and the architect’s skill in designing a building for it. As long as only attractive sites are claimed to have a genius loci, I’m inclined to think genius loci, as a concept, is useful only in drawing attention to an architect’s supposed sensibilities for recognising and responding to it. This is how Pope used it. This is how it continues to be used.

I think context affects the design … as clues come from the surroundings. I’ll work with context on a more esoteric level. Our work isn’t meant to fit-in in the conventional way, but to key in and accentuate the energy of what’s around it.
(Zaha Hadid, quoted on page 83 of Simon Richards’ “Architect Knows Best”)


Genius loci is Munchausens’ Syndrome for architects. It’s something they invent in order to draw attention to themselves.

Highland Design‘s House in Aoto leaves the place exactly the same as it found it. It is a simple display of architectural skill that touches the internet lightly. It’s this aspect of it that, by its very nature, suggests qualities more enduring.