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Living Together

Even though time has proved much of Karel Teige’s The Minimum Dwelling prophetic it’s still disturbing for something written in the 1930’s to seem as if it was written for us today. Teige may have been over-eager to place so much faith in dialectical materialism but his perceptions on architects, buildings, society and how people live remain timely now.

Teige believed living with shared facilities and no more space than necessary wasn’t only a good way to live but the best way to live. He saw it as a positive thing for society to aspire to whereas we (and by that I mean mainly the English-speaking cultures) see only the beginning of the end. He was looking at it from a perspective opposite to ours.

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Microflats continue to generate articles like ‘Could you live in a microflat?’ The new term may update the idea of living in less space but microflats still get presented as smaller and not in a good way rather than the smaller is better of microchips or microsurgery.

Parallel with this is the celebration of bigness and the culture of Yes is More which translates into More for The Few and is no doubt an attractive proposition if you’re one of them. The flipside is the Less for More which is the condition of our times.

It appears nobody can afford anything anywhere anymore so, unless we want to share beds and bathrooms with strangers, we’re going to have to learn to share our living space. The process has already begun with friends and virtual-strangers routinely combining resources to purchase apartments designed for family life. One person gets the larger bedroom or the one with the en-suite. The spatial arrangement formalises relationships and guides behaviour in ways beyond its remit.

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Domitory living with a shared common room has been suggested as a logical next development. Such arrangements occur already in hotels, boarding houses and hospitals. We used to mock the Japanese for their capsule hotels but now think hostels like these rather classy.

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Slightly further into our future are bed-spaces with some sort of communal recreation space. You can find this in construction worker camps

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but we don’t have to look too far back to find our own examples.

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The next development is hot-bedding and timeshares for eight-hour shifts in a bed. Think intense hostel. Hot-bunking used to be confined to submarines and sailors working and sleeping in shifts. Not so now, it seems. When it gets to this, there’s no need for separate living space because not working is recreation and a bed is all you need.

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These are our options. If we’re not willing to share beds and bathrooms with strangers then (a) something’s got to give and it’s going to be living space and, following on from that, (b) our basic unit of accommodation is something we recognise as the hotel room.

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Apartments are approaching the dimensions of hotel rooms anyway and various ways of dealing with the absence of living space are being proposed. All are non-solutions to allow us to continue ignoring the problem as we pretend to address it.

1: Multitasking

Multitasking is what happens when your apartment becomes a camper van. The bed is the sofa. The kitchen sink is the bathroom washbasin. The shelf is the desk and the desk is the kitchen counter, the shower a wet room and the WC in the shower.

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Here’s the view from the window end of the room. Apartments like these used to be called bedsits.

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“bright accommodation that includes a sleeping area with compact kitchenette (mini fridge and microwave included) plus a separate wet room with shower and WC”

The term ‘wet room with shower and wc’ fills me with foreboding. And where is this ‘compact kitchenette including mini-fridge and microwave,’ given that in the language of real-estate, including = is?

The appeal of this small London flat is that it doesn’t cost as much as a proper apartment. ‘This flat is perfect for someone working in the City or Central London’ doesn’t preclude owner-occupiers but ‘It would also be a savvy choice as a buy-to-let investment, as it could achieve a rental income of around £1,000 per calendar month’ gets to the point.

The attraction is not the social benefit of a useful housing type but the money to be saved by buying it, or the money to be made by purchasing it and then renting it to the unpropertied. Buy-to-let can’t even be called the New Feudal System as landlords never stopped farming tenants. It’s clearer and simpler without the agriculture.

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2. The space-time warp

This is a different way of dealing with the problem of having insufficient space to dedicate to living space. It’s a variation of multitasking in using the same space for living and sleeping but different in having dedicated items of furniture. The downside is that the furniture isn’t that dedicated as the sofa transforms into the bed, the table into a kitchen counter, etc.

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The microflat competition was one of New York City’s recent initiatives to get people accustomed to the idea of living in less space.

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Whenever I hear the name Maya Lin I always think of this Manhattan ‘microflat’ she styled.

Unlike Paul Goldberger, Bjarke Ingels and Maya Lin, I don’t see any advantages to multitasking objects across time. It’s a type of denial.

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Okay, your five guests have had a lovely time and gone home. You’d like to go to bed now. But first have to clear and clear away the table. You unwisely decide to shift both table and contents to make the kitchen counter …

The deceit presented as conceit is that, when the bed’s tucked away, there’s still a bedroom behind some imaginary door. Or that when in ‘the dining room’ there’s still a living room around some corner. It’s spatial trompe l’oeil. It challenges no social conventions and thus helps perpetuate them.

3: Multitasking space

Normally people throw money at apartments by dubious renovations such as removing walls, installing laminate flooring, new kitchen units, and retiling the bathroom. Studio apartments have no internal walls to remove to make a space appear larger than it is but it’s still possible to decorate a tiny apartment as if it were part of a grander one. That’s the attraction of this studio apartment I mentioned in a not-too-previous post.

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There’s nothing wrong with neutral colours or quirky decorative items if that’s your thing. Many people will admire what the occupant has done to the space but there’s a fine line between pride and defiance, and between defiance and denial. There are far too many of the conventional indicators of interior contentment in this living room. This makes me think it’s an exercise in aspirational decoration, perhaps as a marketing vehicle. Someone has done all this not because they can see the beauty of a small space but because they can’t, or don’t want you to. In any case, the living area of this apartment is its least interesting aspect.

What we don’t see in the picture is the bed. It’s to the left, behind the kitchen counter with the orange flowers on it. [more images here]

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This apartment maintains different places for living and sleeping. I admire it for its priorities and how the bulk of the space has been routed to the living area while that for everything else is compressed. The same space is the corridor to the bathroom, the space on the side of the bed and the activity space for the kitchen counter. Lose the living room and it’s a Nakagin Capsule.

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4. The space-time warp #2

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I only mention this variation of the space-time warp for the sake of completeness. With this hybrid, walls multitask space across time to make different rooms in an example of space-time warp for both the space as well as the furniture required to use it.

These transformations also involve a conceptual shift – how many dads would host a dinner party for 12 the same night the two kids stay over? Ingenuity in solving a problem imagined by at least one person is the product on display here.

5. Fun-sized!

A previous post, Fun!tionalism, explored the trend for modern apartment buildings to make much of communal facilities and amenities provided as compensation for the small size of the apartments. In passing, it might be an idea to reintroduce the commual laundry as a fun new way to meet people.

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But around the increasingly baroque amenities and facilities hangs an air of desperation. Compensation is something to atone for an unsatisfactory situation – it doesn’t remove the reason for dissatisfaction. This type of approach to development, sale and occupancy will not change perceptions.

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There’s a precedent for it not changing perceptions. New York’s 1924 Shelton Hotel was admired worldwide as a symbol of technological progress and how advanced America was architecturally. In Eastern Europe and Russia it was also seen to embody socialist ideals of communal living.

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The Shelton was planned as a “club hotel”; i.e., a residential hotel for men, with such club features as a swimming pool, Turkish bath, billiard room, bowling alley, and, on the setbacks, rooftop gardens. The joys of living in such a hotel were detailed by a writer for Edison Monthly: “In a house of monumental beauty raised to the heights especially for you – if you are a bachelor – you will find all the comforts of a country home, and the luxuries and camaraderie of a university or great club always at your disposal and command.”

The description goes on to say “This use as a residential hotel for men was not a success and soon after its completion the hotel became a more traditional residential and transient facility”. Despite notable long-term transients such as Georgia O’Keefe, it’s fair to say the social conditions for accepting of the building and the new way of living it implied weren’t in place.

This is something Karel Teige could have written. Those conditions weren’t in place in Russia either but, for a while it looked as if they going to be. It’s getting closer to being our turn to give it a try. The problem is, we’re not very good at sharing stuff and living with other people. We’re going to have to ease ourselves into the concept. Here’s my first proposal.

The Dual Apartment

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The Dual Apartment is two hotel rooms joined by a shared living space. It’s a co-joined suite with ownership split across two mortgages with rights to use the shared space, much like with the gardens of multi-occupancy houses.

The Dual Apartment offers less privacy than solitary living in a one-bedroom apartment but more than sharing a conventional two-bed apartment. It’s thus better suited to any two people willing or eager to share living space. Couples may even prefer to live like this, as may marrieds. It’s possible to imagine a two-storey variation with four bedrooms, bathrooms and entrances sharing lower floor and mezzanine living areas connected by cheap stairs.

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In 1930 Walter Gropius proposed something spatially similar. His had a shared entrance lobby leading to a shared kitchen/eating area but separate bathrooms and bedsits for a man and woman presumably married though Gropius didn’t distinguish.

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His proposal was roundly and fairly criticised by Teige for not fulfilling any social need other than to cater to bourgeois couples wanting to experiment with new ways of living. (Gropius’ days of experimenting were well over as he’d divorced Alma by 1920 and married Ise by 1923.) Teige’s objection was that society had more pressing concerns and he didn’t want to see this useful idea gentrified before it began.

The last sentence was ‘It will represent a new architectural type, responding to a new social and cultural context.’  This is where we’re most likely to fail. We need to adapt to change but don’t want the appearance of anything having changed. It’s inevitable that useful proposals like the Dual Apartment and the Quad Apartment will be understood as means of ‘getting on the property ladder’, as ‘halfway houses’ or ‘quarterway houses’ rather than as better ways to live and for an increasing number of people.

They will find widespread acceptance only after they become near impossible to buy into. By then, we’ll be in dire need of something more radical. What then?

Next, obviously, is sharing the common space amongst not two or four hotel-room type units but amongst forty or more. We’ll be having the same individual spaces

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but with a shared social space where people, semi-strangers or friends can be together and satisfy requirements for food, drink and entertainment. What could such a space look like? What kind of furniture would it have?

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No matter what you thought of the show, the coffee-shop as communal living area is a concept that’s entered our lives. People have breakfast in them, lunch in them, meet their friends in them, do internet stuff in them. It’s practically a living room.

All it needs is a few washer/dryers and treadmills off to one side and most of the apparatus of modern living is sorted. When we weren’t paying attention, coffee shops even began to look like living rooms. There’s no reason to ever leave them except to sleep or bathe or, should we so wish, to be alone. Compared to a conventional living room it’s no major difference – or paradigm shift, as we say in architecture.

Again there’s a precedent – Mosei Ginzburg & his Stroykom team’s 1928 Type E communal living building. [For more, see here.]

Every third floor was apartment corridor and communal activity area. It was a brilliant spatial arrangement but the problem was there wasn’t enough communal stuff to fill half of every third floor.

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That shouldn’t be a problem these days. Just as coffee shops are taking on the appearance of living rooms, companies are making their office environments more like communal recreation spaces.

If they want us to to feel like we live there then why don’t we? There’s no need for us to be postmodern victims living, working or socialising somewhere pretending to be the home we never had. Let’s all move in and live and work and socialise at home for real!

If Starbucks can make the leap from providing rooms that are practically living rooms, to rooms that actually are living rooms and with bedroom+bathrooms attached, then they are our next housing providers. To make it happen all we need is Bjarke Ingels to present the idea. Companies will outbid each other to build it as we clamour to get our names on the list.

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