Category Archives: HISTORY

The Tops of Buildings

The first thing many people younger than me probably thought of when they saw the title of this post is the song Mansard Roof by epic New York indie band Vampire Weekend. This link is to the video accompanying the studio version of the song that, I think as a statement of musical intent is perfect but, this could just be me as the live performance has its own charm, as this recording from Reading Festival 2008 shows. Everyone please take a position.

Mansard Roof

I see a mansard roof through the trees
I see a salty message written in the eaves
The ground beneath my feet,
the hot garbage and concrete
And now the tops of buildings, I can see them too


The Argentines collapse in defeat
The admiralty surveys the remnants of the fleet
The ground beneath their feet
is a nautically mapped sheet
As thin as paper while it slips away from view

Lyrics of “Mansard Roof” by Vampire Weekend, 2008

This position I just asked you to take is a position of one kind of real over another kind of real. I think that, with all this recent crap about architecture and AI, we’re being asked to choose between one kind of fake and a different kind of fake – the same old shit, in other words. So I think it’s important we remember the difference between studio and live performance. In which does the real art lie? Is it the concept or the performance of it? Which kind of artistry do we prefer? Or want? Music shows us there’s a place for both. The live performance confirms the joy the studio version brought to the people at the live concert. Music is structured and, probably because of that, fluid in that it’s free to be interpreted. Mansard Roof is a very structured song that allows lossless reinterpretation. I’m sorry Goethe, but architecture isn’t frozen music. I know you meant this as praise but both architecture and music have changed. The most exciting thing about music is its ability to be re-performed. It has structures – and not particularly “deep” ones – where the creativity lies and that enable it to be re-interpreted and re-performed. It’d be nice if architecture had some.

Last week I thought of this song when I gave a lecture on French Renaissance Architecture to my first year architecture history class. I don’t normally free associate about mansard roofs but they had been entering my life a lot recently. Hence this post and why I put this digression at the beginning before I get to the point.

Sorry – another digression. I don’t think ChatGPT has generated any deepfake misfitsarchitecture texts yet but it’s only a matter of time as this blog has been publicly available – and for free 🫤 – on the www for more than ten years now. The early posts have most almost certainly been data “scraped” – this new and neutralized word we have to describe the ethical equivalent of strip mining and sea bottom trawling. Thusly, I’m experimenting with new words, idiosyncratic grammar, punctuation and syntax in order to buy myself some more time. Resistance. Wish us luck. It’s forcing me to up my game. It’s not a bad thing.

Wikipedia tells me the first use of the mansard roof was by Pierre Lescot around 1550 on part of the then private art gallery known as The Louvre but only became popular in the next century under King Louis III when a certain François Mansart promoted it amongst the aristocracy.

Par Pedro P. Palazzo 26 juillet 2015 — wikimedia commons, Domaine public,

Mansard roofs also happened to be a good and inexpensive way of building an additional storey and were widely employed when Paris was being rebuilt in the mid 19th. It was the time of Napoleon III and Haussman and the architectural style these new mansard roofs were a part of became known in history books as French Second Empire style. It was highly ornamented – though some might say ostentatious – but this didn’t stop it being used for palaces and grand houses. It’s what we see when we look at Paris today.

Promoting his new architectural invention to rich people guaranteed it widespread “emulation” shall we say, in countries and their citizens with aspirations. On the one hand, the mansard roof is a relatively simple and expedient way of adding another storey to your building if you need some extra space but, on the other, it’s also a relatively simple and expedient means of making your building look more impressive than you probably could have otherwise afforded. It was thus a brilliant architectural invention and so these cheap yet impressive roofs took Europe by storm. As is the way, it was perhaps an overabundance of these cheap but impressive roofs that made them less popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was of course a short hop Across The Channel to England. This is Waddesdon Manor, built in England in 1874 for one of the Rothschilds.

Mansard roofs continued to be built for reasons of expedience even after the French Second Empire Style was no longer fashionable in France and England and Art Nouveau was. Undeterred, the style went g on to have further adventures in America where it was thought classy.
Search “Second Empire America”.

And not just America. The octagonal mansards of Tokyo Station, completed 1914, are French Second Empire by way of Germany from where Japan imported much railway technology.

Second Empire mansard roofs reached Australia via England about 1900 but never caught on to the extent they had in the United States and almost never on houses. In this blog, we last saw a mansard roof on The Royal Hotel (on the left below) in the Contempt for History post. This building was completed in 1882 but in 1906 was renovated to what we see today. This photo is from 1965. A little bit of France in Perth, Australia.

Mansard roofs came and went throughout the 20th century. 1970s Western Australia had a fashion for mansard roofs having orange ceramic roof tiles for the more vertical face. My university dormitory, long demolished, had a roof of this type. Here’s a more recent example of the style for Telstra, Australia’s main telecoms provider.

The roof is constructed with surfaces at two different angles, one more vertical and one practically horizontal. It has no windows, so this mansard seems to have been built to increase the floor height rather than adding another floor. It’s not particularly impressive but the material change and shadow gap reduce the scale of the building in what’s a residential area. A second mansard roof (this time with overhangs) has been built on top of the original. This later mansard extension is true to the principle of mansard roofs in being an expedient way to add more floor space but, rather than having ornamented windows and drawing attention to itself, this one has near vertical lower surfaces for more useable area and is painted green so we won’t notice it.

The more vertical the lower surfaces of a mansard roof becomes, the more the building begins to resemble a two storey building with different materials for each floor. This was the look in Talahassee Fl. in this 1970s building with four apartments and mansard with quasi-Colonial windows.

Something similar was to become standard residential construction in Western Australia with lightweight roofs having vertical lower surfaces and no longer pretending to be either a roof or impressive.

This would mark the Death of the Mansard if mansard roofs didn’t live on in China as an acceptable way of topping residential tower complex. I pass by the one in this next photo most weekdays and have come to think it’s actually quite clever. You could think of it as post-modern neo-second-empire except it’s not a joke and it’s not a fashion. Someone has reasoned that it’s not a bad look for these buildings and I think they’re right.

A mansard roof combied with some typical-floor protrusions and banded cornices is not a bad way of giving a slab tower with multiple cores a gravitas appropriate for their height and bulk. It makes sense, especially when grouped as they invariably are. Since the 16th century, making a building look larger than it actually is and for very little additional outlay, has never been discouraged by clients and has never been a bad move in architecture. It’s as if the mansard roof was invented in the 16th century so that we could accommodate elevator over-runs and rooftop water tanks on tower blocks in a way that makes aesthetic and practical sense to us today.

This is why we have history and can learn from it. History is great. The names, dates and countries of these architectural inventions aren’t important, but it’s extremely important to think about THINGS THAT HAPPENED in terms of what problems they solved just in case we find ourselves with similar ones. This is why History exists and why we, our at least I, resist in teaching it. Clients being clients, how to enclose space inexpensively yet have their building look more impressive at the same time is one of those timeless problems architecture exists to solve over and over again. Google “modern mansard” and I’m sure both Google and Pinterest will oblige. But probably not with Chinese examples.

I look forward to a future of Neo-Second-Empire and possibly even Neo-(neo)-Gothic residential towers. Foster+Partners inexplicably under-celebrated The Index in Dubai had buttresses. They’re not exactly flying but these supports are perpendicular to the enclosure so the windows can be bigger. It looks like it’s for different reasons but it just depends on what is important to the client. In that sense, it’s the same shit.

• • • 

The Middle Ground

Architects used to have us believe that better architecture made for better lives. They were rightly ignored as it would make more sense for us all first to agree on what a better life is before thinking about the means to achieve it. Of course some degree of spatial and physiological requirements need to be met as a precondition for not-so-miserable life but architecture hasn’t been about that for some time now. What has endured is the idea that Architecture provides nourishment beyond the spatial and physiological and that this is some kind of aesthetic experience peculiar to architecture and, worse, accessible only to those who can appreciate it and, worse still, afford it.

I’ve always believed this in one form or another albeit with varying emphases and my own notions of what counts as architectural nourishment. Over the past decade or so, I’ve leaned towards spatial geometries that satisfy spatial and social needs and that, for me at least, are aesthetically satisfying because of that. If they’re more achievable for more people then so much the better. I’ve never questioned or been asked to question if architecture and its embedded belief system was the only way of achieving the good life. Until last week.

I’ve just finished reading this. The test of any hypothesis is the amount of information it organizes. This book organizes a few thousand years of Chinese history around the simple hypothesis that the Chinese primarily saw the courtyard as a vertical link between the land and the sky or, if you like, Heaven and Earth. Although courtyards provided ventilation, illumination and internal views, their main purpose was to link Heaven and Earth. The Chinese notion of heaven is synonymous with sky, and the two are also written with the same character (tian, 天). The Chinese had no need for a heaven populated with deities. The sky provides sunlight, darkness, warmth, rain and snow and, together with the ground, is all one needs to grow rice and structure one’s existence.

This strive for a balance between earthly phenomena (over which one had influence) and heavenly ones (over which one did not) was in line with the teachings of Confucius (551–479 BCE) who advocated a “middle way” for people to make sense of their place in the world and live the good life. In summertime, a courtyard might be full of people conversing, singing, eating and drinking but in winter the sky would be the dominant presence. This middle way was about balance, not moderation. The most difficult thing to accept is that the courtyard wasn’t a representation of the good life but all that was needed to make it happen. And it did for 2,500 years or so. The Chinese didn’t see any reason to improve upon or change the courtyard as it was already sufficient. It was possible to live a good life with only a courtyard and an awareness of what it meant.

Last week I taught a history class on Romanesque and Gothic architecture. There’s a lot to be said for a personal, unmediated (and unspoken) relationship with both Earth and Heaven even if it doesn’t produce an architecture of flying buttresses, rose windows and gargoyles. The cloister in a monastery is close to the Chinese notion of a courtyard even if the open space is only circumnavigated by monks looking inward and not up.

Artist James Turrell’s 2001 Live Oak Friends [Quaker] Meeting House is closer with its emphasis on the vertical relationship between Heaven and Earth and also, let’s not forget, with its economy of means. However, there are three important differences.

  1. Live Oak Friends Meeting House is a place of worship. It is a specific place people go to at specific times for the specific act of worship. In some sort of abstract way, it might (or should) structure the lives people lead during the rest of the day.
  2. The roof (or, rather, the soffit) is still very much a barrier between Heaven and Earth. People can see heaven but are still as physically far away from it as ever.
  3. Pretty as they are, Turrell’s skyscapes are also strange in that they make us see the sky with new eyes, as all good art should. Although the sky is real, we appreciate it as a two-dimensional trompe l’oeil representation of the heavens above. [Next week’s history class is about Renaissance Architecture and, the week after, Baroque.]
Live Oak Friends Meeting House, Houston, Texas, 2000. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 1 episode, Spirituality, 2001. © Art21, Inc. 2001.

Judging by the length of time the Chinese courtyard survived, it’s reasonable to say it was fit for purpose as a way of structuring life as well as the physical environment. The Chinese courtyard would be a perfect example of architectural determinism if only it were more about buildings and less about the spaces surrounded by them. Anyway, all this was news to me. Possibly a revelation. Gothic cathedrals and Chinese courtyards are both associated with particular views of the world but, while Gothic cathedrals might advertise a blueprint for living, the Chinese courtyard encapsulates one and gives everyone a good chance at the good life in the here and now.

It’s not everyday I’m asked to disregard the basis for everything I thought I knew about architecture.

I had another look at some courtyards I’ve admired in the past, limiting my search to ones along an axis. My first was Philip Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House even though the axial procession to the courtyard stops at the front door. It’s actually very Chinese in having a change of direction to compose oneself before entering the main room proper but this courtyard is a disappointment. It’s a light well and a horizontal view opportunity. Apart from the three stepping stones, there’s no place a person can be on the ground with open sky above. The small terrace outside the living room is covered by a canopy more to prevent overlooking by neighbors than protect from rain or shine. Still, it’s pleasant enough to Western eyes and, until now, I never found it lacking. This house is all about the entertaining space.

My next axial courtyard house was Craig Ellwood’s 1955 Hunt House in Malibu, CA. It’s symmetrical and processional. It’s a beautiful plan. The left and right courtyards are functional but the horizontal view of the ocean from the roofless terrace is the main event. I’d always thought the skylight around the chimney was a curious and unnecessary feature but it doesn’t seem so strange to me now.

Real estate pressure in China means the good life isn’t so available now. More and more people can only aspire to a horizontal views from (and of) towers. It would be nice [and a hugely profitable architectural product for someone] if the courtyard as a vertical space to be traversed, used and appreciated could be combined with voids and stacked housing. Below is my first attempt at designing a symmetrical courtyard house. I was already thinking of stacking them but it was still to early to think about how this could be done or even if it were possible.

As soon as I finished, I realized I’d just designed Kazuo Shinohara’s 1967 Yamashiro House. All that was missing was the change of level.

The section appears to be taken downwards from the post in the middle of the living room yet upwards from the stairs in the car parking space. This space has a portion with a lowered soffit and probably creates a pleasing effect when moving from the lower courtyard into the upper one.

Shinohara bathrooms and kitchens are always utilitarian but I prefer my windows opening onto the courtyard rather than a front door off axis to the right and kitchen door off axis to the left in otherwise blank walls. In the plan above, the peripheral area with the dark shading is the full extent of the site. The living room has two tall windows in the corners where the desks are. I’m amazed how much light appears to be coming in through the one in this photo. Giving each of the bedrooms their own light well is probably a good idea. I’ve never seen an image of the courtyard as seen from the living room. It doesn’t seem like a place to be enjoyed. It’s all about the living room.

There’s a lot of traversing implied voids in Shinohara’s built work. There’s Uncompleted House [1970], Shino House [1970], Cubic Forest [1971], Repeating Crevice [1971] and House in Higashi-Tamagawa [1973] but traversing actual voids occurs not only in Yamashiro House but also in Sky Rectangle [1971], House in Karuizawa [1975] and House in Itoshima [1976]. Yamashiro House (above) and House in Itoshima (below) are the only two with axial movement through courtyard-like voids to the innermost and most important space and even then, the actual route in House in Itoshima is somewhat circuitous.

Shinohara’s House in Itoshima is like Craig Ellwood’s 1955 Hunt House in having the ocean as the void beyond. The axial space at the end of the procession is largely and strongly symbolic even if were don’t know of what. It’s not a space traversed in the course of a day.

If an infinite and horizontal view isn’t available, then having a courtyard on the other side of the innermost room is a good idea, but now my symmetrical courtyard house starts to be Geoffrey Bawa’s Alfred House Office which is entered on axis through a gate between the garage and rooms for the servants (who have a concealed corridor running the length of the house). The first courtyard is an entrance courtyard onto which the servants’ rooms look. The middle courtyard is the most photographed as it has a pool occupying the middle and which has to be walked around. I’m sure the last courtyard the other side of the living room is lovely but it’s more garden than courtyard.

Plan for the Alfred House Office (courtesy of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust)

The pool courtyard too is lovely but the parts open to the sky seem incidental to the pool in the same way that the side courtyards of Elwood’s Hunt House are secondary to the ocean view. In the image below, a bed of pebbles separates the part of the courtyard open to the sky from the route used by people going to the living room.

My last example of an on-axis courtyard is Tadao Ando’s 1976 Sumiyoshi House. It comes closest to the principle of the Chinese courtyard. The entrance door opening off the right side of the porch has, as I mentioned, its Chinese precedents but, once inside, the procession is axial. That’s all by the bye. One person’s photogenic courtyard is another person’s miserable light well but I’ll leave the implications and contradictions of stacked courtyards for another post.

• • • 

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.


• • • 

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. [] 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 “” 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

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 send