The relationship between fixed and changeable is a basic dimension of architecture. In principle this refers to the natural aspiration for establishing a stable and durable building, while being able to adjust it to the user’s changing needs. Within this framework, one can identify a gradual shift between fixed components such as walls and ceilings; semi-mobile components such as windows, doors, steps, and shading devices; and mobile components such as furniture, air-conditioners and other facilities crucial for the adaptation of the building to its purpose.
This holistic system can be linked to various fields of activity - civil engineering that is responsible for the building’s stability; interior architecture that focuses on semi-mobile components; interior design that focuses on mobile interfaces, and landscape architecture that deals with the relationship between buildings, and between them and their environment.
Since the difference between the various emphases is circumstance dependent, it is like anything else, subjected to a gradual evolutionary process. Unless something unexpected causes it to go wrong. In this case, the rules of the game change sharply, disrupt the whole process, and cause the system and all its components to adapt to the new reality.
Such a sharp change could stem from natural disasters, war, or technological inventions that cause an upheaval, such as the discovery of electricity, the development of light bulbs, engines, telegraph, telephone, computer, smart phone, internet, and all known gadgets that make their ancestors dispensable.
The most confusing architectural turning point occurred in recent years with the development of CAD systems and its formal products strangely termed “digital architecture”. Strangely, because it enables short-term design at a dizzying speed in places such as planning, where “take your time” is an advantage. As a result, the conventional boundaries between fixed and mobile are blurred.
The “wonders” of digital architecture, the main achievements of which are swift adaptation to changing situations (by the way, the accurate definition of intelligence), have been extensively covered here from various angles, at the center of which is the dispensable need for speed in architecture (AI # 69, 79, 93, 105).
In this context, one may mention performative design and its attempts to increase building effectiveness to meet changing weather conditions, or interactive design that changes various parameters of the building in response to users’ behavior. It is important to note that in all these cases, the focus is on semi-mobile components – such as shading devices, changing partitions, or gimmicks that generate atmosphere.
However, apart from the unlimited ability of digital architecture to create amorphous forms that have nothing to do with the building's main purpose, which is as said, to provide stability. And, it is no accident that a classical structure, just like any art form, is a phenotype that has survived the test of time, regardless of its trendy dependency on a particular time and place.
Hence, the knowledge is there, and the question is how to exploit it effectively, by resolving the conflict between fast, instant design, which does not require too much thought, and the human need for durable stability.
An article dealing with the processes (AI 69) analyzes the distinction between constant and variable components existing in any process – whether filling out a university registration form, frying an omelet or constructing a building.
The argument there is that while a constant component exists at any stage in a process, without which it cannot otherwise be completed, a variable component is any nuance that gives the result its unique taste and flavour. And the best example of this is the significant difference between two yeast cakes baked according to the same recipe – one is enthusiastically complimented, while the other – not always! On the basis of this argument, one might resolve the architectural paradox between what is fashionable and transient and what is stable, durable, and survives the test of time.
This distinction can also be deduced from the difference between effective, sustainable architecture and trendy, transient architecture. That is - between the structure’s durability and the relatively short shelf-life of everything that encompasses it, inside and out; if the former focuses primarily on fixed or semi-fixed components, the latter primarily promotes changing components.
Here it is possible (even recommended) to raise the question of personal style versus a nauseatingly repetitive product.
An applied art, architecture must be effective by producing repeatable reconstructible elements for industrialization.
This is why a building can be identified, whether it was built thousands of years ago with low-tec technology, or today with super-advanced hi-tec intelligence. The reason is that any structural archetype is made of constant components - walls, floor, and ceiling, without which a structure is not a building - and not necessarily recognized by variable elements such as color or roof shape.
One may deduce from this that when the amount of variable components in digital architecture exceeds the number of constant components, it is difficult to identify the building as one that effectively serves a defined purpose.
In 1949, the Luxury Tax Law was passed in Israel. The intention was to reduce the use of un-necessary products for basic living (and to make a few pennies on the way). It was during the days of rationing, something parallel to the Veblen Tax, named in 1929 for its inventor - American-Norwegian economist, Torsten Bunde Veblen. As a Marxist, Veblen held fierce and critical views of capitalist society, protesting the waste of what he called the “conspicuous consumption” by the rich who buy products just to show they can afford it. Protesting against this autonomous economy, he maintained that it is not logical to base it upon independent individuals’ behaviour.
One doesn’t need much imagination to understand the concept of conspicuous architecture by prize-hungry architects who produce one-off products only because someone in their office knows how to operate an expensive computer program, and an intelligent GPS robot manages to assemble its parts on site.
A balanced relationship between existential and decorative – between what you need and what you want – has always been a sign of proper architecture, just like the story of the Chinese peasant who planted a rose at the edges of his rice paddies, so he would have a reason to live for, not only something to live off.
And in an era in which the struggle for survival is becoming increasingly prevalent, there is no way that most of the world’s population will live in amorphous buildings in the course of the next fifty years, if only because they cannot be put together like conventional buildings.
What can be done to enable architects to establish a personal style and satisfy their own and the user’s creative aspirations, and yet contribute to the benefit of society?
As said, one of the most important parameters in design in general, and in architecture in particular, is efficiency. That is, to achieve maximum targets with minimum effort. As Vitruvius pointed out when noting efficiency among the three principles of architecture, alongside beauty and durability (Firmitas, Utilititas, Venustas). In view of the fact that gaining the knowledge has already cost a fee, it would only be sensible to orient it in the right places, which is, in fact, the basic principle of sustainability, as defined long before it became the fashion.
If we go back to the definition of constant versus variable components existing in every process, we could simplify it and say that constant components constitute the body, while the variable constitute clothing – giving the building its uniqueness without deflecting from its essential purpose.
In light of the fact that clothing changes according to fashion, all “fast thinking” digital effects can be directed towards the requirements of a short shelf-life – such as interior design and industrialized elements.
In this way, the envelope can be adjusted to the user needs in real-time, and advanced technology can be recruited to improve the building performance, to provide comfort (thermal, for instance) or generate atmosphere.
This kind of labour division occurs in any architectural milieu, but most prominently in galleries that change exhibitions, restaurants, cafes, and offices that change their purpose every now and then, or even private houses that are constantly adapting to changes of life-style, technological innovations, and new building materials.
And just as an example - the modern split air-conditioner has the same purpose as the old window air-conditioner. However, its effect on the efficient functioning of a building, its appearance and the surroundings – is cardinal.
And the fewer the examples, the better!