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The Active Band

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Le Bande Actif is French for a concept you’ve seen on this blog before. The idea was to put all the wet spaces on the outside of the apartment plan where they would animate the facade and create an “active band” around the building. The signature project was Domus Demain by architect Yves Lion and the year was 1987.

Some lovely images of their time perhaps but anyway unthinkable today were produced.

Putting the bathrooms and kitchens on the perimeter of a building is not the same as using the size and shape of windows to allow the internal functions of a building to be guessed at. Here there’s no guessing. They’re either bathrooms or kitchens or, going by the elevation above, an occasional staircase. At night, activity in the inner bedrooms and living areas would be apparent from low-level illumination interrupted by that of kitchens and bathrooms used only intermittently and for short periods. From the outside, the building facade would truthfully indicate the living going on within and, despite the year being 1987, this would not be a representation. Possibly because of that, Domus Demain and its ideas never went mainstream.

A 1986-1992 project at Villejuif in Val-de-Marne, France didn’t illustrate the concept as clearly, but it did get built, and also had separate guest bathrooms.

Here’s how the active band appeared in Lion’s Logements sociaux à Champs-sur-Marne (1987-1995). It looks much like a regular layout with kitchens and bathrooms naturally lit and ventilated. The only reminder of the original concept is that central bedroom with a bathroom on the external wall.

And that’s it for the active band in Europe. Over in Japan are two more manifestations, courtesy of Riken Yamamoto, always alert to a good idea. The first is his 2003 Canal Court Shinonome development in Shinonome, Japan, intended as combined office-living units. Kitchens are at the front and the bathrooms front the small balconies that double as fire escapes. Internal bedrooms are not uncommon in Japanese apartments or, for that matter, traditional Japanese houses.

Yamamoto’s 2002 Ban Building in Niigata is an accurate translation of the active band concept. The exterior manages to be like many other unexceptional buildings in Japan despite kitchens, toilets and bathrooms being spread across the facade. The bathroom is entered via the wc via the kitchen. In many small Japanese apartments, the kitchen sink doubles as washbasin. This building has a small footprint with three apartments per floor and so the front two apartments have an additional side window into the “inner” room.

Naturally lit rooms are pleasant to use but naturally lit apartment bathrooms and kitchens perhaps more so because they occur so rarely. Despite kitchens and bathrooms needing the benefit of natural ventilation and the simpler, and less expensive and easier-to-maintain buildings that result, we still give habitable rooms priority when it comes to natural illumination and ventilation. This may be just a hangover from the days of served and servant spaces.

Maybe Post-Modernism had dulled our intellects and we saw The Active Band as High-Tech reprised with “functional” spaces instead of colored pipes representing them. There are aspects in common. High-Tech architects liked to talk of served and servant spaces and I suspect this was an appeal to centuries-old notions of social hierarchy. We’re told that High-Tech was shocking in putting the utilities on the outsides of buildings but, if it was, it was only because it hadn’t been that long since servants had performed the functions of those conduits, ducts and pipes, using the back stairs to transport hot water up and cold water down the building, empty chamber pots, and to maintain and light the candles and lamps. I could make a case for architecture’s troubled relationship with function having its roots in simple snobbery. Still, Lords Rogers and Foster did well from their new articulations of old inequalities. To think we thought we’d moved on!

What I find curious about the active band is that kitchens and bathrooms are on the facade of the building yet the utility conduits and pipes that make these spaces into kitchens and bathrooms are nowhere to be seen. Shafts and risers remain inside the building. The Active Band is thus a spatially functional active band even if it is not expressed externally as such while, say, The Centre Pompidou has generic space and a technological active band expressed as such. Seeing bathrooms and kitchens in terms of functional spaces or technological spaces is probably not a useful thing to do anyway. For one, the technology is not that technological. All it takes to make a space into a kitchen or bathroom is a water supply, a waste pipe, and an energy supply. These are not complex, or even technologies. These next two Yemeni examples have kitchens and bathrooms grouped on external walls. The left one has water supply via an internal well and shaft, while the right one has an internal waste shaft leading to a ground-level night-soil collection room.

In the upper middle plan below you’ll notice the toilet. With or without the modern addition of an external waste pipe, what we have is a functional band but not an active one because there’s no action to be seen, and it can hardly be said to be a technological one either. Putting the functional spaces and the services enabling them on the outside of a building is simply the correct way to build apartments, especially when resources are scarce.

Here are two examples of factory worker housing in the south of China. Again, kitchens and bathrooms are on the front of the plan and occupy the facade.

In more upmarket apartments in Hong Kong, and with Hong Kong apartment buildings generally, having kitchens and bathrooms and their associated pipes on the exterior of a building is nothing to be ashamed of. The first example below hides bathroom windows and pipes in shadow gaps while the second example puts it all out there – drainage, water supply, electricity and what looks like gas pipes as well. This is a natural, almost vernacular solution to living without air conditioning in such a humid climate as Hong Kong’s. The combination of humidity and temperature means horizontal pipes and conduits are not troubled by pigeons. Natural ventilation and cross ventilation are good to have in such a climate but, even so, boiling pasta – or anything really – in large pots of boiling water is not something you want to be doing when the air inside your apartment is close to saturated.

The active band has always been understood as a novel yet short-lived form of representation or expression instead of as the logical and obvious thing to do. For a while, we saw exposed services in the same way. This mindset prevents us from seeing what needs to be done and from finding the simplest way of achieving it.

Where’s all this going? Last week I wrote about the two uncompleted buildings in the middle ground of this next photograph. The uncompleted one in the foreground was to have been 30-or-so stories above car parking but only made it as far as the car park. What’s there now will have fire-escape stairs but no elevators or services though there will be shafts for them. Exposed services and the active band will be the way to go if we ever want to quickly and inexpensively repurpose this building.

Next week’s post will be on repurposing entire cities. The idea may go no further than many an ambitious but fundamentally flawed graduation project, but it will be a first option on the table should the future not turn out as well as we hope. Uncompleted buildings are a reminder it doesn’t always.