Category Archives: Guides

Misfits’ travel guides to buildings around the world.

Misfits’ Guide to HONG KONG

The previous post began with an exhibition about the Japanese house, architecture and life after 1945. This one begins with an exhibition about the Hong Kong apartment, buildings and living after 1945.

Housing Authority Exhibition Centre
4F, Block 3, Housing Authority Headquarters, 80 Fat Kwong St, Ho Man Tin, Kowloon

The exhibition deals with the story of public housing in Hong Kong. In 1945 its population was 600,000. Over the next five years, 1.5 million people would either return to it or flee to it. 

The exhibition describes the incremental improvements to facilities and increases in floor area per person and the differences they made. It explains how the method of construction changed to keep up with demand and how management and maintenance regimes adapted to extract maximum performance from precious housing stock.

There’s information on changes in housing policy, home ownership schemes, design for the elderly, sustainable practices and site-specific design. Airflow around buildings is now an important part of sustainable practices and site-specific design is becoming more important now it’s no longer possible to create large sites through reclamation.

Over fifty years, tower design has evolved (in the true sense of the word) to embody an enormous amount of intelligence I’ll write about some other time.

The story of Hong Kong is inseparable from the story of public housing and the exhibition was a clear and simple illustration of how people’s lives were changed for the better. A group of junior-school childen was entering as I was leaving. Half of them will live in public housing but for every one of them it’s a part of their history and culture and it cheered me no end to see it being recognized and taught as such.

State Theatre
1952
227-291 Kings Road, Hong Kong

This 1,400 seat theatre with exposed concrete roof truses was the cultural hub of Hong Kong’s classical music scene for many years. Currently derelict, its future is looking very iffy. A developer is circling.

Chungking Mansions, 1962
Lamb Halzeland & Co.
36-44 Nathan Road, TST Kowloon

Chungking Mansions is famous for being a high-density mixed-use housing and retail development although that was never the intention. There are thirteen floors of highly subdivided apartments above two levels of small retail spaces. This is what it looks like without any divisions into retail units, retail spaces, sublets and bedspaces.

Many people who work in the building also live in the building that continues to be an important entry point for immigrants or, in ourspeak, a business incubator. Its vibrance is legendary. It is policed as an extension of the city streets that it is.

There’s something good there. The ground floor has laundries, grocers, fast food, restaurants, and everything else a person might need on a daily basis. Mobile phone and consumer electronics stores let immigrants monetize forgotten skills such as how to fix things and make them last. People might wait for elevators between a Western Union and a grocer. Chungking Mansions works and for reasons that have little to with architecture, shopfitting, interiors and public open space. Retailers who live in the building have a natural and organic attachment to it. This doesn’t happen with the later and more strategically contrived juxtapositions of typologies.

Choi Hung Estate
P&T Architects, 1965
Choi Hung Estate, Wan Tai, Kowloon

The Choi Hung (rainbow, in Cantonese) Estate is from the same era and everybody knows it as one of Hong Kong’s first housing estates. It’s rainbow colours have been maintained and the roof of the car park is host to photographers and other life.

The estate houses about 43,000 people. This is probably why the ground level can sustain a large variety of shops that not only include butchers and various grocery stores, but hairdressers, shoe stores, a store selling only plastic stools, and another only acoustic guitars. This is not a mall. It is housing combined with stores with a full range of daily essentials. Stores are small and their owners seem to spend much time chatting with customers. Despite this development receiving a Hong Kong Association of Architects’ Silver Award in 1965, we fail to recognise anything here that resembles architecture as we now know it. This is our loss because residents and retailers combine to make something special. Perhaps all that’s needed is for architecture to not work against it.

Montane Mansion
Hong Kong Housing Authority 1972
1028 King’s Rd, Quarry Bay

Montane Mansion is big and densely-packed E-shaped building fronting King’s Road. Around the back it’s a photographer magnet responsible for this building’s huge presence on Instagram. The classic shot is the rectangle of sky, preferably in early evening when apartment lights are coming on. At eye level however are laundries, hairdressers, stores selling oranges, and shopkeepers observing the strange behaviour of visitors.

Montane Mansion ends the street well despite its long side not following the curve of the street in order to be beautiful.

The Hong Kong Tram
Hong Kong Island

Hong Kong Island has the world’s only double-decker tram fleet of 163 trams that carry around 230,000 passengers per day. Their design has had various updates since they were first introduced in 1904 but all still have the same boxy teak carriages and oddly short wheelbase. The most recent change is the addition of a smile [see image above]. A single journey costs HK$2.30 (US$0.30) irrespective of journey length.

Exits A1 and C1, HKU Station
MTR (Mass Transit Railway), Hong Kong
Exits A1, A2 and C1, HKU Station, Hong Kong

With two stops and eighteen floors from subway concourse to university concourse, these subway exits are a useful means of public transport and vertical extensions of the subway itself. They’re free. Elevator displays show destinations rather than levels. Exit A2 is the express.

Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate (勵德邨)
Hong Kong Housing Authority 1975
2 – 38 Lai Tak Tsuen Road, Tai Hang, Wan Chai District, Hong Kong

It’s not unusual for a Hong Kong apartment tower to have a light well at its middle but having a circular one is. This estate has two pairs of circular buildings, connected like binoculars, with elevators in the middle and open stairs at opposite ends.

Access balconies open directly onto the light well and the open stairs enable roof access. It seems apartment ventilation would be enhanced by such an arrangement but the Venturi Effect [the principle by which a spray gun operates] would only operate in moderate-high winds if the stairwalls were enclosed. The typology was never developed.

Tai Koo Estate
Swire Properties (Developer) 1982 (Phase 1)
18 Taikoo Shing Road, Taikoo Shing

Phase 2 is the block labelled CITY PLAZA in the image below. Imagine a mall covering a city block with three levels above ground and one below, and with parking below that. This forms a podium for nine 100m apartment towers known as HORIZON GARDENS.

The upper three levels are standard mall fare and the basement contains daily essentials. Apartment building entry lobbies are accessed from the sidewalks on the long sides of the mall.

Residents could just cross the street to access the Phase 1 mall and through that Taikoo MTR Station and Kornhill Plaza mall beyond, or they could enter the Phase 2 mall and access it via the wide bridge crossing Taikoo Shing Road.

Peripheral streets are fairly busy with pedestrians because of these access arrangements and amenities such as the waterside Quarry Bay Park are not far away.

Two office buildings linked to the mall by elevated walkways comprise Phases 3 and 4 that replace four apartment towers. This not-so-stealthy gentrification is obvious when older apartment blocks exist in close proximity to the retail and amenity spaces typical of commerical areas.

Pacific Place
Swire Properties (Developer), Wong & Ouyang (Architects), Heatherwick Studio (refurbishment)
88 Queensway, Admiralty, Hong Kong

This mall has no obvious gimmicks so I was surprised to learn that most of what I liked is the result of a 2007 refurbishment by Heatherwick Studio. The format for mall and store signage is unified throughout but those rules are broken for the more exclusive stores on the uppermost and lowers floors, as well as for the cineplex anchor.

There is timber on soffits and clear (curved!) glass balustrades with curved timber handrails, and a palette of neutrals. Escalator grab rails are brown.

There aren’t any concessions monetizing walkways as they obstruct them. There is only one double-sided display advertising in-mall promotions. The one event space is not constantly in use. All this is refreshing. Food and beverage outlets on the lowest level do not become a Food Court. A Starbucks is tucked away in a corner beneath escalators. Background music was slightly up-tempo around lunchtime but is generally low-key and low-volume. Think Julee Cruise’s Floating Into The Night.

The layout is easily understood and non-coercive. Contrary to the tenets of mall design, elevators and escalators are positioned where people might need them and without devious diversions. How to get where you want to is obvious, even if it’s outside. There’s an absence of free attractors such as aquariums or musical fountains animating walkways for the sake of paying people watchers. 

There’s also no attempt to artificially create zones through different flooring or soffit finishes. The one flooring is used throughout with subtle changes in direction of laying and the size of stone. The two-coloured flagstones are laid so the mix changes from “stone” to blue, emphasizing the shopfronts in the same way that waves emphasize a beach.

Glass panels in the rooftop drop-off zone allow a surprising amount of light into the mall. Natural light is all that’s needed to show natural materials to advantage but delicate chandeliers display clouds of pink and blue light that add base and top notes to the colour balance. They’re a thing to behold.

Artificial light also complements natural light elsewhere. Where skyligthts aren’t possible, light fittings in ceiling coffers continue the pattern.

At podium level are entrances to two office towers, three hotels and a hotel apartment tower. All except this last have direct access to the mall and metro station, as well as other buildings connected either above or below ground as is the Hong Kong way.

Queensway Plaza
Queensway, Hong Kong

Even though the experience is almost entirely internal, Pacific Place still has a sense of being a building with site boundaries and a shape and identity. Queensway Plaza doesn’t. You could pass through it without even knowing it. It’s still very much a mall with space either side of thoroughfares monetized as retail. Its thoroughfares link Pacific Place and at least three other office towers horizontally but also the bus station at ground level and the Admiralty MTR station below. It’s at the centre of everything in the map below but has next to zero external physical presence.

The internal experience is like those duty-free corridors that now line most major airports. You’re not expected to linger but to buy and move on. I wouldn’t be surprised if footfall makes it the most cost-effective retail space in Hong Kong.

The exterior turned out to be unimportant. Corbusian spouts pointlessly pour water as paint peels off the architectural stairwell. A light well remains defiantly magical.

Nam Long Shan Road Cooked Food Market
Nam Long Shan Road, Aberdeen, Hong Kong

This building is also unprepossessing from the street. Two wings of three floors are separated by a sliver of courtyard. It’s where people come to eat, and the building lets them do that with a bit of ceremony and in all the comfort they need.

Hong Kong Electric Building
Connaught Road Central, Hong Kong

I know nothing about this building but I’ve called it the Hong Kong Electric Building because of the logo on it. It has the mystery of a utilities building and appears slightly sinister due to its unrevealing exterior and dominant position along Connaught Road Central [c.f. The New Inhumanism]. Much like a Shin Takamatsu building, it is decorative and symbolic in ways we can’t relate to, as if it was an artefact from the future.

Asia Society
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects 2012
9 Justice Dr, Admiralty, Hong Kong

This building is difficult to photograph because it’s not so much a building but a program of additions to “a group of four former British military buildings originally built by the British Army in the mid-19th century for explosives and ammunition production and storage. It was then expanded and taken over by the Royal Navy in the early 20th century. The site was later abandoned in 1990s until it was granted to the Asia Society Hong Kong for adaptive reuse.”*  There are many of the juxtapositions of new and old that characterize adaptive reuse.

As it’s an art gallery, those additions involve an entrance lobby, cafeteria, store and a small amphitheatere. A new bridge elbows around a breeding ground for fruit bats and leads to the galleries.

The star attraction is Hong Kong itself. To one side of the bridge is the steep mountainside host to the bat habitat, and on the other is airspace and beyond that the city. Hong Kong is full of such juxtapositions but the boundaries were as soft and blurred as they could ever be on a bridge. I like that the bridge balustrade does its fencing thing and that plants do their growing thing in the same place.

The open upper level of the two-storey bridge leads back to a roof garden event space and the elevator down.

Union Square Development
Terry Farrel & Partners (masterplanners), ongoing
1 Austin Road West, West Kowloon

The MTR (Mass Transit Railway) is now Hong Kong’s dominant player in housing development since it can sell the air rights above newly-built subway stations in much the same way as happened with Grand Central Station. The mall+apartment tower hybrid is now a subway+mall+apartment tower hybrid and the result is privately owned public infrastructure. On the surface, everybody seems to win.

Between the station and the apartment towers is public open space as well as outdoors F&B outlets. It wasn’t horrible. There was security and card access to the residential towers via some communal open space, but the public open space is of limited use as open space even when it is open to the public between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm.

This development was rightly criticised for being an island with no connection to its surroundings. I searched in vain for an exit to a street. Union Square is up against the Hong Kong Island cross-harbour road/tunnel entry to its west but, when the time comes to do so, future foobridges will no doubt connect it to developments currently being constructed to the south, north and east.

Opus Hong Kong
Frank Gehry, 2012
53 Stubbs Road, Hong Kong

Frank Gehry’s Fred and Ginger reprise spawned Asia’s most expensive residences. The building is often photographed as a solitary blot on a pristine mountainside. I was pleased that’s not exactly the case but even relatively isolated developments such as this will attract infill development and further dilute Hong Kong’s unique juxtapositions of nature and artifice.

Clague Garden Estate (祈德尊新邨)
P&T Architects, 1989
Tsuen Wan

Three 40-storey apartment towers contain 552 apartments for rent and 926 for sale. Additional low-rise buildings mean some 6,700 people live in 1,800 apartments having areas between 21m²  and 55 m². I’ve doctored this generic plan to show how apartment access is configured

Towers with H-shaped corridors have been split, the two halves offset and every third level reconnected with bridges, elevators and garbage rooms. Every 36 apartments share a communal volume internally overlooked by all stairs as well as some kitchens and bedrooms [c.f. The Landscape Within].

Stairwells serve as fire stairs and have apartments at half landings so as to minimise unlit corridor length. Balustrades are solid where there is a building-height void but are open railings when there is a three-storey void. This next image is an enlargement of the top right image above. Deep beams supporting the bridges have openings to lessen the enclosure of the uppermost stairs, creating sight lines to the stairs beyond.

This may be feng-shui at work or it may just be a nice thing to do. On both sides every thirteen or so floors are circular moon-gates. These might have been provided to guide dragons descending the nearby mountains or they might have been provided to give a public scale to the building when seen from the street.

The building has three different scales and each is appropriate for the scale at which the building is comprehended. Occupants are aware of all three as they move from their own space to have an awareness of their own place within their community of 36 apartments, of their community’s place within the building, and of their building’s place in the city and landscape. We can’t really ask a building to do more.

• • •

Thanks: 

  • to Gabriel for letting me know about Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate and for the heads up on trends in estate development
  • to Sebastien for taking me to see Clague Garden Estate and for suggesting I visit Nam Long Shan Road Cooked Food Market and Queensway Plaza
  • to Nik for suggesting I see State Theatre and for taking me to J. Boroski Hong Kong
  • to Tom for introducing me to Macau
  • to Nasrine for suggesting I visit Pacific Place and Asia Society
  • to Trent and all the utopian urbanists from the University of Queensland
  • to everyone at the Hong Kong Housing Authority Exhibition Centre

 

Misfits’ Guide to PARIS

1902

rue Franklin Apartments
Auguste Perret
rue Benjamin Franklin, Paris

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We all know about the concrete frame, its concealment and subsequent re-expression of its presence but the reason for the shape of this frontage tends to be neglected.

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Modernist space maybe, “inspired by statutory light courts” perhaps, but why would someone want to do that? The shortest distance between two points isn’t a good thing when many rooms are needing windows. Perret managed to give windows to five, as well as to the kitchen off to the left and outside the formal organization of the building but following the social class prejudices of the time and the functional prejudices of ours. Don’t believe me? Compare the functionally sanitized plan from our architecture books with the original plan. We learn that the sculleries have side windows and so the gas cooker probably had a degree of cross ventilation in the kitchen. The bed was rather awkwardly placed in the bedroom. The frontmost room on the left is the smoking room and the one with the alternate means of escape is the boudoir.

These are rather nice one-bedroom flats, suggesting their owners had houses in the country and used these apartments as what we call in English pied-a-terres.

Only the week before last did I belatedly learn there’s some quite nice gardens across the road. The six windows of the upper apartments must have impressive views of the entire Trocadero Gardens as well as of the Eiffel Tower. The view from the lower apartments can’t be unlike this view from the Hotel Eiffel five doors up, on the corner.

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I know of no book, architecture or otherwise, that has ever mentioned this. In 1904 when these apartments were completed, The Eiffel Tower had already been a feature of the Paris skyline for 15 years but it was still uncertain if it would be a permanent one. We forget not everyone was keen on having it around forever.

The upper levels of the building are very special and I have hiddenarchitecture.net to thank for these images.

This image is probably as close as you and I are ever going to get to seeing a view of anything from one of the rue Franklin apartments.

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I used to think the lengthened facade was simply about getting daylight and ventilation to six rooms. I now suspect view was another factor. There’s also something else. The non-linear frontage creates a vertical column of space shared by three of the five habitable rooms. This void is physically unuseable space but it’s a building amenity of sorts for, without compromising privacy, it provides an awareness of people in other rooms of the same apartment and, to a lesser degree and without compromising privacy, of activity in the apartments above and below.

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Everyone not only gets a view of the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero Gardens, but also gets a warm feeling of bonhomie for sharing that view. It’s a bit like the Royal Crescent at Bath, on a lesser scale.

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Anyway, the rest is history but, as a footnote to history, I believe Perret set out to achieve much more than a reinforced concrete frame for us to learn about in architecture school.

1903

7 rue de Trétaigne
Henri Sauvaage and Charls Sarazin

7 rue de Trétaigne, Paris

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I’m unsure how much bonhomie was felt at the time by the many Parisiens sharing a shaft of airspace on sites less central and less spectacular. With his 7 rue de Trétaigne low-rent apartments, Henri Sauvage tried to do his best for these people.

The tidy configuration has six apartments per floor accessed from an approx. 4m² landing – it simply can’t be any less. Area saved is diverted to make the lightwells as large as possible for the single aspect apartments facing them. We think of Henri Sauvage as the Art Nouveau guy good at tendril ornament but he had a proto-Modernist sensitivity to how quantity of light benefits well-being. I say that because one third of the 29 apartments are the three-room apartments responsible for the unevenly sized light wells. Placing them on the south of the trapezoidal site would have equalized the lightwell areas somewhat but since rue de Trétaigne runs approximately north-south, the northern light well is larger because windows opening onto it receive less direct sunlight. Note also how openings between rooms are next to the window wall, allowing light to be borrowed from adjacent rooms.

1912

Housing rue Vavin
Henri Sauvage
rue Vavin, Paris

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This building is also T-shaped with paired apartments left, right and rear, but has a larger footprint and height. With this, Henri Sauvage introduced the terraced apartment typology pre-empting Antonio San’t Elia (who, in 1914, sketched some terraced apartments). However, only the front to rue Vavin is terraced and not the rear facades that could better benefit. The main advantage of terracing apartments is that everyone gets a vertical slice of the sky in addition to whatever view there is. The architectural price paid is a large and largely unlit space below that needs to be justified. Sauvage did so by moving his office and studio into at least part of what is quite a substantial length of building.

I’ve no idea of this building’s history of repair and nor can I tell, but it’s looking good for 105. Glazed ceramic tiles are the perfect cladding.

1922

Grandin Building
Henri Sauvage
10 rue des Amiraux, Paris

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A decade later, Sauvage was to again explore terraced apartments but this time on three sides of a building. This created a much larger space that needed filling but this time he was fortunate to have it accommodated by a municipal swimming pool.

Despite this building being a better example of the advantages of the terraced typology, it’s simply not possible for all buildings to have a swimming pool inside. I don’t know why. I’d been looking forward to a 3€ swim but, when I visited the week before last, the pool was closed for major restoration.

This is what I’d been hoping to see and experience.

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1958

Le Cité de L’Abreuvoir
Émile Aillaud with Edouard Vaillant
1 Rue de Téhéran, 93000 Bobigny, France

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This post-war housing project is sixty years old and its original surface has been overclad and is probably good for another sixty. The site layout still works. Eleven-storey tower blocks are surrounded by a curvilinear four-storey perimeter buildings with apartments accessed by stairs from the outer side. Local residents and apartment occupants alike use the existing streets to enter and use the open space to access the market and buses along the main road running through the site. The open space is open to everybody to use as a thoroughfare but only the apartments of the development have a direct view of this open space as a visual amenity.

The tower blocks add incident – a Victorian concept of the picturesque. It’s when something is made to happen when it would be dull for something not to. This isn’t a meaningless gesture however, for the tower blocks increase density and allow the enclosed open space to feel open. In some cities high-rise housing is a more efficient way of using land but here it’s just an different way of using land.

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1968

EDF Housing
Atelier d’architecture de Montrouge (Jean Renaudie, P. Riboulet, G. Thurnauer, J.-L. Véret) 1968

4 bd du Colonel Fabien, rue des Péniches, Ivry sur Seine, Paris

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This corner of Paris is all about electricity – EDF’s in particular. In English, this project is known as EDF Housing. I’ve yet to find plans and work out how these buildings are configured, but it looks like what you’d get if took a two-storey, interlocking, L-shaped module not unlike this,


and rotated it 90° four times, elevating it two storeys each time. As with the towers of the previous project, these have no preferred orientation because different rooms within the apartments face different directions anyway. This is a useful characteristic. [c.f. The Inscrutable Apartment]

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1969

Jean-Baptiste Clément Housing
Jean Renaudie
rue Jean-Baptiste Clément, Ivry sur Seine, Paris

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Jean Renaudie again, but this time sans Atelier d’architecture de Montrouge. It’s impossible to find a single location from which to photograph this development because it wasn’t designed for the sake of a photograph. Its complex geometric plan is based on triangles overlaid in three dimensions and produces courtyard spaces and a vertical gradation of activity as one progresses up from street level through the internal shopping arcade and up to the residential levels.

All apartments have private terraced outdoor areas

and the levels overlap and sequentially recede according to some logic sensed but never comprehended.

Whatever its rules of organization are, they can be infinitely extended and varied to account for local conditions yet still produce an identifiable whole. It’s not very often you’ll see anyone attempt designing a three-dimensional amorphous matrix for mixed-use living.

1977

Les Tours Aillaud
Emile Aillaud
Cité Pablo Picasso, Nanterre, Paris

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I’ll stick my neck out and disagree with Robert Hughes on this. Where he sees concrete I see mosaic tile, and no boxiness either. The rooms aren’t large but who’s to know how many or how large they might well have been? The floor layouts are sensibly designed with right angles where furniture needs to be placed and curved external walls where it is less necessary.

The buildings’ shape, their surface pattern and the shape(s) of their windows could be what Hughes meant by gimmicky. The shape we can discount as it looks like an early attempt at a rigid tube structure [such as 432 Park Ave’s]. It probably produced some engineering advantage and consequent construction and materials savings. This hypothesis is supported by the relatively small window openings. If laid properly, glazed ceramic tile is a perfect cladding but there’s no justification for the pattern of this cladding or for the three shapes of window, particularly the teardrop-shaped ones. These features are what English-speaking commentators writing about French architecture are keen to disparagingly label “gesture”. Gesture is assumed to be a bad thing and, if it’s no more than an architectural gesture for our amusement, then I agree.

However, consider this next recently completed project for runaway/homeless kids in Perth, Western Australia. Many of the elements we see in this image – the angled columns, the cantilever, the different finishes and materials, the bright colours, overlapping planes are all architectural gestures of some sort and none is particularly expensive to make.

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They’re all architectural gestures that could be seen as gimmicky but in this context they are all human gestures showing somebody cared enough about the users of this space to make it a little bit more than it could easily have otherwise been. 

I feel something similar happening with Les Tours Aillaud. It’s fifty years old. It’s the only ungated development. It’s not been dynamited. It’s only few stones’ throws away from La Défense. It must still be social housing for rent for, if it weren’t, it’d have been gentrified long ago.

1981

Le Viaduc et les Arcades du Lac
Ricardo Bofill
Allée Jules Verne, 78180 Montigny-le-Bretonneux, France

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This is the first and most photogenic of Ricardo Bofill’s Paris projects and, because of that, a media “classic”. It seeded development of the lake periphery and beyond.

The Les Arcades du Lac component is the lesser photographed. It contains 389 subsidised apartments and, as shown above, has been given a strong controlling geometry recognizable as a French garden with buildings instead of hedges.

Much of the space around Les Arcades du Lac consists of hard landscaping interrupted by occasional trees and views out,

and also by moments of incredible lushness. We simply can’t say if the people who look at these or at the lake all the time have a better appreciation of them than the people who experience them afresh every time they encounter them in the course of going home. I wasn’t aware of any car parking and nor did I think to look for it.

The buildings are in impeccable condition. Its mix of prefabricated concrete panels and terracotta tile cladding is approaching timelessness.

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How well the project as a whole has aged is obvious when compared with surrounding developments that attempt a similar grandness of mass without following through with construction and materials.

The lake is astounding in size and the surrounding parkland well maintained. It must be nice for the majority of the Les Arcades du Lac to know they are close to it even if they can’t see it. Once again, we can’t say if their appreciation of the lake and park is any better or worse. The lake and park are also amenities for the neighbourhood to enjoy. Other than proximity, what makes the occupants of Le Viaduc and Les Arcades du Lac special is that they share a geometry. For the first time I thought such a simple thing as geometry is a very real way of making people feel part of something greater. I began to think of axes and symmetries not as wannabe Versailles but as something that can be used in low-rent housing developments to produce the sense of comfort that comes from knowing one has a place within some grander design. These fundametals of configuration are more visible now the post-modern frisson of surface design has evaporated. It was with this in mind that I viewed the next project.

1982

Les Espaces d’Abraxas
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
1982 pl des Fédérés, Noisy le Grand, Marne la Vallée, Villes Nouvelles, Paris

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Again, there are glimpes of lushness, but fewer and more controlled.

It’s the same things happening again, with even fewer elements working harder but for the same reasons. Here, the shared feature is the amphitheatre – an architectural form in which something happens, even though all that happens is people going to and from their apartments. As with rue Franklin Apartments this space shared both horizontally and vertically unites users and spectators no more or less than with any stadium.

Bofill said it’s more than a bit like the Royal Crescent at Bath. And as with Le Viaduct, a number of apartments are made into a focal point for the development – a plot device that, in the absence of players or actors, gives meaning to the space. According to the description on ricardobofill.com “L’Arc”, with its modest dimensions (20 apartments over nine floors), was placed in the center of the interior space. We wanted to render functional a symbol considered non functional throughout its long historical use. Diverted from its usual symbolism, its final aspect will be that of a romantic, rather than a triumphal arc. For all, it is the focal point of the scheme.”

Also, as with the other projects, movement on ground level is made visible wherever possible but, as with Bofill’s 1975 Walden 2, bridges and open staircases are used to make movement on the higher levels more visible.

The usual photograph by which this development is summarized doesn’t do it justice.

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1985

les Échelles du Baroque
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
Place de Catalogne, Paris

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There are 274 apartments over seven floors. In all respects, this project was so much more than I’d anticipated.

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Again, the same elements are used and with more economy and to the same effect. Bofill’s use of social housing to provide an amenity for the neighbourhood builds upon what Aillaud did in Bobigny three decades earlier.

1986

Les Colonnes St Christophe Housing
Ricardo Bofill and Taller Arquitectura
Place des Colonnes, Cergy Saint Christophe, Cergy, Cergy-Pontoise, Villes nouvelles, Paris

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By now I knew what to look for but this was more than I anticipated. The central shared object, the amphitheather and the grand axes were all present here and stronger. The approach from the railway station is a major axis culminating at the eponymous column.

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Off to the left from the column is another axis leading out of the development. From here on is known as either l’Axe Majeur de Cergy-Pontoise or as Parc François Mitterand as it’s one of the Grand Projects. And grand it is for, once past the arcade, there’s a path leading to some more columns and a view of Paris in the distance.

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One is drawn towards it between rows of espaliered apple trees.

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Only when you get to the distant columns does the view open up, and magnificently so.

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It’s a trek, but one I’d be very happy to live near to. Whether or not they residents have a view of this, the residents still benefit from an embracing geometry. The people of Cergy can access this space from roads passing across it but the people of Paris accessing it from the centre of town or the station will invariably pass through the space with the column.

This is a very intelligent project. Some of its architectural details are superficially post-modern but the important ones are all very real, physical things that refer to nothing else but what they are. They don’t pretend to give – they actually do. Bofill did something very important with these projects that, though ostensibly Post-Modern, aimed higher and had a rationale beyond.

• • •

Les Espaces d’Abraxas is the most vivid of these four projects but probably the least successful as it’s bounded on three sides by busy roads and, unlike the others, a destination only for the people living there and the occasional Bofill rediscoverer such as myself.

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1995

9-17 rue Émile Durkheim
Francis Soler
9-17 rue Émile Durkheim

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This project is just to the south of Dominique Perrault’s 1994 Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the choice of such a location is already a human gesture to its occupants. The project was much maligned in an Architectural Review review of the time. Reference to French architects’ supposed love of “gesture” displayed the mindset that occupants of social housing aren’t allowed anything unique. The main cause of this ire was the graphics applied to the windows.

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The implication was that occupiers of social housing shouldn’t be gazing at art [but aspiring to fitted units and tile splashbacks with decorative borders?] In 1995 or 6, I scanned this image because I liked the clarity of the design and its priorities.

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The architect’s website explains that the full-height double glazing offered construction and structural savings that freed budget for the window graphics showing details from Giulio Romano’s fresco of the Feast of the Gods, but in the style of Roman Cieslewicz [a Polish photographer and graphic artist notable for, amongst other things, his use of collage].

The intention was to provide a poetic dimension and the necessary intimacy without obstructing daylight. It’s a different way of looking at things. This problem of cross-Channel perception has nothing to do with architectural gesture and everything to do with the concept of a human gesture I mentioned earlier. The UK’s neoliberalist filter for aesthetic perception precludes social housing from ever being beautiful, regardless of whether an effort is made or not.

2016

Social Housing
Antonini Darmon Architectes

Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris

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This project featured last year in MARK magazine and much was made of the arches and their shadows and shading. “The modern reinterpretation of Giovanni Guerrini’s 1940 Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome is a welcome addition to the western suburbs.” The apartments are decent enough and the balcony width increases in line with the need for sun control, apparently.

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There was little need for sun control when I visited.

Driven by views and the river promenade as amenities, the area has much new development and is more about to happen. “Each building designed by a different architect” is mentioned as if it were a good thing. Jean Nouvel’s name is mentioned likewise.

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This social housing is within a courtyard development and ostensibly its centrepiece. Opportunities to see into or out of that courtyard are few because as many of the surrounding apartments as possible are attempting views to the west across L’Île Seguin to the hills of Meudon – or at least their living rooms are, leaving many bedrooms facing the courtyard and the building. There’s a slim chance this building has its archy facade as a human gesture to its tenants, but it’s more likely an architectural gesture to those who have a view of it. It could be a case of those arches being a human gesture to one set of occupants and an architectural one to the other, thus extracting maximum value from a human gesture and also somehow missing the point.

The building itself is no doubt there because of some condition of planning permission. On the plus side, at least it’s there and not on some remote site.

• • •

This post didn’t begin as a critique of attitudes to social housing in Paris but, even from these few examples, it’s clear that enthusiasm to build it has waned along with the idea that better housing for everyone is something architects should be concerned with. Even as late as 1985, architects such as Bofill were still trying to house people in ways that nourished not only the occupants but their environs as well. By 1995 the attempts had become smaller in scale but still with a sense of priorities. The era of such brave attempts seems over and the trend is for social housing projects to be even smaller in scale and begrudgingly provided by developers, as has long been the norm in the UK.

Having said that,

misfits’ salutes France, for having kept it going for longer than anywhere else. 

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More:

Jean Renaudie
Atelier de Montrouge
Bofill in France
Émile Aillaud
Cité d’Abreuvoir
Francis Soler
ricardobofill.com – A generous website with much information and many downloadable images. Sketches are a bonus but more plans would be nice. An excellent resource nevertheless.

Many thanks to F. and S.

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Misfits’ Guide to PERTH

As an intermittent returnee to Perth I’m often asked “Hasn’t The City changed?” The question refers to the skyline and usually something is different but, every fifteen years or so, along comes a building that dramatically alters the shape and scale of the city in the same way Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center did for New York in 1970 or Rafael Viñoly Associates’ 432 Park Avenue is doing currently. In Perth, the game changers were 1962’s 18-storey T&G Building [currently refurbished as Citibank House], the circa 1975 trio of AMP Tower, Allendale Square and St. Martin’s Tower all around 33 storeys, and 1992’s 51-storey Central Park.

Before the use of tinted, reflective and solar glass became widespread, it was common for tall buildings in Perth to have some form of external sun control device. This made them place-sensitive. It also made sense. Some of the first buildings in Western Australia were Georgian cottages with verandahs but other building types received similar enhancements.

Council  HouseHowlett & Bailey, 1963
27–29 St. George’s Terrace, Perth

Without its sun shading, Perth’s Council House would be standard issue International Style. Its T-shaped elements are decorative yet successfully ameliorate all but direct west sun. Once deemed an eyesore and out of keeping with the then government’s plan to make a new heritage [?] precinct, the building was given a makeover in 1999 and, since 2010, multicolour LED light washes have made “the ‘technicolour’ building one of the city’s most appealing night-time landmarks.” 

QV.1, Harry Seidler, 1991
250 St. George’s Terrace, Perth

This was designed by Australian Gropius, Harry SeidlerThere’s much to dislike about this building but not the thoroughness of its passive sun control. QV.1 is currently Perth’s fourth tallest building and is widely known for being both energy efficient and unattractive – something only possible if a building is trying to be beautiful. “… the QV1 building is based on the famous photo where Marilyn Monroe is standing on a grate and air is blowing her skirt up. The twin towers of the QV1 represent her legs, and the rippled awning you walk under when you enter the building is her skirt. The red, curved structure in the forecourt of the building are her lips.”  I fear there may be some truth in this. 

The smoochy floor plate is also suspect.

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Despite it’s overeagerness to mean something to anybody, QV.1 remains a good example of vertical shading devices blocking the west sun which is particularly fierce in Perth, and horizontal shading devices blocking the north summer sun. This is something also done with much gusto by the next building that regularly tops ‘Ugliest Building in Perth’ lists.

East Perth Train StationAnthony (Tony) Brand, circa 1970

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The building is lazily described as Brutalist because concrete figures somehow but has less to do with Le Corbusier and Maisons Jaoul and more to do with the Brutalism of Greater London Council that liked its buildings sturdy and low maintenance. Brick fins on all sides function as shading devices with the angle of the fins differing for each facade as it should. Mr. Brand may have laid himself open to charges of over-robustness. Perth sunlight may be fierce but, at the end of the day, it’s still only light.

Kessel House, Iwan Iwanoff, 1975
4 Briald Street, Dianella, Perth

Bulgaria-born Iwan Iwanoff’s buildings are lazily described as Brutalist because concrete figures somehow.

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Iwanoff studied architecture in Munich but his qualifications weren’t recognized in 1950 when he arrived in Perth as a refugee so he decamped to Melbourne. Fifteen years later and registered, he moved back to Perth where his career proper began. Iwanoff’s belief that architecture was an art would have produced distinctive buildings anyway, but he succeeded in channeling his acquired disrespect for Australia’s architectural establishment into an unconventional architecture of concrete block. His Kessel House is a good example. You can see interior photographs and other work by Iwan Iwanoff on Andrew Murray’s blog perthsbest, and also here and here.

Harold Krantz & Robert Sheldon employed Iwanoff in 1950 when he first arrived, and again in 1965 when he returned from Melbourne. Krantz & Sheldon are notable in their own right. They pioneered European architectural styles in Perth and were prolific designers of apartment blocks. [Harold Krantz will be Architecture Misfit #27.]

Mt. Eliza Apartments, Krantz & Sheldon, 1964
3/71 Mount Street, Perth

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My favourite Krantz & Sheldon building, I seem to have admired it forever and, as it was constructed in 1964, probably have. It was the first circular apartment building in Australia, Western Australia’s first modern apartment block and at the time Perth’s 2nd tallest building. Emporis tells me it has 25 apartments, two per floor for floors two through eleven and one each for the top five. The prime location means these were never to be low-cost investment apartments. This real estate listing will hopefully still take you around the interior of one which is as you’d expect.

What’s surprising is not only the extreme economy of plan and structure but how fully integrated they are. These guys were good. Never before have I seen a core where the elevator lobby, access corridor and escape stairwell landing are one and the same thing. Never before have I seen a building where the water tank is part of the design. This is no stylistic affectation as structurally the water tank is in the best possible place. Moreover, that water tank is oversized as the building is on the highest ground in Perth and thus above the level of the nearby Mt. Eliza Service Reservoir.

Speaking of water, Krantz & Sheldon were also responsible for Windsor Towers on other side of Perth Water and which can be glimpsed at the end of the street in the view above.

Windsor Towers, Krantz & Sheldon, 1966
9 Parker Street, South Perth

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There are four apartments per floor, as you’d expect. Estate agent websites show no apartment plans but what I really wanted to see was how the core is organised.

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The false floor addition makes the view more accessible and the windows non-compliant.

It’s odd nothing taller has been built since. Windsor Towers seems to have become to South Perth what Tour Monparnasse is to Paris. I don’t think it’s due to its scant twenty stories. Its original European White has been overpainted Pale Heritage-y Ochre but the absence of balconies and the egalitarian pinwheel ignoring the pull of the view both mark this building as unAustralian.

Accordingly, there’s a proposal to fully assimilate this building by giving all apartments balconies that add value and restore the Australian birthright to barbecue.

It makes me want to be a planning officer so I could refuse permission on the grounds of the proposal destroying the building’s pinwheel integrity. I would helpfully suggest rotationally-symmetrical balconies on axis with the arms. I would menacingly suggest creating outdoor areas by subtracting volume from the living areas.

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Except for when they appear on postcards of capital cities, high buildings and high densities are repectively deemed American or European and thus unAustralian. The City of Subiaco is a local municipality three kilometers from central Perth. Its planning guidelines limit residential development to four storeys as anything higher is deemed not in keeping with the heritage nature of the town centre. Refer to the Draft Subiaco Activity Centre Plan if you enjoy reading planning guidelines and pondering their logic.

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This is what happens.

Policies such as these fuel outer-suburb development and pressure inner suburbs to be re-developed at higher densities. The left side of this aerial view of Osborne Park shows residential blocks with a single house while the right side shows blocks the same size block redeveloped with four.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

Glick House
18 Tennyson Street, Leederville

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

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

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

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• • •

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

• • •

Misfits’ Guide to MILAN

The 20th century chronology of attention-getting buildings is over represented by America. It was only Le Corbusier who presented a sustained individual challenge to total American architectural dominance. Sustained national challenges were mounted by Scandinavia, Japan and Italy but, whether we were paying attention or not, Italy never ceased being a source of architectural intelligence and construction excellence. In Milan, I will look for evidence to back up this claim.

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1915–1925

Ca’ BruttaVittorino Colonnese, Giovanni Muzio, Pier Fausto Barelli, 1922
Via della Moscova, Milano

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This perimeter apartment block was one of the first reinforced concrete frame buildings in Italy. It had underground car parking, and heating and hot water were centrally provided. It lack of ornament borrowed from the Secessionists in reacting to Art Nouveau but earned it the name ‘Ugly House’.  What ornament there was was variously accused of being inconsistent, playful, ironic, a detachment from reality, a primitive mysticism and a reaction to rationality. Decades later, bizarrely and without irony, post-modernists would scour this pre-modern building for proof they were right. Papers would be written. 

Palazzo dell’ArteGiovanni Muzio
Viale Alemagna 6, Milano
 

Another Muzio building. Whether by coincidence, contemporaneity, association, design, or sheer bad luck, this building gets described as fascist architecture even though masonry arches with little or no decoration are typical of Muzio whose style seemed fully formed with his 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte and wasn’t noticeably different thirteen years later with his Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo. I think I’d prefer to see Ignzaio Gardella’s 1934 proposal there instead. Either would be unthinkable now.

1925-35

Casa Toninello, Guiseppe Terragni
Via Perasto 3, Milano

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The upper floor has been filled in but this building is still doing what it was meant to do.

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This period was the one where Rationalist design met urban verncaular construction to became mainstream. This suggests that Rationalism and its emphasis on structure and configuration was a more useful way of understanding the same technical advances than was style. The result is that many of these buildings look very ordinary today. They’re easy to pass by. This is either a virtue or a failing, depending on what you expect of buildings in a city.

Casa dei GiornalistiGiovanni Muzio
via Appiani, 23-25, Milano

This is the third of five Muzio buildings here, all except the Palazzo dell’Arte being within a few hundred metres of each other and each on a prominent intersection. This suggests a close connection with a local landowner. Note with this one how the end windows are slightly larger. We find this strange, as if expression and denial are the only two choices.

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Casa Rustici-Comolli, Giuseppe Terragni
Guglielmo Pepe 32, Milano

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Check those paired side balconies executed as a reinforced concrete truss. We’re looking at an idea we are to see again in Casa Rustica.

Casa Ghiringhelli, Guiseppe Terragni, 1933-35
Piazzale Lagosta 2, Milano

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Here we see the protruding central portion of the previous two Terragni buildings, as well as paired central balconies on the symmetrical main facade. The top floor is again set back and defined as was the original roof on Casa Toninello. The same pieces are being continunally rearranged according to site, program and budget. There’s no compulsion to be inventive beyond that. These four buildings are in the same corner of town, again suggesting either a single landowner or word-of-mouth referrals between local landowners.

asa LavezzariGuiseppe Terragni, 1934-35
piazza Morbegno 3, Milano

This one’s a favourite, and for that reason.

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Following the streets allows rectilinear construction except for the elevator lobby and entrance hallways where it is an asset, and for the stairwell where it doesn’t matter.

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Casa al Villaggio dei giornalisti (House in Milan)Figini & Pollini, 1933–35
via Perrone di San Martino 8, Milano

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This is all we get to see of this house that previously appeared in the Pilotis post. You can find more information and the plans on www.ordinearchitetti.mi.it.

Casa Bonaiti, Giovanni Muzio, 1935-36
Piazza della Repubblica, Milan

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These apartments are of the same time as Muzio’s other ones and solve much the same problem using a symmetrical layout with various adjustments. It was here I first began to notice the Milanese love for balcony planting. You’ll see many impressive and sometimes extreme examples.

Partly because of this and partly because Stefano Boeri is Milanese, I began to warm to his Bosco Verticale, a building I’d previously thought overly tricksy. The planting on this building is only slightly more outrageous than much of what you will see on balconies around town. I noticed that taller trees are prevented from blowing over by ventical cable stays suspended from the balconies above.

Bosco Verticale is part of a much larger new commercial centre development called Porta Nuova, west of Repubblica.

Off to one side of the park area beside Boscso Verticale is this building that looked rather interesting and built to last.