Similar But Different

Architecture has an interesting paradox at its core: there is a nearly infinite number of variations on the appearance of buildings, but there is a relatively small number of building types. For example, urban housing typically consists of a mix of high-rise apartments, mid-rise apartments, garden apartments, rowhouses, and single-family houses. There are only so many ways that you can create buildings for people to live in, even if their appearance can vary widely.

The picture above is an apartment house in London. I’m not sure of its age because the clues I rely on to provide dates for buildings are culture-specific, so that they may be wrong or misleading in a country other than the US; based on the architectural style it pretty much has to be from the twentieth century. This building caught my eye because, at seven stories and about half a block in length, it is roughly the size of the 1959 apartment house I grew up in:

The building in London is fairly plain, with a few moments of ornament, like the arch at the entry on the right and the portico at the entry on the left. The building in Flushing is so plain that the Christmas decorations are jarring. The main portion of both buildings is more or less a rectangular prism. Both are brick-walled with rectangular punched windows. Both are set back from the street – behind a narrow areaway in London and behind a pseudo-lawn in Flushing.

The biggest difference – and it really jumps out at you looking at these photos – is that the London building obviously has fireplaces in the apartments. The chimneys on the long side of the building appear (based on the visible chimney pots at the top of each chimney mass) to have 12 flues each, which is enough to suggest that there is more than one fireplace per apartment. The quantity of flues is so large that it greatly affects the appearance of the building: the greatest visual characteristic of the building is the rhythm of the projecting chimneys and the wall areas between. And this actually gets us back to culture-specific issues, because fireplaces disappeared from ordinary apartment designs in New York quite rapidly once modern(isn) heating systems, kitchens, and bathrooms became standards. So my deduction here is about culture rather than about buildings: people in the UK wanted fireplaces more than people in the US.

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