Tag Archives: performance as an aesthetic


Chinese apartment buildings have a great deal of owner modification apparent on their exteriors, particularly in the case of the older ones. The preference is towards more useable space though it doesn’t seem to matter if this space is open or closed. One downside is that bathroom windows can become partially or wholly internal.

With these next buildings, the apartment owners seem to have had the option of removing the balcony wall and extending their living rooms, but with the new glazing unified in a controlled, progressive and elective refurbishment. Here you can see three apartments with work in progress. On this north-facing facade it’s barely noticeable that all apartment facades aren’t identical. People either don’t notice or they don’t care. And why should they?

The buildings for which this happens aren’t the newly-built ones such as these next although, with these, any balcony space could theoretically become internal space with the simple addition of a glazing panel. On closer inspection, this is what happens and again suggests that buyers had some off-plan options. With the buildings on the right, the balconies are designed as “winter gardens” to facilitate their use as living or play space when laundry isn’t being dried. “Winter gardens” have been around since the early 2000s, usually for apartment buildings along busy roads.

Apartment buildings from the 1970s are likely to have owner-installed grilles and bars over their windows, but at a distance creating a kind of caged space outside the window which is of course used for pot plants and for laundry drying.

I don’t think this is necessarily an aversion to clothes dryers or even a frugality regarding electricity usage. I don’t think it’s even about getting the laundry dry, although that’s definitely a side effect of having air pass through the fabric. It seems that the longer period that air has passed through clothes the better they are thought. This explains the drive to find the best ventilated places to air one’s clothes (and if that’s some public place then so be it), the lengths that people will go to to hang their clothes there, and the length of time those clothes will be allowed to hang there which is usually well past the time you’d expect them to have dried. For student dormitories, it’s almost as if the balconies are used as a wardrobe.

It seems quite usual for apartment owners to replace apartment windows in much the same way as house purchasers in other countries might change one fitted kitchen for another. Over the years, these modifications accumulate to create a genuine ad-hoc architecture I’ve not seen anywhere else. And it’s okay.

It’s a kind of vernacular. The building above was originally designed to be ummm, “aesthetically complete” shall we say? – so it’s no more an example of “The Open Building” as espoused by John Habraken than this next apartment stripped of all interior partitions apart from those enclosing the bathrooms and kitchen.

The norm in China is for kitchens to be enclosed by sliding glass doors. I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, salads and other assemblages of raw ingredients don’t feature in Chinese cuisine. Food is almost always cooked and this custom most likely comes from cooked food being easier to digest and requiring less energy to digest. If you cook it the right way, cooked food has a greater net nutritional value. And the right way to cook it to use short bursts of intense heat to quickly cook small pieces of meat and vegetables before adding sauce ingredients to complete the dish.

An oven for roasting is not standard as it is in the UK or Europe. A grill for fish is not standard as it would be in Japan. Also, to serve at least two dishes (with rice) is a normal meal so not only are there cooking odors and aromas, but multiple ones in quick succession. The sliding doors let the table be the place where the aroma of cooked food is meant to be appreciated. They’re as much about the olfactory aesthetics of food as they are about odor control,

The other reason has to do with moisture. The cooking of rice and the cooking of noodles both require the boiling of water and it’s important to get this excess moisture out of the kitchen, especially in summer when the air is already moist. Kitchen extractor fans work better for volumes that a small and enclosed. Chinese exhaust hoods will always be ducted to outside or above the roof.

Going backwards in time, “customization” isn’t any of the following.

Shell” apartments: This stripped-back apartment for sale is not a manifestation of some fashion for “shell” apartments as were a thing in London and New York in the late 20th century. The expectation then was for the purchaser to partition the internal space and insert an interior and create a conventional apartment.

Naked Houses: Naked Houses were a shortish-lived phenomenon circa 2017. The goal was to provide a house with the basics in place and to not waste money on frivolous things such as wall finishes. It never took off, probably because new way wer found to suck up the budget. The phenomenon was a remarketing of Lacaton & Vassal’s stance back in 2017 and we could trace its architectural pedigrere back even farther to Jean Nouvel’s Nemausus housing in Nimes, France 1987.

Ad-hocism: Way back in 1972 Charles Jencks (& Nathan Silver) identified ad-hocism as a the putting together of disparate objects to create a new object. The naïve juxtaposition of things was a way of doing things expediently and differently but, architecture being architecture, it could never be naïve.

Presented as expedience and the application of intelligence, the real point was to create a style and way of doing things, following on from the post-modernism Jencks had already popularized. As shown by the cover of the book, the improvised object had a certain kind of surreal charm but no more or less than say, Salvador Dali’s 1938 lobster telephone. Both are highly contrived objects. If adhocism wasn’t already a representation of adhocism, it quickly turned into one. The customized apartment is not so self conscious.

“Half a Houses” (Aravena style): We all looked at the half-a-houses and thought “How benevolent!” and were encouraged to think that people doing for themselves what they could not afford was “empowering”.

Doing it yourself, making it yourself, and making it do were all cool as long as they were within the system. In hindsight, Jencks and Silver’s book can be seen as an attempt to make an aesthetic of self reliance in 1970 at the dawn of the neoliberal post-capitalist society. It was somewhat before its time – hence its recent re-issue.

As Thatcherism and Reaganomics held, “government services shrink everybody’s incentives to produce, compete and invest.” [1] In other words, “Teach a man to fish and he won’t have to ask you for a fish.” Ad-hoc, handmade, community driven architecture is a creature designed to service this mentality while purporting to be the answer to it. If ad-hoc, handmade, community-driven architecture really was the shape of the future that we’re being encouraged to envisage, then surely we wouldn’t need architects and the architectural media to tell us?

Altering one’s own apartment or house is something outside the politics of land and property ownership but we can’t forget that being able to alter or customize one’s own property assumes one owns the property and has the surplus to customize it. To not consider questions of property ownership and resource possession takes us straight to the favela but we’re not there yet, or ready to accept the favela as the ultimate in adhoc architecture.

Those who have the land, the time, and the salvaged and ad-hoc resources to work with, will inadvertently create what will be seen as ad-hoc architecture.

Questions remain, some of them for architecture. What kind and how much base building is necessary to allow natural customization to occur as and when it will? Others are for architects. How would we go about designing a building that allows for future customization without knowing what form that would take? Or, to put it another way, how is it possible to design a building without a preconceived aesthetic agenda? This is something that Architecture historically abhors, as evidenced by the Philip Johnson/Henry-Russell Hitchcock false accusation (originally leveled at Hannes Meyer) that – I paraphrase – “the contrived absence of an aesthetic agenda is itself an aesthetic agenda”. The last question is for us, the people who’ll have to look at these buildings. Are we ready for buildings with no overriding aesthetic agenda?

Probably not, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be given the chance to find out. If customization is a natural and healthy phenomena, then it’s one that can be architecturally assimilated, faked and marketed back at us. These are recent examples of pseudo-customized housing developments in Perth, Western Australia. The message is that customization is futile, and that (still, after all these years) a representation of it is better than the real thing.

[1] Lifted from “What are they after?” (William Davis writes about the Tory Brexiteers) in London Review of Books, 8 March 2018, p 3

Formative Sections

As a way of comprehending a building, the sectional view is always regarded as secondary to the plan. Nobody’s ever said “The section is the generator!” or, even if they do, it’s seen as something exceptional even though buildings are three dimensional objects and a plan is no more or less important than a section. If we think of the horizontal position of a window in a wall then w’are thinking in plan but if we’re thinking of cill and lintel heights then we’re thinking in section. If we imagine how we’d like a window to appear on the outside or to a person within the space, then we’re thinking in some kind of virtual model in our heads. All have their uses but the bias towards the plan remains. Planning is a word describing a certain type of design activity. Sectioning isn’t.

My first formative section must have been this next one for it would’ve been impossible for me not to have seen it in some architecture book such as a 1970’s edition of Gideon’s Space, Time and Architecture. It was probably about 2011 however when I finally realized the “white”apartment entered from the mezzanine and with its living room at the foot of the master bed, was rubbish.

Unité d’Habitations, Le Corbusier, 1949

The proposal by the team led by Ohl, Ivanov and Lavinsky for the 1927 USSR Comradely Competition for Communal Housing wasn’t no precursor but a true precedent showing how it should be done.

2015 was a rich year for me and sections because it was the year I was introduced to The Constructivists. Economy of materials and construction was the driver for studies such as the one above that only required corridors every third floor. The proposal by the team led by Sobolev for the same competition, is another take on this.

Another of The Constructivists’ concerns was redistributing the height of rooms so that rooms such as bathrooms and bedrooms didn’t have unnecessarily high ceilings. The team comprising Nina Vorotynzeva and Raissa Polyak proposed a floor plan with secondary rooms having lowered ceiling heights (left, below) and the Ginzburg team’s later Type B (right, below) was to further rationalize this.

Best understood in section, Mosei Ginzberg’s 1927 Type F Apartment was a sincere solution to both the corridor concern and the ceiling height concern.

The Type F is a classic. My take on it had the identical living rooms of the upper and lower apartments accessed by stacked lateral stairs that were also identical. I called it the F-III.

All the entries for the competition, as well as the later work of Ginzburg’s Stroykom team were to do in The Types Study were a great inspiration. I also updated their Type E as a student dormitory. [c.f. 1928: The Types Study]

It’s a cool section. I’d like to cross it with a toulou.

I later learned that, in 1947, Russian emigré Serge Chermayeff published the Park Type Apartments studies with corridors every third floor. I made my own versions of which my Type FII was probably the best.

I experimented with laterally-placed stairs (like Chermayeff, but also like André Devin at Frais Vallon) and devised an apartment module comprising a studio apartment, a 1-bed apartment and a 2-bed apartment for a building having a corridor every third floor.

There was also a variation that could have internal stairs leading to remote rooms. Lastly, I reconfigured the core of a multi-storey apartment building so it had elevator lobbies every third floor leading to apartments that could link internally across multiple levels, making it possible to have apartments of any size in the same building and with each unit also having external access. It would be a true mixed-use building. Although no individual space would be particularly large, the building would be well suited to live-work units, small businesses and apartments for multiple occupation, whether multi-generational, communal, or some variation on a hotel. One of my better inventions.

While these proposals are all described in plans, they are better comprehended in section, mainly because they have to do with stairs and, stairs being stairs, they go well with sections. Sections are where they do their work. I enjoyed the interlocking sections of scissor apartments and, even though they required corridors every second floor instead of every third, they had the advantage of all living rooms being on the same side of the building, and all bedrooms being on the other. This led to two projects, one called New Scissor Apartments, and a further rationalization called Machine for Living Many.

I’m getting ahead of myself. There are also section ideas that are 100% spatial ideas and have nothing to do with the saving of building resources. Kazuo Shinohara’s 1963 House With an Earthen Floor is definitely one of those, and I probably saw this section for the first time in 1975 in Shinohara’s first book of houses. The problem with design ideas based on some invention in section is that they don’t photograph well, especially if they’re underground. In this one you can see the earthen floor. You won’t see hatching on a Shinohara drawing.

It must have occurred to Shinohara that underground spaces didn’t publish well. (Shinohara never designed another basement, apart from the 1981 Goto House that was never built.) I almost certainly saw this next section in 1975 in the same book. The original house was for house for three generations and it led me to propose a communal house in which one stair led to personal spaces and the other stair led to shared spaces. [c.f. Repeating Crevice Revisited] It updated the idea of multiple people living in the same house and being aware of the presence of others but without being forced together. I still believe this is a useful idea. In both Shinohara’s and my proposals it’s in the section where this awareness is generated.

As I was discovering the power of the section in Repeated Crevice, Shionohara protegé Hiroyuki Asai was exploring the poetry of the section in his 1974 Mochizuki House.

My frustration at not being able to identify this house for decades forced me to create my own memory of it in 2017. I can’t say I improved upon the original as mine turned into something different. It’s more extreme but the idea of taking some of the volume of the secondary spaces and diverting it to the volume of the primary spaces is shared DNA with the 1927 Type B and Type F. It matters little if that volume can’t be used in any practical way. The bedrooms feel more intimate and the living room feels less confining. It’s the horizontal equivalent of a double-height space and is no more or less useful.

Takefumi Aida’s 1975 Stepped Platform House has a memorable section that, fortunately, is easy to imagine. The inclined wall happen to be stairs separating inside and outside and thus public and private. Whether inside or outside, one has an awareness of the other.

Less aggressively, the famous section from Charles Correa’s 1983 Kanchanjunga Apartments shows the stepped floor of one apartment becoming the stepped ceiling of the one below. It’s a nice idea, a purely spatial one, and one that takes the section of the 1927 Soviet Type B apartment and develops it into something decadent, with the two-storey outdoor space being the space to which the excess ceiling height is diverted. It’s a Type B + Unité mashup, although it’s always the LC connection that’s mentioned. This building is not about scrimping on corridor space or conserving construction materials.

Nevertheless, this idea of a stepped ceiling of one level being the stepped floor of the one above is also present in Geoff Warn’s 1999 Glick House I recently referred to again. The effect of the section is to produce a sequence of spaces of increasing intimacy on the floor above, and a sequence of increasingly larger spaces below. This too can be traced back to the Type B even though the spaces on the two levels are used in different ways.

It’s a lovely effect on both sides of the floor slab, although I had only the upper side to admire in this recent project where I copied it so shamelessly.

As a closing statement, I can’t help feeling that the mode of architectural communication determines the types of ideas thought. A plan is useful because people occupy an x,y position in space (and with respect to all the elements defining that space). And a section is useful because it shows the often neglected z dimension in which different, non-plan architectural ideas exist. We have only three dimensions in which to place the stuff of which buildings are made. Sure, we can produce an animation to communicate some spatial or sculptural idea regardless of how that idea was conceived, but we still need to place elements in three dimensional space before we can activate the temporal.

Learning From Shikumen

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

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

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

This is the 2022 re-design.

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

New Shikumen I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Handshake House

Handshake accommodation isn’t something that happens only in China. Many Japanese suburban houses have a boundary setback of only 50cm. Here’s one we know. There’s windows on the side elevations but they’re small and low down so nobody’s going to be actually shaking hands through them.

And, still in Japan, here’s one we’ve probably forgotten about. Yoshi Yamamoto’s 2013 Danchi Hutch House is too far from its neighbor to be a handshake house proper, but the large windows of the upper level living area face those of the neighbors’ while the windows of the bathroom, utility and wc face the street. This seems perverse to us, but the architect explained that the occupants were used to living in a crowded apartment block and specifically requested a small house and that comforting awareness of living in close proximity to others.

We find this difficult to comprehend and I only mention it to make the point that not everybody regards being able to see and/or see into other people’s windows (and vice-versa) as a bad thing. Personal preference aside, houses in Japanese rural areas are likely to have been built close together in order to maximize the land available for farming.

This proximity remains when urban growth has displaced the farms. The houses in these two photographs above aren’t of the machiya (town) house type with party walls. Some have windows along the long sides and some of those windows will face directly into others across a gap of exactly one meter. Regardless of their outlook, many Japanese windows are likely to have sliding shutters that are closed at night, but it’s not uncommon for kitchen and bathroom windows of older houses to have translucent acrylic screens fixed 20cm away from the glass.

This is Kazuo Shinohara’s 1970 Uncompleted House. You can see the upper floor bedroom on the right directly opposes a neighbour’s window for no reason other than to avoid an excess of symmetry. It is nonetheless a handshake house.

Finally, Nakagin Capsule Tower is symmetrical front and back. Front-facing apartments overlook the KK Route of Tokyo Expressway while the windows of rear-facing apartments have been fitted with a kind of blinker-hood to prevent views in certain directions. The obvious solution is to not place windows close to site boundaries.

Moving on now to Canada, perhaps the intended occupants of BIG’s King Street West building won’t mind paying for multiple opportunities to shake hands with their neighbors. The faux-innovative rotated grid enables the sky-pixel terraces to have inner re-entrant corners for people to withdraw into when they’re not feeling social.

Handshake buildings are slightly different in Australia even if the reasons for them aren’t that different from those operating in Shenzen. The May 2020 post Property Supplement described how residential blocks in Australian capital cities have been subdivided to fit two, three or four houses onto land previously occupied by one.

To describe something is the “new normal” is to encourage denial of a situation that’s actually pretty shit and not about to get any better. The new and challenging Australian suburban reality is long and narrow layouts with very little space between house and boundary. Marketing advertisements make little effort to avoid photographing boundary fences. This could be because it’s impossible not to, but it could also be because they’re accepted as a fact of life – a part of the environment. Some people may not even see them as unpretty, and some may even find some comfort in seeing them.

Here’s the reality of a house recently on the market in the city of Perth. It’s not the best of its type but not the worst either.

There’s a lot that can be said about the lousiness of the layout, the cheesy styling, the fake grass with its strewn leaves and the bizarre barbecue area but what strikes me most of all are the fences visible in every photograph. These houses are clearly the wrong houses for their sites. As I speculated in the Property Supplement post, I don’t think these minimal gaps between detached houses persist because of some Australian bloody-mindedness re. independence or having a homestead of their own though some may like to see it as that). My suspicion is that these gaps exist as construction gaps to facilitate piece construction by non-unionized labour gangs. Joined-up housing is making inroads into Australian suburbs but the barely detached house is unlikely to disappear anytime soon and nor is this method of procurement. The question then is what would be better suited to sites with these proportions?

The courtyard house never really took off in Australia. Being able to look outwards seems important even if there’s nothing to see. It could be part of some national psyche, something to do with surveying the extent of one’s property or merely a miniature manifestation of the Australian obsession with borders. Just as some Japanese can live with and may actually prefer to live with neighbours’ windows in close proximity, a view of a fence denoting a property boundary must still count as a view in Australia.

The layouts of these houses have little variation. Three or four bedrooms and two bathrooms down one side, the covered car parking area, the living areas and the legally required minimum amount of open space down the other. The only major variation comes from the position of the kitchen. It’s always a squeeze getting the two-car covered parking, entrance hall and one habitable room across the width of the block. The room at the front is unlikely to be the master bedroom. You can see from the layout above how much internal circulation is through the living areas – a one-meter strip from one end of the house to the other and there’s nothing particularly wrong with this.

My objection is the poverty of outlook from all rooms except that front one. What to do? Because of my recent interest in growing vegetables, I had reason to remember Ralph Rapson’s Case Study House #4. It has bedrooms down one side of a circulation route, and living areas down the other. Never built and depicting a lifestyle nobody aspired to in 1945, it’s a courtyard house yet not.

As is the way these days, somebody’s gone to the trouble of imagining it for us. Despite the generic render plants standing in for the vegetables, it’s a decent enough starting point for rethinking the Australian Handshake House.

Rapson’s Case Study House #4 was an “introverted” design intended for more confined urban sites – not that you could deduce that from the aerial render that only implies a fence. This is also the first time I’ve ever seen someone hanging up laundry in an architectural rendering. The Australian suburban narrow plot isn’t what Mr. Rapson had in mind but his organization of space only needs some slight adjustments and it’s good to go. The case study houses were designed to celebrate images of California living and we remember Pierre Koenig’s later Case Study House #22 the best for linking that to aspirational locations with desirable views. Rapson’s Case Study House #4 showed us that an “introverted” house doesn’t have to forego sun and air. In Australia at least, its time has come.

As a demonstration site, I’ll use 15.0 m x 33.3 m which is roughly half the quarter-acre block of yore. Yorehouses would have stretched across the block, dividing it into a front garden for show and a backyard for play. No more. Still, half of 1,000 sq.m is still a lot of land. Something can be done with it and it doesn’t have to be horrible. The pressure to do something is there but it’s not that great yet. It’s a bit like the frog in the pot of water.

I’ll start by reducing that construction gap to 50 cm. The side walls can still have Ando-esque windows very low or very high. It should be possible to grow some kind of ground cover to stop weeds proliferating and creating a fire risk. Here’s my first thought.

Please ignore the direction of swing on that guest bathroom door. It’s something I’m used to chiding students for.

This next is another thinking-through of the same thing. While the rear of the house can have variations for the degree of separation of that central space, the front of the house will always have the garage, entry and master-bedroom across the front. Everything behind however, is fairly flexible, especially where to place the kitchen.

Quick proof-of-concept tests with dimensions and furniture showed a 15-metre wide site was too wide and a 10-metre one too narrow.

It’d be ideal if a layout similar to the one sketched above could be achieved for a site 12–13 metres wide.

The driveway provides visitor parking for two cars. There will always be a two-car lock-up garage for secure parking. The house may be open to the sky on the inside but with respect to the street it’s a fortress. The front garden wall is maybe 1.6 m high.

The layout is a variation of the Australian three-bedroom house, with the only modern affectation being the three en-suites. Formerly, there would have been only a single bathroom and one separate w/c typically accessed via the laundry on the way to the “back” door, as it is here.

Rather than having a wall of glass sliding doors opening onto the outdoor space, the kitchen is placed centrally along that wall. The kitchen as the core and nerve-centre of the house remains a dominant trope in the Australian suburban house. If the laundry door is the back door and service entrance, then the main recreational access to the outside is typically from sliding glass doors adjacent to the dining area or the living area, as is the case here. If this end of the room is the living area then the other end of this large room where there is illumination via other spaces would be the (indoor) dining area, whereas, if the outside is accessed via the dining area, the other end of the room becomes the living area. Its received illumination would still be an improvement on those often windowless rooms half-heartedly validated in contemporary layouts by labelling them Home Theatre.

The rear of the house can be arranged as one or more self-contained units for semi-independent family members or even for non-family members. The living room wall is pulled away from the fence 1 meter to enable separate external access to these rooms as well as to the central space. Additional high-or low windows can be placed wherever they enhance ventilation and/or illumination.

Perhaps most importantly, the fences remain at both ends of the central space, either to be concealed with planting or left exposed and admired for whatever it is they represent.


Machine for Living Many

This post applies the lessons of the previous post to construct the proposal of the post two before, and with minimal customizations and operations.

Apartment parts (makes two apartments)

6 x 20 ft (6 m) shipping containers
2 containers for living/dining/kitchen
2 containers for two bedrooms
1 container (half-shared with another apartment) for bathroom
1 container for access corridor (shared by all)
4 stair units (each half-shared with another apartment)
Kitchen and bathroom fixtures and fittings


CONTAINER 1: Corridor
The first and most basic container is the access corridor. It has all walls removed, but roofs of corridors on upper levels will be fitted with balustrades. This is the variation with the roof removed and which is used for uppermost levels as a thermal and acoustic barrier.

CONTAINER 3: Living Room Outer
These have one wall removed while the opposite wall has two full-height openings for windows. All living rooms face south these openings are next to the end walls to reflect SE and SW light deeper into the room. Windows are at the ends of the wall to bounce east and west sunlight deeper into the room.

CONTAINER 5: Bedrooms Outer
This is the same as Living Room Outer except for a partition dividing it in two halfway across its width. The single windows are in the middle of the walls for more uniform illumination and greater furniture layout flexibility.

CONTAINER 4: Living Room Inner
This has the same base as Living Room Outer but the openings also have L-shaped door recesses, one of which has the entrance door. The kitchen fits between these two recesses. A window is added to the kitchen wall

CONTAINER 6: Bedrooms Inner
This is the same base configuration as Living Room Inner except the L-shaped door recesses are now inverted and the swing of the door reversed to open outwards. The other half of the bedroom partition is added, along with another partition wall containing the bedroom doors. (Sliding doors not unlike Japanese fusuma could be used instead of this wall.)

CONTAINER 3: Bathroom
This begins with four end openings for the stairs to connect. Between these openings on each side are two small windows, two for each bathroom formed by a party wall dividing the container midway along its length. An internal wall and door separate each bathroom from its corridor.

Type and No. of Customizations

Making two apartments requires ten customizations and 45 operations.

#CustomizationCont. 1
Cont. 2
Cont. 3
Cont. 4
Cont. 5
Cont. 6
1Remove walls*142111110
2Wall end openings*2 4222212
3Tall windows224
4Bathroom windows44
5Corridor/kitchen window112
6Bathroom party wall11
7Partitions with doors224
8L-shaped door recess2*324
10Bedroom partition wall1*512
1 Removing a wall whether short or long is counted as one
2 Making a window opening an installing a window are counted separately
3 The L-shaped recess for the entrance and exit doors is counted twice for each container even though it is the same component inverted
4 The direction of opening of the doors however, will have to be reversed.
5. I expect the bedroom partition wall to be constructed in two halves that are later joined, and so it’s counted as separate customizations of different containers.


The ground level will have stairs from level 0.0 to level 0.5 but all other stair units will be used as both internal stairs and external stairs whether up or down, or to an entrance or from a fire escape. With actual construction, the stair units would be placed as the assembly rises but I will describe them separately as they’re not a container customization but a separate design element that can be incrementally and independently optimized. This is the geometry. Ground level and uppermost storey stairs will have only the bottom or top staircases, respectively.

A competent carpenter could make it but I imagine them fabricated from sheet metal. It may even be possible to have them 3D printed one day but, in the meantime, some sort of weatherproof cladding over a steel frame seems likely. The external stair will have railings and the internal one will have windows. Structurally, the stairs cantilever from a central spine connected to the corner couplings but the staircase could rest top and bottom on the containers and secured only by the container corner couplings.


So let’s start building because over here we’ve got one big all-terrain crane and a load of 360 minimally-customized containers and 72 stair units. A container ship carrying 20,000 containers can be unloaded in several hours. Let’s give ourselves one week to put this thing together.

We start with a Corridor container (#1) on a foundation designed to suit the intended load and soil bearing capacity. As with a ship’s deck, it’s important that the surface not deform and the containers be properly secured. I’m assuming a suitably reinforced concrete pad with standard container mountings inset.

On the south side and at the appropriate distance (determined by the stair unit) are a Living Room Inner container (#4) and a Living Room Outer container (#3) secured to half-height containers. On the north side, and again half a level up, are a Bedroom Inner container (#6) and a Bedroom Outer container (#5). We now have the living/dining/kitchen of an up-going apartment and the bedrooms of a down-going apartment.

Raising the habitable room portions of the project half a level up is probably a job for concrete columns and not customized half-height containers. I may be laying myself open to accusations of prioritizing style over content, at least from anyone who still sees a distinction between the two. Others may say those customized half-height containers that prioritize style over content are the only piece of architecture this building will have. They‘re probably not wrong saying that.

Moving on, a Bathroom container (#2) goes on top of the Corridor container (#1). Staircase units are fitted.

This is followed by another Living Inner (#4) and Living Outer (#3) on top of the previous Living Inner and Living Outer, and and another Bedroom Inner (#6) and Bedroom Outer (#5) going on top of the Bedroom Inner and Bedroom Outer already placed. These are, respectively, the living/dining/kitchen for the down-going apartment and the bedrooms for the up-going apartment.

Finally, another Corridor (#1) container is placed above the Bathroom container (#2) to serve as the access corridor for the down-going apartment and the fire-escape corridor for the up-going apartment.

This two-story module is repeated both horizontally and vertically seven times. The major difference between shipping containers in the wild and the domesticated ones is that the latter mostly encloses space that weights nothing. It may be possible to have stacks of more than ten.

Shipping containers have no one colour. The colours of this demonstration proposal are only intended to represent colours as-obtained – such as with the Frietag store. For this demonstration, I created six colours called A, A-, B+, B, B- and C, and then used a grading dice (given to me as a joke) to randomize them even though all containers don’t travel independently and an authentic distribution of container colours is never entirely random.

Access corridors are extended to receive the cage elevators and open fire escape stairs. Floor-only containers form an additional environmental barrier (and dragon diversion) on the uppermost floors. The row of floor only containers above the bathrooms is reserved for water tanks and various mechanical equipment. This is the building on the living room side, with railings fitted,

still waiting for those stairs and elevators to arrive1

The bedroom side.

The bathroom containers, corridor containers and roof containers could be delivered with railings already fitted but it might be more prudent to fit them later. Apart from the elevators and fire escape stairs, all that remains to be done is to attach and connect services and utilities.


This was never about containers specifically as any unit-based construction system is a good idea. But this post brings to a close, at least for the time being, a series of posts containing proposals for getting more benefit from apartment access corridors by making them open to daylight and fresh air, by making people inside apartments more aware of them, and by making the life of apartments more apparent to corridor users. Going down from an access path to one set of habitable rooms and going up to another is not a new idea. The New York brownstone and the London Georgian terrace do just that.

The sidewalk/footpath is the best part of a city and these two historic housing solutions both do the same thing. They take the best part of a city and repeat it. Repeatedly. Whether constructed from shipping containers or not, the access corridors of this proposal are actually worthy of being called streets in the sky for they take the best part of the city and multiply it vertically, unlike these next two celebrated projects that multiply only those parts from which private gain can be extracted.