Cabinet of curiosities


Here is empty cabinet that will become filled gradually 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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


The world's tallest buildings as harbingers of economic doom

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


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.”


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:


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.


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.