Architecture: Making Function Follow Form?

February 24, 2015
passive solar house

Passive Solar House A

I am a big fan of passive house design.  I buy books about it, read blogs about it, go to trade shows about it,  watch other architects design about it, go to open houses about it, and mostly dream about it.  Somehow my architectural visions always ends up looking more like house B than house A .  Reality, on the other hand, usually ends up looking the other way around.  Why, I ask myself,  is this?  As I am fond of mentioning, did not Louis Sullivan, after all, poetically state.

“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun,  form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.  It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”

In theory, and in reality too, there can be no doubt that form does, indeed, follow function.  For architects, a problem only presents itself when we don’t like the way said form ends up looking.  In this case there is really only one real choice.  Modify the form.  That can be done legally by changing the function, usually by making it more complex.  We see that the South facing sun room in house B also serves as an entry with architecturally agreeable results.  Pure function, as demonstrated in the green house attached to house A, can be a bit hard to take.  What is an architect to do?  I say, change the way it looks, legal or not.

passive solar house

Passive Solar House B



Church Living: evolution or devolution?

December 29, 2014
church house

Church converted to a house.

For centuries architects have borrowed design ideas and details from religious buildings.  If we were brutally honest, we might find that 75% of the designs found in a typical architectural history book first appeared on some religious building.  That said, the elements were rearranged into some new form or use or usually both.  For example we see the plan and form of an ancient Roman basilica evolved over time into high architecture as it combines with a myriad of other motifs to become the standard form used in the design of a Christian church.

Check out the garage.  Can it be original?

Check out the garage. Can it be original?

These days we forgo the rearrange and reassemble part and jump directly to the reuse.  How would you like to live here?  First glance tells us that things could get a bit crowded, as one could never be sure that the good Lord deigned to move out.  Also, what does one tell the parishioners who unwittingly show up for service on Sunday morning?  No one thought to change the commercial entry to something with more residential appeal.  There was, though, a salute to the all important automobile.  Looks like someone added a two car garage.  Maybe it is time to let some architect come up with a little devolution.


Architecture: Realism; Metabolism; Idealism & the Laundry

November 17, 2014



Hong Kong is known for high density living, usually in the form of “Modern” apartment blocks like the one here, and trust me, it is surreal for a Westerner to wake up expecting to see the morning sky only to discover an intimate view of a couple of hundred neighbors looking back at you from the same exactly measured boxes only made different by colorful laundry strung helter-skelter like banners in all directions.  Add the noise and smell of rush hour boat traffic on the Aberdeen channel below, and you have a picture of middle class life in Ap Lei Chau.  But I digress, this is not a travel blog.  Finally, I end up smitten with the sheer visual mass;  rigid, regular, homogenous structural framework completely animated by the chaos of life.  One without the other is unthinkable.  Such was the vision packed happily away in my photos file until I was forced, by a recent article about sustainably built apartments, to to dust it off.




During the late 50’s and early 60’s; and keeping in mind that architectural academics love anything that can be defined by the attachment of an “ism” to the end of a word, a Japanese mega thinker and luminary by the name of Kiyonori Kikutake along with 3 others came up with a philosophy that has come to be known in architectural circles as “Metabolism.”  Motivated, at its core, by the quest for more versatile solutions to the ever expanding post war urban environments, Metabolism had some interesting manifestations.  Kikutake, for example, proposed supporting apparently floating floor planes in multistory buildings with structural mesh; think structural columns that look like Chinese finger traps.  Floor planes, as it turns out, were not the only thing he floated.  In response to the scarcity of urban real estate he actually designed an entire floating city.

Not to be overlooked was Kisho Kurokawa, another perhaps more pragmatic member of the group, who contributed to the architectural notions of Metabolism by the introduction off organic structural flexiblity in the form of capsule architecture, a real live example being the Nakagin Capsule Tower shown in the photo.  Removable pods were actually made in a shipping container factory.




Sustainability being the current architectural mantra, the image in the article (India Art n Design:  Mongkok Residence – Sustainability & the Skyline) is, nevertheless, mostly remarkable because the apartment is nestled between two modern towers.  Dialectically speaking, what could more completely summarize the issue.  Funny thing about opposites; they cannot be opposite unless they are somehow alike.  No matter how they are skewed, upon what type of rigid or flexible structural frame they rest, whether the boxes are fabricated in a container factory or simply real containers, boxes piled one on top of another end up looking like piled up boxes.  Quite possibly, they only become something else by introduction of the infinitely chaotic laundry.


Architecture: “Street Style”

October 19, 2014

Quirky Street Style

Most news papers, fashion magazines, etc. have a section devoted to “street style.”  Consider the  popular “Glamour Does & Don’ts.”  Some famous photographer goes out with a camera and snaps photos of fashionistas parading down Madison Avenue and “voila.”  A trend is born.  I keep thinking architects need a similar outlet.  If such were the case I would nominate the building in the photo as a candidate for a feature article.  It reminds me of the “Silly Architect” in a previous post.  I truly wonder what the person who built this was thinking.  I also wonder what it looks like inside and if windows face the back.  Maybe there aren’t any, except for the little square one between the top of the door and he little birds nest porch above.  Does someone stand on the porch and drop a rope to hoist up the groceries or maybe shout out to a friend on the street?

“Fashion Week of Architecture”

Fashion Weeks in New York, Paris, Milan, etc. express salient fantasies which finally end up on the backs of real people everywhere.  Such is the purview of and industry afforded the practical luxury of experimentation, leading one to wish it were, likewise, possible to try out various styles on buildings.  After all, architecture is generally thought of as a practice.  Not so architecture of course.  Time, costs, and all that prohibit, so we architects find ourselves resorting to all manner of media in an effort to represent an understandable idea or vision for a building.  Computer and paper models, drawings, video simulations make up the “Fashion Weeks” of architecture and compared with the immediacy of the runway they fall terribly short.  I prefer the “Street Style” approach.  After all, it is at least real.



Unmobile Home: Humor but No Joke

September 15, 2014

unmobile home

My Dream Home?

Would it be believable if I said this is my dream home?  Ok, maybe not.  It does though display several key elements which are the stuff of my particular architectural fantasy.  It is no secret that I have pondered  possible ways of adapting a standard “off the dealer lot,” mobile home into architecture.  Further, if the difference between art and architecture is reality, also previously concluded, then this is art.  Considered in such a light, this may contain humor but it is not a joke.  What’s more, because it is on stilts, another big area of interest opens up.  Aside from the characteristics of the piers, in this case concrete, there is all that space under the house, complete with promise and problems in similar measure.  For now, let’s leave the promise to imagination, yours and mine, and take up the problems.

Doing What Air Does.

Before I get into a discussion of how a house on stilts might easily be kept warm and toasty in Northern winters, let me risk repeating, “I have a psychological aversion to creeping things crawling around under the house.”  I like the idea of inserting some air.  The space insulates and creates an experience by conjuring all manner of pleasant spacial opportunities.  Opportunities, I think, worth pursuing, even in a cold climate.  The obvious problem of course is all that cold air lurking under the warm house all winter long and looking to do what air does in this environment which is rise.  Great in the hot summer, not so much in the winter.  The subject is bandied and hashed over to a larger extent than could possibly be considered here.  For an exhaustive discussion I happily sent the reader here.  The general idea being that in order to keep out the cold it is necessary to super seal up every path of air infiltration and super insulate the floor, in that order of priority.  To avoid freezing encapsulating the plumbing in a warm chase is also necessary.

Is There Anything New?

So what, one might ask is new here?  The answer, of course, is nothing, until another of my favorite “responsible building” technologies is introduced into the mix.  Consider what might be accomplished if the space under the house were used to store and distribute hot air, preferably but not necessarily, from a solar source, and further if the space were flexible, offering a source of cool air in summer a lot like what is done in my favorite Japanese OM Solar homes.  In the end the solution is complex but maybe not so complicated.  There are many after market products that might fit into such a system.  Transpired solar collector panels, for example, are now available for residential use.  Likewise heat storage might be provided by a prefabricated concrete slab or piers.  Devising the air handling and distribution system might require and expert, preferably one who has tried something like this before.  The house after all is quite little and the technology very big.





Modern Architecture: Free in Freetown

August 3, 2014


Christina House

modern house









This place in “Freetown Christiana” looks like it would fit in Venice Beach, even though it is made out of stuff that can be found in the local dump – and there could have been a pun hiding in there if weren’t for the fact that stuff from the dump is probably not free.  I put it here because it reinforces a few ideas about art/architecture as follows:

  • There is a style to it.
  • It is not restricted by economic boundaries.
  • It may be influenced by them though, i.e. the first Modern Architecture, was probably built by the rich.
  • It follows function, as both of these places appear to be after the view.
  • If there is a difference between art and architecture, then the image on the top is art and the one on the bottom is architecture.
  • The house on the top wins the prize for sustainability.
  • The world is the best museum there is.
  • It can be a whole lot of fun and improve your life, no matter who or where you are.



Architects & Mobile Homes: Between Ponderance and Pragmatism

July 3, 2014

Many architects, we are told in this article, though totally interested in reinventing the mobile home, have jumped forward to all new modular, prefab type units, somehow leaving the original idea far behind.  Happy I am to agree and further say, please do not count me into that group.  For a solid 10 years, if not more, I have been pondering  possible ways of adapting an intact mobile home, the kind that comes directly from a dealers lot, into an uncommon sub-urban abode.  Why, one might ask, think so long?  My response;  between ponderance and pragmatism is the wall of perceived obstacles upon which is sit.  Since hurdling it would probably assign me too, to the school of reinvention, I guess I’ll sit a little longer.

Here are a just a few of those obstacles, perceived or not:

  • The floors always bounce in these.
  • I am not sure I want to deal with that much vinyl.  If you have ever had a whiff of a dollar store shower curtain you know what I mean?
  • I was wondering how one of these would do in a blower door test?  I could be really good….probably not.
  • I have a psychological aversion to creeping things crawling around under the house.  They offend my sense of neat.
  • I worry about some shady character hack sawing a hole in the plywood and shimmying up through the floor in order  to make off with my Timex.
  • I cannot imagine how these things are framed.  Yes, I have seen the diagrams too, but can they be believed and would a manufacturer part with critical information.
  • If I pull down all of the interior wall panels, presumably fabricated from some undefined material, will I be horrified by what I find?
  • If, in an effort to change the ceiling and floor finish, I do the same thing, is there a good possibility that I will be looking at air?
  • How does one make a semi trailer hurricane resistant.  This a very architectural notion, i.e., things are never water proof.  They are water resistant.