We design for your future

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the 8th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

8. We design for your future

future

Buildings last a long time. The best of them last for hundreds or even thousands of years and come to inspire the whole world. Even the most humble or utilitarian of buildings have the hidden potential of transcending their generation.

The power of a building, even a house, to affect those not yet born makes the act of making one a serious undertaking.

It’s important therefore to design and build to last. The humble workers cottages of Carlton North and Fitzroy are as solid today as they were 120 years ago. Can you imagine the McMansions of Taylors Lakes and Caroline Springs boasting the same remarkable longevity?

Volume builders are focussed on selling products for maximum profit and minimum risk. They offer a long list of housing packages, but look closely and you’ll see that they’re all essentially the same. They fill their houses with shiny European appliances but use the cheapest possible structure, framing and cladding materials. They build quickly and economically, but are not dedicated to a quality outcome.

Designing to last means using durable materials, choosing finishes that eschew fashion, and crafting timeless forms that are as fresh in fifty years as they are today. It means building with care, ensuring the structure of your house is strong and its envelope is suitable to its climate. Most importantly, it means designing a house that you will love, for there is no better way to guarantee the longevity of a building than to have its custodians love it.

Designing to last also means allowing for a flexible future. The houses built when your grandparents were young reveal a very different social attitude towards living than we have today. Kitchens and bathrooms were tucked away at the back of the house; windows were small; construction materials were heavy. Who’s to say how future generations will live or what their lifestyles will be?

If you plan on living in your house for decades, not only will society change its norms, so will your family. Young children will be grown; school age children will have moved out; adult children will have families of their own. Your house should keep pace with this evolution, and remain as comfortable in twenty years time as it is today.


Image source:

  1. Future, author’s own image.
Posted in Architecture practice | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Quality not quantity

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the 7th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

7. Quality not quantity

quality

Australia has the largest average house size in the world. Since 1985, our houses have steadily grown from 150sqm to 215sqm.[1] We now eclipse the United States (202sqm) and almost triple the United Kingdom (76sqm). Despite this growth, during the same period the average household size has actually decreased, from 3.0 to 2.6 people.[2] To do some simple maths, this means that in a little over a generation the residential floor area required for each Australian woman, man and child has grown from 50 to 83sqm.

Volume builders play a large part in pushing this trend, with “top range” models like this from Metricon or this from Simonds weighing in at over 400sqm. The impact of these McMansions is twofold. Not only do they provide the opportunity to purchase and live in a supersized home, they shift the entire home-buying public’s expectations of what is normal.

Architects do not design such bloated houses. We will always encourage you to consider a more modest scope for your home. Our reasoning is simple: smaller means less expensive. It means less energy for both building materials and heating and cooling, and less of your valuable time in cleaning and maintenance.

Smaller doesn’t equal meaner however. We aim for fewer corridors and wasted corners. We dedicate ourselves to the smart design of compact spaces: rooms that are trimmed of their fat and serve multiple purposes, but retain their generosity, warmth and access to natural light. Instead of a study you use every now and then, plus a guest bedroom you only use when your mother visits from overseas, we combine the two and use clever storage design to facilitate both. A room for your toddler now can become a music room later. Your laundry can serve double duty as your pantry.

This prioritisation of quality over quantity requires the skill and vision of an architect. It requires our technical understanding of how space works, and our ability to synthesise your lifestyle into smart space. It also requires your enthusiasm and willingness to buck the trend, to make responsible use of our planet’s finite resources.


Footnotes:

  1. CommSec; Australian homes are the biggest in the world; Economic Insights; November 2009.
  2. Australian Institute of Family Studies; Average household sizeFamily facts and figures: Australian households; 2011.

Image source:

  1. Quality, author’s own image.
Posted in Architecture practice | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Research and development

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the 6th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

6. Research and development

research and development

A house is a complex organism, comprising tens of thousands of individual objects: sheets of reinforcing steel, lengths of timber stud, panels of plywood cladding, bricks, tiles, noggins, light fittings, appliances, bathroom fixtures, screws, bolts, nails.

For each item there are endless options available, each measured by a plethora of characteristics. Take floorboards for example: are the boards solid timber or engineered? What timber species are they? How durable are they? Where was the timber harvested? Do they conform with FSC or PEFC custodianship certification? How wide and thick are the boards? In what lengths are they available? Do they have a long lead-time when ordering? How expensive are they?

To make matters more complex, the building supplies industry evolves constantly. New materials become available and old ones are discontinued. Suppliers change their processes, create new colour options and occasionally go out of business. Considering the many months of documentation and construction, this shifting terrain makes choosing materials particularly tricky: a tile we specify in March may no longer exist by the time the builder is ready in October to start tiling.

All of which is why undertaking regular research and development is so important.

Architects take great care in the systems, materials, fittings, appliances and finishes that we specify. A significant part of our role on a construction project is researching these items and specifying them on your behalf. We develop and maintain a library of items we use regularly, and always have an eye on the next new thing. We value the visible qualities of materials as well as the hidden: ethical production, local manufacturing and environmental sustainability.

Unlike draftspeople, whose work is typically light on detail, we invest a great deal of time in understanding every last element of your house; from the sheeting on your roof to the secret nails in your floorboards.


Image source:

  1. Research and development, author’s own image.
Posted in Architecture practice | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

We tell you how it is

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the 5th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

5. We tell you how it is

truth

The building industry has a reputation for being filled with sly half-truths and good intentions that go unfulfilled. If you’ve ever had a plumber tell you “I’ll come around tomorrow” and never call back, or a volume builder lure you with promises of rock bottom prices but then reveal the cost of all the hidden extras, you’ll know what we mean.

Building a house is like navigating between submerged rocks in a fast-moving river: almost impossible to do without a guide who knows the river like the back of her hand.

An architect is such a guide.

How much does it cost to build? Should you knock down your house and build new, or is renovating a better option? What planning zone and overlays affect your property? What considerations do you need to make for your neighbours? What advice should you seek from specialist consultants? What are the highest performing appliances and fittings on the market? Where can you source the most environmentally sustainable materials? With which building regulations do you need to comply? What are the standard construction technologies in use in Australia? Once you start on site, how often do you need to pay your builder?

These are just some of the questions you’ll need to consider when renovating or building your house.

Unfortunately, you will at times also find yourself embroiled in adversarial relationships: neighbours who think you’re overdeveloping your land; specialist consultants who don’t meet their deadlines; subcontractors whose work is of substandard quality. Such interactions are even more challenging as the other party is almost certainly more knowledgable about your dispute than you are.

Architects have significant expertise across all phases of the design and construction process. We appreciate the importance of strong creative vision from start to finish; are familiar with town planning and building regulations; understand the work of allied professionals like structural engineers and landscape architects; and can engage meaningfully with the builder during construction. There is no-one better equipped to understand the opportunities and limitations of your site and brief, and to design your house to navigate every requirement.


Image source:

  1. Truth, author’s own image.
Posted in Architecture practice | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview with Jo Noero

Jo Noero is the principal architect of Noero Architects, based in Cape Town, South Africa. Noero is renown for his work within the shack settlements of South African cities, and is as outspoken on issues of ethics, professionalism and the built environment as his projects are engaging.

Noero visited Australia recently to present a lecture for the National Architecture Conference. I had the pleasure of interviewing him after his presentation, and enjoyed a conversation that touched on many and varied subjects.

red location museum entrance

Thank you for your spirited presentation today. A central part of your work is the importance of quality buildings within disadvantaged contexts, and the possibility they present of influencing the surrounding built environment.

Exactly, this is very important.

Can you talk about how this relates to your Red Location project in Port Elizabeth.

I’ll tell you how it all started. Many years ago when I was teaching, I felt quite alienated from mainstream architectural practices in South Africa, and I was looking for somewhere where I could locate both my research and practice interests. The places that I was drawn to were the informal shack settlements on the periphery of the city. I figured at that time in the country they were the only places where people acted with unfettered freedom in shaping their environment, even accounting for their extreme poverty. I have always held the idea that authentic culture grows from the bottom up: the people living in the shack settlements were outside government control and were just building for themselves, so I went and had a look to understand how they were building, and ended up spending two years researching the settlements while I was teaching.

Out of that experience grew an interest in taking the structural systems and materials that were in use in those areas, and formalising them through my work. I hoped to show local people a connection with what they were already doing themselves. It shows great resilience and energy to build something from nothing, and by incorporating this spirit into my own buildings I was also showing respect to the people living in the neighbourhoods around them.

I’ve read interviews with you where you discussed using packing crates from car manufacturing factories in your projects, a material already being used in the shack settlements.

You saw my talk this morning?

Yes.

And the reading room I did at the Red Location library, clad in timber?

Yes.

That’s the same timber that people use on their shacks, except that we took it, sanded it down, fixed it properly and varnished it. It’s the same material but we used it to clad the most important building in the project and in the neighbourhood.

red location archive reading room

Do you know whether that more refined material is now used within vernacular construction techniques?

I’m not sure. My sense is that people appreciate what I do, but I haven’t seen much evidence of whether they are actively trying to take those systems and develop them in the same way I have. The opposite does occur though: the timber cladding I used on the Red Location Library is now starting to find its way into rich houses, built by master craftsman in a shabby-chic style for a tremendous amount of money.

Really, I’m not even sure whether I want people to follow what I’m doing. It’s just me saying that I honour the people living in the shack settlements, I’m honoured to work in their space, so I look at how they build and work in the same kind of way. It’s simply that.

The shabby-chic style is curious. There was a bit of Twitter activity following your discussion.

Oh there was Twitter activity, good! Was it positive or negative?

Both sides of the fence were represented. Somebody said they really like the shabby-chic look.

(Laughs)

Others suggested it’s a very dishonest architecture, cladding wealth in a surface of poverty.

Exactly, it’s an architectural camouflage. It’s saying, “I’m rich but I identify myself with the poor, I’m a comrade in arms…”

Is it dishonest then, or just a less sophisticated form of honouring the context?

I think it’s a style, that’s all. Some stylists have got hold of the idea and suddenly shack-chic has become fashionable and people follow it. But the connection between the style and the people in the poorer parts of the city is usually lost in translation. I like to think that at the very least there is some residual subconscious sense of the discrepancy.

There is a man called Neil Leach who has written about this process. Around fifteen years ago he wrote a book called The Anaesthetics of Architecture that describes two things that happen in the world. First, is that the greater the flows of information, the smaller the knowledge base. This particularly affects students, who have a tendency to place predominance on the image over everything else, without understand its context.

Because the issue with the modern day is not that there’s not enough information, there’s too much.

Yes, and I don’t think we’ve learnt how to filter it effectively yet.

No.

The second thing that Leach describes is that capitalism depends upon novelty; it’s what sells things. Novelty is as much image based as it is commodity based, and architecture has fallen victim to that. We have to be novel; we have to produce new things. But the problem with new things is that once they are consumed they are no longer of use any longer. So we abandon images as quickly as we consume them. We have this lumbering machine called architecture which takes five or ten years to get a building from inception to completion, and it’s held victim to these lightning fast movements of novelty, images and consumption. I don’t think architects have done a good job of managing or understanding it, or trying to find ways of countering it through other means.

That’s a very fascinating idea. I’ve always thought that architects are largely opportunistic; we do the work that is offered to us. Flipping that status quo around and seeking work out is immensely difficult to do, particularly when we have to make a living off our labour.

Let me talk about what it’s like to be in practice. I get offered lots of houses, and usually they’re these big McMansion briefs, 1000sqm on the beach, all cantilevered, and I just say no. Houses like these are unethical. I don’t think you need anything more than 150sqm to live comfortably. We have limited space in the world and many people with nowhere to live at all, so how can you be given the right to waste resources?

The two or three people who have agreed with that philosophy have been the clients for the two or three best houses I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t think we do enough of that, enough proselytising. We are so stripped of any self-esteem or dignity as architects that we see ourselves as an industry there to serve public. But the public kick us around and tell us what to do. They’re not prepared to take wise advice from us, and I don’t understand why that should be the case.

house sapieka front

I’m not sure if it makes me feel better or worse that this is happening to you in South Africa as well. In Australia, there are so many other voices competing for attention within the built environment, and most of them are focused on all the wrong things. Clients regularly have a real estate agent or builder mate whispering in their ear, saying, “You’ve got to do this because this is what the market wants.”

Absolutely. But I think there are useful ways of dealing with that situation. When I was in Peru about six or seven years ago, I spoke with a lot of architects practicing in Lima. It’s a tough city hit by civil war, but what a lot of the good ones do is build as well.

Architect-builders…

Yes. And in Buenos Aires in Argentina, the three to four storey, middle class apartment buildings are all built by architects.

Is that legislated or is it just how it works?

No. It’s just how it works. What they do is they find groups of people online who are willing to put money together to build something. It’s an opportunity to get a tailor-made apartment, even if it’s very small, because you are talking face-to-face with the architect rather than having to buy something that some developer has made.

So apartment buildings crowd funded by the end users?

Yes. Some of the best architects in Lima said to me they make money out of the building side of things. They build their own projects and the money they make is used to support them while they enter competitions. So they get the one good project to do, rather than running around after awful people doing shit that they don’t like.

My wife and I are starting to build speculative houses ourselves, tiny little ones. I’ve worked for so many people who make money out of my efforts, I thought, why don’t I put my money in the bloody ground and build something myself? We have two houses that are coming out of the ground now. I think there are lots of new and different ways that we can imagine working as architects in the world.

But the important message from my lecture today was that whatever strategies we put in place to survive have got to support the ideal of architecture. We can’t just want to become project managers because project managers are making money. I’m only interested in finding alternative ways of making buildings because maybe I’m being thwarted in one respect. In the end, I just want to make good architecture, it’s what gives me pleasure, and to make a bit of money out of it as well if I can.

house sapieka courtyard

house sapieka interior

If you don’t mind, I’d like to change subject back to the Red Location project. You talked today about how long it has taken, but also how good architecture takes time to get right. For the design and construction of one project to be spread across a generation, I feel that maybe the building is not the only end product, that there’s something even more meaningful to be achieved. Is there value in such a lengthy process?

Well, the project brief set up in the competition has changed over time. I’m still doing work on the project and it’s still seen as part of the competition, but it’s different from where we started. There was lots of community participation up front to formulate the competition brief, after which we built the museum. But then there was a hiatus when we started to talk to people again about the new buildings, and the brief changed and time got gobbled up. There were also issues of funding, and there was a change in local government, so it just took a long time to get things done.

It can be frustrating because the bureaucracy in South Africa works slowly, but having the luxury of a couple of years to work on a library is fantastic. I can design very fast, but then I can take it and show it to people in the community and adjust it if I need to. Buildings just get better when you have time to work on them, that’s all it is.

How important was the community consultation process?

I’m not a great one for upfront community participation. People don’t know what they want. If you just ask, you’ll find that everyone wants a three-bedroom house with two cars on a nice site overlooking the ocean. I find that the best way of getting people involved is to provoke. I make a proposition, present it and then kick it around. I think people feel much more comfortable with that as well. They don’t feel that they are being put on the line to make big decisions. It’s only through an interactive design process that you can reach some kind of consensus.

So when you present the initial concept on a project, which I presume is already a fairly resolved building…

Yes.

Do you find it changes in response to the community commentary you receive?

Yes, it does. Look, when I talk about participation, I mean talking to all the different groups who are involved in a building, from the local people who use it, to city officials, politicians, community representatives, the architects, library services, gallery services etc. So there are all these layers to the process and the design gets filtered through all of it. A project can take years to work its way through every group, and at every stage adjustments have got to be made.

That’s for me what community participation is. The common idea that you sit down with a group of people and they tell you how their grandmothers lived in the UK isn’t what community consultation is at all. You need to sit down with the people who are actually going to use your building, the workers and the visitors and the cleaners. Why should this be any different when we deal with poor people or rich people? People get strange ideas when you talk to a poor community, that the process is somehow special. But I don’t see any difference between talking to a community or a family or a business. It’s just briefing.

red location museum interior

One of the things I thought about when you were presenting was the earlier lecture by Beth Miller from Philadelphia’s Community Design Collaborative. I felt quite anxious when she was talking about architects working pro bono. There has been a lot of controversy in Australia recently about architects working for free when the whole profession is struggling to make a living.

I never work pro bono, ever. I had a clear lesson on this when I first started working in Johannesburg. I did some work for the Anglican Church under Desmond Tutu. The first church I worked on I did for nothing. You know, I thought that’s the thing to do when you work for really poor people, but all I got was trouble from everyone. I went to speak to Desmond and I said, “Look, I don’t know what the problem is, but these people don’t respect a thing I do.” And he asked, “Are you charging them fees? Make sure you charge them money.”

People respect what they pay for.

Absolutely. From that time onwards it was their money on the line and they listened to everything I had to say. We shouldn’t ever have to work for nothing. I believe strongly in the dignity of labour. It’s like these architects who have interns but pay them nothing. I find that insulting.

That’s the controversy in Australia actually.

Well, I think anyone who takes someone on without paying them should be deregistered as architects. It’s immoral and unethical. What you’re saying to that person is that the value of their labour is worth zilch.

The immediate past president of the Victorian Chapter of the AIA, Jon Clements, made an impressive speech on that recently. I also read that RIBA has established a protocol that removes an architect’s accreditation if he or she is found to be employing someone without pay.

They did that in the US as well.

It will be a challenge to see whether or not there is enough steel within the Australian profession to do the same thing.

Look, I think the work Beth Miller does is great, but one of the things I’m interested in is the difference between architecture and social work.

Yes, you made that comment at the end of your speech.

I think there’s a distinction between being a professional architect and maintaining active citizenship. I mean, I’m actively involved in my country, but I don’t believe that through my architecture I’m going to create political change. If I wanted to do that I’d join a political party and I’d go out there and change things. Architecture doesn’t work like that. So it’s about understanding the limitations of architecture. Once you understand what architecture can and can’t do, you can be much more effective as an architect.

When I went to the last Venice Biennale, the American exhibition was essentially social work. It was about helping people learn to grow vegetable gardens in their back yards. I mean for fuck’s sake, that’s not what I want to do as an architect. That’s not stuff architects do, it’s what social workers do. We do other things. I think we’ve got to be a bit careful that the pendulum on social accountability doesn’t swing too far and we lose sight of everything.

In the end, the best thing we can do is make purposeful space that’s beautiful, which is bloody difficult to do as it is. If poor people get richer or sick people get healthier in my buildings, then that’s great, but I don’t think it’s a predictable outcome.

You know, I don’t go and look at any buildings I’ve done, I really don’t. When I hand a building over to my clients, it’s theirs and they must do with it as they see fit. I’m not going to go and sniff around and find out what they’ve changed, it’s their right to do whatever they like. For God’s sake, knock a hole in the wall, change the front doors, change the roof, it’s your building, do with it what you want.

Interesting. It’s an understanding that architecture involves the dignity of exchange.

Obviously, the client has paid for it. There’s a famous essay by Adolf Loos called The Poor Little Rich Man, it’s exactly this criticism. This poor little rich man, he went to the architect who designed anything, and then whenever he wanted to change a painting in his house he would have to ring up the architect to get his permission, and to get his advice. Is that what architecture is? That’s not architecture; it’s something else, control beyond any reasonable limits.

I agree, and I really think this shows in your well-built but humble work. Thank you for your lecture today and your candid discussion.

My pleasure.

red location gallery

This article was commissioned by, and first appeared in, Architecture AU.


Images sources:

  1. Red Location Museum entrance, Noero Architects. This and subsequent images courtesy of the architect.
  2. Red Location Archive reading room, Noero Architects.
  3. House Sapieka front, Noero Architects.
  4. House Sapieka courtyard, Noero Architects.
  5. House Sapieka interior, Noero Architects.
  6. Red Location Museum interior, Noero Architects.
  7. Red Location Gallery, Noero Architects.
Posted in Architecture, Festivals | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Between nature and architecture

20140723 sou fujimoto

What was it?

A series of recent lectures by Japanese architect, Sou Fujimoto, touring Australia as a guest of the excellent C + A journal. Fujimoto presented his philosophy of architecture together with a tailored collection of his projects, including the building for which he is best known, the 2013 Serpentine Galleries pavilion in London. Not only did the Serpentine commission elevate him into the rarefied air of the likes of Zumthor, Koolhaas, Nouvel and Gehry, at the age of 42 he became the youngest architect to have achieved this honour.

Fujimoto began his lecture by contrasting the place where he grew up – a small rural town in Hokkaido, the north island of Japan – with the place where he studied to become an architect – Tokyo. Despite the apparent differences between the two environments, Fujimoto explained that he has always felt at home in Tokyo. For him, the forest and city are compositionally similar: immense spaces made up of many smaller pieces. Natural and artificial artefacts – leaves and branches or street signs and window panes – operate in both places at the human scale.

As the title of his lecture suggests, the natural world has long been a fascination for Fujimoto. Indeed, the forest and city anecdote underpins two related themes that drive all his work and were the subject of his lecture. First is his exploration of field architecture, or the fuzzy zone that exists between fixed states. Second is his interest in the contrast and collision of opposites: natural / artificial, inside / outside, simplicity / complexity, small / large.

The projects presented ranged in scale from the very small to the very large; from a single toilet in Ichihara, Japan, to a 1.5km long shopping strip in the Middle East. The two themes wove their way through all of them, finding expression in the cloud-like edges of the Serpentine pavilion, the fragmented floor plates of NA House, or the undulating canopy of jutting balconies in the White Tree Tower.

Serpentine Galleries pavilion, 2013

serpentine pavilion setting

serpentine pavilion gathering

serpentine pavilion detail

Fujimoto seemed in awe of the Serpentine Galleries and their investment in the annual pavilion programme. He noted the ambition of their commissioning body, who each year seek to recreate the spirit of inventiveness of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. With some whimsy he also described the designs that were rejected, first for being too Fujimoto-like and then for being too not-Fujimoto-like. The successful design proposal managed to stay connected to, but was still a departure from, his existing canon.

It is remarkable that both he and his client could have such confidence and self-awareness to be able to appreciate and direct this process. Insightful self-reflection is not often a trait associated with architects, though perhaps the international speaking circuit has pushed Fujimoto into understanding and articulating the trajectory of his work. It is clear also that the Serpentine is no ordinary commissioning body. They seek out and attract some of the best architects in the world, demand enormous creativity and effort from them (highly experimental pavilions executed from commission to construction in just three months), and have achieved a lineage of follies that are covered by architectural and mainstream media in every corner of the globe.

Fujimoto’s winning proposal started from the idea of a continuous surface wrapping around the core cafe function of the pavilion, a simple sketch that looked a bit like a rolling wave. But both surface and programme were dissolved and deconstructed into a repetitive matrix of 20mm white steel pipes, assembled across a combination of 400 x 400mm and 800 x 800mm grids. From a distance the pavilion resembles a soft white cloud, a carefully determined shape that somehow resists a determined form. Constantly shifting, from one angle (the first photo, above) it mimics the roofline and window reveals of the Serpentine Galleries behind, from another it becomes tree-like, from yet another the rolling wave reasserts itself.

Drawing the design in two dimensions was unhelpful, nothing more than fields of dots on a page. Even the three dimensions of a digital modelling environment lacked the depth and nuance the project required. So Fujimoto’s studio built a 1:10 model and the design development process saw him stalking it with a pair of scissors in hand, pruning a stick here and there as though the model were a topiary hedge. A staff member would trot after him, attaching coloured tape to the modified areas so the minute changes could be fed back into the computer-based documentation.

In this project, the field is strongly evident. The pavilion’s form is somehow both finite and constantly shifting, its programme is intimate yet undefined. Even furniture has an opportunity to unravel the order of the grid: standard cafe furniture create plinths for the “bottom parts of the body, their charming quality offseting the clarity of the grid.” The spacing of the grids permits further disruption: by dogs that walk through them and children who climb into them. The pavilion is a symphony of opposites: simple grids of sticks achieve great formal complexity; inside and outside are indistinguishable from each other; the traditional tectonics of buildings (walls and roofs, stairs and seats) are playfully dissolved.

NA House, 2011

NA house from street

NA house interior #1

NA house interior #2

In a hip, lively part of Tokyo, NA House is located on a typically small Japanese parcel of land measuring just 6 x 9m. Fujimoto felt that a large room on this site was not possible: it could only ever support a large small room. Fortunately, the clients were a young couple enthusiastic about (and presumably wealthy enough to take a risk on) an experimental house.

Fujimoto’s response was based on two radical gestures: first, the front and side facades are almost entirely transparent (even curtains appear to have been avoided); second, the floor plates are split across many levels, dissolved into small parts.

Fujimoto spoke mostly of the floor plates, describing them as mini platforms operating at the scale of furniture. They are separated vertically according to the heights of chairs, tables and benches – the dimensions of the human body. In some instances, ceilings are as low as 1500mm, creating nooks to be crawled into. Life is distributed fluidly across the platforms, a nebulous field that expands and contracts to fit the activity and size of gathering at hand. There is nothing as prosaic as a living room, meals area or bedroom in NA House. The platforms become whatever is needed: a bench seat now, a work surface later. This intent is revealed by photos that show bags, books and computers strewn freely across the floor. The house is full of edges, each creating temporary territories that its residents configure and reconfigure as required.

Though he didn’t discuss it, the transparency of NA House is truly bizarre, particularly in a city as dense as Tokyo. It is far more common to see Japanese architecture that carefully orchestrates views into and out of the interior volumes (indeed, last week Dezeen published a 2009 project by Hiroshima-based UID Architects that incorporates a solid floating fence that wraps the site in a privacy screen). The interior life is entirely on show here, as much a part of the streetscape as Tokyo’s famous Omotesando flagship retail stores. Not unlike Fujimoto’s glass toilet in Ichihara, private space is pushed right up to the edge of public space. We wonder what it would be like to live here at night, with each window a glowing billboard of one’s life? Would the house’s residents feel exposed, or would they feel protected by the anonymity of the street?

If anything, NA House is as clear a demonstration of the experimental quality of Sou Fujimoto’s work as the Serpentine pavilion. In a typology generally defined by conservative, risk-averse commissions (a topic we have previously discussed here), it is a radical redefinition of the programming, tectonics and urbanity of inner city living.

White Tree Tower, 2014

white tree across river

white tree balconies

white tree aerial

Fujimoto won the White Tree Tower project following the aptly named Architectural Folly of the 21st Century design competition. It is perhaps no surprise that a competition so named would be won by an architect who wraps toilets and inner city houses in glass. It is a multi-residential tower located amongst the good food, good weather and good life of the Mediterranean, with an undulating facade sprouting a dense canopy of deeply cantilevered balconies.

The interior volumes of the apartments look much like any other contemporary apartment design, but the balconies are a clever and formally evocative gesture that responds well to the local climate. Fujimoto observed that the majority of Mediterranean life is spent outdoors, is indeed the defining characteristic of the region: why should living in an apartment not provide the same opportunities? The building not only functions like it belongs in a warm climate, its tree-like form makes it look like it does too.

The balconies are this project’s expression of the fuzzy field. In Australia, we are used to seeing facades designed parametrically to obscure unwanted sun, with each window carefully finessed to achieve maximum thermal performance. Fujimoto is not interested in performance-driven architecture though (the balconies wrap 360 degrees around the building, despite the fact that the north face will not receive much direct sunlight): for him, narrative and social context are more valuable. The randomly jutting balconies and roofs will provide shade in an unpredictable pattern; a true intersection of natural and artificial constructs. The tower’s residents will live at the edge of a built forest, shifting positions on their (sometimes multi-storey) balconies to catch the last rays of sun or find relief in the last square inches of shade.

Like NA House, White Tree Tower pushes the most intimate of residential spaces to the very edge of the building. Life is put on display, the building energised by the activity within it. The exciting parts of the building are at its edges, precisely where the field likes to operate. Fujimoto has juxtaposed the public and the private, but big and small, inside and outside, climate and climate-control also.

What did we think?

We recall studying the theory of field architecture during our Bachelor of Architecture degrees, but until hearing Fujimoto speak, have never encountered a practicing architect who proactively explores it in his or her work. It’s not just rhetoric either: Fujimoto’s buildings are genuinely strong expressions of the undefined area between opposites. Edges of roofs are slowly dispersed to blur the boundary between inside and out; deterministic room types are dissolved in favour of platforms that support shifting regions of activities; balconies provide shade without symmetry.

Across all scales, Fujimoto is deeply experimental. Even the 1.5km long Souk Mirage masterplanning project explores the juxtaposition of natural and artificial orders, and the possibilities of undefined, field behaviours that can be found in the zone between. This is an impressive trajectory that reinforces the clarity in Fujimoto’s self awareness: each project teases out the issues further, finds new formal expression for old ideas.

He is also a great distiller: a project is reduced to its core idea, which is then expanded to cover all facets of a design. This is of course true of his formal gestures: for instance, a grid of sticks to makes walls, roofs, stairs and furniture. It is also true of his ideas: he “thinks about nature simply,” proceeding step by step to deepen the relationship between the architectural and natural environments.

Our lasting impression of Sou Fujimoto is a man of embedded contradictions. Like his work, he is the result of the contrast and collisions of opposites. He is confident in himself and his work, but he is also modest. He is playing on a world stage against architects pushing into their 70s, but he is still young. He makes serious architectural enquiries but retains a sense of lightness and humour.

It is easy to overlook his predominantly pristine, white work in a country of highly creative architects producing pristine, white work. But to our pleasure, we discovered that his architecture becomes much more interesting below the surface. It is inventive, rich and complex. Even the whiteness contains a story. When asked whether he’s ever thought about using colour, Fujimoto responded by saying, “I hate white. It is a very powerful colour, it grabbed me and doesn’t like to let me go.”

And why should it indeed?


Image sources:

  1. Sou Fujimoto portrait. Image source: Bustler.
  2. Serpentine Pavilion context, this and subsequent photos copyright Iwan Baan. Source: Domus.
  3. Serpentine Pavilion interior.
  4. Serpentine Pavilion detail.
  5. White Tree Tower context, this and subsequent images copyright of the architect. Source: Designsity
  6. White Tree Tower aerial.
  7. White Tree Tower balconies.
  8. NA House context, this and subsequent images copyright Iwan Baan. Source: Domus.
  9. NA House interior #1.
  10. NA House interior #2.
Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We have creative vision

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of an architect.

What follows is the 4th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

4. We have creative vision

creativity

Designing a building is a sophisticated exercise in problem solving. Our clients come to us with a problem (you need your house to accommodate a growing family) and we provide the solution (a renovation comprising extra bedrooms and mixed use living spaces). This is much easier said than done. To design a house, we must navigate many oceans full of potential icebergs: functional performance, sustainability, contextualisation, planning regulations, building regulations, structural engineering, construction, durability.

The best solutions are the simple ones, the ones that resolve all the parts of the problem into a singular, holistic form. Neither draftspeople nor volume builders attempt this. The products that they sell are solutions for only a tiny fraction of the full problem. They sell houses that ignore the unique requirements of site, context, history, culture and client.

The reason for this is that simple solutions are very difficult to produce. They require deep research, sustained effort and a great deal of patience. They require creative vision.

The great German industrial designer, Dieter Rams, preached the maxim, “Less but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects… Back to purity, back to simplicity.”[1] Steve Jobs passionately followed this philosophy in establishing Apple, the largest and most design-focussed company in the world. He observed, “It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”[2] Jony Ive, Apple’s head designer, agrees: “Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity… You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”[3]

A building is as complex a product as any, requiring not only technical expertise to reconcile its many different requirements, but creative vision to do so in a simple, sustainable, resourceful, inventive, enduring and beautiful way. This is perhaps the greatest advantage of engaging an architect: our creativity stems from both technical and artistic understanding. We are able to solve your problem with both pragmatism and imagination.


Footnotes:

  1. Dieter Rams; 10 Principles of Good DesignVitsoe; accessed 22nd June 2014
  2. As quoted in Walter Isaacson; Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography; Simon & Schuster; United States of America; 2011; p. 343
  3. Ibid.

Image source:

  1. Creativity, author’s own image.
Posted in Architecture practice | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment