Tag Archives: education

12 Months

June to December last year was a golden time for the blog. Visitor and page view numbers were rising to approach what they’d been in 2018 before I tired of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the treadmill of promoting. I continued to announce new posts on LinkedIn though.

American reader numbers have always been the largest but I took pleasure in watching the number of readers in China grow steadily even though, in December last year, they were still only one third (2,354) of those in the US (7,792). I felt good, and the blog was growing organically by person-to-person recommendations as it should.

But come this year, view numbers flatlined while visitor numbers stayed approximately the same. There are now few or no visitors or views from China. Instead of being the country with the second highest numbers of views, only once every ten days or so will China appear near the bottom of the top ten list of countries. The net effect is as if access to the site is somehow being throttled to approx. 40%. It’s easy to say “Ahh it’s obviously The Great Firewall of China!” but the loss is greater than what the number of Chinese visitors and views had been. Something is happening and I’m trying to get to the bottom of it. If anyone has any thoughts, then I’d be grateful if you could share. misfitsarchitecture is currently hosted by the US web hosting company Bluehost.

While that has been happening, the blog continues and each Sunday grows by one post even if all of them aren’t pearls.

Of the blog’s 16 categories, this past year had no new posts for the CAREERS category even though there are architects like Jean Prouvé who would make a fascinating career case study. I discovered no new MISFITS in the past twelve months, even though there must still be many more little known architects from whom we can learn. There was nothing new in NEWS, even though there must have been items that I might have had some thoughts on had I known of them. However, in the past 12 months either no such thoughts crossed my mind or, if they did, they then went somewhere else.

The categories of MEDIA and FOOD each had one new post in the past 12 months. The one in MEDIA was the relatively recent one reflecting upon the generally perfunctory media coverage of the death of Ricardo Bofill. The one in FOOD reflected on continuing attempts to make the countryside more like the city.

I’m currently reading James C. Scott’s Against The Grain that makes a case for agriculture being used as a means for the formation of this thing called The State and its subsequent enslavement of populations via taxation. Extending this reasoning, rather than seeing the countryside as the new urbanism, cities are more correctly called the new ruralism in that they’re machines for faming people.

These past 12 months I’ve been fortunate to have been able to travel to Shanghai, Tianjin and Nantong. I thought Tianjin and Nantong were both extremely comfortable cities but Shanghai defies easy labels. All I can do is write about what it makes me think about. My first visit to Shanghai led to Misfits Guide to Shanghai, The Gardened City, and ZHA@MAM Shanghai that led to Automatic Design

My second visit to Shanghai led to The Elevated Road and three new posts in the HISTORY category, pondering the various ways the life of building stock is extended.

There were five new posts in the AESTHETICS category. Even re-reading the Aesthetic Efficiency post just then took me back to Fang Ta Yuan/方塔园/Square Pagoda Garden in Songjiang in outer Shanghai. I’m not normally moved by gardens but this was a totally contrived miniature universe of calm. Questions of natural and artificial didn’t apply, and that too was relaxing. Maybe my calmness came from the lack of display of authorship. It just was.

Someone once pointed out that my use of the word myths was incorrect but I think waht’s happening is that the word myth now has a touch of myth about it. I use it to mean those things we believe anyway despite the basis for that belief being rather shaky. Flexibility, Individuality and, only last week, Self-Sufficiency were three typical posts for this category. There’s a book there somewhere.

With eleven and ten posts each, EDUCATION and TYPOLOGIES were the categories with the largest number of posts although three of the Architectural Myths posts also appeared in MYTHS. I try to keep the categories separate but overlap between education and the continuation of architectural myths is no surprise.

Eight of the eleven EDUCATION posts dealt with various ways of having, generating or otherwise prompting an architectural idea. This is something of a preoccupation of mine. They’re all different ways of generating what it’s been fashionable for a while now to call “mutations”. An intern farm is the infinite monkey metaphor applied to the generation of an artificial diversity of architectural ideas.

If you give a monkey a typewriter and an infinite amount of time then sooner or [much, much] later it will type Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a disingenuous metaphor because 1) it assumes we all think Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the pinnacle of human creativity, 2) it wants us to ignore the fact the monkey will also reproduce every piece of crap writing that has ever existed, and 3) it also wants us to ignore the fact that, should it succeed in typing Hamlet, it’d be a chance occurrence and not creativity at all. (“Hey monkey – somebody’s already written this!”) The random generation of mutations simulates the appearance of architectural ideas but design as a creative endeavour only exists when a process of selection is applied and decisions made.

Because infinite numbers of typewriters, time, and monkeys (and infinite bananas to incentivize them) are hard to come by, we have algorithmic design but somebody still has to sift through all those possibilities and find something that can be used to make design decisions. It’s just another way of arriving at an idea and not a way of designing. In Formative Houses I recalled some buildings that made a huge impression on me, and became aware of how much I was still referring to them. Knowledge in the form of a library of images and memories is just one more (traditional? conventional? archaic? inexpensive?) way of generating an architectural idea. More recently, in Associative Design, I wrote about how a project can begin by recreating some memory, and then being sensitive to how that memory leads to another, and then another that opens up more memories. This too is nothing more or less than an old fashioned analog way of generating a sequence of mutations, all of which are design ideas. As a way of designing though, it has the advantage of there always being a finished project because the universe of possibilities is always the universe of possible possibilities. You don’t have to select a design and then fit your program into it. Let’s pick this up again some other time.

I suspect I might be using the word typologies when I should be just using the word “types”. Nevertheless, the TYPOLOGIES category best represents my interests. The posts in this category all look at a particular building type and all produce some proposal that I think improves upon or solves some problem. The Space Between Apartments and The Not-so-elevated Road are not just two of my favourite posts from the past year but two of my favourite projects.

All these proposals are collected on my other website grahambrentonmckay.com with projects added to the five categories from the top. These categories are ill-defined and have considerable overlap but they’re all about the sharing of building elements.

These are the ones from the past 12 months.

There are also links across categories. For example, there’s a progression of thought from The Handshake Apartments to The Handshake House to Handshake Hotel, but there are three different proposals for three different situations. Non-Algorithmic Housing I and Non-Albgorithmic Housing II are obviously related.

There’s another book in there somewhere. Proposals that find their way to this website are all concerned with high density or high-rise and this is no accident. One way of saving space and resources is to make detached houses smaller. Another is to not waste space and resources through inefficient planning. A third way is to share the same building element for two or more dwellings. High rise buildings share floors, lobbies and elevators and most have shared walls on shared floors but the high-rise apartment block outside of south-east Asia has settled on the Lake Shore Drive single-sided apartments off dual-loaded corridor configuration because it’s cheapest to build and heat. I believe there are other, better ways of doing it.

I’ll post this one under NEWS to be with all the other posts about this blog, and I’ll tag it misfits, education, and typologies.

Notes on Scale

In class last Tuesday I showed some images I thought would help students understand the concept of scale. I explained that the buildings in the image on the left below are of different size but the same scale and the one on the corner in the right image on the right is of the same size but has a different scale.

The new buildings in these next two images are the same size and the same scale as the old ones.

I thought I’d explained it clearly enough but, after class, one student asked me “Sir, what do you mean by scale?” Hm. Scale was going to be another of those words with no direct equivalent in Chinese. I later found out 比例 could mean scale – such as in 1:200 – or it could mean proportion or proportional. It was going to be as good as it gets, but what did I mean by scale?

As a provisional explanation, I said Size is how big something is, and Scale is how big something seems – which is not wrong but it wasn’t making things much clearer either. In Chinese, scale and proportion are difficult to separate yet, in English, we like to conflate the words scale and human scale and “human scale” usually contains a value judgment of being a good thing. But if we combine the two understandings and say scale is how big a building seems, proportional to a person we get the best of both and without the value judgment. All we need to understand the scale of a building then is to know how big a person is (check) and and to see a building with respect to a person or some other human-sized reference such as a door, window or floor slab.

What happens if there isn’t any person or reference?

We either get 1) a monument or 2) a building we say looks monumental. The first of these next three pictures is a monument. The other two buildings are monumental because we can’t see or make out any of those indicators that tell us how big they are proportional to a person. The lesson here is “If you want your building to appear inhuman, then don’t have any indicators of human scale”. Some buildings do this either by design accident or by design.

These next buildings aren’t so big but, still, we can’t see any of those indicators, or at least not at first glance. They’re doing the same thing but not as strongly and, because they’re also not as huge or close as the ones above, they’re not as intimidating.

But Sir, what if those people references don’t tell us the truth?

It’s a problem. You get a building where your eyes are telling you how big a building is but a person or some human-sized reference is telling your brain something different. These next two buildings don’t have any of the usual indicators of human scale and they both appear to be bigger than they are until you notice how big the cars look compared to how large you thought the building was. If you walk closer these buildings will disappoint you.

This next building seems like a big building until you see the size of the cars. It is a student dormitory and each single room has nine of those small windows.

If we are at a distance from this next building and count the number of horizontal stripes, it will look like a twenty-storey building but, if you go closer, you’ll see that each stripe represents two storeys and the building is actually a forty-storey building. This building looks smaller than it is from a distance but as you get closer it seems bigger and more impressive. Every luxury hotel doesn’t have to do this, but if you want your luxury hotel to look more and not less impressive the closer you get to it, then do this or something similar.

This next building – the black one in the middle – isn’t giving us false information, but it’s not giving us much to go on either as its pattern of windows doesn’t indicate floor levels we can understand. It’s slightly monumental – “proud” shall we say? – and we understand how big it is more from the buildings nearby rather than from any information it’s giving us.

So what happens if different parts of a building tell you different things about how big a person is?

It happens a lot. Usually, some part of the building is made larger to tell us it is more important. You often see double or triple height columns at the entrances of palaces, court buildings, government and official architecture and banks and insurance companies. These big entrances are telling us that these people are bigger than the rest of us. It’s about power. London’s Picadilly Circus has buildings with vertically paired windows confusing our impression of how big they are. They appear larger and grander than the real size of their windows would otherwise indicate. Some might say pretentious.

Palaces, court buildings and other civil and governmental architecture often have columns on the facade to double or triple its scale and impress us. Many people in many countries think this standard architectural denotation of wealth and/or power is beautiful. The device of vertically pairing windows to confound scale and make a building appear grander than it is has a long history, most likely emanating from France. With this example, it’s the columns and not the window frames that pair the windows vertically. This is done so often at entrances and on facades that we take it for granted.

Even simply stacking the windows is sufficient to evoke the same effect, as with the various levels of English Georgian that arrange individual windows in larger patterns within an encompassing geometry. Like the Emiratis, we’re conditioned to seeing this architectural device not as pretentious but pleasing, beautiful even. It consistently functions to make something appear as part of a larger design and thus something larger than its individual parts.

Here’s how it’s done in the UAE with their detached houses they call villas. Window openings are combined to form larger apparent windows of two or three times the size. This device makes the house appear grander, and is so common it can be called the norm. It’s what a villa is.

Similar things happen on medium sized apartment buildings and small hotels, so much so that it is strange when a building doesn’t have some degree of scale confusion. Each time, it’s acting to make the building appear grander and give it a presence over and above its actual size. It’s a degree of preferred monumentality complicated by the need for hotels to have windows and maybe balconies. These first three simple examples variously articulate one, two, three or four floors at a time. The first few floors are car parking podiums.

These next examples have features of multiple scales placed to further confound floor levels as an indicator of human scale. There’s a certain Arabian Nights whimsy about them that’s not totally horrible. The one on the left below is especially fantastical at night – a guilty pleasure.

I’m not usually one to say “in fairness…” but in fairness there’s not that much else to bounce off in this corner of town. This clutch of buildings has little choice but to make its own context and this just happens to be what it came up with. If it continues to fill up in this manner then it’s going to be quite an extraordinary place one day in a Learning from Las Vegas kind of way where every building insists “I AM A PALACE!”

With all this confounding of scale happening, it’s refreshing to come across a UAE building not trying to look more grander or more impressive. I thought this one sufficiently unusual I had to photograph it. You’ll see all its neighbors have some degree of scale inflation.

As do these more central buildings with their quasi-monumental features and motifs of various sizes.

Is not having a human scale always a bad thing?

No. Many factories and power stations are big and scaled for machinery, not people. No problem.

Mostly however, if somebody wants to make their building look as if it is occupied by superhumans, it’s because they want to make other people feel small. Albert Speer’s 1938 Reich Chancellery for Adolf Hitler was a masterclass in how to do this. That door at the end leading to Hitler’s office is larger and has its own staircase. It’s a supersized and intimidating space intended to dehumanize and project power.

The staircase into Milano Centrale Station also does a good job at making people feel insignificant, although those side windows aren’t doing anything different than those buildings in Picadilly Circus or Dubai.

And though for purposes less defined, Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Centre is on the same page.


What does “playing with scale” mean?

Nothing good. If an instructor says it they usually just mean experiment with a few different scales until you find one they like.

There was once this architect called Philip Johnson was said many things and one of the less-remembered things he said is about office building facades. He said “no matter what you do, you get a plaid.”He meant that some combination of vertical elements such as columns or mullions and horizontal elements such as floor slabs or spandrels (that tell us human scale) will always make a criss-cross pattern. I don’t know when he said this but it was sometime after the first of these photographs and sometime before the second. It was probably true, or at least as true as anything else he said.

It’s not too hard to find examples of office buildings for which this isn’t the case and just as easy to find examples for which it is. He’s dead now, so he can’t add to this conversation.

The office-y parts of Arata Isozaki’s 1991 Team Disney Building in Orlando, Florida are more gingham than plaid, and are an example of “playing” with scale, in this case to add a veneer of whimsy to the hard-nosed commerce happening within. “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go” people sing, as they enter the building.

The office wings have three horizontal bands at intervals corresponding to office floor levels. This gives us a sense of how big it is even though the vertical bands have the same spacing and importance to create a pattern that downplays the floor levels. The facade is “at rest”, much like a tablecloth and this would still be the case if somehow the building were upended. It’s most definitely a plaid but the flatness of its detailing makes it an ironic one as these horizontals and verticals have no Johnsonian identity as construction elements.,

The squat central tower and the intersecting blue volume are bigger and also have no such indicators of scale and thus appear “monumental”. (The purpose of monuments, remember, is to look monumental and monuments don’t have any indicators that allow us to tell how large they are.)

The intersecting pink volume (on the left) has large window openings and, compared with the entrance door, looks as if it’s a two-story volume behind.

The cube of the entrance lobby has at least four things happening.

  1. Counting the number of openings vertically, it appears to have five levels yet is the same height as the plaid office wing that seems to have four.
  2. Again, going by the openings, the first/ground floor appears taller than the others, yet not quite as tall as the pink volume crashing into it on the left. That pink volume could be two storeys yet appears to be one.
  3. The entrance doors are what we like to call human scale.
  4. The mouse ear device is large but has no scale. (How large are cartoon mouse ears supposed to be anyway?) However, it is one of those supersized features – like a row of huge columns – that often mark the entrances of buildings.

Once inside, you discover you’re in a supersized entrance lobby and made to feel small.

Thank you Sir! What are the most important things?

If you want to make your building look mysterious and possibly a bit scary, don’t let it show any indicators of human scale.

If you don’t want people to be disappointed when they arrive at your building, don’t make it look bigger than it is.

Don’t be surprised that many people like buildings that make them look more important than they really are.

Try to remember that a building has a scale suitable for the type of building it is.

Try to remember that a building has a scale suitable for the type of building it is.

Try to remember that a building has a scale suitable for the type of building it is.

What that scale is may depend on your client.

It’s fine for your building to look as big as it is.

Playing with scale is serious business.