Learning from the Commonplace: Designing Diversity
Hui, Natalie Lok Yan
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The commonplace is the realm that directly exists within the ordinary user’s reach and is the everyday lived in experience of the city. Margaret Crawford, the author of Everyday Urbanism, expresses that “an amazing number of social, spatial and aesthetic meanings can be found in the repeated activities and conditions that constitute our daily, weekly and yearly routines. The utterly ordinary reveals a fabric of space and time defined by a complex realm of social practices- a conjuncture of accident, desire and habit”. Similarly the study of the spatial qualities of the everyday urban fabric have been studied through diagrams and mapping in Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas and Atelier Bow Wow’s Pet Architecture. Both address bringing awareness to an informal urban landscape that is not conventionally considered beautiful or is an aesthetic that practices aspire to achieve. Venturi and Atelier Bow Wow chose to take on a light hearted view of the phenomenon by drawing on popular culture so that it may be more easily accepted. This is hinted in the terminology that they have coined such as “the duck”, “the decorated shed” and “pet architecture”. However, in doing so they have diminished its significance to current architectural practice. In Koolhas‘ vision of the Metropolitan Condition he acknowledges that informal urban conditions such as the commonplace remains “largely outside the field of vision of official architecture and criticism“. This thesis asserts that an informal bottom-up urban setting has substantial value to formal architecture. In reality, top-down and bottom-up phenomena are not two distinct systems but a weighted system with opposing levels of control and freedom influencing the same elements. This thesis seeks to extract the genetic code of the commonplace as a design instrument. It aims to uncover the underlying design principles within the urban environment and redeploy them as operative design strategies. Although a systematic design approach that inherently suggests regularity and order seems like the antithesis of the bottom-up driven commonplace, the generic rules implied by top-down design are nevertheless part of the same spectrum which emphasizes the properties of the commonplace by becoming the key counterpoint. Drawing from precedents, research begins from pure documentation and analysis of the existing but goes one step further to discover the genetic armature of the commonplace. Analysis must therefore shift from the singular element to understanding multiple elements that act as interconnected layers so that one may discover the overall quantitative and qualitative characteristics of the commonplace. The genetics of the commonplace are comprised of complex layers of building fabric, signage, occupation and culture. The design portion of the thesis envisions the potential to merge the properties of top-down and bottom-up as a design strategy. In particular, the thesis embraces a new methodology of design through scripting. Parametric coding creates an active rule set that is able to work through complex iterations at a global and local scale. By coding flexibility into a system with defined spatial, programmatic and other context specific limits, the results will push opposing characteristics to their full capacity to discover the unrealized power of architecture to embody both emergent and hierarchical relationships.