Category Archives: Forgotten Histories

bits of history that aren’t remembered as well as they should be

The History of Forgetting

All buildings begin as architectural fantasies and perhaps one in a thousand or more get built. In addition to us hearing more and more about the ones that don’t or never will, a steady stream of updates – “X tower receives planning permission!” “Y tower topped out!” – accompanies those that do. Conditioned to living in perpetual anticipation, we’ve little time for the buildings when they actually get around to being completed.

Most buildings that don’t get built are quickly forgotten in our high-churn news cycle but some buildings are as much a part of our intellectual landscape as if they had been built. We must ask why. Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high tower, The Illinois, is a good example of an architect designing something we’ve never been allowed to forget even though it failed to find a client either before or after Mr. “Seagram” Bronfman famously abstained. Perhaps only architects were unaware that elevator cables sufficiently resistant to elongation didn’t yet exist. Thirty years earlier, Russian architects had been designing skyscrapers in a country yet without elevators.

Case in point is El Lissitzky’s 1925 Wolkenbügel. In English, it’s known as either Cloud Iron or Cloud Hangar. El Lissitzky was trying for a horizontal skyscraper and, as he was in Germany at the time, perhaps the names result from using two dictionaries to span three languages.

Despite the conceptual confusion, many people including myself have tried to will El Lissitzky’s proposal into existence.

Wolkenbügel is often mistakenly presented as an example of Constructivism but it’s an example of the contemporaneous structural expressionism known as Rationalism. It doesn’t really matter because in 1928 Constructivists and Rationalists alike were forcibly “unified” into an umbrella organization and former practitioners of both camps adjusted to the new rules of what was to become known as Post-Constructivism if it wasn’t built, or Stalinism if it was.

Late to the party, Le Corbusier’s 1933 entry for the Palace of the Soviets competition went down the structural expressionism. It was never built but is still discussed and analyzed as if it had been.

It seems the only thing more reprehensible than demolishing an architectural masterpiece is to not build it in the first place.

The urge to compensate for this injustice took rendering to new levels, with virtual textures virtually distressed to simulate age, “camera” angles chosen to simulate period photography, and final outputs distressed to simulate aged photographs supporting false memories.

Unlike The Illinois, Cloud-bügel, and Monument to the Third International, Palace of The Soviets at least could have been built because Le Corbusier designed it to win a competition and be built. LC generally made a sharp distinction between the career-builders he never expected to see built and the career-builders he did. His judgment failed him with his 1929 proposal for the Geneva Mundaneum. It’s a dog. It’s acknowledged on the Fondation Le Corbusier website but not in English. As far as I know, Karel Teige is the only person who ever wrote a criticism of it, the full text of which you can read here[c.f. Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige].

1929 was a busy year for Le Corbusier so he probably wasn’t that chagrined it didn’t go ahead. Judging by how it’s been allowed to be forgotten, he wasn’t the only one.

Antonio Gaudí’s unbuilt oeuvre is almost as large as his built but his 1909 Grand Hotel proposal for Manhattan never progressed past concept. Nobody seems to have wondered how Gaudí’s upside down chain method would translate into steel frame construction? Perhaps Gaudí didn’t either for he seems to have misjudged both size and scale. The height was supposed to have been between that of the Chrysler Building and The Empire State Building but perhaps Gaudí can be forgiven since neither existed in 1909.

This hasn’t prevented contemporary visualizers from trying to give his proposal a meaningful scale.

This design doesn’t feature highly in Gaudí’s unbuilt oeuvre, perhaps due to the incongruity of a Gaudí building not in Barcelona. Since 2003 when its construction was proposed by Paul Laffoley for the World Trade Center reconstruction competition, it has been mostly confined to the architectural oubliette.

An oubliette is a special kind of dungeon entered and not-so-often exited from a trapdoor in the ceiling. Inconvenient people get put there and forgotten. This brings us to the selective forgetting to support the dominant narrative of the present. Some buildings have the misfortune to arrive at inconvenient times. The McNulty House arrived in 1965 just as the architectural winds were about to blow in the direction of Post Modernism. [c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]

Much started to be forgotten in the 1970s, not least of all the social responsibilities of architects. Erasing all memory that governments once undertook to house their people is mostly completed now. Sydney’s Sirius looks set to go the same way as London’s Robin Hood Estate.

Local MP Margaret Hodge suggested that providing a 3D scan of the building would be enough preservation to legitimize its demolition, raising the question of how much a digital version can really replace a building. Quite a lot apparently, if you’re of the mindset that a representation of something can be as good as the real thing. Charles Jencks’ theoretical whitewash is still brought into play to destroy all memory of the social aspirations of Modernism.  

For all its talk of memory and history, the 1970s were the Golden Age of Forgetting. Any actual learning from history was replaced by consumable representations of learning from history. The world was rich with architectures before 1980 and it wasn’t just the misfits, the fringe and the outliers who were forgotten.

For example, what happened to Alvar Aalto? What values did his buildings express that are such anathema today? We already know the answers to these questions. It is only Le Corbusier who is actively and overly remembered. My hunch is that Le Corbusier provided the DNA template for postmodern mutation known as the starchitect. As long as Le Corbusier remains unassailable, then replicant starchitects are the logical consequence. Soon, it won’t be possible to conceive of any other type of architect. It practically is now.

There’s a special architectural oubliette just for projects that are an embarrasment to their architects. Here’s two from Andrew “AEDAS” Bromberg’s portfolio circa 2006.

From around the same time we have Lee “ATKINS” Morris’ Trump International Hotel and Tower. The plug was pulled in the financial winter of 2008-9 just when the building was about to rise above ground. I carried vivid memories of the speedboat image for years. Now I’ve managed to track it down again, I find its power to disturb has only increased.

The building, however, was the product of considerable skill and thought.

Other buildings of the same time and place (and architects) were less blessed. There was Anara Tower. I remember writing of it something like “Avoiding the aspirational reaching and false perspective of stepped pinnacles, it simply towers for 80-odd storeys before culminating in that most perfect of shapes, the circle.” It wasn’t a lie.

The same architects’ Icon Hotel also represented skill of a kind that shouldn’t go unacknowledged.

Working the same patch, OMA had their share of forgotten buildings, though the Death Star did circle around once before heading for oblivion.

After trying so hard for so long, OMA’s only completed project in the UAE is this art shed.

Zaha Hadid Architects have had their share of forgotten buildings but with one completed bridge, two projects currently onsite in Dubai and one rescheduled in Abu Dhabi, look like having a better ratio of hits-to-misses.

There are some spectacular ones that didn’t happen though.

ZH herself said “the world will always have a place for exuberant architecture” and indeed it will as long as there’s the financial “exuberance” to sustain it. Financial exuberance is attracted to architecture and the attraction is mutual. It’s often ill-advised, ill-conceived, impestuous, short-lived, and plauged by broken promises and thwarted expectations.

What is eventually built represents only a small portion of architectural activity at any given time. As with first loves and adolescent tastes in music, the past is often embarassing and the urge to forget is great. Rather than the buildings that are built or the ones we want to remember, it’s the forgotten buildings that provide the truer picture of what the times were actually like.

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Here’s my picks for buildings headed for the architectural oubliette. (I’ll keep adding to this list as I remember to remember them.)

Frank Gehry’s 2012 Hong Kong Opus

It was dutifully acknowledged at the time but since then has since disappeared without trace. It was probably a difficult commission to refuse.

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

From the same 2012, it had an initial burst of media accolades but recent allegations of overly-exuberant money laundering by the government of its namesake’s son should be enough to belatedly start the process of forgetting.

[In 2014] the Design Museum in London […] defended its decision to give its Designs of the Year top prize to a Zaha Hadid building in Azerbaijan, following widespread criticisms of the award on human rights grounds. “It’s a prize about architecture rather than politics and its architectural quality is outstanding,” Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic told Dezeen.

Diller+Scofidio’s Boston Institute of Contemporary Art

Oliver Wainwright’s recent puff piece commemmorating Elizabeth Diller visiting the UK, credited Diller+Scofidio as architects of NY’s High Line as well as a string of other projects yet omitted to mention their trite yet once-hyped ICA.

Makoto Floating School, Nigeria/2016 Venice Biennale

You’ll remember this one now – it was everywhere 2015-6. The link will take you to the website that lists, amongst other things, FAQs about why it collapsed – lack of maintenance, apparently. I remember reading that it collapsed because people stole the bolts holding it together. Regardless of the truth of falsity of this story, the fact it was spread only reinforces the poisonous post-modern belief that architecture is wasted on the poor.

The Vertical City

If you translate loosely, the term vertical city first enters our architectural consciousness with Ludwig Hilberseimer’s 1924 Hochhausstadt. The space between the apartment buildings isn’t an extension of the pedestrian level retail or communal space for the residents but a light well for the offices below. This post is about spaces vertically shared by different types of user.

Architects like to call buildings vertical cities because it implies an ability to fully understand the intelligence of a city and condense it into a single building. The header image is Foster + Partners’ 1989 Millennium Tower proposal for Tokyo Bay.

Rising out of Tokyo Bay, the tower is capable of housing a community of up to 60,000 people, generating its own energy and processing its own waste. A vertical city quarter, it would be self-sustaining and virtually self-sufficient. The lower levels accommodate offices and clean industries such as consumer electronics. Above are apartments, while the uppermost section houses communications systems and wind generators. A high-speed ‘metro’ system − with cars designed to carry 160 people − tracks vertically and horizontally, moving through the building at twice the rate of conventional express lifts. Cars stop at sky centres at every thirtieth floor; from there, individual journeys may be completed via lifts or escalators. This continuous cycle reduces travel times − an important factor in a vertical city, no less than a horizontal one. The five-storey sky centres have different principal functions; one might include a hotel, another one a department store; each is articulated with mezzanines, terraces and gardens to create a sense of place. The project demonstrates [?] that high-density or high-rise living can lead to an improved quality of life, where housing, work and leisure facilities are all conveniently close at hand.

Japan’s economy tanked in 1993 so this breathless combination of greenwash and good intentions was unable to will this building into being. Vertical city proposals come and go. Dubai’s Nakheel Tower did the rounds pre-2008. One trend at 2007 Cityscape Dubai was for mega-models but, alas, this vertical city was also not to be.

Nakheel Tower never lived but was resurrected anyway for a different location as Al Burj. We’re still waiting.

Vertical cities continue to be the stuff of dreams. This is what they do. Everyone is content for them to remain part of the architectural dreamscape.

It’s why people don’t take kindly to them being realised, especially when they are 1) prefabricated, 2) in China and 3) not clad in futurespeak. [c.f. The Shameless Skyscraper] 

The last time I heard the term vertical city mentioned was Rem Koolhaas disinterestedly describing OMA’s Die Rotterdam mixed-used development as one, and so continuing the tradition of calling any mixed used development slightly a bit taller than it is wide a vertical city.

In passing, these next images are of one of the apartments in the top right corner of the apartment tower. On airb’n’b you can probably find a photograph showing the curtains of that second bedroom.

Vertical cities have become progressively smaller, along with our expectations for them. Living in any city, even a vertical one, requires a balance between drawing energy from the city yet keeping a distance from it. These aren’t either-or propositions as, for example, a person can withdraw from the city to their apartment yet still look out over a city and be energized by it. Maybe that’s what these next people are doing. I hope so.

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Opus building in Dubai started out a decade ago as an office building. Two years ago it was to have been a hotel but, last time I looked, is on track to becoming a mixed use building befitting its many floorplates. One could conceivably never leave the building but it fails the taller-than-it-is-wide test.

The Hilberseimer proposal treated the vertical city as a mat but all these others treat it some kind of supercharged architectural object. The mixed use building as vertical city is a red herring. What we’re really talking about it is

Living Above Shops

In Roman times, high net-worth individuals lived in villas and we know much about their architecture. We know little about how the other XCIX per cent lived, except that they lived in insulae. Part of the Roman legacy is the construction of speculative buildings at minimal expense. In those pre-elevator times, insulae were sometimes as high as eight or nine storeys, with apartments on the higher floors least expensive. If an insula could accommodate at least 40 people in 330 sq.m (3,600 sq.ft) in about six or seven apartments, that means approx. 50 sq.m (550 sq.ft) per apartment and 8.25 sq.m (90 sq.ft) per person. This is about the same area as architecture’s favourite capsule apartment or, if you believe Akira Kurowawa, the size of a Japanese tea-ceremony room.

Providence Arcade was refurbished in 2014 to have microapartments half that area (225 sq.ft) but intended for one person instead of 2.5. Two millennia hasn’t made that much of a difference to what just might be a human spatial standard.

It’s not the square footage I want to talk about but the idea of living above a place used by the general public during the day. 

Despite being a building typology that’s existed for millennia, mixed-use buildings are under-represented in the history of architecture. My guess is that architecture is more often called upon to represent the possession of wealth and property when that wealth and property is held by a single person person or entity. Architecture’s not good with mixing and sharing.

In pseudo-pubic projects, the appearance of mixing and sharing (a.k.a. “vitality” and “vibrance”) becomes important for it disguises the fact everything is owned and controlled by a single entity. This is the town of Basingstoke at Festival Place in Hampshire UK. The former town centre has had retail infill along and between streets. It’s a work in progress, but even as long ago as 1999, the citizens of Basingstoke were expelled from their city centre after closing time and the city becomes not just dead but actually ceases to exist.

“Festival Place is a vibrant social hub in the heart of Basingstoke and the centre’s rejuvenation will create an even better visitor experience for locals …”

One way of bringing the appearance of residential usage into a shopping precinct is to fake it. This is Dubai’s Citywalk Phase II. The forced facade variety with its upper level windows is unconvincing and, even from the inside it’s not clear what’s in that volume, if anything.

With Citywalk Phase III it’s still too early to tell. Having five levels of apartments over shops accessed by foot from footpaths is a new concept for Dubai. It’d be insulae all over again if the apartments and shops catered for ordinary people. They don’t.

It’s hard to tell if residential supports retail or vice-versa. The city is spread thin as there’s insufficient classy retail to go around. Sooner or later though, all retail spaces will be let and ideas of shops will be replaced with actual shops but this won’t prevent the ground level being a veneer of shopfronts evoking the feel of a city. Living the dream has never seemed so unreal.

Double-loaded corridords mean apartments not overlooking streets face each other across space that exists to put distance between windows. More than alleyways but less that streets, these spaces are given the low-maintenance landscape treatment.

Victor Gruen is said to have envisioned his 1956 Southdale Centre mall as a community centre. It’s also said he wanted to recreate the vibrance of his hometown Vienna but conceiving of something with car access only, full air conditioning and no housing above shops was a strange way to go about it. He was to later bemoan the proliferation of malls as centres for retail only and surrounded by a sea of car parking but only after his office had built fifty of them in the US alone. 

To be fair, Gruen also invented the pedestrian mall as a open-air shopping street without cars but parking still had to be provided nearby if they were to ever be an attractive option.

Shopping malls as air-conditioned privatized environments precluded housing and the pedestrian mall meant that living with a car nearby simply wasn’t possible. Gruen’s legacy was two seemingly contradictory products both supremely suited to the golden age of capitalism. Both concepts isolated and supersized only those  portions of the city offering a higher return on investment. Shopping malls don’t have apartments integrated into them because it would be of benefit only to the residents and the shoppers. 

Giuseppe Mengoni’s 1877 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan is the real ancestor of all shopping malls and has apartments as well as a hotel overlooking its arcades. It is excellently sited and intensively used as one of Milan’s major pedestrian thoroughfares. It’s existed for 140 years without parking, air conditioning, private security, food court, cineplex or anchor stores.

Between Citywalk Phase III and Burj Khalifa is a somewhat down-at-heel shopping mall called Mazaya.

Two levels of shops are arranged around three atriums. Around the atrium to the south are three levels of office space and around the one on the north are three levels of apartments. There are apartments facing the street and there are apartments facing the atrium.

It’s a cruise liner and, much like a cruise liner, the view outwards may be the more expansive but the view inwards is the more lively [though not on the public holiday when I visited]. In sixty years of shopping malls, ones like this that break the mold are rare. Mazaya shares more DNA with Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel II than other malls that claim ancestry. This is Mall of the Emirates on the left and Mercato on the right. Mercato is interesting for having fake windows on a top storey that’s actually a raised roof. The dummy windows could easily be real ones but to have sunlight from a pseudo-internal space illuminate a quasi-external space would just be bizarre.

Thoroughfares lined with retail can double as visual amenity space for residential. If our future is living above shops in climate-controlled and privately-policed shopping precincts occupying city blocks separated by vehicle traffic, then inward-looking apartments reconnecting these two uses just might be a way of hanging onto some humanity for a bit longer, even if those precincts are only publicly accessible during opening hours. Shopping may have only recently become entertainment but seeing other people going about their business is what living in cities has always been about.

 

 

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Misfits’ Guide to PARIS

1902

rue Franklin Apartments
Auguste Perret
rue Benjamin Franklin, Paris

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We all know about the concrete frame, its concealment and subsequent re-expression of its presence but the reason for the shape of this frontage tends to be neglected.

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Modernist space maybe, “inspired by statutory light courts” perhaps, but why would someone want to do that? The shortest distance between two points isn’t a good thing when many rooms are needing windows. Perret managed to give windows to five, as well as to the kitchen off to the left and outside the formal organization of the building but following the social class prejudices of the time and the functional prejudices of ours. Don’t believe me? Compare the functionally sanitized plan from our architecture books with the original plan. We learn that the sculleries have side windows and so the gas cooker probably had a degree of cross ventilation in the kitchen. The bed was rather awkwardly placed in the bedroom. The frontmost room on the left is the smoking room and the one with the alternate means of escape is the boudoir.

These are rather nice one-bedroom flats, suggesting their owners had houses in the country and used these apartments as what we call in English pied-a-terres.

Only the week before last did I belatedly learn there’s some quite nice gardens across the road. The six windows of the upper apartments must have impressive views of the entire Trocadero Gardens as well as of the Eiffel Tower. The view from the lower apartments can’t be unlike this view from the Hotel Eiffel five doors up, on the corner.

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I know of no book, architecture or otherwise, that has ever mentioned this. In 1904 when these apartments were completed, The Eiffel Tower had already been a feature of the Paris skyline for 15 years but it was still uncertain if it would be a permanent one. We forget not everyone was keen on having it around forever.

The upper levels of the building are very special and I have hiddenarchitecture.net to thank for these images.

This image is probably as close as you and I are ever going to get to seeing a view of anything from one of the rue Franklin apartments.

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I used to think the lengthened facade was simply about getting daylight and ventilation to six rooms. I now suspect view was another factor. There’s also something else. The non-linear frontage creates a vertical column of space shared by three of the five habitable rooms. This void is physically unuseable space but it’s a building amenity of sorts for, without compromising privacy, it provides an awareness of people in other rooms of the same apartment and, to a lesser degree and without compromising privacy, of activity in the apartments above and below.

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Everyone not only gets a view of the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero Gardens, but also gets a warm feeling of bonhomie for sharing that view. It’s a bit like the Royal Crescent at Bath, on a lesser scale.

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Anyway, the rest is history but, as a footnote to history, I believe Perret set out to achieve much more than a reinforced concrete frame for us to learn about in architecture school.

1903

7 rue de Trétaigne
Henri Sauvaage and Charls Sarazin

7 rue de Trétaigne, Paris

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I’m unsure how much bonhomie was felt at the time by the many Parisiens sharing a shaft of airspace on sites less central and less spectacular. With his 7 rue de Trétaigne low-rent apartments, Henri Sauvage tried to do his best for these people.

The tidy configuration has six apartments per floor accessed from an approx. 4m² landing – it simply can’t be any less. Area saved is diverted to make the lightwells as large as possible for the single aspect apartments facing them. We think of Henri Sauvage as the Art Nouveau guy good at tendril ornament but he had a proto-Modernist sensitivity to how quantity of light benefits well-being. I say that because one third of the 29 apartments are the three-room apartments responsible for the unevenly sized light wells. Placing them on the south of the trapezoidal site would have equalized the lightwell areas somewhat but since rue de Trétaigne runs approximately north-south, the northern light well is larger because windows opening onto it receive less direct sunlight. Note also how openings between rooms are next to the window wall, allowing light to be borrowed from adjacent rooms.

1912

Housing rue Vavin
Henri Sauvage
rue Vavin, Paris

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This building is also T-shaped with paired apartments left, right and rear, but has a larger footprint and height. With this, Henri Sauvage introduced the terraced apartment typology pre-empting Antonio San’t Elia (who, in 1914, sketched some terraced apartments). However, only the front to rue Vavin is terraced and not the rear facades that could better benefit. The main advantage of terracing apartments is that everyone gets a vertical slice of the sky in addition to whatever view there is. The architectural price paid is a large and largely unlit space below that needs to be justified. Sauvage did so by moving his office and studio into at least part of what is quite a substantial length of building.

I’ve no idea of this building’s history of repair and nor can I tell, but it’s looking good for 105. Glazed ceramic tiles are the perfect cladding.

1922

Grandin Building
Henri Sauvage
10 rue des Amiraux, Paris

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A decade later, Sauvage was to again explore terraced apartments but this time on three sides of a building. This created a much larger space that needed filling but this time he was fortunate to have it accommodated by a municipal swimming pool.

Despite this building being a better example of the advantages of the terraced typology, it’s simply not possible for all buildings to have a swimming pool inside. I don’t know why. I’d been looking forward to a 3€ swim but, when I visited the week before last, the pool was closed for major restoration.

This is what I’d been hoping to see and experience.

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1958

Le Cité de L’Abreuvoir
Émile Aillaud with Edouard Vaillant
1 Rue de Téhéran, 93000 Bobigny, France

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This post-war housing project is sixty years old and its original surface has been overclad and is probably good for another sixty. The site layout still works. Eleven-storey tower blocks are surrounded by a curvilinear four-storey perimeter buildings with apartments accessed by stairs from the outer side. Local residents and apartment occupants alike use the existing streets to enter and use the open space to access the market and buses along the main road running through the site. The open space is open to everybody to use as a thoroughfare but only the apartments of the development have a direct view of this open space as a visual amenity.

The tower blocks add incident – a Victorian concept of the picturesque. It’s when something is made to happen when it would be dull for something not to. This isn’t a meaningless gesture however, for the tower blocks increase density and allow the enclosed open space to feel open. In some cities high-rise housing is a more efficient way of using land but here it’s just an different way of using land.

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1968

EDF Housing
Atelier d’architecture de Montrouge (Jean Renaudie, P. Riboulet, G. Thurnauer, J.-L. Véret) 1968

4 bd du Colonel Fabien, rue des Péniches, Ivry sur Seine, Paris

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This corner of Paris is all about electricity – EDF’s in particular. In English, this project is known as EDF Housing. I’ve yet to find plans and work out how these buildings are configured, but it looks like what you’d get if took a two-storey, interlocking, L-shaped module not unlike this,


and rotated it 90° four times, elevating it two storeys each time. As with the towers of the previous project, these have no preferred orientation because different rooms within the apartments face different directions anyway. This is a useful characteristic. [c.f. The Inscrutable Apartment]

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1969

Jean-Baptiste Clément Housing
Jean Renaudie
rue Jean-Baptiste Clément, Ivry sur Seine, Paris

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Jean Renaudie again, but this time sans Atelier d’architecture de Montrouge. It’s impossible to find a single location from which to photograph this development because it wasn’t designed for the sake of a photograph. Its complex geometric plan is based on triangles overlaid in three dimensions and produces courtyard spaces and a vertical gradation of activity as one progresses up from street level through the internal shopping arcade and up to the residential levels.

All apartments have private terraced outdoor areas

and the levels overlap and sequentially recede according to some logic sensed but never comprehended.

Whatever its rules of organization are, they can be infinitely extended and varied to account for local conditions yet still produce an identifiable whole. It’s not very often you’ll see anyone attempt designing a three-dimensional amorphous matrix for mixed-use living.

1977

Les Tours Aillaud
Emile Aillaud
Cité Pablo Picasso, Nanterre, Paris

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I’ll stick my neck out and disagree with Robert Hughes on this. Where he sees concrete I see mosaic tile, and no boxiness either. The rooms aren’t large but who’s to know how many or how large they might well have been? The floor layouts are sensibly designed with right angles where furniture needs to be placed and curved external walls where it is less necessary.

The buildings’ shape, their surface pattern and the shape(s) of their windows could be what Hughes meant by gimmicky. The shape we can discount as it looks like an early attempt at a rigid tube structure [such as 432 Park Ave’s]. It probably produced some engineering advantage and consequent construction and materials savings. This hypothesis is supported by the relatively small window openings. If laid properly, glazed ceramic tile is a perfect cladding but there’s no justification for the pattern of this cladding or for the three shapes of window, particularly the teardrop-shaped ones. These features are what English-speaking commentators writing about French architecture are keen to disparagingly label “gesture”. Gesture is assumed to be a bad thing and, if it’s no more than an architectural gesture for our amusement, then I agree.

However, consider this next recently completed project for runaway/homeless kids in Perth, Western Australia. Many of the elements we see in this image – the angled columns, the cantilever, the different finishes and materials, the bright colours, overlapping planes are all architectural gestures of some sort and none is particularly expensive to make.

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They’re all architectural gestures that could be seen as gimmicky but in this context they are all human gestures showing somebody cared enough about the users of this space to make it a little bit more than it could easily have otherwise been. 

I feel something similar happening with Les Tours Aillaud. It’s fifty years old. It’s the only ungated development. It’s not been dynamited. It’s only few stones’ throws away from La Défense. It must still be social housing for rent for, if it weren’t, it’d have been gentrified long ago.

1981

Le Viaduc et les Arcades du Lac
Ricardo Bofill
Allée Jules Verne, 78180 Montigny-le-Bretonneux, France

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This is the first and most photogenic of Ricardo Bofill’s Paris projects and, because of that, a media “classic”. It seeded development of the lake periphery and beyond.

The Les Arcades du Lac component is the lesser photographed. It contains 389 subsidised apartments and, as shown above, has been given a strong controlling geometry recognizable as a French garden with buildings instead of hedges.

Much of the space around Les Arcades du Lac consists of hard landscaping interrupted by occasional trees and views out,

and also by moments of incredible lushness. We simply can’t say if the people who look at these or at the lake all the time have a better appreciation of them than the people who experience them afresh every time they encounter them in the course of going home. I wasn’t aware of any car parking and nor did I think to look for it.

The buildings are in impeccable condition. Its mix of prefabricated concrete panels and terracotta tile cladding is approaching timelessness.

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How well the project as a whole has aged is obvious when compared with surrounding developments that attempt a similar grandness of mass without following through with construction and materials.

The lake is astounding in size and the surrounding parkland well maintained. It must be nice for the majority of the Les Arcades du Lac to know they are close to it even if they can’t see it. Once again, we can’t say if their appreciation of the lake and park is any better or worse. The lake and park are also amenities for the neighbourhood to enjoy. Other than proximity, what makes the occupants of Le Viaduc and Les Arcades du Lac special is that they share a geometry. For the first time I thought such a simple thing as geometry is a very real way of making people feel part of something greater. I began to think of axes and symmetries not as wannabe Versailles but as something that can be used in low-rent housing developments to produce the sense of comfort that comes from knowing one has a place within some grander design. These fundametals of configuration are more visible now the post-modern frisson of surface design has evaporated. It was with this in mind that I viewed the next project.

1982

Les Espaces d’Abraxas
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
1982 pl des Fédérés, Noisy le Grand, Marne la Vallée, Villes Nouvelles, Paris

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Again, there are glimpes of lushness, but fewer and more controlled.

It’s the same things happening again, with even fewer elements working harder but for the same reasons. Here, the shared feature is the amphitheatre – an architectural form in which something happens, even though all that happens is people going to and from their apartments. As with rue Franklin Apartments this space shared both horizontally and vertically unites users and spectators no more or less than with any stadium.

Bofill said it’s more than a bit like the Royal Crescent at Bath. And as with Le Viaduct, a number of apartments are made into a focal point for the development – a plot device that, in the absence of players or actors, gives meaning to the space. According to the description on ricardobofill.com “L’Arc”, with its modest dimensions (20 apartments over nine floors), was placed in the center of the interior space. We wanted to render functional a symbol considered non functional throughout its long historical use. Diverted from its usual symbolism, its final aspect will be that of a romantic, rather than a triumphal arc. For all, it is the focal point of the scheme.”

Also, as with the other projects, movement on ground level is made visible wherever possible but, as with Bofill’s 1975 Walden 2, bridges and open staircases are used to make movement on the higher levels more visible.

The usual photograph by which this development is summarized doesn’t do it justice.

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1985

les Échelles du Baroque
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
Place de Catalogne, Paris

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There are 274 apartments over seven floors. In all respects, this project was so much more than I’d anticipated.

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Again, the same elements are used and with more economy and to the same effect. Bofill’s use of social housing to provide an amenity for the neighbourhood builds upon what Aillaud did in Bobigny three decades earlier.

1986

Les Colonnes St Christophe Housing
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
Place des Colonnes, Cergy Saint Christophe, Cergy, Cergy-Pontoise, Villes nouvelles, Paris

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By now I knew what to look for but this was more than I anticipated. The central shared object, the amphitheather and the grand axes were all present here and stronger. The approach from the railway station is a major axis culminating at the eponymous column.

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Off to the left from the column is another axis leading out of the development. From here on is known as either l’Axe Majeur de Cergy-Pontoise or as Parc François Mitterand as it’s one of the Grand Projects. And grand it is for, once past the arcade, there’s a path leading to some more columns and a view of Paris in the distance.

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One is drawn towards it between rows of espaliered apple trees.

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Only when you get to the distant columns does the view open up, and magnificently so.

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It’s a trek, but one I’d be very happy to live near to. Whether or not they residents have a view of this, the residents still benefit from an embracing geometry. The people of Cergy can access this space from roads passing across it but the people of Paris accessing it from the centre of town or the station will invariably pass through the space with the column.

This is a very intelligent project. Some of its architectural details are superficially post-modern but the important ones are all very real, physical things that refer to nothing else but what they are. They don’t pretend to give – they actually do. Bofill did something very important with these projects that, though ostensibly Post-Modern, aimed higher and had a rationale beyond.

• • •

Les Espaces d’Abraxas is the most vivid of these four projects but probably the least successful as it’s bounded on three sides by busy roads and, unlike the others, a destination only for the people living there and the occasional Bofill rediscoverer such as myself.

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1995

9-17 rue Émile Durkheim
Francis Soler
9-17 rue Émile Durkheim

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This project is just to the south of Dominique Perrault’s 1994 Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the choice of such a location is already a human gesture to its occupants. The project was much maligned in an Architectural Review review of the time. Reference to French architects’ supposed love of “gesture” displayed the mindset that occupants of social housing aren’t allowed anything unique. The main cause of this ire was the graphics applied to the windows.

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The implication was that occupiers of social housing shouldn’t be gazing at art [but aspiring to fitted units and tile splashbacks with decorative borders?] In 1995 or 6, I scanned this image because I liked the clarity of the design and its priorities.

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The architect’s website explains that the full-height double glazing offered construction and structural savings that freed budget for the window graphics showing details from Giulio Romano’s fresco of the Feast of the Gods, but in the style of Roman Cieslewicz [a Polish photographer and graphic artist notable for, amongst other things, his use of collage].

The intention was to provide a poetic dimension and the necessary intimacy without obstructing daylight. It’s a different way of looking at things. This problem of cross-Channel perception has nothing to do with architectural gesture and everything to do with the concept of a human gesture I mentioned earlier. The UK’s neoliberalist filter for aesthetic perception precludes social housing from ever being beautiful, regardless of whether an effort is made or not.

2016

Social Housing
Antonini Darmon Architectes

Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris

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This project featured last year in MARK magazine and much was made of the arches and their shadows and shading. “The modern reinterpretation of Giovanni Guerrini’s 1940 Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome is a welcome addition to the western suburbs.” The apartments are decent enough and the balcony width increases in line with the need for sun control, apparently.

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There was little need for sun control when I visited.

Driven by views and the river promenade as amenities, the area has much new development and is more about to happen. “Each building designed by a different architect” is mentioned as if it were a good thing. Jean Nouvel’s name is mentioned likewise.

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This social housing is within a courtyard development and ostensibly its centrepiece. Opportunities to see into or out of that courtyard are few because as many of the surrounding apartments as possible are attempting views to the west across L’Île Seguin to the hills of Meudon – or at least their living rooms are, leaving many bedrooms facing the courtyard and the building. There’s a slim chance this building has its archy facade as a human gesture to its tenants, but it’s more likely an architectural gesture to those who have a view of it. It could be a case of those arches being a human gesture to one set of occupants and an architectural one to the other, thus extracting maximum value from a human gesture and also somehow missing the point.

The building itself is no doubt there because of some condition of planning permission. On the plus side, at least it’s there and not on some remote site.

• • •

This post didn’t begin as a critique of attitudes to social housing in Paris but, even from these few examples, it’s clear that enthusiasm to build it has waned along with the idea that better housing for everyone is something architects should be concerned with. Even as late as 1985, architects such as Bofill were still trying to house people in ways that nourished not only the occupants but their environs as well. By 1995 the attempts had become smaller in scale but still with a sense of priorities. The era of such brave attempts seems over and the trend is for social housing projects to be even smaller in scale and begrudgingly provided by developers, as has long been the norm in the UK.

Having said that,

misfits’ salutes France, for having kept it going for longer than anywhere else. 

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More:

Jean Renaudie
Atelier de Montrouge
Bofill in France
Émile Aillaud
Cité d’Abreuvoir
Francis Soler
ricardobofill.com – A generous website with much information and many downloadable images. Sketches are a bonus but more plans would be nice. An excellent resource nevertheless.

Many thanks to F. and S.

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The Landscape Within

I’d been seeing images of one corner of this project on and off since 1975, as if elevational hijinks were the only thing of general architectural interest. Times being the times, they probably were but, in my own way, I was equally guilty of not being curious as to what lay below the surface of Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7.

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This wasn’t such a bad thing as I’m probably more alert now to what this project set out to achieve and, by all accounts, succeeded in doing. At first sight, it appears complex but it’s less obvious how that complexity has been generated from a few very simple moves. Complexity for the sake of it is never good but if this project were simply a straightforward, low-cost, social housing development it would never have even crossed the architectural radar in order to fall from our collective memory.

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Multiple small floor plates successively stagger outwards to create openings, and then stagger inwards to close them again.

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Access galleries run along the inner sides when the building staggers outwards and also, as seen below, for the four midle floors of two-storey apartments where there’s no staggering.

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They switch to the outer side when the floors stagger back in.

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Considerable art has been applied to disguise repetition. Only two of these four stacked access bridges look the same, for example.

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All galleries lead to the centre where four banks of two elevators serve 446 apartments. Images of the entrance space are easy to find but images of the central elevator void are oddly elusive.

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All apartment layouts are based on a module that can be combined horizontally and/or vertically to make apartments of various sizes. This thinking is the product of a time when everything was suddenly modular – a concept that was sold as catering to freedom and individuality. This was no lie as a wider range of virtual needs could be catered for with a single product and manufacturing economies ensured at the same time.

It’s still a good idea because a wide range of real needs can be catered for with a single product, ensuring manufacturing economies.

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The project is located just west of Barcelona so there’s no pressing need for enclosed staircases or for air conditioning. Six extremely photogenic voids run vertically through the building, intersecting with three horizontal voids that someone has called “urban windows.”

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Urban windows are all very well but the only view of some of those apartments is onto a lightwell, Barcelona being Barcelona, those lightwells at least have plenty of light, but even so … These next three images are looking in, out and to the side of the entrance doors.

Here’s a rare shot looking up.

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And here’s an ever rarer image of the four banks of two elevators backing onto the centre most space. The larger one is the service elevator.

What I admire most about this project is how it doesn’t hide its internal circulation within corridors. People inside their apartments can see what’s going on inside the building and always be aware of other people moving around. There’s no lack of images of bridges and galleries and, although these definitely are trying to be attractive, it’s not to draw attention to themselves but to the people on them. This is easy to forget today when things only seem to exist in order to be photographed.

In the same way, people moving around can see windows opening and lights being turned on and off and are always aware of lives being lived inside the apartments. These access galleries aren’t trying to be streets in the sky but merely interesting ways for people to get home. The building works the way it was intended, and is loved by its residents. All reports indicate a definte sense of community and an awareness of living with other people. [Which comes first?] Walden 7 got something very important very right. It’s fine to label it a “1970s Classic” but to do that is to place it safely at a distance and prevent us learning important lessons from it today.

Why aren’t more buildings configured like this? I suspect it’s because our standard apartment block with inner rooms with mechanical ventilation and artificial light is configured in the cheapest and fastest way to build. Voids don’t come cheap as they are still space partially enclosed by a structure that still costs money, even if it can’t be walked in. Voids such as Walden 7’s can be partially monetized back by internal views that, though undeniably interesting, are nobody’s idea of a preferred view if there’s only one view to be had. 

Trellick Tower, a thirty-one-story apartment block in North Kensington, London, designed by Ernő Goldfinger, 1966–1972; from Elain Harwood’s <i/>Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945–1975

Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London was completed 1972 so, stylistically, Walden 7 was slightly outrageous for its time. It offered a Post-Brutalist way forward for social housing but ended up suffering the same fate as Brutalism before it, suggesting that the way forward for architecture may or may not have been a question of style, but it was certainly not social housing. Just as with Brutalism, we’re encouraged to look at Walden 7 as a failed aesthetic experiment rather than a successful social one.    

Perhaps the most amazing and possibly damning thing of all is that Walden 7 was constructed simply and within budget, using conventional technologies. It didn’t require the column to be reinvented. It didn’t require a new type of concrete to be developed. All it took was the ability to conceive of pleasant and nourishing spaces and which is supposed to be the job of architects.

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• • •

Only since this February and the Repeating Crevice Revisited post did I begin to think internal views of a building’s inner life might be a socially useful thing to provide. In April’s Plan B, I bemoaned the anti-social elevator lobbies and corridors in contemporary apartment buildings and proposed making it easier to see more of what is happening in them. In June’s Detective StoryI developed this a little with overlooked, open corridors.

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Gallery-Access Tower Block

Three levels of apartments form triple-height elevator lobbies overlooked by apartments accessed up from that level and also by those accessed down from the access level above. Rather than three isolated individual lobbies, these three-storey lobbies have a touch of Walden 7 about them.

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This proof-of-concept layout has four simple two-bedroom apartments per level, with two open stairs, each with gallery landings serving two apartments. Kitchen windows observe the defensible space of the apartment entrance, but hallway windows in 45° walls face and directly overlook the centre of the lobby space, allowing glimpses of it and activity within to persons passing in either direction through the apartment hallways.

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This approaches a minimum configuration. The only “value-engineerable” elements are the elevator glass doors and transoms, and the vision panels to the elevator shafts, but to remove them would be a loss since the sight of mechanical activity provides an indirect awareness of people moving within the building, adding to the direct visual one.

 • • •

  • http://www.gooood.hk/walden-7-by-ricardo-bofill-taller-de-arquitectura.htm It’s no surprise this site has a Hong Kong domain because the Hong Kong public housing tower block usually has much resident interaction in the form of views within and between towers. Here you’ll find more details on the apartment plans as well as a good set of photographs.
  • http://www.averyreview.com/issues/7/revisiting-systems A curious article. It seems to be saying that considering buildings as integrated structural, construction and social system is a retro-throwback. It focusses on how Bofill’s theoretical position has changed over the years rather than on Walden 7’s unexplored potential. In the midst of post-modern madness, this original and unclassifiable 1975 project never impinged upon the architectural consciousness as much as did Bofill’s 1971 Xanadu or his 1978 Les Espaces d’Abraxas. Walden 7 created a new reality for living rather than new architectural representations of property and privilege. 

  • https://habitatgecollectiu.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/walden-7-ricardo-boffil/ This site has a good set of images and overview.
  • https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/12915930 £50 a night seems like a good deal.

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• • •

This links to a description of Walden 7 on ricardobofill.com.

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The Fireplace

Fireplace is one of those reliable English language words that don’t leave you guessing. This abridged history begins with the traditional European fireplace of mediaeval times. The one in the image on the left, below, is from a house The Black Knight once stayed in circa 1400, hence the insignia on the mantel – or at least that’s how I remember it from World of Interiors. The house is most definitely that of a nobleman, but I like how it can be lived in with a minimum of apparatus. Rugs and tapestries soften the acoustics and lessen radiant cooling. That 17th century invention, the piano, would always have been by the window for better light but not so close for diurnal temperature variations to affect its tuning. A painting and some flowers in a vase probably always satisfied the human needs for art and nature. Internal shutters kept the wind-owt. The fireplace provided warmth.

The story-arc of the fireplace starts off promisingly with a succession of improvements for better combustion.

The first major change in heating technology came in the early 17th century when Franz Kessler had the idea of using the siphon effect to pull hot air through a ceramic baffle that warmed up and transferred heat to the room.

Taken from the Holzsparkunst (The Art of Saving Wood) by Franz Kessler – published in 1618.

Over four centuries, the ceramic fireplace (a.k.a. masonry heater) with multiple baffles became the dominant continental European way to heat a room. Each country had its variants but common to all was a large mass that heated the room by radiant heat.

A Frenchman, Jean Desaguiliers, noticed that metals such as cast iron conducted heat into the room more effectively. Benjamin Franklin combined these two discoveries into the Franklin Stove he proposed in 1741.

It had the problem of only burning well and without smoke if there was a strong draft, and this was difficult if the flue was still cold. In 1780, David Rittenhouse modified Franklin’s design by adding an L-shaped flue at the top and it’s Rittenhouse improved design that today, unfortunately for Rittenhouse’s memory, is mistakenly referred to as a Franklin Stove.

A little over four years ago, in the Night Sky Radiant Cooling post, I introduced Count von Rumford [a.k.a. Benjamin Thompson] who, in 1796, suggested improvements that became known as the Rumford Fireplace. Rumford must have been sensitive to cold as he’s also credited with the invention of thermal underwear.

The Rumford fireplace created a sensation in London when [Rumford] introduced the idea of restricting the chimney opening to increase the updraught, which was a much more efficient way to heat a room than earlier fireplaces. He and his workers modified fireplaces by inserting bricks into the hearth to make the side walls angled, and added a choke to the chimney to increase the speed of air going up the flue. The effect was to produce a streamlined air flow, so all the smoke would go up into the chimney rather than lingering, entering the room, and often choking the residents. It also had the effect of increasing the efficiency of the fire, and gave extra control of the rate of combustion of the fuel, whether wood or coal. Many fashionable London houses were modified to his instructions, and became smoke-free. [W]

The pot-bellied stove of circa 1860 is one of the world’s great inventions. It could produce 50 kW or more, making them suitable for heating large spaces such as railway station waiting rooms and depots, and even the trains themselves. Warmth went public. 

The story of the domestic fireplace between 1850 and 1950 is that of the shift from combusting wood, to combusting coal, and then gas. Below, the first example is a coal-burning fireplace from circa 1870 and the others are examples of the gas-fired “coal-effect” fireplaces still common in the UK today.

Ceramic “coals” glow a convincing red upon sufficient heat input.

Over the same period, the history of the fireplace split in two. One history charts improvements in the fuel being combusted and how to combust it. The other charts the change from the fireplace being (1) a functional feature structurally integrated into the building, into (2) a functional and symbolic feature integrated into the building and then into (3) a symbolic feature. This history can probably be traced through the fireplaces of Wright alone.

In the 20th century, the fireplace became an architectural feature increasingly detached from the building.

These next images, in no particular order, show the fireplace in various stages on the spectrum of architectural element to objectified object.

Whether this objectification happened because fireplaces were made functionally obsolete by air conditioning, underfloor heating and other forms of active environmental control no longer matters. It continued anyway. An architecture victim at twelve, I looked foward to dancing around the fire in my modern house of the future.

One technical fightback that occurred 1960-1980 was the “heatform” fireplace which was a metal firebox built into a full masonry chimney. They were inexpensive to install because a trained mason didn’t have to construct a firebox. Side or top vents circulated heated air back into the room. Heatform and Heatilator were popular brands.

This is Vulcan oil-fired heater of a type popular in Australia in the 1960s. There was a tank on an outside wall and when its float indicator dropped below a certain level, you’d phone someone and a guy in a boiler suit would come park an oil tanker in your driveway and fill it up again, fuelling oil dependency at the same time. Oil heaters such as these were often enclosed in a masonry–effect fireplace surrounds or inserted into feature walls of masonry effect cladding. Ceramic inserts above the burner glowed orange at full burn.

The 1970s oil crises and a growing awareness that burning oil wasn’t such a good thing led to a revival of interest in wood-burning stoves that had no need for masonry surrounds, even fake ones. Most improved little upon the Rittenhouse Stove. Rectangular shapes were admired for their modern looks rather than for having more radiant surface area than a potbelly.

Freestanding stoves were seen as more modern but placing them in a fireplace meant the masonry would continue to radiate heat for some time after heat input ceased.

Philip Starck solved that problem by placing optional boxes of modular rocks / modular boxes of optional rocks beneath the firebox. Meet Speetbox. Is there anything that has not been reinvented by Philippe Starck?

Speetbox app features include:

  • Control of hot air distribution (on/off)
  • Control of room temperature (optional)
  • Setting of power/speed of combustion
  • Analysis of flue temperatures (safety)
  • Lighting control
  • Control of electric sockets (time setting)
  • Hearth software features update

Since the 1970s, the objectification of the fireplace has intensified but with less dancing. Of the feature object fireplaces, the suspended fireplace was perhaps the most perverse,

but there is also the subcategory of architectural fireplaces,

as well as the one having the fireplace as architecturalized object.

As it happened, it wasn’t the fireplace being objectified after all but fire itself. The frameless Escea DS1400 lets you focus on the flame instead of going to the trouble of making one or using it to make more by periodically adding fuel. The Escea DS1400 operates on either natural gas or propane. Its heat output of 5–5.6 kW might warm 16 sq.m on a cold day.

A downloadable user guide tells you how to connect your fireplace to the internet ffs and warns you not to lose the remote.

We haven’t quite reached the bottom. This next is a bio-ethanol fire experience that provides you with romantic fire art. At least the flames are still flames.

You know how this is going to end.  Dimplex’s Opti Myst® effect uses ultrasonics to create a fine water mist that’s coaxed upwards through the ‘fuel’ to allow moving images of flames to be projected onto it and create a convincing illusion of flames and smoke. The result is an appearance so authentic it will be mistaken for true flames and smoke. To its credit, there is still the presence of a gas-like substance but any conceptual satisfaction is thwarted by their “Just add water!” approach to creating fire. 

Focal Point Fires make much of their realistic fire effects. Dimplex have been at it for some time. Their Optiflame® effect was introduced in 1988.

Their Opti-V Effect is, they say, the perfect blend of magic and realism. This is disturbing. Just when I’ve finally come to accept a reality that’s insufficiently magical, I realise I’ve been neglecting to worry about magic not being realistic enough.

It uses the latest High Definition TV technology to create flames and sparks for a virtual fireplace experience like no other. The unique and patent protected design combines ultra realistic flickering flames with three dimensional LED logs that sporadically spark! With the addition of an audio element of crackling logs, the illusion of a real fire is complete. [snarky boldings mine]

There are many fireplace TV apps available that don’t treat sound as an extra. Their downside is that the only heat you’ll get will be from your flatscreen’s electronics. The fire as fire-effect virtual fireplace is so new our language hasn’t yet adapted to describe it. If left to virtually burn continuously on this 32″ SONY BRAVIA for the three months of winter, such an app would consume 35W of electricity. Most of that 35W would be converted into heat, but you might wish it was a little more especially if, like me, you are a seated adult male generating (i.e. losing) approx. 70W of metabolic heat per hour.

From such proud beginnings to such an ignominious end. I didn’t set out to write a critical para-historic fable about architecture as a projection of an image of a hollowed-out shell of something that once had a purpose, but it’s what I seem to have done.

• • •

Misfits’ Guide to PERTH

As an intermittent returnee to Perth I’m often asked “Hasn’t The City changed?” The question refers to the skyline and usually something is different but, every fifteen years or so, along comes a building that dramatically alters the shape and scale of the city in the same way Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center did for New York in 1970 or Rafael Viñoly Associates’ 432 Park Avenue is doing currently. In Perth, the game changers were 1962’s 18-storey T&G Building [currently refurbished as Citibank House], the circa 1975 trio of AMP Tower, Allendale Square and St. Martin’s Tower all around 33 storeys, and 1992’s 51-storey Central Park.

Before the use of tinted, reflective and solar glass became widespread, it was common for tall buildings in Perth to have some form of external sun control device. This made them place-sensitive. It also made sense. Some of the first buildings in Western Australia were Georgian cottages with verandahs but other building types received similar enhancements.

Council  HouseHowlett & Bailey, 1963
27–29 St. George’s Terrace, Perth

Without its sun shading, Perth’s Council House would be standard issue International Style. Its T-shaped elements are decorative yet successfully ameliorate all but direct west sun. Once deemed an eyesore and out of keeping with the then government’s plan to make a new heritage [?] precinct, the building was given a makeover in 1999 and, since 2010, multicolour LED light washes have made “the ‘technicolour’ building one of the city’s most appealing night-time landmarks.” 

QV.1, Harry Seidler, 1991
250 St. George’s Terrace, Perth

This was designed by Australian Gropius, Harry SeidlerThere’s much to dislike about this building but not the thoroughness of its passive sun control. QV.1 is currently Perth’s fourth tallest building and is widely known for being both energy efficient and unattractive – something only possible if a building is trying to be beautiful. “… the QV1 building is based on the famous photo where Marilyn Monroe is standing on a grate and air is blowing her skirt up. The twin towers of the QV1 represent her legs, and the rippled awning you walk under when you enter the building is her skirt. The red, curved structure in the forecourt of the building are her lips.”  I fear there may be some truth in this. 

The smoochy floor plate is also suspect.

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Despite it’s overeagerness to mean something to anybody, QV.1 remains a good example of vertical shading devices blocking the west sun which is particularly fierce in Perth, and horizontal shading devices blocking the north summer sun. This is something also done with much gusto by the next building that regularly tops ‘Ugliest Building in Perth’ lists.

East Perth Train StationAnthony (Tony) Brand, circa 1970

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The building is lazily described as Brutalist because concrete figures somehow but has less to do with Le Corbusier and Maisons Jaoul and more to do with the Brutalism of Greater London Council that liked its buildings sturdy and low maintenance. Brick fins on all sides function as shading devices with the angle of the fins differing for each facade as it should. Mr. Brand may have laid himself open to charges of over-robustness. Perth sunlight may be fierce but, at the end of the day, it’s still only light.

Kessel House, Iwan Iwanoff, 1975
4 Briald Street, Dianella, Perth

Bulgaria-born Iwan Iwanoff’s buildings are lazily described as Brutalist because concrete figures somehow.

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Iwanoff studied architecture in Munich but his qualifications weren’t recognized in 1950 when he arrived in Perth as a refugee so he decamped to Melbourne. Fifteen years later and registered, he moved back to Perth where his career proper began. Iwanoff’s belief that architecture was an art would have produced distinctive buildings anyway, but he succeeded in channeling his acquired disrespect for Australia’s architectural establishment into an unconventional architecture of concrete block. His Kessel House is a good example. You can see interior photographs and other work by Iwan Iwanoff on Andrew Murray’s blog perthsbest, and also here and here.

Harold Krantz & Robert Sheldon employed Iwanoff in 1950 when he first arrived, and again in 1965 when he returned from Melbourne. Krantz & Sheldon are notable in their own right. They pioneered European architectural styles in Perth and were prolific designers of apartment blocks. [Harold Krantz will be Architecture Misfit #27.]

Mt. Eliza Apartments, Krantz & Sheldon, 1964
3/71 Mount Street, Perth

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My favourite Krantz & Sheldon building, I seem to have admired it forever and, as it was constructed in 1964, probably have. It was the first circular apartment building in Australia, Western Australia’s first modern apartment block and at the time Perth’s 2nd tallest building. Emporis tells me it has 25 apartments, two per floor for floors two through eleven and one each for the top five. The prime location means these were never to be low-cost investment apartments. This real estate listing will hopefully still take you around the interior of one which is as you’d expect.

What’s surprising is not only the extreme economy of plan and structure but how fully integrated they are. These guys were good. Never before have I seen a core where the elevator lobby, access corridor and escape stairwell landing are one and the same thing. Never before have I seen a building where the water tank is part of the design. This is no stylistic affectation as structurally the water tank is in the best possible place. Moreover, that water tank is oversized as the building is on the highest ground in Perth and thus above the level of the nearby Mt. Eliza Service Reservoir.

Speaking of water, Krantz & Sheldon were also responsible for Windsor Towers on other side of Perth Water and which can be glimpsed at the end of the street in the view above.

Windsor Towers, Krantz & Sheldon, 1966
9 Parker Street, South Perth

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There are four apartments per floor, as you’d expect. Estate agent websites show no apartment plans but what I really wanted to see was how the core is organised.

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The false floor addition makes the view more accessible and the windows non-compliant.

It’s odd nothing taller has been built since. Windsor Towers seems to have become to South Perth what Tour Monparnasse is to Paris. I don’t think it’s due to its scant twenty stories. Its original European White has been overpainted Pale Heritage-y Ochre but the absence of balconies and the egalitarian pinwheel ignoring the pull of the view both mark this building as unAustralian.

Accordingly, there’s a proposal to fully assimilate this building by giving all apartments balconies that add value and restore the Australian birthright to barbecue.

It makes me want to be a planning officer so I could refuse permission on the grounds of the proposal destroying the building’s pinwheel integrity. I would helpfully suggest rotationally-symmetrical balconies on axis with the arms. I would menacingly suggest creating outdoor areas by subtracting volume from the living areas.

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Except for when they appear on postcards of capital cities, high buildings and high densities are repectively deemed American or European and thus unAustralian. The City of Subiaco is a local municipality three kilometers from central Perth. Its planning guidelines limit residential development to four storeys as anything higher is deemed not in keeping with the heritage nature of the town centre. Refer to the Draft Subiaco Activity Centre Plan if you enjoy reading planning guidelines and pondering their logic.

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This is what happens.

Policies such as these fuel outer-suburb development and pressure inner suburbs to be re-developed at higher densities. The left side of this aerial view of Osborne Park shows residential blocks with a single house while the right side shows blocks the same size block redeveloped with four.