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Frugal Architecture

January 26, 2010

This past week I participated in the conference and workshop “Towards a Frugal Architecture”, sponsored by theFondazione Bruno Zevi, AACUPI (the Association of North American University Programs in Italy) and La Sapienza Valle Giulia School of Architecture, and organized among others by my colleague Cinzia Abbate.  It was a fantastic opportunity to discuss important issues of our times with designers and thinkers from around the world, from Africa to Alabama, from the beaches of Indonesia to the favelas of Rio. The conference presentations, held at Rome’s Center for Alternative Economies (Città dell’Altra Economia) touched on local experiences and global issues, spanning nicely theory and practice.  Nina Maritz of Namibia set the tone with a set of “anti-rules” in the tradition of Bruno Zevi: “listen to the land”, “Mum knows best”, “Form follows function” (using all the senses), “waste not want not”, “necessity is the mother of invention”, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, “variety is the spice of life”, etc.  Her message that a frugal approach doesn’t necessarily lead to frugal expression was well-stated: “just because it’s sustainable, doesn’t mean it has to be shabby, cheap and nasty”.  Brazilian architect and planner Jorge M. Jàuregui spoke about his projects to introduce form to the informal city.  An architect from the firm of Santiago Cirugeda then gave a very interesting talk about the sometimes illegal, subversive, temporary projects carried out in the margins of Seville. Giorgio Goffi showed some beautiful, inexpensive buildings in and around Brescia. Sarah Wigglesworth gave an extremely articulate talk about economics and ecology, describing frugality as the careful management of all resources, essentially living within the means of the planet.  She pointed out that in an economy of abundance that has been reached in the developed world need has often been replaced by desire creating a status-driven economy. She advocated working against the grain, which requires understanding that “the grain” is involves land value, scarcity of resources, local skills, etc. Sarah accompanied the various projects of her firm with versions of frugality: modularity, recycled materials, found materials, flexibility/adaptability, lack of specificity, repetition, self-build, stretching the brief, etc.  Eko Pravoto spoke of the search for a new balance when making architecture in a globalized world, pointing out that in his native Indonesia labor-intensive practices help put local manpower to work and save money while producing incredibly artistic, personalized constructions such as weaving and timber framing. The last and most dynamic presentation was by Danny Wicke of Rural Studio. Danny recounted his hands-on experience in providing for the housing needs in the poor, rural Hale County area of Alabama, showing a number of houses produced by students and volunteers from financing phase to ongoing maintenance and modification. Although there was no time for immediate debate, the conversations that continued over dinner and the next several days were enlightening.

The other part of the event was a workshop in which thirty students from American universities (including Northeastern University where I am currently teaching design studio) teamed up with an equal number of Italian students from the University of Rome for a day-long charrette designing temporary shelter for victims of the April earthquake in l’Aquila. In parallel another group of Northeastern and Rome students worked at the Academic Initiatives Abroad facilities at Piazza Cinque Scole, an event dubbed the “Frugal Fringe”.  The students, who had all attended the previous day’s talks, were inspired to work with frugal and innovative building technologies to create structures which could be built quickly and cheaply but grouped to create communities and personalized to help repair the psychological trauma of the tragic event. There was no precise site and, other than projecting the photos I took when visiting l’Aquila with my students last fall to get a sense of the scale of the disaster, little discussion of the local reality was possible in the short time allotted.

After about ten hours of intensive brainstorming, sketching, digital modeling and much impressive linguistic barrier-hurdling (made easier by today’s lingua franca, Google SketchUp), the teams submitted their ideas.  On Saturday morning, at the University of Rome Architecture Department, a discussion about the works took place with most of the conference participants, followed by a buffet generously offered by Portia Prebys and AACUPI. The results were impressive given the short timeframe, but criticism pointed to the too passive acceptance of the quantitative requirements of the brief as opposed to critical discourse about the larger picture, from the needs of the local economy to the possibilities for collective organization.

I noticed several approaches: a. those that encouraged participation, sometimes in the form of self-build, assuming that users know better what they want but need tools and information, an approach which sets up architects as managers and micro-economical advisors. b. projects which considered aggregation, emphasizing community, here taking on the role of sociologist or urbanist.  c. projects which were more proactive, positing the architectural profession as technical experts, capable of drawing construction details, resolving structural, energy and water needs, and in short creatively envisioning possible buildings. This last approach was the most common, indicating that this generation of young architects is by no means retreating from the core tasks of the profession.

While the proposals often took the notion of “frugal” too literally as meaning “cheap” rather than “fruitful” as the word’s etymology would suggest, and the complexity of the construction techniques in some cases would over-ride any savings from the use of salvaged or recycled materials, there were some solid ideas worth pursuing further.  Several used shipping pallets, filled with insulating material (I was hoping to see the idea of personal possessions such as books and clothing stored with double function of personalization and thermal insulation). Others used sandbags (perhaps filled with building cement-quality sand to be used in the construction of permanent housing at a future date?). There were a number of gabion wall proposals, wire mesh filled with rubble from the earthquake damage and local stone, a notion that Danny Wicke in particular found impractical due to the back-breaking labor required but which was defended when local unemployed labor could be used.  Panel systems and even containers, prefabricated and shipped to the site, provided for more rapid assembly although it was pointed out (by one of the fringe critics from Northeastern, Lauren Abrahams) that even pre-fab is fabricated somewhere and perhaps the local economy could benefit from such industry and save shipping costs).

Hopefully the projects (and some of the ideas discussed) will find a venue for further consideration, whether in the form of an exhibit, a publication, or both.

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