The Microflat

Let’s first take a look at the mother of all microflats, Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower. At architecturalmoleskine there’s an excellent post which will fill you in if you’ve never seen or heard of it.

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In this post however, I’ll only be concerned with how little space it takes for one person to live. At Nakagin, it’s 2.5 m x 4m = 10 sqm, including the bathroom.
(FYI ¥60,000 = US$620/month)

nakagin-capsule-tower-2

I get the feeling that Japanese people are going to be better at these microflats than us but the point is that somebody thought about everything a person might need in order to call a place a home. For a first attempt, it’s not bad. The year was 1970.

3-capsule nakagin-capsule-tower2

Here’s a one-room furnished apartment currently for rent in Tokyo. The layout is typical but this one’s unusual in having a side window as well. Most won’t.

equipsThis next one’s a variation. The entrance and shoe cupboard are cleverly positioned. The character 洋 means “western” (style room) and usually means a laminate floor instead of tatami. But if it were to have tatami, it would have eight of them @ 0.88m x 1.76m = 12.4 sqm. The balcony is for drying laundry. Shall we say this one’s 25 sqm?

OneRoomMansionApartment

This next one has a side entrance. By the front door is a space for the washing machine.

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Unlike the Nakagin Capsule Tower capsules, these two plans are more like single rooms with service spaces attached for, once in the 8-mat space, you could in theory, feel like you’re in an 8-mat room anywhere – if you didn’t have much stuff, that is. I’ve mentioned before that people seem to think that Japanese live without much stuff. This is not true. Maybe, in the plan above, a futon could be rolled up and shoved in the closest, but I doubt it would be. Not with a laminate floor. It makes more sense to get a bed, use it as a sofa, and to put more stuff under it. I can easily imagine how people actually live in the SANAA Okurayama apartments. You’ve seen the plans elsewhere.

SANAA-Okurayama-6730

The lady in this photo is nervously waiting for the movers to arrive with her banana holder, piglet- and puppy-face rice bowls, fish-shaped chopstick rests, My Little Pony lunchbox, pantie dryer, Hello Kitty futon set and other stuff.

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Over in Britain, Piercy Connor Architects is the king of microflats and probably even invented the word. A full-scale version of his microflat was installed in Selfridges Oxford Street window and lived in for two weeks to the general interest of media and amusement of passers-by.

micro6_web

His is interesting in what it says about the British Way Of Life. First of all, there’s nothing new about it – even its size isn;t that unusual for some converted apartments. The only major difference is that an apartment this size was being presented for the first time as an architectural solution for an as-yet unexploited market. Once even the hope of owning such a reduced product has become unrealistic, then it’s safe for architecture to shift its market focus downwards a notch.

The microflat has a separate bedroom with a wardrobe. It has a bathroom off a corridor. I has a kitchen with a full-size cooker with four hobs and an oven and – of all things – a full-size stainless steel “extractor” hood which, to me, doesn’t seem like a wise use of one cubic metre. Such is the power of aspiration. The microflat also has the two other aspirational symbols of balcony and flatscreen TV, both compromised but nonetheless present, competing for wallspace.

debutart_jurgen-ziewe_9163

The idea was to build these in inner-city areas but land values have no doubt prevented that. These places lose their charm when they’re sited on land that makes them worthwhile to build. It would be great if small living spaces could be located in supporting and/or lively neighbourhoods but such neighbourhoods tend to add more value to upmarket apartments. The only way out of this is to locate microflats in areas that are distinctly unattractive to other markets. Families are easy to discourage, businesses less so.

microflat_02

With a micro-flat, the bed seems to continually be a problem. Having a separate bedroom like the Piercy Connor apartment means that one third of the space is not fully used or appreciated 24 hours a day. This is not clever but may be a difficult habit to break. Having said that, it’s not a particularly Japanese thing to sleep in a bed but, in Nakagin, it made sense to double-up on the seating and the bedspace instead of doing something clever with either or both of them. There’s just the one and only one nice place to be. The Japanese would think of it as a floor and sit on it and when it came to sleep, sleep on it. Us, we’d think of it as a day bed that can be used for sitting or sleeping.

Here’s a variation with a bed mezzanine – un petit unité d’habitation. It’s by Julyan Wickham of Wickham van Eyck. It’s not bad. Placing the bed above the bathroom is a good idea, but dramatically increases the volume of the flat. Ceilings are 4m perhaps? This added volume is no doubt pleasant for the same reasons that having ‘space to waste’ usually is but this doesn’t seem like the right place to have building volume not fully utilised. Also, it weighs in at 31.5 sqm not counting the balcony.

MICRO.FLAT-PlanSectio_473

The access corridors seem unnecessarily generous, probably because of the unconvincing entrance lobbies – is it really a choice between them and a larger mezzanine window? And what’s going on upstairs? The wardrobe seems unnecessarily large, the line of its doors defined by the width of the kitchen in order to force some blue Rietveldt-esque blue solid. But Wickham has some good things to say in this article.

More than 70% of the worlds population live in an urban environment of some kind and 99% of them are not rich and do not have much mobility yet where they live and work is the real substance of any town or city and without them there is no market or urbanism to fuel the capitalist dream or provide occupation for architects and planners.

Plan-of-Buildin_381

Do I think this is advancing architecture? No I don’t, and that’s what I like about it. It advances the cause of useful building serving an important social need in ways that don’t waste resources yet try to extract maximum value from every square metre of space. If that’s not what architecture’s supposed to be doing, then architecture is not what we’re really wanting. To be honest, when I first saw the above plan, I thought it was one of the Unité d’Habitations variations.

Unite Typical Floor Plan

But then I saw that the non-‘architecture’ plan has the elevators and service risers sensibly placed in the middle of the building so as to minimise average travel distances for people and utilities. The non-‘architecture’ plan also has (what I imagine/hope are) fire escapes sensibly positioned at the end of the long corridors so that all people have a choice of two directions of escape  – unlike the Corbusier building where fire escapes take up space that could be better used for more habitations. Moreover, they will actually escape towards the light that comes in at those ends which appear to also be communal balcony area. I can see that whoever designed this building did the best they could with a tricky brief.

The idea of a cell for human habitation is not a new one, of course. This is another excuse for me to insert this image of Megaton City, The First City, from Superstudio’s Twelve Ideal Cities project.

Superstudio’s Twelve Ideal Cities project is a wry comment on twentieth-century modernist utopias, and it supposedly represents “the supreme achievement of twenty thousand years of civilization.” In the First City, or 2,000-Ton City, shown here, cubic cells stacked atop one another form a continuous building that stretches across a green, undulating landscape. Each cell is equipped with technology capable of accommodating all human desires and physiological needs.

Although I’m curious about the technology capable of accommodating all human desires and physiological needs, I’m only interested here in the size of the cells and how much space that technology takes up. Unfortunately, we don’t have that information. What MegatonCity does have in common with other microflats is a repetitive configuration.

MICROFLATS-WC_472

Multi-coloured balcony separators don’t really do much to alleviate this. The Piercy Connor microflats tried alternating the direction of the balconies and cladding in timber but to little effect. The capsules at Nakagin were fully kitted out when they were lifted into place and attached with only four bolts. In 45 years, none were ever upgraded. At least with Nakagin, there was the potential for the capsules to be replaced if anyone had wanted to.

This next building only has the illusion of capsules. This is New Sky Building #3 (1972) in Higashi-Shinjuku, Tokyo, by Yoji Watanabe.

New_Sky_Building

Semi-abandoned until last year, New Sky Building #3 has been fully restored for use as shared housing, becoming Tokyo’s only historic capsule apartment building with a future to speak of. The restoration was possible thanks to the building’s all-steel construction and distribution of square footage, an ultra-flexible layout for which Watanabe holds the patent.

I’d be interested to see a copy of this patent but, in the meantime, we can understand the structure from this plan of the building before its refurbishment. Judging solely by the sizes of the stairwell and doors, the individual pseudo-capsules seem like the 20 sqm we’re looking for. However, what we really have here is only two apartments – the paired corridors you see here, are internal corridors belonging to each of the two apartments. Communal corridors are in the lighter grey.

Sky-Buildg-Plan  Watanabe

And here’s a floor plan after refurbishment. [Thanks blog binturong.] It shows how the individual capsules were combined to make smaller apartments, not larger ones.

121222_NewSkyThe Nagakin Capsule Tower was the built manifestation of one such concept – the unicore typology. While Yoji Watanabe was not part of the metabolist group, his New Sky Building shares a similar design parti with the Nagakin Tower – modular capsules are affixed to a main circulation core. While the core remained a permanent structure, the continual replacement of capsules was, at the very least, an implicit idea.

However there are notable differences between the two buildings, which may have contributed to their eventual adaptability or lack thereof. First, the basic living unit in the Nagakin tower was a single capsule. In comparision, several capsules make up a living unit in the Blue Sky building – 4 [2!] such apartments occupy every level. With its small interior size, each capsule in the Nagakin Tower was limited to use as a single person residence (the prototypical salaryman). The larger sized units in the New Sky Building though, could accomodate different modes of living and other programs, thus broadening its appeal to a wider range of people.

This quote creates the impression that New Sky Building #2 has capsules when it doesn’t – it has the idea of capsules. Anyway. Another problem that all built and unbuilt Metabolist structures had and which New Sky Building #3 doesn’t have, concerns services. With a building such as Nakagin, the capsules are serviced from the structural core and this means all services have to pass through that structure, restricting their maintenance and upgrading. To compare, here’s a plan of Nakagin. There’s a few places where vertical risers could go, but everything must pass through the structure to get to them. Just like the services, people have to pass through the structure to get to the things that move them around the building. Moreover, apartments contrived to have side entrances have unnecessarily long service runs. A genuine metabolism would not do this.

plan

I think we’ve seen enough now to generate some rules for microflat design.

RULES FOR MICROFLATS

  1. Consider the structure and spatial enclosure as functionally separate entities but not necessarily as physically separate entities. This is a fundamental problem with Metabolist architecture. It reduces flexibility and complicates services.  
  2. Do not think of the basic unit of human habitation as a capsule. This reduces adaptability over time. It is probably a basic human instinct to have some sort of physical entity (such as a capsule) to call their own, but this is an unnecessary luxury and not really part of the problem that should be being considered. Designing a capsule and then clustering it does not seem the way forward.
  3. Try to consider the services as functionally separate entities but not necessarily as physically separate entities. Service risers need access. New services such as cable TV or fibre-optic broadband mean that wiring and cabling may need to be completely replaced within a decade or two.
  4. Embrace repetition as default. Instead of forced or gratuitous variation, accessories such as sunscreening or balconies can (and should) be used to generate meaningful variations from site and environmental factors.
  5. Do not build-in cultural inertia or social aspiration. Remember that these are microflats. Every cubic metre must make the best possible use of that space. 
  6. Design for replacement, build-in as little as possible. These days, not many people really want to watch television on a 1970s television or listen to tracks on their reel-to-reel. Technology gets replaced. Today’s bathroom taps and windows are much more efficient and higher performance than old ones. Incandescent bulbs are no longer in production.

    100604_NakaginCapsuleTower_Inside_02

  7. Don’t be too clever. Objects that fold away or disappear into walls still occupy space. The presence of each object has to be justified. A room that has no objects in it is a room that cannot be used.
  8. Start from scratch. Do not contrive a design to allude to grander accommodations.

Here’s a design I did in 1995 as a competition entry. The structure is a concrete matrix, with access stairs and services at its periphery, and two apartment entrances at each access point.

structureHere’s what happens at the access points. At each landing are two front doors, and two ‘back’ doors. The gap between the stairs is an open service riser.  

plan

Party walls and floors define the volume of the apartment between the columns and beams of the matrix. Units of this volume can be traded between vertically and horizontally adjacent neighbours. A minimum apartment would consist of a service module as standard equipment plus one other – approx. 30 sqm. There is no maximum. Party walls can be replaced or upgraded to better performing ones as technology or need dictates.

layoutExternal walls are also chosen and/or upgraded for the same reasons or to reflect the aspirations and ‘individuality’ of the owner. Elevations generate themselves.

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9 thoughts on “The Microflat

  1. Ahem. The ball-lamp shown in the illustration of your point 6 has absolutely, positively, had to have a halogen lamp, which is very much in production – still. But, hey, how easy it is to rip out that reel-to-reel and install, say, a very small microwave oven for tasty late-night snacks, yes? Point taken on the analog television, ‘though. Nice niche for one’s sweater collection, now that the thrill of b+w tv has faded. Therefore, I must take issue with your supposition about built-ins. They work for awhile, but then – later on – accommodate other “interventions.” (gosh, I hate that word – but it works. My apologies.) I also wish to quibble with your supposition that a room without clutter is a room that is unusable. Fat walls, my man! Thick, populated (by built-ins) walls. The wave of the future! Think “Brazil”! Oh what a marvelous future for the micro-flat. Alas, here in New York City, the mayor and his denizens of capital think the micro-flat is the wave of the present. Merde! is all I can say. OK – I’ve said it. Finis.

    • It’s true of course, nothing is built-in forever. Especially that TV which, upon a closer look, wasn’t that built-in to begin with. And all that A/V kit could now be interventioned (ouch!) by something smaller than the … is that a calculator I see on the desktop? … the book, let’s say. Maybe create more space for the whiskey stash! I bet some fun was had in them capsules.

      nakagin-capsule-tower22

      I particularly enjoy the stool. It has its own special place where it can double as a footstool when not being sat on. It would be difficult to select and arrange one’s own stuff into a capsule shell as efficiently as the total design solution but both approaches produce rooms that can be used.

      Either way, the capsule is still 4mx2.5mx2.5m. Flush-mounted stuff may prevent clutter but it still occupies space that has to come from somewhere and someone’s got to be pay for whatever space they have between those walls. As for the walls, they’re not getting any fatter. Or are they? I hope your mayor isn’t planning on including their area as part of the rentable. That would be merde, very merde.

      • In New York City, rentable area includes everything within the demising partitions – so, a fat wall with built-ins or no, it’s gross floor area that you’re renting. Compared with these nifty capsules, the newly-ordained “official” NYC micro flat is a pedestrian affair. (And I don’t mean it walks anywhere – but, hey, wouldn’t that be nifty, ala Archigram’s Walking Cities?)

        To worsen the crappy deal, the “official” micro flat must have a wheelchair-accessible bathroom – which occupies about a third of the 430 SF (40 M^2) apartment. What the NYC micro flat’s design does NOT do is allow for much dual- or multipurpose use. The bathroom is just a room with a bath, a water closet, and a hand sink. No guest sleeping accommodations, for instance. No doubling up as a sauna. No cold vegetable storage. Oh so boring.

        If one must be able to heft oneself from a wheelchair onto the water closet (and our accessibility laws say one must, grab bars, clearances and all) then why cannot the water closet be in a niche, with the maneuvering space in an adjacent space? Or something like that. I’m sure some sort of multipurpose accommodation that preserves a modicum of privacy can be invented. Of course, none of this is for me – I have a quite comfortable 60 M^2 flat with a door between the living and sleeping rooms. All for the (atrocious) market rent of USD510/M^2 per annum. Ouch. Maybe a micro flat isn’t such a bad idea after all? (Yes, I know that’s a cheap rent compared with, say, Hong Kong.)

      • I’d been ignoring architecture media for a couple of months so I hadn’t known anything about the NYC micro-flats. From looking at the competition requirements, it seems that the winning proposal gave the organisers everything they expected, the only deviation being the surfboard storage space. Of all the shortlisted, I liked the flats in the Durst/Dattner proposal best.

        adAPT_unit2

        I like its corners, I like the way the soffit works, I like they way they’ve used the slightest of spatial variations to make spaces that allow credible and satisfying alternative layouts for regular furniture. It’s not the space-age future we imagined, but the bed/daybed looks like a nice place to be. And this is all because they didn’t follow the guideline encouraging the use of “multipurpose furniture (such as Murphy beds, etc.) to maximise the use of space“. (Ugh!) This seems to me what architects should be doing.

        Untitled

        Before the Industrial Revolution and for quite a while after, cooking and sleeping in the same room was nothing special. Once we get used to it again, it’s not going to be that hard to find some space for a bathroom, a flatscreen and some wineglasses. There’s some media incredulousness at an apartment that’s only 30 sqm but micro-flats are here to stay but nothing much has changed, apart from what people can afford. The same people still have the same aspirations and the same choice between apartment size and commuting time. I see this as architecture moving down a notch to exploit them – and I count myself as one of the exploited. For this 30 sqm in Dubai, I paid about the same per sqm as you in NY. I currently live in a one bedroom apartment but all my furniture is in the living room, funnily.

  2. Hi Graham, nice post as usual.

    I am slightly perplexed by your choice to say that the 1970’s contained the ‘first attempt’. I would say that the discussion and practice started much sooner. For example, The Minimum Dwelling was the topic of the 1929 CIAM session in Frankfurt[1].

    Although it is probably right to say that the “microflat” is different from the “minimum flat”, nevertheless I would say that the work done _before_ the 1970’s was much more interesting than what was done afterwards. A great book on this is The Minumum Dwelling by Karel Teige[2], which, written in 1932, is basically a survey of the word that had been done on the topic by modern architects till then. It also contains some of the most fun writing on architecture that I know, as Teige was quite the Marxist and hence non-analytical chapters are quite ideological, but an amazingly perceptive critique. for example:

    The ideal of this most modern “human type” is more likely than not a house or apartment resembling historical replicas of the Petit Trianon, the Belvedere, Venice, or Neuremberg: of course, once the taste of such a modern builder has become really “modernised”, it then becomes acceptable to build in place of the Trianon Le Corbusier’s Villa Garches or Villa Poissy, or Loos’s Villa in Prague, or Mallet-Stevens’s Villa in Paris, While Mies van der Rohe builds as the pinnacle of modernist snobbish and the ostentation of a millionaire’s lifestyle a villa for the factory owner Tugendhat in Brno All these houses with all their technical luxury and radical design devices, with all their formal originality, are really nothing other than new versions of opulent baroque palaces, that is, seats of the new financial aristocracy. A machine for living? No, a machine for representation and splendour, for the idle, lazy life of the bosses playing golf and their ladies bored in their boudoirs.

    Gah I love reading this guy.

    [1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congr%C3%A8s_International_d%27Architecture_Moderne#Conferences
    [2]: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0262201364/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=19450&creativeASIN=0262201364&linkCode=as2&tag=zmlka-21

    • I agree with you Martin. Here we are in 2013, not knowing how to fit one person into 30 sqm when back then they were serious about fitting six people into 60. I’m thinking here of J.P.Oud’s Kiefhoek. I’ve ordered a copy of The Minimum Dwelling. Karel Tiege sounds like my kind of guy. That’s a brilliant quote you chose.

      While Mies van der Rohe builds as the pinnacle of modernist snobbish and the ostentation of a millionaire’s lifestyle a villa for the factory owner Tugendhat in Brno All these houses with all their technical luxury and radical design devices, with all their formal originality, are really nothing other than new versions of opulent baroque palaces, that is, seats of the new financial aristocracy. A machine for living? No, a machine for representation and splendour, for the idle, lazy life of the bosses playing golf and their ladies bored in their boudoirs.

      It’s really heartening to know there were contemporaries who didn’t think Corbusier and Mies were as original as they let people believe. One shouldn’t have had to be a Marxist to see architectural decadence re-presented as the new purity. “Let the onyx be onyx!” A hundred years on, minimum dwellings are becoming a topic once again, mostly driven by harsher realities, dashed aspirations and reduced expectations of property ownership. These are all negative drivers in a world where architecture feeds off people who like to show off how much (more) they have, and so the prizes are won by small flats that can supposedly host a dinner party for eight

      I like to think there’s still a moral case for the minimum dwelling. Using less space (and planning that space better!) will mean less stuff to fill it, less resources to enclose it, and less energy to condition it. It’s not about being smugly spartan but merely responding sensibly to the world we live in, about not using more space than we really need – just like we know we should with any other resource. Seeing these new spatial circumstances positively and as worthwhile obligations and virtues might just provoke disenchantment with decadent architecture and its anachronistic aspirations. I think Tiege would have approved. I’ll let you know when I finished The Minimum Dwelling. Thanks again.

  3. Here’s two photos of Nakagin I took a couple of weeks ago.

    IMG_0024

    The entire building is covered in pigeon netting. I don’t know how long it’s been there but, as pigeons tend to roost where other pigeons roost, leaving pigeon-sized spaces between capsules was a design flaw in my opinion. At the rear of the building, some of these spaces have been sealed. There was never that much space between the capsules anyway as all pipes beneath the capsules are enclosed within a frame recessed to produce a slight shadow gap and illusion of separation. This underneath bit is needed to change the direction of the pipes according to which of the two ways the capsule is mounted. Having two types of capsule (with only different door positions) in order to enable two ways of mounting them is another design decision that requires further contrivance in order to realise it.

    Another example of that contrivance is visible at the rear. Some of these apartments have no view other than of the wall of the adjacent building which, back in 1975, was not there. These things happen, but they can be foreseen. More immediately foreseeable was the overlooking problem created by some unfortunate window juxtapositions. The window “blinkers” are part of the original design.

    IMG_0025

    But what a lot of pipes for a 10 sqm apartment, and all of them essentially unserviceable! This was not clever. It’s easy to see why the owners are not keen to throw any more money at it. Couldn’t the drainage at least have been consolidated within the capsule? Going back to the first photograph, you can see that some people have added windows and other ventilation enhancements, mostly for the bathrooms (or where they were).

    I think that’s at least five or six black marks and all of them foreseeable. The supposed importance of this building is that it’s the built realisation of a principle, an idea, a theory but there isn’t much questioning of how useful, other than as a fame generator, those ideas were. Isozaki is so fortunate his Clusters in the Sky were never built!

    • Hello Josh, that last photograph is a lo-res download of a photo you can find on this page.

      http://www.magnumphotos-commercial.com/photography/jonas-bendiksen/special-projects/the-places-we-live

      I think it’s in Brazil. The reason I chose this image was to make the point that even though the shape of the building is regular, and the apartments probably the same size, individual customisation preferences and ways of using the apartments make them all appear different. Identical apartments doesn’t mean that the people inside them are all the same. The external appearance of Ludwig Mies’ Lake Shore Drive apartments is probably the opposite with its enforced external uniformity disguising what’s probably a comparable level of diversity within. I’m glad you like that photo.

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