competition "Kriehubergasse", 1st prize for ARTEC Architekten
Prefabrication / Series / Standard
Bettina Götz and Richard Manahl, ARTEC Architekten
published in Zuschnitt 71, proHolz Austria, Vienna, 2018
Today more than ever before the nature of building is determined by individually designed forms with standardised function and object-related, on-site production. However, users’ needs for spatially generous buildings that only subtly indicate their particular function require the contemporary and appropriate use of present-day possibilities of production – to produce high-quality prefabricated spatial structures that can be speedily erected.
The 19th century apartment buildings erected by speculators still remain our most popular form of urban housing. For their time they were highly standardized and conceived in a functionally open way, with generous room heights and spacious staircases. Generally limited only by the window wall and the spine wall containing the flues, the spatial functions on the street side, which are not predetermined, offer a high degree of freedom in a longitudinal direction and are accompanied on the courtyard side by the necessary functional spaces. This was the system according to which – and even taking into account all the problems that are not mentioned here – our cities were lastingly expanded in the 19th century. One of the most important factors in ensuring that this system works is the essential openness of structures in the previous century. In Vienna before 1930 the planning term Zimmer (room) was used for both residential and commercial spaces, precisely because both the height and shape of the rooms were kept neutral. Today we are again faced with this question about the expanding city, with the clear realization that this kind of openness has not been allowed in any form of urban expansion in the 20th and, so far, 21st century.
Regrettably, in large-scale housing and also as regards the theme of prefabrication the twentieth century did not find any lasting solutions. Consequently, the most innovative efforts to standardise building in an intelligent way with the help of a new technology, which were realised, for example, in single family houses like the Case Study Houses and in iconic objects by Fuller or Prouvé, were restricted almost entirely to small or small-scale buildings. Despite the great impact made by Le Corbusier’s five points for a new definition of architectural thinking at the start of the century, they were not conceived for standardized prefabricated, construction methods. Ultimately in both East and West the unassuming prefabricated concrete slab building triumphed, where required also with holes in the wall for windows or doors and a room height of 2.5 metres.
Although discredited by numerous Plattenbauten (precast concrete slab buildings) from the 1950s and later, which allowed no scope for design or spatial aspirations, stacking prefabricated building elements could nevertheless allow us to find a path to a new usable simplicity: by placing prefabricated timber modules above each other that are equipped spatially and in a loadbearing way with infrastructure so that they can function autonomously. Or by stacking prefabricated decks and open areas that permit fitting-out with simple building elements that make no demands in terms of fire-resistance and consequently allow to use prefabricated wooden elements.
Because the simple, compact stacking of similar elements almost inevitably leads to monotony not much different to that produced by the Plattenbauten (the term used – Raumzelle or spatial cell – is itself revealing), variety and empty areas are part of the brief for the open deck with free in-fill. By using boxes as loadbearing structure and infrastructure, with simple deck elements hung between them to offer additional, functionally neutral spaces, this kind of variety can also be achieved with stacked boxes, in a similar way. The requirements mentioned earlier, such as generous room heights and ease in altering the interior layout, remain the essential basic requirements for later conversion and further use.
In the main exhibition at this year’s Biennale one of the few contributions dealing with housing construction or prefabrication is a project by Michael Maltzan in Los Angeles. This project shows the exemplary possibilities and, at the same time, also the limits of stacked boxes: above a free-form, multi-storey topography made of in situ concrete in which communal urban functions that relate to street level are to be found, prefabricated wooden boxes are stacked to form neighbourly little cluster towers and in this way create an urban figure that can be easily noted and identified, with interiors of quality, also in the serially produced, stacked spatial cells.