Category Archives: Making Sense Of It

ongoing attempts to make sense out of it all

Modern Vernacular

A vernacular of performance …

Microprocessor research and technological application is always concerned with the pursuit of higher performance for the same or lower energy input, manufacture using simpler and fewer mechanical and chemical processes, the discovery of processes having higher degrees of tolerance, the elimination of ecologically unsound and toxic processes, the search for elements and compounds which are less expensive either in themselves or to synthesize, three dimensional layout design to maximize compactness, increase speed of operation and minimize electron loss, and so on. In addition to all of these concerns, miniaturization and cost efficiency are also pursued in order to maximize applicability and marketability. Form is irrelevant. They are simple rectangular solids covered in resin to protect and insulate, and also to hide their workings from competitors. Rather than a beauty of form, there is a beauty of the synthesis of isolated, composite and integrated function, the exploration of materials with multiple properties, the processes of manufacture, and the economics and integration of it all. Most of this is pursued at the sub-electron level.

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The result is a high-performance product with very specific and highly-defined functions. It has a form but that was not the goal. It carries no notions of status. Microprocessors and their manufacture are the product of continuing refinement towards more performance for less input, all the time shunning waste, excess, redun-dancy and design for the sake of it. The beauty of a microprocessor is not one of simple function, but an integrated performance of the whole and its parts in themselves and in the course of their manufacture. The pursuit of this is a commercial one for a market is assured. As there is for housing. However, in terms of its consequences for the production process, there is an important difference between a house as a machine for living in, and a house as a metaphor of a machine for living in.

car

… encompasses building materials, …

property

The vernacular use of local materials in rural areas is not intended to be quaint, rustic or to glorify the aesthetic qualities of natural materials. It is merely an obvious and expedient use of available materials, labour resources and techniques. Loadbearing walls support loads, provide thermal and acoustic insulation and provide spatial delimitors. They are also relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, instead of us seeing the beauty of the thought processes by which vernacular buildings came about, we more readily see their beauty in terms of the property they tend to be standing on, in much the same way as the “beauty” of ships and grain silos is dependent upon the vastness of the empty (but no less justifying) spaces around them. Selection and use of materials should be in terms of how many of their properties can be made use of to satisfy multiple functions. It would expedite the rational selection and use of building materials and methods today if a similar thought processes were applied.

murcutt

Glen Murcutt and Rem Koohaus have used corrugated iron for the inherent properties it has, and in doing so, have restored its place as a building mateial.  This is a step back towards a vernacular approach to materials and their use. Natural materials are already objects of status so unless we are to either import building materials or quarry every rock and fell every tree in the country, a modern vernacular will sooner or later have to use substitutes. A day will come when corrugated iron will be seen as decadent a building material as carved stone is now.  Sooner or later we will have to relearn.

… interior finishes, …

Internal finishes contribute significantly to the cost of a building. A modern vernacular building would be designed ot use inexpensive and multi-functional finishes were any to be used at all. The walls of log cabins and traditional Japanese rooms (and their houses, for the two were integral) did not have any applied finishes.

raw

Timber having become the commodity of status it is, building such a house is a statement of affluence in Japan today. We have to learn to appreciate the beauty that less expensive and status-laden materials also have in their raw state. This process can already be seen operating in the field of product design. Whereas most hi-fi components used to be housed in timber cabinets, only top-quality ones remain so today. Office furniture is being continually being redesigned to use less expensive materials. Over the past twelve months, the use of less-expensive transparent plastics has beome widespread, but marketed as an indicator of some new awareness. Validated by their use in the iMac, their use quickly spread to kitchen equipment such as electric kettles and toasters.

imac

… building components, …

If passed on, the cost benefits of mass production are more pronounced if products are standardized and their design and manufacture tailored for maximum cost efficiency. Countering this is the value-added component restored by offering a wide selection of products and marketing them with emphasis on ‘individuality’. Double-glazed windows and conservatories are two examples where this operates to negate consumer benefit. CD players used to be made with lasers having lenses of glass. The current use of plastic is the result of design for cost-efficient manufacture rather than audio considerations. Some designs are easier to produce than others. This is reflected in the cost of the final goods whether the means of production is a factory machine, skilled worker, unskilled worker or craftsman. What has to be remembered is that a building can use prefabricated and mass-produced products designed for ease of assembly, but if these are to produce a building having an aesthetic that is dependent upon the possession of property for its effect, then it will never be applicable to realistic housing needs .The desirability will be there because of reduced construction, but those benefits will be negated by the price of the property necessary to sustain the aesthetic.

case study

… methods of construction, …

Similarly, construction by highly skilled technicians, craftsmen or artisans was simple process involving available materials. It is not anymore. The use of highly skilled labour as a means of production continues to indicate status. That it produces goods of high quality is not disputed.

gothic

This is the same value and status investing process of art. Design for less-expensive methods of construction has to take into account the inherent imprecision of techniques requiring less skill. Modernism did not translate well when its construction techniques were applied to low-cost housing. Flat roofs were technically vulnerable to imprecise methods. A simple and available means of achieving something is preferable to a complex one. In addition, each component of the building should be designed to have more than one function, both when the building is complete and in the course of its construction.

… building fittings and services, …

Building fittings continue to be marketed as status-generating consumer items, particularly with regard to kitchens. In terms of aesthetics derived from function and status, a £3,500 stainless steel cooker is more beautiful than a £50 reconditioned gas cooker, but in terms of cost-effective performance, the opposite is true.

pawson

In general, be it a sofa or a cupboard, built-in furniture is a means of adding value to buildings. Justifying this in terms of saving space, returns the argument to one of property. Be this as it may,the process of building items in complicates and lengthens the building process. Concealing anything in a building costs money, whether it be hardware (structure, construction joints), firmware (conduits, services) or software (all furniture, light fittings, saucepans and all objects having an element of consumer choice). The evolution of techniques to incorporate hardware and firmware elements into a design should be encouraged.

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… the building type, …

If a vernacular aesthetic of performance is to be applicable to buildings, then a building itself must also satisfy as many functions as possible – a concept which runs counter to this century’s architectural thought. Last century’s gave us the notion of separating functions and classes in a city. This century’s gave it form, the initial applications of which were new towns and mass housing schemes separating residential and retail areas. Compare the cities of Europe where, during the 19th century, having shops at street level and apartments above become sufficiently well established as a pattern of high-density urban living to survive industrialization and Modernism separating them as they did in Britain.

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An equivalent building type still survives here but it dates from before the Industrial Revolution when this split occurred. It is the lower-class Georgian residential/retail building. Remaining largely on high streets, it is a building of four or five storeys providing mixed usage along streets which actually function as part of a city. The needs for shelter and food have not changed that much over the past couple of hundred years to warrant new types of structures built in totally different locations and dependent upon public or private transport to link them.

… and the city. 

Modern needs are not that modern. The public amenity of shopping is privatized and concentrated in shopping centres and malls which separate the retail function of the city. The price advantages of large chain stores is sufficient for us to accept the inconvenience of location, the neces-sity to drive or otherwise get there, and the dehumanization of the act of selling, the act of buying, and to a certain extent, the goods themselves. Catalogue shopping, home delivery services, television and online shopping and video deliveries are only manifestations of a modern life-style because our local access to them has been taken away. They are commercial responses to restoring something which our buildings don’t provide any more.

warehouse

The Georigan mixed use buildings are useful urban forms which should be regarded as a prototype, and like a microprocessor, have their design, structure and process subject to continual refinement in order to extract maximum performance from it. This is unlikely to happen while residual social prejudice remains in the form of separation of classes, and institutionalized architectural prejudice remains in the form of separation of functions. However, if a former Victorian sweatshop or mews building can be marketed as a desirable form of urban living, then so can living above a shop. In addition, if we are to avoid people being housed with no alternative but to look at each other, the only unexploited form of public property left for housing to overlook is the street, and it is in the interest of the entire city and society that streets remain interesting and active enough for people to not only use them to travel along and buy food, but also interact with them as a neighbourhood and derive sustenance from them. This form of urban use should also allow us to extract more performance from our streets than we are either currently receiving or are being led to expect in the future.

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• • •

This post complements and concludes the previous Meta-Aesthetics post and is the third and final installment of misfits’ prehistory. Normal programming resumes next week.

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Meta-Aesthetics

This second installment of misfits’ prehistory builds upon some of the ideas in last week’s Property, Time & Architecture from 1999. I remastered the file from an InDesign package created February 2010. The original was probably made in Quark XPress a decade earlier because all images were .tif files. Bold headings summarize the text. Blockquotes are diversions and expansions.

In this essay, I use the word aesthetics in the usual sense and the term an aesthetic to denote a set of architectural devices united by an underlying philosophy and purpose. I only mention this because since this essay was written, the term has been largely supplanted by the word style even though (or, more likely, because) it makes us expect neither.

• • •

Aesthetics is the study of notions of beauty.
These notions change over time.
This essay is about architecture in general and architectural beauty in particular.
It identifies what successive notions of architectural beauty have had in common.
It identifies why certain aesthetics fall into and out of favour.
It provides a framework for understanding how aesthetics operate over time.
It is a meta-aesthetics.

• • •

Aesthetics give shape to our values and aspirations. This is not necessarily a good thing.

By 1850 in Britain, property and people had been divided into three classes. The upper class (still) had property in the country. The middle class had property subdivided in the form of townhouses and, later, as suburban houses. The working class had property stacked, as tenements. The middle classes overlooked communal property in the form of the squares or parks recreating country estates, and the more fortunate of the lower classes had communal property in the form of basic facilities provided by humanitarian industrialists.

 

The success or failure of any aesthetic is an expression of the values generating it.

19th and early 20th notions of an Ideal City separating the functions of the city also served to separate the classes for the two were the same. Over the course of the Industrial Revolution, the upper classes built townhouses but anchored themselves on their land. The middle classes were to build their townhouses in locations such as Belgravia, Paddington and Kensington, separating themselves and their new wealth from the docks, mills and railways that were the sources of it, as well as from where the workers lived. In a consistent expression of this attitude, convicts were separated as far away as Australia. The style of the 19th century urban townhouse was the Classicism of the country house and the square or park recreated the impression of property outside one’s window, even if it was communal.

regent's

The style was successively simplified for houses of the lower classes. Within the larger townhouses, there was a similar separation of function/class, with servants having their own working spaces, stairs and living quarters, within which, location and quantity of space established a similar separation amongst servant classes. The use of servants also enabled the functions within the building to be separated. Whereas the lower class could only bathe in a tub in front of the fire, servants duplicated the roles of pipes and conduits, transporting hot and cold water throughout the building, maintaining and lighting the lamps, and carrying away waste.

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Servants also isolated the household as a class unit within society since they performed necessary tasks such as shopping by either going to the markets or dealing with cart vendors for milk, bread, vegetables, meat and fish. The physical and social separation of classes inside the house replicated the physical and social separation of the house from other classes in the city. Separation by function was separation by function in society. Status of the owners was denoted by the location and size of the house, the design of its facade, and the number and decoration of its major rooms.

Buildings require money and land to build. The history of architectural aesthetics is the history of articulating the ownership of wealth and property.

The use of decorative ornament in the 19th century indicated the rich man’s surplus and the poor man’s lack of it. In the 20th century, the architectural aesthetic of Modernism was to shun decorative ornament as bourgeois and attempt to generate form from the separation of physical functions. In patterns of living however, it maintained the class values inherent in the forms it replaced. The Georgian square miniaturized the pleasure of overlooking property. Although many of those townhouses were subdivided into flats in the 1920s and even today remain prime properties because it still possible to overlook the property of the square as if it were one’s own.

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In 1922, Le Corbusier arrived at an identical form in his Immeuble Villa unit for the élite in his Ville Contemporaine, planned, ‘as a capitalist city of administration and control, with garden cities for the workers being sited, along with industry, beyond the ‘security zone’ of the green belt encompassing the city.’ Le Corbusier also designed 19th century notions of social segregation into both his urban plans and his private houses such as the Villa Stein (1926-7) and Villa Savoye (1928-9), two buildings commonly regarded as seminal works of the Modern movement.

An aesthetic loses its usefulness when its connotations of status are lost, and any process of refinement stops

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations of 1947-53 was never going to be a realistic prototype for low-cost, high density living. Needing to be surrounded by sufficient Nature/property, it was self-defeating in the city and absurd in the country. Despite its claimed advantages, shop space was not let immediately and few shop-owners were keen to relocate there. The fact that what was once the outskirts of Marseilles is now a popular address indicates that property prices in central Marseilles have risen in the meantime, and that a view of the ocean from there is better than none at all. It also means that instead of being located in “Nature” it is now located in a thriving suburb with sufficient population density to make stores within the building viable. If such buildings have large sites, then the cost-effectiveness of site use is less compromised by siting such buildings alongside virtual property such as public parks or bodies of water, but these sites are usually occupied by premium high-rise dwellings or hotels.

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Having one’s own estate in the country downscaled to communally-owned squares in the city or smaller properties of the suburbs, with the virtual property of converted flats remaining preferable to that of purpose-built flats. Public property such as parks or bodies of water became virtual country estates, and views of one’s neighbours did not rank. Modernism presented light, space and a view of Nature as universal rights, but in reality, continued to treat them as commodities of status, their absence signalling poverty. Another problem had to do with materials. While concrete and prefabrication feature largely in the technical history of Modern architecture, it was not until Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul of 1954 that concrete slabs were combined with bare load-bearing brick walls and presented as an aesthetic.

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Despite Stirling’s use of this in the 1955~8 Ham Common flats and the attempts of the Brutalists to develop it, the sheer applicability of concrete slabs and load-bearing brick had sent them straight to low-cost housing worldwide, making Modernism the aesthetic of the poor. This fact did not pass unnoticed by the poor. Pruitt-Igoe. Built 1958. Dynamited 1972. The providers of public housing formed the last remaining market for Modernism. Any product becomes unmarketable when the market becomes disenchanted with the brand.

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An aesthetic must continue to adapt in order to maintain status …

Internationalism was to escape being condemned along with Modernism because in the hands of Mies van der Rohe, it combined metal and other materials with a status-inducing Classicism such as in the German Pavilion at the Barcelona World Exhibition (1929) or the Tugendhat House (1930).

barcelona

Purged of any ideological content it may have had in Europe, Modernism in the United States became the preferred institutional and corporate style. Curtain walls became a lattice of structure and window, effectively creating a visual barrier. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1946-50) and Johnson’s Glass House (1949) were excellent solutions to this problem and restored the status of privately-owned Nature to the aesthetic.  Concern for privacy was for people with neighbours. Mies’ went for overkill, using expensive materials and methods. The steps, terrace and floor were faced in travertine, and welding joins were ground away before the steel was painted. Whereas the Farnsworth house stepped over Nature, Johnson’s house, the more spartan of the two, was the more decadent in that it sat on its lawn and indicated possession.

The near absence of house emphasized where the real status lay. The adjacent guest house had no windows for even visually possessing the estate at any time was the owner’s right alone. Modernist derivatives (Meier, Eisenman, Graves, etc.) restored status through similar means, but all have in common the necessity for big property.

meier

… or another will quickly replace it.

If Modernism combined the human factor in terms of plan, with the built factor in terms of structural logic, then Post-Modernism combined the human factor of a populist vocabulary of building terms, and the built factor as a grammar of their usage. The result was something akin to a toff swearing in order to be popular at the pub – patronizing. From the start, the aesthetic was defined by generating and sustaining two aesthetics which, times being the times, were called levels of meaning. Its goal was never to bridge them for then it would cease to exist. Maintaining this aesthetic double standard was both its means and its end in public. In private however, the familiar indicators of status and wealth were to reassert themselves and by 1985, intoxicated with its imagined popularity, the aesthetic of Post-Modernism spoke only in double-entendres to itself. One of which was to take a material formerly regarded as unworthy for use in buildings of all but the most temporary and lowly nature, and to use it ‘out-of-context’ in a sophisticated manner, thus making a point about duality of meaning. Without exception, it was the materials such as concrete or Formica carrying the low and form the high. This led to High-Touch and Creative Salvage aesthetics of the late 80s, which found their beauty in the visual and tactile qualities present in any materials. The result was self-consciously designed, expensive one-off objects. This new materialism turned out to be not so new. Chicken wire, exposed 2 x 4s, and gypsum board have found little appeal, but polished concrete, terrazzo and Formica are being invested with status once again by finding their way into commercial interiors such as shops and restaurants en route to private residences.

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Once connotations of negative status are lost or forgotten, a new value-adding aesthetic can be applied and marketed.

Property pressures and availability led to interior space making do for property in the 60s, and neglected building types being converted as a means of attaining more space than provided by contemporary building types. Former prejudice was disregarded and mews buildings, coach houses and warehouses were given a new lease of life as premium dwellings.

canada

Being only a pre-existing building providing space, juxtaposed with a human factor of use, such buildings remained outside the realm of architecture. However, once possession and use began to carry notions of status such as more space and enlightened freedom from the tyranny of plan, it became possible to subdivide any large building and market it for more than a comparably sized flat. Interior partition walls then become a separately marketable commodity, as they had already become in office buildings.

all sold

Whilst an aesthetic of space and light is essentially one of property, aesthetics can also add value by how they enclose space.

Gideon saw modern architecture as an increasing perception of space as a quantity in itself. Whilst this is not untrue, it ignores the fact that that space must belong to somebody. In other words, it ignores the political dimension of space and property. Space, the stuff between the walls, and the space outside them as well, is a commodity of status because space is merely enclosed property. As the amount of property people can have has decreased, ways of creating the impression of having more have developed from closed plan to free plan, free plan to open plan, and finally open plan to no plan. A blurring of the distinction between inside and outside assumes that there is an outside of one’s own to blur. Large areas of glazing indicate no neighbours nearby.

mies

Light is an indirect commodity of status because of its connection with property and density of land utilization but the conversion of warehouses has shown that people are prepared to sacrifice light and location for space. A building envelope enclosing a physically and visually finite space and with no plan would seem to be resistant to notions of status, but as long as there is an enclosing structure, an aesthetic can still operate through the use of materials and methods in new value-adding ways to indicate status.

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High-tech is aesthetic which has little social mobility, thereby allowing it to remain an aesthetic of status.

The aesthetic of High-tech finds its purest expression in the spanning of large areas without internal supports, making it a horizontal Gothic exploting the tensile limits of steel.

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This makes it inherently suitable for buildings that are only perimeter walls within which either culture or machines set the spatial agenda.

hangar

When relatively mundane spaces for human activity are required to be housed, it resorts to vertical Gothic with full-height atrium spaces displaying engineering prowess being justified on the grounds of providing light.

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The high levels of accuracy and craftsmanship involved render high-tech inapplicable to the relatively modest spatial and structural requirements of living. High-tech also has a large research and development component tailored to individual projects in the same way as in civil engineering structures. Its lavish and visible use of resources to achieve large, dubiously justified spaces, maintains its status as an aesthetic and consequently ensures its inapplicability to anything other than prestige projects.

Minimalism is another.

The Minimalist aesthetic is that of an en-closure creating the sensation of infinite space, a concept the Japanese found attractive even when both space and Nature were abundant. But feudalism in the past and overcrowding in the present have led to owning any space, let along property, being an object of status, and if space is a commodity, then appearing to have infinitely more is better even if it isn’t real.

minimal

In Minimalist buildings, windows overlook a courtyard or whatever property remains, and infinite property (“space”) is ‘seen’ in the walls. Light enters through slits to exaggerate its value. If it doesn’t use exquisitely executed concrete, the building process is denied through the expensive and contrived elimination or concealment of joins and lines.

ando

Minimalism is much money being used to create the impression of having little except a sense of infinite space, a trompe l’oeil of nothing. It is an expensive aesthetic of denial of both the envelope and use, and an apparent denial of possession when linked to the concept of voluntary poverty. It is not an aesthetic for the actual poor.   

Successive aesthetics use progressively less expensive means to indicate wealth and property, but status-laden materials and processes then work to make them less accessible.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the buildings of the upper classes took the style sanctioned by the church or state while buildings of the lower classes were the result of the expedient use of available materials, techniques and labour. With middle-class country estates in the later 19th century, architects such as Shaw, Webb, Lutyens, Voysey and Wright were to use vernacular materials combined with their respective Post-Classic aesthetics to indicate wealth and property, thus furnishing the new suburbs with motifs.

voysey

Modernism took functional industrial forms and structures and used them to indicate wealth and property. Post-Modernism took its visual techniques from roadside cafés and other structures not in the realm of ‘high’ architecture, and did the same. As soon as the Case Study houses made a cheaper aesthetic available through the use of ready-made ‘industrial’ materials, Internationalism used expensive materials and the restoration of a Classical relationship to property to distance itself again. High-tech did the same through refined materials and technology. Its applicability to spanning large spaces assumes a large space to span. Minimalism takes the very idea of looking and one’s walls and living with very little and makes it into an aesthetic of wealth and property. Loft living takes a former worker’s reality and makes it into an aesthetic of space, but being ‘fitted to the highest standard’ maintains status. The attraction of each new aesthetic is that it uses a progressively less expensive means of indicating wealth and property, or the aspiration to it. This makes them inherently vulnerable to marketing in less expensive and accessible forms. As an aesthetic cascades through society in this way, status and corresponding aspiration are artificially maintained in a carrot-on-a-stick fashion by increasingly mannerist use of expensive materials, finishes and processes.

vase

20th century aesthetics are irrelevant to future housing and even current housing problems.

The alleged virtues of Modernism disappeared when it was applied to less bourgeois housing problems in general, and to less property in particular. Its legacy was structural rationality and lack of decorative ornament, and (due to property pressures) a view of activities taking place in spaces rather than rooms.

isokon

Post-Modernism largely treated social identification at the public level rather than the individual. The Taller Bofill “Let them eat cake!” approach refers beyond even the public aspirations of the individual. Aesthetics as a palliative. Post Modernism’s twin legacies were to alter certain pre-conceptions about what buildings could look like and to pave the way for a re-evaluation of the fundmental properties of materials (once the status/historical meanings had been stripped away). Its major socially applicable benefit was a re-evaluation of materials which sooner or later would have occurred anyway (due to decreasing availability or affordability).

lasdun

Metabolism correctly identified buildings as organisms in the city, but was content with expressing it at the metaphorical level. Brutalism supposedly made ordinary materials into an aesthetic which allowed materials and construction to be appreciated for what they were. This made it inherently inapplicable when lesser standards of materials and labour were used. Minimalism took the status aspects of appearing to have more space and owning less but relied for its effect on expensive materials contrasted with expensive effects achieved via contrived construction processes and finishes. In effect, it was a metaphor for the elleged virtues of historical examples of simplicity. High-tech isolated functions and satisfied them using expensive materials and processes and became in effect, a metaphor for the economies that mass-produced industrial components could theoretically offer.

It is necessary to have a way of seeing beauty which, for once, does not derive from wealth and property.

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Consider Le Corbusier’s inspiration for the machine aesthetic – the ocean liner and the the grain silo. Both have in common a certain technical and functional sophistication, but they also have in common a necessary relationship with large amounts of open space. Although the visual implications were revolutionary for architecture, the relationship between those built objects to the spacesurrounding them continued to link beauty with the ownership of property. There is nothing inherently wrong with technical analogies since housing is the result of a production process.

grain

Whereas ocean liners and grain silos taught us about function and form, other inherent (and these days, more useful) factors such as construction process, sourcing and design optimisation were ignored. Unsurprisingly, aesthetics derived from the display of the wealth or property associated with private houses on private land, prove inapplicable to low-cost housing using public money on public land.

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Those 20th century aesthetics which have been applied to mass housing have had their deficiencies highlighted. This is not a problem of aesthetics per-se. It is a problem of where they come from and the criteria by which beauty is defined. The marketability of an aesthetic is related to the desirability of its product, which has changed very little. This means that low-cost housing, being neither an indicator of wealth or property, can never benefit from aesthetics. Ever.

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However, if successive aesthetics are evolving from criteria which are less and less expensive to achieve, it ought to be possible to shortcut this process and determine a way of seeing beauty by concentrating attention and techniques on other articulating the possession of wealth or property,and thereby arrive more quickly at a modern vernacular aesthetic towards which we are moving anyway. This would be an aesthetic applicable to everyone, not just the providers and occupants of low-cost housing. Warehouse conversions have indicated that people are willing to sacrifice light and location for space. It is only a matter of time before other qualities that have been essential considerations in private housing so far will also come to be devalued. Location, quantities, materials, processes and contents will always remain indicators of whatever level of status people can afford to display or aspire to.

An architectural aesthetics independent of wealth and property will mean traditional displays of status will for once be explicit, not mistaken for beauty, and the aspiration to them will be less attractive to those who can ill afford to.

• • •

This essay will conclude next week with Part II, Modern Vernacular.

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Property, Time & Architecture

To commemmorate seven years of not fitting in, misfits would like to present some of the early thinking that led to its formation. This visual essay dates from around 1998. It was put together between occasional bouts of paid work, using Quark XPress 3.2 and a PowerMac G3 with 64MB of RAM.

The file was stored on iomega 100MB Zip “backup” disks which is why what you’ll see here is a scan of an A3 laser-print hard copy. It’s as-was, complete with original typos, proofreading failures, plus a numbering error I’ve only just noticed – there’s no 10.1.1. The font is Trebuchet which, for some reason, was popular at the time.

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Clarity & Consistency in Architecture

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, I re-read Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.

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First published in 1966, and since translated into 16 languages, this remarkable book has become an essential document of architectural literature. A “gentle manifesto for a nonstraightforward architecture” [.]

But what exactly is an essential document of architectural literature? Is it something that still has something to teach us, or merely something famous for having been famous once? If so, when did it become irrelevant? Did anyone ever refute it? Is it beyond criticism? In short, was it a good way for things to go?

In 1977 in a note to the second edition, Venturi himself answers some of these questions by saying he wished the title had been Complexity and Contradiction in Architectural Form. He also suggested “the book might be read today [1977] for its general theories about architectural form but also as a particular document of its time, more historical than topical” but I don’t think one can have it both ways. All books are destined to become particular documents of their time and the same goes for their contents. However, it is possible to read (or even mis-read or mis-understand) something historic and discover something new and of relevance. I hope this will be the case but I don’t warm to the opening sentence.

“I like complexity and contradiction in architecture.”

Everyone has the right to an opinion but, more importantly, when attempting any kind of intellectual exploration into architectural aesthetics, trying to first make some sense out of what one likes is a reasonable and obvious place to begin. Three paragraphs in, however, we start to get a clearer view of where this is going.

“Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. 

Is MoMA on some sort of mission to publish books reducing architecture to questions of visuals every thirty-five years? If so, we’re well overdue for another. One thing the Post-Modern era taught us was to beware the quotation mark.

I like elements which are hybrid other than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse rather than impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than “simple,” vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear.

We know now that hybrid turned out to be “hybrid,” compromising to be “compromising;” distorted, “distorted;” ambiguous, “ambiguous;” perverse, “perverse;” boring, “boring;” conventional, “conventional;” and redundant, “redundant.”

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Here’s a column with some “redundant” structural capacity.

Complexity and contradiction turned out to be “complexity” and “contradiction” as contrived and predictable as the “simplicity” and “straightforwardness” they set out to replace.

Just as Modernism had done fifty years earlier, Venturi was proposing a “new” way to continue the churn of style replacement that stands for progress in architecture. For that, he and his book were rewarded with everlasting fame. What Venturi offered was the easiest option available at the time.

Googie was a growing force but was insufficiently pretentious – it was popular instead of “popular.”

[c.f. Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell

As early as 1937 Haskell had published pieces such as “Architecture on Routes US 40 and 66” and suggested that designers could learn “in the country of the automobile,” by studying places that “are growing with the people themselves”. 

1937–: Haskell observed the architecture of popular culture
1952: Haskell identified Googie architecture
1958: Haskell claimed Times Square was all right
1966: Robert Venturi claimed in C&C “Main Street is almost all right”
1972: RV (now with Denise Scott-Brown) claimed things could be learned from Las Vegas.

Around the same time, dissatisfaction with the status quo was about to produce experiments into temporary and biomorphic architecture at SCI-ARC. [c.f: Career Case Study #3: Glen Howard Small]

Inflatable architecture was a reaction against the rigid lines of what Modernism had become but it was attractive to all the wrong people.
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And some of it was just weird. This is the 1967 Dyodon experimental pneumatic house by Jean-Paul Jungmann. I think I remember this building from UK House & Garden report on the 1969 The House of Today competition. If I remember rightly, Richard Rogers came third with the Zip-Up House he’s been showing us ever since.

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Over in Japan, the Metabolists were doing their thing but they were big on ideas but short on buildability. Plus, they were East not West.

UK’s Archigram always seemed to promise more fun than they were capable of delivering.

America simply wasn’t interested in Brutalism, or in houses built from concrete. [c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]

Over in Venice in 1953, Ignazio Gardella had designed Casa alle Zattere, a studiously polite house contemporary commentators such as Reyner Banham were at a loss to explain as it was neither Modernist nor Historicist.

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Significant mid-sixties buildings didn’t propose the future Venturi was seeing in the past.

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What was needed was something cheap and cheerful, didn’t threaten the 2×4 industry, was achieveable rather than visionary, and carried some authority. It all sounded like a job for … HISTORY! – or at least trickery with arches, columns and cornices.

“Like all original architects, Venturi makes us see the past anew.”

Vincent Scully didn’t backtrack in the 1977 update to his original introduction. It’s all good stuff and I agree wholeheartedly – until the bit highlighted.

The book itself is organised into chapters with the following titles.

  1. Nonstraightforward Architecture: A Gentle Manifesto
  2. Contradiction and Contradiction vs. Simplifiction or Picturesqueness
  3. Ambiguity
  4. Contradictory Levels: The Phenomenon of Both-And in Architecture
  5. Contradicatory Levels Continued: The Double-Functioning Element
  6. Accomodation and the Limitations of Order: The Conventional Element
  7. Contradiction Adapted
  8. Contradiction Juxtaposed
  9. The Inside and the Outside
  10. The Obligation Towards the Difficult Whole

Ambiguity deals with questions such as those posed by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.  “Is it a square plan or not?” Venturi asks to anyone who cares and, in 1966, many people probably still did.

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Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier are mentioned with the reverence accorded the recently deceased. Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn were the new greatest living architects used to represent opposite architectural positions now both closer to the middle. Venturi occasionally used Le Corbusier’s projects to illustrate what wasn’t good, but mostly to illustrate what was. Villa Savoye alone is capable of supporting or contradicting most thoughts about architecture but, as ever, its prime function when referenced in architectural discourse is to show one is talking about Architecture.

  • In Chapter 4 (p23) on Contradictictory Levels, Villa Savoye is mentioned as being simple outside yet complex inside, as if it’s the first building that ever was.
  • In Chapter 6 (p41) on The Conventional Element, “the Villa Savoye accomodates the exceptional circumstantial inconsistencies within an otherwise rigid dominant order.”
  • In Chapter 7 (p52) on Contradiction Adapted, “the exceptional diagonal of the ramp is clearly expedient in serction and elevation and allows Le Corbusier to create a strong opposition to the regular order of column bays and envelope.”

The desire to use dubiously revered examples to justify mundane statements is a major fault of this book. In Chapter 5 (p34) on Contradictory Levels Continued, Le Corbusier’s “Algerian project” gets a mention for “contradictorily” combining an apartment house and a highway.

Venturi praises the P.S.F.S. building for the functional honesty of its various volumetric articulations despite part of the office space being given an expression befitting the hidden elevator shafts. He also gets excited about the sign on top.

The fact it can’t be seen from the street is a plus because it’s a bit like van Brugh’s Cloth House in Bruges which, apparently, relates to the entire town from afar (as big things tend to do) but has a violent change of scale with the lower levels that relate to the square. [What does “relate to” mean, anyway? It seems to be being used as shorthand for “a size appropriate to …” – or are we talking about scale?] Going by this photograph, I’d say it’s not just the lower bit that’s “relating to” the square.

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I wondered how far was afar? This next image is from 250 metres away, although the houses wouldn’t have been there in 1280 when the original building and tower were built. The octagonal upper part of the tower was added in 1486. There was also once a spire destroyed in 1493 and in 1741 for good. The points Venturi makes still stand, but it’s wrong to imply this building is the result of a single mind at work. Extensions to buildings are contradictory by nature.

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The sheer number of heavyweight examples over the following fifty pages either bludgeon one into submission or compel one to resist. I formed the impression anything can be used to mean anything. Let me illustrate using what’s on my table at the moment.

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  • The binoculars have a shape that is directional but they point downwards, intruigingly.
  • The surface of the table is there but not there at the same time!
  • A laptop is not atop a lap. Why?
  • There is a plant in a pot – or is it a pot with a plant in it? Such tension!

Now let’s try to make some sense out of it.

  1. When we look at the binoculars and laptop and make those observations, we do so with a knowledge of what those objects are. A person who didn’t know what binoculars were or what they did would see no complexity or contradiction. As a theoretical construct, an architecture of complexity or contradiction is never going to be inclusive. The smug elitism of Post-Modern architecture derives from this. [Remember that highlighted bit in Scully’s notes to the second edition?]
  2. Moreover, when we look at the plant and the pot we assume we’re not looking at some work of art demanding we question the nature or validity of its existence. The potplant is no Duchamp nor even a Koons. A theory of complexity and contradiction only works if things are posited as complex or contradictory, i.e. as art. The pretentiousness of Post-Modern architecture derives from this.
  3. Finally, when we look at the table we are seeing or, more importantly, choosing to see more than one aspect of its existence at the same time. I may appreciate its shiny reflectivity but may not when it’s reflecting glare back at me and, even then, I may still appreciate it stopping things falling to the floor when I let go of them. Venturi recognizes the value of pluralism not just between different observers but even for the same observer at different places or times. He repeats Paul Rudolph’s observation that Mies van der Rohe’s buildings are great only because Mies chose to solve only the few problems he felt required solving. What Venturi is proposing is worse in that there are now infinite variables to set up any problem one wishes to show one has solved. The moveable feast that was Post-Modern architecture derives from this.

Overall, I found it bizarre that Venturi could look at innumerable historic and not-so-historic examples of architecture and make what is a wealth of obaervations yet never mention the very same things in unpretentious buildings not considered architecture. The only worth he sees in the circumstantial is in its capacity to produce an intentional effect. This may be intentional, or it may just be how architects looked at things half a century ago. If the latter, it needs putting right. 

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This lighthouse is not a tower in order to appear more imposing when seen from afar but to ensure its beam of light is visible farther out to sea. Yet, [“intruigingly, bizarrely”] it also has small windows to light the stairs so a person can access the beacon room. There’s no contradiction of the type Venturi sees in Lutyen’s unrealized project for Liverpool Cathedral, for example. 

We shouldn’t be amazed to be told people are smaller than buildings. Ah, but it’s still a difference of city scale and human scale you may say. Indeed, but even the glassiest of curtain walls has those same two differences of scale.

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Sadly, my own counter-investigation into the Baroque period isn’t as thorough as Venturi’s. I have only one example to show. Earlier, I mentioned Ignzaio Gardella’s 1953 Casa alle Zattere in Venice.

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This 1703 etching shows two buildings on what was to be its site. Their facades aren’t in the same plane as there is a 5° bend where the two sites meet.

Le fabriche, e vedute di Venetia

Sometime not long after 1703, the two sites were combined and the buildings remodelled to create a single building with a symmetrical tripartite facade as was fashionable at the time.

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A continuous facade was created but the angle remained. The former party wall was extended upwards to make it easier to construct the roof. Venturi would draw our attention to how the continuity of the facade is contradicted by its non-planarity and also by the discontinuity of the roof. However, this building is not trying to be complex or contradictory.  The problem of producing a tripartite facade has been solved. The problem of roofing the building has also been solved. The rooftop altana works against the facade symmetry that’s been set up. A drainpipe draws attention to the very angle the symmetry seeks to downplay.

Speaking of drainpipes, an other example of mine is this building you’ll recognize from Misfits’ Guide to Venice as the Palazzo Fondazione Masieri, the interior of which was remodelled by Carlo Scarpa.

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[You might also recognise this paragraph.] The position of the drainpipe highlights the symmetrical part of the facade, suggesting we disregard the additional bit on the right, but where else could it go? The midpoint of the gutter is the most practical but least-wanted place as it would not only split the building in two but discharge over the entrance. Placing the drainpipe at the end of the gutter would gutter creates practical problems of gutter slope. Three shorter gutters avoiding the chimneys would each require a drainpipe. This minor functional element is doing something of crucial visual importance for Venturi but I doubt whoever put it there gave its placement a second thought.

In both these examples I see not complexity and contradiction but a clear and consistent approach towards the solving of real problems. In both examples, the simplest and easiest way has been chosen and the result is far richer than seemingly contradictory problems selected and studio-farmed for the expressive potential of their “resolutions.”

• • •

Venturi was of the opinion that complexity and contradiction made for buildings that weren’t boring. This single personal preference of one person implied buildings had a duty to entertain and this is how “delight” has been interpreted ever since. Post Modernism was ultimately discarded for its inability to delight outside of its host culture. It was unsuited to the burgeoning global market for trophy architecture by rich rulers and property developers in non-Western countries. Something meaning less to more people was what was required and Deconstruction stepped up to the plate. 

Nevertherless, Robert Venturi and Post-Modernism have a place in the history of architecture’s meta-aesthetics for reducing architecture to a style toolkit once again and kicking the architecture can a bit further down the road. 

What I can’t abide is Venturi representing the inherent honesty and beauty of ordinary buildings to enable an architecture not remembered for either its honesty or beauty. Ordinary buildings were the losers as nobody gave them another look. Job done.

JC

http://www.pritzkerprize.com/1991/jury

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Благоустройство

blagoustroistvo (literal: well-establishment) – site enhancement, including grading, road construction, building of communication, sewage, water, energy infrastructure and measures to clean and repair a territory, control air pollution, protect water bodies and soil, conducted to make a given territory habitable and adequate for the decided use, to create healthy and comfortable conditions for the population. (Technical Translator’s Handbook)

synonmys: order, decorum, propriety, comeliness

Blagoustroistvo is an amusing sequence of letters and an endemic architectural design notion used in any place where Russian is spoken. It is an umbrella tag. Blagoustroistvo covers a broad set of design and construction work done to improve quality and habitability of a building site.

Buildings had always had patches of land between them, some walkways, and maybe paved spots. This makes blagoustroistvo’s emergence harder to track. After all, it’s a notion we can adjust to work in different eras. How it was born is a secret to me.

The 1900s-1910s stand out, with larger buildings built in Moscow and Petersburg maybe having some gardening in the yard, designed by the architect. Smaller buildings lived without these. There was no split yet, and urban environment was formed locally as a pre-machine vernacular. Scope of design projects never exceeded property lots and public-private divide was quite pronounced, but not in a “mine/not-mine” drastic split.

1920s saw the calamities of revolution, civil war, military communism and attempts at restoring order in civil life back into a stable state. 1920s gave us kommunalka — the original co-living where families of apartment owners were forced by police into a single room and every other room housed a family. The unrest in housing has left a permanent and documented mark in the national identity. All building activity sourced austere material to heal it even a little. Architects turned to industrial construction techniques to deliver residential buildings tailored for a gradual resolution of indoor overpopulation. That wasn’t  the time for gardening not agricultural.

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1930s were when “socialist realism” in gypsum decorum brought comely façades to the now established socialist state, and the people were abandoned to fend for themselves in barracks, pits and labour camps. This is the time blagoustroistvo matured into a means to deliver the “complex experience that is architecture to the land of the proletariat”. Its means were unsurprisingly conservative – symmetrical compositions of lawns adorned with vases and gypsum sculpture. Socialist paradise turned out to be poor man’s Versailles.

It’s still with us but remained the status quo until the utilitarian shift under Khruschev. Industrial construction finally was set out for, and patches of new towns emerged over or next to settlements. Blagoustroistvo became “land development”. The only focus of this retroactive urbanisation was laying road networks and providing basic walkways where there used to be grass. It was the blagoustroistvo for the 21st century. The sheer amount of land-development eliminated any ideas of alternative approaches. People became used to abandoned greens inbetween their 5-story slabs. Gardening became inconceivable.

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My hunch is today’s blagoustroistvo was born out of massive residential construction in the 1960s where newly built towns in previous greenfield were just dropped onto wilderness which is not the most useful space to have between your buildings.

Stitched Panorama

Some discipline had to engage in the process of making baseline useable space out of voids in arrays of repeated dwellings. The description in the header has a strong utilitarian tone, and it sounds very mid-century. The intensity of required site improvement helped blagoustroistvo to become a dedicated aspect and notion. Soon it sunk in and no one could imagine living without it. All activity of this type is now done by developers providing the same dreary drieways and playgrounds.

But it was about 2010 that blagoustroistvo began to be seen less as an utility land treatment, but as another face of a property project that boosts quality of its appeal and serves as a marketing vehicle. Architecture adapted quickly, and soon specialized blagoustroistvo bureaus emerged within the scene. Bureaus-of-all-trades joined the feast too, as is the following case. This is part of an interview (in Russian) with Sergei Trukhanov of T+T Architects.

To this date, one of the largest of your projects is blagoustroistvo for “Savelovsky City” residential complex. What stage is it now?

We have been working with this object for several years. Made an accomplishment of the first stage of construction, designed the interiors of the entrance groups of office buildings – both are already implemented. Now the project of an accomplishment of the second stage is ready. The territory is not easy: you need to place a lot of functions, and the area itself is not only small, but also fragmented, spaced apart from each other.

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Therefore, it was very important for us to tie all the logistics into one whole, so as not to violate the logic of the territory. We built a promenade boulevard, which runs along a detached parking lot and connects 2 construction stages. Stringing on it all possible functional zones and points of interest, this solution additionally visually breaks the long promenade, makes it more comfortable to perceive.

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Also, we have specially installed the island’s retaining walls with landscaping from the multi-storey parking lot, to visually isolate it from it, to create a landscaped array at eye level. 

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We paid attention to what the future residents will see from different points. So, for example, we thought about residents of a tower where 6 lower floors face a car parking building. We discussed this issue with developer and decided to put neon signs with quotes of great jazz musicians onto the car park.

Their sufficient portfolio is basic.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, accumulated wealth created demand for quality public space for demonstrative consumption. The firm Wowhaus are the new masters. They reconstructed sheds at Isle Balchug where Strelka Institute is now. The construction story focussed on how they worked with a media tycoon and decided to “promote education for people” thus “europeanizing moscow”, leaving an aftertaste of a thick neoliberal ideology lurking.

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“Best New Place” Arch Bienalle 2010

Years 2011-2012 saw an unrest in the streets of Moscow, and blagoustroistvo was a part of taming strategy, augmenting scary police storms with sweet lawns and wooden sheds to drink ridiculously priced cocktails at and look picturesque. Haussmann’s method of crowd-control was straight avenues fit for raking fire.

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Soon after Strelka was completed, a little up the Moscow River Wowhaus redesigned the Crimean Embankment (Крымская набережная) for Moscow public with mostly the same civil agenda. It’s a schizoid trait to resist being systematized into boxes or “models” which may reproduce you but, in 2015–16, I was in any of those parks and pergolas watching theatrical cinema trying to not fall into those intricate marketing mechanisms. Then, out of boredom, I buy a beer and join the show. 

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Then there are the faces. This is a fragment of Wowhaus’ roster of people. 

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The reassuring man in the check shirt is a spreadsheet specialist. The lady third in the top row is a 30 year old executive director from outside the profession. The founders to the left are mature and established people from the state television designer circuit. They started the firm not out of a need, but as a pet project. The bureau’s public debut was at Strelka, but its founders established themselves in Moscow’s artistic elite decades ago. It’s not a surprise they were commissioned for a Channel One television studio pavilion in Gorky Park, fronting the Moscow river.

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What we ended up with is stage designers from a state TV outlet utilizing their skills to build stage settings where our cities were.

The fact we find these stages lovelier than what they replaced is even more disturbing.

 

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The Domino’s House

The Type A apartment is a result of the 1928 study the Stroykom team of architects did to determine the potential and technology for smart, affordable and universally suitable housing. They focussed on adapting existing residential typologies to new realities. One typology was the double-aspect apartment paired about a landing and their redesign was called the “Type A”, the first of the letter-tagged plans and schemes the team produced.

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There’s much that’s good about the Type A. It’s smart, efficient and hospitable. The dual-aspect living area allows good daylighting and ventilation, not so much because mechanical ventilation was expensive at the time, but because daylight and good ventilation were known to prevent tuberculosis. Planning-wise, the stairwell intrudes into the apartment area to push the front door into a corridor no longer than the two narrowest rooms. It can’t get any better. 

It’s not possible to access two apartments with any less space than a stairway and landing and, since those can’t be made any smaller, smaller apartments need a larger percentage of building volume to access them than do larger apartments. This led to the development of corridor-access plans. The problem of using less resources to build apartments became a problem of reducing the building volume used to access apartments. This was to lead to the development of the famous Type F. [c.f. 1928: The Types Study]

In A-blocks in Yekaterinburg, they have the elevator only in 1 stairwell but you may pass through a gallery in the attic if you live in a top floor. Elevators were defunct and removed way before my birth I think. Galleries were appropriated by upper apartment residences – a feast upon socialism. What we’ve lost is superior and better lit where every room has to have a window for there’s no other way to tuck it into the plan. Victor.

Thanks for that виктор! These images you sent me some while back are very relevant to where I want to take this post.

The Stroykom team knew how building depth affected building volume and spent much time trying to determine the optimum depth for any given set of parameters. 

The text to the right of the parametric depth scheme says “It’s a scheme from architect Klein”. It’s not a Stroykom product, but OSA published it alongside so it’s confusing. Klein must have been a sole practitioner who worked independently to determine the same problem the team were. V.

It was probably the first and last example of socially-driven parametric design. The Type A plan was a brilliant invention but volumetrically inefficient for small apartments. The Stroykom Team would have been amazed by the sheer abundance of stairwells and elevators in this next apartment building I saw on buildingsarecool.com. It’s in Charleston, South Carolina. Much is made of the fact there are views in both directions.

What we have here is the corridor-less apartment. Interestingly, the memory of a corridor remains because if all elevators are on the same floor and their doors and those of the fire escape stairs were all open, then it’d be possible to run from one end of the building to another. It’s not a very sociable building but given how “streets in the sky” came to be regarded, there doesn’t seem to be much point in accessing apartments via corridors. If a configuration such as this directs horizontal pedestrian movement to ground level and into real lobbies and real streets then it might not be such a bad thing.

Once I went to a party at some friend of a friend’s place in Clapham North or Brixton. We went in, and immediately up a flight of stairs with a corridor along one side and with a landing at one end and a similar space at the other. Along the corridor were doors to a bathroom and a kitchen having windows onto a light well down the side of the house. The spaces at each end of the corridor had a single door leading to a living room and, once inside the living room, was another door (in the same wall) leading back to a bedroom I never saw, but which must have had a narrow window opening into the lightwell. This house was probably built sometime 1850-1900 I’d say. Each upstairs tenant thus had a suite of two private rooms, but a shared kitchen and bathroom. It was quite a sensible arrangement for people to share spaces if they weren’t necessarily friends. G.

Rather than isolating people inside buildings it might be better to design apartments that not only allow for multiple occupation but allow for multiple modes of occupation. The rules of occupation were clear. That’s the logic behind this next plan. 

Clapham House

I’ve given two tenants their own bathrooms but downgraded the importance of the kitchen – it’s just a place people go to get cold stuff or to make stuff hot. The preparation and consumption of food is not styled for families. This next one is tighter. The stairs are back outside now but I added a double-door elevator. My logic was that if every two apartments are going to have a stair with two doors and a double-door elevator like in that Charleston project, it makes no difference if they’re shared on the edges or shared in the middle of the plan. I was working my way back to the Type A.

Clapham House3

I can’t stop seeing the elevator opening into kitchen! Given a kitchen share, double elevator door becomes unnecessary and overlapping lobbies of elevator and stair are more efficient. V.

Exactly! DazenTech do quite a nice passenger elevator for US$15,000. G.

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A residential passenger elevator for US$15,000 is nothing compared to building corridors on every floor to pass by two 5m-wide apartments.

Clapham House2

People understood 90 years ago that any Type A variant has a constant ratio of apartment access volume to building volume remains no matter how many storeys – it’s 34% here for the worst imaginable case, but halves if the apartment is doubled to make say, a 3-bedroom 2-bathroom apartment. I think it’s time to revisit the Type A.

You are disclosing one of my very basic mental splits. Should I design plans that could get built easily or should I design the heavenly plans which we’ve lost – with narrow bodies and other indispensable plain and inscrutable traits? V.

As ever, it’s a tough call. G.

One day this will be luxury. It already is for many people but, back to kitchens. Not only has this plan worked its way back to the Type A, it’s also downgraded the kitchen.

Kuhonny Element Kitchen

I once had a Parisian friend, Pascal, who lived above a café in the 11th. His living room had two leather armchairs, a wall of books, a violin hanging on a music stand, and a bottle of Chartreuse – green. On the kitchen floor was a six-pack of Evian. The sink was dry and brown with rust. Clearly, he went out for all other food and drink. 

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Most of us, however, don’t get ourselves dressed and downstairs to get everything to eat, any more than most of us don’t walk along a corridor to a communal kitchen. G.

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Increasingly, the food and drink comes to us, delivered as room service if we live in a hotel or an apartment serviced by a hotel [c.f. The Well-Serviced Apartment], as raw materials or pre-prepared meals from a convenience store, or as fast food or even restaurant fare delivered by in-house or outsourced couriers.

Living like this has crept up on us but we should’ve seen it coming. Having food being delivered to homes isn’t new but it’s now no longer confined to fast food as a weekend treat or an occasional extravagance.

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All that’s left to be done is to cut out any remaining middlemen.

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Drone delivery may have architectural implications for apartment dwellers. Wait! … let me see … yep, someone’s already on the case.

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I clicked on the first link so you won’t have to.

dd

I’m not sure if this is cutting-edge design responding to our fantastic brave new world, or merely more architect collaboration in the ongoing neoliberal project. Since they both amount to more or less the same thing, we may as well take this idea downmarket immediately and see how it fares in the wild.

The Domino’s House
dominos-house

But that would be to miss the point, for the Domino’s House is actually the Domino House updated for our times. When an apartment’s spatial functions, service functions and access are all contained in a single core, the enclosing shell becomes arbitrary. It’s a bit like that Joe Colombo prototype except what’s in the middle is the important bit that stays and the walls enclosing it are the consumer item.

If plans and sections are no longer a subject for the application of architectural intelligence, then The Domino’s House allows for Free Architecture – or at least what has come to represent it. The architectural enclosure is now be free to be anything it wants to be as long as it doesn’t compromise anything in the core. An amicable separation of building and architecture would allow an ideal modernism to coexist with an ideal post-modernism.

A2 round dot

Here’s the same plan as a tube of arbitrary height. It still works.

A2 round copy
Here it is as Miesian fantasy. It still works.

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You can bend it, extend it …

A2 bent

If you repeat the square block you’ll get a wall.

If you multiply the round one you’ll get a forest.

If you multiply this, you’ll get something different again.

Other variations readily accommodate contemporary tropes such as walls faceted or curved in one or two dimensions. Yet other variations could respond to site or environmental factors in real ways or even as representations of real ways. If the Domino’s House represents the architecture vs. building divide, then it is only because

THE DOMINO’S HOUSE IS THE BUILT MANIFESTATION OF THE ARCHITECTURE VS. BUILDING DIVIDE.

Building design and construction are now free to move towards technical, functional and economic perfection, and architecture is now free to go its own way.

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The featured image is Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?”

Talking Shop

This one has to be about architecture school – a general survey of the role of architecture education. Pondering through another letter-swamp of project placement on archdaily I found myself immersed in a mass of architecture school-yak links. Architecture media talks about schools a lot. Isn’t architecture the discipline that pumps its education the most? I’ve never heard of aerospacedaily or carpentrydaily or jurisprudencedaily. Marketing of architecture schools is subtly fused into the existence architecture has in the media. If someone invests a lot into convincing you they can teach you, then there’s room for uncertainty as to whether they actually can. V.

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A good idea! Until now I’ve stayed away from the topic of education, probably because it’s too close to home. I shouldn’t really. This blog only exists because of me, students and education. G.

  • Back in 2011, The Twisted Education of Architects post depicted the frustration a student can develop at an architecture school if they were blind unreceptive to the early twentieth-century abstract imaginal design generation. 2011 is six years and a bachelor and masters ago. Me, I enrolled in 2011 but what did architecture school learn in the time it takes a student to graduate? 
  • In technology, places like MIT are praised and mentioned but usually for the virtue of research work and usually on the topic of that work.
  • In medicine, teaching hospitals are often places where treatments and therapies are pioneered. There are no Harvard GSDs in medicine.
  • What technology school or law school or medical school should teach its students is an interesting question that would have solid and definite answers. “What architecture school should teach its students”, on the contrary, seems to be a slippery ground, despite 100 years in service.

Soon to have 100 years of abstract architecture school (Bauhaus 1919, VKhUTEMAS 1920). We can expect a lot of anniversary recapitulation and probably the wrong conclusions. Don’t forget that Bauhaus only began to teach architecture in 1928, under Hannes Meyer, and then as building science. In a draft for an upcoming post titled “Models of Instruction” dealing with the history of architectural education, I insinuate that Gropius was copying the Montessori style of education that had evolved 20 years earlier, with its emphasis on learning by direct handling of materials. He was to follow Ms. Montessori in exporting it to America, along with himself as a similar innovator in architectural education. 

Bauhaus is accepted with respect and credit. Should it have brought a revolution in human habitat, being the first architecture school totally connected with modernity? The spread of modernism definitely happened after the school’s emergence. Gropius’ genius was to later blur the boundary between himself, architecture, architectural education, and what was actually taught at the Bauhaus under Meyer. The four were always linked via the Dessau building but never in the same place at the same time. Of course, having Mies on the other side of Meyer made it easier to forget the building science bit in the middle even though it was “the meat in the sandwich”.

Mass industrial housing emerged and its virtues outweigh shortcomings, given most of these buildings continue to shelter people. But is it correlation or causation, in relation to school’s existence? Modernism was an inherently cheaper way to build so would probably have happened anyway. J.J.P. Oud and the Dutch were already making it work in The Netherlands. Ernst May provided 15,000 housing units between 1925 and 1932 and independently of whatever was or was not happening at The Bauhaus.

If we take the 20 most renowned architect names, how many of them would be Bauhaus alumni? Meyer, Gropius and Rohe were not immediately displaced by mighty new youths they taught. I had exactly the same thought yesterday. How many people passed through Wright’s office or Le Corbusier’s office and what happened to them? With LC, the two who became most known both left his office after six months and went on to do their own thing rather well. Another three, three decades on, did what Gropius did and promoted themselves as having had special access to privileged knowledge. But what was that knowledge? Or did they just trade off anecdotes? (“Well what Corb would have done was …”) Sure “Bauhaus style” spread around the world, but it is a convenient tag and not what was invented in the school or by its alumni in the field. Exactly. I think that to call something a style is to neuter it. I blame Johnson and Hitchcock, as you know. 

BXYTEMAC [VkHUTEMAS – it took me a while to get what you did there!] taught Ivan Leonidov, who immediately became a poster boy to wrongly attach “constructivism” tag to. After his graduation, Ivan Leonidov led a very tragic life of a person who never acclimated to his context. The fact it was a menacing bloody context is worth mention. Still, the divide between nonconformism for the sake of decency and illicit tragism in everyday life is slippery.  Yes – I worry about this all the time. =) That aside, Ivan Leonidov graduated as an architect inadequate for what lay immeditely beyond the school door. And it did not go shitty just overnight, to be fair.

Andrew Burov was another BXYTEMAC graduate, who shone as a “talented young man”. He abandoned the OCA organization as soon as the sour winds blew and put on the social realist, neoclassical revivalist’s shoes. [I shall investigate. Did he become one of those “Post Constructivists” – those proto-post modernists?] He never showcased any regrets for that and lived a long continuous career, no matter whether flat roofs or gypsum facades, or flat roofs again he was asked to provide. He managed to appear borderline between an actual person and servile rat despite his preference for food, shelter and job before his personal values, if these existed. It’s odd you mention Burov. Less than an hour ago I found this photo of him enjoying a cigarette break with Le Corbusier and Alexander Vesnin in Moscow, 1929. It’s the only photo I’ve ever seen with LC holding a pencil. Why is everyone but Vesnin wearing the same glasses?

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The two cases of Leonidov and Burov might be just two person’s characters, irrelevant to the school itself. I’m not so sure. They may have been one-offs but if they even inadvertently showed others the mechanism of how to leverage buildings to become famous, it was still the birth of modern architectural education as a closed ecosystem of teachers and students. Everyone wanted Leonidov on their team and he was pulled along by events but it sounds like Burov went whichever way the wind was blowing.   

This abstract imaginal education was formed as to “zeitgeist” of early 1920s, with enormous uncertainty over the ashes of a world war and hatching mass machine civilization. The locations where the two schools emerged are not surprising – both Germany and Russia had been mauled by world war and revolution. For each, “machine” became a fantastic entity which would undo the calamities by wonders of invisible mechanisms. It was an ontological drug to endure the hardships of life there, using sorcery of floating transpatial rectangles painted on a canvas, or spiralling pieces of wood forming an antenna for a newly found socialist hivemind. Coping means are good until you make these central pieces of your life – what only indicates how tragic your tragedy really is. Speaking of architectural education as abstract imaginings, this was in an Unbuilt Moscow feature in today’s Guardian. I saved it because I thought the caption was iffy. I find it hard to believe that, with The Russian Revolution not even three years gone, emphasising themes was more important than realising them. Suspect.

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Nikola Ladovsky [VKhUTEMAS instructor], 1920. The spiral structure of Ladovsky’s design emphasised the key Communist party themes of progress and communal living intended to revolutionise family structures.

But having grown up in Australia, I never felt such weight of history. When I was an undergraduate at UWA, I discovered Shinohara’s first book of houses in the library and, impressed, wrote him a letter saying how much I envied him for having had such a spectacular and worthwhile tradition to interpret, or act as a base, or something. In time, I received a short letter back saying that I would surely find my path if I just continued questioning. (I pinned it above my drawing board next to an image of Richard Meier’s Douglas House.) Forty years on, I’m still questioning and I think it’s time for some answers.   

Apparently, the price humankind paid to enter the era of geometrical freedom of free-floating masses put together in light was never seen prior to the non-freedom of humans put together in camps and frontlines. Unprecedented control of mass was brought forth by unforeseen human-powered machines of violence. I think the Futurists have a lot to answer for. Perhaps newness for its own sake supplying “the missing ingredient that allowed Modernism to happen” was never the answer. It may have merely been the missing ingredient that enabled rampant capitalist (and then endless neoliberalist) churn for its own sake. The powerful only need buildings to remind everyone who the powerful are. 

The reliance on abstract composition in schools may only be a means to retrofit the appearance of organic emergence into modernist architecture, whose history is not as clear and actually poorly documented. My new cognitive bias goggles have help me make sense out of a lot of things. Any attempt to introduce abstraction into architecture furthers a neoliberalist agenda where buildings exist for the sake of architecture and not for anyone who might happen to use them or even pay for them. We can backtrack from Patrick Schumacher and the neoliberalist architect dream of an architecture beyond reason, interpretation or criticism, and go back a bit further to Rem Koolhaas and his 1979 “Development is good!” thesis, re-articulated by Bjarke Ingels with fewer words and more pictures in “Yes is more!”) “Abstract painting gave birth to abstract architecture” sure sounds convincing, but actually may be an instance of pareidolia, the desire of human mind to see a pattern where it may not be the case. Probably. Mies’ “Brick Country House” was five years after van Doesburg’s Rhythm of a Russian Dance yet the two often appear on the same page of history books. van Doesburg even made it easy for Mies by demarcating inside and outside.   

What could have been just someone’s thesis statement became useful to form a consensus of persons who could sustain their agenda for the longest using this thesis as a cosmological myth. There wasn’t that much mid-20th century abstraction happening but perhaps De Stijl’s van Doesberg was the first to get there. Some say it may even had been Wright who first hit upon this cheap way to build. 

The fact that the architecture as something with pretensions to being art and not building science suggests it was better at furthering the agenda of its proponents (and clients) by claiming to be so. We don’t remember Peter Eisenman, Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright for their contributions to building science.  Traditionalist architects blame modernism for speaking a “bird language”. Once you knew their complaint and read any piece which featured use of word “space”, you’d never see it the way you did before. Overusing the word “form” is also a symptom. 

In science, 10 years after your graduation is when you have to focus on your research, because you may make studies and discoveries only while your brain is still fresh and regenerating. Your career after 35 is mostly you living off that foundation. My use of word foundation is misleading. This work is not what you stand on, doing your job later after you’ve acquired it, but the actual most valuable work you produce. Which you may later only tinker with or modify. My evidence is James Watson claimed it in his own memoir, he also wrote it was consensus thinking. Interesting. Worrying. I still have a couple of early ideas I haven’t monetised yet. Last week I received an email saying the commissioning editor at XXX had decided not to make a publication offer in response to my book proposal. 

In architecture, a fresh graduate may face their uselessness in the office for them being “that ignorant fresh graduate person” that just graduated from fascinating enterprise which is contemporary architecture school. More often than not, they will toil until their fifties, about which time, they’re told, architects “bloom”. Architecture in many ways is an archaic trade. One of signs of that is the gerontocracy in the upper tier of it. People who think of themselves as sentinels of undermined beings spent a lot of time praising the late ZH but the actual ill social composition existing in the profession, they never question it. The demise of Russian communism was foreshadowed by escalating gerontocracy a  few decades ago. Is architecture heading to the same direction? I suspect so. Experience is good in the case of the integrated design, operation and maintenance of complex systems such as railways but, with architecture, experience seems to be defined more narrowly as people who have simply clung on to fame for the longest.  

Relationship of education to work outside that of “self-referential circle of recommendations and funding” was not yet mentioned in this list yet. It should be. Already on the case in a separate draft. Le Corbusier’s former employees visited the US and were immediately made Professors of Architecture.

Sure, the basic framework never changed and the imaginal conceptual focus is the king. After all, the whole twentieth century saw architecture’s dilution with appearance of structural engineering as a separate trade, and inhabitability systems (i.e. HVAC) consultancy as yet another trade. With two thirds of dreary firmitas-utilitas-venustas trio taken out of the solution, architecture became a fine arts homeopathy. When I read this now, I see now that what you wrote is exactly where I took the Myths post [Architectural Myths #23: Architecture] post – you arrived at the same conclusion well before I did! 

Taking imaginal sophistry out of the curriculum would leave the vessel empty and no one would know what to fill it with. Would we have any abstract-faceted-sculptural sentiment if the first years were “performance design” instead of “affect design”? After a few years of low-level fundamental study would one see any charm in any other design approach? 

Also remember your frustrations with pupils unable to imagine a form, not to mention to document or present it in a projection? In shortcomings of teaching graphics to students you’ve defined a vision. I always like to look for reasons in things. If students can’t draw, or imagine things, then it’s because nobody is asking them to develop these skills that (quite frankly) most of my students will never be asked to use. Education adapts to its market surprisingly quickly. 

Media images melting reality into an post-causal mush you’ve bashed back in Smoke and Mirrors – and in Rendering Ethics on commonedge. The unintelligibly real prospects in form of images are hyper-lurid and captivating. The amount of work required to produce the images gave birth to dedicated visualization industry within the profession. This has only become necessary in order to feed the image digester. In its photo credits, ArchDaily includes visualisations and credits them as if they were photographs. I can’t help thinking something important is being lost. Reality? Online resources get bigger and bigger view counts across a reducing number of domains, and popular ones rule, as to law of accelerating returns. Instead of a multitude of opinions, mindsets and methods, the online architecture that actually emerged appeared to be a hybrid meta-mush of proven modernist tropes (or just stupid lazy design?) and a few recent design effort indicators like shuffly windows. This hybrid nests in an information platform accessible from any connected place. The farther the place is, the more charming the international newsfeed seems. What we have in the end is “archdaily (dezeen, architizer) epidemic”? Internet for ideas, good or bad ones, is what airlines are to viruses. I’ve often wondered about that. You see the same house in Korea or Chile or Bregenz. This trope is a hybrid of Fallingwater and Savoye – a media vernacular for our modern times.

For hundreds of years, the sole key to mastery was a long apprenticeship and recurring repetition – or at least we were told by literature that it was so. Within accelerating and escalating monopoly of the image, we end up having many designs as mere vehicles to create a final presentation image (your phrase). The rhetorical pair of substance vs image appears to have committed an incestual act, as image is the new substance, apparently.

The isolation of architectural academia is not yesterday’s news. Together with starchitecture firms they form a symbiotic circle running in a hermetically sealed cleanroom of waste-free production – potential students are lured by image of creative architectural practice, they enroll into a school, usually in exchange for hefty tuition fees, to be, in the best case, taught in personal studios of ones whose image charmed you in the first place. Somewhere in the middle, school builds a background of “successful student appreciation”, in form of articles with words “workaholic”, “creative” and “over hours”. In the end studios receive creative over-hours workaholics they can underpay because you’re so creative I see you didn’t come in the industry for the money did you? Sometimes these workaholics even paid to enter the job – via a school and personal studio that is. Credit to architectural industry to monetizing a perfect opportunity and wrapping their practitioners around a finger, to their own excitement and gratitude. This is all true and not cognitive bias. Just as education has adapted to what little is being asked of it, so has architecture. The idea of an architecture reflecting the priorities of the global economic elite is not such an absurd one. The International Style certainly came to “represent” progress to local populations as they were colonized by American businesses. OMA and ZHA are the new face of that. We should be pleased Schumacher has made the link between architecture and neoliberalism more obvious to more people. I’m beginning to think that starchitects are created and sustained by the system in order to sustain it. Think about it. If the buildings of a certain class of architect are granted automatic legitimacy regardless of the location or political culture or whose lives it destroys or with whose money it was built, then of course starchitects are going to get called upon to legitimize the unlegitimizable whenever there’s a need. It’s no accident the buildings they get called upon to legitimize tend to be in the dodgier countries, or that rich rulers and property developers (or rich-ruler property developers, or property developer rich rulers) are the clients whose edifices most require legitimizing.

Those currently in school are mostly millenials, who grew up in the presence of internet and the cultural transformation it entailed. One effect of which is “culture” became less about foundational notions and more of a coarsely ground mush of ideas, notions, emotions, and opinions based on such pesky sub-structure. The relationship between content, screen time, attention and worldwide connection naturally selected the most entertaining and least elaborate material which could be provided in a constant dopamine-gratifying stream. “12 books about urbanism”, “13 definitive movies for architects to watch” and whatever other list you can imagine on any topic beside architecture create an appearance of a broadly covered spectrum on a topic of interest, what satisfies the users and makes them believe in their becoming an informed person. The concept of Everything is Architecture is a new way of justifying this. Social media seems to function as a way of reminding people that one is interested in architecture. Putting stuff out there to share for our benefit has in some debased way come to be identified as education.   

What results is a culture of erudite idiots, precisely because long-term programs are not about immediate content. This idiocy is implicitly understood, what is indicated by recent abundance of a word “expert”, which is used wherever to separate audience from the speakers who have an oratorical monopoly. Becoming an expert is then a media vehicle, and there are many people who would help one to become an expert in exchange for money. Yes, we need to monetise this! =) 

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The uncertainty about architectural education may result from profession’s ongoing decomposition. 20th century cemented the dissociation of structural engineering and habitability engineering from architectural design practice, at least in big architecture scene. The role of 20th century architecture school in that has yet to be scrutinized.

  • Decomposition of imaginal public relations practice of perception-management happens along the lines of imagery production competences, one recent case of the process is emergence of architectural visualization as a separate self-contained trade. Bashar once told me he saw an job listing for an “environmental graphics technician” and It amused us to think it meant those people who draw those airflow lines all over building sections. I was recently disappointed to learn it’s the new term for signage and wayfinding.
  • Decomposition continues for the material of architecture as a discipline which engineers a public relations envelope, a desired image for projects built around development gain or the concerns of image itself, as are many “cultural centres”, a typological trope beloved by both architects and their students.
  • Decomposition is an exotermic process. Once it stops, we’ll see stone-cold mineral remains of previously organic discipline. But decompositional heat can be mistaken for metabolic heat, creating a vision of a vibrant living system. hhhh I don’t know why I should be laughing … the analogy is all to apt – this mistaking of energy for life.  

Hazy conceptual soup remains in the profession, but we soon may see “design philosophy consultant” as a next big thing in architecture. We’ll have to watch for Design Philosophy Consultant Masters Program banners on architecture web outlets. It’s only a matter of time. Those three words already occur together in the similarly abstracted field of economic policy. 

design philosophy consultant

Design philosophy consultants may already be walking amongst us, for what’s a design philosophy consultant but a person who uses misleading narratives for perception management? If such people were to exist, they would make pre-emptive announcements of current concerns in anticipation of “proof” by projects only they know are in the pipeline. Those planted pre-emptive narratives would soon, invariably, come to be seen as prophetic.

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To all architecture students out there,
best wishes and good luck!