Category Archives: Criticism

The Old Guard and The New Decency

The Elizabethan structure that was to become Highclere Castle was given a Georgian makeover in the early 19th century and then, over 1838–1878, another one to become what we know it as today. The point of both exercises was to update the building to bring it into line with contemporary notions of functionality and beauty. Everyone seems to approve of its current incarnation that, for most people, is how it has always been.

The makeover forced upon Edward Durrell Stone’s Columbus Circle hasn’t been received so kindly. It’s difficult to pin down the problem it set out to solve. It must have been an excess of character and integrity because that’s something that can’t be said about what replaced it.

A similar question can be asked with respect to the proposed makeover for Paris’ 1973 La Tour Montparnasse. It’s always been big and despised for being big and also for being brown though some say black.

It disrupts Paris’ historic skyline they say, and indeed it does. It’s the only building that challenges The Eiffel Tower’s assumed right to dominate Paris forever. With the benefit of hindsight, we might have thought better of Montparnasse Tower now if it had had clear mirror glass in a tracery of bronze mullions. Oh well.

Various views of the tower are to be had in and around Montparnasse.

At this point, we might spare a thought for the people and city of Prague and their (and our!) relationship of denial with Žižkov Tower. Cameras always seem to point some other direction. 

What people don’t seem to like is the idea of a building standing up to The Eiffel Tower in any way and this is one of the reasons the building owners Ensemble Immobilier Tour Maine-Montparnasse (EITMM) decided [after 44 years!?] to invite proposals to give the tower a “powerful, dynamic and bold new identity” – a bit like a witness protection scheme but hiding in plain sight.

Yet it’s strange to have a competition to remedy everything but a building’s size which is the one physical attribute that can’t be changed by a makeover and which, it must be remembered, is what most people haven’t liked about this building for most of the past half century. If a problem still remains afterwards, then what was done was not a solution or, if it was, then it was a solution to a different problem. As with Columbus Circle, the problem of La Tour Montparnasse may well be an unapologetic surfeit of character and, if this is the case, then we can expect the proposals to create an anodyne building.  

If the size of the building is what people object to and if that can’t be changed then perhaps it can at least be disguised by using colourless or mirror glazing. This will have the effect of dematerializing the building during certain lighting conditions and may make people momentarily forget that what they are looking at is a building and not some discontinuum in the fabric of space and time. Seven of the eight shortlisted entries opted for this approach and used colourless or mirror glazing to reflect and/or “reflect” the colour of the sky.

MAD:The shortlisted design transforms the huge black monolithic building — positioned in the city center — into an artistic lighting installation that presents an upside down reflection of the city.*they say, updating the misguided overconfidence of architects in 1958 with the misguided overconfidence of architects in 2016.

Studio Gang: Their approach involved rounding off the tower’s “empty” ends to create more floor area and solving the seemingly vexing problem of insufficently laminar airflow at ground level. The visual effect is to make a tall slender brown building into a shimmering stubby one. Many of the proposals include some kind of incentive to fund the makeover but Studio Gang’s considerable addition to the floor area represents stealth development gain that contradicts the stated reason for the competition. Some 700 proposals were received, seven were shortlisted and the final choice came down to the Studio Gang proposal and the proposal that eventually won.

To its owners, there are two very attractive things about La Tour Montparnasse – It’s there and it’s theirs. It’s unlikely anything like it will be built any time in the near future. 

With that insight, the competition brief can now be restated as how to beef up development gain while at the same time renovating and updating the building to meet new requirements for accessibility, comfort, convenience and energy efficiency (and so justify higher rents), and also purporting to do what is best for the city. It’s an interesting problem.

Dominique Perrault Architecture: This proposal solves the problem of a large building by attaching an even larger one to one end and making us forget what the original problem ever was. Clever. All press releases make a point of mentioning that the owners are putting up the €300 mil. for this renovation so this proposal addresses the “unspoken” problem of clawback. The next two images show how it also solves the problem of Paris not having enough buildings glowing warm orange in the early evening.

Architecture Studio: This one is perplexing. The ends of the tower are squared-off with additional office space but the end closer to the Eiffel Tower is a combination of additional office space and gardens basketweaving in varying degrees across the facades, presumably to represent “dematerialization”. In the same way as the Perrault proposal stressed a link with other buildings that have lights on in the early evening, this proposal attempts to forge a link between plants on the ground and plants in the “Nouvelle Ciel”. This oddness on so many levels makes me wonder about the 700 or so projects that weren’t shortlisted.

PLP Architects: What is it with plants? Like Architecture Studio above, PLP have also noticed La Tour Montparnasse doesn’t look sufficiently like the sky or the ground. The gardening is again confined to where it adds questionable value to office space on the Eiffel Tower end. The facade isn’t horrible but the fake randomness trope is again used to represent dematerialization.

The problem of how to make the facade of a tall building appear both of the earth and of the sky was solved in Paris in 1977 by Émile Aillaud and with much more panache.   

OMA: Shunning the shimmering, mirroring and transparency afforted by clear glass as insufficiently recherché, chronic mavericks and serial innovators OMA keep it big and brown and introduce the same old new dimensions of ugliness visual and intellectual.

The design and accompanying text are but equivalent parts of their corporate branding strategy. We not only get a history lesson but contentious statements presented as fact. The next text is from World Architecture.

Embracing more contemporary working conditions, facilities and spaces to extend the offer of its public attractions, OMA’s TM2 appears within the city context as a “Janus-faced icon” overlooking the historic Eiffel Tower – is intentionally set as a golden concrete dilemma, while injecting the current technological and esthetic repertoire for the creation of architectural meaning.

“Skyscrapers are a special case in the history of architectural longevity, and in the history of preservation. It is not because they are so hard to construct that many of them are still alive but because they are so hard to take down. They are around not because they deserve eternal life, but because they refuse to die,” said OMA. [… umm, The Pyramids?]

“That makes the renovation of Paris’ Tour Montparnasse so deeply interesting. The first – as far as we know – renovation of a tower that goes further than mere refenestration [:o<], offering not only a chance to reinvent this particular tower but to think of an entirely new model to face a common but perplexing issue: the redundancy of towers,” added the studio. 

With all due respect to whoever wrote this sophisticated doublespeak, a few points.

  1. The author. The author is not credited. The text reads and sounds Koolhaasian with its contrivedly contrarian thought processes but “said OMA” and “added the studio” deny this. So who is writing Koolhaasian thoughts in a Koolhaasian manner? Is this the new future of architectural language?
  2. The language. I’d like to know more about “the current technological and esthetic repertoire for the creation of architectural meaning”. Is it? Does it? How does it? And (crucially) what is it? The Eiffel Tower is undeniably historic so why mention so? Even if someone knows the “current” – a limited-life concept in itself – “repertoire [ugh!] for the creation of architectural meaning”, why assume the creation of architectural meaning is the be-all and end-all, what is “architectural meaning” anyway, and why should we assume it’s good, just because it exists or is said to (by some unnamed author)?
  3. The branding. The problem posed by this competition is “deeply interesting”, not superficially interesting or (merely) interesting as you or I might find it. The author wants to tell us they see and think on a different, deeper level to other humans and that their concerns and preoccupations continue to be of interest to us all. This is a false assumption.
  4. The formulation of the problem: Instead of demolishing them, I don’t see what’s wrong with fifty-year old buildings being refurbished to extend their lifespan and extract maximum utility. Re-use makes perfect sense even if not adaptive – it was one of the competition’s stated and reasonable goals. It is unclear what’s so deeply interesting about this artificial problem of the redundancy of towers. It’s a common fault of poets (e.g. Philip Larkin) and singer-songwriters to conflate personal peeves with some universal condition. Architectural churn for the sake of it is the scurge of our times. Let’s try to keep buildings away from it. Another thing. A dilemma is an internal contradiction suffered by a single party. It’s not a dilemma if all Paris continues to agree that La Tour Montparnasse is redundant to Paris’ skyline requirements yet its owners continue to see it as a moneymaking machine. The owners however, do have the dilemma of how an ageing and little loved building is going to continue to make them money. It’s finding that magic balance between development gain and perception management that’s the problem – hence the competition.

The OMA proposal offers us an architectural branding spectacle with a veneer of depth and intellectualism summed up by the term “deeply interesting”. But is this proposal deeply useful, deeply relevant or even deeply possible for €300mil? The competition judges didn’t think so. [The proposal and its look owe more than a bit to Mies btw.]

All floor plates are extended 30% on the side facing the Eiffel Tower. Wavy edges increase view “frontage” without increasing maximum window distance all that much. I’m surprised this made the shortlist. I imagine both entrant and organizers alike used this entry for their respective marketing purposes. If Paris never warmed to La Tour Montparnasse, it was unlikely to warm to a 50-storey billboard for OMA.

It might be time to start thinking what Post-Koolhaasian architectural media subversions might be – or, more to the point, what architecture was like before Koolhaas just in case we ever care enough to want to roll the clock back and start again.

Anyway, the shortlist of seven was narrowed down to two and deciding between them took another three months. Press releases and reporting make us imagine a table of judges pondering aesthetic imponderables but I suspect those three months involved independent quantity surveyors putting together detailed cost-benefit comparisons to balance the prospect of increased rental revenue (with its cost and time negatives) against the more modest yet immediate rental uplift from solving the development gain vs. perception management problem in the simplest way possible. The old guard erred on the side of the development-gain-as-spectacle that made them famous. The three months it took to arrive at the final winner must have proven AOM’s approach correct, no doubt because €300 mil. doesn’t go very far these days.

Nouvelle AOM Wins Competition to Redesign Paris’ Tour Montparnasse*

If The OMA proposal is heavyhanded in appearance, theory or what counts as it, and that corporate posturing we now call branding. Nouvelle AOM has a light touch on all three counts.

Their proposal increses the height of the building by 17m so it can have a penthouse hothouse to grow produce that will be eaten in the restaurant. There can’t be much call to reduce the freight miles of a few tomatoes so there’s obviously something else happening on a different level – in fact on the first fourteen where plants on extended lower floors create a green base on a green pedestal to complement the new green capital.

How a tower meets the sky is important but how a tower touches the ground is important too. Shifting the focus significantly alters the perception of the building at close range and on the ground where it’s supposed to count. Even without the growies, the pedestal and base are an inexpensive and effective formal move no other shortlister thought of. I’m curious to know how the new proportions were determined but I like the way we haven’t been told. It’s not important anyway. A public view from a 14th [or 13th, or 15th] floor garden just might appeal to Parisians more than some tourist trap view from the top.

Shaftwise, there’s not much happening apart from some glazing in checkered relief that is probably just difference for the sake of difference. The protruding side panels are gone because the re-entrant corners have been filled in and the upper slabs extended to gain a small amount of extra area and update the shape of the building – a neat and easy win.

All the other shortlisters did the same thing, with the exception of OMA whose obsession with their own perception management and articulating non-existent dilemmas and deep contradictions prevented them from seeing and doing the obvious. Sans its side panels though, La Tour Montparnasse is barely recognizable and the client requirement for a new identity is satisfied. I’m a bit sad to see those panels go because we might better appreciate the makeover if we could remember just a little bit more how it was before.

Branding: Nouvelle AOM moved their “research office” into the 44th floor of La Tour Montparnasse for a year. There was no need to do this in order to find out the elevators, windows and A/C needed replacing but it does show an appreciation of the building’s historic USP.

There are simply no other places and will for the foreseeable future be no other places from which one can have a comparable view over Paris from one’s office. So what if everybody hates looking up at you? You can look down on them. It’s that old question – is it better to live in the most beautiful house in the street or opposite it? It’s the same for tourists. From the observation deck of La Tour Montparnasse tourists are in the unique position of being able to view Paris without La Tour Montparnasse in the frame. They can see Paris as Paris was and this is something no makeover can or will change. 

This photograph says Nouvelle AOM are committed and perceptive, but without saying it. The “AOM” is an acronym of the names of three practices newly combined. They could easily have called themselves Nouvelle OMA but didn’t. AMO and MAO weren’t options and MOA and OAM don’t roll of the tongue. This leaves only the resonant AOM.

Theory: I’m sure all shortlisted proposals did all the right things energy-wise etc. but no shortlister claimed their project to be inexpensive or good value for money. This was no doubt critical in selecting the winner it does not count as theory. Nouvelle AOM’s proposal comes with no theory whatsoever and this is refreshing. It is as if they have designed this building to satisfy the competition requirements and for the benefit of the people who own the building, those who use the building, those that might want to use the building and those that might have to look at it, and that’s how they expect it to be judged. And they’re right – because it will.

Just as with the seemingly innocent photograph, there’s more going on that what we’re told and I like it like that because Nouvelle AOM are designing this building for people who aren’t exposed to architectural media, its heroes, and its preoccupations. The green pedestal, base and capital are no accident. They’re the application of skill and intelligence and if I’ve never read anything about them resembling a column then it’s probably because Nouvelle AOM didn’t think it necessary to say so. It’s more important that the device solves one or more problems, and it does.

I like to think this proposal and the way it has been proposed to people and not architects is a harbinger of a new lightness in architecture, theory and branding. Old deep vs. the new shallow has already played itself out with BIG. Nouvelle AOM appear to value real competence over apparent depth, and to use intelligence to solve problems rather than create new ones for us to be impressed by how well they were solved. Nouvelle AOM may well turn out to be shrewd players and “the new decency” may well turn out to be no less calculating than the status quo it challenges but for now I’m liking their WYSIWYG building for what it is and would like to thank them for that. Someone (was it Aristotle?) said “one swallow does not a summer make” but still, one can hope.

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misfits’ architecture is available for competition judging, conferences, seminars, corporate events, weddings, parties …

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https://www.metalocus.es/en/news/nouvelle-aom-wins-international-architectural-competition-redesign-montparnasse-tower-paris Congratulations to this site for providing more, and more useful information than the names of the shortlisted firms and the press release photographs of their proposals. Recommended.

http://www.nouvelle-aom.com/en/45-2/ The practice website is short on description but, as I just wrote, I like it like that.

Criticalifragilistic*

 

THE PROBLEM

Criticism is in bit of a pickle. Nobody seems to agree what it is or what it should be. Media, Industry and Academia – the three dominant forces in the architecture ecosystem all claim it for themselves but when criticism becomes the sole preserve of any one of them, it becomes something else and no longer criticism.

Media

Traditional print media formats such as newspapers and magazines are the last place one can find architecture critics modelled on the Victorian era art critic paid to provide opinions and evaluations of works in established genres such as books, art, music and drama. Such evaluations were called reviews and could be be positive or negative. A positive one wouldn’t necessarily make a reader purchase the reviewed experience and a negative one wouldn’t necessarily dissuade them. Both generate a level of curiousity about the topic in line with the variously attributed English phrase “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” and the French “Succès de scandale.” 

Damning reviews once forced the re-working of operas, symphonies and plays but architecture is not opera, music or drama and reviews of buildings do not function as a feedback loop. The most a review can claim to do is suggest to an audience the worth of a work or the author’s intentions. Nobody uses the word educate anymore.

In today’s world, the traditional architecture critic has to create content that genuinely informs and, at the same time, cultivate an audience that genuinely wants to be informed. Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, seems to get the balance right.

Generally though, the traditional architecture critic model is failing along with traditional print media, as in-house critics become conduits for paid content rather than being paid to generate it. These next two images from a 2014 newspaper piece illustrate both the ethical problem and its workaround.

Industry

This New Yorker piece talks about the trend for media reviews insufficiently positive to be regarded as hostile criticism for not taking the commercial interests of the producer sufficiently to heart. It suggests we’re being coerced into sustaining other people’s media bubbles.

The architectural PRs of global architecture content providers must have a similarly short fuse because negative criticism of today’s big names is practically nonexistent. Providers of content that brings in the readers, can withhold that content and so pressure media outlets with advertising-based business models to stay on message. This asymmetrical and unsymmetrical standoff is where the relationship between industry and the commercial media is currently at and it seems to be holding. Commercial architectural media are in business to stay in business and make money, not to inform. So too are global architectural content providers. When industry and media collude, the first casualty is criticism.

The traditional symbiosis between Industry and Media worked well for about a century when there was only print. Architects provided content to magazines and newspapers in return for the benefits of publicity and the hope of future commissions. The news consumer makes this relationship into a triangle by paying for newspapers and magazines containing the wanted news and information. They receive nothing from “Industry” apart from a vague sense of being “interested in architecture” but it’s these people, not industry peers, that bestow Fame – which all means little until some client wanting a trophy building asks their project manager “Who’s hot right now?”

Academia

Academia used to be a world largely separate from Industry and Media. Critical evaluations of buildings and architects existed in the form of academic research but the resultant publications existed more for the purpose of academic promotion than they did for general elucidation. Neverthelss, universities could still transmit a knowledge of what was important along with fostering a capacity for discerning it and hopefully some skills for how to realize it,

When universities call upon global architectural design practitioners to provide course content in the form of design workshops and modules, it is time to ask whether design problems are set to instil in students a capacity for critical thinking or to recreate themselves in their visiting instructor’s image. In addition to the kudos of being regarded as having something worth imparting, visiting practitioners also get to enthuse a pool of future interns.

The three divisions of (1) Global Architectural Design Practice, (2) Commercial Media, and (3) Academia still exist as discrete entities but their traditional interdependence has gone. The dominant players are the Global Architectural Design Practices that manage that own perception directly, but also indirectly via a parasitic media and a symbiotic academia that both know their place. There’s no jostling to occupy the same territory. It’s a stable ecosystem that has no place for criticism. 

WHERE WE’RE AT

Industry

The relationship between Industry and Media began to fall apart about when global architectural content providers discovered they could create their global architectural media presence themselves, circumvent traditional media channels and provide their own consistenly praiseworthy newsfeeds.

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Content can be proposals or completed buildings for, even buildings not built or not built according to plan can still be used to illustrate how visionary architects are thwarted by short-sighted tightwad clients lacking imagination. One recent development is to do away with the idea of a building altogether since most any content can be presented as tangentially architectural in some sense. Impresssed, the targeted audience returns their adulation in the form of a quantifiable buzz assumed to be some metric of worth.

It’s bad enough that the end result is a virtual architecture of smoke and mirrors. What makes it worse is that it creates a public (1) that has no interest in architecture beyond its diversionary value as entertainment, (2) believes architecture is something that happens to other people and (3) has no expectation for it to ever impact their lives. This is the situation we have and it has mostly been created and maintained by those global architectural practices and their overbearing media presence. When bad, poor or lukewarm reviews become a thing of the past, criticism can no longer be said to exist.

Curating 

The selection and validation of things deemed worth contemplation involves the discarding and marginalization of things deemed not. Curating conventionally refers to this minimal critical act applied to collections of objects or art. The selection and juxtaposition of items was meant to suggest new ways of looking at the items in question, perhaps by revealing macro-similarities not apparent when things are considered in isolation or in chronological sequence. Curating was once confined to galleries, museums and exhibitions but now describes an edited sample of just about anything. [This blog, for example, can be thought of as a curated archive of architects who don’t fit the conventional narrative and, in that sense, is a criticism of that conventional narrative.] Curating has become the defining act of our young century, with companies and individuals “curating” their identities and selecting and disseminating information that reinforces how they wish to be perceived. Criticism still exists as self-criticism but only for the “curator”. The receiver of such curated content accepts it uncritically even while knowing it to be perception management, or what we used to call advertising. 

Media

A case for the continued existence of architecture critics is repeatedly made by saying that, in today’s media environment,

This however is no guarantee of uninterrupted and lasting worth.

The fact nobody seems to want criticism hasn’t gone unnoticed and there has been a slow but observable reaction. Michael Sorkin’s 8,000-word [sheesh!] Critical Mass: Why Criticism Matters, was a “Thinkpiece” in Architectural Review June 2014. The gist was that criticism still mattered, particularly when written by him. [c.f. Too Clever for Words]

This was followed, two years later, in December 2016 by Steve Parnell’s Post-truth Architectureanother Architectural Review “Thinkpiece” but a shorter and more lucid version of the same. I suspect the mindset that thinks good criticism must be paid for is the same that thinks good healthcare and good education must be paid for.

Academia

The built environment is an interesting thing and there’s no end of interesting things that can be written about it. Academic writing not finding its way into the academic journals can often be found in the subscription format of a review that allows people to write and read interesting things about architecture. Articles may be curated/edited around the theme of an introductory editorial but unless there is an editorial agenda more expansive than to merely inform, they remain bubbles of apparent discourse and an end in itself.

THE PLACE OF THE CRITIC

Steve Parnell’s notion that architecture is constructed in the discourse is an interesting one, but the critic is still expected to serve the architect who serves society, humanity, and so on. It remains up to the architects to do what they like with the fruit of that discourse. This stance differs little from that of Manfredo Tafuri who, in his 1967 essay The Tasks of Criticismsaw the role of the critic as subservient, offering the architect “an endless vista of new and unsolved problems”.

Tafuri was also against rogue critics attempting to directly engage the public with architectural ideas. I get the impression he had Reyner Banham in mind.

But if architects can have an agenda then why not critics? If talking about a building is taken to mean it’s worth talking about, then surely the ideas underlying a building can be talked about, and the building only used to illustrate the argument? Constructing and selling architectural ideas on the page and with the goal of improving the built environment seems like a reasonable and honourable thing to do. Moreover, in this age where everything is now supposed to be architecture, it also seems more valid than most. (I’ll not pursue this concept of “everything is architecture” further here – it’s not so much minefield but quicksand.)

Rather than expecting an essay fifty years old to illuminate the present, perhaps we should all be paying more attention and taking better notes so future people won’t have to guess at what went down now? Neoliberalism snuck up on us yet has been around since 1975, perhaps even since 1965. On whose watch was that? As architecture became bewitched with clients demanding trophy buildings and redevelopment and regeneration, we were all led to believe it was a good thing … until it wasn’t anymore. Critics were as complicit as architects. It’s more difficult than ever to see the forest.

What does all this mean for architecture? It is easier and faster to communicate images of buildings than it has ever been. We suffer a surfeit of images that, since nobody is pre-curating it, makes it impossible to process using even the simplistic criteria of “like” and the increasingly not-an-option “dislike”.

“When architects value image over substance, it’s easy to see why the likerati/dislikerati do as well. People are more sensitive to the purported content of architecture than architects and the people who write their press releases give them credit for. If architecture has become money-shot images of proposed realities, then people are free to like or dislike them as they feel, and to say so as they wish. There’s no need for opinions to be constrained by having any meaningful relationship with reality.  It’s all subjective reactions to images of proposed realities bouncing around in virtual space. Let’s keep it real.” [from Architecture Myths #16: Genius Loci]

This is all a bit of a shame, because the combination of reading, writing and criticism is the only way non-visual aspects of architecture can ever be accessed or discussed. 

You’re welcome.

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  • * What’re the odds of that happening? A shout-out to theatre criticism blog http://criticalifragilistic.blogspot.ae  Readers keen to know more about the associations of this word could click here [Wikipedia] or here [YouTube]. I’m not suggesting they should.
  • The header image is of Giacommo Balla’s 1923 painting, Pessimism and Optimism – a name that makes the blue bits look like the force for the good. I’m not so sure. When everything’s a blue bit and the only choice is to like it or stay silent, the blue bits deserve every brick thrown at them.

pessimism-and-optimism-1923

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A Consistency of Contradictions

In 1937, Douglas Haskell drove across the US and identified elements of a popular architecture. He thought Route 66 was okay. His 1958 essay “Architecture and Popular Taste” probed what people who were unschooled in architeture said they liked. Haskell has been actively forgotten because he believed in a popular architecture as a  true vernacular architecture and not one invented by architects. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell].

In 1966, Robert Venturi strolled around Rome identifying and enjoying the visual complexities and contradictions of its Baroque architecture. He documented his thoughts and will always be remembered for making us believe our built environment was reducible to a set of visual complexities and contradications [c.f. Clarity and Consistency in Architecture]. Venturi did later say he wished he’d made the title of his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architectural Form but that was only to set it apart from his 1972 book on architectural meaning that had us believe architecture was reducible to ducks and decorated sheds. Venturi said Main Street was almost all right.

Venturi was to also later claim he was never a post-modernist but, prior to his book, architecture at least had the remnants of a social conscience. Whether inadvertently or by design, Venturi’s C&C reduced the built environment to a set of visual stimuli and his second reduced it to a set of meanings evoked by them. There’s nothing wrong with that but there’s a lot wrong when architecture comes to be seen as only that. And that’s what happened for Venturi begat Jencks whose populist message was that buildings should be judged by how popular they appeared to want to be and not by whether they were ever intended to serve society in any tangible way. The first of the Pruitt-Igoe apartment blocks came down in 1972 a year after Learning from Las Vegas and the last came down in 1976 a year before Charles Jencks’ The Language of Post Modern Architecture.

In 1928, Le Corbusier had a problem with a door on axis with a column but solved it with a transfer beam. Ever since then we have applauded his creative breaking of the rules.

In 1960, Robert Venturi had a problem with a door on axis with a column but solved it by making people go around the column. Ever since then we have applauded his creative breaking of the rules.

It was never about style. All buildings may be modernist or post-modernist and all buildings may be of use to society or they may not be but these oppositions aren’t incompatible. It didn’t matter. It’s wasn’t possible to unlearn rational and economical construction and it also wasn’t possible to invalidate a moral responsibility to do the greatest good for the greatest number, but it was possible to divert people’s attention away from it. And that’s what happened.

On page 147 of the fourth edition of The Language of Post Modern Architecture, CJ does say of Taller Bofill’s 1983 Les Espaces d’Abraxas that “It is a popular architecture”. Finally having a home at last can’t have counted for nothing in a social housing project but all Jencks ever championed was a sense of palace.

Having got that off my chest, I’d just like to show that our built enviroment was never only about visual complexities and contradictions, and we don’t have to walk around Rome to encounter them or to read a half-century old book to appreciate them. They’re everywhere and there’s a lot we can learn from them. For example, this “sunken island” is a visual contradiction but a clever way of routing non-construction traffic around it and construction traffic across it.

Some complexities and contradictions are unintentional complications of cause and effect. Here, some fresh grass “stepping stones” exacerbate the very problem they’re put in place to solve.

Contradictions such as this next twixt building and lamp-post are to be found in cities around the world and our built environment is so much richer for having them. We must appreciate them for what they are.

This next image you saw a few posts back. A photograph of a building is digitally distressed to not look like the photograph it is, and then applied as a building wrap to make a building not look like the building it is. The something lighthearted about this deception. There’s no need to take it too seriously in what is, after all, an outdoor bar.

This next example of a secret door to a not-so-secret corridor is pure urban Magritte* and slightly more complex. Once again, a portion of a building is disguised to not look like the building it is, but this time the temporary suspension of reality is a depiction of the building that it will be. The real and present doorway exists within the virtual portal of the future, adding temporal complexity and contradiction to the visual complexity and contradiction.

But here’s where it begins to get sinister. There’s nothing intruiging or funny about the contradiction of an air-conditioned, open air street.

This next and apparently benign example clarifies what’s happening. It’s not the notice “For Display Only” that’s contradicatory here as that would stay true (although redundant) even if the flowers were real flowers and for sale. What we have here is real flowers being replaced with a representation of real flowers and being used to market something that has nothing to do with flowers or people who might want them.

In this next image we have an open air shopping mall as a representation of a city experience, as if all cities had incessant lighting effects, miniature trains, pop-up clothing stores, Turkish ice cream vendors, and balloon sellers galore (with Doraemon balloons for the discerning child and groundscraper balloons for keen-eyed toddlers). It’s no more a living functioning city than Seaside Florida was a real community. But it’s popular.

In this next image, the sign at the travelator says “Equipment switched off for energy conservation.” This is a noble thought until you realize all the equipment in this expensive construction was put in place to conserve the energy of public transport users as they traverse this air-conditioned walkway spanning nineteen lanes of traffic.

The representation of energy conservation has priority over encouraging the use of public transport and the real energy savings it brings for everyone. The new and sinister twist is that the people who now don’t get to use the travelator are encouraged to feel it’s somehow their energy that’s being saved. This sign is a confident and assertive illustration of the powerlessness of reason.

We outgrew the contrived visual complexities and contradictions of post-modernism but Jencks’s message of removing things of real value and replacing them with representations of intangible worth took root and to this day, is still regarded as truth, and probably even taught as truth. A product of its time, it meshed perfectly with the emerging neoliberal agenda of promising virtual benefits while taking away real ones. 

As we know, Pruitt-Igoe was never replaced, let alone with anything more “popular”. St. Louis housing projects weren’t the only urban areas blighted by street crime. 1970s Manhattan was also an antisocial battlefield but it nevertheless managed to avoid being dynamited. The movie, Escape From New York, in which Manhattan had been turned into a giant prison dates from 1981.

No architectural speculation is complete without an example from Venice. Here, a hoarding conceals a building only to depict a virtual one that’s then negated by an advertisement. It’s like the secret corridor in that a building wrap is applied to a building to make it make it look like the building it will be but, in this case, it’s the same as the building it once was. Between those past and future realities, the virtuous virtual building is obscured by a message very much in the here and now.

This is the neoliberalist agenda encapsulated. Replace something of real value with a representation of it and then use it to market something of zero benefit to those whose thing was replaced. Post Modernism taught us to value the representation more than the thing itself. Neoliberalism taught us to prefer the advertisements. This is where we are now. The only buildings that get presented to us as architecture are those that advertise their sponsors and their architects. Clearly, we are not living in a Renaissance.

• • •

Thanks Jae, for alerting me to urban surrealism and starting me on this train of thought.

• • •

• • •

2 Nov. 2017: I just saw this article by Sean Griffiths on Dezeen. We seem to be on the same page except by his using the term “post-modern revivalism” he implies that something knowable is being resurrected when, in reality, the processes it set in motion are still being played out and we have no idea where it’s going to end.

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A New Formalism

This post relates to Architecture Myth #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else and more distantly to Architecture Myth #15: Intellectual vs. Romantic. It’s getting the separate treatment because it follows on from The New Inhumanism and our current Post Modern Revivalism. Its working title was Emotion vs. Reason.

The success of Olivetti’s 1968 Valentine typewriter is attributed to it being designed to encourage people to relate to it emotionally as something more than a mere instrument for typing. I’d agree with that – I bought one, albeit in 1974. The first thing I typed was my Philosophy 100 essay, “Epistemology: What Can We Know?” The Valentine’s emotional appeal didn’t prevent it receiving an F later upgraded to a D after my protest more articulate than the original essay. The Valentine typewriter would also have negative emotional appeal for its designer Ettore Sotsass, chagrined at being best remembered for having designed it.

People forming emotional relationships with consumer products wasn’t new but, previously, it had always occurred organically and mostly with respect to automobiles. VW’s Beetle, Morris’s Mini, Fiat’s 500 – the Bambino” and Citröen’s 2CV all hinted at some bond stronger than reason. The Valentine typewriter was the first product strategically designed to lure people into purchasing it on the basis of emotion.

By 1988 the method was perfected and along came the contrivedly retro Olympus O Product camera of which only 20,000 were made, each numbered. Demand was whipped up by having to register a month or so in advance in order to have the right to purchase one. With a name like O Product, Olympus knew exactly what they were doing and yes, I bought one, and in full knowledge I was being exquisitely suckered.

olympus_o_product_801084290

Since then the process has been updated and dumbed down. Not too long ago, Karla Welch, recent designer of a “revolutionary” T-shirt for Justin Bieber sternly told us “You have to commit to this T-shirt!

It’s still sweet and naïve compared to what we’ve come to know as post-truthism and people relating emotionally to particular words and sentences rather than their meaning. Skilled salespersons, speakers, presenters or even politicians may occasionally make emotional appeals to our better instincts but the techniques are the same as those deployed for emotional appeals to our baser instincts.

Relating to things through emotions is one of the processes Post Modernism set in motion to pave the way for Neoliberalism.

This is being overlooked in the current media enthusiasm to reimagine Post Modernism. One of the following kettles was not designed by Michael Graves. It makes no difference which, as all three were designed to appeal to emotions. Character-branded products and designer-branded products are at opposite ends of the snobbometer but they are false opposites. They both exist to separate you from your disposable income. This is the deceit post-modernism has for the consumer. And when exactly did people become “consumers” anyway, defined by how much of what they bought? I’m guessing 1975, give or take a year.

Was it really important for me to relate emotionally to boiling some water? Or was it more important I unthinkingly yet emotively purchased an Alessi kettle? Somebody’s interests were being looked after but they weren’t mine. And yes, in 1991, I bought one. I threw it when it boiled dry one day and stupid birdie melted.

If the Neoliberal mantra is “All that exists is good” then it’s safe to assume all that exists is suspect as well as the thinking and mechanisms that put it there. Encouraging us to see the world through the false opposites of as Modern/Reason/Nasty and PostModern/Emotion/Good does not lead to a greater understanding of the world because it is not meant to.

Example: Architecturally, Modernism was outmodded by Post Modernism which unfolded into Folding architecture and then deconstructed first into shattered Deconstructivists and then into curvy Deconstructivists that recently revealed themselves as the Neoliberal Affectivists. If we see this sequence as the progression of visual styles we’re encouraged to, then each style is the opposite of the one before but, taken together, there’s a macro-trend unmistakably edging towards representation without meaning. Seeing recent history as a chronology of stylistic opposites has taught us nothing. How did that happen? On whose watch was that? 

William Curtis used Jensen-Klint’s Grundtvig’s Church (1927–1940) in Copenhagen to make the point that Post Modernism can be thought of as a reversion to a kind of pre-Modernism that continued a long tradition of buildings meaning things to people. This would be true if 1927 hadn’t already been the beginning of the end of Modernism’s social ideals.

157784_Grundtvigs-Kirke_Martin-Heiberg

Meaning-laden churches and other buildings projecting power and authority did little to alleviate housing crises in Europe and Russia but rational construction and removing the unnecessary did [with Oud in the Netherlands, Hannes Meyer and  Ernst May in Germany, André Lurçat in France, Josef Polášek in Czechoslovakia, and Lacherta & Szanajcę in Poland]. I don’t accept that people who finally had a decent place to live didn’t have an emotional attachment to their dwellings. 

Josef Polasek

It took global crises to make the provision of mass housing a concern that the application of focussed architectural skills could and did solve but the topic was dumped once the immediate crisis was averted. We’re so accustomed to believing architecture works for the greater benefit of society that it’s difficult to conceive of it as a mechanism that repeatedly and consistently works against it. Mass housing is no threat to architecture as long as it’s emergency housing in a foreign country.

Japan had a serious housing problem after WWII and Soviet apartments were taken as the model for rebuilding. That was barely underway when, in 1962, Kazuo Shinohara was to declare that houses are art. (I bought that too, by the way.) If houses were art it was a very elitist art but, had the idea stopped there, it would’ve done no more than ensure we had a constant supply of intruiging Japanese art-houses to beguile us.

However, the powerful attractiveness of such an idea for architecture is that once something is declared art it is placed outside of critical reason. Normal rules no longer apply and one can only talk about whether or not something is good art, and that’s tricky given our degraded vocabulary for talking about such things. All the same, it’s still valid to like or dislike something without having to give a reason. Problems only arise when people try to convince others to like the same thing.

Robert Venturi’s 1968 opener “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture” is a statement of emotion with 90 pages of reasoned observation attached. It must’ve been pleasant wandering around Rome and pondering its Baroque architecture but what we got out of it was the idea that architecture was an art that should stimulate our pleasure centres. This has left us with buildings claiming to be playful, inventive, witty and amusing. We’re also left with the odd belief buildings exist to entertain us. 

I have no problem with either art or with architecture as art for one good thing art does is make us question our reality and re-evaluate our place in the world. In that sense, Roger Scruton saw art as a substitute for religion in increasingly secular post-Renaissance societies. I’m inclined to think so too, despite two adverse side-effects.

  1. The 1970s were the formative years of that intellectual construct, the starchitect. If architecture is art substituting for religion, then the media is no longer its galleries but its places of worship, and architects are not just artists and idols but prophets and deities. (This creates awkward moments when they age, become ill, or die.) 
  2. The other bad side effect is for architecture to be placed on a pedestal as something that can only be appreciated from a distance, and even then not by all. Pop artists produced expensive art that appropriated imagery from popular culture. Their art was neither popular nor for the people. This transfers exactly to architecture. Affordable housing is regarded with the same disdain as affordable art. Affordable architecture becomes an oxymoron.

If our likes don’t need to be justified but worth still needs to be quantified and claimed then we have a means tailored to do just that, with numbers of likes quantifying the degree of (varying degrees of) emotional impact in an open-ended scale of purported worth that has no opposite, not even the false opposite of reason. Emotion wins in a race of one and architecture always likes a winner. Reason has fallen by the wayside, probably dead. I know how this dog feels.

valentine

I’m warming more and more to the idea of a New Formalist mode of architectural criticism that probes how the tangible attributes of buildings are contrived to produce the intangible effects of architecture.

• • •

Oct. 9, 7:32pm: The above image is of a 1968 Olivetti poster by Milton Glaser. From this blog, I just discovered it’s a detail of a 1495 painting by Piero di Cosimo.

Further googling leads me to this site and the bigger picture. It is Piero di Cosimo’s Death of Procris, now ca 1500-1510

None of this lesses the power of Glaser’s graphic, or his skill in choosing this particular image, cropping it and tweaking its lines and colours. I’ve always thought images containing the four primary colours seem complete somehow, whole. I’m aware it’s just a visual trick that can be strategically employed to evoke the emotional response of something being complete and whole but it works for me. It remains a very seductive image. The typewriter is perfect product placement. Its red works too, and beautifully and contrivedly so with the pumped up red of the flowers at the top and that triangulated red flower bottom right.

The message seems to be that the typewriter is incidental but still an integral part in some greater drama, as it is in Glaser’s composition. I also learn that the painting is said to be the first depiction in Western art of an animal appearing to feel emotion. Knowing that, it become easier to think that embedding emotion into a product was some greater corporate brief of Olivetti’s rather and no one-off accident of Mr. Sotsass. Following that train of thought, the post-modern “referencing” of history (and any subsequent emotion evoked) was a strategy to engage a market more monied than those any prior more socially-oriented architecture had catered to.

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The New Inhumanism

petit-cover

It’s almost twelve months to the day since I scared myself reading a 2013 book that, it was claimed, re-theorized Post Modernism. “FML,” I thought, “of all the things that need new life breathed into them, we get this one!” Anxiously watching for further signs, I began a draft.

the undead

About the book, The Graham Foundation wrote [underlines mine]:

“In this fascinating reassessment of postmodern architecture at the end of the twentieth century, Emmanuel Petit addresses the role of irony and finds a vitality and depth of dialectics largely ignored by historical critiques. A look at five proponents of postmodernism—Peter Eisenman (b. 1932), Arata Isozaki (b. 1931), Rem Koolhaas (b. 1944), Stanley Tigerman (b. 1930), and Robert Venturi (b. 1925)— reveals the beginning of a phenomenology of irony in architecture. As Petit explains, irony is manifested in the work of these architects in a variety of ways, including its use as an aesthetic tool, as existential comedy, as Romantic tragedy, and as cultural satire.

BDOnline  July 2013, wrote:

“It explores the condition beyond that of “neither/nor” to “both/and” … seeks to convey something beyond that which can be directly seen, through overlayering of experience, historical recollection and tactility. They show something deliberately yet falsely constructed, removed from use, something which goes beyond the idea of the “natural” and reveals itself as artifice.”

“Even for those not keen on this particular ism though, it investigates a time when architects questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society, unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction – a thesis surely worth reevaluating by today’s practitioners, regardless of their stylistic inclinations.”

The source of my disquiet was my new knowledge that Post Modernism and Neoliberalism are creatures of the same era.

hayek

Seen in this light, the statement “Even for those not keen on this particular ism though, this book investigates a time when architects questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society, unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction – a thesis surely worth re-evaluating by today’s practitioners, regardless of their stylistic inclinations” is light with the truth. Yes, Post Modern architects may have questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society but their answer was to redefine their field of endeavour to exclude responsibility for real action and, in its place

  1. show something deliberately yet falsely constructed, removed from use, something which goes beyond the idea of the “natural” and reveals itself as artifice,
  2. seek to convey something beyond that which can be directly seen, through overlayering of experience, historical recollection and tactility, and
  3. in a variety of ways, including its use as an aesthetic tool, as existential comedy, as Romantic tragedy, and as cultural satire.

In short, Architects now thought of themselves as cultural commentators rather than cultural facilitators. And, as for “… unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction …”, we shouldn’t assume the correct weaknesses were ever unmasked – just the convenient ones. e.g. The cure for the alienation famously supposedly felt by the residents of Pruitt Igoe wasn’t a programme of preventive maintenance to fix things, but a new look for corporate architecture across the western world and beyond.

There’s also something intellectually and morally offensive about anyone giving anyone cause to write “defining the heyday of irony as the period between the demolition of Pruit Igoe and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers” but I’ll get over it. I no longer care about Post Modernism being re-theorized. I’m more worried about Post Modernism being de-theorized and remembered and presented to us as having been nothing more than a style. We see the decorative arts as the advance guard grooming us to see post modernism as only haptic pleasure, and what a frenzy there currently is to do it! We’re being love-bombed with high-profile exhibitions and glowing reviews.

After the groundwork is done, the production of contemporary artefacts in the style of Post Modernism finishes the job.

The surest way to kill off any architectural movement of social worth is to make people think of it as a style that can then be summarily dismissed as outdated. Recent renewed interest in Brutalism considered it only as a visual style, with no mention of it ever having been part of any wider social agenda. [c.f. HIGH-RISE]

HR_2154_tiff.tif

At first, I found it difficult to imagine what inconvenient ideas Post Modernism may have ever had in order to warrant this sudden neutering by revival but there is one, and it has nothing to do with any specific meaning or meanings. It’s the notion that buildings could convey meaning at all that needed killing, and it’s no accident this process is now taking place now.

This LA Review of Books review of Douglas Spencer’s The Architecture of Neoliberalism will bring you up to speed on architecture and neoliberalism.

neoliberalism

Mention is made of “the affective turn” architecture took around 1975.

expressive

Basically,

IF WE CAN FORGET THAT THINGS WERE ONCE THOUGHT TO CONVEY MEANING,

WE WILL BE MORE RECEPTIVE TO AN ARCHITECTURE OF AFFECT THAT AIMS TO KILL OUR CAPACITY FOR CRITICAL THINKING.

I actually doubt it’s possible to devise an architecture of pure affect (and rid the world of pesky criticism once and for all as per the gameplan) but, as with most things, a crude approximation will probably do the trick anyway despite it being no more possible to wish away semiotics than it is to unlearn rational construction. Even poster post-modernist buildings were constructed rationally, with columns and slabs like many a good modernist building before.

If you’re finding it hard to accept that contemporary architecture has become an instrument of control and compliance then consider this next example of Late Koolhaas. As a contribution to the architecture of affect, it doesn’t appear to be saying anything but this doesn’t make it impervious to criticism for – and this is the conceptual leap – who trusts what an architect’s stated intentions are anymore anyway? It’s easier to retrieve the real intentions of a Renaissance architect than it is for any of our current lot. Perhaps that transparency is what made the Renaissance a renaissance? We’re clearly not living in one.

qatar-foundation-headquarters-oma-architecture-offices-credit-jazzy-news_dezeen_hero.jpg

Semiotics won’t just die because somebody wants it to, or says it has. Just as an anti-aesthetic is still an aesthetic because things doggedly persist in having physical properties, those same physical properties mean that any building purporting to be an architecture of affect still has a visual presence we can interpret and criticise as we wish.

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The defining characteristic of Neoliberalist Style is to deny buildings their identity as things built for humans to even appreciate, let alone be used by. Buildings look as if they came from another planet and with subjugation in mind. [No surprise there.] Omrania & Associates / Ellerbe Becket’s Kingdom Centre Tower in Riyadh nailed the look back in 2002.

Kingdom-Centre-in-Riyadh-1.jpg

  1. COLOUR: Greyscale denies any association with the natural world.
  2. PATTERN: No indication of floor heights or windows for use by humans. This denial of human scale is more than the absence of alleged feelgood factors. It’s a demonstration of contempt for humanity per se. This includes denying the building has even been constructed by the labour of humans.
  3. SHAPE: Shape is determined by factors other than what goes on inside. It cannot be “read” in terms of function or who or what may perform those functions. The shape acknowledges no external factors. Environment and context mean nothing.
  4. POSITION: Positioning with respect to an axis or axes brings immediate surroundings into the composition, extending the building’s “reach” and making it the focal point of its new home.
  5. ALIGNMENT: Alignment reinforces positioning. The combination of axes and symmetries are the tried and tested indicators of power and authority. (“You are an extension of me. I give you meaning.”)
  6. SIZE: Size seems to not have been determined by any human program. Again, this is a denial of humans and their various needs. Buildings whose size has no obvious reason dismiss human scale (and humans) by either having either no indicators of it, or by having a monumental scale in contempt of it.

Meaning, whether intentional or not, can only evoked by these six physical attributes architects manipulate when they design buildings.

In the case of Kingdom Centre Tower, all six are accounted for and all are saying much the same thing. All or most of those characteristics are shared by the following buildings, most of which seem to be coming at us from the Koolhaas constellation of the Architectural Association nebula.

• • •

  • Landscaping and masterplanning exist to dominate and assimilate, not to integrate, or even to conflate. (i.e. “You exist for me. I am your reason for being. You are part of my plan.”)
  • The New Inhumanism’s fascination with complex curves begins to make sense. Adult humans stand upright to move – it’s what makes us human – and humans don’t require anything more than vertical walls and a constant minimum headroom to do that. Any building without that, or appearing to do without that is most likely New Inhumanist.
  • Shapes tell nothing of what the building does or why it is there. (i.e. “You do not need to know.”)
  • Colours and materials have no associations with the natural world. You are not likely to see a New Inhumanist building of rock, brick or timber.
  • These airport examples are the weakest in this selection. Surface, Placement and Size characteristics are all New Inhumanist in appearance but authoritarian Placement is overridden by us knowing a functional relationship exists with surrounding infrastructure, preventing the necessary opacity of presence and intent. Airports may look New Inhumanist but we still know them to exist for the sake of people, though admittedly through their relationship to aircraft.
  • Monolithic, static and geometrically determined shapes denote authority, strength, and solidity, and with none of the contrivance involved in using angles and curves to represent dynamism but without implying progress.
  • Obfuscation of scale denies any intent to relate to humans, whether inside or outside. (i.e. “You are nothing.”)

• • •

Resistance may be futile but, as long as we continue to celebrate The New Inhumanism, it’s not even conceivable.

 

 

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US 7,540,120

US7540120 is a United States patent for a Multi-Level Apartment Building. Patent attorneys aren’t likely to be apartment plan geeks so I pity the one whose desk this landed on. Perhaps I shouldn’t, because patent attorneys are skilled in untangling real novelty from mere claims to it. They also understand the importance of precise language because patent language is designed to accurately describe all that’s unique about an invention but at the same time be sufficiently encompassing so that protection isn’t lost if someone else makes some minor improvement or change. Phrases such as substantially and arbitrarily occur often because their meaning is defined. The term disposed is used to mean placed or arranged. The term a plurality of is used to mean a few, several, or many.

The structure of a patent application is also defined. At the beginning is a list of patents to which the invention refers or relates to. Then comes the Abstract. The one for US Patent 7,540,120 doesn’t tell us much because we’re not used to imagining buildings from written descriptions. This particular abstract is an accurate and concise description of the invention – it has to be.

A multi-level apartment building includes vertically stacked sections each containing at least one pair of apartments, where each apartment of an apartment pair contains a stairway assembly coupled to a vertically extending stair support wall assembly that contains utility distribution conduits. The stairway assembly for each apartment connects four levels of function space. One apartment of the pair in a vertical section is rotated 180 degrees in plan in relation to the other apartment of the pair which is entered on the opposite side of a public corridor that provides access to the apartments of the pair. The apartments are vertically stacked in alignment where an apartment of a pair is mirrored in plan in relation to a vertically underlying or overlying apartment of another pair, and the stair support assemblies of the respectively vertically stacked apartments are vertically aligned.

What it doesn’t tell us is why somebody would want to do that. Next comes Description of the Invention. This is divided into sub-sections, the first of which is Field of the Invention.

The present invention relates generally to a multi-level structure and, more particularly, to a multi-level apartment building having a plurality of apartments, where each apartment includes a plurality of rooms on levels connected by a stairway system that is coupled to a stair support wall assembly for receiving vertically extending utility services.

There’s a certain comfort that comes from words meaning exactly what they say, and no more or less. 

Next comes Background of the Invention. This sub-section tells you what the existing problems were that led to the invention being proposed as a solution. This is where the case for the invention is made.

The invention itself is described in detail in Summary of the Invention and cross-referenced to Brief Description of the Drawings where each drawing is described in detail. It ought be possible for an architect to fully understand this building from these.

Finally comes the Claims in which everything unique about the invention and worthy of legal protection is isolated and listed in a structured sequence of claims and dependent (sub-) claims. Each claim is written as a single sentence and is not easy reading. Governmental patent offices in the home country and countries around the world make rulings on whether the invention described by the Claims are unique and thus deserving of protection. 

The invention of US 7,540,120 has been granted a patent because it solves some identified problem in a unique and novel manner. If only architecture could always be so clear, with the use of words such as unique, novel and innovative limited to legally recognised and precisely described solutions to specifically identified problems.

If a person can’t call themselves an architect without being legally recognized as such, then why not have a similar requirement for architecture?  

After all, a patent attorney (or any lawyer, for that matter) would be comfortable with the statement “All hatmakers make hats” but not with the statement “All architects create architecture.” And neither should we. Making architects legally liable for false claims to aesthetic innovation would certainly clear the air, eliminate much noise. We can speculate on this some other time because, for now, I want to find out what’s so special about this novel and innovative architectural invention. It’s not every day one comes along. From the section and plan above it seems like a scissor-plan variant.

For reference, here’s the scissor plan of the 1962 Corringham apartments in London Kenneth Frampton had a hand designing. Scissor plans are confusing, even for the people who made these diagrams trying to explain them. The key to the section says 1 is the living and 2 the entry but it’s the other way around. The plan numbering corresponds to its key but not to the section numbering, even when corrected.

Background to the Invention

Multi-level buildings are a favored form of residential construction because they provide for improved land use and a high density alternative to sprawl. The buildings usually include a plurality of apartments where each of the apart ments is occupied by several individuals, such as a family. Such apartments, however, usually do not include all of the features and amenities that are ordinarily present in a detached suburban home. The apartments typically do not include such detached home features as split level living room and dining room function space, duplex height in a living room function space, duplex height windows as part of the living room space and that provide natural lighting to remote interior portions of the apartment, bedrooms located on separate levels to afford privacy from each other and also communal activities, views on opposite sides of a building, through ventilation, an exposed interior duplex height stairway and balconies without shadows and overhangs. The absence of many of the features and amenities usually present in a detached residence makes conventional apartments unappealing to the more mobile class of residential purchasers. […] Therefore, a need exists for a multi-level apartment building that addresses the needs of sprawling development by containing a plurality of apartments that can be fabricated with relative ease and where each apartment creates the illusion of spaciousness while providing expected amenities and consuming a minimum of floor area.

Frankly, I expected more, but this is the problem the inventors have set themselves to solve and it was judged to be a real and valid one. Their problem was that apartments don’t feel housey enough and they intend to solve this by providing:

  1. a split level living room and dining room function space,
  2. duplex height in a living room function space,
  3. duplex height windows as part of the living room space,
  4. bedrooms on separate levels,
  5. views on both sides of a building,
  6. through ventilation,
  7. a dramatic stairway,
  8. a balcony some distance from the one above, and
  9. creating an apartment having the illusion of spaciousness but consuming a minimum of floor area.

Let’s see!

  1. An access corridor runs across the building and apartments either side are mirrored and reversed or, in CADspeak, a copy is horizontally rotated 180° [not vertically around 180° as per a unité].
  2. The kitchen/dining area is on the same level as the entrance.
  3. The living rooms are on a level slightly lower than the kitchen/dining, and have a ceiling height slightly higher.
  4. A staircase in the corner of the living rooms extends upwards to access a minor bedroom above the kitchen/dining of the apartment across the corridor.
  5. The same staircase extends downwards to access the master bedroom beneath the kitchen/dining of the apartment across the corridor.

This basic unit can be repeated horizontally any number of times, and vertically as well if vertically alternate units are reversed, interlocked and stacked an arbitrary number of times. Don’t forget that a patent application describes a general principle and doesn’t need to describe what happens at the end of the building where a living room is minus a kitchen/dining room, or at the other end of the building where the kitchen/dining room lacks corresponding bedrooms and living area.

US07540120-20090602-D00014
The German application for the invention includes the following two helpful diagrams.

Bathrooms of one unit and the kitchen of another are thus sandwiched between living rooms above and below and this is why the stairwell support wall must have services run through it.

US07540120-20090602-D00000

In a patent application, the variation described in most detail is called the preferred embodiment (manifestation) of the invention in order to exclude other inventions that are substantially identical. These are also anticipated in the descriptions of other embodiments. The ones listed all divide the minor bedroom to configure a three-bedroom apartment and also feature alternative arrangments for the staircase – presumably to get the service riser out of the living room.

The inventors have solved most of the problems they set out to solve.

  • There is a split-level living room and dining room.
  • The living room is double-storey height.
  • There are double-storey windows.
  • Bedrooms are on separate levels.
  • The apartment has views in two opposite directions.
  • Some degree of cross ventilation exists.
  • The staircase is indeed dramatic even if it only goes to a minor bedroom.
  • Vertically above and below each double-height living room are two bedroom levels and a kitchen level so there are five floors betwen [vertically adjacent] living room balconies.

However, I’m not sure they have succeeded in creating an apartment having the illusion of spaciousness but consuming a minimum of floor area because, for one, I don’t know how it would be possible to objectively evaluate the success of an illusion. I’m also not sure if it has been done consuming a minimum of floor area. The typical plan below shows how the space (indicated in red) above/below the corridor (green) is not being used for any purpose than to pass over/under the corridor and contrive a double-sided apartment. The solution thus solves one problem but creates another. There may be the illusion of spaciousness and certain amenities (including the benefit of inscrutability) but it can only be said to consume a minimum of floor area until somebody comes along and solves the same problem in less.

The inventors did succeed in what they set out to do but they did not set the bar very high.

  • Apartments might be more attractive to more people if they successfully create the illusion of being more like detached houses but is a split-level living room and dining room, or a dramatic staircase really the best way to go? And if not what is? For some people, for example, a house might be all about opening the kitchen door to let the dog in, or having a basement and an attic. Instead of creating the illusion of an apartment being more like a house, it might be more worthwhile to explore what advantages apartments have that detached houses don’t.
  • A first, I thought the configuration was a scissor plan variant but it turned out not to be so. Having all living rooms on a preferred side of the building was not a problem the invention aimed to solve. There is scope for some other, future invention to incorporate this feature and be a completely new invention. 
  • I also initially expected it would be possible to horizontally extend apartments by making appropriate openings (and/or closures) in party walls to enlarge or reduce the volume of the apartment but this is not the case. We still lack a multi-storey apartment building configuration with the potential to be arbitrarily extended horizontally by having wall openings that can be arbitrarily opened/closed to access different staircases and their adjacent spaces. Such a method of configuring apartments would use similar elements and spaces to configure apartments of varying sizes and shapes and thus have advantages for construction cost and time savings. The challenge would be to do it with a minimum of walls having only latent party wall functionality and, as ever, a minimum of circulation space.

Good luck and let me know how you get on!

Burden of Proof

First of all, Thank You All and Season’s Greetings. Have you noticed how the end of the year is always rich with lazy content? Here’s the AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Projects 2016 WinnersHere’s Dezeen’s Top 10 Architecture Books of 2016, along with a gratuitous picture. 

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The caricaturization of architecture: Seeing how the illustrator has managed to work some sky into the view of Fallingwater’s best side, we can expect similar liberties have been taken with the content. This is one of 2016’s top ten architecture books.

Well before December’s not-entirely-unexpected articles wanting to suddenly tell us about Zaha Hadid’s family life and early paintings, a March 2016 article had already given us Ten Best Zaha Hadid Buildings by way of an obit. December’s Guardian also blessed us with Oliver Wainwright’s top ten buildings of 2016. Designboom contributed TOP 10 architecture projects that integrated nature in 2016 plus Top Ten Reader Submissions of 2016. “News” such as AIA Names Top 10 Most Sustainable Projects of 2016AIA Names 10 Best US Houses of 2016 and DAM Selects the Top 10 Architectural Books of 2016 was thoughtfully re-broadcast by ArchDaily. Getting into the spirit then, here are Misfits’ Top Ten 2016 posts.

1. Architecture Misfits #22: H Arquitectes

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This post from May this year is the 18th most accessed post of all time. [Well done guys – keep it up!]

2. The Mat Building

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This post from March was a close second at #22.

3. The 1 1/2 Floor Apartment

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This post immediately followed the one above and came in at #39.

4. Living Together

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The all-time #41 was this February post the first of several dealing with the implications of co-living.

5. Co-living

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This post immediately following came in at #47.

6. Architecture Misfit #21: 村野藤吾

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I’m glad this post is doing well at #53. There weren’t many architects like Togo Murano then and there certainly aren’t now.

7. The Free Facade

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Musings on what the façade has done with its freedom.

8. Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio

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A long-overdue tribute tothe work of Rural Studio and their approach to making things better.

9. Misfits’ Guide to DUBAI

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It was about time I took a look around.

10. Architecture Misfit #20: Edward T. Potter

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There was a lot more to Edward T. Potter than the house he designed for Mark Twain. A fitting misfit.

The 2016 posts are still fresh so I don’t know which will be forgotten, which will be remembered, which will prove to be slow burners, and which will have any lasting relevance. However, some trends are starting to become apparent upon seeing the ten most accessed posts of all-time (since June 2010).

1. The Maximum Dwelling

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Who’d have thought the labyrintine plans of 19th century Victorian country houses would have proved such a hit on Pinterest?

2. The Things Architects Do #3: SANAA

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This post is surely found by foundation year architecture students searching for assignment resources.

3. Kazuo Shinohara’s Houses

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The buildings of Kazuo Shinohara are interesting yet little known. This post has gone on to have further adventures on other blogs.

4. The DARKER Side of Villa Savoye

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A post much accessed by students looking for LC or VS resources. [You’re welcome!]

5. Architectural Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

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Ditto.

6. It’s Not Rocket Science #3: Yakhchal

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This post has been much reblogged in the off-grid community. [A shout-out to Señor Coconut – hope you’re all doing fine.]

7. THE KISS PRINCIPLE

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The hidden complexities of the Farnsworth House.

8. It’s Not Rocket Science #5: Night Sky Radiant Cooling

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A post about the little understood natural principle Persians used to make ice in the desert a few centuries gone.

9. The Japanese Machiya

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From Japan, some sensible housing for a change.

10. The Buildings of YEMEN

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A country so un–neoliberal that, instead of Architecture, it has a stunning culture of vernacular building the likes of which we can’t imagine.

I like to think all misfits’ posts have some sort of relevance for our built environment but three of these ten all-time most accessed posts can also be seen as about nothing more than routinely famous architects and buildings – thus inadvertently sustaining the status-quo. Two other posts can be also seen as being about (Japanese) architects with a largeish presence in architectural media culture and this amounts to much the same thing. The post on Victorian country houses can be seen either as a curio or as nostalgia – which is also a worry. Only the Yemen and the yachchal/radiant cooling posts fit into the category of really useful things – but the worry here is that they were best thought forgotten.

• • •

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I confess I haven’t read much further than the first chapter of this book. [To be honest, I’m finding it a bit brainy.] I’ll stick with it though as so many of misfits’ themes resonate with its theme that I feel in my gut is true. So then, until I can back up my bloggy conjectures with references and citations, let’s just suppose that neoliberalism does have an architectural manifestation. What evidence would be sufficient to prove such a claim?

1) The End of History

By this I don’t mean the end of buildings, just the end of attaching any sort of importance to them. This project is well underway and in places already complete. ArchDaily. The history of architecture is still taught at universities but no-one knows why as history skills are on no employer’s wish list. [c.f. Learning CurveArchitecture students are pleased history has stopped accumulating. The continual shrinking and condensing of a body of knowledge into a few names and buildings of uncontested regard is not proof of their enduring greatness but a caricature of history and one of learning as well. I used to understand this as the postmodern sickness whereby a thing gets replaced by a representation of itself but postmodernism may have just been a symptom of the greater plague.

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If we’re all Futurists now – “Sir, what’s a Futurist?” – then the advantage to neoliberalism of us all wanting to forget the past is that we’re primed to embrace newness for newness’ sake. We’re ready and willing to enjoy constant change and for progress to be measured in terms of how newly something represents change. [c.f. The Autopoiesis of Architecture] An energetic dynamism looping back onto itself and going nowhere is an excellent way to represent such change and happens to be just what your average dictocrat wants. It’s a problem for Architecture when all it has to do is represent something going somewhere but architecture is by far the best means to do it because there’s never any danger something as static and immovable as buildings will actually move on.

3) The Objectification of Architecture

The supposed globalization of architecture was our excuse for rationalising why these buildings tended to get built in other countries and not the “liberal democracies” but it might just be that our societies aren’t fully prepared (yet). The flow of neo-liberal architecture is the reverse of the mid-20th century capitalist one.

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Hilton Hotel, Teheran, 1965

3) The Shrinking of History

Buildings and architects get dropped from the history of architecture all the time. Some buildings we saw in every book on modern architecture 50 years ago aren’t even memories now. [c.f. World Architecture 1963 and World Architecture 1963 PART 2]

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Central Library, National Autonomous University of Mexico, designed by Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Martínez de Velasco, and opened in April, 1956

If buildings and architects keep getting dropped from history, then sooner or later we’re going to run out of the stuff as we’re not laying down any more architectural history for the future. What will a history e-book look like in 50 years time? What brave person would even dare write one? What buildings will come to epitomise the age in which we lived? We will have to make do with “Top Ten Modern Classics”. History now has no interest for architects beyond being a resource for interesting imagery.

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Constructivism the art movement (and graphic inspiration-to-be) should not be confused with Constructivism the architectural movement that had a social(ist) agenda of housing people with an efficiency of resource usage.

History is never mined for interesting ideas that, taken out of context, could have important ramifcations for us now. [c.f. Modest Megastructures] We’re encouraged to convince ourselves that the only good ideas are the newest ones. 

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4) The Objectification of Architects 

In 1997 Body Shop‘s Ruby campaign stated “There are three billion women in the world who don’t look like supermodels and eight who do.” [ref.Treading the same path came Dove’s campaignforrealbeauty.

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The parallels with architecture and architects are many but here I want to draw attention to the ongoing objectification of architects. Is it just me or are today’s stararchitects more “starry” than ever? [What is driving this? Is it a need of ours or, like the Sony Wallkman, something that once invented creates its own need?] It’s only been necessary to promote a few architects to star status to create and perpetuate the notion that architecture is all about glamorous and shapely buildings. The efforts of architects less stellar who get on with the real business of real building are supposed to be championed by professional organizations that instead reward the elevated few with accolades in the name of awareness-raising. The appearance of success breeds success and success means you don’t have to pretend to be nice anymore.

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5) Gentrification – in general**

6) Gated communities – a highly localized form of gentrification, no matter which side of the fence you are on.

7) Encouraging people to see Brutalism as nothing more than a style has proven a highly effective way of ensuring its social agenda remains forgotten [c.f. High-Rise]

Professional bodies organize petitions protesting the demolition of Brutalist buildings but in doing so effectively support the neoliberal agenda by arguing on the grounds of stylistic worth [… a fine example of the early work of …” etc.] when they should be making a point on the grounds of social worth. August Perret may have used béton brut (unfinished/raw concrete) without any connotations of aesthetic delight or social utility but that is what the argument has become. It doesn’t really matter whether you see raw concrete as beautiful or ugly for, whichever way, you’re not thinking about how the money and resources spent on unnecessary finishes was, for a short while, diverted into providing more and better quality housing for the population.

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8) The advent and rise of theories celebrating the consequences of unfettered economic activity, and the complete absence of critical comment thereof.

9) The scary earnestness of architectural evangelists, their scarier eagerness to give audience, and the even scarier ease with which they find one. 

10) The celebration of buildings encouraging people to see themselves as no more than the sum of their assets and investments

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11) The continual pressure on us all to do the same with whatever means we have to do it

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• • •

We all know how AirB’n’B enables people without their own buildings to contribute to economic activity by monetizing their surplus capacity living space, how Uber enables people to monetize their surplus capacity transport and how Instagram allows people to monetize* their personality or lack of it. Given all these intimate ways in which people are encouraged to value themselves according to their level of economic activity, it seems that neoliberalism has already done all it can with government, business and architecture and is now moving on to mop up the small fry. Whales feeding off plankton is a good analogy, except whales are nice.

• • •

thanks for the link Megan
19 Dec. 2016: I added Nos. 5) and 6) as further evidence.
*20 Dec. 1016:  8) and 9) added.