We asked Leon Lai, one of two Canadian members in the global design collective PinkCloud.dk, to talk about how design by democratic decision making can transform abandoned industrial buildings and engage an informed citizenry
Why is the common-place and the banal in architecture so vital for engaging with the public?
Whether through built work or speculative proposals, we see architecture as a flexible political agency that has the power to affect societal change in positive ways. The common-place and the banal of course is an important part of the public sphere. However, unlike other territories of design in our cities, the common-place does not necessarily conform to established architectural ideologies and is still very much open for ideas and debates. Within that space, we believe research and problem-oriented innovation is given priority over style and personal philosophy. Therefore by finding opportunities to problem-solve in the everyday, we, as young designers, have a much more direct voice in conversing with the public, framing discussions around social issues, engaging with both our immediate local neighbours or even communities around the world.
Your studio takes advantage of the time difference between North American and Europe to be more efficient. Can you explain how this influences your creative process?
We try to take advantage of precisely the fact that an idea can be dismantled and re-assembled by multiple designers in the span of a 24-hr day. This way of “virtual iterating” allows local ideas that are specific to each designer’s background to emerge somewhat anonymously and also feeding back into the overall design. We discovered that this methodology further distils the idea of the project and erases any gratuitous “design gestures” or “signature” of any particular designer, which would otherwise be much more prominent if the design had not go through the series of digital alterations. The most interesting part is seeing the design evolve through a democratic decision making process, changing in a way that none of us would have been able to envision individually, locally, in the first place.
Another influence from working in the “placeless” is that we are now motivated to think “globally” and work nomadically anywhere, any time. We are constantly in contact with each other compiling snippets of ideas for a design, eventually developing the same concept in the form of architecture. Due to the internet, the advent of communication technologies and the popularity of crowd-sourcing, our generation is experiencing a shift away from the individual and more on “the team”, in practice and in academia. We are aware that we now have the ability to take stock differently by embracing alternative ways of practice.
There have been many ideas for abandoned grain silos and other obsolete industrial structures over the years. In your opinion, what are the obstacles to transforming these ideas from concepts to construction and how do we achieve that?
First the construction of the project is a logistical challenge. Decontamination, along with modification of the existing structures and introduction of new construction techniques for the house will require the formation of a new field of architectural expertise, including scientists, oil companies, the prefabrication industry and of course architectural designers. On a social and economic level, another obstacle would be to generate substantial entrepreneurial and economic incentive for potential development. The technology and human expertise need to reach market affordability in order for development to really take off.
At the same time, the project also raises conversation around the cultural problem of sustainability. Regardless of the available technology in the complete transformation of these structures, how will society react? How far will we go in challenging sustainable living? Should we recreate the same sense of comfort that we are so accustomed to in the 21st century when our needs for dwellings have shifted so dramatically? Our design tried to brand the project as the ideal nuclear family home, that is to say, cultural and media support is probably the most important proponent and obstacle in the realization of such concepts of sustainability living in the future.
What have you learned from working with the Nunavut Housing Corporation (NHC) for the design proposal of the work/live housing units?
That’s a tough question because we learned so much from just visiting Nunavut in general. While being in Iqaluit we had the pleasure of presenting our limited research for the competition to NHC at their headquarters and also learning about the various housing initiatives and programs they have in place to improve the state of northern housing. Like my earlier comment on the Oil Silo home, the difficulty of designing in the north, in addition to climate, shipping, material restrictions, is the difference in culture and lifestyle. Our experiences with the NHC demonstrated there is indeed a large gap between social housing and private ownership, one often is not able to move beyond the same level of social housing because the lack of stable alternatives. There is a clear need for different housing models in the spectrum of social housing. On the other hand, a successful work/live project will largely depend on its model of management, whether it’s a co-op community, long-term rent, stand-alone rentable “work” modules, etc. In order for the work/live model to address the complex financial and cultural characteristics of Nunavut, the housing management model and architecture must work together and be flexible enough to accommodate these divisions.
Even the common-place in the high Arctic in many ways is unique and nothing short of an engineering and design feat. In retrospect, the NHC has a daunting task because they must engage the conversation of housing from all three fronts: design, construction and cultural mediation. As designers, we were very fortunate to learn that the NHC is deeply committed to using housing and design as a tool to respond to the cultural development of Arctic communities.