Category Archives: Performance-Beauty

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Caravanserai

Caravanserai were roadside inns where people travelling in caravans (camel trains) could rest after a day’s travel for, between the third and seventeenth centuries, hauling precious goods across Asia, North Africa and southeast Europe was something best done during daylight.

Even the name caravanserai crosses Arabia, as it is the Persian words kārvān (a group of travelers) and sara (an enclosed building) to which the Turkish suffix –yi has been added. Palmyra in Syria has one of the earliest known ones, dating from the third century. This is not surprising given what a well-traversed corner of the world Syria is.

We don’t know much about cavaranserai but we do owe them a huge debt for it’s these simple buildings we have to thank for keeping what little was left of the civilized world civilized. For travellers and their horses and camels, caravanserai functioned as a combination of service station and hotel providing water, food, and places to rest. Caravanserai also functioned as trade centres with retailers selling goods to travellers as well as purchasing from them. They also functioned as customs offices for the movement of goods for commercial purposes attracts customs and excise duties whatever the century or continent.

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Al-Muqaddasi the Arab geographer wrote in 985 CE about the hostelries, or wayfarers’ inns, in the Province of Palestine, a country that was at the time considered as part of Syria. He wrote “Taxes are not heavy in Syria, with the exception of those levied on the Caravanserais (Fanduk); Here, however, the duties are oppressive…” He is referring to the duties charged by government officials on the importation of goods and merchandise, the importers of which and their beasts of burden usually stopping to take rest in these places. Guards were stationed at every gate to ensure that taxes for these goods be paid in full, while the revenues therefrom accruing to the Fatimid kingdom of Egypt.

I haven’t read Marco Polo’s Book of the Marvels of the World [a.k.a. The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300] but, given his outbound route, caravans and caravanserai must feature largely. Some glaring omissions in M-P’s supposed observations in China suggest to some scurrilous scholars that M-P never went further than the far side of Persia but, nevertheless, his Book of Marvels was an inspiration for countless others including one Christopher Columbus. 

Caravans feature most definitely in the writings of Arab compulsive traveller Ibn Battuta. Setting out from Morocco in 1325, his first trip lasted twenty-four years before he returned but was off again within a year, returning fifteen years later, to spend three years (presumably) documenting his previous journeys before setting out on his third journey that lasted a mere six.

Sea travel carried different risks so overland travel by caravan was the preferred option. Caravanserai were safe shelters fortified against attack and were quasi-closed systems that could withstand seige for short periods, much like the castles that operated in Europe over the same period.

As trade routes developed and became more lucrative, caravanserai became more of a necessity, and their construction intensified across Central Asia from the 10th century onwards, particularly during periods of political and social stability, and continued until as late as the 19th century. This resulted in a network of caravanserai that stretched from China to the Indian subcontinent, Iran, the Caucasus, Turkey, North Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe. Many of these still stand today.*

These typical plans tell us they look a bit like forts and have thick walls, a square plan, and a single entrance only wide enough for laden camels to pass. Architecture is absent, presumably because it hadn’t been invented yet, but there wouldn’t have been much need for it even if it had been.

The walls are thick for durability as well as to withstand attack. If caravanserai give the impression of being strong and fortified, it is because they were strong and fortified. The Middle Ages everywhere were refreshingly free of semantics.We wrongly call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages but that was only in Europe. Surrounding countries were relatively outward looking. The legacy of this attitude persists. We erroneously attribute the successful combination of defensive geometry and circular lookout towers as European castle innovations.

Deserts aren’t known for their abundance of construction materials and labour so the construction of caravanserai can’t have been simple or fast. Nevertheless, it obviously made someone good money to have them constructed, particularly given the lucrative income stream of excise duties. But at what level were they collected? Caravanserai are unlikely to have been privately funded speculative developments. History is silent on this.

What’s still apparent today is that construction materials were used efficiently. The square footprint has rooms around its perimeter, a large open space in the middle for animals, and intermediate spaces where owners could offload their goods and keep an eye on them. Structurally, the perimeter walls are strengthened by the walls separating the rooms. If the goal was simply to use a minimum amount of construction material to enclose a maximum area then we would expect to see more circular or octagonal plans than we do. The square plan is a beneficial trade-off  between construction efficiency and maximising the number of money-earning rooms. Supporting this theory, larger caravanserai had an additional level of rooms rather than quadruple the area of parking. The point of that space was that it had secure boundaries and the only rationalisation possible was for those boundaries. Resting camels don’t naturally form orderly rows and it was probably not worth the lost rest time to coerce them to do so for the sake of some marginal space advantage. The space had no layout and in busy times simply became more densely packed, as happens today with people and elevators.

Desert climates typically have large diurnal temperature ranges. In the tenth century, it was Bagdhad that was the hub of the intellectual and commercial world but here’s the climatic data for Basra a bit south. There’s an almost constant diurnal spread of 20°C but the thermal mass of thick walls will work to lessen it.

Another example of vernacular intelligence is the closed courtyard with only a single narrow entrance opening. This will work to ensure a pool of cool night air remains trapped in that courtyard for as long as possible into the day. The internal space of caravanserai have no trees for shade but the inner ring of sheltered areas for the storage of goods will keep more of that internal volume shaded for longer.

It may be coincidence but both these next examples have their entrances facing south. Now, Persian villa orientation and planning acknowledged seasonal changes in the incident angle of sunlight with some rooms optimized for summer and others winter but it’s difficult to imagine well-lit rooms attracting a premium in caravanserai. If caravanserai entrances are indeed characteristically on the south side, then I’m guessing it’s because the side having the first and last light facilitated late arrivals and early departures.

This seems reasonable because caravanserai existed to prevent merchants and their goods from being exposed to the dangers of the road at night. A south-facing entrance would be a selling point if caravanserai were spaced at a day’s journey along important routes. Getting to the next stop on time meant getting there safely and this was important, particularly if transporting valuable cargo such as silk from China, gold from Saudia Arabia, frankincense from Yemen, and myrrh from Oman.

As well as reminding me Christmas is coming, this is also starting to feel quite close to home. Caravanserai can’t have been that rare if they were spaced a day’s camel trek apart across Africa, Arabia and Asia. Turns out there’s the remains of one within 3 km of me.

Jumeirah Archaeological Site in Dubai is the 10th century remains of a caravan station that existed since the 6th century as part of a trade route linking Oman with Iraq. The station developed into mixed-use complex of residential units, marketplace, mosque and caravanserai.

Unlike with castles, the primary and lasting value of caravanserai comes from them having been open to receiving the world outside. Castles may have projected political and military power but caravanserai were the ports, the airports and the communications infrastructure of their time, sustaining not only commerce and the movement of goods and people across Eastern Europe, Asia and North Africa but of knowledge in the form of books and news and communications in the form of conversations and stories.

More important and lasting was the role of caravanserai as places for cultural, intellectual and social exchange. [What and where are their equivalents today?] In Europe, castles gradually lost their defensive function as the Renaissance began but let’s remember it’s only because of caravanserai that there was a Renaissance in the first place, let alone that upstart Renaissance affectation known as architecture.

Castles closed to the outside world were refuges against barbarism but, all throughout the Middle Ages, caravanserai had been an open and civilizing force countering the forces of barbarism.

Renaissance architecture may symbolize a more civilized Europe but merely represented existing power structures lowering their defenses when it was safe to do so. By updating the representation of existing power structures architecture may represent the progress of civilization but it can never be a civilizing force.

The incentive and the credit for Europe being dragged back into civilization belongs to open buildings such as caravanserai. 

Even if we still haven’t learned this most important lesson of the caravanserai, we should still pay them some respect for they are under-represented in global histories of architecture. As well as enabling the continuation of civilization and all that, they did what they did very well and for a period of about fifteen hundred years 300–1800 plus or minus a century or two.

• • •

The following text I paraphrase from the publisher’s page for this book with photography and text by Tom Schutyser, an introduction by Andrew Lawler, and contributions by Reza Aslan, Rachid al-Daif, Robert Fisk, Dominique Moïsi and Paul Salem. [I’m excitedly awaiting my copy.] 

“Caravanserai were vital nodes in what was in effect the first globalized overland network and trading system. Thousands were built and successfully operated. They survived empires, caliphates and wars until the demise of the caravan trade. Those that have not vanished or become ruins, survive as hotels, museums, shops, storage space, living quarters, or military outposts. In the tumultuous state of relations between the Western and Muslim worlds today, caravanserai are evidence of ancient multicultural exchange and trade and inspire the quest to find such new platforms of multicultural dialogue for the future.”

• • •

This is the Zein-o-din Caravanserai a two-day camel ride (60km) south of Yazd, Iran. Built in the 16th century just prior to the Silk Road no longer being the major trade route between Europe and Asia, it was recently restored and, though it once more functions as a hotel, we must remember hotels today aren’t what they used to be.

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Further: 

The UNESCO website on caravanserai

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Career Case Study #9: José Oubrerie

I’ve always wondered about the value of working for famous architects for education and/or work experience. If it’s to be anything more than a CV builder, then what is the information actually transferred and what is the actual mechanism of information transferal? Frank Lloyd Wright was in no doubt as to the value of the information transferred and had people pay to do his work. This never really took hold as a business model but it did morph into a system where bona-fide students pay bona-fide universities to pay practicing architects to be visiting or guest educators. (The situation where bona-fide students pay a bona-fide university to pay a practicing architect to be a practicing architect seems peculiar to Japan.)

Le Corbusier didn’t make his workforce pay but he did think people should work for him for nothing. If ever we wonder today why so many architects are paid so little and are prepared to work for so little in the name of gaining experience, then we need look no further than Le Corbusier who, amongst his many other contributions to architecture, took the business fundamentals of marketing and cashflow to new levels. Building on the groundbreaking work of Wright, we know much about what Le Corbusier did for marketing and self-promotion but very little of his innovative approach to cashflow and reducing fixed expenses by paying little, if anything. The intern farm is one of Le Corbusier’s less recognized but more ubiquitous legacies. Starchitect clones are well aware the right to underpay is one of the perks of fame.

Le Corbusier’s office

Judging by Le Corbusier’s suit and hair in the header photograph, these two images look like from the late thirties. Were all these people content with just doing their job or did they believe proximity to Le Corbusier and observing and learning how those buildings came into being constituted an architectural education? We know what happened to a few of them. Louis Sert worked unpaid in 1929 but was back in Barcelona within a year. Léonie Geisendorf worked unpaid during the 1930s. [c.f. Brands as Architectural Legacy]

We don’t know if José Oubrerie was paid or not.

He arrived at Le Corbusier’s office in 1963, eighteen months before Le Corbusier’s death in 1965. Oubrerie is said to have carried the Venice Hospital project forward until it was finally cancelled in 1972. [c.f. The Mat Building] He also completed LC’s French Cultural Center in Damascus in 1988. This is one of those inconvenient and thus forgotten buildings.

The Damascus project is conceived of as a continuous interior surface. Its enclosed continuous interiority relates in part to the formal complexity of Le Corbusier’s Villa La Roche, and, in part, to a new architectural topology, a “Moebiusian” one. *

Baghdad Gymnasium was designed by Le Corbusier in 1956 but completed in 1980 without input from Oubrerie.

Better known is Le Corbusier’s Le Église Saint-Pierre in Firminy, completed by Oubrerie in 2006, or 1996 according to the Knowlton School website.  Peter Eisenman said it was the most important structure built since 1980. [? I can’t imagine what that 1980 structure could have been.] Unlike some of the posthumously completed works of Frank Lloyd Wright, the fidelity and authenticity of Firminy as a genuine work of Le Corbusier is never questioned despite the forty-year hiatus. If it had been faithfully constructed with period materials, technologies and services then I guess we would’ve been told. Nevertheless, I’m keen to find out how this kind of real authenticity differs from the merely authentic.

The thing I find most interesting about Oubrerie is this house, his 1992 Miller House in Lexington Kentucky. It’s his only built work and it’s rather fabulous in all its LC meets NY5 glory.

And is probably why we hear nothing of it. It’s got motifs from the whole bunch of five and asks uncomfortable questions such as who exactly is appropriating whom and for what ends? It’s very much a statement building but nobody’s asking what it’s stating or why.

It also has a surfeit of colour, pattern and texture – something the “whites” eschewed in their timber-framed reworkings of the plasticity implied by Corbusian stucco on brick.

Miller House post-dates the New York Five by two decades, so I can only assume Oubrerie is showing them how it ought to have been done and what would have been the better lessons to have learned. For this impertinence he has been roundly ignored. I’m still unconvinced every single surface and element has to show the trace of an architect’s hand. In the case of the Miller House, those timber shelves seem a bit over-the-top. I also doubt every single element needs its own colour and, even if they must, are these the right ones?

With all that colour, pattern and materiality all over the place, the debt to Maisons Jaoul is obvious. It’s everything the NY5 eschewed with their designs that existed as ideas over and above any construction-based reality. I confess to liking Oubrerie’s Miller House, but my feelings towards the NY5 have varied over the years. In 1979 I thought Peter Eisenman’s House X the ultimate whereas in 1977 I had a page, torn from Progressive Architecture, of Richard Meier’s 1973 Douglas House pinned above my drawing board.

I enjoy the relentless design of Oubrerie’s Miller House in the same way I enjoy Carlo Scarpa’s art piece Olivetti Store in Venice, or Gio Ponti’s 1955 Villa Planchard. All three invoke the concept of “total design” as probably invented by Victor Horta circa 1890 and later co-opted by Wright, Gropius, etc. Even now, the concept of total design is still used to imply the “attention to detail” and “obsessive perfectionism” of the artist-architect.

When compared with Douglas House, the physicality of Miller House is obvious but I find it no more human for all that colour, pattern and texture. Both houses leave no conceptual space for people as whatever furniture, rugs or art one possessed, or even the clothes one wore, would clash. In representing the pleasures of colour and materials, Oubrerie has forgotten to involve the people who are to appreciate them. I don’t know if that makes him better or worse than the bunch of five who succeeded by aiming lower.

All in all, Oubrerie’s is a curious career involving five built buildings only one of them his and even then only in a sense.

The Chapel, commissioned and encouraged by Steven Holl for his residential and gallery complex in Rhinebeck, New York, features a light-water diagonal conduit that pierces the roof and floor and is a contemporary interpretation of a ladder in a kiva — a traditional round Pueblo Indian form — in which the ladder joins the sky and earth. There is no real sipapu, the round hole in the kiva’s floor through which the spirits of the ancients can exude. However, in the Chapel, the ground is visible and the floor sometimes retracts; it practically enters inside, or reciprocally, the floor extends and reaches the outside.

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Naked Houses

French novelist Gustave Flaubert was unimpressed by the advent of railways in the 19th century. He thought trains would only allow more people to move about, meet and be stupid. It’s easy to imagine what he would have thought of the internet. [1] Two years ago I unbookmarked myself from all architectural websites and have since lived without their compulsive addiction. It makes no difference if we hear of architectural ideas immediately or decades down the road because architectural ideas, and especially aesthetic ideas, never change anything because they’re not intended to.

  1. Ideas (such as off-form concrete as a final finish) that are inadvertently and immediately useful are quickly deemed passée and spurned.
  2. Ideas that don’t have immediate application disappear into a kind of limbo, neither forgotten nor applied until the conditions for their application come about, if ever.
  3. Ideas that are before their time are simply wrong ideas.
  4. Ideas that eventually come to pass are often mistaken for prophecies but it’s really the environment changing to make those ideas now useful. They then become like the first type of idea.

This all suggests that, if one wants to find potentially relevant ideas to solve current problems, it is more useful to selectively scan and re-evaluate the past than it is to mass monitor the present. That’s a big “if”. Mainstream architectural media content and the mechanisms for its delivery have evolved to continuously distract and prevent people from thinking about anything that needs thinking about.

Cutting myself loose from all this means I’ll never know what I’ve missed out on and that’s the point. There’s enough to think about anyway, and new things tend to find me anyway via conversations or as general news. Here’s an article that was already two months old when I first saw it.

nakedhouse.org [2] is a not-for-profit organization for builds housing not finished to the degree that new housing in the UK typically is. The objective is to lower that first rung on the property ladder. Most people will find nothing wrong with that last sentence. Naked houses check all the items misfits identified in a December 2015 post that pondered what else architecture could learn to do without. [c.f. Architecture Reductions]

Quality materials 

“The apartments will have no partition walls, no flooring and wall finishes, only basic plumbing and absolutely no decoration.”

This is good, because all these are superficial yet costly indicators of status and an obvious place to start. They’re the things people are most likely to change to suit their real or imagined individuality. In the UK one of the first things people do upon buying a secondhand property is strip the walls of any paint or paper. In new properties, providing surfaces with anything more than a base finish builds-in waste from the outset but does make sense for contractors to do that because of the markup involved. It’s this kind of functional redundancy that naked houses attempt to circumvent. Contractors accept a lesser return on lesser outlay and, if the product is successful, turnover is maintained and the financial threshold for home ownership is lowered. Whether this process will act wide enough or fast enough to make a difference is another matter. Jean Nouvel’s Nemausus Housing in Nîmes is forty years old now. It’s not that it had ideas before its time. Circumstances have changed to make those same ideas make more sense to more people than they did then.

MVRDV introduced plywood and oriented strand board (a.k.a. OSB, flakeboard, sterling board, aspenite) as A Thing, in their Double House of twenty years ago.

Giving aesthetic credibility to lower-cost and lower quality materials is a continuation of the same process that resulted a century ago in upmarket houses being made out of brick instead of stone. Low-quality materials once hidden can have a second life as a layer of history but new-build can’t have this indicator of age as status.

Cooking with low-cost ingredients requires more pre-preparation and time and care and so does building. This blockwork by H Arquitectes has been carefully set out to coordinate vents and switches with the joints and openings. The concrete floor has been precisely poured, ground and polished. It will look like this forever. The materials are inexpensive but the process requires thought and care.

This is not how our construction industry works. The general practice is to build cheaply and quickly using lesser quality materials and as little skilled labour as possible, and to then conceal any imperfections. I have my doubts about how beautiful naked houses’ naked walls will be. We’ll probably want them to cover up.

Rooms, Plans

Even if ideas in Nouvel’s Nemausus Housing never became how things were done, the idea of shell lofts did but had no great impact on the design of houses or apartments or the way we live in them. Apartments were sold as shells with a contractural obligation to complete their interiors within a certain period. However, as long as there was a source of heat, hot water and basic bathroom functions then no further completion was ever needed. Wholesome building fabric had totally fictional interiors inserted.

Naked houses are shell houses without contractural obligations, but not without a certain amount of social pressure to do it up. Getting rid of rooms has been a long time coming. We can’t really claim The Farnsworth House or Glass House as any kind of precursor but, over the past sixty years, living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens have coalesced into a single space in both downmarket and upmarket apartments, if not yet all houses.

Kitchens as a Concept

“The only recognisable part of a kitchen will be a sink.”

This idea has also been a long time coming. It’s been 22 years since Francis Soler’s 9-17 rue Émile Durkheim apartments. [c.f. Misfits’ Guide to PARIS]

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The first thing many people do after buying a secondhand home is rip out the kitchen and install a new one, most likely from Ikea. Ripping out the bathrooms is usually next on the list but open plan bathrooms are only just beginning to catch on, some ninety years after the idea was first floated.

villa savoye bathroom drain

Since 2009, hotels have been incorporating open plan bathrooms. The entire space looks less divided. Because it is.

Bathrooms added to houses that never had them in the first place can be unconventionally large and open but this is more of an upmarket trend.

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Downmarket, it hasn’t been all that long since bathtubs stopped being in kitchens and close to the only source of hot water.

Stripping a building back to its essentials is a good thing to do as there’s much that can be done without and that was never necessary in the first place. The absence of some accepted items only highlights what there is left.

Gratuitous Design Features: The image below doesn’t tell us much in the way of structural information but the lack of cross-bracing suggests it’s not the cheapest way to make what’s essentially an extreme mansard roof. Those non-structural corner windows aren’t going to help reduce the cost any. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio].

Sky: These are houses and not apartments with their sophisticated structures and servicing. The glass roofs tell us so. A one square metre VELUX window costs about £1,000, including installation into an existing roof, and will provide sufficient illumination for that floor area whatever the season. Anything larger is stylistic affectation. It seems like one set of status indicators is being discarded for a another. Living under a glass roof may be an attractive idea but it creates an ugly choice between spending money upfront on decent glazing panels or having higher heating costs forever.

Double-height Space: The most obvious scope for cost saving is to get rid of architecture’s favourite trope – a double-height space with a mezzanine and to not build unuseable volume from the outset.

Sure, people can put a floor in, and flooring too if they want, but building the potential to have a floor if one wants extra floor space is not in the spirit of a home without frills. The first publicized UK naked house encloses all internal volume to begin with, and the only potential present is dividing it into smaller units of liveable volume.

In the past, making more units of liveable volume would have meant adding an extra room at the back where a rear garden always meant the potential to be converted into more useable internal space. The potential to divide internal volume could indicate the potential to have a larger family or, these days, the potential to monetize that new unit of space via Airb’n’b or similar. It’s a long time since having more children meant adding more rooms. It more likely brings about the division of space or the sharing of space as it does most anywhere else in the world. Airb’n’b currently has 300+ listings in Enfield (UK) where the trial project is located.

enfield

“The upside of this spartan approach is a price tag of between £150,000 and £340,000, in reach for buyers on average incomes in a city where the average home now costs £580,000.”

A yearly season ticket from Enfield Lock to London Travelcard Zones 1–6 (with an average journey time of only 23 min!) will cost £2,408.00 – one sixtieth of the cost of the lowest priced house on offer. Who knows anymore if that’s a good deal or not?

Airb’n’b and similar sites attract much criticism for their role in encouraging people to see where they live as something to monetize. This graph shows it’s obviously better to own property than to have a job. It’s all the better if you don’t have to share a bathroom with the non-property owners you exploit, but that’s what makes the new microfeudalism different from the old renting.

Bourgeois Interiors, Design Features

“The idea is to strip out all of the stuff that people don’t want in the first place,” said Simon Chouffot, one of the founders of the not-for-profit developer, Naked House. “People want to do some of the custom building. We can make it affordable by people doing some of the work themselves.” 

Here, the first sentence implies progress. The dream of getting rid of an entire apparatus of unwanted finishings mediating between us and our buildings appears suddenly within our grasp. This opportunity to reject the entire economy-churning trap of home “improvement” will not be taken. If a person wants a house they’ll most likely want all the trappings that have conventionally gone with it. We can’t really claim any progress if the intention is still to have people admire what you’ve done to the space.

Paying less attention to our surroundings might enable us to simplify the relationship between us and the houses we live in. Very few aspects of living require conscious expression as architecture, as part of a building, or as an interior.

Just as the associate director who brings in the most new clients is the one first promoted to director, the shortest route to architectural fame is to create a new market for architecture and to offer it on a plate. The stated objective of Alejandro Aravena’s half-a-houses in Chile was to sell minimal volumes of inhabitable space that people could enlarge themselves when circumstances suggested and finances allowed. The projects achieved their stated objective of housing people inexpensively, and also succeeded in getting people to participate in an economic system. The market for architecture is expanded and with lesser returns but the important thing is that the system continues. (This should not come as a a surprise. Today’s architects don’t busy themselves with commissions for large country houses.) Lowering the financial threshold for home ownership and creating a ongoing demand for home improvements brings to the housing market the same pay-less-upfront-but-more-later plan that sells colour inkjet printers and Nespresso machines. Whether upfront or deferred, people’s lives are still equated to the amount of economic activity they generate [3]. Naked houses are the British incarnation of the half-a-house idea, but with completed exteriors for British suburbs not yet ready for favela chic.

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  1. Here, I’m paraphrasing John Lanchester quoting Julian Barnes paraphrasing Flaubert in an August 17 London Review of Books review titled You Are The Product.
  2. nakedhouse.org
  3. This article is a lengthy but good introduction to how and why neoliberalism and considering the market as a mind is the defining concept of our age. There’s an intellectual elegance to the concept of regarding mankind as an entity whose every need, desire and action occurs within a system of survival as it does for every other living creature. The flaw is that it ignores everything that makes us human.

 

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Making Strange

Poetry is strange and poetic language is strange. Some words make pleasant or interesting sounds. Other words may sound peculiar while others may be similar – or different – in special ways. Still other words occur in unexpected positions or with some new role or roles. All these poetic devices fall under the general concept of making strange and they all call attention to themselves so we can see something in a new way. This is what poetry does and what art in general does.

Making strange is so intrinsic to poetry that its absence is also a way of making strange. There’s quite a famous poem called “This is Just to Say”. [1] Over the years, people have spent much time trying to work out what makes it poetry. 

If making strange in poetry is about words and language, then making strange in filmmaking is about film as celluloid. I remember De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves as having a scene in which a person walking up some flights of stairs has the same footage briefly repeated three times. The effect was “Did I just see what I think I just saw?” Then there was the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker in which two birds fly away across The Zone but only one of them is seen to have crossed it. It’s a powerful scene made strange by simply removing some footage. Both these techniques are specific to film.

I’ve written elsewhere [c.f. Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINEabout the Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis song Canʼt get you out of my head performed by Kylie Minogue. It’s a pop song made strange by beginning with chorus and a fade-in that allude to the upcoming lyrical content. In the spirit of repetition, let’s appreciate it once more for what it is.

[or vimeo]

Towards the end, the buildings in the background are made strange by lighting up as if they were VU meters, showing us a city made strange getting down.

Light show projections are a new form of public entertainment that shows us buildings in strange new ways even if only for short periods of time. More recent projections involve 3D mappings spectacularly combined with animation – a quality that’s very very strange for a building.

Like anything else that stimulates endorphins, increasingly stronger doses are needed if something is to be made strange and new over and over. In art, once a technique of art has been used to indicate something is art it can’t really be used again in the same way as it won’t be so strange anymore. It might still be art but it probably won’t be good art. This is why artists are under such pressure to continually outdo themselves.

In stage drama, making strange involves preventing the audience from becoming involved in a pretend story and faked emotions. Techniques such as wooden delivery, stilted dialogue, awkward silences, or having the actors carry the scenery onto the stage remind the audience they’re there to concentrate on the content of the play and not its superficialities. Bertold Brecht was the main proponent of this type of theatre. He called it Verfremdungseffekt. In English it’s known as the distancing effect, the alienation effect, the defamiliarization effect, or the estrangement effect. This last is apparently closest in meaning to the priyom ostraneniya (приём остранения) as understood and used by the Russian Formalists. [3]

Viktor Shklovsky was head of OPOJAZ – the Society for the Study of Poetic Language group (1910~1930-ish) was mainly concerned with technique and device. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines: they are the result of an intentional human activity in which a specific skill transforms raw material into a complex mechanism suitable for a particular purpose.” [4] According to Shklovsky, “art is a sum of the literary and artistic devices the artist manipulates to craft his work.”

The Russian Formalists’ literary criticism emphasised how literary or artistic devices unique to imaginative writing actually functioned. There’s an admirable purity to a literature that doesn’t aspire to be painting, a painting that doesn’t aspire to be music, a music that doesn’t aspire to be sculpture, an architecture that doesn’t aspire to be cinema, etc. In other words, Goethe was wrong. It makes no more sense to evaluate architecture according to rhythm and harmony than it does to evaluate music according to site conditions or climate. The Russian Formalists began by not allowing psychology or culture or history to enter into their evaluations of how well the writer used what they did to achieve they set out to do. It’s still a refreshing approach, as shown by Helen Vendler’s analyses of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. [c.f. Twelve Books on Architecture] It’s also the opposite of what we currently have.

Today, when we read a review of a piece of art, we’re almost certain to read a list of references to the choice of thematic material as filtered the artist’s reading of history, politics, gender studies and contemporary society. If no such context readily presents itself, then the fallback context is to discuss the work in terms of everything the artist has done before or is currently working on. [c.f. Conceptual Continuity] Everything seems worthy of our attention except how the artist has mastered the techniques and devices specific to their particular art form.

Understandably, the Russian Formalists were keen to determine exactly what is intrinsic to literary language. If we were to let such an approach transfer to architecture – and it could transfer directly and with better fidelity than the literary concepts of Post-Modern or Deconstruction ever translated – then it would have huge consequences for evaluating architecture.

  • It means harmony and rhythm are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Music.
  • It means composition and proportion are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Painting.
  • It means three-dimensionality and form are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Sculpture.
  • It means transparency and blurring are not valid concepts for producing or  evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Photography.
  • It means organicism and self-similarity are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re qualities intrinsic to Nature.
  • It means history, philosophy, psychology, politics and culture are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re not qualities that influence Architecture alone. Everything has a history or, more precisely, everything has many histories.

What’s left standing?

  • The notion of space seems to survive intact and I’m not the first to suggest it as a fundamental property of architecture. It may well be the real essence of architecture is the void and not the pretend solid enclosing it.
  • Following on from that, there’s moving through a space. The Acropolis and The Villa Savoye have been famously identified and described (yet never evaluated) as sequences of spatial experiences. Nonetheless, those sequences of spatial experiences are still distinct from the flashbacks, flash forwards and other devices intrinsic to Cinema and that evoke similar feelings of anticipation and suspense.
  • Materials, construction, and structure – but only at scales distinct from those of furniture and civil engineering.
  • As long as buildings are constructed objects, the senseable qualities of materials are as valid as their physical ones. This isn’t to argue for a touchy-feely architecture but just to say that, as long as buildings are constructed from materials with qualities, one quality is just as valid as any other.
  • Site.
  • The notion of function survives, in the sense that people still experience a space even if they’re not moving around admiring it.

In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Patrik Schumacher claims function is not a fundamental quality of architecture. In a perversion of the Russian Formalist position, he states that people can use the space inside a cave or a hollowed out tree for shelter as they might a building. From this he jumpily concludes that function is a quality that can be satisfied by something other than architecture, and thus not a quality by which architecture should be evaluated.
[p341, Vol I. if you’re keen.]
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  • Watertightness, servicing, security, durability, sustainability, energy performance and so on, are all specific to Architecture [I know, I know …] despite their current relegation to The Art of Building.
  • The solving of many conflicting requirements together is integrated design and not unique to architecture, but solving the above set is. 

Schumacher would [and did] say that since all these can be solved by engineers, they are not a concern of architects. This is a distortion of a perversion of the Russian Formalist stance and also an example of either ecological fallacy or circular reasoning since what we’re trying to establish is what makes architecture architecture, not what makes architects architects. We can debate whether all architecture is made by architects but it’s contrary to both commonsense and logic to claim all architects make architecture. [5]

These candidates for qualities unique to architecture hit upon all the contentious ones. Why site and not context? If we admit context then why not historical, political and cultural ones? I don’t know.  Perhaps Asnago & Vender got it right by considering history as the site condition of What’s already there. [c.f Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender]

In some later post I’ll try to illustrate how this concept of making strange can be used to evaluate architecture and, by association, the efforts of architects.

To close, this concept of making strange shouldn’t be reduced to shallow novelty or narrowed to mean only aesthetic innovation. Something novel or innovative can only be considered to have been made strange if it employs a device intrinsic to architecture, and even then only until strange becomes the new normal.

If architecture is an art, then its devices must be capable of interrogation in the same way we can talk about painting not by its subject matter or what we presume the intent of the artist to have been, but by the hard and lasting evidence of brushstrokes, their colours and the patterns they make. Seeing architecture in a similar way might even prove useful in the long run. You never know.

• • •

  1. This is Just to Say was written in 1934 by Walter Carlos Williams.
  2. More on the distancing effect and its chief popularizer, Bertold Brecht.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_formalism This entry will probably tell you all you need to know about the differences between Mechanistic Formalism, Organic Formalism, Systemic Formalism and Linguistic Formalism. The differences hardly matter given our conceptual distance from any of these sub-stances.
  4. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines … ” Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. 1925. A poem became a machine for meaning about the same time a house became a machine for living. 
  5. The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I contains no reference to Shklovsky or even to Brecht but the question of what is intrinsic to architecture and nothing else is one Patrik Schumacher had to answer if he was to argue for the autonomy of architecture and for it being a great function system of society rather than a mere subset of the art system. His suggested answer is in the book’s final chapter I still haven’t gotten around to writing about.

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The Extruded Mat Building

Extrusions have been having a hard time lately because their constant cross sections are uncool. I’d like to say a few words in their defence. For starters, many useful things are extrusions. PVC conduits are extrusions and their constant cross sections use a minimum of material to protect the cables within.

Extruded beams use metals less expensive than steel to achieve the same strength as rolled beams. This is more than just a matter of cost because additional functions can be designed into sections that are impossible to fabricate by rolling.

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Extruded aluminum or PVC sections for window frames are incredibly complex, with small sectional changes permitting new functions and enabling new properties. Each tiny protrusion works with air gaps and insulation to use the minimum amount of material to bear load, prevent twisting and limit thermal bridging. It is a field of specialist research and design to which people devote careers.

Sausages aren’t extrusions because they assume their final shape after being stuffed into a mold rather than extruded from one.

Concrete columns aren’t extrusions either as they’re made by concrete being poured into a mold and allowed to harden.

Slip-form concrete structures may appear to grow but they’re not extrusions because concrete is set in a formwork mold in a dynamic process but it’s the mold that moves and not the concrete. It’s still a good way of producing concrete structures having constant cross sections useful for elevators, stairs and all manner of shafts. The structures may look the same top to bottom but that’s rarely the case within because stresses such as those caused by uneven wind loading mean the amount and placement of reinforcment is never uniform.

Page 39 of the structural analysis peer review report for 432 Park Avenue recommended the local addition of reinforcement to the northeast corners on levels 25 and 39 in order to handle uplift under certain wind conditions. [c.f. Moneymaking Machines #1 : 432 Park Avenue]

Yes, extrusions are great, but what I object to is people thinking them dull and unimaginative simply because they look the same top to bottom. The word extrusion has come to take on a derogatory meaning that derives from those 3D modelling functions that convert polygons into prisms of arbitrary length. The insinuation is that a building with a repeated floorplate is the result of a simple operation executed thoughlessly and without the input of “creativity”. 

This isn’t saying much because all you have to do to not make your building look like an extrusion is change the plan every now and then to show your building can’t be constructed in the easiest way possible. Whether this is creative or not I don’t know. Some non-extrusions are better value than others but we don’t live in a world that’s ready to have architectural concepts rated in terms of aesthetic efficiency.

Until it ever is, it might be more useful to explore what can be done with extrusions. If they can’t embody creativity as it’s currently defined then it might still be possible for them to embody intelligence or even a certain kind of creative intelligence that doesn’t have to be kept a secret. [c.f. Architecture Myths #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else]

The following layout is of one of those Hong Kong apartment towers typically maligned as extrusions. It has differently-sized apartments arranged around a central core having access and services. All kitchens and bathrooms are naturally ventilated. It needs no ducts for apartment utilities. The only major fault is those living room windows adjacent at 90°.

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With this next configuration, kitchens face into the internal corners and push living room windows away from each other but kitchen odours are more likely to reach them. The dining area has a rear window for cross-ventilation. As long as adjacent buildings aren’t connected, there remains a degree of turbulence that dries laundry on racks accessed from that rear window.

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This next layout uses the same principles but separates the living rooms by 120° instead of 90° and places the kitchens inbetween and thus closer still to the living room windows.

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This next layout takes the kitchens back away from the living room windows that are now mirrored and angled like the previous kitchen ones were. It’s the best solution. Concentric walls allow for various combinations of monolithic and prefabricated construction. As a configuration that integrates sightlines, ventilation, servicing, structure and construction with a functioning floorplan, it’s as close to perfect as anything you’ll ever see.

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Towers having layouts like this are often laid out like at Whampoa Gardens Estate in Hong Kong [and yes, that is a decommissioned ship – I don’t know why]. Here and there you’ll see two buildings linked across one side of the service lightwells but this hasn’t become general practice. It’s easy to see how it would reduce air movement.

At the internal corners of these superblocks, adjacent living rooms face a gap where a fourth building would complete a habitable room light well. This is the principle of the following proposal.

Imagine a city of perimeter blocks where all habitable rooms now face the courtyards and streets are overbuilt apart from shafts servicing the non-habitable rooms. What we get is a building experienced around negative space. Instead of buildings interrupting space, we have space interrupting a building.

The Extruded Mat Building

1. Take a perfect layout.

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2. Extrude 5-7 storeys. Repeat horizontally to make a mat building.

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3. Elevate to activate access, airflow, and vegetation.

The elevated mat building makes its own context. It is not experienced as a building object in a landscape or city but from within apartments arranged around extruded shafts of airspace. This isn’t a new idea.  

What is new is that those shafts are now 360° and the only views out are up to the sky and down to the ground. And it’s ok. Diagonally opposite living room windows face each other across a distance of about 26.6m which is about ten metres more than the distance at which subtle facial expressions are supposed to cease to be readable, thus ensuring emotional if not visual privacy. The distance between opposing bedroom windows is 20.9m which is almost five metres greater than the UK standards I’m familiar with. These distances aren’t setbacks or spacings liable to violation – they’re inbuilt and permanent. 

The extruded mat building is its own view and its own streets and its own city irrespective of site and location. It exists already as shopping malls and might be a useful typology in a future in which the good sites are all taken and the good views all built out.

Having more storeys means the sky and ground become further away and though this will limit daylight penetration it may well enhance ventilation. The tradefoff is a no-brainer in the higher latitudes but, if we’re in the tropics, better ventilation is preferable to sunlight streaming through the windows.

According to Obrist and Koolhaas, architecture is A) a Western construct and B) about stylistic “movements” because C) Japanese Metabolism was the first time a non-Western movement “contributed” to Architecture. If one accepts A and B then C is true but it’s still one temperate-zone architecture contributing to another. A significant amount of the planet’s population lives between 23°26’22″S and 23°26’22″N where the sun passes directly overhead.

The tropics have their own truths that a Western, northern-hemisphere, higher-latitude centric architecture that values sunlight is insensitive to. Even a conception of architecture as masses brought together in light makes little sense in places where the sun shines straight down.

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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But how real does a window simulator need to be?

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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.

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• • •

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.

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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.

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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.

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Architecture Myths #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else

MA: “Let me first thank you, Signor Palladio, for agreeing to this interview. To kick things off, would you like to share with misfits’ readers your thoughts on windows?”

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AP: “If the windows are made smaller and less numerous than necessary, the rooms will be made gloomy; and if they are made too large the rooms are practically uninhabitable because, since cold and hot air can get in, they will be extremely hot or cold depending on the seasons of the year, at least if the region of the sky to which they are oriented does not afford some relief.”

MA: “I see. Yes. Some rooms will be colder in winter if they are not on the sunny side, or warmer in summer if they are not on the shaded side. So –”

AP: “– for this reason, windows must not be made broader than a quarter of the length of the rooms nor narrower than a fifth, and their height should be made two squares and a sixth of their breadth.”

MA: “Window size depends upon how big the room is then?”

AP: “Because rooms in a house are made large, medium and small, the windows must remain the same size in a given order or storey, when calculating the dimensions of those windows I like very much those rooms which are two-thirds longer than their breadth; that is, if the breadth is eighteen feet then the breadth should be thirty. I divide the breadth into four and a half parts; and with one part I establish the clear breadth of the windows and with the other two, adding a sixth of the breadth, I make all the windows of the other rooms the same size as these windows.”  

MA: “So you saying then, that, for the sake of beauty, all windows of a storey must be the same size, even if it means some may be too big for their respective rooms that will therefore be colder in winter if they are not on the sunny side, or warmer in summer if they are not on the shaded side?”

AP: ” – “

Palladio’s one-size-fits-all approach to design shows the rot had set in even though it was still not even a century since Alberti invented Architecture as aesthetic contrivance. If Palladio saw quantitative building performance and some unsubstantiable notion of architectural beauty as working against each other and was willing to compromise the former for the latter then we can’t really be surprised by anything that’s happened since. Compromising performance for beauty is simply hard-wired into the psyche of architecture, part of its very being, its existence and it’s not going to change in a hurry or at least without putting up a very strong fight.

And it does. An architectural climate that broadens the focus of architecture to include building performance occurs only rarely, perhaps only once or twice a century and, when it does, is almost immediately quashed by the forces of Architecture. This suggests building performance is counter to what architecture is. It’s not that Architecture actually defines itself by the denial of physical comfort, it’s just that it competes with the needs of our other senses and all senses aren’t created equal. Our notion of architectural beauty would be very different if humans had evolved to live on the bottom of the ocean.

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“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in darkness.”

In the 1920s, as soon as architects had devised ways to house people so everybody had a certain amount of sunlight and ensure an acceptable level of health and well-being, the quality of that light became an indicator of architectural worth [c.f. Getting Some Rays].

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Le Corbusier’s Five Points of 1927 seemed to definitively solve the problem of windows in favour of horizontal ones.

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It all went well for about 12 months. In the meantime, Richard Neutra completed the Jardinette Apartments in Los Angeles as his first commission in his new country.

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Walter Gropius was full-on functionalist when it suited him but, at the first CIAM meeting in 1929, he framed the problem of housing as how to get the most sunlight to horizontal windows, so justifying the taller buildings he seemed to want to design. Richard Neutra reminded everyone present that, in the U.S., tall buildings were not a problem that required solving. That might’ve been the moment Gropius decided he’d better bolster the academic side of his CV.

At the 1931 CIAM meeting in Zürich, it was still being taken for granted that windows were now and would always be horizontal was again taken for granted when, amongst others, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Siegfried Giedion discussed “the importance of solar orientation in governing the directional positioning of low-cost housing on a given site. Le Corbusier couldn’t have not been there, but it’s still unclear why he was because, by 1931, he’d already made considerable progress in subverting Modernism’s quantitative concern for light with his own interpretation of what light was good for. By 1932, Karel Teige’s worst fears for the Five Points were confirmed.

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Karel Teige, The Minimal Dwelling (originally published as Nejmenší byt by Václav Petr, Prague, 1932) p.181

All this time, Philip Johnson had been lurking around Europe so, by the time the International Style exhibition came around, he knew which way the wind was blowing. Horizontal windows were stylistic affectation and a symbol of modernity. Together with Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Philip Johnson did more to kill off performance-beauty in the US than Hitler did in Germany or Stalin in the U.S.S.R. [c.f. The Things Historians Do

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The twentieth century dragged on and it was acceptable for aesthetic reasons to not have windows where additional ones could have improved daylighting and ventilation.  [c.f. The Things Architects Do #1: Compromise

This Palladian Conundrum is insoluble as long as we have five senses and we rely upon the dimensions and quantity of a single building element to satisfy them all.

This doesn’t apply just to windows but to any building element having a tangible function and a visible presence. The problem is apparent in architect quotes such as “I would rather live in a corner of Chartres Cathedral with the nearest bathroom two blocks away than in …. [insert whatever building you care to name that has a bathroom].” I think it was Zaha Hadid who said that, presumably to indicate the strength of her sensitivity to those intangible qualities architects are imagined to be sensitive to. It also implies such sensitivity is incompatible with conveniently located bathrooms. This is not necessarily true. 

It’s the default attitude of starchitects. Frank Gehry is a well known critic of LEED and we assume it’s for reasons similarly artistic but Gehry has no doubt bumped up against LEED criteria a few times with property-developer clients suggesting certification as a selling point.

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Despite its forward-thinking architectural design, however, [New York by Gehry] contains few innovative sustainable design features. Although it has implemented some environmentally sound practices such as energy-efficient windows, Energy Star appliances and a greywater filtration system, New York by Gehry is not LEED certified.

The developers found themselves with a choice of selling points and decided to go the Gehry Accreditation route. Their decision raises the tantalising possibility that the value uplift of going with a branded architect is quantifiable in dollar terms. This report

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claims the value uplift of a green building is as much as 12.5%. The value uplift offered by a branded architect must therefore be greater, whether a building is green or not. A lot of things begin to make sense. Gehry’s objections now appear defensive, and with good reason. Perception management may be the dominant role of starchitects and development gain may be taken care of by the architect of record [c.f. Architecture Myths #23; Architecturebut if ever the value uplift of a high-performing building should surpass that which a starchitect can supposedly add, then the brand collapses and starchitects have to find something else to do. Palladio may have been the first starchitect.

The same position has been restated at length by Patrik Schumacher in The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I. [c.f. Love You Long Time (Chap. 3.8.1 The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values)]. A November 2014 post, The Mystery of Beauty mulled Schumacher’s argument/need for a concept of beauty. To paraphrase, “a concept of beauty gives architects something to work towards, even if they don’t know what it is. What’s more, attempting to resolve the beauty/function thing is what makes architecture architecture.” He’s right in a weird way and not in a good way. Appearing to aspire to something unknowable yet somehow lofty, is a good way to distance oneself from supposedly more prosaic concerns having definite and optimum solutions.

In our current media environment where the last thing we expect or are presented with are facts, it’s obscene to talk about value per unit area and user value. Things like these are not the stuff of architecture wishes to be evaluated on and so are not they are not the stuff of architecture as it gets presented

Without a vision, architects become no more than technicians, and it is our ability to shape functional requirements to create a piece of “magic” where we can really flourish as a profession.
Jerry Tate (from an article “Why is Sustainability Boring?
BD Online 6 November 2012)

But we cannot only be concerned with the objective side of architecture’s performance.
Patrik Schumacher (The Autopoeisis of Architecture, p38)

It might be too early to speak, but there’s one dim glimmer of hope things might be different in the future. You might remember this image from back in March, when Bjarke Ingels was cross with us for not seeing more than one female director in this picture.

The visible one is Sheena Søgaard, general manager and CEO of BIG. She wrote a piece for DESIGN INTELLIGENCE, outlining the reasons for BIG’s success. It’ll be no surprise to anyone who’s read Yes Is More! but Søgaard’s first point was that design and business go together. So was her second point, “Focus on Financial Health” and which was much more illuminating.

“To rethink the traditional fee approach [!] and to gain our fair share of the value we were creating for our clients, we began to focus on documenting proof of our value creation. We are able to show clients that our projects provide more value per square foot sold, more program to any given site, and better value for the users; all of which helps us achieve a greater share of that value which we assist in unlocking, i.e., better design fees.”

I’d suspected this in June 2105 when I roughly calculated that BIG’s proposal for World Trade Center 2 had 14% more rentable area than the Foster+Partners proposal, yet all we got to read about was the aesthetic backstory of some staggered boxes with plants on top and lights on the bottom. [c.f. Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center.

My problem with this is that value delivered should never have been hidden in the first place, let alone snuck back into public perception and presented to us as corporate revelation. It remains to be seen if this new value is any different from the old value. What is clear is that if the perception management precedes the development gain by too much, then everyone gets to see the ongoing process of development gain engineering at work and the image of industrious creatives fades to one of compliant yes men. 

When there’s one justification for clients and another for those to whom their media face is directed, it shows just how deeply the problem of perception management vs. development gain is embedded in today’s system of architectural production. It’s the Beauty vs. Everything Else thing still playing itself out.

There’s no sign it will end anytime soon, especially when editorials such as that of the Spring 2017 “Pure Beauty” issue of San Rocco are still pushing back. Irénée Scalbert’s essay Beauty Without Taste, is a paean to Foster+Partners’ 1991 Stanstead Terminal building. She praises its beauty as incidental and without admitting any attempt of Foster to create it – as does Foster, for that matter.

stanstead

This feels like progress but it’s effectively a re-statement of Johnson and Hitchcock’s position that an aesthetic other than one of beauty is still an aesthetic of beauty.

“It is, however, nearly impossible to organize and execute a completed building without making some choices not wholly determined by technics and economics. One may therefore refuse to admit that intentionally functionalist building is quite without a potential æsthetic element. Consciously or unconsciously the architect must make free choices before his design is completed. In these choices the European functionalists follow, rather than go against, the principles of the general contemporary style. Whether they admit it or not is beside the point.”

I usually enjoy San Rocco’s bloggy editorial essays that put provocative ideas out there with nothing but a train of thought to justify them. This one however, repeats the opinion that “Modernism” wanted to erase the notion of beauty from architectural discourse, and that Hannes Meyer sought to eradicate beauty rather than merely pursue a different notion of it.

pure beauty.jpg

It didn’t matter. For the proponents of a single, absolute beauty as pure as it was vague, it amounted to the same thing, and ever since then people have been scrambling to put the cat back into the bag for we can now identify two types of beauty. One is the type of performance-beauty pursued by Meyer and the other is everything else that consciously succeeds at trying to be beautiful. Who’s to say there aren’t more types out there? Emmanuel Kant left room to think the problem may not be with the universal but with the our subjectivity.

kant do that.jpg

Kant leaves open the possibility that our subjectivities can remain subjective yet still respect some universal determinant.

San Rocco, however, prefers to champion the autonomy of the universal rather than question the autonomy of the subjective – and which is no less romantic a notion.

food for thought

Points a~f repeat the Schumacher position in which the existence of a single beauty is posited as a difficult (i.e. impossible) goal in order to validate work towards it. Points e and f do too, but add further qualifications couched in quasi-religious language to lend said work the appearance of virtuous endeavour, if not moral imperative.

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Window Checklist

lunar prisms

illumination

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ventilation

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insulation

observation

relaxation

separation

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information

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contemplation

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inspiration

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gratification

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