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Monday, April 14, 2008

Book Review: Two Books on Density

Density: New collective housing (Condensed edition) by Javier Mozas & Aurora Fernández Per
Density Projects: 36 new concepts on collective housing by Aurora Fernández Per & Javier Arpa

"We believe...that collective housing in [the] context of mixed-use, generating a dense built environment, is the only solution to the consumption of resources."
This assertion, by the editors of a+t (also responsible for the eponymous magazine's four Density publications and the DBook), grounds the issue of density at the forefront of architectural and planning decisions for housing in the 21st century. The notion of mixed-use is equally important but played down in favor of focusing on density, expressed in number of dwellings per hectare and ordering the books from dense to denser. Density presents 10 urban plans and 65 built works, while Density Projects presents 36 projects in development or under construction as of 2007. Given the distinction between built and unbuilt (or to be built, or being built), the disparity between the two books is great, even though each has the same focus on density. Both are primarily European in focus, though the latter exhibits a formal inventiveness that the former lacks for the most part. Perhaps this is due to more open-minded developers, willing to pay more for more distinguishing buyers/renters, though most likely it is the pre-value-engineering optimism of the unbuilt projects that is the key to the distinction. Certainly many of the 36 projects will not happen, but as project like Aqua in Chicago attest, there's still room for difference in collective housing.
Needless to say, the editors of a+t's Density books do not use form as the driving criteria for inclusion in the series. Density is the name of the game and statistics are the goal. What does become apparent as one moves from dense to denser is how varied "number of dwellings per hectare" can be accomplished, from infill and courtyard buildings to "towers in the park" and buildings occupying whole city blocks. An important piece in each book are comparative diagrams the allow the reader to see how scale, plan, and context differ in each project. In Density, with its inclusion of 10 urban plans, the existing urban context gives way to context created, where whole neighborhoods are created tabula rasa, making one question their initial and long-term success. Nevertheless plans like Cino Zucchi's Junghans residential buildings in Venice illustrate how large developments can co-exist with existing fabric to further the density of cities; of course, not all places are like Venice.
Measuring roughly 9x6" -- much less than the magazines or DBook's 9x13" size -- these books attempt to take make the ideas behind the projects accessible by presenting projects in a convenient size. The landscape format allows one to lay the books flat on a table, perhaps the editor's aid in making the books references for the designer. Whatever the reasons for the formatting, the compact size is a good idea, even though they are not authoritative and they lack the visual strength of DBook (review forthcoming). As inspiration and as food for thought these books are heavy on the former, but a bit thin on the latter. This is not a detriment to the books, but a fact of their direction towards practice rather than theory; essays do pepper each edition, but they are short and act as respites from the projects they fall between. Nevertheless it may fall to the editors of future Density books (given a+t's attention to the phenomenon, more should certainly follow) to take an even more critical stance on not only the role of density in curbing resource consumption, but mixed-use, land use, sustainable construction, and other issues that must be aligned with density for the greatest success.

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