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Comfort Zone Part II

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This post, written in early May, concludes last week’s Comfort Zone post.

I’ve not been out much lately. The above photo shows my studio apartment in Dubai. I spend a lot of time at that table staring out the window, wondering what to write and, when I’m not doing that, I look at my walls and windows and wonder what they mean. In the photo you can see my three pleasures of cooking/eating in the distance, music and film as represented by the television in the middle-ground and, writing and communications as represented by the desk and laptop in the foreground. That’s most of my life. The air is de-humidified, filtered and tempered to 23.5°C. It’s my bubble, my shelf on the 45th floor, my space station. There’s food in the cupboards. There’s sources of energy and water. This apartment meets my base physiological needs and goes a fair way to meeting my psychological ones too. 

It’s not huge. For a week or so, I felt I had to move all the furniture away from the walls to give me more options to go from one place to another. It felt a bit stupid. I wasn’t about to start running marathons but I did try to exercise using the fire-escape stairs as a Stairmaster but using the car park as a running track was less brutal and the prospect of cardiac arrest less terrifying. 

I liked level four the most because, from there, I could see the frangipani and poinciana trees on the podium of the neighbouring hotel. It’s true – plants cheer us up. It was also good to feel the heat and hear what noises of the city were there to hear because my apartment has neither balcony nor openable window. I never thought I could live in an enclosed apartment, but, in Dubai, I don’t mind as it’s now early May and already 40°C outside. For the past two days, there’s been a dust storm. 

Zaha Hadid once said she could live in a small apartment if it had an interesting view and all I ask of windows now is that they inform me of what’s going on outside. I appreciate how the long side of my apartment has the curtain wall and, though I never lack something to look at, there is such a thing as too much light between May and July. It was open space I was missing. I discovered someone had left the stairwell door to the rooftop open, so I climbed the ladder and stood on the roof of the elevator penthouse. It was no garden, but it felt good to have nothing but sky above.

I’d been lacking space and open space because of the building’s highly segmented design, but I was able to work around those limitations by repurposing other spaces. The car park and rooftop weren’t made for me to use or enjoy the way I did. These experiences were elemental pleasures and not aesthetic pleasures designed in accordance with the same cultural and educational values that generated the problem in the first place.

I read that, in Berlin, the Windowflicks project projected films onto blank walls overlooked by at least twenty apartments. In the evenings, residents could have the shared but distanced experience of watching a movie with their neighbours and, in doing so, enjoy a building in a manner for which it was not designed. This is the creative use of buildings. 

Back inside at my table, I admire the way whoever designed this apartment, used the 1.5 x 1.5 metre column to divide the kitchen and bathroom from the living space. I appreciate this column being there, what it does, and how it looks like it is holding up a building. It owes me no more than that. I don’t begrudge its size. I appreciate how the curtain wall is slightly raked and independent of the column.

Between the two is a small space that doesn’t suggest any use but, if I had a cat, it would surely claim that space as its own. As I don’t, it’s home to my ironing board, vacuum cleaner, and laundry drying rack.

I’m thinking of an architecture in which different systems are simply juxtaposed and allowed to interact. Outside is the building system that I newly interact with via the car park and rooftop. Inside is the apartment system that I move around and interact with in mostly expected ways as far as activities and the placement of furniture is concerned, but I also interact with the space in unplanned ways, as far as the column system, the curtain wall system, and my things are concerned.

This is a different kind of space from functional space designed to satisfy spatial requirements, it is a different kind of space from decadent space designed to be over and above functional requirements, and it is a different kind of space from symbolic space that has some designer point to make, however enigmatic. The space behind the service elevators in these next three apartment plants in Foster+Partners’ 100 East 53rd St. project is similar in being neither functional space nor decadent space disguised as decorative space. It has no agenda.

This idea I’ve been carrying around for decades and have only just been able to articulate it. When I was a student of Shinohara’s, I would often be asked to accompany visitors to the atelier on tours of houses whose owners were amenable to such visits. The owners of House in Uehara were very accommodating and I took visitors there at least three times. In the photograph below you can see this house has concrete struts rising diagonally from the floor. On one visit, the leftmost fork held a month’s worth of newspapers prior to their being bundled and recycled. Underneath the near strut were the two cats’ bowls placed in the only place they couldn’t be kicked. It was a joy seeing people creatively living in their house.

If ever you lay down on a sofa to have a nap and you pull a throw blanket over yourself even though you’re not cold, it’s because your body is more comfortable when it’s allowed to find its own thermal equilibrium. I suspect a similar relationship exists between us and our living spaces, and that we’re more comfortable when we simply live in them in ways that make sense to us. An architecture that’s less prescriptive, but rich in potential for us to arbitrarily engage with it, just might make us feel more alive in these places where we seem to be spending so much of our time.