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Architecture Myths #26: Flexibility

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Folding Beijing is a 2012 Chinese science fiction short story by Hao Jingfan in which Beijing is divided into the three districts of First Space where the well-off live, and Second and Third spaces where the less well-off live. First Space people live on one side of the coin, as it were, and that side is the above-ground surface for half the time. Second Space and Third Space people live on the other side of the coin and, when First Space is folded away, their spaces successively unfold to be the surface for one quarter of the time. Inhabitants are folded away with their cities in enforced sleep.

The premise is that there’s insufficient land for the city’s population and so use of what land there is has to be divided and apportioned because it’s impossible for everybody to live in the same area full-time. Since the amount of land is finite, the city cyclically folds and unfolds for the apportioned periods.

Apportioning space, light and air to populations is what cities do and, when the number of people increases, something has to give. Excess space is usually first to go. Urban dwellings are smaller than suburban or rural ones and are more likely to be in stacked that property known as apartments.

And then those apartments become smaller and closer. The population density of Kowloon Walled City that existed in Hong Kong between 1950 and 1994. peaked at 1.25 million per in the early 1980s. That’s about 4 sq.m per person and includes narrow access paths that double as lightwells and air shafts.

By Ian Lambot – found in the book City of Darkness – Life in Kowloon Walled City by Ian Lambot (ISBN 1-873200-13-7)., CC BY-SA 4.0,

It was an extreme example of a typical urban environment where living takes place in small apartments overlooking streets that are also the primary source of daylight and ventilation. Hong Kong’s 10 sq.m apartments and the “coffin” apartments that we used to know as capsule hotel rooms are both examples of space reduced until it can’t be reduced any more. The 10 sq.m apartment is possible by stacking functions and possessions. The capsule apartment only works if there are fewer of both.

Flexibility in architecture is an entire mess of concepts, overlapping with and used/misused to mean various means of adapting to different circumstances over time. It encompasses things like partitions that shift to reorganize space, furniture that morphs or pops up when required, buildings that can easily accommodate or adapt to different uses for both short and longer periods of time. The word flexible is itself flexible.

Still in Hong Kong, this next set of plans is intended to show how little flexibility there is regarding furniture arrangement. A bed can either be one way or the other. You can have a rectangular table or a round table in the corner. Etc.

Whether this is inflexibility or simply a lack of variation, the implication it that the layout is inflexible and that people have insufficient freedom to use it how they might want. Having said that, people are also free to put a bed in the large room or a dining table in a small one but they don’t. It’s the idea of an architecture that has spaces designed for specific functions that’s the problem.

The conceit of flexibility as a concept is that you think you get two or more spaces/buildings for the price of one but even the potential for multiple functionality doesn’t come for nothing. This Japanese room has been designed to allow flexible usage, depending upon what you put in it. If you put a low table and some zabuton in there it’s suddenly a reception or dining room. If you put a futon in there it’s a bedroom.

This is only possible because not too far away from this space will be an oshiire – a large cupboard with sliding doors and where you literally “push-in” things. The sliding doors are often indistinguishable from the partition doors.

Up the corridor may be a nando – which is a whole dedicated room for storing seasonal or infrequently used furniture and clothing. This additional storage space is what keeps the room flexible.

If a space could provide true flexibility of use over the course of a day then it would be a perfect architectural product because people would be able to live/work in less space. The trick is to provide true flexibility. We don’t know what this will turn out to mean but one thing it won’t be is the representation of flexibility. It will also have to be possible at low cost but, at the same time, not look as cheap as it actually was to provide. Oh, and it’ll also mean we won’t need to be flexible ourselves and can go on living as we always have. Tall order.

If a building could provide true flexibility of use over its lifespan then it would also be the kind of architectural product the world needs but this would mean adding functionality (or the potential for it) at the outset. Our concern for unspecified people in the future tends to evaporate when extra cost is involved.

The FutureHaus by the Virginia Tech Center for Design Research won first prize at the 2018 Solar Decathlon Middle East. It had two moveable walls. The bed folded up so the wardrobe wall could shrink the bedroom space during the day when a larger living room was needed. A second moveable wall at the other end of the living room allocated space between office and living room. Rather than learning to live in less space, maintaining conventional living habits and the appeal of getting something for nothing is evident in the house being said to have 1,500 sq.ft of living space in a 900 sq.ft house. Bizarrely, the other half of the house has a substantial bathroom (with a bath and a shower) and a kitchen of conventional size and layout. It’s true some house functions are more flexible than others but it seems odd to have 50% of the habitable space taken up by fixed spaces only intermittently used while simultaneous use of the ones used the most is compromised. It all makes sense if we’re only talking about the representation of flexibility and not about flexibility that’s of any use. In that sense, it’s a modern architectural product and, combined with its high techno-industrio component, an obvious competition winner in the sense that the solution to problems caused by technology is always more technology.

Looking at the plan, that corridor’s about one seventh of the gross floor area and used for nothing else but to access five spaces, six including the entry hall. I happen to know that below that corridor is some kind of integrated structure and services spine but this house is ostensibly about efficient utilization of space and not expedient construction.

The house had smart everything of course and the walls moved by smartphone or voice command and all for the sake of giving a bed, a sofa and a desk their own spaces though not all at once. I wondered if anyone would actually live like this? Sometimes it’s good to nap on the sofa, read or watch television in bed, or work at the kitchen table and, although that’s still possible in this house, it’s in defiance of all this flexibility that’s actually quite controlling. It’s good that, once the bed is folded away, the space it took up is allocated to other uses. In that sense, it’s superior to The Smithson’s silly House of the Future where the table retracted for no apparent reason into what must have been a very thick floor. [Did anybody really want to eat off something they just walked on?] Table up or table down? The illusion of choice and control conceals how little there is of either. Damn this postmodern world yet again!

If we’re really into saving space, then entering the house through the bathroom makes the most sense, as demonstrated Horden Cherry Lee’s microhouse and again by by Renzo Piano’s Diogene tiny house.

Another trick is to get double or triple use out of space by overlapping the activity space for items such as beds and kitchens. Both the above houses do this, but not with the flair of this next apartment where that same space is used a third time to access the bathroom.

It sounds like an oxymoron but shouldn’t: “We can only a room for something if it contains the furniture or fittings to do what it is we want to do.” Joe Colombo’s 1972 Total Furniture Unit let one do everything in one room with a multipurpose object in an implied space that could be anything anywhere – and all with 1970’s technology. It still tells us that how to live is not an architectural problem – “Just build some space, and the people will sort out how to live in it with their stuff.”

Recreational vehicles and trailers/caravans excel at packing many domestic functions into a single space. In smaller ones it’s quite common for the table to convert into a bed but such vehicles aren’t meant for full-time living.

If we don’t want to be continually moving our things around the house and if we can’t be bothered instructing the walls to move each time we want a lie down then maybe rooms with fixed walls and no names might be a better way to go. Spaces that haven’t been designed for any particular purpose might just allow more of them. It’s not as if a living room is spatially optimized for living any more than a bedroom is for sleeping. Humans are pretty adaptable and resourceful if it suits them or if they have to be. Or allowed to be. I can’t imagine what this architecture would look like but it would have a place to wash, a source of heat, electrical outlets, some places to put things, a wall or two, a few different corners. And little else.

The closest I’ve seen to this was “The Decades Room” in the UK pavilion at the 2016 Venice Bienalle. “The decades room, by Hesselbrand, is divided into areas rather than rooms – light and dark, wet and dry, soft and hard.” wrote Dezeen. “The proposal is for a house that is defined by spatial conditions rather than specific functionality, allowing for a flexible use of space” wrote the architects. It was an idea for a house, but with none of the usual indicators of how to live in it. It was probably the most interesting thing I saw but, as we’re still enthralled with technology and commanding walls to move rather than questioning our definitions, customs and practices, it’s an idea whose time is still some way off.



  • never saw this bath before. very slick. could work for the next gen. of air travel. 1st class of course. need a drying compartment as well though.

  • Hello Graham,

    Again thanks for a wonderfully insightful article. Flexibility in architecture needs a correlation to the timeframe and frequency of the change in function. I think the timeframes of “hours”, “days”, “weeks” and “years” are sufficient, although the metabolist would add half centuries to the list. Changing a table to seat more people for a few hours when done once a month is (timeframe – hours; frequency – weeks) is fine. Changing it every few hours to sleep, eat and relax for a few hours each time, gets tiring quickly. Changing the use of a room for the arrival of a child is done seldom and typically stays that way for years. It is fine, if there is space for it.

    The corresponding issue with “adding” a children’s room is that there usually isn’t space to just add the room. J. Lampens undivided space is a good example where additional functions can be compressed into a space (increased density of use). His space remains flexible at the cost of acoustic separation.

    Flexibility also seems related to potential. People buy a bigger house, because it has the potential to accommodate future needs. Flexible furniture and room concepts mean that the potential can be absorbed without requiring the same amount of space initially. That is a positive viewpoint. Developers selling more functions in not enough space is probably the reality in some markets.

    • says:

      Hello Robert, yes it’s often the case that space gets divided rather than added to in order to accommodate more people or functions. There’s also the Yemeni approach of reallocating the spaces inside the building to suit long-term changes in the family composition, or for the short-term accommodation of guests and visitors. Any room not the kitchen or the bathroom will have wall niches where all personal or decorative objects are kept.The idea that a space can only be used for one thing would be very strange to them. I think you’re right about some connection between flexibility and potential but buying the larger house means paying upfront for flexibility but there might be other ways to create that potential. Our houses could be unyielding and inflexible like Yemeni houses and we could be more like the Yemeni and more flexible ourselves. Or it might be time to ditch the notion of one-space one function completely, rather than attempt to extend its life with moveable walls and pop-up furniture. I’m intrigued by the possibilities of a space with an area or dark and light, of wet and dry, etc. (etc? There must be other elemental qualities our spaces have, and not necessarily opposites.) In that Hesselbrand example, I liked how the bed straddled both zones, removing the notion of a bed-room.

  • There are so many interesting ideas out there. Seems as though there are 4 cases for designing that optimum dwelling unit with the best user experience, vernacular, and economy.

    1. detached, freestanding in the developing world
    2. multi-family in the developing world
    3.-4. Same as 1 & 2, but in the developed world

    Just call me Mr. Obvious.

    The 5′ x 7.5′ bath, for example, is hard to improve upon at least in a field built scenario.

    – 5′ wide, end-wall, stock tub/shower w/ integral front apron and surround. Beats 30″ diam.
    shower pan code. Always have at least 1 tub in a dwelling rule of thumb.
    – Toilet w/ 30″x24″ clear in front of
    – 30″ wide wall-hung vanity w/ integral top and sink
    – 28″ wide door aligned w/ circulation

    I do like the wet/dry thinking you cited. I can envision the 1970s utility contraption as a whole entity pod, and rolling them into concrete superstructure shells. LC wine rack approach, but from within. Plugs into services infrastructure rough-ins of course. Would need adequate corridors, lifts, and openings for maneuvering and installation.
    One advantage is can replace and maintain in a comprehensive way. Perhaps a basement
    where these operations can occur.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • says:

      Hello Bau! The bathroom you describe sounds much like the type of bathroom unit that’s been plugged into Japanese apartments since the 1970s. This is a photo of one in Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower but these bathrooms are mainstream, not experimental. One improvement is to have a kitchen faucet that swivels to fill the bath. Once they’re installed they’re not going to move, but there is a ceiling hatch so the exhaust fan can be maintained. The whole thing is delivered pre-installed on a timber frame that raises the floor about 6″ off the slab so you step into the bathroom first, and then the bath. There must have been an inspection hatch somewhere, but the only place it could have been is beneath the basin.

      Nakagin Caspsule Tower batahroom

  • Hi M.McKay,

    thanks again for this interesting article ( and for your work in general, i’ve learned a lot through the years).
    As a way to extend the conversation on flexibility, i would like to submit to you three projects if you haven’t heard about them :

    – Sophie Delhay’s unités

    – Éric Lapierre ´s house for a collector

    – and one of my favorites, Unger’s neue stadt project

    Thanks again for all the work,

    • says:

      Hello Arslane – I’m really sorry for the delay. You email was sent to junk, probably because it contained links, and that I shall follow up on. Thanks for that. I shall take a look. Graham.