Category Archives: Not Rocket Science

useful knowledge that has been either neglected, ignored, forgotten or discarded for high-energy solutions

Rocket Science

The Rocket Stove is the application of pure thought to solve a problem that affects the health and lives of about one third of the world’s population.

Smoke from cooking fires kills two million persons per year, mostly mothers and small children. Stoves and open fires are the primary means of cooking and heating for nearly three billion people. In India, some 400,000 people die each year from the toxic fumes. In Africa, 500,000 children under the age of five die from pneumonia attributable to indoor air pollution, according to the WHO. Most of these deaths are attributable to cooking indoors over a three-stone cooking fire.


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The Aprovecho Research Center

For over 30 years, Aprovecho Research Center (ARC) consultants have been designing and implementing improved biomass cooking and heating technologies in more than 60 countries worldwide. The Center was formally established in 1976, and is dedicated to researching, developing and disseminating clean cookstove technologies for meeting the basic needs of refugees, impoverished people, and communities in the developing world. For decades, ARC has been the world’s leader in open source development of all aspects of improved cooking stoves.


Dr. Larry Winiarski works for the Aprovecho Research Centre. He’s known as the inventor of The Rocket Stove but it’s more correct to say he identified the principles that a Rocket Stove makes use of to work as efficiently and elegantly as it does .


  • Air flows in from the fuel intake and is pre-heated for better combustion
  • The fuel partially blocks the air intake, allowing for a better fuel/air ratio.
  • The intake air is preheated for more efficient combustion.
  • Fuel burns horizontally at the bottom of the combustion chamber. Any smoke is drawn upwards through a high temperature zone, ensuring more complete combustion.
  • More complete combustion means less smoke.

  • The stove can burn relatively green wood. Moisture near the surface of the wood turns to steam that, when it comes into contact with hot charcoal, forms CO and H2 which are both combustible. Their combustion reaction further increases the temperature of the high-temperature zone, to ensure even more complete combustion, and even less smokeDr. Winiarski explains the mechanisms of combustion and heat transfer in this paper.

“One of the first things to recognize is that solid or liquid material does not burn directly. It must be converted to gasses in order to burn. Most biomass is hydrocarbons which, when heated convert to oil and oil vapors of many different types. Some oils such as fragrances, turpentine are visible or smelled even before the biomass is heated. Green, wet wood may contain as much as its dry weight in water and, in order to burn water, must be evaporated. Up to about 1000 BTUs of energy is used to evaporate each pound of water. At sea level and atmospheric pressure, the temperature of boiling water is limited to 212 degrees fahrenheit.

“Similarly heat energy must be provided to evaporate or distill each of the hydrocarbons formed from the wood. The lighter hydrocarbons are easier to change to the gas phase, heavier hydrocarbons like creosote take more energy, however if too much fuel surface is heated and the gases cool before they can intermingle and ignite with hot air or oxygen they will condense back into a fog our cloud of oil droplets. This is the smoke we see. It is analogous to the fog or cloud that forms when water vapor condenses. Heat must re-evaporate the oil droplets before they can burn. After the many different types of oils are combusted only charcoal remains. The hot charcoal first reacts with oxygen to form gaseous carbon monoxide. Then the carbon monoxide burns with the air to make carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is the final result of a clean burn. Smoke and carbon monoxide are wasted fuel.”

  • Twigs and other types of low-grade wood scraps not normally classed as firewood have a proportionally larger surface area to supply fuel for these reactions.
  • Low-grade scrap wood works better than high-grade firewood.

  • The horizontal burning of the wood allows for better monitoring and tending.
  • The stove can be designed to have an angled gravity feed.
  • Variations can be made to have a secondary heating “element
  • The flue can be vented through a thermal mass element that functions as a heat storage device for space heating.


  • The stove can be made for practically nothing. 

  • You can make one yourself out of three cans.


  • Four concrete blocks.
  • About 30 bricks.


  • You can make a rocket-stove inspired architectural feature if you like.


  • But, judging by the size of that air/fuel opening and the type/size/shape of fuel, it won’t function as efficiently one made of mud and using twigs for fuel.


• • •


Dr. Larry Winiarski & The Aprovecho Research Center

for having an idea for an object that’s as perfect as an object can be
and for releasing it to the world to be used wherever it brings benefit

misfits salutes you!

It’s Not Rocket Science #12: Getting Some Rays


Socrates disapproved of that new craze for writing things down. He thought people who used reed pens and papyrus to write things down no longer made any effort to remember.


Despite Socrates’ misgivings, Plato did manage to remember a thing or two in The Republic.


Xenophon was another furtive note-taker. He recalls Socrates describing the perfect house.

  1. oriented towards the south to take in the sun,
  2. an overhang to block the summer but allow it in winter, and
  3. a sloping roof to protect from prevailing cold winds from the north.


“It is pleasant to have one’s house cool in summer and warm in winter, is it not?” and this proposition also having obtained assent, “Now, supposing a house to have a southern aspect, sunshine during winter will steal in under the verandah, but in summer, when the sun traverses a path right over our heads, the roof will afford an agreeable shade, will it not? If, then, such an arrangement is desirable, the southern side of a house should be built higher to catch the rays of the winter sun, and the northern side lower to prevent the cold winds finding ingress; in a word, it is reasonable to suppose that the pleasantest and most beautiful dwelling place will be one in which the owner can at all seasons of the year find the pleasantest retreat, and stow away his goods with the greatest security.”

Thanks to Alex in Copenhagen for sending me that quote and prompting this post on receiving sufficient daylight. Thanks also to Dennis Holloway for the above image plus additional insights as he’s already written the brief history of solar design I thought I was going to. He notes that when Socrates was making the above statements circa 400BC, there was a shortage of firewood in Greece. It seems a human trait to talk about saving energy only when there looks like being less of it around.


The firewood shortage can’t have ended because Greek houses came to be oriented with their courtyards to the south. As did courtyards in many other times and places.

We may think a sunny courtyard a pleasant place for lunch al fresco but, back then, a sunny courtyard would function better as a place for drying foodstuffs and preserve them as an early form of food security. For shelter however, a courtyard on the south side means less obstruction to low-angle sunlight hitting the windows and walls of the living spaces. The invention of courtyards was a good idea that made things better.

In early 20th century Europe, things weren’t getting better. The commodity with the largest shortage was space. The housing density was so high courtyards became light wells only without much light. (These next few images are from Karel Teige’s The Minimum Dwelling.)

Here’s a new building in Madrid 1930. It has one staircase and one elevator for 1,500 people. Five out of six apartments have no windows other than across those 3m gaps. Spatially, what’s happened is that the floor of the corridors has been partially removed to create lightwells. Grim.


This next building was also built in 1930. It tries to get the light right, as well as space. This was a constant theme of certain architects in Europe and Russia.

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And not just there, in LA there was Richard Neutra’s Lovell House completed in 1927 just prior to the practical completion of Le Corbusier’s sunlight providing machine in Poissy.  Misfits’ man-on-the-spot in Brussels, Karel Teige, reports on the goings-on at the Third CIAM Conference with the them of “Low-, medium- or high-rise dwellings”.

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(Modernism had barely begun and Walter Gropius was shifting its emphasis away from its core goals of the quantitative provision of space and light and towards his version of “social and psychological” fulfilment. This makes Gropius the first Post Modernist.)

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Richard Neutra moved to America in 1923. Neutral was a man who saw the bigger picture and did not become a refugee like Gropius, a collaborator like Le Corbusier or,  like Mies van der Rohe, both.


In 1920, three years after joining what was to become the Nazi party, Hitler organised its biggest ever meeting of 2,000 people. Hitler Youth was a reality in 1922, the SS in 1923. Time to leave.

I do like Teige’s summary of the 3rd CIAM and can’t help noticing how true it still is.

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Despite the jostling at the 1930 CIAM, daylight moved higher up the architectural agenda and some architects worked to ensure people had a certain amount of light where they lived. It didn’t take long for them to arrive at building solutions that provided people with sufficient light and space.

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Gropius did do some work on the heights and spacings of buildings but only to make a case for the higher buildings we wanted to design. The consistent sun altitude of 30° meant all his alternatives were equal in terms of sunlight.

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More useful was the work Hannes Meyer did for a trade school in Bernau, near Berlin. This is starting to look familiar.

Meyer Sunlight

In another post I’ve mentioned this next image which seems to be the calculations to go with a  diagram such as the one above. I don’t know of anyone else who was concerned about things like this in 1926, before CIAM and the official architectural agenda.


Here’s another light-inspired design from the 1920s. This is one of Moisei Ginzburg’s designs for communal housing. It features multiple staircases that function as inclined light wells. Here’s the principle.

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Here’s how it worked.

These inclined light wells direct sunlight to places that would otherwise not receive any. Moreover, the cascading staircases connect everybody to the communal floors in a way that makes everyone feel directly connected all the time. These staircases are doing two important things that elevators can’t. Compared to the earlier Spanish example that partially subtracts  floors yet gives back nothing, this building makes the communal rooms additionally function as corridors and the stairs additionally function as lightwells. This is a good example of a nutritious building that does the shelter thing well. Intelligence was applied to produce new benefits from simple and uncomplicated technologies.

This new recognition of the importance of sunlight in buildings was responsible for regulations to ensure minimum quantities of sunlight depending on the type of building. The goal was to achieve a minimum quantitative standard using a minimum of resources and it was generally successful in the eastern European countries and Russia. Let’s go to Yekaterinburg where, in midwinter, it’s daylight for seven hours 9 til 4.


Misfits’ man-in-Yekaterinburg, Victor, supplied me with the following information on the Sanytarnye Pravila i Normy (Sanitary Regulations and Norms) issued by the Russian Health Ministry. Here’s some extracts relating to sunlight in apartments. (СанПиН 2.2.1_2.1.1.1076-01)

SanPiN 2.2.1/ The following have to be met by at least one room in the apartment.

  • north of 58° N – at least 2.5 hours a day between 22nd of April and 22nd of August
  • 58°N – 48°N – at least 2 hours a day between 22nd of March and 22nd of September
  • south of 48°N – at least 1.5 hours a day between 22nd of February and 22nd of October.

SanPiN 3.1 Insolation requirements must be met by at least 1 room of 1 to 3-room apartments, and at least 2 rooms of 4 or more-room apartments.

SanPiN 3.3 Interrupted insolation is acceptable but if the span of any period of interruption is over 1 hour, the summary insolation must be increased by 0.5 hours.

I like how balconies and overhangs are factored in.

Here’s an article highlighting the current state of those Russian San-Pin regulations. The gist is that such strict control over the quantity of sunlight is no longer needed for the purpose of preventing tuberculosis. The author asks, “Why is it that only one of the rooms should have sunlight, and then only in summer?”  The author notes that quantity of sunlight is no longer a health issue but an issue of quality that does not need to be enforced by health regulations. Even in googletranslish the meaning is clear.


Insolation has long ceased to be sanitary requirements, becoming a qualitative characteristic property. A qualitative characteristics should not be regulated SanPin and technical regulations, it is not a security setting. In fact, the degree of illumination apartments only affects its price – if it is dark, it is a reason to ask for a big discount on the sale. And normalized insolation in buildings under construction does not make sense: if the developer wants to make due to the higher density, it will inevitably lose in the price of real estate. So it’s just a matter of agreement the seller and buyer, the issue price and quality, there is still a question of honesty of the seller and buyer awareness of what he buys.

This is true, but housing undersupply also tends to make landlords adopt a “take it or leave it” approach, giving potential residents little or no power to negotiate lower prices. Undersupply also results in extreme buildings such as the Spanish example or Kowloon’s walled city (mentioned on ArchDaily in 2013) that was only demolished in 1994. Greg Girard‘s site has some excellent photographs of what architects now know as slum porn.

The market approach however, is generally what we have. The reason why ratings systems such as LEED include standards for building daylighting is to change the way buildings are built yes but also to increase the value of buildings.

  1. It’s not about the people because the standards relating to daylight provision can be satisfied just as easily by making the rooms smaller.
  2. And it’s not about the planet because those standards can be satisfied equally well by expensive means or inexpensive means.

Expensive vanity buildings built for no great purpose seem to regularly achieve LEED Platinum. At first it seems ironic that a building should become more “green” the more money that’s thrown at them but, if the objective of building rating systems is to increase building value, then a high rating accurately indicates a high-value building. It all depends on one’s definition of value.

There’s no incentive to use inexpensive materials and resources or simple and readily available technologies. The danger here is that people might lose the incentive to provide quantitative light through inexpensive means. Why make the effort if the system is against you? Instead, they might choose to satisfy requirements using whatever means are most cost-efficient, despite their cost. People might even stop trying to achieve the quantitative supply of light and instead work towards achieving “qualitative” supply of light because it adds more value. If that happens, we will be heading for another dark age.


a non-compliant habitable room

It’s Not Rocket Science #11: Keeping the Water Out

Back in February 2013 I wrote about the ancient Persian yakchal buildings for making ice in winter and storing it until summer.


These buildings used a combination of night sky radiant cooing in conjunction with the thermal mass and insulating properties of mud brick. I wrote

Insulation: The walls of the dome were at least two metres thick at the base, and made of mud brick coated with a special waterproofing mortar composed of sand, clay, egg whites, lime, goat hair, and ash. This render had excellent insulating properties. I can’t find any information for how the optimum ingredients or mix for the mortar were discovered. I can imagine the goat hair may have functioned like the glass fibres do in fibreglass, but what properties do the egg whites add to the render? And how did anyone know they had those properties? 

Erica [Ritter] Wisner tracked me down and kindly explained what’s going on. It’s more fascinating than I’d imagined.

I suggest an answer in two parts:

Protein gels and starch gels are among the general categories of materials known to be compatible with clay-based plaster mixtures. Bodily fluids of all kinds have been used as paint fixatives and binders since the stone age; traces of blood, saliva, urine, egg, milk, etc. have been found in ancient petroglyphs and cave art. Vegetable materials like cactus juices/gels, wheat paste, and oils are also used.These binders are still used for natural paints, some more than others, and also can be added to finish plasters to make them more durable or more compatible with a given paint.  

For clay-based plaster work, these materials act as improved binders, adding hardness and resistance to erosion (and sometimes also for glossier finishes). Proteins and starch gels can be used in larger proportions than oils, without disrupting the clay-based bonds which makes an earthen plaster work. Clay swells with moisture to seal out further erosive moisture incursion; using too much oil (or mixing with too much Portland cement) reduces this self-sealing property, while the natural gel-type materials can work in tandem with the clay in a similar way. This wet-condition self-sealing prevents water erosion, yet allows breathability and release of moisture in dry conditions.

It’s not hard to see why the plaster for the ice domes should be extra erosion resistant.  Most desert climates are subject to the occasional storm deluge. The cold of the ice could also cause increased moisture condensation, and possibly (in combination with night-time cooling) lead to frost damage. The process you suggested of covering with straw would also call for a durable finish plaster.
Eggs are definitely in this category, one of the higher-performing additives for hardening natural paints and plasters. They are expensive but highly effective. 

But why egg whites particularly?

Egg whites are one of those things that get left over when someone is using egg yolks elsewhere. Egg yolk is an emulsifier, contains richer-tasting oils, and in general has more food value than egg whites. Egg yolks are used as an emulsifier and binder in natural paints, most famously the Italian frescos. Egg white is a protein gel. Its ability to hold a froth suggests relatively tough long-chain molecules such as are also found in glutinous flour and plastic polymers. 

Its very dearth of nutritive value might be a plus for structural uses, since it would not be as “tasty” to vermin as the whole egg. You would be in a better position than I am to verify whether the Persians used large quantities of egg yolk in paints, desserts, or other artisan or culinary uses, but I would not be surprised. There are just not that many natural emulsifiers that are as easily identified and produced. 

This I did. There’s a kind of Persian quiche that’s fairly popular but this next dish is also good candidate for producing a surfeit of egg whites.

Chelow kabab or Chelo kabab (Persian: چلوکباب‎) is the national dish of Iran. The meal is simple, consisting of steamed, saffroned basmati or Persian rice (چلو chelow) and kabab, of which there are several distinct Persian varieties. It is an old north-western tradition that a raw egg yolk be placed on top of the rice.


Erica also provided a conjectural history for the origins of yakhchal.

You are an ancient Persian entrepreneur, working on a building design that basically makes its own weather. You run into plaster/mortar performance problems, and after a few experiments, you call on a local master plaster-and-paint artist for help with the formulation of a high-performing plaster. He might be recommended by your patrons because his family did the excellent and durable plaster work on a favorite folly, or an artist of good reputation who also does decorative fresco, faux-painting, mural, and sculptural plaster. As a master tradesman, one would expect him already to know a number of excellent plaster formulae for both indoor and outdoor work. He would know the value, use, and price of performance-enhancing additives. He might even be in the position to personally procure significant quantities of egg whites at the right price, after using the egg yolks in mural or fresco projects for other high-end clients.

I haven’t found any examples of ancient Persian frescoes but the frescoes in the Baptistry of the Dura-Europa Church in Syria are probably the oldest Christian paintings in existence, dating as they do from sometime between 233 and 256AD. Here’s Christ walking on water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe nearby Dura-Europaos Synagogue also dates from 250AD but its paintings were painted onto dry plaster and so technically aren’t frescoes.

Goat hair (or any animal hair) is a very common ingredient in both lime and clay-based plasters. The cheaper clay-based plasters often use straw or dung for the cellulose-type fiber, but animal hair lasts longer, is finer to work with, and makes it easier to get a solid, erosion-resistant, crack-free surface with plenty of fiber and binder. Any of the materials you mentioned would be stock-in-trade for a master craftsman in an era where natural plasters were state of the art.

Erica also mentioned anecdotal suggestions that the civilizations of the Middle East used blood to strengthen mortars (the Western sailors’ rumors being that it was slaves’ blood). There remains a high-end Spanish technique for earthen floor finishing using bulls’ blood, freshly slaughtered onto the floor.

I don’t have a Spanish example, but traces of blood were found in this clay floor from mid-18th century Montpelier. Here’s the floor, reconstructed.

clay_floor_dm_jpg_42010-60 In countries with a history of the ritual slaughter of animals, it’s easy to imagine how blood would be used to waterproof clay floors. As a general rule, if your dishwasher or washing machine struggle to remove it, then it’s probably a good candidate for a natural binder for a paint or plaster. 

So much for clay-based plasters and renders. Tadelakt (a transliteration of the Arabic “تدلاكت”, meaning “massaged”or “rubbed”) is a traditional Moroccan waterproof surface created by polishing a lime-based plaster with a stone and then rubbing it olive oil soap into it. The olive oil soap provides oleic acid which, I learn, is “a fatty acid that occurs naturally in various animal and vegetable fats and oils.” Making tadelakt is very labour intensive and time consuming.

Tadelakt-ouarzazate-morocco-1 This example is probably synthetic tadelakt as it looks rather high-end with those recessed halogens. We’ve know the look of tadelakt even if we’ve never seen the real thing.

Les Grands Bains du Monêtier, le hammam Another reason for tadelakt substitutes is that the real thing is made from tadelakt lime washed downstream from the Marrakech Plateau. Over at realfinishes, Patrick Webb writes

The limestone is argillaceous, meaning it contains a relatively high percentage of clay. Also, there is a small infiltration of amorphous silica making Tadelakt lime slightly hydraulic. Combining its natural properties with traditional application methods, Tadelakt’s waterproofing qualities were subsequently put to decorative use in exterior façades, small drinking vessels and famously the “hammams” or public bath houses.

moroccan.plasterer writes of the medluk of Fez, quoting David Amster’s site A House in Fez,

“…the outer walls of houses were finished with medluk, made of extremely fine sand, lime (jeer), egg white, and sabon beldi (traditional soft soap made from olive by-products). Medluk develops a beautiful marbled effect over time. Simple geometric patterns are sometimes pressed or carved into the medluk. In Marrakech this mixture is called tadlakt, which is slightly finer and shinier due to the difference in the sand and lime from the two cities.

These fine regional distinctions and different names for the same substance or technique are typical of vernacular. Erica suggested there might be some similarly fortuitous geology upstream to account for the Yemeni people’s many ways with render.

11yemen-span-articleLarge-v3I wonder about that waterproofing material derived from river sediment. Is it because of the size of particles, the sifting action of the river? Something the water deposits along with the minerals that makes it work better, like a hard water or algae coating on the silt particles?  I wouldn’t be surprised. I returned to Salma Samar Damluji’s The Architecture of Yemen – my only reference.

51IA7URwmvL._SY300_The transliterations of the various names in Arabic below probably barely approximate the regional Yemeni Arabic but it’s not going to matter. All I want to show is the detail, the many classifications and the regionality of the thing named, and a glimpse of the general knowledge, built up over centuries, of the properties of local materials. The builders may not know why sand taken from a certain river at a certain time has those properties but they’ve learned how to make good use of them.

  • khulb: the general term for mud coating but the quality depends upon the type of turab (earth or clay) and the place of its extraction.
  • khulbah: a mixture of earth and water used for plastering the exterior of a flat roof. Inside, khulbah is mixed from soft or ‘light’ mud with water and used for plastering or finishing the walls.
  • tibil: the chopped straw, hay or chaff mixed with clay to make mud bricks
  • haddah: soft stalks of the tamarind tree mixed with clay to make mud bricks
  • mahdah: mud plastering carried out in the kitchen and living room during the month of Sha’ban.
    • In the area of Ghayl Ba Wazir, the mud is extracted from the saylah flood course silt that is fine and viscid.
    • In Yafi, a white-coloured earth from mountains called quri is known to give the best results. It is strengthened with wheat, chaff or animal dung.
  • qiddah: used for damp proofing. It is made by quarrying stone, cutting it into small pieces, firing it over wood and then burying it until it turns to a fine powder which is then mixed with water and small pebbles.
  • qatat: a grey-blue coloured clay extracted from the bed of Ghayl Habban in the area of Ghurayr and mixed with fine bullrushes to make a damp-proof course.
  • nays: sea sand
  • ruwaynah: fine red sea sand with soft grain
  • kafi nafsahu:  sea sand with medium-sized grains that doesn’t require mixing with any other kind of sand
  • nurah: a refined lime whitewash and plaster used as a damp-proof course. In some places, nurah is used internally and polished with a stone as with Moroccan tadelakt. After burning, nurah is pounded and left to soak and “ferment” before being beaten to a creamy paste.

nurah is generally preferred by master builders as it takes other plasters and renders better than cement, is malleable for longer, ages well without losing its shape and hardens over time. The downside is it takes much longer to dry. Small sections of wall have to be left for maybe as much as two months. This means a house rendered in nurah takes three years to build whereas one using cement render takes only one year. The general trend is for cement-based mortars and renders to replace traditional renders.

It is a similar story with paints. The Buqshun Palance is the major building in Khalyah. It was overpainted with oil-based “emulsion” rather than rendered with time-consuming nurah and its inherently softer pastels.

This is the fate of the vernacular. The same process that led people to use one type of sand taken from a particular river at a particular time to produce a building more suited to immediate but largely unchanging circumstances, is the same process that leads people to eschew it in favour of another product with obvious advantages for circumstances newly immediate. We do it all the time and call it progress but, if cement render, oil-based paint and, for that matter, parametric rainscreens were to disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow, there’d still be some people who could make good use of what’s at hand to keep the water out.
• • •

It’s Not Rocket Science #10: Integrated Sanitation and Nutrition

1969: Apollo 11 photographs such as this one were a new way of looking at Earth and making its inhabitants feel special, if a little isolated.

earth-in space

They also heightened awareness of our planet being a self-contained bubble and in the early 1970s, something called “environmental pollution” was identified as a bit of a problem. See here for a brief history of polluting the planet. We’ve come a long way.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada.

1971: The movie Silent Running was set

in a future where all flora is extinct on Earth. An astronaut is given orders to destroy the last of Earth’s botany, kept in a greenhouse aboard a spacecraft.

Woooo man, that’s heavy!


But it’s good people began to think about the long-term consequences of this thing called pollution. Silent Running is “a sci-fi classic”. It’s also dire. It’s future scenario is nowhere near as dismal as the movie itself. Everything about it is bad: the premise, the casting, the acting, the plot, the costumes, Bruce Dern’s facial hair, Bruce Dern’s hair, the mysterious ubiquity of gravity and, well, hell, it’s technical consultation in general.


The lead spaceship is the Valley Forge, it’s very name a metaphoric minefield. Imagine arch-metabolist Kiyonori Kikutake’s Expo ’70 Expo Tower recumbent.


Recycling was in the air already it seems – and just as well.


1973: With the First Oil Crisis, the mood was gloomier but more real. Professor Frank Bowerman was technical consultant for the movie Soylent Green.


With the world ravaged by the greenhouse effect and overpopulation, an NYPD detective investigates the murder of a CEO with ties to the world’s main food supply.


Professor Frank R. Bowerman was

former director of environmental engineering programs, at the University of Southern California, and former president of the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and the American Academy for Environmental Protection. 

They named the mother of all landfills after him, but that’s another story.


We don’t know the content of Professor Bowman’s technical consultations but, given the theme of the movie, they’d have had something to do with an integrated waste and food cycle. [SPOLIER ALERT!]


These next people do it better, with fewer ethical problems but a lot less drama. It’s one of those occasional things that give one hope.

What’s not so encouraging is that it was 1988. The kids in this movie are maybe in their mid-30s now. I hope they made it. I haven’t heard much about the non-technology lately.


I think the reason why is that although we might say we’re concerned about food miles, shitting into a bioreactor is just too close for comfort. We say “Waste is a Valuable Resource” but we really don’t understand what it means to walk the walk. No matter how artificially it’s produced, we prefer the feelgood factor of a bit of homegrown and are going to endless lengths to keep the dream alive.


We’re simply too emotionally attached to eating plants to have time for scum like algae.

Since 1974, the United Nations has strongly supported Spirulina “as the best food for the future”,[44] and established the Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition in 2003.

Ever heard of it? I hadn’t either.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, both NASA (CELSS)[46] and the European Space Agency (MELISSA)[47] proposed Spirulina as one of the primary foods to be cultivated during long-term space missions.

What happened? They found out how to make coffee in space, and how to heat up pasta. Here’s a brief history of food in space. One of the first off-planet misdemeanours we know about was when the crew of Gemini III snuck a corned beef sandwich on their spaceflight. 

2014: “Interstellar”. 


A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.  

Now why would they want to do this? Yep, Earth’s screwed. Again. It’s food is running out. The wheat is blighted, the okra’s out. Every able body is needed to help grow corn. tells us that

part of the space exploration that takes place in Interstellar happens because we are in need of new soil to grow crops. 



But CORN! They’re growing corn FFS! Old habits die hard. If they die at all. Here’s the nutritional data for maize – “corn” if you like.


Here’s a corn yield calculator. Do the mathematics and it’ll be clear


Those first photographs of Earth from space made people think of our planet as “Spaceship Earth”. It was a good thing. But if spaceship food is nutritionally adequate but in culturally comforting shapes, colours and textures, then the future of nutrition on earth (as well as architecture, FWIW) doesn’t look that promising either. If ever somewhere (other than Earth, that is) needed an integrated sanitation and nutrition system it’s the International Space Station. Instead, everything gets frozen and compressed and brought back here.


Even if we accept that we’re only going to pay attention to high and expensive technology instead of the simple and inexpensive things that not only work but do some human good, the International Space Station is not setting a very good example for Spaceship Earth.


The Buildings Of YEMEN

This post is about buildings for Yemeni by Yemeni. This is the town of Al Hajarayn.

Al Hajarayn

A bunch of boxy brown buildings covering a barren hilltop ought to be ugly but it’s not. What we’re seeing is the beauty not of repetition but of variations on a theme. We’re seeing similarities of colour, of patterns of windows, of shape, of alignment, positioning and size. As well as all that, we’re also picking up on something else these buildings and their environment have in common. Some writers might say, “they share a certain rugged beauty”. Except these buildings are not trying to be beautiful. Here’s some more views.

Yemeni towns tend to be on hilltops if they can. It’s nice to see when you’re about to have visitors.


It’s also good to be near a fertile bed (wadi) of an intermittent river. This next is Ar Rihab, still thriving.


The town of Old Marib hasn’t fared so well. It was once the capital city of the Sabaean kingdom, the Sheba as in Queen of Sheba, according to some. Yemen is known for the excellence of its ancient water engineering. Irrigation made possible by the Marib Dam (circa 800BC) plus trading in frankinscense, myrrh and other spices with the Romans made the entire region prosper. The Romans called it arabia felix (Happy Arabia).

Yemen is regarded as the pre-Islamic historic homeland of the Arab peoples. The story goes that the many tribes spread out into the Arabian Peninsula after the dam breached. A new dam was more recently built close to the location of the old one, at the expense of Shaykh Zayed Bin Sulṭān Āl Nayhān, the late ruler of the United Arab Emirates, whose tribe resettled from Ma’rib to the present UAE some time in the 17th century. Marib itself limped on until the middle of the twentieth century.


You’ve probably seen photos of Shibam though. It’s doing fine.


Not least in part to its part in Pasolini’s 1974 “1001 Nights [“Il fiore delle mille e una notte”]. If you can imagine what that’s going to be like. Here’s a snippet.

Salma Samar Damluji (whom you shall meet later) says it was Pasolini and his movies that drew international attention to Shibam and prompted UNESCO to designate it, along with Sana’a, and Wadi Hadramut as World Heritage Sites. Not that that’s any kind of guarantee they’ll continue to exist. Aleppo is a World Heritage Site.

Shibham is all mud brick, some of it 100ft high. It’s mostly 500 years old but has only managed to become 500 years old because of continuous maintenance and repair. Around the back, there’s plumbing.


Just outside of Shibam is the Ba Jammall mosque. Wonderful. Whitewash is generally only used for mosques and palaces.

Shibam's Ba Jammall mosque

Even with a town like Shibam on flat ground, the height and clustering make a more compact city easier to wall and defend, but beyond that, it also makes for a better microclimate through self-shading. It seems that only the tops of the buildings are painted white because that’s the part that needs to reflect sun the most. If so, that’s very clever. The famous frontal view faces due south. Check it out. 15°55′36.98″N 48°37′36.01″E Deep set windows provide sufficient shading. The walls are thick the windows small.

We need more information. It’s time to refer to Salma Samar Damluji’s excellent book, The Architecture of Yemen – From Yafi to Hadramut. 


The Architecture of Yemen

Damluji’s book isn’t a glossy guide. It’s the result of measured surveys and discussions with builders. It attempts to document the lesser known buildings of places you and I will never visit but can hopefully appreciate and maybe learn something from.  There are regional variations in size, shape, layout and decoration but I’ll only deal with generalities here. Place names won’t mean much without a map.

Nevertheless, here’s a modest house in Shu’ayb. It’s a classic plan.


We like to think our houses and plans are tailored to suit us and only us and how we want to live but we’re kidding ourselves. Most people have much the same space and spatial connection requirements as most other people.

If you live in the UK, it’s quite common for people to buy an “unimproved” terraced house and then change it to how they think they want to live in it. Mostly, this involves knocking down the wall between the original dining and living rooms, and extending the kitchen so it has a table and a skylight. As everyone else does. I see a lot of sense in the Yemeni way of just building some rooms of different sizes and allocating them according to what’s needed at the time, or the time of day, or whatever your family configuration is like at any given time. 

The ground floor is nearly always used for the storage of food and feed, and firewood if there’s any space left. The reception room is most likely to be the largest room on the first floor, with a kitchen in a smaller room adjacent. A family or women’s living room is most likely to be the largest room on the second floor, and any rooms on additional floors are likely to be used as bedrooms or just as rooms. Bathrooms are most likely to open off of the stairwell or a landing. These are the general rules but the living rooms can also be used as bedrooms. It’s all rather flexible. It seems that you build the house first, and then decide how to use it according to your family’s particular situation. It’s easy to imagine rooms being reallocated to make quarters for a recently married son. This is a very flexible way of doing things. It’s much better than flexibility achieved by moving walls.


I once lived in a four-storey terraced house in London. Ahh bless the internet! Here it is – 35E Gibson Square. My front door was the one behind the red car. The corner building and the two newbuild terraced houses that belatedly completed the full terrace were designed by James Gorst who’s done some good stuff. The basement was a bedroom and a bathroom. Ground floor was a hallway and dining room above the bedroom, and a kitchen above the bathroom. On the first floor was a living room the size of the hallway, dining room and kitchen and the second floor was identical to the basement. 

The basic principles of vernacular layout planning are still valid, even if we do have more bathrooms these days. The village of Jirbah. 

map of yemen

It’s north-east of Aden. Map.political-map-of-Yemen

Here’s a new house from 1963.

Untitled Untitled 4

As you’d expect with mud brick, walls are thicker at the bottom and become progressively thinner as you go up. These gently canted walls give the building a dignity and monumentality as a result of structural and materials concerns. The wall is not trying to look beautiful. Here’s a new building from 1968.

new house Interiors

The bands at floor height are characteristic of this region. We are not used to seeing a total absence of individual grandstanding and statement making.


This is Habban.


And this is the ‘most distinguished’ house in Habban.

Untitled 4

As you’d expect with mud brick, it’s walls on top of walls all the way up, with any span larger than 2m requiring columns. See that bit of inside-outside stuff happening on the fourth floor? And again on the 6th? They look like nice places to be.

Untitled 5 Untitled 6

Notice how the windows are low, with decorative niches above them for personal possessions?

Untitled 4

The blue coloured render is characteristic of this area. It’s a weatherproofing layer of render of sand mixed with fine bullrushes, the thicker ones having been used to strengthen the mud bricks. Yemeni architecture features many other types of renders and coatings made from mud combined with other substances and used for different purposes. The fine silt after floods is used to make a special render used in the same way we’d use bathroom and kitchen tiles. A render of ‘light mud’ is used as we would plaster. Another mixture is used as we’d use bitumen on a flat roof.

Yemen isn’t all mountain and desert towns. Here’s the port of Al Mukallah. If only Corbusier had come to Yemen instead of Marseilles!

Al Mukalla

This is the town of Kaninah in Wadi Hajr.

wadi hajr

This is a house in nearby Jul Ba Hawah.

It’s the same but different. There’s the same flexible allocation of rooms. In the case of this house, it’s the second floor that’s reserved for the eldest son, and family living takes place above that, with separate men’s and women’s living areas, although either or both may be pressed into dual usage as bedrooms or family living areas.

This is a town in Wadi Hajr. What do we really hope to achieve by talking any more about architecture? It’s all been worked out.

Wadi Hajr 2

Just outside of Sana’a is Dar Al Hajar (The Rock Palace). It’s the Sydney Opera House of Yemen. The palace could probably be defended more easily than many other buildings in the city, but I get the feeling the point of this palace is to show superiority and power rather than impregnability. Mediaeval castles showed a similar shift from actual defendability to the posturing of defendability. Ultimately, all it shows is “I am important and thus worth defending”. This attitude remains in our phrase “moral high ground”.


But just look at Sana’a! It’s  beautiful. It’s a different kind of beauty again from the other cities. It’s one of the oldest populated places on the planet and deserves respect. They might know a thing or two about buildings and urbanism. At 2,300m it’s also one of the highest capital cities. (Mexico City: 2,250m; Denver: 1,609m, in case you were wondering.)

Sana’a is pronounced with a hard S on Sa. Na is a long gutteral a ending in a glottal stop. صنعاء. ‎ Ṣanʿāʾ. Don’t confuse it with SANAA. Sana’a good, SANAA bad.

 • • •

In this post I’ve scanned and uploaded many images and there’s lots more to see and wonder at. The biggest wonder is “How did the Yemeni manage to make a built environment for themselves that we can only look at in awe and admiration?” Well, the country is the poorest in the Middle East. Yemeni society is deeply conservative and insular and these two characteristics will always work to retain building traditions that, frankly, nobody sees the need to change. Sure, there’ll be the one person who wants to paint their house white, but I don’t see much difference for the sake of difference beyond what we see in the ornament of Sana’a buildings.

Here’s Buqshan Palace, built 1955. It’s had a bit of a Bilbao effect for the village of Khaylah pop. now 35,000. Like the palace on the rock, it’s not representative and should not be what we remember of the buildings of Yemen.


It’s always better to judge the architectural intelligence of a country by their ordinary buildings and not by spectacular oddities.

The Yemeni long ago arrived at the best building solutions for their environment and circumstances and saw no need to change. Modernism, Post Modernism, and Deconstructivism all passed them by. No doubt whatever lies ahead for us will as well. The Yemeni have their built environment sorted. More buildings are of course being built out of concrete these days and, like in Egypt, there may come a time when Yemeni think living in mud-brick houses is primitive or old-fashioned. That day is still a way away.

 • • •

Ingenious and admirable as they are, we’re never going to learn from the Yemeni many ways with mud. We might however be able to learn something from their relationship with their buildings – perhaps if we designed our buildings more inflexibly we might be able to loosen up about how we used them. 

Perhaps. But I think the most important thing we can learn from these buildings is what a coherent built environment

  • constructed to suit a climate
  • with an understanding of the properties of the resources at hand
  • with an economy of means and materials
  • and a total absence of architectural pretentiousness

looks like. We’re having trouble even imagining what one could look like. The point of this post is to help us remember. For if we can’t imagine a coherent built environment and how it might be good for us, it’s unlikely we’re ever going to work towards getting one for ourselves.  

 • • •

Here’s a link to some landscapes from a hot air balloon.
This link takes you to more useful information about the buildings.

 • • •

Travel Tip: If you’re thinking of visiting, brush up on the politics. Here’s a 2010 NYT article but times change. You should be okay if you stay in Sana’a. If you venture out, carry an AK-47, try to blend in, keep an eye out for drones.


It’s Not Rocket Science #9: Natural Ventilation

Dhaka, Bangladesh is at 24.5°N, near the Tropic of Cancer. Its has 60 inches of rain, mostly in the hot and humid summer. Wind is mostly from the south-east.


Wind speed is higher in summer.


It’s no surprise then, that apartments are designed for natural ventilation, and for maximum cross ventilation for bedrooms.

1383805434_563971275_3-Urgent-Flat-Sale-Matikata-Dhaka-Cantonment-Hand-Over-June-14-Dhaka (1)

  • Typically, there are one, two or four apartments off of a single stair and elevator.
  • Apartments usually have windows on three sides which means the stair and landings can be naturally ventilated.
  • Additional ventilation on the fourth side is often provided via the open corridor.
  • All kitchens and all bathrooms are located on external walls, and have windows. This is the largest difference with a “western” apartment plan that would place them on access corridors walls in order to maximise daylight. Oh OK, “view (= $)”.
  • The walls of these service spaces also act as a thermal buffer.
  • Bedrooms are located on the outer corners where cross-ventilation is best. This means the living room gets positioned close to the entrance, with the dining area in the middle of the apartment. These spaces are neither dark nor stuffy, but sunlight and view is not a priority.

If the point is to have a good night’s sleep in such a climate and without the use of air conditioning, then there’s a lot that’s right about these apartment plans. The downside is that there is often little distance between living room (and sometimes bedroom) windows of neighbouring apartments.


Here’s a plan by noted Bangladeshi architect Rafiq Azam of Shattoto architects. The principles can still be seen there as the plan hasn’t been completely Westernised.


It’s for a project called Alif Breeze that’s been getting a bit of media attention. And rightly so – it does all the good stuff. 

Here’s a maxim I just invented: “Behind every successful architect there’s either a successful client or a successful property developer.” Here’s Shattoto’s S.A. House on Archdaily. It looks nice enough, and comes with all the right words.


I much prefer Shatotto’s South Water Caress, again on ArchDaily. Again, it’s doing all the right things. I wouldn’t overestimate the evaporative cooling effect of those signature pools but they at least give the impression of coolth to the people who look at them. Including us. (Although it’s not the done thing in many countries, I wouldn’t underestimate the evaporative cooling effect of hanging laundry outside one’s windows.)

Exposed concrete frame with brick infill is a nice and inexpensive way to build – especially when you don’t have to worry about thermal bridging. Rafiq Azam would qualify as a misfit were it not for the fact that these techniques are standard practice – a type of modern vernacular, as it were. At least they are for the property developers, the strategically-named South Breeze Housing. Look through their projects and you’ll find Alif Breeze and South Water Caress. Many of their other projects feature the same principles of construction and layout. This tells us that there is a market for apartments that are comfortable to live in.

south breeze housing


You’ll also see Shatotto’s South Water Garden which also does all the right things. It’s probably no fault of the architects that we (and everybody else) can see evaporative air conditioning units for the master bedrooms. The noise of these units will probably force people nearby to do the same. And that will be the beginning of the end of these comfortable and low-energy apartment layouts.


It’s Not Rocket Science #8: Repetition


Uniqueness is overrated, the quest for uniqueness unjustifiable. With buildings or any other product, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making the same thing exactly the same way again if it’s good, or trying to improve it if not. Many a fine building landscape developed just that way. You’ll remember this image from Architecture Without Architects.

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 56

Or, for a more contemporary image, how about this?

Astypalaeia KastroThere’s simply no need to force everything to be different when topographic and microclimatic response will suggest variations anyway. Economic and technological changes over time will do the same job for different places and over time. Instead, we kid ourselves that buildings are a consequence of their time and place when, in reality, it is a moveable feast.


How finely does the TIME & PLACE EXPRESSOMETER really need to be set? 

If, say, St. Mary Axe was such a great building solution, then WHY DON’T WE HAVE MORE THAN ONE?

How many times does the same building problem really need to be solved? 

noThis is more than just aversion to repetition. It’s addiction to difference and, until we overcome it, we’re unlikely to improve upon what we have. It’s worse with housing. Do our dwellings really express our individuality more so than, say, our other possessions, clothing, speech, languages, interests, activities or personalities do? We’re not encouraged to believe it’s possible to be a fully rounded human being yet still live in a dwelling the same as many others. Things like this don’t help.

millstone-home2 This post is about the virtue of repetition, of doing the same thing again, and of not being afraid to do the same thing again. Of not being afraid to admit that something wasn’t perfect the last time, and to change it only when it’s a good idea to do so. This is how things get better. Here’s a test. How do you feel about this image?

???????????????????????????????????????And how about this next image? I imagine that if you hadn’t seen the image above first, you would have felt the same way about this next one.

??????????????????????????????????????? Now how about this next one? Can we say that each house is different?


Obviously yes, but there’s still a sense in which we can think of them as all being the same. Worse, we all too easily extrapolate this to the people who live in them. No doubt those people all look different and do different things, but we all too easily think they all have much the same lives and do and think much the same things. It comes as a surprise then, to discover when it blows up that some innocuous house was in fact a meth lab. In Australia, this is not as surprising as you’d think.

OK. Compare these next two images. The upper one is chocolate-boxey and the lower one shoe-boxey but what else is different?

country houses weissenhof For what it’s worth, here’s a plan of the latter. They’re hard to come by. (Thanks Proyectos 4. Me gusta su websitio.)

torten-composicic3b3n The only difference I can see is that the buildings at the Törten Siedlung aren’t detached. Somewhere along the way, repetition became bad. This next building was good, and a fair attempt at something newish.

47 Unite d'habitation_dis

The four later iterations of the Marseilles Unité (1945) are nowhere near as well known. There was Unité d’Habitation Nantes-Rezé in 1952-5, Briey-en-Foret in 1956, Berlin in 1957 and Firminy in 1960. (See here.)


There was also to have been a fifth (or really, a co-third) iteration at Meaux in 1957, but it never happened. Here it is. Were its pilotis an improvement in any sense?


LC’s changes over the five iterations were minor and, if one may say so, not necessarily improvements. Here’s a corridor at Marseilles (1949)


and here’s a corridor at the Berlin Unité of 1957.


Neither have windows at the end where they could have. In Berlin, the distribution of apartment types changes, but this is likely to be a developer request. See?

Berlin Unité section and plans

Only two levels that have the famous double-height living room (blue). Their interlocking nonidentical twins have either height bedrooms (not coloured). There are also single-aspect single-storey studios (yellow) and single-aspect two-storey one-bedroom apartments (red).

Unite Typical Floor Plan

In all six iterations, LC kept the lateral bays that, because of how they complicate both access and fire escape, can only be there for compositional reasons. (Think about it. The Marseilles floor plan shown above occurs once every three levels. The stairwell at the top of the T must link sideways to short corridors on every other floor if the apartments they access are studio apartments.)

In other countries however, architects did try to improve upon the Marseilles unité. This is the Loughborough Estate in Brixton, London, designed in 1955 by Leslie Martin of the London County Council.


Martin seems to have solved that problem at Loughborough, as the short corridors on every floor are well lit and ventilated. I imagine the square side windows are kitchen windows – another improvement, but only for some apartments. Three of the nine slab block on the estate are like this.

Loughborough Estate

But all of this is to miss the most important feature. There are five identical slab buildings, not one. There are almost twenty identical point blocks at Roehampton Estate.

alton west

Irrespective of whether something is repeated on the same site, or in different places over time, there is a difference between the repeating of something useful and the repeating of something of doubtful use or desirability. It is not the repetition itself that is wrong, but the fact we don’t know how these basic units are each going to work individually. Example. We have our doubts, and rightly so.

vintage Superstudio project called "2,000 Ton City", 1971

Similarly with this next example. Leaving aside the fact that central Paris is razed in this 1923 Corbu reimagining, we don’t know how each of these basic units is going to work.

Corbu 1925 Paris

Ludwig Hilberseimer was a fan of repetition. His mantra was if it’s okay, just do it again. This, later decades would tell us, is ‘Fordist‘ mentality. The slab-block typology is basically okay, he thought – and indeed it is. Here’s his Vertical City of 1924. Do-able.


He was also a fan of vertical repetition. Here, we have repeats of repeats. These blocks however, are a bit more convincing than Corby’s although those re-entrant corners are always tricky to fill.

Ludwig Hilberseimer 1885-1967

And then there’s this. Many think Sant’Elia circa 1914 but it’s Mario Chiattone. The unit is that of the urban block, endlessly repeated.

futurist city

This is Chiattone circa 1914. His drawing style wasn’t as cutesy as Sant’Elia’s.

mario chiattone

Here’s something closer to the present. If it’s Brasilia, then it could only by Oscar Niemeyer. And it is. Circa 1956. Looks quite nice.


Here’s another look.

brasilia niemeyer

This sums it up totally! I can’t find any plans for these apartment buildings but how many times have we seen this ‘catedral’ when it’s a one-off and not a useful prototype?

Nieemeyer Brasilia

Cathedral of Brasilia Oscar Niemeyer

Difference and dubious novelty is lauded yet repetition, for all the benefits it has for the saving of time and resources, seems to be a dirty word. 

Uniqueness is king. It’s not that the saving of time and resources has become a bad thing – it’s at least as important as it ever was. What we have in its place is fake difference. Fake difference first became apparent in the late 20th century with the architectural device best described as pseudo-random windows. We know it well.

It then went upmarket. Here’s some pseudo-random windows jollying up the rear of Foster & Partners’ Albion Riverside circa 2000.

albion riverside

Pseudo-randomness then spread to buildings themselves, with heights being ‘played with’ to create variation for the sake of variation. Once again, this phenomena isn’t limited to low-cost mass housing. Here’s the same thing happening on some of the most expensive real estate in the world.


Or how about this, David Chipperfield’s City of Justice? Barcelona. 2009. “Legible at every scale,” says Rory Olcayto. Of the six visual building attributes of Colour, Pattern, Shape, Position, Alignment and Size, every one of them but Pattern is contriving to be different and Pttern is the one that’s overbearing. It’s definitely a sophisticated composition, but why does self-similarity have to substitute for repetition?


Self-similarity. A couple of weeks back, I posted this next image and drew attention to how the cores were identical, repeated. Three of the office towers are (as they say in the language of patent documentation) substantially similar. If one is going to rotate and flip them, then they could just as easily have been the same.

galaxy soho office plan

With the lower two, only the building rotation and few column spacings are different.


The real similarities (as opposed to self-similarities) between the office buildings are best seen in section. Underneath it all, it’s columns and slabs. Columns are on top of each other wherever they can be. Cores and atriums are vertical and identical. It reminds me of Chipperfield’s City of Justice in that any differences between the pieces are superficial and arbitrary.

galaxy soho section

What was remarkable about the first wave of Post Modernism was how little it had to do with the insides of buildings. Apart from the stair-chimney collision at the Vanna Venturi House, all the PM action was on the outside. PM had nothing new to say about how a building is configured or used.

What we’re looking at here folks, is a new type of surface ornament where the ornament is the surface itself. Elephant in the room, etc.  


It’s clearly going to take a long time for us to see the sense in making buildings the same, and only changing the way we design and build them when we can think of ways to do it better. I accept that it may not be the social function of architecture to improve upon useful prototypes. What worries me is that architecture is not adding to society’s stock of useful prototypes worth improving or, for that matter, even worth repeating.

Maasai Village