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Cabinet of curiosities

Introduction & Index

Here is a cabinet that is becoming filled with architectural curiosities. There have been recent cabinets of Philosophical Curiosities (by Roy Sorensen) and Mathematical Curiosities (by Ian Stewart), but not, so far, an architectural cabinet. I hope to rectify this situation. I plan to include some simple mathematics and more than one philosopher.

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"Sparrowhawks, Ma'am"

When the Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park in 1851, it enclosed a number of mature elm trees. It also enclosed the resident population of sparrows, whose presence was not wanted, flying among the precious and delicate exhibits. Shooting them was clearly out of the question. As in all great matters of state, Queen Victoria consulted the Duke of Wellington. His reply was brief: “Sparrowhawks, ma’am”. And that proved to be the solution

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Quarter-detached

The familiar names for house types distinguish the ways in which they are attached - or not - to neighbouring houses: detached, semi-detached (in pairs), terraced (in rows). But there is another possible configuration that is found only rarely, and for that reason has no standard designation, where houses are grouped together in fours. We might call these ‘quarter-detached’.

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Beach holidays for Nazis

There was a time when the completion of ‘the world’s tallest building’ was an occasion for great public excitement and national pride. This is hardly true any more. Do you even know which building carries the title today? (In 2020 it is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, completed in 2010, which at 828 metres is more than twice the height of the Empire State.) The rivalry between tall buildings has become a kind of pathology to be understood through the teachings of Sigmund Freud. Perhaps a more curious question is ‘what is the world’s longest building?’ – although, since this is not the subject of competition, few people know the answer either.

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The Architecture Pill: by Eva Branscome

In 1967 the Austrian architect Hans Hollein stuck a glazed green pill to a sheet of A5 stock paper and typed his name and the year below, adding to this the word Architektur and his handwritten signature.

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Painting the laundry boats: by Murray Fraser

A guest article from Murray Fraser, Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London

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Venice, Venice, Venice, Venice, Venice...

In the late 19th century patients with respiratory diseases moved to parts of rural California now built over by Los Angeles for the sake of their health - surprising as it might seem today - to benefit from the pure air and sunshine. Abbot Kinney, an asthma sufferer, spent a night in 1880 at the Sierra Madre Villa Hotel and had the best night’s sleep of his life - even though he arrived without a reservation and had to sleep on the hotel’s billiard table. He decided to move to California and, with a fortune made in the tobacco business, embarked on a series of development projects, culminating in the foundation of a seaside resort which he named Venice Beach. This was an independent city until 1926, when it was absorbed into LA.

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Architects in fiction, Part 2

Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit builds nothing; Otto Silenus in Decline and Fall is contemptuous of the occupants; the characters of Howard Roark and Peter Keating in The Fountainhead are flawed in their different ways; and Kem Roomhaus’s buildings fail technically. An extreme point is reached with Anthony Royal, who presides over the complete social and physical disintegration of his major architectural work.

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Architects in fiction, Part 1

Women’s magazines of the post-World War II years published romantic short stories in which the heroine’s dream was to marry an architect: a man with an artistic side who nevertheless could bring in a regular salary. The Goodreads website listed 59 ‘romance fiction’ novels in print in 2019 with architects as leading characters. The profession has not been treated so kindly in the literary novel.

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Sigmund Freud and the Monument: by Ro Spankie

In 1909 Sigmund Freud gave a lecture in America on psychoanalysis, in which he said that the Monument to the Great Fire of 1666 in London was a 'mnemonic symbol' that resembled a hysterical symptom.

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Christopher Wren and friends watch the bees

The 17th century natural philosopher Samuel Hartlib wrote a book called The Reformed Common-Wealth of Bees, in which he described a beehive with glass windows through which the apiarist could watch the occupants. The drawing of the hive was made by the young Christopher Wren, not yet an architect.

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Off grid

In the early 1970s Robert Reines established the Integrated Life-Support Systems Laboratories in the mountains of New Mexico. There he built the world's very first 'autonomous house', drawing almost all of its energy from local sources.

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Noon on the church floor

In the 16th and 17th centuries, churches were turned into giant camera obscuras, The sun entered a small hole in the roof, and cast a bright image at noon onto a line running north-south on the floor. The purpose was to determine the date of Easter.

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Turning consumptives to the sun

In Europe in the 19th century tuberculosis – or consumption as it was known – was the cause of one death in four. There was no pharmaceutical cure, and the only palliative treatment was to remove patients to places where the air was clean and dry, and to expose them to ‘heliotherapy’ or the restorative powers of sunshine.

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Operation Teapot

In 1955 the US Department of Defense erected a number of buildings in the Nevada desert and exposed them to a nuclear explosion. The project was known as Operation Teapot. The purpose was of course to gather data for making predictions of the effects of weapons dropped on cities in some future nuclear war.

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Listing buildings

The Tower in Pisa leans by accident. There have however been a few houses built deliberately at angles: as though the entire structure had been designed with vertical walls and flat floors, and had then been tipped over. On entering, the visitor experiences strange sensations.

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The spandrels of San Marco (or rather, the pendentives)

In 1979 an intense controversy in the theory of natural evolution was provoked by a paper, 'The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm', by the biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin

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Salt in the cellar

The pumping of brine from below the town of Northwich in Cheshire in the 1870s created large unsupported caverns that collapsed with little warning, into which buildings fell.

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Willis Carrier's epiphany in the fog

The American engineer is inspired to invent 'dew point control' for air conditioning, while standing in the fog on Pittsburgh railroad station in 1902.

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The Squaring of Circleville

The geometrical conundrum of squaring the circle goes back to the ancient Greek mathematician Anaxagoras, and perhaps to Babylonian scholars before him. Given a circle, is it possible to construct a square of the exact same area, using only compasses and a straight edge? Many hopeful geometers, including Leonardo Da Vinci, battered their heads against the problem, until it was finally proved insoluble in 1882. But the inhabitants of a small town in Ohio had actually achieved the impossible some decades earlier.

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Cool black and warm white

The American engineer Harold Hay designed houses in the 1960s and 70s that were cooled, not using mechanical ventilation or air conditioning, but by natural means. The houses were sited in parts of the United States with clear skies at night like California and Arizona. They had bags or tanks of water on the roof that were warmed during the day, and radiated their heat back to the blackness of the sky during the night. This created the cooling. Hay called them Sky-Therm houses. In desert regions the effect has been used for centuries to make ice at night.

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The world's tallest buildings as harbingers of economic doom

While a country's tallest building is under construction, its economy falls into recession.

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Jeremy Bentham watches the chickens

Jeremy Bentham, the 18th century Utilitarian philosopher and penal law reformer, is famous in architectural history for his invention of the Panopticon: a design of prison in which the cells were to surround the ‘inspector’ in a circle, so that all the inmates could be continually watched from the centre. (In fact, Jeremy was not the inventor. He was always punctilious in giving the credit to his engineer brother Samuel.) Jeremy sketched a frontispiece for his book on the Panopticon: the oval figure is a schematic plan of the ring of cells. It also, appropriately, resembles an eye. The accompanying text from Psalm 139 reads: “Thou art about my path and about my bed: and spiest out all my ways.”

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Edwin Lutyens draws for a blind architect

In his biography of Edwin Lutyens, Christopher Hussey recounts an episode in the architect’s life “which he described as ‘a great personal adventure’ and as having taught him a lesson never forgotten.” Lutyens spoke of this in an address to the Cambridge Architectural Society on November 8th 1932:

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Ornament and criminology

In 1910 Adolf Loos gave a lecture in Vienna that was prophetic for modern architecture in Europe. The title was ‘Ornament and crime’. Loos announced a great discovery that he was passing on to the world: “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.

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Of Alley

In the 17th century George Villiers Duke of Buckingham owned York House in London, which stood on land between The Strand and the River Thames. The Duke disposed of the property in 1672 to a developer, Nicholas Barbon, on condition that the new streets be named after himself: George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street and Buckingham Street. Adjoining Buckingham Street, Barbon made a narrow lane called Of Alley. John Roque’s map of London of 1746 shows the plan.