Tag Archives: low-cost housing

Lo-Res Architecture

You know how it is when you rearrange bookshelves. You pick up something and open it and before you know it, the morning is gone. The other day, I picked up Issue #46 of Log magazine from 2019. I remember skimming through it and the following Issue #47 about carbon form. I thought I’d revisit these issues later but, a few months later, the world was Covid, teaching was online and I was packing up my things to send to China. I did put some thoughts into a post at the time, and I do remember wondering if I was object oriented or indifferent and, in the end, decided I was both, mostly on the basis of the project I’d set my class in Fall 2019 [c.f. Carbon Offset].

I’ve nothing against a well-made and functioning green roof but putting plants on buildings is generally a stupid idea although some ways of doing it are more stupid than others. Still, the idea of trees on buildings was still very much in the air in 2019 and education is supposed to be about the ways of the world for better or worse.

The same article also introduced the concept of lo-res architecture but I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it as I’m confident I’m at the lo-res end of that spectrum. I really do believe that using simple means to do many or complex things well is superior to using many or complex things to do one simple thing badly.

The idea of sending self-assembling autonomous robots to Mars to extract water from rocks and make mud bricks is a good example of what I’m against. It’s a niche position. It may be better to send people to Mars to crush rocks to extract water to make mud bricks. A better idea might be to have people here on Earth use our water to make mud bricks we can then rocket to Mars so the robots can get on with building houses there. But let’s not talk about carbon form just yet.

I’m generally as suspicious of claims made for new architectures or technologies as I am of the ingenuousness of those who make them. A genuine lo-res architecture shouldn’t require 2,000 words of high-res language to be understood. Anyway, the next article made me wonder if I was neo-pomo, post-pomo, postmodern revivalist or just plain postmodernist. Further in, I briefly wondered if I was a Stanley Tigermanist using shallow means for deep ends whether intentionally or not. I think not. No.

I thought I knew a bit about the concept of embodied carbon as I could never look at exuberant structure without thinking of the amount of steel that went into its various contortions. My lo-res apartment building at least wore some of its carbon unembodied on the outside but Issue #47, with its awesome cover photo of an orbital interchange next to a shopping mall in Doha, stopped me feeling good about that.

We know it’s possible to put plants on buildings but we also suspect the carbon cost in getting them there and keeping them there will probably be greater than any carbon gain from having them there. What we’re left with are some fleeting microclimate and biodiversity advantages but, since plants on buildings are a way of making buildings more pleasing for us to look at, its really just a smug kind of stealth ornament. It’s using carbon-based life forms as decoration.

But we’re carbon based life forms as well so we can’t hate carbon too much. The problem is our excessive combustion of fossil fuels laid down in the Carboniferous Period about 350~300 million years ago.

Carbon form includes roads and all buildings such as shopping malls and apartment buildings as well as detached houses designed to be accessed by vehicles. Shopping malls are embedded in an entire economy of carbon to fill them with goods. Everyday when I used to drive to university – from Dubai, of all places – I passed by a LEED Silver shopping mall.

No building rating system I know of offers any points for whether a particular building is necessary or not. The question of whether a building’s use of resources is justified IN PLANETARY TERMS is never asked.

Carbon form includes airports, of course.

Regarding Phase I of Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, Rem Koolhaas commented in 2013, “We are delighted and honored to participate in the exciting growth of Doha, in a project that is perhaps the first serious effort anywhere in the world to interface between an international airport and the city it serves.” Umm. Tokyo’s Haneda has been a conveniently located international airport since 1961 but hats off to OMA’s* PR for recasting circumstance as inspired. Next time I want to build an airport I’ll start by creating a site next to my city.

This report notes that “the development of the New Doha International Airport (NDIA) in Qatar requires the reclamation of a large area that was previously utilised for the deposition of waste. Between the 1950’s and 1990, approximately 6.5 million cubic meters* of waste was disposed to the NDIA site. As part of the NDIA project, this waste would be relocated to an engineered landfill approximately 40 km away, close to the town of Mesaieed.”
* somewhat disappointingly, this volume is equal to only 6.5 Empire State Buildings.

Noises were made about Phase II being LEED Silver. It will have a 10,000mindoor tropical garden, 268mwater feature, 11,720mof landscaped retail and dining space, other leisure attractions and facilities … [ref.] I’m sure it will. “But good luck OMA – if anyone can do it, it’s you!”

Starchitects validate the carbon economy and are a symbiotic part of it whether or not they design airports. But most do. All other architects are also implicated since carbon form includes all buildings that can’t exist or function without the significant input of energy from fossil fuels. If a building depends on steel, concrete, air conditioning, artificial illumination, mechanical ventilation and elevators, then it’s carbon form.

Even if all new buildings were to be built to Passivhaus standards and all existing buildings were to be magically retrofitted to Passivhaus standards, we’re still not going to make it by 2050. It’s a bit depressing so let’s not go there. 2050 will still come to us.

The carbon economy includes everything to do with combustion engines so we’ve been heading down this particular path since the Industrial Revolution. A revisionist history of architecture could begin by tracking what happened circa 1965 with Postmodernism and then work back to post-WWI with The International Style and then back to the 1920s and Modernism and post-WWI. However, to propose solving our current problems by “raising awareness” this way is about as immediate a solution as colonizing Mars. There’s also the danger that any talk not focussed on actioning definite proposals will simply be assimilated back into the carbon economy as academic churn or media churn, much like what happened with sustainability. While purporting to be a solution, Mars-talk quickly fulfilled its true function of trivializing the appetite for low-tech solutions in favour of solutions necessitating yet more industry and technology.

Mud brick seems like a good idea for places where rain or floods won’t destroy it. Rammed earth walls seem good for the same reason. Straw bales are inexpensive. Timber is also relatively inexpensive but we’d need to grow more of the right kinds. Unless we want to create more problems for ourselves, we’d have to control our preference for hardwoods. Nader Khalili [c.f. Architecture Misfit #12: Nader Khalili] developed an ingenious construction system using sandbags secured with barbed wire. This all seems to indicate that buildings with thick walls and short spans are a solution for the future, even though people in the Middle East worked this out millennia ago. The Yemeni did for eight-storey buildings, still standing five hundred years on.

Hassan Fathy [c.f. Architecture Misfit #8: Hassan Fathy] championed mud-brick buildings, most famously in his designs for the new city of New Gourna.

His 1989 obituary in the AP News Archive concluded by saying “he struggled without success to convince Egyptian peasants that mud brick, a traditional building material in Egypt, is preferable to concrete” and this is the problem. A carbon economy is always going to encourage the mindset that known low-cost solutions that work, are inferior to “modern” ones that won’t work as well.

“Just as good as a bought one!” my Sheffield-born mother used to say when she finished knitting a sweater.

Learning From Shikumen

In 2003 I produced a small proposal to fit several two-bedroom houses onto a small site somewhere in Kent, UK. I wanted to design only one house with arbitrary window positions so the houses could be rotated and clustered on the triangular plot. This is it. It could be a row house with windows only on end walls or it could have windows in the side walls, end situation permitting. I liked the fact the plan could be shrunk yet still retain all its features.

It wasn’t horrible, but this is what I think can be improved.

  • Apart from the downstairs w/c, the middle part of the plan is taken up solely by circulation. 27.8% is too much, even if it does allow one to see along the entire length of the house. I expect this excess width at the entrance point came about because I thought the roof geometry more pleasing.
  • The upstairs bathroom is too large.
  • I’m not convinced of the necessity for a downstairs w/c.
  • The second bedroom is the same size as the living room.
  • In a row house situation, the courtyard wouldn’t be large enough to function as a courtyard.
  • The original proposal had communal garbage bins adjacent to the car parking area but there should be some provision for individual outdoor storage, if not necessarily for garbage bins.

This is the 2022 re-design.

  • I overcame my misgivings about the roof geometry and circulation space shrunk by 10% to 17.6% accordingly. Short of introducing a ladder stair or artificially inflating the habitable area, I can’t see how it could be made any less.
  • I toyed with entering the house from a re-entrant corner in front of the stair. This increased the habitable area organically, and also placed the entrance at a more useful position – as it is in many a terraced house – but it complicated the upper floor unnecessarily.
  • I also toyed with the idea of having the houses repeated instead of mirroring pairs of them around the party wall separating the courtyards, but this meant the courtyard wall would need to be higher and would reduce light to the courtyard and the rooms opening onto it.
  • Mirroring also meant a reduction in the amount of external wall area. All the reduction was for party walls so there was no loss of window wall area.
  • The courtyard is now square and rooms opening onto it now have double the area of glazing. End walls need only have minimal window openings.
  • Construction could be updated and panelized but I’ve kept it brick for now. Its still basically a K-Span house and, apart from the internal circulation, still isn’t world’s away from Ando Sumiyoshi/Azuma House. If you want to link two rooms per floor around a courtyard, then it’s difficult for it not to be. I’ve not gone with his peculiarly Japanese bathroom positioning but I have stacked the wet rooms.
  • The general shape and slope of the roof remain unchanged and the roof still discharges to the courtyard and then via a drain to the street. However, parapets are additional cost and (in order to prevent the spread of fire) are best reserved for party walls only. Pending.

New Shikumen I

The defining characteristic of the Shanghai li-long typology is the internal courtyard existing in a row-house typology, and the defining characteristic of a shikumen neighbourhood is these row houses arranged in rows inside a block having perimeter retail. These rows are single-sided with the front of one facing the rear of another.

  • The bathroom can have a window.
  • A L-shaped kitchen is possible. The kitchen has a service access with storage and space for garbage bins.
  • All rows are oriented north-south and so mirroring houses will not affect daylight quantity.
  • The service area can hold two garbage bins and is also an alternative entrance.
  • Next to the service entrance is a storage/utility area. It’s possible to have a lower level w/c, and with a window this time.
  • I spent much time pondering the best configuration for the roof. I’ve kept parapets between houses to prevent fire spread and I increased the party wall projection between adjacent upper level windows for the same reason. Whether to keep the parapet walls flat or have them follow the inclination of the roof will be a tradeoff between economy of materials and economy of labour, assuming conventional construction.
  • I assumed conventional construction, even knowing that the walls will probably not be cavity brick and the windows timber framed. I’ve kept the construction simple and avoided lintels. The only internal beam spans the corridor to support the roof at the bathroom end of the stairwell.
  • In the end, I set the direction of the roof for maximum daylighting to the courtyards and to the streets.

All that needs to be done now is multiply them. I’ve made no provision for car parking. It’s in the street which will is about 6 metres wide – not unlike many a London mews house.

Unsurprisingly, the streetscape resembles 1920s Shanghai where this building and urban typology originated to solve chronic overcrowding. The premises are still valid. The space between rows could even be reduced to 1920’s standards if some alternate provision were made for vehicle access. The street with in the image above assumes two way traffic and cars parked on one side. The street width in the images below was most likely arrived at from daylighting and ventilation concerns rather than automobile access, and is probably minimal.

Narrow as the streets of this proposal are, they will still be more lively than the circa 1960 streets of an Arab city where courtyards are completely enclosed and windows rarely open directly onto streets for reasons of privacy as much as security.

Finally, the area delineated in the image below is approximately 13,100 sq.m. There are 2 x 8 x 5 dwellings in that area = 80 with an average occupancy of three persons = 240 people = 18,500 ppl/sq.km.

This is a population density greater than Seoul and roughly equal to that of Macau, but still less than Athens.

As ever, the point of these explorations is not to design a tiny house in isolation, but to design one so can be aggregated with many others without sacrificing any benefits of the layout.

A quick check of the Australian national code tells me that 450mm high parapets are necessary only when the roof cladding is combustible [!]. I hadn’t thought of separating adjacent roofs by a box gutter and I’m not sure how I feel about roof battens extending over the party wall even with a non-combustible cladding that’s almost certainly going to be sheet metal.

This new knowledge may mean parapets are unnecessary for fire protection reasons but daylight considerations still suggest the roofs slope down to the courtyard and drainage considerations suggest they should slope to the street.

  • For a while, I thought the small piece of connecting roof above the stairs and corridor could be some kind of fully glazed orangery-type connection covering the stair and a bridge corridor. It’s a possibility. This space would get hot and cold, but not as much as Ando’s Sumiyoshi House.

Perhaps getting rid of the parapets and having a box gutter isn’t such a bad idea. Putting that box gutter not along the parapet but along the line of the upstairs corridor wall will keep the height of the butterfly roof low. Murcutt-esque curved sheet metal would be cool but is’nt going to happen. This is where I’ve left it for now. The box gutter is simple a normal gutter along the courtyard wall. It is open at both ends to prevent blocking and overflowing and to let rainwater drain directly to the street.

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 Universal Apartment

Following on from The Uncompleted Apartments, this proposal is an improved configuration for extending the building into a nine storey building having two lobbies or a six storey building with three, both buildings having two elevators for 72 apartments. The internal stairwells now front the access corridor crevice and no longer occupy premium perimeter but are still naturally ventilated. A third bedroom is where the stairwell was. At both ends are living areas with an entrance, a kitchen and a bathroom. The three bedrooms between are allocated between the two living areas.

The stairwell is not needed if there are only studio, 1-bed and 2-bed apartment. The advantage arises for apartments of three or more bedrooms as the stair landing is part of a corridor connected to the three bedrooms on the other side, allowing apartments with three or more bedrooms to be configured using the same layout and no variations other than

  • short partition walls blocking or unblocking the corridor and
  • minor changes to the position of one or two bedroom doors along the corridor.
  • Out of habit but also for clarity, I’ve drawn party walls as 20cm walls and non-party internal walls as 10cm walls even though high-density 10cm concrete blocks can achieve the required acoustic separation. [ref: Concrete block selector]
  • Each apartment has only one bathroom regardless of the number of bedrooms and this bathroom is split in all apartments apart from the studios (as the corridor length for the bath-room door is required for another apartment to access the bedroom).

Let’s take it for a spin! In theory, one living room space could appropriate all bedrooms in the entire wing to make all but one living room into a studio apartment. Each living room may have the potential to link to all the bedroom spaces opening off the corridor but, in practice, the number would be limited by the one bathroom and the size of the living area. The following shows two nine-bedroom apartments appropriating all bedrooms. Dashed lines indicate the three bedrooms and the colour indicates the living room that appropriates them.

I can’t imagine what kind of household this would suit but if it were a family then, depending on the ages of the occupants, it might be wise to connect another living room for the children and perhaps a third for a live-in housekeeper or nanny. A four-bedroom apartment is perhaps the one-bathroom limit and can be configured in two ways, one providing the maximum number of 4-bed apartments and the other providing the maximum number of 1-bed apartments.

The three-bedroom apartment best exhibits the advantages of this new way of configuring apartment buildings. Here are five ways of configuring three-bedroom apartments. The first two will provide the most.

These next two will provide equal numbers of studio, 1-bed, 2-bed and 3-bed apartments.

These two will provide the same number of 3-bed apartments but different numbers of other apartments.

Other arrangements can compensate with additional 1-bed and 2-bed apartments as it is better to use the stairwell rather than not.

Finally, there are six configurations that use only two levels and that can be used in combination to adjust the numbers of any required mix.

As hinted earlier, a group of bedrooms can be associated with more than one living room to configure apartments for extended families, multi-generational households, for semi-dependent or -independent family members as well as all manner of non-conventional households. Despite the variations possible in the number of bedrooms, the fact the number of bathrooms is fixed to the number of living rooms means this building is still very much an apartment building for households that, while not necessarily nuclear, are about sharing.

  • The few bathrooms and the many dispersed living spaces mean this building will probably never be co-housing. Our desire to share is not that strong.
  • For the same reason, bedrooms in this building are unlikely to be let out as short-stay accommodation or any other kind of informal hotel. We’re not that open to strangers. 
  • Not partitioning corridors so all bedrooms link to all living rooms would produce a communal house for which no household currently exists. It’s unlikely we will ever be that keen to share or that receptive to the money of strangers.

As was always the case with b’n’bs, the domestic dwelling with short-stay accommodation is combined tenure accommodated within existing houses and apartments. The conceit is that a guest is permitted to enjoy certain of the dwelling’s amenities as if they actually owned it and lived there but there’s no reason why the building could not have access and spatial arrangements more suited to such patterns of occupation. This is a future topic. [c.f. The Inflexible House

Regions having a Mediterranean Climate characterised by cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers are shown here in bright green. Regions other than The Mediterranean having this climate are on the western side of continents and include coastal California, coastal Chile, South Africa and the south-western corner of Western Australia. 

This proposal retains the previous advantages of using views of and along the access spaces to foster a new – or perhaps an old? – awareness of living with other people. Architecturally inseparable are the low running costs resulting from the open access lobbies and corridors, and to a lesser extent the space for drying laundry. Ultimately though, it transpires that the universal apartment is universal only with respect to the number of bedrooms. Its open corridors, lobbies and exposed service pipes mean it will only ever be a proposition for the Mediterranean and warm temperate climates. Having said that, it is more suited to tropical climates than single-aspect apartments with dedicated balconies for air-conditioning compressors overlooking lush gardens.

A future version of this proposal will provide numbers of bathrooms in better proportion to the number of bedrooms. Adapting the configuration to facilitate short-stay accommodation and co-housing will require a bit more work.

• • • 

Reconfiguring the bathrooms was easier than I expected. The improved notation shows all possible positions for partitions as dashed lines. All possible positions for door openings are shown as blue walls while used door openings are shown with blue doors. The split bathrooms of the version above are now split into rooms that can be either a shower room, a guest bathroom, a bath-room or a wc w/basin.

  • Studio apartments are studio apartments because their bedroom has been appropriated by a larger apartment adjacent. They will always have a shower room. [upper right]
  • A 1-bedroom apartment can either have a shower room [bottom left], a split bathroom [bottom right], or a guest bathroom and en-suite shower room [top left].
  • Any apartment accessing the stairwell from above or below will have two or more bedrooms and a split bathroom on the level of the living room. On the other level (or levels) it can have a maximum of two shower rooms, bath-rooms or wcs w/basin. Bedrooms not in the middle have the possibility of an en-suite. [top middle]
  1. Bathroom windows (that may be those of an adjacent apartment) open into riser shafts and prevent looking in from laundry drying areas or the access corridor outside. 
  2. All corridors are identical save for the openings which are either blocked or not. This will simplify construction and bring associated economies. It might be possible to precast corridor units offsite and “customise” them onsite, or even have them delivered completed with customisations in place. Ditto for bathroom pairs. 

This image shows all possible positions for partitions and doors. One could always do a Pezo von Ellrichshausen thing and have doors instead of partitions blocking and unblocking the corridor as required. I once lived in a semi-detached house [in Rockton Road] and the two halves had their kitchens joined by a (locked) interconnecting door. It was probably not original, but it gave the impression the house was larger than it was. Perhaps that was what Yo Shimada was intending with the whimsical door to the pantry cupboard in his House in Itami.

The corridors in my new proposal could be blocked with doors that, in certain positions, could be concealed by cupboards. Wardrobes could be placed in front of unused bedroom doors. For those who prefer more substance to their whimsy, these cupboards and wardrobes could conceal functioning doors between apartments.


The Uncompleted Apartments

These are some semi-detached apartments in India. The surface area of the paired apartments and the gaps between pairs of apartments ensure cross ventilation which is good if you’re cooking Indian food.

The semi-detached pairs are pulled closer together by the shared access node. The open bridges don’t impede cross ventilation and are observable in varying degrees by the eight kitchens on every floor. It’s good, but would be better if the access node were designed to enhance the experience of living in an apartment building even when it is not being used for access. This configuration is the opposite of say, Mies van der Rohe’s 1949 Lake Shore Drive Apartments with their perimeters reserved for habitable rooms only ,and which has validated every speculative/exploitative apartment development since. We need a model that is more living-enhancing.

As in India, much cooking also takes place in Hong Kong where the humidity is also high. Apartments in towers have a high degree of separation for the same reasons but the access core is integrated into the structure, is more dependent on artificial illumination and ventilation, and is invisible to residents.

This next example uses two stairwells to separate apartments that are probably as detached as apartments in a tower can be.

The “Hong Kong typology” denies the existence of the shared access. Once inside, occupants completely turn their back on it. Although the shared access can be observed in the “Indian typology”, this is just a consequence of it being open and in-line with kitchen windows for reasons of airflow.

I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Ricardo Bofill’s 1975 Walden 7 and the proposal I made in Living on top of one another attempted to show how virtues of observable access could be brought into the mainstream as a good thing in itself, and in addition to the advantages for daylighting and ventilation. With that proposal, I was concerned that two elevators for four apartments per floor might seem excessive and so I wanted to explore a low-rise linear variation as an alternative to corridors recalling the less appealing aspects of ocean liners.

But wherever they are and however large they are, all apartment buildings are characterized by a shared structure and a degree of shared access to apartments that, individually, are unlikely to have any architectural invention. Other than Walden 7, I know of no other apartment building that uses the shared nature of apartment access as an occasion for architectural invention, let alone the essence of that architectural invention being the comfort of being a part of something that is greater than oneself – inasmuch as where one lives is an indicator of that.

The previous proposals in Living on top of one another and The Landscape Within went some way towards replicating the advantages of Walden 7 in a mainstream apartment building. The proposal now, does the same for a linear low-rise apartment building having two elevators. The previous lobby spaces were social spaces that showed activity in terms of illumination and perhaps sound happening within individual apartments but also on the stairs and going to and from the elevators. Now the building is stretched, there’s more lobby level activity.

This was my first attempt at an “inflexible” apartment module to extend the previous round tower. Anticipating better use of external wall area, I shifted the internal stair to the inside of the building. If the basic apartment type is the 1-bedroom apartment, then a 2-bedroom apartment can be configured by appropriating the bedroom of a 1-bedroom apartment above or below. The green 2-bedroom (or possibly 3-bedroom) apartment upstairs would have a small bedroom and corridor where the bedroom is downstairs. In this way, apartments having different numbers of bedrooms can be configured as for the tower in Living on top of one another.

Although the position of the kitchen window was good, I didn’t like the bathroom not being naturally lit or ventilated. Also, that in-side living room window opening onto the access corridor wasn’t nice.

Moving on …

Bathrooms now have windows and, with the intention of maximising external wall window area, I tried placing the stairs in the middle.

The problem with this arrangement is that two staircases are needed to configure apartments with three or more bedrooms. The living room window problem remains. It’s possible to remove one of the staircases and have larger bedrooms, and to configure a 2-bedroom apartment by simply making the staircase into a corridor to access a larger bedroom where the green one currently is. The bedroom doors in this layout are symmetrical about the axis of symmetry. As long as they stay in that position, there’s no reason why the second bedroom can’t be on the floor above or below. It doesn’t matter if the corridor runs horizontal or is inclined (i.e. stairs).

This is not my discovery. The non-disadvantages of inclined corridors have been mentioned in this blog before, in 1928: The Meeting when, in response to the plenum committee’s comments on the Type F apartment, Moisei Ginzburg responded “Staircases take up area but so too would the corridor they function as.”

However, when the basic apartment is a 1-bedroom apartment [red, below] that can have a bedroom appropriated to create a two bedroom apartment [blue] and a studio [yellow], it is better to keep everything on the one level as the length of corridor to access the second bedroom is less than that of a staircase, and the saved area can be diverted to the studio and produce a better studio, but that second bedroom door is a variation and the object of this exercise is to have as few variations as possible.

There are the following consequences.

  • The number of 2-bedroom apartments will always be the same as the number of studio apartments.
  • Equal numbers of apartment types can be obtained by building four storeys of the S+2 layout for every two storeys of the 1+1 layout.
  • It isn’t possible to configure apartments with three or more bedrooms.
  • The living room window to the inside remains a problem. The kitchen window may be a matter of personal preference but the bathroom windows on the lowest of the three levels are not. Even if sills are set at 1.8m … it’s still a bit nasty.

Next up.

  • This next configuration does without the staircase and the bathroom windows are now about 1.8m away from the access corridor.
  • This outdoor area is envisaged as a laundry drying area but also doubles as shaft for utility pipes. Decorative CMU screen it from the access corridor. Human activity is less intrusive and at night the corridor is illuminated largely by borrowed light from kitchens and bathrooms.
  • If the stairwell is included then it must be used efficiently and this means splitting the landings and having apartments on both sides access an additional bedroom as often as possible. The example above shows a 3-bedroom or possibly a 4-bedroom apartment. [Extension is in principle infinite but, realistically, is limited by the living room area.]
  • One-bedroom apartments can’t be paired as before. Every three stacked 1-bedroom apartments is equivalent to a 3-bedroom apartment over three floors, plus two studio apartments.
  • Without wanting to get too geeky, two 2-bedroom apartments with living rooms on the same level can access their second bedroom from opposite sides of a split landing, producing a 1-bedroom apartment and a studio apartment on the floors above and below. This produces equal numbers of studio, 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom apartments.

Q: But why would one want to do this, when equal numbers of the three types of apartment can be easily generated using the previous layout?

A: Because an apartment seems larger when its full extent can’t be comprehended instantly from a single position. [c.f. The Inscrutable Apartment

Consider Shinohara’s 1966 House of Earth.  The bedroom offers a very different spatial experience – a different place to be – that’s all the more enhanced by it not sharing any walls with other parts of the house. With less art and more ingenuity, the bedrooms in André Devin’s circa 1960 Cité Frais Vallon apartments are not above or below the living areas.

  • If the starting point is not two one-bedroom apartments separated by a staircase but a one-bedroom and a two-bedroom apartment then a wider range of variations are possible. 
  • The screened laundry drying areas will make the corridor more pleasant to walk through and may even have a microclimate advantage.
  • Kitchen windows have long views down access corridors for belongingness and security.
  • Habitable rooms have windows facing outwards while those of non-habitable room face inwards.
  • Those in-side living room windows now look across the lobby and glimpses of sky will be seen through the external stairs. The windows on the lowest level will either have to be omitted, be transluscent, be secure, or be high-level. There are also the historic solutions of inside shutters, roller blinds, venetian blinds, net curtains, café curtains …
  • This configuration provides better daylighting and ventilation and, accordingly, a reduction in energy used for them. 
  • 35% less area is used for access when compared with a conventional configuatio for apartment access, and the percentage of GFA used for access is 13.0% as opposed to 18.5%.
  • A building with two elevators servicing 72 apartments could be either a six-storey building with the six-stair layout shown below, or a nine-storey building having a four-stair layout.

• • • 


Linking the triple-height lobbies produced spaces that reminded me of Shinohara’s Uncompleted House.

Nobody knows what Shinohara meant by giving this house that name. We may want to think he saw the space as being completed by the addition of people but if he did he never let on. I doubt he did for it would’ve been contrary to how he encouraged us to comprehend not just Uncompleted House but all the others as well. It doesn’t matter as it’s all history now. What matters is if it’s fine for a lobby and a corridor to make an architectural statement in a private house then why not in an apartment building? So here goes.

I’m not saying this is my idea – I’ve just appropriated it and upscaled it. There’s nothing stopping us from mining the history of architecture for ideas that can be taken out of the context of their architect’s intentions and appropriated and applied to new solutions to the same problems. It’s a relatively unexplored aspect of architectural creativity. I think it’s worthwhile to continually scan history for things we might missed at the time but that, perhaps in combination with other things, might be part of a solution to a new problem.

This proposal is thus an unashamed hybrid of at least four projects.

  1. First and foremost, it makes the shared nature of structure and apartment access the drivers for why the building is configured the way it is, as with Walden 7.
  2. It borrows the enigmatically symbolic core configuration of Kazuo Shinohara’s 1970 Uncompleted House, and presses it into service to give meaning to the shared spaces in a multiple occupancy building.
  3. Apartments of different sizes are configured using the same principle in my own Inflexible House proposal of last year (which is itself an appropriation from Yemeni vernacular houses [c.f. The Buildings of Yemen]).
  4. Finally, the simplicity and rationality of structure and construction owes something to Krantz & Sheldon’s Perth apartment buildings. [c.f. Architectural Misfit #27: Harold Krantz]

Here I’m not championing history as anything other than a repository of useful resources. Unless history is taught for the purpose of creating one’s own knowledge resource in order to make connections on the fly in response to some problem, then students are quite right to ask what’s the point of knowing it. For the same reason, we can all raise the same doubts about our newer, online repositories of architectural solutions that, exactly like history, are limited by their indexing. Their preference for novelty reflects our preference for novelty, probably to mask a declining ability to connect items of existing information for ourselves and synthesize them into something new. This would explain why never before in the history of the world have we had so much architectural information yet so little appetite to apply any of it. I’m filing this one under Education anyway.


Architecture Misfit #32: Kazuhiko Namba

I remember this building from when it was published in Japan Architect in 1975. It was called something like House with 54 Windows.


I didn’t remember the name of its architect, Kazuhiko Namba, or that it was a combined clinic and house but I did like its controlled craziness. Like many other buildings of the time, it had its moment and was forgotten. Maybe it’s survived and been taken good care of because it’s a clinic and not just a house.

I learned only recently that Kazuhiko Namba was the architect of MUJI’s Wood House which was a natural extension of his work for Box House of which there are 140 iterations, not including six more for MUJI.

I was impressed by Kenji Hirose’s 65 iterations of the same set of principles but 140 iterations is astounding. [1]  Kenji Hirose’s SH house series stopped with SH-65 in 1963 but Namba’s only began in 1995.

If, as I suspect, Hirose saw in 1965 an emergent Post-Modernism as the writing on the wall for his sincere Case Study approach to Japanese housing, I like to think that in 1995 Namba saw the disenchantment with Post-Modernism as a sign it was time somebody took another crack at it. His Box House endeavour is explained by this document with 108 iterations on its cover page.

box concepts_Page_1

“So far we have built various types of Box House on various sites and intend to continue making the Box House even more compact and better performing. These small houses allow diverse households to enjoy living on small sites and connected to the city. We are taking on new challenges and building on our work to date by incorporating new techniques such as frame assembly into the compact and high-performance Ecohouse we now propose. “We are looking for clients interested in the upcoming version of Box House. All Box Houses are designed to allow for combinations and it is through these variations that the city emerges.”

I like the way Namba acknowledges that designing to optimise a particular object involves designing for variations at the same time. The variations Namba acknowledges are not whimsical personalizations but customizations to suit particular site circumstances such as access or light.

Design Summary:

box concepts_Page_2
  1. A compact Box House:
    • Is a compact and low-cost “box house”.
    • Can be built on irregular sites and small sites of 70-100m².
    • Is one of four types catering to two-, three-, and four person households.
    • Is a house built in the city that is open to the sity.
    • Has been designed to contribute to the streetscape and city.
  2. Appropriate cost and performance
    • Our experience with the Box House has led us to an appropriate cost-performance. 
    • The (estimated) construction cost includes water and sewage connections, underfloor heating and electrics.
  3. Design management
    • Contractors are chosen on the basis of their construction expertise.
    • Contractors have responsibility for the design implemented, cost estimates and site supervision.
  4. Taking the Box House forward
    • On top of the Box House is a dovecote-like ventilator to ensure through-ventilation. 
    • The structure is a conventional frame made from solid timbers of Japanese cedar. 
    • Excellent quality management gives timber from the Kishu region [Shikoku and Wakayama Prefecture] the excellent functional and aesthetic qualities that the design displays. 

This is interesting – it’s practically a misfits’ manifesto. Only what can be reinvented has been reinvented, there’s no change for change’s sake, all innovations aren’t design ones, what’s not broken isn’t fixed, and there’s no mention of ornament. Let’s look at those four types.

The “Machiya” – narrow and long with a double-height room

box concepts_Page_3
  • A long and narrow house of 5.46 m x 9.10 m
  • The lower level has living spaces and wet rooms and the upper level has spaces for a family of three.
  • Upper and lower levels are connected by the long double-height space.
  • It is a small house but not a cramped one.
  • Deep eaves control sunlight and the rooftop ventilator facilitates ventilation.
  • The foundation is thermally insulated and the airtight window frames are designed to prevent thermal bridging.
  • Gross internal floor area is approx. 67 m² and the construction cost (iucluding tax) is approx. JP¥25 mil. [US$230,000].

The site plan shows Japan’s 50cm side and 75cm rear setbacks. The double-height space allows direct sunlight deeper into the room. The ground floor terrace and upper floor “veranda” seem wasteful but I suspect it’s a way of shifting the large windows farther away from any neighbours’ windows 75cm the other side of that boundary. When Namba talks about these houses connecting people to the city, I think he means things like those unobstructed spaces between two windows on opposite sides of the house. On both levels, these make the outside more connected to people moving around inside. It’s a good and generous thing. Spatiality is not just about the inside.

The “Outdoor Room” – L-shaped

box concepts_Page_4