Category Archives: HISTORY

Contempt for History

Buildings come and go. Some overstay their welcome and some only appreciated when they’re gone. This post is about those buildings whose departure is protracted yet partial. All my examples are from the city of Perth, Western Australia but this post isn’t about Perth because every city will have its examples. Instead, it’s about history and its malleable meaning.

This building at the western end of St. George’s Terrace was built 1863-1866 to house the Enrolled Pensioner Force [!?] and was simply known as “The Barracks”. In 1904, the state government’s Parliament House was completed to its west but, with one war and another and a depression in-between, its eastern extension facing the city down St. George’s Terrace was only completed in 1964.

As early as 1961, the Barracks Defence Council was formed to oppose plans to demolish The Barracks and make way for the northern extension of The Freeway. The government was pro-demolition as it would allow the newly completed Parliament House to be seen from along Perth CBD’s main street. A messy and heated dispute ensued and the compromise was to retain only what is now known as The Barracks Arch on a sliver of land that also had no commercial value.

In 1970, some fountains were added to the east side of Parliament House to make people look at it and, in the evenings, people driving by would make a point of looking before 11:00 PM when the fountains and lights were turned off. In 1980, there was a proposal to make Parliament House more impressive by adding a land bridge providing a direct physical connection to the city as well as a considerable amount of additional accommodation. It didn’t progress but structural issues caused the fountains to be decommissioned in 2005, freeing up the space below for additional accommodation.

There was never any question of the freeway not going through. The only question was how much, if any, of The Barracks would remain. It was a completely emotional Progress vs. History argument with the government on one side and everyone else on the other. A little piece of history remains but it’s the history of the government’s desire for symbolic and physical dominance over the city and everyone else wanting to prevent that. Why the arch remains is the most interesting thing about it. I’ve no special love for the building or its distant history but I’m glad it’s there. Because of how the city and its road pattern developed, the setting of the original building and its remnant have been preserved and so The Arch still makes sense as a thing at the end of a street.

Not too far down St. George’s Terrace at No. 200 is another piece of history known as The Cloisters, built in 1858 as Perth’s first secondary school and for boys only. Apparently, [Wikipedia] “the Tudor embellishments tied the structure to the history of the English monarchy and signified the power and authority of England, while the gothic features signified the moral and temporal authority of the Church.” These virtuous ornamentations were powerless to prevent a 1960 plan for its demolition and redevelopment. At the time, the compromise of retaining and restoring the original building in exchange for being able to build a large building behind was seen as the best possible outcome.

The development was completed in 1971 and both The Cloisters building and the large Port Jackson Fig tree (to the right of the building) were listed in 1995. Unlike the story of The Barracks Arch, the story of The Cloisters is one of commercial interest vs. historic value. Or is it commercial value vs. historic interest? It doesn’t really matter for either way one corner of town is more interesting and richer than it might easily have been. The Cloisters is surrounded on three sides by buildings at a distance and so we can say that a setting has been preserved and the building left with its dignity intact. However, its interior was gutted to create more office space and so history or, in other words, what it is we like about old buildings has been reduced to a building shell and facades with historic references. There’s not much left to like, but facade+historic references was all that buildings both new and old had become anyway. The year was 1971.

In front of Perth Central Railway Station is a fairly recently pedestrianized street called Forrest Place. On its east side, buildings came and went but Perth Central Post Office was completed on the west side in 1923. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia building opened to the north of it in 19331. On the other (south) side of the GPO stood the Central Hotel which was converted from a hostel in 1901, traded until 1953, and was demolished in 1988 to make way for Albert Facey House.

From left to right below are the Commonwealth Bank building, the GPO building and Albert Facey House as they appear today. We can see a bit of lining through happening with floor levels and various cornices. On Albert Facey House we can see columns that aren’t Ionic, paired or as beefy but have approximately the same height and spacing. We can even see a modern take on dentils – or rather, a postmodern take on dentils. The year was 1988.

This corner view better shows what’s going on. Hollein’s Haas House in Vienna wasn’t to open until two years later in 1990.

What we have is a building trying to reconcile development gain and perception management by deploying a set of historic references – a strategy known as postmodernism and applied to the periphery of a building to a depth rarely exceeding one metre.

It’s not as if the commercial buildings of the 1920s were any different. All their ornamentations are applied to the outer one metre of what would have been a ruthlessly commercial building for the time.

Central Hotel can’t have been sufficiently pretentious. And nor was the very real and neighbouring historic building around the corner on Wellington Street. It wasn’t worth acknowledging.

I’m only mentioning Albert Facey House as a built example of postmodernism’s core selling point of allusions to other people’s historic buildings being preferable to preserving or reusing ones already there. Postmodernism as a style may be history now but this attitude towards history is still with us. The Barracks Arch, The Cloisters and Albert Facey House are all different ways of acknowledging history but the approach taken at The Cloisters would probably not happen today. Instead, the facade would be retained or, if doing so would make it structurally unsound, then it would be demolished and rebuilt. Either way, the effect would be something like this next building at the corner of Wellington Street and King Street, two blocks from Forrest Place. It’s not horrible. I read somewhere that the tower is student accommodation so, being kind, we can say there’s a continuity of sorts with its former life as backpackers’ hostel. More details here.

This architectural strategy of retaining the facade of a old building in order to win some development gain is also deployed by architects not generally regarded as postmodernist champions of representations of history. It is what Foster+Partners did with their 2006 Hearst Tower in Manhattan and, more egregiously, what BIG did with their King Toronto project set to complete this Year of the Rabbit. I have increasing respect for Mario Botta borrowing from and building on history with his 2010 Galleria Campari in Milan.

The ground floor coffee shop of the student accommodation building has exposed ductwork and conduits, recycled bricks. There is cement render on the newly inserted columns. All of this is meant to represent a sense of authenticity and of things being what they are.

The facade of the building has had work done. It’s difficult to tell if it was kept or rebuilt but it may have been kept, given that the outer rows of columns are about three metres from the site boundary.

Like I said, I don’t hate it. I can see something similar happening to the building on the corner of King Street and Wellington Street one block to the west.

A few blocks over to the west is an example of how not to do it. It’s already difficult enough trying to reconcile perception management and development gain and think about the difficult whole at the same time. It’s still early days. Going for the appearance of hovering seems likely to produce better results but perhaps that’s just me.

Back in the centre of town and one block to the east of Albert Facey House is the Royal Hotel, built in 1882 on the corner of William Street and Wellington Street and renovated in 1906 to basically what we see today. I was thinking it might be another contender for a similar vertical stack development and that it’d be a shame to lose those sheet metal mansards with their filigree cast iron decoration.

Others must have thought so too because a closer look shows the parts of the building along the street corner (and beneath those mansards) have been kept in their entirety, and everything else demolished to enable the Raine Square development to the rear and sides on both William Street and Wellington Street. In other words, The Royal in the corner L of the site was retained as a sweetener. Below left is a view five metres from the footpath. The part of the building seen from the street is a “deep facade” about as wide as a bar. In November 2019, The Royal pub, reopened in what was left of the building. That new steel framework looks like a response to some changed structural condition.

The Wentworth Hotel on the other corner of the block was retained in what looks like its entirety.

However, the buildings either side of The Royal weren’t as charming or fortunately sited. All that remains are their facades and even those look slightly plastic – as if they’ve been over-zealously restored or, most probably, demolished and rebuilt. This is what’s left of Glyde Chambers (b. 1905) along Wellington Street.

And this is what’s left of Commercial Buildings (b. 1894) along William Street. There’s been no attempt to retain a setting. The historic fragment now looks as tawdry and arbitrary as what surrounds it. I don’t think any of these fragments will survive the next redevelopment in 30 or 40 years.

I was wondering about all those other buildings that didn’t make it were like but these next photos are all I found. Anything could have happened between 1925 (for William Street; left), and circa. 1960 (for Wellington Street: right).

It’s never good to get too upset over what happens in cities. Main Street was never almost all-right and it’s less all-right now. Messy vitality was supposed to look better. If this is how historic facades are going to be preserved then it’s not worth the effort. What was once a building with purpose has been reduced to a length of incongruous cladding. The most poisonous legacy of postmodernism’s reducing history to representations of history is that actual historic buildings were dragged down with it, their worth as historic buildings reduced to the ornamental worth of their facades.

Here’s a more benign example of˜postmodern acknowledgement –circa. 1990 if I had to guess. The building on the right seems stuck in some sort of property appreciation limbo, as if waiting for the CBD or the office or the student housing market to expand westwards a few blocks more. But who’s to know what will happen? Next time I visit perhaps both will fronting some future mega development?

I’ll give it ten years.

  1. https://www.museumofperth.com.au/forrest-place

• • • 

Parallel History

I was curious about whether Hitler had really objected to flat roofs and came across an article titled Mies and the Nazis. I read that Hitler had said something along the lines that to be German was to be logical. Gropius therefore, was certainly German for thinking flat roofs were superior for technical and practical reasons. He refused to see a preference for one or the other framed in terms of politics and/or xenophobia. He left for America because his dream of sacrificing craftspersons for industrialized production had more chance of success there. It seems Mies left for America because he was miffed Speer became Hitler’s chosen one. It’s all history now. But what if the shape of a roof hadn’t become politicized as some un-German invention? Gropius, Mies, Breur, Chermayeff, Bayer, and all the rest might not have left Europe. Or even if they did, they might have found something else to do but I don’t suppose that was ever going to happen.

Circa 1920, Auguste Perret knew better than Le Corbusier what reinforced concrete could do. His sketch for Les Maisons Tours dates from about the same time Mies van de Rohe was doing his for the famously curvy skyscraper. Perret’s sketch isn’t so well known but it’s not worlds apart from the view from my once apartment.

If Europe had had elevators, land values and an economy that required skyscrapers, Perret would have been the go-to man and tall buildings would have had infill facades like 432 Park Avenue and not curtain walls like Lever House.

The 20th century chronology of attention-getting buildings is over-represented by products of the 20th century US economy but as long as architects and architecture follow the money, it probably couldn’t have been any other way. In the 1970s we endlessly compared Johnson’s Glass House and van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. We were taught the seminal works of individuals such as Wright, Saarinen and Kahn, and only noticed when an individual such as Le Corbusier presented a sustained challenge to total American architectural media dominance. Less sustained national challenges were mounted by Scandinavia, Japan and Italy that each had their well-documented golden ages.

Golden ages elsewhere seem to be things we notice when there’s nothing more local to preoccupy us. Whether we were paying attention or not, Italy never stopped being a source of architectural intelligence and construction excellence. I shall go to Italy but mostly Milan (not Rome) and look for evidence.

Pre-Modernist Post-Modernism

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Designed by Pier Fausto Barelli, the 1919-1923 Ca’ Brutta is a perimeter apartment block and one of the first reinforced concrete frame buildings in Italy but nobody remembers it for that, its underground car parking or its centrally provided heating and hot water. Instead, it’s remembered for its stripped down neo-classicism borrowed from the Secessionists as a reaction to Art Nouveau and that earned it its name that translates as Ugly House. The external decoration caused much controversy at the time and was variously accused of being inconsistent, playful, ironic, a detachment from reality, a primitive mysticism and a reaction to rationality. Decades later, this pre-modernist proto-postmodern building would be enthusiastically studied by post-modernists for being all of those. Papers would be written. 

Proto Postmodern Classicism (Early Fascist Era)

In 1923 Walter Gropius stopped championing the skills of craftpersons and began to promote designing for machine manufacture. Giovanni Muzio’s 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan has masonry arches with little or no decoration. This is typical of Muzio and has come to indicate the architecture of Italy’s fascist period approximately 1923-1945. Muzio’s style seemed fully formed with his 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte and wasn’t noticeably different thirteen years later with his Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo. I think I’d prefer to see Ignzaio Gardella’s 1934 proposal [left, below] there instead. Either would be unthinkable now.

Historic Revivalism (Middle Fascist Era)

Wikipedia quotes Also Rossi as saying that Frank Lloyd Wright was really impressed by Milan Centrale Stazione that opened in 1931 “and said it was the most beautiful station in the world”. It is impressive, but a bit of an outlier.

Proto Critical Regionalism

In 1934, Villa Savoye was about to be abandoned for the first time. It was still two years before Fallingwater was completed, 14 before Glass House and 15 before Farnsworth House. Some time a long time ago, all buildings were critical regionalist. Ignazio Gardella’s 1934-38 Dispensario Antitubercolare, in Italy’s Alessandria had an upper floor courtyard screened by a brick lattice wall not uncommon in the rural architecture of the area. Screening the courtyard was a new problem that could be solved by a known technology architectural device that local builders were familiar with.

Rationalism

There’s such a lot to choose from. The mid-1930s were a very active period for architecture in Italy. In Milan, Terragni did some wonderful apartment buildings such as his Casa Rustici which he did with Pietro Lingeri in 1935.

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I can’t not mention Guiseppe Terragni’s 1932-1936 Casa del Fascio that nobody had much to say about it until 1970 when Peter Eisenman’s analysis appeared, bringing it into the narrative (ugh!) of American architecture. [This is a link to a Domus article detailing the media life of Casa del Fascio over the years.]

Of course there’s Adalberto Libera and his Casa Malaparte that’s a long-term favourite of mine but there’s also Cesaare Cattaneo’s 1939 Casa Cattaneo in Como. Frampton tells of the “premature and still somewhat mysterious deaths of both Terragni and Cattaneo’ in 1943 but didn’t go into details. He says their deaths marked the end of Rationalism. ( I think he meant say that Rationalism continued, only with clients more bourgeois, such as at Ignazio Gardelka’s 1953 Casa al Parco in Milan.) Much like Hitler, Mussolini didn’t have that strong an opinion about architecture until he realized how it could be brought into service.

Proto Post Modern Classicism (Late Fascist Era)

You can’t get more fascist than Rome’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana – a building commissioned by Mussolini himself. It opened in 1943, the same year Terragni and Cattaneo mysteriously died. Tense times.

Rationalist Vernacular

Post-war recovery was quick. Ignazio Gardella, Roberto Menghi & Anna Castelli Ferrieri‘s 1949-1953 Condominio di v. Marchiondi a Milano wasn’t a complicated building and nor was it spectacular. It was however very elegantly planned – most likely by Gardella who had a way with hallways and the positioning of walls.

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Contextualism (What’s Already There)

Ignazio GARDELLA’S Casa alle Zattere is in Venice but the design took as its starting point his Casa Tognella (Casa al Parco) overlooking Milan’s historic Central Park.

The 1954-1958 Casa delle Zattere is a modern building in Venice that most precious of cities and Gardella has skillfully and unapologetically knitted it into its surroundings appropriating motifs and proportions from nearby buildings. Gardella did not elaborate on what he did or how he did it, but it flummoxed seasoned architectural commentators such as Rayner Banham.

“It is fancy-dress architecture, certainly, but the very manner of its disappearance is proof that the dressing-up has not been done for the usual reasons of historical cowardice. Very tricky…” (Reyner Banham)

Whether it was an office building or apartments or any other type of building, this notion of what’s already there was the starting point for Milanese architects Asnago & Vender. One would probably not look twice at their 1950 mixed use building on Piazza Velasca. Without resorting to obvious moves such as lining-through, it complements the building to the left. The building to the right is another one of theirs and complements the one in the middle and also the three more of theirs around the corner. These building come alive through progressive changes in the shape and/or size and/or position of windows. These variations are not perceptible unless one is looking for them. Theirs is an architecture designed to fit in to streets, rather than some fleeting notion of architecture.

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Italian Modern

The 1950 were another golden age of Italian architecture and many of the office buildings were only several stories high but constructed to last. And last they have. The buildings of Gio Ponti are a case in point. They are all beautifully designed and constructed but have mostly been ignored by history and historians apart from the 1953 Pirelli Tower that may still get a mention, even if only for its elegant structure by Pier Luigi Nervi. I only mentioned Foster+Partners The Index last week so its tripartite typical floor, significant and tapering structure, and unobstructed office spaces are still fresh in my mind

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Proto Iconic

In Italy, postmoderism took hold of the world of furniture in general Memphis in particular, but postmodern architecture never really took off. Why would it? Why should it? Why should buildings look like anything other than buildings? The closest Italian architecture got to postmodernism was the 1954 Torre Velasca by architectural partnership BBPR (Banfi, di Belgiojoso, Peressutti & Rogers) in Milan. [TWA Building: 1959, Sydney Opera House: 1958] Many people see a similarity to the historic towers of Milan but the only image I can find that might count as evidence is this image of the tower of Milan town hall.

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Aldo Rossi and Neo-Rationalism

Some might like to think of Neo-Rationalism as Italian Post Modernism and it’s true they were both around at the same time. The difference is that Aldo Rossi’s 1969-1970 Edificio Residenziale al Gallaratese at Milan’s via Enrico Falck hasn’t dated.

Of course, Aldo Rossi did as much referencing as many a postmodernist but, perhaps because he was an Italian and referencing his own architectural culture, it always seemed more respectful.

There are many other architects I haven’t mentioned in this brief overview of an unbroken but parallel history of Italian architecture. Gino Valle for example. There were groups such as Dogma, Superstudio and Archizoom, who were not short on ideas or willingness to spread them. Italian architecture never stopped being Italian architecture. It’s just that the history of architecture tracks the dominant economic force at any one time and in the 20th century that force was not Italy. These buildings mostly outside the history of architecture still show us a different way of constructing a built environment to last.

Globalisation

Global society that we are, Italy couldn’t stay the same forever. Corporate behemoths ZHA, Isozaki and Studio Liebskind have respectively designed Generali Tower (left, 2014), Allianz Tower (right, 2015) and PricewaterhouseCoopers Tower (middle, 2020). The three buildings form an isolated cluster and will hopefully stay an isolated cluster.

The 3 R’s

The Three R’s used to without irony refer to Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic but, more recently, we know them as the sustainability performance mantras Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. There are as many R’s as you want. Re-use works for buildings but Repair works better for washing machines and Replace better for old refrigerators. It’s not that difficult to find a word beginning with an R to add a sense of logical inevitability to whatever list you have. Here’s some more.

Regenerate

Shanghai’s Columbia Circle was developed in the 1930s as an upmarket residential area with some very large villas. It’s currently being reconfigured as an urban pedestrian thoroughfare with retail and various amenities. The feel is of an open-air mall with an urban/architectural/spatial/historic attractor.

The language on these posters made me sense the presence of architects’ promises so it was no surprise to learn Columbia Circle was masterplanned by OMA 2015-2017.

I recalled the marketing promises for the ground level of Foster+Partners’ Albion Riveside development in London’s Battersea. It would become some new and vibrant place of restaurants and bars and such but, as it turned out, this was the last thing the only people who could afford the apartments looking over this potentially vibrant ‘new town square’ wanted it to be. The last time I saw it was 2008 when there was one upmarket Italian kitchen store (beneath the “affordable” housing component in the dark at the top right of the photo below) while the spaces under the building were vacant. The idea of creating a convenient thoroughfare is a good one but, while I passed through this development twice a day for two years, I never once spent any money there and, even if there had been the opportunities to in 2008, I doubt I would have.

Some vibrant neighbourhood hub may have flourished and died in the meantime but this current listing makes me doubt it.

Columbus Circle is done well and without recourse to pastiche or historicism, or at least no more than was already there. It’s definitely a special place and a pleasant and traffic-free route for pedestrians. Its upmarket restaurants and outlets however contradict the claims of vibrancy and interaction. Entry to the Japanese art bookstore is by appointment only. The people who use these aren’t going to be the people who walk by them to “populate” and “animate” the development on their way to somewhere else, in the architectural spin on the truism that if something is free then you are the product. This is the way with shopping malls whether they look like shopping malls or not. At Columbus Circle, history and ‘a different architecture’ function much like Dubai Mall’s aquarium and fountains do to attract people with no desire to spend money there. Even so, their passing through can be monetized by making the place seem more lively to those who will. OMA’s brief was to do this in a unique, upmarket and apparently genuine manner. Their dark genius is to encourage this non-spending footfall to pass through and not linger for any length of time.

Retain (Reprieve, Respite)

Residential buildings such as these next immediately behind the historic buildings of The Bund are sealed with concrete blocks not so much to prevent squatters occupying them but to prevent them becoming derelict while the property value appreciates and/or a new use is found. Or so I’m guessing. Such reprieves buy time to observe and make judgements better suited to how the city is to develop. In times of downturn it’s best to do nothing and in boom times it’s best not to do anything hasty.

Shanghai has many old buildings in this state of limbo. Some are on the edge. Some we can imagine in some happier future we hope they have. Squid Game. Not all will survive.

In other countries the norm is to demolish immediately because that’s supposed to add value to the land. A scheme would be duly (and possibly genuinely) produced by some architect for some readable, walkable, vibrant, mixed use community with interactions between new and old and the property will invariably be promptly sold on once its value has inflated by planning permission being granted. I’m sorry. This is my experience and how how I once saw my place and, by extension, that of the architectural designer in the property development food chain. For designer me, success counted as proposing something municipalities (and thus clients) wanted to see exist, even if their reasons for wanting it to exist did not align with each others’, let alone naïve me and mine.

Reduce to Rubble. Redevelop.

I’m curious why these next buildings have a two-story arcade overlooked by residential spaces, of which there are more above. Other than wanting a double-height arcade, I can’t think what would generate such a typology. Luckily for these buildings, they’re very close to the river and still being used for their original purpose.

Identical buildings further up the street don’t look like being so lucky. Openings have been blocked up but, this time, the decision to demolish has been made. It was the fate of these buildings to have been built on land more valuable for some future use the buildings couldn’t accommodate.

Redevelop is the final R – though there’s always the possibility it could be followed by Regret. Buildings such as the earlier two storey blocks and the single story residential further what would’ve been demolished to make way for Foster+Partners/Thomas Heatherwick’s mammoth The Bund Finance Centre development which, to use another extinct animal metaphor, seems a bit of a dinosaur. I’m reminded of F+P’s Central Market development in Abu Dhabi and its griddy bits.

This time, instead of Arabesque lattices recalling mashribaya, perception management is deemed satisfied by shovelfuls of Chinoiserie in the form of lattices alluding to Oriental screens combined with much use of a colour that’s not too bright to be mistaken for gold (by us) and not too dull to be mistaken for bronze (by Chinese). They know the ropes and the tropes these F+P people.

Summarizing the past sixty years of modern architectural history, we can say that The International Style never died but lives on as decorated mixed-use development gain. To satisfy some international expectation of technological prowess, the structure has been picked out in granite cladding with a pattern of CNC milled concavities (though the press release TWICE implies its hand carved.) These concavities straddle panels, pointlessly yet decadently indicating the entire facade has been designed and milled as a single pattern. The size of these panels is unimpressive and at first I mistook them for GRP. Having said that, they look very pretty when the sun catches them after it rains,

This apparent structure decreases in width as it rises. Whether this is some misguided attempt at a plant growth allusion or an attempt to “dematerialize” the building with increasing height I don’t know. It’s not an eyesore and, for what it is, it’s okay. Not that many people were caring as I passed by. The development was suffering from a lack of international tourists expected to patronize the ground level luxury retailers with their assorted fashion houses, jewelers, perfumeries and restaurants. Various attempts were being made to attract people to the spaces between the buildings, if not into the buildings themselves.

This next bit of text is the project description “From The Architects.” As is the way. I won’t bother quoting a source as the same text is everywhere. It confirms my dematerialization hypothesis but throws up questions regarding the efficacy of the massing strategy over which F+P’s Studio Head gushes. I say this because the development is a fair bit displaced from those famous historic buildings along The Bund. And, regarding the massing strategy, the development site is not a situation with only tall modern buildings at one end and low-rise historic buildings at the other. Using buildings of decreasing heights as a mediation strategy presupposes the conditions for it to work and that’s simply not the case here. The photograph below left looks north towards the low-rise and historic area, with an inconveniently tall white building inbetween. The one below right is looking south from the white building back towards Bund Financial Centre. I think the designers overated the relevance of their strategy. If they ever believed it to begin with, that is.

I’ve picked out in yellow the parts I think are meaningless, contentious, or total rubbish. There’s not much left. We’re told three times about the “420,000 square metres” of office space, once every 230 words on average.

It’s not exactly pre-2008 levels of hype, but it is an example of the kind of expectations inflation we tend to ignore until a global financial crisis or pandemic forces a reckoning. If ever you go to Shanghai and you can be bothered, please visit this place and judge whether it lives up to these claims. These next images are Heatherwick’s cultural centre that was mentioned in the last two paragraphs of the press release above. It’s horrid on many different levels. No-one I know has seen the “veils” move. An architect friend said he learned to hate this facade as queued for three hours beneath it on the last day of the Tadao Ando exhibition last December. Another architect friend told me Heatherwick was dating Foster’s daughter at the time.

There’s a whole universe of tabloid gossip to be mined here. Intrusive yes. But if protagonists choose to live by the media, then the tabloidifaction of architecture is long overdue. I don’t see why architecture with its cult of personalities, is any more special than musicians or reality tv stars. Kudos to ARK Architecture and their attempts to break this impasse. This was 2013 though.

I don’t know anything about traditional Chinese bridal head-dresses but, as far as bamboo-shaped things on the sides of buildings go, I much prefer this building anyone can see on the way from South Xizang Road metro station to Powerhouse of Art. It’s a single-layer of stationary bamboo and I like it for being what it is not what it is not..

A few blocks further north and immediately behind the historic centre is this development next to Yu Garden [which will feature in a future post]. Full of restaurants and shops selling foodstuffs and other things for people to take back home from the big city to give to family and friends, it’s Shanghai’s most popular destination for domestic tourists and always full of happy people.

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Another Level

Despite living all my life in a postmodern world where the same project continues with successive reincarnations as different styles, I still believe there was more to history than referencing it. Admittedly, the emphasis on referential facade design as perception management went a long way to enable the optimization of development gain. Apart from one chimney getting in the way of one staircase, post modernism had little to say about the insides of buildings.

For all its talk of history, post-modernism liked to represent itself as new, much like the architecture it supposedly supplanted did. Also like what went before it, it had little to say about extensions and additions to buildings, even though we do have occasional buildings used as podiums to showcase an upwards development. Offhand,I can think of Jean Nouvel’s 1993 Lyon Opera and Herzog de Meuron’s 2016 Elbephilharmonie. Both use the existing building that was once the whole, as a base forming one part of a new aesthetic whole.

Frank Gehry’s 1984 Wosk Rresidence was something of a precursor, treating the existing building as nothing more than development rights to exploited.

These next three attempt the same. Acknowledging the podium is no guarantee of success but there seems to be correlation with that intent and strength of that acknowledgement.

This probably explains why these next two are so disturbing, and not in a good way.

I doubt we’ll be talking about any of these buildings in ten years, let alone 50 or 100, other than as examples of things people once did. Seeing the amount of demolition that occurs, it clearly costs less to build new than to refurbish or extend. Preserving building is seen as a perception management exercise to distract from development gains to be made. Calling this a tradeoff however, accords development gain an imperative it doesn’t necessarily have.


The Lyon opera house and the Gehry are the only (built) buildings that haven’t been gutted and restructured to accept the new volume above but we still want to see both as new buildings and not the additions they are. Perhaps it’s because additions don’t perpetrate the myth of inspiration and a pure creativity. They’re never a free call as the range of possible solutions is largely determined by the existing building. A certain type of creativity is still called for but, in some unspoken hierarchy, it’s a lesser one.

There’s also the contradiction of trying to add something to make something perfect and whole out of something that’s already supposed to be perfect and whole. If we think like that, the result can’t but be anything else but disrespectful or an insult. Adding to an existing building makes much sense in terms of resource conservation but we don’t have any guidelines for how to go about it aesthetically. To make matters worse, there’s invariably a time gap between the completion of the existing building and when it was decided it wasn’t large enough for its task. In the intervening period, the cost of building materials and labour, aesthetic preferences and even the building use may well have changed. In some cases an additional floor or two built in a similar or complementary style will pass, but in some of the other cases something that has no choice to be more different might be called for. I didn’t say “radical” because it’s rarely a 100% aesthetic call either. Even examples like this next one aren’t that radical when they can barely be seen from the street. It’s a partial rooftop conversion, albeit a very well publicized one.

At least in Vienna, architects grapple with this kind of problem and don’t automatically assume that not imposing on the street view will be a condition of development happening in the first place. This next one is a handsome solution that isn’t what the designers of the original might have imagined but works anyway as a modern mansard.

The modern mansard is a trope for the same very good reasons the original found favor. How to go about adding an extra storey may be case by case but that doesn’t mean each case is unique, or even that different. There’s a whole Pinterest sub-category of proposals that can be lightweight and modern as long as there’s a significant setback from the frontage.

Another modern trope is the vertical extension in a different material in some understated contemporary vein. This strikes some happy balance between development gain and perception management and you can also find many examples of this on Pinterest.

This next project is by emergent design studios, a British firm who have experience in estate refurbishment projects. [http://www.emergentdesignstudios.com/#/six-sites/] The additional storey completes the building and is both mansard and extension.

Additions such as these are welcome to those who still think modern buildings look unhomely because they “don’t have roofs” and looked incomplete in the first place.


Both the neo-mansard and contemporary extrusion make clear the difference between the original building and the additional storeys. They’re both examples of aesthetic deference – of not scaring the horses. The odd thing about the rooftop extension to Franco Alibini’s 1938 Villa Pestarini below is that it’s difficult to tell if it’s being deferential to its famous first two floors or not. An additional floor has been added in a manner befitting the time that wasn’t that long ago. No attempt has been made to make something either new or old. Either way, the building isn’t what it was and, in any case, it’d be difficult for it to be when there’s an additional level increasing the building volume by a third.

The addition reads as walls as far as Colour, Shape and Alignment are concerned yet the overhang (Size) suggests it’s a roof. For me, the main conflict is the Pattern (texture) of the material suggesting it’s a roof yet the Pattern formed by the window openings suggesting walls. But if the walls had simply been extended upwards and rendered the same then I wouldn’t be thinking these things as all sense of the original building would be lost. All these approaches assume some kind of aesthetic deference as the best way to show respect for an historic building and perhaps it is.

But what happens if the building and its history aren’t seen as one and the same thing? After all, post-modernism wasn’t the first style to decouple history from old buildings and apply its associations to new ones. However, buildings have many histories and what their fabric once looked like is only one of them.

Guisepee Terragni’s 1936 Casa del Fascio is a case in point. It was brought back into the architectural canon after decades of being shunned for its political associations. The history of those associations remains – it’s just that we don’t choose to remember it. Despite its rehabilitation as architecture, the building can’t be said to be doing any community service other than being a museum of itself but whether as a history lesson or an architecture lesson isn’t clear. The building has been prevented from ageing naturally and is kept in the same state as it was when it was the headquarters of the Como branch of the Italian fascist party. Its former occupants would be very pleased if they could see how nicely it’s been maintained in the intervening years.

The former occupants of this next building wouldn’t be as pleased if they could see what Shanghai architects Neri & Hu did to it. I think the point is that they’re not meant to. I see this building as a deliberate trashing of history.

The project is called The Waterhouse and the architects’ text repeated on ArchDaily told me it was the headquarters of the Japanese army during the occupation of Shanghai but the building seemed a bit small to do that. Sure enough, there’d once been much more to it. The site “http://www.shanghai1937.com/japans-impregnable-fortress/” told me it was the headquarters of Japan’s marines – the Emperor’s Special Naval Landing Force, it covered two city blocks and could house thousands of troops. It was also a fortress said to have “bombproof” construction. It’s been called “a potent symbol of Japanese occupation” but the reality of a few thousand enemy troops stationed in one’s city must have been a greater concern.

The title, in Japanese is “chs399-Shanghai the Most Busiest International Harbour in Orient 大日本海軍陸戦隊本部の威容 大上海景觀” on the postcard site https://www.ehagaki.org/world_countries/world-a1/world-a1_china/world-a1_china_a9/67525/

In short, this building has history and it’s personal. What to do? One doesn’t want to forget but how to remember? What were the options? Keeping it intact and in pristine condition sends the wrong message. On the other hand, demolishing all trace of it does the former aggressors a favor.

Neri & Hu’s extra level is actually a conversion that diminishes the presence of the original building. The stated design idea may have been to maximize the difference between old and new but the remnant of the former building has not been restored to its former “glory” (like Casa del Fascio). Instead, its visuals and any 1970s [?] window alterations have been been left intact to age ungracefully with the rest. This is the opposite of distressing to confer the appearance and gravity of age. It’s letting time create some space. This past on display is definitely not a living one – it’s very much of a time that is no longer. We can be sure structural integrity hasn’t been allowed to deteriorate and that things like thermal and acoustic performance are probably better than they were. This approach is the opposite of post modernism in showing respect for the building yet disrespect for its history.

There’s a consistent thread of design decisions that show contempt for the history of this building.

  • A time-traveling Special Naval Landing Force commander or even rank-and-file infantry would be incensed to see most of the former building demolished and the only piece remaining turned into a five-star boutique hotel.
  • Smooth white finishes are side-by-side with walls stripped back to the original concrete. Internally, the building has been gutted, stripped of all hardware, wall coverings, surface finishes and so on down to the concrete. Anything anyone might once have looked at and thought pleasant or even pleasantly utilitarian is gone. In that sense, the interior surfaces we see now are being seen for the first time.
  • Internal walls and floors have been visibly knocked through and pushed around to make new spaces that are still about accommodation but it’s now the decadent, voluntary accommodation of luxury and pleasure.
  • Our hypothetical time-traveller will wonder what the large windows overlooking the river are expected to observe. They won’t understand why they’re so large and looking over the river or why the third, side window looks over where the rest of the building once stood.
  • They won’t understand the use of glass and timber on this that was once the most bombproof of buildings. That famously bombproof roof has been compromised by cutting openings into it to form those three double height windows that are not lined up with anything below. The actual rooftop is now an timber-decked place open to the sky where people can relax.
  • Most of all, they’ll be shocked by how awkwardly and asymmetrically this new top floor sits on what was once a fine and solid building representing all that was good about Japanese military architecture.

It’s a shame The Waterhouse will mostly be understood as some flashy conversion. When I saw it the first time I did too but now I see it’s disrespect for history as stunningly and critically poetic. The world has a surfeit of buildings associated with painful histories so showing people and societies how to move on from them is something architects could do more to help with. It’d be more worthwhile than making representations of fake histories or it’s opposite, faux progress. Even the pragmatic “what’s already there” approach of the post WWII Italian architects I so admire is still an aesthetic approach whereas the history at The Waterhouse’s is raw and personal. Neri & Hu say their design intention was to separate new and old. Yes, but showing the past slip deeper into the past as one builds newly upon it sends a powerful message of healing to former victims and if, at the same time, it also sends an equally powerful message of up yours to the former enemy then so be it. I’d forgotten architecture can do things like this. Thank you Neri & Hu.

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Second Time Around

This curious nautical building with the striped masonry is Shanghai’s Gutzlaff Signal Tower. It was built in 1907 and the podium was added in 1927. Flags provided the weather forecast and a ball on the mast dropped at midday so mariners and townspeople could adjust their clocks. This little functional building facilitated the shipping that generated the commerce that produced the historic buildings I mentioned a few posts back. At the time, there can’t have been many precedents for a building like this, and it’s been obsolete for some time now. It’s now a museum of itself, as it’d have to be. I’d love to know what an “Alonobo-style” building is, especially if there are only two of them left in the world. The internet is silent.

This next one’s special. It’s perhaps Ladislaus (Lazlo) Hudec’s best known building and for many years Shanghai’s as well. Until 1983 it was the tallest building in Shanghai, and thus in Asia. It’s the Joint Savings Society Building (1934) better known as the Park Hotel which was its major tenant at the time. The building originally had banking offices on the lowest two floors and the main banking entrance on the front facade, private apartments on the uppermost three, and the hotel occupying the remainder of the building’s 24 floors. Today that front entrance is the entrance to the hotel. The polished granite on the lower floors and the ceramic tile above haven’t aged a bit.

If it hadn’t been for the slight change of use from mixed use to hotel, this building would have been in the previous post with the others. It’s a small niggle, but the current lobby is the former two-story banking hall. It’s still a beautiful space, especially when seen from the upper level but, stunning as it is, it’s definitely a hotel lobby and no longer a banking hall.

The next two photographs are from that book Classical Huangpu I mentioned. The many interior photographs remind us that these buildings weren’t just meant to make an impression on the skyline. They were there also to be experienced. Some of the interiors are heartbreakingly gorgeous, revealing a standard of attention and care that no longer exists. In the UK, Edwin Lutyens might have been the last person who cared to this level of detail.

Along South Shaanxi Road is the rather fabulous Moller Villa (1936). The Hengshan Moller Villa Hotel Shanghai website tells me it has 53 European style rooms and suites. A sign at the gate asks people to not loiter at the gate taking photographs because it is not a tourist attraction. It is – but we know what they mean.

I took the above photo from a pedestrian overpass nearby. The building behind might have done its curious neighbor more of a favor by being a background to it and not trying to “respond” to it so literally. Or maybe the problem is it didn’t go far enough? China being China, curving the roof was no problem, and the towers are passable if that’s what one wants to do. If only the building behind had the same colored brick, a few more arched windows and some decorative string courses it’d be pastiche meets pastiche and job done. If I could change only one thing it’d be the colour of its walls.

The hotel website has images of the conference room and dining room. A villa of this size and vintage for a shipping magnate is going to have spectacular reception rooms and many bedrooms, and servants’ quarters and a significant kitchen and service corridor detached from the reception and living areas of the villa. It was practically designed and built as a hotel and I expect slipped into its new use without major trauma.

Many of Shanghai’s grand apartment buildings have found extended life as hotels, often luxury ones. The Picardie Apartments (1935) is one of many. It’s now the Shanghai Hengshan Hotel. It originally had multiple elevator cores and stairwells accessing lobbies with one double-sided apartment each side. Such an arrangement works well for apartments and allowed cross ventilation in the humid summers but it works less well for modern hotel operation, and is redundant for small rooms (or even small suites) having air conditioning. A quick snoop around Booking.com shows corridors now running the length of the wings.

Grosvenor House (1934) remained an apartment building until 1956 when it was confiscated and the following year transferred to the Jin Jiang hotel group. Plans show three cores but, not having been inside, I can’t say if this arrangement survived its re-use as the five-star Shanghai Jinjiang Hotel. I hope so, but the hotel was renovated in both 1998 and 2004. I can’t find any photographs of corridors but the cool modern decor of the hotel rooms makes me suspect the worst. The ground floor spaces remain magnificent.

When President Nixon visited China, the American delegation stayed at this hotel and the Shanghai Communiqué was signed there.


The building is set around a courtyard blocked from the street by a low-rise building that has a curious concentration of tailors. Given the number of reception rooms inside the hotel and its reputation for foreign meetings, this was probably once a commercially astute location for tailors.

Broadway Mansions (1934) is now the five-star Broadway Mansions Hotel and my last example of apartment-to-hotel change of use. It overlooks Garden Bridge and the historically crucial location where Suzhou Creek meets the Huangpu River. It’s in the stripped-down Deco style that went mainstream with New York’s Shelton Hotel (1924). Although the exterior is original and intact, the upper floor interiors won’t have survived the hotel conversion.

Which is better? A building unchanged on the outside yet compromised on the inside, or a building compromised on the outside yet intact on the inside? There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. The answer probably depends upon whether you prefer your history living or not. I blame Post Modernism. This building is a representation of a preserved building but its typical floors have been gutted and rebuilt. A building exterior dotted with reverse-cycle air conditioner compressors is more likely to be the real thing on the inside.

I thought this next building, Shanghai’s Paramount Ballroom (1933), was one of those buildings still being used for its original purpose and, though it’s true you can still go there to foxtrot and tango, the building is no longer being used as intended. Wikipedia tells me it was only open a few years before it was converted into a hostess dance hall, continuing until 1949. From 1956 it was a cinema but deteriorated until 2001 when it was bought and restored by Taiwanese investors who, in 2006, converted the second and third floors into clubs of the type we used to call discos, leaving only the fourth floor ballroom in its original condition. So although the Paramount Ballroom survives partially intact and, after a long period of irrelevance, is once again a dance-themed building, it is only by the grace of investors.

This is the other of Shanghai’s two YMCA buildings, the one from 1932 was known as Foreign YMCA Heaquarters and was next to Park Hotel. In 2006 at least it housed the Shanghai Sports Club and some government offices. The sign is current and, roughly translated, says Sports Big Building. I imagine the building always had a gymnasium and a restaurant and floors of rooms opening off corridors. In that sense it’s a generic building and to be re-used is its nature.

It’s very easy for waterfront warehouses to find second life as upmarket apartments or a restaurant complex as these two buildings along the Huangpu did. It’s difficult to tell how old these repurposings are. Neither building had precious interiors to protect. I think it’s a case of these buildings being left alone until rebuilding is no longer desirable and/or profitable. I’m amazed yet very pleased this happens. It’s not a case of investors wanting to quickly inflate the value of their land by clearing it and gaining planning permission for change of use before selling it on.

Commissioned in 1911, the Yangshupu Power Station was Shanghai’s first power station and also the first power station in the Far East. It closed in 2010.

It’s the centerpiece of a new Shanghai arts district that includes a fashion school repurposed from a former factory, as well as several new buildings. Power stations are huge sheds located not far from urban centers so it’s no surprise they find new use as art galleries. This one has links to the Cartier Foundation. The building has a pleasing frankness and doesn’t make a fetish of either new or old.

New uses sometimes involve change and we have what we call adaptive re-use. In the post on the ZHA exhibition I mentioned how Modern Art Museum Shanghai was built around some disused coal hoppers.

This could be called a change of use but it’s really just repurposing a structure. The biggest change is us as we can now admire a piece of former industrial infrastructure, at only the former conveyor gives amn external clue. The hoppers remain mostly intact but are appreciated less as relics of an industrial heritage but more as a passive way of giving the building a depth it wouldn’t have had if it’d been new build. The building makes wonderful use of an extant structure and an ornament of its heritage when it doesn’t get in the way. It’s efficient like that.

This final project is called The Waterhouse and was completed by Neri&Hu Design Office in 2010. It’s a mixed-use development including restaurants, a gym and a hotel. It’s on South Bund, bang in the middle of an important conservation area. Ostensibly, the idea was to add to and convert the existing three story building to its new uses while changing it as little as possible. When I first saw this building I thought it was an insensitive and attention-seeking addition of the kind one sees in ArchDaily [and you will find it there]. I now think it’s a finely-judged insensitive addition and hope to explain why next week.

In Shanghai you’ll often see queues of people outside store counters open to the street. This is a supermarket with window counters selling take-away and pre-prepared food not as street food but as take-aways for consumption elsewhere.

I’ve seen butchers, grocers and fruit shops like this. The Eddington Apartments of the first post in this series had this counter-only shop.

My Shanghai friend tells me there’s been an explosion of coffee shops these past five years. I learn from my graded Chinese reader that, in January this year, there were 6,913 coffee shops in Shanghai, compared with 3,826 in Tokyo and 3,233 in London. The constant aroma of coffee reminds you you’re never far from one. It’s not so much a change of building use but a change in how the city is used as people now drink coffee while standing around like in Italy or while walking around like in New York.


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The Historic Façade

New buildings are usually proposed for reasons of development gain but people remain attached to old buildings because of familiarity, sense of historical continuity, and sometimes even for showing a level of craft and attention to detail unthinkable now. The perfect developer/architectural product would have all the development gain of a new building combined with the perception management of an old one but unfortunately it’s not possible for a new building and an old building to occupy the same space. This doesn’t stop people from trying.

St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church beneath New York’s 1977 Citicorp Center development (now 601 Lexington Avenue) is not an historic church. It’s a rebuild as the church didn’t want to relocate or, if the air rights were to be sold, to have the structural columns of the new development passing through it.

The only historic continuity is one of presence on the site and, for parishioners, this is no small thing. The structural solution proposed by structural engineer William LeMessurier seemed like a good idea at the time but, aesthetically, what we have is a Juxtapose of shapes united only in their occupying different parts of the same column of air.


Atelier Hapsitus’ 2010 proposal for the BLC Headquarters in Beirut manages to conceptually combine an old building and a new building into a new thing but it’s not a nice thing. I have trouble thinking of dumping on a building as a sign of respect.

Mario Botta’s 2010 Galleria Campari in Milan is a new building built above the company’s former headquarters.