Plastic Architecture

…and its consequences


An article criticising current trends and their reflection in Architecture.

Context

Architecture, art, music, literature… are all reflections of our current issues and societal moods. From the perspective of a ‘westerner’, we seem to be living progressively faster lives, we get bored quickly, we are plagued by fast fashion, we are pampered beyond reason, decoupled from nature, riddled with fleeting trends and plastic architecture.

Where has local, regional or national architectural identity gone? We have become lazy. We have become complacent in using shortcuts & ‘hacks’. We need to build things quickly, then tear them down even quicker when we get bored. This is reflected in our architecture. We have substituted local innovation with global standardisation. Our ecosystems have been ravaged as a result.


Introduction

Firstly, what do I mean by ‘Plastic architecture’? My view is: Plastic architecture is one that has been built with little or no reference to its site, local materials, cultures, vernacular or people. It is architecture that has no specific place, or connection to its context. It is surface level aesthetics with little to no deeper meaning or history. Much like fast fashion it tends to follow fleeting trends regarding materials and forms and worst of all, this results in its quick obsolescence, followed by an inevitable demolition.

We sometimes forget that Architecture does not simply come into being: it evolves, transforms and grows into its ‘final’ forms. Sir Banister Fletcher described the history of architecture through 6 distinct influences: geographical, geological, climatic, religious, social & historical. For example, the ancient Babylonian ‘staple’ building material was mud-brick, since the lowlands of Mesopotamia had almost no stone and very little timber, meaning their structures had to span using arches, or columns that were very close together. The climate was hot, so thick walls & minimal windows were needed to keep the internal temperatures down. Geographically the ground flooded constantly & was full of insects, meaning they needed to build enormous platform foundations, to avoid disease and their cities becoming flooded wastes. These are but a few factors which resulted in their architectural character. This organic evolution of architecture is evident throughout most of recorded history, as shipping materials from the other side of the world was either impossible or inefficient. The builder was stuck with what they could source locally and this allowed innovation to flourish. Local character is established & thus architecture embodies culture.

Ninmakh Temple at Babylon

What changed?

After the industrial revolution, and especially in the last 50 years, the world has become increasingly globalised, the builder does not need to rely on local materials, the builder can access any material they need, often at cheaper prices than their local sources. Surely this is a fantastic development you may be thinking, however, Like all things, the answer is never black and white.

Now, lets go back to the Babylonian example. You have access to any material or resource from anywhere in the world, all those constraints you had before; flooding, heat, tropical climate, insects… can be solved using a seemingly endless palette of tools & materials. It seems perfect, however, a number of things must be considered:

Sustainability – A rock from there, a stick from here, the planet suffers.

for me personally this is always at the top of the list. By not using local materials you instantly add a potentially massive carbon cost, just from transportation alone, among other things. There are of course always exceptions, and the opposite may sometimes be true, but from the global widespread use of concrete and steel I think it’s fair to say that for the majority of situations, using local materials will be more ecologically sound.

Identity – Cities look the same?

if we act globally, we loose much of the local identity and vernacular. What makes architecture great is its ability to solve and respond to local constraints and issues. when this is done harnessing local materials, cultures and traditions, it makes the architecture intrinsically connected to its place. Whereas imported global solutions tend to be unsympathetic to anything local, they are largely generic, lifeless and alien.

Local Innovation – Or lack thereof.

Innovation, progress and learning flourish in conditions which are balanced between Hard & easy. If the conditions (social, climatic, political, etc) are too harsh, then little progress can be made as the primary focus is survival. If the conditions are too comfortable or pampered, the same is true, there is no drive to innovate or solve issues as there is no issues, so we tend to create our own, meaningless issues. There must be a balance, I believe we are too pampered. There is little drive to innovate using local materials or traditions, instead it is easier to use global materials such as steel to ‘cheat’ the local constraints. Of course an argument can be made that the global systems and techniques are seeing much innovation, but I believe even more innovation can be fostered within a more constrained environment.

Culture – and its diminishing presence.

Imported plastic architecture has very little depth, it may look good on the surface, but it is devoid of any meaning or richness. Much of the richness and cultural significance of architecture comes from the local people, context, geology etc. When we use imported materials and techniques, we sever the connection between architecture and place on a molecular level. The ego is also partly to blame, “my building must stand out and be recognisable! look at my skill at making shapes come to life!” Generally, plastic architecture will not follow the evolutionary line of the local vernacular & architecture, and instead impose a new lineage.


Conclusive thoughts

I like to wonder what Dubai might look like if it had no access to vast amounts of glass, steel and air conditioning. Its hot and sandy, so the buildings would all have thick sandstone walls, and approaching from a distance, it may resemble a forrest of sand pillars rising from the ground, much like a cluster of mega-anthills, akin to the ones seen in Africa (Pictured below)

The side streets could be shaded by vast colourful canvas sheets, with depictions of local cultures and traditions. The wider streets would have rows of palms to create shade below, much like ancient Sumerian cities. Perhaps some innovation would have been made to sandstone bricks, a way to make them stronger, allowing for bigger arches and taller buildings. Perhaps the facades would be layered, with a lattice type layer on the front, followed by a large greenery layer that would act as natural cooling to the building. These are just random ideas to hopefully get you thinking on the scale of possibilities that come from constraints.

There are of course many examples around the world of towns and cities using local materials, techniques, traditions and so on within their architecture. In Lithuania, many existing and new residential homes are built in timber, thanks to the vast forests. Most Italian villages are built using local stone and marble… we can find many more examples, but if we look to the ‘developed’ west the opposite is often true, just look to Las Vegas and see the pinnacle of plastic architecture.

Hopefully, we will not completely abandon the richness and diversity that the vernacular, local culture, tradition and people can bring to architecture, that the ego will not overpower these priceless influences. I say we hold onto these influences, we embrace the constraints and accept the challenge that this brings. Embracing this challenge we can create truly inspiring and humble architecture that will be timeless for generations to come.


Thanks for reading! Im always looking to start a discussion and look forward to hearing any comments!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s