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.