Category Archives: Typologies

The Spaces Between Buildings

I’d never been a big fan of the spaces between buildings and once said as much in order to get the conversation started at some “round table” urban workshop. It wasn’t just me who never saw the point of the spaces between buildings. A whole industry seems to have grown up around the need to make them look as if they’re not as incidental as they are [c.f. Благоустройство]. 

Perhaps it’s something to do with the notion of architecture as The Object. The very phrase “spaces between buildings” even implies buildings first and that the spaces between them are some unplanned consequence.

What if it were the other way around and buildings were evaluated not by the volumes they occupy but by the volumes they don’t?  

It’s worth thinking about, and might even suggest a new and challenging way for Architecture to be. It will never catch on because spaces are notoriously not as Instagrammable as masses. An architecture of space would have to be evaluated by real observers and not on the basis of images moving or otherwise.

It’s not that the world of Art hasn’t been suggesting alternatives. How long ago did Matisse say he painted the space between things rather than the things themselves? I never really wondered what this would mean for a city.

Shortly into 2018 I revisited this corner of Paris. That’s Place de Catalogne in the middle. On the left are train lines entering Montparnasse Station. To the south is the Ricardo Bofill social/market housing I mentioned in last summer’s Misfits’ Guide to PARIS.

There’s something nice about a place and I suspect it’s got something to do with them not being square or squarish like oh, Union Square, that are unfilled gaps in a road grid designed for traffic. A place, on the other hand, contrives both buildings and traffic into a unifying and satisfying configuration. The buildings create the space and this is why Place de Catalogne doesn’t feel empty even though there’s nothing at its centre.

In these photographs is Ricardo Bofill’s 1985 les Échelles du Baroque. One criticism I read of it said “It’s just a building around a roundabout” – which is like saying a street is just buildings either side of a road. The point being missed is that with a place, the building creates the space that is then occupied by the roundabout. A street’s a street regardless of whether or not it’s lined with buildings.

Les Échelles du Baroque comes after Bofill’s 1982 Les Espaces d’Abraxas and before his 1986 Les Colonnes St Christophe Housing and his 1991 PA Soder Crescent in Stockholm. All use the shape of the building to create the space and give it meaning.

Internally, all these projects have multiple stairwells with two double-sided apartments per landing as at Les Espaces d’Abraxas.

Les Échelles du Baroque, however, does it with concave curves on two sides, defining a public place on one side and two communal private places on the other, separated by a public thoroughfare linking the public with a less public and pedestrian place on the other side.

I didn’t think this could have wider application until I saw these next buildings up the road and that create a place anyway and without bending the traffic to its will.

A city can’t have a roundabout on every corner so adding this variation to the Bofill mix just might allow the configuration of urban blocks of a workable size. My hunch is that it will also enable the following.

  • An urban unit that incorporates traffic as part of a vibrant city and not something that needs to be excluded or separated from the problem by putting it underground so its presence and its contribution can be ignored. [c.f. The Extruded Mat Building]
  • An urban unit that provides an alternative to a grid of streets separating perimeter blocks, and in which buildings and traffic coexist visually as well as functionally.
  • An urban unit having graded transitions of space between public and private.
  • An urban unit that has daylighting, ventilation and access solved for a repeatable unit.
  • A density comparable to Paris’ which is a phenomenal 21,600/km².

So then, just for fun, now that architecture is for all intents and purposes dead, I want to have another crack at a city composed not of buildings but of the spaces between them.

PlāceMat City

A proof-of-concept study for a mat city using a mirrored and triple-rotated repeat of les Échelles du Baroque around a 100m-radius place looked promising, especially if each major place didn’t have to contain a roundabout and each roundabout didn’t have to be a junction of six roads. It was still ideal for all apartments to be dual-aspect with one side facing the communal property of the negative-space courtyard, and the other side facing either the negative-space public vehicular place or a secondary public pedestrian place linked to others of the same.

The huge advantage of this configuration is that it’s already a complete and repeatable urban unit that solves traffic and access along with daylighting, ventilation and view. One could argue this is what a city grid with perimeter buildings always did, but that configuration existed for traffic and gave no thought to poncy concerns such as the allocation and gradation of public and private space.

But is there some sort of natural principle at work? As Bofill understood, the primary, secondary and tertiary places fit well with notions of public vehicular thoroughfare, communal space and public pedestrian space. The doughnut shaped building units will invariably settle into some shape that’s either a circle, a hexagon or some picturesque Baroque hybrid such as Bofill’s project for the Antigone district of Montpellier (below). This is fine as long as the entire external surface area can overlook one of the three types of public space and the internal surface area can overlook the “private” communal space.

The layout of Les Espaces d’Abraxas is a reasonable place to start if one ignores the unrealistic amount of space given over to elevator lobbies.

The reference footprint will have an outer diameter of 100m and an inner diameter of 50m – it’s basically the larger of the two buildings in this next lovely drawing. The central planting didn’t happen, and neither did the separated buildings or the orchards they were to open onto. The principle is sound though.

The A2: Taking Bofill’s lead, the first configuration to try is apartments paired around elevator lobbies [c.f. The Domino’s House].

A party wall angle of 9° provides 240 apartments over six floors, and with areas of between approx. 60m² to 130m². There are no problems as long as the depth of the apartment is greater than 12m and the minimum width greater than 3m. Pairs of additional rooms can be inserted between apartments to configure 2-bed and 3-bed apartments. G+6 buildings configured this way will give a population density of 40,600 persons/km² and which is about two-thirds that of Manila’s 70,000+/km²still.

Two apartments per landing is totally reasonable now the cost of elevators has fallen to less than the cost of providing corridors to access them but we might want to do clever things with corridors every third floor just because we might want to be aware of people moving around a building [c.f. The Landscape Within].

The D [c.f. Detective Story]: These apartments require 16m depth as shown, and a minimum 12m internal width for a party wall angle of 6.5°. There are only sixteen of these three-storey units in 360° but four six-person apartments in each of them.The density of 43,300 persons/km² is still about two-thirds of Manila’s yet bathrooms and kitchens can still be naturally ventilated, and the plan allows for individual living rooms to be on either side.

The U [c.f. The Piano and the Double Sided Apartment]: Party walls angled at 9° give 38 three-storey units containing a studio apartment, a 1-bed apartment, and a 2-bed apartment.

Thirty-eight divisions with three apartments over three floors give a density of over 38,000 persons/km².

Workbook1.jpeg

The F V3 [c.f. Critical Spatiality]: These apartments have living rooms with additional height, and that are on whichever side of the building is more pleasant, while the corridors can be on the side where visible activity is more desirable.

Party walls rotationally spread at 16° gives 40 x 3/4-person apartments vertically paired over three stories and a total of 80 over six. Configuring a G+6 building with these apartments produces a population density of about 24,000 persons/m² and which is lower than the density of Kathmandu or Kolkata but still higher than that of Paris.

Paris. We’re now back there with a workable urban unit that accepts the presence of vehicular traffic that has to do with the functioning of the unit. Choosing a configuration that provides a higher density means our city now has space to spare for parks and other large-scale public spaces. It means the individual urban units don’t have to all be seven stories high and they don’t have to be so dense. As Bofill had originally planned for les Échelles du Baroque, it is now possible to open up these rings of buildings towards the shared pedestrian space between them and to perhaps plant those orchards after all.

• • •

Unlike parametric models that veil notions of economic hierarchy and subservience with naturalistic analogies of growth, Plāce-mat City is unapologetically artificial and defiantly non-hierarchical. Roads exist solely to service the buildings and the people and functions they house. Roads are not given representation (as either arteries or tentacles) supporting a central nervous system command centre. Plāce-mat City and its buildings are egalitarian and autonomous. They do not give meaning to or derive meaning from centres of power. They reject the notion that everywhere must be articulated within a single hierarchical system of organization and control. By rejecting new ways of representing relationships of power/subservience, they are not complicit in sustaining them.

 

Caravanserai

Caravanserai were roadside inns where people travelling in caravans (camel trains) could rest after a day’s travel for, between the third and seventeenth centuries, hauling precious goods across Asia, North Africa and southeast Europe was something best done during daylight.

Even the name caravanserai crosses Arabia, as it is the Persian words kārvān (a group of travelers) and sara (an enclosed building) to which the Turkish suffix –yi has been added. Palmyra in Syria has one of the earliest known ones, dating from the third century. This is not surprising given what a well-traversed corner of the world Syria is.

We don’t know much about cavaranserai but we do owe them a huge debt for it’s these simple buildings we have to thank for keeping what little was left of the civilized world civilized. For travellers and their horses and camels, caravanserai functioned as a combination of service station and hotel providing water, food, and places to rest. Caravanserai also functioned as trade centres with retailers selling goods to travellers as well as purchasing from them. They also functioned as customs offices for the movement of goods for commercial purposes attracts customs and excise duties whatever the century or continent.

muk-p

Al-Muqaddasi the Arab geographer wrote in 985 CE about the hostelries, or wayfarers’ inns, in the Province of Palestine, a country that was at the time considered as part of Syria. He wrote “Taxes are not heavy in Syria, with the exception of those levied on the Caravanserais (Fanduk); Here, however, the duties are oppressive…” He is referring to the duties charged by government officials on the importation of goods and merchandise, the importers of which and their beasts of burden usually stopping to take rest in these places. Guards were stationed at every gate to ensure that taxes for these goods be paid in full, while the revenues therefrom accruing to the Fatimid kingdom of Egypt.

I haven’t read Marco Polo’s Book of the Marvels of the World [a.k.a. The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300] but, given his outbound route, caravans and caravanserai must feature largely. Some glaring omissions in M-P’s supposed observations in China suggest to some scurrilous scholars that M-P never went further than the far side of Persia but, nevertheless, his Book of Marvels was an inspiration for countless others including one Christopher Columbus. 

Caravans feature most definitely in the writings of Arab compulsive traveller Ibn Battuta. Setting out from Morocco in 1325, his first trip lasted twenty-four years before he returned but he was off again within a year, returning fifteen years later, to spend three years (presumably) documenting his previous journeys before setting out on his third journey that lasted a mere six.

Sea travel carried different risks so overland travel by caravan was the preferred option. Caravanserai were safe shelters fortified against attack and were quasi-closed systems that could withstand seige for short periods, much like the castles that operated in Europe over the same period.

As trade routes developed and became more lucrative, caravanserai became more of a necessity, and their construction intensified across Central Asia from the 10th century onwards, particularly during periods of political and social stability, and continued until as late as the 19th century. This resulted in a network of caravanserai that stretched from China to the Indian subcontinent, Iran, the Caucasus, Turkey, North Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe. Many of these still stand today.*

These typical plans tell us they look a bit like forts and have thick walls, a square plan, and a single entrance only wide enough for laden camels to pass. Architecture is absent, presumably because it hadn’t been invented yet, but there wouldn’t have been much need for it even if it had been.

The walls are thick for durability as well as to withstand attack. If caravanserai give the impression of being strong and fortified, it is because they were strong and fortified. The Middle Ages everywhere were refreshingly free of semantics. We wrongly call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages but that was only in Europe. Adjacent countries were relatively enlightened and outward looking. The legacy of this attitude persists. We erroneously think the structural and defensive geometry of the caravanserai plan is a European castle innovation but castles and caravanserai probably share a Roman ancestor.

Deserts aren’t known for their abundance of construction materials and labour so the construction of caravanserai can’t have been simple or fast. This is the relatively well-preserved Qasr Kharana in Jordan.

Materials were locally sourced. If rock was available then caravanserai were constructed of rock. If not, then of mud brick. Whichever, it made good money for someone to have them constructed, particularly given the lucrative income stream of excise duties. But at what level were they collected? Caravanserai are unlikely to have been privately funded speculative developments. History is silent on this.

What’s still apparent today is that construction materials were used efficiently. The square footprint has rooms around its perimeter, a large open space in the middle for animals, and intermediate spaces where owners could offload their goods and keep an eye on them. Structurally, the perimeter walls are strengthened by the walls separating the rooms. If the goal was simply to use a minimum amount of construction material to enclose a maximum area then we would expect to see more circular or octagonal plans than we do. The square plan is a beneficial trade-off between construction efficiency and maximising volume (i.e. the number of money-earning rooms). In support of this generalisation, the larger caravanserai had an additional level of rooms rather than quadruple the area of parking. The point of that space was that it had secure boundaries and the only rationalisation possible was for those boundaries. Resting camels don’t naturally form orderly rows and it was probably not worth the lost rest time to coerce them to do so for the sake of some marginal space advantage. The space had no layout and in busy times simply became more densely packed, as happens today with people in elevators and airports.

Desert climates typically have large diurnal temperature ranges. In the tenth century, it was Bagdhad that was the hub of the intellectual and commercial world but here’s the climatic data for Basra a bit south. There’s an almost constant diurnal spread of 20°C but the thermal mass of thick walls will work to lessen it.

Another example of vernacular intelligence is the closed courtyard with only a single narrow entrance opening. This will work to ensure a pool of cool night air remains trapped in that courtyard for as long as possible into the day. The internal space of caravanserai have no trees for shade but the inner ring of sheltered areas for the storage of goods will keep more of that internal volume shaded for longer.

It may be coincidence but both these next examples have their entrances facing south. Now, Persian villa orientation and planning acknowledged seasonal changes in the incident angle of sunlight with some rooms optimized for summer and others winter but it’s difficult to imagine well-lit rooms attracting a premium in caravanserai. If caravanserai entrances are indeed characteristically on the south side, then I’m guessing it’s because the side having the first and last light facilitated late arrivals and early departures.

This seems reasonable because caravanserai existed to prevent merchants and their goods from being exposed to the dangers of the road at night. A south-facing entrance would be a selling point if caravanserai were spaced at a day’s journey along important routes. Getting to the next stop on time meant getting there safely and this was important, particularly if transporting valuable cargo such as silk from China, gold from Saudia Arabia, frankincense from Yemen, and myrrh from Oman.

As well as reminding me Christmas is coming, this is also starting to feel quite close to home. Caravanserai can’t have been that rare if they were spaced a day’s camel trek apart across Africa, Arabia and Asia. Turns out there’s the remains of one within 3 km of me.

Jumeirah Archaeological Site in Dubai is the 10th century remains of a caravan station that existed since the 6th century as part of a trade route linking Oman with Iraq. The station developed into mixed-use complex of residential units, marketplace, mosque and caravanserai.

Unlike with castles, the primary and lasting value of caravanserai comes from them having been open to receiving the world outside. Castles may have projected political and military power but caravanserai were the ports, the airports and the communications infrastructure of their time, sustaining not only commerce and the movement of goods and people across Eastern Europe, Asia and North Africa but of knowledge in the form of books and news and communications in the form of conversations and stories.

More important and lasting was the role of caravanserai as places for cultural, intellectual and social exchange. What and where are their equivalents today? In Europe, castles gradually lost their defensive function as the Renaissance began but let’s remember it’s only because of caravanserai that there was a Renaissance in the first place, let alone that upstart Renaissance affectation known as architecture.

Castles closed to the outside world were refuges against barbarism but, all throughout the Middle Ages, caravanserai had been an open and civilizing force countering the forces of barbarism.

Renaissance architecture may symbolize a more civilized Europe but merely represented existing power structures lowering their defenses when it was safe to do so. By updating the representation of existing power structures, architecture may represent the progress of civilization but it can never be a civilizing force.

The incentive and the credit for Europe being dragged back into civilization belongs to open buildings such as caravanserai. 

Even if we still haven’t learned this most important lesson of the caravanserai, we should still pay them some respect for they are under-represented in global histories of architecture. As well as enabling the continuation of civilization and all that, they did what they did very well and for a period of about fifteen hundred years 300–1800 plus or minus a century or two. Not a bad innings.

• • •

The following text I paraphrase from the publisher’s page for this book with photography and text by Tom Schutyser, an introduction by Andrew Lawler, and contributions by Reza Aslan, Rachid al-Daif, Robert Fisk, Dominique Moïsi and Paul Salem. [I’m excitedly awaiting my copy.] 

“Caravanserai were vital nodes in what was in effect the first globalized overland network and trading system. Thousands were built and successfully operated. They survived empires, caliphates and wars until the demise of the caravan trade. Those that have not vanished or become ruins, survive as hotels, museums, shops, storage space, living quarters, or military outposts. In the tumultuous state of relations between the Western and Muslim worlds today, caravanserai are evidence of ancient multicultural exchange and trade and inspire the quest to find such new platforms of multicultural dialogue for the future.”

• • •

This is the Zein-o-din Caravanserai a two-day camel ride (60km) south of Yazd, Iran. Built in the 16th century just prior to the Silk Road no longer being the major trade route between Europe and Asia, it was recently restored and, though it once more functions as a hotel, we must remember hotels today aren’t what they used to be.

• • •

Further: 

The UNESCO website on caravanserai

PS: The book arrived and is fab. The header image is one of Tom Schutyser’s.

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Naked Houses

French novelist Gustave Flaubert was unimpressed by the advent of railways in the 19th century. He thought trains would only allow more people to move about, meet and be stupid. It’s easy to imagine what he would have thought of the internet. [1] Two years ago I unbookmarked myself from all architectural websites and have since lived without their compulsive addiction. It makes no difference if we hear of architectural ideas immediately or decades down the road because architectural ideas, and especially aesthetic ideas, never change anything because they’re not intended to.

  1. Ideas (such as off-form concrete as a final finish) that are inadvertently and immediately useful are quickly deemed passée and spurned.
  2. Ideas that don’t have immediate application disappear into a kind of limbo, neither forgotten nor applied until the conditions for their application come about, if ever.
  3. Ideas that are before their time are simply wrong ideas.
  4. Ideas that eventually come to pass are often mistaken for prophecies but it’s really the environment changing to make those ideas now useful. They then become like the first type of idea.

This all suggests that, if one wants to find potentially relevant ideas to solve current problems, it is more useful to selectively scan and re-evaluate the past than it is to mass monitor the present. That’s a big “if”. Mainstream architectural media content and the mechanisms for its delivery have evolved to continuously distract and prevent people from thinking about anything that needs thinking about.

Cutting myself loose from all this means I’ll never know what I’ve missed out on and that’s the point. There’s enough to think about anyway, and new things tend to find me anyway via conversations or as general news. Here’s an article that was already two months old when I first saw it.

nakedhouse.org [2] is a not-for-profit organization for builds housing not finished to the degree that new housing in the UK typically is. The objective is to lower that first rung on the property ladder. Most people will find nothing wrong with that last sentence. Naked houses check all the items misfits identified in a December 2015 post that pondered what else architecture could learn to do without. [c.f. Architecture Reductions]

Quality materials 

“The apartments will have no partition walls, no flooring and wall finishes, only basic plumbing and absolutely no decoration.”

This is good, because all these are superficial yet costly indicators of status and an obvious place to start. They’re the things people are most likely to change to suit their real or imagined individuality. In the UK one of the first things people do upon buying a secondhand property is strip the walls of any paint or paper. In new properties, providing surfaces with anything more than a base finish builds-in waste from the outset but does make sense for contractors to do that because of the markup involved. It’s this kind of functional redundancy that naked houses attempt to circumvent. Contractors accept a lesser return on lesser outlay and, if the product is successful, turnover is maintained and the financial threshold for home ownership is lowered. Whether this process will act wide enough or fast enough to make a difference is another matter. Jean Nouvel’s Nemausus Housing in Nîmes is forty years old now. It’s not that it had ideas before its time. Circumstances have changed to make those same ideas make more sense to more people than they did then.

MVRDV introduced plywood and oriented strand board (a.k.a. OSB, flakeboard, sterling board, aspenite) as A Thing, in their Double House of twenty years ago.

Giving aesthetic credibility to lower-cost and lower quality materials is a continuation of the same process that resulted a century ago in upmarket houses being made out of brick instead of stone. Low-quality materials once hidden can have a second life as a layer of history but new-build can’t have this indicator of age as status.

Cooking with low-cost ingredients requires more pre-preparation and time and care and so does building. This blockwork by H Arquitectes has been carefully set out to coordinate vents and switches with the joints and openings. The concrete floor has been precisely poured, ground and polished. It will look like this forever. The materials are inexpensive but the process requires thought and care.

This is not how our construction industry works. The general practice is to build cheaply and quickly using lesser quality materials and as little skilled labour as possible, and to then conceal any imperfections. I have my doubts about how beautiful naked houses’ naked walls will be. We’ll probably want them to cover up.

Rooms, Plans

Even if ideas in Nouvel’s Nemausus Housing never became how things were done, the idea of shell lofts did but had no great impact on the design of houses or apartments or the way we live in them. Apartments were sold as shells with a contractural obligation to complete their interiors within a certain period. However, as long as there was a source of heat, hot water and basic bathroom functions then no further completion was ever needed. Wholesome building fabric had totally fictional interiors inserted.

Naked houses are shell houses without contractural obligations, but not without a certain amount of social pressure to do it up. Getting rid of rooms has been a long time coming. We can’t really claim The Farnsworth House or Glass House as any kind of precursor but, over the past sixty years, living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens have coalesced into a single space in both downmarket and upmarket apartments, if not yet all houses.

Kitchens as a Concept

“The only recognisable part of a kitchen will be a sink.”

This idea has also been a long time coming. It’s been 22 years since Francis Soler’s 9-17 rue Émile Durkheim apartments. [c.f. Misfits’ Guide to PARIS]

000976

The first thing many people do after buying a secondhand home is rip out the kitchen and install a new one, most likely from Ikea. Ripping out the bathrooms is usually next on the list but open plan bathrooms are only just beginning to catch on, some ninety years after the idea was first floated.

villa savoye bathroom drain

Since 2009, hotels have been incorporating open plan bathrooms. The entire space looks less divided. Because it is.

Bathrooms added to houses that never had them in the first place can be unconventionally large and open but this is more of an upmarket trend.

001146

Downmarket, it hasn’t been all that long since bathtubs stopped being in kitchens and close to the only source of hot water.

Stripping a building back to its essentials is a good thing to do as there’s much that can be done without and that was never necessary in the first place. The absence of some accepted items only highlights what there is left.

Gratuitous Design Features: The image below doesn’t tell us much in the way of structural information but the lack of cross-bracing suggests it’s not the cheapest way to make what’s essentially an extreme mansard roof. Those non-structural corner windows aren’t going to help reduce the cost any. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #24: Rural Studio].

Sky: These are houses and not apartments with their sophisticated structures and servicing. The glass roofs tell us so. A one square metre VELUX window costs about £1,000, including installation into an existing roof, and will provide sufficient illumination for that floor area whatever the season. Anything larger is stylistic affectation. It seems like one set of status indicators is being discarded for a another. Living under a glass roof may be an attractive idea but it creates an ugly choice between spending money upfront on decent glazing panels or having higher heating costs forever.

Double-height Space: The most obvious scope for cost saving is to get rid of architecture’s favourite trope – a double-height space with a mezzanine and to not build unuseable volume from the outset.

Sure, people can put a floor in, and flooring too if they want, but building the potential to have a floor if one wants extra floor space is not in the spirit of a home without frills. The first publicized UK naked house encloses all internal volume to begin with, and the only potential present is dividing it into smaller units of liveable volume.

In the past, making more units of liveable volume would have meant adding an extra room at the back where a rear garden always meant the potential to be converted into more useable internal space. The potential to divide internal volume could indicate the potential to have a larger family or, these days, the potential to monetize that new unit of space via Airb’n’b or similar. It’s a long time since having more children meant adding more rooms. It more likely brings about the division of space or the sharing of space as it does most anywhere else in the world. Airb’n’b currently has 300+ listings in Enfield (UK) where the trial project is located.

enfield

“The upside of this spartan approach is a price tag of between £150,000 and £340,000, in reach for buyers on average incomes in a city where the average home now costs £580,000.”

A yearly season ticket from Enfield Lock to London Travelcard Zones 1–6 (with an average journey time of only 23 min!) will cost £2,408.00 – one sixtieth of the cost of the lowest priced house on offer. Who knows anymore if that’s a good deal or not?

Airb’n’b and similar sites attract much criticism for their role in encouraging people to see where they live as something to monetize. This graph shows it’s obviously better to own property than to have a job. It’s all the better if you don’t have to share a bathroom with the non-property owners you exploit, but that’s what makes the new microfeudalism different from the old renting.

Bourgeois Interiors, Design Features

“The idea is to strip out all of the stuff that people don’t want in the first place,” said Simon Chouffot, one of the founders of the not-for-profit developer, Naked House. “People want to do some of the custom building. We can make it affordable by people doing some of the work themselves.” 

Here, the first sentence implies progress. The dream of getting rid of an entire apparatus of unwanted finishings mediating between us and our buildings appears suddenly within our grasp. This opportunity to reject the entire economy-churning trap of home “improvement” will not be taken. If a person wants a house they’ll most likely want all the trappings that have conventionally gone with it. We can’t really claim any progress if the intention is still to have people admire what you’ve done to the space.

Paying less attention to our surroundings might enable us to simplify the relationship between us and the houses we live in. Very few aspects of living require conscious expression as architecture, as part of a building, or as an interior.

Just as the associate director who brings in the most new clients is the one first promoted to director, the shortest route to architectural fame is to create a new market for architecture and to offer it on a plate. The stated objective of Alejandro Aravena’s half-a-houses in Chile was to sell minimal volumes of inhabitable space that people could enlarge themselves when circumstances suggested and finances allowed. The projects achieved their stated objective of housing people inexpensively, and also succeeded in getting people to participate in an economic system. The market for architecture is expanded and with lesser returns but the important thing is that the system continues. (This should not come as a a surprise. Today’s architects don’t busy themselves with commissions for large country houses.) Lowering the financial threshold for home ownership and creating a ongoing demand for home improvements brings to the housing market the same pay-less-upfront-but-more-later plan that sells colour inkjet printers and Nespresso machines. Whether upfront or deferred, people’s lives are still equated to the amount of economic activity they generate [3]. Naked houses are the British incarnation of the half-a-house idea, but with completed exteriors for British suburbs not yet ready for favela chic.

• • •

  1. Here, I’m paraphrasing John Lanchester quoting Julian Barnes paraphrasing Flaubert in an August 17 London Review of Books review titled You Are The Product.
  2. nakedhouse.org
  3. This article is a lengthy but good introduction to how and why neoliberalism and considering the market as a mind is the defining concept of our age. There’s an intellectual elegance to the concept of regarding mankind as an entity whose every need, desire and action occurs within a system of survival as it does for every other living creature. The flaw is that it ignores everything that makes us human.

 

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The Landscraper

Ownership of land can be indicated by enclosing it, exploiting it (by cultivating it, mining it or tenanting it), reshaping it, and building on it. Owning land or the rights to build on it is a prerequsite for all building activity – buildings built on other people’s land don’t tend to remain for very long. If buildings, as if by definition, indicate the ownership of property then:

  1. There is no need for concepts of architectural beauty to do the same.
  2. The Formalist view on this is bad news for those who wish to believe in an Architecture distinct from building, because even indavertently articulating the possession of land can’t be a valid concern of architecture or architectural aesthetics since building, farming, mining etc. can all perform the same task. One logical way out is to accept that architecture is subservient to building because it merely represents what building already denotes. I don’t remember who said “What’s the point teaching logic in a world where everyone thinks the sun is setting when it’s really the horizon rising?” 

Across the road from me is a four-storey deep hole out of which, over the next two years, a G+63 storey building will grow out of the ground at a rate of about one storey every ten days.

Once it’s complete, no-one will say it appears to have grown out of the ground for that’s praise reserved for buildings with pretensions to being “natural” or “organic”. This seems to be some sort of Wrightian hangover as it’s simply not possible for buildings grow out of the ground in the same way plants do. That impossibility is important to architecture for it offers a new way of displaying how much money can be spent attempting to make a building appear to grow out of the ground. It other words, it is a new form of beauty, the new weightlessness, the new transparency.

In the early-1990s fractal geometries and self similarities were everywhere. Buildings such as Peter Eisenman’s 1991 proposal for Max Reinhart Haus were being designed and, increasingly, constructed with complex curves faceted for ease of fabrication. It was a matter of time before someone would try to create a building that appeared to grow out of the ground and create an architectural product out of what people thought architectural beauty was anyway – it couldn’t fail! I had a crack at it myself. Representing movement in a very static building was a tall order but the Futurist sculpture concept of lines of force and Umberto Bocchioni’s Bottle Evolving in Space seemed a good place to start.

Zaha Hadid got there first though with her 1999 Landscape Formation One one. The ZHA website says it “rejects the concept of building as ‘isolated object’ – bleeding out of and dissolving back into the surrounding landscape …” 47.585843°, 7.62036°. See for yourself.

Later buildings appropriated existing landscape or cityscape features to appear to be growing out of their surroundings as inevitable consequence. In still later projects lacking sufficiently obliging landscapes, the building and the rest of the site morphed into each other to form a single landscape-building objects that were just as isolated as buildings as isolated objects had been. It’s a trope we haven’t seen the last of. 

If any mixed-use building taller than it is wide is a vertical city then, thanks to Zaha Hadid, architectural lore now has it that any building wider than it is tall is now a landscraper. [1]  The bogus conceit of landscrapers is not so much that they grow out of the ground but that they are of the very ground itself. In a world of slender skyscrapers miserly with land, an architecture that takes up as much as it can oozes class or at least abundance. This point was rammed home by OMA with the graphics for the 2007 Ras Al Khaimah Convention Centre proposal. Fat became the new skinny. A building couldn’t be too low or too long.

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The term landscraper already claimed, Thom Mayne had to invent the term hybrid landscape to describe his version of the same product. Lebbeus Woods wrote of touching the ground heavily as if it were the new touching the ground lightly. The man is a legend.

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This next image is Thom Mayne and Morphosis’ 20010 Giant Group Campus in Shanghai. As insult to both land and language, this one has an affinity for water and becomes airborne at one end.

Trains are notoriously longer than they are high and the buildings they stop at have huge landscraper potential. Unlike the trains it is there to serve, Morphosis’ Vialia Vigo station in Spain’s Galicia is loathe to touch the land. Ideas above its station.

Google’s planned new London HQ – I forget who by – is much longer than it is tall, even longer than the 310-metre high The Shard is high. [Does The Shard even have a proper name? I don’t warm to buildings eager to be known by their nicknames without ever having done anything to earn familiary or affection.]

King’s Cross has two mainline stations and a major confluence of tube lines. It is an ideal location for tall buildings but is forever blighted by being within the Kenwood House to St Paul’s Cathedral protected view corridor[2] It’s easy to imagine how, in two hundred years, London will be carved up by view corridors in much the same way Broadway divides Manhattan or high-voltage lines cross Russian forests. This next graphic is from cargocollective. The view corridor from the viewing gazebo at Kenwood House is the one beginning where that little orange box at top left is. 

Although the view corridor extends some distance past St. Paul’s Cathedral and across the River Thames, “a view of St. Paul’s” can be interpreted as “a direct view of St. Paul’s” and not as “a view of the sihouette of St. Paul’s” which is the most distinctive thing about it. 

Here’s how the building will fit between three other buildings each about 300 metres long but not famous for being landscrapers.

Here’s how the centreline of the Kenwood House View Corridor crosses King’s Cross.

Here’s a link to the planning document history for Application No. 2017/3133/P DEVELOPMENT ZONE A KING’S CROSS CENTRAL YOUR WAY LONDON at the Planning and The Building Environment department of the London Borough of Camden. Document Nos. 170526 parts 1~5 give a good overview of the project. The view corridor restriction is already embedded in Parameter Plan KXC 014 and so doesn’t need to be referred to in the planning application let alone any subsequent press release. People never get to know what values are shaping their environment.

A decision from Historic England dated June 19 recommends no archaelogical requirement. At first I was surprised, and then I wasn’t. London’s first tube line, the Circle Line from Paddington to Farringdon Street was constructed along the course of the former River Fleet. This corner of King’s Cross was one of the only places the river could be forded and legend has it it is where Queen Boudicea famously trounced The Romans in AD60 (giving rise to King’s Cross’ former name of Battlebridge, after the bridge later built.) This is land nobody wants to see scraped too deeply in case the legend turns out to be fact. Excavator operators will be instructed to ignore skeletons.

This could be why this landscraper wears its soil and trees on top. First generation landscrapers pretended they were down with the land. Second generation landscrapers distanced themselves from it. Third generation landscrapers are squat skyscrapers. The only land they acknowlege is the footprint to be replaced by intensive development.

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The header image is of a CAT 637G Wheel-Tractor Scraper.

• • •

  1. Thanks to Sonny Flex for the idea for this post, and also for the heads up on Thom Mayne.
  2. Novelist Peter Ackroyd believes parts of London have a default character that resists change – as if genus locii could go either way. I do also. From 1993 to 1999 I lived at Flat 1, 317 Grays Inn Road. WC1X8PX. As late as 2015 this corner was exactly as I remember it and not that different from what it must have looked circa 1830.

    This terrace was one of the last buildings to be built along Gray’s Inn Road as the site had been used as a construction waste dump prior to 1830. The terrace is longer than it is tall. Instead of appearing to grow out of the ground, it is of the very ground itself as it was constructed with bricks fired from clay dug while excavating the basements.

    The building is what living above shops meant in 1830. Upper floors were split across their depth with a single large room to the front and a smaller room and stairwell to the rear. Around 1960, bathrooms and kitchens were added to convert them into flats. Too much time on my hands, I once colour-coded the walls to highlight this history but, after thinking of the number of people who’d passed through that space over the years, I repainted all walls a drab green I imagined them destined to be. Before doing so, I made this ballpoint sketch I’m still proud of.

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The Vertical City

If you translate loosely, the term vertical city first enters our architectural consciousness with Ludwig Hilberseimer’s 1924 Hochhausstadt. The space between the apartment buildings isn’t an extension of the pedestrian level retail or communal space for the residents but a light well for the offices below. This post is about spaces vertically shared by different types of user.

Architects like to call buildings vertical cities because it implies an ability to fully understand the intelligence of a city and condense it into a single building. The header image is Foster + Partners’ 1989 Millennium Tower proposal for Tokyo Bay.

Rising out of Tokyo Bay, the tower is capable of housing a community of up to 60,000 people, generating its own energy and processing its own waste. A vertical city quarter, it would be self-sustaining and virtually self-sufficient. The lower levels accommodate offices and clean industries such as consumer electronics. Above are apartments, while the uppermost section houses communications systems and wind generators. A high-speed ‘metro’ system − with cars designed to carry 160 people − tracks vertically and horizontally, moving through the building at twice the rate of conventional express lifts. Cars stop at sky centres at every thirtieth floor; from there, individual journeys may be completed via lifts or escalators. This continuous cycle reduces travel times − an important factor in a vertical city, no less than a horizontal one. The five-storey sky centres have different principal functions; one might include a hotel, another one a department store; each is articulated with mezzanines, terraces and gardens to create a sense of place. The project demonstrates [?] that high-density or high-rise living can lead to an improved quality of life, where housing, work and leisure facilities are all conveniently close at hand.

Japan’s economy tanked in 1993 so this breathless combination of greenwash and good intentions was unable to will this building into being. Vertical city proposals come and go. Dubai’s Nakheel Tower did the rounds pre-2008. One trend at 2007 Cityscape Dubai was for mega-models but, alas, this vertical city was also not to be.

Nakheel Tower never lived but was resurrected anyway for a different location as Al Burj. We’re still waiting.

Vertical cities continue to be the stuff of dreams. This is what they do. Everyone is content for them to remain part of the architectural dreamscape.

It’s why people don’t take kindly to them being realised, especially when they are 1) prefabricated, 2) in China and 3) not clad in futurespeak. [c.f. The Shameless Skyscraper] 

The last time I heard the term vertical city mentioned was Rem Koolhaas disinterestedly describing OMA’s Die Rotterdam mixed-used development as one, and so continuing the tradition of calling any mixed used development slightly a bit taller than it is wide a vertical city.

In passing, these next images are of one of the apartments in the top right corner of the apartment tower. On airb’n’b you can probably find a photograph showing the curtains of that second bedroom.

Vertical cities have become progressively smaller, along with our expectations for them. Living in any city, even a vertical one, requires a balance between drawing energy from the city yet keeping a distance from it. These aren’t either-or propositions as, for example, a person can withdraw from the city to their apartment yet still look out over a city and be energized by it. Maybe that’s what these next people are doing. I hope so.

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Opus building in Dubai started out a decade ago as an office building. Two years ago it was to have been a hotel but, last time I looked, is on track to becoming a mixed use building befitting its many floorplates. One could conceivably never leave the building but it fails the taller-than-it-is-wide test.

The Hilberseimer proposal treated the vertical city as a mat but all these others treat it some kind of supercharged architectural object. The mixed use building as vertical city is a red herring. What we’re really talking about it is

Living Above Shops

In Roman times, high net-worth individuals lived in villas and we know much about their architecture. We know little about how the other XCIX per cent lived, except that they lived in insulae. Part of the Roman legacy is the construction of speculative buildings at minimal expense. In those pre-elevator times, insulae were sometimes as high as eight or nine storeys, with apartments on the higher floors least expensive. If an insula could accommodate at least 40 people in 330 sq.m (3,600 sq.ft) in about six or seven apartments, that means approx. 50 sq.m (550 sq.ft) per apartment and 8.25 sq.m (90 sq.ft) per person. This is about the same area as architecture’s favourite capsule apartment or, if you believe Akira Kurowawa, the size of a Japanese tea-ceremony room.

Providence Arcade was refurbished in 2014 to have microapartments half that area (225 sq.ft) but intended for one person instead of 2.5. Two millennia hasn’t made that much of a difference to what just might be a human spatial standard.

It’s not the square footage I want to talk about but the idea of living above a place used by the general public during the day. 

Despite being a building typology that’s existed for millennia, mixed-use buildings are under-represented in the history of architecture. My guess is that architecture is more often called upon to represent the possession of wealth and property when that wealth and property is held by a single person person or entity. Architecture’s not good with mixing and sharing.

In pseudo-pubic projects, the appearance of mixing and sharing (a.k.a. “vitality” and “vibrance”) becomes important for it disguises the fact everything is owned and controlled by a single entity. This is the town of Basingstoke at Festival Place in Hampshire UK. The former town centre has had retail infill along and between streets. It’s a work in progress, but even as long ago as 1999, the citizens of Basingstoke were expelled from their city centre after closing time and the city becomes not just dead but actually ceases to exist.

“Festival Place is a vibrant social hub in the heart of Basingstoke and the centre’s rejuvenation will create an even better visitor experience for locals …”

One way of bringing the appearance of residential usage into a shopping precinct is to fake it. This is Dubai’s Citywalk Phase II. The forced facade variety with its upper level windows is unconvincing and, even from the inside it’s not clear what’s in that volume, if anything.

With Citywalk Phase III it’s still too early to tell. Having five levels of apartments over shops accessed by foot from footpaths is a new concept for Dubai. It’d be insulae all over again if the apartments and shops catered for ordinary people. They don’t.

It’s hard to tell if residential supports retail or vice-versa. The city is spread thin as there’s insufficient classy retail to go around. Sooner or later though, all retail spaces will be let and ideas of shops will be replaced with actual shops but this won’t prevent the ground level being a veneer of shopfronts evoking the feel of a city. Living the dream has never seemed so unreal.

Double-loaded corridords mean apartments not overlooking streets face each other across space that exists to put distance between windows. More than alleyways but less that streets, these spaces are given the low-maintenance landscape treatment.

Victor Gruen is said to have envisioned his 1956 Southdale Centre mall as a community centre. It’s also said he wanted to recreate the vibrance of his hometown Vienna but conceiving of something with car access only, full air conditioning and no housing above shops was a strange way to go about it. He was to later bemoan the proliferation of malls as centres for retail only and surrounded by a sea of car parking but only after his office had built fifty of them in the US alone. 

To be fair, Gruen also invented the pedestrian mall as a open-air shopping street without cars but parking still had to be provided nearby if they were to ever be an attractive option.

Shopping malls as air-conditioned privatized environments precluded housing and the pedestrian mall meant that living with a car nearby simply wasn’t possible. Gruen’s legacy was two seemingly contradictory products both supremely suited to the golden age of capitalism. Both concepts isolated and supersized only those  portions of the city offering a higher return on investment. Shopping malls don’t have apartments integrated into them because it would be of benefit only to the residents and the shoppers. 

Giuseppe Mengoni’s 1877 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan is the real ancestor of all shopping malls and has apartments as well as a hotel overlooking its arcades. It is excellently sited and intensively used as one of Milan’s major pedestrian thoroughfares. It’s existed for 140 years without parking, air conditioning, private security, food court, cineplex or anchor stores.

Between Citywalk Phase III and Burj Khalifa is a somewhat down-at-heel shopping mall called Mazaya.

Two levels of shops are arranged around three atriums. Around the atrium to the south are three levels of office space and around the one on the north are three levels of apartments. There are apartments facing the street and there are apartments facing the atrium.

It’s a cruise liner and, much like a cruise liner, the view outwards may be the more expansive but the view inwards is the more lively [though not on the public holiday when I visited]. In sixty years of shopping malls, ones like this that break the mold are rare. Mazaya shares more DNA with Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel II than other malls that claim ancestry. This is Mall of the Emirates on the left and Mercato on the right. Mercato is interesting for having fake windows on a top storey that’s actually a raised roof. The dummy windows could easily be real ones but to have sunlight from a pseudo-internal space illuminate a quasi-external space would just be bizarre.

Thoroughfares lined with retail can double as visual amenity space for residential. If our future is living above shops in climate-controlled and privately-policed shopping precincts occupying city blocks separated by vehicle traffic, then inward-looking apartments reconnecting these two uses just might be a way of hanging onto some humanity for a bit longer, even if those precincts are only publicly accessible during opening hours. Shopping may have only recently become entertainment but seeing other people going about their business is what living in cities has always been about.

 

 

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Urban Carpet vs. Mat City

Mat buildings have many plusses as a result of them being a single unit solved for function, access, daylighting and ventilation and indefinitely repeated. So let’s supersize one and see what happens. The evolution of mat city is undocumented so this fast and loose history is going to have to do.

Around 5,400 BC, the city of Eridu, not too far from Basra in Iraq, is said to have been the world’s first city. Details are sketchy but, give or take a bit of artistic license, this image will give you an idea. Temples came and went but the urban carpet stayed.

The classic Middle Eastern city has access alleys separating clusters of buildings with inner courtyards that solved problems of internal circulation, daylighting and ventilation and also happened to lessen diurnal temperature extremes.

These cities became mat cities when levels began to differentiate according to urban function. This image of Marrakech shows residential usage in airspace superfluous to the illumination and ventilation requirements of the access level. Streets once fully open to the sky become passageways illuminated by lightwells. Streets that are nothing more than a means of getting from A to B do not need to be better lit and ventilated than buildings.

1914: Futurist City, Mario Chiattone

This looks all fine and Futurist and not all about form and Sant’Elia. Features are:

  • the identical city block repeated indefinitely
  • separation of what is presumably residential above from the commercial and retail below
  • the hierarchical nature of the buildings
  • the resetting of ground level so pedestrian traffic is separated from vehicular. [By the looks of that traffic, fellow Futurist Giaccomo Balla should have offered Chiattone some tips on how to represent dynamics of movement.]
  • there is elevated pedestrian access on the roofs of what’s probably intended as commercial space
  • patches of vegetation make that elevated pedestrian access into a public roof garden

Despite the intensification and repetition, it’s still a conventional city but with blocks now separated now by not one but two levels of access.

1925: Le Plan Voisin, Le Corbusier

A decade on, Le Corbusier’s plan for Paris has trees and café chairs but no Paris. Vision, by the way, is an anagram of Voisin, the name of the car manufacturers that sponsored this proposal. Le Corbusier gained more from the relationship than they did as his career took off circa 1930 while the European market for luxury cars tanked.

1924: Hochhausstadt, Ludwig Hilberseimer 

 

Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt is said to be a response to Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin but has more in common with Chiattone’s Futurist City. Instead of building over roads and traffic, Hilberseimer proposes building over all land not being used for them – something that has since come to pass. Blocks housing commercial functions are still separated by streets. They form podiums for multiple residential slabs and re-set the ground level for pedestrian access. Between pairs of redidntial slabs are what looks like amenity courtyards. All city blocks therefore remain divided by streets but all residential buildings are separated by a street and an communal amenity courtyard.

It’s hard to tell what people do in all three of these cities. The high-rise bits are residential but where do people work? Where do they shop? What do they do on their day off? In the 1920s was human existence already reduced to sleeping, working, shopping and having to be somewhere else in a hurry? 

These precursor cities all have residential and commercial activity plus two ways to travel to and from it but the importance given to transportation suggests that many people have needs better satisified elsewhere. This would not occur in a mat city as most functions would be satisfieed with the repeatable unit, reducing the dependence on the automobile. In the 1920s when hardly anyone owned a car, architects – and not just Futurist ones – were excited by autombiles and the idea of rush hour.

The 1970s were another high point in the history of the mat city.

1971: Megaton City, Superstudio

Superstudio only gave us the big picture [and me the inspiration for my extruded PVC tile beach photoshoot – c.f. The Extruded Mat Building.] Megaton City assumes all human activity is somehow distributed and accommodated within this structure that we imagine encompassing the planet. I’ve always admired its clarity of perceiving and depicting human existence and activity as conceptually distinct from Nature (even though this representation of that autonomy is totally reliant upon Nature for contrast). The continuous landscape makes us see the natural spaces not as large courtyards but as land not built over. Be that as it may, I hope being squashed by the megaton force of one’s ceiling as punishment for having a dissenting thought won’t come to pass. It’s too early to say, but not too soon to start having doubts.

1971: No-Stop City, Archizoom

From the same 1971, No-Stop City was an endless interior in which dayligting and ventilation are solved by artificial means. The concept of functional necessity is also removed from the equation by having everything necessary for life and living provided and evenly distributed within that interior. People are free to move elsewhere but there’s little point doing so since it’s the same wherever they go. 

Megaton City and No-Stop City make architecture redundant as they don’t articulate the possession of space or things. The same physical framework and contents are repeated endlessly, with only human happiness left for people to work out for themselves. The statement “Life is what you make it” is both brutal and optimistic.

This stunning image is from a 2013 AA study titled Hiberseimer Study: Vertical City – Genericalness via Repetition exploring the urban carpet as an exercise in form. Actually owing more to Chiattone than Hilberseimer, it solves the problem of showing us what a urban carpet of the then most expensive building in the world would look like. Anybody know anything about those roof gardens on top of the Four Seasonses?

 

The history of the mat city stopped in 1971. Ubiquitous development didn’t suddenly disappear from the face of the earth but the appearance of it did. The New subUrbanism brought us 1982’s Seaside Florida carpeted with houses for short-term vacation renters all wanting a representation of individuality in a representation of a community.

Me, no. I’ll take the clarity of the mat city anyday, along with the individual and communal responsibility it demands. With that in mind …

La Ville Savoye

The Pilotis Level is the access and service zone. Service industry people live and mostly work in the inhabited pilotis that physically and structurally support The Residential Level.

The Residential Level is up in the air where it can better access sunlight and breezes through Horizontal Windows. Its habitable volume is in the airspace of the Undercroft.

The Roof Gardens on the uppermost level are for resident use.

The Basement Level is for services, storage and distribution.

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One La Ville Savoye unit has a density of 32 persons per residential floor which, over four floors, equates to approx. 94,000 per hectare. That’s a lot of people.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_by_population_density

This means only two residential levels would be needed to house the population of Manila at the same density. Four levels would shrink its area by 50%. Cities with densities of 20,000 persons per hectare could shrink 75%. This is what the 20,000 persons per km² of Malé looks like.

La Ville Savoye would offer better distributed sunlight if it were on or near The Equator. Its energy density is relatively low since residential levels have bathrooms and kitchens naturally lit and ventilated, meaning all services conduits and pipes can be on external surfaces and not hidden in ducts. It doesn’t repeat the Metabolist error of having services penetrate the structural core and preventing proper maintenance and making future additions, replacements and reconfigurations messy, if not impossible. Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower is always used to illustrate the folly of this approach.

Were it to have been built [buildable?], Arata Isozaki’s Clusters in the Sky would surely have been a more heroic failure.

Built representations of Metabolist principles such as Kenzo Tange’s 1966 Yamanashi Broadcasting and Press Center or his 1967 Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center don’t count as these buildings were merely made strange with contrived gaps but were essentially conventional structures with cores with services in shafts.

Unless it’s a location where pipes freeze or pigeons rule, it makes sense to expose services as tidily as possible. It doesn’t have to be made into a fetish by painting the cold water pipes blue and so on. [High-Tech and Post Modernism are both creatures of the same era – the former representing modernity and the latter representing continuity. They are by no means opposites.] IF we are to consider architecture an art, then the plumbing, utilities and drainage that are unique to it have more right to be used as a criteria for its evaluation as art than say, shape-making does. [c.f. Making Strange]

Exposing services is one practical thing we can learn from La Ville Savoye. Much like its namesake, one question it asks but doesn’t answer is what we want ground level to be. After 7,000 years, our cities remain agglomerations of activity spaces overlooking the streets that access and service them. Streets and their traffic compete for space with pedestrians at ground level, and with buildings for the airspace above.

Not all streets are bad and not all traffic is bad. Streets, after all, are a source of pedestrians and coffee-shop urbanism holds that pedestrian traffic brings Retail and Retail brings Vibrance. Masdar City Phase I showed it was possible to completely separate vehicle traffic at impossibly huge cost and succeeded in making both pedestrian and vehicular precincts lifeless.

Streets do have more important things to do than separate one café from another but their absence needs to be put to better use than merely provide a place to have a sandwich. I’m not suggesting ornamental traffic, but perhaps we should be asking what kinds of traffic we don’t mind living with and what kinds we do.

Once we know the answer to that, we need to partially build over those streets and make better use of that airspace.

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The Extruded Mat Building

Extrusions have been having a hard time lately because their constant cross sections are uncool. I’d like to say a few words in their defence. For starters, many useful things are extrusions. PVC conduits are extrusions and their constant cross sections use a minimum of material to protect the cables within.

Extruded beams use metals less expensive than steel to achieve the same strength as rolled beams. This is more than just a matter of cost because additional functions can be designed into sections that are impossible to fabricate by rolling.

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Extruded aluminum or PVC sections for window frames are incredibly complex, with small sectional changes permitting new functions and enabling new properties. Each tiny protrusion works with air gaps and insulation to use the minimum amount of material to bear load, prevent twisting and limit thermal bridging. It is a field of specialist research and design to which people devote careers.

Sausages aren’t extrusions because they assume their final shape after being stuffed into a mold rather than extruded from one.

Concrete columns aren’t extrusions either as they’re made by concrete being poured into a mold and allowed to harden.

Slip-form concrete structures may appear to grow but they’re not extrusions because concrete is set in a formwork mold in a dynamic process but it’s the mold that moves and not the concrete. It’s still a good way of producing concrete structures having constant cross sections useful for elevators, stairs and all manner of shafts. The structures may look the same top to bottom but that’s rarely the case within because stresses such as those caused by uneven wind loading mean the amount and placement of reinforcment is never uniform.

Page 39 of the structural analysis peer review report for 432 Park Avenue recommended the local addition of reinforcement to the northeast corners on levels 25 and 39 in order to handle uplift under certain wind conditions. [c.f. Moneymaking Machines #1 : 432 Park Avenue]

Yes, extrusions are great, but what I object to is people thinking them dull and unimaginative simply because they look the same top to bottom. The word extrusion has come to take on a derogatory meaning that derives from those 3D modelling functions that convert polygons into prisms of arbitrary length. The insinuation is that a building with a repeated floorplate is the result of a simple operation executed thoughlessly and without the input of “creativity”. 

This isn’t saying much because all you have to do to not make your building look like an extrusion is change the plan every now and then to show your building can’t be constructed in the easiest way possible. Whether this is creative or not I don’t know. Some non-extrusions are better value than others but we don’t live in a world that’s ready to have architectural concepts rated in terms of aesthetic efficiency.

Until it ever is, it might be more useful to explore what can be done with extrusions. If they can’t embody creativity as it’s currently defined then it might still be possible for them to embody intelligence or even a certain kind of creative intelligence that doesn’t have to be kept a secret. [c.f. Architecture Myths #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else]

The following layout is of one of those Hong Kong apartment towers typically maligned as extrusions. It has differently-sized apartments arranged around a central core having access and services. All kitchens and bathrooms are naturally ventilated. It needs no ducts for apartment utilities. The only major fault is those living room windows adjacent at 90°.

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With this next configuration, kitchens face into the internal corners and push living room windows away from each other but kitchen odours are more likely to reach them. The dining area has a rear window for cross-ventilation. As long as adjacent buildings aren’t connected, there remains a degree of turbulence that dries laundry on racks accessed from that rear window.

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This next layout uses the same principles but separates the living rooms by 120° instead of 90° and places the kitchens inbetween and thus closer still to the living room windows.

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This next layout takes the kitchens back away from the living room windows that are now mirrored and angled like the previous kitchen ones were. It’s the best solution. Concentric walls allow for various combinations of monolithic and prefabricated construction. As a configuration that integrates sightlines, ventilation, servicing, structure and construction with a functioning floorplan, it’s as close to perfect as anything you’ll ever see.

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Towers having layouts like this are often laid out like at Whampoa Gardens Estate in Hong Kong [and yes, that is a decommissioned ship – I don’t know why]. Here and there you’ll see two buildings linked across one side of the service lightwells but this hasn’t become general practice. It’s easy to see how it would reduce air movement.

At the internal corners of these superblocks, adjacent living rooms face a gap where a fourth building would complete a habitable room light well. This is the principle of the following proposal.

Imagine a city of perimeter blocks where all habitable rooms now face the courtyards and streets are overbuilt apart from shafts servicing the non-habitable rooms. What we get is a building experienced around negative space. Instead of buildings interrupting space, we have space interrupting a building.

The Extruded Mat Building

1. Take a perfect layout.

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2. Extrude 5-7 storeys. Repeat horizontally to make a mat building.

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3. Elevate to activate access, airflow, and vegetation.

The elevated mat building makes its own context. It is not experienced as a building object in a landscape or city but from within apartments arranged around extruded shafts of airspace. This isn’t a new idea.  

What is new is that those shafts are now 360° and the only views out are up to the sky and down to the ground. And it’s ok. Diagonally opposite living room windows face each other across a distance of about 26.6m which is about ten metres more than the distance at which subtle facial expressions are supposed to cease to be readable, thus ensuring emotional if not visual privacy. The distance between opposing bedroom windows is 20.9m which is almost five metres greater than the UK standards I’m familiar with. These distances aren’t setbacks or spacings liable to violation – they’re inbuilt and permanent. 

The extruded mat building is its own view and its own streets and its own city irrespective of site and location. It exists already as shopping malls and might be a useful typology in a future in which the good sites are all taken and the good views all built out.

Having more storeys means the sky and ground become further away and though this will limit daylight penetration it may well enhance ventilation. The tradefoff is a no-brainer in the higher latitudes but, if we’re in the tropics, better ventilation is preferable to sunlight streaming through the windows.

According to Obrist and Koolhaas, architecture is A) a Western construct and B) about stylistic “movements” because C) Japanese Metabolism was the first time a non-Western movement “contributed” to Architecture. If one accepts A and B then C is true but it’s still one temperate-zone architecture contributing to another. A significant amount of the planet’s population lives between 23°26’22″S and 23°26’22″N where the sun passes directly overhead.

The tropics have their own truths that a Western, northern-hemisphere, higher-latitude centric architecture that values sunlight is insensitive to. Even a conception of architecture as masses brought together in light makes little sense in places where the sun shines straight down.

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