We should work for simple, good, undecorated things…but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street.”
Alvar Aalto, speech in London 1957.
By Jeannette Kuo
Jeannette Kuo’s book A-Typical Plan: Projects and Essays on Identity, Flexibility and Atmosphere in the Office is an analysis of the evolution and architectural complexity in the design of the office typology from the 1880s to 2012.
Kuo’s book on the condition of office design and why it requires study is best summarised in her opening salvo: What is the nature of work today? How can architecture inspire and enable new exchanges in the workplace? Can architecture make work pleasurable? Can architecture also anticipate new possibilities and definitions of work?
The book makes a bold attempt to address these issues succinctly in 202 pages with 20 case studies by the likes of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Smithsons, Richard Rogers, MVRDV and Toyo Ito, to argue her cause. The selected projects are illustrated with sections, floorplans and photographs focusing mainly on the interior environment of the office typology.
Kuo attacks the repetition and sameness of the blighted office buildings in the second half of the 20th century, but her method of illustration, often thumbnail style plans and sections does nothing to engage the reader as the format is the same exercise in repetition and sameness she admonishes.
Larkin Building (1904-06) Frank Lloyd Wright
In addition to the 20 case studies, the book’s nine essays, an interview, and a comic strip Stewart Lee would be proud of shed light on various aspects of the office building throughout its history.
The book culminates with the work of students at Ecole Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne’s (EPFL) school of architecture, showing how such research is transformed into new projects. An essay by Freek Persyn entitled “Office +; Climate-sensitive workspace” is the highlight of the publication.
The book was named as one of 2013’s Most Beautiful Swiss Books at the Swiss Design Awards, and rightly so. Much like its attempt at concise conversation, the presentation and layout is clean, clear, simple and well illustrated to make accessible a sector that not all architects and designers might have an understanding of.
But often rewarding beauty acknowledges a lack of substance, and while the book is engaging, it feels contrived, its raison d’etre is simply to be anti-Koolhaas. Kuo freely admits the book was spurred into life to address Rem Koolhaas’ “Typical Plan” essay.
Given the plethora of books available on residential typologies, it is refreshing that a book begins to examine the design of office spaces where many of us find ourselves spending the best part of our lives.
Geller Big Font: style over substance or an exercise in key selection?
The book is ultimately a piece of research; it doesn’t answer all the questions it brings up but creates more. It does begin to broaden the conversation on how we design office space for a new world, with new climatic and lifestyle challenges we face, and one should commend Kuo for this. If future conversations are to take place, they should focus on the core issues of office design and this might yield more positive outcomes.
The superfluous architectural stance of pro-Koolhaas or pro-Kuo is the thing that restricts true flexibility in the conversation. But then, when has ego ever affected an architect’s judgment?
words by david rushe
Building Type: Private Residential
Architect: David Chipperfield Architects
Location: Cottage Place, London.
On a recent visit to Chelsea in London I was finally able to view the property that was under construction when I lived with family in the area. Located on the back-of-house-street called Cottage Place, resides a curious new artefact; a private residence designed by David Chipperfield Architects (DCA).
The house occupies the former site of garage space for the adjacent apartments facing Brompton Square. The new house hugs the site lines, maximising all potential available footprint space. The house is in the shadow of the Brompton Oratory. Designed in 1876 by Herbert Gribble, the oratory adopted the “Italian Renaissance” style with nods toward the Roman Baroque and Wren too.
The house fronts directly onto Cottage Place, making a narrow passage feel narrower with its imposing colonnaded facade, complete with floor to ceiling glazing, enshrined in darkness by the application of permanently drawn curtains. The approach to the facade treatment picks up on the language of the oratory, but while the building attempts to create a dialogue with it’s famous context, it is obvious that DCA’s building is not speaking the same language.
The building is beautifully detailed, with clear and crisp lines at every view. The junction between different materials is handled with care, the spaces and notches all looking as if they were crafted and carved from one piece of building material. Despite these positives, the imposing facade lacks any sense of joy or acknowledgement that this is a home for a family. Instead, the building resembles a fortress, its blank gable end and blackened windows denoting the demeanour of a secretive citadel.
Cottage Place as viewed from the Brompton Road
Cottage Place looking back toward the Brompton Road
An example of the crisp detailing at the junction of different materials
Given that this was my first encounter with a DCA building, I was left with mixed feelings. The beauty of the building is in the detailing, as the saying goes “God is in the detail”. With the close proximity of the Brompton Oratory, this statement never seemed more appropriate. However, the formidable presence of the redacted architectural language applied to the exterior is rather distressing and leaves a bitter taste. An urgent trip to DCA’s Hepworth in Wakefield or the Turner Contemporary in Margate might just be the penance I require.
When I compare the finished article to the originally intended scheme, it only confounds my disappointment in the end product. The language is far more residential and interesting, with an effort to lessen the impact of the proposed building by creating a more welcoming and home-like appearance. DCA fall short in these key areas of residential scripture, instead they have created an utterly joyless experience.
In the shadow of the oratory where the emphasis is focused on charity and goodwill to all, the new building ignores these aspirations through it’s architectural gestures. I am not suggesting that the building requires complete transparency, creating the opportunity for peeping Tom’s, I am suggesting the building could be more welcoming.
The residents of Chelsea are known as exceedingly wealthy individuals, who through their incomparable lifestyle and wealth are often removed from mainstream society. A building with an emphasis on defensible space and hostile privacy reinforces this notion of societal removal. The building appears turns its back on society, in essence it’s fellow man, almost mocking its famous neighbour.
A more contemporary feel to the original design
Clear attempts to break down the facade and create a sense of home
Greater emphasis on the language on the existing in the original proposal
A private planted deck garden (existence in built reality unknown)
words & photos by david rushe