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Critical Analysis on Megastructures in relation to their Surrounding Environment

Updated: Jan 26, 2019

Throughout history cities are beacons that attract people, businesses, and interesting architectural typologies of all kinds. This is in part why people call cities cultural melting pots. San Francisco itself was built on a grid and its architecture has always been greatly influenced by the people that inhabit it even now. For example, you can see the ornamentation on the pagoda style buildings in Chinatown that were made for a tourist to believe they were seeing real authentic oriental style architecture. In reality it was a combination of 2nd generation Chinese and Americans that came up with the idea to cultivate money into the rebuilding of Chinatown after the Earthquake. Nowadays with the number of homeless increasing and space in San Francisco becoming more and more populated you see more SRO and shared housing being constructed and at a very efficient pace. However, there are some typologies that can house several identities and typically follow a similar guideline that doesn’t differ too often according to Mark Pimlott.

He is the author of the book Without and Within which delves into the idea of Interior Territories. “Mark Pimlott is an artist, architectural designer, and teacher. His work in photography, film, installation, interior and public art attempts to make specific characteristics of places visible and available to new uses and understandings.” He is a trained architect and visual artist with a wide range of works usually photographed by himself. His unique way of thinking has brought him much success in his career and has changed the way designers think about the Interior space. In Only Within Pimlott discusses about megastructures and their role as redefining what an Interior is. According to him A megastructure is classified by a large overlying frame that houses the functions of a city and/or it’s parts.

These megastructures that he speaks of tend to be prominent staples of the environment they are in and are classified by how people interact with them. He then states “In a sense, it is a man-made feature of the landscape. It is like a great hill on which Italian towns are built.” The exterior of the large frame typically makes it a cohesive unit, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be with its surrounding environment. Though essentially the megastructures are typically static structures in themselves; it’s quite lively on the interior with a variety of programs happening. A vital part of what makes these typologies exist are the relation to the environment around them even if two megastructures co-exist next to each other the way in which people use them on the interior must be met. This is why these megastructures are considered a city inside of a city to some, they typically transport you to a completely different realm of interiority once entering or exiting the space. Pimlott proposes this sense of otherworldliness caused by the sense of scale that large contemporary commercial architecture proposes.

Part of it is due to the qualities that we perceive about the interiors such as qualities that ensure predictable use and performance. These can range from climates to a sense of security. These tend to correlate with what we refer to as typologies or building type. A prominent example of a typology is a bank because most banks usually have a similar circulation no matter the size or location. He usually categorizes these aspects of the megastructures predictability to large commercial entries, airports, and malls. The reason being is that they all function as an omnipotent space that can reach all programs through instinctual circulation. The circulation typically being a large volume of circulation in the center with programs branching off the main volume of circulation. Pimlott refers to malls because they are fairly new megastructures that are so prominent despite being fairly new.

To him shopping malls are unique spaces that provide flexible use and are exportable to a variety of applications. They provide necessities, entertainment, and luxury as well. With sheer amount of space, scale and variety of each of the programs it provides a mental and spatial escape that often leads to people loitering longer than intended. Shopping malls are also unique because of their concept of duration or “architectural shelf life.” Though the structures are typically built to last a long time the programs/stores inside them aren’t. Arguably the most popular mall in San Francisco, the Westfield Shopping Centre has had a significant number of stores and food eateries close in the past year. In a recent article by Hoodline when they interviewed the spokeswomen of Westfield about the mall in 2016 she said “There have been some recent departures, but there is strong interest in locating here.” Further proving the lack of permanence that the shops have inside the mall. The wide variety of typologies and duration in which they last fluctuate are similar to how properties in cities like SF are run, but on a different scale. Preluding even deeper into the idea of a city inside of a city. Surprisingly, Airports are megastructures that have transformed drastically over the years partly due to shopping malls.

Pimlott discusses how the typology of an airport has changed substantially over the recent years in that its almost becoming very similar to shopping malls. Airports used to be large megastructures that didn’t serve many functions. The very first airports could even be compared to an over sized bus stop. However, as the evolution of the shopping malls began small shops and eateries proceeded to pop-up in airports. Though because where airports are typically located and the times people circulate through the structure tend to fluctuate so do the hours and time put into the design of the shops. However, shopping malls are usually centered in highly populated areas where as airports aren’t; though airports actually benefit from the seclusion.

However, looking at San Francisco geographically as time progresses there is a definite decrease of space that is available. I think now more than ever one can argue the scale of megastructures or what defines a megastructure is changing as well. With modular spaces and shared living in San Francisco I think Pimlott's ideology behind megastructures are being challenged on a conceptual level. Modular systems play a significant role in this change and can even be seen used throughout the past like murphy beds in the late 1800s or other objects that recess into surfaces. Similar to the idea of having a large sense of limitless or continuousness to the interior, with modular systems implemented you can create flexible environments. And these environments range from both limitless spaces to fairly dense programmatic areas. Modularity a lot of times also tends to have multiple functions so no space is wasted.

Amphitheater Stair in Square Headquarters

Most modular systems are implemented in furniture in relation to Interiors because furniture inhabits the space more than people. Objects like drawers, beds, or desks tend to take up a significant amount of space and typically don’t have more than one function. Now with designers both in furniture and in architecture created what some people refer to as “furnitecture” it allows one to combine multiple functions like sleep, study, and storage all into one space so that you have more space for circulations or other programs. However, when these programs begin to stack and populate with each other the space becomes transformed. Many pavilions and even homes can be seen displaying these manmade landscapes in and around SF. One example is the amphitheater stair inside of the Square Inc. Office designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. It functions as a communal area where people can lounge, sit, work, and there is even modular tables that people can use.

This idea of making the functional more functional is intriguing and at this scale in an interior can arguably be the beginning of an interior megastructure or smaller scale megastructure. The man-made landscapes used in offices and homes typically can be seen on stairs because they are structural and a lot of times are just used purely as circulation. Interestingly enough stairs in cases such as these function as the large commercial entry, circulation, different programs, and spatial transition. In a way, these landscapes are their own “city inside of a city” especially when utilized like the IPG Initiative : New York Office designed by Ted Moudis Associates. They used the steps as an escape from the office facing them toward the full glass facade, but still allowed circulation through and even making private rooms under the steps so that the programmatic block is really utilized fully becoming its own separate island from the office.

Another surface other than the floor that these architectural landscapes are very popular on are walls. Architecture firm Kazuya Morita Architecture Studio constructed the Shelf-Pod House for a client who had an extensive book collection. One could imagine how much space this would occupy in such a small environment. The firm actually used the modular shelving to create separation of program while also having clear sight of circulation paths, predictability, and light throughout the space. The shelving also allows for the stairs to be utilized for storage without disturbing the datum of the distinct grid shelving along the surfaces. Another important aspect about projects like these are for designers to think about how the person will use the space and how they can get the most out of the space for when multiple people are inhabiting it.

When multiple people inhabit an interior, the space becomes redefined. With housing being so expensive in San Francisco, the lines of how much space an interior can occupy and the amount it’s supposed to is constantly being blurred. In my opinion the idea of the megastructure Pimlott describes is subjective and has more to do with how we perceive a space. What we may find as instinctual may differ from another person and same with scale. In the second to last page of the excerpt from Only Within Pimlot writes “When infrastructure predominates, the interior, as distinct from the exterior, disappears, and is replaced by that territory. But that same territory is one that is already conceptualized (like the territory subject to the imagination of the Jefferson’s grid) already the project of ideology, and a potential field for publicity. Similar to this idealization of breaking the grid Interior Designers and Architects can use these concepts on a personable scale.

Top Left : Square Headquarters, San Francisco by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson Bottom Left : Shelf-Pod House Kazuya Morita Architecture Studio Left: IPG Initiative New York by Ted Moudis Associates



"Shelf-Pod / Kazuya Morita Architecture Studio." ArchDaily. December 04, 2012. Accessed May 11, 2017.

"Several Westfield Shops Call It Quits." Hoodline. February 22, 2017. Accessed May 9, 2017.

"The Story of Chinatown." PBS. Accessed May 05, 2017.

Pimlott, Mark, and Eleonoor Jap Sam. Without and within: essays on territory and the interior. Rotterdam: Episode Publ., 2007.



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