Tag Archives: Performance-Beauty

An Architecture of Sharing

An Architecture of Sharing is about the sharing of building elements. As such, it is about the density of human occupation and, by extension, how people can live in close proximity with sufficient comfort and maximum dignity.

An Architecture of Sharing is about sharing the building resources that create those elements. It is about using them to bring people together rather than just divide and separate them.

An Architecture of Sharing is about sharing the spaces created by those elements. It is concerned with external spaces with psychological, functional, and social utility. It is concerned with internal spaces also suited to non-traditional households and different forms of of tenure.

An Architecture of Sharing relates density, resources and occupancy through the basic building elements of walls and floors, the spaces they create, and how they are accessed.

An Architecture of Sharing isn’t about all building elements. Columns, for example, have no meaning in an Architecture of Sharing as they can’t be shared. It is only possible to share the slabs they separate and the space between them.

Domino House, Le Corbusier, 1914

Shared Walls

Shared walls are the end of the detached house and the beginning of sharing. The wall separates persons and households but those persons and households share the wall.

This project is for a small house or apartment for a single person or household but shows how even a single wall can be shared unequally but to the benefit of both sides. Furthermore, the spaces on each side have complementary poetic meanings.

Vertically Shared Slabs

Vertically shared floors are when the ceiling of one storey becomes the floor of the one above. The purpose of this has always been to allow building area on the same area of land. 

This proposal for a superslender tower has apartments that share (floor) slabs but not walls. Apartment buildings with only one apartment per floor aren’t unknown, but they are a minority. The lack of party walls enables views in all directions, a marketable characteristic typically associated with detached houses.

Horizontally Shared Walls + Vertically Shared Floors

This describes the typical floor of a usual apartment building that has the floorplate periphery allocated to multiple apartments accessed by a central corridor. It is a configuration so ubiquitous we barely notice it.

This example has two studio apartments, two one-bedroom apartments and two two-bedroom apartments on the same floor but, depending on the level and the desirability of the view in a particular direction, a studio apartment + a bedroom apartment can be converted into a two-bedroom apartment to reconfigure the building to maximize sale value.


Shared Inside Spaces

Shared inside spaces is about tenure and what happens when people who aren’t necessarily related, live in the same dwelling. The market for private housing still assumes a nuclear family as the norm and that, if persons aren’t part of a nuclear family, that they will still aspire to live as if they were.

This dual apartment allows two persons to share a mortgage or the rent but not 100% of their lives or habits.

Shared Outside Space

This is about having some space on the other side of the window. It is about ventilation, daylighting and the sense of well-being that comes from not feeling confined. The space outside the windows is probably not going to be a conventional view. At lower levels it will include a view of a street or garden but, on higher levels, it will most likely be some open space between opposing windows, or a view through the gap between buildings. Shared outside space is therefore about urban density.

In this proposal I reworked a standard Hong Kong apartment tower and linked them so that the only view is upwards to the sky, downwards to the ground level, or across to the apartments on the other side of the octagonal shared outside space. It is dense yes, but there is still 16m distance between opposing windows.

Shared Access

I’m using the word “access” to include all lobbies, corridors, elevators and stairs that are used by persons of different households. Horizontally shared walls + vertically shared floors had the emphasis on the sharing of walls and floors. Here, the emphasis will be on additional functionality that this access space can either have or provide.

This proposal for an apartment building module comprises a studio apartment on a single level, and a one-bedroom apartment and a two-bedroom apartment on two levels. Having the shared access corridor on the middle level means that the one- and two-bedroom apartments can be dual aspect.

Shared Access + Outside Space 1

Shared access is when space used to access apartments also functions as outside space the ventilate kitchens and bathrooms as well as provide them with a level of illumination. The example above still had internal bathrooms and kitchens dependent on artificial ventilation. Shared access + outside space 1 is when that access corridor is also able to provide daylight and ventilation to rooms that would otherwise have been internal.

This proposal could be student dormitory or key-worker accommodation. It is tight. The bedrooms are the private living spaces. The only internal circulation space is the activity space around the table. Yet, all rooms are naturally lit and ventilated, and the half-floor access corridor allows, via the kitchen windows, a two-way awareness of people moving through the building, and without the intrusion of eye-level eye contact across the “public-private” divide.

Shared Access + Outside Space 2

This is when the access spaces such as corridors and elevator lobbies are used to provide not only ventilation and daylighting but more conscious view of the internal life of the building, of people coming and going. Apartment entrance halls are the first and most obvious place to have these views of the communal access space. This mutual viewing and awareness of who is coming and going and who is at home or not is not about surveillance but about fostering a sense of people living together. Arrangements such as these have no more or less opportunities for direct contact. Sometimes it’s sufficient to just know that other people are home.

This is a lobby level of a circular apartment tower with two elevators. Each stairwell links to one floor up and down, meaning that these elevator lobbies are voids three stories high and square in plan. That void (and people coming and going) is overlooked by kitchen windows and entrance hall windows. On the lobby level, voids with railings keep people in the lobby at a distance from those windows and foster and awareness of activity in the lobbies above and below. Internally, all apartments have a kitchen, a bathroom, a living area and one bedroom but this bedroom can be taken from or given to the adjacent apartment to convert two one-bedroom apartments into a studio plus a two-bedroom apartment. This is also an example of Horizontally Shared Walls + Vertically Shared Floors.

Shared Access + Shared Internal Stairwells

This set of proposals began with the Stacked Stairs proposal that used internal stairwells to enlarge an apartment into the floor above, the floor below, or both. These proposals all use internal stairwells in the same way, but now recognize that the landings can be split and the same staircase used to upwardly enlarge the apartment on one side, and to downwardly enlarge the apartment on the other. Shared access is the same stairs being used in the same way by different persons, but shared stairwells is about the same stairwell having divided landings so persons on one side can use the stair to go up a level, while persons on the other use it to go down one. Various apartment configurations are possible according to whether the landing is divided and has two, one or no doors opening into it.

These are two iterations of the same idea. On the left, the stairwell at the bottom can be used so the occupants of the apartment on left can share (or appropriate) the bedroom space of the apartment above, while the occupants of the apartment on the right can use the stair to go down and do the same for the apartment below. The iteration on the right is based on a Yemeni mud-brick house that its functionality improved in the same way. In this case, the stairwell at the bottom of the plan is the shared access while the staircase at the top is the shared one.

Shared Access + Outside Space + Shared Internal Stairwells

This set of proposals has horizontally shared walls, horizontally and vertically shared floors, the sharing of access, outside space and internal stairwells. All these proposals are applicable to the sharing of internal space in non-traditional households.

These two proposals embody all aspects on The Architecture of Sharing I’ve mentioned above. The proposal on the left is from about four years ago and the one on the right from four months ago. Both have three-storey high elevator lobbies overlooked by kitchen windows across a void in the slab. Bathrooms are naturally ventilated via this same void within a void. All spaces are vertically linked. It is not necessary for the spaces in these buildings to be apartments.

At the beginning of this post I wrote that An Architecture of Sharing relates density, resources and occupancy through the basic building elements of walls and floors, the spaces they create, and how they are accessed. How to live at higher densities, how to make our resources go further and how not to degrade quality of life are all concerns that need t be linked and this notion of the sharing of building elements is the obvious place to start as these elements are all we have to work with. This notion of an Architecture of Sharing is about us extracting a more comprehensive performance from these building elements we interact with and that shape us the most.

Aesthetic Efficiency

Prompted by this empty space outside a mall, I asked a few posts back if invisible design was an oxymoron. Despite having no obvious indicators of design, this empty space enables all the feelgood benefits we like to think more visible design can provide.

It enables so much for so little obvious design input and leads to the concept of aesthetic efficiency and an occasional topic of this blog. It goes like this. Some buildings are nice to look at or experience and some may even be thrilling but, if those pleasure units were quantifiable then it’d be easy to put a cost on them and determine if the sum of them was worth it. Not only that, we’d also be able to track the total aesthetic pleasure a building gave over its lifetime. It would enable us to see for what they are, those buildings launched to great fanfare but soon forgotten.

In the previous post I mentioned covering the supports and undersides of elevated expressways with ivy as an example of something that provides huge benefits for very little outlay. This is also a design decision in the sense that somebody was able to imagine an improvement and then implement it. It’s not as invisible as the previous example.

Even less invisible is this next space I recently described as having something compelling about it due to the curved facades of the four buildings giving shape to the space between and forming a faux-roundabout with three drop-offs and one entrance on the diagonals. This works wonderfully for traffic and the hotel drop-offs but less so for pedestrians as the distance between crosswalks is increased. It’s not a plaza, piazza, place, square or circle, but it’s a very strong something that’s been created from nothing or, more precisely, the controlled and consistent absence of something. It’s more than the sum of the spaces between the buildings and is all the more remarkable for being the cumulative work of three different designers. This simple design decision has produced something disproportionately greater than the means used to achieve it. It’s a manifestation of aesthetic efficiency.

I’ve admired these London council apartment buildings by Colin Lucas for decades now and I know many people will object to the raw brick and concrete finishes on aesthetic grounds. [Note: Unless there is local pressure to prettify them with overcladding, these buildings will remain as fireproof today as the day they were built.] A single typical floor could have been designed to have three two-bed apartments and one one-bed apartment but instead, the one-bed apartments are grouped on every fourth floor, giving these buildings their distinctive profile, and all for the construction cost of cantilevering the living rooms a meter and a half on one side.

We now go from London to Shanghai and, according to the sequence in my photo library, somewhere between the Picardie Apartments (1935) and Keven Café across the road, and Jing-An Temple. The uppermost floorplates of this building are marginally larger and the levels immediately below have balconies creating a transition. It’s not so different from the London example in using a very efficient aesthetic device to give the building its distinctive profile at very little additional cost. This building uses the device only once to give the building a base and a wider top but nobody can accuse it of trying to be a tree or a flower. However, if you half close your eyes, you can perhaps see an abstraction of one of The Three Classical Orders. Ionic or Corinthian I don’t know or care. I like it.

When I was in Shanghai, an architect friend recommended I go see Square Pagoda Garden (方塔园, FangTaYuan) if I had time, as it’s in the town of Sonjiang outside Shanghai proper. 

The trip is an hour and a quarter by bus from Shanghai Indoor Stadium Station where a new outdoor stadium is being built without fuss.

I arrived at the bus station just as the express was about to depart. I was having trouble registering on the QR ticket app but, when I mentioned FangTaYuan to a station controller, he said something to the driver and I was ushered onto the bus. 

The driver was going to let me ride without paying but, by the time we arrived, I’d managed to get the app working and paid the ¥8 (US$2) fare. My next problem was that the ticket office for the pagoda park only took cash. I must have looked disappointed because I was told it didn’t matter and the lady gave me a ticket anyway. I felt this Square Pagoda Garden was a very special place for Chinese people and that they very much wanted me to see it. 谢谢大家。

You enter the park from the north and proceed along a straight road with close planting. At the end, the view opens up and though your first sight of the pagoda is off to the left, its base is hidden by a wall partially enclosing the square in which the pagoda stands. This is of course deliberate. The most common shape for a pagoda is octagonal and there are also hexagonal and circular ones but I’m surprised there aren’t more square ones since having fewer corners emphasizes the roof curves and makes them appear more delicate. Solidity and grounded-ness must be valued more.

Immediately in front of this approach road is a large mound with steps inviting you to a raised viewing platform offering views of the pagoda seen through tree branches or against the uneven edge of the platforms and their boulders. These aren’t set views from predetermined positions but glimpses, incidental, and almost voyeuristic. I wouldn’t be surprised if none of this, including the mound, is natural. It’s wonderful. Leading off the mound are various paths and, while you suspect some new thing is just around the corner or beyond the moon gate, you go along with it and let yourself be delighted anyway.

The pagoda was first built in the late 11th century, underwent various renovations and repairs, was rebuilt in 1977, had the park added in 1978 and the formal garden added in 1982.

The viewing mound and lake were thus most likely created in 1978. But look at the sides of that lake in the image below! Its sides are vertical concrete [!!] walls where the pagoda is seen against them, and only on the south [left] side is there anything resembling a natural slope. Neither the artificiality of the pagoda or the naturalness of the landscape is made a fetish of with crude juxtapositions. The lake isn’t even trying to be natural yet the noisy paddleboats don’t disturb its silence. It’s bold yet, at the same time, it’s almost nothing. See how the wall around the pagoda isn’t concealed by trees? And how the near corners of the pagoda, the boundary wall and the lake are all on the same diagonal? And how the portion of the lake wall outside this square geometry is slightly lower? Beautiful. Perfect. 1978. [What did we think was important in 1978? And how much of that still speaks to us in the same way it did then?]

This concrete lake is an incremental improvement. Its material and construction are new but not a distraction. Its position and alignment reinforce what’s already there. It’s a respectful acknowledgment that’s made the pagoda better somehow yet it’s difficult to see it as conscious design. It’s probably impossible to find out who was responsible for these decisions but, if I could, I’d like to ask them if they knew they were doing something amazing or whether they just thought it was the right thing to do.

Notice how, from across the lake, the pagoda is either framed by or seen against those cypress trees in the distance? This isn’t an accident. It’s playing the long game, seeing the bigger picture.

In televised mass performance extravaganzas for some major commemoration or festival, an empty section of sky in the far distance on the edge of frame will be lit with synchronous fireworks to enhance what’s happening on stage within the stadium. (Imagine a project meeting with the stage manager/director saying things like “Give me a proposal and estimate for painting that patch of sky over there orange for the ten seconds from 3:05 to 3:15 into Act 2, yellow for the 8 seconds from …. etc.”)

When we notice this, we say it is “layering of space” as if we understand it, happily praise it as wondrous and then fail to notice how well somebody just did their job. It’s picturesque landscape design and how to make isn’t that hard. The bit we find difficult is seeing that bigger picture in the first place. From now on, me hearing the words “layering of space” to describe one opening seen through another will trigger a “release the safety on my Browning” moment.

Another remarkable thing about this park is how complete a world it is despite being only 450m at its longest north-south. At no time was I aware of the world beyond its boundaries and, always drawn to the centre as I was, I had no desire to seek out those boundaries, or to even wonder how this was achieved. It’s a totally internal world concealing the one outside and allowing you to forget it. It’s totally relaxing and we should expect this of all our parks and gardens. The souvenir and refreshment kiosks were small, functional and picturesque. I wasn’t spending any money just sitting there or walking around and, unlike some galleries I’ve been in, I was in no hurry to leave once I’d seen what I came to see.

My friend tells me that this pagoda and park have inspired many persons, including celebrated architect Wang Shu. I don’t know what Mr. Wang thought or wrote about it and nobody’s asking me what I think but, if they were to, I’d say “Try to make something as simple as you possibly can, and then do something bold with it”. If any of my students learn anything this coming semester, I want this to be it.