Category Archives: MYTHS

architectural ideas that persist despite lack of evidence or usefulness

Architecture Myths #32: Representation

“Taking [the 1920s], and its historic moment in time as a starting point, this conference seeks to explore the past, present and future of how we visualize people, place, cities and life. … It invites filmmakers exploring city representation, architects, urban planners and designers engaged in the visualization of buildings, cities …. and more.”

I’ve always understood this word visualization to mean the visual communication of something that’s already been conceived but, recently I’ve begun to feel it’s being used to mean the conceiving, the imagining itself.

“To draw a building is to design it,” architect Sebastiano Serlio once said around 1500. I used to think he meant to conceive of a controlling geometry, but now I’m not so sure. He may have meant design was coming up with an idea that looks good on paper. This isn’t a problem of drawing but of using drawing to depict ideas rather than having them. It explains the bravura yet shallow Mannerism of the Late Renaissance. It also feels familiar. Many architects and architects-to-be in this early 21st century would have us believe that “to model a building is to design it.” Our modern replacements for drawing aren’t the problem, but using them to replace thinking is. Regarding modeling tools as design tools has given us an architecture of money-shot visualizations, the bravura yet shallow Mannerism of our times.

The problem here is whether virtual realities and new media are seen as tools to communicate something that’s already been imagined and thus to some degree designed, or whether they’re being used to facilitate the act of designing in the same way a pencil and paper might, or whether they’re being used as a simulacrum of the act of designing itself (or a product that might be expected to result from one). This next sentence isn’t clear on this, so I suspect it’s the simulacrum.

”If we look specifically at spatial design, virtual reality is increasingly seen as ‘everyday’ for architects and urban designers.”

This next sentence says that video, digital photography, 3D printing, etc are all fields whereas I still doggedly see them as techniques of representation that architects can make use of, although if they want to use them to work through an architectural idea then that’s fine too.

“Today, artists, architects, painters, sculptors and designers from various fields can work seamlessly across a plethora of fields: video, digital photography, 3D printing, parametric architecture, algorithmic animation, projection mapping, photogrammetry, virtual reality, and more.

Lines of columns were being designed and receding into the distance long before the discovery of one-point perspective. Of course, once there was that an awareness of one-point perspective it became possible to create false perspectives such as Michaelangelo’s Laurentian Library steps or SOM’s John Hancock Tower.

It’s true that 1920s Europe and the Soviet Union were a time of immense creativity. In the visual arts , there was Braque and Malevich in painting and Rodchenko and Moholy-Nagy in photography. The field of architectural representation had people like Sant’ Elia and Chernikov. Here’s ten of Chernikov’s 101 Architectural Fantasies, all of which could probably have been built though probably not in the Soviet Union at the time.

At that time, persons in the fields of architecture and the visual arts communicated their approaches, research and works to their peers through a network of hundreds of journals. Of the architectural ones, we hear most about Ozenfant and Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau, but there was also CA [Contemporary Architecture], the journal of the Soviet Constructivists.

Production costs were low, photographs were few and high-contrast black and white. Many journals were quarterlies as the collection of information was dependent on the postal system and distribution by rail. These journals would be passed around architects’ offices and their ideas and projects debated and processed. To contribute to, or to further the debate, a response could be formulated and posted to the editor for inclusion in a later issue. It was “slow news” but it was a good system. Everything was seen and reviewed by one’s peers. The people who wanted to and needed to know about new developments either subscribed to a journal or borrowed it. It was the internet of its time and it was superior because there was respect for the quality of information and there was the time and the desire to discuss and process it, its relevance, and its possible consequences.

Today, we have an overabundance of information and insufficient time or desire to process it anyway. It’s also often difficult to tell if the intentions of a project or proposal are sincere or whether what we’re looking at is media filler to maintain an illusion of relevance.

Next are three pages from the architecture journal CA that articulated the stance of Constructivists. This particular project for a communal house has individual units on both sides of the stairwell corridor on the floors above and below a shared living area on one half of the floor between. It’s an incredible arrangement in plan and in section in both directions. The tall perspective drawing on the second page shows the stairs don’t continue through all levels and are accessed only via the shared living area.

This is perhaps the most radical of the communal apartment proposals produced by Moisei Ginzburg and his Stroykom team. The entire proposal was communicated by three plans, two sections and four perspective line-drawings. The invention was in the architectural configuration and not its representation. The large line drawing on the second page shows two persons showing that the disconnected staircases were intended to have a social function. This is what line drawings do.

My point is that even if sectional drawings aren’t anyone’s preferred mode of architectural representation any more, this doesn’t mean that buildings don’t have or need to have qualities in section, or that the configuration of a section of a building no longer has purpose or meaning. Some clever animation may serve a purpose for some projects by some architects for certain circumstances, but architecture does not get reinvented or need to be reinvented every time some new medium of representation becomes available.

These next layouts are tight, and I imagine them as some kind of dormitory accommodation for students or essential workers.

Having the corridor on a half levels every other levels and using it to access apartments up and dow, allows the corridor to be larger, more airy and brighter. Light wells distance it from the kitchen windows that overlook (or underlook) it. This is an idea for how to differently configure a section of a building. The mode of representation is not important although a sectional drawing and sectional perspective will better communicate a section idea.

This next project also has kitchens overlooking the open access corridor below. It develops André Devin’s Cité Frais Vallon apartments.

Three sectional perspectives tell just as much. The section through the stairs shows that they’re not shared as stairs by different households, but they are shared as an element dividing one apartment from another.

The scissor apartment is an amazing invention that is, with some difficulty, understood in section and usually with reference to a plan such as this next. The advantage of this contrivance is to allow all living rooms to be on the same side of a building.

But the stairs are in the wrong position. They need to start as close to the corridor as possible in order for them not to divide the plan lengthways, and this means that the entrance hall is cramped and the secondary exit is a door opening into the corridor immediately at the foot (or head) of the stair. These protruding stairs create awkward L-shaped rooms. the bathroom is internal and the entire apartment is isolated from both corridors. Below is my improvement, with an open corridor overlooked by bedrooms and kitchen, and with bathrooms above and below the corridor as before. The plan is longer but has more useable area, there is no requirement for artificial lighting or ventilation and, importantly, the apartments are no longer isolated from the social life of the building.

The mode of representation is not important.

This next proposal is for an apartment building with three-storey high elevator lobbies overlooked by apartments and stair landings. The apartments (and the people inside them) aren’t shut off from the life of the building. The sectional perspective shows this better than the plan.

The shared elevator lobby space are shared by the building residents when they actually use it but it retains a presence even when they are inside their apartments. This idea of apartment inner walls being shared between persons in the apartment and persons in an elevator lobby or access corridor is an important one. Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7 was a guiding reference.

This last project is the latest iteration of the one above, two years on. Kitchens overlook the central space across voids providing glimpses of lobbies above and below. Once again, the mode of representation is not important but, if architecture is going to be concerned with how people on opposite sides of a wall relate to each other, then a section is still a good way of thinking about how that’s going to work, and a sectional drawing still a good way of communicating it.

Architecture Myths #28: Self-Sufficiency

For some years now I’ve mistakenly believed that all it takes is 50 sq.m of land to produce the amount of nutrients sufficient to sustain one adult human. I don’t know where that misbelief came from because the figure I now see is a hundred times that at 5,000 sq.m or just a little over one acre. It’s roughly equivalent to four Olympic swimming pools or about 11 basketball courts.

The rural resettlement settlements I mentioned in the Retirement Plan post were all designed for populations of around 4,200. Multiplying this by 5,000 sq.m per person means that, if each village is to be self sustaining in food alone, it needs a hinterland of 4,200 x 5,000 sq.m = 21 mil. sq.m in addition to say 210,000 sq.m for shelter – let’s say a square with 4.6 km sides. This density of just less than 1,000 persons per square kilometer is break-even for full-on, non-stop, self-sufficient agriculture at 100% productivity.

Such a village could conceivably also be socially sustaining in terms of personal and interpersonal relationships, as is often the case in rural areas. However, even if it could, it won’t exist in isolation as far as food and shelter are concerned. The villagers won’t have built their own houses using materials they gathered and processed themselves, and they won’t be making their own clothes or furniture. They may not get meals and coffee delivered but they will still be participating in the retail economy and its attendant service economy. And although they might be capable of amusing and entertaining themselves, they’ll most likely be online and have alternative streaming entertainments on offer. Despite all this, being self-sufficient in food alone is a big one even if there’s no surplus for us city folk.

There’s a few things nations do to make up for the shortfall.

  • They can import food from places that have a surplus of foods they either want or need.
  • They can make foodstuffs that have calories but little or no nutritional value. (This is not good, but it happens.)
  • They can amalgamate farms and industrialize the production of food.
  • They can use fertilizers to improve the productivity of farmland, insecticides to deter pests, and genetically modified seeds to improve crop yields.
  • They can stack farmland into 1-metre layers and use artificial light and soil to grow value-added crops in those growhouses we’ve come to call vertical farms.

All these techniques mean we never have to ask ourselves if maybe 50 sq.m of agricultural land is too little or 5,000 sq.m too much per person, or if 2,000 nutritional calories per person per day is an over or underestimate. Arable land is defined as land with temporary crops, temporary meadows for mowing or for pasture, land under market or kitchen gardens, and land that is temporarily fallow. On a rankinghere of area of arable land per capita, Australia is 1st with 2.42 hectares per person. This is almost five times the minimum area per capita but Australians shouldn’t be too complacent since over-dependance on artesian water is causing subterranean salt to rise and turn former wheat fields into non-arable land. Some 70% of land affected by dryland salinity is Western Australia where the rural dependence on artesian water is highest.

This a problem, and not just for Australia. The Federation of Russia has the world’s 5th highest proportion of arable land per capita at 0.85 hectare per person. This is 1.7 times the self-sustainable minimum. The US is 9th at 0.59 hectare per person and a mere 1.18 times the minimum per capita (all 2005 figures). For reference, China is 142nd with 0.08 hectare per person and which, at 800 sqm per person, is less than 20% of the minimum. Kuwait at 191st place has 0.006 ha (60 sq.m) per person and Singapore at 193rd place has only 0.001 hectare (10 sq.m) per person. Any country with less than 0.5 ha of arable land per person can’t be self-sufficient in agriculture and this is where that 5,000 sq.m figure comes from.

The good thing about this figure for the amount of arable land per person is that it hasn’t been calculated from the land required to grow sufficient food to satisfy the minimal nutritional requirements of one adult and, on the back of that, to design a supposedly self-sustaining housing community. Rather than erring on the small side, this area of 5,000 sq.m per capita takes into account children as well as all those not directly involved with food production. It factors in mechanized farming, and it represents the amount of land left over for the production of food after subtracting the area of land taken up by non-arable landscape, transportation infrastructure (such as roads and airports) and land used by human settlement. It’s a better way of doing it. Even so, this 5,000 sq.m per person figure doesn’t take into account failed harvests, blight or climate events.

Most countries don’t have that 5,000 sq.m per person and this explains the large amount of food moving around the world. However, not only is the lack of slack in the system worrying, this simple statistic ignores the fact that food and shelter compete for the same land. There’s a lot of talk about urban farms and growing one’s own vegetables but we don’t need Object Oriented Ontology or Heidegger to tell us that plants have their own spatial requirements. For millennia, anyone who has grown anything has known this.

It’s all very well growing your own tomatoes or chillies for fun but it stops being funny when you have to produce your full nutritional intake yourself on what land you can farm. Maybe you can grow a few beans or tomatoes or your own cilantro/coriander/香菜/ผักชี  but if you want to have some rice to go with your vegetables then you suddenly have no land left. There’s a reason nobody grows their own rice or wheat and let’s not even talk about the spatial requirements of meat.

Stacking people in high-rises makes sense if the loss in area of arable land for each unstacked person is too large a price to pay.

On the other hand, the stacking of agricultural land makes sense if we are unwilling to reduce human spatial requirements (or increase the density of human occupation).

Vertical farming assumes that crops so grown will be nutritionally substantial but we never hear about growing the rice or wheat that comprises a large portion of the calorific intake of much of the world. Vertical farming is suited to compact and quick-growing leafy plants that respond well to artificial light and that people will pay a premium for. We never see grains, legumes, root vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, fruit or nuts. This all suggests a technology designed for harvesting profits, not sustenance. Architects were quick to oblige.

Another inherent problem with vertical farming is that it relies upon artificial systems for lighting, watering and nutrient delivery, not to mention a structure for vertically stacking the growing platforms in the first place. All this creates additional problems of resource and energy use and, further back down the line, energy production. Plants are plants and their lighting requirements are different from ours. Plants are also well adapted to growing with minimal input on horizontal surfaces exposed to the sun and rain but humans live in buildings to avoid being exposed to the sun and rain and are largely content to get their daylighting through vertical windows even if they are all facing in one direction as is often the case. If agriculture and people are to be co-located, then this is already suggesting a building configured in section in the shape of a letter “L”, with the plants on the horizontal arable surface and the people housed in the vertical non-arable surface. It’s a bit like recreating the Chinese terraced landscape above, but with vertical layers of habitation instead of walls. The Asma Bahçeler Residences in Izmir in Turkey, by Marti D Mimarlik, are the closest I can find to what I’m thinking of.

The only question is how high the vertical bit needs to be and how long the corresponding horizontal bit. Taking the above development as an example, and assuming all two-bedroom 12.5m wide apartments housing three persons (on average), then each apartment would need an area of land 12.5m x 200m in front of it (four Olympic swimming pools, remember), and each apartment stacked above would require that much area again. Conclusion: The terraced apartments on terraced fields isn’t a viable idea for the viable colocation of housing and realistic agriculture. Even if such a configuration avoids housing and agriculture competing for the same land, the land requirements of agriculture are so great compared to those of housing, that it makes no sense to force the two together.

Nevertheless, L-shaped configurations such as the Asma Bahçeler Residences do leave the maximum amount of arable land for domestic food production even if the amount of that production will never be sufficient. Even a degree of self-sufficiency is better than none and some people enjoy growing some of their own food. In some countries such as China, the link between people and the land is still strong and, if there is land, people will grow their own vegetables and make their own pickles because that is what they do. Guerilla farming on unused arable land is not uncommon.

The idea of the self-sufficient co-location of agriculture and housing was probably flawed from the start. There’s a reason why we don’t see any examples of a rural-urban hybrid. Farmland is best at being farmland and cities are best at being cities. We haven’t (yet?) regressed to a situation where every person needs to be attached to their own piece of land for subsistence farming for survival. And if we ever were to, then architecture would be the least of our worries. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to keep cities compact and dense and not waste arable land.

Architecture Myths #31: Synthesis

Synthesis is the third and last major stage of the design process where it’s all supposed to come together and, as if by magic, it does. It’s where all the explicitly stated problems supposedly solved in some supposedly relevant way by some relevant or worthy “case study” or “precedent” problems find their way into the design proposal.


Apartment planning

The proposal begins with a scissor apartment plan that has been stretched so that the stairs form the sides of light wells and the apartments are entered half a flight up via external stairs. This configuration brings light and air to the centre of a typical floorplate that previously had none. The open access corridor is overlooked from above and below by kitchen windows on one side and by bedroom corridor windows on the other. All bathrooms have two windows, neither of which are visible from the access corridor. All living rooms are on the sunnier side of the building and all bedrooms on the other side.

This type of relationship with the street exists in London’s Georgian terrace houses and in New York’s brownstones. In both cases, what is residential space now is accessed from the footpath/sidewalk half a floor up and down. In both instances, the level difference articulated a social hierarchy within the building while providing daylight, ventilation and physical and visual access to the street.

This plan is the same for up-going and down-going apartments, with only the direction of the stairs different.

Apartments are mirrored to configure pairs that are then repeated to configure the building. Doing this means the open stairs are double-width above paired single-width stairs below.

Apartment construction

The two sides of the building are approximately the same area, suggesting the possibility of modular, prefabricated construction. All staircases are the same, apart from those on the lowest level where there is no internal stair below. The entire building could, for example, be configured from shipping containers and with a minimal number of customizations and customization operations.

#CustomizationCont. 1
Cont. 2
Cont. 3
Cont. 4
Cont. 5
Cont. 6
1Remove walls*142111110
2Wall end openings*2 4222212
3Tall windows224
4Bathroom windows44
5Corridor/kitchen window112
6Bathroom party wall11
7Partitions with doors224
8L-shaped door recess2*324
10Bedroom partition wall1*512
  1. Removing a wall whether short or long is counted as one
  2. Making a window opening an installing a window are counted separately
  3. The L-shaped recess for the entrance and exit doors is counted twice for each container even though it is the same component inverted
  4. The direction of opening of the doors however, will have to be reversed.
  5. I expect the bedroom partition wall to be constructed in two halves that are later joined, and so it’s counted as separate customizations of different containers.

Construction is the assembly of the various modules.

The access corridor maintains all the advantages of the original.

These basic units of accommodation can be of any length. At each end is a core of similar design to that of the HKHA concord tower blocks. These cores will not be as substantial however because the maximum height is probably 10–15 stories as determined by the loadbearing capacity of the lowest modules. Moreover, there need be only one fire stair as the cores are now connected by the access corridors, providing a fire escape stair in each direction of escape.

Urban Possibilities

Assuming three person occupancy for each apartment that is approximately 6 metres wide, and that ten apartments form one floor of a ten storey block that will house 300 persons. These blocks are connected at each end to concrete cores that are octagonal in shape and house a fire escape stair, two elevators and perhaps a garbage chute. The basic urban unit is a slab block eight stories high and eight apartments long and four of these are connected at both ends for reasons of fire escape.

This next drawing shows Paris at a scale of 1:5000 and has approximately 13,000 apartment slabs in approximately 33 Assuming eight stories overall and eight apartments per block, and an average occupancy of two persons gives a total of 2,496,000 persons living at a density of 75,640 persons per – a density higher than that Manila.

Paris @ 1:5,000 There’s no need to change the street pattern.


The calculated density results from the initial assumptions. Building to only four stories houses half that number at half the density. Allowing for 50% single occupancy brings the population down to 20,000 persons/ which is still equal to the population density of current-day Paris.

This project may look like a project that developed a particular typology as a unit for urban living but it is also an example of a “what-if” scenario in which the typology or urban form directly follows from one assumption. Examples of this type of project would be “what would a city be like if there were not such a thing as gravity?” or “what would a city be like if COVID19 keeps coming back more virulent?” This proposal is what a city could be like if perfect robotic prosthetic limbs made it no longer necessary to design for wheelchairs. Advantages unique to this particular arrangement are:

  • All apartments have either south-east or south-west facing living rooms and north-east or north west facing bedrooms.
  • All kitchens, bathrooms and access corridors are naturally lit and ventilated.
  • All access corridors are observed and persons moving along the internal streets are aware of being in a place where other people live.

We’ve reached the end of this thing called The Design Process. I would normally tell students that the project itself is the conclusion but any written description of the process should mention that the problem that was identified as The Problem is the one that had been solved and, if anhything has been learned along the way then now is the time to say it. It might be the case that solving the problem this way this time has given you ideas about how it might be better solved next time then, if this is true, then say that too.

This is basically how the design process is understood and, asccordingly, how it’s taught. Students and architects alike are expected to identify and analyze a problem, and then devise a proposal that solves it but it’s never quite as straightforward as that.

“When all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail.”

The greatest problem for an architect is to not see every problem as one that requires an architectural solution. Most of the large commercial practices are savvy enough to highlight some project such as an office workflow that was improved not by a new building but by better space planning, for example. It makes them look as if they don’t always go for the solution that brings in the most fees.

Architectural behemoth HoK has a book titled Problem Seeking that attempts to make the analysis part of the process more explicit.

“The total design process includes two stages: analysis and synthesis. In analysis, the parts of a design problem are separated and identified. In synthesis, the parts are put together got form a coherent design solution. The difference between programming and design is the difference between analysis and synthesis. Programming IS analysis. Design IS Synthesis. ” 4th Edition, page 18

It’s the opposite of Christopher Alexander’s pattern language in attempting to map connections between the parts of a problem rather than offer a limited universe of part-solutions to known part-problems. The overuse of 1980s management speak gives the impression of professionals who know what they are doing in the same way that “data”, “parameters” and “algorithms” are used today. It’s unfortunate but possibly indicative that problem seeking in action is illustrated by the example of maximizing the efficiency of an office building floor plate.

A reality with variables and connections that were subjectively identified in the first place, and that shift and change along with their respective degrees of importance is resistant to automation and scripting. Even if it were accurate tracking and not just a representation of it, there’s still the problem of that response being frozen in time once the thing is built. This is why we have so many dynamic looking buildings that don’t actually go anywhere. It’s the perpetual motion of things staying the same. We’re still stuck with using a limited range of variables and values to generate infinite variations as a representation of universe of possibilities to which the conventional design process of selection, analysis and synthesis are still applied. Nothing’s changed.

If all one has is a design philosophy then every problem is a vehicle for its dissemination. It’s always been the case that particular problems are identified and analyzed in order to justify particular solutions. It’s also known as “a solution in search of a problem”. These have always existed whether the design process is executed as analog or digital. It is possible that there is deeper design process that can’t immediately be dismissed as “intuitive” simply because it might appear so. It’s basically what I did in my example above. The steps appear to have been followed but the actual design process took place before my working through of it and well before its articulation. It could just be this deep design process is a kind of background cognition, and that analysis and synthesis are just shorthand for thinking about the problem, the focussed application of experience and knowledge, and using that as a basis for coming up with a solution (for the benefit of whomever). We’re still none the wiser regarding the actual workings of that particular adaptive algorithm executed by our brains in the course of a design problem, but there’s no need to be threatened by or in awe of crude representations of it. We’re still being encouraged to mistake a representation of a thing for the thing itself. This post-modern era drags on.

Architecture Myths #30: Analysis

Identifying and defining the problem in the first stage of this thing called the design process is already loaded with assumptions such as, for one, the need being one an architectural response can satisfy. Already I’m not so keen to use terms such as problem and solution, let alone assume a causal relationship between them. At the end of the previous post on The Problem I floated the idea that this thing called the design process doesn’t even begin until the outcome is largely known. After all, clients don’t pay architects to perform open-ended research into unspecified results. [Then who does? Architecture Myths #31: The Research-Driven Practice?] A design process that doesn’t begin until the result is known doesn’t bode well for the second stage, Analysis or the third stage, Synthesis that’s supposed to bring it all together. Somehow, something credible AS A BUILDING in a particular place and time results from arbitrarily following this apparently arbitrary process.

We’d better keep quiet about all this as we’ve signed the contract and have legally and professionally committed to having the skills and resources to produce that desirable outcome. Together, the client and I have narrowed the range of possibilities in the hope they converge into something we’ll agree was the inevitable and best outcome. Separately, the client may expect and encourage me to leverage their project for my own media purposes and, as far as they’re concerned, I can expect and encourage them to leverage my architectural profile for theirs. It’s consensual. Back in the office, we start to think about what we’re going to do. We remember the project we just finished and agree it’d be good to make this new one look as if there was some sort of design progression even if nobody’s going to ask towards what. Riffing on some previous project means the same teams, the same techniques and much the same spec can be used to produce something that looks new. Referencing oneself is always good as long as it’s not from too far back.

I’ve heard OMA’s intern farm isn’t allowed to be inspired by any part of the oeuvre older than two years. Presumably, the clock starts ticking from the initial media reveal.

Architects and architect offices these days aren’t expected to have signature styles. Being known for having a certain approach to the task of designing is less limiting in terms of size and type of project and companies without a signature style are generally perceived by clients and markets to be modern and adaptable. Jean Nouvel and Herzog de Meuron were trailblazers in that respect. All this musing is getting our project nowhere!

I gave the class a choice of three different ways of approaching the theme of the city.

  • A refinement, reorganization or redesign of one part or aspect of a city. Making one corner of it a city better is never a bad thing.
  • An urban module that, theoretically, could be repeated across an entire city. These typically change nothing , but they’re good theoretical and practical exercises.
  • A city designed on the basis of a single premise. These too typically go nowhere as it’s rare these days to have a single factor operating. Again, they’re thought exercises.

This next was my interpretation of the problem. You can see how it gives me scope to recycle many of my design inventions from late last year and early this year.

  1. To use a single architectural device to configure high-density urban housing,
  2. For this single architectural device to provide access, daylight and ventilation to all rooms and not just habitable rooms,
  3. For the configuration of the entire building to let inhabitants retain an awareness of their living with other people, but not to the extent that privacy suffers, and
  4. For the configuration of the entire building should ideally have the potential to be mass produced and erected quickly and at low cost.

A university design studio is not like an architectural office with decades of projects representing accumulated experience and knowledge. To substitute for student lack of knowledge and experience, instructors traditionally invoke existing buildings from which it is thought something can be learned. One and a half centuries ago these would have been Classical buildings, often in Ancient Greece. It’s a moveable feast. Such buildings are referred to as “The Canon” if they’ve been around long enough for us to forget what we’re supposed to be learning from them, or Case Studies if they’re a similar typology to the one we think we are dealing with. In universities, choice of case studies assumes a project direction, if not the final proposal.

The problem with case studies is that there are many buildings in the world and one can never know if the problem some prior architect had solved is equivalent to the one one’s set oneself. Oversimplified correspondences can be made on the spatial or functional level but it’s wrong to assume they’re correct or even adequate. Referring to case studies as precedents is worse as it implies they have the authority of some prior legal ruling. Legally, a precedent only applies if the circumstances are the same, and whether or not they are is the source of much legal wrangling. In architecture, worthy precedents tend to not produce worthy proposals.

To be sure, many case studies and precedent analyses have been done for both buildings but I’ve never had anyone explain to me how the apartments in Habitat ’67 are accessed. Safdie’s fantastic sectional drawings exist but every year they become more and more inscrutable to others. [This article on Architectural Review gives the most information I’ve ever seen about access and entrances.]

It’s one of architecure’s mysteries how Safdie was able to comprehend this building so completely without visualizations, document it without CAD and build it without BIM. How did he do it?

Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7 is simple by comparison but cellular planning had been an interest of Bofill’s for decades. I admire students’ admiration for these buildings but they’re not good examples from which to learn, let alone attempt to improve upon. Not that they can’t be – just that it’s probably not going to happen in a learning situation. Having said that, they can still be “part of the mix”.

Here’s the projects I decided had something of potential value for mine. No. I decided first what I wanted my project to do, and then looked for projects that succeeded in doing what I wanted mine to do. This makes it a results-oriented, problem-solving approach to case study selection. i.e. “State the problem against which the solution will be judged (not the solutions to which the project will refer).”

Daylighting and natural ventilation

Hong Kong Housing Authority Concord cruciform tower block

NegativesAlthough daylighting and natural ventilation is solved for all apartments and the shared spaces, the orientation of some apartments is more favorable than that of others. There is also the problem common to apartment buildings, of the shared spaces being disconnected from the apartments and vice-versa, save for the entrance door.

The Scissor Apartment configuration

PositivesThe scissor apartment configuration was invented by the Greater London Housing Authority in the 1950s. It is way of configuring apartments and their access corridors so that all living rooms are on one side of the building and all bedrooms are on the other. This is possible by each apartment having an internal staircase that either passes over the access corridor or under the access corridor to the other side. These staircases pass by the apartment bathrooms that are above and below access corridors on every other floor. It is best explained in section. The pink apartment is entered from the upper entrance (access) corridor and the staircase goes downwards and has a fire escape door at the lower entrance corridors. The white apartment is entered from the lower entrance corridor and the staircase goes up to have a fire escape exiting to the upper corridor. Both apartments have bathrooms on the floor between those two corridors.

NegativesApart from the configuration not being easily understood, the main problem is not that there are two levels of internal stairs, even though half of the second flight is intended for use only as a fire escape. This is in itself not a problem but because stairs are required to enter the apartments and to pass over or under the access corridor, it is impossible to have barrier-free (universal) access. Furthermore, because the landings are used for internal circulation, it is important to have the stairs as close to the access corridor as possible. This means that the apartment entrance is small, and that the habitable rooms have L-shaped spaces that, while useable, are not ideal. Also, the wet-spaces are in the centre of the plan and, while this makes for efficient drainage, it means that bathrooms and kitchens need to be artificially lit and ventilated.


Recent versions of Hong Kong Housing Authority’s Concord and other cruciform towers

These use a system of construction whereby prefabricated room or apartment components are stacked and attached to a slimmed-down core. The example on the left is configured with smaller apartments opening off corridors on each arm, while the example at right is a composite with larger apartments in the conventional arrangement as well as smaller apartments with the corridor arrangement. Both are configured from unitized parts and both also retain the lighting and ventilation to elevator lobbies.

PositivesApartment modules can be prefabricated elsewhere and assembled on site, with obvious advantages for quality control, construction cost, and speed of construction. The modules are to a certain extent self supporting in the same way that shipping containers are, meaning that the central core can be slimmed down.

Negatives: The layouts become even more regular. When the internal layout is over-tailored to a one-size-fits-all solution, it ends up fitting no-one. The example of the right however, shows that each wing can have either two three-bedroom apartments or three two-bedroom apartments. Although the wings of these towers now have internal access corridors, those corridors do not link to those of adjacent buildings, meaning that their length is limited to maximum fire escape distances, and they become progressively darker away from the core.

Neighbourly Interaction

Making “Streets in the Sky” more worthy of the term

What we think of when we here the term “Streets in the Sky” never really lived up to its name. Only entrance doors opened onto open corridors and, once inside, occupants turned their backs on the life of the building. Streets are about more than casual encounters between neighbours. From the windows of houses and apartments we look out onto the street and observe what is going on. From this we gain an awareness of living with other people and there may even be an awareness and self-identification as a community or neighborhood. Even if there is no direct interaction between nearby residents, there is still an awareness of their routines and their comings and goings. This is still a type of positive interaction that is absent if there is only a blank door as the interface between apartment and street. How to provide some of these social and indirectly social benefits of streets in an apartment building has been a concern of mine for some time. All of the following projects of mine tackle this problem to a degree.

This is one of my first attempts at making the movement within a tall building more visible. There is an elevator lobby every three floors and you either enter your apartment on that level, or go up or down a level to enter a different apartment or to enter your own from a different level as there are also internal stairs in addition to the open fire and access stairs. The windows overlooking this central space are hallway and kitchen windows. When you step out of the elevator you know who’s home. The glass window to the elevator shafts also indicates activity within the building.  []

This is another version of the same. This time, slit living room windows look up and down the access corridor. []

This is a smaller-scale example that has an overlooked access corridor, as well as daylighting and natural ventilation to all rooms. [c.f.] With this configuration, bathrooms are lit and ventilated by what is essentially a light well, while the kitchen/dining window overlooks the access corridor from either half a floor above or below. From a window one may see only people’s feet or their heads but it is sufficient to know that other people are in the building.

HKHA Standard Block Twin Tower corridor configuration

Positives: The typical floor of the HKHA Standard Block Twin Tower type has single-sided access corridors linked around a lightwell that provides a degree of cross ventilation to the habitable rooms. This configuration also has the potential for more towers to be horizontally linked. This arrangement has open corridors arranged around voids in an arrangement promoting an awareness of people circulating within the building.

Negatives: The main problem with this arrangement is the inequality of orientation.

Metabolism meets Hong Kong Housing Authority

The recent versions of HKHA’s cruciform tower blocks separate the functions of core and wings, with the core remaining s slip-form concrete structure that anchors and stabilizes the stacks of prefabricated units that configure the wings. The standard twin-tower configuration above could be configured in a similar way with accommodation wings linking stabilizing access cores at each corner. This is not the same as Metabolist notions of structure because the cores are only for vertical circulation and structural stability. They contain no services. However, the idea of cores linking corridors both horizontally and vertically to configure a city is shared.

Positives: There’s a distinct separation between the accommodation and the support system and this shoudl make for certain efficiencies.

Negatives: Except it doesn’t. Tange’s 1966 Yamanashi Press Centre represents a structural idea rather than being one. As does Isozaki’s, even if that structural idea is expressed over time. Both exemplify the Metabolism conundrum. The metabolism referred to is not that of vertebrates where the life-support metabolism is enclosed and protected by structure but that of a tree. In buildings, conceptually separating accommodation from a supporting structure requires services to pass through that structure and Metabolism never addressed this. [The failings of Nakagin, the only Metabolist building actually built, stem largely from problems with services, not that this matters much now]

Confession 1: I added the positives and negatives just then. The separation of accommodation and support is relevant to my project though and it will be my job to solve it rather than pretend it will go away as the Metabolists did..
Confession 2: This last was a late inclusion to justify where I already knew where the project was heading. Neither are great examples of solving my stated problems but nobody’s going to pull me up on that. Both are worthy enough for what they are, but putting them here was pre-emptive justification. Students will learn this soon enough. Sadly, they’ll also learn that it works.

Now semester is over and a new one begun, I can see how the entire design process can be reverse engineered to make the solution appear the inevitable outcome. This probably happens more often than we’re aware of, and we’ll never know when it’s the case. We can’t rely on anyone to tell us or, if they do, to tell us the truth. All we can do is ask ourselves “How does it?” or “Is it really?” and make up our own minds.


Architecture Myths #29: The Problem

Last year I wrote a foreword for a book on the design process. I won’t be spilling any beans by saying that, however you look at it, it breaks down to the three sub-processes of 1) Identify/define the problem, 2) Decide what buildings, concepts, ideas, tools or techniques you think will be of use in solving it, and 3) Stir it all together and come up with the design solution. This is often restated as Define–Analyse–Synthesise but many of the more complex breakdowns merely elaborate on the same three-part structure.

Even the parametric design processes conform to this structure even though 1) the identification and definition of the problem depends on what is (or must claim is) important to you, 2) the techniques you use will be the ones you are set on using, and 3) this means contriving the parameters to produce some iteration that will do the job as you defined it and that will somehow and at the same time fit the job you were tasked with.

But whether simple or complex, this thing called The Design Process has a few problems, the most elephanty of which is “does calling something a process mean it is one?” Was there always this thing called a design process or is the word process and the use of terms such as inputs and outputs merely an historic consequence of design seeking to align itself with industry? [Probably.] Later, we began to express the design process in terms of variables and factors because we thought they were more inclusive of social and environmental concerns but all this was was to align with the terminology of computing rather than that of industry. There’s a pattern.

Later still, we have the inputs to parametric design as whatever parameters are deemed useful and/or important as well as the values assigned to what is assumed to be a realistic mathematical model (i.e,. an algorithm) of them and their interdependencies. Whether all this is ingenuous or deliberately skewed in anticipation of a certain design output we will never know.

Given all these uncertainties, it’s amazing anything ever gets built. Somehow, we start with whatever we know or think we know, and we end with a building. Like most things, this thing called the design process has a beginning and an end and it’s probably okay to call it a design process, identify three parts of it and proceed to give them names as long as we recognize that

  1. Identifying a problem already assumes it is something an architectural design can solve. Even using the word solve implies a causal relationship between the two as, incidentally, does the word process.
  2. The techniques (or, if you must, examples) you think might be of use in helping you solve that problem need to be up to the task and the right things need to be learned from them. In universities we use the terms “case studies” and “precedents” and they are supposed to function in the design process in the design studio as substitutes for knowledge and experience. That’s all I’ll say for now. I’ll talk more about these in the next post in this series.
  3. The problem with the third part, Synthesis, is that nobody knows what it is or how it works and so we use words like inspiration and creativity to give a name to this part of the process that not only don’t we understand it, we then proceed to assume it must be something truly magical and special because we don’t understand it. Iffy. At lest with The Digestive Process or The Bessemer Process for steel production, every stage is known. With The Design Process, we don’t really know anything about what happens in this final stage we call synthesis and so we talk about it as a “black box” in order for it to still fit our model of it as a process. It’s not wrong to do this because it implies something happens inside but we just don’t yet know the actual mechanism by which it does. However, it is wrong to call this mechanism “creativity” and claim it’s beyond explanation merely because we can’t explain it.

So, this is the outline of the 1-2-3 posts in this series that will deal, in sequence, this thing we call The Design Process. First,

The Problem

The problem has to be something an architectural design or, if you want to be grand, that architectural intelligence, can solve.

I don’t want to introduce new terminology into an already overcrowded lexicon, so my simple working definition of architectural intelligence is the ability to understand and solve the spatial dimensions of certain problems. I’m aware of what this includes and what it excludes and it all hinges on what you call a problem. For example, Chernikov produced a wonderful set of drawings that were very architectural apart from them not solving any particular problem. I could say the same of Sant’Elia.

More usually, a client has something in mind and an architect produces a design that satisfies those needs and at the same time leverage the client’s project for their own publicity and marketing ends. How the client and how the architect see the problem aren’t necessarily in conflict because a client can choose an architect by their media profile in expectation of some value whether quantifiable or not.

Similarly, an ambitious student will take the instructor’s problem and solve it in a way that’s more likely to be complex than simple or that they think will look better in their folio. This may or may not be a clever thing to do in the case of the larger commercial practices. If a student’s marketing of a project is better than the actual project, then they may well find themselves back in their home country as business development manager. I’m usually against students deciding their own project, site and program but only because that’s not how it works.

Last semester the students were asked to think about cities and their problems and to propose an architectural solution. It was big and daunting stuff so I reduced it to three approaches (even though this itself is a design decision).

1. A refinement, reorganization or redesign of one part or aspect of a city. 

The proposal below suggests Manhattan could do with a re-zoning but conventional urban regeneration projects are also examples of this approach, as are sustainable cities, smart cities and resilient cities.

I’m not saying this is a good example, merely that the success of the solution depends on how the problem is framed. Now that semester is over, I can see how the entire design process can be reverse engineered to make the solution appear the inevitable outcome. This probably happens more often than we are aware of.

2. An urban module that could be repeated across an entire city

The objective of this approach was to provide a new template for city living, and that can be repeated indefinitely across the city. This Mario Chiattone project takes a much larger mixed use building as its basic urban unit. Anything truly archetypal will have obvious and irresistible benefits.

3. Design a city on the basis of a single premise. 

This third option was a “What if?” scenario. What would a city be like if we had no more elevators? What if we couldn’t build in concrete and steel anymore? What if Covid never goes away? What if all retail stores disappeared from the city and only hairdressers and restaurants remained?

Submission had to be in the form of a blog post structured according to the three stages of the design process, and with attachments and downloads as appropriate. In this first stage, I wanted students to be absolutely clear about the problem they were solving, and to commit to it in writing. The project outline had sufficient scope for personal interests to show but, at this stage, all that was required was for students to indicate what kind of problems they were interested in solving, not how they intended to solve them. I produced the following as a worked example for them to follow.


The problem is always the same: How to enable people to live at a high density yet still provide them with adequate daylight and ventilation, and a sense of belonging while ensuring privacy but not isolation. Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe’s 1953 Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago are typical 20th century apartment buildings in treating residential space as if it were hotel rooms with doors opening off of internal corridors that are artificially lit and ventilated.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lake Shore Drive Apartments (as-built and marketed), Chicago, 1949–1951

This configuration maximizes external window area and also maximizes the ratio of sellable space to unsellable space. The rectangular floor plate encloses maximum volume with minimal external wall. The building is also typical in that the apartment front doors form a communal-private boundary that isolates the two sides from each other. Casual interaction between occupants is limited to elevator lobbies and corridors. Inside the apartments, windows look away from the building and the building behind disappears, along with any sense there might have been of belonging to some kind of community, albeit a vertical one.

Windows are necessary for habitable rooms yet, in the Western world at least, aren’t thought essential for non-habitable rooms and so kitchens and bathrooms cluster at the centre of the typical floor, enabling all window wall to be used to add value to habitable rooms. The amount of window area in apartment buildings has risen steadily and is regularly over 70% of exterior wall surface and can reach as much as 100%.

The other problem inherent to this “hotel corridor” configuration is dependency upon mechanical systems and the energy they require to not only to light and ventilate the corridor but the apartment kitchens and bathrooms as well. Buildings are responsible for 30% of global carbon emissions but 80–90% of those are said to be from the operational energy required for heating, cooling and illumination. The energy and resources used for the construction of housing in general and high-rise apartments in particular is not insignificant.

Urban housing is housing at relatively high densities and the most important problem is to ensure a certain minimum amount of space per person. Not unconnected to this is how to provide access to those dwellings, and how to ensure their spaces receive sufficient daylight and ventilation. On the left below is Kowloon Walled City existed as an extremely high settlement between 1950 and 1993 when demolition began. Its population density peaked at 1.25 million people per square kilometer in the 1980s. Each resident had approximately 4 sq.m of living space (about 40 sq.ft). The only spaces for daylight and air to penetrate the building were the narrow corridors between buildings that people used to access their space. At high densities, the problems of access, daylight and ventilation are all critical and, when taken to extremes, it is daylighting and ventilation that suffer most.

The apartment building on the right is a typical apartment building from some decades ago. The access stair is also the access corridor serving two apartments per floor with entrance doors at each landing. Opening onto the stair are what are either kitchen or bathroom windows (as there is a waste pipe). Here, the single architectural device of the stairwell solves access, daylighting and ventilation vertically for all floors. The windows of habitable rooms use the building setback (and the street beyond it) to provide daylighting and ventilation. Kowloon Walled City shows us what happens when there is no setback and the street is no wider than a narrow corridor.


The problem this project sets itself is fourfold:

  1. To use a single architectural device to configure high-density urban housing,
  2. For this single architectural device to provide access, daylight and ventilation to all rooms and not just habitable rooms,
  3. For the configuration of the entire building to let inhabitants retain an awareness of their living with other people, but not to the extent that privacy suffers, and
  4. For the configuration of the entire building should ideally have the potential to be mass produced and erected quickly and at low cost.

When I’ve set a design problem and am working through it myself as a demonstration for the students, I don’t mind changing my mind, my tack, my idea and explain why. All I want to do is show that it’s okay to do that if the reasons are sound. However, that’s always after the problem has been set and “the process” has begun. When I created this first part of the sample submission post I was aware of thinking of the other two stages as well and what they would be. I thought I had to think ahead because it wasn’t going to look great for me as an instructor if I ultimately couldn’t solve the problem I set myself at the beginning. I began to wonder how genuine this thing called the design process really is if already I’m defining the problem in terms of what I know I can solve? This isn’t as odd as it sounds, because architects have a legal responsibility to not accept a job if they don’t have (or can source) the skills or resources to undertake it. We don’t know much about the design process but it’s clearly one of those curious processes that begin only when the end is known. Nobody would ever commit to a contract if this weren’t the way. The “work stages” are opportunities for the design process to be ended if the process doesn’t look like delivering an anticipated outcome in the expected time.

In the important exception known as competitions, all that matters is the sponsors seeing some link between what they expected (or thought they did) and the winning design that fulfills, exceeds or even resets those expectations. Nobody cares what happened in-between.

I’m beginning to think it’s misleading to teach the design process as some open-ended process of exploration. Firms that claim to be research-driven insist it is. These are the ones that have exhibitions with endless tables of study models to show us just how research-driven they are. All I see is are studios of underpaid interns and much time and labour being exquisitely folded into the invoice.


Architecture Myths #27: Individuality

Many years ago, one of my instructors showed the class a slide something like this next image. He must have been making some some point about the uniformity of the facade and, by extension, the lives of the occupants because I remember some receptive classmates making horrified noises. After class, I mentioned to my friend that I liked how everyone’s windows (and, by extension, their lives) were so different and she said she’d thought that too.

More recently, I used to live on Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road, a road with architecture often criticized for each building trying to be different in its own way. They’re all on plots of land 50m wide and 100m deep with 5m setbacks on the long sides. They don’t all look the same but somehow it’s possible to feel that something common is deciding their appearance.

People are quick to find an underlying similarity in Dubai towers and extrapolate those assumptions to their owners and occupants yet find it difficult to imagine individuality existing inside identical shapes or behind uniform facades. All this goes to show is that different people can look at the same thing and think different things. It also shows that we tend to see what we want to see.

I must have been living under a rock for the past decade as it was only a few weeks back when I first learned of ORDOS 100 and that it was “a construction project curated by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei. One hundred architects from 27 countries were chosen to participate and each design a 1,000 square meter villa to be built in a new community in Inner Mongolia. The 100 villas would be designed to fit a master plan designed by Ai Weiwei.” It was made public in 2009. This is it.

With Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron chosen to curate it, I’d expect no ordinary subdivision and for it to have some meaning as art and/or architecture. But what?

Brainstorming the masterplan?

Now we’re living in the future it’s difficult to know, but asking one hundred different architects to design one hundred villas was probably in expectation of one hundred vastly different results. The point may have been to celebrate the freedom of the individual, the relentless architectural imagination, or perhaps cement their own positions as curators, kingmakers and social commenters. What we can be sure of is a display of the display of individuality. There’s also an implied criticism of centrally-planned residential developments whose very existence is anathema to those who trade in representations of individuality.

The perceived remoteness of the ORDOS 100 was central to the project’s existence as a media construct. It may just be press releases lazily repeated but Inner Mongolia is mentioned so frequently with regard to this project that, like Timbuktu, the place name becomes a euphemism for somewhere a long way away. Truth is, Inner Mongolia and the city of Ordos are only a two-hour high-speed train ride from Beijing.

Architecture appreciates an opportunity to make summer weekend houses for the wealthy.

Climate-wise, there’s not much difference between Beijing (left) and Ordos (right) in July, but Ordos will be more pleasant in June, September and October. August might also be a good time to get away, even if only for the air quality. Ordos 100 stacks up as a summer vacation village servicing Beijing’s wealthy.

What any of this means for architecture depends on how you look at it, and how you look at it depends upon how removed you are from the architectural media content zeitgeist circa 2009. I say zeitgeist but this project was conceived pre-2008 and so it instantly became ill-conceived in 2009 when the music stopped. ORDOS 100 the project was quickly shelved. One house was half built but many many interesting sentences were constructed. We can only guess at their meaning now.

“We decided to relocate our faith in architecture in terms of the discipline itself. We removed ourselves from any sarcastic, ironic or cultural contextual position in order to “Design” a house that will not only respond to the program but also to a more abstract order of complexities.”

“Because our site culminates the perspectival axis framed by the main street, we decided to lift the house in order to allow the landscape and views to go through, while idealizing the building in its detachment from the ground.”

“The freedom of possibilities was inevitable, where architects could keep to the compressed object building or expand that single volume into a plethora of spatial organizations.

“Early on we noticed that that the overall project siteplan is a cleverly devised urban scale display system for a hundred different architectural experiments. Instead of deploying traditional property lines where no audience can tread, pedestrian easements relentlessly surround every lot. Within the abstraction of the desert, each team is liberated: without formal guilt we are given license to create autonomous product-like villas that can be viewed on all sides by an equally abstract audience.”

This next image shows those pedestrian easements that reduce the “formal guilt” – a reluctant formism, I’m guessing – and give architects license to design the kind of architecture people think of as “sculptural” or “creative” and that architects have been calling “exuberant” ever since Zaha Hadid co-opted the word normally used to describe unrestrained stock markets. We’ve forgotten that in the run-up to 2009 there weren’t many people, architects or not, who thought architecture was anything other than the making of shapes. I don’t remember there being much guilt, formal or otherwise. I see ORDOS 100 not so much as preaching to the converted but more of an attempt to stifle dissent by sending a resistance-is-futile warning to any architect who still thinks architecture could be anything else. Submission is Individuality.

To cut a short story short, the hundred architects didn’t need much encouragement to be individual and you can dig out some of the projects from the ArchDaily oubliette. Here’s eight. The first one is Villa #1 by Alejandro Aravena before we knew him.

I quite like the last one, a negative space proposal, #34 by Swiss outfit NU architectuuratelie.

Their website includes the following image from Rudovsky’s 1974 book Architecture Without Architects, showing the vernacular underground dwellings of China’s loess belt that includes the city of Ordos.

I can see how living around a pit of cool air would be a good idea in July and August and how it would protect from cold winds between October and April. Some ten million people in China’s loess belt live in dwellings like these so there’s something to be said for it. Nobody bothered to say it though, probably because they thought intended purchasers and occupiers might think vernacular intelligence primitive and insufficiently aspirational. Nevertheless, #34 succeeds in looking different from all the other villas trying to look different. Configuring the house as negative space also makes it conceptually different and, to some, will evoke associations with the vernacular. The negative space concept for this house can also be seen as a reaction to the various positive space concepts of the surrounding villas. However, to simply react against something is no more an expression of individuality than being controlled by it is. They’re just different modes of coercion and so we have a conceptual pair – a unity. It was Ozzy Osbourne who said, “If you want to be individual, then don’t get a tattoo.”

My sample of the ORDOS 100 houses may not be representative but when I see many buildings trying to be different in their own way, I think of them as all the same. If all projects had only a visual difference and a conceptual difference then we would have Shape to DETACH but if we add this unifying pressure to be different into the mix ten what we get is Shape to DIFFERENTIATE – difference for the sake of difference.

The ORDOS 100 plots were all roughly the same size and the villas were all to be about 1,000 square meters. Already we have two levels of tangible Size to UNITE, a uniformity that suggests the presence of some unifying laws, rules or design guidelines – all ideas of Size to UNITE. As masterplanner, Ai Weiwei is credited with devising these physical and conceptual boxes in which architects were free to thrash around. I’m reminded of Daniel Liebskinds 2001 proposal for the extension to London’s V&A Museum.

ORDOS 100 invited architects and, by extension, us to celebrate a very limited architectural freedom in a market-funded Vitra zoo. Rather than distracting us from the cage, masterplanner Ai Weiwei invited us to accept the cage as the generator of freedom. This is a curious stance for an artist we think of as an activist. The project model exhibited by Ai Weiwei had the hundred villas constructed from the same material. The uniformity of colour and pattern combines with the uniformity of size, alignment and position to make the point that Shape is the only permitted conveyor of architectural meaning.

Another unfortunate association arises from the roads and pathways on all sides of the villas. We’re told these houses will be so fantastically and sculpturally architectural that people will want to view them from all sides. We accept this explanation all too readily. Wealthy people are said to enjoy the display of riches and may well enjoy being observed from all sides, and sleep easily knowing how easily their villa can be accessed by emergency services vehicles. Not having a back or a side fence to chat with a neighbor over also has its downsides.

Architectural spaces are by nature not only the spaces themselves but their relationships to the surroundings. However, architectural spaces of the “one type, one site” kind are planned and realized without any consideration of their relationships to their surroundings.

The bureaucratic system of government … treats architectural spaces as ‘facilities”. It isolates these highly independent package-like facilities from each other and manages them. This is an extremely ingenious method of management. By that. I mean that the method is ingeniously conceived as a way of administering the state in a bureaucratic (i.e. sectarian) manner.

The Institutionalization of Architectural Space,” in Riken Yamamoto, TOTO (2003), p009

This brings us, finally, to the users of ORDOS 100. Who are they? Who are these people for whom representations of individuality are so attractive? It’s not the target occupants for their individuality is not important beyond their wanting to possess an architectural representation of someone else’s. They are all alike in that they exist only as funders and consumers of the myth of individuality, as well as as avatars for our own fantasies. The invited architects all used the project to promote their own USPs for their own media ends so they’re not that individual either. The project generated far more media coverage than it deserved so maybe we’re all no different in wanting to consume images of representations of individuality. If ORDOS 100 had had something of actual value to offer real people, there’s a chance it might have been better able to withstand an economic crisis and been delayed rather than aborted.

We need to be suspicious of our manner of designing to the pseudo community of architects. For whom is the architecture we design intended? For whom do we design? We bear responsibility too for the reality of the users and the inhabitants of architecture. The more our consciousness is directed toward the island universe of architects the more tenuous becomes our consciousness of the actual inhabitants and users of architecture. That is, our relationship to actual society becomes more tenuous. We need to bear responsibility in an essential sense to the inhabitants of architecture. It is precisely those inhabitants who can liberate us from the island universe or pseudo community inside us.

ibid. p273