Category Archives: Forgotten Histories

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

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.

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The result is a reduction in the number of mature trees and very long driveways accessing houses that, incredulously, are still detached.

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What we learn from this is that increased density is welcome as long as it involves no increase in height and doesn’t look like increased density. Tricky.

Gen Y Demonstration Housing Project, David Barr, 2016
Corner of Hope Street and Mouquet Vista, White Gum Valley, Perth

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White Gum Valley isn’t as far out of town as it sounds, but what is meant by the byline “Density by Stealth”? Is ArchitectureAU for or against this proposal?

This proposal is for a new type of triplex house that gives the appearance of a single-family dwelling.

Rather than the step and repeat of earlier years, this housing type proposes adding a degree of inscrutability rather than any net gain in density. [3 x 1-bed. @ 2 persons max. = 1 x  3-bed. @ 6 persons max.] The difference is that now three kitchens and living rooms are needed. Density is a red herring – this isn’t about land use efficiency or saving of resources.

The name House for Gen Y suggests these are small houses sized and priced to stimulate the housing market by creating more FIRST-TIME BUYERS! to prevent them from wanting to live in apartments or [mercy!] live together with others in a similar situation.

Foyer Oxford, Chindarsi Architects, 2014
Oxford Street, Leederville, Perth

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Some people don’t have the choice. Foyer Oxford is co-housing run as a refuge for young people. You can find out more about the building from the architects’ link here, and about what it does from here. This type of project never has a huge budget. Chindarsi Architects have used theirs well, spashing out sparingly but effectively on clustering a range of architectural devices of individually nondescript materials of varying colour and texture around the central space in an abundance of care.

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Amana Home Care Services
416 Stirling Hwy, Cottesloe WA 6011, Australia

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The building began life as the Sundowner Hotel in the mid-1970s. It’s a good example of the social utility of co-living and generic functionality and is now part of the Amana Group offering various types and levels of care for the aged. The original hotel building is used to provide respite care.   

Co-living exists in Perth as youth refuges, as care facilities and as backpackers hostels. They’re all successful because the residents have an awareness of being in a similar situation. Togetherness is a plus when you find yourself in a situation. Co-living is yet to appear as an option for the general population as there isn’t the sense of a shared society to make it work the way it does in Switzerland.

• • •

Glick House
18 Tennyson Street, Leederville

Glick House was designed in 1999 for the sculptor Rodney Glick in 1999. Its architect was Geoff Warn of Donaldson & Warn. A state heritage listing describes it as being in the Late Twentieth Century Functionalist style. The 1999 Winter Edition of ‘The Architect’ describes it as ‘an engineered aesthetic’ and an ‘ambiguous and confronting house’.

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https://www.realestate.com.au/property/18-tennyson-st-leederville-wa-6007

My friend Ruth Durack lived in this house the last five years of her life. The photographs above show the house much as I remember it. To this day it is the most humane house I’ve ever been in.

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• • •

Some further information and resources but first, big thanks to Johann and to Josh for their contributions to this post.

• • •

Keeping it Real

If the history of the decline and fall of architecture ever gets written, it’ll mean we finally cared enough to learn from it, perhaps even restore it to being a noble activity. In that history, the name of Philip Johnson will feature prominently for introducing into architecture now-standard practices such as equating celebrity with worth and detaching publicity from truth. Johnson didn’t invent these practices but he did show architects how to use them. He was awarded the first Pritzker Prize in 1979.

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Rockefeller Guest House, Philip Johnson, 1950

Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House was never going to be a house as the rest of us might imagine one to be. There’s a kitchen, but it’s not part of the architecture. There’s stairs, but to where we don’t know. It’s another Johnsonian salon, this time for Blanchette Rockefeller to show art and groom guests into becoming MoMA patrons. It was she who called it her Guest House. A certain type of extremely wealthy person understands how the display of very little can be both opulent and understated at the same time. Blanchette Rockefeller was one of those persons, as shown by her pearls and simple neckline in this 1996 photograph by Bill Cunningham.

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Rockefeller Guest House has an existence as architecture yet there’s zero evidence of its ever having been designed, documented or constructed as a building. I’ve never seen an upper floor plan, let alone a basement plan or a section. Even the building volume lacks conventional justification. Philip Johnson claimed the second floor was only added to give the house more presence from the street, thereby indicating to everyone his sensitivity to aesthetic problems and his ability to solve them regardless of cost. Money well spent is the message.

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The Landmarks Preservation Commission report of 2000 repeats Johnson’s claim and, although it gives it equal importance, does provide some new information .

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Even the Landmarks Preservation Committee has no interest in the second floor. I assume the street facade of that second floor does interest them otherwise we’d have the curious situation of a landmark without presence. Anyway, those unheated bedrooms face the interior courtyard across a flat and inaccessible roof. In this next photograph is all you and I are ever going to see of them.

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The image shows the stairs leading up to the first floor corridor spanning the width of the building immediately behind those curtains. Opening off that corridor are either three doors – one for each bedroom and one for the bathroom – or, alternatively, there is one central door leading to a lobby with three more doors. This would mean that going to the bathroom doesn’t involve a nocturnal walk along E52nd should anyone ever open those inner curtains and not draw them again. But how any upper floor bathroom might drain is a mystery. Any internal drain would be visible and the ground floor walls of painted brick of course naturally show no chases.

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Behind the front door is the kitchen. Panels conceal it when it’s not being used and, when it is, they fold out to screen it and the caterers from guests being greeted at the entrance. When the house was in party mode, guests must have thought this crude screen charmingly bohemian. It encapsulates Philip Johnson’s all-too-influential concept of what architecture is and does, as illustrated by this next photograph with a cooker and kitchen fan representing the workers and services on one side, and a sculpture and plinth representing wealth and culture on the other. My money’s on the sculpture being a Gaston Lachaise – the sculptor of the friezes on the Rockefeller Centre. At least that was public art.

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Where the kitchen fan could exhaust to is a mystery as it’s not directly to the front of the house.

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What I find curious about this house is the disjunction between how important it’s supposed to be in terms of fallback contexts such as the first example of Modernist architecture in New York, Philip Johnson’s only residential work in New York and so on, yet we never get shown the upper floor plan let alone the basement, the existence of which is only obvious from the break line across the staircase.

If the upper floor plan wasn’t necessary for programmatic reasons, then why not just have a double height space with a thick window rail as implied by the elevation? In other words, why not just build at the outset what one wants to show, rather than fake it with curtains?

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Johnson knew people would believe anything he said. He could have answered “but the proportions would have been all wrong!” but this would’ve sounded like Mies. That Mies didn’t do double-height spaces was reason enough, though Mies was probably more annoyed Corbusier – Wright, actually – did them first rather than any distaste for their inherent wastefulness. Mies also didn’t do basements – most conspicuously for Edith – so neither did Johnson – at least not in public. Locating the basement servicing Glass House beneath Brick House eliminates the need for a tacky trapdoor.

The preservation report I mentioned earlier, refers to Rockefeller Guest House as having the same volumetric configuration as the previous 1870 house, and that it had a full basement. The kitchen fan might then be ducted down and into the basement and then out through the non-historic metal grate in the footpath.

Rockefeller Guest House

Perhaps the original basement had a coal chute opening onto the street where the non-historic metal grate now is. We must remember that the term non-historic, in this case, means anything that’s not a part of the house being considered by the Landmarks Preservation Committee and, perversely, not anything that might have been there before.

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The report also mentions that the drawings for Rockefeller Guest House were submitted for approval as alterations to the 1870 house and this is an interesting for it means the Rockefeller Guest House would have had to retain those original building volumes. Submitting plans for approval as alterations is a clever call for various practical reasons but it does change how we view those volumes. We now know why Rockefeller Guest House has a basement, a second floor, and an internal courtyard.

One works with what one has. The space between the building and the outhouse (where the bathroom still is) was made to appear as if it were a consciously-contrived design feature. The presence of the basement and any unpleasant associations to Old World architecture and/or utilitarian concerns was simply denied. And rather than admit the history of the building and that what we saw was less than 100% original design, Philip Johnson invented a disingenuous and self-serving reason for the existence of the second floor. Merely ensuring a building has bedrooms and bathrooms does nothing in the way of personal or architectural myth making.

Philip Cortleyou Johnson lied about the second floor being there to create a presence on the street. He never looked back.

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Philip Johnson Birthday Celebration, Four Seasons Restaurant, New York, New York, July 9, 1996
Seated on the Floor: Peter Eisenman and Jacquelin Robertson
First Row: Michael Graves, Arata Isozaki, Philip Johnson, Phyllis Bronfman Lambert and Richard Meier
Second Row: Zaha Hadid, Robert A.M. Stern, Hans Hollein, Stanley Tigerman, Henry Cobb and Kevin Roche Third Row: Charles Gwathmey, Terrence Riley, David Childs, Frank O. Ghery and Rem Koolhaas
Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

The primary purpose of Rockefeller Guest House was to facilitate soirées for future MoMA patrons. Original drawings may yet show an upper floor with multiple powder rooms, and a basement having capacious cloakrooms for minks and a full caterers’ kitchen for churning out trayloads of canapés and brandy alexanders. If the history of how the architectural media failed architecture ever gets written, it will conclude that the internet only exacerbated what was already accepted practice.

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• • •

[This post was expanded from a contribution to OfHouses 18/01/2016–07/02/2016.]

16 Oct 2016: My friend Curtis tells me it looks like the first floor floor has sufficient thickness to conceal a 4″ waste pipe until it reaches the side wall where it would invariably be chased into the wall, brought down, and then led back to the location of the site’s sewer connection indicated by the position of this vent.

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Also, this is the only photograph I’ve ever seen with the curtains opened. We can tell now that the glass is frosted, that the corridor is about 1 metre wide, and that the leftmost third of it appears to belong to a room, although we still can’t say if it is the original layout.

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Also noticeable is the safety railing. I’m surprised it’s there as it doesn’t appear to be an historic safety railing. It’s still there though. That black box now on the roof suggests those upper bedrooms are now heated.

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18 Oct. 2016: My friend Jonathan tells me (in the comments to this post) that there is, or was, a clause in the NYC building code that allowed any building work to any building to be classed an alteration if the 1st (ground) floor was retained. This allowed significant advantage particularly with respect to planning requirements particularly into relation to site coverage, the provision of rear yards and so on. Although I suspect Mr Johnson was able to work comfortably with the municipal employees to resolve particular points of disagreement. What work might have been submitted to the Building Department in 1950 is probably of little value, if anything ever was.
The volumetric equality between previous and present is more likely to have been a furphy. Estranged Australian me googled furphy to find it was 

Australian slang for an erroneous or improbable story that is claimed to be factual. Furphies are supposedly ‘heard’ from reputable sources, sometimes secondhand or thirdhand, and widely believed until discounted. Wikipedia

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An important step in Le Corbusier’s career as an architect was the 1912 house he designed for his parents – he charged them a fee. The house was too expensive to maintain so they sold it in 1919. By then, Charles-Édouard had already decamped to Paris, bigger fish to fry. Little wonder his mother always preferred Albert.

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In 1920, the not-yet Le Corbusier and new best friend Amédée Ozenfant collaborated on the art journal L’Esprit Nouveau. We might understand it today as an aggregator of ornamentiscrime.org and vandevelde.biz.*

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In 1920 Paris, the 6FF per copy of L’Esprit Nouveau could buy 6kg of bread.* It’s difficult to know how many people forsook bread to read ideas that were to eventually gel into the Five Points. It’s also difficult for us to appreciate how novel those five points must have been at the time. Students are routinely asked to name them but neither examiners nor examinees for the life of them know why. Me, I’m all for a general knowledge of history but only if it’s continually examined and re-examined for relevance.

What we do know is that The Five Points shot around the architectural world in an instant – as much as an instant was possible at the time. There was definitely something special about them, but what?  

The columns in LC’s Dom-ino House of 1914-15 had used the principle of the 1907 Dom-ino House but just held up the building without making a show of it. Their presence could maybe be inferred from the windows that were more horizontal than vertical.

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There were growies on the roof in 1914 but the plantless rooftop space of the 1920 Citrohan House was labelled a solarium.

With the 1922 Citrohan House  MKII, LC used a grid of reinforced concrete columns to jack up the Citrohan House he’d made earlier. In patent offices, this is called an ‘inventive step’. The inventive step was to transform an economical house into a wasteful villa.

A grid of reinforced concrete columns is an inexpensive means of producing the potential to enclose space but, unless you enclose that space, all you’ve done is use a structure to display that potential. You’ve ‘defined’ a space for no reason other than to show it’s yours and that you’ve no practical need for it. It other words, it is beautiful.

The Fondation Le Corbusier claims the 1923 Maison La Roche was the first manifestation of The Five Points.

Maison La Roche is a double house, the other half designed for already-mentioned brother Albert. The two houses were once known as Two Houses at Auteuil but these days are known separately as Maison La Roche and Maison Jeanneret. Monsieur Raoul La Roche bankrolled the publication of L’Esprit Nouveau and thus features in the beginning and endgames of the Le Corbusier industry for ‘Maison Jeanneret’ is the current home of Fondation Le Corbusier that exists for the conservation, knowledge and dissemination of Le Corbusier’s workAlbert is written out of history in plain view. Revenge by proxy.

Whether divided or as a whole, the building suffers from insufficient program to fill a ground floor and force the main living levels into that neoclassic affectation, a piano nobile.  Even poor Albert gets a large hallway, staff quarters and a garage that in 1923 was almost certainly for show. Monseiur La Roche has all that plus a gallery-sized void. It seems to be crying out to be filled by cars but has only ever been indicated as landscaping. The only thing occupying this space is the idea of getting a building up in the air, at any cost.

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As in 1914, there is again a roof garden and again, the plan is very much determined by the position of structural walls and so, for that matter, is the facade. The horizontal windows aren’t independent of the structure but they’re now trying to appear as if they are. Let’s work our way down from that horizontal window lighting the gallery.

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The roof is supported by two columns painted dark to appear as mullions of the long horizontal window. These columns extend down into the curved wall that might have acted as a beam if it hadn’t been detached at one end by a door and balcony. The load at its middle is transferred to the ground floor column, the contrived displacement of which, I suspect, requires a rectangular web of concrete to transfer that load. I suspect this because of the effort that’s been made to conceal it. A piece of polished metal [or mirror?] is angled on the radius of the stair to create the impression none of this exists. Nasty.

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What the columns are doing is clearer here in this 1928 garden shed. They not only hold up the building but, more importantly, are telling everyone they do. Contrivedly detached from that structure, the ground floor walls define a garden shed with covered porch and axial entrance not visible from the driveway. The route the gardener takes to park his wheelbarrow is not clear.

The problem is that columns look puny when it comes to expressing wealth by enclosing unused or unusable space or by unnecessarily duplicating structural elements because, as with beams, they’re generally the size they’re meant to be. Pushing new boundaries of architectural poetry and innovation requires more massive and massively contrived elements enclosing larger spaces and for less purpose. LC tested this principle in the 1932 Pavilion Suisse.

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It worked, but this doesn’t explain their attraction to the commissioners of social housing in Marseilles in 1949.

It was probably a combination of poor accounting and poor accountability that was responsible. We’re told the structure was originally intended to be steel but that ‘post-war shortages of steel dictated the use of concrete’. Seriously, what kind of visionary would not see that coming?

The superstructure would have lent itself to steel framing and a cladding re-think but I can’t believe steel pilotis and transfer beams were ever on the cards. It would have amounted to building a bridge first and then putting a building on top. We’d be looking at steels larger than this.

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Of the Five Points, pilotis were the greatest of Le Corbusier’s architectural inventions.

Presenting the display of wealth as aesthetic statement is what makes architecture different from building.

It’s clear now that the big difference between pilotis and columns is that pilotis are a more expensive way of doing the same thing. Pilotis force the client to pay for an expensive transfer slab to replicate the function of inexpensive ground. Pure genius!

Pilotis are thus more architectural than columns.

Horizontal windows provide a more evenly distributed illumination but the structural cost is lengthy lintels. Horizontal windows thus don’t feature in vernacular architectures and it is from this that their modernity derives. But if horizontal windows were merely modern, the idea of expensively delineating space that wasn’t going to be used was revolutionary – it was a new type of architectural beauty. The idea of pilotis found immediate and multiple expression throughout the architectural world in the late twenties and early thirties. Here’s a 1928 house in Brno by Jan Víšek.

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This is the ground floor of Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis’ 1928 Narkomfin building in Moscow.

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Here’s a 1931 proposal by William Lescaze for New York’s first slab block housing on Chrystie-Forsyth street. [Remember, this is before America was supposed to know about this stuff.]

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The Casa al Villaggio dei Giornalisti in Milan by Luigi Figini. 1934.

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Meanwhile, back in Moscow, LC’s Tsentrosoyuz (1928-1933) was getting off the ground.

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Le Corbusier, Tsentrosoyuz building, Moscow (completed 1933)

Non-architects were unimpressed. They didn’t understand why a building needed to be raised, float or look as if it was not properly supported or permanent.

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It is claimed that pilotis(/open column grids) return useful land at ground level so it can be used again but that land was never put to great use either then,

or for some time after.

The means to delineate space yet not use it in any meaningful way came to represent luxury for many years. These days, it is an expression of decadence not many are keen to continue paying for.

What hasn’t changed is how pilotis have come to represent architecture. Their continuing use indicates a building demanding to be taken seriously as architecture.

Here’s another yet to come online. [Clue: Fondazione Prada]

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This early 20th century vernacular example from France’s Atlantic coast is something else entirely.

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Lobby Living

Before the Type F V3.0 apartment configuration proposal of Critical Spatiality came this iteration with the upper living room entered from the half-landing of a straight stair. It’s okay.

  • The upper and lower living rooms were unobstructed by stairs.
  • There was 100% stacking of staircases.
  • The biggest negative was the stairs separating the kitchen from the riser, complicating water supply and drainage. The two or three workarounds to this don’t have the elegance of, say, a Knud Peter Harboe service run or a Colin Lucas riser.
  • I also didn’t like the kitchen extractor hood just filtering air instead of extracting it.

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  • Bathrooms could be exhausted upwards to outside via the riser/mechanical space or directly vented to outside via the bedrooms and a duct concealed in boxing. Again, these are standard workarounds but not great.

On the plus side, the upper apartment has no wasted corridor area since bedrooms aren’t in line with the living areas. The first bedroom is above the entrances of the lower apartment anyway, and the second bedroom is above the entrance of the adjacent upper apartment. bedrooms.jpg

The lower apartment has no wasted corridor because the living area is used to access the other bedroom. This post is about using living space as a lobby to access bedrooms.

Lower Level

An arrangement similar to that of the upper apartment could avoid using the living room as a lobby – or it could be used to create a three bedroom apartment.

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  • However, whether upper or lower, this creates the problem of end apartments having either only one bedroom or having one bedroom double the size.

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  • Volume below stairs can of course be used as storage space but this seems an expedient justificiation, unlike in the previous version where the volume below and above the stairs at least added to the volume of the living room.
  • The value computation is the same as before.
Comparison

Note: The areas indicated as sellable floor area are used to calculate the sellable volume (%) of the building.

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Not that it matters! Improved apartments of either iteration don’t get built. Single aspect apartments of minimal area accessed from double-loaded corridors do get built and, what’s more, are the model for much of today’s housing (c.f. The Big Brush).

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It’s easy to see why. If the site is deep enough for two apartments and a corridor then not only is building the baseline twice as profitable, it’s the only option if there’s insufficient site depth for two rows of improved apartments. Even if there is and profit equalizes (as below), other factors such as view, site usage, site coverage and speed of construction will kick in to again tip the balance in favour of the single building.

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No wonder the Type F, despite all its advantages, never caught on. The baseline has an overriding economic efficiency of land usage that more than compensates for its many spatial deficiencies.

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SO THEN, to stay ahead of the game, let’s take what we’ve just developed, strip away everything that can be perceived as wasteful (i.e. everything that’s nice) and see how far we can push it. 

  • In retrospect, having living rooms with extra volume to compensate for smaller bedrooms wasn’t an evolutionary advantage. Living rooms may as well have the same ceiling height as bedrooms and corridors. We still have two bedrooms per living room.