Category Archives: Performance-Beauty

all posts related to making buildings work better, work better for less, and work better for longer

Misleading Narratives

Two posts back, in Repeating Crevice, Revisited, I wrote If Shinohara was aware of having designed certain possibilities into [a house he designed], he never let on. Now I think about it, he can’t not have known he was designing that house to offer its occupants various levels of awareness of the movements within. Instead, he chose to present an alternative narrative having nothing to do with any real benefits his design may have had

A more consciously misleading narrative has to do with Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus. This sketch shows LC was definitely aware he was designing something that permitted certain possibilities but he chose not to make them part of the narrative for propagation. Later historians have complied.

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The Winslow House is often used as an example of how Frank Lloyd Wright gifted us the open-plan house. Wright’s $5,000 Fireproof House is seen as a lesser embodiment of Wrights principle of configure a house around a hearth as the heart of the home and of removing walls to arrive at a new conception of interior space. The first misleading narrative is Wright’s, the second is historians’.

Removing interior walls sounds like there were cost savings to be had, and supporting an upper floor and a roof with a largeish brick structural element in the middle of a symmetrical plan sounds like a very efficient way of using equivalently sized materials at maximum efficiency. If Wright and later historians hadn’t used misleading narratives to describe what was “important” about The $5,000 Fireproof House and the Winslow House and others, then we might not’ve had to wait for Rural Studio to rediscover and make explicit the link between cost performance and architectural beauty.

Economic efficiencies and benefits to society aren’t the opposite of architecture they’re made out to be – they just exist in a parallel yet invisible dimension. The visible world speaks to us of beauty and abundance and the invisible world reminds us how little we want it to cost.

In the decades since Le Corbusier and Shinohara, architects have elevated the misleading narrative to a level of art far exceeding what it exists to describe. The misleading narrative is now the primary means for display of architectural cleverness. In any field other than architecture, goods that please the eye but fail according to indicators of other qualities are called fakes. The English language has the saying “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” and also its more down-to-earth equivalent “You can’t polish a turd.”  Well, actually you can and it’s being done all the time. Since it’s not going to stop anytime soon, I think we should at least explore the mechanism involved.

Many if not all of the misfit architects I’ve listed here over the years have either been totally forgotten, under-remembered or under-acknowledged for not providing misleading narratives to distinguish their noble efforts as architecture. Their innovations have been duly dismissed as idiosyncratic obsession or mere investigations into building science. Last week’s Architecture Misfit#27: Harold Krantz is a perfect example. Perhaps he’d be better remembered as the innovator he was if he’d spent a bit more time designing his narratives to better communicate the real worth of what he was doing.

• • •

For years I’d been trying to track down a Japanese house I vaguely remember – probably from having seen it in Japan Architect in the late 1970s. I never saw or heard of it again so it must have been a one-off, long forgotten and by now long gone. It was titled House With a Sloping Wall because that is what it had. House With a Sloping Wall

I found myself thinking of this house again last week. Perhaps it had something to do with the one-bedroom apartments that were also very much on my mind.

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I spoke about how one-bedroom apartments are usually a bedroom and a living room side-by-side along the only wall that can have windows, and how the bathroom and kitchen are usually against the corridor where they share a shaft.

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I never got to talk about the poetry of architecture and that was a shame since I’ve begun to suspect the poetry of architecture, building science and social utility aren’t as mutually exclusive as we’ve been led to believe. Here’s House With a Sloping Wall, Reimagined as a one-bedroom apartment.

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We now come to a fork in the road. Do I present my re-imagined House With A Sloping Wall as something aesthetically innovative or do I present it as something useful? Do I go for a misleading narrative or do I tell the truth? The former is easy and there’s no lack of impeccable references to work into a misleading narrative.

Firstly, my house has a 45° wall that’s no more wall than it is floor or ceiling – or all three – or two out of three, depending which side of it you are. A reference to Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture seems called for. Going in deeper, I could reference William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, as did Venturi.

There’s a long history of the perception of inside and outside being blurred by making building elements or finishes span the boundary between the warm side and the cold side.

There’s a longer and nobler history of trompe l’oeil attempting the same using only two dimensions. The best examples have the surrealism that comes from things not appearing to be what they are – a virtual outside.

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From the bedroom of my House With A Sloping Wall, the sloping wall doesn’t appear as a sheltering roof – an effect that, prompted by the skylights, is also apparent on the other side. IT ACTUALLY IS a sheltering roof. The perception of inside and outside is not blurred by extension or confused by illusion, but reset by the suggestion of a roof with skylights and chimney. An element that’s normally outside appears inside. This is not so common, but nor is it so rare. These examples below all riff on the idea of clouds indoors. The church is the least surreal because of trompe l’oeil precedents.

Moving away from inside and outside, I suppose I ought to leverage my CV and mention Kazuo Shinohara and those strange internal spaces in his 1981 House Under High-Tension Lines,

or the inclined roofs of his 1973 House in Seijo or his 1971 Prism House, both of which have spaces that seem to exist only to be visually appreciated. They’re bonsai versions of double-height spaces but their acutely angled corners intensify not light but shadows.

Did somebody say shadows?! I need to mention Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1977 essay In Praise of Shadows even though it’s about a 3.5 on the Japanese 1-7 scale of cultural inscrutability. 

Victor here! I know you’re not into pattern language but, since you’re narrative farming, another argument for lowered bedrooms comes from Christopher Alexander, who had a thing for ceiling height. He argued ceiling height has to vary according to degree of privacy. It sort of required ceiling to comply with “personal space bubble” that gets the largest in public spaces. Hence high ceilings in public lobbies and stores are comfortable. CA argued that tinier rooms and alcoves are cozier and allow humans to feel closer to each other – if they’d allow each other to get together in there.

Thanks for that Victor! I do admire the way Alexander aims to link sociology and aesthetic predelictions but other factors at work mean we must now pass from the floating world of architectural narratives into the objective world of building science.

Moisei Ginzburg and his Stroykom team’s Type B and Type F apartments had reduced ceiling heights for the bedrooms because they were less important than the daytime living rooms. This seems fair because in bedrooms people don’t move around so much. Space as a visual thing is not something appreciated when asleep.

With houses it’s not rocket science. Many vernacular houses have attic bedrooms because it’s a better use of building volume but, with apartments, this is something neither obvious nor easy to do despite the greater pressure to extract maximum value from their smaller volumes. That pressure never dissipates. Those ingenious apartment conversions having a “sleeping loft” above the kitchen and/or bathroom are a modern trope because they stack two zones needing less ceiling height. The four examples below all allow maximum area with maximum height but only one involves sloping surfaces.

If you haven’t already guessed, the real reason for my sloping wall is to return some of that under-appreciated bedroom volume back to the living room where it can be better appreciated during waking hours. Did I say some? 50% is half!

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True, that 50% can’t be used in any meaningful way but then neither can a double height space and look how highly architectural history regards those. Nevertheless, in order to make my diagonally interlocking spaces more appealing, I produced a variation having those crudely approximated diagonals known as steps.

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It’s pointless referencing BeFun’s Alley House – despite being ingenious it’s too little known. It’s far better to reference the space for The Baltic Pavilion in the Giardini at the 2016 Venice Biennalle grounds. Bringing it all back to Venice never did any architectural endeavour any harm.

One last card to play are bleachers. They’re the wild card, the joker in the pack, the ace high or low. People don’t associate bleachers with any grand architectural precedent, distinguised personages or unassailable theory. They just associate them with happy memories and enjoyable experiences. I’m not suggesting we return to the dark days of palliative postmodern iconography. What I am suggesting is that we couch our architectural narratives in essential truths. I can reference bleachers in good faith because they’re all about observing a large space in front of them.

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The view back is equally important.

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Even the space under the bleachers can also be referenced in good faith since, from what I can glean from the internet, many people associate that space with intimacy. Allow me to present Bleacher House.

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Returning some building volume to the living room was the only thing that mattered with this house and, though the idea contained much art its explanation did not. Presenting this idea as architecture didn’t have to involve presenting it as something it wasn’t. This house IS BLEACHER HOUSE because it does the same thing. I suspect that any architectural idea of worth can be communicated more easily by calling attention to something of comparable and real worth.

This is different from those forced and unnatural associations that conceal lack of content behind phrases such as “recalls X” “resonates with X” “references X” “is redolent of X”, where X is the name of some building or architect there was never even the intention let alone the possibility of emulating. The architect Eladio Dieste is often referenced in this way.

• • •

20 Feb. 2017 (11 hours later): HUGE thanks to Daniel Munteanu for solving my mystery. One of the things Daniel does is run the blog OfHouses which “is a collection of old, forgotten houses” so it’s not that surprising he remembered this house. Me, I falsely remembered its name. It’s the Mochizuki House, by Hiroyuki Asai. 1971. I love it. 

Everything has been exquisitely contrived to appear as if it could no way other than the way it is, as all good architecture perhaps should be. If the wall were vertical, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the light from that skylight illuminating that wall. Hiroyuki Arai, wherever you are, thank you.

Architecture Misfit #28: Harold Krantz

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Abraham Harold Krantz
[1906 – 1999]

  • 1906: Born in Adelaide, Australia, to Russian Jewish parents
  • 1926: Qualified as an architect and worked for Woods, Bagot, Jory & Laybourne-Smith
  • 1927: Moved to Perth to work for Oldham, Boas & Ednie-Brown
  • 1929: Registered as an architect

1929 was not a great year to start a career. It was the beginning of The Great Depression that was to last until 1939. For the first two years Krantz ran a poster studio with John Oldham, son of his earlier boss John Oldham Snr. He and Oldham were able to make a living producing lino cut poster prints, many for the Australian Communist Party of which Oldham was a member. Krantz was to later recall how running this business made him look for ways of getting the cost down without spoiling the quality.  Krantz’s first designs for buildings were simple ones aiming at cost efficiency. They had to be if they were to have any chance of being built.

“It had to be as functional as possible with no frills, no decoration, the use of colour and materials, good planning, no waste of space, no passages and no breaks and funny shapes. The objective was to study every element in the building from the skirting, from the foundations, up to the top of the roof. Is there a better way of doing it for the same money, or a better job for less, or just as good a job for less money?”

Even as a reminiscence, this is amazing for the late thirties. These next two projects from 1936 are catalogued by Australian National University as Oldham’s but signed by Krantz. The automobiles won’t have been realistic for mid-Depression Australia so these are probably speculative designs, or possibly the research that architects typically turn to in lean times. For Australia, these buildings proposed a new way of living. They weren’t trying to be houses. In the one on the left, the grade is being used for car parking and the absence of gardens compensated for by the roof terrace.

The hope for better times isn’t being displayed as architectural excess. The symmetry about the entrance suggests minimal internal circulation with two apartments per landing. Even when times were better, Krantz was still never one to waste building volume.

It’s not surprising that some of Krantz’s first built projects were for small multiple-occupation dwellings in the wealthier parts of Perth towards the end of The Depression.

‘Melleray’ Flats, 1938
Corner Winthrop Ave and Hardy Road, Hollywood, Perth

“Coronel’ Flats, Harold Krantz, 1938
Corner Fairway and Clark Street, Nedlands 

The four flats give the illusion of a large house by the asymmetrical front elevation and by having the entrances on the sides. [It’s odd to think that between 1974 and 1978 I spent most of my daylight hours and a fair share of the nightime ones within 200 metres of this building.]

These apartment blocks must date from not too long after as the same principles are used in larger blocks, and repeated. Amazingly, some still remain.

These are the 1938 Riviera flats. There’s no hint of the jazz, cocktails and fast cars of the 1936 proposals, but the fact they were built in 1938 proves the concept was timely and achievable. Once again there are two flats per landing.

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Arbordale, Perth and Greenways, Adelaide, 1939

Nedlands Tennis Club, Harold Krantz, 1939

Krantz was a member of the Nedlands Tennis Club and designed its new clubhouse. With tenders advertised in January 1938 for AUS£1,600 including some restrained Art-Deco trim, this was a major project signalling the end of the building downturn.

Nedlands Tennis Club

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Krantz’s approach to architecture was thus well established by 1939 when Robert Schläflik arrived from Europe and began working for him. Schläflik registered as an architect in 1946, changed his surname to Sheldon, and the firm of Krantz & Sheldon began.

Building flats allowed Krantz the opportunity to more fully develop and apply the principles he had already established in his work on houses, that being an

  1. emphasis on reducing each dwelling unit to a minimum, achieved by tight planning rather than smaller spaces;
  2. conventional construction combined with rigorous detailing to maximise structural strength of building materials and minimise waste; and
  3. the bulk ordering of standard building materials, fixtures and fittings to achieve economies of scale. [architecture.com.au]

This is all brilliant in itself but another innovation was the system for funding some of the earlier buildings. “He organised friends, family and business colleagues into syndicates who would pool their resources to finance new building projects, particularly flats. These syndicates allowed small investors direct access to property investment. Significantly, as the syndicates were primarily for investment, Krantz and Sheldon was able to pursue design ideas without the restrictions of individual preferences.” [ibid] Those design ideas weren’t design ideas as we may understand the term today but ways of constructing accommodation more efficiently.

People in Perth did not take quickly to the idea of living in apartments. Newspapers were critical of flats as the “the slums of tomorrow’. In 1941 Krantz defended the building of flats in an article for The Architect magazine. He claimed ‘slums are low return propositions; whether small cottages, large luxury residences or flats of any kind’. This is a valid statement if the apartments are for sale and not for rent. 

In 1953, the Western Australian State Housing Commission commissioned Krantz & Sheldon to design the Wandana housing project in Subiaco. It included ten-storey block containing 242 apartments. Upon its completion in 1956 Krantz once again had to defend apartment living. 

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Wandana Housing, Krantz & Sheldon, 1956
93 Thomas Street, Subiaco

Krantz & Sheldon remained the predominant designers of flats in Perth through to the 1970s, with some estimates suggesting the firm designed as much as 90% of Perth’s flats up to this time. In response to limits on building materials, and to keep maintenance to a minimum, their designs pursued functionalism and included features such as minimal decoration, unpainted timbers, face brickwork, cream painted finishes.

Here’s their Caringal Apartments. The effect is like Danish Modernism but achieved with materials having a high cost-performance. I say that because parquet flooring would not have been the least expensive option and because Krantz knew the physical properties of linoleum.

Playhouse Theatre, Harold Krantz, 1956
[demolished but formerly in Pier Street, Perth]

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Many Krantz & Sheldon buildings had face brickwork and it has been their fate to be painted. This happened with Hillside Gardens and even more recently with the partial painting of Fremantle’s Johnson Court that featured in The Homestead Myth.

Hillside Gardens, Krantz & Sheldon, 1963
59-65 Malcolm Street, West Perth

This real estate listing will hopefully still take you around the interior of an apartment at Hillside Gardens. 

In Australia, internal face brickwork elicits the same reaction as raw concrete does in the UK and for the same reason – class prejudice. Beauty = Expensive therefore Inexpensive = Ugly. Internal face brickwork was never intended as a fashion statement so it’s impossible for it to have gone out of fashion. If we don’t see so much of it today it’s not that we grew out of the look but because we like to think we can afford “better”. The same prejudice lives on. This is ironic because we can’t afford better. Over time, the quality of workmanship declined to the extent it became cheaper to build sloppily using second-rate materials and then cover it all up after with plaster and paint. “Architectural aesthetics is a smokescreen for economic exploitation.” Discuss. There’s no architectural aesthetics on display in this next photograph. Instead, the good life is depicted by the television, flowers, the palm tree and the dinner party about to happen with three courses, chargers, napkins, and the promise of wine.

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Interior makeovers have occurred at Johnson Court and many other Krantz & Sheldon apartment buildings but the bathrooms remain next to the kitchen for simplified plumbing, easier maintenance and natural ventilation. Some things resist being changed because there’s no way they can be improved upon.

The 1950s and 1960s were the golden years of flat building in Perth and nobody made a greater contribution to it than Krantz & Sheldon. Their apartments were of many types and sizes, and for budgets and sites of all sizes. All share the same pragmatic planning, construction, and servicing. All of the photographs you see here are used with the permission of the State Library of Western Australia.

There were also commissions for hotels.

Riverside Lodge is the most central of these. I include it here to show what building visualizations once looked like. It’s still there, and Mt. Eliza Apartments can still be seen in the background.

Riverside Lodge, Krantz & Sheldon
Mounts Bay Road, Perth

• • •

This links to a site that remembers Krantz’s actress wife Dororthy (and hence the connection with the Playhouse Theatre). There, it states that the 1964 Mount Eliza Apartments effectively marked the change in generation from Harold Krantz to son David. 

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Windsor Towers, which also featured in Misfits’ Guide to Perth, is from 1966.

Sheldon died in 1968 and Krantz retired in 1972. Krantz’s son David continued the practice with other partners Robin Arndt, John Silbert, George Sheldon (who I imagine is Robert Sheldon’s son) and Lourens West. The firm traded as Arndt, Silbert and West (KSASW) and later as Team Architects Australia. I believe it was later absorbed into Oldham Boas Ednie Brown and, if that’s so, is a case of the firm ending back where it began. Oldham Boas Ednie Brown now trades as The Buchan Group which is one of those global architectural consortiums that claim “a track record of excellence of service and design” or what passes for it these days. 

• • •

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Abraham Harold Krantz!

For developing a viable new housing product at the end of the Great Depression,

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for preparing the ground for an efficient new housing type of “minimum” flats in Perth,

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for your ceaseless efforts to make apartment buildings acceptable and affordable,

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for promoting a housing type, a construction system to build it,
developing a philosophy for its design and construction,
and for succeeding in rolling it out across Perth,
with various adaptions for site, orientation and budget.

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misfits’ salutes you!

Harold Krantz: Architecture Misfit #28

• • •

The Western Australia Apartment Advocacy (http://www.waaa.net.au) is continuing the work Harold Krantz began and works to promote apartment living in Perth and raise awareness of its advantages.

It was in 1941 when Harold Krantz first had to defend apartment living against a hostile public. Ninety years on, the WA Apartment Advocacy still has their work cut out for them

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• • •

Architecture Myths #23: Architecture

Structural engineers and quantity surveyors have always been core consultants in the building industry but their roles can often be performed by an architect if the job isn’t too large. With large jobs though, the requirements are too great and diverse for any one architect or practice to handle so it’s both inevitable and desirable to have some separation of roles. This increased separation brings clarity to the role of the architect on large jobs. Sole practitioners with small jobs never had any doubt.

And neither did the general public. Their perception of what a sole practitioner does may be a tad more rosy or stereotyped than it actually is but it’s not too far from the truth. In the case of high-profile jobs and high-profile architects however, that perception is wildly out of sync with reality.

Design generation in the offices of high-profile architects is now taken care of by the intern-farm where every project is given to a group of new recruits to see what they can come up with. That sounds casual, but it’s anything but. Those ideas are then “curated” and the one hitting the most buttons is selected for development.

Designing buildings or even generating ideas for the design of one are no longer tasks performed by high-profile architects.  

The US has the Architect of Record system which “is common when high-profile architects win design bids but find themselves in need of architects with more practical skills or knowledge of local conditions. Or more pragmatically, the high-profile architect simply needs an architect who is local to the project site, facilitating quicker site visits and project oversight.”

Practical skills, knowledge of local conditions, site visits and project oversight are not part of the skill set of high-profile architects.  

There are also Executive Architects that are local firms “responsible for corresponding with city agencies about code compliance, tender documents, client communication and creating up to 90 percent of the construction documents and carry out construction inspections are similar.”

Corresponding with city agencies re. code compliance, producing tender documents, producing construction documents, performing client communication and performing construction inspections are of course not skills required of high-profile architects.

In a recent address reported in the New York Post, Rafael Viñoly said the wide framing around the windows at his recently-completed 432 Park Avenue took up too much floor space and said it was the idea of the developer who wanted the view properly “framed”. Viñoly also wasn’t happy with many bathrooms being at the front of the apartments.

At left above is a window with said problematic viewframe. Me, I never used to mind it when I thought it was solid concrete but I do now I know it’s bullshit boxing. The image on the right shows a window with one of the problematic bathrooms. I don’t really buy into the “eating into the floor area” argument. If something doesn’t eat into the floor area then something else like a freestanding egg-shaped bathtub with Dornbracht polished chrome bath fittings will. Apartment layouts btw are by Deborah Berke Partner, headed by Deborah Berke (who happens to be the new dean at Yale, I hear).

Internal layouts are not something high-profile architects dirty their hands with.

Whoever dirtied their hands with New York by Gehry did an okay job of squeezing the most value out of [into?] the floor plate but Frank Gehry is probably not that person.

The trouble is, it’s accepted. The person living in the $3,150 pcm studio above isn’t paying for Frank Gehry’s skill at apartment planning. They’re paying to be living in New York in a building ostensibly designed by Frank Gehry – a fact rammed home by the building’s current monicker. That Gehry has no time for sustainability suggests the commerical uplift enabled by high-profile architects eclipses any uplift provided by sustainable building construction and practices. For now, anyway.

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Knowledge of the practice and delivery of sustainability is not on the CV of high-profile architects. 

In a December 2013 review of Zaha Hadid Architects’ Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku for the Architectural Review, Peter Cook contributed an 1,850-word review that famously omitted to tell anyone what the building was made out of. This is how the media lowers our standards. People interested in architecture are discouraged from wondering how a building is constructed. According to Peter Cook, all that lay people need do is wonder, preferably in awe at the architect’s genius.

Displaying a sense for materiality and construction are not concerns of high-profile architects. [High-profile architects do of course have a sense for materiality and construction but these both remind us of the labour that goes into the construction of buildings, and displaying evidence of that is not the done thing these days.]   

I recently saw these next images in a YouTube video.

The one on the left is what the architects gave to the visualizer. The one in the middle is the basics in place and the one on the right is the final product. It was all done in 48 hours using a “workflow” of Sketchup, VRay and Photoshop. This process is not a collaboration – it’s just two consultants doing their jobs, sending files back and forth and maybe even communicating only by email.

  • The architects were responsible for designing the development footprint and volume for the sake of the clients and/or financiers who will benefit
  • The visualizers were responsible for managing the perception of the project by those it will exploit. They include municipalities, retailers, workers, shoppers, the general public and anyone else who likes to think they’re stakeholders.

Each of the above images contains some aspect of what might traditionally be called architectural design but, individually, none can be said to be architectural design. With the internal layout examples I mentioned above, it was the inside of the building that was no longer the concern of high-profile architects but, with this example, it’s the exterior.

EUREKA MOMENT: What these seemingly contradictory examples have in common is a split between development gain and perception management.

Bjarke Ingels’s “genius” was to fuse development gain and perception management into one and the same thing and to the exclusion of all else. That in itself was a masterwork of perception management.

Architecture = development gain + perception management

 

Taking credit for development gain used to be thought grubby but it’s now something openly celebrated as architecture or what passes for it. There’s only one conclusion to be made when development gain and perception management have fused so neatly and strongly.

Architecture as anything other than perception management is no longer a concern of high-profile architects. 

Even development gain becomes irrelevant when the buildings themselves are built as exercises in perception management. You could say it was always so, from Knufu through to Hitler, Aliyev, and our new tech overlords.

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Perception management is the basic product starchitects offer. If Azerbaijan, Khazakhstan and China are anything to go by, the level of starchitect activity correlates with a country’s appreciation of the power of (and need for) perception management. The same goes for companies. I’ve avoided using the word starchitect up till now but the fact it gets up the noses of people like Gehry, Schumacher and Koolhaas is reason enough to use it. Speaking of, a disproportionate amount of starchitect noise arrives at us from the Koolhaas Nebula. Former employees inspired by and/or disenchanted with working for RK are said to have gone on to start some 90 practices globally.

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In addition to Rem Koolhaas himself, others whose work is singled out for analysis in Douglas Spencer’s The Architecture of Neoliberalism include Zaha Hadid, Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi. I hope some future book will scrutinize the oeuvre of Bjarke Ingels (for reasons that are becoming increasingly obvious) and also that of Fernando Romero (whose father-in-law was richest person in the world 2010-2013).

For me and anyone else who used to wonder what magical principle RK was communicating to all those people we watched get rewarded with fame for systematically narrowing the notion of architecture to what we’re left with today … well, now we know.

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Here’s some development gain and perception management in action: This is aforementioned Fernando Romero and NBF Sir Norman Foster in matching blue shirts, ignoring their coffees and phones to pose for this important photo of a plan the new Mexico City Airport. Both are doing the “hands-on” thing but Foster’s also doing his trademark “jacket-off” thing.

 

Misfits’ Guide to PERTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

The smoochy floor plate is also suspect.

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

East Perth Train StationAnthony (Tony) Brand, circa 1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is what happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

Glick House
18 Tennyson Street, Leederville

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

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

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

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• • •

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

• • •

The Inscrutable Apartment

If you know beforehand that a house is a two-up-two-down cottage, then you know its entire layout before you even enter.

The house may be sandwiched between party walls but its layout can nevertheless still be comprehended as “front” and “back” rooms offering not only alternate places to be but different experiences as well because of the different views and daylighting. It’s not possible to even approximate this in a single-aspect apartment. We need double-aspect apartments.

One way to do this is The 1+1/2 Floor Apartment. In 1927, a team led by Ivan Sobolev proposed apartments featuring a double-height living room and a construction module that could provide 2-, 4- or 6-bedroom double-aspect apartments. 

Sobolev correctly reasoned that bathrooms need to go above and below the corridor and that the kitchen needed to be adjacent to the dining area and share the floor of the living space and not its ceiling. Le Corbusier didn’t arrive at the same conclusion in 1949, 1952, 1956, 1957 or 1960. This section sketch by busharchitect rightly labels the apartments supérior and inférior but I doubt LC did.

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Nevertheless, all these apartments share the advantage of having one of the two levels having windows facing in a second direction rather than the single direction of the entrance level. This gives rise to cross ventilation but also provides one part of the apartment with a view and daylighting that differ from the other parts. This is not about adventure or surprise. All it means is that a small plan can feel more pleasant if it has more than one experience – or mood, if you prefer. Orthodox 20th century thinking has it that connecting spaces creates the illusion of having more and perhaps it does but that doesn’t mean it’s any more pleasant to live in.

De-connecting spaces is counter to that orthodoxy and so has never been explicitly stated as a good thing but the proliferation of complicated layouts in British 1950s council housing apartment shows it was understood as a principle even if the given justifications were to reduce the volume of space devoted to access (as did The Constructivists) or to somehow create architecture (by doing something “Corb” had tried).

The scissor flat was the most inscrutable of these layouts.

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The scissor section flat was developed by David Gregory-Jones and his team at LCC Architects department in 1956-57, with details of the design approach published in a technical article in 1962. The interlocking design provides a way of maximising the space given to flats in any building volume by reducing the space needed for entrance corridors and providing a dual aspect for each dwelling, but the design does have accessibility issues and the complex arrangement has caused confusion for emergency services.

The accessibility issue comes from UK regulations stipulating an accessible wc at entry level but this is impossible. The confusion for emergency services came about from the layout being unorthodox rather than complex but – anything either complex or unorthodox results in increased construction cost.

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Scissor apartments have a corridor every other floor so they weren’t all that good at saving apartment access area anyway. So why do it? The new advantage was that all living rooms could be on the same side of the building whether the sunnier one or the one less noisy . This was the stated reason for their use in the upmarket apartment building, Corringham.

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What the scissor apartment also does better because of its multiple levels is accentuate the differences of experience already created by the differences in aspect. These apartments feel larger than ones on a simple two levels. The entrance space is used only to enter and leave the apartment. Once inside, the front door is forgotten. It’s not something one’s always passing by.

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These 2010 plans by Al Shawa & McKay also have corridors every other level but the additional advantage is natural ventilation for access corridors as well as (seaparately exhausted) bathrooms and kitchens. This is achieved by leading access corridors through light/air shafts in a manner not unusual in low-rise Andalucian apartment buildings. 

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The Katana Residences similarly twist and interlock paired apartments.

Double-sided elevators eliminate access corridors and create a false simplicity since three service corridors now run across the building for shared access to fire escape stairs and service elevators. These do nothing to enhance the daily use of the building.

Taking it a step further is Yokohama Apartments by Osamu Nishida + Erika Nakagawa of On Design. Billed as apartments for artists and they may well be, but the building is essentially an exercise in co-living. Entry floor is shared amenities plus four staircases

leading to individual apartments but, Japan being Japan, not in any straightforward manner.

Building on the work of SANAA in monetising access alleyways, these apartments offer  balconies as landings. Private bathrooms and the opportunity for the preparation of simple food suggest they will be lived in as apartments. These apartments definitely have two different (and to our eyes, extreme) spatial experiences but both are intensified by the circuitous route connecting them.

This brings us naturally to the 2014 Alley House by Be Fun Design[Afterwards, check out some of their other projects – they’re not as silly as you might think.]

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They’d already found out with their 2013 Spiral House what happens when you give each tenant equivalent front doors accessing vertical slivers of four storey space. Alley House occupants also have equivalent front doors but this time they access three quarter floors spiralling up and around the building. There’s the same awareness of the perimeter walls as in On Design’s Yokohama Apartments but this time everybody experiences every side of the building. It’s not so silly.

This seems an appropriate time to remember the Double Apartment Building designed in 1921 by Nikolai Krasilnikov at the Vkhutemas studio of Nikolai Ladovsky.

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Krasilnikov manages to pre-empt BeFun’s internal experiments with Alley House and Frank Gehry’s volumetric ones with Vitra Design Museum and brings us back to the early 1920s and back to the (former) U.S.S.R. This next is Living Project on Rublevskoye Highway, Mosow, by Sergey Skuratov architects.

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The practice’s website is a triumph of substance over image but the many project images also appear on over on archi.ru along with the unhelpful description “The architectural solution of the towers is simple and dramatic at the same time. Each of the volumes has two “material” and two “penetrable” facades.” This doesn’t tell us why that might be a good idea.

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When the corner rooms of those corner apartments DON’T have windows facing in two directions, it becomes possible for the apartment to offer two different and distinct types of experience. All the corner apartments above do this but the effect is most pronounced in north corner apartment indicated as the kitchen is the room with the different daylighting and view. The apartment isn’t large at around 45 sq.m but, because it has more than one experience to offer and doesn’t reveal them both at once, it will always offer two distinct experiences regardless of the time of day, the room or the reason for being in it.

It’s not a thing of huge consequence but it might be time to start forgetting about spaces flowing together for the dubious advantage of creating the impression of having more. Not connecting rooms every possible way and not having windows on every possible surface suggest a different way of appreciating the space inside an apartment and the space outside as well.

It might be time to think about what the concept of spaces “flowing into one another” has actually done for us.

Modest Megastructures

Le Corbusier’s 1922 Freehold Maisonettes were stacked and repeated within a column and slab structure. In 1923 the same apartment layout was marketed as a suburban house in Almanach d’Architecture Moderne. In 1925 it reappeared as the Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau. 

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Le Corbusier’s 1933 Plan Obus proposal for Algiers had a highway along the roof, suggesting a double-loaded corridor with deep plan, single-aspect apartments on both sides.

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Limited daylighting and cross ventilation are just two problems of such a configuration but one virtue that’s never mentioned is the amount of variation in the facade treatments of individual dwellings [and thanks Julius for making me look at it again]. Plan Obus is a megastructure that in principle allows an owner-occupant the same amount of architectural freedom as a detached house along a street would.

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Le Corbusier’s depiction of French and Algerians living side by side

Le Corbusier never developed Plan Obus into anything else or used this idea elsewhere. He was to later partially solve the problem of sun penetration and cross ventilation with the double-aspect apartments of the Unités d’Habitation, beginning with the 1949 one in Marseilles that wasn’t a megastructure despite having some serious concrete and a few shops that hinted at self-containment but were never going concerns.

This famous illustration of obscure provenance has forever associated the Unité d’Habitations with the idea of living units lifted into a structure despite this having no basis in fact.

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The idea of a habitable megastructure was kept alive by buildings such as Affonso Eduardo Reidy’s Block A of the Pedregulho Neighborhood Redevelopment in Rio de Janeiro circa 1960.

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The building’s external configuration has similarities with Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus and an internal configuration similar to Moisei Ginzburg’s 1930 Narkomfin. Reidy’s Block A isn’t a megastructure as things are held up rather than structured. It’s the same with Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1974 Pasadena Heights in Mishima, Japan.

Like the Reidy building, Pasadena Heights also offers no scope for occupants to change, exchange, extend or otherwise alter their living space in accordance with their needs or their desires. How the building is going to be and how it’s going to be lived in have already been 100% designedPasadena Heights was an attempt to bring megastructures down to earth, to make them liveable rather than visionary, to make them useful.

Kikutake deserves credit for this for, in the 1960’s, he’d been one of The Metabolists who, along with Archigram, took the idea of living units attached to a megastructure and ran with it. Living units were called pods or capsules because it suggested plastic and everything modern and in the future was plastic. The thinking went that pods could be upgraded or replaced much like apartments, cars, sofas and mobile phones have come to be today.

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City In The Air, Arata Isoaki, 1961

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Kiyonori Kikutake, Ocean City, 1968

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Archigram, Plug-In City, 1960–1974

Kurokawa’s 1973 Nakagin Capsule Tower is said to be the only built example of such a mega-megastructure and it’s this image we’re encouraged to remember as it articulates the notion, popular in both the UK and Japan at the time, that design for change was A Good Thing. By not being clear about what kind of change or why, these magastructure proposals opened the door for today’s commodification of housing and nowhere is this more true than in the UK and Japan. In contrast, Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti megastructures dating from the same period were all crust and no filling. They had no lasting impact. They are ‘not taught’. Remembering change is encouraged, remembering permanence is not.

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Images of Arcosanti have long disappeared from history books whereas Plug-In City, Ocean City and City In The Sky continue to be presented as essential knowledge in architecture schools. At the time though, some people did wonder what kind of government would administer such megastructures but Superstudio were in no doubt. Their 1971 Megaton City imagined a homogenized society where even dissenting thought was crushed (quite literally). Their Megaton City was social commentary.

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Bjarke Ingels’ megastructures however are a comment on our society in that they regard human beings as infill. Portentiously, the megastructure no longer even exists for the sake of the people that support it. The history of contemporary architecture may as well be called the neoliberalist’s history of architecture for if it doesn’t further its agenda, it gets unremembered pretty quickly.

• • •

This is how the flow of the history of things thought to be important has gone. Le Corbusier continues to be vilified for the uniformity represented by his 1922 Ville Contemporaine proposal for Paris but to my knowledge has never been credited with the possibilities for diversity represented by his 1942 Plan Obus proposal for Algiers.

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Never one to refrain from blowing his own trumpet, he can’t have wanted it to be remembered. This may be because the “diversity” of French Algiers wasn’t one the Algerians actually cared for or wanted. Alternatively, it could be because architects responding to people’s subjective needs to express themselves or their cultures was still an idea ahead of its time. In the end, Algerians did express themselves and it was called the The Algerian War of Independence. Until November 1942 when Algeria was to cease being under Vichy control, it would have been on-message for Le Corbusier to represent diversity and people of different cultures living side by side. It’s an early case of an architect wanting to be responsible only for the form of the built environment and not its content.

Given Le Corbusier’s propensity to repackage and re-present aspects of earlier work, we would surely have seen Plan Obus again if he’d thought or wanted to take it any further.

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Going by what he did do later, it’s likely he let it die because it was a consequence of those specific (political) circumstances and he saw in it no possibility for application elsewhere. It’s also likely he simply didn’t believe in it architecturally. Nevertheless, we can look at this sketch today and see a useful idea in the content of the proposal if not its form.

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The story that Post Modernism began with the dynamiting of Pruitt Igoe has been repeated so often it’s futile saying it didn’t. [It didn’t.] What really began was Charles Jencks’ career of saying it did and that Modernism hadn’t paid sufficient attention to people’s subjective needs. Post Modern architects assumed everyone’s subjective needs were for more ornament and decoration on buildings that ‘spoke’ of what they did and where they were or of some place in the history of something. Nobody cared if this was a correct assumption or not. What was important was that buildings were suddenly able to speak, and not only speak but speaking with ambiguity and irony, and telling jokes too.

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Arata Isozaki, Team Disney Building, Orlando, Florida, 1990 / Photo by Xinai Liang, tweeted by Adam Nathaniel Furman

When SITE proposed Highrise of Homes in 1981 it was understood as a joke but it’s really Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus on less land with no view of the Med, and serviced by roads on the ground.

The visual expression of the building is the sum of how its individual owners choose to live. The diversity and, by the same token, the uniformity of a suburban street have been replicated in an urban high rise. The surrealness of its appearance results from it looking different from the surrounding buildings, from it being outside our experience and from it not being we expect the appearance of a building to be.

Highrise of Houses should not have seemed so novel and so weird when Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus had represented much the same thing fifty years earlier. My issue isn’t with authorship but about the need to continually revisit history and scan it for ideas that, taken out of context, have relevance for us now for the idea of a modest megastructure allowing individual dwellings and individuality is a recurrent one and a useful one.

The Next21 Building in Osaka was built in 1994 as a project conceived by Osaka Gas Corporation. It uses the Open Building principles as articulated by Dutch architect John Habraken.

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“The NEXT21 Construction Committee developed the basic plan and design. Its objectives were:

• using resources more effectively through systemized construction
• creating a variety of residential units to accommodate varying households
• introducing substantial natural greenery throughout a high-rise structure
• creating a wildlife habitat within urban multi-family housing
• treating everyday waste and drainage onsite within the building
• minimizing the building’s compound burden on the environment
• using energy efficiently by means including fuel cells
• making a more comfortable life possible without increasing energy consumption” [ref.]

“Units were designed by 13 different architects. Each unit’s interior and exterior layout was freely designed within a system of coordinating rules for positioning various elements.”[ref.] 

The project seems like a sincere attempt to simulate real diversity in a prototype building even though there’s a conceptual flaw in using thirteen “different” architects to simulate actual conditions of user choice for, as noted in Open Building case studies such as this, apartment layouts aren’t necessarily rational when real occupants are allowed to design them according to what they perceive to be their needs.

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These are the plans that were submitted for approval.

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The upper plan is the plan given to the contractor, and the lower is what was built according to the occupants’ wishes.

Having an apartment entrance fixed at the corner was never going to produce great plans but the most rational are those most similar to the approval plans. On the other hand, we can’t say the ‘irrational’ plans are wrong for we generally accept that how people choose to live is their business.

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Thanks to Tiago for tweeting this.

We encourage Open Buildings and other forms of diversity for the internal arrangements of a building and appreciate a controlled degree of diversity along suburban streets but we still expect the outsides of buildings to show the unifying hand of the architect. Even the Next21 building in Osaka had a uniformity of colour, cladding and window frames. Our architectural culture is loathe to relinquish control over the outsides of buildings. Post Modernism left us preferring fake diversity to organic similarity. Design for real diversity was never on the cards. 

Architecture is better at subjective solutions to subjective needs than it is at real solutions to real ones. However, if subjective needs remain valid even if false, then supposedly the architecture that satisfies them can be so too. The problem is when the satisfaction of subjective needs not only replaces but excludes the satisfaction of real ones as a subject of architecture. What we’re left with is an architecture of empty calories. Another huge problem is that subjective needs don’t need to be satisfied in any real way – it’s sufficient to represent them being satisfied. What we’re left with is an architecture of empty promises.

Herzog de Meuron’s 2010 Beirut Terraces gives us the representation of difference rather than any meaningful reality of it. Its contrived randomness is the sellable appearance of diversity rather than a real diversity or the visual consequence of one.

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Architecture has two problems with real diversity. One is that it’s visually messy. That’s bad but it’s not as bad as the other which is that real diversity can’t be generated by architects. Architects can only represent it or, more accurately, the absence of it. By way of proof, the representation of apparent diversity within a revealed structure of columns and slabs is a modern meme. Contriving the appearance of natural processes at work is a skill valued in proportion to how convincing the approximation is. You’ll remember these two buildings from the previous post.

Slabs on load bearing columns are one of mankind’s better inventions and rather than just representing diversity, can actually allow for a real one – if given the chance. Aravena repackaged the problem rather well by designing a modest megastructure in which people could satisfy their real and subjective needs through some weekend DIY and at the same time satisfy our need to believe in an architecture that does that. It worked for them. It worked for him.

But what about us?  If people everywhere started to expect less of architects and to self-build then architecture as we know it will no longer exist. After having come to the same conclusion around Feb. 23 this year, Aravena backpedalled in Western media.

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The cat was out of the bag though for, as seen at the 15th Venice Biennale, “The urban developments designed by German architects BEL (Anne-Julchen Bernhardt and Jörg Leeser) are based upon the concept of incremental urbanization. 

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“Compared to past cases, such as those developed in the 1960s in Latin America, the approach by BEL envisages the creation of multistory structures, composed of a simple array of columns and slabs, which can be “completed” and adapted to different functional and cultural schemes, thus fulfilling the specific characteristics and requirements of their inhabitants.” [ref.]

It’s the same combination of self-build within a modest megastructure. It’s using columns and slabs as land multiplied, and letting its purchasers do what they like with it although presumably with restrictions on cantilevering and projections. What’s innovative for us is that it does so without concern for how the end result looks. It has to be this way. The choice is to either suppress diversity by its representation, or to allow diversity and accept the visual consequences of letting it happen. Eighty three years on, we’re almost back to where we could have been.

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This post evolved from a 28 Nov 2016 Twitter exchange between Julius JääskeläinenTiago Baptista and myself.
Further reading 1: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/66/60768/the-dispersal-of-architecture/
Further reading 2: http://bidoun.org/articles/le-corbusier-s-algerian-fantasy
Featured image: BeL Sozietät für Architektur, Allotment House, Hamburg, Germany, 2013, Base and Settlers©BeL, as found at https://www.inexhibit.com/case-studies/15th-venice-biennale-aravenas-core-exhibition-part-2-arsenale/ 

Brands as Architectural Legacy

I never expected to look back at the 1990’s and think it was a kinder, gentler era.

Behind the Postmodern Facade
Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America
Magali Sarfatti Larson, 1993

How architecture has changed and how the systems for its production have changed along with it is an important topic but the book itself is somewhat dated. This post will attempt to update it but first, a bit of background.

Many people imagine the making of buildings to take place in a situation where a group of architects is happy working away for a figurehead personality who is the creative force. This is partially correct.

Le Corbusier

In the case of Le Corbusier however, we’re not even aware of there ever having been an office and a largeish team of people getting all those buildings drawn, detailed, site-managed and built. History is only concerned with authorship and not the process or mechanics of getting it done. On the other hand, with Le Corbusier, we can reasonably suspect he was the author of projects attributed to him.   

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Who were these people? What happened to them?

Frank Lloyd Wright

With Frank Lloyd Wright, the contributions of employees such as Marion Griffin have been systematically underrated or misaccredited. It wasn’t he who did those lovely drawings he took on his extended trip to Europe.

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Of the Taliesin alumni, John Lautner is the one who most made a name for himself. As mentioned in What happens when architects die?, Wright’s office continued on for a while after the posthumous completions were exhausted.

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The Architects’ Collaborative

In Dessau, Walter Gropius detached the teaching of architecture from its documentation and construction quite literally as well. The much-photographed design students and their various antics in the workshop and studio buildings were architecturally separated from the income-generating students learning drafting and construction skills in the standard classrooms of the technical school.  

In America, Gropius extended this innovation into the professional sphere by detaching the promotion of architectural ideas from their generation, allowing figurehead personalities to sell themselves and their brand without having to be involved with the tiresome processes of building creation, documentation and construction. [This seems to have been a consistent and lifelong theme of his.] The Architects’ Collaborative (1945-1995) consisted of seven architects led and guided by Walter Gropius as figurehead personality. It’s impossible to name any member who was not Walter Gropius. 

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Originally, each of the eight partners [!?] would hold weekly meetings on a Thursday to discuss their projects and be open to design input and ideas. However, as the firm grew larger there were many more people on a team and it was more difficult to consolidate into one group. Therefore, many other “groups” of architects within the firm were formed and carried out the same original objective.

The status quo

This system of nested hierarchices is what we have today with offices divided into teams with a team leader and those who execute their instructions.  

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A design idea is still likely to come from a Head of Architecture outside the team, but more likely to have met the clients and had a hand in winning the commission in the first place. When a job is landed, the Head of Architecture assesses each team’s skills and stage of completion of their project, and chooses to either reallocate staff or projects or, if the project is a major one, to cannibalize teams and configure a new one having the appropriate skills and size.

Frank Gehry

At Frank Gehry’s office, designers are encouraged to design in the style of Frank Gehry and those designs are then run by him for approval. Sometimes he even changes them completely [!], it is said. This is no different from any commercial practice with a house style.

Of course it’s frustrating for workers to be taken off one job and assigned to another so, in order to motivate those who became architects because they wanted to design, they’re tossed occasional design bones in the form of an internal competitions for some new project. They work on this in their own time and so reveal to their boss the degree to which they have bought into the myth of the ambitious yet overworked and underpaid creative.

The system initiated by Gropius has left us a situation where it’s no longer obvious where architectural ideas are coming from. This has its advantages. If a practice wants to win work from high-profile competitions, one design brain simply isn’t enough.

Has there ever been a time in the history of architecture when there are so many competitions? This is where the theme of the book at the head of this post becomes relevant. An environment rich in competitions produces a system of architectural production exquisitely evolved (with all the pros and cons that that implies) to produce architectural firms that feed off them. Competition-driven practices like to call themselves research-driven practices. They also like to tell us they are research-driven practices as this makes it seems a noble endeavour to have much activity yet nothing to show for it. Clients, for their part, like competitions not only because they increase their options and allow for a ‘prescreening’m, but also because the promotional efforts of several practices contributes to the media circus that anyway surrounds high-profile competitions. [c.f. Celebrity Shootout] It’s a symbiotic relationship.

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Back in the 1990s, practices that could afford to, formed ‘elite’ teams for the purpose of winning competitions, but when the ideal form of practice becomes the kind that produces the kind of architecture that wins competitions, every project starts to be treated as a competition and all staff start to get tossed design bones on a regular basis in order to keep them keen. This leaves figurehead personalities free to concentrate on curating those ideas and marketing them, and the workers happy to generate concepts and live the dream. A large number of interns guarantees low overheads, a freshness that grizzled and experienced staff don’t have and, importantly, wild ideas that, if ever realized, make us wonder anew at the mystery of architecture by making us redefine yet again what it is a building can be. Over and over again. It’s a new kind of hell, basically. 

OMA

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Occasional reports such as this by a former intern at OMA’s Hong Kong office do the media circuit. The story is always the same. Intense. Long hours. Pressure. Exilarating. Unforgettable. Burnout. 

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Bjarke Ingels describes his experience at OMA in these now standard terms and, despite claiming to have left because he disapproved of the relentless pressure to produce, seems to have replicated OMA system of battery farming ideas for buildings. He now describes himself as a curator of ideas.

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Many employees, especially those who have just graduated, accept such high-pressure work as normal until they realize they are 1) overworked, 2) underpaid, and 3) under-appreciated. It’s not just the minions. Senior staff also jump ship if they have observed the food chain long enough to understand how it works and have come to the conclusion “I can do that!” They’re not driven by the desire to create architecture but by the desire to have the benefits of  having their own branding machine. [c.f. Monetising Architectural Fame] Ken Shuttleworth famously departed Foster + Partners in 2004 to set up MAKE. How many of F+P’s designers jumped with him was never made public but rumours at the time put it around 30%. Within weeks, MAKE’s debut press release was a multicoloured building conspicuously not shaped like a gherkin.

Architecture Building of The Vortex in London by Make Architects copy

Equally sensationally, Joshua Prince Ramus, departed as head of OMA’s NY operation in 2000 to set up REX. The then website took pains to put some distance between them and OMA. Their current About page is not much different.

We design collaborations rather than dictate solutions. The media sells simple, catchy ideas; it reduces teams to individuals and their collaborative work to genius sketches. The proliferation of this false notion of “starchitecture” diminishes the real teamwork that drives celebrated architecture. REX believes architects should guide collaboration rather than impose solutions.

We replace the traditional notion of authorship: “I created this object,” with a new one: “We nurtured this process.”We embrace responsibility in order to implement vision.The implementation of good ideas demands as much, if not more, creativity than their conceptualization. Increasingly reluctant to assume liability, architects have retreated from the accountability (and productivity) of Master Builders to the safety (and impotence) of stylists. To execute vision and retain the insight that facilitates architectural invention, REX re-engages responsibility. Processes, including contractual relationships, project schedules, and procurement strategies, are the stuff with which we design.

Former OMA partner Ole Scheeren has trod the same path.

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ZHA

Of all the OMA spawn, ZHA is unique in leaving no confusion as to where authorship lies – although the definition of authorship is stretched somewhat when the original creative idea is not even called a concept. 

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It is called an irritant – in the hope of evoking notions of oysters and pearls and of something initiating a process to creates something of value. The big advantage of the irritant is that it allows its generator to technically claim the right to be recognised as author.

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If one is going to stop one’s best people drifting off to set up shop for themselves, it pays to keep them on a long leash. Shohei Shigematsu, current partner and head of OMA’s NY operation since 2008 is allowed to outline his plan to bring new dimensions to the NY OMA brand. Let’s see how that goes.

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There’s no denying the number of people who have worked for OMA and thought “I can do that!”

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OMA seems destined to never become the brand umbrella of architectural design in the same way that LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) is for luxury goods, or architecture behemoth AECOM is for the less glamorous side of the building business.

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I’ve come to admire Asnago & Vender all the more for buying into none of this. Instead, they left us a large and coherent legacy of useful buildings designed and built over five decades, mostly in the same city. I admire them for refusing to conceive of their buildings as vehicles for their self-promotion. They didn’t have a brand, they had a reputation. This distinction is no longer important. It’s not even that having a strong brand is now seen as better than having a good reputation. Having a strong brand is seen as an end in itself. Nothing else exists, let alone matters.

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23 Oct. 2016: Thom Brisco kindly tweeted me this today, saying it gives “an insight on the Corb-gap from Polish-born Swedish architect Léonie Geisendorf who worked in his office in the 1930s.” It does indeed. 

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