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Musings of an Energy Nerd

New York Times Honors the Best Architects

Should form ever deride function and safety when designing and building a home?

This is the staircase in the 1948 house designed by Luis Barragan—a staircase recently highlighted by the New York Times. [Photo credit: UNESCO, via Wikipedia]

The New York Times recently published an article titled “The 25 Most Significant Works of Postwar Architecture.” (The war in question was World War II.) The Times announced that in its selection process, it was sensitive to social issues, and claimed to be paying attention not just to the needs of the wealthy, but to the needs of ordinary people—as well as such issues as sustainability and environmentalism. So far, so good.

Here’s how the Times elaborated on their criteria: “Given the difficulties plaguing our current moment, it’s not surprising that the social concerns of architecture—the need to provide housing, for instance, or create useful civic and academic structures; the idea that beautiful cities and communities shouldn’t only be built for and by the rich; the urgency of sustainability, environmentalism and more careful materiality—were on everyone’s mind” during the selection of the honored buildings.

To honor the world’s most significant architects, the Times chose a jury of seven experts, including three architects (Toshiko Mori, Annabelle Selldorf, and Vincent Van Duysens), a designer, a set designer, and two architecture critics. The 25 selected buildings are representative of the aesthetic obsessions of many architects; included, for example, is a particularly ugly Brutalist church in France (a Le Corbusier building with an interior of unadorned concrete), as well as a cluster of buildings without any roof overhangs—designed, believe it or not, for the coast of Maine.

But one particular building on the list stands out. It’s the first building on the Times list: a private home in Mexico City that architect Luis Barragan built for himself in 1948. I don’t know much about Luis Barragan, who may have been a fine human being. According to the Times, the Barragan house “remains a timeless argument for the…

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39 Comments

  1. Jason S. | | #1

    Good morning Martin,

    Okay, I'll bite. ;) In Mexico circa 1948, I'll wager that stair "guard" and "handrail" had no formal definition, nor did "accessibility". You're looking at pure function in a private residence. I'm not otherwise familiar with the house or stair in question but if I had to guess it leads to a single space, presumably not one meant for children or the elderly and certainly not the mobility impaired. By today's standards of course that would be heavily frowned upon were it not at once illegal from a safety standpoint, but just for a moment forget current (US) codes and standards that would not have been in play here. Is it really hard to imagine an absence of "contempt" in this design, but perhaps just a bare-bones utilitarian way to gain access to an attic? Or a master bedroom? Form-equals-function taken to a new level? You'll have to forgive the pun.

    I make no assertion as to the actual "contempt" the judges may or may not have for the human condition, but I urge caution in sweeping judgments about the current state of architectural education and standard of care based on what the Times chooses to publish, and likewise of the original designer's intent and constraints.

    Maybe the wheelchair lifts available in '38 would only work if Barragan omitted the rail. Okay, that's being facetious.

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #2

      Jason,
      Although I mentioned the need for accessibility, it's my firmly held belief (which I tried to express) that these stairs are dangerous for everybody -- including the able-bodied. Nor is this type of stair unique to Mexico in 1948 -- architects have produced copycat dangerous stairs with this type of cantilever (and no handrail) for many decades, as some Google Images searching will prove. This design is a type of architectural obsession or conceit that has to do with aesthetics rather than function or safety.

      Grand Central Terminal in New York City was built in 1913. Below is a photo of the handrails and guard on the building's stairs. (Yes, I know that a public building like Grand Central Terminal is built to different standards than a residence. But my point is that architects knew what a handrail is well before 1948.)

      1. Jason S. | | #4

        Granted, I've seen the similar floating stair obsession. Could not the same safety argument be made though of a hillside stair without a guard or handrail, say up to Machu Picchu? Those are also of human design, certainly with different design constraints. Of course I'm not saying every design everywhere should be given that sort of leeway; that's why we have codes and enforcement and varying applicability for indoor and outdoor space. I'm only saying the original architect in this case knows those exact constraints for his own home in his own time, absent today's codes. Was his cavalier attitude toward the safety of this stair design warranted? I opin that that is difficult to determine by looking at images of it through the lens of today's values here in the US and not standing in that place and time and to where the stair leads.

        I'm mostly playing devil's advocate, not entirely disagreeing. Must be a sickness of mine.

        1. GBA Editor
          Martin Holladay | | #6

          Jason,
          I can accept Barragan's eccentricities more easily than I can accept the accolades bestowed on this design by the New York Times.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Examples of copycat stairs.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Known by a variety of terms, stair guards and handrails have been in use for centuries. Below are examples of 19th century stairs -- between 50 and 150 years before Barragan designed his Mexico residence.

    1. Expert Member
      Kohta Ueno | | #7

      Just more data on the history of accommodating disabilities: the National Building Museum (circa 1887) was originally the headquarters for pensions for Civil War veterans. The designers specifically made the steps on the staircases with deep treads and shallow risers to accommodate disabled veterans.

      1. GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #8

        Kohta,
        Thanks for the interesting history lesson. For GBA readers having a hard time reading the words in the sidebar included with your photo, here's a transcription:

        "Brick Stairs. The deep treads and shallow risers of the stairs are an easy climb and were designed to accommodate disabled veterans visiting the building to collect their pensions. Although budgetary constraints prevented the initial installation of the elevators Meigs’ design called for, the elevator shafts were constructed, and within a few years, the lifts were in place."

      2. Robert Opaluch | | #22

        Stairs with deeper treads and shallower risers (e.g., 7" rise/11" tread) are not only easier for the disabled, they protect people from tumbling down the stairs. Children and the elderly especially are in danger when using steeper staircases. Its worth adding another foot+ to the length of stairs to protect future occupants.

        In fact many "universal design" features, to accommodate those with disabilities or recovering from injuries, also help or do not interfere with able bodied adults.

    2. Deleted | | #11

      “[Deleted]”

  4. Expert Member
    Malcolm Taylor | | #9

    The profession is its own worst enemy. The larger the reputation an architect gets, the more eccentric their designs become, and the more arcane the concerns they concentrate on. Within the building industry their place at the centre of any project has been steadily eroded since the 1980s - and that's largely a self-inflicted wound.

  5. Daniel Allen | | #10

    I am an architect who both loves Barragan and roll my eyes/cringes at so many modern projects that ignore safety. (Most recent example I noticed below.)

    That wooden stair is the least reason to appreciate Barragan's work which I love for their form, color, and connection of interior/exterior landscape. Here is a video with some of his work: https://youtu.be/YD7DGxfOvfk

    V House with dangerous stair:
    https://www.archdaily.com/966476/v-house-moad

  6. Ben Sela | | #12

    Although I agree with some of your comments about architects, craft and human values, I disagree that the barragan stair or the le corbusier brutalist buildings are failures. I think barragans stair, worked for him, his design, his house, and im sure it was unique at the time. Would I propose something like that for a project here in NYC? hell no, one because its illegal, and two because with todays liability and insurance laws, its not worth it for me, id rather play it safe and get my fee and move on.
    I think more architects are trained to think outside of the box, and not really conform to tradition and that is maybe a wider education problem, which I agree with and believe the profession is its own worse enemy.

    As far as the brutalist building of Le corbusier, I believe the clients of the building were very happy with the design, and the experience one gets when inside the church, and the use of light. It might seem brutalist and crude on the outside, but its not meant to be experienced from the outside, its meant to inspire and create controlled light from the inside. Granted the building has to work and not leak and be functional and I guess thats always the tricky balance, in pushing the envelope vs being correct in details and building techniques.

    As far as NYT article, I would not take the article too serious, especially when the theme is architecture but the jury includes "designers" "set designers" or "critics".

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #14

      Ben,
      To me, the Le Corbusier church at the Couvent Sainte-Marie de la Tourette in Éveux, France, is a failure on the interior as well as the exterior. Attached is a photo of the interior of the church.

      Ultimately, of course, architectural criticism devolves into matters of taste. Perhaps some parishioners find Le Corbusier's interior conducive to worship. I don't.

      1. Robert Opaluch | | #21

        To me, the interior appears like the interior of a big coffin! ;-)
        So it might remind parishioners of the upcoming end to their time on earth! ;-)

        1. GBA Editor
          Martin Holladay | | #23

          Robert,
          Or it might inspire prayer: "Lord, deliver me soon from the confines of this ugly concrete room, that I may behold your glory outdoors."

      2. Ben Sela | | #24

        you are right, i was actually thinking about another project of his. This one does look bunkerish.

  7. CarsonB | | #13

    I agree, the buildings listed are rather depressing. One of the biggest innovations in post war architecture was the ability to use massive glass to get a lot of natural light, not to mention all of the building science advancements. These look more like very expensive dungeons. I suppose these are all subjective, but I find it hard to believe that most people would be shown the yellowstone lodge, timberline, paradise lodge, the awani, and then these buildings and not wonder what happened to American architecture.

  8. Robert Swinburne | | #15

    I’m hoping personal taste doesn’t become a part of this discussion.

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #19

      Robert,
      How can taste be ignored? Perhaps you want to establish an objective or mathematical definition of beauty? I dare you!

      It's not worth a debate, of course. But taste cannot be ignored.

      1. Expert Member
        Malcolm Taylor | | #26

        Martin,

        I think what Robert was saying is that the criticisms of these architects are best dealt with here by looking at their failure to deal with the practical demands of a building, and ignoring the needs of their inhabitants. Whether a modernist aesthetic leads to ugly buildings is a legitimate but different discussion to have.

        While the work of these architects may neglect various things GBA rightfully see as necessary and important, only dealing with the practical aspects of design can lead to buildings that have nothing more to them. Designing a building is in a sense alchemy. We take the undifferentiated space around us and enclose it to form a place. Somewhere that acts as a container for all the significant events of our lives. Births, deaths, love, sorrow - it's where all these things play out. All our desires and disappointments.

        That makes it really important. And if like poetry, or painting it tries to include something beyond utilitarian concerns, that inclusion is surely what differentiates architecture from building. Some architects do this superficially, some like Barragan, however unsuccessfully at times, genuinely try and engage other parts of us as humans. Surely that aspect of his work is to be celebrated?

        1. GBA Editor
          Martin Holladay | | #27

          Malcolm,
          Of course I believe in celebrating architects who successfully achieve a kind of alchemy, integrating not just utilitarian concerns but also aesthetic concerns in their designs. My point was that many of the buildings chosen by the New York Times fail to achieve the type of alchemy you describe.

          To the extent that some of Luis Barragan's designs were successful, achieving a kind of poetry, I'm willing to shout "Bravo!" But the room with those stairs fails for the reasons I listed. And the concrete church designed by Le Corbusier fails for a different reason -- it's ugly. And that is a matter of taste. Robert Swinburne may justifiably disagree with my assessment of the Le Corbusier church, because taste cannot be argued.

          The fact that taste cannot be argued, however, does not mean that taste can be divorced from discussions of architectural criticism. It can't -- just as taste cannot be divorced from literary criticism or poetic criticism.

          1. Expert Member
            Malcolm Taylor | | #28

            "My point was that many of the buildings chosen by the New York Times fail to achieve the type of alchemy you describe."

            There is no way I can reasonably disagree with that.

          2. Expert Member
            Michael Maines | | #30

            Martin, I'm on board with most of your thoughts but I do think you cross into personal preference with, "And the concrete church designed by Le Corbusier fails for a different reason -- it's ugly." Although I now try to limit how much concrete I use on projects, I think Corbu's church space is a calming, restful space, and appreciate it for what it is, as I do with most Brutalist architecture.

          3. GBA Editor
            Martin Holladay | | #31

            Michael,
            I'm well aware that my personal assessment of the Le Corbusier church was a matter of taste -- which is why I wrote (in Comment #27) that some readers, including Robert Swinburne, "may justifiably disagree with my assessment of the Le Corbusier church, because taste cannot be argued." Thanks for sharing your opposing view.

  9. Andy Kosick | | #16

    Please tell me the bottom riser isn’t shorter than the rest. I want to believe it’s a trick if the eye and photo but I can’t unsee it. It’s like the cherry of top of everything else.

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #18

      It sure looks as if the bottom riser isn't as high as all the others. If there are any GBA readers in Mexico who live near the Barragan house, I hope you can visit it soon with a tape measure and report back to us about riser height consistency. We await your report.

    2. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #20

      Andy,
      Below is another photo of the stairs, from a different angle. I think you are right about the lowest riser.

      1. Andy Kosick | | #25

        Martin,

        I have to say that I may have noticed this because I'm actually rebuilding some stairs right now that suffered from the same problem. (a project I almost certainly should not have taken on at the moment but that's beside the point) Seeing this picture suggested to me that it is the same reason in each case. Disassembly made it clear that the stairs I'm working were framed before the concrete floor was placed in the basement and thickness of the concrete was not accounted for in the bottom riser. I'll bet the same thing happen here. It may also account for the variation in the floor surface beneath the steps, the steps being in the way during placement. It could also just be that nobody ever walks there.

        The riser being a little beside the point I do appreciate your calling something like this out. It's one thing for Luis to do something quirky and novel in his own house, it quite another to put it on a pedestal without acknowledging how ridiculously unsafe it is. You can also think that this looks really cool and at the same time not want your kids scrambling up and down it every day in their stocking feet.

  10. Bob Irving | | #17

    Thanks for calling out these Architectural failures, Martin! I look at that stairway as a work of art, not Architecture. Not saying architecture can't be art, but it needs to be designed for actual people. mc esher's work is fascinating and beautiful, but few would want to live there.

  11. Robert Swinburne | | #29

    Interesting notes : Those stairs may have been referencing indigenous architecture of the area (I don’t know that) They were most often covered in books and unused if I remember correctly. In my architect groups we rage against non code stairs all the time. Dirty little secret: these are often photographed before railings and often there is a railing/guard designed but not built. As an architect, I have certainly had thing built differently than what was drawn and specified. Also, I’m sure my own work turns the stomach of some people as much as it brings great joy to others. Actually, I kind of hope so. I don’t want to be boring.

  12. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #32

    Robert,
    You wrote, "I’m sure my own work turns the stomach of some people as much as it brings great joy to others. Actually, I kind of hope so. I don’t want to be boring." Fair enough. You are probably representative of many other architects in your desire not to be boring. Innovation is exciting, and architects value that.

    Here's another sign of the trend you may be part of -- a quote from a recent New York Times article on architecture: "You may not want to live in an Olgiati structure yourself. You may not like them. (Olgiati probably wouldn’t care either way.) But what you can’t do is deny them: not their inventiveness, not their strangeness, not their distinctiveness. And really, isn’t that what design is meant to do? Challenge us, provoke us, unsettle our expectations. Comfort is welcome. But discomfort can be, too."

    Many architects like to make a statement -- to create something new and different.

    Whether this impulse is good for the clients depends on many factors. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't.

    (For GBA readers who are curious about Olgiati's work, I am attaching a photo of an Olgiati-designed bedroom.)

  13. Charlie Sullivan | | #33

    I think that it's great for art such as music, dance and painting to "provoke us, challenge us and unsettle us." I love things in that category. But architects have a lot of responsibilities that don't apply to those purer arts, including the functional aspects, and also stemming from the fact that people are stuck with architecture in ways that don't apply to most other kind of art--the results are more permanent, and insert themselves into daily life in a different way. Part of being a professional--and architects traditionally consider themselves in that category--is that the public can put some trust in professionals to take on those responsibilities. If architects chose to consider themselves pure artists and scoff at their professional responsibility, they risk losing their status as professionals. They will be aesthetic design consultants, while other professions take over the lead role in planning building projects.

    1. Mateo Hao | | #37

      Charlie,

      I think I disagree. I sometimes think it was a mistake to professionalize architecture, or at least the way it has been done. The ability to obtain a degree focused solely on design in the isolation of tertiary education inevitably creates a culture of designing buildings estranged from people who build buildings. The architecture field is also oversaturated with candidates with few opportunities to grind hours towards licensure. This pressure incentivises a perversion of the craft into a game of corner-cutting speed, of soulless volume, and patronage to whatever people with power worship. They’re not going to worry about duty to the public. They’re going to be focused on keeping inspectors happy and impressing critics and attracting clients.

      This is not to say I think anyone is going “the wrong way”. One side of me would relish the idea of restricting the Architecture profession to “sensible” people or “Master Builders” who already know how to build things with their own hands, but another side of me would spit on that idea as cronyism nonsense that incestuously promotes regressive design ideals.

      In short, I like architects with bizarre visions estranged from human scale and I also want handrails.

      1. Robert Opaluch | | #38

        I have minimal background in architecture but thought about becoming an architect before college. Architecture programs vary widely. RISD is highly regarded but is mostly a very artistic design focused program. U Texas Austin is more focused on the engineering side. And architects likely run the gamut, but suspect there is a small percentage that are the wild artist types who are not much interested in building science. But they might get more attention for their "creativity" or "outside the box" designs in the news or in design competitions.

        I hired an architect/interior designer to help make some design choices and found her aesthetic input excellent on a few issues, and she just told me to keep problem-solving the other floor plan issue myself. I'd be interested to hear others' experiences in working with architects...

        1. Robert Swinburne | | #39

          In many, if not most architecture schools nowadays the focus is very much on people, communities and the environment. When I was in school in the 80's/90's There were schools that focused on that and others that focused on engineering and others that focused on art etc.

  14. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #34

    Charlie,
    Well put. I agree.

  15. Erik Brown | | #35

    Looking at this article, I was reminded of a picture of a staircase from https://www.amazingjokes.com.

    It took me a while to find it, because the correct search term was "Evil" combined with "Stair", singular, instead of "Stairs", plural. Still, I found some neat stuff while searching. The last one made me think of the BS+Beer Show, for some reason.

  16. Deleted | | #36

    “[Deleted]”

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