By Phyllis Richardson
The "ultra ruin" is a work of modern architecture and unusual preservation built in and around an abandoned brick farmhouse in the jungle of Taipei. From certain angles it appears as fragments of a decayed structure overtaken by vegetation; from other perspectives it resembles the high-design spaces of a boutique hotel. The design, by Finnish architect Marco Casagrande and the Casagrande Laboratory, is meant to embrace the effects of nature. According to the architect, the new structure has been improvised, responding to the existing ruin and the demands of the natural setting.
To pay homage to the "ruined" state of the building, the decaying brick walls were left in place while modern timber insertions were added. The site is at the juncture of terraced farm land and the untamed jungle. Here the house is almost enveloped by trees, vines and shrubs. These have been worked into the design, which consists of two levels of spaces that allow for free-flowing indoor-outdoor living and include bathing and sauna facilities.
Timber was chosen as a material that links directly to the setting and much of what was used is local mahogany, camphor and cypress, including a walkway to the house made from mahogany boards. Wood also has very practical value in this climate, being used in screens, pergolas or open slats that encourage the free movement of air. Brick buildings are much less conducive to such liberal ventilation, which is crucial in this climate, and to this type of free-form design. The house has multi-functional spaces, rather than rooms for designated purposes, and has minimal energy requirements. Though it is a private house built for a single family, it will also be used for different kinds of gatherings.
An "organic accident"
Casagrande describes the building as "an organic accident," since nature has been allowed to dictate the plan: the spaces work around existing trees, and the general layout follows the contours of the site. In other words, this was not a case of clearing out land and undergrowth to make a pristine stand-alone structure in a signature style. Walls, pergolas, decks and walkways were all designed around the old farmhouse and the terraced ground.
And rather than digging out an access road for the work, all of the building materials were carried in by hand from the main road, all of which required "a huge effort," according to the architect. The evolution of the project also followed an organic process, Casagrande says, beginning with a discussion with the client in 2009 which focused on the idea of making a table in the open space for meetings and proceeded to include more rooms for various activities.
The state of "post ruin"
Marco Casagrande has executed other projects that confront the "ruins" of architecture. These propose not just redevelopment of structures but ways of living with the remains of abandoned or neglected buildings without consuming further resources to tear them down or re-make them completely. He uses the term "post ruin" to describe the return to and re-use of neglected buildings in the condition of decay or abandonment. One example is the Ruin Academy in the Taipei city center, a meeting and collaboration venue for artists and architects. It was set up in an abandoned 5-story apartment building that the Casagrande Laboratory adapted with minimal but effective architectural insertions for habitation and multipurpose use.
The "Ultra Ruin" also uses metal, stones and reclaimed bricks to create the array of indoor and outdoor spaces. The original model for the project was exhibited at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2009.