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By : Nicholas Wilkinson

Some architects are still somewhat careful in embracing open building for two reasons. Firstly they see the design responsibility of 'the plan' being taken away from them and secondly they worry at having a third party who is not an architect to 'design' his or her own floor plan. This could occur in health, educational, residential or office environments and since the third party is likely to be a lay person and not someone from the design disciplines it is deemed as unprofessional. This is largely a misunderstanding because the role of the user is not a design role in the professional sense of the word. Rather the users are making their priorities and relationships for various functions in the form of a plan but more likely expressed with a dolls house type of model or by computer modeling. This can be applied to the work place, health care, educational buildings and many more types. It is often engrained in the mind of the professionals that they must perfect the plan, work and work on it, polish it, defend it, the plan is theirs and where the physical structure only relates to that specific plan. Any change in the plan brings about a change in the structure. This really is a negation of open building. Such a one to one correlation of structure to plan leaves no room for movement or any alternative plan. This was the horror of some nineteen fifties and sixties tower blocks for council tenants where four or even six units per floor were shaped by the vertical structural sheer walls and columns. These could be holding up to twenty five stories and at the same time these monolithic structural concrete walls formed the plan configuration of the flats on each floor. The characteristics of this approach were standardization and the complete inability of the building to respond to change. Timelessness rather than time-based would be the best description of such buildings. Office blocks were and still are good examples of open building where on any one floor different internal arrangements are possible regardless of what goes on in the floor above or below. In addition there may be two large offices on one floor or a large number of smaller offices on another floor. Set against this background and cost limitations the idea of alternative unit sizes and floor plans variations were seen only as viable for the rich where tailoring plans to suit user's specific needs was costly and limited to very few people. Indeed the whole idea of a fluctuating infill arrangement of room, offices, corridors, halls, foyers, cafes and restaurants was seen to be like a disease which must be stamped out until everything is firmly fixed and under control. The pioneering support projects of the nineteen sixties really did break new ground in giving control to the council tenant and right to decide. At last the poor could have a say in how they wanted to live. The challenge of support design (base building) is that the structure becomes a generator of alternative plans. The support is fixed but the plan inside can move. The architecture here lies not in the plan of rooms but in the plan of the structure and its visibility inside and sometimes outside creating a truly architectonic fusion of art and technology. This architectonic approach not only considers these aspects but also lays emphasis on the site and immediate environment, climatic factors and construction techniques. Since the nineteen sixties, starting in Rotterdam, the Netherlands and later in other countries in Europe the third party approach for designing and generating plans in government social housing and housing association projects has been proved to work within existing financial constraints and building legislation. However it still has to find its application in many other parts of the world. Whilst we have also moved on a long way from the idea of structural/building themes and plan variations more applications in different building types are wanted. There is much more to still to be done.
Nicholas Wilkinson

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