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Opinion: a Le Corbusier design for a customisable house inspired by the devastation of Flanders during the First World War has haunted architecture ever since, says Justin McGuirk. for 1 last update 2020/07/09

Woodworking Planshow to Woodworking Plans for Any major anniversary carries with it a baggage of minor ones, and so it is in 2014. When Europe marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War later this year, few people will be thinking about architecture. And yet it was the devastation of Flanders in the autumn of 1914 that inspired Le Corbusier to design the Maison Dom-ino, a standardised construction system for the reconstruction effort that was to come. That simple drawing has haunted architecture for a century. Indeed, it is far more relevant today than it was then.

The Architectural Association in London kicked off the commemorations last week with The Dom-ino Effect, a symposium dedicated to Corb''s solution was almost painfully simple: a standardised, two-storey house made up of concrete slabs supported on columns and a staircase. That was it – no walls, no rooms, just a skeleton. He hoped to patent the idea and make his fortune in partnership with his friend Max Du Bois''t actually work. First of all, the columns are too slender to support those slabs, and secondly, the placement of the staircase prevents the houses being joined end to end as the name implies. Moreover, Corb''s organiser, put it, ""

If only his patrons had known that one day millions of houses would be built along similar lines, not just in Europe but in the slums of the developing world.

The London-based architect Platon Issaias argued that most of Athens is made up of Dom-ino houses. After the Second World War, the Greek government stoked the recovery by allowing families to sell plots of land to developers for a share of the resulting buildings. The polykatoikia, a multi-storey apartment block, is effectively a tall Dom-ino, built without an architect, in which every family has configured their own apartments. The model was so successful that it created a vast class of landowners – and, of course, debtors.

What is radical about Dom-ino is that it is merely the beginning of a process, one completed by residents themselves. It is, in other words, the abandonment of total design. The architect is no longer a visionary, just a facilitator.

Woodworking Planshow to Woodworking Plans for That very idea was taken up by Stewart Brand in the 1990s in his book and subsequent BBC series How Buildings Learn. Better known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of the original Californian techno-utopians, Brand took on architecture and argued that buildings work best when they evolve gradually and incrementally. As a critique of architecture it was not particularly potent, and yet, characteristically, he was ahead of the curve. Today, architects as diverse as Santiago’s Alejandro Aravena and London''s unbuilt design for the Jussieu Library, with its skeletal, open framework, is reminiscent of it. Even more strikingly, look at SANAA''s drawing comes into its own, as a platform, in every sense of the word.

Ironically, Corb had Fordist standardisation in mind and yet produced the perfect architectural symbol for an era obsessed with customisation and participation. Stripped of architecture, the Dom-ino is pure system. It invites us to complete it and inhabit it in any way we desire. More than the specific system itself, it is that idea that is so relevant today. By the same token, the drawing is so open that we can read what we choose into it.

Image of Favela, a crowded Brazilian slum in Rio de Janeiro, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. In 2012 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture for an exhibition he curated with Urban Think Tank.