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Mass customised or off the shelf: How much individuality can architecture tolerate?

When constructing a private house or apartment, the “right” amount of individuality not only refers to creating attractive living spaces, but also to designing properties that maintain their value in the long term. Nowhere is the demand for customised design greater than within one’s own four walls: buildings and apartments should suit individual living preferences and allow occupants to identify closely with them. Architects therefore have to plan for today’s users. However, if they want to design sustainable buildings, they should also bear in mind what future generations will want. How individual is architecture permitted or obliged to be if it meets requirements that are likely to be different and are sometimes contradictory?

Julia Gill is a freelance architect and academic in Berlin. She completed a doctorate under Karin Wilhelm and Thomas Sieverts on individualisation and standardisation in the commercial construction of private residences, and carries out research predominantly in the field of peri-urban phenomena with a focus on residential building, which is in preparation in part for the IBA Berlin 2020 exhibition. She is on the board of directors of the “Netzwerk Architekturwissenschaft” (architectural science network) and teaches/taught design and architectural theory at various German universities including the Braunschweig University of Technology and the Berlin University of the Arts.

Find more information about Julia Gill and her work at: www.juliagill.de

In principle, the right to fully develop as an individual comes with its own limitations. Because only tolerance for one another justifies every individual’s freedom: successfully reconciling the amount of individuality a society will allow with the concessions it asks of its members is the basis for the continuance of any culture. When it comes to construction, this means comparing the design of the clients or architects with the requirements the cultural community has of the built environment – in terms of design as well as responsible and conservative use of urban, scenic and spatial resources. How can such reconciliation succeed in the construction of private homes and apartments?

Firstly, a distinction has to be drawn between the desire of a client or architect to express individual concepts of living for a residential property and the opportunity to furnish houses or apartments individually. Though it is certainly not the case that opportunities for individual development always have to accompany unique architecture, in the same way that the architecture of adaptable buildings is not necessarily generic. On the contrary.

The pure embodiment of an individual concept of living is a detached house in a green field. If these individually designed “architectural homes” were once the prerogative of a small upper class, the commercial construction of private homes promises individuality to a broad middle class for the first time thanks to ever more modern methods of production. The principles of mass customisation allow products to vary greatly whilst still being produced in series, directly rivalling an individual dialogue between the client and architect. Yet a glance at the dream home catalogues of construction companies and affluent urban suburbs accommodating private homes demonstrates that many houses are not all that individual after all.

In the customised designs that have defined the product ranges of commercial suppliers of private homes since the 1990s in particular, we are continuously confronted with the same idealised pictures, which have been standardised by suppliers. These pictures depict dream worlds – ranging from readily memorable Mediterranean flair and a “cool atmosphere” to the unattainable castles and gardens of the beautiful and rich. They are reproduced relentlessly in all types of advertising material; interior design magazines, furniture shop catalogues, the tabloid press, travel guides and films made for television are shaped by them in a similar way.

Degeto productions are currently infl uential here, such as the television series by Inga Lindström and Rosamunde Pilcher: the Landarzt (Country doctor), the Klinik unter Palmen (Clinic under the palms) or the Traumhotel (Dream hotel). Numerous reality TV shows on interior design aired by various broadcasters several times a day cater to residential longing: they give advice on decorating your home whilst providing snippets of family life, and give practical tips and guidance on adapting these dream worlds to suit your own home.

We are confronted by the same images in property development projects, particularly in the luxury segment of the private home construction sector. Investors in such projects are increasingly adapting marketing strategies from the commercial private home construction sector and speculating on diverse product designs ranging from Gründerzeit architecture to buildings that cater to a modern lifestyle (see Palais KolleBelle. Savoir-vivre in Berlin, www.kollebelle.de; Choriner Höfe. The fine art of living, www.chorinerhoefe.de). Almost all project developers offer the option to individualise properties as standard – from the layout of the floor plan and the floor and wall coverings to sanitary wares and fittings. In the private home and construction industry, a visual language that portrays a certain lifestyle and image has to embrace current trends. It must also remain broadly comprehensible to satisfy the desire of clients to both set themselves apart and to feel a sense of belonging. This makes individualisation difficult, and the freedom gained in production is offset by a collage of ready-made images.

These customised properties therefore offer the perception of individuality, which “off-the-shelf” apartments and houses are lacking. This can also be provided by variation and the freedom to adapt: not only by permitting different sizes of home and use-neutral floor plans, but by providing design freedom that, paradoxically, is possible as a result of consistent standardisation. However, this “standardisation” should not be understood to mean standard solutions, whose indiscriminate proliferation in cities and the countryside has resulted in justified criticism of series production. Instead it should be seen as a method which saves time and money and unleashes the potential to consider common standards, instead of pandering to rash desires for tailored individualism.

Examples of interesting approaches are embodied in a series of residential buildings designed by the French architecture firm Lacaton Vassal, such as the construction of 23 new apartments in Trignac or the extension of the Tour Bois le Prêtre (see photo series, page 18 ff., www.lacatonvassal.com). The standardisation of design details and the unconventional use of very simple industrial materials, such as polycarbonate sheets and greenhouse units, radically reduced construction costs. The money saved was reinvested in living space and is now available to residents for adaptation – even under the tight constraints of a social housing construction project.

Reducing the level of building completion to a shell and passing the responsibility for completion to users also offers diverse design freedoms. A sort of “private home within an apartment block” is emerging. This is currently being tested in the residential construction project “Tila” in Helsinki, designed by the architect Pia Illonen (www.talli.fi ), and in the IBA project Grundbau und Siedler (Basic Building and Do-It-Yourself Builders) by the Cologne-based architects BeL (www.bel.cx). It is evident that there is great potential for identification in the exciting realm between creating the serial “frame” and the specific, user-designed “content”. The final fitting out of homes by their owners and renters demands creativity and commitment, though also allows residents to furnish properties according to personal preference and the money they have at their disposal.

The aforementioned examples also show that buildings and apartments which are adaptable because they are based on the principles of standardisation rather than individualisation can certainly be architecturally unique and of a high quality. They are also easier to identify with than the clichéd ideal of individualised apartments and private homes, and often maintain their value better in the long term. Because while suppliers make their clients pay for the design they want, one day every tailored home will be too big or small for its occupants, depending on family related or professional developments. Or it follows the dictates of fashion: future generations will not necessarily like what clients once found attractive, which could certainly have a negative effect on the value of many suburban family homes in particular. In contrast, standardisation not only reduces costs, but resources too. Intelligently implemented it permits a high degree of freedom for personal development. Individual living does not necessarily mean individual construction.