Tag Archives: the forces operating against a useful 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.

• • •



For me, this linking of Brutalism with the Solomon R. Guggenheim is the last straw. There’s little point recalling Brutalism’s former role of applying economies of materials and the rationalities of construction to fill a social need. That all belonged to a time three quarters of a century ago when national governments were still concerned with providing housing for their national workforces. China is probably the only country left in the world where this is still a concern.

It seems that if the memory of what Brutalism stood for can’t be neutralized by denying it as an aesthetic, then it can still be neutralized by accepting it as one even if for all the wrong reasons. What was Brutalism or, more to the point, what is it now? Does it have any meaning beyond a stylistic choice to use concrete?

béton brut translates quite naturally and easily into English as raw concrete but meanings of gross, crude, unrefined, rude and ugly were carried over into the English term Brutalism and stayed.

Yet, in French, brutal(e) can mean killing and suppression or it can mean frankness and honesty – as it does in English too when we say brutally honest. Linguistically, there’s no reason why raw concrete should translate as vulgar or unrefined (i.e. not classy] instead of honest or pure but it did. If the forces of the prevailing economic paradigm hadn’t worked to demonize social housing by demonizing its method of construction in the bad sense of brutal, then by now we might have come a long way towards an honest and pure architecture not just for our times but for ever. In retrospect and given how the term brut translated, maybe we should have gone with raw.

RAW 0.0

In the beginning all materials were raw. There’s no shortage of buildings built using them along with a construction process that is a record of the process of construction. This may sound obvious, but it’s anything but. Vernacular buildings are generally good examples of unselfconscious brutalism because they’re not trying to pretend they were built from anything other than what they were built with, and by some construction process other than the one used. Every country once had buildings like this. It was a type of building that was so natural and devoid of pretentious it was just building.

RAW 2.0

Joseph Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace is usually regarded as the beginning of modern architecture but, inasmuch as glass was being glass and still looked like glass and cast iron was being cast iron and still looked like cast iron, it was really an extension of a vernacular approach to materials and construction. There was nothing modern about it regarding its usage of materials even if those materials were unproven. For half a century it was not even clear what this new material called cast iron was meant to look like because it could be whatever shape one chose to make it.

Nonetheless, Crystal Palace was clearly not a building that could have been made by stone even though its cast iron columns and ribs and barrel vaults are all elements borrowed from stone construction and suggest that cast iron was seen as a substitute for stone and construction adapted accordingly. This would have been the safest thing to do since little was understood about the structural dynamics of cast iron or even its properties (as the fire that destroyed it showed). Perhaps more important than its use of cast iron was that until then there had never before been a need for a building like it. It was a trophy building for the major economic power of the era.

This is Gardeners Warehouse (John Baird, 1856) in Jamaica Street, Glasgow. It is the first building in the world to have a completely cast-iron facade. I only mention Gardeners Warehouse because it is usually forgotten when history books leap from Crystal Palace to The Chicago School. It’s cast-iron yes, but it’s raw cast iron. Again, it uses the elements and motifs of stone construction but since cast iron has no intrinsic shape this is no more a crime than trying to make it look “industrial”.

Twospoonfuls [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://cre ativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

RAW 2.1

Chronologically, the next Brutalism was a conscious attempt to use materials sparingly and to their maximum performance. The buildings of Hannes Meyer are a modern type of vernacular in that it that does not attempt to conceal materials or the process of construction. Nor was there was no attempt to imbue them with any kind of architectural pretensions, although Messrs, Johnson & Hitchcock disagreed as they were incapable of seeing architecture as anything but. For them, the absence of aesthetic pretensions was itself an aesthetic pretension. Let’s move on.

RAW 2.2

The buildings of Hannes Meyer were what they were because he thought it was wasteful and thus socially irresponsible to add finishes and processes that were purely cosmetic. With his 1932 Maison de Verre, Pierre Chareau was the first to take unfinished materials and an unconcealed process of construction and to use them for the purposes of architectural expression but this was no exercise in socialist economy.

RAW 2.3

The 1947 Eames House crops up in many histories of architecture as an example of building using prefabricated “catalog” components. (It’s last outing was as a precursor to High-Tech and “Industrial” style which we will come to in time.) The choice of colors for the manufactured panels is an arty affectation but if a cladding panel is to have a protective finish that can be any colour then it’s a minor quibble.

The interior has an abundance of raw materials but now they’re all organic. This is not what we think of as High-Tech or even Industrial Style. There is nothing wrong with this because people live on the inside of houses and they are free to choose whatever rugs, sofas, shelving and lampshades they wish. The floor was finished with VAT (vinyl-asbestos) tiles which have since been replaced with something less potentially toxic.

Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House is also invoked as a precursor to High-Tech for its exterior use of raw steel and glass and not for its interior use of herringbone brick flooring, or brick fireplace/bathroom, raw organic interior finishes and components or its timber frame and plaster on lath ceiling [as seen on Curbed].

The original ceiling plaster contained asbestos. When the time came to replace it, it was very difficult to replicate a less toxic substitute because asbestos fibers, those same ones that get stuck in lungs, resist being troweled flat and so make the surface a soft diffuser of reflected light. Who knew?

RAW 3.0

We know a lot about this, even if Le Corbusier wasn’t the first person to ever let construction materials be construction materials and to let construction articulate the process of construction with his 1954~56 Maisons Jaoul. He was not. But he was probably the first to take a construction process using unfinished materials and imbue it with architectural pretensions. The brick and exposed slab thing had already been done twenty years earlier. [c.f. Raw 2.1.]

RAW 3.1

This took no time at all coming. If Raw 3.0 attempted to elevate raw materials into the realm of architecture then Raw 3.1 immediately saw the advantages of no finishes and a logical process of construction and applied it to low-cost housing. This is Raw 2.1 revisited and is what continues to negatively define raw materials as “not architecture” for many whereas it was Raw 3.0 that was the exception.

RAW 3.2

Late 1940s examples such as Eames House and Glass House, Raw 2.3 were hard and inorganic metal and glass on the outside yet on the inside had equally raw materials such as brick, timber, plaster and stone, accented with leather and textiles. Within a decade, Raw 3.2 was to feature natural raw materials on the outside and natural raw materials on the inside. It most likely originated in Scandinavia, possibly with Jørn Utzon’s 1952 house he designed for himself.

Or perhaps Japan. Here’s Utzon’s 1953 Middelboe House. Every element is what it is and the completed building is a document of the process of its construction.


Raw brick and stained timber came to be known as natural materials and contrasted with artificial materials such as metal and concrete. Everything, including the process of construction, appeared no more or less than what it was. Here’s some other examples from Utzon’s Nordic contemporaries.

This architecture was known as Scandinavian Modernism or, with equal frequency, Danish Modernism but, in the UK, it would come to be known as Soft Brutalism with houses such as Alison & Peter Smithson’s 1956 Sugden House.

In Australia, soft Brutalism was seen the raw and rugged yet comfortable Australian Modernism with houses such as the one architect Kevin Woolley designed for himself in 1962. There was also Tony Moore’s 1961 Moore House but these are just two of many.

It was also there in Catalan Modernism – not the Gaudí kind – but the early buildings of Ricardo Bofill, such as his 1964 Bach 28 Apartments.

RAW 3.3

Inventiveness with concrete had been bubbling away for a decade and we have Japanese architects to thank for the next big leap back to the future in the history of Raw. This is Yoii Watanabe’s 1966 Nishida House that uses concrete for what feasibly could have been built in timber. This referential language scared no horses, and nor did concrete columns and beams bearing the grain of timber shuttering. This was not being postmodern. It was making do. It poses the interesting question nobody ever asked: “Was it an affectation to allow the grain to imprint, or would it have been more of an affectation to remove the grain beforehand?”

It wasn’t to matter as rough-cut pine formwork soon gave way to plywood and, later, to metal formwork as we’ve come to know from buildings such as Ando’s 1976 Sumiyoshi/Azuma House that, curiously, is never labelled Brutalist despite its concrete being as raw and as concrete as raw concrete gets.

RAW 2.4

This history isn’t linear. Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre Brutalism 2.2 and Eames House and Glass House’s Brutalism 2.3 led to British High-Tech and its use of metal and glass. Here’s Foster Associates 1970-75 Willis Building in Ipswich and Richard Rogers and Partners’ 1978 Lloyd’s Building. We can still call metal and glass raw materials inasmuch as they are unfinished. [I wouldn’t call the steel frame of Farnsworth House raw however, not because of its white rust-preventive coating but because its welded joins have been ground smooth.]

RAW 2.4.1

This we can safely call Industrial Chic, which was popular circa 2000 give or take. It was an interior style of materials that were mostly unfinished. Floors were polished concrete or industrial rubber in a variety of colors. Coffee table books had long introductions referencing Chareau and Eames.

RAW 2.4.2

A later variant wasthe fashion, still ongoing, for Commerical Kitchens or Gastro Chic that ditched Formica, Melamine, marble, granite and reconstituted stone counters for stainless steel which was raw in its own way but also a useful decorative foil for the occasional brick wall or timber floor.

RAW 4.0

Here we must stop and take stock and see how useful this notion of raw materials is as an alternative to the increasingly meaningless term Brutalism. These next two buildings aren’t considered Brutalist even though they both feature raw materials. Moreover, both buildings are records of the process of their construction even though the Ando is monolithic and Lloyds is an assemblage of components.

A concept of Raw includes both while the concept of Brutalism (or whatever’s left of it) precludes prefabrication even though prefabricated components and concrete are like cast iron and plastic in that they can be whatever they are made to be. They can’t be nothing. They’re manufactured products whose only state is the state in which they are used. The act of fashioning them makes them into the finished product. A prefabricated panel is both a raw material and a finished product. Natural and artificial have no meaning. A quick search of “Brutalism” throws up the following.

It’s a mixed bag. The two Eastern bloc examples make it into the usual histories of Brutalist extremes. London’s National Theatre and Trellick Tower are the two classic UK examples, and Breuer’s Whitney, Boston Town Hall and Rudolph Hall the classic US ones. The Pei and the Kahn I don’t get, and nor do I get why Habitat and Ronchamps are tagged. Kahn’s National Assembly Building, Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim and Corbusier’s Ronchamps suggest the current meaning of Brutalism is some sort of audacity of form, perhaps only incidentally possible with concrete. Habitat, Trellick and Rudolph all use prefabricated components but only Rudolph Hall uses them to create something apparently of one piece despite the construction joins. There’s nothing wrong with this. Ancient Greeks did the same.

Precast concrete panels bring us back to the same problem of the Japanese concrete that has the shape and pattern of timber but are not substitutes for it in anything other than some broad structural sense. Pre-cast concrete is a self-finished material for which construction joints are part of the process of manufacture and of construction – to not show them or to pretend they don’t exist is the greater pretension. What does honesty of materials and of articulation of the construction process mean in the case of precast concrete panels?

For me, Ricardo Bofill in the only architect who’s ever asked these questions and has come closest to answering them. Here I could reference his French social housing projects that couple the use of precast concrete panels with Postmodern Classicism. It’s a natural combination because Classical buildings buildings were also built from kits of components. Rudolph’s Yale Art and Architecture Building and Bofill’s later commercial buildings are not that far removed.

Bofill’s Les Maisons Temple proposal for a mass-produced single-family house in the style of Palladio pushes this idea further and takes the raw materials of precast concrete components and a metal-framed steel deck roof and makes it into an aesthetic statement. All the pieces are what they appear to be and are put together much as The Parthenon was. The result is a form audacious in its familiarity and for having been derived from such familiar operations.

RAW 4.?

One criticism of this concept of Raw is that the materials may be raw but this doesn’t mean they can’t be sophisticated, exquisitely finished, and expensive. This works to eliminate their application where they are most needed. Bush hammering is a time and labour intensive way of producing the appearance of a raw material.

Similarly, in addition to a humid climate, it requires a great deal of care and pride in one’s work to produce concrete as flawless as is possible in Japan. It is possible to use raw materials in a sophisticated manner such as in this next example by H-Arquitectes but this represents the addition of time and skill to the design process as well as the construction one.

Even this next example, again by H-Arquitectes, exhibits an accuracy of dimension and a care of construction

whereas our construction industry is geared towards lower quality materials and less-skilled labour. Buildings are constructed using low-quality or imperfect bricks or quickly constructed from concrete block and any imperfections concealed with a decorative surface coating that may double as insulation. Using design foresight to add aesthetic value to low-quality materials may be the only directly left to go.

The other day when moving out I had reason to be in a service elevator. The floor was hardwood because it was resilient and hard wearing in a way rubber wasn’t, and chip and crack resistant in a way vinyl and stone aren’t. As is often the case, the metal walls were hung with replaceable padded panels to protect both walls and cargo from impact. The ceiling frame was unfinished galvanized iron and its acrylic panels had been knocked, scuffed and scraped. Everything was perfect.



I didn’t win or even get
an honorable mention in the
2020 Architectural Fairy Tales Competition.
I know, I know. I know

I shouldn’t have written
an architectural parable
in which everyone got
what they thought they wanted
and lived happily for a while.

The Red Igloo

Once upon a time,

all Inuit people made igloos the same way. They made them out of snow because snow didn’t cost anything, it was there, they had a lot of it, and there would always be more tomorrow. They shaped the snow into blocks and laid them one by one in a spiral that became smaller and smaller until it made a dome.

They made a little entrance to keep the wind out. It always faced away from the wind. And they made a little hole in the wall to let the light in. It always faced the sun. Their igloos were as perfect as they could be.

Every now and then there was some small change such as putting a piece of plastic over the hole. It was better than a sealskin curtain as it let the light come in but kept the wind out. Apart from tiny changes like this, igloos stayed the same. Nobody could really make them that much better.

Inuit people still tell stories of a man called Nanouk. He is famous. He is part of the history of igloos. This is what happened.

One day while Nanouk was out hunting, he found a dead polar bear. He took two bowls of its blood and mixed it with enough snow to make himself a red igloo. He thought it would be easier to find his way back to if it started snowing hard. 

People came to look at Nanouk’s red igloo. They were all silent as they didn’t know what to think. Eventually, a child said, “It’s red! Everything else is white. It looks DIFFERENT!”

Then one of the adults suddenly said, “It’s NEW!”

Almost immediately, another person said, “It’s MODERN!”

Another person said, “It’s BEAUTIFUL!”

People were now all saying things at the same time. “You’re a GENIUS!” “It’s so ORIGINAL!” “You’re so CREATIVE!”

One person, holding a pencil and paper, said it was, “A TRULY BOLD AND ORIGINAL ARTISTIC STATEMENT!”

One old woman said, “My grandmother used to tell me a story about a red igloo. Nanouk! You have made this story real for me. I feel RECONNECTED WITH WHO I AM!”

Another person said, “People, that snow out there isn’t all white. It’s got polar bear blood, whale blood, walrus blood and seal blood splattered everywhere. We live with white but red is WHO WE ARE! Red is HOW WE LIVE!”

While everyone was cheering this, someone at the back said, “I don’t like it.”

Another said, “Nor me. That is NOT AN IGLOO!”

The man with the pencil and paper explained, “Don’t you see? This red igloo opens up a new world of possibilities for igloos! It REDEFINES IGLOOS FOR OUR TIMES! It makes us REIMAGINE EVERYTHING AN IGLOO CAN BE!”

Nanouk went inside his igloo and sat down. He remembered how much EASIER it had been to shape the snow when it had polar bear blood mixed in. It had SAVED HIM TIME. He thought about all the time everyone else could save. They could spend more time hunting for more food, or being inside their igloos eating ice cream and sharing stories with their friends and families.

He remembered how much STRONGER the red snow had been. He hadn’t needed to use as much snow. He had been able to leave more of it where it was, looking pretty.

He remembered how polar bears stayed away from his red igloo and how much SAFER he was because of that. He thought about how much safer everyone else could be.

He remembered how the red snow made his igloo WARMER inside. He knew he didn’t have to use as much whale oil to keep it warm. He thought about all the whale oil the others would save. He thought about all the whales that would not have to be killed.

He remembered all these things but, most of all, he remembered how SIMPLE it was. All he had to do was tell everyone to mix two bowls of polar bear blood into enough snow to make an igloo. He stood up and went outside.

There was a big crowd now. They all rushed towards Nanouk. “I want a red igloo!” “I want one too!” “Please tell us how to make one!”

Everyone went quiet when Nanouk spoke. He said, “I’m sorry, I can’t teach you. You have to know how to choose the right polar bear and kill it in a certain way and at a certain time. I can’t explain how I know this, but I do. Only I can make red igloos.”

Everyone was sad but one big person suddenly shouted, “It doesn’t matter! I’ll pay you to make a red igloo for me.” Another, bigger one, said, “I will pay you more!” The man with the pencil and paper said, “Once I tell everyone else, you will be FAMOUS. You will never have to hunt again!” And he rushed off to tell everyone else.

And so, apart from the occasional seal for blood to make his igloos red, Nanouk never had to hunt again.

[853 words]


Motion Sickness

The 1970s obsession with “go faster” stripes on cars manifested itself in Australia with the Ford Capri and GM’s Holden Monaro. The stripes didn’t make the cars go any faster but they did indicate the vehicle had a higher-performance specification. In only a few years time, post modernism and signifiers detached from signifieds were to become our default way of looking at the world and stripes on cars lacking the high-performance specification came to be known as “go faster stripes.” This was either “ironic” or facetious, depending on whether you owned said vehicle.

Representing a quality not actually present in a building has, for some time now, been a benchmark for architectural beauty. Transparency and weightlessness have both had a long run but we shouldn’t give up on them just yet. It may seem like everything that can be done has been done to create the illusions of these impossibilities but somebody somewhere is probably working on helium-aerated acrylic concrete or something. Until they perfect it, we have the shadowy world of optical fibre-impregnated precast concrete panels showing us the potential of light passing through concrete yet quickly becoming understood, inevitably, as yet another type of digital display.

Pilotis may have got us off the ground but they never promised to take us anywhere, even though there’s no more imperative for a building to move than there is for one to be up in the air. All the same, the longevity of weightlessness as an architectural aspiration is due to it being impossible to achieve, thereby allowing infinite amounts of money to be shown to be spent trying to create the appearance of it. Even if complete weightlessness were to somehow become possible, the beauty of a weightless building is that it would still be a building – albeit perhaps one with access issues. By contrast, if ever a building that could move were realized, then we’d probably call it a car or a boat or an aircraft because the ability to move enables a new function whereas weightlessness remains a property.

Post-modern architecture being post-modern architecture, successfully representing the potential for a building to move is better than having one actually do so. This is Pavel and Paul Andreev’s Mixed-use Complex, Moscow. Designed in 2007, it hasn’t been completed as far as I know but I do remember seeing a site hoarding in 2015. This building’s shape implies motion or, rather, implies a potential for motion. I don’t hate it but for every “Why?” there’s a “Why not?”

And then there’s legs. Legs imply motion and columns look a bit like legs. We’re used to talking about buildings “resting” or “standing” on columns so we’re already halfway there. The 1990s featured buildings with inclined columns suggestive of legs, none of which had “knees” or “feet”. This trend ran its course.

I did find one example of legs with feet, below. When Nature has been mined for all manner of landscape and plant imagery, then moving on to exploit the animal world had to happen. Animalism or zoomorphism is what it’s called when you make a building look like a bison or give jellyfish a backbone. It never caught on.

Around the same time we had buildings with various bits that move. Such buildings are collectively called kinetic architecture, a name that finally found something to label.

Kinetic architecture not only sounds cool, but promises some cool move or moves to satisfy one requirement. This next, now completed, is more kinetic canopy than building

This next proposal lets you swap between indoors and quasi outdoors without moving yourself. Depressingly, it takes a sequence of four images to convey the idea.

But kinetic architecture and its movey bits aren’t the same as entire buildings in motion. If buildings that appear to move are either lame or go nowhere, then what are we to make of those that do? I’ve always thought the buildings that don’t get built are the ones that give the true measure of an age. There’s a sadness attached to these representations of things that never existed but I think it’s more to do with somebody once thinking they could have. This next was proposed as a building that would actually move, albeit only rotate. Everybody in the world but Rem Koolhaas thought it a bad idea. Years after, RK did admit to “over-egging it”, using the architect’s favourite phrase for admitting to having tried it on and failed. [Frank Gehry also admitted to “over-egging it” when he claimed his Maggie’s Centre was the best building he’d ever designed.]

We also had David Fischer’s rotating tower proposal, again for Dubai. It didn’t happen either but we all contemplated its implications for drainage and utilities, and wondered what would happen if people in different apartments on the same floor all wanted to look in the same direction at the same time.

This next proposal solved the problem of fairness by taking away free choice and fixing the building rotation at once every seven or so days. But that was in 2008.

Later into the 20th century and following on from this, architectural forms that could be called fluid and/or dynamic came to pass. It began with forms that, depending on how you looked at it, was either “moving towards” some ideal form or “moving away from it”. We quickly learned that this was Deconstructivism, a spurious representation of movement, it was also a spurious representation of the literary movement known as Deconstruction, one of its tenets being that an entire text could be understood from a fragment of it. Everything I know about Deconstruction I learned from Italo Calvino’s novel “”If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler”

We had grids straightening (or distorting), shapes colliding (or separating) and architects became famous for buildings without parallel lines at first, and then without lines at all. Describing a form as fluid and dynamic was suddenly high praise.

Although Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid were responsible for many buildings said to be representantive of the style, none contributed much that would help us understand why these buildings were the way they were. There was never any discussion of what forces, real or imagined, were at work. Zaha Hadid once suggested [on page 83 of Simon Richards’ “Architect Knows Best”] that some of those forces might be contextual.

“I think context affects the design … as clues come from the surroundings. I’ll work with context on a more esoteric level. Our work isn’t meant to fit-in in the conventional way, but to key in and accentuate the energy of what’s around it”

Some examples of this can be understood in terms of old fashioned desire lines and the very real movement caused by some very real energy (as is its wont). This is actually a very good way to decide the basic parameters of a building configuration. Everything else is is embroidery accentuating those elemental decisions most architects would make. When deconstructing the legacy of Zaha Hadid, the more famous projects such as the Heydar Aliyev Culture Centre are the more Mannerist and their surrounding energy obscure, while the larger bread-and-butter ones such as Milan Citylife Apartments stick to the rules.

I used to believe a site plan was likely to work in reality if it looked good as a two-dimensional composition but now I’m not so sure. It’s easy enough to create a satisfying composition by repeating and echoing boundary conditions but the difference between mannerism and a valid urban response depends on whether people will actually walk along all those paths.

Lines of movement whether real, implied or simply imagined are just one of the forces acting upon a building configuration in plan and the results can either be convincing or suspect but what about the rest? What forces are acting to “push” a building upwards or sideways, or in a curve, curves or some jerky stagger? Well, there are many such forces if we’re being esoteric and giving representation to imaginings, intangibles and other sensitivities, but they all have more in common with the notion of Lines of Force from Futurist sculpture.

My two favourite examples are Umberto Boccioni’s 1912 Bottle Evolving in Space and his 1913 Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. The former often appeared in 1960s architecture history books to illustrate what was called plasticity before we came to know it as fluidity or dynamism. Perhaps this repackaging had to happen by the 1970s when plastic was no longer either modern or cool.