Monday, September 7, 2009

Thou Art

Best Products stores shattered the easy distinction between a building as functional, or as an object of art. These early big box stores were designed by the firm "SITE | architecture, art & design" ( Sculpture in the Environment ). A pictorial review of these stores is here.

The fusion of structure as art and design was shocking. I remember near wrecks as people driving by, slowed to view the structure standing near a parkway in Richmond, VA. But the firm had a serious purpose which drives them to this day: To break new ground.

As this project was winding down the firm created a book "Highrise of Homes" which was published in 1982. The following is a slide show of some of the images from that book, forwarded to me from the firm:

As I was preparing this blog I wrote to Jim Wines, now professor of Architecture at Pa State and told him of my intent to revisit this concept. He replied:

Dear Will,
I received your inquiry concerning the Highrise of Homes project. I am delighted that you are pursuing its translation into reality. SITE actually had a client in Japan who was ready to build a version of the idea around 1985, but the negotiations never quite worked out.

As you may know, the project has been getting quite a bit of attention over the past couple of years; so the prospect for serious consideration seems to be growing. In fact, I will be a keynote speaker at the Sarkozy sponsored conference on green design for Paris at the Pompidou Center in October, where HoH will be featured. Also, the project will be on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for their big Post-modern exhibit in 2011. So the timing of your interest is probably pretty good....

Thanks again for your interest.
Best regards,
James Wines

The text of the book included criticisms of the project, responses, a lot of architecture speak, and an epilogue that I quote from here:

"The Highrise of Homes is a far from perfect solution, yet it functions as a viable response to an imperfect world--a world of too many people trying to occupy too little land surface. The project is a condition of experimentation which accounts for and tries to deal with the conflicting desires of city dwellers to enjoy the cultural advantages of urban life, without forfeiting the sense of independence and identity associated with the house and garden. In an era when the mansion on the hill and the cottage in the country are becoming increasingly less attainable--and, indeed, less sociologically justifiable--the Highrise of Homes may represent the new "democratic skin" of multi-level habitat. It is architecture as the collective biography of its inhabitants. It is architecture as a chronicler of pluralism and a celebration of choice. It is architecture as the negation of the "master builder" concept that has dominated this century. It is architecture as a form of spontaneous urban theatre. It is architecture that is, at once, visionary and very traditional."

I can't be sure but I have a hunch that at least one member of the team had a tongue placed deeply in their cheek. At the least the sense of having given in to a cultural imperative is expressed in this concept: If the western pattern of dwelling is so fixed in the minds of the consumer then lets give it to them in a way that works us out of some of the attendant problems of sprawl, and at the same time incorporates an adaptive reuse of the existing infrastructure.

Anthropologists will tell you that the modern "fireplace" is a vestigial manifestation of a primitive need to gather around the warming hearth. Builders concerned with the consequences of heat loss, build in inserts, insulating screens, and finally the ultimate ventless fireplaces.

These adaptations respect the fact of the reluctance to change while adapting the dwelling to the demands of modern conservation. In the case of Highrise of Homes, SITE has retained the core concepts of cluster efficiency while suggesting to those who resist the loss of their identity, they can have it all. That's not Art. That is an artful solution to a practical problem.

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