Tag Archives: survival

How To Leave a Company

There’s no point talking about the many reasons one might want to leave a company. They’ll all fall into one of the three groups of 1) Overworked, 2) Underpaid and 3) Underappreciated.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

Your Lao Tzu moment is the moment you realise you’re all three. Nobody will notice anything but you’ll feel the change immediately. Just as designers of buildings must first be capable of imagining how a building can be before they get busy working to realise it, being able to imagine a better career for yourself is no different and, once you’ve done it, suddenly the most important thing you have to do is get your CV out there and look for the position you feel you deserve. You’ve already decided that continuing where you are is no longer tenable. Once you accept that first interview request then it is no longer possible to continue where you are. You’ve initiated the exit sequence and, in your mind, have already moved on. This is the most important part of the process. Other parts still have to be dealt with though. Here’s how it goes.


1.1  Find another job.
1.2  Accept their offer.
1.3  Sign the contract.


2.1  Prepare your resignation letter. Address it to HR. You only need to write that you’ve accepted another position and that you intend to discuss with HR when your final day will be, taking into account your leave balance, etc. Place letter in an envelope.
2.2  The next day, choose a time when your boss is at their desk and slightly busy. Mid–morning is always good. Go up and say:
2.2.1 “You can take your job and shove it.” “Sideways”.
2.3  Or, you could just say something like “I wanted to tell you I’ve accepted another position.” It actually doesn’t matter what you say. They’ll get the message. Give your boss your resignation letter and say “This is just a letter for HR. ” There’s no need to feel bad, apologise or say anything stupid like offer to leave only when it suits them, etc.
2.3  Nevertheless, it is an awkward moment. Boss is thinking “Shit, now I have to find someone else to do the work.” but will probably say either of the following.
2.3.1  “I’m sorry to hear that. Where to?” This is just small talk – go with it.
2.3.2  “I’m a bit busy right now. We must have a coffee and a chat soon.” Just say “Sure”. You could remind them there’s nothing to discuss as you’ve already signed the contract, but don’t bother – the chat/coffee won’t happen.


3.1  The news will travel around the company in seconds. People will contrive to meet you in elevators, corridors and kitchens to find out more. They’ll earnestly give you their phone numbers, saying you must keep in touch. Don’t worry. They won’t. You won’t.
3.2 There may have been quite a while between your Lao Tsu moment and your actual resignation. This is good. It means you probably have accumulated paid leave that will be deducted and could make your notice period as short as one week. If your company wants you to stay for around longer for handover purposes, they can buy that leave back from you. This will depend upon your contract and the employment law in your country of work.
3.3  In any case, you should tell all the clients you’ve enjoyed working with that you’ve found another position but you should do this out of courtesy. They may ask why but don’t say anything negative about the company you’re leaving as they still have to work with them. Instead, be positive about your expectations of working for your new company. This is a time to be genuine. Don’t overdo it. Your clients will draw their own conclusions.
3.3  Do the handover thing as best you can. Email your other clients and tell them who they’ll be needing to contact, etc. in the future. You may have to take your successor to client meetings. Keep it professional. 


4.1  This is an interview, usually conducted by someone from HR, where they try to find out why you’re leaving. It’s supposed to be so they can make improvements to the company.
4.1.1 You’ll have your own reasons for leaving but there’s no need to say too much. The reasons you give don’t have to be the main ones or even the true ones. People who care about the work (as distinct from the job) are likely to be overly honest here.
4.2 Try to keep the conversation general. Don’t let it go on for too long – there’s nothing in this for you
4.3  Remember: If exit interviews really existed for the purpose of making the company more attractive to its employees, then you would never have thought of leaving in the first place. Many companies want you to work for them as long as possible while paying you as little as possible. If anything gets improved, it will be their techniques for doing that, nothing else.


5.1  In your last week, clear out your inbox and clear out your desk. Leave your favourite coffee mug in the kitchen. Delete any personal stuff on your computer. Overwrite your computer’s hard drive with zeroes if you know how. Say a silent goodbye to projects you once cared about. Leave all project data on the server.
5.2  On your last afternoon, HR will ask you to return company property such as access cards and to settle any unfinished business. While you’re there, ask when your last pay will be deposited.


6.1 Sometime between 3pm and 4pm you may notice people gathering around your desk. Ignore them until you can’t anymore for it means that, unbeknown to you, over the past week, a brown envelope has been passed around from desk to desk inviting your colleagues to contribute towards a leaving gift accompanied by an overly large card signed by all and to which some people may even have added a message along the lines of “Sorry to see you go!” or “Good luck! The gathering will be brought to order and words of thanks will be said by whichever senior member of staff volunteered. You will respond in kind. Keep it short and give it a definite ending so people will know when to applaud and go back to their desks.
6.2  Shortly before 5pm, go around the office and say goodbye to everyone. Your boss will probably have made some important appointment and won’t be there to see you go. Perfect. Make sure you have something already planned for that evening. Otherwise, there may be …


7.1  Every company has their own way of doing this but, if there is one, enjoy it as if you’re watching a movie with yourself in it. Remember all the leaving events you’ve been to. Remember how little you really wanted to be at those. Nothing meaningful will be said, so be happy. The only sad bit is thinking how little you will miss any of it. This will pass. Move on.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

• • • 

So far I’ve resigned from three* companies and been made redundant from three*, the most recent being a GFC-related redundancy in 2009, three months after I arrived in Dubai. This post began life in 2013 as email advice to a friend contemplating leaving his first company. He recently sent it back to me, returning the favour.

* 26 June 2020: four : three


The Cycle of Cold

October 7: I love the times around equinoxes – they are the best seasons. They are complexly bold. For one, my apartment gets penetrated with sunlight right to its back wall. It is the only season when this happens for my window orientation. And it is during these seasons that day and night are the most expressed and pronounced. One is told that the day is done by the perceived change in the world and its state. In summer, I am always puzzled when I’d be doing stuff in the evening and then find it is 11 at night and still dusk but I must get some sleep. It is such an abrupt end to a seemingly infinite evening. It’s easy to catch insomnia in summer and, as a student on off-time, I often did.

Due to geometric reasons, the rate of change of the day’s length is most profound at the equinoxes as the Earth with its tilted axis is like a crank on a piston that has its lowest and uppermost positions at the solstices. Because of this changing rate of change, these inbetween seasons are really elusive and don’t seem to last more than a fortnight around their core date. Wait until a bit later in the spring, and the world behaves like it’s summer. Be it a bit earlier and it’s still wintry. 

Perhaps this affection for the equinox comes from my autumn birthday.

The Entrance of Cold

October 16: This week it began to snow. The sun sets earlier and the shimmering dusk is completely gone. The rate of change accelerates after the doldrums of endless sun. Approaching the pole, the solar sway gets more and more pronounced. Another sure sign that winter is coming is that the arctic air no longer feels like a refreshing blessing, but begins to hum with all of its weight for short times at first, until it stays for long. Foliage falls down, as does snow, but not for too long yet. Western Slavs call the eleventh month “Listopad”, but for us here the fall of the leaf is long past.

We are so used to snow in the northern hemisphere that we forget that snowy winter is mostly a northern hemisphere thing. In a hemisphere opposite, inhabited continents do not stretch too far toward the pole and do not cover such wide swaths to create a continental climate. Anywhere above 50°N and a thousand miles away from the sea it is much colder than it needs to be to give mood to holiday photos.

The Psychology of Cold

Prompted by the change in light, winter usually brings a change in my psyche, both hopeful and painful. This change is like gradually withdrawing from the summer world. Autumn two years ago for me was a challenging time for work and this and the decaying sun out there made me very emotional. By November life felt scarce and barren. So last winter I devoutly went out of the office at lunch for long walks to acquire sky exposure. I unthinkingly stopped doing this in March as the sunlight restored itself. After the sun sets suddenly and frighteningly at 4 pm there is no difference between 8 pm and 1am if you walk around through the darkness. Only there would be fewer people, but even transportation feels more abundant in the winter dark than in autumn. Maybe it’s because winter dark occurs even at 7 pm and there’s a lot of transportation then. Winter also appears to filter only those who need to be outside and it fills you with decency if you are out.

The Physiology of Cold

The crisp sound of snow crushing under your foot in the evening hints that it’s gotten colder. Such sound is usually heard beneath a clear sky. Walking every day in the cold for three months makes you recognize it by gut, with little notice. One winter, I discovered for the first time how human skin adapts to winter – what it never seemed to do in me before. In November my legs used to freeze and become pink but by February I could keep a bare hand in -15°C for 20 minutes as I photographed buildings and in the evening still see my usual tender hand. It probably has something to do with moisture freezing out of the air at less than zero. It makes the air drier and more bearable than a -5°C damp day. Winds are another element. Those who have moved here say that the wind here is baleful but I don’t notice. It’s nowhere near as bad as Saint Petersburg where the wind bites at your kidneys. My friend Kostya who moved there said that after four years you stop noticing. 

The Solitude of Cold

What else is there in winter? I love the privacy of my mightily insulated coat and in summer I miss its feeling of a protective spacesuit. Being out is already taking effort and, once you are, cold air is a very hospitable place. I do like the “northern challenge”. Northern latitudes require some patience, planning and management of scarce resources, all of which are virtuous. On the other hand, the wonder of wintry lands making progress is simpler, since no one can survive without complex provisions. Anyone disobedient can be easily converted or as easily discontinued. “To banish into the freeze” is still a widely used Russian saying.

On 18 March 1965 Alexey Leonov was the first human to exit an orbiting spacecraft and perform extravehicular activity (EVA). I recently read of the death of Bruce McCandless, the first American to perform an untethered “spacewalk” in 1985. He remembered it became so cold he was shivering and his teeth were chattering.

Cold air eagerly ventilates my apartment and makes it a very pleasant place to be. In summer I want to smash the open window as I hear the unobstructed screams of 1000-person population of the house converging in the yard over the course of the day.

The Otherworldness of Cold

In a rural place one might see a train swooping across the landscape as essentially a spaceship –  a vessel of habitable volume – transcending an inhospitable world. This feeling is most pronounced in the Arctic, of which I only have pictures.

The Colour of Cold

You’d have to see a taiga dusk to decide if you would trade it for a subtropical one. Folks who moved to Moscow all agree that skies there are rubbish compared to ones we get to have here.


The Intelligence of Cold

Blowing into ones hand is a simple example of recycling heat. In this photograph, a warm building exhaust port is veiled so that it keeps the tractor engine warm upon its startup when it sets out to sweep the premises.

Wild ducks converge upon wherever the water is open. The not-quite-frozen water is the warmest thing they can find. Pigeons, devoid of nautical pride, are perfectly fine with roaming around heating and sewage hatches on the ground.

The Meaning of Cold

Learning how to live with cold is learning how to live in one’s surroundings and it doesn’t get more basic than that. I have heard stories of elders in villages who waned and passed away quickly after their children had installed automatic gas boilers in place of furnaces at their village houses. I can understand how people for whom keeping warm is life suffer when they no longer have to make a daily effort to maintain the indoor and body temperature.

The Look of Cold

My local friend Anne who found work in Moscow saw my pictures of Yekaterinburg and said she had forgotten what the cold feels like. She could still see the cold in the images.

The End of Cold

February 17: Sunday this week was the first Sun Day. I had the sun projecting onto my back wall for 5 minutes. Clouds obscured the star though. Sunlight has been back since January but it is only now that one begins to see the difference. This winter bothered me little. Overall, my mood kept on the joyful side of contentment – and it must be the behavioural effect of daylight too. Weirdly, I don’t hang out with anyone on a regular basis since New Year and the craving is gone and I feel balanced. It’s like abandoning sweet products. Not quite though.

This winter my routinely defined life made me blind to the lyrical dimension that lies in plain sight. I had abandoned my noon walks but later rediscovered them. About late February the dark will break and light will be sudden and unstoppable and from February each day will be five minutes longer than the one before. It completes the cycle, which I will continue to observe for I do not know how long.

Last spring I would leave the office at the same time and notice the apartment building opposite. It was a wonder when it finally had a sunny spot on its attic. I remember one March weekend last year, when I drank tea the entire morning, facing the sun and doing some edutainment surfing as the best day I had. Spring is hopeful and it is compelling to watch the sun win back the wall at the rear of my apartment. Then, one April evening I got drunk and walked back home and wept, seeing the twilight with me all the way.

• • • 


Ignorance is Bliss

In 1926, the United States’ Foreign Service Buildings Office was formed to oversee the construction of U.S. embassies. In 1954 they implemented an architectural design policy that made embassies worldwide as American as The International Style. This is a photograph circa 1960 of the US Embassy Eero Saarinen designed for Grosvenor Square, London.


This is the 1959 US Embassy at The Hague, designed by Marcel Breuer.


This is the 1961 US New Delhi embassy, designed by Edward Durell Stone.


This is the US Embassy in Athens, completed in 1961 to a design by Walter Gropius and the other architects at TAC.

You don’t see renderings or reflecting pools like these anymore.

A 1983 suicide bombing killed 63 people at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, prompting the State Department to form a panel to set out new guidelines for new embassy construction. It was known as the Inman Report, after the panel’s leader. It recommended

  • building behind a 9-foot security wall (for obvious reasons),
  • a street setback of at least 100 feet (to lessen blast shock waves?),
  • maximum window-to-wall ratio of 15% (to increase building integrity), and
  • ideally, a site of 15 acres or more away from the city centre.

Attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 led to a further tightening of site security precautions at all embassies including existing ones. This is the US Embassy in the UK, with its current assortment of security fences, bollards and resolutely three-dimensional hardscaping.


Similar measures were put in place at the US embassy in Athens although the building itself hasn’t aged well.

“Over the seventy-year life span of the American Embassy in Athens, the building has endured the Mediterranean sun and temperatures, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and the daily activities of the government traffic. However, these aspects have begun to effect [!] the structure. In January 2013, a request for proposal was released by the United States’ government in search of a firm that will complete an entire renovation of the chancery building (Athens Chancery Renovation). Although the design by Walter Gropius and his colleagues at The Architects Collaborative was planned very openly in order to adjust with the changing needs of the embassy, it can no longer function properly as a contemporary office space. Modern systems, not even fathomable in the 1960s [?], need to be installed, structural systems repaired and upgraded, internal layouts reconfigured, and asbestos materials need to be removed and replaced with safer products.” [ref.]

Meanwhile, the US New Delhi embassy is being given a complete refurbishment and re-imagining by Weiss/ Manfredi architects.


The design of individual buildings, resilient gardens, and reflecting pools are inspired by India’s reciprocal tradition of architecture and landscape and will exemplify the spirit of openness, environmental stewardship, and innovation.”


This 2008 photograph of the US Embassy in The Hague shows the usual countermeasures in place prior to a new embassy being commissioned.

By Pvt pauline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7185830

In Germany, the new US Berlin Embassy was eventually completed in 2008 but not without conflict.

 John C. Kornblum, US German ambassador from 1997 to 2001, said “For some reason, when we asked for our increased security enhancements a lot of people in this city went crazy. We endured all kinds of taunts and demands. ‘What do you Americans think you’re doing?’ ” [ref.]

In their presentation, Architects Moore Ruble Yudell of Santa Monica went for a watercoloured nostalgia to soften the effect of that 15% maximum window area recommendation.


Berlin is at 52°N so the shading-device like elements seem incongruous on the south elevation and inappropriate on the west one. They could be ornamental, or they could be light shelves, or they could function to interrupt the trajectory of airborne projectiles in the same way eyelashes do. 

“The palette of materials and design features have been carefully considered to complement the setting and to provide an open, yet secure, presentation of America.” [ref.]

Moore Ruble Yudell have a way with US embassies.

They all feature a circuitous route from gatehouse to public entrance, as well as vast reflection pools the primary purpose of which is not reflecting. The new US embassy in Beijing was designed by US global architectural ambassadors SOM.


Architecture is said to always love a reflection. Here, there’s a lot of reflecting going on but we’re being misled. Moats around Mediaeval castles were not trying to look beautiful.


This is the new US Embassy in London, designed by Kieran Timberlake Architects.

“In contrast to high perimeter walls and fences, security requirements are achieved through landscape design—such as the large pond, low garden walls with bench seating, and differences in elevation that create natural, unobtrusive barriers.” [ref.]


At first glance it looks like the rule for 15% maximum area of wall openings has been relaxed – and it has, but only because EFTE “can cope with large (200-300%) deformations beyond its elastic range before breakage, and can take extremely high short-term loading without risk of fracture, breakage or structural overload/collapse.” [ref.] In other words, its better than glass if you’re anticipating explosions. It’s not called an EFTE cushion for nothing – except nobody calls it that lest it give the game away and make people feel bad.


Detailed information on vehicle security at US embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq is difficult to find and one doesn’t want to be seen to be trying too hard to find it. However, when buildings are designed to withstand actual mortar attack, we’re no longer talking about bunker mentality – we’re talking actual bunkers, although technically they’re blockhouses as bunkers are typically underground.


• • •

I think we can now state the sequence by which we learn to live with the threat of explosive detonations near public buildings.

1. Temporary Measures

These appear overnight in response to some perceived threat. This is outside NYC Trump Tower on 11/9/2016. To would-be perpetrators, the highly-visible ability to satisfy suddenly-necessary performance criteria with high-mass deterrents send the message ‘don’t even think about it’.

Photo courtesy of Chuck Choi.

2. Semi-Permanent Measures

Temporary measures have a habit of becoming semi-permanent. These high-spec flowerboxes grace the perimeter of the US Embassy in Moscow. In passing, this is the stage airport security is currently at and seems destined to remain. Like airport security measures, nobody seems to be able to remember a time they weren’t there. A deterrent that doesn’t look like a deterrent to the people it’s meant to deter, might not be a good idea.


3. Permanent Measures

Sooner or later, the permanance of semi-permanent measures is accepted and becomes architecturalized. This is when concrete blocks such as those above are re-designed as high-relief hard landscaping such as outside the US Embassy in London. The ability to satisfy performance criteria is still on display but, as is the way with architecture and building performance criteria in general, efforts are made to downplay it.


Somewhat annoyingly for architecture, blast protection performance criteria are different from other building performance criteria such as thermal performance or sustainability. A well-constructed and well-performing green roof, for example, can produce many benefits but the reality is that green roofs get designed and built in order to represent those benefits without actually going to the trouble of delivering them. Architecture is about representation, not delivery.

Blast protection can’t be similarly sacrificed in the name of architectural representation for three reasons, all of them linked. The first is that architectural representation isn’t what’s wanted –some very real performance criteria have to be met if the building is to stay standing and its occupants alive. The second is that the systems of architectural representation we have are incapable of dealing with building performance criteria anyway. If they could, we would already be living in a world of buildings having the beauty of superior energy and ecological performance. The third is that, even if our systems of architectural representation were up to the task, nobody really wants architecture to represent or otherwise remind them of how unsafe this world we live in has become.

4. Forgetting

This is the final stage. Necessary performance criteria are completely assimilated into architecture so that our awareness of them disappears. Everyone is happy. A moat on one side and a trench on the other are nothing more than elements in a park-like space to walk your dog or child without having to think about vehicle-delivered fertilizer bombs and the ensuing flying debris and shattered glass. And think about them we won’t. Ignorance is bliss. Architecture has colluded with the powers-that-be to desensitize us to ugly realities.


• • •

This circa 2008 rendering may disingenuously hark back to kinder and gentler times but the realities it depicts are no more pleasant for being sugar-coated with a confident skill and understated elegance we also seem to have lost.


• • • 

[22 Nov 2016] see also this



Machines for Living Longer

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


Wildegg Castle in Switzerland is a hotel.


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


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


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

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


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


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

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

joint heirs.jpg

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


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

Bologna 11th c

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Machine for Living

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

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


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

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


This is an incinerator for dry and wet waste.


There’s other equipment and systems.


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


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



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


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


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


but it makes no sense if you do.


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


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


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


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


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


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

irrespective of comparisons such as this.


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


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

nautical railings

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


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

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

EPSON DSC picture

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

Royal Loft Suite.jpg

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


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


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


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


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


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


Walls too.


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


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


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



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


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

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


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


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

Picture 1.png

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


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


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

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

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


• • •

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


The Great Filter

Here’s a quick fly-through of The Universe. It’s fairly awesome.

We’ve recently found The Universe to be a bit more awesome.

Ahem… so then, WHERE IS EVERYBODY?!


This is the Fermi ParadoxThe apparent size and age of the universe suggests that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it. 

We here on Earth have been announcing our presence consciously since 1974 with messages such as the Arecibo Message that looked like this, colour added.


It shows how intelligent we are by indicating

  1. We can count from (1) to ten (10)
  2. We know the numbers of protons of the elements in DNA
  3. We know the formulae for the sugars and bases in the nucleotides of DNA
  4. We know the number of nucleotides in DNA and how they form,
  5. A selfie of a human, the dimension (physical height) of an average man, and the human population of Earth
  6. A graphic of the Solar System indicating where the message is coming from
  7. A graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope and the dimension (the physical diameter) of the transmitting antenna dish

The message has ten-fingered DNA-centric written all over it but it doesn’t matter – by the time it gets to where it’s been sent, its intended destination will have moved – which is not so clever. [Perhaps other “intelligences” are trying and missing as well?] In any case, SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence hasn’t turned up anything. Nada. Niente. Nanimo. We seem to be, for all intents and purposes, alone in the universe.

In 1968, Erich von Däniken didn’t think so.


His book Chariots of the Gods? suggested that the technologies and religions of many ancient civilizations were given to them by ancient astronauts who were welcomed as gods.


And so on. I haven’t heard much of von Däniken’s “WHO ELSE BUT ALIENS COULD POSSIBLY HAVE DONE THIS!” jumpy conclusions recently so they’ve probably been debunked by later books such as this.


In 1996, Robert Hanson returned to Fermi’s question of “Where are they then?” and gave it some thought. He concluded there must be something stopping life from spreading throughout the universe as we feel it ought to. His line of thinking went like this.

With no evidence of intelligent life other than ourselves, it appears that the process of starting with a star and ending with “advanced explosive lasting life” must be unlikely. This implies that at least one of the following steps must be improbable. 

  1. The right star system (including organics and potentially habitable planets)
  2. Reproductive molecules (e.g., RNA)
  3. Simple (prokaryotic) single-cell life
  4. Complex (archaeatic and eukaryotic) single-cell life
  5. Sexual reproduction
  6. Multi-cell life
  7. Tool-using animals with big brains
  8. Where we are now
  9. Colonization explosion.

He concluded:

This is bad news. Really bad.


It means that instead of developing warp drive and boldly going, it’s more likely that intelligent life in The Universe invariably discovers industry and destroys their environments out of greed and poisons themselves to extinction. Alternatively – and this is no better – they discover nuclear weapons without first overcoming their ideological and/or tribal differences and thus manage to annihilate themselves. Evidence? Well, we’ve nearly managed to do both in our short time on the planet.

It’s not all gloomy though. Glimmers of hope are provided by counterarguments relying on the “it’s just that we see no evidence” loophole in the Fermi Paradox. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, they say. It’s a weak argument, but possible. It might just take too much resources and time for any civilisation to colonise the Universe. Earth might be too far out of the way or not worth a visit. Earth might be considered too troublesome or primitive to bother. Or any or all of these. The only counterargument that really interests me is

“Truly intelligent life might just want to keep to itself.”

The idea that intelligent life would by definition want to endlessly explore and colonise as much as possible is typical of us projecting our own aggressive and colonial history upon other inhabitants of The Universe, driven by our belief that appropriating other people’s habitats and exploiting them is A GOOD THING.

This is our prehistory of human life spreading across this planet. It’s our documented history of civilisation, and it’s also our modern history of conflict and aggression. It’s all our histories but we can’t assume other intelligences might not want to act in the same way. In fact, we scare ourselves when we do imagine it.


1950s stories of alien visitors doing to us what we would most likely would have done to them are routinely interpreted as the Cold War fear of “The Other” with the added frisson of impending annihilation due to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).


The 1996 reworking of 1984’s V was the most recent outing of our fears of being done unto.


Friendly or otherwise, we seem programmed to not like people who are not like us.


We don’t look forward to actual meetings but nevertheless continue to scan space for radio transmissions that don’t appear random. This is what SETI does. 


Do we really expect a truly advanced society to want to build engineering mega-structures visible from other planets or galaxies? Surely a truly intelligent society would turn off unnecessary lights at night?


We can’t understand why a truly advanced society might not want to get to know us. We can’t comprehend that intelligence may be inward looking rather than outgoing, or more interested in quality over quantity, or value comprehensive performance over visual appearance. This is the position of Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute. He says

the possibly flawed assumption is when we say that highly visible construction projects are an inevitable outcome of intelligence. It could be that it’s the engineering of the small, rather than the large, that is inevitable. This follows from the laws of inertia (smaller machines are faster, and require less energy to function) as well as the speed of light (small computers have faster internal communication). It may be–and this is, of course, speculation–that advanced societies are building small technology and have little incentive or need to rearrange the stars in their neighbourhoods, for instance.

In other words, advanced societies might simply just get on with sustaining and improving their societies, keeping to themselves, and developing the technologies they need in order to function in harmony with their neighbours and in balance with their resourcesThis is difficult for us to comprehend. When we try to visualise it we tend to appropriate the look and feel of primitive societies we think achieved that,


or, less convincingly, ancient civilizations


or, more recently, the Amish.


This last example is interesting. Check out those houses! The problem of shelter appears solved as best it can for available levels of technology and resources. This Divergent imagery makes a virtue out of not making statements of fashion and individuality. It’s fiction, but encouraging nonetheless.


Actually, It’s been what Misfits has been saying all along, but it’s good to see these ideas get out into society from a different angle. Consider this next photo from our collective image bank.


To be fair, these buildings were once thought of as virtuous but, for many then and since, these were boring buildings and, by association, the people who lived in them were boring people for whom individuality and artistic sensitivity meant nothing. The surrealism of the Divergent imagery comes from wrongly assuming that human virtue is only possible in the presence of artistic architectural invention. This is the default position of many architects. It’s questionable.

We can accept an advanced society being defined as one that’s found a happy equilibrium between existence and resources, but we’re still not used to the idea that such a society could be achieved far easier than we can imagine and at a level of resource expenditure lower than we expect. But it’s a start. The idea has been planted. Once again.

Architecture still has a long way to go if it is going to improve our chances of surviving a Great Filter of the climate change sort. Even the words we use to talk about buildings mirror our colonialist, capitalist and militaristic mindset. All of the following are seen as for the GOOD. These are the words that change descriptions into narratives.

EXPLORE is the preferred verb to describe the act of finding solutions.
EXPLOIT is what the solution does, particularly with topography and views.

STRATEGY is what a plan for achieving something is now known as.
INTERVENTION is something thought to be desperately needed, and that one feels one ought to be thanked for having done.
WAR on poverty, homelessness, etc.

DEVELOPMENT is always positive, a good thing
ADDING VALUE is losing its abstract shades of meaning.
STAKEHOLDER is gaining abstract shades of meaning.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF is the clever application of knowledge and intelligence
VIBRANCE / VIBRANCY is the ambient bustle and hum of low-level commercial activity.

The very words we use to talk about architecture exemplify a mindset that might not be compatible with the long-term survival of the human race. This mindset is everywhere.


The use of “we”, “our” and “America” makes this message no more than a local wish for a global problem. There’s the implication that the planet is somehow at fault and that the cause of its warming is external. As we know, anything external is threatening, and necessarily destructive. It is the mindset of war, once again. It’s like those nasty polluting Chinese are out to get us this time.


Scaremonering? Of course. What I like about the concept of the Great Filter is how it forces us to focus. To talk of “saving” the planet for future generations misses the point. If the Great Filter exists, there won’t be future generations.

The Great Filter takes no prisoners. There’s no such thing as semi-annihilation. The concept of The Great Filter restates Pascal’s Wager for our times in terms of actions and consequences that have no ambiguity.

The Great Filter either exists or it doesn’t. If it exists, then it’d be prudent to do the right thing so we don’t get filtered out of existence. If it doesn’t exist we’ll never know and so we have no choice but to believe it does and to live accordingly. There’s nothing to lose except a few luxuries. 


“… to live accordingly.” This is a philosophical justification for not only environmentally responsible building construction but for an environmentally responsible architectural aesthetic as well.

If the Great Filter exists, then it’s not that such an architecture will serve us better in the long run, but rather that it’ll help ensure there is a long run.