Split Systems

Now, when energy is either scarce or expensive, it’s worth remembering that air conditioning accounts for one fifth of all electricity used by buildings. It’s also worth remembering that air conditioning really only means heating air or cooling air because, if you want your air filtered, purified, humidified or dehumidified, then what you need is an AHU – an air handling unit. Air conditioners come in all shapes and sizes but the first experience of domestic air conditioning for many people last century was an evaporative air cooler.

It was possible to build them into a hole in a wall but it was also was common to see them fitted into part of a window opening. Evaporative air coolers still exist and, for example, you can still see them in many places such as the poorer or more traditional areas of Dubai.

In apartments more upmarket they’ll be concealed in louvred enclosures on the underside of the balcony above. This enclosures are sometimes part of the external design but never so much as to be a distinct design element. In this next image, they’re the wood-coloured enclosures along the the balcony ceilings.

You’re also likely to see evaporative air coolers in places such as the tropics or the Middle East where heating isn’t typically requied. Or in cities such as New York where cooling is occasionally required even if heating is traditionally provided separately. Even so, split system air conditioning is still the preferred choice for summer-only use in places such as central Russia (upper left), Damascus (upper right) and Moscow (lower).

Split system reverse cycle air conditioners are also the preferred choice in the temperate climates that requires only moderate and occasional heating and cooling. Passive heating and cooling and for lowering the energy requirements of buildings are all good things and, if these measures are implemented along with a sensible degree of usage restraint, then split system air conditioners aren’t such a bad option.

The first mini-split systems were sold in 1954–1968 by Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba in Japan, where its development was motivated by the small size of homes. Multi-zone ductless systems were invented by Daikin in 1973, and variable refrigerant flow systems (which can be thought of as larger multi-split systems) were also invented by Daikin in 1982. Both were first sold in Japan. Variable refrigerant flow systems when compared with central plant cooling from an air handler, eliminate the need for large cool air ducts, air handlers, and chillers; instead cool refrigerant is transported through much smaller pipes to the indoor units in the spaces to be conditioned, thus allowing for less space above dropped ceilings and a lower structural impact, while also allowing for more individual and independent temperature control of spaces, and the outdoor and indoor units can be spread across the building.

  • Split-system reverse-cycle air conditioners don’t occupy window space.
  • They’re relatively inexpensive to purchase.
  • They’re simple to install and can be retroactively fitted.
  • They can provide heating as well as cooling.

Split system air conditioners aren’t as energy-efficient as chilled and ducted systems, but their low overheads make them ideal for reducing the initial cost of new builds, and for existing owners wanting a temperature-controlled environment at low cost. In this next photograph, the building on the left is a hotel that’s been retrofitted with ducted air conditioning. The identical building on the right is an office building that relies upon split systems. Its exterior isn’t as pretty but this building is more likely to have the original interiors still intact. Both buildings most likely had window mounted evaporative air coolers until the 1980s.

  • The outdoor and inner units can be spread across the building.

Hmm. The condensers of split system air conditioning systems are installed on the outside of buildings and are generally regarded as either ugly or a necessary evil because they’re additions to existing structures and (thus) outside any aesthetic “wholeness”. Buildings aren’t generally designed with the locations of split system condensers in mind. Apartment balconies are the most unobtrusive and convenient place to put the condenser but there is the obvious disadvantage of them taking up balcony space. Another is that condenser noise is easily transmitted through the balcony doors. There’s not much that can be done about that other than to install them above or outside the balcony. This is fine if there is one but, if not, the most likely location is on the wall next to or below a window, as in the example above.

These next two examples have the condensers placed in surrounds of a material vaguely the same colour as the masonry. These enclosures seem to be a readily accepted compromise – the status quo – the state-of-the art, as it were. The surrounds don’t make the condensers invisible but are regarded as an improvement aesthetically. Condensers are still installed where it is easiest. The surrounds are sometimes given a degree of design input but they invariably remain afterthoughts separate from the building’s design. This is understandable because the charm of split system air conditioners is that they can be installed without any thought before construction or after.

The building is 1924 Normandie Apartments [or the Wukang Building] by Shanghai architect Lazlo Hudec.

These next three examples don’t disguise the condensers but instead draw attention to them by geometrically linking their positions to the facade design. It’s a different way of architecturalizing them. For me the third example is the most successful but ornament these condensers are not.

The next level of bringing condensers into the design of the building involves creating places for them that aren’t balconies but purpose-built shelves. The shelves in this next example could still be read as balconies and, as above, the controlling geometry is an architectural one.

It’s the same with this next example but the condenser surrounds are no longer balconies. It reminds me of that old adage “If you can’t avoid something then make a feature out of it!” That stock photography exists for these geometrically controlled condensers suggests they’re not as inconspicuous as their designers imagine.

Many Chinese multi-storey residential buildings have condenser shelves but, as the spurious condensers in these next photographs show, there’s no obligation to use them.

More recent apartment buildings are more likely to have partially screened shallow shelves. These screens can’t fully screen the condensers for that would reduce their efficiency. Instead, token screens indicate the condensers aren’t meant to be seen. In a way I get it.

Some apartment buildings have their condenser shelves recessed and this seems like a good compromise if you have a floor plate with deep-set rooms requiring windows.

In this next example, condensers of the same size and type are distributed across a facade of a different colour. It looks like there are rules for the installation height and position on the outside of a balcony. This method attempts to regulate all the visual attributes (Colour, Pattern, Shape, Position, Alignment and Size) of the compressors while accepting an uneven distribution across the facade. It’s not bad. The irregularity becomes an incidental feature.

This next example (from Hong Kong) is also a good compromise. The condensers are exposed in an orderly array on what’s obviously the rear of the building. There’s a controlling geometry but not an architectural one. They’re in full view yet where they are tells you they’re not intended to be looked at. Arrangements such as this are only possible if there’s a sole management entity. I imagine this building is a hotel.

Some buildings luck out with deep window reveals or, in the case of this next building, a cornice! The condensers have been randomly bought and installed in the easiest possible location – although it’s fortunate that the 1st (2nd) floor is double-height. The success of this method lies in the primary aesthetic function of the reveal/cornice not being to disguise the condensers. The condensers are given a physical place but denied a conceptual one as far as the aesthetics of the facade are concerned. Unlike the example above, the condenser shelf doesn’t look like a condenser shelf. Despite having a secondary practical function, the architectural device stays firmly architectural and overridingly aesthetic. This is probably as good as it gets and moreover, as good as it needs to be.

• • • 

The Art Extension

Buildings around the world are being extended all the time but the challenges are more visible with art museums and any deficiencies less forgivable. Art museum extensions are over-represented in the media landscape. This could be because art museums are usually prestigious commissions to begin within so art museum extensions must be too. Or, art museums might be more prone to extensions because there’s more art now. After all, it’s quite likely there’s more art being produced than lost. All this art needs to be put somewhere and it’s a problem. We can’t insist that no new art be produced, we can’t just throw away some of the old stuff, and we can’t ask museums with a surfeit to donate some to those without. It’s not going to happen and so we build new art museums and extend existing ones. These extensions often involve reworking entrances and circulation so when museum directors and architects talk about improving access and circulation, what they’re really talking about is increasing capacity, throughput and ultimately revenue.

Horizontal and vertical extensions are both ways of enhancing the utility and extending the life of a building. If there’s the land, extending sideways is always the better way to enlarge a building since it involves no structural load assessment and consequent limitations on weight, structure, and construction. It also causes less trauma to both building and tenants. It may be simpler to build horizontally but it’s more difficult to pull off aesthetically. With vertical additions, the additional storeys build upon a base and make that difficult whole less difficult, even if it is taller. This can’t be said of sideways extensions that upset a wholeness supposed to have existed, especially if there was a symmetry to begin with. What to do?

Horizontal extensions must either 1) forge some new unity by conflating with the old to form a new whole, 2) sit alongside it in some new juxtaposition that preserves the aesthetic integrity of the older building or 3) extend the original building in the same materials and style. This last option is rarely exercised as it destroys the integrity of the original and replaces it with something neither genuinely new nor old. There’s also the problem of the materials and skills to manipulate them either no longer being available or, if they are, expensive to procure. Even if this is overcome, the new extension will still be the result of new requirements and thus sit uneasily in time.

The main design problem Gwathmey Siegel faced with their 1992 Solomon R. Guggenheim Addition was how to make the larger and taller extension not appear attention-getting or overbearing. It’s no small task. Gwathmey Siegel did well by creating a separate volume with no obvious physical links to the existing building and by allow us to sense a relationship via neutral colors, not too much visible glass, and the barest minimum of shared motifs. It’s all about that E89th St. corner view. Nobody cares about the view from E88th St. although it once looked like it was going to be the main one.

Having said that, since the extension was completed, the number of photographs taken from the E88th corner so that the museum obscures the extension shows that not everyone approves. All the same, it’s a rare instance of architects extending an art gallery and displaying some art rather than attempting to create some.

Paul Rudolph’s 1963 Yale Architcture and Design building is not an art gallery and was never as precious as Solomon R Guggenheim but Gwathmey Siegel’s addition is aesthetically serviceable and, who knows, might have been approved by the stakeholders for being no more than that? Underegging is better than over. Gwathmey Siegel have reused that Solomon R device of the overscaled window opening but in response to what I can’t say. The six grouped windows look a bit domestic but maybe it’s not about the windows but the grouping that creates some “verticality” from the white render. [If so, it’s underplayed, but extending the “opening” down another level might have overplayed it.] What we can be sure of is that nothing in this elevation is an accident, even if we don’t understand the intended effect. It’s definitely not upstaging the older building.

It’s clear which of the three approaches was taken by the then Richard Rogers Partnership’s 1982 proposed extension to London’s National Gallery. I’m a great believer in fire escapes and an occasional tower but I don’t think anyone’s sorry this proposal wasn’t built. The future always ages badly.

The same can be said about (and probably for) ZHA’s Sackler Gallery extension to London’s Serpentine Gallery. It’s a strange parasite that denies the host that magnifies its effect.

Somewhat softer, there’s also Manuelle Gautrand Architecture’s addition to Roland Simounet’s 1983 Lille Modern Art Museum. Above is a before and below are two afters. Size and scale agree but little else. It seems sensitive when compared with the previous three examples.

One important subset of extensions includes those that don’t seem like extensions because it and any existing building are not freestanding volumes but part of a streetscape, allowing the connection between them to be either hidden or downplayed. Daniel Libeskind’s 1996 V&A Museum Extension proposal is the best example. The question is now one of aesthetic (i.e. physical+conceptual) unity (or lack of) with the street rather than any particular building.

His 2004 London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre building on London’s Holloway Road does the same thing with building stock more difficult to love but is none the less effective for it.

Project managers say the best way to solve a problem is to avoid it and that’s what Studio Libeskind did with their 2006 extension to Denver Art Museum. It avoids the aesthetic pitfalls of extensions by ignoring the problem and being a detached building with no conceptual connection to the existing building and the only physical one being an enclosed walkway like many an airport terminal building.

The studio’s 2007 Royal Ontario Museum mashup intersects old and new rather than conflating them or juxtaposing them to create something new. The effect relies on the contrast. Mashups like this add but also take away.

It wouldn’t be much of an extension (or even expansion) if two buildings were to occupy the same place but this aerial photograph shows we’re only looking at the tip of the iceberg.

The 2000 Swiss Embassy Extension in Berlin by Diener & Diener Architeckten is my only non art museum example. Clearly, it has been extended yet the end openings create a new symmetry and implied whole. On the building already there, it looks as if the rightmost bay has been extended out and a door opening blocked in order to reduce relief and so downplay an existing symmetry.

However, this photo from 1945 shows the building with that bay already extended and bomb damage to what might have been an earlier extension.

In the Diener & Diener’s extension and remodelling, there’s other stuff happening around the back and on oblique views where the main facade is either unseen or less dominant. I understand this next oblique view as the extensions and remodeling saying “the past is the past” while still being respectful of that past.

Swiss Embassy Berlin_Diener & Diener Architects_Photo Christian Richters

I.M. Pei’s 1984 extension to The Louvre is a mostly underground lobby and circulation space accessed via the famous pyramid which reads as an apparently detached addition. Although different in material and shape, the pyramid has reassuring associations of antiquity and its position announces it as “the key that unlocks the entrance to The Louvre”. It manages to be both new and old. A good call.

Venturi and Scott-Brown also didn’t have an easy job proposing an extension to London’s National Gallery. Their 1991 Sainsbury Wing extension is in the news again for Selldorf Architects proposed remodelling to make it “more visible and easier to navigate”. Regardless, as a building mass it does the right thing by joining two different street frontages, hiding the connection deep within a gap, and by mirroring the existing building on the other side of that gap, but with less (and less identical) mirroring with distance. It’s a complex but comprehensible device. It’s contextualism, but not as we knew it or even as we know it now.

This idea of mirroring about a gap and the extension doing its own thing (whatever that turns out to be) at a distance gives good results. This is what happens with the 1995 extension to Kazuo Shinohara’s 1983 Ukiyoe Museum in Matsumoto. That’s it on the left, mirrored across the gap, but variation increasing with distance.

I find references to this extension having been designed by architect Kuniharu Haba but can’t verify this. I’d never heard of him and can also find no other mention of him. [I had the intriguing thought that maybe Kuniharu Haba is a pseudonym?] But whomever Kuniharu Haba is, it was a tricky commission if ever there was one. I can’t help wondering why Shinohara wasn’t asked. Or perhaps he was and had to refuse the job for some reason, perhaps because it was two years before his effective retirement. To be honest, I’d always thought this extension was designed by Shinohara because of the apparently [to me, anyway] contrivedly uncharacteristic “playfulness” of the extension’s brushstroke gla`zing. Shinohara could never been seen to be copying anyone, including himself. Even the existing and new end walls are the same in different ways.

After Libeskind’s Studio proposal for London ’s V&A Museum, Hufton + Crow kept their heads down and didn’t scare the horses with their 2017 mostly underground extension.

New York’s MoMA has a history of extensions to its original 1939 building by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone. In the 1950s and 1960s came additions by Philip Johnson. In 1984 came a doubling of exhibition space and a residential tower dumped on it by Cesar Pelli and Associates. In 2004, Yoshio Taniguchi reorganized the sculpture garden, added 630,000 sq.ft (58.5 sq.m) of space and unified the by then several facades. The latest extension and reworking by Diller Scofidio and Renfro increases the area by 30% and reworks access and circulation yet again. Facade changes are largely cosmetic but here’s a YouTube link to all the other work done.

We can expect to see more buildings but especially art museums extended and their access and circulation reworked. It will always be a challenge with prestige projects such as art museums. Yoshio Taniguchi’s extension and remodelling was highly praised at the time but, in the end, was around for only 16 years. I think we’re being taught to not get too attached to buildings.

• • • 

Parallel History

I was curious about whether Hitler had really objected to flat roofs and came across an article titled Mies and the Nazis. I read that Hitler had said something along the lines that to be German was to be logical. Gropius therefore, was certainly German for thinking flat roofs were superior for technical and practical reasons. He refused to see a preference for one or the other framed in terms of politics and/or xenophobia. He left for America because his dream of sacrificing craftspersons for industrialized production had more chance of success there. It seems Mies left for America because he was miffed Speer became Hitler’s chosen one. It’s all history now. But what if the shape of a roof hadn’t become politicized as some un-German invention? Gropius, Mies, Breur, Chermayeff, Bayer, and all the rest might not have left Europe. Or even if they did, they might have found something else to do but I don’t suppose that was ever going to happen.

Circa 1920, Auguste Perret knew better than Le Corbusier what reinforced concrete could do. His sketch for Les Maisons Tours dates from about the same time Mies van de Rohe was doing his for the famously curvy skyscraper. Perret’s sketch isn’t so well known but it’s not worlds apart from the view from my once apartment.

If Europe had had elevators, land values and an economy that required skyscrapers, Perret would have been the go-to man and tall buildings would have had infill facades like 432 Park Avenue and not curtain walls like Lever House.

The 20th century chronology of attention-getting buildings is over-represented by products of the 20th century US economy but as long as architects and architecture follow the money, it probably couldn’t have been any other way. In the 1970s we endlessly compared Johnson’s Glass House and van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. We were taught the seminal works of individuals such as Wright, Saarinen and Kahn, and only noticed when an individual such as Le Corbusier presented a sustained challenge to total American architectural media dominance. Less sustained national challenges were mounted by Scandinavia, Japan and Italy that each had their well-documented golden ages.

Golden ages elsewhere seem to be things we notice when there’s nothing more local to preoccupy us. Whether we were paying attention or not, Italy never stopped being a source of architectural intelligence and construction excellence. I shall go to Italy but mostly Milan (not Rome) and look for evidence.

Pre-Modernist Post-Modernism


Designed by Pier Fausto Barelli, the 1919-1923 Ca’ Brutta is a perimeter apartment block and one of the first reinforced concrete frame buildings in Italy but nobody remembers it for that, its underground car parking or its centrally provided heating and hot water. Instead, it’s remembered for its stripped down neo-classicism borrowed from the Secessionists as a reaction to Art Nouveau and that earned it its name that translates as Ugly House. The external decoration caused much controversy at the time and was variously accused of being inconsistent, playful, ironic, a detachment from reality, a primitive mysticism and a reaction to rationality. Decades later, this pre-modernist proto-postmodern building would be enthusiastically studied by post-modernists for being all of those. Papers would be written. 

Proto Postmodern Classicism (Early Fascist Era)

In 1923 Walter Gropius stopped championing the skills of craftpersons and began to promote designing for machine manufacture. Giovanni Muzio’s 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan has masonry arches with little or no decoration. This is typical of Muzio and has come to indicate the architecture of Italy’s fascist period approximately 1923-1945. Muzio’s style seemed fully formed with his 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte and wasn’t noticeably different thirteen years later with his Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo. I think I’d prefer to see Ignzaio Gardella’s 1934 proposal [left, below] there instead. Either would be unthinkable now.

Historic Revivalism (Middle Fascist Era)

Wikipedia quotes Also Rossi as saying that Frank Lloyd Wright was really impressed by Milan Centrale Stazione that opened in 1931 “and said it was the most beautiful station in the world”. It is impressive, but a bit of an outlier.

Proto Critical Regionalism

In 1934, Villa Savoye was about to be abandoned for the first time. It was still two years before Fallingwater was completed, 14 before Glass House and 15 before Farnsworth House. Some time a long time ago, all buildings were critical regionalist. Ignazio Gardella’s 1934-38 Dispensario Antitubercolare, in Italy’s Alessandria had an upper floor courtyard screened by a brick lattice wall not uncommon in the rural architecture of the area. Screening the courtyard was a new problem that could be solved by a known technology architectural device that local builders were familiar with.


There’s such a lot to choose from. The mid-1930s were a very active period for architecture in Italy. In Milan, Terragni did some wonderful apartment buildings such as his Casa Rustici which he did with Pietro Lingeri in 1935.


I can’t not mention Guiseppe Terragni’s 1932-1936 Casa del Fascio that nobody had much to say about it until 1970 when Peter Eisenman’s analysis appeared, bringing it into the narrative (ugh!) of American architecture. [This is a link to a Domus article detailing the media life of Casa del Fascio over the years.]

Of course there’s Adalberto Libera and his Casa Malaparte that’s a long-term favourite of mine but there’s also Cesaare Cattaneo’s 1939 Casa Cattaneo in Como. Frampton tells of the “premature and still somewhat mysterious deaths of both Terragni and Cattaneo’ in 1943 but didn’t go into details. He says their deaths marked the end of Rationalism. ( I think he meant say that Rationalism continued, only with clients more bourgeois, such as at Ignazio Gardelka’s 1953 Casa al Parco in Milan.) Much like Hitler, Mussolini didn’t have that strong an opinion about architecture until he realized how it could be brought into service.

Proto Post Modern Classicism (Late Fascist Era)

You can’t get more fascist than Rome’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana – a building commissioned by Mussolini himself. It opened in 1943, the same year Terragni and Cattaneo mysteriously died. Tense times.

Rationalist Vernacular

Post-war recovery was quick. Ignazio Gardella, Roberto Menghi & Anna Castelli Ferrieri‘s 1949-1953 Condominio di v. Marchiondi a Milano wasn’t a complicated building and nor was it spectacular. It was however very elegantly planned – most likely by Gardella who had a way with hallways and the positioning of walls.


Contextualism (What’s Already There)

Ignazio GARDELLA’S Casa alle Zattere is in Venice but the design took as its starting point his Casa Tognella (Casa al Parco) overlooking Milan’s historic Central Park.

The 1954-1958 Casa delle Zattere is a modern building in Venice that most precious of cities and Gardella has skillfully and unapologetically knitted it into its surroundings appropriating motifs and proportions from nearby buildings. Gardella did not elaborate on what he did or how he did it, but it flummoxed seasoned architectural commentators such as Rayner Banham.

“It is fancy-dress architecture, certainly, but the very manner of its disappearance is proof that the dressing-up has not been done for the usual reasons of historical cowardice. Very tricky…” (Reyner Banham)

Whether it was an office building or apartments or any other type of building, this notion of what’s already there was the starting point for Milanese architects Asnago & Vender. One would probably not look twice at their 1950 mixed use building on Piazza Velasca. Without resorting to obvious moves such as lining-through, it complements the building to the left. The building to the right is another one of theirs and complements the one in the middle and also the three more of theirs around the corner. These building come alive through progressive changes in the shape and/or size and/or position of windows. These variations are not perceptible unless one is looking for them. Theirs is an architecture designed to fit in to streets, rather than some fleeting notion of architecture.


Italian Modern

The 1950 were another golden age of Italian architecture and many of the office buildings were only several stories high but constructed to last. And last they have. The buildings of Gio Ponti are a case in point. They are all beautifully designed and constructed but have mostly been ignored by history and historians apart from the 1953 Pirelli Tower that may still get a mention, even if only for its elegant structure by Pier Luigi Nervi. I only mentioned Foster+Partners The Index last week so its tripartite typical floor, significant and tapering structure, and unobstructed office spaces are still fresh in my mind


Proto Iconic

In Italy, postmoderism took hold of the world of furniture in general Memphis in particular, but postmodern architecture never really took off. Why would it? Why should it? Why should buildings look like anything other than buildings? The closest Italian architecture got to postmodernism was the 1954 Torre Velasca by architectural partnership BBPR (Banfi, di Belgiojoso, Peressutti & Rogers) in Milan. [TWA Building: 1959, Sydney Opera House: 1958] Many people see a similarity to the historic towers of Milan but the only image I can find that might count as evidence is this image of the tower of Milan town hall.


Aldo Rossi and Neo-Rationalism

Some might like to think of Neo-Rationalism as Italian Post Modernism and it’s true they were both around at the same time. The difference is that Aldo Rossi’s 1969-1970 Edificio Residenziale al Gallaratese at Milan’s via Enrico Falck hasn’t dated.

Of course, Aldo Rossi did as much referencing as many a postmodernist but, perhaps because he was an Italian and referencing his own architectural culture, it always seemed more respectful.

There are many other architects I haven’t mentioned in this brief overview of an unbroken but parallel history of Italian architecture. Gino Valle for example. There were groups such as Dogma, Superstudio and Archizoom, who were not short on ideas or willingness to spread them. Italian architecture never stopped being Italian architecture. It’s just that the history of architecture tracks the dominant economic force at any one time and in the 20th century that force was not Italy. These buildings mostly outside the history of architecture still show us a different way of constructing a built environment to last.


Global society that we are, Italy couldn’t stay the same forever. Corporate behemoths ZHA, Isozaki and Studio Liebskind have respectively designed Generali Tower (left, 2014), Allianz Tower (right, 2015) and PricewaterhouseCoopers Tower (middle, 2020). The three buildings form an isolated cluster and will hopefully stay an isolated cluster.

Architecture Myths #33: Served and Servant Spaces

The notion of served spaces and servant spaces has been around for a while in architecture and we accept this apparent opposition as a conceptual certainty. After all, what could make more sense than mapping an archaic but entrenched social classification onto buildings? The nomenclature is easy to understand as it mirrors that of masters and servants where the superiority of the masters is accepted while the only reason the servants exist is to serve them. But is a kitchen, for example, really less important than a dining room, a bathroom any less important than a bedroom?

Back in the day, it wasn’t a question of served and servant spaces but of entire separate wings for servants. Here’s a plan of Bear Wood, built 1865-1874. All the ground floor rooms around the kitchen court and up to the servants’ stairs (policed by the butler) are the servants’ realm.

It’s said that Harlaxton Manor (1837) had walls with corridors inside so servants could move about without being seen. I’d like to see proper plans for how this worked but, given the general level of excess, I’m inclined to believe it.

In order for it not to be seen by arriving guests, the servants’ wing was often at the rear of the house or off to one side. Sometimes it was also at an angle to show it wasn’t a part of the formal organization of the “house proper”.

In this example of a London townhouse circa 1880, the entire layout is conceived so that served and servants never meet. Servants enter the basement from separate stairs at ground level, passing by the rooms of the footman, housekeeper and butler. The kitchen is separated from the main house (and the dining room!) by a courtyard. Food is carried up the basement stairs and into the dining room through a door for that purpose. Servants carrying food and plates might cross those of a served going to the study. Served access to the first floor boudoir might cross that of servants coming from the servants’ stair to clean and tidy the drawing room but generally, the served use the main stairs and the servants use the servants’ stairs, as you can see from the section below.

The kitchen is well-lit and ventilated but a whole floor and half a house away from the dining room. But for such a large house, there aren’t that many places to be when not asleep. The choices are the morning room, dining room and drawing room when one is feeling social, or withdraw to either the study or boudoir when not.

Servants and the servants’ stairs replicated the functions of pipes and shafts, carrying food, water, laundry and chamberpots up and down. With all manner of pipes and shafts adorning its exterior, Rogers and Piano’s 1977 Centre Pompidou was therefore especially shocking to British people.

Foster + Partners 1978 Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts made up for it by continuing the tradition of concealing servant spaces.

The Albert Houses above, were single-family terrace (row) houses but Albert Hall Mansions by Sir Norman Shaw, no less, were mansions (i.e. flats). This is what they looked like, and still do.

The following paired layouts are repeated three times across the site. Again the basement is the servants’ realm with kitchens at the rear serving the apartments above, and other rooms designated as spare rooms, presumably for additional staff on call. Street access for owners is via the vestibule linked to the central stair and light well, while servants use the adjacent entrance and rear stairs.

Here’s what happens higher up. What in Great Britain would normally be called the first floor is here called a “mezzanine” as it contains only secondary bedrooms. In the photo above, you can see how its windows are smaller to add more weight to the lower levels. In that same photo you can see the upper two levels of the corner apartment shaded green in these drawings. The apartment shaded yellow has a balcony to the dining room. The lower half levels of each apartment are the servants’ spaces again separated from the served spaces by one level and the length of the apartment but still linked by servants’ stairs.

It’s not exactly bringing this conversation into the present, but a similar separation of spaces (and the people occupying them) is present in the two LeCorb villas. Once sunlight is rebranded as something desirable, the servants get less of it at ground level beneath the occupants’ living areas. The piano nobile was hardly a revolutionary idea even if the means of getting it up there was. Or so it seemed.

There are ground floor doors to the chauffeur’s apartment, the laundry room and a side door near the kitchen stair for deliveries. The occupants and their visitors use the front door only, apart from the son who can also use a door to access is car in the garage. The servants realm is visible to visitors, but only fleetingly so. The famous washbasin in the hallway is for the servants to wash their hands before handling the guests’ coats and hats. It was originally positioned as shown in the drawing above but for some reason was relocated to the other side of the column as part of renovations the began in 1965.
Here, the servants’ spaces are more separated, accessed dcirefty from the garage, with the housemaid’s door connecting to the hallway to receive visitors. The stairs to the right are the stairs leading to the living areas, while the lowest level of the stair on the left is for servants to serve food and to clean and tidy the upper levels. Owners use only these upper levels. A portion of the served and servant spaces are therefore shared, but it is by no means egalitarian.
On the front facade, it is very clear which door is for the servants and which is for the served. One steps down two steps to access the servants’ door only to step two steps once inside.

Louis Kahn is reponsible for keeping the notion of servant and served spaces alive even when houses no longer had live-in servants. This is his 1961 Escherick House. Front and garden access, and the galleried stairs all count as a servant spaces. Kitchen and laundry are spaces formerly occupied by servants and, if we go not too much further back in time, I suppose the dressing room would also have had servants on hand to assist.

I won’t bore you with examples but Louis Kahn made served and servant spaces something of a thing. This is his 1960 Richards Medical Research Laboratories building. You get the idea. Stairs and air shafts are given special treatment on the exterior but elevators need to be central and apparently, so do the spaces for the animals for the medical research. All this is done to achieve maximum unobstructed space for the laboratories (after access to the elevators and stairs has been taken into account).

The 2010 The Index in Dubai is another preposterous building by Foster+Partners. The central bank of four elevators “service” the apartment levels above. Even structure is relegated to the status of servant space, except its 10 m long x 2 m wide columns are very solid. The whole point of doing this is to enable those unobstructed 30 m x 30 m office floors that force tenants to pay for their own corridors to access the essential servant spaces. With this building, it’s all about non-marketable space vs. marketable space.

It’s no surprise Kahn arrived at his notion of served and servant spaces from his study of Scottish castles that had entire rooms inside their amply thick walls (even if this can’t not have compromised their integrity). This next image comes from an excellent article on walls as rooms, here on socks studio.

What then, is Oswald Ungers’ excuse for his division of spaces into served and servant spaces in his 1991 House Without Qualities?

I confess to liking its consistency but I would like it more if its two end walls were the same thickness as the rest. I guess there weren’t enough servant spaces to go around, even with the inclusion of what looks like a one-person elevator and numerous storerooms. I do like Ungers’ solution for the kitchen though. It can’t not be a servant space but there’s not enough space for it. I’d have put it on a thickened outside wall and solved an exhaust problem at the same time.

Following the same logic, an inglenook and fireplace would occupy the similar space at the other end of the house. Sources of heat are symmetrical and kitchen exhaust and fireplace flue can be solved symmetrically. After some searching, I finally found an upper floor plan. As I suspected, there’s a redundant gallery to maintain symmetry but symmetry had already been compromised by having only one stair.

Even in this rather astonishing house a second stair never seems to have been part of the plan. Symmetry is reserved for served spaces, unless they’re visible like the galleried corridors.

Anyway, upstairs, the thickened walls would provide closet space and/or, if one must, flatscreens facing the beds. The three storey-void of the stairwell would be mirrored by another three-storey void where the kitchen formerly was, serving more daylight to the basement swimming pool.

These servant spaces are now becoming quite the feature. The next thing would be to make them visible on the outside of a building. This was first proposed by Yves Lion with his 1987 Domus Domain project that makes perfect sense in terms of servicing, illumination and ventilation. It never gained traction.

And yes, I’m going to mention Riken Yamamoto’s 2002 Ban Building in Niigata once again.

The plan below is of Room 3 in the typical floor plan. Kitchen, w/c and bathroom are still serving the main living space only now they’re also serving it with light and air. If you like, you can continue to think of them as occupying very deep window reveals.

Notice how he same distinction of served and servant spaces doesn’t make sense as a concept now the hierarchy is reversed? This shows we still think some functions more equal than others.

• • •

[Big thanks to Evan for the idea for this post. GM]

Chinese Simple Made

The Chinese language is the world’s only language that doesn’t have an alphabet. Each of its 3,000 essential characters has a pronunciation, intonation, meaning and writing stroke order that must be learned and remembered. It’s a lot. So I’ve used the English alphabet to organize some examples of Chinese fit-for-purpose and make it easier to get a feel for the basics.

This post has about one fifth of the usual amount of words but it took about the same time as it wasn’t always easy to identify examples of fit-for-purpose and then find a letter that fitted. I had to bend the rules for Q and X as I couldn’t find any fit-for-purpose queens, quail, x-rays or xylophones.

A is for ASHTRAY.

B is for BROOM.

B is for BLADELESS plastic wrap.

B is for BRIDGE.


D is for DUSTPAN.

D is for DOORSTOP.



F is also for FENCE.


H is for HAT.

I is for IVY.



L is for LADDER.



O is for OCR.


P is also for PATH.

Q is for QI [“chi” = chi]


S is for STENCIL.