Category Archives: Performance-Beauty

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The Inscrutable Apartment

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scissor flat was the most inscrutable of these layouts.

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

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

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

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

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

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The Katana Residences similarly twist and interlock paired apartments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modest Megastructures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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City In The Air, Arata Isoaki, 1961

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Kiyonori Kikutake, Ocean City, 1968

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Archigram, Plug-In City, 1960–1974

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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These are the plans that were submitted for approval.

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

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

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Thanks to Tiago for tweeting this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

Brands as Architectural Legacy

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

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

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

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

Le Corbusier

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

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Who were these people? What happened to them?

Frank Lloyd Wright

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

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

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The Architects’ Collaborative

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Gehry

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

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

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

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

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

OMA

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

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

 • • •

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

Architecture Building of The Vortex in London by Make Architects copy

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

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

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

Former OMA partner Ole Scheeren has trod the same path.

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ZHA

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

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

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• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

• • •

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

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Architcture Misfits #26: Asnago Vender

That’s Claudio Vender [1904–1986] on the left and Mario Asnago [1896–1981] on the right. We can tell from the photograph that these two gentlement are stylish but haven’t been contemporary for quite some time. Their buildings however, remain both. You won’t find much information on them or their buildings. Here’s a bit from the NY site of furniture company Flexform.

Both Mario and Claudio received Architecture Certification at the Bologna Institute of Fine Arts in 1922. The first joint projects were for competitions, such as the Como War Memorial. In 1928, after obtaining the right to practice as architects, together they opened the Studio Asnago-Vender Architetti. 

Here’s some tables they exhibited at the Trienniale Exhibition of Milan in 1936.

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Here’s the Moka chair Vender designed for Flexform in 1985.   

Their partnership lasted from 1928 until Asnago retired in 1971. This post is about what happened inbetween. Their earliest projects show a simplicity that reflects the increasing influence of Rationalism and the decreasing influence of Novocento eclecticism.

Villa Arnaldo Marelli 1933
Cantù, Milan

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Palazzo di via Manin 1933
Via Daniele Manin 33, Milan

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Apartment Building 1934
Via Euripide 7, Milan

Apartment Building 1934
via Mosè Bianchi 22, Milan

Mixed-use Building 1935
viale Tunisia 50, Milan

Villa Molin 1935
via Previati 85, Luogo, Milan

Apartment Building 1935
via Col Moschin 3, Milan

Case Coloniche 1937
Tenuta Castello, Pavia [32km south of Milan]

S. Rita Apartment Building 1937-1938
via Euripide 1, Milan

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Three Interior Design Projects 1939
Milan

Villa Clerici 1940
Chiesa In Valmalenco [95km NNE of Milan]

Mixed-use Building 1939-1941
via Albricci 8, Milan

The corner of this building may be a 1941 extension or a completely independent building designed to appear as both extension and partial mirror of the building on the opposite corner. This is the first example we see of Asnago Vender’s urban contextualism achieved with nothing more than materials and window types and spacings. 1940.

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 Fabbrica Trattori Vender 1940
Via Manzoni, Cusano Milanino, Milan

Stabilimento Zanoletti 1940
Viale Ortles, Milan

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Cormano e Cusano Milanino 1942
via Manzoni, Milan

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The factories are only in the post-war reconstruction years. Most of Asnago Vender’s later buildings are apartment buildings or mixed use buildings. There are perhaps a dozen villas, one school, two churches and three factories. All are in and around Milan. Asnago Vender were content to repeat themselves, with differences guided only by the dictates of the brief and the site. There is aesthetic innovation but it is always low-key and always subservient to the building itself. Their buildings are not statement buildings.

Vezzani Storefront 1946
via Dante, Milan

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Apartment Building 1948
piazza S. Ambrogio 14, Milan

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All Asnago Vender buildings are part of their surroundings. This building is an apartment building from 1948. It manages to be part of its context yet at the same time have an identity of its own, resulting in a simple juxtaposition. This doesn’t seem such an amazing feat when the neighbouring buildings are also residential buildings but the fact this apartment building has this kind of fenestration and not some other, is a design decision just as conscious as those instances where the pattern is broken. This is characteristic of many of their buildings.

XXI Aprile Apartment Building 1949
via Lanzone 4, Milan

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Villa Bellioni 1950
Seveso, Milan

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Villa Roberto Strada 1952
Cesano Maderno, Milan

Mixed-use Building 1950-52
Piazza Velasca 4, Milan

Note the attention paid to the entrance mullion positions, the window spacing and how the stone is cut to suit, the two types of transom …

Apartment Building 1952
via Plutarco 15, Milan

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XXI Aprile Apartment Building 1953
via Lanzone 4, Milan

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Apartment building 195?
via Euripide 9, Milan

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Villa Vegni 1954
Barlassina, Milano

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Apartment Building 1954
via Faruffini 6, Milan

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Apartment & Retail Mixed-use Building 1954-58
via Foscolo 4, Milan

Elementary School 1955–59
Seveso, Milan

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Villa Fiorilli 1955
Seveso, Milan

Apartment Building 1956
via Senofonte 9, Milan

Isolato tra via Albricci e piazza Velasca 1958
via Albricci, Milan

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Apartment & Retail Mixed-use Building 1959
viale Caterina da Forlì 40, Milan

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This 1959 mixed-use building above introduces new variations with window size and presence/absence. The corner with the windows within screens on the street side of cantilevered balconies is seemingly the most irrational thing I’ve seen Asnago Vender do. They seem to be calling our attention to the gap between the buildings and the fact there’s a private space on the other side. It’s unlike them to call our attention to things like this. I suspect it’s a Vender touch.

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I say that because this is Villa Conti (in Barlassina, Monza e Brianza, Italy). It uses commonplace elements in a decorative manner, each of them calling attention to themselves. It was designed independently by Vender in 1959. We don’t know why, but it provides us with an opportunity to see what Vender brought to Asnago Vender and, indirectly, what Asnago brought to the partnership. You can see more images here on OfHouses.

Villa Lanzuolo 1960
Barlassina, Milan

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Mixed-use Office & Residential Building 1961
Corso Sempione 75, Milan

Casa del Contadino 1961
Sirtori [35km NE of Milan]

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Stabilimento Ceita 1961–64
via Fratelli Bandiera 12, Milan

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Building on via Rossini 1962
Via Rossini, Milan

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Casa Albergo 1963
Corso di Porta Nuova 52, Milano

Mixed-use Building 1962-1964
via Verga 4, Milan

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Mixed-use Residential, Retail & Office Building 1966
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ant’Ilario d’Enza, Reggio Emilia [120km SE of Milan]

Apartment Building 1966
via Pisanello 8, Milan

Wohnhaus 1967
Via Veneto 31-33, Milan

Condominio Via della Signora 1966
Via della Signora 2A, Milan

Villa Brenna 1968
Como [40km N of Milan]

Mixed-use Building 1969
Piazza Ss. Trinità 6, via Giannone 9, Milan

• • •

Nearly all of these buildings are mixed-use or residential buildings in Milan or within 50km of it. Over the decades, the commissions became larger and more frequent but Asnago Vender had little appetite to design building types for which they had no experience, or in places with which they weren’t familiar. They did what they knew best in the place they knew best. They never had a media profile or a desire to be known beyond the people they worked for. They worked for their clients and their buildings worked for the city. 

The architecture of Asnago Vender is now almost completely unintelligible to us and what’s worse is we don’t even know what it is we’re not understanding. Asnago Vender did not prosthelytize, publicize, theorize, lecture or teach. It is up to us to learn what we can from their buildings and their professionalism. These are my suggestions.

Context

The 1941 extension terminating this 1939 building has different window sizes but continues the same mullion pattern of the earlier building. This is all that identifies it as an Asnago Vender building. Note also how that one irregular gap in the window spacing mirrors the building opposite. The colour also changes to match, as if stitching the streetscape together.

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Commitment

I’ll use the term commitment (to a place) to indicate a different dimension of contextuality. It’s a better term than regionalism which has come to mean nothing more than localized stylistic affections resulting from climate and materials. Apart from the excellent construction and finish, the appearance of an Asnago Vender building has nothing that is identifiably Italian or Milanese. All their buildings have structures and building elements common to buildings everywhere. However, their apartment building in via Lanzone is adjacent to another of their buildings.

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Via Euripide has three of their buildings, two of them adjacent.

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A block away on the corner of via Senofonte and via Plutarco 15 are two more adjacent. 

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The three sides of the block bounded by Piazza Velasca, via Albricci and via Cannobio (in the distance) has four adjacent buildings constructed within ten years of each other. I have never heard of this happening anywhere else.

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Occasionally, architects design monolithic buildings as apparent assemblages of smaller buildings. It’s a known device to reduce the visual impact of a single large building and maintain a scale more in keeping with some historic one. It’s also dishonest.

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The instances of adjacent Asnago Vender buildings are all natural occurrences due to them being commissioned by either the same or neighbouring clients. This shows that both the landowners and clients know how to work with each other for the long-term good of their city. Situations like this do not occur when either the client or architect is short-termist or opportunistic. They also do not occur when architects are chasing fame and prestige through the publicity associated with overseas commissions. [Who started this? When did it become the norm? Why? And why is it thought to be a good thing?]

Subtlety

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Returning to this building on via Albricci, at the top of the building is a open frame that, by being there and not being there, bridges the height difference between the left and right buildings. I expect that a curved boundary on one side of the corner site accounts for the slight curve on that side. However, the spacing between the windows increases almost imperceptibly towards the corner but on that side only. The building to the left is probably why.

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Photo by Filipo Poli

Note also how the corner is turned at street level. We’re probably looking at a maximum permissible cantilever being used to determine the curve. To the left, two of the far piers are recessed ever so slightly, possibly due to the influence of its neighbour. A transom is repeated but not in the same line.

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At the corner on the first and second floors are those vertically-paired, offset windows that are the only remant of the lower-level banding along via Albricci. Let’s take a closer look at the adjacent building to the left, on Piazza Velasca.

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The horizontal spacing of the windows appears regular but you will have to look very hard to find repeats or symmetries. The irregularities are below the Venturi threshold for complexity and contradiction. Perhaps these slight differences are things we respond to even if we don’t notice them, like those asymmetries of the human face? I mentioned in the MILAN post how this building maintains the floor heights of the adjacent buildings yet makes no attempt at lining through of lintels, cills or masonry joins. It works – something of identifiably the same scale results.

None of this is noticed when walking along the street. The question we must ask ourselves is: Is there such a thing anymore as design that is not meant to be noticed? See the slight angles on the balconies to the front of this building? It’s subtle.cd901370e575ecbbba9176699f12f8f1Something not so subtle is happening and a great many times on the (ZHA) building opposite.

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Redeeming the Trivial

The following quote [googletranslated from the Italian] is from here.

The research area of Asnago and Vender is still dictated by the city and by its rules: they have to operate within the framework of economic and housing laws need that imposed detailed rules and conditions for new buildings; these charges were not seen as limits by the two designers, but rather as an opportunity to redeem the trivial. The buildings of Asnago and Vender, mostly intended for the good Milanese bourgeoisie, do not break with the desire of urban homes comfortable and dignified, but that the nourish, to ennoble they can be studied with interventions and elegant. This conciliatory attitude is foreign to elite choices or controversy; the building techniques are sublimated into a pure language, abstract, where you avoid a break with the habits they can be redeemed for the inside; by doing so the two Milanese architects manage to redeem the trivial, the already seen, the usual, giving a renewed quality where details count and clarity of purpose.

Decoration

Early Asnago Vender buildings had forms of decoration not surprising for the time.

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Both these buildings of theirs can be said to have decorative balustrades.

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Many Asnago Vender buildings have some complex things happening with offsets and windows sizes and these are decoration of sorts. I’d previously said a 1970 house of Kazunari Sakamoto’s was the first instance I knew of offset windows being used as a decorative device and then I found a 1966 building of Togo Murano’s with offset windows. I now place the origin further back to 1940 and name Asnago Vender the inventors.

Economy

Seventy-five years on, offset windows have become a kind of shorthand for design effort that doesn’t need to be justified in terms of plan or context. The following examples are just four I saw over the course of a few days. The two buildings on the right probably have plans causing the fenestration hiccups, the two on the left probably not.

arxyre3p6rp5l0kyvuw6We’ve become accustomed to think of offset windows as contemporary and not as a form of decoration that costs next to nothing because it is not applied. Asnago Vender mostly used various window positions and shapes to add a contextual liveliness and meaning to the facades of utilitarian and much-needed buildings in the post-war Italian economy. They did not waste resources. Around the time when the architectural world was debating the relative merits of Farnsworth House and Glass House, Asnago & Vender were making useful buildings with inexpensive contextual devices that, like the buildings themselves, have staying power.

Design Flair

Design flair is the skill of doing something unjustifiable yet perfect. Togo Murano had it. Luigi Moretti had it. Asnago Vender had it. These mullions are from a 1969 mixed use building of theirs. It was to be one of their largest, and one of their last. There’s no reason why these mullions should have this pattern rather than any other. I notice a square, and another square, and perhaps a few golden rectangles but it is not intended to be clever, or probably even noticed. It is simply like this and it is good.

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Design flair is nothing more than the sense of knowing when it’s okay to do something unjustifiable, and when to stop.

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• • •

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Signori Asagno e Vender,

for showing us how to do it

misfits salutes you!

• • •

Misfits’ Guide to MILAN

The 20th century chronology of attention-getting buildings is over represented by America. It was only Le Corbusier who presented a sustained individual challenge to total American architectural dominance. Sustained national challenges were mounted by Scandinavia, Japan and Italy but, whether we were paying attention or not, Italy never ceased being a source of architectural intelligence and construction excellence. In Milan, I will look for evidence to back up this claim.

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1915–1925

Ca’ BruttaVittorino Colonnese, Giovanni Muzio, Pier Fausto Barelli, 1922
Via della Moscova, Milano

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This perimeter apartment block was one of the first reinforced concrete frame buildings in Italy. It had underground car parking, and heating and hot water were centrally provided. It lack of ornament borrowed from the Secessionists in reacting to Art Nouveau but earned it the name ‘Ugly House’.  What ornament there was was variously accused of being inconsistent, playful, ironic, a detachment from reality, a primitive mysticism and a reaction to rationality. Decades later, bizarrely and without irony, post-modernists would scour this pre-modern building for proof they were right. Papers would be written. 

Palazzo dell’ArteGiovanni Muzio
Viale Alemagna 6, Milano
 

Another Muzio building. Whether by coincidence, contemporaneity, association, design, or sheer bad luck, this building gets described as fascist architecture even though masonry arches with little or no decoration are typical of Muzio whose style seemed fully formed with his 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte and wasn’t noticeably different thirteen years later with his Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo. I think I’d prefer to see Ignzaio Gardella’s 1934 proposal there instead. Either would be unthinkable now.

1925-35

Casa Toninello, Guiseppe Terragni
Via Perasto 3, Milano

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The upper floor has been filled in but this building is still doing what it was meant to do.

1935-40

This period was the one where Rationalist design met urban verncaular construction to became mainstream. This suggests that Rationalism and its emphasis on structure and configuration was a more useful way of understanding the same technical advances than was style. The result is that many of these buildings look very ordinary today. They’re easy to pass by. This is either a virtue or a failing, depending on what you expect of buildings in a city.

Casa dei GiornalistiGiovanni Muzio
via Appiani, 23-25, Milano

This is the third of five Muzio buildings here, all except the Palazzo dell’Arte being within a few hundred metres of each other and each on a prominent intersection. This suggests a close connection with a local landowner. Note with this one how the end windows are slightly larger. We find this strange, as if expression and denial are the only two choices.

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Casa Rustici-Comolli, Giuseppe Terragni
Guglielmo Pepe 32, Milano

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Check those paired side balconies executed as a reinforced concrete truss. We’re looking at an idea we are to see again in Casa Rustica.

Casa Ghiringhelli, Guiseppe Terragni, 1933-35
Piazzale Lagosta 2, Milano

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Here we see the protruding central portion of the previous two Terragni buildings, as well as paired central balconies on the symmetrical main facade. The top floor is again set back and defined as was the original roof on Casa Toninello. The same pieces are being continunally rearranged according to site, program and budget. There’s no compulsion to be inventive beyond that. These four buildings are in the same corner of town, again suggesting either a single landowner or word-of-mouth referrals between local landowners.

asa LavezzariGuiseppe Terragni, 1934-35
piazza Morbegno 3, Milano

This one’s a favourite, and for that reason.

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Following the streets allows rectilinear construction except for the elevator lobby and entrance hallways where it is an asset, and for the stairwell where it doesn’t matter.

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Casa al Villaggio dei giornalisti (House in Milan)Figini & Pollini, 1933–35
via Perrone di San Martino 8, Milano

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This is all we get to see of this house that previously appeared in the Pilotis post. You can find more information and the plans on www.ordinearchitetti.mi.it.

Casa Bonaiti, Giovanni Muzio, 1935-36
Piazza della Repubblica, Milan

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These apartments are of the same time as Muzio’s other ones and solve much the same problem using a symmetrical layout with various adjustments. It was here I first began to notice the Milanese love for balcony planting. You’ll see many impressive and sometimes extreme examples.

Partly because of this and partly because Stefano Boeri is Milanese, I began to warm to his Bosco Verticale, a building I’d previously thought overly tricksy. The planting on this building is only slightly more outrageous than much of what you will see on balconies around town. I noticed that taller trees are prevented from blowing over by ventical cable stays suspended from the balconies above.

Bosco Verticale is part of a much larger new commercial centre development called Porta Nuova, west of Repubblica.

Off to one side of the park area beside Boscso Verticale is this building that looked rather interesting and built to last.

Casa Rustici, Pietro Lingeri & Giuseppe Terragni, 1935
Corso Sempione 26, Milano

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There’s not much rusticity on show at Casa Rustici. The building is urban and urbane. It’s parade of balconies have more than a hint of Terragni’s Casa del Fascio completed the following year.

Villa Pestarini, Franco Albini, 1937-38
Via Mogadiscio 2-4

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The top floor is an addition but I get the feeling Albini would have approved. Here’s what it looked like in 1938.

1945-55

Edificio per abitazioni e uffici, Luigi Figini & Gino Pollini, 1947–48
via Broletto 37, Milano

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Much of what you see in Milan will just look ordinary and decent – in a good way. Figini & Pollini were well-known architects but this looks just like any other sturdily-built 1930s building in Milan. On the other hand, it’s often the case when walking you’ll see buildings such as this next one that look like you ought to know who it is by. If someone had told me this was Terragni from 1928 I would’ve believed them. Instead, it’s just the natural result of architectural innovation and vernacular construction both having something to give each other to become the new normal.

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Casa AlbergoLuigi Moretti, 1946-1951
via Corridoni, Milano

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Why am I mentioning this? It’s an example of a post-war apartment hotel designed as a city-in-a-city with a entrance lobby, access corridors, a restaurant, library and shared amenities in a podium linking the twin high blocks and the single lower one. The building was designed as a repeatable typology with the shape of the podium altering to suit different site geometries. It’s good contemporary thinking. It’s 1946.

Casa Tognella (Casa dal Parco)Ignazio Gardella, 1947-54
Via Jacini Milan

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It’s often mentioned how the design and construction of this building took seven years but, considering its location on a single block of land overlooking Milan’s most central and largest historic park, seven years seems surprisingly short to sort out permissions. Either Gardella had a gift for dealing with municipalities or the clients had some serious money and influence. The alternate name Casa dal Parco is not wrong, but seems somehow diminutive.

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Internal planning has the strict public and private division typical of the class and era but is relatively relaxed regarding staff and occupants sharing corridors and stairs (but not elevators). The service areas of the apartment are zoned, rather than compartmentalized. The lady of the house might even enter the kitchen.

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There’s little reason to break the rectilinearity, apart from getting more south light bouncing off the master bedroom wall, and getting more west sun into the living and dining room. Gardella took a Rationalist approach as the starting point for many buildings, but adapted it as circumstances dictated such as with Casa alle Zattere in Venice four years later.

Condominio di v. Marchiondi a Milano
Ignazio Gardella, Roberto Menghi & Anna Castelli Ferrieri, 1949-1953
via Marchiondi, 7, Milano

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That’s it in the back. It faces a private park and is completely hidden at the back by other buildings and at the front by trees.

The planning is clearly Gardella’s – it’s beautiful! Only he can plan elevator lobbies and entrance halls like this, and extract maximum effect from angled walls whether he’s forced to or not. They never result in peculiar or wasted spaces.

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Edificio per abitazioni ed uffici (mixed-use building)
Mario Asnago & Claudio Vender, 1950
Piazza Velasca 4, Milan

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A ground floor with three floors of offices above, four floors of apartments and what looks like a recessed top floor. The offices have a stone facade and office windows, the apartments have a brick facade and apartment windows. The office window grid aligns with the upper left corners of the apartment window grid, but that grid isn’t regular. We don’t see the trope of lining through windows and masonry with adjacent buildings. Instead, identical floor heights are maintained and the buiding naturally assumes a complementary scale regardless of wind0w size and proportion. It’s subtly and quietly brilliant. Asnago & Vender buildings are ego-less architecture and, as such, near invisible.

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Quartiere Mangiagalli, Ignazio Gardella & Franco Albini, 1950
via De Predis, via Jacopino da Tradate

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The intelligent use of external angles immediately marks this building as one of Gardella’s.

So does the planning. He would normally have narrowed the stair landings towards the entrances but instead has made a screened void to keep the access balcony away from the bathroom windows. Once inside however, the entrance hall characteristically narrows towards to the living room and the living room narrows towards the view. The only internal triangular space created by the unusual geometry is used to widen the passage from living to kitchen. Note also how the bedrooms have their own corridor, separate from the entrance corridor? And how that circulation space below the bathrooms can be configured to make either two x 2-bed apartments, or 1 x  1-bed + 1 x 3-bed? Clever.

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On the way there from Lotto (M1) Station, you’ll probably pass by this development on via Roberto Sambonet. It’s worth a look.

Corso Italia Complex, Luigi Moretti, 1951 & 1956
Corso Italia 13-17, Milano

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The two office and residential towers at the rear of the site came first in 1951 and the two front blocks later in 1956. The pointed one overhanging the street and containing three apartments per level is perhaps the most wilful of all the buildings so far. [Plan from archidiap.]

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The mixed-use building is a common typology in Milan and, like the 1950 Asnago & Vender mixed-use building, effortlessly combine the two. There’s no logic to those three well-placed subtractions on some of the balcony ends. Moretti has that gift we call ‘design flair’.

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It’s also evident in the subtle bend of the north side having those balconies. Moretti pulls off that difficult feat of making the unnecessary seem right.

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The four grouped flues at the end of the building don’t appear to be original but they’ve been added in a good way.

Pirelli Tower, Gio Ponti, 1953
Via Fabio Filzi 22, Milan

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This building remains as idosyncratic and elegant as it was in 1953. Gio Ponti achieved international fame with this building that’s the only one of his I’m going to mention here. He “put Italian architecture on the map”, as they say. This was good for him and good for us because modern buildings in Italy became Italian architecture worldwide. It wasn’t necessarily a good thing for Italians as architecture wasn’t a local activity anymore. Italian architects now had their eyes on international recognition. The more Italian architecture became, the less concerned it was with Italians. In short, it lost its innocence, albeit not all at once and not across the board. Career Case Study #7: Gio Ponti is forthcoming.

Torre Velasca
BBPR (Gian Luigi Banfi, Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Enrico Peressutti, & Ernesto Nathan Rogers) architectural partnership, 1954
Piazza Velasca 5, Milano

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This 1954 building is also claimed, in hindsight, to be a precursor to Post Modernism because of its alleged historical reference to Milanese towers, the closest I suppose being the tower of the Castello Sforzesco but I’ll save that thought for some other time. I’d never really noticed the offset windows before. It might be the result of different internal layouts or it may be totally gratuitous for all I know. For now, it seems to be another case of someone making no effort to either hide something or express it.

The history of accidentally or contrivedly offset windows now goes back to the 1950s. Curtain walling doesn’t feature largely in Milan and there aren’t that many examples of the contemporary type we’re so familiar with.

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Casa del Cedro, Giulio Minoletti, 1951-1957
via Fatebenefratelli 3, Milano

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Having earlier admired the architectural insouciance of Asnago & Vender, I was prepared to dislike this proud little building but couldn’t. For pushing 70, it’s looking fantastic and in good health. I’d be surprised if it has any solar gain, thermal bridging or waterproofing issues.

1955–1965

Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista alla CretaGiovanni Muzio, 1956-1958
Piazza S. Giovanni Battista alla Creta, 11, 20147 Milano

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This is a curious little building – Muzio again! He always had a feel for brick and now he’s making something that’s obviously decorative yet can’t have been Post Modernism because Post Modernism wasn’t supposed to have been around in 1956. I find it easier to think of Post Modernism as a resurgence of what there was pre-Modernism. Muzio was always a bit behind the times but then the times went back to meet him, as with Ca’ Brutta. I’m not sure if any Italian architect has ever been a ‘modernist’ but at one stage Figini & Pollini, the authors of this next building, were very identifiably Rationalists.

Edificio per albergo e abitazioni (mixed-use building)
Luigi Figini & Gino Pollini, 1961-1965
Largo Augusto 2, Milano

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I include this to show how Figini & Pollini became less shy about decoration as the century progressed. I have no evidence, but wouldn’t be surprised if the decorative balconies have a Venetian ancestor for they recall the ones Gardella was to use on Casa alle Zattera in 1958. Here, the absence of balconies from one floor seems irrational and difficult to justify as design flair despite it being the dominant aesthetic decision.

Torre Turati, Giovanni Muzio, 1966

Via Turati 40, Milano

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This is the last Muzio building here. That’s it on the left, forming one half of a gateway to Piazza Repubblica. The building cantilevers out to provide increasingly large balconies to the upper apartments but this is not obvious when seen from along the street.

These two buildings show two different ways of working to the same rules but the one on the far side extracts maximum volume from the cantilever concession. It also produces that building-on-top-of-another-building effect that found recent popular affectation.

Edificio Residenziale al GallarateseAldo Rossi, 1969-1970
via Enrico Falck 53, Milan

If Gio Ponti put the new architecture of Italy on the map, Rossi was the Italian face of Neo Rationalism that was, rightfully or wrongly, presented and understood internationally as Italy’s spin on post modernism. People saw whatever they wanted to see in it. Italians presumably saw the rational side and non-Italians saw a kind of classicism stripped down even more than Muzio’s as this time there were no arches. The most disturbing new development is Theory. In Rossi’s case, the theory was about urban artefacts being responsibile for the essential nature of the city. This is a convenient truth for an architect to claim but my perception of Milan is that it is not the sum of its landmarks but the sum of everything else.

This one project is all I have to show of Rossi’s buildings in Milan, and even with this there wasn’t much to see.

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The famous elevation on the other side is now completely obscured by planting, somewhat oddly as the building faces a park, but I suspect it’s to deter the architectural paparazzi.

I remember the building more from the endless graphics that announced it.

The apartment layouts however, are archetypal.

I preferred the neighbouring Aymonino Buildings [Via Cilea 34, Via Falck 37], designed by Carlo Aymonino & Studio Ayde (Aymonino & Rossi), and constructed between 1967-74. We can at least see them as they look over the street to the playing fields and parks beyond.

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To be fair, the Rossi’s Gallaratese Apartments also did at one time and he’s not to blame for their current vegetative state. Nevertheless, his famous building exists only for its occupants and even then not how it does in our collective imagination. This can’t be a good thing.

The entire area around Bonono station however is a delight. On a late summer’s afternoon, the dream of high-density buildings set in parkland seems to have been realized. There’s an abundance of well-kept towers, grassy areas, parks, sports grounds, and people walking dogs. It seems like a nice place to live.

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Edificio Polifunzionale in piazza San Marco, Ludovico Magistretti, 1969 – 1971
piazza San Marco 1, Milano

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This also seems like a nice place to live but now there’s external ornament that places these buildings firmly as self-conscious, post-modern Italian architecture. Its very clever with its revealed frame and its various rhythms but that cleverness is what now dates it. Despite that, life goes on.

• • •

I’ll stop it there. The only buildings I’ve mentioned are the ones I can put an architect’s name to. What struck me most about all of these buildings was how many of them were produced by local architects working within a very small radius. There’s no building here that can’t be visited with a day pass on the Milan metro. Terragni did most of his work in Como and Milan. Gardella worked mainly in Milan even though one of his early successes was his 1938 Dispensario Antitubercolare 75 km to the south-west in Allesandria.

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As his reputation spread, Gardella worked as far east as Venice and as far West as Genoa, neither more than 300km away. If I’d extended my range to Seveso 20km to the north of Milan I could have included Terragni’s Casa Bianca.

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If I’d gone on to Como another 20km north, I could have included Terragni’s 1936 Casa del Fascia, and if I’d gone the extra mile and a half I could have included Cesare Cattaneo’s 1939 Casa d’affitto a Cernobbio, a favourite.

But they can wait for some other time. What I like about Milan is that architects working locally had access to connections and knowledge and perhaps sensitivities others didn’t. It explains the buildings of Asnago & Vender that give shape to unspoken expectations so well that we don’t even notice them doing it. There’s client loyalty.

Local architects are more likely to have an innate respect and affection for a place that’s their home town. They’re unlikely to grandstand. For the first time in my life I had a feel for the ‘fabric’ of a city as a tapestry of old and new, of adjustments and allowances for materials and technologies that, though they may appear different, are still being used to for the same ends. It’s a rare thing to appreciate and a tricky thing for an architect to aspire to, let alone achieve. I leave Milan thinking that designing buildings for people is an honorable thing to do.

• • •

Since the 1970s, more Milan buildings are being designed by architects who aren’t local and whose first architectural obligation is not necessarily to the city or its citizens. In the image below, the building on the left is by Asnago & Vender whom we shall meet again in Architecture Misfits #26. The building in the distance is Generali Tower by Zaha Hadid Architects.

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• • •

tripadvisor: http://www.ordinearchitetti.mi.it/en/mappe/itinerari/repertorio

• • •

 

Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio

A 308 sq.ft Katrina Cottage can be delivered for $70,000 including construction. That works out at $227/sq.ft.   

The affordable IVRV House designed by SCI-ARC students for a low-income Los Angeles neighbourhood was constructed for $200,000 ÷ 1,185 sq.ft = US$165/sq.ft.  

The 2015 house designed by Yale architecture students as part of the Jim Vlock Building Project was 1,000 sq.ft and had a budget of $130,000 – excluding labour which was provided by students. Assuming labour at 60% of the cost-in-place, that’s $217/sq.ft. (*1)

The ÁPH80 transportable house by Madrid firm ÁBATON offers 291 sq.ft of living space and sells for €32,000 (US$40,000) which is $138/sq.ft. 

Diogene by Renzo Piano Workshop is 81 sq.ft. and sells for $45,000 which represents $555/sq.ft. A deluxe model with rooftop photovoltaic panels costs $75,000 and works out at $926/sq.ft

Rural Studio’s 20K House costs US$20,000 but, they explain, it would have to sell for more in order to pay a living wage to builders. Materials cost $14,000. At 500 sq.ft the $20K represents $40/sq.ft.

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Rural Studio have been attempting to perfect the 20K house since 2005.

These houses aren’t the end product of a journey of aesthetic discovery but represent twenty years of research and the refinement of the design approach and of prototypes.

The 20K House program evolved out of frustration at starting from scratch each year on each client house. The new program’s current instructional model is to test typologies, rather than producing idiosyncratic individual houses, which allows us to build iteratively on previous and concurrent work. In fact, each year’s 20K House outreach team passes on a book of information for the following class, exemplifying Rural Studio’s founding premise of learning both by practice and from reflection. [Slate 19/05/2014] 

This house below is a refinement of the 2009 (v8) Dave’s Home which itself is a refinement of the 2006 (v2) Franks’s Home. 

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Rural Studio’s 20K houses look low-tech but associate director Rusty Smith says “They’re built more like airplanes than houses, which allows us to have them far exceed structural requirements.” This I believe. I’ve mentioned before how the aircraft maker Sukhoi treats every aircraft as a prototype for the better performance of the next one. Iterative design aims for perfection rather than preconceived notions of beauty.

The Sukhoi S-47 [on the left, below] proved impractical to develop and maintain as a production aircraft. The T-50 [on the right] that succeeded it is the 1985 SU-27, substantially modified. Engines are the 117S derivative of the economical and high-performance AL-31 engine. The T-50 is economically efficient, low maintenance and has a planned service life of 35 years.

In the same way and for the same reasons, Rural Studio made the decision to test typologies but concentrate on building iteratively on previous work. Such an approach still requires high-level and densely-packed design intelligence. In the case of residential buildings, it amounts to a conscious process of vernacular design accelerated over decades rather than centuries. We can all learn from this. Some of the rules can be identified from decisions made.

Economy of means

The self-imposed cost limit of $20K forces attention towards the cost of every element and design design. Windows are a major cost item. “We are very precise in the placement of windows of doors,” says Andrew Freear, studio director. “Typically, we can afford two doors and seven windows, and how do you use those the fullest? Cross-ventilation, bouncing light, putting a window near a table as a reflective surface. In Joanne’s House, in the kitchen, the refrigerator is perpendicular to a window and bounces natural light into the space.

A single waste pipe runs beneath the porch to link all wet areas. The layout is determined by this as much as anything else. Siteworks are a major cost item and cantilevering the floor joists past the foundation piles reduces the area of sitewaorks.

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Maximum efficiency of each element

Cantilevered floor girders act more efficiently as beams, making smaller and less expensive timber sections sufficient. Floor joists are cantilevered from the girders for the same reason.

Conventional technologies and standard parts

Standard components are easier and less expensive to source, maintain, repair and replace.Windows and doors are more obvious examples of standard components but the 2×4 framing system is itself an example of conventional technology and standard parts. It’s a construction system and, once the cladding is on, a structural system as well.

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In passing, the 2 x 4 construction system is also a technology with minimal waste as the log is sawn to leave little waste timber.

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There’s also little waste within the system as cutoffs can be re-used as jack studs or nogging.

Design without waste

In my previous post I mentioned how Rural Studio were the only US practice invited to participate in the 15th Venice Biennale 2016, and how they used the money they’d been given to purchase local products to create a theatre that could be dismantled and its components used elsewhere afterwards.

It is possible to eliminate building waste by regarding every component as something with a potential future use. Native Americans famously used every part of the buffalo they hunted – meat for food, bones for implements and weapons, hides for clothing and so on. It’s no accident that this is called being resourceful. Resourceful cooks can save money and resources by making a meal out of scraps and leftovers.

Identifying Inefficiencies of Process

It’s often the case that new and better ways of doing something bump up against resistance due to instituional inertia, psychological resistance, or perhaps due to simple lack of knowledge. This last can be overcome by taking the time and making the effort to explain and educate. Rural Studio found that more effort needs to be made to change local zoning laws that regulate against small houses. They also noted that banks charge the same for a loan regardless of whether that loan is for a small house or a large house. This makes loans for less expensive houses proportionally more expensive.

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Without the $20K cost limit forcing scrutiny of all cost items, no-one would ever have known this or thought it relevant to the provision of housing.

• • •

The process of edcuation should not stop there. If design intelligence has been spent tweaking minor things to make them more efficient or to multi-task some component, then the general public and the world of architecture at large, also needs to be educated to appreciate that design intelligence and the benefits it can bring.

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As it stands now, Rural Studio are widely admired for doing what they do but are destined to exist outside of mainstream architectural consciousness. For one, Rural Studio is not a practice. It is an undergraduate program of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University in Hale County, Alabama. You can read more about its history here.

The program for low-cost and socially-useful housing was begun by Dennis (D.K.) Ruth and Samuel Mockbee in 1993. Andrew Freear became director upon Mockbee’s death. This coming semester, Xavier Vendrell will be Acting Director while Freear goes on sabbatical. Rural Studio has a director but no figurehead. It is not personality-driven. It is not media driven.

Rural Studio are ineligible for a Pritzker Prize, for what it’s worth.

  1. Mockbee died in 2001 and Ruth in 2009. The Pritzker Prize is awarded to a living architect.
  2. Not only that, the Pritzker Prize is awarded to a living architect who has produced a singular body of work. The output of Rural Studio is a singular body of work that has consistency and development and many other qualities that mark it as the output of a single consciousness. It is not awarded to a team, let alone an amorphous team that includes a ever-changing roster of students. This condition seems particularly unfair when starchitect practice figureheads routinely curate and claim authorship of ideas generated by an intern farm.

In our current cultural landscape it is usual for architects with any degree of fame to rush into teaching to extend their media reach, ideally at an Ivy-League university. Rural Studio is doing things the other way around. It is in Alabama not New England. It is not staffed by architects who teach but by teachers who build. They are teaching us as well, as their direction of twenty years has now been appropriated – perhaps maliciously so, but time will tell – by architecture at large. Rural Studio’s presence at VB2016 shows they are continuing to do what they do as best they can and guided by what they think is right.

• • •

tumblr_lgm5beEDCU1qdugrxrural studio staff

Rural Studio!

to all of you whoever you are at any given time

for your ceaseless work of genuine benefit to fellow human beings,
for showing us how to make things better by making better things,
and, most importantly, for making it about building,

misfits’ salutes you!

• • •

their site
their 2015 newsletter
Slate article

*1 Thanks CBW!

Downmarketly Mobile

It’s always been the case that wealthy people own a number of houses or apartments in various places around the world and spend time in them according to the season or whim. Some don’t even use them – they just like to know they could and high-end apartments in Western capitals suit them quite nicely.

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People of lesser wealth might have a vacation house in another country or perhaps a summer weekend house in the countryside. Timeshare ownership of property in other countries and the relative ease of travel have made living across properties, climates, cultures and landscapes more accessible to more people.

Co-living in any city in the world for a fixed monthy subscription is a development of this trend and makes this type of living more accessible to more people. Typologically, it’s what Youth Hostels Association (YHA) has been offering for decades to student travellers albeit not in a joined-up way around the world.

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So hats’ off to ROAM for identifying an existing type of residential use and marketing it as a value-added form of co-living. “Sign one lease, live around the world.” They have some decent endorsements.

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ROAM is a network of global communal living spaces that provide everything you need to feel at home and be productive the moment you arrive. Strong, battle-tested wifi, a co-working space, chef’s kitchen and a diverse community.

It sounds very attractive, better than some places I’ve called home over the years, not to mention the clean sheets and towels.

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This angle – for it is an angle if generic functionality is being remarketed for the same purpose it always was – circumvents the argument that co-living implies student living. It doesn’t. The “Learn by living somewhere different” suggests gap years for all but the claim you can “be productive the moment you arrive” implies a new attitude to moving around – you take your work with you but the hardware remains the same. A single system of tenure spanning different locations is what’s new. In principle, there’s no reason why a similar system couldn’t be applied across multiple properties in the same city.

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In principle. If such a system were applied within countries or cities, it would be abused by people refusing to move on and make room for others. To discourage this, the price point has to be more expensive than conventional tenancies for the medium term, and cheaper than conventional hotels for the short term. So far, the best suggestion has been to add a surcharge for ‘expensive’ cities such as New York and London but this only fuels the strong suspicion that co-housing is hotels in disguise. It is in some cases, but the disguise is what’s at fault, not the living in hotels.

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It’s not that living in houses has become unattractive, it’s just that the likelihood of ever owning one is slipping away.

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Now that owning property is less likely, it’s difficult to know whether any forthcoming ideas will be visionary solutions, expedient workarounds, or simply a race to the bottom with new methods for the old exploitation. Permanent ownership of fixed houses is a burden if people have to relocate, and relocating across town, the country or the planet for employment is already a fact of life. The idea of mobile living crops up periodically but never actually comes about.

Here it is again, this time called Kasita. 320 sq.ft.

This Forbes article suggests it’s what you’d get if you crossed an Airstream with microhousing and parked it in an automated parking garage. Not unlike this by Glen Howard Small (1977-1980)

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crossed with a bit of the following.

This can’t be economically sensible since the structure for stacking and the structure for enclosure and integrity are different. Shipping containers have a single structure for both because they’re designed from the outset to be stacked. This means structural redundancy if there aren’t eight or nine stacked above it  but different configurations at different times shift that redundancy to other containers. You can’t have it both ways.

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It’s thus a good idea for a dwelling to have an optimised, dual-purpose structure. In the past, demountable and transportable houses delivered by helicopter or off a truck implied permanent ownership or long-term tenancy of land and were solutions to the expense of mobilizing construction labour rather than any direct amenity gained from the mobility itself. The house was moved to some new location and connected to utilities.

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Transportable homes are another variation. This company will either sell you a house or you can rent it by the week. Either way, they’ll deliver it to your property and all you have to do is connect it to utilities. This is their open plan studio for NZ$40K (US$31K).

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Their two-bedroom w/pergola is looking good.

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The