We have never been truly modern

Posted in Vol 13 No 4 by bsaab on November 4, 2010

With greater technical complexity in buildings comes the contradiction: simpler is often better

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French anthropologist Bruno Latour’s book We Have Never Been Modern was not about architecture, but his questioning of what constitutes modernity provokes a compelling reassessment of 20th-century building technology. If modernity in architecture is in part characterized by a stripping away of the inessential and the use of technology to achieve a minimal architecture of distilled and rational elegance, then 20th-century architecture realized only the aesthetic potential of modernity but neither its technical nor construction potential. In the course of the 20th century, building envelope and environmental-control systems became increasingly and often unnecessarily complex, often to the detriment of their reliability and durability, and that trend continues to escalate in the 21st century.

Consequently, most architecture today seems out of sync with astute trends to reclaim and reinvent lower-technology simplicity. Take, for instance, the growing number of commuters who have switched from automobiles to bicycles. Many serious bicycle commuters have even bypassed higher-tech 10-, 20-, and 30-speed bikes in favor of the reliability, durability, and ease of maintenance of simple, reliable single-speed bikes similar to those that many of us first learned to ride as a child. At the market and the table, many people avoid the higher-technology, higher-yield approach of genetically modified or pesticide-treated “conventional” foods (shipped from all over the world) in favor of locally grown organic produce. In these non-architectural examples, a lower-technology approach widely thought to be outdated and obsolete in the late-20th century was reevaluated by a new generation with different values and criteria (ecology, reliability, durability, sustainability), who realized the drawbacks of a pervasive high-technology approach and the inherent advantages of the lower-technology approach that they reclaimed.

The more working parts, the more likely something will fail.

In architecture, we have largely failed to be part of this burgeoning trend toward simplicity, reliability, and durability. As design professionals, we have yet to substantially reassess our ideas of modernity in construction technology, instead favoring a range of higher-technology systems of often unwarranted complexity. Today’s complex, multi-layered building wall sections and increasingly convoluted environmental-control systems are technically analogous to the aesthetics of the Rococo or Victorian periods in architecture: spectacles of much applied, and often unnecessary, complexity. The old adage that “the more working parts, the more likely something will fail” is as true for buildings as for bicycles. Further, the escalation in complexity of building envelopes and energy systems has made building performance highly dependent on finicky, fussy details to integrate these various highly specialized working components and layers (air barriers, water barriers, vapor barriers, thermal barriers), and has consequently engendered an attendant escalation in the occurrence of building-envelope failures and lawsuits. The escalating complexity of design and construction requires a correspondingly large, specialized team of consultants even on many modest projects, further diminishing the likelihood of achieving a simple, rational, well-coordinated design. When the essential, detailed knowledge of design and construction becomes more esoteric and compartmentalized among more specialists, the probability of achieving an integrated design becomes more improbable. Our current approaches are reminiscent of the organization of the Manhattan Project, in which the basic approach to ensuring secrecy was high compartmentalization of the many specialized experts into discrete components and aspects of the project, thus ensuring a general lack of understanding of the whole project among all but a hand-chosen few.

Wine cellar, Nizas, France

One logical approach to dealing with the excess of complexity in architectural design and construction would be to simplify, simplify, simplify. Instead, we have addressed the excess of hightech complexity by adding more high-tech complexity, such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) software, merely to manage the ever-increasing complexity. This software, though, addresses only the symptomatic issues of contemporary practices, not the core problem: many buildings are unnecessarily complex. BIM is strong evidence that now even the design process itself is too complex and requires amelioration.

By fighting higher-technology complexity with more highertechnology complexity, are we fighting fire with fire or are we pouring on gasoline? A focus on simpler buildings would affect every aspect of construction—structure, envelope, systems—and of practice: radically simpler buildings require radically simpler schedules, smaller project teams, and less description with respect to drawings, specifications, and three-dimensional modeling.

Some historic examples—ranging from simple devices to entire building typologies—offer alternatives to excessive complexity and offer more truly “Modern” paradigms that are sophisticated in their conception, underlying principles, and performance, yet simple, reliable, and durable in their final forms. For example, a lower-technology alternative to the mechanical scraping devices or water-jet machinery often used to clean municipal sewer lines today are the large wooden balls used to clean Paris sewers since the 1850s. A simple wooden ball, slightly smaller than the diameter of the pipe, greatly reduces the crosssectional area of water flow through the sewer pipe at the ball, thereby creating a natural “jet” of high-velocity water (by the Venturi effect) around and under the ball to simultaneously jet debris and sediment ahead of the ball and propel the ball slowly forward, thus cleaning the pipe remotely using a lowertechnology device that uses zero operational energy.

Today’s complex, multi-layered wall sections and increasingly convoluted environmental-control systems are technically analogous to the aesthetics of the Rococo or Victorian periods in architecture.

At a larger scale, New England mill buildings offer a similar elegance, which has contributed to the ease with which they have been adapted to other uses: industrial, commercial, residential. Because the buildings have robust, even oversized structures, they can accommodate a range of load conditions. Their floorplate dimensions and open plans often readily support low-energy daylighting and natural ventilation strategies. Their durable materials and simple construction engender excellent serviceability, durability, and “repairability” (e.g., repairing a localized defect in an exposed brick bearing wall is relatively easy, quick, and inexpensive when compared with locating and repairing a concealed localized defect in a vapor retarder or air barrier in a complex multi-layer wall system). Each of these characteristics contributes to the mill buildings’ simplicity, adaptability, durability, and hence, sustainability.

In contrast to the general trend of escalating complexity of contemporary design and building practices, a few architects today are leading by example with thoughtful lower-technology, higher-performance architecture that focuses on durability and reliability. Gilles Perraudin, an architect in southern France, has designed a series of five stone buildings near Nîmes in which large blocks of local limestone compose monolithic wall systems, which suit the local climatic and material conditions. The mass of the stone is sized to fit the thermal lag of the incident solar gains during the day and the cool sea breezes during the evening, thereby mitigating daily temperature extremes that would otherwise overheat or overcool these buildings, or require significant operational energy to counteract. Perraudin is designing (and reclaiming) a pre-modern system of construction that is appropriate for the ecology and climate of the region. The monolithic stone replaces a plethora of multi-layered systems typical of conventional contemporary walls; in these buildings, stone serves as the structure, enclosure, finish system, and thermal system. Because all these functions are unified in a single-layer system, the monolithic strategy offsets the expensive cost of stone through savings on costs associated with more-conventional construction techniques: materials, time for design and documentation, interaction with consultants, material specifications, labor, scheduling and sequencing, and maintenance. The stone itself has a relatively low embodied energy: although the stone requires energy to extract and transport, its local source and its centuries of durability give it an impressive advantage in long-term lifecycle cost and sustainability in comparison with the typical multilayered wall. Architects in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, such as Bearth & Deplazes, Miller & Maranta, and Patrick Gartmann, are likewise working on similarly lower-technology, higherperformance approaches for colder climates, often with massive masonry or insulating concrete walls. Other architects are working on passively ventilated, humidity-controlled and cooled buildings in hot, humid climates, reclaiming pre-modern ideas that predate air conditioning. This approach is well exemplified by VJAA’s work at Tulane University in New Orleans and the American University in Beirut. These architects are neither historical recidivists nor anachronistic Luddites: they are innovating, by using appropriate technology as the means to rigorously advance design and building practices. In many cases, they are selectively harnessing the latest technology, such as sophisticated analytical software, to analyze, predict, and refine the design and performance of these reclaimed, time-proven design concepts. The result is a hybrid that draws from the best aspects of contemporary building science and from an archive spanning three millennia of proven techniques.

These examples point toward a critical reassessment of our notion of modernity in architectural construction and of criteria and paradigms for addressing the environmental, fiscal, resource, and practical realities of the 21st century. Obviously, highertechnology complexity isn’t always bad or unreliable, but to move forward in a meaningful way—to be more Modern and sustainable—we need to get past pervasive late-20th-century assumptions that ever-escalating technological complexity in building construction is inevitable and invariably better. As a society and as a profession, we need to shift the focus of our creative design energies from the increasingly higher-complexity, higher-technology, and often more highly problem-prone construction approaches of the late-20th century to reclaiming, reinventing, and innovating simpler design and construction strategies that are more prudent, sound, durable, reliable, and sustainable—a more truly Modern pathway forward in the 21st century.

Above, top: House, Chur, Switzerland. Architect: Patrick Gartmann. Insulating concrete allowed shorter construction time without additional insulation or finishes. Photo © Thomas Dix/archenova. Above, right: Wine cellar, Nizas, France. Architect: Perraudin Architectes. The monolithic stone construction eliminates the need for complex, multi-layered conventional systems. Photo by Serge Demailly.

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  1. Letters « ArchitectureBoston said, on February 3, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    […] seem to me addicted to steel and glass, which turn out to be, as Bronski and Moe imply [“We Have Never Been Truly Modern”], two of the least sustainable materials we have. And as J. Frano Violich points out […]

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