New Apartment Architecture: Is Space a Luxury, or a Right?
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Michael Webb, a Los Angeles-based writer who has spent years exploring architecture and design, opens his 256-page tome Building Community: New Apartment Architecture by addressing the unprecedented speed at which cities are growing and the innate, if yet untapped, benefits of apartment dwelling. He stresses the “urgent need to build many more apartments” to relieve housing shortages, use land more economically, revitalize cities and negotiate the suburban grey zone, that he describes as “discredited as a wasteful delusion: neither city nor countryside, increasingly isolated by traffic congestion.” Along with five architects (Lorcan O’Herlihy, Bjarke Ingels, Michael Maltzan, Stanley Saitowitz and Edouard François), Webb acknowledges the contemporary needs that are in direct opposition to the risk-averse, profit-driven developers that guide today’s urban planning, with architect Ole Scheeren remarking in the chapter Reaching Skywards, that cities are “increasingly dense, vertical and shaped by developers, not civic vision.” Scheeren may have been speaking about Asia, but it is a phenomenon spreading across the Middle East and the West.
The journey through the book is interesting and fact-heavy, providing a new perspective on the walls that surround most people. The texts are comprehensive without lapsing into technical jargon as they hop from city to city (largely in the USA and Europe) naming architects (Mart Stam, J.J.P. Oud, Antoni Gaudi) of the key movers and shakers whose innovative strategies carved out airier, private (but not isolated) spaces that are less about size and more about quality of life. The introduction provides the historical context of how apartment living came to be, tracing the evolution from cave dwelling and medieval housing norms to remind us that single-family homes and the concept of “privacy” are fairly recent notions, through to the seminal 20th-century examples of multiple-occupancy living situations. Webb also addresses why apartment living came to be, explaining the significant role social hierarchies played and how the early 1900s was really the turning point as the bourgeoisie struggled to maintain its lifestyle and ended up dividing homes and later on, how Modernist architects such as Le Corbusier and his 1952 Unité d’Habitation entered the picture and shifted focus from ornate outsides and minimal interiors towards cleaner exteriors and improved indoor spaces, setting the groundwork for mass housing today.
“Within 30 years,” O’Hearlihy notes, “75% of the world’s population will live in cities.” Metropolises need to be ready for the rapidly evolving needs of today’s society, but with significance. The message throughout the coffee-table sized publication is that issues like overpopulation and climate change have led housing production into overdrive, resulting in a dual-edged sword. Vertically growing housing is more readily available, but often provides dire living environments. Even luxury options, states Webb, are as “uniform, cramped, and shoddy as those endured by mere mortals”. Creating living space is not merely about physically adding room, but also ensuring that the basic tenets of comfort – not luxury – are applied. Shared priorities include well-proportioned interiors with plenty of natural light and solid insulation to reduce energy consumption and external noise. Extras include good views, cross ventilation and greenery. The idea is that architecture is viewed holistically, as a communal unit – not a singular building – that finds the balance between comfortable privacy and external activity, providing structures that have mixed purposes.
It is a reasonable philosophy, but Building Community highlights how it has not been heavily implemented in the last several decades and takes the initiative to survey, examine and demonstrate through 38 multifamily building projects just how architecture can fit and fully exploit the potential of urban life. Webb references big firms like Zaha Hadid, Adjaye Associates and Gehry Partners, but also looks to several smaller firms making substantial impact, like OFIS Arhitekti’s adaptive reuse in Slovenia (a focus on reinvigorating existing or abandoned structures), Single Speed Design’s micro-housing units in South Korea, and OMA and Ole Scheeren’s perilous-looking Singaporean building-block complex. They show that design can be innovative, aesthetic and maintain the integrity of the field, but also be practical, sustainable solutions to contemporary needs. Building Community takes a critical look at projects that are attempting to solve this dilemma. Addressing social housing and “micro apartments” through to luxury mega-structures, the case studies are individually explained with detailed texts, copious external photographs (but unfortunately, limited interior shots), interior and exterior drawings, and blue prints, that outline how the specific set of needs of each community are met through design – for example, Luciano Pia’s building at 25 Verde in Turin. The simple red brick 63-apartment block incorporates 150 trees and a garden, which are largely looked after by the residents. Partially a nod to a current trend of involving living trees into the skeletons of their structures, it also serves to decrease noise pollution, offer shade from the sun and offer privacy from the outside.
The through line is that creativity is key. Building Communities highlights architectural projects that are building awareness for sustainable city living and finding a new way to shape and share space, while maintaining the balance between community and privacy. The book is a grounded look into the less glamorous side of architecture, practical insight on space (a notion taken for granted as a right, instead of a luxury) and a solid collection of the perspectives and approaches of key figures creating the architecture of the future. But of all the thoughtful propositions and carefully outlined realities, one glaring question remains: What do the actual inhabitants think?