The varieties of modular experience

“Architecture strengthens the existential experience, one’s sense of being in the world.” 
— Juhani Pallasmaa

Proponents of modular architecture often boast of its many quantifiable benefits: dollars saved, materials recycled, waste diverted, construction time minimized, injuries avoided, carbon emissions offset. While these are all legitimate and worthwhile objectives, praising only its utilitarian virtues paints an incomplete picture that fails to capture its full potential. 

Lost in the conversation is a discussion around the things that get to the heart of what architecture is all about: the ineffable relationship that exists between people and buildings, the natural and the built, the spiritual and the material. 

In the commercial race for higher efficiencies, better optimization and lower costs, it’s understandable that these other softer topics might get overlooked. But despite the inability to measure intangible qualities like beauty, aesthetics or experience, proponents of modular architecture shouldn’t shy away from them.

“The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.” 
— Louis Kahn

Architecture provides a deep, existential grounding in lived reality. Consider daylight. It is a precondition for health and well-being, plays a vital role in the symphony of our senses, and elevates the experience of being.

The ultimate “goal” of daylighting, therefore, isn’t something that can be measured. But done properly, it still requires technical knowledge in various scientific disciplines (materials engineering, atmospheric science, environmental design, building services, human psychology, neuroscience, etc.) 

This is where modular architecture offers advantages. It can provide unique design solutions customized for building materials, local microclimate and vernacular style. The size, shape and position of windows and fixed shading devices can be optimized for each unit’s location and orientation. Interior dynamic shading devices can be made automated using real-time data and predictive controls that anticipate future weather, occupancy and comfort conditions. Furthermore, multiple units, each unique, can be constructed simultaneously off-site, in one location — offering affordable aesthetic quality to more people, in more places, at scale. 

There is a tension between modular architecture and its traditional counterpart, but this need only be a superficial one, just as long as its proponents start thinking more closely about how they can contribute positively to the existential experiences that make up ordinary everyday life.

“If the people inside feel comfortable, feel happy, have the possibility of being alone or looking at the clouds, it is this moment that creates architecture.” 
Jean-Phillippe Vassal


Photo by Emily Bartlett (via Dwell)

Note: This essay will be featured in the forthcoming book “What is modular architecture?” published by Archhive Books