How Smart Home Technology Could Change Architecture

[ By SA Rogers in Architecture & Houses & Residential. ]

Whether you’re an early adopter or believe smart technology could invite a host of new headaches into our most private spaces, connectivity and automation are coming for us all. We’re still in the beginning phases of a revolution in the way architecture is designed, built and used, from virtual-reality-enhanced concept development and robotic construction to new levels of hands-free home control with potential to improve the quality of many users’ lives.

Sometimes smart home technology can influence the overall form of the house – like the central wooden block that holds the “life line” of electric panels, air conditioning units, audio visual systems and more within 42mm Architecture’s Pool House, pictured above – but often the effect is less visible from the outside.

Unprecedented Flexibility

Baitasi House of the Future by Dot Architects
Baitasi House of the Future by Dot Architects
Baitasi House of the Future by Dot Architects

A company that produces smart home technology commissioned Dot Architects to build “Baitasi House of the Future,” an experimental house located in a historic hutong area of Beijing. Part of the home’s layout is inspired by the architects’s belief that “the boundary between home and society is blurred by the rise of the sharing economy, nomad workers and technology,” leading to fragmented lives that can’t be served by a conventional fixed layout.

Movable modules within the home controlled by a smart TV system slide around to offer four different layout options, shifting the entire house from a three bedroom home to a small office. Even the facade opens up to connect the living space to the outdoors. Some transforming furniture and other elements the home still have to be assembled by hand, but the process is largely automated.

Smart “switchable glass” via Smart Film Malaysia

Privacy concerns around glass architecture could soon disappear thanks to curtains that close or glass facades that switch from transparent to opaque at the touch of a button. That could make large expanses of glazing much more popular for all sorts of applications, allowing for a lot more natural daylighting, enjoyment of views and a sense of connection to the outdoors. It could also make sort of completely transparent bathroom designs sometimes seen in modern Japanese houses a little more palatable to the average Westerner.

Integrating Universal Design

One common reaction to the proliferation of smart technology is a snarky comment about how lazy humans are becoming. Can’t we open doors, turn on lights, pause the television and adjust the curtains with our own two hands? Well, no. Many of us can’t. We live in a world that has long prioritized the young and able-bodied at the expense of everyone else, assuming most people can easily get up stairs, reach typical countertop height to perform tasks, grip objects and see where we’re going.

Conventional approaches to everything from floor plans to kitchen sinks exclude a sizable percentage of the general population. The alternative, a movement called Universal Design, argues that all built environments should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use them. That includes changing both the physical form of structures and how we access them – including the integration of automated processes, sensor technology and artificial intelligence.

Todd Stabelfeldt, a tech CEO who’s been paralyzed from the neck down since he was eight years old, says his life changed for the better with Apple’s 2013 release of iOS 7, which incorporated an accessibility feature called Switch Control that allows people with limited mobility to control their iPhones. The following year, the ability to summon Siri by voice gave Todd even more freedom and autonomy. Recently, he starred in an Apple commercial demonstrating how Siri and Apple’s HomeKit technology help him get around his own home. The video is fittingly entitled “Convenience For You is Independence for Me.”

As AI continues to develop, we could soon see smart environments that don’t just respond to our commands in order to adjust things to our needs and preferences, but do so automatically.

Open-Source, Augmented Reality & Robotics

WikiHouse components

Access to open-source architecture is playing a central role in the development of smart homes like the Baitasi House of the Future, which features an extension constructed using the WikiHouse platform. WikiHouse provides downloadable online templates that can be used to build houses using wooden components cut on CNC milling machines, easily slotting together.

“Based on the strategy of minimal intervention, we used the WikiHouse system for the only new-built structure on site,” says Dot Architects. “It is lightweight and digitally fabricated. This faster and cleaner construction process suites the crowded and noise-sensitive neighborhood very well.”

Honda’s Smart Home

Honda’s Smart Home looks like the kind of low-cost contemporary urban housing you can find in just about any city in the United States, but on the inside, it’s a showpiece of smart technology that produces more energy via solar panels than it consumes. Everything from the music to the lights to the blinds is controlled through an iPad app – but most importantly, the plans are all open-source, ensuring that the success of the house can be replicated for the common good.

Robots prefabricate load-bearing timber modules at ETH Zurich
Virtual reality devices by Fologram augment the construction process

When actions like moving walls, transforming the opacity of glazing and gaining unprecedented control over climate control capabilities are possible through smart technology, it follows that the process of building construction will soon be carried out in similar ways. Recent advances in technology have already democratized the design process to a large degree, allowing clients to see what a renovation might look like with the use of 3D virtual overlays, for example. Augmented reality could help living, breathing, non-robotic workers construct complex designs. Integrated AI systems could soon connect digital renderings, 3D printing, robotic construction and other high tech ways of designing and building, transforming and potentially automating every step of the process down to the final aesthetic touches.

Blurring Lines Between Architecture and Transit

The SYMBIOZ House by Renault
The SYMBIOZ House by Renault

Concepts like the SYMBIOZ house and car combo by Renault envision a near future in which higher end, privately owned autonomous vehicles take a place of honor right in the center of the home, integrating into the living space instead of being relegated to a garage. The emissions-free, all-electric car becomes a room within a room to make the transition between home and travel more seamless and comfortable. The car can even act as an energy generator in case the power goes out.

But you don’t have to live in a brand new structure that practically puts your car on an altar in order to benefit from a connection between smart cars and smart homes. For example, Ford is working on integrating its cars with the Amazon Echo and the Wink smart home platform, allowing users to control home systems while still en route or check your car’s diagnostics from the comfort of your couch. Ultimately, as cities evolve, smart infrastructure and integration with automated vehicles could revolutionize public transit as well, using location, weather data and traffic monitoring to make getting from your door to your destination more efficient than ever.

This is also the reason why Honda got into the smart home game in the first place. The auto manufacturer believes that automation between buildings and vehicles should be seamless, and that developing efficient and clean technologies for both is integral to fighting climate change.

A Greater Need to Keep Up with Change

There’s (at least) one big caveat to all of this, very real privacy concerns aside. Technology is constantly changing, and it can quickly feel out of date. Anyone who owns a car with its own circa 2010 built-in GPS system has experienced firsthand how features like this can become redundant and obsolete within a matter of months after they’re installed.

A much higher level of cross-compatibility standards will be necessary to make sure smart home devices from different manufacturers are able to work with each other, like Honda’s Smart House energy management system meshing with smart dishwashers from Bosch and refrigerators from KitchenAid. But systems will also have to be built with frequent upgrades in mind, which requires a level of flexibility and adaptability a lot of architecture can’t currently accommodate. Embracing change as a constant (and preparing for the end of a structure’s usability) must extend to the ways in which we design and build everything around us. And just as importantly, smart home technology needs to be egalitarian, integrated into housing that’s legitimately affordable rather than a feature that’s only accessible to the wealthy.

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Vanishing Beauty: A Photographic Tour of Almost-Abandonments

[ By SA Rogers in Abandoned Places & Architecture & Art & Photography & Video. ]

There’s something extra eerie about places that are not quite abandoned just yet, but edging closer and closer to a prolonged death process. Relics of another time, these architectural remnants feel like physical connections to all the lives that passed through them, many of which have already met an end. Lacking any efforts to preserve or revive them, they slowly crumble, waiting for their inevitable demolition. Photographer Michael Eastman specializes in capturing such places on film in all their deteriorating glory.

Isabella’s Two Chairs, Havana 2000 by Michael Eastman

“These empty rooms are really portraits of the people that inhabited them,” says Eastman. “It’s for us as the viewer to figure out from the arrangement of the furniture, the things on the walls, the kinds of things that they’ve chosen to surround themselves with, the condition of the house, to kind of build our own portrait of who that is.”

The self-taught photographer has spent five decades documenting interiors and facades in cities like Rome, Paris, Havana and New Orleans – all of which happen to have similar qualities in terms of color, character and a rich sense of history. Chromogenic 4×5-inch film, a wide-angle lens and long exposure times allow Eastman to reproduce the vivid hues in each scene without the use of artificial light, resulting in painterly compositions that feel like you could step right into them.

Mirror Grid No 2, Milan 2008 by Michael Eastman
Mirror Table, Havana 2014 by Michael Eastman
Mirror Table, Havana 2014 by Michael Eastman
Hollywood Theater, Havana 2010 by Michael Eastman
Hollywood Theater, Havana 2010 by Michael Eastman

A selection of Eastman’s photographs are currently on display at the JL Modern Gallery in Palm Beach, Florida through February 23rd.

“In a historical sense, Michael Eastman’s work arises from a history of photographers renowned for their preservation of culture. Many of the buildings pictured will cease to exist; whether crumbling Beaux Arts or Colonial structures or ones that have become subsequently removed or renovated, Eastman’s work in Lisbon, Buenos Aires, and especially Havana, present an intimate yet distant portrait of a place and its history,” says JL Modern Gallery of the show.

Abstract Wall No 2, Havana 2000 by Michael Eastman
Abstract Wall No 2, Havana 2000 by Michael Eastman
Throne Room, Lisbon 2011 by Michael Eastman
Throne Room, Lisbon 2011 by Michael Eastman

“Eastman’s contemporary photographs are in the tradition of Atget’s preservation of Paris, Walker-Evans documentation of the American South, and Berenice Abbott’s “Changing Times of New York” project. The images activate an explorative quest that the viewer can enter to understand the history of the human experience of the past.”

“Michael Eastman’s grand photographs appeal to a myriad of collectors for many reasons. Most importantly, they resonate with the uniqueness that our collective lives have made on transforming both the places we live and interact in as well as the furniture and personal effects that are products of our civilization. The photographs, steeped in nostalgia and a time gone by, are remnants and evidence of the continuity of our collective lives.”

Check out WebUrbanist’s 2010 interview with Eastman on his striking series, “Vanishing America.”

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Box Springs Eternal: 10 Sheet-Kickin’ Mattress Stores

[ By Steve in Design & Graphics & Branding. ]

Mattress stores are so omnipresent these days it’s become a real struggle for sleep shops to stand out from their stuffed, sprung & padded competition.

Mattress stores (along with dollar stores) are the rats and roaches of the retail apocalypse, spreading across the nation(s) under so many names it’s hard to keep track of them all. On the flip side, mattress store owners are doing their utmost to rise above the tide. Take Houston-based Mattress Firm, for instance. Flickr member revjdevans snapped a series of evocative photos that feature a red tube man advertising a store in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Ironically, since 2010 the City of Houston has banned tube men, stating their use “contributes to urban visual clutter and blight and adversely affects the aesthetic environment and the safety and quality of life for the community and the citizens of the city.” Sucks to be you, safe and aesthetic Houston.

Myers, Myers, Myers!

Is their life on Myers? More to the point, are there mattresses at Myers… and if so, WHICH Myers? No less than six Myers-centric sign legends look out from the otherwise subdued-looking store in Crouch End, London, UK. Flickr member gingerbeardman found himself “Myer’d” in mattress store heaven (or hell) in February of 2009.

The Gift of Good Nights

Most mattresses we’ve seen better resemble plains than mountains, though perhaps the former is a tad too “plain” to use for advertising purposes. Speaking of which, Mountain Mattress in central Appalachia has labeled itself as a “gift emporium”. Remind us to reference them next time a friend or family member gets hitched – they’ll never, ever forget your thoughtfulness. Kudos to Flickr member da_mere for reading the sign’s double-take-worthy subtext back in the summer of ’06.

Civil Snore

Southern sleepers will rise again… every morning, soon as the alarm goes off. And by “southern”, we mean southern Portland, Oregon, according to Scott Beale / Laughing Squid who posted the above photo at Flickr. Beale captured the incongruous (did any Civil War battles take place in Oregon?) mattress store in early 2010, though likely not without a fight.

Dublin Down

Ethnic humor ain’t what it used to be – not that we’re complaining – and these days only Canadians, Scots and the Irish are still fair game for stereotypical profiling. Problem? Not for “Mick” (if that’s really your name) of Mattress Mick’s Superstore in Coolock, Dublin. In related news, it would appear that mattresses are being made in Ireland, presumably stuffed with shamrocks and Lucky Charms marshmallows… NTTAWWT. Flickr member William Murphy photo-documented Mattress Mick’s garish storefront in early 2016.

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Buckingham Palace Redesigned as Co-Housing for 50,000

[ By SA Rogers in Architecture & Houses & Residential. ]

Buckingham Palace could be transformed to convert its luxurious 775 rooms and rooftop space into a solution for London’s housing crisis. At least, that’s the idea behind “Affordable Palace,” a tongue-in-cheek proposal from German design firm Opposite Office. The architects have released plans that add a multi-story extension on top of the royal palace and redesign the interiors to eliminate corridors and walls so the space can be repurposed as desired.

These radical changes could house up to 50,000 people within shared community living spaces and “improve the Queen’s social standing” in Britain at the same time. Close-ups of the floor plans show a tight grid of rooms radiating out from eight spiral staircases, and while it looks ab it chaotic at first glance with an open network of rooms lacking privacy, inhabitants would actually just pass into common spaces like living rooms and kitchens to get to their own bedrooms.

Now that Opposite Office has made it easy for this idea to proceed, they say, the ball is in Queen Elizabeth’s court. Benedict Hartl, the firm’s founder, wrote an open letter to the Queen about the plans.

“Your Majesty/To Whom it May Concern, At the moment you Englisher are not to be envied… in addition to the self-made Brexit hullabaloo, there is teh largest housing shortage in history! Large parts of population – ‘generation rent’ are locked out of the housing market. Affordable housing is missing! On the other side there is the 800,000 cost for refurbishing Buckingham Palace :(“

“This is why I thought we can develop a strategy to fix both problems! We developed a roof extension/refurbishment of Buckingham Palace to place social (affordable!) housing on top of the palace. Use your royal power & money to create affordable housing in London. We, as architects help you with this matter. We would be delighted to present our project the ‘Affordable Palace’ to you. P.S. Sorry for any mistakes. I am German.”

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Maximalist Makeovers: Transforming Architecture with Vivid Paint Jobs

[ By SA Rogers in Art & Street Art & Graffiti. ]

Colorful Village in Indonesia

Minimalism is chic and trendy, but sometimes, there’s nothing more satisfying than blotting out bland and boring surfaces with bold splashes of color and pattern. That’s especially true when the structure in question is an eyesore, abandoned or weighed down by the baggage of a difficult past. Giving architecture a maximalist makeover with colorful paint can utterly transform not just the buildings themselves but their entire communities, creating a ripple effect of cheerfulness. These vivid modifications are carried out for all sorts of reasons: easing the impact of blight, celebrating a change in the city’s fortune, preserving cultural traditions or simply for the love of art.

Reviving Abandoned Structures

Madrid-based artist Okuda San Miguel has quickly developed one of the most instantly recognizable styles in street art history with his massive paint projects and sculptures. His murals scale skyscrapers, his interiors have transformed church interiors into incredible skate parks and his faceted three-dimensional creations have played starring roles in major festivals, but of all his dazzling projects, his transformations of abandoned buildings make the biggest visual impact. They include turning a sad, deteriorating house in Arkansas into a “universal chapel,” giving an old abandoned church in Morocco a vivid yellow makeover covered in his signature animal faces and painting two enormous skulls onto an abandoned castle in Loire Valley, France for the LaBel Valette Festival.

Atlanta-based artist and muralist Alex Brewer, better known as HENSE, is often commissioned to apply his pleasingly chaotic and colorful style on abandoned and neglected structures all over the world. One of his best-known projects adds a watercolor effect to an old church in a downtrodden neighborhood in Washington DC with the aim of calling attention to the area’s potential as the city’s next bustling arts district. Another massive mural coats the exterior of a warehouse in Richmond, Virginia for the RVA Festival, and a third splashes across a historic building with a boarded-up facade in Atlanta.

Created for Philadelphia mural project “We the People,” which envisions each of its six murals as “a seed of hope for a bright future,” NTEL’s NATIV NTELIGENCE wraps around an entire block of currently empty buildings to provide a reminder of the “nourishing potential of the space.”

Tel Aviv’s derelict and abandoned Dolphinarium building, which was the scene of a 2001 suicide building, got a wild new look in 2015 courtesy of street artist Dede. The shape of the building was just too perfect to pass on turning it into a gigantic set of wind-up choppers.

Brightening Places of Poverty, Monotony & Blight

Poor communities simply don’t have the resources to maintain an outward appearance that the rest of the world finds “acceptable.” When you’re struggling to get by, fresh paint jobs, nice landscaping and even simple building maintenance is often a lower priority by default. But, with the permission and participation of the people living in those communities, projects that aim to revitalize them with a bit of color and care can make a big difference in general morale. The purpose isn’t necessarily to make these neighborhoods more palatable to wealthier people, but to show that they, too, are worthy of beauty and art. While projects like this can run the risk of glossing over deep systemic inequality, they’re beautiful when handled with sensitivity and awareness.

These large-scale mural projects can dramatically alter the mood of a neighborhood while bringing its inhabitants together to take an active role. Examples include German Crew’s transformation of Las Palmitas, Mexico, covering 224,280 square feet of architecture with neon colors, and a series of awesome painting projects by Haas & Hahn throughout Brazil’s favelas.

In Indonesia, teacher Kampung Pelangi used $22,000 worth of paint to infuse the village of Semarang (which was a slum not so long ago) into a vibrant tourist destination (though it’s not clear whether the town’s poor residents were displaced.)

And in Mumbai, waterfront slums that are home to millions of people have grown far more colorful thanks to the efforts of art teacher Rouble Nagi.

In 2016, Haas & Hahn brought their “FavelaPainting” project back to their home city of Amsterdam to call attention to the need for safe and livable refugee housing. Currently, many refugees are housed in former prisons and other buildings “that have long been an eyesore in Amsterdam’s skyline.”

“The project aims at transforming the buildings, both in- and outside, in order to create their new identity as a new home to the refugees. It will offer opportunities in form of skill training, network building and job opportunity, while empowering the participants to ‘make the place their own.’”

But sometimes it’s little more than monotonous surroundings and a lack of color that prompt colorful architectural makeovers. The isolated and incredibly cold Siberian town of Ust-Yansk combats the potentially depression-inducing wash of gray and white winters with bright colors on the buildings’ roofs after a recent restoration project.

Tirana, the capital city of Albania, wasn’t in a great place before artist-turned-mayor Ed Rama took office. Low on funds, high on crime and suffering from a plague of corruption, the city was also visually bleak. Rama decided to paint one of the saddest-looking buildings a bright orange, and the community loved it. Once he had painted a few more structures in a similar way, a larger movement took off, with international artists turning entire city blocks into works of contemporary art.

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Early Birds Get Free Noodles in Tokyo Scheme to Ease Metro Crowding

[ By SA Rogers in Travel & Urban Exploration. ]

Free soba and tempura in exchange for getting on the train a little earlier could be a tasty offer for Tokyo commuters who are sick of the “subway sandwich,” which has nothing to do with bread and everything to do with having your face smashed into a stranger’s armpit for the duration of your ride. The city’s transit system is so overloaded at peak hours, it has to hire literal “pushers” who physically cram as many people onto the trains as they can. Now, they’re hoping to tempt commuters on the frenetic Tozai line to help ease up the crunch.

As reported by the Japan Times, the Tokyo Metro Co. has launched a new program that rewards early birds noodles rather than worms. A two-week pilot program asks passengers to voluntarily stagger their commutes during morning rush hour in exchange for coupons for free meals at Metro An, a soba noodle shop affiliated with the transit company.

Catching some Zs.

subwayyyyyyy

To participate, commuters have to sign up for the campaign and register their card information in advance before participating for 10 consecutive weekdays. And yes, there is a catch: volunteers will only get the coupon for a free bowl of noodles and tempura if 3,000 people participate. If only 2,500 sign up, they’ll just get noodles. If it’s only 2,000, they get a single piece of tempura. The trial runs through February 1st, so it remains to be seen whether a whole lot of people are going to alter their schedules and receive nothing but a piece of breaded shrimp for their efforts.

Of course, the Tokyo crunch is no joke, and less crowding is a reward in its own right. If you’ve never seen the in action, check out these videos demonstrating exactly how pushers make sure every single subway car is packed with human sardines and you’ll get the idea.

A series of sweaty portraits entitled “Tokyo Compression” captured by Hong Kong-based German artist Michael Wolf further illuminate the issue. Wolf minces no words on just how wild it gets, saying “Man is responsible for this himself – a dreadful system for people, and by people.”

Top photo by Takeshi Fujisawa/Flickr CC by 2.0

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Signs Friction: 10 Unfortunately Named Businesses

[ By Steve in Design & Graphics & Branding. ]

Brand power can go a long way in business but as these 10 unfortunately-named shops and stores so sorrowfully illustrate, it can also go the wrong way.

To paraphrase RUSH, if a store chooses not to decide on a name, it still has made a choice… not a good choice, mind you, but a choice all the same. We can only assume the owners of the No Name II Variety Store in Philly’s Kensington district figured they’d let Pepsi do their sales-talking for them. We’d also like to know if the original “No Name Variety Store” owners are miffed their nifty name was nicked. Flickr members benjamin scott and non-euclidean photography (Molly Des Jardin) captured the semi-anonymous sign in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

Resident Dump

Does reverse psychology really work? You’d have to ask the owner of DUMP, an army-navy surplus clothing store in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Flickr member Barry Lancaster (Derpy McDerpface) snapped the military-themed (an “ammo dump” reference, perhaps?)  store signage in late 2006. One would imagine the RAF would shine the ol’ frosted monocle on this “interesting” use of their tricolor roundel.

Don’t Happy, Be Worry

This candy shop in Barcelona indelicately toes the line between Cute and Offensive. The latter would resonate more with those who have lost someone to the ongoing Opioid Crisis and/or unsuccessful dieters who “self-medicate” emotional stress with colorful sweets. Flickr member Lauren Jankowski couldn’t resist capturing this “wonderfully bizarre” store sign while tripping, er, on a trip overseas back in the summer of 2011.

Kinky Boots

Kudos to Flickr member Eric Allix Rogers (reallyboring) for being in the right place at the right time: shortly before this exotic (if not erotic) footwear shop shouted out its safe word and slammed the doors for good back in 2008. Located in Chicago’s West Side, the store may have confused customers who were looking for shoes, not kicks.

Say Yes to Distress

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride… but sometimes a Bridezilla? Give the owners of this west-end Toronto bridal studio their due for coming up with an attention-grabbing store name. That said, we can see how this sign could trigger bridesmaids who actually ARE jealous on their rival’s Big Day. Good thing that sort of stuff never happens in real life, right? RIGHT?? Flickr member Can Pac Swire snapped the snippy shop in August of 2013.

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Print Your City: Custom Street Furniture Made of Plastic Household Waste

[ By SA Rogers in Design & Furniture & Decor. ]

Citizens of Thessaloniki, Greece can bring their plastic household waste to a “zero waste lab,” use software to design their own custom recycled street furniture and watch it take form via 3D printer. The project is the latest from “Print Your City,” a creative initiative by Dutch research and design studio The New Raw that combines DIY urbanism interventions with smart use of freely available materials.

The team hopes to create circular waste streams within the city, engaging local residents in the process and enhancing public spaces at the same time. Print Your City takes municipal plastic waste, grinds it up into pellets or flakes and feeds it into 3D printers to produce street furniture that’s extremely tough and durable.

With this project, the power to shape the looks and functionality of public furniture is in the hands of the people who will be using it – a concept that could be extended to all sorts of endeavors to contribute to a more equitable world. Residents turned furniture designers can come up with virtually any shape or color they want, add features like built-in planters or bike racks and decide where their creation should be placed.

The New Raw’s initial prototype for the Thessaloniki project was a half bench, half planter that required about 100kg of plastic waste to create, noting that the average EU citizen generates about 31kg each year. A bunch of the prototypes were placed around Thessaloniki’s Nea Paralia waterfront promenade to gauge public interest and the city responded with over 3,000 user-submitted designs, some of which will begin to appear in the city’s Hanth Park this month.

“Plastic has a design failure,” says Print Your City founders Panos Sakkas and Foteini Setaki. “It is designed to last forever, but often we use it once and throw it away. With Print Your City, we endeavor to show a better way of using plastic in long lasting and high value applications.”

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Art of the Chinese Courtyard: Respectful Renovations Keep Hutongs Alive

[ By SA Rogers in Architecture & Cities & Urbanism. ]

Building booms around the world can render entire neighborhoods unrecognizable in a matter of days, demolishing historic structures to make way for new developments. In cities like Beijing, where older architecture such as “siheyuan” courtyard houses stand out for their uniqueness and beauty, the transition from traditional to contemporary can feel all the more jarring. Urban development is all but inevitable to manage growing populations, but for many onlookers, it’s sad to see the past bulldozed in favor of new buildings that don’t even acknowledge the area’s cultural and architectural legacy.

Many of Beijing’s older buildings fell in a frenzy of demolition throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Traditional “hutongs,” or ancient city alleys lined with siheyuan residences, had fallen into disrepair and often lacked basic services and sanitation. City planners reportedly saw the historic, hutong-filled core of the city surrounding Tianenmen Square and the Forbidden City as prime real estate. In the ‘90s, about 600 hutong were destroyed every year, displacing roughly 500,000 residents. In place of those neighborhoods built during the Ming Dynasty came glittering skyscrapers and eight-lane highways.

Yandai_Byway

Only a few hundred complete courtyard houses remain, down from the 3,000 that stood during the 1980s. But among those that still exist, an interesting trend is taking root: modernization projects that preserve and honor the historic structures while making them suitable for 21st century lifestyles. The best examples of respectful Chinese courtyard house renovations repair and maintain the existing elements of the siheyuan, keep the courtyards open to the outdoors and add new complementary elements that augment the usefulness of the original buildings without diminishing their character.

Transforming Formerly Hidden Courtyards into Inclusive Spaces

Dwelling in Hutong by MINOR Lab

Designing homes around courtyards is an ancient tradition in China, with evidence of walled-in yards going as far back as the Shang Dynasty (approx. 1700 – 1100 BCE). The houses themselves opened out onto the alleyways outside, creating tranquil and private outdoor spaces protected from the eyes of strangers. This layout is similar to that of Beijing itself, which began as a walled city arranged like a checkerboard according to Confucian code. Each courtyard contained at least two trees along with water features and caged birds. Originally, each siheyuan was occupied by a single (often wealthy) family, but over time, they came to be inhabited by groups of families forming their own tiny villages. Many have since been converted into businesses.

Dwelling in Hutong by MINOR Lab
Dwelling in Hutong by MINOR Lab

The walls of a hutong “can be seen as a boundary between public and private venues,” acknowledges the firm MINOR Lab, which completed this renovation in the Dongcheng District in 2017 updating an old hutong with lots of transparent glass, translucent textured acrylic panels for privacy and warm wood. But their project, like many others, transforms these former residences into spaces that are meant for community use.

“Within the walls remains an inward and enclosed space, however, the yard resembles a vast container, letting in sky, wind, sunlight, air and sound. The crowns of the two grand gingko trees are the flowing roof in the open air, overlapping layers of grey tiles. The exterior space under the trees connects to the interior one underneath the four roofs, floating and exchanging in a continuous way.”

Hutong Renovation by CAA
Hutong Renovation by CAA
Hutong Renovation by CAA

An interesting project by the firm CAA explores the continuation of multi-family and multi-generational hutong traditions in a way that can help support the owner’s aging parents, who have Alzheimer’s Disease. CAA kept the hutong’s original wooden structure and added an additional steel roof, creating larger windows and skylights in the existing structures to make them brighter. The layout of the courtyard and the surrounding houses gives each generation their own private living space, but they’re connected to each other, and the flat, accessible courtyard allows the client’s mother to get around in her wheelchair.

Tea House in Hutong by ARCHSTUDIO
Tea House in Hutong by ARCHSTUDIO
Tea House in Hutong by ARCHSTUDIO

“Tea House in Hutong” by ARCHSTUDIO is a striking example of the bolder approach. Forced to demolish parts that were too unsafe to keep, the architects added new wood and metal structures and created more enclosed spaces protected from the elements by adding a white-painted concrete roof. Openings to the outdoors are glassed in like atriums, and you can still get a sense of the original space as you gaze across the courtyard despite all of these alterations.

Twisting Courtyard by ARCHSTUDIO
Twisting Courtyard by ARCHSTUDIO
Twisting Courtyard by ARCHSTUDIO

The same firm took an old siheyuan in Beijing’s Dashilar Area and transformed it into a public space with a dramatic, river-like undulating surface of grey brick that flows in and out of the interior and exterior spaces. Curved walls hide auxiliary spaces like the kitchen, bathrooms, private guest rooms and storage areas while visually connecting communal spaces like the dining room and reception to the courtyard. It’s not subtle by any means and it doesn’t shy away from ultramodern touches, but somehow the combination of old and new still feels cohesive.

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[ By SA Rogers in Architecture & Cities & Urbanism. ]

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Enhancing IKEA: Small Designer Additions Totally Transform Kit Furniture

[ By WebUrbanist in Design & Furniture & Decor. ]

IKEA furniture can get your interior design most of the way to where you want it, but another Scandinavian company has enlisted three world-renowned architecture firms to help get you the rest of the way to a high-end design.

Reform enlisted architects from Bjarke Ingels Group, Henning Larsen Architects, and Norm Architects to create a series of finishing touches for existing IKEA products, from customized handles to stylized surfaces. Tapping into the popularity of Nordic design as well as the thriving industry of IKEA hackers, Reform aims to make luxury design affordable.

The company specializes in kitchens, seeing them as oft-overlooked spaces of opportunity for design improvements, but they also are working on mods for living rooms, bathrooms and wardrobes. Here are the three core designs, with notes on inspiration and materials from their designers:

“The kitchen is simple, but exclusive in its timeless design. Carrying no handles, it presents a table top covering the entire surface and adding to it an exquisite finish – like the best design furniture. The materials, which have seldom been used in kitchens, give away a clean but raw expression. They come in three different variants: Fiber-concrete, bronzed tombac, and sawn and smoked oak.”

“For a thoroughly personalised kitchen you can stand on the shoulders of Norm Architects and add your own mix of materials creating a the visual expression of your liking. All the natural materials have been selected for their durability and reaction to wear. That is, the kitchen does not grow ugly. On the contrary it will patinate beautifully, which the bronzed tombac is a fine example of. Slowly it will shine golden in those areas of continuous wear.”

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[ By WebUrbanist in Design & Furniture & Decor. ]

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