1. THE POLYFUNCTIONAL BUILDING
For the most part today, multifamily housing is designed to contain almost only residences. When a mixed-use design is considered for multifamily housing, the commercial or community component is almost always confined to the ground level. This programmatic monoculture of housing buildings as they are usually developed separates them from the polyfunctional logic of the city itself, which is as open to change as it is to multiple uses. The polyfunctionality of the city makes it also indeterminate and therefore open to social change and lifestyle experimentation.
A PROGRAMMATIC MONOCULTURE OF HOUSING SEPARATES BUILDINGS FROM THE POLYFUNCTIONAL LOGIC OF THE CITY
We can understand the lack of a priori determination of the city not as a defect but as an asset. The city’s inherent flexibility allows conditions of recombinatory behavior resulting in a richer anthropological mix typical of large urban concentrations. The result is the possibility in society of more fluid lifestyles, one that may encourage a richer set of role models to empower people’s imagination with the prospect of unprecedented possibilities for being and doing. It could be said then that, for design, the lack of formal determination that conditions use equates, perhaps paradoxically, to increased functional freedom.
The specialization of housing buildings into monofunctional entities in the city results in a social splitting of the urban whole. What is normally viewed as public space is confined to the level of the street, while the upper floors of any residential structure are considered to be almost exclusively private space.
MORE FLUID SPATIAL ORGANIZATION OF PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SPACE COULD FACILITATE RICHER DIVERSITY OF INTERPERSONAL DYNAMICS REVITALIZING THE CITY SOCIALLY AND COMMERCIALLY
Considering a more fluid spatial organization of public and private space might facilitate a richer diversity of interpersonal dynamics and revitalize the city both socially and commercially. Interrogating the usual programmatic specialization of buildings in the city could mean not only extending the range of what is considered to be public space, expanding opportunities for commercial interaction and social exchange into the heart of buildings, and also potentially gradually alleviating a condition of personal loneliness in the city that is logically related to the structural separation between public and private encouraged by the current models of programmatic specialization.
Two experimental projects can help illustrate the potential of extending the poly-functionality of the city deep into the heart of buildings: The Lost City Poly-productive Residential Units for the city of Venice (2016) and Jeungsan Public Housing Complex for the city of Seoul (2019).
2. FROM PLAN TO SECTION
Objections to the possible expansion of the polyfunctionality of the street into the interior of multi-storey buildings are based on skepticism about the capacity of design to change behavioral patterns that, deeply rooted in collective habit, condition the way we use space. The argument is that people expect public and commercial spaces to be on the ground floor of buildings and that it is hard or even undesirable to attempt to change those expectations. Successful typological inventions such as the multi-storey shopping mall, for example, seem to disprove this theory by having already effected expansions of de facto “public space” into the interior of buildings.
THE MULTI-STOREY SHOPPING MALL ACHIEVES A VERTICAL EXPANSION OF URBAN PUBLIC SPACE INTO THE INTERIOR OF BUILDINGS
Setting aside for a moment non-architectural explanations— for example the influence of consumerist advertising which would make shopping a special case—we could argue that shopping malls have been able to pull people off the street and into the heart of buildings. Architecturally, shopping malls have done this using a design recipe of interconnected multiple-level atriums and sequences of escalators that expand the visitor’s gaze diagonally upwards and invite the possibility of movement.
The atrium/escalator strategy suggests a change of the imaginative register that drives design from plan to section. In general, this move implies reaching a moment of expansion of the logical basis for a project. Moving from plan to section can unlock the imaginative possibilities of a project, challenging the project’s capacity to embody functional space and potentially opening up new and better ways of inhabiting it.
MOVING FROM PLAN TO SECTION CAN UNLOCK THE IMAGINATIVE POSSIBILITIES OF A PROJECT
Gravity effectively demands a separation between floors, typically organizing them into stacked layers that condition our mental maps of space. The possibility of going beyond the normative arrangement of layered space suggests vertical connection and physical continuity and the potential for friction between unrelated uses that might generate the emergence of new functions and programs. Moving from plan to section has the potential to expand the logic of design from a stratified condition of stacked floors to the building as a three-dimensional whole potentially delivering the benefits of richer and freer modes of movement and inhabitation.
Two examples, The Spiral Housing in Hamburg (2010) and the Yeonsu-gu Youth Center in Incheon in South Korea (2022), seek to expand the possibilities of inhabitation of a given architectural assembly by making the section, not the plan, the primordial organizational element of the design.
3. BACKGROUND IS FIGURE
The city’s formal indeterminacy and capacity for self-contradiction could become objectives of architectural design, extending adaptability and the possibility for the unexpected into the design of buildings themselves. The indeterminacy and imperfectly controlled formal chaos of the city developed historically with the dissolution of the traditional logic of city form. The city was originally articulated into an arrangement of figure and background. Palace or temple played the role of figure or monument in the context of a background of otherwise undifferentiated residential fabric.
The aspiration to democratic self-rule and modern science have reduced both the palace and the temple to relative irrelevance. Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, for example, occupies an urban block like many others in the city, and the imposing structure exerts no significant influence on the city’s form. Today the undifferentiated residential fabric dominates over the formerly significant urban element. The fabric has replaced the monument creating a city for which the background has become the figure.
TODAY THE UNDIFFERENTIATED RESIDENTIAL FABRIC DOMINATES OVER THE FORMERLY SIGNIFICANT URBAN ELEMENT—THE FABRIC HAS REPLACED THE MONUMENT CREATING A CITY FOR WHICH THE BACKGROUND HAS BECOME THE FIGURE
For the city it is an exciting moment that could be understood as a drift towards free form, where alternative means of urban organization compatible with the desires for personal freedom implicit in democratic hopes (diversity, equity, inclusivity) could be pursued. In a similar way, new modes of form-making in architectural design can also seek alternatives to the whims of what could be considered personal subjectivity of the designer and to the usually dispiriting results of design by committee. For example, one could explore indirect design strategies by which the will to form is run through processes that are only imperfectly controlled by the designer.
Similar strategies allowing design to evade the sameness of foretold results could be considered for the interior of residential units. It is often assumed that the market “knows” what customers want: familiar configurations of apartments into assortments of living rooms and bedrooms. This unchanging situation seems to overlook the evident freedom with which the many forms of emotional associations between people are challenging the hegemony of the traditional family today. Residential unit layouts equipped with flexibility of configuration and adaptability to the changing conditions of life might allow us to respond appropriately to the different and the new in response to evolving forms of the social conditions that structure society.
The Sphinx Apartments in San Juan Argentina (2018) implements a process of indirect form-giving by following a set of rules that attempt to replace the designer’s subjectivity with more broadly-based forms of consensus.
The Urbia Furniture System, New York (2006) proposes a design dialectic between architectural and interior design facilitating prefabricated simplicity and flexible customization and adaptability.