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The Fabric of Space

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In last week’s post I mentioned Sou Fujimoto’s Wooden House to illustrate the intimacy I would want a Wearable Architecture to have. I included some diagrams. From the section below, I learned that the bathroom is sunken – a reasonable design decision given that many a small house has a sleeping area above the bathroom and/or kitchen but lowering the bathroom floor goes against the apparent cube-ness of the exterior.

This section also tells us Wooden House is a three bedroom house – inasmuch as it has three spaces a person can lay down in. The one above the kitchen is 700 mm high – the height of two wooden blocks. Given that pieces of wood with the same section are used for everything, selecting 350 mm x 350 mm as the section was always going to involve some ergonomic compromise. The sectional drawing shows it’s possible to lie down in a space 700 mm high but it also shows the kitchen sink and countertop are low at 700 mm above floor level. A fixed three-dimensional module was never going to be ideal as the next interval of 1050 mm would’ve been too high. The diagram below shows that a depth of 350mm is sit-table but a 350 mm toehold might not be sufficient after two glasses of wine.

Wooden House is corners and niches for various specified and unspecified activities and functions wrapped around a bathroom and an entrance. Why hasn’t this been thought of before? Many a tiny house or apartment has a sleeping space above an entrance door, a kitchen and a bathroom. This next example, for example, has a total internal height of about four meters but it could easily be as little as three if a 700 mm high ceiling for the sleeping area is okay. Three meters isn’t much more than a normal ceiling height anyway. The floor to highest soffit level in Wooden House is ten timbers = 3.5 metres.

If a full height access corridor isn’t needed then sthe sleeping area can go above tge corridor.Such redistributions of internal space were explored almost a century ago,

With Wooden House, let’s assume building compliance applies and that it fixes the height of the entrance door, kitchen and bathroom at 2.1 meters, and that above one of these areas is the sleeping area with the 700 mm clearance. This means 2.1m + 0.35 m + 0.7 m = 3.15m and there’s the height of one piece of wood left over – as can be seen above the kitchen in that first section. The bathroom is thus sunk to give more depth to Bedroom 3 and create a step up to Bedroom 1. Basically, spaces for people to stand are on the lower levels and spaces for people to lie down must be above them to make the best use of the 3.5 m height available. Conventional staircases are structures dedicated to moving between two levels.

Some of the houses of Japanese architect Yo Shimada have unconventional staircases. whose identity is partially negated by being merged with a sofa, desk or cabinet that people clamber across. However, these lesser staircases are still very much bounded by walls that shape the space and allow one to go from one level to another with different things happening in the spaces there. The actions of living are still arranged by floor levels even if the transition between them is shaky.

These staircases attempt to give unsuspecting objects such as side tables, desktops and cabinets a dual function as part of a staircase with an accordingly reduced identity as a staircase. This isn’t a decadence of materials or process but an ostentation of thought – of showing how cleverly one has solved a problem one has created for oneself. Shimada isn’t the first and won’t be the last architect to do this.

In Wooden House, the standing-up zones and the laying-down zones are linked by a staircase even if it doesn’t look like one because of the 350 mm risers. The 350mm treads create ledges and nooks to store things or for a person to sit and eat, drink or chat or use a laptop.

How do the house electrics work? Are there any? No photograph I’ve ever seen shows fixtures or sockets. Is Wooden House a legally habitable house, a garden folly, primitive hut or marketing vehicle? The window glass inclined at 45° will be less obvious in photographs.

This third drawing is intended to substitute for those horizontal sections we know as plans. Persons skilled in reading plans can deduce the shape of the space and perhaps even how it will feel but not so with these twelve sections that manage to thwart our imagination despite having no three-dimensional curves. On Levels 00~06 I can make out the kitchen to the left of the bathroom and in front of the entrance but after that I’m lost. This could be a problem with us or with the limitations of orthographic representation. Or it could be that we can only imagine what we can represent anyway. This makes Sebastiano Serlio’s assertion that “To draw a building is to design it” sound more like an acceptance of limitations than the grandiose claim he intended. Or It could be that we’ve allowed our modes of representation to become stylized to the point where they no longer convey useful information – as has already happened with those other representations we know as visualizations.

What these twelve sections do manage to tell us is that a significant amount of the internal volume is occupied by solid wood. As far I can tell from counting solids and voids in the various sections, some 274 of 1,210 (350 mm x 350 mm x 350 mm) cubic volumes of internal space are occupied – about 25%. It’s pointless suggesting that the remaining space proposes a valid way to live in less space, if 25% of available volume is used to create it. The question is “Does all that intruding wood give more [intangibly] to the space than it takes from it [tangibly]? Many think so. A new type of space has definitely been created and that space definitely has an intimate feel about it but it is the result of decadent wastage of material and process. Very much has been used to accomplish very little. This, I suspect, is why it is thought to be Architecture.

Speaking of using very much to do very little, I’m reminded of this image from The Daring Cantilever. If you want to make a building appear to levitate, you don’t have to go too high to make your point. It is sufficient to have your building not touch the ground where it so easily could have.

But if we like the spatial effect of Wooden House but object to its decadence of materials and process, then what’s the alternative? Is it possible to recreate the effect of its contrived structure and unique construction on the cheap? I’ve nothing against the the look and touch and thermal and acoustic properties of many nice bits of timber. However, in certain situations, we might prefer to sit on some molded plastic or lean against an inflatable rubber panel.

You can have an enjoyable bath whether your bathtub is carved from a single block of red marble like Nero’s or, at the other end of the scale, vacuum molded from acrylic.

Wooden House has many things in common with this crummy apartment from last week, and makes me think that architects don’t really invent new things but merely artify extant phenomena and draw our attention to things we didn’t want to see.

  • The space is small. 7 sq.m = 2.6 m x 2.6 m. An extra 90 mm in each direction will make the area equal to Wooden House’s 3.5 m x 3.5 m. We can’t see the ceiling so I’ll assume 2.5 m, knowing that it’s a basement.
  • In this dwelling all floor area is designated as space for doing things while standing (showering, washing, dressing, microwaving). The bed space with the reduced clearance is for laying down. There’s no in-between unless one unfolds a chair from somewhere.
  • The shelves multifunction as a ladder.
  • The fold-up table changes some of the floorspace into a place to sit. There is unused space above the table. There is a void behind the microwave.
  • The idea of one function per space has gone. In the bathroom, the floor has become a wet room and there’s no longer a space called a shower.

Wooden House then, is just a house that has the stuff of its structure and enclosure take on a third role as furniture. Somehow, the ledges and nooks and [Japanese being Japanese] floors function as seats and beds and tables. If we want to make a volume of space habitable without the structural contrivance of Wooden House or the constructional contrivance of built in furniture such as Nakagin, then we’re stuck with multi-purpose furniture and fittings in doggedly orthogonal volumes. That reality can be arted- up either with the horizontally dispersed, minimal cuboid volumes of Sanaa’s Moriyama House and it’s value-adding access alleyways, or with the vertically stacked minimal house-oid volumes of Stacked Houses [Fujimoto again!] and their value-adding external ladder stairs. Square one.

Perhaps the Japanese have the right idea with tatami. It’d be nice if we could sit on the fabric of space or lay on it, or use it as a table as they do, but it looks like our fabric of space will remain rigid and unforgiving for a while yet. As long as it does, we won’t be able to conceive of using a space without the furniture and furnishings to tell us how.

This is not good for us as we continue to fill our units of space with things to tell us how to use it. Nor is it good for architecture as we see the spatial reduction confronting us as an endgame rather than a time to think again. I don’t think Wooden House is the answer. It looks simple but all those timber blocks are tied together with steel rods to create cantilevers from which other timbers are either suspended or placed. There are complex forces at work yet all we are shown is what we want to see. It’s tiresome to say “simplicity is never simple” but my big beef with Wooden House is “Why do it – what point is it intended to make?”

In my undergraduate first year I took Philosophy 100. One of the few things I remember is from a lecture on Logic – or it could’ve been Epistemology. The instructor was saying that “The Sun will come up tomorrow” is a grammatical sentence even though it implies knowledge of the future which we can never have. Yet, we don’t understand it because we don’t understand why a person would ever need to say it. We can’t imagine a situation where the information contained in that sentence would ever be useful. This describes my feelings about Wooden House. It has an internal logic and makes a kind of sense but I can’t find a way to apply this idea to the greater world. I don’t learn anything from it. Judging by its media reception, I comprehend Wooden House as another of those buildings that periodically come along to remind us that Architecture is about creatively idiosyncratic buildings being designed to do nothing more than be that. It thus has more in common with Art than it does with Science which concerns itself with solving mysteries rather than restating them. Even Research at least tells us what the topic is.