Tag Archives: Wolkenbugel

Architectural Myths #12: The Daring Cantilever

Cantilevers have little practical use apart from facilitating the construction of bridges.

sydney harbour bridge under construction

or allowing a bit more floor space past the last row of columns.


As a general rule, it’s easier and less expensive to use columns to support a structure rather than cantilever it over nothing like, for example, this.


With cantilevers, we notice there aren’t any columns. How much we notice that absence depends upon how much simpler and easier it would have been to use them. This is the beautiful and powerful simplicity of the cantilever.

Cantilevers are the original “look at me!” architecture.

Their apparent independence of gravity makes them thrilling to look at but, as it happens, also makes them an effective indicator of not having to do things the simplest and most inexpensive way. Cantilevers are a highly visible way of sucking up excess money. In other words, they are beautiful.

We’re seeing a lot more cantilevers these days. Their visual thrill photographs well and is just what the age of internet architecture wants, but let’s come back to that after a brief (visual) history of cantelevers.

1890: The Forth Bridge

1890: The Forth Bridge (I love these guys – they’re internet naturals!)

1910: The roof of the Robie House

1910: The roof of the Robie House

1923: El Lissitzky's Wolkenbuegel (Cloud Iron)

1923: El Lissitzky’s Wolkenbuegel (Cloud Iron)

This recent building – The Eaton Residence by E Cobb Architects – has more than a touch of Wolkenbugel about it (in a nice way).

eaton residence e cobb architects

The cantilever gained some artistic cred at the Bauhaus thanks to Lazlo Moholy-Nagy (or possibly Albers – it matters little which). One of them correctly noted that materials were more visually exciting when their physical properties were pushed to almost the point of failure.


1923: Photograph of a study in balance

Ever since, cantilevers have been seen as daring and a sign of wild unconventionality, of a distaste for doing things the easy, simple and inexpensive way. This has its price, and flaunting that price is of course the point of the modern cantilever.


1937: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater – “Uncomfortable with what he saw as Wright’s insufficient experience using reinforced concrete, Kaufmann had the architect’s daring cantilever design reviewed by a firm of consulting engineers. Upon receiving their report, Wright took offense and immediately requested Kaufmann to return his drawings and indicated he was withdrawing from the project. Kaufmann relented to Wright’s gambit and the engineer’s report was subsequently buried within a stone wall of the house.
“For the cantilevered floors, Wright and his team used upside down T-shaped beams integrated into a monolithic concrete slab which both formed the ceiling of the space below and provided resistance against compression. The contractor, Walter Hall, also an engineer, produced independent computations and argued for increasing the reinforcing steel in the first floor’s slab. Wright refused the suggestion. While some sources state that it was the contractor who quietly doubled the amount of reinforcement, according to others, it was at Kaufmann’s request that his consulting engineers redrew Wright’s reinforcing drawings and doubled the amount of steel specified by Wright.” (W)

Moholy-Nagy was right about the materials failure thing.

1937: Guiseppe Pettazzi's Fiat Tagliero in Eritrea

1937: Guiseppe Pettazzi’s Fiat Tagliero in Eritrea – The tower supports a pair of 15m cantilevered wings, which are built in reinforced concrete and are structurally unsupported. Although this was Petazzi’s original design, local authorities at the time insisted that each wing should be supported by pillars. This was believed to be a local myth, until proved when the original plans were found in 2001. Another urban legend states that Pettazzi settled the argument by holding a revolver to the main builder’s head, threatened to kill him if they did not remove the supports. In the end the supports were removed and the wings held, just as they do today. (W)

Here’s a wild one by Sergio Bernardes – that other Brazilian architect.

1970: Sergio Bernardes' Palácio da Abolição, Ceará, Brazil

1970: Sergio Bernardes’ Palácio da Abolição, Ceará, Brazil

The Palácio da Abolição ushers in the era of the contemporary cantilever where we notice the absence of columns more because there’s no apparent reason for the columns to be absent in the first place. Don’t be fooled by the pool – I don’t think it’s that deep.

1997: MVRDV's Wozoco Housing

1997: MVRDV’s Wozoco Housing  – The story goes that municipality regulations dictated the height and the footprint. If the municipality allowed a building owner to circumvent their regulations so easily and maximise floor area, then it’s a very different municipality from any I’ve ever had dealings with.


1999: Jean Nouvel’s Lucerne Cultural Centre doesn’t count – it’s only a roof.

2000: MVRDV's balancing barn

2010: The very same MVRDV’s vile balancing barn

shenzen stock exchange

2013: OMA’s heavyhanded Shenzen Stock Exchange – doing the criss-crossy thing again

This next cantilever though, is the essence of cheeky contemporary cantilevery. We have Eduardo Souto de Moura to thank – you’ll remember of course that he won the 2011 Pritzker Prize. And not for nothing he did! By creating something so expensively pointless and pointlessly expensive, he’s communicating with the very soul of architecture. Look and learn my friends!

unnamedThe flaunting of money has never looked so humble – a true master. This is not a shed.

Souto Moura Valença (2)

* * * 

Here’s some out-takes that didn’t make the final edit.

Time & Architecture: Part I (NOW and WAS NOW)

Hello! Continuing the cosmic theme of last week, let’s talk about Time and the ways buildings exist in this particular dimension we’re stuck with.

We need to do this because, even if we ever sorted out what Beauty was and how to create it in buildings, how could we be sure that it is always going to be beautiful? Just like you and me, buildings exist in the dimension of Time and can’t escape its effects. The colour of things changes. Bits flake and sag. Shape changes either because of additions over time or because pieces fall off. Even the position and alignment of buildings can change as portions of land are sold off to pay the bills or new development gets closer to overshadow once prominent or isolated buildings. Here’s what remains of the site of the Villa Savoye.

In 1929 it was possible to take this photograph. It’s not now. Time has moved on.

Time is important. It affects what we see as well as how we see it. It matters. The mindless pursuit of fleeting novelty – which, it must be granted, is all that’s required to satisfy the high churn ratio of contemporary architectural media – has done little to encourage our understanding of Time & Architecture.  So then, let’s begin to explore time. It’s always good to start from a strong premise. How about this?

“All building activity takes place in the present.”

Fine with that? Good – because it’s not possible to build in the past and it’s not possible to build in the future. The moment a building’s constructed, it has a unity with the present. It suddenly exists at this place in time called NOW. Here’s a pic I just downloaded from ArchDaily. The building was completed in 2012. It’s as NOW as we’re going to get, or need to get.

It may be a product of NOW now but, as it or any building ages we will, sooner or later, begin to think it’s from a time that is no longer the present. It will begin to look old – it will be old. It will have aged. It will, of course, continue to exist in the present but we see it is not a part of the NOW anymore – but a part of the WAS NOW.


You don’t have to go as far back as The Pyramids to see that a WAS NOW building. Here’s Peter Eisenman’s “House III” in 1971 when it was NOW.

In 2000, it was already very WAS NOW.

“All built reality is either NOW or WAS NOW.”

Note: Don’t think of WAS NOW as “the past” and NOW as “the present” because doing that creates problems regarding “the future.” Only the present has any meaning for the construction of buildings and the present always becomes the past. Buildings show signs of changing from new to old, but never from newer to new. In our universe at least, Time goes in only one direction. We enjoy effects after their causes.

Another note: In this and the follow-on posts, I’ll only be concerned with ideas conveyed by buildings that actually exist. Drawings and models of buildings yet to be built are tangible objects that exist to market or otherwise convey ideas of something that may exist at some time in the future. There’s a rich history of ideas of buildings that were destined to never be NOW. Here’s one which regularly fills in a gap in the history books.

Here’s another.

This next one’s my favourite unbuilt building.

It’s El Lissitzky’s “Wolkenbugel” from 1923-1925. (The montage, however, is mine and, ever since it left home, seems to be having quite a nice life bouncing around the internet.) Buildings have to exist first as ideas or else nothing would ever get built but even buildings that don’t exist anymore can still have meaning as memories.

These and other ideas of buildings are stand-alone ideas that aren’t yet (or anymore) attached to real buildings.

Another note: Occasionally the opposite occurs, and a building that has been in our consciousness as a drawing or image is built well after it was designed. Frank Lloyd Wright deigned the Massaro House in 1949, reprising his greatest hit of 15 years earlier. It was finally completed in 2007, 49 years after it was designed and 39 years after the great man died.

Is the Massaro House new? Or old? Is it authentic? Does a long delay between design and construction matter that much? Along the same lines, is the Sagrada Familia new or old or both? It’s taking a very long time to construct but, compared to Chartres or a number of other cathedrals, they’re practically throwing it up overnight. So what’s new? What’s novel? What’s ‘ahead of its time’? What’s ‘avant-garde’? What does ‘timeless’ mean? In this next photo, the building, the car, the model’s dress, hat and hairdo were all modern once – in fact the very idea of women driving was modern.

Alas, the fact that everything but the building now looks a bit old fashioned might just mean that everything else have moved on apart from how buildings look.


So far, we have NOW and WAS NOW as the two ways a building can be placed in the dimension of Time. We can tell if a building is NOW or WAS NOW just by looking and it and seeing how it has physically aged.

Next time, I’ll talk about buildings that are conceptually NOW and WAS NOW. I’ll add these ideas to the two physical states of NOW and WAS NOW and we’ll see what happens. I’ll also talk about a new, third type of idea – NOT NOW – so look forward to that!