The Frugal Palazzo

The 26th incarnation of Architecture Without Content brings us to Seattle via Florence and New York.

Arguably the second most important housing typology innovation on American soil (the first being the suburban house) was the upscaled palace. Child of a slightly forced desire to build city in a place of awkward proportions and unresolvable issues, the upscale palace promised for a short while instant urbanity in one gesture.

The upscaled palace offered an image of urbanity, with proportions that seemed reasonable in the given context, despite its gigantic size. It also provided an envelope to build a lot at once, whilst still somehow contributing to the city. The palaces of the early 20th century in New York City, built by McKim Mead and White and some of their contemporaries, took evident inspiration in Florentine quattrocento palazzi and turned them into building stones of a hypothetical ‘high classical’ city of immense proportions. If Florentine palazzi are not known for their modest size, New York (and to a lesser extend Chicago) context forced the architect to extend this imported type to a size able to compete with the new infrastructure and the new landscape. Implicitly, the project of these upscaled palazzi proposed to build the city (again) block by block. The project of the gigantic palace was perhaps always a reaction, an ultimate and failed attempt to root American architecture in European ancestry.

This studio attempts to revive the palazzo as a possible collective housing type, perhaps against all odds. We believe the actual type, massive but not tall, gigantic but ambiguous, might be a welcome partner in crime to tackle the emerging housing crisis on the West Coast, albeit with an update. How to update a palace? Perhaps by confronting it with that aspect it always tried to circumvent: economy of means.

The Frugal Palazzo is thus an attempt to design a big box of housing that is fully aware of its role in the contemporary city. As a receptacle for its inhabitants, it tries to accommodate proximity in the most comfortable way. It tries to allow co-habitation and co-working without bothering about it. The frugal palazzo doesn’t care. It sees its main role as a building block of the city, or at least that what is left of it. It understands its actual size in relationship to the street, to the lot.

The West Coast, and especially the north of it, is the contemporary Eldorado of the United States. The enormous success of the high-tech companies, lures people and crashes housing markets. It created a new exodus from the country(side) to the newly reformed city. But what kind of city is that? Is it a city of blocks and streets again? Perhaps our frugal palaces are a building stone of the city to come. Perhaps it’s all a fata morgana… In the city of blocks nothing is what it seems.