Category Archives: Careers

things we can learn from the careers of other architects

Career Case Study #10: 嶋田 優

The name’s pronounced Yo Shimada despite “Yu” being more usual. Mr. Shimada also bucks convention by not having had a conventional architectural education. I don’t think we can hold this against him. Frank Lloyd Wright never had one. Wright’s thirty or so “bootleg” houses completed while moonlighting in Sullivan’s office prove he thought he could do the same or better. Le Corbusier also never graduated. He learned the art of enamelling and engraving watches at the La Chaux-de-Fonds Arts Décoratifs and it was his mentor L’Eplattenier (whom LC was to later refer to as his only teacher) who made the young Charles-Edouard aware of things such as painting and architecture, ultimately leading him to conclude that designing luxury houses was a better proposition than engraving and enamelling luxury watches. It’s too early to tell if Yo Shimada will be ever considered alongside Wright and Le Corbusier but lack of an architectural education is no handicap. Shimada’s completed more than thirty houses since 2000 so something’s clearly going on.

Shimada CV.jpg

Here’s the timeline so far. The yellow indicates things that could be taken to be an architectural education although these days most anything counts.

YS CV copy

Shimada designed a house and, when it was completed, was asked to design two more. It appers as a natural and gradual discovery of enjoying creating these things called buildings and is why I first thought Yo Shimada would be Architecture Misfit #31.

2012: House in Rokko

We already know this house. [c.f. The Shed Is Not Trying To Be Beautiful, Advance of the Sheds] Designing a house as a horizontal platform on vertical supports never hurt the career of any architect, Japanese or not.

2012: House in Itami

2013: The Blend Inn

2013: House in Ishikiri

2012–2014 was a busy period with at least four projects on the go and the beginning of a recognition that would turn into fame. 2013 was the year his career took off. Already with House in Kawanishi there’s some strange things happening with separated voids but it’s countered by insights on the intelligence of vernacular architecture.

An essay in the book titled Making a Connection with Anonymouse Intelligence describes coincidental similarities between themes already evident in House in Rokko and an Australian vernacular house typology known as The Queenslander.

2016: House in Hamilton

House in Hamilton (Queensland, Australia) was the conscious fusion of the two and is where it starts getting weird. People begin to say things like “The experimental home has a ‘treehouse-like playfulness’, featuring an origami ceiling.”

It seems to be the start of Shimada’s explorations into utilizing the spaces above and below staircases. I’ll come back to this later.

House in Rokko is the house by which Shimada wants to be marketed. It features on the cover of the only book about him, along with this photograph but this could just be the publisher with an eye on sales.

Japanese “next-generation” architects are under intense pressure to design precious houses, write profound text, and endlessly promote them not only in the Japanese press but all media everywhere. There’s little evidence Yo Shimada started out to concoct a media presence. Houses appear on ArchDaily soon after completion but that’s to be expected these days. The website of TATO Architects / Yo Shimada is simple and modern in having next to no commentary. I don’t look for artful explanations or hype but sometimes the history and context of a project is best communicated by words and, if they’re not there, I just assume I’m not the targeted audience. Visitors are encouraged to evaluate these buildings on the basis of photographs and everything is beautifully photographed. Many interior photographs feature people and the paraphenalia of daily life but, after decades of photos of Japanese houses with both contrivedly absent, this may just be a different type of contrivance for the audience of public opinion.

I recommend the book as it’s unlike first monographs of other architects. If you read Shimada’s timeline-CV above, you’d have noticed its personal and conversational tone is not how you expect architects to communicate. This tone pervades the book. Shimada admits to having been at a loss to write text to accompany the photographs of some of the buildings. This is refreshing, especially after decades of everyone, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, trying to work out what Japanese architects were meaning yet not saying. Having said that, Shimada then attempts to generate profound text about buildings that can stand without it. Where does this pressure to do this come from?

Q: If an architect designs a building but doesn’t make a noise about it, can it exist as architecture? 

Shimada’s 2008 House in Midorigaoka is a good example of architectural intelligence going into a simple and possibly useful plan that needs no explanation. Eight equally-sized rooms on two floors can be arbitrarily opened and closed to each other and without a post where all four spaces meet.

It’s a nice and simple idea, the advantages of which can even be appreciated and understood from photographs. If it is a genuinely useful idea, we would expect to it enter the mainstream, disappear from architectural sight. and text such as the following will be as irrelevant as ever. If however the goal is to place the house as art, then this is the way it has always been done, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of the sentences. To the credit of the translators, the sense of apparent directness mirrors the Japanese precisely but, as with any language, sentences that are easy to understand may aren’t necessarily true even though they may appear to not be hiding anything.

Untitled 2

Untitled 3

Unlike the often elliptical sentences of architects past, these simple sentences appear to convey meaning and perhaps that’s the one and only function of the architectural sentence – to “save us the trouble” of forming an opinion of our own. Shimada overcomes his initial bashfulness with chapter headings such as

  • Stopping the world from becoming a consumer product
  • Take of your shoes / Take off your kimono please
  • Form and Perception
  • The Freedom of an Autonomous Form
  • Seemingly Continuing Forever

Kaidan dansu [step chest] were pieces of furniture that functioned as staircases and were popular in merchant and samurai houses in Japan circa 1850. As standalone objects, they’re a staple in Japanese antique stores targeting foreigners but here are two in-situ examples.

Kazuo Shinohara’s 1971 Sea Stairway had a three three-step unit (with treader drawers) leading to a storage room. I thought it an exquisitely contrived thing – as many things in Japan are.

Somewhere there exists a photo like this sketch on the right.

I thought of it when I saw these next three examples.

Staircases that morph into furniture and vice-versa seem to feature in many Shimada houses. Me, I think I prefer furniture I can place wherever I want it but this might just be me. Whatever the century or country, the space under and above the stairs is unusable because it is too low or too out-of-reach and kaidan dansu were as good a solution as any, but I can’t see much practical advantage in a sofa turning into a cabinet and then into a stair, or disappearing up a wardrobe and popping out under a table. Shimada is correct to identify that the space beneath and above stairs can be put to better use spatially, both functionally and aesthetically but trying to do all three at once, repeatedly but without repeating oneself is either a USP or a gimmick.

The closest I came to an explanation was that Shimada’s stairs choreograph movement through the space in way not dissimilar to how the size and angle of stones functions in a Japanese garden.

I’m not sure why I find this so disturbing. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned to like Shinohara’s staircases that, though often no less precarious, are almost without exception sandwiched between two walls. The exceptions are the external staircases such as at Uehara and Sky Rectangle and the pseudo-external one at Higashi-Tamagawa. Apart from the circular staircases and the stair leading to the tatami room at Higashi-Tamagawa, ALL Shinohara staircases are straight, full-flight stairs. None have “landings” of any kind.  

It’s this look-at-me stair cleverness that makes Yo Shimada Career Case Study #10 rather than Misfit Architect #31. Shimada is in demand on the lecture circuit. All in all, it’s an interesting career trajectory but who or what is responsible for this huge homogenizing force?

Each time the idea of an architecture of components articulated to do what they each have to do surfaces, it is soon abandoned in favour of an architecture of space and surface. In each case, the architecture of articulated components (and that can be rightfully called to be traditional and Japanese) simply has too much in common with what we in the west call “industrial” architecture. This homogenizing force always seems to push things in the direction of an architecture of surface decorated with self-justifying theories. It’s as if people look at buildings like that of the model above and think “yes we like this” and then a second later say “but we don’t want it”.

The homogenizing force doesn’t stop there. If the goal is for all important architects to ultimately conform to the same model then it doesn’t matter where one starts from or how one gets there. Shimada’s case reveals the additional pressure on the exceptions to conform. I feel like an astronomer watching the death of a misfit and the birth of a star. I wouldn’t be surprised if the plainspeaking Yo Shimada becomes Japan’s Bjarke Ingels, if he’s not already.




Career Case Study #9: José Oubrerie

I’ve always wondered about the value of working for famous architects for education and/or work experience. If it’s to be anything more than a CV builder, then what is the information actually transferred and what is the actual mechanism of information transferal? Frank Lloyd Wright was in no doubt as to the value of the information transferred and had people pay to do his work. This never really took hold as a business model but it did morph into a system where bona-fide students pay bona-fide universities to pay practicing architects to be visiting or guest educators. (The situation where bona-fide students pay a bona-fide university to pay a practicing architect to be a practicing architect seems peculiar to Japan.)

Le Corbusier didn’t make his workforce pay but he did think people should work for him for nothing. If ever we wonder today why so many architects are paid so little and are prepared to work for so little in the name of gaining experience, then we need look no further than Le Corbusier who, amongst his many other contributions to architecture, took the business fundamentals of marketing and cashflow to new levels. Building on the groundbreaking work of Wright, we know much about what Le Corbusier did for marketing and self-promotion but very little of his innovative approach to cashflow and reducing fixed expenses by paying little, if anything. The intern farm is one of Le Corbusier’s less recognized but more ubiquitous legacies. Starchitect clones are well aware the right to underpay is one of the perks of fame.

Le Corbusier’s office

Judging by Le Corbusier’s suit and hair in the header photograph, these two images look like from the late thirties. Were all these people content with just doing their job or did they believe proximity to Le Corbusier and observing and learning how those buildings came into being constituted an architectural education? We know what happened to a few of them. Louis Sert worked unpaid in 1929 but was back in Barcelona within a year. Léonie Geisendorf worked unpaid during the 1930s. [c.f. Brands as Architectural Legacy]

We don’t know if José Oubrerie was paid or not.

He arrived at Le Corbusier’s office in 1963, eighteen months before Le Corbusier’s death in 1965. Oubrerie is said to have carried the Venice Hospital project forward until it was finally cancelled in 1972. [c.f. The Mat Building] He also completed LC’s French Cultural Center in Damascus in 1988. This is one of those inconvenient and thus forgotten buildings.

The Damascus project is conceived of as a continuous interior surface. Its enclosed continuous interiority relates in part to the formal complexity of Le Corbusier’s Villa La Roche, and, in part, to a new architectural topology, a “Moebiusian” one. *

Baghdad Gymnasium was designed by Le Corbusier in 1956 but completed in 1980 without input from Oubrerie.

Better known is Le Corbusier’s Le Église Saint-Pierre in Firminy, completed by Oubrerie in 2006, or 1996 according to the Knowlton School website.  Peter Eisenman said it was the most important structure built since 1980. [? I can’t imagine what that 1980 structure could have been.] Unlike some of the posthumously completed works of Frank Lloyd Wright, the fidelity and authenticity of Firminy as a genuine work of Le Corbusier is never questioned despite the forty-year hiatus. If it had been faithfully constructed with period materials, technologies and services then I guess we would’ve been told. Nevertheless, I’m keen to find out how this kind of real authenticity differs from the merely authentic.

The thing I find most interesting about Oubrerie is this house, his 1992 Miller House in Lexington Kentucky. It’s his only built work and it’s rather fabulous in all its LC meets NY5 glory.

And is probably why we hear nothing of it. It’s got motifs from the whole bunch of five and asks uncomfortable questions such as who exactly is appropriating whom and for what ends? It’s very much a statement building but nobody’s asking what it’s stating or why.

It also has a surfeit of colour, pattern and texture – something the “whites” eschewed in their timber-framed reworkings of the plasticity implied by Corbusian stucco on brick.

Miller House post-dates the New York Five by two decades, so I can only assume Oubrerie is showing them how it ought to have been done and what would have been the better lessons to have learned. For this impertinence he has been roundly ignored. I’m still unconvinced every single surface and element has to show the trace of an architect’s hand. In the case of the Miller House, those timber shelves seem a bit over-the-top. I also doubt every single element needs its own colour and, even if they must, are these the right ones?

With all that colour, pattern and materiality all over the place, the debt to Maisons Jaoul is obvious. It’s everything the NY5 eschewed with their designs that existed as ideas over and above any construction-based reality. I confess to liking Oubrerie’s Miller House, but my feelings towards the NY5 have varied over the years. In 1979 I thought Peter Eisenman’s House X the ultimate whereas in 1977 I had a page, torn from Progressive Architecture, of Richard Meier’s 1973 Douglas House pinned above my drawing board.

I enjoy the relentless design of Oubrerie’s Miller House in the same way I enjoy Carlo Scarpa’s art piece Olivetti Store in Venice, or Gio Ponti’s 1955 Villa Planchard. All three invoke the concept of “total design” as probably invented by Victor Horta circa 1890 and later co-opted by Wright, Gropius, etc. Even now, the concept of total design is still used to imply the “attention to detail” and “obsessive perfectionism” of the artist-architect.

When compared with Douglas House, the physicality of Miller House is obvious but I find it no more human for all that colour, pattern and texture. Both houses leave no conceptual space for people as whatever furniture, rugs or art one possessed, or even the clothes one wore, would clash. In representing the pleasures of colour and materials, Oubrerie has forgotten to involve the people who are to appreciate them. I don’t know if that makes him better or worse than the bunch of five who succeeded by aiming lower.

All in all, Oubrerie’s is a curious career involving five built buildings only one of them his and even then only in a sense.

The Chapel, commissioned and encouraged by Steven Holl for his residential and gallery complex in Rhinebeck, New York, features a light-water diagonal conduit that pierces the roof and floor and is a contemporary interpretation of a ladder in a kiva — a traditional round Pueblo Indian form — in which the ladder joins the sky and earth. There is no real sipapu, the round hole in the kiva’s floor through which the spirits of the ancients can exude. However, in the Chapel, the ground is visible and the floor sometimes retracts; it practically enters inside, or reciprocally, the floor extends and reaches the outside.

• • •


Career Case Study #8: Gio Ponti

Graduated with a degree in Architecture from Politecnico di Milano.

Worked in partnership with Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia.
Exhibited at the first Biennial Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Monza.

Ponti House in via Randaccio Gio Ponti, Emilio Lancia
via Randaccio 9, Milano

For many architects, their first built work is a house for their parents. This was Ponti’s.


Villa Bouilhet
Garches, Paris, France

Two decent houses within five years after graduation.

Continued with Lancia as Studio Ponti e Lancia PL. [In these years he was influenced by and associated with the Milanese neo-classical Novecento Italiano movement. The movement can be said to have done nothing to discourage nationalistic tendencies via its appeals to the past great traditions of Italian art. [Mussolini neither approved or disapproved but, it must be said, the general secretary of the Fascist Party deemed it insufficiently Italian.] Other buildings include the 1926 Bouilhet villa in Garches, Paris, the 1929 Monument to the Fallen with Giovanni Muzio, the Casa Rasini apartment blocks in Milan, and the 1930 Domus Julia–Domus Fausta complex on Via Letizia. [W] I’ve not seen these buildings, but they’re certain to be documented on the Gio Ponti official website. It’s a huge and useful resource.

Founded DOMUS magazine and was its editor from 1928–1941, and again from 1948 until he died.

1928 – 1931
Apartment building
io Ponti, Emilio Lancia
via Domenichino 1-3, Milano


Rasini House and Tower Gio Ponti, Emilio Lancia
Bastioni di Porta Venezia 1, corso Venezia 61, Milano


The stone, and the stonework is exquisite.

Ponti teamed with engineers, Antonio Fornaroli and Eugenio Soncini and formed Studio Ponti-Fornaroli-Soncini.

Now, fifteen years after graduating and five years after founding DOMUS, Ponti became permanent professor of the Faculty of Architecture at Politecnico di Milano University. I get the feeling he intuitively understood how architectural projects, education and media all feed off each other.  

Casa Marmont
Via Gustavo Modena 36, Milano

From the late 1930s until about 1942, Ponti’s buildings have Rationalist overtones and are not dissimilar from those of Asnago–Vender at that time. The mounting of windows flush with the wall surface is an obvious similarity but may have some non-stylistic justficiation. It’s a notable feature of Pirelli Tower and a design decision more likely to have been Ponti’s than Nervi’s.

Montecatini office building 
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Soncini

largo Donegani 2, Milano


In 1941 Ponti was to resign his editorship of DOMUS magazine to start the magazine Stile. In one of its early issues, Ponti praised the buildings of Asnago Vender as “The Style of Tomorrow”. [The essay is reproduced in Caruso & Thomas’ book Asnago Vender and the Construction of Modern Milan.]

“For them, modern architecture is a form of free expression that emerges naturally like a science and a technology, a trade and a profession, and is released from any kind of precedent. Asnago & Vender work naturally, in accordance with a firm conviction that lies in their own nature and is as spontaneous as an intrinsic vocation. Their art is ‘just right’: their approach is expressed by the diligence of silent, consistent work, like an almost natural phenomenon that has no more need for system, programmes, or previsions, with no more hidden controversial content of any sort.

“But the two architects are also artists who have natural feelings that they are able to express in their work without any hindrance or wastage – fortunately. This is the additional gift that is necessary and essential to enable one to represent an art – having the ability to do so.”

These are powerful words indicating an industry awareness befitting a magazine editor even though Ponti’s own career did not go in that direction.

House By The Sea
Bordighera, Italy

There’s nothing not to like here.

University commissions for the University of Padua

Ponti himself painted the frescos on the staircase walls. [W]
I can understand an architect helping a country’s war effort by designing industrial buildings but hand-painting frescoes on a university’s walls? Here they are lining the “staircase to knowledge”.

Here’s the professors’ Reading Room at the University of Padua, with the Dean’s Office on the other side of those doors. Look at the floor! Terrazzo never looked so classy – and so it ought. Arranging aggregate in lines only to pour white concrete over it and then grind and polish it was neither fast nor inexpensive to do. Low-quality materials have been given the decadence of process. I know I shouldn’t like things like this and be adding to my list of guilty pleasures.


And what about that idiosyncratic arched door in the corner? If Ponti had wanted to incorporate it into the aesthetics of this room, I’ve no doubt he could have. The difference between the sea green wall colour and the peach beyond makes me think a waiter uses that door to enter the room and take drinks orders.

1942 was only twenty years after Ponti graduated but he had already found his style and it was one of inescapable and relentless good taste. You can be confident that, when those main doors are opened, there will be more of the same.

Montecatini office building 
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Soncini

via Principe Amedeo 2, Milano


INA Casa Harrar
Via Harrar/Dessié/Via Novarra, Milano

This social housing project is anomalous and you can read more about it here where it says “Ponti developed the master plan along with Luigi Figini, Gino Pollini and Piero Bottoni” and that “Ponti designed two blocks, one facing Via Harrar-Dessiè, and the other, perpendicular to this, extending into the interior of the block.” I can’t find any images of interiors. Although many Ponti projects are collaborations of some sort, this is one of the rare ones that have a greater context.

Milan, Italy

This is another anomalous project during the construction of the Pirelli Tower. There’s no description for the design on the right, which is the more interesting of the two since the enclosed space is not divided into the functional zones of the other design, but into day and night zones that spatially overlap. Ponti was to re-use this device in his own 1964 apartment. The lesser-known iteration of this is rare because it shows a desire to extract maximum spatial utility from a volume.

Pirelli Tower
Gio Ponti, Pier Luigi Nervi, Arturo Danusso
Via Fabio Filzi 22, Milan

Ponti won the commission to design the 32-story Pirelli Tower in 1950. It was Milan’s second tall building, the first being Torre Velasca constructed 1956–58. Pirelli Tower became an immediate symbol of a confident and renewed Italy and, with Nervi’s help, remains as idosyncratic and elegant as it was in mid-1950s. The effect of this important commission was felt long before the building was completed. It was the turning point in Ponti’s career, and the beginnings of the post-war phenomenon of Italian design that continues to this day.  With Ponti and Pirelli, Milanese architecture and Italian architecture in general, begins to get more wilful, seeking more than merely local recognition. Whereas Asnago Vender were content to remain Milanese architects for their entire careers, Ponti marks the beginning of international architecture in Italy and of Italian architecture internationally, assissted by Ponti (now back) at DOMUS and Ernesto Rogers (1953–1965) at Casabella.


One of the first commissions Ponti received because of worldwide attention the tower was for Villa Planchard in Caracas, Venezuela. It’s a Pinterest favourite. Another villa in Caracas, the Villa Areazza, quickly followed, as did another in Teheran. All three are the mature works of someone fully in command.

Villa Planchard
Caracas, Venezuela

The dining area of Villa Planchard is as good a place as any to pause for a while and try to make some sense out of all of this.


First, look at the supersized terrazzo of that floor! Again, it’s unimaginable decadence of process to get slabs of different stone to do this. Another guilty pleasure. How about that wall on the right? I’ve no idea what timber those panels are, but I’m betting they’re an inch think and oiled and polished to make them last forever. They’re beautiful enough but nevertheless enhanced by at least two ceramic inlays and two wall lamps calling attention to themselves by their differing orientations. Two ceilings each do their own thing. Those bubble-petally things on the far wall are probably Murano glass but the unadorned part needs an image or something to carry us around the corner into presumably the kitchen. But those bubbly things – see how they compress as they approach the ceiling? And what is that curve and angle supposed to do? Does either wall really need shelves with plants? Does the table really need to have to have supports profiled like the Pirelli tower?  And a chair moved out of the way so we can see it?

What plants other than orchids would dare flower in such a room? What clothes would one have to wear to feel at home? The room doesn’t encourage solid colour, or seem to want any more pattern. It seems happy for plates on the table to express the potential for people but I can’t imagine this space accommodating even those stagey lifestyle people in the Julius Schulman Case Study House photographs. It’s difficult to live as fabulously as this house implies. It doesn’t matter in architectural imagery and, as a magazine man, I’m sure Ponti understood this.

Villa Arreazza
Caracas, Venezuela

Villa Namazee 1957 – 1964
Teheran, Iran

Things to note here are the attention paid to sightlines and viewlines in the plan, the shape of the glass display cabinet in the living room, and the confident busy-ness of that internal courtyard.

1956 – 1957
Casa Ponti House in via Dezza Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli
via Dezza 49, Milano

This is where Ponti and his family lived at least some of the time. Folding doors divide rooms at night.


1923 – 1958
Throughout this period Ponti also designed ceramics, furnishings, vases, dinnerware, chairs, glassware and lamps for various companies. Below are a 1931 lamp for Fontana Arte, one of many glass bottles for Venini in 1949, and the Superleggera chair for Cassini in 1957.

Palazzo del Lavoro Gio Ponti and Pier Luigi Nervi

My undergraduate history book World Architecture [1963] had upward looking closeups of the famous roof structure as its front and back inner covers. The building seems to be slipping from the history of architecture faster than it is from the history of engineering. It’s a beautiful thing, stunning in its simplicity. Wikipedia lists Ponti as architect and Nervi as engineer but I can’t find it on the Ponti website, presumably because it does nothing to further the mythology. Pirelli may have been Ponti’s but Nervi owns this one.


Parco de
Rei Principi
Sorrento, Italy

eRez@imperatore_IMMAGINI_9651_Campania_9684_Penisola Sorrentina_10006_Sorrento_86993_parco_dei_principi_01hotelparcodeiprincipi_sorrento_jpg_d4650c56412214e2

We should be thankful to Pinterest for allowing us to gain even an inkling of what it is like to stay here. It’s claimed the hotel was the first designer hotel in the world and, going by the profile of those lobby columns, I suspect it’s true.

Politecnico Milano

Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 3, Milano


The ground level appearance of these buildings has been compromised by the interconnecting bridges installed later, no doubt for reasons of accessibility.

Building for the Istituto Nazionale Assicurazioni 
Gio Ponti, Fornaroli, Rosselli

via San Paolo 7, via Agnello 6/1-8, Milano

With this building we see the first use of textured ceramic tiles.


Chiesa di San Francesco
via Paolo Giovio 31, Milano

I took three photographs of this next corner so something about it must have disturbed me. As I find with much of Ponti’s later work, I can’t guess at what effect he was aiming to achieve. Now I think about it, what I find it disturbing is how this wall denies the spaces behind it, only acknowledging them when they provide an opportunity for window as ornament for the wall. The same accusation could be made against the central wall as well.

Chiesa di San Carlo Borromeo presso l’Ospedale

Building 14, Politecnico Milan
Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 3, Milano


In the photograph below you can see the other Politecnico Milano building to the rear. Fifty years on, this is still a handsome building, and is undergoing partial retrofitting for enhanced energy performance.


But gosh it scrubs up well – it looks as if it’s just been built! Properly made and laid textured ceramic tiles must be the perfect cladding.


Montedoria building
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli
via Pergolesi 25, Milano


The building forms one half of a gaetway as is common on many piazzi.


The tile cladding is highly textured, changes with the light etc. and is, basically, gorgeous.

The third photograph above however, shows gratuitous layering for the sake of it. Surely there’s a better reason for building volume than to create shadows and avoid a planar surface? We’ve become immune to this sort of thing and, like variously offset and sized windows, have come to believe it indicates design effort, if not excellence. My only criticism of this building is that there’s simply too much happening. It’s happening in a highly controlled, competent and elegant manner so it pains me to say it, but every window, by virtue of its shape or position, doesn’t need to state that a designer is on the case. This dusting of gratuitousness might be what makes this building designed and constructed 1964-1970 still appear so contemporary. Its materials and construction are a contradiction. Their sheer quality means we can see this building today as if it were new but it also means the building could never be a product of any other place and time but Italy in the 1960s.


De Bijenkorf 
Gio Ponti, Theo Boosten
Eindhoven, Netherlands

By now, the glazed ceramic tile had been perfected. Relief becomes bas-relief to make shadows deeper on cloudy days and in low-angle sunlight. Sunlight or rain produce shimmering effects intensified by the glazing being seemingly resistant to dirt, grime and the passage of time.

Denver Art Museum

100 W 14th Ave Pkwy, Denver, CO 80204, USA


Taranto Cathedral
Taranto, Italy

Cathedrals aren’t generally known for their restrained interiors so what’s immediately noticeable here is how austere this one is. For the entrance and campanile, the walls are no longer things that exist to accept ornament but things that are constituted from it.

• • •


Gio Ponti is a phenomenon, a person who touched every corner of Italian design for half a century and the person responsible for making Italian design the international phenomenon it remains to this day. As an architect, he understood how to make spaces and how to decorate them and, as editor of DOMUS, how to publicise them. He knew how to make a building fit well on a site and how to clad it so it looks new forever. Ponti is remembered most for the Pirelli Tower but this is probably more of a reflection on architecture’s obsession with shape and what came to symbolize being an architect for Pirelli Tower is not really representative of Ponti’s interests or his career. He seemed happiest when he had a wall to ornament or decorate. Perhaps he knew this and this is why he makes it so difficult for us to see past the surface. Or even want to.

• • •

Career Case Study #7: Serge Chermayeff

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

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

the argentina years.jpg

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

Here’s a side cabinet by Chermayeff, 1930.


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


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


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


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

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


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


even though there’s much more to it.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

Life was good again. 


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

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

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


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

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

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

• • •




Career Case Study #6: Ivan Illich Leonidov

khan-m leonidov (316)

Ivan Illich Leonidov
9 February, 1902 – 6 November 1959

Ivan Leonidov’s star shone brilliantly at the very beginning of his career, perhaps too brilliantly. His misfortune was to have been born in 1902. If he’d been born in 1952 we’d remember him today as one of those infernal starchitects and, if early photographs are anything to go by, one emitting the intense earnestness of an Ara­ve­na rather than the easy affability of an Ingels.

Leodinov first appears as a blip on our architectural radar in 1921 when he was admitted to the VKhUTEMAS but he soon transferred from painting to architecture and the studio of Aleksandr Vesnin. Vesnin himself was to soon start making waves, first of all with stage design in 1923 for G.K. Chesterton’s play The Man Who Was Thursday,


but more architecturally famously for winning the 1923 competition for the Palace of Labour and articulating for the first time the tenets of this new thing called Constructivism.


For Leonidov, being in the Vesnin brothers’ studio at the VKhUTEMAS in 1925 must have been like being in Rem Koolhaas’ class at the Architectural Association in 1976. He was 23.


Leonidov is said to have had a hand in Aleksandr Vesnin’s 1923 design for the Izvestia Printworks and perhaps he did. A design by G. Barkhin was eventually built. 


He certainly began to shine from 1925 with a series of competition wins.

khan-m leonidov (27) copy.jpg

These projects are documented in Aleksandrov, P. A. and S. O. Khan-Magomedov’s 1965 book but nowhere else.

To his credit as an educator, Aleksandr Vesnin spotted talent and encouraged it but it was Leonidov’s graduation project for the Lenin Institute of Librarianship that set the course of his future. It was exhibited at the first exhibition of Contemporary Architecture (organised by OSA) in Moscow in 1927. Images of it were reproduced in publications around the world.


Lenin died in 1924 so we don’t know what he would have thought of it. I can’t think of any student project, anywhere, ever, that has made a comparable splash. Even today, Leonidov’s Lenin Institute of Librarianship is used to illustrate Constructivism for modern audiences – not because it actually did so even then, but because it fits our image of what an expressive and visionary architecture of any time should be.

Then, as now, the element invariably singled out for praise for its architectural expressiveness was the glass-domed auditorium that appears to be held down by cables to prevent it floating away. It’s sometimes noted how this perfectly encapsulated the dream expressed by poets and dreamers of the time, for The People to have infinite mobility, freed from the land.

• • •

It is no surprise then that the glass auditorium also satisfies the four necessary and sufficient conditions for an iconic building.

  1. VISUAL DIFFERENCE: It looks unlike anything else in sight. This can only be a fair assumption, unless the building were to be located in a field of hot-air balloons.
  2. CONCEPTUAL DIFFERENCE: It is like no other known building known. The standard novelty factor.
  3. CONCEPTUAL SIMILARITY: It is evocative of some unifying quality. This is that shared poetic sensibility of the time and place.
  4. CONCEPTUAL NEGATION: It does not seem to be a building (or at least not the building it is). This is the hot-air balloon analogy.

The combination of the glass dome and the cables that run over it press all four of these buttons at once, but the fourth most strongly. In passing, a building does not need cables thrown over it to stop it floating away – gravity alone is sufficient. Even if the cables were intended as stabilising guy lines like those on Vesnin’s Palace of Labour, attaching them around the dome’s equator would’ve been more effective and also avoid transferring forces through the glass dome. So no, it’s definitely and purely expressionistic and, as such, Leonidov and his expressionistic architectural proposition would have been more at home amongst Ladovsky’s ASNOVA expressionists – bizarrely known as ‘Rationalists’ – than Ginzberg’s OSA Constructivists with whom he now found himself not only associated with but unwilling poster boy for. William Curtis is not the only historian to believe Leonidov synthesised the two approaches but to say that is to consider them both conceptually equivalent styles to begin with.

Untitled copy

No written or visual evidence remains of Leonidov’s thoughts or output over 1921-1926 so there isn’t much basis for Curtis saying Leonidov admired Corbusier other than his desire for it to be true. I’d wanted to write at least one post not mentioning Corbusier but this isn’t going to be it for, (much to the increasing exasperation of the Savoyes,) LC travelled frequently to Moscow over the period 1928-1930 as (1) Tsentrosoyuz was on site, (2) he’d passed the first round of judging for the Palace of The Soviets competition, and (3) he was anticipating being asked to redesign Moscow. Until Corbuski fell rapidly out of love with the Soviet Union for not awarding him the Palace of the Soviets, he and Moisei Ginzburg were frequent communicators. It’s quite likely Leonidov had an opportunity to say ‘pleased to meet you’. People were pencilling people in. 

1928: The VKhUTEMAS was reformed as VKhUTEIN and Leonidov became one of those people who gets a place tutoring at the institution from which they’ve just graduated. Here he is photographed with Mosei Ginzburg’s studio in 1930. He’s the one not fully in the frame.


During this time, like everyone else, Leonidov produced proposals for every competition going.

1929: Here he is at the first OSA conference, separated from Mosei Ginzburg’s necktie by Aleksandr Vesnin, somebody we don’t know, and Viktor Vesnin’s impressive moustache.

1928 osaconference

1930: Despite Leonidov’s project for the new socialist town around the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine,

1930 was never going to be a good year. Differences between the various architectural groups went political and his proposal for the Palace of Culture of the Proletarksy District competition allowed detractors to brand him a ‘dreamer on paper’ and to make noises about the harm done by having such people teach. Leonidov was now 28.

He was openly accused of sabotage by Arkady Mordvinov in an article titled Leonidovism and its Misdeeds. 1930 was not a good year to be called a saboteur, let alone by the spokesperson of rival architectural group VOPRA then in political ascendance. Ginzburg stepped in to defuse the row, admitting some of Leonidov’s weaknesses but praising his strengths in an article in the OSA journal, Contemporary Architecture.

MG defense.jpg

It was to be one of the magazine’s final articles before folding in 1930, the same year VKhUTEIN closed and Leonidov was out of a job along with Ginzberg, the Vesnins and everyone else.

1931-3: Leonidov found work at the state town-planning bureau GIPROGOR and, with a team of former students, worked on planning and competition proposals. No trace remains. One design for a club for Pravda workers was to go ahead, but then it didn’t.

1934: Leonidov’s next high point was his proposal for the competition for Narkomtiazhprom (People’s Commisariat for Heavy Industry) in Red Square. Later the same year he joined Moisei Ginzburg who was heading the architectural bureau there. Viktor Vesnin was there too.

Once again, with this project, the visual effect of the dominant tower derives from external bracing countering non-existent internal forces. Note that stumpy fourth tower on the left.

Lenin had never been keen on the idea of the proletariat freely moving about the country and in 1934 Stalin was even less so. Peasants had their place and it was best they stay there. Fanciful schemes and poetry about soaring and glass balloons were all very well, but the reality for everyone was a system of domestic passports and increasingly harsh restrictions placed on internal travel.

To mollify this loss of freedom, aviators were elevated into popular heroes soaring above the world, seeing everything, freed from petty earthbound concerns. This is an early example of the representation of something being valued more than the thing itself. 

  • In 1927, Leonidov’s restrained balloon imagery had encapsulated something people had wanted to exist and believed, however misguidedly, that could exist some day.
  • By 1934, Leonidov had learned how to keep his head above water if not quite swim. His imagery is still hugely original and seductive, but it now toes the party line in that NOBODY IS GOING ANYWHERE but they can still look up at people who are and have their hearts refreshed and spirits lifted vicariously.


1935: Moisei Ginzburg maintained his links with the Commissariat of Heavy Industry bu left Moscow for The Crimea, taking Leonidov with him. There, amongst other things, Ginzburg was responsible for urban planning and for this sanitorium.

Narkomtiazhprom sanatorium, Kyslovodsk.jpg

Leonidov’s only built work is this staircase he designed for the sanitorium and which was built 1937-38.

The staircase running down to the sea at the Voroshilov Sanatorium in Sochi (and, incidentally, photographed by Hannes Meyer in 1930) were a precedent.


1940: This was the year Leonidov started work at the Studio for Monumental Art at the Academy of Architecture of the USSR but he was drafted (at age 38) the next year only to be discharged in 1943 after being wounded. He rejoined the Academy and produced studies for the postwar reconstruction of Stalingrad, Kiev, and Moscow but left when they found no support. This is unsurprising, considering the then head of the Academy of Architecture was Arkady Mordvinov – the same Arkady Mordvinov who’d called him a saboteur and coined the term Leonidovism a decade earlier.


1950s: The last twenty years of Leodinov’s life were occupied by drafts for a work collectively known as City of The Sun.

In these artworks, for they are artworks not architecture, buildings feature in various landscapes that more often than not feature a sun. They were explorations, but into what and for what purpose is anyone’s guess. They occupied most of Leonidov’s time when there were no exhibitions that needed designing and are mostly thought of in the following manner.

khan-m leonidov (297) .jpg

To evaluate Leonidov’s drawings by their colour, line style, media and compositions as if they were art is to suggest that in 1923 he might have been better continuing in the faculty of painting rather than changing to architecture. Painting, graphics, three-dimensionality and buildings as subjects were all constants in Leonidov’s life but the importance of the buildings lessened towards the end. This is understandable. Architecture had treated him so badly.


A happier ending is to consider Leonidov as the world’s first modern architecture student, living a full life of successive fantasy projects. If the teaching gig had continued along with the occasional commission we’d think of Leonidov today not as some luckless visionary but as the forerunner of today’s research-driven practice.


Leonidov lived his final years here, in Moisei Ginzburg’s 1928 RSZKT Commune building in Moscow.


• • •

Some say Leonidov would have been another Corbusier if his working life hadn’t spanned three of the grimmest decades in Soviet history. I’m not so sure. Adjectives such as outspoken, strong-willed, flamboyant, intellectual and ambitious have never been used to describe him. He had no instinct for self-preservation, no talent for self promotion and no appetite for fame. Even before it began to get nasty, he was unequipped to navigate the world in which he found himself. Moisei Ginzburg recognised this and not only defended him in 1930 but kept him under his wing whether in Moscow (1927-1930) or Crimea (1934-1937).

• • •

Leonidov’s most celebrated projects all relied on elevators that, at the time, existed only in the United States. It is one of those sad jokes his only extant project is a staircase.


‘Here he not only demonstrated his desire and capacity to build, but realized many of the fundamental elements of his professional vocabulary for the first time. A familiarity with this only extant example of Leonidov’s built work enables us, albeit to a limited degree, to evaluate the notions of space-time and three dimensional composition underlying his work at this period’ 

People can say what they like about time and space and three-dimensional composition (for how could a staircase not be?) but despite not leading anywhere like the staircase at Sochi, it looks like it does its job quite well, beginning monumental and grand at the top, having various rest spots and diversions and choices along the way and, trailing off into the forest at the bottom. In their rush to celebrate Leonidov’s genius, people choose to overlook how this staircase might have excelled at its job of pleasantly yet firmly exercising the lungs of tubercular patients. Leonidov would have been hugely aware this was his first built project so we should at least credit him for making it fit for purpose. We do him a disservice by seeing this staircase only in terms of his supposed artistic preoccupations. We do ourselves no favours either. If we can’t even identify something that can be learned from, it’s unlikely we’ll learn anything.

• • •

Leonidov and his Lenin Institute proposal in particular are still celebrated today. They align with contemporary cults of the architect as artist, and agendas that value expressionism over everything else.

Leonidov is a legend. He is the artist-poet-dreamer we like to believe in because it continues to fulfil or otherwise substitute for something lacking in our own lives and realities. The thing about legendary visionaries is that we like them to remain so. We don’t want to know about the job that got built or the pains they may have taken to make it worth building. We only want to know the bits that feed the myth. Leonidov is a huge resource for myth-makers. That his projects exist only as images only increases their value. The fact he left no body of writings, theory or manifestos means half the work’s already done. His drawings can be shaped into anything one wants to make of them.


• • •

The cult of the aviator soaring above the world and its mere mortals was the Stalinist take on the Roman invention of bread and circuses, albeit with less of the bread and less of the theatrics. We have no right to sneer. Our modern world is exactly the same with its manufactured cults of celebrity achievement thrust in our faces to distract us from the shortcomings of reality. More worrying is our unabated need for them.


• • •

Further reading: 

Career Case Study #5: Richard Leplastrier


1939: Born in Melbourne, Australia
1963: Graduated from Sydney University
1964–1966: Worked in the Sydney office of Jørn Utzon.

In 1963, Utzon set up office in Sydney for one reason only, so Leplastrier did something related to the Sydney Opera House. As a 25 year-old graduate, it probably wasn’t any decision-making but the atmosphere at the time must have been electric given the controversy the building generated. The RIBA website says “[Leplastrier] had an extraordinary apprenticeship with Jørn Utzon, with whom he worked at the time of the Sydney Opera House and they became good friends.” If the third image below is actually from 1964 it shows construction beginning for the geometry rationalised by ARUP.

Joern-Utzon-unpacking-SydneJoern Utzon displays a diagram of a detail of the Sydney Opera House.531465-the-sydney-opera-house

Utzon’s design concept for the Sydney Opera House was of something heavy and seemingly floating

content_aboutus_utzondesignprinciples (dragged)

but Utzon brought with him to Australia other, more useful, ideas that had their root in Japan. Here’s his 1953 Middelboe House.


If one were to have had long conversations with Jørn Utzon between 1964 and 1966, it would have been great to learn what Utzon knew about the selection the assembly of materials. We don’t know if Leplastrier learned anything from the design or construction of the Sydney Opera House itself. The Sydney Opera House was to open in 1973 but Utzon left the project in 1966 –as did Leplastrier who went to Kyoto University where Tomoya Masuda was teaching.

Masuda was more traditionalist than Metabolist despite his Matsumura Oil Company Offices of 1967.

Matsumura Oil Head Office, 196751Z5etDEvRL._SX490_BO1,204,203,200_920190

No degree is mentioned so I’m guessing it was one of those informal arrangements that existed at the time in Japanese universities. And in companies too, for between Kyoto University and 1966 and 1970, Leplastrier also spent time in the Tokyo office of Kenzo Tange.


Tange’s office were at the time responsible for the upcoming Expo ’70 masterplan and already had a reputation for large masterplanning projects around the world.

1970: Leplastrier returned to Australia and started his own practice. We hear no more of Tange.

1974-76: Palm Garden House, Northern Beaches, Sydney


1981-84 1989-90: Belligen House and Studio, New South Wales
1988-91: Rainforest House, Mapleton, Queensland

Rainforest House

1988-92: Tom Uren House, Balmain, Sydney
1994: Lovett Bay House, Sydney

lovett bay

1996: Cloudy Bay Retreat, Bruny Island, Tasmania

Cloudy Bay Retreat

1997: Watson’s Bay House, Sydney


1997-8, 2000: Blue Mountains House and Studio, Leura, New South Wales
2002 Design Centre Tasmania, Launceston (with David Travalia)


2004–2006: Public Toilets, George’s Head (part of the George’s Head Lookout project)


You can find out more about the projects here, at the Offical Website of Architecture Foundation Australia and the Glenn Murcutt Masterclasses which Leplastrier also teaches. The Architecture Foundation Australia is a not-for-profit organisation and the Glenn Murcutt Masterclasses are a two-week residential summer program for 32 participants. FAQ here.

Richard Leplastrier is a key figure in Australian architecture and architectural education. His architecture is sensitive to place and to culture and he uses his studio as a teaching room as well as a place to make architecture. 

Richard is always spoken about in relation to Glenn Murcutt and his reputation is possibly diminished by this.

It does not help that he shies away from publicity and has little interest in having his projects published. Yet he is the key philosophical influence behind much of the best work we see from Australia today. He provides the backbone of thinking and belief. 

These are some things I’ve read.

  • His buildings are sensitive to issues of culture and place.
  • Oriental philosophy tempers his outlook on life and, in particular, his understanding of the meaning and role of shelter.
  • His buildings interpret and explore the notion of the primal shed through simple, minimal constructions in which alcoves, sleeping niches, work desks, and dining spaces are worked and reworked, taking on the minimal, multi-functional character of a ship’s interior.
  • His buildings offer intriguing and insightful interpretations of natural ventilation, solar shading, and the tectonic accommodation of the changing weather and seasons.”

I find more to admire in the following.

  • He constantly asks himself “How little do we need?” and designs his buildings accordingly. I read somewhere that Leplastrier also lives accordingly. This too is virtuous but I don’t need to know that. I can appreciate the buildings just as well without a cult of personality being erected around them. 
  • He is renowned and recognized for only using resources close by in an endeavor to minimize the impact on the environment as much as possible. This is good.
  • His building can be easily disassembled, thereby fulfilling the touch-the-ground-lightly dictum. This too is good on the surface but in a previous post I questioned why a useful building should need to be disassembled. There aren’t getting any fewer people in the world and that land is unlikely to revert to primordial landscape.
  • Leplastrier seems to have little or no taste for marketing and publicity. This is both good and bad. I applaud his distaste for the whole nasty business. Some might say that teaching is a form of publicity and it’s true, some architects so teach as a means of marketing and publicity. Some of those hold teaching positions more for the imagined prestige rather than any pedagogic drive. Some teach to smooth out the cashflow and there are some who teach because they feel they have something to teach. In a canny inversion of the basic business contract, some architects ask people to pay to do their work under the guise of education.


Whatever Leplastrier’s reasons for teaching, coming into contact with thirty-two people for two weeks once or twice a year doesn’t seem much. I can’t help feeling that if one really has ideas and attitudes of real use to the world, then one has a duty to broadcast them generally and globally in the hope others in non-specific places might find those ideas or approaches of benefit.

• • •

The more I try to find out about Lepastrier the more I sense journalism rushing to fill a vacuum.

The Cult of Craft

It’s a shame to see Leplastrier’s buildings celebrated so much for their cult of craft that owes so much to the Japanese. I see it in things such as the circular window openings at the Lovett’s Bay house, the staircase and its “stone” landing in the Watson’s Bay house, and the curved RSJ above the entrance at the design centre in Tasmania, or its fancy screen timber work, lovely though it is. Only the Japanese can use simplicity as ornament signifying a cultural refinement – theirs. This is not a very useful trait for architecture. I can’t help thinking there’s more to be gained from trying to replicate the sublime ordinariness Leplastrier generates in his buildings rather than focussing on how personal or cultural, idiosyncratic or overthought certain details may be.


The Japanese system of constructing buildings continues to be worthy of learning from but what we don’t remember is that Utzon’s houses predate Tange’s and Shinohara’s.

It wasn’t just Utzon. His Danish contemporaries also took ordinary pieces of timber and infill panels, arranged them with the economy and clarity of Japanese construction but without the cult of culture, and made it into what’s now remembered as the Golden Age of Danish Architecture. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #15: Knud Peter Harboe] They had a good thing going for a while. I wonder if those Danish architects had any awareness they were making Golden Danish Architecture?

The Cult of Culture

To firmly link attitudes and ideas and buildings to a specific country is to place them squarely in the world as national cultural artefacts, discouraging them from being perceived in terms of value as prototypes for wider application worldwide.

“There is a growing movement in Australian architecture that stems from a recognition of the uniqueness of this land. A recognition of the indigenous culture’s management of this continent for tens of thousands of years, and that this embodied knowledge forms a powerful cultural base for our future development. A recognition also, that it was this very land that formed their society in the first place, and that this land has primacy in forging of our character.”

This is all true. What never gets mentioned is that the indigenous culture lived for millennia without concepts of money or the possession of property. Needless to say, they managed to also do without an architecture poetically articulating the possession of money and property. I don’t think this circle can be squared.

The Cult of Personality


• • •

I would like to see someone apply the worthy attitudes and sublime ordinariness of Leplastrier’s buildings to suburban housing or an urban apartment building, something, anything, that doesn’t rely upon the celebration of land for its aesthetic worth. 

Until that time, I have to remain open to the notion that we as Australians are merely approving cultural artefacts that project to the world an impossibly idealised image of ourselves vis-á-vis architecture and our country.



Career Case Study #4: Sir Roy Grounds

This is Sir Roy Grounds, “one of Australia’s leading architects of the modern movement”.

roy groundsRoy Grounds (1905 – 1981)

For someone born in Australia and who’s spent a large amount of their life learning about buildings, I’ve never known his name until recently. His Wikipedia entry seems to say all there seems to be to say and, for that matter, all we seem to need to know. It’s odd then, that he was awarded the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1968, made a life member of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1969 and the same year made Sir Roy Grounds by Queen Elizabeth in 1969. It’s fair to assume he was knighted for his services to architecture but strange there’s no memory of what those services might have been.

It’s not the case with his contemporaries Robyn Boyd and Harry Seidler – two names I do remember. Robyn Boyd was born into the Boyd dynasty of Australian artists and painters. His first job was a studio for his cousin, the painter Arthur Boyd. Robyn Boyd developed a low-slung regional style with lots of timber. Although this was sometimes derided as the “nuts and berries” school, this high-fibre architecture appealed to Australians in general and university tutors in particular.


sketch design for the Baker House – Barcelona Pavilion meets gumnut babies

Boyd completed about 200 mostly small scale projects but is better known for being a prolific writer, commentator, content provider and The Voice of Australian Architecture. His 1960 book The Australian Ugliness was widely praised and admired for railing against suburban sprawl but, going by what’s happened in the 65 years since, was totally useless IF its true object was actually to change things for the better. If. We shouldn’t assume courting media controversy was something invented with the internet.

McClune House, Robyn Boyd

Harry Seidler was born in Austria in 1923. After attending the Harvard Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius, being Marcel Breuer‘s first assistant, doing vacation work for Alvaar Aalto, doing a stint at Oscar Niemeyer’s studio and being taught art by Joseph Albers, he and his parents rocked up in Australia in 1948. Seidler was 25. His parents immediately asked him to design their new house in their new country. I’d love to know more about these parents of his. The preliminaries over, Seidler’s career proper began.


Although only ten when the Bauhaus closed shop, Seidler positioned himself as the first architect to fully express its principles in Australia. In short, he became The Other Voice of Australian Architecture. He wore bow ties, spoke in quotes, seemed to live forever, and was Australia’s Gropius.

As part of a double act though, he was the Le Corbusier to Boyd’s Frank Lloyd Wright and all Australian architectural debate whether in magazines, schools or office, could be framed in terms of one or the other. The media history of Australian architecture, Australian architecture and Australian architects had no need for Roy Grounds and his or any other third way.

Roy Grounds

1905: Born in Melbourne
–1932: His work at a a firm called Blackett, Forster and Craig led him to receive an award that let him work in the UK and the US for two years.
1934: Returned to form a partnership with Geoffrey Mewton that is said to have introduced the international style to Melbourne.
1936: Partnership dissolved (why, we don’t know) and Grounds returns to the UK.
1939–1942: Sole practitioner between 1939 and 1942 and designed a series of houses and flats including Moonbria (1940–41) which established his reputation.
1953: Formed a successful and influential practice with Frederick Romberg and Robin Boyd who were also well established at the time.
1962: Grounds left the practice “acrimoniously” Wikipedia tells us.

It’s not much to go on. Let’s take a look at the buildings. First is Moonbria. It has its own website these days.

MoonbriaIt’s a building with 21 apartments arranged around a courtyard and a circular stair feature.

Circles were to feature largely Grounds’ work. Here’s a 1953 house.


Grounds designed the Roy Grounds House for himself and his family in 1953.


The main house is at the front of the site and there are three ‘investment houses’ at the rear. (In the late 20th century, many single detached dwelling were to be demolished and replaced by triple-houses occupying a greater percentage of the site and contributing to the ongoing deforestation of Australia.)

Roy Grounds House planThe main design feature is the circular internal courtyard within a square plan. The house was widely publicized and praised at the time, winning the Victorian Architecture Medal in 1954.

Ground’s first major public building was the Shine Dome of the Australian Academy of Science, Canberra (1959).

3815768067_f76a3b8b41_oThis building has a special place in my heart for it was probably the first building I remember thinking was pretty cool. (I might have been about eight.) By the time I came to know Kenzo Tange’s Tokyo Olympic stadiums I’d become more aware of this thing called architecture.

I’d never seen Shine Dome mentioned anywhere outside of Australia. It’s from 1959, it’s  completion coinciding with the conception of the Sydney Opera House. It’s a dinosaur – no, more of a fossil. It’s the missing link between Googie and Post-Modernism some 20 years earlier than claimed – and, ultimately, the iconic building. It satisfies all the criteria.

  1. It looks different from anything seen around it.
  2. It looks different from anything known to exist at the time, including Eero Saarinen’s 1955 Kresge Auditorium and Pier Luigi Nervi’s 1957 Palazzetto dello Sporto. 
  3. It looks like something not a building – a bit like it landed from the future.

When these three conditions are satisfied, the result is a building that merely looks alien, not iconic. Yet, it’s this alien-ness about it that satisfies the fourth condition for an iconic building – 4. It has an association of place – or at least it does if you know that Canberra is Australia’s diplomatic capital. This is no enigmatic signifier. It is the Martian Embassy.

WOBLTD06-500x500Anyway. There’s a lot of circles happening. Grounds did a lot with circles. And rectangles. Here’s his 1959–1968 National Gallery of Victoria. Grounds was appointed the sole architect for this building, usually considered his masterwork. This seems to have been the reason for  aforementioned acrimonious split.

EPUB000157The National Gallery is the high-lighted box of his own house with some Martian Embassy entrances. It has three square courtyards. The spire in the model was to be later redesigned by Grounds to become The Arts Centre.

There’s nothing wrong with reusing motifs. Many architects do. It’s no secret, but neither is it common knowledge that Fallingwater is Wright’s first Usonian House, the 1940 Pew House, pimped.

pewhouse_perspectivecolor2In the same vein, SANAA have repeatedly used thin roofs on many slender columns, the only wonder coming from the absence of visible cross-bracing. It works for them.



History is a curious thing. Just as the Futurists always get to fill the gap in history because the 1920s was a slow decade for architectural history, things tend to get simplified when there’s too much happening. Boyd and Seidler were all that was needed. We’ll never know if the acrimonious split with Grounds hurt Boyd’s career but it certainly didn’t hurt his reputation. The Robin Boyd Award for Residential Architecture is an Australian architectural prize presented by the Australian Institute of Architects since 1981.

One thing many of the misfit architects featured in this blog have in common with Sir Roy Grounds is a lack of interest in media, marketing and self-promotion.

However, Grounds is a Career Case Study #4 and not Architecture Misfit #19 because he seems to have fitted in rather well. He didn’t go against any grain. He did a few things well and had a few ideas typical of the time and place. He was well-connected enough to obtain decent commissions. Media-wise, all he really had to do was impress his peers and not offend the public and he seems to have done this.

Boyd and Seidler reached a little bit further into the mass-media landscape of general circulation newspapers and magazines – which was all the media landscape there was. There, they were easily pigeonhole-able as Aussie-Regionalist vs. Euro-Modernist. Roy Grounds was neither. Compared to these two, his branding was vague.

Nor did Grounds appear to offer an agenda for Australian architecture at a time when it seemed to be wanting one. Together, this is what Boyd and Seidler did as a pair of media constructs, each defined in terms of what they weren’t as much as for what they were. It worked better with two and it did work co-dependent synergy until Glenn Murcutt came along and became both of them.


Further reading

further reading