Fast Architecture

Wuhan Huoshenshan Hospital under construction. Source Wikipedia

A couple of things recently came up on my radar that coincided and that I thought I would write about.

Firstly was a list made by Patrick Collison called fast which is about projects which were made quickly enough to appear anomalous and impressive. This hyperlinked list is really nice and I have already spent some time clicking through and reading.

As an Architect I was particularly taken with the building projects so I reproduced those projects on that list fully leaving the other examples out, and I strongly encourage you to click through and read the original list.

The second was reading about the Hospital in Wuhan China to combat the COVID-19 pandemic which was built at an incredible speed and then dismantled with similar speed. I added it to the bottom of the list here as it was the project that was recently in the news that got me thinking in the first place about fast Architecture. The list below;

  • Marinship – Construction of Shipyard in the U.S.A. during WWII. The first ship left the shipyard 197 days after the shipyard was begun! Source: Marinship on the Fast Track
  • The Eiffel Tower – Built in 2 years and 2 months, at the time it became the largest building in the World and held the record for some 40 years. Source: Eiffel’s Tower.
  • Treasure Island – A 400 acre man-made island in the San Fransisco bay in some 2 years. Source: Francisco Fair: Treasure Island.
  • The Alaska Highway – 1,700 miles of highway built in 234 days. Source: The Alaska Highway.
  • Disneyland – Opened 366 days after it started. Source: Under Construction: A look inside Walt Disney’s Disneyland.
  • The Empire State Building – Finished 410 days after construction started. Source: Empire State Building
  • The Pentagon – At the time the Worlds largest Office building. Two months for design follwed by Construction that lasted 491 days. Source: The Pentagon.
  • The New York Subway– The first contract was awarded on February 21 1900. On October 27th 1904 4 years 8 months later 28 stations opened and general operation started. In April 2000, the MTA decided to build the Second Avenue Subway. The first phase, with only 3 stations, opened on January 1 2017. Source: The New York Times.
  • Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan – An 1,000 bed hospital constructed between January 23rd 2020 and February 2nd 2020. Built to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Source: Huoshenshan Hospital & Architectural Digest

The above are all from Patricks’ list to which I have added the Hospital from Wuhan which have recently generated some interest as they were built so quickly.

What’s Going On?

Patricks list of amazingly fast achievements skews to older projects, the building projects which I have isolated if anything skew more to this direction. Some reasons for why some things got done so quickly and perhaps don’t now were also given. The main thoughts from Patricks list are that there is now more;

  • Red tape, laws and regulations to fulfill.
  • Government has changed – that the government nowadays is slower. Source: American Government: Brief Version
  • Stabler societies tend to become less dynamic (this would need some unpacking).

I could add some other things off the top of my head.

  • Financial structures tend to be more complicated. – Big building projects tend to need to get funding from multiple sources or secure finance that has more oversight, shareholders and stakeholders than earlier.
  • Public finances need more input from more departments.

However for example the Wuhan project is from 2020 we still can build quickly so what is going on?

Fast Architecture

The list above while appearing impressive at first got me thinking about construction time being a poor measure of the time it takes to get to a finished building. It’s maybe more interesting to think about what makes a building project faster or slower;

Simplicity – Some buildings are made really fast, but they are more simple in that either the design problem is more simple or there are less limitations. Their building method may be more simple.

Constraints – Virgin sites with little existing infrastructure or construction constraints mean those projects are easier and faster to design and to build.

Iterated – Some Buildings are just iterations of earlier designs (don’t have to change or revisit important design decisions). Or they are general designs that have been designed already and then can be placed on the required site so no designing or redesigning has to be allowed for and building can go ahead without reference to design problems.

Technology – All buildings are more complex than they used to be that’s just a brute fact. Take a 16th Century Palladio Villa which are generally beautiful essays in proportion and reserved classicism. No need to design for running water, electricity, air-conditioning, heating system, internet, etc etc etc…

Construction Path – Critical Path of a construction project are the key things you need to do before you can do other things. You can’t install the electrics before the building is watertight for example. This construction path can change meaning some things take more and some things less time. If one thing on the critical path is missing then you will slow the whole project.

Factors

Some of the above listed buildings are a combination of more than one of these factors. Think about the Alaskan highway in the list above, all the above factors favour a quick highway build compared to many other building projects.

The Wuhan hospital built in 10 days is another good example. It was an iteration of a design and build model of a quickly assembled hospital the Chinese built during the SARS epidemic. Also the Wuhan Hospital wasn’t a full hospital but had only a part of the functions of a normal hospital that were required for the combatting of COVID-19.

This hospital will have assessment and triage capabilities, some imaging capabilities, a clinical laboratory, a pharmacy, and isolation rooms—but not much else.

James Crispino quoted in AD Article

Conclusion

An acknowledgement would be that a typical building process is maybe generally a little slower than before because the world really is more complicated and buildings really are more complex. Buildings or Infrastructure that are built fast probably have a need for that speed whether it’s financial, social or say in the time of a war practical. This is probably a good thing though, if we have to think and take into account more factors it’s likely we will arrive at better solutions.

But you could further argue I think that if you take into account design time and the program of a building project that you can also build things faster than ever before with integrated design and fabrication made increasingly offsite you can build really fast if you don’t have to think too hard about the other problems usually present.

Projects like Wuhan hospital I like to think shows that if speed is vital in a project you can achieve it now perhaps faster than ever.

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