Everything wrong with contemporary residential architecture

I loath nearly everything about how contemporary houses are designed and built. Our homes are too often the grotesque offspring of a perverted union between consumerism and stagnating dogmas.

Our dreams themselves are flawed under the combined weight of our atavic instincts, the norms of the societies in which we live and rampant consumerism.

Let’s take for example this amazing house located in the upper-class gated community of Paulandia near Medellin. Isn’t this what most people’s definition of a “dream home” would be? An opulent castle with an unbelievable lake view and a sprawling garden, minutes from a fast-growing urban center.

We can’t help but feel envy for the people lucky enough to live in that mansion and their children who play on that trampoline. However, let’s analyze this view from a different optic:

  • Paulandia used to be covered with a native forest that has been removed without mercy to create a vast lawn that requires constant maintenance and cannot support the lives of local insects and birds, thus creating a sterile wasteland.
  • To offer a flat ground to erect this mini-Magic Kingdom, it is doubtless that massive amounts of soil had to be moved, thus violating the integrity of the site and potentially causing erosion control problems.
  • As with virtually all contemporary houses constructed in gated-communities around Medellin, this one is an object of pride, a visually impressive testimony to the socio-economic standing of its owner.
  • A castle is not only a metaphor for success: it is also the expression for an unstated need for safety and protection, a form of stone and lumber maternal womb to shield the owner from the torments of the outside world. Instead of embracing Nature, we decide to retreat behind our thick walls.
  • The steep pitched roof is supposed to add to the “curb-appeal” of American houses and has been fashionable for years. Was that a conscious choice from the owner to enhance the resale value of his home compared to a more traditional “finca” style house? Anyhow, such a roof cannot be functionally or financially justified in the local mild climate.
  • One can conjecture that this residence was designed by an architect who used a waterfall design process anchored in the programmatic requirements of the client at the time of project inception, with little thought for future flexibility or modularity.
  • Likewise, one can infer from the choice of materials such as bricks, that a traditional “wet” construction project gave birth to this mansion, with robust and costly foundations to support the weight of the structural walls. In all likelihood, the building site generated its fair share of garbage for several months until the inhabitants moved in.

Worst of all, a few years ago I would have loved to live in such a house and our own aborted project in La Estrella was similarly flawed.

An Alternative Proposal

After 3 years of diligent reading about architecture and recurrent phases of soul-searching, I came to the conclusion that future home owners a conditioned, practically brain-washed, to aspire for a dream house like the Paulandia castle presented above and eventually build it — as part of a process that our grand-fathers would still have recognized.

Why do we humans devote so much time, energy and money to create houses that will

  • Outlast us (haunting a house isn’t my goal in death)
  • Contribute to the destruction of our planet
  • Go so much beyond the basic shelter we all need
  • Represent a considerable financial burden
  • Disconnect us from the feeling of Nature around us
  • Be designed by architects who do not truly understand us
  • Be an impediment to the mobility needed in our modern world
  • Comply with artificial social constraints we couldn’t care less about

I don’t know about you, but I have definitely never felt so alive, so free and so much in touch with the environment as when I was camping in the middle of nowhere. For me, a tent is the ultimate house!

A tent is inexpensive, portable and can be set up anyplace in little time. When living in a tent, the quality of the “experience” far outweigh the characteristics of the “object”. Once your stay is over, you just pack it and depart to your next stop, leaving no trace behind you.

I suspect that the solid masonry house triumphed because it was the favored dwelling of the European civilizations that conquered the world and irremediably influenced it. If Genghis Khan had invaded Europe, we might all be living in yurts today!

A Camp Near Medellin?

A few days ago a friend of mine brought me from the US a book from the reputed architect Barton Myers: 3 Steel Houses. In it I found a thought-provoking statement by architecture teacher Vincent Scully: you cannot consider the house as architecture unless

  • it advances concepts of space
  • it says something of the age in which it was built
  • it is prototypical

I will probably build only one house in my entire lifetime. As such I want it to be nothing less than genuine architecture. I believe my quest for an alternative to tract housing and modern mansions is both valid and valuable.

In his book, Barton Myers, commented that the site of his House and Studio at Toro Canyon was too steep and devoid of level pads to build one big house structure, a situation common with plots of land outside of gated communities around Medellin. Likewise, as in the municipality of El Retiro, he was facing a height limit preventing him from building several storeys high. Finally, he was interested in the idea of distributing the buildings among the trees.

He fancied the concept of an Adirondack Camp, where you could have the main house, with the living room, dining room, kitchen and the bedrooms isolated in separate buildings. This idea resonates strongly with me due to our need for independent, private, living spaces. It reminds me of the Maison L by Pottgiesser Architecture, which took six years and ten proposals to design and build.

An Architecture of Silence

In this age of the Internet we have access to a myriad of enticing photos from architectural masterpieces built all around the world. We spend keen hours glued to the screen to put together aspirational Pinterest boards that we present to our architect, in the hope that he’ll be able to translate those into our own unique dream home.

This doesn’t work. The whole process is intrinsically flawed. Nowadays architects have no time to materialize the unvoiced needs of their clients and are only too content to either

  • Operate as a complex algorithm where you’re guaranteed the axiomatic “garbage in, garbage out”
  • Design a home in accordance with their own sensibility, in the belief that they “know better” than their beotian customer

As opposed to the settlers of old days, the contemporary layman is prohibited by law from designing his own dwelling, the State acting as a gentle guiding hand to avoid the catastrophic accidents that would undoubtedly result from widespread autonomous design-build attempts.

As a would-be house owner, I recommend that you select your architect with more care than you would your future wife or husband! Ideally, your architect should be your soul-sister or -brother with an almost metaphysical connection with you. Obviously, such a selection can only be successful after a relentless phase of introspection yielding a deeper understanding of your own needs and goals.

Simon Astridge might be such an architect for me (so could Kieran Timberlake, but that’s a topic for a future post). His blog is as beautifully written as his architecture is finely crafted. He states that

  • Architecture shouldn’t say look at me, it should say look at that tree or the horizon or the sunset etc.
  • Some of the most beautiful details and aspects of architecture today will have emerged because of site or budgetary constraints.
  • Practising this art is a continuing process of learning, adapting and searching for resolutions to problems. A professor colleague of mine describes architecture as problem solving. Perhaps that’s why it’s called architecture practice and not architecture perfect.

Most importantly, Simon Astridge introduces us to the six themes for the next millenium exposed by Finnish architect, J. Pallasmaa, crowned by an unforgettable conclusion:

  • In architecture today we yearn for an expression that aims at the spontaneity and authenticity of the individual experience. We yearn for an architecture that rejects noise, efficiency and fashion, an architecture that does not aspire after the dramatic, but rather aims at lyricising the real things of everyday life. We yearn for radical ordinariness, a natural architecture, of the kind that fills our mind with good feeling when we enter a peasant cottage. We need an ascetic, concentrative and contemplative architecture, an architecture of silence.

This dense paragraph expands on Thoreau’s famous words, “consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary” and made me realize that what I aspire for in my home is inner peace, reached via silent contemplation of Nature.

As a consequence, finding the right plot of land becomes even more crucial, quite possibly more so than designing the house itself, which should sit lightly on the soil, in total harmony with the land.

A Modern Refuge

Let’s face it, camping at 5800 m. altitude on a glacier on Mt. Chopicalqui, while listening to the sound of the distant avalanches on Mt. Huascaran, makes you first and foremost contemplate the frailty of your own existence — and the comfort of having a proper bathroom back at home!

To enjoy daily life, we need to upgrade from a tent to a refuge offering a minimum level of comfort for those not bent on a spartan lifestyle. The good news is that modern construction techniques can yield beautiful, lightweight and practical housing modules that can be clustered together to form a housing compound not unlike those of the Adirondack camps. Enter the MiniMod.

It may look like yet-another-container-house, but in reality the thinking behind the MiniMod is rather distinct. Here are a few chosen excerpts translated from the Spanish language page of MAPA architects:

  • MiniMod is a project, process, technology and experiential exploration. It is the primitive shelter reinterpreted for today. More than an object, it seeks to be an experience. It is technology applied to the experience of the landscape, an invitation to inhabit the boundary between nature and artifice.
  • A silent device renouncing its role as a protagonist to enhance the relational experience between user and landscape. Quiet but not shy: its high-performance compact design and the high-end quality of its materials distinguish it for the pursuit of excellence in prefabrication.
  • MiniMod is born of a systemic logic. Its uses are as many as its users may imagine them because its modular logic is allied with internal flexibility. And its portability is the essence of a nomadic external flexibility.
  • The modules are 100% prefabricated and transported to the desired destination via truck or disassembled into smaller parts and taken to the site for the final assembly. This leads to a clean work that does not harm the natural environment. Importantly, the expansion and addition of new modules can be performed in both the initial installation and long term, according to the needs and economic possibilities of the client.
  • Then understood as an open system, MiniMod is presented as an unfinished project, a catalyst for future exploration.

I don’t recall coming across a purer description and embodiment of what I am seeking, at least not in the field of residential architecture. The MiniMod is the anti-thesis of the Paulandia mansion: its construction system of steel frame and plywood is ideally suited to build a simple, authentic, affordable, yet comfortable and modern shelter in harmony with its natural surroundings.

Now that I have outlined the new guiding principles for our home design project, I shall soon explain in more details how it can be built — and this will lead us to the wonderful world of Design for Disassembly.

Originally published at casaleed.org on September 22, 2014

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