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Narratives of the open form

Alberto Iacovoni

08:29 min

IT WAS IN THE INITIAL SEQUENCE of the extensive exhibition at the Arsenale that three key architectures met to comprehend in its most relevant implications the meaning of Freespace, the theme of the last Biennale curated by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. These architectures, with different but similar objectives and methods, develop the theme of open form, long sought after, discussed and experimented since the dawn of the last century. Three architectures that plunge the recurring vagueness of the theme of the Biennials into some specific issues.

"Space matters for structured and informal learning, to support Columbia's progressive medical education program, we designed a building that will nurture collaboration. Its defining feature is the Study Cascade -a 14-story network of vertically linked spaces in a variety of sizes, both focused and social, private and communal, indoors and out."

Thus Elizabeth Diller synthetically returns the sequence of spaces that unfolds vertically animating the main facade of the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center of Columbia University in New York, with the development of a connective system that becomes space, with stairs that turn into seats and expand to form an auditorium, small meeting rooms, informal spaces for meetings and study that follow one another seamlessly along the fourteen floors of the tower.

The loosening of the boundaries between vertical sequences, meeting rooms and relax, inside and outside, tends to transform this recent creation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro into a continuous sequence of spaces "freed" because they are indeterminate in their use, open to the interpretation of users, who can, while moving in interiors designed down to the smallest detail, creatively appropriate the environments to build a multiplicity of different situations.

ON THE CONTRARY, THE FINNISH FIRM TALLI ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN has defined nothing of the interior spaces of the residential block of Tila in Helsinki, limiting itself to preparing the connections of the systems within a three-dimensional grid of volumes at double height, left empty as if they were a building site entrusted to the design of the future residents. While everything is designed yet indeterminate in the movements and activities of the Vagelos Center, all is to be designed in the interiors of the Tila, within the framework of a clear and elementary spatial system, an infrastructure of great simplicity and regularity capable of accommodating a multiplicity of typological solutions and combinations of spaces.

Even if we may find in the Avasara Academy the same concepts of loosening the distribution spaces of the Vagelos Center, in order to offer, within the simplified forms of a low-cost architecture, those opportunities for informal aggregation and study that are increasingly considered important in educational structures, in the campus designed by Case Design is deployed a different form of opening from the two previous examples, which expands the boundaries of the design process to a community well beyond the limits of the design studio and its traditional consultants Favoured by a productive context where there is still widespread artisan knowledge and supported by a client willing to make this school a model of environmental and social awareness, Anne Geenen and Samuel Braclay, the two founders of the studio who chose to start their professional practice in India after a common experience at Studio Mumbai with the same passion for the construction process, have in fact engaged in an intense dialogue with local workers and craftsmen, Japanese furniture designers Nakashima Woodworkers, Danish artist Malene Bach, the New York studio of German Transsolar KlimaEngineering, local farmers and permaculturists based in Zanzibar.

THESE OPEN WORKS CANNOT BE FULLY UNDERSTOOD with the traditional tools of architectural representation, as no drawing, rendering or photography can tell the multiplicity of uses and stories that unfold in time and space. It is the video, declined in three very different registers, consistent with the stories they have to tell, the key to deeply access the meaning and implications of these intrinsically narrative architectures.

A screen divided in two allows us to explore the spatial richness of the Vagelos Center through two points of view, the one of a drone that moves slowly along the vertical axis of the facade, showing us from the outside what we can observe in parallel in the other half of the screen, climbing along the complex and multiform sequence of spaces. In this double vision we can observe students, doctors and visitors as they move, meet, stop on the stairs, in the rooms overlooking the panorama of the city, according to a choreography whose rigour we perceive not only for the contemporaneity of the visions - what the drone gives back from the outside is exactly what is happening inside the building - but also for the perfection of the movements, the absence of a glance in the room, the invisibility of the cameraman.

The cinematic rigour of the double video of the Vangelos Center is counterbalanced by the dialoguing and discursive documentary of Case Design, The Tila Housing block, where a multiplicity of voices, with their faces, contexts, languages and accents, tell the story of the interweaving of ideas and skills around which the Avasara Academy was built. "A school in the making" [video no longer available] is the representation of an open society where everything and every person is recognized a specific and irreplaceable value, from the farmer who explains why the bamboo used to make the sunshades should be cut in the nights of the new moon, to the Danish artist who recovers the natural pigments to characterize with different colors the various sections of the buildings, to the engineer of Indian origin who from New York develops a system of passive cooling of the environments.

With a similar awareness of their living environment, the families living in the Tila, thousands of miles north, guide us through the interior spaces they have shaped according to their needs, making their desires come true: for each apartment the narrating voice of a family member guides the observer - the operator who, as in Diller and Scofidio's video, is an invisible presence to the occupants of the houses - through microcosms that are articulated in different ways from time to time. "I wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the streets of Italian towns," reveals one of our inhabitants-designers, and it is true that his like the other apartments evoke a miniature urban environment, a sort of ideal city with the perfect balance of relations between the most intimate and collective spaces.

Yet in these narratives we perceive a paradoxical contradiction, a contrast between the openness of the architecture and the completeness of the writing that the characters and environments we visit adhere to; these videos return to us a description of a reality that lacks the friction between design and lived life that makes it a truly narrative space, as Richard Sennet wrote about a playground in his city: "here, though, is a space where time can begin. Linear spaces may be defined as those spaces in which form follows function. Narrative spaces are, instead, spaces like this playground, places of displacement [...]. Time begins to do the work of giving places character when the places are not used as they were meant to be".

On the contrary, everything is foreseen down to the smallest detail in these three short films, to the point that the people who move around in Diller and Scofidio's seem to be the performers of a new play by the New York studio, for which the vertical sequence of the spaces of the Vagelos Center has been set up as a scene, as well as the Helsinki families who condense the salient moments of their domestic life into interiors in their own image and likeness make them think of the inhabitants of an IKEA 2.0, and the global and multicultural community north of Mumbai, to a happy experiment confined within a utopia that lasts as long as the minutes of A school in the making.

PERHAPS WE SHOULD WAIT FOR ANOTHER LOOK AT THESE ARCHITECTURES, subsequent to the project and lateral like that with which Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine have made us reinterpret many recent architectures, allowing us, for example, to step into the Bordeaux villa by OMA, Koolhaas Houselife, together with the servant Guadalupe Acedo, to capture the spaces of this famous work in their real life, exploring them in those narrative contradictions that only everyday life can reveal and finally free them from the intentions of the architect who has passionately conceived, designed, built and finally told them.

The Tila Housing block

Talli Architecture and Design

39 do-it-yourself houses.

How should a house be? There's no right or wrong answer to this question. Each house should reflect its owner's personality, be an extension of its taste and life. This is a particularly trick issue for contemporary housing, which more than customizable, often falls flat, feeling too generic and stardardized.

This is also true in Finland, say designers at Talli Architecture and Design, as the housing landscape in Finland has remained rather pretty much traditional, often failing in allowing self-fulfilment of the residents' needs. Different lifestyle and family models try to be served by standardized housing design despite the needs of society continuing to change. This happens in a moment where there is an increasing desire for urban living, that grows along with a need for individuality, flexibility, and strong sense of community.
This is why they designed the Tila project, a block of 39 flats built in Helsinki 2008, based on the idea of providing residents with a living space equipped with only the absolute minimum. The raw-space housing concept allows housing to be customized according to the buyers specific needs and wants. The project was realized in two stages. The frame construction was first designed and built by the developer, then came the infill phase with habitants building their homes as Do-It-Yourself –projects.

The video shows different possible accomodations, a family, an elderly couple with no children, a woman living on her own, an adopted child: everyone tells his or her story and describes how the openess of the spaces enabled them to transform their houses into their homes. In each situation, the basic structure of the house is the same: the rooms are on the upper level, the kitchen and living room on the main floor, but each house has a different vibe, a different atmosphere, which is conveyed through both a voice-over commentary and the depiction of a day in a life of each component of these families.
A fresh, cool video, that matches exactly the kind of work produced by Talli Architecture and Design.


Architect: Talli Architecture and Design, Pia Ilonen
Mentioned project: Tila Housing Block (2010)
Project location: Arabianranta, Helsinki, Finland
Author: Lulu Salmi
Team: Lulu Salmi, Pia Ilonen, Ossi Kärki, Janne Huttunen, Petteri Linnus
Production: Talli Architecture and Design / Pia Ilonen

Finland 2011
Duration: 7'22"