Prototropic 1: Architecture In Local Terms.

A Discussion of Design’s Development in the Developing World.

On August 9, A/D/O hosted a discussion between forward-thinking architects, planners, and urban thinkers on the unique combination of characteristics facing developing cities, especially those located in tropical climates. In association with Prototropic, whose editor Dimitri Damiel Kim moderated the discussion, the conversation was oriented around the first issue's focus on Rio de Janeiro and the cities of Hawaii but naturally expanded to include the specific projects of the participants: Joseph Mizzi, Kalupat Yantraset, Suchi Reddy, and Untapped Cities' Michelle Young and Augustin Pasquet.

The environmental specificity of the projects was diverse but as the discussion unfolded they found common chords in various local understandings and adaptations. Mizzi's 14+ Foundation built Chipakata Children's Academy specifically with an attitude of adaptable developments, incorporating the native masonry with extensible design based on precision fabrication and modularity. "We used local construction techniques, sourced materials locally." Mizzi said. "In our mind, we're teaching a business -- something that can be done long after our projects are gone."

The emphasis on local vocabulary echoed what Suchi Reddy was to emphasize later: "Specificity and ubiquity." The kind of flexible and community-oriented building reflected some credos that can be traced back as far as Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry's Tropical Architecture (1964), which organized strategies for developing environmentally sound modern construction around principle the concerns of typology, siting, shading, and ventilation.

David Rockwell, in an essay accompanying his Tropical Case Study House featured in Prototropic Issue 1, isolated this main point of tension arising from the influence of imported, inappropriate architectural methods: "Most contemporary tropical housing adapts designs used in other climate zones, resulting in the need to use mechanical space conditioning to provide basic comfort, thus isolating occupants from their surroundings," he wrote. "A typical indigenous house uses a large overhanging roof to protect the occupants from the extremes of sun and rain, a narrow floor plate, unrestricted plan, and open frame structure to maximize ventilation." As with the other displayed during the talk, his Case Study House sought to marry advanced architectural planning with the lessons implicit in native buildings: "Indigenous houses open up to the environment and bring about a closer connection to nature."

But Prototropic's emphasis is not limited to purely technical conversation with local forms: as Kim wrote in the introduction to the journal: "Prototropic highlights the diversity ... and shared cultural issues of emerging tropical cities around the globe."  In his presentation, Kalupat Yantraset described wHY Architecture's approach to Mumbai City Museum: using handcraft forms to inform concrete roof structures, and traditional Indian stepped wells to define their approach to water-harvesting "rain gardens."

"Mumbai is a very interesting case," Yantraset said. "It rains very heavily for three months and then is dry for the rest of year. Water harvesting is a big story that no one ever talks about." In two Thai residences, in Chiang Mai and Phuket, he outlined how a modernist envelope became a permeable skin -- folding around the structure and simultaneously providing shelter and opening it to the outdoors in continuously flowing spaces.

The use of Thai tiles and raised floor programs brought them back into conversation with existing structures. This variety of communication between contemporary design and traditional forms was perhaps most broadly applied in Suchi Reddy and Reddymade's 71% project. Part of a call for ideas from MoMA, the proposal (named after the percentage of the Earth's surface covered in water) imagined a huge range of artificial reefs to protect against future storm surges. For the Rockaways, they involved shipping containers and old subways cars "in a tilted grid." Their designs varied, extrapolated from culturally-specific pattern sources across the globe, and incorporated a range of complex superstructures include underwater turbines and wind farms.

"The theory was that over time all the coastlines of the world would weave themselves with these culturally intricate patterns," Reddy explained. "Ideas with a cultural context and a physical context. We do everything – from a fabric to a building – taking in account the intellectual and emotional aspects: whether you touch it, feel it, or inhabit it. We wanted to feel the hand of the maker."

The exchange in that medium of touch – between the designer and the person on the other side – was explored in the first issue of Prototropic, describing the differences between many large-scale twentieth-century builders' attempt to impose form versus the desire to reflect and conform to existing modes of indigenous space. Michelle Young and Augustin Pasquet's presented Untapped Cities – a kind of living archeology that can, as Young said, "help people to rediscover their cities – to see the past, present, and future that surrounds them: and hopefully through this knowledge to empower them in the civic process of the city evolves."

Their explorations of global cities sought to drive people on the street level to "consider the city in a cultural and architectural perspective," as Kim said. The discussion drove home the imperative to feel cities' contours and relate to its occupants. The example of Rio's favelas was a recurrent theme that is perhaps best captured in a dialogue between Kim and the architect Raul Correa-Smith in the first issue of the journal:

KIM: Will Rio ever be rid of favelas?

CORREA-SMITH: Definitely and thankfully not. The mentality and attitude towards favelas has shifted positively towards an understanding that favelas are not bad in themselves. On the contrary, the social relations present in a favela are much more tightly knit than in the formal city. People know and help each other, their ties to the place are much more rooted. Favelas are a place of rich cultural potency despite the organic and unplanned nature of their urban infrastructure.


Images courtesy Prototropic.

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