Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Pioneering Community Design in Proof of Concept

The phrase ‘Pop-up’ does little justice to work that grounds latest project thinking in a social and ethical design programme turning complexity, often a limiter, into bold communal ideas reviving shared spaces. Yet ‘pop-up’ is one of a handful of phrases now commonly used to describe a pedagogic programme in which students test design in the built environment. Others include ‘Live Project’, ‘Proof of Concept’, ‘Architectural Research Unit’ and ‘Community Build’.

Few know Birmingham School of Architecture was the first to coin the phrase ‘Live Project’ in the 1950s as a means to establish new pedagogic methods in response to rebuilding post-war Britain. Between April 1956 and October 1965, 5th year students designed many projects that encompassed nearly every aspect of architectural design including a pathology laboratory, housing estates of 27 houses and five garages, club-houses, nurses home, theatres, health centres and a technical college. A commendable effort and one that was very much in tune with the times where the architect was the agent of change, yet not necessarily in control of project briefs that were often issued as directives from external clients and rarely led by student cohorts to conduct proof of concept tests.


Fast forward 50 years and the rise in ethical and social design combined with access to the latest digital fabrication technologies has seen a step change in the transformative powers of architects laying claim to new emerging practice in which the immediacy of building offered by digital tools is fundamental to securing the future role of the architect. As highlighted by Professor Bob Sheil (2012), we are at an ‘event horizon’ in which new digital tools extend creative processes offering greater collaboration and more reflection, fine tuning and testing before delivery of the best possible design.


‘Live Projects’ establish both a technical question and a social answer that for Samuel Mockbee (2002) of Rural Studio is when ‘I tell my students it’s got to be warm, dry and noble’ . Only when we have demonstrated that both exist in a proof of concept can we then start using the word pop-up in the context of citywide initiatives in which whole neighbourhoods could be built and established at speeds unimagined before with new uses to rehabilitate landscapes and cities emerging from conflict, environmental disaster and economic decay.


Communities need designers more than ever and latest tranche of Live Projects, from The Royal College of Art, sit in the emerging architecture methodologies for evidencing ways of valuing architecture: Health and Ageing; Neighbourhood Cohesion; as well as Identity, Belonging and Heritage . Today’s designers seek to investigate why and how the place of shelter [the home] has become a place that increasingly isolates the inhabitant from shared activity within the immediate and wider community. We have observed a condition within post-war European housing estates whereby the rigid imposition of defined spaces for defined activity has reduced, rather than enhanced the opportunity for community that develops through shared and visible activity. A familiar housing legacy in what was once a ‘gift’ for one generation has become a ‘given’ for another, further exasperated by lack of opportunities to evolve and mirror latest social and economic topics whereby home owners now hold equity and have a stake, though not necessarily a voice, in long term sustainable community visions.


An increase in isolation from communal activity creates a condition whereby living becomes less affordable; products have to be made by others and consumed in an environment that requires travel, performance and creativity becomes the preserve of those with learned skills and occurs within institutions that are the preserve of cultural, social and economic elites.


As the isolation [physical, economic, social, educational, experiential, environmental, cultural, spiritual etc.] increases, affordability decreases and the experience of living becomes trapped within the mundane. Affordability is now a catalyst for design, for architect Jean-Phillippe Vassal (2010) ‘what is interesting about cost-effectiveness (maybe this wasn't so true ten, fifteen years ago) is that it creates the means to make extraordinary things happen. Among others it enables this magician to make something very simple, very natural and obvious, simply, naturally and with a kind of obviousness’


Similarly, the elements of architecture whose modern origins lie in Le Corbusier’s ‘Dom-ino House’ (1914-15), now in it’s 100th year, are ripe for reinvention, coming under the critical gaze of Rem Koolhaas (2014) , Director of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition Venice, ‘Under near-microscopic attention, the apparently mundane elements of architecture are revealed as unstable compounds of cultural preferences, forgotten symbolism, technological advances, mutations spawned by intensifying global exchange, climatic considerations, fluctuating thresholds of comfort, mythical desires, political calculations, regulatory requirements, neoliberal economics, new digital regimes, and, somewhere in the mix, the ideas of the architect’. A rallying cry to all architects to seize the opportunities that exist, find ways to use technology, rehabilitate society and extend architect authorship, transform the value of materials and socialise technical competence. A parallel already founded in other design disciplines such as the Maker Library Network (2014) , in which designers studios become communal workshops that for Sennett (2013) , ‘In the ancient world in both China and Greece, the workshop appeared as the most important institution anchoring civic life,’.


Similarly we recall Live Projects founded the establishment of the Government School of Design, fuelled by need to improve the education of designers, which, it was assumed, would in turn improve the output of British industry before being given Royal Charter in 1896 and becoming the Royal College of Art. Norman Potter (1969) teaching in its Department of Interior Design wrote ‘What is a designer: Education and Practice’, saying,’ Every school should have its own design office in which teaching staff are kept creatively active for a part of their (paid) teaching time, and in which students can work – in effect – as an apprentice, during a part of their design course. This is a very fast and practical way of learning.'


For Potter, design theory and practice were social, yet the word community was in its infancy, and rarely used before 1940. According to Stefan Muthesius (1993) , in Tower Block, its wide appeal arose out of the welfare state housing boom of the 1950s. ‘What seemed certain was a close relationship between 'community' and high density.’ Pop-up projects share these social qualities where production itself has been socialized blending last vestiges of utopian welfare state with manufactured, affordable aesthetic, what Reyner Banham (1955) in ‘Industrial Design and Popular Art’ referred to as, ‘design-as-popular-symbolism is in the pattern of the market as the crystallization of popular dreams and desire.’


Now Maker Architects, such as ‘We Made That’, ‘The Decorators’, ‘Assemble’ reflect this returning to community design as well as a desire to continue a way of working established whilst studying furthering proof of concept research, that for Carmody Groarke, recent RCA Design Tutors, find new ways of culturally valuing architecture: ‘Whether temporary invention or permanent building, our work is concerned with how architecture can record cultural value in the meaning of its making, facilitate engagement and provoke an active discourse about how (and for what reasons) our built environment is made.’


References


Sheil, B. Manufacturing the Bespoke. (Wiley 2012)


Oppenheimer, O & Hursley, T. Rural Studio: Samual Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency. (Princeton Architectural Press 2002)


Home Improvements. Housing Research in Practice. (RIBA 2014)


Ruby, I. Lacaton Vassal. (Editorial Gustavo Gili 2007)


Sennett, R. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation . (Penguin 2013)


Potter, N. What is a designer: education and practice. (Studio Vista 1969)


Glendinning. M & Muthesius, S. Tower Block, Modern Public Housing in England Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (Yale University Press 1993)


Banham, R, Industrial Design and Popular Art 1960 (1/5) Industrial Magazine


Carmody, K & Groarke, A. Seven Years. (Carmody Groarke 2013)


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