Support Structures for Living

Across the world, the demand for affordable housing is an emerging crisis that exists as a problem both in the developed world and in developing regions. From London to Hong Kong, or from Chinese villages to Brazilian favelas, there is a desperate need to provide people with homes. Yet, where are the architects in this discourse? Since the 1970s, the heroic social project of mass housing, has been admonished amidst failed social engineering, poor construction, planning mistakes and ghettoization. Now housing is predominantly provided by house-builders and developers, and in the most part, architects are out.

The studio attempts to find a way back in by addressing affordable housing as an intellectual project within the discourse of architecture.  Rather than focusing on the specificities of a community, inhabitants’ social welfare or their participation in a design process, we will focus on housing as a support-structure for living.

“ A support structure is a construction which allows the provision of dwellings which can be built, altered and taken down, independently of the others. …

A support structure is built in the knowledge that we cannot predict what is going to happen to it. The more variety housing can assume in the support structure, the better…” John Habraken,

Habraken wrote his manifesto against mass housing in the Netherlands in 1961. He argued for housing to be considered as an assembly of independent dwellings within a larger framework; “as a bookcase contains books”. He wanted each inhabitant to have a decisive role in how their dwellings were constructed, allowing the possibility for adaptation as their needs changed.

The support structure acted as a structural and infrastructural network providing services and circulation.  Rather than being fixed and permanent, the hope was that this too could act to enable and facilitate future variations of communal living. His thesis is intentionally open ended without definitive form.

Over the last 50 years his theories have reverberated through architectural practices as diverse as Archigram, (Plug-in-City), the Metabolists, and more recently with practitioners such as Alejandro Aravena’s half-house project (Elemental) and Anton Garcia Abril’s experiments with lightweight structures and his “urban shelve” research (Ensamble Studio).

The concept of the Support Structure is used as a framework to initiate the studio’s design process.

Our focus is on sites impacted by the process of urbanisation. This can occur due to mass migration to existing urban centres or in rural or peripheral sites that are densifying due to new economic drivers. In each case housing defines the form of this new settlement and often is constructed cheaply, without infrastructure, without the provision of public space or services and without any anticipation for future growth.

KEYWORDS: Experimental housing, Adaptation, Incremental urbanism, Transformation

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Settling the Nomads (2015)

The Ger districts of Ulaanbaatar have no running water, sewerage, or adequate heating. In the winter, the air is thick with smog from coal burning stoves. Unemployment is high and alcoholism is rife. Yet, still the nomads keep coming to the city in search of a better life. The city government and national government are depleted of funds, meaning that large scale development plans are stalled and impossible to implement in the near future. Any projects that do take place are undertaken by the World Bank or various constellations of other NGO’s with local partners.

Given the urgency of the problems at hand, architecture is given a low priority. At stake however is the fundamental civic make-up of the city. Given the failure of top-down planning models, what is the role of the architect in this context? How can we create an alternative mechanism for the city’s future transformation?

This studio will design architectural insertions to implement and kick-start the future evolution of the Ger districts.

Settling the Nomads (2016)

The studio agenda is to design innovative support structures to enable Mongolia’s Ger districts to evolve into viable urban settlements. We will design the city from the inside-out. Starting with augmenting the basic unit of habitation – the traditional Ger tent – we will then challenge the existing plot boundary and explore its potential as an architectural and infrastructural device. We will work back and forth between scales; from the plot, to the cluster, to the district, to devise an incremental strategy that demonstrates how the Ger districts can evolve over time.

The exacting limitations of the site such as climate, materials, and affordability will test our design ingenuity. Projects will have to intersect knowledge between architecture, fabrication, technology and strategic urban thinking.

Anticipating The Urban

Infrastructure has been a key tool to project urban processes into rural territory. As Brenner articulates in his thesis on “Planetary Urbanism”, the concept of the city as a bounded entity has become superseded by a differentiated, yet continuous landscape organised to “support the continued agglomeration of capital, labour and infrastructure”.  This concept is explicitly spatialized in the urbanisation of the countryside in China: the territory has become co-opted to facilitate growth, primarily through industrialisation. Infrastructure, via highways and high-speed rail, has been the conduit for this process of “projection”. The roads and rail connect raw materials to factories, labour from villages to urban areas, and products to sites of consumption or for export.

The construction of infrastructure creates a series of displacements: agricultural land is destroyed, villages erased; people relocated; and vast amounts of earth and rock are removed. Slopes and hillsides are made vulnerable to erosion and collapse and local forms of connection can be disrupted and settlements bisected. On the other hand, new economic drivers are created including roadside commerce, real estate, manufacturing and logistics. 

The studio reacts to the current construction of a new highway in Liuyang Village, Changsha, to design a series of prototypes that respond to the volatile displacements occurring in this transformation process.

The government has already started the construction of the highway and the demolition of people’s homes. The villager shown in the photograph is heralded as an example by the government to encourage others to leave their homes, claim their compensation, and rebuild.  However, the sites that the government has offered the villagers for the resettlement are not attractive to some who desire plots as close to the highway as possible. This has stalled redevelopment creating an urgency to create design alternatives that can mediate the needs of both villagers and government. The studio develops projects for housing and programmatic catalysts that can respond to the demands of the new context.

The Delivery City

Thesis Abstract

The thesis seeks to explore the value of airspace through architectural interventions based on the future drone delivery system in an urban context.

The development of e-commerce causes heavy load on the delivery system, which mainly relies on lorry and manpower to fulfill the online shopping orders. In the coming decades, pilotless technology could take over the delivery works and become the urban infrastructure to connect households in a timeless way. To facilitate the drone navigation, the design of architecture should respond to the technological advancement by creating a relationship between architecture and airspace. The project is going to design an Air Delivery Centre in Kwun Tong that provides functions such as sorting, packing and storage of goods and droneport. Different from the traditional warehouses, the Air Delivery Centre would focus on vertical footprint to provide sufficient airspace for the drone circulation. The design is going to define the airspace as internal and external which would be shaped by architecture to enable the logistics of air delivery. Subsequently, the design makes use of the unmanned aerial vehicle to explore the new architectural typologies.

Island Defender

Thesis Abstract

A proposal for the protection of desert islands, and learning to coexist with Hong Kong’s unique landscape, 263 islands that make up the city. These fragile, unprotected islands are seemingly fallen of the face of the Earth. Stonecutters Island, Harbour Island, Junk Island, Pillar Island, Mouse Island… Reclamation killed them off one by one.

This thesis is a critique of the existing environmental policy of protecting these ‘Geographical Heritage’, against which an eco-border is set up to perform multiple functions, a Cultivation Border, an Island Archive and a Reclamation Guideline.

Taking the shelter for cultivating shellfish at the border’s structure across a fictional timeline, it eventually forms an ecological enclave in the middle of the sea, which also serves as a filter to purify the polluted seawater for the protected buffer. Throughout the life cycle, shells can be collected, and lime can be extracted as the building material for urban development.

This work recalls the role of architecture as a defender, to defend the island against human activities, and it also suggests alternative act for architecture in the Anthropocene, which teach us how to develop in relation to our environment while transforming the earth’s land.

The Angdong Hospital

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The project is a new model for rural healthcare that addresses the huge gap between rural and urban services in China. Commissioned by the Institute for Integrated Rural Development, a Hong Kong charity, and working closely with the local health bureau, the objective was to develop a building that is capable of supporting progressive reforms on rural hospital management and care-giving. The design serves as a demonstration for how this can be achieved through its programming, public accessibility and innovative use of materials.

The building provides the basic necessities absent in many current rural health establishments in China, such as a surgical ward, labour ward, and physiotherapy treatment. It also offers both traditional Chinese and Western medicine. The Angdong hospital redefines the nature of healthcare design in China by offering a public facility in the heart of the village that includes outdoor waiting areas, community meeting spaces, and roof top exercise areas – all connected via an accessible circulation ramp. 

As part of the design process, we developed a flexible concrete-casting mold for building blocks that altered generic construction techniques on the site. In particular, our model varied the orientation and distance of an aperture’s extrusion or intrusion within each block, thereby creating variable lighting effects. These blocks were manufactured in the village, demonstrating how unique materials can be developed in rural areas at a low cost but with enhanced spatial effects according to light penetration, shadow and texture.

The project has been widely acclaimed, winning the RIBA International Emerging Architect 2016 prize and receiving a Highly Commended award in the Architectural Review Healthcare Award 2016. It has been exhibited internationally including the China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2018 as part of Building a Future Countryside curated by Li Xiangning. It has been published in books including Shaping Cities in an Urban Age (edited by Ricky Burdett and Philipp Rode, 2018) and in multiple journals including Lotus International (September 2016) and The Architectural Review (November 2016).

Incremental Urbanism: Ulaanbaatar’s Ger Settlements

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For thousands of years, Mongolians have been living in gers – portable structures made of timber, felt and canvas. They are highly evolved designed objects, easy to disassemble, move and reassemble in a matter of hours without any tools or fixings. It is a perfect dwelling for the nomads. Yet, when this specific type of dwelling forms the basic unit of inhabitation for Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, it has led to unsustainable urban development, resulting in sprawling districts that lack basic urban infrastructure of water and sewage that contribute to toxic levels of air pollution in the city.

This project documents the process of transformation and spatial characteristics of selected ger districts describing how settlements densify by subdivision without improvements to infrastructure. It highlights the difficulties in implementing ger district development projects and positions the ger districts as a unique case study of an informal settlement because the majority of ger district inhabitants are land owners. Additionally, the project proposes an alternative mechanism for ger district development in the form of an incremental urban strategy. The target is to demonstrate how these districts can be incrementally developed by the residents themselves to include infrastructure, better housing, and community facilities, each with improved environmental performance to improve air quality and reduce reliance on coal. This strategic framework for development includes:

a design for an affordable housing prototype – the Ger Plug-In – as an adaptation of a traditional ger with embedded infrastructure and improved energy efficiency;

a design for a waste collection and recycling building to improve solid waste collection within the districts

scenario plans to increase density for three different ger district typologies: the central; mid and fringe areas

an action plan for incremental development that conceptualizes how Green Climate Funds can be accessed to support low interest rate mortgages to initiate development

The project was selected for exhibition at the Venice Biennale 2016 by chief curator Alejandro Aravena, and subsequent site specific installations were designed for exhibitions in London at the Design Museum and in Sydney at the Museum for Applied Arts and Sciences. The work has been published in international journals such as Architectural Design, disseminated in a comprehensive design report and presented at international lectures.

Mulan School Educational Landscape

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The project pioneers an alternative learning environment for rural schools in China. The majority of newly built schools in China are generic, two-story concrete frame structures, with little regard for local specificity of climate, landscape or materials. The project demonstrates design innovation in a highly constrained context in terms of budget, skilled workers and construction techniques.

An educational landscape is created by connecting an existing school building to a new primary school, toilet, and playground through a series of interlinked open spaces. The spaces between the buildings have different spatial qualities: from outside seating areas, internal courtyards, micro-gardens, shaded circulation areas, to more formal sports areas. In this way, the project creates opportunities for learning to take place not only within the school, but outside the classroom environment as well. The school departs from the typical structure of a rural school in China — a gated facility composed of a building flanking a sports area. In contrast, the public spaces and facilities of Mulan School are open to access for local villagers.

The construction of a new high-speed rail line on the other side of a small hill behind the school, created a depository of loose earth that, during extreme rain during monsoon season, posed a risk to the playground below. The lack of sufficient drainage caused staining and water damage to the existing school building. In response, the design of the toilet block incorporates a retaining wall linked to a natural reed bed system to filter waste water. The design forms a boundary edge to the site, increasing its stability, and at the same time allows polluted waste water to be remediated before entering the river. It demonstrates how sustainable aims can be realized in rural areas with limited means, not only in China, but in other parts of the world.

The project has received the Highly Commended Award in the AR Schools Award 2015, (1 of 3 awards) and was one of the key contributing projects that led to the awarding of both the 2015 Curry Stone Design Award and the 2014 Ralph Erskine 100 Years Anniversary Award.  It has been published in numerous international professional journals and exhibited at the inaugural 2015 Chicago Biennale.

Landfill by Default

Thesis Abstract

The exponentially growing amount of coastal waste is a global issue that should be recognize. The accumulation of waste is largely altering the landscape of coastline and began to interrupt the ecosystem and the living patterns of human – becoming the Landfill by default – a new challenging living and building condition. This thesis is dedicated to investigate the role of Architecture in this changing environment.

In the extreme environment of waste, architecture has the potential to be the medium that allow the mechanical process of remediation to adapt and emerge with the site – creating new ecologies that born out of such critical moments.

The Landfill system proposed in this thesis is to explore different possibilities that architecture could offer toward the issue of coastal waste. Landfill by default no longer describes only the phenomenon of coastal waste accumulation, but also the landfill system that utilize the tidal wave and landform of the site for the purpose of waste collection. The Landfill – as a new operation system with infrastructural component could be adapted any contaminated coastline to collect and digest different waste material on site by recycling, biodegradation or any new methods in the coming future.