Category Archives: Performance History

milestones in the pursuit of better performing buildings

Buildings That Lean

When we look at buildings or even at images of them, we barely register their shapes and surfaces before moving on to consider the next. Building alignment seems to only ever matter when it attracts our attention and one way it can do that is by thwarting our expectations.


Why is Le Grande Arche not looking straight down the Champs Elysées? What’s gone wrong? Where’s it looking instead? Why are we personifying buildings? [And what’s with all the questions?] Back in 1985 reasons were indeed given for its non-alignment but they’ve become lost in the mists of time along with the purpose of Maccu Piccu and how the pyramids were constructed. There’s a chance we’d still remember if they’d been that important. It’s clearer with mosques. If we know a building is one then we know it’ll be facing Mecca even though it might not be aligned with anything else we see.


Another way alignment makes us aware of it is when something isn’t in vertical alignment – as in leaning, tilted, skewed, listing … askew … squiffy. The dish of this next building doesn’t look like it’s facing anything in particular but, if we know what this building is and does, we will reasonably assume it’s aligned with something out there. We simply can’t see what. Awesome yet useful structures like this and those fancy solar collectors that track the sun aren’t considered architecture because their alignments are comprehended through knowledge, not conjecture.


The Iconic Tilt

Snøhetta’s Alexandria Library is another matter. Its cylindrical volume and single inclined surface make it look as if it rotates and tilts to track the sun. This illusion is sufficient for its alignment to be iconic, and for the whole thing to be considered architecture. I’m using the word iconic only for convenience. It’s more correct to say its alignment designates – in that it’s being used to make some sort of statement, i.e. “say something”. But what?


First of all, we notice its alignment because it looks different from that of everything else we can see. Its alignment also seems different by virtue of it being with respect to The Sun and not with respect to ephemeral things such as roads, buildings, and coastlines. This building’s alignment creates an association of place if we know that this building is in Egypt with its long history of Sun worship. By aligning itself towards The Sun, the building has the alignment of things that are not buildings – such as sunflowers, solar collectors and sun worshippers

The Iconic Skew

The lean of the Marine Traffic Control Tower for the Port of Lisbon Authority (1997, Gonçalo Byrne Architects) also satisfies all conditions for iconic alignment. 


Its alignment looks different from that of everything else we can see and it also seems different from anything we may know of. We sense it is a controlled lean. It’s alignment has a unity with its location in that it is leaning towards the harbour we know it is there to observe. Finally, it has the alignment of something not a building in that buildings don’t generally lean forward like a person trying to get a better view of something.


from the architects’ website

This tower is very photogenic and part of the reason we feel comfortable with its lean is because every ‘vertical’ is inclined to produce an even and meaningful skew. The structure and plan are exactly what you’d expect.

The Statement Lean

Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s twin La Peuerta Europa [a.k.a. Gate of Europe, KIA] Towers in Plaza Castilla, Madrid date from 1989. Visually, it’s unclear whether they want to be leaning or not as their shapes are telling us one thing and their patterns another.

Structurally, they’re as you’d expect, with a vertical structural core where topmost floor plate overlaps footprint. These were the world’s first inclined tall buildings, and leaning at 15°. The lean is said to have come about by the requirement to have a large setback at the front of the site in order to clear a subway interchange but, when Philip Johnson’s involved, you can never be sure.

Again the alignment looks different from that of everything else we can see, and it also seems (or at least at the time, seemed) novel and different from anything we know. This is a strong combination of factors but any association of alignment is a weak one because it’s self-contained about the thoroughfare and so could be reproduced anywhere. There’s nothing strongly binding the two buildings to this particular place. Neverthless, the building alignment is not like that of a building in that buildings don’t as a rule lean forward as if to oversee a portal. Subjective associations that are absent are just as important as the ones that are present and the result here is a pair of buildings that are alien to their surroundings.

The Not-So Meaningful Lean

It is the same with this proposal by Vasily Klyukin. It doesn’t matter what for, for the proposal’s title, In Love, says everything we need to know.


The intention may have been to create something iconic [ugh!] but, again, there’s no notion of association that links the alignment of this building to its surroundings. It alignment still looks different however. It also seems different in that it’s (mercifully, still,) unusual for the alignment of a building to make such a facile pointOnce more, there’s no association of alignment that binds this building to this particular place. A building having this alignment could be built anywhere and to exactly the same effect. Finally though, its alignment is unlike that of a building in that buildings don’t love other buildings let alone express it by leaning against them

Like the Johnson-Burgee towers above, it’s not iconic – merely alien. The same can be said for these next three buildings, none of evoke ideas binding their alignment to where the building is.

The Enigmatic Lean

Jurgen Meyer H’s 1999 Townhall in Scharnhauser Park, Germany is inclined 5° lean to the east. (Its atrium also has a 5° lean to the north.) As is the case with many Jurgen Mayer H. buildings, nobody knows why.  


Cantilevering as The New Leaning

Here, the building now appears to be leaning into some serious headwind as propels itself forward. From nowhere in particular.


The Because-we-can Lean


Me, I prefer a linear lean but this is Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi, billed by people more knowledgeable than I as the world’s furthest leaning building. It becomes difficult now to determine what’s a lean and what’s a cantilever but degrees from the verticla are its units of measurement. With this building, the floors farthest out there are occupited by a hotel Hyatt – the same people who devised the Pritzker Prize to thank architecture for increased footfall. RMJM, the Scottish architectural firm famous for its nine lives, designed Capital Gate to have a lean of 18°.


The Capital Gate project was able to achieve its record inclination through a special engineering breakthrough that allows floor plates to be stacked vertically up to the 12th storey and staggered over each other by between 300mm to 1400mm, which allows for the tower’s dramatic lean. 

This must be that special engineering breakthrough although I’d prefer to save that word to describe momentous discoveries such as cures for cancer.

The gravitational pressure caused by the 18 degree incline is countered by the world’s first “pre-cambered core”; a technique that utilizes 15,000 cubic metres of concrete reinforced with 10,000 tons of steel with the core deliberately built slightly off centre. It straightened as the building rose …, moving into (vertical) position as the weight of the floors has been added.

But just in case,

The building has an extra-ordinary exoskeleton or “diagrid” to absorb and channel the forces created by wind and seismic pressure as well as the gradient of Capital Gate

The Unitentional Lean #1


Most famously leaning is the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the campanile for the adjacent cathedral. We never appreciate the architect’s success at harmonizing the Gothic elements of the bell-chamber with the Romanesque style of the tower. We appreciate how its alignment looks different from what’s around it. It’s something that occurred naturally. Nobody designed it to be that way. Its alignment is free of aesthetic baggage. How refreshing is that!?  

The tower’s foundations were laid in 1173 and this is where problems began since those foundations were improper for ground that was, it turned out, softer on one side. Unsurprisingly, the name of this original architect is not known. Construction was delayed for a century or so while the Republic of Pisa was battling neighbouring city-states. When construction resumed in 1272, the new architect Giovanni di Simone built the remaining floors with one side taller than the other to produce a tower that’s somewhat banana shaped.

It wasn’t the best idea to concentrate on the visual aspects of the problem without considering the [clue!] underlying reasons for it. The additional material on the side of the lean might have pushed the tower’s centre of gravity further in the wrong direction for the tower continued to lean. Adding seven large and rather heavy bells to the bell chamber completed in 1372 can’t have helped.

Over the centuries, various attempts to correct the lean were made but it kept increasing to 5.5°. It was only in 2001 people finally understood what was going on. [ref.]


The exact cause of the tilt was not fully understood until 2001, when a serious stabilization effort (which began in the 1990’s) was completed. It was known prior to the start of this stabilization effort that the tower had been built atop an inadequate foundation (which was only 3 meters thick); and was constructed on very soft silty soil. Had these been the only factors at work, uniform settlement of the tower could have been expected; and the city of Pisa would play host to a significantly less famous (albeit more vertical) tower. The 800 year old mystery was finally solved by John Burland, an English geotechnical engineer, who discovered that the primary cause of the tilt was a fluctuating water table which would perch higher on the tower’s north side, causing the tower’s characteristic slant to the south. []

As is the way with many intractable problems, an open call for solutions was held. One person suggested freezing the soil around the tower solid – an idea wacky enough to have worked if it hadn’t required the soil to be liquidified first. One child cutely suggested digging a hole on one side and letting the tower sink into it. This is basically what was done.


Nowadays the tower’s lean is basically constant at 3.97° and future shifts in either direction can be predicted with reasonable accuracy. 

The Unintentional Lean #2

Two of the twenty or so remaining Towers of Bologna have similar problems. As was the way, 12th century engineers believed a foundation 3m thick was sufficient to support anything. The taller of the two towers in the image below is 97m Torre Asinelli and the shorter is Torre Garisenda at 48m. Both were built to about the same height but Torre Garisenda began to lean so alarmingly its height was reduced to 48m in the 14th century. Nowadays it sports an impressive 3° lean but Torre Asinelli is none too vertical either.


What we like about the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Asinelli Tower and Garisanda Tower is that they weren’t designed to be like that. Their alignments look different and that’s it – that’s all there is. They weren’t designed to have alignments that were novel or unusual or different in any way whatsoever. Those alignments weren’t designed to celebrate Italian Mediaval history or attract tourists to Bologna. Any associations we may make were never there. Although the Bologna towers are out of vertical alignment, their alignments are still very much the alignments of buildings.

The Unintentional Lean #3

San Francisco’s Millennium Tower is 654ft (197m) tall. Since its completion in 2009 it has sunk 16 inches and now has a two inch tilt at the base and an approximately six inch tilt at the top. This works out at about 0.04° so it’s not appreciable yet and, even if it becomes appreciable, there won’t be much appreciating going on. Here’s a New York Times report of the current state of the legals. Fingers are being pointed.


So far, the noisiest threats involve residents who stand to lose on their investment. Millennium tower still looks vertical. It’ll be some time before its lean interrupts a game of pool or otherwise inconveniences the daily lives of its occupants. Of more immediate concern ought to be soil liquification which is a term you’d prefer to not have enter your consciousness when your building is built on friction piles in an earthquake zone having a 72% likelihood of at least one earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater before 2043.


The lean of Millennium Tower will be easy to check against adjacent and more resolutely vertical buildings. For reference, the (intentional) lean of this curtain wall is quite appreciable at 1°.


The next video was taken during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

I can’t identify the building with the dark cladding but some Shiunjuku Towers such as the Mitsui Building and Tokyo City Hall leaned up to 3’3″. Over 55 office floors this represents a lean of around 0.6°, each way, repeatedly, and for about 10 minutes. We need to remember that these were self-correcting, temporary and designed-for misalignments.

millennium-tower.jpgITALY. Pisa. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. From 'Small World'. 1990.

As we’ve discovered over the centuries, buildings with unintentional leans don’t fix themselves. It’s one thing to dig a hole under a twelfth century unoccupied tower in a grassy clearing and hope for the best, and quite another to attempt something similar for a 58-storey occupied building in a crowded city.

• • •

This post grew from a suggestion by Chuck Choi – thanks Chuck!

Misfits’ Guide to DUBAI

Following on from Misfits’ Guide to New York and Misfits’ Guide to Moscow, this third Misfits’ Guide takes a look around this city better known for some of its other buildings. First up is the tall building in the distance in this 1978 photo.


Dubai World Trade Centre


Completed that year, the Dubai World Trade Centre building is 39 storeys and 149 metres (489 feet) high. It was the first ‘modern’ building in Dubai.


Some types of new glazing are cleverer than others but keeping the sun off the walls and especially the glass is generally a good idea in the sunnier climates. This cladding is precast concrete panels having small window openings shaded by the structure. The result is a building that uses only 100kWh as opposed to usual 300kWh of more recent office buildings. Here it is just after completion. I include these next two photographs because they also show the next building I’m going to mention.

Trade Centre Apartments


Little is known about these apartments. They’re not regarded as architecture and many will think them ugly but they’re still there, have been renovated and now have a new life as Dubai World Trade Centre Hotel Apartments. It’s not a huge change of use. The apartments must have been decently planned, solidly constructed and comfortable to begin with, otherwise they’d have been gone long ago. The pool, tennis court and grass are more recent additions.

A small area of glazing and balconies protected from south sun and screened from the western were always there.

I’m still trying to find plans, but we can guess from the elevation that they’re big-brush, single-aspect and a mixture of 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom apartments.


All have internal kitchens and bathrooms. The balcony is at one end of the living room and at the other is a slit window that’s recessed for better self-shading. The sole decoration of the building is shadows.

This is an example of simple yet intelligent design creating a liveable building having an extended life.

The Toyota Building



This building’s real name is the Nasser Rashid Lootah Building but it’s known locally as The Toyota Building for the red neon flashing TOYOTA alternately in English and Arabic. It’s the only flashing neon and the only one in Arabic you’ll see along Sheikh Zayed Road. In New York, the sign alone would have protected status.

The Toyota Building was built in 1974 at what was then known as Defence Roundabout. It’s part of many people’s history of Dubai. For many years the building would have had evaporative air conditioners on all its living room windows but nowadays compressors for reverse-cycle units are more common. The building is notable for two things. Its windows are well recessed and further shaded by the balcony downturns that take some of the sting out of low angle sun, especially on the south side. This single design affectation is still a useful one.


The second notable thing about this building is that it still exists.


Interchange Two has grown around it to make vehicle access extremely tiresome. On the plus side, the construction of the footbridge for Dubai Mall Metro Station has improved [as in enabled] pedestrian access but the building itself remains rental apartments at the cheaper end of the market. The building’s owner says there are no plans to take down the building in the near future. We can’t demolish it now. It’s very old but it’s still popular. Lots of the apartments are rented out.”


Nevertheless, I don’t fancy its chances long-term as it’s about to get a flashy new neighbour designed by world-renowned sustainability expert. Werner Sobek and famous architect Ben van Berkel.  Comprising 60 floors, the development [of which] will feature vertical residential compounds to provide an all-inclusive city, meeting all the needs of its residents, while improving health standards [?] across all parts of the property. 

Fareed Tower



Currently approaching completion, Fareed Tower is a 23-storey residential building, with 20 apartments on 20 floors – one 4-bed apartment per floor. Designed by local practice dxb-lab, the building uses its structure to shade the building. It wasn’t a complicated problem that required a complex solution or one contrived to show how cleverly the problem was solved at the expense of the building. [Yes, I’m talking about O14.] This week, midday sun in Dubai is directly overhead and solar gain isn’t the problem it is in Spring and Autumn, especially from the west.

33 Kuwait Street, Karama


I always admire these apartments whenever I have reason to drive by. The ground floor apartments with their privacy and noise issues show how limited the budget must have been. Still, someone did the best they could to make the building attractive with overhangs and simple shading devices despite little budget for either. The sole decoration is the absence of balconies marking entrances and softening the corners of the building. These absences interrupt the balconies and the roof and parapet above. It’s architectural ornamentation yes, but it’s cost nothing. A+.


Spanning the block, the building has one rear and two front entrances. A central lightwell is crossed by two open passageways, each linking two apartments each end per floor. Apartments in the middle of the building are 2-bedroom apartments and the ones at the ends have a third bedroom filling in the ends of the lightwell. All are dual aspect. Planning for without air conditioning gives very different buildings than planning for with.

20 Khalid Bin Al Waleed Road (Bank Street) Apartments



Walking around the older parts of Dubai such as Bur Dubai and Karama you’ll look down streets and see only a chiaroscuro of balconies, no glass. Infinite variations all do the same.

Much low-rise building still gets built this way. Here’s a street with old one side and new the other. It still works.


The 20 Khalid Bin Al Waleed Road Apartments do the same thing, but with more style.

I’m guessing 16 x 1-bed apartments and four studios off an L-shaped corridor. Like LC at Marseilles, the architect has resisted adding extra additional side windows. What’s curious about this building is the shadow gaps formed by the independently cantelevered balcony structures. It doesn’t look like a simple way to make a balcony and I can’t think of any energy or climatic advantage doing this would produce. [It must become hot in those gaps because they haven’t been colonized by birds.] The curved corners where those horizontal gaps meet the side of the building is the only decorative feature and three of the five sets have been thoughfully placed where we can admire them. Vertical gaps are carried through into the paparapet – a device also present in the previous example. I suspect this is one of those design ideas that made it through because the architect kept quiet about it. Vertical partitions between shared balcony units are recessed to emphasise the shape of the rounded rectangles, and the balustrades are recessed still further for the same reason. Those balustrades are defensive barriers of glazed brick. It’s impossible to tell how old this building is but it’s probably not as old as it seems. The thing is, it will stay this way forever, an unknown and unappreciated modern classic.

Dubai Petroleum Headquarters


This one’s a gem from 1979 just west of the Toyota Building. It was designed by Palestinian-American architect Victor Hanna Bishara(t) better known for his work masterplanning Disneyland Anaheium, and various buildings around Stamford, Connecticut such as St. John’s Towers and One Stamford Forum. Bishara was also responsible for buildings 1 and 2 at High Ridge Park. [more here]


In 2008 there were plans to demolish this building along with several square kilometers of adjacent development but the financial crisis said no. It’s been suggested the buiding would make an ideal art museum and indeed it would. Its location alone makes it infinitely preferable to some remote cultural district. The building has a skylight-lit internal garden but I have no images.


• • •

All these buildings show design intelligence applied to conditions that haven’t gone away. Those conditions are dealt with efficiently and economically and with varying degrees of elegance. But let’s not get stuck in the past – let’s see what’s in the pipeline and that, at time of writing, looks like it’s going to be the future.




Generic Functionality

Cruise liners maximise the number of cabins with sea-facing windows and use their topmost deck to add value to those cabins. It’s the other way around with aircraft carriers. Their sole value lies in their ability to let aircraft take-off and land unrestricted by the immobility and locational inconvenience of terra firma. Everything and everybody above and below the flight deck exists to enable and sustain that functionality.

Aircraft carriers are divided into three types depending on the systems they use for take-off and ‘recovery’. Even small ones are megastructures.


Crew are divided into Air Wing in charge of everything to do with flying and maintaining the aircraft, and Ship’s Company which deals with everything else. The split is roughly 50-50 with about 2,500-3,000 people each. Aircraft carrier provide an amenity that is communal at the national level though some may say global. The crew however must be provided with sufficient and immediate amenity for them to live and function as optimally as possible.

Daylight and Views: Crew on the flight deck or in flight deck operations are fine and, to a lesser extent, so are people on the hangar deck.


The anchor room has openings that technically, aren’t portholes, but are there to facilitate the attachment of mooring lines.

Battle of Midway ceremony

This is the anchor room of the USS Intrepid. Located in the very prow of the forecastle, the anchor room’s geometry and anchor chains define a space that is incidentally, powerfully and generically symbolic and, as a result, occasionally serves as a general-purpose ceremonial space. The space is not trying to be impressive.

From this next plan, it looks like crew quarters are safely located amidships and some distance from the double hull. Armor plating is better at stopping missiles than windows so this positioning represents an amenity of sorts, even if its purpose is to keep people alive so the vessel can continue to function. Absence of windows means that for most of the time, more than half the crew may as well be on a submarine. Submariners take Vitamin D supplements and are fed Vitamin-D fortified milk and eggs. Daylight balanced illumination in bathrooms and corridors ought to help but I couldn’t find any information on this or on non-seasonal Seasonal Affective Disorder.


Movement: Passageways and stairs are narrow. Lower rank gives way to higher. In principle, the same applies to queues in the ship’s store, bank and medical and dental clinics. It’s one-way traffic with the starboard (right-side) lengthways passageway for movement towards the front and the port (left-side) one for movement towards the rear.   


ExerciseThe flight deck is often open for running during breaks between flight operations, as is the hangar bay. Exercise contributes to the crew’s overall performance and effectiveness and aircraft carriers therefore have gyms with free weights or universal machines, stationary bikes and rowing machines. None of this equipment is electrical. 


Death: Accidental electrocution is the most likely cause of death on an aircraft carrier. 

Fuel and energy: A nuclear powered aircraft carrier can prowl the seas for 20+ years without refuelling. Its two reactors power steam turbines that, in addition to powering the vessel, also generate electricity and desalinate sea water. Not being diesel powered means more space for more aviation fuel. Another requirement is to carry food for three meals per day for 6,000 people. This takes up much space.

The seven kitchens on the George HW Bush are manned by 93 cooks and produce 16,000–18,000 meals a day, from 6am breakfasts through to midnight rations (‘mid rats’). The food bill is about US$45,000-60,000 per day. Chicken Wings: “Take 3,500 lbs (1,600 kg) of chicken …” There’s a 15-day set menu cycle and weekly deliveries of both fresh and dry goods even when at sea so this is not a particularly closed system. (Deck space is for airplanes, not chickens or alfalfa.) Without re-stocking, food supply for 6,000 people becomes a problem after 70 days


Illness prevention 1: Fresh food brought on board is frozen as soon as possible to prevent stomach-borne illnesses. The day’s ingredients are brought up from the hold and stored in large-walk in and refrigerators freezers close to the kitchens. 

Illness prevention 2: Stairwell railings anywhere are a common source of germ transfer. Experienced sailors go up and down without touching them.


Sleep: Sleeping arrangements on the USS Midway are fairly standard with single bunks called racks stacked in threes and sleeping about 60 persons to a compartment. Personal storage is in space beneath the mattresses and one small upright locker per person.

Midway berthing 1-325

Waste management: It used to be the case that all non-combustible refuse was disposed of at sea according to the following regulations.

garbage regulations.jpg

These days,

exceptions.jpgThe Canadian company Pyrogenesis‘ plasma-arc gasification system is installed on USS Gerald Ford. Per hour it blasts 200 kg of combustible refuse back into its constituent molecules.



This site will update you on the status of the US Navy dumping of seawaste.


For now, the best way of dealing with plastics has been found to compress and store them. Technologies for this are now mature.

HaircutsOne barbershop providing 1,500 haircuts per week means one per person every four weeks. Assuming 24/7 operation, that’s one every 6.7 minutes. Permissible styling variation is greater than I imagined. (Navy Personnel Command’s Grooming Guidelines)

Reuse and Recycling: Most modern aircraft carriers live long enough for this to be a problem. The last aircraft carrier decommissioned the fast way was the Japanese carrier Amagi. Kure Bay, 1945.


Aircraft carriers exist for other machines so it’s not surprising humans have little love for them when they become obsolete and immobile. Aircraft carriers revert to being nothing more than a level surface and much darkness beneath – much like the real land they always imitated, only now for no reason.


Enabling aircraft to take off and land at sea is a highly specialized function. Other than admire their once agressively purposeful silhouette, there’s not much you can actually do with an obsolete aircraft carrier.


USS Intrepid became New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. 

USS Midway became San Diego’s USS Midway Museum.

All nuclear powered navy vessels go to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington where they are stripped of equipment and pollutants and then cut up for scrap. The USS Enterprise was to have been, in 2017, the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier to undergo this process but the Navy is now ‘considering‘ ‘commercial recycling’ and is open to other suggestions, prompted partly because USS Enterprise is too wide to pass through the Panama Canal.


Taking the long way around is cost-prohibitive. Towing an aircraft carrier around Cape Horn is not something you want to be doing even in clement weather.


It’s one of those problems somebody should have thought about earlier.


The new and larger locks on the Panama Canal are set to open June 26.


There are other ways to get rid of an aircraft carrier. On 17 May 2006 USS Oriskany went out in style.


Onboard explosives were detonated to sink it and create an artificial diving reef off the coast of Florida.



Aircraft carriers are the mainstay of 20th century military operations. They are highly specialized machines enabling the functionality of other machines that themselves are highly specialised.

Castles were the mainstay of 12th century military operations. They were highly specialised buildings enabling people to survive and, to this end, had solid construction and many rooms, some of which were located and sized for access and administration. The same set of spaces could be used as castle, hospital, care home, hotel, hostel or prison. The castle was not trying to be flexible. It’s just that all those different uses over the centuries involved putting people in rooms and providing them with admin and communal amenity.

Thinking about buildings in this way might leave us with ones that are easier to adapt and better equipped for the long haul.

We find castles picturesque. This and the fact they also tend to be in places with nice views only enhances their generic functionality. We’ve been conditioned to believe that buildings exquisitely evolved to meet specific programs are what exemplary architecture should aspire to be. This is probably not such a great idea.

biggest dinosaur

Architecture or evolution? Architecture can be avoided. Less architecture is more. etc.

• • •

The 1+1/2 Floor Apartment

The first time a one-and-a-half floor apartment featuring a double-height space crossed the architectural horizon was Richard M. Hunt’s Tenth Street Studio building in New York in 1857.

Designed specifically for artists, it had large windows lighting double-height spaces. Apartments were arranged around a central gallery space that was skylit and that served as an exhibition space. Some apartments also had rooms offside for the artist to live.

As the first American to attend the Ecole des Beux-Arts in Paris, Richard Hunt and his Tenth Street Studios had cred. His new building typology linked ‘the mythic lifestyle of the artist with larger cultural ideals in relation to housing.’* What those larger cultural ideals were, was still unclear however, as New York circa 1865 had a population of about one million and about 15,000 tenement buildings. Society patrons of said artists soon brought some clarity to the matter. Having seen what excellent receptions populated by charming and cultured people could be held in rooms with high ceilings and north light, they began to want some of the space and light they saw in those studios.

Sherwood Studios was completed in 1880 on 57th Street which was soon to become an art and residential hotspot. Its studios were designed specifically for living and included a parlour and bedrooms but no kitchens. Residents, married and single alike, ate at the restaurant downstairs in a successful co-living and working arrangement. First residents were artists but this was soon to change.


The Sixty Seventh Street Studios were completed in 1901.

Gainsborough Studios, completed 1908, at 222 Central Park South on Central Park South is still a fine place to live or paint.

By 1920, artists were the minority in studio apartment developments. Over in Europe, artists and architects alike were attuned to the New York art market that had so enthusiastically kept the French Impressionists alive but, as far as architecture was concerned, light and a feeling of spaciousness were now a commodity and the new standard by which modern living as set by the fashionable affluent was to be judged. 

Le Corbusier had designed and completed Maison Ozenfant in Paris in 1922. Ozenfant was a mere painter though, but apparently a successful one for his studio was merely a large and well-illuminated room above a sizeable house. It was fit for purpose and implied no new way of living even though there is a mezzanine. You can just see the handrail leading up to it on the right in the photograph below.


Corbusier’s 1922 Villa Besnus had no mezzanine or studio but studios soon came thick and fast. Villas Lipchitz-Miestchaninoff 1923. Villas La Roche-Jeanneret 1923. Maison Ternisien 1923. All had mezzanine studio spaces for artists we don’t know whether they cared that much for space and light or whether they wanted to attract same patrons in they same way their New York colleagues were.

LC’s 1924 Artisan/Workman Houses were a classic example of a one-and-a-half-floor dwelling. We don’t know if this project was genuinely intended for artists but, if artists studios were being designed for the general market in New York in 1920 then we shouldn’t assume Le Corbusier’s artisan houses of 1924 were any different.

The curious little proposal is nevertheless an inspired marketing masterclass in covering all bases. It was mass produced but for artisans or craftsmen. It could be for workmen if society went that way as it had just in Russia, but could be brought into service for the fashionably wealthy as was the case in America.

Any need for ambiguity was gone by 1925. The Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau at the Paris Exhibition was one-and-three-quarter floors of bourgeois housing. Mezzanine floors and the life of artists had arrived as a housing product in Europe!

The painting displayed on the easel in Pierre Chareau’s 1928-31 Maision de Verre now makes perfect sense. It’s not as if the Dalsaces couldn’t have afforded an extra wall.


Farther east, Russian architects saw the potential of increased vertical volume to compensate for reduced floor area by way of better lighting, ventilation and this new sense of spaciousness. Double-height spaces and half floors featured in many of the proposals for the 1927 USSR Comradely Competition for Communal Housing. Moisei Ginzburg’s team proposed apartments that began life as one downstairs apartment having a bathroom that could be shared by two people upstairs and one more across the hall. It was a one-floor apartment with about one quarter of the living space double height.

A-1 plans

When the economic situation of the people occupying the main space improved, all three spaces were to be combined to make a one and 3/4 floor apartment with a spiral stair leading to a mezzanine above the grand piano.

A-1 plans

The proposal by Alexander Nikolsky’s team also had a living room double the height of its connecting rooms.


Nina Vorotynzeva and Raissa Polyak reasoned that if the living space is double height, it doesn’t need to be twice is high as a full-height kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms. Their proposal saves volume by having reduced heights for these spaces and by the living room having a height less than the combined height of those spaces. Reversing the plan on alternate floors repeats that advantage but duplicates vertical pipes.

The proposal of the Ohl team also duplicated servicing but this time all pipes and, importantly, corridors weren’t running along the outside of the building anymore. This made private balconies possible and was a better use of window space. The downside was a reliance on mechanical ventilation for the internal rooms now sharing a shaft.

This idea of a corridor connecting interlocking apartments of one and a half floors was also developed by Ivan Sobolev’s team for the same 1927 competition. Their proposal featured a double-height living room and a design and construction module that could provide 2-, 4- or 6-bedroom apartments.

Sobolov axo

Sobolev correctly reasoned that bathrooms need to go above and below the corridor but this wasn’t possible for the kitchen as it needed to be adjacent to the dining area and also to share the floor of the living space and not its ceiling.

sobolev section

The problem is better seen in this next plan. If we enter from the corridor into the half-floor living room having a kitchen then there is no problem. We go up the stairs to a bedroom level that unfortunately has some space not used very well. However, if we enter from the corridor into the top half of the living room then we have to immediately go downstairs for everything. The kitchen can now go in a that unused space which is good, and although the living room is still double height there is now no mezzanine.


The competition results were published but, instead of a clear winner, Ginzburg was asked to form and lead a team to continue developing apartment building prototypes by . These developments combined advantages of the competition proposals and created new types of apartments. (See 1928: The Types Study for more.)

The B-Type took the volumetric advantage of the Vorotynzeva and Polyak proposal and simplified its construction. The disadvantage of duplicated pipes still remained.


The Type F is a combination of all of these ideas plus some more. The middle of the three levels is the corridor from which you either go up one third of a flight of stairs to the living level of the upper apartment, or down two thirds of a flight to the living level of the lower apartment. The lower apartment has a sleeping area on the same level but of reduced height beneath the corridor. The upper apartment has a sleeping area up another third of a flight of stairs at a raised level above the corridor.

This arrangement produced three main advantages.

  • The reduced ceiling heights for non-essential areas resulted in a lower percentage of corridor space for the building as a whole, and thus economies of materials and construction costs.
  • Servicing was more efficient and less expensive as all pipes are down one wall only.
  • All living rooms could be on the same side having afternoon/evening sun and all sleeping areas on the side of the building having morning sun.

As with the Sobolev proposal, inverting the apartments around a shared corridor is always going to produce different results for the two apartments. Paired apartment volumes can be rotationally symmetrical around a shared corridor but staircases can’t because of humans and gravity being how they are.

The Type F appeared in four buildings, most famously at Ginzburg’s Narkomfin  in Moscow where it occurs along with Type K apartments that have a double-height living areas and attendant advantages for heating and illumination but no special volumetric savings other than shorter and fewer corridors.

Welles Coates’ 1939 10 Palace Gate is the next entry in this history of split level apartments.

They have three floors of regular height rooms but the height of one quarter of the apartment is split between the living room and the room above it. The height changes occur on the line of a split in plan but this isn’t used to any spatial advantage. [Here’s one that was on the market.]

The apartment Welles Coates designed and remodelled for himself in 1935 is more interesting. It doesn’t return the idea of artist to the space but it does return the idea of living with reorganised priorities in a smaller space.

The advantages of the Type F were to live on for a while longer. If he is remembered, Serge Chermayeff, is usually remembered as the architect of De La Warr Pavilion of the same 1935 in Bexhill-On-Sea, UK.


In 1943, and now in America, Chermayeff published the Park-Type Apartments study that showed how a wide range of apartment sizes and types could be contained within the massing of a conventional apartment block. Here’s a closer look. They’re good.

Park Type Apartments-1

Adding some more width to the corridor level enables the kitchen and dining areas to stay together on that level as a functional unit. The lower apartments have no division between dining and living and the upper apartments have the dining area overlooking the living area in an equally sensible arrangement. This neatly solves the problems Sobolev faced. Moreover, the stair with split flights side by side can be used for both apartments and with the same advantages for internal circulation.

Le Corbusier may have known of Chermayeff’s study for, unlike Sobolev, the apartments in the 1949 Unité d’Habitations in Marseilles are entered on the level of the kitchen-dining area and the relationship with the living area discounted since, as with Chermayeff’s solutions, it is either on the same level as the living room or overlooking it, albeit from a full level above.


Rotating a section in this way is all very well but the problem is that humans, unlike flies, can’t flip between walking on floors and walking on ceilings. It’s fine for the main bedroom to overlook the living room in an upper apartment but in a lower apartment the kitchen/dining overlooks the combined main bedroom and living area.


This next image is of an apartment of that type, although the master bedroom appears to now be being used as the living room. Judging from the plan above, the master bedroom has been lengthened to where the stair begins. The apartment seems to be available for the holiday season so that bookcase might yet be concealing a bed.


The Sobolev and Corbusier proposals share this flaw of rotating an apartment section vertically and horizontally around a double-loaded corridor even though the apartment plan can’t be inverted without some loss of functionality. The problem with the Unité planning is that kitchen/dining and main bedroom spaces are spatially but not functionally swappable.

As with the Artisan Housing or Pavilion de L’Espirit Nouveau, there’s no problem having a mezzanine if it is not inverted. Or as Chermayeff and Ginzburg showed, there’s no problem with mirrored double-height spaces if they occur on the line of a split in plan. Le Corbusier’s desire to reprise the mezzanine at Pavilion de L’Espirit Nouveau is what screwed everything up. He wasn’t one to admit an error. The same flawed arrangement is repeated in the ‘classic’ unité apartments at Nantes-Rezé of 1952-5, Briey-en-Foret in 1956, Berlin in 1957 and Firminy in 1960.

Despite Chermayeff’s study showing how spatial efficiencies could be pursued in high-rise housing, 1960s experiments focussed on creating a sense of space through complex internal planning confounding any perception of an enclosing envelope.

The stated rationale for the diabolically complex internal planning at Corringham by Douglas Stephen & Partners in 1960 is to give all residents a view of the communal garden.


With Giovanni Pasanella’s Twin Parks West completed in the Bronx in 1974, the goal again seems to have been internal spatial diversity confounding the perception of an enclosing envelope.

The one and a half floor apartment makes a re-appearance in Charles Correa’s 1983 Kanchanjunga Apartments. A single-level apartment changes into a one-and-a-half floor apartment and then into a two-storey apartment and then a double height outdoor space which becomes a primary living space for this different climate. 


All these historic ideas and techniques for making life better are still valid .  

Reversing the plan to squeeze the apartment on alternately opposite sides is precisely what  Nina Vorotynzeva and Raissa Polyak were doing in 1928 and Ginzburg too with the Type B a year later. There is still the same principle of having less height where it is least needed and diverting that height to reversed apartments above and/or below.

Many of the other ideas seen in the historic examples feature in this next contemporary proposal having one and a half floors and a double height living space.

  • The sleeping area, bathroom and kitchen have lower heights than usual but the greater height of the living rooms is presented as compensation but, in terms of priorities and benefits, more than compensates. Its anticipated benefits are the same as those seen by many of the Comradely Competition entrants.
  • The double height is not a mezzanine but a split-level and the staircase sensibly follows that split as Chermayeff found best.
  • The corridor is single sided to allow light and cross ventilation to the upper level, but also to the corridor itself.
  • The corridor is more of an enclosed balcony than a conventional corridor.


You could ask ‘Why not extend the bedroom over the corridor so it can have a full window? And while you’re at it invert the apartments around the same corridor so it’s double loaded for better efficiency? – like Corbusier did in Marseilles.’ This would be possible if the entrance corridor / kitchen activity space came down the centre of the apartment to also access the stair and bathroom.

In fact, it would be a better solution internally as the kitchen activity space would then overlap more circulation space and produce more useable area. Doing this would create no problem for the upper apartments. As ever however, the lower apartments would have the kitchen separated from the table below, this time by eleven rather tricky stairs.

For now, you can’t get any better than the one-and-a-half floor apartment as devised by Ginzburg and perfected by Charmayeff

but let’s not forget Richard M. Hunt and the Tenth Street Studio for causing this whole space and light thing to kick off. 

Who’d have thought the person to first realize the value of what were to become the essential qualities of modern architecture would turn out to be a Beaux-Arts alumnus?

Tenth Street Studios

• • •

Further reading:

1928: The Meeting

Moissei Ginzburg

“Hello. I’m Moisei Ginzburg and I’d like to thank you for allowing my team and I to give this preliminary presentation on the analysis of apartment types that we’ve been conducting over the past three months. We can’t claim to have finished but are presenting it to you today in order to discuss its methods and methodology.”

When Moisei Ginzburg and his team met at STROYKOM [Building Committee of the Economic Council of what’s now the Russian Federation] to present the preliminary findings of The Types Study, there was one unspoken yet strongly felt presence at the meeting – History. It was not on their side of the table.

  • March~September 1928: The most likely period for the three-month Types Study.
  • 16 May 1928: The Central Committee of The Communist Party issued a formal directive: “On the Work Concerning The Restructuring Of Everyday Life”: WE WARN AGAINST ATTEMPTS OF CERTAIN COMRADES TO CONSTRUCT NEW MODES OF EVERYDAY LIFE BY FORCING MEANS SUCH AS SEPARATE CHILDMINDING , COMMUNAL DINING, ETC. New modes of everyday life must be built by taking into full account existing material conditions. IN NO INSTANCE MUST THEY PROCEED TO CONSTRUCT PLANS FOR WHICH THERE IS NEITHER MEANS NOR POSSIBILITY OF REALISING THEM. 

It’s clear someone at the top was upset. Ginzburg and his team had been working to achieve exactly what was now being strongly warned against. Worse, that work had been done under the support and protection of a government agency. The project needed to die and it needed to look like it died of natural causes.

  • November 1928: The Meeting

The Meeting was a feature of the entire CA (Contemporary Architecture, OSA crew’s mouthpiece) issue #1 of 1929. Misfits wouldn’t have been able to bring you this post if it weren’t for this coverage.


“In a country of emerging socialism, problems of lowering the cost of housing are connected to problems of improving housing to increase labor productivity, facilitate cultural revolution and to shift to more socially complex modes of housekeeping. Thorough rationalization of pre-revolution apartment plan, analysis of household activity and in the rooms and kitchen in particular could lead to 10% savings.”

Ginzburg began by emphasising that his team pursued building economy in order to better use building resources to supply millions of people with housing. He linked housing improvement to broader questions of the national economy, cultural revolution and changes in the household itself. He recognised that full socialism was still not achieved, and that interim solutions were required.

He stated that pre-Revolution apartments were well suited to bourgeois families but, even without secondary staircases and servants’ quarters, were a poor use of space if they had to house one family per room as had become common. Here’s a modest pre-Revolutionary Moscow apartment currently for sale ( The building has two apartments per floor. It looks like the elevator has been added later. Here's a Moscow pre-revolutionary apartment (with elevator) currently for sale (

A downscaled version of such an apartment was used as the baseline for The Types Study.

“Rationalization of the pre-revolution apartment plan and an analysis of household activity in the rooms and kitchen in particular could provide savings of 10%.”

Imagining a future in which people ate in communal canteens, Ginzuburg and his team saw the kitchen as ultimately redundant. In the meantime, they settled for a drastic rationalisation.

“You may see here on the board a rationalised kitchen alongside a conventional kitchen.”

Ginzburg and the crew used the 1926 Frankfurt Kitchen as a design guideline and illustration of a rationalised kitchen.

Photographs of pre-1917 Russian kitchens are few. This next photo is a contemporary Russian kitchen that, though romanticised, probably contains a memory of what a bourgeois kitchen once was. In early 1900s Russia, wealthier houses would have had gaslight chandeliers, for example.

gorgeous-russian-interior-design-ideas-russian-classic-kitchen-design.jpg Floorplan and kitchen improvement comprise the essence of A type apartments, so that’s how they’ve been introduced. But back in 1928, “How high did an apartment room really need to be?” was a question that needed an answer. The political revolution of eleven years before still had not reached architecture.


“If surplus height in non-habitable rooms such as the hallway, bathroom, WC and kitchen is redistributed, housing economic efficiency can be further improved.”

By “economic efficiency” Ginzburg means the following.


He then showed the Type B apartment had interlocking upper and lower apartments with the non-habitable rooms having the areas of lower ceiling height.

img2943-e1430402521581“Type B has specific issues but outperforms the EKOSO norms by 17% and our own A2 type 10% in terms of volumetric ratio. Keeping in mind additional expenses such as an extra riser or extra joist, we estimated a 15% cost reduction.”

“In this non-habitable room area and height squeeze we’ve reached the extreme we can’t surpass. It’s almost the saturation limit. But for apartments below 50 sq. m. economic efficiency demands more radical measures.”

Those measures included implementing the niche kitchen and installing a shower instead of a bathtub.

“The question of economically beneficial small apartment is brought to the forefront by our social condition.”

Ginzburg began introducing the hurdle of apartment compaction and rationalisation — the internal limitations of building configuration. It was constant volumetric ratio evaluation conducted through the study that enabled them to see those. The desire to construct many small apartments was the reality of constructing habitable envelopes for a thousand stairwells – if done on a regular basis. This was the key problem the crew faced. That enabled MG to move on towards the F, with its renowned features:

  • Sleeping area and auxiliary rooms (shower, WC, lavatory) are on one side and with reduced height (2.25 m).
  • The living area is on the other side and is of greater height (3.5 m), allowing a corridor because of the accumulated surplus height differences of the portions.
  • This corridor may be totally lit.
  • Apartments have cross-ventilation and are dual-aspect.
  • The building volume to habitable area ratio is the same as in a 3-room apartment.
  • The average ceiling height in the apartment is still better than in current worker housing.
  • Adopting the kitchen element allows dual use of kitchen activity area.

F plans board

Ginzburg ended his presentation with a list of of qualities they strove to achieve through their design process.

1. Light in every place of apartment. 2. Cross-ventilation and double-aspect apartments. 3. All bedrooms having the same orientation. 4. Rooms sized according to number of inhabitants. 5. Rooms shaped and sized according to activity. 6. Top-range equipment. 7. Optimum room proportions. 8. Rational colouring of interior surfaces.


His final words were on the topic of standardised construction that was an outline of future work as well:

“Today’s directive on standardization is wrong in our opinion, because the desire to populate whole country with the frightening mediocrity of identical houses is a mistake.”

“We believe standardization should be made not via replication of only one type, but through the use of standard elements that can be combined into a multitude of types.”


Those who go first, and object to the first thing they notice:

Cde. Morosov (Head Regional Engineer) “The corridor is very ingeniously contrived but, in case of fire, would become a large ventilation shaft feeding a fire and blocking the exit. The narrow exit stairs compromise the floor area.” 


Those who don’t know what they are saying, but say it anyway:

Cde. Elaschenko (Moscow Council) “These houses must be built with elevators. It’s impossible to use such a house without one. Elevators themselves take up considerable area. [In the case of the lower Type F apartments] the residents will have to go up and then down. This is not pleasant and will have a negative psychological effect in addition to having to climb stairs to go outside.


“I don’t think the height of the kitchen can be less than the living room because it’s impossible to work in a kitchen with a ceiling lower than 2.5m. For the lavatory, a ceiling height of 2.25m would compromise the tank performance unless it is installed at ceiling level – in which case it can’t be adjusted.”


Those who don’t say much:

Cde. Prokofiev (Health Authority)

“The non-habitable area was mentioned but the height of the habitable area will also be reduced, compromising the health of the residents. Expensive mechanical ventilation would be required since the kitchen and the lavatory are so close to the living area.”


Those whose one good point gets lost: 

Cde. Serk (Health Authority) [ According to Igor Kazus’ book «Soviet Architecture of 1920s: Design Organisation», from 1922-24, Serk was head architect in the residential department of Gosstroy (State Construction institution) but by 1928 had become an architectural consultant for the Health Authority. As such, Serk would be partially responsible for issuing the sunlight directives still in force across Russia today. ] 

“Every time we get back to knowing not what we want to build – sometimes we want 3-room apartments for one family and sometimes we want 3-room apartments as dormitories!  If we build 3-room apartments for 3 families to live it doesn’t make sense to shrink the kitchen to the extent proposed by the speaker. The kitchens they have abroad are all good if used by one family but not three. It’s impossible to design a perfect 3-room apartment for both one and three families. This question must be resolved once and for all.

“The speaker mentions a range of ingenious and interesting ploys to reduce the ratio of volume to living area. Good, but how much will one cubic meter cost? A more detailed calculation is required. From what I’ve heard, designers are now considering only the volume value but not all cubic meters cost the same. Height may be reduced to give fewer cubic meters but those meters will cost more. This question of cost was not explained.

“The kitchen rationalization is great theme – but that kitchen can only be possible in Moscow and other cities with water supply, gas etc. In the provinces, it’s too early to implement the degree of rationalization seen in the West.

Those who seem reasonable:

Cde. Rukhlyadev (Tsentrogylsoyuz housing committee)

“The virtue of this design is that kitchen equipment is being taken into account for the first time. This is a complex and important problem that must be explored further for not only urban but for other types of household.

“To me, the key feature of the floor plans is a dedicated area for sleeping. This was noted in Stroykom’s proposed guidelines but never considered until now. 


“Cde. Serk is right to note that this apartment won’t probably be inhabited by one person making its mass construction unlikely. We currently have apartments housing more than one family and it’s those apartments that big cities need. 

“The corridor is crucial to residential construction, especially in cooperative housing where they are used to connect to other uses such as clubs, canteens, laundries and childminding centres. Implementing this programme by our rustic means will be difficult and the cost per unit volume will be higher than that of regular housing. Stroykom’s further work should focus on standard construction modes for buildings, but not the ones we have now. The cost of housing built with industrially produced elements should eventually become comparable to regular housing.”

Cde. Curella (Arts Sector of the Commissariat of Enlightenment) 

“We have to welcome those problems being presented to the general public. Essentially, the methodology is correct. In the report we see new modes of research on scientific organization of housekeeping. For the first time, perhaps, we see problems of new Soviet life modes included into academic architectural research. One of the best achievements is stimulating the shift towards collective housing but if we build housing only equipped with community kitchens, workers will set up kerosene stoves inside their rooms. … A lot of interesting features are seen in incremental design of F type housing. If we compare this new one-room corridor housing to the old ‘hotel type’ housing, the progress is so obvious it couldn’t be ignored. The argument regarding fire escape doesn’t hold water. I reckon we have to discuss all of these problems in a broader public forum. Workers aren’t yet part of the discussion. We need to publicise this work and perhaps go the Western way and set up a housing exhibition or show apartment or a testing station. The following year we could build a few experimental apartments based on these types and test them with real residents.”

The team’s Alexander Pasternak made a clarification at this juncture. He’d noted that people seemed to think the partial reductions in room height led to an overall reduction in room height when in fact the average room height was greater than what was typical.

Those who don’t:

Cde. Bragin (Health Authority)

“Comrades, the recent speaker claimed that volume was reduced at the expense of the dining room but isn’t it the living room where we reside the whole day? Volume reduction is undesirable. Further economies are achieved at the expense of the kitchen. Another issue is the living room and lavatory adjacency. In our conditions it’s inconvenient. How would you design where you don’t have sewers and water pipes, like in worker settlements? Have you made airflow calculation for your housing types? They say about influx ventilation but it’s overly expensive. Cooking inside the same room is a fundamental flaw that will also make the air foul. Was the aspect of children falling from the abundant staircases considered? Is it good to constantly go up or downstairs that ladder? Worker’s household modes must be changed with regard to their demands but I can’t see such consideration. The last aspect is social. I don’t think the corridor would facilitate resident communication, except for its negative aspects.

“Was noise transmission considered? Won’t the corridor facilitate sound transmission between apartments? Such effects can render any economy meaningless.”

Those who have been paying close attention:

Cde. Sadovsky (NKVD) 

getting up to speed on the NKVD

NKVD was the forerunner of the KGB

“I would say the problem posed by the speaker features three aspects. First is kitchen rationalization we have to welcome, but, bearing our situation in mind, we must think again about niche kitchenettes.

“Our situation” was a standard euphemism also used by other people at the meeting to refer to poverty, urban overcrowding and the recurring reality of three families per apartment. Sadovsky is saying that proposing niche kitchenettes is not helpful at the present time.

“In the B type, the entire non-habitable area is on one side of the plan and the habitable on the other and in the next floor they’re flipped. This creates a plumbing (and also an economic) issue since every floor will have pipes running down its full height on both sides. 

This is a valid point. 

“You would be constricted by the lighting conditions as well because if in the first floor you orient the bedroom to the east and in the second floor to the west.

It is true that similar rooms on adjacent floors are on opposite sides of the building.

“As general remarks on the author’s project, I must say the speaker anticipates a high level of servicing including sewerage and water and gas supply. We have to think about how applicable this proposal is when our cities have them only for 20%. We can’t expect elevator and gas without sewerage or water supply. The dining area and bathroom can’t be adjacent as in this design, unless there is a sewerage connection.”

This is also true. It also questions the fundamental assumptions and applicability of the proposals. It is also a direct reference to their economic viability and, as such, is a direct reference to the prohibiting directive. This could not be left without a response.

Cde. Cornfeld [of Stroykom] replied that the purpose of the work was not to find universal solutions for the entire republic and that it was too early to make detailed criticisms when more research is yet to be done. He defended the decision to do away with a dedicated kitchen on the grounds of increased equality. He also reminded everyone that research into single-room apartments is necessary as a solution to the problem of 3-room apartments being occupied by 3 families.

Cde. Voyeykov [ditto] admitted that the focus of the presentation should have been the theme of the work rather than the designs. He also pointed out the problems in designing to solve existing problems and at the same time for a future no-one knows. He restated how rationalising the floor plan was necessary and beneficial work and, with respect to universality, suggested that they could start by building these apartments in places already with  sewerage and water supply, even though the ideas they contain could be applied anywhere.

Cde. Kopelyansky [ditto] explained how the 5-year plan calls for a 40-50% reduction in the cost of construction and that they aimed to achieve this by rationalising volume and the construction process. He added that more work on structure and construction will follow in the second stage of their work, and also stated his agreement with the basic idea of achieving an affordable one-family apartment. He agreed that major decisions can’t be forced upon residents and that it was necessary to build several different test houses for people to live in for a year or so.

Those who say whatever comes into their head:

CCoC representative (Central Commitee of Carpenters)

“About the room height, the authors made it bad because air is short. We have accepted multi-storey construction the best for the city. It was proven by cooperative construction. So we must explain how we’re gonna use this weirdo [такого «чудака»] [points at model] with its many staircases, in 10-15 years time? The workers might then be asking for elevators! Will anyone want to live in it in 10-15 years time? No. Never. Because of all those stairs. This design isn’t good for anything. It won’t be suitable for life either now nor then. No equipment can improve a house built this way. You’re not going to find that apartment anywhere in 25 years. This research is no good. Sometimes people bring new pieces of furniture to our carpentry workshops. They seem promising at first but then turn out to be not worth a row of pins.”

F1 model

Those who take the opportunity to grandstand:

Cde. Lissitzky (ASNOVA  rival architectural group to Ginzburg’s OSA)

The report said all this work is only three months old, but for real it’s older: those problems were researched by ASNOVA crew, as well as at VKHUTEMAS, Leningrad Institute of Civil Engineers and in other institutions different residential proposals were designed but those were treated as academic, utopian.”

In an article a few years later for a German magazine, Lissitzky was to use the following housing as examples aiming to determine “the direction in which the housing of a Socialistic society should develop.” The Types A, E and F were also included as work of the Building Committee of the Economic Council of the R.S.F.S.R.

“It hasn’t been properly mentioned here but we have always looked up to the west.  I can talk a lot about this because I’ve studied the residential construction of Western Europe. I must point that what may suit them doesn’t suit us at all because our household customs are different. They know what they need, especially in the Netherlands where the architecture is most clearly defined. And those shivers we see in Germany are reflected in architecture as well. We are totally ignorant of what we need. We know now we have a 9 sqm norm and we know it’s not normal. It’s a ration, a temporary case. 

“If we build for 50 years on the basis of this norm it means we don’t believe things will get better. What we need to do is calculate how long we would need to live by such a norm and propose five-year plans instead etc. If we build for 50 years to a 9 sq.m norm, then we had better hang ourselves. (Laughter)”

Those who make you go “Huh?”:

Cde. Venderov (VOGI – Civil Engineer Society) “A lot of critique was said here, and I’d like to attend only one detail being the calculations. As to the design, the height here [points at blueprint] is 3 ½ meters. This height must be increased otherwise a minimum height for corridors, bedrooms and bathrooms and lavatories can’t be obtained. There a surplus comes out: instead of regular 2.8 meter height we have 3.5 meters; this makes a difference of 70 cm. If we take the area of this unit, it’s 9×5.5 meters; this makes around 50 square meters. Thus we have 35 cubic meters of surplus per every apartment per corridor.

If we compare it to the volume we might get from regular type with stairwell serving 2 apartments at its sides, having taken common stair 7 meter long and 1.2 meter wide we get something like 9 square meters. Those 9 square meters times 2.80 or 3 meter height make 27 cubic meters, and if we take your project we can’t talk profits.”

This dance of numbers deserves some disambiguation. The talk is about the F – two stacked 3.5 meter living rooms accompany 2.25 m bedroom, a corridor and another bedroom stacked onto each other. The VOGI representative saw the 3.5 meter height as being not compliant with his idea of the volume-efficiency agenda. He claimed 0.7 m excess height across the F when compared to regular 2.8 m high apartment, making an excess of 35 cubic meters over its 50 sq.m floor area, again when compared to regular apartment.

However, the median height of the Type F is 3.06 m and not 3.50. He just got lost in its sectional complexity. Not to mention messy calculation, to blame a design team for increasing the habitable volume is a weird claim in itself. Bizarrely, he then compares this excess volume to the 27 square meters of stairwell of each floor of regular 2-apartment-per-landing apartments and concludes that the Type F underperforms. Mr. Venderov seems to have lost the track somewhere in the middle of MG’s report.

Those who are last:

Cde. Kyzymov (CEKOMBANK)

“What kitchen rationalization comes to be? I suppose it’s the problem of rationalizing the hostess herself. We don’t raise such a question yet. But it’s great the author reckons necessary to rationalize the kitchen. When he approaches its volume reduction, the opposite happens. Because our hostess spends at least 4-6 hours in the kitchen. There’s absolutely different atmosphere compared to the apartment. Could kitchen size be reduced in such case? The most worker women don’t have maids so they have to bear a child to the kitchen as well. Can bedroom height be reduced as well? But in case of scarce habitable area the bedroom must be tightpacked, and you could imagine what the air would be like in winter there. So we mustn’t take the path the speaker suggests. Now about the economy. It was said it’ll be grand. Is it examined? I doubt it. I reckon approval of all these types would be hasty. Comrades who worked on those must continue their work according to preceding conclusions.

Cde. Jukeov (VSNKh RSFSR – powerful industrial and economic authority)

“The speakers made the wrong assumption to spread proposed types across whole USSR. Conditions are needed for that, now present only in big cities. It’s clear this house can’t be built in Yakutia [easternmost part of Siberia] but that doesn’t mean this house won’t suit Moscow. It is the exact answer to cultural revolution problem that is to come.

“The types presented to us have such virtue of taking not only economic, but social aspect of the problem into account. I admire the idea of horizontal corridor, because the corridor used in Moscow Council buildings is very uneconomical and uses much area and volume.

mossoviet double corridor

“We must move to practical examination of those types. All the remarks announced may be excellently resolved. We should build and show first for attitudes to change.”

The people who are last get to hear everything before it’s their turn. In all likelihood, someone has already said what they might have wanted to say. These people are thus more likely to summarise and draw preliminary and quite reasonable, if safe, conclusions. There are two conclusions rising to the surface here. One is that further economic analysis is necessary. The other is that test apartments must be built and studied further.


“Many people helped me, so my job is easier now. I’ll divide my afterword into two parts, first commenting on various objections before moving onto overall conclusions.” 

  • The Type F median floor height is 3.20 meters (crude recalculation returns 3.06, see above)
    whilst Mossoviet blocks have it at 2.85 meters, and that the aim was always to increase the media floor height.
  • Staircases take up area but so too would the corridor they function as.
  • The calculations for Type F were for a minimum 2-floor configuration. So elevator can’t be discussed.
  • The overall building depth of a three-room double sided apartment is 9.30 meters not including the wall thickness – so there’s no significant reduction.
  • The reality of 3 housewives per a kitchen doesn’t render its rationalisation inappropriate.
    “If there are three housewives, it’s three times you have to reconsider the movement graph and appliance arrangement.”
  • The 9 sq.m “ration” per person is expected to increase by the addition of more communal facilities rather than increasing the area per-se like a bourgeois apartment. 
  • The government order was to exploit all the ways of reducing the construction cost and they have preferred to achieve it at the expense of non-habitable rooms and not habitable rooms. Types promising significant volume reductions need to be seriously considered.
  • Standardisation that enables variation despite using standard elements is what is needed. 
  • A-type doesn’t increase cost (“apart from the designer’s brain energy expenditure”, he said). Kitchen rationalisation counted for most of its efficacy. The A-type 2-room apartments provided 9% building volume economy without cost increase. A-3-type (3-room apartment) provided 12-15% area economy and 15% volumetric benefit. He admitted Type B had its faults but its volumetric economy deserved consideration.

“We’ve heard unclear and messy assumptions of what’s to come in 10 or 15 years, We don’t think that everyone will have seven or eight rooms with their own servants. We envisage that in 10 to 20 years the sector we call the collective will grow and the one we call individual would shrink. What will happen to the F-type in 50 years? It’s simple. One or two persons will live there instead of three or four, and in the best case only one person. At the same time there will be expansion of communal facilities such as canteens, kitchens, kindergartens and such that serve not the individual but the community sector. With this in mind, such apartments would be even more necessary and more congruent with life in 50 years than now.”


The Plenum of RSFSR Construction committee and with the presence of scientific, construction and public organizations, starting with the difficult residential condition of USSR workers and from a need to develop and enhance residential construction to the most, decrees that:

  1. Research into economical forms of residential types and their construction methods is needed.
  2. Such research must aim to improve the quality of life and not degrade it.
  3. The construction of the presented types in large cities requires attention.
  4. Existing apartment types (Types A2, A3) should have more rational planning and surplus non-habitable area reduced to achieve a better ratio of habitable area cost to gross construction cost.
  5. There should be experimental construction of new residential types (Types B2, B3).
  6. There should be experimental construction of the compact one-room apartment (Type F)
  7. Experimental construction must examine the most economical and rational allocation of these types inside single buildings with communal facilities
  8. The Presidium of Stroykom RSFSR is to assign funds for both the experimental construction as well as their popularization.
  9. The Typization Section of Stroykom [Ginzburg and his team] will further research new methods and residential types whilst paying particular attention to structural design and inexpensive construction.
  10. Experimental construction making use of new and inexpensive construction materials should begin in the current building season.
  11. Typical structures and their elements must be designed to maximize their potential for fabrication in factories.
  12. The Stroykom Pesidium should facilitate the above by coordinating between the different institutions and organizations.

FOR: 7    AGAINST: 1


Some tactical errors were made by Ginzburg and his team.

  • It’s still the case that despite talk of dialogue, collaboration, participation and (these days) integrative design processes, the discussion only really gets started when an architect puts some drawings on the table. Once that happens, the conversation quickly turns specific. This is why it’s better to take hand sketches to preliminary meetings. The project still looks like an idea “stakeholders” feel they can input to. The architect is not seen as imposing some predetermined solution.
  • Once people have the impression of a fait accompli, it’s impossible to convince them otherwise. The mood was (and still is when their work gets resurfaced) that “the Constructivists” had designed five types of apartments for five different types of resident. Talk of standardisation becomes impossible.
  • It’s also the case that reason stops. None of the “solutions” was appropriate for an unsatisfactory existing situation or for an improved future one. People found fault in everything from maintaining a toilet cistern to walking up a flight of stairs.
  • By not pre-empting objections and explicitly stating that more work needed to be done on the economics before any definitive conclusions could be made, Ginzburg was forced to admit that “more work needs to be done on the economics …” This is never a strong position.
  • In his final comments, Ginzburg first commented upon individual objections. This was a mistake as it made him appear like the guy who had all the answers, thus confirming what people were already thinking. This is the difficult part. It’s annoying seeing one’s work misunderstood, even by the obtuse.

The Meeting was never going to be an easy one. To present work and discuss it as if it were to go ahead, whilst at the same time knowing that it was no longer what was wanted and was never going to be implemented can’t have been easy. STROYKOM’s decision to invite various external people to the meeting to give their opinions was a good call. Out of the many irrelevancies and understandings came two easy yet anodyne conclusions everyone could agree and vote upon as the “way forward” to be taken up at some unspecified time in the future by some other committee. In this sense, and given the growing political stormclouds, the meeting was a success. Not all those present at the meeting were aware of those stormclouds, of their nature, or even of their growing. It was still a year before architectural organisations were to be forbidden by a decree. Under increasingly darkening skies, Ginzburg and his team went on to design and build four buildings using the apartment types and principles he and his team had developed.

1928: The Types Study

The Competition had no winners, no prizes. Instead, Moisei Ginzburg put together a team to take what was learned from the submissions and bring it together in a preliminary study of apartment types. He requested approval to work under the aegis of STROYKOM (Building Economics Committee of the U.S.S.R.). Ginzburg wasn’t stupid. STROYKOM’s official support and cover were essential if future testing, implementation and construction were to happen.   

  • Moisei Ginzburg – Head of the Team (SA editor, OSA member, competition participant)
  • Alexander Pasternak (OSA member, competition participant)
  • Vyatcheslav Vladimirov (OSA member, competition participant)
  • Mikhail Bartsch (OSA member, architect)
  • G. Sum-Schik (architect) 

Moscow City Council’s (Mossiviet) standard configuration of two apartments per staircase was the starting point. baseline This apartment configuration improves on the pre-Revolution arrangement and, since it was approved for mass construction, is most likely the outcome of 1925-1926 competition. These  apartments are spatially inefficient and though sturdy, they were expensive to build.  Such apartments still exist in Moscow and are much loved by residents. In the 1920s however, one family would be living in each room. Ginzburg’s team needed to come up with a better way for people to live. 

Their goal was an apartment that could house a single family at the same spatial efficiency as as a room in a shared house. The term volumetric performance better conveys the importance of room heights in this study. The volumetric performance of a particular apartment type is the ratio of total apartment area to the volume of the building. Cubic metres divided by metres gives a number in metres which is the average floor-to-floor height. A perfect building would have a ratio equal to the floor height since it would have no circulation.

Using the average room height as an indicator of efficiency in this way has real meaning since the thing that really matters for resources and people is how much of your building is apartment. The other good thing about this indicator is that you know you’ve gone too far if your average floor-to-floor height turns out to be two metres.

TYPE A: Here’s a 3-person Type A apartment. The baseline apartment already had cross-ventilation and daylight to all rooms but the team managed to reduce the area required for internal circulation, shrank the kitchen and did away with a separate room for the kitchen. Volumetric performance improved 10%. img292 The Type A also has a better ratio of apartment area to building volume. Rooms aren’t square or golden rectangles for aesthetic reasons but because such shapes pack more easily into a compact building footprint, and because their furniture can be arranged to require less circulation space. Another beneficial side-effect is that standardised internal dimensions facilitate construction.

Despite the various improvements of Type A, it still has the fundamental problem of the stairwell taking up proportionally more building volume when the apartments become smaller. This limits the volumetric performance.  

TYPE B: The standard Type B is Type A with some of the apartment volume redistributed in section. The bathroom, kitchen, hallway and table areas have a reduced ceiling height (of 2.55m!) and the volume gained is added to that of the living areas of the apartment above or below.  B-type section through 2 floors This created a lively elevation stairwell elevation as well as some very lively sections. alongsection

Compared to a building containing Type A apartments, the volumetric performance of Type B apartments is 10-15% improved. Type B incorporates the sectional invention of Vorotynzeva and Polyak’s competition proposal.

  • As with the Vorotynzeva and Polyak proposal, the height rift occurs down the middle of the building, restricting planning. It also means increasing the habitable area in one apartment increases the non-habitable area in the apartment vertically paired with it. 
  • Despite the sectional innovation, Type B still suffers from the same fundamental flaw as Type A in that shrinking the apartment area increases the proportion of the building used for stairwells to access it.
  • A further inefficiency is introduced by the larger landings necessary to access apartments facing different directions. This is solved by extending the stairwell to outside the building, necessitating a cantilevered semi-circular landing.
  • The stairwell also complicates things within the apartments, leaving an odd niche that is associated with alternating habitable rooms on every level. This habitable niche cannot be full height on every level  thus contradicting one of the reasons for beginning this avenue of exploration. 

Fewer stairwells linking horizontal corridors must have seemed the way forward. 

TYPE C: These are apartments served by one corridor per floor. The study uses them for comparison and analysis. If the goal is to maximise building volumetric performance then it’s telling that Ginzburg’s team never thought of having apartments on both sides of the corridor as is standard practice today. Lack of opportunities for light and ventilation must have made them reject it immediately. C Here’s a Type C in the form of a Moscow City Council plan. C type TYPE D: These are two-storey apartments served by one corridor. Like the Type C, they were also included in the study as a basis for additional comparisons. D TYPE E: A previous post has already mentioned how the stairwell in the Type E1 single-room apartments functions as an inclined lightwell.

The other Type E apartments share the idea of half a floor of communal space being used to access apartments on the other half of the floor as well as the floors above and below.

  • The fact that one-sixth of the building volume is repurposed as communal areas requires that either dormitory or single-room accommodation to give a density sufficient to necessitate such a volume of communal area.
  • Following on from that, if communal areas were to always use one-sixth of the building volume, then one argument would always be “why not just give everyone an apartment one-sixth larger?” The E is a solution to communal living at a certain density for students or perhaps single workers, but not as a general living arrangement. 

The Type E was not what was wanted.  


  • The Type F is a combination of all of these ideas plus some more. A future post will attempt a conjectural history of the order and degree of contribution of these ideas.
  • The Type F was intended as a transition step between conventional living patterns and communal living. Its 30 sq.m was designed to accommodate a single family within a single dwelling rather than occupying a single room within a shared apartment.

f-type-apartment-building-split-level It’s all about the section. The middle level at the right in the image above is the corridor. From there, you either go up one third of a flight of stairs to the upper apartment, or down two thirds of a flight to the lower apartment. The lower apartment has a sleeping area on the same level but of reduced height beneath the corridor. The upper apartment has a sleeping area up one third of a flight of stairs at a raised level above the corridor. The Type F had a volumetric performance of 4.77 m3/m2 or a floor area of 48 m2.

  • Sleeping areas have a height of approx. 2.4 m and living areas have a height of 3.55 m. This is the result of trying to reduce the volume of building corridor and to redistribute underused volume  of non-habitable rooms and sleeping areas.  


  • The living room has a niche with Kuhonny Element compact kitchen. These kitchens were to have been dismounted with the full dissemination of communism as there’d be no housekeeping. 


  • A larger version included bathrooms.    
  • F planAll living rooms can be on the side of the building having afternoon/evening sun and all sleeping areas on the side of the building having morning sun.


  • The Type F is, in many ways, the culmination of the entire study. 
  • The Type F is also, in many ways, a perfect object

Learning from the Types Studies

1. Volumetric performance and building depth

The volumetric performance (net building volume/net habitable area of apartment) was compared for buildings containing each type of apartment. A lower quotient meant a more efficient layout. The study is made for a building 10 meters deep, with the X axis representing the apartment floor area as it changes from 10 to 100 sqm. The Y axis is volumetric performance.  4440242943_ee8e1f5c3e_o 22 building depth study by Ginzburg It’s common for architects and builders today to increase the apartment depth in order to minimize corridor length at the rear of the apartments and to maximize the number of habitable rooms at the front of the apartment. This is particularly so if the site has a view to one side but buildings are often laid out perpendicular to a view to allow some view to more apartments rather than have a good side and a bad side. nickols-walk-620 The point of the entire study was to evaluate the volumetric performance of apartment buildings. With today’s apartment getting smaller and smaller, it might be time to re-evaluate such an approach so that living space isn’t unnecessarily squeezed. At present, apartment size is shrinking whilst plans are becoming increasingly deep so that an area of space having one window of a certain size can be marketed as an apartment. Internal circulation space in this apartment that won the recent New York microflat competition amounts to 23.5 of the entire area! It’s an apartment yes, but an inefficient one as the narrow plan uses too much space to get past other spaces. 52556c37dbfa3f0d48000e01._w.480_h.533_s.fit_

2. Respect for Construction

There’s a point of view that the Constructivists were all about  “constructing” the world through formulas and equations. Misfits’ is of the opinion the Constructivists were into construction as part of an integrated building solution. It’s a simpler explanation.

This respect for construction is not some abstract pursuit. Check the construction of this floor and ceiling. 8629285076_dfac64d115_z It would have simplified construction and saved both cost and resources to simply nail the ceiling to the floor joists. However, to reduce sound transmission and improve the lives of the people below, the ceiling is nailed to ceiling joists independently of the floor above. This is a performative improvement that improves quality of life. This cost of two sets of joists is partially offset by overlapping them depthwise to reduce the floor thickness and thus increase internal volume. I’m in awe of how Ginzburg and his team never lose sight of the main objective of volumetric performance

3. Colour

20_03_2 How colour can distort perception was well known but here colour is used to structure the space rather than dissolve it to create the illusion of more space. Colour is used to differentiate internal building elements according to their priority within the structure. User objects are black, and thus conceptually removed from the colour design. They can be anything the user wants, thus freeing the user of the burden to curate their possessions and space into those personal fictions known as “interiors”. Such an attitude is present in traditional Japanese architecture where the colours of the building elements on the inside are the colours of their respective The more personal the object, the more freedom there is. Objects such as cushions can be any colour. It is not important. 6-Asian-Spaces The same attitude occurs in the “golden age” of Danish modernism. It is a useful attitude. Untitled 11



The Constructivists

The Constructivists are poorly understood. Constructivist art is often thought of as Russian Futurism and Constructivist architecture is often thought of as Russian Modernism. There is a kernel of truth in this.


Moisei Ginzburg – that’s him in front of the middle lady in white – he wrote the manifesto of Constructivist architecture in 1924. He did study architecture in Italy where he met The Futurists. He did generally agree with their stance – apart from their total rejection of history. He did most likely read Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture when parts of it were published in L’Esprit Nouveau. He did design the 1926 Gosstrakh Apartments that are said to be the first application in Russia of Corbusier’s Five Points.


  1. Pilotis
  2. Free plan.
  3. Free facade.
  4. Horizontal windows.
  5. Roof garden.

It might have been better to say “the first application of one of Corbusier’s five points” but I’m sure Russians enjoyed rooftops Before Corbusier.


What I see are load bearing external walls and in those walls I see windows that are no larger than they need to be. I see those windows have secondary glazing – we are in Moscow. I see a plan with a structural core and minimal circulation that has natural daylight and ventilation. It’s little wonder the Constructivists are poorly understood.

1920-1930 The VKhUTEMAS was the Russian state art and technical school. It was where Constructivist art began. Instructors included

The Bauhaus and the VKhUTEMAS existed over the same period. Their objectives, course content, activities and methods were largely similar. Both eventually closed for much the same reasons, the VKhUTEMAS in 1930 and the Bauhaus in 1933. In its first year, the Bauhaus had 150 students, the VKhUTEMAS 2,000.

A 1927 Vkhutemas chair from Tatlin's studio at the Vkhutemas

A 1927 Vkhutemas chair from Tatlin’s studio at the Vkhutemas

Constructivist art  was “constructed” out of diverse graphic elements, text and shapes. It rejected the idea of autonomous art in favour of art for social purposes.


In practice it was a tool and in spirit a metaphor for building a new society. It was only a matter of time before it translated into the construction of buildings. Vladimir Tatlin’s 1919-1920 Monument to the Third International was powerfully symbolic of the aspirations but was, alas, unbuildable. Over the years it has existed as models at varying scales but most recently as this artificially distressed CGI.


1922 Alexander and Victor Vesnin (The Vesnin brothers) are credited with turning Constructivist art into Constructivist Architecture emphasising functionality and modern construction techniques.

It was Alexander’s knowledge of engineering and construction management that made it possible. HE MADE IT WORK! The first the public saw of Constructivist Architecture was the Vesnins’ 1923 entry for the Palace of Labour competition.


1922-1925 were good years for the Vesnin brothers in terms of winning competitions.


1925 Alexander Vesnin and Moisei Ginzburg founded of the OSA Group (Organisation of Contemporary Architects).


The group’s journal was SA (Sovremmennaia Arkhitektura or Contemporary Architecture). Here’s three issues. 1 2 3  Magazines like this were how architectural thought travelled back then.


Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture had been published in 1923, although some people had already read some of its chapters in L’Esprit Nouveau. Moisei Ginzburg was almost certainly one of those people.


Ginzburg’s 1924 book Style and Epoch is said to have similarities to Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture despite it being the manifesto of Constructivist Architecture and its concerns for technology, engineering and socialist social engineering. One curious difference is that the English version of Vers une Architecture was out within three years. It took sixty for the first English translation of Style and Epoch to appear. When it did in 1984, Kenneth Frampton wrote the foreword.

Frampton quotes the translator as saying the differences between the two books are as revealing as their similarities. Both books are concerned with the aesthetic potential of machines, but whereas Le Corbusier chooses the luxury liner, Ginzburg chooses the “perform-well-or-die” battleship and submarine. Where Le Corbusier chooses the luxury automobile, Ginzburg chooses the locomotive. Le Corbusier and Ginzburg both look at the same thing and see something different. These are more than just differences of interest. These are some of the first signs of the Style vs. Performance split architecture has never recovered from. In hindsight we can see that, in 1924, Le Corbusier was focussing on the rich and a socially ornamental architecture and Ginzburg was focussing on the ordinary people and a socially useful architecture. The biggest difference in the two approaches to architecture is that Ginzburg’s idea of constructivist architecture as not being a style but a method of building buildings. constructivist Constructivism was the opposite of L’Ésprit Nouveau and, incidentally, the opposite of Deconstructionism. Constructivism was about constructing buildings. Deconstructionism was about creating a false narrative for how a building shape came about. Moisei Ginzburg is best known for his 1929 Narkomfin Building in Moscow. It’s been undermaintained for the past 30 years. Occupying prime real estate between the US embassy and a shopping mall hasn’t helped. Narkmomfinfoto2 Here’s it’s counterpart, the 1930 Doma Oblsoviet building we first met in Getting Some Rays. street map

It’s in a city where, for three months of the year the average maximum day temperature is above freezing and the average minimum night temperature below freezing. Cyclic freezing and thawing can make water split rock. clim-ek Doma Oblsoviet is looking pretty good for 85. DSC01984 1924–1930 was a great time to be an architect. Right or wrong, people had opinions, believed in things. There were Ginzburg and the Vesnins on the Constructivist front with the OSA group. Nikolai Ladovsky led a rival group called ASNOVA (Union of Rationalist Architects). They were rivals because they thought things like this.

  • Architecture is an art of handling space. Space is used by all kinds of art, but only architecture enables us to read the fabric of space correctly.[5] Architects’ material is space, not stone. Sculptural shape in architecture is subordinate to space. Graphic arts are subordinate to both space and sculptural shape.[6]
  • Structural engineering belongs to architecture inasmuch as structure defines space. Engineers are here to obtain maximum output from minimal material inputs. Their approach has nothing common with art; it may satisfy the architect only by accident.[5] … Exterior facade should not barely reflect the inner contents, but have a value of its own.[7]

Ladovsky believed the architect must first conceive of a spatial composition as volumes and only when that has been done, transfer the formed composition to paper. His objective was to develop new methods and means of artistic expression. This doesn’t sound very rational. This photograph of Ladovsky is titled Students perform the task on the subject “Space”. It doesn’t look to me like the students are getting it.


Студенты выполняют задание по дисциплине «Пространство»


P. Smolenskaia’s 1928 diploma project (from Nikolai Ladovsky’s VKhUTEMAS studio)

Between these two schools of thought is a functional formalism best represented by Golosov who leaned towards ASNOVA rationalism

as did Melnikov,

and El Lissitsky, who leaned towards OSA Constructivism.


El Lissitsky’s Wolkenbugel – a student favourite

Another rival group was VOPRA led by Arkady Mordvinov. VOPRA were against the technology, engineering and socialist social engineering and anything else the Constructivists stood for and, at the same time, against the abstract formalism ASNOVA promoted. They wanted a conservative monumentalism constructed from modern materials. VOPRA was used by the state against free-minded modernist architects and to consolidate the profession under tight state control. It worked. All three groups were forced to disband in April 1932 to form an All-Union Association of Architects. The winning entry for the Palace of the Soviets competition showed which way the wind was blowing in 1932.

Gelfreikh, Iofan and Shchuko

Gelfreikh, Iofan and Shchuko

It’s interesting to see how the Vesnins’ entry was a gigantic Villa Savoye whilst Corbusier’s has contrivedly expressive structure. They clearly didn’t speak each other’s language. It didn’t matter. The 1934 competition for the Ministry of Heavy Industry showed how the future was going to be.

• • •  85 years later  • • •

High-tech has a large and largely unacknowledged debt to Constructivism. me0000102614_3 Keno Tange’s office also has some explaining to do. 4795248617_6420a8598b_b Zaha Hadid’s early work drew strongly from the Suprematist – the apolitical – strand of VKhUTEMAS art, Malevich’s architektons in particular. beam2-z Shorn of political content, Constructivist means could be used to Deconstructionist ends. P_8401_F3_GZ_1097_1377_90 None of this is a surprise. It is all part of the same historical plundering that occurs in music and fashion as high-turnover consumerism meets short-term memories.  What’s more interesting is that historical memory of The Constructivists changes along the mood of the era. For many decades, the Constructivists weren’t mentioned at all. An historian or a lecturer could segue quickly from Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1923 Imperial Hotel to LC’s 1927 Villa Savoye to MvdR’s 1929 Barcelona Pavilion and skip The Constructivists entirely. Any link between 1920’s art and architecture in Europe could be described using either this pair of images, too close together in time

or this pair, too far apart. Five years was a long time in the 1920s.

A slightly more expansive history book would use either an Image of the Vesnin brothers’ 1924 proposal for the Leningradskaya Pravda newspaper offices or Konstantin Melnikov’s 1925 Paris pavilion to summarise Constructivist architecture in a single distancing graphic.

Later, contemporary photographs of Ilya Melnikov’s shapey 1927 Rusakov Workers Club came to be used, making Constructivism a little more real on the internet, although leaning towards the Rationalists.22857_l These days we like our Constructivism served up as Ivan Leonidov. His graphics allow us to admire the visuals from a comfortable distance like we did with San’Elia, and then walk away.

For all its annoying flaws, William J.R. Curtis’ Modern Architecture Since 1900 is probably the best overview of 20th century architecture in English we have. Curtis devotes his entire chapter 12 to “Architecture and Revolution in Russia” – and then proceeds to tell us about Le Corbusier in Russia (in yellow). On p210 is a description of LC’s 1927 Centrosoyus project. Curtis describes its double-glazed façade as if it were a new thing for the world instead of just being a new thing for Le Corbusier. This is one of those annoying flaws I was referring to.

On page 214, the Palace of the Soviets competition gives Curtis the opportunity to tell us

“[LC’s] entry must ranked as one of his masterpieces. The two auditoriums were arranged o the same axis and were direct sculptural expressions of the acoustically optimised forms of the interior profiles.”

If true, that would place LC in the ASNOVA camp with its use of performance criteria to generate expressive form. Expressive form seems to be what Curtis likes, as he ends his bit on LC with,

“Once again Le Corbusier demonstrated his ability to probe the underlying meaning of a social programme and to translate this into aesthetic forms.”

Sandwiched between the yellow bits is the following praise for Ivan Leonidov. Please read the bit in green. I can’t bear to type it. It’s not about Leonidov at all. It’s about Curtis. p211 Leonidov was a star pupil at the VKhUTEMAS and his 1927 Lenin Institute of Librarianship was his diploma project. This is the only instance I know of where a student project has been incorporated into somebody’s history of architecture. Why would this be? I expect it’s because this project gives Curtis the opportunity to describe it in terms of the sculptural qualities, symbolism and expression he’s so keen to find and feed as insights to the contemporary consumers of architectural imagery whom, for their part, are all too keen to consume it. Instead of his history being an antidote to the current state of architecture, it’s clearly suffering from the same sickness. Leodinov

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Vast thanks to Victor, misfits’ man-in-Russia, for suggesting this post and contributing to its content in many ways, but also for pointing out various factual and naming errors, as well as mis-spellings and the occasional grammatical error.