G R A M L I C H  D E S I G N

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Musings on the Swiss countryside.


My Building Systems students were recently interested in land use planning, and in how different cultures express their values through apportionment of space. Here are a couple of pictures from a trip to Switzerland in September of 2018 showing a common pattern of green space interspersed with density. To me it reads like a how-to of intelligent land use.


We’ve tended to think of ‘density’ as a negative in this country. That’s, happily, changing. But there are miles (light years, actually) to go before we’re there. Most Western European nations have a significantly higher number of people per square mile than we North Americans do, but their development patterns aren’t any less attractive or effective than ours: actually, the inverse is true.


So what do they get right?


Some of it is embedded in a centuries-old social contract that understands the role of the collective transcends that of the individual. Not much we as designers can do to quickly change that in the US.


But design can absolutely address other facets: things like smaller homes, smaller lots, building multi-family units (attractively!) and, above all, constraining development into certain areas while preserving much of the countryside for farm and forest uses. The US concept of sprawl doesn’t exist here.


Once sprawl is off the table, imagine how massively that impacts life! Infrastructure costs are lower. Trips are shorter. People walk instead of drive. Health quality increases. Urban cores are pleasant, healthy spaces. Most food is truly local. That means fewer preservatives. Smaller refrigerators. Lower energy costs. Round and round we go.



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Refugee housing- what role does design play?


The German architect duo of Wolfgang Stocker and Silke Dewes designed this 5-building, 100-unit complex for Syrian refugees in the heart of Freiburg in late 2017. Time was of the essence; this was a social emergency. The process of design, permitting and building, normally quite tedious in Germany, was fast-tracked so as to offer credible housing to as many as possible. That’s the positive. The negative: a very low budget with which to work.


You can imagine the design challenges inherent in providing shelter for people completely uprooted from the culture they know, people largely terrified at what their lives have become and often unwelcome in their new environs. The architects had to consider and define public vs private space, roles of family and gender and the collective vs the individual, plus the very dynamic of assimilation into a new and intimidating culture: I can hardly imagine a more profound architectural challenge.


The design team employed the traditional, local Black Forest language in the material palette and in the building details. Green roofs provide for insulation, nature and aesthetics and collect runoff water. The building envelope uses unfinished lumber in lattice patterns of varying widths to provide both visual interest and a cost-effective shell.


Beyond living spaces, the complex offers dining areas, prayer rooms and outdoor and social spaces, where refugees are helped with integration. Once a refugee finds employment, they and their family move on to more permanent housing in the Freiburg metro. 


It goes without saying that a prerequisite to this sort of project is a nation’s willingness to do their part in accepting and housing people under duress. In Germany at least, we’ve seen municipalities accept, aid and house refugees based on good will and facts, not on unfounded phobias and hysteria.