Plan Without Qualities
The title is disingenuous, just as it was with Oswald Ungers’ House Without Qualities. That house had plenty of them – just not the usual ones. Anyway, here’s my plan. It looks cheap to build but would obviously be cheaper to build were it squared off. I’ll explain later why it’s not.
I like how, topologically, the plan resembles Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1974 Pasadena Heights apartments with their two bedrooms at one end and a bathroom on the other side of a central space that’s the point of entry and all the circulation space that’s required.
At 36.1 sq.m, these apartments are 3 sq.m larger than the smallest possible studio apartment for which UK housing associations would receive government funding – or at least that was the case in 2008 but I’m out of touch. If UK affordable housing standards still exist they’re probably different now. In passing, four persons in a 36 sq.m apartment with a bathroom and separate kitchen/dining room was a 1927 Soviet housing goal.
This unexciting layout isn’t pure invention, nor innovation, and certainly not the disruptive change we’re supposed to want more of. Instead, it’s just incremental improvements to load bearing walls, slabs, access corridors and staircases and connections. It has no dedicated circulation space. All space needed to move around the apartment overlaps the necessary activity space of the dining table. This and 100% plan efficiency are possible only because the entrance is at the middle and not the end of the plan where the access corridor is. The staircase is used as an (inclined, public) corridor to get to the middle of the apartment.
The term inclined corridor is not mine, although I’m probably the second person to have used it in English. The first was my Russian friend and early collaborator Victor who translated Mosei Ginzburg’s afterword to his response to questions at the November 1928 meeting at which he presented the results of his team’s Types Study to STROYKOM, the Building Committee of the Soviet Economic Council. Ginzburg used the term inclined corridor with reference refer to the plan efficiency of the Type F apartment.
Type F apartments are the split level ones most familiar from Narkomfin.
Outside the apartment entrances doors are half-flights of stairs leading up or down to the central access corridor.
For a while I thought all I was doing was re-creating the Soviet Type A apartment from 1927 but without full dual aspect.
“Exactly! Why do this? Surely a branch corridor would be just as effective in accessing an entrance door at the middle of the plan? There may be no circulation space inside but all you’ve done is shift it to outside.”
True. Every habitable floor is half a floor removed from an access corridor but there are only three access corridors serving six floors. The stairs don’t form stairwells. This halves the number of access corridors, makes the access corridor double height and feel more airy and also be more airy as the stairwells better function as airshafts. Also, because access isn’t on the same level as the apartments and the stairs are on only one side, additional windows can open onto the stairs from that middle room. It’s easier to understand in section. The access corridor doesn’t have to be double-loaded as shown here [but with dual-loaded corridors, I think a lengthways NE–SW orientation would give a fairer distribution of daylight hours than precisely N–S].
“There’s no level access.”
The lowest floor and the highest floor can both have level access. For a six-story building, this will mean one third of apartments have level access which I’m told is fine these days in the UK at least. The remaining two thirds will be either one half a floor up or down from access corridors. In a six-story building, those access corridors will now be only 1+1/2 floors high instead of the two they would have been otherwise. Level access has been satisfied but, level access being level access, it also means there is no difference between inside and outside. For the other two thirds of apartments there is a desirable dislocation between the two as persons on either side can be aware of each other without forced eye-to-eye contact.
When units are repeated lengthways, one stair at each end could be a continuous stairwell and double as a fire escape stair but, since people act irrationally when they panic, I think it’d be safer to provide dedicated fire stairs next to elevators at each end. Building length is arbitrary.
Since occupants were going to have to get to the middle of their apartments one way or another, there’s hardly any difference in built area. However, external area is less expensive to build – 50% I once heard – because internal finishes and the labour to apply them aren’t required. Another cost advantage comes from having only three access corridors instead of six. Either way, they’re not enclosed (i.e. finished) space. The question is whether these two cost advantages compensate for the additional external surface area of these apartments and the cost difference between regular corridors and inclined ones.
Even if they turn out to be equal, it’s worth remembering that the only additional surface area apart from the shared indentation that’s used to bring the entrances towards the middle of the apartment, is for the vertical shafts that allows set-back windows to the bathrooms and kitchens. It’d be relatively simple to compare costs and benefits with a baseline rectangular apartment having only the entrance opening to the corridor. But I’m not the one to do it.
“Who’d want to live in a place like this?”
This apartment is 36 sq.m and has two bedrooms. You could sleep four to each room but then you wouldn’t have an apartment you’d have a labour camp and it’d make more sense to have communal dining and shower blocks, even if only to avoid long wait times. It’s what happens.
Plan Without Qualities makes more sense with two people per room, no matter how they are or aren’t related. Let me tell you a story. I used to live in the left of these two towers behind the church in the photograph below. The building was called Selworthy House and was in London’s Battersea not too far from the offices of Foster & Partners. Once, when I wanted to rent out a room, two young Polish girls applied. They were working for Foster & Partners but not in the famously open plan double height office with its well-photographed meeting table on the corner looking up The Thames. They were in some back office annex where every morning would be a new stack of marked-up drawings for them to amend. Anyway, they told me they wanted to share the room and each pay half the rent. I said I was really only wanting to share with one other person. To which they said all they needed was a bathroom and a room to sleep, and that they didn’t need to use the living room or the kitchen. They told me where they were currently living was conditional on them not using the kitchen or living room.
I thought of those two Polish girls recently. This proposal would suit architecture interns and factory workers. The insides of the apartments offer more dignity than expected, and getting to them along a corridor where one can experience the presence of others (albeit at a distance) ought to make one feel less alone in the big city. That access corridor is a transition space but a gentle one, unlike a hotel or apartment corridor with a sharp distinction between shared and private.