Design for Uncertainty 1: Modular Reconfigurable System

This series explores design methods for dealing with uncertainty and change over time. To read the first post in this series click here.

The field of architecture has a rich history of fascination with flexibility, processes of interrelation and dynamic change. In the 1960’s and 1970’s architects, influenced by technological developments and the development of pop ‘throwaway’ culture began to more fully explore concepts of changeability within architecture. Stewart Brand’s classic book How Buildings Learn documents just how short-lived many buildings truly are–and the different rates at which users alter different building components of a building system (the facade, the structure, etc.) Speculative collectives such as Archigram and Superstudio fully engaged with issues of individuality and technology by developing speculative, grid-based ‘plug in,’ changeable and flexible building proposals. Architects such as Cedric Price and Yona Friedman explored deeply radical ideas of configurable space, explicitly pursuing ideas of non-fixity.

At the same time, young architects in the 1960s an 1970s were developing convictions and practices around deeply substantive forms of participatory design and building adaptability by users who would create their space as they needed it. This period also coincided with a rising interest in vernacular building forms and processes, and the development of community design centers which developed much more open-ended participatory design processes. The challenge of these not fully controllable design problems, and the surprise and delight generated by many conceivably unplanned dynamics were part of a growing interest in”mat” urbanism, best exemplified by Stan Allen’s work.

One of the critiques of this method within the architecture field is that instead of generating empowerment through citizens’ ability to engage with and change their surroundings, modular, changeable systems actually create generic, spaces that deaden city life. The more flexible and changeable a system is, for example– a warehouse big box that can be applied to any site–the more generic and placeless it is. Specificity is a stand taken by the designer of a project and a quality generated by tailoring a project to unique needs. That specificity is what gives spaces their unique character.

A related and nascent critique of this method is that it may have limited applicability to landscape systems. Landscapes are often inherently heterogeneous, sites usually have topographic difference, soil difference, differentiation in vegetation cover and key adjacencies and spatial relationships. ‘Natural’ forces and actors, especially fluid ones seem like poor candidates for the containerization that has historically part of modular design.

Furthermore, in the interest of rationalist order, these schemes may be adding a level of costly control to a system that can maintain itself more cheaply and effectively when left to its own devices. Take for example, the recent proliferation of planter systems that hold plants for improving indoor air quality. I’m not convinced that the offgassing of the plastic used to create the system doesn’t overrides any benefits provided by the plants themselves. Modular design schemes are useful as a design methodology, as they cause designers think of situations as cases from which design principles can be crafted and abstracted, but they may have limited use in simple application to landscape issues.

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