Category Archives: Review

The Sheltering Sky

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

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

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

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

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

virtual_balcony

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

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

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

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

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

light lady

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

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

applications

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

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

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

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But how real does a window simulator need to be?

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

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

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

If only all windows could be like that.

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• • •

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

Villa Rotonda

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

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

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

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

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The Massively Big Autopoiesis of Architecture Post

First some snapshots from the journey so far before moving on to the penultimate chapter. I plan to read the final one within a week or two and bring this autopoietic journey to an end. It’s time. At 439 pages it wasn’t such a long journey but, as I began reading the book in 2012, it wasn’t a quick one.

2012 October 26: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol. 1 – Preface, Introduction

We’re not even eight lines into the Preface and the author is saying he sees this work as continuing the tradition begun by Alberti in 1452. I have a bad feeling. 

2012 November 16: Architectural Theory

Most introductions let the reader know what to expect. They’re usually the last part of a book to be finalised because the author has already been to the end and back and has had feedback from friends, family, colleagues and editors. The introduction is an opportunity to assist the reader get more out of the book. This one asks you to suspend judgment until you reach the end of the book! It also asks you to accept that there will be some strangeness of terminology and a possible sense of intellectual queasiness. Indeed, there was quite a bit of both.

2012 December 1: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2 – The Historical Emergence of Architecture (1/2)

THE
AUTHOR,
IN AN ATTEMPT
TO FIT ARCHITECTURE
INTO LUHMANN’S THEORY OF
SOCIAL STRUCTURES, HAS RESTRICTED
HIS DEFINITION OF ARCHITECTURE TO THOSE
BUILDINGS THEORISTS TALK ABOUT OR DEEM WORTH
TALKING ABOUT. THE AUTHOR MAY YET SUCCEED. BUT WHAT IS
HIS REAL PLAN? WHY DOES HE WANT TO DO THIS? AND AT WHAT COST?

2013 January 2: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2.3 – Avant-garde vs. Mainstream

I suddenly realized the book probably is an accurate description of the world of architecture as the author sees it. For the first time, I had the distinct impression the author really believes what he’s writing. In an earlier post, I mentioned my doubts about the validity of the author’s self-description as “avant-garde”. Is it accurate? Why does he insist on using this word if not to evoke ideas of art and artists? Can a commercially successful practice ever be avant-garde? In section 2.3 it became clear that when the author uses the word “avant-garde” he really means “leaders as opposed to followers”. No-one will die because of this mislabelling, but it does make it easy to falsely attribute notions of some brave and heroic journey of artistic endeavour. The author, I imagine, would not be unhappy if this were to happen.  

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2013 February 2: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chapter 2.4 – Architectural Research

“THESIS 8:  The avant-garde segment of architecture functions as the subsystem within the autopoiesis of architecture that takes on the necessary task of architectural research by converting both architectural commissions and educational institutions into substitute vehicles of research.”

Like many things to do with this book, it seems straightforward but what does it mean? I’m still having a problem with this self-labelling as avant-garde. There’s something not right. It just doesn’t ring true. In previous posts I’ve suggested reasons why the author might have chosen this word but maybe he didn’t want to use the obvious word “starchitect” because it’s too popular, too descriptive. It’s also a bit too closely linked to fame and fortune. But I’ve no such prejudices so, from now on, I’m simply going to use the word starchitect instead of avant-garde architect. You won’t notice the difference.

Apparently, starchitects are the only architects daring enough to experiment and research and come up with different solutions that other people copy and keep architecture EVOLVING. We should thank them. However, they can’t do all this experimenting on their own. (Why not?) They need clients to fund their experiments because buildings are big and complex things.

… a bit further on

“The commissions of starchitects have to function as vehicles of architectural research. Such commissions must afford a playing field for formal research and spatial invention where both functional and economic performance criteria are less stringent than in the ‘commercial sector’ of mainstream architecture. This is possible within a special segment of the architectural market – high-profile cultural buildings. In these special, mostly public landmark buildings, the discipline of architecture becomes conspicuous within society. Here society appreciates architecture as a contribution beyond the mere accommodation of the respective substantial function. Here society also recognizes the legitimacy of an extra investment over and above what technical necessity dictates.”

This says a lot. The author is claiming that, because starchitects are the only people who can fulfil the allegedly important role of architectural research, then they have a natural claim to the most lucrative and least restrictive sector of the architecture market. As I said, it says a lot. 

Around this time, I began to think these posts didn’t have enough pictures.

2013 February 7: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Volume 1 Chapter 2.5 – The Necessity of Demarcation

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“THESIS 9: Any attempt to integrate architecture and art, or architecture and science/engineering, in a unified discourse (autopoiesis) is reactionary and bound to fail.”

Even though Luhmann, the person who put all these ideas in the author’s head, said that architecture existed within the great social system of art, in this sub-chapter (p148), the author says Luhmann only implied that architecture exists within the art system. Either way, the author is having none of it.

“This treatment of architecture has to be rejected today. It reflects the traditional classification of architecture among the arts.”

Hardly a powerful argument. Another reason the author claims it can’t be true is because the theory says it isn’t. Call me a cynic, but I still maintain it’s the job of theory to organise evidence, not refute it. Evidence doesn’t depend on theory.

“It is one of the central, historical theses of the theory of architctural autopoiesis that this treatment of architecture under the umbrella concept of ‘the arts’ is long since an anachronism – at least since the refoundation of the discipline as Modern architecture during the 1920s.”

Here’s some more “proof”.

“A sure empirical indicator for the factual, operational separation of art and architecture is the total absence of double careers. While Michaelangelo and Raphael, and even Schinkel, could still count and convince as both artists and architects this possibility seems to be excluded today.  Examples such as Le Corbusier’s paintings and Hundertwasser’s buildings are no countexamples but only confirm this impossibility.”

That’s a bit bitchy but, yes, Corbusier’s paintings weren’t about the pain, and nor were ZH’s for that matter. But what about her lucrative crossover secondary career in product design? Towards the end of the book, the author solves this latent conundrum by the belated introduction of the term, ‘designed artefacts’.

maison-et-objet-lalique

2013 April 09: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap.3 – Architecture as Autopoietic System: Operations, Structures and Processes

Since I began this book, I’ve managed to read books on the history of the universe, the origins of life on earth and the fallacy of progress, and also found the time to re-read “Portrait of a Lady” and “The Wings of The Dove”.

The Autopoiesis of Architecture is no page-turner. It’s difficult to pick up, and easy to put down. There’s never a right time to read it. It’s not something you read at the beach, in an airport, or carry around with you to read on a train or at lunchtime. 

It’s not just the content. Schumacher’s no Henry James but you’d think someone who’s written approximately 400,000 words would have developed some sort of a way with them. With “The Wings Of The Dove”, I was at first indifferent to the fate of poor Milly Theale but Henry James made me care in the end. Now, 170 pages and (how long has it been already?) six months into The Autopoiesis of Architeture, I really don’t care if architecture is or is not an autopoietic system of communications. I’m constantly questioning what I’m getting out of this book. Perhaps I’m hoping the author will teach me how to become a millionaire or how to make gold out of lead. 

The author must know a thing or two about such things since he trousered a third of a million GB£ from ZHA last year, presumably not including other income from publishing, teaching and other commitments and which are no doubt channelled through a separate company like those of his boss. I don’t expect this book, whilst being part of the process of architectural branding (and hence proving the author’s thesis in a sense), will reveal anything beyond that in the way of practical advice.

2013 May 4: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.1~3.3

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2013 June 15: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.3~3.4
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2013 July 26: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Pages 237~240 (Chaps. 3.5.6, 3.5.7)
ART
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As I understand it, the argument goes like this. I’ve marked the dodgy statements in red.

– Designing is difficult, there are many possibilities. We need a way to reduce the complexity/possibilities.
– We can’t do this by getting rid of the idea of beauty because what’s left is insufficient. (‘The reference to performance criteria simply cannot constrain the task sufficiently’.) But the idea of beauty does however reduce complexity because we no longer have to make random choices every time.
– Using criteria of both utility and beauty is ideal because, if a designer doesn’t know what to do, he can resort to functional criteria and, for those times when something has been engineered rather than designed, a designer can come along and add some design to it.

2013 December 15: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 3.6 – Styles

vag crit

A quick shout-out to Marjan Colletti who reviewed The Autopoiesis of Architecture on his blog in September 2010. He’s the only other person I know of who’s admitted to having read the book, let alone finishing it the same year it was published.

2014 March 3: Styles as Research Programmes

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About this time, I began to think readers might be being put off by the titles of these posts.

2014 May 30: Love You Long Time (Chap. 3.8.1: The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values)

“The performative vitality of any specific set of aesthetic values is historically limited.”

I don’t understand this. If, as the author’s been saying, aesthetic values have an underlying performativity, then that performativity would still exist irrespective of whether or not those aesthetic values were valued. It’s aesthetics that’s dependent upon performativity, not the other way around. I’m sure Palladian rooms remain well ventilated and their roofs well drained even if their particular architectural stylings aren’t so aspired-to these days.

“Aesthetic values should aestheticize those spatial patterns and architectural morphologies that perform well with respect to the vital life processes of contemporary society.”

This sentence is a huge up-scaling of the original idea. We’ve gone from air and rainwater to the vital life processes of contemporary society. I hope we get to find out what they are. I doubt we’ll be hearing any more about ventilation and roof drainage.

2014 June 12: The Chartreuse Ford

A stealth post pondering what was so wrong with Fordism since Post-Fordism certainly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

fordism

2014 November 16: The Mystery of Beauty  (Chap. 3.8.6: Aesthetic Values: Designers vs. Users)

This post questions the nature of belief in Beauty and its essential unknowability, its value as a prime motivating force, and its need to be continually explained to us by dense texts having elaborate systems of numerical indexing and not many pictures.

Gods-Sunrise

4

“Attention to beauty and aesthetic values demarcates architecture from science and engineering.”

This doesn’t mean that Beauty is real but merely that some people like to believe in it. However, if they do believe in Beauty then they get to feel special – which is fine – but, as is often the case, superior to other people such as scientists and engineers following paths of evidence and fact.

2015 January 11: The Things Architects Do #8: Themes (Chap. 3.9: The Double-nexus of Architectural Communications: Themes vs. Projects)
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In the 131 pages that followed, there was nothing to suggest any of the “other” major functions systems of society had anything corresponding to the themes and projects of architecture. Either the author’s going off-piste with this project-theme thing or he’s conflating it with the form-function lead distinction he wrote of earlier.
A bit of both probably, but mostly the latter because if form is a theme, then any theme/project dysfunction will show as a form-function dysfunction. It’s only my hypothesis but, if it were true, we would have an architecture concerned with form and not function. Imagine that!
2015 March 29: Inflationary Tendencies (Chap. 4: The Medium of Architecture)
iStock_000028475756Medium

tasks

The first and, for the author, the only one of any importance is the first, the architect’s project and the medium (formerly, the drawing) that the architect uses to talk to himself about the design. The third is the drawings and structural analysis models that the engineers need to make it stand up. The fourth is the drawings that can be understood by the contractors who have to build the thing. It is the second – the client’s project – that I want to concentrate on. Illustrating the design to clients, potential users, or any other non-specialized interested parties is also something that requires specialised drawings that can be outsourced since they are of no concern to the architect who, you will remember, is busy conducting avant garde research. We’ve come across this attitude before in earlier chapters but that’s not the issue now. If illustrating the design to clients is not of any interest to the architects, then WHY ARE THEIR PROJECTS ALWAYS IN OUR FACES?

• • •

• • •

In the 362/439 pages I’ve read so far, there’s been a lot about how form vs. function is the “lead distinction” of architecture – what makes it architecture. I’ve also read how this is analogous to price vs. value as the lead distinction of the economy, norm vs. fact as the lead distinction of the legal system, teaching vs. subject as the lead distinction of education, and so on. I found this handy table on pages 438-439, alas, too late.

chart 1chart 2

It’s a tidy table. But, going back to this beauty vs. function thing, we never really resolved it did we – or at least not to the author’s level of certainty?
Untitled
Shouldn’t the author update his thinking and restate beauty vs. function as perception management vs. development gain? It’s the same thing and though it won’t weaken his argument, it will deflate it somewhat. Another flaw is that none of the other Great Function Systems have a distinction comparable to architecture’s distinction between themes and projects.
What kind of world we would have if they did? If themes were their primary areas of concern, and if a project’s only worth was to test the validity of those themes?
  • We’d have an economic system that sets prices for commodities without regard for their value.
  • We’d have a scientific system in which phenomena are explained without recourse to evidence.
  • We’d have a legal system where laws are applied irrespective of facts.
    We’d have a political system in which positions are taken irrespective of issues.
  • We’d have an education system concerned with teaching rather than students.
  • We’d have a mass media that focusses on reporting rather than events.
In the same vein, if these known function systems of society had a self-reference as detached from their world-reference as architecture’s then  
  • We’d have politicians that support peace as they engage in war.
  • We’d have governments that show their support for freedom by policing it.
  • We’d have an economics that creates wealth by causing poverty.
  • We’d have education systems that maintain pliable levels of ignorance.
=(
On the bright side, even if architecture is a major function system of society, then it’s at least no more dysfunctional than the others. Science is our only evidence this isn’t how the contemporary world works although Bad Science and Pseudo Science are now out there making themselves known.
The title of the final chapter is The Societal Function of Architecture. It’s warning us to not confuse how architecture functions in a societal system with archaic notions of how it might function for society. This is especially meaningful in light of what we’ve come to know about the author.

PS1
PS2

• • • 
I’m now eager to get on with the final chapter of this lengthy thought experiment. I genuinely want to know if the author thinks the societal function of architecture is anything more than converting his softly-illuminated scribbles into grey goo to consume the planet and enslave mankind. Or anything less.

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The Shape of Green

There’s no lack of ethical or economic arguments for sustainability. Taken in by its promising title, I had high hopes Lance Hosey’s The Shape of Green would finally provide us with an aesthetics of sustainability as part of a larger philosophy of sustainability.

shape-of-green_cover2

“The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology and Design” Lance Hosey, Island Press, 2012″

Hosey begins promisingly, claiming beauty and sustainability aren’t as incompatible as they’re commonly believed to be but very soon goes off the rails. If beauty and sustainability aren’t so incompatible, then why identify some buildings as environmentally virtuous but ugly and then suggest that “dressing them up” isn’t the way forward? Why praise Renzo Piano and Norman Foster for synthesising two qualities that aren’t incompatible? I hope Hosey’s not admiring F&P’s Greater London Authority headquarters.

  • Overhanging a building is an expensive way of shading glazing from the torrid London sun.
  • GLA’s eggy shape may theoretically have volumetric efficiencies but, once enclosed, that volume is then squandered on a void around an ornamental staircase. Stupid.

Hosey’s a shapeist. He claims that some sources claim that early, elementary design decisions about shape can influence the environmental impact of a building – up to 90% apparently, but 90% of what we’re not told. 

He’s also a commercial man at heart and offers a commercial justitification for a sustainability that’s phrased in terms of conventional [visual] aesthetics. Here are some of his arguments.

We’re more likely to treasure a thing for longer if we find attractive.

Hosey wants beautiful things to be seen as virtuous rather than the other way around. This statement is the perfect product of a time when the only ideas that get traction are those that articulate in new ways what people believe anyway. Before the Table of Contents is this brave quote.

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Oscar Wilde was an incorrigible aesthete and known for soundbites such as “Any person who doesn’t laugh at the death of Little Nell has a heart of stone.” Wilde’s statement about judging by appearances may well have been disingenuous but Hosey’s using only its latter part definitely is.

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Wilde seems to believe in an absolute beauty and this would have been an common view a century ago. However, if one accepts the modern position that beauty is both pluralist and subjective, then Beauty is no more or less superficial than the thoughts in which it is based. And this brings us back to the book.

Much of nature is about geometry. The shape of a blood cell is optimised for fluid dynamics. The tilt of the Earth’s axis gives us the seasons that shape nearly every living creature.
Things have shapes. It’s what things do. Artificial things also have shapes and geometries.

We prefer to use things that look better, even if they aren’t inherently easier to use.
This is the form vs. function argument restated, with a swipe at utility. (“Trust me, I’m a designer.”)

We don’t love something because it’s non-toxic and biodegradeable – we love it because it moves the head and the heart.
Hosey is attempting to keep beauty and virtue firmly separate. He doesn’t want us to love anything for reasons that aren’t visual. He’s pro-innovation, pro-consumption.

Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern – it’s an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.”
Hosey has trouble linking aesthetic attraction to environmental imperatives. He resorts to the peacock’s feathers and the 300 varieties of nightingale birdsong.

Beauty has the biological function of sustaining existence
is the conclusion only a short jump away. Three hundred varieties of nightingale mating call seems a bit desperate. Do the peacock’s feathers really have to be that large or colourful? Humans have evolved in much the same way but with far less imperative. Ostentatious displays of abundance may faciliate getting laid but any evolutionary advantage remains unproven.

Designers can promote sustainability by embracing what they have always cared about most: the basic shape of things. [Oh dear!] Hosey then attempts to show how Beauty is inherent to the definition and principles of sustainability There’s talk of how the smartness of the Smart Car is in its shape and not its technologies. The conclusion is that design trumps technology. Only a man who wants to have his cake and savour it would write If you could take care of all your daily nutritional needs by ingesting one tasteless capsule, would you be satisfied? Hosey is detaching the aesthetics of eating from the imperatives of nutrition and sustenance.

Q: “If you could personally solve world hunger through one inexpensive capsule that would take care of a person’s daily nutritional needs, would you be satisfied?” 

It doesn’t matter for the conclusion is that Aesthetics are fundamental to both culture and nature, and if sustainability refers to the graceful interaction between them, it must have a sensory dimension. 

All in all, this book is rich – and we’re not even a third of the way in. These arguments claims are amply illustrated with examples from the field of product design. I was getting impatient for some buildings. Skipping a bit, here’s some Hosey singles out as relevant to his argument where he seems to want to take this.

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“The 120° twist cuts wind loads and reduces the amount of steel by 25%, saving $60 mil.” Excellent – so that’s the shape of all future supertall buildings sorted then!? I doubt it. In the world of architecture, that the shape of this building represents 25% less steel is more important than actually having 25% less steel. If the shape of this building had any compelling advantages then we can expect to see it replicated many times in the future just like what happened to rectangular prisms (a.k.a. boxes).

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The Tjibaou Cultural Center (Renzo Piano Workshop, 1992) is singled out for combining the three principles of conservation, attraction and connection. “The shell-shaped wood-slat towers offer a rich tactile image, like banded reeds, that echoes local vernacular traditions while also playing an essential role in ventilation, coaxing the breeze upward in this sticky climate.”

I won’t go too much into too much detal here, but must mention how the representational aspects of this building have little to do with its ventilation strategy that utilizes a combination of Stack Effect and Venturi effect. Either way, behind those timber slats has to be a double skin of something if any breeze is ever going to be coaxed upward. The section shows that this is so.

Those solar chimneys face north-west, which means you must go well out of your way to instagram that famous money shot from across the water. Internally, the circular spaces make reasonable exhibition spaces but externally, none of this representation is for the benefit of actual users – or even for their functional benefit as there’s no need to clad air shafts with timber slats. What we’re meant to perceive as beauty has little to do with this building’s environmental response or user experience.

Centre Culturel Jean-Marie Tjibaou.jpg
Chapter 4 is titled Many Senses and introduces the concept of a connection between aesthetics and ecology and the human body. This might have been a good place to talk about how the other four senses are often neglected by designers but Hosey claims design can appeal to the whole body for we feel with our entire being – a point he illustrates with Zumthor’s Baths at Swiss architectural hotspot Vals. I agree that this building has important lessons for all designers – of buildings that require us to be naked in warm smelly water in misty and acoustically live rooms.

Hosey doesn’t mention that Vals baths’ fully sensory environment of texture, reverberation, light, mist and heat can be appreciated for 80 Swiss Francs (approx. US$77.80) per session but the connection between aesthetics, ecology, the human body and commerce is soon insinuated. Who knew that 7-Up tastes lemony or limey depends on whether the label has more yellow or green, or that a sprig of parsley on the label can make canned meat taste fresher? Who would want to know that and why if it weren’t with a view to exploitation?

I’ve no doubt everyday sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures influence the unconscious mind but that doesn’t mean I want to trust that knowledge with a designer in the paid employ of someone. To captivate consumers longer, designers will need a better understanding of what stimulates emotional longevity. This sinister sentence is evil encapsulated.

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I hadn’t known about this 1979 book and, to be honest, I wish I still didn’t. The aestheticization of thermal comfort will do more than air conditioning ever did to stop passive design ever becoming a driver for a more sane architecture.

The same thinking crops up again in the next chapter Ecology and Imagery. Biophilia is a good thing but Hosey gets excited about fractal patterned wallpaper being just as good as the acacia trees our ancestors so admired. The implications for design are enormous. 

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Indeed.

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Airspace Tokyo facade by Thom Faulders. Who needs trees?

“An enormous mesh umbrella lets dappled sunlight pass through in variegated patterns, like a forest canopy.” 

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Who needs trees? II

“Fractal-like patterns can be used to make very large buildings seem less imposing.”

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Who needs trees? III

There are shapes and patterns that lure [!] the human senses because they participate in larger forces unfolding over time, and eternal choreography not immediately detected but evident everywhere. With science and sensitivity, smart design can beautifully tap into [!!] the abiding wonders and mysteries of the universe. My points of exclamation indicate either careless language or, more worryingly, deliberately ambiguous language carelessly crafted. It seems that buildings are really just very big products and designers should be aware of these new tricks to fool people into responding more positively to buildings than they otherwise might or perhaps ought.

I was going to deal with each chapter sequentially but lost the will. Skimming the rest, Hosey expands his consumerist philosophy of aesthetics to encompass entire buildings in Chapter 7: The Architecture of Difference, puffs it up to urban scale in Chapter 8: The Natural Selection of Cities and, as books like this have a tendency of doing, inflates it to the max to encompass to entire planets in Chapter 9: Visions of Earth.

I skipped to Epilogue: A Beauty Manifesto where there’s not much to dislike but, on the other hand, nothing much of practical use either. Nobody’s going to pin this manifesto on their wall.

Ten principles for advancing an aesthetics of ecology. Every designer everywhere can:

  1. Bridge the divide between “good design” and “green design”.
  2. Turn beauty and sustainability into the same thing.
  3. Erase the distinction between how things look and how things work.
  4. Break down the walls between the arts and the sciences.
  5. Adopt the three principles.
    • Conserve: Shape things to respect resources.
    • Attract: Shape things to be easy to use and deeply satisfying.
    • Connect: Shape things to embrace place.
  6. Start with the napkin sketch, not the technical manual.
  7. Develop a scientific method for design.
  8. Strengthen the ties between form and performance, between image and endurance.
  9. Make things to work as well and to last as long as they should.
  10. Make things better.

In the end, all the cooing over known attributes of known quantities only serves to direct more reverence towards things that represent the link between aesthetics, ecology and design more than they actually link them. Hosay has faith in us believing in the worth of his examples. Whether we regard them high or low, the book manages to be less than their sum. 

Hosey was Chief Sustainability Officer at RTKL before it was swallowed whole by architectural behemoth Arcadis in 2015. He’s now advisory board member to the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment. Whatever message it is this book communicates, the AIA seems to have understood it. 

The Sheep Shed

Sheep aren’t indigenous but their rearing and shearing factors large in Australian history and culture.

"Tom Roberts - Shearing the rams - Google Art Project" by Tom Roberts - lQEDjT-_MXaMJQ at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tom_Roberts_-_Shearing_the_rams_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#/media/File:Tom_Roberts_-_Shearing_the_rams_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

True, sheep didn’t turn into ecological nightmares like starlings, rabbits, camels, cane toads and such but still, they don’t touch the ground lightly. They graze much closer than cattle and overgrazing, the same overgrazing that has been causing soil erosion and denuding landscapes around the world for millennia. Of more immediate and global consequence is sheep flatulence at the rate of 30 litres of methane per day per sheep. The roughly 75 million of’em in Australia fart two and a quarter billion litres of methane (1,045,215 metric tonnes) per day. That’s over 1,300 times the approx. 770 metric tonnes of methane per day currently estimated to being lost from the broken well at the Aliso Canyon storage site.

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It’s still not great compared to the global warming impact of CFCs but the agricultural sector is still responsible for 12.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions and for 40% of methane. Percentages are higher for Oz.

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I only mention this for some contextual balance. This post is about Deepwater Woolshed by Stutchbury & Pape Architects. As a shed, I like it, but I like it independently of culture and history both Australian or architectural. Sheep do local ecologies and global atmospheres no favours so, ecologically speaking, should we not tar this building with the same brushIs it possible to like a building independently of its greater environmental context? OF COURSE IT IS! We do it all the time! We make and propagate associations with favourable contexts and propagated and ignore or suppress associations with unfavourable ones. The Seagram Building scores 3/100 on an EnergyStar assessment, for example. The environmental context in which Deepwater Woodshed is politely discussed is a favourable one but an extremely narrow one.

• • •

Shearing sheds are, foremost, sheds.

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There are pens for holding sheep outside, and more pens inside to accommodate two days’ worth of sheep to allow them to dry if they’re wet.

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Windows are basic.

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A recent innovation is to have the holding pens beneath the building.

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Another is for the shearing to take place on a raised platform rather than the floor.

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This makes life easier for the roustabout to shift the fleece to the wool table for grading. Deepwater Woolshed incorporates both innovations.

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The NSW government website offers guidelines for sheep shearing shed design.

we learn that

Much is written here, on “Oztecture”, about Deepwater Woodshed but I only want to mention things that are explicit. Sentences such as “The extreme heat experienced during the shearing season drove the placement, orientation, form and materiality of this building. The efficient movement of the sheep in a low stress environment and the technical requirements of the process of shearing drove the planning and layout.” do not prove anything.

“The building has embraced a range of design solutions to contend with the summer heat.” Fine – tell us more. “Alongside optimal orientation to capture prevailing northeasterly breezes that cross ventilate the interior, overhangs of a large portal frame roof provide shade to the walls and provide undercover sheep storage and access. A reticulated irrigation system sprays cooling water onto the roof. Large expanded mesh screens have been hung to the southwest, providing protection from the prevailing wind. Cascading water across these suspended surfaces utilises the cross-ventilating breeze and evaporative cooling, lowering working temperatures.” Huh?

One sentence says the prevailing breezes are north-easterly but the next says they’re south-west. Look, here’s the five-year average wind rose for Wagga Wagga Airport 60 kilometres south-east. Prevailing winds are due east. You can trust airport wind data.

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The high end of the roof faces NNW. The rainwater tanks are at the eastern corner of the ENE side facing the prevailing winds more than any other side does.

DEEPWATER WOOLSHED

Yet the screens aren’t on the SW elevation as stated, or even the ESE elevation above. They’re on the WSW elevation (below) downwind of the prevailing winds.

4

I don’t get it. At first I thought the writer had gotten themselves into a muddle but, even so, I can’t reconcile the locations of these screens with their stated function. It’s nice to see a monopitch roof all the same.

“Strip skylights provide natural lighting. The entire structure is bolted together; all linings, cladding and floors are screwed and fixed. Thus the entire shed is demountable. The usage of a structural roofing system was an initiative providing additional planning flexibility.” Good stuff.

3

“This project sets out to provide a quality work environment for one of Australia’s oldest trades. The resulting building has elevated the task of shearing at Bulls Run, while reinterpreting the traditional built form of an Australian icon. This is a sophisticated passive building in tune with land, man and beast.”  It’s a shed.

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It’s also a very highly praised shed.

  • At the 2005 Royal Australian Institute of Architects national awards, Deepwater Woolshed won the Colorbond category and was a joint winner in the commercial building category.
  • It was featured in the 10th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.
  • It won the Blacket Award for regional architecture, the Colorbond Award, the Commercial Building Award and the Energy Efficient Award.
  • Kenneth Frampton wrote about it here.

Frampton drops the full weight of his prodigious knowledge to bear onto this outback shed, making full use of The Fallback Context,

and The Cultural Context.

katsura

The Architectural Context is a subset of The Cultural Context. It means something is architecture if it can be likened to other, certified, architecture.

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Quoting Katsura Imperial Villa (630AD) has never hurt the reputation of any architect. Invoking Katsura Imperial Villa has never harmed the reputation of any historian. Here’s the money shot posed with window panels alternately half open and fully shut.

If we’re going to play Architectural Associations however, my first move would be Kenzo Tange’s first and only house of 1953,

Tange_House

quickly followed by Kazuo Shinohara’s first house of 1954.

Kugayama 1954 view

My next move would be Isé Grand Shrine (692AD) that predates Katsura Palace by oh about a millennium. It has a big roof (to keep rain off its walls) and is raised (to protect the contents from floods). These don’t just indicate something is important and worth protecting, they actually protect it. The history of Japanese architecture is the history of protecting things.

ise grand shrine

My final and winning move would be a Yayoi Era  (300BC-300AD) kura (storehouse) that predates Isé Shrine by oh maybe another millennium. These storehouses had a big roofs to protect the walls from rain and were elevated to protect the rice from floods and rats.

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This bypasses Katsura Imperial Villa and Grand Isé Shrine and links the principles of materials, construction and environmental response of a modern shed with a shed 1800 years prior. Protecting grain from rats is clever but not classy. When talking architecture, buildings can’t be “elevated” to something below them. Most buildings can be given the pretentious posturing of architecture but few have the embodied intelligence of sheds.

Deepwater Woolshed is a shed, and a very good shed it is too. For an accurate assessment of what this building does we can turn to this 2011 issue of Australian Wool Innovation.

beyond the bale

I’m still waiting for those Shearing Shed Guidelines to be posted to the AWI website but here’s a link to relevant standards. From this next article we learn that The Bulls Run Property to which Deepwater Woolshed belongs, was sold to the Paraway Pastoral Company.

bulls run

Three years later, stockandland.com and farmonline.com reported that Paraway Pastoral was to sell part of the property.

stock and land

As of January 4 2016, the website of the auctioneers, landmarkharcourts, still had the property details.

homestead

The 617.96 hectare (1,527.03 acre) auction included the 1927 homestead, a cottage, silos and other agricultural buildings. The reserve price was only AUS$1.3 million (US$1.1 million) so the US$400,000 Deepwater Woolshed couldn’t have been part of the package.

sold

Analysts report that for large pastoral companies to focus on their main businesses, it’s quite common to divest themselves of properties not crucial to their core portfolios. So click go those corporate shears. The rearing and shearing of sheep factors large in Australian history and culture. Sheep still get reared and sheared but the people who buy, operate and sell the farms don’t let romantic imaginings influence their judgment. We should do likewise when evaluating the buildings.

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In the game, each player starts with a Sheep Station, consisting of five Natural Pasture paddocks, fully stocked with 3,000 sheep …

• • •

Further reading:
Peter Stutchbury article in Weekend Australian

The Shameless Skyscraper

zhang

Before anything’s even been said in this BBC news report, the title “Flatpack Skyscrapers” makes this building sound like something cheap and mass-produced, and definitely not something handmade and of quality and classy like, say, William Morris wallpaper. We’re not even past the title and already we’ve encountered the reaction to the very same Industrial Revolution that was supposed to make useful things less expensive and more available. 

Despite the report being bandwidth-hungry for no good reason, it somehow manages to describe the work of a certain Mr. Zhang who’s making headlines because he and his team can erect buildings faster than anyone else on the planet. I say “erect” because most of the work is done offsite and, once the foundations are in place, site work is limited to assembling the pieces at a rate of about three floors per day. Mr. Zhang’s integrated system for building design and construction has many advantages.

sky-city-detalles

  • It’s faster than conventional design and construction and so the benefits of the building are available earlier.
  • It’s less expensive. The shorter time until the building is providing a return-on-investment means that total financing costs are less. This should also, in theory, free up more capital to provide more buildings.
  • It’s safer to build than conventional construction. Prefabricating parts of the building complete with services offsite should, again in theory, be safer and allow for higher quality.

sky city one construction method

Now, for many, being cheaper, faster and safer isn’t good enough. This article, for example, raises doubts about the theory with regards to safety, timing, funding, and need. The main objection seems to be that it will be in the middle of farmland.

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Even if renders could be trusted to reliably depict future realities, the argument seems to be that skyscrapers are ok in Manhattan where the economics of land necessitates tall buildings. This doesn’t mean those tall buildings are any more necessary – a question that’s being raised now the new slew of superslender supertalls is casting superlong shadows across Central Park.

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The “need” argument seems to be a form of veiled prejudice. Shanghai isn’t Manhattan either but it doesn’t attract this prejudice because it looks like more like a city than say, Dubai, another attractor of the same prejudice.

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The potential problem of cashflow needed to maintain Sky City One is mentioned, as is the problem of supplying it with food everyday. These things do need thinking about and I hope someone has.

But what if that farmland stayed farmland and some of Sky City One’s residents farmed it? We don’t know – we’ve never actually given it a try. It could just be a viable way to live on this planet. Why shouldn’t those green spaces be productive farmland instead of the traditional lawns and parkland? The supposed reason for the existence of tall buildings was land pressure in cities such as Chicago and New York meant people had to work closer together in this new thing called office work. Food was missing from the equation. Perhaps, just perhaps, it might be a good idea to sort out food and shelter at the same time, and then see how office work can fit in?

The Western press has been predictably negative regarding this project. The usual social angst about non-millionaires living in tall buildings is mentioned. The fact that windows will be non-operable is mentioned even though this is standard for buildings that height for it lessens wind resistance. Me, I’m actually not too keen on some of the apartment plans.

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This next image implies they’re thinking about mixing uses on each floor. Horizontal mixing of use in vertical buildings could be a good idea.

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After all, our horizontally organised cities have always had some sort of vertical mixed use.

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http://queaprendemoshoy.com/habia-rascacielos-en-roma/

No, the biggest crime of this building and the one I suspect is really driving the negativity and criticism is summed up in the statement “Its blocky glass and steel form may be unlikely to win any architectural beauty awards”. Sky City One’s crime is to not do the twisty, growy thing like Gensler’s latest for Shanghai.

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Or the bright and shiny future thing like Foster’s vertical city proposal for offshore Tokyo.

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Or do the symbolic climbing, striving, aspiring thing like skyscrapers have done since way back when.

Instead, Sky City One is what it is and no more or less than the processes that made it. It is totally free of metaphorical and allegorical baggage. It has an existential beauty

sky-city-one-04

The Things Architects Do #8: Themes

There’s only two and a bit chapters to go in The Autopoiesis of Architecture Volumo Uno. Every now and then I scare myself when the author inadvertently makes some terrifying kind of sense. It happened again with this bit before the penultimate chapter. It’s about projects and themes. Let me summarise – I’m getting better at it.

DON’T HAVE just projects,
HAVE themes as well as projects.

Untitled

WORRY if your project doesn’t have a theme or if your theme can’t find a project.

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DON’T WORRY if the right project doesn’t come along to fit your current theme. You or someone else can always look back and find an “underlying implicit conceptual framework” somewhere – especially with those three helpful qualifiers.

Untitled 2

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[Gosh, they’re keeping those Norwegians busy rendering what we imagine will be real :S]

MAINSTREAM ARCHITECTS do projects.
AVANT-GARDE ARCHITECTS do too, but only to nurture their themes.

Untitled 3

DON’T SAY: “I’m working on my client’s house.”
DO SAY: “I’m working on new principles of habitation for the 21st century.” / “I’m using this luxury condo development / hotel / trophy cultural landmark / oligarch villa / mixed use development / stadium to test the limits of space as a gradient field-condition.”

Untitled 5

REMEMBER that the significance of the avant-garde architect’s work is a function of the originality, generality and epochal pertinence of the themes his/her projects are tackling.
DON’T FORGET to attach some cod narrative for public consumption when you upload your images to ArchDaily or Dezeen or wherever.

I’m not sure which is more destructive: pretentious opinion vs. poisonous practice? I’ll go with the latter.

  • If avant-garde architects aren’t solving particular problems posed by particular projects, then why pretend they are? Why not let us join the exciting journey? More to the point, why not share those themes so we can judge for ourselves if a particular articulation of a particular theme is or is not a success?
  • OR, IF, at some level, avant-garde architects are actually solving problems posed by particular projects then it’d be nice to be shown how they do it. But it won’t happen. Plebeian concerns must always be seen to be beneath the dignity of avant-garde architects. But, as I’ve always said,

“Even The Farnsworth House has a pipe to take the shit away.”
                                                             Graham McKay, misfits’ architecture

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Unless there comes a day when self-styled avant-garde architects tell us what it is they’re attempting to do, this dysfunction will continue to affect, infect new generations of architects and further reduce the amount of good that can be done in the world.

Here’s three examples of how this dysfunction between projects and themes is killing the opinion people have of “Architecture”. “Architecture’s” on the defensive I think. People are on the verge of discovering they can live without it. I’ll have more to say on this.

Example 1

A recent Forbes article titled Architecture Continues To Implode: More Insiders Admit The Profession Is Failing caused a bit of a brouhaha recently. Personally, I wouldn’t quote Frank Gehry to strengthen my case or begin my article as I feel he’s more part of the problem than the solution. Gehry’s basically showing his disdain for any building that isn’t his or his 2% friends.

gehry problem

The article claims the Make It Right” charity program of post-Katrina housing was a failure. Here’s a 2008 Dezeen report from before we knew this. The housing, many designed by “avant garde” architects was weird, self-serving, unloved, expensive to build, difficult to maintain and, on the whole, not very designed or built. Here’s MVRDV’s effort. It doesn’t seem to have ever been built.

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Here’s the project on their website.

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This is what they say about it.

MVRDV’s proposal reinterpres the classic shotgun house to be resistant to water.  Lifted in different ways, each house has its own quality, adding to the areas diversity while remaining safe.

Maybe. Or it could just be MVRDV’s trademark house motif repeated 13 times.

Example 2

Here’s a project for a low-cost housing prototype. It seems to have an innovative and ingenious self-build model. It’s had moments on both curbed and on ArchDaily.

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All photos © Alejandro Cartagena on ArchDaily.

ArchDaily says

this project aims to generate a typology of competitive and feasible housing for a low and medium income market.

curbed says

With labor costs dissolved, the house then becomes more affordable, with a total cost of about $11,600 for materials and basic blacksmithing and glass installation services.

The structure, built from non-overlapping concrete blocks, has a simple layout, with interior living spaces composed like “boxes within a box.”

misfits says

Despite the seemingly noble intentions of the architects and their innovative self-build model, the real theme of this project seems to be to make something that can be recognised as architecture. This is not the most original, general or epochally pertinent theme that ever was but it’s there and it’s there to the detriment of the project.

  1. I like stack bond as much as the next architect, but stretcher bond is stronger and needs little or no reinforcement. If you check the images above, stretcher bond was good enough for the stairwell balustrade and it was good enough for that fence. To use stack bond for the shell of low-cost housing seems irresponsible and contrary to the stated objectives of the project. 
  2. I also enjoy a bit of inside-outside interpenetration as much as the next architect but the installation of those large fixed glass panels is an identified high-cost item. They’re probably not the greatest use of limited money as far as the project’s concerned but, as far as the theme’s concerned … well, that’s another matter.
  3. With block construction, long horizontal windows require longer and more expensive lintels. The low-cost option is full height narrow windows much like those upstairs on the side elevation. A long horizontal window on the lower level at the front might be justifiable for some social, neighbourhood reason, but the same window for the bedroom above seems to be just an elevational device.
  4. The kitchen is concealed behind a curtain but I wonder what it is those two vents are venting? An exhaust fan or two could vent directly outside without the need for the retro-Meierism.
  5. Does a low-cost, three-bedroom family house really need four wcs, three showers and two living areas? The project seems to be designed so rooms can be sub-let.
  6. If so, the refrigerator is the owners’, behind that door that’s presumably lockable.
  7. “In this hotel apartment you have your own shower and toilet. We cook you dinner but you do your own laundry outside ¿comprende?

In return for a bit of income, the family still get to sleep in one room. Maybe that’s progress. If so, then tell us – we want to know.

Example 3

It won’t happen for that will mean crossover between themes and projects. The default stance seems to be to keep themes and projects well apart and to separately satisfy their respective clients/audiences. This is apparent in this next video. Click – it’s a link.

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The occupants seem happy with the project but the theme of the project seems to be about the architects’ social engineering genius and how to convey a sense of it to us via an overproduced video.

Did you notice that any interaction the architects might have had with the occupants is distanced with stills? We never saw the architects actually talking to or interacting with the occupants? To be seen to be doing so would be uncool. What’s worse, in the final product, the architects don’t seem to take any pleasure from this good thing they supposedly did. ُShowing us they’re pleased it turned out okay should be a natural thing to do and not something to be ashamed.

All I took away from the video was a sense of creepy earnestness.

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As the deluded and abused lover says, “He cares – he just has a problem showing it.” Don’t get me wrong!

  • It’s quite natural and right for architects to use their projects as advertising for future projects.
  • It’s less right but no less common for architects to select their projects in terms of their advertising potential.
  • It would of course be wrong for architects to take on projects with a potential for social good in order to be seen to be socially virtuous.

If proper architects are supposed to be fully occupied with pursuing their themes then it means they can never get any pleasure from a well-executed project that benefits its users. Now I think of it, when was the last time you heard an architect claim they were happy to have been of use to society? Or humanity (Pritzker excepted)? It doesn’t feature much in contemporary architectural communications, does it? Such signs of humanity as opposed to God-like qualities aren’t part of the psyche for architects to aspire to. I blame Wright, and then Corbusier, and then Koolhaas. Emotional involvement is irrelevant to the pursuit of the theme and being seen to be in pursuit of it.

The Elemental project above is a competent display of thought and skill and its users are proud and grateful for what they have. For the architects, this should be something to be proud of as human beings but no. The video is overproduced and oversincere and desperate for our approval. This is sick as well as sad. Dysfunctional.

• • •

It’s not right to pick on the little guys I know, but mismatches between Project and Theme are a sure sign of dysfunctional architecture. The smug “double coding” of Jencksian Post-Modernism has mutated into self-serving Schumacherian Project/Theme distinctions.

Once Post Modern double-coding was released into the ecosystem all hell broke loose. As soon as architects learned a project could convey architectural meanings separate from those of the project that hosted it, it was a matter of time before those architectural meanings moved away from general architectural references and converged on references specific to certain practices. Themes. 

Architects had USPs well before they were called themes but at least they had their basis in the projects and their implied benefits for users. It’s no surprise the branding advantages of separating them was globally understood by the commercial big boys and girl, but it’s shocking to see the lessons learned so quickly by smaller practices aiming for the big-time.

Despite architecture’s radical restylings, under the hood it’s still the same engine.

Patrick Schumacher identified themes as what proper architects are interested in. He sees this as a healthy thing for architecture despite an increasing amount of evidence suggesting otherwise.

• • •

It’s okay if you don’t remember this helpful table I scanned and posted June, 2013. 

UntitledIn the 131 pages that followed, there was nothing to suggest any of the “other” major functions systems of society had anything corresponding to the themes and projects of architecture. Either the author’s going off-piste with this project-theme thing, or he’s conflating it with the form-function lead distinction he wrote of earlier.
A bit of both probably, but mostly the latter because if form is a theme, then any theme/project dysfunction will show as a form-function dysfunction. It’s a theory. But it fits the evidence. If this were true
  • We would have an architecture concerned with form and not function – imagine that!

So now let’s imagine what kind of world we would have if each of society’s major function systems had themes and projects. And if those themes were the primary areas of concern? And if a projects’ only worth was to test the validity of those themes?

  • We’d have an economic system that sets prices for commodities without regard for their value.
  • We’d have a scientific system in which phenomena are explained without recourse to evidence.
  • We’d have a legal system where laws are applied irrespective of facts.
  • We’d have a political system in which positions are taken irrespective of issues.
  • We’d have an education system concerned with teaching rather than students.
  • We’d have a mass media that focusses on reporting rather than events.
I’m getting scared here. But on the bright side, IF architecture is a major function system of society, then it’s at least no more dysfunctional than all the others. Science is the only example this has that this isn’t how the contemporary world works.
Niklas Luhmann died in 1998. Had he lived longer he might have arrived at the same conclusions.

The Mystery of Beauty

We’d all like to believe in some everlasting unchanging measure of worth, architectural or otherwise, but it’s a losing battle. The old Vitruvian warhorse of Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas has been patched and updated for centuries now. Yet still it’s around.

vitruvius

Sure we can think of Firmitas in terms of structure and stability and Utilitas in terms of function or usefulness, but the third quality of Venustas (modernly mistranslated as Delight rather than the more accurate Beautiful because it is moral) is as distant as ever. It’s slipping away even further now no-one can believe in Objectivism.

Like most thinkers two millennia ago, Vitruvius was an Objectivist. He believed that certain works of art and architecture had this thing called Beauty that existed, like a spirit in a rock, independent of any observer. Later, Subjectivists maintained that Beauty is whatever people said it was and a particular brand of Subjectivists called Post-Kantian pluralists took this further and claimed anyone is entitled to have an opinion and, what’s more, it didn’t matter how much that view is shared by others. This seems to best describe the world as we experience it.

To show how modern they were and allow more scope for individual interpretation, Post-Modern architects loaded their buildings with multiple “readings”. They championed freedom of choice but maintained control of what the choices were.

07450hx

One recent attempt to incorporate genuine subjectivity into Venustas/Beauty/Delight says it exists when a building communicates the spirit of its purpose. This sounds like it’s being defined in terms of function but to ‘communicate a spirit’ is subjectivity squared. And then multiplied, as we have to accept that buildings communicate different things to different people. There’s still the Post-Modernist smugness in the assumption those communications are always going to be of value at the one end, and accurately and passively received at the other, but the fact remains: If Delight’ exists when the spirit of a building’s purpose is communicated to a target audience, then it seems like it’s really just another name for another type of Utility.

These next bits come from A.C. Grayling’s “Philosophy 1” (Oxford University Press, 1998.)

Past attempts to explain architectural beauty have taken what was conventionally regarded as beautiful as their starting point and dissected them in terms of building elements manipulated to create qualities such as ‘harmony’, ‘proportion’, ‘rhythm’, ‘scale’ and so on.

Identifying what one likes about the things one likes is not a bad place to start, after all.

This classic philosophical stance assumes that beauty is the only, or at least the fundamental, aesthetic quality. Ugliness, blandness, mediocrity are defined negatively as the absence of those qualities. However, even within the same field of art, things considered beautiful are so diverse it’s difficult to imagine a single quality common to them all. This is often given as proof of the mystical and unknowable nature of beauty.

Objectivist philosophers like Vitruvius maintained that some works of art were inherently beautiful regardless of who is observing them. This implies that beauty is governed by rules.

Subjectivist philosophers believe that objects have no aesthetic qualities other than being able to produce certain responses in the person experiencing them. This is what Hume summed up as ‘beauty is no quality in things themselves – it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them’. Hume and, later,  Kant didn’t want to allow beauty to be completely subjective and suggested that differences of aesthetic opinion at least indicate the existence of a something on which opinions differ. They still had to describe the subjective character of aesthetic judgments without permitting a riot of aesthetic opinions.

Either way, the problem remains that 

if aesthetic judgments are to be distinct from mere likings and qualify in some sense as rational, then they must in some sense be open to justification. 

• • •

SONY DSC

In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, the concept of Beauty makes its first appearance on page 157.

Untitled

Two footnotes point us (forward, annoyingly) towards further explanation

Untitled 2but, for the time being, we’re meant to

  1. Believe in Beauty and that
  2. Beauty, in conjunction with Function, drives architecture.

No justification or evidence. We’re just asked to believe.

double code

p220

Untitled

p239

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p305

The author is obviously an Objectivist at heart for, on the same page, he defines Beauty as “formal resolution” and so implies Beauty has rules that are followed to a conclusion called a “resolution”. It would be nice to be told what those rules are but I already know that we’re not going to, either here or in Vol II.

3.8.3 The Mystery of Beauty.

Here’s the first two paragraphs.

4Did you see that? “Attention to beauty and aesthetic values demarcates architecture from science and engineering.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that Beauty is real, merely that some people like to believe in it. However, if they do believe in Beauty, then they get to feel special – which is fine – but, as is often the case, superior to other people such as scientists and engineers following the path of more rational and provable truth.

Here’s the full chapter.

That’s all we get. The last sentence is particularly worrying. Apparently, reflecting upon what Beauty is can’t be done while designing, even though Beauty is guiding the design process by (supposedly) telling the designer when he/she/her Dameship has arrived at it. We end the chapter no wiser than we were at the beginning when the author stated “Beauty must be shrouded in mystery in order to fulfil its function in the design process … to bring the design decision process to conclusion …” This is not an argument. It is a statement of belief.

• • •

There’s a lot about this book that worries me and a lot of that has to do with creating the appearance of knowledge and the projection of authority. The methods aren’t new.

The plain cover: This implies that what’s inside is important enough in itself and does not need added fanciness. It’s all about the contents.

Holy-Bible

There aren’t any pictures: They say a picture’s worth a thousand words and we know what’s meant by that. But why use a picture when you can say it in a thousand words? Another way a book can convey an air of authority is by having a lot of words and by making it appear as if every word is essential.

An intricate system of numerical indexing: This is a way of creating the appearance that every word is not only essential but worth quoting and referencing. Making them easy to find implies they are important enough to be searched for. We’ve just seen what Schumacher 3.8.3 had to offer.

Length: I’m estimating The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I weighs in at 180,000 words which is about the same as the 181,253 of the New Testament, but the approx. 300,000 of  Vol. II is still half the 593,493 words of the Old Testament. A combined total of 480,00 for the Autopoieses against 774,746 for the Old and New Testaments. TAoAI+II is still short of The Good Book OT+NT, but it’s making a challenge.

Difficult to follow: A book of authority is not a page turner. It’s not even meant to be read sequentially. It’s not meant to be taken on holiday to wile away the time in pleasant surroundings. It commands complete attention and paying anything less is disrespectful. The continuation of that attention is challenged by contents that morph from thought to thought with scant regard for continuity. Books of authority are designed to be dipped into every now and then like your favourite box set when the fancy takes you.

Tone: In the same way as sadists and masochists, or the needy and the controlling unerringly find each other and call it love, imagined authority finds its natural partner with imagined inferiority. An authoritarian author will make a submissive reader feel stupid if they don’t understand, or that they’re lacking in intellect or dedication if the words they read pass before their eyes but the meaning doesn’t penetrate or their argument unfold. Writer and reader are locked in mutually symbiotic relationship.

To this list we can now add

Adopting the structures of religious texts: In The Mystery of Beauty, the author is asking us to:

  1. believe in something whose existence requires an act of faith, 
  2. allow that belief to guide our (design) behaviour and determine when we’ve done good and not bad,
  3. accept that that something we believe in can never be known and 
  4. that it all has to be that way in order for the system to work.

This sounds like a religion to me! The real narrative of The Autopoiesis of Architecture is to convey the weight of authority to people willing to believe. If it makes people feel happy and special, then this is not such a bad thing. Schumacher can believe whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t think other people are scum for not thinking the same. Except he does. Ref: Bad Form.

From the first witch doctor onwards, power has been linked to creating the impression of possessing privileged knowledge about how the world works – about what rules have to be followed and how. Mayan priests, for example, convinced their populations that a live person had to be sacrificed every morning if the sun was to rise. It turned out not to be so.

• • •

Early on in The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Schumacher dismissed the idea that Religion was a Great Communications System on par with art, economics, politics and law and went on to formulate his loose-fit extended analogy that intends to illustrate how architecture is one.

religion

Footnote 6, p75

Back then, I didn’t understand why he felt that statement needed making. I still don’t. But if Schumacher doesn’t think that Religion is one of the great functions systems of society, then I don’t think he should adopt the look, feel, argument and purpose of it to claim that Architecture is one and, by corollary, position himself as a deliverer of truth.

Gods-SunriseI’m still not seeing the light.