The Landscape Within

I’d been seeing images of one corner of this project on and off since 1975, as if elevational hijinks were the only thing of general architectural interest. Times being the times, they probably were but, in my own way, I was equally guilty of not being curious as to what lay below the surface of Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7.


This wasn’t such a bad thing as I’m probably more alert now to what this project set out to achieve and, by all accounts, succeeded in doing. At first sight, it appears complex but it’s less obvious how that complexity has been generated from a few very simple moves. Complexity for the sake of it is never good but if this project were simply a straightforward, low-cost, social housing development it would never have even crossed the architectural radar in order to fall from our collective memory.



Multiple small floor plates successively stagger outwards to create openings, and then stagger inwards to close them again.


Access galleries run along the inner sides when the building staggers outwards and also, as seen below, for the four midle floors of two-storey apartments where there’s no staggering.


They switch to the outer side when the floors stagger back in.


Considerable art has been applied to disguise repetition. Only two of these four stacked access bridges look the same, for example.


All galleries lead to the centre where four banks of two elevators serve 446 apartments. Images of the entrance space are easy to find but images of the central elevator void are oddly elusive.

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All apartment layouts are based on a module that can be combined horizontally and/or vertically to make apartments of various sizes. This thinking is the product of a time when everything was suddenly modular – a concept that was sold as catering to freedom and individuality. This was no lie as a wider range of virtual needs could be catered for with a single product and manufacturing economies ensured at the same time.

It’s still a good idea because a wide range of real needs can be catered for with a single product, ensuring manufacturing economies.


The project is located just west of Barcelona so there’s no pressing need for enclosed staircases or for air conditioning. Six extremely photogenic voids run vertically through the building, intersecting with three horizontal voids that someone has called “urban windows.”



Urban windows are all very well but the only view of some of those apartments is onto a lightwell, Barcelona being Barcelona, those lightwells at least have plenty of light, but even so … These next three images are looking in, out and to the side of the entrance doors.

Here’s a rare shot looking up.


And here’s an ever rarer image of the four banks of two elevators backing onto the centre most space. The larger one is the service elevator.

What I admire most about this project is how it doesn’t hide its internal circulation within corridors. People inside their apartments can see what’s going on inside the building and always be aware of other people moving around. There’s no lack of images of bridges and galleries and, although these definitely are trying to be attractive, it’s not to draw attention to themselves but to the people on them. This is easy to forget today when things only seem to exist in order to be photographed.

In the same way, people moving around can see windows opening and lights being turned on and off and are always aware of lives being lived inside the apartments. These access galleries aren’t trying to be streets in the sky but merely interesting ways for people to get home. The building works the way it was intended, and is loved by its residents. All reports indicate a definte sense of community and an awareness of living with other people. [Which comes first?] Walden 7 got something very important very right. It’s fine to label it a “1970s Classic” but to do that is to place it safely at a distance and prevent us learning important lessons from it today.

Why aren’t more buildings configured like this? I suspect it’s because our standard apartment block with inner rooms with mechanical ventilation and artificial light is configured in the cheapest and fastest way to build. Voids don’t come cheap as they are still space partially enclosed by a structure that still costs money, even if it can’t be walked in. Voids such as Walden 7’s can be partially monetized back by internal views that, though undeniably interesting, are nobody’s idea of a preferred view if there’s only one view to be had. 

Trellick Tower, a thirty-one-story apartment block in North Kensington, London, designed by Ernő Goldfinger, 1966–1972; from Elain Harwood’s <i/>Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945–1975

Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London was completed 1972 so, stylistically, Walden 7 was slightly outrageous for its time. It offered a Post-Brutalist way forward for social housing but ended up suffering the same fate as Brutalism before it, suggesting that the way forward for architecture may or may not have been a question of style, but it was certainly not social housing. Just as with Brutalism, we’re encouraged to look at Walden 7 as a failed aesthetic experiment rather than a successful social one.    

Perhaps the most amazing and possibly damning thing of all is that Walden 7 was constructed simply and within budget, using conventional technologies. It didn’t require the column to be reinvented. It didn’t require a new type of concrete to be developed. All it took was the ability to conceive of pleasant and nourishing spaces and which is supposed to be the job of architects.


• • •

Only since this February and the Repeating Crevice Revisited post did I begin to think internal views of a building’s inner life might be a socially useful thing to provide. In April’s Plan B, I bemoaned the anti-social elevator lobbies and corridors in contemporary apartment buildings and proposed making it easier to see more of what is happening in them. In June’s Detective StoryI developed this a little with overlooked, open corridors.


Gallery-Access Tower Block

Three levels of apartments form triple-height elevator lobbies overlooked by apartments accessed up from that level and also by those accessed down from the access level above. Rather than three isolated individual lobbies, these three-storey lobbies have a touch of Walden 7 about them.


This proof-of-concept layout has four simple two-bedroom apartments per level, with two open stairs, each with gallery landings serving two apartments. Kitchen windows observe the defensible space of the apartment entrance, but hallway windows in 45° walls face and directly overlook the centre of the lobby space, allowing glimpses of it and activity within to persons passing in either direction through the apartment hallways.


This approaches a minimum configuration. The only “value-engineerable” elements are the elevator glass doors and transoms, and the vision panels to the elevator shafts, but to remove them would be a loss since the sight of mechanical activity provides an indirect awareness of people moving within the building, adding to the direct visual one.

 • • •

  • It’s no surprise this site has a Hong Kong domain because the Hong Kong public housing tower block usually has much resident interaction in the form of views within and between towers. Here you’ll find more details on the apartment plans as well as a good set of photographs.
  • A curious article. It seems to be saying that considering buildings as integrated structural, construction and social system is a retro-throwback. It focusses on how Bofill’s theoretical position has changed over the years rather than on Walden 7’s unexplored potential. In the midst of post-modern madness, this original and unclassifiable 1975 project never impinged upon the architectural consciousness as much as did Bofill’s 1971 Xanadu or his 1978 Les Espaces d’Abraxas. Walden 7 created a new reality for living rather than new architectural representations of property and privilege. 

  • This site has a good set of images and overview.
  • £50 a night seems like a good deal.


• • •

This links to a description of Walden 7 on




Modern Vernacular

A vernacular of performance …

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


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


… encompasses building materials, …


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


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

… interior finishes, …

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


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


… building components, …

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

case study

… methods of construction, …

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


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

… building fittings and services, …

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


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


… the building type, …

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


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

… and the city. 

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


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

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• • •

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







This second installment of misfits’ prehistory builds upon some of the ideas in last week’s Property, Time & Architecture from 1999. I remastered the file from an InDesign package created February 2010. The original was probably made in Quark XPress a decade earlier because all images were .tif files. Bold headings summarize the text. Blockquotes are diversions and expansions.

In this essay, I use the word aesthetics in the usual sense and the term an aesthetic to denote a set of architectural devices united by an underlying philosophy and purpose. I only mention this because since this essay was written, the term has been largely supplanted by the word style even though (or, more likely, because) it makes us expect neither.

• • •

Aesthetics is the study of notions of beauty.
These notions change over time.
This essay is about architecture in general and architectural beauty in particular.
It identifies what successive notions of architectural beauty have had in common.
It identifies why certain aesthetics fall into and out of favour.
It provides a framework for understanding how aesthetics operate over time.
It is a meta-aesthetics.

• • •

Aesthetics give shape to our values and aspirations. This is not necessarily a good thing.

By 1850 in Britain, property and people had been divided into three classes. The upper class (still) had property in the country. The middle class had property subdivided in the form of townhouses and, later, as suburban houses. The working class had property stacked, as tenements. The middle classes overlooked communal property in the form of the squares or parks recreating country estates, and the more fortunate of the lower classes had communal property in the form of basic facilities provided by humanitarian industrialists.


The success or failure of any aesthetic is an expression of the values generating it.

19th and early 20th notions of an Ideal City separating the functions of the city also served to separate the classes for the two were the same. Over the course of the Industrial Revolution, the upper classes built townhouses but anchored themselves on their land. The middle classes were to build their townhouses in locations such as Belgravia, Paddington and Kensington, separating themselves and their new wealth from the docks, mills and railways that were the sources of it, as well as from where the workers lived. In a consistent expression of this attitude, convicts were separated as far away as Australia. The style of the 19th century urban townhouse was the Classicism of the country house and the square or park recreated the impression of property outside one’s window, even if it was communal.


The style was successively simplified for houses of the lower classes. Within the larger townhouses, there was a similar separation of function/class, with servants having their own working spaces, stairs and living quarters, within which, location and quantity of space established a similar separation amongst servant classes. The use of servants also enabled the functions within the building to be separated. Whereas the lower class could only bathe in a tub in front of the fire, servants duplicated the roles of pipes and conduits, transporting hot and cold water throughout the building, maintaining and lighting the lamps, and carrying away waste.


Servants also isolated the household as a class unit within society since they performed necessary tasks such as shopping by either going to the markets or dealing with cart vendors for milk, bread, vegetables, meat and fish. The physical and social separation of classes inside the house replicated the physical and social separation of the house from other classes in the city. Separation by function was separation by function in society. Status of the owners was denoted by the location and size of the house, the design of its facade, and the number and decoration of its major rooms.

Buildings require money and land to build. The history of architectural aesthetics is the history of articulating the ownership of wealth and property.

The use of decorative ornament in the 19th century indicated the rich man’s surplus and the poor man’s lack of it. In the 20th century, the architectural aesthetic of Modernism was to shun decorative ornament as bourgeois and attempt to generate form from the separation of physical functions. In patterns of living however, it maintained the class values inherent in the forms it replaced. The Georgian square miniaturized the pleasure of overlooking property. Although many of those townhouses were subdivided into flats in the 1920s and even today remain prime properties because it still possible to overlook the property of the square as if it were one’s own.


In 1922, Le Corbusier arrived at an identical form in his Immeuble Villa unit for the élite in his Ville Contemporaine, planned, ‘as a capitalist city of administration and control, with garden cities for the workers being sited, along with industry, beyond the ‘security zone’ of the green belt encompassing the city.’ Le Corbusier also designed 19th century notions of social segregation into both his urban plans and his private houses such as the Villa Stein (1926-7) and Villa Savoye (1928-9), two buildings commonly regarded as seminal works of the Modern movement.

An aesthetic loses its usefulness when its connotations of status are lost, and any process of refinement stops

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations of 1947-53 was never going to be a realistic prototype for low-cost, high density living. Needing to be surrounded by sufficient Nature/property, it was self-defeating in the city and absurd in the country. Despite its claimed advantages, shop space was not let immediately and few shop-owners were keen to relocate there. The fact that what was once the outskirts of Marseilles is now a popular address indicates that property prices in central Marseilles have risen in the meantime, and that a view of the ocean from there is better than none at all. It also means that instead of being located in “Nature” it is now located in a thriving suburb with sufficient population density to make stores within the building viable. If such buildings have large sites, then the cost-effectiveness of site use is less compromised by siting such buildings alongside virtual property such as public parks or bodies of water, but these sites are usually occupied by premium high-rise dwellings or hotels.


Having one’s own estate in the country downscaled to communally-owned squares in the city or smaller properties of the suburbs, with the virtual property of converted flats remaining preferable to that of purpose-built flats. Public property such as parks or bodies of water became virtual country estates, and views of one’s neighbours did not rank. Modernism presented light, space and a view of Nature as universal rights, but in reality, continued to treat them as commodities of status, their absence signalling poverty. Another problem had to do with materials. While concrete and prefabrication feature largely in the technical history of Modern architecture, it was not until Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul of 1954 that concrete slabs were combined with bare load-bearing brick walls and presented as an aesthetic.


Despite Stirling’s use of this in the 1955~8 Ham Common flats and the attempts of the Brutalists to develop it, the sheer applicability of concrete slabs and load-bearing brick had sent them straight to low-cost housing worldwide, making Modernism the aesthetic of the poor. This fact did not pass unnoticed by the poor. Pruitt-Igoe. Built 1958. Dynamited 1972. The providers of public housing formed the last remaining market for Modernism. Any product becomes unmarketable when the market becomes disenchanted with the brand.


An aesthetic must continue to adapt in order to maintain status …

Internationalism was to escape being condemned along with Modernism because in the hands of Mies van der Rohe, it combined metal and other materials with a status-inducing Classicism such as in the German Pavilion at the Barcelona World Exhibition (1929) or the Tugendhat House (1930).


Purged of any ideological content it may have had in Europe, Modernism in the United States became the preferred institutional and corporate style. Curtain walls became a lattice of structure and window, effectively creating a visual barrier. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1946-50) and Johnson’s Glass House (1949) were excellent solutions to this problem and restored the status of privately-owned Nature to the aesthetic.  Concern for privacy was for people with neighbours. Mies’ went for overkill, using expensive materials and methods. The steps, terrace and floor were faced in travertine, and welding joins were ground away before the steel was painted. Whereas the Farnsworth house stepped over Nature, Johnson’s house, the more spartan of the two, was the more decadent in that it sat on its lawn and indicated possession.

The near absence of house emphasized where the real status lay. The adjacent guest house had no windows for even visually possessing the estate at any time was the owner’s right alone. Modernist derivatives (Meier, Eisenman, Graves, etc.) restored status through similar means, but all have in common the necessity for big property.


… or another will quickly replace it.

If Modernism combined the human factor in terms of plan, with the built factor in terms of structural logic, then Post-Modernism combined the human factor of a populist vocabulary of building terms, and the built factor as a grammar of their usage. The result was something akin to a toff swearing in order to be popular at the pub – patronizing. From the start, the aesthetic was defined by generating and sustaining two aesthetics which, times being the times, were called levels of meaning. Its goal was never to bridge them for then it would cease to exist. Maintaining this aesthetic double standard was both its means and its end in public. In private however, the familiar indicators of status and wealth were to reassert themselves and by 1985, intoxicated with its imagined popularity, the aesthetic of Post-Modernism spoke only in double-entendres to itself. One of which was to take a material formerly regarded as unworthy for use in buildings of all but the most temporary and lowly nature, and to use it ‘out-of-context’ in a sophisticated manner, thus making a point about duality of meaning. Without exception, it was the materials such as concrete or Formica carrying the low and form the high. This led to High-Touch and Creative Salvage aesthetics of the late 80s, which found their beauty in the visual and tactile qualities present in any materials. The result was self-consciously designed, expensive one-off objects. This new materialism turned out to be not so new. Chicken wire, exposed 2 x 4s, and gypsum board have found little appeal, but polished concrete, terrazzo and Formica are being invested with status once again by finding their way into commercial interiors such as shops and restaurants en route to private residences.


Once connotations of negative status are lost or forgotten, a new value-adding aesthetic can be applied and marketed.

Property pressures and availability led to interior space making do for property in the 60s, and neglected building types being converted as a means of attaining more space than provided by contemporary building types. Former prejudice was disregarded and mews buildings, coach houses and warehouses were given a new lease of life as premium dwellings.


Being only a pre-existing building providing space, juxtaposed with a human factor of use, such buildings remained outside the realm of architecture. However, once possession and use began to carry notions of status such as more space and enlightened freedom from the tyranny of plan, it became possible to subdivide any large building and market it for more than a comparably sized flat. Interior partition walls then become a separately marketable commodity, as they had already become in office buildings.

all sold

Whilst an aesthetic of space and light is essentially one of property, aesthetics can also add value by how they enclose space.

Gideon saw modern architecture as an increasing perception of space as a quantity in itself. Whilst this is not untrue, it ignores the fact that that space must belong to somebody. In other words, it ignores the political dimension of space and property. Space, the stuff between the walls, and the space outside them as well, is a commodity of status because space is merely enclosed property. As the amount of property people can have has decreased, ways of creating the impression of having more have developed from closed plan to free plan, free plan to open plan, and finally open plan to no plan. A blurring of the distinction between inside and outside assumes that there is an outside of one’s own to blur. Large areas of glazing indicate no neighbours nearby.


Light is an indirect commodity of status because of its connection with property and density of land utilization but the conversion of warehouses has shown that people are prepared to sacrifice light and location for space. A building envelope enclosing a physically and visually finite space and with no plan would seem to be resistant to notions of status, but as long as there is an enclosing structure, an aesthetic can still operate through the use of materials and methods in new value-adding ways to indicate status.


High-tech is aesthetic which has little social mobility, thereby allowing it to remain an aesthetic of status.

The aesthetic of High-tech finds its purest expression in the spanning of large areas without internal supports, making it a horizontal Gothic exploting the tensile limits of steel.

h-t gothic.jpg

This makes it inherently suitable for buildings that are only perimeter walls within which either culture or machines set the spatial agenda.


When relatively mundane spaces for human activity are required to be housed, it resorts to vertical Gothic with full-height atrium spaces displaying engineering prowess being justified on the grounds of providing light.


The high levels of accuracy and craftsmanship involved render high-tech inapplicable to the relatively modest spatial and structural requirements of living. High-tech also has a large research and development component tailored to individual projects in the same way as in civil engineering structures. Its lavish and visible use of resources to achieve large, dubiously justified spaces, maintains its status as an aesthetic and consequently ensures its inapplicability to anything other than prestige projects.

Minimalism is another.

The Minimalist aesthetic is that of an en-closure creating the sensation of infinite space, a concept the Japanese found attractive even when both space and Nature were abundant. But feudalism in the past and overcrowding in the present have led to owning any space, let along property, being an object of status, and if space is a commodity, then appearing to have infinitely more is better even if it isn’t real.


In Minimalist buildings, windows overlook a courtyard or whatever property remains, and infinite property (“space”) is ‘seen’ in the walls. Light enters through slits to exaggerate its value. If it doesn’t use exquisitely executed concrete, the building process is denied through the expensive and contrived elimination or concealment of joins and lines.


Minimalism is much money being used to create the impression of having little except a sense of infinite space, a trompe l’oeil of nothing. It is an expensive aesthetic of denial of both the envelope and use, and an apparent denial of possession when linked to the concept of voluntary poverty. It is not an aesthetic for the actual poor.   

Successive aesthetics use progressively less expensive means to indicate wealth and property, but status-laden materials and processes then work to make them less accessible.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the buildings of the upper classes took the style sanctioned by the church or state while buildings of the lower classes were the result of the expedient use of available materials, techniques and labour. With middle-class country estates in the later 19th century, architects such as Shaw, Webb, Lutyens, Voysey and Wright were to use vernacular materials combined with their respective Post-Classic aesthetics to indicate wealth and property, thus furnishing the new suburbs with motifs.


Modernism took functional industrial forms and structures and used them to indicate wealth and property. Post-Modernism took its visual techniques from roadside cafés and other structures not in the realm of ‘high’ architecture, and did the same. As soon as the Case Study houses made a cheaper aesthetic available through the use of ready-made ‘industrial’ materials, Internationalism used expensive materials and the restoration of a Classical relationship to property to distance itself again. High-tech did the same through refined materials and technology. Its applicability to spanning large spaces assumes a large space to span. Minimalism takes the very idea of looking and one’s walls and living with very little and makes it into an aesthetic of wealth and property. Loft living takes a former worker’s reality and makes it into an aesthetic of space, but being ‘fitted to the highest standard’ maintains status. The attraction of each new aesthetic is that it uses a progressively less expensive means of indicating wealth and property, or the aspiration to it. This makes them inherently vulnerable to marketing in less expensive and accessible forms. As an aesthetic cascades through society in this way, status and corresponding aspiration are artificially maintained in a carrot-on-a-stick fashion by increasingly mannerist use of expensive materials, finishes and processes.


20th century aesthetics are irrelevant to future housing and even current housing problems.

The alleged virtues of Modernism disappeared when it was applied to less bourgeois housing problems in general, and to less property in particular. Its legacy was structural rationality and lack of decorative ornament, and (due to property pressures) a view of activities taking place in spaces rather than rooms.


Post-Modernism largely treated social identification at the public level rather than the individual. The Taller Bofill “Let them eat cake!” approach refers beyond even the public aspirations of the individual. Aesthetics as a palliative. Post Modernism’s twin legacies were to alter certain pre-conceptions about what buildings could look like and to pave the way for a re-evaluation of the fundmental properties of materials (once the status/historical meanings had been stripped away). Its major socially applicable benefit was a re-evaluation of materials which sooner or later would have occurred anyway (due to decreasing availability or affordability).


Metabolism correctly identified buildings as organisms in the city, but was content with expressing it at the metaphorical level. Brutalism supposedly made ordinary materials into an aesthetic which allowed materials and construction to be appreciated for what they were. This made it inherently inapplicable when lesser standards of materials and labour were used. Minimalism took the status aspects of appearing to have more space and owning less but relied for its effect on expensive materials contrasted with expensive effects achieved via contrived construction processes and finishes. In effect, it was a metaphor for the elleged virtues of historical examples of simplicity. High-tech isolated functions and satisfied them using expensive materials and processes and became in effect, a metaphor for the economies that mass-produced industrial components could theoretically offer.

It is necessary to have a way of seeing beauty which, for once, does not derive from wealth and property.


Consider Le Corbusier’s inspiration for the machine aesthetic – the ocean liner and the the grain silo. Both have in common a certain technical and functional sophistication, but they also have in common a necessary relationship with large amounts of open space. Although the visual implications were revolutionary for architecture, the relationship between those built objects to the spacesurrounding them continued to link beauty with the ownership of property. There is nothing inherently wrong with technical analogies since housing is the result of a production process.


Whereas ocean liners and grain silos taught us about function and form, other inherent (and these days, more useful) factors such as construction process, sourcing and design optimisation were ignored. Unsurprisingly, aesthetics derived from the display of the wealth or property associated with private houses on private land, prove inapplicable to low-cost housing using public money on public land.


Those 20th century aesthetics which have been applied to mass housing have had their deficiencies highlighted. This is not a problem of aesthetics per-se. It is a problem of where they come from and the criteria by which beauty is defined. The marketability of an aesthetic is related to the desirability of its product, which has changed very little. This means that low-cost housing, being neither an indicator of wealth or property, can never benefit from aesthetics. Ever.


However, if successive aesthetics are evolving from criteria which are less and less expensive to achieve, it ought to be possible to shortcut this process and determine a way of seeing beauty by concentrating attention and techniques on other articulating the possession of wealth or property,and thereby arrive more quickly at a modern vernacular aesthetic towards which we are moving anyway. This would be an aesthetic applicable to everyone, not just the providers and occupants of low-cost housing. Warehouse conversions have indicated that people are willing to sacrifice light and location for space. It is only a matter of time before other qualities that have been essential considerations in private housing so far will also come to be devalued. Location, quantities, materials, processes and contents will always remain indicators of whatever level of status people can afford to display or aspire to.

An architectural aesthetics independent of wealth and property will mean traditional displays of status will for once be explicit, not mistaken for beauty, and the aspiration to them will be less attractive to those who can ill afford to.

• • •

This essay will conclude next week with Part II, Modern Vernacular.

street language.jpeg


Property, Time & Architecture

To commemmorate seven years of not fitting in, misfits would like to present some of the early thinking that led to its formation. This visual essay dates from around 1998. It was put together between occasional bouts of paid work, using Quark XPress 3.2 and a PowerMac G3 with 64MB of RAM.

The file was stored on iomega 100MB Zip “backup” disks which is why what you’ll see here is a scan of an A3 laser-print hard copy. It’s as-was, complete with original typos, proofreading failures, plus a numbering error I’ve only just noticed – there’s no 10.1.1. The font is Trebuchet which, for some reason, was popular at the time.





















Detective Story

Sunday, May 28, 8:00 am: I publish a post titled The Piano and The Double-Sided Apartment and refer to this next plan as “an embryo unité d’habitations.” I go on to say that, “the overall intention, the end apartments with their different orientation, the way the elevator lobby has been accommodated, and the lax attitude towards fire escape all suggest the hand of Le Corbusier but whether firsthand or secondhand I don’t know.”


I still don’t – all lines of enquiry turned up nothing. A trusted source [Merci!] informed me an authoritative source had doubted the plans were by Le Corbusier. This alone was strong proof they weren’t.

In the same post, I also made reference to the following plans from the Cité Frais Vallon project because of their similarly stacked stairs. Their architect was also unknown.


12:45 pm: I receive intelligence from Det. Daniel.


15:30 pm: I learn Devin worked with Fernand Pouillon on the 1955 Quartier du Vieux-Port project, thus locating him in Marseille shortly after the completion of Le Corbusier’s first Unité d’Habitation.

20:45 pm: For now I have only circumstantial evidence, but comparing both plans leads me to suspect André Devin as author of both.

  • The pairing of apartments over three levels and the stacking of stairs on both sides of a corridor is common to both.
  • The space used to cross over/under the corridor is the only circulation space within the mystery plans and also in the larger floor of the Frais Vallon double-sided apartment. Apart from these two examples, I’ve never seen this done before and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
  • Both projects attempt to create a plan with the advantages of Le Corbusier’s Unité but without its faults. The person who devised these plans has obviously studied the Unité closely and , in the mystery plans, judging by the contrived end apartments and how other problems such as the secondary fire escape stair are solved in similar manner, is clearly an admirer. This is part of the Frais Vallon project with which André Devin’s name is linked.

After Le Corbusier’s Marseille Unité, there was a 1950s fashion for towers with a similar treatment for the apartments at one end (and, as part of the same thing, ingoring any possible benefit additional windows may have provided). Fernand Pouillon did so in 1958 at Le Point de Jour in Billancourt. London County Council did so in 1955 with the Loughborough Estate in Brixton.

  • Frais Vallon has pilotis, though not as hefty as LC’s.
  • The fact Devin worked on housing projects with Fernand Pouillon suggests a comradely familiarity with 1920’s Soviet housing proposals such as the STROIKOM team’s 1928 Type E apartments and their stacked stairs leading to apartments up/down from one side of a corridor space. [c.f. 1928: The Types Study.]

Let’s take a closer look at those plans.

img3012 copy

The top half of these plans is the rear half of Devin’s. Mirroring the right plan about the corridor gives us the corridor level of the Frais Vallon plan. We’re looking at some sort of basic principle.

10:01 pm

André Devin is almost certainly the architect of Cité Frais Vallon but there was still nothing linking it to the mystery plan – until this next. The floor plate size is the same. The apartment layouts may be different but their disposition has been contrived to produce building elevations with exactly the same intent. We saw what they looked like just above.

Ultimately, the clever arrangement of double-sided apartments wasn’t used in the towers but for the nearby low-rise blocks. The stacked staircases that had been in the corridors now lead off private entry halls along with two bedrooms linked to the remainder of the apartment above/below. 


The severe treatment of the elevations brings to mind the Nikolsky team’s entry for the 1927 competition,

but, with low-cost housing, there’s little else other than the position of windows to work with. At first I thought the gratuitous checkerboard was a precursor to today’s gratuitously shuffly window but there’s nothing gratuitous about these facades.


One thing my years of detective work has taught me is try to get into the mind of the architect. Anything that strikes me as odd is likely to have a logic behind it. With the far facade in the photograph above, the top and bottom rows of horizontal windows are curious, and so are the obsessively paired windows inbetween. “Did someone say Horizontal Windows?” The windows top and bottom do a little Villa Savoye thing and the windows in the middle are paired to emphasize the column structure.


• • •

This is where the case stands right now. André Devin is a person of interest I believe can help with my enquiries.


Tuesday, May 30

Before that investigation can be closed, another must begin to see if this low-rise configuration – whoever’s responsible – really can’t be improved upon.

  1. Spanning the corridor with necessary circulation spaces is brilliant, but also doing it with general storage rooms seems a bit too easy.
  2. The one-bedroom apartment does not seem part of an integrated solution.
  3. There are shafts next to the bathrooms on all floors, and also on both sides of the corridor alongside the staircases (but it is not clear why).
  4. It is difficult to imagine how furniture would be arranged in the long living areas.
  5. As with many configurations of this type, it is taken for granted that bathrooms will have mechanical ventilation and artificial light. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a fault since doing without both wasn’t a problem the design set out to solve.
  6. Nowadays, a kitchen/dining/living room or dining/living area are more common than an eat-in kitchen with the extra space and window it requires. This is also not a fault. The plans are just a product of their time, and probably place too.


  • It’s easy to take away the incongruous one-bedroom apartment and provide two more bedrooms for two more apartments but this is something the architect would have known was possible.
  • Those extra bedrooms would need their own bathroom which would need to stack with the ones above and below. (Whatever’s in those hallway cupboards can go somewhere else.)
  • Those bathrooms are also going to need a shaft, ideally accessible from the corridor, but we need to go upstairs first and find out what’s going on up there.
  • The kitchen/dining/living area has to fit in the same area as two bedrooms and a bathroom, and the kitchen needs to share a shaft.
  • The large central storage cupboard isn’t essential but I don’t think anyone wanting a four-bedroom apartment would sacrifice a large storage cupboard for an interesting little alcove where the stairs enter the living area.

The main challenge was to find an alternative use for this space that doesn’t involve shafts, and that also keeps the stair landings overlapping the circulation space.

My first attempt was clearly flawed. It still had the large storage rooms adjacent to the stairs (plus understairs storage on the lower level) plus more storage cupboards next to the bedroom. So, rather than fight the corridor I decided to accept its difficult “crossover” space and stretch the apartments away from it, creating gaps and voids for daylight, ventilation and internal views.

Converting a flaw into real advantages is different from making a flaw into an architectural feature. The real disadvantage is increased external wall area. I can’t see any way around this. If one wants the real advantages of real windows then one has to accept an increased area of real external walls. Otherwise, one is stuck with mechanical ventilation, artificial light and representations of [a.k.a. “a sense of”] exterior space.



Anyway, this idea didn’t spring from nowhere. It’s a development of Stacey from one of misfits’ first posts, and incorporating the concerns mentioned in Plan B, one of the more recent, in which I say it might be a good idea to make apartment dwellers more aware of sharing a building with others.

  1. Small kitchen windows and staircase windows overlook the triple-height space of the access level,
  2. High bathroom windows open onto this same space, and
  3. The internal passageway becomes a bridge overlooking the triple-height space of the access corridor on one side, with a small ‘internal’ balcony (laundry drying?) overlooking the access level on the other side.

Basically, the building volume “saved” by only having one corridor per three floors has been externalized to become a type of communal space mostly appreciated from inside the apartments. It may not be as cheap to construct as SANAA‘s value-added alleyways, but it seems to me to give more back to more people and generally be a more positive way forward for buildings too.

This is not architecture – for architecture is in decline, seemingly terminal. This is a building, and buildings still have life left in them.

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I still need to find a place for the washing machine.

• • •

Today’s Guardian carries a story on how the LEGO company reinvented itself. I would just like to say that this is totally coincidental, and that I have never received money from the LEGO company for this post’s header image or any  inadvertent advertisement.  

The Piano and the Double-Sided Apartment

All double-sided apartments have windows on opposite sides enabling views in opposite directions, cross-ventilation, and variations in daylighting. There aren’t many ways to configure a double-sided apartments and most have at least one of the following flaws.

Multiple cores

It’s almost impossible not to make a double-sided apartment if there are only two apartments per stairwell or core,

when they’re at the end of a (longer) corridor [c.f. 1928: The Types Study, The Domino’s House]

albion riverside plan

or when there’s no corridor [c.f. The Dominos House].


Preferred view on the wrong side for half the apartments

Some configurations have paired apartments with living areas facing different directions. This is no problem if views in both directions are equally preferable. It was also not a problem for many of the 1920s proposals because preventing tuberculosis with adequate daylighting and cross ventilation was more important than view. Many were never built. [c.f. 1928: The Types StudyThe 1+1/2 Floor Apartment]

Low site coverage

Four buildings were however built with Type F apartments, the most famous being Moisei Ginzburg and team’s Narkomfin building completed 1930 in Moscow.

  • Reduced ceiling heights of non-essential areas meant lower % of building volume for access, and resultant economies of materials and construction cost.
  • All living rooms were on one side and sleeping areas the other.

The main fault of Type F apartment was a building was narrow so it couldn’t produce a site efficiency as high as possible with double-loaded corridors. [c.f. Critical Spatiality]

Dining and kitchen areas separated from the living area

This may or may not be a problem, depending upon the configuration. With Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations it is, as half the primary type of apartment have a living area combined with the master bedroom area. It’s less of a problem with Chermayeff’s apartments or with US 7,540,120 where the kitchen/dining area overlooks the living area. [c.f. The 1+1/2 Floor ApartmentUS 7,540,120].



Poor use of space over/under the corridor

Using this space for bathrooms and kitchens can create problems with shafts but there still remains the problem of no daylighting or cross-ventilation for the very spaces that could most benefit from them. [c.f. US 7,540,120

upper copy

Limited variety of apartment types

It is easier to solve the problem of corridor-access double-sided apartments if only one or two types of apartment are provided in pairs. Variations occur naturally when those pairs don’t fit around ‘circumstantial’ elements like elevator lobbies and escape stairs. Chermayeff’s variations don’t have this problem but his variations are fixed customizations that can’t be arbitrarily configured from standardized plan components.


The title of this post does not refer to any of the pianos in these plans.

Miserable entrances

One way to avoid crossing over or under the corridor is to get out of it as soon as possible and use that necessary space within the apartment. In this next arrangement, that space has been cleverly used to create entrance and kitchen areas linking both sides. What I also like are the two equivalent living areas, the use of which is left up to the occupant.


This plan appears to be an embryo unité d’habitations. The overall intention, the end apartments with their different orientation, the way the elevator lobby has been accommodated, and the lax attitude towards fire escape all suggest the hand of Le Corbusier but whether it’s firsthand or secondhand I don’t know.

Alternately reversing the apartments to avoid duplicating shafts both sides of the corridor seems an unnecessary complication, especially when it takes seven single-sided apartments (plus six end ones) to create ten double-sided apartments, two of which don’t even use the corridor. Additionally, the main part of the building has 10 structural bays so three-bay apartments were never going to work, whether reversed or not. Those single sided apartments are conspicuous for not fitting neatly. The appearance of an inelegant solution could be avoided by incorporating that volume into apartments reversed not side-by-side but above and below, and using that space to enter them (“Voilà!”) but whether this plan predates Unité or not is unknown.  

If prior, then Unité becomes an illustration of “If a problem can’t be solved then call it a feature!”. Two decades on, expressing such intractable problems came to be called an “architectural joke”. Five decades on, representing the non-solution of such problems came to be called “embracing complexity.” Sadly, it’s the closest thing to architectural theory we have.

This all assumes this arrangement is pre-Unité but it could be somebody’s post-Unité attempt to improve upon it.

Complex sections

The corridor has to be passed over or under some way or another and the scissor plan is perhaps the most ingenious way yet devised to do this. All living rooms are on one side and all bedrooms on the other.


Corringham, London, 1960, Douglas Stephen & Partners

Scissor plans have the disadvantage of being complex to construct, as well as difficult to comprehend.


I found this graphic helpful even though it is incorrect. The “down-going” apartments (entered from the upper entrance corridor) don’t have stairs linking to the lower entrance corridor and the “up-going” apartments (entered from the lower corridor) don’t have stairs linking them to the upper entrance corridor. Thanks anyway, wikiwand!

The scissor plan is no oddity but a serious attempt to achieve better use of building volume and building resources. Rather than create double or even 1+1/2 height volumes and calling them a feature, the scissor plan took the building volume either side of the corridor and used it as the topmost level of one apartment and the bottommost level of another. It solved the problem it set out to, and did so with very elegant shafts. I have more respect for it than I did.

Additional shafts

It’s possible to utilise the space above and below the corridor but at the cost of an extra shaft to service the inevitable single aspect apartment on the other side of the corridor [left, below], or the rotationally mirrored apartment adjacent/opposite it [right]. If one’s willing to accept a full shaft on either side of the corridor then various configurations become possible. The scissor plan doesn’t have this problem.

• • •

If one overlooks the apartment entrances, then this next is a very decent arrangement within the residential development known as Cité Frais Vallon (1960~) in Marseille. It has two 4-bed and two 2-bed double-sided apartments for every one 1-bed single-sided apartment, and all living rooms on the same side – not bad! Stacking internal staircases both sides of the corridor and offsetting apartment upper levels from their lower ones is a brilliant idea. The entire plan is generated from those stacked and horizontally and rotationally symmetrical staircases. The only difference is the position at which the staircase enters the central circulation space. I don’t think it can be done any better than this.


Impressive. Completely ignored. It’s as if nothing of architectural interest is ever allowed to happen again in Marseille [c.f. Architectural Misfit #28: Fernand Pouillon.] The coordinating architect is listed as André Devin [thanks Daniel!] If I’d known of this project earlier, I wouldn’t have been so proud of “My Best Shot”. To be fair, we both agree stacking staircases is the way forward.

My Best Shot

Because a corridor-access 100% double-sided apartment is an unresolveable contradiction, the problem becomes one of what to do with the building volume either side of the corridor. It can be either

  1. single-sided apartments,
  2. incorporated into the adjacent apartments above and below as single-sided spaces, or
  3. have one side as the lowest level of one apartment and the other side as the highest level of another – the scissor plan solution.

The configurations above all solve the same problem in one of these three ways. My decision to solve the problem with a horizontal asymmetry around the corridor inevitably caused a problem for the ‘minor’ shaft. In the lower apartment, the space between the upper kitchen cupboards and the ceiling is used to cross the corridor, avoiding a false ceiling.

  • Off the corridor are a studio, stairs down to a 2-bed apartment and to stairs up to a 1-bed apartment. The 1-bed apartment can be down stairs and the 2-bed up stairs.
  • Elements farther from the corridor become more arbitrary.
  • The determining dimension is the total length of the stair and entrances on the corridor level.
  • Mirroring apartments around the left party wall and reconfiguring the corridors makes it possible for the bedroom or bedrooms of a double-sided apartment to appropriate those of an adjacent apartment. [See here for variations.]
  • It’s money for old trope but, the volume of the existing studio apartment could be used to create a double-height living area for the apartment below.
  • Another possibility is to divide the volume of the existing studio horizontally across both upper and lower apartments. This would give the lower apartment a 1+1/2 storey living area while the upper apartment would require a half-flight of stairs to access its sunken floor. The same volume could be divided vertically across upper and lower apartments but I can’t see any advantage in doing so.

• • •

Nor can I see any advantage of doing it in this next proposal either that, I now see, mine owes a substantial debt to. It’s Moisei Ginzburg’s team’s proposal for the 1928 competition held by the Soviet magazine SA [Contemporary Architecture] [c.f. 1927: The Competition.] The corridor level had single-sided apartments on both sides but a stair accessed off the corridor leads down to a larger double-sided apartment. All apartments were to be reconfigured into more generous accommodations when the economic situation of the occupants [i.e. the U.S.S.R.] improved.

Once the competition was over, the government almost immediately responded by appointing Ginzburg head of a STROIKOM (Construction Committee of the Russian Republic) specially formed to create standardized unit types. In 1928 though, things were already taking a turn for the worse

There was a sweeping shift toward Stalinist conservatism in all spheres. 1928 was the start of the First Five-Year Plan towards massive industrialization and away from cultural reforms such as the design and construction of highly-socialized living in general and the communal house in particular. On May 16, the VKP(b) Central Committee of issued a directive regarding: “On the Work Concerning the Restructuring of Everyday Life.”

“The Central Committee of the VKP(b) warns against the attempts of certain comrades to construct a new everyday life by forced administrative means; administratively separating children from parents, socialized dining, etc. The new normal must be built by taking into full account existing material conditions, and in no way must it run off and devise plans for which there exists neither the means nor the possibility of their realization.”

The directive made it clear that the time for an aspirational architecture for a new society had passed. In a scramble to mirror the shifting tide, SA blurred its position. The above directive was published in SA 1930, accompanied by a wavering editorial titled “Where to Go?” In addition, Moisei Ginzburg wrote in 1932, and published in 1934, a book Zhilishche (Housing), in which he categorized his work over the previous five years as experimental and producing “extreme conclusions and schematic solutions.”

top view.jpg

The Piano and the Double-Sided Apartment

To design an improved double-sided apartment plan in 1927 in anticipation of improved economic circumstances was a good thing, but indicating a grand piano in the plan took it too far. An upright piano for accompanying tavern tunes or patriotic anthems would have gone unnoticed. No authority would have wanted factory workers to aspire to becoming bourgeois families with grand pianos in their living rooms. Classical music in Soviet Russia in the mid-twenties was already alarmingly progressive to those for whom dissonance meant dissidents.

Igor Stravinsky was the most notoriously dissonant of the Russian-born composers since the 1913 Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring.


Stravinsky had lived in France all the 1920s and, whether he followed prospects or instinct, continued to in the 1930s. Sergei Prokofiev had been living in America since 1918 but returned to the U.S.S.R. in 1925, only to be interrogated by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians. Nevertheless, he stayed and did some of his best work [i.e my favourites] during the Stalin years: 1931 – Piano Concerto No. 4 (for Left Hand); 1932 – Piano Concerto No.5; 1939-42 – Piano Sonata No. 7; 1944 – Fifth Symphony. Dmitri Shostakovich disappointed his early teachers by admiring both Stravinsky and Prokofiev. He spent most of the 1920s and 1930s avoiding offending the authorities with his Mahlerian tendencies and ambivalent tonality and was mostly successful at it until 1936. Aram Khachaturian was still too young to be a concern in 1928. Nikolai Myaskovsky was more popular than progressive but, in 1947, was accused along with the others, of writing anti-Soviet music that “renounces the basic principles of classical music in favour of muddled, nerve-racking sounds that “turn music into cacophony”.

My hunch is that the reason the STROIKOM committee was formed so quickly after the 1927 competition not because of any government enthusiasm for innovative housing solutions but so that the activities of Ginzburg and his associates could be more closely watched. This also explains the generally cool reception his team’s proposals received when they presented their findings later the same year, and also explains the presence at the meeting of NKVD officer Cde. Sadovsky who made direct reference to the directive. [c.f. 1928: The Meeting]


The crackdown first made itself felt with the directive but by 1930 all architects’ collectives were disbanded. When Mikhail Okhotovich and De–urbanism came on the scene, it became a matter of not just the workers getting ideas above their station but the farmers as well. “Who’d stick around to grow stuff if everybody got to move around wherever they wanted? Nobody would be satisfied doing what they were supposed to do.” It would only end badly. It did anyway. [c.f. 1930: De-urbanism]

Nikolay Milyutin, the former Commissar of Finance and influential proponent of the Narkomfin building, contrived to fade into peaceful insignificance with a succession of jobs, each one further off the radar. Ginzburg moved back to The Ukraine he originally hailed from and lived out a quiet life. The Vesnins went post-Constructivist. Artists such as Malevich toned it down. Irrepressible de-urbanist, Okhotovich didn’t and got himself shot. Hapless creative, Ivan Leonidov passed the time with The City of The Sun and painkillers. [c.f. Career Case Study #6: Ivan Illich Leonidov]


This layout is dedicated to Nikokay Milyutin, Moisei Ginzburg, Sergei Prokofiev and all others of that time who achieved work-life balance.


Clarity & Consistency in Architecture

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, I re-read Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.


First published in 1966, and since translated into 16 languages, this remarkable book has become an essential document of architectural literature. A “gentle manifesto for a nonstraightforward architecture” [.]

But what exactly is an essential document of architectural literature? Is it something that still has something to teach us, or merely something famous for having been famous once? If so, when did it become irrelevant? Did anyone ever refute it? Is it beyond criticism? In short, was it a good way for things to go?

In 1977 in a note to the second edition, Venturi himself answers some of these questions by saying he wished the title had been Complexity and Contradiction in Architectural Form. He also suggested “the book might be read today [1977] for its general theories about architectural form but also as a particular document of its time, more historical than topical” but I don’t think one can have it both ways. All books are destined to become particular documents of their time and the same goes for their contents. However, it is possible to read (or even mis-read or mis-understand) something historic and discover something new and of relevance. I hope this will be the case but I don’t warm to the opening sentence.

“I like complexity and contradiction in architecture.”

Everyone has the right to an opinion but, more importantly, when attempting any kind of intellectual exploration into architectural aesthetics, trying to first make some sense out of what one likes is a reasonable and obvious place to begin. Three paragraphs in, however, we start to get a clearer view of where this is going.

“Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. 

Is MoMA on some sort of mission to publish books reducing architecture to questions of visuals every thirty-five years? If so, we’re well overdue for another. One thing the Post-Modern era taught us was to beware the quotation mark.

I like elements which are hybrid other than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse rather than impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than “simple,” vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear.

We know now that hybrid turned out to be “hybrid,” compromising to be “compromising;” distorted, “distorted;” ambiguous, “ambiguous;” perverse, “perverse;” boring, “boring;” conventional, “conventional;” and redundant, “redundant.”


Here’s a column with some “redundant” structural capacity.

Complexity and contradiction turned out to be “complexity” and “contradiction” as contrived and predictable as the “simplicity” and “straightforwardness” they set out to replace.

Just as Modernism had done fifty years earlier, Venturi was proposing a “new” way to continue the churn of style replacement that stands for progress in architecture. For that, he and his book were rewarded with everlasting fame. What Venturi offered was the easiest option available at the time.

Googie was a growing force but was insufficiently pretentious – it was popular instead of “popular.”

[c.f. Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell

As early as 1937 Haskell had published pieces such as “Architecture on Routes US 40 and 66” and suggested that designers could learn “in the country of the automobile,” by studying places that “are growing with the people themselves”. 

1937–: Haskell observed the architecture of popular culture
1952: Haskell identified Googie architecture
1958: Haskell claimed Times Square was all right
1966: Robert Venturi claimed in C&C “Main Street is almost all right”
1972: RV (now with Denise Scott-Brown) claimed things could be learned from Las Vegas.

Around the same time, dissatisfaction with the status quo was about to produce experiments into temporary and biomorphic architecture at SCI-ARC. [c.f: Career Case Study #3: Glen Howard Small]

Inflatable architecture was a reaction against the rigid lines of what Modernism had become but it was attractive to all the wrong people.

And some of it was just weird. This is the 1967 Dyodon experimental pneumatic house by Jean-Paul Jungmann. I think I remember this building from UK House & Garden report on the 1969 The House of Today competition. If I remember rightly, Richard Rogers came third with the Zip-Up House he’s been showing us ever since.


Over in Japan, the Metabolists were doing their thing but they were big on ideas but short on buildability. Plus, they were East not West.

UK’s Archigram always seemed to promise more fun than they were capable of delivering.

America simply wasn’t interested in Brutalism, or in houses built from concrete. [c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]

Over in Venice in 1953, Ignazio Gardella had designed Casa alle Zattere, a studiously polite house contemporary commentators such as Reyner Banham were at a loss to explain as it was neither Modernist nor Historicist.


Significant mid-sixties buildings didn’t propose the future Venturi was seeing in the past.


What was needed was something cheap and cheerful, didn’t threaten the 2×4 industry, was achieveable rather than visionary, and carried some authority. It all sounded like a job for … HISTORY! – or at least trickery with arches, columns and cornices.

“Like all original architects, Venturi makes us see the past anew.”

Vincent Scully didn’t backtrack in the 1977 update to his original introduction. It’s all good stuff and I agree wholeheartedly – until the bit highlighted.

The book itself is organised into chapters with the following titles.

  1. Nonstraightforward Architecture: A Gentle Manifesto
  2. Contradiction and Contradiction vs. Simplifiction or Picturesqueness
  3. Ambiguity
  4. Contradictory Levels: The Phenomenon of Both-And in Architecture
  5. Contradicatory Levels Continued: The Double-Functioning Element
  6. Accomodation and the Limitations of Order: The Conventional Element
  7. Contradiction Adapted
  8. Contradiction Juxtaposed
  9. The Inside and the Outside
  10. The Obligation Towards the Difficult Whole

Ambiguity deals with questions such as those posed by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.  “Is it a square plan or not?” Venturi asks to anyone who cares and, in 1966, many people probably still did.


Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier are mentioned with the reverence accorded the recently deceased. Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn were the new greatest living architects used to represent opposite architectural positions now both closer to the middle. Venturi occasionally used Le Corbusier’s projects to illustrate what wasn’t good, but mostly to illustrate what was. Villa Savoye alone is capable of supporting or contradicting most thoughts about architecture but, as ever, its prime function when referenced in architectural discourse is to show one is talking about Architecture.

  • In Chapter 4 (p23) on Contradictictory Levels, Villa Savoye is mentioned as being simple outside yet complex inside, as if it’s the first building that ever was.
  • In Chapter 6 (p41) on The Conventional Element, “the Villa Savoye accomodates the exceptional circumstantial inconsistencies within an otherwise rigid dominant order.”
  • In Chapter 7 (p52) on Contradiction Adapted, “the exceptional diagonal of the ramp is clearly expedient in serction and elevation and allows Le Corbusier to create a strong opposition to the regular order of column bays and envelope.”

The desire to use dubiously revered examples to justify mundane statements is a major fault of this book. In Chapter 5 (p34) on Contradictory Levels Continued, Le Corbusier’s “Algerian project” gets a mention for “contradictorily” combining an apartment house and a highway.

Venturi praises the P.S.F.S. building for the functional honesty of its various volumetric articulations despite part of the office space being given an expression befitting the hidden elevator shafts. He also gets excited about the sign on top.

The fact it can’t be seen from the street is a plus because it’s a bit like van Brugh’s Cloth House in Bruges which, apparently, relates to the entire town from afar (as big things tend to do) but has a violent change of scale with the lower levels that relate to the square. [What does “relate to” mean, anyway? It seems to be being used as shorthand for “a size appropriate to …” – or are we talking about scale?] Going by this photograph, I’d say it’s not just the lower bit that’s relating to the square.

cloth house.jpeg

I wondered how far was afar? This next image is from 250 metres away, although the houses wouldn’t have been there in 1280 when the original building and tower were built. The octagonal upper part of the tower was added in 1486. There was also once a spire destroyed in 1493 and in 1741 for good. The points Venturi makes still stand, but it’s wrong to imply this building is the result of a single mind at work. Extensions to buildings are contradictory by nature.

coth hall bruges.jpg

The sheer number of heavyweight examples over the following fifty pages either bludgeon one into submission or compel one to resist. I formed the impression anything can be used to mean anything. Let me illustrate using what’s on my table at the moment.


  • The binoculars have a shape that is directional but they point downwards, intruigingly.
  • The surface of the table is there but not there at the same time!
  • A laptop is not atop a lap. Why?
  • There is a plant in a pot – or is it a pot with a plant in it? Such tension!

Now let’s try to make some sense out of it.

  1. When we look at the binoculars and laptop and make those observations, we do so with a knowledge of what those objects are. A person who didn’t know what binoculars were or what they did would see no complexity or contradiction. As a theoretical construct, an architecture of complexity or contradiction is never going to be inclusive. The smug elitism of Post-Modern architecture derives from this. [Remember that highlighted bit in Scully’s notes to the second edition?]
  2. Moreover, when we look at the plant and the pot we assume we’re not looking at some work of art demanding we question the nature or validity of its existence. The potplant is no Duchamp nor even a Koons. A theory of complexity and contradiction only works if things are posited as complex or contradictory, i.e. as art. The pretentiousness of Post-Modern architecture derives from this.
  3. Finally, when we look at the table we are seeing or, more importantly, choosing to see more than one aspect of its existence at the same time. I may appreciate its shiny reflectivity but may not when it’s reflecting glare back at me and, even then, I may still appreciate it stopping things falling to the floor when I let go of them. Venturi recognizes the value of pluralism not just between different observers but even for the same observer at different places or times. He repeats Paul Rudolph’s observation that Mies van der Rohe’s buildings are great only because Mies chose to solve only the few problems he felt required solving. What Venturi is proposing is worse in that there are now infinite variables to set up any problem one wishes to show one has solved. The moveable feast that was Post-Modern architecture derives from this.

Overall, I found it bizarre that Venturi could look at innumerable historic and not-so-historic examples of architecture and make what is a wealth of observations yet never mention the very same things in unpretentious buildings not considered architecture. The only worth he sees in the circumstantial is in its capacity to produce an intentional effect. This may be intentional, or it may just be how architects looked at things half a century ago. If the latter, it needs putting right. 


This lighthouse is not a tower in order to appear more imposing when seen from afar but to ensure its beam of light is visible farther out to sea. Yet, [“intruigingly, bizarrely”] it also has small windows to light the stairs so a person can access the beacon room. There’s no contradiction of the type Venturi sees in Lutyen’s unrealized project for Liverpool Cathedral, for example. 

We shouldn’t be amazed to be told people are smaller than buildings. Ah, but it’s still a difference of city scale and human scale you may say. Sure, but even the glassiest of curtain walls has those same two differences of scale.

glass curtain wall

My own counter-investigation into the Baroque period isn’t as thorough as Venturi’s as I have only one example to show. Earlier, I mentioned Ignzaio Gardella’s 1953 Casa alle Zattere in Venice.

Casa alle Zattere.jpg

This 1703 etching shows two buildings on what was to be its site. Their facades aren’t in the same plane as there’s a 5° bend where the two sites meet.

Le fabriche, e vedute di Venetia

Sometime not long after 1703, the two sites were combined and the buildings remodelled to create a single building with a symmetrical tripartite facade as was fashionable at the time.

Ceriani 1992-p158-1

A continuous facade was created but the angle remained. The former party wall was extended upwards to make it easier to construct the roof. Venturi would draw our attention to how the continuity of the facade is contradicted by its non-planarity and also by the discontinuity of the roof. However,

this building was never trying to be complex or contradictory! 

The problem of producing a tripartite facade was solved. The problem of roofing the building was solved. Contradiction? The rooftop altana works against the facade symmetry that’s been set up. A drainpipe draws attention to the very angle the symmetry seeks to downplay.

Speaking of drainpipes, an other example of mine is this building you’ll recognize from Misfits’ Guide to Venice as the Palazzo Fondazione Masieri, the interior of which was remodelled by Carlo Scarpa.


[You might also recognise the rest of this paragraph.] The position of the drainpipe highlights the symmetrical part of the facade, suggesting we disregard the additional bit on the right, but where else could it go? The midpoint of the gutter is the most practical but least-wanted place as it would not only split the building in two but discharge over the entrance. Placing the drainpipe at the end of the gutter would gutter creates practical problems of gutter slope. Three shorter gutters avoiding the chimneys would each require a drainpipe. This minor functional element is doing something of crucial visual importance for Venturi but I doubt whoever put it there gave its placement a second thought.

In both these examples I see not complexity and contradiction but a clear and consistent approach towards the solving of real problems. In both examples, the simplest and easiest way has been chosen and the result is far richer than seemingly contradictory problems selected and studio-farmed for the expressive potential of their “resolutions.”

• • •

Venturi was of the opinion that complexity and contradiction made for buildings that weren’t boring. This single personal preference of one person implied buildings had a duty to entertain and this is how “delight” has been interpreted ever since. Post Modernism was ultimately discarded for its inability to delight outside of its host culture. It was unsuited to the burgeoning global market for trophy architecture by rich rulers and property developers in non-Western countries. Something meaning less to more people was what was required and Deconstruction stepped up to the plate. 

Nevertherless, Robert Venturi and Post-Modernism have a place in the history of architecture’s meta-aesthetics for reducing architecture to a style toolkit once again and kicking the architecture can a bit further down the road. 

What I can’t abide is Venturi representing the inherent honesty and beauty of ordinary buildings to enable an architecture not remembered for either its honesty or its beauty. Ordinary buildings were the losers as nobody gave them another look. Job done.