Tag Archives: what is the future of architecture?

Final Reductions!

Just like any multinational with a product to shift, Architecture has always adapted to expand its market downwards as growth at the top end slows. When the market for palaces faltered, Palladio was there with his palazzo product. And when the market for stately homes dried up, Webb and Voysey came along and the suburban home is suddenly Architecture. The beginning of the nineteenth century saw architecture embrace lowly commerce and the beginning of this one has it eyeing various forms of multiple occupation.

The notion of the architect as ornament explains much of what happens at the higher end of the market where perception management operates strongest but people at the lower end are not unaware If one third of the planet’s population now owns a smartphone then probably one more third wants one, and whether they have mobile reception or not. In the same way purveyors of cigarettes, alcohol, smartphones and social media platforms move downwardly into untapped markets not to expand but to survive, architecture is the ornament that adds value to property and raw materials. If we run with this analogy of architecture acting like a multinational in an ethics-free zone, then the globalisation of upmarket architecture wasn’t a positive thing. It’s not like there’s a resultant surge of contentment in the world. The populations of countries importing architecture received nothing except some fuzzy feeling their country could afford something other countries couldn’t and all the populations of the exporting countries received was a fuzzy feeling their country was producing something others wanted.

Admiring some new bauble for what it is [or isn’t] isn’t much different from admiring favelas as slum–porn. Both only serve to distract us from what’s happening in our own countries. Never has the need to house people at home and the lack of ideas for how to do it been so great. Increasingly, fewer people expect to own a detached house like their grandparents in the 1950s assumed they would and probably did.

We’re now seeing not only alternative building typologies but alternative forms of tenure as well as a rise in single-person and other non-conventional households and types of occupancy. Our housing isn’t adapting quickly enough to meet these changes and, even if it did, it would have to be provided at increasingly lower cost for it to satisfy the same need.

Architecture won’t save us. It’s traditionally been thought of as something different from building and it is. All Buildings require money, land and the right to build in order to exist. To this, Architecture adds the representation of wealth, property and power. There’s little hope some amazing new typology will arrive to fix things. The slab block and the tower block are both mature tyopologies and, whatever one may think of them as Architecture, they’re still bound by the fundamental building constraints of land, materials and labour. One or more of them has to give.

Lower Costs: Affordable housing attempts to cut costs for all three yet still maintain social and municipal norms for construction and spatial standards. The same cannot always be said for the private sector but IKEA, Kazuhiko Namba and MUJI have been doing their best on all three fronts. [c.f. The Catalogue HouseArchitecture Misfit #32: Kazuhiko Namba, The MUJI House]

Increasing Density: This works to lower land costs and at the same time achieve economies of scale for construction and labour. Again, we can’t expect much new on this front. We cannot continue to assume any economies gained will be re-invested in further production in some win-win feedback loop.

Lower-priced land: This is what outer suburbs are. About the time of the Case Study Houses, architects eyed land that was lower-priced because it was difficult to build on (but still had great views). Similarly, architectural invention has been said to occur on land next to railway tracks, or under high-voltage lines.

Suddenly, architecture is silent when it comes to innovative ideas to build on flood plains and low-lying coastal areas in the paths of hurricanes.

Prefabrication: These next two mid-twentieth century proposals danced around the idea of prefabrication as a way of reducing production costs. The proposal on the left from 1969 by the then Richard Rogers accommodates residual functional division by folding internal partitions (sometimes known as doors) and the one on the right from 1950 accommodates it using an amorphous shape. We were duly amused. Neither came to pass.

Until the mid-1960s, economies gained from cheaper production methods were more likely to be returned to society in the form of more available and more affordable housing. People may deride the Soviet prefabricated apartment blocks of the Khruschev era as ugly ­and by Postmodern wordplay ‘inhumane’ but, in 1975 every Soviet citizen had a place to live. Postmodernism cannot claim that success, but it did succeed in destroying the will to do it again. In 2015, Sir Richard Rogers was either being obtuse or disingenuous by continuing to believe prefabrication would save the world.

Humans obviously have the capability to prefabricate things but the fact prefabrication hasn’t delivered its promised benefits is not the fault of the process but of overpromising its “benefits” to people who were never going to be the ones to “benefit” from them. [Can someone please write the Das Kapital of architecture?]

Archigram, Plug-In City, 1964–1970

Shrinkage: Attempting to lower costs (a.k.a  maintain profit margins) by making dwellings smaller only forestalls the time when land, materials and labour become prohibitively expensive again. Smaller rooms in smaller houses on smaller sites mean less resources are required to build houses with equivalent functionality. The single-family house has been more tenacious as an architectural typology than the single families they’re supposed to house but, largely due to the Japanese, houses occupying 100% of their sites are now accepted as architecture.

In Western societies, tiny houses are presented and understood as a whimsical upmarket diversion rather than as a solution to a downmarket housing problem but even communities of tiny houses or RVs require land to be privately or collectively purchased or leased.

Cities don’t have the land for that. It’s not difficult to find and see images of what extreme shrinkage looks like in Hong Kong or even Tokyo where people have to live with little space inside a building owned by someone else.

Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Tiny apartments such as the one above are still luxury compared to the coffin apartment which is a degraded capsule hotel. Nevertheless, coffin apartments still remain within the realm of dwellings provided by someone, even if the word dwelling is now being stretched to breaking point and the driver for that provision is profit rather than any social good. We’re not there yet, but we have parallels in our own societies.

• • •

Informal settlements arise when dwellings aren’t provided by any external party. The dwellings comprising them are self-built to satisfy bare minimum needs for shelter and safety. Their construction is not regulated in any sense we recognise and there is no surplus for ornament or any other kind of architectural pretence. Informal settlements are going to be a reality for more people in the future because there’s little hope of affordable housing being made more affordable through traditional ways of lowering of the costs of resources, land and labour.

For a long time now our architecture has not been drawing its traditional inspiration from the architecture of the wealthy. When having any kind of place to live is the best that the dominant market for dwellings can aspire to, it follows that architecture will shift in that direction. We are creeping towards an architecture that incorporates what is taken as given in informal settlements.

Ad-hoc architecture: The pursuit of the apparently random is architecture’s way of aestheticising the procurement that occurs in the construction of informal settlements.

Less architecture: When the provision of a minimum quantity of space is paramount, the shape of that space is more likely to be determined by economies of materials and structure. This is H Arquitectes’ Casa Barcelona.

There are no contrivances of planning and construction and their associated expense. Space is first created and then divided and allocated. A sequence of spaces is still present but without decadent hallways and corridors.

Consolidation: Not assigning a dedicated space to every function is something we’ve come to accept as an expression of Modernity (and its “freer, more open way of living”) but, as an example of perception management following development gain, larger and less fragmented spaces are easier and cheaper to enclose and construct.

This is now acceptable even in supposedly luxury apartments as supposedly busy and active people leading supposedly fulfilling lives in the big city eat out while networking and/or socializing. I’ve mentioned the decline of the kitchen before [c.f. Architecture Reductionsbut there are signs the bathroom is now on the verge of being consolidated [c.f. The Open Bathroom]. The future is one room for everything. For many people, living in one room was always the norm.

Lower quality, less expensive materials: The early work of Lacaton & Vassal adopted the North Africa talent for solving an immediate problem in the most pragmatic way possible. These architecture of these buildings approaches that of informal settlements by usinglow-cost materials to enclosure maximum space in the simplest way possible.

• • •

If chasing economies of resources land and labour is going to be for the sake of the producers and not the consumers, then something else will give.

The sharing of living space itself: In tandem with reducing the costs of resources, land and labour, co-housing and alternative forms of tenure work to lower peoples’ expectations of housing.

Giving up on the ownership of land: Tiny houses may be the smiley face of mobility but legally parked yet illegally inhabited RVs are a type of informal settlement. People haven’t had to put their dwelling together from salvaged scrap but it’s no less an informal settlement. There’s not that much difference between this

and this.

• • •

The people in the village of Tiébélé in Burkina Faso might be able to teach us a thing or two about living in one-room houses self-built from materials of little value on land of little value. These houses show an awareness of being part of something greater and two, for taking pride in that.

Though not self-built, this student housing in Munich has something of the same spirit.


Architecture Reductions

What else is there we can happily do without but just don’t know it yet?

ORNAMENT: This was once thought essential to any building with pretensions to architecture. Life went on without it. We managed.


After a while we missed it, decided to give it another chance….

Twice burned, these days we mostly ornament our buildings with ideas … concepts … contexts for understanding that fill our heads and turn the most prosaic building into a temple to art. These contexts don’t even need to be true. Talk is cheap but still ornament, still criminal.

LARGE GROUNDS: The idea of having large grounds or even small gardens showing off a building such as a house or villa to good advantage proved to be a very resilient one


but, in the end it gave way and now, thanks largely to the Japanese, buildings don’t need to be seen across a large piece of land in order to be considered architecture. (It was always possible to live in such buildings.) In general, housing people in ways that use less land and resources, and in more spatially efficient ways can only be a good thing. Although Architecture was initially reluctant to follow suit, it had no choice but to follow the money.


HEARTHS: It’s a similar story with hearths. Frank Lloyd Wright was a fan but, again, we manage to do quite okay without. Every now and then along comes a house like Olson Kundig‘s Tye River Cabin to remind us what we’re missing out on but, in general, we don’t mind living in houses without a core structural element sold to us as symbolic “heart”. Good riddance to narrative dishonesty!

Tye river cabin

ROOMS: The twentieth century saw houses have fewer walls separating functional units.

Having no functional units, the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion had nothing to do with this but it did send the message that walls not supporting anything could still be classy.


Kitchens became connected to living areas via dining areas. There was still a functional differentiation of areas but less of a physical one. Philip Johnson’s Glass House has nothing to do with this for Mr. Johnson had separate buildings for each of his domestic functions. The Glass House was merely his salon for receiving guests. Elsewhere, internal walls became fewer, and then became screens,


finally atrophying into pieces of furniture known as “room dividers”, before disappearing completely.


We came to accept that whatever living entails these days can take place in the same space. This was fact long ago in small apartments but it’s now the norm in upmarket apartments.


So what else can go? What else are we needlessly hanging onto out of inertia or fear of the unknown? Is there something we’re not seeing and that we might as well get used to living without now, before it gets presented to us as innovation and we’re asked to pay a premium for it? Here’s my selections for what can go next. 

KITCHENS AS A CONCEPT: The kitchen itself has been on the way out for a long time now – at least since the 1920s. We saw in Fun!tionalism how NY kitchens have devolved to approximate 1930s Soviet minimum space standards with the idea of a “kitchen alcove”.


However, even in this studio apartment, the idea of a kitchen is still present as a cluster of items in a dedicated space, however tiny. In this next apartment, there’s something primitive about people gathering around a source of warmth and food.


Lacaton & Vassal’s Trignac housing does without such conceptual clutter. Meet the future.

Lacaton Vassal . 23 dwellings . Trignac (11)

BOURGEOIS INTERIORS: These are some more conceptual baggage that’s taking a long time to die. Here’s a photo from a recent Curbed newsletter. Is seems to be saying your 375 sq.ft will feel like a proper home if you stuff it with fresh flowers, neutral colours and slightly quirky objets d’art. Aspirational consumption is the problem not the solution.


The bourgeois interior is noticeably absent from the work of Lacaton & Vassal. This is their Mulhouse housing development.


Just as High-Tech’s obsession with served and servant spaces could only have been an English invention, the rejection of the bourgeois interior could only be a French one. The side effect of delivering more living space per unit money is that choice and arrangement of furniture is no longer dictated by minimum furniture standards in the public housing sector,

001 Principle of Stackable Flats

or by the twin conventions of room design and furniture arrangement in the market housing sector.


BOURGEOIS EXTERIORS: Ahh John Lautner’s Arango House. A guilty pleasure. Do we appreciate the infinite space? Or are we merely magically transported to a world where we can spend our lives looking across the water at Acapulco? A roof to keep the rain off? External walls? They’re for losers. Along with balustrades. The guy knew what he was doing.


Similarly, Lacaton & Vassal’s Lapatie House has not much in the way of roof and external walls. I was surprised to learn the architects had envisaged this low-cost and lo-tech external space being used as a garden. Instead, the Lapaties put all their furniture in it and mostly live there.

lapatie house interior

QUALITY MATERIALS, EXQUISITELY CRAFTED, PREFERABLY BY HAND: Getting rid of these three is what making less do more is all about. L&V again.


DESIGN FEATURES: This is Mirco Baum’s 1994 House in Roentgen. Why should every building component have to be a design feature? Why should one door be conceptually more important than another? After all, you only need to go through a door once to know what’s on the other side. More images here, on ofHouses.  For plans, here.

THE PLAN: I’ve mentioned Pezo von Ellrichshausen Architects’ Casa Meri before. Humans are adaptable. As long as they’ve some space they can organise themselves and their stuff to suit their activities, routines and preferences. Living doesn’t need to have all this artifice of planning, contrivance of construction, and associated expense.


Casa Meri does away with certain conventions of planning and construction but, granted, it does at the same time introduce some new contrivances. Noted.

DESIGN: Components and windows don’t necessarily have to be prefabricated to offer time, cost and construction efficiencies in a similar way as the plan above. Each activity needing light doesn’t need its own window to light it. Each thing needing looking at doesn’t need a window of dedicated shape and size.


Design won’t go easily, either as a concept or an activity. We’re currently locked in a phase of forced difference and pseudo-randomness clocking up design hours. The windows of this house can be seen as either highly contrived, as completely artless, or contrivedly artless. Nevertheless, efficiencies and economies are to be had by solving similar problems in similar ways. The problem lies in where to place the boundary between same and different. If the boundary is set too high then the level of individual adaption becomes intrusive and onerous. If the boundary is too low we sleepwalk through our habitats, only noticing them when we tire of them.

PRIVACY: The progression of spaces from public to private is a modern invention we take for granted as being a good thing. Once again, the Japanese are at the forefront challenging cultural and architectural conventions. Here’s some apartments designed by SANAA. In the top left apartment you’ll see a combined bathroom and entry hall. A similar arrangement occurs in apartment D, towards the centre. With apartment G, ground floor stairs pass through the first floor bathroom on the way to the second floor living space.


If shafts in an apartment building have to be maintained, then there’s a spatial logic to sequencing spaces away from a communal corridor and point of entry corridor in terms of activity time – after all, how many times a day does one enter and leave an apartment? I’d only ever seen such an arrangement before in Horden Cherry Lee’s microhouse.

Many apartments have the bathroom adjacent to the front door. Perhaps in twenty years we’ll all be entering via the bathroom. In some apartments we may as well.


Entering into the kitchen is already commonplace. Conceptually, the front door has atrophied to a service entry.


• • •

Some aspects of what we currently think of as architecture or at least good practice can be easily dispensed with. Others may take longer. The idea of the home as hearth was soon exposed as a sham by technological advances in heating and insulation and, later, by alternative forms of entertainment. The idea of combining activities previously separated by walls meant it was possible to build houses cheaper and with less materials despite being popularised as progressive. Lacaton & Vassal have repeatedly demonstrated that their integrated approach to materials, planning and construction can produce life-enhancing spaces and places for humans to live and function. It doesn’t really matter if their buildings contain architecture. Architecture will sooner or later adjust itself to assimilate them.