Tag Archives: New typologies for new circumstances

The Stacked Courtyard

At the end of the last post and with reference to Tadao Ando’s 1973 Sumiyoshi/Azuma House, I wondered when does a courtyard become a lightwell? Or the other way around? It might be a poor question because all courtyards provide light and ventilation but we look at the Ando house and see a courtyard not a light well. Perhaps a better question would be “What makes a courtyard a Confucian courtyard?” If the courtyard is a space bordered by both sky and ground, and understood in the abstract as a space between Earth and Heaven, then another way of asking the same question is to ask how the reality of the space and the understanding of the space are connected? More to the point, how much and in what ways can the courtyard be changed yet still retain its meaning in the Confucian sense?

For example, the idea of the Confucian courtyard could be behind the 1975 Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate (勵德邨) by the Hong Kong Housing Authority. Their voids definitely connect ground and sky and provide a degree of light and ventilation. However, there’s no awareness of anything happening on the ground and, for that matter, not much awareness of the sky either. All that remains is the vertical link between the two, as well as the idea of it. These voids can still function as courtyards in that people can see other people on the other side but, unlike courtyards, any interaction beyond the audio-visual will need to occur in the circular corridor around the void. Only the lowest level is amenity space. With a Confucian courtyard, the awareness of the vertical link often takes place while traversing the courtyard. Amenity is secondary but if people are going to be passing through a courtyard then interaction is inevitable. Confucius would not have had much to say about voids in high-rise buildings.

The Hong Kong Housing Authority has a history of developing and testing housing prototypes but the Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate was a one-off. The return in terms of amenity value and or symbolic value must have been insufficient for the footprint of the void. However, for many years prior, the Hong Kong Housing Authority had developed variants of a tower typology sometimes known as the snowflake layout where a light-well runs through the elevator lobbies of 40-storey towers. This void has zero amenity value but an awareness of even a dim glow of daylight above would be sufficient for it to have symbolic value. The dimensions of this rectangular core are fixed by the need to access eight apartments from it and so it’s possible that the light-well is just space left over. If so, then using this surplus space as a symbolic link between sky and ground was more important than the amenity of more floor area in the elevator lobbies. Perhaps the donut-shaped lobby never went any further because the diameter of the lobby (and thus the footprint) became too large if there were more than eight dwellings per level. Eight is a lucky number in China but eight apartments could provide an ideal ratio of lobby area to building footprint.

In terms of sunlight and ventilation, the ideal width of a Chinese courtyard is three times the height of the buildings around it. I don’t know how I know this but I suspect it’s just one of those things that’s always been known. It’s the diameter to height proportion of a tulou – a Hakka courtyard house.

The author of Confucius’ Courtyard, Ruan XING, offered tulou as another example of an historic Chinese courtyard. It’s widely believed these were defensible communal houses but, as Xing points out, it doesn’t make sense in terms of defense to have your food storage buildings outside the compound. It could just be that the Hakka people lived in these communal dwellings because they wanted the proximity of the ground and sky and their entire clan as well. Regardless of the reason [and hats off to the Hakka people for inventing the social condenser in the 12th century], we recognize this space as a courtyard but, from the residential portions it’s a void that’s looked over. At ground level there’s not much space left over once communal buildings such as kitchens, bathrooms, ancestral hall and reception rooms are built. The relationship that these communal buildings have with the ground and sky is the same as for any other building. It’s only in the smaller courtyards within the enclosing courtyard that ground and sky can be experienced at the same time.


Professor Xing also mentions Ju’er Hutong Phase I, designed by Liangyong WU of Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Phase I was completed in 1990 and Phase II in 1994. At the time, the project was highly praised as it was widely believed that low-rise buildings around courtyards would be the future of high-density housing in Beijing, if not in all China. More than one paper was written. It didn’t turn out that way for various reasons but the main one is that these buildings still required too much land for the density they provided.

Phase I, shown below had four courtyards for 46 units so each courtyard is bordered by twelve apartments more or less. The smaller courtyards have one apartment on each re-entrant corner per floor but visual access to the larger courtyards is unequal as some units front both large courtyards and, judging from this plan, others front neither. Post-occupancy studies have been done, residents interviewed.

  • Some residents thought the size of even the larger courtyards was too small.
  • Rooms with windows onto the courtyard are well ventilated but other rooms less so.
  • Not much communal activity actually happens in the courtyards. Some people said this was because they were not that bright while others said it was because they were too small.
  • Residents and foreign residents in particular said they were more likely to meet other residents on the stairs.

The courtyards at Ju’er Hutong are well traversed and provide that Confucian link between Earth and Heaven but, apart from light, ventilation and access to the stairwells, they offer little in the way of amenity. People weren’t using them in the ways that Chinese people used courtyards in the past and we shouldn’t be too surprised at this. For example, it was once the case that wedding receptions were held in courtyards. Children probably played games or with uncomplicated toys … However, these courtyards fulfill the Confucian requirements no more or less successfully than the tulou communal dwellings where the space open to the ground and sky is sometimes traversed but mostly looked at from windows on the periphery. It seems sufficient and any actual amenity as a courtyard is welcome, but secondary.

The length:height ratio of the Azuma House courtyard is about 1:1 and its width:height ratio about 0.6:1. The courtyard obviously allows sufficient daylight, facilitates airflow to some extent and has the ground surface as amenity space. This courtyard is fit for purpose on these counts but can a bridged courtyard such as this still be understood as a vertical link between Earth and Heaven because when on the ground, one third of the sky is obscured and, the courtyard is more open on the upper level but one isn’t on the ground anymore? From the lower level, the bridge doesn’t seem to matter and, from tulou to donut void to modern hutong, a view of a void from its periphery seems ok.

Putting this all together could lead to high-rise high density solutions such as P&T Architects 1989 Clague Garden Estate (祈德尊新邨) with its paired towers linked by bridges at elevator lobbies every third floor.

Every 36 apartments share a communal volume internally overlooked by all stairs as well as some kitchens and bedrooms. This void could be overlooked by more windows if the access corridors were partially detached from the buildings as is now happening in contemporary Chinese high-rise residential towers.

The tie-beams with the circular holes are decorative but also manage to imply the moon gates of Chinese courtyards. I don’t think this is accidental. This virtual volume is the stacked courtyard.

As far as I know, no more estates with this configuration were built. Perhaps like the 1975 Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate (勵德邨) with its donut arrangement, or the courtyards of the 1990 Ju’er Hutong Phase I, land was simply too expensive to waste on a void. It’s all the same problem. I revisited my Circle House proposal for a high-rise residential tower [c.f. Defensible Space], along with some variations on this theme of a triple height elevator lobby overlooked by mainly kitchen windows.

  • The triple-height elevator lobby is taken from P&T’s Clague Garden Estate project.
  • Each elevator lobby is overlooked by 24 units, eight per floor. This is twice the number of units around the courtyards at Ju’er Hutong Phase I, but only two thirds the number accessed by each elevator lobby in Clague Garden Estate. Circle House has all kitchen windows of all units looking into the elevator lobby.
  • As with the light-well in the Hong Kong “snowflake” tower typical floor, all slab area not needed for access and circulation is removed to create voids the full height of the building.
  • The bi-directional symmetry of my proposal most likely comes from these same towers, along with the eight units per level.
  • As with the Clague Garden Estate elevator lobby and bridges (as well as the residential portion of a tulou), people pass by vertical voids open to the sky but there is no place where there is sky above one’s head.
  • As was discovered at Ju’er Hutong Phase I and, not unlike the elevator lobbies of the snowflake towers, the courtyard has become primarily a means of access. Even so, it is a shared space and a space with the potential for interaction between residents. Even when there are no people in these courtyards and lobbies, they are still spaces that can be observed (from all access stairwells and at least 24 windows).
  • As with Ju’er Hutong Phase I, each staircase is used to access two units per landing over three floors although, with my high-rise, each external stair runs the full height of the building. People on the upper of the three levels can walk down a level from the elevator lobby above. The internal staircases enable units of different sizes to be configured but this added functionality has nothing to do with the theme of this post.

From all this I conclude that the essential functions of a courtyard are and have always been illumination, ventilation and access and that enabling them in a residential tower is not counter to the Confucian notion of a courtyard encapsulating [as opposed to representing] a link between Heaven and Earth. Even if one doesn’t see the courtyard as a vertical link between Heaven and Earth, one is still left with a space that is naturally illuminated and ventilated and that, even when no one is in it, can still be visually shared and possessed by all.

• • •

Game On!

In my last post I made some observations on the project plan below but I had to ask myself what I would have done with the same building and a similar brief. From what I understand from the Architectural Record article, the brief was to get as many units onto the site as inexpensively as possible. The architects used the word cowboys to describe their property developer clients and the project is what it is, so whatever alternative I may come up with will be nothing more than an exploration of parameters of my choosing.

Nevertheless, I’ll try to get windows on both sides to as many apartments as I can, and I’ll try to get them as equal in floor area as I can. I’ll try not to have apartments whose only view is a light-well. I don’t mind apartments being entered via the kitchen but I’ll try to avoid generic solutions. How do people eat these days? Is the kitchen counter now an acceptable substitute for a table and chairs? In seven out of seventeen apartments it will have to be. I’ll give each apartment space for a table and chairs as well as a sofa.

For my North American readers, should I continue calling these dwellings apartments or should I call them something tenure-neutral like flats or units? Because from what I understand, in North America, calling something an apartment means it’s rented while calling it a condominium means it’s owned. I’ve always thought type and tenure were different so whenever I use the word apartment I’m really only talking about a building with multiple occupation and not about tenure. I’m only concerned with the environment that’s built and not how it’s owned, although I know they’re not independent. In Japan, a condominium is called a “manshion” while an apartment (“apaato”) refers to a timber building where dwellings have a wc but no bath. These are typically occupied by students.

This is my first attempt at downscaling my Sky Rectangle proposal to single apartments on one level. For the time being, I’m persisting with the staggered levels for two reasons. The first is that if the dwellings were structurally integrated and prefabricated, then they could simply be stacked a lá Habitat ‘67. It’d actually be better in that the roof of the apartments would create the walkway one level up and it wouldn’t be necessary to contrive a dedicated structure for access. (To be honest, this is a wish, and I don’t see it surviving for long.)

The second reason is that a rotationally symmetrical plan means the bathroom and kitchen soil pipes align, meaning only one per light-well. I’m relaxed about it passing in front of the kitchen window.

One hundred years ago Le Corbusier allowed a soil pipe to pass through the entrance lobby of Villa Savoye. Nobody seems to have noticed it hiding in plain sight. Eyes that cannot see.

In these next three views, I’ve set the angle of vision at 75° so there’s more information but, in reality, the main room won’t seem as spacious. The window-street and window-window relationships are all good.

The rotationally symmetrical plan forced a layout logic in which the front and back of the apartments were the same but it also created a square living room in the middle,

Smallish square rooms aren’t optimal for the two activities of eating at a table and sitting on sofas doing some group activity. [If families no longer eat together around tables or sit on sofas and engage in some kind of group activity, then we have to rethink what we want from our dwellings. Otherwise, we’re really only dealing in representations of ways of living.]

The square room is the legacy of this project’s beginning with the 8.5 m x 8.5 m grid of a shopping mall car park and so the width of the living room and that of the walkways are both equal at 5.5 metres – a width that’s excessive for walkways and not the best for a 5.5 m long living/dining room either. Dimensions more like the Golden Mean or a length twice its width would be an improvement. But how wide? I don’t know, so I’ll make it 6m x 4m which ought to be more useable despite being one square metre smaller. Both bedroom and kitchen seemed cramped so I added an extra metre at each end. This is the improved version.

  • Internal area increased by about 2 square metres but the voids are now 6 x 2.7 metres instead of 5 x 2, an increase of 62%.
  • Most of the area increase went towards making the bedroom and kitchen more useable, but there is now additional storage in the entrance.
  • The kitchen can be enclosed to accommodate the Asian preference.
  • Alternatively, kitchen and entrance can be curtained off, if desired.
  • Both the bathroom and kitchen exhaust to outside.

This is what happened next.

It didn’t work. Access was using too much of the limited area even without the staggered floors. The smaller end units I’d designed to “square-off” the building had about the same area as the target units so this was my next test.

The apartment sizes were okay (and there were eighteen!) but this would mean demolishing or gutting the the building and rebuilding. I couldn’t not take into account positions of light wells, the party wall and the elevators and fire stairs in the former building on the right. (The building on the left was only three storeys and never had an elevator.) This is what happened next.

  • The basic idea was to shrink the smaller module I’d arrived at and to use the voids for access as they are underused for both illumination and ventilation. (The window openings into the left void appear to have been blocked off. Relocating access to inside the light wells means there is more sellable area left outside the light wells – a net space gain.
  • Having habitable rooms open onto light wells isn’t ideal but there’s nothing bad wrong with using them to ensure a minimum amount of illumination and ventilation to kitchens, bathrooms, access corridors and rooms (including bedrooms) that would otherwise be artificially illuminated and ventilated.
  • Hopefully the main light wells have driveways beneath them somewhere on the ground level to ensure airflow. Hopefully it won’t be where I’ve relocated the fire stair.
  • I shifted the exterior fire escape to the end of the left light well. Its existing position compromises the width of 18 apartments. As is now, all apartments have a width of 4.2 meters more or less. Lengths vary, but only for the length for the living area and bedroom. Twelve out of 18 apartments have the same layout with only differences in length.
  • The living/bedroom area is unpartitioned but an inner bedroom could still be ventilated by what is shown as a light well outside the kitchen and bathroom. These are also a legacy of the project’s beginnings but, since the ground floor is commercial space, they’re probably not going to happen. I suspect that floors are timber because, with the current arrangement there must be risers all across all typical floors. At what level these collect I don’t know. Probably the best I can do is to have bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and entrance opening onto an outside space fronting the two existing voids and take soil pipes down there. [This is what I did settle for, as shown below.] The bedroom window uses the closet space as a buffer between private and semi-private space.
  • I notice, a bit belatedly, that the party walls in the as-built building, align with those free-standing columns. Whether this alignment was enforced or simply expedient I have no way of telling and nobody is telling. Fingers crossed.
  • The fire escape in the building on the left looks original because the apartments in the frontage remaining. each have two windows. They won’t in my redistribution. This becomes a question of facade retention vs. profit. In the building on the right both top and bottom, I have six apartments where the structural bays suggest four (as was built). If my proposal were to be built, some of these windows would have to be divided or blocked which would be a shame since the importance of illumination is a priority everywhere else.

I was surprised the total area for access in my proposal is exactly the same at 154±0.5 m2. However, mine is naturally illuminated and ventilated, easy to navigate and also lets you know you’re not alone in the building. Access area diverted to light-wells represents a net increase in sellable area but I used some of it to enlarge and illuminate the elevator lobby.

  • I know nothing of the pre-existing structure and construction. I haven’t followed the grid implied by the columns, whatever they’re made of, but I was lucky they didn’t intrude into the apartments. I maintained the minimum 1.2m shared corridor width (that produces that lone column below the elevators).
  • Because of this, I wasn’t so lucky with the window spacing.
  • As for fire escape, apartments 17 and 18 might be too far from the fire escape stairs. If so, adding another door to the stairwell is better than adding a third stairwell in the light well. Shifting access to the light-wells unified access and better utilized the light-wells for what they’re there to do.

• • • 

  • It didn’t work out how I imagined it would. It’s not possible to know all the conditions and constraints the architects had to work with. I made assumptions about the construction but I also saw things in the as-built plan that contradicted them. Budget is another constraint but only the client and the architects know what the budget allowed and what it did not. There’s also the unknown of market expectations. I think the entry “courtyard” is a worthwhile idea but it only works if there’s a light-well or some other external access. Apartments 11, 12, 13 and 14 didn’t have this so I designed them as active band apartments with the outside is the necessary void. The architects have designed generic apartments so I suspect there is no appetite in Winnipeg for active band apartments.
  • Only apartments 15 and 16 have separate bedrooms that make use of that difficult space between the core and the light-well. This is made possible by using the light well to access apartments 17 and 18.
    • In all, I’m pleased but not smug. Any of several known unknowns and an unknown number of unknown unknowns could instantly invalidate this proposal but it was a useful exercise all the same.

• • • 

About Face!

The Active Band was the name of concept that gave kitchens and bathrooms priority on the periphery of residential buildings. French architect Yves Lion proposed it in 1987. Riken Yamamoto’s 2002 Ban Building in Niigata, Japan is a good built example. The photograph below shows Room 3.

The thinking went that living rooms and bedrooms may be the rooms used for the longest periods of time but bedrooms are used mostly in darkness while, in living rooms, people tend to focus on some specific form of relaxation or task that, if it involves a screen, may as well take place in a windowless or curtained room. What we do in bathrooms hasn’t changed much but living rooms are no longer about inviting people over for afternoon tea in the “front room” and kitchens are no longer about one person spending hours at a time preparing dinner. Even though the amount of time people spend in bathrooms and kitchens each instance might not be long, these spaces are used a greater number of times in the course of a waking day. i.e they are more active. [When I wrote that sentence, I’d been awake for about thirty minutes. It was still dark and I’d already been into the bathroom three times and the kitchen four. The kitchen light remained on but I turned the bathroom light on and off each time.] From the outside and especially at night, the switching of lights on and off as occupants move around a building makes its facade more “active”. The “band” part of active band comes from the active zone being on all four sides of a residential tower.

We don’t talk about active bands in office towers although, if ever you’ve watched one at night, you can see who’s working late and also see lights being turned on and off as cleaners move around the building.

I’m reluctant to criticize Riken Yamamoto’s Ban building but, while its kitchens and bathrooms are relatively “open” to the street, the entire apartment is as closed to the corridor as, say, those in Lake Point Tower. The access corridor is regarded as a utility – a horizontal shaft for shifting people. Another quibble with active band buildings is that their inner life only shows as arbitrary flickerings across their facades – it is a representation of activity and the people inside remain anonymous to those outside, especially if the building is tall and in a built-up situation. On the inside, a view and the accompanying daylight and ventilation are as welcome as ever in kitchens and bathrooms but once again there’s no connection with the street and any people in it. It’s easy to see why persons in high-rise residential towers feel removed.

I remember being surprised when Kiyonori Kikutake placed the kitchens and bathrooms closest to the open access walkways in his 1974 Pasadena Heights project. I also remember somebody writing at the time – probably in Japan Architect magazine – that Kikutake might have made this decision because kitchens and bathrooms can have a slightly lower ceiling and so allow for the increased thickness of the walkway above them. Nobody was accusing Kikutake of being disingenuous, but the view through that frameless corner window and across the walkway to the view beyond belongs to the entire living room. It is a very well placed kitchen window.

These are the only two buildings I could think of with kitchens and bathrooms on the outer wall, but only the Kikutake one has kitchens and bathrooms on the access side. I searched Floor Plan Manual Housing for other examples of apartment kitchens facing outwards and towards the access. I didn’t find any more but I did find several interesting projects, most of which were either in Amsterdam or Zürich.

ISBN: 978-3-0346-1040-7

The first was the 1993 Bungestrasse by Alder [p82-83]. It’s not a tall building but the plan is divided into daytime areas on the south side and night-time areas on the north along with one room that could be either or both. The bathroom has a south-facing window and also balcony, possibly for laundry drying. It’s an active frontage but has nothing to do with access.

The 1995 Sihlhölzlistrasse by Spühler has its entry via an outdoor area the living room opens onto. It’s a walled garden rather than defensible space. Arrangements like this are only possible for two apartments per core unless there is a donut-or H-shaped corridor around the elevators and access stairs.

The 1995 Friedrichswtraße by OMA has apartment layouts that can’t be made any more efficient. Kitchen and bathroom windows open onto the open access corridor that is a means of access and nothing else. It’s also very much the rear of the building, and its windows are openings in a hard boundary between inside and outside. The type is generally known as balcony access or deck access. It’s not an arrangement that gets photographed.

Alder made the same decisions with their 1992 Vogelbach project.

Since we’re doing history, here’s Hannes Meyer’s 1929-30 Dessau-Törten Housing Estate.

The 2007 Rondo [Zurich, 2007] by Graber Pulver was much publicized for its Instagrammable atrium. While it isn’t overlooked by any windows, the open kitchens around which the apartments have been planned, are adjacent to the entrance hallway and large panels of frosted glass. Persons in these kitchens appear as shadowy blurs to persons passing by and probably vice-versa. This was a conscious decision of the architects. One photograph showed a backlit figure through the glass but you might have to go back to original sources to find it.

Less shy are the 2001 KNSM- and Java-Eiland buildings in Amsterdam by Diener & Diener. There are three access and entrance situations. With the apartment at 3 o’clock in the image on the right below, the bathroom and kitchen windows front the open corridor but the arrangement of kitchen counters suggests the kitchen window is full-height, as it also does with the middle apartment. All apartments have entrances opening into hallways off of which open bathrooms.

Two more. If the example above was less shy, then the Bülachlof [Zurich, 2004] by Langenegger is exhibitionist by comparison. Daytime living areas have full-height glazing to the access walkway while, deeper inside, small lobbies link bedrooms and bathrooms. For some reason I’m not comfortable with, knowing that it’s student housing makes it seem less shocking.

Lastly, there is 8 Octavia [San Francisco, 2014] by Stanley Saitowitz Natoma. This layout splits people in the building into two groups. The first group is persons prowling the corridors onto which only doors open, and the second group is persons who can share light-wells from safely inside their apartments. The individual units are modular and bedroom windows of different apartments face each other both horizontally and diagonally up and down across a 4-5 meter wide void. These bedroom window relationships aren’t great but at least windows are separated by voids. The reason for all this is to have two habitable rooms with the exterior frontage of one, four for two, or six for three. I feel better about the bedroom window relationships in my Sky Rectangle proposal of a few weeks back.

I’m coming around to the idea of the kitchen being the primary space from which the street or lobby is observed – or surveilled, depending on your mindset. From a living room, even a picturesque view becomes part of the scenery until appreciated vicariously via visitors and guests seeing it for the first time. High-rise residential buildings are conventionally configured with habitable rooms on the periphery where they can have most daylight and natural ventilation (and security) because of the multi-storey airspace outside their windows and if there’s also some desirable view across this multi-storey airspace then so much the better. Maximizing the amount of this high-value habitable room space pushes non-habitable rooms to the inside which is also where the non-sellable space of the access core and corridor are.

In low-cost buildings this results in kitchen and bathroom windows opening onto an access corridor. In high-rise towers, the usual result is artificially illuminated and ventilated corridors having only front doors opening onto them. The atrium access projects of Graber Pulver and Diener & Diener both propose the kitchen as the space most suited to observing the access and being observed from it. Their only problem is that their atriums are in the centre and not distributed around the edges as light-wells (mini-atriums?) putting some space between windows and access.

There are many historic examples of shared light-wells bringing daylight and natural ventilation to kitchens and bathrooms, internal corridors and access lobbies. Here’s two, both by the same architect.

The Stanley Saitowitz Natoma project introduces the shared light-well as an architectural device for getting daylight and natural ventilation to habitable rooms in the here and now.

Here’s a project from a year earlier. It’s the Avenue Building [2013, Winnipeg] by 5468796 Architecture, and featured in Architectural Record (from where this plan comes). It’s a conversion of a former office building and, as in any conversion, compromises had to be made.

  1. Corridors are long, windowless, and also circuitous. Getting from the elevators to the apartment in the north-west corner involves seven changes of direction.
  2. The void on the left is bridged on every level to provide an alternative means of fire escape. These bridges are shown with solid walls that make the void into two separate voids (shown incorrectly).
  3. The more serious compromise comes from the building’s former use as offices. Old office buildings often had deep plans with light-wells because, even if they weren’t open plan, they could still have internal corridors with individual offices on both sides. It doesn’t really work like that with apartments. A typical upper floor in this conversion has 17 apartments but only 13 have the number “8” to show they are apartments. The four un-numbered ones are lit and ventilated solely via lightwells – although the one on the upper right looks like it has a “historic” – and probably illegal – window along the site boundary.
  4. The bridge extension to the fire escape is as far as it can practically be from the two apartments facing it. If the bridge had crossed the void in a single line, it would have reduced the size of the right side by about the third. If the budget had run to fireproof glass for the bridge walls, then the two un-numbered apartments on the west side might have been able to view some corridor activity (from their bathrooms).
  5. However, nothing can be done about the width of the void and so the bedroom windows of those two apartments face each other across voids approx. 4-5 meters wide for the left void and 6-7 metres wide for the one on the right.
  6. The two apartments in the south-west corner both have bedrooms without windows, even though the left-most one has the opportunity for a window to the light well. It’d be perverse to have a light well with no windows onto it so I’m guessing that those in the light-well on the left side of the party wall have been blocked up – $$). Because of the need to access that apartment, the bedroom of the one adjacent has no chance of a window. In the three apartments the opposite side of the light-well, the bedrooms aren’t even rooms.

The western world now has this century’s first view-less apartments and the boundary of what’s acceptable has been pushed and lowered. I was too slow to imagine multi-storey housing illuminated and ventilated by light-wells and windows though which people can see people going to and fro. By contrast, the building in the example above has windowless corridors, windowless rooms, rooms that aren’t even rooms, and windows where the only view is of neighbors’ windows maybe 24′ (7m) across a light-well. This typical upper floor is good example of everything I’m trying to propose an alternative to. I appreciate the skill that’s gone into making this layout the way it is. It’s actually a good, albeit ruthless, working through of the problem. The real evil is the framing of the problem that leads to solutions like this.

• • • 

Defensible Space

The term defensible space now has meaning in terms of wildfire defense but, in the 1970s when I first learned of it, defensible space was a kind of buffer zone between public space such as a footpath and the (front) door through which private space is accessed, and intended to defend you and your property against assault and/or burglary. I understood it as a front garden. The concept held that if some stranger was in your defensible space then you had the right to ask what they wanted and why they were there. But would a polite question be enough? How this defensible space would be defended was never made explicit and, I suspect it didn’t need to be. It was a concept for aggressive times and places and, not conducive to a sense of community, or of even of belonging to a greater society.

Nevertheless, in places such as 1960s–1980s New York, assuming all strangers were out to do you harm wasn’t such an outrageous thing to assume. Architecturally, it gave rise to secured buildings such as the 1963 Ford Foundation that created a secure and serene place to be instead of the hostile outside. A template for living on Mars.

Over the same period, it became more common to have gated communities where the sense of community was created by a defensive enclosing wall and entry via secured gates. Inside, there was no public and so no public space. Defensible space became a buffer between private space and communal space, ensuring privacy rather than security. Anyone walking a dog or jogging would be regarded as having what people called (and still call) “shared values”. Houses not in gated communities could erect high garden walls and install entry-phones and become gated communities of one. This notion of the outside world as a threat lives on in terminology about territoriality, defense, and surveillance.


By the 1980s, apartments around the world were configured as vertical gated communities with live-in building managers having secondary roles as concierges and security guards. If the office was unattended, occupants could use the lobby entry-phone to admit visitors, couriers and food deliveries. Strangers passing by one’s apartment wouldn’t be such a problem if residential floor corridors had only doors opening onto them but, for example, many upmarket apartment buildings in Japan’s large cities have deck access because apartments can be planned with daylight and natural ventilation to more rooms. Rooms with windows opening onto the access corridor are usually secondary (children’s) bedrooms and the windows would have frosted glass, deep reveals and security bars. They wouldn’t be open very often and, when they were, unable to be opened fully. This next layout is typical of the time.

This example has deck access on the north side, enabling south-light to the LDK room. Don’t forget that, in Japan, the tatami room on the south side can also have the bedding put away and the room used as an extension of the daytime living space.

Multi-story residential buildings with what I’ll call detached decks are now more common than they used to be. This next example is a 2015 multi-storey apartment building in Tokyo. The deck is detached from the building and, whether it’s defending privacy or against crime, the defensible space consists of two parts, the first being the voids that physically prevent people from approaching the windows and the second is the space between the voids. This second space could easily be gated to make it an atrophied front garden and more obviously defensible.

This next is a contemporary example of a Chinese apartment with a detached deck leading to one other apartment. The deck is overlooked by a kitchen, two bathrooms and a study room. The balcony is a service balcony for the hot water tank and two air conditioner compressors. The idea of a machine balcony within a void has potential but both examples are an improvement as the apartment no longer presents a blank wall to the access deck. Not only do more rooms get natural light and ventilation, but the rear of the apartments allow an awareness of the internal life of the building. You know when somebody is home.

Detached houses with a front garden, a garden fence and a garden gate always had defensible space and the only thing that changed was the perception of the threat and the degree of response to that threat. These days, we have more people living in multi-storey residential buildings with secure entrances to prevent hawkers, burglars and peepers but, once inside, there no measures to provide the sense of community that living along a street used to.

This term “sense of community” needs clarifying. I’m using it to define a sense of looking out for each other, of having a concern for the security and safety of others as well as oneself and, at the same time, of taking pleasure in other people living along the same street or corridor or in the same building as oneself. Privacy and affirmation that one’s not alone in the world aren’t and shouldn’t be thought of as mutually exclusive.

The Japanese and Chinese examples above both use detached decks to ensure privacy and security to secondary habitable rooms. However, the entrances are clearly at the back of the dwelling whereas defensible space was originally meant to be at the “front” of the house where all the main rooms were. People could be in their living rooms yet still watch for visitors and deliveries and also be aware of activity in the street.

Many of my own proposals to improve this situation by having deck access or semi- enclosed corridor access inadvertently maintained this status quo by usually placing kitchen windows so they looked at or over the access corridor/lobby across a void.

These voids functioned as defensible space in that they prevented people from approaching too close to the windows but they also enhanced airflow. Some proposals had kitchen windows overlooking access corridors and some had them overlooking three-storey high lobbies. Both types had the access overlooked across voids. This next example has an access lobby (serving three levels) being overlooked across a void by windows in the kitchen and entrance hall of each apartment. The view on the right below is the view from the window just inside the entry.

There were several variations. Some used rectangular apartments to stretch the circular typical floor into a sausage shape. My last proposal in this series had kitchen windows and narrow bathroom windows opening onto the void. The bathroom window would have frosted glass of course and once again it was the kitchen window that allowed views out. A view of an access lobby is not necessarily about surveillance. Just as with any other street, it could just be about watching people go about their lives as a way of passing the time. It could be about letting other people know you are home. No matter whether a person is within an apartment or in the access corridor, it could just be about wanting to be a visible part of the life of the building. I believe this is a prerequisite for a high-density residential architecture that’s not the socially dysfunctional types we’re used to.

This next proposal had kitchen windows looking across a void to overlook the access corridor at a half-level difference in height. This half-level height difference minimizes the opportunity for sudden direct eye contact but allows a mutual awareness of the presence of other people.

With this next proposal, the access corridor is separated from the living space by voids each side and overlooked at a half-level difference in height by kitchen windows on one side and a bedroom corridor on the other. The example above had a problem with bathroom windows but this example has the bathrooms above/below the access corridor.

Two proposals, one called Terraced Mat and another called Pasadena 2 were inclined mat buildings along the lines of Kunio Mayekawa’s Pasadena Heights. Both had lightwells shared vertically by different spaces of different apartments but there was no overlooking of access and so, like many a building with blank walls or only minor windows fronting the access, the buildings appeared uninviting to people arriving.

In a suburban situation, the entrance to the house was conventionally at the street facade of the house that had the living room and main bedroom windows. The was so the important rooms of the house faced the street but also because the view of the street was the default view if there was no other view.

The street is no longer the default view. In suburban Australia for example, residential blocks are often only half the width of what they used to be and the remaining width is sufficient for only a double garage, entrance door and one mandatory window that will most likely be for the master bedroom. The living areas now face whatever open space remains out the back. Nevertheless, the fact that the room with the mandatory street-facing window is the master bedroom suggests a residual respect for the view of a street. The houses haven’t turned their backs on the street totally.

It used to be the norm for suburban houses to face the street. It used to be the norm for single-0aspect5 apartments to face some external aspect and present a blank wall to the corridor – a configuration that detached houses are moving towards.

Rather than apartment corridors becoming more like the best kind of street, suburban streets are becoming more like the worst kind of apartment corridor.

The voids in my various proposals have all functioned as defensible space that, being voids, were already a physical barrier against trespassing. Voids puts three-dimensional space between observer and observed. From the inside, voids enhance the perception of security and privacy and provide a safe place from which to watch and maybe even interact with people on the other side. And from the outside and especially for those not yet inside, seeing or even having an awareness of other people (by seeing the lights on in even curtained rooms) is a sign of the shared inhabitation that’s the prerequisite for community. These are important functions but voids can also function as lightwells and ventilation shafts and also as easily accessible and ventilated service risers. My most recent proposal better integrates these many functionalities of these empty spaces that are actually doing quite a lot.

This only becomes possible by rejecting the single-aspect apartment configuration that denies the street and adopting the traditional suburban house orientation that valued views of the street and having a human presence on that street. I’m suggesting it’s time for the orientation of apartments to become more like what houses once were. The only view these dwellings have is of streets that only now, are worthy of being called streets in the sky, defensible space included.


  1. Resolve apartment layouts for different lengths, ideally retaining a high degree of modularity.
  2. Solve the contradiction of dual aspect apartments that don’t overlook each other’s private space while still sharing the vertical light-wells/defensible space. This may prove impossible to solve for dual-aspect apartments. I’m not sure what do do about that.
  3. Have only one vertical run of services per void instead of the current two. This may also be impossible to solve for dual aspect apartments along vertically adjacent streets horizontally staggered two bays. Ditto
  4. Solve all this within a 5.5m x 8m x 5.5m matrix, the 5.5m x 8m being equivalent to four car bays (if wanted) so that a workable width remains for the half-void bays. There may be some set of “magic” dimensions like the 8m x 8m grid that neatly solves many things while creating few problems.
  5. Design for construction using self-supporting prefabricated modules in the manner of shipping containers or Habitat ’67.

• • •

The Outback

Last week, the Australian outback briefly captured the internet’s imagination by the seeming impossibility of finding a 6mm x 8 mm dia. piece of highly radioactive material missing along a 1,400 km (870 mile) stretch of road. Even though caesium-137 basically screams “HERE I AM! I’M OVER HERE!” for 120 years or so, many people including myself were disappointed when the capsule was found suspiciously quickly by the mining company Rio Tinto responsible for losing the capsule in the first place. The outback didn’t seem so immense and profound after all.

In Australia, the word outback brings up many associations and many of these have to do with national myths of exploration and pioneering. The Outback is a place defined by not being another place – the place where all the people are. Here’s two population density maps of Australia. The units don’t matter.

There’s not many people out back and those who are, are there because their ancestors lived on that land for millennia, or they’re there to export minerals extracted from often that same land. [Search Rio TInto along with terms destruction, 46,000 years aboriginal cave] For parts of the outback where minerals have yet to be discovered, there’s still a lot of space and, if you have a surfeit, then you can use it to do things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

This next s a render of a concentrated single-tower solar thermal power plant proposed for Port Augusta in South Australia. Mirrors concentrate the sun’s rays on a tower that heats water to drive turbines … The principle is simple but power plants such as this require large areas of land not being used for much else. There are examples in Nevada, Chile, and


The same applies to solar chimneys. They’re also known as solar updraft towers. There’s no need to explain how they work but, like PV arrays and solar thermal towers, they work best in places with few cloudy days.

Economies and efficiencies of scale mean that solar updr`aft towers need to be about 1,000 metres tall but, unlike Burj Khalifa, they can’t (or don’t) twist or taper and the resulting wind load means that mass concrete construction is the best option. Or at least the cheapest option until someone invents a dampened diagrid or cross-braced steel tower that sways in the wind.

A structure as preposterously simple as an upright cylinder with a huge skirt can only be built where there’s land to spare. In 2002 there was a plan to build one near the Australian town of Mildura. It was to have had a planned height of one kilometer (.62 mile) and a diameter of 170 metres. The updraft would have a speed of 54 kilometres per hour that would produce an estimated 200 megawatts of electricity – sufficient to satisfy the yearly energy needs of 200,000 households. It doesn’t seem to have been built. The inhibiting factor is securing finance, not land. Since then, China has built a test one in Inner Mongolia. Let’s wait and see.


Remote deserts with clear skies also make good astronomical observatories because of the lack of light and radio pollution from nearby settlements. The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) is a radio telescope with dish antennas spread over an area of several thousand square kilometers. The AKSAP website says “The site is ideal for radio astronomy as it exhibits excellent sky coverage, superb radio quietness, ionospheric stability and benign tropospheric conditions. The extremely low levels of radio-frequency interference will allow highly sensitive instruments such as ASKAP to conduct ground-breaking astronomy research.” This radio-silent zone is remote but at only 315 km north-east from the town of Geraldton, not as remote as you’d think.

By Ant Schinckel, CSIRO. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12399550

• • • 

The idea of an outback immense and neglected but proudly empty could be seen in Australian suburbs well into the 1960s. Often, these backyards had their rear third or half fenced off and unused. In older houses, the outside toilet would be on the fenceline with grass on one side and weeds on the other. You don’t see these anymore but, country towns still have houses with large backyards waiting to be exploited for their space alone.

Times passes, property values increase. This is more pronounced in more densely populated places and a first response was to build larger houses that could be sold for more. This was suburban sprawl turned inwards on itself. Pedestrians walking along the footpath in upmarket areas can’t see people’s backyards but, going by the numbers of children’s trampolines in front gardens and basketball hoops on driveways, they’re not large.

Other parts of town have flagpole plots subdivided so the house and garden at the front remain intact while the rear portion is sold off as a separate plot accessed by a parallel driveway from the same street. What you get is a long driveway to a piece of land that may be conveniently located but has no outward view apart from down the driveway. In this next photo, the house with the white metal roof is a classic flagpole but the rear gardens of the adjacent plots have also been built on.

This next example in the Perth suburb of Leederville has access from both and rear because the alleyway that would have been first used for carting “night soil” and then for garage access, has been upgraded to a primary access road with streetlights and new house numbers rather than the 33A, 33B, etc. of flagpole plots.

Even alleyways off of those those former alleyways have been made into primary access roads newly fronted by houses on the rear portions of the original plots.

Here’s an example where the existing house retains a connection to the new house, suggesting either a semi-independent family member or, more likely, a short-term rental.

On the other side of the street is this unexploited rear garden, still with garage access from what was the alley and still with an external toilet, probably no longer used but still visible through the gap by the back gate.

This finally brings us to the backyard as the new frontyard, something that happens in the city rather than the suburbs rather than the country and certainly not the outback. We saw it happen with developments such as this next one where what happens behind the street level facade is what we see – at least from a distance.

It was in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture where Venturi made us marvel at some tower in Bruges – Cloth Hall, I think – having an urban scale from a distance but a more human scale closer up. In retrospect and sixty years on, you can say the same thing about the building above, or SOM’s Lever House – or pretty much any tall building anywhere.

In Contempt for History – the post before last – I noted how the unused space at the rear of buildings was taking over the space of the buildings at the front that, if they were lucky, might have their facades retained. What we’re seeing is the space out back becoming more valuable than the space out front and, unsurprisingly, it’s even more valuable when it’s as large as possible. This was painfully obvious with the former Glyde Chambers adjacent to The Royal Hotel along Wellington Street, and the former Commercial Buildings adjacent along William Street.

I say former because the new development occupies all their space except for that their street facades stand on. This can be shockingly clearly seen in the photograph on the right below. The photograph on the left shows us that, apart from some out buildings the other side of the service yard, The Royal Hotel wasn’t much more than a five-metre deep facade with a five-metre high mansard to begin with.

Nevertheless, The Royal Hotel was luckier than its adjacent buildings. What remains of it is more than skin deep, but only by about five metres. The appearance of preservation is maintained by the street facades and roofscape and by the continuing presence of a pub on the corner.

Whether the retained facades are shallow or deep, at least their door and window openings still function as door and window openings. This next example shows a new level of contempt for history.

The above example is in Perth’s port town of Fremantle but the first time I saw this planning approval strategy (!??) was about 2006/7 in London’s Spitalfields. It’s student accommodation which, in a time when farming foreign students was a big money earner, is not surprising. Lilian Knowles House it’s called. I don’t know who Lilian Knowles was but her name is associated with something extremely grubby.

This approach makes this next redevelopment (just across the road) look sensitive by comparison and, apart from the blue feature, is not horrible. At least the facade belongs to a building that’s still being used. Compared with the above, this is not faint praise.

There’s more than one way a suddenly valuable outback can coexist with what’s out front. Some of the ways I’ve described above are more successful than others. Those that attempt to redefine architectural value solely in terms of the visual value of decorative masonry are least successful. This probably has to do with the base motives for doing so being so transparent. Here’s two examples that show a better way.

This first is a development on the block opposite The Royal Hotel across William Street. It’s an outback development that doesn’t try to be part of the streetscape. True, part of that streetscape was demolished to make this entrance but, from the aerial photograph on the left below, all we can tell is that there were two buildings there and neither were very tall.

It was a tricky call, but the entrance to this development has a refreshing clarity. I only hope that the major and clear intervention we see doesn’t function to divert our attention from a dozen minor muddy ones. The compromise is obvious and clear, and was possible because there was sufficient space out back. The only problem was how to give it a presence and access it and the solution was to open up laneways from various directions. Project Name: One40 William Street; Architects: HASSELL

My second example is equally clear and also similar in there being sufficient space out back and the only problem being how to access it.

The entrance to the new hotel is still the entrance to the group of former state government buildings known as the Lands, Titles and Treasury buildings. They’ve been converted into a 5-star hotel called COMO – The Treasury while the space outback has become the new state government offices. The entire development is known as State Buildings.


Building a new and larger building on land still occupied by an old building can’t be done without altering the boundary between outback and outfront, or by making us believe that the facade of an old building is the only part worth keeping (and that we should be thankful!). Where there’s space outback, these last two strategies seem as good as it gets. If I were to make a recommendation, I’d recommend development potential be measured in terms of available space outback rather than attempting to do the impossible.

• • •

Professional Development

This post is a summary as well as thoughts on two articles I recently read. The first was “Immersive Research on Public Rental Housing in Baiziwan, Beijing – Learning from Ma Yansong” by Jiajing Zhang of Gaomu Architectural Design Consultancy from December 2021 and the second was “Ideality as Motivation: The Social Housing Practices of MAD and GOM”, by Zheng Hujin and also Jiajing Zhang, from June 2022.

In 2002, the Shanghai-based Gaomu Architectural Design office began to look into what they saw as the instinctively discomforting lack of diversity in housing design due to the growing dominance of capital in real estate. Anyone who’s been to China will know what they mean.

This reality on the ground is more regulatory than cultural, or even market-led. For example, the tower field to the right of this image was designed by UN Studio.

This lack of diversity takes the form of an overabundance of large and medium-sized apartments and an inefficient use of land, both of which make it difficult in large cities for young and low-income people to buy or even find a place to live because of their low status in the housing market.

The first thing I like about this story is that some architects identified a problem and began to think about how they could make it better.

In their Longnan Gardens project, Gaomu office proposed 1) very small units to counter the large and medium-sized units, 2) very high density to counter the inefficient use of land, and 3) residential diversification to counter the homogeneity of offering. The smallest units were the first to be rented.

The second thing I like about this story is that the architects implemented their ideas.

The image below shows the entire project. Building spacing and sun paths determine the heights of the relatively low buildings and internal sunlight and spacing determine the shape of each footprint. There’s a range of housing types.

The combined influence of sunlight requirements as well as spacing according to the basic rules below produce perimeter blocks with one side open and of varying height. You can understand those basic rules from this diagram. The only unfamiliar rule is how building spacing varies with both height and orientation.

If that thick grey arrow in the bottom left corner of the diagram above indicates South, then it means buildings can be spaced closer if their long sides face south. If that’s the case, then the alleged Chinese market preference for south-facing apartments is just something we like to believe. These next two developments are what usually results from following the same rules.

The next thing I like about this story is the same as the second. Some other architects identified the same problem and implemented their own ideas for how to make it better.

The story continues in 2021 when MAD architects in Beijing, led by Yansong Ma, published their BaiziWan Social Housing Project. [The images and photographs by ArchExist, CreatAR Images and Yumeng Zhu appear in all descriptions of this project.] With Baiziwan Social Housing, a Y-shaped stepped-tower typology is applied to a site divided into eight by three cross roads and one along its length. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Y-shaped, stepped buildings. MVRDV used them in 2018 with their Future Towers in Pune, India, and presumably for the same building height and apartment spacing advantages.