Skip to content

Wearable Architecture

Post date:

The walls are closing in.

Around 1900 it suddenly dawned upon architects that the market for Palladian knock-off mansions in picturesque countryside was getting smaller and smaller. There simply weren’t enough landed gentry to go around. A crop of newly rich industrialists brought about a short-lived rebound in the late-19th century but sooner or later new markets were going to have to be found. The Arts & Crafts movement in Britain made an aesthetic case for smaller houses on less land and styles such as Voysey’s influenced many a house in London’s new suburbs. Even small buildings had to have internal space of some sort and so, circa 1900, space was discovered. Space didn’t need discovering. It’s more correct to say that space was identified and promoted as the new criteria for the evaluation of architectural worth.

The idea had been kicking around for some time. The Edwardian architect Edwin Lutyens, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, characteristically designed the reception rooms of his houses as a sequence of spatial events. However, this more of an elaboration of the existing Victorian preference for sensations of suspense, anticipation and surprise when showing guests around the house. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Winslow House had the three front rooms linked by sliding doors enabling them to be perceived as a single space. It was an early example of a new type of big space.

The notion of space “flowing” didn’t yet exist but, when it finally did, it was as space flowing between this new inside space and a greatly reduced amount of outside space-property. This marketable notion first found favor as high-end theory and then in practice in the suburban houses that were now the focus of architecture and architects’ services.

The century wore on. By the time the 1970s came around, architects couldn’t shut up about space. Most of Kazuo Shinohara’s houses, for example, are configured around a single spatial device that, more often than not, is a living room or central corridor. The architecture of these houses is almost completely internal. External space only figures if it’s worth drawing attention to.

The fifty years since have seen much architectural energy devoted to spatial invention for increasingly smaller quantities of architectural space, especially in Japan. Atelier Bow-Wow, Shinohara’s descendants at Tokyo Institute of Technology, are responsible for a series of houses that, anywhere else in the world, would be known as tiny houses.

They’re still detached houses because of Japan’s still-feudal system of land tenure and so still have an external presence but, on the inside, the plan and the enclosing walls are much the same thing even if the walls haven’t quite closed in to the extent of Hong Kong apartments.

Hong Kong is also notorious for its coffin apartments where it’s not just the walls closing in but the ceiling as well.

Other parts of the world are racing to get to the same place. Only a few weeks back [c.f. New Squeeze], I showed an apartment that was essentialy a bed in a kitchen. More recently, I learned here about a seven square meter “dwelling” on the market in London for £50,000 (and here that it sold for £90,000) and that attempts to shoehorn the amenity of an apartment into an area little larger than a moderately sized bathroom. These things exist, I learned, because banks don’t generally lend on properties less than 30 sq.m. Thus, this property will be cash purchased by someone who will recoup their investment in five years. It’s grim but made more grim by the attempt to make the room look like a normal room. Particularly sad are the timber-finish cabinet, the fold-down table and the white paint chosen for the “sense of space” it brings. I wonder if the shelves are also a ladder, and how deep those drawers are – I doubt they’re custom made. Or if there’s dead space behind the microwave? [all photos: Jill Mead]

Apartments in Nakagin Apartments were 10 sq.m. I don’t know when this next photograph of the rental offer was taken but ¥60,000/month is approx. US$500 – about half the £10,000/year of the 7sq.m London dwelling.

The difference is that, despite the Metabolist posturing, Kurosawa did at least try to devise a new way for people to live in a small space and, compared to where we’re heading, it’s still looking pretty good. One can imagine being there and comfortable for some length of time. There are four different things to be. You can be in the bathroom, standing in front of the front door doing something, sitting at the desk, or laying/sitting on the bed. It wasn’t intended a place to crash and, furthermore, it wasn’t some land-hungry detached tiny house but also a proposal for aggregating tens of units. Unlike the Hong Kong apartments above and the 7 sq.m London one, the Nakagin apartments are proposed as an ideal way for one person to live. It was a solution driven by a housing shortage but not as an expedient one or a stopgap measure. These days we call this idealistic.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this building was the affection its residents had for it and which was significant in delaying its demolition for so long. But from where did this affection come? I doubt it had anything to do Metabolism or its ideals but something more physical. Basically, when the walls come close, there’s no choice but to interact with them. This is most apparent in the bathroom where the surfaces form a basin, wc and bath but is also apparent around the bed and where it becomes a seat with the wall as a backrest.

If the walls are going to continue to get closer, then it’s about time we explored ways of being more comfortable living with them.

This is not about gratuitous phenomenology to justify the use of expensive materials and construction to appreciate the reverberation of marble walls, the weight of a solid timber door, or the lustre of tadelakt etc. I’m thinking more of phenomenology applied to a more up close and intimate relationship between us an our buildings – one not unlike we have with the clothes we wear.

People are quick to find parallels between the worlds of fashion and architecture – perhaps because both are creative endeavors catering to high-end consumers and where the high-end product exists in a different universe to the lower-end one. The world of fashion at least has a semblance of crossover between haute couture and pre-à-porter but not so architecture where the worlds of high-end and everything else remain stubbornly distinct. I’m not going to argue for housing for all. Instead, I’m going to argue for accommodation that may be minimal in size but still offers a pleasure of occupancy and use more akin to the wearing of clothes. First, I’ll first try to pin down this notion of wearable architecture.

A suit such as the one one above is essential for survival in space. It’s shelter in an environment as extreme as it gets but can’t in any sense be said to be architecture or even habitation. The enclosure fits the body too well and there’s no sense of the body independent of what envelops it. It’s not designed for reading a book or for curling up and going to sleep in.

Wearable architecture envelops the body but still permits the body to move around inside.

So let’s have zippers running down the inside of the legs and cross-zip then to make the two legs into a single space for both legs. We can do the same for zippers along the sides of the body and the insides of the sleeves so that our arms can now move next to our body in something resembling a sleeping bag (or a body bag). This may be sufficient for sleeping but it won’t be much good for doing anything else. This isn’t to say there’s no place for this kind of thinking. The homeless shelter is now a design school staple. Here’s some images from this site which lists 15 portable homeless shelters. “Home away from home!” is the somewhat insensitive tagline.

These proposals may be well-intentioned but surely the more noble goal is to eradicate homelessness, not make it less uncomfortable? This next coat that turns into a tent with built in sleeping bag is ingenious but still misguided in the same sense.

The wearable architecture I’m thinking of won’t be wearable in the sense of having to carry it around. It’ll be something that is physiologically and psychologically comfortable when you are in it, but you can still go outside it, lock it up and leave it. My kind of wearable architecture still offers a physical place to retreat from the world which is something more than a zippable psychological one.

SUV can be locked up and walked away from and they have all the life-support functions and conveniences. Everything’s packed in but it’s all a bit heartless. They can be used as homes but only with some degree of discipline can they be thought of as one.

Many tiny houses overcompensate, and not just for the dispossessed for whom it is understandable.

Approaching wearable architecture from the angle of architecture isn’t taking us anywhere elsewhere than the utilitarian, the homeless, or the kitsch. Let’s see what the world of fashion has to offer. In 2018 Moncler teamed with various designers to reinterpret their down jacket in various ways referred to as architectural – at least on Dezeen. Offerings by Pierpaolo Piccioli from Valentino, and Craig Green may have been architectural but they weren’t in any sense habitable.

Designer Hussein Chalayan has often had his designs called architectural. His Fall/Winter 2000 London show where a model wore a coffee table was, according to many fashion websites, an extraordinary fashion moment.

Another from the same show was his range of wearable sofa covers.

His most architectural invention was perhaps his 2011 dance Gravity Fatigue that was more about the shapes of the costumes than the dance.

If Hi-Tech could establish itself as a new way of making buildings using the following as a mood board,

  • the idea of prefabrication – Joseph Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace
  • the idea of industrial components – Pierre Chareau’s 1932 Maison de Verre
  • the idea of metal as the material of the future (Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 and 1945 Dymaxion House)
  • the fetishization of mechanical services
  • the representation of flexibility and change

then there features of Wearable Architecture are:

  • accepting the inevitability of increased body contact and designing for it – as with Nakagin
  • multitasking spaces – the era of single-function spaces looks like it’s over
  • surfaces more like those of furniture because, wherever they can, walls and floor are going to have to substitute. (“Learning from Tatami”)

These fragments of a manifesto don’t yet create a picture but the 1965 Environmental Bubble comes close. The inside of the enclosure can be sat on or leaned against. The space itself doesn’t suggest any function more specific than being inside it. The space between the outer and inner skins could be used for thermal mediation. It may be time to have another look at inflatable architecture.

There’s still the problem of how to aggregate all these units. This is one thing that Nakagin also didn’t lose sight of, even given Kurokawa’s misplaced 20th-century faith that the benefits of prefabrication would ever be applied.

Utopie—Jean-Paul Jungmann, Dyodon—Habitation Pneumatique Expérimentale, 1967, Paris. [Photo: courtesy of Smiljan Radic, New York]

Although its surfaces aren’t very forgiving, Sou Fujimoto’s Wooden House is the best example of wearable architecture I have so far. It’s small, as dwellings will invariably be, but the interior is organized as a piece of multifunctional furniture one is in continuous interaction with. Somewhere in there are empty spaces that can be slept in, sat in, showered in and cooked in. It allows the basic activities of living but without making an architectural or spatial fetish of them. The construction is contrived, absurd and probably environmentally irresponsible but the spaces it creates aren’t. They’re not even spaces in the now-obsolete 20th century sense of the word. So much for space. We simply don’t have the space for it anymore. This space is more like the niches and corners of a void.

This notion of wearable architecture is going to need some fancy name if it’s ever going to gain traction. Something like polyfunctional space or perhaps folded space


  • says:

    Dear Graham –

    Another terrific piece; smiled as I thought about haughty archispeak explanations of, say, The Farnsworth House being confronted with the candid reality of “an elaboration of the existing Victorian preference for sensations of suspense, anticipation and surprise when showing guests around the house.” Ah would the history of modernist houses be so bold as to mention that generator of plans!

    Then, as you drew the walls in and mentioned space suits, remembering the weird form of the Lunar Module, its shape determined in part by the positions of the crew in the closely tracked hours of their duty to & from the lunar surface.

    Finally, your exploration of Fujimoto’s Wooden House was both eyeopening (I had not seen the project before) and thought provoking for this practitioner – how does this compare to, say, a 30ft sailboat interior? Can one really cook a meal in that space? How critical is actual daylight if we have no more space? What would the form of a family of 4 take? Etc.

    Very much appreciate your work and remain a grateful reader; thank you!