US 7,540,120

US7540120 is a United States patent for a Multi-Level Apartment Building. Patent attorneys aren’t likely to be apartment plan geeks so I pity the one whose desk this landed on. Perhaps I shouldn’t, because patent attorneys are skilled in untangling real novelty from mere claims to it. They also understand the importance of precise language because patent language is designed to accurately describe all that’s unique about an invention but at the same time be sufficiently encompassing so that protection isn’t lost if someone else makes some minor improvement or change. Phrases such as substantially and arbitrarily occur often because their meaning is defined. The term disposed is used to mean placed or arranged. The term a plurality of is used to mean a few, several, or many.

The structure of a patent application is also defined. At the beginning is a list of patents to which the invention refers or relates to. Then comes the Abstract. The one for US Patent 7,540,120 doesn’t tell us much because we’re not used to imagining buildings from written descriptions. This particular abstract is an accurate and concise description of the invention – it has to be.

A multi-level apartment building includes vertically stacked sections each containing at least one pair of apartments, where each apartment of an apartment pair contains a stairway assembly coupled to a vertically extending stair support wall assembly that contains utility distribution conduits. The stairway assembly for each apartment connects four levels of function space. One apartment of the pair in a vertical section is rotated 180 degrees in plan in relation to the other apartment of the pair which is entered on the opposite side of a public corridor that provides access to the apartments of the pair. The apartments are vertically stacked in alignment where an apartment of a pair is mirrored in plan in relation to a vertically underlying or overlying apartment of another pair, and the stair support assemblies of the respectively vertically stacked apartments are vertically aligned.

What it doesn’t tell us is why somebody would want to do that. Next comes Description of the Invention. This is divided into sub-sections, the first of which is Field of the Invention.

The present invention relates generally to a multi-level structure and, more particularly, to a multi-level apartment building having a plurality of apartments, where each apartment includes a plurality of rooms on levels connected by a stairway system that is coupled to a stair support wall assembly for receiving vertically extending utility services.

There’s a certain comfort that comes from words meaning exactly what they say, and no more or less. 

Next comes Background of the Invention. This sub-section tells you what the existing problems were that led to the invention being proposed as a solution. This is where the case for the invention is made.

The invention itself is described in detail in Summary of the Invention and cross-referenced to Brief Description of the Drawings where each drawing is described in detail. It ought be possible for an architect to fully understand this building from these.

Finally comes the Claims in which everything unique about the invention and worthy of legal protection is isolated and listed in a structured sequence of claims and dependent (sub-) claims. Each claim is written as a single sentence and is not easy reading. Governmental patent offices in the home country and countries around the world make rulings on whether the invention described by the Claims are unique and thus deserving of protection. 

The invention of US 7,540,120 has been granted a patent because it solves some identified problem in a unique and novel manner. If only architecture could always be so clear, with the use of words such as unique, novel and innovative limited to legally recognised and precisely described solutions to specifically identified problems.

If a person can’t call themselves an architect without being legally recognized as such, then why not have a similar requirement for architecture?  

After all, a patent attorney (or any lawyer, for that matter) would be comfortable with the statement “All hatmakers make hats” but not with the statement “All architects create architecture.” And neither should we. Making architects legally liable for false claims to aesthetic innovation would certainly clear the air, eliminate much noise. We can speculate on this some other time because, for now, I want to find out what’s so special about this novel and innovative architectural invention. It’s not every day one comes along. From the section and plan above it seems like a scissor-plan variant.

For reference, here’s the scissor plan of the 1962 Corringham apartments in London Kenneth Frampton had a hand designing. Scissor plans are confusing, even for the people who made these diagrams trying to explain them. The key to the section says 1 is the living and 2 the entry but it’s the other way around. The plan numbering corresponds to its key but not to the section numbering, even when corrected.

Background to the Invention

Multi-level buildings are a favored form of residential construction because they provide for improved land use and a high density alternative to sprawl. The buildings usually include a plurality of apartments where each of the apart ments is occupied by several individuals, such as a family. Such apartments, however, usually do not include all of the features and amenities that are ordinarily present in a detached suburban home. The apartments typically do not include such detached home features as split level living room and dining room function space, duplex height in a living room function space, duplex height windows as part of the living room space and that provide natural lighting to remote interior portions of the apartment, bedrooms located on separate levels to afford privacy from each other and also communal activities, views on opposite sides of a building, through ventilation, an exposed interior duplex height stairway and balconies without shadows and overhangs. The absence of many of the features and amenities usually present in a detached residence makes conventional apartments unappealing to the more mobile class of residential purchasers. […] Therefore, a need exists for a multi-level apartment building that addresses the needs of sprawling development by containing a plurality of apartments that can be fabricated with relative ease and where each apartment creates the illusion of spaciousness while providing expected amenities and consuming a minimum of floor area.

Frankly, I expected more, but this is the problem the inventors have set themselves to solve and it was judged to be a real and valid one. Their problem was that apartments don’t feel housey enough and they intend to solve this by providing:

  1. a split level living room and dining room function space,
  2. duplex height in a living room function space,
  3. duplex height windows as part of the living room space,
  4. bedrooms on separate levels,
  5. views on both sides of a building,
  6. through ventilation,
  7. a dramatic stairway,
  8. a balcony some distance from the one above, and
  9. creating an apartment having the illusion of spaciousness but consuming a minimum of floor area.

Let’s see!

  1. An access corridor runs across the building and apartments either side are mirrored and reversed or, in CADspeak, a copy is horizontally rotated 180° [not vertically around 180° as per a unité].
  2. The kitchen/dining area is on the same level as the entrance.
  3. The living rooms are on a level slightly lower than the kitchen/dining, and have a ceiling height slightly higher.
  4. A staircase in the corner of the living rooms extends upwards to access a minor bedroom above the kitchen/dining of the apartment across the corridor.
  5. The same staircase extends downwards to access the master bedroom beneath the kitchen/dining of the apartment across the corridor.

This basic unit can be repeated horizontally any number of times, and vertically as well if vertically alternate units are reversed, interlocked and stacked an arbitrary number of times. Don’t forget that a patent application describes a general principle and doesn’t need to describe what happens at the end of the building where a living room is minus a kitchen/dining room, or at the other end of the building where the kitchen/dining room lacks corresponding bedrooms and living area.

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The German application for the invention includes the following two helpful diagrams.

Bathrooms of one unit and the kitchen of another are thus sandwiched between living rooms above and below and this is why the stairwell support wall must have services run through it.

US07540120-20090602-D00000

In a patent application, the variation described in most detail is called the preferred embodiment (manifestation) of the invention in order to exclude other inventions that are substantially identical. These are also anticipated in the descriptions of other embodiments. The ones listed all divide the minor bedroom to configure a three-bedroom apartment and also feature alternative arrangments for the staircase – presumably to get the service riser out of the living room.

The inventors have solved most of the problems they set out to solve.

  • There is a split-level living room and dining room.
  • The living room is double-storey height.
  • There are double-storey windows.
  • Bedrooms are on separate levels.
  • The apartment has views in two opposite directions.
  • Some degree of cross ventilation exists.
  • The staircase is indeed dramatic even if it only goes to a minor bedroom.
  • Vertically above and below each double-height living room are two bedroom levels and a kitchen level so there are five floors betwen [vertically adjacent] living room balconies.

However, I’m not sure they have succeeded in creating an apartment having the illusion of spaciousness but consuming a minimum of floor area because, for one, I don’t know how it would be possible to objectively evaluate the success of an illusion. I’m also not sure if it has been done consuming a minimum of floor area. The typical plan below shows how the space (indicated in red) above/below the corridor (green) is not being used for any purpose than to pass over/under the corridor and contrive a double-sided apartment. The solution thus solves one problem but creates another. There may be the illusion of spaciousness and certain amenities (including the benefit of inscrutability) but it can only be said to consume a minimum of floor area until somebody comes along and solves the same problem in less.

The inventors did succeed in what they set out to do but they did not set the bar very high.

  • Apartments might be more attractive to more people if they successfully create the illusion of being more like detached houses but is a split-level living room and dining room, or a dramatic staircase really the best way to go? And if not what is? For some people, for example, a house might be all about opening the kitchen door to let the dog in, or having a basement and an attic. Instead of creating the illusion of an apartment being more like a house, it might be more worthwhile to explore what advantages apartments have that detached houses don’t.
  • A first, I thought the configuration was a scissor plan variant but it turned out not to be so. Having all living rooms on a preferred side of the building was not a problem the invention aimed to solve. There is scope for some other, future invention to incorporate this feature and be a completely new invention. 
  • I also initially expected it would be possible to horizontally extend apartments by making appropriate openings (and/or closures) in party walls to enlarge or reduce the volume of the apartment but this is not the case. We still lack a multi-storey apartment building configuration with the potential to be arbitrarily extended horizontally by having wall openings that can be arbitrarily opened/closed to access different staircases and their adjacent spaces. Such a method of configuring apartments would use similar elements and spaces to configure apartments of varying sizes and shapes and thus have advantages for construction cost and time savings. The challenge would be to do it with a minimum of walls having only latent party wall functionality and, as ever, a minimum of circulation space.

Good luck and let me know how you get on!

The Domino’s House

The Type A apartment is a result of the 1928 study the Stroykom team of architects did to determine the potential and technology for smart, affordable and universally suitable housing. They focussed on adapting existing residential typologies to new realities. One typology was the double-aspect apartment paired about a landing and their redesign was called the “Type A”, the first of the letter-tagged plans and schemes the team produced.

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There’s much that’s good about the Type A. It’s smart, efficient and hospitable. The dual-aspect living area allows good daylighting and ventilation, not so much because mechanical ventilation was expensive at the time, but because daylight and good ventilation were known to prevent tuberculosis. Planning-wise, the stairwell intrudes into the apartment area to push the front door into a corridor no longer than the two narrowest rooms. It can’t get any better. 

It’s not possible to access two apartments with any less space than a stairway and landing and, since those can’t be made any smaller, smaller apartments need a larger percentage of building volume to access them than do larger apartments. This led to the development of corridor-access plans. The problem of using less resources to build apartments became a problem of reducing the building volume used to access apartments. This was to lead to the development of the famous Type F. [c.f. 1928: The Types Study]

In A-blocks in Yekaterinburg, they have the elevator only in 1 stairwell but you may pass through a gallery in the attic if you live in a top floor. Elevators were defunct and removed way before my birth I think. Galleries were appropriated by upper apartment residences – a feast upon socialism. What we’ve lost is superior and better lit where every room has to have a window for there’s no other way to tuck it into the plan. Victor.

Thanks for that виктор! These images you sent me some while back are very relevant to where I want to take this post.

The Stroykom team knew how building depth affected building volume and spent much time trying to determine the optimum depth for any given set of parameters. 

The text to the right of the parametric depth scheme says “It’s a scheme from architect Klein”. It’s not a Stroykom product, but OSA published it alongside so it’s confusing. Klein must have been a sole practitioner who worked independently to determine the same problem the team were. V.

It was probably the first and last example of socially-driven parametric design. The Type A plan was a brilliant invention but volumetrically inefficient for small apartments. The Stroykom Team would have been amazed by the sheer abundance of stairwells and elevators in this next apartment building I saw on buildingsarecool.com. It’s in Charleston, South Carolina. Much is made of the fact there are views in both directions.

What we have here is the corridor-less apartment. Interestingly, the memory of a corridor remains because if all elevators are on the same floor and their doors and those of the fire escape stairs were all open, then it’d be possible to run from one end of the building to another. It’s not a very sociable building but given how “streets in the sky” came to be regarded, there doesn’t seem to be much point in accessing apartments via corridors. If a configuration such as this directs horizontal pedestrian movement to ground level and into real lobbies and real streets then it might not be such a bad thing.

Once I went to a party at some friend of a friend’s place in Clapham North or Brixton. We went in, and immediately up a flight of stairs with a corridor along one side and with a landing at one end and a similar space at the other. Along the corridor were doors to a bathroom and a kitchen having windows onto a light well down the side of the house. The spaces at each end of the corridor had a single door leading to a living room and, once inside the living room, was another door (in the same wall) leading back to a bedroom I never saw, but which must have had a narrow window opening into the lightwell. This house was probably built sometime 1850-1900 I’d say. Each upstairs tenant thus had a suite of two private rooms, but a shared kitchen and bathroom. It was quite a sensible arrangement for people to share spaces if they weren’t necessarily friends. G.

Rather than isolating people inside buildings it might be better to design apartments that not only allow for multiple occupation but allow for multiple modes of occupation. The rules of occupation were clear. That’s the logic behind this next plan. 

Clapham House

I’ve given two tenants their own bathrooms but downgraded the importance of the kitchen – it’s just a place people go to get cold stuff or to make stuff hot. The preparation and consumption of food is not styled for families. This next one is tighter. The stairs are back outside now but I added a double-door elevator. My logic was that if every two apartments are going to have a stair with two doors and a double-door elevator like in that Charleston project, it makes no difference if they’re shared on the edges or shared in the middle of the plan. I was working my way back to the Type A.

Clapham House3

I can’t stop seeing the elevator opening into kitchen! Given a kitchen share, double elevator door becomes unnecessary and overlapping lobbies of elevator and stair are more efficient. V.

Exactly! DazenTech do quite a nice passenger elevator for US$15,000. G.

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A residential passenger elevator for US$15,000 is nothing compared to building corridors on every floor to pass by two 5m-wide apartments.

Clapham House2

People understood 90 years ago that any Type A variant has a constant ratio of apartment access volume to building volume remains no matter how many storeys – it’s 34% here for the worst imaginable case, but halves if the apartment is doubled to make say, a 3-bedroom 2-bathroom apartment. I think it’s time to revisit the Type A.

You are disclosing one of my very basic mental splits. Should I design plans that could get built easily or should I design the heavenly plans which we’ve lost – with narrow bodies and other indispensable plain and inscrutable traits? V.

As ever, it’s a tough call. G.

One day this will be luxury. It already is for many people but, back to kitchens. Not only has this plan worked its way back to the Type A, it’s also downgraded the kitchen.

Kuhonny Element Kitchen

I once had a Parisian friend, Pascal, who lived above a café in the 11th. His living room had two leather armchairs, a wall of books, a violin hanging on a music stand, and a bottle of Chartreuse – green. On the kitchen floor was a six-pack of Evian. The sink was dry and brown with rust. Clearly, he went out for all other food and drink. 

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Most of us, however, don’t get ourselves dressed and downstairs to get everything to eat, any more than most of us don’t walk along a corridor to a communal kitchen. G.

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Increasingly, the food and drink comes to us, delivered as room service if we live in a hotel or an apartment serviced by a hotel [c.f. The Well-Serviced Apartment], as raw materials or pre-prepared meals from a convenience store, or as fast food or even restaurant fare delivered by in-house or outsourced couriers.

Living like this has crept up on us but we should’ve seen it coming. Having food being delivered to homes isn’t new but it’s now no longer confined to fast food as a weekend treat or an occasional extravagance.

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All that’s left to be done is to cut out any remaining middlemen.

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Drone delivery may have architectural implications for apartment dwellers. Wait! … let me see … yep, someone’s already on the case.

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I clicked on the first link so you won’t have to.

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I’m not sure if this is cutting-edge design responding to our fantastic brave new world, or merely more architect collaboration in the ongoing neoliberal project. Since they both amount to more or less the same thing, we may as well take this idea downmarket immediately and see how it fares in the wild.

The Domino’s House
dominos-house

But that would be to miss the point, for the Domino’s House is actually the Domino House updated for our times. When an apartment’s spatial functions, service functions and access are all contained in a single core, the enclosing shell becomes arbitrary. It’s a bit like that Joe Colombo prototype except what’s in the middle is the important bit that stays and the walls enclosing it are the consumer item.

If plans and sections are no longer a subject for the application of architectural intelligence, then The Domino’s House allows for Free Architecture – or at least what has come to represent it. The architectural enclosure is now be free to be anything it wants to be as long as it doesn’t compromise anything in the core. An amicable separation of building and architecture would allow an ideal modernism to coexist with an ideal post-modernism.

A2 round dot

Here’s the same plan as a tube of arbitrary height. It still works.

A2 round copy
Here it is as Miesian fantasy. It still works.

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You can bend it, extend it …

A2 bent

If you repeat the square block you’ll get a wall.

If you multiply the round one you’ll get a forest.

If you multiply this, you’ll get something different again.

Other variations readily accommodate contemporary tropes such as walls faceted or curved in one or two dimensions. Yet other variations could respond to site or environmental factors in real ways or even as representations of real ways. If the Domino’s House represents the architecture vs. building divide, then it is only because

THE DOMINO’S HOUSE IS THE BUILT MANIFESTATION OF THE ARCHITECTURE VS. BUILDING DIVIDE.

Building design and construction are now free to move towards technical, functional and economic perfection, and architecture is now free to go its own way.

• • •

The featured image is Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?”

Career Case Study #8: Gio Ponti

1921
Graduated with a degree in Architecture from Politecnico di Milano.

1923–1927
Worked in partnership with Mino Fiocchi and Emilio Lancia.
Exhibited at the first Biennial Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Monza.

1924
Ponti House in via Randaccio Gio Ponti, Emilio Lancia
via Randaccio 9, Milano

For many architects, their first built work is a house for their parents. This was Ponti’s.

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1926
Villa Bouilhet
Garches, Paris, France

Two decent houses within five years after graduation.

1927–1933
Continued with Lancia as Studio Ponti e Lancia PL. [In these years he was influenced by and associated with the Milanese neo-classical Novecento Italiano movement. The movement can be said to have done nothing to discourage nationalistic tendencies via its appeals to the past great traditions of Italian art. [Mussolini neither approved or disapproved but, it must be said, the general secretary of the Fascist Party deemed it insufficiently Italian.] Other buildings include the 1926 Bouilhet villa in Garches, Paris, the 1929 Monument to the Fallen with Giovanni Muzio, the Casa Rasini apartment blocks in Milan, and the 1930 Domus Julia–Domus Fausta complex on Via Letizia. [W] I’ve not seen these buildings, but they’re certain to be documented on the Gio Ponti official website. It’s a huge and useful resource.

1928
Founded DOMUS magazine and was its editor from 1928–1941, and again from 1948 until he died.

1928 – 1931
Apartment building
G
io Ponti, Emilio Lancia
via Domenichino 1-3, Milano

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1933-1934
Rasini House and Tower Gio Ponti, Emilio Lancia
Bastioni di Porta Venezia 1, corso Venezia 61, Milano

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The stone, and the stonework is exquisite.

1933–1945
Ponti teamed with engineers, Antonio Fornaroli and Eugenio Soncini and formed Studio Ponti-Fornaroli-Soncini.

1936–1961
Now, fifteen years after graduating and five years after founding DOMUS, Ponti became permanent professor of the Faculty of Architecture at Politecnico di Milano University. I get the feeling he intuitively understood how architectural projects, education and media all feed off each other.  

1936–1938
Casa Marmont
Via Gustavo Modena 36, Milano

From the late 1930s until about 1942, Ponti’s buildings have Rationalist overtones and are not dissimilar from those of Asnago–Vender at that time. The mounting of windows flush with the wall surface is an obvious similarity but may have some non-stylistic justficiation. It’s a notable feature of Pirelli Tower and a design decision more likely to have been Ponti’s than Nervi’s.

1936
Montecatini office building 
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Soncini

largo Donegani 2, Milano

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In 1941 Ponti was to resign his editorship of DOMUS magazine to start the magazine Stile. In one of its early issues, Ponti praised the buildings of Asnago Vender as “The Style of Tomorrow”. [The essay is reproduced in Caruso & Thomas’ book Asnago Vender and the Construction of Modern Milan.]

“For them, modern architecture is a form of free expression that emerges naturally like a science and a technology, a trade and a profession, and is released from any kind of precedent. Asnago & Vender work naturally, in accordance with a firm conviction that lies in their own nature and is as spontaneous as an intrinsic vocation. Their art is ‘just right’: their approach is expressed by the diligence of silent, consistent work, like an almost natural phenomenon that has no more need for system, programmes, or previsions, with no more hidden controversial content of any sort.

“But the two architects are also artists who have natural feelings that they are able to express in their work without any hindrance or wastage – fortunately. This is the additional gift that is necessary and essential to enable one to represent an art – having the ability to do so.”

These are powerful words indicating an industry awareness befitting a magazine editor even though Ponti’s own career did not go in that direction.

1940
House By The Sea
Bordighera, Italy

There’s nothing not to like here.

1940
University commissions for the University of Padua

Ponti himself painted the frescos on the staircase walls. [W]
I can understand an architect helping a country’s war effort by designing industrial buildings but hand-painting frescoes on a university’s walls? Here they are lining the “staircase to knowledge”.

Here’s the professors’ Reading Room at the University of Padua, with the Dean’s Office on the other side of those doors. Look at the floor! Terrazzo never looked so classy – and so it ought. Arranging aggregate in lines only to pour white concrete over it and then grind and polish it was neither fast nor inexpensive to do. Low-quality materials have been given the decadence of process. I know I shouldn’t like things like this and be adding to my list of guilty pleasures.

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And what about that idiosyncratic arched door in the corner? If Ponti had wanted to incorporate it into the aesthetics of this room, I’m sure could have. The difference between the sea green wall colour and the peach beyond makes me think a waiter uses that door to enter the room and take drinks orders.

1942 was only twenty years after Ponti graduated but he had already found his style and it was one of inescapable and relentless good taste. You can be confident that, when those main doors are opened, there will be more of the same.

1951
Montecatini office building 
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Soncini

via Principe Amedeo 2, Milano

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1951-1955
INA Casa Harrar
Via Harrar/Dessié/Via Novarra, Milano

This social housing project is anomalous and you can read more about it here where it says “Ponti developed the master plan along with Luigi Figini, Gino Pollini and Piero Bottoni” and that “Ponti designed two blocks, one facing Via Harrar-Dessiè, and the other, perpendicular to this, extending into the interior of the block.” I can’t find any images of interiors. Although many Ponti projects are collaborations of some sort, this is one of the rare ones that have a greater context.

1954
4P
Milan, Italy

This is another anomalous project during the construction of the Pirelli Tower. There’s no description for the design on the right, which is the more interesting of the two since the enclosed space is not divided into the functional zones of the other design, but into day and night zones that spatially overlap. Ponti was to re-use this device in his own 1964 apartment. The lesser-known iteration of this is rare because it shows a desire to extract maximum spatial utility from a volume.

1952–1961
Pirelli Tower
 
Gio Ponti, Pier Luigi Nervi, Arturo Danusso
Via Fabio Filzi 22, Milan

Ponti won the commission to design the 32-story Pirelli Tower in 1950. It was Milan’s second tall building, the first being Torre Velasca constructed 1956–58. Pirelli Tower became an immediate symbol of a confident and renewed Italy and, with Nervi’s help, remains as idosyncratic and elegant as it was in mid-1950s. The effect of this important commission was felt long before the building was completed. It was the turning point in Ponti’s career, and the beginnings of the post-war phenomenon of Italian design that continues to this day.  With Ponti and Pirelli, Milanese architecture and Italian architecture in general, begins to get more wilful, seeking more than merely local recognition. Whereas Asnago Vender were content to remain Milanese architects for their entire careers, Ponti marks the beginning of international architecture in Italy and of Italian architecture internationally, assissted by Ponti (now back) at DOMUS and Ernesto Rogers (1953–1965) at Casabella.

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One of the first commissions Ponti received because of worldwide attention the tower was for Villa Planchard in Caracas, Venezuela. It’s a Pinterest favourite. Another villa in Caracas, the Villa Areazza, quickly followed, as did another in Teheran. All three are the mature works of someone fully in command.

1955
Villa Planchard
Caracas, Venezuela

The dining area of Villa Planchard is as good a place as any to pause for a while and try to make some sense out of all of this.

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First, look at the supersized terrazzo of that floor! Again, it’s unimaginable decadence of process to get slabs of different stone to do this. Another guilty pleasure. How about that wall on the right? I’ve no idea what timber those panels are, but I’m betting they’re an inch think and oiled and polished to make them last forever. They’re beautiful enough but nevertheless enhanced by at least two ceramic inlays and two wall lamps calling attention to themselves by their differing orientations. Two ceilings each do their own thing. Those bubble-petally things on the far wall are probably Murano glass but the unadorned part needs an image or something to carry us around the corner into presumably the kitchen. But those bubbly things – see how they compress as they approach the ceiling? And what is that curve and angle supposed to do? Does either wall really need shelves with plants? Does the table really need to have to have supports profiled like the Pirelli tower?  And a chair moved out of the way so we can see it?

What plants other than orchids would dare flower in such a room? What clothes would one have to wear to feel at home? The room doesn’t encourage solid colour, or seem to want any more pattern. It seems happy for plates on the table to express the potential for people but I can’t imagine this space accommodating even those stagey lifestyle people in the Julius Schulman Case Study House photographs. It’s difficult to live as fabulously as this house implies. It doesn’t matter in architectural imagery and, as a magazine man, I’m sure Ponti understood this.

1956
Villa Arreazza
Caracas, Venezuela

Villa Namazee 1957 – 1964
Teheran, Iran

Things to note here are the attention paid to sightlines and viewlines in the plan, the shape of the glass display cabinet in the living room, and the confident busy-ness of that internal courtyard.

1956 – 1957
Casa Ponti House in via Dezza Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli
via Dezza 49, Milano

This is where Ponti and his family lived at least some of the time. Folding doors divide rooms at night.

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1923 – 1958
Throughout this period Ponti also designed ceramics, furnishings, vases, dinnerware, chairs, glassware and lamps for various companies. Below are a 1931 lamp for Fontana Arte, one of many glass bottles for Venini in 1949, and the Superleggera chair for Cassini in 1957.

1961
Palazzo del Lavoro Gio Ponti and Pier Luigi Nervi
Torino

My undergraduate history book World Architecture [1963] had upward looking closeups of the famous roof structure as its front and back inner covers. The building seems to be slipping from the history of architecture faster than it is from the history of engineering. It’s a beautiful thing, stunning in its simplicity. Wikipedia lists Ponti as architect and Nervi as engineer but I can’t find it on the Ponti website, presumably because it does nothing to further the mythology. Pirelli may have been Ponti’s but Nervi owns this one.

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1962
Parco de
Rei Principi
Sorrento, Italy

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We should be thankful to Pinterest for allowing us to gain even an inkling of what it is like to stay here. It’s claimed the hotel was the first designer hotel in the world and, going by the profile of those lobby columns, I suspect it’s true.

1963
Politecnico Milano

Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 3, Milano

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The ground level appearance of these buildings has been compromised by the interconnecting bridges installed later, no doubt for reasons of accessibility.

1963-1967
Building for the Istituto Nazionale Assicurazioni 
Gio Ponti, Fornaroli, Rosselli

via San Paolo 7, via Agnello 6/1-8, Milano

With this building we see the first use of textured ceramic tiles.

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1964
Chiesa di San Francesco
via Paolo Giovio 31, Milano

I took three photographs of this next corner so something about it must have disturbed me. As I find with much of Ponti’s later work, I can’t guess at what effect he was aiming to achieve. Now I think about it, what I find it disturbing is how this wall denies the spaces behind it, only acknowledging them when they provide an opportunity for window as ornament for the wall. The same accusation could be made against the central wall as well.

1964-69
Chiesa di San Carlo Borromeo presso l’Ospedale
Milano

1965
Building 14, Politecnico Milan
Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 3, Milano

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In the photograph below you can see the other Politecnico Milano building to the rear. Fifty years on, this is still a handsome building, and is undergoing partial retrofitting for enhanced energy performance.

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But gosh it scrubs up well – it looks as if it’s just been built! Properly made and laid textured ceramic tiles must be the perfect cladding.

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1964-1970
Montedoria building
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli, Alberto Rosselli
via Pergolesi 25, Milano

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The building forms one half of a gaetway as is common on many piazzi.

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The tile cladding is highly textured, changes with the light etc. and is, basically, gorgeous.

The third photograph above however, shows gratuitous layering for the sake of it. Surely there’s a better reason for building volume than to create shadows and avoid a planar surface? We’ve become immune to this sort of thing and, like variously offset and sized windows, have come to believe it indicates design effort, if not excellence. My only criticism of this building is that there’s simply too much happening. It’s happening in a highly controlled, competent and elegant manner so it pains me to say it, but every window, by virtue of its shape or position, doesn’t need to state that a designer is on the case. This dusting of gratuitousness might be what makes this building designed and constructed 1964-1970 still appear so contemporary. Its materials and construction are a contradiction. Their sheer quality means we can see this building today as if it were new but it also means the building could never be a product of any other place and time but Italy in the 1960s.

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1969
De Bijenkorf 
Gio Ponti, Theo Boosten
Eindhoven, Netherlands

By now, the glazed ceramic tile had been perfected. Relief becomes bas-relief to make shadows deeper on cloudy days and in low-angle sunlight. Sunlight or rain produce shimmering effects intensified by the glazing being seemingly resistant to dirt, grime and the passage of time.

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1971
Denver Art Museum

100 W 14th Ave Pkwy, Denver, CO 80204, USA

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1971
Taranto Cathedral
Taranto, Italy

Cathedrals aren’t generally known for their restrained interiors so what’s immediately noticeable here is how austere this one is. For the entrance and campanile, the walls are no longer things that exist to accept ornament but things that are constituted from it.

• • •

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Gio Ponti is a phenomenon, a person who touched every corner of Italian design for half a century and the person responsible for making Italian design the international phenomenon it remains to this day. As an architect, he understood how to make spaces and how to decorate them and, as editor of DOMUS, how to publicise them. He knew how to make a building fit well on a site and how to clad it so it looks new forever. Ponti is remembered most for the Pirelli Tower but this is probably more of a reflection on architecture’s obsession with shape and what came to symbolize being an architect for Pirelli Tower is not really representative of Ponti’s interests or his career. He seemed happiest when he had a wall to ornament or decorate. Perhaps he knew this and this is why he makes it so difficult for us to see past the surface. Or even want to.

• • •

Talking Shop

This one has to be about architecture school – a general survey of the role of architecture education. Pondering through another letter-swamp of project placement on archdaily I found myself immersed in a mass of architecture school-yak links. Architecture media talks about schools a lot. Isn’t architecture the discipline that pumps its education the most? I’ve never heard of aerospacedaily or carpentrydaily or jurisprudencedaily. Marketing of architecture schools is subtly fused into the existence architecture has in the media. If someone invests a lot into convincing you they can teach you, then there’s room for uncertainty as to whether they actually can. V.

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A good idea! Until now I’ve stayed away from the topic of education, probably because it’s too close to home. I shouldn’t really. This blog only exists because of me, students and education. G.

  • Back in 2011, The Twisted Education of Architects post depicted the frustration a student can develop at an architecture school if they were blind unreceptive to the early twentieth-century abstract imaginal design generation. 2011 is six years and a bachelor and masters ago. Me, I enrolled in 2011 but what did architecture school learn in the time it takes a student to graduate? 
  • In technology, places like MIT are praised and mentioned but usually for the virtue of research work and usually on the topic of that work.
  • In medicine, teaching hospitals are often places where treatments and therapies are pioneered. There are no Harvard GSDs in medicine.
  • What technology school or law school or medical school should teach its students is an interesting question that would have solid and definite answers. “What architecture school should teach its students”, on the contrary, seems to be a slippery ground, despite 100 years in service.

Soon to have 100 years of abstract architecture school (Bauhaus 1919, VKhUTEMAS 1920). We can expect a lot of anniversary recapitulation and probably the wrong conclusions. Don’t forget that Bauhaus only began to teach architecture in 1928, under Hannes Meyer, and then as building science. In a draft for an upcoming post titled “Models of Instruction” dealing with the history of architectural education, I insinuate that Gropius was copying the Montessori style of education that had evolved 20 years earlier, with its emphasis on learning by direct handling of materials. He was to follow Ms. Montessori in exporting it to America, along with himself as a similar innovator in architectural education. 

Bauhaus is accepted with respect and credit. Should it have brought a revolution in human habitat, being the first architecture school totally connected with modernity? The spread of modernism definitely happened after the school’s emergence. Gropius’ genius was to later blur the boundary between himself, architecture, architectural education, and what was actually taught at the Bauhaus under Meyer. The four were always linked via the Dessau building but never in the same place at the same time. Of course, having Mies on the other side of Meyer made it easier to forget the building science bit in the middle even though it was “the meat in the sandwich”.

Mass industrial housing emerged and its virtues outweigh shortcomings, given most of these buildings continue to shelter people. But is it correlation or causation, in relation to school’s existence? Modernism was an inherently cheaper way to build so would probably have happened anyway. J.J.P. Oud and the Dutch were already making it work in The Netherlands. Ernst May provided 15,000 housing units between 1925 and 1932 and independently of whatever was or was not happening at The Bauhaus.

If we take the 20 most renowned architect names, how many of them would be Bauhaus alumni? Meyer, Gropius and Rohe were not immediately displaced by mighty new youths they taught. I had exactly the same thought yesterday. How many people passed through Wright’s office or Le Corbusier’s office and what happened to them? With LC, the two who became most known both left his office after six months and went on to do their own thing rather well. Another three, three decades on, did what Gropius did and promoted themselves as having had special access to privileged knowledge. But what was that knowledge? Or did they just trade off anecdotes? (“Well what Corb would have done was …”) Sure “Bauhaus style” spread around the world, but it is a convenient tag and not what was invented in the school or by its alumni in the field. Exactly. I think that to call something a style is to neuter it. I blame Johnson and Hitchcock, as you know. 

BXYTEMAC [VkHUTEMAS – it took me a while to get what you did there!] taught Ivan Leonidov, who immediately became a poster boy to wrongly attach “constructivism” tag to. After his graduation, Ivan Leonidov led a very tragic life of a person who never acclimated to his context. The fact it was a menacing bloody context is worth mention. Still, the divide between nonconformism for the sake of decency and illicit tragism in everyday life is slippery.  Yes – I worry about this all the time. =) That aside, Ivan Leonidov graduated as an architect inadequate for what lay immeditely beyond the school door. And it did not go shitty just overnight, to be fair.

Andrew Burov was another BXYTEMAC graduate, who shone as a “talented young man”. He abandoned the OCA organization as soon as the sour winds blew and put on the social realist, neoclassical revivalist’s shoes. [I shall investigate. Did he become one of those “Post Constructivists” – those proto-post modernists?] He never showcased any regrets for that and lived a long continuous career, no matter whether flat roofs or gypsum facades, or flat roofs again he was asked to provide. He managed to appear borderline between an actual person and servile rat despite his preference for food, shelter and job before his personal values, if these existed. It’s odd you mention Burov. Less than an hour ago I found this photo of him enjoying a cigarette break with Le Corbusier and Alexander Vesnin in Moscow, 1929. It’s the only photo I’ve ever seen with LC holding a pencil. Why is everyone but Vesnin wearing the same glasses?

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The two cases of Leonidov and Burov might be just two person’s characters, irrelevant to the school itself. I’m not so sure. They may have been one-offs but if they even inadvertently showed others the mechanism of how to leverage buildings to become famous, it was still the birth of modern architectural education as a closed ecosystem of teachers and students. Everyone wanted Leonidov on their team and he was pulled along by events but it sounds like Burov went whichever way the wind was blowing.   

This abstract imaginal education was formed as to “zeitgeist” of early 1920s, with enormous uncertainty over the ashes of a world war and hatching mass machine civilization. The locations where the two schools emerged are not surprising – both Germany and Russia had been mauled by world war and revolution. For each, “machine” became a fantastic entity which would undo the calamities by wonders of invisible mechanisms. It was an ontological drug to endure the hardships of life there, using sorcery of floating transpatial rectangles painted on a canvas, or spiralling pieces of wood forming an antenna for a newly found socialist hivemind. Coping means are good until you make these central pieces of your life – what only indicates how tragic your tragedy really is. Speaking of architectural education as abstract imaginings, this was in an Unbuilt Moscow feature in today’s Guardian. I saved it because I thought the caption was iffy. I find it hard to believe that, with The Russian Revolution not even three years gone, emphasising themes was more important than realising them. Suspect.

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Nikola Ladovsky [VKhUTEMAS instructor], 1920. The spiral structure of Ladovsky’s design emphasised the key Communist party themes of progress and communal living intended to revolutionise family structures.

But having grown up in Australia, I never felt such weight of history. When I was an undergraduate at UWA, I discovered Shinohara’s first book of houses in the library and, impressed, wrote him a letter saying how much I envied him for having had such a spectacular and worthwhile tradition to interpret, or act as a base, or something. In time, I received a short letter back saying that I would surely find my path if I just continued questioning. (I pinned it above my drawing board next to an image of Richard Meier’s Douglas House.) Forty years on, I’m still questioning and I think it’s time for some answers.   

Apparently, the price humankind paid to enter the era of geometrical freedom of free-floating masses put together in light was never seen prior to the non-freedom of humans put together in camps and frontlines. Unprecedented control of mass was brought forth by unforeseen human-powered machines of violence. I think the Futurists have a lot to answer for. Perhaps newness for its own sake supplying “the missing ingredient that allowed Modernism to happen” was never the answer. It may have merely been the missing ingredient that enabled rampant capitalist (and then endless neoliberalist) churn for its own sake. The powerful only need buildings to remind everyone who the powerful are. 

The reliance on abstract composition in schools may only be a means to retrofit the appearance of organic emergence into modernist architecture, whose history is not as clear and actually poorly documented. My new cognitive bias goggles have help me make sense out of a lot of things. Any attempt to introduce abstraction into architecture furthers a neoliberalist agenda where buildings exist for the sake of architecture and not for anyone who might happen to use them or even pay for them. We can backtrack from Patrick Schumacher and the neoliberalist architect dream of an architecture beyond reason, interpretation or criticism, and go back a bit further to Rem Koolhaas and his 1979 “Development is good!” thesis, re-articulated by Bjarke Ingels with fewer words and more pictures in “Yes is more!”) “Abstract painting gave birth to abstract architecture” sure sounds convincing, but actually may be an instance of pareidolia, the desire of human mind to see a pattern where it may not be the case. Probably. Mies’ “Brick Country House” was five years after van Doesburg’s Rhythm of a Russian Dance yet the two often appear on the same page of history books. van Doesburg even made it easy for Mies by demarcating inside and outside.   

What could have been just someone’s thesis statement became useful to form a consensus of persons who could sustain their agenda for the longest using this thesis as a cosmological myth. There wasn’t that much mid-20th century abstraction happening but perhaps De Stijl’s van Doesberg was the first to get there. Some say it may even had been Wright who first hit upon this cheap way to build. 

The fact that the architecture as something with pretensions to being art and not building science suggests it was better at furthering the agenda of its proponents (and clients) by claiming to be so. We don’t remember Peter Eisenman, Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright for their contributions to building science.  Traditionalist architects blame modernism for speaking a “bird language”. Once you knew their complaint and read any piece which featured use of word “space”, you’d never see it the way you did before. Overusing the word “form” is also a symptom. 

In science, 10 years after your graduation is when you have to focus on your research, because you may make studies and discoveries only while your brain is still fresh and regenerating. Your career after 35 is mostly you living off that foundation. My use of word foundation is misleading. This work is not what you stand on, doing your job later after you’ve acquired it, but the actual most valuable work you produce. Which you may later only tinker with or modify. My evidence is James Watson claimed it in his own memoir, he also wrote it was consensus thinking. Interesting. Worrying. I still have a couple of early ideas I haven’t monetised yet. Last week I received an email saying the commissioning editor at XXX had decided not to make a publication offer in response to my book proposal. 

In architecture, a fresh graduate may face their uselessness in the office for them being “that ignorant fresh graduate person” that just graduated from fascinating enterprise which is contemporary architecture school. More often than not, they will toil until their fifties, about which time, they’re told, architects “bloom”. Architecture in many ways is an archaic trade. One of signs of that is the gerontocracy in the upper tier of it. People who think of themselves as sentinels of undermined beings spent a lot of time praising the late ZH but the actual ill social composition existing in the profession, they never question it. The demise of Russian communism was foreshadowed by escalating gerontocracy a  few decades ago. Is architecture heading to the same direction? I suspect so. Experience is good in the case of the integrated design, operation and maintenance of complex systems such as railways but, with architecture, experience seems to be defined more narrowly as people who have simply clung on to fame for the longest.  

Relationship of education to work outside that of “self-referential circle of recommendations and funding” was not yet mentioned in this list yet. It should be. Already on the case in a separate draft. Le Corbusier’s former employees visited the US and were immediately made Professors of Architecture.

Sure, the basic framework never changed and the imaginal conceptual focus is the king. After all, the whole twentieth century saw architecture’s dilution with appearance of structural engineering as a separate trade, and inhabitability systems (i.e. HVAC) consultancy as yet another trade. With two thirds of dreary firmitas-utilitas-venustas trio taken out of the solution, architecture became a fine arts homeopathy. When I read this now, I see now that what you wrote is exactly where I took the Myths post [Architectural Myths #23: Architecture] post – you arrived at the same conclusion well before I did! 

Taking imaginal sophistry out of the curriculum would leave the vessel empty and no one would know what to fill it with. Would we have any abstract-faceted-sculptural sentiment if the first years were “performance design” instead of “affect design”? After a few years of low-level fundamental study would one see any charm in any other design approach? 

Also remember your frustrations with pupils unable to imagine a form, not to mention to document or present it in a projection? In shortcomings of teaching graphics to students you’ve defined a vision. I always like to look for reasons in things. If students can’t draw, or imagine things, then it’s because nobody is asking them to develop these skills that (quite frankly) most of my students will never be asked to use. Education adapts to its market surprisingly quickly. 

Media images melting reality into an post-causal mush you’ve bashed back in Smoke and Mirrors – and in Rendering Ethics on commonedge. The unintelligibly real prospects in form of images are hyper-lurid and captivating. The amount of work required to produce the images gave birth to dedicated visualization industry within the profession. This has only become necessary in order to feed the image digester. In its photo credits, ArchDaily includes visualisations and credits them as if they were photographs. I can’t help thinking something important is being lost. Reality? Online resources get bigger and bigger view counts across a reducing number of domains, and popular ones rule, as to law of accelerating returns. Instead of a multitude of opinions, mindsets and methods, the online architecture that actually emerged appeared to be a hybrid meta-mush of proven modernist tropes (or just stupid lazy design?) and a few recent design effort indicators like shuffly windows. This hybrid nests in an information platform accessible from any connected place. The farther the place is, the more charming the international newsfeed seems. What we have in the end is “archdaily (dezeen, architizer) epidemic”? Internet for ideas, good or bad ones, is what airlines are to viruses. I’ve often wondered about that. You see the same house in Korea or Chile or Bregenz. This trope is a hybrid of Fallingwater and Savoye – a media vernacular for our modern times.

For hundreds of years, the sole key to mastery was a long apprenticeship and recurring repetition – or at least we were told by literature that it was so. Within accelerating and escalating monopoly of the image, we end up having many designs as mere vehicles to create a final presentation image (your phrase). The rhetorical pair of substance vs image appears to have committed an incestual act, as image is the new substance, apparently.

The isolation of architectural academia is not yesterday’s news. Together with starchitecture firms they form a symbiotic circle running in a hermetically sealed cleanroom of waste-free production – potential students are lured by image of creative architectural practice, they enroll into a school, usually in exchange for hefty tuition fees, to be, in the best case, taught in personal studios of ones whose image charmed you in the first place. Somewhere in the middle, school builds a background of “successful student appreciation”, in form of articles with words “workaholic”, “creative” and “over hours”. In the end studios receive creative over-hours workaholics they can underpay because you’re so creative I see you didn’t come in the industry for the money did you? Sometimes these workaholics even paid to enter the job – via a school and personal studio that is. Credit to architectural industry to monetizing a perfect opportunity and wrapping their practitioners around a finger, to their own excitement and gratitude. This is all true and not cognitive bias. Just as education has adapted to what little is being asked of it, so has architecture. The idea of an architecture reflecting the priorities of the global economic elite is not such an absurd one. The International Style certainly came to “represent” progress to local populations as they were colonized by American businesses. OMA and ZHA are the new face of that. We should be pleased Schumacher has made the link between architecture and neoliberalism more obvious to more people. I’m beginning to think that starchitects are created and sustained by the system in order to sustain it. Think about it. If the buildings of a certain class of architect are granted automatic legitimacy regardless of the location or political culture or whose lives it destroys or with whose money it was built, then of course starchitects are going to get called upon to legitimize the unlegitimizable whenever there’s a need. It’s no accident the buildings they get called upon to legitimize tend to be in the dodgier countries, or that rich rulers and property developers (or rich-ruler property developers, or property developer rich rulers) are the clients whose edifices most require legitimizing.

Those currently in school are mostly millenials, who grew up in the presence of internet and the cultural transformation it entailed. One effect of which is “culture” became less about foundational notions and more of a coarsely ground mush of ideas, notions, emotions, and opinions based on such pesky sub-structure. The relationship between content, screen time, attention and worldwide connection naturally selected the most entertaining and least elaborate material which could be provided in a constant dopamine-gratifying stream. “12 books about urbanism”, “13 definitive movies for architects to watch” and whatever other list you can imagine on any topic beside architecture create an appearance of a broadly covered spectrum on a topic of interest, what satisfies the users and makes them believe in their becoming an informed person. The concept of Everything is Architecture is a new way of justifying this. Social media seems to function as a way of reminding people that one is interested in architecture. Putting stuff out there to share for our benefit has in some debased way come to be identified as education.   

What results is a culture of erudite idiots, precisely because long-term programs are not about immediate content. This idiocy is implicitly understood, what is indicated by recent abundance of a word “expert”, which is used wherever to separate audience from the speakers who have an oratorical monopoly. Becoming an expert is then a media vehicle, and there are many people who would help one to become an expert in exchange for money. Yes, we need to monetise this! =) 

• • •

The uncertainty about architectural education may result from profession’s ongoing decomposition. 20th century cemented the dissociation of structural engineering and habitability engineering from architectural design practice, at least in big architecture scene. The role of 20th century architecture school in that has yet to be scrutinized.

  • Decomposition of imaginal public relations practice of perception-management happens along the lines of imagery production competences, one recent case of the process is emergence of architectural visualization as a separate self-contained trade. Bashar once told me he saw an job listing for an “environmental graphics technician” and It amused us to think it meant those people who draw those airflow lines all over building sections. I was recently disappointed to learn it’s the new term for signage and wayfinding.
  • Decomposition continues for the material of architecture as a discipline which engineers a public relations envelope, a desired image for projects built around development gain or the concerns of image itself, as are many “cultural centres”, a typological trope beloved by both architects and their students.
  • Decomposition is an exotermic process. Once it stops, we’ll see stone-cold mineral remains of previously organic discipline. But decompositional heat can be mistaken for metabolic heat, creating a vision of a vibrant living system. hhhh I don’t know why I should be laughing … the analogy is all to apt – this mistaking of energy for life.  

Hazy conceptual soup remains in the profession, but we soon may see “design philosophy consultant” as a next big thing in architecture. We’ll have to watch for Design Philosophy Consultant Masters Program banners on architecture web outlets. It’s only a matter of time. Those three words already occur together in the similarly abstracted field of economic policy. 

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Design philosophy consultants may already be walking amongst us, for what’s a design philosophy consultant but a person who uses misleading narratives for perception management? If such people were to exist, they would make pre-emptive announcements of current concerns in anticipation of “proof” by projects only they know are in the pipeline. Those planted pre-emptive narratives would soon, invariably, come to be seen as prophetic.

• • •

To all architecture students out there,
best wishes and good luck!

Fast Tracking

It’s easy enough to make a train go fast but much harder to make it stay on the rails and to give passengers a comfortable ride.

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The 0 Series Shinkansen

These are the ones Japanese remember most fondly and which so amazed the world when the Tokaido Shinkansen [東海道新幹線, lit. New Arterial Line; a.k.a. Bullet Train] connecting Tokyo and Osaka opened on 1st October 1964 just in time for the Tokyo Olympics. These first trains didn’t have any name other than shinkansen and were only called 0 Series when it later became necessary to differentiate them. O Series trains ran at speeds of up to 200 km/h (125 mph), with later increases to 220 km/h (135 mph). More than 3,200 cars were built but by 2008 none remained in service. 

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The buffet car was always a special treat.

The Series 0 shinkansen wouldn’t have been possible without various 1950s innovations that raised bogie performance and reduced weight and vibration so the trains could run safely and comfortably at faster speeds.

  • incorporating springs and oil dampers into the bogie suspension to significantly reduce vibration
  • mounting traction motors on the bogie frame and using flexible couplings and gears to transmit power to the wheels
  • using a press-welded structure to reduce the weight of the bogie frames
  • using disk brakes to increase braking power at greater speeds
  • using air springs in the carriage suspension to increase passenger comfort

 [Refer to this document for more about the early technical innovatoins.]

The 200 series

In 1982 the Tohoku Shinkansen Line and the Joetsu Shinkansen Line opened with 200 Series trains that resembled the earlier 0 Series trains but were lighter and more powerful for mountain routes with steeper gradients. They had small snowplows to handle snowfall and exposed equipment such as the motors and compressors beneath the train was enclosed in sealed cowling to protect it from snow. Another innovation were the special air intakes designed to remove snow from the air. The first 200 trains had a top speed of 210 km/h (130 mph) but later ones could do 240 km/h (150 mph), and some were converted to be capable of 275 km/h (171 mph). By 2007 none remained in service.

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The 100 series

The naming system for new train series gave new trains running east of Tokyo even numbers and those running west of Tokyo odd numbers. [Having 100 come after 200 defeats the purpose of numbering, but not of naming. This post will therefore order the various series according to their chronological date of first introcution and irrespective of any implied numerical value. G.] The 100 Series trains began service in 1985 and had a more pointed nose as well as two double-level cars in the middle and that powered, most likely because there wasn’t sufficient space left between the bogies to do so. By 2012 none remained in service.

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Hat trick: a 100 heading for Osaka passes Mt. Fuji during cherry blossom season.

The 100 Series prompted a remodelled front car for the earlier 200 series. Apart from the livery, the only obvious difference is the snowplow.

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The 400 series

The first mini-shinkansen series was introduced in 1992 on Yamagata Shinkansen route branching from the Tohoku Shinkansen route at Fukushima. The mini-shinkansen concept involved regauging existing 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge lines to standard gauge and linking them to the shinkansen network to allow through-running. [W.] In order to negotiate local rail networks, the 400 Series was designed to have lower clearance and to be narrower. Steps projected from below the doors to bridge the gap between the train and the platform.  The 400s had a maximum speed of 240 km/h but all were withdrawn by April 2010.

The 300 Series

The 300 Series was introduced in 1992. They could carry about 1,300 passengers at a maximum  speed of 270 km/h (170 mph). The 300 Series abandoned the bullet-like nosecone for a more automobile-like styling with wider windscreen and lowered headlights, and also had flared panels protecting the front bogies from snow. It also had bolsterless bogies for greater stability at high speed, higher running performance on curves, less vibration and greater ride comfort, smaller size and lower weight to reduce track wear. All these improvements are to do with issues fundamental to rail transportation

A bolsterless bogie has two air springs directly supporting the carriage without any other cushioning element.

A 300 set the 1991 Japanese speed record of 202.3 mph (325.7 km/h). A total of 69 were built. All were withdrawn from service by March 2012. 

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A 300 on an evening run back to Tokyo.

The unusual shape of the nose of 300X was designed to minimise noise.

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Another 300 X variant pursued aerodynamic advantage. Changes such as these and the incrasingly flush window frames and headlight casings reveal increasing attention being paid to air movement at the leading edges of the train. 

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The 300X research project involved two test runs per week at night on track between Kyoto and Maibara on which revenue-operating trains ran during daytime. Testing covered rolling stock, tracks, overhead lines, and signal communications and involved simulations, constituent technology, and test runs, or combinations of the three. The simulations made it possible to predict situations that up till then could only have been checked with on-track tests, and provided insight into “boundary” problems that span a number of technological fields.

For example, it was found that lightening the unsprung mass affected running stability and ground vibration along the tracks.

Series 300 rolling stock was about 25% lighter than 100 Series, with a 30% lighter unsprung mass.  This led to 1998 track maintenance expenses being only 85% of those in 1993, despite a 50 km/h increase in speed. [ref.]

Boundary problems aren’t uncommon in railway transportation as it depends upon civil engineering, mechanical, electrical, and information systems that need to be designed and administered as a total system in a unified manner. It’s easy to see how boundary phenomena can be difficult to spot as a change seemingly insignificant in one field might have (good or bad) consequences for another.

The E1 Series

This was originally going to be designated the 600 Series. E1 trains were introduced in 1994 to alleviate overcrowding on the Tohoku and Joetsu routes. They had 3+3 seating in standard class and also had double-deck carriages. The first four upper deck non-reserved cars had 3+3 seating without individual armrests and did not recline. All E1 trains were withdrawn by September 2012.

The 500 series

These entered service in 1997 and had an operating speed of 300 km/h (185 mph). Innovations included the use of computer-controlled active suspension for a smoother and safer ride, and yaw dampers fitted between cars to prevent excessive sway. 

It had a revolutionary wing-graph pantograph.

In the case of the pantograph noise, air rushing over the struts and linkages in the mechanism was forming into so-called Karman vortices, also known as a Karman vortex street, and this turbulence was causing most of the noise. Karman vortices are created at all scales, from islands in the ocean to car aerials, and are manifested wherever a single bluff body separates the flow of a fluid. Alternate and opposite eddies swirl downstream of the obstruction, swinging back and forth as the force of one dominates and then the other. 

Vortex streets are a basic dynamic and some animals such as bees are thought to take advantage of it in their flight. Eiji Nakatsu is the bird-enthusiast and engineer credited with applying this physics to train aerodynamics. He studied the owl and its noise-dampening feather parts (fimbriae) that are a comb-like array of serrations grown on the leading edge of the primary wing feathers. They break down the air rushing over the wing foil into micro-turbulences that muffle the sound that typically occurs in wings without this feature. From 1994 a new “wing-graph” replaced the traditional pantograph and was a great success. The train could now run at 320 km/hr and meet the stringent 70dBa noise standard set by the government. [ref.]

There was also the more intractable problem of trains entering tunnels creating sonic booms at the other end of the tunnel. Japan’s rail tunnels are somewhat narrower than their European counterparts and often begin and end vertically, so when the shinkansen enters a tunnel at speeds above 200 kilometres per hour, the sudden increase in air pressure can cause a loud “boom” at the other end of the tunnel. In some cases, such shock waves are thought to have damaged tunnels in Japan, ripping chunks of material from tunnel ceilings.

Its counterintuitive at first for the boom to happen at the exit when the train enters the tunnel.” [It seems to suggest the piston effect can’t be sustained. G] This German video gives both the boom and the train later leaving the tunnel.

The other way around is tweaking tunnel portals to the same considerations. Victor

Nakatsu once again searched for an answer in nature when a junior engineer observed [uncredited, as is the Japanese way] that the test train seemed to “shrink” when it was traveling through the tunnel. Nakatsu reasoned that it must be due to a sudden change in air resistance, from open sky to closed tunnel, and wondered if there was an organism that was adapted to such conditions.

From his birdwatching experiences, Nakatsu remembered the kingfisher, a bird that dives at high speed from one fluid (air) to another that is 800 times denser (water) with barely a splash. He surmised the shape of its bill was what allowed the bird to cut so cleanly into the water. The design reduced the sonic boom effect, and allowed the train to run at higher speeds and still adhere to the standard noise level of 70 dBa. It also reaped further benefits immediately. The new Shinkansen 500 had 30 percent less air resistance than the preceding 300 series. A measured actual train run (maximum 270 km/hr) showed a 13 percent reduction in energy consumption. [ref.]

Sadly, this wonderful story dumbs down to this.

The unhappy ending is that each train cost approx. 5 billion yen and only nine were ever built. Although technologically innovative, the cost-peformance was poor and so the 500 Series thus went the way of the Sukhoi SU-47 and the F22 Raptor [c.f. Architectural Myths #8: Clean Lines].

The E4 series

These dual-level 8-car trains were designed as the second mini-shinkansen to replace the E1. They also began service in 1997 and had a maximum speed of 240 km/h (150 mph). 

The E2 Series

The E2 was introduced in 1997 and had a maximum speed of 275 km/h (170 mph). The most noticeable improvement was the shift from small windows for each seating bay to wide windows as with the E4 . The pantograph now had a single arm with an aerofoil-shaped mounting that did not need shrouding. Its exposed components were only those that had a reason to be exposed to the air. Even the horn of the pantograph (the curved ends of the slider or that top bar thingy that glide on the wire) had wavy holes drilled through them to generate vortices to suppresses the pantograph noise at high speed. [ref.]

A total of 53 were built but withdrawals began in 2013 when they began to be replaced by E7 Series trains.

The E3 Series

This is the fourth of mini-shinkansen designed with reduced width and clearance and to run on gauges for lower loads. Doorway steps fold out to make up the difference width when stopping at regular shinkansen stations. All were replaced by E6 Series trains by March 2014.

The 700 series

Introduced in 1999, with a maximum operating speed of 285 km/h (175 mph), the 700 series is immediately recognisable by its flat ‘duck-bill’ nose designed to reduce the piston effect when the train enters tunnels. The design owes much to the 300X research program. As with the 500 series trains, yaw dampers are fitted between vehicles, and all cars feature semi-active suspension for smooth ride at high speed. These trains were designed to deliver high performance and better ride comfort and interior ambience than the 300 Series but at 20% less cost than the 500 Series. [W.]

Between October 2008 and June 2009, JR Central’s fleet of sixty 700 series sets underwent modifications to increase the acceleration from the original 1.6 km/h/s to 2.0 km/h/s (0.44 m·s−2 to 0.56 m·s−2) on the Tokaido Shinkansen in order to improve timetable planning flexibility.

This trains were the core trains on the mainline shinkansen routes 2006–2011 but were gradually withdrawn and replaced with N700 Series trains and 800 Series trains.   

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An 800 Series Train.

The N700 series

N700 series trains have a maximum speed of 300 km/h (186 mph), and tilting of up to one degree allows the trains to maintain 270 km/h (168 mph) even on 2,500 m (8,200 ft) radius curves that previously had a maximum speed of 255 km/h (158 mph). The enhanced acceleration of the 700 Series (1.6 km/h/s to 2.0 km/h/s ) must have produced significant benefits for timetable flexibility because maximum acceleration rate of the N700 Series is 2.6 km/h/s. This means a 715 tonne train can accelerate from 0–270 km/h (170 mph) in only three minutes, and that it can travel between Tokyo and Osaka in 142 minutes, eight less than before. [W.]

This image of the N700 pantographs shows the (yellow) horn of the pantograph with its small holes that create the noise-surpressing vortices.

The E5 series

The E5 Series was introduced in 2011 and is still in service. Maximum speed is 320 km/h (200 mph). Pantograph improvements continued.

Until the E5, mini-shinkansen innovations had mainly been for width and clearance but the east-west routes through the Japan Alps have more and longer tunnels so the tunnel boom problem was more significant with these trains. The E5 is the latest attempt to solve the problem without incurring the expenses of the 300 Series or the undue attentions of biomimeticists.  

• • •

Doctor Yellow

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“Doctor Yellow” is the name given to trains specially customised for track checking and diagnosis. Doctor Yellow trains are dispatched to check track immediately after earthquakes and also when track sections are experiencing severe weather conditions. Unlike regular shinkansen, these trains are sometimes operated at full speed (up to 443 km/h ~ 275 mph). [ref.]  It’s a good day for a train enthusiast when they see one. Here’s six loving shots of the two 923 Series Doctor Yellow trains developed from the 700 Series, plus a 0 Series Doctor Yellow from fifty years ago.

• • •

Takeways: 

  • Eiji Nakatsu is remarkable for not only for observing Nature but also for listening to the straightforward observations of said junior engineer who was first to articulate the problem in terms of the relevant physics.
  • Boundary phenomena are nasty, especially as it’s not part of our psychology to look out for and take responsibility for the effect our actions have on others. Our culture of subcontracting and outsourcing may make some of them easier to identify but at the same time impossible to do anything about. (“Excuse me, there’s nothing in it for you but would you mind changing your way of doing things to solve a problem we’re having?”) Simply exchanging information between disciplinces is not teamwork.
  • Two boundary phenomena stood out. One was how reducing the unsprung weight led to track maintenance economies. The other was how the sum of mechanical and physical factors that resut in improved acceleration is recognised as allowing for increased timetabling flexibility. This is probably a Japanese euphemism for “more trains more frequently” but identifying that the two are linked is awesome.
  • With different routes needing different solutions for different conditions, the story of technical improvements across the Shinkansen fleets is not linear in the way the development of Sukhoi fighter planes was [c.f. Architectural Myths #8: Clean Lines]. The main revenue-earning lines were not always the identifies or problems or the initiators of innovation, as shown by the tunnel boom solutions.
  • What’s also impressive is that not one shinkansen innovation has been aesthetic for its own sake. Their various noses and front ends have never tried to be beautiful. How a very fast object goes through the air is very important in terms of energy efficiency and the noise it generates, and much research and development understandably went into optimising the shape of Shinkansen lead carriages and the nose in particular. It is a pity these highly visible “faces” of the shinkansen overshadow the effort that went into reducing the noise made by the pantographs that also travel through air at the same high speed.
  • And let’s not forget the research and develpment intelligence embodied in the bogies that make high-speed train travel comfortable as well as make it safe and viable by keeping the train on the tracks in the first place. In fifty years and over 10 billion passengers, there have been no Shinkansen fatalities due to derailments or collisions. That’s some track record.

Acknowledgements:

  • to www.allaboutjapantrains.com and japan-talk.com for helping me make some sense out of the series numbering
  • to Isao OKAMOTO for his 1999 article on Shinkansen Bogies in Railway Technology Today
  • to Hiromasa TANAKA for his 2001 paper, High-speed Rail Technology as Revealed by the Shinkansen
  • to trainoftheweek.blogspot.ae for the interesting stuff about pantographs, and also the many references
  • to www.greenbiz.com for the most convincing version of the kingfisher story.
  • In this post I hope I’ve managed to communicate something of the amount of ongoing and focussed intelligence and research and develpment that has gone into making these trains. Many people out there know much more about them than me. I’ll be grateful to anyone who can help me correct any inaccuracies or who can think of more examples of design intelligence that might not be not immediately visible.

 

 

The Shape of Green

There’s no lack of ethical or economic arguments for sustainability. Taken in by its promising title, I had high hopes Lance Hosey’s The Shape of Green would finally provide us with an aesthetics of sustainability as part of a larger philosophy of sustainability.

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“The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology and Design” Lance Hosey, Island Press, 2012″

Hosey begins promisingly, claiming beauty and sustainability aren’t as incompatible as they’re commonly believed to be but very soon goes off the rails. If beauty and sustainability aren’t so incompatible, then why identify some buildings as environmentally virtuous but ugly and then suggest that “dressing them up” isn’t the way forward? Why praise Renzo Piano and Norman Foster for synthesising two qualities that aren’t incompatible? I hope Hosey’s not admiring F&P’s Greater London Authority headquarters.

  • Overhanging a building is an expensive way of shading glazing from the torrid London sun.
  • GLA’s eggy shape may theoretically have volumetric efficiencies but, once enclosed, that volume is then squandered on a void around an ornamental staircase. Stupid.

Hosey’s a shapeist. He claims that some sources claim that early, elementary design decisions about shape can influence the environmental impact of a building – up to 90% apparently, but 90% of what we’re not told. 

He’s also a commercial man at heart and offers a commercial justitification for a sustainability that’s phrased in terms of conventional [visual] aesthetics. Here are some of his arguments.

We’re more likely to treasure a thing for longer if we find attractive.

Hosey wants beautiful things to be seen as virtuous rather than the other way around. This statement is the perfect product of a time when the only ideas that get traction are those that articulate in new ways what people believe anyway. Before the Table of Contents is this brave quote.

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Oscar Wilde was an incorrigible aesthete and known for soundbites such as “Any person who doesn’t laugh at the death of Little Nell has a heart of stone.” Wilde’s statement about judging by appearances may well have been disingenuous but Hosey’s using only its latter part definitely is.

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Wilde seems to believe in an absolute beauty and this would have been an common view a century ago. However, if one accepts the modern position that beauty is both pluralist and subjective, then Beauty is no more or less superficial than the thoughts in which it is based. And this brings us back to the book.

Much of nature is about geometry. The shape of a blood cell is optimised for fluid dynamics. The tilt of the Earth’s axis gives us the seasons that shape nearly every living creature.
Things have shapes. It’s what things do. Artificial things also have shapes and geometries.

We prefer to use things that look better, even if they aren’t inherently easier to use.
This is the form vs. function argument restated, with a swipe at utility. (“Trust me, I’m a designer.”)

We don’t love something because it’s non-toxic and biodegradeable – we love it because it moves the head and the heart.
Hosey is attempting to keep beauty and virtue firmly separate. He doesn’t want us to love anything for reasons that aren’t visual. He’s pro-innovation, pro-consumption.

Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern – it’s an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet.”
Hosey has trouble linking aesthetic attraction to environmental imperatives. He resorts to the peacock’s feathers and the 300 varieties of nightingale birdsong.

Beauty has the biological function of sustaining existence
is the conclusion only a short jump away. Three hundred varieties of nightingale mating call seems a bit desperate. Do the peacock’s feathers really have to be that large or colourful? Humans have evolved in much the same way but with far less imperative. Ostentatious displays of abundance may faciliate getting laid but any evolutionary advantage remains unproven.

Designers can promote sustainability by embracing what they have always cared about most: the basic shape of things. [Oh dear!] Hosey then attempts to show how Beauty is inherent to the definition and principles of sustainability There’s talk of how the smartness of the Smart Car is in its shape and not its technologies. The conclusion is that design trumps technology. Only a man who wants to have his cake and savour it would write If you could take care of all your daily nutritional needs by ingesting one tasteless capsule, would you be satisfied? Hosey is detaching the aesthetics of eating from the imperatives of nutrition and sustenance.

Q: “If you could personally solve world hunger through one inexpensive capsule that would take care of a person’s daily nutritional needs, would you be satisfied?” 

It doesn’t matter for the conclusion is that Aesthetics are fundamental to both culture and nature, and if sustainability refers to the graceful interaction between them, it must have a sensory dimension. 

All in all, this book is rich – and we’re not even a third of the way in. These arguments claims are amply illustrated with examples from the field of product design. I was getting impatient for some buildings. Skipping a bit, here’s some Hosey singles out as relevant to his argument where he seems to want to take this.

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“The 120° twist cuts wind loads and reduces the amount of steel by 25%, saving $60 mil.” Excellent – so that’s the shape of all future supertall buildings sorted then!? I doubt it. In the world of architecture, that the shape of this building represents 25% less steel is more important than actually having 25% less steel. If the shape of this building had any compelling advantages then we can expect to see it replicated many times in the future just like what happened to rectangular prisms (a.k.a. boxes).

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The Tjibaou Cultural Center (Renzo Piano Workshop, 1992) is singled out for combining the three principles of conservation, attraction and connection. “The shell-shaped wood-slat towers offer a rich tactile image, like banded reeds, that echoes local vernacular traditions while also playing an essential role in ventilation, coaxing the breeze upward in this sticky climate.”

I won’t go too much into too much detal here, but must mention how the representational aspects of this building have little to do with its ventilation strategy that utilizes a combination of Stack Effect and Venturi effect. Either way, behind those timber slats has to be a double skin of something if any breeze is ever going to be coaxed upward. The section shows that this is so.

Those solar chimneys face north-west, which means you must go well out of your way to instagram that famous money shot from across the water. Internally, the circular spaces make reasonable exhibition spaces but externally, none of this representation is for the benefit of actual users – or even for their functional benefit as there’s no need to clad air shafts with timber slats. What we’re meant to perceive as beauty has little to do with this building’s environmental response or user experience.

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Chapter 4 is titled Many Senses and introduces the concept of a connection between aesthetics and ecology and the human body. This might have been a good place to talk about how the other four senses are often neglected by designers but Hosey claims design can appeal to the whole body for we feel with our entire being – a point he illustrates with Zumthor’s Baths at Swiss architectural hotspot Vals. I agree that this building has important lessons for all designers – of buildings that require us to be naked in warm smelly water in misty and acoustically live rooms.

Hosey doesn’t mention that Vals baths’ fully sensory environment of texture, reverberation, light, mist and heat can be appreciated for 80 Swiss Francs (approx. US$77.80) per session but the connection between aesthetics, ecology, the human body and commerce is soon insinuated. Who knew that 7-Up tastes lemony or limey depends on whether the label has more yellow or green, or that a sprig of parsley on the label can make canned meat taste fresher? Who would want to know that and why if it weren’t with a view to exploitation?

I’ve no doubt everyday sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures influence the unconscious mind but that doesn’t mean I want to trust that knowledge with a designer in the paid employ of someone. To captivate consumers longer, designers will need a better understanding of what stimulates emotional longevity. This sinister sentence is evil encapsulated.

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I hadn’t known about this 1979 book and, to be honest, I wish I still didn’t. The aestheticization of thermal comfort will do more than air conditioning ever did to stop passive design ever becoming a driver for a more sane architecture.

The same thinking crops up again in the next chapter Ecology and Imagery. Biophilia is a good thing but Hosey gets excited about fractal patterned wallpaper being just as good as the acacia trees our ancestors so admired. The implications for design are enormous. 

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Indeed.

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Airspace Tokyo facade by Thom Faulders. Who needs trees?

“An enormous mesh umbrella lets dappled sunlight pass through in variegated patterns, like a forest canopy.” 

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Who needs trees? II

“Fractal-like patterns can be used to make very large buildings seem less imposing.”

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Who needs trees? III

There are shapes and patterns that lure [!] the human senses because they participate in larger forces unfolding over time, and eternal choreography not immediately detected but evident everywhere. With science and sensitivity, smart design can beautifully tap into [!!] the abiding wonders and mysteries of the universe. My points of exclamation indicate either careless language or, more worryingly, deliberately ambiguous language carelessly crafted. It seems that buildings are really just very big products and designers should be aware of these new tricks to fool people into responding more positively to buildings than they otherwise might or perhaps ought.

I was going to deal with each chapter sequentially but lost the will. Skimming the rest, Hosey expands his consumerist philosophy of aesthetics to encompass entire buildings in Chapter 7: The Architecture of Difference, puffs it up to urban scale in Chapter 8: The Natural Selection of Cities and, as books like this have a tendency of doing, inflates it to the max to encompass to entire planets in Chapter 9: Visions of Earth.

I skipped to Epilogue: A Beauty Manifesto where there’s not much to dislike but, on the other hand, nothing much of practical use either. Nobody’s going to pin this manifesto on their wall.

Ten principles for advancing an aesthetics of ecology. Every designer everywhere can:

  1. Bridge the divide between “good design” and “green design”.
  2. Turn beauty and sustainability into the same thing.
  3. Erase the distinction between how things look and how things work.
  4. Break down the walls between the arts and the sciences.
  5. Adopt the three principles.
    • Conserve: Shape things to respect resources.
    • Attract: Shape things to be easy to use and deeply satisfying.
    • Connect: Shape things to embrace place.
  6. Start with the napkin sketch, not the technical manual.
  7. Develop a scientific method for design.
  8. Strengthen the ties between form and performance, between image and endurance.
  9. Make things to work as well and to last as long as they should.
  10. Make things better.

In the end, all the cooing over known attributes of known quantities only serves to direct more reverence towards things that represent the link between aesthetics, ecology and design more than they actually link them. Hosay has faith in us believing in the worth of his examples. Whether we regard them high or low, the book manages to be less than their sum. 

Hosey was Chief Sustainability Officer at RTKL before it was swallowed whole by architectural behemoth Arcadis in 2015. He’s now advisory board member to the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment. Whatever message it is this book communicates, the AIA seems to have understood it. 

Misleading Narratives

Two posts back, in Repeating Crevice, Revisited, I wrote If Shinohara was aware of having designed certain possibilities into [a house he designed], he never let on. Now I think about it, he can’t not have known he was designing that house to offer its occupants various levels of awareness of the movements within. Instead, he chose to present an alternative narrative having nothing to do with any real benefits his design may have had

A more consciously misleading narrative has to do with Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus. This sketch shows LC was definitely aware he was designing something that permitted certain possibilities for multicultural living but he chose not to make them part of the narrative for propagation. Later historians have complied.

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The Winslow House is often used as an example of how Frank Lloyd Wright gifted us the open-plan house. Wright’s $5,000 Fireproof House is seen as a lesser embodiment of Wright’s principle of configuring a house around a hearth as the heart of the home and of removing walls to arrive at a new conception of interior space. The first misleading narrative is Wright’s, the second is historians’.

Removing interior walls sounds like there were cost savings to be had, and supporting an upper floor and a roof with a largeish brick structural element in the middle of a symmetrical plan sounds like a very efficient way of using equivalently sized materials at maximum efficiency. If Wright and later historians hadn’t used misleading narratives to describe what was “important” about The $5,000 Fireproof House and the Winslow House and others, then we might not’ve had to wait for Rural Studio to rediscover and make explicit the link between cost performance and architectural beauty.

Economic efficiencies and benefits to society aren’t the opposite of architecture they’re made out to be – they just exist in a parallel yet invisible dimension. The visible world speaks to us of beauty and abundance and the invisible world reminds us how little we want it to cost.

In the decades since Le Corbusier and Shinohara, architects have elevated the misleading narrative to a level of art far exceeding what it exists to describe. The misleading narrative is now the primary means for display of architectural cleverness. In any field other than architecture, goods that please the eye but fail according to indicators of other qualities are called fakes. The English language has the saying “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” and also its more down-to-earth equivalent “You can’t polish a turd.”  Well, actually you can and it’s being done all the time. Since it’s not going to stop anytime soon, I think we should at least explore the mechanism involved.

Many if not all of the misfit architects I’ve listed here over the years have either been totally forgotten, under-remembered or under-acknowledged for not providing misleading narratives to distinguish their noble efforts as architecture. Their innovations have been duly dismissed as idiosyncratic obsession or mere investigations into building science. Last week’s Architecture Misfit#27: Harold Krantz is a perfect example. Perhaps he’d be better remembered as the innovator he was if he’d spent a bit more time designing his narratives to better communicate the real worth of what he was doing.

• • •

For years I’d been trying to track down a Japanese house I vaguely remember – probably from having seen it in Japan Architect in the late 1970s. I never saw or heard of it again so it must have been a one-off, long forgotten and by now long gone. It was titled House With a Sloping Wall because that is what it had. House With a Sloping Wall

I found myself thinking of this house again last week. Perhaps it had something to do with the one-bedroom apartments that were also very much on my mind.

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I spoke about how one-bedroom apartments are usually a bedroom and a living room side-by-side along the only wall that can have windows, and how the bathroom and kitchen are usually against the corridor where they share a shaft.

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I never got to talk about the poetry of architecture and that was a shame since I’ve begun to suspect the poetry of architecture, building science and social utility aren’t as mutually exclusive as we’ve been led to believe. So here’s my memory of House With a Sloping Wall, re-imagined as a one-bedroom apartment.

Sloping Plan

We now come to a fork in the road. Do I present my House With A Sloping Wall as something aesthetically innovative or do I present it as something useful? Do I go for a misleading narrative or do I tell the truth? The former is easy and there’s no lack of impeccable references to work into a misleading narrative.

Firstly, my house has a 45° wall that’s no more wall than it is floor or ceiling – or all three – or two out of three, depending which side of it you are. A reference to Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture seems called for. Going in deeper, I could reference William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, as did Venturi.

There’s a long history of the perception of inside and outside being blurred by making building elements or finishes span the boundary between the warm side and the cold side.

There’s a longer and nobler history of trompe l’oeil attempting the same using only two dimensions. The best examples have the surrealism that comes from things not appearing to be what they are – a virtual outside.

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From the bedroom of my House With A Sloping Wall, the sloping wall doesn’t appear as a sheltering roof – an effect that, prompted by the skylights, is also apparent on the other side. IT ACTUALLY IS a sheltering roof. The perception of inside and outside is not blurred by extension or confused by illusion, but reset by the suggestion of a roof with skylights and chimney. An element that’s normally outside appears inside. This is not so common, but nor is it so rare. These examples below all riff on the idea of clouds indoors. The church is the least surreal because of trompe l’oeil precedents.

Moving away from inside and outside, I suppose I could leverage my CV and mention Kazuo Shinohara and those strange internal spaces in his 1981 House Under High-Tension Lines,

or the inclined roofs of his 1973 House in Seijo or his 1971 Prism House, both of which have spaces that seem to exist only to be visually appreciated. They’re bonsai versions of double-height spaces but their acutely angled corners intensify not light but shadows.

Did somebody say shadows?! I need to mention Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1977 essay In Praise of Shadows even though it’s about a 3.5 on the Japanese 1-7 scale of cultural inscrutability. 

Victor here! I know you’re not into pattern language but, since you’re narrative farming, another argument for lowered bedrooms comes from Christopher Alexander, who had a thing for ceiling height. He argued ceiling height has to vary according to degree of privacy. It sort of required ceiling to comply with “personal space bubble” that gets the largest in public spaces. Hence high ceilings in public lobbies and stores are comfortable. CA argued that tinier rooms and alcoves are cozier and allow humans to feel closer to each other – if they’d allow each other to get together in there.

Thanks for that Victor! I do admire the way Alexander aims to link sociology and aesthetic predelictions but other factors at work mean we must now pass from the floating world of architectural narratives into the objective world of building science.

Moisei Ginzburg and his Stroykom team’s Type B and Type F apartments had reduced ceiling heights for the bedrooms because they were less important than the daytime living rooms. This seems fair because in bedrooms people don’t move around so much. Space as a visual thing is not something appreciated when asleep.

With houses it’s not rocket science. Many vernacular houses have attic bedrooms because it’s a better use of building volume but, with apartments, this is something neither obvious nor easy to do despite the greater pressure to extract maximum value from their smaller volumes. That pressure never dissipates. Those ingenious apartment conversions having a “sleeping loft” above the kitchen and/or bathroom are a modern trope because they stack two zones needing less ceiling height. The four examples below all allow maximum area with maximum height but only one involves sloping surfaces.

If you haven’t already guessed, the real reason for my sloping wall is to return some of that under-appreciated bedroom volume back to the living room where it can be better appreciated during waking hours. Did I say some? 50% is half!

SECTION PERSP

True, that 50% can’t be used in any meaningful way but then neither can a double height space and look how highly architectural history regards those. Nevertheless, in order to make my diagonally interlocking spaces more appealing, I produced a variation having those crudely approximated diagonals known as steps.

Stepped Wall.jpg

It’s pointless referencing BeFun’s Alley House – despite being ingenious it’s too little known. It’s far better to reference the space for The Baltic Pavilion in the Giardini at the 2016 Venice Biennalle grounds. Bringing it all back to Venice never did any architectural endeavour any harm.

One last card to play are bleachers. They’re the wild card, the joker in the pack, the ace high or low. People don’t associate bleachers with any grand architectural precedent, distinguised personages or unassailable theory. They just associate them with happy memories and enjoyable experiences. I’m not suggesting we return to the dark days of palliative postmodern iconography. What I am suggesting is that we couch our architectural narratives in essential truths. I can reference bleachers in good faith because they’re all about observing a large space in front of them.

Bleacher_Creatures_at_the_Yankee_Stadium.jpg

The view back is equally important.

mlb_g_wrigley_d2_576

Even the space under the bleachers can also be referenced in good faith since, from what I can glean from the internet, many people associate that space with intimacy. Allow me to present Bleacher House.

The Bleachers3.jpg

Returning some building volume to the living room was the only thing that mattered with this house and, though the idea contained much art its explanation did not. Presenting this idea as architecture didn’t have to involve presenting it as something it wasn’t. This house IS BLEACHER HOUSE because it does the same thing. I suspect that any architectural idea of worth can be communicated more easily by calling attention to something of comparable and real worth.

This is different from those forced and unnatural associations that conceal lack of content behind phrases such as “recalls X” “resonates with X” “references X” “is redolent of X”, where X is the name of some building or architect there was never even the intention let alone the possibility of emulating. The architect Eladio Dieste is often referenced in this way.

• • •

20 Feb. 2017 (11 hours later): HUGE thanks to Daniel Munteanu for solving my mystery. One of the things Daniel does is run the blog OfHouses which “is a collection of old, forgotten houses” so it’s not that surprising he remembered this house. Me, I falsely remembered its name. It’s the Mochizuki House, by Hiroyuki Asai. 1971. I love it. 

Everything has been exquisitely contrived to appear as if it could no way other than the way it is, as all good architecture perhaps should be. If the wall were vertical, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the light from that skylight illuminating that wall. Hiroyuki Arai, wherever you are, thank you.

• • •

There aren’t many kanji variations for the name Hiroyuki Asai. A search in Japanese led me to the site of architect Hiroyuki Asai. Our paths almost crossed.

  • 1970 Graduated from Tokyo Institute of Technology Faculty of Science and Engineering Department of Architecture
  • 1970 – 1976 Studied with Professor Kazuo Shinohara of Tokyo Institute of Technology and learned housing construction through practice

Elsewhere on the site he had this to say about Mochizuki House, his first “work” – everyone called them “works” then.

直方体 内部に屋根の架構を支持する柱一本 それと離れる位置で直方体を壁で垂直に分割 この構成では何も起こらない  分割する壁の頂部を傾ける 何かが起こる 意味の産出 分割という構成により傾斜壁の表裏に出現した空間の関係 <建築> この作品から私の全てが始まる

If a single column supporting a roof frame stands apart from a vertical wall dividing a rectangular parallelepiped, nothing happens. However, if the top of the dividing wall is tilted, something does. Meaning is produced, along with spatial relationships appearing front and back of that tilted wall – Architecture. All of me starts from this work. 

Well done Mr. Asai!