Starters of urban change (4) Air conditioning and façades: the problem of Haussmann’s umbrella


When the Baron Haussman wrote his memories, after having lost his large power over Paris, he told that what Napoleon III really wanted at the Halles was, simply, to create a “large umbrella”. I say “simply” as works began with a classical stone architecture that was criticized, and the image that now everyone remembers, of steel and glass pavilions, resulted from an order to reduce expenditure. With a large umbrella merchants could go without individual ones on rainy days. So were made many things during the last two centuries: doing “large umbrellas”, so you could live without one for yourself if you liked it that way, or it was out of reach for you. Public hospitals against private doctors, public schools against church schools,…

Buckminster Fuller proposed in 1960 the erection of a large dome over midtown Manhattan to control climate, a project that was never built and that could have faced relevant problems. In a given moment, direct satellite mobile phones were introduced to talk between anywhere and any place. The first idea was never implemented due to cost, and the second one was implemented but never gained wide traction. Sometimes simpler systems win.

Air conditioning is an example of the kind of urban catalyzers in the ascending sense. We could imagine a dome over the city, controlling climate, and in fact in some areas district heating exists; in northern Europe there are even interconnected district heating systems, which achieve high energy performances. But for the regions of extreme cold in which energy bills are high, or when large landowners can better manage the energy bill through large systems, in most areas in the world in which heat is intense, the “dowry” (not in the marriage sense…) of the middle class has grown. Once you get into a certain income class, you sure buy a car, but you also buy (before or after is a matter of choice) air conditioning.

In countries such as Anglo-Saxons, with a substantial share of individual homes, this is not that relevant in terms of urban landscape. But in places in which apartments are relevant, as in Spain or China, or in dense cities, architecture is impacted. Sure, some buildings have their mechanical elements over the roof, but this is still a reduced share, as housing buildings tend to last quite long.

Often local rules forbid locating condensation units for air conditioning in façades, but this is the most common solution as the installer can do a simpler work, ducts are more affordable, and the machine works better. As each owner calls an installer when he likes, and he uses his own ideas, brand and model, architecture suffers. Sure, some buildings have scarce previous qualities, but other get an appalling treatment. It is worth reminding that urban landscape quality is not just a matter of sublime elements, but also clutter control.

As dismantling these contraptions from façades is complex, I foresee that many will still be there after years without use. I can even imagine that in a hundred years, even if the system itself is no longer used, some areas will promote their “vintage early XXIst century architecture” bragging about their authentic air conditioning devices….

Starters of urban change (5) Bow windows


Imagine you are a city or any other public administration with urban planning powers. How to foster the use of a given architectural shape without paying for it? Reducing the cost for those producing it. In a given moment, the city of Madrid decides that the floor area of a bow window is accounted for just about 50% of its size in the overall floor area permitted by the municipal plan on each lot. So it is a more profitable space than other square meters in the building. This explains why you so often this shape in the Madrid architecture of the last two decades.

Is this a better architectural solution? A more elegant one? You cannot say, as this depends on each project. Conversely, some cities as Barcelona are much less welcoming towards these bow windows, and this has been a tradition for more than a century. It is a matter of local sensibility… Barcelona’s position derives from the overcrowding in the old city before the Cerda extension in mid XIXth century, when cantilevering rooms sometimes covered the street. I could not trace back the reason for Madrid’s permissiveness.

Maps 2015 (5) Up & down in Granada


The results of a little escapade on the side of the cadastral data for volumes. If it is built, it must be drawn to ask for taxes… and those bases can be used. Here, around the Granada cathedral, that despite its imposing physical volume is considered by the Cadastre as one level building (albeit one with high ceilings…). On the first image, what can be seen at street level. On the second one, the volumes that are completely hidden (deep red is for buildings that according to data have no underground levels). These images don’t portray what happens in the intermediary situation, i.e., when the floor of a room is under the street level but its ceiling is above it, but for not more than a meter (to be seen soon, as it is interesting in a hilly city as Granada…).


Starters of urban change (4) Wats, fridges and cows

An old urban dairy farm, image taken from the blog “le pieton de Paris” (, with a good article on the issue

The arrival of the fridge as a common home appliance implied, among other consequences, the evolution of the place of the animals in the city. My grandma still had chicken under the kitchen sink in their third ground apartment, as  during the Spanish post-civil war era this was still common (most urban dwellers came from rural areas, as her), and she had no fridge at home and retail was not up to the task of massive meat distribution. To be precise, at a given moment they bought a fridge, but power lines were not reliable enough…

Which leads us to a previous matter: the spread of electric energy. The generalization of electricity in the cities is a matter of little more than the last century, with a gradual growth: first light, and then an incremental growth of the rest of appliances. The urban family revenue had to grow to support buying new appliances, but power generation and transportation networks had to grow in terms of both capacity and reliability.

This expansion of electricity is central to the link between animals and humans in cities in many ways, and in Europe there is a clear example in the production and distribution of dairy products. Since Pasteur it is known that milk is an ideal place for pathogens to thrive, especially when time between milking and drinking grows and temperature is uncontrolled, so up to the generalization of railroads the strategy was to bring the cow as close as possible to the citizen. Cities as Madrid or Paris had at the end of the XIXth century a large amount of “vacheries”, small places in which cows were raised to produce milk for nearby populations, sometimes in ground floors or inner courts in what now are posh areas. Some examples as Louis Bonnier’s time architectures in ceramic tiles show the convergence with the expansion of urban hygiene.

The improvements as well in transportation as in refrigeration both on the offer side (industrial fridges) and the demand side (a fridge for every family) reduced with time the need for cows near families. Along with the end of urban horses due the car, this is a relevant evolution. It is worth thinking how in today’s polluted cities a quality milk production could happen, but anyway this urban story also had implications for rural areas: while the milk production in former times could only be exported as cheese, with power and fridges an industrialization of the milk industry ensued.

It would be interesting to see, in the recent context of avian influenzas, how the way in which humans and fowl evolves in Asian cities with fast GDP, infrastructure and population growth, as a century ago in North America or Europe.

Starters of urban change (2) Taxes and the « casas a la malicia » in renaissance Madrid

A part of the 1749 map of Madrid

A plate of the 1749 map of Madrid

Madrid becomes the Spanish capital in 1561, and this implies the institution of the the “regalia de aposento”, making mandatory for citizens to provide half their own homes to provide shelter for Royal officials. It seems that municipal authorities agreed with the King this provision in exchange for the benefits of becoming the permanent capital of the country. This fee was established in the middle ages, when the court was moving from city to city, and it was a transitory problem for citizens, but by making Madrid the permanent capital this became a nuisance that influenced architecture.

Every home was subject to the mandate, but some had dimensions or arrangements that complicated divisions. As a result, citizens decided often to build homes that could evade partition, and this led to the name of “malice houses”. Anyway, these homes were subject to a monetary fee, so there was first a need to institute a tax raising office, and later to create, in the 1749-1759 period, the first city cadaster.

regalia aposento

You can consult on the internet a full compendium of the legal texts on the issue… from 1738. As often in past texts, it is quite interesting to read the description of the kind of royal officials that had a right to shelter…

A translation of the specific text on the malice homes (page 28 on the electronic text) would be:

“in any home that can be easily divided in two parts, and that is in this city of Madrid, where the Royal court is, the half belongs to its Majesty as a result of the shelter rights… , and those that cannot be divided as they have just one room, an appraisal of their product must be made, and the owner will contribute with a third of it to the shelter rights, leaving to the owner the spaces from a third to a half, that he should give; and those homes are called of difficult partition, of third part, or malice”.

So evading a fee did led for a long time to an architectural production in Madrid that was defined by one level, one-room homes. Sometimes there were rooms on an upper level that was not visible from the street, and in some cases the homes were deemed indivisible due to their internal divisions. As a conclusion, neighbors preferred a bad architecture to a fee on their privacy.

Starters of urban change (1)

What drives change in the urban tissues? What matters in that question is how diverse the answer can be; there are changes from the bottom up (individual answers to problems that seem personal, but whose sum can produce some kind of “emergent intelligence”), as well as defined from the top of the pyramid (actions defined from the public administration which can lead to direct actions or to mandates to individuals to act in a given manner). Here is a quite concise catalogue of the possible situations, a kind of “table of contents” of what will follow:

  • Bottom-up
    • Changes in the dimension of the use unit (households, firms, public facilities…) that mean a change in the physical dimensions of the associated spaces, either through reduction or through extension. For instance, if the number and median size of households rises and urban growth is not possible, what you get are either overcrowded homes or extensions of current homes, either in width or in height.
    • Technological changes that imply a larger choice of locations, be it for homes or for other uses. For instance, cars have allowed urban sprawl.
    • An evolution of social demand that triggers an evolution in the way the functions of spaces in a typology are arranged. If the demand for balconies increases, home façades will change accordingly, transforming the urban landscape.
    • Changes in ownership conditions: a neighborhood in which the residents are mainly owners of their homes can look different from one in which rental is the main condition.
  • Top- down
    • Political or technological factors determine how the land can be used: if city walls become obsolete, either as a result of the evolution of military technology or of the disappearance of the risk of war, cities can demolish them and extend.
    • Fiscal conditions: when some architectural types are subject to higher taxes, this can change the real estate market and the building production.
    • Urban planning: plan define mandatory conditions. Paris, Manhattan or Kyoto have particular urban landscapes as in a given moment the decision was taken to organize streets in a certain way and to define how buildings should look.

What is often said to be “the charm of the city” is the combination of all those elements, with varying degrees of poetry and bureaucratic zeal.

A programme for 2015: the grain of cities

A place I happen to know well, as seen from Landsat

A place I happen to know well, as seen from Landsat

The physical base, first scale "grain" element

The physical base, first scale “grain” element

Defining a programme helps make easier what Is complex. The UN have declared 2015 as the international year for light and light related technologies, and international year of soils. At first glance, these seem better starting points than in 2016 (international year for pulses and camelids), but you never know… Nevertheless I think it’s better to choose a subject more focused on the built environment. And specifically, to focus on an issue that is overarching to most of the interesting works I read recently, and that so seems central: the grain of the city.

Beware, I’m not talking about grain in the crop sense, but about the different qualities that scales can render when talking about the city or the broader land in which it sits. Mandelbrot did translate a close idea it into the fractal theory, as the presence of visual qualities (although he was a mathematician, he seems to have favoured visual representations of abstract concepts, as structures in data in this case) that seem similar at different scales.

The grain of buildings, as described by cadastral data

The grain of buildings, as described by cadastral data

The grain of the city can be physical (an historical area can be much more detailed in so many senses) or immaterial and related to flows and socioeconomic links; the most interesting spaces are those where both detail qualities converge.

The grain raises two issues:

  • The ability of our representation instruments to represent the city or the land and convey a given complexity
  • The presence (or absence) of complexities on the land, be it in one sense or the other.

This will be the base for the blog during this year, alongside more circumstantial issues. As ever, I’m open to your suggestions.

Architectural grain

Architectural grain

... and the grain of things set to become something else...

… and the grain of things set to become something else…

On awards (5) Salzburg central Station

A graphical description of the station by the architects

A graphical description of the station by the architects

Salzburg central station, which I visited this summer, is undergoing a refurbishment according to a project by Kadawittfeldarchitektur, a german architecture practice that won the 2009 competition. The project has been awarded in the 45th edition of Austria’s Staatpreis Design in the architectural and urban project cathegory (given by the Federal Ministry for Economy, Family and Youth to ÖBB, the national railways, as the project developer), and the 2012 European Steel Award.

The station was configured as a dead-end (outbound trains moved on reverse) until 2010, when continuous tracks were installed that, along with 4 new platforms, delivered a capacity improvement.

View from the end of the platform

View from the end of the platform

A detail: the historical glass and steel vault on the foreground, and the extension

A detail: the historical glass and steel vault on the foreground, and the extension

The use of steel with Y-shaped posts and large spans is not necessarily the most economical solution, but the results are interesting; it is always hard to find the right price for something that you will see every day, and can subsequently become boring. Under the platforms there is a long corridor connection both sides of the station; it is well lit, mainly due to the fact that the stair shafts are not limited to the stair itself, but run from one to another encompassing the whole corridor. It is not on my snaps, but I remember some kind of smart approach to the details to integrate in the corridor design the differences in level between both ends.

est-salzb-3 est-salzb-6

On awards (3) Aga Khan Awards for Architecture

Appartments in Tehran, candidate project to the 2013 cycle

I once heard a sentence from an Architecture historian on how difficult it was to define architectural modernity from an Islamic or Arabic viewpoint (I know both terms represent different things, but for what he meant any of them could be used). He said it was still open to debate how an Islamic or Arabic rail station should look like.

In 1977 the Aga Khan, supreme religious leader of the Ismailites, set up an architectural award for projects that could deliver positive results for Islamic societies. The Aga Khan as a character is far from current western stereotypes: he is a monarch without land, spiritual leader for a part of the Islam, living in the west. The aesthetics awarded in this case are quite far from tradition; however, it would be difficult to say what tradition is, as the Islamic world encompasses such a wide array of territories and peoples, with the subsequent array of architectural traditions.

The award is held every three years, and the last edition was that of 2013. The list of awarded architects is not restricted to Muslims, taking into account the names, sometimes well known in the west. There is an Islamic cemetery in the Austrian Alps, a road and public transit project in Rabat- Salé (Morocco), a rehabilitation in Tabriz (Iran), interventions on an historical  city core in Palestine and a heart surgery clinic in Khartoum (Sudan).

I have followed for some years (from a distance…) the results of the awards, and noticed that they encompass a wide geographical variety, addressing contemporary architectural models, without a pre-defined aesthetical framework. I could even say that they seem quality architectures, although I do not know the places in which they sit; and Salé (Morocco) is not Salem (Massachussetts).

In fact I still wonder why an Arab or Islamic rail station should be that different from an European or Christian one… as the later are quite diverse. The idea of a culture that is not a general frame of reference, but rather a rigid set of rules, has always seemed difficult to me.