The Tops of Buildings

The first thing many people younger than me probably thought of when they saw the title of this post is the song Mansard Roof by epic New York indie band Vampire Weekend. This link is to the video accompanying the studio version of the song that, I think as a statement of musical intent is perfect but, this could just be me as the live performance has its own charm, as this recording from Reading Festival 2008 shows. Everyone please take a position.

Mansard Roof

I see a mansard roof through the trees
I see a salty message written in the eaves
The ground beneath my feet,
the hot garbage and concrete
And now the tops of buildings, I can see them too


The Argentines collapse in defeat
The admiralty surveys the remnants of the fleet
The ground beneath their feet
is a nautically mapped sheet
As thin as paper while it slips away from view

Lyrics of “Mansard Roof” by Vampire Weekend, 2008

This position I just asked you to take is a position of one kind of real over another kind of real. I think that, with all this recent crap about architecture and AI, we’re being asked to choose between one kind of fake and a different kind of fake – the same old shit, in other words. So I think it’s important we remember the difference between studio and live performance. In which does the real art lie? Is it the concept or the performance of it? Which kind of artistry do we prefer? Or want? Music shows us there’s a place for both. The live performance confirms the joy the studio version brought to the people at the live concert. Music is structured and, probably because of that, fluid in that it’s free to be interpreted. Mansard Roof is a very structured song that allows lossless reinterpretation. I’m sorry Goethe, but architecture isn’t frozen music. I know you meant this as praise but both architecture and music have changed. The most exciting thing about music is its ability to be re-performed. It has structures – and not particularly “deep” ones – where the creativity lies and that enable it to be re-interpreted and re-performed. It’d be nice if architecture had some.

Last week I thought of this song when I gave a lecture on French Renaissance Architecture to my first year architecture history class. I don’t normally free associate about mansard roofs but they had been entering my life a lot recently. Hence this post and why I put this digression at the beginning before I get to the point.

Sorry – another digression. I don’t think ChatGPT has generated any deepfake misfitsarchitecture texts yet but it’s only a matter of time as this blog has been publicly available – and for free 🫤 – on the www for more than ten years now. The early posts have most almost certainly been data “scraped” – this new and neutralized word we have to describe the ethical equivalent of strip mining and sea bottom trawling. Thusly, I’m experimenting with new words, idiosyncratic grammar, punctuation and syntax in order to buy myself some more time. Resistance. Wish us luck. It’s forcing me to up my game. It’s not a bad thing.

Wikipedia tells me the first use of the mansard roof was by Pierre Lescot around 1550 on part of the then private art gallery known as The Louvre but only became popular in the next century under King Louis III when a certain François Mansart promoted it amongst the aristocracy.

Par Pedro P. Palazzo 26 juillet 2015 — wikimedia commons, Domaine public,

Mansard roofs also happened to be a good and inexpensive way of building an additional storey and were widely employed when Paris was being rebuilt in the mid 19th. It was the time of Napoleon III and Haussman and the architectural style these new mansard roofs were a part of became known in history books as French Second Empire style. It was highly ornamented – though some might say ostentatious – but this didn’t stop it being used for palaces and grand houses. It’s what we see when we look at Paris today.

Promoting his new architectural invention to rich people guaranteed it widespread “emulation” shall we say, in countries and their citizens with aspirations. On the one hand, the mansard roof is a relatively simple and expedient way of adding another storey to your building if you need some extra space but, on the other, it’s also a relatively simple and expedient means of making your building look more impressive than you probably could have otherwise afforded. It was thus a brilliant architectural invention and so these cheap yet impressive roofs took Europe by storm. As is the way, it was perhaps an overabundance of these cheap but impressive roofs that made them less popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was of course a short hop Across The Channel to England. This is Waddesdon Manor, built in England in 1874 for one of the Rothschilds.

Mansard roofs continued to be built for reasons of expedience even after the French Second Empire Style was no longer fashionable in France and England and Art Nouveau was. Undeterred, the style went g on to have further adventures in America where it was thought classy.
Search “Second Empire America”.

And not just America. The octagonal mansards of Tokyo Station, completed 1914, are French Second Empire by way of Germany from where Japan imported much railway technology.

Second Empire mansard roofs reached Australia via England about 1900 but never caught on to the extent they had in the United States and almost never on houses. In this blog, we last saw a mansard roof on The Royal Hotel (on the left below) in the Contempt for History post. This building was completed in 1882 but in 1906 was renovated to what we see today. This photo is from 1965. A little bit of France in Perth, Australia.

Mansard roofs came and went throughout the 20th century. 1970s Western Australia had a fashion for mansard roofs having orange ceramic roof tiles for the more vertical face. My university dormitory, long demolished, had a roof of this type. Here’s a more recent example of the style for Telstra, Australia’s main telecoms provider.

The roof is constructed with surfaces at two different angles, one more vertical and one practically horizontal. It has no windows, so this mansard seems to have been built to increase the floor height rather than adding another floor. It’s not particularly impressive but the material change and shadow gap reduce the scale of the building in what’s a residential area. A second mansard roof (this time with overhangs) has been built on top of the original. This later mansard extension is true to the principle of mansard roofs in being an expedient way to add more floor space but, rather than having ornamented windows and drawing attention to itself, this one has near vertical lower surfaces for more useable area and is painted green so we won’t notice it.

The more vertical the lower surfaces of a mansard roof becomes, the more the building begins to resemble a two storey building with different materials for each floor. This was the look in Talahassee Fl. in this 1970s building with four apartments and mansard with quasi-Colonial windows.

Something similar was to become standard residential construction in Western Australia with lightweight roofs having vertical lower surfaces and no longer pretending to be either a roof or impressive.

This would mark the Death of the Mansard if mansard roofs didn’t live on in China as an acceptable way of topping residential tower complex. I pass by the one in this next photo most weekdays and have come to think it’s actually quite clever. You could think of it as post-modern neo-second-empire except it’s not a joke and it’s not a fashion. Someone has reasoned that it’s not a bad look for these buildings and I think they’re right.

A mansard roof combied with some typical-floor protrusions and banded cornices is not a bad way of giving a slab tower with multiple cores a gravitas appropriate for their height and bulk. It makes sense, especially when grouped as they invariably are. Since the 16th century, making a building look larger than it actually is and for very little additional outlay, has never been discouraged by clients and has never been a bad move in architecture. It’s as if the mansard roof was invented in the 16th century so that we could accommodate elevator over-runs and rooftop water tanks on tower blocks in a way that makes aesthetic and practical sense to us today.

This is why we have history and can learn from it. History is great. The names, dates and countries of these architectural inventions aren’t important, but it’s extremely important to think about THINGS THAT HAPPENED in terms of what problems they solved just in case we find ourselves with similar ones. This is why History exists and why we, our at least I, resist in teaching it. Clients being clients, how to enclose space inexpensively yet have their building look more impressive at the same time is one of those timeless problems architecture exists to solve over and over again. Google “modern mansard” and I’m sure both Google and Pinterest will oblige. But probably not with Chinese examples.

I look forward to a future of Neo-Second-Empire and possibly even Neo-(neo)-Gothic residential towers. Foster+Partners inexplicably under-celebrated The Index in Dubai had buttresses. They’re not exactly flying but these supports are perpendicular to the enclosure so the windows can be bigger. It looks like it’s for different reasons but it just depends on what is important to the client. In that sense, it’s the same shit.

• • • 

Overthinking It

I’ve lived and worked in China for almost three years now. There’s many things I still don’t understand but there’s no urgency. These things will sort themselves out.

Representations of grass (1)

A Chinese Tier 2 city with aspirations to becoming a New Tier 1 city will generally have a metro system in place and, where I live, people are on the case. Overhead power cables are being relocated underground. Footpaths are either being widened and/or relaid after being destroyed by the roots of roadside banyan trees. Roads are being widened to include dedicated bus lanes and dedicated bicycle and e-bike lanes. After about three years of inconvenience the major roads are mostly done.

Once the roadworks are over, rocks, mature trees and shrubs are moved in and sods laid. The verge landscaping is in place within two weeks at most, but usually within one.

There’s also much construction going on. Most is behind site hoardings that are usually one of two types. An actual wall built of concrete block on the site boundary and topped by a tiled or imitation-tile capping will probably surround long-haul projects of four or five years. When construction begins, these walls will be kept fresh with graphics and encouraging slogans, often against a backdrop of artificial grass. Here’s two of this type.

Less permanent hoardings on shorter projects will be freestanding assemblages of modular panels. A hundred metres of two-meter high metal panels spanning frames inserted into four-meter long concrete bases can appear overnight. By the next night it will be sheathed in artificial grass and by the night after will have the project name alternating with graphics and encouraging slogans.

“Life depends on exercise, Success depends on work”
“I will be first to raise my hand to sort garbage”

Sometimes, it’s as if metal panels simply have to be sheathed in artificial grass as quickly and expediently as possible. There’s a sense of urgency.

Sometimes, instead of artificial grass is a graphic of a close-up of a stylization of artificial grass. I don’t know how to understand this graphic representation of artificial grass that itself is a representation of grass. Is it post-modernism squared? I don’t think it’s a case of a representation of something being as good as the real thing because site hoardings aren’t situations where you’d prefer to see real grass anyway. Having said that, in Shanghai once I did see part of a site hoarding that was an actual living wall.

I used to think this fixation on natural over metal might be a Chinese aversion to the sight of metal. The five traditional elements (or phases) of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water each have their own properties, interrelationships and place in the Universe. [For more information look here. It’s a surprisingly robust way of understanding the world.] However, the five elements may be different but they’re all still equal. No one is better or preferable. It can’t be that.

Nevertheless, I definitely see an effort to avoid the sight of metal in gardens or when surrounded by plants. Here are four examples including a wrap of a country scene, two views of bamboo screening a water treatment plant, and bamboo screening an electrical distribution box and the metal fence surrounding it. I’m not imagining this.

Drains alongside roads and paths are fitted with metal grilles that stop them being clogged by leaves but these grilles may be covered with a layer of pebbles. This is a nice thing to do.

If metal has to be used in a garden, it’s often the colour green. For now I conclude that the sight of metal and grass together is not unsightly per-se. It might just be that the natural colour of metal is jarring or somehow discordant.

Along with painting the metal green, I also saw this which I thought strengthened my theory even though I wasn’t sure what my theory was. Perhaps all it is, is that people just prefer plants to metal. I won’t go back to my Chinese elements theory or invoke feng shui but green and greenery seem to be consistently countering metal.

Representations of grass (2)

The city of Wenzhou where I live is between mountains and the ocean and there’s much surface water as well as subterranean water. This and the ongoing relocation of overhead power lines underground means there’s a lot of manholes. A lot. Manholes for 10kVa cables occur in the middle of footpaths and access roads but also in lawns where they will invariably be covered by a piece of fake grass. Fake grass being fake grass, the colour is never the same as real grass and nobody’s fooled. I think I’d rather see the manhole than these poor attempts at disguising them but, once again, I get the feeling there’s something cultural at work. If this were merely the personal preference of individual gardeners then I’d expect to see more variation, less consistency of approach.

Metal or concrete manholes aren’t a problem if they are not on grass.

For three years give or take this hasn’t worried me. It’s just something that I noticed I was always noticing. Focussed on fake grass as I was, I didn’t pay that much attention to what was happening with other manholes in footpaths.

• • • 

You see what’s happening.

Special cases are dealt with.

These next two are my favorites. I find it amazing somebody thought this was important. It’s all done by stonecutters with hammers and chisels and handheld cutters.

Here’s one being restored. These covers aren’t as robust as solid metal or concrete ones but still people think it is a good thing to do.

• • • 

I think I finally understand. Discontinuity, when it invariably occurs, must be countered by a continuity. Before, I used to see the artificial grass as a discontinuity rather than a continuity, and although I still do, not so much. One person’s complexity and contradiction is another person’s simplicity and consistency. These next five images can be read either way.

• • • 


Meatspace is a word I first heard a few weeks ago. It’s used to describe the human realm that’s not capitalizing artificial intelligence. It’s slightly derogatory and its users slightly smug. It implies that that part of the human realm is full of losers. Not on the winning team. I know I’m being repetitive but it’s what Water Gropius must have thought of craftspersons exactly one hundred years ago. Architecture’s relationship to new technologies hasn’t changed.

The saying “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. seems to have been around since the 1960s and is usually attributed to Maslow. It means that If a person is familiar with a certain, single subject, or has with them a certain, single instrument, they may have a confirmation bias to believe that it is the answer to/involved in everything. I feel it describes the current mood towards artificial intelligence and architecture. The only difference is that the nails don’t quite fit our new hammer. Architecture will work to redefine nails until they do.

It’s not just those of us who teach it who think so, but this thing called the design process is often assumed to begin with a definition of the problem. It’s not a bad way to start because, at the end of the process, it provides a standard for knowing if the problem has been satisfactorily solved. Ideally, decisions taken along the way will have worked towards solving the problem and not away from it. It means that the beginning of the design process is there at the end. It also means that the end of the design process is already folded in at the beginning and, by extension, that open-ended design problems don’t exist. [Where do the self-called “research-based practices” find their clients? Only the monied collector or PR-driven client would pay for research only tangentially related to getting them a building.] Nevertheless, different types of problem produce different types of architecture and there’s room for them all. No one of them is intrinsically superior. Was it Paul Rudolph who said of Mies van Der Rohe that he made wonderful buildings only because he chose to solve so few problems?

The stage of the design processafter definition is usually called analysis and usually includes a study of ways similar problems have been solved and, if (like Mies) one has experience of solving problems one sees as similar, then so much the better. Here again, if one has jn the past successfully solved design problems according to some personalized design process or system, then the hammer and nail analogy kicks in again. No two problems are ever exactly the same but unnecessary reinvention of the wheel isn’t the answer either. Some people call this dataset “case studies” and, at least in universities, they strongly influence the outcome even though the data can often be more of a wish list. The word “precedent studies” is in play at other institutions but, in addition to simply denoting something that happened prior, it invests the case study with an almost legal authority to determine the outcome. Even the term “reference” is dubious because it implies pre-selection and a somewhat predetermined outcome. What turned out to be useful is something one only knows at the end. Data scraping is said to be analogous and it probably is inasmuch as it draws conclusions from a necessarily limited and preselected data set.

The third and final stage is said to be synthesis and is where all the data is somehow synthesized but it’s really just a word we use to describe something we no nothing about. [c.f. The Mystery of Beauty]

• • • 

One useful concept in the field of project management is that of dependencies between different tasks in a process. There are four types.

Finish to StartFinish to StartPredecessor must finish before Successor can start. [Land must be purchased before road building can start]
Start to StartStart to StartPredecessor must start before Successor can start. [Road excavating must start before Asphalt can be laid]
Finish to FinishFinish to FinishPredecessor must finish before Successor can finish. [Laying Asphalt must be complete before line painting can be completed]
Start to FinishStart to FinishPredecessor must start before Successor can finish. [Road excavating must start before line painting can be completed]

The first is Finish to Start. It’s the easiest to understand and is generally how we imagine those three main tasks in the design process to be connected. Life is simple when one thing finishes and another starts. Calling design a process implies some sort of connections between what we see as the three main tasks. But there are four ways each of those tasks can be connected. In the above, I described them in the sequence they are conventionally understood to occur, even if there is some recursiveness along the way. Thinking of the three stages of the design process as a sequence makes sense and seems to fit our observations but those three tasks have two links that each could be one of four ways. This is already sixteen different ways that can potentially describe the design process. Synthesis could begin the moment the problem is defined. It could take place at the same time as analysis. And so on. Moreover, if synthesis prompts a redefinition of the problem, then there’s a third link between tasks and now 32 different ways the process can go. Sometimes it’s the case that solutions go looking for problems. It’s more complicated than we thought but it’s not unknowable.

Start to Finish could be an equally good fit for a design process that only begins once the end result is known. In this case, the desired outcome is embedded in how the problem is framed and drives both the analysis and synthesis. It’s working towards a known conclusion that could be totally wrong but who’s to know that? It happens all the time in architectural education and it’s difficult to explain that, although designing what you want to design might work sometimes, it’s no guarantee it always will. As soon as a project begins, a student might already have an idea of what they’d like to do. It’s often just impetuousness but intuition can sometimes be right. Architects with more experience do this all the time and we call them experienced if they’re not famous and creative if they are.

If the design process were rigidly sequential and always using the same references and parameters then we’d expect the results of limited competitions to converge but this never happens. An OMA building is never going to look like an SOM or a ZHA building or a HOK building. If an infinite number of Frank Gehrys and OMAs were given an infinite number of projects and a sequential define-analyze-synthesize design process, then sooner or later you’d expect OMA to design a Frank Gehry building and Frank Gehry to design an OMA. We don’t expect this to ever happen. The definition-analysis-synthesis model may be useful as an educational model but it doesn’t account for architecture as it is performed. It might even be an architectural myth.

More relevantly, if the end of the design process is already there at the beginning, then there’s little point scraping datasets to train algorithms to mimic a design process that’s either bogus or misunderstood to begin with. However, there’s still the possibility that intuition and inspiration are just different names for the same old one-two-three design process we understand, but compressed to the extent that the solution appears to come from nowhere and instantly. This simpler explanation involves no torturous logic and hints at the awesome processing power of the human brain when we put our mind to something.

• • • 

All the above has assumed this process is conscious even if it cannot be explained. Now I’ve come to the end of this post, I realize that the project I ended the previous post with was a mat-building iteration of Ricardo Bofill’s Les Teraces du Lac. Where did that come from? I don’t know, but it is. Now I know this, I might take the project more in that direction but, if I’d started out by wanting to recreate Les Teraces du Lac as a mat building, it probably wouldn’t have worked. I’m not trying to raise the bar in the synthesis vs. pattern-matching stakes but our model of how the brain functions and creativity works could be more than highly cognitive, cold-blooded rationalism and also have a component that’s not only inexplicable but unconscious as well. This would mean that, when we perform a creative task, we scan our personal databases for not only what we think is relevant but everything that’s potentially irrelevant as well. This is a huge problem for coders because the creativity database just became unknowably large. This isn’t to say that a wonderful solution could still be found if, like Mies, we ignore entire dimensions of the problem.

• • • 

The Elevated Courtyard

In China it’s not just in Beijing where courtyard housing is being demolished because its density is relatively low compared to what’s needed. Even the three-storey high stacked courtyards of the 1990 Ju’er Hutong Phases I & II couldn’t deliver the density required thirty years ago without shrinking the size of the courtyard.

If the ideal Confucian courtyard has

1. A depth to width ratio of 1:3,
2. is bounded by the ground and the sky, and
3. is understood as a vertical link between Earth and Heaven

then, before deciding that courtyards and high densities are incompatible if not contradictory, we need to think about whether there’s any other way to configure something that functions as a Confucian courtyard. In my last post I proposed stacking triple-height elevator lobbies pierced vertically by multiple openings and with multiple stairwells open horizontally. The problem wasn’t whether the cube-shaped elevator lobbies could be regarded as physically between the ground and the sky for they most certainly were. If we’re going to walk on it then we clearly think of a concrete slab 30-stories up as as good as ground. The problem is Heaven. Approaching the problem of configuring a high-rise Confucian courtyard as either a defense lawyer might, I want to know if it’s possible to find a loophole in any of the above three conditions?

The first condition seems pretty watertight at first but, judging by the 45° shadow in the below section of Ando’s Row House in Sumiyoshi, the courtyard has a depth to length ratio of about 1.2:1 but the upper level has one closer to 1:1.5. The upper slab would need to be at about the height of the balustrades for it to be as much as 1:2.5. Just in passing, imagine how much brighter the living room and kitchen downstairs would be if those balustrades weren’t so pointlessly more solid than they need to be?

Please don’t mention Junichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows”. It was published in Japan in 1933, two years after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria when Japanese cultural exceptionalism was very much on the rise. It has to be read with that in mind.

I digress. What I was getting at is that perhaps only the proportions of the opening need be 1:3? Perhaps we can interpret the courtyard as a space that links what’s above and limitless (which it did anyway), with what’s below and not necessarily at a depth of one-third the width? In other words, if a courtyard doesn’t have a ceiling to link it with the sky and all it implies then why should it need a floor to link it with the ground and all it implies?

If we grant an indeterminate distance to the sky then why not to the ground as well?

The effect of a James Turrel rooflight comes from it having an apparent depth of zero. The opening is viewed from below yet still understood as a symbolic link between Heaven and Earth. It’s very much about above and below. The problem is that we perceive it as a hole in a ceiling and not as a courtyard.

Live Oak Friends Meeting House, Houston, Texas, 2000. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 1 episode, Spirituality, 2001. © Art21, Inc. 2001.

The city of Budapest has a tradition of courtyard housing. The plan below shows units on the top and right sides lit only be windows opening onto the courtyard yet Budapest courtyards are regarded as courtyards and not as light wells despite them having a depth to length ratio of 1:1.2 or less, and a height to width ratio of, going by this plan and elevation, 1.5:1. As with a Turrell rooflight, the sky is a distinct rectangle above. An awareness of the sky above just might be sufficient, especially when we don’t walk around looking straight up. It might work.

Umeda Sky Gardens in Osaka is two towers bridged by a platform with an oculus and, to an observer on the ground, appears as just that because too much of the sky around it can be seen at the same tine. Oculi work better when there’s no sky to be seen elsewhere. For a few seconds before one leaves the escalator to enter the observation deck, the oculus becomes an elevated courtyard allowing access but, once inside the observation deck, the emphasis shifts away from the internal view and towards the surrounding one.

Then there’s Arquitectonica’s The Gate mixed-use project in Abu Dhabi. It has two oculi and the units around them have a new kind of view consisting of up, down and across the “sky courtyard”. Given the relatively small diameter of the oculi and knowing the extent that privacy is valued in the Middle East, the views across will be of the same residence. Those two units with the oculi have what definitely looks like a bottomless courtyard with a depth to width ratio of about 1:2. There’s definitely sky above and ground below except the ground is now some distance below the base of the glass walls of these courtyards that, apart from bringing some more light into the units, have no amenity value.

Although interesting in itself, this configuration isn’t very useful because, from the actual ground, the courtyards just appear as holes in the sky bridge that doesn’t take up that much sky. Our perception of this building wouldn’t be much different if the oculi weren’t there. If we want the oculus courtyard to be perceived as a Confucian courtyard then, for a little while at least, it has to be the only sky visible. The oculus of Umeda Sky Gardens does this, but only for a few seconds. The problem is how to block out the rest of the sky.

No problem for this next scheme proposed for Mexico City. It’s a pyramid-shaped and sized hole in the ground with terraced sides. Terraced buildings are always a good way of making sure everyone has access to a piece of the sky but the problem is that terraces leaning against each other on flat land creates a void in the centre that is difficult to fill. Inverting the pyramid makes that void suddenly precious as a source of daylight. It doesn’t feel right to call this void an elevated courtyard but for most people it definitely will be. It’s curious that the courtyard walls become steeper with depth when you’d expect the opposite to happen if daylight were the driver. If the project was infinitely deep then the walls would become parallel and you’d have one very ordinary but very big light well – a stacked courtyard.

The disadvantage of building an inverted pyramid underground is that no daylight comes from the outer side and so getting what daylight there is, to illuminate those very deep floor plates is a problem. An above-ground, hollow pyramid wouldn’t have this problem but, because it is working against gravity and not with it, the structure would probably be prohibitively costly for an equivalent floor area. But even that makes more sense than Soleri’s Arcosanti elevated pyramid mashup.

Not entirely unlike the above project, the access corridors in Walden 7 are on the inner side as the building widens but shift to the outer side of the building as it steps in towards the sky openings. The view of the sky through those openings isn’t seen against the surrounding sky unless, like in the fourth photograph below, you’re standing next to one of the large “windows” and looking straight up. It’s both elevated courtyard and oculus.

Four weeks ago I didn’t know the idea of a Confucian courtyard even existed but, since then, I’ve scanned my meatspace database for buildings and proposals that might incidentally fulfill the conditions for one. The only proposal left to mention is this 2017 proposal of mine for an Extruded Mat City. It’s a mashup between a Hong Kong Housing Authority residential tower and Villa Savoye with the residents up above. Although I haven’t worried about showing it, everything else happens either on or near the ground, or on the rooftop.

I calculated the population density at 1,152 persons per hectare, which means that four residential levels around the elevated courtyards could house the population of Manila at twice its current density. (Calculations like this scare me.)

Conclusion: If courtyards are no longer places for children to play, holding wedding ceremonies or for the elderly to linger, then we might as well get them up and out of the way where they can still provide daylight, ventilation and a connection between sky and earth as they always did and the ground they once occupied can be put to better use.

The above proposal is far from perfect. For one, it seems to imply concrete construction at a time when concrete construction is maybe not the answer that it used to be. I doubt it could be downscaled and made of mud brick but it might be worth investigating. Also, I’m not so keen now on elevator lobbies separated from the outside.Moreover, better use needs to be made of the support structures. All they’re good for right now is small retail at ground level and office space on the levels above. If all this ground level space blessed with an elevated courtyard is being made available then it needs to be made better use of. It’s not the total solution but perhaps some variation of my Circle House proposal could act as the supports and provide top and bottom portions with a unified and open core. I don’t know. One for the future.

• • •

Architectural Intelligence

There’s been a flurry of articles voicing fears of AI in creative fields such as art, graphic design and, to a lesser extent, poetry and literature and, to a lesser extent still, architecture.

As soon as computer processing speed and power increased, it was inevitable that this would be showcased by computers challenging humans in “computational” games such as chess or the Japanese shogi. It became progressively easier for computers to have, use and scan a database of all consequences of all known moves a player could make. Nobody bothers playing computers anymore but people still play chess for all sorts of reasons and I venture their main pleasure comes from the interaction of minds and how it includes elements of surprise, elegance, daring, fun and, occasionally, stupidity.

My first encounter with language translation algorithms was in the mid-1980s in Tokyo when I was doing work for a translation agency that claimed to have the world’s first automatic translation software. Text in the source language had to be rewritten into grammar the algorithm could understand, and the output text had to be rewritten into more natural language but it was the beginning. Importantly, rewriting the input and the output could be performed by persons not paid by the word as human translators were at the time. Much of the work a translation agency used to do is now performed by increasingly sophisticated programs that produce increasingly convincing language. We routinely use translators on our mobile phones but translations of literature are another matter.

Approximations of the human voice and speech patterns came next. Who’d ever think we’d look back with fondness to the days of call centers manned by humans? Nowadays, if you bother requesting help at all, you have to flummox a chatbot to force your enquiry to be diverted to a human who even then might answer from a list of copy and paste responses. I’ve had both good and bad experiences. Humans have to be positively incentivized by things such as pay and working conditions but there are also negative incentives such as performance indicators or the threat of being replaced by an algorithm.

It turns out that most of what we think of as natural sounding AI speech was really just the arrangement of words in expected patterns. And that anything that fits our expectations of an answer will be mistaken to be the product of human thought processes when it’s really just scanning a huge database for the statistically most likely arrangement of words in response. I’m not forgetting that communication between humans can involve the repeating of certain words and phrases in certain situations or that, if we overdo this or use them when something more is expected, we’ll get a reputation for being either boring or insensitive. It’s probably possible to get through a day without a single instance of creative use of language but this isn’t something we should aspire to. It’s heartening to know that certain skilled interviewers can ask speech algorithms a series of leading questions to force them to say stupid, random, or offensive things. To use a human analogy, these interviewers force the algorithm out of its comfort zone of databases and statistics.

It takes a while for humans to learn to speak and, by the time they are adults, they’ve built up their own databases of knowledge and experience to draw upon to create new communications suited to the situation. Humans don’t communicate by first sucking up all the knowledge and data in the known world. The data scraping model for AI might produce approximate results but this is how computers work. It’s not how humans work.

Wordwatch 1: The word “artificial” can mean something that’s a good substitute for something real, as with “artificial heart” or “artificial limb”, etc. It can also mean something that’s a poor substitute for something real, as in “artificial flowers” or “artificial land”.

There are those of us who see Artificial Intelligence as a poor substitute and there are those of us who see it as good enough for certain purposes. The fields of translation and customer service fall into the poor substitute that is “good enough” for some purposes or, probably more accurately, for the purposes of some. The field of medical diagnosis could be an example of a good substitute but I’d still prefer my symptoms be input by a competent doctor. I’m not yet convinced by self-driving cars and I’m definitely not ready for airplanes without pilots up the front.

Wordwatch 2: The meaning of the word “Intelligence” is also fuzzy. I have an “intelligent refrigerator” for example, but even if the refrigerator of the near future sensed I was running out of milk or soda water and order some in, I’d still know it was just some sensors doing their job. We say “Oh what an intelligent dog!” when a dog has just done something we want it to do. An “intelligent student” could be one who analyzes and interprets things they learned and arrives at their own conclusions, or it could be one who merely knows what is expected and how the system works. There are different types of intelligence. “Emotional intelligence” is an instinct for saying or doing the appropriate thing and is not about databases and statistics.

Intelligence and creativity are both applied to problems for which the output is determined only loosely. The terms and language used in technical and legal text have fixed meanings and can probably now be automatically translated almost perfectly, classical Chinese poetry less so. It looks like graphic designers and illustrators are next in line as much of their work involves the creative assemblage of known imagery to form new illustrations or graphics. In the fields of publishing and especially digital publishing, it also needs to be done to tight deadlines and this only lowers the bar for “good enough” and makes AI look more attractive. For graphic designers, the creativity exists in 1) “knowing” what source images or graphics to pick in terms of their graphic potential and the associations they might evoke), 2) “deciding” what a desirable outcome would be, and 3) “combining” the source imagery in a way that produces the desired outcome. However, “Knowing” could be intuitive, learned, accidental, or the contents of a database. “Deciding” could be dogmatic, inspirational, guesswork, or derived from requests such as “A sea otter in the style of Vermeer”. “Combining” could be collage, mashup, pick-and-mix, or the most statistically likely. Money and time set the dividing line between “creativity” and a “good enough” approximation of it.

And so to architecture. It’s been a couple of years since I last saw some supposedly state-of-the-art application of an algorithm to architectural design using a data set and parameters to arrive at some desirable and to some extent predetermined outcome. There was once heated debate about the differences between parametric design and algorithmic design. There are those who claim one or the other is the shape of the future but architects have a habit of bandwagon jumping for any new technology that looks as if it will 1) save time and money, 2) increase profits and 3) make them look cutting-edge if not avant-garde. Remember how Gropius threw craftspersons under the bus in 1923 when he realized that design for manufacture by machine was the shape of the future? Or how post WWII architects rushed to design prefabricated metal houses made by aircraft manufacturing facilities no longer operating at full capacity?

The field of architecture has some easily automated tasks such as the laying out of a housing subdivision, or the arrangement of medical equipment inside a hospital room. Both cases have sufficient specifications to draw upon. It’s possible to automate the design of apartment buildings and to design the apartment building designing software to incorporate parameters for the curvature or overhang of walls (if that particular subset of possible outcomes is what you want), and then for the optimization of apartment layouts in the spaces created. Once again we need to be careful with words. Cost is the most important parameter affecting the curvature or overhang of walls and it would be a service to the world if architects could have immediate feedback of the total cost consequences of any design decision. It’s just number crunching pure and simple, and is what computing power does best. All we need is somebody to create and continually update a global database of materials, quantities and the cost of using them for a particular place and time. This would be more infinitely more useful than a picture of a sea otter in the style of Vermeer and might even work to discourage certain design decisions being made in the first place.

Architectural intelligence that goes by the name of creativity is more problematic. Certain problems can be framed in such a way that solutions can be generated by an algorithm. Or, to be more precise, if we reframe the problem as how to frame the architectural problem so that an algorithm can generate a solution, then offices around the world won’t have to pay such huge sums to their employees anymore. ZHA is on the case.

This “Data-driven, algorithmic housing” project continues to amaze me but mainly due to the fact somebody thought it was exhibition worthy and somehow represent the advancement of architecture. Four elevators for, on average, five floors of, on average, 50-60 studio apartments per floor eh? I’m not going to say anything against the use of light-wells as I’ve been exploring this myself but 5m x 5m would probably be okay if there weren’t beds right up against those windows and as many as eight windows around a 5m x 5m light-well. [Column 4 from the left, Row 4 from the bottom.] The plan and model below show that situation for what is probably only levels two and three so it’s not as horrible as if the light-well had been seven floors deep. BUT. It’s pointless having light-wells and windows if there’s not going to be any audio or visual privacy. Three windows are adjacent to corridors. [e.g. Column 2 from the left, Row 5 from the bottom.] If an algorithm makes a misjudgment of appropriateness then it’s the fault of the embedded values of its creator. But if it makes a more fundamental error then it’s a case of some obvious facts about people and buildings not being given to the algorithm. TWO UNITS ARE ACCESSED VIA VOIDS FFS! [Column 4 from the left, Row 3 up from the bottom.]

In fifty years we haven’t progressed that far from shuffly windows. We’re still locked in a phase where self-similarity and variation are understood as representing creativity. Randomization (within parameters) is something that can be easily computerized and produced with minimal time and labour. We need to decide if this is artificial creativity or whether we are redefining or being asked to redefine creativity as what the available technologies of the time can accomplish. The above example of data-driven design has a an apparently random sprinkling of balconies, but only in places where the obstruction of light matters less. The building is higher towards the north but contrivedly and irregularly so. The floors are non-identical to allow more light but again, contrivedly irregularly so. Despite these nods to live-ability and current notions of what’s currently pleasing to the eye and mind, it’s fairly easy to see what were chosen as parameters for optimization and what wasn’t. We can’t blame AI for those decisions.

The only question is what we want from architectural creativity. Is it still all about shape making or, as some say “form giving”? Or is it still all about success in branding oneself while one brands one’s clients? It’s always been about problem-solving but the problem is that the nature of the problem is a moveable feast. If we’re not clear about what architectural creativity is then we’re in danger of falling for representations of it or, worse, for crude approximations of what we think it is. We’re prone to do this anyway, with or without AI. AI could just be another instance of architecture aligning itself to technologies that look like ther future. Remember, we’re still waiting for factory-produced prefabricated houses to revolutionize housing supply. 3-D printing may have revolutionized the field of medical prosthetics but it’s had zero impact upon the construction of buildings and how we live.

Sooner or later it will be possible for an architect-person to say DESIGN ME A 100M2 FISHBURGER RESTAURANT IN THE STYLE OF FRANK GEHRY CIRCA 1985. Too easy? OK then. DESIGN ME A 10,000M2 MAXIMUM SECURITY DETENTION CENTRE IN THE STYLE OF ZAHA HADID CIRCA 2000. Both are database-driven framings producing deepfake solutions. Would they be violations of intellectual property? Probably, as many contemporary artists are discovering. I’m not going to end by claiming the human brain is superior and that creativity is some mystical thing impossible to comprehend. It’s just that the human brain is a constantly reorganizing database of learning, memories and experiences and we have to use placeholder words like inspiration and creativity to explain how that data is selected and combined to create a desired output. This all happens in our brains that are STILL A BLACK BOX and, as long as they are, we cannot expect anything but crude approximations from AI, even if they prove good enough for the task they’re given.

• • • 

The Stacked Courtyard

At the end of the last post and with reference to Tadao Ando’s 1973 Sumiyoshi/Azuma House, I wondered when does a courtyard become a lightwell? Or the other way around? It might be a poor question because all courtyards provide light and ventilation but we look at the Ando house and see a courtyard not a light well. Perhaps a better question would be “What makes a courtyard a Confucian courtyard?” If the courtyard is a space bordered by both sky and ground, and understood in the abstract as a space between Earth and Heaven, then another way of asking the same question is to ask how the reality of the space and the understanding of the space are connected? More to the point, how much and in what ways can the courtyard be changed yet still retain its meaning in the Confucian sense?

For example, the idea of the Confucian courtyard could be behind the 1975 Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate (勵德邨) by the Hong Kong Housing Authority. Their voids definitely connect ground and sky and provide a degree of light and ventilation. However, there’s no awareness of anything happening on the ground and, for that matter, not much awareness of the sky either. All that remains is the vertical link between the two, as well as the idea of it. These voids can still function as courtyards in that people can see other people on the other side but, unlike courtyards, any interaction beyond the audio-visual will need to occur in the circular corridor around the void. Only the lowest level is amenity space. With a Confucian courtyard, the awareness of the vertical link often takes place while traversing the courtyard. Amenity is secondary but if people are going to be passing through a courtyard then interaction is inevitable. Confucius would not have had much to say about voids in high-rise buildings.

The Hong Kong Housing Authority has a history of developing and testing housing prototypes but the Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate was a one-off. The return in terms of amenity value and or symbolic value must have been insufficient for the footprint of the void. However, for many years prior, the Hong Kong Housing Authority had developed variants of a tower typology sometimes known as the snowflake layout where a light-well runs through the elevator lobbies of 40-storey towers. This void has zero amenity value but an awareness of even a dim glow of daylight above would be sufficient for it to have symbolic value. The dimensions of this rectangular core are fixed by the need to access eight apartments from it and so it’s possible that the light-well is just space left over. If so, then using this surplus space as a symbolic link between sky and ground was more important than the amenity of more floor area in the elevator lobbies. Perhaps the donut-shaped lobby never went any further because the diameter of the lobby (and thus the footprint) became too large if there were more than eight dwellings per level. Eight is a lucky number in China but eight apartments could provide an ideal ratio of lobby area to building footprint.

In terms of sunlight and ventilation, the ideal width of a Chinese courtyard is three times the height of the buildings around it. I don’t know how I know this but I suspect it’s just one of those things that’s always been known. It’s the diameter to height proportion of a tulou – a Hakka courtyard house.

The author of Confucius’ Courtyard, Ruan XING, offered tulou as another example of an historic Chinese courtyard. It’s widely believed these were defensible communal houses but, as Xing points out, it doesn’t make sense in terms of defense to have your food storage buildings outside the compound. It could just be that the Hakka people lived in these communal dwellings because they wanted the proximity of the ground and sky and their entire clan as well. Regardless of the reason [and hats off to the Hakka people for inventing the social condenser in the 12th century], we recognize this space as a courtyard but, from the residential portions it’s a void that’s looked over. At ground level there’s not much space left over once communal buildings such as kitchens, bathrooms, ancestral hall and reception rooms are built. The relationship that these communal buildings have with the ground and sky is the same as for any other building. It’s only in the smaller courtyards within the enclosing courtyard that ground and sky can be experienced at the same time.

Professor Xing also mentions Ju’er Hutong Phase I, designed by Liangyong WU of Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Phase I was completed in 1990 and Phase II in 1994. At the time, the project was highly praised as it was widely believed that low-rise buildings around courtyards would be the future of high-density housing in Beijing, if not in all China. More than one paper was written. It didn’t turn out that way for various reasons but the main one is that these buildings still required too much land for the density they provided.

Phase I, shown below had four courtyards for 46 units so each courtyard is bordered by twelve apartments more or less. The smaller courtyards have one apartment on each re-entrant corner per floor but visual access to the larger courtyards is unequal as some units front both large courtyards and, judging from this plan, others front neither. Post-occupancy studies have been done, residents interviewed.

  • Some residents thought the size of even the larger courtyards was too small.
  • Rooms with windows onto the courtyard are well ventilated but other rooms less so.
  • Not much communal activity actually happens in the courtyards. Some people said this was because they were not that bright while others said it was because they were too small.
  • Residents and foreign residents in particular said they were more likely to meet other residents on the stairs.

The courtyards at Ju’er Hutong are well traversed and provide that Confucian link between Earth and Heaven but, apart from light, ventilation and access to the stairwells, they offer little in the way of amenity. People weren’t using them in the ways that Chinese people used courtyards in the past and we shouldn’t be too surprised at this. For example, it was once the case that wedding receptions were held in courtyards. Children probably played games or with uncomplicated toys … However, these courtyards fulfill the Confucian requirements no more or less successfully than the tulou communal dwellings where the space open to the ground and sky is sometimes traversed but mostly looked at from windows on the periphery. It seems sufficient and any actual amenity as a courtyard is welcome, but secondary.

The length:height ratio of the Azuma House courtyard is about 1:1 and its width:height ratio about 0.6:1. The courtyard obviously allows sufficient daylight, facilitates airflow to some extent and has the ground surface as amenity space. This courtyard is fit for purpose on these counts but can a bridged courtyard such as this still be understood as a vertical link between Earth and Heaven because when on the ground, one third of the sky is obscured and, the courtyard is more open on the upper level but one isn’t on the ground anymore? From the lower level, the bridge doesn’t seem to matter and, from tulou to donut void to modern hutong, a view of a void from its periphery seems ok.

Putting this all together could lead to high-rise high density solutions such as P&T Architects 1989 Clague Garden Estate (祈德尊新邨) with its paired towers linked by bridges at elevator lobbies every third floor.

Every 36 apartments share a communal volume internally overlooked by all stairs as well as some kitchens and bedrooms. This void could be overlooked by more windows if the access corridors were partially detached from the buildings as is now happening in contemporary Chinese high-rise residential towers.

The tie-beams with the circular holes are decorative but also manage to imply the moon gates of Chinese courtyards. I don’t think this is accidental. This virtual volume is the stacked courtyard.

As far as I know, no more estates with this configuration were built. Perhaps like the 1975 Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate (勵德邨) with its donut arrangement, or the courtyards of the 1990 Ju’er Hutong Phase I, land was simply too expensive to waste on a void. It’s all the same problem. I revisited my Circle House proposal for a high-rise residential tower [c.f. Defensible Space], along with some variations on this theme of a triple height elevator lobby overlooked by mainly kitchen windows.

  • The triple-height elevator lobby is taken from P&T’s Clague Garden Estate project.
  • Each elevator lobby is overlooked by 24 units, eight per floor. This is twice the number of units around the courtyards at Ju’er Hutong Phase I, but only two thirds the number accessed by each elevator lobby in Clague Garden Estate. Circle House has all kitchen windows of all units looking into the elevator lobby.
  • As with the light-well in the Hong Kong “snowflake” tower typical floor, all slab area not needed for access and circulation is removed to create voids the full height of the building.
  • The bi-directional symmetry of my proposal most likely comes from these same towers, along with the eight units per level.
  • As with the Clague Garden Estate elevator lobby and bridges (as well as the residential portion of a tulou), people pass by vertical voids open to the sky but there is no place where there is sky above one’s head.
  • As was discovered at Ju’er Hutong Phase I and, not unlike the elevator lobbies of the snowflake towers, the courtyard has become primarily a means of access. Even so, it is a shared space and a space with the potential for interaction between residents. Even when there are no people in these courtyards and lobbies, they are still spaces that can be observed (from all access stairwells and at least 24 windows).
  • As with Ju’er Hutong Phase I, each staircase is used to access two units per landing over three floors although, with my high-rise, each external stair runs the full height of the building. People on the upper of the three levels can walk down a level from the elevator lobby above. The internal staircases enable units of different sizes to be configured but this added functionality has nothing to do with the theme of this post.

From all this I conclude that the essential functions of a courtyard are and have always been illumination, ventilation and access and that enabling them in a residential tower is not counter to the Confucian notion of a courtyard encapsulating [as opposed to representing] a link between Heaven and Earth. Even if one doesn’t see the courtyard as a vertical link between Heaven and Earth, one is still left with a space that is naturally illuminated and ventilated and that, even when no one is in it, can still be visually shared and possessed by all.

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