Le Fer by Joris-Karl Huysmans: Against The Eiffel Tower

From Inside the Beast : The Eiffel Tower by Lewis Martin

Introduction

The following post is by my Father Graham Dunstan Martin. He sent this to me after a conversation we had over the phone a few years ago. I don’t remember exactly what we started talking about but we ended up with dad telling me about this passage by a famous French author Joris-Karl Huysmans about the Eiffel Tower which had been newly erected in his beloved Paris and had enraged him.

I really wanted to know what he said, it seems so many of the worlds great landmarks start off life being despised. I wanted to know exactly what he objected to.

It’s well known anecdotally that Parisians always have loved to hate the tower. Strong opposition at the time is also well documented. A short trip to the wikipedia page of the Eiffel Tower will show you that with people like Charles Garnier, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Guy de Maupassant, Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet organising against it.

Graham Dunstan Martin

But also this famous writer Joris-Karl Huysmans that dad remembered wrote an essay against it. The essay was called Le Fer and dad being a retired French lecturer of course helps a little when you want to translate some French.

Dad passed away recently and I wanted to put this back up on the internet for him. So please see below as far as I know the only public translation of Le Fer by Joris-Karl-Karl Huysmans first published in 1889 with some commentary by Graham Dunstan Martin.

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Underground Helsinki and Underground Urbanism

Map of Central Helsinki Early 1900’s (Map: Wikipedia)

Although a country with few people and plenty of space, Finland’s capitol city Helsinki being located on a peninsula finds itself constantly constrained for space by the sea. Luckily the city sits above bedrock which is deep and which frequently punctures the ground. So Helsinki has increasingly used its bedrock to tunnel into and create an underground city. Now with over 400 documented underground facilities and 200 more planned, Subterranean Helsinki is probably one of the largest and most comprehensive underground city systems in the world for its size.

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Helsinki Facades

Helsinki Facade by Kristo Vedenoja

Kristo Vedenoja a Finnish Photographer runs a beautiful website Helsinki Facades that allow him to showcase his photography talent. Helsinki is a great subject for an urban photographer as it contains so many different Architectural styles and geographic conditions. Kristos manages to give a great flavour of the city.

Sweets Hotel Amsterdam

Archidose #1007 has some pictures of a Sweets Hotel (Weigbrug) in Amsterdam. The Sweets hotel chain turn old bridge houses into apartments in a kind of distributed hotel. I saw Archoses post while I was thinking about writing up my visit earlier this year to Amsterdam. It’s a city I love, I lived there for some time and met my wife there, and its a great city to talk about from many angles. This is just one project which gives a taste of the interesting urban innovations alive and well in the city.

 

Misfits’ Inflexible House

My new favourite blog misfits’ architecture posted about Yemeni traditional housing under the title The Inflexible House.

You might know about Yemeni buildings from famous photos of cities like Shibam or Al Hajarayn, where 500 year old medieval skyscrapers rise up with tapering walls clumped together often on rocky outcrops. Nothing looks quite like them and also on the inside they are perhaps quite different than how you might imagine1.

They have no spatial hierarchy on the inside just essentially the same plan repeated upwards. Ground floor is for storage of food and 1st floor with main reception room and kitchen off of it, above that are the floors for the family but there is no hierarchy, no ability to subdivide just larger and smaller sized rooms stacked onto of each other. Its inflexibility of plan opens it up to a different type of flexibility which a standard modern western house lacks;

There’s much that’s good in the Yemeni convention of building a house having all floors the same plan and deciding later how to use those spaces. Some patterns of use are more established through custom or necessity but the spaces can still be reallocated to suit temporary situations such as the visit of a relative or longer-term changes such as an eldest son marrying. This is simply how these houses are lived in and part of it is because they can be lived in this way. Changing the use of a room involves no architectural trauma because the houses weren’t planned to have a hierarchy of spaces. – misfits’ architecture

The apartment building designs I have been involved with in Finland over the last few years are all about culturally arbitrated spaces designed for specific purposes. An eight floor Finnish apartment block will have a sauna block on the entrance floor with a bomb shelter space in the basement both of theses generated from specific Finnish cultural assumptions, fear of imminent attack by the Russians and a culturally required love of the Sauna.

Apartments within the block must all have balconies though not necessarily bedrooms at all, with wet room bathrooms, larger apartments will have their own Sauna and the biggest apartments are on the top floors to maximise price per meter. Kitchens and Dining rooms as separate spaces from the living room have virtually ceased to exist. All this means that the main living space is super flexible within certain spatial bounds and that apartments can’t really accommodate much more than couples or nuclear families living in a certain type of way with a certain set of contractual obligations (a mortgage!) as there is no privacy within these types of apartments.

Quite standard Finnish layout with 1 bedroom, balcony, kitchen incorporated into living space and a sauna, all under 50m2.

Other types of living, co-housing, lodgers, multi generational families even kitchenless housing don’t fit at all into these programmed plans. I’m not saying that any of these ones are better than what we have now only that these different programmes and housing types could inspire different more practical and more flexible ways of living and in turn adding variety and value to our cities. The Yemeni inflexible house could inspire more flexible planning in modern housing still.

Update 22.10.2019 – The Guardian catalogs the toll of the last five years of War in the Yemen on the Architecture and Historical heritage of the Yemen. 

  1. See Misfits’ amazing post about Yemeni Architecture here []

aVOID Tiny House

aVOID tiny house by Leonardo Di Chiara. Is a really engineered version of a tiny house that you could see being mass produced. It contains bags of innovative ideas, I love the fold out chairs for example.

 

Reimagining The Olympics

Pyeongchang, South Korea, built a brand new Olympic stadium to host the Winter Games this year. The 35,000-seat stadium cost $109 million to build. And it will be used just four times before it’s demolished. -(Vox)

This is an appalling waste of money, but still cheaper than the cost of maintaining a useless stadium for years after the Olympics have gone. This stadium had been designed to be dismantled but it’s story points to an interesting history and future for the Olympic Games.

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Cities are not Computers

We must also recognize the shortcomings in models that presume the objectivity of urban data and conveniently delegate critical, often ethical decisions to the machine. We, humans, make urban information by various means: through sensory experience, through long-term exposure to a place, and, yes, by systematically filtering data. It’s essential to make space in our cities for those diverse methods of knowledge production. And we have to grapple with the political and ethical implications of our methods and models, embedded in all acts of planning and design. City-making is always, simultaneously, an enactment of city-knowing — which cannot be reduced to computation. -Shannon Mattern, “A City Is Not a Computer,” Places Journal, February 2017. Accessed 31 Jan 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/170207

OMA in Pasila

oma_pasilaOMA has teamed up with YIT one of the big developers active in Finland and submitted a design for the Pasila One competition. No one else tabled a bid so the city has a difficult decision to make and no reference group to refer to. The Pasila area has three basic redevelopment zones and Pasila One is the most eyecatching. It is the redevelopment of the train station and surrounding area, a large amount of service space and three super blocks worth of mixed use development three times the size of Kamppi in central Helsinki. The city wants to make it into a business and media hub, and clearly Pasila One sitting ontop of a crossroads between road and train access corridors has vast potential to be a great, busy, urban center ready to contribute an urban buzz to the surrounding area.

How good is the proposal though?

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