Category Archives: Performance-Beauty

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

Modern Vernacular

A vernacular of performance …

Microprocessor research and technological application is always concerned with the pursuit of higher performance for the same or lower energy input, manufacture using simpler and fewer mechanical and chemical processes, the discovery of processes having higher degrees of tolerance, the elimination of ecologically unsound and toxic processes, the search for elements and compounds which are less expensive either in themselves or to synthesize, three dimensional layout design to maximize compactness, increase speed of operation and minimize electron loss, and so on. In addition to all of these concerns, miniaturization and cost efficiency are also pursued in order to maximize applicability and marketability. Form is irrelevant. They are simple rectangular solids covered in resin to protect and insulate, and also to hide their workings from competitors. Rather than a beauty of form, there is a beauty of the synthesis of isolated, composite and integrated function, the exploration of materials with multiple properties, the processes of manufacture, and the economics and integration of it all. Most of this is pursued at the sub-electron level.


The result is a high-performance product with very specific and highly-defined functions. It has a form but that was not the goal. It carries no notions of status. Microprocessors and their manufacture are the product of continuing refinement towards more performance for less input, all the time shunning waste, excess, redun-dancy and design for the sake of it. The beauty of a microprocessor is not one of simple function, but an integrated performance of the whole and its parts in themselves and in the course of their manufacture. The pursuit of this is a commercial one for a market is assured. As there is for housing. However, in terms of its consequences for the production process, there is an important difference between a house as a machine for living in, and a house as a metaphor of a machine for living in.


… encompasses building materials, …


The vernacular use of local materials in rural areas is not intended to be quaint, rustic or to glorify the aesthetic qualities of natural materials. It is merely an obvious and expedient use of available materials, labour resources and techniques. Loadbearing walls support loads, provide thermal and acoustic insulation and provide spatial delimitors. They are also relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, instead of us seeing the beauty of the thought processes by which vernacular buildings came about, we more readily see their beauty in terms of the property they tend to be standing on, in much the same way as the “beauty” of ships and grain silos is dependent upon the vastness of the empty (but no less justifying) spaces around them. Selection and use of materials should be in terms of how many of their properties can be made use of to satisfy multiple functions. It would expedite the rational selection and use of building materials and methods today if a similar thought processes were applied.


Glen Murcutt and Rem Koohaus have used corrugated iron for the inherent properties it has, and in doing so, have restored its place as a building mateial.  This is a step back towards a vernacular approach to materials and their use. Natural materials are already objects of status so unless we are to either import building materials or quarry every rock and fell every tree in the country, a modern vernacular will sooner or later have to use substitutes. A day will come when corrugated iron will be seen as decadent a building material as carved stone is now.  Sooner or later we will have to relearn.

… interior finishes, …

Internal finishes contribute significantly to the cost of a building. A modern vernacular building would be designed ot use inexpensive and multi-functional finishes were any to be used at all. The walls of log cabins and traditional Japanese rooms (and their houses, for the two were integral) did not have any applied finishes.


Timber having become the commodity of status it is, building such a house is a statement of affluence in Japan today. We have to learn to appreciate the beauty that less expensive and status-laden materials also have in their raw state. This process can already be seen operating in the field of product design. Whereas most hi-fi components used to be housed in timber cabinets, only top-quality ones remain so today. Office furniture is being continually being redesigned to use less expensive materials. Over the past twelve months, the use of less-expensive transparent plastics has beome widespread, but marketed as an indicator of some new awareness. Validated by their use in the iMac, their use quickly spread to kitchen equipment such as electric kettles and toasters.


… building components, …

If passed on, the cost benefits of mass production are more pronounced if products are standardized and their design and manufacture tailored for maximum cost efficiency. Countering this is the value-added component restored by offering a wide selection of products and marketing them with emphasis on ‘individuality’. Double-glazed windows and conservatories are two examples where this operates to negate consumer benefit. CD players used to be made with lasers having lenses of glass. The current use of plastic is the result of design for cost-efficient manufacture rather than audio considerations. Some designs are easier to produce than others. This is reflected in the cost of the final goods whether the means of production is a factory machine, skilled worker, unskilled worker or craftsman. What has to be remembered is that a building can use prefabricated and mass-produced products designed for ease of assembly, but if these are to produce a building having an aesthetic that is dependent upon the possession of property for its effect, then it will never be applicable to realistic housing needs .The desirability will be there because of reduced construction, but those benefits will be negated by the price of the property necessary to sustain the aesthetic.

case study

… methods of construction, …

Similarly, construction by highly skilled technicians, craftsmen or artisans was simple process involving available materials. It is not anymore. The use of highly skilled labour as a means of production continues to indicate status. That it produces goods of high quality is not disputed.


This is the same value and status investing process of art. Design for less-expensive methods of construction has to take into account the inherent imprecision of techniques requiring less skill. Modernism did not translate well when its construction techniques were applied to low-cost housing. Flat roofs were technically vulnerable to imprecise methods. A simple and available means of achieving something is preferable to a complex one. In addition, each component of the building should be designed to have more than one function, both when the building is complete and in the course of its construction.

… building fittings and services, …

Building fittings continue to be marketed as status-generating consumer items, particularly with regard to kitchens. In terms of aesthetics derived from function and status, a £3,500 stainless steel cooker is more beautiful than a £50 reconditioned gas cooker, but in terms of cost-effective performance, the opposite is true.


In general, be it a sofa or a cupboard, built-in furniture is a means of adding value to buildings. Justifying this in terms of saving space, returns the argument to one of property. Be this as it may,the process of building items in complicates and lengthens the building process. Concealing anything in a building costs money, whether it be hardware (structure, construction joints), firmware (conduits, services) or software (all furniture, light fittings, saucepans and all objects having an element of consumer choice). The evolution of techniques to incorporate hardware and firmware elements into a design should be encouraged.


… the building type, …

If a vernacular aesthetic of performance is to be applicable to buildings, then a building itself must also satisfy as many functions as possible – a concept which runs counter to this century’s architectural thought. Last century’s gave us the notion of separating functions and classes in a city. This century’s gave it form, the initial applications of which were new towns and mass housing schemes separating residential and retail areas. Compare the cities of Europe where, during the 19th century, having shops at street level and apartments above become sufficiently well established as a pattern of high-density urban living to survive industrialization and Modernism separating them as they did in Britain.


An equivalent building type still survives here but it dates from before the Industrial Revolution when this split occurred. It is the lower-class Georgian residential/retail building. Remaining largely on high streets, it is a building of four or five storeys providing mixed usage along streets which actually function as part of a city. The needs for shelter and food have not changed that much over the past couple of hundred years to warrant new types of structures built in totally different locations and dependent upon public or private transport to link them.

… and the city. 

Modern needs are not that modern. The public amenity of shopping is privatized and concentrated in shopping centres and malls which separate the retail function of the city. The price advantages of large chain stores is sufficient for us to accept the inconvenience of location, the neces-sity to drive or otherwise get there, and the dehumanization of the act of selling, the act of buying, and to a certain extent, the goods themselves. Catalogue shopping, home delivery services, television and online shopping and video deliveries are only manifestations of a modern life-style because our local access to them has been taken away. They are commercial responses to restoring something which our buildings don’t provide any more.


The Georigan mixed use buildings are useful urban forms which should be regarded as a prototype, and like a microprocessor, have their design, structure and process subject to continual refinement in order to extract maximum performance from it. This is unlikely to happen while residual social prejudice remains in the form of separation of classes, and institutionalized architectural prejudice remains in the form of separation of functions. However, if a former Victorian sweatshop or mews building can be marketed as a desirable form of urban living, then so can living above a shop. In addition, if we are to avoid people being housed with no alternative but to look at each other, the only unexploited form of public property left for housing to overlook is the street, and it is in the interest of the entire city and society that streets remain interesting and active enough for people to not only use them to travel along and buy food, but also interact with them as a neighbourhood and derive sustenance from them. This form of urban use should also allow us to extract more performance from our streets than we are either currently receiving or are being led to expect in the future.

• • •

• • •

This post complements and concludes the previous Meta-Aesthetics post and is the third and final installment of misfits’ prehistory. Normal programming resumes next week.







This second installment of misfits’ prehistory builds upon some of the ideas in last week’s Property, Time & Architecture from 1999. I remastered the file from an InDesign package created February 2010. The original was probably made in Quark XPress a decade earlier because all images were .tif files. Bold headings summarize the text. Blockquotes are diversions and expansions.

In this essay, I use the word aesthetics in the usual sense and the term an aesthetic to denote a set of architectural devices united by an underlying philosophy and purpose. I only mention this because since this essay was written, the term has been largely supplanted by the word style even though (or, more likely, because) it makes us expect neither.

• • •

Aesthetics is the study of notions of beauty.
These notions change over time.
This essay is about architecture in general and architectural beauty in particular.
It identifies what successive notions of architectural beauty have had in common.
It identifies why certain aesthetics fall into and out of favour.
It provides a framework for understanding how aesthetics operate over time.
It is a meta-aesthetics.

• • •

Aesthetics give shape to our values and aspirations. This is not necessarily a good thing.

By 1850 in Britain, property and people had been divided into three classes. The upper class (still) had property in the country. The middle class had property subdivided in the form of townhouses and, later, as suburban houses. The working class had property stacked, as tenements. The middle classes overlooked communal property in the form of the squares or parks recreating country estates, and the more fortunate of the lower classes had communal property in the form of basic facilities provided by humanitarian industrialists.


The success or failure of any aesthetic is an expression of the values generating it.

19th and early 20th notions of an Ideal City separating the functions of the city also served to separate the classes for the two were the same. Over the course of the Industrial Revolution, the upper classes built townhouses but anchored themselves on their land. The middle classes were to build their townhouses in locations such as Belgravia, Paddington and Kensington, separating themselves and their new wealth from the docks, mills and railways that were the sources of it, as well as from where the workers lived. In a consistent expression of this attitude, convicts were separated as far away as Australia. The style of the 19th century urban townhouse was the Classicism of the country house and the square or park recreated the impression of property outside one’s window, even if it was communal.


The style was successively simplified for houses of the lower classes. Within the larger townhouses, there was a similar separation of function/class, with servants having their own working spaces, stairs and living quarters, within which, location and quantity of space established a similar separation amongst servant classes. The use of servants also enabled the functions within the building to be separated. Whereas the lower class could only bathe in a tub in front of the fire, servants duplicated the roles of pipes and conduits, transporting hot and cold water throughout the building, maintaining and lighting the lamps, and carrying away waste.


Servants also isolated the household as a class unit within society since they performed necessary tasks such as shopping by either going to the markets or dealing with cart vendors for milk, bread, vegetables, meat and fish. The physical and social separation of classes inside the house replicated the physical and social separation of the house from other classes in the city. Separation by function was separation by function in society. Status of the owners was denoted by the location and size of the house, the design of its facade, and the number and decoration of its major rooms.

Buildings require money and land to build. The history of architectural aesthetics is the history of articulating the ownership of wealth and property.

The use of decorative ornament in the 19th century indicated the rich man’s surplus and the poor man’s lack of it. In the 20th century, the architectural aesthetic of Modernism was to shun decorative ornament as bourgeois and attempt to generate form from the separation of physical functions. In patterns of living however, it maintained the class values inherent in the forms it replaced. The Georgian square miniaturized the pleasure of overlooking property. Although many of those townhouses were subdivided into flats in the 1920s and even today remain prime properties because it still possible to overlook the property of the square as if it were one’s own.


In 1922, Le Corbusier arrived at an identical form in his Immeuble Villa unit for the élite in his Ville Contemporaine, planned, ‘as a capitalist city of administration and control, with garden cities for the workers being sited, along with industry, beyond the ‘security zone’ of the green belt encompassing the city.’ Le Corbusier also designed 19th century notions of social segregation into both his urban plans and his private houses such as the Villa Stein (1926-7) and Villa Savoye (1928-9), two buildings commonly regarded as seminal works of the Modern movement.

An aesthetic loses its usefulness when its connotations of status are lost, and any process of refinement stops

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations of 1947-53 was never going to be a realistic prototype for low-cost, high density living. Needing to be surrounded by sufficient Nature/property, it was self-defeating in the city and absurd in the country. Despite its claimed advantages, shop space was not let immediately and few shop-owners were keen to relocate there. The fact that what was once the outskirts of Marseilles is now a popular address indicates that property prices in central Marseilles have risen in the meantime, and that a view of the ocean from there is better than none at all. It also means that instead of being located in “Nature” it is now located in a thriving suburb with sufficient population density to make stores within the building viable. If such buildings have large sites, then the cost-effectiveness of site use is less compromised by siting such buildings alongside virtual property such as public parks or bodies of water, but these sites are usually occupied by premium high-rise dwellings or hotels.


Having one’s own estate in the country downscaled to communally-owned squares in the city or smaller properties of the suburbs, with the virtual property of converted flats remaining preferable to that of purpose-built flats. Public property such as parks or bodies of water became virtual country estates, and views of one’s neighbours did not rank. Modernism presented light, space and a view of Nature as universal rights, but in reality, continued to treat them as commodities of status, their absence signalling poverty. Another problem had to do with materials. While concrete and prefabrication feature largely in the technical history of Modern architecture, it was not until Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul of 1954 that concrete slabs were combined with bare load-bearing brick walls and presented as an aesthetic.


Despite Stirling’s use of this in the 1955~8 Ham Common flats and the attempts of the Brutalists to develop it, the sheer applicability of concrete slabs and load-bearing brick had sent them straight to low-cost housing worldwide, making Modernism the aesthetic of the poor. This fact did not pass unnoticed by the poor. Pruitt-Igoe. Built 1958. Dynamited 1972. The providers of public housing formed the last remaining market for Modernism. Any product becomes unmarketable when the market becomes disenchanted with the brand.


An aesthetic must continue to adapt in order to maintain status …

Internationalism was to escape being condemned along with Modernism because in the hands of Mies van der Rohe, it combined metal and other materials with a status-inducing Classicism such as in the German Pavilion at the Barcelona World Exhibition (1929) or the Tugendhat House (1930).


Purged of any ideological content it may have had in Europe, Modernism in the United States became the preferred institutional and corporate style. Curtain walls became a lattice of structure and window, effectively creating a visual barrier. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1946-50) and Johnson’s Glass House (1949) were excellent solutions to this problem and restored the status of privately-owned Nature to the aesthetic.  Concern for privacy was for people with neighbours. Mies’ went for overkill, using expensive materials and methods. The steps, terrace and floor were faced in travertine, and welding joins were ground away before the steel was painted. Whereas the Farnsworth house stepped over Nature, Johnson’s house, the more spartan of the two, was the more decadent in that it sat on its lawn and indicated possession.

The near absence of house emphasized where the real status lay. The adjacent guest house had no windows for even visually possessing the estate at any time was the owner’s right alone. Modernist derivatives (Meier, Eisenman, Graves, etc.) restored status through similar means, but all have in common the necessity for big property.


… or another will quickly replace it.

If Modernism combined the human factor in terms of plan, with the built factor in terms of structural logic, then Post-Modernism combined the human factor of a populist vocabulary of building terms, and the built factor as a grammar of their usage. The result was something akin to a toff swearing in order to be popular at the pub – patronizing. From the start, the aesthetic was defined by generating and sustaining two aesthetics which, times being the times, were called levels of meaning. Its goal was never to bridge them for then it would cease to exist. Maintaining this aesthetic double standard was both its means and its end in public. In private however, the familiar indicators of status and wealth were to reassert themselves and by 1985, intoxicated with its imagined popularity, the aesthetic of Post-Modernism spoke only in double-entendres to itself. One of which was to take a material formerly regarded as unworthy for use in buildings of all but the most temporary and lowly nature, and to use it ‘out-of-context’ in a sophisticated manner, thus making a point about duality of meaning. Without exception, it was the materials such as concrete or Formica carrying the low and form the high. This led to High-Touch and Creative Salvage aesthetics of the late 80s, which found their beauty in the visual and tactile qualities present in any materials. The result was self-consciously designed, expensive one-off objects. This new materialism turned out to be not so new. Chicken wire, exposed 2 x 4s, and gypsum board have found little appeal, but polished concrete, terrazzo and Formica are being invested with status once again by finding their way into commercial interiors such as shops and restaurants en route to private residences.


Once connotations of negative status are lost or forgotten, a new value-adding aesthetic can be applied and marketed.

Property pressures and availability led to interior space making do for property in the 60s, and neglected building types being converted as a means of attaining more space than provided by contemporary building types. Former prejudice was disregarded and mews buildings, coach houses and warehouses were given a new lease of life as premium dwellings.


Being only a pre-existing building providing space, juxtaposed with a human factor of use, such buildings remained outside the realm of architecture. However, once possession and use began to carry notions of status such as more space and enlightened freedom from the tyranny of plan, it became possible to subdivide any large building and market it for more than a comparably sized flat. Interior partition walls then become a separately marketable commodity, as they had already become in office buildings.

all sold

Whilst an aesthetic of space and light is essentially one of property, aesthetics can also add value by how they enclose space.

Gideon saw modern architecture as an increasing perception of space as a quantity in itself. Whilst this is not untrue, it ignores the fact that that space must belong to somebody. In other words, it ignores the political dimension of space and property. Space, the stuff between the walls, and the space outside them as well, is a commodity of status because space is merely enclosed property. As the amount of property people can have has decreased, ways of creating the impression of having more have developed from closed plan to free plan, free plan to open plan, and finally open plan to no plan. A blurring of the distinction between inside and outside assumes that there is an outside of one’s own to blur. Large areas of glazing indicate no neighbours nearby.


Light is an indirect commodity of status because of its connection with property and density of land utilization but the conversion of warehouses has shown that people are prepared to sacrifice light and location for space. A building envelope enclosing a physically and visually finite space and with no plan would seem to be resistant to notions of status, but as long as there is an enclosing structure, an aesthetic can still operate through the use of materials and methods in new value-adding ways to indicate status.


High-tech is aesthetic which has little social mobility, thereby allowing it to remain an aesthetic of status.

The aesthetic of High-tech finds its purest expression in the spanning of large areas without internal supports, making it a horizontal Gothic exploting the tensile limits of steel.

h-t gothic.jpg

This makes it inherently suitable for buildings that are only perimeter walls within which either culture or machines set the spatial agenda.


When relatively mundane spaces for human activity are required to be housed, it resorts to vertical Gothic with full-height atrium spaces displaying engineering prowess being justified on the grounds of providing light.


The high levels of accuracy and craftsmanship involved render high-tech inapplicable to the relatively modest spatial and structural requirements of living. High-tech also has a large research and development component tailored to individual projects in the same way as in civil engineering structures. Its lavish and visible use of resources to achieve large, dubiously justified spaces, maintains its status as an aesthetic and consequently ensures its inapplicability to anything other than prestige projects.

Minimalism is another.

The Minimalist aesthetic is that of an en-closure creating the sensation of infinite space, a concept the Japanese found attractive even when both space and Nature were abundant. But feudalism in the past and overcrowding in the present have led to owning any space, let along property, being an object of status, and if space is a commodity, then appearing to have infinitely more is better even if it isn’t real.


In Minimalist buildings, windows overlook a courtyard or whatever property remains, and infinite property (“space”) is ‘seen’ in the walls. Light enters through slits to exaggerate its value. If it doesn’t use exquisitely executed concrete, the building process is denied through the expensive and contrived elimination or concealment of joins and lines.


Minimalism is much money being used to create the impression of having little except a sense of infinite space, a trompe l’oeil of nothing. It is an expensive aesthetic of denial of both the envelope and use, and an apparent denial of possession when linked to the concept of voluntary poverty. It is not an aesthetic for the actual poor.   

Successive aesthetics use progressively less expensive means to indicate wealth and property, but status-laden materials and processes then work to make them less accessible.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the buildings of the upper classes took the style sanctioned by the church or state while buildings of the lower classes were the result of the expedient use of available materials, techniques and labour. With middle-class country estates in the later 19th century, architects such as Shaw, Webb, Lutyens, Voysey and Wright were to use vernacular materials combined with their respective Post-Classic aesthetics to indicate wealth and property, thus furnishing the new suburbs with motifs.


Modernism took functional industrial forms and structures and used them to indicate wealth and property. Post-Modernism took its visual techniques from roadside cafés and other structures not in the realm of ‘high’ architecture, and did the same. As soon as the Case Study houses made a cheaper aesthetic available through the use of ready-made ‘industrial’ materials, Internationalism used expensive materials and the restoration of a Classical relationship to property to distance itself again. High-tech did the same through refined materials and technology. Its applicability to spanning large spaces assumes a large space to span. Minimalism takes the very idea of looking and one’s walls and living with very little and makes it into an aesthetic of wealth and property. Loft living takes a former worker’s reality and makes it into an aesthetic of space, but being ‘fitted to the highest standard’ maintains status. The attraction of each new aesthetic is that it uses a progressively less expensive means of indicating wealth and property, or the aspiration to it. This makes them inherently vulnerable to marketing in less expensive and accessible forms. As an aesthetic cascades through society in this way, status and corresponding aspiration are artificially maintained in a carrot-on-a-stick fashion by increasingly mannerist use of expensive materials, finishes and processes.


20th century aesthetics are irrelevant to future housing and even current housing problems.

The alleged virtues of Modernism disappeared when it was applied to less bourgeois housing problems in general, and to less property in particular. Its legacy was structural rationality and lack of decorative ornament, and (due to property pressures) a view of activities taking place in spaces rather than rooms.


Post-Modernism largely treated social identification at the public level rather than the individual. The Taller Bofill “Let them eat cake!” approach refers beyond even the public aspirations of the individual. Aesthetics as a palliative. Post Modernism’s twin legacies were to alter certain pre-conceptions about what buildings could look like and to pave the way for a re-evaluation of the fundmental properties of materials (once the status/historical meanings had been stripped away). Its major socially applicable benefit was a re-evaluation of materials which sooner or later would have occurred anyway (due to decreasing availability or affordability).


Metabolism correctly identified buildings as organisms in the city, but was content with expressing it at the metaphorical level. Brutalism supposedly made ordinary materials into an aesthetic which allowed materials and construction to be appreciated for what they were. This made it inherently inapplicable when lesser standards of materials and labour were used. Minimalism took the status aspects of appearing to have more space and owning less but relied for its effect on expensive materials contrasted with expensive effects achieved via contrived construction processes and finishes. In effect, it was a metaphor for the elleged virtues of historical examples of simplicity. High-tech isolated functions and satisfied them using expensive materials and processes and became in effect, a metaphor for the economies that mass-produced industrial components could theoretically offer.

It is necessary to have a way of seeing beauty which, for once, does not derive from wealth and property.


Consider Le Corbusier’s inspiration for the machine aesthetic – the ocean liner and the the grain silo. Both have in common a certain technical and functional sophistication, but they also have in common a necessary relationship with large amounts of open space. Although the visual implications were revolutionary for architecture, the relationship between those built objects to the spacesurrounding them continued to link beauty with the ownership of property. There is nothing inherently wrong with technical analogies since housing is the result of a production process.


Whereas ocean liners and grain silos taught us about function and form, other inherent (and these days, more useful) factors such as construction process, sourcing and design optimisation were ignored. Unsurprisingly, aesthetics derived from the display of the wealth or property associated with private houses on private land, prove inapplicable to low-cost housing using public money on public land.


Those 20th century aesthetics which have been applied to mass housing have had their deficiencies highlighted. This is not a problem of aesthetics per-se. It is a problem of where they come from and the criteria by which beauty is defined. The marketability of an aesthetic is related to the desirability of its product, which has changed very little. This means that low-cost housing, being neither an indicator of wealth or property, can never benefit from aesthetics. Ever.


However, if successive aesthetics are evolving from criteria which are less and less expensive to achieve, it ought to be possible to shortcut this process and determine a way of seeing beauty by concentrating attention and techniques on other articulating the possession of wealth or property,and thereby arrive more quickly at a modern vernacular aesthetic towards which we are moving anyway. This would be an aesthetic applicable to everyone, not just the providers and occupants of low-cost housing. Warehouse conversions have indicated that people are willing to sacrifice light and location for space. It is only a matter of time before other qualities that have been essential considerations in private housing so far will also come to be devalued. Location, quantities, materials, processes and contents will always remain indicators of whatever level of status people can afford to display or aspire to.

An architectural aesthetics independent of wealth and property will mean traditional displays of status will for once be explicit, not mistaken for beauty, and the aspiration to them will be less attractive to those who can ill afford to.

• • •

This essay will conclude next week with Part II, Modern Vernacular.

street language.jpeg


Property, Time & Architecture

To commemmorate seven years of not fitting in, misfits would like to present some of the early thinking that led to its formation. This visual essay dates from around 1998. It was put together between occasional bouts of paid work, using Quark XPress 3.2 and a PowerMac G3 with 64MB of RAM.

The file was stored on iomega 100MB Zip “backup” disks which is why what you’ll see here is a scan of an A3 laser-print hard copy. It’s as-was, complete with original typos, proofreading failures, plus a numbering error I’ve only just noticed – there’s no 10.1.1. The font is Trebuchet which, for some reason, was popular at the time.





















Detective Story

Sunday, May 28, 8:00 am: I publish a post titled The Piano and The Double-Sided Apartment and refer to this next plan as “an embryo unité d’habitations.” I go on to say that, “the overall intention, the end apartments with their different orientation, the way the elevator lobby has been accommodated, and the lax attitude towards fire escape all suggest the hand of Le Corbusier but whether firsthand or secondhand I don’t know.”


I still don’t – all lines of enquiry turned up nothing. A trusted source [Merci!] informed me an authoritative source had doubted the plans were by Le Corbusier. This alone was strong proof they weren’t.

In the same post, I also made reference to the following plans from the Cité Frais Vallon project because of their similarly stacked stairs. Their architect was also unknown.


12:45 pm: I receive intelligence from Det. Daniel.


15:30 pm: I learn Devin worked with Fernand Pouillon on the 1955 Quartier du Vieux-Port project, thus locating him in Marseille shortly after the completion of Le Corbusier’s first Unité d’Habitation.

20:45 pm: For now I have only circumstantial evidence, but comparing both plans leads me to suspect André Devin as author of both.

  • The pairing of apartments over three levels and the stacking of stairs on both sides of a corridor is common to both.
  • The space used to cross over/under the corridor is the only circulation space within the mystery plans and also in the larger floor of the Frais Vallon double-sided apartment. Apart from these two examples, I’ve never seen this done before and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
  • Both projects attempt to create a plan with the advantages of Le Corbusier’s Unité but without its faults. The person who devised these plans has obviously studied the Unité closely and , in the mystery plans, judging by the contrived end apartments and how other problems such as the secondary fire escape stair are solved in similar manner, is clearly an admirer. This is part of the Frais Vallon project with which André Devin’s name is linked.

After Le Corbusier’s Marseille Unité, there was a 1950s fashion for towers with a similar treatment for the apartments at one end (and, as part of the same thing, ingoring any possible benefit additional windows may have provided). Fernand Pouillon did so in 1958 at Le Point de Jour in Billancourt. London County Council did so in 1955 with the Loughborough Estate in Brixton.

  • Frais Vallon has pilotis, though not as hefty as LC’s.
  • The fact Devin worked on housing projects with Fernand Pouillon suggests a comradely familiarity with 1920’s Soviet housing proposals such as the STROIKOM team’s 1928 Type E apartments and their stacked stairs leading to apartments up/down from one side of a corridor space. [c.f. 1928: The Types Study.]

Let’s take a closer look at those plans.

img3012 copy

The top half of these plans is the rear half of Devin’s. Mirroring the right plan about the corridor gives us the corridor level of the Frais Vallon plan. We’re looking at some sort of basic principle.

10:01 pm

André Devin is almost certainly the architect of Cité Frais Vallon but there was still nothing linking it to the mystery plan – until this next. The floor plate size is the same. The apartment layouts may be different but their disposition has been contrived to produce building elevations with exactly the same intent. We saw what they looked like just above.

Ultimately, the clever arrangement of double-sided apartments wasn’t used in the towers but for the nearby low-rise blocks. The stacked staircases that had been in the corridors now lead off private entry halls along with two bedrooms linked to the remainder of the apartment above/below. 


The severe treatment of the elevations brings to mind the Nikolsky team’s entry for the 1927 competition,

but, with low-cost housing, there’s little else other than the position of windows to work with. At first I thought the gratuitous checkerboard was a precursor to today’s gratuitously shuffly window but there’s nothing gratuitous about these facades.


One thing my years of detective work has taught me is try to get into the mind of the architect. Anything that strikes me as odd is likely to have a logic behind it. With the far facade in the photograph above, the top and bottom rows of horizontal windows are curious, and so are the obsessively paired windows inbetween. “Did someone say Horizontal Windows?” The windows top and bottom do a little Villa Savoye thing and the windows in the middle are paired to emphasize the column structure.


• • •

This is where the case stands right now. André Devin is a person of interest I believe can help with my enquiries.


Tuesday, May 30

Before that investigation can be closed, another must begin to see if this low-rise configuration – whoever’s responsible – really can’t be improved upon.

  1. Spanning the corridor with necessary circulation spaces is brilliant, but also doing it with general storage rooms seems a bit too easy.
  2. The one-bedroom apartment does not seem part of an integrated solution.
  3. There are shafts next to the bathrooms on all floors, and also on both sides of the corridor alongside the staircases (but it is not clear why).
  4. It is difficult to imagine how furniture would be arranged in the long living areas.
  5. As with many configurations of this type, it is taken for granted that bathrooms will have mechanical ventilation and artificial light. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a fault since doing without both wasn’t a problem the design set out to solve.
  6. Nowadays, a kitchen/dining/living room or dining/living area are more common than an eat-in kitchen with the extra space and window it requires. This is also not a fault. The plans are just a product of their time, and probably place too.


  • It’s easy to take away the incongruous one-bedroom apartment and provide two more bedrooms for two more apartments but this is something the architect would have known was possible.
  • Those extra bedrooms would need their own bathroom which would need to stack with the ones above and below. (Whatever’s in those hallway cupboards can go somewhere else.)
  • Those bathrooms are also going to need a shaft, ideally accessible from the corridor, but we need to go upstairs first and find out what’s going on up there.
  • The kitchen/dining/living area has to fit in the same area as two bedrooms and a bathroom, and the kitchen needs to share a shaft.
  • The large central storage cupboard isn’t essential but I don’t think anyone wanting a four-bedroom apartment would sacrifice a large storage cupboard for an interesting little alcove where the stairs enter the living area.

The main challenge was to find an alternative use for this space that doesn’t involve shafts, and that also keeps the stair landings overlapping the circulation space.

My first attempt was clearly flawed. It still had the large storage rooms adjacent to the stairs (plus understairs storage on the lower level) plus more storage cupboards next to the bedroom. So, rather than fight the corridor I decided to accept its difficult “crossover” space and stretch the apartments away from it, creating gaps and voids for daylight, ventilation and internal views.

Converting a flaw into real advantages is different from making a flaw into an architectural feature. The real disadvantage is increased external wall area. I can’t see any way around this. If one wants the real advantages of real windows then one has to accept an increased area of real external walls. Otherwise, one is stuck with mechanical ventilation, artificial light and representations of [a.k.a. “a sense of”] exterior space.



Anyway, this idea didn’t spring from nowhere. It’s a development of Stacey from one of misfits’ first posts, and incorporating the concerns mentioned in Plan B, one of the more recent, in which I say it might be a good idea to make apartment dwellers more aware of sharing a building with others.

  1. Small kitchen windows and staircase windows overlook the triple-height space of the access level,
  2. High bathroom windows open onto this same space, and
  3. The internal passageway becomes a bridge overlooking the triple-height space of the access corridor on one side, with a small ‘internal’ balcony (laundry drying?) overlooking the access level on the other side.

Basically, the building volume “saved” by only having one corridor per three floors has been externalized to become a type of communal space mostly appreciated from inside the apartments. It may not be as cheap to construct as SANAA‘s value-added alleyways, but it seems to me to give more back to more people and generally be a more positive way forward for buildings too.

This is not architecture – for architecture is in decline, seemingly terminal. This is a building, and buildings still have life left in them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I still need to find a place for the washing machine.

• • •

Today’s Guardian carries a story on how the LEGO company reinvented itself. I would just like to say that this is totally coincidental, and that I have never received money from the LEGO company for this post’s header image or any  inadvertent advertisement.  

The Piano and the Double-Sided Apartment

All double-sided apartments have windows on opposite sides enabling views in opposite directions, cross-ventilation, and variations in daylighting. There aren’t many ways to configure a double-sided apartments and most have at least one of the following flaws.

Multiple cores

It’s almost impossible not to make a double-sided apartment if there are only two apartments per stairwell or core,

when they’re at the end of a (longer) corridor [c.f. 1928: The Types Study, The Domino’s House]

albion riverside plan

or when there’s no corridor [c.f. The Dominos House].


Preferred view on the wrong side for half the apartments

Some configurations have paired apartments with living areas facing different directions. This is no problem if views in both directions are equally preferable. It was also not a problem for many of the 1920s proposals because preventing tuberculosis with adequate daylighting and cross ventilation was more important than view. Many were never built. [c.f. 1928: The Types StudyThe 1+1/2 Floor Apartment]

Low site coverage

Four buildings were however built with Type F apartments, the most famous being Moisei Ginzburg and team’s Narkomfin building completed 1930 in Moscow.

  • Reduced ceiling heights of non-essential areas meant lower % of building volume for access, and resultant economies of materials and construction cost.
  • All living rooms were on one side and sleeping areas the other.

The main fault of Type F apartment was a building was narrow so it couldn’t produce a site efficiency as high as possible with double-loaded corridors. [c.f. Critical Spatiality]

Dining and kitchen areas separated from the living area

This may or may not be a problem, depending upon the configuration. With Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations it is, as half the primary type of apartment have a living area combined with the master bedroom area. It’s less of a problem with Chermayeff’s apartments or with US 7,540,120 where the kitchen/dining area overlooks the living area. [c.f. The 1+1/2 Floor ApartmentUS 7,540,120].



Poor use of space over/under the corridor

Using this space for bathrooms and kitchens can create problems with shafts but there still remains the problem of no daylighting or cross-ventilation for the very spaces that could most benefit from them. [c.f. US 7,540,120

upper copy

Limited variety of apartment types

It is easier to solve the problem of corridor-access double-sided apartments if only one or two types of apartment are provided in pairs. Variations occur naturally when those pairs don’t fit around ‘circumstantial’ elements like elevator lobbies and escape stairs. Chermayeff’s variations don’t have this problem but his variations are fixed customizations that can’t be arbitrarily configured from standardized plan components.


The title of this post does not refer to any of the pianos in these plans.

Miserable entrances

One way to avoid crossing over or under the corridor is to get out of it as soon as possible and use that necessary space within the apartment. In this next arrangement, that space has been cleverly used to create entrance and kitchen areas linking both sides. What I also like are the two equivalent living areas, the use of which is left up to the occupant.


This plan appears to be an embryo unité d’habitations. The overall intention, the end apartments with their different orientation, the way the elevator lobby has been accommodated, and the lax attitude towards fire escape all suggest the hand of Le Corbusier but whether it’s firsthand or secondhand I don’t know.

Alternately reversing the apartments to avoid duplicating shafts both sides of the corridor seems an unnecessary complication, especially when it takes seven single-sided apartments (plus six end ones) to create ten double-sided apartments, two of which don’t even use the corridor. Additionally, the main part of the building has 10 structural bays so three-bay apartments were never going to work, whether reversed or not. Those single sided apartments are conspicuous for not fitting neatly. The appearance of an inelegant solution could be avoided by incorporating that volume into apartments reversed not side-by-side but above and below, and using that space to enter them (“Voilà!”) but whether this plan predates Unité or not is unknown.  

If prior, then Unité becomes an illustration of “If a problem can’t be solved then call it a feature!”. Two decades on, expressing such intractable problems came to be called an “architectural joke”. Five decades on, representing the non-solution of such problems came to be called “embracing complexity.” Sadly, it’s the closest thing to architectural theory we have.

This all assumes this arrangement is pre-Unité but it could be somebody’s post-Unité attempt to improve upon it.

Complex sections

The corridor has to be passed over or under some way or another and the scissor plan is perhaps the most ingenious way yet devised to do this. All living rooms are on one side and all bedrooms on the other.


Corringham, London, 1960, Douglas Stephen & Partners

Scissor plans have the disadvantage of being complex to construct, as well as difficult to comprehend.


I found this graphic helpful even though it is incorrect. The “down-going” apartments (entered from the upper entrance corridor) don’t have stairs linking to the lower entrance corridor and the “up-going” apartments (entered from the lower corridor) don’t have stairs linking them to the upper entrance corridor. Thanks anyway, wikiwand!

The scissor plan is no oddity but a serious attempt to achieve better use of building volume and building resources. Rather than create double or even 1+1/2 height volumes and calling them a feature, the scissor plan took the building volume either side of the corridor and used it as the topmost level of one apartment and the bottommost level of another. It solved the problem it set out to, and did so with very elegant shafts. I have more respect for it than I did.

Additional shafts

It’s possible to utilise the space above and below the corridor but at the cost of an extra shaft to service the inevitable single aspect apartment on the other side of the corridor [left, below], or the rotationally mirrored apartment adjacent/opposite it [right]. If one’s willing to accept a full shaft on either side of the corridor then various configurations become possible. The scissor plan doesn’t have this problem.

• • •

If one overlooks the apartment entrances, then this next is a very decent arrangement within the residential development known as Cité Frais Vallon (1960~) in Marseille. It has two 4-bed and two 2-bed double-sided apartments for every one 1-bed single-sided apartment, and all living rooms on the same side – not bad! Stacking internal staircases both sides of the corridor and offsetting apartment upper levels from their lower ones is a brilliant idea. The entire plan is generated from those stacked and horizontally and rotationally symmetrical staircases. The only difference is the position at which the staircase enters the central circulation space. I don’t think it can be done any better than this.


Impressive. Completely ignored. It’s as if nothing of architectural interest is ever allowed to happen again in Marseille [c.f. Architectural Misfit #28: Fernand Pouillon.] The coordinating architect is listed as André Devin [thanks Daniel!] If I’d known of this project earlier, I wouldn’t have been so proud of “My Best Shot”. To be fair, we both agree stacking staircases is the way forward.

My Best Shot

Because a corridor-access 100% double-sided apartment is an unresolveable contradiction, the problem becomes one of what to do with the building volume either side of the corridor. It can be either

  1. single-sided apartments,
  2. incorporated into the adjacent apartments above and below as single-sided spaces, or
  3. have one side as the lowest level of one apartment and the other side as the highest level of another – the scissor plan solution.

The configurations above all solve the same problem in one of these three ways. My decision to solve the problem with a horizontal asymmetry around the corridor inevitably caused a problem for the ‘minor’ shaft. In the lower apartment, the space between the upper kitchen cupboards and the ceiling is used to cross the corridor, avoiding a false ceiling.

  • Off the corridor are a studio, stairs down to a 2-bed apartment and to stairs up to a 1-bed apartment. The 1-bed apartment can be down stairs and the 2-bed up stairs.
  • Elements farther from the corridor become more arbitrary.
  • The determining dimension is the total length of the stair and entrances on the corridor level.
  • Mirroring apartments around the left party wall and reconfiguring the corridors makes it possible for the bedroom or bedrooms of a double-sided apartment to appropriate those of an adjacent apartment. [See here for variations.]
  • It’s money for old trope but, the volume of the existing studio apartment could be used to create a double-height living area for the apartment below.
  • Another possibility is to divide the volume of the existing studio horizontally across both upper and lower apartments. This would give the lower apartment a 1+1/2 storey living area while the upper apartment would require a half-flight of stairs to access its sunken floor. The same volume could be divided vertically across upper and lower apartments but I can’t see any advantage in doing so.

• • •

Nor can I see any advantage of doing it in this next proposal either that, I now see, mine owes a substantial debt to. It’s Moisei Ginzburg’s team’s proposal for the 1928 competition held by the Soviet magazine SA [Contemporary Architecture] [c.f. 1927: The Competition.] The corridor level had single-sided apartments on both sides but a stair accessed off the corridor leads down to a larger double-sided apartment. All apartments were to be reconfigured into more generous accommodations when the economic situation of the occupants [i.e. the U.S.S.R.] improved.

Once the competition was over, the government almost immediately responded by appointing Ginzburg head of a STROIKOM (Construction Committee of the Russian Republic) specially formed to create standardized unit types. In 1928 though, things were already taking a turn for the worse

There was a sweeping shift toward Stalinist conservatism in all spheres. 1928 was the start of the First Five-Year Plan towards massive industrialization and away from cultural reforms such as the design and construction of highly-socialized living in general and the communal house in particular. On May 16, the VKP(b) Central Committee of issued a directive regarding: “On the Work Concerning the Restructuring of Everyday Life.”

“The Central Committee of the VKP(b) warns against the attempts of certain comrades to construct a new everyday life by forced administrative means; administratively separating children from parents, socialized dining, etc. The new normal must be built by taking into full account existing material conditions, and in no way must it run off and devise plans for which there exists neither the means nor the possibility of their realization.”

The directive made it clear that the time for an aspirational architecture for a new society had passed. In a scramble to mirror the shifting tide, SA blurred its position. The above directive was published in SA 1930, accompanied by a wavering editorial titled “Where to Go?” In addition, Moisei Ginzburg wrote in 1932, and published in 1934, a book Zhilishche (Housing), in which he categorized his work over the previous five years as experimental and producing “extreme conclusions and schematic solutions.”

top view.jpg

The Piano and the Double-Sided Apartment

To design an improved double-sided apartment plan in 1927 in anticipation of improved economic circumstances was a good thing, but indicating a grand piano in the plan took it too far. An upright piano for accompanying tavern tunes or patriotic anthems would have gone unnoticed. No authority would have wanted factory workers to aspire to becoming bourgeois families with grand pianos in their living rooms. Classical music in Soviet Russia in the mid-twenties was already alarmingly progressive to those for whom dissonance meant dissidents.

Igor Stravinsky was the most notoriously dissonant of the Russian-born composers since the 1913 Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring.


Stravinsky had lived in France all the 1920s and, whether he followed prospects or instinct, continued to in the 1930s. Sergei Prokofiev had been living in America since 1918 but returned to the U.S.S.R. in 1925, only to be interrogated by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians. Nevertheless, he stayed and did some of his best work [i.e my favourites] during the Stalin years: 1931 – Piano Concerto No. 4 (for Left Hand); 1932 – Piano Concerto No.5; 1939-42 – Piano Sonata No. 7; 1944 – Fifth Symphony. Dmitri Shostakovich disappointed his early teachers by admiring both Stravinsky and Prokofiev. He spent most of the 1920s and 1930s avoiding offending the authorities with his Mahlerian tendencies and ambivalent tonality and was mostly successful at it until 1936. Aram Khachaturian was still too young to be a concern in 1928. Nikolai Myaskovsky was more popular than progressive but, in 1947, was accused along with the others, of writing anti-Soviet music that “renounces the basic principles of classical music in favour of muddled, nerve-racking sounds that “turn music into cacophony”.

My hunch is that the reason the STROIKOM committee was formed so quickly after the 1927 competition not because of any government enthusiasm for innovative housing solutions but so that the activities of Ginzburg and his associates could be more closely watched. This also explains the generally cool reception his team’s proposals received when they presented their findings later the same year, and also explains the presence at the meeting of NKVD officer Cde. Sadovsky who made direct reference to the directive. [c.f. 1928: The Meeting]


The crackdown first made itself felt with the directive but by 1930 all architects’ collectives were disbanded. When Mikhail Okhotovich and De–urbanism came on the scene, it became a matter of not just the workers getting ideas above their station but the farmers as well. “Who’d stick around to grow stuff if everybody got to move around wherever they wanted? Nobody would be satisfied doing what they were supposed to do.” It would only end badly. It did anyway. [c.f. 1930: De-urbanism]

Nikolay Milyutin, the former Commissar of Finance and influential proponent of the Narkomfin building, contrived to fade into peaceful insignificance with a succession of jobs, each one further off the radar. Ginzburg moved back to The Ukraine he originally hailed from and lived out a quiet life. The Vesnins went post-Constructivist. Artists such as Malevich toned it down. Irrepressible de-urbanist, Okhotovich didn’t and got himself shot. Hapless creative, Ivan Leonidov passed the time with The City of The Sun and painkillers. [c.f. Career Case Study #6: Ivan Illich Leonidov]


This layout is dedicated to Nikokay Milyutin, Moisei Ginzburg, Sergei Prokofiev and all others of that time who achieved work-life balance.

Twelve Books on Architecture

Introducing Architectural Theory [issuu, amazon] is a book that gathers together pieces of writing on various themes in architecture for the purpose of getting people – mainly architecture students – to do the following.


The first two, a. and b. – are absolutely necessary. So are the next two, c. and d. and must be passed through in order to get to e. have original thoughts.

The texts in the book are mostly well known and organized into functional groups such as Ornament & Austerity, Honesty & Deception, Function & Form and Natural & Constructed. But even if the selection of texts is balanced, the choice of functional groups is not. It implies they will continue to have relevance (for theory at least) and also that how we think about architecture in the future can be informed by how certain people thought about those aspects of it in the past. This isn’t necessarily true. You may as well go it alone and read whatever interests you, spice it up with whatever crosses your path, let it cook, and see what happens.

Here’s some I’ve read. It’s not an exhaustive list as some I haven’t yet finished and others haven’t yet arrived. Other books I’ve given away and some I’ve gifted, sometimes inadvertendly but I’ve learned something from each of the books in even this small selection. One of the things I learned is that just because a thought is original doesn’t mean it’s any good, although it may make it more likely to be taken, or mistaken, as such. Also worth remembering is that not all the writers were architects. For those that were, I’d recommend keeping in mind the difference between what they said and what they did.

• • •

Towards a New Architecture, 1923, Le Corbusier


Always fun. Read how Le Corbusier praises engineers for their pure thinking and how they applied it to objects that defined the age. See how he takes that thinking, adds to it all that people of the time thought virtuous about the architecture of ancient Greece, and then calls it new. In the chapter “Eyes That Do Not See”, Le Corbusier looks at various machines but sees them only as metaphors for a new architecture obeying old rules, rather than the genuinely purposeful architecture that was sorely wanted at the time.

• • •

The International Style, 1932, Henry-Russel Hitchcock & Philip Johnson


Another classic, whichever edition you have. Be appalled by the lack of argument, the shameless prejudice and the shallow, mean and self-serving agenda. When reading the image captions, be horrified by what the pair thought worthy of comment, and then by the comments themselves. It’s an ugly book and you’ll feel unclean after having read it but, unfortunately, that’s why it’s essential reading. It is wrong to claim The International Style was the first introduction to modern architecture for the US. Magazines such as Popular Mechanics introduced it first and to far more people. The difference is that Popular Mechanics introduced modern architecture as a new way of building, The International Style reduced it to art.

Related posts:
The International Style 1932
Architecture vs. Building
The Things Historians Do

• • •

The Minimum Dwelling, 1932, Karel Teige

TeigeThe Minimum Dwelling

The fact this translation came so late is a shame, for Teige’s is an actual voice from the past, contradicting the constructed narratives of historians. Karel Teige is Le Corbusier’s only contemporary critic we now know of because this 2002 book, originally published in 1932, was only translated into English seventy years later. Czech, German and Russian architects were blessed with architectural journals translating and communicating American and British developments but the lack of flow in the other direction implies occidental arrogance. You can read what architects of the time were really concerned about, and who actually said what at CIAM meetings. It’s dense with text and thoughts. When read in conjunction with the previous book, it’s shocking to see the difference between how modern architecture was understood in late ’20s/early ’30s Europe and how it came to be communicated.

Related post:
Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige

• • •

 Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 1960, Reyner Banham


Modern readers will find this book difficult as it’s not written in Banham’s later and more readable journalistic style. It’s still well worth reading though, because Banham is the teacher you wish you’d had. He’s scholarly in a  good way. He doesn’t make unverifiable statements or attribute ideas to people to fit his argument, or without a thorough assessment of what information they could conceivably had had access to. His conclusions as to who thought what and who was influenced by whom are often at odds with accepted histories. The book was written over fifty years ago but is now a refreshing look at the fifty years before that.

• • •

 The Victorian Country House, 1973, Mark Girouard

the victorian country house

This book reminds you why books exist. It tells the story of these huge houses and the people who commissioned them and why. You read about technological advances, their failures and their successes. You learn how social conventions and pretensions were embedded in house plans as well as manifesting themselves in building size, massing and facades. You will learn that these buildings were a product of the people of their time, their aspirations, vanities and pretensions. It’s a bit gloomy when you realise how little has changed but, to counter that, Girouard’s writing is a joy and that’s something you don’t come across very often in books on architecture.

Kept out of polite society through her mother’s second marriage to a drunken clergyman, Lady Charlotte Guest married Sir John Josiah Guest, the Welsh ironmaster, and used his great wealth with skill and determination to establish their social position.

Related posts:
The Maximum Dwelling
The Maximum Dwelling: RESPECT

• • •

Exploding The Myths of Modern Architecture, 2009, Malcolm Millais


If you want to read what an engineer thinks about architecture and its myths, then Millais is your man. Millais’ rebuttal is founded in the realities of physical forces and so is better than most. Read it and then put Modern Architecture and its myths to rest. The real 20th century architectural crime against humanity is how the definition of architectural worth was shifted away from buildings aspiring to provide a real social utility, and towards buildings providing only the appearance of one.

Related posts:
Architecture Myths #23: Architecture
Architecture Myths #22: Biomimesis
Architecture Myths #21: Total Design
Architecture Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

• • •

 The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 1973, Charles Jencks

I once read an academic paper written about the books of Charles Jencks. I quote from Taylor & Francis Online.

This paper will discuss Jencks’s historiography of Post-Modernism by looking at the seminal texts that he wrote from 1970 until 2007, beginning with Architecture 2000 and ending with Critical Modernism. The main focus of this article is critically to examine his major work, the Language of Post Modernism, and to trace its evolution as a means of evaluating his contribution to the development of this movement, as well as to architectural historiography.

First published in 1973, we’ve all grown up with some edition of The Language of Post Modern Architecture. A succession of covers and revisions created the appearance of prolonged relevance and pushed its rediscovery into the future, thus making space for something even more egregious.

• • •

Yes Is More, 2009 Bjarke Ingels


The scary brilliance of BIG’s architecture is how it reduces buildings to easily comprehensible images. The scary brilliance of the book is how it reduces architecture to easily comprehensible images. Neither is a healthy development. The book spreads its simplistic message as efficiently and ruthlessly as the plague but do not think the book simplistic. It is a sophisticated and ruthless marketing tool for a hugely successful architecture and publicity machine. Its comic book format is not the first time text was used to ornament images but it hastens the death of language all the same.

Related posts:
Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center (14% More BIG)

• • •

The Autopoiesis of Architecture, 2011, Patrik Schumacher

If you don’t want to buy the book, let me know and I’ll give you my heavily annotated copy as soon as I finish reading it. I should warn you that I began reading Volume I in October 2012! But my offer stands. I’ll toss in a mint-condition Volume II.

• • •

The Architecture of Neoliberalism, 2017, Douglas Spencer


The antidote to the previous three books or, if you haven’t yet read them, the vaccination.

• • •

Against Architecture, 2012, Franco La Cecla

“A passionate charge against the celebrities of the current architectural world: the “archistars.” La Cecla argues that architecture has lost its way and its true function, as the archistars mold cityscapes to build their brand with no regard for the public good.”  An interesting notion – I think La Cecla might be onto something!  

• • •

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1999, Helen Vendler


This book has more to do with the guts of architecture than some of the others in this list. Vendler takes each of Shakespeare’s sonnets and identifies and analyzes the poetic devices and mechanisms by which Shakespear managed to construct such breath and depth of poetic meaning and beauty. With some sonnets it’s their structure, with others their rhythm or onomatapaeia, and still others the strength or combinations of allusions, associations or imagery. They all work within the constraints of the sonnet and the conventions of Elizabthean language.

“During the nineteenth century, the study of Shakespeare’s sonnets was governed by a biographical agenda. Later, it was also governed by the “universal wisdom” agenda: the sonnets have been mined for the wisdom of friendship, the wisdom of the acquiescence to time, the wisdom of love. But I’m more interested in them as poems that work. They seem to me to work awfully well (though not everyone thinks so). And each one seems to work differently. Shakespeare was the most easily bored writer that ever lived, and once he had made a sonnet prove out in one way, he began to do something even more ingenious with the next sonnet. It was a kind of task that he set himself: within an invariant form, to do something different—structurally, lexically, rhythmically—in each poem. I thought each one deserved a little commentary of its own, so I’ve written a mini-essay on each one of the one hundred and fifty four.” [from Paris Review]

For her efforts, Vendler has been criticized as “clinical” and her analysis as “forensic”. These days, her book is marketed as a companion volume to understanding the sonnets in order to pacify those who prefer to worship the unknowable magic of creative genius, and whose only wish is that it remain unknowbale. However, for those wanting to see how one man mastered the techniques of his trade and put them to good use, I know no better textbook.

Related Posts:
Aesthetic Effect #3: COMBINE


Plan B

This planet has seen some extreme housing density in its time. If you were in The Rookery in New York in 1865 you’d know what 4,700 persons per hectare looks like.


If you were in Madrid 1930-31 you’d recognize these two buildings in Karel Teige’s 1932 book, The Minimum Dwelling. The lower one has a density of 4,500 persons per hectare and the upper one a density of 6,000.


If you were in Kowloon Walled City in 1987 you’d have seen 33,000 people living at a density of 12,700 per hectare.

Living at such high densities is now some time in the past but we can’t be sure it won’t be part of our future. Londoners know High Barnet as the northermost station on the Northern Line. These are the plans of a recent permitted development in the London Borough of Barnet.

The more central London Borough Of Camden had denser, unpermitted developments twenty years ago but it’s a slippery slope when 25 sq.m (270 sq.ft) per person becomes permissible, and only a matter of time before legal minimums begin to get nasty. Last year’s Venice Biennale offered some tasters. Here’s a situation from the US pavilion’s The Architectural Imagination exhibit. Ground level is given over to transportation, retail and whatever’s meant by a neighbourhood of common spaces. The rooftop is amenity space. It’s Unité d’Habitations minus the parky bit and the habitations. People live in tents, hopefully before upgrading to some more rigid enclosure that’s no-doubt self-build and locally-sourced but for all the wrong reasons. Multistorey carpark meets favela. Stay classy, America!

Here’s another example, this time from the Taiwan exhibit.


I was unsure if this uncomfortable juxtaposition of habitation and transportation was proposal or reality but there’s no doubt with this next.

It all points towards a future a bit grittier than Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ lurid celebration of four decades of visionary architecture that never happened.

This ought to be a warning. If A is for Architecture and B is for Building then we need a Plan B to mitigate the likelihood Plan A will fail to deliver. It might be prudent to start to think about how people might live at higher densities should they become the new normal. In places such as Hong Kong they already are and people there seem to manage quite nicely.

The high-density tower block is the best use of land we’ve come up with so far.

hong kong

We know how to make them. We don’t know how to make them better.

• • •

The Domino’s House post a few weeks back celebrated the two-apartment-per-landing floor plan. This is one of the layouts of Dubai Duty Free Residence by UA Architects. It’s a good use of the plan’s advantages, and has elevators too.

The same configuration is popular in India but here it is in some Hong Kong apartments. When you get higher up, it’s a good idea to have that second elevator.


The stairs are scissor stairs although, with this arrangement, I’m unsure why.

This example also has a service elevator and maid’s quarters and the scissor stairs now function together and separately as main stairs and service (back) stairs for the same apartment.


This next arrangement stretches the landing between the elevators and stairs to make a corridor that passes two apartments in order to access more apartments. It’s what corridors do.


Bathroom windows open onto light wells and cross ventilation is compromised but all kitchens still have external windows because of their relationship with the recesses and the front doors. It’s a neat way of doing things and can be seen in many of the layouts that follow. It’s a better idea to put the scissor stairs behind the elevators and use the elevator landing as the corridor but, in this next example, construction expediency has compromised the internal planning.


This next example is a better way of using a similar core to access four apartments. Increased external surface area is the price you pay for windows and the question becomes one of how much light and ventilation kitchens and bathrooms actually need.


These next eight layouts all consider that problem and have arrived at much the same solution.

  • All have near-identical cores.
  • All have extended the elevator lobby to create four new corners to allow eight apartments per floor – the maximum possible without adding additional corridor to get past some apartments to access others.
  • All enter directly into the living room rather than into a corridor leading to a living room with a view in two directions.

What we’re looking at is an urban typology that’s evolved naturally by following some basic principles and without regard for architectural beauty – it’s a modern and generic vernacular architecture. The typology is sometimes called the snowflake layout because of its rotationally-symmetrical mirrorings.

The various arms can have different apartment types but let’s compare two that use 45° angles. Entering an apartment at a corner always makes internal planning more difficult but is unavoidable when eight apartments converge on a core. Both layouts sensibly place the kitchen along core walls and at the end of open ventilation shafts shared with all bathrooms. The layout on the right makes better use of the 45° angle with a defined dining space away from the front door. Windows of opposing dining areas are offset from each other.

The desire for construction profit would normally have reduced external wall area by closing the sides of those shafts and turning them into fully enclosed light-wells/ventilation shafts so, because this hasn’t happened, there must be a significant advantage to keeping one side of those shafts open. Air currents around the building must keep the air moving but the kitchen window also has a view. This next example has laundry drying racks outside the windows at the inner ends of long, open shafts. We see elevator lobbies naturally lit and ventilated. We get a feel for the structure and also get a sense for the construction.


We call ourselves architects but see Hong Kong’s high-rise apartment buildings only in terms of outer appearance (and then only negatively as monotonous, extrusions, etc.) and with no regard for or even acknowledgement of their inner life.

We’re quick to suggest the Chinese are predisposed towards functioning as a cohesive society – and perhaps they are [and when did this become a bad thing?], but this only allows us to ignore how these buildings are configured to facilitate people living their lives at high density and in relative harmony. To labour the point, these buildings are not problems requiring dynamite and/or Post Modermism as solutions.


In the Repeating Crevice, Revisited post, I noted how Shinohara’s Repeating Crevice house provided its occupants with graded levels of awareness of the presence and movements of other occupants. I suggested this might be useful for co-living and co-housing projects that, typically, offer only the binary choice of fully private space or fully shared space. The result was Repeating Crevice reimagined as co-housing.

I thought if such an arrangement can benefit people living in close quarters, then it might be worthwhile extending the principle to high-rise apartment buildings. The Hong Kong typology does have kitchen windows with views of the sides of the building, and habitable rooms often have sideways views of other habitable room windows. Within the same building there already is a visual awareness of neighbours on the same floor but this doesn’t come via the spaces connecting them. I thought the transition between elevator lobby and apartment lobby could perhaps be more visually permeable but,

for any proposal to be more than a spatial exercise, there should also have 1) eight two-bedroom apartments per floor, 2) naturally ventilated and lit elevator lobbies, 3) naturally ventilated and lit bathrooms and kitchens and 4) laundry drying areas. I’m not yet sure it can be done.

• • •

I’m more certain we’re thinking the wrong way about privacy. We design apartment buildings to exclude all awareness of people living in the same building and sharing corridors and elevators, and then wonder why people think they’re isolating and alienating. Village life may have the opposite downside of everyone knowing what everyone else is doing but, midway between these two densities is suburbia where people can see from their window if their neighbours are in, or chat across a driveway or garden fence if they wish.

We live in cities because we enjoy the opportunites that arise when people live at higher densities but the reality is we live our lives oscillating between our public and private selves. We manically try to achieve balance, not equilibrium. Apartment doors switch us between being private in spaces totally open to the world, and being social in spaces totally closed to it. Something is not right.


We see our dwellings as refuges from society rather than as places to reassure us we’re part of it. We thus lack the calmness and certainty that comes from feeling part of something greater than ourselves. Instead, we look for it in views but in less than two centuries the notion of a view has quickly degraded from preferred landscape, to any landscape, to suburban garden, to communal garden, to river view, to any large space outside one’s window.


When the window-to-window distance decreases, people stop being picturesque and become real. We’re not yet back in the village but we’re getting back to the social reality of suburbia. This is not a bad thing.

In the world’s larger cities, the idea that a desirable view can include people is something occurring out of necessity. If we like living in cities and amongst other people then we need to be more aware of each other, not as some kind of substitute or lesser view but out of choice and because it is socially and psychologically good for us.

I suspect this is what happens in Hong Kong where people seem to manage just fine although, it must be said, its excruciatingly beautiful topography is never far away.

• • •


  • 40% of Hong Kong’s land is natural landscape. 90% of all journeys are by public transport, of which 43% are by the city’s MTR metro system. Hong Kong has a low energy use per capita, only slightly above the world average.

energy per capita.png

  • Per capita statistics are averages that deny extremes and using GDP as an indicator of a country’s prosperity has its own liimitations. That said, Hong Kong’s balance between energy efficiency and GDP per capita is the planet’s best – better than Austria and Switzerland and better than the G7 countries by as much again.