Archi-pology Anthro-tecture

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Some very good friends of mine are on vacation and sent me the picture pasted into this blog post.  Isn’t it nice of them to provide me with a daily reminder that they are sailing in the British Virgin Islands while we are shivering through our annual Denver December cold snap?  Yes, I thought so too…  Anyway, the caption that accompanied the photo was short and sweet;  “One way to budget construction.  Floor by floor.”

While this explanation makes sense on the face of it, this reminded me of many residential and commercial  structures I have seen in Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize.  Future expansion is of course made easier by leaving rebar and half a column height sticking up above the roof, but the main reason the buildings are left “unfinished” is to save on taxes.  In many Latin American countries (and island nations, apparently), taxes are lower if the structure is “in construction” so many stay that way in perpetuity, as a tax break.

Leaving aside the obvious and sensitive discussion of taxes in our current economic climate, seeing an image like this again resurrected trains of thought I had while traveling in Latin America.  Before I learned the real reason for the unfinished construction, it was interesting to consider what characteristics a structure might take on were it allowed to literally “grow.”  As architects, we tend to think of buildings as pure objects.  The building is “finished” once construction is complete and rarely do we have the opportunity to understand how it is used, or how its use requires it to change.   We render or photograph our buildings in rather static ways and always with the strictest of control, be it in reality or with Photoshop.

Granted, there is always the building expansion project that we might find ourselves working on.  I myself have just finished one of these in which it was a contractual requirement that the expansion be a seamless extension of the original structure.  But to me, these “unfinished” structures are an all together different animal.  It’s hard to imagine that any of these structures were ever envisioned as the shiny constructs we see in our marketing brochures, but does that make them any less successful? These are more of an architectural armature, free (within their inherent structural constraints) to become whatever they need to become.   Sure, a certain amount of design thought and structural calculation goes into their initial construction, but the ultimate finished state is left up to the influences of people, time, or available money and materials.

Admittedly, it is problematic to critique these structures through the biased lens of Western views on aesthetics, but I find it intriguing to consider the anthropological nature of these constructs, similar in concept to the growth rings of a tree.  Cut it down in order to examine its rings and the entire history of its growth is presented.  As these structures develop and continue to add layer upon layer of program, the vertical growth logic contains their evolutionary history in much the same way.   I find that a much more poetic explanation of unfinished construction that simply an attempt to save on taxes.

2 thoughts on “Archi-pology Anthro-tecture

  1. I’m amazed to see a lot of recent thoughts I’ve been having expressed and articulated so well by another. One, I feel a little less crazy for having them – Two, you expressed them stronger and more coherently than I’ve been able to.

    Intriguing when you raise the subject of our Western lens relating to architecture. One thing I’ve been curious about: Yes, our inherited lens has certain views of aesthetics at odds with the kinds of evolving buildings you discuss – but how might everyone else in our Western culture view those buildings? Would non-architects find them much less offensive, despite those buildings being ‘incomplete’ and unaesthetic (or, capable of evolving)?

    Does our education and training make us more susceptible to finding fault with something that might not really have any inherent to it, just because our forerunners may have had certain aesthetic convictions?

    Also as a curiosity, we’re traditionally on one end of the extreme: a building is a pure form, intended as a finished and ‘ideal’ object. The other end of the extreme being buildings as entirely unplanned, and arising as they need to out of any material available (think Kowloon, unless I’m mistaken about its origins). Those buildings have the flexibility and adaptability to an extreme that we’ll probably never design.

    Much like your question about what characteristics an adaptable building might take on, what would be a mediation between our extreme and the other? Will we start designing buildings intended to evolve and change in the manner of functions they are able to support? I’d use the term ‘organic’ architecture, but unfortunately that’s already been (mis)used.

    How would our buildings change, if we start looking at them like you’re suggesting as a possibility? How might the practice of architecture change for it? And how might our interactions, people in general and not just architects, with our buildings change for it?

    • I guess: what are the advantages of our approach to architecture and building, and what are the disadvantages? Conversely, what are the (dis)advantages to organically-arising buildings? Could architecture learn from this and fuse the strengths of both of those, while mitigating their respective weaknesses?

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