At the library recently, I picked a copy of Yuri Caravaca Gallardo’s Houses & Apartments Under 1000 Square Feet, a photo-book showcasing small houses and apartments. At up to 1000 square feet, many of the spaces featured are still bigger than a lot of everyday studio and one-bedroom apartments — but the emphasis is on spaces that do more with less, focusing on creative and functional modern design solutions.
In an ever more populated world — and with major cities even here in Canada becoming increasingly expensive to live in — architecture focused on making the most of small spaces seems particularly germane. The country most represented in the collection is Japan, a country often associated with dense population centres and innovative, minimalist solutions. But micro-design has a place anywhere — not just to make space in large cities, but to live more sustainably and economically in any environment.
Modernist minimal aesthetics are prominent in the collection: for example, one of the last buildings showcased, Satoshi Kurosaki’s “Ring” is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s “Villa Savoye,” and hits several of his “5 Points of a New Architecture,” most noticeably ribbon windows and a free façade. The building also features a fairly open inner floor plan, and a cantilevered second-floor ring of steel and concrete that hangs over the front entryway, reminiscent of Villa Savoye’s pilotis. These modernist principles of openness and simplicity certainly have a place in micro-architecture, avoiding clutter and claustrophobia; but the most modernist of the structures also can seem cold, or evoke an elite and luxurious sense with sleek materials.
More exciting are the personalized solutions, and other, fresher trends that emerge. Creative use of vertical space is a key factor, with many of the houses situated on tiny or irregularly shaped lots — zig-zagged floor plans with lofts and built-in storage are a frequent occurrence. There is also an emphasis on light and openness — large windows are common, using light “to amplify the space” (Gallardo 136); and “permeability” is cited in many designs — trees that cross indoors, cutting through storeys, are found in both “Love House” and “3×9 House” (one of my personal favourites), adding a whimsical touch that questions the whole notion of ‘confined space.’
Attention to flow through the space and the particular needs of the inhabitants is also emphasized in many of the designs — while this might not be a recipe for universally functional apartment units, it does lead to some of the most impressive optimizations of space. Naoto Mitsumoto and Naoko Hamana’s “nr1977” fits a family of six into 769 square feet. The primary innovation here is the implementation of two rectangular blocks that allow flow both around and above them. The tops of the blocks leave just over one metre of space to the ceiling, allowing room for play areas and desk space for the family’s children, with bed-sized modules as well as storage space below.
Another particularly economical example is Maziar Behrooz Architecture’s “Container Art Studio” is made of two metal shipping containers on a concrete foundation that utilizes the natural slope of the property. While this particular space’s singular purpose leaves it quite spacious, it was specifically designed for affordability, and inspires questions of how much could be done with simple re-purposed modules.
And even the bizarre is functional in these small spaces — SPACESPACE’s “Ground and Above Roof House” features what Gallardo calls a “strange mound” (123) — a boulder-like concrete structure in the middle of the ground floor, which actually houses the bathroom! However, by situating this space down a few steps and covering it with the upholstered mound, seating and storage pockets are also provided on top (as well as a fascinating focal point for the entryway). This house also includes carefully considered window placements, and the mound is meant to collect solar heat.
These designs, as shown in the collection, all have a certain artistic finesse, with furnishings integrated into the concept for unity, and everything carefully displayed for professional photos. But there are takeaways for more everyday spaces as well, whether in designing low-cost apartments or in making the most of existing small spaces. How can we make use of overlooked areas, whether that means building on unusual lots or just finding ways to use vertical and peripheral space? What functions are really needed, and how can a natural flow through a space be accommodated? How can natural light and heat, as well as aesthetic integrations with the environment, be maximized? Micro-architecture is, at its heart, about optimization — and as such, is a fascinating avenue for designing a more sustainable future.
Gallardo, Yuri Caravaca, ed. Houses & Apartments Under 1000 Square Feet. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books, 2013
“Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture.” Wikipedia. October 08, 2018. Accessed November 22, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Corbusier’s_Five_Points_of_Architecture.
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