Transformative architecture

19 January 2009

The New York Times last week had a marvelous piece on an incredible apartment designed and inhabited by Hong Kong architect Gary Chang. Chang remodeled the apartment he grew up in to contain 24 different  layouts made possible by sliding and folding configurations. I love this example of architecture applying itself to the needs of living in today’s world. We know that density is going to be an increasingly important strategy for more sustainable urban environments, but density also creates problems. For cultures that have spent the past two or three generations migrating out of cities into sprawled suburbs, the move towards denser cities and communities is going to be difficult. We are going to have to learn to live with less space and more people around us.

When space is at a premium like this, it becomes less negative volume than positive element. Like clay, it is a medium to be sculpted and shaped. Chang’s apartment is a great example of how designers and architects can shift their thinking when they really consider the space, rather than the container. This may be a radical example, but it is easily distilled into practical, novel solutions for accommodating many functions in a small space. It is transformative, both within itself, literally, but also as a forerunner of the kind of solutions we will soon be seeing in our cities.

My favorite view is this one, with the hammock. If you could have 24 rooms in your apartment, certainly at least one would have a hammock, wouldn’t it? But all the views are wonderful, and worth a look.

Urban abstraction

4 October 2008

The urban environment – particularly New York City – provides ample opportunity to view a landscape pared down to the basic formal elements of line, plane, color, and negative space. It was a striking observation that photographer Randy West made of the horizontal blocks of the city’s gridded streets – that in the dimming light of dusk, this abstraction comes to the forefront. With the forms of skyscrapers silhouetted in in black, the power of the terrain in fact becomes inverted, and the negative shape of the sky takes on a new prominence. New York Times writer Bonnie Yochelson points out that these take on the shapes of “upside-down skyscrapers” which is a beautiful way of calling attention to the powerful presence of  negative space, particularly in our cityscape, which is so assertive in its verticality. It’s also an interesting statement, though, because it reveals our difficulty with processing the idea of negative volume; in fact, we rarely talk about space without talking about ways to fill it – either with physical matter, or with meaning.

This topic has me in its thrall this year because I’m taking a two-part series of courses in Space Analysis. At Pratt, there is phenomenal emphasis on form, such that two semesters of hands-on work in abstract design (or as we call it, 3D) is required for every student in the ID department. After a year of focusing on form, it is a true challenge to train your eye to notice negative volume, which we often think of as invisible, and a void. But by definition, shaping form also means shaping space, and our reactions to the space may be just as powerful but much more difficult to access and verbalize. I love these photos as very immediate reminder of the presence of negative space in our lives, and the way in change our perspective on the world.