Readapt the Habitat

For those of you who are familiar with some of my previous posts, you may have realised that I have slight soft spot for personal architectural modifications (here are some links for this ironic understatement, here, here and here).  So it seems logical to devote a post to this topic, where I can gluttonously indulge my interest in architecture that has been modified to align with the personal needs of its inhabitants. This was actually going to be a small post about Le Corbusier, but things got a little outer-hand…

Cite Fruges, Pessac | Le Corbusier

“I don’t know whether it occurred to Le Corbusier twenty-five years ago, but it’s quite an easy matter to convert them, in fact you you can do more or less as you please … I have no idea what … whether it occurred to him, but you can certainly rearrange things to suit yourself … You can make two rooms out of this one by dividing it down the middle… which would be completely in line with present day design … Oh! There are all sorts of possible arrangements… You know, my husband has made thirty-six different designs.”

Female No. 10, Lived-in Architecture– Le Corbusier’s Pessac Revisited, pg 115 

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To begin in Bordeaux, France, we have an early Corbusian (in collaboration with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret) housing scheme, commissioned by the industrial polymath Henry Fruges, and completed in 1924. In its unaltered form the project serves as an epochal example of Le Corbusier’s work during this period, with its cruise liner crispness, strict adherence to the famous 5-points and unadorned concrete structures. The layout of the houses takes influence from Tony Garnier and the Garden City movement, with each unit’s generous garden space giving it an almost suburbanite quality.  Le Corbusier used  2 standardized units (5x5m and 2.5x5m) in the composition of the homes, arranging them like giant Froebel blocks to generate a variety of housing typographies.

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My curiosity doesn’t just concern the project in its embryonic state, but in the evolution of the buildings as the residents began to appropriate them. This interest stems from a small book from the 1970s entitled Lived-in Architecture– Le Corbusier’s Pessac Revisited by Philippe Boudon, which does something rare in architectural edification by presenting an empirical analysis of a project devoid of any ulterior motives.

Fruges

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What the book reveals is that the inhabitants, far from passively living in their unadorned boxes, began to rigorously modify their homes to meet their own tastes and lifestyles. By applying the same spirit of reconfiguration, similar to the vernacular lean-on houses in the locality, the international style was regionalized by its occupants. It is here that an unforeseen side of the early Corbusian concepts of the Dom-ino house and the 5 points is revealed – an ideal platform for the projection of the inhabitant’s desires.

5 POINTS

It presents a new interpretation of the now dreaded modernist concept, the tabula rasa, or in English the blank slate. But now instead of it being a planning concept involving the obliteration of the sites stratums of history/context, it is manifested in the building itself, where the architect provides the space for the occupant to fill in.

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Le Corbusier, who apparently considered this project a failure, stated that the tenant “must change his outlook”, but unbeknownst to him, it was the tenant who with great ease changed the architecture. It is this permissibility for alterations that should be celebrated -however unforeseeable they might’ve been.

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Sky House | Kiyonori Kikutake

According to the book Project Japan, the 1947 Landform Act saw the purchase of vast swathes of land from the aristocratic landowners to be resold to farmers. The Japanese architect Kiyonori Kikutake, who came from an aristocratic landowning family, apparently saw this as a gross indignation, thus providing an impetus for his various architectural proposals involving the reconfiguration between man and ground. These include the Marine City, the Stratiform and the Sky House. It is in the later that we observe an amalgamation of influences, but its the metabolic aspect –metabolism meaning growth and evolution – that I find most intriguing.

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The house’s relationship with Metabolism is interesting, as in my opinion it demonstrates two varying sides of the movement and its concepts. Originally the house featured an open concrete-framed rectangular underbelly, permitting the installation of various ‘move-nets’ to accommodate its fluctuating functions. These pre-fabricated components included anything from basic sanitary features, to a child’s room that hung from the underbelly of the home (apparently the well-girthed James Stirling almost got stuck in one). This side of the house casts it in the same light as Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Towers, where the growth of the building is through the replacement and installation of various pre-fab elements. This idea is taken to extremes in the hyper-consumerism of Archigram’s Peter Cook’s Plug-In city, where every part of the built environment has been quantified into a plug-in i.e. a discernible, sellable product. Cuteness masking commerce?

Kikutake 2.1

However, where I think the building really becomes exquisitely fascinating is when it moves to the Fumihiko Maki side of Metabolism – the natural ad-hoc growth found in what Maki terms group form. As Kikutake’s family expanded and grew, so did the house, but it did so without the continual addition of ‘move-nets’. Instead, the free space around the stilts was utilized in a manner similar to the occupants at Pessac who transfigured their Modernist homes. Subsequently the Sky-House begins to literally become grounded as numerous extensions fill its lower half, until eventually the house loses its ‘float’ becoming a totally new building.

Sky House

British Terraces | An Innocuous Façade and a Riotous Backyard

I always thought that there was something quintessentially Victorian about the physiognomy of British terraces. Their public street facade is uniformed and polite, but hiding behind this innocuous front lingers all sorts of ad-hoc appendages from plastic dormers and prefabricated glasshouses, to semi-legal garden sheds, used for anything but the storage of horticultural tools.

Terraces

It’s formula is simple – long stretches of green space demarcated by 3 fences and a house;  a blank slate for a melange of residential additions. Due to planning regulations that treat the countryside as a visual amenity whose history ended around the time William Morris died, the suburbs are one of the main generators of modern British vernacular architecture.

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Coordinate and Generate | Walter Segal and Cedric Price

Cedric Price is a purveyor of anticipatory architecture and memorable maxims. His works are a form of reflexive architecture that places the ‘user’ centre stage, opening up a range of spatial and social possibilities that might have hitherto been unseen. Time, as stated by Price, is architecture’s fourth dimension, and it’s this fascination with the fluctuations in peoples -and occasionally animals- habitats that forms the premise for much of his work.

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Price’s unbuilt Generator Project was commissioned by an American paper company to serve as a forestry retreat for its staff and cliental. The site was to be divided into a square grid, upon which a series of modular timber framed cubes and screens would be placed by a crane. Foregoing any form of static abode, the project acted as a ‘menu’ for the users who could utilise a computer to create a habitat based on their preferences.

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Another idiosyncratic element was the computers ability to develop a sense of inertia, and thus begin to develop new layouts for the user incase tautology crept in. John Frazer, a student of cyberneticist Gordon Pask, was a consultant for the project who developed this system via a series of microchips imbedded in each one of the various components.

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Much like Price’s fluid and ambiguous drawings the project has an amorphous quality, refuting any form of predefined use or permanent shape. Instead, it supplements and challenges the users imagination by allowing them to create and adapt their own fleeting pieces of architecture.  Walter Segal is another architect who endeavoured  to provide the user/inhabitant/homo-sapian-occupier with a greater control over their built habitat. This was done through a universal system of building, that would allow laymen and women to erect their own buildings without the need for any particular expertise. To simplify an already simplified method, these self-build plans made the construction process more comprehensive by reducing it to a set of basic instructions, akin to constructing a giant meccano set.

Segal

This method was first developed by Segal when he built a temporary home in the bottom of his suburban garden in Highgate, London (as seen in the below images). A number of Segal inspired projects are scattered across Britain, most notably in London and Brighton. The later saw the erection of a number of dwellings located on the tip of one of Brighton’s suburbs, and was subject to its own Grand Design episode. For non UK residents, Grand Designs is a television programme that functions as a visual morphine for a country that has one of the lowest rates of individually built homes in Europe.

Segal2

Through simplifying the construction process and eliminating the need for wet trades such as brick-laying and plastering, the homes become instantly adaptable through the ease in which they can handle modifications. They could technically be dismantled and re-approriated by the very same people that built them, something that would appeal to Cedric Price’s anti-preservatonist sensibilities.

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Derelict Chic | Fetishisation of Anarchic Landscapes

There is a current trend in UK architectural schools involving the creation of quasi-dystopias. These proposals eschew the intimidating and complex multiplicities of the present day by retreating into a self-engineered future that allows for a neat by-pass of all those ungainly restrictions. The presumption is that creativity comes not from the intellectual response to worldly limits, but via the release of these boundaries,  supposedly resulting in a highly erudite composition. Unlike previous paper architectural projects, which acted like laboratory experiments for future projections, these student-generated projects lean towards an indulgent, painfully adolescent, sci-fi landscape. J.G Ballard and Lebbeus Woods are presented as the pontiffs, but the resultant projects are at their worst like a James Cameron movie sans scriptwriter, and at best a very delicious work out for the author’s illustration skills.

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Kowloon Walled City - A generous source for photoshoped architectural collages 

Here we have architecture’s version of what Tom Wolfe calls ‘Radical Chic’ – a frivolous fixation on slums, barrios, and other anarchic structures that celebrates their derelict chic from the safe distance of the computer screen. This may seem unduly harsh to these students, so to clarify, my criticism is not directed at them but at the tutors who proliferate this modus operandi. 

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Torres David | Urban Thinktank

Diatribe over, when I first saw this study skimming across the blogosphere, I was suffering a malaise from all those aforementioned projects, and thought it was another piece of poverty porn. However, when I saw the names of those involved – the most excellent Urban Thinktank and Justin McGuirk- I realised that I had missed placed my initial doubt and immediately went and brought the accompanying book, which is also very delectable.

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The study in question involves the Torre David, a large abandoned commercial complex located in the heart of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas . To sum up briefly, the Torres David was originally designed to house a combination of offices, commercial units and a luxurious hotel complex. Construction commenced during the early 90s but was halted by the onset of a Venezuelan baking crisis that crippled the countries economic structure. Lying dormant for over a decade, it was occupied by a group squatters that emerged from the slum quarters of Caracas named the Barrios, who began to reapropriate the structure to suite their own housing needs.

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Going in the face of popular trends involving the benefits of non-hierarchical networks, the success and longevity of Torres David is dependent on a firmly set co-operative hierarchy that was engineered by the residents themselves.  As stated by the authors of the study this is a type of autocratic-democracy, a combination of bottom up democratic discussion that influences top-down decision making. The result is a set of rules, including a 3 strike policy for misbehaving inhabitants, and procedures for accepting new inhabitants that’ve seem to help create a relative stability in the complex, allowing for its further development.

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Curiously, I believe that this idea of organisation is reflect in the architecture of the building itself. The skeleton of the unfinished building provides a solid and fixed framework, but due to its lack of specificity it unwittingly gifts any would be squatter with a flexible –if initially precarious- stage for a deluge of future developments. Not only does Torre David appear to be a type of modern hybrid building, complete with a heterogeneous mix of programmes and functions, but it is also a vertical community. An idea that streches back to Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation and the Familistère but was dampened by the death dance  performed by the Post-Modernists on the ruins on Pruitt Igoe.  

torre david 1

With this in mind, the ideas of Yona Friedman come to fore, in particular his Ville Spatiale  project, which has appeared in various forms – it is in fact ‘soft’ and formless- throughout Friedman’s career. As he is well known for his cartoons, and perhaps sadly undervalued because of his narrative use of the medium, it feels appropriate to use one here, taken from the book Pro Domo.

yona 1

This Life cartoon –made famous by a Delirious little book about New York – displays a rare clairvoyance in its prognostication that skyscrapers could one day be used as a type of libertarian  (sub)urban platform. I find Torre Davis fascinating as it presents a new interpretation of the skyscraper; one that is in stark contrast to the vertical one-liners that occupy so much of the medias attention.

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PREVI, Lima | Various Architects

PREVI is a housing project that resides in the Peruvian capital of Lima, and combines various concepts presented in the aforementioned projects. Conceived in the 1970s in conjunction with the UN, the project aimed to create housing that moved beyond the simple calcified living unit by becoming a structure that facilitated a cycle of evolution. It is unique in the way it uses top-down planning to generate bottom up advancements; the architects don’t provide a finish product but simply engineer the first stage in the evolution of a habitat.

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The list of architects involved with the project competition is a spectacle unto itself, featuring a bevy of famous figures of differing nationalities, groups and ideologies. Japan was represented by the key members of the Metabolists movement (Maki, Kikutake, Kurokawa), Team 10 was covered by Aldo Van Eyck and Candilis, Josic, woods; Britain offered up James Stirling; Charles Correa hailed from India, and the now curiously maligned Christopher Alexander represented the USA. In fact it was Christopher Alexander’s Centre for Environmental Structure that was chosen as the main winner, however the jurors took a very British sports day approach to the procedures and thus awarded everyone with a chance to build their housing schemes – no losers, just winners!

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Before I start espousing too much about the wonders of PREVI, I will just state that the project is complex in the number of ideas that it covers, so I will just be focusing one small facet – the inbuilt flexibility of its housing units. In cause you’re curious there are an abundance of informative online articles that provide a bounty of info on the project such as Domus, AD and Lotus. Below are a very select series of images taken from a 1970s issue of Architectural Design showcasing the housing in its conceptual form; on the right of this are images taken from a recent study of the project that originally appeared in Lotus.

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One simple concept links the above projects: the provision of multivalent spaces that evolve in tandem with the lifestyles of the people that occupy them. Whether it was the architect’s intention or not, they have created a level of indeterminacy that renders the buildings pliable to all sorts of adaptions. As explicitly stated in both Torre David and PREVI, top-down planning can be applied in such a way that it facilitates bottom up developments. This is not necessarily about the production of masterplans, but the provision of starting blocks, an initial stage in a building’s evolutionary cycle. Self Build projects in the Neatherlands such as Almere and Borneo-Sporenberg, almost eschew almost all forms of determinacy, via the erection of a punitive amount of boundaries that the home owner has to adhere to. Other projects such as Quinta Monroy by Alejandro Aravena/Elemental are highly designed pieces of architecture, providing provisory spaces that anticipate future adaptions (apparently the inhabitants have doubled the prices of their homes).

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This suggests something that may initially seem paradoxical – modern architecture that becomes the main generator of vernacular buildings. I am not talking about vernacular in the reductive new urbanist sense – a series of historic signs/streetscapes that are endlessly reproduced –  but in its actual definition: architecture based on localized needs and construction methods. In a culture waylaid by aesthetically driven planning policies, high land prices, and a desire to quantify then compartmentalise every facet of the built environment; this is an idea with enormous potential and social impetus. It would be a shame to let it slip back into the archives of architectural history.

7 comments
    • Thanks for the link. It seems a bit draconian to make the whole area a conservation zone, thus banning even the most minute alteration e.g. installing a cat-flap, house number, etc. Having said that, I read the AJ’s pauper version and the images were tiny, so it’s a bit hard to ascertain whats been done.

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