CHEAP

December 14, 2010
details school
Red Hook Houses Cost-Reducing Details from ‘A Lesson in Cost Reduction’, The Architectural Forum, November 1938 School of Architecture designed by Lacaton & Vassal, Nantes, 2009 (source)

 

‘Cost reducing details include: 1. Raised tub in bathroom kept waste piping above floor slab. Thin plaster partition replaced customary masonry wall as plumbing stack housing. Combined saving: $48,000; 2. Unmortised doors and simple hardware reduced costs by $20,000; 3. Wall brackets, streamlined to discourage coat-hanging and containing switch and convenience outlet, cost $36,000 less than ceiling outlets and wall switches; 4. U-shaped brackets replaced wood ground and base of plaster partitions. Cost reduction: $15,000; 5. A bull-nose finished off all kitchen entrances, saving $51,000; 6. Curtains on this hanger replaced closet doors, saved $118,400’.

 

The Architectural Forum (November 1938)

 

 

In 1955, my father and his family moved from their apartment in Brownsville to the Bay View Houses in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Their brand new 3-bedroom unit was clean, more spacious than their previous home, and surrounded by the generous open lawns of superblock public housing. Nevertheless, fifty years later among the first things he (unhappily) remembers about Bay View remain the interior fixtures and closets fitted with curtains instead of doors.

 

Unlike the earliest examples of public housing in NYC such as First Houses and Harlem River Houses—which featured high-quality interior finishes and details—Bay View followed a model established by Red Hook Houses in the late 1930s. To save costs and to avoid competing in the rental marketplace with private sector developers, the interiors of Red Hook Houses and the projects that followed were designed to be adequate but not too nice. In other words, while well-built, their design ensured that residents remained aware they were living in low-cost state-provided housing. As New York City Housing Authority Chairman Alfred Rheinstein said in 1938 ‘the public housing authority is relieved from the restrictions of competition and profit and, therefore, should obtain results which more truly reflect the real needs and the appropriate standard’.

 

Given the pressing demand for affordable housing at that time, combined with strikingly low federal funding cost requirements, those responsible for Red Hook Houses and the projects that followed, can at least partially be forgiven for their decisions. However, lest architects (and clients) delude themselves—as they sometimes are tempted to do—there is no escaping the fact that you get what you pay for. And yes, people will notice. And remember.

 

Jacob Reidel

 

‘Metal buildings are the dream that modern architects had at the beginning of this century. It has finally come true, but they themselves don’t realize it. That’s because it doesn’t take an architect to build a metal building. You just order them out of a catalog—comes with a bunch of guys who put it together in a couple of days, maybe a week’.

 

—David Byrne, True Stories

 

 

To resist global capitalism’s instrumentalization of architecture, architects have developed many strategies, nearly all of which are, counter-intuitively, really expensive. When we build at all, we design buildings that are painfully difficult to construct because of their formal complexity or material excess. Efficiency and affordability are typically only celebrated when design is in service of the disempowered, displaced, or otherwise marginalized. Certainly, the techniques of efficiency pioneered by modernism are alive and well (pre-fab, modularity, standardization) but are largely in service of less-than-celebrated buildings (trailer parks, roadside motels, big boxes). What would happen if architects tried cheapness again, toward new ends, beyond efficiency?

 

The work of Lacaton & Vassal provides at least one provocative re-imagining of cheapness. Their project for the architecture school at Nantes was realized with an unfinished, unadorned concrete frame and a plastic enclosure system. Electrical cords dangle from the ceiling to desks below; the building is breathtakingly cheap. Unlike many architecture school buildings, however, the decision to leave the systems exposed was not for didactic effect. Nor is cheapness here a strategy to save the client money. Rather, it allows the client to redirect resources elsewhere. By using the lowest-cost building methods available, Lacaton & Vassal were able to deliver an inexpensive, spacious building in place of a smaller, costlier one, producing the greatest luxury any architecture school could ask for: extra space.

 

Thom Moran

 

Edited by Erandi de Silva

 

One Response to “CHEAP”

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    […] CHEAP — THE BI BLOG – As always, the Bi Blog provides two different takes on their current post concerning the concept of CHEAP. While Jacob's half is poignant in how it describes the consequences of building cheaply even when it was with good intentions. Thom's thoughts on CHEAP, however, are more aspirational and thought provoking. Thom questions why contemporary Architecture seems fraught with expensive formal devices over the careful balancing material excess with other resources equally as important, such as space. It is a good question, but one that must be asked carefully, while heading the implicit warning in Jacob's post. […]

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