Tag Archives: decline of the social contract in architecture

Expectations Exceeded

The term expectations exceeded is frequently heard in academia, usually describing the inevitable outcome of some program or course assessment. The implication is that already high expectations were more than satisfied but, less frequently, the term can also be used to indicate that low expectations were exceeded. This post is about instances where someone has taken a project further than I imagined possible, without thinking too deeply about why my expectations were low or nonexistent. It’s about design, the right design, and just the right amount of design where and when you don’t expect it.

The Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Railway Traffic Design & Research Institute is housed in a low-rise building at the base of the tower which is the real star here. My friend told me it’s an air intake for the Yan’an East Road Tunnel. Someone has enjoyed designing it and they’ve done well. There was always going to be a problem with scale as its size and the size of the openings are determined by the rate of air intake and not by proportion or other arbitrary visual preferences of humans. The surface pattern resulting from the construction unit doesn’t make this building any smaller but it does help us understand it even though the openings aren’t trying to be the windows we want to see. The asymmetry of those openings, their asymmetrical grouping, and the offset pattern of dark squares all emphasize the cylindricality of this thing that’s going to be show different angular views when passed at speed.

It’s set in a small park and one side of the tower has the most and largest openings and, you might say the design opens up on that side. It’s probably something to do with the direction of the prevailing wind but I like to think somebody thought this might improves the quality of the air taken in.

A quick check shows the direction of the prevailing wind is SSE which is the direction of the large openings towards the base.

Here’s another tunnel air intake, this time along the historic side of The Bund under which passes the Wai-ting Tunnel. It’s a different approach to the same problem and, considering the designer’s hands were probably tied, it merges into the streetscape very well and doesn’t call too much attention to itself and which is probably all that was asked of it. With this one too, I get the feeling somebody gave its design more attention and care than was asked. It’s always a joy to find buildings that wear their art lightly and, if anyone notices them at all, are better than anyone expected them to be, if one notices them at all.

It’s the same with this little building that I suspect is some fake history but, unlike the tunnel vent above, this is fake undistinguished history. I really don’t know and can’t tell how old or new it is but I’m glad it’s there. There’s no date but the protruding window beneath the side balcony makes me think it’s not that old. A plaque on the gate reads Hydrometric Station in Huangpu Park, and the Chinese inscription on the wall says it belongs to the Shanghai Maritime Bureau. (A hydrometric station is a place on a river, lake or other body of water where data is collected and recorded for the water quality and quantity of water.) What I like about this little building is that it’s nicer than you think it needs to be. Someone appreciated the opportunity to design it and, like Ricardo Bofill, is aware of the affinity a vague Neoclassicism has for modular design and prefabricated construction.

Beneath the Yan-An Elevated Motorway are a series of buildings like this one which has a large circular motif facing the street. Another I saw was the same design and colour but with a triangular motif instead. There may be others. At first I thought it might be some sort of relay for a fibre-optic network strung along the elevated road but, seeing how important ventilation is, it’s probably a distribution station for the expressway electrics.

That raised door on the right is interesting, almost ceremonial. It doesn’t need a canopy but it has the suggestion of one and it’s exactly the height of the parapet on the left of the long side. Somebody thought the front and side elevations need to be be seen as parts of the same building. Notice also the three square windows in the middle? They’re not as big as the quarter-circle ones on the right, nor as small as the sixteen smaller ones on the left.
I suddenly noticed that canopy on the long side, and how it splits that circular window unevenly. And, now we’re looking at this end, what are those boxes symmetrically placed either side of the central door? And what is the purpose of that central recess? This little building seems to have a formal entrance and three different service entrances. It seems to have it’s own logic (as it would if it’s to do with the distribution of electricity) and I like how it doesn’t care if I can’t get my head around that.

This is the rear view of a third building. Somebody has thought about this. Again, it’s another example of a building that’s had just the right amount of design to show somebody cared. These openings could have been anything but somebody has chosen to make these ones. Those decisions weren’t random, but this building isn’t challenging us to analyze it. It’s also not apologizing for not giving us more to think about or me to write about. If this were in any other country people would be trying to jolly it up with primary colours or a community mural or otherwise deface it with posters, flyers or graffiti.

I don’t know the name or architect of this building which is a new-build two buildings north of Customs House. On the right is the Russo-Chinese Bank in Shanghai (1902) and on the left is the Bank of Communications (1948). The open frieze bridges the different heights in a way Asnago Vender were adept at. This frieze is a kind of negative ornament that doesn’t seek attention by being over or understated yet it’s still bold. With neighbours like these, an understated entrance would have drawn attention to itself, as would have not grouping the windows vertically. It’s not apologetic, self-conscious or reluctant. Somebody has looked at the problem and designed a fine and considered building. It was a tricky commission for a difficult site in a highly protected area and it works with what’s already there. It’s different in the same ways, lets say.

This little building seen from the sidewalk is a garbage collection point for a park and is lovely. A cat is sleeping on the roof.

The building is orthogonal where it needs to be orthogonal while its curved walls have been designed to follow the slope of the ground. These curves are the old fashioned type that could be set out and constructed by any stonemason using technologies no more complex than a wooden peg and a piece of string. The park is above a public car park and there are some public toilets along the street edge.

In many countries, we have low expectations of public toilets if we expect them at all but in Shanghai you’re never far from one. They will be clean and most likely have a paper dispensers operated by QR-code. In the previous post I mentioned these next ones and how the attendant has placed and is caring for the pot plants outside just as the ferry attendant was caring for the pot plants on the ferry. I’m also including these two examples in this post not as examples of gardening or greening the city, but of people caring for the places they have been entrusted to care for. They don’t have to do this but they do and I shouldn’t be so surprised and happy to see it but I am.


Heroes & Villains

The UK’s PM Boris Johnson recently stated that it’s time for everyone to get “back to the office” and that they’ve had enough “days off”. He’s not keen on having people continue working from home probably because they might learn to like it. It also means office buildings may be under-occupied yet, over the past ten years, his government has done everything it can to force people (but mainly the homeless and vulnerable) to live in them. This is what went down

2011: UK government ministers had the bright idea of removing planning permissions for office-to-residential conversions ostensibly because the private sector can “better” provide social housing once regulations are removed. There was to be no planning scrutiny if an office or industrial building built before 1990 had been vacant for six months, and was to be either demolished or replaced with a house or apartment block. I can understand the logic to an extent since the typical western apartment building is basically an office building anyway.

Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive apartments with extra internal walls and plumbing.

2013: A three-year trial period began. The relaxation led to an immediate and substantial rise in “permitted development” applications. Developers know a money tree when they see one.

2015: Levitt Bernstein architects began presenting the government with examples of the policy not working, only to be told those particular projects were not representative.

2016: The change in policy was made permanent.

2018: The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors sounded the first public alarm with a report that stated

“Overall, office to residential PDR has been a fiscal giveaway from the state to the private real estate interests, while leaving a legacy of a high quantum of poor quality housing than is seen with schemes governed through full planning permission”.

2019, January 10: Levitt-Bernstein made public a report of their own findings and recommendations.

“We acknowledge that when Ministers first came up with the idea in 2011, it might have been difficult to foresee that run-down office buildings on the edge of dual carriageways, or within industrial estates, would be converted to ‘homes’ as small as 13m2, or that some would lack a window. But alarm bells began to ring long before the three-year trial period, which begun in 2013, was made permanent.”

This is their report. It’s grim reading.

Here’s some examples of developments that were permitted.

Parkview Office Campus, Bristol
This was the largest permitted development project in the UK, with 467 flats created in a former supermarket headquarters. If you follow through a particular set of layout design priorities then this is what you get.

Here’s a full pdf explaining the project. https://kingsbury-consultants.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Parkview-Campus-Summary.pdf

A failed business park may have empty building stock that, even if repurposed as accommodation, won’t magick up the local amenities and public transport to serve it. It’s worrying, but not surprising, that housing separated from local amenities and public transport can even be thought of.

A floorplate suitable for office space isn’t that different from a floorplate divided into rooms either side of a corridor and used as apartments or a hotel but this doesn’t mean that single aspect apartments the size of hotel rooms are a good thing. This also indicates that housing is thought of as nothing more than a place to sleep. The elevator and stair positions aren’t going to be changed and, as a result, those inside corner apartments are going to be particularly miserable.

Newbury House, Redbridge

This development is famous for being sited on the edge of a six-lane, dual carriageway with a 70mph speed limit. It’s also an example of how the permitted development legislation affected minimum spatial standards.

This next image is from the Levitt Bernstein report and shows what happens when a 50 m2 apartment is compressed into a 14 m2 one. Once again, it shows that housing is thought of as no more than a place to sleep.

Terminus House, Harlow, Essex
This is often used as an example of everything that wrong with this kind of permitted development. Levels of crime and other ills caused by poverty and unemployment were an issue back in 2018 and, after a one-year UK lockdown, people in accommodation far larger and pleasant than this are displaying mental health issues.

Here’s two photographs of the apartment in the bottom left corner. The left one looks professionally taken but for what purpose I can’t imagine.

Edinburgh House, Harlow
This development is remarkable for having bedrooms with high-level fixed glazing providing bedrooms with borrowed light from corridors. Once again, it shows that what might have been acceptable in an office building is not so clever for residential.

1 Wellstones, Watford
This proposal was refused permission but then that decision was overturned on appeal. Seven of the apartments have no windows and those that do have only high-level ones. The upper floor apartments don’t have standing room across their floor area.

106 Shirley Road, Southampton
It’s not even necessary to write anything about this one.

I used to think the 2014 conversion of Providence Arcade [the US’s oldest shopping mall] was grim but those two bedroom windows and that one internal swing door make it humane by comparison. [c.f. The Vertical City]

While all that was going on…

Jan. A report compiled for the government by persons from University College London and the University of Liverpool was damning of the policy. That same day, the policy was extended.
Mar.12 It was reported that the RIBA had condemned government proposals to expand permitted development rights, labelling plans to allow the demolition and replacement of industrial and commercial property with housing a “fundamental contradiction”.
Apr. A BBC report highlighted the problems with Terminus House.
Jul.21 The government report submitted in January was made public and, on the same day, the policy it was critical of was extended.
Jul.24 Three days later, the horrors of these permitted development projects found a wider audience with a July 24 article in The Guardian.
Sep.30 The UK government Housing Secretary announced that new homes delivered through Permitted Development Rights will have to meet space standards. This is the announcement as reported on https://www.gov.uk/government/news/permitted-development-homes-to-meet-space-standards

The RIBA was quick to respond to the government’s change of policy seven years after it was implemented and nine years after the policy was first floated.

When the respective statements of the Housing Secretary and RIBA president are seen side by side, it’s odd the Housing Secretary claimed that “Permitted development homes make an important contribution to delivering the housing the country needs by making effective use of existing buildings, allowing them to be changed into homes without the need to go through a full planning application.” This is unsubstantiated. “The homes are instead consented through a lighter-touch ‘prior approval’ process, speeding up the delivery of these new homes – with over 60,000 homes provided over the last 4 years. The truth of this depends on what your definition of a home is. Also, the use of the term “lighter touch” suggests the preexisting planning process was heavy-handed and the truth of this depends upon what you expected a planning system to do. Dismissing this as “neoliberals being neoliberals” is to normalize it.

On the other hand, the RIBA president is overexcited by a government having done one right thing. Requiring Permitted Development developments to meet National Described Space Standards will probably be sufficient to make such exploitative developments (at a minimum three times the area) unattractive to the more cavalier developers. However, the Housing Secretary’s statement said nothing about location, daylighting or ventilation. If buildings with habitable rooms having nothing but borrowed light from an access corridor have been acceptable in the past then I expect them to continue to be so in the future unless specifically singled out. This is still a major loophole as office buildings usually have deeper floor plates than apartment buildings. Providing accommodation in which all habitable rooms have openable windows is at odds with making the “best use” (a.k.a. most exploitative) use of that floor plate. If you think about it, the very idea of converting office space into residential space suggests daylighting will be a problem. Hopefully, fire safety is still controlled by building control but that thought’s not as reassuring as it should be.

The sorriest thing about this whole story is that the government tried it on, was rumbled, and backtracked while claiming success and without apology. Having private enterprise provide housing for society’s most vulnerable indicates failure of the entire system of building design and provision. It’s damning there was no way to stop these developments being built, and more damning that the only way to stop them being occupied was to launch a legal challenge under the 2018 Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act. We can say that architecture as any kind of social endeavour is for all practical purposes dead in the UK.

Charles Jencks is no longer around to dispute this but Pruitt Igoe failed not because of a lack of postmodernism but because of shitty seventies circumstances coupled with the lack of a maintenance and management plan. Few people care to know or remember that its initial residents were very happy to be living there. This important short film still available on VIMEO. The convenient but false binaries of Modernism and Post Modernism served to vilify the public provision of housing.


The greater disgrace of these British permitted development projects is that government, developers, councils nor tenants had any expectations of them to begin with. This absence of concern along the entire chain of provision is a new low. It’s never a good time to be disenfranchised but so far the 21st century is no high point. Heroes and villains are another convenient yet false binary. On a 0–10 scale of concern, the UK government gets zero for beginning this shitshow and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors gets a 10 for flagging it and calling it for what it is. Levitt Bernstein is up there too for making those concerns more public. With its statement of “looking forward to engaging with the policy makers,” the RIBA has lived down to its domain name of architecture.com and is a 3 at best.


Architecture Misfit #36: Ricardo Bofill

We’re still waiting for the definitive book on the architecture of Ricardo Bofill and Taller de Arquitectura but, until then, Ricardo Bofill: Visions of Architecture recently published by gestalten will have to do. Previously, there had been Christian Norberg-Schulz’s 1985 book Taller de Architectura but this was published when Bofill was 60. This new book comes when Bofill is 80. That these are the two main books on an architect who’s been designing and building for 60 of his 80 years suggests something is amiss. In Bofill’s case, he has been good, he has been prolific, he has been inventive and he has been always curious and enthusiastic about buildings and cities yet still he gets written out of history. Individual buildings may be highlighted now and then but always in isolation and through the lens of a style, and never as evidence of a consistent approach to design and construction, let alone society and the city.

The new book has four introductory essays that are anecdotal yet sufficiently informative to put together a picture of the man. Having your parents as your first clients is never a handicap for an architect and, when he was nineteen, Bofill designed a house in Ibiza for them.

It’s not that unusual a beginning but the influence of his parents is greater than that. Throughout his childhood, his mother filled their home with artists and thinkers and his father was an architect, a property developer and a builder so you could say he learned an essential humanism from his mother and a sense for building from his father. The reality was probably not so black and white but being able to reconcile humanism and building is a powerful skill for an architect to have. They were his parents, after all. Bofill had no need to be in somebody’s office at some fortuitous time to observe and learn how it was done. [c.f. Architecture Myths #25: The Creative Spark] His parents gave him the confidence, knowledge and encouragement to be an architect. Importantly, they didn’t teach him how to be an architect and how to design. He just started doing it..

“Bofill admits his mother “pushed people to be better and more special – to think higher.” She was also energetically encouraging … which perhaps explains the bravura that characterised Bofill even in the early stages of his career, when he first took to architecture. Architecture is a profession that relies upon a certain level of precocity – arrogance even. Introverts lacking self-esteem do not tend to want to mark the ground around them on such a large and long-term scale.” [from an essay by Tom Morris, p187]

After being expelled from University of Barcelona for organising a student union, Bofill completed his studies at the University of Geneva and then returned to his native Barcelona. While his contemporaries were doing their first extension or conversion, he was designing a series of apartment buildings. His father no doubt assured the clients his son was as capable of designing these buildings as he was of building them but the important thing is that Bofill didn’t waste a single opportunity.

1960: Single family house, Ibiza, Spain
1964: El Sargazo Apartments, Barcelona, Spain
1965: Back 28 Apartment Building, Barcelona, Spain (14 apartments + retail)
1965: Bach 4 ~Apartment Building, Barcelona, Spain (12 luxury + 21 rent-controlled apartments)
1965: Nicaragua Apartment Building, Barcelona, Spain (shops + offices + apartments)
1966: Plexus Condominiums, Calpe, Alicante, Spain
1967: Club Mas Peo, Alicante, Spain (sports club)
1967: Phytochemical Laboratories, Lliça de Fall, Spain

Bach 28 Apartments is a mature and complete building. With no opportunity for windows along two and a half sides of the site, Bofill placed the living rooms to the main street and created an open light well facing due south to the rear, thus increasing the surface area of the building that can have windows. Those windows are then angled towards the opening, ensuring long views out towards daylight. When compared with alternatives such as narrow bedrooms on opposite sides of a central light well, this solves the problem in a way both logical and humane. As is the Catalan way, the maid’s room and kitchen are illuminated and ventilated via service balconies adjacent to the service lobby and its glazed staircase. I can’t see how it could have been done better. It was 1964 and Bofill was 24.

In 1965 came the Nicaragua Apartments for a tricky corner site, as well as the El Sargazo Apartments. Both make extensive use of a mixture of modular elements along with traditional materials and techniques.

No,. 28 Bach in 1968 is two buildings side-by-side, one having luxury apartments and one having rent-controlled apartments. Apartment sizes and levels of finish are different but the street facades of the two buildings complement each other rather than disguise their differing programs. This is a social statement.

Bofill’s buildings up till 1967 had elements of Catalan modernism not dissimilar from those of Josep Antoni Coderch. There was a high degree of craft involving materials that were identifiable and expressive but never Brutalist.

The period 1968–1975 was one of consolidation and invention. The Gaudí District was an apartment complex for 500 subsidised apartments for 2,000 immigrant workers in the city of Reus, a commercial and industrial town of 50.000 south west of Barcelona. A client with such a brief is inconceivable now. This project marks the beginning of geometrical explorations to enable maximum variation within a low-cost construction system.

1968: Gaudí District, Barcelona, Spain (500 subsidized apartments)
1968: Kafka’s Castle, Barcelona, Spain (80 apartments)
1970: The City in Space, Madrid, Spain (multifunctional neighbourhood proposal)
1971: Xanadu, Alicante, Spain (18 apartments)
1971: La Petite Cathédrale, Cergy-Pontoise, Paris, France (urban mixed-use proposal)
1973: Arc de la Défense, Paris, France (offices)
1973: Family House, Mont-Ras, Girona, Spain
1973: La Muralla Roja, Calpe, Alicante, Spain (50 apartments)
1973: La Maison d’Abraxas, Versailles, France
1975: Les Halles, Paris, France (market redevelopment proposal)
1975: Walden-7, Barcelona, Spain (urban and mixed-use development)
1975: La Grande Chapelle, (urban scheme)
1975: La Place Majeure, Cergy-Pontoise, Paris, France (town centre mixed-use scheme)

The above list has very few unbuilt schemes and the ones there are I’ve italicised.

One very notable one is The City in the Space proposal for Madrid. An article in Avery Review “In order to execute their plans, a new judicial and economic framework was planned for the formation of this new type of city. They established a self-managed cooperative development company and a new economic system of belonging, where people did not own a flat but rather a share of the city. La Ciudad’s drawings were filled with ideological messages: “The City Is You,” “Coexistence,” “Mystical,” “Time for Everyone and Everything,” “NO to Schematic Urban Planning,” “Gold Is Time to Love,” etc. Unfortunately, one of the impediments that prevented the city from materializing was its ideological condition. In the middle of the design process, a party for La Ciudad was organized on site and, according to Bofill, over 100,000 people gathered. The police had to intervene, and that was the beginning of the end of the project. By then Franco’s government had already shown certain disagreements with the ideology of the project and the party was the perfect excuse to shut it down. At the time of its demise, more than 1,520 people were involved in the new city.states.

The othe very notable one is the one for Les Halles. Considered the winner of an interntational competition run by the French Ministry of Culture for the historic Paris site, construction of Bofill and Taller Arcquitectura’s design had begun when the project was cancelled by Jaques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, and the proposal of a different architect constructed instead.

These were two major projects that were cancelled. The cancellation of the first could be attributed to over-idealism but the cancellation of the second, and in favour of a lesser scheme can’t not have been a blow. To be an architect one sometimes needs to have a heart of stone.

Here, I must admit to losing patience with my new book when a caption unhelpfully explained that “inverting the plan” created variation. This led me to the https://www.ricardobofill.com website which is a huge and generous archive. You can click on PROJECTS \ ALL and scroll down back to the vacation house in Ibiza. There are essays and plans and sketches and descriptions and many many high-resolution photographs for downloading. All the information is there to make what sense of that you will. It is the complete works and probably no book can or will better it. Any links in my chronology (in the yellow boxes) will take you to some of my favourites. Anyway, from the following diagrams I worked out that “Inverting the plan” means “alternating two typical floors”.

The Gaudi District project marks the beginning of a concern for the Mediterranean city – a concept that includes North Africa and its architecture of shaded courtyards, open access and rooftop amenity.

Kafka’s Castle from the same 1968 also has alternating typical floors with adjacent apartments separated by a quarter flight of stairs. All information needed to build the project was contained on one main drawing and four secondary drawings.

I read elsewhere that the Gaudí District project was the one with the five drawings. But whether either or both, the point is that if a cellular system of planning and construction brings efficiencies then something would be wrong if it didn’t also bring efficiencies in documentation. It’s also worth mentioning that developing these cellular systems requires an understanding of how they will operate and integrate on all levels. It is not trial and error.

I’ve written about Walden 7 before. [c.f. The Landscape Within] It may ” successfully merge science fiction with a desert vernacular” [p195] but this is only relevant if that was the intention. And even if it was, I’d still want to know what benefit someone expected to gain from doing that. What I like about Walden 7 is 1) that a high degree of spatial complexity has been generated from very simple geometry and conventional construction and 2) the strong sense of being a part of something greater than oneself, generated simply be seeing people come and go about their daily lives. Walden-7 had no known architectural style but its residents seem to relate to some inherent humane-ness about the building that I expect stems from its the enclosed spaces and highly visible access making the building feel, look, and be a social place.

There’s something important and special about that and I’ve learned a lot from it. [c.f. Streets In The Sky, The Universal Apartment] Walden-7 is not just an exercise in people living together. It’s also co-operatively owned and always has been and I think that more important than how it may or may not merge science fiction and desert vernacular. It’s an extremely photogenic building and the RBTA website has an abundance of images.

Bofill and Taller de Arquitecturas’s only major theoretical work is The City in the Space. Allegedly influenced by Archigram, The City in the Space was applied research honed in the above housing projects. Graphics such as the one below are of their time but the proof-of-concept demonstration proposal was a buildable, workable, liveable building.

La Petit Cathedral was another articulation of the same principles to a mixed-use proposal attempting to elevate a fragment of a city into something more than a collection of spaces, Shopping malls with their atriums are the closest we look like getting.

1976: The Pyramid, Spanish-French border (monument)
1976: Gazteizberri, Vitoria, Spain (urban masterplan)
1977: Echevarria, Bilbao, Spain (mixed-income urban renewal scheme)
1977: Algeria Urban Planning (Extension of Bechar-Abdadla), Becher, Algeria (cultural and civic centre)
1978: Meritxell Sanctuary, Andorra, Spain
1980: Houari Boumedienne Agricultural Village, Abadla, Algeria (rural housing prototype)
1981: Les Maisons Temple, France (industrialised single-family house in the style of Palladio)
1981: Classical Garden for the Ensanche, Barcelona, Spain (landscape scheme)
1982: La Manzanera, Calpe, Alicante, Spain (tourist complex)
1982: La Manzanera Villas, Calpe, Alicante, Spain
1982: State Mosque, Bagdhad, Iraq
1982: Le Viaduct & Les Arcades du Lac, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Paris, France(74 apartments + 389 subsidised apartments)
1982: Les Espaces d’Abraxas, Paris, France (20 + 130 + 441 apartments)
1983: Lafon House, Marrakesh, Morocco
1983: Amphitheatre, Calpe, Alicante, Spain,
1985: La Place Du Nombre d’Or, Montpelier, France (288 apartments; part of Antigone District)
1986: Les Temples du Lac, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Paris, France (12,000 sq.m housing development)
1987: Turia River Gardens, Valencia, Spain (landscape masterplan)
1987: Bab-Al-Sheikh, Bagdhad, Iraq (2.30-ha housing development)
1988: La Bastide District, Bordeaux, France (urban redevelopment masterplan)
1988: Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild Wine Cellars, Pauillac, Bordeaux, France
1989: L’Arsenal Auditoriuim, Metz, France (music venue restoration and remodelling)
1989: Port Juvenal, Montpelier, France (350 apartments; part of Antigone District)
1989: Parfums Rochas Headquarters, Paris, France
1989: Hotel de Région Languedoc Roussillon, Montpelier, France (offices)
1989: Les Echelles de la Ville, Montpelier, France (offices)

I’ve also written about the French social housing projects [c.f. Misfits’ Guide to PARIS] that are often cited as successful examples of Post Modernism but rarely as successful examples of social housing meeting geometry meeting prefabricated construction meeting symbolic content and sense of place. They are all examples of something never attempted before and probably never again will be. By their very geometry, arcades, promenades, amphitheatres and semicircular massing all create focal points but amphitheatres and circles create communal space more efficiently.

The combination of classical and neo-classical elements with social housing and fusing it with prefabrication and symbolic content has never been bettered. These facades don’t appear gratuitous because Bofill sees classical architecture as always having been a system of standardised dimensions and prefabrication. Rather than build cheaply and dress it up, using classical elements that integrate cladding and symbolic content makes prefabrication the logical and natural choice.

Because of an internet-famous photo-essay on forgotten French housing estates, Bofill’s name often is often wrongly associated with these next two projects that, by comparison, illustrate how good Bofill’s French projects are. The one on the left is Le Pavé Neuf (1985) by architect Manuel Núñez Yanowsky and the one on the right is Orgues de Flandre (1980) by Martin van Trek. Both show what happens when symbolic content becomes detached from the elements used to create it. Instead, Bofill used the expressive potential of prefabricated elements in the same way as a Brutalist (or a Catalan Modernist) would use more natural materials.

It’s rarely the case that architects get to choose their projects. After 1965 there was less call for social housing projects worldwide even though France is a notable exception with large scape projects extending into the 1980s. The Taller took on projects such as the Houari Boumedienne Agricultural Village (1980) in Algeria and the scheme for Bab-Al-Sheikh in Iraq. Both are amazing for their understanding of what was required humanly, socially and politically.

Finally, there is this unbuilt proposal for a mass-produced single-family house in the style of Palladio. It is a study done to see if it could be. Nobody asked for it. Les Maisons Temple is an exercise in fusing prefabricated components and architectural symbolism into a useful housing product and this to me seems to illustrate what Bofill and Taller de Arquitectura has been doing all along. It is in line with Bofill’s 1989 statement that

“Architecture is the victory of man over the irrational: the construction of a familiar, domestic, human space.”

• • • 

Ricardo Bofill
(1939 ~ )*


For always rising to the occasion,

misfits’ salutes you!

• • • 

After 1990 there’s more retail and commercial work, as well as an airport terminal here and there. Social housing projects disappear. The only major ones are in Stockholm in 1992 and the Antigone project that continued throughout the 1990s. This project list shows how the clients for architecture changed.

1990: Institute for Physical Education of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain
1990: Mediterranean Cultural Centre, Barcelona, Spain
1991: Olympic Village Apartments, Barcelona, Spain (113 apartments)
1991: JC Decaux Headquarters, Paris, France (offices)
1991: Rioxa Park, Vigo, Spain (park and landscaping)
1991: Shepherd School of Music, Houston, Texas, USA
1991: Taller de Arquitectura, Paris, France (office renovation)
1991: Barcelona Airport Terminal 2, Barcelona, Spain
1991: Parfums Christian Dior Building, Paris, France (facade refurbishment)
1992: Pa Soder Crescent, Stockholm, Sweden (310 apartments)
1992: United Arrows Harajuku Main Shop, Tokyo, Japan (luxury retail)
1992: 77 West Wacker Drive, Chicago, Illinois, USA (office tower)
1992: Madrid Congress Centre, Madrid, Spain (convention centre)
1993: Costes K Hotel, Paris, France
1996: Olympic Swimming Pool, Montpelier, France
1997: Redevelopment of Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid, Spain (masterplan)
1997: BNP Banque Paribas, Paris, France (mixed-use redevelopment)
1997: National Theatre of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain
1998: Atrium Saldanha, Lisbon, Portugal (retail + office mixed-use)
1998: Casablanca Twin Center, Casablanca, Morocco (offices)
1998: La Bastide District, Bordeaux, France (100-ha urban masterplan)
1979–1999: Antigone District, Montpelier, France (36-ha mixed use development, incl. 800 apartments)
1999: Museum of the Royal Collections, Madrid, Spain
1999: Zarazoga-Delicias Interchange (railway station development)
1999: Aoyama Palacio, Tokyo, Japan (13-storey offices + retail)
1999: SPI Fiumiconi, Rome, Italy (mixed-use town centre masterplan)
2000: Casa Ananda, Miami, Florida, USA (private house)
2000: Corso 1 Karlin, Prague, Czech Republic (offices + renovation)
2000: Savona Cresent, Savona, Italy (apartment building)
2000: Funchalcentrum, Madeira, Portugal (mixed-use town centre development)
2000: AXA Offices, Paris, France
2001: Shiseido Ginza, Tokyo, Japan (offices)
2002: Nexus II, Barcelona, Spain (offices)
2002: Zona Franca Logistic Park, Barcelona, Spain (business park)
2002: Platinum Tower, Beirut, Lebanon (33-storey residential tower)
2002: Maritime Front Development, Barcelona, Spain (office + housing mixed-use)
2002: Cartier Headquarters, Paris, France (offices)
2003: Dearborn Center, Chicago, Illinois, USA (office tower)
2003: Monchyplein, The Hague, Holland (mixed-use urban regeneration)
2003: Manzanares Park, Madrid, Spain (industrial area park renovation)
2004: Corso 2 Karlin, Prague Czech Republic (offices)
2006: Lazona Kawasaki Plaza, Kawasaki, Japan (mixed use city centre development)
2006: La Porte, Luxembourg (twin office towers)
2007: Miguel Delibes Culture Centre, Valladolid, Spain
2007: Savona Tower, Savona, Italy (commercial + apartments + hotel)
2009: W Hotel Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
2010: La Résidence de la Paix, Dakar, Senegal (18 low- and medium-income apartment buildings)
2010: Barcelona Airport Terminal 1, Barcelona, Spain
2012: Moscow Agglomeration, Moscow, Russia (urban growth masterplan)
2012: Desigüal Headquarters, Barcelona, Spain (offices)
2013: Qingdao New Airport, Jiaoxhou, Qingdao, China
2013: L’Ourse Public Library, Dinard, France
2013: Economic Newsroom, Prague, Czech Republic (factory adaptive reuse)
2013: Leningrad, St. Petersburg, Russia (cinema refurbisment)
2013: The Connected City, Dallas, Texas, USA (transportation masterplan)
2014: Forum Karlin, Prague, Czech Republic (renovation + offices + multipurpose hall)
2015: Nou Camp Not, Barcelona, Spain (stadium)
2016: Université Mohammed VI Polytechnique, Benguérir, Morocco (55-ha university campus)
2016: Corso Court, Prague, Czech Republic (office development)
2016: Obecní Dvů, Prague, Czech Republic (12 apartments)

There’s much that is good and some that is very good. For reasons I’ve already explained, Bofill’s commercial applications of prefabricated classicism are extremely competent, even handsome.

There are also buildings such as the Shiseido building and the W Hotel Barcelona that are extremely accomplished buildings and should be appreciated for what they are.

*(1939 – 2022) [16 Jan 2022]


Movies are high-res imagery of elaborate fictions and thus fit naturally into this new media landscape where everything is architecture. It’s not even necessary for a movie to be set in or around a building but, when a movie like High-Rise comes along with a lot of people in a building and one of them’s an architect, it’s like content from heaven. Unfortunately, most of the people in that building behave badly and kill each other and, on the surface, it looks like the fault of the architecture.

This is a big problem for, in this post-depth world, people only pay attention to the surface of things and people might think a building full of corpses reflects badly upon the magic and mystery of architecture. The challenge then, for today’s architecture media content providers, is to write about a movie in which most of the characters end up dead, but in a way that keeps that magic and mystery of architecture alive. Let’s see how they do.

The Architecture Foundation’s sole concern is how architecture is represented to the general public. It has some unnamed writer giving us a string of trivial observations such as the improbability of the off-form concrete and the organisation of the development itself, and basically dismisses the movie as poorly-researched and poorly-styled fluff.

Questions such as the effect a building or its typology may or may not have on people are simply ignored. OK it’s true there’s no evidence good buildings produce good people or bad ones produce bad people, but faith in architectural determinism one way or the other still remains the basis for much architectural activity. The Architecture Foundation doesn’t care if exposed concrete and ducting cause social degeneracy, embody an architectural one, or symbolise a soon-to-be not-so-latent human one. It objects to it as cliché.

Colin Martin, writing for ArchitectureAU, under the promising title of The Brutality of Vertical Living, gives us a movie review with two closing paragraphs saying something about Brutalism to link back to the title. Martin’s interest in Brutalism also goes no further than the degree it impinges upon our consciousness as a style. Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock would be proud.

Architecture AU

Martin’s quick to link the nastiness depicted in the film with Brutalism and thus reinforce the painstakingly-fostered and maintained negative associations that Brutalism has come to have with post-war British council housing. Thought: half a century on, why is this continual vilification necessary? After all, people don’t continually remind us to associate Post Modernism with shoddy construction, Deconstructivism with bubble economies and Parametricism with the hollowing-out of architecture. I sense politics is at work. The never-ending demonization of Brutalism serves to validate not only the destruction of social housing, but to ensure that social housing as a concept is dead and stays buried. We’re meant to think social housing was just an aesthetic fad we grew out of.

Dezeen quotes the director, Ben Wheatley as rejecting the suggestion the set and the egomaniacal architect character Royal were a direct comment on late Modernism. “The film is not a criticism of post-war architecture,” he said. “It’s more that the building is a metaphor.”


This sounds like it could be true but metaphor can be used with critical intent. [I wouldn’t want Wheatley to be my lawyer.] “I think whenever you try to take a god-like view and try to force social stuff [!] on to people and have an overarching idea of how people are going to live, you’re opening yourself up for trouble,” he said. “Not to say you couldn’t get it right, but I wouldn’t be surprised when you got it really, really wrong.” This to me sounds like a criticism of attempts to provide “social stuff” like social housing.

A few reviewers mentioned Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower as a symbol of Brutalism the style but not as the gentrified council housing it is now. The high-rises of Colin Lucas, Brutalist in both apperance and social function, are not remembered.

The Barbican doesn’t get a mention either despite being most definitely Brutalist and of the same vintage but it was housing for the middle classes. It is a recognizable inspiration for the set design and it’s right that it should be. To ignore The Barbican is to miss the point of the book.

In his 2014 introduction to the iBook edition of High-Rise, Ned Beauman writes that the book would not shock if council housing tenants descended into barbarism for this would only confirm what many want to believe anyway. It only works, as Lord of the Flies did, because we believe, also falsely, that the middle-classes are more civilised. He finishes by saying that “any time in human history that two or more households have tried to share the same space, they have lived in the High-Rise.” In that sense, High-Rise is a very contemporary British novel about the inability to share, especially when times get tough. Societal decay begins in shared spaces such as corridors, elevators and stairwells, and comes to a head in scenes set in the shared amenities of supermarket and swimming pool.

A.O. Scott reviews the film for the New York Times without any mention of Brutalism, Britain, or British housing policy.

Zach Mortise, writing for Metropolis 2 (May 24), offers a solid synopsis of the film and notes how the balconies refer to those of the The Barbican.

His closing thoughts emphasise how the architecture of the movie is inspiring but incidental to the thrust of the plot. There’s a lack of Brutalism bashing and attempts to negatively associate it with British council housing.

Zach Mortice

Shumi Bose steps up to the plate one month later to rectify this deficiency, and delivers Metropolis Magazine‘s second review of the same film, and which is immediately broadcast by ArchDaily.


Despite being in Metropolis’ Culture section and not its Architecture section, Bose’s article has much description of buildings already well illustrated. Let’s not forget that these buildings are someone’s imagining of buildings described in a novel. As I think I mentioned, they’re no less real or less architecture [sic.] than what gets presented to us as architecture anyway. Seen worse.


Instead of hearing about The Barbican, we get given a history lesson on Britain’s post-war housing policy. The word Brutalism occurs only once in the header but Brutalism the style and Brutalism the ambition are conflated and the implication is that Brutalism and social housing are both things of the past.

I doubt we’ll recognise ourselves. The idea of different socio-economic classes inhabiting the same building is unthinkable now. [c.f. Poor Doors]

Julia Ingall, writing for Archinect, unsurprisingly sees the high-rise building as a WYSIWYG allegory and her review is given the racy title Devastation is in the Details. For the first time we learn the interesting fact that the movie “was filmed in the real-life Bangor Leisure Center designed by Hugo Simpson in Belfast, Northern Ireland”. Uh-oh.

Chris Hall, writing for The Guardian noted that Ballard’s most psychologically fulfilled characters look to transcend their physical surroundings, however hostile, by embracing them. … Ballard argued that “people aren’t moving into gated communities simply to avoid muggers and housebreakers – they’re moving in … to get away from other people. Even people like themselves.” In this way, Ballardian environments actively select for psychopathic traits and it’s the egocentric Laing who is best adapted to the high-rise who ultimately survives all the tower can throw at him.”

Wilder: “Living in a high-rise requires a special type of behaviour .. aquiesent … restrained … absolutely slightly mad. The ones who are the real danger are the self-contained types … impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life … professionally detached … thriving, like an advanced species in a neutral atmosphere.
Laing: I am sorry you think that.
Wilder: No you’re not.
Laing: Perhaps you’re right.

[Dinner’s ready!]

Laura Mark in Architects Journal wasn’t given much space but she managed a good summary and to also link its message to contemporary society.

This is a new and refreshing slant. I’m glad she noticed EVERYTHING WAS FINE UNTIL THE LIFTS STARTED TO FAIL. If we buy into the hierarchical allegory and the superior classes being at the top, then failing lifts mean no prospects for social mobility. But without such overthinking, the novel and film could easily be read as a cautionary tale arguing for backup systems and better maintenance regimes for residential buildings. Sadly, this doesn’t make for good novels, movies or architecture media content. It’s a shame, because we have one well-documented precedent for poor maintenance leading to the breakdown of societal norms, and we learned the wrong lessons from that.

Pruitt-Igoe was demolished three years before High-Rise was published. Well before 1975, inadequate maintenance was a thing. Had it not been demolished, Pruitt-Igoe would surely have been repaired, refurbished and gentrified by now. The site still lacks replacement buildings of any kind. Anyone who achieves anything on this site that’s been systematically stigmatized for decades deserves more than some miserable Pritzker.

As it remains with Brutalism even now, what happened because of the absence of backup systems and ongoing maintenance is wrongly thought of today as an aeshetic failure. This over-concern for the aesthetics of social housing projects seems confined to the English-speaking countries. It’s as if their occupants aren’t allowed aesthetics of any kind, let alone decent maintenance. The elevators in The Barbican seem to work fine. Stylistically, some of Brutalism’s architectural ideas such as raw finishes and the absence of ornament weren’t bad ones but it’s the social optimism of Brutalism that really needs keeping going. It’s precisely this that’s under continual attack.

Patrick Sisson, writing for Curbed, was the only person who wanted to see more of that optimism before the movie revels in its unravelling.

• • •

In the closing scenes of total social and mechanical breakdown within the building, the Wilder character [one of the lower-floor tenants] makes his way to the penthouse where he kills the architect he sees responsible for the dysfunction. His assault on the integrity and authority of the architect is swiftly avenged by those still in thrall to his magic and power. This observation seems to be mine alone but you try saying something less than completely praiseworthy about any renowned architect living or dead, and see what happens.

• • •

FUN FACT 1: Nearly all reviews mention the architect character living in the penthouse. Some mentioned the architect Erno Goldfinger who famously lived on the top floor of his Balfron Tower – but only for two months, as some troublemaker mischievously repeated.

FUN FACT 2: Not a single reviewer mentioned the architect Ian Simpson and his fantastical apartment at the top of the 47-storey Beetham Tower he designed in Manchester, 2004.


Two-hundred year old olive trees were helicoptered up there one by one, I remember reading at the time.

• • •