Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film ‘Rear Window’ is centred on a man who is confined to his apartment and spends his days looking out his window observing his neighbours. Of the apartments the man observes, I am most drawn to the one where the occupants sleep outside on their balcony and transport their small dog to the courtyard below using a rope tied to a basket.
The image of the occupants sleeping on a mattress on a balcony in the middle of New York is reminiscent of inventive childhood adaptions to space; wildly romantic structures and contraptions dreamt up by minds unencumbered with architectural theory. The counter-intuitive and inventive adaption of space places the occupants into a charmingly eccentric relationship with the built environment. Pillow forts in the living room, baskets being lowered from mezzanines, bells summoning scattered children to the dining table, tree houses in the garden, string telephones trailing from one room to another… in the architecture of children, convention is not a consideration. The architecture of children is makeshift architecture.
Makeshift architecture is architecture that is intuitive, not weighed down by overly practical concerns or theory. It is architecture that is temporary and evolving. Overall, it is architecture which is alluring because it is deeply human. Architecture imposes a system of conventional behaviour and is therefore inherently political. Makeshift architecture is deeply human because it subverts the political nature of architecture by challenging the environment through the construction of architectural interventions with a disregard for convention. By placing a mattress on a New York balcony, the couple in ‘Rear Window’ is subverting convention, informing architecture of how they live, instead of allowing their systems of behaviour to be informed by conventional architecture. Furthermore, makeshift architecture is continually adaptable. When it starts to rain in ‘Rear Window’ the couple moves the mattress inside.
The typical Australian shack is an example of makeshift architecture. My grandparents live in a shack accessed by ferry in Pittwarer, Sydney. Their house is a typical example of Australian architecture with a corrugated roof and timber floors. The previous owner built a wall from beer bottles cemented together and dug a well behind the house which is operated with a bucket tied to a piece of rope and harnessed to a tree stump. My grandparents added a vegetable garden and a number of hooks which hang along the veranda in odd places holding hats, fishing supplies and rope. It is a makeshift house that is always adapting to accommodate the changing lifestyles of its occupants.
Atherton Keener’s Meadowbrook Residence, completed in 2008 in Phoenix, Arizona seems in stark contrast to the typical Australian shack. Instead of clutter, the house has almost no furniture and is structured as two bedrooms on either side of a large empty space. Its minimalism liberates its owners as it demands a makeshift element to the rituals of everyday life. The lack of dining table requires the occupants to choose where to eat. The house lends itself to this adaption - the empty space between the bedrooms is large enough that it can entertain a party or operate as an architecture office, whilst the garden in front of each bedroom is recessed creating a ledge to sit on. The minimalism of Atherton Keener’s design is therefore as human as the mattress on the balcony in ‘Rear Window’ as it functions in the same way as makeshift architecture, encouraging freedom from conventional behaviour by demanding invention.
Meadowbrook Residence, 2008 / Atherton Keener