Tag Archives: History and its uses

The 3 R’s

The Three R’s used to without irony refer to Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic but, more recently, we know them as the sustainability performance mantras Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. There are as many R’s as you want. Re-use works for buildings but Repair works better for washing machines and Replace better for old refrigerators. It’s not that difficult to find a word beginning with an R to add a sense of logical inevitability to whatever list you have. Here’s some more.


Shanghai’s Columbia Circle was developed in the 1930s as an upmarket residential area with some very large villas. It’s currently being reconfigured as an urban pedestrian thoroughfare with retail and various amenities. The feel is of an open-air mall with an urban/architectural/spatial/historic attractor.

The language on these posters made me sense the presence of architects’ promises so it was no surprise to learn Columbia Circle was masterplanned by OMA 2015-2017.

I recalled the marketing promises for the ground level of Foster+Partners’ Albion Riveside development in London’s Battersea. It would become some new and vibrant place of restaurants and bars and such but, as it turned out, this was the last thing the only people who could afford the apartments looking over this potentially vibrant ‘new town square’ wanted it to be. The last time I saw it was 2008 when there was one upmarket Italian kitchen store (beneath the “affordable” housing component in the dark at the top right of the photo below) while the spaces under the building were vacant. The idea of creating a convenient thoroughfare is a good one but, while I passed through this development twice a day for two years, I never once spent any money there and, even if there had been the opportunities to in 2008, I doubt I would have.

Some vibrant neighbourhood hub may have flourished and died in the meantime but this current listing makes me doubt it.

Columbus Circle is done well and without recourse to pastiche or historicism, or at least no more than was already there. It’s definitely a special place and a pleasant and traffic-free route for pedestrians. Its upmarket restaurants and outlets however contradict the claims of vibrancy and interaction. Entry to the Japanese art bookstore is by appointment only. The people who use these aren’t going to be the people who walk by them to “populate” and “animate” the development on their way to somewhere else, in the architectural spin on the truism that if something is free then you are the product. This is the way with shopping malls whether they look like shopping malls or not. At Columbus Circle, history and ‘a different architecture’ function much like Dubai Mall’s aquarium and fountains do to attract people with no desire to spend money there. Even so, their passing through can be monetized by making the place seem more lively to those who will. OMA’s brief was to do this in a unique, upmarket and apparently genuine manner. Their dark genius is to encourage this non-spending footfall to pass through and not linger for any length of time.

Retain (Reprieve, Respite)

Residential buildings such as these next immediately behind the historic buildings of The Bund are sealed with concrete blocks not so much to prevent squatters occupying them but to prevent them becoming derelict while the property value appreciates and/or a new use is found. Or so I’m guessing. Such reprieves buy time to observe and make judgements better suited to how the city is to develop. In times of downturn it’s best to do nothing and in boom times it’s best not to do anything hasty.

Shanghai has many old buildings in this state of limbo. Some are on the edge. Some we can imagine in some happier future we hope they have. Squid Game. Not all will survive.

In other countries the norm is to demolish immediately because that’s supposed to add value to the land. A scheme would be duly (and possibly genuinely) produced by some architect for some readable, walkable, vibrant, mixed use community with interactions between new and old and the property will invariably be promptly sold on once its value has inflated by planning permission being granted. I’m sorry. This is my experience and how how I once saw my place and, by extension, that of the architectural designer in the property development food chain. For designer me, success counted as proposing something municipalities (and thus clients) wanted to see exist, even if their reasons for wanting it to exist did not align with each others’, let alone naïve me and mine.

Reduce to Rubble. Redevelop.

I’m curious why these next buildings have a two-story arcade overlooked by residential spaces, of which there are more above. Other than wanting a double-height arcade, I can’t think what would generate such a typology. Luckily for these buildings, they’re very close to the river and still being used for their original purpose.

Identical buildings further up the street don’t look like being so lucky. Openings have been blocked up but, this time, the decision to demolish has been made. It was the fate of these buildings to have been built on land more valuable for some future use the buildings couldn’t accommodate.

Redevelop is the final R – though there’s always the possibility it could be followed by Regret. Buildings such as the earlier two storey blocks and the single story residential further what would’ve been demolished to make way for Foster+Partners/Thomas Heatherwick’s mammoth The Bund Finance Centre development which, to use another extinct animal metaphor, seems a bit of a dinosaur. I’m reminded of F+P’s Central Market development in Abu Dhabi and its griddy bits.

This time, instead of Arabesque lattices recalling mashribaya, perception management is deemed satisfied by shovelfuls of Chinoiserie in the form of lattices alluding to Oriental screens combined with much use of a colour that’s not too bright to be mistaken for gold (by us) and not too dull to be mistaken for bronze (by Chinese). They know the ropes and the tropes these F+P people.

Summarizing the past sixty years of modern architectural history, we can say that The International Style never died but lives on as decorated mixed-use development gain. To satisfy some international expectation of technological prowess, the structure has been picked out in granite cladding with a pattern of CNC milled concavities (though the press release TWICE implies its hand carved.) These concavities straddle panels, pointlessly yet decadently indicating the entire facade has been designed and milled as a single pattern. The size of these panels is unimpressive and at first I mistook them for GRP. Having said that, they look very pretty when the sun catches them after it rains,

This apparent structure decreases in width as it rises. Whether this is some misguided attempt at a plant growth allusion or an attempt to “dematerialize” the building with increasing height I don’t know. It’s not an eyesore and, for what it is, it’s okay. Not that many people were caring as I passed by. The development was suffering from a lack of international tourists expected to patronize the ground level luxury retailers with their assorted fashion houses, jewelers, perfumeries and restaurants. Various attempts were being made to attract people to the spaces between the buildings, if not into the buildings themselves.

This next bit of text is the project description “From The Architects.” As is the way. I won’t bother quoting a source as the same text is everywhere. It confirms my dematerialization hypothesis but throws up questions regarding the efficacy of the massing strategy over which F+P’s Studio Head gushes. I say this because the development is a fair bit displaced from those famous historic buildings along The Bund. And, regarding the massing strategy, the development site is not a situation with only tall modern buildings at one end and low-rise historic buildings at the other. Using buildings of decreasing heights as a mediation strategy presupposes the conditions for it to work and that’s simply not the case here. The photograph below left looks north towards the low-rise and historic area, with an inconveniently tall white building inbetween. The one below right is looking south from the white building back towards Bund Financial Centre. I think the designers overated the relevance of their strategy. If they ever believed it to begin with, that is.

I’ve picked out in yellow the parts I think are meaningless, contentious, or total rubbish. There’s not much left. We’re told three times about the “420,000 square metres” of office space, once every 230 words on average.

It’s not exactly pre-2008 levels of hype, but it is an example of the kind of expectations inflation we tend to ignore until a global financial crisis or pandemic forces a reckoning. If ever you go to Shanghai and you can be bothered, please visit this place and judge whether it lives up to these claims. These next images are Heatherwick’s cultural centre that was mentioned in the last two paragraphs of the press release above. It’s horrid on many different levels. No-one I know has seen the “veils” move. An architect friend said he learned to hate this facade as queued for three hours beneath it on the last day of the Tadao Ando exhibition last December. Another architect friend told me Heatherwick was dating Foster’s daughter at the time.

There’s a whole universe of tabloid gossip to be mined here. Intrusive yes. But if protagonists choose to live by the media, then the tabloidifaction of architecture is long overdue. I don’t see why architecture with its cult of personalities, is any more special than musicians or reality tv stars. Kudos to ARK Architecture and their attempts to break this impasse. This was 2013 though.

I don’t know anything about traditional Chinese bridal head-dresses but, as far as bamboo-shaped things on the sides of buildings go, I much prefer this building anyone can see on the way from South Xizang Road metro station to Powerhouse of Art. It’s a single-layer of stationary bamboo and I like it for being what it is not what it is not..

A few blocks further north and immediately behind the historic centre is this development next to Yu Garden [which will feature in a future post]. Full of restaurants and shops selling foodstuffs and other things for people to take back home from the big city to give to family and friends, it’s Shanghai’s most popular destination for domestic tourists and always full of happy people.


The History of Forgetting

All buildings begin as architectural fantasies and perhaps one in a thousand or more get built. In addition to us hearing more and more about the ones that don’t or never will, a steady stream of updates – “X tower receives planning permission!” “Y tower topped out!” – accompanies those that do. Conditioned to living in perpetual anticipation, we’ve little time for the buildings when they actually get around to being completed.

Most buildings that don’t get built are quickly forgotten in our high-churn news cycle but some buildings are as much a part of our intellectual landscape as if they had been built. We must ask why. Frank Lloyd Wright’s mile-high tower, The Illinois, is a good example of an architect designing something we’ve never been allowed to forget even though it failed to find a client either before or after Mr. “Seagram” Bronfman famously abstained. Perhaps only architects were unaware that elevator cables sufficiently resistant to elongation didn’t yet exist. Thirty years earlier, Russian architects had been designing skyscrapers in a country yet without elevators.

Case in point is El Lissitzky’s 1925 Wolkenbügel. In English, it’s known as either Cloud Iron or Cloud Hangar. El Lissitzky was trying for a horizontal skyscraper and, as he was in Germany at the time, perhaps the names result from using two dictionaries to span three languages.

Despite the conceptual confusion, many people including myself have tried to will El Lissitzky’s proposal into existence.

Wolkenbügel is often mistakenly presented as an example of Constructivism but it’s an example of the contemporaneous structural expressionism known as Rationalism. It doesn’t really matter because in 1928 Constructivists and Rationalists alike were forcibly “unified” into an umbrella organization and former practitioners of both camps adjusted to the new rules of what was to become known as Post-Constructivism if it wasn’t built, or Stalinism if it was.

Late to the party, Le Corbusier’s 1933 entry for the Palace of the Soviets competition went down the structural expressionism route. It was never built but is still discussed and analyzed as if it had been.

It seems the only thing more reprehensible than demolishing an architectural masterpiece is to not build it in the first place.

The urge to compensate for this injustice took rendering to new levels, with virtual textures virtually distressed to simulate age, “camera” angles chosen to simulate period photography, and final outputs distressed to simulate aged photographs supporting false memories.

Unlike The Illinois, Cloud-thing, and Monument to the Third International, Palace of The Soviets at least could have been built because Le Corbusier designed it to win a competition and be built. LC generally made a sharp distinction between the career-builders he never expected to see built and the career-builders he did. His judgment failed him with his 1929 proposal for the Geneva Mundaneum. It’s a dog. It’s acknowledged on the Fondation Le Corbusier website but not in English. As far as I know, Karel Teige is the only person who ever wrote a criticism of it, the full text of which you can read here[c.f. Architecture Misfit #9: Karel Teige].

1929 was a busy year for Le Corbusier so he probably wasn’t that chagrined it didn’t go ahead. Judging by how it’s been allowed to be forgotten, he wasn’t the only one.

Antonio Gaudí’s unbuilt oeuvre is almost as large as his built but his 1909 Grand Hotel proposal for Manhattan never progressed past concept. Nobody seems to have wondered how Gaudí’s upside down chain method would translate into steel frame construction. Perhaps Gaudí didn’t either for he seems to have misjudged both size and scale. The height was supposed to have been between that of the Chrysler Building and The Empire State Building but perhaps Gaudí can be forgiven since neither existed in 1909.

This hasn’t prevented contemporary visualizers from trying to give his proposal a meaningful scale.

This design doesn’t feature highly in Gaudí’s unbuilt oeuvre, perhaps due to the oddness of a Gaudí building not in Barcelona. Since 2003 when its construction was proposed by Paul Laffoley for the World Trade Center reconstruction competition, it has been mostly confined to the architectural oubliette.

An oubliette is a special kind of dungeon entered and not-so-often exited from a trapdoor in the ceiling. Inconvenient people get put there and forgotten. This brings us to the selective forgetting to support the dominant narrative of the present. Some buildings have the misfortune to arrive at inconvenient times. The McNulty House arrived in 1965 just as the architectural winds were about to blow in the direction of Post Modernism. [c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]

Much started to be forgotten in the 1970s, not least of all the social responsibilities of architects. Erasing all memory that governments once undertook to house their people is mostly completed now. Sydney’s Sirius looks set to go the same way as London’s Robin Hood Estate.

Local MP Margaret Hodge suggested that providing a 3D scan of the building would be enough preservation to legitimize its demolition, raising the question of how much a digital version can really replace a building. Quite a lot apparently, if you’re of the mindset that a representation of something can be as good as the real thing. Charles Jencks’ theoretical whitewash is still brought into play to destroy all memory of the social aspirations of Modernism.  

For all its talk of memory and history, the 1970s were the Golden Age of Forgetting. Any actual learning from history was replaced by consumable representations of learning from history. The world was rich with architectures before 1980 and it wasn’t just the misfits, the fringe and the outliers who were forgotten.

For example, whatever happened to Alvar Aalto? What values did his buildings express that are such anathema today? We already know the answers to these questions. It is only Le Corbusier who is actively and overly remembered. My hunch is that Le Corbusier provided the DNA template for postmodern mutation known as the starchitect. As long as Le Corbusier remains unassailable, then replicant starchitects are the logical consequence. Soon, it won’t be possible to conceive of any other type of architect. It practically is now.

There’s a special architectural oubliette just for projects that are an embarrasment to their architects. Here’s two from Andrew “AEDAS” Bromberg’s portfolio circa 2006.

From around the same time we have Lee “ATKINS” Morris’ Trump International Hotel and Tower. The plug was pulled in the financial winter of 2008-9 just when the building was about to rise above ground. I carried vivid memories of the speedboat image for years. Now I’ve managed to track it down again, I find its power to disturb has only increased.

The building, however, was the product of considerable skill and thought.

Other buildings of the same time and place (and architects) were less blessed. There was Anara Tower. I remember writing of it something like “Avoiding the aspirational reaching and false perspective of stepped pinnacles, it simply towers for 80-odd storeys before culminating in that most perfect of shapes, the circle.” It wasn’t a lie.

The same architects’ Icon Hotel also represented skill of a kind that shouldn’t go unacknowledged.

Working the same patch, OMA had their share of forgotten buildings, though the Death Star did circle around once before heading for oblivion.

After trying so hard for so long, OMA’s only completed project in the UAE is this art shed.

Zaha Hadid Architects have had their share of forgotten buildings but with one completed bridge, two projects currently onsite in Dubai and one rescheduled in Abu Dhabi, look like having a better ratio of hits-to-misses.

There are some spectacular ones that didn’t happen though.

ZH herself said “the world will always have a place for exuberant architecture” and indeed it will as long as there’s the financial “exuberance” to sustain it. Financial exuberance is attracted to architecture and the attraction is mutual. It’s often ill-advised, ill-conceived, impestuous, short-lived, and plauged by broken promises and thwarted expectations.

What is eventually built represents only a small portion of architectural activity at any given time. As with first loves and adolescent tastes in music, the past is often embarassing and the urge to forget is great. Rather than the buildings that are built or the ones we want to remember, it’s the forgotten buildings that provide the truer picture of what the times were actually like.

• • •

Here’s my picks for buildings headed for the architectural oubliette. (I’ll keep adding to this list as I remember to remember them.)

Frank Gehry’s 2012 Hong Kong Opus

It was dutifully acknowledged at the time but since then has since disappeared without trace. It was probably a difficult commission to refuse.

Zaha Hadid Architects’ Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre

From the same 2012, it had an initial burst of media accolades but recent allegations of overly-exuberant money laundering by the government of its namesake’s son should be enough to belatedly start the process of forgetting.

[In 2014] the Design Museum in London […] defended its decision to give its Designs of the Year top prize to a Zaha Hadid building in Azerbaijan, following widespread criticisms of the award on human rights grounds. “It’s a prize about architecture rather than politics and its architectural quality is outstanding,” Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic told Dezeen.

Diller+Scofidio’s Boston Institute of Contemporary Art

Oliver Wainwright’s recent puff piece commemmorating Elizabeth Diller visiting the UK, credited Diller+Scofidio as architects of NY’s High Line as well as a string of other projects yet omitted to mention their trite yet once-hyped ICA.

Makoto Floating School, Nigeria/2016 Venice Biennale

You’ll remember this one now – it was everywhere 2015-6. The link will take you to the website that lists, amongst other things, FAQs about why it collapsed – lack of maintenance, apparently. I remember reading that it collapsed because people stole the bolts holding it together. Regardless of the truth or falsity of this story, the fact it was propagated at all only reinforces the poisonous post-modern belief that architecture is wasted on the poor.


The Fireplace

Fireplace is one of those reliable English language words that don’t leave you guessing. This abridged history begins with the traditional European fireplace of mediaeval times. The one in the image on the left, below, is from a house The Black Knight once stayed in circa 1400, hence the insignia on the mantel – or at least that’s how I remember it from World of Interiors. The house is most definitely that of a nobleman, but I like how it can be lived in with a minimum of apparatus. Rugs and tapestries soften the acoustics and lessen radiant cooling. That 17th century invention, the piano, would always have been by the window for better light but not so close for diurnal temperature variations to affect its tuning. A painting and some flowers in a vase probably always satisfied the human needs for art and nature. Internal shutters kept the wind-owt. The fireplace provided warmth.

The story-arc of the fireplace starts off promisingly with a succession of improvements for better combustion.

The first major change in heating technology came in the early 17th century when Franz Kessler had the idea of using the siphon effect to pull hot air through a ceramic baffle that warmed up and transferred heat to the room.

Taken from the Holzsparkunst (The Art of Saving Wood) by Franz Kessler – published in 1618.

Over four centuries, the ceramic fireplace (a.k.a. masonry heater) with multiple baffles became the dominant continental European way to heat a room. Each country had its variants but common to all was a large mass that heated the room by radiant heat.

A Frenchman, Jean Desaguiliers, noticed that metals such as cast iron conducted heat into the room more effectively. Benjamin Franklin combined these two discoveries into the Franklin Stove he proposed in 1741.

It had the problem of only burning well and without smoke if there was a strong draft, and this was difficult if the flue was still cold. In 1780, David Rittenhouse modified Franklin’s design by adding an L-shaped flue at the top and it’s Rittenhouse improved design that today, unfortunately for Rittenhouse’s memory, is mistakenly referred to as a Franklin Stove.

A little over four years ago, in the Night Sky Radiant Cooling post, I introduced Count von Rumford [a.k.a. Benjamin Thompson] who, in 1796, suggested improvements that became known as the Rumford Fireplace. Rumford must have been sensitive to cold as he’s also credited with the invention of thermal underwear.

The Rumford fireplace created a sensation in London when [Rumford] introduced the idea of restricting the chimney opening to increase the updraught, which was a much more efficient way to heat a room than earlier fireplaces. He and his workers modified fireplaces by inserting bricks into the hearth to make the side walls angled, and added a choke to the chimney to increase the speed of air going up the flue. The effect was to produce a streamlined air flow, so all the smoke would go up into the chimney rather than lingering, entering the room, and often choking the residents. It also had the effect of increasing the efficiency of the fire, and gave extra control of the rate of combustion of the fuel, whether wood or coal. Many fashionable London houses were modified to his instructions, and became smoke-free. [W]

The pot-bellied stove of circa 1860 is one of the world’s great inventions. It could produce 50 kW or more, making them suitable for heating large spaces such as railway station waiting rooms and depots, and even the trains themselves. Warmth went public. 

The story of the domestic fireplace between 1850 and 1950 is that of the shift from combusting wood, to combusting coal, and then gas. Below, the first example is a coal-burning fireplace from circa 1870 and the others are examples of the gas-fired “coal-effect” fireplaces still common in the UK today.

Ceramic “coals” glow a convincing red upon sufficient heat input.

Over the same period, the history of the fireplace split in two. One history charts improvements in the fuel being combusted and how to combust it. The other charts the change from the fireplace being (1) a functional feature structurally integrated into the building, into (2) a functional and symbolic feature integrated into the building and then into (3) a symbolic feature. This history can probably be traced through the fireplaces of Wright alone.

In the 20th century, the fireplace became an architectural feature increasingly detached from the building.

These next images, in no particular order, show the fireplace in various stages on the spectrum of architectural element to objectified object.

Whether this objectification happened because fireplaces were made functionally obsolete by air conditioning, underfloor heating and other forms of active environmental control no longer matters. It continued anyway. An architecture victim at twelve, I looked forward to dancing around the fire in my modern house of the future.

One technical fightback that occurred 1960-1980 was the “heatform” fireplace which was a metal firebox built into a full masonry chimney. They were inexpensive to install because a trained mason didn’t have to construct a firebox. Side or top vents circulated heated air back into the room. Heatform and Heatilator were popular brands.

This is Vulcan oil-fired heater of a type popular in Australia in the 1960s. There was a tank on an outside wall and when its float indicator dropped below a certain level, you’d phone someone and a guy in a boiler suit would come park an oil tanker in your driveway and fill it up again, fuelling oil dependency at the same time. Oil heaters such as these were often enclosed in a masonry–effect fireplace surrounds or inserted into feature walls of masonry effect cladding. Ceramic inserts above the burner glowed orange at full burn.

The 1970s oil crises and a growing awareness that burning oil wasn’t such a good thing led to a revival of interest in wood-burning stoves that had no need for masonry surrounds, even fake ones. Most improved little upon the Rittenhouse Stove. Rectangular shapes were admired for their modern looks rather than for having more radiant surface area than a potbelly.

Freestanding stoves were seen as more modern but placing them in a fireplace meant the masonry would continue to radiate heat for some time after heat input ceased.

Philip Starck solved that problem by placing optional boxes of modular rocks / modular boxes of optional rocks beneath the firebox. Meet Speetbox. [Is there anything that has not been reinvented by Philippe Starck?]

Speetbox app features include:

  • Control of hot air distribution (on/off)
  • Control of room temperature (optional)
  • Setting of power/speed of combustion
  • Analysis of flue temperatures (safety)
  • Lighting control
  • Control of electric sockets (time setting)
  • Hearth software features update

Since the 1970s, the objectification of the fireplace has intensified but with less dancing. Of the feature object fireplaces, the suspended fireplace was perhaps the most perverse,

but there is also the subcategory of architectural fireplaces,

as well as the one having the fireplace as architecturalized object.

As it happened, it wasn’t the fireplace being objectified after all but fire itself. The frameless Escea DS1400 lets you focus on the flame instead of going to the trouble of making one or sustaining one by periodically adding fuel. The Escea DS1400 operates on either natural gas or propane. Its heat output of 5–5.6 kW might warm 16 sq.m on a cold day.

A downloadable user guide tells you how to connect your fireplace to the internet ffs and warns you not to lose the remote.

We haven’t quite reached the bottom. This next is a bio-ethanol fire experience that provides you with romantic fire art. At least the flames are still flames.

You know how this is going to end.  Dimplex’s Opti Myst® effect uses ultrasonics to create a fine water mist that’s coaxed upwards through the ‘fuel’ to allow moving images of flames to be projected onto it and create a convincing illusion of flames and smoke. The result is an appearance so authentic it will be mistaken for true flames and smoke. To its credit, there is still the presence of a gas-like substance but any conceptual satisfaction is thwarted by their “Just add water!” approach to creating fire. 

Focal Point Fires make much of their realistic fire effects. Dimplex have been at it for some time. Their Optiflame® effect was introduced in 1988.

Their Opti-V Effect is, they say, the perfect blend of magic and realism. This is disturbing. Just when I’ve finally come to accept a reality that’s insufficiently magical, I realise I’ve been neglecting to worry about magic not being realistic enough.

It uses the latest High Definition TV technology to create flames and sparks for a virtual fireplace experience like no other. The unique and patent protected design combines ultra realistic flickering flames with three dimensional LED logs that sporadically spark! With the addition of an audio element of crackling logs, the illusion of a real fire is complete. [snarky boldings mine]

There are many fireplace TV apps available that don’t treat sound as an extra. Their downside is that the only heat you’ll get will be from your flatscreen’s electronics. The fire as fire-effect virtual fireplace is so new our language hasn’t yet adapted to describe it. If left to virtually burn continuously on this 32″ SONY BRAVIA for the three months of winter, such an app would consume 35W of electricity. Most of that 35W would be converted into heat, but you might wish it was a little more especially if, like me, you are a seated adult male generating (i.e. losing) approx. 70W of metabolic heat per hour.

From such proud beginnings to such an ignominious end. I didn’t set out to write a critical para-historic fable about architecture as a projection of an image of a hollowed-out shell of something that once had a purpose, but it’s what I seem to have done.

• • •


1930: De-urbanism

Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in the Time of Stalin contains the following wonderful analogy.


Paperny uses it to describe the kind of ideal “horizontal society” imagined in the late 1920s in the Soviet Union in which all goods and population are uniformly distributed. Russian Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov wrote of the possible evolution of mass communication and transportation and housing. He described a world in which people live and travel about in mobile glass cubicles that can attach themselves to skyscraper-like frameworks, and in which all human knowledge can be disseminated to the world by radio and displayed automatically on giant book-like displays at streetcorners.

Untitled 2

De-urbanism was the name given to this movement as an urban theory.

Untitled 4

I expect this comment refers to David Greene’s 1966 Living Pod for Archigram.

“The outcome of rejecting permanence and security in a house brief and adding instead curiosity and search could result in a mobile world – like early nomad societies. In relation to the Michael Webb design, the Suit and Cushicle would be the tent and camel equivalent; the node cores an oasis equivalent: the node cluster communities conditioned by varying rates of change. It is likely that under the impact of the second machine age the need for a house (in the form of permanent static container) as part of man’s psychological make-up will disappear.”

De-urbanism extrapolated developments in transportation and their implications for the city. The person responsible for it was Mikhail Okhitovich. This is the only known photograph of him.

Here’s a note of his. De-urbanism was the opposite of centralization.


The question Okhitovich, and later Moisei Ginzburg, aimed to solve in 1929 was how housing should be organised for the entire USSR now it had its new society.

Untitled 5

The principle, if not the appearance, was not unlike Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City except Broadacre City didn’t exist as an idea until 1932. Ginzburg and Okhitovich developed an easily deployable collapsible and transportable dwelling unit.

no7 - Ginzburg desurbanist unit

They designed buildings for 100 persons.


These were to be distributed throughout the country in an isotropic grid with every place connected to every other place.


In 1930 Okhitovich, Ginzburg, Zelenko and Alexander Pasternak produced a plan for the Green City Competition for the new city of Magnitogorsk. It was to be a ribbon city.


The state would grant each person a prefabricated lightweight house, letting that person free to combine and arrange the modules, from the single unit to the family or community clusters, using highways, rails, automobile and airplanes to link them. The houses could join, grow and split according to the evolution of the family within. Sounds good.


It was not to be.

Untitled 3

Lenin did not like this idea and Stalin was not pleased. Le Corbusier was none too happy either. You can skip these next two letters if you like, but you’ll miss LC’s objections to de-urbanism and Ginzburg’s response to them. I expect these communications were originally in French, and that what’s in bold was originally underlined.

Le Corbusier was to later compile his criticisms into The Radiant City.


Other criticism came from Rationalist avant-garde architect Nikolai Dokuchaev of the rival architectural group, ASNOVA. According to Paperny,

“by the end of the 1920s, several competing creative organisations existed (OSA, ASNOVA, ARU, VOPRA and others), each of which independently sought its own commissions and, to some degree, protected the material interests of its members. Competition among these organisations was, in the main, commercial. Commercial rivalry led to the situation in which organisations exaggerated their creative differences.”

There’s no reason to assume LC was any different.  Over the the period 1928-1932 he was making frequent business development visits to Moscow [and which in another post I intimate prompted the hasty re-design of Villa Savoye] but they were to abruptly stop when he wasn’t made winner of the Palace of The Soviets competition.


De-urbanism and Mikail Okhitovich had an unhappier end. In 1932 came an edict announcing the union of all rival creative organisations under the same banner, outlawing creative difference. One of those rival groups was VOPRA – the All-Union Society of Proletarian Architects. Mikhail Okhitovich was denounced by VOPRA villain, Arkady Mordvinov  , and was shot in 1937. Those who challenge the status quo are usually praised for challenging the status quo but Okhitovich is the only urbanist ever killed for his beliefs. Okhitovich believed in de-urbanism but it was his ability to convince others that was more likely the real threat.

Михаи́л Охито́вич (1896—1937)

• • •

It is no surprise that the freedom of movement imagined by Khlebnikov and re-imagined by Archigram never occurred. The closest we’ve come to savouring the sentiment was this re-enactment of its representation in an animated movie. That’s already four degrees of separation from any social or political meaning.


This combination of the idea of a building, the whimsical representation of freedom, and the absence of any political significance or social utility made it the perfect architectural content for our times. Derrida may claim there’s no conceptual order amongst signifiers but how quickly we all imagined ourselves on board sailing away rather than left on the ground despairing the elusiveness of home ownership. It’s not that social or political meaning have ceased to exist as if by edict. We’ve just been groomed to not see architecture that way. One of these days some architect is going to come along and suggest architecture can be an agent of social change and we’re all going to be oh so impressed as if it’s some astounding new concept.

Meanwhile, governments instinctively discourage the free movement of people. In a world in which increasing numbers of them will have no fixed address, we’ve yet to see if our governments will be any more accommodating than Stalin’s.


The New Japanese House

Summer last year in one of Hyannis’ many secondhand bookstores, I found a copy of this 1980 book I had to have. Memories.


It describes the then new Japanese houses in terms of our preconceptions of Japanese culture in 1980 when everything was rich in meaning. It’s heavy on terms such as “ritual”, “ritual-affirming”, “ritual disaffirming” and, at the end, annoyingly asks “Is there a ritual affirming architecture?” “Is there a ritual disaffirming architecture?” I don’t miss the 1980s. But there was an energy about the 1970s I haven’t forgotten. If ever we look at current Japanese houses and think they’re weird and overly experimental for no great reason we can see, this book is a reminder it’s been going on for fifty years now. They’re not doing it to keep us amused.

• • •

Yoii Watanabe, Nishida House, 1966

Think of this one as Japan’s Vanna Venturi house with Tange’s respectful concrete timberings giving way to self-referential anarchy. In 1972, Watanabe was to design the beautifully unlovely New Sky Building #3 last seen in The Microflat.

• • •

Takemitsu Azuma, Own House, 1967

• • •

Monta Mozuna, Anti-Dwelling, 1971-2

• • •

Takefumi Aida, Annhilation House, 1972

Takefumi Aida, Nirvana House, 1972

• • •

Mayumi Miyawaki, Blue Box House, 1971

• • •

Tatsuhiko Kuramoto, House in Hokkaido, 1974


• • •

Toyo Ito, House in Nakano, 1976
[c.f. Can Architecture Heal Loss?]

• • •

Here, I must include
Tadao Ando’s Sumiyoshi House, 1976
[c.f. Architectural Myths #6: Purity of Form]

• • •

Takefumi Aida, Stepped Platform House, 1976

• • •

Kazuo Shinohara, House in Uehara, 1976
[see here for more]