Our Material Identity

The role of the consumer is one of longing for uniqueness but struggling to belong. Commodities are not marketed to you and me, but rather our demographic, a set of characteristics that we collectively create and evolve. Customizability is a patch for this dilemma, and sometimes it is successful. Architecture, for example, does not typically go as far as to select furniture or décor for us. Very practical reasons aside, this lends a feeling of control. We create the spaces we need and how we want them to feel.

Ralph Rapson’s Riverside Plaza, with recently refurbished panels.

Challenging the notion of building for the masses at its most dramatic, architects in the past have attempted to manifest the individual at very large, high density scales. Notable in Minneapolis is the Riverside Plaza apartment complex by Ralph Rapson. Its multicolored panels were originally intended as user-selected signage. A tenant could potentially recognize their space and identity on the apartment tower’s facade. They could “participate” in the architecture.

Patchwork City by OOIIO Architects

A new project set in the Swedish city of Linkoping brings this to an even larger scale. OOIIO Architecture describes their Patchwork City master plan as a series of “naked 6×6 structures” where users “go to a special designed catalogue where they can choose all the prefabricated ecologic panels to plug in their own structure area.” This will allow the residents to “colonize and design their own spaces, like for example they create their own Facebook profile, leaving the 20th century idea of mass homogenization, and following the 21st century idea of claim of the individuals.”
Innocent enough, yes, acknowledging the fact that the facade options are likely curated to guarantee an aesthetically pleasing result. But what does this say about the potential residents (or what the architects think of them)? There is more than a hint of cynicism in using wallpaper to appeal to the “claim of the individuals” on the scale of a master plan. Are we so desperate for recognition that we will grasp at even the most feeble and irrelevant attempts to present our identity to the world, even if the ironic result is a neighborhood filled with nearly identical quilt buildings?

“So you live in the unit with the gray panel?”

Ultimately, this scheme is intended as a gimmick – the architects clearly have an appealing aesthetic to promote, with or without the input of users. But perhaps what they didn’t intend is that in pursuing the individual, they have underscored the fact that we cannot escape the collective. Years from now, a resident of old Linkoping may see a hiply dressed professional between the ages of 25 and 40 checking Facebook on their mobile phone and think, “Ah, they must live in Patchwork City.”

Furuto , Alison . “Patchwork City Masterplan / OOIIO Architecture” 26 Sep 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 Sep 2012. <http://www.archdaily.com/275041&gt;

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