Tag Archives: form and function

Assorted Architecture Myths

1) The Chicago School architects invented Modern Architecture by “expressing” the steel frame and by “getting rid” of ornament.

Fair Store, Chicago, 1890

NOT TRUE! The Chicago School architects were designing department stores and office buildings – both new types of buildings for new types of commercially-driven clients. By that time, steel frame construction had become cheaper and quicker. Carved stone ornament had become expensive and time-consuming. The Chicago School architects were following the money by keeping their new, commercially-minded clients happy. Stranger things have been known to happen. 

4) Mies van der Rohe invented “space” that flows around walls and blurs the distinction between inside and outside.

project for a brick country house, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1923

NOT TRUE! This painting, done by Theo van Doesburg in 1918 is often seen in history books next to the plan above. Notice the white space in the middle? See how it “flows” around the coloured lines? See how some of the coloured lines pass beyond this white space? Was Mies clever or what? It only took him five years to work out that this painting could be a plan. 


By the way, there’s no known site or client for  “Project for a Brick Country House” so the safe bet is that it was a speculative project, designed to catch a rich client who thought he knew a bit about art. Having external full-height glass walls made the inside seem larger than it was. Getting rid of some internal walls made the house seem larger still. Although this house never found a client, clients generally like buildings that seem larger than they can afford. 

3) The Grand Corbster invented concrete columns and slabs in 1914.

Domino House, 1914


In 1853, François Coignet (1814-1888) built the first iron reinforced concrete structure anywhere, a four story house at 72 rue Charles Michels


François Coignet’s son Edmond (1856-1915) was the inventor of agglomerated concrete, the first to use reinforced concrete piles and also made important contributions to the theory of reinforced concrete. (Thanks Aurélien, for letting me know about Coignet.)

Francois Coignet house. First house in reinfor...

Francois Coignet house. First house in reinforced concrete, built in 1853. Historic monument since 1998. In a state of slow deterioration due to lack of maintenance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

William Wilkinson built a house with reinforced concrete floors in 1854.

Wilkinson’s concrete system, 1854

François Hennebique patented a reinforced concrete construction system in 1870


Auguste Perret used columns, beams and slabs in a Paris apartment building in 1903.


Inside, columns were hidden and outside, everything was covered in decorative cladding that showed where the structural frame was.


The Ingalls Building was the world’s first concrete slab skyscraper. Cincinatti, 1903.


Corby had his Domino House idea in 1914.

Domino House, Le Corbusier, 1914

August Perret’s Notre-Dame du Raincy church was the world’s first ever use of unclad concrete in 1922.


In 1928, L-C presented his Domino House to the world once again as the supposed basis for his new architecture as illustrated by the Villa Savoye. It was now 25 years after Perret’s apartments and the Cincinatti skyscraper and seven years after Perret’s church. It was now cheaper to construct the shell quickly with rough concrete and cheap blocks and to cover it all with render later. Stranger things have been known to happen.

the Villa Savoye being constructed

Even if The Big C looked at his 14-year old drawing and independently deduced that columns and slabs were the way forward (as they obviously had been for a while) that still doesn’t explain the beams. Oh well.

columns, slabs AND BEAMS! in the Villa Savoye

columns and walls, beams and slabs

4) The dynamiting of Pruitt Igoe represented a public yearning for a more meaningful type of architecture, thus paving the way for Post Modernism.


FALSE! The occupants of social housing have never influenced architectural theory.

5) The gap between architecture and engineering is the result of each having to deal with different aspects of buildings.

The gap between architecture and engineering IN PLAN: http://www.dezeen.com/2011/02/25/guangzhou-opera-house-by-zaha-hadid-architects/

BECOMING MORE TRUE!The gap between architecture and engineering is the result of the insides of buildings having to do different things from the outsides of buildings. Spaces for the performance of music require internal environments where lighting, acoustic and thermal criteria (to name a few) are cleverly controlled, but the outsides of these buildings tell the city/country/world/universe that a new architectural event is now in town. With performance spaces, this gap between architecture and engineering is a very physical one and can conveniently be filled with stairs and lobbies that are a necessary part of the opera-going experience anyway, but can also be architectural events in themselves. Charles Garnier knew this when he designed the Paris Opera House in 1857.  More than half the building is given over to seeing and being seen.


semi-public space at the Paris Opera, Charles Garnier, 1856



Comparing the following two sections gives an idea of how this perhaps inevitable gap between architecture and engineering has shrunk. This first section is the wonderful cutaway model of the Paris Opera House. The auditorium, central staircase and grand hall exist as architectural events within an architectural envelope. You can see a large gap between the roof and the ceilings of these three spaces. This is the gap that is now being exploited.


Contrast the Guangzhou Opera House where the gap between the engineered performance space and the inside of the (no less engineered) architectural shell is put to work as the only interior architectural event other than the auditorium itself.

It’s the buildings that became small.

the gap between architecture and engineering IN SECTION


pay per view: gap filled with stuff to extract money from people admiring the gap


Dream Machine

This drawing of a design for a small cinema by Herbert Bayer is a popular drawing in Bauhaus exhibitions and publications. It’s still in good condition after 85 years, there’s something pleasing about the layout, and it has some pretty colours. Lovely. Now let’s see what the drawing tells us about the building.

  • The dotted lines in the plan for the upper level tell us that the width and depth of the auditorium have been determined by the power of the projector lamp and lens. This is a sensible thing to do because although the projector can project a larger image, it won’t be as bright. People have to be able to see what they’re paying for.
  • All seats are on the same level and have a good view of the screen. This is also good, and for the same reason.
  • The cinema does not have balconies like an opera theatre or side galleries like a drama theatre. When watching something that is two-dimensional, side galleries and balconies are not clever. Same reason again.
  • There is no curtain or stage because IT’S A CINEMA! Films don’t need stages that has to be hid while scenery and performers move into position.
  • The cinema looks like it has three classes of seating, with 3 probably the most expensive. All cinemas used to be like this.
  • The wall and seating area colours show the seat (ticket price) type and become progressively darker towards the screen where it needs to be dark. This is a good thing.
  • There are two fire escapes, one at each end of the central aisle and this is the best place for them to be. This is a good, for obvious reasons. Back then, smoking inside cinemas was allowed.
  • An arrow on the front stairs shows they are (somewhat obviously) the entrance, but an arrow on the rear stairs shows they are intended to be used as the exit. Such an arrangement reduces the time between screenings.
  • The entrance door is a revolving door. This keeps out streetnoise – not that this would have mattered all that much since, in 1924, movies were still silent movies.  (The first commercial screenings of short films with soundtracks were in 1923 and the first feature film with a soundtrack was released in 1927 – both in America.)
  • Entry is directly into the lobby, but something is blocking the direct line from the street. This stops light from the street hitting the screen when the inner door is open.
  • To the right of the entrance we have what is probably a ticket booth and stairs leading up to the projection room. Both spaces are necessary spaces for a cinema.
  • To the left is a room but we don’t know what for – toilets perhaps, or maybe not, as it’s unlikely you would have been able to buy buckets of Coca-Cola in German cinemas in 1924.
  • Apart from the door, the entire façade of the building is given over to advertising the cinema and what is showing inside. The façade is providing useful information, not decoration.
  • Apart from the facade, the building has no external presence at all.

All this we know from this one drawing. What we can’t tell is that 1920s Berlin was an exciting place to be. In 1924, when this building was designed, modern Berlin cinema-goers were probably watching the following films, each of which is an example of German Expressionist cinema.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Nosferatu (1922)

Phantom (1922)
Schatten (Warning Shadows, 1923)
The Last Laugh (1924)
Although it was being filmed in 1925, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” wasn’t released until 1927.

Metropolis (1927)

Even from these few images and clips, we can see that 1920’s German Expressionist cinema wasn’t too concerned with reality. The “feeling” that the film evoked in the viewer was the important thing and those feelings were often to do with spectacular escapist fantasy, whether horror, historical, futuristic – or all three at once. What’s any of this got to do with architecture?

Absolutely nothing!

And that is the brilliant thing about this cinema design of Bayer’s. It’s the job of movies and drama (and perhaps opera) to provide reaffirming and/or disturbing visual fantasies of people’s lives and loves, their emotions and cultures, their times and their places. All this little building does is provide a place for that to happen, and in as sensible a way as possible. The “cinema-going experience” is a more recent invention designed to extract as much money out of you before you get to your seat.

So next time you go to a cinema, particularly if it’s in a shopping mall, have a look around. You might have a bucket of Coke, a barrel of popcorn and a lapful of incredibly noisy sweets, but the box you’re sitting in (and the one next to it, and the one next to that) will be not much different from this 1924 prototype.

Herbert Bayer, MISFITS’ salutes you!


The Dark Side of the Villa Savoye

A nice piece of land doesn’t automatically generate great architecture but it helps. Apart from the pleasures of bathing in a blue bathtub, lounging in the sun, and owning a meadow surrounded by orchards less than an hour’s drive from Paris, the Villa Savoye continues to evoke certain other values that have proved equally resistant to change over time. Although it gives them form with both elaboration and inventiveness, the result isn’t as pure as we like to think.

Poissy_Villa_Savoye_1929-30_long view

19th and early 20th notions of an Ideal City separating the functions of the city also happened to separate the classes within it. During the Industrial Revolution, the upper classes built townhouses in the cities but still anchored themselves in the countryside. The new middle class built their townhouses in locations such as Belgravia, Paddington and Kensington to separate themselves and their new wealth from the docks, mills and railways that were the source of it – and where the workers lived. The logical extrapolation of this mindset led to convicts – the lowest ranking in society – being separated as far as Australia.

Inside the larger townhouses there was a similar separation of function and class, with servants having their own working spaces, stairs and living quarters. Even within the servants’ quarters, the location of quantity of space of individual rooms established a similar heirarchy. Servants also enabled functions within the building to be separated. Whereas the lower class could only bathe in a tub in front of the kitchen fire, servants performed the roles that pipes and conduits have today, transporting hot and cold water throughout the building, maintaining and lighting the lamps, and carrying away waste. Servants also isolated the household as a class unit within society since they performed necessary tasks such as shopping by going to the markets and dealing with cart vendors for milk, bread, vegetables, meat and fish. The physical and social separation of classes inside the house replicated the physical and social separation of the house from other classes in the city.

Over the course of the 19th century, the plans of large country mansions began to fragment according to function and the first set of functions to be separated was the servants’ wing. The reception rooms of the house were still planned along some imitation of Palladian bays, but the plan of the servants’ wing was determined by rationalising the work flow, facilitating deliveries, separating the men and women, and preventing them from stealing the silverware. Sometimes, the servants’ wing was set at an angle to the main house so that it would not be seen from the approach or appear in paintings. Separation by function really meant separation by social class. Meanwhile, the status of the owners was denoted by the location and size of the house, the design of its facade, and the number and decoration of its major rooms. Towards the end of the 19th century, applied decoration was to be criticised as bourgeois and in the 20th century, the architectural aesthetic of Modernism was to shun decorative ornament altogether and attempt to generate form from the separation of functions. In patterns of living however, it maintained the class values inherent in the forms it replaced.

The Georgian square miniaturized the pleasure of overlooking communal property but in 1922, Le Corbusier arrived at an identical form in his Immeuble Villa unit for the elite in his Ville Contemporaine. Workers were given their own bits of property (‘garden cities’) sited along with industry outside the “security zone” of the green belt surrounding where the elite lived. While Le Corbusier correctly identified city-centre apartments with views as the desirable property of the future, he nevertheless designed 19th century notions of social segregation into not only his urban plans, but also his private houses such as the Villa Stein (1926-7) and Villa Savoye (1928-9), two buildings commonly regarded as seminal works of the Modern movement.

These two villas represent Le Corbusier’s interpretation of the building element of functional structure juxtaposed with the human element of a functional plan providing light and space. In both of these villas, the plans separate functions and as a consequence the people performing those functions. Light and space being the new indicators of status, the servants’ quarters are on the ground floor where they have less of both. The Villa Stein has a separate servants’ entrance on the front façade. We thoughtlessly approve of how Corbusier prevents us confusing it with the main entrance by making it smaller, lower, exposed and outside the formal organization of the facade itself. Size, height, protection and symmetry indicate and maintain class division in ways the Victorians could have related to.

At first glance, the Villa Savoye appears the more informal of the two. The servants’ domain is again the ground floor. There’s also a basement that, being the realm of servants and machinery, is devoid of both light and architectural invention. Published plans of it are rare. The ground floor contains the boundary between the two domains and this boundary is no less definite for being intangible. Although the servants’ stairs are displayed as a sculptural shape in the lobby and can be used by anyone in the house, they are off-axis and second option to the ramp directly in front of the entrance and which is clearly not intended for use by servants. The fact the servants’ corridor and stairs are open to the hallway should in theory increase the possibility of the paths of servants and served paths crossing. This would, after all, be hardly surprising in a summer house for two residents, two guests and a staff of four (comprising a chauffeur, cook, maid, and housemaid). But this does not turn out to be the case.

The lobby represents interaction but does nothing to encourage it. Consider what happens when a car carrying Madame and/or her guests arrives. The maid, on-call in her room, either sees or hears the car coming up the driveway and goes to the front door to meet it. The chauffeur stops the car outside the front door which is now being opened by the maid who is ready to take coats and hats. While the owners and guests are going up the promenade architecturale, the maid goes down the stairs to give the coats to the housemaid who will hang them and dry them if necessary. (There is no closet in the hallway.) The maid then goes up the stairs to either await or relay instructions for the cook. Those are busy stairs.

Depending on what the guests are doing, the chauffeur either leaves the car where it is and stays on-call or parks it. In either case, he goes to his room via its outside door. This is not for his convenience. When the guests come to leave, the maid will be waiting with the coats, and hats will have been placed on the ledge by the door. The chauffer will not have reached the car via the hallway and front door as his room has no internal door. This is either so he can’t fraternise with the female servants, or so he won’t let cold air into the hallway for the guests descending the ramp. To many, the placement of a wash-basin in the lobby underneath the ramp has been a source of mystery in terms of plumbing and function, but not in terms of class. Since the maid is the only member of staff who crosses that unseen boundary, it is for her and her alone to wash her hands after she has put down her book or sewing or whatever she was doing in her room and before she enters the house proper. This aesthetic ostensibly generated from function, light and space was perfectly capable of identifying and separating social classes and who was to benefit from the aesthetic.

Finally, can anyone tell me why the washbasin in the lobby of the Villa Savoye is not in the position shown on the original plans? I seem to remember old library books having pictures showing it very visible from the front door. Has it been moved? And if so, why? Given all that’s been said and written about this house, I can’t believe I’m the first to notice this.

Here is Part II: The DARKER Side of the Villa Savoye