Modularity as an Intention, Need and Execution

12.03.2024.

Author: Maša Seničić

The possibility of reconfiguring and once again considering an object, or space in a way suggests the very essence of postmodernity: everything is transient, adjustable, and fluid. Finite in their nature, material objects – from house right down to sofa – use modularity to win changeability and flexibility, characteristics desirable in this context of everyday living.

In simplified and general terms, modularity refers to a group of related elements that communicate via common surfaces. Since these points of contact may be altered, modular elements involve the possibility of changing form and, and therefore, volume, position, and function. Undoubtedly, modularity etymologically reminds us of Le Corbusier’s practice (1887–1965) and proportions to which the architect dedicated his entire life’s research. Thus, the Modulor, his universal measuring system was created, based on human dimensions and the golden ratio and with references to flora and fauna, as well as works from art history. The Modulor, which has been further developed in many variations in terms of geometry and design, is applicable to different fields, from typography to urban planning. The design and building of Le Corbusier’s Pavilion in Zurich was entirely based on this measuring concept, and it thus appears that all the parts of the structure are in communication with all other rooms, furniture and bearing elements. This internal dialogue of the building gives birth to certain harmony and the idea of unity, however changeable they may appear.

Regardless of the attractive experiment by Le Corbusier, widely spread modular buildings are rather less philosophical, consisting of the “boxes” of the same size and composition, produced on a certain location, to be transported subsequently to the chosen site. On the location, these are combined into the required homes, schools, dormitories, and storage facilities. When modularity of accommodation is in question, the first thought is that of construction sites, industrial facilities, army operations, scientific expeditions, and refugee camps: temporary residence facilities at the locations of exhausting labour and insufferable living circumstances. Their value lies in their applicability – they can be assembled, disassembled, relocated, and reused at a great speed. Modular housing (prefabricated homes) for citizens in the widest possible sense of the word, started in 1970s, though it has not replaced traditional houses to this very day. This type of construction is efficient and systematic, and has its own undisputed qualities: controlled and ecologically aware production process, less waste and a high, tested quality rate. Interestingly enough, some banks are nevertheless suspicious, so they refuse to authorise housing loans for prefabricated houses; it seems that without standard foundations, these houses are not convincing enough to be called “homes” and receive necessary financial backing.

Fritz Haller, a Swedish architect, dedicated his entire architectural design work to modularity, developing three systems that function on the same steel frame construction principle, though delivered on different scales – the “mini” for private houses and offices, “midi” for taller buildings and “max” for industrial complexes. Following this model, two buildings for the family company of USM were built, the owner of which Paul Schärer wished for the interior design to match the modernist principles of the buildings’ exterior. For this specific use, Haller developed a mechanism made of three different elegant elements that could be mutually combined, this time based on communication of steel pipe, steel board and chrome plated brass ball. This was the birth of the cult USM Haller system, today practically synonymous with modular storing, characterised with clean aesthetics, useful volumes and clear purpose. The reduced design and highly applicable, sustainable form were patented for mass production in 1965, and decades later – while some of the initially produced furniture was perhaps still in its multi-generational use – the Haller’s system became a part of the permanent exhibition of the MoMa museum.

In this domain of less public, but also spatially less demanding modular elements of living, American industrial designer Harvey Probber became famous as the inventor of modern seating. His idea of a revolutionary modular sofa was born in the 1950s, while individual parts that were easily united and separated made the flexible pieces of furniture some twenty years later be pronounced the most influential occurrence in this design field. Sofa that could change its configuration, as well as the apartment’s atmosphere, also reformed the nature of industrially produced furniture: these functionally conceived sofas enabled individuality and authenticity to decorating one’s own home. They became the foundation of creating atmosphere and relations within a home.

G. K. Christiansen’s “Toy Building Brick,” patented October 24, 1961

 

The road to even tinier modular construction systems led naturally to Lego bricks. Gradually developed in a Danish carpentry shop specialised in furniture production, they were created based on joinable wooden blocks that could be “locked-in” in the selected configuration. In 1958, at the dawn of the aforementioned revolution in industrial design and after decades of producing toys, Ole Kirk Christiansen presented the Lego brick as we know it today – simple, plastic and unique when it comes to the possibility of connecting individual parts into different configurations. In the language of the country in which it was created, the name of the company suggests playing, or a game, the most famous game on the planet based on modularity, that has grown into a cult and an empire of shapes, colours and worlds.

Finally, an example of modularity geographically and culturally closest to us is a creation by Saša Mächtig, the legendary K67 kiosk. Also made in the style of mid-20th century modernism, the thousands of these kiosks produced in the Slovenian factory of Ingrap until late 1990s thoroughly modified the Yugoslav landscape: with their compact design and structure, these kiosks allowed many different combinations and interpretations. The K67 is a paradigm of transformation and growth, especially since, due to its applicability, it reached many countries in the world, largely surpassing the local market. The kiosk which is shape-wise finished and open, encourages the invention of pragmatic solutions for different purpose structures, from flower shop to fast chains. Today the kiosks can certainly be found in two locations: in the unkempt areas of Yugoslav yards and in the New York Museum of Modern Art.

Modularity is widespread in different artistic and productive disciplines, yet it always stands for identical values: never-finality, retouch, diversity and playability. In the context of modern living, it is certainly open for an infinite number of responses to needs and challenges, which requires an imaginative expression and surpasses mere functionality. To consider one’s home from diverse perspectives by using furniture, allows us to reinvent our living space, its sensuousness and dynamics. The directness of approach and results makes modularity a timeless model, due to which, regardless of the area of its application – should certainly be treated as a supreme word. As a foundation for action, reflection and creative changes.

Dolmen is an exceptional example of a modernist sofa system the design of which involved special care for the harmony between flat and curved elements, contours and surfaces, having certain sculptural quality. Its geometry and sophistication suggest adaptability, connectivity in all directions and an infinite number of potential compositions. Its visually refined elements can be rotated to open or close the space, whereby they subtly dictate interactions and form unassuming infrastructural units. For the design of Dolmen, Zoran Jedrejčić won 2023 BIG SEE regional award for industrial design, an accolade oriented towards invention and passion. Sofas are indeed an exciting playfield, the most comfortable element of a home, yet with modularity, they become even more fun – a symbol of individuality and innovation.

 

 

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