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Associative Design

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I was one of those undergraduate students who often worked late and I shared a studio room with two classmates who did also. We’d long ago run out of anything new in our lives to talk about and, as the semester progressed, our conversations became more like reveries, filling the time but increasingly random and abstract. One night when Ruth, Joy and I were studiously inking our final drawings, Ruth suddenly said, “Have you ever noticed that, as soon as you remember your grandmother, you can remember your grandmother’s tablecloth?” There’s many reasons why I recently remembered this conversation and one of them is because I like to imagine my first year students inking drawings this very minute.

The location of this year’s final project was a different neighboring village but, this time, there were no effortlessly picturesque sites with south-facing views over water. The project brief asked for a response to a view but good feng-shui and orienting major windows to the south meant views of some unlovely towers. It’s one option. It made me think of that old office maxim “If there’s something you don’t like and can’t do anything about, then make a feature out of it!” I suspect this is a more common way of working than many instructors and practitioners care to admit but I’m not sure it’s something I want first year students to know about.

Here’s the sites we chose, six of which, including the one I selected, overlook water but not always to the south. That’s our campus to the west, snuggled into a valley with mountains on three sides. To the south are some unlovely towers known as the Relocation Towers and which are a consequence of the university displacing the village of Litang that was unlucky to have such a fortuitous location.

The problem is always the same – how to begin? How to have another first idea? And how to encourage students to have their first, first idea? This time, site conditions such as view and access offered big clues and, as ever, I had no problem with the architect as the faithful interpreter of tangible site conditions. I prompted students to ask themselves questions such as where in the house they’d like to be and what they’d like to be doing when appreciating their view. My thinking was that if certain activities or moods were associated with certain spaces and times then this could be a generator of a plan (that is the generator, etc.)

In these images, that patch of land covered with trees is the site I chose. The one on the left below was taken from where that car is at the bottom left corner of the other one.

Historically, this part of Wenzhou has many stores for garden and landscaping supplies such as paving, garden pavilions, decorative stones, and plants. Someone is growing corn and cabbages in one corner of my site but all the other trees and plants are being farmed for eventual sale. Among them are Chinese maples which are much like the Japanese one only redder, and red single camellias in full bloom right now.

When there’s no view or an undesirable view, it’s always an option to put a wall around the site and call the garden the view. Such a house would maybe be like Alberto Campo Baeza’s Guerrero House that’s open within its walled enclosure. It makes sense as an approach because, in China as in Spain, there’s no guarantee a picturesque view will remain that way forever.

However this approach narrows the definition of a view and, although this is also something architects do all the time, it’s not in the spirit of the brief. Besides, I didn’t even think a wall was necessary. The road in front of the site is barely visible between the tree trunks. Apart from where a pathway splits the site in two, there is a dense “wall” of foliage.

First thoughts are never the best but my first was to use this project as an excuse to bring to life one of my formative buildings – the one I mentioned in Existential Anxieties . What site wouldn’t be improved by a Farnsworth House-Glass House mashup? The building would be raised about 90cm so there would be even less to see from the street. Privacy isn’t a concern in an abandoned village but in an academic exercise it is.

And so I imagined myself admiring the Chinese maples while sipping saké on my engawa.

Fair’s fair though, so if I’m going to go with a Farnsworth House-Glass House mashup then I can’t deny first year students this as a method of working. After all, most won’t have a mental library of buildings and imagery to draw on. And in any case, my formative house above is neither Glass House nor Farnsworth House but something new. One student had the idea of a tree-like tower so I suggested him Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower and Kenzo Tange’s Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center and, for balance, also threw in the 1957 Monsanto House of the Future.

Another student was responsive to Rick Joy’s Desert Nomad House and wanted to design a dispersed house with four different functional blocks in four different materials. I alerted him to Frank Gehry’s Winton Guest House.

There were two main ideas in my mashup. The first was to use the existing path as the main approach, and the other idea was to have a high window in the bedroom framing a view of the towers in the not-so-distant distance.

I encouraged students to think about what they might like to see on their site, to draw it and explain it using collages. Possibilities and options are fine – I’m there to help students make decisions and I believe it can only be called design when decisions are made. Students were appalled by my rough collages but saw how they did the job.

But even this thought of towers as indicators of human presence and activity came from somewhere else. I’ve seen uncompleted buildings in Dubai at night-time lit up in some random pattern as if people were actually living there. It makes the building look inhabited and become real before it actually is. I observed that any day’s seemingly random pattern of illumination was the same as the day before’s. Something’s only cynical if there’s an underlying good that’s being ignored.

I can’t vouch for new apartment blocks on the market here in China now, but the lights in these apartments I’m imagining myself looking at are very much built and occupied, some even by faculty. These lights don’t represent anything other than people going from room to room, doing what they do.

These are the views from my apartment at 20:43, Sat. 23rd Apr. 2022.

In China views of towers are unavoidable and need to be turned into an aesthetic. Canonical Fallingwater, Farnsworth or Savoye can’t provide answers to these new questions posed by new realities. I suspect the only reason the 20th century canon continues to be taught is that it instills in students a sense of an architects’ role with respect to the people who hold the power and money. It’s all very simple and transactional when it’s about private houses but this doesn’t upscale nicely to urbanism.

Another piece of advice was “Don’t design anything you couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live in yourself.” My chosen site was not somewhere I’d naturally gravitate to. I’d feel very isolated. I know that I don’t have to be amongst people all the time but I do like to know that people are nearby. A view of these towers was necessary to me, particularly at night when bright dots of human presence and activity would be seen against the night sky. I needed to change my design. I didn’t like my first idea anymore. It had too much glass in the wrong places. Why should inside and outside blur anyway? Sometimes, don’t you want to just be inside a room? What’s wrong with looking at the outside through a window? And if you want to be outside, then just go outside and walk on the ground or sit on a rock or under a tree.

This thought led to two more. One was about all the houses I knew with high-level windows as a feature. There was Australian architect Roy Grounds’ 1956 house for himself. I don’t much care for the circular central courtyard but I like the feel of the light and the timber ceiling which probably owes something to Danish modernism.

There was Philip Johnson’s 1949 Rockerfella Guest House.

There was also Georg Muche’s 1923 Haus am Horn. The central room has lovely light, but I’d prefer it with clear glass. Perhaps a distinction is being made between windows for illumination and windows for view? I like that window in the study alcove that looks like a nice place to be.

Windows for looking at a view made me think of Adalbero Libera’s 1937 Casa Malaparte. Every window is a picture.

The combination of high-level windows and windows that framed views led me to finally think of Glick House designed in 1999 by Geoff Warn for Western Australian sculptor Rodney Glick. [c.f. Misfits’ Guide to PERTH]

The house was bought soon after its completion by my former classmate Ruth when she moved back to Perth. That’s her on the right in this photo of a class reunion we had in 2006 or 7. She was a several years older than the rest of us.

I’ve written about her house before and have some precious memories of times spent there, but the light inside the house was wonderful. The views from the view windows weren’t particularly special but there was definitely a distinction between windows for light and windows to look out of.

Within an hour I redesigned my house. It was still a mashup, but this time a mashup of Glick House, Rockerfella Guest House, and with an entrance stair and terrace inspired by Casa Malaparte. Like the rooftop of Casa Malaparte, this terrace is a non-committal place to enjoy being connected to the house while being outside it, and to enjoy being connected to the outdoors without getting your shoes muddy.

The title of this post is Associative Design for that’s what I think is happening. An earlier title was Train of Thought and that’s also what it is. One idea led to another that unlocked other memories. I shared this approach and this drawing with students and learned all over again how important that first idea is because, once it’s there, an instructor can build on it and guide students. This design of mine came from multiple sources and I acknowledge all of them. I could be very happy living in this proposed house on its proposed location.

Another thing I reaffirmed was that if design is about generating mutations (as it seems to be thought of as these days) then my personal associations and memories are just another way of generating mutations and at least just as valid. But however the mutations are generated, design still only happens when decisions are made on the basis of them. I also shared this thought with students but it could just be that I want to see some more design decisions made. Pronto!

I’m pleased with how this little house turned out. I still need to flesh out the construction. I generated images to help explain how the design was already present in that first sketch on graph paper and that these lo-res fancy images only communicate the design and aren’t a substitute for it. Five weeks of semester left.

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  • says:

    I’m always happy when you share a process conversation. We get that hidden away one-on-one in studio, typically on the fly and lost to the ether, but telling stories can be revelatory and inspirational to others not directly involved. Thank you for these!

    And the appalled-at-the-collage line strikes home. I’ve been pondering this same situation for a while now. At first, there are the surface responses like “students don’t know how to draw anymore” and “the quality curve of rendering is a great way of procrastinating” and “everything is Instagram now.”

    But I’ve been thinking about a different side of things recently: there seems to be a reluctance about putting things – whether opinions or work – out in the world because of a perception about how it might be received.

    If what is seen out there is all polished and finished – and the rough bits hidden away or left on the desk after an effervescent conversation – then novices tend to confuse the final image with the work in progress. So then everything becomes a final image and anything less feels risky to put out there.

    That’s why seeing a story in progress makes things OK, and you spread the culture change beyond simply your own studio’s inner circle. Thank you for this!