The High Life

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March 13, 2015

The High Life

Eyes forward, head down, walk fast. There is something eternally uncomfortable about walking through a crowd. The constant uncertainty. The confining proximity to strangers. Bumping and blustering through the arteries of our civilisation. Spatial boundaries between pedestrians are a humorous spectacle of human interaction. What is considered appropriate in terms of relative distance is determined by the proximal population of a specific footprint. Attempts are made throughout our cities to combat these awkward channels. Lanes have been the most direct approach however they aren’t easily permeated from the side and restrict the definition of free movement. Strategic obstacles are another form of subtle crowd dispersion though can potentially clutter and confuse space if not logistically planned out. Calculated placement of benches, gardens, commercial space, etc, is a proven strategy to discretely manage random pathways. It is the designer’s responsibility to comprehend movement in their intended spaces, wether that is through observation of similar existing space, site modelling, or controlled funnelling. No matter how the issue is approached, at the end of the day, it needs to produce a socially sustainable result else you be left with bumbling, puzzling mess.

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Playing the proverbial god when master planning can be all well and good but there are many influencing factors that determine a refined result. When influencing design, the TRUE client (the user), must be understood in order to produce something unique, and something that well…. works. One building typology that has very few examples of harmonic design is social housing.

Social housing is a complicated topic to say the least. There are so many tightrope issues surrounding a nation’s least privileged citizens that most steer clear of the subject all together. But after the ‘century of democracy’ surely we have moved leaps and bounds to have the matter, at least relatively, resolved. So how have we really come?

This post will focus on arguably the most influential architect of affordable living. Some may know him as Lay Kerboosyer whilst others as Le Corbusier… No matter how you pronounce it, you can’t argue with this Frenchman’s impact.

The ‘Radiant City’. Corbusier’s space efficient answer to high rise living in the industrial vibrance that was the 21st century. Despite the rhapsodic title, the application to affordable housing created an inflexible system generally prone to social decay3. But was this through the faults of the architect, or residents?

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One of the more infamous examples of radiance-gone-wrong is that of Pruitt-Igoe, St Louis. Resident, Ruby Russell described the newly constructed buildings initial grandeur as “an oasis in a desert, all this newness, [she] never though [she] would live in that kind of surrounding…” in 19561. Fast forward eighteen years, however, Ruby would have witnessed the iconic demolition of thoroughly declined Pruitt-Igoe that streamed world-wide, transformed into a symbol of contempt for public social housing conditions4.

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Many argue that it was naive to expect the metamorphosis of criminals and slum-dwellers by simply relocating their territory. But whether you believe that the core issues lay with the residents or not, there is certainly no denying the architectural flaws that perpetuated community angst into self-destructing turmoil.

33 11-story apartment blocks towering the city skyline, totalling 2,870 units were the proposed cure for the ‘social disease’ that was plaguing the city of St Louis. Costs saving measures were inherently woven into every aspect of the design in order to satisfy federal funding. Flats were purposely small, and kitchen facilities were inflexible. Plans for community gardens were discarded unattempted, and “skip-stop” elevators stopped on only a select number floors forced mass congestion in circulation areas2. These became the characteristics of a planning type that Corbusier never anticipated.

Oscar Newman, architect and author, warns of the dangers in restricting so multiple users to a common space. “The larger the number of people who share a communal space, the more difficult it is for people to identify it as theirs or to feel they have a right to control the activity taking place within.”2. Such design implementations of the ‘radiant city’ led to increasing discontent amongst residents and let to the ultimate downfall of the project. Increasing segregation created a breeding ground for isolation, which in turn, led to disillusionment and crime.

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An exemplar of social sustainability through design is that of Byker Wall in Newcastle, England built in the 1970’s. The entire project was built around a resident-focussed architecture along with a series of clever economic compromises. The Byker Wall – ‘streets in the sky’ – feel safe and secure. The form rolls with the landscape, giving the structure a natural appearance. Planned vistas face the light and landscape spilling coveted views into the appropriately spaced apartments.

By empowering residents at Byker, architect Ralph Erskine believed that it would result in a positive influence throughout the community. Residents are not only provided with the ability to control their immediate surroundings but also their collective gardens – even the power to fell trees. The inclusive attitude towards the tenants produced an enflamed renewal of civic duty that prospered under a consistent up-keep.

We have learnt many techniques to positively influence interactions within a designed space. It is in the large scale application that the aspects of socially specific spaces, privacy and zoning, and congestion need to be appropriately and carefully administered. Quality of spaces does not necessarily have to be compromised by budget as proven in the Byker Wall example. It is the duty of the designer to apply an understanding of social behaviour towards every aspect of fabricated space.

Sources:

  1. Turan, K. (2012, April 27). ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth’ builds from an implosion. Retrieved March 17, 2015, fromhttp://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/27/entertainment/la-et-pruitt-igoe-myth-20120427
  2. Newman, O. (1996). Creating defensible space. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research.
  3. Rybczynski, W. (1998, June 8). The Architect LE CORBUSIER. Retrieved March 15, 2015, fromhttp://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,988492-2,00.html
  4. Byker Wall[Motion picture on VHS]. (1988). BBC.

Modest Mice

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Like that one time you got home from uni after a long day to find your brother has friends over when all you want to do is sleep. The night dragged on filled with futile attempts to close out the noise when you suddenly decided you had had enough. But what were your options? You have a dull part-time job packing groceries, and a million-and-one assignments with deadlines circling your academic corpse. Share-houses bring the same problems. College is a league out of your price-range. So, would you consider a micro apartment?

Now I know what you’re thinking: “no way in HELL would I live in a shoebox”. But what if it was only short term? Sure they are small but if space is what you have to sacrifice for privacy then why not? It could be the mini-nirvana drawing you out of your choking home situation.

b1 1I find a balanced life quintessential to a fruitful existence. Micro apartments are a global trend questioning our appetite for excess, pushing the boundaries of affordable living – but at what cost?

Recent studies by the Housing Environments Research Group (HERG) warn that micro apartments can dramatically increase stress 1. Although young students and professionals usually provide the highest percentage of micro-renters 2 it is the mature demographic that struggle with the cramped lifestyle: “ …they can be unhealthy for older people who face different stress factors that can make tight living conditions a problem” 1. Mr. Kopec from the HERG goes on to explain that the folding, space-saving furniture necessary for such small living adds a series of extra steps to any resident’s routine that would eventually disintegrate into a lazy, deteriorating mess 3.

Even so, despite possible stresses that may accompany the obvious lack of useable space, most units offer a functional kitchen and enclosed bathroom facilities. Combined with multiple public amenities provided throughout the residencies: laundromats, rec-rooms, and other communal spaces, micro-apartments offer an impressive economical alternative. It is these communal spaces that are one of the major draw-cards to the micro-lifestyle. They flourish with social interaction and foster a sense of community that can never organically develop in the typical apartment model.

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So you have your entire basic social and comfort needs met, however primitive they are. But you forget where you are! Walking outside you’re met with that inner city life you never imagined you could afford. Neighbourhoods in micro apartments take on a whole new significance. Our ‘inside outside’ needs are drastically transformed from their traditional meaning. Want the mates around to catch the footy but don’t have a big flat screen? Walk down to the local. Dinner plans with the family? Inner city cuisine is but a stone’s throw away 4.

Unfortunately out of the 100+ micro-ice living in a single complex, you’re assuming correctly if you think that others will also be relishing this unique lifestyle. Public and semi-public space becomes a currency in itself with the poison of ultra-high density leaving any local facilities inundated with bio-mass if not properly catered or designed for. When choosing your micro-abode, choosy wisely. Remember that your surroundings are more an extension of your home than you might expect.b1 4

That is why the success of such housing will depend on the execution. In order to harmonise a dense community then the correct design approaches must be planned and delivered effectively in all common realms else a chaos of overcrowding will result.

Surrounding parks would naturally be the most common area in which to sit, or partake in activities. The University of Queensland’s Great Court is an observable example of high density occupation. Students tend to congregate in areas that are well shaded (depending on climate) and areas with comfortable settings like benches or tables. And with privacy being a difficult commodity to attain, strangers make efforts to avoid direct sight lines or proximity if possible. We can assume these behaviours would similarly occur in the cases of local spaces surrounding micro-apartment complexes. A variety of distinguishable areas in a variety of sizes would therefore be ideal to accommodate many uses for a diverse group of lounging park attendees. Moreover, natural or constructed screens such as flora, art work, or structures that are strategically spaced can also create niche eddies of semi-public zones within the greater public domain.

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Thinking on the transition from suburban to urban life I pondered the potential of this housing type in Australia.

Every aspect of the model strongly opposes our society’s traditional attraction and development towards the Australian dream: the veranda out the front accompanied by its old friend the rocking chair. This idealised living is completely incompatible to a cramped inner-city den with a fold-out bed. The novelty of micro-lifestyle would eventually wear off and undoubtedly leave you in either agony or content for the remaining six months of your lease.

So, could micro-apartments work within the Australian market? In terms of a temporary residence and predominately for the young professional demographic, my verdict is yes. The highly sought after factors of cheap accommodation, proximity to facilities, and constant social interaction form a convincing argument for the contemporary micro-model. However, I would say that it’s temporary reality is the limit to its potential. A claustrophobic introvert should probably have stopped reading after the first few lines. Constant interaction outside your apartment with the added stresses of a cramped lifestyle may very well be the bane of your awkward existence.

Sources:

  1. Apartment, G. (2014, February 20). Micro Space Living: Pros and Cons. Retrieved March 13, 2015, from http://www.apartmentguide.com/blog/pros-cons-living-micro-space/
  2. (2014). Micro apartments growing in popularity. Micro Apartments Growing in Popularity,C5-C5.
  3. Lawless, T. (2012, June 28). The top 20 most ‘crowded’ suburbs across Australia. Retrieved March 14, 2015, from http://blog.corelogic.com.au/2012/06/the-top-20-most-crowded-suburbs-across-australia/
  4. Storage, S. (2015, January 4). Living small: Is a micro-apartment right for you? Retrieved March 15, 2015, from http://moving.selfstorage.com/living-in-a-micro-apartment/
  5. Urist, J. (2013, December 19). The Health Risks of Small Apartments. Retrieved March 15, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/the-health-risks-of-small-apartments/282150/

No Way Feng Shui

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That is the precise reason why I love the quaint, English row house — they somehow manage to identify all that is odd in domestic life. Squashed, pulled, regular, manifestations of suburban bliss. It was a few days ago, as I walked down Gregory Terrace in Spring Hill, I noticed the date stamps above the terrace houses: 1880, 1893, 1901. Yet despite their comparative age to Australia, the housing typology has been around for centuries and wholly integrated and identified with suburban life. Famous examples like Mary Poppins and Harry Potter have been manifested its typology into city-scapes from New York to Spain. The success has been not only due to their inherent low-cost construction, but also their purely functional approach to family lifestyle.

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It is in the logical application in their special layout that allows this typology to be so unanimously successful. To put it simply: it works. This stubborn housing style draws on relevant social pre-conceptions as well as architectural functionality to provide a purely elegant solution. Although they are not traditionally spacious, the key to a successful row house is segmentation. The separation of activity-based rooms across two, three, or even four levels directs the user into an autonomous understanding of how to use each space. Private areas such as bedrooms are typically upstairs. Not only is this functionally intended to be in the most acclimatised region of the house, it also offers separation from roadside pollution (noise and smell) as well as elevated vistas.

3516692BLOG 3 3Furthermore, suitable application programs visitors with an understanding of personal boundaries. The architecture is an expression itself of what is appropriate behaviour. Common areas located on the entry level generally dictate the margins of appropriate access for guests. Amongst these spaces include: lounges, kitchens, dining areas, and yards. These shared zones on the entry level are placed in logical areas in accordance of proximal use.The possibilities for planning a row house are largely dependent on the position of the staircase. A longitudinal staircase is usually positioned between room axes or against an inner boundary, dependent on the width of the house. It is the most common form as it allows even circulation room and access from entry. Transversally orientated staircases necessitate a wider plan though are beneficial in smaller and southern-orientated row houses. In fact, there are many opportunities to customise the overall direction by simply positioning the stairs in a certain way.

Now each week, topics have been discussed in other posts: from expectations of sitting in a public area to simply walking through a congested space. Next to investigate is the under thirty demographic using a social space. Whether it is a bus stop, a café, or even a Laundromat, these are the social pockets that are integrated into the very fabric of our cities. They permeate our daily lives and are an unavoidable necessity.

Sitting in the Indooroopilly food-court I attempted to decipher the interactive code in front of me. Groups or lone attenders, at first, sit at noticeable distance in attempt to gain some source of privacy. As the crowd packs in at around 11am the available room to move diminishes into merely the space between layers of clothing.

2045253892_c0fdd5804cOnce the seating has been swallowed by the masses, secondary options are slowly taken up, including standing room and circulation spaces. The planned layout is slowly adapted into the needs of each specific user. Groups larger than the original seating options available move and re-centre the gathering points to cater for their own needs. Once crowds eventually disperse noise levels decrease with them.

Leaving however is the remnants of the group. Despite the countless number of bins rubbish scatters the landscape. Anything not bolted down is relocated up to ten meters away. Conclusions can therefore be made that due to the nature of the location partnered with the assumed ‘shared responsibility’ means that the average user avoids a large portion of their own responsibility. Possible options to counter these issues are to provide immediate waste disposal options at every location. Increasing the amount of fixed furniture would minimize uncoordinated displacement and save confusion in future use.

Order is thus a large part of society, with a physical example being the rigid forms of row houses. Amongst our perceived mandate however lie the constant motions of life that are not easily predicted or controlled. A combination of architecturally directed frameworks and anticipation of sporadic use may provide a flexible evolution of design for today’s busy lifestyle.

  1. (2013, August 20). Designing Buildings. Retrieved March 15, 2015, from http://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/Terraced_houses_and_the_public_realm
  2. NSW GOV. (2014). Good Design for Medium Density Living(Vol. 1). Sydney, New South Wales: NSW Government.
  3. Pfeifer, G., & Brauneck, P. (2008). Row houses a housing typology. Basel: Birkhäuser.

Image 1

Tyler Terrace: 195-211 Gregory Terrace, Spring Hill. Brisbane, Queensland (replicas)

Image 2

http://www.spareroom.co.uk/flatshare/london/streatham_hill/2914046

Image 3

Pfeifer, G., & Brauneck, P. (2008). Row houses a housing typology. Basel: Birkhäuser.