Category Archives: History

The History of Forgetting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

Frank Gehry’s 2012 Hong Kong Opus

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

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

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

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

Diller+Scofidio’s Boston Institute of Contemporary Art

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

Makoto Floating School, Nigeria/2016 Venice Biennale

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

Madame Butterfly

Japanese people don’t all live in houses like the one above but how are we ever going to know? I left the recent Barbican exhibition The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 wondering what anyone can ever know about anything but decided to defer judgment until I’d gone through the catalogue.

Pippo Ciorra told of Bruno Taut’s first trip to Japan in 1933. I imagined Taut taking off his shoes, being amazed at the shoji slid open for him, sitting uncomfortably on a zabuton around a low square table in the centre of the reception room. Later, he would have been offered a yukata, instructed in how to use the furo, been appalled by the benjo and, unused to futon, sleeping fitfully. In the morning, he would have looked in the kitchen and seen mackerel being grilled and misoshiru and rice prepared for breakfast back at the same low table now set with plates of nori and (as it was Kansai) bowls of nattō.

The novelty of things new and foreign would have compensated for much, but Taut was having to adapt to every single one of the basic activities of living being satisfied in ways totally different to what he was used to. That next day, his friend took him to see Katsura Imperial Palace and Taut had some sort of epiphany, seeing proto-modern architecture and clarity and beauty everywhere. It was the beginning of our love affair with Japanese architecture. Even now it has little to do with the houses in which people actually live.

Two years prior, Japan had invaded and annexed Manchuria but that’s not another story because, if there hadn’t been a 1931 there wouldn’t have been a 1945 for this exhibition to pick up from and show us what happened after modernity arrived in Japan in the form of Western influence. This exhibition is about our history of the Japanese house and its relationship to architecture and life. It is about us. We never get to find out what Japanese houses were like before 1945.

Just as Taut saw Modernism at Katsura, Japanese people saw Japan in Kenzo Tange’s 1953 own house. Everyone else saw something a Japanese acolyte of Le Corbusier might design. The same could be said for Kazuo Shinohara’s first house, the 1954 House in Kugayama but, using steel as it did, more with respect to Mies. We’re predisposed towards liking things that suggest how we should understand them.

These most widely circulated photographs of these houses conceal their pitched roofs from us. As for the Shinohara house, we have only this illicit photograph of a model.

Both houses were completed within a year of each other and this closeness in time suggests we understand them as the Farnsworth House and Glass House of the Far East. The two are always presented together as having equivalent historical importance despite Tange never designing another in his long career and Shinohara doing little else for the first thirty years of his. In 1962 Shinohara made the claim that “Houses are Art” and we’ve being seeing Japanese houses as art ever since. This exhibition did nothing to discourage us.

There was much architecture on display but little life apart from some vintage photographs of non-Japanese inside houses,

and a photo of Tange in his garden, encapsulating the exhibition title in a single staged shot. [It doesn’t look like Tange was very good at throwing balls – at least not in the proximity of early Tarō Okamoto sculptures.] 

The absence of people and traces of living is nothing new in architectural photography but Shinohara was also to make that into an art. This book claims it was to recreate the same degree of abstraction as Japanese life and the syntax of Japanese architecture he had extracted.

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Maybe. I just remember him saying he had no interest in his houses after the clients moved in. This statement doesn’t travel as well, but it’s not a contradiction. Either way, it’s a shame because interesting things happen when real living collides with some of Shinohara’s houses. Architecture and life shouldn’t be incompatible, but nor should they be forced to become an interior representing both while being neither.

Such an attitude doesn’t fit our image of what Japanese architecture should be and Shinohara (left) and later architects (right) have obliged us ever since with photographs such as these.

Our history of Japanese architecture was presented back at us, such as the story about Toyo Ito’s U-House for his sister after the death of her husband. Can Architecture Heal Loss? Apparently it can, because the family moved out when it was time, the house was demolished and an apartment block built in its place.

Poor us though! We’ve been grieving for this house ever since, keeping it alive in our memories and, last year, even reincarnating it for this same exhibition when it appeared at MAXXI.

It’s enough to make one think architecture has little to do with actual buildings, that people’s lives and architecture exist independently of the buildings that once nurtured them, and that the purpose of buildings is to enable lives to be lived as a footnote to the goal of generating architecture. Other suspicions we have of Japanese houses were also confirmed.

Japanese houses are small

Japanese houses are different

Attempting to extract the wisdom of vernacular and anonymous architecture is now a hot topic East and West. For example, the 2017 recipient of the Wheelwright Prize intends to “study the traditions and methods that enable formal architecture to operate within the paradigm of projectless environments, sensitive to the potential cultural frictions associated with restructuring problematic settlements.”  I hope this turns out to be part of a genuine movement to apply the embodied intelligence of vernacular architectures and not some quest akin to combing the rainforests for patentable products instead of cures.

Japanese live in unorthodox ways

The exhibition had animations and movie clips with houses and people moving around (or not) but the takeaway was fuzzy. Soon after, I watached Ozu’s Tokyo Story that has much sitting and moving around. I saw the [“うらら“] beauty salon Koichi’s wife runs from the ground floor of their house, with occupants and clients sharing the same entrance. Having a home business on the ground floor was the norm with machiya [c.f. The Japanese Machiya] but also extremely common in houses in the post-war years.

Once, I went to the house of a friend and, in the space where I expected the reception room to be, his wife was pouring buckets of plastic pellets into a huge injection molding machine that made orange plastic stays to keep the tone arms of record players in place during transit.  

A single anecdote of mine isn’t conclusive but saying Atelier Bow Wow’s combining of office and living functions recalls traditional urban building types doesn’t say much either. Even the tradition being alluded to is that of machiya and not the heroic live/work units that existed well into the 1980s.

Japanese appreciate Purity of Form

No they don’t – we do! The model of Ando’s Sumiyoshi House on display was the same one last seen at the 2014 Venice Bienalle.

It was still perpetrating our belief that Japanese appreciate purity of form rather than letting us accept the as-built reality of the house. [c.f. Architectural Myths #6: Purity of Form] Our understanding of the Japanese house is what we want our understanding of the Japanese house to be. Japanese architects understand that but we still don’t.

Japanese people live with their stuff artfully arranged

Japanese would see the bathroom below as a Western-style bathroom but to us it’s just a bathroom, albeit a spartan one. Even if this mock-up does approximate the bathroom at Moriyama House (towards the centre of the plan below), it tells us nothing of Japanese bathing habits, or of any shift in bathing habits that may have occurred since 1945.

Similarly, the kitchen tableau (of the room at the top left in the plan above) confirms our belief Japanese live with not much stuff and in a super-organized way. I have my own doubts as to its fidelity but won’t nitpick. I feel for the curators – it must have been like trying to improvise a Henry VIII costume using only things in your living room and wardrobe.

SANAA’s Moriyama House is neither representative of Japanese houses or even how they’re lived in and, because of that, was an excellent choice to reinforce what we like to believe about both. People moved in and around the downstairs mock-ups as if they were in IKEA bemused at how “A family of six lives in this 30m² house!”

Japanese have an aesthetic non-Japanese are incapable of understanding

Balancing the selective mock-ups of SANAA’s Moriyama House was a setting, the primary purpose of which was to make real some kind of mythical Japan-land that exists in the Western psyche. A rock garden is suggested by an abundance of coarse gravel islands bounded by rope. Curious mossy mounds suggest Chinese landscapes. For such a major element of Japanese living, tatami were oddly absent, even in Terunobu Fujimori’s charred-timber clad tea-house-esque construction.

And so it was I wondered if it was really possible to know anything about anything unless it’s presented to us as what we know already. It’s cliché to say travel writing tells more about the traveller than the place but so do travelling exhibitions.

• • •

I’ve written all this as if the exhibition were still on at The Barbican – it’s not. Here’s a preview from before the exhibition opened on March 23,

high tea

and here’s another from The Guardian, after the opening. This review on Archinect, is best of the three.

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• • •

The catalogue turned out to be very interesting, covering topics and providing information the exhibit could only hint at.

Apart from the four introductory essays at the beginning and some architect biographies at the end, the same content will appear as this ja+u special issue.

 

Seventy-five houses are organized into themes that are somewhat arbitrary but, (if they’re not going to use sleeping, cooking, eating, bathing, sitting and shitting) then they’re as good as any others. Japaneseness is an important one, and illustrated by the Tange and Shinohara houses already mentioned. Mass Production was perfunctorily dealt with. Lightness might have told us more if it’d stuck to physical lightness rather than overstretch it to include Kikutake’s concrete-y Sky House. Truth is though, there’s so much diversity in these modern architect-designed Japanese house that no set of categories is ever going to suffice.

The invention and diversity in Japanese houses post-1945 can be thought of as the Japanese idea that houses are Art coupling with the Western notion that houses are for the display of Individuality. For non-Japanese, the idea that a house is art is an extremely seductive one and, for Japanese, the idea that a house can be used to express individuality is equally powerful. This marriage of convenience gave us the Japanese house as a conceptual post-war baby and we’re endlessly fascinated seeing ourselves in the fruit of this union.

• • •

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Detective Story

Sunday, May 28, 8:00 am: I publish a post titled The Piano and The Double-Sided Apartment and refer to this next plan as “an embryo unité d’habitations.” I go on to say that, “the overall intention, the end apartments with their different orientation, the way the elevator lobby has been accommodated, and the lax attitude towards fire escape all suggest the hand of Le Corbusier but whether firsthand or secondhand I don’t know.”

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I still don’t – all lines of enquiry turned up nothing. A trusted source [Merci!] informed me an authoritative source had doubted the plans were by Le Corbusier. This alone was strong proof they weren’t.

In the same post, I also made reference to the following plans from the Cité Frais Vallon project because of their similarly stacked stairs. Their architect was also unknown.

Frais-Vallon

12:45 pm: I receive intelligence from Det. Daniel.

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15:30 pm: I learn Devin worked with Fernand Pouillon on the 1955 Quartier du Vieux-Port project, thus locating him in Marseille shortly after the completion of Le Corbusier’s first Unité d’Habitation.

20:45 pm: For now I have only circumstantial evidence, but comparing both plans leads me to suspect André Devin as author of both.

  • The pairing of apartments over three levels and the stacking of stairs on both sides of a corridor is common to both.
  • The space used to cross over/under the corridor is the only circulation space within the mystery plans and also in the larger floor of the Frais Vallon double-sided apartment. Apart from these two examples, I’ve never seen this done before and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
  • Both projects attempt to create a plan with the advantages of Le Corbusier’s Unité but without its faults. The person who devised these plans has obviously studied the Unité closely and , in the mystery plans, judging by the contrived end apartments and how other problems such as the secondary fire escape stair are solved in similar manner, is clearly an admirer. This is part of the Frais Vallon project with which André Devin’s name is linked.

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After Le Corbusier’s Marseille Unité, there was a 1950s fashion for towers with a similar treatment for the apartments at one end (and, as part of the same thing, ingoring any possible benefit additional windows may have provided). Fernand Pouillon did so in 1958 at Le Point de Jour in Billancourt. London County Council did so in 1955 with the Loughborough Estate in Brixton.

  • Frais Vallon has pilotis, though not as hefty as LC’s.
  • The fact Devin worked on housing projects with Fernand Pouillon suggests a comradely familiarity with 1920’s Soviet housing proposals such as the STROIKOM team’s 1928 Type E apartments and their stacked stairs leading to apartments up/down from one side of a corridor space. [c.f. 1928: The Types Study.]

Let’s take a closer look at those plans.

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The top half of these plans is the rear half of Devin’s. Mirroring the right plan about the corridor gives us the corridor level of the Frais Vallon plan. We’re looking at some sort of basic principle.

10:01 pm

André Devin is almost certainly the architect of Cité Frais Vallon but there was still nothing linking it to the mystery plan – until this next. The floor plate size is the same. The apartment layouts may be different but their disposition has been contrived to produce building elevations with exactly the same intent. We saw what they looked like just above.

Ultimately, the clever arrangement of double-sided apartments wasn’t used in the towers but for the nearby low-rise blocks. The stacked staircases that had been in the corridors now lead off private entry halls along with two bedrooms linked to the remainder of the apartment above/below. 

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The severe treatment of the elevations brings to mind the Nikolsky team’s entry for the 1927 competition,

but, with low-cost housing, there’s little else other than the position of windows to work with. At first I thought the gratuitous checkerboard was a precursor to today’s gratuitously shuffly window but there’s nothing gratuitous about these facades.

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One thing my years of detective work has taught me is try to get into the mind of the architect. Anything that strikes me as odd is likely to have a logic behind it. With the far facade in the photograph above, the top and bottom rows of horizontal windows are curious, and so are the obsessively paired windows inbetween. “Did someone say Horizontal Windows?” The windows top and bottom do a little Villa Savoye thing and the windows in the middle are paired to emphasize the column structure.

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• • •

This is where the case stands right now. André Devin is a person of interest I believe can help with my enquiries.

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Tuesday, May 30

Before that investigation can be closed, another must begin to see if this low-rise configuration – whoever’s responsible – really can’t be improved upon.

  1. Spanning the corridor with necessary circulation spaces is brilliant, but also doing it with general storage rooms seems a bit too easy.
  2. The one-bedroom apartment does not seem part of an integrated solution.
  3. There are shafts next to the bathrooms on all floors, and also on both sides of the corridor alongside the staircases (but it is not clear why).
  4. It is difficult to imagine how furniture would be arranged in the long living areas.
  5. As with many configurations of this type, it is taken for granted that bathrooms will have mechanical ventilation and artificial light. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a fault since doing without both wasn’t a problem the design set out to solve.
  6. Nowadays, a kitchen/dining/living room or dining/living area are more common than an eat-in kitchen with the extra space and window it requires. This is also not a fault. The plans are just a product of their time, and probably place too.

Frais-Vallon

  • It’s easy to take away the incongruous one-bedroom apartment and provide two more bedrooms for two more apartments but this is something the architect would have known was possible.
  • Those extra bedrooms would need their own bathroom which would need to stack with the ones above and below. (Whatever’s in those hallway cupboards can go somewhere else.)
  • Those bathrooms are also going to need a shaft, ideally accessible from the corridor, but we need to go upstairs first and find out what’s going on up there.
  • The kitchen/dining/living area has to fit in the same area as two bedrooms and a bathroom, and the kitchen needs to share a shaft.
  • The large central storage cupboard isn’t essential but I don’t think anyone wanting a four-bedroom apartment would sacrifice a large storage cupboard for an interesting little alcove where the stairs enter the living area.

The main challenge was to find an alternative use for this space that doesn’t involve shafts, and that also keeps the stair landings overlapping the circulation space.

My first attempt was clearly flawed. It still had the large storage rooms adjacent to the stairs (plus understairs storage on the lower level) plus more storage cupboards next to the bedroom. So, rather than fight the corridor I decided to accept its difficult “crossover” space and stretch the apartments away from it, creating gaps and voids for daylight, ventilation and internal views.

Converting a flaw into real advantages is different from making a flaw into an architectural feature. The real disadvantage is increased external wall area. I can’t see any way around this. If one wants the real advantages of real windows then one has to accept an increased area of real external walls. Otherwise, one is stuck with mechanical ventilation, artificial light and representations of [a.k.a. “a sense of”] exterior space.

virtual_balcony

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Anyway, this idea didn’t spring from nowhere. It’s a development of Stacey from one of misfits’ first posts, and incorporating the concerns mentioned in Plan B, one of the more recent, in which I say it might be a good idea to make apartment dwellers more aware of sharing a building with others.

  1. Small kitchen windows and staircase windows overlook the triple-height space of the access level,
  2. High bathroom windows open onto this same space, and
  3. The internal passageway becomes a bridge overlooking the triple-height space of the access corridor on one side, with a small ‘internal’ balcony (laundry drying?) overlooking the access level on the other side.

Basically, the building volume “saved” by only having one corridor per three floors has been externalized to become a type of communal space mostly appreciated from inside the apartments. It may not be as cheap to construct as SANAA‘s value-added alleyways, but it seems to me to give more back to more people and generally be a more positive way forward for buildings too.

This is not architecture – for architecture is in decline, seemingly terminal. This is a building, and buildings still have life left in them.

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I still need to find a place for the washing machine.

• • •

Today’s Guardian carries a story on how the LEGO company reinvented itself. I would just like to say that this is totally coincidental, and that I have never received money from the LEGO company for this post’s header image or any  inadvertent advertisement.  

The Piano and the Double-Sided Apartment

All double-sided apartments have windows on opposite sides enabling views in opposite directions, cross-ventilation, and variations in daylighting. There aren’t many ways to configure a double-sided apartment and most have at least one of the following flaws.

Multiple cores

It’s almost impossible not to make a double-sided apartment if there are only two apartments per stairwell or core,

when they’re at the end of a (longer) corridor [c.f. 1928: The Types Study, The Domino’s House]

albion riverside plan

or when there’s no corridor [c.f. The Dominos House].

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Preferred view on the wrong side for half the apartments

Some configurations have paired apartments with living areas facing different directions. This is no problem if views in both directions are equally preferable. It was also not a problem for many of the 1920s proposals because preventing tuberculosis with adequate daylighting and cross ventilation was more important than view. Many were never built. [c.f. 1928: The Types StudyThe 1+1/2 Floor Apartment]

Low site coverage

Four buildings were however built with Type F apartments, the most famous being Moisei Ginzburg and team’s Narkomfin building completed 1930 in Moscow.

  • Reduced ceiling heights of non-essential areas meant lower % of building volume for access, and resultant economies of materials and construction cost.
  • All living rooms were on one side and sleeping areas the other.

The main fault of Type F apartment was a building was narrow so it couldn’t produce a site efficiency as high as was possible with double-loaded corridors. [c.f. Critical Spatiality]

Dining and kitchen areas separated from the living area

This may or may not be a problem, depending upon the configuration. With Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations it is, as half the primary type of apartment have a living area combined with the master bedroom area. It’s less of a problem with Chermayeff’s apartments or with US 7,540,120 where the kitchen/dining area overlooks the living area. [c.f. The 1+1/2 Floor ApartmentUS 7,540,120].

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Poor use of space over/under the corridor

Using this space for bathrooms and kitchens can create problems with shafts but there still remains the problem of no daylighting or cross-ventilation for the very spaces that could most benefit from them. [c.f. US 7,540,120

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Limited variety of apartment types

It’s easier to solve the problem of corridor-access double-sided apartments if only one or two types of apartment are provided in pairs. Variations occur naturally when those pairs don’t fit around ‘circumstantial’ elements like elevator lobbies and escape stairs. Chermayeff’s variations don’t have this problem but his variations are fixed customizations that can’t be arbitrarily configured from standardized plan components.

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The title of this post does not refer to any of the pianos in these plans.

Miserable entrances

One way to avoid crossing over or under the corridor is to get out of it as soon as possible and use that necessary space within the apartment. In this next arrangement, that space has been cleverly used to create entrance and kitchen areas linking both sides. What I also like are the two equivalent living areas, the use of which is left up to the occupant.

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This plan appears to be an embryo unité d’habitations. The overall intention, the end apartments with their different orientation, the way the elevator lobby has been accommodated, and the lax attitude towards fire escape all suggest the hand of Le Corbusier but whether it’s firsthand or secondhand I don’t know.

Alternately reversing the apartments to avoid duplicating shafts both sides of the corridor seems an unnecessary complication, especially when it takes seven single-sided apartments (plus six end ones) to create ten double-sided apartments, two of which don’t even use the corridor. Additionally, the main part of the building has 10 structural bays so three-bay apartments were never going to work, whether reversed or not. Those single sided apartments are conspicuous for not fitting neatly. The appearance of an inelegant solution could be avoided by incorporating that volume into apartments reversed not side-by-side but above and below, and using that space to enter them (“Voilà!”) but whether this plan predates Unité or not is unknown.  

If prior, then Unité becomes an illustration of “If a problem can’t be solved then call it a feature!”. Two decades on, expressing such intractable problems came to be called an “architectural joke”. Five decades on, representing the non-solution of such problems came to be called “embracing complexity.” Sadly, it’s the closest thing to architectural theory we have.

This all assumes this arrangement is pre-Unité but it could be somebody’s post-Unité attempt to improve upon it.

Complex sections

The corridor has to be passed over or under some way or another and the scissor plan is perhaps the most ingenious way yet devised to do this. All living rooms are on one side and all bedrooms on the other.

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Corringham, London, 1960, Douglas Stephen & Partners

Scissor plans have the disadvantage of being complex to construct, as well as difficult to comprehend.

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I found this graphic helpful even though it is incorrect. The “down-going” apartments (entered from the upper entrance corridor) don’t have stairs linking to the lower entrance corridor and the “up-going” apartments (entered from the lower corridor) don’t have stairs linking them to the upper entrance corridor. Thanks anyway, wikiwand!

The scissor plan is no oddity but a serious attempt to achieve better use of building volume and building resources. Rather than create double or even 1+1/2 height volumes and calling them a feature, the scissor plan took the building volume either side of the corridor and used it as the topmost level of one apartment and the bottommost level of another. It solved the problem it set out to, and did so with very elegant shafts. I have more respect for it than I did.

Additional shafts

It’s possible to utilise the space above and below the corridor but at the cost of an extra shaft to service the inevitable single aspect apartment on the other side of the corridor [left, below], or the rotationally mirrored apartment adjacent/opposite it [right]. If one’s willing to accept a full shaft on either side of the corridor then various configurations become possible. The scissor plan doesn’t have this problem.

• • •

If one overlooks the apartment entrances, then this next is a very decent arrangement within the residential development known as Cité Frais Vallon (1960~) in Marseille. It has two 4-bed and two 2-bed double-sided apartments for every one 1-bed single-sided apartment, and all living rooms on the same side – not bad! Stacking internal staircases both sides of the corridor and offsetting apartment upper levels from their lower ones is a brilliant idea. The entire plan is generated from those stacked and horizontally and rotationally symmetrical staircases. The only difference is the position at which the staircase enters the central circulation space. I don’t think it can be done any better than this.

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Impressive. Completely ignored. It’s as if nothing of architectural interest is ever allowed to happen again in Marseille [c.f. Architectural Misfit #28: Fernand Pouillon.] The coordinating architect is listed as André Devin [thanks Daniel!] If I’d known of this project earlier, I wouldn’t have been so proud of “My Best Shot”. To be fair, we both agree stacking staircases is the way forward.

My Best Shot

Because a corridor-access 100% double-sided apartment is an unresolveable contradiction, the problem becomes one of what to do with the building volume either side of the corridor. It can be either

  1. single-sided apartments,
  2. incorporated into the adjacent apartments above and below as single-sided spaces, or
  3. have one side as the lowest level of one apartment and the other side as the highest level of another – the scissor plan solution.

The configurations above all solve the same problem in one of these three ways. My decision to solve the problem with a horizontal asymmetry around the corridor inevitably caused a problem for the ‘minor’ shaft. In the lower apartment, the space between the upper kitchen cupboards and the ceiling is used to cross the corridor, avoiding a false ceiling.

  • Off the corridor are a studio, stairs down to a 2-bed apartment and to stairs up to a 1-bed apartment. The 1-bed apartment can be down stairs and the 2-bed up stairs.
  • Elements farther from the corridor become more arbitrary.
  • The determining dimension is the total length of the stair and entrances on the corridor level.
  • Mirroring apartments around the left party wall and reconfiguring the corridors makes it possible for the bedroom or bedrooms of a double-sided apartment to appropriate those of an adjacent apartment. [See here for variations.]
  • It’s money for old trope but, the volume of the existing studio apartment could be used to create a double-height living area for the apartment below.
  • Another possibility is to divide the volume of the existing studio horizontally across both upper and lower apartments. This would give the lower apartment a 1+1/2 storey living area while the upper apartment would require a half-flight of stairs to access its sunken floor. The same volume could be divided vertically across upper and lower apartments but I can’t see any advantage in doing so.

• • •

Nor can I see any advantage of doing it in this next proposal either that, I now see, mine owes a substantial debt to. It’s Moisei Ginzburg’s team’s proposal for the 1928 competition held by the Soviet magazine SA [Contemporary Architecture] [c.f. 1927: The Competition.] The corridor level had single-sided apartments on both sides but a stair accessed off the corridor leads down to a larger double-sided apartment. All apartments were to be reconfigured into more generous accommodations when the economic situation of the occupants [i.e. the U.S.S.R.] improved.

Once the competition was over, the government almost immediately responded by appointing Ginzburg head of a STROIKOM (Construction Committee of the Russian Republic) specially formed to create standardized unit types. In 1928 though, things were already taking a turn for the worse

There was a sweeping shift toward Stalinist conservatism in all spheres. 1928 was the start of the First Five-Year Plan towards massive industrialization and away from cultural reforms such as the design and construction of highly-socialized living in general and the communal house in particular. On May 16, the VKP(b) Central Committee of issued a directive regarding: “On the Work Concerning the Restructuring of Everyday Life.”

“The Central Committee of the VKP(b) warns against the attempts of certain comrades to construct a new everyday life by forced administrative means; administratively separating children from parents, socialized dining, etc. The new normal must be built by taking into full account existing material conditions, and in no way must it run off and devise plans for which there exists neither the means nor the possibility of their realization.”

The directive made it clear that the time for an aspirational architecture for a new society had passed. In a scramble to mirror the shifting tide, SA blurred its position. The above directive was published in SA 1930, accompanied by a wavering editorial titled “Where to Go?” In addition, Moisei Ginzburg wrote in 1932, and published in 1934, a book Zhilishche (Housing), in which he categorized his work over the previous five years as experimental and producing “extreme conclusions and schematic solutions.”

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The Piano and the Double-Sided Apartment

To design an improved double-sided apartment plan in 1927 in anticipation of improved economic circumstances was a good thing, but indicating a grand piano in the plan took it too far. An upright piano for accompanying tavern tunes or patriotic anthems would have gone unnoticed. No authority would have wanted factory workers to aspire to becoming bourgeois families with grand pianos in their living rooms. Classical music in Soviet Russia in the mid-twenties was already alarmingly progressive to those for whom dissonance meant dissidents.

Igor Stravinsky was the most notoriously dissonant of the Russian-born composers since the 1913 Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring.

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Stravinsky had lived in France all the 1920s and, whether he followed prospects or instinct, continued to in the 1930s. Sergei Prokofiev had been living in America since 1918 but returned to the U.S.S.R. in 1925, only to be interrogated by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians. Nevertheless, he stayed and did some of his best work [i.e my favourites] during the Stalin years: 1931 – Piano Concerto No. 4 (for Left Hand); 1932 – Piano Concerto No.5; 1939-42 – Piano Sonata No. 7; 1944 – Fifth Symphony. Dmitri Shostakovich disappointed his early teachers by admiring both Stravinsky and Prokofiev. He spent most of the 1920s and 1930s avoiding offending the authorities with his Mahlerian tendencies and ambivalent tonality and was mostly successful at it until 1936. Aram Khachaturian was still too young to be a concern in 1928. Nikolai Myaskovsky was more popular than progressive but, in 1947, was accused along with the others, of writing anti-Soviet music that “renounces the basic principles of classical music in favour of muddled, nerve-racking sounds that “turn music into cacophony”.

My hunch is that the reason the STROIKOM committee was formed so quickly after the 1927 competition not because of any government enthusiasm for innovative housing solutions but so the activities of Ginzburg and his associates could be more closely monitored. This also explains the generally cool reception the proposals received when they were presented later that year, and also explains the presence at the meeting of NKVD officer Cde. Sadovsky who made direct reference to the directive. [c.f. 1928: The Meeting]

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The crackdown first made itself felt with the directive but by 1930 all architects’ collectives were disbanded. When Mikhail Okhotovich and De–urbanism came on the scene, it became a matter of not just the workers getting ideas above their station but the farmers as well. “Who’d stick around to grow stuff if everybody got to move around wherever they wanted? Nobody would be satisfied doing what they were supposed to do.” It would only end badly. It did anyway. [c.f. 1930: De-urbanism]

Nikolay Milyutin, the former Commissar of Finance and influential proponent of the Narkomfin building, contrived to fade into peaceful insignificance with a succession of jobs, each one further off the radar. Ginzburg moved back to The Ukraine he originally hailed from and lived out a quiet life. The Vesnins went post-Constructivist. Artists such as Malevich toned it down. Irrepressible de-urbanist, Okhotovich didn’t and got himself shot. Hapless creative, Ivan Leonidov passed the time with The City of The Sun and painkillers. [c.f. Career Case Study #6: Ivan Illich Leonidov]

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This layout is dedicated to Nikokay Milyutin, Moisei Ginzburg, Sergei Prokofiev and all others of that time who achieved work-life balance.

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Buildings That Lean

When we look at buildings or even at images of them, we barely register their shapes and surfaces before moving on to consider the next. Building alignment seems to only ever matter when it attracts our attention and one way it can do that is by thwarting our expectations.

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Why is Le Grande Arche not looking straight down the Champs Elysées? What’s gone wrong? Where’s it looking instead? Why are we personifying buildings? [And what’s with all the questions?] Back in 1985 reasons were indeed given for its non-alignment but they’ve become lost in the mists of time along with the purpose of Maccu Piccu and how the pyramids were constructed. There’s a chance we’d still remember if they’d been that important. It’s clearer with mosques. If we know a building is one then we know it’ll be facing Mecca even though it might not be aligned with anything else we see.

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Another way alignment makes us aware of it is when something isn’t in vertical alignment – as in leaning, tilted, skewed, listing … askew … squiffy. The dish of this next building doesn’t look like it’s facing anything in particular but, if we know what this building is and does, we will reasonably assume it’s aligned with something out there. We simply can’t see what. Awesome yet useful structures like this and those fancy solar collectors that track the sun aren’t considered architecture because their alignments are comprehended through knowledge, not conjecture.

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The Iconic Tilt

Snøhetta’s Alexandria Library is another matter. Its cylindrical volume and single inclined surface make it look as if it rotates and tilts to track the sun. This illusion is sufficient for its alignment to be iconic, and for the whole thing to be considered architecture. I’m using the word iconic only for convenience. It’s more correct to say its alignment designates – in that it’s being used to make some sort of statement, i.e. “say something”. But what?

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First of all, we notice its alignment because it looks different from that of everything else we can see. Its alignment also seems different by virtue of it being with respect to The Sun and not with respect to ephemeral things such as roads, buildings, and coastlines. This building’s alignment creates an association of place if we know that this building is in Egypt with its long history of Sun worship. By aligning itself towards The Sun, the building has the alignment of things that are not buildings – such as sunflowers, solar collectors and sun worshippers

The Iconic Skew

The lean of the Marine Traffic Control Tower for the Port of Lisbon Authority (1997, Gonçalo Byrne Architects) also satisfies all conditions for iconic alignment. 

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Its alignment looks different from that of everything else we can see and it also seems different from anything we may know of. We sense it is a controlled lean. It’s alignment has a unity with its location in that it is leaning towards the harbour we know it is there to observe. Finally, it has the alignment of something not a building in that buildings don’t generally lean forward like a person trying to get a better view of something.

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from the architects’ website

This tower is very photogenic and part of the reason we feel comfortable with its lean is because every ‘vertical’ is inclined to produce an even and meaningful skew. The structure and plan are exactly what you’d expect.

The Statement Lean

Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s twin La Peuerta Europa [a.k.a. Gate of Europe, KIA] Towers in Plaza Castilla, Madrid date from 1989. Visually, it’s unclear whether they want to be leaning or not as their shapes are telling us one thing and their patterns another.

Structurally, they’re as you’d expect, with a vertical structural core where topmost floor plate overlaps footprint. These were the world’s first inclined tall buildings, and leaning at 15°. The lean is said to have come about by the requirement to have a large setback at the front of the site in order to clear a subway interchange but, when Philip Johnson’s involved, you can never be sure.

Again the alignment looks different from that of everything else we can see, and it also seems (or at least at the time, seemed) novel and different from anything we know. This is a strong combination of factors but any association of alignment is a weak one because it’s self-contained about the thoroughfare and so could be reproduced anywhere. There’s nothing strongly binding the two buildings to this particular place. Neverthless, the building alignment is not like that of a building in that buildings don’t as a rule lean forward as if to oversee a portal. Subjective associations that are absent are just as important as the ones that are present and the result here is a pair of buildings that are alien to their surroundings.

The Not-So Meaningful Lean

It is the same with this proposal by Vasily Klyukin. It doesn’t matter what for, for the proposal’s title, In Love, says everything we need to know.

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The intention may have been to create something iconic [ugh!] but, again, there’s no notion of association that links the alignment of this building to its surroundings. It alignment still looks different however. It also seems different in that it’s (mercifully, still,) unusual for the alignment of a building to make such a facile pointOnce more, there’s no association of alignment that binds this building to this particular place. A building having this alignment could be built anywhere and to exactly the same effect. Finally though, its alignment is unlike that of a building in that buildings don’t love other buildings let alone express it by leaning against them

Like the Johnson-Burgee towers above, it’s not iconic – merely alien. The same can be said for these next three buildings, none of evoke ideas binding their alignment to where the building is.

The Enigmatic Lean

Jurgen Meyer H’s 1999 Townhall in Scharnhauser Park, Germany is inclined 5° lean to the east. (Its atrium also has a 5° lean to the north.) As is the case with many Jurgen Mayer H. buildings, nobody knows why.  

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Cantilevering as The New Leaning

Here, the building now appears to be leaning into some serious headwind as propels itself forward. From nowhere in particular.

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The Because-we-can Lean

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Me, I prefer a linear lean but this is Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi, billed by people more knowledgeable than I as the world’s furthest leaning building. It becomes difficult now to determine what’s a lean and what’s a cantilever but degrees from the verticla are its units of measurement. With this building, the floors farthest out there are occupited by a hotel Hyatt – the same people who devised the Pritzker Prize to thank architecture for increased footfall. RMJM, the Scottish architectural firm famous for its nine lives, designed Capital Gate to have a lean of 18°.

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The Capital Gate project was able to achieve its record inclination through a special engineering breakthrough that allows floor plates to be stacked vertically up to the 12th storey and staggered over each other by between 300mm to 1400mm, which allows for the tower’s dramatic lean. 

This must be that special engineering breakthrough although I’d prefer to save that word to describe momentous discoveries such as cures for cancer.

The gravitational pressure caused by the 18 degree incline is countered by the world’s first “pre-cambered core”; a technique that utilizes 15,000 cubic metres of concrete reinforced with 10,000 tons of steel with the core deliberately built slightly off centre. It straightened as the building rose …, moving into (vertical) position as the weight of the floors has been added.

But just in case,

The building has an extra-ordinary exoskeleton or “diagrid” to absorb and channel the forces created by wind and seismic pressure as well as the gradient of Capital Gate

The Unitentional Lean #1

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Most famously leaning is the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the campanile for the adjacent cathedral. We never appreciate the architect’s success at harmonizing the Gothic elements of the bell-chamber with the Romanesque style of the tower. We appreciate how its alignment looks different from what’s around it. It’s something that occurred naturally. Nobody designed it to be that way. Its alignment is free of aesthetic baggage. How refreshing is that!?  

The tower’s foundations were laid in 1173 and this is where problems began since those foundations were improper for ground that was, it turned out, softer on one side. Unsurprisingly, the name of this original architect is not known. Construction was delayed for a century or so while the Republic of Pisa was battling neighbouring city-states. When construction resumed in 1272, the new architect Giovanni di Simone built the remaining floors with one side taller than the other to produce a tower that’s somewhat banana shaped.

It wasn’t the best idea to concentrate on the visual aspects of the problem without considering the [clue!] underlying reasons for it. The additional material on the side of the lean might have pushed the tower’s centre of gravity further in the wrong direction for the tower continued to lean. Adding seven large and rather heavy bells to the bell chamber completed in 1372 can’t have helped.

Over the centuries, various attempts to correct the lean were made but it kept increasing to 5.5°. It was only in 2001 people finally understood what was going on. [ref.]

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The exact cause of the tilt was not fully understood until 2001, when a serious stabilization effort (which began in the 1990’s) was completed. It was known prior to the start of this stabilization effort that the tower had been built atop an inadequate foundation (which was only 3 meters thick); and was constructed on very soft silty soil. Had these been the only factors at work, uniform settlement of the tower could have been expected; and the city of Pisa would play host to a significantly less famous (albeit more vertical) tower. The 800 year old mystery was finally solved by John Burland, an English geotechnical engineer, who discovered that the primary cause of the tilt was a fluctuating water table which would perch higher on the tower’s north side, causing the tower’s characteristic slant to the south. [http://madridengineering.com/case-study-the-leaning-tower-of-pisa/]

As is the way with many intractable problems, an open call for solutions was held. One person suggested freezing the soil around the tower solid – an idea wacky enough to have worked if it hadn’t required the soil to be liquidified first. One child cutely suggested digging a hole on one side and letting the tower sink into it. This is basically what was done.

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Nowadays the tower’s lean is basically constant at 3.97° and future shifts in either direction can be predicted with reasonable accuracy. 

The Unintentional Lean #2

Two of the twenty or so remaining Towers of Bologna have similar problems. As was the way, 12th century engineers believed a foundation 3m thick was sufficient to support anything. The taller of the two towers in the image below is 97m Torre Asinelli and the shorter is Torre Garisenda at 48m. Both were built to about the same height but Torre Garisenda began to lean so alarmingly its height was reduced to 48m in the 14th century. Nowadays it sports an impressive 3° lean but Torre Asinelli is none too vertical either.

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What we like about the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Asinelli Tower and Garisanda Tower is that they weren’t designed to be like that. Their alignments look different and that’s it – that’s all there is. They weren’t designed to have alignments that were novel or unusual or different in any way whatsoever. Those alignments weren’t designed to celebrate Italian Mediaval history or attract tourists to Bologna. Any associations we may make were never there. Although the Bologna towers are out of vertical alignment, their alignments are still very much the alignments of buildings.

The Unintentional Lean #3

San Francisco’s Millennium Tower is 654ft (197m) tall. Since its completion in 2009 it has sunk 16 inches and now has a two inch tilt at the base and an approximately six inch tilt at the top. This works out at about 0.04° so it’s not appreciable yet and, even if it becomes appreciable, there won’t be much appreciating going on. Here’s a New York Times report of the current state of the legals. Fingers are being pointed.

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So far, the noisiest threats involve residents who stand to lose on their investment. Millennium tower still looks vertical. It’ll be some time before its lean interrupts a game of pool or otherwise inconveniences the daily lives of its occupants. Of more immediate concern ought to be soil liquification which is a term you’d prefer to not have enter your consciousness when your building is built on friction piles in an earthquake zone having a 72% likelihood of at least one earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater before 2043.

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The lean of Millennium Tower will be easy to check against adjacent and more resolutely vertical buildings. For reference, the (intentional) lean of this curtain wall is quite appreciable at 1°.

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The next video was taken during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

I can’t identify the building with the dark cladding but some Shiunjuku Towers such as the Mitsui Building and Tokyo City Hall leaned up to 3’3″. Over 55 office floors this represents a lean of around 0.6°, each way, repeatedly, and for about 10 minutes. We need to remember that these were self-correcting, temporary and designed-for misalignments.

millennium-tower.jpgITALY. Pisa. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. From 'Small World'. 1990.

As we’ve discovered over the centuries, buildings with unintentional leans don’t fix themselves. It’s one thing to dig a hole under a twelfth century unoccupied tower in a grassy clearing and hope for the best, and quite another to attempt something similar for a 58-storey occupied building in a crowded city.

• • •

This post grew from a suggestion by Chuck Choi – thanks Chuck!

Keeping it Real

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

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Rockefeller Guest House, Philip Johnson, 1950

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilotis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilotis are thus more architectural than columns.

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

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

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

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

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

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Le Corbusier, Tsentrosoyuz building, Moscow (completed 1933)

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

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

or for some time after.

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

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

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

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

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