Friends of Brick, Ringwood
Blight, Blight & Blight Architecture (Richard Blight, Jonathan Ng Cheong Tin, Stephanie Choy, Yuning Xing and Frank Burridge)
Utopia is hard work. Why not automate it?
This is our most radical and most practical project so far. A big part of our practice is working out how achievable design can let us realise our most ambitious ideals regarding life, work and play. We’re always on the hunt for ways reconfiguring our environment can help us live richer and fuller lives that are also more sustainable and lower impact.
Friends of Brick taps into the powerful capacity of ecological thinking to recombine the elements of our suburban living (soil, brick, family, plants), contemporary technologies (hydroponics, automation), the embodied potential of our land, and existing trade and service markets (AirBnB, food, vending machines) to construct systems that allow the inhabitants complete self-sufficiency, maximum sustainability, high quality living environment and a passive income on the side.
“The Cave” (contemplative, idealistic, spiritual) and “the Light” (scientific, hands-on, practical) cohabit Friends of Brick. The plantations on top of the house are automated to produce food for the family while at the same time creating a paradisiacal setting for suburban family life; the structure and plantations are shaded and protected by the mushroom net and watered by the round god-shower; water from the automated system trickles down an internal waterfall; the brick vaults are structurally robust and create an atmospheric, nigh spiritual ambience; excess food produced is sold through a street-side vending machine, increasing leisure time for the family.
Friends of Brick is a physical manifesto that sees utmost value in introducing technologies into the home, new and old, to disrupt the idea of the way we live – to create a more sustainable, lower impact (sub)urban ecosystem that offers a richer, more fulfilling lifestyle for the inhabitants.
We’re fascinated with zombie and stranded/survival movies. What’s interesting about them for us as a design studio interested in sustainability is that, for the characters in these films, self-sufficiency is an absolute necessity – they are required to use items at hand in completely unconventional ways (even if a lot of the time that’s just assessing how good a tin can/cricket bat/tongs/vinyl record is as a weapon to fend off ravid zombies). What this reveals is that the items in our everyday environment, while manufactured to be used in certain limited ways, have an extraordinary latent potential to be repurposed and used to all kinds of creative ends, if only there was imperative to do so. The characters in zombie movies are also sustainable in the sense that they cautiously preserve limited resources by employing them judiciously to their most useful ends.
Typically the discussion about self-sufficiency falls into the category of urban farming, which is usually scientific and utilitarian (i.e. how it works technologically). The zombie movie/stowaway island movies, on the other hand, are usually psychological dramas. They explore the psychological and cultural aspects of self-sufficiency which is often (but not always) overlooked in discussions around urban planning and sustainable infrastructure in the “real world”. The imperative to survive brings out attributes in the characters of zombie movies that could be seen as ideals of a sustainable era: frugal, efficient, wasteless, always looking for the most practical and efficient way to employ energies and resources, creatively finding simple solutions to complex problems without excess. Characters in zombie movies usually gang together and are acutely aware of the value inherent in sticking together – so there’s a social theory about community inherent in zombie movies too. These communities are intentional in the sense that they band togetheraround a clear imperative – survival – and each member is acutely aware of the value they bring to the community in regards to this imperative.
We’re also fascinated by the relationship between technology and innovation – the oft touted examples of AirBnB and Uber disrupting service industries by introducing technology into exsting business models demonstrates what we’re talking about. What’s interesting is the form of these examples – existing services and existing technology are placed in a new relation that makes processes more efficient, services more accesible and has myriad flow on effects, including changing the ways we occupy space. Just like in the zombie movies all the elements are already there, we just need to take them and put them together differently. This is both a practical and an idealistic approach – practical because we’re obsessed with solving real problems, and ideal because we believe that the solutions are inherent in things that are already out there just waiting to be reconfigured. This is why we’re so interested in things like hydroponics, protected cropping systems and automated food production.
This raises an important question for us – how radical can change be within “the rules”? We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the 20th Century and try to force people to live our ideal, and on the other hand we don’t want to create spaces intended for anyone that work for no one. This means it’s of utmost importance to understand the context we’re working in – both in its physical and cultural fabric – and to know the end-users well. For Friends of Brick we’re working in the context of single block in suburban Australia, where the widespread ideal is the single family home – these are the parameters we take as “the rules” and run with to create a utopic outcome.
Existing automated protected-cropping technology is put into a new relationship with the age-old courtyard house type to disrupt prevalent notions about the way we live, especially in relation to the goods and services we exchange. The family is not only self-sufficient in terms of food and energy – there’s also the possibility of exchanging excess produce with neighbours, constituting a community and freeing up social time for the family.
Our utopias are not broad and atypical but neurotic and eccentric, shaping around the particular lives and contexts they emerge in. We are currently working with a brick manufacturer and a protected cropping specialist to realise this project. Follow us to stay posted.
Who influences you graphically?
We are a little haunted by the evocativeness and freedom of the work of the Archigram collective and, having been educated in the late nineties in the pro OMA pre-advanced visualisation era we have a personal disposition and familiarity with collage techniques and the work of the more recent futurists, both optimistic and slightly cynical.
Internationally, the work of The Open Workshop and their commitment to producing high quality visuals is a constant inspiration for us to keep trying harder and be smarter. Although graphically very different from our style we hope our work can become as engaging as theirs. We heart those guys loads.
Collage suits the way we think and approach things. In most of our work we don’t invent things we more take existing elements and existing technologies and put them into new relations – in a way this is just like cutting images out of disparate magazines to composite into new images.
We’re also very specific about the types plants and animals in our projects because we think very extensively about ecologies – both natural and artificial – self-sufficiency as well as sustainability (e.g. all the plants in this series of images are ones that you can grow in an Australian warm-temperate climate, and that are practical to grow in a domestic protected cropping system), so it makes sense that we’re cutting and pasting existing images of these very specific elements into our own images. When we do this we draw from heaps of different resources, so in a way collage becomes a kind of ecological approach to image-making.
We feel like we’re at the start of an exploration of something and we’re not quite sure where it’ll take us. Collage as a technique has served others on a similar journey who have done great stuff well, so we figure why not use it too.
What defined the mediums of drawing and animation to explore and reveal the project? How do these sit in relation to one another?
We face a real challenge in our studio in working in the futurist space, wanting to produce evocative images of a better future but also to present these images as being realisable and not impossible. So we like Archigram but it falls short today to envision a future but not to be serious about actually wanting to make it happen or produce some sort of alternative.
The more work we do in this space the more research we undertake the more we discover that plants and growing are not generic processes, which many visualisations present them to be. Trees and plants are no more generic than people, each have their own requirements, capacities and even economies. For us the interesting stuff lives in the specifics. To show this we need visualisation techniques which are very specific to certain species, certain conditions like light and space, and so on. Without limitless budgets using collages allows us to source specific images when realistic 3d models just aren’t available. So for us collage is the best way of being evocative, specific and efficient.
Animation is another aspect of this critical position, but we very much use the same techniques as we do in still images. Our animations are a concerted attempt at showing what it’s like to be living in/with complex systems of food production. We introduce time into our images to bring them closer to a possible lived experience. We often redesign half way through producing the animations because producing them reveals stuff, good and bad, that we hadn’t even considered.
In no way do we think we’ve discovered the best way of doing this but the collage techniques we are currently using is going some way to help us tell our story in a way which is efficient and reasonably effective we hope.
What shaped the language of representation of the project? What programs software did you use?
As mentioned above, it’s both our approach to design and our critical stance on representation that informs the languages we employ. As far as methods go we use what we have at hand – Revit, Rhino, photoshop, after effects for compositing animations, a bit of hand drawing and a solid amount of google image search or our own personal photographs for collageable pieces.
In the last 10 years which is for you the technology which has drastically altered the way we live?
Unfortunately within the last ten years when it comes to our built environment for most people not much has changed. We’ve got better versions of what we already had and government regulation in a lot of countries has led to improvement. But largely technological changes haven’t been seen in much of the building industry.
The way we relate to each other is the area of greatest change, and the obvious answer to the question in this regard is social and cultural networking systems, which includes Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn type platforms as well as Airbnb, Uber, institutional/corporate intranets, globally networked communities, and so on.
These have helped the design community to no end, allowing us to draw on rich resources very quickly, and achieve a level of awareness very quickly. The cynic would say they have led to an increase in homogeneity as well, but we’d prefer to stay optimistic.
For us the access to information about stuff that previously required extensive research is critical. We are always hunting for new systems and new technologies and pushing our knowledge about what’s possible by seeing what others outside the traditional design community are up to, or looking at what’s available and where you can get it for how much.
Our challenge over the next ten years is to try and find others who share our values so we can work together and try to enable the same disturbance Uber and Airbnb brought to their respective industries to architecture. It might seem arrogant and probably naïve but well… why not! We want to dream big.
From physical manifest to reality, are you interested in exploring this speculation further?
We’re currently working with a brick manufacturer and protected farming component manufacturers to get this project built, and consulting biodynamic farmers to make sure we get the food production part right. Most projects start with a client but we’ve started with a solution to a pressing problem. That’s where the images come in – to convince real people that these are not only practical but also beautiful and desirable solutions to real problems at hand.
Your favourite Zombie movie?
It’s hard to go past The Walking Dead. Its exploration of the zombie apocalypse scenario is pretty significant. We are suckers for any MacGyver moments in any zombie movie where elements at hand are used to stay alive, whether it been reconstituting food or making cool weapons. We also love the variety of communities and scenarios about how and why people decide to stay together in a group, and the types of facilities or buildings they co-opt to do this. It’s the same reason we like survivalist films as well.
These movies are just endlessly entertaining to us. We’ve taught two studios where the zombie apocalypse scenario was the brief for the students. Students tend to key in pretty quickly that psychological survival is just as important and difficult as sustenance and defence in these apocalyptic scenarios. We get them to design survival devices and shelters and ultimately choose and shape a community in a context of their choosing. Thinking about how to design buildings in this context reframes their vision of design and how they gaze over the city, where they locate their buildings and how they look at conventional architectural elements.
It seems a bit stupid but if we think about sustainability as a survivalist aspiration and consider it in relation to these movies its starts to open up a more complex conversation which includes the idiosyncratic, the cultural and the social. Discourses around self-sufficiency and sustainability are often technical and dry, so using zombie movies to reframe this discussion brings back the psychological and social elements in a relatable way.
We don’t design projects for zombie apocalypse survival though, for us it’s just a tool to get people thinking about what we are ultimately trying to achieve – completely self-sufficient, low-impact living that is rich and fulfilling.