Frank Gehry, one of the greatest architects of our time has rightly said, ‘Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.’ A building is a big economical, social and cultural investment. A piece of structure which adorns the city streets and stands there for an average 60-80 years, needs to be relevant and vital throughout its lifetime. With the dialogue about sustainable and climate conscious architecture rife in the design community, buildings are being designed for a longer life. What makes a building, truly timeless? Let’s take a look at some of the factors which govern the vitality of architecture as discussed in the book, ‘Vital Architecture’ by Ruurd Roorda and Bas Kegge. This is a small guide for increasing the shelf life of a building!
The site, although not formally linked to the building, still has a lot to do with its vitality. Let’s assume that we need a structure to be usable and alive for a period of 100 years. If the site where the building is located, becomes irrelevant in the sense of dense crowding, natural topographic factors, calamity or land price depreciation due to political, social or infrastructure law changes, then automatically the building on that site will become unimportant.
The structure of a building should be strong, sustainable and future proof. Foundation, columns, beams and slabs which make a building’s structure, should be ideally designed to sustain load, estimated environmental factors and people. If the structure is intact, the building can continue to be useful in some way or another. A weak structurally unsound building, which is prone to damage through elements, fire or frequent tremors (as is the case in some cities) will soon be declared unsafe for use and thus lose its vitality.
A building facade is what makes the first impression for a user. The exterior layer of a building comprising of the walls, roof and fenestration need to be durable and aesthetic. Ideally, the facade should reflect the space and theme inside as well as match the context of architectural typology in use in the surrounding areas or city. The skin is a temporary yet important organ of a building, it can be changed or improved every 20 years or so. If the structure and site of a building is correct, yet the skin starts to wear out like damage in the roof or mouldy walls, the building is unsuitable for use and thus starts to decay.
Building services make a structure fit for human use. The machinery or technology in buildings in the form of plumbing, heating ventilation – air conditioning (HVAC), elevators, fire detectors, sprinklers, lighting, signages etc. are collectively called services. The proper functioning of a space depends on the correct working of all these services together. Once the fixtures or mechanisms become old or obsolete, so does the building. The services in the building thus need to be modern and duly replaceable. For this the architect should design the structure with the appropriate margins and provisions for future mechanisms in order to keep the framework vital.
5. SPACE PLAN
Layout plays an important role in the building use. Architecture which is to survive a 100 years, needs to be minutely planned for all possible situations. Placement of spaces should be strategic as per client’s needs, in context with wind and sun direction as well as to harness natural light and breeze. Public and private spaces should be intelligently planned to predict the user changes in the next century. For this, a thorough study of demographics, user behavior, building standards, vertical and horizontal transitions and building core, function and program, building narrative and technology needs to be undertaken.
6. INTERIOR DESIGN
Interior design is the most important aspect which dictates building vitality. Interior is the usable part of the structure, an envelope for human life. It is also the most susceptible to wear and tear because of constant human use. Thus, interior design is more of a temporary feature in the building and can be changed or renovated every 5-10 years. Furniture, wall and surface treatment, finishes, soft furnishing, light and ceiling fixtures, flooring, decor etc. come under the interior design aspect of building vitality.
7. PUBLIC APPRECIATION
A structure close to the people’s hearts, will always stand the test of time. Be it a community center, an old theater, a public park or a museum – people’s choice and a building’s market relevance makes it timeless. However, winning the favor of people is not an easy task. Design and aesthetic is subjective, thus its difficult to impress a large group of people simultaneously. Yet, it is not impossible. Buildings like NCPA Mumbai, Taj Hotel, Cept Ahmedabad, places of worship etc. are iconic and thus they will survive for a long time. Such landmark pieces of architecture are revered by the public and even under political and social pressure, people will come together to protect them.
Case in point? New Delhi’s Central Vista. The iconic design by Edwin Lutyens for India’s parliament and adjoining buildings at the Rajghat are a deep rooted cultural heritage for the Indian people. Even though it was constructed in British times, it has been part of our independent country’s urban landscape for almost a century. 200000000000 or Rs. 20 thousand crores is the allocated budget for the new Central Vista. The question arises, whether this project is sustainable – economically, environmentally and socially? According to a 2013 study by American Journal of Engineering Research (AJER), the total quantum of construction and demolition waste generated in India is estimated to 11.4 to 14.69 million tonnes per annum (TIFAC, 2000). The concrete, brick and masonry together constitutes more than 50 percent of the total C&D waste. Is the money, energy, effort and consequential C&D waste worth it to rebuild the central vista in the current Indian economic, health and job crisis?
Other aspects for vitality in architecture are ‘Monument status‘ like The Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower. The influence a building has on the city and its social impact it makes on the general public governs its importance. For instance, the Notre Dame in Paris, an 800 year old structure which burned in April 2019, is still being reconstructed and safeguarded owing to the deep sentiment attached to it by the people of France. Similarly, a great space such as a stadium, a big university or railway station / airport etc. are structures designed for 100 years or more. The land price and its depreciation also affects the vitality of a building. For instance in the case of private homes or apartments, the importance of the structure is only as long as the market value of the property and the home itself is high. Depreciating value for political or social reasons, causes the building to lose its importance.
Another very important factor defining vitality is the ability of building to be used in different ways. In the current corona climate, we have witnessed many buildings being completely shut off and sealed. Malls, shopping centers, hotels, theaters, auditoriums, places of worship are some of them. However, hospitals, schools, supermarkets and smaller privately owned shops continue to be important. So do institutional and industrial buildings. So, how do we justify the construction of more malls and hotels in the future? What stops these buildings from becoming obsolete with the onset of online shopping and AirBnB type vacation stay solutions? The answer is their multi-functionalism. If a structure is planned in a way, that it can be used for different programs and converted easily into other building typologies, the architecture will continue to be relevant. For instance, if a hotel can be converted into a hospital or a mall can be renovated to become a school – their structures will survive. So should every building strive to be openly planned with multi-functional principles at its core? Quite simply – yes.
Architecture solves problems and influences the society in different ways. Covid-19 has forced all of us to lock ourselves in our homes. The only vaccine for this deadly disease that we know of yet is Architecture. We have witnessed a rise in the conversion of architecture more rapidly than ever before. Homes have become offices, car factories have become ventilator factories, schools and offices are shut, supermarkets and shops are operating with quarter capacities and hospitals are grossly crowded. A lot depends on how we approach architecture in the near future for the survival of humankind in the next hundred years. Assuming things are only going downhill from here (seeing our actions), we need to be prepared as designers and as a species to embrace herculean changes! Sustainable design, circular economy and adaptive re-use of architecture our the mantras architects need to chant.