Friday, February 20, 2009

Houseboats and Community Based Design

From the 'Living in Motion' reading I liked the floating house piece by Gerrard Maccreanor and Richard Lovington where it fits within a natural space, a lake in this case. The Shikari dwelling by Eckart Muthesius where it was designed for another special habitat (forest) and a specific purpose (hunting) also caught my attention. My fascination with travel and adventure made me choose these designs. Since, my proposal had a green roof I chose designs that seemed closer to nature.

I wanted to give some real world examples where such designs exist and have been working for hundreds of years. I also want to emphasize the need to design as a community for faster, more beneficial and effective uses. Most of the designs in the reading were done specially for the vital few. I wanted to tend toward designing for the people in the bottom 20% in Pareto’s 80-20 rule.

On one of my travels I saw a whole village that lives on a lake in Cambodia. It is very similar to the houseboat communities in the Lakes of Seattle and the Canals of Netherland. The Tonle Sap is a large freshwater lake in the middle of Cambodia and shares some part of it with Vietnam. A boat ride into the lake is a wonderful experience. Some scenes I remember from there are: Crocodile breeding in cages beneath house boats, basketball courts and classrooms on a moored boat, novelty stores and restaurants for tourists, kids rowing their way with old cardboard boxes while sitting on a household utensil. The reason they build houses on boats is because the lake is inundated for a half a year and loses water for another half. So, people build houses, schools and commercial spaces out of boats. The floating house reminded me of such habitats.

Another example is the backwaters of Kerala down in south India. It’s also known as God's Own Country. They have floating houses and house boats that have been in use for hundreds of years. They double as fishing boats when needed.

I'd like to borrow from such designs that people create as a community by adapting to their habitats' climate, population, resources and even some aesthetic value. In such cases there is no single architect or artist. The designs are passed down through generations. They are tried and tested over time going through a lot of trial and error prototyping stages. The designs are mobile, designed to stand the test of time and have been effective for ages. The artists are anonymous and their designs are used by a living community of people who love and appreciate them.
The materials they use are locally available and very effective for the purpose they serve. I would like to use the same techniques while designing a modular/mobile modifiable space. The environment which the design is going to serve becomes very important.
Questions like:
Do the houses need to have amphibious abilities?
Do the exteriors require special material to cope with different climatic conditions?
Is there a need for scalability based on the number of people occupying the space at any given time?
How flexible and customizable should the design be to serve multiple purposes?
How durable is the building and can it survive another tsunami or hurricane? Etc.
Need to be answered.

Open source architecture is a great way to design as a community for a community. People like Cameron Sinclair have been pushing this idea for quite some time now. Architecture for Humanity ( is one such place where people Give, Get and Share design for mankind’s own good. These projects are challenging and the benefit is global. It is also a place where up and coming designers can showcase their talents and at the same time help a struggling community of people by collaborating with other designers worldwide.
There are some flexible mobile tents that have been used by the UN Refugee Committee to provide for refugees in Africa. They can be folded, transported on the back of a motorcycle, made out of cheap materials and the design came out of the open source architecture initiative.
One of the design entries for modular tent like structure in openarchitecturenetwork.

Photos for Cambodia: flickr(lecercle's photostream)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Oleksiuk - Modern Architecture and the Flexible Dwelling, Living in Motion, Robert Kronenberg

In "Modern Architecture and the Flexible Dwelling," a book chapter of _Living In Motion_, author Robert Kronenberg discusses notions of place and home and concludes that these ideas seldom and only tangentially impact construction of typical western residential buildings or houses. Further he states that as the archetypical dwelling, the house as typically static goes against notions of flexibilty and economy. Kronenberg's treatise brings into focus the need for flexible living spaces that are truer to our nomadic past and desire for functionality. He traces some modern architectural experiments and highlights some interesting examples of flexible dwelling. Two specifically mobile architectures inpired me: Eckhart Muthesius' Shikari hunting caravan (p48-49), and the Nhew PAD by OpenOffice(p58-61). In researching these two works I discovered an an interesting Bauhaus-era German architect and a contemporary architecture collective.

I chose two designs that I like the best from the readings to relate what I consider to be important elements of architectural design as reflected by Kronenberg. The first example is Eckhart Muthesius' Shikari hunting caravan for the Maharaja of Indore, 1939, described as "four transport vans converted as bathroom, work space, bedroom and dining room, parked in a cross formation with a connecting tent structure in the middle." This work is mobile, has indoor and outdoor features and a work space. Eckhart Muthesius also built the Maharaja's Manik Bagh palace called "Garden of Jewels" which is now a functional building of the government of India. He also designed the art deco interior of Maharaja's Luxury State Rail Coach

which was an air conditioned train, cooled by ice. It featured an internal telephone system and pink mirrors. While Muthesius train exterior resembles a mobile home (p50-51), the funky exteriors of the caravan units remind me both of the boxy Eastern European cars and Indian Tata brand cars and also vaguely of the American custom vans of the 80's that fueled my adolescent wanderlust.

The second item I found interesting is the Nhew PAD by Open Office. Again, because of its mobility, integration of indoor/outdoor, and though small, emphasizes a work space. The work was photographed in Denmark but there are several locations of Nhew PAD in Europe, North America and Greenland/Denmark. You can custom order a Nhew PAD online and have it delivered, even to a vacation spot. OpenOffice art collective has now split ways, but did a show called Houses X Artists. In this show, artist Stan Douglas's contribution is described as follows:
Stan Douglas’s site-specific house circulates around a central void, into which images of the site at the present and at its inception/construction are simultaneously projected via camera obscura and mirrors engraved with photographs of the original site. Douglas’s plan demands that you consider how the property looked before the house was built.

This is an interesting point of cultural memory that recalls and plays upon Kronenberg's definition of place (pg 21). Interestingly enough, Stan Douglas's house was inpired by Thomas Edison's rotating, sunlit production studio in West Orange, New Jersey. It is widely referred to as "America's First Movie Studio." The studio had rotating windows to always give the maximum amount of sunlight.

What I like about the design of both Eckhart Muthesius'Shikari hunting caravan, and the Nhew PAD by OpenOffice is that they are both fully temporary, mobile and functional, use an indoor as well as outdoor element, and have a workspace. I consider the functional to be a very important part of the "living space" and while it is important to keep work and living separate to some extent, I think the tightly knit harmonizing aesthetic of a combined work/living space is better than the industrial age house // factory aesthetic. I doubly like the idea of a mobile work space because I think travel (like safaris) can and should be stimulating experiences that have immediate crossover for artistic cultural production. Having said that, I am not for a complete abolition of separate, strictly work or living spaces. Sometimes its nice to have a space where work does not intrude on daily living. More often than not, however, work spaces can be less than humane in their lack of support for more than basic human living activity.

Art for Architecture's Sake John J Sulivan,, Metropolis December 1999.