Category Archives: architecture

Do buildings really know how to fly? architecture in photography #2

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The first pictures in the Bauhausbuch #12 are taken from an airplane. An unusual viewpoint for a photo of a building, sure enough. The subject of these photos was the Bauhaus, just finished. An abstract composition of planes, rotated at a 45 degree angle, turns out, at closer scrutiny, to be a white building sitting on the dark earth, a field without any precise definition but for two faint lines that could be roads.

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The book “gropius bauhaus bauten dessau” was designed by Moholy-Nagy. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was an artist who, after WW I, had contacts with people like Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch, and who started working with the precepts of Constructivism and the Suprematism of Maliewitch. In 1923 Walter Gropius appointed him, at 28 years old, as a professor at the Bauhaus and he became the director of the influential preliminary course. His art from that time shows the floating planes and colors of constructivism.

“We renounce volume as pictoral and plastic form of space.
One cannot measure space in volumes as one cannot measure liquids in yards:
look at our space … what is it if not one continuous depth?”
(Realistic manifesto, Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, 1920)

He also became a prolific photographer who transferred the new found constructivist sensibility to the photo paper.

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“Photography when used as a representational art is not a mere copy of nature”
“What used to be a distortion is nowadays an astounding experience! A summons for a re-evaluation of beauty. This picture can be turned around. There are new views from every point.”
(Painting, Photography, Film, Moholy-Nagy, 1925)

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These new viewpoints are celebrated in the pictures in the Bauhausbuch. The Bauhaus appears as a gleaming white object. Building parts like balconies and windowframes are not just functional elements but show up as abstract forms. The photo gives a new justification to a shape by the way it is balanced on the picture plane. The people in a photo of the facade of the living quarters show a death defying attitude towards gravity, perched on the balcony railings and the roof edge. Everything wants to be weightless.

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This stresses the character of the building as a non-hierarchical composition. A composition of weightless volumes in which top or bottom, up or down, are no longer relevant; only the balance of shape and color is. This building has no front or back. In fact, it is hard to find the entrance. Then there appears to be two of them, one on each side of the road that bisects the building. “Clearly defined division of the separate parts of the organism” it says in the caption under a drawing of the plan, but it is more complicated than that. To define these these parts Gropius uses various formal ruses. For instance, the “clearly defined part” of the administration department is structurally part of the construction of the two buildings that it connects. But a false raised roof edge defines it as a separate abstract bar that penetrates the volumes of these buildings. Also, this seemingly weightless bar has to be supported by a concrete beam and posts that are downplayed by their dark grey color – clearly an unavoidable necessitiy dictated by gravity that can’t take part in the play of white shapes. Similary, the volumes sit on a grey base, a humble facade of the servant space (it isn’t shown in the plans in the book) in the basement.

These humble parts get their moment in the book, though. There are many photos that show the building as a construction, a proud display of concrete slabs, columns, cantilevers and fill in brickwork. Further along in the book there are pictures of the mechanism used to open the steel windows, a device to share a telephone between two offices, the light fixtures.

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These photos exemplify the aspirations to a disinterested functionalism – “a functional form is a good form”. This was the decade in which the word “beautiful” was exchanged for the word “good”. There are some charming stills from a movie, made at the same time, properly presented with their guiding holes, that show how Gropius’s wife or a servant girl use various cleverly designed items: a built-in coat rack, a well-organised wardrobe, a set of drawers in the working desk. The sequence of movie images stresses the connection between the use and the form of the design.

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And yes, a typewriter is indispensable.

And yes, a typewriter is indispensable.

Gropius published the book in 1930. By then it was two years since he had left the Bauhaus and the villa that came with it. The photos still show the optimism that carried the Bauhaus. The text stresses the rational choices that underpin the design, but the photos aspire to something more than “good” design: a beautiful and, actually, happy future. Unfortunately, buildings never learned how to fly.

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A shout-out to: Charles Fourier

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Today it is the birthday of Charles Fourier (1772 – 1837), the creator of a philosophy of a communal utopia, and strong believer in the power of architecture. As an alternative to the traditional house, that perpetuated the oppressive traditional household with its inequality of men and women, he proposed the “Phalanstère”: a large communal appartment block in which the inhabitants would share the various resources in the building. Those included a theatre, a stock exchange, a winter garden and other extensive meeting places. The size of this great building would be determined by diversity: 810 different character types (the outcome of 12 common types of character) would be coupled, so that the building would ideally house 1620 people – that would be circa 400 appartments. The architectural model was the most splendid palace that he knew, Versailles (which, by the way, had 350 appartments, besides the royal quarters).

The Phalanstère was eventually built in a modified form in Guise, by Jean Baptiste Godin. Godin was the inventor of a cast iron stove. He went on to establish a succesful business making cookers and heating stoves (a common model is known as the “petit godin”).

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He embraced Fouriers ideas enthousiastically, and, in 1856, built a housing project for 900 of his workers, the Familistère. He fitted the buildings not only with a large communal court yard (as an indoor playground of the children when it would rain outside, a rather useful provision in Northern France), but with additional services he called “the equivalence of wealth”: a nursery, a primary school, a swimming pool, a laundry, a theatre, a shop that sold goods at a little over wholesale prices.
A boss providing virtually every amenity for his workers may sound paternalistic. But Godin started out as an apprentice himself, in his fathers foundry when he was eleven, and, as a journeyman, got his share of bad housing conditions. In 1880 he converted the Familistère in a cooperative society. The foundry was owned by the workers. The building and its concept was succesful enough to last until 1968, when the cooperative society was dissolved. In Laken, outside Brussels, he established a second one in 1880, smaller in scale, that housed 72 units.

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There is a short but very nice documentary about the Familistère on the tube:
Familiy lodging in Guise.
And when you’re in the neighborhood of Guise, you can go and visit: Familistère.com.

Contradiction juxtaposed #1 Look around you

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Do architects read? They certainly write. One of the first books I read in my first year studying architecture was “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” by Robert Venturi. Its first sentence states candidly: “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture. I do not like the incoherence or arbitrariness of incompetent architecture nor the precious intricacies of picturesqueness or expressionism. Instead, I speak of a complex and contradictionary architecture based in the richness and ambiguity of modern experience . . . I am for richness of meaning rather that clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function.” Then page after page of erudite and well-written examples follow. It was a book that, I can safely say, has influenced how I look at architecture more than any other.

It also opened my eyes for a particular kind of architecture, the examples of which I happen on, every once in a while, in my city, Amsterdam. I’d say it flourished from about 1880 into the early years of the twentieth century. Venturi has a delightful example in his book, by Frank Furness, the Clearing House in Philadelphia. It is an example of what Venturi calls “Contradiction Juxtaposed”, which, he writes, “involves the shock treatment”. The Furness building is a fine example: “The half segmental arch, blocked by the submerged tower which, in turn, bisects the facade into a near duality, and the violent adjacencies of rectangles, squares, lunettes, and diagonals of contrasting sizes, compose a building seemingly held up by the buildings next door: it is an almost insane short story of a castle in a city street”. Contradiction juxtaposed indeed!

Having seen the picture of this building and reading these lines, I found that there were similar buildings to be found on the streets of Amsterdam. It is an extremely difficult sort of architecture to get right: to make a happy marriage of different architectural parts, such as bay windows, arches, lintels, and dormer windows, that are all put in intact, with their own symmetries, not in a well-balanced composition of abstract forms, like a De Stijl painting or a classic modernist building, but more like a suicidal balancing act with architectural good taste.

It’s important to note that any local symmetry, whenever it occurs, is allowed to exist. This gives the whole building a character of an assemblage of fragments. It’s a sign of the skill of the designers of these buidings that, with all these fragments, it doesn’t fall apart or becomes a parody. I don’t think there is anyone alive who could pull this off anymore.
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These buildings are typically brickwork. This gives them a very useful basso continuo with the quiet color of the brick and the typical detailing that the stacking of bricks demand, such as arches and row locks. Windows are of a traditional type, sash windows are everywhere in Amsterdam.

To start this series off, I offer a nice example on the corner of the Bloemgracht, a few paces from where our office is located.

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This wonderful building sits on a corner with an acute angle. The elements that make up the building are all rectangular in plan. The architecture tries to deal with the conflict that the meeting of these rectangular elements and this angle provokes. And there is no fear of any unfamiliar solution that is called for!

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This was, for the time, a new type of building: the appartement block. Before, there were rental units of course, but they were found in traditional town houses that were subdivided. On the outside one would see a single house. This building tries to cope with the larger scale an appartment building has – something that would stick out on a canal where most houses are 4 to 5 meters wide.
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Because of the acute angle of the corner plot the square turret needs an arch to support it on the corner. This arch is cleverly mirrored by a second one that overarches the entrance door on the corner – the corner that is cut away to give room to the entrance door and to the people on the street to turn the corner. The bricklayer surely made a masterpiece of it. The span of the arches is determined by the size of the entry door, and they in turn determine the width of the body of the corner turret. But the actual little turret that caps it off has its own demands, and must be narrower to be properly elegant.

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Two symmetries going around the corner: on the left side the windows set up one with the windows and the two arches, on the corner the little turret makes one, diagonally, with its two facades around the corner. A little brickwork corbel supporting the gutter emphasizes it.

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The facade on the Bloemgracht has a large bay window that is so big that it becomes its own facade, which is capped off properly with an Amsterdam gable. The width of this gable conforms to the width of the traditional Amsterdam grachtenhuis but to do this the whole structure, that rises from the corbels as a twice as wide facade, stops at the level of the little balcony, creating a complex ambiguous shape.

Picture imperfect: architecture in photography #1

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I can’t exactly remember when I realised that most of the buildings I thought I knew, I knew only from photos. That was a startling thought! After all, architecture is the creation of space, and yet my knowledge of the great models was from pictures. I culled them from magazines – the faculty of Bouwkunde in Delft had a great collection of the important architectural reviews going all the way back to the early 1900’s. And I poured over them in the monographs about famous or interesting architects (not necessarily the same thing). The photos were, as a rule, accompanied by plans and sections, so I could get an idea of how these photos related to the drawings, and where excactly they were taken. Two incongruous pictures could turn out to be of the same room, a striking detail was actually a minor instance on the back facade. Seductive pictures . . . I knew that by combining pictures and plans I could get a functional knowledge of how a building was laid out – the way the living room connected up with the dining room, how a “void” could connect two floors. How the sequence of rooms in a Loos house, strung around a staircase, would connect and relate to each other. Knowledge of an abstract nature, though. The physical aspect that is also part of how a building works, the sound of steps reflecting in a space, the sense of how wide the opening of a door is – none of that was communicated by the photos.

Part – and I think a vital part – of the education of an architect is building a library, or a memory bank, of spaces. Knowing beforehand what a design will look like once it is standing up in the real world under the glare of the sun requires a sense of how dimensions translate into space. There are, certainly, nowadays, tools that help with that, like 3-D imagining. But as a rule, architects take good notice of the space they find themselves in – it could be an addition to the library. That’s why it can be such a revelation to visit a project that you know on paper only. I still remember the wonder of being in the 1.88m wide, 2.23m high hotel room in the Cite Radieuse, the well-known housing project of Le Corbusier in Marseille. These dimensions, that seemed impossibly narrow and confining in the drawings, actually worked perfectly. Certainly the view out on the foothills of the Sainte-Baume mountain ridge helped, as did the thoughtful detailing of the wooden folding doors that had a collapsible wooden bench over the window sill, and an arm rest on the door that made it into an impromptu seat. It was exactly the sort of thing you don’t see on the photos, so that’s why you go and visit.

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Of course these holiday snaps, to illustrate my point, still don’t convey how it was being there

But is was photos that brought me there in the first place. Seductive pictures . . . They show a different building. Gathered in a magazine or a architectural photo book, they tell a story, they are an argument. And when you go out, you look for that story in the first place. Photos can have a strong influence; when visiting the building, the impression of these images is overlaid on what actually meets your eye – the photo dictates your eye. The photo shows shapes starkly outlined in the light of the sun – it’s overcast when you arrive there, but you imagine the sun. The brilliant white of the walls in the picture is really a cracked and sooty surface – but you imagine it to be smooth and wonderful. The magical, wonderful presence of the building as it was conceived and photographed, that’s the reality that is truly real. The building as it stands there is compromised by use, misuse, new inhabitants, people who don’t care, badly done renovations, unhappy additions.

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Earliest photograph. You really have to look closely.

The first photo ever was of buildings. Immobile subjects, well-suited to the long exposure time that was necessary. Buildings continued to be the subject matter of photography, through the work of Atget and Marville, to the use of photography in “The English House” by Hermann Muthesius. With this book a change is visible. From the documentary work of Atget (who worked preferably in the early hours of the day, so as not to have too many distracting humans in his streetscapes) photography had turned into a means of supporting an argument. By combining the expectation of transparency – the promise that a picture is a window on reality, the truth – with a careful choice of interiors and their decoration, Muthesius’s photos would make a warm apology for the merits of English domestic architecture as a model for the German middle class house.

In the next post about this subject the question will be: do buildings really know how to fly?

Carchitecture #2 The Urzeit

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The Nissan building (now owned by a different company) by ZZ&P architects

I was surprised, when I looked for information on the Nissan building next to the A4 just outside Amsterdam, to find it was finished as late as 1991. It was this building that struck me as the first building that truly made something out of its location right next to the highway. The rectangular slab of the building is positioned at a 90 degree angle to the road, making the entire facade a billboard that carries the company logo. A whimsical blob emanates from the edge, near the top – a board room probably – and gestures at the passing cars. The blob seemed to me a rather transparent quote from the vocabulary of OMA (the architecture firm that everybody now knows from the CCTV building in Beijing). This office made, much earlier, a true piece of Carchitecture.

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The building I’m thinking of is the 1980 project for the “Boompjes” in Rotterdam. Its complicated and contradictory shape (a slab made out of towers) is further rationalized by the view it presented from the road that went past the building. A beautiful piece of OMA bravura, it was a project for a site that didn’t exist, precariously ambushed by water and a curving bit of highway. Driving on this highway meant that just when you would arrive at the building you had to make a sharp turn and right after that another, to prevent crashing into it – a fantastic cinematographic experience that was preserved in the flight of the little renderings (perspective views of the approach) that hover in the left panel of the triptych made for the presentation of the project. So here, for the first time, there was an awareness of the quality that a roadside location could have, not only because it was so conveniently placed to the means of access, but also, and very much so, because the building itself could advertise, just as the car salesmen had found out before.
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The Boompjes building was a watershed because, for the first time in decennia, it celebrated infrastructure and the highway. By the end of the 70’s you could find the ruins of the big infrastructural dreams of the previous decades in almost every city in the Netherlands. Stretches of highway looking forlorn in the still standing fabric of the old city around it. In Amsterdam a 4-lane road stopped right before a venerable remainder of the Golden Age, the 17th century residence of the Pinto family. The frail old building proved to be stronger than the stream of asphalt. In Delft a highway speeded gingerly towards the medieval centre – that is, before the value of the old brick and mortar was judged to be greater than a smooth transition by car. And so the highway stopped right in front of a row of 19th century houses; dramatically, incomprehensibly. Something similar happened in The Hague. A wide lane, lifted on concrete pillars, abruptly had to go down on its knees and bow down before the neighbourhood it all but had destroyed.
Of course the buildings that would line these dreams of swift connection and frictionless transport didn’t sport the complicated forms of Carchitecture. They were reticent boxes, quiet (or should i say “boring”) containers for the offices and shops that would bring the old city back to life. Most of these buildings are now torn down.
This was the state of things by 1980: a ban on highways within the boundaries of the cities, preservation and reconstruction of the old city centres, a move of businesses to locations outside the city, and a new effort to provide the existing highways with enough capacity to connect the cities with these new locations.

The Boompjes project never made it past the beautiful presentation. The “impossible” location turned out to be a quite possible location for a rather bland building, that didn’t do anything with the highway but addresses a bend in the river at that point, supposedly. It took another ten years for the Nissan building to appear, the first built example of car driven architecture: Carchitecture.

don’t go by first impressions

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This is a design for a metropolis (in fact, Berlin) by Ludwig Hilbersheimer from 1927. It is a radical proposal for a solution of the problems of the exploding cities of the early twentieth century: bad housing conditions, congested traffic, unequal division of land and assets. As described in Manfredo Tafuri’s ‘Design and Utopia’, where I first met with this surprising design, the architectural object has simply disappeared. The living unit, the cell, and the city are one and the same thing. There is no notion of a traditional city space. Starting with the cell, the city is simply a multiplication of this basic unit and vice versa; the buildings are habitation and workplace and street as well. This city has no boundaries. It is a pattern that can be replicated endlessly, as needed. The blocks stand on a plane on which motorized transport moves, without differentiation, without streets or squares. Five floors of workshop are accessible from this level. On top of the workshops there is a grid of walkways, from which you enter the fifteen floor appartement buildings. These buildings have the rigorous layout of a rental office: elevators, stairs, corridors. Off of these corridors are the apartments, the living cells, defined by the number of bedrooms – from one to six.

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I was struck, revisiting this project, with how much this design actually reflects in a way how a large, and increasing, part of humanity lives. Nowadays it seems that most people live a fleeting life, their living place in a state of flux. So they may become home owners, but, next to the agreeable living quarters they wished for, their house is also a commodity. The type of wall finish, the amount of rooms, the way the kitchen is laid out, are for a considerable part dictated by the inevitable moment that the house has to be sold, and its inhabitants move to the next place. In Hilbersheimer’s project the final consequence is faced: you enter these appartements with nothing but your suitcase and leave it the same way. Beds, kitchen, cabinets for storage of your belongings, are already present.

Hilbersheimer’s plan may look like a cartoon image of the way of living of today. But this plan has also a striking difference: the places for work and those for living are on top of each other. This, surprisingly, harks back to the oldest way of living, your home next to or on too of your shop or atelier. So there is room form traffic to go around but there is no need to commute. Here a pre-modern arrangement is at the heart of an ultra modern city.

Heidegger wrote (in Bauen, Wohnen, Denken) how building and living are at the heart of our existence on earth. The German word ‘bauen’ points to ‘raising’ as in raising crop. ‘Wohnen’ is being in a space, a place that is created by living. Not a space in a technological sense. He says “space and men are not across from each other though. She is neither an external object nor an inner sensation”. “Space is included in the designation ‘man'”. Living (‘wohnen’) should provide for the receiving of the foursome, heaven and earth, mortals and gods. This notion of the ‘geviert’ (which I translate with foursome) is a very complex one that I’m only beginning to explore. But for now I think I understand that with this notion he provides a space for the spiritual, or whatever is beyond the subject, as well for the subjective world – and without pulling these apart.

Is there room for such a space? Heidegger presented his thoughts in a lecture right after the war, and the housing shortage was an urgent issue. He points out though, that even with the building of new housing there is moreover a longing for the actual ‘living’ – and this living is not confined to the home but also present in the workspace, everywhere where man and place are present. Looking at the rigorous plan of Hilbersheimer I thought that at least one thing was right, which is that it suggests how living and working can be combined. It may not be necessary to reach for the suburban alternative to make a place. It may be a way to reconsider the new megametropoles, the multi million inhabitants cities that are now an unerasable given, and look for the possibility to create a place for humans to truly live there. A huge leap of faith is necessary.

Of course, the chilly uniformity, the absence of even one blade of grass, the total lack of fun, shouldn’t be replicated. The ‘Hochhausgrossstadt’ is a schematic proposal that is very much concerned with the production side of how to build a good city. I think it can open up the thinking about cities into a perspective to an alternative to cities that are still laid out in a wasteful and inorganic way, needing too much traffic to function, taking up too much space. Maybe this inhuman looking city may provide a way to a truly human city.

Carchitecture #1 An introduction to Carchitecture

Whatever the driver sees from his car on the highways of Europe has always been the subject of concern for designers. Obviously the place and shape of road signs is decided after careful consideration about visibility on high speed approach. Beyond that there is the attempt at a selection of what is visible in between the road signals, beyond the lines on the tarmac. The design of the parapets of a bridge over a river is a trade-off between road safety and the view of a beautiful landscape. And then there are the designations of what is a scenic view, not just for a specific point but on a whole stretch of a road – the green lines indicating a ‘parcours pittoresque’ on the Michelin maps may serve as evidence.

Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse 1935

That highways are more than a rational means of mobility has been clear. But is is only in the last thirty years that a dedicated kind of architecture appeared alongside the road. Ever since my studies in the early eighties, when the commute from Amsterdam to Delft had me stare out of the car window day after day, I couldn’t help but notice how the shape of whatever building stood by the road changed because of the road. The design of these buildings I like to designate with ‘Carchitecture’

Autopon Amsterdam 1961

Carchitecture started with cars. It was with the car dealerships that the awareness dawned that, with these businesses typically being on the fringe of town, the traffic jams, that other typical phenomenon on the approach of a city, could turn into a slow moving line of window shoppers.

The oldest occurrence that I can think of now, of a businessman realizing the potential of his location on top of the road, is this well known building in Amsterdam. It was finished in 1961 after a design of Ingwersen and De Geus (and I am pleased to reveal that my father was involved in the design for this project). The building is a rather surprising appearance, on the border of old Amsterdam, of design elements of the ‘Unité’ that Le Corbusier built in Marseille, but with the addition of a typical Carchitecture element: the dramatic ‘hand’ cradling the latest model car.

Autopon Amsterdam 1961

In the seventies car dealers moved to the fringe of town. The buildings that had locations next to the highway evolved from the simple sheds that contained the showroom into true shopwindows that gave out on the road – not the access road but the highway at the back of the building. A new type was born.

showrooms alongside the highway

The highway became an attractive location for office buildings when Holland changed into a commuter country. The inner cities of Dutch cities were closed off increasingly from car traffic when the post war projects for wide car friendly city streets were aborted and reversed. Since accessibility by car was perceived indispensable for business the new locations for office buildings moved to outside the city. The proximity of the highway was initially no incentive for a dedicated kind of design. The moving principle for office design came from the internal functioning of the building and the successive schools of thought about the optimum lay-out for work places. However, near the end of the eighties here and there a building emerged that had a design that took the view from the highway into account.

The building pictured here is of a recent date, but it is an example of how a need for gesturing came about to emphasize the location on the road. This is what Carchitecture is about.

gesturing at the passers by

Not all buildings on top of the road follow the rules of Carchitecture design. Following Venturi’s famous typology, this building for IKEA should be called a ‘decorated shed’. However, Carchitecture is not a decorated shed – it would be closer to what Venturi would call a ‘duck’. The buildings that would be grouped under this name and Carchitecture don’t completely share the same characteristics though.

IKEA shed

Carchitecture has evolved into a whole array of building forms. It’s a necessary development, because the Dutch highways change, and new demands provoke new insights with the road designers.
Here is an example in which the necessary noise barrier – that usually blocks the view from the highway – is meshed with the needs of Carchitecture.

presence on top of sound barrier wall

The building depicted below shows how the influence of the highway can extend to quite a distance from the actual axis of the road. It shows the character of the Dutch highways as a ‘mycelium’ – an organism of its own, of which Carchitecture is its spontaneous fruit.

mushroom pops up

I would like to develop an Atlas of this fascinating set of building shapes. Carchitecture has its own typology and spatial system – for instance, there is a typical way of how the actual access to the building is combined with the demands of the highway location. This blog post is not the place to give the whole story, but I hope to come back to it in the future.