Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand

How Buildings Learn
Stewart Brand's quest for adaptive architecture

If you look at a photo of a city, any city, from fifty years ago, that city is going to look a lot different than now. A hundred or more years ago, even existing buildings are unrecognizable. This may seem obvious, yet surprisingly little thought is given to what happens after a building is built by designers or owners. A building may change owners, change tenants, change uses, get a facelift, add on, tear down, reconfigure, and so on. We are still using buildings that were built before mechanical heating and cooling was commonplace, and libraries are now as full of computers as books. In fact, such changes are the rule rather than the exception, yet little thought is given to this fact. Brand's book is an attempt to redress this omission.

Brand's major thesis can be summed up in this quote: "A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start." Brand is interested in the long-term -- what happens after the building is built, how do people adapt it and adapt to it over time, and what kinds of modifications are made over the life of a building which is often much longer than a human lifespan, and spends time looking at various case studies in order to come up with a philosophy of how to build buildings that evolve over time - "Evolutionary design is better than visionary design."

For the sake of use, buildings fall into three major categories - commercial, residential and institutional.
  1. Commercial buildings have to adapt quickly, often radically, because of intense competitive pressure to perform, and they are subject to the rapid advances that occur in any industry.
  2. Domestic buildings—homes—are the steadiest changers, responding directly to the family's ideas and annoyances, growth and prospects.
  3.  Institutional buildings act as if they were designed specifically to prevent change for the organization inside and to convey timeless reliability to everyone outside. When forced to change anyway, as they always are, they do so with expensive reluctance and all possible delay.
Brand considers the question by means of his experience in a brand new media lab designed by the world famous modernist architect I.M. Pei, which he considers typical of "overdesigned" modernist architecture focused on looks rather than daily use:
...Here was a building purpose-built to house a diverse array of disciplines and people collaborating on deep research in fast-evolving computer and communication technologies. Consider in that light the building's dominant feature--its vast, sterile atrium. In many research buildings a central atrium serves to bring people together with open stairways, casual meeting areas, and a shared entrance where everyone sees each other daily. The Media Lab's atrium cuts people off from each other. There are three widely separated entrances (each huge and glassy), three elevators, few stairs, and from nowhere can you see other humans in the five-story-high space. Where people might be visible, they are carefully obscured by internal windows of smoked glass. 
The atrium uses up so much of the building that actual working office and lab space is severely limited, making growth and new programs nearly impossible and exacerbating academic turf battles from the first day. Nowhere in the whole building is there a place for casual meetings, except for a tiny, overused kitchen. Corridors are narrow and barren. Getting new cabling through the interior concrete walls--a necessity in such a laboratory--requires bringing in jackhammers. You can't even move office walls around, thanks to the overhead fluorescent lights being at a Pei-signature 45-degree angle to everything else. 
The Media Lab building, I discovered, is not unusually bad. Its badness is the norm in new buildings overdesigned by architects. How did architects come to be such an obstacle to adaptivity in buildings? That's a central question not just for building users but for the architectural profession, which regards itself these years as being in crisis. Design professor C. Thomas Mitchell voices a common indictment: 
"A range of observers of architecture are now suggesting that the field may be bankrupt, the profession itself impotent, and the methods inapplicable to contemporary design tasks. It is further suggested that collectively they are incapable of producing pleasant, livable, and humane environments, except perhaps occasionally and then only by chance."pp 52-53
Brand contrasts this with the universally beloved Building 20 on the MIT campus. This building was not designed by a famous architect, but quickly thrown up to provide a place for researchers to work on radar projects during world War Two:
 ...But the most loved and legendary building of all at MIT is a surprise: a temporary building left over from World War II without even a name, only a number: Building 20. It is a sprawling 250,000-square-foot three-story wood structure—"The only building on campus you can cut with a saw," says an admirer. Constructed hastily in 1943 for the urgent development of radar and almost immediately slated for demolition. When I last saw it in 1993, it was still in use and still slated for demolition. In 1978 The MIT Museum assembled an exhibit to honor the perpetual fruitfulness of Building 20. The press release read: Unusual flexibility made the building ideal for laboratory and experimental space. Made to support heavy loads and of wood construction, it allowed a use of space which accommodated the enlargement of the working either horizontally or vertically. Even the roof was used for short-term structures to house equipment and test instruments. Although Building 20 was built with the intention to tear it down after the end of World War II, it has remained these thirty-five years providing a special function and acquiring its own history and anecdotes. Not assigned to any one school. department, or center, it seems to always have had space for the beginning project, the graduate student's experiment, the interdisciplinary research center.  
...Building 20 was too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, Spartan in its amenities, often dirty, and implacably ugly. Whatever was the attraction? The organizers of a 1978 exhibit queried alumni of the building and got illuminating answers. "Windows that open and shut at will of the owner (Martha Ditmeyer) "The ability to personalize your space and shape it to various purposes. If you don't like a wall, just stick your elbow through it." (Jonathan Allen). "If you want to bore a hole in the floor to get a little extra vertical space, you do it. You don't ask. It's the best experimental building ever built." (Albert Hill) "One never needs to worry about injuring the architectural or artistic value of the environment." (Morris Halle) "We feel our space is really ours. We designed it, we run it. The building is full of small microenvironments, each of which is different and each a creative space. Thus the building has a lot of personality. Also it's nice to be in a building that has such prestige (Heather Lechtman)
In 1991 I asked Jerome Wiesner, retired president of MIT, why he thought that "temporary" Building 20 was still around after half a century. His first answer was practical: "At $300 a square foot, it would take $75 million to replace." His next answer was aesthetic: "It's a very matter-of-fact building. It puts on the personality of the people in it." His final answer was personal. When he was appointed president of the university, he quietly kept a hideaway office in Building 20 because that was where "Nobody complained when you nailed something to a door." 
Every university has similar stories. Temporary is permanent, and permanent is temporary. Grand, final-solution buildings obsolesce and have to be torn down because they were too overspecified to their original purpose to adapt easily to anything else. Temporary buildings are thrown up quickly and roughly to house temporary projects. Those projects move on soon enough, but they are immediately supplanted by other temporary projects--of which, it turns out, there is an endless supply. The projects flourish in the low supervision environment, free of turf battles because the turf isn't worth fighting over. "We did some of our best work in the trailers, didn't we?" I once heard a Nobel-winning physicist remark. Low Road buildings keep being valuable precisely because they are disposable.
pp. 25-28
Building 20, then is Brand's ideal of buildings - nothing too fancy, sturdy structure, flexible spaces that can be adapted by the end users (he's a fan of wood for its malleability, "Wood is already the most adaptive of all building materials because amateurs are comfortable messing with it" p.194), easily comprehensible plan layout, common spaces for collaboration. It's easy to poke a hole and run new services as need be - a must for the fast-changing technology of MIT. The users much favor usability over "high" design that looks good in magazines or reflect some "genius" designer's personal style.

Had Brand stuck around MIT a bit longer, he would have an even more egregious example of brand-name folly and overdesigning. The Stata Center by world-famous brand-name Frank Gehry had so many problems that the owners sued Gehry and the construction company:

The Ray and Maria Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is an outlandish cartoon village in listing brick and scrolling aluminum, with a Möbius-strip main corridor inside. An italic-angled entrance, shaped like the cutting edge itself, ushers visitors off the drab Cambridge street. But then you see it, that universal symbol of malfunction: an orange mechanical lift. 
Yes, MIT, the very apogee of tech sophistication, seems to have bought itself a bright-yellow lemon. The showstopper home for its computer-science, linguistics, and philosophy departments cost $300 million to build ($200 million more than initial estimates) and opened in 2004 (four years behind schedule). And now the school has turned to the courts to express its buyer's remorse. A lawsuit filed in October against both the construction firm and the architect alleges "design and construction failures," negligence, and breach of contract, which have cost the university $1.5 million in repairs already, with millions more likely to come. 
The suit grabbed headlines because the architect's name is Frank Gehry, fueling a backlash against celebrity architects and their flashy designs. The go-to guy for this take is John Silber, the former president of Boston University, who has just published a book called Architecture of the Absurd: How "Genius" Disfigured a Practical Art. The Stata Center is on the cover. 
This kerfuffle may have little to do with outward appearances, though. True, some of Gehry's other buildings have been tweaked after opening their doors, as when the steel-sided Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles had to be sanded to remove a glare that could practically cook eggs on the sidewalk. And occupants have questioned elements of the Stata Center's design. ("I still would prefer straight to slanted walls, so as to put up bookshelves and a blackboard," says linguist Noam Chomsky, who has an office there.)
Lost in the Funhouse (Fast Company)

On the other hand, the building has features that Brand would highly approve of:
The building will never be finished. Says Gehry: “I’m happy when the building is forgiving enough so you can do things to it without destroying it. Put a new light where you want, knock out a wall.” Says a Stata linguist: “Any kind of scientific work is always under construction, always still being built. When you publish a book or a paper it’s never finished, it’s just a step on the way to the next one.” 
It occurred to Gehry long ago that his buildings looked more interesting while they were under construction than when they were finished. Ever since, he’s sought ways to give buildings that restless sense of something still happening. Nothing about the Stata feels finished. Since it opened, it’s been in a constant state of minor modification, as the researchers fit it to their needs. The architecture is a metaphor for the science: always an open question, always a work in progress. 
Not everyone loves the Stata’s “unfinished” indoor materials, which are raw metal, glass, plywood, industrial lamps, exposed wires, and raw concrete. But they understand the motive, which is that Gehry wanted his building to feel like a warehouse, easy to change and rearrange.
There’s lots of wasted space. Another winning move is the amazing amount of unprogrammed space. An efficiency expert would call it a total waste. This is space that isn’t anyone’s turf. It’s everywhere. It’s the stuff of those “village greens” and generous elevator lounges. People grab it when they need it. A space may become the overflow site for some experiment. Or students may clutter it with a newly invented game, or an impromptu discussion or party. They eat and study anywhere and everywhere: “The undergraduates really mill in the building. Some of them walk in out of curiosity and end up working with us.”

Because so much space isn’t under anyone’s direct supervision, the Stata feels free and relaxed. And the openness means that its parts are visible to one another: “People can be seen to be working.” “You can see the building is alive. You can feel part of a community that is working hard. I used to have to go to a conference on the West Coast to find out what the guy next to me was working on.” “There’s connectivity. There are even windows in the fire stairs.”
Does Gehry's Stata Center Really Work? (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Brand accuses architects of practicing "magazine architecture" -- designing novel buildings that photograph well for inclusion in architecture magazines in order to win awards and attract new clients, rather than delivering buildings that are practical, workable and adaptable:
At a building preservation conference in Charleston, South Carolina, I chatted with an architecture student. Interested primarily in rehab and restoration work, she referred unflatteringly to the majority of her 450 fellow students at the Tulane University Architecture Department as "magazine architects." By which she meant image-driven and fad-driven architects, because architecture magazines probe no deeper than the look and style of the buildings they cover. They never interview clients or users. They never criticize buildings except, rarely, in terms of being bad art or off-trend. Articles consist primarily of stylized color photographs. Reports cover only new or newly renovated buildings, often in language that sounds like the "prismatic luminescence" school of fine writing. The subject is taste, not use; commercial success, not operational success. 
Architecture magazines are about what sells. They are advertising, cover to cover.
A major culprit is architectural photography, according to a group of Architecture Department faculty I had lunch with at the University of California, Berkeley. Clare Cooper Marcus said it most clearly: "You get work through getting awards, and the award system is based on photographs. Not use. Not context. Just purely visual photographs taken before people start using the building." Tales were told of ambitious architects specifically designing their buildings to photograph well at the expense of performing well.  
Art must be inherently radical, but buildings are inherently conservative. Art must experiment to do its job. Most experiments fail. Art costs extra. How much extra are you willing to pay to live in a failed experiment? Art flouts convention. Convention became conventional because it works. Aspiring to art means aspiring to a building that almost certainly cannot work, because the old good solutions are thrown away. The roof has a dramatic new look, and it leaks dramatically.
The Gehry example above seems to prove the points - Gehry's amoebic forms dissolving into one another seem tailor-made for photographs, but the projecting windows and irregular shapes cost more to construct, are inherently less resistant to water and so must use complex sealants and waterproofing systems subject to failure, and require overengineered structures just to stand up. But it looks good in a magazine, and it reinforces the Gehry "brand," and that's all that matters. Users are usually concerned with more mundane matters:
Does the building manage to keep the rain out? That's a core issue seldom mentioned in the magazines but incessantly mentioned by building users, usually through clenched teeth. They can't believe it when their expensive new building, by a famous architect, crafted with up-to-the-minute high-tech materials, leaks. The flat roof leaks, the parapets leak, the Modernist right angle between roof and wall leaks, the numerous service penetrations through the roof leak; the wall itself, made of a single layer of snazzy new material and without benefit of roof overhang, leaks. In the 1980s, 80 percent of the ever-growing postconstruction claims against architects were for leaks.
Architects, he says, are obsessed with the look of the building, that is, the surface facade, while giving short shrift to such important things as the structure, the services, and the space planning:
A building's exterior is a strange thing to concentrate on anyway. All that effort goes into impressing the wrong people—passers-by instead of the people who use the building. Only if there is a heavily trafficked courtyard or garden do the building dwellers notice the exterior at all after the first few days. Most often they don't even enter by way of the facade and big lobby; they come in by the garage door. And yet, ever since the Renaissance, "the history of architecture is the history of facades." It is a massive misdirection of money and design effort, considering how badly buildings need their fundamentals taken care of. Chris Alexander is vehement: "Our present attitude is all reversed. What you have is extremely inexpensive structure and all this glitz on the surface. The structure rots after thirty years, and the glitz is so expensive that you daren't even fuck with it."  
Architects got themselves stuck in the skin trade. Frank Duffy observes, "The only area of architectural discretion in artistic or financial terms is the skin. The architectural imagination has allowed itself to be well and truly marginalized." It happened because architects offered themselves as providers of instant solutions, and only the look of a building gives instant gratification. When the space planning doesn't work out and needs improvement, or the structure indeed rots, where's the architect? Long gone.
This leads Brand to a theory of adaptable buildings, or "steps toward an adaptive architecture." His idea is that a building is actually a collection of several discrete interacting components, each of which exists for a varying duration of time. For example, the site is often determined by lot lines extending back generations (as in the case of London, for example). The structure often lasts for centuries and can remain even with a new skin. But interior walls and services are apt to rapid change over the lifetime of even a single user of the building, such as an expanding business. Things like furniture are constantly on the move. Here he quotes British architect Frank Duffy, a former president or the RIBA, and theorist of building change:
"Our basic argument is that there isn't such a thing as a building," says Duffy. "A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components." He distinguishes four layers, which he calls Shell, Services, Scenery, and Set. Shell is the structure, which lasts the lifetime of the building (fifty years in Britain, closer to thirty-five in North America). Services are the cabling, plumbing, air conditioning, and elevators ("lifts"), which have to be replaced dropped ceilings, etc., which changes every five to seven years. Set is the shifting of furniture by the occupants, often a matter of months or weeks.
A design imperative emerges: An adaptive building has to allow slippage between the differently-paced systems of Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space plan, and Stuff . Otherwise the slow systems block the flow of the quick ones, and the quick ones tear up the slow ones with their constant change. Embedding the systems together may look efficient at first, but over time it is the opposite. and destructive as well. p.12
Brand redefines these discrete elements, from longest-lasting to highest turnover, as Site, Structure, Skin, Services, and Stuff:
  1. Site: The geographical setting, the urban location, and the legally defined lot whose boundaries and context outlast ephemeral buildings.
  2. Structure: the foundation and load-bearing elements. Architects would probably include what is called the "core" --the vertical circulation elements such as stairs and elevators, since these are usually constructed at the same time and are an integral part of the layout (and sometimes the structural design as well. Brand classes elevators as services). He quotes Christopher Alexander saying a structure should last for 300 years or more.
  3. Skin: the exterior surface of the building (architects would call this the weather barrier). Architects also refer to this as the "Shell" - often "structure, and core and shell are separate construction packages in modern fast-paced construction.
  4. Services: The working guts of a building, electrical wiring, plumbing, HVAC ducts, communication and alarms, and moving parts like elevators and escalators. These Brand believes should be very changeable as technology changes - "We overestimate technological change in the sort term and underestimate it in the long term."
  5. Space Plan: The interior arrangement of doors and walls. "Turbulent commercial space can change every 3 years or so, exceptionally quiet homes might wait 30 years."
  6. Stuff: Chairs, desks, sofas, bookshelves, computers, etc. "Furniture is called mobilia in Italian for good reason."
Brand classifies two major approaches to adaptable building historically - the High Road - buildings that are such high quality and design that they remain for centuries, often becoming subject to historical preservation statutes, and the Low Road - utilitarian vernacular buildings where no one cares what you do to them over time, and thus are endlessly adaptable though adaptive re-use, additions, renovations, etc.
A Low Road building needs only to be roomy and cheap. Structurally it should be robust enough to take the major changes in use it will attract. Finish can be minimal and ornament modest or absent entirely. Initial Services can be rudimentary. Design it primarily for storage and it will soon attract creative human occupants. p.194
The High Road examples he uses are three presidential estates that have existed in one form or another to the present day: George Washington's Mount Vernon, James Madison's Montpelier, and Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Perhaps not surprisingly it is Jefferson, the architect's house, which is the most resistant to change. He also looks at Boston's Athenaeum library and the Chatsworth estate in England (contemporary readers might wish to imagine Downton Abbey, especially it's latest incarnation as a museum/tourist attraction/filming set):

Whereas Low Road buildings are successively gutted and begun anew, High Road buildings are successively refined. These are precisely the two principal strategies of biological populations--the opponent versus the preserver: "R-strategy" versus "K-strategy" in the jargon. It is the difference between annual and perennial plants--between weeds like dandelions which scatter profuse seeds to the winds, and dominant species like oak trees, which nurture their few acorns and then build an environment that protects the next generation. Individuals of opportunistic species are typically small, short-lived, and independent, putting all their energy into productivity. Preserver species are more often large, long-lived, densely interdependent and competitive, rationing their energy for high efficiency. 
The sustained complexity of High Road buildings leads in the fullness of time to rich specialization. they cannot help becoming unique. they respond to so many hidden forces, they are in part mysterious, sustained by subtleties. At the same time they are filled with obsolete oddities, preserved out of habit until odd new uses are found for them. (Where can we string the new fiberoptic cable? How about the old laundry chute?) High road buildings are common, but the points I want to make about them are best demonstrated in extreme examples.
pp. 38
"Beauty is in what time does," says Frank Duffy. Something strange happens when a building ages past a human generation or two. Any building older than 100 years will be considered beautiful, no matter what. Having outlived its period of being out of fashion, plus several passing fashions since that, it is beyond fashion. If it has kept High Road continuity, the whole place is highly adapted, complex and mysterious, a keeper of secrets. Since few buildings live so long, it has earned the stature of rarity and the respect we give longevity. p. 91
Both strategies work, as long as you stay away from Magazine architecture - the "no road" approach:
If you want a lovable building, a strategic decision needs to be made right at the beginning. The design and construction can fruitfully take either the High Road or Low Road, toward beloved permanence or toward beloved disposability. The High Road requires Structure built to last and some areas of very high finish indeed, particularly with the Skin and at least some interiors, to set a high standard for future work. The major threat to an urban High Road building over time is shifting real-estate values, so either a financial endowment or great public esteem is needed to protect the property. A Low Road building needs only to be roomy and cheap. Structurally it should be robust enough to take the major changes in use it will attract. Finish can be minimal and ornament modest or absent entirely. Initial Services can be rudimentary. Design it primarily for storage and it will soon attract creative human occupants. p. 193-194
Not surprisingly, Brand is a fan of vernacular architecture--"everything not designed by professional architects— in other words, most of the world's buildings." Vernacular buildings are adapted from a long period of trial and error to a unique locale and incorporate generations of knowledge of how to solve problems and provide for comfort and durability in a particular climate. Examples featured prominently include the Medieval three-aisled structures, New England saltbox (Cape Cod) homes, bungalows of the 1920-1930, Santa-Fe style, which has been successfully updated to make Santa Fe a leading tourist destination, and Victorian Painted Ladies, which have contributed to San Francisco's postcard charm (and sky-high property values). He thoroughly renounces and criticizes novel structures like the geodesic domes which he played such a huge role in popularizing as the publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog:
Vernacular building traditions have the attention span to incorporate generational knowledge about long-term problems such as maintaining and growing a building over time. High-style architecture likes to solve old problems in new ways, which is a formula for disaster, according to Dell Upton at the University of California. Vernacular builders, he says, are content to accept well-proven old solutions to old problems. Then they can concentrate all their design ingenuity strictly on new problems, it any. When the standard local root design works pretty well, and materials and skills are readily available for later repair, why would you mess with that?

Brand includes other ideas such as scenario planning taken from military and corporate planning boards to take programming a step further and anticipate future changes rather than just present uses. He talks about the Post Occupancy Evaluation done by architects and how it should be standard practice.  He cites the example of John Abrams, a residential builder in Martha's Vineyard who photographs each wall of a home after the services are installed but before the drywall goes on and keys them to a set of floor plans. He celebrates "the romance of maintenance" as an all-too-neglected portion of building creation and ownership "If you want a building to learn, you have to pays its tuition. p.190"

He gives various tips on what an adaptive building should incorporate:
The simpler a roof—pitched, of course—the less it leaks or needs maintenance. Complexity can come later if it must. Roofs that are built fussy at the beginning are an obstacle to later change. The more a roof overhangs, the better it protects the walls from sun and rain. The lighter the color of the roof, the better it will stand up to solar deterioration, keep the building cool, and lessen the stress of temperature change in the roof materials.  
Walls...should be vertical and should begin flat and simple, like a good initial roof. They should invite easy penetration with new doors or windows. This is the great attraction of stud walls. p.195...external walls can take either a High Road or Low Road approach, encouraging either permanence or change. Low Road walls offer a further choice—they can be funky or high tech. One of the best of the funky is the highly forgiving board-and-batten.  For high-tech Low Road walls, the current acme is the variations on Dryvit known in the trade as "exterior insulation and finish systems" (EIFS). High Road walls are nearly always masonry. Stone is grander. Brick is more adaptable... 
I favor keeping Services separate from Skin as well as from Structure...The conservative tactic—at higher initial cost—of installing overcapacity electrical feeders and breakers, oversize chases, and an apparent excess of outlets is nearly always rewarded. The general rule is: oversize your components....Anticipate greater connectivity always. All new buildings should have extra conduit laid throughout—two or three or more vacant half-inch plastic conduits with labeled string hanging out of the ends waiting for unplanned phone lines, speaker leads, computer wires, coaxial cable, or what have you. 
As for shape: be square. The only configuration of space that grows well and subdivides well and is really efficient to use is the rectangle. ...If you start boxy and simple, outside and in, then you can let complications develop with time, responsive to use. Prematurely convoluted surfaces are expensive to build, a nuisance to maintain, and hard to change...The way rooms and floors are laid out can be crucial for a building's resilience to changing times...  p. 192
The book is consistent with Brand's ideas about long-term thinking and sustainability, which influenced his creation of the Long Now Foundation. Buildings should be built with the long-term use in mind, not as jewels for magazine covers. They will change over time, it's just a matter of how much and how seamless that process is, even if the ultimate change is tearing the thing down.

A host of "alternative" architecture thinkers are found in the pages of the book - Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, Leon Krier, Frank Duffy, Joel Garreau, Lloyd Kahn, along with quotes from other thinkers (Henry Glassie, Ivan Ilich, Gregory Bateson, et al.)

Ironically, the years since Brand's book was published has seen a resurgence in the conversion of old industrial buildings to new uses such as lofts, apartments, condominiums, offices and art galleries. These are being done in older post-industrial neighborhoods from Brooklyn and Soho to the Pearl District in Portland, and everywhere in between including the Rust Belt. The very things that make this possible - sturdy, fireproof structures of concrete and heavy timber, regular structural grids, wide open floor plates, high ceilings, wood stud walls, square and rectangular building shapes, low-maintenance brick walls with operable windows and skylights, lots of extra floor space - are precisely what Brand recommends be incorporated into new buildings to make them viable in the long term.

While Brand has a lot of good advice, and his outsider prespective is refreshing, it's hard to see it being widley taken up in a world where architects are busy putting up condominium towers and building art galleries and shopping malls for the one percent in wealthy urban enclaves like Manhattan and Dubai, while older neighborhoods succumb to foreclosure blight and are being bulldozed . As investment manager Jeremy Grantham put it, "Capitalism doesn't care about your grandchildren." Still, there's plenty to chew on here for people who are looking for a more adaptive, resilient and humane architecture that creates a sense of place beyond the needs of short-term profit. While it doesn't get the headlines of Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid, good, small-scale solutions are being built along these lines in various locations around the world, and from these we could learn to build a new type of architecture that is built around human needs, resilience, durability and adaptability, rather than novelty, fashion and luxury.  See this good example of co-housing from Germany:

R50 – cohousing is a new model typology for low-cost and affordable housing offering a maximum capacity for adaptation and flexibility throughout its lifetime. Social, cultural, economic and ecological aspects have been considered equally to define a contemporary sustainable approach to urban living...Meeting the owners’ aspiration for collective and affordable living and working, the architectural concept is based on a compact and efficient structure with carefully detailed connections on different scales. It is based on a concrete skeleton with one access and two service cores, an independent timber facade and a suspended steel construction for the all around balconies. A slightly sunken basement level provides access to the building and merges private and public spaces. Each apartment and all additional community spaces were developed by an intensive process of consultations, discussions and design. Based on the structural framework the sizes of apartments could be determined and individual requirements accommodated in the floor plans. In parallel to this process, a common standard for fixtures and fittings was developed and defined, which has resulted in a collective approach to interior fittings, the use of materials and some surfaces left unfinished, whilst allowing individual layouts of the apartments. This kind of structured yet open design process has not only allowed for extensive participation, self-directed design and self-building, but has also led to mutual agreement on the type, location, size and design of spaces shared by residents.
R50 – Cohousing / ifau und Jesko Fezer + HEIDE & VON BECKERATH (Arch Daily)

Another great example is incremental hosing designed to help repair slums, such as The Quinta Monroy houses in Chile. Residents start with the gray, concrete structure and foundations, then fill in the adjacent spaces with their own materials over time.

Has This Chilean Architect Figured Out How To Fix Slums? (Mother Jones)
In the waterside slums of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 480,000 residents face the threat of displacement as the government seeks to redevelop their land, claiming urban renewal is necessary for economic development. But Kunlé Adeyemi has an alternative solution. He envisages a city of floating homes that would allow residents to remain within their community, and safe from rising tides, while at the same time improving the quality of their lives.

In Pakistan, Yasmeen Lari is applying skills learned building vast commercial structures and restoring historic national monuments to help communities at risk from flood and earthquake damage. She has built more than 36,000 safe homes and won the UN Recognition Award in the process.

But perhaps most striking of all are the buildings of the Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia. Since the economic boom of the 2000s, population – and pollution – in the country has soared. Only 2.5% of Ho Chi Minh City is “green space” and nine in 10 children under five suffer respiratory illness. Nghia is combatting these problems with green architecture: buildings infused with living plants and trees. “Vietnamese cities have lost their tropical beauty,” he says. “For a modern architect the most important mission is to bring green spaces back.”
Rebel architects: building a better world (Guardian)


  1. This was a very interesting post. Thank you.


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