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Chinese apartment buildings have a great deal of owner modification apparent on their exteriors, particularly in the case of the older ones. The preference is towards more useable space though it doesn’t seem to matter if this space is open or closed. One downside is that bathroom windows can become partially or wholly internal.

With these next buildings, the apartment owners seem to have had the option of removing the balcony wall and extending their living rooms, but with the new glazing unified in a controlled, progressive and elective refurbishment. Here you can see three apartments with work in progress. On this north-facing facade it’s barely noticeable that all apartment facades aren’t identical. People either don’t notice or they don’t care. And why should they?

The buildings for which this happens aren’t the newly-built ones such as these next although, with these, any balcony space could theoretically become internal space with the simple addition of a glazing panel. On closer inspection, this is what happens and again suggests that buyers had some off-plan options. With the buildings on the right, the balconies are designed as “winter gardens” to facilitate their use as living or play space when laundry isn’t being dried. “Winter gardens” have been around since the early 2000s, usually for apartment buildings along busy roads.

Apartment buildings from the 1970s are likely to have owner-installed grilles and bars over their windows, but at a distance creating a kind of caged space outside the window which is of course used for pot plants and for laundry drying.

I don’t think this is necessarily an aversion to clothes dryers or even a frugality regarding electricity usage. I don’t think it’s even about getting the laundry dry, although that’s definitely a side effect of having air pass through the fabric. It seems that the longer period that air has passed through clothes the better they are thought. This explains the drive to find the best ventilated places to air one’s clothes (and if that’s some public place then so be it), the lengths that people will go to to hang their clothes there, and the length of time those clothes will be allowed to hang there which is usually well past the time you’d expect them to have dried. For student dormitories, it’s almost as if the balconies are used as a wardrobe.

It seems quite usual for apartment owners to replace apartment windows in much the same way as house purchasers in other countries might change one fitted kitchen for another. Over the years, these modifications accumulate to create a genuine ad-hoc architecture I’ve not seen anywhere else. And it’s okay.

It’s a kind of vernacular. The building above was originally designed to be ummm, “aesthetically complete” shall we say? – so it’s no more an example of “The Open Building” as espoused by John Habraken than this next apartment stripped of all interior partitions apart from those enclosing the bathrooms and kitchen.

The norm in China is for kitchens to be enclosed by sliding glass doors. I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, salads and other assemblages of raw ingredients don’t feature in Chinese cuisine. Food is almost always cooked and this custom most likely comes from cooked food being easier to digest and requiring less energy to digest. If you cook it the right way, cooked food has a greater net nutritional value. And the right way to cook it to use short bursts of intense heat to quickly cook small pieces of meat and vegetables before adding sauce ingredients to complete the dish.

An oven for roasting is not standard as it is in the UK or Europe. A grill for fish is not standard as it would be in Japan. Also, to serve at least two dishes (with rice) is a normal meal so not only are there cooking odors and aromas, but multiple ones in quick succession. The sliding doors let the table be the place where the aroma of cooked food is meant to be appreciated. They’re as much about the olfactory aesthetics of food as they are about odor control,

The other reason has to do with moisture. The cooking of rice and the cooking of noodles both require the boiling of water and it’s important to get this excess moisture out of the kitchen, especially in summer when the air is already moist. Kitchen extractor fans work better for volumes that a small and enclosed. Chinese exhaust hoods will always be ducted to outside or above the roof.

Going backwards in time, “customization” isn’t any of the following.

Shell” apartments: This stripped-back apartment for sale is not a manifestation of some fashion for “shell” apartments as were a thing in London and New York in the late 20th century. The expectation then was for the purchaser to partition the internal space and insert an interior and create a conventional apartment.

Naked Houses: Naked Houses were a shortish-lived phenomenon circa 2017. The goal was to provide a house with the basics in place and to not waste money on frivolous things such as wall finishes. It never took off, probably because new way wer found to suck up the budget. The phenomenon was a remarketing of Lacaton & Vassal’s stance back in 2017 and we could trace its architectural pedigrere back even farther to Jean Nouvel’s Nemausus housing in Nimes, France 1987.

Ad-hocism: Way back in 1972 Charles Jencks (& Nathan Silver) identified ad-hocism as a the putting together of disparate objects to create a new object. The naïve juxtaposition of things was a way of doing things expediently and differently but, architecture being architecture, it could never be naïve.

Presented as expedience and the application of intelligence, the real point was to create a style and way of doing things, following on from the post-modernism Jencks had already popularized. As shown by the cover of the book, the improvised object had a certain kind of surreal charm but no more or less than say, Salvador Dali’s 1938 lobster telephone. Both are highly contrived objects. If adhocism wasn’t already a representation of adhocism, it quickly turned into one. The customized apartment is not so self conscious.

“Half a Houses” (Aravena style): We all looked at the half-a-houses and thought “How benevolent!” and were encouraged to think that people doing for themselves what they could not afford was “empowering”.

Doing it yourself, making it yourself, and making it do were all cool as long as they were within the system. In hindsight, Jencks and Silver’s book can be seen as an attempt to make an aesthetic of self reliance in 1970 at the dawn of the neoliberal post-capitalist society. It was somewhat before its time – hence its recent re-issue.

As Thatcherism and Reaganomics held, “government services shrink everybody’s incentives to produce, compete and invest.” [1] In other words, “Teach a man to fish and he won’t have to ask you for a fish.” Ad-hoc, handmade, community driven architecture is a creature designed to service this mentality while purporting to be the answer to it. If ad-hoc, handmade, community-driven architecture really was the shape of the future that we’re being encouraged to envisage, then surely we wouldn’t need architects and the architectural media to tell us?

Altering one’s own apartment or house is something outside the politics of land and property ownership but we can’t forget that being able to alter or customize one’s own property assumes one owns the property and has the surplus to customize it. To not consider questions of property ownership and resource possession takes us straight to the favela but we’re not there yet, or ready to accept the favela as the ultimate in adhoc architecture.

Those who have the land, the time, and the salvaged and ad-hoc resources to work with, will inadvertently create what will be seen as ad-hoc architecture.

Questions remain, some of them for architecture. What kind and how much base building is necessary to allow natural customization to occur as and when it will? Others are for architects. How would we go about designing a building that allows for future customization without knowing what form that would take? Or, to put it another way, how is it possible to design a building without a preconceived aesthetic agenda? This is something that Architecture historically abhors, as evidenced by the Philip Johnson/Henry-Russell Hitchcock false accusation (originally leveled at Hannes Meyer) that – I paraphrase – “the contrived absence of an aesthetic agenda is itself an aesthetic agenda”. The last question is for us, the people who’ll have to look at these buildings. Are we ready for buildings with no overriding aesthetic agenda?

Probably not, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be given the chance to find out. If customization is a natural and healthy phenomena, then it’s one that can be architecturally assimilated, faked and marketed back at us. These are recent examples of pseudo-customized housing developments in Perth, Western Australia. The message is that customization is futile, and that (still, after all these years) a representation of it is better than the real thing.

[1] Lifted from “What are they after?” (William Davis writes about the Tory Brexiteers) in London Review of Books, 8 March 2018, p 3