Tag Archives: machine for living

Machines for Living Longer

Neuschwanstein Castle was completed in 1882 as a retreat for King Ludwig II of Bavaria but was also lived in by many servants and courtiers. Some servants may have been there as families and some courtiers may have been Ludwig’s relatives, but Neuschwanstein Castle was no residential palace. It was one man’s architectural fantasy alluding to the romance of knights but speaking clearly and loudly of the privilege of kings.


It’s a surprise to learn it’s only three years older than Chicago’s Reliance Building


Neuschwanstein Castle is called a castle but wasn’t designed or built to be defended as one. It was sited somewhere that looked like it could be defended as part of The Look, as were its ramparts that look fit for purpose. The late ninteenth century liked its follies authentic.

The rot had set in sometime around the fourteenth when the military importance of castles lessened because of 1) Europe generally calming down, and 2) because of the impossibility of constructing masonry walls to resist sustained cannon fire. Even so, fifteenth century lords and landowners continued to like the message an imposing and impressive castle sent to those below.

The twelfth century was the golden age of castle building. Castles were sited on high ground not to be picturesque or exploit a view, but because it was easier to spot invading forces. In those pre-Architecture times, it wasn’t possible to conceive of a castle that merely looked strong and impregnable or that represented strength and impregnability. Things were what they were. There was no difference between a thing and what it denoted. A castle looked impregnable if it was. It may well have sent a powerful message of deterrence, but only because of having the visible means to back it up.

Castles are machines for surviving to function in hostile and life-threatening environments. They have much in common with offshore oil-rigs, antarctic research stations, the International Space Station and Harmony of the Seas.  

Here’s Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers near Homs in Syria, close to the border with Lebanon.


Over the years, it’s been controlled by the Kurdish troops of the Mirdasids (1031–1099), the County of Tripoli (1110–1143), the Knights Hospitaller (1143–1271), the Mamluk Sutanate (1271-1516), the Ottoman Empire (1516–1918), the Alawite State (1920–1936), the Syrian Republic (1936–1958), the United Arab Republic (1958–1961), the Syrian Arab Republic (1961–2012), the Syrian opposition (2012–2014) and, since then, again by the Syrian Arab Republic.

Castles have a habit of being in war zones. Taking control of strategically-placed fertile land is one thing, keeping control of it for centuries is another. Exemplary performance in the case of castles means an uninterrupted history but even supercastle Krak des Chevaliers shows it doesn’t always happen. Europe has also had its Levant moments but, once the assorted Goths, Huns, Visigoths and Vandals had dispersed into history, levels of castle defence could be downgraded. In France from the fifteenth century onwards, castles morphed into chateaux. This is Chateau Harcourt.


Castles in Italy morphed into that Italianate affectation called Architecture but Germanic ones weren’t so quick to shed their defences. This next is Prunn Castle, dating from around 1200. Never particularly large, it passed out of the family after a few hundred years and has had a succession of owners since. Because castles were meant to last, many have been converted into repositories of local history. This makes perfect sense for that’s exactly what they are.


More often than not, that history amounts to no more than transitions of land ownership but Lerici Castle, itself from 1152, now houses a paleontological museum after the discovery of fossilized dinosaur footprints nearby.


Wildegg Castle in Switzerland is a hotel.


Over the 11th and 12th centuries, Lenzburg Castle passed from the Lenzburgs to other aristocratic dynasties such as the Kyburgs and the Habsburgs, and was later the private home of a wealthy American family before becoming the museum and visitor centre it is today. 


Here’s Colditz Castle from the 12th century. The Lords of Colditz sold it in 1404. Over the next two hundred years it was enlarged to have 700 rooms. Those many rooms and solid construction led to it being used as a workhouse between 1803 to 1829, and various types of hospital between 1829 and 1924. 


We must remember that the same means that prevent people from breaching castles also work to prevent people escaping them. The Nazis turned Colditz Castle into a prison that famously included prisoners of war from 1939 until 1945 when US forces retook the castle. Then began a period of Soviet control during which the castle was used as a prison for local criminals, a nursing home, a hospital and a psychiatric clinic. After a 2006-2007 restoration, the building is now a youth hostel and, understandably, a museum of itself.

Other castles make impressive venues for weddings and conferences. This is Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva.


“There are four formal great halls in the castle, whose windows all look out over the marvellous view of  Lake Geneva. The Savoy family held sumptuous banquets in them, whilst the Bernese administered justice in some of them.”


Level I is the administration level with its dungeon, gallows and prison. Functionally, and also as far as circulation is concerned, it’s rather perverse for the torture chamber [24] to be on Level IV adjacent to the bedroom [25].

In Eltz, some 400 km to the north, days and nights were uneventful. Built in the 1200’s and never once overrun or seiged, Eltz Castle is still lived in by Eltzes some 33 generations on.

joint heirs.jpg

It’s actually three slender castles with party walls. A shared courtyard allows access and deliveries, and shared fortifications serve to discourage hostile access and hostile deliveries. It has around a hundred rooms. 


It’s interesting that, in Germany, different branches of the same family decided to connect their diminished castles for communal defence but, in Italy, wealthy Bolognese were reluctant to trust their relatives even/especially when it came to matters of defence.

Bologna 11th c

The better survival rate of German castles suggests that a shared structure and communal amenities are things any building ought to have if it is to remain viable for the long-term

Even if building defence is something owners expect their governments to provide, building security these days is handled on a municipal level by police but on a building level by security personnel as a communal amenity. We may put bars or shutters across windows and other openings to discourage opportunistic burglary but we generally have less to worry about. Our greatest threat is increasingly the one posed by hostile weather and it makes sense for buildings to offer shared defences to that as a communal amenity.

A shared structure and communal amenities make it possible for a building to be more of a closed system. This is another useful characteristic for a building to have.

The military importance of castles declined rapidly with the use of cannons but, prior to that, the largest threat to a castle was seige. Castles had to be capable of being closed systems for extended periods of time. We can do that. Generating a certain amount of power in-house is do-able, as is a certain level of waste management. Food production and water supply remain mediaevally problematic.

In hostile environments, mediaeval castles struck a balance between structural resources, communal amenity, and functionality as a closed system.

These days we use the words durable and sustainable in much the same way to talk about our newly hostile environment but we tend to use communal amenity only to describe facilities that are desirable rather than those that are essential. This is a huge mistake.

Occasionally we think some contemporary building comes close to striking the right balance between functional necessity, occupant amenity and operation as a system.


Such buildings are duly awarded and the implication is that the world would be a better place if there were more such exemplary buildings. This fundamental premise of building rating systems is true only if we compare like with like – if a world full of, say, LEED-Platinum single-family detached houses is compared with a world full of conventional single-family detached houses. However, compared to a larger building doing all the same things for a larger number of people, there must be economies of scale (and hence of resources, and hence of efficiency of use of resources) to be had. One average apartment building for 100 people may perform better than 20 exemplary houses housing five apiece. It’s time to compare apples and oranges. Here, I’m just using LEED Platinum as an example of virtuousness, but

If LEED Platinum is an acceptable indicator of building virtue, then Efficiency of Attaining LEED Platinum is a better one.

For a short while, each of the towers of Bologna achieved some ideal balance between durability, communal amenity, and being a sustainably closed system.


They became obsolete when that balance between durability, communal amenity and being a closed system was upset. Their narrow view of communal amenity became untenable with the advent of cannon-fire as it was beyond the means of any one family to fortify their defences to sufficiently withstand it. The City of Siena found out the hard way. They thought they’d be safer spending an enormous amount of money on fortifications but, after doing that, had no money left to pay an army to man them. There’s two lessons we can we learn from this.

  1. A balance between structural durability, communal amenity and being a closed system has to be found.
  2. That balance has to be at an appropriate scale.

There’s no reason to think the size of a suburban residential plot or some arbitrary urban office building or apartment site is the optimum scale for this to take place. We don’t know. What worries me is that nobody seems interested in finding out.

Machine for Living

Royal Caribbean’s new cruise ship, Harmony of The Seas has much in common with the buildings along some of the coasts it will cruise. A maximum number of rooms face the ocean, and under and alongside them are entertainment, food and drink, and shopping districts providing daytime and nighttime activities for its 5,479 passengers.

Somewhere away from all the fun are engines and fuel tanks, a power generation facility, sewage treatment plants, a waste management system, internal and external communications systems, district heating and cooling and, let’s not forget, sleeping, eating and off-duty areas for its 2,394 crew. Harmony of the Seas has many amazing things, some of the most amazing of which we’ll never get to see or be told about.


For the tech-inclined, this is an advanced membrane bioreactor that removes nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous before returning end-product wastewaster to the ocean. It’s esssential equipment if the vessel is to be allowed to sail in protected seas such as the Baltic.   

Here’s a reverse-osmosis desalinator that makes fresh water.


This is an incinerator for dry and wet waste.


There’s other equipment and systems.


Those dealing with waste are mostly located at the end of the line for reasons more existential than biomimetic. Waste, after all, is waste.


If we forget about all this and the fact that Harmony of the Seas floats and has propulsion and navigation systems, it’s basically some accommodation along a steet and we can thus evaluate it as mere architecture. Or gated-community urbanism if you prefer. First up, an overview.



Harmony of the Seas has either sixteen or eighteen decks depending on how you count them, but at least two are used for essential non-recreational amenities such as tendering and the infirmary. Cabins are mostly on decks 9–13 that have been maximised for that very purpose. Crew quarters seem to be on Decks 3, 4 and below. In the image at the top of this post, their open space is probably that with the lights on, beneath the name.


We accept the basics of the configuration: amenity spaces up top, premium accommodation immediately below, worker accommodation beneath, machines out of sight. The top is, by definition, unenclosed and it makes a lot of sense to put outdoor recreational space there. We happily accept that the ocean is just for looking at, and not for swimming in.


It also makes sense to put recreation space up top if you’re on land and don’t have a garden


but it makes no sense if you do.


Cruise liners have more accommodation and recreational space than transatlantic liners built for speed. This is a consequence of the increased amount of accommodation on these sluggish beasts. It makes them essentially rectangular in cross section.


Uppermost deck space is used for terraces, pools, outdoor theatres, tennis courts, minigolf and such and, with Harmony of the Seas, Deck 15 has most.


Sunbathing seems to be a thing of the past, confined to terraced ‘solaraium’ slivers facing the prow. Promenades are also a thing of the past since, when all outwards-facing surface area is monetized as cabins, there’s nowhere to be anymore if you want to lose the crowd.


With Royal Caribbean vessels, what’s called The Royal Promenade is an internal shopping street. Traditionally, the uppermost promenade doubled as lifeboat access deck but, when there’s only one promenade, this function became increasingly obvious such as on Queen Mary 2. (Note those nautical railings.)


Around Royal Promenade is a running track but the view from it, we’re told, is obstructed by lifeboats.


Misfits despises this use of architectural language, preferring to see it as unobstructed access to lifeboats. We’re glad they decided to stick with the yellow. The running track seems like it might an interesting space and is one of the first things I’d want to check out

irrespective of comparisons such as this.


For one, I’d like to get a closer look at those railings where the running track loops around the stern of the vessel just above where the name is painted. They look like the same railings architects once had a thing for.


Outside cabins and most public places, the balustrades are sheets of some transparent material but, in what seems to be restricted areas such as the forecastle [fo’c’s’le] and running track, there are balustrades with open horizontal railings of the type small children love to climb.

nautical railings

They’re absent from the private and the public areas so parents can take their eyes off their kids for a second but their presence on the lifeboat level makes me think they have a safety or rescue function. [?!] Or is it just so waves washing over the ship [!] can drain away? Or both? [!!] One thing for sure: the nautical railing is not trying to be beautiful.


Building ships this big isn’t cheap. You’re looking at $1 billion or roughly the cost of the current US presidential election campaign.

Enclosed volume isn’t wasted on single-loaded corridors, making them curvy, or ‘breaking them’ with seating areas. At 1,000ft/330m, they’re only two and a half times as long as this famous corridor but just as straight-liney. Longline corridors and narrow rooms are the best way to exploit built volume.

EPSON DSC picture

At 218 ft (66.4 m) wide, there’s space for two big-brush strokes of accommodation. Here’s decks 8, 9 and 10. It’s quite an achievement that more cabins have ocean views than not.


It’s basically a hotel and the principles of adding value to built volume apply even if that volume doesn’t exist as a consequence of land. As we’ve seen, trends in hotel space tend to become realities in housing after a few decades. Housing isn’t lagging in exploiting any area or volume unsuited to more housing.


Atrium-view cabins view each other across a courtyard/atrium-like space called Central Park. It’s about 16m wide and equivalent to the UK minimum standard for opposing windows internal to a development.


The unenclosable floor of the courtyard/atrium is value-addingly amenitized by food and beverage outlets that, as with shopping malls and the city streets they try to pretend they are, inject a level of activity and provide a substitute view. Visual barriers and fixed glazing prevent the respective ambiences of the Deck 8 Central Park and the Deck 9 cabins from cancelling each other out.

I’m reminded of that MVRDV market building in Rotterdam. Apartments having views of internal courtyards weren’t new but what was was apartments having a view of a quasi-public space not even a courtyard. It was an alternate view for dual-aspect apartments.


Something similar is happening here on the Deck 5 Boardwalk that borrows ambient light from the Deck 8 Central Park level of the atrium.


With Market Building, double-loaded corridors weren’t an option as space had to be provided for the market because the market is an amenity for the city, not just for the people incidentally accommodated. The accommodation is merely secondary exploitation of the same land. It’s the opposite with Harmony of the Seas. The quantity of accommodation is paramount, and any space that can’t be used for accommodation is used to add value to that accommodation. Retail and leisure amenities don’t have to compete for custom as patrons will have already paid for many of them whether they patronize them or not.

“Make mine a double!” Drinks in the Bionic Bar are made and served by robot bartenders. These fancy vending machines are still more diverting than MIT’s robot bricklayer.


As you’d expect, height, view, area and window area are differentiators. There’s only one Royal Loft Suite. It’s 144 sq.m, has an entrance lobby, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a large terrace with jacuzzi. That second door next to the bookshelves connects to an adjacent Crown Loft Suite L2 that sleeps another two of your family, your friends or your people.


There’s a dining table for eight but no kitchen so significant room service must be available, including staff on-call to man the piano and outdoor bar. It would appear so.

Royal Loft Suite.jpg

Cabins are Unité narrow and deep. The 180 sq.ft/ 17sq.m Superior Balcony type is the most numerous at 1,288. We immediately recognise it as a studio.


The Oceanview has a window seat instead of a balcony. The hull freeboard on Decks 3 and 4 has neither flare nor tumblehome so the large reveals to the windows of these lower-deck side cabins must conceal some serious hull bracing.


So far so good. There are only eight 2-Bedroom Family Oceanview apartments. We now get to see windowless bedrooms but we’re not as shocked by this as we might once have been.


Ships have a long history of windowless cabins and Harmony of the Seas adds to that history with the K, L, M, N, Q, VB-Virtual Balcony and Studio Single cabins. 


Virtual Balconies use projection screens to offer a real-time view of the outside. They are presented as the new normal. 


We need to process this now. Such projections could easily have live audio although artificially replicating the feel of the wind, but replicating the smell of the ocean, the taste of the air and the feel of the breeze may take some time. Architecture is ahead of the game as far as virtual views of enhanced skies are concerned.


Walls too.


I happen to live in an apartment with a curtain wall of fixed glazing panels. Heat and sounds and sights that I perceive as transmitted, could be replicated without too much trouble and someday some hologram might replicate the 3D effect but, even now, a virtual window (enhanced with dust) might well fool me if I kept still. Philosophers still grapple with the implications of this despite the topic having being thoroughly covered in those projected illusions we call movies. [misfits choose the red.]


With flatscreen televisions now larger than many people’s only window, it’s only a matter of time before they substitute for them.


They already do in some parts of Australia. This easily-roofed plan suited to narrow plots, turns a windowless space unacceptable as a living room into a value-adding feature offering visual stimuli preferable to what’s outside. There’s no living room as such.



Royal Caribbean helps us out with with their website’s neighborhoods link. We might bristle at the use of the word neighborhood but, at this size,


there’s no reason why there can’t be some common identity linking accommodation and the various services and amenities a particular area has to offer. On land it’s increasingly irrelevant whether or not residents are permanent and expected to have an interest beyond the financial, in the social and economic sustainability of their neighborhood.

Attempts at diversity are being attempted and, though commercially driven, we can’t say “worse things happen at sea. Now added to the mix are conference rooms implying something that sounds like work. The Crown & Anchor pub will cater to different people than the Jamie’s Italian. 


People in one place need more than just recreational activities even if that’s their main reason for being there. There’ll be a multi-faith chapel somewhere. Close to the infirmary on Deck 3 will be a pharmacy and doctors familiar with cardiac and vascular issues. People might happen to die at sea, so there’s going to be a morgue. People might also become unruly and a possible danger to others so there’ll something that won’t be called a brig. Plainclothes security personnel will be skilled in martial arts and at giving the impression a brave bystander (“Ex-military, did you hear?”) happened to be there at the right time.


The problem Harmony of the Seas poses for architecture is that it’s not visionary. It exists, and it exists without architects and architecture. It’s the sea claiming back much of what was its own in the first place and showing us the right way to build an instant city.

Picture 1.png

At $1 bil., Harmony of the Seas costs far more than the equivalent square metreage of motionless buildings that, apart from some token amenities, feed off the greater infrastructure. Anything they give back depends on the economic and social activity of the people they house.


Harmony of the Seas is a machine for farming people and its passive passengers are willing to let themselves be farmed in ways that please them and along a route they selected. It applies the principles of property development selectively, and ruthlessly.


Designing the accommodation bit is simple. Designing the hull and propulsion systems is something best left to naval architects. Designing for real, something that functions as a self-contained city isn’t something architects are equipped to do.

Even though cabins are becoming more spacious, the abundance of communal living and activity spaces means large cruise vessels such as Harmony of the Seas more closely approximate co-living than the average apartment building. In other aspects, it has a long way to go. It’s not made out of sustainable timber or salvaged plastic. It doesn’t grow its own vegetables or fish its own fish. It doesn’t generate its own power from seawater. It’s nowhere near being a closed energy system or ecosystem but it at least it’s aware it has to be one and needs to be better one.

Ocean-going vessels are worth another, less superficial, look. Hopefully, we’ll notice things we can actually learn from. In the meantime, Congratulations and Bon Voyage!


• • •

21st May, 2016: “Hold on guys – not so fast!” An article today says these vessels indeed have a long way to go as far as exhaust emissions are concerned. “At full power the Harmony of the Seas will burn 1,377 US gallons of some of the most polluting diesel fuel in the world an hour.” One comment on that article linked to an on ethical tourism, highlighting the cruise industry’s record on environmental concerns, labour rights of its employees, and human rights violations in some of the countries it visits. I guess this illustrates the folly of ever evaluating anything as architecture only.


Kazuo Shinohara’s Houses

The 1950s in Japan were a time of rediscovery and renewal in art,



Kawanishi Hide, The Stone Garden, 1959, Color woodblock with blind stamping. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Gift of Douglas Berman and Peter Daferner in honor of Richard A. Born, 2004.131.







woodblock prints,






textile design,


and architecture.

Kazuo Shinohara was a Japanese architect who lived 1925–2006. This is his first house, House in Kugayama, completed 1954.

Kugayama 1954 view

It was very much of its time, as was Kenzo Tange‘s first and only house of 1953.


Shinohara’s house had a steel structure but both houses play it both ways in allowing foreign commentators to pick up on an essential Ise Shrine-ness as well as the box-on-columns of you-know-what.

ise grand shrine

The plan of the House in Kugayama is rectangles inside rectangles and determined by the structural supports.

Kugayama 1954 Plan


In 1954, square tatami would have been highly unconventional by the way. As they would be now. Normally, a tatami room of this size and shape would be a four-and-a-half mat room with the extra half in the middle.

Kugayama 1954 Interior 1

Also, there’s no refrigerator. In the 1950s Japanese people would have bought fresh and daily. Even now many (older) Japanese have little taste for dairy products. 

Umbrella House has strong and popular Japanese associations both inside and outside Japan. These days, I see it more in terms of a plan following its own logic independent of the structural enclosure. 

Umbrella House 1961

Check how that offset post affects the tatami room (top middle, below). The internal walls don’t go all the way up to the roof. The bathroom and tatami rooms have ceilings but the space above them is exposed.

House with an Earthen Floor of 1963 is small even by Japanese standards but I like how Shinohara thought that slight curve on the roof was necessary.

Untitled 16

House in White 1964. 

The bathroom is that covered box in the corner. With this house, I also like the economy of documentation. A Japanese carpenter could build this house from these three drawings. I particularly like the sheet of details in compressed plan.

I also like how not everything has to be an event. This is the door to upstairs.

Untitled 26

Shinohara’s residential output is usually discussed in terms of his own categorization as having four distinct ‘styles’ but remember that those were the days when all Japanese architects were adept at interpreting their own work and generating elliptical theories. Seeing everything in terms of those four styles I think prevents people from making up their own minds and seeing other things that might be of value. It’s generally good to be sceptical about anything an architect says about their own buildings.

But it is true that Shinohara’s 1970s houses did become more white, more geometrical and more self-conscious with names such as Uncompleted House, Sky Rectangle, Sea Staircase, etc. Early on in his career, he did say “Houses are Art” but I think he meant he wanted his houses to be thought of as Art. Hence the artwork names. Some may be artworks but on what level is a question never asked. Given the photographs Shinohara approved for publication, it doesn’t involve the uncontrollable messiness of living. My impression is that if something could not be aestheticised then it was of little interest to him.

One day, circa 1980, we were all sitting around observing pieces of coloured paper get test-stuck onto model columns and trying to have opinions on which colour was best. The mood was subdued for, the day before in Paris some Japanese guy Sagawa had just been arrested for killing his Dutch girlfriend and keeping her in the freezer and eating bits of her occasionally. So when I say subdued… Eventually the elephant in the room became too large and Shinohara asked a French research student present at the time what she thought about incident and she said oh yes everybody in France was talking about “how wonderful it must be to be loved so much that somebody would like to eat you.” This lightened the mood immediately.

The Japanese no longer had to worry about being thought of as cannibals or – worse still – barbarians in Paris the Capital of Culture.More importantly, the incident could be reduced to an aesthetic judgment and safely tidied away. To this day I think that to aestheticize a problem is to ignore it. I don’t know where I read it but some say that certain buildings are beautiful only because they choose to solve so few problems.  

These days there’s a lot more images of Shinohara’s buildings available on the internet but this 2G book is probably the best print introduction around. For the houses.


Many have been rephotographed and it’s been mostly good seeing how these houses have aged and become more lived in. The later residential work I’m now not so keen on. It’s more appropriate for a small house to carry a simple idea than it is for a large house. The later and generally larger houses lack that charm. In passing, the later smaller houses seem to me to carry ideas too big for them but this is now standard for small Japanese houses. We continue to be fascinated by the audacity of these houses. “These people have no money and little land – how amusing to attempt to build architecturally innovative houses!”

This might say more about us than the Japanese, especially if the only blurring of boundaries we consistently admire is between the worth of a building and value of the property on which it stands. When one doesn’t have Johnsonian, Farnsworthain, or even Savoyean amounts of property on the other side of the glass, how the interior space is enclosed, divided and lit are the only variables left to vary.  But here’s what I mean about simple ideas and biggish houses.

House in Itoshima 1976

Untitled 5

House in Ashitaka 1977

Untitled 14

House on a Curved Road 1978

Untitled 19

House Under High Voltage Lines 1981

Untitled 37

The only exception for me is House in Uehara 1976.


The structure was supposedly determined by the need to secure space for two cars but I wonder if cantilevering one-third of the upper storey is the easiest way to do that? Down the left side of the site is an alleyway with possibly buried services so there may be some reason why footings along that boundary weren’t an option. It could be true.

Internally, the life of the house is organized around the structure that appears in every space. In the tatami room (middle right, below) there’s just the shadow of the tree structure on the lower wall. It was quite beautiful actually, this shadow of a serious structure. You’ll never see a photograph of them, but the washroom and bathroom are extraordinary. Just you and the structure.

Untitled 5
Untitled 7

Getting a plan within that structure presented two problems that were solved in the simplest way possible. The first was to move part of the bedroom wall to provide a passage around the inclined column blocking the way.


The other solution is at the front end of that bedroom wall. It doesn’t meet the front of the house as neatly as it’s drawn on the first floor plan. The wall is where it has to be and so is the structure (and the window/ventilation panel). “Ahh, free plan!” you may think but au contraire! Le Corbusier’s walls skirted around the columns to show how free they were. This wall dodges the column so a Japanese person of average height has a reasonable chance of ducking under it.

Untitled 14

The requirement for an extra room on the roof was a late change to the brief the story goes. I’m not so sure about that because I don’t know how the parents, two daughters, one son and a grandmother were ever going to have lived in this house without that room. Shinohara was not an ad-hoc kind of guy so I’m inclined to believe the story. (When I last visited, the parents slept in the storage room of the ground floor photography studio. They didn’t mind.)

The stairs into the house are a very contrived architectural event. They’re not much to look at from ground level.

_MG_8844 (1)

You arrive at the upper landing, seen in this next image from inside the house, with the front door open, and looking across the landing at the kitchen entrance.

Untitled 24

The non structural walls that are neither inside nor outside are in diagonal timber (like the non-structural floor inside). It’s only a representation of what is about to happen, but it shows the separation between the things the house needs to stand up, and the things that are needed to make it habitable.

The entryphone was at the bottom of the stairs. This next image is what you see when you are standing on that landing looking back whilst waiting outside the front door. Going up those stairs puts you in the middle of the house even though you’re still outside. This is what blurring the boundaries between inside and outside can mean when you don’t have a huge garden outside your window. You most likely have been welcomed before you’ve even entered. Opening the door is just a formality.

Untitled 7

Here’s some more images of the staircase and how it works inside.

There’s a lot of architectural invention and function compressed into those three square metres on three levels. The stair enclosure takes up no more space than it has to and at the same time makes the interior seem – and actually be – larger. Light enters the room via the skylight and then passes out of the room to light the welcoming stairwell.

Untitled 19

What I like about this house is that the functions of the house are incidental to the enclosure of the house. This is a nice idea, and possibly a useful one. The structure and enclosure aren’t compromised by human preference or caprice and in theory can be better optimised. Meanwhile, the occupants can be catered for as best they can within the confines of the space, that is. There’s maybe 10 sqm. circulation space total for a total floor area of 203.63 sqm = 5%.)


Shinohara always exercised strict control of what images of his houses were published and this, more than anything else, is probably responsible for him not being better known than he is, even though there’s a lot more stuff on the internet now. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, the only photographs Shinohara was interested in were the ones he approved.

He famously claimed – although, because it was pre-internet, not many people actually knew about it – that he had no interest in his houses after the clients moved in. Many people saw the approved photographs and thought his houses clinical and I can see why. Arty? Definitely. Beautiful? Perhaps. But it’s difficult to imagine laughter happening inside. Or even much life. It didn’t help either that kitchens were small and rarely photographed.

Here’s an image, published at the time, of his House in Hanayama 1976.

Untitled 5

And here’s an image taken more recently. Basically, it’s a nice room with somebody’s stuff in it. Shinohara was right to have no interest in his houses after people moved in. But he didn’t do himself any favours by photographing them either bare, or with isolated pieces of furniture by Shiro Kuramata.

Untitled 4

It’s not really possible to combine one’s possessions and the inside of a Shinohara house to create “an interior” and I think this is a good thing because to do so represents neither person nor building. It’s no longer a building but an expression of what some people did to the inside of a building. To not design for the concept of an interior has the potential to allow both the buildings and the people who live in to be however they need to be. 

It’s never been the Japanese way to want to “personalize” a space, to change the colour or surface of walls, choose furniture to suit the size or shape of a room and to create an “interior”, to change or rearrange it when they became bored, to buy an artwork to “fill a space” or because a wall “needs something” …


House in Uehara is small. The table in the main room looks like a table but is used more like the Japanese kotatsu at which both living and dining traditionally happened. I have fond memories of the maybe four times I visited House in Uehara with some university visitor in tow and being greeted by the ever-hospitable Mrs. Otsuji. Visitors were always shocked to see living in this house occurring despite the house. There was a month’s worth of newspapers piled into the forks of those columns and the cats’ bowls placed beneath them where they were least likely to get kicked…

Shinohara would have liked House in Uehara to be thought of as a ‘machine for living’ but he would not have liked himself to be thought of as having designed a humane machine for its occupants to creatively occupy and happily live. He just didn’t see buildings that way. But something wonderful came out of him designing a house in which people had no choice but to live in it the best they could. The house was like a family member you had to live with and live around at the same time. Give and take. Respect each other. That’s living.

• • •

I don’t want to bring too many examples from Japanese culture in case it makes the lessons of House in Uehara seem too foreign but I can summarize this another way.


Some kimonos are very beautiful, but whether beautiful or ordinary, all it takes is some fabric and two measurements in order to make a kimono for a person. After that, it’s all about how you wear it.

House in Uehara is a tight fit and unyielding fabric, but its occupants wear it well.



The Building is Not Trying To Look Beautiful #2: New Monte Rosa Hut


This is New Monte Rosa Hut, in Zermatt (the German-speaking part of Switzerland) by Bearth & Deoplazes Architekten. Their other projects are simple and dignified with hardly any funny stuff and well worth a look. All these excellent images are taken from their site.

This particular project is what misfits’ likes to encourage. It was featured in the special Green Architecture supplement to the current edition of DOMUS, whose online edition is refreshing if you’re tired of the usual puff pieces, unedited user-generated content and advertisements for watches. I wish I’d known about their site in 2009 when this building was first published.

Environmental amelioration: The building, as you’ll notice, is in an extreme environment. People can die. It’s no place to muck around with the meaning of stuff. This building has other priorities.

Here’s a website giving you today’s weather at Monte Rosa. Mountaineers like hourly forecasts, and for various altitudes.

monte rosa weather

Footprint: The building has a small footprint and, although not a sphere, is a compact volume because a near-spherical shape has a high volume-to-surface area ratio.

This means there is less heat loss and less energy required to heat the building. It also means that a smaller amount of construction materials needed to be airlifted to build the envelope. In order to avoid heat transfer with the ground, the building is situated on a steel platform fixed into a concrete foundation.


Materials transportation efficiency: The internal structure is timber because it has a high strength to weight ratio. Timber is better value when one has to airlift structural materials. This shows – literally – in the three-layer plywood that is the innermost layer of the external wall. This is the main element absorbing horizontal forces to stiffen the structure. In a lightweight building, this is an important role as I imagine the site can get quite windy. 

external wall section

Timber also allows a high degree of prefabrication. The entire building was constructed in 420 pieces that were helicoptered to the site and assembled. It it took 3,000 flights to transport materials and a total of 35 workers over two summers to complete the building. 

new monte rosa hut

Construction was possible only between Mid-May and September. 

Structure: The structure has its own repetitive geometry for efficiency and stability whilst the geometry of the shell is determined by the topography, the climate and, thirdly, the internal functional requirements. The building is the most complex timber building ever erected in Switzerland.


Energy: One climatic given is the direction of the sun. The south face of the building envelope is covered with 89 sqm of solar panels that produce 90% of the building’s energy requirements. Excess energy is stored in batteries. There is an emergency fuel-powered backup generator. 

EUR08_Bronze_Deplazes_PI_10The building’s computerised energy management system is continuously monitored by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The team in Zurich is currently investigating the recovery of biogas so that gas for the kitchen does not have to be helicoptered in. This will make the building 100% energy-autonomous. 

helicopter to new monte rosa hut

Ground collectors are used to heat water and regulate the temperature in the rooms. Heating Energy: 17,500 kWh/m²a

ground collectors

Windows: By VELUX, who seem a bit shy about advertising this project. Perhaps it’s because triple-glazed window units aren’t anything special for them.

Spatial efficiency: The size of the building did not allow for central circulation to service a radial plan. Instead, the centre is a distribution corridor to the various accommodation rooms.

MORO_AF_50_Layout Publikation.vwx

It is easy to be awed by the landscape, or drift off into some Modernistic artificial vs. Nature “Isn’t architecture fabulous!” mindset. Let’s not forget that this building is not trying to be beautiful. It’s just doing it’s job helping humans survive an environment where they probably shouldn’t be, but where they’ll go anyway.

Yes, it is energy-efficient. It ought to be. It’s had everything thrown at it in order to make it so. It won Regional Holcim Bronze in 2008. The only thing we need to think about is “Was this building necessary?” Well, there was an older and inadequate and probably less energy-efficient hut it did replace.

But let’s keep it real. The client for the building is the Swiss Alpine Society which has 120,000 members and which might explain both the enthusiasm for the project, the enthusiasm for doing it right, and also its considerable budget of 5.7 million Swiss francs (= approx. US$6 mil.)

That’s $50 per member – once. The building coaxes those Swiss people out of the house on the weekend to get a bit of fresh air and exercise and enjoy some scenery. I think that’s money well spent. The building’s not hurting anyone, hardly touching the planet, and I don’t think the mountain cares.


Thanks to all for these wonderful images of a wonderful project.

Antarctic Architecture

Earlier, I’d thought I’d continue my Miscellaneous Meditations Upon the Reading of The Autopoeisis of Architecture but instead …

* * *

A lot of the information in this post about Antarctic Architecture comes from the Cool Antarctica website. It has a brief history of Antarctic research station buildings. The first ones, around 1900, were much like ordinary buildings. This one, Douglas Mawson Main Base (Aust.) was built in 1912. The timber and all other materials were taken there along with the builders to build them. Sure, there’s rock in Antarctica but it’s not worth going there just to get regional materials points. Prefabrication makes more sense. Besides, building can only be done during summer and even then it’s not that balmy. Summer lasts from November to February and once it’s over you have no visitors until November again. Aircraft can’t fly there because of wind and boats can’t sail there because the sea is frozen.

This next image is Halley I (UK) a couple of years after it was built in 1957. The Halley Bases are built on a moving ice shelf where snow accumulates at about 1.2m to 1.5m per year. After about 10 years, the weight of snow crushes the buildings. When Halley I was abandoned, it was 14m under and the internal temperature was -18°C. Time to move.

During the winter, somebody found the time to make this wonderful drawing.

Halley II was built in 1967. It had extra reinforcing to help support the snow but was abandoned after seven years.

Halley III was designed to be buried by ice and withstand the pressure for longer. It was basically steel tubes with buildings inside them and not in direct contact with the ice. Here’s it being built.

Halley III lasted for 12 years but eventually had to be abandoned in 1983 because it was too deep under the ice to access safely. Like Halleys I and II before it, Halley III was carried along with the moving ice to the edge of the ice shelf and dumped in the ocean.

In 1985, just two years after Halley IV was completed, it was obvious that building on the ground was not a good idea. Wind patterns over and around the building created snow-buildup that blocked doors and windows and created uneven stresses in the structure, allowing heat to escape. Not good.

These weren’t the only problems. Melting water creates waterproofing problems in Antarctica, as it does everywhere else. Moreover, over the years, better insulation meant that poor ventilation and condensation became a problem and burning fuel to keep warm created the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. These are also general problems of indoor environment quality most anywhere. There are also problems with the visual environment. Okay, for 10 months of the year nobody’s looking but honestly! Here’s two images of Australia’s Davis Station (begun 1957).

Now, in Antarctica, if you’re trying to make your way home and it’s getting dark or starting to snow, you really don’t want your research station to “blend into” the environment so much that you can’t see it. Red, or yellow, or green or blue are all good colours for a research station to be. But why have all of them? A little piece of a foreign land that is forever Ken Done?

Here’s Scott Base (NZ, approx. 1957) all painted an “eye-catching” shade of Chelsea Cucumber green. Honest.

Here’s Halley V (UK, 1992), built in what was to become standard practice – place the building on steel supports that can be raised to keep the building above the snow. This also has the advantage of making it possible to have windows AND to see out of them. Those windows must be small however since they’re a major source of heat loss when the temperature difference is around -70°C.

It’s not really possible to weld steel when the temperature’s less than -10° and so a special clamp was developed so the steel frame could be fixed by people wearing very thick gloves. A similar problem exists in space. Somebody – I don’t remember who– once said about spacesuit design “If a person can’t use their hands in space, it’s pointless sending them there”.  Anyway, here’s an image of that steel clamping system.

The fixings are cast from blackheart malleable iron that can tolerate temperatures down to -50°C. Good work lindapter! (See here for other mechanical properties of blackheart malleable cast iron.)

Halley V was on steel supports but additional buildings around the main building were built on skis so they could be moved around each year and not get buried. These two techniques enabled Halley V to function for longer than any of the previous bases, and so were incorporated into Halley VI of which there are some good pics here.

Halley VI has had enough coverage in the architectural press (Faber Maunsell and Hugh Broughton Architects, 2005), but here’s what British Antarctic Survey likes about it.

The design of Halley VI combines the benefits of the jackable and ski-based buildings in use at Halley V. The station is to be made up of eight individual modules, which are connected together by short, flexible corridors. The modules are kept above the snow surface using hydraulic legs mounted on skis. As well as keeping the buildings above the rising snow level the new design will allow the station to be periodically relocated across distances of many kilometres. If the station must be moved the individual modules* are designed to be separated, towed across the ice shelf by bulldozer, then reconnected again at the new site. This makes it possible for the station to remain a safe distance from the edge of the ice shelf.

* A modular configuration is also wise in case of fire (as everyone’s not left without a place to sleep).

Many of Halley VI’s improvements have to do with a smaller environmental footprint.

  • bio-reactors for sewage treatment
  • computer-controlled hydraulic jacks to minimise jack-up time and manpower
  • a melt tank into which is bulldozed snow that melts to provide fresh water
  • vacuum toilets
  • water-saving taps and showers
  • solar-thermal and PV panels to supplement the summer power demand (because of more people) and reduce the reliance upon diesel generators

If all this seems rather excessive for such a small facility, it’s worthwhile remembering that buildings in the Antarctic have probably the largest construction carbon footprint of any buildings in the world. Everything has to be flown or shipped there and anything that can’t fit into an LC-130 (Hercules) aircraft can’t be flown there. The new South Pole Station (US) took 9,070 tonnes of materials that were flown to Antartica from New Zealand, after having been shipped from the US. Moreover, these bases run on diesel fuel. A Hercules aircraft uses two gallons of fuel for every gallon it delivers.

Finally, we have here the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica (Belgium, 2004). It’s not built on an ice shelf like Halley, so it doesn’t have to be moved. Also, it’s built on rock and raised above the brow of the hill (a “nuntak”) so the wind will prevent snow from accumulating. It doesn’t have to be jacked up. It is the first zero-emission Antarctic base running entirely on solar and wind energy.

Here’s a link to the website of Princess Elisabeth Antarctica. It shows how the building incorporates passive design by letting the sun come in. Windows are triple glazed with a 40cm gap between layers.

Most of the heating is passive, generated by waste heat from electrical systems, computers, lighting and people. Heat loss is minimised by nine different layers of insulation,

any by having a high-performance heat exchange system, that introduces fresh air, expels stale air, and also moves the recovered heat around the building.

The station uses a mixture of solar and wind power. Wind is big in Antartica – with constant speeds of 125km/h and gusts of 300km/h. There are nine heavy-duty turbines. 

It has 379.5m2 of PV panels generating 50.6kWh.

It has 24m2 of solar thermal panels.

Lead-acid batteries are used to store electricity but these will be replaced by fuel cells.

The available energy and the energy demand are managed and energy is distributed according to a strict set of rules.

All of the elements in the electrical system are managed together to realise a system that is three times as efficient as any network elsewhere.

All water comes from melting snow and there is no lack of that. The station features an advanced water treatment system that treats 100% of grey and black water. 60% of all water is reused. That which can’t be reused is treated in accordance with The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty before being disposed of down a crevasse. The water treatment system includes two bioreactors – one aerobic and one anaerobic, treatment by active carbon, as well as UV treatment and pH correction. The bioreactors and filtration units are similar to those developed for space travel.

To summarise, it does The Shelter Thing well.

Here, there’s a video showing the building of Princess Elisabeth Antarctica (26 mins 2 sec., in Dutch) but here’s a video of the opening.


A final thanks, to everyone really, but especially the people responsible for Princess Elisabeth Antarctica. Making it possible for 20 people to live and work in Antartica is not  much different from having 6 people live and work on the International Space Station. The techniques and technologies used for the extreme environment and resource limitations of space are being applied in the extreme environment of Antarctica that is also one of the last places on Earth we haven’t made a total mess of.


New Architecture Found in Space!

Following on from the previous post, there’s probably not much chance of oil rigs ever being considered an expression of a new type of architectural beauty. Nevertheless, the idea is still out there, waiting for the right example to express it as the way for the future. The extremely scientific building known as the Large Hadron Collider has had a bit of press but didn’t really capture our imaginations until we all thought the universe would implode. Or unravel or … something. Architecturally as well, it’s a bit of a non-event, no doubt because it’s underground.

Since last week when the last piece was “put in place”, the International Space Station is being touted as the first architecture in space. Space Architecture is THE NEXT BIG THING! Most of this press has been generated by the ISS’s California-based architect David Nixon. Since nothing much has been going on down on Earth recently, most of this press has found its way into the architectural blogosphere over the past few days.

I’m all for the International Space Station being called Architecture but only if it’s for the right reasons. Expensive buildings are already over-represented in the history of Architecture regardless of whether their costs resulted from scale, labour, materials, process or technology. All the same, we know that simply throwing money at a building doesn’t guarantee the result will be Architecture. The only buildings worth writing about are those that make us question our assumptions about what Architecture can be.

According to the usual clichés of 20th century architectural worth, the ISS doesn’t appear to be “growing out of the ground”. We must therefore either dismiss it immediately or otherwise try to conceive of an architectural worth that doesn’t depend upon articulating the possession of property. We must either discard the term “site-specific” as a term of praise, or include dimensions other than the physically picturesque in our definition of “site”.

Visually, the ISS has the object-“landscape” opposition much favoured by Modernists even though it is not “a collection of abstract planes floating in space”. It is not trying to be witty or self-referential. It’s shape does not obliquely allude to some nearby landscape feature, a rocketship or anything. It has no enigmatic signifiers. It is not expressively vernacular, local or community-focussed unless we seriously expand out thinking of what those words mean. It does not “respond” to its environment in any conventional sense.

Indoors, the linear planning creates spaces that don’t “flow into each other”. There is no “sense of space”. No effort has been made to “bring the outside inside”. The International Space Station challenges all these usual preoccupations of architects. Some might say its one big window “takes advantage” of the view. But rather than “blurring the boundary between inside and outside” as if that were a good thing, this window only makes it more clear that Nature is merely what’s on the other side of the wall. In this case, that Nature is constantly and forcefully trying to get inside and kill the inhabitants. Nevertheless, I like to imagine this building has a few plants inside it even if they only do useful things like purify the air and provide nutrients – a bit like on Earth, really.

The bottom line is that the only function of this building is to sustain human life in the midst of a particularly extreme environment. Despite its cost, it’s probably doing this as inexpensively as it can and with as little resources as possible with current technologies. Renewable energy features largely – going for solar was a good call! And recycling really does seem to make a difference to the quality of life of its inhabitants! I’m sure they appreciate the radiation shielding and insulation qualities of their wall/ceiling/floor elements and that, crucially, they see in them a beauty of performance that’s far more important than the artfulness of their arrangement.

I’m not normally in favour of expensive one-off buildings being called Architecture – especially when the techniques and technologies they employ aren’t downwardly transferable to other types of buildings. However, the thinking behind the ISS is downwardly transferable and should be. Immediately. Sooner or later, all of our environments are going to become more extreme and we too will gladly forsake useless beauties.