ALCHEMY – as defined by Studio E
The chief aim of alchemy – a pseudo-science practiced in the Middle Ages – was to turn base metals into gold. As modern-day architects/alchemists, we embrace the ordinary programs, left-over sites and modest construction budgets of our practice and seek to extract extraordinary and memorable results.
Upon doing some research, I discovered that architectural alchemy is a principle embraced by not only Studio E, but by another buzz-worthy architect, Bjarke Ingels of the firm BIG from Copenhagen. I took this opportunity to share how another firm has interpreted this principle in their work and how this might inform the way we approach this principle.
“What I like about the term alchemy is that you take traditional ingredients that would separately be just “normal this” and “normal that,” and when you combine them, because of symbiotic relationships, you get much more out of the mix than if you were to leave them separate.” – Bjarke Ingels
I looked at 3 of his housing projects. The Mountain Dwelling, The Eight House – both built, and his latest proposal for a New York skyscraper called W57 but dubbed the Pyramid scheme, for obvious reasons.
In the Mountain Dwelling he takes the given elements of the program – parking and housing and stacks them in a unique way to give each living unit a penthouse condition with a view and provides its residents the suburban luxuries of a garden within an urban, dense context. Nice to see another way of dealing with the interaction between parking and housing.
The Eight House is a hybrid of offices, shops, townhouses and apartments in the form of a figure-eight-shaped perimeter block. Analysis of the different program elements and their specific requirements such as the depth required for offices and shops v. housing, led to opportunities such as the inclusion of space for gardens and public pathway that ascends the perimeter of the building. This transforms an ordinary mixed use program into something more extraordinary – a community of rowhouses along a mountain path that ascends from the ground to the top of the building allowing people to bicycle all the way up. Public life in mixed use buildings is usually restricted to the ground floor. Not here.
W57 looks different because again he is trying to combine disparate ideas to get something new out of the mix – the density and views of a skyscraper—the efficiency—with the idea of a courtyard. The building is a hybrid between the European perimeter block, with the buildings surrounding a central courtyard, and a traditional Manhattan high-rise, the tower in the park.
Like most of his projects, the form looks wild but it has been born of logic and rigorous thought. He presents diagrams to explain how the pragmatic requirements such as height restrictions, the site plan, the need to maximize views, and the need to create both public and private outdoor spaces for most of the apartments were limiting principles directing him towards a specific massing.
“Architecture seems to be entrenched in two equally unfertile fronts: Either naively utopian or petrifying pragmatic. We believe that there is a third way wedged in the no mans land between the diametrical opposites. Or in the small but very fertile overlap between the two. A pragmatic utopian architecture that takes on the creation of socially, economically and environmentally perfect places as a practical objective.” – Bjarke Ingels
Conicidentally, a few weeks after this presentation I was lucky enough to attend a lecture given by Bjarke in San Diego. His lecture was built around his latest slogan “Hedonistic Sustainability” – the idea that sustainability is not a burden, but that a sustainable city can in fact improve our quality of life.
You can watch a video of this lecture here. Enjoy!