Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The End of Architecture

Is all this regulation for sustainability about to spell the end of Architecture? Sometimes, the protestations of architects sound like that is what they truly believe, in spite of the evidence that we are seeing ever more bizarre forms in the architectural blogosphere and the burgeoning design literature.

But there is a kernel of truth in the sentiment, especially as it applies to houses and other residential construction. In some jurisdictions, these building types are ever more constrained by prescriptive standards that dictate glazing ratios, wall and roof insulation standards, heat exchangers for mechanically assisted ventilation, and so on. Sometimes a voluntary standard like the European 'Passivhaus' movement, is even more restrictive than the government promoted regulations.

I was reminded of this when I saw photographs of a truly challenging suburban dwelling by Sou Fujimoto Architects, their House NA in Tokyo. Inspired by the feeling of sitting around in the branches of a tree, the assembly looks like scaffolding supporting a series of open and glazed boxes at different levels, with a program that clearly is not dictated by conventional room designations. For better or worse, it engages passionately in a theoretical and practical discourse on contemporary 'dwelling', but could not possibly obtain planning permission in my home town, Sydney.

As I looked further into Fujimoto's work, I saw other, similarly evocative speculations on living between inside and outside, such as the N House in Oita. Argued from a stance that questions the interpenetration of the space of the street and that of the innermost private sanctum, it is most plausibly an extended empirical exploration of the traditional Japanese understanding of 'ma', the 'space in between'. But as the photographs in its context make clear, it is also a selfishly self-referential exercise, where claims of its transparency simply do not disguise the degree to which it disrupts the public spatial order.

This house - even more than House NA - reminded me that by definition, 'Architecture with a capital A' depends on relegating the normal to being the background for the assertively non-conforming object. In that sense, our new enforced 'zero net energy vernacular' does indeed threaten every architect's right to produce something stridently different. Given just how many more architects we have nowadays, than we used to have, maybe that is a good thing.  But I would indeed be saddened if it proved to be the end of remarkable buildings.


Joanna Chen said...

From this short article, I can see a few broad questions being raised that are actually arguable in various ways, and they are very interesting questions to think about even during our own designing process:
1) Regulation for sustainability restricts the creativity?
2) Regulation varies from country to country - if Fujimoto's creative approach is favoured, is there a need to improve on the policies here in Sydney?
3) Benefits VS shortcomings? A cultural influence to the design - or is it merely a disruption to the public spatial order?
4) Architecture should be able to spell itself out through a building with meaning and thought, and it should stand out from the norm - the insignificant others… or will this kind of interesting design never come to live because we focus too much on the regulation?
Here are some thoughts I have for these questions:
1)The battle between "regulation for sustainability" and "creativity" is like that between logical reasoning and emotion. The easy solution is to eliminate one, and focus on the other. However, this will lead to a concern of whether “architecture” will be able to truly satisfy its meaning and purpose at the end. Without a doubt, we cannot lower the standards of the regulation, because the standard of living cannot be lowered as human improves through ages. Nor can we give up on expressing our perception through an artistic way, because humans are not mass-produced robots (or monkeys) which only require a pure functional storage space (i.e. a roof and a few walls).
Although the end of an emotional battle might possibly mean the end of a human life, the end of a war between regulations and creativity does not necessarily mean the end of architecture – it can mean a new extent to achieving harmony between human, environment, building and the artistic mind. I think all these design restrictions imposed by rules and regulation is exactly what makes architecture so interesting, because the challenge is to fit everything (even the imperfection) into harmony, and the regulation act as a framework rather than an obstacle.
This article (http://aceee.org/files/proceedings/2010/data/papers/2125.pdf) also provides a similar opinion on whether the push to zero-net-energy (ZNE) will restrict creative genius of architects.
2) Regardless what the current policies are, I believe is room for improvement on policies anywhere, not just in Sydney. Just like how BCA changes from time to time, the implementation of better living standard works up level by level. If an unconventional design can be convinced as a suitable design or one that may impose hugely beneficial impact to the surrounding environment, would there possibly be an exception for acceptance?

Joanna Chen said...

3) Personally I think, how we view a building design is often largely opinionated, but as long as its shortcomings are limited to the lowest and the benefits are maximised, then the design can be considered as a successful one.
I have been travelling to Japan recently, and I have walked through a lot of residential areas around Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. To me they are surprisingly peaceful and courteous living environments, packed with dense houses and buildings much smaller in scale comparing to Sydney. It almost instantly occurred to me that the miniatures these little Japanese dwellings make, not only minimised the risks led by constant earthquakes, but also increased the level of intimacy between people, which is rather valuable. If the transparency in Fujimoto’s work could be viewed as a somewhat daring approach to disrupt the public spatial order, perhaps Nishizawa’s approach in utilising floating levels (http://www.australiandesignreview.com/architecture/25787-garden-house-2) would be another daring approach to stand out within its context. However I think it is rather refreshing to have one or two of these special designs amongst the densely packed residential buildings – they are almost like a breath of fresh air, and conceptually, they are still within the frame of harmony created by the atmosphere of the neighbourhood.
4) In fact, the ‘insignificant others’ are only made insignificant because the one we are looking at is too stand-out. So if we are to criticize the one that stands out amongst the crowd, would there still possibly be another one that is both sustainable whilst being creative? The answer is yes. The winning entry of “Green Square” library design competition in 2012 (http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/development/major-developments/green-square/the-winner-is) proved that a building does not need to be out-of-context to be thoughtful and artistic, whilst also sustainable. This is a goal that we all have to work towards, not just for commercial spaces but also the residential and other building types.

Steve King said...

Thanks for your comments. And special thanks for bringing to my attention the article by Christian Dimmer on Nishizawa's extraordinary experiment in Tokyo. Previously I had only come across the much shorter form zeen postings. One does miss the longform writing of a decent magazine.