Unbuilding Theory

by Alan Mee

The relevance of theory to the current state of the designed environment in Ireland has not had much debate here, as people maybe feel that speculation or contemplation is a luxury, given the shocking future we are facing as a country. However, detached consideration of issues related to quality and evaluation in architecture and design could have distinctly positive impacts on the economic and social future for the state. The fact that the country has been overseeing the over-building and overproducing of building stock for a long period, does not make Ireland unique. Spain for example, with much greater problems of scale, is now faced with very similar issues. While previous economic collapses – Japan (1986-1991) or Sweden (early 1990s) – oversupply of produced built fabric seems not to have been a major problem, possibly due to tighter controls on building permits, and less easy access to borrowing, the currently engorged building stock in Dubai, USA, Spain and Ireland introduces an unprecedented question for them as entities; when have we built too much? The question is related to issues of presumed constant growth, the Production of Space (from Henri Lefebvre’s book of 1974), and the unsustainable attachment to economies of accumulation.

In relation to our relatively comfortably scaled problem on this island, it would be hoped that the second Government Policy on Architecture (2009-2015) could or should lead us, even if indirectly, to quantify the incidence of architecture in the state, evaluate all existing and proposed development and buildings in architectural and urban design terms, and consider taking away, or Unbuilding, some of the recent inappropriate construction. On 15 January 2009, Morgan Kelly, an economist based at UCD, argued that house prices in Ireland would drop by up to 60% in the near future, and that certain developments would have to be altered or even taken away, in order to restore a properly functioning market. It is possible that there are positives and even new economies in rearranging our designed environment, using what the SAUL School Head, Merritt Bucholz calls “architectural intelligence”.

Urban Agenda examines the context for thinking about taking away, or ‘Unbuilding’ some of the development, which has taken place inappropriately in Ireland in recent years. It deals with definitions, scale, methodologies of analysis, and the economic context for the proposals made.

  • By analysing parts of Ireland containing recently developed new areas and buildings, an over- supply of produced space becomes apparent. This type of space has particular manifestations; often dislocated, inefficiently used, in non-adaptable development, with inappropriate density, poor energy performance, low architectural quality, and a lack of specificity and character.
  • Produced space may be defined here to mean development at all scales, from motorways to individual rooms.
  • In reviewing the analysis of these new and fast changing spatial conditions at various scales, it is possible to move to considering proposals for a more consolidated approach to the design and control of building form, its context and surroundings, and the overall designed environment. A clearer connection can be made between individual building design intentions, integrating use and fabric with form at a larger scale, including the planned or designed contraction of the physical “shell” of some produced space.
  • In terms of definitions, Unbuilding can be defined as the planned and organised taking away of parts or all of a development, which has happened inappropriately. Unbuilding is not the same as demolition; Unbuilding follows careful analysis. Demolition often happens only to facilitate more development, and often without due consideration of location, use, density, performance, and quality (which can be called the ‘Real Value Assessment Algorithm’). Demolition is negative, Unbuilding is positive.
  • For the purposes of a technical discussion on Unbuilding in Irish terms, the issue is most usefully described at the level or scale of the “plot”, that is, the “red line” or property outline of the development envelope in land. It is felt that, in this economy of land ownership, and while ownership identity continues to be primarily expressed through this, most of the community around land and property development issues can most easily comprehend the plot as the fundamental unit of measure.
  • A first step before consideration of Unbuilding at any scale involves appropriate assessment of the existing situation, and the case history of the plot or plots, for any given location. As regards an appropriate larger scale of assessment for Unbuilding, one possibility is that the issues could be considered at Simultaneous Scales; that is Country, Region, County, etc.., but possibly the scale which is best for developing group consensus is at the at scale of a place.
  • As regards place, the first requirement is to identify the appropriately representative group, community, or distinct area consensually agreed at this scale. This could be a historic or traditional neighbourhood in a town or city, but in new areas it could include owners or developers, who could be resident in other locations, for example. Often in newly developed areas, residents have not yet formed into active communities with clear identities. This is a fundamental first step in the resolution of the current, and increasingly pressing, designed environment problems of Ireland.
  • Unbuilding could lead to subsequent re-ordering or more appropriate re-development at many scales of development; taking down or Unbuilding even a wall between two rooms can enhance the viability of a house. Misguided road widenings could become the historic street line again, poor quality development could give way to architectural quality. There are many possibilities for Unbuilding to lead to socially, economically and qualitatively better places and buildings.
  • New definitions can be proposed, as well as new methodologies of analysis, at appropriate scales for incisive simultaneous examination of defined infrastructure, areas, places, and buildings. Subsequent proposals could involve re-design, adapting, taking away or Unbuilding of some recent development, as well as evolving more predictive spatial design methods related to the location, use, density, performance, and quality of the Irish designed environment.

This Article appeared in Architecture Ireland Issue 255

01. January 2011 by admin
Categories: Articles | Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *