Tag Archives: how to best live with other people?

Comfort Zone

This post is the first part of an article that appeared under the title Comfort Zone in the #1_20 issue of ADATO, Luxembourg’s only architecture journal. The issue theme was Architecture + Medicine. My working title came from Richard Hamilton’s famous 1956 collage. I’m not sure why. It could be that architecture is just a placeholder for the lives led within.

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?

We take it for granted our buildings shouldn’t kill us and, to this end, we have regulations that govern structural integrity, construction standards, quality of materials, and mechanical performance for both typical and extreme conditions. Moreover, to ensure our buildings don’t poison us, things like toxic materials and finishes and coatings are heavily regulated if not banned outright. 

Over and above safety, there is also an expectation that buildings should promote health and wellbeing. For example, by the mid-1920s, we still hadn‘t developed a cure for tuberculosis (TB) but the medicinal properties of sunlight and good ventilation were known. Progressive architecture of the time aimed to promote health by providing patients with sufficient sunlight and natural ventilation, as well as surfaces that were either dust-resistant or easy to clean. If penicillin hadn’t been discovered in 1928 we might have dramatically different expectations of architecture today. Instead, its discovery made architecture as medicinal a less pressing concern and solariums and roof gardens instead became symbols of affluence and leisure. Le Corbusier was not stupid. 

“Have you ever thought Rem Koolhaas might be just another person? Or Harvard GSD not the centre of the Universe? Are you unmoved by biennali and festivali, and don’t like or ‘like’ anything on ArchDaily? Do you sense something’s very wrong with architecture? We do too. Welcome.

“Food and shelter are both essential for human life but food is anything from a bowl of rice a day to some exquisite mouthful for a moment’s pleasure. Junk food is somewhere in-between but so too is just the right amount of nutrition our bodies need. 

“It’s the same with shelter. We’ve got bread buildings that fill, cake buildings that thrill, and junk buildings that make us want more. All misfits’ wants is a nutritious architecture that does the shelter thing well, makes us feel good because it is good for us, doesn’t cost the earth, or cost us the earth.”

This mission statement welcomed people to this blog ten years ago when it began. The plan was to inspire readers to think beyond questions of style and function and towards a more holistic view of architecture emphasizing planetary and personal wellbeing. The word shelter implied physiological needs and so did the words “… makes us feel good because it is good for us.” Optimal standards exist for space, illumination, ventilation, and thermal comfort but to suggest this is all architecture needs to be isn’t a popular stance. The blog’s not called misfits’ architecture for nothing.

I do accept that people’s expectations of architecture go well beyond what we might think of as bare minimum. We expect architecture to (re)vitalize our cities and improve our lives and this is definitely true at the level of function and amenity we experience and use first-hand. Moreover, it’s also true that the people of a city can be proud of certain buildings or groups of buildings and this kind of civic pride can be generated not from in-person experience of a building but by merely knowing that it exists. It’s an association and a possession of sorts, and different from a virtual experience of a building as simulated in-person experience. This is nothing new. Well before the advent of virtual tours and online media content, architects would show clients sketches, perspectives and drawings to help them imagine the finished project and hopefully want it to exist. It’s not saying much but, if we’re talking about architecture+medicine, we can say that all buildings are proposed with the expectation of enhancing people’s lives in some way or another. 

Whether they are built or not is another matter. Some buildings that weren’t built exist only in our imaginations and there’s a certain pleasure to be found in imagining what a structure would have been like or imagining a world in which a certain structure did exist.

Memory implant: This distressed visualization is made to appear as a period photograph of something that one existed. Visualizations normally depict a desirable future but this sub-genre depicts a past in which this building existed. That deceit is sustained by presenting us with photograph “evidence” apparently from that time.

There are many unbuilt buildings with an architectural presence that are said to have advanced this mysterious thing called The Cause of Architecture. If a citizen can be proud of a building they recognize but never use, then an architecture aficionado can certainly take pleasure in virtual additions to a virtual category. This could be why such a huge amount of architectural content is consumed online as an end in itself.

In 1963 my former professor Kazuo Shinohara floated the notion that “Houses are Art”. It proved to be an idea that, once released into the world, grew wings and flew. The modern Japanese house with pretensions to art is a media staple that continues to shock, amuse, fascinate, and delight and, perhaps because of that, the art house is a standard typology of architecture designed for an audience of architects. Shinohara was saying that houses are architecture even though this was never really in dispute. But if houses/architecture are Art and thus, by definition, capable of enhancing our well-being through mere proximity, then what is the content of that art? At what level do these arrangements of walls and openings affect our well-being? It’s all very well for misfits’ to call for a nutritious architecture, but we need to identify the nature of those nutrients as well as the mechanisms that enable them to interact with and benefit the system. 

There’s a certain kind of architect who has no interest in questions of wellbeing. They’re likely to say how they’d prefer to live inside Chartres Cathedral even if the nearest bathroom is a block away, rather than spend any time in a more practical structure with middling or zero aesthetic esteem. It’s a variation of the form vs. function hobbyhorse that assumes the two are mutually exclusive. Architects of this mind wish to create the impression that well-being is dependent on criteria at the higher end of Maslow’s famous hierarchy. However, if Architecture as Art is essential to maintain one’s psyche then it’s architecture as medicine like what beta blockers do for cholesterol, insulin does for blood sugar, or antidepressants our mood.

When words begin to go around in circles, it’s usually because we don’t have the concepts or language to process the subject. The truth is, once we’re outside the objective realm of how buildings satisfy physiological needs, we can’t identify any cause-and-effect relationship between architecture and human well-being. The common belief that access to great architecture will make us better people, or at least make us believe we are, is to treat architecture as hallucinogen. We end up back at the same place. IF Architecture that satisfies physiological needs is essential for our well-being, then it’s reasonable to ask we what that architecture looks like and the mechanism by which it does so. We can’t keep forever claiming our inability to isolate and describe this mechanism is proof of its sublime existence. To do that is to treat architecture as a system of belief. We’ll jump down that particular rabbit hole some other time. For now I’ll just say that if houses by definition enable the act of habitation then any artistic quality must take this defining function into account, for without it, it wouldn’t be a house. The challenge is to design and construct a house in a way that nurtures artistic qualities along with the everyday act of habitation, and for one’s well-being to be promoted by the experience of that art. There shouldn’t be any trade-off between the experience of a house as art and how one lives in it. 

The usual attempt at reconciliation is to stylize the act of living into one or more spaces along with the items required to use those spaces. This gives us houses or apartments where the living room is the space that’s the primary architectural experience. Our understanding of a house as either art or architecture is largely based on how well such spaces and items are designed into a single composition. The problem is that anything not designed as part of the original composition has the power to diminish or destroy any sense of the work as either architecture or art. This is particularly true if the elements creating the art are those vertical planar surfaces called walls, for walls are easily hidden and their appearance can be dramatically altered by cupboards, bookshelves, televisions, pictures, aquariums, cuckoo clocks, etc. With this approach, we have to conclude that houses can be art only if people don’t inhabit them and this is a paradox. [It’s true Shinohara said he had no interest in his houses once they’d been photographed and their owners had moved in, but he may have just been being provocative.] 

Another approach towards reconciling living with the life-enhancing qualities of art is to assimilate all the paraphernalia of living into the design and to conceal everything else in conceptually congruent storage cupboards. Oswald Unger’s 1995 House Without Qualities is an extreme example of concealing non-architectural objects. In decades past this would have been called a Total Work Of Art. In passing, it’s remarkable how this rigid and ordered house functions just as well if not better than some more ostentatiously bespoke houses.

The far more popular approach to harmonizing art with everyday living is a suspension in which architecture and living express the same principles or values. Modernist houses, for example, tend to have Modernist furniture but the downside is the same in that one has to make one’s choices and live with them. Much art of this type goes no further than simply announcing itself as art, but only in the sense of announcing that a design effort of the most rudimentary sort has been made.

Julius Schulman is said to have been a master of lighting but every single shadow in this photograph is weird. The hifi seems to be illuminated by the wall behind it while the front leg this end seems to differ. Along with the vase and the birdie. The other end of the hifi has neither legs nor shadows but, if we’re going to airbrush, then how about that power cable? Unlike the vase and the birdie, doormat guy casts no shadow on any surface.

The curated environment is what much interior design aspires to. It’s our preferred method for creating a visual synthesis out of architecture and the lives led within. The act of living in the space is split between time spent appreciating it and time spent maintaining it. The occupant is an observer, not participant. The trouble with the standard representations of Architecture as Art is that they almost always involve the selection and stylization of the paraphernalia of living into elements compatible with the architectural message as Art. It’s a tradeoff, a historically accepted stylization that produces bad art and bad living. 

This first half of Comfort Zone the article was built on the three mid-2017 posts below. The second half was written during Dubai’s full lockdown earlier this year and proposes a way out of the quandry this post ends with. It’ll be next week’s post Comfort Zone Part II.


Misfits’ Guide to VIENNA

I didn’t go out of my way to look for Otto Wagner’s Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station. I just got off the train and there it was.

And I didn’t seek out Josef Maria Olbrich’s Secession Hall but there it was at the other end of Karsplatz.

A few days later I encountered Otto Wagner’s Schützenhaus (1904-1908), of which I was a fan, but mainly because of the paint job that made it look vaguely maritime but, given the photograph circa 1910, I now doubt it’s original. Shame.

Anyway, on my first morning I walked past the Opera House and towards the cathedral, admiring the buildings that were obviously and reassuringly older than their unintentionally retro neon signage. It all seemed very European.

And I’d never been a fan of Hans Hollein’s 1990 Haas Haus so it was a bit of a shock to see it so early in the day. I’m still not, although the street-level columns are nice and the rear elevation inoffensive. Unfortunately, the things I like least seem to be the overwrought and overthought design features. I understand that the curvy bit “responds” somehow to the cathedral opposite, but don’t see why it has to be curved or why mirror glass has to accentuate it. Vienna is not a curvy or shiny city.

The horizontalish canopy on top is jarring from any angle. Old towns don’t do cantilevers. But if I had to name my least favourite part of this building it would be the stepped diagonal where the stone facade changes into the glass one. I don’t mind the diagonals within that diagonal as it seems to be a preferred pattern for slates and facades in Vienna, not least of all on the cathedral opposite, as can be seen in the image above right.

A few days later I was at the AzW (Architekturzentrum Wien) and there was an exhibition devoted to the design and development of Haas Haus. It just goes to show that mass models might reveal something about Shape but can’t inform choices about Colour or Pattern. They’re proof of effort but not of comprehensiveness.

Hollein’s influence doesn’t permeate Vienna but I did think of his collage at left below when I saw this sculpture for a water fountain or similar. Both do the “cloud-rain” thing and have the same incongruity between shape and materiality.

[The former] Retti Candle Shop, 1965

Incongruities were Hollein’s thing and his Retti Candle Shop is a more successful example of sensational grandstanding of materials incongruities. Kohlmarkt is a very upmarket street leading to Michaelerplatz (which we will get to), but what can one say about Retti Candle Shop apart from it being a jewellery store now? It’s famous for having being famous in 1966. It was a staple in architecture books when I was at school but I can’t remember what I was supposed to think about it. Something about glimpses of an essentially closed interior? At the time, precision shaped metal probably meant The Future, as it still tends to. I peered through the windows but there wasn’t much to see. It makes more sense as the expensive jewellery shop it is now.

Goldman & Salatsch Building (a.k.a. Looshaus), 1909-1912

This building is located Kohlmarkt meets Michaelerplatz. It’s famous for its facade that was shockingly devoid of ornament for the time, so much so that the windowboxes were allegedly added to appease the city officials. Notice the pattern by which some windows on the main facade don’t have windowboxes and thus generate diagonals? [These are accentuated by the central not-a-dormer window that does not appear in historic photgographs.] As I mentioned, diagonals are a comfortingly Viennese thing to do on roofs and facades.

In the middle of the platz are some partially exposed Roman ruins dating from the year 1 or 2.

Unremarkable at the time, the bevelled glass panels and patterned stone appear decadently decorative now.

Loos American Bar, 1908

One of the world’s top 100 bars, Freud and Schiele were regulars. It looks wonderful inside but it was too early in the day. The umbrella hides a wonderful mosaic sign that, again, to modern eyes, appears extremely decorative.

Viennese buildings have a very casual relationship with applied ornament. They’re not afraid to make some unapologetic decorative flourish. There’s also a very relaxed attitude towards gold as a colour. Klimpt makes sense. Look at these railings on an otherwise unexceptional apartment building. They’re okay.

I found the flues on this building very ornamental even though they don’t seem to present themselves as a design feature. Their added height probably improves their functionality, as with chimneys but, as with chimneys, we will never know and it’s probably not important that we do. For me, this was an example of the formalist device of “making strange” being used to (ever so softly) call attention to itself. [c.f. Making Strange]

A little bit further downriver …

Zaha Hadid Housing Spitellau Viaducts, 1998-2006

This is a classic case of a client commissioning the wrong architect for the wrong project on the wrong site. Spittelau Viaduct itself was designed by Otto Wagner project and unfortunately bisects the site. With its multiple inclined column and volumes coming apart/together, the ZHA project is presented as a stylistic development of her 1990-1994 Vitra Fire Station.

Press releases at the time described the project as social housing but the ZHA website currently describes the project as

“A landmark project completed as part of a waterside revitalisation project – our three part structure comprising apartments, offices and artist’s studios, woven through, around and over the arched bays of a disused railway viaduct, creating new exterior spaces and vistas.

Clearly, interior spaces and views weren’t a priority. When I was there in August, there was no evidence of any revitalising development ever having existed in the arched bays. The project seems to be abandoned after less than 15 years. Some of the problems may have been due to a condition that, being an historic structure, the viaduct itself could not be touched. The ground floors are slightly sunken, possibly due to an overall height restriction that would not have mattered had not the decision been made to span the viaduct multiple times to create a spatial promenade that goes somewhere else. Here’s that spatial promenade.

Originally from the ZHA website, this is closest to a layout we’re going to get. You could click on it and try to work out what’s going on. As I said, interior spaces and views weren’t a priority.

Two of the three buildings are entered from the riverside pathway and, for some reason, the first building is entered accessibly and unpleasantly from the street side next to the garbage skips. [Classy! Did nobody see this coming? In a residential development?] The link on the SEG sign led to a website under construction.

That glass balustrade wasn’t a clever call.

The construction leaves something to be desired. This is a building nobody wants. It’s a mystery why it exists, and why it ever existed. A must-see if ever you’re in Vienna. A must-see before it’s demolished. I give it five years.

Just around the corner is this block of apartments from Vienna’s 1918-1934 period of social democratic government. Despite being on a busy corner with a view of the Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant, it remains a fully inhabited and functioning building.

Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1992

Even if the name doesn’t immediately spring to mind, you know a Friedensreich Hundertwasser building when you see one. This is Vienna’s Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant. The original was badly damaged by a fire in 1987 and Friedensreich Hundertwasser was asked to design its replacement for the same site. Each year it incinerates about 250,000 tonnes of household waste and produces approximately 120,000 MWh of electricity, 500,000 MWh of district heating (equivalent to heating 60,000 dwellings per year), 6,000 tonnes of scrap iron and 60,000 tonnes of leftover stuff such as clinker, ash and filter cake. I didn’t know what it was at first, but I did notice a lot of garbage trucks coming and going.

In 1958 Hundertwasser had said in a 1957 talk titled Mouldiness Manifesto (Against Rationalism in Architecture)

“A man in a block of flats must have the possibility of leaning out his window and – reaching as far as he can with his hands – scratching away at the wall. And he must be allowed to paint everything pink with a long brush – as far as he can stretch – so that from a distance, from the street one can see there lives a person who is different to his neighbours, the tamely allocated flock! And he must be allied to cut up the walls and make all kinds of changes, even if this destroys the architecturally harmonious appearance of a so-called architectural masterpiece, and he must be allowed to fill up his room with mud or Plasticene.”

The Spittelau re-design better represents this idea but my problem with it is that most of the windows aren’t real, and those that are, don’t represent private spaces. I’m glad it’s there and it is what it is, but it reinforces the mindset that waste incineration plants are inherently ugly. This one in Munich is still my favourite. An incinerator recycling plant for all seasons.

I can cope with Hundertwasser and much prefer Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant to the Zaha Hadid Housing Spitellau Viaducts despite both being jollied up by adding some colour.

Hundertwasserhaus, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1986

The approximately rectangular panels of colour on the facade of Hundertwasserhausjust might denote the building’s internal divisions but, artists being artists, I doubt it. Hundertwasser was putting trees into buildings before anyone else but, I suspect, more out of a sense of whimsy. Whimsical it is but should all buildings be like this? I think not.

Rufer House, Adolf Loos, 1922

This is for people who like their plans raum. There’s not much to be seen on the outside but the pattern of windows implies a complex internal layout of many interconnected levels.

I looked for Loos’ Steiner House that was supposed to be nearby. I hope this wasn’t it. [Maps’ locational accuracy in Vienna is not great. Perhaps it has something to do with the strength of cellular signals. I don’t recall seeing a single transmitter mast and don’t know where or how they’re concealed.]

Accommodating the present

Apart from Haas Haus, Vienna survived Post Modernism relatively unscathed. Most Western cities will have a building like the one below, but with less justification. Post modernism called too much attention to itself to be a valid contextual approach.

Accommodating the present and respecting “what’s already there” is always tricky. These next two examples try but don’t quite succeed. Both seem to think “the present” involves self-conscious over-articulation. You can see their architects tried. The problem is how easily we notice they tried, and how easily they were satisfied with showing they tried.

Here’s a better example of streetscape-knitting. It obviously owes a lot to Asnago Vender’s office building on the corner of Via Albricci in Milan. And good on it! The shuffly windows pull themselves together towards the corner and the larger bays at roof level make a cornice of sorts. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago Vender]

A smaller building under construction adjacent attempts to repeat the same trick and knit the street together without resorting to over-rated techniques such as ‘lining-through’.

This is a more low-key example of the same thing. It’s not trying to be clever.

I don’t know what if anything this rooftop extension replaced, but it looks like exactly what it needs to be and not in an ostentatious way such as Foster’s Reichstag. Whatever it is meant to do, this is not the cheapest way to do it. I’m pleased somebody thought it worth doing.

Speaking of roof extensions, I found the Coop Himmelb(l)au one but there wasn’t much to see from the ground. Not that there ever was.

Vienna isn’t a new city but there’s a healthy attitude to oldness. You don’t find stylistic invention around every corner but you will see developments such as this next that builds a mixed use development around a former theatre.

Another way of functionally accommodating a building to present circumstances is through a prosthetic addition and that’s fine too. The building is not trying to look new.

Apart from the post-modern commercial building that began this segment, I saw no pastiche. However I did wonder about several buildings I saw like this next one. All were this colour and all had the same facade with paired windows on each side, with arched ones on their third floors. It’s some kind of generic infill building I understood as reconstructions of buildings destroyed or demolished. A dentist would understand them as “bridges”.

The best way to accommodate the present is to build better buildings in the past. This is an impossible task given our current knowledge of technology, industry, science, and space-time physics. The best we can do is aspire to build buildings that, as far construction is concerned will exist long enough to have a future and that, when they do, will be sufficiently socially and aesthetically durable to be a part of that future.

Karl Marx Hof, Karl Ehn, 1926-1930

“Ehn apprenticed under Otto Wagner, began working for the Vienna City Administration in 1908, and as City Architect of Vienna was responsible for many (public housing projects) of the 1920s and 1930s. It is estimated that Ehn designed a total of 2,716 apartments during his career.”

• • •

Dankeschön to Traudel and to Niklaus. And Phillipp.


A list for next time:
the buildings of Harry Glück
Hochhaus in der Herrengasse
Haus Wittgenstein

The Edge of Space

Space that’s enclosed is different from space that’s not and, with caves, those spaces are defined by the inner surfaces of the cave and by the cave mouth. The cave mouth is the boundary between inside and outside because it’s the only surface that has an other side. If humans are supposed to have an innate biophilic preference for open savanna landscapes, then we might and with equal justification also have one for cave-like spaces not artificially and obviously defined by those modern inventions we know as load-bearing walls. I’m beginning to think I do. 

Whether humans are innately caveophilic or not, there was never going to be sufficient caves to go around. Their geographical distribution was uneven and their locations inconvenient. Sometime prior to 4000BC walls were invented to simulate the shelter advantages of caves but cave-like spaces continued to have a special hold on mankind. Dating from 4800BC, the Cairn of Barnenez is the oldest building in the world. It’s a series of tomb chambers created by piling and arranging rocks.

The Great Pyramid of Giza was built 2580-2560BC. Once again, a small mountain of rock was shifted into place, and again as a tomb. Once more, the shapes of the interior spaces have no relationship to the mass from which they are created.

This is the Temple of Abu Simbel from Egypt circa 1300 BC.

Badami Cave No. 3 dates from the 6th century and is dedicated to Hindu deity Vishnu. The columns can’t not support the mountain in some sense but it’s possible the ceiling acts as a monolithic transfer beam and the columns are there to structure the ceremony itself. [For how could one calculate their size and spacing? If they were empirically deduced by trial and error then we would expect to see a history of errors.] 

The geology of parts of northern China permitted people to dig into cliff faces and make artificial caves for living in. These houses are called yaodong

By Meier&Poehlmann – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11865159

There are also sunken yaodong for places not blessed with cliffs. Yaodong are lived in by some 40 million people and out of choice so they are more than some archaic curio. The 2013 post Architecture Without Architects has some more images. 

Kevin Poh https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

The spaces inside a sunken yaodong are identical to those of a cliff one, and this central space functions in the same way as would the outside, but is now a new type of space, neither fully-public nor fully-private – it is communal space that links and buffers between the houses and ground level public space. Many of the underground houses in the town of Coober Pedy in South Australia are hybrids of cliff and sunken.   

It is rare to have internal space conceptually as well as physically separated from external space. In 1964 Kazuo Shinohara presented House of Earth (Space in Black) as architecture and within less than a year completed House of Earth [aka House With an Underground Room]. The idea of an architecture comprised of internal space and nothing else is a fascinating one but an architecture that denied the exterior was never going to lead anywhere and Shinohara explored it no more. Tornado shelters and nuclear shelters are examples of spaces physically separated from the outside [and for very good reasons]. Survival has no need for art or architecture.

I can’t say what this next building is or when or where it’s from but I suspect Neolithic Europe, possibly (what we now know as) Scotland. [Dec.17: I’ve since learned it’s one of the Ġgantija Temples in Malta (c. 3600–2500 BC). Thanks David!] I also suspect it’s later than Cairn of Barnenez [4800BC] because

  • Although the spaces inside have no relationship to what we see on the outside, their axial symmetry implies the performance of some ritual or ceremony by the living.
  • In addition, the number of spaces suggest more than one activity taking place. 
  • The construction is more sophisticated as the greater part of the building mass is infill stabilised by rock “formwork” – a method that requires smaller quantities of premium materials.
  • The design is better suited to flat land as it does not depend upon digging into a cliff or making a cliff by excavating a hole.

We’re getting closer to the invention of that spatial separator we know as the load-bearing masonry wall. Even these proto-walls support themselves and at the same time define the boundaries of this new thing called “space”. 

In time, the edge of space would become synonymous with the elements defining it and produce what we know as inside and outside but it’s not as if the planet’s population suddenly discovered the joys of detached houses. Walls still required materials and labour that might be better used for other things and having fewer walls meant sharing them. Whereas the sunken yaodong created an artificial cliff around which the house was built, the courtyard houses of Mesopotamia or Egypt can be thought of as houses built around an artificial hole that didn’t need digging. On three of the other sides of the house were other houses that did the same. Space the other side of the party walls has no meaning other than the side used for access.

Egypt, 3000BC

The courtyard house permitted occupants adequate daylighting and ventilation and separating them by party walls meant denser settlements requiring less labour and resources for their construction. 

Middle Eastern houses still tend to be gated communities for individual families. 

The next step in the history of the wall was to inhabit it. Over in Europe, castles had courtyards for similar reasons whether for a single (extended) household or for multiple occupancy. Building castles in inaccessible locations and adding fortifications to them solved problems of security and permitted some openings on the outside. 

Spatially, the infill in the image (on the left) became inhabited space (on the right) with outside space on one side and courtyard space on the other.  

The idea of habitations forming a wall divided the world quite conveniently but it was not unique to Europe. The circular hakka houses of the Han people in southern China are houses built within a circular wall that originally served a defensive purpose.

Things improved over the years but it was still better to be on the inside rather than the outside in Florence circa 1450, especially if you were well-off. The outside of this building presents itself as a barrier between “civil society” on the inside and some still very real threats outside. 

The European courtyard house with its openings on both public and private sides is a refined inhabitable wall that readily upscales (back) to multiple occupation housing with public space on one side and communal on the other. 

One recent example had public space as the edge on one side and privatised (pseudo-public) space as the other edge.

As an invention, it wasn’t new but it needed rediscovering anyway.

I see now that my own explorations of the past year have been circling around this topic of the edge of space when the spatial divider is an inhabitable wall. It was present in this recent proposal for apartments overlooking a mall atrium in Living Above Shops

 and also in my proposal for The Uncompleted Apartment.  

This notion of an inhabitable wall as the edge of space makes sense of some of my favourite things despite their differing scales. In Milan’s Galleria the inhabitable wall is the edge of private space mediating between public and communal public space. In Walden 7 the inhabitable wall is again the edge of private space mediating between public space and communal private space. In Uncompleted House (and others such as Repeating Crevice) the habitable rooms are a wall of private spaces mediating between outside space and shared circulation space. Walden 7 has an imposing external appearance but all three have the primary architectural action on the inside edge of space.    

This notion of the inhabitable wall as spatial divider has the potential to be a more sustaining way of configuring the buildings we actually use and that have meaning for us in our daily lives. However, it’s not something that’s likely to happen on its own for it makes no sense for today’s architectural branding machines to devise architectural experiences resistant to capturing and propagating as images and visualisations. Regardless, it makes economic sense to confine architectural invention to the intensively used spaces that can’t be done away with, and it makes social sense to have a shared architectural experience reside in spaces shared by all users. 

• • •


The Boarding House

Boarding houses are dwellings that can be lived in either as houses or hotels and it seems like they’re due for a comeback now that much of our existing house and apartment stock is either fully or partially rented out short-term to persons not a part of the owner’s household.

Property and investments have now surpassed paid employment as the primary generator of personal wealth, so we can’t expect this trend to end soon. They seem like the perfect product as there’s definitely a demand for boarding houses and for making money off them.

Pay-per-stay lodging arrangements means we have apartment buildings unofficially morphing into hotels but apartment buildings and hotels both require considerable investment in the building stock. Airb’n’b is successful because it enables anyone to micro-feudalise space of any type or size.

The top-end of the market is saturated with short-term accommodation curated to create the impression of being a welcome guest in someone’s home. I hear there’s a Netflix show called Stay Here.

Whatever floats one’s houseboat is fine at the top end of the market. Houses have always been available for short-term rental but when the term is as short as one night we’re talking hotels. A dwelling may be a house typologically and curated as if it were someone’s home but can still be occupied as if it were a hotel.

The “bed and breakfast” has always been around in some form and, even for typologically identical dwellings, its experience as a short-term stay is somewhere between full houseness and full hotelness. Some owners run very tight ships while others pride themselves on informality.  For breakfast, some offer organic bacon and eggs on artisan bread, handmade jam, a choice of fresh juices, herbal teas and ethically sourced coffee. Others might not.

When London councils use beds and breakfast to provide emergency housing, the bed and breakfast is being used as a low-cost hotel in place of low-cost housing. But people at the the sharp end of housing demand aren’t looking for low-cost staycations with breakfast thrown in. They want accommodation whatever its typology and will occupy it as short-term lets that are renewable. Until they’re not anymore.

Becoming “a lodger” is another informal tenancy option and this type of arrangement is also not new. A lodger pays for a room in a house, some degree of use of the kitchen and bathroom and perhaps also the living areas. In the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for a lodger to eat meals along with owners at the same time and table. There was no contract, payment was in cash and, more often than not, undeclared. These quasi-household arrangements were mutually beneficial and could last several years. Nobody minded there being only one bathroom because one bathroom was all houses had.

“Taking in a lodger” was accepted as a necessary thing to do to “make ends meet” as “letting strangers into one’s home” was not something people did through choice. But what of the lodger? Lodgers gained a reputation for either being a shifty bunch with pasts and intentions unknown, or social failures with lives on the skids.

No such stigma was attached to boarding houses run by companies for their workers.


This 1905 Western Pennsylvania boarding house is worker housing offering full board to miners for a charge presumably deducted from their salaries. It’s a communal house for people bound by an employer rather than family.

Communal houses also existed in pre-Soviet Russia in response to housing shortages and it was not uncommon to find an extended family occupying a single room. These photographs give some idea of what the living was like but the plan is also revealing.

Not too much later came the Soviet communal house proposals and, though the occupants were likely to have been linked by an employer, this new pattern of occupancy was seen appropriate for the new society in which primary loyalties were now to the State. One of the reasons the communal house never became the norm was resistance [at the top] to doing away with the notion of the family as the basic unit for housing society even though (or perhaps because) overcrowding meant that was not always the reality.

The Return of the Boarding House

Fast forward a century and the Air b’n’b and pay-per-stay architecture and disenchantment with the carrots of “starter homes” and “property ladder” all suggest a demand for new types of housing to facilitate yet unknown types of tenure and occupation. The detached house or conventional apartment designed for a nuclear family no longer cuts it. And hotels don’t either. There’s a whole range of human experience not being accommodated, even conceptually. This next project is designated a boarding house.

Apartments are perhaps 20 sq.m. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s as decent as it is. The images are from Item 1 – 2 Frederick Street, Wollongong (DA-2018-313) on the council website.

As a typology, it’s nothing new. It could be conventional self-catering holiday apartments or a trendy microflat development. It’s not last-year’s co-living because the apartments, though small, have their own bathroom and kitchen alcove. And it’s not last-year’s co-housing because there aren’t any ties bringing these people together in the same place. But nor is it a hotel as residents do their own cleaning. I wouldn’t have thought people would be responsible for their own meals in a boarding house but Attachment 6 [p.93] says they can.


The ground level communal living room and on-site manager are required by the planning conditions for boarding houses [on p.10-11 of the document].

The live-in caretaker also makes it a boarding house, along with house rules that include

  • a ban on smoking inside,
  • drinking alcohol outside between 10pm and 10am,
  • disturbing neighbours and
  • having overnight visitors.


  • sign up for a minimum of three months, and
  • are prohibited from using illegal drugs,
  • having pets and
  • burning candles or incense.

Strangely, these rules are more stringent than those of any market housing. I suspect the building is built and managed to provide some of the services local councils used to provide. And that the rules are necessary to comply with the conditions of some subsidy, tax break or funding. Low-paid workers are the expected tenants and will pay AUS$200 (€127/US$145/GB£111) per week. Australia’s Domain.com lists one one-bedroom apartment for AUS$140 p.w. but the average is around AUS$300 for a one-bed and AUS$400 for a two.

Construction is straightforward and finishes absent or minimal. Access corridors are open. The price difference between these micro-apartments and 1-bed rental apartments already on the market seems largely proportional to floor area, suggesting that design and construction are incapable of further reduction, though materials may be.

Spatially, the rooms are 16-18 sq.m and look a lot like hotel rooms.

The problem remains. How are people who will never be able to purchase a home expected to live? There’s not many options. AUS$200/€127/US$145/GB£111 is what this new minimum way of living costs for now. Some way down the line, the kitchenettes will be replaced by a communal kitchen or possibly a canteen, and then the bathrooms will become shared. The resulting building and how it is lived in will resemble student accommodation circa 1946

but with a room area to GFA ratio approximating early 20th century prototypes.

A vertical communal house with a canteen at street level would be the same building as a residential hotel or, on a smaller scale, a pub [c.f. Home Improvement] and even as far as meals being provided to residents and sold to non-residents. It’s little wonder these buildings convert so easily into apartments.

No matter how similar an apartment building may be to a hotel building, our only modes of occupying it are as a house or as a hotel and, as in MONOPOLY, a preponderance of hotels means it’s close to the end of the game. [c.f. Houses or Hotels] The boarding house is an inbetween type of occupancy. I can imagine a building or apartment with eight to ten bedrooms, perhaps with en-suites, but with breakfasts and dinners available as part of the deal in a communal dining room adjacent to a communal living area. This is a new type of occupation that we don’t have a word for yet but boarding house is the closest one we have. This gap in our concepts also shows with there being no word for the person or persons who would run such a house(hold). They’re not concierges although they would probably receive packages and deliveries for others. They’re not caretakers although they would probably clean and manage communal areas. They’re more than cooks and housekeepers but less than parents and mothers. Were they to clean individual rooms or do laundry as an extra, then the rooms would be serviced rooms within a co-housing situation and a miniature of the serviced apartments currently proliferating within apartment blocks.

If ever a new building typology perfectly adapted to this type of occupancy were to emerge, individual boarding houses would have to differentiate themselves by their cooking.


Plan B

This planet has seen some extreme housing density in its time. If you were in The Rookery in New York in 1865 you’d know what 4,700 persons per hectare looks like.


If you were in Madrid 1930-31 you’d recognize these two buildings in Karel Teige’s 1932 book, The Minimum Dwelling. The lower one has a density of 4,500 persons per hectare and the upper one a density of 6,000.


If you were in Kowloon Walled City in 1987 you’d have seen 33,000 people living at a density of 12,700 per hectare.

Living at such high densities is now some time in the past but we can’t be sure it won’t be part of our future. Londoners know High Barnet as the northermost station on the Northern Line. These are the plans of a recent permitted development in the London Borough of Barnet.

The more central London Borough Of Camden had denser, unpermitted developments twenty years ago but it’s a slippery slope when 25 sq.m (270 sq.ft) per person becomes permissible, and only a matter of time before legal minimums begin to get nasty. Last year’s Venice Biennale offered some tasters. Here’s a situation from the US pavilion’s The Architectural Imagination exhibit. Ground level is given over to transportation, retail and whatever’s meant by a neighbourhood of common spaces. The rooftop is amenity space. It’s Unité d’Habitations minus the parky bit and the habitations. People live in tents, hopefully before upgrading to some more rigid enclosure that’s no-doubt self-build and locally-sourced but for all the wrong reasons. Multistorey carpark meets favela. Stay classy, America!

Here’s another example, this time from the Taiwan exhibit.


I was unsure if this uncomfortable juxtaposition of habitation and transportation was proposal or reality but there’s no doubt with this next.

It all points towards a future a bit grittier than Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ lurid celebration of four decades of visionary architecture that never happened.

This ought to be a warning. If A is for Architecture and B is for Building then we need a Plan B to mitigate the likelihood Plan A will fail to deliver. It might be prudent to start to think about how people might live at higher densities should they become the new normal. In places such as Hong Kong they already are and people there seem to manage quite nicely.

The high-density tower block is the best use of land we’ve come up with so far.

hong kong

We know how to make them. We don’t know how to make them better.

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