Open publication - Free publishing - More 2012

2012 - 2013: Wood And Fire, Towards A Definition Of Mild Architecture

Izaskun Chinchilla & Carlos Jimenez

There are two conceptual traditions easy to recognize in architecture which affect how we begin designing. The first of these traditions consists of relating first design concepts to context analysis or to context experimentation. In this practice, context is an amazingly rich and complex entity usually analyzed in many different ways. Perceptual structure of the place (Kevin Lynch), site character and personal identification with its values (Christian Norberg Schultz), inhabitable conditions of the space (Otto Friedrich Bollnow), cultural and geographic interactions (Agustin Bergue), symbolic dimension of the environment (Susanne Langer), associated poetic feelings (Martin Heidegger), or links between memory and vision (Gerhard Kallman) are some of the approaches a designer can choose to begin with a project using a contextual philosophy.

The second tradition invites designers to consider technique, material and function as the major ingredients determining the result. This methodology has been popular in different periods of history producing different outcomes: beaux art architecture, modern buildings, high tech examples or parametric projects.

A very immediate interpretation of these two traditions could lead us to believe that the result of applying the first set of principles will produce a warm and welcoming building while selecting the second one will bring, as an inevitable result, a cold super-technological space. A more detail historical analysis would, nevertheless, dismantle this first intuition. Many buildings whose architects tried to make a contextual design become highly abstract when they are transformed into material objects. Details tend to be without meaning to people as the great manifesto of the author refers to the bigger scale.

The second and intuitively cold tradition has produced plenty of buildings which are only enjoyable for technicians, but it has also incorporated small reflections and details linked to a human grasping of the space and to anthropological reflections. Gottfried Semper, while defending the absolute priority of the triad ‘technique, material and function’ gave an enormous relevance to the role of braiding in how popular craft has evolved to building geometry. Le Corbusier stated a house was a machine for living in but also designed Beistegui penthouse and its chimney. And Norman Foster has successfully introduced references to trees and the human scale in the way he developed the structure in Stansted Airport from its components.

Unit 22 defends that architecture which welcomes users through small dimension details and through a soft and cozy understanding of materiality. Therefore, this academic year, students will begin working in detail and around a material reflection. Two material facts will give the title for the year: wood and fire. But there is a trick in the selection of these materials leading the first reflection. Wood has been selected not only for its technical qualities but for its contextual dimension. Using local wood consciously, implies understanding the structure of an ecosystem and managing geographical notions while maintaining perception of memory, crafts and biology. Placing real fire in our spaces will force us to think about thermodynamic functioning while offering a place to gather and talk.

Wood and fire are the beginning of our year and small details which welcome and empower users will be our first concerns. But, very soon, we will jump out of a linear methodology to realize the contextual implications of material and energy. Braiding techniques alongside broader architectural implications will suggest a hybrid methodology in which items, whatever size or nature they have, gain in complexity through exercises based on taking into account wider implications of each design.

In this process the objective and subjective values of wood and fire will be melted together. We will choose wood because it is completely biodegradable, serves as a great insulator, uses less energy to process than steel, concrete, aluminum, or plastic, and is 100% renewable. We will also value how recent certification programs are also addressing consumer's environmental concerns by certifying forests that are sustainably harvested. Building with wood is cost effective and environmentally responsible, but is also aesthetically pleasing and anthropologically meaningful.

Addressing fire back in our designs will force us to take decisions on energy use and thermodynamics. We will be pushed out of the ‘dictatorship of eye[1]’. We will define the best design from its efficiency, its ability to save time, money and material. We will reintroduce the sense of touch as a crucial spatial perception. But we will also be aware fire represents the great essence in our daily lives through its warmth, light and aura, kindling feelings of truth and spirituality within us.

This constant dealing with objective and subjective values will allow us to define our own suggestion of what might be a ‘mild’ architecture in the times that are to come.

Cold architecture:

Has an abstract relationship with weather and climate.
Obeys a modern preference for industrialization.
Doesn’t contain body scale or refer to body shape references.
Often uses pure contemporary materials.
Mild architecture:

Recognizes varied environmental clues and respond to local weather and climate. We will pay special attention to tropical relationship between indoor and outdoor.
Incorporates craft, vernacular, decorative, feminine, anthropological and popular preferences.
Get advantage from biologic tendencies of the user.
Can be easily achieved in wood and other natural materials address to different periods of time and History. Long term durability allows the use of these materials in different worsening state.
Transform user in dwellers[2] by inserting elements allowing to identify ‘safe-nests’ in the bigger public domain.
Although students will be challenged within three exercises the aim of the year is to produce a continuous reflection in which the individual result of each exercise is used as collective ingredients for further steps. It is also a great honor to announce Unit 22 has been commissioned to build up a scale one outdoor pavilion in Medellin (Colombia). Workshops and Classrooms will take place in our design in the garden of Medellín Modern Art Museum (MAMM). Unit 22 students will collaborate with twelve Colombian students from Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana and their tutor, Felipe Mesa Rico, partner of PlanB Arquitectura for this new challenge.

[1] Fernández Galiano, L. (2000) “Fire and Memory”, The Mit Press.

[2] Hertzberger, H (1991) “Lessons for Students in Architecture” 010 Publishers