• Clean Building Solutions for Slow Spaces

    Clean building practices are the line of defence against the thoughtless, ubiquitous use of toxic building materials. The Slow Space Movement advocates for buildings that are good, clean and fair. This is Part 2 of a two-part series on toxic materials and clean building solutions.

    Many toxic materials lurk in our homes and buildings, and they are a danger to our health and the planet. So what is the solution? We think it is going back to basics, slowing down the techno frenzy and learning from techniques that have been tried and tested for thousands of years. I am not going to give up my iPhone, but I want to stop jumping on the bandwagon of every new material technology.

    mud hut clean materials

    The perfect wall: Mud hut with framing, a bark weather barrier, dirt insulation and grass rainscreen.

    This past summer, my husband and partner in (solving the building industry’s toxic materials) crime, Andrew, and I took the kids to Norway, where we always like to visit the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History because they have assembled buildings there from all over the country, extending back a thousand years. For instance, there is a recreation of one of the oldest native structures that offers us a great lesson in building science for cold climates.

    This mud hut has framing, a bark weather barrier, dirt insulation and grass rainscreen. In fact, this wall assembly meets the definition of a “perfect wall” as defined by Joe Lstibureck and the Building Science Corporation.

    From this example we can start to build a list of clean, healthy building materials. Chemical-free, non-toxic, natural materials: wood, bark, dirt and grass. We could also add stone, straw, clay, cork, wool, sand, leather, hemp, brick, bamboo. Any others?

    Speaking of wool, I am reminded again of Joe Lstibureck and his sweater analogy.

    clean material

    A true Joe Lstibureck-ism: To stay warm, it is much more efficient to wear your sweater, rather than eating it.

    Joe is a funny guy. In a building science seminar Andrew and I took with him, he was describing some fundamentals of insulation. He explained that in Canada, where he and all great building scientists are from, they have learned that to stay warm, it is much more efficient to wear your sweater, rather than eating it. Huh? What he meant was, put your insulation outboard of the framing, not between the studs.

    It is much more efficient to wear your sweater, rather than eating it.

    wool clean building material

    Wool Insulation: Buildings have sweaters.

    But instead of expanded polystyrene (yuck!), why don’t we actually use wool? It is renewable, non-toxic and no animals need be hurt in the process. We have been shearing sheep for thousands of years.

    clean building material

    Wool Batts. Image by Havelock Wool.

    Builder Magazine recently featured a wool batt insulation product by Havelock Wool. Wool, the article says, is naturally mold resistant, flame resistant and the amino acids in it naturally bond with and trap harmful chemicals improving indoor air quality. I know this is still an example of eating the sweater, but at least the sweater is non-toxic.

    warming hut clean building

    The warming hut by Aamodt/Plumb on the frozen Red River in Winnipeg uses wool felt for insulation.

    clean building

    Warming hut by Aamodt/Plumb on the frozen Red River in Winnipeg. Photo by Dan Harper.

    We have worked with wool felt a bit, and it is a wonderful product. We used it here to line the interior of the Warming Hut we did on the frozen Red River in Winnipeg. The felt acted as a warm blanket, keeping out wind and cold and reminded us of carpets or pelts that line indigenous tents and huts.

    Hemp is an example of a material you really should eat as it is loaded with healthy essential fatty acids.

    hemp clean building material

    Clean materials you can eat. Images by Hemp for Victory.

    Hemp can also be used for clothing, building materials and fuel for your car. The only thing you can’t do with it is get high. That is hemp’s naughty cousin, marijuana. On this website “The History of Hemp,” it explains that hemp was a staple crop for thousands of years, and still is in many developing countries, because it is so useful and easy to grow just about anywhere. But around 1900, big companies like Dupont were threatened by the cheap sustainable material and had it outlawed.

    But it’s coming back, and we can help. Hemp literally has thousands of uses. A quote from a hemp website gives us an idea:

    “I wake up in bed in the morning on my hemp sheets, on my hemp mattress, on my hemp bed frame, and I put my hemp slippers on, and I walk across my hemp carpet. I drink my hemp smoothie, brush my teeth with hemp toothpaste, slip on my hemp clothes and drive my hemp car, which burns hemp fuel.”

    I have never used hempcrete, but a little research uncovers that this non-structural hemp and lime material comes as cast-in-place or block form. It is an excellent insulation and air barrier that is vapor permeable, and it is pest, rot and fire resistant. I think it would work really well as a rigid insulation outboard of the framing with a rainscreen or stucco over it.

    hemp walls clean building

    Hemp walls by Steffen Welsch Architects. Photos by Steffen Welsch Architects.

    Steffen Welsch Architects in Australia uses exposed hemp walls. And there are many other examples of low-tech building techniques that use inherently clean materials and many architects like Mass Design Group, Shigeru Ban and Studio Mumbai, are using them in very modern ways. Rammed earth, tadelakt, and charred wood are ancient building techniques that are finding new favor because of their inherent beauty and connection to the earth as well as our own humanity.

    clean building practices

    Building practices have evolved slowly over time. Photo by Studio Mumbai.

    Building practices evolve slowly over time to meet our needs, and through trial and error, cultures have learned what works and what doesn’t. But the the pace of innovation is so fast now that the feedback loop doesn’t reach us until thousands of buildings are built and hundreds of thousands of people are affected. What will our future selves say about the materials we are using today?

    Building practices evolve slowly over time to meet our needs, and through trial and error, cultures have learned what works and what doesn’t. But the the pace of innovation is so fast now that the feedback loop doesn’t reach us until thousands of buildings are built and hundreds of thousands of people are affected.



  • Toxic Materials in Buildings

    Toxic Materials: What Are Buildings Made Of?

    Many toxic materials lurk in our homes and buildings and they are a danger to our health and the planet. The Slow Space Movement advocates for buildings that are good, clean and fair. This is Part 1 of a two part series on toxic and clean materials. 

    Mama, what are buildings made of?

    clean materials

    What do I want my children to imagine buildings are made of? I want to feed their virtuous imagination with a picture of bucolic forests and simple wood cabins. Photo by Owen Wassell.

    If you have kids, you know how this conversation starts. “Mama, what are buildings made of?” The picture I paint is one of bucolic forests, simple wood cabins with stone foundations next to flowing streams. It’s the same kind of imagery I use when they ask where milk or strawberries come from. We want our food and building materials to come from such inherently good places, but the reality is much different. Sadly, most of our building materials come from chemical companies, such as Dow and DuPont.

    toxic materials

    Most of our building materials come from chemical companies: Westlake Chemicals, the largest PVC plant in the country, located in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

    Toxic Materials In Buildings

    In the 2002 environmental comedy “Blue Vinyl,” Judith Helfand discovers the toxic effects of vinyl after her parents decide to reclad their Long Island home in this harmful yet ubiquitous house-siding material.

    Polyvinyl chloride and other chlorinated plastics produce dioxins during their production, burning and disposal. Dioxins are some of the most potent carcinogens known to humankind and also create reproductive, developmental, immune and endocrine disruptions.

    To put it in very clear terms, Agent Orange, the chemical warfare agent used by the US in the Vietnam War, is composed of dioxins. Agent Orange was sprayed over large parts of the country, decimating crops and landscape, and maiming or killing four million people.

    toxic materials pvc

    PVC pipes are standard in residential construction. Photo: Wikimedia

    75% of all PVC is used in the construction industry

    75% of all PVC used is in the construction industry, and chlorinated plastics can be found in geomembranes, weather stripping, joint filler, water sealers, gaskets, adhesives, wire and cable jacketing, roof membranes and electrical connectors. PVC pipes are standard in residential construction, and few architects, builders or clients are willing to go to bat for an upgrade. Vinyl siding is also standard, and when Aamodt / Plumb was doing public housing work for the Department of Housing and Community Development here in Massachusetts, we were required to use vinyl specifically on all of our projects. Ultimately, we stopped doing that work, and the vinyl was one reason.

    toxic materials vinyl siding burning

    Burning vinyl, e.g., in a house fire, releases carcinogenic dioxins. Photo courtesy of East PDX News

    Have you ever thought about what happens when a house with vinyl siding burns? I saw a dumpster fire the other day that was melting the vinyl siding right off the building next to it. It was also releasing carcinogenic dioxins into the neighborhood, but you couldn’t see those.

    And the final point that Helfand makes in the movie is that you can’t get rid of PVC. The recycling process requires melting, releasing dioxins, and you can’t burn it for the same reason. If you put it in a landfill, it leaches into the groundwater. So, it’s better not to make it in the first place.

    This all seems like it should be “Green Building 101.” It seems so obvious. But most people have no idea, or they don’t care. And maybe that is because our language around PVC as a product is pretty weak. In a recently published article by Perkins + Will, who are very strong advocates for clean building materials, they put PVC on their “Precautionary List,” and the Living Building Challenge and Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute “recommend avoiding” PVC. No wonder no one is listening.

    No, the government doesn’t have our back

    Maybe we assume that government regulations and bodies like EPA regulate dangerous things. But really, they don’t. We live in a free-market world. Many hazardous substances are only regulated after a class-action lawsuit by hundreds or thousands of harmed people eventually makes its way to the Supreme Court. That’s after people (and the planet) are already sick. That’s too late. Think about Erin Brockovich, Three Mile Island, and Flint, Michigan.

    We are on the leading edge of these stories and we can affect their outcomes. How do you choose your building materials? Do you get your information from the DuPont rep touting the latest innovation in building technology? Or do you use common sense?

    toxic materials spray foam insulation

    Remember that song “Things that make you go hmmm…”? The contractors applying spray foam insulation in your house are wearing hazmat suits! Photo courtesy of Icynene.

    Let’s take spray foam insulation. Everybody loves it because it gives you a great R-value and air sealing at the same time to meet that stretch energy code. And every insulation contractor is doubling down on its marketing materials and making pricing more competitive. But when two guys show up in hazmat suits to spray this two-part chemical concoction doesn’t that make you wonder?

    Let’s take spray foam insulation. Everybody loves it because it gives you a great R-value and air sealing at the same time… But when two guys show up in hazmat suits to spray this two-part chemical concoction doesn’t that make you wonder?

    Remember that song, “Things That Make You Go Hmmm”? You don’t need to be a genius to figure out that this stuff is toxic. Oh, but the rep says that once it has cured it is completely inert. Really? Let’s  jump ahead 30 years and find out if he is right. And they don’t tell you about the 5–10% of cases where it doesn’t cure properly, and it off-gasses FOREVER. Oh, and you can’t get that stuff off. It really sticks.

    toxic materials lead paint

    But lead paint and asbestos were once the “latest and greatest” building products. Photo courtesy of Hormones Matter.

    I am no material science expert, I am just sharing what I see. But lead paint and asbestos were once the “latest and greatest” building products too.

    Lead paint that has been banned for decades is still causing developmental problems in children from what’s left over on older houses. How do the kids get exposed to the lead? They eat it! Silly kids will eat anything. My friends’ son used to eat gum off the sidewalk. He’s fine though. So when you are walking around on the expo floor, wondering how to tell clean building products from dirty ones without having to read a bunch of Material Safety Data Sheets, just ask yourself, “Would I eat it?” If the answer is no, then just keep on moving.

    How do the kids get exposed to the lead? They eat it! Silly kids will eat anything.

    And don’t be fooled by yummy flavors. Just because it tastes good does not mean it is good for you.

    Let’s use the food analogy for a minute. I remember reading that to eat healthy, your pre-packaged foods should not have more than five ingredients.

    This practice is from Michael Pollan’s book “Food Rules,” where he writes, “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients. The specific number you adopt is arbitrary, but the more ingredients in a packaged food, the more highly processed it probably is.” If there was an ingredients list for our buildings, it would be thousands of pages long. In fact, we already have something like that, and we call it a Spec Book. But it isn’t actually very helpful for knowing what is in the materials. Material Safety Data Sheets and Health Product Declarations help a little, but manufacturers aren’t required to reveal what is in their products. In fact, the ingredients are considered trade secrets.

    If there was an ingredients list for our buildings, it would be thousands of pages long.

    Stay tuned for Part 2: Clean Materials and Alternative Building Practices


  • Empathy in Architecture: The Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village by MASS Design

    Iher recent essay “Designing with Empathy,” Slow Space founder and architect Mette Aamodt writes, “Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling the emotions they feel.”

    What if this “someone else” is a pregnant woman in Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries? As an architect, how do you put yourself in that pair of shoes, in which she walked the long journey from her village to the district hospital in Kasungu, where she hopes to receive essential medical services that will give her a better chance of surviving childbirth?

    Only slightly more than half of the children in this Southeast-African country are born under the care of a medical professional. Malawi has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world — 634 deaths per 100,000 live births (est. 2015).

    The University of North Carolina (UNC) had already been working with Malawi’s Ministry of Health on a larger initiative to help address maternal mortality through medical practices and protocols. As part of the project, the Ministry had quickly and with very limited resources created a prototype maternity waiting home; a bare-bones rectangle, housing 36 beds and a small bathroom at its core. Outside, a small, unshaded space for washing laundry. They planned to build 130 more maternity waiting homes across the country, based on that model.

    At the time, Boston-headquartered MASS Design Group (MASS) already had an office in Kigali, working on projects in Rwanda. The firm was invited to Malawi to contribute a design that could improve the mothers’ experience and help to mitigate that country’s unfathomably high maternal mortality rate. Women waiting until they are too close to labor for making the distance and women who had planned on giving birth at home in their village but encounter complications, far away from the nearest doctor, are at a particularly high risk. Thus, a maternity waiting home is a facility in the proximity of a hospital or health centre, where expecting mothers can stay toward the end of their pregnancy and await labor.

    MASS’ mission

    MASS Design Group’s mission is to design environments that promote health and dignity. The firm, founded as non-profit organization, aims to advance a movement that fosters public awareness of the way architecture can hurt or heal. Empathy in architecture, trying to understand the feelings of their design’s future users, is woven into the fabric of the firm. “It’s not just the Maternity Waiting Village for us that embodies empathy in design,” says Director Patricia Gruits, LEED. “That is really part of what we as a firm bring to all of our projects. We claim that entire process as an opportunity to ensure dignity and empathy across the continuum of design and construction.”

    We claim that entire process as an opportunity to ensure dignity and empathy across the continuum of design and construction.

    The Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village. Photo: © Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MASS Design Group

    Empathy in architecture: The Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village. Photo: © Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MASS Design Group

    Immersion first

    Before beginning to design, the MASS team traveled to the site of the future Maternity Waiting Village, set adjacent to Kasungu’s district hospital, where pregnant women from the surrounding villages came to deliver their babies. “We always start each project with what we call ‘immersion’,” Gruits notes. “It’s about immersing ourselves in the community, so we understand the needs, the context, any opportunities of the project — not sort of drop in a solution.”

    It’s about immersing ourselves in the community, so we understand the needs, the context, any opportunities of the project — not sort of drop in a solution.

    On his first site visit, her colleague Jean Paul Sebuhayi Uwase, design associate in MASS’ Rwanda office, was shocked to find these mothers under the rain, without shelter. Some stayed in tents, others slept outside under the trees. “What if this was my mother?” he remembers thinking. “For you to go through the experience of giving birth, you deserve to have this space that treats you well. That was pushing us to design, to go outside of the normal things, for this to be a special place for these mothers to give birth, but also a special space for people to change their mindset of not always delivering at their homes or in their villages.”

    During the immersion, the MASS team quickly observed how social the Malawian women were, spending most of the time gathered together outside, sitting on the ground, around a tree in the shade or under the overhang of another building. The current prototype design clearly was not responding to the Malawian way of life.

    The Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village. Photo: © Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MASS Design Group

    The design of the Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village is inspired by the way of life in a traditional Malawaian village. Photo: © Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MASS Design Group

    Researching the setup of typical Malawian villages, the team found that even as younger generations start their own families, they all stay in the same area, near the houses of their parents and grandparents. The family life extends fluidly. “That creates a social cohesion within the family,” Uwase says. How could they recreate aspects of the mothers’ village life through design? By allowing empathy to influence their architecture. The common spaces in particular were designed to encourage gathering and interacting. “That creates a friendship that extends beyond the Maternity Waiting Village,” Uwase says. The hope for the Village is to encourage the women to carry on a social life and normal friendships. Gruits references the project’s main goal: “We really wanted to transform this maternity waiting experience from something that was seen as a negative experience for mothers, something that disempowered them, to something that was empowering.”

    We really wanted to transform this maternity waiting experience from something that was seen as a negative experience for mothers, something that disempowered them, to something that was empowering.

    The architect speaks of a local nurse’s vision for these women to come and learn a skill, so they can return to their villages not only with a healthy baby but with new potential and opportunities. Classes on gardening, nutrition, cooking and family planning are crucial to the program. “All of that is about really impacting and empowering her to make better and different life decisions that are right for her and her family.”

    Empowering women through architecture: The Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village. Photo: © Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MASS Design Group

    The Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village. Photo: © Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MASS Design Group

    Empathy in architecture: Design for dignity

    36 women sleeping in one big room was not the right answer to fostering solidarity. Based on their research on social interactions and social networks, MASS instead designed small huts that sleep four women each. Clusters of three huts surround a core of washrooms, showers and a laundry area 12 mothers share. A total of three clusters is complemented by a room for classes, several outdoor areas and a kitchen.

    The local nurses and UNC saw additional opportunity to pair experienced mothers with first-timers, so they can coach each other along and answer questions. “There is now this much more communal approach to giving birth and to the pregnancy process,” Gruits says. Her colleague agrees: “The way it has been designed really helps to facilitate all of those relationships and connections.” The team even renamed their maternity waiting home Maternity Waiting Village, for its many chances to encourage relationship building through design.

    The designers also had to address Malawi’s extreme climate of very strong rain seasons and very hot dry seasons. The mothers needed protection from the rain throughout the village, including covered walkways. But they also needed shaded areas where they would be protected from the sun. “So we really focused on the roof of the project,” says Gruits. “We looked at the roof to create those overhangs to shade and to protect from the rain.” Ample outdoor spaces now facilitate education programs and cooking classes or simply for the women to cook and gather together more comfortably.

    What’s more, the mothers are typically accompanied by family members, who cook for them, keep them company and help them through the delivery process. So the designers doubled the number of toilets and added large benches under the overhangs. “If we couldn’t provide a bed for the guardians, at least we could provide protection from the rain and the sun,” Gruits says.

    In the quest to combat maternal mortality beyond the Village, a key design objective had been to inspire the mothers to return to their villages and in turn encourage other pregnant women to make their way to the Maternity Waiting Village in Kasungu.

    Building for a future

    Malawi suffers from extreme deforestation, and high-quality building materials are hard to come by. “When you fire bricks, you use a lot of wood,” says Uwase. “So on this project, they were interested in us testing alternative building materials that would be more sustainable and would be solutions to combat deforestation.” The group implemented CSEBs — compressed stabilized earth blocks, which use very small amounts of cement and no firewood. Local laborers made the bricks onsite.

    Uwase speaks passionately about the opportunity to train the local carpenters in reading technical drawings, and to influence them to think differently about materials. “Part of our model at MASS is that we are not just designing a building and dropping it off,” Gruits adds. “We train wherever we can, which not only ensures the stewardship or the repair or the maintenance of our own buildings but also that those same workers may go off and use that skill on another job and make more money.”

    Uwase has returned to Kasungu three times since construction finished and women have moved into the Maternity Waiting Village he helped to build. One of the doctors told him that word-of-mouth is spreading about “one of the best places to wait when you are attending the maternity services.” If anything, too many mothers from the area surrounding Kasungu are coming. “It’s a good sign,” says Uwase. “It shows a response to one of the concerns we had when we studied the design, and how the design can change the mindset and attract more mothers. And that’s happening now, which makes me happy.”

    The Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village. Photo: © Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MASS Design Group

    The design aims to encourage more women from the surrounding villages to come to the Kasungu Maternity Waiting Village. Photo: © Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MASS Design Group

    More mothers are waiting

    The MASS team knew from interviewing mothers beforehand that there would be more than 36 mothers at a time wanting to come. “There is a bigger demand for this Maternity Waiting Village,” Gruits notes. “Part of it being well designed is that we’ve been successful in encouraging more mothers to come, but we need more of these facilities to actually accommodate the demand.” The district hospital itself is currently adding on to their maternity ward. “It’s a huge success that they would invest in that infrastructure.”

    The Malawian Ministry of Health is now considering implementing the MASS-designed Maternity Waiting Village prototype on a larger scale. “We’ve had conversations as well with NGOs and other leaders in Zambia and even in Uganda about maternity waiting homes,” Gruits says. “People are interested in using our model, and we see this as an opportunity for other countries that are also looking at maternity waiting villages as a solution to their maternal mortality issues.”

  • The Case For Beauty In Architecture

    For a building to be good, it must be beautiful. Why? Because beauty in architecture brings us joy and happiness. Merriam-Webster defines beauty as “qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” Or more to the point, Stendhal, the 19th century French writer, wrote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” And happiness is one of our fundamental human needs.

    Beauty is the promise of happiness.

    The Alhambra — a magnificent example of beauty in architecture, Credit: Mark Horn, Getty Images

    I was delighted when I found the contemporary French philosopher Alain de Botton and his book “The Architecture of Happiness,” about the philosophical and psychological relationship between architecture and our identities.

    De Botton writes: “The buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol the values we think worthwhile — which refer, that is, whether through materials, shapes or colours, to such legendary positive qualities as friendliness, kindness, subtlety, strength and intelligence. Our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of a good life are intertwined.” (De Botton, Alain, The Architecture of Happiness)

    Stahl House by Pierre Koenig

    Beauty in architecture

    Beauty is one of the most enduring themes of Western philosophy, going all the way back to Vitruvius’ three laws of architecture: firmitas, utilitas, venustas (solidity, utility, beauty). But when I was in architecture school, no one talked about beauty in architecture because it was considered too subjective. What was important back then was the concept and the idea of the building, not what it looked like.


    Lebbeus Woods Model by John Hill

    Actually, some architects were more interested in the ugly, in an architecture of dissonance or discomfort, like this model that looks like it will attack you. This hasn’t been good for the profession’s PR.

    De Botton points to a study of German psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, where he asked students to draw a good and a bad marriage using only line drawings. “In one example, smooth curves mirror the peaceable and flowing course of a loving union, while violently gyrating spikes serve as a visual shorthand for sarcastic putdowns and slammed doors.”


    Boston City Hall by Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

    In the renaissance, architects were considered the arbiters of beauty. But today, the public often questions architects and designers’ notions of beauty. When I google “ugly building,” the #3 listing is the Wikipedia entry for Boston City Hall. Either Google’s algorithm has a personal beef or there is a general consensus on that one. Either way, that is not the keyword term I would like to rank for. In the article “Ugly Architecture: 15 of the World’s Most Hideous Buildings,” the author wrote, “Some buildings are so ugly, the only thing that could possibly improve them is a wrecking ball.” On the list are many famous architects and well-known firms like Gehry, MVRDV and Perkins + Will. The one that really made me chuckle was the observation tower by artist Anish Kapoor and engineer Cecil Balmond that “looks like a tangle of junk you pulled out of a drawer in your garage.”

    But when, on my quest to expound beauty in architecture, I ask Google about “beautiful buildings,” there is far less agreement. Back in Plato’s day, beauty was considered objective and there were rules and orders that governed it. Even Le Corbusier spoke of a somewhat classical notion of beauty.

    “The Architect, by his arrangements of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; through forms and shapes, he affects our senses to an acute degree and provokes plastic emotions; by the relationships which he creates he creates profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then we experience the sense of beauty.” (Le Corbusier quoted in The Architecture of Happiness)

    But now we tend to believe that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” De Botton quotes Stendahl: “There are as many styles of beauty as there are visions of happiness.”

    Is beauty universal?

    Certainly, different cultures have different notions of beauty. Indeed, wabi-sabi offers quite a different notion of beauty from Arabic geometric patterns.


    Ryoan-ji Garden in Kyoto, Japan – Stephane D’Alu’s photo, CC BY-SA 3.0

    Our tastes and definitions of beauty change in response to other cultural influences, but they also change over time in response to shifts in our own society. According to de Botton, German art historian Wilhelm Worringer suggested that over the span of human history societies have oscillated between a preference for abstract and realistic art, and that those preferences have changed based on what the societies themselves were lacking.

    “Abstract art, infused as it was with harmony, stillness and rhythm, would appeal chiefly to societies yearning for calm — societies in which law and order were fraying, ideologies were shifting and a sense of physical danger was compounded by moral and spiritual confusion. Against such a turbulent background (the sort of atmosphere to be found in many of the metropolises of twentieth-century America …), inhabitants would experience what Worringer termed ‘an immense need for tranquility,’ and so would turn to the abstract, to patterned baskets or the minimalist galleries of Lower Manhattan.”

    In the twenty-first century, in the age of instant communication, political turmoil and climate catastrophes, this need for tranquility, and what we would term slowness, feels to me to be even more important.

  • Designing the Experience of Space

    In this installment on our series about the three tenets of good architecture, we illuminate the experience of space and architecture. By focusing on the experience of the space rather than the form or function of the building, we as architects can impact people in profound and meaningful ways. Juhani Pallasmaa writes:

    “When designing physical spaces, we are also designing, or implicitly specifying distinct experiences, emotions and mental states. In fact, as architects we are operating in the human brain and nervous system as much as in the world of matter and physical construction. I dare to make this statement as science has established that environments change our brains, and those changes in turn alter our behavior.” (Pallasmaa, Juhani. “Empathic and Embodied Imagination: Intuiting Experience and Life in Architecture” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    … Environments change our brains, and those changes in turn alter our behavior.

    Rigid and in order: A quintessentially Swiss experience designed by Peter Zumthor. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Phenomenology in architecture

    However, too much of architecture has focused on form-making and too little on the experience of space. In fact, form-making has been the dominant theme of modernism, postmodernism and contemporary theories. This is a very rational, static and abstract notion of architecture that dates back to the renaissance, euclidean geometry and René Descartes’ philosophy of “cogito, ergo sum,” “I think, therefore I am.” Vittorio Gallese says, based on his theory of embodied simulation, that philosophy is incorrect. “More relevant than ‘cogito’ — and here phenomenology got it exactly right — than ‘I think’ is ‘I can.’ The physical object, the outcome of symbolic expression, becomes the mediator of an intersubjective relationship between creator and beholder.” (Gallese, Vittorio. “Architectural Space from Within: The Body, Space and the Brain” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    Gallese references the phenomenologists — both philosophers and architects — that have been studying human consciousness and built space through the context of experience and phenomena since the early 20th century, in direct opposition to Descartes’ philosophy that views the world as sets of objects. Architect and Professor Botond Bognar summarizes phenomenology in architecture as follows:

    “As opposed to traditional Western understanding based on a sharp distinction between person and the world, phenomenology — highly critical of Cartesian dualism in any form — regards subjects and objects in their unity. Phenomenology understands a world wherein people and their environment mutually include and define each other. It focuses upon nature and reality not as an absolutum existing only outside us, but as subject to human scrutiny, interaction, and creative participation.” (Bognar, Botond. “A phenomenological approach to architecture and its teaching in the design studio” in Dwelling, Place and Environment.)

    Slow Space is founded in phenomenology, as is our work at Aamodt / Plumb Architects. We ask ourselves how the spaces we create might make people feel. We ask our clients how they want to feel in their home, their school, their library or their hospital. Let us be aware of how spaces make us feel and teach our clients how to feel space as well. It’s no different than cultivating your taste for wine or fine food. One of the Slow Food Movement’s early objectives was to cultivate an appreciation for the taste of good food. I think we should do the same with great spaces. We should cultivate an appreciation for good buildings. It’s not enough just to look at a beautiful picture. Here is a picture of a beautiful dish from Bon Appetit. It looks delicious. But so does this picture of a Whopper, even though we know it is junk food.

    Let us be aware of how spaces make us feel and teach our clients how to feel space as well.

    How about wine? A photo doesn’t do much for it. It’s all in the taste, in the experience. And wine’s popularity is soaring. Millennials are spending more on wine and restaurants and experiences than consumer goods.

    Zumthor’s thermal baths as paradigm for designing the experience of space

    Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland, serve as an example for designing the experience of space. We spoke with Swiss-born photographer Jonathan Ducrest, who explored the world-famous building with his camera. See his photography and read the story here.

  • Architecture as Experience: Peter Zumthor’s Thermal Baths

    This article is part of an installment of essays and examples illuminating the essence of good architecture, which, as Slow Space founder Mette Aamodt defines, comprises the three fundamental qualities of empathy, experience and beauty. The exploration of Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths in Vals, Switzerland, represents a paragon of architecture as experience — as an extraordinary sensory experience.

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Solitude of space

    To share a taste of this experience, we caught up with Swiss photographer Jonathan Ducrest, who explored Peter Zumthor’s thermal baths from a distinctive angle — from behind his sly camera lens — shot without special lighting. Ducrest, who says he’s “not big on taking pictures of people,” also minimally edited the photographs to give a more authentic sense of the place’s raw simplicity. It is the solitude of space that fascinates the photographer.

    Ducrest now calls Los Angeles home. He’d returned home to his native Switzerland for the holidays and decided to take his mother on a spa weekend. “This was my third or forth trip to Vals,” says Ducrest, contemplating how time moves slower in the small mountain village of fewer than one thousand souls in Switzerland’s Graubünden canton. “You just relax, without the everyday stress. You can walk and enjoy nature, and there aren’t a lot of distractions.”

    View into the surrounding landscape of the valley of Vals. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Swiss minimalism

    Zumthor, whose other significant works include the Kunsthaus in Bregenz, Austria, the all-timber Swiss Pavilion for Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany, and the upcoming expansion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the United States, designed the spa building over the canton’s only thermal springs. The hydrotherapy center, commissioned by the village of Vals, was completed in 1996. Zumthor’s rectilinear design contrasts the valley’s traditional vernacular structures and pastoral setting, and was to look as if it pre-dated the luxury hotel complex.

    Zumthor’s minimalist, clean-lined design contrasts the valley’s traditional vernacular structures. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    “The spa and the hotel itself — it’s like this temple,” reflects Ducrest. “There’s nothing but the water and the stone the architect used.” The cave-like structure comprises 15 units, each five meters high, whose grass-covered concrete roofs don’t join. The slim gaps are filled in with glass. The dark quartzite slabs are quarried locally, and 60,000 one-meter-long stone sections clad the walls in a subtly ordered pattern. “He framed the landscape outside with windows,” the photographer describes. “It’s like you’re watching a painting when you’re relaxing in your chair, and you’re looking out and it’s snowing or the light is changing or there could be a storm outside. You’re becoming more attuned to your surroundings.” The fact that all the stone Zumthor used was brought in from the valley connects visitors even more to the encompassing environment. “Everything comes from there: the waters, the air, the sounds.”

    Everything comes from there: the waters, the air, the sounds.

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Ducrest has long wanted to photograph the space. But without an official assignment, he needed to be cunning in shooting inside the thermal baths, beginning his day’s work early in the morning, when only hotel guests are allowed in. Having been in the space before, he knew beforehand what he wanted to capture. “I had my camera wrapped in my towel, and my mom was looking out if someone was coming. And I took the pictures in a natural light, there’s no flash,” reveals Ducrest, who intently refrained from retouching the photographs. He wanted to depict the architecture as purely as possible — in the way it was designed. What is more, he says, “The lighting changes throughout the day. If you start incorporating lighting that’s not supposed to be there, it’s going to change the feel of it. I like the fact that I had to deal with those constraints. And I don’t really like having people in my photography.”

    I don’t really like having people in my photography.

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Feeling Zumthor

    By design, Zumthor, who received the Pritzker Architecture Prize for his lifework in 2009, pulls the visitor from the arrival and physical transition into bath attire deeper into the spacial experience of the building. A gentle slope leads down to the locker rooms. “You go down this dark tunnel, and you get glimpses of what he wants you to go and explore,” the photographer tells. “As you walk down the hallway, you turn to your left, and there’s this small but very tall opening, and you can see the space below. You see a pool, and you want to go there and see that space. You’re going through a turnstile, and again, you walk this hallway, and there’s water coming out of little water sprouts.” At the end of the hall, the locker rooms lie behind heavy curtains. “You emerge on the other side into the main space, and as you are walking down the staircase, you’re going to see the outdoor pool. You’re going to see a part of the main pool. And you’ll again want to go further and explore.”

    Rigid and in order: Swiss minimalism. Photo by Jonathan Ducrest

    Ducrest’s images are a pictorial reflection on the architect’s intent of creating a physical, mental and spiritual human experience — with the Swiss touch of the internationally renown architect, who was born in Basel in 1943, the son of a master carpenter. “In Switzerland, we like things in order and a little rigid, that’s how we are. That’s still how I am,” Ducrest notes. “When you’re there, it’s always straight lines. It’s hard corners. From the design, you wouldn’t think there is something soft or calming about the space. It’s very rigid and square, and there seems to be no end to this gray stone. But then you add the thermal water elements and the lighting, and it all comes together. Now, it’s a perfect space.”

    The soft element of the thermal water in juxtaposition with the rough stone and the straight-line architecture perfects the experience of the space.

    Also read: “Designing With Empathy” by Mette Aamodt

  • Designing With Empathy

    The Slow Space Movement stands for buildings that are good, clean and fair, but what exactly do we mean by that? This is our inaugural piece in a series of articles exploring this thematic trifecta of what we understand slow space to be, beginning with “good.”

    In our practice at Aamodt / Plumb, we define a good building as a building that holds meaning for the users, brings them joy and connects them to the world, to others or to themselves in some way. A good building does not just satisfy our basic needs but helps us to understand ourselves and our place in the world. It mediates between our being and our environment, providing a filter through which we can see ourselves and the world. It is not a benign shelter, but a lense that we create for experiencing the world and ourselves within it.

    As architects, designing a good building is a hard, if not impossible, task, but one that we choose to strive for every day. One of the ways we can pursue good building is through empathy.

    Feeling what they feel
    Architecture and Empathy

    Architecture and Empathy, 2015. Published by The Tapio Wirkkala-Rut Bryk Foundation.

    Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling the emotions they feel. According to Juhani Pallasmaa, empathy in architecture is when “The designer places him/herself in the role of the future dweller and tests the validity of the ideas through this imaginative exchange of roles and personalities.” (Pallasmaa, Juhani. “Empathic and Embodied Imagination: Intuiting Experience and Life in Architecture” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    Empathy is one of our basic human traits and one that differentiates us from other species. It evolved to nurture babies outside of the womb, as our upright position forced babies to be born before full gestation. Babies continue to develop through skin to skin contact with their mothers. Without this babies fail to thrive and suffer irreparable physical and psychological damage, and sometimes death. Architect and philosopher Sarah Robinson has argued that the skin is the most fundamental medium of contact with our world.

    Architecture and Empathy

    “Boundaries of skin: John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility” in Architecture and Empathy

    “Empathy allows us to connect to the world through our own bodies and in turn, the world opens itself up to us as we feel our way into it. As the mutuality of the mother-baby relationship exemplifies, we dwell in a reciprocating circuit. We are built to be received into a world to which we must connect, into a world that fits us. Empathy is the deep reflexivity at the heart of life.” (Robinson, Sarah. “Boundaries of Skin: John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility” in Architecture and Empathy.)

    The leather-clad door handles at the Villa Mairea by Alvar Aalto are an example of how sensitive the architect was in designing the physical point of connection between the user and the building. Instead of leaving the cold metal bare to draw heat away from the body, he wrapped them in leather so the contact would be skin to skin.

    Embodied simulation

    Recent discoveries in neuroscience have identified exactly how empathy works within our bodies. Mirror neurons in the brain create a mechanism, called embodied simulation, that maps the actions, emotions and sensations of other people onto our brains as if we were experiencing them ourselves. Embodied simulation is not just limited to empathizing with people, it extends to objects and space. MD PhD Vittorio Gallese, who along with his team discovered these mirror neurons, says that “Embodied simulation not only connects us to others, it connects us to our world — a world inhabited by natural and manmade objects … as well as other individuals.” (Gallese, Vittorio. “Architectural Space from Within: The Body, Space and the Brain” in Architecture and Empathy)

    “The notion of empathy recently explored by cognitive neuroscience can reframe the problem of how works of art and architecture are experienced, revitalizing and eventually empirically validating old intuitions about the relationship between body, empathy and aesthetic experience.” (Ibid.)

    Human-centered design

    Empathy is a cornerstone of human-centered design, a buzzword that has been nicely packaged and branded by IDEO, the interdisciplinary design consulting firm.

    “Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem solving and the backbone of our work at IDEO.org. It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.” (IDEO Design Kit)

    This description is how I always understood architecture, but I am grateful to IDEO for spreading these ideas to the mass market. But why does human-centered design seem so out of fashion inside our industry? What is it in contrast to? It is in contrast to market-driven design, like developers who are often just concerned with maximizing square footage and reducing costs. We are all pretty familiar with these examples.

    Technology-driven design

    Then there is technology-driven design that I will call “tech for tech’s sake.” Quoting a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, “If there’s one thing the technology community loves, it’s an over-engineered solution to a problem that isn’t really a problem. Double points if the root of that problem is: ‘I’m a young man with too much money who needs technology to do for me what my mother no longer will.’ ” (The five most pointless tech solutions to non-problems,” The GuardianAt the top of their list of the most useless tech solutions is the Juicero, a $400, Wi-Fi-enabled machine that squeezes single-purpose pods filled with crushed fruit and vegetables into a glass. This company raised $120 million in venture capital. PS: It turns out, if you just squeeze the pod, the juice will come out ready to drink. No machine needed. (Juicero has suspending the sale of the Juicero Press and Produce Packs in September 2017.)

    Tech as tech can: Render of Zaha Hadid’s design for the headquarters of the Central Bank of Iraq. Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects

    Technology-driven design has dominated architecture for the past 20 years, where the cutting edge has been defined by what wild architectural form could be created by the latest software and material technology. The work of FOA, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry comes to mind. The green movement has also been swept up in technology-driven design, with everyone searching for the tech equivalent of the silver bullet that will solve our environmental crisis.

    “True sustainability demands more than technological solutions — it must be founded on an understanding of human nature that recognizes, affirms and supports our nascent vulnerability and interdependence.” (Robinson, Sarah. “Boundaries of Skin: John Dewey, Didier Anzieu and Architectural Possibility” in Architecture and Empathy.)

  • Sverre Fehn: Between Earth & Sky

    I have visited Sverre Fehn’s Architecture Museum (National Museum – Architecture) and Grosch Bistro in Oslo many times as a good friend is one of the curators and worked with Fehn on the renovation and addition. The place is calm, soothing, comforting and timeless. There is no wow factor for the architectural tourist other than the sheer contrast of the classical building and the modern pavilion. The cafe feels like it has always been there, and always will. A narrow door leads to the pavilion where you immediately enter the generous, bright, open and protected space. My words can’t do it justice I am afraid, nor will my pictures. Unfortunately, the day of this visit the exhibition on display in the pavilion obscured the experience of the space by putting a massive solid structure in the middle and overlaying drawings and text on the glass walls.

    I wanted to write about this Slow Space because of the wonderful experiences I have had there and the esteem I hold for the late Sverre Fehn and his work. But as I researched this article I discovered that my intuition about Fehn’s work was confirmed by his philosophies and writings that touch on meaning, authenticity, human existence, sensual experience, and the search for place. These are the fundamental principles of Slow Space and Fehn’s work is our guide.

    Existence and Authenticity

    Throughout his career the Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn (1924-2009) sought to understand human existence and define one’s place in this world. With every project he explored different ways of creating “a place to be” (Norwegian: et sted å være) defining, architecturally, “the space between” (Norwegian: mellomrom) the earth and sky.

    “A place to be” can be a philosophical or spiritual place if you are a philosopher or theologian. Fehn was influenced by the Existentialists at the time, who were primarily concerned with concrete human experience and living life authentically, in contrast to the increasing meaningless and absurd world they saw around them. But for Fehn the architect, “a place to be” was a physical space that mediates between the deep earth and the vast sky. It is a space of comfort that can be touched, felt and experienced, built with simple, true means and materials.

    The Space Between

    Working primarily in the open Norwegian landscape, Fehn defined mellomrom architecturally as the space between the roof and the ground planes. The dialectic between these two planes shows up in all of his projects, although the solutions are always different, and the vertical elements of wall and roof are de-emphasized, often to create a greater connection to the landscape. In some cases, the roof form is strong and imposing, providing true shelter from the elements, as in the Glacier Museum in Fjæreland (1991).

    But sometimes the roof acts more like the clouds above, filtering light, as in the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1959-1962). Fehn’s Nordic Pavilion is composed of a level ground plane cut into the hillside and a roof composed of two layers of slender concrete beams set at 90 degrees to one another. The only vertical elements are a few existing trees that pierce through the roof structure, let in rain and provide the scale of nature in an urban context. Two walls retain the hill and provide the space for hanging art and the other two are completely open with only massive sliding glass doors.

    Gennaro Postiglione describes the light and atmosphere of the Nordic Pavilion: “Penetrating the double framework of the ceiling beams, the intense light of the lagoon undergoes a magical metamorphosis and is transformed into a gentle homogenous light void of shadows, like Nordic light.” The unique quality of light, along with the deep rectangular plan, create a contemplative space inside the gardens of the Biennale, perfect for the appreciation of art and architecture.


    Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Photo: Åke E:son Lindman

    Nordic Pavilion for the Venice Biennale

    Nordic Pavilion for the Venice Biennale, Section Drawings by Sverre Fehn


    The National Museum – Architecture in Oslo (2008) is one of Fehn’s last projects. He was commissioned for the restoration of the original bank building (Christian Heinrich Grosch, 1830) as well as the new addition. The vaulted lower level of the original structure is where he placed the lobby, bookstore, Grosch Bistro and entrance to the gallery spaces. The groin vaults in limed plaster contrasted with the red brick floor instantly recall the earth and sky. Walls and ceiling blend together into one continuous soothing ceiling-scape that envelops you in a warm glow of diffused light. The brick floor is the earth underfoot, made of the rough clay and heavily textured compared with the plaster vaults. The only other elements are the oak shelves, tables and chairs that appear to grow out of the earth and provide “a place to be,” to sit and slowly enjoy a chat, a coffee or a meal.

    The pavilion at the museum is entirely new. A delicate shell-shaped concrete roof hovers over the glass wall perimeter held up by four massive pillars. Again the roof is the dominant element and the walls are barely there. But given its urban context Fehn surrounded the pavilion with a second set of concrete walls that edit out any visual noise. This results in an introverted space filled with daylight, views of the sky and momentary glimpses of the surrounding context. The concrete walls extend the space visually further dematerializing the glass walls and providing a calm backdrop for the exhibition.

    SF Oslo Cafe with People_ Mette Aamodt

    Grosch Bistro, Photo: Mette Aamodt

    SF Oslo Pavilion Perimeter_Mette Aamodt

    Pavilion at The National Museum – Architecture, Photo: Mette Aamodt

    Dialogue With Materials

    To find one’s place in the world, according to Fehn, and to be truly present, involves all of your senses in dialogue with the materials around you. Fehn writes, “You converse with material through the pores of your skin, your ears, and your eyes. The dialogue does not stop at the surface, as its scent fills the air. Through touch, you exchange heat and the material gives you an immediate response… Speak to a mountain ledge, and [it gives] sound a mirror. Listen to a snow-covered forest, and it offers the language of silence.” For his projects he used a very limited palette of materials whose properties he knew very well: wood, glass, concrete, brick, plaster and light. His work was rooted in construction and the very practical building techniques of Norway, so all of the materials are used in a very natural form, unadorned and lacking in any detail that was not necessary for construction.

    Slow Modernism

    In Sverre Fehn: Works, Projects, Writing, 1949-1996, Christian Nordberg-Shulz writes about Fehn’s trip to Morocco in 1952 and how this informed Fehn’s understanding of the relationship between space and time. Fehn went to discover new things and found many things he had seen before, things he recognized in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Nordberg-Shulz said Fehn discovered the atemporality and anonymity of vernacular architecture; “He discovered that basic architectonic phenomena are timeless.”

    In Fehn’s view, this atemporality characterized the period when people thought the world was flat and ended at the horizon that they could see. When they discovered the world was round, virtually endless, they developed perspective as a means for defining space, as Fehn writes, “to distinguish scientifically between inside and outside,” with a linear and homogenous time marching along beside it.

    According to Nordberg-Shulz, the modernists, inspired by the vernacular, sought to define a new meaning for the “atemporal” in architecture, but one that was more qualitative and involved the interaction of the individual’s heart and mind with the modern world. This suggests an alternate history of the modern movement, or at least part of it, a slower, humanist approach that typically gets drowned out.

    Nordberg-Shulz writes, “It is a misunderstanding to think of the modern movement as one interested exclusively in change; its pioneers were strongly aware of the need for ‘constants,’ or ‘basic principles.’” Indeed, the modern movement has been characterized by its obsession with speed, change and novelty. But as with all histories there are always many versions. The history of Slow Modernism is certainly one worth researching and will be the subject of my upcoming book.

    About Sverre Fehn
    Sverre Fehn

    Sverre Fehn, Photo: Stina Glømmi

    Sverre Fehn (1924 – 2009) was the leading Norwegian architect of his generation.

    In 1952–1953, during travels in Morocco, he discovered some universal spatial principles which were to deeply influence his future work. Later he moved to Paris, where he worked for two years in the studio of Jean Prouvé, and where he knew Le Corbusier. On his return to Norway, in 1954, he opened a studio of his own. In the 1960s he produced two works that have remained highlights in his career: the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1959-62) and the Hedmark Museum in Hamar, Norway (1967–79).

    He taught in Oslo’s School of Architecture as well as at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. His highest international honor came in 1997, when he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

  • The Dressmaker and The Architect

    Up until the early 20th century when a man or woman of means needed a new suit or dress they would go to a Tailor or Dressmaker.

    They might have had some magazine clippings of what they liked and a vague description of the type of event they would use it for.

    The dressmaker would take their measurements and send them on their way.

    Later he or she would do some sketches of the design to show to the clients and if they approved she would make the garment.

    One hundred years later, fashion has moved on but architecture is still trying to practice in exactly this same way. The Dressmaker is out of business but the Architect still fights for the few small commissions that remain.

    The Architect of today practices just like the Dressmaker of 100 years ago.

    Ready-to-wear fashion has revolutionized that industry sacrificing quality for quantity. And it has created some significant human and environmental issues in the process. Labor conditions for textile workers, environmental pollution from pesticides used in cotton production and the waste of poor-quality Fast Fashion are but a few examples.

    Move-in-ready spec homes constitute more than 98% of new home starts each year, again sacrificing quality for quantity. McMansions are 50% bigger than the average home for the same sized family 50 years earlier. They are built quickly, with poor quality materials that do not hold up and the residential building industry is notorious for wage theft and exploitation of illegal workers.

    McMansions are the Fast Fashion of the building industry.

    Fast Fashion and Junkspace, the term we use for spec houses, strip malls, etc., have as much in common as the Dressmaker and the Architect, however the Architect is not out of business yet. Hundreds of young architects graduate from school every year and they are passionate, motivated and creative. If only they recognized the precarious state of the profession and banded together to forge a new future that created buildings that were good, clean and fair for all. That is the mission of the Slow Space Movement.

  • Junkspace and the Death of Architecture: Slow Space Finds its Nemesis

    “Junkspace” is a rambling, brilliant lamentation on the death of architecture by one who actively participated in its demise. It was a scathing critique at the time it was first published, but now 16 years later, it can only be seen as a prophecy. A siren call fully actualized.

    The essay “Junkspace” by Rem Koolhaas first appeared in The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (2001). It was reissued along with an introduction and essay entitled “Running Room” by Hal Foster in 2013.

    Surprisingly little has been written about “Junkspace” and I believe that is a reflection on the discipline of architecture rather than on the importance of the essay.

    Koolhaas was far ahead of his time when he wrote this in 2001. What should have been a wake up call has merely languished. I myself was at the GSD then and had no awareness of what Koolhaas was doing or thinking. Nor can I recognize any shift in OMA’s work that might be attributed to this.

    I stumbled upon the essay last year when I was doing my own research. The title alone spoke to me and I found the concept of Junkspace to be the perfect villain and counterpoint for Slow Space. The essay by Koolhaas should be read in it entirety as it can be interpreted in many different ways. Here is a link to do that. Below is a series of excerpts from the text alternated with my own comments.


    The End of Architecture


    “It was a mistake to invent modern architecture for the 20th century. Architecture disappeared in the 20th century.”

    Why? Because we lost our ability to appreciate, experience and therefore design space.

    “As if space itself is invisible, all theory for the production of space is based on an obsessive preoccupation with its opposite: substance and objects, i.e., architecture. Architects could never explain space; Junkspace is our punishment for their mystifications.”

    It is the resultant of the image-driven obsession with form.

    “Junkspace is the body double of space, a territory of impaired vision, limited expectation, reduced earnestness.”

    The junk food of architecture, Junkspace is the McMansions, the shopping malls and casinos that are bloated on fillers and chemicals.

    “Because it cannot be grasped, Junkspace cannot be remembered. It is flamboyant yet unmemorable.”

    Initially exciting but quickly leaves you feeling empty, lost and detached.

    “Junkspace is overripe and undernourishing at the same time.”

    And will ultimately make you sick.




    “Junkspace is post-existential; it makes you uncertain where you are, obscures where you go, undoes where you were.”

    We are distracted from the essential questions of life – who are you? what is the meaning of life? – by busyness, overstimulation, visual and audible noise.

    “(Note to architects: you thought that you could ignore Junkspace, visit it surreptitiously, treat it with condescending contempt or enjoy it vicariously… because you could not understand it, you’ve thrown away the keys…. But now your own architecture is infected, has become equally smooth, all-inclusive, continuous, warped, busy, atrium-ridden….) JunkSignature™ is the new architecture: the former megalomania of a profession contracted to manageable size.”

    Junkspace is the dominant paradigm and architects, without protest or criticality, have succumbed.

    “A shortage of masters has not stopped a proliferation of masterpieces. ‘Masterpiece’ has become a definitive sanction, a semantic space that saves the object from criticism, leaves its qualities unproven, its performance untested, its motives unquestioned. Masterpiece is no longer an inexplicable fluke, a roll of the dice, but a consistent typology: its mission to intimidate, most of its exterior surfaces bent, huge percentages of its square footage dysfunctional, its centrifugal components barely held together by the pull of the atrium.”

    The avant-garde and cutting edge have become so commonplace. Every day a new iconic building replaces the last in the world lexicon of #architectureporn. Novelty feeds consumption and wastes our resources.

    “Junkspace is a look-no-hands world….”

    Stunts. Gimmicks. Turning Tricks.


    Neoliberalism, Consumption and Entertainment


    “Junkspace happens spontaneously through natural corporate exuberance – the unfettered play of the market – or is generated through the combined actions of temporary ‘czars’ with long records of three-dimensional philanthropy.”

    Speculation and development provide the world with what people think they want and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    “Junkspace is political: it depends on the central removal of the critical faculty in the name of comfort and pleasure.”

    Neoliberalism feeds Junkspace’s growth and power as it spreads across the globe.

    “The chosen theater of megalomania – the dictatorial – is no longer politics, but entertainment. Through Junkspace, entertainment organizes hermetic regimes of ultimate exclusion and concentration: concentration gambling, concentration golf, concentration convention, concentration movie, concentration culture, concentration holiday.”

    The King of Junkspace controls all of these kingdoms – casinos, golf courses, hotels and resorts – and has used entertainment as a means of wielding political force. In 2017, Koolhaas’s architectural lamentation has become a prophecy of the rise of Donald Trump.