Tag Archives: towards an architectural history fit for purpose

Parallel History

I was curious about whether Hitler had really objected to flat roofs and came across an article titled Mies and the Nazis. I read that Hitler had said something along the lines that to be German was to be logical. Gropius therefore, was certainly German for thinking flat roofs were superior for technical and practical reasons. He refused to see a preference for one or the other framed in terms of politics and/or xenophobia. He left for America because his dream of sacrificing craftspersons for industrialized production had more chance of success there. It seems Mies left for America because he was miffed Speer became Hitler’s chosen one. It’s all history now. But what if the shape of a roof hadn’t become politicized as some un-German invention? Gropius, Mies, Breur, Chermayeff, Bayer, and all the rest might not have left Europe. Or even if they did, they might have found something else to do but I don’t suppose that was ever going to happen.

Circa 1920, Auguste Perret knew better than Le Corbusier what reinforced concrete could do. His sketch for Les Maisons Tours dates from about the same time Mies van de Rohe was doing his for the famously curvy skyscraper. Perret’s sketch isn’t so well known but it’s not worlds apart from the view from my once apartment.

If Europe had had elevators, land values and an economy that required skyscrapers, Perret would have been the go-to man and tall buildings would have had infill facades like 432 Park Avenue and not curtain walls like Lever House.

The 20th century chronology of attention-getting buildings is over-represented by products of the 20th century US economy but as long as architects and architecture follow the money, it probably couldn’t have been any other way. In the 1970s we endlessly compared Johnson’s Glass House and van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. We were taught the seminal works of individuals such as Wright, Saarinen and Kahn, and only noticed when an individual such as Le Corbusier presented a sustained challenge to total American architectural media dominance. Less sustained national challenges were mounted by Scandinavia, Japan and Italy that each had their well-documented golden ages.

Golden ages elsewhere seem to be things we notice when there’s nothing more local to preoccupy us. Whether we were paying attention or not, Italy never stopped being a source of architectural intelligence and construction excellence. I shall go to Italy but mostly Milan (not Rome) and look for evidence.

Pre-Modernist Post-Modernism


Designed by Pier Fausto Barelli, the 1919-1923 Ca’ Brutta is a perimeter apartment block and one of the first reinforced concrete frame buildings in Italy but nobody remembers it for that, its underground car parking or its centrally provided heating and hot water. Instead, it’s remembered for its stripped down neo-classicism borrowed from the Secessionists as a reaction to Art Nouveau and that earned it its name that translates as Ugly House. The external decoration caused much controversy at the time and was variously accused of being inconsistent, playful, ironic, a detachment from reality, a primitive mysticism and a reaction to rationality. Decades later, this pre-modernist proto-postmodern building would be enthusiastically studied by post-modernists for being all of those. Papers would be written. 

Proto Postmodern Classicism (Early Fascist Era)

In 1923 Walter Gropius stopped championing the skills of craftpersons and began to promote designing for machine manufacture. Giovanni Muzio’s 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan has masonry arches with little or no decoration. This is typical of Muzio and has come to indicate the architecture of Italy’s fascist period approximately 1923-1945. Muzio’s style seemed fully formed with his 1923 Palazzo dell’Arte and wasn’t noticeably different thirteen years later with his Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo. I think I’d prefer to see Ignzaio Gardella’s 1934 proposal [left, below] there instead. Either would be unthinkable now.

Historic Revivalism (Middle Fascist Era)

Wikipedia quotes Also Rossi as saying that Frank Lloyd Wright was really impressed by Milan Centrale Stazione that opened in 1931 “and said it was the most beautiful station in the world”. It is impressive, but a bit of an outlier.

Proto Critical Regionalism

In 1934, Villa Savoye was about to be abandoned for the first time. It was still two years before Fallingwater was completed, 14 before Glass House and 15 before Farnsworth House. Some time a long time ago, all buildings were critical regionalist. Ignazio Gardella’s 1934-38 Dispensario Antitubercolare, in Italy’s Alessandria had an upper floor courtyard screened by a brick lattice wall not uncommon in the rural architecture of the area. Screening the courtyard was a new problem that could be solved by a known technology architectural device that local builders were familiar with.


There’s such a lot to choose from. The mid-1930s were a very active period for architecture in Italy. In Milan, Terragni did some wonderful apartment buildings such as his Casa Rustici which he did with Pietro Lingeri in 1935.


I can’t not mention Guiseppe Terragni’s 1932-1936 Casa del Fascio that nobody had much to say about it until 1970 when Peter Eisenman’s analysis appeared, bringing it into the narrative (ugh!) of American architecture. [This is a link to a Domus article detailing the media life of Casa del Fascio over the years.]

Of course there’s Adalberto Libera and his Casa Malaparte that’s a long-term favourite of mine but there’s also Cesaare Cattaneo’s 1939 Casa Cattaneo in Como. Frampton tells of the “premature and still somewhat mysterious deaths of both Terragni and Cattaneo’ in 1943 but didn’t go into details. He says their deaths marked the end of Rationalism. ( I think he meant say that Rationalism continued, only with clients more bourgeois, such as at Ignazio Gardelka’s 1953 Casa al Parco in Milan.) Much like Hitler, Mussolini didn’t have that strong an opinion about architecture until he realized how it could be brought into service.

Proto Post Modern Classicism (Late Fascist Era)

You can’t get more fascist than Rome’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana – a building commissioned by Mussolini himself. It opened in 1943, the same year Terragni and Cattaneo mysteriously died. Tense times.

Rationalist Vernacular

Post-war recovery was quick. Ignazio Gardella, Roberto Menghi & Anna Castelli Ferrieri‘s 1949-1953 Condominio di v. Marchiondi a Milano wasn’t a complicated building and nor was it spectacular. It was however very elegantly planned – most likely by Gardella who had a way with hallways and the positioning of walls.


Contextualism (What’s Already There)

Ignazio GARDELLA’S Casa alle Zattere is in Venice but the design took as its starting point his Casa Tognella (Casa al Parco) overlooking Milan’s historic Central Park.

The 1954-1958 Casa delle Zattere is a modern building in Venice that most precious of cities and Gardella has skillfully and unapologetically knitted it into its surroundings appropriating motifs and proportions from nearby buildings. Gardella did not elaborate on what he did or how he did it, but it flummoxed seasoned architectural commentators such as Rayner Banham.

“It is fancy-dress architecture, certainly, but the very manner of its disappearance is proof that the dressing-up has not been done for the usual reasons of historical cowardice. Very tricky…” (Reyner Banham)

Whether it was an office building or apartments or any other type of building, this notion of what’s already there was the starting point for Milanese architects Asnago & Vender. One would probably not look twice at their 1950 mixed use building on Piazza Velasca. Without resorting to obvious moves such as lining-through, it complements the building to the left. The building to the right is another one of theirs and complements the one in the middle and also the three more of theirs around the corner. These building come alive through progressive changes in the shape and/or size and/or position of windows. These variations are not perceptible unless one is looking for them. Theirs is an architecture designed to fit in to streets, rather than some fleeting notion of architecture.


Italian Modern

The 1950 were another golden age of Italian architecture and many of the office buildings were only several stories high but constructed to last. And last they have. The buildings of Gio Ponti are a case in point. They are all beautifully designed and constructed but have mostly been ignored by history and historians apart from the 1953 Pirelli Tower that may still get a mention, even if only for its elegant structure by Pier Luigi Nervi. I only mentioned Foster+Partners The Index last week so its tripartite typical floor, significant and tapering structure, and unobstructed office spaces are still fresh in my mind


Proto Iconic

In Italy, postmoderism took hold of the world of furniture in general Memphis in particular, but postmodern architecture never really took off. Why would it? Why should it? Why should buildings look like anything other than buildings? The closest Italian architecture got to postmodernism was the 1954 Torre Velasca by architectural partnership BBPR (Banfi, di Belgiojoso, Peressutti & Rogers) in Milan. [TWA Building: 1959, Sydney Opera House: 1958] Many people see a similarity to the historic towers of Milan but the only image I can find that might count as evidence is this image of the tower of Milan town hall.


Aldo Rossi and Neo-Rationalism

Some might like to think of Neo-Rationalism as Italian Post Modernism and it’s true they were both around at the same time. The difference is that Aldo Rossi’s 1969-1970 Edificio Residenziale al Gallaratese at Milan’s via Enrico Falck hasn’t dated.

Of course, Aldo Rossi did as much referencing as many a postmodernist but, perhaps because he was an Italian and referencing his own architectural culture, it always seemed more respectful.

There are many other architects I haven’t mentioned in this brief overview of an unbroken but parallel history of Italian architecture. Gino Valle for example. There were groups such as Dogma, Superstudio and Archizoom, who were not short on ideas or willingness to spread them. Italian architecture never stopped being Italian architecture. It’s just that the history of architecture tracks the dominant economic force at any one time and in the 20th century that force was not Italy. These buildings mostly outside the history of architecture still show us a different way of constructing a built environment to last.


Global society that we are, Italy couldn’t stay the same forever. Corporate behemoths ZHA, Isozaki and Studio Liebskind have respectively designed Generali Tower (left, 2014), Allianz Tower (right, 2015) and PricewaterhouseCoopers Tower (middle, 2020). The three buildings form an isolated cluster and will hopefully stay an isolated cluster.

Another Level

Despite living all my life in a postmodern world where the same project continues with successive reincarnations as different styles, I still believe there was more to history than referencing it. Admittedly, the emphasis on referential facade design as perception management went a long way to enable the optimization of development gain. Apart from one chimney getting in the way of one staircase, post modernism had little to say about the insides of buildings.

For all its talk of history, post-modernism liked to represent itself as new, much like the architecture it supposedly supplanted did. Also like what went before it, it had little to say about extensions and additions to buildings, even though we do have occasional buildings used as podiums to showcase an upwards development. Offhand,I can think of Jean Nouvel’s 1993 Lyon Opera and Herzog de Meuron’s 2016 Elbephilharmonie. Both use the existing building that was once the whole, as a base forming one part of a new aesthetic whole.

Frank Gehry’s 1984 Wosk Rresidence was something of a precursor, treating the existing building as nothing more than development rights to exploited.

These next three attempt the same. Acknowledging the podium is no guarantee of success but there seems to be correlation with that intent and strength of that acknowledgement.

This probably explains why these next two are so disturbing, and not in a good way.

I doubt we’ll be talking about any of these buildings in ten years, let alone 50 or 100, other than as examples of things people once did. Seeing the amount of demolition that occurs, it clearly costs less to build new than to refurbish or extend. Preserving building is seen as a perception management exercise to distract from development gains to be made. Calling this a tradeoff however, accords development gain an imperative it doesn’t necessarily have.

The Lyon opera house and the Gehry are the only (built) buildings that haven’t been gutted and restructured to accept the new volume above but we still want to see both as new buildings and not the additions they are. Perhaps it’s because additions don’t perpetrate the myth of inspiration and a pure creativity. They’re never a free call as the range of possible solutions is largely determined by the existing building. A certain type of creativity is still called for but, in some unspoken hierarchy, it’s a lesser one.

There’s also the contradiction of trying to add something to make something perfect and whole out of something that’s already supposed to be perfect and whole. If we think like that, the result can’t but be anything else but disrespectful or an insult. Adding to an existing building makes much sense in terms of resource conservation but we don’t have any guidelines for how to go about it aesthetically. To make matters worse, there’s invariably a time gap between the completion of the existing building and when it was decided it wasn’t large enough for its task. In the intervening period, the cost of building materials and labour, aesthetic preferences and even the building use may well have changed. In some cases an additional floor or two built in a similar or complementary style will pass, but in some of the other cases something that has no choice to be more different might be called for. I didn’t say “radical” because it’s rarely a 100% aesthetic call either. Even examples like this next one aren’t that radical when they can barely be seen from the street. It’s a partial rooftop conversion, albeit a very well publicized one.

At least in Vienna, architects grapple with this kind of problem and don’t automatically assume that not imposing on the street view will be a condition of development happening in the first place. This next one is a handsome solution that isn’t what the designers of the original might have imagined but works anyway as a modern mansard.

The modern mansard is a trope for the same very good reasons the original found favor. How to go about adding an extra storey may be case by case but that doesn’t mean each case is unique, or even that different. There’s a whole Pinterest sub-category of proposals that can be lightweight and modern as long as there’s a significant setback from the frontage.

Another modern trope is the vertical extension in a different material in some understated contemporary vein. This strikes some happy balance between development gain and perception management and you can also find many examples of this on Pinterest.

This next project is by emergent design studios, a British firm who have experience in estate refurbishment projects. [http://www.emergentdesignstudios.com/#/six-sites/] The additional storey completes the building and is both mansard and extension.

Additions such as these are welcome to those who still think modern buildings look unhomely because they “don’t have roofs” and looked incomplete in the first place.

Both the neo-mansard and contemporary extrusion make clear the difference between the original building and the additional storeys. They’re both examples of aesthetic deference – of not scaring the horses. The odd thing about the rooftop extension to Franco Alibini’s 1938 Villa Pestarini below is that it’s difficult to tell if it’s being deferential to its famous first two floors or not. An additional floor has been added in a manner befitting the time that wasn’t that long ago. No attempt has been made to make something either new or old. Either way, the building isn’t what it was and, in any case, it’d be difficult for it to be when there’s an additional level increasing the building volume by a third.

The addition reads as walls as far as Colour, Shape and Alignment are concerned yet the overhang (Size) suggests it’s a roof. For me, the main conflict is the Pattern (texture) of the material suggesting it’s a roof yet the Pattern formed by the window openings suggesting walls. But if the walls had simply been extended upwards and rendered the same then I wouldn’t be thinking these things as all sense of the original building would be lost. All these approaches assume some kind of aesthetic deference as the best way to show respect for an historic building and perhaps it is.

But what happens if the building and its history aren’t seen as one and the same thing? After all, post-modernism wasn’t the first style to decouple history from old buildings and apply its associations to new ones. However, buildings have many histories and what their fabric once looked like is only one of them.

Guisepee Terragni’s 1936 Casa del Fascio is a case in point. It was brought back into the architectural canon after decades of being shunned for its political associations. The history of those associations remains – it’s just that we don’t choose to remember it. Despite its rehabilitation as architecture, the building can’t be said to be doing any community service other than being a museum of itself but whether as a history lesson or an architecture lesson isn’t clear. The building has been prevented from ageing naturally and is kept in the same state as it was when it was the headquarters of the Como branch of the Italian fascist party. Its former occupants would be very pleased if they could see how nicely it’s been maintained in the intervening years.

The former occupants of this next building wouldn’t be as pleased if they could see what Shanghai architects Neri & Hu did to it. I think the point is that they’re not meant to. I see this building as a deliberate trashing of history.

The project is called The Waterhouse and the architects’ text repeated on ArchDaily told me it was the headquarters of the Japanese army during the occupation of Shanghai but the building seemed a bit small to do that. Sure enough, there’d once been much more to it. The site “http://www.shanghai1937.com/japans-impregnable-fortress/” told me it was the headquarters of Japan’s marines – the Emperor’s Special Naval Landing Force, it covered two city blocks and could house thousands of troops. It was also a fortress said to have “bombproof” construction. It’s been called “a potent symbol of Japanese occupation” but the reality of a few thousand enemy troops stationed in one’s city must have been a greater concern.

The title, in Japanese is “chs399-Shanghai the Most Busiest International Harbour in Orient 大日本海軍陸戦隊本部の威容 大上海景觀” on the postcard site https://www.ehagaki.org/world_countries/world-a1/world-a1_china/world-a1_china_a9/67525/

In short, this building has history and it’s personal. What to do? One doesn’t want to forget but how to remember? What were the options? Keeping it intact and in pristine condition sends the wrong message. On the other hand, demolishing all trace of it does the former aggressors a favor.

Neri & Hu’s extra level is actually a conversion that diminishes the presence of the original building. The stated design idea may have been to maximize the difference between old and new but the remnant of the former building has not been restored to its former “glory” (like Casa del Fascio). Instead, its visuals and any 1970s [?] window alterations have been been left intact to age ungracefully with the rest. This is the opposite of distressing to confer the appearance and gravity of age. It’s letting time create some space. This past on display is definitely not a living one – it’s very much of a time that is no longer. We can be sure structural integrity hasn’t been allowed to deteriorate and that things like thermal and acoustic performance are probably better than they were. This approach is the opposite of post modernism in showing respect for the building yet disrespect for its history.

There’s a consistent thread of design decisions that show contempt for the history of this building.

  • A time-traveling Special Naval Landing Force commander or even rank-and-file infantry would be incensed to see most of the former building demolished and the only piece remaining turned into a five-star boutique hotel.
  • Smooth white finishes are side-by-side with walls stripped back to the original concrete. Internally, the building has been gutted, stripped of all hardware, wall coverings, surface finishes and so on down to the concrete. Anything anyone might once have looked at and thought pleasant or even pleasantly utilitarian is gone. In that sense, the interior surfaces we see now are being seen for the first time.
  • Internal walls and floors have been visibly knocked through and pushed around to make new spaces that are still about accommodation but it’s now the decadent, voluntary accommodation of luxury and pleasure.
  • Our hypothetical time-traveller will wonder what the large windows overlooking the river are expected to observe. They won’t understand why they’re so large and looking over the river or why the third, side window looks over where the rest of the building once stood.
  • They won’t understand the use of glass and timber on this that was once the most bombproof of buildings. That famously bombproof roof has been compromised by cutting openings into it to form those three double height windows that are not lined up with anything below. The actual rooftop is now an timber-decked place open to the sky where people can relax.
  • Most of all, they’ll be shocked by how awkwardly and asymmetrically this new top floor sits on what was once a fine and solid building representing all that was good about Japanese military architecture.

It’s a shame The Waterhouse will mostly be understood as some flashy conversion. When I saw it the first time I did too but now I see it’s disrespect for history as stunningly and critically poetic. The world has a surfeit of buildings associated with painful histories so showing people and societies how to move on from them is something architects could do more to help with. It’d be more worthwhile than making representations of fake histories or it’s opposite, faux progress. Even the pragmatic “what’s already there” approach of the post WWII Italian architects I so admire is still an aesthetic approach whereas the history at The Waterhouse’s is raw and personal. Neri & Hu say their design intention was to separate new and old. Yes, but showing the past slip deeper into the past as one builds newly upon it sends a powerful message of healing to former victims and if, at the same time, it also sends an equally powerful message of up yours to the former enemy then so be it. I’d forgotten architecture can do things like this. Thank you Neri & Hu.


What’s Already There

Venice has been an inspiration to artists and architects for centuries. Even today, the Venice Architecture Bienalle sustains the city’s symbolic importance for architects and architecture despite the city having almost no 20th century buildings. its most used one is the Venezia Santa Lucia railway station, designed by Angiolo Mazzoni. That’s it on the left, below.

(In 1860 the islands of Venice were finally connected by train to the mainland and the Church of Santa Lucia was one of the buildings demolished in 1861 for the current station’s predecessor.)

As state architect, Mazzoni designed many post offices and other public buildings but his speciality was railway stations. He designed them for the cities of Latina, Montecatini Terme, Reggio Emilia, Regio Emilia, Regio Calabria, Messina, Siena, Florence and Rome. Venice Santa Lucia was one of his first designed (1924–1934) and one of his last completed (1934-1943). But it was completed and Mazzoni is one of two 20th century architects who built on a major waterway in Venice.

Frank Lloyd Wright was not to be the other one. This small brown brick building belonged to Angelo Masieri who was a huge admirer of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Masieri travelled to the United States to ask Wright to design a building for this site on a corner looking down the Grand Canal. Wright agreed but Masieri was killed in an automobile accident while there and Wright’s project became The Masieri Memorial (1951).

It’s not horrible. Wright left a space between the building on the right, mirroring the path separating it from the building on the left and so making both buildings stand proud. The height of his building lines through the cornice of the taller neighbor and, importantly, his building is higher on one side and creates a transition from higher to lower and knitting the building into the canalscape. It didn’t work. We don’t know why the municipality’s town planning office rejected Wright’s proposal. My guess is they didn’t think Venice needed a Wright building and Wright of course was incapable of designing anything else but. In the end, the interior of the existing building was remodeled by Carlo Scarpa, a 20th century architect who did design and built much in Venice but nearly all of it is behind walls and not on waterways. One of his more known works is his Sculpture Garden (1952) for the central pavilion of La Biennale di Venezia

His most accessible however is the Olivetti Store (1958) on the northern arcade of St. Mark’s Square. You’ll never see a more exquisite shop fit-out. Every material, every corner, every join of every material shows the skill of design and the craft of execution. This next image is the floor immediately inside the front door. It’s beautiful. It’s also as far as I got for there was an €8 admission charge, they didn’t take cards, and nobody had change for a €50 note.

Le Corbusier didn’t get to build in Venice either but Venice seems to get the blame for that. You’ll often come across this next plan that, like much of Le Corbusier’s output, can be used to say pretty much anything about anything despite the ramps and pilots being brought into service yet again to say something about the man and his oeuvre. I’ve seen this plan used as an example of field space and also as an example of a mat building even though.mat buildings are supposed to be repeated units solved for access, ventilation and daylighting. I don’t think this is, as individual wards are lit by skylights and those skylights face all the ordinal points of the compass.

There’s always been a few images of a model floating around the internet but I’d always thought the absence of external views anywhere, suspicious. These days, surely some visualizer has had a go? Sure enough, the proposal is sinfully ugly, even allowing for the visualizer possibly not doing it justice. Design began in 1958 and, although an initial design was approved by the municipality circa 1964, Le Corbusier died in 1965 and a few years later the project either quietly died or quietly had the plug pulled by a change in government.

Louis Khan’s 1972 proposal for what I think is an assembly hall in what looks like The Arsenale never saw light of day. I can’t say I’m sorry.

David Chipperfield is a 20th century architect who has built in Venice. His San Michele Cemetery Extension (1998–2017) is both appropriate and completed but it’s not on a waterway.

To the south of the two main islands of Venice is the island of Giudecca that does have many 20th century buildings. There’s an apartment building by Aldo Rossi at one end and a townhouse development by Gino Valle at the other. Giudecca isn’t as precious as the other islands. Its inhabitants are proud of being part of Venice yet not.

The centre of the marker above is where you’ll find Palladio’s Il Redentore [Church of the Most Holy Redeemer], completed 1592 as thanks to God for sparing Venice “the worst” of the 1575–1576 plague in which 46,000 people, approx. 25-30% of the population, died.

Almost directly across the canal from Il Redentore is another church, the Church of the Sacred Spirit. That’s it at the right in this next painting from about 1700. To its left are three buildings, each about the same width but the one on the right is taller than the other two and the awning suggests residential. The other two are most likely storehouses.

In this painting from not too much later, some land has been taken from the leftmost of the three to create a laneway.

In this engraving from not too much later, the taller building remains the same but the adjacent building appears to have been extended.

This next photomontage shows that sometime between 1700 and 1950, the residential building was also extended sideways to incorporate part of its neighbor and, probably at the same time, given a symmetrical tripartite facade to unify them. Nobody bothered to unify the roof so what we have is a building with a facade that wants us to think it it’s a whole, but with a roof denying that reading. This is not complex or contradictory. It’s just different problems being solved in different and most obvious ways.

This site belonged to the family of this lady, the Countess Marina Cicogna (b.1934). This noble family is one of Italy’s wealthiest, owns the Cipriani Hotel. The Countess has organized the Venice Film festival forever. The family has probably owned the site forever.

We don’t know why The Countess wanted an apartment building built on it but she did and she chose this architect to do it.

Ignazio Gardella (1903–1999)

And this is what he did.

Casa Alle Zattere (1958)

Ignazio Gardella was born in 1903 so, in the 1920s when he began his career, he was a Rationalist architect. Now you can think of Rationalism as a type of Italian Modernism but it wouldn’t be accurate. It was more a philosophy of solving architectural problems in the most rational way. I’ll leave aside arguments that Architecture is not just about how a problem gets solved but also about what problems get chosen to be solved but, for practical purposes, Rationalism meant that structure and shape tended to be congruent with the more “heroic” strands of modernism but the details often weren’t and, for this, Rationalism has been regarded as “impure”. Gadella’s first major building was the Tuberculosis Clinic in Alessandria (1934–1938). It’s all very boxy and modern but the upper level sundeck is screened by a wall of open brickwork characteristic of the Lombardian rural vernacular, particularly barns for the storage of straw.

Gardella’s next major commission was the Casa Tognella apartment building (1946–1953) for a spectacular corner site overlooking the castle and the park in central Milan.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Countess Cicogna knew the Tognella family and had visited and admired this building because Gardella’s first proposal was this next. It’s definitely not the same style as the church but it still does two very important things. One is the setback on the right side that separates it from its neighbor and creates a symmetry with the laneway on the other side, much as Wright had done with Masieri Memorial. Additionally, the important line of the base of the church’s pediment is carried over, separating a visually heavier base from the lighter two upper floors.

This next model better shows how those two techniques were applied but it also shows a third. The wonderful thing about Gardella is that any time your attention is drawn to something and you wonder why it is so, you’re usually rewarded with understanding. The first three floors have narrow windows with those on the right stacked yet those on the left are slightly unstacked plus there’s an extra window. Why? Because doing so creates a virtual horizontal line in line with the height of the building the other side of the lane.

This symmetry is apparent in this next sketch of a later development. That such a sketch exists shows Gardella’s concern for how his building will fit in. We see that the main windows of the apartments’are stacked but also centred as they are in the larger buildings to the left and right. The upper two floors are still set back but now the top floor terrace has no roof and the railing is like that on the five-story building further along the canal. Also, the roof is no longer flat, but pitched and tile.

This next development explores paired windows while the explicit lining through of the previous iteration is replaced by the fourth floor’s offset balcony that does the same job of acknowledging the church. On the fifth floor, the stone balcony becomes a parapet that is suggestive of a roof while for the small building on the left it indicates one.

The final building as built has the narrow windows mostly paired, with the offset narrow windows on the fourth floor continuing the horizontal line of the offset balconies and the church pediment on the far side in much the same way as as the offset windows on the first floor continue the line of the low building on this side. The second and third floors are now the only floors with windows the same. Why? My guess is that it repeats the pattern of the four windows on the upper floors of the building two to the left. Lastly, you’ll notice that the windows on the front facade are full height yet the doors are not. Again I’m only guessing, but I believe it mimics the lintel difference between the buildings two and three to the left. Something that’s not even a recognized element of a building is still something present in the surroundings.

What Gardella is doing is not post modernism because he’s not representing anything or contriving anything to represent anything – he’s doing it for reasons that are real. And it’s not historicism because everything he’s reacting to may be old but it’s still there in the here and now. And it’s not contextualism either because his building is borrowing but not imitating. It looks like an apartment building and not a church or a palazzo. It was something new in 1958 and we still haven’t got our heads around it.

I don’t think we ever will. Gardella didn’t tell us what he did or how he did it. He left it for us to work it out if we’re interested and, mostly, we haven’t been. Gardella makes “the difficult whole” look easy but Gardella isn’t “taught” and what understanding there is of this building doesn’t go beyond lining though.

What’s Already There

Taking one’s clues from What’s Already There is a way of understanding the work of Gardella’s contemporaries such as Milanese architects Mario Asnago [1896–1981] and Claudio Vender [1904–1986]. Their buildings are like Gardella’s Casa Alle Zattere in that they are respectful yet distinctive. They hold your attention if you look at them but they disappear into the city the moment you look away.

Gio Ponti buildings will always recognize the size of neighboring buildings as well as the shape of a site, especially if a corner is involved.

As do those of Guiseppe Terragni, particularly around roundabouts.

Looking at What’s Already There and letting that influence what your building is going to be like is more than just a safe thing to do. It’s the decent thing to do. You can still see it everywhere when walking around Milan, or Venice.

The projecting balcony elements on the facade of the middle building appears to be riffing on the arbitrarily closed shutters of the adjacent buildings.
The floor slabs of the middle building are lined through with the balcony railings of the building on the left, while the balconies themselves borrow from the building on the right.
I like the way this building speaks two languages. It’s big where it can be big but turns the corner and disappears into the street. Masterful.
At first I thought this building might be some undocumented Asnago Vender building but it’s more likely just an ordinary building doing the right things. It’s almost invisible. I think what’s happening is the wall on the right with the three stacked windows mirrors the wall of the adjacent building on the left. The four open bays therefore appear symmetrical with respect to the protruding balconies and the whole thing becomes a single composition. Excellent work!


1965–1980 Japan

Neighbours on Longitude 135° was the backslappy motto of Australia’s presence at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. An accompanying graphic showed longitude 135°E pleasingly spanning the middle of Australia and the expo’s location of Kansai still regarded by many as the heart of Japan. Many Japanese thought the Australian pavilion reminded them of Hokusai’s famous woodblock print Great Wave off Kanagawa, the best known of his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. I thought this a happy accident. I didn’t know the post-modern era had begun.

The architect of the Australian pavilion was James Maccormick, principal of James Maccormick and Associates since 1988. His LinkedIn profile says he was an associate at Grounds, Romberg and Boyd 1960–1964 so he almost certainly designed the pavilion while working for the Commonwealth Department of Works in Canberra 1964–1970.

By 1979 when I arrived in Japan there had been an oil shock or two and the expo party was well and truly over. My first three months were spent at the Osaka University of Foreign Languages, a short bus ride from Kita-Senri station on the Hankyu Senri Line that passed by the former expo site at Senri Hills. From the train into Osaka I could glimpse the symbol tower that’s now the centrepiece of the Expo ’70 Commemorative Park. I never went there because, from the time Expo ’70 was first announced, I had eagerly followed all news and already imagined myself there. I wasn’t interested visiting a place something amazing had happened ten years prior.

Expo ’70, Osaka, Japan

I didn’t care about the Expo ’70 theme of Progress and Harmony for Mankind. My only interest was the pavilions and, aged 13, I agreed with Kenzo Tange that the only really irritating one was the Matsushita Pavilion [centre above]. Tange articulated his objection better than I could when he said “History is like a millstone around our necks. Our task is to smash it apart and reassemble it”. Or something like that. (It was 1968 or so.)

But of course Tange would say that – he was on the Metabolist side of the fence, and Metabolists were famous for having ideas about the future, whether founded in history or not. If one purposely excludes The Constructivists, then Koolhaas and Obrist were correct to identify the Metabolists as the first “movement” of non-Western architects to make an impression on the architecture of the Western world and, as with Expo ’70 itself, there was nothing the Japanese wanted more than create an impression on the Western world. Tange was clearly the man for the job.

My interest in Japan’s modern architecture had begun with me reading a Reader’s Digest article introducing Kenzo Tange. It had a photograph of the Yoyogi Stadia. The year was probably 1966–7. 1974-1978 were my undergraduate years and, on the same library shelf as DOMUS and CASABELLA, I discovered Japan Architect and buildings by architects such as Takefumi Aida, Mozuna Monta, Artata Isozaki, Tadao Ando, Toyo Ito, Hiroshi Hara and Kazuo Shinohara. [c.f. The New Japanese House, Kazuo Shinohara’s Houses, Madame Butterfly] It was the houses that fascinated me. Here’s Takefumi Aida’s 1972 Annihilation House. It’s an inhabitable object. I still believe that’s all a house is meant to be.

Kazuo Shinohara may have thought of houses as inhabitable objects but for him they were primarily objets d’art. In 1962 when he wrote “A house is a work of art.” he was creating as well as stating a position vis-à-vis The Metabolists who always thought themselves cut out for bigger things such as cities. Shinohara was not the first architect to carve out a niche for himself but he did set the tone for how his buildings would be regarded. What’s more, it still holds, despite there never having been any discussion of in what sense Shinohara’s houses are art, or whether or not they are good art. [1] And how would anyone know anyway? Surely only the artist would know whether their work was a success or not. And artists, like anyone else, can be creative with the truth.

An Anatomy of Influence

An Anatomy of Influence is a very handsome book by Thomas Daniell, Professor of Architectural History, Theory, and Criticism at Kyoto University. It covers Japanese architecture over the period 1965-1980, a period with many memories for me. Its beginning was the time of the ‘economic miracle’ leading up to Expo ’70, and the middle of it was the downturn brought on by the Oil Crises. The entire period was pre-internet and, as everywhere else, architectural ideas were presented and propagated by magazines that were readily available yet specialist in nature. Having buildings published was perhaps the most important means of self-promotion. [2]

Delivering seminars and presentations on the university lecture circuit is a poor substitute for publishing well thought-out positions in specialist journals read by critical peers. A few years ago, I met a Japanese architect who had moved to Dubai and set up a practice. He said he much preferred working here and, when I asked why, he replied, “In Japan you never get to do anything. As soon as you design your first house and get it built, you’re expected to endlessly write about it and never stop talking and lecturing about it anywhere and everywhere to anyone who’ll listen.” Yō Shimada sprang to mind. [c.f. Career Case Study #10: Yō Shimada]

This system of specialist magazines was not unlike the system of journals that had existed since the 1920s across Europe and the USSR. A position expressed in an article might be countered after much thought and discussion by another article by someone else a month or two later. No such intellectual landscape exists today anywhere in the world and this is our loss. [c.f. Need to Know] A self-critical piece such as Kiyonori Kikutake’s thought on his just-completed 1975 Pasadena Heights is today unthinkable. [c.f. Honorary Architecture Misfit: Kiyonori Kikutake] I’m all for an architecture that’s less elitist, but don’t see why criticism, relevance and self-control had to be the first casualties. As with people most everywhere, the Japanese live their lives largely untroubled by architecture.

A forum of one’s peers didn’t stop architects of all persuasions having opinions on how everyone else should live whether in house, city or both. What Daniell’s book brings to the table is an oral history gleaned via interviews with various protagonists, and for which edited transcripts were reviewed, sometimes amended, and subsequently approved by the speakers. Daniell can vouch that all these things were said. The veracity of the things said is another matter, for memories can be hazy, recollections muddled and both facts and emphasis can shift as things get said to “set the record straight”.

The recollections of the eleven architects Daniell interviewed don’t always concur and this is where it gets interesting. Daniell calls this The Rashomon Effect. Rashomon is a 1950 movie by Akira Kurosawa in which a samurai is killed and his wife supposedly ravished by a bandit but the accounts of wife and bandit differ, and we also begin to suspect the narrator is unreliable. An important early text I wish I’d read 40 years ago stands in for an interview with Shinohara who died in 2006. A living Shinohara would definitely have contributed more lines to read between, but would also have shaded the recollections of Arata Isozaki, Itsuko Hasegawa, Kazunari Sakamoto, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Seijima …

In Rashomon, Kurosawa didn’t have this problem as the testimony of the dead samurai is delivered via a medium. It’s a powerful scene, not least of all because we accept the medium as an audacious storytelling device more readily than we do the dead samurai’s version of events.


Daniell explains that he chose the final eleven interviewees from architects over 60 “so that their career arcs were clear [ouch!] and their historical significance beyond question, then selected 12 individuals who occupy positions within the field as far away from each other as possible”. This is as good as any other method. The qualification “within the field” is important because it includes architects on the fringe but excludes outliers who, by definition, aren’t in the field. I confess to not remembering Masaharu Takasaki’s name but Googling cosmic architecture Japan pulled up an image of his most memorable building in one. Even in the seventies I found it a bit too cosmic. I wonder what he did after, and is doing now. There’s a whole other book out there.

But there are still plenty of stories, and more to them than we will ever know. Daniell’s interviews don’t just reveal the people behind the buildings – the also reveal who they are now as well as then. We don’t need to be told what Arata Isozaki has been doing for Arata Isozaki & Associates is a huge practice doing the usual things, getting press, collecting awards, etc. Tadao Ando we know about and, if he didn’t make the final twelve, it is because we can comprehend his buildings via those of the others. I missed not seeing Takefumi Aida but then, I can see how he could be comprehended in terms of Ito plus or minus a bit of someone else. I never much cared for his Toy Block House series but I’m pleased he’s still around.

Osamu Ishiyama
Ishiyama [who was interviewed] is a borderline outlier beyond the tribes of Metabolists and anti-metabolisms, and comes across as a decent person. His belief that social equality lay with less architecture, not more, must have been heretical in the time of megastructures, irony and art. His Gen-An (幻庵, Fantasy Dwelling) is a type of minimal dwelling unit that fits with his desire to create a house that could be built anywhere with inexpensive materials and a low level of construction skill. The First Oil Crisis was 1973 and nowhere were its effects felt as much as in Japan. Conceiving a low-cost, self-build, and possibly off-grid housing was a socially useful thing for an architect to propose. In 1975, infatuated with spatial invention and sophisticated compositions, I completely missed the point of its cheap construction and disapproved of its hippy vibe. I thought this house was against architecture. It was, but I was wrong thinking that was a bad thing.*

Ishihyama’s still doing it. Here’s his 1995 Light Coffin house. Completely ignored by media, it didn’t try to be popular.

“By the 90’s, it was obvious that the traditional form of family – an authoritarian father, an obedient mother and powerless children – was becoming obsolete. New types of relationships started to emerge in the vacuum created by shrinking conventional family stereotypes. The “Light Coffin,” designed by Osamu Ishiyama in 1995, was a house designed for a young gay couple. (The original name in Japanese is the “House for Doracula.”) Built using plain materials such as lightweight steel frames and corrugated roof panels, this house looks like a warehouse with no frills. The interior is also bald and bare: the entire space is divided into two simple  rows, one of which consists of a bathroom and a kitchen. In a conventional sense, you may not call this building a house. But then, if this couple don’t want to raise kids or don’t need conventional functions for a conventional family, then they don’t need a conventional house.  A format for a family and their life style can be a lot more diverse or peculiar. If Doracula wants a house – well, or a coffin – of course he can have one.”

Monta (Kiko) Mozuna
The cover image of Daniell’s book is a detail from a wonderful Mozuna drawing, Mandela 1, from 1991. Mozuna’s estate kindly allowed its use. It would have been interesting to know what happened between 1991 and his 1972 Anti-Dwelling house that made an impression on undergraduate me, not only because of its obvious weirdness, but more because he designed it for his mother. We don’t know what she thought of it but, in what must have been a photograph in Japan Architect, I remember a row of pot plants along some corridor and thinking that all houses need do is intersect with the act of living. Sadly missed.

Takefumi Aida
I never could quite make up my mind about Takefumi Aidfa but he’s still practicing, although it’s difficult to know to what degree. This 2012 building, titled Portico, by Aida Atelier [the same Takefumi Aida of Annihilation House, earlier] + Kuno LAB shakes up the detached house once again, literally turning it upside down and, surprisingly, making it work incredibly well. The ground floor has a main entrance and three bedrooms, each with its own entrance. Communal living happens upstairs. This is a house that could be lived in by a household of arbitrary ages and configuration. Although attractive in that Japanese way we’re used to, it’s a useful idea worthy of further exploration. It would be a shame if it were regarded as nothing more than art.

I was also pleased to learn this next building is from the Aida atelier. It uses minimal means and modest contrivance to make something special. It reminds me of some of the later work of Hiroyuki Asai, seemingly banished from Shinohara’s lab mid-1970s. [c.f. Misleading Narratives] Maybe it’s time someone said “A small apartment building is a work of Art”? Maybe I just did.

Hiroshi Hara
Hiroshi Hara was one of the interviewees. I’d never been that much of an admirer although my university friend Jonathan Gale once took me to a party at Hara’s own house from 1974. I wish I’d been more open to being influenced by Hara. I liked this statement from his interview. “I believe architecture is not an object but an event. If you lack the tools to notate such events, you have to create your own notational system. Such a system should be comprehensible to a wider audience, not just architects.” 

I also like this facade treatment Hara’s atelier put on one corner of Kyoto Station. It’s slightly bizarre, neither art nor building, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s under the radar and hiding in plain sight. No-one will get asked to talk about it. Articles won’t get written about it. Nice work.

Kazuo Shinohara
On a recent trip to Japan, I visited Tokyo’s largest bookstore, Kinokuniya, in Shinjuku. I scanned the shelves and saw Isozaki’s writings were well represented, as were those of Toyo Ito, Kiyonori Kikutake, Waro Kishi and others. I was pleased to see at least twelve books on Tōgō Murano – a wonderful architect virtually unknown outside of Japan. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #21: Tōgō Murano]. When I saw there wasn’t a single book on Shinohara, l couldn’t help thinking how fluid this notion of influence is.

It was odd. The world of architecture is usually quick to reward architects who keep the idea of architecture relevant by downwardly enlarging its market. [The most recent case I can think of is Alejandro Aravena being showered with accolades for his half-a-house invention bringing Chile’s property-poor into the housing market.] Shinohara singlehandedly invented the idea of volumetrically modest houses as art, thereby increasing the number of buildings that could be potential carriers for architectural ideas.

The memory of Kazuo Shinohara is being allowed to fade right now – a sure sign we can expect a major retrospective within five years. Despite that, or perhaps because of that, the idea of a house as art has never been stronger. It was an idea that, once released into the air, grew wings and flew. It just exists now as part of our intellectual and media environment, as if where it came from or how or why it got there are questions we shouldn’t trouble ourselves asking. All we know is that Japanese architects have continued to produce houses purporting to be art and we in other countries have been guiltily enjoying them ever since.

An early draft of this post was titled Under The Influence.

• • • 

[1] These questions were tossed around last year in the four posts ART IN SPACE!, Houses as Art, Living as Art, and Art as Houses, and recur in an article of mine titled A Shinohara House is a Work of Art, in Issue 45 of LOG magazine.

[2] Issue 46 of LOG magazine includes an article by Thomas Daniell titled Finding a Voice, accompanying a translation of Tadao Ando’s first foray into the world of architecture article writing and position-making.


• • •

Sun 13 Oct., 2019 16:07
So, just when I think interest in Shinohara is waning, along comes an exhibition at GSD.

Let’s Dance!

The worlds of architecture and dance don’t intersect very often. This makes me think they might move in sync, respectively affirming the same forces acting upon society. Perhaps by looking at how dance has both changed and stayed the same over the past hundred years we can learn something about how architecture has also. I don’t know – let’s see. It’s summer. The theme of many posts in this the Year of The Bauhaus has been to ask what “designing for industry” actually meant and for whom. Who stood to gain and who to lose in last century’s stampede to pander to the wants of industry?

At the same time in Weimar Germany, writer, journalist, sociologist, cultural critic, and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer was pondering the socio-aesthetic significance of The Tiller Girls, a British* dance troupe formed in 1890 and that were a hit in Berlin in the 1920s. And why not? “What good is sit-ting, a-lone in your room?”

“Not only were they *American products; at the same time they demonstrated the greatness of American production. I distinctly recall the appearance of such troupes in the season of their glory. When they formed an undulating snake, they radiantly illustrated the virtues of the conveyor belt; when they tapped their feet in fast tempo, it sounded like business, business; when they kicked their legs high with mathematical precision, they joyously affirmed the progress of rationalisation; and when they kept repeating the same movements without ever interrupting their routine, one envisioned an uninterrupted chain of autos gliding from the factories into the world, and believed that the blessings of prosperity had no end. “ [Siegfried Kracauer, quoted in K. Michael Hays’ Modernism and the Posthumanist Subject, p.263]

*Kracauer seems to have thought The Tiller Girls were American but it’s perhaps forgivable if he’d seen that above backdrop. It’s taken me a while to understand what Kracauer meant by the following but it’s beginning to make sense now.

  • Spatial images are the dreams of society. Wherever the hieroglyphics of these images can be deciphered, one finds the basis of social reality.
  • The aesthetic topography of mass culture is the surface that reveals the movement of society within a historical context.
  • The mass ornament is … the aesthetic reflex of the rationality aspired to by the prevailing economic system.

These are all very provocative ideas even if they’re all expressions of the one idea that it’s not the high art but the low that reveals more about us. [Perhaps the necessary role of high art is to prevent us seeing the truth all too clearly?]

Ludwig Hilberseimer (1885–1967) was a German architect and contemporary of Walter Gropius (1883–1969). His proposals can’t be said to be the aesthetic topography of mass culture yet Hays uses Kracauer’s notion of the mass ornament to talk about it. There’s a lot of repetition repeated, it must be said.

“Like The Tiller Girls, Hilberseimer’s mass ornament is an end in itself. According to Kracauer, the mass ornament – unlike military demonstrations, say, whose aesthetic order is a means to an end, or in any case, tied to feelings of patriotism, loyalty, and morality, or gymnastic configurations that have functional and hygienic dimensions – has neither aesthetic nor functional meaning. In the end there is closed ornament, whose life components have been drained of their substance.” [p.266]

I suspect Kracauer’s notion of the mass ornament can be applied to most architecture that’s happened since. In Weimar Germany the intelligentsia were excited about factories and mass production and, at least from 1925, so was Walter Gropius. If Hilbersimer’s projects were the dreams of society in that they were manifestations of the rationality aspired to by the prevailing economic system, then the same can be said about the architecture of Hannes Meyer and his use of building components and devices not intended as ornament. Those building devices and components are closed ornament in that they mean no more than what they are but shouldn’t this instead be seen as their substance and an affirmation of their “life components”? Those same components may still be subjected to the arbitrary projections of observers and possibly even regarded as ornament but that’s neither the components’ problem nor our business. Enough – bring on the dancing!

Kracaeur could have caught The Tiller Girls in Manchester anytime after 1889. Already we have a link between precision dancing and industry, if not architecture. By 1835 Manchester was a major centre for cotton processing and later, general manufacture. It was the first and greatest industrial city in the world.

Manchester in 1857.

If Kracauer had been in New York anytime between 1907 and 1931 he could have seen the Ziegfeld Follies championing American industry on Broadway.

The Rockettes were formed in 1925 in St. Louis but have been associated with New York’s Rockefeller Center ever since its first buildings opened in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression (when faith in industry was at a low?) They’re still kicking.

The linearity of chorus lines is a consequence of the frontality of stages but movies didn’t have this limitation. The ends of a chorus line could meet to create a kaleidoscopic microcosm of repetition. Busby Berkeley set the standard for this and many other types of Hollywood precision choreography.

Scenes were often set up horizontally on rotating stages and filmed from above. Synchronized dance could be used to inspire patriotism during wartime without losing the spectacle of the production line, especially when combined with Hollywood’s penchant for staircases.

The endless production belt where output becomes input.

The economic symbolism of New York Dance comes alive in this next architectural moment from Berkeley’s 1933 film 42nd Street that recalls Kylie Minogue rocking the city in 2001 with help from some synchronised dance and Kraftwerk imagery that itself recalls the 1930s love affair with mechatronic motion. [c.f. Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINE]

But let’s not race ahead to the past. Between Busby Berkeley and Kylie comes Jerome Robbins who’s best known for the optimistic precision dancing he devised for the 1957 musical West Side Story and almost as well known for ratting on everyone he knew during the McCarthy-era when witch hunts were witch hunts. In 1957, conformity was demanded by law and dancing in sync the perfect expression of that. Architecturally, this was the heyday of The International Style, a style not known for its freestyle whimsy. Facades, and the buildings themselves, were repetitions of repetitions of things factories were there to churn out,

By 1940 the Jitterbug was a popular dance that lasted into the late 1950s and the first rock and roll. It morphed into The Twist that became the first social dance style of the now teenage baby-boomers.

Much like salsa and ballroom dances such as the tango, the Jitterbug and Twist had several basic moves couples could freely combine or develop into spectacular displays. This was no production line. The late sixties had many dances with characteristic sets of moves. Offhand, I can think of The Frug, The Monkey, The Chicken, The Watusi, The Mashed Potato, The Hitch-Hike, The Jerk and The Swim. Instructions on how to do them were on the side of cereal boxes – Special K, if I remember rightly. Driven by the music culture of the baby boomers, dance was everywhere.

During the 1970s it seemed the whole world was dancing and the look was one of individuality but within an overarching conformity. Television music and variety shows made it impossible to not know about this new dancing. The word discotheque hadn’t yet come into popular usage but if one wanted to dance one would go to a go-go club that featured professional house dancers, sometimes caged but whether for their protection or that of the clientele I don’t know. [Where’s Kracaeur when you need him?] I’m just guessing, but I’d say the message is that wanton displays of individuality will be tolerated only within boundaries.