What else is there we can happily do without but just don’t know it yet?
ORNAMENT: This was once thought essential to any building with pretensions to architecture. Life went on without it. We managed.
After a while we missed it, decided to give it another chance….
Twice burned, these days we mostly ornament our buildings with ideas … concepts … contexts for understanding that fill our heads and turn the most prosaic building into a temple to art. These contexts don’t even need to be true. Talk is cheap but still ornament, still criminal.
LARGE GROUNDS: The idea of having large grounds or even small gardens showing off a building such as a house or villa to good advantage proved to be a very resilient one
but, in the end it gave way and now, thanks largely to the Japanese, buildings don’t need to be seen across a large piece of land in order to be considered architecture. (It was always possible to live in such buildings.) In general, housing people in ways that use less land and resources, and in more spatially efficient ways can only be a good thing. Although Architecture was initially reluctant to follow suit, it had no choice but to follow the money.
HEARTHS: It’s a similar story with hearths. Frank Lloyd Wright was a fan but, again, we manage to do quite okay without. Every now and then along comes a house like Olson Kundig‘s Tye River Cabin to remind us what we’re missing out on but, in general, we don’t mind living in houses without a core structural element sold to us as symbolic “heart”. Good riddance to narrative dishonesty!
ROOMS: The twentieth century saw houses have fewer walls separating functional units.
Having no functional units, the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion had nothing to do with this but it did send the message that walls not supporting anything could still be classy.
Kitchens became connected to living areas via dining areas. There was still a functional differentiation of areas but less of a physical one. Philip Johnson’s Glass House has nothing to do with this for Mr. Johnson had separate buildings for each of his domestic functions. The Glass House was merely his salon for receiving guests. Elsewhere, internal walls became fewer, and then became screens,
finally atrophying into pieces of furniture known as “room dividers”, before disappearing completely.
We came to accept that whatever living entails these days can take place in the same space. This was fact long ago in small apartments but it’s now the norm in upmarket apartments.
So what else can go? What else are we needlessly hanging onto out of inertia or fear of the unknown? Is there something we’re not seeing and that we might as well get used to living without now, before it gets presented to us as innovation and we’re asked to pay a premium for it? Here’s my selections for what can go next.
KITCHENS AS A CONCEPT: The kitchen itself has been on the way out for a long time now – at least since the 1920s. We saw in Fun!tionalism how NY kitchens have devolved to approximate 1930s Soviet minimum space standards with the idea of a “kitchen alcove”.
However, even in this studio apartment, the idea of a kitchen is still present as a cluster of items in a dedicated space, however tiny. In this next apartment, there’s something primitive about people gathering around a source of warmth and food.
Lacaton & Vassal’s Trignac housing does without such conceptual clutter. Meet the future.
BOURGEOIS INTERIORS: These are some more conceptual baggage that’s taking a long time to die. Here’s a photo from a recent Curbed newsletter. Is seems to be saying your 375 sq.ft will feel like a proper home if you stuff it with fresh flowers, neutral colours and slightly quirky objets d’art. Aspirational consumption is the problem not the solution.
The bourgeois interior is noticeably absent from the work of Lacaton & Vassal. This is their Mulhouse housing development.
Just as High-Tech’s obsession with served and servant spaces could only have been an English invention, the rejection of the bourgeois interior could only be a French one. The side effect of delivering more living space per unit money is that choice and arrangement of furniture is no longer dictated by minimum furniture standards in the public housing sector,
or by the twin conventions of room design and furniture arrangement in the market housing sector.
BOURGEOIS EXTERIORS: Ahh John Lautner’s Arango House. A guilty pleasure. Do we appreciate the infinite space? Or are we merely magically transported to a world where we can spend our lives looking across the water at Acapulco? A roof to keep the rain off? External walls? They’re for losers. Along with balustrades. The guy knew what he was doing.
Similarly, Lacaton & Vassal’s Lapatie House has not much in the way of roof and external walls. I was surprised to learn the architects had envisaged this low-cost and lo-tech external space being used as a garden. Instead, the Lapaties put all their furniture in it and mostly live there.
QUALITY MATERIALS, EXQUISITELY CRAFTED, PREFERABLY BY HAND: Getting rid of these three is what making less do more is all about. L&V again.
DESIGN FEATURES: This is Mirco Baum’s 1994 House in Roentgen. Why should every building component have to be a design feature? Why should one door be conceptually more important than another? After all, you only need to go through a door once to know what’s on the other side. More images here, on ofHouses. For plans, here.
THE PLAN: I’ve mentioned Pezo von Ellrichshausen Architects’ Casa Meri before. Humans are adaptable. As long as they’ve some space they can organise themselves and their stuff to suit their activities, routines and preferences. Living doesn’t need to have all this artifice of planning, contrivance of construction, and associated expense.
Casa Meri does away with certain conventions of planning and construction but, granted, it does at the same time introduce some new contrivances. Noted.
DESIGN: Components and windows don’t necessarily have to be prefabricated to offer time, cost and construction efficiencies in a similar way as the plan above. Each activity needing light doesn’t need its own window to light it. Each thing needing looking at doesn’t need a window of dedicated shape and size.
Design won’t go easily, either as a concept or an activity. We’re currently locked in a phase of forced difference and pseudo-randomness clocking up design hours. The windows of this house can be seen as either highly contrived, as completely artless, or contrivedly artless. Nevertheless, efficiencies and economies are to be had by solving similar problems in similar ways. The problem lies in where to place the boundary between same and different. If the boundary is set too high then the level of individual adaption becomes intrusive and onerous. If the boundary is too low we sleepwalk through our habitats, only noticing them when we tire of them.
PRIVACY: The progression of spaces from public to private is a modern invention we take for granted as being a good thing. Once again, the Japanese are at the forefront challenging cultural and architectural conventions. Here’s some apartments designed by SANAA. In the top left apartment you’ll see a combined bathroom and entry hall. A similar arrangement occurs in apartment D, towards the centre. With apartment G, ground floor stairs pass through the first floor bathroom on the way to the second floor living space.
If shafts in an apartment building have to be maintained, then there’s a spatial logic to sequencing spaces away from a communal corridor and point of entry corridor in terms of activity time – after all, how many times a day does one enter and leave an apartment? I’d only ever seen such an arrangement before in Horden Cherry Lee’s microhouse.
Many apartments have the bathroom adjacent to the front door. Perhaps in twenty years we’ll all be entering via the bathroom. In some apartments we may as well.
Entering into the kitchen is already commonplace. Conceptually, the front door has atrophied to a service entry.
• • •
Some aspects of what we currently think of as architecture or at least good practice can be easily dispensed with. Others may take longer. The idea of the home as hearth was soon exposed as a sham by technological advances in heating and insulation and, later, by alternative forms of entertainment. The idea of combining activities previously separated by walls meant it was possible to build houses cheaper and with less materials despite being popularised as progressive. Lacaton & Vassal have repeatedly demonstrated that their integrated approach to materials, planning and construction can produce life-enhancing spaces and places for humans to live and function. It doesn’t really matter if their buildings contain architecture. Architecture will sooner or later adjust itself to assimilate them.