Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The root of a housing crisis: we’re building the wrong thing

I am not sure to what degree this problem is relevant to the rest of the world, but it is an urgent discussion in relation to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia.  Writing in the Conversation,   of the The Australian Population Research Institute leads off:
As is well known, the shortage of affordable separate housing in Sydney and Melbourne means that most first home buyers and renters cannot currently find housing suited to their needs in locations of their choice.
Summarily setting aside the building industry's insistence that the market will continue to demand more apartments for small or single person households for a younger demographic, Birrell suggests the contrary conclusion.  His research suggests that in the medium term, immigration in particular will drive a greater need for homes for family formation.

But then Birrell criticizes current industry and academic research for using crude extrapolations of present assumptions about dwelling types, only to do exactly the same himself. Simply put, he assumes that family formation will continue to be identified with single detached dwellings, regardless of their decreasing share of the new build housing stock, and the continuing loss of older detached housing for apartment development sites.

A more sophisticated analysis would acknowledge that, as the populations of Sydney and Melbourne recognise the advantages as well as compromises of genuinely urban city living, there is likely to be a very significant growth of demand for family accommodation in apartments.  If that simple proposition is reasonable, then Birrel's headline still holds true, but for a subtly different reason.
The problem is not that we are failing to build single detached dwellings in places families want to live now.  The real problem is that all the best sites where families will be happy to live in the future, are being more or less permanently rendered unavailable for larger apartments.
It has to do with the nature of the land title for ownership of apartments in Australia.  Title is overwhelmingly the fragmented 'strata' title, where once a building is subdivided into individual apartment lots for sale, it is extremely difficult to re-consolidate, or even to reconfigure.  Profit in the current Sydney and Melbourne markets is maximised by building an overwhelmingly large proportion of single bedroom and studio apartments.  And there seems to be no truly effective planning instrument that prevents this outcome, with local government consistently unable to enforce its requirements for more forward looking mix of apartment sizes.

Read the Conversation article here:

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Complex urbanism

To give this piece its full title: Complex urbanism wears simple, at times casual clothes.

I am no longer actively teaching architecture, but sometimes I still feel like getting a message off my chest.  And so it is with some thoughts about Jean Nouvel.  Nouvel seems to conjure up some extraordinary pieces of architecture distinguished by uniquely simple diagrams.  Which to my mind, are too rarely remarked on.

Yes, the seminal Institut du Monde Arabe was justly famous not only for its remarkable dynamic abstraction of mashrabiya screens as mechanical irises, but also lauded for its resilute geometric solution to a difficult gap in the Paris built fabric.  That clarity of thinking is no longer easy to recognise.  For me the overall scheme is disappointingly disfigured by the major additions filling in the plaza, and now stomach bumping with a banal billboard the Notre Dame across the river.

But Paris has been good to Nouvel, and he has been good for Paris.  He has twice employed the same fundamental strategy for inserting museums as 'pavilions in a garden', while also healing gaps in the city's characteristic block perimeter facades.  

As a way of turning the diagram into built form, its almost simplistic: run a gossamer thin glass screen to the height of the adjacent buildings, and enjoy the freedom of laying out your building in the sequestered landscape behind.  The Fondation Cartier in Paris from 1994 established the trope.  But while the building behind is a thoroughly enjoyable modernist glass ensemble, it arguably holds no further profound lessons for the architectural pilgrim.

Its next manifestation, in the Musée du quai Branly you find the same diagram for the screen and the garden, but also a richer vein of arguably interesting thinking.

First, there is the misdirection.  That famous green wall seems to be the first and often only image associated with the Branly in many articles and web entries.  In life, it turns out to be the facade of the minor, administrative wing of the museum. Its real function seems to be to respectfully extend the corner from the Avenue de la Bourdonnais, at just the right height, and just the right weight.  The greenery allows Nouvel to compose the facade with a different rhythm and scale to that of the apartment buildings, while minimizing any clash that would otherwise occur.  Importantly, that facade is just as long as is needed to anchor the corner, and no more.

The real urban work is being done, as in the Fondacion Cartier, by the inscribed glass screen, forming the perceived edge to the remainder of the block, while revealing the garden behind.  

In this garden, the much larger museum building wallows like a beached whale, stitched together by an internal armature for which the declared analogy is a river.  Regardless of what that sounds like, I actually mean it as a compliment.  Like Frank Gehry when asked 'why?' about his Barcelona fish restaurant, Nouvel is entitled to say 'why not?'  This lesson is simple.  Almost any analogy will work, if the architect extracts from it its essential organisational or expressive potential, rather than render its superficial connection to site or context.  And if in design development the analogy doesn't work out, a good architect abandons it, gets rid of it, and starts with another, better one.

But for me, the biggest lesson is what is hidden. Therefore I learnt it not from experiencing it directly in the museum.  I have never come across anything more than a cursory mention of the artists in residence studios, that occupy the apartment buildings on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais.  No diagram, no plans, no images.  Yet that is where, I infer, Nouvel makes one of his profound departures from the modernist idiom.  

If I am right, I figured it out staying in a semi-basement apartment in Paris, accessed tortuously, like the famous sequence from Mon Oncle, but more dark passages than irrational stairs.  At the end of that transit was the apartment, almost miraculously opening a shuttered window back to the quiet courtyard.  It was a great place to come to rest and enjoy.  It didn't really critically matter how you got there, as long as the 'there' lifts your spirit. 

The proposition is that for personal and domestic places, the delight at the destination does benefit from the romantic, almost secret path.  But it needed no clarity of the 'parti'.  And so it is, I suspect, with the artists' studios.  See that 'mess' where the new museum building collides with the back of the apartment blocks?  I am pretty sure it was made that way.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Shallow Manifesto

Sometimes you just have to laugh. But not because the piece of architecture is funny ridiculous. Rather, because perhaps it does something relatively simply and very, very well.

In this case, Manifesto Architecture dressed up a former gaggingly bland building in the otherwise chaotic Myeongdong district of Seoul. A showy bit of retrofit, mainly for a global fashion brand, but with an intersting, if simple twist.

To quote ArchDaily:
The process of M-Plaza's "volumization" can be described in three steps, each with increasing intensity. First the glass curtain wall was etched with a ceramic frit pattern inspired by stacked cubes giving the smooth facade an initial charge of volume. Then a grid of vertical and horizontal extruded frames was installed to divide the facade into a set of puzzle pieces each 500mm deep.

Finally, a series of “funnels”, new glass openings framed by sloped stainless steel panels that take full advantage of the 500mm depth achieved by the extruded frames, are plugged into various puzzle pieces. These three architectural languages give the facade a greater level of depth and dynamism, but are applied in a consistent manner over the large facades allowing the irregularities to exist within a certain boundary of order.
At first reading, it sounds pretentious. One way of putting it is that this is hardly a profound piece of architecture. Another way of seeing it is to recognise the way the architects applied their core skills of formal, compositional, programmatic and spatial, within an extremely constrained set of limits.

Manifesto Architecture deserves to be taken seriously, with a significant body of work, both built and rhetorical, that spans the scale from wooden cutlery to monumental buildings.

I feel guilty for the cheap shot of my title for this post.

Read: http://www.archdaily.com/556223/m-plaza-manifesto-architecture/

The other robot revolution: Prefabrication 2.0

Australia’s tallest prefab tower tops out at double speed

This recent headline in The Fifth Estate suddenly brought into the spotlight a quiet development in the Australian construction scene.  I first posted about the Hickory Group's  One9 apartment tower in Melbourne, utilising their so-called Unitised Building (UB) System in Too good to be true? back in 2014.

Developed and championed by Australian architect Nonda Katsalidis, the UB system relies on factory-based modular construction with high levels of external and internal finishes and fit out, making for fast on-site assembly.  It claims, and with ongoing development, clearly delivers the big advantages of modular prefabricated construction.  Chief among them are the improved safety and working conditions for the skilled workers who put together the modules in a factory rather than on site.

Less easily accessed is information on the new balance between manual production line work for those human workers, and work performed by the robots inherited along with the defunct car manufacturing facility, in which the new building manufacture is located.