‘Vertebrate buildings: the architecture of structured space’, by W.G. Howell. Part II

Here’s the second installment of Bill Howell’s 1970 talk, originally published in the RIBA Journal (vol. 77, no. 3, March 1970) and reproduced with the kind permission of RIBAJ. The first part can be found here. GF

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Before glancing at the Renaissance, let me cease to be insular and look back at Greece and Rome. Greek temples when in use, tended to have somewhat perfunctory and ill–lit interiors where the kind of sophisticated architectural use of structural forms we see on the outside played little part. As we see them now, of course, exploded (literally in one case) and eroded by the elements, the local inhabitants and acquisitive peers, they have become stark structural enclosures of space, Stonehenge–fashion, and as such are the most moving and satisfying artefacts – but in a way never envisaged by their designers.

Roman engineering is, of course, all Structure, and where it enclosed space, it did so in a highly vertebrate manner. A lot of surviving Roman interiors have had their architecture removed by generations of popes and other predators. and to us are all the better for it. They too have become structural enclosure – of a kind not envisaged by their designers, but very splendid to those of us who like being enclosed by engineering. To paraphrase the immortal bard, Roman building’s much improved once it’s had its tiles removed.

“Roman building’s much improved once it’s had its tiles removed”.

Interior renaissance architecture, at any scale other than the small domestic, consisted of space articulated by structural forms. They were, very often, fictive structural forms: ie, the column, the pilaster and the entablature were used as a set of images to define the enclosure of the space, but were not always – indeed not often – its actual structural system. Using the word ‘fictive’, rather than ‘false’ or ‘phoney’ as the architectural moralists did , enables us to see why we can enjoy and admire this sort of architecture even though one may be a vertebrate to the backbone. One can enjoy fiction as well as enjoying real life. The baroque is not just fiction – it is poetic drama: if you don’t like this, you won’t like opera. Its forms are not only non–structural but often anti–structural – and deliberately so. In its religious application. it sought to create an other–worldly enclosure that did not just conquer gravity but looked as if it had actually freed itself from gravity. (Ronchamp, still to me the one really magical modern building, is anti–structural in just this way.)

Baroque space is articulated by fictive structure — actual structure is not part of the message.
Baroque space is articulated by fictive structure — actual structure is not part of the message.

When Gothic forms returned to supplement late renaissance ones, they appeared first as fictive Gothic – a system of articulation of interior space pretty remote from Gothic engineering. It was of course, the ‘hard’ Gothic boys who wanted to do what we like doing – enclosing the space by actual structural engineering (I assume they chose the title, thereby leaving their adversaries no alternative but to be ‘soft’).

And even more than the hard Victorian architects, the cast–iron men enclosed space with structural devices, as demonstrated at the Palm House at Kew, at Paddington Station , at the Oxford Museum, or at the late lamented Coal Exchange, and in the great mills and tiny pissoirs and bandstands. Japanese architecture, ancient and modern, appeals to us largely because it consists of an integration of a system of structural members with the planning system of the whole interior.

Transverse section of the Crystal Palace at Kew
Transverse section of the Crystal Palace at Kew
Japanese architecture
Japanese architecture

In the early days of the modern movement, there was a lot of talk about ‘structural honesty’ and ‘expressing the structure’, but curiously enough this seldom took place in the interior. For example, consider Corb’s Maison Domino, the most perfect ideogram of structure as a basis for the new architecture. But turn it from an ideogram into a building, from a structure into an enclosure, and what do you get? Indeed, what did result in the houses of the period? Usually an interior enclosed by plain walls, uncommunicative of whether they were support elements or not, a plain flat lid, and here and there a white column (or could it be a pipe duct? – which, as we all know, in one celebrated case it was).


When my partners and I were students after the Second World War, the first buildings to fire our imagination were the Hertfordshire schools; they had all the beauty of a simple but sophisticated child’s toy which built up into a series of habitable cubes defined by square columns and lattice beams – out of the Japanese house by Meccano Ltd. Their interiors were gay and friendly and appropriate to the junior citizens who inhabited them, like an assembly of space–age Wendy houses. Of course there were unsolved problems. The grid was too large to be flexible enough. The fibrous plaster column casings looked (as indeed they were) soft. There wasn’t anywhere to put the services. The lattice beams led to problems where partitions came up to the ceiling.

In the early Hertfordshire schools, space is articulated by the actual structural system
In the early Hertfordshire schools, space is articulated by the actual structural system

The outcome was the 3ft 4in grid system pioneered by Bruce Martin, which has proved to be the ancestor of so many subsequent schools systems – the deep floor with suspended ceilings to house services, and the randomly placed columns avoiding partitioning and cladding: the Maison Domino came to life. Dry–built, clean, taut, springy. Even when clad and filled with its clip–together shiny partitions, it retained this exciting feeling of brittle tension and elegance. But something had gone. We thought back to the beautiful silver frame sitting in the field, and longed for it not to have been tidied away. It anticipated the interiors of so many buildings today a world enclosed by acoustic tiles above us and wallboard around us. The wonders of technology have brought us to a world of wallpaper. The principal lesson of Hunstanton was that here was a building that looked marvellous as an unclad frame and also looked marvellous when clad and enclosed – indeed, it looked much the same, because there, both inside and out, was the frame. We are all too familiar with that moment when, with most buildings, the structural engineering is finished and the architecture starts going on, and you know it’s over the hump and will never look good again.


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