Tag Archives: integrated performance

Hacking The City

This post is not so much a reworking of the 2020 post, Reconstructivism, but an attempt to put its ideas back out there in 2023 as it’s good to have a Plan B.

We all remember the carnage that the 2008 financial crisis dealt the construction industry. This was painfully evident in Dubai with projects being put on hold, others being cancelled, still others having their completion delayed by up to a decade, others left uncompleted and still others being demolished before they were even completed. Dubai still has monuments to that.

And then there was that other hiccup called the pandemic. Again, projects were put on hold for extended periods of time, and others had their construction delayed.

But it’s not the buildings that caught Covid. Their unconstruction was the result of the financial downturn that accompanied Covid. That’s two (relatively) unexpected and very different global catastrophes within twelve years. The “next” global catastrophe looks like being our increasingly changing climate bringing increasingly chatoic weather patterns. Climate change is already bringing havoc to economies and populations worldwide but difference between this crisis and the others is that this next one is not a surprise.

In 2021, the UK government announced it would cut emissions by 78% by the year 2035, and be carbon zero by 2050. This is ambitious but, in line with the commonly believed fallacy that the problems caused by technology will be solved by more technology, the announcement said “The government will look to meet this reduction target through investing and capitalising on new green technologies and innovation.”

It’s reckless to hope the technologies we desperately need will be invented or invented in time to avert a average 1.5°C rise in global temperature by 2050, especially when that limit looks like being exceeded in 2027. But science advances incrementally. Nobody is expecting a lithium ion battery capable of powering a Boeing 737 for 1,000 kilometers to be available by 2050. Nobody is expecting to have electricity produced by nuclear fusion commercially available before 2050. Nobody is expecting quantum computing until quite a while after that. The reason for this is that quantum computing requires huge amounts of energy to supercool atomic particles to near absolute zero in order for it to work. The problem is that quantum computing is supposed to solve the substantial containment problems that, in essence, making small suns on Earth will necessarily involve. We used to call situations like this a Catch 22 after the 1961 book of the same name.

If you go by your media exposure, you’d think the world has many buildings that are net zero for both construction and operation but the problem is they don’t make a single bit of difference in absolute terms. That much-vaunted sea change never happened and efforts directed towards making it happen are beginning to look like denial. This is not to say that innovation or some mass change of opinion won’t occur, but we can’t expect it to be when and where we need it – which, basically, is everywhere and now. Besides, even if all those technologies were available before 2050, they’d still need to implemented immediately and universally and there are huge economic and political obstacles to that happening. In short, placing one’s hopes on future innovation isn’t a strategy. It’s a way of coping. We need a Plan B.

The word innovation tends to be used to describe new technologies but it can also describe innovative non-technological ideas, processes and strategies we might need in order to adapt to our changing circumstances. Innovation needs to be less about maintaining the status quo and more about solving problems in the here and now and planning what we’re going to do should things become truly catastrophic. So then, let’s set a scenario.

It’s now 2045 and carbon targets weren’t anywhere near met. The climate is out of control. All new construction is prohibited, there’s no air or vehicle travel, and the possession and combustion of fossil fuels is outlawed. What happens next? Where do we live? How do we live? What’s for dinner? How much of our built environment can be repurposed to provide minimum standards of food and shelter?

It’s going to be messy. Entire populations will be displaced and this never works out well. Even stability within societies can’t be take for granted when people have to live at higher densities in order to pool labour, resources and accommodation.

So let’s think about how we might be able to re-use our built and natural environment for survival. Even if some of these proposals turn out to be unworkable, it’s a different way of approaching the same problems and may prove a useful backup. I’ll use the example of the city of Dubai because it’s just south of the city of Kuwait that has already had the lethal 35°C wet-bulb temperature. All the suggestions that follow are for a situation in which the climate of Dubai stays fairly much the same and might not even be applicable if the climate of Dubai moves in that direction. Even so, the way of thinking is still valid.

A representative building type in Dubai is the high-rise tower paired with a multi-storey car park. Each has a footprint of 40m x 40m. The car park has about 40 cars per floor on ten or eleven floors so let’s say 500 spaces. The tower has 40-60 floors, each with about 1,000 sq.m of residential or office space. A fifty-storey tower therefore has about 100 sq.m of useable area for each 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 feed one person, suggesting that the tower should become a vertical farm and the multi-storey car park become residential space allocated at one car parking space per person.

  • At first, we might want to sleep in our cars but, over time, mud bricks might be used to partition the covered space in a way that doesn’t obstruct natural windflow. Traditional towns used to do this.
  • Communal kitchens, bathrooms and laundries are located around the perimeter of the car park, with grey water feeding reed beds at ground level and blackwater feeding anaerobic digesters. We don’t know if we would be allowed to burn the biogas produced.
  • Let’s hope so because it will make it easier for atmospheric water generators to cool humid air and condense drinking water. An active generator requires 310Wh (111kJ) of energy to make one liter of water but we can use passive ones because Dubai has an average temperature above 19.7° and an average relative humidity above 53%. These are perfect conditions as lower temperatures in winter are compensated for by higher humidities, and vice-versa.
  • Water for agriculture comes from seawater greenhouses that humidify and cool air that’s then distilled by solar heating. The windward side of the tower uses a porous membrane evaporative cooler whilethe sunny side has solar collectors. 
  • Sewage is fed to local anaerobic digesters so Dubai’s new sewer system [to be completed in 2025] can be flooded with seawater to supply seawater greenhouses for the production and supply of fresh water over a greater area. Or, warm humid air could be forced into the sewer system to make it function as one large atmospheric water generator. Either way, the current inspection manholes will become community wells.
  • Glazing panels are hacked and conveted into one or the other. Still others are filled with water and a small pump added to cultivate spirulina. 
  • And let’s not forget evaporative cooling. There used to be an Autralian invention called a Coolgardie Safe. It was a box with hessian sides kept moist by their upper edges resting in a tray of water on top of the box. Latent heat of evaporation kept perishables cool. These devices could be found in Australian houses into the 20th century before the advent of refrigerators run on kerosene. The important thing is that it was a simple and failsafe technology that worked.

These are all known technologies but how to make them work together needs fine tuning. We need to know now what will grow and what won’t, and we need nutritional efficiency to guide our selections. Fortunately, The Sun will provide most of the energy by heating the air so it can hold all that water. As long as there’s not a wet-bulb temperature of 35°C, we can rely upon wind – when it happens – to bring cooling and fresh water. Architecture as we know it will cease to exist for a while but architectural intelligence can still be applied so that mud-brick residences in the former car park have good cross ventilation and a minimum level of illumination.

Importantly, all these technologies exist now and it might be an idea to refine and better integrate them and see how society might possibly continue in the defunct superstructures we will be left with. This is not adaptive re-use anymore. It is hacking things – a sewer system, a building, an entire city – and using it for a purpose it was not designed for.

There are enormous challenges in growing plants indoors to provide a minimum level of nutrition. An existence of subsistence farming will not be easy. Children’s education will suffer and society may collapse anyway but 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 to feed the 3D printers printing ice igloos for us. 

Who knows? We might find we like living in sync with the seasons. Our hacked cities might produce a surplus to support educational, commercial and even artistic crossover. If that happens, these hacked buildings will have ensured the continuation of civilization. Our hacked buildings could turn out to be a new type of social condenser for our times. The only reason I’m optimistic is that other peoples have done it in the past.

We know about the 17th century walled houses of the Hakka people of China’s Fujian Province. There are also U-shaped ones so those thick walls may be more structural than defensive, as is usually assumed. They had their own wells, sewerage system and grain stores but it could just be that the Hakka people opted to live like this because it left more land free for agriculture.

• • •

Fit for Purpose

A few months ago I bought a new iMac. It wasn’t my first so I knew it’d be delivered in a plain brown cardboard secondary box as a precaution against opportunistic theft, even though this stops the inner box advertising the company and one’s smugness. In a masterful example of packaging design, the side of my brown box folded down, teaching me how to open the inner box yet, it seemed excessive, almost ostentatious and definitely performative. “Unboxing iMac” videos are a thing on YouTube.

The packaging exists to add value to the product but the boxes themselves are also a product.

Packaging has many functions but protecting the product has many meanings. Batteries don’t need protection from accidental dropping yet their packaging is close to indestructible in order to deter shoplifting. Eggs, on the other hand, are fragile yet usually sold in thin plastic cartons that are rigid enough for cartons of 10 or 12 but wobble with cartons of 24.

There’s a famous 1970’s book called “How to Wrap Five Eggs”, describing various examples of traditional Japanese packaging. Wrapping five eggs uses materials that are biodegradable zero-cost leftovers from some harvest yet, it also seems excessive. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know the designer. This book celebrates a culture that thought so much and so hard about how to package five eggs. It’s still performative ingenuity and not much different from how to box an Apple. My problem with the Japanese eggs is that we don’t know if the purpose was to carry them home or to market. It makes a difference and, if we don’t know, all we can do is marvel at the ingenuity without thinking of its purpose.

How to wrap five eggs.

I thought of this book yesterday when the person in front of me at the checkout was paying for eggs and intending to carry them home in the tied and priced plastic bag they were weighed in. The bag was fit for purpose.

I’m not going to suggest expensive computers be delivered in re-used cardboard boxes stuffed with newspaper but sometimes that’s all packaging needs to be. I’ve written about how things I order online are delivered in cardboard boxes re-formed from other cardboard boxes. It’s not necessary to pulp and recycle a cardboard box to use it again. Re-used or re-formed boxes are fit for purpose and will be collected and sold on to be used and/or reformed again. This is a dimension in which ingenuity and economy exist as something distinct from design. The topmost box in the image at left below contained a pair of shoes within newspaper stuffing. The tonic water on the right was delivered in a Jack Daniels box.

Calling this way of looking at things “vernacular design” is inappropriate because it’s thought, not design. All that vernacular design means is that something isn’t “designer designed”. The term fit for purpose seems to be the best fit because it suggests that any additional thought, design or even functionality is as redundant as gold-plating. Dustpan and broom sets like these ones below are seen in houses and apartments across Japan, China and most likely all across South-East Asia.

Something less designed is used outdoors to sweep garden paths and footpaths. It won’t last forever but it’s easily and inexpensively replaceable and, importantly, is all that’s needed to do the job.

Removing leaves from paths and litter from streets isn’t something that requires a leaf blower or a leaf vacuum. These next ones are all made in China but, in two years, I’ve never seen a leaf blower yet lawns, paths and streets stay leaf-free.

These brooms are lightweight, silent, biodegradable, and require little energy to manufacture or use. They are also stunningly effective at sweeping leaves off grass. The pliant twigs are more rigid than the bristles of a broom yet softer and gentler on the grass than the tines of a rake. The end of the broom is often slightly angled to make horizontal sweeps more efficient and ergonomic.

The outdoor complement to the dustpan is what looks like a cooking oil can with a bamboo handle attached with wire. It also does the job and once again it’s difficult to think of anything that serves its purpose better. The conical hat the man below is wearing is of a type usually made from straw, or palm or bamboo leaves, and is worn by gardeners, street cleaners, farm workers and anyone else who needs a broad-brimmed hat for outdoor work. They’re lightweight, biodegradable, inexpensive, and of course protect from sun and rain. Nobody knows who designed them. Nobody can design them any better. They’re made the same way they’ve been made for centuries.

Buses and vehicles used by the public are covered in graphics and advertising. This charter bus is advertising Tengqiao Smoked Chicken.

It’s a different story with commercial and trade vehicles with nothing to communicate except their registration, their affiliation, and legal requirements for seating and loading. The registration number is stencil spray-painted sufficiently large for fast OCR at toll booths. It’s a sophisticated system but the evenness and sharpness of the stencilled registration number is no more than it needs to be.

With these next examples, the job is to convey information and the system again is fit for that purpose. Some vehicles may have stenciling more precise or fuzzy but it doesn’t seem important. The recurring circle motif for the company name is the only art but even this might just be because it uses less space.

Much outdoor text in China is stenciled and it’s easy to see this as a response to the complexity of the characters. Information needs to be conveyed but it’s not so precious as to engage a signwriter, graphic designer or calligrapher. Here’s some “NO STOPPING. RESERVED FOR FIRE APPLIANCES” signs being stenciled. In many other countries, roadway signs such as these would probably also be stenciled, but the foreground caution signs probably not.

Gardening has many examples of fit for purpose. The people who pruned these trees will use the pruned branches as brooms to gather the clippings. You see this a lot.

These next trees are being propped up by branches joined together by twisted wire until their root systems fully develop. (This is particularly important in locations such as this where the water table is high.)

A length of wire is doubled and wound around the pieces of wood or timber to be connected. The end with the loop is crossed over the paired wires at the other end, the conical end of a metal road is inserted into the loop and the wires twisted and tightened around the wood. I know this simple metal tool as a “twitching rod” or “twitching iron” but that’s another story. Nowadays, open grain silos in Australia are simply covered with large tarpaulins.

  • Fit for purpose is different from makeshift which is a quick and temporary fix until something is either repaired or a better solution either arrives or is thought of.
  • Fit for purpose is when something is no more expensive or complicated than it needs to be to do the job to the required standard.
  • Fit for purpose is the enemy of consumerism and products that have “cycles” with planned obsolescence designed in by either manufacture or fashion.
  • Fit for purpose is counter to economic models based on increasing consumption to justify ever increasing production.

We could all do with less design and not just for the “big ticket” purchases. “Shopping as entertainment” removes the notion of need from even the things we think we need. It wants us to detach the notion of utility from the things we do buy and see the act of buying as the actual content of shopping. Thanks for that, Mr. Koolhaas! You can usually tell when this is happening as you will hear the terms such as “consumer experience” or “consumer destination”. It’s happening again with local street markets now being touted as the alternative to the decline of department stores as well as to the rise on online shopping. They always were.

Ladders in China are another object no more complicated or durable than they need to be. Again, China manufactures a great deal of aluminum ladders but, in two years, I’ve yet to see one.

What I do see are people using ladders less expensive, less sophisticated and less designed but that are fit for purpose and with a total absence of value-adding design. Here’s three I’ve seen in the past few weeks. The one on the left is some slender but straight tree trunks cut and lashed together. The one in the middle has been more carefully crafted while the one on the right has been quickly fabricated on site by a carpenter.

The construction industry also has many examples of objects fit for purpose. This carpentry bench complete with circular saw has been made on-site by a carpenter in perhaps a morning’s work. When it’s no longer needed, it’ll be disassembled and the wood maybe used for something else.

This is a wheelbarrow typical of the region in which I live. Gardeners, construction workers and road workers all use wheelbarrows to this design. They’re simply manufactured and durable but heavy. The two wheels make them very stable, and the position of the axle means they can be used to transport and tip heavy loads or even concrete.

My last example is this simple bridge made from five posts and a cross bar lashed together to support two bridge planks. It might exist only until the planting on the small island is established or it might be replaced by something more decorative in the future. This would be a shame because it’s already perfect for what it is and where it is. Anything else will not be an improvement.

Fit for purpose is the opposite of innovation in general and disruptive innovation in particular. If we overvalue “innovation” as we do, then we’ll look down on fit for purpose as something inferior that only people in underdeveloped countries need worry about. It’s not. It’s something people in developing countries need to worry more about. From their time in Africa, Lacaton & Vassal were inspired by a local awareness and intelligence for fit for purpose and they used this awareness to devise an intelligent and timely architecture. Unfortunately, its recognition in the form of a Pritzker and a GSD invite for them was its kiss of death, leaving us no closer to an architecture of fit for purpose, let alone one fit for purpose. Fit for purpose is a universal way of finding a balance between resources, energy and utility. Given the abundance of examples in China, I wouldn’t be surprised if a Chinese architect is next to show us what it all means for buildings.

• • • 

Wearable Architecture

The walls are closing in.

Around 1900 it suddenly dawned upon architects that the market for Palladian knock-off mansions in picturesque countryside was getting smaller and smaller. There simply weren’t enough landed gentry to go around. A crop of newly rich industrialists brought about a short-lived rebound in the late-19th century but sooner or later new markets were going to have to be found. The Arts & Crafts movement in Britain made an aesthetic case for smaller houses on less land and styles such as Voysey’s influenced many a house in London’s new suburbs. Even small buildings had to have internal space of some sort and so, circa 1900, space was discovered. Space didn’t need discovering. It’s more correct to say that space was identified and promoted as the new criteria for the evaluation of architectural worth.

The idea had been kicking around for some time. The Edwardian architect Edwin Lutyens, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, characteristically designed the reception rooms of his houses as a sequence of spatial events. However, this more of an elaboration of the existing Victorian preference for sensations of suspense, anticipation and surprise when showing guests around the house. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Winslow House had the three front rooms linked by sliding doors enabling them to be perceived as a single space. It was an early example of a new type of big space.

The notion of space “flowing” didn’t yet exist but, when it finally did, it was as space flowing between this new inside space and a greatly reduced amount of outside space-property. This marketable notion first found favor as high-end theory and then in practice in the suburban houses that were now the focus of architecture and architects’ services.

The century wore on. By the time the 1970s came around, architects couldn’t shut up about space. Most of Kazuo Shinohara’s houses, for example, are configured around a single spatial device that, more often than not, is a living room or central corridor. The architecture of these houses is almost completely internal. External space only figures if it’s worth drawing attention to.

The fifty years since have seen much architectural energy devoted to spatial invention for increasingly smaller quantities of architectural space, especially in Japan. Atelier Bow-Wow, Shinohara’s descendants at Tokyo Institute of Technology, are responsible for a series of houses that, anywhere else in the world, would be known as tiny houses.

They’re still detached houses because of Japan’s still-feudal system of land tenure and so still have an external presence but, on the inside, the plan and the enclosing walls are much the same thing even if the walls haven’t quite closed in to the extent of Hong Kong apartments.

Hong Kong is also notorious for its coffin apartments where it’s not just the walls closing in but the ceiling as well.

Other parts of the world are racing to get to the same place. Only a few weeks back [c.f. New Squeeze], I showed an apartment that was essentialy a bed in a kitchen. More recently, I learned here about a seven square meter “dwelling” on the market in London for £50,000 (and here that it sold for £90,000) and that attempts to shoehorn the amenity of an apartment into an area little larger than a moderately sized bathroom. These things exist, I learned, because banks don’t generally lend on properties less than 30 sq.m. Thus, this property will be cash purchased by someone who will recoup their investment in five years. It’s grim but made more grim by the attempt to make the room look like a normal room. Particularly sad are the timber-finish cabinet, the fold-down table and the white paint chosen for the “sense of space” it brings. I wonder if the shelves are also a ladder, and how deep those drawers are – I doubt they’re custom made. Or if there’s dead space behind the microwave? [all photos: Jill Mead]

Apartments in Nakagin Apartments were 10 sq.m. I don’t know when this next photograph of the rental offer was taken but ¥60,000/month is approx. US$500 – about half the £10,000/year of the 7sq.m London dwelling.

The difference is that, despite the Metabolist posturing, Kurosawa did at least try to devise a new way for people to live in a small space and, compared to where we’re heading, it’s still looking pretty good. One can imagine being there and comfortable for some length of time. There are four different things to be. You can be in the bathroom, standing in front of the front door doing something, sitting at the desk, or laying/sitting on the bed. It wasn’t intended a place to crash and, furthermore, it wasn’t some land-hungry detached tiny house but also a proposal for aggregating tens of units. Unlike the Hong Kong apartments above and the 7 sq.m London one, the Nakagin apartments are proposed as an ideal way for one person to live. It was a solution driven by a housing shortage but not as an expedient one or a stopgap measure. These days we call this idealistic.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this building was the affection its residents had for it and which was significant in delaying its demolition for so long. But from where did this affection come? I doubt it had anything to do Metabolism or its ideals but something more physical. Basically, when the walls come close, there’s no choice but to interact with them. This is most apparent in the bathroom where the surfaces form a basin, wc and bath but is also apparent around the bed and where it becomes a seat with the wall as a backrest.

If the walls are going to continue to get closer, then it’s about time we explored ways of being more comfortable living with them.

This is not about gratuitous phenomenology to justify the use of expensive materials and construction to appreciate the reverberation of marble walls, the weight of a solid timber door, or the lustre of tadelakt etc. I’m thinking more of phenomenology applied to a more up close and intimate relationship between us an our buildings – one not unlike we have with the clothes we wear.

People are quick to find parallels between the worlds of fashion and architecture – perhaps because both are creative endeavors catering to high-end consumers and where the high-end product exists in a different universe to the lower-end one. The world of fashion at least has a semblance of crossover between haute couture and pre-à-porter but not so architecture where the worlds of high-end and everything else remain stubbornly distinct. I’m not going to argue for housing for all. Instead, I’m going to argue for accommodation that may be minimal in size but still offers a pleasure of occupancy and use more akin to the wearing of clothes. First, I’ll first try to pin down this notion of wearable architecture.

A suit such as the one one above is essential for survival in space. It’s shelter in an environment as extreme as it gets but can’t in any sense be said to be architecture or even habitation. The enclosure fits the body too well and there’s no sense of the body independent of what envelops it. It’s not designed for reading a book or for curling up and going to sleep in.

Wearable architecture envelops the body but still permits the body to move around inside.

So let’s have zippers running down the inside of the legs and cross-zip then to make the two legs into a single space for both legs. We can do the same for zippers along the sides of the body and the insides of the sleeves so that our arms can now move next to our body in something resembling a sleeping bag (or a body bag). This may be sufficient for sleeping but it won’t be much good for doing anything else. This isn’t to say there’s no place for this kind of thinking. The homeless shelter is now a design school staple. Here’s some images from this site which lists 15 portable homeless shelters. “Home away from home!” is the somewhat insensitive tagline.

These proposals may be well-intentioned but surely the more noble goal is to eradicate homelessness, not make it less uncomfortable? This next coat that turns into a tent with built in sleeping bag is ingenious but still misguided in the same sense.

The wearable architecture I’m thinking of won’t be wearable in the sense of having to carry it around. It’ll be something that is physiologically and psychologically comfortable when you are in it, but you can still go outside it, lock it up and leave it. My kind of wearable architecture still offers a physical place to retreat from the world which is something more than a zippable psychological one.

SUV can be locked up and walked away from and they have all the life-support functions and conveniences. Everything’s packed in but it’s all a bit heartless. They can be used as homes but only with some degree of discipline can they be thought of as one.

Many tiny houses overcompensate, and not just for the dispossessed for whom it is understandable.

Approaching wearable architecture from the angle of architecture isn’t taking us anywhere elsewhere than the utilitarian, the homeless, or the kitsch. Let’s see what the world of fashion has to offer. In 2018 Moncler teamed with various designers to reinterpret their down jacket in various ways referred to as architectural – at least on Dezeen. Offerings by Pierpaolo Piccioli from Valentino, and Craig Green may have been architectural but they weren’t in any sense habitable.

Designer Hussein Chalayan has often had his designs called architectural. His Fall/Winter 2000 London show where a model wore a coffee table was, according to many fashion websites, an extraordinary fashion moment.

Another from the same show was his range of wearable sofa covers.

His most architectural invention was perhaps his 2011 dance Gravity Fatigue that was more about the shapes of the costumes than the dance.

If Hi-Tech could establish itself as a new way of making buildings using the following as a mood board,

  • the idea of prefabrication – Joseph Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace
  • the idea of industrial components – Pierre Chareau’s 1932 Maison de Verre
  • the idea of metal as the material of the future (Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 and 1945 Dymaxion House)
  • the fetishization of mechanical services
  • the representation of flexibility and change

then there features of Wearable Architecture are:

  • accepting the inevitability of increased body contact and designing for it – as with Nakagin
  • multitasking spaces – the era of single-function spaces looks like it’s over
  • surfaces more like those of furniture because, wherever they can, walls and floor are going to have to substitute. (“Learning from Tatami”)

These fragments of a manifesto don’t yet create a picture but the 1965 Environmental Bubble comes close. The inside of the enclosure can be sat on or leaned against. The space itself doesn’t suggest any function more specific than being inside it. The space between the outer and inner skins could be used for thermal mediation. It may be time to have another look at inflatable architecture.

There’s still the problem of how to aggregate all these units. This is one thing that Nakagin also didn’t lose sight of, even given Kurokawa’s misplaced 20th-century faith that the benefits of prefabrication would ever be applied.

Utopie—Jean-Paul Jungmann, Dyodon—Habitation Pneumatique Expérimentale, 1967, Paris. [Photo: courtesy of Smiljan Radic, New York]

Although its surfaces aren’t very forgiving, Sou Fujimoto’s Wooden House is the best example of wearable architecture I have so far. It’s small, as dwellings will invariably be, but the interior is organized as a piece of multifunctional furniture one is in continuous interaction with. Somewhere in there are empty spaces that can be slept in, sat in, showered in and cooked in. It allows the basic activities of living but without making an architectural or spatial fetish of them. The construction is contrived, absurd and probably environmentally irresponsible but the spaces it creates aren’t. They’re not even spaces in the now-obsolete 20th century sense of the word. So much for space. We simply don’t have the space for it anymore. This space is more like the niches and corners of a void.

This notion of wearable architecture is going to need some fancy name if it’s ever going to gain traction. Something like polyfunctional space or perhaps folded space

Design Reformation

An automobile appeared in this blog only a few weeks ago when I used this image to suggest a nascent postmodernism was, in 1960, already guiding product design in the direction where what a thing meant or represented was more important than what it was or did.

Since that post I’ve become more aware of vehicles. I’ve had to because, In China, pedestrians share crosswalks and footpaths with bicycles and many other species of battery-powered conveyances. In the area I now live, the yellow Meituan are the most common form of pay-as-you-go bicycle. They’re activated by scanning a QR code on the handlebars and deactivated by locking the rear wheel. Payment of ¥1.5 (=US$0.22) per trip is automatically deducted from your preferred means of electronic payment or, you can have a monthly subscription and unlimited trips for ¥7 (=US$1.04). For many people this is the only means of transport they need because Chinese cities are Asian cities in that everything one needs for daily living is dispersed locally throughout. These yellow bicycles don’t have docks but I’ve never seen one on its side or in a river or canal.

In three weeks I’ve seen one person on a skateboard and one more on an electrically assisted bicycle but both were on the controlled environment of campus so maybe that doesn’t count. I’ve not seen anyone anywhere on the European type of electrified scooter (below, left) that even people in Dubai were beginning to use when I left. However, I have seen a few of the one and two seater variants.

By far the most ubiquitous are e-scooters that look much like scooters used to look but now they’re silent and don’t pollute the air, at least not directly. You charge them at your local convenience store – of which there will most likely be at least two within a hundred meters.

Juice bar.

The one on the left below here has a retro Vespa-vibe while the one on the right looks a bit more like an electric scooter might look.

Some are made to resemble internal combustion motorcycles but, to be honest, it’s a bit weird them not making noise or belching CO. In three weeks, I’ve seen only one motorcycle with an internal combustion engine – a Ducati, no less. I was told its annual registration would cost as much as the motorcycle itself.

The lesson here is that it’s easy for a government to disincentivize something if they want. I expect a similarly and necessarily heavy-handed mechanism was how heavy industry was relocated away from first-tier cities such as Shanghai as well as second-tier cities such as Wenzhou where I happen to be.

We’re all familiar with battery-powered people carriers such as these next whether it’s from a golf course, an airport or a shopping mall. As far as I can tell, these ones are mostly used to ferry visitors around campus.

Here’s a ten-seater and a fully-enclosed winter variant. Individual doors are possible when a driver doesn’t have to dispense or check tickets. It’s solving an immediate problem in the simplest way possible. In what seems a long time ago, passenger trains used to be like this. I like how all under-seat space is used for either batteries or axles, and how the rearmost and back-facing bench makes good use of the wheel arches and the overhang.

The Ami is an electric city car manufactured by Citröen and doesn’t require a license to drive. Publicity says its wide doors are rear-hinged on the driver’s side to benefit from better on-board accessibility while the door on the passenger side is traditionally front-hinged. Maybe, but it also reduces manufacturing cost by having identical side panels left and right. Front and rear panels are also substantially similar. This non-directionality of automobile design is something new to us. Streamlining automobiles didn’t make them go faster. Aerodynamics has no effect or meaning at city traffic speeds.

I was reminded of the Ami when I saw this next vehicle that’s a kind of local once-around-the-block shuttle free for everyone but mainly used by schoolchildren and therefore has a driver. Left and right side panels are identical and the central position of the door also creates a front-rear symmetry. Multiple symmetries make for more economic and efficient manufacture and digital design/fabrication and economies of scale produce further cost savings. These are things we always knew but their benefits only occur when those savings are returned to society in the form of mass dissemination and adoption.

We have to make our minds up here – TAKE A STAND! – on whether solving a problem in the simplest way possible is clever design or lazy design. Is design going to be something that merely increases sales and profits, or something that’s going to be used to benefit society by being readily diffused and more accessible to more people? Remember how mass production was supposed to benefit society? Even if we know how to design for mass production it seems we’re only just beginning to understand what designing for mass dissemination means. To state this another way, do we regard design as something that adds value to products or something that adds value to society? By now, this dysfunction is embedded so deep as to be cultural.

The same design and manufacturing logic can be seen in MUJI‘s autonomous electric bus for Finland and Local Motors‘ autonomous, electric, 3D-Printed shuttle for Buffalo, US. There’s some residual design in these little vehicles but they’re all converging towards the same thing. We’re approaching the point where design no longer matters. Gratuitous design may still have something left to give but, with buses such as these, increasingly less opportunity to give it. These buses are close to perfection and have no reason to look like anything else but what they are.

It happens.

Mario Bellini was the Olivetti designer responsible for the design of calculators such as the Olivetti Divisumma 28 (left) and Olivetti Divisumma 18 (right), both from 1973.

He saw the size of calculators shrink during the 1980s until they were solar powered and the size of a credit card.

At this point, he said, design no longer had any meaning. There was nothing left that could be designed. All space for design had been removed. I take this to mean that all space for design to act as a value-adding activity had been removed.

The solar-powered credit-card sized calculator was no longer an object of design but it was to cease even being an object. Even prior to the advent of LED touchscreens, the functions of an “electronic” calculator became just one more set of uses for the buttons and screen of a mobile phone. Olivetti calculators live on in design museums next to Dieter Rams radios and B&O turntables. We never grew that attached to creditcard sized calculators to miss them.

In this blog I don’t normally have much to say about cities. Like landscape or agriculture, it’s not something I feel I know much about. In this image coming up is an unremarkable corner of town. There’s little evidence of design and very little conceptual space for it anyway because most things have already found their optimum arrangement. Some people decry this repetition as repetitious and the lack of design distinction as boring, even ugly. I disagree.

BTW, saying “they all look the same” and “they have no individuality,” “they have no creativity …” is the language of racism alive, functioning, and accepted in the world of architecture.

It’s refreshing not having buildings always in my face asking me to react or have an opinion on a multitude of arbitrary design calls. I like that feeling. It’s extremely relaxing and a kind of architectural quiet we’re wrong to think happens only in the countryside.

These are state government apartment buildings. They’re not delirious. They’re about what people live in and not about how they’re entertained. Most towers will have two apartments per two elevators and one fire stair. Elevators are the only building mechanical system. All apartments have windows on two sides and end apartments also have them on a third. This may or may not be a feng shui thing, but I comprehend it as natural ventilation and appreciate it as through ventilation. All apartments have a balcony for laundry drying and may or may not be the same balcony where the washing machine is located. All kitchens and bathrooms have windows of about one square metre. Cookers have exhaust fans but, as Chinese cooking is often intense, the kitchens also doors to isolate them from the remainder of the dwelling. As for garbage, you sort and take your own downstairs. I use your mobile to scan a QR code to open bins for each of seven classifications. Garbage is weighed and (I’m told) some sort of social credit is rewarded per weight recycled. (The system can’t tell what I’ve thrown away or if I’ve put it in the correct bin.)

A residential complex is a group of about six apartment buildings grouped around a landscaped area providing shared access and amenity. Mine has the local kindergarten. On the other side of the street is a community centre with two coffee shops, a small supermarket, music practice rooms, child minding centre, exhibition space and adult education rooms. All of it is used. Beyond that is a public park with ponds, seating areas, tennis courts and open areas for public participation of some tai-chi variant said to aid digestion. Beyond is the local shopping street and market. This basic urban unit is largely self-contained. It’s mat urbanism solved for access, accommodation and amenity.

The city has its its pockets and clusters of aesthetic noise but not in these fundamental units of urban living. Evenings and weekends are respectfully quiet and this is also very easy to get used to.

Retail areas compensate with acoustic noise in the day and business areas active but silent during the day, compensate with architectural noise at night.


Comfort Zone Part II

This post, written in early May, concludes last week’s Comfort Zone post.

I’ve not been out much lately. The above photo shows my studio apartment in Dubai. I spend a lot of time at that table staring out the window, wondering what to write and, when I’m not doing that, I look at my walls and windows and wonder what they mean. In the photo you can see my three pleasures of cooking/eating in the distance, music and film as represented by the television in the middle-ground and, writing and communications as represented by the desk and laptop in the foreground. That’s most of my life. The air is de-humidified, filtered and tempered to 23.5°C. It’s my bubble, my shelf on the 45th floor, my space station. There’s food in the cupboards. There’s sources of energy and water. This apartment meets my base physiological needs and goes a fair way to meeting my psychological ones too. 

It’s not huge. For a week or so, I felt I had to move all the furniture away from the walls to give me more options to go from one place to another. It felt a bit stupid. I wasn’t about to start running marathons but I did try to exercise using the fire-escape stairs as a Stairmaster but using the car park as a running track was less brutal and the prospect of cardiac arrest less terrifying. 

I liked level four the most because, from there, I could see the frangipani and poinciana trees on the podium of the neighbouring hotel. It’s true – plants cheer us up. It was also good to feel the heat and hear what noises of the city were there to hear because my apartment has neither balcony nor openable window. I never thought I could live in an enclosed apartment, but, in Dubai, I don’t mind as it’s now early May and already 40°C outside. For the past two days, there’s been a dust storm. 

Zaha Hadid once said she could live in a small apartment if it had an interesting view and all I ask of windows now is that they inform me of what’s going on outside. I appreciate how the long side of my apartment has the curtain wall and, though I never lack something to look at, there is such a thing as too much light between May and July. It was open space I was missing. I discovered someone had left the stairwell door to the rooftop open, so I climbed the ladder and stood on the roof of the elevator penthouse. It was no garden, but it felt good to have nothing but sky above.

I’d been lacking space and open space because of the building’s highly segmented design, but I was able to work around those limitations by repurposing other spaces. The car park and rooftop weren’t made for me to use or enjoy the way I did. These experiences were elemental pleasures and not aesthetic pleasures designed in accordance with the same cultural and educational values that generated the problem in the first place.

I read that, in Berlin, the Windowflicks project projected films onto blank walls overlooked by at least twenty apartments. In the evenings, residents could have the shared but distanced experience of watching a movie with their neighbours and, in doing so, enjoy a building in a manner for which it was not designed. This is the creative use of buildings. 

Back inside at my table, I admire the way whoever designed this apartment, used the 1.5 x 1.5 metre column to divide the kitchen and bathroom from the living space. I appreciate this column being there, what it does, and how it looks like it is holding up a building. It owes me no more than that. I don’t begrudge its size. I appreciate how the curtain wall is slightly raked and independent of the column.

Between the two is a small space that doesn’t suggest any use but, if I had a cat, it would surely claim that space as its own. As I don’t, it’s home to my ironing board, vacuum cleaner, and laundry drying rack.

I’m thinking of an architecture in which different systems are simply juxtaposed and allowed to interact. Outside is the building system that I newly interact with via the car park and rooftop. Inside is the apartment system that I move around and interact with in mostly expected ways as far as activities and the placement of furniture is concerned, but I also interact with the space in unplanned ways, as far as the column system, the curtain wall system, and my things are concerned.

This is a different kind of space from functional space designed to satisfy spatial requirements, it is a different kind of space from decadent space designed to be over and above functional requirements, and it is a different kind of space from symbolic space that has some designer point to make, however enigmatic. The space behind the service elevators in these next three apartment plants in Foster+Partners’ 100 East 53rd St. project is similar in being neither functional space nor decadent space disguised as decorative space. It has no agenda.

This idea I’ve been carrying around for decades and have only just been able to articulate it. When I was a student of Shinohara’s, I would often be asked to accompany visitors to the atelier on tours of houses whose owners were amenable to such visits. The owners of House in Uehara were very accommodating and I took visitors there at least three times. In the photograph below you can see this house has concrete struts rising diagonally from the floor. On one visit, the leftmost fork held a month’s worth of newspapers prior to their being bundled and recycled. Underneath the near strut were the two cats’ bowls placed in the only place they couldn’t be kicked. It was a joy seeing people creatively living in their house.

If ever you lay down on a sofa to have a nap and you pull a throw blanket over yourself even though you’re not cold, it’s because your body is more comfortable when it’s allowed to find its own thermal equilibrium. I suspect a similar relationship exists between us and our living spaces, and that we’re more comfortable when we simply live in them in ways that make sense to us. An architecture that’s less prescriptive, but rich in potential for us to arbitrarily engage with it, just might make us feel more alive in these places where we seem to be spending so much of our time.


The Core

The core is a relatively recent invention. Burnham & Root’s 1891 sixteen-storey Monadnock Building in Chicago never had one. What building services there were, were all in the middle of the building but hadn’t yet coalesced into a core. Structural rigidity was afforded by the load-bearing masonry construction.

Steel frame construction and the invention of elevators are always on the list of things that contributed to making tall buildings possible but the notion of the core is never mentioned despite it being a major building element integrating essential functions and services with a structural element positioned for maximum benefit. It allowed for quicker frame construction that was less resource and labour intensive. The modern cores is being made to work even harder with post-tensioned cores and tube structure two such developments. The former has construction advantages and allows a lightweight facade to complement a rigid core, while the latter has structural advantages that arise from the core and rigid perimeter walls creating an integrated structural system.

It’s still a happy accident that elevators, fire-escape stairs and service shafts don’t need windows which means there can be the maximum amount of rentable space on the perimeter. Cantilevering floor slabs means that the shape of the outer skin can change, whether there are balconies or not.

A typical office building of the International Style glass box type would have maximised floor plate area to produce elevations with little or no facade depth, but late 20th century high-rise buildings often had facade “incident” created by varying depths of floor slab cantilevers. Variously wavy, curved or angled facades were for a time an indicator of design effort, if not exactly design, just as shuffly windows once were.

With this next building, the corner columns begin to incline to shrink and grow the floor plates and shapify the building as if in response to some external force.

Architecture never takes good ideas in the direction of greater utility but the idea of a core that contains “core” services and functions in order to allow the periphery of the building to respond to local site conditions is a good one. This is a house designed by Skene Catling de la Peña architects. I mentioned it in The Catalogue House.

The architects’ solution to a catalog house and its conflicting demands of prefabrication and customisation “was to pull all of the complicated bits of the house into a central core, and then have the skin adapt to fit the awkward geometries of the given site.” I still think it would have been more convincing if the core configuration included such “complicated bits” as plumbing and services. Fireplaces are neither a complicated nor a necessary part of a house, and the houses of Yo Shimada show that getting from A to B doesn’t require a massive and symbolic feature. [c.f. Career Case Study #10: Yo Shimada]

This next house we know well. It has all the complicated bits grouped together but not as a structural element and only nominally as a spatial divider. This service core doesn’t free up the periphery of the house to respond to local site conditions (although the kitchen does face the less picturesque view). The perimeter walls have little to do other than provide a protective enclosure as the core function of a house.

This 1972 furniture unit by Joe Colombo isn’t much different. It supposedly enables all the activities of living and is a self-contained and 100% designed functional unit for some arbitrary shell to house..

The next apartment combines both approaches. [c.f. Cold Logic vs. Warm Logic] Services and utilities are grouped into a single unit that functions as a spatial divider. Moreover, the apartments are stacked and the shaft linking them is visible in the gap between the roof of this unit and the underside of the slab above and makes the apartment seem more spacious than it is.

In the Farnsworth House the effect of the continuous ceiling “floating” above the service core is somewhat killed by that gap being partially filled by boxing concealing a chimney, at least one soil vent pipe, and, more recently, some A/C ducting. You can see the A/C units in the image below right.

The word core turns out to be a slippery thing. The conventional definition has service and circulation shafts grouped into a single element that also has a major structural function. We also have service cores that group services but may offer some spatial dividend in lieu of a structural one. And there is also the notion of core functions that may be essential but not central – as in in the middle. We therefore have core structure, core services and core function. To this we could also add core meaning in the sense of FLW’s hearth as the heart of the home, and as with the fireplace/staircase house earlier.

Despite the problem of deciding what is core and what is not, and on what level, it remains a good idea to standardise the design and production of the unchanging and crucial parts of a building and to direct design effort to those parts for which site factors necessitate some degree of customisation.

Doing this means that at least part of a building can be optimised even if it is impossible or unlikely that the whole will be. True, some super-optimised solution could emerge from designing everything with regard for everything else but, by the time that solution is arrived at (or the millions of iterations pondered), there may well have been a change in the supply chain or some other environmental factor. It might be better, at the outset, to limit the amount of new design work to location-specific factors only, and to roll out a standard design for THE CORE, whatever it will turn out to be. I don’t mean standard in the sense of some run-of-the-mill, lowest common denominator design but something that has been optimised as best it can be. It is standard in the sense of the new standard and only changed when it can be improved.

It’s still a bit early to call Core Design a thing but many buildings have a standard floor plate with a series of spaces either opening off a corridor or having the potential to, and those standard floor plates are then stacked and vertically linked by service and circulation shafts.There’s a lot here that doesn’t need designing from scratch each time. The core spaces of hotels, prisons, dormitories, apartment buildings, asylums and hospitals are all interchangeable. [c.f. Machines for Living Longer] If you remember, Colditz Castle has been a residential castle, a prison, a nursing home, a hospital and a psychiatric clinic, and is currently a museum and youth hostel.It makes me think it might be more beneficial to think of the core in terms of functions and to work towards optimising those.