Tag Archives: architecture as problem solving

3D Printers in History

Here’s a photograph of some railway workers in the 1800s posing for one of those new modern things called photographs. It was a moment or, more accurately, a whole series of moments because those early exposure times were long. This is why we always see pictures of people posing and never doing any actual work. All the same, work must have been done or else railways wouldn’t have gotten built.

You can think of the built part of the railway as the material supply path and the workers as a primitive kind of 3D print head that positions those materials where they need to be before the materials supply and print head both move to the next position. A single bricklayer is both material supply path and print head but larger projects having higher walls needed hod carriers to keep the bricklayers continuously supplied with bricks and mortar. All the time. It’s not difficult to see the attraction 3D printing has for the construction industry.

This is Ernst Neufert’s 1943 House Building Machine. Times being the times, Neufert would have thought of this as a moving factory for the assembly of building components that had been made at other factories. It’s really just scaffolding on wheels but Neufert wanted us to think of it as a gigantic 3D printer with the enclosing building as the print head. And we can inasmuch as construction materials are continuously fed in it at one end and a somewhat linear building continuously output at the other.

Ernst Neufert is the very same Ernst Neufert whose book, Architect’s Data, first published in 1936, provided standardised dimensions for building components, minimal space requirements for room types, and standard configurations for building typologies. Neufert was ahead of the curve for seeing the possibilities of prefabrication, and saw standardization as a prerequisite for factory production. His book remains an essential reference for students in some countries even if Metric Handbook is used more widely in practice.

Neufert’s dream of a house-building machine never came to pass in the horizontal dimension but something similar did happen for the vertical with tower cores and, increasingly, columns being slip-formed in concrete. Reinforcement may be craned in and concrete may be pumped into position but a small yet invisible contingent of construction workers is there to place it all accurately and distribute it appropriately. This is getting closer to our image of what a 3D printer should be.

Parallel to this potted history of construction was the development of 3D printers as a development of 2D inkjet printers developed as replacements for thermal printers and the daisy wheel and IBM Selectric (“golfball”) text printers before them.

Each depended upon print materials and a print medium being supplied and forced together to transfer this thing called information. Laser printing does the same thing faster because the letters that are the units of information are created in the same way by pixel dots that are the units of image creation. This meant that laser printers could print images and not just text like a typewriter. This handicap was understood because, before inkjet and laser printing there used to be this think that’s now known as typewriter art. [“Grandpa, what’s a typewriter?”]

Photographic printing involves the batch exposure of materials for batch chemical processing but the action of the chemicals is slow yet theoretically the better way to do things. Semiconductor and integrated circuit manufacturing has no time for the sequential operation of even laser print heads. Instead, circuit boards are photo-printed by a process called photolithography using photomasks and photoresists which are the equivalents of photographic negatives and film.

Despite printer ink being second only to scorpion venom as the most expensive liquid on Earth, the inkjet printer itself is neither complicated nor expensive. All the do is force a liquid through a nozzle in a programmed manner to create ink drops that are then left to dry. This principle can be transferred to other applications.

Three-dimensional printing is more complex because it involves doing the same thing with a substance having more substance than ink but the first 3D printers had much the same mechanics as inkjet printers. The only difference was that, instead of a substrate material such as paper, the previous layer became the base for the next layer and a three-dimensional object was built-up layer by layer. This is why 3D printing is sometimes called additive manufacture. Whereas an inkjet printer print head moves in only one dimension and the paper moves in another, the print head of a 3D printer move in three dimensions in order to form a stationary object. [Having the object move around a stationary print head (as with a sewing machine) is also possible but the technology never went that way.]

Miniaturization into a desktop 3D printers invites us to accept them as part of the business or household just as we did for beige 2D printers.

Early 3D printers had low resolutions acceptable only for the new task of “rapid prototyping” but, by 2010, improved resolution and more sophisticated interfaces allowed the manufacture of end products.

3D Printing in Medicine

Organoids are artificial living tissue created by layering living cells (a.k.a. “bionic”) instead of plastic or metal. Organoids mimic the structure of actual organs, can be used for research purposes and one day may be suitable for use in transplants.

3D printing can be used to quickly and inexpensively manufacture customized prosthetic limbs and body parts. The lower price makes them especially suitable for children who quickly outgrow prosthetics.

A jawbone has been successfully 3D printed from titanium powder with a bioceramic coating, fitted with a dental bridge with new teeth and successfully implanted in an elderly patient. In general, the field of dentistry uses many small-scale prosthetics such as braces and dentures and can benefit from the time and cost advantages of 3D printing.

3D printed synthetic cartilage is now available for knee replacement, as well as 3D printing for knee realignment. 

3D printing is particularly suited to the field of medicine because

  1. the final printed objects are still relatively small,
  2. the process of 3D printing is inherently suited to the production of the customized, one-off objects used for medical purposes, and
  3. body organs and parts are generally unseen so aesthetics is rarely an issue.

    I could add a fourth.
  4. nobody is suggesting everyone have various body parts replaced with 3D printed ones just because the technology exists.

In general, as long as the desired mechanical and functional properties of an object are understood then the choice of material is unimportant as long as those properties are replicated. This is especially true for medical fields but it also true for any other.


The construction industry has been eyeing-up 3D printing for quite some time now because:

  • It promises spatial enclosures that can be continuously constructed using a single material and a single process – with obvious savings for construction time and sequencing but also for materials sourcing. The thinking goes that the fewer processes the better and the fewer materials the better and, following on from that, the fewer construction joins the cheaper and better.
  • Skilled labour can be eliminated along with the unskilled. 
  • Huge economies of time and thus money can be achieved. Whether these savings would ever be passed on to consumers is another matter. History suggests not.

What we have is a product that the construction industry wants badly despite society moving in a direction where we’re going to need more things for people to do, not fewer.

It should be clear by now that factory production of anything is more likely to result in unemployment than more leisure time for all. There were once people called craftsmen who used to take pride in making things by hand. 3D printing is the endgame of a century-long process of dehuman-ing manufacture.

3D printers are becoming smaller and a coffee vending machine of the future may yet print the cup while the coffee is brewing. 3D printers are also becoming larger and some of the first house printers were no more than nozzles attached to gantries.

Floors aren’t a problem as they’re flat and supported anyway. Walls also aren’t a problem if the 3D goo hardens quickly enough. However, corners need to be rounded for additional stiffness once window and door openings are made and lintels could be integrated with the door and window frames. Horizontal ceilings are a problem as there’s suddenly no support. However, corbelled and vaulted roofs are possible if the goo sets fast enough. [Perhaps it’s time to study medieval architecture and construction again.] This next image of those 3D printed houses was making the rounds a few years back. The walls corbel outwards, and then inwards to become the roof. It makes no difference whether or not we like or want our houses to have rounded corners inside or out. The construction industry builds what is easy for the construction industry to build and then sells it to us. And then sells it to us.

It seems to be what we’re being led to believe the future will look like. The only difference is that these next variants proposed for Mars won’t have the pretense of individuality. I like how tension bars span the vision panels to prevent the house exploding. Not having one’s house explode is always a good thing but, on Mars, full-height windows are about as necessary as Juliet balconies. It follows in the long architectural tradition of drawing attention to a problem chosen to showcase how clever the solution is.

“Hey – you missed a spot over there!”

Materials that can be used for 3D printing include ABS plastic, PLA, polyamide (nylon), glass filled polyamide, stereolithography materials such as epoxy resins, silver, titanium, steel, wax, photopolymers and polycarbonate. NASA invited the big architectural players to submit designs for 3D printed buildings on Mars and, somewhat cheekily, also asked them to not only develop the technologies to make it work, but preferably also using local materials such as Mars regolith since that looks like being the only thing, apart from cold, that Mars has a lot of. The lack of humus in this regolith might be a good thing for 3D printing but that’s not to say inorganic components such as silicon, aluminium, iron potassium and iron won’t cause problems, especially when they come into contact with water. [Won’t everything with iron in it rust? Remember that chemistry class when the teacher threw some potassium into a bowl of water?]

The proposal by Foster & Partners involves three construction stages, each with dedicated robots. The first was digging a hole, the second was putting some sort of inflatable in it and the third stage I didn’t really understand involved using microwave robots to “fuse” the Martian “soil” to the habitat.

Imagining me on Mars, I’d be more concerned about the very process of 3D printing where the gap between every two built-up layers is a potential line of fracture. Think of what happens when your inkjet printer heads need cleaning and those white lines appear due to clogged nozzles? Surely it’d be easier to dig a hole and use the stuff dug out of the hole to make bricks like we used to on Earth?

I recently read that “Scientists have developed a method to 3D-print greener buildings using local soil that they say has the potential to revolutionise the construction industry.” The breathless article leader said “Eco-friendly technology could potentially replace concrete and revolutionise sector”.

This row of houses we recently saw was late to the party in 1830 but, like many similar London terraces built over the hundred years previous, was made out of bricks fired from clay obtained by digging the basements.

These next four proposals all employ a lo-tech shell to shield a technical membrane provided with a breathable mixture of gases at a familiar pressure. Seriously, I don’t think the fourth one’s a starter as it’s made of ice when we don’t know if Mars even has water. Just because it’s cold doesn’t mean there’s ice.

Here’s an idea. We won’t have that much else to do so, rather than unpacking and assembling 3D printers, we could occupy ourselves with productive work using simple, failsafe and low-energy devices.

I’ve prepared a simple design that uses Mars-bricks to enclose maximum volume with the minimum of materials, and in a structurally efficient manner. It looks like this.

The recessed entrance should keep out much of the cold and dust and the walls will protect us from solar radiation. We might still have a problem with the 1% air pressure making our blood fizz like a can of Pepsi and killing us in seconds or, if miraculously not, the 95% carbon-dioxide atmosphere suffocating us in minutes. Until I can scrounge an air-lock from a skip somewhere, I think I’ll follow the principle of every other proposal and keep my technical membrane on when inside my protective shell. On second thoughts, I think I’ll just hang out in the spaceship for a while and do a bit of tidying up. You guys go on ahead. It might take a while.


It’s Just Design

A colleague tells a story of how she once asked a student why they made a certain design decision and the student replied “I don’t know. It’s just design.” It’s difficult to comprehend this as I’ve always thought of design as something requiring no small amount of knowledge and skill together with an understanding of the problem and a curiosity regarding possibly unconventional ways of solving it. This student felt neither such pressure nor challenge. Design was just some inconsequential flourish added at the end. Or so I think. Or think they thought. I really don’t know.

And yet, I do understand that not every design decision has to be justifiable. Some can be appreciated for what they are without attempting to step inside the head of the designer. Sometimes you don’t even think to wonder why. Many of Tōgō Murano’s design decisions are exactly this and I’m happy to just appreciate them for what they are. Whatever the register, I trust his judgment. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #21: Tōgō Murano]

I thought of Japan and such enigmatic design again recently. Last September, a friend from Japan passed through Dubai and gave me a bottle of saké. I said I’d keep it for some cold winter’s night. In January, in anticipation of a cold winter night that never came, I went to my local DAISO and bought a tokkuri and matching choko – three, because in Japan a set of something is always three or five, never four. I thought their design slightly weird in a way Japanese design often is, but up to the task. Anyway, by mid-April here it was already 35°, lockdown and high time to crack open the saké.

[The tokkuri is filled and then placed in a saucepan of boiling water for up to five minutes. You always fill the cup of your drinking companion if you have one. If you’re using the more ceremonial shallow saké cups, you’re supposed to finish it in exactly three and a half sips.]

But what’s going on with that design?! The fish is the famous fugu, the blowfish that chefs need a license to prepare. I don’t know what it’s doing on a tokkuri but fugu is like sushi in that it’s one of those foods Japanese eat to celebrate special occasions and events so I guess there’s a connection. But it wasn’t the toxic fish but the three dots that disturbed me. They seemed like an example of “just design” – some incomprehensible throwaway flourish that, though weird and resistant to justification, can’t be said to be right or wrong. All I knew was that someone had designed it that way and I either had to accept it, reject it or just appreciate it for what it is and not overthink it.

I overthought it. The three dots are the same shape as the white background to the fish – a use of Shape to UNITE – and that connection caused me to think of the three dots as bubbles and not the domino-like arrangement I’d previously seen. Once that idea of bubbles forced a conceptual unity between dots and fish, I couldn’t unthink it. A tangible unity reinforced by a conceptual association is a strong combination. [c.f. Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINE] Never again will I see those three dots as just dots or the design as just design because I now have a way of understanding it and any mystery or magic is gone. It’s the price one pays. But if it were possible to understand the mechanisms of beauty, would we want to? Me, I think we must, and we should also try to apply this knowledge to the business of getting buildings designed!

• • •

This site for this semester’s design project was in an interesting but slightly disconnected part of town, primarily residential, and with 24-hour supermarkets and many good and inexpensive restaurants.

At the south corner of Satwa Roundabout is a car park shaped approximately like a quarter circle of 60m radius. Triangular sites always force fundamental decisions regarding vehicle access ramps and the direction of the grid. Students don’t like them.

The straight sides face four-storey buildings across streets, with the one on the south being a shaded pedestrian street. These two sides will have views of the Dubai skyline from floors four and above.

There’s a direct bus route to the airport and less than 2km away to the east is Dubai’s main road and Metro, to the west is the beach and museum, to the south is the old area of Satwa and to the north are the old areas of Bur Dubai and The Creek. In short, it was a perfect location for a three-star hotel, or rather, another three-star hotel because on the eastern corner of the roundabout is Chelsea Plaza Hotel. I don’t know when it was built but it’s probably not as old as it looks.

That’s the eastern half of our site in the photo on the right below, taken, the internet tells me, from Room 405 of Chelsea Plaza Hotel.

So then, how to begin? What to do? What does a three-star hotel with about 250 rooms and a maximum parapet height of 39 metres on this site in this part of Dubai want to be? For some students this is the most fun and interesting part but for others the most frightening – The Difficult Whole. Some will freeze, thinking I want them to come up with some BIG- or Hadid-esque concept of shape for, in many student minds, curves are still powerful symbols of creativity. In order to discourage all but those with the confidence and skills to pull it off, I usually include a requirement for an underground car park with an efficiency of more than 35 sq.m per car.

I used to be one of those students who treated every design project as an opportunity to show off. I recently had reason to request a copy of my undergraduate transcript and was shocked to see I received a B for my final project. On reflection, I probably would’ve been pleased for, at the time, we thought anything over 75% was brilliant and called a Distinction.

There were two approaches. One was a linear building along the long side of the site, perhaps following its curve, and the other was an L-shaped building along the other two sides. Former me would have avoided the obvious and I did for a while consider a building that curved along the site boundary for the lower floors but gradually changed into one curving the other way at the top in exaggerated response to the view.

It was possible to flex the building and give it a vaguely cobra-like shape while keeping vertical columns and a maximum south side cantilever of 3 metres but every corridor would have had varying degrees of curvature. Besides, I didn’t think the curvature would be that perceivable anyway. Actually, it wasn’t such a good idea. I was also put off by a similarity to structures Bjarke Ingels and Elizabeth Diller have each shamelessly invoked the name of Eladio Dieste to justify. For a three-star hotel project in an intermediate design course, something more aesthetically efficient was called for. I went for the L-shape but with the function room level and pool deck as a volume distinct from the body of the hotel.

If the lower volume is the same height and color as Chelsea Plaza Hotel then this upper level is where it is different. It’s a design feature with its asymmetry, colour and overhangs calling attention to itself as a place for some of the other things done in hotels, and its curve is a consequence, a ripple of the fountain and roundabout. At least that’s how I saw it. To someone else it might be just design. The missing three windows most definitely are – at least until you realize they guide your eye upwards.

The thing about The Difficult Whole is that it’s a problem invented to show how clever you are in solving it. A whole is whatever you want it to be. Circa 1850, Augustus Pugin rejected the idea of the whole at Alton Castle. The building has been called a precursor to Modernism with its different functional spaces given different expressions with no thought to an overriding unity.

Or is it? There’s a likelihood Pugin embraced function as an excuse to be picturesque. Victorian clients liked buildings to look older than they actually were and creating the appearance of having been haphazardly extended over the centuries was one way of achieving this. This rambling inconsistent whole may have been the effect he was striving for. It’s either all just design or none of it is.

Recently I mentioned this building from 18th-century Venice where nobody found anything difficult about putting a symmetrical facade beneath an asymmetrical roof. [c.f. What’s Already There]

The projects I set students I always do myself, working it through and sharing what I’ve learned when it’s appropriate. I can usually anticipate problems they might have but mostly I do it because I enjoy it. There’s always something. No matter how much you try to choose an approach that gets all the big things right, it’s impossible to anticipate every problem that might arise. With this project, I tried to listen to those problems and respond to what they were trying to tell me and discovered that, as an approach, it works. The images you see here are from a presentation powerpoint [worth 20% of the final grade]. A separate [20%] requirement was a set of drawings aspiring to planning-approval standard.

The typical floor fell into place easily. Elevators are where they need to be. Corridors have windows and fire escape is obvious. Internal columns line the corridor wall. More rooms have a Dubai view than not. There could have been sixteen more such rooms but the fire-escape stairs couldn’t go the other side because of the internal roads. [I only just thought of it now, but if I’d taken the stairs down on the inner side and on the first floor swapped them to the outer side then I’d have 10 more rooms with a preferred view.] This approach is my understanding –  or possibly my mis-understanding – of a newish concept called Lo-Res Architecture. For me, lo-res architecture is an architecture that’s uncomplicated and undemanding and that seems so obvious you wonder if in fact there’s any art to it at all. It’s the most exciting idea I’ve heard in years. Despite how much a Lo-Res Architecture has meaning for me, I’ve probably got it wrong because, on the basis of what I’ve read about it, it seems to require a lot of hi-res language to describe it.

Even a lo-res problem is a problem and sure enough, they started to arrive.

Problem #1: This first one was my most embarrassing. My initial attempt had the main entrance on the other side of the building where the service entrance is now, but this produced an insoluble circulation problem on the 9th level function room floor where the elevators need to open south. (Tyrant me forbids the use of double-door elevators as a solution to situations like this.) The reason I like the small hotel as a design problem is because the service corridor, service elevators and passenger elevators have to work for levels of five different types. It’s a complex 3D spatial planning exercise and I had to confess that I should have checked I’d solved it for all levels before I’d gone too far ahead. Luckily, the peculiarities of the one-way traffic system meant there was no better side for vehicle access and having the entrance and lobby on the “rear” corner meant all public areas of the ground floor faced streets active with pedestrians. This should have been my first choice. I fessed.

Problem #2: The rear of the 9th floor was originally a curve almost concentric with the one on the other side. The problem was that the outer walls on the south side didn’t hit the column grid well – something I also should have checked much earlier. Making the curve larger reduced the size of the terrace and still wasn’t a good fit. Reversing the curvature did the trick.

Problem #3: A colleague pointed out that I had poor visibility where vehicles leave the site. I removed the offending column, cantilevered as far as I could to compensate and adjusted the room sizes accordingly (because the internal columns were along the corridor wall). No hotel room door occurs at a column position. Doing this produced the double-L massing on the roundabout side. I was open to letting something like this happen as, before, I confess the building had been a bit dull.

Problem #4: The service elevator wasn’t in a happy place and so I moved it to the middle of the building. This paid off when planning the rooftop pool deck but it’s also why the service corridors on the ground and 9th floor are a bit messy in the final version. I always have to convince students that, if anything has to be a bit messy, it’s best if it’s a service corridor.

Problem #5: This next elevation drawing explains why the window spacing on the south-east and south-west elevations is not regular. On the other side of the building where there are fewer windows and columns, I simply got lucky. What I’ve learned is that interesting things just seem to happen when you simply set up systems and let them interact. I don’t know what to call this. An architecture of happy accidents? It’s a response to circumstance and not just design. To an observer it won’t make any difference but to a designer it should.

Problem #6: But some design decisions are less easy to justify and my asymmetrical overhanging 9th floor meant that fire escape stairs from the rooftop deck overshot the stairwell below at one end of the building and didn’t quite reach at the other. I either had to make this work or come up with a better idea. Both ends were manageable, without any fuss at the overhanging end, and by introducing the new design feature of the yellow stair – Hello Arquitectonica! – plus a new drainage problem, at the other.

In last semester’s project I’d stumbled upon the idea of setting up simple systems and letting them interact as a design approach. [c.f. Spiral Binding] This time around I wasn’t so set on a preconceived outcome, and I also accepted that every single element didn’t have to be a design feature and certainly not the building as a whole.

• • • 


What’s Already There

Venice has been an inspiration to artists and architects for centuries. Even today, the Venice Architecture Bienalle sustains the city’s symbolic importance for architects and architecture despite the city having almost no 20th century buildings. its most used one is the Venezia Santa Lucia railway station, designed by Angiolo Mazzoni. That’s it on the left, below.

(In 1860 the islands of Venice were finally connected by train to the mainland and the Church of Santa Lucia was one of the buildings demolished in 1861 for the current station’s predecessor.)

As state architect, Mazzoni designed many post offices and other public buildings but his speciality was railway stations. He designed them for the cities of Latina, Montecatini Terme, Reggio Emilia, Regio Emilia, Regio Calabria, Messina, Siena, Florence and Rome. Venice Santa Lucia was one of his first designed (1924–1934) and one of his last completed (1934-1943). But it was completed and Mazzoni is one of two 20th century architects who built on a major waterway in Venice.

Frank Lloyd Wright was not to be the other one. This small brown brick building belonged to Angelo Masieri who was a huge admirer of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Masieri travelled to the United States to ask Wright to design a building for this site on a corner looking down the Grand Canal. Wright agreed but Masieri was killed in an automobile accident while there and Wright’s project became The Masieri Memorial (1951).

It’s not horrible. Wright left a space between the building on the right, mirroring the path separating it from the building on the left and so making both buildings stand proud. The height of his building lines through the cornice of the taller neighbor and, importantly, his building is higher on one side and creates a transition from higher to lower and knitting the building into the canalscape. It didn’t work. We don’t know why the municipality’s town planning office rejected Wright’s proposal. My guess is they didn’t think Venice needed a Wright building and Wright of course was incapable of designing anything else but. In the end, the interior of the existing building was remodeled by Carlo Scarpa, a 20th century architect who did design and built much in Venice but nearly all of it is behind walls and not on waterways. One of his more known works is his Sculpture Garden (1952) for the central pavilion of La Biennale di Venezia

His most accessible however is the Olivetti Store (1958) on the northern arcade of St. Mark’s Square. You’ll never see a more exquisite shop fit-out. Every material, every corner, every join of every material shows the skill of design and the craft of execution. This next image is the floor immediately inside the front door. It’s beautiful. It’s also as far as I got for there was an €8 admission charge, they didn’t take cards, and nobody had change for a €50 note.

Le Corbusier didn’t get to build in Venice either but Venice seems to get the blame for that. You’ll often come across this next plan that, like much of Le Corbusier’s output, can be used to say pretty much anything about anything despite the ramps and pilots being brought into service yet again to say something about the man and his oeuvre. I’ve seen this plan used as an example of field space and also as an example of a mat building even though.mat buildings are supposed to be repeated units solved for access, ventilation and daylighting. I don’t think this is, as individual wards are lit by skylights and those skylights face all the ordinal points of the compass.

There’s always been a few images of a model floating around the internet but I’d always thought the absence of external views anywhere, suspicious. These days, surely some visualizer has had a go? Sure enough, the proposal is sinfully ugly, even allowing for the visualizer possibly not doing it justice. Design began in 1958 and, although an initial design was approved by the municipality circa 1964, Le Corbusier died in 1965 and a few years later the project either quietly died or quietly had the plug pulled by a change in government.

Louis Khan’s 1972 proposal for what I think is an assembly hall in what looks like The Arsenale never saw light of day. I can’t say I’m sorry.

David Chipperfield is a 20th century architect who has built in Venice. His San Michele Cemetery Extension (1998–2017) is both appropriate and completed but it’s not on a waterway.

To the south of the two main islands of Venice is the island of Giudecca that does have many 20th century buildings. There’s an apartment building by Aldo Rossi at one end and a townhouse development by Gino Valle at the other. Giudecca isn’t as precious as the other islands. Its inhabitants are proud of being part of Venice yet not.

The centre of the marker above is where you’ll find Palladio’s Il Redentore [Church of the Most Holy Redeemer], completed 1592 as thanks to God for sparing Venice “the worst” of the 1575–1576 plague in which 46,000 people, approx. 25-30% of the population, died.

Almost directly across the canal from Il Redentore is another church, the Church of the Sacred Spirit. That’s it at the right in this next painting from about 1700. To its left are three buildings, each about the same width but the one on the right is taller than the other two and the awning suggests residential. The other two are most likely storehouses.

In this painting from not too much later, some land has been taken from the leftmost of the three to create a laneway.

In this engraving from not too much later, the taller building remains the same but the adjacent building appears to have been extended.

This next photomontage shows that sometime between 1700 and 1950, the residential building was also extended sideways to incorporate part of its neighbor and, probably at the same time, given a symmetrical tripartite facade to unify them. Nobody bothered to unify the roof so what we have is a building with a facade that wants us to think it it’s a whole, but with a roof denying that reading. This is not complex or contradictory. It’s just different problems being solved in different and most obvious ways.

This site belonged to the family of this lady, the Countess Marina Cicogna (b.1934). This noble family is one of Italy’s wealthiest, owns the Cipriani Hotel. The Countess has organized the Venice Film festival forever. The family has probably owned the site forever.

We don’t know why The Countess wanted an apartment building built on it but she did and she chose this architect to do it.

Ignazio Gardella (1903–1999)

And this is what he did.

Casa Alle Zattere (1958)

Ignazio Gardella was born in 1903 so, in the 1920s when he began his career, he was a Rationalist architect. Now you can think of Rationalism as a type of Italian Modernism but it wouldn’t be accurate. It was more a philosophy of solving architectural problems in the most rational way. I’ll leave aside arguments that Architecture is not just about how a problem gets solved but also about what problems get chosen to be solved but, for practical purposes, Rationalism meant that structure and shape tended to be congruent with the more “heroic” strands of modernism but the details often weren’t and, for this, Rationalism has been regarded as “impure”. Gadella’s first major building was the Tuberculosis Clinic in Alessandria (1934–1938). It’s all very boxy and modern but the upper level sundeck is screened by a wall of open brickwork characteristic of the Lombardian rural vernacular, particularly barns for the storage of straw.

Gardella’s next major commission was the Casa Tognella apartment building (1946–1953) for a spectacular corner site overlooking the castle and the park in central Milan.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Countess Cicogna knew the Tognella family and had visited and admired this building because Gardella’s first proposal was this next. It’s definitely not the same style as the church but it still does two very important things. One is the setback on the right side that separates it from its neighbor and creates a symmetry with the laneway on the other side, much as Wright had done with Masieri Memorial. Additionally, the important line of the base of the church’s pediment is carried over, separating a visually heavier base from the lighter two upper floors.

This next model better shows how those two techniques were applied but it also shows a third. The wonderful thing about Gardella is that any time your attention is drawn to something and you wonder why it is so, you’re usually rewarded with understanding. The first three floors have narrow windows with those on the right stacked yet those on the left are slightly unstacked plus there’s an extra window. Why? Because doing so creates a virtual horizontal line in line with the height of the building the other side of the lane.

This symmetry is apparent in this next sketch of a later development. That such a sketch exists shows Gardella’s concern for how his building will fit in. We see that the main windows of the apartments’are stacked but also centred as they are in the larger buildings to the left and right. The upper two floors are still set back but now the top floor terrace has no roof and the railing is like that on the five-story building further along the canal. Also, the roof is no longer flat, but pitched and tile.

This next development explores paired windows while the explicit lining through of the previous iteration is replaced by the fourth floor’s offset balcony that does the same job of acknowledging the church. On the fifth floor, the stone balcony becomes a parapet that is suggestive of a roof while for the small building on the left it indicates one.

The final building as built has the narrow windows mostly paired, with the offset narrow windows on the fourth floor continuing the horizontal line of the offset balconies and the church pediment on the far side in much the same way as as the offset windows on the first floor continue the line of the low building on this side. The second and third floors are now the only floors with windows the same. Why? My guess is that it repeats the pattern of the four windows on the upper floors of the building two to the left. Lastly, you’ll notice that the windows on the front facade are full height yet the doors are not. Again I’m only guessing, but I believe it mimics the lintel difference between the buildings two and three to the left. Something that’s not even a recognized element of a building is still something present in the surroundings.

What Gardella is doing is not post modernism because he’s not representing anything or contriving anything to represent anything – he’s doing it for reasons that are real. And it’s not historicism because everything he’s reacting to may be old but it’s still there in the here and now. And it’s not contextualism either because his building is borrowing but not imitating. It looks like an apartment building and not a church or a palazzo. It was something new in 1958 and we still haven’t got our heads around it.

I don’t think we ever will. Gardella didn’t tell us what he did or how he did it. He left it for us to work it out if we’re interested and, mostly, we haven’t been. Gardella makes “the difficult whole” look easy but Gardella isn’t “taught” and what understanding there is of this building doesn’t go beyond lining though.

What’s Already There

Taking one’s clues from What’s Already There is a way of understanding the work of Gardella’s contemporaries such as Milanese architects Mario Asnago [1896–1981] and Claudio Vender [1904–1986]. Their buildings are like Gardella’s Casa Alle Zattere in that they are respectful yet distinctive. They hold your attention if you look at them but they disappear into the city the moment you look away.

Gio Ponti buildings will always recognize the size of neighboring buildings as well as the shape of a site, especially if a corner is involved.

As do those of Guiseppe Terragni, particularly around roundabouts.

Looking at What’s Already There and letting that influence what your building is going to be like is more than just a safe thing to do. It’s the decent thing to do. You can still see it everywhere when walking around Milan, or Venice.

The projecting balcony elements on the facade of the middle building appears to be riffing on the arbitrarily closed shutters of the adjacent buildings.
The floor slabs of the middle building are lined through with the balcony railings of the building on the left, while the balconies themselves borrow from the building on the right.
I like the way this building speaks two languages. It’s big where it can be big but turns the corner and disappears into the street. Masterful.
At first I thought this building might be some undocumented Asnago Vender building but it’s more likely just an ordinary building doing the right things. It’s almost invisible. I think what’s happening is the wall on the right with the three stacked windows mirrors the wall of the adjacent building on the left. The four open bays therefore appear symmetrical with respect to the protruding balconies and the whole thing becomes a single composition. Excellent work!



Beaches, ponds and zero-entry swimming pools are all bodies of water without inconvenient level differences at their edges. Zero-entry swimming pools are sometimes called “beach-entry” pools.

When we arrive at a crowded beach, we begin to look for a spot long before we reach the water, especially if the beach is accessed by stairs or ramps leading down from a seawall or dunes. As we progress towards the water, we weigh alternatives and keep altering our route until we settle upon a spot. It’s usually not too close to other people and most likely to be as close to the water as possible and with a direct view of it.

People sometimes need to get to rivers for different reasons but rivers often run through built-up areas without the land for zero-entry. Parts of the The Ganges have stepped banks called ghat that allow people to access the river and bathe in the holy waters whatever the water level. As with a beach, people can begin to look for a suitable spot while coming down the stairs but the situation is more critical because bathing requires an empty spot at the waterline.

Underground water is generally further down and there is less space to access it whether to bathe in it or to fetch it for cooking and drinking. Stepwells are basically holes in the ground accessed by steps. A temple pond is used for ritual bathing and can be a well or a cistern filled by aqueducts. Either way, the problem is one of accessing the waterline. If space is unlimited and the water not that far down, the easiest way is to create a ghat on all four sides as a kind of inverted stepped pyramid void. This creates an infinite number of possible routes to whatever length of waterline there is.

Stepwell at Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple, Chikkaballapur, Karnataka, India. circa. 810 [by Bikashrd – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51371474]

This stepwell has irregular steps around three sides and an access ramp on the fourth. The maximum length of waterline can be accessed as if it were a river. There’s no need for a complex solution if a simple one will do.

Stepwell serving Nahargarh Fort (circa 1730), Rajasthan, India

This next temple pond has only the one access. Its steep sides are stepped for structural reasons rather than access. I say this because what look like paths along the sides will not always be a convenient height relative to the water and there’s no reason people should choose them if they have to access them from the main steps. And even if they did, they could only ever be used by one person at a time as they’re too narrow for people to pass each other, and they can’t step up or down as with the stepwell above.

Stepwell at Mahadeva Temple, Itigi, Karnataka, India, circa 1112

This next stepwell is the same typology and has the same limitations. Stepping the walls helps prevent them from buckling. After all, wells are built to access water that’s close to the surface because of sandy soil or soft rock and, wells being wells, both sides of their walls are subject to hydrological pressure. That so many stepwells survive is testimony to their builders’ understanding of hydrology and soil engineering.

Stepwell in Prakasam, Andhra Pradesh, India, circa. 1700

This next temple pond has gentle steps at one end, and sides that offer multiple but vastly less convenient positions. The main staircase is a miniature ghat that allows the water to be accessed. The side flights of steps may be ornamental but offer some structural advantage in addition to a backup functional one. People aren’t keen to use them.

This is the Adalaj Stepwell in the village of Adalaj, close to Ahmedabad city in the Indian state of Gujarat. It’s five storeys deep with stairs leading down to the water. It’s accessed by a single flight of steps and its galleries provide places for people to meet and appreciate the lower temperature. Circa 1490.

This next temple pond at Hampi Pushkarini, Hampi, Karnataka, India is a reconstruction from fragments, possibly circa 1200. It’s not particularly deep and this configuration gets people to the waterline in as little area as possible. It also allows them to plan their route so they arrive at an unoccupied position or, if they feel like a chat, to make their way to or near to an occupied position. Either way, a person can easily change their route should a better position become or look like becoming available. It’s an inverted pyramid void and steps of unequal treads create landings and three-sided flights that encourage movement around the well rather than movement forward and down.

This temple pond is a variation.

Temple pond at The Sun Temple, Modhera, 1026

A thousand years ago it was already understood how to integrate structure and function in a way that was ornamental only incidentally. A stepwell such as this next one offers maximum alternatives but for only three sides. The flights function as buttresses and as access, and their regularity and symmetry enhances both. This one is from the sixteenth century.

Stepwell at Panna Meena ka Kund, Amer, India

This next is another example of a three-sided stepwell. I don’t know when from. From this angle it’s somewhat terrifying but it illustrates all the principles.

Nagar Kund Baori, Bundi, Rajasthan, India

This next stepwell, Chand Bouri, dates from the 18th century but some parts are as old as the 8th. It’s another three-sided stepwell and a steep one. It wouldn’t be necessary to have so many stairs in such a confined space if the water weren’t so far down and there was more space to reach it.

Stepwell of Chand Baori, Jaipur, Rajasthan

More extreme solutions are called for when the water is lower down and there’s less space to access it. This one at Champaner in Gujarat, India has a 1.2m-wide staircase spiralling down the wall. It’s from the 16th century but is still the same typology as the ones above.

•  •  • 

These days, we’re only grateful for stairs when there’s a fire or emergency or the elevators aren’t working. We design buildings and other structures in which stairs aren’t even a design element. This footbridge has elevators that are part of the design and stairs that aren’t.

In these next images, stairs are design objects whose only function is to be design objects. And what would be the function of a design object?