Mobility in Architecture...and Dividing Rooms


In a discussion about "evolutionary architecture" amongst architects in our firm in Boston, we explored the difference between morphable form during construction and mobile form during occupancy.  A forward-thinking software client has commissioned us to design a building that can alter itself to their needs.  While pre-fabricated modules like shipping containers, SIPs, and concrete boxes can be assembled numerous ways, once the last mortar is laid or nail nailed, they are static.

In our discussion I posited that, post-occupancy, architecture can only be mobile around the shell of a building.  From a building's outside in, flashy daylighting and weatherproofing systems can rely on parametrics, but once you deal with flooring, insulation, vertical circulation, and especially vertical structure, everything turns out to be highly fixed in place. 

In our discussion, we determined that one element within the building envelope that is potentially very movable is program, i.e. the division between public and private space.  Many design schools have 4' x 8' panels for pinups that can be wheeled into place to divide up an auditorium into 5 or more discussion spaces (see pictures).  In my office discourse we talked about how to harness this freedom of mobility...having tracks would give too much authorship to the designer; without tracks, the space under the wheels would destroy acoustic privacy.

Does anyone take issue with my cynical thoughts about the practicality of moving whole buildings without the expensive and energy intensive use of hydraulics?  Does anyone have any thoughts on practicable ways to rearrange interiors on the drop of a dime, with acoustic and visual integrity? 

Feb 15, 12 3:34 pm

For Being a Southern California native, I am very disappointed in your lack of addressing  the outdoor space. Given large openings and proper, "designed" engagement of the outdoor environment, it seems to me that there is a variety of ways to manipulate the usable shell and the program. Especially if the outdoor space is shaded/covered etc….

Gregory Ain was masterful at transforming interior spaces with inexpensive movable panels, doors transforming 1, 2 or 3 smaller spaces into larger ones. The original Eames office in Venice – was a beautiful example of transformative space. I could go on…perhaps Bostonites feel differently?

Feb 15, 12 7:18 pm  · 

I find this line of architectural thought intriguing while at the same time a bit concerning. In general architecture remains as a static object that mitigates the demands of user customization in very specific locations [i.e. building envelope with regards to lighting and climate]. In most 'non-static' design interventions, the utilization of small, complicated and expensive parts have been prolific creating a negative stigma to the overall cost and unreliability of 'non-static' buildings [see Jean Nouvel's Arab World Institute]. This building typology is often restricted to very specific moments, due to the high cost and unreliability of such a proposition. When thinking about this subject of 'mobile form' the first question that came to my mind, is why move the building when the users can. Lets say for a second that the building remains static and the users are the unit of mobility. A building could then provide a variety of programmatic and spatial conditions that can be easily adapted to their specific use on an individual level. This suggests that rooms could remain a single program for an extended period of time, and then be adapted quickly by simple exchanging users for those that require the spatial qualities of each individual space. Although the idea of buildings being customizable at the macro level is intriguing, I think it is more important to address the customness at the level of the user. User customizability [in my opinion] is something that should exist only at the micro level in a plug-and-play type configuration. If you begin designing whole buildings that are so adaptable that the user can re-design them almost instantaneously, then we as architects and designers must transition into a new line of work. Handing over authorship entirely to the user  is some what troubling to me and allows design to be placed in the hands of people seemingly unequipped to design the places they live, work and play. I do think it is extremely important for buildings to evolve their programmatic function with the needs of the user, but I think there are more innovative ways then simply providing partitionability [obviously not a word] of a large space. Housing and office space all require varied levels of large, small, open, enclosed, public, and private spaces; and thus by leveraging the quantity and configuration of these program driven adjacencies, customizability is not necessary. Although I believe there is merit in creating fully macro customizable architecture, I think it is much easier for interventions at the micro level. If customization is your mission, then I  would suggest taking a look at the Quadror structural system here: It suggests customizability in the short-term at the micro level [i.e. furnishings] and customizability in the long-term at the macro level [i.e. structural systems]. Lastly, I agree that there should be dual authorship between the end-user and the designer, but I do not think that we should hand the authorship over entirely. Let me know what you think.

Feb 17, 12 12:38 pm  · 

From another colleague:

Very interesting stuff, much more exciting than building Revit models!

This is actually similar to my thesis that I just finished… one component that I’m looking for in the discussion which seems to be missing is transparency/opacity as a division between public and private. Does a moveable, glass wall make a space more private, yet maintain some connection with the public since there is a visual connection between the two? What if the mobile walls were able to change their level of opacity/transparency with a curtain or shade or (much more expensive) the wall itself changed from transparent to opaque? (There is a nightclub in Vegas whose bathroom door is transparent, but upon locking the door the glass becomes frosted to provide privacy.

Also, in regards to the lack of acoustic separation in movable walls, what if the tracks were sunken into the floor? That would provide a (limited) seal between the partition and the floor instead of a gap from wheels.


Feb 21, 12 9:00 am  · 
wurdan freo

Mobile Office Space.

Feb 21, 12 10:54 am  · 

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