FOCUS ON CRITICAL ARCHITECTURE
NO ART FORM IS MORE TIGHTLY ENTWINED WITH SOCIETY THAN ARCHITECTURE. OF COURSE, THAT IS INHERENT TO ITS FUNCTIONALITY. WE NEED ARCHITECTURE TO LIVE IN AND WORK IN, FOR OUR RELAXATION AND FOR OUR HEALTH. IMPLICIT TO THIS INTERWEAVING IS THAT ALL THE CHALLENGES FACING SOCIETY ARE EQUALLY APPLICABLE TO ARCHITECTURE. AND THERE IS NO SCARCITY OF CHALLENGES: CLIMATE CHANGE, DECLINING BIODIVERSITY, COLLAPSING COMMUNITIES, SYSTEMATIC DISCRIMINATION AND THE LOSS OF PRIVACY, TO MENTION SOME OF THE MOST URGENT ISSUES.
Architects are generally conscious of this state of affairs, and they do their best to find intelligent solutions within the limits of their contracts. Buildings are becoming more energy-efficient, the ecological footprint is shrinking, the circular economy is taken more seriously, and there is a growing awareness that functionality must include societal motives such as community cohesion. These concerns affect all kinds of projects, whether housing development, office building, a sports complex or an educational facility. The question is whether the project successfully stimulates encounters, or whether the physical design leaves people feeling excluded.
Inevitably, architects are likely to encounter the limits of their métier when taking on these challenges. Whatever intentions they may have to contribute to a better, more harmonious and open world, they still depend on their clients and on the rules of finance and economy that dominate the production and commerce of real estate. To put it more bluntly, the architect has little choice but to dirty his or her hands in the building process. The impact of architecture on the environment is profound, and the pressure to use polluting and energy-hungry resources is hard to avoid. Some architects, however, are willing to defy these constraints and to push the envelope of their profession. In their outlook, the process of change is too slow and the innovations are too cautious, too superficial or too ineffective. With small-scale and largely inexpensive projects, they interrogate the fundamentals of architecture and propose new attitudes to building materials, to the dominant culture, to the natural surroundings and to the building or the locale in which the project is situated. The work of these architects is usually termed experimental or critical. Other architects too can profit from their example: their radical research yields a rich source of ideas that may inspire others to approach their projects differently.
COURTYARD HOUSE PLUGIN Beijing, China
Many villages and neighbourhoods in China have been demolished without a second thought. People were forced to leave their houses, with the result that social ties of tight-knit communities have been destroyed and layers of history are lost forever. Courtyard House Plugin by People’s Architecture Office (Beijing) is an award winning prefabricated modular system for urban regeneration. By using a house-within-a-house approach, the system offers an inexpensive alternative to short-term profit driven redevelopment. It is the main feature of the Dashilar Project, an initiative aimed at upgrading a neighbourhood in the historic core of Beijing. Dashilar is characterized by narrow alleys and old courtyard houses. The hutong has resisted change, giving it a rare charm. But the area also has limited infrastructure, no sewage lines and houses with little insulation. To face this dilemma, People’s Architecture Office developed a prefabricated composite panel that can incorporate structure, insulation, wiring, plumbing, windows, doors, interior and exterior finishes.
Within one year, Courtyard House Plugin has expanded from an experimental prototype to a systematic solution, which People’s Architecture Office has applied across Dashilar. So far fourteen Plugins have been completed. The panels are light, easy to handle and inexpensive to ship. They snap and lock together with a single hex key. The entire Plugin structure can be assembled by a few people in just one day, requiring no specific skills or training. The result is a well-sealed and insulated interior that reduces energy costs by one third. The costs of a Courtyard House Plugin are half those of a renovation and about a fifth of a new courtyard house. It can be applied to derelict properties that have been vacant for years, as well as to houses of local residents who want a higher standard of living without having to relocate. Residents who opt for the Plugin system are offered a subsidy as an additional incentive for investing in their house.
ARCHITECT: PEOPLE’S ARCHITECTURE OFFICE Photos: People's Architecture Office
Photos: Iwan Baan
(SYNANTHRO)LOVE SHACK Madrid, Spain
In a series of small-scale projects, the Madrid-based Husos Architects investigates how architecture can relate more sustainably to the natural surroundings, and how the design can do justice to the subculture of its clients. The (Synanthro)Love Shack, located in a pine forest on the outskirts of Madrid, exemplifies these aspirations well. Not only does the project provide housing for a gay couple with South American roots, but it promotes care for the woodland flora and fauna. There are good reasons for that. The ecology of the forest is suffering from an erosion of biodiversity. The pine trees have become vulnerable to recurrent infestations of pine processionary caterpillars, which strip the trees of their greenery and potentially kill them. Meanwhile the birds and bats that would otherwise prey on the larvae and adult processionary moths are growing scarcer. Poisons have been deployed to control the destructive caterpillars but the outcome has only been to tip the ecological balance even further. The declining bird and bat population is itself partly a product of forest mismanagement: too many mature trees, which used to offer places for nesting and shelter, have been felled.
Husos Architects had little faith in the efforts to combat the caterpillars with chemicals. They therefore designed accommodation not only for human couples but for bats and birds too: they girded the cabin exterior with elegantly designed nesting boxes, and provided shelters for bats in the trees. In all respects, Husos Architects have demonstrated an acute awareness of the environmental pressures. For example, they extended a net in front of the transparent doors to prevent birds from accidentally crashing into the glass. To minimize energy consumption, the cabin was conceived as a construction of prefabricated pinewood panels. The interior spaces of the cabin are multifunctional: the couple can combine living with teleworking, and they can comfortably take in visiting friends and family. The bedroom is replaced by a sleeping capsule, and the working area is easily transformed into a dining room or visitor accommodation. The roof functions as an open-air living area, with hammocks and a projection screen centred around the living/kitchen space. Modest though the cabin is, these creative solutions allow for a diversity of uses so that the cabin seems much larger than it is.
ARCHITECT: HUSOS ARCHITECTS Photos: Luis Diaz Diaz and Impcot
BIG BROTHER HOUSE, Helsinki, Finland
Every building project creates waste. It happens not only during the production of building materials, but also in the course of construction, refurnishing, renovation and demolition. Categorically dismissing this aspect would be naive. We happen to live in a society with production and consumption as its essence – there is no escape. The projects of the Finnish firm Casagrande Laboratory can therefore be better seen as proposals to meditate on, as ways of developing a poetic liaison. Something that is redundant or derelict attains a second life in a new context, so that we, as users, can relate in a deeper way with how we live and who we are. In that light, we can understand the interest taken by Casagrande Laboratory in building an accommodation for the Big Brother reality show amid the Redi shopping mall in Helsinki. Few buildings projects are more short-lived than the setting of a television programme. The construction can be dispensed with as soon as recording is finished. A setting of this kind is hence the supreme instance of our attitude to building materials. Planting a Big Brother house amid a Valhalla of consumerism contributes to the critical calibre of the project. Designing a setting entirely from new materials was, for Casagrande Laboratory, out of the question. Design is inseparable from the production of new goods and is regarded as an aesthetic manifestation of modernity. Uncritically participating and laying on even more design struck Casagrande as a bad idea. So the Big Brother house in Helsinki, where two seasons of the programme were recorded in 2019, was made entirely of redundant, forgotten or discarded paraphernalia. With an expert and loving eye, building workers collected the unwanted materials and objects from building sites, garbage heaps and storage depots. You could say that the Big Brother house was built on rumours: the builders were quick enough to respond to any information leaked about a building due for demolition or superfluous materials about to be discarded. The recycled materials were by no means perfect, clean or sterile. On the contrary, they had enjoyed a rich, adventurous life and bore unmistakable traces that bore witness to their past. Loose tiles were collected, cement-encrusted bricks gathered around to form a fireplace, and much-used sheets of corrugated aluminium radiated a special kind of warmth. Camouflage nets, among other things, were draped around the Big Brother house to give it the appearance of an improvised fort.