190427

Advance of the Sheds

For every force there is an equal and opposite reaction. As the level of amenity, let alone luxury, people can reasonably aspire to steadily lessens, the market for Architecture must continually expand downwards by appropriating materials, configurations and concepts formerly the realm of Building.

The absence of applied finishes occurs in vernacular buildings as the expedient use of resources but when appropriated by architecture becomes a value-adding vernacular revival.

The rational forms of engineering design seen in bridges, ships, rural buildings and the replicated products of industrial design are incorporated into isolated architectural statements.

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The rational buildings of industrial design became the reluctant carriers of architectural statements.

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No sooner had a minimum quantity of daylight been recognised as promoting health and well-being in the mid-1920s, the quality of that light became a definition of architecture.

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The concept of prefabrication is a useful one for building but Architecture has been very wary of adopting it as anything but a metaphor for a modern society that somehow never seems to arrive.

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Prefabrication implies replication for diverse purposes and locations. Prefabrication is not when non-identical glazing panels are fabricated offsite. Many building components are fabricated beforehand elsewhere.

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Prefabrication seems incompatible with a concept of Architecture.  If Architecture grapples with it at all, it is on the level of “exploring ways to make it socially acceptable” or “to obtain as much variation as possible from prefabricated components”. Either way, the result is to pretty it up without challenging any prejudices, and destroying its virtues in the process.

The spirit of living with fewer possessions was artfully articulated by Pawsonesque Minimalism that not only hides all your vulgar possessions but vulgar construction joins as well. $ublime.

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Green roofs had the capacity to do useful things for both internal energy performance as well as the greater environment but came to be regarded as a metaphor for those things detached from any tangible benefits they may have or have had.

Environmental parameters, being quantifiable, ought to have a place in a Parametric architecture, but no. Parametricism steers well clear of any parameter that could generate genuine building form.

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Sheds are useful and, as they are in the sights of an ever-downwardly shifting Architecture, are prime candidates for assimilation into Architecture.

The Advance of the Sheds

As part of its downward spread, Architecture is beginning to assimilate sheds and lumbering them with cultural and intellectual baggage.

Here’s a recent German shed. It’s a well mannered shed but not without architectural pretensions such as the square windows, the inside-outside thing, the heavy-on-light thing, the dark-on-bright thing.

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This one, in Japan, is very sheddy on the outside but very Skandi-Muji on the inside. Square windows again.

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Here’s Go Hasegawa’s House in Komae from 2009,

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his House in a Forest from 2006,

Go Hasegawa & Associates . House in a Forest . Nagano (3)

and Pilotis in a Forest from 2011.

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This next shed featured in an earlier post.

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The previous two houses had an air of primitive hut about them but it’s not so easy to say anything pretentious about this one. If you said “pilotis” you’d only make a fool of yourself. “Takes advantage of the view”? It’s on a hill. The site looks large enough to not need a two storey building. “Touches the ground lightly”?

“A bicycle shed is a building. Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture” goes Nicholas Pevsners’ famous definition. We knew what he meant,

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but he spelt it out anyway.“Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.” 

Pevsner displays his century’s prejudices by his choice of examples. For him, a bicycle is an item useful for the satisfactory performance of the physical aspects of daily life and thus deserves no more than a building. A church, on the other hand is big-A Architecture because it does not cater to any meaningful physical reality so it must therefore enhance the spiritual aspects of daily life. It’s a fair expansion of something flawed.

Times have changed. Some people keep their bicycles to stop them getting stolen but also because they might like to be able to care for their machines better. A cycle is not something used only on post-war England schooldays but is an integral part of their lives. On some level, there is an non-visual aesthetic pleasure to be gained from a well-maintained cycle.

Another non-visual aesthetic pleasure comes from living with fewer things and less need to find the space or things to store them. Some people choose a life of consumption agnosticism. They don’t believe happiness comes from buying things or, if they have them, from hiding them or displaying them in some ingenious storage solution that also costs money and space.

The clients for this next shed are people like that. They used to live in what in Japan is called a danchi – a high-density residential estate. 

sodegaura danchi

Horrible you may think, but after living there for a few decades one might just begin to appreciate the closeness of other people and the comforting smallness of the spaces.

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The clients requested a house that recreated the feeling of a danchi apartment even though a larger house could have been designed for the site. You enter into the garage

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(like you do in the Porsche Design tower in Miami)

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but then go up some stairs to three rooms and a bathroom. 40.5 sq.m.

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Interior finishes aren’t lavish.

The windows of the three main rooms face south and directly into the windows of the neighbouring house. The kitchen is that one wall you see in the central image above. No attempt has been made to hide the basin or the washing machine that will go beside it. This house defies explanation in terms of Western housing aspirations as articulated by Western architects. 

The text supplied to Dezeen and Architizer by the architects, Yoshihiro Yamamoto Architects Atelier says the clients wanted a house which was narrow – a typical mistranslation of the Japanese word semai that describe houses that are small, cramped. The text mentions how the danchi lifestyle was something precious to the clients and how they wanted to preserve it.

Going by Pevsner’s definition, this building is not architecture because it has not been designed with a view to having any visual aesthetic appeal. Two points. One. IT WAS DESIGNED FOR ITS OCCUPANTS, NOT PEVSNER. NOT YOU. NOT ME.  The aesthetic appeal of this house is a psychological one the occupants are sensitive to. The owners are happy.

Any problems we have with this house are ours.

  • Given what we now know about the crazy economics of Japanese housing. and their ephemerality, the architect has not used this opportunity to build as an excuse to be sensationalist for the sake of foreign media. We have no right to be outraged by this.
  • This house will probably not be there in 20 years but its touch-the-plot-lightliness is not being presented as a virtue. No building lasts forever. Permanence vs. impermanence is a false opposition. Symbols of impermanence are no more virtuous than symbols of permanence.
  • This house has been named Danchi-Hutch. The word danchi does not have good connotations for us now, and also for many Japanese. The word “hutch” translates as goya (ごや、小屋) It means a small, simple and crudely-built building, often temporary. In the 1960s when many people were visiting Japan for the Tokyo Olympics, some journalist, the story goes, described Japanese houses as akin to  “rabbit hutches” (ウサギ小屋). Every Japanese knows this story. It stung, and it stung at a time when the Japanese wanted to be seen as worldly. Naming this building danchi-hutch suggests the Japanese are over it, and are re-evaluating the aesthetic virtues of living with less land, less space, fewer things and less architecture.

These are dangerous concepts. Lacaton & Vassal have already experienced the displeasure that happens when you build something inexpensive, useful, good value for money, and without regard for conventional notions of what constitutes architectural beauty.

Lapatie House

This building was not conventionally beautiful according to accepted criteria. Normally this is no big deal but it is when it provides a low-cost alternative to an unachiveable future of glossy parametrics and datascapes. The Lapatie House proposed going back a bit as the way forward.

Kengo Kuma has suffered no such opprobrium with his big shed in Tokyo called La Kagu.

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It comes with a tree and a timber deck and stair treads. Even shed haters have something to like.

I’m not surprised Kengo Kuma did this. I hope it means the Japanese have tired of providing a culturally unassailable basis for seamless minimalism, exquisite concrete work and unfeasibly large timbers craftily joined. Isolated pockets of resistance remain.

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The Japanese can make an aesthetic out of anything. It’s what they’re good at and we love them for it – albeit often recklessly. Even Kengo Kuma’s shed above has signs of stealth Shedism – look at these coathanger rails. Are they pseudo-found objects as stylistic affectation? Examples of Lo-Tech as affordable Hi-Tech? Are they beyond aesthetics?

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I doubt it, mainly because it’s Kengo Kuma. But it could have just as easily been Waro Kishi. We can safely and without cynicism update Pevsner’s definition: Architecture is a shed designed by Kengo Kuma or Go Hasegawa or Waro Kishi. A building is a shed designed for IKEA. 

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The Fightback 

There will be a fightback against the shed and the threat it poses to Architecture for Architecture, as we know, takes good and useful ideas and neuters them by turning them into architectural statements.

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This house resists all such attempts. It undermines all that architecture holds precious. Accordingly, it is singled out for special attack.

I usually love how Japanese houses combine refined materials and nice interiors into a seemingly simple exterior. This one is actually horrible on all fronts. The wood is cheap underlayment. The windows force you to look into the neighbours bedroom (and vice versa). The space: I don’t see anything noteworthy. And there are all those things and boxes sticking on the facade: what are those? Get rid of it. It’s also absolutely ignorant of it’s surroundings. Even when taking the assignment of building a small and narrow house on a corner plot in mind, this could have been improved on all fronts.

 

This is just a website comment. Normally, it’s journalists who initiate the process of death by architecture by seeing useful ideas only in terms of their visual effect while ignoring or begrudgingly acknowledging less photogenic but useful characteristics or ideas.

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Baracco and Wright Architects’ Garden House blurs the boundaries between garden and home while redefining what it means to be minimal.

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The form of the shed enclosure, as dematerialized and undressed as possible, is intended less as a reference toward economy or utility, although it does do that, than as a framework to be colonized by vegetation over time, both inside and out. The architecture can be envisaged in this way as a seamless part of a landscape and vegetation strategy, a mere step on a longer trajectory toward restoration, and one that can be almost as easily reversed – a scaffold upon which vegetation must grow in order to complete the functions of, for example, shading and cooling.

We’re going to have to expect more of this kind of nonsense festooning sheds with cultural and intellectual ornamentation, killing all that is good about them, assimilating them into the world of Architecture. 

2 thoughts on “Advance of the Sheds

  1. taavilooke

    I feel like I should play the devil’s advocate a bit here. The Unimog House, even though it ticks the ‘architecture’ boxes, seems to be relatively rational at the same time. It’s almost interchangeable with the Danchi house in program, arrangement and construction. I’m guessing they probably cost pretty much the same amount as well. It doesn’t really matter if the windows are rectangular or square, they still cost more or less the same per sqm.

    There’s an interesting essay by Rayner Banham “A Black Box, The Secret Profession of Architecture” (http://bit.ly/1Sh2cN5). Starting with the same quote from Pevsner, he essentially distinguishes the “architectural mode” of building from others (vernacular, engineers’ etc.) not by whether but by what kind of aesthetic intentions someone has. IMO this means building designed in any mode can be rational and efficient but doesn’t have to be.

    Sure, incorporating the idea of a shed into the range of aesthetic intentions architects can have, opens it up to all kinds of misuse. At the same time, isn’t the end-question whether it’s built rationally and efficiently regardless of how it’s looks?

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Thanks Taavi for your comment and the link. I see I’m going to have to re-read and read more of what Banham wrote. It might save me a lot of time working things out for myself. There’s a big danger I’ll simply co-opt his ideas as my own, excusing myself by exclaiming “Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been saying all along!” Fortunately, there are differences. Banham calls a re-divorce, saying that grain elevators should never have been brought into the realm of architecture in the first place. This is a very interesting idea and I’m very interested to see what would be left if all other modes of buildings were eliminated. In his writing, Patrick Schumacher denies all these other modes of intelligence and concludes that what remains must be architecture. (Many others seem to have arrived at the same conclusion.) Banham also suggests a more direct route by saying that having architectural intentions is sufficient to produce architecture, although not necessarily good architecture. This is probably true, but it leads to the other extreme and unfortunate situation we suffer now. ArchDaily floods the internet with images of buildings presented as architecture – twice: once by their content providers and again by them. 70 million page views per month suggest people believe them.

      The black box mode seems to be more and more like the “If I present it is art then it is art” mode Marcel Duchamp exposed. This is probably what Rem Koolhaas has been doing all along. We should thank Bjarke Ingels for making this process transparent with his simplistic aesthetic intentions more easily and widely communicable. This approach might guarantee something assumed to be architecture but again, it doesn’t guarantee good buildings. The only difference between this approach in art and this approach in architecture is that, as far as I know, Marcel Duchamp’s proposing a urinal as art did not make people dissatisfied with urinals that weren’t art. The general level of urinal design did not drop because one urinal was suddenly elevated to a supposedly higher place than all the others.

      Getting back to sheds though, Peter Behren’s AEG Turbine Factory suggests these ways of trying to find out what’s in the black box aren’t mutually exclusive. The bits of the AEG turbine factory that make their way into history books aren’t the bits that make it function as factory but the bits that make it function as corporate branding. It’s not architecture because it looks a bit like a temple, but because it looks a bit like a postcard. I have to disagree with Banham and his mention of grain elevators. The same man who wrote “Eyes that do not see” looked at the simple functionality and structural honesty of grain elevators yet somehow managed to see only geometric shapes and shadows. One of my continuing beefs is with this phrase “Architectural intentions”. I can’t assume they are necessarily noble and have the best interests of humanity at heart for they tend to act against the more useful modes of designing. I’m interested in sheds right now because they are a threat to the architectural mode and I believe what we’re seeing now are attempts to neutralise that threat by showing us how “even sheds too can be architecture”. New subject matter is needed. Architecture fodder.

      Hand on heart though, I have had thoughts closely resembling those of Banham’s two closing paragraphs. There’s a draft post titled “The Last Architecture Myth: Architecture”.

      Thanks again,
      Graham

      Reply

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