Tag Archives: What does the architecture of neoliberalism look like?

New Squeeze

Thanks to Hugh in New Jersey and Mark in San Francisco for alerting me to some of the micro-living news the world seemed to be awash with last week. There was global incredulity over the 4,500-bed hive dormitory proposed for University of California – Santa Barbara. Already horrendous as an idea, it became worse the more one learned about it. These images are from the Santa Barbara Independent.

With an area of 1,680,000 sq.ft, the population density works out at 28,830 persons/ sq.km which is greater than Port-au-Prince in Haiti but less than Dhaka in Bangladesh (at 27,395 and 29,069 persons/ sq.km respectively).

Rooms are organized into clusters of eight around a communal table, shared kitchen and two single-person bathrooms.

Eight clusters are then grouped into “Houses” sharing a corridor with vertical access at one end and a communal living room and fire escape at the other. Eight “houses” are then grouped to configure the building. It has the cold logic of an air conditioning duct system layout.

Or a slave ship. [c.f. Cold Logic vs. Warm Logic]

It’s probably a coincidence this hit the news while the COP26 UN Climate Summit was happening in Glasgow but it did make me wonder what the operational energy of this building would be for full-time artificial illumination, air conditioning and mechanical ventilation. I’m also assuming each living room has an adjacent laundry room and that all laundry will be dried by dryer. It might be an idea to give the bath-towels a daily spin.

A different approach to student housing.

All the good things about windows are due to them being on external walls. I know some internal cabins on cruise liners have fake windows that have projections of the ocean view you haven’t paid to see for real. [c.f. Machine for Living]

And there’s also a clever kind of fake skylight that illuminates with rays of light that are parallel, not radial, and this too has its uses. [c.f. The Sheltering Sky]

Windows are great for free ventilation and illumination but they also transmit sound and allow us to see the world outside and make us feel connected to it. This is good, psychologically speaking. If I’m going to be living in a building with 4,449 others, then I’d like them all to be well-balanced and happy people, unstressed and with no personality issues or social grievances.

News of that building killed some of the shock value of two other articles last week, one from the US and the other from the UK. Both had to do with the decreasing size of apartments. In last week’s post I mentioned the Bloomberg article from Nov. 9, regretting that stopgap buildings were being built in response to a problem but that the buildings themselves merely shrank an existing typology and gave no thought to what might have been wrong with the existing typology, what problems shrinking a poor typology might exacerbate, or what new ones it might cause. The article had the following photograph of a 220 sq.ft (20.4 sq.m) apartment. That sunlit window and balcony are now looking pretty good.

When ArchDaily wants to tell us about 10 Tiny and Under 38 sq.m Apartments we can be pretty sure that they’re already unachievable for most people. Articles about tiny apartments usually contain interviews with people saying their 20 sq.m apartment is something to be tolerated for a few years and then moved on from but maybe one day we’ll aspire to have 20 sq.m to call our own. We really need to be giving this some thought now.

Over in the UK people are giving it some thought and this is what they’ve come up with. It’s basically putting a bed in the same room with a noise-producing source of heat (the boiler, the radiator) and coolth (the refrigerator), and a source of moisture and odors (the sink – which doubles as washbasin).

  • It’s always tragic seeing British micro flats with a full-size oven, as if not having a place to roast a joint of beef is an indicator of poverty..
  • Despite the array of kitchen knives and collection of timber stirrers, I don’t imagine much boiling or frying happening in this room as there’s not even a recirculating extractor hood and fan.
  • I hope that boiler is electric but, even if it is, the radiator will gurgle.
  • It’s nice to see a full-size washer-dryer but, without any space inside or outside to dry clothes, using the dryer will mean at least hour of noise and a humidity spike. Drying everything above the radiator will be quieter but all that moisture still has to go somewhere.

The UK already has some rather shabby apartments converted from office buildings [c.f. Heroes and Villains] It’s said the price per square meter of an apartment like this is more expensive because the cost of providing heating, water and plumbing is not directly proportional to size. The same was said of tiny apartments in Hong Kong. This sounds like a license to print money and one of the UK’s large-volume housebuilder companies is poised to enter the market soon with a micro-apartment offering. These companies aren’t in the building business as a social service so I’m not expecting the product to be any better than what we see above. The bar is already set very low and it’s going to stay low if articles such as the Bloomberg one keep quoting people’s low expectations of an exploitative housing product.

Architects aren’t being much help either. If it’s not Sir Norman foster designing apartments for billionaires, it’s architects with Archdailyable ideas for 38 sq.m apartments. Neither are what we’re going to be needing.

Already, The Guardian article tells me, the median area of UK apartments of less than 37 sq.m is 29 sq.m. It’s just a race to the bottom now. This is a problem architects should be applying themselves to. It’s not that they haven’t in the past. Almost one hundred years ago, the former Soviet Union was a hotspot for housing research, much of it for comradely communal housing.

A century later the West flirted with communal housing as privately supplied and rented accommodation called co-living since co-housing implied long-term.

In 1964, foreign journalists attending the Tokyo Olympics, likened Japanese houses to “rabbit hutches”, a criticism that stung then and has never been forgotten. In the 1980s this next apartment would have been thought small at around 30 sq.m but we can now see they were just forty years ahead of the curve. Compared to the offerings in the English-speaking countries today, a lot of thought has gone into how people are going to live in 30 sq.m. I expect similar amount of thought is going into apartments much smaller now.

All the hard work has already been done. People have worked out what works and what doesn’t. Here’s two successful ways to not put a bed in a kitchen. The one on the left looks like it’s about 28 sq.m and the one on the right possibly 40 but could be done in less and still be quite a nice place to live.

This next I’m copying and pasting from my post on Riken Yamamoto. ROOM 3 isn’t large at about 30 sq.m but it looks livable and that there’s more to it than a place to sleep. In other words, IT’S BEEN THOUGHT ABOUT. It might be time for the active band. [c.f. The Active Band]

These small apartments have their kitchens and bathrooms against the window. I think this is more for the benefit of the people inside than the ones outside. In these more introspective spaces, it’s good to be reminded why one bothers showering and having breakfast, etc. Outside society matters less in the living space.

I hope so but the good ideas aren’t necessarily the ones that find favor, or even win one of the monthly micro-house or micro-apartment competitions we seem to be having these days. We don’t need any more ideas for compact living in tiny houses in the countryside when what we need is ideas for how people can live with dignity in smaller dwellings that are packed and stacked.

This next page image is of a small project I did in 2003. The brief was to provide overnight accommodation and some sort of meeting room for corporate training and bonding. The rural site in Kent, England, had a canopy of trees and clear views to wheat fields beyond. I didn’t want these views obscured by conventional cabins. The leopard print idea is courtesy of Edouard François.

This will be my basic living unit but all floors don’t have to be stacked. I want to see how closely I can pack them in a cluster of maybe twelve, and without sacrificing visual privacy or private outdoor space at ground level. I’d like it to be better than this example you saw last week, and aspire to Ricardo Bofill’s experiments with cellular planning.

I could always arrange my four-story houses and equivalent amounts of open space in a chessboard pattern, give each outer wall one window at one end and then pinwheel those windows around the open space so that no window looked directly into another’s despite being 3–5 meters away. With this arrangement, no apartment would share a wall with another and every floor could be cross ventilated in two directions. My first thought however, was something more loosely packed.

The next morning before theory class I managed to fit in four more units.

The same floors are arranged in several ways and with some shared walls, floors and roofs. Let’s say 32 persons live in sixteen apartments occupying a site that’s 725 sq.m. That’s approx. 44,000 persons per square kilometer, a figure already higher than the population density of Manila in The Philippines (41,515) [in 2015] .

It turned out okay. Its 39.4 sq.m of internal area provides up to three people with four different places to be, and at a density one third higher than that Santa Barbara vertical farm for students.

I did try that chessboard arrangement after all. It’s harsh, but rotationally symmetrical plans and windows might come in handy one day. The triangular windows need to be made opeable but they’re not a design affectation. When windows are pinwheeled around a light well less than four meters wide, it makes sense to have the largest part of the window adjacent to the wall where it reveals least of the room to an observer opposite. It’s an alternative to the vertical slit windows that would probably happen.

The grid lines are 3.9m apart, defining areas of 15.21 sq.m. Each unit shares an equivalent area on four sides with the three other units on each side so the total area required to make these work is another 15.21 sq.m. Let’s say that’s 30.5 sq.m of land per three people, giving a population density of over 98,000 persons / sq.km which is more than double that of Manila.

Automatic Design

In February 2016 I wrote about something called associative design and linked to this next video. I wrote that it seemed a genuine attempt to improve things in that its design decisions are shaped by the same variables by which the project and its performance are to be judged and you don’t get much better than that. The only question that remains is whether the chosen variables are the right ones. Nothing much has changed since. Whether those variables are necessary and sufficient is always going to be the question.

This next was only a small gif showing how an adaptive planning algorithm works but it made a bit of a splash on LinkedIn after having been reported on ArchDaily circa 2019. It was meant to show how an adaptive planning algorithm can be used to replan an apartment in accordance with the area and proportions of a space reserved for it. This algorithm is called FINCH and was written for Grasshopper but I’m not sure why we needed to know that. Just as a certain kind of student thinks any SketchUp image or Rhino model must surely be better than a hand drawing, a certain kind of architect seems to be think something is only real once Grasshopper can be made to do it. These people already converted are who adaptive planning algorithms are being promoted to.

I noted how abysmal all the actual layouts were. Each may have zero time or effort to generate but it also looks like it. My first thought was that, before presenting this faux innovation, it might have been a good idea to add a couple of windows and an entrance door, and that a dependence upon artificial lighting and ventilation has been designed into these layouts that are intended to show us what this albgorithm can do.

If it’d just stay still for a minute I’d mark it up but offhand I’d say the flaws of Grasshopper three-dimensional design have been successfully mapped to two-dimensional design. It all depends on what you choose to make a variable, what weighting you give it, and how you choose to link them. Never mind for now that these three weightings will alter at certain thresholds. For example, if the area shrinks too much you might want to re-think the necessity of having a single bed and a sofa. But these and other things such as re-thinking the amounts of kitchen and storage space can all be refined. Since then, the algorithm has surely been tweaked and the program refined but it was presented as if it were proof of concept despite failing to deliver the crucial output of layouts that were efficient, workable and pleasant. In some world that happens to be ours, it must serve somebody’s purpose if it was shoved in our faces as it was and when it was.

Something similar exists in order to “automate” house design, whatever that means. We need to find out what that means. And also what “to design a house means”. There may be situations where it doesn’t matter that much, just as there may be people happy with being given a false choice from preselected options.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you visit the Japanese version of the MUJI website you’ll see how it’s done, and without invoking Grasshopper. MUJI produce four types of house with twenty variations of size and proportion. All work well.

Someone has done the work and learned that the original design assumptions and goals aren’t valid for dimensions and proportions outside a certain range. The modular fabrication and construction system adapts to all variations but those variations are, by definition, limited.

MUJI aren’t asking us to be wowed by the labour-saving and cost-savings potential of their technology. It’s not even visible. All they’ve done is systematically apply some rationality to the design inputs of a manufacturing system. I may yet have my life bookended by Christopher Alexander and Patrik Schumacher but I’m not going to spend it debating the merits of humans vs. computers when it comes to solving problems until it’s clear whose problem is being solved.

My third example of automatic non-design is a relatively recent one I saw at the ZHA exhibition in Shanghai in summer. I quote. “The proposal develops housing as micro-communities arranged around distributed shared courtyards. This encourages community living and socialization through more intimate community and connected spaces. Thus, [?!] facilitating a wide range of shared spaces of differing sizes and characteristics in comparison to more ubiquitous, stacked or central courtyard configurations.”

The year was 2018 so this was produced on Patrik Schumacher’s watch. Many persons inhabiting a peripheral apartment will pass through a restaurant, launderette or communal area on the way home but they are the lucky ones who won’t be looking into someone else’s window five metres away.

Those windows are full height glass walls along which the beds are placed à la Nakagin. This level of community living and socialization through more intimate community and connected spaces is just plain bad. Privacy and noise transmission aside, I sense the presentation is pre-emptively defensive about the amount of light in these light wells because the caption to the diagram below right is “Modules exposure verified through solar radiation analysis”. It may be true from this angle if, in our brave new data-driven algorithmic world, yellow appears to mean bright and orange a bit brighter. It’s odd that we’re told this proposal is data driven without being given any data to prove it. I’ll assume the units facing other directions are blue a.k.a. dark, cold and miserable.

Otherwise, the rooms seem modeled on those of Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower. Inside the front door is a curious ante-room. At least a typical floor has sufficient fire escape stairwells but having to pass through communal and or open areas to reach them is not ideal, and most likely a breach of code that, were it complied with, would negate the stated premise of the project.

I’m not a total Luddite. In the 1980s I did some work for a Japanese company responsible for some of the first attempts at machine translation. The task of translating technical documents was split into three. Native Japanese speakers edited the source Japanese into simpler constructions and syntax which was then input to a computer and converted and people like me would then reshape it into more natural English. Translation work could therefore be performed by less skilled people who didn’t even need to know both languages. Live interpreters and translators of literature have highly-developed skills and my full admiration but the market for technical translators can’t not have shrunk. I’m glad I’m not a technical translator anymore. I’m not even an architect or senior designer anymore but the main thing that worries – no – offends me about these examples of automatic design is that they’re not very good.

The act of applying one’s knowledge and skill to a problem resistant to reduction and thus to meaningful scripting is challenging and enjoyable. It’s not onerous. It’s what we do. If persons champion algorithmic or associative or otherwise automatic design as the solution to all problems, it’s not because it is the solution to all problems but because they’d like it to be. But why? What’s the attraction of automatic/associative/generative design? What forces are driving it? What need is it fulfilling? And even if it’s not actually fulfilling that need at present, what kind of world is it making us more readily accept in the here and now?

The idea of living on Mars makes us more readily accept that this planet was trashed in the name of unbridled capitalism, that the future exists only for the wealthy and productive, that private enterprise will save humanity … [c.f. Mad for Mars]

The idea of buildings shaped like mountains makes us more ready to accept a world in which mountains are leveled to make way for buildings that look like mountains.

This is already getting out of hand. I don’t know how far MVRDV’s Long Tan Park proposal has come since I first saw these but it’s a bit too close to home for comfort.

Over-publicized technologies such as these may one day produce acceptable designs but, in the meantime, they function to make us more willing to accept a world in which design is seamlessly integrated with a means of production. Given architecture’s track record in pandering to the wet dreams of the construction industry, this is a reasonable suspicion to harbor. Unionized construction workforces with their unreasonable pay demands and their sissy concern for health and safety regulations are being designed out of the industry. It is no accident that the ZHA artifact constructed as a result of their digital thought experiment was 3D printed in gypsum. It couldn’t not have been.

These proposals may be poor but they make excellent propaganda if all it takes is the merest simulation of novelty to keep us happy. One side effect of putting these undercooked proposals in circulation is to debase design and what was once thought a core skill of architects. This hasn’t mattered for a long time now as the main metric for architectural influence continues to be success in manipulating the opinions of an audience of peers. That hasn’t changed. In the end nothing changes. There’s a certain contradiction in automatic design attempting to satisfy base and not-so-base human needs and desires, of (a representation of) rationality claiming to satisfy our various human needs and subjectivities. I can object and say I don’t want anybody’s algorithm on my case but I’d be forgetting it was never about me in the first place.

Mad For Mars

Indeed. Alpha-planet Mars continues to excite people in ways Venus just doesn’t. People such as Elon Musk present colonising it as our best option for when life on Earth becomes too distasteful even for the wealthy. Driving this is the neoliberal mantra that the solution to the problems caused by technology is more technology. I can see the attraction. Mars has no rivers to pollute or trees to fret over. The atmosphere is already unbreathable. Sci-fi novels such as Frederick Pohl’s 1976 Man Plus and the 2019 movie The Titan propose humans bio-engineered to suit environments such as on Mars or Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Bio-engineering humans to suit Mars is a modest endeavour compared to bio-forming Mars to suit us, but that finds favour too – in science fiction at least. Never mind that the planet may be working against us. Earth is almost twice the diameter of Mars and so its core is taking a while to cool down. Luckily for us, the high percentage of iron in our moving molten core creates a magnetic field that protects us from solar radiation.

There’s a lot of iron on Mars (hence the red) but its core is most likely completely solidified by now. If that wasn’t bad enough, Mars’ mass is insufficient to stop the planet leaking what atmosphere it has. Both these negatives result from planetary mass and no amount of terraforming is going to fix that.  

Be that as it may, the challenges involved in colonising Mars give ample opportunity in the here and now for visionaries to be visionary, and excite us about relentless technological development for the sake of it. This next image is a proposal for a Mars colony. Observe how much our images of the future are articulations of the present?

proposal for life on mars

Some people argue that we have a duty as human beings to embrace the challenge to explore and colonise, as if colonising and exploiting other countries represented our highest ideals and worked out well on Earth. For the sake of would-be Martians, hopefully Mars is uninhabited. Or is it? It might be axiomatic that, throughout the universe, intelligent life keeps to itself and expends its energies and uses the means it has to manage its survival as a society. If it is, it will be invisible to us, accustomed as we are to seeing megastructures as representations of intelligent life. [c.f. The Great Filter

It’s not going to matter. Industry and those that drive it and profit from it have decided that going to Mars is to be presented as if for everyone’s benefit. It’s difficult to see what role architecture can have other than promoting this endeavour. It’s not going to be as easy as making craftspersons obsolete in the name of cheaper houses for all. [c.f. Bauhaus Fatigue] Inhabiting Mars is a whole new level of resource allocation and a huge perception management problem. How will design and architecture work to validate it? They’re on the case.

Now. we also have an exhibition at London’s Design Museum to tell us, Dezeen to repeat it, and the www to echo it. I confess to first finding out about this on LinkedIn.

Let’s start with the press release.

“Surviving on Mars could teach us how to live more sustainably on Earth.” Could. What does “could” mean, apart from not will? The conceit of the exhibition mirrors that of the endeavour itself: that trying to make humans survive on Mars will somehow teach us how to make humans survive on Earth – a tenuous assumption.

It explores themes including the role that design plays in keeping astronauts safe. Design seems to be misused here as a euphemism for intelligence and science. Such a thing as design ingenuity exists but more often than not it’s for its own sake. Performance-driven goal-oriented design is usually called industrial design.

“We pose the question of whether the rigours required in such an inhospitable environment – where we’ll have to recycle our oxygen, recycle our water and reuse our waste to survive – might force us to solve those problems on Earth.” I think I know the answer to that. This planet already has many examples of human intelligence being applied to create structures that enable humans to live and function for long periods in inhospitable environments.

In each instance, humans are in an inhospitable environment because the reason for them to be there justifies the effort and cost of enabling them to exist and work there. Oil rigs have a profit motive, as do cruise liners. Antarctic research stations are ostensibly about research but they also make territorial claims though not as forcefully and explicitly as castles. Environments such as these used to be called extreme but now the term extreme climatic event is used to describe everyday inhospitable environments such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. Our current planet might be a better laboratory for working on how to enable humans to live and function for long periods in inhospitable environments such as these where the oversupply, undersupply and irregular supply of water are all problems. Our current planet is best placed for us to begin work on solving these problems as well as for learning how to not exacerbate them and, guess what, so are we. We don’t need expensive technology to get us here, not to mention the stuff we’ll need to do the job, whatever that is.

Okay we’re here! Now what?

Why am I reminded of Terunobu Fujimori’s Tokyo Plan 2101, as seen at the 2006 Venice Bienalle?

Diagrams like this next are all very well but we’re already on the case and thinking about such things and their integration for conditions on this planet. [c.f. Integrated Sanitation & Nutrition, Antarctic Architecture]

“We invited a number of designers to think through possible future scenarios. Their work adds a layer of design fiction to the exhibition, which is a great tool for taking ideas and making them concrete, and material.” Am I going mad? Design fiction is now a tool for making ideas real? Thinking about it, it probably is in the fictional real world in which such stuff like this gets written, propagated and consumed. Anyway, the show’s first section, Imagining Mars, is a history of our fascination with Mars and seems to imply our current view of it is less grounded in fantasy. The multi-sensory installation, On Mars Today, is supposed to help visitors appreciate the enormity of the challenges ahead. I immediately imagined some immersive installation recreating the conditions described by Frederik Pohl in his 1976 sci-fi novel Man Plus.

Instead of an agonising death, £16–18 will get you “a slowly panning panorama of the Martian environment, accompanied by an audio track of otherworldly sounds and a scent created especially for the exhibition by perfumery Firmenich.” I’m not sure which I’d prefer. I’ll race through the second part of this section dealing with the journey to Mars, pausing only to note the design contribution of Russian architect Galina Balashova who first introduced the colour coding of floors and ceilings to help astronauts maintain a sense of orientation. I’m more interested in survival for the sake of survival and not how the exhibition chooses to present it as where we will live, what we will wear and eat. It sounds a lot like life on Earth. Humans must consume oxygen, water and nutrients in order to survive but there’s something wrong with presenting survival as a set of lifestyle choices. When survival is concerned, there’s a important difference between consume and “consume”.

It’s also confusing reading all this new writing about the future because the present tense is sometimes used to refer to the future as if these things actually existed. When we don’t even know how we’re going to stay alive for the seven-month journey to Mars, it’s reassuring to know that that nice Mr. Foster has already thought about what people are going to live in if they’re still alive to live in them. His buildings are designed to be 3D printed from the stuff Mars is made of and this is intended to teach us something about the local sourcing of construction materials. I feel bad for already knowing it. What’s new is that they’ll be built by autonomous robots. Whatever these turn out to be they won’t be no slave robots. It’s good to see we’ve learned the lessons of Bladerunner but, before we get too excited, it’s worth remembering that the future hasn’t happened yet. And, by definition, it won’t. Ever.

This is my favourite image of robots making spacey-looking buildings. In the past I’ve been skeptical of Jacques Fresco’s Venus Project but on reflection it seems quite sane. [c.f. The Venus Project]

Wordwatch. The stuff the crust of a planet is made of is called regolith and what we call sand is really just tiny bits of underlying regolith, be it quartz or granite or whatever. It’s therefore misleading to speak of Mars’ soil because the thing that makes regolith into soil is the organic component humus lacking on Mars. Apparently, the goo 3D printers are proposed to use is going to be Mars regolith combined with as little water as possible because there’s not much of that on Mars. This is another lesson we don’t really need to learn. Foster’s house designs for Mars add an on-trend lo-tech bit to the hi-tech schtick that’s served him so well over the years. 100% hi-tech solutions for Mars habitats are already starting to look dated. This next courtesy of NASA.

Designers are on the case. This next might be one of those design fictions that make things real, a bit like that nuclear-powered oven in the 1956 Ideal Home Exhibition.

The one thing Mars does have is a lot of cold. The problem of lack of water still remains – will still remain – but when that’s solved there’ll be ice galore and we can print 3D houses out of ice, if “print” is the correct word. Anyway, they’ve already been designed and look much like how you’d expect space igloos constructed by emancipated robots to look.

Now we know where we’re going to live, what’s for dinner? This next image was captioned “Illustration of plants growing in an imaginary Mars base.” Nice, except that it takes about 50 square meters of nutrient-rich Earth soil to grow plants of calorific and nutrient density in sufficient quantities to sustain the life of a single adult. [c.f. Calories/m^3]

But more importantly what to wear? Fashion studio Raeburn has contributed its New Horizons collection, which responds [would respond? envisages responding? – See what I mean?] to the lack of resources on Mars through a “make do and mend” approach, repurposing solar blankets and parachutes into clothing. Nothing to learn here, although it is something that we might want to re-learn. Repurposing scraps of fabric has a long history, of which patchwork quilts are only a minor part.

Continuing this history, the products of planetbound Swiss company Frietag are made from repurposed truck tarpaulins which is more ethical than leather I suppose, though not all that much cheaper. Frietag’s head store in Zurich is made from shipping containers.

Of course it is. Maybe if we ship enough 3D printers to Mars we can have 3D printers print shipping containers? Just an idea. And why not? Chickens and eggs both exist regardless of which came first. Right now is the time to boldly think.

Be that as it may, it’s no excuse for not thinking things through. Mars enthusiasts aren’t fazed by the lack of oxygen on Mars. (“When we get there we’re going to squeeze water out of the rock and make oxygen from that.”) A 2015 MIT study predicted astronauts would die of oxygen insufficiency on their 62nd day en-route. Research studies such as this are a separate growth industry, which just goes to show how funding attracts research.

The final two parts of the exhibition – Mars Futures and Down to Earth – pose concrete questions about the future. Accordingly, they’re given a sentence each in the press release. Possible alternatives to colonising Mars are given short shrift. The last section invites visitors and contributors to ponder the ethical and existential question at the heart of the exhibition: should humanity actually go to Mars? Whoa! This is the first mention the exhibition has a heart. You won’t find design there. Design isn’t troubled by ethical or existential questions. Industry usually positions itself squarely between it and them.

• • • 

The MarsOne site is an online community of persons interested in receiving donations to help send humans to Mars. It doesn’t matter whether it’s genuine or an opportunistic parody. It shows amazing sensitivity to how the world works.



I never knew Neo-Fururism had been a thing since 2007 so I had some catching up to do. [c.f. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-futurism] I did know that Futurism V1.0 had been an early 20th century artistic movement that wanted to do away with everything old and create only things that were new. The original Futurists were particularly fascinated by machines, especially those that moved forward. Here’s Gino Severini’s 1915 painting Armoured Train. It’s no chocolate box, but I like it.

Never too removed from dodgy politics, The Futurists saw war as a cleansing thing but, times being the times, this may have been opportunistic sensationalism suiting the tenor of their manifesto that admittedly was also a product of its times. All the same, some fine painting was produced in its name. I have a soft spot for “Lunar Prisms” by Fortunato Depero in 1932. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #5: The Futurists]

Futurism’s lasting contribution to 20th century architecture was the idea of making a complete break from the past, of beginning afresh and producing new things that would be better simply because they were new. It was a powerful idea in the aftermath of WWI but to treat this idea now as some outdated artistic notion is to either deny or wilfully forget how it continues to colour our attitudes towards most everything.

This is no ordinary artistic concept but the defining concept of the past century.

  • The notion that newer is better drives all consumer production as well as all advertising that is its extension
  • It drives the subset of artistic production as well as the publicity that is its extension.
  • It pervades the information economy not just in terms of newer research being somehow of more value, but in newer news being superior to news for which any time has passed since its generation or its receipt.
  • Social media prove that being newest is sufficient for any event or information to be newsworthy. The newest is at the top and we’ve come to accept this. It’s called a News-Feed.

Futurism refuses to die because, no matter what the era, there will never be anything newer than something that appears to have just dropped out of the future and into the present. Buildings can’t compete with something as ephemeral, fleeting, and pervasive as information. They’re old long before they’re completed [Point: This is why visualisations have more news value than completions or openings]. We’ve come to prefer the unbuilt promise to any built reality that, at best can only represent a dated image of the future. [c.f. The Venus Project]

The idea of new being better is embedded in the name Modern-ism when it refers to a style but is absent from the contemporaneous Functionalism when it (correctly) refers to an approach to building. Modernism and Functionalism exist in different dimensions and this is why functional buildings aren’t necessarily modern and modern ones not necessarily functional.

Douglas Haskell would have said Neo-Futurism really began in the 1950s back when atomic energy was regarded as a good thing, when the words “automatic” or “electric” were terms of highest praise, and when automation was going to make everything better [c.f.  Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell].

It was also the era in which imminent threat of atomic war was articulated and alleviated and heightened at the same time by horror sci-fi movies objectifying anything external as “the other” and as something to be feared.

Harking back to the Arts & Crafts distrust of industrialization and machines, even technology was presented as something to be feared. Evil robots from outer space were added to the objectification template.

Futuristic buildings known as Googie were invented to reassure people there would not only still be a future but that it would be fabulous. Stylistically, Futurism V2.0 did this by smoothing over the messy realities of materials and construction that were tell-tale signs of being stuck in the present. Haskell noted that Googie buildings were concentrated along roadsides and boldly designed to have unconventional geometries and colours to attract the limited and fleeting attention of people speeding by. Hmm.

Googie was an early example of the commercial possibilities of eye-catching buildings being created not by architects for the conventional reasons of corporate prestige, but by designers more attuned to popular culture for businesses more attuned to its purchasing power. Googie was the original Look-at-me! architecture and the concept was soon appropriated by approved architecture and its history writers.

The 1958 building now known as the LAX Theme Building was still on the popular side of the divide between popular Googie and Architecture, but Eero Saarinen’s 1960 TWA Building was on the other even though it is pure Googie in signifying the future by being swooshy, by not having anything that could be seen as a structure with any kind of precedent, and by showing no evidence of the materials, construction or labour that went into its making. White in colour because materiality was a thing of the past, these two airport buildings identified themselves as serious architecture by referring back to Post-Futurist Modernist precedents. It’s not as complicated as it sounds.

Disney’s 1957 House of Tomorrow was a popular Disneyland attraction yet Peter and Alison Smithson’s contemporaneous and equally plastic House of Tomorrow did exactly the same thing but the latter has always been regarded as having architectural importance. I’ve never understood why.

It’s all history now, but everyone was happy with their futurisms until the newer new idea of learning from the past came along. Post-modernism was never billed as a return to pre-Modernism. It was billed as moving on from (i.e. rejecting) what went immediately before. Anything that rejects the immediate past and claims to fix what was seen as its failings is a futurism even if disguised as a new past. In terms of how we were expected to engage with it, Post Modernism was just another modernism – V3.0 by my reckoning.

Futurism V3.0 came along at more or less the same time Post Modernism V1.0 was at last consigned to the past. We’ve since suffered far shakier stylistic notions than Neo Futurism so we should at least try to pin down how this new one is different from the old one, the mid-century Futurism V2.0 Revival, late 20th century Mannerist Modernism, and early 21st century Structural Baroque. If the selection of buildings below is anything to go by, not much. All but one follow the usual rules of being white, having complex geometries and being more than a little swooshy.

One World Trade Center is the odd one out by not having curves, implied curves or implied motion. It presumably made the list for articulating the idea the future will be better but it does so with a gesture of resolve rather than a gesture of optimism, and does so using mass and size rather than the preferred Neo-Futurist attributes of colour and shape.

Of the twenty-six buildings, three are airports, two are office buildings and fifteen or so supposedly relate to arts and culture. Housing is represented by one mixed-use building. Our new future for sustainable low-cost rental housing doesn’t look great.

Floors 2-12 of Twisting Torso have 4,200m² of office space above which are 147 rental apartments of floor areas of 45–190m². Covering those areas of floor with a mixture of polished limestone (entrances), oak (elsewhere) and heated granite (bathrooms) redefines the notion of “sustainable tower” for the future.

For obvious reasons, Zaha Hadid buildings now represent a past representation of the future and nothing dates more quickly than one of those.

Without Zaha Hadid on the Neo Futurist stage, guys Santiago Calatrava and Norman Foster are reverting to type as our main neo-futurists, Calatrava with his Dubai Creek Observation Tower and Norman Foster with Tulip Tower – a building with three ferris wheels embedded in its façades.

Calatrava and Foster may beg to differ but we’re definitely looking at a style here and one that seems one peculiar to early twenty-first century neoliberalism. If we’ve never been allowed to escape Futurism then it follows that we’re not wanted to. Sure it’s okay to embrace the past but never for its own sake. It always has to be reinvented, reinterpreted or reimagined for our times. Whether fashion, food, or cocktails, anything “classic” (i.e. in need of updating) has to be given a modern twist. We’re constantly being primed to anticipate what the next new thing might be. It’s as if looking forward to the future is more important than how we live in the present and this of course is why futurisms exist. They are easy diversions for troubled times.

I ended last week’s post with the sentence “most highly evolved are the starchitects keen to deliver the architecture wanted by the economic system that rewards them, while dutifully avoiding addressing any problems created by that economic system.” It’s difficult to see the problem for which the above two buildings are the solution. This is because we’re looking for the wrong kind of problem. Whether it’s the size of Calatrava’s Shaft or the sensation of Foster’s Tickler, our future architecture seems devoid of any function other than pleasuring those willing and able to pay for the experience. I can’t imagine those who don’t or can’t pay feeling any kind of national or civic pride, or any joy in the future of architecture. Perhaps their real purpose of these structures is not to generate hope for the future but, in the guise of doing so, to destroy all expectation of an architecture that is relevant to anything? From observation it seems like a reasonable conclusion.



The problem is much the same around the world, whether Barcelona, Dubai or Crested Butte. Short-term rentals for holiday lets are changing the way people think about where they live.

“Destroying local communities” is a fairly emotive term but so is the flipside, “Local residents sell out!” Rather than question whether the sense of community is really as strong as thought, it’s easier to shift blame to outsider profiteerers [1]The word “community” is used to define the unwanted. Outsider profiteerers do exist but the market is still mainly driven by people renting out places of residence as if they were hotels, and the bulk of friction with neighbours occuring when those places are treated as one. Those renting out properties aren’t those who have to live with the consequences. Renting involves a tenancy contract between tenant/guest and owner/landlord but no social contract exists between the short-term renters and their neighbours.     

It takes many people to create a community and residents are usually thought the most important. The adjective local implies a community that thinks of itself as self-reliant and self-contained. Short-term rentals introduce strangers into this system that is now no longer self-reliant nor self contained. The fact airbnb’s – I use the word generically now – are taking over the world suggests local communities were never as local, as self-contained or as community as they liked to think they were. The word community evokes a false nostalgia.

It’s not a new notion. Seaside Florida was designed to be a pseudo-community of short-term rentals. Its walkability and screened porches within “howdy pseudo-neighbour!” hollering distance of the sidewalk was intended to simulate the experience of folksier times past for those who’d never experienced them. Community as theme park, Disneyworld for grownups, Westworld for the fainthearted. [c.f. Architecture Myths #18: Popular Culture]


The town of Celebration, (Fl.) was Disney’s attempt to roll the dream out on a larger scale. The strength of the dreamworks became apparent in 2010 when people were unable to comprehend how a brutal murder could occur in a community developed by Disney.

No studies exist to prove if Seaside or Celebration ever achieved sustainable levels of pseudo-neighbourliness. Two two years ago I wrote

You can make your booking here. “There’s something to suit every budget.”

Seaside Florida has its own bookings website. We now have many more that aren’t location-specific. VBRO is the one mentioned in the article above.

Since May 2016 regulations controlling the rental of short-term holiday accommodation have been relaxed here in Dubai.

“This comes shortly after DTCM issued new regulations at the end of April that govern the leasing of holiday homes in Dubai. The new regulations ask that private homeowners apply for a holiday home license without the need to go through an approved Dubai Tourism operator, provided they meet certain criteria. Moreover, tenants renting a property can also lease their accommodation as a holiday home with a short-term permit, provided that they first obtain a “no objection” certificate from their landlord and meet all DTCM requirements.”

It’s a fact of life everywhere now, and our buildings aren’t keeping pace. The apartment building I currently live in is all-rental and managed directly by the owner’s management company. At least eleven apartments are now being managed as short-term rentals and the apartment building is in the process of becoming a short-term let hotel. The five-star hotel next door manages another eighteen as hotel-apartments. Tenants rent by the year and “guests” by the week or day but it’s sufficient to generate an airb’n’b effect similar to that experienced by the residents of Crested Butte, Colorado.

Guests have no long-term investment in their temporary accommodation and, through either ignorance or nonchalance, don’t respect the rules. In an apartment building, this means treating the place as a hotel, not saying hello to people in the elevator, and perhaps making too much noise in the corridor. The building lobby becomes a place to re-pack luggage, or perhaps let the children sleep until the agent arrives to check them in. This is all standard hotel stuff.

Dubai is not Paris, Barcelona or Venice but this article describes what I’m experiencing as a side-effect of city-centre tourism concentrated on specific activities and sights.


I’ve no problem with any of this. There’s no danger the corridor outside my door will turn into Les Champs Elysées, Las Ramblas or the Grand Canal. I’ve always championed co-housing and shared facilities but this is not co-housing where people live together because they share the same values. Much might actually be shared but the difference of tenure duration is sufficient to place these two types of tenant in opposition. Neither’s permanent but the longer-term contract at the very least implies a different level of financial commitment.

One: We need buildings that are up to the task.

Architecturally, the problem becomes how to reconfigure buildings to allow for more than one type of tenancy in a way not detrimental to anyone. We need to figure out which parts of our buildings aren’t up to these new ways of being filled with people. First, I suggest we accept we’re all temporary tenants in whatever accommodation we have, even if we own it. I don’t mean to come across all existential but buildings generally outlast people. Our patterns of urban living are changing and, whether we like how it is changing or not, there might be ways that buildings can change to make our adapting to other changes less fractious. This is to neither champion nor criticise the political, social or economic conditions that brought about those changes. It’s just that the role of the architect is to suggest solutions to changing realities yet not pandering to the forces that brought them about – much like Moisei Ginzburg et. al did in the 1920’s Soviet Union with their “social condensers” for the anticipated new society that, in the end, didn’t happen as planned.

Nor did society change to validate streets in the sky as proposed by The Smithsons, perhaps because theirs were merely called “streets” without providing any of their real advantages. People on their way home will always have the capacity to annoy, whether it’s a street, a street-in-the-sky, an access gallery, or a corridor. One suggestion I have to to make apartment corridors more like shared communal space. [c.f. The Landscape Within (July 2017)] This might encourage longer-term residents to feel less territorial and shorter-term residents to feel more responsible.

[Note to self: Investigate whether these principles can be applied to a slab typology.]  

Two: Community-driven, handmade, pop-up architecture

This array of keywords comes from the same place as the “architecture, ad-hoc, handmade, community-driven” tags mentioned in the last post. What could possibly be wrong with pop-up architecture? After all, it uses idle land or buildings, costs little to make and build, is a good thing for assemblages of people with maybe an architectural education to do, and it benefits others.

It costs little to make and build.  Great. Let’s put the idea in people’s heads that if they want to live in a house of their own then they should stop their complaining and instead use a bit of imagination, sequester materials and labour for nothing and just get on and build themselves one. Bingo – housing crisis solved! Teach a man to fish and he won’t ask you for one.

It’s a known method. “In 1962 Soviet armed functionaries brutally suppressed local food riots in the event known as the Novocherkassk massacre. Instead of increasing food production in response, the government inaugurated a system for gifting people land close to where they lived, effectively making them responsible for feeding themselves. [c.f. The Dacha (Apr. 2016)]

It uses idle land or buildings. The spin here is that a pop-up cinema brings some joy to a street that a derelict petrol station no longer provides. The “structures” are generally small, low-cost, often display and ingenious use of materials and their sourcing, and provide a temporary source of entertainment or diversion for locals and passersby. The word community is often invoked but customers or market is more accurate.

It’s a good thing for assemblages of people (perhaps with an architectural education) to do. For graduate architecture students yet to enter the workforce and work for the man, pop-up architecture is an opportunity to let potential clients know that they understand that 1) architecture is all about adding value to land, 2) they are adept at sourcing low-cost materials and labour, 3) they display knowledge of how social media can create instant buzz for little or no outlay, 4) creating the appearance of community benefit is a selling point. None of these are new. The only innovation is that it can all take place outside the triad of academia, practice and media.

The traditional career trajectory used to be work for a company, design a house for a relative, design another one, start one’s own practice, gain recogntion with perhaps an art gallery, land a large commission that turns out to be seminal, and then sell out. For those without a job or wealthy relatives, pop-up architecture is the new substitute. Commissions will follow not because of any innate talent, but because clients like architects that understand the food chain and are open for business. The same principles that starchitects have successfully applied over the past forty years have now been shown to work for architects less stellar. Interesting times ahead. 

It benefits others. Ad-hoc, handmade and pop-up structures are now being used by large-scale property developers to indicate how small-scale and hip they are. Why spend a fortune on marble-floored malls when people will pay good money to sit on packing crates inside shipping containers? Win-win. The perception is that these places must be inexpensive because they look cheaply constructed. Not so. This is the legacy of Post Modernism and the representation of a thing (as inexpensive) being the primary experience and more important than the reality (expensive). Ad-hoc, handmade and pop-up have been monetized and assimilated into the commercial mainstream. That pop-up vodka bar or whatever in Shoreditch in 1995 was the thin end of a different but same wedge.

Three: We should think more about how the word community is used

We automatically think anything to which the word “Nature” is attached is good. The word “Community” is getting the same treatment, mostly to denote goodness and positive feelings towards services that until modern times were performed at local-government level. The message is: “Sort yourselves out! Do it yourselves! Don’t expect any help from us!” The glamorization of ad-hoc, handmade, community-driven architecture is a sign of the times. It’s not a sign of faith that centralized government will do the right thing by its citizens. Ad-hoc, handmade, community-driven architecture is especially irksome when it’s performed by people who can afford to work voluntarily and who enlist unpaid labour under the guise of “self-help” or “empowerment”.

Community initiative
Community health
Community centre
Community service [not what it used to mean]
Community outreach
Community participation

I don’t know if it still does, but the Holcim Awards used to have a category called Community Engagement or similar. The upcoming Venice Bienalle made me think of Alejandro Aravena for the first time in a long time. Last I heard was he went off to be consultant for Holcim, delivering sustainable solutions to conflict zones worldwide. This sounds like a worthwhile endeavour, but then so too did ad-hoc, handmade, pop-up and community-driven. 

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[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/12/profiteers-killing-airbnb-erode-communities



Spatial Practice

First there was practice … and then there was spatial practice … but all spatial practice is not architecture. The machinery I’m going to describe at the beginning of this post does useful things like position stuff – in space, as it happens – in order for some benefit to be achieved from them doing so. None of it is architecture. It’s just perfect things exquisitely evolved to perform tasks that can’t be performed by anything else. I first began thinking of this when two of AERTSSEN company’s heavy-lift crawler cranes were parked across the street.

They’re magnificent beasts. Jibs are delivered in sections and assembled onsite. Crawlers arrive on separate lorries, soon followed by two more lorries hauling the chassis and drive unit. Counterweights can be fixed or on a outrigger caddy having a fixed connection so it revolves around the crane as it swivels. The caddy bogies rotate 90° so wheels are parallel to the direction of travel when the crane moves linearly. These cranes will never zip from one end of a site to some other but they’re surprisingly manouvreable. Here’s one doing a spot of weightlifting at Dubai Arena.

Previously, there’d been two such cranes on the site to place the primary trusses. One was then dissasembled and its jib components used to reconfigure the other for longer reach to place the secondary trusses. I can’t imagine a better way to do it. These modular cranes are not trying to be beautiful. Here’s another one warming down on the street behind. Cranespotter me didn’t wait around to check but I suspect it’d been used to place A/C equipment in that hotel’s machine room twenty or so stories up.

Up. Airports exist so aircraft can take off and land on runways, taxi on taxiways, and come to rest on what’s called the apron. All these are dedicated spaces. Also running around airports are regular vehicles such as fire tenders that operate in the same way they do anywhere else. Ground support vehicles are a third category of vehicle that service aircraft on the apron. Aircraft movement on the apron is entrused to two types of ground support vehicle. The first is the tug which does just that. It takes considerable muscle to tow an aircraft and these vehicles have outputs of 330KW, (448hp) and can tug up to 600 tons using 460kN of drawbar pull.

The towbarless tractor is a variation that links to an aircraft by carrying its nosewheel array.

Thrust reversers decelerate aircraft on runway and engines propel it on taxiways but aircraft can’t travel backwards and don’t have a reverse gear for manoeuvring on the apron. I don’t intend to explain what pushback tractors other than to say that they transmit force to the nosewheel differently. If, say, a sumo wrestler wants to push another sumo wrestler backwards, they’ll be able to transmit more force if they push with the palms of their hands than their fingers.

Some towbarless tractors can also function as pushback tractors and this has the advantage of limiting the number of vehicles on the apron. Goldhofer are the experts. [Why is all this equipment German?]

“Schopf Tractors are at home everywhere. In order to keep such enormous forces under control, we use power shift transmission, four wheel drive and all-wheel-steering as standard – features which allow A380s and Antonov 225s to be manoeuvred safely at anytime.”

The A380 we know but this is an Antonov 225 which, as you’d imagine, is the world’s biggest aircraft. It’s big.

Schopf also has a miltary specification though I can’t imagine what would make it different. Top speed perhaps? Apparently, they offer maximum reliability in extreme environments at high altitudes, in hot climates or arctic cold! [!].

The catering vehicle is the ground support vehicle we’re most likely to have seen from our seat window. It solves the problem of quickly getting carts of food and drink from ground level to a higher level without the risks and time associated with double or triple handling.

Baggage also has to change from one level to another and the conventional system of conveyor belts and baggage handlers involved the risks and time associated with double or triple handling. Larger aircraft these days use a unit load device (= “container”) system that minimizes time and risk. This is a unit load device loader.

Loading the unit load devices and then loading them into the hold quickly and efficiently is a good example of spatial practice, as is getting your luggage to where you are impatiently waiting for it.

An aircraft shifting space containing passengers from one place to another is spatial practice. Air traffic control – getting all those aircraft to not collide as they converge and land in sequence on the same land – is a stunning example of spatial practice, as is sending anything into space and making it orbit around anything. Keyhole surgery is spatial practice, as is surgery in general. Architecture has nothing to offer any of these.

We should not be so keen to conflate architecture with spatial practice. All architecture may be spatial practice, but all spatial practice is not architecture. This is the propositional fallacy known as Affirming the Consequent – i.e. when “the antecedent in an indicative conditional is claimed to be true because the consequent is true; if A, then B; B, therefore A]*  Architecture is a subset of spatial practice. It does not constitue it. Attempting to conflate them is a power grab for continuing relevance.

Deus ex machina: (From the Latin ‘god from the machine’)

The term has evolved to mean a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Its function can be to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or act as a comedic device.

  • The notion that architecture could be ornamented with stucco arrived at a time when carved stone ornament in interiors was becoming prohibitively expensive.
  • The notion that architecture could be constructed from brick arrived at a time when stone masonry construction was becoming prohibitively expensive.
  • The notion that architecture could be constructed from “space” arrived when a shortage of landed clients made it the best way to refresh its market.
  • The notion that architecture could be constructed from “meanings” and “references” freed it from the physical properties of materials and tedious obligations such as durability. This gave us “Snapchat architecture” that disintegrated once the media fuss was over. Time and the natural processes of weathering did not exempt “meaning-free” architecture. Representing the absence of meaning is itself a meaning.

And then came critical spatial practice. The term was introduced by Jane Rendell in 2003 to describe forms of practice located between art and architecture. Rendell later consolidated and developed the term as one that defined practices located at a three-way intersection: between theory and practice, public and private, and art and architecture. This seems awfully like how architecture used to be considered half a century ago. […] Her definition aims to transpose the key qualities of critical theory – self-reflection and social transformation – into practice. I’ve nothing against all or any of these influencing how things get built for the good of all. I just don’t understand why it’s suddenly a thing.  In Rendell’s work, critical spatial practices are those, which seek to question and transform the social conditions of the sites into which they intervene, as well as test the boundaries and procedures of their own disciplines. It was all good until this which indicates a shift in the ends to which that practice are directed. To “question and transform the social conditions of these sites into which they intervene” is a licence to do anything. “Testing the boundaries and procedures of their own disciplines” amounts to finding out what one can get away with and continue to call “testing boundaries and procedures.” It’s a bit like that term “research-driven practice” – it’s a remit for anything and everything.

The term critical spatial practice is thus a moveable feast that’s been moved in various directions, one of which is criticalspatialpractice.org

Assemble Studio seem to be the smiley face of critical spatial practice. This article on metropolis is indexed by trendy keywords such as architecture, ad-hoc, handmade and community-driven. http://www.metropolismag.com/architecture/assemble-studio-creates-architecture-ad-hoc-handmade-community-driven/ As you may know, Assemble Studio won the UK’s Turner Prize for art in 2015, instantly putting the art bit back into critical spatial practice.

Me, I have my doubts if a collective of between fourteen and sixteen people who work voluntarily (albeit in an ad-hoc, handmade and community-driven way) has anything to do with practice as in architectural. I see serious cashflow problems, unless it’s all done on zero-hour contracts – a practice nobody should be championing. I suspect everyone has independent means to sustain themselves while working for maximum media effect and little or no remuneration. (Philip Johnson probably wasn’t the first to make a name for himself this way and Zaha Hadid obviously wasn’t the last.) Perhaps the reason Assemble exist and have received the amount of media coverage they have is because they glamourize the concept of working for nothing? Perhaps they have distilled the essence of the starchitect office where people work for little or no money in exchange for media presence? If so, that’s very clever. The lack of a figurehead is a simplification and to be honest no great loss but it doesn’t stop this form of “practice” from being a cynical devaluing of the very thing it’s presented as championing.

Next week’s post will ponder contemporary misuse of the word “community.”

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The header image is “Aircraft tug” by pixpix / Alamy Stock Photo, and is available here.