Sunday, 18 October 2015

MacMansions on exhibition

Australia is represented at the Chicago Architecture Biennial by two young architectural collaborations, each stressing their research-based exploration of alternative practices.  Of particular interest to me is the project by David Neustein and Grace Mortlock, founders of Sydney-based otherothers. 

The opening review by goes to the heart of the problem, even while it oversimplifies the project:

"Turns out, America isn't the only place with a glut of over-sized suburban homes. Australians actually have the largest average home size in the world, which may explain why it took an Australian practice, otherothers, to create such an elegant solution to extraneous space. By building a covered courtyard within the frame of the home, the house-within-a-house concept downsizes in an intelligent way, reducing costs while adding new types of outdoor space."
A little more nuanced is the review by Lara Brown  in ArchitectureAU. Brown reports that the Offset House proposal seeks to “un-supersize” suburban McMansions by “renewing and retrofitting existing housing stock, adapting the typical brick-veneer, power-intensive, eave-less, spatially inflexible Australian home into a more nimble, efficient and economical form.”  But even so, the author’s fascination is with “stripping off the outer cladding (often brick), exposing the outer frame, and creating a verandah in the space between the outer and interior frames. They claim there is beauty to be found in the exposed frames.”  Almost grudgingly, it is acknowledged that the project’s fundamentals are more about addressing bigger issues.
“‘Offsetting’ the house opens up a near-infinite number of possibilities for subdividing, co-habiting or sharing,” Mortlock says. “In Chicago, we’re showing how a single dwelling could be downsized to a smaller home, split into two side-by-side ‘townhouses’ separated by an internal void, stacked as horizontal apartments or even divided into three smaller dwellings.”
I have long been interested in these issues.  Collaborating with fellow architect Michael Bennett, over 10 years ago we ran a series of studio exercises for architecture students in Sydney, in turn examining different aspects of the same project.  In instalments over three years, we looked at the potential of transformation of the same Kellyville display village, as has been the inspiration of otherother’s project.  We found that formally and spatially, the biggest challenge was to co-opt the most valuable resource of all, the very high proportion of land alienated as roadways and meaningless setbacks from the ‘front’ boundaries, and to do so in a way that acknowledged the emergent nature of the resulting urban form.  Socially, the projects exposed mortgage pressures, intergenerational issues and the stultifying impact of the resistance of regulatory frameworks to change.

Because the Chicago exhibition Guidebook appears to be available only on sale at the Biennial venues, it is hard to tell whether Neustein and Mortlock attempt to address such a sweeping intellectual framework – or even whether it is fair to expect them to in the exhibition format.  What is certain is that daring to engage with the problem of suburbia in an exhibition titled State of the Art of Architecture, has struck a romantic chord.  In placing the project first amongst his 10 highlights from the Biennial, Zach Mortice at Metropolis perceptively comments:
“OtherOthers’ proposal is most effective when developed at the neighborhood scale. The overall effect of the planning, which configures the houses in a closely knit pattern, is the emphasis on creating warm and inviting community spaces—this in a building culture where privatization is usually the rule. It also makes for an unprecedented kind of housing development, where each of the X-ray–like houses revels in the exhibitionist reveals and spatial contortions. Think an entire suburban colony where everyone lives jollily in a home that could have been designed by Frank Gehry.”

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