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The Dispersed Apartment

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This one has some pretty solid inspirations, most solid of which is the architecture of Riken Yamamoto and its basis in what can be done to break the isolation of households and bring people together in some shared experience of living. The closest word we have to describe this is “community” and that’s a word that’s been co-opted and abused so much we’re practically suspicious of it. It’s probably just neoliberalism taking over where postmodernism left off. An absence of meaning works just as well as an overabundance of meaning did to devalue anything with meaning, making the very idea of meaning meaningless.

A typical floor layout such as this next one illustrates Yamamoto’s point. The plan itself may be wonderfully simple and each apartment has views in both directions but residents are totally isolated from each other and, if the elevator leads directly to and from a car park, it’s likely one may never see or meet them. This layout has huge societal failings despite whatever its architectural virtues might be. Any commercial virtues are already a function of societal engineering.

Even just knowing there are other people outside one’s door or window is a type of interaction and this configuration prevents even that. Yamamoto’s thesis is that architects’ collusion in overvaluing privacy works to make society less cohesive and easier to bureaucratically manage, if not control. Remember how Margaret Thatcher said “there is no such as thing as society”? More recently, I think we now understand that digital connectivity isn’t the substitute for human interaction we were once led to believe it would be.

As antidote to that, or possibly vaccination, Yamamoto suggested residential developments in which people are more aware of their neighbors, not less. I’ll use his 2010 Pangyo Housing to illustrate. It has a shared entry deck level on the floor between the living areas below and the bedrooms above. It’s large, glazed and has no set use. It means residents pass through the (visual) shared space and are visible to anyone in it. A person can be inside their house and, every now and then, be reminded of people outside and have an opportunity to interact with them if they wish. This idea that underlies the architecture of Riken Yamamoto is my first reference.

The second is Kazuo Shinohara’s 1970 Repeating Crevice house. Shinohara’s residential architecture is the opposite of Yamamoto’s in that he generally created spatial worlds isolated from the outside. However, this 1970 multi-generational house with a separate apartment for the grandparents has the entrance hall shared and a central hallway and dining room that can be overlooked. Everybody in the house always knows where everyone else is (especially at night) but interaction is optional.

The third is my own 2018 Streets in the Sky proposal even though it shares some DNA with Repeating Crevice. The point was to have apartments overlook the access corridor so people at home can see others coming and going, but also so people coming home will not feel cut off from their neighbors as soon as they close their door.

Despite these images we often see, the “streets in the air” of The Smithsons 1952 Golden Lane Competition or their 1972 Robin Hood Gardens aren’t a reference for anything. However, one working title for this post was Corridors in the Air.

The layouts show a stair parallel to the access corridor and a displaced upper floor can work and also that André Devin did it better. It looks like a problem of basic dimensions being set by the structural system. The apartment on the right sleeps five but only four can lounge or eat. The apartment on the left also sleeps five but while six can lounge only three can eat.

I could reference Piranesi as an example of movement and observation but London’s 1820 Brixton Prison and 1862 Clerkenwell Prison better integrate daylighting, ventilation and access integrated in a way that allows persons in the access corridor know who is where at all times. The same awareness extends to those on the inside but, prisons being prisons, is of little comfort or use.

Finally, there’s Ricardo Bofill’s 1975 Walden 7 where access corridors make people aware of other people living in and moving around the building. Brilliant as I think this project is, it’s only a prototype once its ideas are scaled down, refined and disseminated. This is what I’d like to try.

The title of this post should’ve been a clue, referring as it does to the recent post The Dispersed House in which I attempted to define characteristics and advantages. These are the layouts of the lower, middle and upper levels of the Deck Access post. Let’s look first at the topology, ignoring the colors for now and assuming horizontal and vertical repeats of this three-story module make a building (having an elevator and a stair at each end). Assume South is down.

  • It’s possible to have all kitchen/dining areas on the south but, if the large middle rooms I’ve made 4.0m x 4.1m are always used as living rooms, all apartments won’t be able to have a living room on the south side. Four into three doesn’t go. The fourth living room will be on the north side, as with the green apartment.
  • Those central rooms can link to the apartments on either side, but can also link to both. On the middle level, the green living room could connect through to the blue apartment so they could both be inhabited however. The green apartment would then be without a living room of its own but on the upper level could take one (or both) from the yellow apartment’.
  • That living rooms of adjacent apartments can be freely swapped this doesn’t mean they will be freely exchange but it does mean the internal configuration of the building has the potential to change over time, with different combinations of spaces appearing on some internal or external market.
  • I hadn’t given any thought to the ground level planning, which I imagine will begin with a “middle” level, with ground/first floor apartments having two entrances and only stairs up. Having the kitchen/dining/living at entry level and three bedrooms and two bathrooms above is one way of doing it.

All this still holds for these next layouts of The Dispersed Apartment. Apart from minor changes such as tidying up of dimensions, the differences are:

  • Increased separation with the access corridor now with a gap along along the full length of the building [apart, of course, from where it actually accesses the building]
  • A larger gap for where the bathrooms are. This is mainly to allow for small windows so that people coming up/down the stairs can view the gap between the buildings. It’s probably the only bit of fat on the building so will have to be justified as an open service shaft with soil pipes and utilities running up it for otherwise, it would pit a construction complication against some unquantifiable quality and be “value-engineered” away.
  • The biggest difference is that the bridge corridors are now open, with all the advantages/disadvantages of the proposals I referenced. Additional multi-purpose functionality (such as with the entry levels of Yamamoto’s Pangyo Housing) could be added by making these bridges perhaps one meter wider. The idea of removing those bridge walls came from me wanting to make the access corridor as light and airy as possible and two storeys of bridge with two full-height walls above the access corridor worked against this.

Whether I’ve added any functionality beyond air and light I don’t know. It just might be a better way to live for extended families, house-share or other types of non-nuclear tenure. It may even be getting back to the communal house which was only ever about persons with shared values and circumstances living together – the very thing modern society is designed to not make us want. Getting back to the communal house will involve thinking about what the sides of those bridges are going to be like.

There are several options, any or all of which can be used – it’s not a problem – but, to repeat Riken Yamamoto’s thesis, solutions that offer more “privacy” correlate with societies that are more “managed”, whether people are aware of it or not.

  1. Full-height walls without windows
  2. Full-height walls with windows and window coverings
  3. Full-height walls with windows but no window coverings
  4. Horizontal windows without window coverings
  5. Decorative openings
  6. Translucent screen walls with or without windows
  7. Juliet balconies with full-height sliding glass doors with or without curtains
  8. Screen walls not unlike the mashribaya of the Arab world
  9. Screen walls not unlike the brickwork screens of Kerala or northern Italy
  10. Screen walls not unlike the timber screen walls of South-East Asia
  11. Screen walls not unlike the decorative CMU of Australian suburban architecture
  12. Curtains such as on Shigeru Ban’s Curtain Wall House
  13. Woven steel mesh, woven steel mesh curtains, security flyscreens
  14. Laser-cut metal screens
  15. Clotheslines and laundry
  16. Plant screens such as Edouard François’ Flower Tower
  17. A trellis, either with or without plants
  18. Conventional balcony railings
  19. Glass balcony railings
  20. Living balcony railings
  21. Any or all of the above

I favour all of the above but only because it’s what would probably happen, not because it would result in some visual representation of “individuality”. Diverse screens can still be equally opaque screens and work to promote societal conformity while uniformly absent or similar screens still work towards societal cohesion.

Default spec.

I’ve gone for the most open option because openness is what needs to be encouraged. Here’s that access corridor. I’ve added some people for orientation. The camera field of vision is set at a 60° so the depiction of openness vs. distance is as naturalistic as it can be.