Tag Archives: other ways of understanding architecture

The Middle Ground

Architects used to have us believe that better architecture made for better lives. They were rightly ignored as it would make more sense for us all first to agree on what a better life is before thinking about the means to achieve it. Of course some degree of spatial and physiological requirements need to be met as a precondition for not-so-miserable life but architecture hasn’t been about that for some time now. What has endured is the idea that Architecture provides nourishment beyond the spatial and physiological and that this is some kind of aesthetic experience peculiar to architecture and, worse, accessible only to those who can appreciate it and, worse still, afford it.

I’ve always believed this in one form or another albeit with varying emphases and my own notions of what counts as architectural nourishment. Over the past decade or so, I’ve leaned towards spatial geometries that satisfy spatial and social needs and that, for me at least, are aesthetically satisfying because of that. If they’re more achievable for more people then so much the better. I’ve never questioned or been asked to question if architecture and its embedded belief system was the only way of achieving the good life. Until last week.

I’ve just finished reading this. The test of any hypothesis is the amount of information it organizes. This book organizes a few thousand years of Chinese history around the simple hypothesis that the Chinese primarily saw the courtyard as a vertical link between the land and the sky or, if you like, Heaven and Earth. Although courtyards provided ventilation, illumination and internal views, their main purpose was to link Heaven and Earth. The Chinese notion of heaven is synonymous with sky, and the two are also written with the same character (tian, 天). The Chinese had no need for a heaven populated with deities. The sky provides sunlight, darkness, warmth, rain and snow and, together with the ground, is all one needs to grow rice and structure one’s existence.

This strive for a balance between earthly phenomena (over which one had influence) and heavenly ones (over which one did not) was in line with the teachings of Confucius (551–479 BCE) who advocated a “middle way” for people to make sense of their place in the world and live the good life. In summertime, a courtyard might be full of people conversing, singing, eating and drinking but in winter the sky would be the dominant presence. This middle way was about balance, not moderation. The most difficult thing to accept is that the courtyard wasn’t a representation of the good life but all that was needed to make it happen. And it did for 2,500 years or so. The Chinese didn’t see any reason to improve upon or change the courtyard as it was already sufficient. It was possible to live a good life with only a courtyard and an awareness of what it meant.

Last week I taught a history class on Romanesque and Gothic architecture. There’s a lot to be said for a personal, unmediated (and unspoken) relationship with both Earth and Heaven even if it doesn’t produce an architecture of flying buttresses, rose windows and gargoyles. The cloister in a monastery is close to the Chinese notion of a courtyard even if the open space is only circumnavigated by monks looking inward and not up.

Artist James Turrell’s 2001 Live Oak Friends [Quaker] Meeting House is closer with its emphasis on the vertical relationship between Heaven and Earth and also, let’s not forget, with its economy of means. However, there are three important differences.

  1. Live Oak Friends Meeting House is a place of worship. It is a specific place people go to at specific times for the specific act of worship. In some sort of abstract way, it might (or should) structure the lives people lead during the rest of the day.
  2. The roof (or, rather, the soffit) is still very much a barrier between Heaven and Earth. People can see heaven but are still as physically far away from it as ever.
  3. Pretty as they are, Turrell’s skyscapes are also strange in that they make us see the sky with new eyes, as all good art should. Although the sky is real, we appreciate it as a two-dimensional trompe l’oeil representation of the heavens above. [Next week’s history class is about Renaissance Architecture and, the week after, Baroque.]
Live Oak Friends Meeting House, Houston, Texas, 2000. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 1 episode, Spirituality, 2001. © Art21, Inc. 2001.

Judging by the length of time the Chinese courtyard survived, it’s reasonable to say it was fit for purpose as a way of structuring life as well as the physical environment. The Chinese courtyard would be a perfect example of architectural determinism if only it were more about buildings and less about the spaces surrounded by them. Anyway, all this was news to me. Possibly a revelation. Gothic cathedrals and Chinese courtyards are both associated with particular views of the world but, while Gothic cathedrals might advertise a blueprint for living, the Chinese courtyard encapsulates one and gives everyone a good chance at the good life in the here and now.

It’s not everyday I’m asked to disregard the basis for everything I thought I knew about architecture.

I had another look at some courtyards I’ve admired in the past, limiting my search to ones along an axis. My first was Philip Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House even though the axial procession to the courtyard stops at the front door. It’s actually very Chinese in having a change of direction to compose oneself before entering the main room proper but this courtyard is a disappointment. It’s a light well and a horizontal view opportunity. Apart from the three stepping stones, there’s no place a person can be on the ground with open sky above. The small terrace outside the living room is covered by a canopy more to prevent overlooking by neighbors than protect from rain or shine. Still, it’s pleasant enough to Western eyes and, until now, I never found it lacking. This house is all about the entertaining space.

My next axial courtyard house was Craig Ellwood’s 1955 Hunt House in Malibu, CA. It’s symmetrical and processional. It’s a beautiful plan. The left and right courtyards are functional but the horizontal view of the ocean from the roofless terrace is the main event. I’d always thought the skylight around the chimney was a curious and unnecessary feature but it doesn’t seem so strange to me now.

Real estate pressure in China means the good life isn’t so available now. More and more people can only aspire to a horizontal views from (and of) towers. It would be nice [and a hugely profitable architectural product for someone] if the courtyard as a vertical space to be traversed, used and appreciated could be combined with voids and stacked housing. Below is my first attempt at designing a symmetrical courtyard house. I was already thinking of stacking them but it was still to early to think about how this could be done or even if it were possible.

As soon as I finished, I realized I’d just designed Kazuo Shinohara’s 1967 Yamashiro House. All that was missing was the change of level.

The section appears to be taken downwards from the post in the middle of the living room yet upwards from the stairs in the car parking space. This space has a portion with a lowered soffit and probably creates a pleasing effect when moving from the lower courtyard into the upper one.

Shinohara bathrooms and kitchens are always utilitarian but I prefer my windows opening onto the courtyard rather than a front door off axis to the right and kitchen door off axis to the left in otherwise blank walls. In the plan above, the peripheral area with the dark shading is the full extent of the site. The living room has two tall windows in the corners where the desks are. I’m amazed how much light appears to be coming in through the one in this photo. Giving each of the bedrooms their own light well is probably a good idea. I’ve never seen an image of the courtyard as seen from the living room. It doesn’t seem like a place to be enjoyed. It’s all about the living room.

There’s a lot of traversing implied voids in Shinohara’s built work. There’s Uncompleted House [1970], Shino House [1970], Cubic Forest [1971], Repeating Crevice [1971] and House in Higashi-Tamagawa [1973] but traversing actual voids occurs not only in Yamashiro House but also in Sky Rectangle [1971], House in Karuizawa [1975] and House in Itoshima [1976]. Yamashiro House (above) and House in Itoshima (below) are the only two with axial movement through courtyard-like voids to the innermost and most important space and even then, the actual route in House in Itoshima is somewhat circuitous.

Shinohara’s House in Itoshima is like Craig Ellwood’s 1955 Hunt House in having the ocean as the void beyond. The axial space at the end of the procession is largely and strongly symbolic even if were don’t know of what. It’s not a space traversed in the course of a day.

If an infinite and horizontal view isn’t available, then having a courtyard on the other side of the innermost room is a good idea, but now my symmetrical courtyard house starts to be Geoffrey Bawa’s Alfred House Office which is entered on axis through a gate between the garage and rooms for the servants (who have a concealed corridor running the length of the house). The first courtyard is an entrance courtyard onto which the servants’ rooms look. The middle courtyard is the most photographed as it has a pool occupying the middle and which has to be walked around. I’m sure the last courtyard the other side of the living room is lovely but it’s more garden than courtyard.

Plan for the Alfred House Office (courtesy of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust)

The pool courtyard too is lovely but the parts open to the sky seem incidental to the pool in the same way that the side courtyards of Elwood’s Hunt House are secondary to the ocean view. In the image below, a bed of pebbles separates the part of the courtyard open to the sky from the route used by people going to the living room.

My last example of an on-axis courtyard is Tadao Ando’s 1976 Sumiyoshi House. It comes closest to the principle of the Chinese courtyard. The entrance door opening off the right side of the porch has, as I mentioned, its Chinese precedents but, once inside, the procession is axial. That’s all by the bye. One person’s photogenic courtyard is another person’s miserable light well but I’ll leave the implications and contradictions of stacked courtyards for another post.

• • • 

Fit for Purpose

A few months ago I bought a new iMac. It wasn’t my first so I knew it’d be delivered in a plain brown cardboard secondary box as a precaution against opportunistic theft, even though this stops the inner box advertising the company and one’s smugness. In a masterful example of packaging design, the side of my brown box folded down, teaching me how to open the inner box yet, it seemed excessive, almost ostentatious and definitely performative. “Unboxing iMac” videos are a thing on YouTube.

The packaging exists to add value to the product but the boxes themselves are also a product.

Packaging has many functions but protecting the product has many meanings. Batteries don’t need protection from accidental dropping yet their packaging is close to indestructible in order to deter shoplifting. Eggs, on the other hand, are fragile yet usually sold in thin plastic cartons that are rigid enough for cartons of 10 or 12 but wobble with cartons of 24.

There’s a famous 1970’s book called “How to Wrap Five Eggs”, describing various examples of traditional Japanese packaging. Wrapping five eggs uses materials that are biodegradable zero-cost leftovers from some harvest yet, it also seems excessive. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know the designer. This book celebrates a culture that thought so much and so hard about how to package five eggs. It’s still performative ingenuity and not much different from how to box an Apple. My problem with the Japanese eggs is that we don’t know if the purpose was to carry them home or to market. It makes a difference and, if we don’t know, all we can do is marvel at the ingenuity without thinking of its purpose.

How to wrap five eggs.

I thought of this book yesterday when the person in front of me at the checkout was paying for eggs and intending to carry them home in the tied and priced plastic bag they were weighed in. The bag was fit for purpose.

I’m not going to suggest expensive computers be delivered in re-used cardboard boxes stuffed with newspaper but sometimes that’s all packaging needs to be. I’ve written about how things I order online are delivered in cardboard boxes re-formed from other cardboard boxes. It’s not necessary to pulp and recycle a cardboard box to use it again. Re-used or re-formed boxes are fit for purpose and will be collected and sold on to be used and/or reformed again. This is a dimension in which ingenuity and economy exist as something distinct from design. The topmost box in the image at left below contained a pair of shoes within newspaper stuffing. The tonic water on the right was delivered in a Jack Daniels box.

Calling this way of looking at things “vernacular design” is inappropriate because it’s thought, not design. All that vernacular design means is that something isn’t “designer designed”. The term fit for purpose seems to be the best fit because it suggests that any additional thought, design or even functionality is as redundant as gold-plating. Dustpan and broom sets like these ones below are seen in houses and apartments across Japan, China and most likely all across South-East Asia.

Something less designed is used outdoors to sweep garden paths and footpaths. It won’t last forever but it’s easily and inexpensively replaceable and, importantly, is all that’s needed to do the job.

Removing leaves from paths and litter from streets isn’t something that requires a leaf blower or a leaf vacuum. These next ones are all made in China but, in two years, I’ve never seen a leaf blower yet lawns, paths and streets stay leaf-free.

These brooms are lightweight, silent, biodegradable, and require little energy to manufacture or use. They are also stunningly effective at sweeping leaves off grass. The pliant twigs are more rigid than the bristles of a broom yet softer and gentler on the grass than the tines of a rake. The end of the broom is often slightly angled to make horizontal sweeps more efficient and ergonomic.

The outdoor complement to the dustpan is what looks like a cooking oil can with a bamboo handle attached with wire. It also does the job and once again it’s difficult to think of anything that serves its purpose better. The conical hat the man below is wearing is of a type usually made from straw, or palm or bamboo leaves, and is worn by gardeners, street cleaners, farm workers and anyone else who needs a broad-brimmed hat for outdoor work. They’re lightweight, biodegradable, inexpensive, and of course protect from sun and rain. Nobody knows who designed them. Nobody can design them any better. They’re made the same way they’ve been made for centuries.

Buses and vehicles used by the public are covered in graphics and advertising. This charter bus is advertising Tengqiao Smoked Chicken.

It’s a different story with commercial and trade vehicles with nothing to communicate except their registration, their affiliation, and legal requirements for seating and loading. The registration number is stencil spray-painted sufficiently large for fast OCR at toll booths. It’s a sophisticated system but the evenness and sharpness of the stencilled registration number is no more than it needs to be.

With these next examples, the job is to convey information and the system again is fit for that purpose. Some vehicles may have stenciling more precise or fuzzy but it doesn’t seem important. The recurring circle motif for the company name is the only art but even this might just be because it uses less space.

Much outdoor text in China is stenciled and it’s easy to see this as a response to the complexity of the characters. Information needs to be conveyed but it’s not so precious as to engage a signwriter, graphic designer or calligrapher. Here’s some “NO STOPPING. RESERVED FOR FIRE APPLIANCES” signs being stenciled. In many other countries, roadway signs such as these would probably also be stenciled, but the foreground caution signs probably not.

Gardening has many examples of fit for purpose. The people who pruned these trees will use the pruned branches as brooms to gather the clippings. You see this a lot.

These next trees are being propped up by branches joined together by twisted wire until their root systems fully develop. (This is particularly important in locations such as this where the water table is high.)

A length of wire is doubled and wound around the pieces of wood or timber to be connected. The end with the loop is crossed over the paired wires at the other end, the conical end of a metal road is inserted into the loop and the wires twisted and tightened around the wood. I know this simple metal tool as a “twitching rod” or “twitching iron” but that’s another story. Nowadays, open grain silos in Australia are simply covered with large tarpaulins.

  • Fit for purpose is different from makeshift which is a quick and temporary fix until something is either repaired or a better solution either arrives or is thought of.
  • Fit for purpose is when something is no more expensive or complicated than it needs to be to do the job to the required standard.
  • Fit for purpose is the enemy of consumerism and products that have “cycles” with planned obsolescence designed in by either manufacture or fashion.
  • Fit for purpose is counter to economic models based on increasing consumption to justify ever increasing production.

We could all do with less design and not just for the “big ticket” purchases. “Shopping as entertainment” removes the notion of need from even the things we think we need. It wants us to detach the notion of utility from the things we do buy and see the act of buying as the actual content of shopping. Thanks for that, Mr. Koolhaas! You can usually tell when this is happening as you will hear the terms such as “consumer experience” or “consumer destination”. It’s happening again with local street markets now being touted as the alternative to the decline of department stores as well as to the rise on online shopping. They always were.

Ladders in China are another object no more complicated or durable than they need to be. Again, China manufactures a great deal of aluminum ladders but, in two years, I’ve yet to see one.

What I do see are people using ladders less expensive, less sophisticated and less designed but that are fit for purpose and with a total absence of value-adding design. Here’s three I’ve seen in the past few weeks. The one on the left is some slender but straight tree trunks cut and lashed together. The one in the middle has been more carefully crafted while the one on the right has been quickly fabricated on site by a carpenter.

The construction industry also has many examples of objects fit for purpose. This carpentry bench complete with circular saw has been made on-site by a carpenter in perhaps a morning’s work. When it’s no longer needed, it’ll be disassembled and the wood maybe used for something else.

This is a wheelbarrow typical of the region in which I live. Gardeners, construction workers and road workers all use wheelbarrows to this design. They’re simply manufactured and durable but heavy. The two wheels make them very stable, and the position of the axle means they can be used to transport and tip heavy loads or even concrete.

My last example is this simple bridge made from five posts and a cross bar lashed together to support two bridge planks. It might exist only until the planting on the small island is established or it might be replaced by something more decorative in the future. This would be a shame because it’s already perfect for what it is and where it is. Anything else will not be an improvement.

Fit for purpose is the opposite of innovation in general and disruptive innovation in particular. If we overvalue “innovation” as we do, then we’ll look down on fit for purpose as something inferior that only people in underdeveloped countries need worry about. It’s not. It’s something people in developing countries need to worry more about. From their time in Africa, Lacaton & Vassal were inspired by a local awareness and intelligence for fit for purpose and they used this awareness to devise an intelligent and timely architecture. Unfortunately, its recognition in the form of a Pritzker and a GSD invite for them was its kiss of death, leaving us no closer to an architecture of fit for purpose, let alone one fit for purpose. Fit for purpose is a universal way of finding a balance between resources, energy and utility. Given the abundance of examples in China, I wouldn’t be surprised if a Chinese architect is next to show us what it all means for buildings.

• • • 

The 2’nd Misfits’ Trienniale: WEEK 3

August 18, 2021 – August 18, 2022

This is the third and final week of The 2nd Misfits’ Triennale. It spans the above period and brings us up to the present, or rather, to three and a half weeks ago. If I’ve missed anything worthwhile in those past three weeks then I’ll find out about it in three years’ time. Slow architecture. I’m okay with that. The problem with daily architecture feeds is that it’s all forgotten the next day. It’s already difficult enough to learn from history so what hope is there for yesterday? Still, some good and thoughtful things have happened in the past three years and are deserving of a chance of a few more minutes contemplation. These are my selections from the past year.

[8] August 24, 2021: Xinsha Primary School / 11ARCHITECTURE
I didn’t see many schools in the first two installments of this 2nd Misfits’ Trienalle so I’m glad to see this one in Shenzen. It’s multi-level like many Asian schools, but makes space for a sports field and running track. Space for children to play is found in unlikely places as well as the likely ones. The building isn’t isolated from the street around it. It has several distinct zones. There are plants. Entering it is an event for students. Waiting to take their children home is an event for parents. Impressive.

[8] August 27, 2021: Port-o-Prenz Apartments / J. Mayer H. Architects
It’s nice too see Jurgen Mayer H. keeping busy. The facades have some familiar H. motifs and, come to think of it, so does the site plan. Six dispersed cores provide the maximum number of dual-aspect apartments. More than half the L-shaped apartments on internal corners are also dual-aspect. Nine of the ten one-bedroom single-aspect apartments are on the outer periphery of the project. Importantly, and this is why I include it here, apartments or rooms of apartment facing into the project site all have long views across it. You don’t see this amount of thought very often.

[8] November 2, 2021: 6 tsubo-house / Arte-1 Architects
We’re in Japan of course, where a tsubo is a traditional unit of area measurement equal to 3.3 sq.m, making this house 21 sq.m in area. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to get in two bedrooms plus a separate kitchen. Not having a sunken genkan and getabako (shoe cupboard) must have been a difficult decision. I also like that this micro-house is not for some idyllic countryside location but a functioning house for a tight urban situation. My new criteria for microhouses are skill, audacity and pretentiousness and this one has the lot. That double-height arched window is a masterstroke. Microhouses without shame!

[8] November 15, 2021: Spiral House in Berlin Proposes a New Residential Typology of Homogenous Living Spaces
At last, a project best comprehended in section! The spaces in the apartments step around the central core with a split circular stair, each apartment having a entrance at one end, and an exit at the other end half a floor above or below.

The two sets of stairs are independent and therefore one of them will always serve as a fire escape. I’ve only ever seen this once before in the 1964 Mt. Eliza Apartments, Krantz & Sheldon, 1964 at 3/71 Mount Street, Perth.

[8] November 16, 2021: The Ledge / Wallmakers
This house in Peermade, India made me think. It’s aesthetically pretentious but, at the same time, bordering on a required poetry. The more interesting thing is the lo-res materials and construction by which this has been achieved – not that it’s without contrivance on that level too. There’s no section but the roof and walls seem layered with LED sandwiched there somehow. Despite all that, it’s something unexpected made from dirt, rocks and sticks.

[8] November 26, 2021: Renovation and Transformation of a Norman Jaffe House / Neil Logan Architect
Norman Jaffe is one of those architects destined to be never remembered. Many say he sold out by resigning from Philip Johnson’s office to design many large and expensive houses for rich clients, mostly on Long Island. They’re very much of their time, but what houses! [c.f. Career Case Study #2: Norman Jaffe]

[8] December 2, 2021; Kennels / Atelier GOM
This is the first project I‘ve linked to. It’s a hotel where people and their dogs can stay. The architects have thought about unit entry and eye-heights to make it pleasant for dogs and producing an awareness of other dogs while limiting the opportunity for accidental encounters. The project is well thought-through on all other levels and the documentation is good. It’s not just an idea. I hope it’s successful. I admire that all this was done without any mention of Object Oriented Ontology. It’s just a hotel for dogs and their owners. China.

[8] December 17, 2021; House in Kanazawa / Shota Nakanishi Architects + Ohno Japan
I’m trying to avoid houses of more than 50 sq.m unless they have some compensating feature and this house does. It’s not on a pretty site facing north. The large roof is a light reflector and should generate pleasant microclimates year round. There’s attention paid to every aspect of the internal environment yet the living areas of the house are directly connected to and visible from the street to the benefit of both sides. While not a caricature, the house also has a strong Japaneseness in its construction, its front elevation, and its relation to the street.

This next house should have appeared in the first installment as it was published in April 2020. At first glance it’s another house with a reflector roof and that explains why the living areas are upstairs getting maximum light from the south.

But in light of last week’s post, this house has a very interesting relationship between inside and outside. First, the corner window truncates the volume and lets us see inside like a perspective section. This window will never have a curtain and so the outside will always have a strong presence as the occupants go downstairs to bed or to go take a bath. (Although it’s probably not so common these days, people in yukata walking to the sentō is not a strange sight in Japan. Going to have a bath is a public act.)

Also interesting is the genkan. Here, it is enlarged to become a gallery into which outsiders can enter and keep their outside shoes on and not enter the house proper.

This genkan is a virtual outside space adjacent to the virtual outside space of the truncation/terrace and then on to the outside proper. You can think of the corridor leading to bathroom and bedrooms as an engawa separating the virtual inside and virtual outside. This house wears its art lightly. That single angled truncation on the incline has set up some very pleasant consequences. Nice photographs by Satoshi Takae.

[8] April18, 2022, La Lomita Retreat / ASPJ Arquitectura, Paisaje y Territorio
As I keep saying, it has to be a very special house to make me look deeper if it’s more than 60 sq.m. This one does. It does all the good things and hasn’t gone crazy with the materials and finishes. It’s a shame it’s in such a lovely environment as much of what it does is applicable to Mexico’s larger cities, or even cities anywhere. It’d be good to have a world with more buildings like this instead of 350 sq.m houses with 50 photographs and no plans.

[9] April 21, 2022, House 905 / HARQUITECTES
It’s always good to see a new house by Harquitectes. I’m glad they’re still doing houses well, with their own integration planning logic and construction. Always a pleasure.

[8] May 22, 2022, Sako House / Tomoaki Uno Architects
Yes, the Japanese are still making weird little houses but this one a universe for its owner. I counted nine different spatial experiences in 54 sq.m. There are sufficient plans, sections, construction and detail drawings to fully understand everything about the house apart from what it would be like to inhabit. The allocation and priorities of spaces are unorthodox, weird, and actually a bit disturbing. What I like about this house is that it doesn’t care what anybody anywhere else in the world thinks of it. See for yourself.

[8] June 13, 2022, A New Building by Kazuo Shinohara will be Added to the Vitra Campus
Well well. Technically, it’s not exactly a new building by Kazuo Shinohara. He would have preferred to have been asked by Vitra to design them a new one. Umbrella House is not a large house but the inappropriate “campus” landscaping makes it seem diminutive.

[9] June 22, 2022: Minimum House in Toyota / Nori Architects
I was cheered to see this genuine attempt to do a lot with a minimum amount of inexpensive materials. It can’t be done without a thorough questioning of the role and cost of every construction element. Nice work!


With this third and final week of August 2021 – August 2022, the sheer volume of content from the Far East is apparent. It’s probably a function of volume of construction but also a higher proportion of construction for reasons of their respective economies. Also apparent was the sheer amount of content promoting or asking rhetorical questions such as “How to make the metaverse make money for you?” [sic.] I won’t trouble myself too much over this as someone will make money from the metaverse and it will probably not be you or me. Nevertheless, I’ll have to look deeper into this as it seems like a thing that the media obsesses about until it actually becomes a thing.

Finally, this early December 2021 article, originally on CommonEdge, resonated.

In this three-part review I call the Misfits Triennale, I saw two distinct ways of practicing architecture – a divide. There are the ten or so behemoths who suck up all the huge projects and most of the media oxygen. And then there are all the other architects.We should be grateful to ArchDaily for giving them the opportunity to let other people know they exist. Apart from maybe being on the same page of the feed on any given ArchDaily day, these two ways of practicing architecture have nothing in common. The big practices’ technologies and aesthetics don’t inform those of the smaller ones and there’s definitely no flow of thought and intelligence in the other direction. They’re two separate dimensions.

When we have a situation where the extraordinary is so divorced from the ordinary, any perceived lack of masterpieces is because we no longer have any shared reference by which to identify them. They’re either all masterpieces or none of them is. It’s not as if the masterpieces of the past had that much influence anyway on how architecture is practiced. They may have reinforced the notion that architecture had two distinct levels one higher than the other, but at least there was a connection between them. Smaller practices found inspiration in the work of those more famous than them. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Despite attempts by ArchDaily and others to set certain agendas, I don’t see any shared theory, outlook, or even aspirations. It’s everyone for themselves. In theory, this ought to result in more individuality but for the big practices it seems to be making everything more samey as they compete for the same money. I find the work of the medium- and small-sized practices more genuine.


Some of these are absurd, some are propaganda, some are filler, and some are a combination. Some are to remind me to have something to say later. At the end of the 1st Misfits’ Triennale, I followed up with the post Space Merchants that identified the “trending” topics of 1) Vertical Forests, 2) Automatic Design, 3) 3D Printed Houses, 4) “Data Driven”, and 5) Living on Mars and, over the past three years, I think I’ve returned to all of them more than once either as posts or persistent themes.

Mars is still hot, although not as hot as it used to be.

Perhaps it’s because The Metaverse is now being shoved down our throats.

NFTs are no small part of this.

The reduction of labour in the construction workforce is always being cheerled by someone, if not by Gropius anymore.

As is the reduction of labour in the design workforce. I wonder who’s going to be left to design airports, corporate headquarters, art galleries, high-rise luxury apartment buildings, large-scale infrastructure, coastline revitalization projects and new city masterplanning?

We’ll find out soon enough, by observing architecture’s new business development hotspot, Saudi Arabia.

The 2’nd Misfits’ Trienniale: WEEK 2

August 18, 2020 – August 18, 2021

This post covers the second week of The 2nd Misfits’ Triennale spaning the period including the Chicago Biennale, the Sharjah Bienalle, the Venice Bienalle and others, as well as Dubai Expo 2020. You won’t find any content about themes of pavilions and exhibitions, who was chosen to curate them or design them, or breathless updates on their design and construction. There’s so much content like this that it’d be possible to have a breakaway site called Bienalle Daily. This same period also spans the Omicron stage of the pandemic and the period when many people were housebound. ArchDaily must have provided many people with a continuity of daily routine. I can imagine its operations were hardly affected as receiving online information and broadcasting it worldwide doesn’t require the physical presence of either employees or buildings. Out of curiosity, I’d like to see what the ArchDaily headquarters looks like. I imagine it’s a building that exists only in images in our heads. Results of a competition to design a virtual headquarters for ArchDaily might provide some interesting data on the general state of education and the profession.

August-November 2020 was a dry patch. True, there was still a pandemic but, despite daily being part of the name, online content doesn’t track the world in real time. It’s just that I wasn’t interested in any private house of more than 100 sq.m, or anything about Foster+Partners inroads into the Saudi market, or OMA’s, BIG’s, ZHA’s or MVRDV’s considerable business development in China and elsewhere. Around the world, masterplanning for the revitalization of waterfronts and pretty much anywhere else is a thing, Henning Larsen and Snøhetta are a huge presence. I don’t think Kengo Kuma and SANAA are punching above their weight. It’s just that we still think of them as small practices. It’s still possible to tell a ZHA building from an MVRDV one but these global commercial practices are becoming more and more samey, even when they try to be different. The smaller and small practices are doing things more interesting and relevant.

[1] November 10, 2020: Jiading Mini Block, An Urban Experiment / Atelier FCJZ
This one made me think. It’s an attempt to design an R&D park as a walkable city, using city blocks of 50m x 50m (to the centre of the roads). All buildings have a covered arcade at ground level, food and beverage outlets are given desirable corner locations, and traffic is restricted although through traffic was never going to be a problem with canals on two sides of the site. It’s a decent attempt to think something through from scratch. I hope it’s worked. I’d like to go check it out one day.

Photograph :Fangfang Tian

[2] November 19, 2020: Housing Choices Australia Dandenon / Kennedy Nolan Architects
The architects have done something good here, showing that accommodation provided by a not-for-profit housing association can still be attractive, well-designed, durable, passive, and low-energy all at the same time. Nice job! Photographs: Derek Swalwell

[3] December 10, 2020: Dique Luján House / FRAM arquitectos
Not since the heyday of Danish modernism has a house simply been the result of the materials and processes by which it was constructed. I don’t know why this should be such a radical concept. The materials don’t all have to be perfect or expensive and the processes needn’t be difficult or contrived. I suspect it’s because it’s not possible to conceal shoddy materials or workmanship when every piece and how they are put together is revealed. Human thought, care and craft work (as opposed to robot and 3D printer thought, care and craft) all work against profits in the building industry. Photos: Fernando Schapochnik

[4] February 22, 2021: Arakawa Building / Nikken Sekkei
This is both office building and residence for the building owner. There’s a lot happening and not just with the structure. The fire escape stairs are used as bracing for earthquake resistance but also provide outdoor spaces for the office workers, as well as shading for many of the windows. The architects say ” The building has utilized the full potential of every building element, and now reveals the activities of the building users as an element of the building’s façade. Our intention is that the dynamic façade incorporating human activities would also create a new expression in the cityscape.” I think they’ve succeeded. The true test is whether or not it becomes a template for future buildings.

[5] April 28, 2020: TECLA Technology and Clay 3D Printed House / Mario Cucinella Architects
Mario Cucinella has history of exploring sustainable technologies so I’m interested in his take on 3D printed houses. The norm so far has been to print vertical walls with curved corners and to cap it with large overhanging flat roof that’s been transported in. Cuchinella’s design is driven by the limitations of 3D printers and the material which is clay in this case okay. The 3D printer-friendly plan is simple and has no sharp corners. The entrance opening is how 3D printers do corbelling. [There’s a nice door frame that might lend some support. This is not the time for frameless glass.] Where you’d expect a thicker wall or even buttresses, the walls corbel outwards to gain some height before corbelling inwards to form the roof. A vertical wall would also provide more headroom and would require less material but wouldn’t look so primitive-modern. It’s still possible to waste cheap materials such as clay, for aesthetic pursuit and to me, this proves the maxim that, with visual aesthetics, everything beautiful costs money. The adhesion strength and setting time of the chosen material make the near-horizontal surfaces the two most difficult for 3D printing and so the oculii off the two joined domes are capped by round windows. All in all, it’s not horrible, although the tree inside does make me wonder what kind of outside this house is built for. If we join many of them together we’d get a honeycomb with curvy corners. While you’re at it, and assuming the clay can cope, you could even add a second story using the three dimensional geometry and structure already perfected by bees. What we have is a house designed around the current strengths and weaknesses of a 3D printing system.

The hexagon comment proved apt, but not in the way I expected. A February 18, 2021 article described the process of construction and how the 3D printers were configured on a reconfigurable frame structure. It was interesting reading. Could it have been hand made with mud bricks? Probably, but probably not in 200 hours.

TECLA, 3D Printed Habitat by WASP and Mario Cucinella Architects. Image Cortesía de WASP

[6] May 26, 2021: La Bourse de Commerce / Tadao Ando Architect & Associates + NeM Architectes + Pierre-Antoine Gatier
This is fundamentally a restoration project but the concrete part that looks like Tadao Ando’s contribution is curious because its only purpose seems to be to get people closer to the frieze so they can have a better look. Is this the best way to do it, I wonder? And what about the three floors of building supporting that frieze? Times change, I guess, and what people thought important in one era is not what they’ll pay to see in another.If you want a look, a single-entry exhibitions ticket posts 14€ with reduced rate entry of 10€ according to the conditions for reduced price and free admission.

[7] June 8, 2021: “Habitare” Home Without a House / Bayona Studio
This installation in Spain does something easily understandable yet is more effective because of what looks like its end-of-terrace site. We could talk about the plan but that’s not the point. It might have been more interesting with stairs that can be as much furniture or part of a building as you like, although perhaps not in Spain. Apart from looking a bit like a sou Fujimoto house, this is what the transparent concrete would actually look like. I’ve never understood the rush to develop it or the illusion of it.

©Pep Sau

[8] June 15, 2021: Around the Corner Grain / Eureka + MARU。architecture
This building contains seven non-identical apartments. It could have gone on forever but what’s here is sufficient to describe the principle. The seven apartments each have a different arrangement expressed through the entrances rather than the pattern of window openings. It’s a design-intensive design designed by people who enjoy designing. Photographs: Ookura Hideki

[9] June 19, 2021: Does Automation Take Away From the Individuality of Design?
It’s a provocative question, and a curious one when juxtaposed with a photograph of Kenzo Tange’s 1995 Fuji Television building in Tokyo. Whatever automation in architectural offices meant in 1995 it’s almost certainly not the same as it does today. What I’m not sure about is whether the Fuji Television building is there as an example of an abundance of individuality or a dearth of it. I suspect it’s supposed to illustrate the lack of, because it has almost no curves apart from that simple sphere.

© Jacopo Gennari Feslikenian

“Gramazio Kohler Research’s Rock Print Pavilion is also another example of how automation can create a distinct design. Built by a mobile robot, the house is made out of aggregates and twine – automation does not in any way curb the individuality of its design, and instead enhances it. Its design is a good example of how unique craftsmanship can be achieved even with the use of automated technology.” I don’t think we can blame the robot unless it had a robot hand in the roof.

© Michael Lyrenmann

[10] July 24, 2021: 24-mm Plywood House
This house is in line with my new policy of refusing to look at houses of more than 100 sq.m (and ideally no more than 50 sq.m) and that aren’t designed for urban situations. If there is some quality about it that was thought important despite the size of house then so much the better. This seems a better say to describe my new policy rather than say architecturally pretentious or audacious as both reinforce the mindset that small houses aren’t supposed to have aspirations to architecture lest they become mainstream. This house is about 45 sq.m. The main idea is an x-axis void on the ground floor intersecting a y-axis one on the upper floor to create a z-axis void for stairs and light. It’s a big idea for a small house, but not a complicated one. Photographs: Toshiyuki Yano

Out-takes and take-aways

In my quick scan through these past three years of ArchDaily at a rate of approximately one day per four months, I’d also pause at the superficially eye-catching projects like many a bored office worker on a Friday afternoon so you can’t say I’m using ArchDaily in a manner for which it was not designed. But for the period from August 2021to August 2022, the sheer volume of content from the Far East was apparent. It’s probably a function of volume of construction and the usual economic indicators. Also apparent was the inroads high-profile practices are making into the Saudi market. It’s always been true that the global commercial practices follow the money.

The faith in technology is limitless.

The continuing promotion of techniques and technologies with the potential to decimate the architectural workplace is now standard.

The ArchDaily history lessons are always enjoyable.

As are their top tips for the home.