The Massively Big Autopoiesis of Architecture Post

First some snapshots from the journey so far before moving on to the penultimate chapter. I plan to read the final one within a week or two and bring this autopoietic journey to an end. It’s time. At 439 pages it wasn’t such a long journey but, as I began reading the book in 2012, it wasn’t a quick one.

2012 October 26: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol. 1 – Preface, Introduction

We’re not even eight lines into the Preface and the author is saying he sees this work as continuing the tradition begun by Alberti in 1452. I have a bad feeling. 

2012 November 16: Architectural Theory

Most introductions let the reader know what to expect. They’re usually the last part of a book to be finalised because the author has already been to the end and back and has had feedback from friends, family, colleagues and editors. The introduction is an opportunity to assist the reader get more out of the book. This one asks you to suspend judgment until you reach the end of the book! It also asks you to accept that there will be some strangeness of terminology and a possible sense of intellectual queasiness. Indeed, there was quite a bit of both.

2012 December 1: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2 – The Historical Emergence of Architecture (1/2)

THE
AUTHOR,
IN AN ATTEMPT
TO FIT ARCHITECTURE
INTO LUHMANN’S THEORY OF
SOCIAL STRUCTURES, HAS RESTRICTED
HIS DEFINITION OF ARCHITECTURE TO THOSE
BUILDINGS THEORISTS TALK ABOUT OR DEEM WORTH
TALKING ABOUT. THE AUTHOR MAY YET SUCCEED. BUT WHAT IS
HIS REAL PLAN? WHY DOES HE WANT TO DO THIS? AND AT WHAT COST?

2013 January 2: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 2.3 – Avant-garde vs. Mainstream

I suddenly realized the book probably is an accurate description of the world of architecture as the author sees it. For the first time, I had the distinct impression the author really believes what he’s writing. In an earlier post, I mentioned my doubts about the validity of the author’s self-description as “avant-garde”. Is it accurate? Why does he insist on using this word if not to evoke ideas of art and artists? Can a commercially successful practice ever be avant-garde? In section 2.3 it became clear that when the author uses the word “avant-garde” he really means “leaders as opposed to followers”. No-one will die because of this mislabelling, but it does make it easy to falsely attribute notions of some brave and heroic journey of artistic endeavour. The author, I imagine, would not be unhappy if this were to happen.  

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2013 February 2: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chapter 2.4 – Architectural Research

“THESIS 8:  The avant-garde segment of architecture functions as the subsystem within the autopoiesis of architecture that takes on the necessary task of architectural research by converting both architectural commissions and educational institutions into substitute vehicles of research.”

Like many things to do with this book, it seems straightforward but what does it mean? I’m still having a problem with this self-labelling as avant-garde. There’s something not right. It just doesn’t ring true. In previous posts I’ve suggested reasons why the author might have chosen this word but maybe he didn’t want to use the obvious word “starchitect” because it’s too popular, too descriptive. It’s also a bit too closely linked to fame and fortune. But I’ve no such prejudices so, from now on, I’m simply going to use the word starchitect instead of avant-garde architect. You won’t notice the difference.

Apparently, starchitects are the only architects daring enough to experiment and research and come up with different solutions that other people copy and keep architecture EVOLVING. We should thank them. However, they can’t do all this experimenting on their own. (Why not?) They need clients to fund their experiments because buildings are big and complex things.

… a bit further on

“The commissions of starchitects have to function as vehicles of architectural research. Such commissions must afford a playing field for formal research and spatial invention where both functional and economic performance criteria are less stringent than in the ‘commercial sector’ of mainstream architecture. This is possible within a special segment of the architectural market – high-profile cultural buildings. In these special, mostly public landmark buildings, the discipline of architecture becomes conspicuous within society. Here society appreciates architecture as a contribution beyond the mere accommodation of the respective substantial function. Here society also recognizes the legitimacy of an extra investment over and above what technical necessity dictates.”

This says a lot. The author is claiming that, because starchitects are the only people who can fulfil the allegedly important role of architectural research, then they have a natural claim to the most lucrative and least restrictive sector of the architecture market. As I said, it says a lot. 

Around this time, I began to think these posts didn’t have enough pictures.

2013 February 7: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Volume 1 Chapter 2.5 – The Necessity of Demarcation

Karl_Friedrich_Schinkel_-_Schloß_am_Strom_-_Google_Art_Project

“THESIS 9: Any attempt to integrate architecture and art, or architecture and science/engineering, in a unified discourse (autopoiesis) is reactionary and bound to fail.”

Even though Luhmann, the person who put all these ideas in the author’s head, said that architecture existed within the great social system of art, in this sub-chapter (p148), the author says Luhmann only implied that architecture exists within the art system. Either way, the author is having none of it.

“This treatment of architecture has to be rejected today. It reflects the traditional classification of architecture among the arts.”

Hardly a powerful argument. Another reason the author claims it can’t be true is because the theory says it isn’t. Call me a cynic, but I still maintain it’s the job of theory to organise evidence, not refute it. Evidence doesn’t depend on theory.

“It is one of the central, historical theses of the theory of architctural autopoiesis that this treatment of architecture under the umbrella concept of ‘the arts’ is long since an anachronism – at least since the refoundation of the discipline as Modern architecture during the 1920s.”

Here’s some more “proof”.

“A sure empirical indicator for the factual, operational separation of art and architecture is the total absence of double careers. While Michaelangelo and Raphael, and even Schinkel, could still count and convince as both artists and architects this possibility seems to be excluded today.  Examples such as Le Corbusier’s paintings and Hundertwasser’s buildings are no countexamples but only confirm this impossibility.”

That’s a bit bitchy but, yes, Corbusier’s paintings weren’t about the pain, and nor were ZH’s for that matter. But what about her lucrative crossover secondary career in product design? Towards the end of the book, the author solves this latent conundrum by the belated introduction of the term, ‘designed artefacts’.

maison-et-objet-lalique

2013 April 09: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap.3 – Architecture as Autopoietic System: Operations, Structures and Processes

Since I began this book, I’ve managed to read books on the history of the universe, the origins of life on earth and the fallacy of progress, and also found the time to re-read “Portrait of a Lady” and “The Wings of The Dove”.

The Autopoiesis of Architecture is no page-turner. It’s difficult to pick up, and easy to put down. There’s never a right time to read it. It’s not something you read at the beach, in an airport, or carry around with you to read on a train or at lunchtime. 

It’s not just the content. Schumacher’s no Henry James but you’d think someone who’s written approximately 400,000 words would have developed some sort of a way with them. With “The Wings Of The Dove”, I was at first indifferent to the fate of poor Milly Theale but Henry James made me care in the end. Now, 170 pages and (how long has it been already?) six months into The Autopoiesis of Architeture, I really don’t care if architecture is or is not an autopoietic system of communications. I’m constantly questioning what I’m getting out of this book. Perhaps I’m hoping the author will teach me how to become a millionaire or how to make gold out of lead. 

The author must know a thing or two about such things since he trousered a third of a million GB£ from ZHA last year, presumably not including other income from publishing, teaching and other commitments and which are no doubt channelled through a separate company like those of his boss. I don’t expect this book, whilst being part of the process of architectural branding (and hence proving the author’s thesis in a sense), will reveal anything beyond that in the way of practical advice.

2013 May 4: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.1~3.3

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2013 June 15: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chaps. 3.3~3.4
dorobanti_tower_2_512
2013 July 26: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Pages 237~240 (Chaps. 3.5.6, 3.5.7)
ART
Untitled

As I understand it, the argument goes like this. I’ve marked the dodgy statements in red.

– Designing is difficult, there are many possibilities. We need a way to reduce the complexity/possibilities.
– We can’t do this by getting rid of the idea of beauty because what’s left is insufficient. (‘The reference to performance criteria simply cannot constrain the task sufficiently’.) But the idea of beauty does however reduce complexity because we no longer have to make random choices every time.
– Using criteria of both utility and beauty is ideal because, if a designer doesn’t know what to do, he can resort to functional criteria and, for those times when something has been engineered rather than designed, a designer can come along and add some design to it.

2013 December 15: The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 3.6 – Styles

vag crit

A quick shout-out to Marjan Colletti who reviewed The Autopoiesis of Architecture on his blog in September 2010. He’s the only other person I know of who’s admitted to having read the book, let alone finishing it the same year it was published.

2014 March 3: Styles as Research Programmes

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About this time, I began to think readers might be being put off by the titles of these posts.

2014 May 30: Love You Long Time (Chap. 3.8.1: The Historical Transformation of Aesthetic Values)

“The performative vitality of any specific set of aesthetic values is historically limited.”

I don’t understand this. If, as the author’s been saying, aesthetic values have an underlying performativity, then that performativity would still exist irrespective of whether or not those aesthetic values were valued. It’s aesthetics that’s dependent upon performativity, not the other way around. I’m sure Palladian rooms remain well ventilated and their roofs well drained even if their particular architectural stylings aren’t so aspired-to these days.

“Aesthetic values should aestheticize those spatial patterns and architectural morphologies that perform well with respect to the vital life processes of contemporary society.”

This sentence is a huge up-scaling of the original idea. We’ve gone from air and rainwater to the vital life processes of contemporary society. I hope we get to find out what they are. I doubt we’ll be hearing any more about ventilation and roof drainage.

2014 June 12: The Chartreuse Ford

A stealth post pondering what was so wrong with Fordism since Post-Fordism certainly isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

fordism

2014 November 16: The Mystery of Beauty  (Chap. 3.8.6: Aesthetic Values: Designers vs. Users)

This post questions the nature of belief in Beauty and its essential unknowability, its value as a prime motivating force, and its need to be continually explained to us by dense texts having elaborate systems of numerical indexing and not many pictures.

Gods-Sunrise

4

“Attention to beauty and aesthetic values demarcates architecture from science and engineering.”

This doesn’t mean that Beauty is real but merely that some people like to believe in it. However, if they do believe in Beauty then they get to feel special – which is fine – but, as is often the case, superior to other people such as scientists and engineers following paths of evidence and fact.

2015 January 11: The Things Architects Do #8: Themes (Chap. 3.9: The Double-nexus of Architectural Communications: Themes vs. Projects)
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Untitled
In the 131 pages that followed, there was nothing to suggest any of the “other” major functions systems of society had anything corresponding to the themes and projects of architecture. Either the author’s going off-piste with this project-theme thing or he’s conflating it with the form-function lead distinction he wrote of earlier.
A bit of both probably, but mostly the latter because if form is a theme, then any theme/project dysfunction will show as a form-function dysfunction. It’s only my hypothesis but, if it were true, we would have an architecture concerned with form and not function. Imagine that!
2015 March 29: Inflationary Tendencies (Chap. 4: The Medium of Architecture)
iStock_000028475756Medium

tasks

The first and, for the author, the only one of any importance is the first, the architect’s project and the medium (formerly, the drawing) that the architect uses to talk to himself about the design. The third is the drawings and structural analysis models that the engineers need to make it stand up. The fourth is the drawings that can be understood by the contractors who have to build the thing. It is the second – the client’s project – that I want to concentrate on. Illustrating the design to clients, potential users, or any other non-specialized interested parties is also something that requires specialised drawings that can be outsourced since they are of no concern to the architect who, you will remember, is busy conducting avant garde research. We’ve come across this attitude before in earlier chapters but that’s not the issue now. If illustrating the design to clients is not of any interest to the architects, then WHY ARE THEIR PROJECTS ALWAYS IN OUR FACES?

• • •

• • •

In the 362/439 pages I’ve read so far, there’s been a lot about how form vs. function is the “lead distinction” of architecture – what makes it architecture. I’ve also read how this is analogous to price vs. value as the lead distinction of the economy, norm vs. fact as the lead distinction of the legal system, teaching vs. subject as the lead distinction of education, and so on. I found this handy table on pages 438-439, alas, too late.

chart 1chart 2

It’s a tidy table. But, going back to this beauty vs. function thing, we never really resolved it did we – or at least not to the author’s level of certainty?
Untitled
Shouldn’t the author update his thinking and restate beauty vs. function as perception management vs. development gain? It’s the same thing and though it won’t weaken his argument, it will deflate it somewhat. Another flaw is that none of the other Great Function Systems have a distinction comparable to architecture’s distinction between themes and projects.
What kind of world we would have if they did? If themes were their primary areas of concern, and if a project’s only worth was to test the validity of those themes?
  • We’d have an economic system that sets prices for commodities without regard for their value.
  • We’d have a scientific system in which phenomena are explained without recourse to evidence.
  • We’d have a legal system where laws are applied irrespective of facts.
    We’d have a political system in which positions are taken irrespective of issues.
  • We’d have an education system concerned with teaching rather than students.
  • We’d have a mass media that focusses on reporting rather than events.
In the same vein, if these known function systems of society had a self-reference as detached from their world-reference as architecture’s then  
  • We’d have politicians that support peace as they engage in war.
  • We’d have governments that show their support for freedom by policing it.
  • We’d have an economics that creates wealth by causing poverty.
  • We’d have education systems that maintain pliable levels of ignorance.
=(
On the bright side, even if architecture is a major function system of society, then it’s at least no more dysfunctional than the others. Science is our only evidence this isn’t how the contemporary world works although Bad Science and Pseudo Science are now out there making themselves known.
The title of the final chapter is The Societal Function of Architecture. It’s warning us to not confuse how architecture functions in a societal system with archaic notions of how it might function for society. This is especially meaningful in light of what we’ve come to know about the author.

PS1
PS2

• • • 
I’m now eager to get on with the final chapter of this lengthy thought experiment. I genuinely want to know if the author thinks the societal function of architecture is anything more than converting his softly-illuminated scribbles into grey goo to consume the planet and enslave mankind. Or anything less.

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Благоустройство

blagoustroistvo (literal: well-establishment) – site enhancement, including grading, road construction, building of communication, sewage, water, energy infrastructure and measures to clean and repair a territory, control air pollution, protect water bodies and soil, conducted to make a given territory habitable and adequate for the decided use, to create healthy and comfortable conditions for the population. (Technical Translator’s Handbook)

synonmys: order, decorum, propriety, comeliness

Blagoustroistvo is an amusing sequence of letters and an endemic architectural design notion used in any place where Russian is spoken. It is an umbrella tag. Blagoustroistvo covers a broad set of design and construction work done to improve quality and habitability of a building site.

Buildings had always had patches of land between them, some walkways, and maybe paved spots. This makes blagoustroistvo’s emergence harder to track. After all, it’s a notion we can adjust to work in different eras. How it was born is a secret to me.

The 1900s-1910s stand out, with larger buildings built in Moscow and Petersburg maybe having some gardening in the yard, designed by the architect. Smaller buildings lived without these. There was no split yet, and urban environment was formed locally as a pre-machine vernacular. Scope of design projects never exceeded property lots and public-private divide was quite pronounced, but not in a “mine/not-mine” drastic split.

1920s saw the calamities of revolution, civil war, military communism and attempts at restoring order in civil life back into a stable state. 1920s gave us kommunalka — the original co-living where families of apartment owners were forced by police into a single room and every other room housed a family. The unrest in housing has left a permanent and documented mark in the national identity. All building activity sourced austere material to heal it even a little. Architects turned to industrial construction techniques to deliver residential buildings tailored for a gradual resolution of indoor overpopulation. That wasn’t  the time for gardening not agricultural.

margaret-bourke-white-new-unident-apartment-buildings-moscow-1931

1930s were when “socialist realism” in gypsum decorum brought comely façades to the now established socialist state, and the people were abandoned to fend for themselves in barracks, pits and labour camps. This is the time blagoustroistvo matured into a means to deliver the “complex experience that is architecture to the land of the proletariat”. Its means were unsurprisingly conservative – symmetrical compositions of lawns adorned with vases and gypsum sculpture. Socialist paradise turned out to be poor man’s Versailles.

It’s still with us but remained the status quo until the utilitarian shift under Khruschev. Industrial construction finally was set out for, and patches of new towns emerged over or next to settlements. Blagoustroistvo became “land development”. The only focus of this retroactive urbanisation was laying road networks and providing basic walkways where there used to be grass. It was the blagoustroistvo for the 21st century. The sheer amount of land-development eliminated any ideas of alternative approaches. People became used to abandoned greens inbetween their 5-story slabs. Gardening became inconceivable.

building-apartment

My hunch is today’s blagoustroistvo was born out of massive residential construction in the 1960s where newly built towns in previous greenfield were just dropped onto wilderness which is not the most useful space to have between your buildings.

Stitched Panorama

Some discipline had to engage in the process of making baseline useable space out of voids in arrays of repeated dwellings. The description in the header has a strong utilitarian tone, and it sounds very mid-century. The intensity of required site improvement helped blagoustroistvo to become a dedicated aspect and notion. Soon it sunk in and no one could imagine living without it. All activity of this type is now done by developers providing the same dreary drieways and playgrounds.

But it was about 2010 that blagoustroistvo began to be seen less as an utility land treatment, but as another face of a property project that boosts quality of its appeal and serves as a marketing vehicle. Architecture adapted quickly, and soon specialized blagoustroistvo bureaus emerged within the scene. Bureaus-of-all-trades joined the feast too, as is the following case. This is part of an interview (in Russian) with Sergei Trukhanov of T+T Architects.

To this date, one of the largest of your projects is blagoustroistvo for “Savelovsky City” residential complex. What stage is it now?

We have been working with this object for several years. Made an accomplishment of the first stage of construction, designed the interiors of the entrance groups of office buildings – both are already implemented. Now the project of an accomplishment of the second stage is ready. The territory is not easy: you need to place a lot of functions, and the area itself is not only small, but also fragmented, spaced apart from each other.

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Therefore, it was very important for us to tie all the logistics into one whole, so as not to violate the logic of the territory. We built a promenade boulevard, which runs along a detached parking lot and connects 2 construction stages. Stringing on it all possible functional zones and points of interest, this solution additionally visually breaks the long promenade, makes it more comfortable to perceive.

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Also, we have specially installed the island’s retaining walls with landscaping from the multi-storey parking lot, to visually isolate it from it, to create a landscaped array at eye level. 

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We paid attention to what the future residents will see from different points. So, for example, we thought about residents of a tower where 6 lower floors face a car parking building. We discussed this issue with developer and decided to put neon signs with quotes of great jazz musicians onto the car park.

Their sufficient portfolio is basic.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, accumulated wealth created demand for quality public space for demonstrative consumption. The firm Wowhaus are the new masters. They reconstructed sheds at Isle Balchug where Strelka Institute is now. The construction story focussed on how they worked with a media tycoon and decided to “promote education for people” thus “europeanizing moscow”, leaving an aftertaste of a thick neoliberal ideology lurking.

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“Best New Place” Arch Bienalle 2010

Years 2011-2012 saw an unrest in the streets of Moscow, and blagoustroistvo was a part of taming strategy, augmenting scary police storms with sweet lawns and wooden sheds to drink ridiculously priced cocktails at and look picturesque. Haussmann’s method of crowd-control was straight avenues fit for raking fire.

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Soon after Strelka was completed, a little up the Moscow River Wowhaus redesigned the Crimean Embankment (Крымская набережная) for Moscow public with mostly the same civil agenda. It’s a schizoid trait to resist being systematized into boxes or “models” which may reproduce you but, in 2015–16, I was in any of those parks and pergolas watching theatrical cinema trying to not fall into those intricate marketing mechanisms. Then, out of boredom, I buy a beer and join the show. 

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Then there are the faces. This is a fragment of Wowhaus’ roster of people. 

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The reassuring man in the check shirt is a spreadsheet specialist. The lady third in the top row is a 30 year old executive director from outside the profession. The founders to the left are mature and established people from the state television designer circuit. They started the firm not out of a need, but as a pet project. The bureau’s public debut was at Strelka, but its founders established themselves in Moscow’s artistic elite decades ago. It’s not a surprise they were commissioned for a Channel One television studio pavilion in Gorky Park, fronting the Moscow river.

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What we ended up with is stage designers from a state TV outlet utilizing their skills to build stage settings where our cities were.

The fact we find these stages lovelier than what they replaced is even more disturbing.

 

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Twelve Books on Architecture

Introducing Architectural Theory [issuu, amazon] is a book that gathers together pieces of writing on various themes in architecture for the purpose of getting people – mainly architecture students – to do the following.

theory

The first two, a. and b. – are absolutely necessary. So are the next two, c. and d. and must be passed through in order to get to e. have original thoughts.

The texts in the book are mostly well known and organized into functional groups such as Ornament & Austerity, Honesty & Deception, Function & Form and Natural & Constructed. But even if the selection of texts is balanced, the choice of functional groups is not. It implies they will continue to have relevance (for theory at least) and also that how we think about architecture in the future can be informed by how certain people thought about those aspects of it in the past. This isn’t necessarily true. You may as well go it alone and read whatever interests you, spice it up with whatever crosses your path, let it cook, and see what happens.

Here’s some I’ve read. It’s not an exhaustive list as some I haven’t yet finished and others haven’t yet arrived. Other books I’ve given away and some I’ve gifted, sometimes inadvertendly but I’ve learned something from each of the books in even this small selection. One of the things I learned is that just because a thought is original doesn’t mean it’s any good, although it may make it more likely to be taken, or mistaken, as such. Also worth remembering is that not all the writers were architects. For those that were, I’d recommend keeping in mind the difference between what they said and what they did.

• • •

Towards a New Architecture, 1923, Le Corbusier

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Always fun. Read how Le Corbusier praises engineers for their pure thinking and how they applied it to objects that defined the age. See how he takes that thinking, adds to it all that people of the time thought virtuous about the architecture of ancient Greece, and then calls it new. In the chapter “Eyes That Do Not See”, Le Corbusier looks at various machines but sees them only as metaphors for a new architecture obeying old rules, rather than the genuinely purposeful architecture that was sorely wanted at the time.

• • •

The International Style, 1932, Henry-Russel Hitchcock & Philip Johnson

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Another classic, whichever edition you have. Be appalled by the lack of argument, the shameless prejudice and the shallow, mean and self-serving agenda. When reading the image captions, be horrified by what the pair thought worthy of comment, and then by the comments themselves. It’s an ugly book and you’ll feel unclean after having read it but, unfortunately, that’s why it’s essential reading. It is wrong to claim The International Style was the first introduction to modern architecture for the US. Magazines such as Popular Mechanics introduced it first and to far more people. The difference is that Popular Mechanics introduced modern architecture as a new way of building, The International Style reduced it to art.

Related posts:
The International Style 1932
Architecture vs. Building
The Things Historians Do

• • •

The Minimum Dwelling, 1932, Karel Teige

TeigeThe Minimum Dwelling

The fact this translation came so late is a shame, for Teige’s is an actual voice from the past, contradicting the constructed narratives of historians. Karel Teige is Le Corbusier’s only contemporary critic we now know of because this 2002 book, originally published in 1932, was only translated into English seventy years later. Czech, German and Russian architects were blessed with architectural journals translating and communicating American and British developments but the lack of flow in the other direction implies occidental arrogance. You can read what architects of the time were really concerned about, and who actually said what at CIAM meetings. It’s dense with text and thoughts. When read in conjunction with the previous book, it’s shocking to see the difference between how modern architecture was understood in late ’20s/early ’30s Europe and how it came to be communicated.

Related post:
Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige

• • •

 Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 1960, Reyner Banham

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Modern readers will find this book difficult as it’s not written in Banham’s later and more readable journalistic style. It’s still well worth reading though, because Banham is the teacher you wish you’d had. He’s scholarly in a  good way. He doesn’t make unverifiable statements or attribute ideas to people to fit his argument, or without a thorough assessment of what information they could conceivably had had access to. His conclusions as to who thought what and who was influenced by whom are often at odds with accepted histories. The book was written over fifty years ago but is now a refreshing look at the fifty years before that.

• • •

 The Victorian Country House, 1973, Mark Girouard

the victorian country house

This book reminds you why books exist. It tells the story of these huge houses and the people who commissioned them and why. You read about technological advances, their failures and their successes. You learn how social conventions and pretensions were embedded in house plans as well as manifesting themselves in building size, massing and facades. You will learn that these buildings were a product of the people of their time, their aspirations, vanities and pretensions. It’s a bit gloomy when you realise how little has changed but, to counter that, Girouard’s writing is a joy and that’s something you don’t come across very often in books on architecture.

Kept out of polite society through her mother’s second marriage to a drunken clergyman, Lady Charlotte Guest married Sir John Josiah Guest, the Welsh ironmaster, and used his great wealth with skill and determination to establish their social position.

Related posts:
The Maximum Dwelling
The Maximum Dwelling: RESPECT

• • •

Exploding The Myths of Modern Architecture, 2009, Malcolm Millais

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If you want to read what an engineer thinks about architecture and its myths, then Millais is your man. Millais’ rebuttal is founded in the realities of physical forces and so is better than most. Read it and then put Modern Architecture and its myths to rest. The real 20th century architectural crime against humanity is how the definition of architectural worth was shifted away from buildings aspiring to provide a real social utility, and towards buildings providing only the appearance of one.

Related posts:
Architecture Myths #23: Architecture
Architecture Myths #22: Biomimesis
Architecture Myths #21: Total Design
Architecture Myths #20: The Villa Savoye

• • •

 The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 1973, Charles Jencks

I once read an academic paper written about the books of Charles Jencks. I quote from Taylor & Francis Online.

This paper will discuss Jencks’s historiography of Post-Modernism by looking at the seminal texts that he wrote from 1970 until 2007, beginning with Architecture 2000 and ending with Critical Modernism. The main focus of this article is critically to examine his major work, the Language of Post Modernism, and to trace its evolution as a means of evaluating his contribution to the development of this movement, as well as to architectural historiography.

First published in 1973, we’ve all grown up with some edition of The Language of Post Modern Architecture. A succession of covers and revisions created the appearance of prolonged relevance and pushed its rediscovery into the future, thus making space for something even more egregious.

• • •

Yes Is More, 2009 Bjarke Ingels

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The scary brilliance of BIG’s architecture is how it reduces buildings to easily comprehensible images. The scary brilliance of the book is how it reduces architecture to easily comprehensible images. Neither is a healthy development. The book spreads its simplistic message as efficiently and ruthlessly as the plague but do not think the book simplistic. It is a sophisticated and ruthless marketing tool for a hugely successful architecture and publicity machine. Its comic book format is not the first time text was used to ornament images but it hastens the death of language all the same.

Related posts:
YES MAN
Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center (14% More BIG)

• • •

The Autopoiesis of Architecture, 2011, Patrik Schumacher

If you don’t want to buy the book, let me know and I’ll give you my heavily annotated copy as soon as I finish reading it. I should warn you that I began reading Volume I in October 2012! But my offer stands. I’ll toss in a mint-condition Volume II.

• • •

The Architecture of Neoliberalism, 2017, Douglas Spencer

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The antidote to the previous three books or, if you haven’t yet read them, the vaccination.

• • •

Against Architecture, 2012, Franco La Cecla

“A passionate charge against the celebrities of the current architectural world: the “archistars.” La Cecla argues that architecture has lost its way and its true function, as the archistars mold cityscapes to build their brand with no regard for the public good.”  An interesting notion – I think La Cecla might be onto something!  

• • •

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1999, Helen Vendler

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This book has more to do with the guts of architecture than some of the others in this list. Vendler takes each of Shakespeare’s sonnets and identifies and analyzes the poetic devices and mechanisms by which Shakespear managed to construct such breath and depth of poetic meaning and beauty. With some sonnets it’s their structure, with others their rhythm or onomatapaeia, and still others the strength or combinations of allusions, associations or imagery. They all work within the constraints of the sonnet and the conventions of Elizabthean language.

“During the nineteenth century, the study of Shakespeare’s sonnets was governed by a biographical agenda. Later, it was also governed by the “universal wisdom” agenda: the sonnets have been mined for the wisdom of friendship, the wisdom of the acquiescence to time, the wisdom of love. But I’m more interested in them as poems that work. They seem to me to work awfully well (though not everyone thinks so). And each one seems to work differently. Shakespeare was the most easily bored writer that ever lived, and once he had made a sonnet prove out in one way, he began to do something even more ingenious with the next sonnet. It was a kind of task that he set himself: within an invariant form, to do something different—structurally, lexically, rhythmically—in each poem. I thought each one deserved a little commentary of its own, so I’ve written a mini-essay on each one of the one hundred and fifty four.” [from Paris Review]

For her efforts, Vendler has been criticized as “clinical” and her analysis as “forensic”. These days, her book is marketed as a companion volume to understanding the sonnets in order to pacify those who prefer to worship the unknowable magic of creative genius, and whose only wish is that it remain unknowbale. However, for those wanting to see how one man mastered the techniques of his trade and put them to good use, I know no better textbook.

Related Posts:
Aesthetic Effect #3: COMBINE

 

Plan B

This planet has seen some extreme housing density in its time. If you were in The Rookery in New York in 1865 you’d know what 4,700 persons per hectare looks like.

Rookery

If you were in Madrid 1930-31 you’d recognize these two buildings in Karel Teige’s 1932 book, The Minimum Dwelling. The lower one has a density of 4,500 persons per hectare and the upper one a density of 6,000.

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If you were in Kowloon Walled City in 1987 you’d have seen 33,000 people living at a density of 12,700 per hectare.

Living at such high densities is now some time in the past but we can’t be sure it won’t be part of our future. Londoners know High Barnet as the northermost station on the Northern Line. These are the plans of a recent permitted development in the London Borough of Barnet.

The more central London Borough Of Camden had denser, unpermitted developments twenty years ago but it’s a slippery slope when 25 sq.m (270 sq.ft) per person becomes permissible, and only a matter of time before legal minimums begin to get nasty. Last year’s Venice Biennale offered some tasters. Here’s a situation from the US pavilion’s The Architectural Imagination exhibit. Ground level is given over to transportation, retail and whatever’s meant by a neighbourhood of common spaces. The rooftop is amenity space. It’s Unité d’Habitations minus the parky bit and the habitations. People live in tents, hopefully before upgrading to some more rigid enclosure that’s no-doubt self-build and locally-sourced but for all the wrong reasons. Multistorey carpark meets favela. Stay classy, America!

Here’s another example, this time from the Taiwan exhibit.

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I was unsure if this uncomfortable juxtaposition of habitation and transportation was proposal or reality but there’s no doubt with this next.

It all points towards a future a bit grittier than Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ lurid celebration of four decades of visionary architecture that never happened.

This ought to be a warning. If A is for Architecture and B is for Building then we need a Plan B to mitigate the likelihood Plan A will fail to deliver. It might be prudent to start to think about how people might live at higher densities should they become the new normal. In places such as Hong Kong they already are and people there seem to manage quite nicely.

The high-density tower block is the best use of land we’ve come up with so far.

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We know how to make them. We don’t know how to make them better.

• • •

The Domino’s House post a few weeks back celebrated the two-apartment-per-landing floor plan. This is one of the layouts of Dubai Duty Free Residence by UA Architects. It’s a good use of the plan’s advantages, and has elevators too.
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The same configuration is popular in India but here it is in some Hong Kong apartments. When you get higher up, it’s a good idea to have that second elevator.

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The stairs are scissor stairs although, with this arrangement, I’m unsure why.

This example also has a service elevator and maid’s quarters and the scissor stairs now function together and separately as main stairs and service (back) stairs for the same apartment.

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This next arrangement stretches the landing between the elevators and stairs to make a corridor that passes two apartments in order to access more apartments. It’s what corridors do.

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Bathroom windows open onto light wells and cross ventilation is compromised but all kitchens still have external windows because of their relationship with the recesses and the front doors. It’s a neat way of doing things and can be seen in many of the layouts that follow. It’s a better idea to put the scissor stairs behind the elevators and use the elevator landing as the corridor but, in this next example, construction expediency has compromised the internal planning.

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This next example is a better way of using a similar core to access four apartments. Increased external surface area is the price you pay for windows and the question becomes one of how much light and ventilation kitchens and bathrooms actually need.

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These next eight layouts all consider that problem and have arrived at much the same solution.

  • All have near-identical cores.
  • All have extended the elevator lobby to create four new corners to allow eight apartments per floor – the maximum possible without adding additional corridor to get past some apartments to access others.
  • All enter directly into the living room rather than into a corridor leading to a living room with a view in two directions.

What we’re looking at is an urban typology that’s evolved naturally by following some basic principles and without regard for architectural beauty – it’s a modern and generic vernacular architecture. The typology is sometimes called the snowflake layout because of its rotationally-symmetrical mirrorings.

The various arms can have different apartment types but let’s compare two that use 45° angles. Entering an apartment at a corner always makes internal planning more difficult but is unavoidable when eight apartments converge on a core. Both layouts sensibly place the kitchen along core walls and at the end of open ventilation shafts shared with all bathrooms. The layout on the right makes better use of the 45° angle with a defined dining space away from the front door. Windows of opposing dining areas are offset from each other.

The desire for construction profit would normally have reduced external wall area by closing the sides of those shafts and turning them into fully enclosed light-wells/ventilation shafts so, because this hasn’t happened, there must be a significant advantage to keeping one side of those shafts open. Air currents around the building must keep the air moving but the kitchen window also has a view. This next example has laundry drying racks outside the windows at the inner ends of long, open shafts. We see elevator lobbies naturally lit and ventilated. We get a feel for the structure and also get a sense for the construction.

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We call ourselves architects but see Hong Kong’s high-rise apartment buildings only in terms of outer appearance (and then only negatively as monotonous, extrusions, etc.) and with no regard for or even acknowledgement of their inner life.

We’re quick to suggest the Chinese are predisposed towards functioning as a cohesive society – and perhaps they are [and when did this become a bad thing?], but this only allows us to ignore how these buildings are configured to facilitate people living their lives at high density and in relative harmony. To labour the point, these buildings are not problems requiring dynamite and/or Post Modermism as solutions.

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In the Repeating Crevice, Revisited post, I noted how Shinohara’s Repeating Crevice house provided its occupants with graded levels of awareness of the presence and movements of other occupants. I suggested this might be useful for co-living and co-housing projects that, typically, offer only the binary choice of fully private space or fully shared space. The result was Repeating Crevice reimagined as co-housing.

I thought if such an arrangement can benefit people living in close quarters, then it might be worthwhile extending the principle to high-rise apartment buildings. The Hong Kong typology does have kitchen windows with views of the sides of the building, and habitable rooms often have sideways views of other habitable room windows. Within the same building there already is a visual awareness of neighbours on the same floor but this doesn’t come via the spaces connecting them. I thought the transition between elevator lobby and apartment lobby could perhaps be more visually permeable but,

for any proposal to be more than a spatial exercise, there should also have 1) eight two-bedroom apartments per floor, 2) naturally ventilated and lit elevator lobbies, 3) naturally ventilated and lit bathrooms and kitchens and 4) laundry drying areas. I’m not yet sure it can be done.

• • •

I’m more certain we’re thinking the wrong way about privacy. We design apartment buildings to exclude all awareness of people living in the same building and sharing corridors and elevators, and then wonder why people think they’re isolating and alienating. Village life may have the opposite downside of everyone knowing what everyone else is doing but, midway between these two densities is suburbia where people can see from their window if their neighbours are in, or chat across a driveway or garden fence if they wish.

We live in cities because we enjoy the opportunites that arise when people live at higher densities but the reality is we live our lives oscillating between our public and private selves. We manically try to achieve balance, not equilibrium. Apartment doors switch us between being private in spaces totally open to the world, and being social in spaces totally closed to it. Something is not right.

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We see our dwellings as refuges from society rather than as places to reassure us we’re part of it. We thus lack the calmness and certainty that comes from feeling part of something greater than ourselves. Instead, we look for it in views but in less than two centuries the notion of a view has quickly degraded from preferred landscape, to any landscape, to suburban garden, to communal garden, to river view, to any large space outside one’s window.

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When the window-to-window distance decreases, people stop being picturesque and become real. We’re not yet back in the village but we’re getting back to the social reality of suburbia. This is not a bad thing.

In the world’s larger cities, the idea that a desirable view can include people is something occurring out of necessity. If we like living in cities and amongst other people then we need to be more aware of each other, not as some kind of substitute or lesser view but out of choice and because it is socially and psychologically good for us.

I suspect this is what happens in Hong Kong where people seem to manage just fine although, it must be said, its excruciatingly beautiful topography is never far away.

• • •

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  • 40% of Hong Kong’s land is natural landscape. 90% of all journeys are by public transport, of which 43% are by the city’s MTR metro system. Hong Kong has a low energy use per capita, only slightly above the world average.

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  • Per capita statistics are averages that deny extremes and using GDP as an indicator of a country’s prosperity has its own liimitations. That said, Hong Kong’s balance between energy efficiency and GDP per capita is the planet’s best – better than Austria and Switzerland and better than the G7 countries by as much again.

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The Fireplace

Fireplace is one of those reliable English language words that don’t leave you guessing. This abridged history begins with the traditional European fireplace of mediaeval times. The one in the image on the left, below, is from a house The Black Knight once stayed in circa 1400, hence the insignia on the mantel – or at least that’s how I remember it from World of Interiors. The house is most definitely that of a nobleman, but I like how it can be lived in with a minimum of apparatus. Rugs and tapestries soften the acoustics and lessen radiant cooling. That 17th century invention, the piano, would always have been by the window for better light but not so close for diurnal temperature variations to affect its tuning. A painting and some flowers in a vase probably always satisfied the human needs for art and nature. Internal shutters kept the wind-owt. The fireplace provided warmth.

The story-arc of the fireplace starts off promisingly with a succession of improvements for better combustion.

The first major change in heating technology came in the early 17th century when Franz Kessler had the idea of using the siphon effect to pull hot air through a ceramic baffle that warmed up and transferred heat to the room.

Taken from the Holzsparkunst (The Art of Saving Wood) by Franz Kessler – published in 1618.

Over four centuries, the ceramic fireplace (a.k.a. masonry heater) with multiple baffles became the dominant continental European way to heat a room. Each country had its variants but common to all was a large mass that heated the room by radiant heat.

A Frenchman, Jean Desaguiliers, noticed that metals such as cast iron conducted heat into the room more effectively. Benjamin Franklin combined these two discoveries into the Franklin Stove he proposed in 1741.

It had the problem of only burning well and without smoke if there was a strong draft, and this was difficult if the flue was still cold. In 1780, David Rittenhouse modified Franklin’s design by adding an L-shaped flue at the top and it’s Rittenhouse improved design that today, unfortunately for Rittenhouse’s memory, is mistakenly referred to as a Franklin Stove.

A little over four years ago, in the Night Sky Radiant Cooling post, I introduced Count von Rumford [a.k.a. Benjamin Thompson] who, in 1796, suggested improvements that became known as the Rumford Fireplace. Rumford must have been sensitive to cold as he’s also credited with the invention of thermal underwear.

The Rumford fireplace created a sensation in London when [Rumford] introduced the idea of restricting the chimney opening to increase the updraught, which was a much more efficient way to heat a room than earlier fireplaces. He and his workers modified fireplaces by inserting bricks into the hearth to make the side walls angled, and added a choke to the chimney to increase the speed of air going up the flue. The effect was to produce a streamlined air flow, so all the smoke would go up into the chimney rather than lingering, entering the room, and often choking the residents. It also had the effect of increasing the efficiency of the fire, and gave extra control of the rate of combustion of the fuel, whether wood or coal. Many fashionable London houses were modified to his instructions, and became smoke-free. [W]

The pot-bellied stove of circa 1860 is one of the world’s great inventions. It could produce 50 kW or more, making them suitable for heating large spaces such as railway station waiting rooms and depots, and even the trains themselves. Warmth went public. 

The story of the domestic fireplace between 1850 and 1950 is that of the shift from combusting wood, to combusting coal, and then gas. Below, the first example is a coal-burning fireplace from circa 1870 and the others are examples of the gas-fired “coal-effect” fireplaces still common in the UK today.

Ceramic “coals” glow a convincing red upon sufficient heat input.

Over the same period, the history of the fireplace split in two. One history charts improvements in the fuel being combusted and how to combust it. The other charts the change from the fireplace being (1) a functional feature structurally integrated into the building, into (2) a functional and symbolic feature integrated into the building and then into (3) a symbolic feature. This history can probably be traced through the fireplaces of Wright alone.

In the 20th century, the fireplace became an architectural feature increasingly detached from the building.

These next images, in no particular order, show the fireplace in various stages on the spectrum of architectural element to objectified object.

Whether this objectification happened because fireplaces were made functionally obsolete by air conditioning, underfloor heating and other forms of active environmental control no longer matters. It continued anyway. An architecture victim at twelve, I looked foward to dancing around the fire in my modern house of the future.

One technical fightback that occurred 1960-1980 was the “heatform” fireplace which was a metal firebox built into a full masonry chimney. They were inexpensive to install because a trained mason didn’t have to construct a firebox. Side or top vents circulated heated air back into the room. Heatform and Heatilator were popular brands.

This is Vulcan oil-fired heater of a type popular in Australia in the 1960s. There was a tank on an outside wall and when its float indicator dropped below a certain level, you’d phone someone and a guy in a boiler suit would come park an oil tanker in your driveway and fill it up again, fuelling oil dependency at the same time. Oil heaters such as these were often enclosed in a masonry–effect fireplace surrounds or inserted into feature walls of masonry effect cladding. Ceramic inserts above the burner glowed orange at full burn.

The 1970s oil crises and a growing awareness that burning oil wasn’t such a good thing led to a revival of interest in wood-burning stoves that had no need for masonry surrounds, even fake ones. Most improved little upon the Rittenhouse Stove. Rectangular shapes were admired for their modern looks rather than for having more radiant surface area than a potbelly.

Freestanding stoves were seen as more modern but placing them in a fireplace meant the masonry would continue to radiate heat for some time after heat input ceased.

Philip Starck solved that problem by placing optional boxes of modular rocks / modular boxes of optional rocks beneath the firebox. Meet Speetbox. Is there anything that has not been reinvented by Philippe Starck?

Speetbox app features include:

  • Control of hot air distribution (on/off)
  • Control of room temperature (optional)
  • Setting of power/speed of combustion
  • Analysis of flue temperatures (safety)
  • Lighting control
  • Control of electric sockets (time setting)
  • Hearth software features update

Since the 1970s, the objectification of the fireplace has intensified but with less dancing. Of the feature object fireplaces, the suspended fireplace was perhaps the most perverse,

but there is also the subcategory of architectural fireplaces,

as well as the one having the fireplace as architecturalized object.

As it happened, it wasn’t the fireplace being objectified after all but fire itself. The frameless Escea DS1400 lets you focus on the flame instead of going to the trouble of making one or using it to make more by periodically adding fuel. The Escea DS1400 operates on either natural gas or propane. Its heat output of 5–5.6 kW might warm 16 sq.m on a cold day.

A downloadable user guide tells you how to connect your fireplace to the internet ffs and warns you not to lose the remote.

We haven’t quite reached the bottom. This next is a bio-ethanol fire experience that provides you with romantic fire art. At least the flames are still flames.

You know how this is going to end.  Dimplex’s Opti Myst® effect uses ultrasonics to create a fine water mist that’s coaxed upwards through the ‘fuel’ to allow moving images of flames to be projected onto it and create a convincing illusion of flames and smoke. The result is an appearance so authentic it will be mistaken for true flames and smoke. To its credit, there is still the presence of a gas-like substance but any conceptual satisfaction is thwarted by their “Just add water!” approach to creating fire. 

Focal Point Fires make much of their realistic fire effects. Dimplex have been at it for some time. Their Optiflame® effect was introduced in 1988.

Their Opti-V Effect is, they say, the perfect blend of magic and realism. This is disturbing. Just when I’ve finally come to accept a reality that’s insufficiently magical, I realise I’ve been neglecting to worry about magic not being realistic enough.

It uses the latest High Definition TV technology to create flames and sparks for a virtual fireplace experience like no other. The unique and patent protected design combines ultra realistic flickering flames with three dimensional LED logs that sporadically spark! With the addition of an audio element of crackling logs, the illusion of a real fire is complete. [snarky boldings mine]

There are many fireplace TV apps available that don’t treat sound as an extra. Their downside is that the only heat you’ll get will be from your flatscreen’s electronics. The fire as fire-effect virtual fireplace is so new our language hasn’t yet adapted to describe it. If left to virtually burn continuously on this 32″ SONY BRAVIA for the three months of winter, such an app would consume 35W of electricity. Most of that 35W would be converted into heat, but you might wish it was a little more especially if, like me, you are a seated adult male generating (i.e. losing) approx. 70W of metabolic heat per hour.

From such proud beginnings to such an ignominious end. I didn’t set out to write a critical para-historic fable about architecture as a projection of an image of a hollowed-out shell of something that once had a purpose, but it’s what I seem to have done.

• • •

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.

US07540120-20090602-D00014
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?”