Architecture Without Idealism (Of A Sort)
Essay and project by John Szot, designer and founder of John Szot Studio
This proposal for a housing block tower in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo by John Szot Studio seeks to harness the intrepid spirit behind the city’s idiosyncratic character by bringing the spatial diversity and eccentricity exhibited at the urban scale to bear directly on the housing units within the building. The project is the second part of the three-part series “Architecture and the Unspeakable” exploring the design potential of pathological phenomena in the built environment.
The urban context of Tokyo is a unique phenomenon, being the combined product of a technophilic culture, a high population density, and the deep-rooted sense of neighborly obligation that pervades Japanese society. It is likely that one might even be the basis of the others, but either way it is clear that these conditions form a tense matrix of checks and balances that shapes the city in extraordinary ways. In some instances, it has resulted in fantastic flourishes of improvisational engineering and spaces of astonishing intimacy and eccentricity that defy the most unusual design rationale.
Tokyo’s sprawling and rambunctious quality comes from the municipality’s laissez-faire position with regards to urban planning. Much of the development in the periphery of the city is left entirely to local direction, which in Tokyo’s case naturally trends towards low-rise mixed-use at an unusually high density. Left to their own devices, each neighborhood organizes itself according to social contract, which proves to be self-policing and supports eccentric circumstances with remarkable flexibility.
In the city’s central wards, zoning laws guide development, but there are few limits placed on floor area (if any). The laws primarily concern themselves with regulating quality of space through restrictions on land use. The result is similar to the outlying areas, in that one finds a dazzling degree of spatial variety in the street-scape, but also in the skyline, as market pressures drive the construction of taller buildings. In areas where market shifts increased demand for space, there are many instances of incremental additions that have contorted the architectural profile of the buildings they augment, producing a secondary layer of variation in an already overwhelming field of formal diversity.
Tokyo’s areas of high density and improvisational expansion make for unique architectural circumstances. However, the ad-hoc quality of the city fabric makes it clear that this is more a cultural phenomenon than an architectural one, considering architecture’s idealistic basis. It is also clear that, despite the apparent chaos, Tokyo’s approach to city planning works for its citizens, demonstrating that Tokyo’s residents foster a remarkable degree of intimacy with their surroundings. Together, the functional chaos and the tolerance for intimacy leads to a subjugated position for architecture and its inflexible idealism. Studying Tokyo’s skyline provides ample support of this conclusion, stocked as it is with buildings whose architectural profiles have been compromised through unregulated addition or have drowned in the din of irregular patterns of development. This raises the following question: how might architecture reassert itself under such conditions?
Although provocative, there is a latent banality to this question that defaults to architecture’s proactive legacy. There are certainly answers, but it is hard to envision one that would not compromise the fundamental cultural position present in Tokyo’s cacophonous beauty. This proposal for a housing block tower in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo does not attempt to answer this question. Instead, it poses another: can the richness of Tokyo’s organic and eccentric quality become an architectural precedent in support of this unique context?
This proposal seeks to harness the intrepid spirit behind the city’s idiosyncratic character by bringing the spatial diversity and eccentricity exhibited at the urban scale to bear directly on the housing units within the building. To do so authentically, it was necessary to identify a method for freely organizing the building without prejudice and within the time frame and scope of an architectural proposal. Our approach quickly gravitated towards computer-aided design techniques that employ emergent systems of spatial organization, because these techniques produce results that are not predictable in their entirety (hence the label ’emergent’). In most applications, an emergent system is guided by a specific performative goal or formulated to support a conceptual position via an extended metaphor. As an alternative to these practical goals, this proposal uses the same computer intelligence to replicate a scenario of improvised conditions by allowing the system to operate with a very loose set of criteria that bordered on stochastic. In this case, the system arbitrarily partitioned and programmed space and randomly assigned materials to the panels that comprise the facade. This generated a legitimate ‘landscape’ of program and experiential conditions that are, in some instances, ill-matched and require local, small-scale solutions to reconcile their oppositions. The result is a collection of interior spaces rich with the kind of eccentricities that force existing paradigms of urban domesticity into new configurations and create intimate bonds between occupant and domicile.
In addition to providing a high degree of spatial variety, the living units vary in size and are assembled by the same system that partitioned the spaces within each. This additional layer of randomization was intended to create a diverse community of tenants of varying economic status living in close proximity — a situation that, although rarely instituted in today’s urban areas, provides the basis for the world’s most interesting and vital communities.
John Szot is an award-winning designer working in the New York metropolitan area. He runs John Szot Studio where he focuses mainly on researching the relationship between new technology and what makes the built environment meaningful.
www.johnszot.com | @johnszot