Obduracy, Openness and Change

by Alan Mee

The ‘hardening’ of the city fabric, described by Hommels (2005) as obduracy [1], is the subject of increasing research in urban studies and technology studies internationally. It is argued that capitalist expansion can be hampered by the fixity of structures, and social change and technological development are increasingly seen as prominent factors in shaping urban environments, while obduracy is explained as mainly the result of interactions among social groups- interactions that are constrained by specific ways of thinking.

Professional worldviews, of planners, engineers and architects amongst others, are discussed as “difficult to ignore because they are closely related to the professional’s urge for (intellectual) influence and good reputation” [2]. Historic examples of obdurate systems are described (the subways of Paris, bridges to Long Island) and discussion of the physical, social and economic impacts of obsolesence in infrastructure are outlined.

Moving from the city scale to the building, Open Building systems in design thinking are also increasingly relevant to consider. The Open Building Implementation Network (www.open‐building.org) was formed as long ago as 1996, and has origins in the work of N. John Habraken, Author of ‘Supports, an Alternative to Mass Housing’ [3], which was first published in 1962. This book proposed the separation of ‘support’ or base building from ‘infill’ or interior fit-out in residential construction and design. One of the six ideas which help to define the term Open Building describes users/inhabitants involved centrally in making design decisions.

Further development in the area included allowance at design stage for different uses over the life of the building, from residential to office block for example, in response to market, client or community demand. The main areas of influence currently seem to be in residential and healthcare buildings, in the latter case related to the constantly changing technologies of medical treatment, leading to caution about over-fixed building environments.

In Adapt Ability [4], these issues were considered, including a call for current building stock in Ireland to be audited for architectural quality, energy outputs over time, and for ease of adaptability. The blog post also discussed Holland, where building clients have recently started to seek building envelopes, designed to a particular grid, and with increased ceiling heights, which would allow either residential use or office, depending on the market over time. Also permissible would be a variable split in the mix over time, which could allow apartments on upper floors for example, offices on floors below, but it could change later. While this brings challenges for planners, trying to allow for amenity space, balconies and adequate parking, good design can go a long way towards achieving adaptable building stock.

However, one scale between city and building that is possibly neglected in the discussion of obduracy and openness, is the scale of the neighbourhood. Though Habraken’s later book, “Structure of the Ordinary” [5] deals with the “field”, (described by him as the “ubiquitous and autonomous built environment”, also the subject of his last book [6]) or the broader designed environment, there is relatively little study on the adaptability of the typical urban neighbourhood, in the sense that this would be understood for the building, or the city.

So for example, consider a relatively recent Irish mutant building type, the 1970’s office blocks built in places such as along Mount Street Lower in Dublin. The idea of technological change being applied to these buildings, which mainly replaced Georgian terraces of houses, involves seriously considering replacement rather than upgrading for energy efficiency or conversion back to residential. The knock-on implication is that the neighbourhood looses the opportunity to efficiently re-balance with a living population, to replace the mainly commuter population of the office blocks. An “Open Neighbourhood” approach might involve assessments of building stock at this neighbourhood scale, with broad indicators emerging of the potentials for areas to improve and evolve over time. Certain parts of neighbourhoods could be designated for Open Building, without negatively affecting the character of the place, in a way similar to the calls of the self-build movement in Holland and the UK for areas within cities to be given over to this method.

[1] Hommels, Anique, (2005), Studying Obduracy in the City; Toward a Productive Fusion between Technology Studies and Urban Studies, Science, Technology and Human Values, Vol. 30, No 3 pp 323-351, Sage Publications Inc.,USA.

[2] Ibid, Pg 334.

[3] Habraken, N. John, (1999) “Supports: an Alternative to Mass Housing”, Edited by Jonathan Teicher, Urban International Press, UK. Edited reprint of the 1972 English edition. ( English edition 1972, re-issued in 1999).

[4] Mee, Alan (2009), “Adapt Ability”, IAF Blog, until Dec 2011, now at www.urbanagenda.ie

[5] Habraken, N. John, (1998) “Structure of the Ordinary, Form and Control in the Built Environment”, Edited by Jonathan Teicher, MIT Press, Cambridge and London.

[6] Habraken, N. John, (2005), “Palladio’s Children, Essays on Everyday Environment and the Architect”, Edited by Jonathan Teicher, Taylor & Francis, UK.


This Article appeared in Architecture Ireland Issue 260

30. January 2012 by admin
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