Category Archives: SCIENCE

Automatic Design

In February 2016 I wrote about something called associative design and linked to this next video. I wrote that it seemed a genuine attempt to improve things in that its design decisions are shaped by the same variables by which the project and its performance are to be judged and you don’t get much better than that. The only question that remains is whether the chosen variables are the right ones. Nothing much has changed since. Whether those variables are necessary and sufficient is always going to be the question.

This next was only a small gif showing how an adaptive planning algorithm works but it made a bit of a splash on LinkedIn after having been reported on ArchDaily circa 2019. It was meant to show how an adaptive planning algorithm can be used to replan an apartment in accordance with the area and proportions of a space reserved for it. This algorithm is called FINCH and was written for Grasshopper but I’m not sure why we needed to know that. Just as a certain kind of student thinks any SketchUp image or Rhino model must surely be better than a hand drawing, a certain kind of architect seems to be think something is only real once Grasshopper can be made to do it. These people already converted are who adaptive planning algorithms are being promoted to.

I noted how abysmal all the actual layouts were. Each may have zero time or effort to generate but it also looks like it. My first thought was that, before presenting this faux innovation, it might have been a good idea to add a couple of windows and an entrance door, and that a dependence upon artificial lighting and ventilation has been designed into these layouts that are intended to show us what this albgorithm can do.

If it’d just stay still for a minute I’d mark it up but offhand I’d say the flaws of Grasshopper three-dimensional design have been successfully mapped to two-dimensional design. It all depends on what you choose to make a variable, what weighting you give it, and how you choose to link them. Never mind for now that these three weightings will alter at certain thresholds. For example, if the area shrinks too much you might want to re-think the necessity of having a single bed and a sofa. But these and other things such as re-thinking the amounts of kitchen and storage space can all be refined. Since then, the algorithm has surely been tweaked and the program refined but it was presented as if it were proof of concept despite failing to deliver the crucial output of layouts that were efficient, workable and pleasant. In some world that happens to be ours, it must serve somebody’s purpose if it was shoved in our faces as it was and when it was.

Something similar exists in order to “automate” house design, whatever that means. We need to find out what that means. And also what “to design a house means”. There may be situations where it doesn’t matter that much, just as there may be people happy with being given a false choice from preselected options.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you visit the Japanese version of the MUJI website you’ll see how it’s done, and without invoking Grasshopper. MUJI produce four types of house with twenty variations of size and proportion. All work well.

Someone has done the work and learned that the original design assumptions and goals aren’t valid for dimensions and proportions outside a certain range. The modular fabrication and construction system adapts to all variations but those variations are, by definition, limited.

MUJI aren’t asking us to be wowed by the labour-saving and cost-savings potential of their technology. It’s not even visible. All they’ve done is systematically apply some rationality to the design inputs of a manufacturing system. I may yet have my life bookended by Christopher Alexander and Patrik Schumacher but I’m not going to spend it debating the merits of humans vs. computers when it comes to solving problems until it’s clear whose problem is being solved.

My third example of automatic non-design is a relatively recent one I saw at the ZHA exhibition in Shanghai in summer. I quote. “The proposal develops housing as micro-communities arranged around distributed shared courtyards. This encourages community living and socialization through more intimate community and connected spaces. Thus, [?!] facilitating a wide range of shared spaces of differing sizes and characteristics in comparison to more ubiquitous, stacked or central courtyard configurations.”

The year was 2018 so this was produced on Patrik Schumacher’s watch. Many persons inhabiting a peripheral apartment will pass through a restaurant, launderette or communal area on the way home but they are the lucky ones who won’t be looking into someone else’s window five metres away.

Those windows are full height glass walls along which the beds are placed à la Nakagin. This level of community living and socialization through more intimate community and connected spaces is just plain bad. Privacy and noise transmission aside, I sense the presentation is pre-emptively defensive about the amount of light in these light wells because the caption to the diagram below right is “Modules exposure verified through solar radiation analysis”. It may be true from this angle if, in our brave new data-driven algorithmic world, yellow appears to mean bright and orange a bit brighter. It’s odd that we’re told this proposal is data driven without being given any data to prove it. I’ll assume the units facing other directions are blue a.k.a. dark, cold and miserable.

Otherwise, the rooms seem modeled on those of Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower. Inside the front door is a curious ante-room. At least a typical floor has sufficient fire escape stairwells but having to pass through communal and or open areas to reach them is not ideal, and most likely a breach of code that, were it complied with, would negate the stated premise of the project.

I’m not a total Luddite. In the 1980s I did some work for a Japanese company responsible for some of the first attempts at machine translation. The task of translating technical documents was split into three. Native Japanese speakers edited the source Japanese into simpler constructions and syntax which was then input to a computer and converted and people like me would then reshape it into more natural English. Translation work could therefore be performed by less skilled people who didn’t even need to know both languages. Live interpreters and translators of literature have highly-developed skills and my full admiration but the market for technical translators can’t not have shrunk. I’m glad I’m not a technical translator anymore. I’m not even an architect or senior designer anymore but the main thing that worries – no – offends me about these examples of automatic design is that they’re not very good.

The act of applying one’s knowledge and skill to a problem resistant to reduction and thus to meaningful scripting is challenging and enjoyable. It’s not onerous. It’s what we do. If persons champion algorithmic or associative or otherwise automatic design as the solution to all problems, it’s not because it is the solution to all problems but because they’d like it to be. But why? What’s the attraction of automatic/associative/generative design? What forces are driving it? What need is it fulfilling? And even if it’s not actually fulfilling that need at present, what kind of world is it making us more readily accept in the here and now?

The idea of living on Mars makes us more readily accept that this planet was trashed in the name of unbridled capitalism, that the future exists only for the wealthy and productive, that private enterprise will save humanity … [c.f. Mad for Mars]

The idea of buildings shaped like mountains makes us more ready to accept a world in which mountains are leveled to make way for buildings that look like mountains.

This is already getting out of hand. I don’t know how far MVRDV’s Long Tan Park proposal has come since I first saw these but it’s a bit too close to home for comfort.

Over-publicized technologies such as these may one day produce acceptable designs but, in the meantime, they function to make us more willing to accept a world in which design is seamlessly integrated with a means of production. Given architecture’s track record in pandering to the wet dreams of the construction industry, this is a reasonable suspicion to harbor. Unionized construction workforces with their unreasonable pay demands and their sissy concern for health and safety regulations are being designed out of the industry. It is no accident that the ZHA artifact constructed as a result of their digital thought experiment was 3D printed in gypsum. It couldn’t not have been.

These proposals may be poor but they make excellent propaganda if all it takes is the merest simulation of novelty to keep us happy. One side effect of putting these undercooked proposals in circulation is to debase design and what was once thought a core skill of architects. This hasn’t mattered for a long time now as the main metric for architectural influence continues to be success in manipulating the opinions of an audience of peers. That hasn’t changed. In the end nothing changes. There’s a certain contradiction in automatic design attempting to satisfy base and not-so-base human needs and desires, of (a representation of) rationality claiming to satisfy our various human needs and subjectivities. I can object and say I don’t want anybody’s algorithm on my case but I’d be forgetting it was never about me in the first place.

The Rebound Effect

Sunday evening last week I walked along the river into town. On my way, the first building to enter my eye was one of those LED facade buildings I mentioned in the Reading the City post.

I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of this genre. This next one’s my current favorite. It wasn’t on my route that night though it is on the usual route home. I like how it’s not trying to be informative, or even attractive. The blank black window openings are slightly scary. The building’s probably an office building but could just as easily be a hotel or a hospital.

I don’t get out much because I was surprised to see more buildings with some sort of LED light display than not. I’m sorry for all the videos in this post but photographs don’t do them justice. I hope you bear with it.

Here’s the only building I saw illuminated by ambient light. I don’t know why. And quite a handsome building too.

Further along was a building washed with blue but cycling through various other colors at a speed just below the threshold for noticing change – or at least mine. You wouldn’t notice this change if you watched it continuously but if you looked away and then looked back you would. It was a different way with lighting. Given how well the surfaces of the building took to being uplit, I can’t be sure the building wasn’t designed with this in mind.

One has to be wary of anything Philip Johnson said but was it his 1961 Amon Carter Museum of American Art or his 1964 Beck House (both in Fort Worth, Texas) for which he had a mock-up of the columns sent to – correct me if I’m wrong – Tuscany to check the play of light and shadow?

Further along, panels of rapidly changing colour backlit some complex casting (or perhaps printing?) of concrete (or perhaps GRP?).

Stair risers were washed with light, thankfully and unchangingly so.

Not so the bridges.

Or the ship.

Along the way were some special moments with trees and landscaping.

I stayed a while here.

I lingered still longer looking at the mountains and valleys on the far side. I didn’t know what to choose to best illustrate but I’ll keep it to these two next. The mountain ridges are lit with LED while the mountains are washed with LED light. That waterfall “screen” is no projection but curtains of LED hung across the valley. It’s a lot of LED.

Light Emitting Diodes are an amazing invention. They have a high light output for relatively little electrical input. Unlike lasers and their coherent and powerful beams, the colour output of LED only appears to be stable but that’s good enough for us. They’re dimmable and can be quickly switched and at first were used in combination to produce light of any colour in much the same way cathode ray television tubes did once. Different colors became commercially viable at different times. First was yellow and then came red, blue and ultimately, white.

Since the beginning of LED history circa 1972, producing an LED that emitted white light was the holy grail of LED research but, by 2014, Japanese and South Korean companies had developed experimental versions that went into production in 2018. All this goes to show that holy grails aren’t what they used to be. Since then, the cost of producing LED has continued to decrease. The Rebound Effect is when the cost of obtaining some object or resources drops and our consumption of that object or resource increases so that, in the end, we’re still using as much of it as we can afford. It happens with energy sources and, if you’ve watched all the videos in this post, it happens with bandwidth. It’s why new model cellphones continually surf the limit of what we can afford to use. This what we can afford to use may be our undoing.

Designed by Heidi & Peter Wenger, the Swiss Pavilion at Expo’70 in Osaka was a 55 meter wide 21 meter high tree covered with 35,000 incandescent lamps. It must’ve been a sight but, within three years would come the First Oil Shock, forcing up the price of oil and, in turn, energy and nowhere was this felt more than Japan that was 100% reliant on imported oil for energy.

The planet is currently going through a phase when some catastrophic climatic or climate-related event happens every two or three weeks. In the US alone there’s been the heat dome in the north west, drought and fires in the south west, flooding in the north east, hurricanes in the south east where they’re expected, as well as typhoons where they’re not. Last month rain fell in Greenland for the first time ever known.

The consensus is that this is caused by global warming brought about by industrial activity causing the composition and characteristics of our atmosphere to change in a way not conducive to an easy life for us. China regularly tops lists of the most polluting countries. Its CO2 emissions showed a phenomenal absolute increase for the period 2000-2015 while those of the already industrialized countries remained stable. Although its increase wasn’t as rapid as China’s, India with its industrializing economy and its large and on average poor population showed a similar trend. You can find many charts similar to this next.

Producing LED and then using them to Illuminate mountains and valleys isn’t helping but the climatic consequences we’re seeing now are the result of cumulative CO2 emissions since 1750 and the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, humankind’s contribution was insignificant.

“By 1835 Manchester was a major centre for cotton processing and later, general manufacture. It was the first and greatest industrial city in the world.”

So then, as far as cumulative CO2 emissions since 1750 go, who’s looking good and who’s not? I can’t be the first person to ask this question and, sure enough, ourworldindata has some graphics accompanying an article by Hannah Ritchie that sheds some light on this very question.

  • In 1750, the UK was responsible for 100% of global CO2 emissions.
  • By 1876, it was now split 50-50 between the UK and the US.
  • By 1944, the contributions of the US and the UK to global cumulative CO2 emissions were both over 50% [!!??] but, relatively speaking at least, the % contributions of Canada, the then Soviet Union, India, South Africa, China and Australia were increasing.
  • The 2014 chart shows that, cumulatively speaking, China has managed to equal the US in terms of cumulative CO2 emissions since 1750. If nothing else, it shows us how quickly things can change.

The above chart has both the US and the UK with contributions of greater than 50% but this next and neater graphic from the same source shows the cumulative contribution of North America and Eurasia as about 65%. I’m not worried about the discrepancy. The question is still valid and important and it needs to be both asked and answered.

Different again is this next graphic with the variously colored areas being the cumulative amounts of CO2 emissions produced by countries and their various groupings. Going by this, Europe is very much to blame for what’s up there now. Moreover, the cumulative CO2 emissions of China (since 1750, remember) is far less than that of the United States whose own are about equal to those of the EU27 but still far less than that of the rest of Europe. Whether original polluter UK is counted within the EU or not, its cumulative contribution will be counted with the approximately 75% shown by the orange and pale orange bands. For a single country, the cumulative total of the US far surpasses that of China (at least as of 2019). From this misfits concludes that ranking polluting countries by current output is useful for deflecting some tricky questions.

The trickiest of those questions is who has what to show for it all? Two hundred and fifty plus years on, the benefits of the Industrial Revolution remain unevenly distributed. I’m curious to know how much good came from all that CO2 up there or if we’ve simply squandered our fossil fuel legacy for no good reason. I’d like to see a global energy cost-benefit audit for the period 1750-2021 to find out where our fossil fuels went and on what and for whom. Meanwhile, our definition of “what we can afford to use” is becoming broader, albeit very unevenly and not quickly enough.


Rubin Observatory

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory is the new name for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) currently being constructed in Chile.

The Objective

When it becomes fully operational in October 2022, the observatory will take ten years to photograph all of The Universe it can see. With a field of view of 4° (or about eight times the width of a full moon, it will use a 3.2gigapixel CCD imaging camera – the largest ever constructed – to photograph the entire sky (18,000 sq.°) every three or four nights.

Post processing will compare those photographs with ones already taken, identify what has moved and by how much, and make that information available to astronomers worldwide within 60 seconds. It will map the movement of galaxies in space over time and make it possible to calculate and catalog their masses and observe how they distort space-time. We will better understand the Universe.

The observatory’s job description also includes: [*]

Case Studies

The LSST is the first astronomical observatory to be built for this purpose so any survey of existing facilities will reveal only general characteristics.

Nice Observatory, Nice, France (1886)

The building was designed by Charles Garnier and the dome by Gustave Eiffel*. The dome opening is covered by a panel that retracts, creating the profile we associate with observatories. The interior image shows what was the largest refracting (i.e. glass) telescope at the time. It also shows how Eiffel’s dome rests on a circular drum inside Garnier’s rectilinear building.

Palomar Observatory, California, USA (1928)

Instead of a retractable dome covering, California’s Palomar Observatory has a split sliding arrangement. Assuming similar levels of weatherproofing and mechanical complexity, this double sliding arrangement should require less time to fully open and close.

Sphinx Observatory, Switzerland (since 1937)

The Sphinx Observatorium is built on the ridge between the Swiss peaks of Mönch (left, below) and Jungfrau (right). It is 3,571m above sea level and an astronomical dome and a meteorological dome allow research into meteorology, astronomy, glaciology, physiology, radiation, and cosmic rays.

The observatory now includes four laboratories, a pavilion for cosmic ray research, a library, mechanical workshop, and living quarters for ten. The scientific area includes two large laboratories, a workshop, a weather observation station plus two terraces for experiments.

As the highest man-made structure in Europe, it has viewing decks open to the public. The observatory is reached by elevator shaft trough the mountain.

Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO), India

Located in Ladakh near the Indian border with China, IAO is one of the world’s highest observatories at 4,500 metres asl. A drum supports a rotatable dome housing the telescope and an attached building houses support facilities.

Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, U.S. (1985)

This has an integrated rotating mechanism that doesn’t require a drum for stability. The telescope is exposed when the roof retracts along the circular side rails. Built in an ecologically sensitive part of Hawaii, it is currently decommissioned prior to dismantling.

Extremely Large Telescope, Chile

The ELT is designed to search for Earth-like planets around other stars in the “habitable zones” where life might exist. It has a double-sliding canopy and no drum.

Site Selection

Many astronomical observatories were built in places where atmospheric conditions are no longer suitable for observational astronomy. Newer observatories are typically located in remote areas at high altitude, with little or no precipitation, low temperatures, low humidity, and low levels of atmospheric and light pollution. All these factors result in a high number of clear nights per year and for high-quality images, and occur together in the Chilean mountain range of Cerro Pachón where the the Gemini South (left, below) and Southern Astrophysical Research telescopes (right, below) are already located. The initial construction cost of Rubin Observatory was reduced by sharing their base facilities 100km away at La Serena, as well as their fibre-optic link to relay the 30 terabytes of data the observatory will produce each night.

Site Analysis

The design for the Rubin Observatory summit facility takes advantage of the natural topography of the El Peñón summit on Cerro Pachón. The main telescope enclosure occupies the highest and largest peak, and the attached service and operations building steps down into a saddle area to the southeast.The specific orientation of the summit facility was selected after extensive weather testing and a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis of the site verified that it provided the best seeing environment, or the least air disturbance, for the telescope. Geotechnical studies of the natural rock at the site have shown that it is strong and erosion-resistant. []

28/07/2020 Thanks to Roger who pointed me towards this document  that’s a construction progress report for the summit facilities. Section 2.1.2 contains the following explanation for the  general layout of the summit facility. “One clear implication from the first documentation of environmental conditions was that the prevailing steady wind would be a major factor in shaping the buildings and their relationship to the dome and telescope. Keeping the buildings low and providing turbulence-suppressing treatment on any large structures adjacent to the telescope would help avoid ground-heated air being pushed up into the observing path of the telescope. Also affecting building layout and massing was the available area on the selected site. El Peñón peak is a relatively narrow ridge which is steeply sloped on the approach side. These factors logically favored a multi-level facility stepping down into the saddle between the main peak and a small adjacent hill, which was a convenient location for the smaller calibration telescope facility”. Nice work, Roger!

Technical Solutions

The camera will take a 15-second exposure every 20 seconds. This time is a compromise between a long exposure that would allow faint sources to be spotted and a short exposure that would clearly capture the motion of faster-moving objects. Each field is photographed twice in case one is rendered unusable because of cosmic rays hitting the camera. Repositioning the telescope within five seconds requires a very short and rigid structure but, even so, realigning the mirrors and instruments takes one second and the other four are reserved for the structure to settle down. This short structure means a very small f-number [the ratio of the system’s focal length to the diameter of the lens opening] and that the camera must be focussed with extreme precision.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory –, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Todd Mason, Mason Productions Inc. / LSST Corporation., CC BY-SA 4.0,
By Todd Mason, Mason Productions Inc. / LSST Corporation –, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The exceptionally heavy telescope is mounted on a concrete drum for added stability. On top of the drum is the azimuth assembly which is basically a giant motor to realign the telescope. “Magnet motors” are said to allow fast, smooth, and quiet transitions but accuracy of repositioning can’t not be important when distant galaxies are being photographed in order to check if they’ve moved.

This shows the “elevation drive arc” after it was test fitted (in Spain) with aluminum surrogate motor magnets. The motor magnets have been installed in the azimuth track and covered with plywood to keep them from attracting metal fragments during the assembly process.


Concrete base with steel-frame structure and sheet metal cladding. It’s a shed.

This photo of LSST at sunset was taken by Gemini South observer Gianluca Lombardi.

Architectural Solutions

So then, why does the Rubin Observatory look the way it is? Is there any part of it that can’t be justified by function or performance? We find it difficult not to anthropomorphize something that has its highest part concerned with looking and observing even though this is just how visibility works. (Animals may turn their heads but no animal can freely rotate its head through 360°.) But what’s with the body-like shape attached to it? It’s like no other astronomical observatory.

Here’s what.

The telescope enclosure and service and operations building (above) have a stepped-down layout. This design provides a contiguous protected environment for transporting and maintaining the camera and mirrors. The mirrors of LSST are exposed to the night sky and, over the course of the 10-year survey, the mirrors will become dusty and their coatings will develop imperfections that will affect the telescope’s performance. This side facility is for equipment to transport, wash and re-coat the mirrors.

This will happen every two years for the primary mirror and every five for the secondary mirror and will occur in a temperature-controlled space distant from the observatory itself. These heated operations spaces are below the service level with the heat-generating equipment located below that, and farthest from the telescope. An 80-ton platform lift will carry the mirrors and camera between the telescope and maintenance levels as necessary. It’s a bit more complicated than cleaning your glasses.

November 11, 2018 – The Coating Chamber for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) arrived on the summit of Cerro Pachón, safely completing a 15 week journey from Deggendorf, Germany, where it was constructed. The 128-ton Coating Chamber is the largest single piece of equipment to arrive at the LSST observatory site to date, and will soon be joined by the Telescope Mount Assembly (TMA), from Spain, and the 8.4-meter Primary/Tertiary (M1M3) Mirror, from the United States, which are expected to arrive in 2019.
Submitted by LSST Coating Chamber Engineer Tomislav Vucina: Photos of construction of the coating chamber, where LSST’s mirrors will be recoated every few years. We anticipate M1M3 (coated with aluminum) will be cleaned and recoated every 2 years, and M2 (coated with protective silver) every 5 years. Reflectance monitoring will allow us to predict when this more time-intensive work is necessary, and it will likely be coordinated with other scheduled downtime. More information on the washing and coating process can be found at has many more photographs showing all aspects of facility construction from 2015 through to May this year. It’s a brilliant resource.

The construction and operation of the ventilation louvres suggest they’re no more than simple openings to provide ventilation and indirect illumination. It’s unlikely they would all be open at the same time. Any building free to rotate 360° would need openings on all sides if some of them are to always face the optimal direction or directions. The only clue I found on the website was the sentence “Light baffles, wind protection, and thermal controls with natural ventilation and daytime cooling mitigate environmental issues such as ambient light, wind, and large variations in temperature, which can all affect image quality.” Moreover, opening and closing these baffles isn’t dependent on human comfort or judgment as “The Rubin Observatory telescope and facility are designed to be highly automated, requiring little human intervention”.

The folded structure of the washing and re-coating facility is less easy to explain. The high-level windows are definitely well shaded but there are easier ways of achieving this.

This next photograph shows some serious air handling on the lowest level so my guess is that whatever load there is, is reduced by having the shape provide a degree of self-shading at the middle of the day.

28/07/2020 Rather than their primary purpose being self-shading, the folded side surfaces are an example of the previously mentioned “turbulence-suppressing treatment” [provided to] “any large structures adjacent to the telescope [so as to] avoid ground-heated air being pushed up into the observing path of the telescope.”

It’s very difficult to find any information on the design of the observatory or even who or what firm designed it. I could find out about control software architecture and active optics system software architecture but not about architecture. I did find a photograph of representatives from eight US and Chilean Architectural and Engineering companies visiting the site in 2009 but nothing about who was eventually awarded the job. It’s not important we know but, all the same, it suggests that this building designed to assist advancing our understanding of The Universe is not Architecture. I’m good with that.

The closest the Vera C. Rubin Observatory comes to being Architecture is visualizations that render it with

  • no materiality whatsoever
  • disregard for the Sun
    • curious shadows emphasizing the play of light upon volumes in space
    • an improbable position (for 30° 40 14 Slet alone at night)
  • ignorance of the building’s purpose
    • telescope cover open during daytime
    • sunlight hitting the exact place it’s least wanted
  • anthropomophicization
    • emphasis on the “body” with a “head” turning at some “inquisivite” angle
    • ventilation louvres expressively open as if “gills” for “respiration”
  • vehicles and people pointlessly indicating “human scale”
  • an overly dramatic sky

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory

Vera Rubin worked in many fields of observational astronomy but her most important contribution was measuring the discrepancy between the observed rotational rates of galaxies and their predicted rates of rotation. Her work provided strong evidence for the existence of dark matter that Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky first proposed in 1933 and, by showing that they form inside dark matter, advanced our understanding of galaxies.


*27/07/2020 I corrected the name of the designer of the dome of Nice Observatory to Gustave Eiffel. Thanks to Roger for letting me know.

**28/07/2020 There’s lots of interesting information in this Project Report. Thanks again Roger!



Of this blog’s sixteen categories, SCIENCE hadn’t been updated since Fast Tracking of March, 2017 about the development of Japan’s Shinkansen (lit. new arterial line, a.k.a. “bullet”) trains.

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

In the post I praised the attempt to make something better through ongoing research that resulted in incremental improvements. This is what makes it science, not architecture. In two and a half years this process hasn’t stopped and now the ALFA-X is being used for testing. As far as acronyms go, ALFA-X is almost okay, standing for Advanced Labs for Frontline Activity in rail eXperimentation. It is the popular name for the Class E956 shinkansen designed to test new technologies for incorporating into the next generation of trains expected to operate at speeds of up to 360 km/h or 220 mph. For comparison, current shinkansen regularly reach 320 km/h (200 mph), which is about one quarter of the anticipated 1,200 km/h or 760 mph top speed of hyperloop.

One important difference is that hyperloop doesn’t yet exist. It will still be some years before it enters commercial operation and, even then, to be truly comparable as a mode of transportation, it will have to transport 5.6 billion passengers in less than 53 years and without any passenger fatalities or injuries. Train speed actually counts for very little.

One of the technologies being tested is for a new type of damper to reduce vibration and the likelihood of derailment in major earthquakes. This is good. Another line of routine research involves body design to prevent snow from accumulating. There’s always something like this that can be improved. Unsurprisingly, all of the technologies being tested relate to problems associated with trains travelling at high speed. The most spectacular of these is the nose design. The ALFA-X is a strange bird with a 22-metre nose or perhaps I should say beak.

The noses of shinkansen trains had been getting longer and longer and becoming more birdlike since the 1997 E4 series. Eiji Nakatsu is the bird enthusiast and engineer credited with this design that minimized the sonic boom effect created at the other end of a tunnel when a train enters.

He arrived at the solution via another problem, that of noise caused by the train pantographs. He observed that owls fly silently because the leading edges of their wing feathers have lines of tiny serrations that force the air flow into smaller turbulences that make less noise. In the natural world, making less noise is advantageous when hunting. So is having a beak that doesn’t cause a huge splash to alert fish when you are diving into water to catch them. With respect to the sonic boom problem, Nakatsu saw a parallel between a train entering a tunnel of relatively compressed air, with kingfisher birds that dive at high speed from air into water that is over 800 times as dense, yet hardly making a splash. He correctly reasoned that this was because of the shape of the bird’s beak. His improved nose design enabled the 70 dBa operating noise level to be maintained, gave 30% less air resistance and provided a 13% energy reduction.

What is like about this story is that it has nothing to do with biomimicry. The natural world obeys its own logic, and mimicry for the sake of mimicry is pointless. Learning from nature is a different matter. With the problem of the pantograph, Nakatsu had a problem on his mind, made a connection with a solution to a similar problem in the natural world, and devised an artificial way to solve the problem of pantograph noise. When it came time to consider the sonic boom problem he thought to look for how similar problems were solved in the natural world. Having birdwatching as a hobby might not have been such a coincidence, especially if he was already interested in the physics and aerodynamics of entities moving at speed. Making the connection between how birds and trains move was the creative leap. Another thing I like about this story is that it does not involve research. All it took was curiosity about the world and knowing where to look for a solution to a similar problem. The part of making it work was relatively quick and easy. [c.f. Architectural Myths #22: Biomimesis]

Thought: Perhaps somebody is researching solving the sonic boom problem by changing the shape of tunnel entrances and exits to make them more funnel-like and so not have such an abrupt difference in air density. It might work, but remodeling existing tunnels would involve a whole world of pain for rail services and not be cost-effective.

People are on the case. Flared tunnel portals (as they are called) reduce the pressure gradient of the compression wave to provide better mitigation of the sonic boom effect.

The nose of the E956 ALFA-X shinkansen now even approximates the proportions of a kingfisher beak. These new shinkansen look strange but then, they are not trying to look beautiful. Nor for that matter is the kingfisher.

Two nose variations are currently being tested for pressure and sound differences when the train enters tunnels. The first one in the diagram below is approximately 16 meters long while the second is approximately 22 meters. The nose of a E-5 series is also shown for comparison.

An E5-Series train

Anything traveling at high speed needs an efficient and reliable braking system. ALFA-X is testing a combination of eddy current brakes (that are a known technology used on high-speed trains and roller coasters apparently) and an air brake system installed on the roof of the trains.

Learning from nature only works when the problems are seen or found to be similar. Some birds such as this peregrine falcon can decelerate from 390 kmph (242 mph) with astonishing speed using their alula which are small winglets on the leading edge of their wings. [c.f. Architectural Myths #22: Biomimesis]

Unsurprisingly, fighter aircraft have alula equivalents and resultant manouvreability advantages but, trains being trains, they have to move along track and to stay on that track while braking. In the air, birds and aircraft don’t have this limitation but when an aircraft is rocketing down a runway just after landing (and must stay on that runway), the situation is similar to that of trains. Engines can be reverse thrusted or parachutes can be deployed. An air brake is a third option. The last time air brakes were mentioned in this blog was with respect to the Sukhoi SU-27 in the post Architecture Myths #9: Clean Lines.

The ALFA-X will not be the last shinkansen. There will always been something that can be improved and I’m sure their engineers will continue to set problems that need solving and to draw upon the huge resource of case studies that is the natural world and also on the history of man-made solutions. Both are there for us all, whatever our field, to learn from but in order to do so we first need to frame the problem correctly. [c.f. Indexed Memory]

Some problems such as how to make a building look like a natural object are, along with transparency and weightlessness, logical and physical impossibilities resistant to solution no matter how much money and resources are thrown at them. Such decadent wastage is so over-represented in the history of architecture that one might be mistaken for thinking it is the very essence of architecture.

But not all problems can be solved through precedent in the natural or built environments. The quest for novelty is one such. True, a comprehensive knowledge of architectural history would be useful to know whether or not a solution were truly novel but, on the other hand, an absolute ignorance of architectural history would generate novel solutions just as well even if there were no reference for comprehending them. This is basically where we are today. [You will look in vain for architect job advertisements stipulating a knowledge of history.] Also rife is a pseudo-novelty whereby architectural history is mined for imagery that, chances are, people either won’t know about or will have forgotten anyway. Plundering the built environment for imagery is no different than plundering the natural world for imagery but both often pass for novelty.

To clear our minds, it might be time to revisit Formalism, and regain a perspective on what exactly is an architectural problem. These next two lists I’ve copied from the September 2017 post Making Strange where I suggested a formalist approach to architecture could translate directly and with better fidelity than the literary concepts of Post-Modernism and Deconstructivism ever did. First, what’s not an architectural problem.

  • It means harmony and rhythm are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Music.
  • It means composition and proportion are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Painting.
  • It means three-dimensionality and form are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Sculpture.
  • It means transparency and blurring are not valid concepts for producing or  evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Photography.
  • It means organicism and self-similarity are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re qualities intrinsic to Nature.
  • It means historyphilosophypsychologypolitics and even culture are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re not qualities that influence Architecture alone. Everything has a history or, more precisely, everything has many histories.

Next, what’s left.

  • The notion of space seems to survive intact and I’m not the first to suggest it as a fundamental property of architecture. It may well be the real essence of architecture is the void and not the pretend solid enclosing it.
  • Following on from that, there’s moving through a space. The Acropolis and The Villa Savoye have been famously identified and described (yet never evaluated) as sequences of spatial experiences. Nonetheless, those sequences of spatial experiences are still distinct from the flashbacks, flash forwards and other devices intrinsic to Cinema and that evoke similar feelings of anticipation and suspense.
  • Materialsconstruction, and structure – but only at scales distinct from those of furniture and civil engineering.
  • As long as buildings are constructed objects, the senseable qualities of materials are as valid as their physical ones. This isn’t to argue for a touchy-feely architecture but just to say that, as long as buildings are constructed from materials with qualities, one quality is just as valid as any other.
  • Site.
  • The notion of function survives, in the sense that people still experience a space even if they’re not moving around admiring it.

Identifying the characteristics specific to architecture makes it easier to see what problems need to be solved. It’s the opposite approach to that of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, of whom Paul Rudolph once said was a great architect only because he choose to solve so few problems. There’s some truth in that.


Sunday 10th November 5:08PM: Less than one hour after I posted this post, this arrived in my inbox.

Fast Tracking

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

The 0 Series Shinkansen

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


The buffet car was always a special treat.

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

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

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

The 200 series

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

image from via

The 100 series

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


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


The 400 series

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

The 300 Series

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

A bolsterless bogie has two air springs that support the carriage directly, without an intermediate bolster (cushioning element).

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

A 300 on an evening run back to Tokyo.

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


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


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

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

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

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

The E1 Series

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

The 500 series

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

It had a revolutionary wing-graph pantograph.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, this wonderful story dumbs down to this.

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

The E4 series

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

The E2 Series

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

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

The E3 Series

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

The 700 series

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

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

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

An 800 Series Train.

The N700 series

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

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

The E5 series

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

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

• • •

Doctor Yellow


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

• • •


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


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


Waste in Venice


Waste was one of the ‘fronts’ Aravena identified in his opening statements for the 2016 Venice Architecture Bienalle. By now we’ve all either seen or seen images of the exhibition entrance features – you know the ones. 

You’ll probably also have been told those installations were made from 10,000 sq.m of plasterboard and 14 km of metal studs from the previous Biennale – the one curated by you know who.


What Aravena has done is turn old waste into new waste and, in the process, make it represent waste as well. He’s also wasted his time and ours. The plasterboard might have been more reusable if it hadn’t been cut into tiny pieces, as might those metal studs if they hadn’t been bent. If this is the best the best of architecture has to offer, then sooner or later we can expect to see the aestheticization of waste as architectural ornament. It was sooner than I expected, for immediately outside was another example of someone arranging stuff into a pointless representation of waste. What does it mean? What does it do? Why did they do that? It’s more cutting-edge contentless content. 


Aestheticizing something by making its representation more important than the thing itself is one of architecture’s many dysfunctions stemming from the belief it’s an art. Art however, is much better at aestheticising raw materials because what it does it take materials and uses them to represent something independent of those materials. It also adds value, albeit a highly subjective one.

At the Prada Fondazione in Milan is an exhibition of works by Edward and Nancy Nienholz who assemble found objects into rather disturbing collages.

This most definitely is art. Something new and having a different kind of value has been created. Their intention was never to reduce some global oversupply of disused carnival paraphenalia. Elsewhere at the Prada Fondazione, unwanted art is being repurposed into new art.


The Pirelli Hangar Bacocco in Milan currently has an exhibition titled Architecture as Art. [Grrr.]

One of the works on display was this ‘architectural’ space made out of shredded books. You could climb it and find a space to – what else? – read a book.

This isn’t a response to some global surfeit of shredded books but nor does it pretend to be one. Who knows what will happen after? Perhaps it’ll become part of a permanent exhibition somewhere, or perhaps it’ll be reconstructed elsewhere from different trash at some later date.

The fashion industry is currently attempting to come to grips with recovering fabrics (at the level of fibres) and remaking them into high-value garments. This is good in that arable land can be used for things other than growing cotton but it’s bad if the main object is to maintain a high churn ratio at a marginally lower environmental cost we will all hear about. Getting more wear out of clothes is a sensible idea. Geting rid of the concept of fashion and its obsession with trends and novelty is a better one.

Outside Hangar Bacocco is a temporary pavilion built out of the packing crates artworks arrive in. It will be eventually dismantled and its pieces distributed to where they can be put to use.


The pavilion is a structure with a limited degree of utility and no small amount of artistic/architectural pretension but there is at least a plan to use it for something else afterwards. It’s a better way of doing things. Its designers understand that the best way to generate less waste is to give things a purposeful next life and prevent them from becoming waste in the first place.


This thinking is evident at the Austrian pavilion at the 2016 Architecture Biennale.


The first room contains piles of posters depicting refugee housing projects at three locations in Vienna. In the second room is a large display table that, after the Biennale, will be divided into three parts for re-use at those locations. There’s an exhibition website and a comprehensive exhibition newspaper.

The Austrian pavilion isn’t the only one having this it’s-not-waste strategy. The Portuguese pavilion contains hardly anything and is in a building that, after the biennale, will be repurposed (for its original purpose) as housing. The exhibition has stopped the building from being waste.  

The space is sparse, the only installations some projection screens, models of the projects shown, and plinths with handouts. Maximum effect was extracted from next to nothing, mainly due to the engaging films of Siza talking to the occupants of three of his housing projects.

Rural Studio is the only US ‘practice’ to have be invited to exhibit at VB’16. Having never worked outside of Alabama in their twenty years, they must have been bewildered at having been invited to exhibit. They chose to show The Architectural World two things. The first was some videos of who they are, what they do and why they do it. These videos were presented in a small theatre delineated by suspended bed frames and with stacks of insulation panels as benches. The Theater of the Usefull, they called it. 

Rural Studio used the money they’d been granted to purchase things that, after the Biennale, were to be given to the Assemblea Sociale per la Casa association that provides shelter for the homeless in the Venezia-Mestre-Marghera area. Again, this eliminates waste as a concept and also happens to do maximum good. Besides being a simple and honest thing to do, it’s consistent with the Rural Studio ethos. It’s also worth noting that, compared with some of the more high-profile set pieces, it was all done with zero freight/air miles.   

The same connection between medium and message was there in the German Pavilion I mentioned in the previous post. The visual content of the exhibition was just posters and text on the walls, supplemented by a book and a comprehensive website that’s also a database/resource of housing projects. Again, this is low-impact, low-cost, and you learn stuff. The furniture is not custom designed and made.  

The little pavilion at Hangar Barocco, Rural Studio’s Theater of the Usefull and the Austrian Pavilion at the Biennale are preventing resources from becoming waste by planning for a degree of utility for different people further down the line. This isn’t the case with Aravena’s installations. I’m curious. Didn’t Koolhaas have had a refuse management plan? Does all that stuff just lay around until someone decides to throw it away? Or did Aravena say, “no, don’t throw it away – I have a point to make”? We’re definitely being asked to reflect upon the amount of waste a bienalle generates and I most definitely am. Aravena’s just kicked the can two years down the road to when this waste might well be in our faces again as something useful. Or it might not.

Not that it matters. You can probably learn more about waste management from just walking around Venice.

  • The buildings are designed and made to last. Their life-cycle is set at Forever.
  • People and what they do fit into the buildings available.
  • New buildings are never frivolous.
  • There is none of the aesthetic churn characteristic of architectural activity elsewhere.

On a different level, every day and night enormous quantities of food and drink are produced and consumed yet all the waste just seems to magically disapppear.


VESTA (Venezia Servizi Territoriali ed Ambientali) is a limited company of Venice Municipality and is responsible for drinking water supply, urban and industrial wastewater treatment, waste collection and treatment, public and private cleaning, management of green areas and cemeteries, and environmental reclamation work. Veritas is responsible for rubbish collection.

  • Dry waste and wet waste is placed in tightly closed bags of any kind, that can be given directly to the rubbish collector or left near the outer door of your building between the hours of 6-8 am.
  • Paper, cardboard, tetra-pak is placed into paper bags tied with string and collected on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
  • Glass, plastic and cans are placed in plastic bags marked with blue stickers and collected on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Collection, management and recycling are all good but some there are also cultural factors that work to limit the amount of waste and prevent things from becoming waste in the first place. These are things we’re currently rediscovering.

  • Footpaths in Venice have very few wastebins yet there is no litter. If people need a drink or something to eat, they sit down somewhere and order it. People don’t generate trash as they move throughout the city.
  • Restaurants purify and gasify their own water in refillable bottles.
  • Fabric tablecloths and napkins are the norm.
  • Much of what you eat will have been cooked from raw, unprocessed ingredients that have never been wrapped, packed, bottled or canned.

Venice is of necessity a water supply and waste management hotspot. This year the city will be hosting the Water Technology and Environmental Control Exhibition & Conference September 21-23.


Since 2006, Venice has also hosted the biennial International Symposium on Energy from Biomass and Waste.


One hot topic is the generation of energy from lagoon agla caused by inadequate waste management in the first place. Tackling the same problem from the other end, organic waste from the many kitchens and restaurants is collected and sent to a mechanical-biological stabilisation plant at Fusina not too far away.