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Fungal houses, anyone?

Paul Finch
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A stimulating open review day at the Architectural Association explored the immense challenges of population growth and the impact of the built environment on the natural world, writes Paul Finch

The Architectural Association held an ‘open review’ last week, with presentations of works by students and graduates, many of which focused on housing design and production, looking at everything from ecology to city-making.

From the point of view of scale, the biggest challenge was how to house more than double the number of people living in Lagos (pictured) – from 17 million to 34 million over the next 20 years or so. One proposition was to intensify and improve the existing stock, particularly blocks of about four storeys. All fine, but scarcely likely to provide the necessary quantum – so do you build up, or out?

Shutterstock 494689453

Shutterstock 494689453

Source: Shutterstock

Lagos aerial view

This question is still being asked 50 years after research showing conclusively that, unless you cram towers immediately next to each other, you can achieve extremely high densities with low and mid-rise apartment blocks.

One of Terry Farrell’s favourite statistics concerns the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which has the highest (it may now be second highest) residential density of any London borough. Yet it is far from being covered in high-rise blocks.

Professor Tony Travers has calculated that, if you took all the developable land in London (not green spaces, parks and gardens) and built it out to Kensington densities, you could accommodate twice London’s current population. And if you did the same thing using Haussmann densities, the figure would rise to some 28 million souls. Lagos could double its population at a speed and scale which is familiar in China.

The question is, who masterplans it, and on what basis? Just because you avoid what some would regard as a dystopia of system-built high-rises, does that mean you have created something desirable?

Another AA presentation was intent on doing just that, in the post-earthquake context of Kathmandu. It began by exploiting the potential of mycelium, a fungal material which, it turns out, can be used in construction. Combining it with local adobe could produce buildings that were far less brittle and thus more resilient to earthquakes. The second part of the project was to derive an architecture from the material and address the seismic challenge. All stimulating stuff.

A sub-theme which seemed to run through the day was a concern with the relationship between built form and the natural world: this ranged from micro-analysis of an ash tree to the re-imagining of Place Royale in Paris as a garden, anarchically planted by Occupy protesters, and to neuro-controlled ‘balloons’ swooping in formation like birds to do who knows what.

The most overtly political project, by fifth year student Ryan Cook, took an existing attitude to ecology/environment/climate change, one of passive protection, to a dynamic interventionist model. His proposal for an Environment Defence Agency envisaged a military-style operation with sites identified as targets for ‘ecological bombs’, involving planting and other environmental measures imposed as if we were at war.

Since the military is the fourth biggest landowner in the UK, this seemed at least a possibility – especially given his suggestion that other wartime tactics, for example requisitioning and commandeering of sites, were adopted as part of what would be a gigantic exercise to change the country’s landscape aesthetic.

By chance, the day concluded with an event in the AA Bookshop to launch Ken Yeang’s latest book, Saving the Planet by Design: Reinventing our world through eco-mimesis. Ken has been ploughing this once unfashionable furrow since the 1970s, but has seen his work on bio-climatic architecture and other combinations of nature and the man-made become required reading.

His latest is a handbook summing up where we are and where we should be going – useful for students and the qualified alike.

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