This is a guest blog by a former SHP Architecture co-op, Samuel Tibbs. As part of his studies he traveled abroad to study the design, culture and history of Southeast Asia during the fall semester of 2015.
Near the end of my freshman year as an architecture student, I was introduced to various works by Frank Lloyd Wright. He was an American architect who designed over one thousand structures, only completing just more than half by the end of his seventy year career. I was intrigued by the Prairie School movement of design with which he was heavily associated, and found a growing desire to tour some of his local work in my free time. During the spring of the following school year I made the 5 hour drive to Pennsylvania, visited Kentuck Knob (also known as the Hagan House) and then traveled a few minutes northeast to tour the house and grounds of Fallingwater. As I moved through the interior spaces observing the intricate details and materials, I noticed the change in ceiling height as we moved from hallway to bedroom, or stairway to living spaces. The intermediate areas became narrower and the visibility more limited. A feeling of near claustrophobia became common and persisted until; at last I entered the space to which each hallway had been leading. This language of compression and release was consistent throughout both Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, and made the relief of each departure from dense to open areas much more dramatic.
It was here I first began to grasp how the mind reacts to small, dense spaces; it seeks escape. Cities in Southeast Asia such as Thailand, and Manila consist of dense urban environments where, for many, escape cannot be found within a structure. Some members of the massive population have limited property or financial resources, and cannot escape the tightly weaved communities. In similar restrictions are areas like Hong Kong and Singapore, where every meter of land is at a premium. Many lots are built as tall as possible to maximize usability for a growing population. In order to provide shelter, personal space is expendable, leaving individuals in close quarters with themselves and others.
As I travelled through these cities, observing massive residential structures, I quickly noticed how a community could respond to the density of the situation and find relief. Value was placed upon taking care of the few public spaces that existed in each of these areas, as well as preserving cleanliness. As evening hours grew closer, public spaces would swell with people, seeking relief from the confines of their work or residential spaces. While some individuals would sit alone, soaking in the openness of the environment, others would gather with friends taking the opportunity to congregate casually. Despite my awareness of the difficult situation awaiting many upon return to their homes, it was still refreshing to see the city used as a social space. I suppose it put my mind at ease, knowing that amidst the extreme density, there was still an opportunity for departure.