Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Housing celebrated

When we sometimes discuss what 'themes' are relevant in architectural education today,  I have been surprised at the vehemence with which some of my younger academic colleagues dismiss 'housing' as worthy of being one of those themes.  Their criticism seems to be summed up as 'housing is just a building type', apparently oblivious of the heavy theoretical and political baggage that 'type' carried throughout the hegemony of 20th century modernism.

So I was particularly sensitized to this spectacular post on Dezeen, reporting from the World Architecture Festival 2014, where architect Ole Scheeren discussed The Interlace, an upmarket Singapore housing development.  The unmissable distinguishing feature of The Interlace is that it is not a collection of towers, or even towers with tenuous elevated bridges.  In a self-proclaimed attempt to subvert the stereotype, it is described instead as 'horizontal buildings stacked diagonally across one another to frame terraces, gardens and plazas'.  To quote Sheeren:
"Housing – through the quantities that it has been produced in, and the formulaic nature it has taken out of an almost lethal mix of building regulations, efficiency and profit concerns – has become simply compressed into a very standardised format. I think this project shows in a really dramatic way, and also in a significant scale, that something else is possible."
OK, so the scheme fits badly with the historic modernist conflation of housing with social housing, and it sits on a site that can't be described as having to deal with the pressures of gritty urban diversity.  But the architect does acknowledge the comparison to  the radical housing developments of the 1960s, and their concern to foster communities.  He makes the interesting claim that " the 1960s there were a number of really good ambitions and really powerful ideas but maybe what was missing was a sensitive-enough understanding of the humane, of structures for inhabitation."

If that isn't enough to get engagement from anyone interested in both the evolution of our societies, and of the architecture profession itself,  there is always the sheer excitement of the infinite transformations of form, spatiality and materiality to consider.

See the lavishly illustrated post on Dezeen at
Ole Scheeren's The Interlace envisioned as "a blatant reversal" of tower-block housing

As always, there are hidden layers.  Sheeren's criticism of regulations, for instance, can be construed as a reference to rules that in colder climates encourage sensitivity to orientation and passive solar design.  The tyrannies of seasonal solar geometry do not apply in the equatorial tropics, where shade is welcome and sun exposure is definitely not.  How much does something simple like that contribute to the freedom to manipulate your forms, your spaces?  You would not want to assume that what is good for Singapore (where the weatherman is not really needed – it's the same hot and humid every day) will be equally appropriate in Beijing.

But that sort of thing, like the structural virtuosity, is simple enough to factor into your designer's thinking.  As interesting are the questions of just what the occupiers, and other lay people, make of the 'unusual'.  Again, as luck would have it, a little googling led me to Maria, a resident, who has posted a refreshing (if socially privileged), private tour of the complex.  See it at Gliding through The Interface.

Deeper digging for supporting information finds plans of the complex, which show a certain pragmatic orthodoxy.  Those apartments are clearly designed for full air conditioning, with the overwhelming majority of private open space served up as nominal little verandas.  None of the typological interest of say, Taiwanese apartments entered through secure open courtyards twenty storeys in the air.  And I find it fascinating that the plans I have found seem all to omit the lift cores, which for me are one of the most interesting problems for stitching together the stacked forms.

But hey, housing is not interesting enough as a theme for an architectural specialization?  I beg to differ.

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