Category Archives: PERFORMANCE

milestones in the pursuit of better performing buildings

Architecture Myths #33: Served and Servant Spaces

The notion of served spaces and servant spaces has been around for a while in architecture and we accept this apparent opposition as a conceptual certainty. After all, what could make more sense than mapping an archaic but entrenched social classification onto buildings? The nomenclature is easy to understand as it mirrors that of masters and servants where the superiority of the masters is accepted while the only reason the servants exist is to serve them. But is a kitchen, for example, really less important than a dining room, a bathroom any less important than a bedroom?

Back in the day, it wasn’t a question of served and servant spaces but of entire separate wings for servants. Here’s a plan of Bear Wood, built 1865-1874. All the ground floor rooms around the kitchen court and up to the servants’ stairs (policed by the butler) are the servants’ realm.

It’s said that Harlaxton Manor (1837) had walls with corridors inside so servants could move about without being seen. I’d like to see proper plans for how this worked but, given the general level of excess, I’m inclined to believe it.

In order for it not to be seen by arriving guests, the servants’ wing was often at the rear of the house or off to one side. Sometimes it was also at an angle to show it wasn’t a part of the formal organization of the “house proper”.

In this example of a London townhouse circa 1880, the entire layout is conceived so that served and servants never meet. Servants enter the basement from separate stairs at ground level, passing by the rooms of the footman, housekeeper and butler. The kitchen is separated from the main house (and the dining room!) by a courtyard. Food is carried up the basement stairs and into the dining room through a door for that purpose. Servants carrying food and plates might cross those of a served going to the study. Served access to the first floor boudoir might cross that of servants coming from the servants’ stair to clean and tidy the drawing room but generally, the served use the main stairs and the servants use the servants’ stairs, as you can see from the section below.

The kitchen is well-lit and ventilated but a whole floor and half a house away from the dining room. But for such a large house, there aren’t that many places to be when not asleep. The choices are the morning room, dining room and drawing room when one is feeling social, or withdraw to either the study or boudoir when not.

Servants and the servants’ stairs replicated the functions of pipes and shafts, carrying food, water, laundry and chamberpots up and down. With all manner of pipes and shafts adorning its exterior, Rogers and Piano’s 1977 Centre Pompidou was therefore especially shocking to British people.

Foster + Partners 1978 Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts made up for it by continuing the tradition of concealing servant spaces.

The Albert Houses above, were single-family terrace (row) houses but Albert Hall Mansions by Sir Norman Shaw, no less, were mansions (i.e. flats). This is what they looked like, and still do.

The following paired layouts are repeated three times across the site. Again the basement is the servants’ realm with kitchens at the rear serving the apartments above, and other rooms designated as spare rooms, presumably for additional staff on call. Street access for owners is via the vestibule linked to the central stair and light well, while servants use the adjacent entrance and rear stairs.

Here’s what happens higher up. What in Great Britain would normally be called the first floor is here called a “mezzanine” as it contains only secondary bedrooms. In the photo above, you can see how its windows are smaller to add more weight to the lower levels. In that same photo you can see the upper two levels of the corner apartment shaded green in these drawings. The apartment shaded yellow has a balcony to the dining room. The lower half levels of each apartment are the servants’ spaces again separated from the served spaces by one level and the length of the apartment but still linked by servants’ stairs.

It’s not exactly bringing this conversation into the present, but a similar separation of spaces (and the people occupying them) is present in the two LeCorb villas. Once sunlight is rebranded as something desirable, the servants get less of it at ground level beneath the occupants’ living areas. The piano nobile was hardly a revolutionary idea even if the means of getting it up there was. Or so it seemed.

There are ground floor doors to the chauffeur’s apartment, the laundry room and a side door near the kitchen stair for deliveries. The occupants and their visitors use the front door only, apart from the son who can also use a door to access is car in the garage. The servants realm is visible to visitors, but only fleetingly so. The famous washbasin in the hallway is for the servants to wash their hands before handling the guests’ coats and hats. It was originally positioned as shown in the drawing above but for some reason was relocated to the other side of the column as part of renovations the began in 1965.
Here, the servants’ spaces are more separated, accessed dcirefty from the garage, with the housemaid’s door connecting to the hallway to receive visitors. The stairs to the right are the stairs leading to the living areas, while the lowest level of the stair on the left is for servants to serve food and to clean and tidy the upper levels. Owners use only these upper levels. A portion of the served and servant spaces are therefore shared, but it is by no means egalitarian.
On the front facade, it is very clear which door is for the servants and which is for the served. One steps down two steps to access the servants’ door only to step two steps once inside.

Louis Kahn is reponsible for keeping the notion of servant and served spaces alive even when houses no longer had live-in servants. This is his 1961 Escherick House. Front and garden access, and the galleried stairs all count as a servant spaces. Kitchen and laundry are spaces formerly occupied by servants and, if we go not too much further back in time, I suppose the dressing room would also have had servants on hand to assist.

I won’t bore you with examples but Louis Kahn made served and servant spaces something of a thing. This is his 1960 Richards Medical Research Laboratories building. You get the idea. Stairs and air shafts are given special treatment on the exterior but elevators need to be central and apparently, so do the spaces for the animals for the medical research. All this is done to achieve maximum unobstructed space for the laboratories (after access to the elevators and stairs has been taken into account).

The 2010 The Index in Dubai is another preposterous building by Foster+Partners. The central bank of four elevators “service” the apartment levels above. Even structure is relegated to the status of servant space, except its 10 m long x 2 m wide columns are very solid. The whole point of doing this is to enable those unobstructed 30 m x 30 m office floors that force tenants to pay for their own corridors to access the essential servant spaces. With this building, it’s all about non-marketable space vs. marketable space.

It’s no surprise Kahn arrived at his notion of served and servant spaces from his study of Scottish castles that had entire rooms inside their amply thick walls (even if this can’t not have compromised their integrity). This next image comes from an excellent article on walls as rooms, here on socks studio.

What then, is Oswald Ungers’ excuse for his division of spaces into served and servant spaces in his 1991 House Without Qualities?

I confess to liking its consistency but I would like it more if its two end walls were the same thickness as the rest. I guess there weren’t enough servant spaces to go around, even with the inclusion of what looks like a one-person elevator and numerous storerooms. I do like Ungers’ solution for the kitchen though. It can’t not be a servant space but there’s not enough space for it. I’d have put it on a thickened outside wall and solved an exhaust problem at the same time.

Following the same logic, an inglenook and fireplace would occupy the similar space at the other end of the house. Sources of heat are symmetrical and kitchen exhaust and fireplace flue can be solved symmetrically. After some searching, I finally found an upper floor plan. As I suspected, there’s a redundant gallery to maintain symmetry but symmetry had already been compromised by having only one stair.

Even in this rather astonishing house a second stair never seems to have been part of the plan. Symmetry is reserved for served spaces, unless they’re visible like the galleried corridors.

Anyway, upstairs, the thickened walls would provide closet space and/or, if one must, flatscreens facing the beds. The three storey-void of the stairwell would be mirrored by another three-storey void where the kitchen formerly was, serving more daylight to the basement swimming pool.

These servant spaces are now becoming quite the feature. The next thing would be to make them visible on the outside of a building. This was first proposed by Yves Lion with his 1987 Domus Domain project that makes perfect sense in terms of servicing, illumination and ventilation. It never gained traction.

And yes, I’m going to mention Riken Yamamoto’s 2002 Ban Building in Niigata once again.

The plan below is of Room 3 in the typical floor plan. Kitchen, w/c and bathroom are still serving the main living space only now they’re also serving it with light and air. If you like, you can continue to think of them as occupying very deep window reveals.

Notice how he same distinction of served and servant spaces doesn’t make sense as a concept now the hierarchy is reversed? This shows we still think some functions more equal than others.

• • •

[Big thanks to Evan for the idea for this post. GM]

Chinese Simple Made

The Chinese language is the world’s only language that doesn’t have an alphabet. Each of its 3,000 essential characters has a pronunciation, intonation, meaning and writing stroke order that must be learned and remembered. It’s a lot. So I’ve used the English alphabet to organize some examples of Chinese fit-for-purpose and make it easier to get a feel for the basics.

This post has about one fifth of the usual amount of words but it took about the same time as it wasn’t always easy to identify examples of fit-for-purpose and then find a letter that fitted. I had to bend the rules for Q and X as I couldn’t find any fit-for-purpose queens, quail, x-rays or xylophones.

A is for ASHTRAY.

B is for BROOM.

B is for BLADELESS plastic wrap.

B is for BRIDGE.

C is for CONNECTOR.

D is for DUSTPAN.

D is for DOORSTOP.

E is for ECONOMICAL and EFFICIENT ENERGY USAGE.

F is for FLYOVERS and FLOWERS.

F is also for FENCE.

G is for GAS STATION.

H is for HAT.

I is for IVY.

J is for JUNKSPACE.

K is for KINDER GARTEN.

L is for LADDER.

M is for MOVING AROUND.

N is for NO PACKAGING.

O is for OCR.

P is for PACKAGING.

P is also for PATH.

Q is for QI [“chi” = chi]

R is for RESOLUTION.

S is for STENCIL.

S is for SECURITY.

S is for SPOTS TO SIT.

T is for TOWEL, TISSUES and TOILET PAPER.

T is for TRASH BINS.

U is for UPGRADES / UNFIT-FOR-PURPOSE

V is for VEGETABLES.

W is for WORKBENCH.

W is for WHEELBARROW.

NB: The long handles radial to the axle make this wheelbarrow very easy to tip and unload.

X is for XĪGUÀ [“shii-gwa” = watermelon].

Y is for YELLOW is for domestic gas supply.

Z is for ZEBRA CROSSING.

All photographs apart from the three I used to illustrate Economical and Efficient Energy usage, and the one above, I have taken myself. However, I have walked across this stepping stone bridge in order to see the timber bridge in the distance. It’s one of Taishun’s many covered bridges, the structure of which relies on the weight of the interlocking timbers and is made without nails, bolts or any other kind of metal connector.

• • • 

Fit for Purpose

A few months ago I bought a new iMac. It wasn’t my first so I knew it’d be delivered in a plain brown cardboard secondary box as a precaution against opportunistic theft, even though this stops the inner box advertising the company and one’s smugness. In a masterful example of packaging design, the side of my brown box folded down, teaching me how to open the inner box yet, it seemed excessive, almost ostentatious and definitely performative. “Unboxing iMac” videos are a thing on YouTube.

The packaging exists to add value to the product but the boxes themselves are also a product.

Packaging has many functions but protecting the product has many meanings. Batteries don’t need protection from accidental dropping yet their packaging is close to indestructible in order to deter shoplifting. Eggs, on the other hand, are fragile yet usually sold in thin plastic cartons that are rigid enough for cartons of 10 or 12 but wobble with cartons of 24.

There’s a famous 1970’s book called “How to Wrap Five Eggs”, describing various examples of traditional Japanese packaging. Wrapping five eggs uses materials that are biodegradable zero-cost leftovers from some harvest yet, it also seems excessive. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know the designer. This book celebrates a culture that thought so much and so hard about how to package five eggs. It’s still performative ingenuity and not much different from how to box an Apple. My problem with the Japanese eggs is that we don’t know if the purpose was to carry them home or to market. It makes a difference and, if we don’t know, all we can do is marvel at the ingenuity without thinking of its purpose.

How to wrap five eggs.

I thought of this book yesterday when the person in front of me at the checkout was paying for eggs and intending to carry them home in the tied and priced plastic bag they were weighed in. The bag was fit for purpose.

I’m not going to suggest expensive computers be delivered in re-used cardboard boxes stuffed with newspaper but sometimes that’s all packaging needs to be. I’ve written about how things I order online are delivered in cardboard boxes re-formed from other cardboard boxes. It’s not necessary to pulp and recycle a cardboard box to use it again. Re-used or re-formed boxes are fit for purpose and will be collected and sold on to be used and/or reformed again. This is a dimension in which ingenuity and economy exist as something distinct from design. The topmost box in the image at left below contained a pair of shoes within newspaper stuffing. The tonic water on the right was delivered in a Jack Daniels box.

Calling this way of looking at things “vernacular design” is inappropriate because it’s thought, not design. All that vernacular design means is that something isn’t “designer designed”. The term fit for purpose seems to be the best fit because it suggests that any additional thought, design or even functionality is as redundant as gold-plating. Dustpan and broom sets like these ones below are seen in houses and apartments across Japan, China and most likely all across South-East Asia.


Something less designed is used outdoors to sweep garden paths and footpaths. It won’t last forever but it’s easily and inexpensively replaceable and, importantly, is all that’s needed to do the job.

Removing leaves from paths and litter from streets isn’t something that requires a leaf blower or a leaf vacuum. These next ones are all made in China but, in two years, I’ve never seen a leaf blower yet lawns, paths and streets stay leaf-free.

These brooms are lightweight, silent, biodegradable, and require little energy to manufacture or use. They are also stunningly effective at sweeping leaves off grass. The pliant twigs are more rigid than the bristles of a broom yet softer and gentler on the grass than the tines of a rake. The end of the broom is often slightly angled to make horizontal sweeps more efficient and ergonomic.

The outdoor complement to the dustpan is what looks like a cooking oil can with a bamboo handle attached with wire. It also does the job and once again it’s difficult to think of anything that serves its purpose better. The conical hat the man below is wearing is of a type usually made from straw, or palm or bamboo leaves, and is worn by gardeners, street cleaners, farm workers and anyone else who needs a broad-brimmed hat for outdoor work. They’re lightweight, biodegradable, inexpensive, and of course protect from sun and rain. Nobody knows who designed them. Nobody can design them any better. They’re made the same way they’ve been made for centuries.

Buses and vehicles used by the public are covered in graphics and advertising. This charter bus is advertising Tengqiao Smoked Chicken.

It’s a different story with commercial and trade vehicles with nothing to communicate except their registration, their affiliation, and legal requirements for seating and loading. The registration number is stencil spray-painted sufficiently large for fast OCR at toll booths. It’s a sophisticated system but the evenness and sharpness of the stencilled registration number is no more than it needs to be.

With these next examples, the job is to convey information and the system again is fit for that purpose. Some vehicles may have stenciling more precise or fuzzy but it doesn’t seem important. The recurring circle motif for the company name is the only art but even this might just be because it uses less space.

Much outdoor text in China is stenciled and it’s easy to see this as a response to the complexity of the characters. Information needs to be conveyed but it’s not so precious as to engage a signwriter, graphic designer or calligrapher. Here’s some “NO STOPPING. RESERVED FOR FIRE APPLIANCES” signs being stenciled. In many other countries, roadway signs such as these would probably also be stenciled, but the foreground caution signs probably not.

Gardening has many examples of fit for purpose. The people who pruned these trees will use the pruned branches as brooms to gather the clippings. You see this a lot.

These next trees are being propped up by branches joined together by twisted wire until their root systems fully develop. (This is particularly important in locations such as this where the water table is high.)

A length of wire is doubled and wound around the pieces of wood or timber to be connected. The end with the loop is crossed over the paired wires at the other end, the conical end of a metal road is inserted into the loop and the wires twisted and tightened around the wood. I know this simple metal tool as a “twitching rod” or “twitching iron” but that’s another story. Nowadays, open grain silos in Australia are simply covered with large tarpaulins.

  • Fit for purpose is different from makeshift which is a quick and temporary fix until something is either repaired or a better solution either arrives or is thought of.
  • Fit for purpose is when something is no more expensive or complicated than it needs to be to do the job to the required standard.
  • Fit for purpose is the enemy of consumerism and products that have “cycles” with planned obsolescence designed in by either manufacture or fashion.
  • Fit for purpose is counter to economic models based on increasing consumption to justify ever increasing production.

We could all do with less design and not just for the “big ticket” purchases. “Shopping as entertainment” removes the notion of need from even the things we think we need. It wants us to detach the notion of utility from the things we do buy and see the act of buying as the actual content of shopping. Thanks for that, Mr. Koolhaas! You can usually tell when this is happening as you will hear the terms such as “consumer experience” or “consumer destination”. It’s happening again with local street markets now being touted as the alternative to the decline of department stores as well as to the rise on online shopping. They always were.

Ladders in China are another object no more complicated or durable than they need to be. Again, China manufactures a great deal of aluminum ladders but, in two years, I’ve yet to see one.

What I do see are people using ladders less expensive, less sophisticated and less designed but that are fit for purpose and with a total absence of value-adding design. Here’s three I’ve seen in the past few weeks. The one on the left is some slender but straight tree trunks cut and lashed together. The one in the middle has been more carefully crafted while the one on the right has been quickly fabricated on site by a carpenter.

The construction industry also has many examples of objects fit for purpose. This carpentry bench complete with circular saw has been made on-site by a carpenter in perhaps a morning’s work. When it’s no longer needed, it’ll be disassembled and the wood maybe used for something else.

This is a wheelbarrow typical of the region in which I live. Gardeners, construction workers and road workers all use wheelbarrows to this design. They’re simply manufactured and durable but heavy. The two wheels make them very stable, and the position of the axle means they can be used to transport and tip heavy loads or even concrete.

My last example is this simple bridge made from five posts and a cross bar lashed together to support two bridge planks. It might exist only until the planting on the small island is established or it might be replaced by something more decorative in the future. This would be a shame because it’s already perfect for what it is and where it is. Anything else will not be an improvement.

Fit for purpose is the opposite of innovation in general and disruptive innovation in particular. If we overvalue “innovation” as we do, then we’ll look down on fit for purpose as something inferior that only people in underdeveloped countries need worry about. It’s not. It’s something people in developing countries need to worry more about. From their time in Africa, Lacaton & Vassal were inspired by a local awareness and intelligence for fit for purpose and they used this awareness to devise an intelligent and timely architecture. Unfortunately, its recognition in the form of a Pritzker and a GSD invite for them was its kiss of death, leaving us no closer to an architecture of fit for purpose, let alone one fit for purpose. Fit for purpose is a universal way of finding a balance between resources, energy and utility. Given the abundance of examples in China, I wouldn’t be surprised if a Chinese architect is next to show us what it all means for buildings.

• • • 

Design: Free at Last!

Before we had design, those of us who were wealthy enough could have craftspersons design and make objects for our amusement and/or use.

Not everyone had Russian Imperial family levels of wealth but aspiring households could have a tea service designed by a craftsperson and fabricated by them, somewhat impractically, from solid silver or gold.

By the late 19th century, middle- and upper-class households would have had a tea service, perhaps handed down over the generations or gifted as a wedding present. It would most likely have been ceramic and almost certainly not for daily use but when receiving visitors. William Morris tried and failed to square the circle of quality design and quality manufacture for contemporary markets that were increasingly larger but increasingly less wealthy. Morris’ wallpapers were his most successful product and their value lay in their inventive and fashionable designs rather than their affordability or their ease of manufacture. It’s the nature of wallpaper to have repetitive designs suited to mass reproduction even if it is by labour-intensive processes such as silk screening.

The career genius of Walter Gropius was, in 1923 or thereabouts, to propose separating the act of design from the process of manufacture, thus paving the way for the world to be flooded with inexpensively made designer goods with design as the value-adding component. It was one of those ideas that, once out in the open, grew wings and flew. As Gropius would have said, it was in tune with the zeitgeist. To be fair, if Gropius hadn’t realized he was backing the wrong horse, somebody else would sooner or later have hit upon the same idea of separating design and production.

As history was to prove, the notion of detaching design from production was more in tune with the zeitgeist in the US than Germany. The lasting legacy of The Bauhaus has nothing to do with The Bauhaus’ Dessau campus building although we persist in teaching why we think it’s important. It has nothing to do with its idiosyncratic instructors of whom we know far too much than we need to. And it’s certainly not about its students, about whom we know next to nothing. Why do we know so much about the instructors at The Bauhaus and so little about its students? Who were they?

Can anyone even name one? With difficulty, I discovered the identity of two. One is Wilhelm Wagenfeld who in his third year took a preliminary course with László Moholy-Nagy. He designed the apparently famous WA24 Wagenfeld lamp in 1924. He also designed a brass tea service in the same year Marianne Brandt designed a tea service. I smell a studio project. “Design a machine-made tea service for people who see a tea service as essential kit.” Under Gropius, The Bauhaus was William Morris V.2.0.

It doesn’t matter if your tea service is brass or stainless steel and made by machine, or if it is solid gold or silver and made by a craftsperson. Your milk will quickly become warm and your tea will be cold before it brews. Metal tea services are a stupid idea. László Moholy-Nagy didn’t think this through. Or perhaps he did. There’s always a market for aspirational products that are inexpensively produced.

This process was refined by automobile manufacturers in the 1950s and 60s for automobiles which were the most high-demand and expensive consumer product and, as the century wore on, increasingly higher depreciation. Win-win. Towards the end of the 20th century most everything you could imagine was designed somewhere and made somewhere else. It was called globalization and thought to be a good thing. Indications of origin came to indicate location of final assembly. Designer shoes for example, could still be marked as Made in Italy if soles manufactured in Poland and uppers stitched in Latvia or Thailand were assembled and packaged in Italy. Apple iPhones are “Designed in Cupertino” yet manufactured in China and also soon in India. The electric versions of the UK’s flagship automobile, the (formerly-Morris-but-now-BMW) Mini will be manufactured in China.

The dream of Gropius, Neufert and many others was to pre-design housing for mass production either wholly or partially in factories. Despite this and Neufert’s 1943 House Building Machine wet dream that proposed taking the conveyor belt to the housing, the separation of design and manufacture in architecture never took off.

In awe as he was of factories, Gropius and Neufert didn’t think small enough. William Levitt eliminated the conveyor belt and made multiple teams of workers performing single processes move themselves in sync from house to house. Humans became machines. Factories were only necessary to churn out parts of houses. The Levitt system is the system we have, especially in countries where a house builders are large companies employing large amounts of non-unionized, unskilled and semi-skilled labour. The separation of design and production is essentially the separation of design from the labour that goes into its production.

The “innovations” of Levitt & Sons were to promote assembly line production, freeze out union labour, use the latest construction technologies and shorten the supply chain. Mass production lowered costs and those savings were passed on to the buyers but having the other beneficial side effect of further reducing the market share of those less “competitive”.

With Levitt houses, what design there was, was for efficient and speedy construction. It was a process of more value to manufacturer than purchaser. At the other end of the architectural spectrum we have one-off buildings whose only value is in how their design is communicated by images and without regard to their built reality. This is the next level of the detachment of design from built reality.

At least these pieces of compacted foam were placed and rendered by a construction workforce. Unless the design and build method of procurement was used for this building, any faults of the building are faults of design. The next level of detaching design from labour is the relatively recent invention of 3D printed buildings. The usual result involves using people to place a flat roof on some 3D printed walls to produce something that looks like Gramazio Kohler Research’s Rock Print Pavilion. It is touted as a good example of how unique craftsmanship can be achieved even with the use of automated technology. I’m struggling to see any craftsmanship in either the design or the construction whether 3D printed not. Still, humans had no hand in the making of these walls. They also had little hand in their design which was controlled by the limitations of the 3D printer and whatever material it was using. It is a new form of ugly.

GKR Picture

It’s less obvious but still the case with the Clay 3D Printed House by TECLA Technology and Mario Cucinella Architects. The design has been contrived to suit the limitations of the technology and the material – which in this case is clay. The problem of the clay viscosity causing the wall to slump becomes more critical towards the top where there is increasingly less wall to support it. This is why the circular skylights rather than a very finely corbelled dome. If the foundations are also 3D printed clay, then the only labour required to build this house is that required to set up the printer head framework and to feed the printer. At first look, this project seems to bring design and manufacture back together, but by eliminating the dubious flat roof, design and construction labour are more separate than ever. The tapered or conical roof seems to be the next 3D printed house trope if it’s not already.

3D printed buildings feature in many proposals for Mars even though nobody will be living there anytime soon. In the meantime, these proposals exist to make us see buildings built without human labour as the way forward, the future. our future, an improvement on the system we have.

The metaverse is pseudo-3D environment that, for the time being at least, will be virtually navigated according to principles and habits established in the real world. It’s constructed, but not by teams of workers in site boots. It’s design that’s fairly detached from manufacture, even though one set of labourers has been changed for another who will sit at desks to create detail, or possibly even a choice of skins for standard interfaces. It will be a new form of hack work.

NFTs have stepped up to the plate as a way of monetizing design that is now completely detached from construction, manufacture or any other type of production. It’s an architecture totally devoid of social utility but gives 100% profit for its designers/creators. Does anyone else have a problem with these new opportunities for business development? Is this what architecture was always meant to be?