Niche Tactics, a collection of essays edited by Caroline O’Donnell, approaches architecture as a living entity with a symbiotic relationship to its environment. She starts with contrasting bubble metaphors, the “ecological bubbles” of biologist Jakob von Uexkull, who studied creatures’ particular stimuli—blood for ticks, pollen for bees—with the Corbusian bubble that focuses on interior space shaped by program. External forces will burst the bubble rather than merely deform it if it isn’t designed for its ecology or able to adapt.
O’Donnell also bases her studies on Greg Lynn’s evolution of formalism unleashed from typological constraints. To this strategy, she adds the tactical niche, which references the components and resources of a habitat that influence survival. She takes us through a breadth of history, theory and cultural studies—from the Renaissance and the Picturesque, to Vitruvius and Palladio, to Colin Rowe and Peter Cook, and from sustainability and phenomenology to film and comedy—examining objects’ relations to their contexts and how this relates to architecture. Along the way she shows that basic principles of symmetry, proportion, and typology are not antithetical to an ecologically responsive architecture.
Opening the book onto a page showing a busting bubble. (Courtesy William Horton)
However, radical practices often get slapped with the “weird shape” or formalism label, so it’s encouraging to trace a trajectory from Rudolf Wittkower to Nikolaus Pevsner and Rowe, whose own studies of the analytic and the collage are found in O’Donnell’s research of context. Ideal Palladian villas are reintroduced to their country settings, and churches yield their historically typological forms to exaggerated responses to wind, solar, and urban orientation. Considering the urban, O’Donnell speculates what would have emerged had Le Corbusier’s clean sweep of the Plan Voisin grid considered cultural and civic landmarks as interferences. However, none of this is really all that new, foreign, or radical. The original Citicorp Center tower gave way to its site, the economics and air rights of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, and O’Donnell shows how Manhattan’s gridiron deforms when confronting natural features, such as those of Morningside Park.
Moving into contemporary practice, O’Donnell reminds readers that the iterations initiated by Lynn grew from specific conditions, often dealing more with environment and evolution than more recent strategies such as application scripts and parametricism. A couple chapters addressing monsters and notions of ugliness are useful in describing how appearances that deviate from our expectations may actually indicate something more in tune with their environment or be on their way to a new “species” of architecture.
While O’Donnell laces her text with examples of analyzing and implementing contextual forces in projects, she saves the final chapter for examples of her own firm’s works. While some are no more than a paragraph, others elicit a more thorough explanation, such as her firm’s MoMA/PS1 Young Architects Program winning entry Party Wall, to show how one can design to respond to site, urban context, history, and program.
The book is a welcome mix of the multidisciplinary—theory expands beyond formal analysis or historical indexing. O’Donnell combines those aspects with examples of projects in their environments, incorporating ecological and contextual referents into a living, evolving design practice. Ultimately O’Donnell argues for an ecological responsiveness to inform firmitas, utilitas, venustas contemporary architectural design.
Niche Tactics: Generative Relationships between Architecture and Site