ECOPOLIS: A House Is Not A Machine

Nature abhors straight lines, goes the old saying; nowadays we might say she does things in fractals instead. Nature also abhors exact repetition. Nothing is ever the same twice. Symmetry abounds in nature, but even in symmetry things are not identical. Look at the symmetry of a face, or a leaf. Both sides similar, but different; developed according to the same pattern, but with individual realisation.

I believe that if architecture reflects this natural order then it will begin to possess the same kind of depth of difference that is in nature. If simple rules and patterns can be realised with individuality the result will be `organic' and more likely to be aesthetically satisfying than perfect machine repetition. In many ways craft pieces have exhibited this characteristic and accompanying appeal to our senses since humans became makers of artifice. Hand-made items are never identical in the way that machine produced objects are.

Historically, even the best architects and designers have resorted to simple repetition when confronted with the task of creating a lot of housing or multiple office accomodation. Often, the authoritarian impulse begins to take over, as with Mies Van Der Rohe and his insistence that the blinds on the Seagram office tower could only be open, shut or precisely half-closed! Central authority prefers such certainty and it makes maintenance easier if everything is the same. But as soon as people are able they try to break the tyranny of such monocular vision. When municipal housing was sold to its tenants in England the new owners did things like put their own windows in, add blinds and balconies and use different coloured paintwork to emphasise the fact they were not the clone of their neighbour. When there is no possibility of changing the environment in a positive way, people react, sometimes, with violence. Modern history is replete with examples of the failure of mindless mass housing `experiments' which have failed. Pruitt Igoe, in St Louis, had to be blown up.

Even though the Halifax EcoCity Project is a proposal for what planners call `mass housing' and provides a lot of similar accomodation for a lot of people in a highly regular structure, it eschews repetition. No two dwellings are ever the same because each one is finally designed in association with its intended occupants. No two elevations are identical because the window and door openings of each dwelling are set out in consultation with the occupants and then the pattern of the doors and window frames are entirely the responsibility of the dwelling occupants. Apart from some clearly defined elements in the design, doors and windows to every dwelling can be painted according to the taste of their occupants. There is, in fact, more real choice and control over the final plan and appearance of each dwelling in the development than can be found in conventional suburban tract housing.

Barefoot Architecture

All of this requires extensive consultation and learning on the part of the occupants and the Ecopolis `barefoot architecture team' who work with them. Without co-ordination, the buildings would not stand up, and as a climate- responsive building must have openings, walls, floor and roofs working together holistically, so an understanding of the constraints on the position of any window or door, or the tilt of a roof, etc., has to be painlessly, even joyfully, obtained by the occupant. The role of the `barefoot architect' is crucial. This goes part of the way to explaining why conventional developments favour simple machine-like repetition - the alternative requires that more resources be dedicated to the consultants' and particularly the architects' role. All of which is good news for architects, but only if they enjoy working with people, can understand the need for two-way communication and learning between architect and client, and can happily accept that there may be more work, but less profit and no room for hungry egos.

The Builder

From the builder's point of view there is also more consideration and work required to produce a given floor area of housing, but there is potential for much greater job satisfaction. There is less of the stress associated with doing endlessly repeated construction operations with identical components. A construction site is often something of a battlefield, with the needs of construction workers set against the needs of capital-intensive industry and where the only antidote to the pressure of that industry, and maybe the only way to ensure a fair slice of the cake, is to go slow.

The proposition behind the Halifax EcoCity Project approach is that the time spent on site may be the same as with currently normal approaches to building, but the time will be spent in more varied and creative tasks. Rather than be merely the extension of a machine fulfilling the plans for maximising the investment of distant capital, the building worker is put back into the picture as an integral part of the creative process, liasing with occupants, clients, architects and others as part of a team. Every member of that team has something to gain from co-operating and communicating with the others and all should be gaining financial security from the process. With the whole project also set up to create a healthy environment, the building process itself becomes closer to life-enhancing exercise with the elimination of toxins and pollution contributing directly to the physical health of all concerned.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts...

Paul F Downton