BOOKS Exciting innovation in housing design
It's the exclamation mark in the title which first gives the game away. Housing: New Alternatives, New Systems! is a good old-fashioned manifesto of the angry-young-architect variety. This is a book which shouts - from the exclamation-marked title, to the red and olive Soviet-style graphics, to the non-stop torrent of utterly impenetrable opinion. While most of the book is given over to case studies of individual housing projects, the first part is theoretical, meaning that sentences are frequently well over 100 words long, and that seemingly arbitrary portions of text are suddenly printed in large capital letters. It is perhaps the most comprehensive collection of architect-speak in existence, with newcomers such as 'sensibilisation', 'perimetral' and 'McDonaldisation' jostling for space with old favourites such as 'polyvalent', 'interstitial' and 'non-urbanizable'.
A concise passage runs as follows: 'In all probability, the greatest capacity for conceptual innovation in the majority of the proposals analysed is found, precisely, in that impulse to make a workable material out of conceptual abstraction, physical discontinuity and formal absence which combines a rigorously functional approach and a wilfully unprejudiced character, one ultimately indebted to the particular phenomena of metropolitan growth which involve the processes here discussed: phenomena in which the force of the detached and the just probable substitutes for the old inclination towards a nostalgia for the prefigured and the stable.'
Which, loosely translated, means, (I think) 'The projects shown here have tried something a bit different.'
And so they have. Whatever the value of his theoretical posturing, Manual Gausa has delivered an in-depth compilation of contemporary housing which is breathtaking in its diversity, especially to those accustomed to the red-brick townhouse-meets-tenement-block combo so beloved of the British housing association. Gausa has accumulated not only lavish photographs and sufficient plans and sections to explain exactly how the buildings work, but also endless models and concept sketches generously laid out to create pages which in themselves are covetable. And because we are no longer in the theory section, project descriptions are clear and concise.
The vigorous and beautiful housing designed by Dutch practice mvrdv for the over-55s is a prime example. The ordering of its elevations is so determinedly eccentric that you expect, at the very least, a complicated mathematical formula explaining the intervals between windows and extrusions, and at most a commentary on the disjointedness of the modern urban condition. What we get is prosaic in the extreme: 'The zonification of the area and the north-south orientation of the building made it impossible to position the 100 apartments in the block; it would only hold 87. The remaining 13 were cantilevered from the north facade of the block with steel trusses so that each hanging apartment gets sun on an east- or west-facing facade.'
Wisely, the buildings are more or less left to speak for themselves, and one point which is painfully apparent is that housing on the continent, and especially in Holland, is infinitely more exciting than housing here. Take the Dike housing in Zonland by Kas Oosterhuis. Zonland is described as a neighbourhood 'with an ecological flavour' (imagine this description being applied to part of any British town) where developers are rewarded for meeting ecological criteria. Houses are built into an artificial dike and separated by reinforced clay triangles which function as acoustic buffers, and help to maintain a steady temperature of between
6 and 12degreesC - a housing type which is at once vernacular, radical and environmentally sound.
If Gausa tends to rant, he does at least have plenty to shout about. Good housing architects are too often overlooked, and it is interesting to note that projects by architects with whom we are familiar, and consider to be ground-breaking, are among the least remarkable in the book. Jean Nouvel's scheme in Tours looks a little too like a spec office building, while Steven Holl's Makuhari housing in Japan looks characterless despite being painted custard-yellow.
Non-architects should be encouraged to read Gausa's musings because they make architecture look really difficult. Architects - especially those in the throes of residential design - should simply look at the pictures, and be inspired.