Tag Archives: architecture education

Architecture Misfit #25: Ernst May

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Ernst May
[July 1886 — September 1970]

New Frankfurt [in German, Neues Frankfurt] was an affordable public housing program in Frankfurt started in 1925 and completed in 1930. The mayor of Frankfurt hired Ernst May as general manager of the project to bring together architects to work on it. The goal was housing that could be rented for no more than 25% of a person’s monthly income.

May’s developments were remarkable for their time for being compact. The 60 sq.m. area of a typical three-room apartment was fifteen sq.m. less than the standard for the time. Economic pressures led to two-room apartments for four people having an area of 40  sq.m. These were known as transitional minimum subsistence dwellings. The plan was to later combine them into larger units.

The housing units were semi-independent, well-equipped with community elements like playgrounds, schools, theatres, and common washing areas. This is admirable.

May used simplified, prefabricated forms for the sake of economy and construction speed. This shows a comprehension of the scale and urgency of the problem.

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The settlements were planned to have new ideals such as equal access to sunlight, air, and common areas. This was most progressive.

The settlement layouts and the dwellings and their spaces were highly functional. This was not the pursuit of functionalism as a style, but a means of not wasting space and the building materials to enclose it.

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The development of the Frankfurt Kitchen in 1926 by Austrian architect Margarete (Grete) Schütte-Lihotzky was one of the offshoots of their joint research. It was the first unit kitchen.

May was responsible for the production of approximately 15,000 housing units between 1925 and 1932. This is a huge achievement for any person in any country in any era, but was in Germany during a period of INCREASING POLITICAL TURMOIL – a period that, as it happened, coincided with the heyday of the Bauhaus.

Here’s what happened.

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Estate Höhenblick, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1927

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Estate Bruchfeldstraße (Zickzackhausen), Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1927

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Estate Praunheim, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1928

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Estate Römerstadt, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1928

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Estate Bornheimer Hang, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1930

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Estate Heimatsiedlung, Frankfurt am Main, 1927–1934

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Estate Westhausen, Frankfurt am Main, 1929–1931

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Estate Westhausen, Frankfurt am Main, 1929–1931

Johnson & Hitchcock have nothing to say about May, save for this parenthesised reference on p233 of The International Style. 

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Others however noticed. May’s achievements were recognised at the 1929 CIAM conference. This brought him to the attention of the Soviet Union.

In 1930 May took virtually his entire New Frankfurt-team to Russia. … The promise of the “Socialist paradise” was still fresh, and May’s Brigade and other groups of western planners had the hope of constructing entire cities. The first was to be Magnitogorsk. Although May’s group is indeed credited with building 20 cities in three years, the reality was that May found Magnitogorsk already under construction and the town site dominated by the mine. Officials were indecisive, then distrustful, corruption and delay frustrated their efforts, and May himself made misjudgements about the climate. May’s contract expired in 1933, and he left for Kenya (then British East Africa).

May’s reputation thus went the same way as Architecture Misfit #1: Hannes Meyer and Architecture Misfit #23: André LurçatMay isn’t mentioned much in the history of modern architecture. It’s not just because he went to the Soviet Union when other German architects were busy brushing up their English. May was a professional who, when given the problem of providing housing for the country’s population, didn’t see his role as developing prototypes for mass production, but to actually make it happen. And he did. 15,000 of them. And they’re still lived in.

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Despite existing from 1919–1932, the Bauhaus contributed little to solving Germany’s housing problem. Gropius’ Dessau-Törten Estate of 1926–1928 provided 317 dwellings with areas of 57–75 sqm but it was a job on the side, independent of his 1919–1928 stint as Bauhaus director. Gropius put the experience to good use and, immediately upon leaving the Bauhaus in 1928, won a competition for the design of Dammerstock Colony. In 1934 he was to leave Germany and its mass housing problems behind him forever.

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For the period 1926–1928 at the very least, Gropius was involved with both architectural education and the solving of real-world housing problems but, for a person renowned as an educator, the thought that education might be about training people to solve real-world problems never seems to have crossed his mind. He kept education and real-world problems very separate. It didn’t do his career any harm but, if we were to ask when the rot set in, it would be here. I use the term architectural education loosely, as Gropius must have on his CV, for it was Hannes Meyer who added architecture to the Bauhaus curriculum. And it was Meyer who connected architecture with the solving of real-world problems, only for Mies to separate it again. What happened afterwards – and, unfortunately for us –  is not history.

It’s often said Hitler’s preference for pitched roofs was responsible for the dissolution of the Bauhaus. Perhaps it was, but Ernst May still managed to get 15,000 flat-roofed housey things built before leaving Germany in 1930, four years before Gropius and eight years before Mies. May’s leaving was the greater loss for Germany. In 1954 he was invited back and began work again at the planning department of the City of Hamburg.

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Ernst May!

for knowing what had to be done in order to deliver,
and doing it.

misfits salutes you!

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Architecture Misfit #10: Colin Lucas

colin anderson lucas

Colin Anderson Lucas (1906–84)

was an English architect and pioneer of reinforced-concrete construction. He formed a company to build concrete structures in the style of International Modernism, including Noah’s House at Spade Oak Reach, Bourne End, Bucks. (1930), and Hop Field House, St Mary’s Platt, Wrotham, Kent (1933—with Amyas Connell and Basil Ward (1902–76).

house in kent In 1933 he joined Connell and Ward to form Connell, Ward, & Lucas, and brought his expertise to the creation of a whole series of International Modernist houses such as High and Over Estate, Amersham, Buckinghamshire. (1929),

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There’s more information and pics here. And here’s a short contemporary (1931) film about it, titled The House of a Dream.

There was also the Gunn House, The Ridgeway, Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol (1936),

Gunn House the Tarburn House, Temple Gardens, Moor Park, Herts. (1937–8), Walford House, 66 Frognal, Hampstead, London (1937)

frognal and Potcraft, Thomas House, Sutton, Surrey (1938) unparalleled elsewhere in the country. In short, until WWII he had quite a respectable career.

After the 1939–45 war he worked in the Architects’ Department of the London County Council, heading a team of young Modernists who designed, among much else, the Le Corbusier-inspired Alton Estate West at Roehampton, London (1951–78), where the slab-blocks are on a very small scale yet superficially modelled on Le Corbusier’s Unités d’Habitation.

History tells us nothing of why Lucas went to work in the Architects’ Department of the London County Council which, in the 1950s, was the largest architectural practice in the world. But he did.

It was a move away from one way of making buildings, and towards to another way of making  buildings. It was the change from making little architectural one-offs for the benefit of wealthy individuals and one’s own reputation, to using one’s skill as an architect to improve mass housing prototypes for the good of many, largely anonymously. 

There’s more to see and hear here about the London County Council but this next image shows part of the Alton West Estate.

alton estate westI’m not so sure the Alton West slab blocks are ‘superficially modelled’ on Le Corbusier’s Unités d’Habitation for in some ways they’re better. Here’s a plan of Ud’H 1.0 – Marseilles.

Unite Typical Floor Plan

  • Instead of a central corridor every third floor, Alton West has gallery access every second. These corridors will be cold, but bright. Horses for courses.

alton west corridor

  • The apartments at Alton West are double storey but have no double storey living room (like Apartment A at Ud’H) or no double storey master bedroom (like Apartment B at Ud’H) for that matter. At last, somebody’s redrawn the section!

CORBGRAPHIC

  • The kitchens at Alton West are separate and have windows (and larders!). This was a buildings regulations requirement. There is a hallway – building regs again – and bedrooms of usual (regulated) minimum width. All quite nice really.

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As well as adpating PJ’s prototype for British building regulations, the London County Council architects were trying to improve upon what PJ had proposed. The interlocking plan, central corridor and double-height living rooms were never an option. The double height living/bed room is a waste of enclosed volume that could be more responsibly provided with a floor and used to house more people. It is also a poor use of surface area if regulations require your kitchens and bathrooms to have windows.  

But all of this is to miss the most important difference. At Alton West there are five slab buildings, not one. There are almost twenty point blocks.

alton west

Let’s have a closer look at those point blocks.

point blocks at alton west

This is the sunny side.

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These buildings are stair-rich, presumably because of stricter fire code back then.

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  • All apartments are corner apartments, as you’d expect with four apartments and point access.
  • No two living rooms are horizontally adjacent.
  • Less space is used for circulation, even with the two stairwells.
  • Each apartment has a large hallway.
  • Whereas perhaps 80% of the apartments at Unité d’Habitations are double-sided and two storey, all Alton West Point apartments are single level and two-sided.
  • The service riser is beautiful.

During his time as an architect at the London County Council, Colin Lucas was also responsible for these two identical buildings.

Somerset Estate, Battersea

Somerset Estate, Battersea

Three floors of four two-bedroom apartments alternate with one floor of one-bedroom apartments. Apartments are arranged in a pinwheel arrangement, but split two to a side by the elevator lobby that has a single fire escape stair at one end, and a laundry drying room and garbage chute room at the other. This lobby is naturally ventilated and daylit. It develops the configuration of the point blocks at Alton West. Here’s a two-bed apartment plan.

A plan of a two-bedroom apartment.

And here’s what the kitchen looks like. The column from which everything below it in the plan above is cantilevered, is just out of the picture. Not shown in the plan above is the small window above the cooker, made possible by the pinwheel arrangement.

A refurbished kitchen with the separating partition removed.

These buildings are repeated across south London.

Twice more, as the Canada Estate in Rotherhithe,

Canada Estate, Rotherhithe

Two more times, as the Aylesbury Estate in Wandsworth.

Aylesbury Estate, Wandsworth

And six more times, as the Wyndham Estate in Camberwell.

Wyndham Estate, Camberwell

For about five years, I used to live on the 18th floor of Selworthy House in Battersea. I can testify to the solidity, liveability and humanity of these buildings.

Selworthy House

The view is also very nice, but that’s just an accident of history.

view of london from selworthy houseWhen these buildings were built, nobody valued views, especially those over Battersea, Rotherhithe, Wandwsorth or Camberwell.

rainbow over batterseaWhat impresses me most about the design of these buildings is how, by alternating three floors of two-bedroom apartments with one floor of one-bedroom apartments, Colin Lucas managed to make something special out of what must have been a very constraining brief. He did not have to do that.

These eleven buildings do not receive any mention in the history of post-war British architecture. They probably never will.

  • As part of the British government’s thirty-year war against its own people, the idea of social housing as a government obligation has been being erased from the consciousness of the people.
    1. Social housing has had its name changed to the less-loaded ‘affordable housing’. (The current mayor of London is at present attempting to redefine affordable housing as rents at 80% of market rent.)
    2. Whether past or present, highly-visible social housing is frowned upon. It is amusing to see how photographers contrive to omit the Somerset Estate towers from photographs of the (then) Richard Rogers Partnership’s Montevetro. Here’s a page of google images of Montevetro. This next image is from RSHY’s website.
      rogers stirk harbour young Here’s what looks like a planning application site elevation. Anything unpleasant is only shown in outline. One can almost hear the planners say “No higher than those hideous towers and you must respect the listed Church of St. Mary.” I have no respect for Richard Rogers or Montevetro.montevetro
  • Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Trellick Tower by Ernö Goldfinger is iconified as a Brutalist poster building by a famous architect in much the same way as PJ’s UdH is.Trellick-Tower
  • Robin Hood Gardens has people fighting its cause just as much for it being an important building by famous architects Alison and Peter Smithson as for any social significance it may once have have had. For the government, this is the rub – the very idea of highly-visible social housing is anathema.

ROBIN HOOD GARDENS

  • Part of this ongoing stealth campaign to discredit social housing is to encourage people to think of Brutalist architecture as nothing more than a dated stylistic choice.
    1. Any social worth (such as additional floor area) those construction choices may have generated is actively overlooked. Off-form concrete was honest about diverting money away from cladding and finishes and towards more useful parts of a building.
    2. It is easier to brand Brutalism a stylistic choice if it is associated with famous architects. We’re used to that as a concept.
    3. I suspect the Lucas towers are particularly reviled because that one extraneous design decision of the 3+1 repeat makes them very PROUD buildings. Once upon a time this conferred DIGNITY, but nowadays it seems to represent audacity.

* * *

somerset estate colin lucas

So then, Colin Lucas

You chose to work largely anonymously and in a large organisation,
improving upon useful prototypes you were not afraid to repeat.
You believed that people’s lives would be enhanced by doing that.  

It is for these reasons that

misfits salutes you!

colin anderson lucas

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Not these sounds (again) !

images

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was scored for a small orchestra (two of each in the wind family) whereas large orchestras (having four of each) were more to people’s taste in the late 19th century as audiences then, liked the volume turned up. The mid-20thC trend was for smaller orchestras and authentic instruments. The style was called HIP – for historically informed performance. It got mixed reviews.

51GqBUd5cBL._SX300_Harnoncourt, of course, made his name as one of the bright lights of historically-informed performance (HIP). He constantly pushed the limits of expression and took huge chances in his interpretations, which, more often than not, paid off in revelatory readings. This set, however, is not HIP. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe plays, for the most part, modern instruments in the modern way. Harnoncourt does make use of the valveless natural trumpet (for a very interesting reason; read the interview in the liner notes) and what sounds to me like natural-skin timpani. In short, the performance falls into the category of “modern, with slightly reduced forces.” 

The same phenomenon exists in architecture. Old favourites are continually re-photographed. I can think of several reasons.

  1. As with music, to suit the style of the times. Sometimes the difference is only slight but sometimes the change is huge.
  2. To obtain new, uncopyrighted phtographs. Later building activity has meant the old views can’t be replicated anymore anyway.
  3. To make them seem new again. Sometimes, the old photographs are just too old. They remind us that the building is slipping into history. I suspect this refreshing of imagery has something to do with rebooting our perceptions and stopping us from losing interest, of keeping the buildings and their myths alive.

New photographs for these three reasons all have the same function in that they are used to create a new media product in the case of books, or used as content on which to hang advertising in the case of magazines and, to an increasing extent, the internet. As a content provider of sorts myself, I’m not going to think about it too much – it’s the world we live in. It’s the world much architecture inhabits.

dezeen

Tastes in photography swing between the contrivedly dramatic and the apparently uncontrived – and then drift back again. Even buildings with a set money-shot can be photographed in a multitude of ways to freshen them up and make us look at them anew, even if only for a click.

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We should be thankful for photo-sharing sites such as flickr. Architects and photographers no longer have absolute control of what images of their buildings are published and circulated. The stage-managed money-shot is soon found out now we have a wider range of visual evidence on which to form our own visual aesthetic opinions. I say visual aesthetic opinions because photographs convey the warmth of timber or the coolness of marble, the aroma of timber, or the sound of a space. (I can’t think of an example where our sense of taste comes into play. This says as much about the essential nature of humans, as it does of buildings.)

Of the four sets of examples below, three are of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and one is of a Le Corbusier building. I’ll order them chronologically.

The Robie House

The Kaufmann House

The Villa Savoye

The New York Guggenheim Museum

With music, and especially with pieces of music such as Beethoven’s 9th, some people know an awful lot about them even though it might sound incredibly pretentious. These days, in addition to scholarly essays and knowledgeable opinion, there are also applications such as this one.

9thBeethoven’s 9th Symphony for iPad presents four of Deutsche Grammophon’s legendary recordings of this iconic work, with the amazing ability to switch instantly between each performance at any point in the piece. As you listen, you can watch the synchronized musical score, be guided by expert commentary, follow Beethoven’s 1825 manuscript or immerse yourself in the hypnotic graphical BeatMap of the orchestra, precisely highlighting every note. The app also includes a treasure-trove of specially filmed video interviews with musicians, writers and great conductors discussing Beethoven and his masterwork.  

Bethoven Autograph of Sym. 9

Will this result in an understanding greater than a lifetime chasing orchestras between concert halls? Or will it perhaps result in a different understanding or perhaps more applicable insights into the process of creating symphonies? I don’t know. I shall find out.

But what would be an equivalent app for architecture?

It’s easy to imagine a virtual model of any building, and for that to be bundled into an app with a set of drawings and a walkthrough with ACTUAL PHOTOGRAPHS and VARIOUS COMMENTARIES by VARIOUS COMMENTATORS. But what new knowledge would this produce, given that we can’t be the original users and have the experience that was theirs alone? (And why should we? They paid for it – we didn’t.)

Such applications exist. 

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Just as talking about something endlessly is easier than actually understanding it, collections of the same old visual and audio information re-marketed as ‘interactive’ because it’s on an iPad or something do not represent new understanding. Seeing something from a different angle or on a different device is not the same as seeing something in a new way.

It could of course be that we’re seeing more than there actually is to see. It could just be that the imagined timelessness in these buildings lies in their ability to act as a subject for new people to generate new content on which to hang new advertising. If learning how FLW did it was ever the objective, then we would have more FLW looky-likey buildings as subsequent architects tried and failed, or perhaps bettered the guy. We don’t. People learning how to replicate a real or imagined architectural magic is the last thing an architect’s PR machine wants to see. Especially a posthumous one.

The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap.1: Architectural Theory

Continuing these meditations upon the reading of The Autopoiesis of Architecture, the inspiration for this post was Chapter 1: Architectural Theory. The Introduction mentioned that the phenomenon of architecture can be analysed as an autonomous network (and autopoietic system) of communications along the lines of that proposed by Niklaus Luhmann for social systems.  Let’s not forget that this is what the book is all about.

Thinking back to the introduction, most introductions are meant to let the reader know what to expect.  They’re usually the last part of a book to be finalised because the author has already been to the end and back and had feedback from friends, family, colleagues and editors. The introduction is an opportunity to address this feedback so the reader has a better idea of what to expect, take on board what the author has written, and perhaps read the book more productively. What I remember most from the introduction is that I was asked to suspend judgment on the conclusions until the end of the book yet AT THE BEGINNING was asked to accept that there will be some strangeness of terminology and a possible sense of intellectual queasiness. Why should I? The book will either convince or it will not. It may well be an exercise in preaching to the converted. 

Chapter 1 deals with Architectural Theory and its importance for architecture. The territory of the book continues to expand as the author’s definition of architecture shrinks to fit his premise of architecture as an autopoietic system of communications. In passing, I wonder if Religion is an autopoietic system system of communications? I just mention that because, as I read on, I get the distinct feeling I’m being asked to make some Leap of Faith that I find impossible.

Architecture, like all the other subsystems of society … (p31)

See what I mean? We’re trying to ascertain if architecture is a subsystem of society or not. Sentences like this ask me to buy into a premise I’ve yet to be convinced of. It does explain some phenomena however.

Architectural discourse  maintains the unity of architecture by means of boundary management, denouncing incursions from neighbours such as engineers and artists who threaten to invade and blur the boundary and distinctiveness of architecture. The discourse also polices against unsustainable overextension of architects into alien territory.

The mention of engineers and artists is telling. Architecture is the filling in the sandwich. The word unsustainable jars here for there seems to be no limit to the extent that architects can extend themselves into engineering and art. The author’s colleague, for example, has extended herself into traditional artistic fields such as sculpture and painting as well as visual art fields such as exhibition and performance space design as well as decorative art fields such as furniture and tableware as well as designer goods such as jewelry, footwear, perfume bottles and other trinkets. Rather than showing disrespect for boundaries, this is an example of incredible commercial savvy. Territory is only alien until it’s conquered. An architect has yet to release a fragrance, for example. “Rotterdam”, Herzog & de Meuron’s effort was tongue-in-cheek so doesn’t count.

The need to mention the need to demarcate architecture from engineering is an example of preaching to the converted. Why should it be? And what is this thing that needs to be?

The assumption that a term or title like ‘architecture’ denotes a cohesive unity is far from self-evident … (p28)

and the author (in footnote 1 chapter 1) does mention Reinhold Martin’s comment “We cannot universalize any single, historically or culturally specific set of disciplinary practices under the heading “architecture”. I thought this deserved a bit more time discussing but no, if we start talking about this, then there won’t be much left to talk about.

Architecture does exist. It is a phenomena of recursive social communication with real internal unity. This is not only the a priori stipulation at the beginning of the theoretical edifice to be developed here, it is also the conclusion of the accumulated experience of an architect working for 20 years in many different countries across the world, collaborating with local architects, lecturing, discussing and meeting the local representatives of world architecture.

Architecture then, is at least as real as religion. The next sentence follows then, I guess.

The question at any time is: who can act in the name of architecture? (p32)

Like with any rhetorical question, the answer is not too long in coming. Now, the whole point of this book is to organise architectural phenomena into Niklas Luhmann’s theory of the development of social systems. If it is going to to this, then there needs to be something to fit Luhmann’s evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection and retention. The avant-garde architect, it seems, is the generator of variation for it is only they who have

the audacity to experiment and operate the graphic apparatus in analogy to (and inspired by) abstract art. The avant-gardist architect assumes the role of original creator or form-giver. Experimental avant-garde practice – stirred by external pressures and stimulations – is thus the differentiated mechanism that is the first precondition for an accelerated evolution.

This provides a good insight into the mind and motivations of the author, and where the author sees himself in his grand scheme of things. Lumann’s category of selection is (naturally) provided by

an architectural theory that closely tracks the avant-garde movement  – selecting and reinforcing the results of experimentation via manifestoes and theoretical treatises. … The crucial point here is that any new, unusual practice tends to disappear quickly unless it is being selected and interpreted by architectural theory, and thus reinforced by being inscribed into the discourse.

Here, I’m reminded of what happened to Le Corbusier’s “avant-garde” “inventive” “variation” of brick walls and concrete slabs in Maisons Jaoul (1954-1956).

Stirling and Gowan – within the boundaries of avant-garde practice – used it for their Ham Common Flats (1958).

This invention was very useful and became mainstream and started to be used in British council housing from the early 1960s.

This new and unusual practice did disappear quickly because it was not being selected and described by architectural theory and reinforced by being inscribed into the discourse. From this I conclude that Architectural theory only selects and describes unusual practices that are value-adding and aspirational (for as long as they remain so, and no longer) and irrespective of their actual worth or utility. Nothing I’ve read so far has forced me to rethink this.

For me then, the third category of retention does ring true, but I don’t think it is A Good Thing.

As mechanisms of retention we can identify canonizing architectural histories of the recent past, ordinary schools of architecture and the inertia of mainstream architectural practice. Two exemplary retrospective canonizations that facilitated retention/reproduction were, for example, Hitchcock and Johnson’s The International Style and Jencks The Language of Post Modern Architecture.  Both works are insightful distillations that could look back upon a decade of accomplished avant-garde design and theory [!] …  Once certain innovations have entered the mainstream – with the initial help and continuous sustenance of canonozing histories and and supported by educational curricula – they tend to stay there until pushed out by new innovations brought forward by new avant-garde design and theory. Only when these innovations have reached the stage of reproduction should we speak of evolutionary achievements within the discipline of architecture.

Now, going back to my example of load bearing brickwork and exposed concrete slabs, this was avant-garde and innovative when Corbusier and Stirling did it – it was unusual and innovative and responsible for making buildings look different. However, as soon as it reached the stage of reproduction, it was replaced with some new innovation. What’s happened here is that load bearing brick walls and exposed slabs were fine as long as their theory was being reproduced in mainstream architectural discourse (by canonizing histories and educational curricula, etc.) but shunned as soon as they came to be reproduced in mainstream architectural practice (as council housing).  I conclude from this that The point of architectural theory is not to generate anything of tangible social utility. I have no problem with this. Nobody said that architectural theory needs to be useful. 

Actually, the author is.

Architectural theory is integral to architecture in general and to all architectural styles in particular: there is no architecture without theory.

I’m growing accustomed to the author’s definition of architecture so I don’t find this statement particularly bold or even outrageous anymore. How many of the following statements would you agree with? Give yourself a grade out of 10.

  1. Architecture as distinguished from mere building is inherently theoretical. 
  2. Architecture in contrast to mere building is marked by radical innovation and theoretical argument. [Tautology alert!] 
  3. Innovation questions the way things are done and requires an argument which transcends the mere concerns and competencies of building. Innovation requires theory.
  4. Every great work of architecture offers a radical innovation.
  5. Most great architects are also important architectural theorists. … Virtually every architect who counts within architecture was both an innovator and a theorist or writer. The most striking examples are Alberti, Le Corbusier, Rem Koolhaas and Greg Lynn.
  6. In contrast, vernacular building relies on tradition, on well proven solutions taken for granted. The status quo does not require theory.
  7. Innovation calls for theory to substitute for the assurances that were provided by adherence to tradition. Theory thus steps in to provide a necessary function that allows building to become architecture, thus providing etc. etc.
  8. The primary function of architectural theory is to compensate for the lost certainty of tradition, where the appropriateness and functionality of buildings were guaranteed by the fact that the new buildings consisted in nothing but the faithful repetition of long-since evolved and surreptitiously corroborated models.
  9. Only theoretically informed building design constitutes architecture.
  10. Architecture is a discourse that is geared to permanent innovation, keeping up with and promoting a dynamic society.

The gist of all this is that architectural theory is necessary to provoke innovation because the trial and error processes of tradition and vernacular architecture are too slow to tie in with the authors vision of a modern, functionally differentiated world society. Or global market. Ah what the hell

we cannot only be concerned with the objective side of architecture’s performance.

No, I don’t suppose We can. (Leave me out of this please!) The next ten pages are rather dull, consisting of a categorisation of past theories of architecture and how this one is going to be better than each of them as well as all of them combined. I started to wish this book had a few more pictures to illustrate the products of problematizing theories, generative theories and analytic-predictive theories.  Skipping to page 54 it starts to get interesting again. The author restates his hopes that Luhmann’s theory of social systems will provide the required flexibility and robustness for a theory of autopoiesis of architecture for, after all, it can be applied to politics, law, economy, science, art, education, mass media and such. (Fashion? Religion?)

Luhmann never had and direct communication with architecture, and he did not explicitly recognise architecture as one of the great function systems of society.

Luhmann consigned architecture to the art system.
(p55, footnote 52)

Why, I wonder?

Instead, Luhmann buried architecture in the art system, simply falling prey to older, still lingering societal understandings of architecture, including anachronistic architectural self-descriptions. (p58)

On the other hand, it could be that Luhmann was right and architecture is a subset of the art system. I can see why he might think that. After all, Chapter 1 has told us that “architecture” (as defined by the author) has the following characteristics.

  • It comes with a theory
  • It is concerned with authorship
  • It is concerned with the breaking of traditions for the sake of it
  • It is not concerned with vernacular traditions
  • It has a worldwide reach and market
  • There is always a next new and big thing
  • It likes very much to use the word “avant-garde”

All this sounds very much like art to me. I can see why Luhmann didn’t bother taking it further, but he died in 1998 so we’ll never know. But it does seem strange to have a primary source of inspiration for a theory and then suggest his intelligence and powers of insight failed him when it came to the place of architecture.

What I remember most of this chapter however, is the author’s attempt to place some distance between architecture and “mere” building. He uses the word “mere” three times, as if the building of buildings is something totally lacking in skill and intelligence or even the creative application of skill and intelligence. Misfits has stated the precisely the opposite many times, and in many different ways. 

However, I’m prepared to admit that the author’s thesis may very well prove true for his particular definition of architecture based on his own lingering (architectural) societal understandings of architecture, including anachronistic architectural self-descriptions. A final two words.

 Adolfo Natalini

Monetising Architectural Fame

1. Not many architects get jobs by word-of-mouth anymore. In the past, an architect would design a building, some visitor would admire it, ask who the architect was and commission them. The architect would oblige with a design and a few other services and the client would pay the architect. It was simple and direct. Frank Lloyd Wright’s early under-the-radar buildings in Chicago were some of the last of this type of transaction (at least for him) after working his way through his first wife’s address book. The photo below is a recent photograph but, in 1895, the only way other people could see this house was by driving by in their horse and carriage (as Henry Ford did not start the Ford Motor company until 1903) or by seeing an engraving of it in a newspaper. Back then, architectural ideas did not travel very far, or very quickly.

The Moore House (1895) – the last of FLW’s houses on the sly

2. Magazines speeded up the process.  1896 saw the first edition of The Architectural Review. 1897 saw the first edition of the new lifestyle magazine Country Life created by Edward Hudson. He very much admired the architect Edwin Lutyens and commissioned Lutyens for a number of projects, including Lindisfarne Castle and the Country Life headquarters building in London, at 8 Tavistock Street. Most of Lutyens’ buildings were featured in the magazine soon after they were built and much of Lutyens’ fame is due to this magazine. Here is a photograph of Lutyens’ Deanery Gardens, built 1905.

The house and gardens are now owned by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame.

This early function of magazines enabled an architect to advertise his product to potential clients outside the range of his immediate contacts. The readership of Country Life was not aspirational – most of its readers were wealthy already. The process of getting jobs was still much like word-of-mouth, only bigger and faster. 3. This all changed with newspaper photojournalism. In 1897  it became possible to reproduce halftone photographs (such as the one above) in newspapers and selected magazines such as Country Life but the use of photographs in newspapers and magazines wasn’t common until the 1930s. “Did modern photography beget modern architecture, or the converse?” P. Morton Shand asked in a 1934 article in The Architectural Review. Apparently, he never answered the question, but concluded, “Without modern photography modern architecture could never have been ‘put across’.” An earlier post dealt with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater as an early example of photo-op architecture, the accusation being that Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater as a pretty scene that would photograph well in newspapers and magazines everywhere, and that it would bring him lots of attention. It did.

Bill Hedrich’s 1937 image of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater may be the most reproduced architectural photograph ever. Architecture tourists who find their way to Bear Run in Pennsylvania end up, consciously or unconsciously, following in the footsteps of an image. In the woods below the house, there is a well-beaten path to the point from which one can shoot an amateur version of Hedrich’s stack of balconies, staircases and waterfalls.

Note the year – 1937. People were now enjoying photographs in newspapers and magazines. It was no longer necessary to visit a building to get an idea of what it was like or to form an opinion of it. This was the end of innocence for architects. Architects might still get the occasional job via word-of-mouth. A potential client might still pick up a magazine, and then the phone. But the real change was that buildings weren’t being designed solely for end users anymore. They began to be designed to make an impression on people who had no chance of ever commissioning an architect. The remainder of this post is about who’s using who and why, and who gets what in return. 4. Architects provide content to newspapers, magazines and online media. They do this for free. Clients are irrelevant, unless an architect wants to generate content about doing the right thing by them, satisfying their individual and unique needs to make them seem special, etc. Architects who create their brand in this way never solve a similar problem for a similar client in a similar way because being “inventive” is their selling point. 5. Online media is targeted at you and me.    They want us to search and subscribe. They want to tell us they have something to tell us. These days, if we are not a content provider, then we are a content consumer. If we are all looking at an endless stream of images online, perhaps even like-ing it or commenting on it (and so providing new content for others to like, comment on or discuss) then that online site want to monetize it with some advertising $$. Look at sites like ArchDaily or Dezeen – there’s nobody home, no meaningful editorial, just an endless stream of new images and new comments sent into space – these sites basically run themselves. Sweet. Now, if architects have provided a website with content, and if a website gets advertising revenue, then what’s in it for the architect? Nothing, yet. People who check architectural websites because they’re bored at work aren’t the kind of people who are going to employ an architect. Website visitors get nothing back apart some from entertainment or diversion presented as news or information connecting them vaguely to an endeavour once considered distinguished and noble. Nevertheless, the online consumers of architectural imagery must be generating something of value to architects or else architects would not contribute their content in the first place. What’s more, it must be doing whatever it’s doing better than magazines ever did. 6. We generate “buzz”. We make noise. We make architects famous.  Sadly, the architecture doesn’t have to be good or useful. All it needs to do is get us talking about it. By giving publicity to architects who don’t care to make good or useful buildings, we’re actually responsible for a lot of the bad architecture in the world. We’re the third side of this two-way triangular trade. We’re entertained and amused by architectural websites and we give them advertising revenue (and have our details farmed as yet more content for them to sell). We generate the noise so when some rich client who knows nothing about anything wants a building and asks “who’s big right now?” a name gets mentioned. This is why architects don’t want us to forget about them. The fame we assign them is responsible for bad architecture. If we don’t like or aren’t entertained by, say, OMA’s latest, we have ourselves to blame. This is why buildings never get any better. You will notice that once they have reached a certain level of fame, many architects decide to take up teaching positions. They are not going to find clients at a university but they can shape the opinions of the people who create the fame that attracts clients. There are so many famous architects teaching at so many universities around the world, that one has to wonder who exactly is minding the shop back home? 7. Architecture doesn’t progress. It just changes when we get bored.  How else can we explain post-modernism? Or deconstructivism for that matter? If it weren’t for the fact it’s all a huge waste of resources, it wouldn’t really matter. Even though we can’t say that architecture “progressed” or what it might have progressed towards, it amused us for a little while. 8. We get to say thank you! Not only do we provide architects with fame but we also provide them with money. We bestow fame upon them and they monetize that fame back at us in several ways. 8a. If we can’t afford a building then we can pay for the experience of some building they have designed for someone else. This pay-per-view architecture happens a lot these days and was dealt with in an earlier post titled Three Nasty Trends in Architecture. The fame of the architect is given a value as part of a client’s business plan. 8b. If we don’t want to visit such a building (or have already done it) the next thing we can do is pay for some goods that architect has designed for somebody else. The only ones on offer used to be furniture, but the range has widened incredibly of late. Hadid shoes, Gehry watches, Foster faucets … For architects in the advanced stages of fame, it isn’t necessary to design buildings for any reason other than to keep the brand alive. 8c. If we can’t afford those, then we could always be a bit retro and pay for a book.

This book isn’t pitched at people over 50 who remember the metabolists – it’s at the fame-formers under 25 who don’t.

8d. Or perhaps pay to visit a touring exhibition. 8e. Or perhaps pay to hear a lecture.

$25

8f. Or perhaps pay to study at some fancy university in the hope of picking up a few tricks.

Patrik Schumacher looks a bit chilly in Paul Rudolph’s Yale library.

9. If you’d like to be rich, copy not what they do but how they did it. The world of architecture parallels the world of fashion in many ways. The creation of star designers, for one. The fact that architecture is always changing but never actually improving or moving towards any kind of perfection, is another. But the most important is the creation of a strong brand image via the supposed core product – haute couture clothes in the case of fashion, or creative one-off buildings in the case of architecture. In the world of fashion, the brand is created to shift perfume to the rest of us. In the world of architecture, we can still feel a part of its creativity and glamour by the ways listed above.

Herzog de Meuron’s fragrance was ironically pitched and virtually unheard of, but it did represent a further blurring of boundaries.

10. You can always work for a famous architect for little or no pay. Somebody has to mind the shop and do some work while they’re away lecturing. If you’re really keen, you can pay them to let you work for them. You’ve got to hand it to Frankie. He was ahead of his time in that respect. So there’s no need to feel left out if you can’t afford a building. You can keep the architectural wheels turning and sponsor your favourite architect. Show them how much you care! Live the dream!

An Integrative Design Approach

Another problem with today’s architecture is the lack of an integrative approach towards designing buildings. What’s happening is that parts of a building component are designed without taking into account any other parts it may affect, thereby possibly affecting those parts in a negative way. I especially sensed this during my education at architecture school, and it’s not that different in the real world where the part that gets designed first is often the shape of the building.

I remember we were told to first come up with a shape for the building – a stage usually referred to as “3D”, and which came after the ‘concept’ stage. We had to come up with a nice 3D shape that fitted the concept we had chosen. Apart from fitting the concept, this shape had no other reason for being.

“3D” concept and initial form finding

However, in most cases, those shapes were altered until they looked “right” to the instructor and so weren’t even about the so-called concept anymore.

more “form finding”

Now despite all the problems I had and continue to have with that approach – and which I talked about here – there seems to be one very important factor that is neglected in this process and that is integration. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that the 3D shapes architects come up with at the beginning of any design are actually beautiful and actually do help make the building a better one. Would that beautiful shape not screw up all the other things in the building that are at least as important? I believe it would.

Let’s look at planning first. Planning is one of the most important attributes of a building, and yet it comes second to “form finding”. Planning usually gets done so that the building can be used once a nice form has been found, especially if the building is an iconic building at architecture’s high-end. We all saw what a terrible building you get if the planning hasn’t been so well thought out, as in Graham’s earlier posts on the Villa Savoye or the Unité d’Habitation, or my earlier post on the Villa Savoye where I described its terrible daylighting and thermal properties. Here’s another example:

Haramain High Speed Rail Link Station:

It was a competition entry by Atkins in 2008. The building’s “canopies” got me interested, especially when I read about their reason for being there.

In the sketch made by the architect, you can clearly see how the shape of the building was ‘inspired’ by that sketch, and how little it changed since the idea first somehow popped into the architect’s head. The “concept sketch” is usually featured on entries and posters for projects to show you how it all began and is generally regarded as a good thing.

But what this also means is that the design team, regardless of any studies or simulations they might have done for the project (since there’s a bit of talk in the description about cooling loads, daylight, and solar gain) did not use the results of that to optimize the building by perhaps changing its shape slightly, for example.

The canopies provide a bright, dramatic enclosure and reduce the cooling loads, covering a large floor area without introducing the need for daytime artificial lighting.

Well, I’m not so sure about the dramatic enclosure, but I think the cooling load could have been reduced just as much by normal shading devices that might allow better light into the space, rather than by canopies. However, as we know, doing this doesn’t show off your architectural skills and architectural solutions to “problems” so much, and you don’t want that as an architect do you now?

Another good example is the Swiss Re Headquarters in London (1997-2004) by Foster & Partners.

They seem to be saying in their description that it’s a good performing building, and that its shape actually contributed to that.

Conceptually the tower develops ideas explored in the Commerzbank and before that in the Climatroffice, a theoretical project with Buckminster Fuller that suggested a new rapport between nature and the workplace, its energy-conscious enclosure resolving walls and roof into a continuous triangulated skin. Here, the tower’s diagonally braced structural envelope allows column-free floor space and a fully glazed facade, which opens up the building to light and views. Atria between the radiating fingers of each floor link together vertically to form a series of informal break-out spaces that spiral up the building. These spaces are a natural social focus places for refreshment points and meeting areas – and function as the buildings lungs, distributing fresh air drawn in through opening panels in the facade. This system reduces the towers reliance on air conditioning and together with other sustainable measures, means that the building is expected to use up to half the energy consumed by air-conditioned office towers.

Firstly, a lack of integrativity can be spotted in “and a fully glazed facade, which opens up the building to light and views.” Well, it might bring in a little more light, although any window lower than 762mm from the floor is pointless. Doing this will also bring in more heat into the building (or make it lose heat faster), which they haven’t talked about. Perhaps they could have achieved the same amount of energy savings if they thought about the glazing ratio.

Have a look at Lord Norman’s first sketch of the building:

Norman SKetch As in the previous example, the building looks quite like the first sketch. Now unless Lord Foster did a lot of simulations and calculations in his head comparing his approach, with several other approaches that could have brought the same or even a better result, in terms of views, daylighting, ventilation, and solar gain, BEFORE this sketch, then the building is nothing but a meaningless shape that an architect came up with. And after finding an iconic and special form, some engineering company like Arup had to be hired to help the creditability of the architect’s claim about the building being “London’s first ecological tall building”.

Since we’re talking about London, F & P, and sustainability, here’s another building they did:

City Hall, London (1998-2002)

But, in this case, ‘sustainability’ meant stepped floors that are supposed to work as shading devices. It’s hard to think of a more expensive way of shading some windows. I wonder if  Swiss Re is still sustainable, since it hasn’t got any stepped floors as shading devices, or any shading devices at all, for that matter.

Misfits is proud of the building (Stacey) they designed using an integrative design approach. All its systems where designed in parallel so that they all work together in harmony, with no system compromising the functionality of any other. These systems including planning, because enclosing space requires building resources and heating and cooling that space requires energy resources. Inefficient planning wastes both. Good planning makes every square metre work harder and as part of more than one system. These systems include but are not limited to planning, orientation, daylight, views, solar gain, ventilation, renewable energy, and constructions. You can read more about this in Part I, Part II, and Part III. Here’s how the horizontal systems were solved.

Now, designing a building with no regard to all the others systems would be treating the building like a piece of sculpture – something not intended for human use, but for the  momentary pleasure that could be gained by looking at it, or as a monument used to make any kind of statement. This happens too often with current architecture.

It’s easy to see why. If you look on the internet architecture sites at posts of buildings, you can see how carefully-taken photographs or computer graphics from specific angles are the main way that buildings are described. THESE ARE IMAGES. They cannot describe how the light changes, how the air flows, how much heat the building gains or losses, how easy it is to get from one place to another, and whether the planning takes into account the MEP. Images can only tell us how a building looks, and only from certain angles. It’s not surprising that we continue to judge buildings on that basis. We need a way to represent all the other systems and attributes of buildings so we can make better judgments, and maybe have better buildings.

Architecture Misfit #1: Hannes Meyer


If he is remembered at all, the architect Hannes Meyer is remembered inappropriately as the “third” director of the Bauhaus. He was actually the second director of the Bauhaus. Walter Gropius was first, from 1919 to 1927, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was third, from 1930 to 1933. Gropius and Mies van der Rohe are remembered and Meyer is not – which is a shame as Meyer was the best architect of the three.

Hannes Meyer (1889-1954)

The Bauhaus was never meant to be a school of architecture. It started as a school to ‘unite’ crafts and industrial processes by creating prototypes of objects that would be sold to industry for mass production and sale.

Under Gropius, buildings were only one part of a “total work of art”. Gropius left the Bauhaus and went to America to become King of Architecture at Harvard University and promote the Bauhaus way of teaching architects. This meant that architects were more like artists than engineers. This has had bad results for architectural education (as Bashar wrote about in his last post) and for architecture ever since. To put it simply, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe (with Philip Johnson’s help) hijacked the history of architecture and led it in a direction that has not proven to be very useful at all.

Under Gropius, the Bauhaus was not very successful at making things people wanted, and it was only after Hannes Meyer became director that it finally made its first profit. It was Meyer who established architecture as a core subject, and it was also Meyer who was responsible for the Bauhaus’ two most important jobs – some apartment buildings in Dessau, and the Federal School of the German Trade Unions (ADGB) in Bernau. The ADGB building was restored in the 1980s and still looks like a modern building.

Whereas the buildings of Gropius and Mies van der Rohe have slipped into history and are just examples of what those architects once did, the principles that Hannes Meyer followed in 1930 are just as relevant today as they were then.

The ADGB Building, built 1930.

Thanks to Thorsten Klapsch for photographing this important building.

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Hannes Meyer thought that architects should deal with real problems in real ways and to not pretend they were an artistic elite. For him, buildings had to be useful for people and for society. To him, what a building did and how comfortable it made the people who use it was the only thing that mattered. Functionalism was more than not wasting money on ornament or building more space than was necessary. For him, it meant an efficient structure and practical construction. It meant materials with properties that produced an environmental benefit for the occupants. ‘Environmental’ is still a very new for today’s architects but, back in 1930, Hannes Meyer considered the thermal and other properties of the materials he used. There is a famous quote on Wikipedia, about what he thought should determine a building. The worth of the building was in what it did and how well it did it.

“1. sex life, 2. sleeping habits, 3. pets, 4. gardening, 5. personal hygiene, 6. weather protection, 7. hygiene in the home, 8. car maintenance, 9. cooking, 10. heating, 11. exposure to the sun, 12. services – these are the only motives when building a house. We examine the daily routine of everyone who lives in the house and this gives us the functional diagram – the functional diagram and the economic programme are the determining principles of the building project.”(Meyer, 1928)

It was a bit radical at the time and, even today, how well a building does the shelter thing is something we are still having trouble achieving.  The Bauhaus style (not that they built much) was supposed to be inexpensive and functional. Corbusier took the idea of a machine and made it “arty” and was very successful. Mies van Der Rohe took the same idea and made it “expensive” and was also very successful. Meyer took the same and tried to make it socially useful and was forgotten by the history of architecture.

Below are some images of the other major project that he brought to the Bauhaus – a project for 90 low-cost apartments. According to the Bauhaus’ current website, Meyer’s motto of “putting the needs of the people before the need for luxury” was also adhered to in the balcony access houses and led to the construction of so-called “Volkswohnungen” (people’s apartments), which were rented by workers and employees on low salaries. The floor plans for the flats were markedly small. According to Meyer’s calculations of actual living requirements, 48 m² in three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom should be spacious enough for a family of four. While Walter Gropius consciously aimed, with his estates of terraced houses, to provide owner-occupied housing (for low-income buyers), the balcony access houses were rented out for the relatively low monthly sum of 37.50 reichsmark. … The tenants’ opinions of the balcony access houses were consistently positive – a point backed up by the fact that very few structural changes have been made to the houses to this day.

The Dessau Törten apartments in 1930.

A plan of an apartment at Dessau Törten.

Unlike Walter Gropius, who designed the earlier sections of the same development, Meyer based his building layout on an orthagonal street grid to ensure equal lighting for every apartment. Each housing block is aligned east-west, with the access balconies on the north side.

All living room and bedroom windows are on the south side.

Hannes Meyer believed that buildings should enable people to get on with their lives comfortably inside them. Today, 80 years later, we are only just beginning to understand this, and how important it is for buildings to do the shelter thing really well.

We at MISFITS’ salute Hannes Meyer – Architecture Misfit No.1.

(See also The New Objectivity.)