Parasitic Architecture

Laura Zajac
September 01, 2000

"What does it mean to be a wall?" asked architecture student Bradford Watson.

Watson lives in the world of architectural theory, a world in which buildings breathe and parasites are more than pests. "It's an investigation of a way of doing architecture. The idea is to strip down a building into a kind of essence that answers a question." This type of architectural imagination was central to Watson's fifth-year thesis project, a theoretical "suturing," or uniting of new and old structures, of an abandoned building in Pittsburgh. "There is an amount of energy embodied in the structure. Bricks, masonry—all the work that went into making a single brick," said Watson. He stressed the need to use this energy and build upon structures that already exist rather than just tear them down.

computer rendering of abandoned building

The building Watson has in mind is an old Police and Fire Station on the South Side of Pittsburgh, built in 1900 and abandoned in the late 1970s. With collapsed floors, a caved-in roof, and trees growing out the top, the building was essentially a masonry shell, the perfect model for Watson's project. Armed with photographs and measurements of the building, Watson was ready to answer his first question, "How to take the shell and build a site-specific suture?"

The idea was to shore-up, or stabilize, the masonry shell to prevent the building from falling down. So he designed walls and beams to wrap around and inside the original structure to "prevent further decay." The next step was to add the basic functions of a building to the suture: an elevator, bathrooms, stairs, corridors, and electrical wiring.

With the suture completed, at least on paper, the building could theoretically "breathe in," explained Watson. "When the abandoned building no longer had any need to exist, it was allowed to go back to nature; to be free, to breathe out. But before it was abandoned, it breathed in and had its life. The suture is a way of going between these—it provides for the next life of the building."

Watson then concentrated on imagining characters (or in architectural lingo, "parasites") who would move into the building, giving it new life and purpose. These parasites are people, specifically a caretaker, writer, photographer, and musician, who theoretically take up residence in the sutured building. "You imagine what kind of person should live there," explained Watson. "You invent characters as a means for designing."

For example, a writer is "someone who takes two things and weaves them together. A story, a narrative." So Watson set the writer's "house" within the building between two floors. The musician's "house" is hung from an inside wall, so that as wind flows through the building, the house vibrates and fills the entire space with sound.

While all this is mainly theoretical, Watson is also interested in the practical value of working with a "found object." He has been designing and actually building furniture from unwanted items. Whether the object is an abandoned building in Pittsburgh or a rocking chair at a garage sale, it represents what he calls the "notion of a found object as an energy or a groundwork. I'm interested in how these things establish rules. You can't just do anything to it."

Bradford Watson graduated in May 2000 with a B.Arch. and honors from the College of Arts and Architecture and the Schreyer Honors College. His adviser is Darla Lindberg, Ph.D., 303 Engineering Unit C, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-1572; Writer Laura Zajac graduated in May 2000 with a B.S. and honors in biobehavioral health.

Last Updated January 10, 2014