The mindful intention spurring the sharing economy is also evident in the world of design and architecture. It’s not prudent or smart to have spaces that aren’t capable of doing double or triple time. Creating multi-functional spaces introduces both challenges and exciting new approaches to the built environment. Crowdfunding. Ridesharing. And, now Flexible Architecture. Hyper consumerism is dead. Collaborative consumption and collaborative, multi-use spaces have arrived.
What is Flexible Architecture?
The term “flexible architecture” was popularized in the book Flexible: Architecture that Responds to Change by Robert Kronenburg. Kronenburg noted that the majority of architecture is static and doesn’t change or adapt over time. This stands in contrast to the natural world, which adapts to its surroundings. Kronenburg’s big idea was that architecture could be as flexible as nature. He posited that the built environment should be able to change to meet shifting needs, whether social or environmental.
Basically, flexible architecture is designed to be malleable, movable, and multi-purpose. Think of it as modular design on a grand scale. Forward thinkers like Kronenburg are realizing that we live in a constantly changing world where we have constantly changing needs. Think of the workspace as an example. At any given moment, workers might need a conference room, collaboration space, or solo work area. In response, designers have created modular workspaces that allow workers to modify the environment around them to fit their needs.
The office of Melbourne-based firm Particular Architects is a good example of flexible architecture in action. Modular furniture allows for workers to completely reconfigure the space on a whim. The design was inspired by small Hong Kong apartments that feature many multi-purpose elements to make the most of the little available space. Most of the office’s furniture boasts storage capabilities, with movable shelves and fold-down desks further enhancing the office’s design.
This is the heart of flexible architecture: the idea that the built environment should act similarly to a living organism, able to respond to changes in its environment. Until only recently, most architecture has been immovable and thus unable to properly adapt. This can result in under-optimized (and underused) spaces. Flexible architecture seeks to change this by reimagining the built environment as dynamic and mobile. It’s inspiring new innovations and resulting in game changing concepts.
The Benefits of Flexible Architecture
The largest benefit of flexible architecture is the ability to keep the built environment relevant and useful as time goes on. Occupant needs can change drastically even in the span of just a decade, and this typically results in the need for buildings to undergo renovations or other updates.
Flexible architecture proposes a solution to this problem by conceptualizing how a built environment can be constructed to adapt. It focuses on the long term by considering how occupants’ needs may change and designing with those changes in mind. Theoretically, this reduces the need for redesigns.
The Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre in Japan is an exemplar of flexible architecture. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Toyo Ito, the Centre is beautiful and responsive. In a paper, Kronenburg noted the myriad flexible qualities that the Centre boasts. He broke these qualities down into three key categories: changeable spaces, multipurpose spaces, and freedom of operation.
For example, the Centre’s largest theatre features a ceiling that can be raised or lowered to change the space’s acoustics or even shrink the space for more intimate performances. These sorts of changeable spaces are essentially modular design taken to the next level. Multipurpose design was another crucial aspect of the centre. Mobile furnishings allow for occupants to rearrange and split up the space as needed, and open design ensures that the entire campus encourages multipurpose use. Finally, the design encourages occupant movement and flow, enhancing the flexible nature of the space.
Instead of being designed as one large static structure, the Centre was designed to be entirely modular in almost every respect. As a result, occupants can maximize their usage of the space. If different groups have different needs, the building can meet those needs without causing one group to compromise. This ability to dynamically respond to occupant needs is the chief benefit of flexible architecture, and architects are quickly embracing this unique approach to design.
Impressive Examples of Flexible Architecture
Ever since Kronenburg helped to turn the spotlight on flexible architecture, designers from around the world have been using the philosophy to create some amazing buildings. One of my favorites is the Serene House HCMC, a mixed-use development in Vietnam. Amazingly, it’s a prefabricated structure, and it features ample flexibility for occupants. Most of the furnishings are movable, and the design blends the inside and outside to encourage movement and a wide range of uses. It also implements biophilic design, which further improves the space.
In fact, it’s so flexible that it can be disassembled if needed: “We can easily break it up when our ten-year lease ends and move it to a new location for another serene house of our own.” This challenges the common notion of buildings as immovable structures and emphasizes the possibilities inherent in flexible architecture.
While flexible design is currently popular in residential spaces, it also has many promising implications for commercial environments, and some of these implications are already becoming realities. One notable example is the Babylon Beach Club, a Turkish restaurant that features a unique sliding wall system. The walls are retracted during the summer, and when colder weather arrives, the walls slide out to cover the dining area. This is a great case that demonstrates the power of flexible architecture, and the same idea can be applied to many spaces in all kinds of industries. This sort of technology could be used for mixed-use spaces, hotels, and even offices that have an outdoor component.
As the world changes and occupant needs evolve at an ever faster pace, the built environment must be designed with flexibility in mind. Architects and designers are challenged to meet and exceed these developing demands. Flexible architecture offers an effective solution to the challenges that face designers in this new era of the sharing, collaborative economy. By adopting an agile approach, they are creating truly innovative, configurable spaces that are fundamentally practical but pack a big wow.