Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Prefab polemics

Having so enjoyed the article by John Pavlus at Co.Design on the Sikorsky prize, I sampled a little bit more of their current offering.  It is so refreshing to read a zine with issues based long form writing instead of snappy, poorly edited infomercial blogs.

Where the article on the Sikorsky prize discusses profound principles of design process, This Prefab Building Is A First For New York goes out of its way to rehearse the history of prefabricated residential construction. Nodding to its nascent context in early modernism, author Sammy Medina and architect Peter Gluck explain the relative paucity of projects actually executed in terms of the flight from the centres of American cities in the 1960s.
“The world at the time was suburbanized and suburbanizing, and no suburban communities wanted low-cost housing," Gluck tells Co.Design. "So the means were there to build, but the desire was not." He pauses to rephrase the distinction: "The desire was there on a political level, but not on the market level.”
The Stack, a seven-story, mid-cost apartment complex in upper Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood, is the first prefabricated residential project ever undertaken in the city.  Put together in four weeks from 4m wide modules prefabricated in a Pennsylvania factory, the design is said to offer a considerable internal flexibility of space.  But the architects have gone out of their way to emphasize the pixelation of the dominant facade that results from the form of construction.

A little of the technical detail of the construction is most easily obtained from the video on the architects' web site, but the main emphasis of both the article and the longer video on Co.Design is actually on the impact on possible redevelopment in cities like New York.  It could be suggested that the assumptions on which this rationale are built are, as usual, a bit USA centric, but it isn't hard to extrapolate or translate the points made to other places.  So, once again, I take the liberty of allowing the authors to make the point in their own words:
This approach......can open up huge swaths of the urban landscape that had previously been barred from improvement. Peter Gluck points out that real estate developers have the resources and government support to amass and build out large sites, but development on such frontiers is often unwanted or impossible.
“What’s interesting about this method," the senior Gluck says, "is that we can go into mid-blocks anywhere in the city, and with minimum effort we can build.” This is exactly what New York needs, he says, citing all of the “substandard’ housing wasting away in the middle of blocks. Modular and prefabricated building--the precedent of The Stack--creates opportunities where there existed none. “It allows the flexibility with sites that normally resist that smaller, but necessary, development.”
Read more at This Prefab Building Is A First For New York.

Thinking in the box

The winners of the Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition didn’t 'think outside the box.' They just chose the right box to think in.


When discussing design theory, one of the most quoted case studies is the design challenge faced by NASA when President Kennedy on 25 May 1961 so boldly declared that the USA would land a man on the moon by 1970.  They did.  But, arguably, the lessons of that monumental effort have been poorly learned, and rarely discussed in the context of our much greater challenge, keeping the Earth habitable for humankind.

To be fair, the distinctive importance of design as the key to solving future problems has been consistently championed  by no less than Edward de Bono, but he has often seemed like a lone voice.  If I sound a bit cryptic, it's because what I say seems counter-intuitive in this world swamped by popular fascination with design as the love child of life style.  One has to understand that I am talking about the most fundamental conception of design as a goal oriented activity, not all that other wooly, self indulgent fashion stuff.
And so it was that what otherwise may have been a trivial bit of news struck me as the most forceful re-statement in a half-century, of the purpose and methods of design.  
A team of Canadian enthusiasts recently won the American Helicopter Society’s Igor I. Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter Competition.  The challenge has stood since 1980, and represents the third largest monetary prize in aviation history. The monumental feat requires a human to hover to an altitude of 3 meters under his/her own power, and to remain aloft for at least 1 minute.  It had defeated the best aviation minds in the world.

"Until a few weeks ago, the people who literally wrote the book on the helicopter said that this problem is too hard - that this is actually physically impossible," says Cameron Robertson, the team’s chief structural engineer, before describing the crucial difference of their approach. The team undertook initial feasibility and design studies for the “Atlas” in January of 2012, and made the successful flight eighteen months later.  To quote from Robertson's interview with John Pavlus at Co.Design:
This kind of innovation strategy often goes by clich├ęd names like "lateral thinking" or "thinking outside the box." But according to Robertson, "the box" was actually the key to succeeding where 33 years’ worth of other designs had failed. Atlas won the Sikorsky prize by zeroing in on the right box to think inside - and then rigorously, intensely, and persistently analyzing it. "Achieving the so-called 'impossible,'" he says, "is a matter of removing unnecessary constraints, and understanding what’s in the box."  
In this case 'the box' happened to be more than just a metaphor, but you can read about that elsewhere.  What matters to me is the conclusion Pavlus draws.  I quote him shamelessly, because I could not put it better:
It’s often said that solving tough design problems isn’t about bashing your way to a difficult solution as much as it’s about bashing your way to the right question. Atlas is indeed a Rube Goldberg machine--not much good for anything but winning the Sikorsky Prize. But as a proof of concept for an innovation strategy, Atlas’s example can apply to problems far more serious than hovering a furiously pedaling human being in midair.
"We don’t have 50 years to reevaluate our infrastructure, address climate change, or deal with other 'impossible’ problems," Robertson asserts. "Getting 2% improvement is no longer acceptable as the right answer. We all need to start really questioning the state that we’re in and how to move beyond it at a much more rapid pace than ever before, and this approach of removing artificial or unnecessary constraints is one way to do that. We knew nothing about helicopters, but we were able to do the impossible. Everybody can become better problem solvers and global citizens by inhabiting that state of mind."
Read the whole article here.
It does a very good job of describing the important aspects of this extraordinary design effort.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Explaining Sydney's unique apartments

Many parts of the world, and more particularly many cities, can be recognized by their urban forms that are the result of historic periods of dense apartment developments at a grand scale.  Think Paris under the scalpel of Baron Haussman and the likes of the Pereire brothers, bankers and land developers.

Not only did these cities change as 'public living rooms', but the forces of culture and the speculative market also created characteristic apartments.  It isn't hard to describe from memory the 18th century apartments of Budapest, with their four meter ceilings and rambling en-filade rooms, nor to see the pervading influence of their type through the 19th century booms and even in post-WW2 modernist housing in that city.

The influence of ahistoricist  modern architecture, and the social project that so emphatically informed its earliest proponents, broke most of these traditions.  What replaced them is arguably something of an almost homogeneous trend in European apartment design.  That is not to say that modern European apartments are actually all the same, but there is a pervasive and recognizable emphasis on the formal solution of the apartment block, and the generally highly disciplined, spatially efficient, repetitive apartments those blocks embrace in their singular forms.

Sydney, in far-off Australia, stepped out of line with this trend at the beginning of its latest housing construction boom, impelled to produce a special body of apartment buildings under the influence of a unique regulatory instrument.  Of course, it is possible that it only seems like that to those of us parochially on the inside, but in my experience, it is remarked on by many architects who visit Sydney from the outside.  I am forever tempted to attempt an explanatory book, redolent with the sort of sun and surf images that would also make it a coffee table success.  But I rarely get around to more than a pamphlet, concentrating on my own special work as a consultant for solar access and natural ventilation analysis.

So it is doubly welcome to read a local building review, which escapes the usual cliched boundaries into a succinct explanation of the evolution of this local building type.  Doubly welcome, because it addresses itself to the emerging limitations, and subtly hints at an imminent convergence with contemporary European modernist influences.

The article is on ARCHITECTUREAU, which often doesn't tell you up front who is the author. As I was reading, I became progressively more curious just who it might be, and was not surprised that the piece is by my long-time colleague Tone Wheeler.  Tone can explain almost anything architectural by some well turned aphorisms, and almost anything he writes is well worth reading.

To read Tone Wheeler on 17 Gadigal Avenue, click here.

As usual, feedback would be welcome.   

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

I think, therefore I dwell

Forgive the pathetic attempt to invoke both Descartes and Heidegger in the one catchy title.  It was prompted by the current front page of announcing that MVRDV has recently won the Feldbreite competition to design an apartment block in the Swiss city of Emmen.  Well, not exactly an apartment block.
"The Dutch firm deviated from the expected by delivering designs for 95 units across 16 different housing typologies ranging from apartments to townhouses. These are grouped around common gardens planted with fruit trees, giving a sense of community while each unit is painted a different color to emphasize individuality community."
And they did it in an unmistakable throwback to the Cartesian exercises of mid-twentieth century modernism, the variety and interest a painless outcome of the infinite opportunities of a thoughtful use of the three dimensional grid. I guess liking it makes me an unreconstructed modernist. But I stress that it is the modernism of the late le Corbusier, the one who remembered the lessons of his journey to the east, and polemicized not the universal sterility of the International Style, but the more satisfying, more organic forms of buildings and settlements.
As usual, this was brought home to me not by the main focus of the page on the MVRDV scheme itself, but by the headline in the same issue: Finally! Zaha Gets Her First New York City Commission, drawing attention to an image (and I use the word advisedly) which couldn't be a greater contrast.

It's a dead give-away of my 1960s training, that I look at 'negative space' as a diagnostic of successful composition, of what might be said about a building in terms of its urban design engagement, of whether it is a manifestation of anything more than a 'look at me' syndrome.

And so I see in Hadid's lumpen curves the acres of shapeless glass as an ephemeral separation between the goldfish interiors and nowhere.  MVRDV's design, in contrast, appears to create all those fractal layers of the most engagingly public through to the most intimately private, while apparently not needing any more 'interest' than a few splashes of forgivingly renewable colour.

One scheme speaks eloquently about sustainability, without having to mention the word, while the other brays its disdain for anyone but the irresponsible few.  I wonder which will get the more breathless exposure in the design media? 

For more on the MVRVD housing scheme, including plans and schematics, click here.
For more about Hadid's condo for the Don Draper lifestyle, click here.  But you will find only the usual drivel, graced by a photo of the woman herself, bigger than that of her proposed building.

I'd love some feedback.

Friday, 5 July 2013

The sustainable traveler?

I always thought the ultimate contradiction was the sustainability champion flitting around the globe, using up planets worth of non-renewable hydrocarbons.  I am not twisted and bitter; I live in hope that the green advocate traveler is truly making a difference at their destination.  After all, in this age of instant telecommunications, how many consultants and business types seem to live permanently in business class – with no mitigating excuse at all?

Well, now at least when they arrive, tainted green champion or master of the universe alike, they can salve their consciences by reducing their footprint and getting their exercise all at the same time.

Here in Australia, you can check out the micro scooter at

IKEA develops flat-pack refugee shelters

It had to happen sooner or later, and it is just a coincidence that I blogged on the topic recently.

There are undoubtedly many reasons why the Ikea Foundation has been working with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).  But the press releases suggest that the primary driver has been to address the main problem: most of the current shelters used in refugee camps, being one or other traditional tent design, have a life span of approximately six months before they to be replaced. Yet long-term refugee situations mean that, on average, refugees stay in camps for 12 years, with some, such as Palestinians caught in the political expediencies of the Middle East, still in camps after 50 years.

Designed to last three years, the prototype shelter from Ikea is a shed-like structure made of lightweight polymer panels, laminated with thermal insulation, which clip onto a steel frame.

The proposal has come in for a mix of comment, including the predictable scathingly negative from those experienced in the field.  So, for instance, AKZ commenting in Dezeen:
"Emergency shelters designed to last months should cost about $150. Transitional shelters should cost in the range of $1,500 (as this shelter supposedly does), however they should be transitional, which means repairable by the people living in them.

Not many people desperate enough to use these shelters would have access to tools to fix aluminium tools (sic). Shelters should also be built by beneficiaries or at least have their input in construction in order that the shelters are valued and actually used. Not having to shift large amounts of materials across international borders also helps a major relief operation. Local materials which can be built and maintained by local people helps a shelter project succeed." 
It is a good, succinct summary of the constraints.  But a slightly more measured look at the IKEA project would actually suggest that its response to those same constraints has considerable merit.

For instance, the boxy shape is explicitly providing vertical walls to encourage the addition of other external materials over time – including, I assume, rammed earth or adobe, locally sourced.  Unlike many other structurally sophisticated portable shelters proposed buying vulnerable exhibitions of hopeful architecture students, this one has a primary structural frame just asking to be re-roofed with more permanent sheet materials.

I am more concerned that the proposed design may in fact have too many components that are readily repurposed as part of the inevitable economy of refugee camps and their host economies.  That, after all, was the ostensible purpose of Shigeru Ban's otherwise worthless cardboard tubes – they were neither locally sourced saplings for tent poles, but denuding the countryside, nor the metal poles supplied as substitutes, but far too versatile to be confined to that function.

I wish I had the wisdom that this global problem is crying out for.  One thing is clear: the IKEA proposal is not pitching into the murky waters of emergency shelter as perverse, self-promotional art objects.  For a start, it is just too ugly for that.  So are they just as naughtily promoting their flat pack retailing philosophy?  I honestly don't think so.It is time they got involved, and I for one am pleased that they are doing so with an object on which they have obviously not sought to stamp any particular minimalist design aesthetic.