Tag Archives: building performance

Architecture Misfit #25: Ernst May

Zur ausschließlichen Verwendung in der Online-Ausstellung "Künste im Exil" (www.kuenste-im-exil.de). Originaldateiname: VA_KIE_DKA_0084_May.tif Eindeutiger Identifier: VA_KIE_DKA_0084_May.jpg

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.


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.


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.


Estate Höhenblick, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1927


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


Estate Praunheim, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1928


Estate Römerstadt, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1928


Estate Bornheimer Hang, Frankfurt am Main, 1926–1930


Estate Heimatsiedlung, Frankfurt am Main, 1927–1934


Estate Westhausen, Frankfurt am Main, 1929–1931


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. 

Ernst May.png

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.


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.


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.

• • •tumblr_m1d9dp2amr1qgfyua

Ernst May!

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

misfits salutes you!


Food & Shelter

Over the past few decades we’ve learned a bit about how to satisfy our need for energy without screwing up the planet, even if we fall down in the actual practice of it. Reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is great but all the building rating systems, recycling initiatives, car pooling schemes and passive design aren’t going to fix the upper atmosphere tomorrow. They’ll just delay the time until we’ll have do some rather serious and probably unpleasant adapting ourselves – at least at the beginning. We’ll get used to it.

Our cities currently take their food and water from other ecosystems, depleting them. And dump their waste in other ecosystems, destroying them. Waste is waste because it’s waste – it brings no benefit to whatever ecosystem it’s dumped in.


In his book The Vertical Farm, Dr. Dickson Despommier proposes shifting food production to urban areas and conducting it intensively in hyrdoponic or aeroponic farms stacked vertically. He sets out his case here: http://www.verticalfarm.com/learn-more/ and in several videos available on Youtube.

What he wants to do is make cities a part of ecosystems instead of existing outside of them as they do now and (hence) destroying them.

image from "Manahatta"

image from “Manahatta”

This means that inputs (energy, water and food) have to be taken from the system and waste (including bodily waste) fed back into that system. My previous post, The Microbial Home was about an idea/proposal for this at the domestic level. Dr. Despommier makes a good case.

Advantages of Vertical Farming

He’s thinking of buildings perhaps about four storeys high maybe like this. He doesn’t really know and it’s not that important.


In their book Agricultural Urbanism, Janine de la Salle and Mark Holland describe another way of getting food closer to where we live.


As the cover implies, their objective is to see more produce grown, marketed and consumed locally. They focus on local government processes and identify ways of achieving it. In addition to Rural Areas and Suburban Neighbourhoods where (to a certain extent) it already happens, they make proposals for integrated food cycles in Urban Villages, Inner City Residential Neighbourhoods and Food and Agriculture Precincts.

All feature areas or districts for Production, Processing, Distribution, Retail, Consumption & Celebration, Waste Recovery and Education – none of which are a bad thing.


All are good ideas that can be relatively easily applied and which to some extent already are with domestic vegetable gardens, farmers’ markets and restaurants that grow some of their own herbs and vegetables.

BFM produce for blog book

De la Salle and Holland have some ideas for how this is going to fit around and into buildings. These range from designing restaurants with garden space or fitting cafés into office buildings but what’s important is that a food system strategy for a particular neighbourhood be clearly articulated. To ‘raise awareness’ of food and where it comes from, they would like to see building design and facades reflect what goes on inside. They’re for:

  • eating and drinking everywhere
  • pedestrian-orientation
  • the presence of food and agriculture activity on the street
  • productive edible landscapes
  • signalling nearby agriculture
  • transparency
  • habitat creation for pollinators and beneficial insects
  • stormwater management for agricultural irrigation
  • green streets
  • interpretative signage
  • farm equipment consideration

In Appendix B, they mention the Southeast False Creek Neighbourhood Development in Vancouver, Canada. It received the highest ever LEED score (in 2010). You can find general information about the development here or many other places. It’s a high-profile development built around the 2010 Vancouver Olympics Olympic Village.


At Southeast False Creek at least 30% of dwellings have at least 24 sq.ft of growing space. This is mostly provided as courtyard plots as shown above or as green roofs on the site. There is a 24,000 community demonstration garden. It is within a 10-minute walk of a farmers’ market. The public open space on the site can have its own farmers’ market.


It’s all about the plants and community. Dr. Despommier is more concerned with feeding people than the feelgood factor. For him, it’s more important for the farm buildings to:

  • Capture sunlight and disperse it evenly among the plants.
  • Capture passive energy for supplying a reliable source of electricity.
  • Employ good barrier design for plant protection.
  • Maximise the amount of space devoted to growing crops.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Designing a large, secure home for plants requires intimate knowledge of what a plant needs and how it all works together to allow for maximum growth.

We exist because the chlorophyll (the green stuff) in plants converts photons into chemical energy that links the carbon in carbon dioxide to make sugar and other plant food and discarding the oxygen into the atmosphere and (hence) our respiration cycle. When we eat plants, we get that sugar and other stuff and when we breathe we combine the oxygen we breathe and the carbon from the sugar to produce CO2 and a form of chemical energy called adenosine triphosphate. It’s a remarkably mutually linked association.

There’s more to it than biophilia or we ♥ plants. Our existences are linked. But, if a push came to a shove, plants would fare better without us than we without them. It’s in our own interests to learn more about plants and live together. Using sunlight is of course best but efficient artificial light can be used since, depending on whether they have chlorophyll-a or chlorophyll-b, plants only need wavelengths in the blue 400nm or red 700nm range.

Here’s what we know so far about how these things are going to be configured. I won’t say “look” because it’s not about how it looks.

  • In order to maximise sunlight, farm buildings will be oriented north-south and as long as possible. For the same reason, they’ll be translucent but probably not glass because, for what it is required to do, glass is too heavy. The Eden Project does fine with EFTE. Plants don’t need to see the sky. They just need the appropriate wavelengths.


  • EFTE is our best bet so far because it doesn’t yellow over time and deprive plants of those wavelengths. Farm buildings are going to have incinerators. If there’s to be no such thing as waste then end products have to find their way back into the system. Composting is too inefficient.
  • Giving 80 to 90 of the energy contained in rotting organic waste to the microbes in exchange for a 10% “return on investment” in the form of methane is a no-win technology.
  • Plasma arc gasification.
  • The configuration of the actual growing floor and technology will depend upon the crop.
  • Water vapour will be harvested as a closed loop system.

My only sadness is about the degree of security required. Plants grown without pesticides have to be kept isolated from opportunistic insects, bacteria and microbes. There’s a long list. This means pressurised airlocks, paper suits and decontamination procedures. It’s a long way from romantic ideas of being at one with Nature and talking to the plants. We’ve already become disassociated from where our food comes from.

What we have are two reasonable and well-thought through ways of growing food closer to the point of consumption, yet they are opposites. 

One is concerned with awareness, community and celebration, and the other is concerned with feeding populations and fixing the planet.

There’s always the danger this useful idea will be debased and discredited by buildings that give mimic the look of nature instead of its processes.

header 2

Buildings or bits of buildings that mimic biological organisms are a media staple. We’re biological organisms ourselves, as it happens, and there’s much to learn from how organisms work with other organisms to ensure they have sufficient of what they need to grow and flourish and without poisoning or killing themselves with the waste they generate.

Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut however is thinking something more like this.


The virtuous idea of growing food next to where it will be consumed is being used for media sensationalism posing as “awareness raising”. [Try to ignore the scary birds with the storey-high wingspans.]

As with green roofs as green metaphor, the idea of growing food to eat is being subjected to the architectural treatment. We’re well over roof gardens that aren’t, we’re skeptical of green roofs that though green aren’t much else, and we’ve been momentarily diverted by vertical forests in Italy. It’d be a shame if the growing of useful plants into buildings is quickly reduced to representations of growing of plants in buildings. It’s already happening.

I’m not surprised. Cultivating land, like building on land, is one of those ancient signifiers of OWNING land. It doesn’t really matter what’s cultivated. Lawn will do and did do for centuries around buildings or on top of them as we have now. The new thing is the cultivation of edible plants but whether this goes beyond the representation of cultivation remains to be seen. Have you heard of Verde 25? The column as tree thing is a minor crime when compared with how, like pornographer Callebaut’s “dragonfly” building above, it architecturalizes AND, IN DOING SO, TRIVIALIZES useful ideas to feed people and fix the planet.



Architecture Misfit #12: Nader Khalili


Nader Khalili (1936–2008)

Nader Khalili is a good example of an architecture misfit. He really only had one idea. Put whatever sandy stuff is available, into bags, clad it and bingo you have a structure. In 1984 NASA was suitably impressed.

In 1984, Lunar and Space habitation became an integral part of his work. He presented his “Magma Structures” design, based on Geltaftan System, and “Velcro-Adobe” system (later to become Superadobe) at the 1984 NASA symposium, “Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century.” He was subsequently invited to Los Alamos National Laboratory as a visiting scientist. 

Later however, he devoted his energies to the problem of how to build shelters for people in the world who have no money and the earthbag building is what he came up with. You’ve probably read about them sometime in the past several years. It difficult to think of a better solution to emergency or ultra-low cost housing.

The principle is simple. 1) Put sand into long bags and use them to make curved walls that act as their own stabilisers.


2) Make spaces for openings as you wish.


3) The earthbag curves are laid in gradually decreasing radii to form domes.

4) The entire thing is finished according to your local stucco and culturo-personal preference.

The construction method is infinitely variable, durable, earthquake resistant, thermally impressive and, above all, dirt cheap. It requires little skilled knowledge or labour to build. The most expensive component is the bags and the barbed wire [ ! ] that is ingeniously used to increase friction between the bags.


What’s not to like? In the world of glossy architecture, possibly all of the above despite the fact that the system can also be used to construct some conventionally appealing spaces and in some conventionally appealing shapes

EarthBag Home -10

and that have some fairly complex spatial arrangements.


No disrespect intended to Calearth,


but the Californification of Khalili’s system for off-grid living should not be allowed to overshadow its fundamental humanitarian purpose of providing low-cost and/or emergency housing.



So then, Nader Khalili

You created a system that enables anyone
with some earthbags and land, to build a dwelling
that is sturdy, durable and comfortable.
For services to architecture and humanity

misfits salutes you!


* * *

POSTSCRIPT: Acoustic suppression is not normally considered a major indicator of building performance but, apparently, Khalili’s structures reduce external noise by 17dB. Today’s Guardian reported that Heathrow airport is to pay 21 local schools to build Khalili’s “superadobe” shelters.

Pupils of Hounslow Heath school play around the huts in the playground as another low jet flies in

How this works out to £85,000 per school suggests someone is paying through the nose. Never trust those London builders’ quotes!

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),


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!


  • 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.


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.


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


  • 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.


  • 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


Architecture Without Architects

Architecture Without Architects is the title of a book by Bernard Rudofsky, published to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art from November 1964 to February 1965. I first learned of this book when I was a student and in love with the idea of architecture. I thought the images charming and remember being shocked at the apparent blasphemy of the title.

Architecture Without Architects

If you’ve been following my posts regarding The Autopoiesis of Architecture, you’ll know that Mr. Schumacher is claiming it is theoretically impossible for architecture to exist without architects. Vernacular is for losers. Perhaps he’s right, and Mr. Rudofsky and his provocative title are wrong. But there’s more at stake than competing claims over the use of a word describing a concept. Rudofsky’s basic premise remains valid: It is possible to have a built environment that embodies man’s intelligence and humanity, and without involving architects. If you accept this, then you have a problem. Ask yourself: “What is it then that architects actually do? What is it they actually sell?” Get up to speed first, then read on.

Architecture Without Architects had been out of print since 1980 but is now in print again. I’m glad. I’m glad because the book’s message is also a primary theme of this blog – as can be seen from the beginning of the preface.

Architectural history, as written and taught in the Western world, has never been concerned with more than a few select cultures. In terms of space it comprises but a small part of the globe – Europe, stretches of Egypt and Anatolia – or little more than was known in the second century A.D. Moreover, the evolution of architecture is usually dealt with only it its late phases. Skipping the first fifty centuries, chroniclers present us with a full-dress pageant of “formal” architecture, as arbitrary a way of introducing the art of building as, say, dating the birth of music with the advent of the symphony orchestra.  Although the dismissal of the early stages can be explained, though not excused, by the scarcity of architectural monuments, the discriminative approach of the historian is mostly due to his parochialism. Besides, architectural history as we know it is equally biased on the social plane. It amounts to little more than a who’s who of architects who commemorated power and wealth; an anthology of buildings of, by, and for the privileged – the houses of true and false gods, of merchant princes and princes of the blood – with never a word about the houses of lesser people.

The situation Rudofsky described in 1965 is now much worse. The “houses of true and false gods, of merchant princes and princes of the blood” are now those of ASSORTED DICTATORS, DESPOTS AND (OTHER) DEVELOPERS. Forgive my shouting. Rather than have this post become a rant about that, I’ll let Architecture Without Architects speak for itself of the intelligence and humanity of an architecture without architects.

Fig. 1: Vernacular architecture does not go through fashion cycles It is nearly immutable, indeed, unimprovable, since it serves its purpose to perfection. As a rule, the origins of indigenous building forms and construction methods is lost in the distant past. Below, houses typical of the Mediterranean area. 

Vernacular architecture does not go through fashion cycles It is nearly immutable, indeed, unimprovable, since it serves its purpose to perfection. As a rule, the origins of indigenous building forms and construction methods is lost in the distant past. [Above] houses typical of the Mediterranean area.

Figs. 16, 18: One of the most radical solutions in the field of shelter is represented by the underground towns and villages in the Chinese loess belts. Loess is silt, transported and deposited by the wind. Because of its great softness and high porosity, it can be easily carved. In places, roads have been cut as much as 40 feet deep into the original level by the action of wheels. In the provinces of Honnan, Shansi, Shensi, and Kansu about ten million people live in dwellings hollowed out from loess.
The photographs show settlements of the most rigorous, not to say abstract, design near Tungkwan (Honnan). The dark squares in the flat landscape are pits an eighth of an acre in area, or about the size of a tennis court. Their vertical sides are 25 to 30 feet high. L-shaped staircases lead to the apartments below who rooms are about 30 feet deep and 15 feet wide, and measure about 15 feet to the top of the vaulted ceiling. They are lighted and aired by openings that give onto the courtyard.

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 16

“One may see smoke curling up from the fields,” writes George B. Cressey in his Land of the 500 million: A Geography of China, even though there is no house in sight; “such land does double duty, with dwellings below and fields upstairs.” The dwellings are clean and free of vermin, warm in winter and cool in summer. Not only habitations but factories, schools, hotels and government offices are built entirely underground. 

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 18

Fig. 15: [Below], a partial view of an underground village near Loyang in northern China. It takes a second glance to notice that what looks like flat roofs is earth, bare except for a few trees. 

Archtiecture Without Architects Fig. 15

Fig. 5: Skeleton structure, modular building components, open plan, sliding walls, etc. have been in the repertory of vernacular Japanese architecture for centuries. Detail from an eighteenth century book illustration. 

architecture without architects 2

Fig. 90: Among some of the least known manifestations of rural architecture are the granaries in the Spanish province of Galicia, the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula. … Put together from large granite slabs, a horreo [a storehouse for grain] is fire- and vermin-proof. It rests on pillars topped by circular stones that act as rat-guards, and, incidentally, are the forerunners of the classical capital. Interstices in the walls serve for ventilation. 

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 92

Fig. 56: The use of a single building type does not necessarily produce monotony Irregularity of terrain and deviations from standard measurements result in small variations which strike a perfect balance between unity and diversity. Below, the Spanish town of Villa Hermosa.

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 56

Fig. 42: The proximity of a body of water, whether a river, a lake, or the sea, has always been a great consideration in the choice of a community. In the Orient, millions of people live much like waterfowl, more or less permanently on the water. Below, a sampling of houseboats in Shanghai’s Soochow Creek near its junction with the Whangpoo River. The advantages of the site are evident – the waterways never need to be torn up for costly repairs, drains suffer no stoppage, a bath is ready at all hours. Besides, the expanse of water functions as a cooling plant during the hot season. 

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 42

Fig. 62: Only a few hundred years ago, the skylines of many European and Asian towns bristled with slender prismatic towers, for it was more dignified and more aesthetic to fight intramural battles from the vantage point of an appropriate architecture than from rooftops or in streets, as is the custom in our day. [Below], a view of Vatheia, one of several fortified villages in the Pelopnnesus.

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 62 Fig. 64: Like Vatheia …, this village in Svanetia, a high-lying valley in the western Caucusus, is protected by towers. Until recently, each family had to defray its own defence budget, for as late as the latter half of the nineteenth century blood feuds and vendettas raged unchecked.  

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 64

Fig. 105: Some of the contraptions of primitive technology may earn the contempt of today’s engineers, yet their charm cannot be matched by modern machines. This timeless 64-foot Syrian water wheel lifts water from the Orontes River into aqueducts for the houses and gardens of Hama.

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 105

Fig 102: In the Western world, pigeons take their place somewhere along such pests as houseflies or chiggers; whether nuisance or menace, most people look forward to their extinction. Not so in Eastern countries, where pigeonry is held in the highest esteem. The birds’ droppings are collected in special towers that work on the principle of a piggy-bank. When filled, they are smashed and their precious contents put to use [as fertiliser. Below], a battery of pigeon towers at Lindjan near Isfahan. 

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 102

Fig. 103, 104: Pigeoncotes in the Nile Valley. 

Untitled Untitled 2

Fig. 132: The partial enclosures [below] are windscreens in Shimane Prefecture in Western Japan. To achieve solid buffers against winter winds and snowstorms, the farmers coax pine trees into thick, L-shaped hedges about fifty feet high.

Architecture Without Architects Fig. 132

The Demise of the Green Roof

PHASE 1: Cost-effective building performance (more from less) This is an Icelandic turf house. They’ve been around for say, 1,000 years – about since the time of the Vikings, let’s say. The turf provided better insulation than wood or stone which were difficult to get enough of anyway.


Technically, I suppose, we’ll have to include dugout buildings and cut-and cover buildings such as these since they do make use of the insulating properties of soil and vegetation.

If we do that, we’ll also have to include dwellings such as these yaodong in Northern China. This image is from Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture and, thanks to Pinterest, is famous once again.  (The principles of yaodong date from 200BC btw.)


These munitions bunkers are part of the Suomenlinna (Castle of Finland) which is a sea fortress built in 1748 before the invention of reinforced concrete. The bunkers are covered with a layer of earth to dissipate the force should the ammunition explode. The grass isn’t there to look pretty but to keep the earth in place.


PHASE 2: A pretend garden, but better than nothing. Ahh, LC’s 1930 De Beistegui apartment garden is always a laugh. It looks like a green roof, non?


Green roofs of this type are really just gardens for biophilic or other enjoyment in places where otherwise there would be nothing. 

PHASE 3: Sundry enviromental benefits Even if a rooftop garden has no direct benefit for humans apart from prettifying some open space, birds and bees and other insects can still do with additional habitat. Here’s one designed for bugs.

green roof for bugs

In addition, soil required to grow plants may slow down the runoff of rain. The presence of soil and vegetation instead of concrete will lessen the heat island effect. Here’s one doing all those things on top of Chicago City Hall.


PHASE 4: Symbol of global environmental benefit These next three buildings are all feature domed structures partially covered with grass. The first is a greenhouse so it must be good for the planet.

This next one is Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences.


And this is a biogas production plant which, as symbols go, I far prefer to the greenhouse. It’s doing something more useful than simply coercing plants to grow in locations they’re not meant to.


Ultimately however, it’s cosmetics, even though I don’t think producing biogas is anything to be ashamed of.

biogas plant

Here’s a volcano shaped building – the Volcano Buono – with its shopping mall, outdoor theater, restaurants and a hotel all covered in green roof.  Yes, it’s probably better to have this roof than to have a concrete one as far as heat island effect is concerned. Cheers Renzo! Now what about that car park?


PHASE 5: Symbol of general social decline Further down the line, we have green roofs like this. This particular one has done a lot to hasten the demise of green roofs generally. For all the press it’s garnered, there’s no mention of anything this green roof having any agenda other than inspiring dubious claims to fostering creativity.

A Swirling Green Roof Tops Gorgeous Nanyang Technical University in Singapore


If art school was in our future we might opt to study under, or on top of, the amazing green roof at the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, designed by CPG consultants. This 5 story facility sweeps a wooded corner of the campus with an organic, vegetated form that blends landscape and structure, nature and high-tech and symbolizes the creativity it houses. Read more: A Swirling Green Roof Tops Nanyang Art School in Singapore | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building.

PHASE 6: What can we expect next?

green-roof-high-school-franceorganic-underground-hotel• • •

Further Resources: EPA Reducing Urban Heat Islands: Compendium of Strategies: Green Roofs www.epa.gov GreenSave Calculator. Compare the cost of green roofing with conventional roofing systems. www.greenroofs.org

More From Less: The Principle

Here’s some outdoor space. Judging by the colour of the brick, the teapot, and the underused barbeque in the corner, it looks like we’re in England. The peripheral plants are doing their evapotranspiration thing but those benefits won’t be needed much when the average summer temperature is 22°C (71.6 °F).

small-outdoor-space-plantsThis outdoor space is enclosed by masonry on two sides and (almost certainly) timber on a third so any uncomfortable wind is probably blocked – along with any welcome breeze. We can’t tell the orientation from this image but, on evenings either side of summer, the thermal mass of the walls and paving will most likely make it possible to remain in this space for longer before someone suggests it’s maybe time you all went inside. But being outdoors is nice. There are many things we like to do outdoors whenever we can. The outdoor space in this next image seems to be in a climate that gets quite warm and, judging by the bamboo and the banana tree to the right, possibly quite humid as well.

Wooden-floor-outdoor-space Here, we can sit, eat and cook in this space, and even have a nap if we want. There are no walls and the floor is timber so there’ll be no heat retention due to thermal mass. The outdoor fireplace is probably something to look at whether functioning or not but it may help keep insects away. The absence of walls will allow any cooling effect a breeze brings. In this next image, one is protected from the wind and outdoor ambient temperature in this  space which is external to the main building aesthetically, constructionally, and conceptually – so let’s have a barbeque then!

fox_hill_web_024 This space can be used when it’s not desirable to be outdoors, even if standing next to a source of heat. Basically, we’re still inside. It’s the barbeque that looks out of place. Indoors and outdoors remain very separate, but at least we have a better view of the outdoors.

This is an unsponsored link to the full range of Viking barbeques. May as well.

viking barbeque

A whole industry of conservatories and big glass doors and windows has developed to allow people to have a better view of whatever outdoor space they have even if it has to be appreciated next to a fireplace. Nice window!

376221532_bb56cde250_oMoreover, a whole universe of architectural endeavour has arisen to give the impression the outside of a building is really an extension of the inside, even if (or perhaps especially because) it can’t be used for most of the year.

Pawson_House_London_by_Catherine_John_Pawso_CubeMe2 The outdoor space in the image above benefits from wind protection and the high-mass surfaces will re-radiate absorbed heat in the evenings to extend the period of comfort further into the evening or autumn.

This next image is a photo of a Japanese house – actually it’s no ordinary house, it’s  Katsura Palace doing the inside-outside thing that so impressed FLW and many other pre-21st and last-21st century architects such as John Pawson, designer of the space in the photo above.


As far as the internal environment is concerned, its a bit like this next space – a room without walls. Let’s play “Spot the Viking!” Both rooms are most certainly lovely to be in when the weather’s nice but, when it’s not, you really don’t want to be there. In passing, these two images show how thermal comfort is blind to notions of visual beauty. I’ll have more to say on this later but, perhaps one day there will be such a thing as tactile aesthetics – the beauty to be found in a physiologically comfortable internal environment.

outdoor-kitchen-in-log-home1 But other than providing an alternative place to be when weather permits, what’s in all this for the indoor space? Nothing. We need to make a distinction between outdoor space that is no more than outdoor space the other side of a door or window, and outdoor space that also modifies the environment on the inside.  Consider this balcony. It provides the benefit of additional space and the effect of adding value to the apartment but it will also provide the summer benefit of shading the glazing and modifying the thermal environment of the that opens onto it – especially if the balcony faces south. 


The thing about More From Less is that space that’s not fully enclosed and conditioned can substitute for indoor space some of the time and because it’s not enclosed to the same degree as internal space, can also provide climatic benefits for that internal space. In other words, space that isn’t constructed or detailed for 100% climatic adjustment can still passively benefit the internal environment.

Not all balconies, courtyards or rooftops have a positive passive effect. The courtyard of Ando’s Sumiyoshi House in Osaka will be hot in summer and cold in winter. Please visit this post on contraHABIT for a internal environment analysis of this house in terms of thermally active surfaces and flows, thermal comfort, natural ventilation, cross ventilation, stack effect and high mass cooling. (Nice work Taylor and good luck for the future!)


If not much in the way of climate control, Ando’s Sumiyoshi/Azuma House is a reminder of how the Japanese manage to aesthetically, if not always physically, appreciate a certain poetry in ambient temperatures lower than many of the rest of us might. When it gets too cold for their houses to do the inside-outside thing, you’ll find Japanese in warm clothes huddled around a source of heat before getting quickly beneath a stack of futons in a shiveringly cold rooms at night.


In this plan of a traditional farmhouse, Room 3 has an irori (see below) as a source of heat and most winter activity would take place in that room. Room 3 has no external walls. The remainder of the house is being used as a thermal buffer.

800px-Japanese_Traditional_Hearth_L4817 The vernacular housing of many countries will have similar examples of people retreating into the parts of the castle, mansion, or house that can be heated the most economically and efficiently. This sounds familiar. There might be something we can learn from this in terms of seasonally differentiated construction. Why should all of a house have to be used in the same way all the time and all through the year? After all, we all enjoy balconies but don’t expect to use them all year round. You’ve seen this plan before in It’s Not Rocket Science #7: Evapotranspiration. It’s the plan of an Egyptian courtyard house from around 3,000BC.


That post mentioned how cool air is trapped in the courtyard overnight to keep the spaces opening onto the courtyard cooler and cooler for longer into the day. It mentioned how this effect is reinforced by planting a tree in the courtyard to shade it. This works well in places with a large diurnal temperature difference.

cropped-meybod2.jpg This climatic benefit only arises because the central space is not fully enclosed. So if you’re going to read a book, or have a drink and a chat or possibly a nap, do it in the courtyard! Not everything needs to be done indoors all the time. The lesson here seems to be have two types of space. Climate permitting, the light structure can be dispensed with altogether.


The cave dwellings of northern China are another extreme example of this type of construction.

north china cave dwelling With these, there’s a heavy structure and huge thermal mass behind the building but this research shows that in front of the building it is still better to have a courtyard than nothing at all.

1-s2.0-S0378778801001451-gr4 This reminds me of Villa Vals (46°37’15.49″N,  9°10’51.36″E) which, it seems, is now a rental villa. Its famous courtyard faces WNW – and another mountain. In this photo, we’re looking south, down the valley.

1260367142-1villa-vals-search-7899 I don’t know if the courtyard at Villa Vals has a sufficient degree of closure to be a courtyard with any climatic benefits, but the principle is to have an outdoor area with a fair  degree of enclosure fronting a structure with a higher thermal mass. The actual materials  depend upon what’s available and the relative amounts of structures depend upon the climate. Temperate climates are easier to handle.

latapie planThe rear half of the Lacaton & Vassal’s Latapie House is not a courtyard, but nor is it a covered porch added onto a house. And nor is it merely a covered part of the garden. Whatever it is, it is an inexpensive structure with the beneficial effect of extending the range of usable temperatures of what could have been conventional garden, further into the evenings and colder months. It ameliorates wind and temperature extremes and modifies the environment on a seasonal as well as a daily basis. It is not a courtyard but an inexpensive addition that produces climatic advantages not unlike those producedby courtyards in hot, arid climates – except that the object is to trap warmth, not coolth. 


As is obvious from the plan, the house is not large, but this inexpensive addition permits a luxury of space and use that would not have been possible with more conventional materials and construction. The occupants have more options in terms of when and where to do what they do. Environmentally, the building has not used a wealth of resources. It is trapping heat to make its own volume more habitable and, even when it is unused, this effect carries over to thermally benefit the “main” building.

An earlier post mentioned how Lacaton & Vassal used this same principle in this project for an extension to a high-rise building.

interior view

This is a link to a paper titled “Building Performance Evaluation of Newly Built Greenhouse Residences in Terms of Heating Energy and Thermal Comfort”. These are some of its conclusions:

  •  A greenhouse saves about 25% on annual heating energy demand compared to a residence without greenhouse 
  • It is possible to optimise a GHR in such a manner that the greenhouse zone is usable for up to 750 hours a year, during 10 months

outdoor usage

  • The largest increase in usable time of the greenhouse zone compared to the outdoor climate occurs during the summer period


  • A properly designed GHR does not exceed thermal comfort limits i.e. weighted overheating hours.
  • The most sensitive parameters are related to heat gains/losses and insulation.In conclusion, we can say that a GHR has benefits in terms of annual heating energy demand and usable hours of the garden zone; nonetheless, highly insulating is more effective as it saves more heating energy. If a GHR is properly designed it is possible to reduce the annual heating energy demand with an acceptable thermal comfort and usable outdoor hours. It needs to be addressed that a GHR has the benefit of the outdoor space, in comparison to other building concepts.

* * *

It’s a field of study that promises to pay off, particularly for buildings in temperate climates. In the past, people would enclose porches with lightweight structures in order to make more usable space. Well, in the future, more of what is called architecture just might have to include these lightweight structures that people will have to make the best use of whenever they can. And during extremes when that’s no longer possible, they can retreat into the core of the dwelling while the external structure serves to ameliorate that internal environment somewhat. Lacaton & Vassal are pioneers in that respect. It’s more useful than Sanaa elevating the communal circulation space to the status of architecture.

* * *

So what about this then? What’s going on here?

Seoul Light Section small

Seoul Light DMC Tower Digital Media City in Seoul, Korea combines technology and sustainability strategies to create a new model of super tall building design. 

A large central atrium spans vertically through hotel, residential and observation deck program areas to allow for penetration of natural light and air throughout the building. 

Air rises through the atrium in a natural “stack effect” and drives wind turbines at the crown of the building. Interior gardens at perimeter atriums act as “lungs” for the tower, providing air circulation and filtration for the varied functions.


At 2,100 feet tall (133 stories), the mixed-use tower hosts a collection of green technologies, including solar panels, wind turbines, enhanced daylighting, and living walls. SOM anticipates that these strategies will reduce overall building energy use by 66 percent. “Original constraints on super-tall buildings were vertical transportation and structural requirements,” explains SOM design partner Mustafa Abadan. “Today, those requirements have become easier to solve with technological advancements, but sustainability needs to be addressed. We’ve shifted our priorities to environmental issues.”

Or how about this?

About halfway up the building at the hotel lobby, the more-traditional core is replaced by a 1,000-foot-tall vertical void. Roughly 60 feet wide by 100 feet long, the void is based on the principles of a solar updraft tower. Using the stack effect, air will be drawn into a collection area, where it will be heated naturally by the sun before it rises up through the tower to drive six horizontal-axis wind turbines, each 3 meters (about 10 feet) in diameter. SOM predicts that this “solar engine” will provide 3 to 5 percent of the building’s overall energy.

You can read more here, but I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a lot of trouble to go to for a 3%–5% energy gain?


Enclosing space is expensive. “More From Less” is about inexpensive ways that space can be enclosed for limited amenity and limited climatic/energy benefit. Using less materials or construction or whatever BECAUSE it is better to do so. It’s quite simple really. This building of SOM’s does not feature lightweight steel framing and polycarbonate sheeting on the outside and which might have worked just as well. Instead, what we have is a large central void almost fully enclosed by some rather serious (and seriously contorted) structure. If the object is to create a column of air that can be heated, then this is over-construction.  Why put a column of air in the middle of a building and then try to heat it from the outside? What were SOM thinking? I can’t believe an externally-mounted lightweight structure would not heat the air better and channel the hot air upwards just as effectively. Does it really take some swishy glass curves to make hot air go up? I find this building retrogressive in its use of maximum means to achieve not very much. The fact it won a a 2010 Chicago Athenaeum Green Good Design Award and a 2010 Eco-Structure Evergreen Award is deeply disturbing.

* * *

This is a design study for a building that I did, way back in 1995, exploring the poetics of energy-saving technologies. The point was to make PV panels look all sexy by using technological grandstanding to make allusions to Nature. In other words, the point was to make a big show of representing renewable energy rather than concentrating on actually generating it.

mainhouseTwo huge triangular PV arrays are each mounted on three hydraulically-extendable columns that extend and retract to enable the orientation and inclination of the arrays to track the sun to a greater extent than would otherwise be possible. The array planes are always parallel except at around midday and just after sunset, when hydraulic manoeuvring has to rearrange them so the one at the back is now at the front, not unlike a butterfly refolding its wings.

The entire point of this study was to give poetic representation to renewable energy devices without regard for the initial cost, the amount of embedded energy or the amount of energy actually produced. It’s bullshit really – using devices of virtue for an architecture of decadence. It’s not unlike the eating of songbirds or the eyes of peacocks, but it’s where we’re still at.