Faire et (re)faire - Coloco et Gilles Clement

Here is a lecture - in french I am afraid - as a conversation between the collective Coloco that specialises in bringing communities together to change their urban spaces and the landscape designer Gilles Clement who developed the concept of the garden in movement.

Translated as doing and (re)doing, the lecture's main theme is an alternative approach to design which they share. Instead of the designer as a single artist working from the office, design is here an activity on the ground and in collaboration between the designer and the collectivity. Decisions are made on site and the final plan is a record of what happens - as opposed to an exact description of what is to be done.

Lecture by Junya Ishigami

Of particular interest are the videos of the paper thin 9.5m table that waves like water (14minutes in), the movement of users in the workshop building (around 36minutes) and the baloon installation (1hrand5minutes). It is remarkable, that the poetry of these projects is only revealed in time.

Another video of the Kait Workshop

House Melnikov

The House of Konstantin Melnikov, a Russian architect with a meteorite career that sadly finished early, in the 30's when he was in his 40's, the taste of the USSR veering towards pastiche. The house was one of his last build project and was completed in 1929. More info on his life and the house here.

As for the villa Malaparte, it is a case of a simple geometry, the cylindrical tower, done with straightforward technology - rendered brick walls and timber floors. It is more complex to build as it is curved but the windows themselves are remarkably simple. The brick create corbel arches to form the windows. This is what impresses me the most, the ingenuity of using almost archaic technology to produce such an exceptional building.

The resulting rooms have a quality of being bright and yet private. Light flows in from all directions but without being seen from - or seeing - the outside. This is particularly good in such an inner city situation.



Casa Malaparte


Designed by Adilberto Libera in 1937, on the crest of a peninsula in Capri (more here). The legend has it that Curzio Malaparte, the client with a lively if at times questionable politics, didn't like the architect's design and that he build it himself with Adolfo Amitrano, a local stone mason. It is difficult however to imagine a non architect coming out with such a bold and challenging - especially at the time - design. You can see plans and sections here.

It is most famous for its roof that forms a giant staircase leading to a platform that seem surrounded by the sea. It is particularly successful as otherwise the design couldn't be simpler from the outside, it is a simple box in red render with windows and a flat roof (as is not unusual in this part of the world). In other words the success comes from a simple shape that allows you to comfortably walk on the roof. The detailing is straightforward, almost traditional. The concept demonstrates that a powerful informal idea can be hugely powerful when done simply.

The other groundbreaking aspect of the design are the windows which are framed like paintings on the wall of the sea scape beyond. This is the only out of the ordinary detail as within the outer - painting - like surround no frame interrupts the view that thus looks like a giant postcard. As far as I know, this is one of the first example of a picture window; there had been glass walls before, some house by Mies van Den Rohe in Germany for example - but these are not adapted to such hot climates as they overheat. The window as a picture gives the same powerful connection to the outside but with a limited heat gain (or loss). In this way, it is a great example for our times where we need to reduce glazing to avoid wasting energy.

The best way to see it - as it is usually closed - is to watch Jean Luc Godard's film Le Mépris starring Brigitte Bardot & Michel Piccoli. 


More views of the inside on Andrea Jemolo website.

The Okurayama flats by Sanaa

This project brings an interesting dilemma to me - it seems that by playing with form in a seemingly meaningless manner a number of qualities for the everyday life of the inhabitant are achieved. The formal complexity has created an engaging openness and great diversity of spaces. It is a highly sculptural project - it would be difficult to create something more complex of that size - and yet there are real attention to the human quality of the spaces. Each flat has its front door from the street or the courtyards. Planted courtyards are shared by the inhabitants. The flats are all different. The relationship between the public realm and communal areas private to the inhabitants of the flat is particularly subtle. It is both open to walk through and private, in similar ways to the alleyways of an old city. The narrowing and screening created by the curved walls establish a sense of privacy without the need for gates or railings.

Each flat is really an open plan hotel room, yet on two levels. Privacy for bath rooms comes from the screening created by the curves or a different height. These are more than just functional, they are spaces into which people can do other things and are indeed a large part of each flat, sometimes the actual entrance. The flats are open with windows to both the street and the patios to engage the inhabitants with the community around them.

Here are some plans and images.

On the other hand, there is so much external walls that energy loss is maximised; if you build it here in the UK most of the land would be given to insulation. This amount of external walls and complex curves also mean a high construction cost The flats are probably very difficult to use with narrow areas and mostly curved walls.

And yet, I can't escape being charmed by the sense of community the building seems to create, not unlike that found in medieval European city centres.



Apartamentos Okurayama. SANAA from edicions espontaneas on Vimeo.


Naoshima Ferry Terminal. SANAA from edicions espontaneas on Vimeo.



I am becoming a temperature nerd

Back at the farm with even colder weather and another opportunity to indulge into my new found obsession: checking every half an hour the temperature of the rooms to see how our heating system performs.

Although the weather is colder, the house behaved exactly as last time. A day to be comfortable and another day to bring it to its standard function.

The house was at 12 degree C when we arrived. It took 24 hours to bring it to its running temperature of 16 to 19 degree C depending on the rooms. After 2 days, you don't need to burn as much wood to maintain this temperature. In the morning, the house has come down to 15 to 17 and reheats within an hour of lighting the fire. The shower room even warms up to 20-21.

The reason for this time lag to bring the house to temperature when you first arrive is the concrete of the floor slabs and the stone of the internal walls. As they act as heat stores, it takes them time to warm up. Their presence is hugely beneficial as they regulate the internal temperature; they keep the house cool in summer and keep the house warm through the night in winter with the heat they have accumulated during the day.

All the rooms are comfortable. When you first arrive you stay in the room that has the range which warms up quicker and pre-warm the beds with hot water bottles so that they are comfortable right away.

When I woke up this morning, it was -5 degree C outside and the kitchen was still at 17 degree after a whole night without burning wood. It was back at 18.5 an hour later. 

The farm is warm

There is a frog trying to get in.

It is jumping at the window every 10 seconds; I am not sure why but I will hazard a guess that it is attracted by the heat. Because the farm is hot on a cold day for the first time in the last 30 years.

When we arrived 5 days ago, it was a freezing night (-2 C). The house was cold (12 C) as it had been empty and closed for 2 months.

During this first night, we thought we had made a BIG MISTAKE by not having central heating and relying solely on our wood burning range for heat. The house was freezing. It did warm up but very slowly to 13-16 in a few hours.

But the following morning, I realised that - how stupid - the old and wide flue of the second fire place was still open; all the heat escaped up the chimney. As soon as it was closed, the house warmed up in a few hours (to 16-18). The following day with similarly cold nights but sunny and milder days, the house had fully warmed up (to 17-20). Phew.

Living with this heating is such a pleasure. There is an intense satisfaction in heating a house & water as well as cooking with wood cut on the land. The feeling of being in control and less dependant is incredibly fulfilling. It creates a bond with nature; you look at trees in a different way as providers of energy. 

The burning of wood has a rythm, you add wood every hour or two when you are at home - and awake - you can't help gazing at the fire with a cup of tea, fascinated by the movement of the flames. It feels elemental, somewhat primavel although the contemporary technology makes it comfortable.


The farm is finished!

I would be lying if I said that the last few weeks were stress free but the farm was completed on time (well a short week late) and on budget.

There are the usual snags to clear. In this case we have three minor-ish items which hadn't been ordered on time on ventilation and plumbing and the re-polishing of the concrete to remove some render and grout stains.

The house feels great. It is remarkably cool thanks to the ventilation system that tempers the incoming air in a 35m ground pipe at 1.50m depth and the exposed thermal mass of the concrete floor and slab.

The Douglas fir wall paneling and cabinetry is beautifully warm once oiled with a mix of linseed oil and turpentine. 

The concrete floors, once re-polished, will be waxed with traditional bees wax that will give a beautiful smell to the house.

The solar panel hot water system works amazingly. Even with 7 people in the house, it produces enough hot water solely from the sun. The wood burning range works almost too well; the back boiler which heats the hot water in the winter has a tendency to boil which creates the most impressive gurgles and banging in the pipes. This will stop once the missing thermostat is installed as the water will then circulate properly.

One of the most striking surprise is the silence and darkness once the house is closed at night. The roller shutters and double glazing completely screen of the noise and light from the outside.

Here are a few - fairly poor - photos of the result. More will come in the coming months...



However good they are, builders work faster when you are around!

A short week in France looking at the farm has done wonders to the development. However good builders are, they are more present when you are around!

It has also given me time to deal with electric and telecom connections. The electrical company has been quite smooth (they are coming today to install the metre) but the telecom has been a bit of a drama. Originally, they thought there never had been a telephone connection to the farm; the previous owners couldn't remember as they hadn't lived there. The fact that the house was empty for 30 years probably didn't help. We showed them that there was a telecom duct reaching the house but they didn't seem interested. This led them to a solution of telephone poles coming down the dead end from the main road (1km). They would be taking most of the cost. They didn't seem to consider installing the line underground.

After a week, they changed their mind as they eventually discovered a map showing that there already is one underground. After a bit of further digging, we found it very near the house. This saves the project about €2K.

The difficulty is that no-one knows if it does work so we might be looking at another episode in the is there a telecom line reaching your site yet!

The house is now almost fully rendered.


You can see here the difference between the rough render undercoat on the left and the smooth final coat on the right.

Drama no 2 has been a bit more of a headache. We have a ventilation system which tempers the incoming air through a ground pipe installed 1.5m underground where the soil is almost at constant temperature throughout the year (about 12 degrees). This preheats the air to 10 degrees in winter and cools it down to 14 degrees in summer. You can see the imposing trench below. 

This system is not as such new but has only been properly manufactured in the recent years. This is always a source of potential problems as during the early period of manufacturing development, the systems evolve FAST. The consequence for us is that they changed from two 25m pipes of 125mm diameter to a single 35m and 200mm diameter since the project was tendered. Nobody noticed until it was a bit late to order it. After looking at various options, it is obvious that the new system is better (less joints), but it costs €900 more (specially made products as opposed to standard). Lets hope that it does work at the end!