Writings / Magazine
The Unpredictable and the BC House, an article by Rodrigo Valenzuela Jerez on how BC house incorporated contingency, featured in ‘Freedom’, issue 101, April 2019, Revista ARQ.
The Unpredictable and the BC House
What if we leave behind the obsolete notion of the architect as an engineer/artist, that pompous ideal of a genius that complements his/ her technical-positivist certainties with inspiration and sensitivity? And what if we take the architect as an oracle? Projecting is anticipating what will or will not happen, that is, practicing futurology.
If we accept this prophetic condition, we face two alternatives: the predictable and the unpredictable.
Not only do we know in advance the weather and transport times (including the inconveniences), but we also find predictions everywhere. While economists are confidently foreseeing growth, deceleration or returns, and stockbrokers capitalize future bonds and companies’ values, some architects state that by “combining extensive global experience with robust and sophisticated technologies, we forecast the effects of planning and design decisions on the movement and interaction of people in buildings.” 1
First, let’s agree that we are not able to predict the future (something quite obvious, but easy to forget in the face of such current display of certainties). Then, we can transform this future uncertainty into value. As a counterpoint to the overdetermination of life, Hal Foster (2002) raises the need for spaces of maneuver or tolerance – spielraum – where the new, the unpredictable, freedom or creativity can develop.
Jonathan Hill identifies two methods traditionally used by architects to establish hierarchical relationships about users:
The first, the denial of the user, assumes that the building need not be occupied for it to be recognized as architecture and the second, the control of the user, attributes to the user forms of behavior acceptable to the architect. To imply that they can predict uses, architects promote models of experience that suggest a manageable passive and user, unable to transform use, space and meaning (Hill, 2003:9).
Adrian Forty suggests an even more perverse relationship by understanding the flexibility – usually associated with freedom – as a control mechanism:
The purpose of ‘flexibility’ within modernist architectural discourse was a way of dealing with the contradiction that arose between the expectation, so well articulated by Gropius, that the architect’s ultimate concern in designing buildings was with their human use and occupation, and the reality that the architect’s involvement in a building ceased at the very moment that occupation began. The incorporation of ‘flexibility’ into the design allowed architects the illusion of projecting their control over the building into the future, beyond the period of their actual responsibility for it (Forty, 2000:143).
As a counterpoint, in his essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes (1977) questions the author’s authority, recognizes that the movement author-text-reader is never direct or univocal, and states that reading is a creative act through which each reader builds a new text. In turn, from a semiological perspective and based on studies of musical experiences, Umberto Eco suggests in Obra abierta (1992) the possibility of the reader, user, or audience to ‘interpret’ works and ultimately complete them. Finally, Jonathan Hill himself (2003) understands use as a creative activity in which each user builds a new building. Considering these ideas, two strategies apply to design processes: incorporating the possibility of change by deprogramming spaces and offering an active role to architecture’s audiences by getting used to a lack of control.
Even if living and working or eating and sleeping could justifiably be termed activities, that still does not mean that they make specific demands on the space in which they are to take place- it is the people who make specifics demands because they wish to interpret one and the same function in their own specific ways (Hertzberger, 1991:127).
In the BC house, there is no predetermined space for the family’s living room, the daily dining room, the master bedroom or the service bedroom; there is no office, no children’s playroom or loggia. The project could be defined as a metal shed with a series of enclosures modules inside, and a series of indeterminate spaces between these enclosures. Actually, two categories of volumes were designed: technical-functional volumes (including bathrooms and a small storage/washing area) and neutral volumes (potential places to sleep, store or work). There are also spaces between volumes, which have the highest degree of programmatic indeterminacy. Physically, both the volumes and the spaces between them are defined by specific conditions. That is, there is no mechanical flexibility (things that move and produce change), but flexibility by deprogramming. 2
User as executor or performer
By incorporating the possibility of change by indetermination, Bc house users do not relate to architecture in a contemplative way, but in an active one, applying their creativity to the transformation of spaces and the constant redefinition of the building. These future modifications can occur because of three design decisions. First, all the neutral volumes have the same dimensions; in addition, two bathrooms have the same distribution and dimensions. This homogeneous infrastructure – non-hierarchical – grants versatility and allows equalizing freedom of the agents that participate in the house. Second, unlike the volumes, the spaces between them have different sizes and locations, enabling different kinds of groupings among participants. Finally, due to the house’s extension, it is possible to obtain degrees of privacy given by distance and not only by closed enclosures.
Domestic social settings
With the BC house, we questioned the notion of traditional family as the only social organization basis for the design of the home, replacing it with the possibility of granting different configurations for the house’s participants. As an anecdote, the house is currently shared by a couple, two children and a household worker – to which is added the sporadic visit of out of town relatives. Within this specific configuration, the main bathroom and the service bathroom are exactly the same.
1 Statement from Space Syntax – an English urban analysis company – website: https://spacesyntax.com
2 The idea of future change appears in architectural discourses since the early twentieth century through the concept of flexibility as a critical response to functionalism and modern determinism. Referring only to some exemplary positions, one could mention the search for large continuous spaces in courtyard houses by Mies van der Rohe; Bruno Taut’s analysis of Japanese houses without program; the theories of self-construction and self-administration by John Turner; Yona Friedman’s architecture as a structure for the citizens’ wishes; Lucien Kroll’s systems of cooperative architecture; the theory of supports and open buildings by John Habraken (later applied to housing); users’ participation and post-design transformations by Giancarlo De Carlo; Archigram’s mobility through modular technologies; Cedric Price’s calculated uncertainty; organic growth and replacement of parts by Japanese Metabolists; Bernard Tschumi’s questioning of functions in favor of events; programmatic contaminations by Rem Koolhaas; and the open-use climatized spaces by Anne Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal. In addition, remarkable applications in iconic projects such as the open plan at Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino house (1914); the mobile panels at Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröder house (1924); the expandable houses by Walter Gropius (1963); the container idea at the Center Georges Pompidou by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers (1977); the open structure of Frei Otto’s Ökohaus (1980), and the polysemy of acts at Sendai’s media library by Toyo Ito (2001), among many others. It is such the diversity of ideas grouped under the concept of flexibility and such the inclusion of meanings –sometimes even opposing each other – that, in the end, it becomes very difficult to designate something with precision. Adrian Forty – who examines the relationships between architecture and language in his book Words and Buildings (2000) – proposes three general categories to deal with this problem: mechanical flexibility (things that move and produce change), political flexibility (change produced by user acts), and flexibility by indeterminacy (programs including neutral changing spaces).
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author”. En Image-Music-Text. London: Flamingo, 1977.
Eco, Umberto. Obra Abierta. Barcelona: Editorial Planeta De Agostini, 1992.
Forty, Adrian. Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Foster, Hal. Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes). London – New York: Verso, 2002.
Hertzberger, Herman. Lessons for Students in Architecture. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1991.
Hill, Jonathan. Actions of Architecture, Architects and Creative Users. London – New York: Routledge, 2003.