BOX | LIVE-WORK COOPERATIVE | HOUSTON

Yale School of Architecture | Studio Pier Vittorio Aureli | 2014

 

 

1. CONCEPT

The objective of the project is to recycle abandoned big box stores in North Houston and transform them into co-operative live-work environments for freelancers. This is a response to the potential decline of the commercial activity of the big box store, the internalization of shared space that is predominant in the city, and the false images of community Houston’s contemporary housing developments tend to convey.

The ruins of commodified spaces can be converted into shared live-work spaces through the insertion of small-scale domestic units into the large structure.

Internalized Shared Spaces

Houston’s urban form can be described as a series of internally cohesive, autonomous fragments that emphasize and take a particular pride in their separateness and private identity, while refusing to conform to an overarching logic on a larger scale. Each distinct fragment is foregrounded by the lack of shared exterior spaces. The common or shared has been co-opted by private, exclusive, interests. The public realm is almost entirely funneled into privatized, highly-controlled and highly-surveilled, interior territories of malls, gallerias, movie theaters and parking garages.

Houston's history of suburban development has been motivated by the quiet crisis of an almost total absence of community and common space. As a result, many of the fragmented neighborhoods tend to appropriate the 'image' of community in exaggerated ways. Whether it’s the mutated vernaculars of the subdivisions or the ambivalent publicness of the malls and arenas, the absence of viable and vibrant public street life haunts Houston's suburban identity.

Instead of trying to create a connection through public space between the distinct fragments, I’m interested in harnessing the hermetically sealed character of the domestic form and the internalization of the public space by bringing semi-public spaces of production into the private realm.

Abandoned Big Box Stores

There is an abundance of abandoned big box stores in North Houston. The majority of this type of unoccupied, commercial buildings is in deserted environments allows for a significant number of this type of repurposing. Thus the project attempts to recycle and reanimate formerly active areas rather than building further and further outwards, turn the  annexation model inward; and reclaim internal, lost territories.

1.c) Programatically and Formally False Facades

Houston’s domestic buildings often promise spaces they don't deliver. These empty images range from apartment buildings disguised as an accumulation of huts; atrium buildings that suggest inviting courtyards, but don’t provide it; gated communities that promise intimacy, but are completely lacking privacy; and row houses cloaked as single-family homes. These facades are both formally and programatically false. This project aims to unlock the latent potential these buildings suggest. Instead of celebrating the image of the domestic as an aggregation of single-family houses, there is potential in actually giving diversity and meaning to it.

The generic character of the big box would allow inverting the “false facade” of the pitched roof hut aggregations, by allowing for the co-existence of differing program and diverse subjects. This multiplicity would not read on the blank façade, but would only be legible in the interior.

2. PRECEDENTS/HISTORICAL ROOTS

The atrium building has similar characteristics: a clear exterior and an interior facade that reinforces the hermetic enclosure of the outside and opens up towards the interior. The atrium building has been the typological source for both the commercial and communitarian urban forms in the mid-19th century. Despite emerging around the same time, these two building types have completely opposing ideologies. The department store is a symbol of capitalism, consumerism and the bourgeoisie, whereas the Phalanstery stands for communal living through cooperation. There is a pattern of exchange between the commercial and communitarian forms; for instance, the inspiration for Fourier’s Phalanstery was the Palais Royale.

Responding to both the potential decline of the commercial activity of the big box stores, and the historical dialogue between commercial and communitarian forms, this proposal attempts to redeem the ruins of abandoned commodified spaces for social reappropriation.

3. MODULE/LAYOUT/ARCHITECTURE

The basic domestic module is a 3m by 8m unit, including a bathroom. A few units are larger and include a kitchen, or are duplexes with an additional bedroom.   Individual pavilions hold 4-12 units and include shared facilities such as kitchens and laundries that are organized around a large stair with bleacher seating, making circulation central and avoiding channelized corridors. The configurations of pavilions composed of the small-scale domestic units are simultaneously labyrinth like and clearly legible, as they create streets and squares in the interior of the store. These squares are defined by 4 pavilions, however through the alternating orientation of the pavilions, only 2 of them open towards the square, avoiding super-centralized squares and allowing for privacy. Each entrance into the big box store opens into a square and directly faces the stairs leading up to the pathway that wraps around all the buildings, offering an informal working space. The regular rhythm of stairs allows for clear navigation. Small-scale domestic units can take advantage of the large size of the big box store. The large open squares and rooftops function as shared working spaces and cater to different levels of collaboration and privacy. The most informal and least private spaces are located on the ground floor, more secluded areas are located on the roof of the single story pavilions and the most private working environments are on the roof of the double height pavilions. Certain courtyards are open to the sky, and can be enclosed through a large industrial curtain.

4. POLITICAL IMPLICATION

The subject this project is devoted to is the freelancer, who is often exploited in the contemporary American economic system. Hosting both live and work, this building could enable a cooperative, a contemporary Phalanstery, where freelancers could work together to protect their rights.

While this building resists gentrification through its closed character to the outside, its large parking lot can be a site for “ Stim and Dross” activities, like screenings, gatherings and farmers markets. The ownership of a unit would come with a portion of ownership of shared interior space and outdoor parking space. This way the events in the parking lot can become a form of financing.

5. CONCLUSION

The informal aesthetic of the shared working space has been adopted, and reduced to an image by large corporations such as creative agencies. However this aesthetics masks a normative, hierarchical and corporate office structure. In the same way, Houston’s domestic buildings convey false images of community, and diminish their content to a bare image.

The objective of this project is to reverse the image-content relationship.  By rejecting the “diverse image” communicated to the outside and embracing the blank façade of the big box store, this project enables an architecture that is both generic and unexpected, and offers real diversity by sponsoring multiple levels of sharing and collaboration.