Happy 3rd birthday

happy birthday

Today, Panfilocastaldi turns 3. We have survived another full year of blogging. We have narrowed our focus somewhat, engaging more deeply with events in Melbourne. We are writing less about art and photography, and more about architecture and architectural practice.

Our posts have become less frequent, but also longer and, we hope, more insightful. We were pleased this year to have our first articles published in other online outlets and print media. Our favourites from the past 12 months:

  • Chutzpah. The first of 10 things one needs to start an architecture practice.
  • Sharing is better than hoarding. A rallying call to the architecture profession to get better at sharing knowledge, processes and resources.
  • The invisible profession. Generated contact from the legal department of the Australian Institute of Architects, identifying our unauthorised use of the AIA logo and instructing its removal. A plea to Victorian Chapter Manager and national CEO was to no avail. We removed the image and remain bemused that our first official contact was a legal sanction.
  • Dear Sir or Madam. An open letter to architecture graduates revealing how to write a better job application. Useful too: we now direct all hopeful applicants to read and learn from it.
  • The legacy of Robin Boyd. Our first commissioned article, for the March 2013 issue of Architecture Australia. Republished here 7 months later unedited and in full.
  • Pretoria travelling studio. Our first article by a guest contributor, Jake Taylor.
  • Out of Practice and Small projects. Reviews of lectures from inspiring international architects, Gregg Pasquarelli of New York and Kevin Low of Kuala Lumpur.
  • Material 2013: An overview. The AIA 2013 architecture conference in review.
  • Vote Flinders Street: conclusion. The last of many articles examining the much hyped Flinders Street Station international design competition.
  • Bad architecture drives out good. A treatise on the demise of the built environment, and what we can do about it.

Once again, we have synthesised this year’s key statistics into a series of infographics:

categories

months

countries

readership

And some highlights in plain English:

  • 43 new posts, with a maximum of 11 in April of this year.
  • 19 current post categories, up from 18 last year. 7 categories received no new articles, evidence of our shift in writing focus, while Architecture and Architecture practice, the 1 new category, each received 22.
  • 139 new tags, bringing the total to 1,122 and ranging from Stalinism (1 post) to Australia (26 posts).
  • 135 new comments, up from 84 last year and bringing the total to 331.
  • An exponentially increasing 13,605 new spam comments, up from 2,055 last year and 408 the year before. This represents 98% of all comments making their way onto Panfilocastaldi.
  • 40,479 new page views, bringing the total a touch past the magic 100,000 to 103,398.
  • A slight reduction in our readership from last year, down from 120 to 111 page views a day. Our busiest month this year was surprisingly January, which has previously been amongst our quietest, with 5,534 page views or an average of 179 per day.
  • Visitors from 154 different countries, ranging from Papua New Guinea (1 page view) to Australia (13,649 page views). Australia now outranks the United States as our number 1 source of visitors by a significant margin.
  • 25,188 referrals from search engines, comprising thousands of unique terms predominantly in English, but also in Spanish, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Dutch. Our favourite, surely based on spoken words misheard, was, miss van dero.
  • 3,582 referrals from 210 other websites, with a maximum of 881 of Twitter, supplanting Facebook as our primary social media platform.
  • 83 blog followers, more than doubling our count of 39 this time last year, with a further 14 comment followers and 296 Twitter followers.

Thank you for your support this year. Who knows what 2014 will bring for us, or how Panfilocastaldi will evolve? For now, it continues to be a labour of love, self-sustaining because it is enjoyable for its own sake. If you promise to keep reading and commenting, we’ll promise to keep posting and replying.

Yours sincerely,
Warwick Mihaly, Erica Slocombe and Dew Stewart.

Gravity

gravity breakaway

What is it?

A film by Mexican director, Alfonso Caurón, that explores the fragility of human inhabitation of space. Gravity begins 600km above the Earth’s surface, where a NASA Explorer shuttle is docked to the Hubble space telescope. Civilian scientist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), is retrofitting the telescope as part of a scientific grant, employed we imagine to replace NASA’s dwindling government funding with private investment. Despite her determination, she is nauseated by the zero gravity, slow moving and clumsy. Floating with contrasting ease on a compressed-air thruster pack is Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut whose cheerful countenance masks reassuring capability.

This is to be the last spacewalk for Kowalski, who will retire upon returning to Earth. His only disappointment is that his cumulative time in space will be 75 minutes short of the (correctly referenced) world record held by Latvian cosmonaut, Anatoly Solovyev.

Easy chatter between Kowalski and Houston is interrupted by a matter-of-fact announcement that a Russian test missile has accidentally struck a nearby satellite. The announcement feels commonplace and unthreatening, a scholarly observation. But it soon evolves into a mission abort order when shrapnel from the collision causes a chain reaction of further satellite impacts, flinging a cloud of high-speed debris towards the Hubble. As the cloud destroys satellite after satellite in its path, communication with Houston is lost. Within minutes, the cloud reaches them and rips telescope, shuttle and astronauts to shreds.

The boom to which Stone is tethered is sheared from the shuttle and both are flung away from safety in an uncontrollable spin. Stone manages to untether herself, but is unable to slow her spin and quickly loses all radio contact. The scene, of a tiny white figure alone against the vast backdrop of the Milky Way, personalises the devastation of the collision. For long seconds, the camera focusses only on Stone’s face and the panic written all over it: the tiny gap between life and death in space is made all too clear.

When minutes later (though it feels like hours) Kowalski locates and retrieves her, the feeling of relief that floods us is palpable. He is non-plussed, almost casual in his demeanour. Despite the extreme fragility of their circumstances, he calms both Stone and the audience, more reassuring than ever. Illogical as it may seem, we feel certain that both will survive this ordeal. Dear readers, we strongly encourage you to see Gravity for yourselves to discover how the rest of it unfolds.

gravity impact

What do we think?

Gravity is extraordinary, the simplicity of its story rendered perfectly by the grandness of its setting: a scientist is retrofitting a sensitive piece of equipment, a soldier is on hand to ensure she can do her work safely. Disaster strikes, and both scientist and soldier must struggle to survive. This trajectory could have easily been set in Afghanistan, out at sea or next to a volcano, but none of these would have matched the power and majesty of space.

It is a disaster film, as much about its magnificent use of computer generated imagery as anything else, but it nevertheless manages to convincingly flesh out the personalities of its characters. Caurón treats both Stone and Kowalsky with endearing tenderness: he makes us understand that they are good people, remarkable for having been selected to travel into space, but not superheroes. They are grounded by their own histories and aspirations, backstories that make sense of the actions they take under extreme circumstances.

Bullock is excellent. Her long conversations with American astronaut, Cady Coleman, have resulted in a character that is both physically and emotionally convincing: the way she gulps in air to calm her early nausea; her helplessness after she untethers from the shuttle; her swimming movement through the International Space Station. How she managed, in normal gravity, to film the motion of her limbs so they portray a person in zero gravity is beyond us.

But most arresting is the film’s unerring faith to the limits of reality. Caurón chose not to invent new spacecraft with which to tell his story, “why invent when we have the most amazing technology already up there?” He has anchored it instead in scientific fact: the shuttle, telescope and space station feel familiar and contemporary. The bulky suits, modern materials and micro-gravity of space travel are as close to the real deal as he could possibly make it.

Sound is critical in conveying this quality: the disembodied voices of fellow astronauts, pilots and ground base; the intimate sound of Stone’s breathing, and the way it changes when she is scared, exerting herself or low on oxygen; the low-tech crackle of radio chatter and the strange vibrations of tortured metal; and throughout it all, the uncanny silence that accompanies even the most horrific of explosions.

Poetic licence has been taken only with the positioning of the various satellites and space stations that comprise the film’s sets. In reality, it is not possible to travel from the Hubble to the International Space Station, nor from the space station to China’s space lab, Tiangong 1. Caurón acknowledges that these craft are carefully choreographed specifically to avoid the sorts of catastrophes that drive his film, but says “we had to put them in a similar orbital plane because otherwise we would not be able to tell the story.” An early script that attempted to stay true to every facet of the space programme was towering and soon discarded, “everything was just about explaining to the audience about all that stuff, so we had to try to create a balance.”

There is only one scene that strays from the strictures of reality, a scene that David Stratton argues “should never have been included.” We’re in two minds: on the one hand, it is the weak link in a film otherwise firmly anchored in, and made plausible by, the physicality of modern space flight; on the other, it is an understandable segue into the inevitable psychological distress that the preceding catastrophes would establish. Either way, by providing a framework for the bulk of Gravity of such convincing realness, Caurón has crafted an environment in which the most extraordinary of events are unimpeachable.

We watched the film in 3D at the IMAX cinema in Melbourne Museum, easily worth the extra $6 ticket price. If there were ever a film to convince us of the benefits of 3D cinema photography, this is it: its spectacular imagery of both orbit and collision are breathtaking. Where the perception of depth is constrained in other films by horizons and buildings, here there is only hundreds of kilometres of empty space.

Gravity is a tense film, not for the faint-hearted, and unexpectedly difficult for a parent to watch. But it is mesmerising throughout. 4.5 stars.

gravity dangling

The legacy of Robin Boyd

robin boyd

Who was he?

The name, Robin Boyd, should be known to every Australian architect. He was a Melbourne architect prominent in the postwar era, but many decades ahead of his time. He was a proponent of an environmentally sensitive and locally specific adaptation of modernism, a teacher, a writer, an ambassador for the profession, and a political agent committed to the advocacy of good design.

Boyd was awarded the Australian Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 1969 in recognition of “the many distinguished works of architecture and architectural writing for which he has been responsible.”

Though his design career encompassed a number of larger works, including churches, colleges, some of Australia’s first motels and the Australian Pavilion for the 1967 World Expo, Boyd’s enduring focus was in the residential sphere. Working predominantly with lower income families, his houses were the results of an egalitarian commitment to accessible architecture. In a country staunchly and inexplicably devoted to housing designs poorly suited to its culture, climate and construction technology, Boyd utilised effective design, simple materials and new prefabrication methods to provide cost effective, high quality buildings.

Throughout his two hundred or so completed houses, Boyd’s work was characterised by restrained materiality, a sympathetic engagement with the natural landscape and a warm humanity. They were also polite buildings, as mindful of their neighbours and streetscapes as they were their internal amenity. A half century before the Victorian ResCode planning scheme enshrined in regulation the need to consider a building’s impact on its surrounds, Boyd’s work sought sensitive solutions for both his clients and the built environment.

As indicated in the Gold Medal citation, this approach was reflective of a broader dedication to good architecture and the propagation of its values to all Australians irrespective of wealth or background. In addition to his residential work, Boyd is remembered for The Australian Ugliness (1960), a timeless attack on the fickleness of Australian cities and one of nine books published in his lifetime; the National Trust of Victoria, which he helped establish in 1956; and the Small Homes Service, whose first director he was from 1947 until 1953.

the australian uglinessFirst edition dust jacket of The Australian Ugliness, 1960

What is his legacy?

More than any of his contemporaries, possibly more than any Australian architect since, Boyd’s engagement with architecture and the built environment extended far beyond the confines of his individual projects. The Small Homes Service and associated lifestyle articles in The Age influenced a large part of an otherwise design illiterate public; his lecturing posts at universities here and abroad influenced the next generation of architects; and his publications have continued to influence every generation since. If we were to distil all of these activities, and the values behind them, into a single phrase, it would be to expose the general public to the benefits of good architecture.

robin boyd foundation

Since 2005, this philosophy has taken formal shape in the Robin Boyd Foundation, a not for profit organisation originally established by the AIA and National Trust, and committed to the continuation of Boyd’s legacy. Beginning with the purchase of Boyd’s own house in Walsh Street, South Yarra, the Foundation now runs half a dozen open days a year providing access into modernist and contemporary houses; seminars from contemporary architects and their clients at Walsh Street; annual publications returning Boyd’s writings to print; and, beginning at the start of this year, an intensive workshop session for architecture students not unlike the Ozetecture Summer School in Sydney.

These programmes all share a common DNA intimately tied to the Foundation’s mission statement. The open days are most representative: according to Tony Lee, executive director of the Foundation, typically 50% of the five hundred or so attendees at each open day are not associated with the design industry. Then there are the open houses themselves: otherwise inaccessible to the public, they are either modernist projects by Boyd and his contemporaries or new houses by some of Australia’s best architects. Here is an ongoing opportunity for architects and architecture to engage closely with the general public, and in so doing for the public to learn about the value of both.

There is another initiative the Foundation hopes to undertake, one that perhaps will even better respond to Boyd’s legacy. The reincarnation of the Small Homes Service as the New Homes Service will revive what we suggest was Boyd’s greatest achievement. Originally a canny collaboration between the AIA and The Age, the Service published weekly designs from 1947 into the 1960s for small houses of 100 – 120sqm in the Tuesday Age, available for members of the public to purchase for £5. Boyd accompanied each submission with articles offering comment on design and lifestyle ideas resonating with his modernist values.

The Small Homes Service was born from a simple idea, but achieved a sophisticated array of positive outcomes. Such a coup is almost impossible to imagine these days, addressing many of the aims that Boyd, and indeed the entire profession, holds dear:

  • Boyd’s weekly lifestyle articles were eagerly anticipated, an injection of design culture both desired and valued by the general public.
  • The complete design and documentation packages were available for purchase for what in today’s money would equate to $2,500, a fraction of an architect’s usual fee.
  • The limited run of each design, capped at 50 editions, returned 40% of proceeds to the design architect promising an income similar to one-off projects while also providing a measure of exclusivity for purchasers. Much like a limited edition print of an original artwork, this was an immensely appealing way for homebuilders to achieve high quality design solutions with great cost effectiveness.
  • The houses were built by sections of the public otherwise unable to afford boutique architectural design, thereby expanding the influence of architects rather than competing with their usual client base.
  • And most importantly, the general housing stock was improved through the broader involvement of architects, developing real alternatives to the environmentally insensitive, cookie-cutter offerings of volume builders.

Lee believes the key to the success of the Small Homes Service was its ability to offer houses radically departed from the typical housing stock of the day. Skillion roofs, open plan living, planned extendibility, large expanses of glazing and northern orientation were at the time highly challenging concepts. Neil Clerehan, director of the Service from 1954 to 1961, adds that this success was also in very large part thanks to Boyd’s unique combination of qualities: a talented designer and writer, he was also a respected commentator and enthusiastic ambassador for the profession. The truth is revealed in the numbers: according to Clerehan, as many as 10% of all new homes constructed in Victoria during the Service’s peak were built according to its designs alone.

The New Homes Service will be established on the same principles as the original, but is likely to neither aim for nor achieve its predecessor’s impressive market saturation. Lee acknowledges that competing with today’s volume builders would be undesirable. Instead of trying in vain to match their prices, he instead sees the revitalised Service as a vehicle to once again test radical housing proposals. Arguing that Australia’s housing stock has remained largely unchanged since the significant leaps of Boyd’s era, perhaps design can once again transform the industry. Lee says he would be satisfied to achieve fewer built projects with the compensatory hope that, much like the car industry whose new technologies trickle down from the most expensive models to their utilitarian counterparts, new ideas achieved in those projects might have a positive impact on the rest of the housing market.

What should we learn?

To be successful, the New Homes Service will have to overcome significant hurdles not yet in existence in the 1950s. A wider array of lot sizes, established building stock in both inner city and middle suburban areas, stringent town planning regulations and more expensive construction costs will all take their toll. However, careful targeting might ameliorate at least some of these complexities. The larger lot sizes, greenfield sites and looser planning controls of the outer suburban growth areas are all conducive to the Service’s offerings, as is a population demographic usually more interested in volume built housing than architectural design. This is the one area of Melbourne where architects have the least involvement and where the New Homes Service stands to have the greatest positive impact.

A further challenge is the Service’s current lack of a media partner, a critical ingredient to the original’s success. Lee’s preference would be to have The Herald Sun on board, though how a newspaper, in today’s media-saturated environment, will help generate community interest and design sales is yet to be determined. Similarly, the absence of an environment in which an individual with Boyd’s complimentary talents in design, writing and construction finance, together with his willingness to act as ambassador for other architects, will further test the benefits of a newspaper mouthpiece for the Service. One thing is for certain; no single media outlet will be able to match the brand prominence Boyd was able to achieve with The Age. Maybe its natural successor is not a newspaper at all, but a television show like Grand Designs or another organisation entirely, unrelated by industry but connected through shared values and worldview.

Perhaps in pre-emptive response to this issue, Lee is taking a different strategy to Boyd’s original practice of anonymity within the Service. Due to what Clerehan explains was the common social practice of frowning upon advertising within the professions, Boyd architecturally edited submitted projects to suit the Service’s needs and then released them for consumption without attribution to their original authors. In poignant reflection of our contemporary attitudes towards advertising, the New Homes Service will conversely utilise established architects with their own cultural capital to attract early interest. For now, Lee is remaining tight lipped about whom he has approached, though we wager that the architects whose work features in various Foundation initiatives will be first on the call sheet.

This strategy indirectly highlights a challenge that is made all too clearly when reading The Australian Ugliness today, 53 years after its publication. The social, regulatory and communications conditions in Australia may have changed significantly since the 1950s, however our built environment is as ever riddled with poor quality housing. Looking back at Boyd’s ideals and considering the legacy he has left behind, it is unsettling to realise how many of the changes experienced by housing in the intervening decades have been negative. We may have planning regulations requiring consideration of neighbourhood character and amenity issues, but that has not stopped the bulk of housing becoming larger, more neglectful of the natural environment, less considerate of climate and less well designed.

This is not to suggest that architects are designing poorer houses, far from it. It is the absence of architectural involvement in what has anecdotally been described as 95% or so of all new houses in Australia that is to blame. If the architecture profession ever wants to shift this percentage in its favour, it needs to undertake a significant paradigm shift. If Boyd has taught us anything, it is that the conscientious architect is not just a designer of expensive beach houses. There is a social dimension to our profession, an important responsibility we have for the built environment. While there are any number of very good organisations engaging with the communities most in need around the world, there are few prepared to deal with the less glamorous, everyday kind of isolation experienced by the significant part of Melbourne’s population living in its outer suburbs.

Should it come into being, the New Homes Service may well respond to this challenge, however house design is only one part of a large, complex problem, nor does it eliminate the responsibility shared by the rest of the profession. What we are suggesting is not necessarily that architects design more houses. Indeed, Boyd himself recognised the paradox of this position, noting that “there are not enough artists to cover the world’s architecture; but if there were it might be too many”. Instead, we need to step beyond our design roles, take on advocacy positions, invest ourselves in political and regulatory change, and most importantly, expose the general public to the benefits of good architecture.

walsh street houseWalsh Street House, home of the Robin Boyd Foundation

This is the full and unedited text of an article by the same name that appeared in the March issue of Architecture Australia. A subsequent release on ArchitecureAU can be viewed here.

Experimental architecture

kids' pod v1Kids’ Pod v1
Painted cement sheet cladding, timber external batten screen, timber framed strip windows, fixed timber louvres to windows, roof deck, steel ladder

What is it?

Our architectural design process at Mihaly Slocombe is pushed and pulled by many forces, though recent self-reflection has made us realise that perhaps no more so than by the opposing pair of conservatism and experimentalism. The conflict between wanting to be like everyone else and be different from everyone else sends powerful currents rippling beneath the surface of every decision we make.

On the one hand, architecture is a serious undertaking. It requires the commitment of very large sums of money and the preparedness of many people – our clients principal among them – to follow our creative vision even though they might not fully understand it. Spending hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars on an idea that might not work is not an easy sell. We make safe decisions: use details that have been successful in the past; choose materials that we know will be durable; work with consultants and suppliers that we trust.

This approach is not necessarily negative, indeed it leads to buildings that don’t leak, age well, are timeless. It makes sense to develop a common language through our opus that helps each project learn from the last. To paraphrase something we dimly recall Le Corbusier once said: we try to get the details right so the poetry of our ideas might be experienced unencumbered.

On the other hand, architecture is nothing without risk taking. We can’t live up to our duty as custodians of the built environment without venturing into the unknown. Be it a big idea about sustainable urbanism or a small idea about welded steel door handles, we must constantly search for the new: new possibilities for materials, new opportunities for inhabitation, new strategies for urban density.

Risk taking, together with its first cousin experimentation, involve nutting things out: on paper and in the computer within the studio; then with timber and steel in the factory and on site. It means prototyping options, testing the results, tweaking and testing again. It means evaluating materials and systems with our hands and bodies, understanding them at 1:1 scale. And through it all, it means accepting a certain level of uncertainty: the experiment may work brilliantly or maybe not at all.

kids' pod v1.1Kids’ Pod v1.1
Corrugated steel cladding, short timber overlap junctions

kids' pod v1.2
Kids’ Pod v1.2
Long timber overlap junctions

kids' pod v1.3Kids’ Pod v1.3
Galvanised steel vertical support battens

kids' pod v1.4Kids’ Pod v1.4
Timber vertical support battens

kids' pod v1.5Kids’ Pod v1.5
Green powdercoat painted support frame

kids' pod v1.6Kids’ Pod v1.6
Shadowline joins at timber ends

kids' pod v1.7Kids’ Pod v1.7
Overlap joins at timber ends

kids' pod v1.8Kids’ Pod v1.8
Clear sealed cement sheet cladding

kids' pod v1.9Kids’ Pod v1.9
Cement sheet cladding continues up to height of balustrade

kids' pod v1.10
Kids’ Pod v1.10
Clear sealed cement sheet cladding, black powdercoat painted support frame

kids' pod v1.11Kids’ Pod v1.11
3x batten spacings to window louvres

kids' pod v1.12
Kids’ Pod v1.12
4x batten spacings to window louvres

kids' pod v1.14
Kids’ Pod v1.13
5x batten spacings to window louvres

kids' pod v1.15
Kids’ Pod v1.14
6x batten spacings to window louvres

What do we think?

The opposite demands of conservatism and experimentalism enjoy an uneasy and ill-defined truce within our architectural practice. It is hard to know sometimes whether or not we are just reinventing the wheel, a necessary individual journey perhaps but hardly experimental, or whether we are truly striking out into new territory.

The analogy of the baker

bread

The architect spends her days working on projects with unique sites, clients, climates, histories, cultures, contexts and regulations. The ever changing matrix of these ingredients demands invention. Her designs are complex and unique, balancing the demands of their ingredients in new and unexpected ways. But are they experimental, or do they merely apply the same rules to different starting conditions?

In contrast, the baker spends her days baking the same, simple loaves of bread: every day, she makes baguettes, cobs and viennas. Experimentation is easy to detect and control here: an extra pinch of flour, a new seed or grain. It is the teacup principle at work, the daily sameness of the baker’s activity makes any change immediately recognisable.

The baker has three important lessons to offer the architect:

  1. Simplicity. It must always be possible to distil her architecture down to a handful of essential ideas. These ideas drive a project and every decision it demands, from the largest gestures to the smallest details.
  2. Critical self-awareness. She must understand her own design processes, the what, how and why of her decisions. Then she can begin to differentiate her successes from her failures.
  3. Restlessness. She must learn to evolve her ideas outside of the specificities of a project. Only when she can distinguish between reinventing the wheel and true experimentation can she be sure she is pursuing the latter.

kids' pod v2.1 closed

kids' pod v2.1 openKids’ Pod v2.1
Timber cladding, scissor lift external shutters, hit and miss vertical timber battens

kids' pod v2.2 closed

kids' pod v2.1 openKids’ Pod v2.2
CNC routed shiplapped timber lining boards

In his recent Australian lecture tour, Small Projects, Malaysian architect Kevin Low exclaimed gleefully that his own house “leaks like crap”. Before trying something new with a client that might sue or vilify him, he first tries it out on himself. And so, our recent self-reflection has revealed, is the case with us. One of our projects currently under construction and the indirect subject of this article, Kids’ Pod, is for family and so has been the recipient of an unusually high dose of design experimentation.

Our experience of this project has so far been deeply gratifying: relentless design testing in the studio; exhaustive analysis of materials, finishes, junctions and details; collaboration with builder, engineer, craftsman; iterative prototyping in the factory. All of which is only now finding its way onto site.

In the studio, we began with an idea for the identity of the project: a place for grandchildren should be like a supersized cubbyhouse. We sought to embody qualities of robustness, playfulness, theatricality, secrecy, the treetops. We examined every element of the architecture: its programming, siting, proportions, material, fixing, finishing, junctions, span and spacing. We tested materials and interrogated their availability, durability and section sizes; we looked at corner detailing; we investigated the limitations of laser cutting and CNC routing; we examined solar protection options, from fixed louvres to operable shutters. We iterated our design over and over again.

kids' pod v2.2.1 position #1

kids' pod v2.2.1 position #2

kids' pod v2.2.1 position #3Kids’ Pod v2.2.1
Steel shutter prototype

timber prototypesKids’ Pod v2.2.2
CNC routed timber prototypes with varied board widths, varied hole sizes, spacings and depths, varied finishes

In the factory, we needed to discover whether our ideas were both possible and affordable. We worked with our builder and metalworker to devise a prototype for an operable shutter system: we tested cladding weight, examined bearing options, shifted stopping tabs by 10mm. We worked with our timber supplier and CNC router to test cladding board widths, holes sizes and positions. We had our painter coat samples of both external cladding and internal linings with various finishes of various gloss levels. We returned to the studio to extrapolate our findings and then went back to the factory once more.

On site, it is all coming together. Kids’ Pod has a slab, wall framing, services rough-in, roof framing and roof cladding. The operable shutters are pinned temporarily in place while we wait for windows to arrive on site. Once installed, cladding boards will be installed, then insulation, internal linings, services fit-off, joinery, finishes.

We have yet to confirm how we will lift the operable shutters: we have ideas, but they have yet to be tested. We will order some components – a cheap boat winch, a couple of electrical switches, some wiring – and see whether they work. Fingers crossed our mathematic equations will permit the shutters to break smoothly open and not bind on themselves. We have yet also to decide on the finish for the timber cladding: do we want it to retain its colour or grey off? We will investigate the best sealers to use to achieve both the former and the latter.

What can we learn?

Architecture is a long game, with development in our ideas and processes leap-frogging across projects that take years to execute. It is tempting for us to err towards conservatism, easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture. The complacent architect responds by falling on the crutch of familiarity, but the genius manages miraculously to hold onto the trajectory of the bigger picture. It is whispered for instance that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had only one design idea, which he used for all his projects and evolved carefully across decades.

We can aspire to Mies van der Rohe’s commitment and self-awareness (though perhaps not his myopic focus). In a philosophical sense, this means an abundance of deep thought and self-reflection: a dedication to the long play. Practically, it means establishing the rigour of critique, regular intra- and inter-studio design reviews whose aim it is to draw out the meanings of things.

It also means a commitment to research and experimentation: architecture exists at the intersection of ideas and making. These realms collide in all sorts of interesting ways, both limiting and accelerating the other. A thought on paper is just as easily resolved as hindered by the exigencies of craft. It’s only when we put them together, shift from the representation of the thing to the thing itself, the architecture, that we can find out whether or not our ideas will work. And so it comes back to risk taking and the value of experimentation.

We guess it’s not called architecture practice for nothing.

kids' pod on site nw

kids' pod on site neKids’ Pod v3
On site, construction underway