Above: Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, a new typology of the boundaries of living space.
In various posts over the past year or so, I have stated outright or alluded to the need for architects to envision new types of constructed, inhabited space.
What I refer to are not just recastings of already known building types, such as many innovative contemporary designs do—prominent examples being the Bilbao Guggenheim museum, and the CCTV building in Shanghai. Spectacular though they are, they must be recognized as monuments to existing knowledge, a gloss on existing ways of living and thinking. One can admire the remarkable abilities of their architects, while at the same time recognizing that they contribute nothing new to the typologies of museum or of office buildings, let alone to the concepts of preserving and publicly presenting artifacts, or creating space for collective work. But, we might ask, why should they?
Why should architects concern themselves with conceiving new types of spaces? Is that not the prerogative of their clients, who represent the needs of society at a particular time?
The answer to the last question is ‘not always.’ Clients do, indeed, represent the needs of certain financially empowered social elites that, understandably, want to serve their own interests. The wealthy and empowered believe that, by doing so, they serve the whole society, and they are right, at least in the case of museums. However, this does not mean that a museum must always be a big building with galleries, where things are lined up for display. Could there be other spatial solutions that re-contextualize works of art? That is a question of architecture and the invention of a new typology.
Throughout my working life, I have been most concerned with the changes happening in the world and how they impact architecture. Or, to put it differently, how architecture might impact the changes, and for the better. Early on, I developed the attitude that architecture is not a passive field, but an active one. Architecture should not merely follow, but lead in the conception of space for human use. Architecture should not merely express change, but should participate in creating it. Architects have special responsibility, because of the enormous impact architecture has on the lives of others. Ultimately, in a democratic society, it is up those others to decide whether architects’ designs and, most especially, their innovations are useful and valuable. Architects need not worry that by making proposals, however unconventional, they are imposing them on others. Architects, thankfully, simply don’t have that power. We are idea people—but we are, therefore, obliged to actually have ideas, and on occasion new ones, and to give them material form.
The changing needs of the majority of people who actually comprise society and who, in supposedly democratic political systems, count as much as elites, rely on the advocacy of perceptive and inventive architects, when the elites’ attention is focused elsewhere. The Modernist movement in architecture was commissioned, as it were, by architects, who saw the need for new types of housing, offices, factories, even cities, when those in government and business failed to do so.
New types of inhabited space with any value are not invented arbitrarily, for the sake of novelty or mere interest. Rather, they are made necessary by changing needs for living, brought about by technological, cultural, political and other changes that impact the lives of people of every social description. Architects should do their best to understand these changes and propose new types of spaces, when and where they believe conditions demand.
By way of giving some examples, I offer a partial list of new types of structures and spaces introduced in my projects over the past twenty years of tumultuous change in the world. A thorough survey will reveal many others, proposed by architects throughout the history of architecture.
Spaces and structures performing as instruments for experimental living and working. Examples: the inverted (hanging) towers in Underground Berlin; the Solohouse.
Spaces and structures for living and working experimentally in the fluid terrain of the sky. Examples: the levitating aerial ‘houses’ and communities of Aerial Paris.
Spaces and structures for living and working that are 1) free of pre-assigned purpose or meaning; and 2) difficult to inhabit; intended for those willing to invent ways to inhabit them. Examples: the hidden freespaces of the Berlin Free Zone project; the bridging, leaning, and suspended freespace structures in the streets of the Zagreb Free Zone; urban wall freespaces of the Habana Vieja project.
Injections, Scabs, Scars
Spaces and structures creating three stages of the reconstruction of war-damaged buildings. Examples: numerous projects for Sarajevo, Bosnia.
Spaces and structures built on vertical beams stabilized by cables in tension, occupying the air space above a site, while still being physically connected to it. Example: Sarajevo High Houses.
Urban-scaled, improvised ‘megastructures’ built up incrementally, using tectonic and spatial fragments. Examples: defensive wall for the Bosnia Free State; Quake City of the San Francisco Bay Area projects.
Structures presenting spatial conundrums, the solving of which contributes to a re-institution of an institution (e.g., of government). Examples: Parliament Building reconstruction, Sarajevo; Meta-Institute project, Havana.
Structures that change their relationship to the horizon and, hence, to gravity, altering the nature and potential of the spaces they contain. Examples: the Wheel House, Block House, and Star Houses.
Spaces and structures for living on and under the water, forming communities that reconfigure themselves (self-organize) according to fluid-dynamics of the sea and shifting social arrangements. Examples: the Iceberg structures of the San Diego project.
Artificial landscapes reforming natural ones, according to the influence and impact of both human and natural forces of change. Examples: the terraforms of the DMZ (Korea) project, the Terrain and the Utopx projects; the tilting beach of the Havana Malecon project.
Structures and spaces in seismically active regions that incorporate the forces released by earthquakes to transform them and the ways of living, working, and thinking they support. Examples: the shards, slip, wave, and fault houses of the San Francisco Bay Area projects.
Structures and spaces formed by tectonic lines and their groupings embodying physical, emotional, and intellectual energy. Examples: installations of The Fall project in Paris; the System Wien project in Vienna.
Above: Michael Webb’s drive-in house, a new typology fusing house and automobile.