Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: Two New Books on Place-appropriate Architecture [Vol. 3, #30]

“Imagining Living Places
That Participate Within Their Contexts

A Review of
Natural Houses:
The Residential Architecture of Andersson-Wise
Rematerial: From Waste to Architecture.

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

Natural HousesNatural Houses:
The Residential Architecture
of Andersson-Wise

Hardback: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

From Waste to Architecture.

Alejandro Bahamón and Maria Camila Sanjinés
Paperback: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

REMATERIALThe city of Indianapolis – where I live – like many American cities has experienced huge amounts of suburban and exurban sprawl in the last decade. Within the last two years, it has been reported that for the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in rural places, although those numbers owe much to these sprawling, never-ending bedroom cities, so far removed from the city core, and hardly fair to be categorized as ‘urban’ at all. Many of us have watched the cycle of a farm stripped of all features, leveled, pipes buried, roads and curbs laid, and anonymous, windowless, porchless beige boxes spring up in record time. This widespread, wasteful suburbanization is completely oblivious to the place where it exists, what has been displaced for it to be there, how the place might inform how it is developed, and on and on. Fortunately, there is an alternative, and two new architecture books that both take place, site-specificity and local resources as their starting place and help us to imagine living places that acknowledge and participate within their context are Natural Houses: The Residential Architecture of Andersson-Wise and Rematerial: From Waste to Architecture.

Natural Houses documents seven projects by Austin-based architecture firm of Arthur Andersson and Chris Wise. Primarily centered around Austin, these are all described as residential architecture (although, strikingly, only two appear to be year-round homes) and are marked by their sensitivity to the natural landscape, topography, climate, and light; from the looks of the beautiful photographs documenting their structures, these buildings make minor encroachments onto their site, carefully situating windows, walls, entrances, porches to best frame the surrounding area.  As they write, “our particular architecture is shaped not so much by us but by its place. By this we mean climate, site geology, and site biology: sun, wind, temperature, terrain, structure, orientation – the things that grow and that can grow there. These elements beckon our engagement and ask for interpretation… We view our buildings, and the experiences of inhabiting them, as celebrations of these places” (10).

Certainly, the settings for all of the buildings in Natural Houses look idyllic: deep in the woods, on lakefronts, or both (seemingly this is the ‘natural’ referred to in the title), and so on the one hand it seems a straightforward task to celebrate these places; the history I described up front, however, suggests that much easier is the all-out ignoring of context, even in these beautiful places. Andersson-Wise’s practice, though, looks to even enhance the experience of each place, carefully situating a building so that from the outside, it appears in place, and from the inside it looks out, selectively framing the landscape, much as a photograph or painting might do. In fact, the views in the book photographed through windows, such as in the Tower House or the Guest House at Stone Creek Camp, seem most intriguing because they particularize a very specific place in the world, making this view – these trees, this lake, this air and light – familiar and worth preservation. Likewise, the buildings from the outside are designed to appear as seamless as possible, taking cues from what already exists in that location for material or placement. This sensitivity is reinforced both inside and out; in the interior of the House Above Lake Austin, “natural light defines how the house is used. Morning light illuminates the kitchen and breakfast area and transforms the living room into a soft, golden hue in the evening… The plan configuration is subtly shifted and the ceiling plane shaped to allow light to bend and trace deep into the interior spaces of the house” (58). And looking at the north façade of the house, it looks just like a Cezanne painting House and Tree, L’Hermitage and the similarity is telling, because Andersson and Wise are doing the same things as Cezanne, rendering all the parts of the picture as light and form, making sure the whole is unified – nothing can be out of place.

Another device common to these architects is the porch, extending the living space outdoors, and in their case, opening onto grand vistas. It is somewhat telling of the sorts of locations contained in Natural Houses that all of the porches are on the backs of houses; after all, these are secluded places, with nary a neighbor around. So these buildings do raise some questions as well, such as demographics of these areas, and prices on these buildings, or the expense (monetarily, certainly, but environmentally as well) of occupying these structures for only a few months out of the year.

Rematerial: From Waste to Architecture by Alejandro Bahamon and Maria Camila Sanjinés approaches these sort of questions through the distinctive lens of recycled materials as architectural components. As Daniel Perera writes about a project using pop bottles as building material in Oaxaca, Mexico, “In a time marked by widespread concern about health and the environment, as well as doubts about the sustainability and wisdom of the rampant development in the West, the ingenuity, common sense, and dignity of small local communities can be a source of inspiration for an effective response to the global problems facing us all” (243). If Natural Houses’ setting is primarily wilderness, Rematerial is distinctly urban, as well as being international, and mixed-income.

Bringing together a variety of approaches, architects, artists, local communities, and projects of all sizes, Rematerial centers around reusing garbage. “In today’s world, garbage is generally considered filthy, degraded, and useless, only good for being kept out of sight” (7). Being inclined toward renovation and restoration myself, especially in light of a cycle of consumption and waste in this country, intensive and deliberate reuse of materials seems not only necessary, but a way to repent of our collective misuse of resources we’ve been given.  Projects in Rematerial incorporate varying degrees of reuse: rehabs or additions to existing structures; dismantling buildings and re-building with the salvaged materials; finding waste from other construction projects and designing with those materials at the fore; incorporating materials that tie the site to local history; any bits and parts of a house, such as floors and windows that are recycled from another site; or recycling out of survival.

Some fascinating projects include the Azkoitia Municipal Library in Spain, the façade of which is clad entirely in old railroad ties, referencing the building’s historical use; Studio 320, a small home in Washington made from two shipping containers. The Duchi shoe store in the Netherlands, with 90 percent recycled materials: Audi 100 windshields for shelves, wooden crate panels for a bench, and a supermarket conveyor belt to try out new shoes on. The Big Dig House in Massachusetts has for its main structure the leftovers from an interstate freeway. Steel beams support the house, and concrete and aluminum panels have become the walls and roofs.

The diversity of approaches in Rematerial all suggest creative and imperative reuses of materials, as well as lessening our consumption overall; likewise, Natural Houses reinforces the need for sensitivity to particular places, bearing in mind the wisdom of the place as we situate ourselves to it. These two books are helpful in the task of imagining how we will live together in the next decades in ways that can promote the flourishing of the whole creation in all its ecological complexities.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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