Category Archives: Performance-Beauty

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

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 apartment 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 was 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’s 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 the activities of Ginzburg and his associates could be more closely monitored. This also explains the generally cool reception the proposals received when they were presented later that 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.


US 7,540,120

US7540120 is a United States patent for a Multi-Level Apartment Building. Patent attorneys aren’t likely to be apartment plan geeks so I pity the one whose desk this landed on. Perhaps I shouldn’t, because patent attorneys are skilled in untangling real novelty from mere claims to it. They also understand the importance of precise language because patent language is designed to accurately describe all that’s unique about an invention but at the same time be sufficiently encompassing so that protection isn’t lost if someone else makes some minor improvement or change. Phrases such as substantially and arbitrarily occur often because their meaning is defined. The term disposed is used to mean placed or arranged. The term a plurality of is used to mean a few, several, or many.

The structure of a patent application is also defined. At the beginning is a list of patents to which the invention refers or relates to. Then comes the Abstract. The one for US Patent 7,540,120 doesn’t tell us much because we’re not used to imagining buildings from written descriptions. This particular abstract is an accurate and concise description of the invention – it has to be.

A multi-level apartment building includes vertically stacked sections each containing at least one pair of apartments, where each apartment of an apartment pair contains a stairway assembly coupled to a vertically extending stair support wall assembly that contains utility distribution conduits. The stairway assembly for each apartment connects four levels of function space. One apartment of the pair in a vertical section is rotated 180 degrees in plan in relation to the other apartment of the pair which is entered on the opposite side of a public corridor that provides access to the apartments of the pair. The apartments are vertically stacked in alignment where an apartment of a pair is mirrored in plan in relation to a vertically underlying or overlying apartment of another pair, and the stair support assemblies of the respectively vertically stacked apartments are vertically aligned.

What it doesn’t tell us is why somebody would want to do that. Next comes Description of the Invention. This is divided into sub-sections, the first of which is Field of the Invention.

The present invention relates generally to a multi-level structure and, more particularly, to a multi-level apartment building having a plurality of apartments, where each apartment includes a plurality of rooms on levels connected by a stairway system that is coupled to a stair support wall assembly for receiving vertically extending utility services.

There’s a certain comfort that comes from words meaning exactly what they say, and no more or less. 

Next comes Background of the Invention. This sub-section tells you what the existing problems were that led to the invention being proposed as a solution. This is where the case for the invention is made.

The invention itself is described in detail in Summary of the Invention and cross-referenced to Brief Description of the Drawings where each drawing is described in detail. It ought be possible for an architect to fully understand this building from these.

Finally comes the Claims in which everything unique about the invention and worthy of legal protection is isolated and listed in a structured sequence of claims and dependent (sub-) claims. Each claim is written as a single sentence and is not easy reading. Governmental patent offices in the home country and countries around the world make rulings on whether the invention described by the Claims are unique and thus deserving of protection. 

The invention of US 7,540,120 has been granted a patent because it solves some identified problem in a unique and novel manner. If only architecture could always be so clear, with the use of words such as unique, novel and innovative limited to legally recognised and precisely described solutions to specifically identified problems.

If a person can’t call themselves an architect without being legally recognized as such, then why not have a similar requirement for architecture?  

After all, a patent attorney (or any lawyer, for that matter) would be comfortable with the statement “All hatmakers make hats” but not with the statement “All architects create architecture.” And neither should we. Making architects legally liable for false claims to aesthetic innovation would certainly clear the air, eliminate much noise. We can speculate on this some other time because, for now, I want to find out what’s so special about this novel and innovative architectural invention. It’s not every day one comes along. From the section and plan above it seems like a scissor-plan variant.

For reference, here’s the scissor plan of the 1962 Corringham apartments in London Kenneth Frampton had a hand designing. Scissor plans are confusing, even for the people who made these diagrams trying to explain them. The key to the section says 1 is the living and 2 the entry but it’s the other way around. The plan numbering corresponds to its key but not to the section numbering, even when corrected.

Background to the Invention

Multi-level buildings are a favored form of residential construction because they provide for improved land use and a high density alternative to sprawl. The buildings usually include a plurality of apartments where each of the apart ments is occupied by several individuals, such as a family. Such apartments, however, usually do not include all of the features and amenities that are ordinarily present in a detached suburban home. The apartments typically do not include such detached home features as split level living room and dining room function space, duplex height in a living room function space, duplex height windows as part of the living room space and that provide natural lighting to remote interior portions of the apartment, bedrooms located on separate levels to afford privacy from each other and also communal activities, views on opposite sides of a building, through ventilation, an exposed interior duplex height stairway and balconies without shadows and overhangs. The absence of many of the features and amenities usually present in a detached residence makes conventional apartments unappealing to the more mobile class of residential purchasers. […] Therefore, a need exists for a multi-level apartment building that addresses the needs of sprawling development by containing a plurality of apartments that can be fabricated with relative ease and where each apartment creates the illusion of spaciousness while providing expected amenities and consuming a minimum of floor area.

Frankly, I expected more, but this is the problem the inventors have set themselves to solve and it was judged to be a real and valid one. Their problem was that apartments don’t feel housey enough and they intend to solve this by providing:

  1. a split level living room and dining room function space,
  2. duplex height in a living room function space,
  3. duplex height windows as part of the living room space,
  4. bedrooms on separate levels,
  5. views on both sides of a building,
  6. through ventilation,
  7. a dramatic stairway,
  8. a balcony some distance from the one above, and
  9. creating an apartment having the illusion of spaciousness but consuming a minimum of floor area.

Let’s see!

  1. An access corridor runs across the building and apartments either side are mirrored and reversed or, in CADspeak, a copy is horizontally rotated 180° [not vertically around 180° as per a unité].
  2. The kitchen/dining area is on the same level as the entrance.
  3. The living rooms are on a level slightly lower than the kitchen/dining, and have a ceiling height slightly higher.
  4. A staircase in the corner of the living rooms extends upwards to access a minor bedroom above the kitchen/dining of the apartment across the corridor.
  5. The same staircase extends downwards to access the master bedroom beneath the kitchen/dining of the apartment across the corridor.

This basic unit can be repeated horizontally any number of times, and vertically as well if vertically alternate units are reversed, interlocked and stacked an arbitrary number of times. Don’t forget that a patent application describes a general principle and doesn’t need to describe what happens at the end of the building where a living room is minus a kitchen/dining room, or at the other end of the building where the kitchen/dining room lacks corresponding bedrooms and living area.

The German application for the invention includes the following two helpful diagrams.

Bathrooms of one unit and the kitchen of another are thus sandwiched between living rooms above and below and this is why the stairwell support wall must have services run through it.


In a patent application, the variation described in most detail is called the preferred embodiment (manifestation) of the invention in order to exclude other inventions that are substantially identical. These are also anticipated in the descriptions of other embodiments. The ones listed all divide the minor bedroom to configure a three-bedroom apartment and also feature alternative arrangments for the staircase – presumably to get the service riser out of the living room.

The inventors have solved most of the problems they set out to solve.

  • There is a split-level living room and dining room.
  • The living room is double-storey height.
  • There are double-storey windows.
  • Bedrooms are on separate levels.
  • The apartment has views in two opposite directions.
  • Some degree of cross ventilation exists.
  • The staircase is indeed dramatic even if it only goes to a minor bedroom.
  • Vertically above and below each double-height living room are two bedroom levels and a kitchen level so there are five floors betwen [vertically adjacent] living room balconies.

However, I’m not sure they have succeeded in creating an apartment having the illusion of spaciousness but consuming a minimum of floor area because, for one, I don’t know how it would be possible to objectively evaluate the success of an illusion. I’m also not sure if it has been done consuming a minimum of floor area. The typical plan below shows how the space (indicated in red) above/below the corridor (green) is not being used for any purpose than to pass over/under the corridor and contrive a double-sided apartment. The solution thus solves one problem but creates another. There may be the illusion of spaciousness and certain amenities (including the benefit of inscrutability) but it can only be said to consume a minimum of floor area until somebody comes along and solves the same problem in less.

The inventors did succeed in what they set out to do but they did not set the bar very high.

  • Apartments might be more attractive to more people if they successfully create the illusion of being more like detached houses but is a split-level living room and dining room, or a dramatic staircase really the best way to go? And if not what is? For some people, for example, a house might be all about opening the kitchen door to let the dog in, or having a basement and an attic. Instead of creating the illusion of an apartment being more like a house, it might be more worthwhile to explore what advantages apartments have that detached houses don’t.
  • A first, I thought the configuration was a scissor plan variant but it turned out not to be so. Having all living rooms on a preferred side of the building was not a problem the invention aimed to solve. There is scope for some other, future invention to incorporate this feature and be a completely new invention. 
  • I also initially expected it would be possible to horizontally extend apartments by making appropriate openings (and/or closures) in party walls to enlarge or reduce the volume of the apartment but this is not the case. We still lack a multi-storey apartment building configuration with the potential to be arbitrarily extended horizontally by having wall openings that can be arbitrarily opened/closed to access different staircases and their adjacent spaces. Such a method of configuring apartments would use similar elements and spaces to configure apartments of varying sizes and shapes and thus have advantages for construction cost and time savings. The challenge would be to do it with a minimum of walls having only latent party wall functionality and, as ever, a minimum of circulation space.

Good luck and let me know how you get on!

Fast Tracking

It’s easy enough to make a train go fast but much harder to make it stay on the rails and to give passengers a comfortable ride.


The 0 Series Shinkansen

These are the ones Japanese remember most fondly and which so amazed the world when the Tokaido Shinkansen [東海道新幹線, lit. New Arterial Line; a.k.a. Bullet Train] connecting Tokyo and Osaka opened on 1st October 1964 just in time for the Tokyo Olympics. These first trains didn’t have any name other than shinkansen and were only called 0 Series when it later became necessary to differentiate them. O Series trains ran at speeds of up to 200 km/h (125 mph), with later increases to 220 km/h (135 mph). More than 3,200 cars were built but by 2008 none remained in service. 


The buffet car was always a special treat.

The Series 0 shinkansen wouldn’t have been possible without various 1950s innovations that raised bogie performance and reduced weight and vibration so the trains could run safely and comfortably at faster speeds.

  • incorporating springs and oil dampers into the bogie suspension to significantly reduce vibration
  • mounting traction motors on the bogie frame and using flexible couplings and gears to transmit power to the wheels
  • using a press-welded structure to reduce the weight of the bogie frames
  • using disk brakes to increase braking power at greater speeds
  • using air springs in the carriage suspension to increase passenger comfort

 [Refer to this document for more about the early technical innovatoins.]

The 200 series

In 1982 the Tohoku Shinkansen Line and the Joetsu Shinkansen Line opened with 200 Series trains that resembled the earlier 0 Series trains but were lighter and more powerful for mountain routes with steeper gradients. They had small snowplows to handle snowfall and exposed equipment such as the motors and compressors beneath the train was enclosed in sealed cowling to protect it from snow. Another innovation were the special air intakes designed to remove snow from the air. The first 200 trains had a top speed of 210 km/h (130 mph) but later ones could do 240 km/h (150 mph), and some were converted to be capable of 275 km/h (171 mph). By 2007 none remained in service.


The 100 series

The naming system for new train series gave new trains running east of Tokyo even numbers and those running west of Tokyo odd numbers. [Having 100 come after 200 defeats the purpose of numbering, but not of naming. This post will therefore order the various series according to their chronological date of first introcution and irrespective of any implied numerical value. G.] The 100 Series trains began service in 1985 and had a more pointed nose as well as two double-level cars in the middle and that powered, most likely because there wasn’t sufficient space left between the bogies to do so. By 2012 none remained in service.



Hat trick: a 100 heading for Osaka passes Mt. Fuji during cherry blossom season.

The 100 Series prompted a remodelled front car for the earlier 200 series. Apart from the livery, the only obvious difference is the snowplow.


The 400 series

The first mini-shinkansen series was introduced in 1992 on Yamagata Shinkansen route branching from the Tohoku Shinkansen route at Fukushima. The mini-shinkansen concept involved regauging existing 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge lines to standard gauge and linking them to the shinkansen network to allow through-running. [W.] In order to negotiate local rail networks, the 400 Series was designed to have lower clearance and to be narrower. Steps projected from below the doors to bridge the gap between the train and the platform.  The 400s had a maximum speed of 240 km/h but all were withdrawn by April 2010.

The 300 Series

The 300 Series was introduced in 1992. They could carry about 1,300 passengers at a maximum  speed of 270 km/h (170 mph). The 300 Series abandoned the bullet-like nosecone for a more automobile-like styling with wider windscreen and lowered headlights, and also had flared panels protecting the front bogies from snow. It also had bolsterless bogies for greater stability at high speed, higher running performance on curves, less vibration and greater ride comfort, smaller size and lower weight to reduce track wear. All these improvements are to do with issues fundamental to rail transportation

A bolsterless bogie has two air springs directly supporting the carriage without any other cushioning element.

A 300 set the 1991 Japanese speed record of 202.3 mph (325.7 km/h). A total of 69 were built. All were withdrawn from service by March 2012. 



A 300 on an evening run back to Tokyo.

The unusual shape of the nose of 300X was designed to minimise noise.


Another 300 X variant pursued aerodynamic advantage. Changes such as these and the incrasingly flush window frames and headlight casings reveal increasing attention being paid to air movement at the leading edges of the train. 


The 300X research project involved two test runs per week at night on track between Kyoto and Maibara on which revenue-operating trains ran during daytime. Testing covered rolling stock, tracks, overhead lines, and signal communications and involved simulations, constituent technology, and test runs, or combinations of the three. The simulations made it possible to predict situations that up till then could only have been checked with on-track tests, and provided insight into “boundary” problems that span a number of technological fields.

For example, it was found that lightening the unsprung mass affected running stability and ground vibration along the tracks.

Series 300 rolling stock was about 25% lighter than 100 Series, with a 30% lighter unsprung mass.  This led to 1998 track maintenance expenses being only 85% of those in 1993, despite a 50 km/h increase in speed. [ref.]

Boundary problems aren’t uncommon in railway transportation as it depends upon civil engineering, mechanical, electrical, and information systems that need to be designed and administered as a total system in a unified manner. It’s easy to see how boundary phenomena can be difficult to spot as a change seemingly insignificant in one field might have (good or bad) consequences for another.

The E1 Series

This was originally going to be designated the 600 Series. E1 trains were introduced in 1994 to alleviate overcrowding on the Tohoku and Joetsu routes. They had 3+3 seating in standard class and also had double-deck carriages. The first four upper deck non-reserved cars had 3+3 seating without individual armrests and did not recline. All E1 trains were withdrawn by September 2012.

The 500 series

These entered service in 1997 and had an operating speed of 300 km/h (185 mph). Innovations included the use of computer-controlled active suspension for a smoother and safer ride, and yaw dampers fitted between cars to prevent excessive sway. 

It had a revolutionary wing-graph pantograph.

In the case of the pantograph noise, air rushing over the struts and linkages in the mechanism was forming into so-called Karman vortices, also known as a Karman vortex street, and this turbulence was causing most of the noise. Karman vortices are created at all scales, from islands in the ocean to car aerials, and are manifested wherever a single bluff body separates the flow of a fluid. Alternate and opposite eddies swirl downstream of the obstruction, swinging back and forth as the force of one dominates and then the other. 

Vortex streets are a basic dynamic and some animals such as bees are thought to take advantage of it in their flight. Eiji Nakatsu is the bird-enthusiast and engineer credited with applying this physics to train aerodynamics. He studied the owl and its noise-dampening feather parts (fimbriae) that are a comb-like array of serrations grown on the leading edge of the primary wing feathers. They break down the air rushing over the wing foil into micro-turbulences that muffle the sound that typically occurs in wings without this feature. From 1994 a new “wing-graph” replaced the traditional pantograph and was a great success. The train could now run at 320 km/hr and meet the stringent 70dBa noise standard set by the government. [ref.]

There was also the more intractable problem of trains entering tunnels creating sonic booms at the other end of the tunnel. Japan’s rail tunnels are somewhat narrower than their European counterparts and often begin and end vertically, so when the shinkansen enters a tunnel at speeds above 200 kilometres per hour, the sudden increase in air pressure can cause a loud “boom” at the other end of the tunnel. In some cases, such shock waves are thought to have damaged tunnels in Japan, ripping chunks of material from tunnel ceilings.

Its counterintuitive at first for the boom to happen at the exit when the train enters the tunnel.” [It seems to suggest the piston effect can’t be sustained. G] This German video gives both the boom and the train later leaving the tunnel.

The other way around is tweaking tunnel portals to the same considerations. Victor

Nakatsu once again searched for an answer in nature when a junior engineer observed [uncredited, as is the Japanese way] that the test train seemed to “shrink” when it was traveling through the tunnel. Nakatsu reasoned that it must be due to a sudden change in air resistance, from open sky to closed tunnel, and wondered if there was an organism that was adapted to such conditions.

From his birdwatching experiences, Nakatsu remembered the kingfisher, a bird that dives at high speed from one fluid (air) to another that is 800 times denser (water) with barely a splash. He surmised the shape of its bill was what allowed the bird to cut so cleanly into the water. The design reduced the sonic boom effect, and allowed the train to run at higher speeds and still adhere to the standard noise level of 70 dBa. It also reaped further benefits immediately. The new Shinkansen 500 had 30 percent less air resistance than the preceding 300 series. A measured actual train run (maximum 270 km/hr) showed a 13 percent reduction in energy consumption. [ref.]

Sadly, this wonderful story dumbs down to this.

The unhappy ending is that each train cost approx. 5 billion yen and only nine were ever built. Although technologically innovative, the cost-peformance was poor and so the 500 Series thus went the way of the Sukhoi SU-47 and the F22 Raptor [c.f. Architectural Myths #8: Clean Lines].

The E4 series

These dual-level 8-car trains were designed as the second mini-shinkansen to replace the E1. They also began service in 1997 and had a maximum speed of 240 km/h (150 mph). 

The E2 Series

The E2 was introduced in 1997 and had a maximum speed of 275 km/h (170 mph). The most noticeable improvement was the shift from small windows for each seating bay to wide windows as with the E4 . The pantograph now had a single arm with an aerofoil-shaped mounting that did not need shrouding. Its exposed components were only those that had a reason to be exposed to the air. Even the horn of the pantograph (the curved ends of the slider or that top bar thingy that glide on the wire) had wavy holes drilled through them to generate vortices to suppresses the pantograph noise at high speed. [ref.]

A total of 53 were built but withdrawals began in 2013 when they began to be replaced by E7 Series trains.

The E3 Series

This is the fourth of mini-shinkansen designed with reduced width and clearance and to run on gauges for lower loads. Doorway steps fold out to make up the difference width when stopping at regular shinkansen stations. All were replaced by E6 Series trains by March 2014.

The 700 series

Introduced in 1999, with a maximum operating speed of 285 km/h (175 mph), the 700 series is immediately recognisable by its flat ‘duck-bill’ nose designed to reduce the piston effect when the train enters tunnels. The design owes much to the 300X research program. As with the 500 series trains, yaw dampers are fitted between vehicles, and all cars feature semi-active suspension for smooth ride at high speed. These trains were designed to deliver high performance and better ride comfort and interior ambience than the 300 Series but at 20% less cost than the 500 Series. [W.]

Between October 2008 and June 2009, JR Central’s fleet of sixty 700 series sets underwent modifications to increase the acceleration from the original 1.6 km/h/s to 2.0 km/h/s (0.44 m·s−2 to 0.56 m·s−2) on the Tokaido Shinkansen in order to improve timetable planning flexibility.

This trains were the core trains on the mainline shinkansen routes 2006–2011 but were gradually withdrawn and replaced with N700 Series trains and 800 Series trains.   


An 800 Series Train.

The N700 series

N700 series trains have a maximum speed of 300 km/h (186 mph), and tilting of up to one degree allows the trains to maintain 270 km/h (168 mph) even on 2,500 m (8,200 ft) radius curves that previously had a maximum speed of 255 km/h (158 mph). The enhanced acceleration of the 700 Series (1.6 km/h/s to 2.0 km/h/s ) must have produced significant benefits for timetable flexibility because maximum acceleration rate of the N700 Series is 2.6 km/h/s. This means a 715 tonne train can accelerate from 0–270 km/h (170 mph) in only three minutes, and that it can travel between Tokyo and Osaka in 142 minutes, eight less than before. [W.]

This image of the N700 pantographs shows the (yellow) horn of the pantograph with its small holes that create the noise-surpressing vortices.

The E5 series

The E5 Series was introduced in 2011 and is still in service. Maximum speed is 320 km/h (200 mph). Pantograph improvements continued.

Until the E5, mini-shinkansen innovations had mainly been for width and clearance but the east-west routes through the Japan Alps have more and longer tunnels so the tunnel boom problem was more significant with these trains. The E5 is the latest attempt to solve the problem without incurring the expenses of the 300 Series or the undue attentions of biomimeticists.  

• • •

Doctor Yellow


“Doctor Yellow” is the name given to trains specially customised for track checking and diagnosis. Doctor Yellow trains are dispatched to check track immediately after earthquakes and also when track sections are experiencing severe weather conditions. Unlike regular shinkansen, these trains are sometimes operated at full speed (up to 443 km/h ~ 275 mph). [ref.]  It’s a good day for a train enthusiast when they see one. Here’s six loving shots of the two 923 Series Doctor Yellow trains developed from the 700 Series, plus a 0 Series Doctor Yellow from fifty years ago.

• • •


  • Eiji Nakatsu is remarkable for not only for observing Nature but also for listening to the straightforward observations of said junior engineer who was first to articulate the problem in terms of the relevant physics.
  • Boundary phenomena are nasty, especially as it’s not part of our psychology to look out for and take responsibility for the effect our actions have on others. Our culture of subcontracting and outsourcing may make some of them easier to identify but at the same time impossible to do anything about. (“Excuse me, there’s nothing in it for you but would you mind changing your way of doing things to solve a problem we’re having?”) Simply exchanging information between disciplinces is not teamwork.
  • Two boundary phenomena stood out. One was how reducing the unsprung weight led to track maintenance economies. The other was how the sum of mechanical and physical factors that resut in improved acceleration is recognised as allowing for increased timetabling flexibility. This is probably a Japanese euphemism for “more trains more frequently” but identifying that the two are linked is awesome.
  • With different routes needing different solutions for different conditions, the story of technical improvements across the Shinkansen fleets is not linear in the way the development of Sukhoi fighter planes was [c.f. Architectural Myths #8: Clean Lines]. The main revenue-earning lines were not always the identifies or problems or the initiators of innovation, as shown by the tunnel boom solutions.
  • What’s also impressive is that not one shinkansen innovation has been aesthetic for its own sake. Their various noses and front ends have never tried to be beautiful. How a very fast object goes through the air is very important in terms of energy efficiency and the noise it generates, and much research and development understandably went into optimising the shape of Shinkansen lead carriages and the nose in particular. It is a pity these highly visible “faces” of the shinkansen overshadow the effort that went into reducing the noise made by the pantographs that also travel through air at the same high speed.
  • And let’s not forget the research and develpment intelligence embodied in the bogies that make high-speed train travel comfortable as well as make it safe and viable by keeping the train on the tracks in the first place. In fifty years and over 10 billion passengers, there have been no Shinkansen fatalities due to derailments or collisions. That’s some track record.


  • to and for helping me make some sense out of the series numbering
  • to Isao OKAMOTO for his 1999 article on Shinkansen Bogies in Railway Technology Today
  • to Hiromasa TANAKA for his 2001 paper, High-speed Rail Technology as Revealed by the Shinkansen
  • to for the interesting stuff about pantographs, and also the many references
  • to for the most convincing version of the kingfisher story.
  • In this post I hope I’ve managed to communicate something of the amount of ongoing and focussed intelligence and research and develpment that has gone into making these trains. Many people out there know much more about them than me. I’ll be grateful to anyone who can help me correct any inaccuracies or who can think of more examples of design intelligence that might not be not immediately visible.