Adaptability, Part II

This now can attach in seamless step to the end of my last post on adaptability— concluding with the thought that upcoming architectural typologies, building technologies, and client mentalities are to benefit more than anything from the ability to change and morph harmonically with their surroundings. At this moment I am most interested in the latter of those listed fundamentals: the clients / the users.

In high-end residential it is part of the job to daily encounter and develop working relationships with wealthy people– people with the means but most importantly the mentality that their wealth can afford them a perfectly-designed bubble within which everything is perfect. It is in fact why they come to an architect in the first place, and is also indicative of a broader symptom of being human: the mild delusion that you have control over the environment. As every profession has its existential crisis, architecture’s is the following: What on earth for do I so temporarily rearrange these materials into nice-looking boxes if they are destined to fall back apart?
Calvert & Piranesi illustrate architecture’s crisis: the inevitability of ruin.
Many rich clients have a soft breaking point, after which they strangely stop fussing about change orders. In trying to understand this sudden switch, this apparent complicity, I realized it isn’t a complicity at all, but rather a quiet (and foolish) “seizing of the horns.” The clients try to take control, or ownership, of the project by spending, by letting their money do the talking. Some architects will react happily to this news, thinking that their design changes and additions will now go unopposed. But they must realize: it is not on STUFF directly that the clients are spending money, but more abstractly on the wrenching of space– to be set up exactly how they want it so that they have to adapt the least. Hence, the easiest clients actually become the hardest. It becomes doubly difficult, in this case, to honor both the Earth and the client.
In a way, the evolution of the human race has revolved around this same wrenching. Domestication. Shaping the environment instead of letting it shape us. Developing a fear of and an allergy to mutable environments.
We see the strains of this in the everyday. When we move to a new apartment, one of the hardest things is adjusting our lifestyle (the little things that grow out like roots and grip spacetime to give us a sense of stability) after acclimating to the new space. Different room layout; different closet size and configuration; different distance to the kitchen; different toilet seat height; different commute; different patches of sunlight. Many of us welcome these changes and are excited by interacting with them and witnessing our “lifestyle” and patterns which result. (We must also be aware that the reason all apartments are different is because their building sites, and by extension the Earth, is/are defined by this fundamental internal difference.) Some of us become accustomed to habit and resist this change. Some of us even go so far as to allow this manufactured stability to have a direct effect on their moods and ability to work (think of the most fickle writers and painters, who need so many things to be in place and taken care of before they can attend to their craft). Some of us have a fear of undedicated spatial functions. If I don’t have an exactly prescribed spot to place my wet towel, or rest my dirty cutlery on, or sketch in my sketchbook, it causes anxiety…

Our entire lives are peppered with this tug of war between the unpredictable environment and ourselves. Part of the joy of living is to experience the blend of old and new: how they interact, what one sacrifices to the other, and how a person is able to maintain an overarching flow or sense of self through it all. How can I make my apartment, my tent on the trail, my car, my office desk, and my homeward route all feel like Ivan spaces? How do I leave my mark? How do I alter them with that mark, and how will they alter me with theirs?
Douglas House, Richard Meier. Beautiful architecture, doubtless, but founded on two hitches: 1) straight lines one to fifty feet in length, exactly the scale at which straight lines in nature are scarcest; 2) that every cubic foot of space should be ‘dedicated’ for a particular use. Photo credit Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, via flickr. License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Noah recently sent me a link to an article from The Onion which inadvertently touches upon this.
If I may lit-fuck, or arch-fuck this…. “foyer” represents here the ultimate transitional space, the space with a name but with a very vague function, a permanently latent function– a function that is an afterthought.

What if you started treating every room in your house first as a foyer (just with a bed / stove / toilet in it), and only afterwards began shaping the uses of the layout according to how you actually used them (allowing form to follow function)? Eventually you’d likely have a layout quite different from what you’d expect by looking at a plan without the rooms labeled. But even then the functions could never be re-labeled, because we want them to stay open-ended. An all-foyer mansion gives me a glimpse into a house of the future: one with continually shapeshifting uses, but which also spurs anxiety about permanence and ‘sense of place’, a sense which would understandably be diminished. One could say that all the unease the modern age seemed to be an engine for is only the tip of the iceberg.
Small Drawing Room, Cliffe Castle, West Yorkshire, England. Photo credit Michael D Beckwith, via flickr. Public domain.
Smoking Room, Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City. Photo credit Tristan Higbee, via flickr. License: CC BY 2.0.
The images above are examples of [with]drawing rooms & smoking rooms, both sure signs of wealth (furnishings notwithstanding). How much rarer have these bad boys gotten in the past 200 years?
Many large, old homes contain this latent anxiety, but in the opposite way. They are so specifically programmed that each space gets much lighter use. 95% of the time they are sitting there, empty, waiting, latent in their program. Thus for the majority of their existence they are a kind of foyer. Even in contemporary life the condition remains: that our residences and places of work are two separate spaces. Each one gets used roughly half of each day cycle while the other one sits latently. Will there ever be a time when our architecture permits us to work where we sleep? Will we even be willing to function in this way? Could the nascence of coffee shop culture be pointing us in the exactly opposite direction– that no matter what, we will always be drawn to temporary spaces, where we can drop in for a while just to work, or play, or eat, or entertain, or sleep….
Atlas Cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo credit Piotr Redlinkski for The New York Times. Found on
What your office looks like from 8PM to 8AM. Photo credit Can Pac Swire, via flickr. License: CC BY-NC 2.0.
Even sleep, that activity most associated with home and permanence, can be made transient. Capsule Inn Hotel, Akihabara, Tokyo, Japan. Photo credit Mauriczo Mucciola, via flickr. License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Postscripted easter egg: Mitch Hedberg @ Just for Laughs Montreal. His bedroom joke is at 3:48

By the.vonz.himanen

Ivan Himanen is an architect, writer, and artist based in New York City.

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