Category Archives: TYPOLOGIES

Sky Rectangle

Daylighting is perhaps the biggest problem when repurposing a shopping mall as residential, and ventilation a close second. If the average width of my demonstration mall is, say, approximately 100 meters, then the closest exterior surface is as much as 60 meters away or, if the atriums are seen as sources of ventilation and daylight, 35. There are seven levels of this, five above ground and two below that, with some contrivance, could also have side lighting. Approximate dimensions are shown below and the simplified column grid is 8.4 x 8.4 metres. The black rectangles indicate elevator and fire escape stair cores.

First thought.

Treating the problem as a conventional one of giving every habitable room a window isn’t going to work as it squanders perimeter (and atrium) surface area and produces apartments 30 metres deep by 4 metres wide on either side of an artificially illuminated and ventilated central access corridor. It’s the energy-hungry Lake Shore Drive typology and would look something like this.

The central access corridors could be widened in places and, say, 8m x 8m sections of the floor removed to create atriums to bring light and create event in much the same way as shopping mall atriums do for rows of storefronts. However, the difference is that stores want to attract the attention of passers-by and to make the transition between corridor and store as invisible as possible. Residential use has different expectations for access, circulation and amenity and this makes it preferable to have individual residential zones separated from “the street” by a third zone neither circulation nor residential. With detached houses, this zone is usually a garden but it could be a porch or some other type of transitional space. I won’t reject this idea outright but it has an inherent unevenness of daylight distribution.

Second thought.

I keep thinking more lightwells are going to have to pierce the slabs in order to bring a necessary minimum of daylighting and ventilation but this would need to be done without removing any of the column and beam structure. I also thought to pinwheel accommodation around vertically shared lightwells in order to reduce the overlooking as in the example at the end of the New Squeeze post. The attempts in the middle of this next sketch made me think it wasn’t going to work. Too much space would be used to access the units and to too little effect. There was little legibility and not that much daylight either, especially on the lower levels where sideways (east-west) daylight penetration would be obstructed by accommodation evenly distributed in two directions.

The New Squeeze proposal didn’t have this problem as the first (ground) floor was dedicated to accessng the three levels above.

Third thought.

My third thought was to arrange the accommodation in “streets” primarily lit by lightwells but with the long sides of the mall (i.e. the ends of those streets) open to the east and west sides of the mall. Noontime sun would illuminate the atriums. Or so I think. As a reference, I drew upon the linear inclined mat section of Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1973 Pasadena Heights that I continue to learn from. Three apartments partially overlap with shared lightwells lighting different parts of the deep plan.

I learned from studies such as Pasadena Heights 3.0 and The Rooftop that it was possible to stack terraced apartments with very deep plans, with the deepest and most internal parts of the building used for car parking still naturally illuminated and ventilated to a degree befitting non-residential use. Whatever this new proposal turns out to be, it will be called the Mat-rix House.

I once lived in a basement flat in Kensington Garden Square near London’s Queensway. The bedroom was at the lowest level of a seven story lightwell approximately 2.5 x 2.5 m. Man, it was dim.

First look.

I thought of have a plan provided with daylight and ventilation via lightwells and for those plans to be overlapped for five or six levels both horizontally and vertically. Instead of each living unit facing open sky as at Pasadena Heights, it would face the rear of another unit across an access street. You can think of it as shikumen in a three-dimensional matrix. Apartments would be primarily lit by ambient light while direct daylight and outward views would become communal amenity at the ends of streets. Something had to give but the question is if there will be any compensating advantages.

The shaded area in the diagram below represents a living unit approximately 150 sq.m in area. This is large, and may turn out to be too large, but is a consequence of the grid dimensions. Living units are arranged on opposite sides of an 8 meter walkway, and accessed from two directions past 8-metre long lightwells separating them from the street. This arrangement will use exactly 50% of the available floor plate, not counting the lightwells. Providing two levels of accommodation per floorplate would give a per level FAR of 1.0 and a per building FAR of 10.0 for five floors, or 14.0 if the two basements are included. The staggering of access corridors and the visual links between them do more than just promote airflow. I think there would be an awareness of actually living in an inhabited matrix and this is much more than streets in the sky ever did.

The largest downside is that bedroom windows of different apartments overlook each other diagonally up and down from a (horizontal) distance of eight meters. This could be solved by stacking the corridors but then the long views through the matrix would be lost and the bedroom windows would still be eight meters away from an access corridor. I won’t forget about this but I won’t fret too much about it either. The compromises of having entire apartments overlooking narrow streets are not new and solutions and workarounds to them are not new either. Mostly, they involve some sort of curtain or blind or shutter at night.    

Third thought, second look

The area per apartment was large and so, rather than having two levels, I arranged two-storey apartments based on a plan I’d already made, back to back. (This was a big decision and perhaps I made it too early because it means that there will now be two service risers per lightwell, instead of one.)

There are four options for apartment planning. All have one bedroom and bathroom at entry level, and another bedroom and the living areas upstairs. There are two positions for the bedrooms and the only variable is where they are placed. The yellow block is the open space for the apartment of the colour above.

NB: I’ve just finished reading Moshe Safdie’s recent book. These next images are not clever photorenders but photographs taken in the garden of configurations of actual (vintage) LEGO-like blocks.

Type I is a two-storey L-shape back-to-back plan I had from a previous project. The garden is replaced by the lightwell, the bedrooms are stacked and both share the lightwell by the outdoor space at entry level. As with any back-to-back plan, there’s no horizontal through ventilation.

Type II is a linear layout with both bedrooms stacked where they share the lightwell with the outdoor space and the living areas of the paired apartment. However, it has horizontal through ventilation on both levels.

Type III has the Type I layout on the lower level and the Type II layout on the upper level. It therefore has horizontal through ventilation on the upper level but the lower bedrooms share the lightwell with the open space of the paired apartment.

Type IV has the Type II layout on the lower level and the Type I layout on the upper level. There is therefore horizontal through ventilation on the lower level but the upper bedrooms share the lightwell with the open space of the paired apartment. This variation.

These four Types have minor differences for under-stair storage and such but the most important is the degree of compromise between ventilation and privacy. Externally, they all look the same. Type II has the best through ventilation but the most compromised privacy. Type I has the least compromised privacy but no horizontal through-ventilation. Type IV has horizontal through ventilation but not for the living areas where it is preferred. Type III is the one I‘m going to proceed with.

It’s not ideal on either count but is the least compromised. This is what those bedroom windows look like from the open area (left) and from the Level 4 access corridor (right) looking up to levels six, eight, and the rooftop. I’ve added utility pipes and conduit runs.

NOTE: Problems with bedroom windows could be avoided by placing both bedrooms above the open space so they face the blank wall on the other side of the lightwell. The bathroom would stay on the entry level, but the living spaces would be split into Types I–IV with the dining-kitchen and living area split across the same four positions. This makes sense because (apart from the kitchens and bathrooms no longer being stacked) all that’s happened is that the areas of the living spaces and bedrooms have been swapped.

In the final fitting into the demonstration mall, no apartment would be more than seven bays away from the outside proper or more than three from either the outside or a large atrium. I don’t generally like the artificiality of “photorenders” and how they overpromise but, given the nature of this project, even inexpert ones such as these give a better idea of the expected level of daylighting. Nevertheless, they are only an approximation of what I expect it would be like. In that sense they’re as true as any other photorender you’ll see. “Realistic” let alone photorealistic has no meaning for things yet unbuilt. I know I can push ambient light as much as I like but I simply don’t know if I’ve pushed it too far or underestimated it with respect to what the built reality would be. I see this proposal more as Walden 7 in Barcelona than Habitat in Montreal.

Having said all that, if this is a reasonable approximation of a level of illumination for apartments seven stories down and lit by lightwells, then it’s not bad. Whether it’s appropriate or not depends upon climate, latitude and – as anywhere – whether it’s day or night.

Access to direct daylight and open “space” is communal rather than private and this is how it must be if an equal distribution of both is desirable. This goes against the history of residential architecture and residential architectural aesthetics framed in terms of the abundance of space and light for some. If we want an acceptable minimum for all, then different rules will apply and a different architecture will result. 

Also worth mentioning is that it’s not unusual for a project to be fitted into some given (or desired) shape. This exercise took a given structure as the starting point and attempted to fit a project into it and, to my mind, was successful in fitting it in a way that adds value to that structure. The next thing is to apply this method with all its known advantages and shortcomings to the actual (demonstration) structure with its various atriums and cores.  

The point of this exercise was to show that some unconventional solution might result. Nobody is going to build a structure like the one I’m taking as a starting point in order to build apartments or any other kind of accommodation. If a residential repurposing of such a structure were to happen, the only financial advantage would be that the accommodation itself can be relatively flimsy. The primary structure is massive and protective and all that’s required of the secondary one is that it support itself.

Any residential proposal for the demonstration mall will be determined by the floor-to-floor height and the dimensions of the structural grid. My attempt to fit accommodation in this way, into the demonstration mall will be a separate post. Optimizing the typology itself will be another and my first thought is to use a floor-to-floor of 3.0–3.5 metres, a structural grid of 5.5 x 5.5 metres (two car parking bays, one-way road) and single-level apartments. It would have infill panels within a lightweight steel or timber frame structure. It would be a mat-rix landscape rolling over pockets of car parking.

• • • 

Professional Development

This post is a summary as well as thoughts on two articles I recently read. The first was “Immersive Research on Public Rental Housing in Baiziwan, Beijing – Learning from Ma Yansong” by Jiajing Zhang of Gaomu Architectural Design Consultancy from December 2021 and the second was “Ideality as Motivation: The Social Housing Practices of MAD and GOM”, by Zheng Hujin and also Jiajing Zhang, from June 2022.

In 2002, the Shanghai-based Gaomu Architectural Design office began to look into what they saw as the instinctively discomforting lack of diversity in housing design due to the growing dominance of capital in real estate. Anyone who’s been to China will know what they mean.

This reality on the ground is more regulatory than cultural, or even market-led. For example, the tower field to the right of this image was designed by UN Studio.

This lack of diversity takes the form of an overabundance of large and medium-sized apartments and an inefficient use of land, both of which make it difficult in large cities for young and low-income people to buy or even find a place to live because of their low status in the housing market.

The first thing I like about this story is that some architects identified a problem and began to think about how they could make it better.

In their Longnan Gardens project, Gaomu office proposed 1) very small units to counter the large and medium-sized units, 2) very high density to counter the inefficient use of land, and 3) residential diversification to counter the homogeneity of offering. The smallest units were the first to be rented.

The second thing I like about this story is that the architects implemented their ideas.

The image below shows the entire project. Building spacing and sun paths determine the heights of the relatively low buildings and internal sunlight and spacing determine the shape of each footprint. There’s a range of housing types.

The combined influence of sunlight requirements as well as spacing according to the basic rules below produce perimeter blocks with one side open and of varying height. You can understand those basic rules from this diagram. The only unfamiliar rule is how building spacing varies with both height and orientation.

If that thick grey arrow in the bottom left corner of the diagram above indicates South, then it means buildings can be spaced closer if their long sides face south. If that’s the case, then the alleged Chinese market preference for south-facing apartments is just something we like to believe. These next two developments are what usually results from following the same rules.

The next thing I like about this story is the same as the second. Some other architects identified the same problem and implemented their own ideas for how to make it better.

The story continues in 2021 when MAD architects in Beijing, led by Yansong Ma, published their BaiziWan Social Housing Project. [The images and photographs by ArchExist, CreatAR Images and Yumeng Zhu appear in all descriptions of this project.] With Baiziwan Social Housing, a Y-shaped stepped-tower typology is applied to a site divided into eight by three cross roads and one along its length. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Y-shaped, stepped buildings. MVRDV used them in 2018 with their Future Towers in Pune, India, and presumably for the same building height and apartment spacing advantages.

In this case, the rules are still that the ends of blocks be 10-12 metres apart, while the spacing between blocks is calculated by the height of the highest part for openings to the south – which, in this next diagram, is “down”. The stepping or “terracing” is the result of sunlight regulations and not the result of a desire to make a mountain-like building despite MAD having form with mountain buildings.

Both MAD and Gaomu wish to create a ground level more open and more functioinally active and social than the norm.

Both offices also want to provide a mix of apartment types sized for the low-income rental market. On the left above is a MAD single aspect studio apartment on either side of a dual loaded corridor, in the middle is a two-level two-bedroom apartment and, on the right a one-and-a-half level two-bedroom apartment paired around central corridors every other floor. It’s a genuine attempt to provide low-cost rental housing for persons on low incomes and in a way that proposes an alternative and better way of doing things. Rather than a diversity of building types, this MAD project has a diversity of public spaces at ground level. Gaomu and MAD both deserve credit for getting it this far.

• • • 

Clearly, Gaomu Architectural Design and Ma Yansong and MAD share the same concerns but, while admitting that a famous architect is always going to attract criticism and be accused of top-down design, for Gaomu, there was still a lack of diversity in the buildings themselves.

Their response was to take what they had learned and implemented at their Longnan Gardens project, and design a project for the same Baiziwan site using the same brief and the same principles and drivers.

Gaomu had their questions but I like how they weren’t interested in critique. They wanted to understand why certain decisions were made, while also testing and confirming their own approach.

The design period began at the latest when Baiziwan was made public in May or June 2021and continued until they made the results of their exercise public in December21. The team followed the plot division and road network, observed the 80 metre height limit, the 3.5 plot ratio, the requirement for 4,000 households, and complied with Beijing regulations. They did however decide their own proportions of the different types of units. In order to keep the site parameters the same, they used the right-hand side (below) of the site for the same amenity. The plot ratio of 3.5 was higher than anything they’d previously had to follow.


A diversity of building types was important to Gaomu and they knew from previous work that, in terms of floor plate efficiency, certain building types are more suited to apartments of certain types and areas. Single corridors work better for apartments of about 60m2 but double-loaded corridors are better for apartments of 40m2 or less.

A circular configuration is more suited to apartments as small as 22m2.

A traditional gallery configuration was more suited to 40m2 apartments.

For added diversity, six teams in the Gaomu office were free to design their individual blocks. They applied the following rule and truncated the building heights according to sunlight regulations.

The design of the blocks at the intersection corners was particularly important to them, along with views of those corners.

It seemed all was well until, towards the end of the study, the Gaomu teams noticed they’d neglected to take into account the site influence of the three large towers on the south side – the up-side, in these next two images. Jiajing Zhang, the Gaomu project leader later surmised that the towers were a legacy from a previous stage of the same development and the client, dissatisfied with the direction of the project, commissioned Yansong Ma and MAD. The large setback in the MAD scheme accounts for the shadows cast by these three towers. Accordingly, Gaomu adjusted their scheme but it made everyone appreciate the limitations of a six-month research project when compared with a six-year design process and ultimately why the Y-shape was adopted in the first place. The Gaomu teams ended their study with a greater admiration for Yansong Ma and MAD.

There’s much to admire here.

  • The Gaomu architects did their research and learned from it.
  • They honestly admitted their oversights.
  • They didn’t hesitate to express their admiration for the other architects.
  • The results of this process were made public.

I don’t think many architects would re-design a project by other architects in order to understand it and, not only do that, but also have an open dialogue with the other architects about it and on top of that share all this with the general public. These are conversations worth having. We should have more of them.

You can see how Gaomu’s Longnan Gardens Social Housing Estate was presented on ArchDaily here in July 2017, and here you can see how MAD’s Baiziwan Social Housing was announced on ArchDaily in June, 2021.

This is another thing. In both these ArchDaily articles, the architects discuss the obstacles they faced but, even if we read it, we still can’t appreciate the amount of work involved in attempting to design and build something better in spite of punishing plot ratios and sunlight regulations. This entire story is a case study in itself, showing that the result of doing architecture is more than a set of photos and some accompanying text that can’t even begin to describe the knowledge, skill and art that went into the making of a project, but will nevertheless be the basis for the opinions most of us will have of it. I’m heartened to see these architects understand the superficiality of our media environment and, by using it to tell us about the reality of building design, are working to improve that too.

In the concluding paragraphs of the “Ideality as Motivation: The Social Housing Practices of MAD and GOM” article, Jiajing Zhang makes some very good points. I paraphrase.

  • “Both MAD and Gaomu seek to use design to highlight the shortcomings of existing guidelines, norms and regulations. However, improvement at the system level cannot be achieved by the actions of individual architects. It is far beyond the ability and responsibility of the individual architect to solve the problems of urban space. Norms come from the imagination of those who make them, and imagination comes from both experience and creativity. Experience that lacks creativity is reflected in norms that stifle potential possibilities.

This, ultimately, is the crux of the matter. If regulations are designed to ensure certain minimums, then all that happens is that minimum requirements get met. In the case of sunlight for example, setting an overly prescriptive hourly requirement for windows of habitable rooms will produce rows of slab buildings that satisfy the code in the quickest and easiest possible way, whereas some different code might encourage other building forms and other possibilities.

  • “Excellent works should be created by the system rather than by fortuitous conditions”. Instead of strongly supporting specific projects under the existing rules of the game, government departments should modify the rules of the game so they are more scientific and rational.

This is an intriguing thought even though it’s 100% reasonable and makes me wonder why nobody thought of it before. Regulating for minimum standards simply doesn’t push in the right direction. Now the thought’s been articulated, we need to think about how the system needs to change to make that happen. It’s a challenge and if MAD or Gaomu or someone else ever succeeds in nudging regulations to encourage excellent solutions, it’ll be just what we need after a century wasted framing architecture as value-adding design and cost-efficient construction.

  • “In today’s social context and the current state of the industry, collective housing designed by independent architects is the exception. The generation and existence of projects such as these is neither universal nor continuous. Their success does not mean that breakthroughs and changes will be forthcoming. A Quixotic solo effort is often the opposite of success. Glory and failure are two sides of the same coin. Individual actions may end in failure but it is the frequency and continuity of those actions that creates the possibility of improvement.”

Well said.

• • • 

December 18, 2021, the WeChat public account of Gaomu Architects released the article “Learning from Ma Yansong”, which detailed the design ideas and achievements of Gaomu’s version of Baiwan Home.

[AT] 张佳晶:北京百子湾公租房的沉浸式研究——向马岩松学习
张佳晶 AT建筑技艺  2021-12-18 10:05 Posted on 北京

Original 郑慧瑾 张佳晶 高目  2022-07-23 19:46 Posted on 上海
Ideality as Motivation:The Social Housing Practices of MAD and GOM
[郑慧瑾] Zheng Huijin1
[张佳晶] Zhang Jiajing2(通讯作者)
1 贝诺建筑设计咨询(上海)有限公司(上海,200020)
2 上海高目建筑设计咨询有限公司(上海,200232)


We’ve been seeing a lot of microhomes lately, at least in architecture-land where they’re a regular on the competition circuit and in the design studio. Microhomes aren’t the same as the small houses that are usually set as an introduction to architectural design in first year before the projects SMLXL each year. Because a microhome’s size is typically around 25 sq.m not counting external areas whether covered or not, it’s not in the spirit of it to use a crazy amount of resources. However, a microhome designed for some idyllic countryside situation seems to me more like a weekend house or short-let accommodation and thus part of the problem it’s meant to solve. Yet, at the same time, a microhome isn’t a tiny house which, at least at the beginning, was a reduced-area house as a response to homelessness.

But what if, say, two people wanted to live in a 25 sq.m dwelling out of choice? What would make them want to do that? You can’t say “a nice location,” because that’s a function of money. The necessary spaces, furniture, fittings and appliances fit in somehow to accommodate the mechanics of daily life but what can architecture bring to the problem? Architecture generally has little to say when site, area and resources are squeezed. Over in Japan, Atelier Bow Wow have been having having a good shot at keeping architecture relevant with series of small houses. Here’s four, ranging from 22 sq.m to 37 sq.m. Small houses such as these are often seen by Western eyes as audacious or, worse, pretentious.

The ferocious inventiveness of (architect-led) Japanese house design since the 1960s is a result of Japan’s essentially feudal system of land ownership increasing the value of land so rapidly so that whatever’s built on it becomes financially irrelevant within a decade or two at the earliest, five or six max. The average is about 30 years. Transfer of land (or the rights to build on it) usually means the end of the road for whatever’s built on it – as happened to Toyo Ito’s U-House, or Shinohara’s House in Yokohama Toyo Ito’s U-House. There’s a huge difference between the real value that architecture adds, and its perceived value. We can’t do anything to change this system in Japan but we really shouldn’t be admiring houses with the lifespan of a sofa.

This isn’t a criticism of small houses, whether inventive or not. There are many forces pressuring houses to become smaller and that, when we design a small house for a competition or in the studio, we ought to be clear about what problems we want it to address solve.

  1. Will it have some worthy and specific social or humanitarian agenda?
  2. Will it be affordable?
  3. Will it be made from only locally-sourced renewable and recycled materials?
  4. Will it have a lot of technology thrown at it so we can say it is off-grid?
  5. Will it be open-source, self-build design or is fantasy mass-production or 3D printing the answer?
  6. Will it have a low environmental impact?
  7. Will it be possible to live in?
  8. Will it be architecture?

No.1 seems mandatory for competition entries but – and please don’t get me wrong here – designing micro-houses for niche and/or disadvantaged groups is undeniably virtuous if they actually get to the people they are designed for but, if they don’t (and they probably won’t), all we’ve done is reinforce the mindset that micro-houses are for other people and not for the mainstream. I’m going to approach the design of a micro-house from the other end and try to create something that’s architecture or at least has a degree of spatial interest. When this is over we can have a look at what’s been gained and what’s been ignored. If people want to say my micro house is pretentious and has ideas above its station then I’ll know I have succeeded.

I have three references. My first is Hiroyuki Asai’s 1971 Mochizuki House. It’s inclined wall making the living area more expansive and the sleeping areas more intimate has bewitched me for decades.

The second is my attempt at recalling what I liked about Mochizuki House when it was still just a memory. It’s not a “reimagining” but me running with someone else’s idea.

My third reference is Sou Fujimoto’s 2006 Final Wooden House but not because I approve of its concealed steel rods stacking, staying, and sometimes suspending some decent hunks of wood, but because this little space contains many corners in which to be. Entry is into the kitchen space with the sunken bathroom to the right. Straight ahead and up a couple of 30cm steps is some sort of sitting area, while to the right and up a couple more is one sleeping space, and then right again and up a couple more gets you to above the bathroom where all you can do is lie down. There are five different places to be and each has various views of the others. I’m not saying it’s liveable or even lived-in as I can’t see any light fittings or power outlets, but this vertical overlapping of spaces at different heights could be applied to a more conventional micro-house to give one but especially two people a choice of four or five different places to be.

The stairs would have to be habitable or useable in some sense to stop them becoming inefficiently used area and this is what happens with this exercise of Fujimoto’s. The other idea of many different corners just might make small houses more attractive. This own space doesn’t have to be isolated cells. I took my own project as the starting point. The first image shows how it already had two very different spaces, not counting the bathroom or kitchen.

My first thought was to put an additional space above the bathroom and occupy the corner currently occupied by the shaft seen in the image at the top right.

Forgetting about the kitchen for now, I thought this new space would be accessed by steps up the roof. And making another volume to balance it on the other side was no problem either. The space beneath the roof was always going to be the sleeping area and the space beneath the upper volume was always going to be the bathroom but adding these spaces now took me way over 25 m2.

There was also the problem of how to get to this new platform space. This next image shows my first thought. I imagined a low-ceiling space with low furniture such as beanbags and a coffee table. It’s no tea ceremony room but I gave it a round window anyway. These things are sacrificial.

The space beneath that platform was never going to be part of the 25 m2 so away it went. And nor was the space above the bathroom but I didn’t yet know that.

The bedroom area was small but there was an opportunity for a nice window below the roof and a paired one the other side of the house. The bedroom is accessed by the passageway to the right of the front door (in the plan below) but I’m feeling the squeeze. The space beneath the stair is now a void to reduce the area, there’s no space for the bathroom and for some reason I’m still thinking it’s okay if the kitchen goes upstairs. (!?)

I came to my senses and the kitchen came downstairs and the plan began to make some sort of sense when I moved the stair to what became an upstairs outdoor space, to the middle of the room and partially consolidating the two stairs. For a while I let myself think this was interesting.

The area was still on track but the sleeping area was just a dark corner with an inclined roof/wall that could be lower but this would 1) decrease its access headroom and 2) increase the floor area of the living room. I learned that moving an inclined wall – especially one at 45° – separating two different levels changes the height of one space and the area of the other. Strange stuff happens when plan and section mirror.

I thought it was over when I made the outside terrace larger so I could have a single stair that wasn’t such a feature in the middle of the house. Also, the illusion of making a small house feel larger by getting good aesthetic value from the space is what this exercise is about so I lowered the roof above the living room to make the the living room roof vanish into “infinity” instead of just crashing into the end wall. Not bad. It’s no Laurentian Library but the door at the top of the stairs is underscaled. “Cheers Michaelangelo! This device of yours makes a small space seem larger than it is.”

Still, I worried that the inclined wall/roof I so loved at the beginning had little presence apart from above the bed. I thought it might be a good idea to reduce the size of the terrace and have the roof continue on the other side of the stair. It wasn’t. The two parts couldn’t both vanish to infinity if the horizontal roofs were at different heights. [left, below]. Doing the opposite was equally pointless [right, below] although it’d be the thing to do if the terrace continued up.

Micro-houses have limitations on area and, although nothing is said about excess volume, I began to be suspicious of this almost-double-height space above the kitchen and table. It wasn’t in the spirit of a micro-house so the idea of removing excessive volume was now driving the design. The one thing I hadn’t yet thought of was best.


So was it all worth it? What’s been lost and what’s been gained? Total area is 25.33 sq.m which is slightly over but can be reduced easily enough. I was curious to see if there was any area or volumetric advantage over a single-level house and produced a reference design using the same layout. Its volume turned out about 20 m3 more despite my simplifying the roof but it was a false comparison as there’s no reason to have a ceiling as high as the room is wide. It’s a different house and, if we don’t count the bathroom or outside space, has only two distinct spaces in which to be.

The high ceiling is only there because of the upstairs outdoor area and if we take that away and reduce the height, and reposition the bedroom door to give more wall to the living area then, in two simple moves, we’re left with a very ordinary layout that, though better than many, is now determined by cost. Whatever the construction is, I can now cost the difference between my reference design below, and my final design, and see if it the value I think I am adding is at least proportional to its cost.

The lightweight stair was a good idea so I appropriated that. Since it’s a matter of constructing this house as inexpensively as possible, the higher of the two roofs will have to go. Confession: I avoided showing it in a section but there was some complicated construction where the outside terrace was longer than the bathroom below. I belatedly fixed this by making the bathroom longer, and then reduced the area of the bathroom by making its walls thinner.

This helped the elevations but having to make more space for the bed meant making both the bedroom and living area wider. These two good things meant fine-tuning the dimensions so the area was bang on 25.000 sq.m. The void beneath the living area will probably be filled with rubble. Or perhaps not. I’ll stop it here.

Pasadena Heights v3.0

The greatest advantage of terraced apartments is that each apartment can have an outdoor space open to the sky. The greatest disadvantage of terraced apartments on level ground, is that the lower apartments become longer and receive less daylight because because that long end is at the bottom of some light-well, or they receive less daylight because the setback on one side becomes an overhang at the other. This is just how it is.

One way of disguising this is to fill that other-end space with a secondary use that makes do with what illumination there is. Henri Sauvage’s 1922 Grandin Building in Paris does this. Access corridors for single-aspect apartments either overlook the swimming pool or are open to the light-well above it. Eight storeys.

Henri Sauvage was smitten with terraced buildings and explored other configurations but none were realized.

Bringing daylight to the deepest parts of the plan is always going to be a problem and, as you can intuit from the positions of the elevator shafts in the two other Sauvage proposals above, vertical access complicates internal arrangements since floorplates of different sizes and shapes are accessed at different positions. Rather than solving the problem, San’t Elia made it into an expressive feature – much as you’d expect for a time when tall buildings and elevators barely existed in Europe.

Alternatively, the middle space of terraced buildings can be filled with something useful that doesn’t depend on daylighting and that people don’t need or want to look at anyway. Paul Rudolph’s 1967 Lower Manhattan Expressway proposal.

The opposite yet similar thing to do is to make that central space into a feature that people will want to look at. This is John Portman’s 1973 San Francisco Hyatt Regency Hotel. Many of its rooms have terraces open to the sky but only because doing so creates an atrium lobby within.

A fourth approach – which is the same again only not as glamorous – is to just make the central part a pedestrian access space overlooked by access corridors. London’s 1972 Brunswick Centre is like this. The outer portions of the building were never built but the central space was to have been top-lit, as shown in the section on the top right below for as-designed, and middle-right below as as-built. Either way, the apartments are all single aspect, with kitchens and bathrooms along the access corridor. Some photographs show what look like narrow kitchen windows and high-level bathroom windows opening onto the open corridors.

Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1973 Pasadena Heights in Mishima, Japan has fascinated me since 1975 when I first learned about it. Two blog posts exist, both from 2015. I should’ve included Pasadena Heights in that recent one on formative sections.

combined access and landscape

The section is unusual in that it generates the plan and how the apartments interlock as they flip and terrace along and up the slope. I won’t explain again the geometry that allows this but will say I’ve not seen anything like it these past fifty years. The configuration allows each apartment to have two spaces open to the sky: one a front garden path area adjacent to the access path and overlooked by the kitchen window, and that passes by a light-well for the apartment living room outdoor space of the apartment below, and the other is the living room space adjacent to the light-well of the apartment above.

The entire building follows the slope but is raised to provide a secondary access and to enhance ventilation. The slope allows all apartments to have the same depth. All access is pedestrian as cars are parked at the top and bottom of the hill. I’ve speculated on why this building made little impact and conclude it was just bad timing. If you want daylight and ventilation to all rooms then you’re going to need windows and a large wall surface area to have them. The section of Pasadena Heights ensures this but it also results in large external areas of floors and roofs. My guess is that this caused much heat loss during the first global oil crisis and nowhere were the consequences of that felt as much as Japan.

Although we’ve never seen another Pasadena Heights, the premises of every dwelling being dual aspect and every dwelling having some outdoor space open to the sky remain valid. My 2015 reworking gave every apartment driveway access and two car parking spaces. The idea was to propose a denser way of living for Emirati families. It went nowhere, but did reestablish proof of concept, even for a culture notoriously protective of their privacy. Like Pasadena Heights, this project was premised on a 1:8 incline but, because I wanted to park two cars outside each apartment, getting 1:10 roads up there caused me much grief.

A couple of years ago, I had the idea of reducing the repeatedly stepped yet alternately flipped layout to its basic geometry and devising a configuration that didn’t need a slope. I didn’t want to go the BIG mountain route with its tortuous driveways dubiously stacking car parking to fake an incline, and I didn’t have sufficient information to find out how Glen Howard Small might have done it in his 1983 Turf Town proposal.

This next image shows how I simplified the geometry a couple of years back. Again, there are long apartments with rooms on alternate sides strung along a corridor. The idea was to “hollow out” the inner part of the mountain for access and car parking.

These alternating rooms and courtyard-like spaces made me think of a typical Australian suburban block about 50 meters wide and a couple of hundred long, accessed from both ends with a single level of car parking. My 2020 New Mews proposal repeats enclosed and open spaces to ensure daylight and ventilation to all rooms, including bathrooms.

This was very much a two-storey project but has the same principle of alternating indoor and outdoor spaces accessed by a long corridor. My Pasadena Heights v.3.0 would be multi-storey, terracing back one unit-space for each level up. Doing this means every apartment, no matter how long, will at the front always a terrace open to the sky, even if there is a hierarchy of daylighting the “deeper” into the apartment. The plan was to shorten the lowest two levels of apartments by providing a double-height space for an access driveway and vehicle parking. Vertical access would be by elevator and stairs every two apartments. I was always aware these access cores would be to the rear of the bottom-most apartments and to the front of the uppermost ones, but had no idea if or how this would work. My first thought was to mirror the apartments around the cores.

It works, but I didn’t like the adjoining front terraces. (“Handshake terraces” were one of the things I didn’t like about BIG’s King Toronto project.) The only way around this was to not mirror the apartments but to repeat them on opposite sides of the core. This next plan shows the principle. I’ve made the space unit with the entrance into an entrance hall, kitchen and guest bathroom but the planning of the apartments is arbitrary and, I imagine, would be determined largely by light, with daytime living areas towards the outermost end of the apartment and sleeping areas towards the innermost.

It looks like this.

But why do it? The New Mews proposal was an attempt to provide an alternative to the continuing shrinking of outdoor space in suburban Australia due to suburban lots that previously had a single detached house, being replaced with four, five, six or more pseudo-detached dwellings. Dwellings on these divided lots share a driveway as the primary open space and, apart from a small space designated an “al fresco” living area, the external walls are about one metre from site boundaries. If a typical residential block in Perth, Western Australia is approx. 200m x 100m and, in the past would have had sixteen detached houses of varying areas, the New Mews proposal would have allowed forty houses, again of varying sizes. It would be about the same density as shown in this photograph, but would have more open space at the front and back of each house, more useable open private space for each dwelling, more garden space in the front of each dwelling, and less road surface area to access them all. It is possible to replant some trees.

All this is possible because detached houses use the site boundary fences as privacy partitions while a terraced house will use party walls as basic structure as well. . The refusal of the detached house to die has less to do with their market popularity and more to do with them enabling piece construction by an un-unionized labour force –much as Levitt had done in 1940s US. This all has nothing and everything to do with architecture. This Pasadena Heights v3.0 proposal disregards the realities of Australia’s system of housing provision, and proposes an alternative should the redevelopment of entire suburban blocks ever become reality. Should that time ever come, it will be necessary to produce densities higher that what are currently being attained.

So then, with Pasadena Heights v3.0, five dwellings every 10 metres gives 50 per block length, and mirroring and repeating this once gives 200 – five times the density of occupation of New Mews. Daylight and ventilation are compromised but they are compromised more equally for everyone. In Pasadena Heights v3.0,

  • all dwellings still have an outdoor space open to the sky
  • the living room accesses it directly
  • a secondary space (whether it’s the kitchen, another living area or a master bedroom will overlook that space
  • all habitable rooms have at least two windows, not only facilitating airflow across rooms, but enabling occupants in deeper rooms to see through rooms to spaces with more daylight
  • tweaking the horizontal dimensions will allow five cars to be parked for six apartments in a six story building. A five storey building can have one car parking space per apartment.


A December 2020 Yahoo Finance article [thanks Mark!] said that about 30% of US malls were in financial trouble and that those that survive might have their anchor stores demolished and housing constructed instead. Since then I’ve read predictions of as much as 80% are in trouble but that was the first time I’d read of how housing could actually be combined with malls, even if partially demolishing them and rebuilding isn’t really combining but demolition and co-location. I imagined apartment blocks instead of the blue bits in this image last seen in Mall World.

I’m not surprised the decision was made to demolish the anchor stores and build apartments as cheap as allowable because it’s almost certainly easier and quicker to do that than convert a department store into housing. It’s probably for the best, given how poorly office buildings in the UK converted into housing, even though you’d think it’d be easier to convert office buildings into housing as they don’t tend to have internal spaces more than 15 meters from an external wall.

Even if it’s true that the performance of anchor stores wasn’t great (and I’m sure it wasn’t, even pre-pandemic) the footfall of the specialty stores and food and drink outlets can’t be that great either, and can’t be expected to improve once the so-called “anchor” stores go. If they do, then that particular economic model of a mall – which is all it was anyway – is no longer valid. Different or, some may say, “alternative” economic models for malls exist inj other coutries. In the Mall World post I described one such model as a community hub catering to those two Chinese priorities of 1) Food & Drink and 2) Childrens’ Activities & Education.

But if the only thing that’s changed is that there are now apartment blocks instead of anchor stores, then existing walkways, escalators, elevators and air conditioning will also remain. There is however the advantage of it being possible to build apartment buildings of any size at the extremities but a big negative is that what’s left is no longer a mall but some strange type of urban unit in the middle of a car park much larger than it needs to be. This will enable the periphery to be sold and used for more apartment blocks.

Mr. Gruen’s idea did away with city centers as social centers, with small local stores as community centers, and independent retailers offering a diversity of goods whether vegetables, books or coffee. It centralized shops and forced shoppers to come to it. Inhabiting a shopping mall puts people at a greatly reduced mall if it can be said to still be one at all. Mr. Gruen’s invention revolutionized retail but only for some places and for some people, and only for about 50 years. It’s a combination of building typology and economic model that has outlived its usefulness.

One of the problems here is that the Western-style shopping mall was a creature that had evolved in response to very specific criteria such as how to contain and entertain people inside a closed environment for as long as possible so as to encourage maximum spend. They weren’t really designed to be good for anything else and so it’s no surprise that, like any other overspecialized structure such as aircraft carriers (that are only good at being artificial land in the middle of an ocean), they can’t be adapted to a changed set of circumstances. There’s not much you can do with a disused aircraft carrier other than scrap it and this is what we are beginning to see with shopping malls.

Both aircraft carriers and shopping malls come in various sizes, but my feeling is that they’re both about 300-350 meters long and about ten storys high. This may be coincidence.

Milan’s Galerie Vittorio Emanuele II is often said to be a precursor to the modern shopping mall. The main north-south street is an important pedestrian thoroughfare in Milan and is lined with shops with apartments above.

Less picturesquely and less usefully, the same typology exists unarcaded at Dubai’s Citywalk with its eight storys of apartments above ground floor retail and underground car parking.

We’re gradually working our way back to what cities were before the advent of shopping malls and their distorted retail patterns.

Conversations about what to do with dead or dying malls have been happening for about seven or eight years now and, for the unlucky ones in the wrong locations, the outlook is not good. Almost a year has passed since an article posing the question “Will Abandoned Shopping Malls Soon Become Residential Buildings?” popped up on ArchDaily. I didn’t read it but for some reason I’m sure the answer was yes. I’d like to give it a try.


I’d like to see what happens if we take a shopping mall and attempt to adaptively re-use it as housing. It might find application one day. Were I to make it a design studio project however, I wouldn’t expect much in the way of research. The variables are all the standard housing ones of access, privacy, daylighting, ventilation, fire safety and fire escape. We don’t need an algorithm to link them because we know already what compromise looks like. It’s not going to be data-driven. There’s no data anyway.


It’s uncharted territory. There are no precedents and no case studies, although businesses and consultancies are springing up to advise mall owners on how to convert their malls into studio apartments (by putting in individual hot water systems etc.) It’s still early days. I’ve mentioned Providence’s Providence Arcade before. It’s the US’s oldest indoor shopping mall built in 1859 and turned into 48 hotel-sized apartments in 2013. Bathrooms and hot water systems have been added but the job can’t be said to be done when living rooms open directly off of a pubic walkway.

In the end, the only techniques to draw upon are inexpensive and readily available materials and construction processes, and the increasingly low expectations people have of housing with respect to spatial standards and convenience in addition to factors such as access, privacy, daylighting, ventilation, fire safety and fire escape which are regulated by building code.

I did find this next example and there will probably be other early implementers. Like the example I first mentioned, it’s a mall conversion of sorts but until I see some plans and how it’s done I can’t say if it’s a good or a useful example. Judging by those convenient upper level story heights, I suspect this is a vertical extension rather than adaptive re-use or conversion. That it’s being promoted as a successful example of adaptive re-use shows how desperate mall owners, the construction industry, the economy and investors all are for mall conversions to work.

Converting a multi-level, concrete column and slab shopping mall into housing isn’t something I expect to ever happen because, if you had a choice, you simply wouldn’t choose such a structure if you were designing housing from scratch. It’s something that would be driven only by necessity. Nor would you choose a structure like this if you were designing a vertical farm, even though these structures could be used for that too. The exercise I propose is an exercise in adaptive re-use but, even then, the only situation I can imagine one ever wanting to repurpose a shopping mall as housing is if making concrete structures was for some reason no longer possible and we had to make the best possible use of now disused concrete structures. In other words, it would be a post semi-apocalyptic scenario of the kind fashionable in architecture schools some time back, but one in which persons with sufficient non-concrete building materials and no desire to waste them, decided to occupy and reconfigure an abandoned shopping mall because it made the most sense to do so.


I’m going to take my local mall from the Mall World post as my candidate for adaptive re-use, even though it works perfectly as a mall, is always busy, is in no financial difficulty and nobody needs or wants it to be anything else than what it is. In other words, this is an academic exercise.

To start, I’ve imported and scaled the plans from the level directories for each floor. I’ll leave the 6th floor bar, restaurant and rooftop garden as amenity space for the residents – it’s not the point of the exercise. I’ll try to get equal numbers of apartments and car parking spaces, not because people will still be driving cars in this scenario but because the internal volume is a function of the number of car parking spaces (and vice-versa). If car parking spaces/space can be converted into residences then so well and good. We will see. Maybe a summer project.

The Fabric of Space

In last week’s post I mentioned Sou Fujimoto’s Wooden House to illustrate the intimacy I would want a Wearable Architecture to have. I included some diagrams. From the section below, I learned that the bathroom is sunken – a reasonable design decision given that many a small house has a sleeping area above the bathroom and/or kitchen but lowering the bathroom floor goes against the apparent cube-ness of the exterior.

This section also tells us Wooden House is a three bedroom house – inasmuch as it has three spaces a person can lay down in. The one above the kitchen is 700 mm high – the height of two wooden blocks. Given that pieces of wood with the same section are used for everything, selecting 350 mm x 350 mm as the section was always going to involve some ergonomic compromise. The sectional drawing shows it’s possible to lie down in a space 700 mm high but it also shows the kitchen sink and countertop are low at 700 mm above floor level. A fixed three-dimensional module was never going to be ideal as the next interval of 1050 mm would’ve been too high. The diagram below shows that a depth of 350mm is sit-table but a 350 mm toehold might not be sufficient after two glasses of wine.

Wooden House is corners and niches for various specified and unspecified activities and functions wrapped around a bathroom and an entrance. Why hasn’t this been thought of before? Many a tiny house or apartment has a sleeping space above an entrance door, a kitchen and a bathroom. This next example, for example, has a total internal height of about four meters but it could easily be as little as three if a 700 mm high ceiling for the sleeping area is okay. Three meters isn’t much more than a normal ceiling height anyway. The floor to highest soffit level in Wooden House is ten timbers = 3.5 metres.

If a full height access corridor isn’t needed then sthe sleeping area can go above tge corridor.Such redistributions of internal space were explored almost a century ago,

With Wooden House, let’s assume building compliance applies and that it fixes the height of the entrance door, kitchen and bathroom at 2.1 meters, and that above one of these areas is the sleeping area with the 700 mm clearance. This means 2.1m + 0.35 m + 0.7 m = 3.15m and there’s the height of one piece of wood left over – as can be seen above the kitchen in that first section. The bathroom is thus sunk to give more depth to Bedroom 3 and create a step up to Bedroom 1. Basically, spaces for people to stand are on the lower levels and spaces for people to lie down must be above them to make the best use of the 3.5 m height available. Conventional staircases are structures dedicated to moving between two levels.

Some of the houses of Japanese architect Yo Shimada have unconventional staircases. whose identity is partially negated by being merged with a sofa, desk or cabinet that people clamber across. However, these lesser staircases are still very much bounded by walls that shape the space and allow one to go from one level to another with different things happening in the spaces there. The actions of living are still arranged by floor levels even if the transition between them is shaky.

These staircases attempt to give unsuspecting objects such as side tables, desktops and cabinets a dual function as part of a staircase with an accordingly reduced identity as a staircase. This isn’t a decadence of materials or process but an ostentation of thought – of showing how cleverly one has solved a problem one has created for oneself. Shimada isn’t the first and won’t be the last architect to do this.

In Wooden House, the standing-up zones and the laying-down zones are linked by a staircase even if it doesn’t look like one because of the 350 mm risers. The 350mm treads create ledges and nooks to store things or for a person to sit and eat, drink or chat or use a laptop.

How do the house electrics work? Are there any? No photograph I’ve ever seen shows fixtures or sockets. Is Wooden House a legally habitable house, a garden folly, primitive hut or marketing vehicle? The window glass inclined at 45° will be less obvious in photographs.

This third drawing is intended to substitute for those horizontal sections we know as plans. Persons skilled in reading plans can deduce the shape of the space and perhaps even how it will feel but not so with these twelve sections that manage to thwart our imagination despite having no three-dimensional curves. On Levels 00~06 I can make out the kitchen to the left of the bathroom and in front of the entrance but after that I’m lost. This could be a problem with us or with the limitations of orthographic representation. Or it could be that we can only imagine what we can represent anyway. This makes Sebastiano Serlio’s assertion that “To draw a building is to design it” sound more like an acceptance of limitations than the grandiose claim he intended. Or It could be that we’ve allowed our modes of representation to become stylized to the point where they no longer convey useful information – as has already happened with those other representations we know as visualizations.

What these twelve sections do manage to tell us is that a significant amount of the internal volume is occupied by solid wood. As far I can tell from counting solids and voids in the various sections, some 274 of 1,210 (350 mm x 350 mm x 350 mm) cubic volumes of internal space are occupied – about 25%. It’s pointless suggesting that the remaining space proposes a valid way to live in less space, if 25% of available volume is used to create it. The question is “Does all that intruding wood give more [intangibly] to the space than it takes from it [tangibly]? Many think so. A new type of space has definitely been created and that space definitely has an intimate feel about it but it is the result of decadent wastage of material and process. Very much has been used to accomplish very little. This, I suspect, is why it is thought to be Architecture.

Speaking of using very much to do very little, I’m reminded of this image from The Daring Cantilever. If you want to make a building appear to levitate, you don’t have to go too high to make your point. It is sufficient to have your building not touch the ground where it so easily could have.

But if we like the spatial effect of Wooden House but object to its decadence of materials and process, then what’s the alternative? Is it possible to recreate the effect of its contrived structure and unique construction on the cheap? I’ve nothing against the the look and touch and thermal and acoustic properties of many nice bits of timber. However, in certain situations, we might prefer to sit on some molded plastic or lean against an inflatable rubber panel.

You can have an enjoyable bath whether your bathtub is carved from a single block of red marble like Nero’s or, at the other end of the scale, vacuum molded from acrylic.

Wooden House has many things in common with this crummy apartment from last week, and makes me think that architects don’t really invent new things but merely artify extant phenomena and draw our attention to things we didn’t want to see.

  • The space is small. 7 sq.m = 2.6 m x 2.6 m. An extra 90 mm in each direction will make the area equal to Wooden House’s 3.5 m x 3.5 m. We can’t see the ceiling so I’ll assume 2.5 m, knowing that it’s a basement.
  • In this dwelling all floor area is designated as space for doing things while standing (showering, washing, dressing, microwaving). The bed space with the reduced clearance is for laying down. There’s no in-between unless one unfolds a chair from somewhere.
  • The shelves multifunction as a ladder.
  • The fold-up table changes some of the floorspace into a place to sit. There is unused space above the table. There is a void behind the microwave.
  • The idea of one function per space has gone. In the bathroom, the floor has become a wet room and there’s no longer a space called a shower.

Wooden House then, is just a house that has the stuff of its structure and enclosure take on a third role as furniture. Somehow, the ledges and nooks and [Japanese being Japanese] floors function as seats and beds and tables. If we want to make a volume of space habitable without the structural contrivance of Wooden House or the constructional contrivance of built in furniture such as Nakagin, then we’re stuck with multi-purpose furniture and fittings in doggedly orthogonal volumes. That reality can be arted- up either with the horizontally dispersed, minimal cuboid volumes of Sanaa’s Moriyama House and it’s value-adding access alleyways, or with the vertically stacked minimal house-oid volumes of Stacked Houses [Fujimoto again!] and their value-adding external ladder stairs. Square one.