Category Archives: Theory

History Repeating #1: Tragedy

Yess – it’s The French Revolution! In his book, Russian and French Revolutionary Architecture, Adolf Max Vogt saw a parallel between what happened to French architecture after the French Revolution and what happened to Soviet architecture after the Russian one. In Architecture in the age of StalinCulture TwoVladimir Paperny put it like this:

This next example is a Soviet example of those conservative, representative forms from 1934. It’s usually called Post-Constructivism because it happened next rather than because of any continuity of approach.

Post-constructivism, 1934

But what is this Culture Two?

The first type of culture – and that includes the Constructivist architects – was a Culture One and the culture that replaced it – that of Stalinist architecture – was a Culture Two. It’s a tidy model that organises so much information into a very dense book that, for almost three years now, I’ve been putting off trying to summarize in less than 2,000 words.

Instead, I will focus here on the shift in the use to which architecture is put when there’s a shift from a Culture One to a Culture Two. Basically, it’s the shift away from the rational use of building materials and volume for useful social purposes such as housing people,

to the expressive use of shape and ornament for the social purpose of reminding people who their oppressors are –  thus keeping them in line.

The former is good for people. The latter is good for oppressors.

We might want to think a bit more about the power structures to which architecture has traditionally given shape, and about what today’s might be. 

We don’t know if Le Corbusier’s proposal for the 1932 Palace of the Soviets Competition would’ve been any better for the people than the building that eventually won the competition, but 1932 is generally regarded as the year the wind changed.

In 1934 it was still not clear what was going on.

Some of the clarity of Paperny’s book comes from him being able to look back from the distance of 2002. In 1937 there was still no clarity, but positions had solidified somewhat.

Why FLW was invited to Russia and why he accepted are no great mystery. It’s tempting to think there was some giant ego vacuum to be filled now LC had vowed never to return, but the tedious truth is business had been slack since Midway Hotel (1923) and wasn’t to pick up until Fallingwater came online (1937). Saying yes to everything was the prudent thing to do.

Culture One and Culture Two aren’t just different – they’re complete opposites and Paperny’s book is organised according to them.

  • Centrifugal vs. Centripetal: This is the fundamental, all-encompassing opposition. Culture One wanted everything dispersed and spread horizontally and equally. Culture Two wanted it centralised (controllable) and dispersed hierachically. This opposition played itself out with De-urbanism, fatally so for Mikhail Okhotovich who proposed buildings for 100 persons, dispersed in a an isotropic grid with every place connected to every other place.

    Culture One/Culture Two may be a model but what it describes weren’t abstractions.

  • Uniform vs. Hierarchical: Culture One wanted everything to be evenly spread amongst all and across all. It wanted to erase differences between city and country and replace it with uniformly distributed agri-cities.  It wanted minimum standards for human occupation so everybody could be assured of a certain amount. A. Pasternak wrote in the first issue of Contemporary Architecture that “It is incorrect and impractical to think that only … a city’s business centre is the place for tall buildings. We believe that our new life compels us to place skyscrapers in the rest of the city as well.”  The first declaration, in 1928, of the Association of Architects-Urbanists mentions the “complete destruction of social inequalities, the simplification and gradual extinction of the class structure, and the nationalisation of land.” (p74)In contrast, Culture Two formalised the idea of hierarchy, with Moscow as the major city, St. Petersburg second, and Kharkov third. Each city had a centre of power and a subservient periphery.  Proximity to Moscow, and to the centre of Moscow was an indicator of power. Something that was possible in Moscow was, by definition, impossible elsewhere. Even within Moscow, architectural ideas were judged on their appropriateness for their position within the spatial hierarchy. As Paperny put it, “the value of selected parts (Moscow, for example, or the centre of the city, or the facades of a building, or the main axis of a facade) becomes significantly higher than the value of all remaining space.
  • Horizontal vs. Vertical:  This is easily understood architecturally but it went further. The horizontality of Culture One went beyond borders. Magazines were printed with titles in three languages and their contents in two. Articles from foreign magazines were translated. People were curious about other places. This stopped with Culture Two as it was thought nothing could be learned from other places. 
  • Beginning vs. Ending: Culture One rejected everything that went before it. The basic stance was, like The Futurists, to trash it all and begin again. Culture One saw itself as standing at the beginning of a new history. It was interested in the future. Culture Two regarded itself as perfection and as standing at the end of all that went before. Culture Two’s interest in the past was only to find out how it came to be so perfect.
  • Movement vs. Immobility: Culture One wanted culture and population spread across the entire country. In 1929 Ginzburg and Okhitovich’s proposed mobile and transportable dwelling units for the new town of Magnitogorsk. Culture Two rejected anything that would facilitate the movement and dispersal of the population or their desire for it.

Okhitovich theory

As part of this desire for permanence and immovability, Culture Two rejected all buildings that, like Le Corbusier’s newly completed Tcentrosoyuz Building raised on columns, did not “grow naturally out of the ground” – that implied mobility. LC was never a fan of de-urbanism but, for many, pilotis meant legs and legs meant movement.

LC desurbanism

  • Collective vs. Individual: Culture One saw people as inherently equal. Collective housing with communal facilities enabled women to be equal members of the workforce. This was to disappear with the ascendance of Culture Two when, in 1930, the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued its resolution “About Work on the Reconstruction of Daily Life: We are seeing extremely unfounded, almost fantastic, and therefore, extremely harmful attempts of some compares … to jump ‘in a single leap’ over the barriers on the path to the socialist reconstruction of daily life.” Whilst not naming names, the gist was clear. The family unit, and its accompanying hierarchies, was back in vogue. Culture Two valued individuality, but only as affirmation of the specific place, person, or building within the hierarchy. As always, Paperny puts it well.

Moscow State University

Group collaborations were characteristic of Culture One. In Culture Two, authorship was celebrated in proportion to mediocrity. 

  • Mechanism vs. Human Here’s where it starts to get nasty. “Buildings were regarded more as humans as humans became less so”. Culture Two accused Culture One with its focus on technical solutions and minimum specifications, of having a mechanistic view of humanity. Attempting to a provide a minimum level of housing was seen as being in thrall to technology rather than the wanting to do so representing a concern for humanity. The word “living” was also misconstrued, with a decrease in the thickness of panels from three millimeters to one millimeter being presented as “living people being motivated by a living task”. Building became anthropomorphicised, culminating in the 1950s when the facades of all building were finished in rose-pink tiles.
    Being denouced as mechanical”, “logical” or “abstract” was a precursor to arrest. “Merriment”, “joy” and “warmth” were the new qualities desired of architecture, with “warmth” being most valued. This is Ivan Sobolev’s 1938-9 Apartment House of the Peoples’ Commissariat of Sovkhozes. Despite filling up with snow for five months of the year, the balconies of this building radiate warmth, or rather a cooling Mediterranean outlook, rather than the mechanistic coldness of Culture One architecture.  Moscow streets in the 1930s were alive year-round with vendors for ice-cream and sold drinks. Beer would first be warmed to allow it to be drunk. [p131] Balconies are a persistent feature of Soviet architecture 1930-1950. In general, Culture Two celebrated warmth as a concept rather than as keeping warm as such.

The differences between a Culture One worldview and a Culture Two worldview are so many and so completely opposite that, at times, it seems as if any pair of opposites can be brought into service. The third part Lyrical-Epic contains chapters titled Mutism-Word, Improvisation-Notation, Efficatious-Artistic, Business-Miracle, Realistic-Truth.

  • Improvisation vs. Notation: Culture One believed that the result of an activity cannot be known beforehand and that the difference between spontaneity and calculation was merely one of method as either would give a true result. Culture Two believed the result was known prior to an activity and that the only point of the activity was to lead to the desired result. Culture One would have insisted the path at least agree with some rule or method, but for Culture Two the path had to agree with the result that was already known. Culture Two believed that “not only do events in the present influence those in the past, but the result precedes the activity that leads to it.”
  • Realistic vs. Truth Culture One understood truth to be what exists in the world. Architects were encouraged to take steps towards reality. It was thought architecture could not exist outside of real demands. Truth for Culture One was the truth of purpose, function, construction, material and perception. Culture Two believed that representations of something not only conveyed but contained the qualities of the original. For example, something that was large could only be represented by something that was large. The representation took on the qualities of the thing represented, as we have seen.

Also, Culture Two believed that “truth” had nothing to do with fact and truth of that kind was derided as pathetic factographysomething we have come to identify today as “truthiness”. Paperny relates a story of how the architecct Burov designed a building to have a band of stone slabs that, classically, had been used to distribute weight better across the masonry even though that task was no longer required of it. A Culture One critric would call this band illegitimate but a Culture Two critic would call it valid because it could exist. For Culture One, truth was that which is or that which will be. For Culture Two, truth was that which could be. 

Clarity of construction was not something that could be unlearned, and so Post-constructivism was rendered more truthful by ornament representing clarity of construction and which looks like something from our own not-too-distant past.

Post-constructivism, 1934

• • •

Culture Two in the Soviet Union ended with the death of Stalin and the country embarked on a program of housing that, by the end of the 1970s saw the entire population housed in blocks such as the 1-447C and its variants.

In the West however, Culture Two was just beginning. In his introduction, Paperny draws a parallel not with Stalinism but with the neoliberalism of which Post-Modernism was the opening act.

Untitled 12

• • •

History Repeating #2: Farce will be the title of a follow-on post that will take a set of Paperny’s oppositions and map them to our present. I expect it will be possible to identify any recent trend and find a pair of oppositions that will map cleanly – for example: 

“Naturalistic architecture was more celebrated the more contrived the needs it satisfied,” [I’ve always enjoyed this photograph and how the birds use the structure that exists to observe them, to conceal themselves from the birdwatchers] or, in a similar vein,

“The projects most awarded did the least for the greatest amount of people” 

and not to forget the haunting,“Authorship came to be celebrated in proportion to mediocrity.”

Making Strange

Poetry is strange and poetic language is strange. Some words make pleasant or interesting sounds. Other words may sound peculiar while others may be similar – or different – in special ways. Still other words occur in unexpected positions or with some new role or roles. All these poetic devices fall under the general concept of making strange and they all call attention to themselves so we can see something in a new way. This is what poetry does and what art in general does.

Making strange is so intrinsic to poetry that its absence is also a way of making strange. There’s quite a famous poem called “This is Just to Say”. [1] Over the years, people have spent much time trying to work out what makes it poetry. 

If making strange in poetry is about words and language, then making strange in filmmaking is about film as celluloid. I remember De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves as having a scene in which a person walking up some flights of stairs has the same footage briefly repeated three times. The effect was “Did I just see what I think I just saw?” Then there was the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker in which two birds fly away across The Zone but only one of them is seen to have crossed it. It’s a powerful scene made strange by simply removing some footage. Both these techniques are specific to film.

I’ve written elsewhere [c.f. Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINEabout the Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis song Canʼt get you out of my head performed by Kylie Minogue. It’s a pop song made strange by beginning with chorus and a fade-in that allude to the upcoming lyrical content. In the spirit of repetition, let’s appreciate it once more for what it is.

[or vimeo]

Towards the end, the buildings in the background are made strange by lighting up as if they were VU meters, showing us a city made strange getting down.

Light show projections are a new form of public entertainment that shows us buildings in strange new ways even if only for short periods of time. More recent projections involve 3D mappings spectacularly combined with animation – a quality that’s very very strange for a building.

Like anything else that stimulates endorphins, increasingly stronger doses are needed if something is to be made strange and new over and over. In art, once a technique of art has been used to indicate something is art it can’t really be used again in the same way as it won’t be so strange anymore. It might still be art but it probably won’t be good art. This is why artists are under such pressure to continually outdo themselves.

In stage drama, making strange involves preventing the audience from becoming involved in a pretend story and faked emotions. Techniques such as wooden delivery, stilted dialogue, awkward silences, or having the actors carry the scenery onto the stage remind the audience they’re there to concentrate on the content of the play and not its superficialities. Bertold Brecht was the main proponent of this type of theatre. He called it Verfremdungseffekt. In English it’s known as the distancing effect, the alienation effect, the defamiliarization effect, or the estrangement effect. This last is apparently closest in meaning to the priyom ostraneniya (приём остранения) as understood and used by the Russian Formalists. [3]

Viktor Shklovsky was head of OPOJAZ – the Society for the Study of Poetic Language group (1910~1930-ish) was mainly concerned with technique and device. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines: they are the result of an intentional human activity in which a specific skill transforms raw material into a complex mechanism suitable for a particular purpose.” [4] According to Shklovsky, “art is a sum of the literary and artistic devices the artist manipulates to craft his work.”

The Russian Formalists’ literary criticism emphasised how literary or artistic devices unique to imaginative writing actually functioned. There’s an admirable purity to a literature that doesn’t aspire to be painting, a painting that doesn’t aspire to be music, a music that doesn’t aspire to be sculpture, an architecture that doesn’t aspire to be cinema, etc. In other words, Goethe was wrong. It makes no more sense to evaluate architecture according to rhythm and harmony than it does to evaluate music according to site conditions or climate. The Russian Formalists began by not allowing psychology or culture or history to enter into their evaluations of how well the writer used what they did to achieve they set out to do. It’s still a refreshing approach, as shown by Helen Vendler’s analyses of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. [c.f. Twelve Books on Architecture] It’s also the opposite of what we currently have.

Today, when we read a review of a piece of art, we’re almost certain to read a list of references to the choice of thematic material as filtered the artist’s reading of history, politics, gender studies and contemporary society. If no such context readily presents itself, then the fallback context is to discuss the work in terms of everything the artist has done before or is currently working on. [c.f. Conceptual Continuity] Everything seems worthy of our attention except how the artist has mastered the techniques and devices specific to their particular art form.

Understandably, the Russian Formalists were keen to determine exactly what is intrinsic to literary language. If we were to let such an approach transfer to architecture – and it could transfer directly and with better fidelity than the literary concepts of Post-Modern or Deconstruction ever translated – then it would have huge consequences for evaluating architecture.

  • 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 history, philosophy, psychology, politics and 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.

What’s left standing?

  • 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.
  • Materials, construction, 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.

In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Patrik Schumacher claims function is not a fundamental quality of architecture. In a perversion of the Russian Formalist position, he states that people can use the space inside a cave or a hollowed out tree for shelter as they might a building. From this he jumpily concludes that function is a quality that can be satisfied by something other than architecture, and thus not a quality by which architecture should be evaluated.
[p341, Vol I. if you’re keen.]
perverted formalism

  • Watertightness, servicing, security, durability, sustainability, energy performance and so on, are all specific to Architecture [I know, I know …] despite their current relegation to The Art of Building.
  • The solving of many conflicting requirements together is integrated design and not unique to architecture, but solving the above set is. 

Schumacher would [and did] say that since all these can be solved by engineers, they are not a concern of architects. This is a distortion of a perversion of the Russian Formalist stance and also an example of either ecological fallacy or circular reasoning since what we’re trying to establish is what makes architecture architecture, not what makes architects architects. We can debate whether all architecture is made by architects but it’s contrary to both commonsense and logic to claim all architects make architecture. [5]

These candidates for qualities unique to architecture hit upon all the contentious ones. Why site and not context? If we admit context then why not historical, political and cultural ones? I don’t know.  Perhaps Asnago & Vender got it right by considering history as the site condition of What’s already there. [c.f Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender]

In some later post I’ll try to illustrate how this concept of making strange can be used to evaluate architecture and, by association, the efforts of architects.

To close, this concept of making strange shouldn’t be reduced to shallow novelty or narrowed to mean only aesthetic innovation. Something novel or innovative can only be considered to have been made strange if it employs a device intrinsic to architecture, and even then only until strange becomes the new normal.

If architecture is an art, then its devices must be capable of interrogation in the same way we can talk about painting not by its subject matter or what we presume the intent of the artist to have been, but by the hard and lasting evidence of brushstrokes, their colours and the patterns they make. Seeing architecture in a similar way might even prove useful in the long run. You never know.

• • •

  1. This is Just to Say was written in 1934 by Walter Carlos Williams.
  2. More on the distancing effect and its chief popularizer, Bertold Brecht.
  3. This entry will probably tell you all you need to know about the differences between Mechanistic Formalism, Organic Formalism, Systemic Formalism and Linguistic Formalism. The differences hardly matter given our conceptual distance from any of these sub-stances.
  4. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines … ” Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. 1925. A poem became a machine for meaning about the same time a house became a machine for living. 
  5. The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I contains no reference to Shklovsky or even to Brecht but the question of what is intrinsic to architecture and nothing else is one Patrik Schumacher had to answer if he was to argue for the autonomy of architecture and for it being a great function system of society rather than a mere subset of the art system. His suggested answer is in the book’s final chapter I still haven’t gotten around to writing about.




Modern Vernacular

A vernacular of performance …

Microprocessor research and technological application is always concerned with the pursuit of higher performance for the same or lower energy input, manufacture using simpler and fewer mechanical and chemical processes, the discovery of processes having higher degrees of tolerance, the elimination of ecologically unsound and toxic processes, the search for elements and compounds which are less expensive either in themselves or to synthesize, three dimensional layout design to maximize compactness, increase speed of operation and minimize electron loss, and so on. In addition to all of these concerns, miniaturization and cost efficiency are also pursued in order to maximize applicability and marketability. Form is irrelevant. They are simple rectangular solids covered in resin to protect and insulate, and also to hide their workings from competitors. Rather than a beauty of form, there is a beauty of the synthesis of isolated, composite and integrated function, the exploration of materials with multiple properties, the processes of manufacture, and the economics and integration of it all. Most of this is pursued at the sub-electron level.


The result is a high-performance product with very specific and highly-defined functions. It has a form but that was not the goal. It carries no notions of status. Microprocessors and their manufacture are the product of continuing refinement towards more performance for less input, all the time shunning waste, excess, redun-dancy and design for the sake of it. The beauty of a microprocessor is not one of simple function, but an integrated performance of the whole and its parts in themselves and in the course of their manufacture. The pursuit of this is a commercial one for a market is assured. As there is for housing. However, in terms of its consequences for the production process, there is an important difference between a house as a machine for living in, and a house as a metaphor of a machine for living in.


… encompasses building materials, …


The vernacular use of local materials in rural areas is not intended to be quaint, rustic or to glorify the aesthetic qualities of natural materials. It is merely an obvious and expedient use of available materials, labour resources and techniques. Loadbearing walls support loads, provide thermal and acoustic insulation and provide spatial delimitors. They are also relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, instead of us seeing the beauty of the thought processes by which vernacular buildings came about, we more readily see their beauty in terms of the property they tend to be standing on, in much the same way as the “beauty” of ships and grain silos is dependent upon the vastness of the empty (but no less justifying) spaces around them. Selection and use of materials should be in terms of how many of their properties can be made use of to satisfy multiple functions. It would expedite the rational selection and use of building materials and methods today if a similar thought processes were applied.


Glen Murcutt and Rem Koohaus have used corrugated iron for the inherent properties it has, and in doing so, have restored its place as a building mateial.  This is a step back towards a vernacular approach to materials and their use. Natural materials are already objects of status so unless we are to either import building materials or quarry every rock and fell every tree in the country, a modern vernacular will sooner or later have to use substitutes. A day will come when corrugated iron will be seen as decadent a building material as carved stone is now.  Sooner or later we will have to relearn.

… interior finishes, …

Internal finishes contribute significantly to the cost of a building. A modern vernacular building would be designed ot use inexpensive and multi-functional finishes were any to be used at all. The walls of log cabins and traditional Japanese rooms (and their houses, for the two were integral) did not have any applied finishes.


Timber having become the commodity of status it is, building such a house is a statement of affluence in Japan today. We have to learn to appreciate the beauty that less expensive and status-laden materials also have in their raw state. This process can already be seen operating in the field of product design. Whereas most hi-fi components used to be housed in timber cabinets, only top-quality ones remain so today. Office furniture is being continually being redesigned to use less expensive materials. Over the past twelve months, the use of less-expensive transparent plastics has beome widespread, but marketed as an indicator of some new awareness. Validated by their use in the iMac, their use quickly spread to kitchen equipment such as electric kettles and toasters.


… building components, …

If passed on, the cost benefits of mass production are more pronounced if products are standardized and their design and manufacture tailored for maximum cost efficiency. Countering this is the value-added component restored by offering a wide selection of products and marketing them with emphasis on ‘individuality’. Double-glazed windows and conservatories are two examples where this operates to negate consumer benefit. CD players used to be made with lasers having lenses of glass. The current use of plastic is the result of design for cost-efficient manufacture rather than audio considerations. Some designs are easier to produce than others. This is reflected in the cost of the final goods whether the means of production is a factory machine, skilled worker, unskilled worker or craftsman. What has to be remembered is that a building can use prefabricated and mass-produced products designed for ease of assembly, but if these are to produce a building having an aesthetic that is dependent upon the possession of property for its effect, then it will never be applicable to realistic housing needs .The desirability will be there because of reduced construction, but those benefits will be negated by the price of the property necessary to sustain the aesthetic.

case study

… methods of construction, …

Similarly, construction by highly skilled technicians, craftsmen or artisans was simple process involving available materials. It is not anymore. The use of highly skilled labour as a means of production continues to indicate status. That it produces goods of high quality is not disputed.


This is the same value and status investing process of art. Design for less-expensive methods of construction has to take into account the inherent imprecision of techniques requiring less skill. Modernism did not translate well when its construction techniques were applied to low-cost housing. Flat roofs were technically vulnerable to imprecise methods. A simple and available means of achieving something is preferable to a complex one. In addition, each component of the building should be designed to have more than one function, both when the building is complete and in the course of its construction.

… building fittings and services, …

Building fittings continue to be marketed as status-generating consumer items, particularly with regard to kitchens. In terms of aesthetics derived from function and status, a £3,500 stainless steel cooker is more beautiful than a £50 reconditioned gas cooker, but in terms of cost-effective performance, the opposite is true.


In general, be it a sofa or a cupboard, built-in furniture is a means of adding value to buildings. Justifying this in terms of saving space, returns the argument to one of property. Be this as it may,the process of building items in complicates and lengthens the building process. Concealing anything in a building costs money, whether it be hardware (structure, construction joints), firmware (conduits, services) or software (all furniture, light fittings, saucepans and all objects having an element of consumer choice). The evolution of techniques to incorporate hardware and firmware elements into a design should be encouraged.


… the building type, …

If a vernacular aesthetic of performance is to be applicable to buildings, then a building itself must also satisfy as many functions as possible – a concept which runs counter to this century’s architectural thought. Last century’s gave us the notion of separating functions and classes in a city. This century’s gave it form, the initial applications of which were new towns and mass housing schemes separating residential and retail areas. Compare the cities of Europe where, during the 19th century, having shops at street level and apartments above become sufficiently well established as a pattern of high-density urban living to survive industrialization and Modernism separating them as they did in Britain.


An equivalent building type still survives here but it dates from before the Industrial Revolution when this split occurred. It is the lower-class Georgian residential/retail building. Remaining largely on high streets, it is a building of four or five storeys providing mixed usage along streets which actually function as part of a city. The needs for shelter and food have not changed that much over the past couple of hundred years to warrant new types of structures built in totally different locations and dependent upon public or private transport to link them.

… and the city. 

Modern needs are not that modern. The public amenity of shopping is privatized and concentrated in shopping centres and malls which separate the retail function of the city. The price advantages of large chain stores is sufficient for us to accept the inconvenience of location, the neces-sity to drive or otherwise get there, and the dehumanization of the act of selling, the act of buying, and to a certain extent, the goods themselves. Catalogue shopping, home delivery services, television and online shopping and video deliveries are only manifestations of a modern life-style because our local access to them has been taken away. They are commercial responses to restoring something which our buildings don’t provide any more.


The Georigan mixed use buildings are useful urban forms which should be regarded as a prototype, and like a microprocessor, have their design, structure and process subject to continual refinement in order to extract maximum performance from it. This is unlikely to happen while residual social prejudice remains in the form of separation of classes, and institutionalized architectural prejudice remains in the form of separation of functions. However, if a former Victorian sweatshop or mews building can be marketed as a desirable form of urban living, then so can living above a shop. In addition, if we are to avoid people being housed with no alternative but to look at each other, the only unexploited form of public property left for housing to overlook is the street, and it is in the interest of the entire city and society that streets remain interesting and active enough for people to not only use them to travel along and buy food, but also interact with them as a neighbourhood and derive sustenance from them. This form of urban use should also allow us to extract more performance from our streets than we are either currently receiving or are being led to expect in the future.

• • •

• • •

This post complements and concludes the previous Meta-Aesthetics post and is the third and final installment of misfits’ prehistory. Normal programming resumes next week.






The Fireplace

Fireplace is one of those reliable English language words that don’t leave you guessing. This abridged history begins with the traditional European fireplace of mediaeval times. The one in the image on the left, below, is from a house The Black Knight once stayed in circa 1400, hence the insignia on the mantel – or at least that’s how I remember it from World of Interiors. The house is most definitely that of a nobleman, but I like how it can be lived in with a minimum of apparatus. Rugs and tapestries soften the acoustics and lessen radiant cooling. That 17th century invention, the piano, would always have been by the window for better light but not so close for diurnal temperature variations to affect its tuning. A painting and some flowers in a vase probably always satisfied the human needs for art and nature. Internal shutters kept the wind-owt. The fireplace provided warmth.

The story-arc of the fireplace starts off promisingly with a succession of improvements for better combustion.

The first major change in heating technology came in the early 17th century when Franz Kessler had the idea of using the siphon effect to pull hot air through a ceramic baffle that warmed up and transferred heat to the room.

Taken from the Holzsparkunst (The Art of Saving Wood) by Franz Kessler – published in 1618.

Over four centuries, the ceramic fireplace (a.k.a. masonry heater) with multiple baffles became the dominant continental European way to heat a room. Each country had its variants but common to all was a large mass that heated the room by radiant heat.

A Frenchman, Jean Desaguiliers, noticed that metals such as cast iron conducted heat into the room more effectively. Benjamin Franklin combined these two discoveries into the Franklin Stove he proposed in 1741.

It had the problem of only burning well and without smoke if there was a strong draft, and this was difficult if the flue was still cold. In 1780, David Rittenhouse modified Franklin’s design by adding an L-shaped flue at the top and it’s Rittenhouse improved design that today, unfortunately for Rittenhouse’s memory, is mistakenly referred to as a Franklin Stove.

A little over four years ago, in the Night Sky Radiant Cooling post, I introduced Count von Rumford [a.k.a. Benjamin Thompson] who, in 1796, suggested improvements that became known as the Rumford Fireplace. Rumford must have been sensitive to cold as he’s also credited with the invention of thermal underwear.

The Rumford fireplace created a sensation in London when [Rumford] introduced the idea of restricting the chimney opening to increase the updraught, which was a much more efficient way to heat a room than earlier fireplaces. He and his workers modified fireplaces by inserting bricks into the hearth to make the side walls angled, and added a choke to the chimney to increase the speed of air going up the flue. The effect was to produce a streamlined air flow, so all the smoke would go up into the chimney rather than lingering, entering the room, and often choking the residents. It also had the effect of increasing the efficiency of the fire, and gave extra control of the rate of combustion of the fuel, whether wood or coal. Many fashionable London houses were modified to his instructions, and became smoke-free. [W]

The pot-bellied stove of circa 1860 is one of the world’s great inventions. It could produce 50 kW or more, making them suitable for heating large spaces such as railway station waiting rooms and depots, and even the trains themselves. Warmth went public. 

The story of the domestic fireplace between 1850 and 1950 is that of the shift from combusting wood, to combusting coal, and then gas. Below, the first example is a coal-burning fireplace from circa 1870 and the others are examples of the gas-fired “coal-effect” fireplaces still common in the UK today.

Ceramic “coals” glow a convincing red upon sufficient heat input.

Over the same period, the history of the fireplace split in two. One history charts improvements in the fuel being combusted and how to combust it. The other charts the change from the fireplace being (1) a functional feature structurally integrated into the building, into (2) a functional and symbolic feature integrated into the building and then into (3) a symbolic feature. This history can probably be traced through the fireplaces of Wright alone.

In the 20th century, the fireplace became an architectural feature increasingly detached from the building.

These next images, in no particular order, show the fireplace in various stages on the spectrum of architectural element to objectified object.

Whether this objectification happened because fireplaces were made functionally obsolete by air conditioning, underfloor heating and other forms of active environmental control no longer matters. It continued anyway. An architecture victim at twelve, I looked foward to dancing around the fire in my modern house of the future.

One technical fightback that occurred 1960-1980 was the “heatform” fireplace which was a metal firebox built into a full masonry chimney. They were inexpensive to install because a trained mason didn’t have to construct a firebox. Side or top vents circulated heated air back into the room. Heatform and Heatilator were popular brands.

This is Vulcan oil-fired heater of a type popular in Australia in the 1960s. There was a tank on an outside wall and when its float indicator dropped below a certain level, you’d phone someone and a guy in a boiler suit would come park an oil tanker in your driveway and fill it up again, fuelling oil dependency at the same time. Oil heaters such as these were often enclosed in a masonry–effect fireplace surrounds or inserted into feature walls of masonry effect cladding. Ceramic inserts above the burner glowed orange at full burn.

The 1970s oil crises and a growing awareness that burning oil wasn’t such a good thing led to a revival of interest in wood-burning stoves that had no need for masonry surrounds, even fake ones. Most improved little upon the Rittenhouse Stove. Rectangular shapes were admired for their modern looks rather than for having more radiant surface area than a potbelly.

Freestanding stoves were seen as more modern but placing them in a fireplace meant the masonry would continue to radiate heat for some time after heat input ceased.

Philip Starck solved that problem by placing optional boxes of modular rocks / modular boxes of optional rocks beneath the firebox. Meet Speetbox. Is there anything that has not been reinvented by Philippe Starck?

Speetbox app features include:

  • Control of hot air distribution (on/off)
  • Control of room temperature (optional)
  • Setting of power/speed of combustion
  • Analysis of flue temperatures (safety)
  • Lighting control
  • Control of electric sockets (time setting)
  • Hearth software features update

Since the 1970s, the objectification of the fireplace has intensified but with less dancing. Of the feature object fireplaces, the suspended fireplace was perhaps the most perverse,

but there is also the subcategory of architectural fireplaces,

as well as the one having the fireplace as architecturalized object.

As it happened, it wasn’t the fireplace being objectified after all but fire itself. The frameless Escea DS1400 lets you focus on the flame instead of going to the trouble of making one or using it to make more by periodically adding fuel. The Escea DS1400 operates on either natural gas or propane. Its heat output of 5–5.6 kW might warm 16 sq.m on a cold day.

A downloadable user guide tells you how to connect your fireplace to the internet ffs and warns you not to lose the remote.

We haven’t quite reached the bottom. This next is a bio-ethanol fire experience that provides you with romantic fire art. At least the flames are still flames.

You know how this is going to end.  Dimplex’s Opti Myst® effect uses ultrasonics to create a fine water mist that’s coaxed upwards through the ‘fuel’ to allow moving images of flames to be projected onto it and create a convincing illusion of flames and smoke. The result is an appearance so authentic it will be mistaken for true flames and smoke. To its credit, there is still the presence of a gas-like substance but any conceptual satisfaction is thwarted by their “Just add water!” approach to creating fire. 

Focal Point Fires make much of their realistic fire effects. Dimplex have been at it for some time. Their Optiflame® effect was introduced in 1988.

Their Opti-V Effect is, they say, the perfect blend of magic and realism. This is disturbing. Just when I’ve finally come to accept a reality that’s insufficiently magical, I realise I’ve been neglecting to worry about magic not being realistic enough.

It uses the latest High Definition TV technology to create flames and sparks for a virtual fireplace experience like no other. The unique and patent protected design combines ultra realistic flickering flames with three dimensional LED logs that sporadically spark! With the addition of an audio element of crackling logs, the illusion of a real fire is complete. [snarky boldings mine]

There are many fireplace TV apps available that don’t treat sound as an extra. Their downside is that the only heat you’ll get will be from your flatscreen’s electronics. The fire as fire-effect virtual fireplace is so new our language hasn’t yet adapted to describe it. If left to virtually burn continuously on this 32″ SONY BRAVIA for the three months of winter, such an app would consume 35W of electricity. Most of that 35W would be converted into heat, but you might wish it was a little more especially if, like me, you are a seated adult male generating (i.e. losing) approx. 70W of metabolic heat per hour.

From such proud beginnings to such an ignominious end. I didn’t set out to write a critical para-historic fable about architecture as a projection of an image of a hollowed-out shell of something that once had a purpose, but it’s what I seem to have done.

• • •

After Architecture

“We believe in a nutritious architecture that does the shelter thing well, makes us feel good because it is good for us, doesn’t cost the earth or cost us the earth.” 

This has been at the top of this blog for five years now. It’s a statement of priorities – about getting the physical things about our environment right so that our physiologies are taken care of. It stands for daylighting and not tuberculosis, for ventilation and not respiratory problems, for warmth and cooling instead of pneumonia and fever. It stands for buildings constructed out of things and processes that don’t poison us or our environment directly or indirectly. It stands for protecting us from all sorts of harm. All these are things that buildings do. The perception is that Architecture is above all this, that it deals with higher-level needs, that it’s Food for The Soul.


Most of what’s wrong with the world of contemporary architecture can be traced back to Philip Johnson, winner of the first Pritzker Prize. I’ve written about the building vs. architecture divide before so I’ll quote only this from Albert Barr’s preface to The International Style.

The wider the opportunity for the architect within the limitations of structure and function to make judgments determined by his taste and not merely by economics, the more fully architectural will be the resultant construction. There is no rigid classification, building, quite devoid of the possibility of æsthetic organization. Yet buildings built at minimal cost with practical considerations dominant throughout may be held to be less fully architectural than those on which the architect has more freedom of choice in the use of materials and the distribution of the parts.

Whatever can’t be blamed on Philip Johnson can usually be blamed on Charles Jencks who presented Post Modernism as an architecture in contrast to Modernism being mere and nasty building.


It seems every semi-century someone feels the need to re-remind people architecture is not building. Patrik Schumacher devotes a whole chapter of The Autopoiesis of Architecture (Vol.I) to this. It’s time to stop this pointless cycle and ask: If Architecture as nourishment for the soul is distinct from building that merely nourishes our bodies, then on what level does it do so? The distinction might turn out to be like that of optometrists who deal with the health of the human eye, and opticians who deal with its functioning for vision. Buildings might just deal with the functional aspects of existence whilst Architecture deals with needs that are somehow more ‘spiritual.’ Many believe this anyway.

Architecture as a System Of Belief is a good topic for a post, but not now. Here, I want to take this next diagram, courtesy of Mr. Maslow, as my starting point.

Keeping us alive and well is the very lowest level of human need that can be satisfied. A nutritious architecture that does the shelter thing well etc. is at the bottom of this hierarchy of human needs, but is fundamental – it must be satisfied. All buildings can do this, albeit some better than others.

The next level up is the need for physical safety. According to Maslow, this is what we look for when physiological needs are satisfied. Most buildings do this – they don’t have to be architecture.

If we go up another level we move out of the realm of physical needs and into that of psychological ones. I can’t think of any architecture noted for generating feelings of love and belonging but houses, for example, symbolise it as well as facilitate it. We start to have ideas of “home”, “place” and “community” – none of which requires a concept of architecture btw.

Maasai Village

In the next level up, the level of Esteem, it becomes possible for the first time to identify Architecture as something fulfilling a need that cannot be met by a building. Esteem is a higher-level need but who’s to say esteem claimed by overt displays of wealth is any different than esteem claimed by covert displays of a supposedly refined sensibility? Certainly not architects when accepting clients. Both are equal, especially when compared with esteem earned through one’s noble character or deeds. To summarise, architecture functions on the level of Esteem.

adam smith

Mr. Smith continued to say “… which, in their eye, is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves.” Next, I’m going to take some characteristics generally attributed to architecture, and link them back to the need for esteem, not belonging, safety or well-being. [If you like, you can skip this bit and go straight to the heading Aravena, further down.] 


Lighting effects are often taken to indicate architectural quality, as opposed to daylighting that merely illuminates buildings. The split happened a while back. Le Corbusier showed up at the 1930 CIAM conference dealing with issues such as daylighting for the prevention of tuberculosis but in 1924 had already stopped calling his rooftops solariums and offered his definition of architecture as shapes existing for light to show them off to our grateful eyes. The buildings of Tadao Ando, particularly the early wedding chapels, perpetrate this perception.


Architecture does deal in quantities of light, but only beyond the minimum.


Excess light has come to mean large and unobstructed windows facing big property or big views from mountains or over large bodies of water.


I remember a sentence from Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness not many pages in. It went something like “what could be more pleasant than the early morning sunlight hitting the honey-coloured stone of your kitchen floor?”  Not much, it seems. Every word in this sentence is laden with pretence.

  • Your kitchen has a window. You do not live in some squalid communal dwelling.
  • Your kitchen has a stone floor. You have a house.
  • Your kitchen has honey-coloured stone as its floor. It is probably York Stone and you are probably rich.
  • It’s not just sunlight, it is early morning sunlight. The sun is low and not blocked by trees or other buildings. You have a big garden and honey-coloured stone on your kitchen floor. You are rich.


I almost forgot. Light coming from directly above means you either live in a detached house or a penthouse.



The decoupling of space from the units that quantify it is the other great invention of 20th century architecture. Like the delusional lady three images up, we’ve learned to value a ‘sense of space’ instead of actual space. White painted walls don’t indicate where the floor ends but where infinity begins.


Not having to use every square metre of one’s real estate is as important as it ever was. Space and light, contemporary indicators of architecture’s soul food both turn out to be new manifestations of old-paradigm indicators of wealth and property.


The indication of wealth is in the details. Securing a carpet without skirting is neither easy nor cheap. It takes a lot of money to make a building look like it is not a simple aggregate of materials joined, fitted and layered together.


The Indoor-Outdoor Thing

Anything to do with the indoor-outdoor relationships or views assumes an outdoor to relate to. This is not always the case.



Building are not Swiss watches or Bugattis. Precision construction is necessary for spaceship-like buildings such as Princess Elisabeth Antarctica. However, if global weather is getting more extreme we’re going to have to think again if entire populations are to benefit from a similar approach. Precision construction does not downmarket.


Art, Complex Geometries

The possession and appreciation of art is a traditional mark of opulence, and the one architecture likes to be associated with rather than performance art or public art with which it might better claim an affinity. The market for architecture as art is those persons wanting to possess it as art and they hook up with architects who purvey it as art.

a shout-out to (the Russian billionaire) Vladimir Doronin for bringing Naomi Campbell and Zaha Hadid together to chat about feminism [dead link]

There’s also the class of asset known as cultural assets, well represented by architecture. Historically, cultural assets indicate the possession of the wealth as well as the political power to make them happen. Historically, architecture has existed to satisfy the high-level needs of high-level people.


 • • •

Level Fluidity

On the right-hand side of the diagram is Clayton’s Erg. Clayton combines Maslow’s lower two levels and calls them Existence, and also combines Belonging and Esteem and calls them Relatedness but the same boundary between building and architecture remains. Maslow insisted lower level needs must be satisfied before higher level ones, but Clayton says satisfaction at a lower level leads to progression upwards, and frustration at being unable to satisfy higher level needs leads to regression downwards.

Belonging and Esteem

Post Modernism claimed to give people meaning and significance at the level of Belonging – a level of need it said Modern architecture had ignored. Architecture rushed to embrace Post Modernism. It took people’s need for belonging and, by representing it, made it into a new and expensive indicator of esteem. It was the way forward for architecture.

It worked for a while. Caught out, architecture went back to catering to the high-level needs of high-level individuals, corporations, cities and nations. The market shrank to two main players – the rich and powerful requiring cultural baubles attesting their status, and property developers creating destinations for flight capital. 432

Since the demise of Deconstructivism, starchitects and big names whatever their persuasion have bent over to accommodate both.


For a rapidly increasing percentage of the world’s population, simply living in a building is all that’s required to satisfy their need for esteem. The percentage of people who expect or demand architecture to satisfy this need is becoming close to zero.


This is making it difficult to sustain a notion of architecture as distinct from building.


On the one hand is the ongoing process of buildings satisfying the need for esteem without recourse to architecture and, on the other is the artificial process of architecture having to follow the money by becoming more like buildings.


As a concept, architecture has historically survived by redefining itself downwards to access new local demographics such as Nouveau Riche, Suburbanites, Baby Boomers and, most recently, Urban Singles. Simultaneous with these downward moves are high-profile glamour projects in overseas markets less squeezed. The two combine to produce our two-tier architecture of bread and circuses. It’s angsty.

Architecture reveals its existential relief by its rush to reward the architect responsible for adding the exotic and urban poor to its catchment area. Architects get to be seen as agents of social good instead of front-men for the bad guys.  

It’ll be interesting to see how long the discreet pause between elemental and monumental. Remember sustainability? Actual environmental response was quickly relegated to being an aspect of building whilst architecture busied itself with representations of environmental response.


If social change is now the name of the game, it’ll hopefully be easier for people to spot the difference between actual social change and the representation of it.

It articulates a different discourse of social change; of engagement, contributing to improve life for favela dwellers.

“It articulates a different discourse of social change; of engagement, contributing to improve life for favela dwellers.” Src:

Hopefully. For now, we need to be clear about what need this new architecture is satisfying and, before that, we need to know if it is actually architecture as distinct from building.

Or do we? Does it being architecture really matter?

If needs for health, safety, belonging and esteem are all satisfied then maybe it’s time to dump the meaningless notion and simply concentrate on making buildings more healthy, durable, available and available in that order.

Architecture could of course try to satisfy the highest-level need for self-actualisation directly but if this were possible we’d know by now as it’d be A VERY HOT PRODUCT. But self-actualisation doesn’t work like that. Architecture can’t satisfy the need for it any more than building can. Providing people with a place and a better possibility of fulfilling their potential is probably going to be the best that can ever be done.

I just wish it wasn’t necessary to repeatedly point out and report how much the value of those properties has increased!

If the value of these buildings appreciates to the extent people can afford to move out and do, then the endgame will still be a humanitarian one but one more accurately described as bottom-feeding people into an economic system – which, frankly, doesn’t sound quite so nice does it? It’s probably too early to tell although 2004-2014 data should be available. For now, let’s feel good about this new concept of architecture as buildings for people to inhabit.

• • •

By 1923, American housebuilders had developed a successful and popular product with size and construction tailored to available resources, along with generic plans and customisable signifiers satisfying human needs for belonging and esteem.

In Europe at the time, lower level needs were more pressing and architecture first  concentrated on the problem at hand.


People later feeling the need to represent satisfaction of their higher-level need for belonging, damn well did so – and to this day continue to.


A rudimentary building with the option of some DIY PoMo is all we ever wanted.

Can we have some too please?


Architectural Assimilation

Architecturally, nothing can be said about it” is what we hear when there’s no fallback context. For most people this is a truism but it’s really only a tautology. Not having a context for understanding a building as architecture means it can’t be architecture. This’d be no problem if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that buildings with no value as Architecture can still have value for humanity.

Some other post will document the Architecture vs. Architecture for Humanity spat over the right to claim concern for humanity. In this post though, and to introduce the concept of architectural assimilation, I’d like focus on more tangible matters and those buildings that simply need to do important things or accommodate unusual requirements to ensure the safety and well being of humans.

These buildings can be one-offs like the Princess Elizabeth Antarctic research centre or specialised typologies such as lighthouses that, incidentally, have proven curiously resistant to architectural assimilation despite being Durable, Useful and Picturesque. I suspect this is because they don’t wear excess well and can’t be reinvented. Moreover, they have only one context for being understood and it’s a functional one. For not playing the game, lighthouses are relegated to being part of the scenery.


Other buildings of value for humanity but not as Architecture threaten to expose the game. They trigger a process of assimilation into the Architecture canon. Lighthouses are a lost cause but, every now and then, along comes a building accommodating some totally new and useful function and almost immediately Architecture wants to add it to the Services to Humanity section of its CV. Factories were once such special buildings.

The more a useful building is determined by criteria outside the realm of architecture, the more urgent the task of assimilating it into Architecture by providing it with a context for being understood as architecture. We learned that these contexts don’t have to be true.

1. Assimilation by Context Transplant

My first example is of how something meaningful but without meaningful visual presence is vulnerable to architectural assimilation by a parfait of contexts. This perfectly illustrates how architecture works. CERN‘s supercooled particle accelerator was built underground in order to shield it from interference from sub-atomic particles. It’s big.


The proton synchrotron is the smaller ring on the south.

It’s also big, but begins to be comprehensible as a series of spaces.


Here’s the Linac (Linear Accelerator) II duoplasmatron source.


Here’s  what a linear accelerator that boosts negative hydrogen ions to high energies looks like.


This is the antiproton decelerator that produces low-energy antiprotons for the study of antimatter.


This is part of the 27-kilometer ring of superconducting magnets forming the Large Haldron Collider which is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.


This is what a super proton synchrotron looks like.


And this is a compact muon solenoid (a general-purpose detector) used for various things including searching for extra dimensions and particles that could make up dark matter. Images of the CMS are usually used to illustrate articles about CERN. It’s colourful, symmetrical and awesome.  CMS virtual panorama


The facility has portions above ground but they are not so interesting either visually or conceptually. And nor do they have to be. The entrance and admin buildings look like admin buildings for anything, anywhere.


The fact something so large and important could have no visual impact or offended Charles Jencks who went off to design something he thought more appropriate. Here’s his best shot at representing an understanding of the mysteries of the cosmos – as opposed to actually understanding them and which is what the facility is about.


Green Oasis, landforms and underground buildings for CERN.  The design surrounds The Globe and protects it from the high speed traffic to its south, providing a buffer to noise and industrial landscape impinging from any side.  To communicate the discoveries at CERN we have developed two iconographic programmes.  One concerns a circular walk of mounds around the edge of the site based on the cosmic uroboros.  These also depict the units of the universe at all sizes growing from the tiniest objects to the universe as a whole.  This ‘ring’ relates to a 27 kilometre underground accelerator and the fact that the universe has architectural structure from the quark to the great wall of gallaxies [sic.].  The second set of symbols present the everyday collisions of the accelerator as a striking icon, which relates directly to the measuring instruments that surround the explosions.  Also it is a good analogy of the eye which measures the universe – a new eyeconology. [ ! ]

2. Cosmetic or Prosthetic Assimilation

If context transplant isn’t on the cards, the addition of elements known to be architecture is a less-expensive and time-proven tradition of creating architectural context.   


Yes, we’re talking ornament – the borrowing of forms and motifs from things to let people know we’re talking about architecture. If buildings were people, we’d call it social climbing but it’s what Peter Behrens did with the factory, earning himself a place in architecture history books for his “services to architecture”.


The Falkirk Wheel is a strange beast. It’s like a dinosaur designed by a committee. In fact, a 20-strong team of architects and engineers was assembled by British Waterways. Led by Tony Kettle from architects RMJM, the initial concepts and images were created with the mechanical concept proposed by the design team from Butterley and M G Bennetts. The final design was a cooperative effort between the British Waterways Board, engineering consultants Arup, Butterley Engineering and RMJM. …

The plan was to connect two canals at different heights. Ostensibly, it’s a useful thing but, being a UK Millennium Project,

planners decided early on to create a dramatic 21st-century landmark structure to reconnect the canals, instead of simply recreating the historic lock flight.

Things claimed to be inspirations for the design include

a double headed (Celtic) axe,

a double headed (Celtic) axe,

the propellor of a ship,

the propellor of a ship,

and the rib cage of a whale.

and the rib cage of a whale.

Kettle described the Wheel as “a beautiful, organic flowing thing, like 

the spine of a fish"

the spine of a fish”

and the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland described it as

"a form of contemporary sculpture."

“a form of contemporary sculpture.”

This selection of associations touches all bases, plus a few more. We have:

  • the Celts, history, metal, metalworking, metal swinging
  • water, engineering, rotation
  • water, Jonah, boats (hurrah!)
  • boats swallowed by large structures
  • art, engineering as architecture

This’ll be the allusion to the whale rib cage then.

The double-headed axe confuses me for The Falkirk Wheel is rotationally symmetrical about a centre rather than mirrored about an axis. The context for rotational symmetry is further confounded by the fact the wheel rotates five times in one direction and then five times the other for reasons metallurgical.

Due to the changing load as the wheel rotates in alternating directions, some sections experience total stress reversals. In order to avoid fatigue that could lead to cracks, sections were bolted rather than welded, using over 14,000 bolts and 45,000 bolt holes.

What I find odd about all this contextualisation is that The Falkirk Wheel contains people – in boats – in a container of water – openable at both ends – being rotated and lifted 20 metres up in the air and not once is safety mentioned. This next image is a flight of locks that solves the same problem with less risk, less technology, very little metal and no energy input other than human.


3. Assimilation by Memory Implant

Assimilation into architecture can also occur after the event by later attempts to make some pseudo-qualitative context stick. This is the approach taken by much of what counts as architectural criticism as well as a lot of writing about architectural history. Abstruseness of the proferred contexts is presented as, and often mistaken for, critical worth.

Having a revival this year was Ludwig Leo, often taken to be the architect of the following building, Circulation Tank #2, another strange beast.


With its remarkable form and odd colours, the “Pink Pipe” (1967-1974) is one of Berlin’s strangest buildings. It is commonly attributed to architect Ludwig Leo (1924-2012), but in fact Leo’s role in the project was limited. The project for a new Umlauftank (cavitation tunnel) for the Research Institute for Hydraulic Engineering and Shipbuilding was conceived and developed by the shipbuilding engineer Christian Boës, as a testing place for waterborne objects (a.k.a. boats). The layout of the facility, with its vertically oriented pipe and a testing hall riding on top, was determined by the physical requirements of the scientific facility.

This I believe. The point of this structure is to test models of ship hulls in an artificial water flow. It is understandably preferable to have equal forces acting on port and starboard sides. This can’t happen with a horizontal loop – or at least not a small one.


Leo was invited to provide artistic direction for the project. The ensuing collaboration between Boës and Leo resulted in a unique engineering/architecture hybrid. Leo succeeded in integrating his wide-ranging architectural sensibility seamlessly with Boës’ engineering concept. Leo gave the Umlauftank a sculptural and monumental presence by raising it on a concrete plinth and designing a mysterious, subtly anthropomorphic box, thus bringing the Umlauftank into dialogue with its urban context. No clear explanation has ever been given for the colours blue and pink, though oblique references to contemporary Pop Art and Archigram seem the most likely. [uncube]

What we have here is an attempt to claim an architectural context – a pseudo-qualitative one – for something already determined by basic hydraulics. It is true that the concrete plinth gives a sculptural and monumental presence but concrete plinths are also very good at distributing the dead and live loads of pipes containing several hundred tons of moving water. FFS. A shed raised to where it needs to be to do its job becomes slightly anthropomorphic and in dialogue with its urban context. Credit is given where credit is not due. The only checkable statement in the second paragraph is Leo was invited to provide artistic direction for the project. This might be true, but the rest confuses artistic direction with architectural services.

But hey who cares? The building is now Architecture.


Assimilation by memory implant is basically revisionist history, the after-the-event provision of a context for understanding something that was ignored at the time because the course of history deemed worth recording went some other direction.

• • •

The process of architectural assimilation isn’t confined to buildings of value for humanity although such buildings are primary targets. The addition of a viable context for understanding can bring any building into, or back into, the collective memory for no reason other than to enrich the collective memory.  

“your diversity will be added to our own!”

My best example of this is Thomas McNulty and Mary Otis Stevens’ Lincoln House. There’s some wonderful images here on OfHouses, and taken by Julius Schulman, no less.

Thanks to new contexts reinterpreting the building in terms of space and energy, this 1965 house, long demolished, has had an afterlife on the lecture circuit and in academic journals.

“The curves were throwing you out rather than holding you in. Each projected its energy into nature. [Stevens & McNulty] used the invisible power of the concave walls to relate the building beyond its site to the woods and fields of rural Lincoln— and beyond to the universe itself.”

Less expansively and in an attempt to provide a historical context for understanding, the house is also claimed to be the first reinforced concrete house in the United States although I think Architecture Misfit #2Irving Gill‘s 1914 Dodge House has a stronger claim.


Architecture Reductions

What else is there we can happily do without but just don’t know it yet?

ORNAMENT: This was once thought essential to any building with pretensions to architecture. Life went on without it. We managed.


After a while we missed it, decided to give it another chance….

Twice burned, these days we mostly ornament our buildings with ideas … concepts … contexts for understanding that fill our heads and turn the most prosaic building into a temple to art. These contexts don’t even need to be true. Talk is cheap but still ornament, still criminal.

LARGE GROUNDS: The idea of having large grounds or even small gardens showing off a building such as a house or villa to good advantage proved to be a very resilient one


but, in the end it gave way and now, thanks largely to the Japanese, buildings don’t need to be seen across a large piece of land in order to be considered architecture. (It was always possible to live in such buildings.) In general, housing people in ways that use less land and resources, and in more spatially efficient ways can only be a good thing. Although Architecture was initially reluctant to follow suit, it had no choice but to follow the money.


HEARTHS: It’s a similar story with hearths. Frank Lloyd Wright was a fan but, again, we manage to do quite okay without. Every now and then along comes a house like Olson Kundig‘s Tye River Cabin to remind us what we’re missing out on but, in general, we don’t mind living in houses without a core structural element sold to us as symbolic “heart”. Good riddance to narrative dishonesty!

Tye river cabin

ROOMS: The twentieth century saw houses have fewer walls separating functional units.

Having no functional units, the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion had nothing to do with this but it did send the message that walls not supporting anything could still be classy.


Kitchens became connected to living areas via dining areas. There was still a functional differentiation of areas but less of a physical one. Philip Johnson’s Glass House has nothing to do with this for Mr. Johnson had separate buildings for each of his domestic functions. The Glass House was merely his salon for receiving guests. Elsewhere, internal walls became fewer, and then became screens,


finally atrophying into pieces of furniture known as “room dividers”, before disappearing completely.


We came to accept that whatever living entails these days can take place in the same space. This was fact long ago in small apartments but it’s now the norm in upmarket apartments.


So what else can go? What else are we needlessly hanging onto out of inertia or fear of the unknown? Is there something we’re not seeing and that we might as well get used to living without now, before it gets presented to us as innovation and we’re asked to pay a premium for it? Here’s my selections for what can go next. 

KITCHENS AS A CONCEPT: The kitchen itself has been on the way out for a long time now – at least since the 1920s. We saw in Fun!tionalism how NY kitchens have devolved to approximate 1930s Soviet minimum space standards with the idea of a “kitchen alcove”.


However, even in this studio apartment, the idea of a kitchen is still present as a cluster of items in a dedicated space, however tiny. In this next apartment, there’s something primitive about people gathering around a source of warmth and food.


Lacaton & Vassal’s Trignac housing does without such conceptual clutter. Meet the future.

Lacaton Vassal . 23 dwellings . Trignac (11)

BOURGEOIS INTERIORS: These are some more conceptual baggage that’s taking a long time to die. Here’s a photo from a recent Curbed newsletter. Is seems to be saying your 375 sq.ft will feel like a proper home if you stuff it with fresh flowers, neutral colours and slightly quirky objets d’art. Aspirational consumption is the problem not the solution.


The bourgeois interior is noticeably absent from the work of Lacaton & Vassal. This is their Mulhouse housing development.


Just as High-Tech’s obsession with served and servant spaces could only have been an English invention, the rejection of the bourgeois interior could only be a French one. The side effect of delivering more living space per unit money is that choice and arrangement of furniture is no longer dictated by minimum furniture standards in the public housing sector,

001 Principle of Stackable Flats

or by the twin conventions of room design and furniture arrangement in the market housing sector.


BOURGEOIS EXTERIORS: Ahh John Lautner’s Arango House. A guilty pleasure. Do we appreciate the infinite space? Or are we merely magically transported to a world where we can spend our lives looking across the water at Acapulco? A roof to keep the rain off? External walls? They’re for losers. Along with balustrades. The guy knew what he was doing.


Similarly, Lacaton & Vassal’s Lapatie House has not much in the way of roof and external walls. I was surprised to learn the architects had envisaged this low-cost and lo-tech external space being used as a garden. Instead, the Lapaties put all their furniture in it and mostly live there.

lapatie house interior

QUALITY MATERIALS, EXQUISITELY CRAFTED, PREFERABLY BY HAND: Getting rid of these three is what making less do more is all about. L&V again.


DESIGN FEATURES: This is Mirco Baum’s 1994 House in Roentgen. Why should every building component have to be a design feature? Why should one door be conceptually more important than another? After all, you only need to go through a door once to know what’s on the other side. More images here, on ofHouses.  For plans, here.

THE PLAN: I’ve mentioned Pezo von Ellrichshausen Architects’ Casa Meri before. Humans are adaptable. As long as they’ve some space they can organise themselves and their stuff to suit their activities, routines and preferences. Living doesn’t need to have all this artifice of planning, contrivance of construction, and associated expense.


Casa Meri does away with certain conventions of planning and construction but, granted, it does at the same time introduce some new contrivances. Noted.

DESIGN: Components and windows don’t necessarily have to be prefabricated to offer time, cost and construction efficiencies in a similar way as the plan above. Each activity needing light doesn’t need its own window to light it. Each thing needing looking at doesn’t need a window of dedicated shape and size.


Design won’t go easily, either as a concept or an activity. We’re currently locked in a phase of forced difference and pseudo-randomness clocking up design hours. The windows of this house can be seen as either highly contrived, as completely artless, or contrivedly artless. Nevertheless, efficiencies and economies are to be had by solving similar problems in similar ways. The problem lies in where to place the boundary between same and different. If the boundary is set too high then the level of individual adaption becomes intrusive and onerous. If the boundary is too low we sleepwalk through our habitats, only noticing them when we tire of them.

PRIVACY: The progression of spaces from public to private is a modern invention we take for granted as being a good thing. Once again, the Japanese are at the forefront challenging cultural and architectural conventions. Here’s some apartments designed by SANAA. In the top left apartment you’ll see a combined bathroom and entry hall. A similar arrangement occurs in apartment D, towards the centre. With apartment G, ground floor stairs pass through the first floor bathroom on the way to the second floor living space.


If shafts in an apartment building have to be maintained, then there’s a spatial logic to sequencing spaces away from a communal corridor and point of entry corridor in terms of activity time – after all, how many times a day does one enter and leave an apartment? I’d only ever seen such an arrangement before in Horden Cherry Lee’s microhouse.

Many apartments have the bathroom adjacent to the front door. Perhaps in twenty years we’ll all be entering via the bathroom. In some apartments we may as well.


Entering into the kitchen is already commonplace. Conceptually, the front door is no longer present but a service entry remains.


• • •

Some aspects of what we currently think of as architecture or at least good practice can be easily dispensed with. Others may take longer. The idea of the home as hearth was soon exposed as a sham by technological advances in heating and insulation and, later, by alternative forms of entertainment. The idea of combining activities previously separated by walls meant it was possible to build houses cheaper and with less materials despite being popularised as progressive. Lacaton & Vassal have repeatedly demonstrated that their integrated approach to materials, planning and construction can produce life-enhancing spaces and places for humans to live and function. It doesn’t really matter if their buildings contain architecture. Architecture will sooner or later adjust itself to assimilate them.