2016/17 - An Architecture Made of Parts

spain construction boom.jpg

Mollie Claypool, Manuel Jimenez Garcia, Gilles Retsin

Industry in Crisis

The austerity model of governance has failed, made starkly apparent in the vote to Brexit in June in the UK. Waiting lists for government-funded housing are numbering in the thousands across the UK; houses are not being built quickly enough, architectural practices are stagnating waiting for the outcomes of Theresa May’s approach to leaving the EU, Generation Rent still can’t get on the housing ladder – we are very clearly in a period of crisis, particularly in the design and construction industry. Unit 19 believes that there is something that we can do, and that is to engage more radically with the building industry as well as with the public, who desperately need better solutions to housing that raise, not reduce, their living standards. In addition, we believe that we have the tools available to us to re-think how we live and how we design and construct houses through the use of novel design, fabrication and assembly methods. However, these are usually inadequately used and their power and potential often misinterpreted. To engage with this, we will engage with new forms of production/reproduction, design methods and making, while actively rethinking why, what and for whom we design. We will identify populations and a demographic(s) who we will view as active participants in the development of the work, informing and transforming the way we design to live. We will critique existing economies of building in the construction industry, breaking the culture of the profit-focused developer model with developing open-source, participatory, and/or micro-financed/localised models for construction.

An Architecture of Parts

We believe the construction industry is so flawed that we need to go back to basics. So we state the obvious: all architecture is made of parts! But what is a part, what are the building blocks of architecture? How can we rethink what they do, and what values should parts hold for us as designers?

In the pursuit of an architecture made of parts, we will develop “digital materials”, i.e. physical geometries which have the same structure as data in a computer program. Digital materials can be compared to Lego: every piece has a male-female connection which is the equivalent of the 0 and 1 in digital data. The design possibilities – or the way that parts can combine and aggregate – can be defined by the geometry and therefore, design agency, of the piece itself. To date, the concept of digital materials has been developed in the context of media arts at MIT, but has not been applied in architecture and related disciplines of the built environment. By utilising digital materials as a conceptual driver for the project, we will hypothesise that a single part can hold enough information or data (or ‘design agency’) to be able to design, fabricate and assemble parts – or the bones, rather than the skin – (column, beam, stairs, services, windows) for an entire house, or housing.

Parts of a House

Year 4 students will work with our industry partners in both design and engineering as well as B-Made developing proposals for a single family house, scale parts of which (column, beam, wall, window) could be built for the end of year exhibition. They will be lead by our Design Realisation tutor, Jakub Klaska from Zaha Hadid Architects, through the process of readying the packages of instructions for construction i.e. the submission for the DR module. The Year 5 students will develop individual proposals for digital materials for a house or housing, informed by developing relationships with our partners in the Institute for Digital Innovation in the Built Environment as well as the MSc in Strategic Project Management in The Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management led by Effie Konstantinou. These partnerships will help students better understand and develop the future applications of their designs both in the digital and physical economies and modes of production. Our computation and robotic fabrication expert Vicente Soler will aid students in developing methods for the production of their building parts. Software tutorials will be provided both within the unit and the Bartlett Open Classes. Students interested in Unit 19 need very little to no knowledge of these technologies before entering the unit – all tuition is provided.

The Field and the Site

Unit 19 always uses the field trip as a means to develop a field of work into prototypical and data-driven approaches in a particular context. This year we will work in Spain. Avila, Madrid and Barcelona will be the location of our field trips. The development of building systems will emerge from the acquired knowledge about the construction industry in relation to to the housing crises in Spain. The projects can be understood as construction kits, consisting of discrete parts embedded with versatility to respond to different socio-economical contexts, politics and economies. Year 4 and 5 proposals be deployed in Avila where the Spanish housing and building crisis is most apparent.