‘The house as a machine to live in’ and the ‘living sculpture’ are two Modernist architectural concepts which can be adapted to twenty-first century use. While global urbanization has invariably led to environmental depredation in the twentieth century, it is through well-considered architectural practice that human habitation can adapt to the changing natural environment and help to improve the high-density built environment that will be necessary in the future. This essay will look at various architectural philosophies as well as a biological example of high density living to research how these concepts can achieve a new context.
Termite mound -Cape York,Australia
Termites engineer their environment to high level yet completely utilise renewable resources, and are an architectural inspiration for passive ventilated structures both as working machines and sculptural forms. To enhance the survival of the termite in a harsh environment, evolution has seen fit to create a social organisation of these insects that enable them to achieve feats that would be impossible for an individual insect. Their complex nests are cooperatively built, well-insulated and sustain suitable humid micro-climates in harsh, dry conditions. Different species build different types of nests to coincide with differing environments, however they generally use mud and saliva to produce a regular array of interior pillars which are transformed into walls or galleries or chambers connected by walkways. These walkways create air convection channels which rise in ventilator chimneys within the above ground mounds; allowing thermoregulation of a narrow temperature range. This temperature control is essential for the maintenance of the termites’ broods, as well as helping to maintain atmospheric control for the species that cultivate underground fungal gardens. The ducts within the mound act much like the vessels and the respiratory channels of the human body, functioning as effectively as well. Their sculptured nests have elaborate and distinctive forms, with some tall wedge-shaped mounds being oriented north-south, some are amorphous domes and some are buttressed cones covered in grass that can be up to seven metres high. All these building variations helping to adjust temperature control in differing locations.
To expand on the concept of sculptural buildings that effectively adapt to their environment one can look at the prototype of Arcosanti, an experimental town being built in thedesertofArizona. It will eventually house 5000 people and demonstrate ways in which society can improve urban conditions and lessen destructive impact on the environment. It is based on the concept of arcology, a combination of architecture and ecology, and was developed by the Italian architect Paolo Soleri(1919- ). Arcology, like termite mounds, attempts to have the living and built environment interact as organs would in a highly-evolved being (www.arcosanti.org), using systems such as multi-use buildings, solar orientation for lighting, heating and cooling and large-scale greenhouses that provide winter-heating as well as garden space for public and private use. Soleri’s work considers the economic and social impact of design decisions (Johnson, B., 1999). City sprawl is concentrated into an independent system containing all the functions required by urban life: housing, recreational centres, agricultural and educational facilities. Frugality is encouraged, along with craft production, as an alternative to consumer society. Strange concrete forms with giant open vaults, painted half-domes with peculiar crests, an amphitheatre ringed by buildings with giant circular openings, little houses sunk into the hillsides, the buildings of Arcosanti are structured so that their function changes along with the day, thus following the sunlight. Patios act as the core of the functional distribution with each boxlike dwelling revolving around an outdoor amphitheatre with the patio giving access to each unit (Piccardo, Romano, 2008). Moulded with earth-casting construction methods, exposed concrete is painted using craft techniques, the same colour as the earth. The challenge for arcology is to find ways for large groups of people to be able to tolerate living in such close proximity. By integrating working and living spaces, along with the transportation to connect it together, emphasises the effective use of high-rise habitation, urban agriculture and the collection and reprocessing of waste byproducts. Whereas Arcosanti is a prototype, the concept of arcology is now being proposed in population dense Asia, with the Chinese government showing a keen interest (www.cityfarmer.org).
The concept of a building or house as a ‘living sculpture’ can be attributed to the late work of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). As architects such as Le Corbusier and Gerrit Reitveld were influenced by the Cubists, it may be possible to see in Wright’s philosophy the influences of such organic sculptures as that of Constantin Brancusi’s and Henry Moore’s. In his 1928 essay ‘Architectural Record’ Wright says ‘in the stony bonework of the Earth…there sleeps forms and styles enough for all the ages of Man’ (Conners, 1979:397), which supports an organic, natural interpretation of his Fallingwater (1934).
Fallingwater, 1934, Pennysylvania
Fallingwater was built amongst the dramatic rock ledges and boulders in the forest of Bear Run, Pennysylvania. Wright was commissioned to build a weekender for the Kaufmann family yet subsequently built a monument to nature. Understanding that people are creatures of nature, he thought that what conformed to nature would conform to the basic needs of people (www.wright-house.com) and according to the writer Donald Hoffmann, Fallingwater is the “Natural House’ (Conners, 1979:397). Every major feature of the house symbolises the site: the central chimney reflects the geological strata of the region, while the jutting concrete terraces echo the rock ledges that line the waterfall. It was designed to grow naturally out of its setting, as an extension to the landscape rather than an intrusion (Hitchcock, 1968:331). The broad bands of horizontal windows, along with the low ceilings, direct attention outside to the differing textures of the forest. The concrete and stone structural materials blend with the colours of the surrounding rocks and trees, while accents are created with bright furnishings that echo the wildflowers and birds outside. Within the house, passages and stairs meander without formality with the house having no main entrance (www.wright-house.com). By building the house over the waterfall, Wright wished to force the inhabitants to be part of the presence and power of the waterfall (Kleiner, Mamiya, 2005:1017). Fallingwater is a synthesis of organic architecture, integrating such environmental factors as function, native materials, construction process and humans.
Villa Savoye, 1928, Paris
Villa Savoye (1928) was the first building to realise the ‘five-point plan’ of Le Corbusier (1887-1965) that he wrote about in his essay of 1923 ‘Vers une Architecture’. Built on the outskirts of Paris as a weekend retreat for a client, it is a masterpiece of Purist design and one of the best examples of Le Corbusier’s goal to create a house that would be ‘a machine to live in’, both beautiful and functional (www.bc.edu). The five-point plan encompasses a mathematically modular design using the ‘golden section’ of architecture, ‘pilotis’ where the house is raised on stilts to separate it from the earth, horizontal strip windows, abstract sculptural design along with pure colour, and an open interior plan with dynamic transitions between floors such as ramps and a spiral staircase leading to a roof garden. Sitting conspicuously in its site, the house was Le Corbusier’s imagined idea of a house built like a car using standardized production (www.arciinnovations.com) and innovative structural systems such as structural steel and reinforced concrete. The architect believed that the house should serve the basic physical and psychological needs of the inhabitants through access to the sun, space, vegetation, good ventilation, controlled temperature and insulation against unwanted noise (Kleiner, Mamiya, 2005:1013). Therefore, it was through these attributes that Le Corbusier made his ‘machine a habiter’. The ‘pilotis’ also freed space underneath the building, its structural steel frame construction freed the house plan from needing load-bearing walls and allowed the flow of function and aesthetics. Light is used as a powerful element in the house to draw people up the ramps becoming an architectural promenade (Korzilus, 1999:16). The use of the horizontal or ‘ribbon windows’ let vast amounts of light, while the roof garden allows the landscape to become part of the house. The forms of the house, with repetitive cylindrical columns and strong geometric shapes have echoes of classical Hellenistic architecture (Korzilus, 1999:8), and it is this rhythmical aspect that makes the house have a neutral balance and proportion that appeals to the human need for aesthetics or, in Le Corbusier’s words, ‘to touch one’s heart’.
Farnsworth House, 1951,Illinois
A masterpiece of modern architecture which could be described as ‘a sculpture to live in’ is Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe’s (1886-1969) Farnsworth House (1951). Also built as weekender near Plano, Illinois, this simple single-storey house sits on a secluded site on the Fox River. The design of the house celebrates nature in a unique way. By carefully planning the house around its specific location, Mies takes advantage of the natural surroundings. The house sits far from the main road and south of its 58 acre site. It has no driveway or walkway which leads to the house but is approached on foot so as to allow the inhabitants to interact with the natural environment along the way (www.farnsworthhouse.org). The house also faces the river which flows a short distance away and, although the site is vulnerable to flooding, Mies chose to elevate the house off the ground rather than position it further away. It is this floating effect which is also complemented by the buildings structure of eight white steel columns that support a flat floor and a flat roof. In between is floor to ceiling single panes of ¼ inch glass. Mies eliminated the idea of rooms and created one open space of 2,156 square feet. The central core of the house is constructed of primavera plywood and contains the kitchen, bathroom and fireplace (Leber, Webster, www.columbia.edu) With this central core being the only interior wall, Mies designed and arranged the furniture so it is grouped in small clusters away from the exterior walls; allowing the boundaries between outside and inside to become almost invisible, and it is its prismatic composition which gives the house its temple-like quality. The windows and the intermittent partitioning, work together to force the inhabitants’ awareness of the raw elements of nature, as well as the comforting shelter of the architecture (www.farnsworthhouse.org). In 1938 Mies advocated the study of ‘primitive constructions, materials, the functional and the spiritual’ (Cohen, 1996:81), quoting the philosophy of St. Augustine ‘Beauty is the Splendour of Truth’ and it is with these thoughts that one can see that Mies intended that Farnsworth House to be an embodiment of his Purist views. Although the house has been criticised as being difficult to live in (Cohen, 1996:9), one can appreciate it’s almost Buddhist philosophy and disregard for the normal clutter of daily living. Mies’ adage that ‘less is more’ is certainly a potent message for sustainability in the 21st century.
Case Study House, 1949,California
To keep housing sustainable it is also important to keep the costs low. Both Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Mies’ Farnsworth House were unsustainable due to their cost. Charles Eames (1907-1978) was as American designer who wanted to use the expertise developed during the Second World War to produce low-cost veteran’s housing that would be both aesthetic and democratic. His Case Study House (1949) built in Santa Monica consisted of a design which used standardised parts already in production. It represented a particular refinement of ‘the machine for living’ that could become the ideal industrialised house (Copplestone, 1968:337). It was said by Dennis Sharp to be comprised of an unconventional use of standard components, which, when assembled, ‘became an artwork as unique as a Duchamp ready-made’ (Sharp, 2004: 170). The house, which was built for Eames and his partner Ray, was a double-storey unit divided into a house and a design studio by an open court. The living room was the full two stories in height with the bedrooms being set on a mezzanine level opening onto the living room. The house featured factory-produced steel windows frames filled with transparent and translucent glass and panelling made of wood, aluminum and fibreboard. The couple lived in the house till the end of their lives with it serving as a background offering them ‘a space where work, play, life and nature coexisted’ (www.eamesfoundation.org). Charles and Ray Eames also used this design to propose a ‘do-it –yourself’ house for the Kwikset Lock Company. It was a house that would have been a low-cost prefabricated kit home designed to be assembled by the home’s owner. Similar to the Eames’ own house, it allowed the residents to customize the design to their own needs- a fundamental premise of the Eames’ philosophy.
A major architectural challenge of the 20th century, and now the 21st century, is to check the spread of dense masses of housing. Due to the exponential growth in human population since the Industrial Revolution, the natural environment has suffered much from an expanding human footprint. After the First World War, Le Corbusier turned his research to counteracting this problem with his ‘Voisin’ plan of Paris (1925) in which he built upwards in zigzag blocks, leaving room for green spaces beneath (Copplestone, 1968:328). His aim was to reconcile man with nature by his concept of the Green City as a necessary counterpart to the human social environment (Fishman, R., 1982: 204). Le Corbusier also believed that human habitation should be amenable to meditation; that after work, family life could exist to create individual fulfillment and creation. In his mass housing projects, each apartment was designed to be as private as a monk’s cell. Defining the ideal human environment, he recalled a trip to Italy, “I saw a modern City, crowning the hillside in the harmonious landscape of Tuscany’ (Fishman, R., 1982: 203). It was the monastery of Ema and he relished the structural combination of private and communal life there. The realm of the individual monk was a two room apartment overlooking the valley, connected with the community through the cloisters. At La Tourette (1955), near Lyons, he designed a monastery comprising a U-shaped building and a rectangular chapel set around a central court built on a hillside. The cells were cantilevered out over the storeys below with great attention being given to providing shade, air and light. However, it was in designing Unite d’Habitation (1947) that allowed Le Corbusier to realize his proposals for mass housing.
Unite d’Habitation, 1947, Marseille
The Marseille Unite d Habitation brought together Le Corbusier’s vision for communal living. He designed it under the constraints of post-war France, introducing the world to raw concrete because of the lack of steel and skilled workers for steel construction. Making a virtue of this necessity, he defined the building’s texture by the wooden plank formwork into which the concrete was poured. It is a ‘vertical village’ for 1600 people with an internal shopping centre on the middle floors, a recreation ground and children’s nursery on the roof, and a large surrounding area of parkland. It stands on strong, sculptural pilotis which give circulatory space beneath the building, has a pattern of single and double height balconies forming the façade, and contains fifteen different types of apartments. The partition walls are load-bearing and provide sound-proofing between apartments, but it is in the use of inter-locking two-storey apartments that the design shows its ingenious use of space (Glynn, S., 2001: www.galinsky.com). It was because of the severe housing shortage after the Second World War that allowed Le Corbusier to make use of new industrialized management practices and orientate his construction technique to be based upon the modular. This made the processing and assembling of the new materials easier. Also, by attempting to provide the perfect residence for a family, he found technical solutions to control sound, light and ventilation, and to create new uses for living space. The apartments could face the sun and surrounding environment in silence and solitude, whilst the architecture was a work of elegant rigor (Sbriglio, 2008: www.marseille-citeradieuse.org).
Roofdeck- Unite d’Habitation, 1947, Marseille
Another architect who spent much of his career contemplating sustainable habitation was Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). He admired the traditional architecture of Finland in which wood dominates as the main material and joining method, writing in 1941: ‘The Karelian house is in a way a building that begins with a modest cell…, shelter for a man and animals, and which figuratively speaking grows year by year’(Alvar Aalto, Architecture in Karelia, 1941). He had expanded this idea in 1932 when his association with a large Finnish timber and paper company opened his practice to industrial production. The patronage of the Finnish timber industry led Aalto to reappraise the value of timber over concrete as a primary expressive material. An organic approach to design led him to have a life-long concern for the overall ambience of space and how it could be modified through responsive filtration of heat, light and sound. Moreover, it was his later work that gave him an anti-mechanistic attitude and led him to believe that ‘to make architecture more human means better architecture’ (Frampton, K, 1997:199). In 1938 he designed Villa Mairea which featured a sculptural fireplace, mixed brickwork, rendered masonry and timber siding. The living rooms bordered a sheltered garden courtyard, set within a circular forest clearing. The house is roofed with sod and built according to the canons of the Finnish timber vernacular. Aalto connected architecture with biology and worked to create ‘a more sensitive structure to living’ (Frampton, K. 1997:201). After completing many municipal buildings, Aalto adapted an atrium concept to the design of a multi-storey apartment block built for the Berlin Hansvartal Interbau Exhibition in 1955. An ingenious design which has become one of the most significant post-war apartment types, its primary virtue was that it provided the benefits of the single-family home within the confines of a small flat. Through a U-shaped design, a large atrium terrace is flanked by living and dining rooms while the whole is surrounded on two sides by private spaces such as bedrooms. This grouping created an intimate and private atmosphere. Aalto always concentrated his attention on the creation of environments that would be conducive to human well-being, ascribing to the Northern European Expressionist architects’ philosophy that was ‘concerned that building should be life-giving rather than repressive’ (Frampton, K., 1997:202).
Interbau Exhibition, Hansaviertel, 1955, Berlin
The Australian architect Glen Murcutt (1936- ) developed a preference for simple primitive architecture from his early life in New Guinea; his main influences being Mies Van Der Rohe and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Being regional in nature, Murcutt’s houses resemble verandahs and have become a synonymous part of domestic Australian architecture (www.archiplanet.org). His overriding design aim is to unify nature and inhabited space by having architecture respond to human need whilst retaining a consciousness of the natural world: ‘It is trees, it is climate, it is the earth, the water, the rocks and the landscape which is real’ (www.architecture.uwaterloo.ca). His designs transpose the idea of a building to an organism which can adapt to changes such as humidity, temperature and light. Built in 1975 the Marie Short House is located in the marshy farmlands of Kempsey, NSW and it is the bodies of water that surround the house which make ventilation a top priority of the design. The house is composed of two pavilions connected by a corridor that also connects the two verandahs at each end of the pavilions. In 1980 Murcutt purchased the house for himself and added two additional spaces to the west of the building. The house was able to be pulled apart and reassembled with flexibility and ease without compromising the original buildings integrity. The humidity of the site was counteracted by positioning the house to receive the prevailing north-east breeze. The floor is raised on stilts 0.8 metres from ground level which prevents humidity being absorbed from the marshy soil and also prevents wildlife such as snakes from entering. The house uses solar heating and roof overhangs to maintain interior temperature control and light. The living room’s skylight has a shutter system to prevent excessive heat and light entering the room. Louvered windows have a detachable blind system to prevent heat loss in winter. In order to maintain a low building cost, Murcutt followed a minimalist building approach by emphasising only the essential and using manufactured construction elements rather than custom-made parts. Passive solar design and natural ventilation are the key elements of Murcutt’s design, allowing the architecture to benefit from the surroundings as well as respecting the natural site.
Marie Short House, 1975,New South Wales
This sustainable design philosophy is also seen in Murcott’s design for the Educational Centre at Riversdale on theShoalhavenRiver. Again two main buildings connect with each other, their roofs sloping to form a ‘valley’ in which the rainwater is collected. One of the buildings is the meeting room and the other houses the sleeping quarters. Murcutt likened the experience of staying at Riversdale to camping, there being no heating system and the corridor between the two buildings being a covered verandah which is open at the sides. The sleeping quarters are outfitted like a ship’s cabin with each bed nestling in an alcove with a low ceiling and long, low window that gives a panoramic view of the river (Muller, B. 2001). Murcutt’s construction methods are carefully considered as to their environmental impact, and this led him to being awarded the 2002 Pritzker Prize for sustainable architecture (http://www.pritzkerprize.com).
Educational Centre, Riversdale,1998, New South Wales
The fundamental principles for sustainable architecture in the 21st century seem to be based upon the design principles of the Modernist architects of the 20th century. The principles are passive solar design, natural ventilation, insulation, waste reprocessing and collection of rainwater and solar heat, along with an awareness and respect for the natural site making the building an extension of the landscape. Also, the monastery being a good example of frugal, cooperative living, mass housing should include educational and recreational centres, markets, and agricultural facilities such as greenhouses. Finally, low-cost standardized production and parts based upon the concept of the module could allow for customized design and the integration of working and living spaces. Many of these principles are the basis of the termite mound from which can be construed that a more biological approach to architecture could be taken in the future. The ‘machine to live in’ could become an organic machine which allows the natural environment to cope with such a mass of humanity, and the ‘living sculpture’ could act to inspire humanity within the confines of their daily lives.
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