Antoni Gaudi’s century-old catenary methods for form finding meet a formidable comrade through new-age parametric modelling inspired by the flow of milk. A host of other visionary features come bundled in a latent architectural experiment – aptly titled Project X.
The value of Project X is immense. It is comparable to the persuasive experiments by Archigram for a ‘Plug-in City’ or the Japanese Metabolist’s ‘hyper-realistic city’- both seemingly unreal ideas for their time yet always cropping up every few years as if within easy grasp of our near future.
Perhaps it is their timeless appeal which resurfaces in the architectural psyche every now and then. Dr. Haresh Lalvani’s Project X entails similar qualities. It stands tall among the ubiquitous curved and twisted buildings that architects worldwide today fantasize about and often shabbily build.
Even as an idea, Project X is powerful because of what it promises – the fusion of architecture and applied science.
Armed with degrees in architecture from IIT Kharagpur, Pratt and UPenn, Lalvani’s works experiment as much in pure science as in art. Perhaps inherent to both vocations are the tendencies to experiment while equally emphasizing process and result. It is for this reason that Project X’s aesthetics can be either debated as ‘scientific’ or ‘natural’.
Home Review featured the New York based architect-educator’s superb building in New Delhi in the May 2011 issue: “B47: Architecture of Multiple Dimensions” and this feature brings forth an older but more invigorating project.
Project X was born in 2004 in New York when Lalvani was completing Avant, a 13-storeyed luxury apartment building in Chelsea, New York for city-based developer Stan Perelman of Jani Real Estate.
As Avant neared completion, Perelman asked Lalvani to develop a unique concept for a 25-storey unique luxury tower for a site he had been eagerly scouting. So for a hypothetical site, Perelman’s brief was simple: “I want to start with an assumption of building a theoretical 100’ x 100’ plot with a 4,000 sqft floor plate going up 25 levels for a 100,000 sqft building.”
This brief would be upsetting for a conformist architect who seeks to contextualize his building design with a given site but the notion of a hypothetical site with defined parameters of apartment sizes and numbers was ideal for Lalvani who could seek to develop a generic system – akin to a software programme- that could later be adapted to a specific site.
Over the next year, Lalvani developed the design for Project X with support from full-time assistant CheWei Wang while Perelman aggressively searched for an appropriate site.
I first saw a scaled model of Project X in Lalvani’s New York studio in June 2008 and was stunned even before he explained the battery of features it comprised. Project X is a systematic compendium of Lalvani’s learnings from AlgoRhythms, and other experiments, for a futuristic architectural concept that leaves no stone unturned.
Here are some interesting snippets of the building:
Façade as a Bionic Skin:
The proposed thermochromic bionic skin façade was examined by leading building envelope consultant, Israel Berger who helped develop it further into a curtain wall system that would enable cleaning the curved glass façade. Unfortunately these thermochromic surfaces are still not commercially available for tall buildings.
Berger recollects Project X fondly, “The morphology of the building skin elicits a strong emotional connection to natural forms, which are hard to elicit when building skyscrapers. The technical challenges this design presents, is a call to narrow the gap between the idiom of natural growth and the constrains of large scale, multi layered manufacturing. Glass, aluminum and sheet metal, will be freed from the rectilinear vernacular only when imaginative collaboration between designers and manufacturers will be pushed to the next level.”
A radically curving structural frame was not a daunting task for Lalvani to imagine. According to him, “Forces flow like fluids and buildings must emerge from this.” This claim was substantiated when he had renowned structural engineer, Vincent DeSimone analyze and support the concept.
DeSimone proposed a construction system using round prefab steel-encased reinforced concrete wave-segments, each identical and 2 floors high. These would be shipped from the factory and erected on site, a system of building that was also found feasible by a leading construction company in New York. DeSimone received an award for Engineering Excellence (ACEC, 2007) for Project X.
3D and 4D environment based experience.
Since its onset, Project X wished to offer the experience of being inside a skyscraper while still feeling a part of the city. Explaining his user-experience centered approach, Dr. Lalvani says, “We are rethinking urban living with a new kind of home in the sky. A rectilinear room with a rectilinear window looks straight out, forcing a two-dimensional experience of the city on us.
Project X’s curving glass walls open up the sky above and the street below, giving us a three-dimensional experience of urban space from each home.This four-dimensional (space-time) experience of the city was too important to sacrifice.”
This approach to marry the urban space with the interiors of each apartment is a consistent issue in Lalvani’s architecture. His B47 in Delhi does the same with its shifting balconies that orient themselves to the streets below-as if striking a conversation.
Interestingly, Project X bears an uncanny atavism to the City Tower project by Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng of the 1950s.
When unraveled,the City Tower was a rebellious idea for its decade just as Project X is for our time – given that it was developed eight years ago! Speaking of atavistic relationships – Foster+Partners completed the Hearst Tower in New York (2000-2006) which can be considered as a mellowed down version of Project X and the architectural giant SOM recently unveiled plans for Diagonal Tower in Seoul – which, in turn, is strikingly similar to Foster’s proposal for the World Trade Centre competition (2002). One must note that while the Hearst and Diagonal Towers are both multi-use office buildings, Project X was planned to be purely residential.
Through his methods, Lalvanijoins the league of greats such as Buckminster Fuller and Frei Ottowho charted a scientific approach to ‘natural’ architecture and demonstrated how a building can emulate scientific processes and still be built.
I recollect leading UK-based structural engineer Hanif Kara of Adams, Kara, Taylor who remarked at a public lecture at MIT, “Bending metal is not a new science and fancy cars do it all the time. However, people forget that cars cost a lot more per square foot than your average house. If the same cost-benefit model is applied to buildings, you can imagine the shape architecture can take.”
Not only are bui