Tag Archives: what do we want from architecture education?

Performance Anxiety

This post was prompted by a comment a reader made in response to last week’s post, Associative Design. Thanks KT!

I’ve disliked flashy architectural graphics for as long as I can remember. I could always sketch and, in my undergraduate course with its life drawing and sketching excursions I had occasional successes such as a pencil sketch of a garden next to our studio and a pastel sketch of a coastal landscape. Imagining what something might look like on a site was never a problem and I could always get the message across. I must have seen those Yale images from Paul Rudolph’s studio in some book because, back then, the only way we could be shown images was if they’d been photographed by the faculty assistant, made into 35mm slides and put into a Kodak carousel. It was the teaching equivalent of a Powerpoint file. Nevertheless, our instructors knew of these heroic Yale inkings and expected them of us because this was how architecture was communicated in the 20th century. [These next few images are all taken from a post called Ignorance is Bliss.]

I particularly like this artists’ impression of a mixed-used building in Milan, designed by Gustavo e Vito Letis (1953-1955). [via ordinearchitetti.mi.it] Whoever is responsible for this artists’ impression was confident the building would appear far better in real life, and that the client was also equally confident it would too.

I see this as evidence of clients with a high degree of design literacy, and of architects who designed for what the building was going to be like when it was experienced by real people as a built object. The idea of architecture as something that has to be practiced in an international media circus was still nascent in the 1950s and wasn’t to become the preferred way of practicing architecture for a couple of decades yet.

Of course, if you go to Milan’s via Filipo Turati you will see that the real building (still) looks far better than the image of it. This is of course how it should be, and it is characteristic of many Italian mid-20th century buildings.

Images like these were called artists’ impressions because that’s what they were, although the term probably doubled as legal disclaimer. Doubts about the ethics of these ink wash and watercolour worlds existed even in the 1970s and continue today except that we don’t talk about them. At school, we saw that some of us were good at architectural graphics and some of us weren’t. The best we reasonably aspired to was something like this commercial artist’s impression from a decade or two earlier, and even this is in the style of those Ralph Rapson images for the only Case Study House that wasn’t built.

If a student didn’t have a way with people or trees but had the money there was always Letraset. This was the name of the company and its eponymous product. Letraset made sheets of lettering in various fonts, as well as people, trees and all manner of graphic hatches and decorations. They came fixed to plastic sheets and you’d press (“dry-rub”) to transfer your chosen graphic to your drawing. Today we’d call their product an image library purchased page by page. You can find the children and grandchildren of Letraset people in Sketchup.

Students were envious of the ones who used Letraset to make their artist’s impressions look more “professional”. This was a symptom of Performance Anxiety.

Retro graphics still have their place and it’s usually to evoke images of a quieter, gentler world. This one I did many years later for a small job in the Hampshire countryside.

This one (not mine) was for an embassy client.

Diplomatic clients don’t want the vibrantly and diversely populated worlds of computer-generated imagery. They want calm. Having said that, these next two contemporary watercolors are more seductive than the reality they enabled.

About 1995 I discovered ArchiCAD and its integrated graphics engine but, as a person used to sketching, I’d never regarded its 3D window as anything other than a tool to confirm design decisions already made and to help communicate those ideas to others. Knowing how to use it did get me my first three positions with this BIM application that was niche even then. I produced photo-renderings like these which, circa 2000 weren’t that horrible. At the time, I was exporting files, placing lamps, mapping textures and generally wasting a lot of computer time and my own, sleeping intermittently as the render filled the screen from the bottom up as was the way with ArtLantis. Photorendering and post production weren’t things I wanted to get good at. I didn’t.

I discovered that clients familiar with the process of commissioning buildings react better to sketches because they remind them they have the agency to suggest changes. I produced images like these with inky shadows on ArchiCAD’s flat colour.

In 2004 I was working at a different company and, although it was a trial having to use AutoCAD 2000, I developed a cartoony image style with closed black lines that could be quickly filled with Photoshop colour. Some project managers thought it unprofessional but, as far as I knew, no clients did. If clients familiar with the process of procuring buildings are completely at ease with a hand sketch then, at the other end of the spectrum, clients who only want to approve and delegate will demand the most real visualization possible. This might because they lack the imagination or it might be because the image is all that matters anyway.

Just as Reinier de Graaf said the other week, rich rulers and board-of-directors clients don’t want to be distracted with theory or insulted with sketches. They want to see a shiny image of what it their new bauble is going to be like and, even before it is built, they want to show people what they are going to get built. They like the image of a perfect reality and this is why architects bend over backwards [forwards?] to give them. Performance anxiety is rampant in architecture schools because students are exposed to those images at a formative age. They think this is how architecture operates, and maybe even that it’s what architecture is. They’re partially right, at least for one very small but vocal section of the profession that has hijacked the image of the architect.

Education is usually criticized for insufficiently following the needs of the industry but this emphasis on imagery is a case of it following the “industry’s” needs all too well. The problem is that the part of the industry education is following is the least representative one that has come to represent it anyway. I expect that all a business development manager has to do these days is just gift a potential client an iPad Pro pre-loaded with images.

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Meanwhile, students are appalled at my unprofessional collages and lo-effort imagery.

These ones below are as good as it gets. and nor am I shy of using screengrabs. It puts an offhand work-in-progress sketchiness back into computing. Someone else can do the fancy images but I’d appreciate it if they kept them to themselves or just shared them in secret with their potential clients.

Another problem I have with photo-renders is that they can never be perfect. This next one’s been done professionally but, even so, there’s something not right about the position of the moon relative to the sun in this early morning view with the sun low in the east. Also, the buildings are too shiny in all the wrong places. You won’t see coconut palm trees in the UAE let alone four-story tall ones so close to salt water. And they won’t all bitmap the same. These are common errors. I know that birds are obligatory in photo-renders but I don’t mind these because not only are birds active at sunrise but also because many species of birds pass through the UAE on their way to winter in Africa. Students find it very difficult to resist the gloss of images that are the new dark arts. I try to help students overcome their need to produce them.

And now we have animations that not only make little attempt to inform but, for their duration, kill all discussion and, for students, give an extra dimension to performance anxiety.

“Just as tablet computers opened up the market for computing to people who couldn’t type, in 2013 with its Yes Is More comic book, BIG opened up the market for the disssemination of architectural thought to the functionally illiterate.

ZHA/MIR have moved it on with this architectural cartoon and opened up the market for the dissemination of architectural thought to the totally illiterate and, perhaps of more value to a global enterprise, the differently-languaged. “


39 seconds into the animation from which this still was grabbed, you will see the sun set in the south. Or possibly the north if this animation was made when the same proposal was mirrored to the other side of the road – presumably because it wouldn’t look so great with a mountain of disused automobile tires behind it, even though this non co–located recycling presumably helped in the sustainability report.

Associative Design

I was one of those undergraduate students who often worked late and I shared a studio room with two classmates who did also. We’d long ago run out of anything new in our lives to talk about and, as the semester progressed, our conversations became more like reveries, filling the time but increasingly random and abstract. One night when Ruth, Joy and I were studiously inking our final drawings, Ruth suddenly said, “Have you ever noticed that, as soon as you remember your grandmother, you can remember your grandmother’s tablecloth?” There’s many reasons why I recently remembered this conversation and one of them is because I like to imagine my first year students inking drawings this very minute.

The location of this year’s final project was a different neighboring village but, this time, there were no effortlessly picturesque sites with south-facing views over water. The project brief asked for a response to a view but good feng-shui and orienting major windows to the south meant views of some unlovely towers. It’s one option. It made me think of that old office maxim “If there’s something you don’t like and can’t do anything about, then make a feature out of it!” I suspect this is a more common way of working than many instructors and practitioners care to admit but I’m not sure it’s something I want first year students to know about.

Here’s the sites we chose, six of which, including the one I selected, overlook water but not always to the south. That’s our campus to the west, snuggled into a valley with mountains on three sides. To the south are some unlovely towers known as the Relocation Towers and which are a consequence of the university displacing the village of Litang that was unlucky to have such a fortuitous location.

The problem is always the same – how to begin? How to have another first idea? And how to encourage students to have their first, first idea? This time, site conditions such as view and access offered big clues and, as ever, I had no problem with the architect as the faithful interpreter of tangible site conditions. I prompted students to ask themselves questions such as where in the house they’d like to be and what they’d like to be doing when appreciating their view. My thinking was that if certain activities or moods were associated with certain spaces and times then this could be a generator of a plan (that is the generator, etc.)

In these images, that patch of land covered with trees is the site I chose. The one on the left below was taken from where that car is at the bottom left corner of the other one.

Historically, this part of Wenzhou has many stores for garden and landscaping supplies such as paving, garden pavilions, decorative stones, and plants. Someone is growing corn and cabbages in one corner of my site but all the other trees and plants are being farmed for eventual sale. Among them are Chinese maples which are much like the Japanese one only redder, and red single camellias in full bloom right now.

When there’s no view or an undesirable view, it’s always an option to put a wall around the site and call the garden the view. Such a house would maybe be like Alberto Campo Baeza’s Guerrero House that’s open within its walled enclosure. It makes sense as an approach because, in China as in Spain, there’s no guarantee a picturesque view will remain that way forever.

However this approach narrows the definition of a view and, although this is also something architects do all the time, it’s not in the spirit of the brief. Besides, I didn’t even think a wall was necessary. The road in front of the site is barely visible between the tree trunks. Apart from where a pathway splits the site in two, there is a dense “wall” of foliage.

First thoughts are never the best but my first was to use this project as an excuse to bring to life one of my formative buildings – the one I mentioned in Existential Anxieties . What site wouldn’t be improved by a Farnsworth House-Glass House mashup? The building would be raised about 90cm so there would be even less to see from the street. Privacy isn’t a concern in an abandoned village but in an academic exercise it is.

And so I imagined myself admiring the Chinese maples while sipping saké on my engawa.

Fair’s fair though, so if I’m going to go with a Farnsworth House-Glass House mashup then I can’t deny first year students this as a method of working. After all, most won’t have a mental library of buildings and imagery to draw on. And in any case, my formative house above is neither Glass House nor Farnsworth House but something new. One student had the idea of a tree-like tower so I suggested him Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower and Kenzo Tange’s Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center and, for balance, also threw in the 1957 Monsanto House of the Future.

Another student was responsive to Rick Joy’s Desert Nomad House and wanted to design a dispersed house with four different functional blocks in four different materials. I alerted him to Frank Gehry’s Winton Guest House.

There were two main ideas in my mashup. The first was to use the existing path as the main approach, and the other idea was to have a high window in the bedroom framing a view of the towers in the not-so-distant distance.

I encouraged students to think about what they might like to see on their site, to draw it and explain it using collages. Possibilities and options are fine – I’m there to help students make decisions and I believe it can only be called design when decisions are made. Students were appalled by my rough collages but saw how they did the job.

But even this thought of towers as indicators of human presence and activity came from somewhere else. I’ve seen uncompleted buildings in Dubai at night-time lit up in some random pattern as if people were actually living there. It makes the building look inhabited and become real before it actually is. I observed that any day’s seemingly random pattern of illumination was the same as the day before’s. Something’s only cynical if there’s an underlying good that’s being ignored.

I can’t vouch for new apartment blocks on the market here in China now, but the lights in these apartments I’m imagining myself looking at are very much built and occupied, some even by faculty. These lights don’t represent anything other than people going from room to room, doing what they do.

These are the views from my apartment at 20:43, Sat. 23rd Apr. 2022.

In China views of towers are unavoidable and need to be turned into an aesthetic. Canonical Fallingwater, Farnsworth or Savoye can’t provide answers to these new questions posed by new realities. I suspect the only reason the 20th century canon continues to be taught is that it instills in students a sense of an architects’ role with respect to the people who hold the power and money. It’s all very simple and transactional when it’s about private houses but this doesn’t upscale nicely to urbanism.

Another piece of advice was “Don’t design anything you couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live in yourself.” My chosen site was not somewhere I’d naturally gravitate to. I’d feel very isolated. I know that I don’t have to be amongst people all the time but I do like to know that people are nearby. A view of these towers was necessary to me, particularly at night when bright dots of human presence and activity would be seen against the night sky. I needed to change my design. I didn’t like my first idea anymore. It had too much glass in the wrong places. Why should inside and outside blur anyway? Sometimes, don’t you want to just be inside a room? What’s wrong with looking at the outside through a window? And if you want to be outside, then just go outside and walk on the ground or sit on a rock or under a tree.

This thought led to two more. One was about all the houses I knew with high-level windows as a feature. There was Australian architect Roy Grounds’ 1956 house for himself. I don’t much care for the circular central courtyard but I like the feel of the light and the timber ceiling which probably owes something to Danish modernism.

There was Philip Johnson’s 1949 Rockerfella Guest House.

There was also Georg Muche’s 1923 Haus am Horn. The central room has lovely light, but I’d prefer it with clear glass. Perhaps a distinction is being made between windows for illumination and windows for view? I like that window in the study alcove that looks like a nice place to be.

Windows for looking at a view made me think of Adalbero Libera’s 1937 Casa Malaparte. Every window is a picture.

The combination of high-level windows and windows that framed views led me to finally think of Glick House designed in 1999 by Geoff Warn for Western Australian sculptor Rodney Glick. [c.f. Misfits’ Guide to PERTH]

The house was bought soon after its completion by my former classmate Ruth when she moved back to Perth. That’s her on the right in this photo of a class reunion we had in 2006 or 7. She was a several years older than the rest of us.

I’ve written about her house before and have some precious memories of times spent there, but the light inside the house was wonderful. The views from the view windows weren’t particularly special but there was definitely a distinction between windows for light and windows to look out of.

Within an hour I redesigned my house. It was still a mashup, but this time a mashup of Glick House, Rockerfella Guest House, and with an entrance stair and terrace inspired by Casa Malaparte. Like the rooftop of Casa Malaparte, this terrace is a non-committal place to enjoy being connected to the house while being outside it, and to enjoy being connected to the outdoors without getting your shoes muddy.

The title of this post is Associative Design for that’s what I think is happening. An earlier title was Train of Thought and that’s also what it is. One idea led to another that unlocked other memories. I shared this approach and this drawing with students and learned all over again how important that first idea is because, once it’s there, an instructor can build on it and guide students. This design of mine came from multiple sources and I acknowledge all of them. I could be very happy living in this proposed house on its proposed location.

Another thing I reaffirmed was that if design is about generating mutations (as it seems to be thought of as these days) then my personal associations and memories are just another way of generating mutations and at least just as valid. But however the mutations are generated, design still only happens when decisions are made on the basis of them. I also shared this thought with students but it could just be that I want to see some more design decisions made. Pronto!

I’m pleased with how this little house turned out. I still need to flesh out the construction. I generated images to help explain how the design was already present in that first sketch on graph paper and that these lo-res fancy images only communicate the design and aren’t a substitute for it. Five weeks of semester left.

• • • 

Formative Houses

Anyone who was precociously imagining houses and spaces instead of playing outside like a normal kid probably has a series of formative houses they enjoyed imagining being in long before they even knew it was someone’s job to design them. These are mine. The first was an A-frame chalet with a spiral staircase, It was something out of a book of generic house plans reproduced as House of the Week in the local Sunday paper. The A-frame I remember was more alpine than this one but the rendering style is familiar and from that time. Drawings such as these were known as “artist’s impressions” – because that was what they were.

My A-frame didn’t have the compromising deck or side protrusions for what almost certainly are the kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen and bathroom of mine were satisfyingly at the rear of the lower level even if they had compromised headroom. A mezzanine sleeping level accessed by the spiral stair extended halfway to the front and overlooked the double-height living area. I did not think this of this arrangement as Corbusian and I didn’t wonder if an A-frame chalet was suitable for the Mediterranean climate of Perth, Western Australia. Growing up in a single-storey house like most Australians at the time, I liked the idea of a second floor and imagined myself going upstairs to sleep with the comforting walls forming the roof above. Not once did I think of these weekly house plans as the newspaper filler they probably were.

I learned about my second house either from the same Sunday paper or possibly the Saturday West Australian that was always thicker with advertisements for used cars or project homes open for weekend viewings. One day one or the other had a short article on Frederick Keisler’s 1956 Endless House. Now this house is as old as I am so it took ten years to find me. I remember reading about pools of water here and there for impromptu bathing and thinking that strange. Also, I didn’t understand why it was raised on columns that, I later learned, had things called capitals. I still don’t but, if it hadn’t been, I probably wouldn’t remember it at all. I soon outgrew the A-frame but Keisler’s Endless House still has a special place in my heart. Perhaps it’s because nobody has destroyed it for me by posting some crass render on social media. Not that I would know. Or it might be because there’s insufficient information to go on. Or because the plan, section and elevation information there is, is either indecipherable or not worth the effort to decipher – in other words, lost – for students keen to show off their visualization skills on social media. I freshly admire Endless House for its sheer irreproducibility, even though this was its downfall. At nine years old though, I visualized and experienced this house in my head and that was all I needed. I hope I never see it built.

Some houses are best left unbuilt.

At nine years old I had a very rich architectural life. There was also Thomas and Mary [Otis-Stevens] McNulty’s 1965 Lincoln House I saw in a LIFE magazine in the barbershop. I spent many hours poring over the plans and photographs of this house, annoying my older brother who had done “technical drawing” at school so I assumed he had the knowledge to convert the exploded isometric into the simple plans I was used to. (He didn’t.) The magazine in the barbershop was probably not that new or old so I was probably still about nine.

My mother must have noticed my interest in buildings because one day she brought home a secondhand copy of a UK magazine – probably House & Garden which, if it was, was a much thicker, meatier and informative magazine than it is today. I enjoyed the advertisements for self-cleaning electric ovens and washing machines with a window in a front door that you open to put the clothes in. There was some award-winning garden that, instead of lawn, had stepping stones across a shallow pool with low circular planters dotting it like islands. I never saw or heard of this garden again but it made a big impression. The early seventies being the early seventies, people older than me would have said it blew my mind.

What I remember most from that magazine was an article on a UK House of The Future competition that may have been the one sponsored by The Daily Mail. One of the entries was a yellow house by Richard Rogers and it was only when I saw a model of it at the 2015 Venice Bienalle that I remembered not liking it. That’s it in the background of this photo. It had moveable internal walls and was called Zip-up House or something.

Oh yes.

The RSHY website says the year was 1967-69 so I’m somewhere between 10 and 13 now. This period is confirmed by the following image from 1967 for an experimental pneumatic house by Jean-Paul Jungmann, I just learned. It was another of the competition entries. I didn’t warm to it at the time, perhaps because I’d picked up on the Australian prejudice for anything other than double-brick and tile construction as lowly. [Brick veneer construction was cheating while timber frame + “weatherboard” wasn’t even trying.]

Because it was circa 1967 and the only inflatables I knew were plastic beachballs, bouncy castles and bicycle tires, I imagined this house in black rubber and didn’t enjoy it at all.

Right now, all our best brains can think of is how to eliminate construction workers by sucking up to a nascent 3D printing industry but tensile bubble structures that are self-“inflating” in low atmospheric pressures might be lighter and more compact to transport to Mars than 3D printers, as well as being almost instantly habitable. Not that anybody really cares what happens on M`ars, let alone when. Closer to home and now, an inflatable and deformable inner skin of a room might have some useful applications.

The only other house I remember from the competition was a glass cube in a red frame curiously angled like a picture frame perhaps 10 x 10 meters and five meters high. Internal spaces were on or under a free-standing structure shaped like a four-leaf clover. Also red. The upper floor was more like a balcony with the bedrooms curtained off at night. This one might have even won the competition but I never saw it again. Below is my memory of it. There must have been at least two more entries in the competition but I remember nothing of them.

Individually, none of these houses was a formative house but, together, these three showed me there was more than one way for things to be. I began to have opinions. Matti Suronen’s 1968 Futuro House closes this era of my architectural life.

It looked fun but decades later I snarkily tweeted “Isn’t it a bit odd for people to be dancing around a fire in a house of the future?” But Suronen was Finnish and it’s perfectly fine for him to design a future Finnish house. What’s more important is that it was a prefabricated house with a production run far larger than Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion I or II combined, and the hundred or so that were built found their way around the world to become a cultural icon. Not many buildings can say that.

The municipal library was open until 9pm every Wednesday evening and during my high-school years I borrowed books and discovered architecture as something people did. I remember being intrigued by Bruce Goff’s Bavinger House but I also remember thinking it untidy. I was upset when it was demolished, but not that upset. Even now I’m not moved by buildings that claim to be “organic”.

Speaking of, the library had a book on Frank Lloyd Wright but I absorbed more from a history book (surely not Gideon?) that taught me something about Architecture as a discipline. Given that the year was about 1970, the book ended with LMvdR’s Farnsworth House and PJ’s Glass House as examples of minimalism as HISTORY still hadn’t settled on today’s accepted readings. I remember preferring Glass House to Farnsworth but then I did think both had been designed for full-time living. I still prefer Glass House even now when I know it wasn’t even designed for all-day living. I must have come across a book of Philip Johnson’s houses because his 1964 Boissonas House II still has an effect on me. I was recently reminded of it and it was like meeting an old friend again.

Post-modernism was already happening in my early undergraduate years but they were my Modernist years. In first year I made a 1:100 model of Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein that put me off making architectural models. In fourth year I had a Xeroxed photo of Richard Meier’s 1974 Douglas House pinned in front of my desk. It was the long shot with the boat on the shore.

By then I’d already discovered Japanese architecture and a path was set. I can’t not mention the houses of Kazuo Shinohara but, with the exception of House in Uehara, none of them were formative. They were intellectual appreciations either individually as [dare I say it?] art, or collectively as a body of work. They’re not houses I reacted emotionally to.

Unlike the 1974 Mochizuki House by another of Shinohara’s rogue students, Hiroyuki Asai. I wouldn’t have remembered it by its artwork name of House With a Sloping Wall if it hadn’t been called that at some stage. Whatever its name and whatever the reason, it’s comforting walls make it one of my formative houses but to form what I still don’t know.

The rest of the story is one of self-awareness and what I thought was an intellectual appreciation of architecture. In 1979 I was on a train from Sendai to Ishinomaki and reading an A+U special issue on Peter Eisenman’s 1975 House X.

The train line closely followed the shore and, if I hadn’t been so keen to understand this new and exciting architecture, I’d have looked out and seen the beautiful pine-studded islets of Matsushima.

Circa 1992 just prior to my leaving Tokyo for London, I had a book compiled by a poetry magazine that ran a monthly competition in which readers were invited to satirize a given theme, poet or poetic form. This satirization of haiku may be analogy for you but for me it’s metaphor.

“Flight of geese above.
A wondrous sight – that I missed.
Counting syllables.”

Infinite Monkey Architecture

The version of the Infinite Monkey Theorem I first heard went “If you give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters then, sooner or later, one of them will type Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” The correct version is “If you give a monkey a typewriter and an infinite amount of time then, sooner or later, it will type Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” This wikipedia article doesn’t debunk the Infinite Monkey Theorem but it does bring some perspective. I paraphrase.

If we ignore, punctuation, spacing and capitals, then a monkey typing letters at random has a 1 in 26 chance of typing the first letter of Hamlet. It has a 1 in 676 (262) chance of correctly typing the second letter, and a 1 in 17,576 (263) of correctly typing the next. And so on. The probability shrinks exponentially. Now, the text of Hamlet contains approximately 130,000 letters and so the probability of typing them all in the correct order shrinks to 1 in 3.4 x 10183,946, or to 1 in 4.4 x 10360,783 if we include punctuation. etc. In other words [numbers], this means that Even if every proton in the observable universe were a monkey hitting keys from the Big Bang until the End Of The Universe, you’d still need 10360,641 protonic monkey universes for a one in a trillion chance of success.

I admire these next people for devising a simulation to find out for themselves what these numbers meant.


They mean nothing, not so much because they’re large but because we can’t imagine a situation where that information would ever be useful. Infinite monkey time is not a good way of getting another Hamlet written but the logical definition of the Infinite Monkey Theorem tells us we can expect one. And we do.

the infinite monkey theorem states that … any sequence of events which has a non-zero probability of happening, at least as long as it hasn’t occurred, will almost certainly eventually occur.

Despite having no practical purpose, the Infinite Monkey Theorem occupies a place in our minds and so must have a reason for it existing. Something about it makes us want to believe that, given enough time, a worthy outcome will surely result. We accept a multiplicity of mindless options as a substitute for creativity despite it being the opposite. It must be a useful idea for someone, because the Infinite Monkey Theorem is always about Hamlet. We’re never reminded that the same monkey will also get around to typing any number of less-renowned and mediocre plays, the shopping list on my refrigerator, the Ten Commandments, and the minutes to our last department meeting. Most letter sequences will be nonsense. Another niggle is that the process involves much wastage of time but this can be fixed by throwing more typewriters and monkeys at the problem. It’s not as if we’re paying them. Even if the outcome isn’t a masterpiece, this idea of having multiple options generated for next to nothing finds fertile soil in the field of architecture.

• • • 

Architectural competitions, whether open or limited, were once a standard way of generating options for a client.

Pitching three options when the job is still up for grabs is standard practice in the field of graphic design. It’s a good system. As a designer, you don’t want to bet everything on the one proposal yet, on the other hand, if you present too many it’ll have the opposite effect of making you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Three is the right number. You can say good things about each while checking how the client reacts, and then tell them what they want to hear. Much like fortune telling.

Graphic design clients are familiar with the system and expect three options and no more. As explained to me by a graphic designer I once knew, Option 1 is your first thought and what you wanted to do anyway. Option 2 is the opposite, and Option 3 is a mishmash of Option 1 and Option 2. It’s a very simple and effective way of generating three ideas from one. Not knowing what the opposite of your first idea is going to be introduces an element of uncertainty.

A further piece of advice went, “Once you have your three options, make sure Option 2 is the one you want the client to choose.” This goes against any notion of inherent design merit and is just wacky enough to be true. I wish I’d remembered that in 2003 when I was asked to produce three options for a small rooftop extension to a listed house in the UK. I made the mistake of presenting my preferred option third, as if my client were Goldilocks.

I even prepared a table, summarizing the pros and cons of the three options.

Option 3 was my first thought and what I called Option 1 was its opposite in being the most obvious thing to do and easiest to understand. I described it as “simple” but I wanted to imply it was cheapest and looked a bit cheap. Option 2 was the mishmash and combined the low-key approach of Option 1 with the statement approach of Option 3 but its construction and materials made it the most expensive option. I called it a low-key landmark – by which I meant it was pretentious and expensive. My Option 3 was therefore neither cheap and obvious, nor expensive and dubious. Anyway, the job never went ahead so I never proved or disproved the Option Two Theory. Fifteen years later, I thought about it again when I was working in Dubai and my company presented a client with the following three proposals.

At the time, I was shocked to see this page was the only mention of design in all 344 pages of the four-volume design report but I now understand the elegance of this arrangement. If the only thing that matters is that the client pays for it, then all the fancy theory and justifications can be saved for guest lectures, publications, exhibitions and marketing off the back of whichever option is selected. It doesn’t matter which one it is, as much the same things can and will be said. This time, Option 2 was the one chosen to go ahead. And it did – until 2008 of course, when it no longer did.

The three design options were the result of a system known as the in-house or internal competition in which employees work overtime to produce a proposal and have a shot at glory. An in-house jury called The Design Director will identify the two or three proposals he thinks have the best chance of being chosen by the client. This system of generating options works best when the company has already been selected but the design hasn’t.


However, if neither company nor design have been chosen, then the winners of multiple in-house competitions, compete against each other to be selected winner of a wider competition.

This is how the large commercial practices operate. It’s an office paradigm not invented by Rem Koolhaas but monetized by him to great effect, and disseminated with variations by his various protégés who watched and learned how to replicate the system for themselves. This system of architectural production was already up and running in the 1990s when we understood the newly and strangely diverse output of practices such as Herzog de Meuron (and to a lesser extent, Jean Nouvel) in terms of some unifying factor such as careful consideration of the unique characteristics of the program and site and whatever. Gullible me saw the absence of a house style as originality and dedication to the art when all it was, was a more efficient way of developing projects from mutations generated by an intern farm.

Parametricism is an efficient means of generating infinite options because it doesn’t require a team of infinite monkeys and, more importantly, the bananas to incentivize them. Proponents of parametric design believe and claim that a proposal selected from tens of zillions of possibilities must surely be the best. This is because they associate infinite monkeys with creative output, and assume we do too. They omit to mention that the infinite monkeys don’t know what they’re doing. Someone else gets to decide if the output is a convincing substitute for creativity. Compared with deciding that, comparing strings of random letters with everything Shakespeare ever wrote is a doddle.

• • •

I recently bought this book from a lovely independent bookstore in Shanghai called GARDEN BOOKS. It’s been there all of 17 years.

In one essay, Pawley describes an afternoon spent at final year presentations at London’s Architectural Association in the late 1970s. [I’m sorry I can’t fact-check the year as the book is in my office and current pandemic control here means I can’t enter campus for a few days. UPDATE 14/03/2022: I did check it today and was so wrong! The article was from 2001 which was much later than I thought, but still early enough to respond to the newly dominant system of architectural production.] Even in those pre-computer times, Pawley observed that the dominant method of design seemed to be to devise a system that would generate mutations of shape, select one, and then adapt the program to it. The only thing that’s changed in 50 years is the means of generating those mutations.

I’ve said it before. People say that architectural education isn’t responsive to the needs of architecture production but my impression is that it responds all too well. Graduates may not graduate with a wealth of experience but one thing they do know is how to generate options and the narratives [ugh!] to go with them. They graduate perfectly equipped to segue into the world of A-list employment. At least for a while because once they’ve either wised up or burned out, they begin their own practices and perpetuate the system – much like a virus replicates. Perhaps some pandemic control is in order.

  • Contact tracing: Identity the carriers and routes of transmission.
  • Isolation: Limit your architectural exposure to the buildings you either use or see everyday.
  • Vaccination: Form your own opinions.

I’ve nothing against competition or competitions. As with graphic design, a limited choice of options is often good to help a client understand what they want. The 2005~2006 competition for Absolute Towers in Toronto was a competition in which everyone benefited. I suspect the composition of the jury had a lot to do with that.

Competitions and competitiveness are embedded in academia and architectural education. An architecture student’s introduction to infinite monkey architecture begins the first time an instructor asks a student to “play with it” or asks for multiple options of a sketch idea or sketch model. More often than not, these will be options about mass and never about alternative concepts or approaches. And just like the monkey randomly hitting on keys, the option that went before will have no bearing on the current one that will have no bearing on the next one. It’s a pity. Learning in architecture ought to be about learning to limit the universe of possibilities to those that are actually possible. Infinite monkey architecture is the opposite. With infinite monkey architecture, the generators of those random options don’t need an awareness of whether they are good or bad or possible or impossible. Someone else will decide if the output can be made to suit their purpose.

The Demise of the Idea

How many ways are there to generate a design proposal for a building? Some universities cut to the chase, and tell their students to walk down a certain street or around a part of town and “find an architectural project”. For what it’s worth, this is Identification, Analysis and Synthesis all in one. The rest of the semester is then spent developing, modelling, illustrating and communicating that project. After my last week’s post on the Synthesis part of this thing we call The Design Process, I’m beginning to see the sense in that.


I’d been noticing for years that many final year students would spend a semester on research prior to spending another semester developing their final project. Everyone calls it research but it’s really just data gathering and program setting. Usual deliverables are a report identifying the problem, case studies or “precedents” as some like to call them, relevant data, a proposed program, perhaps a bubble diagram showing relationships, and perhaps a massing model to provide a base for further development. If alternative sites aren’t compared and analyzed and one eventually decided upon, some real site is usually chosen as a demonstration site. All this information is collected and presented at the end of semester and the problem, if not the solution is expected to be in there somewhere.

Some students will have already decided what they wanted to do will have contrived their case studies, data collection and research to validate it. They’re not that much different from those students who were told to walk down the street and find a project. In some ways, they’re the lucky ones because that approach better approximates the real world and not just the research-driven practices and their readymade approach, if not a readymade solution, waiting for the right site and client. It’s not that architects don’t occasionally advise on site selection but they generally don’t get to choose where and what to build. Some architects may be enthusiastic about certain building types and eventually gain a reputation for it, but they probably won’t have control over what the project, the program, or budget. There are also students who diligently research without already knowing what they want to do with it. If one believes that projects derive from research (and if we believe that research leads to a better understanding of the problem) then better design ideas should result from it. At the same time, we have students who have done the appropriate studies and then proceed to waste the first half of the second semester coming up with a “concept” that can be developed into a project. I conclude that research doesn’t “inform” design as much or as often as we think it does.


It was once believed functional requirements could shape a project. It was thought that a room didn’t need to be any larger than the sum of what it was to contain, and that rooms could be connected in representations known as bubble diagrams and arranged into plans to be later tidied up into masses. This all still happens except that, prior to the application of facades, it’s now called development gain massing.

Here’s a link to a paper titled “Building Massing Optimization in the Conceptual Design Phase”. This image is a building massing simulation where the red mass represents bad mass (!?), the orange masses are those requiring optimization, and the white masses are those that don’t need to be evaluated. Me neither.

Site considerations

Site considerations are a moveable feast. One selects what one thinks is worth considering be it a view out or a view in, the direction of the wind, the neighbours, what’s already there … And of course, there’s always this which I never miss an opportunity to quote.

Genius Loci

This idea that a site has some inherent spirit that needs to be gratified with a building crops up every now and then. [See above.] It can be understood as the equivalent of the architect saying “what I think should go there.” Sometimes it’s convincing. Sometimes it’s not.

As a basis for generating buildings, it’d be more convincing if genius loci is something that all sites have, although some may be easier to identify and work with than others.


Data is what we used to call information and information is what we used to call knowledge. Generating a design proposal from data still involves the same three filters of Identification, Analysis and Synthesis working (or not working) in exactly the same way they have in the past. The only difference is that people are responsible for their knowledge but data is often presented and accepted as given truth. It can come from anywhere. The main function of linking the words data and design seems to be to get us to distrust our instincts and believe that data is objective and irrefutable.


Two summers ago I went to a conference where the notion of Society 5.0 was floated. Apparently, Primitive society was Society 1.0, Agricultural society was Society 2.0, Industrial society was Society 3.0, Digital society was Society 4.0 and an Ultra-smart society with a cyber-physical integrated space was said to be Society 5.0.

This is about a 1.2

Some scholars believe the invention of agriculture was the beginning of social inequality. They have a case because, for the first time in the history of mankind, people could stay in one place and produce not only sufficient for their own needs, but a surplus that could be taxed. This surplus could either be used as currency to pay for works for the good of society, or retained as a surplus for the sake of having more than others. This next is a summary of their argument.

Hunter/gatherers tend to be egalitarian, with each family or clan in control of themselves, cultivating personal relationships with a variety of spirits/gods to keep everything healthy. Farming led to monocultures with fewer and more powerful gods, a priestly class to bring rain and protect the crops, and eventually god-kings with the divine right to rule, and control irrigation, passed down from above. This is the pattern of the Pharaohs of Egypt and the Great Sun of the Natchez, the leaders of the Inca, Maya and Aztec, and the Louis’ of France. Thus, if agriculture was encouraged, it was as a means of control and not liberation.

In this sense, we’re either in The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industrial Revolution 4.0, or Exploitation 1.4. Whatever it’s called, our immediate future looks like it’s going to have 1) automated driving whether we like it or not 2) manufacturing and robotics, 3) infrastructure management 4) biotechnologies and materials, 4) 3D printed anything whether it’s any good or not, and 5) “smart life” a.k.a. data mining. At the conference, the speaker stressed that “The key to international competitiveness is the development of systems by major companies with real data and AI start-up companies.”  I wasn’t the only person in the audience to gasp but the mood onstage was that data is where it’s at, and is going to be.

Data may not be treated as “goods” in international treaties but as long as it can be bought and sold, or stolen or mined and exploited, it’s definitely a thing of value. But what is that value and is anyone even bothering to find out? If all this data is so valuable, then it’d be nice to be compensated for generating it. It’s the principle that underlies work – I sell my labour and someone else sells the product of that labour.

In the past, farm workers needed a place to live if they were going to work and housing was part of the deal. Even the early industrialists saw the sense in providing workers with housing (even though its giving and taking could be used to ensure compliance). Nobody builds worker housing anymore, probably because workers are no longer what powers economies. At this stage of the pandemic, I’m not even hearing much about co-living and co-working spaces. It seems both have quietly died now nobody is as mobile as they used to be nor as keen to mingle socially or professionally beyond their household. We’ve had a version of a digital city forced upon us for almost two years now and we’re not as excited about the idea as we once were told we would be. Google’s smart city for Toronto has been put on hold for a while but will circle back and land again, probably in California if not in Texas.

The assumption is that everything that makes up a city is 1) capable of being understood, 2) can be converted into known software and hardware and 3) that said software and hardware will be all we need to satisfy all our wants and needs. If any of these assumptions is wrong, then what we get won’t necessarily be what we need. Data is assumed to be neutral but if it can be used to identify a problem, analyze it, and generate a solution then it’s the same old process but now stripped of any notions of authorship or idea. At least when we were in thrall to Art we still had the agency to question whether it was good art or not. And even with The Idea, we still had the right to question if that idea were a good one, or even if it were, an appropriate one. An architecture that refuses to be evaluated on anything but its own terms is never going to be for the public good.

• • •

Architecture Myths #30: Analysis

Identifying and defining the problem in the first stage of this thing called the design process is already loaded with assumptions such as, for one, the need being one an architectural response can satisfy. Already I’m not so keen to use terms such as problem and solution, let alone assume a causal relationship between them. At the end of the previous post on The Problem I floated the idea that this thing called the design process doesn’t even begin until the outcome is largely known. After all, clients don’t pay architects to perform open-ended research into unspecified results. [Then who does? Architecture Myths #31: The Research-Driven Practice?] A design process that doesn’t begin until the result is known doesn’t bode well for the second stage, Analysis or the third stage, Synthesis that’s supposed to bring it all together. Somehow, something credible AS A BUILDING in a particular place and time results from arbitrarily following this apparently arbitrary process.

We’d better keep quiet about all this as we’ve signed the contract and have legally and professionally committed to having the skills and resources to produce that desirable outcome. Together, the client and I have narrowed the range of possibilities in the hope they converge into something we’ll agree was the inevitable and best outcome. Separately, the client may expect and encourage me to leverage their project for my own media purposes and, as far as they’re concerned, I can expect and encourage them to leverage my architectural profile for theirs. It’s consensual. Back in the office, we start to think about what we’re going to do. We remember the project we just finished and agree it’d be good to make this new one look as if there was some sort of design progression even if nobody’s going to ask towards what. Riffing on some previous project means the same teams, the same techniques and much the same spec can be used to produce something that looks new. Referencing oneself is always good as long as it’s not from too far back.

I’ve heard OMA’s intern farm isn’t allowed to be inspired by any part of the oeuvre older than two years. Presumably, the clock starts ticking from the initial media reveal.

Architects and architect offices these days aren’t expected to have signature styles. Being known for having a certain approach to the task of designing is less limiting in terms of size and type of project and companies without a signature style are generally perceived by clients and markets to be modern and adaptable. Jean Nouvel and Herzog de Meuron were trailblazers in that respect. All this musing is getting our project nowhere!

I gave the class a choice of three different ways of approaching the theme of the city.

  • A refinement, reorganization or redesign of one part or aspect of a city. Making one corner of it a city better is never a bad thing.
  • An urban module that, theoretically, could be repeated across an entire city. These typically change nothing , but they’re good theoretical and practical exercises.
  • A city designed on the basis of a single premise. These too typically go nowhere as it’s rare these days to have a single factor operating. Again, they’re thought exercises.

This next was my interpretation of the problem. You can see how it gives me scope to recycle many of my design inventions from late last year and early this year.

  1. To use a single architectural device to configure high-density urban housing,
  2. For this single architectural device to provide access, daylight and ventilation to all rooms and not just habitable rooms,
  3. For the configuration of the entire building to let inhabitants retain an awareness of their living with other people, but not to the extent that privacy suffers, and
  4. For the configuration of the entire building should ideally have the potential to be mass produced and erected quickly and at low cost.

A university design studio is not like an architectural office with decades of projects representing accumulated experience and knowledge. To substitute for student lack of knowledge and experience, instructors traditionally invoke existing buildings from which it is thought something can be learned. One and a half centuries ago these would have been Classical buildings, often in Ancient Greece. It’s a moveable feast. Such buildings are referred to as “The Canon” if they’ve been around long enough for us to forget what we’re supposed to be learning from them, or Case Studies if they’re a similar typology to the one we think we are dealing with. In universities, choice of case studies assumes a project direction, if not the final proposal.

The problem with case studies is that there are many buildings in the world and one can never know if the problem some prior architect had solved is equivalent to the one one’s set oneself. Oversimplified correspondences can be made on the spatial or functional level but it’s wrong to assume they’re correct or even adequate. Referring to case studies as precedents is worse as it implies they have the authority of some prior legal ruling. Legally, a precedent only applies if the circumstances are the same, and whether or not they are is the source of much legal wrangling. In architecture, worthy precedents tend to not produce worthy proposals.

To be sure, many case studies and precedent analyses have been done for both buildings but I’ve never had anyone explain to me how the apartments in Habitat ’67 are accessed. Safdie’s fantastic sectional drawings exist but every year they become more and more inscrutable to others. [This article on Architectural Review gives the most information I’ve ever seen about access and entrances.]

It’s one of architecure’s mysteries how Safdie was able to comprehend this building so completely without visualizations, document it without CAD and build it without BIM. How did he do it?

Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7 is simple by comparison but cellular planning had been an interest of Bofill’s for decades. I admire students’ admiration for these buildings but they’re not good examples from which to learn, let alone attempt to improve upon. Not that they can’t be – just that it’s probably not going to happen in a learning situation. Having said that, they can still be “part of the mix”.

Here’s the projects I decided had something of potential value for mine. No. I decided first what I wanted my project to do, and then looked for projects that succeeded in doing what I wanted mine to do. This makes it a results-oriented, problem-solving approach to case study selection. i.e. “State the problem against which the solution will be judged (not the solutions to which the project will refer).”

Daylighting and natural ventilation

Hong Kong Housing Authority Concord cruciform tower block

NegativesAlthough daylighting and natural ventilation is solved for all apartments and the shared spaces, the orientation of some apartments is more favorable than that of others. There is also the problem common to apartment buildings, of the shared spaces being disconnected from the apartments and vice-versa, save for the entrance door.

The Scissor Apartment configuration

PositivesThe scissor apartment configuration was invented by the Greater London Housing Authority in the 1950s. It is way of configuring apartments and their access corridors so that all living rooms are on one side of the building and all bedrooms are on the other. This is possible by each apartment having an internal staircase that either passes over the access corridor or under the access corridor to the other side. These staircases pass by the apartment bathrooms that are above and below access corridors on every other floor. It is best explained in section. The pink apartment is entered from the upper entrance (access) corridor and the staircase goes downwards and has a fire escape door at the lower entrance corridors. The white apartment is entered from the lower entrance corridor and the staircase goes up to have a fire escape exiting to the upper corridor. Both apartments have bathrooms on the floor between those two corridors.

NegativesApart from the configuration not being easily understood, the main problem is not that there are two levels of internal stairs, even though half of the second flight is intended for use only as a fire escape. This is in itself not a problem but because stairs are required to enter the apartments and to pass over or under the access corridor, it is impossible to have barrier-free (universal) access. Furthermore, because the landings are used for internal circulation, it is important to have the stairs as close to the access corridor as possible. This means that the apartment entrance is small, and that the habitable rooms have L-shaped spaces that, while useable, are not ideal. Also, the wet-spaces are in the centre of the plan and, while this makes for efficient drainage, it means that bathrooms and kitchens need to be artificially lit and ventilated.


Recent versions of Hong Kong Housing Authority’s Concord and other cruciform towers

These use a system of construction whereby prefabricated room or apartment components are stacked and attached to a slimmed-down core. The example on the left is configured with smaller apartments opening off corridors on each arm, while the example at right is a composite with larger apartments in the conventional arrangement as well as smaller apartments with the corridor arrangement. Both are configured from unitized parts and both also retain the lighting and ventilation to elevator lobbies.

PositivesApartment modules can be prefabricated elsewhere and assembled on site, with obvious advantages for quality control, construction cost, and speed of construction. The modules are to a certain extent self supporting in the same way that shipping containers are, meaning that the central core can be slimmed down.

Negatives: The layouts become even more regular. When the internal layout is over-tailored to a one-size-fits-all solution, it ends up fitting no-one. The example of the right however, shows that each wing can have either two three-bedroom apartments or three two-bedroom apartments. Although the wings of these towers now have internal access corridors, those corridors do not link to those of adjacent buildings, meaning that their length is limited to maximum fire escape distances, and they become progressively darker away from the core.

Neighbourly Interaction

Making “Streets in the Sky” more worthy of the term

What we think of when we here the term “Streets in the Sky” never really lived up to its name. Only entrance doors opened onto open corridors and, once inside, occupants turned their backs on the life of the building. Streets are about more than casual encounters between neighbours. From the windows of houses and apartments we look out onto the street and observe what is going on. From this we gain an awareness of living with other people and there may even be an awareness and self-identification as a community or neighborhood. Even if there is no direct interaction between nearby residents, there is still an awareness of their routines and their comings and goings. This is still a type of positive interaction that is absent if there is only a blank door as the interface between apartment and street. How to provide some of these social and indirectly social benefits of streets in an apartment building has been a concern of mine for some time. All of the following projects of mine tackle this problem to a degree.

This is one of my first attempts at making the movement within a tall building more visible. There is an elevator lobby every three floors and you either enter your apartment on that level, or go up or down a level to enter a different apartment or to enter your own from a different level as there are also internal stairs in addition to the open fire and access stairs. The windows overlooking this central space are hallway and kitchen windows. When you step out of the elevator you know who’s home. The glass window to the elevator shafts also indicates activity within the building.  [https://www.grahambrentonmckay.com/vertical-village-ii]

This is another version of the same. This time, slit living room windows look up and down the access corridor. [https://www.grahambrentonmckay.com/universal-apartment-iii]

This is a smaller-scale example that has an overlooked access corridor, as well as daylighting and natural ventilation to all rooms. [c.f. https://misfitsarchitecture.com/2021/02/21/plan-without-qualities/] With this configuration, bathrooms are lit and ventilated by what is essentially a light well, while the kitchen/dining window overlooks the access corridor from either half a floor above or below. From a window one may see only people’s feet or their heads but it is sufficient to know that other people are in the building.

HKHA Standard Block Twin Tower corridor configuration

Positives: The typical floor of the HKHA Standard Block Twin Tower type has single-sided access corridors linked around a lightwell that provides a degree of cross ventilation to the habitable rooms. This configuration also has the potential for more towers to be horizontally linked. This arrangement has open corridors arranged around voids in an arrangement promoting an awareness of people circulating within the building.

Negatives: The main problem with this arrangement is the inequality of orientation.

Metabolism meets Hong Kong Housing Authority

The recent versions of HKHA’s cruciform tower blocks separate the functions of core and wings, with the core remaining s slip-form concrete structure that anchors and stabilizes the stacks of prefabricated units that configure the wings. The standard twin-tower configuration above could be configured in a similar way with accommodation wings linking stabilizing access cores at each corner. This is not the same as Metabolist notions of structure because the cores are only for vertical circulation and structural stability. They contain no services. However, the idea of cores linking corridors both horizontally and vertically to configure a city is shared.

Positives: There’s a distinct separation between the accommodation and the support system and this shoudl make for certain efficiencies.

Negatives: Except it doesn’t. Tange’s 1966 Yamanashi Press Centre represents a structural idea rather than being one. As does Isozaki’s, even if that structural idea is expressed over time. Both exemplify the Metabolism conundrum. The metabolism referred to is not that of vertebrates where the life-support metabolism is enclosed and protected by structure but that of a tree. In buildings, conceptually separating accommodation from a supporting structure requires services to pass through that structure and Metabolism never addressed this. [The failings of Nakagin, the only Metabolist building actually built, stem largely from problems with services, not that this matters much now]

Confession 1: I added the positives and negatives just then. The separation of accommodation and support is relevant to my project though and it will be my job to solve it rather than pretend it will go away as the Metabolists did..
Confession 2: This last was a late inclusion to justify where I already knew where the project was heading. Neither are great examples of solving my stated problems but nobody’s going to pull me up on that. Both are worthy enough for what they are, but putting them here was pre-emptive justification. Students will learn this soon enough. Sadly, they’ll also learn that it works.

Now semester is over and a new one begun, I can see how the entire design process can be reverse engineered to make the solution appear the inevitable outcome. This probably happens more often than we’re aware of, and we’ll never know when it’s the case. We can’t rely on anyone to tell us or, if they do, to tell us the truth. All we can do is ask ourselves “How does it?” or “Is it really?” and make up our own minds.