Category Archives: Performance-Beauty

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Making Strange

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

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

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

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

[or vimeo]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s left standing?

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

In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Patrik Schumacher claims function is not a fundamental quality of architecture. In a perversion of the Russian Formalist position, he states that people can use the space inside a cave or a hollowed out tree for shelter as they might a building. From this he jumpily concludes that function is a quality that can be satisfied by something other than architecture, and thus not a quality by which architecture should be evaluated.
[p341, Vol I. if you’re keen.]
perverted formalism

  • Watertightness, servicing, security, durability, sustainability, energy performance and so on, are all specific to Architecture [I know, I know …] despite their current relegation to The Art of Building.
  • The solving of many conflicting requirements together is integrated design and not unique to architecture, but solving the above set is. 

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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The Extruded Mat Building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Extruded Mat Building

1. Take a perfect layout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sheltering Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

light lady

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

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

applications

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

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

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

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But how real does a window simulator need to be?

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

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

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

If only all windows could be like that.

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• • •

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

Villa Rotonda

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

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

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

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

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Architecture Myths #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP: ” – “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

business case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Window Checklist

lunar prisms

illumination

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ventilation

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insulation

observation

relaxation

separation

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information

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contemplation

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inspiration

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gratification

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The Landscape Within

I’d been seeing images of one corner of this project on and off since 1975, as if elevational hijinks were the only thing of general architectural interest. Times being the times, they probably were but, in my own way, I was equally guilty of not being curious as to what lay below the surface of Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7.

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This wasn’t such a bad thing as I’m probably more alert now to what this project set out to achieve and, by all accounts, succeeded in doing. At first sight, it appears complex but it’s less obvious how that complexity has been generated from a few very simple moves. Complexity for the sake of it is never good but if this project were simply a straightforward, low-cost, social housing development it would never have even crossed the architectural radar in order to fall from our collective memory.

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Multiple small floor plates successively stagger outwards to create openings, and then stagger inwards to close them again.

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Access galleries run along the inner sides when the building staggers outwards and also, as seen below, for the four midle floors of two-storey apartments where there’s no staggering.

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They switch to the outer side when the floors stagger back in.

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Considerable art has been applied to disguise repetition. Only two of these four stacked access bridges look the same, for example.

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All galleries lead to the centre where four banks of two elevators serve 446 apartments. Images of the entrance space are easy to find but images of the central elevator void are oddly elusive.

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All apartment layouts are based on a module that can be combined horizontally and/or vertically to make apartments of various sizes. This thinking is the product of a time when everything was suddenly modular – a concept that was sold as catering to freedom and individuality. This was no lie as a wider range of virtual needs could be catered for with a single product and manufacturing economies ensured at the same time.

It’s still a good idea because a wide range of real needs can be catered for with a single product, ensuring manufacturing economies.

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The project is located just west of Barcelona so there’s no pressing need for enclosed staircases or for air conditioning. Six extremely photogenic voids run vertically through the building, intersecting with three horizontal voids that someone has called “urban windows.”

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Urban windows are all very well but the only view of some of those apartments is onto a lightwell, Barcelona being Barcelona, those lightwells at least have plenty of light, but even so … These next three images are looking in, out and to the side of the entrance doors.

Here’s a rare shot looking up.

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And here’s an ever rarer image of the four banks of two elevators backing onto the centre most space. The larger one is the service elevator.

What I admire most about this project is how it doesn’t hide its internal circulation within corridors. People inside their apartments can see what’s going on inside the building and always be aware of other people moving around. There’s no lack of images of bridges and galleries and, although these definitely are trying to be attractive, it’s not to draw attention to themselves but to the people on them. This is easy to forget today when things only seem to exist in order to be photographed.

In the same way, people moving around can see windows opening and lights being turned on and off and are always aware of lives being lived inside the apartments. These access galleries aren’t trying to be streets in the sky but merely interesting ways for people to get home. The building works the way it was intended, and is loved by its residents. All reports indicate a definte sense of community and an awareness of living with other people. [Which comes first?] Walden 7 got something very important very right. It’s fine to label it a “1970s Classic” but to do that is to place it safely at a distance and prevent us learning important lessons from it today.

Why aren’t more buildings configured like this? I suspect it’s because our standard apartment block with inner rooms with mechanical ventilation and artificial light is configured in the cheapest and fastest way to build. Voids don’t come cheap as they are still space partially enclosed by a structure that still costs money, even if it can’t be walked in. Voids such as Walden 7’s can be partially monetized back by internal views that, though undeniably interesting, are nobody’s idea of a preferred view if there’s only one view to be had. 

Trellick Tower, a thirty-one-story apartment block in North Kensington, London, designed by Ernő Goldfinger, 1966–1972; from Elain Harwood’s <i/>Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945–1975

Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London was completed 1972 so, stylistically, Walden 7 was slightly outrageous for its time. It offered a Post-Brutalist way forward for social housing but ended up suffering the same fate as Brutalism before it, suggesting that the way forward for architecture may or may not have been a question of style, but it was certainly not social housing. Just as with Brutalism, we’re encouraged to look at Walden 7 as a failed aesthetic experiment rather than a successful social one.    

Perhaps the most amazing and possibly damning thing of all is that Walden 7 was constructed simply and within budget, using conventional technologies. It didn’t require the column to be reinvented. It didn’t require a new type of concrete to be developed. All it took was the ability to conceive of pleasant and nourishing spaces and which is supposed to be the job of architects.

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• • •

Only since this February and the Repeating Crevice Revisited post did I begin to think internal views of a building’s inner life might be a socially useful thing to provide. In April’s Plan B, I bemoaned the anti-social elevator lobbies and corridors in contemporary apartment buildings and proposed making it easier to see more of what is happening in them. In June’s Detective StoryI developed this a little with overlooked, open corridors.

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Gallery-Access Tower Block

Three levels of apartments form triple-height elevator lobbies overlooked by apartments accessed up from that level and also by those accessed down from the access level above. Rather than three isolated individual lobbies, these three-storey lobbies have a touch of Walden 7 about them.

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This proof-of-concept layout has four simple two-bedroom apartments per level, with two open stairs, each with gallery landings serving two apartments. Kitchen windows observe the defensible space of the apartment entrance, but hallway windows in 45° walls face and directly overlook the centre of the lobby space, allowing glimpses of it and activity within to persons passing in either direction through the apartment hallways.

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This approaches a minimum configuration. The only “value-engineerable” elements are the elevator glass doors and transoms, and the vision panels to the elevator shafts, but to remove them would be a loss since the sight of mechanical activity provides an indirect awareness of people moving within the building, adding to the direct visual one.

 • • •

  • http://www.gooood.hk/walden-7-by-ricardo-bofill-taller-de-arquitectura.htm It’s no surprise this site has a Hong Kong domain because the Hong Kong public housing tower block usually has much resident interaction in the form of views within and between towers. Here you’ll find more details on the apartment plans as well as a good set of photographs.
  • http://www.averyreview.com/issues/7/revisiting-systems A curious article. It seems to be saying that considering buildings as integrated structural, construction and social system is a retro-throwback. It focusses on how Bofill’s theoretical position has changed over the years rather than on Walden 7’s unexplored potential. In the midst of post-modern madness, this original and unclassifiable 1975 project never impinged upon the architectural consciousness as much as did Bofill’s 1971 Xanadu or his 1978 Les Espaces d’Abraxas. Walden 7 created a new reality for living rather than new architectural representations of property and privilege. 

  • https://habitatgecollectiu.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/walden-7-ricardo-boffil/ This site has a good set of images and overview.
  • https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/12915930 £50 a night seems like a good deal.

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• • •

This links to a description of Walden 7 on ricardobofill.com.

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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.

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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.

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… encompasses building materials, …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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… 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.

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… 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.

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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.

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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.

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… 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Meta-Aesthetics

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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… 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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