Friday, 18 November 2011

Where are the people?

It is an old beef about the way architects present the buildings in the architectural literature. But it was enough to prompt me to think about picking up this long abandoned blog.

I look in on that excellent architecture and design site Dezeen quite often. I find the coverage of buildings around the world both timely, and relatively more comprehensive than many other such sites. The one that piqued my interest this time was
Protected Collective Houses in Toledo by TASH
The byline reads “These four concrete apartment blocks by Spanish architects TASH were only completed last year, but they already look strangely abandoned in these photographs.”

I didn't know whether to anticipate some sort of esoteric aesthetic judgement, or a candid but not very kind reflection on the architecture. But I'm interested in apartment design, social housing, and in particular the bioclimatic design principles claimed to have informed this project.

The first thing that struck me, was that the editors made no further reference to the teasing byline. Perhaps they were allowing the images to speak for themselves. Indeed in all the photographs, there is no sign of habitation, and not a single person. An exaggerated response to the propriety of protecting the privacy of the less advantaged? I hardly think so. I think it's actually back to the bad old days where a human being would spoil a good architectural photograph.

Nevertheless, the project is worth a little bit of study. As usual, Dezeen reproduces some architectural drawings which help a great deal in understanding the buildings.

As far as bioclimatic principles are concerned, there is indeed a notable clarity reminiscent of the solar access geometries of the early 80s. Lined up on an east-west axis, the four building blocks display the expected asymmetry between the north and south facades. To an antipodean eye, it is the detail that is slightly disconcerting: the glazing ratios on the southern (sunny) side are much lower than you would find in Sydney apartments responding to a somewhat similar climate. I suspect that the Spanish example is more rigourous as an outcome of an energy efficiency driven code environment, and it is the Australian examples that are overglazed from that point of view.

However, rigourous passive solar design is but one part of an appropriate sustainable response. The real reason the detail is disconcerting is that the imagery makes very plain those verandas on the sunny side of the building are unlikely to support the sort of rich use of private open space, and equally rich potential social interactions, which one would hope to see in this kind of housing development.

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