Friday, 26 December 2014

Feeling really really guilty

Along with most people I know, I was really amused by a clip of Pakistani building workers driving piles by bouncing up and down in time to a suitable Bollywood tune.  I linked it as an example of ingenuity, in a post which actually featured a colleague's use of a team of workers to do a structural 'Excitation Test' on a Gulf building site.

What I forgot was that the funny clip is in reality the mask for horrific practices on building sites in developing countries.  I think more people ought to know.  Architects in particular should do what they can to eliminate these barbaric ways that people are used and used up.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Touching the earth lightly

The phrase was irrevocably appropriated to describe the work of Pritzker Prize winning Australian Architect Glenn Murcutt.  Which is a pity.  Not that Glenn's houses on the whole don't deserve the description.  Rather, because the work of some others may deserve it just as much.  Or, more subtly, because to identify the phrase so closely with a particular spindly shelter on pad footings, may actually do a disfavour to other approaches with less impact on the natural world.

I was reminded of this, by this year's winner of the Best Building in the World at the World Architecture Festival, the Chapel on the outskirt of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, by local architecture practice a21studio.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

That heliostat again: enough already.

Now that Jean Nouvel's One Central Park apartment building has been invested with the exalted status of “Best Tall Building Worldwide” by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (), it's time to put that infamous heliostat to bed.  Especially as it hardly got a mention in the metaphorical shadow of the breatless claims for the world's biggest, ot tallest green walls by Patric Blanc.

Up front:  The heliostat works as described in an earlier post in this blog.  See the diagrams and descriptions at "Clued in on the heliostat".  And a video here. No, it doesn't do anything to improve winter sun for the apartments at all.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Overwinding the clockwork city

Now that Dan Hill is back, based in London as executive director of Futures at the UK’s Future Cities Catapult, he also seems to be back to posting more incisive critiques of our urban futures, based on his specialty in 'urban informatics'.  It's what he used to do so well on his blog City of Sound,  I got pretty irritated at the more social chit-chat while he headed Benetton's Fabrica, the communications research centre and transdisciplinary studio in Treviso, Italy.

So I am back to reading him.  This article is the in-depth version of an 'Opinion' column posted in Dezeen earlier this year, around the impact of predictive analytics on cities.  Hill develops a proposition that contemporary 'disruptive technologies' may be bad for society.  His central argument for all intents and purposes concentrates our focus on the lack of social contract between startups and most societies, and how they can therefore pick off the services that are the most lucrative, without any obligation to maintain equitable access for all.  Simply put, Hill argues that the greater access is not better access.

Effortless good maners: Paris Underground

There is a class of architecture, which – when possible to be used – solves in a fully integrated way most problems of sustainability, as well as good manners in responding to sensitive contexts. It is not expensive to build, and often affords freedoms which most conventional ways of building do not offer. In spite of its simplicity, robustness and other clear attractions, it is surprisingly rare.

I have been a long-standing fan of underground or at least earth sheltered buildings.  Depending on your definitions, this mode of construction is either rare, or quite the opposite, almost everywhere.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Best wishes

5 X 4

A tiny plot of land in East Melbourne’s Hayes Lane measuring only 5m by 4m will be home to a project whose formidable scope belies its diminutive size.

So runs the byline of the article in Ecolibrium, the admirably accessible print/online journal of the Australian professional association for people involved in the heating, cooling and refrigeration industries.  I really like AIRAH.  A bunch of engineers whose livelihood depends on selling new air-conditioning systems, actually does a much better job at keeping up-to-date on how to avoid it, than do my architect colleagues. The article on this little project is a typical example.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Picking up after Frank

Frank Gehry says today’s architecture is “pure shit”*

You have to agree with him, of course, but with a very important caveat.  Based on the quotes, Frank actually did suggest that what he means is different from what his tired off-the-cuff comment sounds like.

The fundamental problem is that ARCHITECTURE is, if you like, the figure that needs to exist against a background.  If so, then as Frank infers it should be architectural art brought to bear on the important monuments and landmarks of a city – a city that is otherwise made up of buildings more subservient to their role as the necessarily self-effacing setting.  Such 'background buildings' might be made by architects, but more in the tradition of a vernacular.  In other words, architecture is not defined simply by the fact that it was designed by a journeyman architect.

If that proposition holds, then Frank is describing a situation particular to architects and their values in the contemporary era.  The profession and the schools today make every architect aspire to differentiate every building as if it is ARCHITECTURE, and demean the relative anonymity of the journeyman building.  That makes every outwardly self-promoting building (other than appropriate monuments and landmarks) bad architecture.  Because such buildings are the major proportion of contemporary architectural production, Frank may well be right in his estimate of 98%.

So what is a journeyman architect to do?  I would say concentrate on making the experience of ordinary buildings continuously delightful, pleasantly surprising at the level of intimacy that affirms everyday life.  Every such building, done well, can contribute to wellbeing, and more.  A good school room can enhance learning, a good hospital can accelerate healing, a good workplace can promote cooperation while achieving greater productivity, a good apartment can make you feel special every time you walk into it. That sort of architecture requires very significant knowledge and skill, but also requires a certain humility.

That Frank is not humble in response to an innocent but poorly thought out question, should not detract from his essentially incisive reflection on a profession that should be.

*  The headline is from Architecture and Design, but the press conference in Spain is widely reported.  Read The Independent version, here.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Zombie architecture

Keeping it cool: how Melbourne’s Council House 2 took advantage of the night

That is the headline of a large article in Architecture & Design, on 16 October 2014.

I don't want to poop on their parade, but the article on CH2 repeats uncritically the descriptions of what the building was designed to do, not what the performance actually achieves. In particular, it is a rewrite of the 30 June 2013 post in Archdaily, which was already criticised in its comments for not providing more recent information on achieved performance.

The authors of both articles are either unaware of, or deliberately ignore the study commissioned by the City of Melbourne in 2012, by Paul Bannister of Exergy*.  A long article reporting the study was published in the AIRAH magazine Ecolibrium, and is downloadable by anyone.

The commissioning and design of CH2 was a brave initiative by the City of Melbourne, to explore and provide an example of better performing, healthier commercial office developments. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Apartment Design Guide: Update

This may be of very parochial interest.  I have previously posted about various aspects of the local planning approvals regime here in my home state of New South Wales, Australia.  We have a particularly powerful policy and model code relating to apartment buildings, which has been very influential, but which has been overdue for a proper review.

In Review of SEPP65: Design Quality in Residential Apartments way back in 2011, I described the first stage of that review, and linked the working papers.  Then everything went quiet.

Finally, and quite suddenly, a draft of the revised model code has been released, with no explanation of the reasons for the delay.  My personal opinion is that the proposed revised code, now renamed the Apartment Design Guide, contains enough flaws that if released it will actually cause more problems than continuing use of the older version it would replace.

For the moment, I will not write in detail about my concerns, but I thought it important to post the otherwise hard-to-find link to the download.  For anyone seriously interested in apartment design, it is an interesting resource.  For anyone in NSW actually developing or designing apartments, it is critical to look at, and possibly to contribute to the feedback during the 'exhibition period'.

Download the Draft Apartment Design Guide, together with some related documents, at
Improving apartment design and affordability_ State Environmental Planning Policy No 65(5).

By the way, the headline image is the Altair Apartments, judged at the 2002 World Architecture Festival as the 'Best Housing Scheme in the World'.  And indeed, at its best, SEPP65 and the Residential Flat Design Code have been credited with producing a significant transformation of the Sydney apartment building standards.  See my previous posts:

Monday, 13 October 2014

Looks good, doesn't work

The Folly of Building-Integrated Wind

That was the title of an article in Building Green back in 2009.  As author, and most prolific contributor, Alex Wilson said at the time:
The appeal of integrating wind turbines into our buildings is strong. Rooftops are elevated above ground, where it’s windier; the electricity is generated right where it’s needed; and wind energy can make a strong visual statement. Dozens of start-up wind turbine manufacturers have latched onto this idea since it fits well with a strong public sentiment to shift from fossil fuels to renewables....What’s not to like about it?

Friday, 10 October 2014

Architecture and Einstein

Riehen Natural Swimming Pool by Herzog & de Meuron

Teaching architecture for over 40 years, I have had endless opportunity to consider the elegance of architectural solutions, to a huge variety of problems.  And to try and explain to my students why that concept might be applicable to architectural criticism.

My point, of course, is that elegance is not a matter of fashion, style, or a subjective taste, but the most appropriate word to describe a key part of the western intellectual tradition. Because of my background, I tend to draw on science, rather than art historicists writings.

So I start with any of the definitions of Occam's Razor, but usually find myself quoting Einstein:  “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”  Of course, I know that this is a paraphrase.  But it is a very good paraphrase, because it captures not only the rigour of reduction, but the warning against the simplistic.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Housing celebrated

When we sometimes discuss what 'themes' are relevant in architectural education today,  I have been surprised at the vehemence with which some of my younger academic colleagues dismiss 'housing' as worthy of being one of those themes.  Their criticism seems to be summed up as 'housing is just a building type', apparently oblivious of the heavy theoretical and political baggage that 'type' carried throughout the hegemony of 20th century modernism.

So I was particularly sensitized to this spectacular post on Dezeen, reporting from the World Architecture Festival 2014, where architect Ole Scheeren discussed The Interlace, an upmarket Singapore housing development.  The unmissable distinguishing feature of The Interlace is that it is not a collection of towers, or even towers with tenuous elevated bridges.  In a self-proclaimed attempt to subvert the stereotype, it is described instead as 'horizontal buildings stacked diagonally across one another to frame terraces, gardens and plazas'.  To quote Sheeren:
"Housing – through the quantities that it has been produced in, and the formulaic nature it has taken out of an almost lethal mix of building regulations, efficiency and profit concerns – has become simply compressed into a very standardised format. I think this project shows in a really dramatic way, and also in a significant scale, that something else is possible."

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

It isn't a pretty picture

It had to happen sooner or later.  My ignorance was shown up recently in a manner almost poetic in its justice.  

Most readers of this blog would realise that I have something of an obsession with the problem of how architects build and use knowledge, with the lack of rigour in dealing with rhetoric and evidence, and generally with how self-referential architectural culture has become.  So fancy how I felt when I came across an article titled The knowledge problem by  Darragh O'Brien in the Discourse tab of my local architecture magazine site ArchitectureAU.  

The author reports on a global survey by a new publication called Evidence Based Design Journal.  It isn't good news.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Self-inflicted naivete

Here is another example of "put something out there – any publicity is better than no publicity".  Or Harry Seidler's old dictum: "if you can't be famous, be notorious".

There is always a place for exciting schemes, to trigger a discussion and a little bit of image consuming pleasure. If you can start from one legitimately reasonable point like: 'It is better to hang things below the silhouette of a cliff than to perch a whole bunch of indifferent houses on top of it', all the better.

So what is my beef with a suggestion by Australian prefab architecture specialists Modscape Concept, who have apparently designed this exciting five story home that clings to a cliff’s edge?  Well, a lot of things.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Obdurate by Design

That is the headline of a nicely nuanced article by James S. Russell in the current issue of Architectural Record, subtitled: The difficult cause of willful buildings that demand heroic efforts to preserve.

Apart from the fact that the article closely reflects my own attitudes to architecture, I find it an excellent example of why in this age of instant Internet-based gratification served by the archi-pop sites, long form writing should continue to have suitable outlets.

Triggered by the controversy over the proposed demolition of the 13 years old American Folk Art Museum, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, because the Museum of Modern Art's latest expansion designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro could not usefully incorporate it into the project, the article examines the more widespread issue of why some remarkable buildings survive while others become a reproach to their authors, and to architecture are generally.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Crocodile Dundee green roof

I am not sure how many people remember the scene from the movie.  The laconic Australian country bumpkin is held up by a scared kid wielding a stiletto on the streets of New York. He smiles at the kid, reaches calmly behind him and pulls out the biggest Bowie knife I've ever seen, and says "That's not a knife, this is."

Well, this might be the Crocodile Dundee green roof.  Namba Parks, a large retail and office complex outside Osaka, Japan, was built in the footprint of the old Osaka baseball stadium.  Completed in 2003 by the Jerde Partnership, the mall has an eight level rooftop garden that spans several city blocks and includes groves of tree groves, artfully arranged rocks, cliffs and canyons, lawns, streams, waterfalls, ponds and vegetable gardens the produce of which is sold from barrow stalls.

I have a general, though not particularly expert interest in reintroducing greenery into the city, including urban forestry and all forms of green roofs and green walls. And because I'm always looking for meaningful ways to change the balance between the  urban heat island enhancing hectares of asphalt and concrete on the one hand, and greenery of different scales on the other, I tinge my general enthusiasm with a habit of looking at just how much green any such project really introduces into the concrete canyons. I hasten to add that this might seem like an annoying negativity, but it is definitely not meant to be.

So, for instance, I find it instructive to compare the art fully angled photograph headlining this post, with an aerial photograph of the development.  It becomes immediately obvious, that even within the boundaries of the site the actual greenery represents a considerably lower proportion of the surfaces than it would first appear.

If we take it as a proportion of the urban fabric when we extend what might be called the 'system boundaries', the introduced greenery is seen to be even smaller.  Superficially, this might be discouraging.  The real lesson of a project like this is potentially much more complex.  Looking at just the proportion of the area of the city represented by a new fragment of green roof top is a good measure of something – perhaps to do with the overall albedo. But it is a poor measure of just about everything else, including what is the experience of the urban fabric at ground level. 

And this is where the excitement of this project lies for me.  If it is able to give people the impression of an experience dominated by forest scale greenery, while leading them past the offerings of a seven storey shopping mall, it is a triumph of design.

The artful abstraction of the natural invites a suspension of disbelief, playing on our associations.  This kind of evocative, but unashamedly artificial materiality was the hallmark of the work of the great landscape architect Laurence Halprin, probably at its most striking at Freeway Park, Seattle.  But those modernist landscapes are now under threat, especially where water features incurred onerous expense to run and maintain. 

At Namba Parks, the sheer abundance of the plant material distinguishes it from those more brutalist historic precedents, and aligns the project much more with contemporary eaxamples like the Highline in NY.  And importantly, like WOHA's Regency Hotel in Singapore, here the artificial landscape is private property, hopefully so integral to the branding of the enterprize that money spent on its maintenance is more assured.

There should be more of it!!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Productive plants

Potted Plants Boost Productivity

In a press release that has gone about as viral as anything from academia is likely to, a team of researchers from Britain, Netherlands and Australia are reported as finding that indoor plants boost office productivity by 15 per cent.  I quote from the Independent:

".....the researchers compared the environments of “lean” and “green” offices in the UK and The Netherlands. They looked at how the two types of surroundings impacted upon staff’s perceptions of air quality, concentration, and workplace satisfaction and monitored productivity levels over an 18-month period.  The research demonstrated that plants in the office significantly increased employee's satisfaction and improved their self-reported levels of concentration and perceptions of air quality."

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Failed Architecture

This is one of my most painful posts. Painful because my main emotion is that I wish I could be running a website like this.

Failed Architecture isn't the kind of short form, slightly smug random sniping, in which arguably I indulge. It is instead an extraordinary collection of things a passionate architect should know about, but may well avoid. Yes, it is about failed architecture, but what it really is, is that a rarity in architecture sites, a vehicle for long form essays with excellent illustrations.

Corbusier laid bare

What gems of insight you find when you play silly games with Google!  Here is the guy who turned management of his public image as the greatest modern architect into an art form, doing art as you may never have imagined him.

It's le Corbusier, embellishing the walls of the admirably minimalist house of his neighbour Eileen Grey, in the summer of 1939.

Grey, now belatedly acknowledged as a major talent of classical modernism in design, worked almost exclusively with furniture and interiors. Not least because she was a woman in a misogynist world, she was never truly recognised in her lifetime. This house, the holiday retreat she built for herself and her lover, critic Jean Badovici, appears to have at least fascinated Corb, but given that his wall-sized doodles were done while Grey was away, and without her permission, some would say that he was jealously appropriating her architectural masterpiece.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Dynamic architecture

I guess there has always been a fascination with an architecture of moving parts. The most elegant, of course, have always been those environments achieved with the most economical means: the infinite variations on the transformation of cool marble terraces and pavilions in Mogul architecture by the ephemera of canopies and rugs. Or the swelling and shrinking of living space in the traditional Japanese house, as a variety of shutters and screens slide to open or enclose the engawa in response to the seasons, or for privacy or security.

But for some architects, that is not quite enough. They make entire walls that slide or tilt, rooms or even houses that swivel and turn. The latest one to get its 15 minutes of fame is a house in Teheran, with elegant swivelling container-like boxes that turn 90° to transform its facade from open in summer to relatively closed in winter.

Friday, 22 August 2014

A Different Piano

It's in China, of course.

According to the Armchair Traveller:
"This strange Piano and Violin shaped building built in 2007 serves as showroom for exhibiting the plans for newly created district of Shannan in Huainan City, China.

The transparent Violin houses the escalators and the staircase for the main piano building which displays various plans and development prospects for newly developed area.

It was reportedly designed by Hefei University of Technology and has been built to a scale of 50:1.

Because of its unique shape it has become a popular tourist place and many newlyweds have their photo taken in its front. The locals have dubbed it "the most romantic building in China"."

Sunday, 17 August 2014


I am occasionally exhilarated by the wonders of great architecture, big or small.  But I am also very frustrated by the culture of the architectural profession and even more so by the dominant paradigms of architectural education.

This blog is about issues like the relationship between rhetoric and evidence, the necessary coexistence of artful innovation and careful logic, an embrace of information about real people who will use buildings which are increasingly produced by, and working like autonomous machines. I hope it's obvious that I am committed to the primacy of a humanist view of the world.  But equally, I have an almost absolute respect for the western scientific method as the way of uncovering explanations for how the world is, so that one may more reliably predict how the world may be.

Lately, in my day job as an architecture academic, I have been forcefully reminded just how far out of step I am with the majority of my colleagues.  The culture wars in Australian architecture schools were won long ago by the history/theory acolytes, without the science/technology academics ever realising that there was a war in the first place.  The trouble is that as a consequence, the unequally matched factions not only look at architecture differently, but we can barely communicate.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

In praise of pretence

My last post on porous glass prompted me to look at other explorations of emergent exotic materials. While the hygroscopic buffering plaster of my previous post emerged from the high-powered research at the Fraunhofer Institute, a much bigger body of experimental work is going on all the time, in what might be called the 'materiality' studios of architecture and design schools.

As readers of this blog would know, I am little bit obsessed with the way that the knowledge base of architecture grows. And that on the whole, I am highly critical of the way that the culture of architecture gets in the way of both growth and the appropriately rigorous application of architectural knowledge. So this idea – that experimentation with materials occurs in a setting which owes as much to the art historicist tradition as to that of modern empirical science – is a bit of a philosophical challenge for me.

Porous Glass

Porous Glass Solves Indoor Humidity Woes

So went the headline on Visions of new miracle windows flashed through my mind.

As usual, reading the article left me thankful for the 'heads up', alerting me to a new product. But also in a thoroughly bad mood over why, once again, the 'journalist' had so mangled the technical information. The average architect would completely misunderstand it. And the breathless rhetoric about 'stifling humidity' and the like, just makes it more obvious the author has no idea what he is talking about.

To be clear, the product is a plaster with an additive, which makes it a superior humidity buffer. What does that mean? All materials that can absorb some moisture actually maintain an equilibrium condition between their moisture content and that of the air with which they are in contact.

The mechanism that drives moisture into the material (absorption) is temperature: the lower the temperature, the more moisture absorbed. If the temperature rises, the material 'desorbs' or gives off some of that moisture; it dries out. We all knew that!

But that of course changes the humidity of the air in a closed room, so a new equilibrium is quickly reached, and unless that moisture in the air is removed by ventilation, no more 'drying out' happens. We all knew that, too. Not to put too fine a point on it, the high humidity problems are solved by the ventilation.

Figures quoted in the article sound impressively precise, but are meaningless if you don't understand what is happening. Thus "when added to the walls of room with a volume of 30 cubic metres and 40 square metres of surface area, the material should be capable of absorbing more than half a litre of water from the indoor atmosphere" is a statement that by itself is ridiculous.  You have to remember that the moisture content of the brick or concrete enclosing the same room is many litres; and that those materials will also absorb and give off that water. But they don't do it fast enough to be useful, at least on the short cycles we need for managing moisture loads in the home.

So what is special about this plaster additive? Well, first, very few people would have expected that adding any sort of glass to plaster would help it absorb more water, more quickly. Apparently this particular type of 'porous' Vycor glass is very, very good at it. In fact the special contribution to humidity management in dwellings is the rate at which the material can absorb moisture from the air at times when that moisture is produced, such as showers in a bathroom, or cooking in a kitchen. And again the rate at which it can give up the moisture when you are able to ventilate.

There is, of course more to it than that. For instance, museum storage specialists will recognize that with this additive, a plaster render can help them achieve very close control of humidity for conservation environments, by relatively simple passive design, and in climates where it may have been considered unlikely. But to get into that sort of detail is way beyond the scope of this post.
I just want to change the take home message: the management of high humidity in a home is mostly about managing adequate ventilation. If the problem with ventilation is that you lose valuable heated air in winter, a suitable heat recovery unit is the real enabling technology, because it makes you more willing to ventilate.
Read the original at

More on Vycor glass plaster at the Fraunhoffer Institute page, where the explanation is a bit more coherent:
Comfortable climate indoors with porous glass
when added to the walls of room with a volume of 30 cubic metres and 40 square metres of surface area, the material should be capable of absorbing more than half a litre of water from the indoor atmosphere - See more at:
Porous Glass Solves Indoor Humidity Woes
Porous Glass Solves Indoor Humidity Woes

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ego in architects – who, me?

From the New York Times: 

An architect laments the image that “starchitects” have given her profession.

Nice article.   Peggy Deamer, New Zealand architect and Yale professor, tries to make the point that there are lots of different ways architects practice, and they are not all like 'that'.

Deamer's emphasis on architecture as a social agency reminded me of another hornets’ nest stirred up by Christine Outram a few months back with her essay Why I Left the Architecture Profession.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Not only a heliostat

It is the piece of bling that keeps on giving. More than likely the heliostat and the very big green facade will continue to dominate the interest of architects in One Central Park, part of the inner Sydney redevelopment starring John Nouvel and Fosters, as well as a minor cast of local architectural firms. But as I was reminded by an article from John de Manincor, the story of how the development came to be what it is, is much more interesting than the technical details of bits of the building. This post is kind of a first-hand review of that article, so you should read it first here at ArchitectureAU.

Almost no description of the first four years of urban design guidelines, design quality competition, design development and community consultation and negotiations with the city authorities can capture the sheer attrition of trying to realise a large brownfields infill development, experienced by the original proponents of the scheme. 

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Sleuthing around architecture

These days, we are inundated with tantalising glimpses of so much more architecture than was ever accessible through the traditional media of magazines and books. Sites like Dezeen and archdaily can bring to an international audience spreads of photographs supported by magazine quality architectural drawings, for small projects that otherwise might at best have had exposure in very local circles.The problem is that sometimes one gets very interested indeed in some of the ideas and solutions – and at that point what seemed like generous materials turns out to be not quite enough to answer one's burning questions.

I honestly don't know whether it's a bad thing or a good thing. It might be perversely good, in as much as it forces a more attentive search for clues, stitching together the ideas and the likely experience of the buildings.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Those doses

7/11 Museum NY
There are innumerable architecture and design blogs and zines on the Internet, but only a few of them have floated to the top.  The one of which I am perhaps most fond is John Hill’s A Daily Dose of Architecture. The byline says that it is (almost) daily architectural musings and imagery from New York City, but the author does himself injustice, because while his professional frame of reference is definitely the United States, is coverage of architecture is far wider. When I say I like this particular site, I mean it a bit like one is fond of a favourite uncle in spite of his flaws.

Setting aside the sporadic but very welcome book reviews and a challenging list of links to articles in other architectural media, A Daily Dose is essentially exactly that, of usually quite large collections of images of individual buildings. The buildings chosen are generally of some greater public significance than the many other archipop sites, where an endless procession of single theme individual houses or shop fitouts seem to occupy positions of equal weight with major museums or memorials. As a result, Hill's blog raises some old issues about the endemic methods of propagation of information and ideas in architecture.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Trees over the top

I am not immune to the seduction of a grand architectural gesture.  At this house in Ho Chi Minh City by Vietnamese studio  Vo Trong Nghia Architects trees grow on top of five concrete boxes, like oversized pot plants.  Not just any trees, banyan trees in soil more than 1.5 meters deep, designed to retain storm water in order to prevent flooding.

The monumental concrete prisms are apparently monolithic, recalling the grandeur of ancient temple terraces or perhaps stone circles of other lands.  The concrete has the intriguing texture of its bamboo formwork, continuing the muscular expression.  It takes an effort of will to tear oneself from the visual and visceral, to interrogate the simple functionality of the setting for tropical living, or the explicit sustainability credentials of the project.

There is an unusually good description with a set of images and drawings available on Dezeen  so I won't do that here.

But as you look, note the subtle solution to the need to move between the apparently independent dispersed pavilions, by way of covered ways around the rear periphery of the landlocked pocket site. Think of the merits of the thermally massive shaded surfaces  and the perceptible coolness even in the height of the monsoon season, of an environment that hovers near the wet bulb temperature, rather than the normal dry bulb.

Reflect on what you think of an exterior deliberately detailed to stain and be colonized by whatever mosses and small plants thrive on natural rock faces in such a climate.....because I don't think that it will take less than a year for that to occur.

This is a piece of architecture that seems to challenge you at first view with the simplest brutally potent of concepts, but possibly to sustain a quite gently lyrical lifestyle, in its masterfully wrought oasis.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Alphabet buildings

Lots of architects name individual houses after the outline of the letter of the alphabet which their plans resemble.  Very occasionally a bigger building is so obviously related in form to a character or ideogram, that it becomes known by that name.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Positive energy

A renovated office block in Norway has laid claim to being the world’s first energy positive building.  PowerHouse Kjørbo, at Bærum outside Oslo, was designed by Snøhetta, with consultants Asplan Viak, property management firm Entra, construction company Skanska, aluminium companies Hydro and Sapa and the environmental organization ZERO.

During the course of its design life of 60 years, Powerhouse Kjørbo will generate enough energy to cover the total amount of energy used to produce the building materials, construction, operation and disposal. The building’s energy system is based on geothermal for heating and cooling, as well as the largest rooftop solar photovoltaic system in Norway.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Kubrick’s Cube

In 2001 a space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick envisages an enigmatic monolith as evidence of a higher intelligence having been present in our solar system.  He only got the date and the size wrong.

Data centres are starting to look ominously like Kubrick’s vision.  They may not yet be autonomous; indeed given that they are actually about connectivity, that idea is an oxymoron.  But in as much as they are a building type which contributes disproportionately to our requirements for electrical power, their design is very much about reducing to a bare minimum the dependence on mechanical environmental controls. 
And so it is with this one outside the city of Covilha, at the foot of Portugal's highest mountain range.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Trees in the air 3: you can see the forest!

Bosco Verticale Milan
I reported a year ago on early news of the Bosco Verticale project in Milan, by Italian architect Stefano Boeri.  At the time, it was tempting to be dismissive of what appeared to be just another architectural rendering with gratuitous vegetation, and my blog post put more emphasis on Tim De Chant's cririque, unfavourably comparing the idea to the preservation of 'real' forest.

It’s hard to be cynical now that the project is nearing completion, and the vertical forest already has a compelling presence in its neighbourhood.  As seen in Dezeen's extensive coverage, the aerial forest looks lush and healthy.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Scandinavian modern and slow architecture

I have said before that sometimes it feels like the comments are much better than the original post. It’s happened again. This time, my original Slow Architecture post inspired Tim Elliott to a response which deserves to stand in its own right. Tim writes:

Brian Lockyear has drawn a relationship between built form and light that the Scandinavian architects have always tried to capture. He talks about the movement and magic of sunlight in architecture, and I feel his suggestion of a “slow” design approach synergising computational simulation and traditional technique parallels the move from Scandinavian tradition to Nordic modernism.

This is the introduction to one of my favourite books, Nordic Light by Henry Plummer:
“Extreme variations of climate and sun have produced unique conditions of light throughout Scandinavia. The seasons present astonishing swings of illumination. The long, cold winter is dark and gloomy, with the sun barely appearing at all, and when it does, rising and setting for the briefest of times. Night-time permeates into the day to cloak the land in perpetual shade. And during the ecstatic yet fleeting summer nights are pervaded by midnight sun, producing almost too much light and concentrating the annual light-fall in several months.”

I argue that far northern people faced with such a variable and unforgiving climate, once introduced to the opportunities of modern construction and technology, intuitively established their built environment on passive solar design - they weren’t taught or told, but organically evolved through necessity and surpassed the stylistic/aesthetic aims of the International Style. I think that there are aspects of Lockyear’s passive-aggressive solar design in traditional Scandinavian architecture, and that these aspects became foundational in Nordic modernism facilitated by technological advances in construction.

 Traditional Scandinavian construction methods allowed only small apertures as any hole in a load bearing wall weakened the entire structure. This meant that the placement of a window had to be carefully considered to bring the maximal amount of daylight and heat into the most useful location. Early Nordic architecture relied on skylights to achieve daylighting and structural stability like this farmhouse preserved in Copenhagen, while later vernacular half-timber construction allowed longer openings to run along the south wall to a garden of deciduous trees for midnight sun shading, and winter solar access. Lockyear’s magic element can be seen in these romantic designs – the skylight providing a cool light to contrast with the warmth of the interior, while the southern view into the garden tames the Scandinavian wilds into shadows.

With the advent of modernism, Nordic architects could harness the new technology and construction to capitalise on the thermal and lighting properties of the sun. Many of these architects had trained in the era of Nordic romanticism, and the cultural and climactic affiliation with nature shaped a design sensibility disconnected from the clean line aesthetic of Continental modernism.

Perhaps the most renowned and magical of spaces is that of the living area of Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea , which draws in the forest light through frameworks of wood, filtering, dispersing and directing the light through the space. The grand openings on the ground floor capture the most light possible during the day, but use a cover of deciduous ivy to shade during the nightless summers. The vertical elements emphasise the diurnal and seasonal movement of light and realises in shadow the continuity of time. Aalto did what Lockyear impels us to do – to use the technology of the day, with the traditional sensibilities of architects. The internal forest, and deciduous garden are not new ideas, but they are reimagined and developed in the Villa Mairea.
The new frontier is computation and parametric design. If we can harness this technology, and like the Nordic modernists, look to tradition and vernacular architecture compelled by climate to incorporated “passive-aggressive” solar design, we can create spaces that are not only comfortable, but magical.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Cave Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava wins legal battle against "insulting and degrading" website
trumpets The Guardian newspaper, parroted by the archipop sites like Dezeen.

I've been keeping a draft post on architects and court cases for a while, but it probably won't see the light of day.  Not because I am scared of being sued.  Rather, I keep putting off publishing because it genuinely is difficult to research the status and the outcomes of litigation so that one fairly reports who is at fault for what.

There is no such difficulty here.  Santiago Calatrava sued the left wing opposition party sponsored website, which has carried on a relentless, barefisted campaign against the wastefullness of the Valencia city government - as exemplified by the extremely expensive Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias de Valencia (City of Arts and Sciences) complex.  The web site claimed Calatrava had billed the local government €100 million in fees alone, adding that he was "bleeding Valencia dry".  

Calatrava won. 

Sexy services

No, not an ad for a virtual massage parlour.  Just a pointer to the latest pleasurable read by Dan Hill, former futurist at Arup, peripatetic leadership person at SITRA Finland, Fabrica Italy and now Future Cities Catapult in Britain.  The only place the guy stays still is on the City of Sound, and that blog only exists as electrons milling around the world at the speed of light.

So it shouldn't be surprising that this time, his opinion piece on Dezeen, about architecture, is actually about the tangled web of building services - or about the well tempered environment that they could produce, if only we would untangle our preconceived ideas about an architecture that does stand still.

Monday, 19 May 2014

HA HA Hadid?

As reported on Inhabitat today, in the latest twist in the saga of Zaha Hadid's competition winning design for the main stadium of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 2013 Pritzker Prize winner Toyo Ito has proposed an alternative stadium plan that would slash the current expected price tag in half.
"Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic Stadium has been embroiled in controversy ever since Zaha Hadid unveiled plans for the massive trilobite-like structure last fall. Japanese architects rallied against the design, taking issue with the high construction costs, proposed destruction of the landscape, and the potential forced relocation of residents housed in a nearby development. A group of architects even launched an online petition on to garner support–at the time of writing, the petition only needs another 1,200 signatures in order to launch an official challenge. Although the Japanese government eventually acquiesced last November and announced plans to downsize Hadid’s designs to save costs, many architects were still not satisfied with the proposed scale back."

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Architecture and Design get serious

For the sake of balance, I need to acknowledge that Architecture and Design, the Australian construction industry trade magazine whose article on speedy modular construction so offended me with its poor reporting, also carries some very informative, very well targeted articles.

Where robots and computers look set to take Australian construction jobs

takes a look at two reports which examine the future of occupations. The University of Oxford report ‘The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?’ quantified the vulnerability of 702 occupations in terms of their likelihood to be replaced by various forms of computerisation, including robotics and increasingly sophisticated data exchange. The research considered factors such as the degree of manual dexterity, originality, social perceptiveness and negotiation skills required in the role. 

Too good to be true?

Nine storey Melbourne apartment goes up in just five days trumpets the headline in a recent Architecture and Design article by Geraldine Chua.

What follows is an article on the latest project by the Hickory Group, the One9 apartment tower in Melbourne, utilising their so-called Unitised Building (UB) System.  Developed and championed by Australian architect Nonda Katsalidis, the UB system relies on factory-based modular construction with high levels of external and internal finishes and fit out, making for fast on-site assembly.

The UB approach is distinguished from others in that it is an open system with neither prescribed module dimensions nor other particular constraints, except for those imposed by the necessity to transport the modules through city streets.
What’s this particular article does not make clear is what the exact part of the whole building is represented by the 36 modules delivered and assembled on site in 120 hours.  The accompanying images strongly suggest that the five days follow site establishment and the completion of a very substantial in-situ concrete service core.  Nor does the article mention or discuss the factory-based lead time culminating in the heroic five-day assembly of the modules on site.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Why do they do it?

I have had in the back of my mind to return one day to the Birdsnest Stadium, that white elephant icon of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Or more particularly in light of the contrast between the design approach of the Birdsnest, and that of the main stadium of the London Olympics, to the issue of ‘economy’ or ‘elegance’ as it might apply to architecture.
We might recall that the headline claim to the green credentials of the the Olympic Stadium in London was that only 10,000 tons of steel were used, making it over 75 percent lighter in terms of steel use than its predecessor.  Not only that, but some of that steel was recycled from unused gas pipes found on the site.  In comparison, during the design stage of the Birdsnest, Herzog & de Meuron, and their partners Arup, and China Architecture Design & Research Group, struggled with whether, once in place, the 42,000 tons of steel required to build the structure would be able to support its own weight.  The solution was to work with Chinese steel producers Baosteel and Wuhan Iron & Steel to develop new bespoke steel grades that would meet the strength and flexibility requirements of the project.

Why sustainability isn't just another 'ism' too

Federal Building, San Francisco by Pritzker winner Thom Mayne.  Rating in the bottom 15th percentile for user satisfaction, and barely able to raise a LEED rating.  But lauded as sustainable by the architects.

Occasionally, a comment on one of my posts is better than the post, resurrects an issue I should have followed up myself, and generally deserves better than to be buried where too few will read it.  And so it is with my original post Why sustainability isn't just another 'ism' from way back in 2012.  To bring it up to date, it would be hard for me to do better than splice on a comment received anonymously, but which I know to be from one of my students.
I wrote:

Something has bothered me for a long time: Why I have felt that issues of climate change, and especially serious issues of sustainability (as distinct from green tech-bling) are not just another of the contestable issues in architecture? I have been unwilling to engage in an impassioned debate about it, because I simply had not got to the heart of the matter.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Let them eat cake?

Dan Hill writes well, keeps his eyes open and obviously reads voraciously.  When he has the time to add to his blog ‘City of Sound’, it is usually a long form piece, teased out in loops of delicious in-group citations, but as often as not with a serious question at its heart. 

And so it is in the latest Opinion he contributes to Dezeen, which is really just his latest column on his own blog.  The concrete subject of the piece is the Uber taxi app, but the target is "Can public enterprises adopt the popular dynamics of private enterprises?"  

Actually, Hill answers that question in the affirmative, so the really truly relevant discussion is whether there is something fundamentally destructive going on, impacting communities at city and nation state scale (to which we more usually refer as 'societies'), and to which those ‘popular dynamics’ may be something of an antidote?

Sunday, 20 April 2014

It's rubbish?

My last post, headlined by Lady Gaga, was about upcycling.  It got the biggest readership in the first hour that I have ever had, most of it from France.  I fear that it was popular because Gaga ranks high in the search engines.

So I thought it only fair to try an upcycling post about architecture, in which I mention no celebrities at all.  As usual, my approach is direct:  I googled 'upcycling in architecture'.  And the first hit was wonderful.  Junk House Employs Google Earth in Upcycling Local Scrap  trumpets dornob, a site I have not visited before.

The Villa Welpeloo turns out to be anything but a junk house. The residence for a couple who are not only rich enough to aspire to a villa in a land of apartments and small attached houses, but who can do so to store and show a collection of artworks.  2012Architecten (now known as Superuse Studios) obviously have a history of serious commitment to recycling and repurposing what others would consider junk, but also the research skills to find exceptional sources, and to let those resources guide their design process.

Upcycling? I go gaga but not about the lady.

I have always been interested in what has become known as 'upcycling', but I am not sure quite what started me off on this particular post.  I think it was a particularly provocative image of Lady Gaga on Inhabitat, and the accompanying article about the difficulty of properly defining the concept.

Lady Gaga's indulgent 'look at me' statement of a dress, made of suspiciously white bleached coffee filters, is actually a rather trite example from the fashion world.  But that should not distract from the discussion of very real issues seeking to distinguish the relevant concepts.  In her case, the proper terminology to describe that dress might be 'repurposing', a value neutral term that covers all kinds of uses of ready made products to solve problems for which they may not have been originally intended.  As the Inhabitat article points out, Lady Gaga's dress only really qualifies as 'upcycling'  (raising value, sometimes of waste to craft object) because anything designed by Gareth Pugh and worn by the chanteuse, is automatically of very high value to a very esoteric crowd.

Monday, 14 April 2014

More informative than usual

Regular readers of this blog will know that my main beef is the quality of information about projects to be found on most of the architecture news aggregation sites.  So even when I hesitate to say anything more profound about a project, I feel that it is only right to complement one that does try to inform.  This one happens to be a competition entry, so you could put down the apparent readiness to explain the scheme to self promotion, or even that it was simply cut and pasted from the competition documents.  No matter, the point is that there is something here for the conscientious reader to learn from.

The project is for a 60 storey mixed use tower for Fushun City in China, by Studio 7 of Urban Architecture (UA Studio 7), an indigenous firm that seems to have grown spectacularly over the last 10 or 12 years, establishing long-term cooperative relationships with high-end real estate developers.

Friday, 4 April 2014

BIG deal!

On the whole, I admire what I know of the work of the Bjarke Ingels Group. They do hyper-rational 'schemes' with headline social agendas that seem to translate to realisable buildings. Think municipal powerplants that serve as ski slopes in a flat country, multi-storey carparks that are veneered with housing like a walkable hill-town, New York high rise offices that ignore the stepped slab prototypes but work magic with sun, daylight and view angles. I have remarked before that particularly when he presents, Ingels reminds me of a young John Andrews, in the way he can communicate with a strident diagram and a finely plausible story. I am an unreconstructed late modernist; I like that sort of stuff.

So I am not often disappointed, but like all fans, I get doubly upset when I feel let down. And so it is with the latest BIG scheme superficially but enthusiastically covered by Inhabitat. This one is for a seniors' residential complex in Taiwan.

Hey, it's a bit of an ask to intelligently critique a sensitive building type, across cultural divides, and only having rendered images to go on. That is why the images upset me so

But images matter. They are worth more than a thousand glib words. Even more to the point, as an architect, you are supposed to look at your own images, because they might tell you when a design is going wrong, BIG time.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Seriously Indian

I don't pretend to be seriously knowledgeable about Indian architecture, but anyone who reads this blog would note that I am fond of the place, and I like to use its architecture as a touchstone for more global issues. And so it is with great pleasure, that I came across this particular entry on ArchDaily.

I have never heard of the Delhi based practice Architecture Discipline, but it is clear that its principals and staff are engaged at a very sophisticated level with the discourse of critical regionalism, and that their work embodies a more subtle than usual mastery of some of the pressing issues for incorporating traditional materials and crafts into contemporary building construction in India.

The project is a new boutique hotel very close to the spectacular Jain temples of Ranakpur in the Indian state of Rajasthan.  It isn't very far from places where I have been intimately involved with work that covers some of the same ground.  Last Christmas I revisited the Udaivillas Hotel in Udaipur, several times voted the best hotel in the world, and the masterwork of friends of mine, Nimish Patel and Parul Zaveri of Abhikram.  I have written about their work before: their Singh Havelli in Amber was seminal in local restoration practice, while the Udaivillas is the epitome of a grand project to dignify the architectural traditions of Rajasthan, generating meaningful application of the local building and decorative craft skills.  But as a contribution to a larger discourse, the project is always going to be handicapped by its recognisably traditional formal vocabulary.

In contrast, the Mana Ranakpur is small, and at first glance relentlessly contemporary in its skillion roofed, linearly planned forms, and its material palette disciplined into tight planar compositions.  But reading the architects' description and tracing the unusually generous drawings and photographs, one comes to understand the depth to which the designers have sought resolution by reference to local environmentally sensitive building traditions, overlaid with appropriate contemporary technologies.

I just wish I had known about the project when I drove by within a few hundred metres of it, after my sensual overdose on the white marble wonders of the temples nearby. That said, the post on ArchDaily is so good that my abstracting it would be wasted.  The reader really is better off by reading the full article here.