Second-guessing the self-sufficient

Came back from my beloved Urban Center Books the other day with a stack of tasty new treats, including Per Mollerup’s Wayshowing – about which M is definitely TK – and Self-Sufficient Housing, a rollup of entries from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia’s competition of the same name.

It’s the latter that I’m having a hard time with, for reasons that will become evident. By all rights, a volume presenting a wide range of current advanced student projects, each of which takes the challenge of resource independence (and to some extent, Ken Yeang‘s ideas about bioclimatic architecture) as a rough point of departure, should be a no-brainer to recommend.

And while there are in fact a great many insights to be found here, from a pleasing diversity of perspectives, I can’t quite bring myself to recommend the volume as a whole – not unless you’re either utterly fascinated with the topic, or otherwise prepared to suffer a fair deal of frustration on your way to the good stuff. For starters, it’s put out by Actar, a press which has the infuriating habit of releasing fascinating titles in (admittedly innovative, and frequently gorgeous) formats that make them nearly impossible to actually read. A 16 x 12 cm page is a pretty paltry landscape on which to present detailed plans and flow diagrams to start with, and the issue is only exacerbated by idiosyncratic type choices, a muddleheaded practice of indexing by project number, and an unacceptable number of typos and other errors.

But what about those projects? A few basic typologies emerge from the scrum:

– Quiet, detailed proposals that have less to do with form, mass and envelope, and more to do with ethnography and the pragmatics of use. An important subset consists of sincere attempts to mitigate the damage done by events like the Hurricane Katrina and the 2004/5 Asian tsunami with sensitive architectural interventions, tending to rely on an off-the-shelf, kit-of-parts approach for rapid “mainstreamability”;

– Strap-on, bolt-on, parasitic and otherwise retrofit projects aimed at capturing whatever resource economies can be gleaned from the contemporary architectonic, the “installed base” as it were;

– Abstractions and purely conceptual studies;

– A handful of projects whose “green” attributes appear to have been foregrounded for the presentation at hand, but which are otherwise entirely conventional (and which probably originated as responses to other briefs, competitions or requirements);

– Lest you think it had been done to death (most famously by LOT/EK, of course, but there are literally hundreds of other such on the books), we have no fewer than three iterations of the everpopular shipping-container-as-plug-in-apartment scheme;

– Superkool and frankly science-fictional urbscapes in which rhizomorphic, even nanotechnological structures imbricate, invaginate, involve and otherwise insinuate their way into the terrain, with their human residents very much an afterthought. Some of these are in fact very little more than formal studies – blame Greg Lynn and/or bootleg copies of 3D StudioMax.

With regard to the container-based projects, I am of course sympathetic to the idea that there exist in the world not merely a large number of extant containers but a whole infrastructure dedicated to moving them quickly from place to place, and wouldn’t it make sense to adapt this set of facts on the ground to the needs of shelter? My objection centers on the evident fact that – despite the best attempts of two generations of architects – nobody has yet managed to do so in a way that makes sense either economically or experientially; at some point, you’d think there would be almost a fiduciary duty on the part of instructors to quash container-based student projects on the spot, unless some glimmer of genuine novelty came to light.

But my real frustration with the book is actually a frustration with the contest, or its jury: the projects that won in each category are far from the strongest in competition. In particular, Sung-yong Park’s Under-space and Nigel Craddock’s lovely House in Bangladesh strike me as very thoughtful, sensitive and well-worked-out, far more interesting than the winner in their category.

Work that actually wrestles with the place of architecture in a delicate and dynamic ecosystem, and privileges that thought over sexy renderings – Asaduzzaman Rassel’s Housing in the Delta, Bercy/Chen‘s Solar Down & Out House – is equally bypassed here. And while Damien Mikolajczyk’s T2ower admittedly sketches in its bioregenerative functionality more or less as a black box, it’s one of the only projects on review which articulates a convincing public space – you know, with people in it!

Meanwhile, and across the board, the less said about the winners, the more diplomatic. About all I will say is that I actually do think I understand why self-evidently stronger work didn’t necessarily rise to the top.

Consider the following a guess: my experience as a juror in a not-so-dissimilar competition reminds me that an artifact of voting systems where one allocates a spread of points among entrants is that strong but sharply polarizing contenders may well wind up with a lower overall score than merely so-so ones that manage to attract some points from most jurors. I could well be mistaken, but the winners in Self-Sufficient Housing seem to me to have just that aura to them.

Which is too bad, because for all the lazy rhetoric and 1997-stylee chartjunk devoted to “ecosystem injections” and whatnot, there is some very clear, very strong work to be found in these pages. And while I am certainly grateful to both publisher and jury for having brought these young talents to my attention, many of them deserve much better than the real-estate this book gives them.

6 responses to “Second-guessing the self-sufficient”

  1. Damien Mikolajczyk says :

    ‘been browsing through and just wanna thank you for your comment on my project published in Self-sufficient housing.
    I fully agree with your comments about the book and most of projects published. I was the first deceived when i bought the book to see the relatively low quality of the work, as of the book itself (as you said mostly because of its thumbnail size).

  2. speedbird says :

    Hey, thanks for swinging by! I’m not sure the comment above captures how refreshing I found T2ower in context. Please feel free to check in from time to time – I’ll be curious to see how your work fares out in the world.

  3. Damien Mikolajczyk says :

    No problem, though i don’t have much time to read this moment, i must say what i’ve read so far seems quite close to my own point of view:)
    You may check my portfolio though i seriously need to make it again (old student work) at
    Looking at your own work, you may be interested in my diploma, which i am currently finishing: “New sciences and the conception in architecture and urbanism” ; mainly searching for a link between emergence and complex systems in the mathematics and their influence on contemporary urbanism… well much more about theory, and in french, but i may translate it soon. regards

  4. Sung-Yong Park says :

    Thanks for your praise on my project at the IAAC competition.
    To be honest, computer rendering skills, rather than ideas and architectural accomplishments, seems to be getting more and more important in order to be awarded in a competition.
    Unfortunately, computer randering technologies sometimes, as a strong visual tool, seem to prevent people from thinking and imagining by themselves.
    As the result, I guess, a poor computer renderer like me is losing an opportunity to participate in a competition.

  5. Sung-Yong Park says :

    I saw the book today. Honestly, very disappointed with the results. Some of juries seem to have naive belief in “analysis” because most of high ranked projects just show kinds of graphs and diagrams which is kinds of translations of sociologsts’ or ecologists’ thesis, not a ‘leap’ into architectrual specificity. Those are not creative sociologically or ecologically or architecturally, but just show some “architect”s’ naive desire to become “analysts”.

  6. retro says :

    It’s a shame what happened to Bangladesh. I hope the world steps up and helps them.

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