07 May 2008

M is for Modular

I just happened to be looking up a word in the American Heritage Dictionary when I came upon a striking picture that was used to illustrate the word “modular.”  The illustration showed a Montreal dwelling called “Habitat,” designed by Moshe Safdie.

The design is a little bit chaotic, but it also has an order to it that appeals to me.  It’s sort of crystalline in nature – irregular in overall shape, yet its growth adheres to rigid orthogonal axes.  And I like its apparent mission to provide “privacy, fresh air, sunlight and suburban amenities in an urban location.”  

One of the many horrors of the massive public housing apartments that loom over big city slums (like the one in the Bronx, pictured below) is the monotonic regularity of each unit.  These “projects” seem by their very nature to thwart individuality and beat their tenants into collective insignificance.

In contrast, the Safdie “Habitat” provides each tenant with a unique unit, each with its own balcony and as much privacy as is possible in such a limited space.  If I were just scraping by in a big city and couldn’t afford a more private space, I think I would really appreciate the individuality of the Safdie construction and the dignity it permits.

Incidentally, on a totally different topic, I started out this post by saying I was looking up a word in the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition.  I bought this dictionary after going to New York to celebrate the Ayn Rand centennial in 2005.  Somebody (I can’t remember whom it was - Yaron Brook, or perhaps Jeff Britting?) mentioned that this dictionary included at least one quote from Ayn Rand that, at least symbolically, is an uplifting sign.  In the synonyms section for the word “honor,” the dictionary lists “reverence,” then gives as an example a quote from Ayn Rand: “Kill reverence and you’ve killed the hero in man.”


Burgess Laughlin said...

As a lifelong renter (by choice), I can offer additional points for consideration. First, honeycomb buildings (where there is a vertically repeated apartment layout) are, according to what I have read, much less expensive to produce. Rents can be correspondingly lower. This is good if the building owner is appealing to a sector of the market that wants to rent but has low income. Low income does not cause high crime. Rather, high crime causes low income.

Second, the main problem with governmental housing projects like the one shown is not the design but the administration. The managers of the complex cannot be nearly as discriminating, pardon the term, as can private owners (although there are growing restrictions on them, of course).

Third, there are plenty of expensive honeycomb condo buildings being built that have a uniform appearance. That does not crush the individuality of the tenant/owners any more than wearing the same type of clothing does.

Fourth, I agree that the "growing-crystal" design in Montreal would help bring in more light and air, but they would also be much harder to heat. For honest, low income people, that is a big concern.

Fifth, I disagree that they offer more privacy. To the contrary, in such a design, neighbors can monitor the comings and goings of others much more easily than in a honeycomb building. That might in fact be good for reducing crime, but it does not offer more privacy.

Architecture is fascinating. It is both artistic and practical. It is fascinating to trace the reasons why architects design the way they do. There are many factors involved.

Burgess Laughlin said...

From the first link in your very interesting weblog post: "Unfortunately, construction costs proved to be prohibitive."

This is not surprising. I have been told by architects and builders that every change in direction jacks up the costs. Using suspended or cantilevered projections adds even more expense.

Urban planners, I have read, generally oppose "uniformity" in some cities (such as where I live, in Portland, Oregon) because it is "deadening," The fact remains that honeycomb designs are much less expensive. The Planners' lust to create "diversity" raises housing costs--hurting the very people the government rushes in to help with subsidized housing.

Of course, in a free society, architects and builders would make these choices for themselves within the context of their personal aims. There would, ironically, probably be more diversity of styles.

I led a walking tour for Objectivists here, examining the relation of architecture and politics. It was in part depressing and in part inspiring.