Reconstructivism

The theme of the US pavilion at the 2016 Venice Bienalle was The Architectural Imagination. There wasn’t time to ponder this next project so I took some photos. These.

I was suspicious of the appealing graphics and thought the proposal looked excessively jolly for what’s essentially an inhabited multi-storey car park. But the car park as repurposeable building typology stuck in my mind even though I waited until last week to find out the proposal was by MOS architects.

Here’s some of what was said.

Cities structure our lives, resources, interactions, and identities. From Sebastiano Serlio to Rem Koolhaas, architects have used the metaphor of theater, presenting the city as stage, as comic sets for comic acts, as a delirious city for delirious subjects, generic city for generic subjects, and so on. Today, however, we are social anywhere, actors on- and offstage. So what happens when the city no longer structures us, or when basic urban elements – streets, buildings, facades, and addresses – have been augmented, superimposed, and untethered by or replaced through technology? 

If emptied typologies serve as an open framework for something else, then it’s New Babylon circling around [c.f. Something in The Air] for a second shot at having us accept its representation of togetherness and connectivity as a substitute for the real thing.

Every exterior space is a public space, every interior space is a public space.

What does this mean? And why did someone feel the need to say it? What purpose does this sentence serve? Things can be true yet not make sense. You can say “The Sun will come up tomorrow.” but people will just look at you strangely unless they have some idea why you might want to say that. “Every interior space is a public space” may just be nonsense archispeak but, even so, why would someone say it?

Today, however, we are social anywhere, actors on- and offstage. So what happens when the city no longer structures us, or when basic urban elements – streets, buildings, facades, and addresses – have been augmented, superimposed, and untethered by or replaced through technology? 

This is a provocative thought, for who needs architecture or even proper buildings if our social lives are increasingly lived online? Long gone are the days when housing factory workers was an architectural topic. (Only in China do people still make things and only in China is housing those people a topic of concern.)

If the modern identity is either as content producer or content consumer, then all that content consumers need is a place to crash and recharge and it’s easy to imagine someone thinking that the sooner that’s all they have, the “better” they can fulfill that “societal” role. No architect has ever done badly by pandering to economic powers-that-be. Projects such as this repurposed multi-storey car park work to lower expectations while purporting to do the opposite.

The structure and circulation of this proposal are based on the economical model of highway and parking structures.

I’ve no problem with Dom-ino Houses for everyone. Buildings are mostly columns and slabs anyway and there’s not much difference between multi-story car park, shopping mall, and apartment building.

A series of spiral ramps punctuate the structure, connecting all levels with pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

I’m not sure I like the idea of spiral ramps with two-way pedestrian and vehicular traffic but perhaps it will have a Villa Savoye feel to it and I should stop complaining.

A perennial garden and plaza extend across the roof, creating a network of spaces for recreation and social gathering.

Roof gardens, eh?

Thin buildings maximize the surface area of their facades and in turn maximize daylighting.

I don’t think this is true because haphazardly joining and intersecting these narrow buildings creates many windowless re-entrant corners for elevators and stairs not to fill. The external ramps actually obstruct daylight and, because they’re spiral ramps, can’t be used as joints to connect buildings having the same floor levels.

But the images are lovely, and the desire to obtain or at least posit maximum social utility from the most prosaic of urban structures is surely a good thing. Even so, the problem it shares with a lot of what you see at architectural biennali, is that there’s absolutely no incentive to make it happen. I can’t imagine a problem or even a set of circumstances for which this would be a solution.

Short story is, the car park as archetypal building typology was in the back of my mind since 2016 and last week’s post The Active Band proposed a couple of techniques that might prove useful should we ever want to extract more value from them. The building on the left below we’ve seen before [in Slum Porn but what of the one on the right? It’s probably going to be some commercial building and the enclosed part is probably some site office. But what if construction stopped and the building never made it any further? And if its space was colonized by sophisticated squatters? Or persons with no other options? Or by people in similar circumstances banding together to pool their energies and resources in some shared endeavor?

It’s almost a decade since architectural representations of dystopias were fashionable. Students no longer see their desaturated cityscapes as folio-builders, probably because imagining a dystopia doesn’t require much imagination these days.

Not much new construction is going to happen in our coming dystopia and whatever does is going be for those still retaining some capacity to produce something of whatever is valued at that time. People lacking even the capacity to consume will have to make do with repurposing existing buildings and perhaps entire cities. But what would make them do so?

Climate Change?

It’s short odds. The Mars thing might not work out, or work out in time. Climate change and subsequent reconfiguration of patterns of living on Earth are more likely to happen first.

It may turn out that all those sustainability awareness centers built over the past couple of decades didn’t really raise much awareness or, if they did raise some awareness, it never converted into meaningful action. It may also turn out that LEED and all those other building rating systems didn’t really bring about the anticipated sea change in the construction industry.

When completed, Doha’s LEED Silver Rem Koolhaas international airport with its 10,000mindoor tropical garden, 268mwater feature and 11,720mof landscaped retail and dining space and such but that’s not the problem. It’s an airport. With airplanes. Lots. Its projected initial annual passenger handling capacity of 29 million passengers equals 91 full-capacity AIRBUS A-380 per day – one every 16 minutes. In fairness, the A380 is more fuel efficient per passenger than an average economy car but the calculation doesn’t factor in the necessity of the journey.

So then, here we all are in 2045 and things aren’t looking so good. All new construction is prohibited, there’s no air travel, vehicle travel, and possession and combustion of fossils fuels is outlawed. Aircraft and automobiles are obsolete and buildings are not being completed, or being abandoned if they are. So now what? Where do we live? How do we live? What’s for dinner? How much of our cities can be repurposed to provide food and shelter now push has come to shove?

A common building typology in Dubai is the high-rise tower with associated multi-storey car park, each having a footprint of about 40m x 40m. The car park is laid out much like the example below, with 40 cars per two half levels for ten or eleven floors – 400-450 spaces let’s say. The associated tower will have about 800 sq.m of residential or office space per floor and will be anything from 30-60 stories. A fifty-storey tower will therefore have approximately 100 sq.m of space per car parking space.

This is a favorable proportion because, assuming ideal growing conditions, it takes about 50 sq.m of land to grow sufficient food to sustain one human life. [c.f. Calories/m3, Home Grown]. Rather than look at buildings as excuses for forests, we might want to start eyeing them up as places to produce food closer to where it will be consumed. Terracing arable surface area is always going to be more productive than stacking it but a high-rise building can at least offer similar efficiencies of water utilization even if it’s not rice that’s grown. Yes, tower has become a vertical farm and multi-storey car park has become accommodation.

In the former car park, we have maybe 400-450 x 12.5 sq.m residential plots with perhaps, but not necessarily, single occupancy. At first, we might prefer to sleep in our cars. Car parks with a void in the middle can also have an inner active band and servicing, but whatever services there are going to be might be more efficiently provided to communal kitchens, bathrooms and laundries on the periphery. There – that’s the architecture sorted!

The people in the car park and the plants in the tower are both going to need a supply of water which won’t be happening as long as water supply is dependent upon fossil fuel for desalination.

Water

Water is something this planet is blessed with. When not in oceans, it’s falling out of the air to replenish them. Plants have a place in this this thing called the water cycle but humans don’t, even though we need that H2O to stay alive.

There are two ways we can do this and both are relevant to our new situation. Atmospheric water generators cool humid air to condense drinking water out of it. It’s supposed to take 310Wh (111kJ) of energy to make one liter of water. Both active and passive generators exist but we’ll go with the passive one.

Dubai lucks out here as the average temperature stays above 19.7° and the relative humidity never falls below 53%. Moreover, lower temperatures are compensated for by higher humidities in winter, and vice-versa in summer. If ever there were perfect conditions for atmospheric water generation it is these.

We’ll be hydrated, but what about the plants? A seawater greenhouse involves pumping (or otherwise getting) seawater to a place that needs water, and then 1) using it to humidify and cool the air that is then 2) evaporated by solar heating and distilled to produce fresh water.

The windward side of the tower would need to be a porous membrane and act as an evaporative cooler and the sunny side would need to function as a solar collector. We’d be more than halfway there if glazing panels could be somehow hacked and converted into either.

Water supply

Work for the construction of main and link tunnels for Dubai’s new sewer system is expected to be completed in 2025. For some time now, sections alongside main roads have been being dug up and pipes laid for link tunnels. There’s surprisingly little disruption.

These pipes and tunnels will lead to two main sewage treatment facilities. Much energy will be used to shift and process that sewage that may have more value as one component of a composting process most likely performed on rooftops. The pipes and tunnels could be flooded with seawater to enable seawater greenhouses and local water production over a greater area. Alternatively, warm humid air could be forced into them to make the system function as one large atmospheric water generator. Either way, the current inspection manholes will become community wells.

The composting, the agriculture, the seawater transfer and the atmospheric water generation are known technologies. How they’ll all work together will need thought and experimentation but there’s the potential to create a template for human existence that works in sync with natural processes such as evaporation and plant growth. It won’t be a completely closed system and it won’t be without energy input.

Fortunately, most of the energy required to make the system work is from the Sun heating up the air so it can hold all that water. It’s all on the verge of being possible and relies upon will and ingenuity rather than a wireless connection and “innovative” technologies yet to be developed. Hauling soil and water up towers won’t be easy or for the indolent but, as a plan, it’s relatively fail-safe and living in sync with the seasons might turn out to be quite a pleasant way to live. At least we won’t be on Mars, dependent on complex technologies and corporate benevolence for the very air we breathe as we crush rocks to squeeze water from them to feed the 3D printers that will print us our nice ice igloos.

If all goes well, productivity might improve and our isolated buildings might one day produce a surplus to support educational, commercial and perhaps even artistic crossover. If that happens, this simple typology will facilitate the continuation of civilization, much as caravanserai did with far less means ten centuries earlier. [c.f. Caravanserai]

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