Tag Archives: the ever-narrowing definition of architecture


As a child I was never very good at the Ishihara Test for colour blindness and I’m no better at it now. I can’t pick the numbers in any of the below even though it’s usually screamingly obvious to anyone without a degree of male-pattern red-green colour blindness. These are the people who, when I tell them, tend to pick up the closest red or green object and insist on asking me “What colour’s this then?”

I accept that I can’t work as a policeman or fireman because of something to do with traffic lights I imagine but, truth is, I’m only ever aware of this impediment when a red and a green of the same intensity are next to each other and the light is poor – a situation that occurs most often with leaves and flowers.

I’m good with the reds and greens of Bougainvillea, Poincianas and the erythrina family if they’re in bright sunlight but, at dusk and from a distance, the more muted colors of the Crimson Bottlebrush or the Red Gum become invisible to me long before they do to other people.

There may be less colour in my life but this might have heightened my awareness of it. The first colour I remember is the colour of the kitchen cupboards in the house I learned to crawl and walk in so those kitchen cupboards were probably the most colorful thing at eye level. The name of the colour was Flamingo [approx. R197 G116 B123]. I don’t know how I know that. Preschoolers don’t invent words like flamingo so I must have been told – which means I must have asked what this colour was called because it wasn’t red, blue, green, yellow, black or white.

This next colour is a kind of greeny grey like the colour of the screen of an old television so perhaps it’s another of my early, formative eye-level colors. I know this as the colour Typhoon [R45 G60 B55] from a DULUX™ colour chart.

If I’m asked what my favorite colour is I usually say orange but I’ve never owned any orange clothes, never painted a room orange and or owned an orange car. My orange favoritism is limited to flowers such as Rununculus, poppies, zinnias, a dune plant called portulaca and a smelly Australian shrub known as lantana we had in our front garden. I’ve never liked Marigolds so it’s not just about colour.

I have however painted walls a colour something like this next colour I know as Banana Cream [R250 G250 B150]. It’s the colour of one of those banana flavor milkshakes that taste nothing like banana. And that’s it for me and yellows although, if I had to fill a vase with flowers, it would be yellow tulips or roses.

Still at this end of the spectrum is Burmese Gold [R184 G138 B87]. I was allowed to paint my bedroom this colour but then it was the early 1970s.

My colour history has few blues. I’m not a blue person – although once I did paint my apartment a pale blue throughout but only because nothing I had was blue. I’ve never understood the fuss about Yves Klein’s International Klein Blue.


However, a couple of months ago I did save this next image which I suppose is a kind of blue. I don’t know. It’s too dark and too blue for ultramarine although the ocean can sometimes be this colour. I’ll call it Ocean [R48 G89 B111] and save it for future reference.

I once lived in an apartment on the first floor of a late-Georgian terrace on Gray’s Inn Road. I learned that this row of terraces was one of the last to be developed – about 1830. The floor originally had two rooms of equal depth and each with fireplaces. The stairwell opened into the rear room, reducing its width.

The layout that I rented probably dated from the 1970s but may not have been the first conversion. The apartment became an exercise in colour and materials when I was between jobs and with too much time on my hands. Below are the original 1830 layout, the conversion – which was quite decent planning – as I found it in 1995 with all white walls, and how I painted its walls.

The external and party walls were a pale blue colour that I rightly or wrongly associated with 1830. The original internal walls I painted that dark Typhoon colour I mentioned earlier, in memory of the plan that was. It was important to me at the time, but where the colors joined, the dark grey of the wall that came later came after – in order of paint and painting – the blue of the original wall. The wall that makes the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom probably came next and its pale green overlaps the colour of the existing walls it abuts. Finally comes the pink of the wall making the hallway, and the yellow of the wall separating the kitchen and bathroom. It turned out well, and I was particularly pleased with the beam in the hallway where the original dividing door had been. It doesn’t show in any of these photos but it’s there in the header sketch.

The sequence in which the walls were painted reflected their order of construction. All this housepainting (that, oddly, the British call “decorating”) was performed with a 4″ brush because the bristles are longer and more flexible. You can load it with paint and, by adjusting the pressure, roll a bead of paint down a corner to produce a straight line.

I threw away nasty carpets, and sandpapered and varnished the floorboards. I was defeated by the skirting boards and window frames that simply had too many layers of paint to remove. However, I did strip and sandpaper all door frames, using a blade to create sharp edges and making them look as if they were affixed to the wall openings afterwards, which of course they were. Heads of nails were exposed.

I stripped the many layers of paint from the living room radiator. Its natural state was the burnished steely grey you see below and this probably made it better at radiating. I removed and stripped all paint from all door furniture. You know you have too much time on your hands when you find yourself removing the paint from screw heads in order to replicate a sequence of construction. This, I realize now, what what it was all about: a built reality that is nothing more or less than the materials and the sequence in which they were put together.

This was all well and good, and I did enjoy it and teach myself something at the same time. However, all my efforts were at best a representation of a building as the product of the materials and sequence of its construction. The idea itself wasn’t an affectation – it remains an excellent one – but it was an affectation to expect such an unpretentious building to represent it rather than embody it organically. And so, after a while, I decided to paint everything that same pale blue, on the basis that nothing I owned or that was in that room was blue. It was okay, but too blue. After another while I repainted all the walls some dull green heritage colour called drab. Drabs aren’t what they used to be and the closest I could find is the middle colour in this next sequence collectively known as olive drab.

In keeping with the period but out of place with the accommodation’s status of the period, I placed a timber framed print of a racehorse above the doorway – an affectation yes, but a good idea from some English, Italian or German tradition. And then I moved somewhere the other side of town but closer to my new job.

It’s odd for me to be now remembering my colour obsession and this old apartment I lived in when I was in London between jobs. Here I am in Dubai and waiting for a new job to start and once again I’m looking at my walls and wondering what colour they are.

I’m partial to Chartreuse the liqueur but these past couple of months I’ve grown to like chartreuse the colour after having seen it every day against these walls the dull green of an olive tree. It’s an elusive colour that, like any muted colour, depends upon the light and, during the day, this one changes from a greenish kind of grey to a blueish kind of green. I have a feeling most any colour would look good against it.

It might be another of my television screen colours but I’ll call it Dark Sage [R80 G90 B80].

Sometime in 2003, on the first day at my fourth new job since the multicoloured apartment, the design director tasked me with devising four different colour schemes for the reception area of a small London clinic. This is them. I devised them around the colour of some kind of architectural feature in the waiting area and gave them the names “Rose Garden”, “Mexico”, “India” and “New Mexico”. I particularly liked the “India” scheme and its combination of purple, mango, mint green and white I’d seen in many Indian restaurants.

Only last year, after explaining to students the principles of the colour wheel and its various combinations and effects, I gave them copies of the same blank image and asked them to devise a scheme of colors that are thematically linked, and to then give that theme a name. It’s an easy yet enjoyable class that reminds students that things like buildings are made of materials that either have a colour or are given one. Architects are supposed to have a preference for making things white but I’m not sure why, or if this is healthy. Making a model out of the one material is definitely simpler, quicker and less expensive, but it also means you don’t have to think about what materials it’s going to be made of or how they’re going to be put together. It reduces architecture to mass and openings to patterns.

Somehow this is acceptable because the building has probably been thought of and deslgned like that, with the development gain of massing satisfied first and the perception management of surfaces and cladding coming after. This is also the process by which design is communicated via vizualizations. The first thing produced is a white model onto which textures are then mapped by someone possibly not even in the same company. [c.f. Architecture Myths #23: Architecture]

CAD program features such as “white model” are only developed because architects use them to comprehend and communicate buildings. In a project file such as the one this next image represents, the materials may even have been designated as the file was created, as they’ll link to the specification and bill of quantities.

The trouble is that it communicates only the massing which is the easiest thing to communicate, reinforces the belief that architecture is predominantly about shape, and normalizes a culture of thinking it is no longer important what a building is made of.

Last century had brief moments when buildings were the consequence of the materials and processes by which they were constructed. The materials didn’t even need to be of the highest quality if they were well put together. It was called honesty. That this sounds quaint now suggests we live in times when honesty is no longer a virtue. The built evidence suggests so. And so does the written evidence such as Sir Peter Cook’s legendary 2013 Architectural Review article in which he wrote 1,800 words telling us how wonderful Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku was, but neglected to tell us what the building was made of. Denying the materials and construction of a building is a very expensive thing to do and something we should really be more suspicious of than we are. But the fact such a phenomenon exists means there must be some problem it’s solving and maybe we should think more about what that could be and in whose interests it is to not have us think about it. Thinking the future is white and made out of some plastic substance that has no name is so 1920s.

LEGO has its Architecture version with nothing but white pieces. It all seems to promote the thinking that colour is an afterthought and, by extension, the materials that have that colour.

Today I bought a copy of a book that shows the buildings of Tōgō Murano as architectural models made by students at Kyoto University. I’m in two minds. I’ve had my moments of enthusiastic model-making but never the technique or knowledge to follow through. I’m prepared to be awed by the precision and detail of these models.

The Prolific World Of Togo Murano Architectural Models 

Hiroshi Matsukuma, Publisher Seigensha ISBN 9784861525520

Togo Murano was born in 1891 in Saga prefecture. He graduated at the Faculty of Architecture at Waseda University. After working for the architecture office of Setsu Watanabe Architects, he established his own architectural practice. In a current trend of rethinking the modern architectural history, Togo Murano’s designs have been re-evaluated. This edition contains 80 models, based on his drawings and blueprints, of his still existing buildings, the ones which have been destroyed, as well as the buildings in renovation, in order to tell the whole story of this innovative architect.

I have some issues with the blurb’s grammar but it’s nothing compared to “… in order to tell the whole story of this innovative architect”. Sorry, but it’s simply not possible to consider a Tōgō Murano building as something separate from its materials and how they’re put together. It’s nowhere near the whole story, simply not right to say so, and not only does this wonderful architect a severe disservice, but the rest of us as well.

Whenever I’m perplexed, I always try to imagine the object of my perplexity as being the solution to some problem. What problem is this book solving? Is it rectifying some over-emphasis on materials and construction in Tōgō Murano studies? Or, more generally, is it intended to counter some unhealthy resurgence of student interest in the possibilities of materials and their selection and combination? Or, perhaps more likely, prevent then from thinking about it? If so, then this book is probably part of the solution even though one more nail in that particular coffin is hardly going to make any difference.

• • •


Stock Market

The life of composer, cellist, and conductor Franz Ignaz Danzi (1763–1826) overlaps those of Wofgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert. Mozart died in 1791 aged 35, Danzi in 1826 at 63, Beethoven in 1827 at 57 and Schubert in 1828 at 31. Danzi and Beethoven’s lives overlapped for all but seven years at the beginning of Danzi’s and one year at the end of Beethoven’s. Mozart was seven when Danzi was born and Danzi was twenty eight when Mozart died. Schubert was born when Danzi was 34 but outlived him by only two years, Beethoven by only one.

Mozart’s genius is undisputed today whether it’s his precocity, inventiveness, breadth of output, quantity, quality or any other metric we can think of. There’s nothing the music of Mozart can’t be used to illustrate. His current reputation may well be as huge as it was when he was alive but there was a low point immediately after his death.

I can’t imagine anything like that happening now. It’s impossible for anyone to be regarded as “too creative” or “overly imaginative”. How would we know? And who would say it?

Not everyone in the late 18th century was a fan but most would’ve agreed Beethoven was a music colossus. Beethoven’s reputation has only grown since his death. The popular image of Beethoven is of a temperamental genius artist producing grand masterworks and by all accounts he was that. It’s just odd that this is the only picture of him we have. It’s also misleading for it leads us to believe masterworks are produced only by temperamental geniuses. One logical fallacy breeds another and leads to the belief that temperamental geniuses can only produce masterworks. Ultimately, we’re left with temperamental genius as meme but let’s not talk about architecture just yet.

Fame in one’s own lifetime is the result of delivering what the era demands. The era creates and then rewards its new heroes. Posthumous fame relies on how well the artistic product reflects our projections back at us. There’s no live feedback for dead artists but, whether it be music, painting or something else, there’s still a dynamic process between the audience and the art. We forget about things we once liked as we find new things to see and reputations are updated and refreshed accordingly. It’s not the work that keeps giving but the people who keep extracting. Of course, this is only possible if the original content permits it – is sufficiently “reflective” – and if it happens it’s more by accident than design. Art is a slow and inefficient machine for generating meanings. It’s easier and quicker to apply new readings to things that already exist, the more widely studied, analyzed and written about the better.

All these new readings aren’t going to create themselves. The act of curating puts things in the same cage in the hope something will happen.

At the same time we have new things being said about old things, possibly responding to an insufficiency of new things about which anything can be said. [c.f. Architectural Assimilation]

[c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]

Jonathan Miller’s mafioso staging of Verdi’s Rigoletto set the action in 1950s New York and premiered at English National Opera in 1982. “Nineteenth-century composers were comparatively haphazard in their choice of historical period, and putting the action in the distant past was one way of creating an exotic atmosphere. The future may be just as effective even if it happens to be one with which the composer was unacquainted”. Publicity for the early 1990s revival never failed to note the Armani wardrobe. Posters featured a mock newspaper with the screaming headline BODY FOUND IN BAG! Cute.

Restaging opera classics in a different time period was unheard of in 1982 but is standard practice now. Not only do we accept it, we’ve come to expect it.

If an artist’s recognition in their own lifetime depends on them delivering what the era demands, and if posthumous fame relies on the product being capable of letting people read into it whatever the era demands, then the conditions for aesthetic churn are established.

My only knowledge of Mozart’s Don Giovanni [1787] was the 1984 movie Amadaus so I found and watched a recent-ish production on YouTube and can see what those contemporary critics meant. Who knows? Come 2050 we might see Don Giovanni revived as a tale of predatory sex and toxic employer-employee relations set in 1990s Hollywood.

But are we really the heirs of modernism and postmodernism? Perhaps. If on the one hand we have artists eager to capture the zeitgeist and on the other we have journalists shaping the zeitgeist for them to capture, then either nobody’s driving this bus or everyone is.

Shaped by the same zeitgeist, some of Schubert’s writing might make you think for a moment you were listening to something Beethoven wrote but there were important differences at the time and still are. Today, Beethoven is popularly remembered more for his symphonies and Schubert more for his songs and chamber works. It’s grossly unfair to both but has some justification.

Unlike Beethoven, there’s no popular image of Schubert. If there were, it’d be that of tortured artist but even that’d be inaccurate for though he was tortured it wasn’t by art. Schubert wrote powerful yet simple music that to many encapsulates the essence of human emotion. He was also the person who said “Every night when I go to bed, I hope that I may never wake again, and every morning renews my grief.” This is dark. I don’t know of his other demons but one of them was drink. In the evenings he drank and when he did he was the worst kind of drunk. His fiercely loyal, intensely admiring and long-suffering friends would carry him home and put him to bed and, in the morning, Schubert would wake and write some more of the most sublime music ever written. “I compose every morning, and when one piece is done I begin another.”

I’ve always admired album cover art. If you thought this album contained classical music that was sweet and satisfying but with an occasional welcome tartness then you’d be right.

But what of Franz Danzi? Mozart was already nine and composing when Danzi was born. It’s mentioned that the 25-year old Mozart praised Danzi’s father’s cello playing at the 1781 premiere of his (12th!) opera Idomeneo at Munich’s Residenz Theatre.

I didn’t understand how a cello could be singled out for praise in such an ensemble affair as opera. YouTube offered up Idomeneo performed in 2006 at the Salzburg Festival. I don’t remember any standout cello moments. Idomeneo featured again at last year’s Salzburg Festival, this time directed by Peter Sellars.

It turns out Danzi was inspired by Mozart, and it just so happened that Beethoven, and later, Schubert were there too. It’s all too easy for us to feel sorry for Danzi being a composer at the same time as these three who weren’t just active in the same field but unusually gifted and prolific and to varying degrees fêted as well. Beethoven’s name was linked with grand notions of the human spirit and soul, while Schubert’s name was linked with delicate expressions at the other end of the spectrum of human experience. With both the extreme positions covered and Mozart posthumously occupying the entire middle ground, what was a composer to do? Why even bother? It wasn’t as horrible as we think but this says more about us and how we think than it does about Danzi.

If Danzi had lived his life cursing his bad luck to be alive and a composer at the same time as these others then he would’ve been incapable of doing anything. Instead, he had a full career as a composer and conductor, was an accomplished cellist, and produced some extremely decent music. It’s undeniably accomplished, very pleasant and, at least to me, all the better for not being by Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert. We can listen to it with an open mind and appreciate it for what it is, untroubled by comparisons.

I’m not going to suggest Franz Danzi is some kind of musical misfit. He didn’t push any boundaries but pushing boundaries wasn’t yet mandatory. Danzi was more than competent in all the established ways of his time. If his Piano Concerto in E-flat major sounds to us like some Beethoveny kind of Mozart that’s a problem with us not him. Moreover, we can’t project our imagined unhappinesses onto him. If he didn’t compare himself with Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert then nor should we. If the relationship between artistry and fame is constructed to begin with and continually reconstructed thereafter then it throws the whole proposition into doubt.


The Hexagon [a eulogy]

Buildings in which we conduct our lives are mostly structures created from rectiliniar elements joined at right angles. Many find this boring – the implication being that buildings have an obligation to entertain and amuse.

This leads to yet another restatement of the building-architecture divide. “Buildings are boring. Architecture isn’t.” Architecture is thus granted licence to delight us, stimilate us, entertain us, divert us and generally amuse and, like it or not, this is how architecture is conducted in today’s media theatre which, come to think of it, is the only theatre that seems to matter. When the media theatre is the only theatre in which the performance of architecture is validated then, other than for the degree they impact upon the media, the activities of private practice and academia are meaningless. It’s the butterfly in the rainforest syndrome. Does architecture exist if there isn’t a link to click on? How did we get here? 

A non-rectilinear geometry isn’t sufficient to make a building architecture. Lighthouses and castles each have special geometries that create structures and construction that may not be architecture but are very suited to hostile environments, for example. Television towers have special geometries that provide other required characteristics such as height and stability.

Buildings with non-rectilinear geometries are only architecture if they use a non-reclinear geometry for the sake of using a non-rectilinear geometry, i.e. because they can. This is where technology enters the frame. New technologies continually extend the range of what can be done, without questioning whether it should be done. The application and/or misuse of new technologies has been taken as a sign of a building being “of its time” if not ahead of it, even though this can only be decided only in retrospect. In general, we’re too quick to think things are ahead of their time.

Hexagons occur naturally and were one of the first alternative geometries to be appropriated by architecture. Nature is full of sixes. Nature is sixes and there’s nothing more organic than carbon, even though benzene may not be one of our favourite compounds. The trouble with chemical bonding is that it occurs at the molecular level – it’s too small to see. Organic compounds are us, but we have no experience of them. The actual chemistry of organic Nature has nothing to do with what we see or want to see as the representation of organic compounds, things representing the processes by which organic compounds are made, or things representing an architect’s “familiarity” with the processes by which things made of organic compounds organise themselves.

Then there’s the hexagonal crystal family that includes quartz, dolomite and beryl but the problem with crystals is that they’re solid. They take up space. They don’t enclose it.

Snowflakes have a hexagonal geometry and no two are exactly alike. This ought to make them prime candidates for architectural appropriation but snowflakes unfortunately occupy only two-dimensional space. Believe me when I say the internet is a huge repository of snowflake imagery.

Honeycomb is the perfect analogy for a “natural” architecture. Honeycomb encloses space for a purpose and is made by industrious bees that like flowers. Honeycomb is more than just a plan. These next images show how the bases of the cells convert the six sides into rhombi that interlock even more ingeniously back-to-back.

Somewhere between outgrowing his Froebel blocks and becoming obsessed with circular geometries, Frank Lloyd Wright became obsessed with hexagonal geometries. Hexagons were either his way of rebelling against the tyranny of rectilinear geometry or of wanting to be seen as rebelling against the tyranny of rectilinear geometry. Nature was invoked and, for Wright, this meant that hexagons were in some sense “organic”.

This is Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. It’s igneous rock that rapidly cooled into hexagonal columns. It’s 100% natural but, basalt being basalt, is 100% INORGANIC.

The Giant’s Causeway is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. It is located in County Antrim on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland

But whether organic or merely natural, the use of hexagonal geometry rather than an orthogonal one soon came to denote creativity – the untrollable urge to not go with the flow, to be wild, unconventional – in much the same way as Wright himself. Many houses of different sizes were to come but Bazett House was first.

The full hexagon didn’t last long and Wright was soon to instruct his unpaid staff to graph-up in rhomboids. It mostly worked, apart from staircases, cabinetry, beds … We can only guess at what advantages such design may have had. It’s unlikely to have been construction. Swimming pools and floor tiles can be forced into a hexagonal grid but elements such as cabinetry and staircases composed of linear elements don’t fit naturally into 120° angles.

Wright’s 1941 Richardson House was up for sale recently so we can have a look around (courtesy of Curbed). See what I mean about beds and cabinetry?

The larger rooms are the more successful and, even ignoring the nice piece of property outside, seem like pleasant spaces to be in.

Wright’s 1956 Price Tower attempts to contain a 60° geometry within a 90° geometry. Apart from the tricky staircase and the absurd elevators it’s mostly successful due to the mediating effect of sin 30°.  You can see Wright falling out of love with hexagons and in with rhomboids. Even so, the rhomboid grid is becoming fainter.

Possibly due to him being dead, Wright abandoned both hexagons and rhombi by the end of the 1950s but his influence on John Lautner lived on in Lautner’s 1960 Malin House. Unlike Wright’s hexagons, Lautner’s octagon can at least be rationalized in terms of structure and construction.

At the far end of the 1960s is Jean Renaudie’s 1969 Jean-Baptiste Clément Housing that’s more about triangular geometry than it is equilateral triangles or combining them into hexagons. 

Inbetween is Lautner’s 1963 Goldstein House and its selective use of 30°, 60° and 90° geometries according to wow requirement. You’ve seen the photos.

Lautner and Renaudie mark the tail end of prismatic geometries as indicators of architectural innovation. Angular geometries went out of fashion and circular geometries came in but they weren’t Wright’s ornamental or curly circles but circles with a structural rationale. Pier Luigi Nervi’s Rome Basketball Stadium for the 1960 Olympics is the one mentioned most, but there were also soon-forgotten buildings like Sir Roy Grounds’ 1959 Academy of Science Building in Canberra. Eero Saarinen’s 1955 Kresge Auditorium is better remembered.

There was only so much that could be done with a circular shell. Words such as hyperbolic parabaloid re-entered the architectural lexicon. This is Felix Candela’s 1958 Los Manantiales Restaurant near Mexico City.

Tensile structures offered more new geometries. Wright at least claimed his Usonian houses had a wider applicability whether they used an unorthodox geometry or not but these new geometries did not pretend to be anything but unique. Many exceptional structures were produced using tensile structures but they remained exceptions. The 1957 Sunpu Kaikan in Shizuoka City and the 1963 Basketball Stadium for the Tokyo Olympics were both by the exceptional team of Kenzo Tange and Yoshikatsu Tsuboi. [c.f. “Unsuung Hero: Yoshikatsu Tsuboi“] 

Saarinen was there too with his 1958 Ingalls Ice Hockey Stadium.

In 1955 Saarinen was commissined to design the TWA Flight Centre at New York’s JFK so it was no surprise he championed the freeform geometry of Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House as winner of the 1957 competition. The famous non-geometry famously underwent a series of rationalizations to define the curved shells as segments of a spherical surface. Some say it lost something in the transliteration. Six of one.

By 1973 and the time it eventually opened to requisite fanfare, Sydney Opera House was a creature from another era. Frei Otto’s Olympic Stadium had been completed the year before, ushering in a new breed of structure. Stadia were perfect for testing new geometries – perhaps because their functional requirements amounted to little more than keeping rain and/or sun off a majority of the spectators. The same 1973 featured architectures as diverse as Ant Farm’s House of the Future in Texas, Arata Isozaki and his post-Metabolism in Japan, Aldo Rossi and his Neo-Rationalism in Europe, and either an SOM Corporate or a Post Modern something just about anywhere. Even John Lautner had gone freecurve with his Arango House in Acapulco.

Building shells and structures could now be made to assume any shape a designer wanted them to and nobody wasted time imitating honeycomb anymore. To have a geometry of any kind was now conventional somehow. The hexagon, that most obvious and least troublesome of the non-perpendicular geometries was no longer the sign of a maverick creativity. The bar for “natural” and “organic” shapes was re-set to a level beyond the needs of any living creature and for chemistry to have the chemistry for.

Fact: Carbon being carbon, the building blocks of life are regular, repetitive, and symmetrical. There’s nothing “organic” about organic structures and there’s nothing organic about “organic” architecture and nothing natural about “natural” architecture. It’s as superficial natural as tendrils of Art Nouveau ironwork.

Despite its claims to be the future of architecture, I see Parametricism as a kind of Art-Nouveau throwback marking the end of an era where ‘cutting edge’ or, if you will, “avant-garde” architecture could only be indicated by a succession of contrived geometries, each one re-representing the future of architecture.

By being able to generate anything one wants to, Paramtricism is the conclusion of that particular sequence and, as such the end of geometry.  “You want curvy? At your service!” “Perhaps some funky angles? No problem!” There are now infinite possibilities to narrow the definition of architecture.

As the possibilities for geometric invention increased, their scope for wider application across the entire field of architecture became progressively narrower. This is why the 1950s glut of stadia. Stadia aren’t everyday buildings but lend themselves to geometry or any other ornament one cares to apply as long as the relationship between the observed and the observers is satisfied. Despite FIFA’s best efforts, there’s not much demand for stadia so the object of geometric virtuosity is more likely to be an opera house or an art gallery. When architectural invention is seen only in terms of geometric invention, there are fewer and fewer buildings to which that invention can be applied, and with only intermittent benefit to fewer people. [Here, I’m assuming the purpose of architecture is to be of use to others but I may be wrong on that.]

This dysfunctional situation where architecture is only possibile for fewer and fewer types of buildings is dependent upon the producers of architectural imagery convincing the consumers of architectural imagery that architectural invention and geometric invention are one and the same. By everyday reminding architects to see architecture in this way, the very tools that architects work are complicit.

• • •

The header image is of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Hamburg, Germany. The original neo-romanesque chuch was completed in 1895, almost completely destroyed in 1945, and remained a ruin until 1956. The octagonal church and hexagonal bell tower were completed in 1956 at the time when prismatic geometries were about to be replaced by shell structures and then by tensile structures. The structure does not look sixty years old, perhaps because it was detailed and built with materials resistant to ageing and to a crystalline geometry having no particular time stamp.



Architecture Myths #19: Popular Culture


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) lived through Impressionism but, rather than taking the delicate play of light upon whatever as the subject for his art, is best known for his graphic paintings and illustrations of people in their working environments. Much of his work was for advertising. This particular poster is from 1891.

This next image is possibly the first instance of a household brand being used in art. Still life no longer had to be about artfully arranged flowers, vases, wine bottles, wineglasses, guitars… Thank you, Futurists.

Gino Severini, Cubist Still Life (1917)
Gino Severini, Cubist Still Life (1917)

The Futurists, or at least Fortunate Depero, followed Lautrec’s lead and his work for Campari appeared as advertising posters in public places.

2012 11_58 AM

Constructivist artists also did this as part of their quest for a socially useful art. We don’t know how popular these posters were but, if advertising’s involved, it’s not good for them not to be.

Textile design was another field of Constructivist artist endeavour. People could at least have nice curtains. Well done, Varvara Stepanova!


Curtains and the idea of art for the people is the link between 1920s Russia and 1950s America. The idea of soft furnishings as art for the people driving the economy before the war, crossed the ocean and transmuted into idea of soft furnishings as consumer goods for the people driving the economy after the war, later being reimported to the UK and Scandinavia.


The 1950s were the decade when the culture of the people became the dominant culture in America. Befitting the magpie instincts of artists, collage was an appropriate medium to represent it as a subject. The following collage is not meant to be a popular form of art, it merely appropriates aspects of popular culture as subject matter and represents them to those who can afford it and/or appreciate it.

Richard Hamilton “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” (1956)

Roy Lichtenstein’s take on this was to represent popular culture using meticulously handprinted dots to reproduce frames from comic books.


Andy Warhol was the most adept at exploiting popular culture for artistic ends.


While all this was going on, many people who knew nothing about Hamilton, Lichtenstein or Warhol were finding joy in LP covers

Artist: Pedro Bell
Artist: Pedro Bell

and (though probably not the same people) black-light posters such as this on their walls.


Jeff Koons mined popular culture to new depths by taking kitcsh as his subject matter, discovering an entire new universe of href=”https://www.google.ae/search?q=found+object&client=safari&rls=en&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAWoVChMIt9C21NvexgIVQlUUCh2A3AkW&biw=1359&bih=942″ target=”_blank”>found objects in the process. This next sculpture is popular in the sense that it engages people who have travelled to see an art gallery for entertainment. It is not however, popular art in the sense that it satisfies any art-for-the-people need. Koons has done well. In passing, it’s been noticed he’s assembling a possible development site on W52nd St.

jeff koons yacht luxury culture dot com

All this art is the result of the observation, appropriation and representation of popular culture. It is not and never was generated for it, or an expression of it. This finally brings us to architecture. The observation-appropriation-representation cycle in architecture is even longer so it’s no wonder architecture is always behind the curve. “Hey – we just passed by the Bilbao Guggenheim! Let’s go back and take a look.” The Bilbao Guggenheim is nothing more than googie architecture to attract people in planes, not cars. 


In Easter Hill, Haskell identified characteristics new urbanists were to claim for their own. 

  • Winning government approval proved difficult because what they wanted to build broke the mold for public housing. “We started out from the beginning to plan a village,” Hardison [one of the original architects] says. They wanted units to feel like individual homes. “What we were trying to design violated some standards of the time,” he says. It was low-rise, not high, curved roads, not straight, and with varied textures and colors to avoid a barracks look. Hardison fought for amenities ignored in other projects — front yards, fenced backyards.
  • Easter Hill was a dream of a better future for people who live in public housing.
  • It was a dream shared by socially conscious post-World War II architects — that good design could produce livable neighbourhoods, even for poor people.

In 2003, fifty-six years later, Easter Hill, was in bad need of repair, and is probably gone by now.


Instead of this useful thinking from 1954 being put to better use to provide more people with more real housing with more dignity, that thinking made its way into the Post-Modern retro-smalltown-themed holiday village known as Seaside, Florida.


Seaside Florida is a pretend town often invoked in discussions of New Urbanism – the new mantra more attuned to speculative property development than social housing. Like Philip Johnson and Henry-Russel Hitchcock before him, Charles Jenck’s agenda was to discredit the social aspirations of Modern(ism) architecture.

“There’s something to suit every budget.”


What Haskell saw as something of genuine value to people was quickly turned into a representation of something of genuine value to people. Instead of actually being the kind of person who sits on porches and says howdy to strangers passing by, people get to go on holiday and pretend they’re the the kind of person who sits on porches and says howdy to strangers passing by. Segueing backwards, Pruitt-Igoe was a theoretical smokescreen. If it were really the alleged death of Modernism, then the onus would have been on Post-Modernism to replace it with something more suitable? Or at least a better maintenance plan. It didn’t. The site remains empty. 


The actual housing was never replaced. The destruction was real but but its replacement metaphorical. The conceit was that a representation of an idea of housing should be, could replace some something as useful as real housing, however flawed. Guild House at least provided some socially useful shelter behind its popularesque facade.


But those were early days. Before too long, all facades would be brought into play, concealing all evidence of a building as even a carrier for representation and making it that much easier for representation to come to be mistaken for architecture.



Inflationary Tendencies

Despite the internet having its wicked way with it


this piece of Sufi wisdom is a reminder to be cautious and humble when times are good and, at the same time, a reminder that bad situations also have an ending. It’s not as lame as the English speaker’s “light at the end of the tunnel” or as preposterous as “every cloud has a silver lining”. It’s just a statement of fact. The good stuff doesn’t last forever and neither does the bad.


The Medium of Architecture is the next-to-last chapter in The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I. In a way I’m relieved as there’s little danger of anything substantial being said at this stage but, also wary lest the author think that, having numbed his readers into a state of acquiescent torpor, he can go on to say whatever he wants. If this book is an edifice then it’s dry stone wall construction. Thoughts are piled one on top of each other. Taking the place of mortar is the author’s conviction that everything’s arranged properly.


But “The Medium of Architecture”? I did want to know where this one would go.


I suspected the first meaning but couldn’t figure out what. Yet I couldn’t rule out the third meaning for the author does have a history of telling us he’s channeling the spirit of architecture. But no.


The medium of architecture turns out to be drawings. The chapter then rolls on with a description of how their production has changed over the years. Like a whodunit that doesn’t make you wonder who did it, you know the conclusion is going to be the blessing that is Parametricism’s parametric parameters. The potted history is brief as the author struggles to invent a progressive complexity for parametric digital models to be its culmination. The Renaissance gave us perspective. The Baroque produced complex projective geometries. Me, I think that perspective projections are more complex than the axonometric allegedly beloved by Modernists. The only ones I could think of were this

Herbert Bayer, Design for a Cinema, 1924-1925

and this (which doesn’t much strengthen the author’s case),

189_09 aju 03 Bryon

before remembering this.


However, if we’re going to bring art examples into play, there’s this Chinese axonometric from the pre-Modern, pre-Alberti 11th century when architecture didn’t exist, let alone the medium to draw it.

In this chapter we learn a lot about drawings that we had quite happy lives not knowing. It is true that a system of drawing constrains design thinking and this is not such a bad thing. The author confesses that Parametricism too has its “tropes” such as populating surfaces with parametric elements but could it be possible that this may not be a trope but the dissemination of techniques that may be of use? Busy beavering away at being avant garde, the author would be blind to such a possibility. As paths to happy futures go, I’m still unconvinced that avant garde screwing around is any better than sticking with something good and making it better. All this talk of paper and projections is necessary as it won’t do to cut oneself off from a history you want to be seen to be leading. “Drawings are dead! Long live the drawing!” Except it’s not a drawing anymore. “Drawing” and “digital model” are used interchangeably and I don’t have a problem with that. It still implies that the social function of architecture is to deliver buildings. What I do have a problem with starts on page 325 when the author borrows Luhmann’s distinction between media of communication and media of dissemination. A digital model is a medium of communication because it is what architects use to design and to communicate between themselves about that design. A medium of dissemination however, is any medium (e.g. the mass media) that is used to disseminate the results of the architectural communications. It’s on page 330 where it starts to get ugly.


In Smoke & Mirrors I noted how image is being promoted over substance – and even truth – and how any social function of architecture is being replaced by an architecture we construct in our minds from some fancy renders and supporting copy. There’s another concept from this chapter that I need to explain before putting the two together. It concerns the medium of architecture and where it fits in.