The Compact Dimension of Architecture

The term 'compact' consists of two synonyms: 
com=connected and pact=agreed. This 'compact' combination glides freely to architecture - its purpose being to allot space for needs, activities and functions. And more specifically - to compactly organize the relation between space and the activities occurring within it.

It is not for nothing that almost every student of architecture experiences the exercise of planning a compact structure. Being a piquant architectural challenge, the design of such structures requires research, comprehension and placing maximum needs within a minimum space: a 'mobile' home of a homeless; a cell of a monk or prisoner where one can maintain all the basic life needs; a bus stop -  a delineating space whereby passengers can wait comfortably in all weather conditions, notice the oncoming bus, and be discerned by the driver; or a forester's hut, where one can spend many hours safely with best control of the surrounding.

The best examples for an extreme relation between functions and space are mobile homes or vessels - where compactness is existential. However, study of the architectural quality of such structures shows that they express not only ascetic condensation of space, but also - and particularly - a direct relation between function and construction, in order to achieve durability in extreme conditions, safe accessibility, fluent functionality, and easy maintenance. In short - everything that expresses architectural efficiency (AI 26).

This article does not intend to discuss small and compact spaces, but rather to emphasize compactization as a planning act aiming at efficient organization of both large and small spaces. In other words - to argue that not everything small is compact and not everything compact is necessarily small. 

To distinguish between 'compact' as an architectural product and 'compactization' as a planning act, one may infer from the mathematics attributing homeomorphic features to topological spaces. This may sound bombastic, but it actually deals with the simple acts of improving a given space by shrinking, stretching or reorganizing it.

The fact that one speaks of a characteristic independent of size, indicates that compactization is qualitative rather than quantitative (1). 

This idea may shed light on a number of terms presently in vogue in architecture, the first being the worn out 'sustainable architecture', whose variations illuminate any referral - usually vacuous - to 'green architecture'. 

Sustainability actually deals with a sensible balance between income and spending through functional efficiency. In other words - compactization of the consuming systems in order to minimize the spent resources. Unfortunately, rather than speaking of efficient durable architecture - the issue is bandied about in empty slogans, such as: 'commitment to the next generation'; 'recycling' (whether efficient or not); energy production (usually in places not intended for it); and social development based on social equality - especially in capitalistic societies where there's no chance whatsoever of finding it (2).

Being almost synonymous with functional efficiency, compactness is usually associated with small ascetic structures. However, this needn't be the case, as it may pertain as well to large and spacious buildings - sometimes perceived as wasteful, ironically by the 'environment lovers'.

In this context, one may mention the malls, which efficiently exploit the customer movement in the 'anchor shops' to maximize commercial activity of other functions such as small shops and cafes; and in a similar vein - the well exploited functioning of central air-conditioning - bearing in mind that were it outdoors, the energy required to aircondition all of these functions including the street (!) would be infinite.

A common way to quantify compactization is by 'density rate' - a key factor in a relatively new term: 'the compact city', aspects of which are discussed extensively in 'The Compact City - a Sustainable Urban Form?', by Mike Jenks, Elizabeth Burton and Katie Williams.

Pertinent to our discussion is the tight link emphasized throughout the book between 'density', 'efficiency' and 'sustainability'. The last article, dealing with Australian cities, reaches the conclusion that the efficiency of a city depends on the effectiveness of public transportation, or more precisely - on shortening the distance between the users and the variety of services the city offers (3). 

It is worth stating however, that a city is not a city if it lacks concision - the very principle distinguishing  it from a village. Furthermore - introducing a practical dimension to a city formerly planned as a village is similar to an intestine shortening operation  - a dead-end solution concealing design failures.

The cry for compactization of cities post factum is especially true for modern ones planned along the lines of Ebenezer Howard's 19th century Garden Cities - whose deficiencies are evident in almost all of Israel's new cities: Be'er Sheva, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and even certain parts of the Geddes Plan of north Tel Aviv, not to mention Ramat Aviv.

From a practical point of view, compactization usually entails the introduction of mixed use and high densification, which are often achieved through condensation, shrinking and connecting - precisely as in mathematics. Though grasped usually as a budget burden, compactization may in many cases be much simpler than it seems. Very often, all that is needed is to avoid deadends that increase distance; to bridge historical detachments of bordering neighborhoods whose residents have never seen each other; or (even more simply) to abolish all the transportation distractions intended to deliberately prevent a constant flow of vehicles - the best example of which is the renewed city center of Herzliya - a nonsensical system one can spend half a tank trying to cross.

Though compactness is a vital dimension, architecture aims to provide for a wider variety of needs, including functions whose defined purpose is to create a sense of spaciousness; spaces whose purpose is to impress - such as a lobby of an office; or green lungs which are meant to free the user of the sense of claustrophobia typical of dense places. 

This point may reflect on one of the prevalent terms used in communications nowadays - the 'open space'. A view to this term should sum up this discussion, while showing some of the disadvantages of overly compact spaces.

First introduced in the 50s as a solution for the large newspaper publications, the open space system was later adopted in every hi-tech office that couldn't provide separate rooms for its workers, but also didn't need to since they would be happy to work there in any case. Ironically, the same is true nowadays regarding architecture firms, where the little ascetic computer corner has replaced the vast and roomy draughting table.

The advantage of such systems is that they manage to maintain multiple functions over a relatively small area - namely to save space, to say nothing of walls. Their disadvantage is in wielding control blatantly over the workers, who have no scrap of space to scratch their noses. And that is definitely a problem.

Notes one can do without: 

1. The attractive collection of small and piquant buildings, illustrating the book 'Small Buildings - Compact Residences, Temporary Structures, Room Modules', demonstrates the traditional association of compact with size. Edition DETAIL, 2010.

2. For an in-depth discussion about the debasing of the term 'sustainability', see 'The New Guide to Bio-Climatic Building', published by the Desert Architecture and Urban Planning Unit, Hanegev University (2010).

3. The term 'compact city' was wrongly attributed to Jane Jacobs, author of 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' (1961). It was actually first coined only in 1973 by George Dantzig and Thomas L. Saaty - two mathematicians who viewed urban efficiency as the necessary precondition for resource economization.

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