Monday, 8 September 2014

Self-inflicted naivete

Here is another example of "put something out there – any publicity is better than no publicity".  Or Harry Seidler's old dictum: "if you can't be famous, be notorious".

There is always a place for exciting schemes, to trigger a discussion and a little bit of image consuming pleasure. If you can start from one legitimately reasonable point like: 'It is better to hang things below the silhouette of a cliff than to perch a whole bunch of indifferent houses on top of it', all the better.

So what is my beef with a suggestion by Australian prefab architecture specialists Modscape Concept, who have apparently designed this exciting five story home that clings to a cliff’s edge?  Well, a lot of things.

It starts with the intellectual dishonesty of setting up a false scenario, includes a bit of fundamental design criticism, and ends with my usual complaint about why architects produce such woefully naive representations of important technical detail, opening themselves up to accusations of irresponsible naivete.
Let's start with the scenario. Land title on the water's edge in Australia almost universally extends to the high water mark. So unless there is a beach or other feature underneath the pictured cantilevered pod, it is not within the confines of its land.  Therefore it is not a genuine development option available to a significant number of owners of land in such locations.  OK, that is legalistic carping.

So let's take instead the basic design premise – the protection of the cliff silhouette.  "Rather than being a disruption built along the skyline, Cliff House almost propels off of (sic) it, acting as an extension to the natural topography" claims the breathless blurb on Inhabitat.  Without pausing to recognise in the photograph the most common view of the cliff silhouette – being that of people on the land, and therefore much more important than any silhouette seen from out at sea. To my mind seeing more than one of these carbuncles hanging off the spectacular sea cliffs of my home city would be a travesty.

But let's take the design on its own merits. It starts with the inevitable accommodation for the car. While the photographic rendering shows the BMW Mini Cooper still on the land, its garaging is illustrated in the drawing as being on top of the house.  Given that that the carport breaks the skyline anyway, one has to ask what is to be gained by driving the car out on top of the cantilevered structure? Would you not try to save the dynamic load of a car from adding to your structural problems?

Now that we are looking at the cantilever, one has to acknowledge that the large vertical separation between the anchor points is a very good idea for resisting the structural moments. But we also have to remember that the top anchor rod ends up in tension while the bottom one is safely pushing against the cliff, acting as the hinge. Personally, I would be really worried about putting a rock anchor for the top support any closer to the top of the rock than absolutely necessary. In very few types of stone which make up these sea cliffs, would that be particularly safe.

But I ask too much. Because the illustrative drawing omits that kind of detail, as it omits anything plausible to illustrate how the cantilevers of the individual floors might be supported.
It is a rascal's excuse to say this is just a concept design, and that kind of structural detail is for the future design development. The potential for an effective solution should be visible at the scale and in the indicative detail of a sketch design. 

In this drawing there is more evidence of omission rather than inclusion of any design concept that would help with the problem – there is no solid or braced component of the side walls, no meaningful depth to the back wall to help with the moment transfer of the individual cantilevers.

Instead, we get fancy outward sloping glass. Let's try to be positive: the idea might be borrowed from airport control towers, where the ceiling is kept dark so that internal reflections disrupt the night time view out through the glass as little as possible. Or, it wasn't as thoughtful as that, but simply serves to heighten the vertiginous experience of standing on the edge looking down at the roiling water. Fair enough, it is a big design intent. That is assuming that you will see anything through the salt encrusted glass. I hate to ask, but how would you clean it, regularly?
It is all solvable, of course. So that is hardly my point. My point, as usual, is that the distance is very small between the exciting idea naïvely communicated, and the one visibly, stridently evidencing the thoughtfulness that has gone into its illustration. Do you need to ask which would be preferable as a contribution to architectural discourse?
I owe it to the authors of this hypothetical dwelling to amend my opinion if I come across more evidence.

As it turns out, on a different site at there are a couple of additional images and most importantly, plans of the proposal.

Seeing those plans, one can infer that the lift well and adjacent staircase constitute something of a stiff spine from which the floors can be more easily supported, and which certainly begins to answer the question I pose about structure.
So once again, it is possible that the technical people actually did think in a more sophisticated way about the proposal, but there was a loss of control somewhere between that sophisticated thinking and the populist rubbish most of us get to read. 
If an apology to someone is warranted, I most certainly apologise.

Read more: Modular Cliff House Hangs Perilously Over a Cliff's Edge in Australia | Inhabitat 
Architecture on the Edge: 7 Cliffside Structures Defying Gravity

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