Down to Earth
In recent years, architecture has come back down to earth. Following the logic of culture’s pendulum, we have swung away from the unbridled expenditures of postmodernism and the digital turn, to move toward a pragmatism rooted in humble efficiency and an economy of means. Indeed we are slowly correcting course to properly address the many precarities of this present moment – rising inflation, resource scarcity, social and political unrest. Precarities that are playing out against the broader and existential threat of environmental collapse.
"To be born is to be shipwrecked in nature,” as the historian Irenée Scalbert explains, “and our happiness, our existence even, depends on the wisdom of our ecology." Our ambition in ADS1 is to engage with such forms of wisdom.
This year we will work from the basis that the architectural and environmental project are one and the same. And that disciplinary boundaries drawn between ‘landscape’ and ‘architecture’ ought to be softened, if not dissolved entirely. We will draw from a consortium of experts in the reuse of buildings, their structural and mechanical challenges, as well as the adaptation of the territory surrounding them, learning from hydrologists, building scientists and landscape architects. We will develop new strategies both for transforming existing buildings, and unsealing the urban surface on which they stand.
Now, more than ever, we are aware of a symbiosis of architecture and landscape, of building and environment. As we come to grips with architecture’s destructive capacity, we also need to become aware of its potential to restore and repair.
From the beginnings of industrialization, water used to be abundant, or at least predictable. Modernity focused on developing hydraulic technologies to get rid of water as soon as possible and cause the least possible damage to human artefacts. Water storage was mainly intended as a means to create energy or pressure. All the interventions created in order to exert control on water were shaped by the principle of the hard boundary – banks, dams, locks, tanks, pipes, valves that were used to regiment the liquid. Cheap energy from the exploitation of fossil fuels disengaged water from the limitations of gravity.
The climate crisis has created a monumental shift in how we understand the water cycle and its entanglement with the environment. Formerly water-rich territories are now experiencing severe and prolonged droughts, often interrupted by brief, destructively intense rain–falls. In order to increase environmental resilience, the flow of water must be slowed. Hard boundaries become soft and porous, limiting flood risk and filtering runoff of harmful pollutants. Every roof, gutter, pipe and channel is a tributary feeding back to the ocean, every building and landscape part of a hydrological system that binds the natural and the artificial. ADS1 will consider how we might shape the flow of water? And to what extent will water shape our reparations of architectural and urban surfaces?
In 2022/23, ADS1 will once again focus on the transformation of existing buildings. The obvious aim is to avoid wasting precious resources in a context of scarcity, although we are seeking more than mere efficiency. Far from being an impediment, existing buildings become valuable resources towards the fulfilment of the project.
Every building is both a site of archeology and a register of anthropology. An extreme sensitivity in reading contexts is needed. The architect has to be able to analyse layers of structure and surface, to discern their value, to read the design intentions of their known or anonymous creators, and to understand the subsequent modifications to the original set of forms. A broad formal knowledge is certainly needed, as well as an understanding of the cultural and material conditions which produced those buildings and might produce new ones.
Not everything is valued the same. Every project is first of all an act of judgement. What do we keep? What do we alter? What should be erased? These are preconditions of any project that reconfigures as-found environments.
There is no architecture without a client. There is no client without desires, needs, expectations, and a budget. The client acts as a sort of catalyst in activating the design process. Of course architecture – especially the form seriously involved in the idea of lasting – has to overcome the client and aspire to a generous generality. Every building operation requires energy and resources, therefore every project has to be specific enough to satisfy the client, while being generic enough to tolerate future appropriations and still be able to survive. On the contrary, even architectures that are gracefully dying are legitimate and interesting.
So we need a client, a scenario and a pitch. We sense the kind of architecture we are looking for will embody ways of living that tend toward being radical and collective. Perhaps a commune is emerging, blurring the boundaries between work, domestic labour, continuous learning and leisure. A community that aspires to a certain degree of autonomy in terms of food and energy production, constructing its own environments and tools of fabrication. Hints of utopia become unavoidable as we accept that only deep adaptations will suffice. These are points we, as a studio, are open to discussing.
The Well Tempered Environment
Abbé Laugier was wrong. According to Laugier, primitive man has needs but no companions, and possesses a utilitarian logic but not a language. In this formulation, architecture is born in isolation, without words, without lies and is just a matter of shelter. Functionalism is the logical consequence of these (quite surreal) assumptions. Houses come before temples. And so private architecture is the model for public architecture. Pragmatism comes before ritual. Structure before space. Against all evidence, engineering precedes rhetoric.
Nevertheless for humans, being unfit to permanently live in the wild, a well tempered environment remains crucial. Overall, modernity defined and legislated a sharp boundary between the exterior and the internal sheltered space, within which temperature and humidity are expected to remain consistent. Fossil fuel exploitation and the technology of building envelopes made this possible. To save energy, we now have to deconstruct this boundary – to dissolve it into a range of conditions that span from mere rain or wind protection, to the warm cocoon of the studio. A dynamic and more personally tailored relation between human bodies and interior spaces has to be investigated. What is the tolerance of climatic comfort? And how do we challenge and bend regulations? How are modern HVAC systems applied to existing buildings? What is the architectural language of climatic control?
Architecture is made through frames of scale, from the urban plan to the technical detail. In turn, we encounter the world through scale, from the very close to the very far. In this way, architecture becomes a form of focused looking or sensing. In effect, architecture could be considered a technology of attention.
The design studio has a special capacity to take control of this attention, ability to sense in order to create what the philosopher Jaques Ranciere describes as a ”redistribution of the sensible.” In fact, architecture has the capacity to reorganise sensations, with an indifference to presumed hierarchies of significance. What was once insignificant – the palimpsest of history in a soon to be demolished building, or the movement of water from a roof’s gutter to the sewer – has the potential to become full of architectural splendour and rich with meaning and value. Through such a re-framing of the sensible, we can begin to scrutinise and take pleasure in realigning certain relationships that we tend to assume as given. Whether it is between nature and culture, individual and collective experience, the domestic interior and the anonymity of the city, or the allocation of disgust and delight, comfort and discomfort. Through the extremity of scale we can begin to crack open and reveal the vivid undercurrents of our seemingly normal lives.
Matthew Blunderfield is a photographer and host of Scaffold, a podcast celebrated by Dezeen as “one of the best pieces of new architectural media.” He studied English Literature at the University of British Columbia and Architecture at the University of Toronto, before completing his RIBA Part III qualification from the Bartlett, UCL. He practices architecture at Henley Halebrown and leads an architecture studio at the Kingston School of Art with David Owen, having formerly taught with Simon Henley and Nana Biamah-Ofosu. Matthew’s teaching asserts lived experience as architecture’s organising principle, with an interest in the role architects play in both reinforcing and reinventing normality through the production of everyday environments.
Andrea Zanderigo is an architect, teacher, writer. He studied architecture at IUAV in Venice. In 2004, he founded the architectural office Baukuh together with 5 partners. Baukuh won international competitions like Europan 7 in Amsterdam and Budapest, Klein Seminarie in Hoogstraten and Student City in Tirana. Baukuh’s work was exhibited at the Biennale di Architettura in Venice, the Rotterdam Architectuur Biennale, the Istanbul Design Biennial, the Triennale in Milan, the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Seoul Biennal and the Shenzen Biennal. In 2010, he founded the architecture magazine San Rocco together with a group of architects, graphic designers and photographers. He has been teaching at PUSA in Aleppo, Mendrisio Accademia, TU Graz, Columbia University, EPFL, Universität Stuttgart. He is currently teaching at RCA in London and at PBSA Düsseldorf.