material permanence for an impermanent architecture
Thomas Rau was recently speaking at Ryerson; the notification was illustrated with his 2011 Triodos III project, a values-based bank in Driebergen-Zeist, which encapsulates his thesis that Nature is a bank and if we treated it as such we wouldn't exploit it as we do. By extension, every building should be considered as a bank of materials, valuable because finite, like currency, which circulates over and over again through time and society. Triodos III is an example of such an architecture. A logical extension of the idea of a building as a bank of materials would be an architecture that is demountable, with individual pieces salvageable as whole units rather than the pulverising demolitions that usually happen when a building reaches the end of its usefulness (not necessarily its life, but the limits of appreciation of its value). In this it is assumed that buildings have a life span.
Was this a consideration when Le Corbusier was building Chandigarh, seen in a new book, Chandigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier's City Today, by Shaun Fynn? His was a hugely complex architecture built with a single material, concrete, that once cast cannot revert back to its original ingredients – the chemical reaction when water meets quicklime cannot be undone. Correctly built, this kind of architecture was forecast to have an infinitely long lifespan; deconstruction and reuse of the materials was not considered.
Unlike concrete buildings regularly demolished in the western world, despite the new-found mid-century love of béton brut — so much of it already gone, Le Corbusier's Chandigarh project persists: there has been little development pressure to constantly rebuild in what was the de-colonising, developing, third world. Modernism was the architecture of liberation: it promised a new start, in all senses, and for this it retains a political and historic power that we don't recognise here. New Generation Thinker Preti Taneja, Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Warwick University, read an essay recently in the New Generation Thinkers series, about 'The first generation of post-Independence architects [who] built on this [modernist] legacy, drawing also from Le Corbusier, who designed India's first post-partition planned city, Chandigarh, with its famous 'open hand' sculpture; and from Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius, to create some of the most iconic public buildings across India today.'
There is something about the utopian socialist roots of modern architecture that meant something in the developing world but which passed the developed world by. Here, it is seen as a style, not as something for social good. Indeed, by the 1970s, projects just twenty years old, such as Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, were totally discredited as the social ambitions of the architecture did not match at all the political fears of race and poverty.
Rau's architecture as material bank refers to a pre-industrial model of building, where buildings were assembled and dis-assembled by hand. He extends it to industrial processes, with the circularity potential of each material as the pre-condition for its use. It has the potential to redevelop modernism without the extravagance of material exploitation that came so easily to us in the west, where the environment was assumed to be infinitely patient with us, self-healing the wounds we inflicted by fire, by mining, by impermeable cities, by voracious appetites. His architecture of circularity assumes an impermanence to buildings whereby they can be constantly in flux, parts replaced, parts repurposed. This is such the polar opposite to the still, eternal, immoveable architecture of Chandigarh.