The Inscrutable Apartment

If you know beforehand that a house is a two-up-two-down cottage, then you know its entire layout before you even enter.

The house may be sandwiched between party walls but its layout can nevertheless still be comprehended as “front” and “back” rooms offering not only alternate places to be but different experiences as well because of the different views and daylighting. It’s not possible to even approximate this in a single-aspect apartment. We need double-aspect apartments.

One way to do this is The 1+1/2 Floor Apartment. In 1927, a team led by Ivan Sobolev proposed apartments featuring a double-height living room and a construction module that could provide 2-, 4- or 6-bedroom double-aspect apartments. 

Sobolev correctly reasoned that bathrooms need to go above and below the corridor and that the kitchen needed to be adjacent to the dining area and share the floor of the living space and not its ceiling. Le Corbusier didn’t arrive at the same conclusion in 1949, 1952, 1956, 1957 or 1960. This section sketch by busharchitect rightly labels the apartments supérior and inférior but I doubt LC did.

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Nevertheless, all these apartments share the advantage of having one of the two levels having windows facing in a second direction rather than the single direction of the entrance level. This gives rise to cross ventilation but also provides one part of the apartment with a view and daylighting that differ from the other parts. This is not about adventure or surprise. All it means is that a small plan can feel more pleasant if it has more than one experience – or mood, if you prefer. Orthodox 20th century thinking has it that connecting spaces creates the illusion of having more and perhaps it does but that doesn’t mean it’s any more pleasant to live in.

De-connecting spaces is counter to that orthodoxy and so has never been explicitly stated as a good thing but the proliferation of complicated layouts in British 1950s council housing apartment shows it was understood as a principle even if the given justifications were to reduce the volume of space devoted to access (as did The Constructivists) or to somehow create architecture (by doing something “Corb” had tried).

The scissor flat was the most inscrutable of these layouts.

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The scissor section flat was developed by David Gregory-Jones and his team at LCC Architects department in 1956-57, with details of the design approach published in a technical article in 1962. The interlocking design provides a way of maximising the space given to flats in any building volume by reducing the space needed for entrance corridors and providing a dual aspect for each dwelling, but the design does have accessibility issues and the complex arrangement has caused confusion for emergency services.

The accessibility issue comes from UK regulations stipulating an accessible wc at entry level but this is impossible. The confusion for emergency services came about from the layout being unorthodox rather than complex but – anything either complex or unorthodox results in increased construction cost.

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Scissor apartments have a corridor every other floor so they weren’t all that good at saving apartment access area anyway. So why do it? The new advantage was that all living rooms could be on the same side of the building whether the sunnier one or the one less noisy . This was the stated reason for their use in the upmarket apartment building, Corringham.

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What the scissor apartment also does better because of its multiple levels is accentuate the differences of experience already created by the differences in aspect. These apartments feel larger than ones on a simple two levels. The entrance space is used only to enter and leave the apartment. Once inside, the front door is forgotten. It’s not something one’s always passing by.

Unité Marseilles 18th floor studio

These 2010 plans by Al Shawa & McKay also have corridors every other level but the additional advantage is natural ventilation for access corridors as well as (seaparately exhausted) bathrooms and kitchens. This is achieved by leading access corridors through light/air shafts in a manner not unusual in low-rise Andalucian apartment buildings. 

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The Katana Residences similarly twist and interlock paired apartments.

Double-sided elevators eliminate access corridors and create a false simplicity since three service corridors now run across the building for shared access to fire escape stairs and service elevators. These do nothing to enhance the daily use of the building.

Taking it a step further is Yokohama Apartments by Osamu Nishida + Erika Nakagawa of On Design. Billed as apartments for artists and they may well be, but the building is essentially an exercise in co-living. Entry floor is shared amenities plus four staircases

leading to individual apartments but, Japan being Japan, not in any straightforward manner.

Building on the work of SANAA in monetising access alleyways, these apartments offer  balconies as landings. Private bathrooms and the opportunity for the preparation of simple food suggest they will be lived in as apartments. These apartments definitely have two different (and to our eyes, extreme) spatial experiences but both are intensified by the circuitous route connecting them.

This brings us naturally to the 2014 Alley House by Be Fun Design[Afterwards, check out some of their other projects – they’re not as silly as you might think.]

Untitled 4

They’d already found out with their 2013 Spiral House what happens when you give each tenant equivalent front doors accessing vertical slivers of four storey space. Alley House occupants also have equivalent front doors but this time they access three quarter floors spiralling up and around the building. There’s the same awareness of the perimeter walls as in On Design’s Yokohama Apartments but this time everybody experiences every side of the building. It’s not so silly.

This seems an appropriate time to remember the Double Apartment Building designed in 1921 by Nikolai Krasilnikov at the Vkhutemas studio of Nikolai Ladovsky.

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Krasilnikov manages to pre-empt BeFun’s internal experiments with Alley House and Frank Gehry’s volumetric ones with Vitra Design Museum and brings us back to the early 1920s and back to the (former) U.S.S.R. This next is Living Project on Rublevskoye Highway, Mosow, by Sergey Skuratov architects.

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The practice’s website is a triumph of substance over image but the many project images also appear on over on archi.ru along with the unhelpful description “The architectural solution of the towers is simple and dramatic at the same time. Each of the volumes has two “material” and two “penetrable” facades.” This doesn’t tell us why that might be a good idea.

sergey-skuratov

When the corner rooms of those corner apartments DON’T have windows facing in two directions, it becomes possible for the apartment to offer two different and distinct types of experience. All the corner apartments above do this but the effect is most pronounced in north corner apartment indicated as the kitchen is the room with the different daylighting and view. The apartment isn’t large at around 45 sq.m but, because it has more than one experience to offer and doesn’t reveal them both at once, it will always offer two distinct experiences regardless of the time of day, the room or the reason for being in it.

It’s not a thing of huge consequence but it might be time to start forgetting about spaces flowing together for the dubious advantage of creating the impression of having more. Not connecting rooms every possible way and not having windows on every possible surface suggest a different way of appreciating the space inside an apartment and the space outside as well.

It might be time to think about what the concept of spaces “flowing into one another” has actually done for us.

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