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Public Architecture

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Some countries either have or have made in the past a social custom of performing certain domestic activities in public. For example, up until the middle of last century, both the US and the UK had the custom of scrubbing one’s stoop [= step or steps leading to the front door]. In Japan into the 1970s at least, suburban housewives swept the street in front of their house every morning. The social agreement was the same: if people in a street knew a person was sick or indisposed, they would take turns scrubbing their stoop or sweeping the street for them. There may be an element of social performativity at work but there’s also an element of social cohesion. Maybe the two are the same? Or maybe they’re two sides of the same coin? Or maybe it’s only performativity if done out of coercion, and cohesion if not?

Washing laundry was traditionally a very public activity in China as it was in many other places, taking place at riversides or at communal basins around a communal well. I recently saw the opening of a new, communal, very open and very public laundry facility adjacent to a river although the basins are now fed by the municipal water supply.

You might think this facility was provided as a monument to a traditional way of living but it’s used every day and typically busiest in the mornings. This necessary activity is given a public space and people socialize [= talk to each other] while doing it.

In this public space, nobody is sitting down with a latte and a blueberry muffin and watching other people do the same or on their way to do the same. It’s not new to observe that the things we’re allowed to do in public are increasingly limited to the things we’re willing to pay for. Way back in the early 2000’s I remember this being called “cappuccino urbanism”. Much research has no doubt been written about the commercialization of public space in the name of “regeneration” despite it having been commercial good sense in Mediterranean town squares and streets on summer evenings since whenever.

Back in China in the here and now, all but the newest high-rise residential buildings have the washing machine typically placed on the same balcony used for drying clothes. This has the advantages of removing the washing machine from the living space as a source of noise, simplifying drainage, eliminating the risk of flooding the floor below, and of having the washing machine where the laundry will be hung and dried. Notwithstanding all of this, the washing and drying of laundry still takes place where it can be seen by others. It remains a public activity whereas, in other countries, we view the use of balconies for washing and drying clothes as socially unacceptable. I did once, but I now see it as the heartbeat of buildings. I don’t care if represents society or not, or even if it has to. It’s just people living in buildings.

In Australian multiple-occupancy residential buildings, allowing your drying laundry to be visible from the street is seen as anti-social and likely to result in your eviction. The thinking is that it “lowers the tone” of the neighborhood but the real concern is to maintain the property values of owners and landlords.

As far as the conducting of daily life in public goes, we could draw some sort of parallel with notoriously and self-consciously public houses such as Shigeru Ban’s 1995 Curtain Wall House and his 1997 Wall-less House. However, I don’t think the latter counts since, like many see-through boxes, there’s no potential for even limited interaction with the street and its public in the way that Curtain Wall house has, or Sou Fujimoto’s 2012 House NA has for that matter. Lack of partitions may blur the boundary between indoor and outdoor space but it doesn’t blur the boundary between public and private ownership and use.

Still in Japan, there’s a short jump to this next example I’ve produced more than once in the past. Tsukagoshi Miyashita Sekkei + Keitarchi’s Garage Hall House uses the garage space as a hallway mediating between house and street. It’s no garden but could be used as one, perhaps to have a barbecue or sit out in on summer nights.

However, although this garage space could be used as an outdoor living space adjacent to the street, it’s not. All it offers is a view of the entrance and people going to and from their cars. The same could be said of the garage of any house in suburban Australia. I still like this house for at least using a limited frontage to offer a glimpse of the upstairs living areas but those living areas add no more to the street than my previous examples did. What I don’t like about this house now is how, at presumably the press of a button, it can be completely shut off from the street. Its sociality is conditional. Something happened to change how I think about public and private space and the boundary between them.

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The plan was to meet at 4:00am Saturday morning and drive to a friend’s hometown for a quick visit and breakfast. The way there included a stop at a market town to stretch our legs (as we were six in the car), to buy various vegetables from the vendors as well as some sticky rice dumplings as a snack. Soon after arrival, corn and cucumbers were picked, a duck was plucked and gutted, vegetables were washed in the river, and mountains were climbed to fetch bayberries while food was being prepared.

All food preparation, cooking, serving and eating took place in – to give it its correct term – the undercroft of the building. Whether you call them columns or whether you call them pilotis, the unenclosed space they create is an undercroft and in this building it was the most important space, the space where everything of consequence took place.

The undercroft was between one half and two thirds the footprint. In the middle of the dividing wall was a communal entrance leading to two two-storey dwellings on the upper levels, while at each end (I think) were symmetrical doors leading to separate indoor kitchens and dining areas. Interestingly, these didn’t connect internally to the stairwell. These rooms off the undercroft had no windows opening onto it, suggesting they were never intended to be used as servant spaces for the undercroft. China is not the Middle East. If it’s good enough to receive guests and share a meal with them, then it’s good enough to prepare and cook food there.

To me this all made a lot of sense. This space is where everybody gathered and lingered. There was a table for at least eight persons, low chairs for sitting, and stools for extra guests. Mid-meal, the younger daughter arrived, pulled up her car, grabbed a bowl and chopsticks and dug in. No passers-by were beckoned to join but I can imagine it happening at times less crowded.

This private space was being used in a very public way and it felt totally natural. This space between the pilotis was the most important part of the building along this street and it was being used to its full potential. The building probably has a rooftop area for drying laundry but there was no garden and, as far as I could see, no need for anything more than the potted hydrangeas by the water tank. I see this space above as the opposite of the much vaunted rear room of Lacaton & Vassal’s Lapatie House that, like Garage Hall House above, presents a blank face to the street as something to be proud of. I understand that, even if climate permits, living like this is not going to be an option everywhere. My undercroft friends weren’t anxious about their rice cooker not being there in the morning, or that they’d be a magnet for the hungry or homeless. This post is only intended to record that this attitude towards living exists and that buildings can either facilitate it or thwart it.

• • •

Public House

  • Although it wasn’t present in the house I saw, I’ve added an internal route from the stairwell to the kitchen on the left for when you just have to get something in the middle of the night.
  • The kitchen seems a bit larger than what I imagined, although I didn’t go far enough into the room to see round the corner.
  • I’ve also added a downstairs w/c for use by anyone, as well as space that can be used as a laundry or larder though again, in the house I saw, this space was all one large storage room attached to the inside dining area. This entire space seemed about as large as the kitchen, as I’ve shown it.
  • There weren’t any windows along the wall with the doors, but I’ve added one to the w/c.
  • I’m not sure if there was another kitchen on the other side, or if any door was symmetrical.
  • There were four floors above the undercroft. The lower levels of the lower two residences were entered from the landing on level 1 and the lower levels of the upper two residences were entered from the landing on level 3. There were no internal stairs so the upper levels of the lower residences were accessed from the level 2 landing and the upper levels of the upper two were accessed from the level 4 landing. This suggests the entire building is used as a single multi-generational multi-family house.

But all this is secondary. If the undercroft space were used to park vehicles then it would just be the public space of the street becoming the privately-owned space of the undercroft. Here, the private space of the house shifts (for at least half the year) into the undercroft in full view of the public space of the street. It’s not intended as performance. It’s probably true that people living in the countryside appreciate and are more in tune with their surroundings, whether they be mountain, river or farmland. I think what we have here is people appreciating and being in tune with their street and, in the process, giving a lot back to it.

If I had to choose one word to describe it, I would say GENEROUS. I’m not used to being moved by how people use space but in this undercroft I was. I like this country living.

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  • says:

    The notion of an active undercroft being linked/ connected to living spaces seems a very positive step forward. It does not mean the house cost is substantially increased but does provide significant additional usable floor area.
    How the room is used, is up for grabs. It could be totally public or totally private.

  • Sweeping the street in front of your house – still valid in some precious small cities of central Europe. It’s Sisyphus at work, especially in winter. But it works well and raises your expectations for public space cleanliness. You don’t see garbage bags and bulky waste in the streets, nor small trash in the streetside vegetation. Alas, tourists don’t get the feel and litter like they do it at their home cities.

    • says:

      Yes, what you say is true. People who don’t live in a place don’t notice these things. I worry that there is so much natural intelligence here that I’m still not aware of.

      • I like how snow shoveling is actually required by law but the same law is only respected in cities which already are somewhat handsome in landscape/urban/architecture departments. The same goes for hanging laundry from the street side scandal, having a letterbox, having an actual flower garden for the fear of missing out even if you hate flowers and bees;)