Category Archives: Not Trying To Look Beautiful

useful things that do their job without concern for costly and ever-changing ideas of what looks good

The Sheltering Sky

Last century, mechanical services and artificial lighting enabled environmental control to levels previously unimaginable. Eliminating windows from non-habitable rooms enabled deep office floor plans. Apartment buildings such as Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive clustered non-habitable rooms for ease of servicing. [c.f. The Big Brush] With office buildings, reduced surface area allowed volume to be enclosed more efficiently and, with apartment buildings, the proportionally more surface area for value-adding views enabled higher returns on investment. All this was known as the International Style.

Prior to mechanical services, trompe l’oeil artificially fulfilled one of the functions of windows by simulating the appearance of windows and sky. It made no difference to daylight or ventilation but provided the sensation of a landscape more desirable beyond.

Techniques and preferences have changed over the centuries but our current preference is for floor-to-ceiling photographs in which idyllic landscapes feature bigly.

Murals and wraps do the same for building exteriors. Here’s something you don’t see very often: a photograph of a building, distressed to make it look like a mural and not the photograph it is, applied as a wrap to a building to make it not look like the building it is.


The last time we saw internal trompe l’oeil variants however, was the realtime virtual windows adding value amidships on cruise liners. [c.f. Machine for Living]


Doing without windows through choice as with the home cinemas of Australian suburban houses, is something different. When present at all, windows face boundary fences, guaranteeing the real window is kept curtained so as to not distract from the more appealing virtual experiences onscreen.

Modern electronics stores have arrays of enormous screens displaying various drone flyovers, tropical birds, fish, flowers, flashy graphics and hairy monsters all competing to impress us with real black, vibrant colours and the illusion of depth. This modern trompe l’oeil offers us windows to virtual realities more entertaining than the real ones we have.


If it’s only a matter of illumination and not view, ventilation or entertainment, then light tubes (a.k.a. solar tubes) can be employed to bring daylight into deep plans and internal rooms. They are popular in Australia.

The desire to have additional illumination entering a space from above is usually satisfied by skylights but not everyone is lucky enough to live beneath a roof having the sky directly above.

Skylights therefore indicate that you don’t live in an apartment building or, if you do, that you live in the penthouse. If skylights are sufficiently large then indoors becomes virtual outdoors as suggested by this next slightly surreal photograph shot as part of an advertisement. Sharp shadows suggest it was set up and taken outdoors so as to convey the effect of being outside.

light lady

[What follows is not a paid advertisement btw. GM]

The Italian company CoeLux now produces “artificial windows” that reproduce the effect of daylight and, going by these photographs, are very convincing. All images are from their website.


I don’t have technical details and I doubt too many will be forthcoming, but “nanotechnology is employed to create the effect of  a realistic sun perceived at infinite distance and surrounded by a clear deep blue sky”. We’re told it’s the result of “comprehensive work carried on by an interdisciplinary team of researchers in the fields of optical physics, numerical modelling, chemistry, material science, architecture and design.” I’m sure it is and well done everybody! Installation requires a certain but not unreasonable depth of ceiling, but these fittings aren’t conventional light boxes. I’m intrigued by how parallel the rays are. I’m guessing that’s nanoparticles on the reflector at work.

It seems like the best way we have so far to bring light to windowless rooms. Cruise liners will be a large market, but there might be real health and/or psychological benefits to be gained in crew quarters and workspaces of not just cruise liners but of seagoing vessels in general and submarines in particular.

We really shouldn’t be calling them artificial windows but light fittings, for that’s what they are. As with the real sky, the familiar blue results from other wavelengths being absorbed so that’s no cheat. CoeLux deserve credit for producing solar elevation and colour temperature variations. It may not be possible to dim the light source but it will be someday. A timer-controlled dimmer simulating the diurnal cycle might provide further benefits for well-being. This would need syncing with the solar angle for, in the lower latitudes, the sun dives down into the horizon almost vertically and the transition between day and night is fast. The photograph below is from Dubai (at 25.2°N). I took it at 1858 on July 30. Sunset was at 1905. Forty minutes later it was night.


But how real does a window simulator need to be?


We don’t yet know what the architectural implications will turn out to be. Daylighting to habitable rooms is already covered by building regulations and, for that reason, it is important this invention remain classified a light fitting and not a window. Nonetheless:

  1. It might be less jarring and more psychologically comfortable to have transition zones between internal spaces that are sunny mediterranean and perimeter ones that most likely are not. Seeing both at once doesn’t seem like a good idea.
  2. The purpose of these devices is not to show us realtime video of the sky for doing so would involve a trade-off between environmental simulation and effectiveness as a light fitting. (There’s no point entering a room and switching on the sky only to find it black with realtime rain – or night.)
  3. Similarly, there’s little point switching on the sky when all you want to do is use the bathroom and get back to sleep. We’re now used to electronic devices having night-shift so our sleep patterns are disturbed less but the real sun and sky don’t have night-shift and there’s probably a reason for that. We’ll need to learn when to use this new technology and when artificial light is sufficient. We probably won’t. 

We also need to remember that these artificial windows are designed to deliver light having an incident angle and colour temperate characteristics similar to what we’re used to. They’re not trying to be beautiful and they’re not trying to be Art – unlike James Turrell’s real hyper-real windows that are. Their knife-edge thin frames make us see the sky as a surreal high-definition projection and, counter-intuitive as that sounds, make us appreciate it anew as the stunningly changeable three-dimensional event it is.

If only all windows could be like that.




• • •

Still on the subject of windows, it’s big thanks and hats off to Alex Hummel Lee [PhD. Fellow of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture] for alerting me to the orientation of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda [c.f. Architecture Myths #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else]. Contrary to what I’d unthinkingly assumed from every plan I’d ever seen, the four porticos do not face the cardinal points.

Villa Rotonda

What this means is that daylighting to all rooms is as equalized as much as it’s ever going to be. My point about Palladio using the same window size for all windows of a floor regardless of their orientation still holds, but the differences are less. Orienting the building in this manner is the right thing to do but we shouldn’t forget this is a problem Palladio made for himself – probably because of the site.


Since Palladio thought it relevant to mention “The most beautiful vistas on every side,” I imagine that’s where the idea of having four sides identical came from.


The room on the due-north corner is unlikely to have been a kitchen but, if the principal daytime room is the room on the corner facing due south, then we can probably say Palladio had an awareness of solar orientation. I say probably because the direction of approach and the direction of the views from the major rooms would still have been considerations.

We know the main approach was from the north-west but, without a north point and information on room allocation, it’s anyone’s guess how the plan was oriented. We know Palladio knew some rooms would be more comfortable than others at certain times and seasons [c.f. Architecture Myths #224: Beauty vs. Everything Else] so it’s possible the usage of the various rooms was never defined. [There’s no point if you have servants to set food and relevant furniture wherever you wish to eat, for example.] The villa was lived in full-time by Paolo Almerico [Vicenza, 1514–1589] so it was no decadent folly for summer weekends only. More information about what went on inside might tell us more about how skilled Palladio was at enabling it but, rather than lurk around dim and fusty libraries, here’s a better way of finding out.


Buildings That Lean

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


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


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


The Iconic Tilt

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


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

The Iconic Skew

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


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


from the architects’ website

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

The Statement Lean

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

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

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

The Not-So Meaningful Lean

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


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

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

The Enigmatic Lean

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


Cantilevering as The New Leaning

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


The Because-we-can Lean


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


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

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

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

But just in case,

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

The Unitentional Lean #1


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

The Unintentional Lean #2

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


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

The Unintentional Lean #3

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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.



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


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.


Casa Toninello, Guiseppe Terragni
Via Perasto 3, Milano


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


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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


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

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


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.

Casa Rustici, Pietro Lingeri & Giuseppe Terragni, 1935
Corso Sempione 26, Milano


There’s not much rusticity on show at Casa Rustici. The building is urban and urbane. It’s parade of balconies have more than a hint of Terragni’s Casa del Fascio completed the following year.

Villa Pestarini, Franco Albini, 1937-38
Via Mogadiscio 2-4


The top floor is an addition but I get the feeling Albini would have approved. Here’s what it looked like in 1938.


Edificio per abitazioni e uffici, Luigi Figini & Gino Pollini, 1947–48
via Broletto 37, Milano


Much of what you see in Milan will just look ordinary and decent – in a good way. Figini & Pollini were well-known architects but this looks just like any other sturdily-built 1930s building in Milan. On the other hand, it’s often the case when walking you’ll see buildings such as this next one that look like you ought to know who it is by. If someone had told me this was Terragni from 1928 I would’ve believed them. Instead, it’s just the natural result of architectural innovation and vernacular construction both having something to give each other to become the new normal.


Casa AlbergoLuigi Moretti, 1946-1951
via Corridoni, Milano


Why am I mentioning this? It’s an example of a post-war apartment hotel designed as a city-in-a-city with a entrance lobby, access corridors, a restaurant, library and shared amenities in a podium linking the twin high blocks and the single lower one. The building was designed as a repeatable typology with the shape of the podium altering to suit different site geometries. It’s good contemporary thinking. It’s 1946.

Casa Tognella (Casa dal Parco)Ignazio Gardella, 1947-54
Via Jacini Milan


It’s often mentioned how the design and construction of this building took seven years but, considering its location on a single block of land overlooking Milan’s most central and largest historic park, seven years seems surprisingly short to sort out permissions. Either Gardella had a gift for dealing with municipalities or the clients had some serious money and influence. The alternate name Casa dal Parco is not wrong, but seems somehow diminutive.

Casa dal Parco.jpg

Internal planning has the strict public and private division typical of the class and era but is relatively relaxed regarding staff and occupants sharing corridors and stairs (but not elevators). The service areas of the apartment are zoned, rather than compartmentalized. The lady of the house might even enter the kitchen.


There’s little reason to break the rectilinearity, apart from getting more south light bouncing off the master bedroom wall, and getting more west sun into the living and dining room. Gardella took a Rationalist approach as the starting point for many buildings, but adapted it as circumstances dictated such as with Casa alle Zattere in Venice four years later.

Condominio di v. Marchiondi a Milano
Ignazio Gardella, Roberto Menghi & Anna Castelli Ferrieri, 1949-1953
via Marchiondi, 7, Milano


That’s it in the back. It faces a private park and is completely hidden at the back by other buildings and at the front by trees.

The planning is clearly Gardella’s – it’s beautiful! Only he can plan elevator lobbies and entrance halls like this, and extract maximum effect from angled walls whether he’s forced to or not. They never result in peculiar or wasted spaces.


Edificio per abitazioni ed uffici (mixed-use building)
Mario Asnago & Claudio Vender, 1950
Piazza Velasca 4, Milan


A ground floor with three floors of offices above, four floors of apartments and what looks like a recessed top floor. The offices have a stone facade and office windows, the apartments have a brick facade and apartment windows. The office window grid aligns with the upper left corners of the apartment window grid, but that grid isn’t regular. We don’t see the trope of lining through windows and masonry with adjacent buildings. Instead, identical floor heights are maintained and the buiding naturally assumes a complementary scale regardless of wind0w size and proportion. It’s subtly and quietly brilliant. Asnago & Vender buildings are ego-less architecture and, as such, near invisible.


Quartiere Mangiagalli, Ignazio Gardella & Franco Albini, 1950
via De Predis, via Jacopino da Tradate


The intelligent use of external angles immediately marks this building as one of Gardella’s.

So does the planning. He would normally have narrowed the stair landings towards the entrances but instead has made a screened void to keep the access balcony away from the bathroom windows. Once inside however, the entrance hall characteristically narrows towards to the living room and the living room narrows towards the view. The only internal triangular space created by the unusual geometry is used to widen the passage from living to kitchen. Note also how the bedrooms have their own corridor, separate from the entrance corridor? And how that circulation space below the bathrooms can be configured to make either two x 2-bed apartments, or 1 x  1-bed + 1 x 3-bed? Clever.


On the way there from Lotto (M1) Station, you’ll probably pass by this development on via Roberto Sambonet. It’s worth a look.

Corso Italia Complex, Luigi Moretti, 1951 & 1956
Corso Italia 13-17, Milano


The two office and residential towers at the rear of the site came first in 1951 and the two front blocks later in 1956. The pointed one overhanging the street and containing three apartments per level is perhaps the most wilful of all the buildings so far. [Plan from archidiap.]


The mixed-use building is a common typology in Milan and, like the 1950 Asnago & Vender mixed-use building, effortlessly combine the two. There’s no logic to those three well-placed subtractions on some of the balcony ends. Moretti has that gift we call ‘design flair’.


It’s also evident in the subtle bend of the north side having those balconies. Moretti pulls off that difficult feat of making the unnecessary seem right.


The four grouped flues at the end of the building don’t appear to be original but they’ve been added in a good way.

Pirelli Tower, Gio Ponti, 1953
Via Fabio Filzi 22, Milan


This building remains as idosyncratic and elegant as it was in 1953. Gio Ponti achieved international fame with this building that’s the only one of his I’m going to mention here. He “put Italian architecture on the map”, as they say. This was good for him and good for us because modern buildings in Italy became Italian architecture worldwide. It wasn’t necessarily a good thing for Italians as architecture wasn’t a local activity anymore. Italian architects now had their eyes on international recognition. The more Italian architecture became, the less concerned it was with Italians. In short, it lost its innocence, albeit not all at once and not across the board. Career Case Study #7: Gio Ponti is forthcoming.

Torre Velasca
BBPR (Gian Luigi Banfi, Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Enrico Peressutti, & Ernesto Nathan Rogers) architectural partnership, 1954
Piazza Velasca 5, Milano


This 1954 building is also claimed, in hindsight, to be a precursor to Post Modernism because of its alleged historical reference to Milanese towers, the closest I suppose being the tower of the Castello Sforzesco but I’ll save that thought for some other time. I’d never really noticed the offset windows before. It might be the result of different internal layouts or it may be totally gratuitous for all I know. For now, it seems to be another case of someone making no effort to either hide something or express it.

The history of accidentally or contrivedly offset windows now goes back to the 1950s. Curtain walling doesn’t feature largely in Milan and there aren’t that many examples of the contemporary type we’re so familiar with.


Casa del Cedro, Giulio Minoletti, 1951-1957
via Fatebenefratelli 3, Milano


Having earlier admired the architectural insouciance of Asnago & Vender, I was prepared to dislike this proud little building but couldn’t. For pushing 70, it’s looking fantastic and in good health. I’d be surprised if it has any solar gain, thermal bridging or waterproofing issues.


Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista alla CretaGiovanni Muzio, 1956-1958
Piazza S. Giovanni Battista alla Creta, 11, 20147 Milano


This is a curious little building – Muzio again! He always had a feel for brick and now he’s making something that’s obviously decorative yet can’t have been Post Modernism because Post Modernism wasn’t supposed to have been around in 1956. I find it easier to think of Post Modernism as a resurgence of what there was pre-Modernism. Muzio was always a bit behind the times but then the times went back to meet him, as with Ca’ Brutta. I’m not sure if any Italian architect has ever been a ‘modernist’ but at one stage Figini & Pollini, the authors of this next building, were very identifiably Rationalists.

Edificio per albergo e abitazioni (mixed-use building)
Luigi Figini & Gino Pollini, 1961-1965
Largo Augusto 2, Milano


I include this to show how Figini & Pollini became less shy about decoration as the century progressed. I have no evidence, but wouldn’t be surprised if the decorative balconies have a Venetian ancestor for they recall the ones Gardella was to use on Casa alle Zattera in 1958. Here, the absence of balconies from one floor seems irrational and difficult to justify as design flair despite it being the dominant aesthetic decision.

Torre Turati, Giovanni Muzio, 1966

Via Turati 40, Milano


This is the last Muzio building here. That’s it on the left, forming one half of a gateway to Piazza Repubblica. The building cantilevers out to provide increasingly large balconies to the upper apartments but this is not obvious when seen from along the street.

These two buildings show two different ways of working to the same rules but the one on the far side extracts maximum volume from the cantilever concession. It also produces that building-on-top-of-another-building effect that found recent popular affectation.

Edificio Residenziale al GallarateseAldo Rossi, 1969-1970
via Enrico Falck 53, Milan

If Gio Ponti put the new architecture of Italy on the map, Rossi was the Italian face of Neo Rationalism that was, rightfully or wrongly, presented and understood internationally as Italy’s spin on post modernism. People saw whatever they wanted to see in it. Italians presumably saw the rational side and non-Italians saw a kind of classicism stripped down even more than Muzio’s as this time there were no arches. The most disturbing new development is Theory. In Rossi’s case, the theory was about urban artefacts being responsibile for the essential nature of the city. This is a convenient truth for an architect to claim but my perception of Milan is that it is not the sum of its landmarks but the sum of everything else.

This one project is all I have to show of Rossi’s buildings in Milan, and even with this there wasn’t much to see.


The famous elevation on the other side is now completely obscured by planting, somewhat oddly as the building faces a park, but I suspect it’s to deter the architectural paparazzi.

I remember the building more from the endless graphics that announced it.

The apartment layouts however, are archetypal.

I preferred the neighbouring Aymonino Buildings [Via Cilea 34, Via Falck 37], designed by Carlo Aymonino & Studio Ayde (Aymonino & Rossi), and constructed between 1967-74. We can at least see them as they look over the street to the playing fields and parks beyond.


To be fair, the Rossi’s Gallaratese Apartments also did at one time and he’s not to blame for their current vegetative state. Nevertheless, his famous building exists only for its occupants and even then not how it does in our collective imagination. This can’t be a good thing.

The entire area around Bonono station however is a delight. On a late summer’s afternoon, the dream of high-density buildings set in parkland seems to have been realized. There’s an abundance of well-kept towers, grassy areas, parks, sports grounds, and people walking dogs. It seems like a nice place to live.


Edificio Polifunzionale in piazza San Marco, Ludovico Magistretti, 1969 – 1971
piazza San Marco 1, Milano


This also seems like a nice place to live but now there’s external ornament that places these buildings firmly as self-conscious, post-modern Italian architecture. Its very clever with its revealed frame and its various rhythms but that cleverness is what now dates it. Despite that, life goes on.

• • •

I’ll stop it there. The only buildings I’ve mentioned are the ones I can put an architect’s name to. What struck me most about all of these buildings was how many of them were produced by local architects working within a very small radius. There’s no building here that can’t be visited with a day pass on the Milan metro. Terragni did most of his work in Como and Milan. Gardella worked mainly in Milan even though one of his early successes was his 1938 Dispensario Antitubercolare 75 km to the south-west in Allesandria.


As his reputation spread, Gardella worked as far east as Venice and as far West as Genoa, neither more than 300km away. If I’d extended my range to Seveso 20km to the north of Milan I could have included Terragni’s Casa Bianca.


If I’d gone on to Como another 20km north, I could have included Terragni’s 1936 Casa del Fascia, and if I’d gone the extra mile and a half I could have included Cesare Cattaneo’s 1939 Casa d’affitto a Cernobbio, a favourite.

But they can wait for some other time. What I like about Milan is that architects working locally had access to connections and knowledge and perhaps sensitivities others didn’t. It explains the buildings of Asnago & Vender that give shape to unspoken expectations so well that we don’t even notice them doing it. There’s client loyalty.

Local architects are more likely to have an innate respect and affection for a place that’s their home town. They’re unlikely to grandstand. For the first time in my life I had a feel for the ‘fabric’ of a city as a tapestry of old and new, of adjustments and allowances for materials and technologies that, though they may appear different, are still being used to for the same ends. It’s a rare thing to appreciate and a tricky thing for an architect to aspire to, let alone achieve. I leave Milan thinking that designing buildings for people is an honorable thing to do.

• • •

Since the 1970s, more Milan buildings are being designed by architects who aren’t local and whose first architectural obligation is not necessarily to the city or its citizens. In the image below, the building on the left is by Asnago & Vender whom we shall meet again in Architecture Misfits #26. The building in the distance is Generali Tower by Zaha Hadid Architects.


• • •


• • •


Living the Dream

This is a utility vehicle, an RV – a recreational vehicle. Depending on how you look at it, it’s a vehicle with some accommodation added, or some accommodation that’s mobile. It can move from place to place and perhaps hook up to some infrastructure when it gets there. Here’s a quick guide to RV terminology, courtesy of Happy Camper.

happy camper

This next is a top-end motorized called an XP Camper.


Utility vehicles aren’t architecture for they don’t – can’t – articulate the possession of property. It’s something to do with them having wheels. What utility vehicles can do however is have an excellent use of internal space. Interiors are tightly designed to accommodate specific functions. Life boils down to sitting, shitting, showering, cooking and sleeping. Some have separated bathrooms and some like one of the above right have pop-up roofs for improved aerodynamics.

Planning-wise, the trend seems to be towards less multipurposing. A table and chairs might morph into an extra bed-space but not the main bed. This is good. It makes going to bed special although, in all honesty, there’s little else the space above the cab could be used for. Sometimes things work out how they should.

In terms of accommodating basic life functions, you’re better off in an RV than a Nakagin capsule. You’ve also got more windows.


Several current trends seem to be converging on the R in RV coming to mean Residential rather than Recreational. These trends, in order of how much they’re in-our-faces, are …

The glamorization of tiny houses.

 The architectural assimilation of tiny houses.

The private monetization of tiny houses.

The corporate monetization of tiny houses.

Tiny house co-housing filling a real housing need

vs. the corporate monetization of co-housing.

Tiny houses meet the representation of a mobile lifestyle

vs. tiny mobile houses meeting a real housing need. 

Vehicles have no problem escaping the tyranny of property. That’s what they do. The downside is that it’s difficult to sustain a concept of architecture if there isn’t any property to articulate possession of. While it’s unlikely utility vehicles will ever be considered architecture, they can still be used to represent its traditional signifieds.

They can be functional and aesthetically austere like this one that’s widely misrepresented on the internet as being the sole home of origami artist Won Park.


Or they can be post-modern utility vehicles laden with meaning even though nobody’s sure what it all means.  


My guess is that the ‘cabin-in-the-woods’ aesthetic popular with tiny travel trailers is all about using a representation of a building to represent having the rights to enjoy land as if one were a landowner. It’s a desperate look for desperate times. Our new mobile lifestyle didn’t turn out how visionary visionaries of yore envisioned it. Two decades ago though, and not knowing why, I scanned this next image that nailed it. Rear porches seem important. If you just woke up and went outside and stood on the porch with the mist clearing and the early morning sunlight filtering through the trees, it’s quite possible you could suspend disbelief for a few seconds.


This next image, also from decades gone, could be our future suburbia.


The principle is already a reality in Los Angeles as both legal initiatives and as not.  It’s an issue, and designating car parks as temporary campsites seems to overcome it. Unsurprisingly, there’s considerable local resistance.


There’s no such problem with these artists-in-residence who are doing much the same thing, except not for real. People can smile or smirk, and go by.


Some people however, are already living the dream with neither compromise or affectation. Decades ago, the elderly were early adopters of co-living. Retirees are now early adopters of mobile living. There’s a few reasons.

Cost: A decent parked RV house costs about $30,000.


Job Mobility: Retirees don’t have to worry about job mobility and, if they don’t want to live the full-on gypsy life, can drive from one RV camp to another according to season and whim. Living in Wisconsin or Cape Cod in summer, and Florida in winter is a popular choice.

Property tenure: Park model mobile homes are still classified as recreational vehicles which means they can be set up on leased sites in campgrounds and RV parks and used as weekend retreats or seasonal vacation dwellings. There’s already a legal framework for understanding this as a way of living. This is one of the properties run by Yukon Trails Camping.


This type of vehicle parked on land in leased campgrounds is not without its disadvantages that include depreciation of the ‘vehicle’ itself, lack of actual mobility, lack of control over what happens to the land, and laws that favour landlords over tenants.

These risks are reduced by limited equity housing cooperative in which residents don’t directly own a piece of land that’s theirs alone but instead have a membership in the corporation that owns it. This makes them both lessees and owners entitled to a long-term lease and a vote in how the corporation is run. They have control over the rents and have a vested interest in community upkeep. Importantly, the risk of redevelopment by profit-driven landlords is reduced. Judging by how nicely the hillside has been mown, I’d say this below is a limited equity housing cooperative but I’d be wrong – it’s a field monetised as a tiny mobile house hotel farming campers.


It’ll always happen, but the rules are gradually changing to bring part-time Recreational Vehicles into play as full-time Residential Vehicles. Social acceptance isn’t changing as fast but a sea-change isn’t required. We’re more than halfway there anyway. This last image is Quartzsite in Arizona, US. The town is a popular campsite for RV owners. Its permanent population of about 5,000 temporarily increases to about 1.5 million in January and February. Thanks to Daniel [of OfHouses] for letting me know about this. It’s very relevant.


• • • 

just one RV site on Pinterest
silly stuff
more silly stuff
A 06 Sept. NYT article on ‘long-term parking’ at LAX  (Nice timing!)


Machine for Living

Royal Caribbean’s new cruise ship, Harmony of The Seas has much in common with the buildings along some of the coasts it will cruise. A maximum number of rooms face the ocean, and under and alongside them are entertainment, food and drink, and shopping districts providing daytime and nighttime activities for its 5,479 passengers.

Somewhere away from all the fun are engines and fuel tanks, a power generation facility, sewage treatment plants, a waste management system, internal and external communications systems, district heating and cooling and, let’s not forget, sleeping, eating and off-duty areas for its 2,394 crew. Harmony of the Seas has many amazing things, some of the most amazing of which we’ll never get to see or be told about.


For the tech-inclined, this is an advanced membrane bioreactor that removes nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous before returning end-product wastewaster to the ocean. It’s esssential equipment if the vessel is to be allowed to sail in protected seas such as the Baltic.   MBR_large

Here’s a reverse-osmosis desalinator that makes fresh water.


This is an incinerator for dry and wet waste.


There’s other equipment and systems.


Those dealing with waste are mostly located at the end of the line for reasons more existential than biomimetic. Waste, after all, is waste.


If we forget about all this and the fact that Harmony of the Seas floats and has propulsion and navigation systems, it’s basically some accommodation along a steet and we can thus evaluate it as mere architecture. Or gated-community urbanism if you prefer. First up, an overview.



Harmony of the Seas has either sixteen or eighteen decks depending on how you count them, but at least two are used for essential non-recreational amenities such as tendering and the infirmary. Cabins are mostly on decks 9–13 that have been maximised for that very purpose. Crew quarters seem to be on Decks 3, 4 and below. In the image at the top of this post, their open space is probably that with the lights on, beneath the name.


We accept the basics of the configuration: amenity spaces up top, premium accommodation immediately below, worker accommodation beneath, machines out of sight. The top is, by definition, unenclosed and it makes a lot of sense to put outdoor recreational space there. We happily accept that the ocean is just for looking at, and not for swimming in.


It also makes sense to put recreation space up top if you’re on land and don’t have a garden


but it makes no sense if you do.


Cruise liners have more accommodation and recreational space than transatlantic liners built for speed. This is a consequence of the increased amount of accommodation on these sluggish beasts. It makes them essentially rectangular in cross section.


Uppermost deck space is used for terraces, pools, outdoor theatres, tennis courts, minigolf and such and, with Harmony of the Seas, Deck 15 has most.


Sunbathing seems to be a thing of the past, confined to terraced ‘solaraium’ slivers facing the prow. Promenades are also a thing of the past since, when all outwards-facing surface area is monetized as cabins, there’s nowhere to be anymore if you want to lose the crowd.


With Royal Caribbean vessels, what’s called The Royal Promenade is an internal shopping street. Traditionally, the uppermost promenade doubled as lifeboat access deck but, when there’s only one promenade, this function became increasingly obvious such as on Queen Mary 2. (Note those nautical railings.)


Around Royal Promenade is a running track but the view from it, we’re told, is obstructed by lifeboats.


Misfits despises this use of architectural language, preferring to see it as unobstructed access to lifeboats. We’re glad they decided to stick with the yellow. The running track seems like it might an interesting space and is one of the first things I’d want to check out

irrespective of comparisons such as this.


For one, I’d like to get a closer look at those railings where the running track loops around the stern of the vessel just above where the name is painted. They look like the same railings architects once had a thing for.


Outside cabins and most public places, the balustrades are sheets of some transparent material but, in what seems to be restricted areas such as the forecastle [fo’c’s’le] and running track, there are balustrades with open horizontal railings of the type small children love to climb.

nautical railings

They’re absent from the private and the public areas so parents can take their eyes off their kids for a second but their presence on the lifeboat level makes me think they have a safety or rescue function. [?!] Or is it just so waves washing over the ship [!] can drain away? Or both? [!!] One thing for sure: the nautical railing is not trying to be beautiful.


Building ships this big ain’t cheap. You’re looking at $1 billion or roughly the cost of the current US presidential election campaign.

Enclosed volume isn’t wasted on single-loaded corridors, making them curvy, or ‘breaking them’ with seating areas. At 1,000ft/330m, they’re only two and a half times as long as this famous corridor but just as straight-liney. Longline corridors and narrow rooms are the best way to exploit built volume.

EPSON DSC picture

At 218 ft (66.4 m) wide, there’s space for two big-brush strokes of accommodation. Here’s decks 8, 9 and 10. It’s quite an achievement that more cabins have ocean views than not.




It’s basically a hotel and the principles of adding value to built volume apply even if that volume doesn’t exist as a consequence of land. As we’ve seen, trends in hotel space tend to become realities in housing after a few decades. Housing isn’t lagging in exploiting any area or volume unsuited to more housing.


Atrium-view cabins view each other across a courtyard/atrium-like space called Central Park. It’s about 16m wide and equivalent to the UK minimum standard for opposing windows internal to a development.


The unenclosable floor of the courtyard/atrium is value-addingly amenitized by food and beverage outlets that, as with shopping malls and the city streets they try to pretend they are, inject a level of activity and provide a substitute view. Visual barriers and fixed glazing prevent the respective ambiences of the Deck 8 Central Park and the Deck 9 cabins from cancelling each other out.

I’m reminded of that MVRDV market building in Rotterdam. Apartments having views of internal courtyards weren’t new but what was was apartments having a view of a quasi-public space not even a courtyard. It was an alternate view for dual-aspect apartments.


Something similar is happening here on the Deck 5 Boardwalk that borrows ambient light from the Deck 8 Central Park level of the atrium.


With Market Building, double-loaded corridors weren’t an option as space had to be provided for the market because the market is an amenity for the city, not just for the people incidentally accommodated. The accommodation is merely secondary exploitation of the same land. It’s the opposite with Harmony of the Seas. The quantity of accommodation is paramount, and any space that can’t be used for accommodation is used to add value to that accommodation. Retail and leisure amenities don’t have to compete for custom as patrons will have already paid for many of them whether they patronize them or not.


“Make mine a double!” Drinks in the Bionic Bar are made and served by robot bartenders. These fancy vending machines are still more diverting than MIT’s robot bricklayer.


As you’d expect, height, view, area and window area are differentiators. There’s only one Royal Loft Suite. It’s 144 sq.m, has an entrance lobby, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a large terrace with jacuzzi. That second door next to the bookshelves connects to an adjacent Crown Loft Suite L2 that sleeps another two of your family, your friends or your people.


There’s a dining table for eight but no kitchen so significant room service must be available, including staff on-call to man the piano and outdoor bar. It would appear so.

Royal Loft Suite.jpg

Cabins are Unité narrow and deep. The 180 sq.ft/ 17sq.m Superior Balcony type is the most numerous at 1,288. We immediately recognise it as a studio.


The Oceanview has a window seat instead of a balcony. The hull freeboard on Decks 3 and 4 has neither flare nor tumblehome so the large reveals to the windows of these lower-deck side cabins must conceal some serious hull bracing.


So far so good. There are only eight 2-Bedroom Family Oceanview apartments. We now get to see windowless bedrooms but we’re not as shocked by this as we might once have been.


Ships have a long history of windowless cabins and Harmony of the Seas adds to that history with the K, L, M, N, Q, VB-Virtual Balcony and Studio Single cabins. 


Virtual Balconies use projection screens to offer a real-time view of the outside. They are presented as the new normal. 


We need to process this now. Such projections could easily have live audio although artificially replicating the feel of the wind, but replicating the smell of the ocean, the taste of the air and the feel of the breeze may take some time. Architecture is ahead of the game as far as virtual views of enhanced skies are concerned.


Walls too.


I happen to live in an apartment with a curtain wall of fixed glazing panels. Heat and sounds and sights that I perceive as transmitted, could be replicated without too much trouble and someday some hologram might replicate the 3D effect but, even now, a virtual window (enhanced with dust) might well fool me if I kept still. Philosophers still grapple with the implications of this despite the topic having being thoroughly covered in those projected illusions we call movies. [misfits choose the red.]


With flatscreen televisions now larger than many people’s only window, it’s only a matter of time before they substitute for them.


They already do in some parts of Australia. This easily-roofed plan suited to narrow plots, turns a windowless space unacceptable as a living room into a value-adding feature offering visual stimuli preferable to what’s outside. There’s no living room as such.



Royal Caribbean helps us out with with their website’s neighborhoods link. We might bristle at the use of the word neighborhood but, at this size,


there’s no reason why there can’t be some common identity linking accommodation and the various services and amenities a particular area has to offer. On land it’s increasingly irrelevant whether or not residents are permanent and expected to have an interest beyond the financial, in the social and economic sustainability of their neighborhood.

Attempts at diversity are being attempted and, though commercially driven, we can’t say “worse things happen at sea. Now added to the mix are conference rooms implying something that sounds like work. The Crown & Anchor pub will cater to different people than the Jamie’s Italian. 


People in one place need more than just recreational activities even if that’s their main reason for being there. There’ll be a multi-faith chapel somewhere. Close to the infirmary on Deck 3 will be a pharmacy and doctors familiar with cardiac and vascular issues. People might happen to die at sea, so there’s going to be a morgue. People might also become unruly and a possible danger to others so there’ll something that won’t be called a brig. Plainclothes security personnel will be skilled in martial arts and at giving the impression a brave bystander (“Ex-military, did you hear?”) happened to be there at the right time.


The problem Harmony of the Seas poses for architecture is that it’s not visionary. It exists, and it exists without architects and architecture. It’s the sea claiming back much of what was its own in the first place and showing us the right way to build an instant city.

Picture 1.png

At $1 bil., Harmony of the Seas costs far more than the equivalent square metreage of motionless buildings that, apart from some token amenities, feed off the greater infrastructure. Anything they give back depends on the economic and social activity of the people they house.


Harmony of the Seas is a machine for farming people and its passive passengers are willing to let themselves be farmed in ways that please them and along a route they selected. It applies the principles of property development selectively, and ruthlessly.

Designing the accommodation bit is simple. Designing the hull and propulsion systems is something best left to naval architects. Designing for real, something that functions as a self-contained city isn’t something architects are equipped to do.

Even though cabins are becoming more spacious, the abundance of communal living and activity spaces means large cruise vessels such as Harmony of the Seas more closely approximate co-living than the average apartment building. In other aspects, it has a long way to go. It’s not made out of sustainable timber or salvaged plastic. It doesn’t grow its own vegetables or fish its own fish. It doesn’t generate its own power from seawater. It’s nowhere near being a closed energy system or ecosystem but it at least it’s aware it has to be one and needs to be better one.

Ocean-going vessels are worth another, less superficial, look. Hopefully, we’ll notice things we can actually learn from. In the meantime, Congratulations and Bon Voyage!


• • •

• • •

21st May, 2016: “Hold on guys – not so fast!” An article today says these vessels indeed have a long way to go as far as exhaust emissions are concerned. “At full power the Harmony of the Seas will burn 1,377 US gallons of some of the most polluting diesel fuel in the world an hour.” One comment on that article linked to this article on ethical tourism, highlighting the cruise industry’s record on environmental concerns, labour rights of its employees, and human rights violations in some of the countries it visits. I guess this illustrates the folly of ever evaluating anything as architecture only.


The Mat Building

A mat building is a building that has access, layout, daylighting and ventilation solved for a plan unit that’s repeated as often as needed. Variations are allowed. A quick search on the term usually returns the same examples.

The Free University of Berlin, Candilis, Josic, Woods and Scheidhelm, 1963

Nueva imagen (9)

Venice Hospital proposal, Le Corbusier, 1964


It’s easy to imagine LC stepping off the train in Venice and proclaiming “Your pilotis are too low!” The architectural media footprint of LC’s Venice Hospital flares up and goes away again like a rash. It’s big right now as people find much to say about it as mat building field space or both. It may be a mat building but it’s not a good one.


Patients’ rooms are on the top level of this four-storey building where they can be illuminated solely by skylights but daylighting hasn’t really been solved.

Those skylights pinwheel in four different directions which makes each room a lottery for quality and quantity of illumination. If awake, perhaps one-eighth of patients get a chance to see move across the wall at the foot of their beds, shadows cast by plants as vestigial roof garden. So no, daylighting hasn’t been solved.

Circulation is iffy too. Was it really a good idea to place the corridors necessary for the hospital’s functioning on the third level yet the patients’ rooms on the fourth?* And link them by ramps as vestigial architectural promenades? This decision doubled the width of all four corridors changing the arterial circulation efficiency from 10% to 19%.


Once in the wards, layout and circulation aren’t good for all wards have parallel dead-end corridors doubling staff walking distances and making a mockery of ‘doing the rounds’. The outermost of the three ward corridors are single-loaded to allow roofs above them to end with a vertical window rather than a sloping roof.


This decision reduces the already poor spatial efficiency of ward circulation by 17%. For a four-ward hub, the circulation space to reach the entrances to the wards is 18% but total circulation space required to reach the sides of the beds within is 44.6%. This rises to 48.21% for the building average of 3.1 wards per hub. The spatial arrangement is fundamentally flawed.

Venice circulation

The Venetian authorities were initially enthusiastic about how, by means of the horizontal disposition of the hospital, Le Corbusier had tried to avoid any influence upon the historical skyline of Venice.  It took eight years for them to realise (or be forcefully told) how poorly planned this proposal was both spatially and functionally. The project was kept alive until 1972 when the plug was finally pulled. The stated reason is because of “a shift in the city government.” In other words, the clients woke up to the poor value for money they were on track to receive unless something was done.


You must be wondering how the Venetian ill, injured and infirm were ever able to manage without this small city concretely blurring the limits between urban planning and architecture. Venice’s main hospital now, as it was then, is the Santi Giovanni e Paolo Municipal Hospital. In 1819 it was built inside the Scuola Grande di San Marco building (which dates from the late 1400s) but, over the centuries, has grown and continues to grow as hospitals tend to, around a series of linear wards linked to create courtyards with windows having a view of trees.

• • •

Olivetti Centre proposal, Le Corbusier, 1962


Above ground are variously contrived Corbisms but again, the ground level is claimed to be a mat building with corridors connecting ‘cells’, some of which have no external wall surface. One can’t really say light and ventilation have been solved here either.


Whereas it’s clear they have in this schematic of historic Algiers.


Mat buildings still weren’t heard of in 1933 when LC produced his first proposal for Algiers – or even by 1942 when what turned out to be his final iteration was rejected. This rejection may have been due to a different kind of shift in the city government for in November 1942 French Algeria was to cease being under Vichy control.


Urban Study and Demonstration Mat-Building, Kuwait, Alison and Peter Smithson, 1968-1972


Once more we have architects mucking about in the Middle East. A’n’P correctly saw the Middle Eastern city as embodying mat building principles


but despite claiming to be returning the mat building to the Middle East they seemed to have had something different in mind. [thanks loveyousomat]



California Polytechnic

Many mat buildings seem to end up looking like universities. It’s probably no accident as universities need to be compact to keep costs down and use less land and be easy to walk around, legible so students arrive on time, etc. Moreover, as long as there’s daylight and ventilation, universities aren’t too concerned with overlooking or views from those windows. Even so, there’s a difference between mat buildings and full-on carpeting.

Universitat Politècnica de Valencia, L35, 1970–1974.


• • •

L35 have done nicely since and, if you wish, you can delve a bit deeper into mat buildings here and if you’d like to write a paper, jump straight to the shortcut of Footnote 1.

1. Since the Harvard Design School published Case: Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital and the Mat Building Revival, Hashim Sarkis (ed), Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2001, many academic articles have been published in different journals.

One of those many academic articles was probably this one. There’s also this.


Given the lucrative business masterplanning is these days, I can see why Arch. Inc. might be revisiting mat buildings. Cities also need things to be solved in units that can be repeated, usually horizontally, and with variations. If you look hard at it for long enough, you can see such a notion of the mat building present in today’s fungal carpet approach to urbanization.


• • •

The principles of mat buildings found fertile ground in Italy in the 1970s. Superstudio‘s 1971 Megaton City proposed a vertically integrated configuration repeated horizon-to-horizon. What makes Megaton City superior to the proposal above is that it proposes real Nature with real leaves whereas Paragoo City only represents them with no benefit for either wayfinding or the water cycle.


I doubt any academic paper includes this mat building proposal by Archizoom. Italians again! And the same 1971! [The excerpt is from Vladimir Paperny’s book, Culture Two, which I hope to do justice to later this year.]




Here’s another Archizoom interpretation of the mat building. No-stop City they called it. It’s oddly familiar.


If megamat buildings were destined to never be built, Archizoom at least did something interesting, memorable, intellectually honest, and that brings us and the mat building back to where we began. A mat building is a building that has access, layout, daylighting and ventilation solved for a plan unit that’s repeated as often as needed. Mat buildings have real and immediate advantages. Their integration of construction and human needs facilitates the efficient use of resources and land. This works against Architecture’s preference for unique object-products having defined boundaries. In other words, mat buildings don’t photograph well. Images of them are difficult to commodify. (To us, accustomed to commodifiable imagery as we are, mat buildings may thus look dated but this is a problem of ours, not of mat buildings.)

But suppose access, layout, daylighting and ventilation were all solved for a plan unit that could be endlessly repeated? The Smithsons didn’t manage it. They overprioritized access to produce an easybuild Metabolism of two-dimensional hierarchies.


All mat and no building, they led mat buildings into an urban dead-end and left them there. Despite them giving mat buildings a bad name, it is still a good idea to solve access, layout, daylighting and ventilation solved for a plan unit and repeat that as often as needed. So let’s do it – let’s let the mat building be a building for once and see what can be done. 

Competition for a Housing Estate, Mario Botta 1974

Frankly, it’s hard to tell what’s going on here. I’d like to see floor plans and how access is integrated. It seems like a single level that can be repeated indefinitely. And that it has courtyards rather than views out. Learning from Algeria?


The same thinking is also present in Botta’s 1970 Project for a Master Plan of the New Lausanne Polytechnic, Lausanne, Switzerland. No plans again.


but there is this which is very mat.


What I like about this project is that the mat building stays a building and its relationship to its greater context is (presumably) solved through the intersecting grid. Botta has not tried to make the mat building into more than it’s meant to be.

We have more information for this next mat building with horizontal flexibility and partially offset repetition up a slope. A misfits’ favourite, there’s more information here and, frankly, you’re going to need it to have a chance of understanding how this building works in plan and section.

Pasadena Heights, Kiyonori Kikutake 1974

All apartments are bright and airy, have front and rear access, and outdoor areas open to the sky. The apartments have a familiar relationship with the pedestrian street. It’s not perfect. Access is by foot – cars are left at the top and bottom of the hill. Staggering the units in section increases the exposed surface area and thus construction and heating costs. One of the two bedrooms will never have direct sunlight.

pasadena living

This type of inclined mat building has the advantages of detached houses in having direct access and proper outdoor space but at the same time they also have the construction and servicing advantages of apartments. Land use density is somewhere inbetween.

Pasadena Heights was a useful building prototype that, possibly due to underinsulation and the first oil crisis, was never developed further. This final example is a proposal for the U.A.E. that aimed to develop Kitutake’s Pasadena Heights into a building with enhanced climatic and land-use advantages. A secondary goal was to lessen Emirati aversion to living at higher densities.

PROJECT X (original 2)


For now, this still means direct vehicle access and parking for two cars outside the front door. Large outdoor areas have high levels of visual privacy. Internal spaces are organised according to their need for daylight.


Each apartment is mirrored and offset from the one below to create four-storey lightwells that allocate light to spaces according to their position in the dwelling.


  • Proof of concept was established.
  • The preferred relationship between geography and plan depth was understood.
  • Geometric limitations to offsetting plans reversed on alternate levels were understood.
  • Living rooms have windows on three sides.
  • It still wasn’t possible to get direct sun to the second bedroom.
  • Waste drains to soil stacks (vent pipes) along the walls in two different light wells. These vent in the towers beyond the ends of the terraces.
  • A reduced level of visual privacy (habitable room windows ≈ 6m from a public access way) will allow more flexibility in planning and more daylight to the parking and access level.
  • Rooftop outdoor areas have potential to be used more productively and/or environmentally as green roofs.
  • The surface area of each apartment is less than a two storey villa of comparable area and volume.
  • A full energy model is needed to determine the extent of artificial climate control.
  • The underside of the building may have other microclimatic advantages yet unknown.
  • Exterior stylings inspired by Yakov Chernikov‘s ‘PRINCIPLES OF ARCHITECTURE’: Fantasy on the theme ‘City Of The East’


 • • •

[March 12, 2016]

Thanks to Tom for alerting me to the work of Benson & Forsyth for the borough of Camden in in London. This is their Branch Hill Housing from 1978.

Thanks also to Iago for alerting me to this example from 1963, the earliest yet known. It is Viviendas Escalonadas en Montbau (Terraced houses in Montbau) by Joan Bosch Agustí. Montbau is in Barcelona, roughly behind Parc Güell.

The Lighthouse is Not Trying to be Beautiful

The crucial part of any lighthouse is a beam of light alerting shipping to the presence of something potentially dangerous. A building is neither implied nor necessary. Lighthouses resist architectural design. It’s very unusual to see an ugly lighthouse. Unlike other buildings of a purely utilitarian nature, lighthouses are often located in places having a rugged beauty and this makes us think of them as picturesque even though they are not trying to be beautiful. Lighthouses are where they are because they need to be where they are. This is often obvious


but sometimes not.

The shared idea is to alert seafarers to the presence of unseen dangers. Liighthouses are generally built in the manner most appropriate for the location, with materials and construction chosen on the basis of a durability vs. maintainability tradeoff.


In principle, the colours and surface pattern of lighthouses are chosen to contrast with whatever landscape they’re most likely to be seen against in daytime. It is not a good thing for a lighthouse to “blend in” with its landscape. A lighthouse that did so would be shirking its responsibilities as a lighthouse. The lighthouse is merely trying to attract the attention of seafarers in order to keep them safe.


Let’s see what happens when a lighthouse does try to be beautiful through being made to carry aesthetic ideas it was never meant to have and that don’t – can’t – make it do its job any better. Attempts, mostly historical, have been made to make lighthouses look like things other than lighthouses. It’s fair enough to want to give the lighthouse keeper someplace decent to live but these attempts mostly involve making the lighthouse keeper’s residence look like an ordinary house with a tower disguising a big lamp. Many such lighthouses are in New England




but the Race Rock Lighthouse off Long Island perhaps has the most surreal sense of architectural denial.



Unfortunately, if lighthouses can be made to look like something, anything, that’s not a lighthouse then they’re fair game to be made to look like Architecture. Let’s see some attempts. In the following appraisals, I’m going to have to insist all such contenders be functioning lighthouses and not some lighthouse reimagining or coastal decoration in the spirit of a lighthouse such as The Colossus of Rhodes.


Whether or not the oft-represented pose of the statue is historically accurate or not, at least The Colossus of Rhodes was built – unlike this 1922 proposal put out by Georgy Wegman who, you might remember, was to produce the sane and constructible residential setup noted in 1927: The Competition.


Projects such as this are often grouped under the term “Constructivist” but, though contemporaneous, more rightly belong to the romantic symbolist VKhUTEMAS stream improbably known as The Rationalists, and best represented by Nikolai Ladovsky. Still, 1922 was early days.

Let’s see how far we’ve not come. Here’s one, black italics mine.


Aware Lighthouse First PlaceAAA Cavalier Bremworth New Zealand Unbuilt Architecture Awards, 2012

Exciting and beautiful, taking the mythology of the lighthouse to create a luminous interior world and an engaging object in the landscape. 

Located within New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park, the Awaroa Lighthouse operates at extremes by revealing the tensions hidden within an image of stability. Addressing the lighthouse for both its architectural typology and its imagistic quality, this work situates architecture in the volatile mid-point between the otherworldly beauty of the New Zealand landscape, and an anxiety of destroying it latent within its national psyche. Recording both immaterial data flow from a worldwide network, and material seismic data from a local network of telemetric rods at its base, this work questions the extremity of human influence for the sake of preservation.

Hm – not got much to say about shipping and safety. Here’s another! As you’ll see from the text snippet, it gives lighthouses a bad name. It may light up but it ain’t no lighthouse.


Infusing new life to conventional lighthouses, installed to mark dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals and reefs in and around the sea, Mikou Design Studio has planned a tower to build in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. Entitled the “Lighthouse Tower,” the mammoth structure is rooted on the island of Cotunduba and makes an arched gateway to the capital city. Accessed through a large jetty from the sea, the modern lighthouse provides enough space for a number of observation points, an auditorium, skywalk, bungee jump platform and climbing tower, together with a gyro drop, cafeteria, souvenir store, urban balconies and multi-usage space. Illuminated with bright (possibly LED) lights, the tower not only looks good at night but also provides a mesmerizing view of the “samba” city.

This naturally-cooled (?!) lighthouse in Saudi Arabia is lit from within and “acts as a lighthouse”.
I think that says it all. It’s a breakwater beacon.


Still in the region and in a similar vein, we have this breakwater beacon intended for The World in Dubai. I guess it dates from circa 2006. I can vouch that it’s not always clear out there on The World but, once past that breakwater, there’s still a lot of corners to navigate so I feel this structure is 90% decorative gateway and 10% mariner’s friend.


Beacons generally mark navigation channels leading to a harbour. Here’s a guide. Lighthouses mark major and often unseen hazards offshore. You could download a pdf of The Mariner’s Handbook but the Admiralty List of Lights is a database (also available digitally) listing every light and beacon you need to know of wherever you are.


Flaunting a conspicuous lack of cross-bracing, Westmole at Bergen on Lake Constance is trying to be beautiful. It’s also at the end of a pier, which makes it a beacon.


As you’d expect, The Canary Islands has many lighthouses most of which aren’t trying to be beautiful, and therefore are. This one at Punta del Hidalgo is the exception. With more than a touch of Malevich architecton about it, I assume it emits a light seafarers are grateful for.


Me, I need to see a photograph of this lighthouse from the sea side before making a call on its unlikely colour. Oh.

FaroIt seems valid to assure daytime visibility but I’d be more convinced if there weren’t an equally visible town adjacent. Lighthouse by night, shore ornament by day, I’d say.    Teneriffa$2BNord$2BPunta$2Bdel$2BHidalgo$2B$5B1$5D

• • •

Architects are offended by the idea of anything useful and of value such as vernacular architecture, IKEA kitchens, lighthouses, or basically anything that can exist without them. To me, this reveals an insecurity, quite likely a sickness. Please check this out – hopefully with a certain amount of disgust.


Mission Statement
Participants are asked to redefine a contemporary lighthouse typology and take into consideration advances in technology, development of sustainable systems and its metaphorical value which has made it one of the most inspiring structures in the world. Lighthouse design should become a tribute to the Costa Concordia Disaster and highlight the vulnerable borders between the elements of Land and Sea, Sky and Ground, Light and Darkness. Even today when global positioning systems diminish the role of the lighthouses, they still play and important role and are inalienable parts of the marine navigation tradition.

The recomended project area is located on the small peninsula north of the Giglio Porto village on the Giglio Island in Tuscany, Italy. Coordinates of the peninsula: Latitude: 42.365821 / Longitude: 10.920206. Lighthouse can be positioned anywhere in the highlighted area, including the sea. Please see the map and the DWG in the Download section.

There are no restrictions in regards the size and particular position of the lighthouse on the peninsula. The only requirement the design has to meet is that the new Lighthouse should accommodate at least one living cell for a lighthouse watcher or visitors. The objective is to provide maximum freedom for all participants to develop a project in the most creative way to push the boundaries of how the contemporary lighthouse should appear and function.

“… function.”  !?  I’d have thought there’ wouldn’t be much scope for the contemporary function of a lighthouse to be that much different from the traditional one. But more to the point, the entire competition is in acutely bad taste given that the primary cause of the Concordia catastrophe was, I understand, neither the fault of a lighthouse or the absence of one sufficiently architectural or contemporary. Here’s the winners.


• • •

To conclude, I’d like to speak up on behalf of lighthouses. Leave them alone! They do very well without architecture and, because of that, happen to look quite nice as well. What we’re really admiring is the absence of architectural pretension and the quiet dignity and integrity it confers. To generate this aesthetic effect, architectural pretension has to be designed out, not in.

Any gallery of lighthouses not trying to look beautiful is not complete without the contribution of Vladimir Shukhov’s Adziogol Lighthouse built in 1911 on the Dnipro Estuary in The Ukraine.


It’s still there a century on and, despite being made of steel and in a corrosive environment, it has withstood the elements the same way that ships do. In the same way that lighthouses resist architecture, Shukhov structures resist replacement because they are difficult to improve upon. Notice how the lighthouse keeper’s house is, for a house, also as simple and efficient as possible?