On Defining a Post-Industrial Style (3): Emerging examples

The last of our 3-parter on post-industrial design, by Eric Hunting. Today we conclude with examples that incorporate the precepts Eric introduced yesterday.

Eric Hunting:


“Let’s now consider some examples of artifacts that exhibit characteristics of Post-Industrial design sensibility. We’ve already discussed one of the prime examples;

The personal computer:

The PC represents the prime example of a product of an industrial ecology and the prime example of a platform superseding the designs of a very large variety of products based on it. The computer enthusiast can now personally create a computer in any form with any level of performance and features they desire simply by picking from an infinite assortment of parts found in innumerable on-line catalogs. If this is not enough, there are any number of services available for further customization of parts like enclosures. And this is global. The PC is the first ‘world product’. Choices tend to dwindle with size, however, as the smaller the form factor the less flexible the integration of components and the more exclusive the designs of motherboards become to the designs of enclosures. With laptop computers assembly-on-demand is quite rare due to extreme limits on form factors and we have seen most portable computing devices evolve into blobjects as a result.

Today we are seeing the platforms of computers evolve in such a way as they don’t just supersede any one form of product, they are no longer embodied by any one device. Network technology is now replacing the motherboard as the primary integrator of an overall personal computer system, with the resulting trend being a dissolution of the computer into a cloud of network integrated appliances that, individually, are becoming more blobject-like because they are so reduced in size and increasingly portable in nature. Early personal computers would seek to integrate everything that made up a computer -even the keyboards- into a single enclosure. A Swiss Army Knife logic prevailed with computer product design. Today, however, the primary subsystems and user interface elements of a computer are now often broken up into smaller separate self-contained components that may all belong to the same platform but are not of any common model line or even the same manufacturer. CPUs, network interfaces, hard disk drives, CD/DVD drives, monitors, keyboard, and some portable devices, all of these elements that collectively make-up a personal computer now are found as discrete network-integrated devices. In the near future, these devices will work collectively in multiples and without regard to physical distance and will be joined by many other consumer electronics and home appliances and many mobile devices that, today, exist as separate computers. TVs and their media servers, electronic toys, computerized tools and home appliances, laptops and mini-laptops, tablet displays and eBook readers, cell phones (increasingly taking the form of mini-tablets) and headsets will all become user interface appliances for a collective personal computer integrated without much respect to location. Curiously, while the individual components of the personal computer are evolving away from the Post-Industrial model towards becoming blobjects, the platforms of personal computers are evolving closer to the Post-Industrial ideal of complete architectural openness and community ownership.

Living Structures:


The brain-child of designer Ken Isaacs, Living Structures and their building system -dubbed Matrix- were among the first deliberate attempts at Post-Industrial design. They are also some of the first examples of ‘furnitecture’; furniture that crosses the line between furniture and architecture by exhibiting an integration of many zonal functions of living/working spaces and sometimes having characteristics of enclosure. They were also one of the inspirations for what came to be known as the Urban Nomad movement.

Like many mid-century intellectuals, Isaacs anticipated a radical transformation of western culture in the wake of what seemed, at the time, like the imminent wholesale failure of Capitalism and the rest of the Industrial Age paradigms. Thus he sought to use design as a means for society to re-appropriate the technologies of the collapsing Industrial Age in a new social context. Craft was all about hand-craft technique and talent -an art form little concerned with producing artifacts of practical use. This could not have mass impact. One needed to apply technology toward new fabrication techniques that maximized personal productivity toward independent support of a good standard of living realized in spite of the traditional cash-economic systems that seemed on the verge of failure. (much as they do today) Thus he envisioned a new ‘do it yourself’ ethic based on that premise. One could argue that Isaacs was the original Maker -as we call such enthusiasts today.

With this notion in mind, Isaacs devised a modular construction platform based on simple materials that could be handled with simple cheap tools yet serve for a very large variety of uses. Called Matrix, this simple system of 2×2 wood frame construction based on bolt-together ‘trilap’ joints and using simple surface-mount panels of plywood would later be revised in the form of a system called Box Beam that became a catalyst for the later Soft-Tech and grass-roots renewable energy movements of the 1970s. Today it has re-emerged under the name Grid Beam.

Using this simple building system and a system of modular element design, Isaacs then developed a series of furnitecture designs called Living Structures -because one could customize and adapt them spontaneously using the simple rules of the building/design system. The first of these devised as a way for he and his wife to maximize the use of the volume of a modest studio apartment, these DIY constructions combined multiple furniture features into common structures of roughly cubic unit forms that also allowed for access to the normally unusable overhead volume of a room, creating many levels of functional space in the standard single-storey volume. Resisting suggestions to market these designs as Modernist furniture products, Isaacs published his designs to free public use in a book entitled How To Make Your Own Living Structures and conducted a series of short courses teaching their construction in colleges around the world, admonishing his students to use and adapt the system to create for themselves. And so they did, with Living Structures emerging in the works of many young designers of the time and appearing in other books such as the Nomadic Furniture series and others similar focused on notions of adaptive reuse of common objects and industrial cast-offs.

Isaacs went on to experiment with ever-more-ambitious applications of his Living Structure principles, seeking to develop a practical system of ‘nomadic housing’ that suited a model of a future migrant intellectual youth culture that traveled the deteriorating cities and suburbs of the collapsing Industrial Age and repurposed their detritus into a new culture. An idea not so far removed from what SF writer Corey Doctorow -in the contemporary Maker context- recently dubbed the Outquisition. Switching from the wooden frame construction system to stressed-skin plywood structures and the use of early forms of pipe-fitting frame systems such as the ubiquitous Kee Klamp framing, he devised a variety of novel microhouse designs that have inspired many designers to this day, such as those of the N55 group in the Netherlands. Isaacs and his supporters even explored the creation of vehicles. However, as the scales of structures explored increased, Isaacs encountered increasing challenges with the limitations of simple materials, particularly with weatherizing his structures for use in the outdoor environment. Most of his microhouses proved short-lived -but then in the nomadic context they were not intended to be permanent in the manner of conventional housing. More like the traditional housing of native Americans and Polynesians, they were intended to constantly evolve and be renewed.

Tivoli Model One Radio:


One of the most iconic Modernist electronic appliance designs of the 20th century, the Model One radio was the creation of high fidelity audio technology pioneer Henry Kloss who cofounded a string of companies across his career producing breakthrough home audio products that, for the most part, all featured a characteristic minimalism in design, at once retrospective and modern, very high in quality yet understated in appearance. More an engineer than an industrial designer, Kloss’ designs were always about the technology on the inside of the box. In that they make a powerful visual statement in their external simplicity. The origin of the Model One design lay in the two-piece KLH Model Eight monaural table radio (one box for the radio, one matching box for the speaker, and both designed for convenient bookshelf placement) -the product of the second company Kloss co-founded. Brought out of retirement to co-found the Tivoli company, he revised this design with more modern MOSFET technology producing the Model One monaural radio and its related Model Two stereo system. This remains the anchor product of the Tivoli company to this day, the basic form factor and its simple aesthetic now adapted to support more contemporary CD players, satellite radios, and digital audio systems.

It is the minimalism of Koss’s design that makes the Model One a model for Post-Industrial style. A throw-back to some degree to the construction of the earliest of home radios, it takes the form of a simple open-ended finished wooden box that uses simple recessed flat alloy plates to enclose front and back and simple internal stand-offs to support its circuitry, all held together with a few screws on the back plate. A 3″ circular speaker is matched to a 3″ tuning nob with two smaller nobs and two simple LED lights in between rounding out the only controls. Many old electronics devices have used similar enclosures but, whether by insight or chance, Koss arrived as a particular set of dimensions for this simple box (212.7mm wide, 114.3mm high, and 133.35mm deep) that not only proved visually appealing and most convenient for placement on a table or shelf but also proved well adapted to accessory components and many other electronic device uses. A simple modification of the front and back faceplates is all that is needed to accommodate different applications. More recent products of the company have diverged from the original design form but a half dozen products in the Tivoli line still employ this exact same enclosure in a variety of color options. Thus this design has become a platform for many kinds of electronic devices relating to the original radio. It could work for much more. One can easily imagine this exact same enclosure employed with countless devices including personal computer hardware.

In the context of early Post-Industrial production, where fabrication technology still remains somewhat limited in flexibility and scale, an enclosure design like the Model One’s would accommodate the need to maximize productivity from a minimum of reusable modular component elements. One could thus readily imagine today’s Makers employing such an enclosure in a thousand applications and readily evolving their internal components as technology evolves without throwing away other perfectly reusable components. It was with the inspiration of the Model One that this author, some time ago, proposed the concept of enclosure profiles; extruded tubular profiles in a small range of sizes that would accommodate a large variety of appliances and electronics using the same basic design approach. These extrusions might be made of a variety of materials -though aluminum is most-likely- and would feature integral circuit board slots, screw tap ridges, and external ridges for heat sink fins and stand-off legs. The profiles would be produced as a stock material, cut to length, and routed on their open ends to accommodate simple recessed face and back plates held in place by screws. Simply by using different profile lengths, cutting and marking different face and back plates, and mounting different internal components an endless variety of devices could be accommodated with the same profile, and this would be further expanded by a small spectrum of profiles for common device sizes;pocket scale devices like music players and cell phones, tablet-like devices like portable computers or monitors, desk/shelf/table devices like radios, small appliances, and computer hardware, large appliance enclosures for things like computer printers, microwave ovens, and so on. For the largest enclosures, composite profiles would be used, based on precision-interlocking corner or side panel profiles with different optional formed-in features.

Currently, the Maker community continues to rely largely on adaptive reuse of found objects for electronics enclosures. But when indigenous enclosure component designs start to become standardized among some users, it’s likely that something very similar to the Model One design will emerge.

The Africar:


The well-intentioned but ill-fated brainchild of famous photojournalist Tony Howarth, the Africar was perhaps the first Post-Industrial vehicle design. After many years traveling the roughest parts of the globe, Howarth came to the realization that the industrialized countries were doing a great disservice to the developing countries in the export of used conventional automobiles designed to suit the roads and auto service infrastructure of those industrialized nations but very poorly adapted to the situation and environment in the rest of the world. In the poor road conditions of developing countries, common automobiles were short-lived and repairs -if possible at all- impossibly expensive because of reliance on imported components. (this is why, today, we commonly see a ubiquity of just a few brands and models of cars and trucks in the developing world -typically the few most rugged and cheap of Japanese made vehicles like the Toyota pickup trucks) To address this problem, Howarth came up with the notion of developing a new low-cost automobile specifically adapted to the situation of developing nations. A car that could handle the rough conditions of unpaved roads, was simple enough in design that it could be largely made locally even in these poor countries, and which was very simple to repair even with crude tools because it would be made mostly of wood.

With a design akin to a cross between a station wagon and a very light sport utility vehicle in four and six wheel variants and a pickup truck form, the Africar employed the suspension, engine, and drive train from the then still ubiquitous Citroén 2CV and a carriage-style frame and body made of engineered wood laminates and resin-impregnated marine plywood that could be repaired with low skill and potentially endlessly customized. Though this use of wood seemed strange to the generally unimaginative motor enthusiast community, engineers had well demonstrated its equivalent strength and safety to any other composite materials used in the most expensive sports cars and was potentially very environmentally sustainable -particularly with the potential use of bamboo laminates. Development plans even called for eventual development of a low-precision engine that could be fabricated in lower-tech machine shops, replacing the use of the 2CV engine.

Africar International Limited was formed in 1986 and plans called for the creation of numerous small local production facilities across the world. Unfortunately, Tony Howarth’s skill as a businessman was not remotely close to his skill as a photographer and from the beginning his start-up company spiraled into an uncontrollable escalation of debt and missed milestones. Constant re-design of the vehicles delayed initial production and in an ill-conceived attempt to cover escalating debt cars were sold in advance of production and a dubious loan crowdsourcing scheme introduced. Today a concept of this sort would have most-certainly been approached as an open source project but at the time that was a very new and alien concept even to the computer industry, though, ironically, the roots of the open source concept are said to actually originate in very early auto industry history and the formation of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturer’s Association. With a chronically nebulous business plan, mounting debts, a growing mob of increasingly frustrated customers and investors, and no end to the design and engineering finalization in sight, the fate of the Africar was sealed. To avoid prosecution when the company finally collapsed in 1988, Howarth exiled himself in the US until 1994, whereupon he was arrested on return to the UK. The Africar briefly resurfaced in the form of the Bedouin, a kit car with a fiberglass body shell offered as a 2CV conversion and made by the company called Special Vehicle Conversion. Only a few of the kit conversions were produced before this vehicle also disappeared. For reasons unknown, to date no plans of the Africar or Bedouin are known to exist. With so many OScar projects now emerging around the world, it seems odd that this obvious contender has not reemerged. Either the plans have been completely lost or those who hold them are grossly lacking in foresight.

Since the invention of pressed steel welded unibody construction in the 1930s, the manufacture of even the most practical and minimalist of mainstream automobiles has been dominated by giant corporations with access to massive amounts of investment capital able to cover the costs of production systems of huge scale -in particular the three storey steel presses used to produce primary chassis shell pieces and whose forms alone are said to cost millions to make and must be cost-justified by ridiculously large production volumes. The Africar was one of the few contemporary mainstream vehicle designs to defy this norm. It was a vehicle that could be built in facilities of small scale and relatively low technology, was designed in anticipation of free customization and evolution by its own users, and was so serviceable and repairable it could live forever. It was an excellent example Post-Industrial design principles. It embodies exactly what would be an ideal open source car -far more so than most of the designs currently being developed by OScar projects. Had the Africar succeeded it might have radically changed the situation in the developing world and emerged as the successor in ubiquity to the 2CV and VW Beetle. It’s a tragedy that such a promising and potentially world-changing design was felled by mere executive incompetence.

The Honda Unibox:


The most novel entry in the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show was a vehicle so unlike anything seen before that it left western auto industry reporters and reviewers largely confused. Many reviewers panned the design because of its extensive use of transparent body panels -completely missing the obvious point of their use as a means to showcase the very novel structural features of the vehicle. Designed by Sam Livingstone, the Honda Unibox is ‘kai van’ type of microvan vehicle and one of the few attempts at a totally modular automobile platform. Like the motherboard of a personal computer, the foundation of this platform is a flat chassis module hosting six wheels; two large front wheels linked to an extremely compact front engine module and two pair of smaller wheels in the back. A unique wheel-integrated suspension system eliminates conventional bulky suspension systems. The top surface of the chassis module features a wooden deck with longitudinal aluminum alloy slots into which seats and other fixtures are plugged in and freely positioned. A heads-up-display replaces conventional dashboard instruments and a drive-by-wire control system puts all driving controls into a repositionable joystick. A video rear-view monitor is mounted in a bar spanning the whole top edge of the wind shield space providing a panoramic view. A folding touch display emerges from slot in a curved wooden front bulkhead, providing access to a navigation system, audio system, and Internet. A set of aluminum truss beams plug into the chassis to form the boxy shape of the vehicle and host external and internal body panels as well as LED indicator lights. Within the interior volume created by the trusswork a series of accessories are stored, including an electric mini-scooter and powered cart. 17 alternately clear or opaque (all clear in the concept vehicle) panels make up the body of the vehicle which also features two large side doors with integral electric lifts for the folding scooter and cart and a large back door.

Virtually all the components making up the Unibox are demountable and interchangeable, bolted-on or employing a plug-in interface. The side panels in particular are intended for owner-customization, being freely swapped with clear or opaque panels in any number of colors, patterns, or surface textures. The form of the vehicle would be freely modified by a different set of plug-in truss elements, allowing it to assume a vast assortment of forms. While the prototype employed an extremely compact but conventional 4 cylinder in-line engine module, the form factor could readily suit any number of different power plants and anticipates the use of hybrid or electric power.

Though like most concept cars it is less than entirely practical and will never become a production vehicle, the Unibox is like an embroidery sampler of every key industrial design concept likely to become significant in the 21st century. This is the epitome of a Post-Industrial vehicle, though in practice it is more likely that functional vehicles of the emerging Post-Industrial age will rely -initially- on more durable space frame chassis as with luxury ‘supercars’. (which are commonly built in small facilities and use space frames and composite bodies both for their superior performance and as a way to avoid the cost of large steel presses. As we’ve seen with the Model One, luxury products often have characteristics in common with the Post-Industrial style due to their basis in small volume hand-based production in modest scale facilities. In many ways Post-Industrial production is a revival of pre-industrial modes of production enhanced in productivity by new technology)

Tomahouse and Jeriko House:

* http://www.tomahouse.com/
* http://www.jerikohouse.com/
* http://www.tkithouse.com/

Across the 20th century inventors and architects have been experimenting with means to industrialize housing production in order to address the ubiquitous and worsening problem of homelessness and sub-standard housing that emerged as a side-effect of Industrial Age paradigms themselves. For the past century the production of housing has resisted all attempts to industrialize it in any effective way, in part because the scale and complexity of the typical home is so great (in point of fact, the automobile is the largest artifact effectively produced by centralized continuous mass production. Everything larger tends to be produced in intermittent series production -like airplanes), in part because the traditional builder community has always tended to resist new technology which it always regards as a threat to job security, and because there is a fundamental economic aberration in the relationship between built structure and property value resulting in an essential dysfunction of the common housing finance paradigm -made painfully obvious in the past two years on a global scale.

The industrialization of housing was a particular obsession of mid-century Modernist architects who often saw a solution in the concept of modularization. However, none of the countless modularization schemes devised over the century proved viable -and this is not because they were impractical in function and performance but rather that they persistently failed to find the necessary support from industrialists to bring them to market. Though commonly attributed by the inventors of these systems to simple stupidity and lack of foresight on the part investors and corporate executives, the fact of the matter is that these proponents of modular architecture tended to have very poor grasp of the natural of industrial production nor a clear understanding of the difference between products and platforms. Often they would pursue ideal or ‘perfect’ house architectures which they thought could be universally standardized like the essentially universal architecture of the mass produced automobile. Essentially the problem of the practical industrially produced house is exactly the same as the problem as the practical cost-effective personal computer; housing is simply too big, complicated, and diverse as a technology for any one company to industrialize it effectively and comprehensively by itself. And thus the solution to industrialization of housing production is largely the same as that which proved the case with the computer; the industrial ecology of multiple manufacturers in a ecology of interdependence defined by architectural platforms. But unlike the computer industry, the housing industry had no ground-up modularization in another more fundamental industry (electronics) on which to rely as a source of established components production that could be re-purposed to a housing application. In other words, there was no other kind of building industry whose already established production of components offered potential repurposing to the housing application. Thus there was no basis of an ad hoc evolution toward an industrial ecology for housing as there was for the computer. This needed a purposeful cultivation -which of course was not possible when architects and building system inventors generally lacked the slightest comprehension of how industrial production and its underlying economics actually worked.

However, there were hints of a solution, in the notion of ‘plug-in architecture’ and in Modernists’ experiments in adaptive reuse of prefabricated industrial structures -as exemplified by the mid-century work of Charles and Ray Eames. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eames_House) The concept of plug-in architecture was devised as a strategy of industrialization through the modularization of building elements intended to simplify and speed the on-site construction process while affording pre-fabrication of the bulk of a structure in a factory setting. Most plug-in architecture schemes tended to be hopelessly large in unit module scale, in part because many architects could not relinquish their ego in the design of platforms for housing rather than discrete house designs. This would ultimately lead to industrialist indifference because there simply is no one or even few housing designs that can be standardized as universal. No one house design can hope to have the market appeal to realize the production volumes necessary to justify large scale continuous mass production. But another, rarer, group of designers looked at the concept of plug-in architecture from the context of a much smaller component scale geared toward owner-building. They envisioned systems of housing akin to very advanced office partition systems where the owners of homes could readily build durable structures of their own using simple rules that could be encoded, in some fashion, into the interfaces of system components, creating a pre-engineered fool-proof building system. And here is where this concept converged the explorers of adaptive reuse of modular industrial building systems, chosen for their pre-fabricated virtues, their simplicity of assembly, and their over-engineered structural performance making their use fool-proof in a housing context. But the industrial building systems of the time tended to be designed for large space structures with large steel structural elements that precluded ready owner-building except at the scale of finishing elements. It would take some decades more for industrial building technology to realize something more suited to the small component plug-in architecture scheme.

In the 1980s such an industrial building system did emerge -not in the form of a system for industrial buildings but rather in a system intended for structures used in industrial automation. Though predictions of an era of Total Automation appeared early in the 20th century, the advance of automation was long hampered by the combination of high systems cost with high rates of obsolescence and a tendency for overspecialization in systems design. The ‘universal robot’ remained a creature of science fiction while actual automation systems proved difficult to cost-justify, making industrial outsourcing a more effective option. Almost simultaneously during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a series of companies around the globe began offering a new modular building technology specifically for industrial automation based on extruded aluminum T-slot profiles. Employing simple bolt-together assembly and a burgeoning assortment of modular system elements, T-slot offered a way to overcome some of the problems associated with the adoption of automation by allowing systems to be both readily custom-designed to a manufacturer’s needs and perpetually upgraded to suit changes in technology. T-slot quickly became ubiquitous, not only in automation but in robotics research, science and engineering laboratories, office furnishings, and even the arts. The advent of this technology may have been key in the radical shift late in the century in favor of flexible contract job-shop over traditional centralized production, resulting in a decline in large factory development by and after the turn of the century.

Sometime in the late 1980s, a German resident of Bali named Frank Toma took notice of this new framing technology and began to explore its application as a light building system for vacation and resort cottages. He found many of the countless accessory components potentially repurpose-able in a house building context and developed an at once both simple and sophisticated building system combining high-tech T-slot components sourced in Germany with the hand-crafted woodworking found in Indonesia, Using aluminum profiles for housing construction was, of course, not entirely new. Even as early as the 1950s, this application had been demonstrated by inventor/architect Jacque Fresco -now known for his work as a futurist with The Venus Project. But this early technology had the same problem of all modular house building systems devised in the past in that it was new and exclusive to this housing application, had few home designs, and had to establish a massive production infrastructure from scratch. Unlike all other modular house building systems, T-slot had pre-established production as an industrial product and so needed to justification as a house building system for its primary parts production. The housing ‘application’ simply added to the pre-established market for T-slot. This is the key element that has been missing in the schemes for industrialized housing all along. This is what was needed to bootstrap this modular technology -just as the personal computer relied on the pre-established electronic components production as a source from which to build its own industry from. With the aid of designers Shinta Siregar and Pamela Pangestu of Nexus Studios, the fledgling Tomahouse company devised an elegant aesthetic for a series of pre-fab cottage and house designs that seamlessly blend Modernist, Asian, Polynesian, and even nautical aesthetics while conforming the limitations of a completely modular building system relying entirely on bolt-together construction.

Little of the underlying technology employed in the Tomatech system was proprietary -given the increasingly ubiquitous nature of T-slot technology itself, and as the Modernist Pre-Fab craze took hold across the 1990s and T-slot profile makers began expanding their product lines to include larger profiles, Tomahouse was quickly joined by a number of other developers of T-slot based housing. Key among these are New Orleans based Jeriko House, which at first started as a US distributor of Toma Tech, and iT House in California. Several other firms employ similar technology with more proprietary profiles. Frankly, all these housing developers are in nascent stages of development and few complete houses have been built by any of them. But this modular building concept has much traction today and interest in the technology is growing.

With this technology edging toward an international open source building platform, (which this author has dubbed collectively as Utilihab) it appear to be realizing the ideal of plug-in architecture. Like the early computer, it is still limited in efficiency by the limitations of adaptive reuse of components not designed specifically for it. As it emerges as a significant application -and hence market- it in own right it will likely evolve an ecology of supporting developers and sub-component manufacturers in exactly the same way the computer did -depending on just how effective its current developers are at pushing the technology into the cultural consciousness. Key to this is that, unlike most other modular building technologies of the past, Utilihab has no pre-determined aesthetic to impose upon the designers that work with it. One look at the photos of the beautiful Bale cottage prototype developed by Tomahouse clearly demonstrates the aesthetic versatility of this building system. This is not a future technology for the fanciful ‘house of tomorrow.’ This is a high-tech approach to very luxurious housing in the here and now.

In a Post-Industrial context, we have in this building technology a good model for housing based on a broadly distributed and potentially localized production scheme much as we see with the computer. Its potential for cultivating an industrial ecology that could do for housing what it did for the computer -the most costly and complex artifact humans ever produced- puts it far ahead of any other housing technology. But will this potential finally be realized, or will traditional Industrial Age self-interest among its small current community of developers doom it to the same fate as all the modular building systems of the past? Time will tell.

The Furniture Houses:


If T-slot architecture represents the foundation of a Post-Industrial technology for housing, the Furniture Houses of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban present us with a glimpse of what that technology may look like in its ultimate refined form -analogous to comparing the mini-computers of the late 1970s to the personal computer of today. Best known for his novel and elegant architectural applications of cardboard, Shigeru Ban is a designer of the New Modernist school with a preference for very minimalist aesthetics and a fondness for classic open-plan pavilion forms. Some time in the 1990s he made an interesting observation. It seemed that the factory-fabricated shelving and cabinet systems commonly employed in up-scale homes were potentially of a much higher structural quality than the frame construction common to houses in Japan in general and this suggested the possibility that they actually could actually be used as primary load-bearing structural elements in a home design. To explore this concept, he began a series of designs called Furniture Houses (which include some named house designs like the Nine-Square Grid House, Veneer Grid Roof House, and Sagaponac House) where a specially adapted prefabricated cabinetry system is used to make furniture elements doubling as primary structural elements. The result is a series of spacious minimalist pavilion homes formed of a handful of a remarkably small number of physical elements most of which serve multi-duty as shelving, cabinetry, counters, and the like and often integrate many utilities infrastructure elements. In effect the floor and roof of the homes functions like a space-defining backplane -a motherboard- for the other elements in the homes which serve as functional, partition, and structural elements defining subspaces.

This prefab cabinetry system is not actually designed to function as a plug-in architecture system. But the overall designs of the Furniture Houses clearly suggests the way such a system is likely to evolve as the repurposed modular component system of industrial T-slot adapts to the use of more architecturally-specialized components integrating progressively more technology into progressively more pre-finished and self-contained structural elements. In the ultimate plug-in architecture vision we arrive at digitally aware components where the characteristics of furniture, appliance, utilities, and structural components merge into prefabricated user-manipulated units that have largely tool-less integral quick-connection mechanisms and an integral digitally networked sensory elements that allow the house as a whole to track and monitor its structural integrity as the occupants dynamically interact with it. We can thus envision a construction process where the resident himself -with no tools- assembles floor and roof ‘backplanes’, jacks the latter up with temporary lifts, installs -with digital guidance from live integral computers- plug-in furnishing, appliance, and partition elements doubling as load bearing elements, finishes enclosure with window and exterior wall units, and completes construction with a choice of plug-in floor and ceiling panels, some with integral lighting, heating, power, and digital network fixtures. For solitary person this whole process might take as little as a single day. And all of this would be freely adaptive and demountable. One could pack up a whole house like a deployable piece of furniture. This is housing in the Post Industrial Age.”

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