February 10, 2012
Build Only Half
As is clear from Pruitt-Igoe's genesis, wagering on what a built environment is meant to accomplish is a fairly permanent proposition. Even a design optimized for a particular moment in time may become obsolete as old needs recede and are supplanted by new ones. The unpredictability of the city is such that one can never anticipate what those needs might be... So, how might we introduce this kind of thinking into design and architecture? That is, how do you build something in a way that allows you to change your mind later on?Misha Lepetic at 3QD
The Elemental project’s solution was this: the project would plan for the “medium” size houses, but build only half the house. They would plan (and build) in such a way that more units could fit in, and that the families could easily expand into the “missing” half when they were able to do so. Elemental built a system of row houses in which half of every unit is missing. But because they have built the part that requires the most expertise and investment – the load bearing structure, the roof and so on – the inhabitants could expand into the missing voids at a later stage – in any way they liked. This also dealt with the pervading problem of social housing – the uniformity and lack of individuality.Thus, Aravena’s group understood and worked with the limitations – budgetary and otherwise – that were being imposed on their design. In fact, they turned these limitations into points of strength: few architects have the courage or insight to allow their tenants to become co-designers ... the consultations with the future residents of the Iquique settlement revealed much the same misgivings about living in a highrise as Pruitt-Igoe’s architect expressed almost 40 years earlier. If nothing else, this is illustrative of both the constancy of the human condition, as well as the persistence of design problems. However, the real progress in this case is that neither the architect nor the residents were passive players before more dominant institutional forces, such as the role played by St Louis Housing Authority in the 1950s.
Even the larger urban environment could stand to benefit from such agile thinking. During the design competition to rebuild the World Trade Center, a group of designers led by Rafael Viñoly came together to propose a daring design: a lattice-work evocation of the twin towers that would be mostly hollow. Part of the purpose behind the latticework was to create ample space for future designers and stakeholders to create new constructions that would be appropriate for the needs arising at that time. I honestly don't believe the proposal had a chance of being chosen, but it is a striking riposte to the idea that skyscrapers, which might be considered the leading indicators of our built civilization, are not necessarily required to be subject to the same kinds of centralized planning that constituted one of Pruitt-Igoe's most serious weaknesses. That this design was proposed on the ruins of Yamasaki’s greatest buildings is an irony that should not be lost on us.