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About Face!

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The Active Band was the name of concept that gave kitchens and bathrooms priority on the periphery of residential buildings. French architect Yves Lion proposed it in 1987. Riken Yamamoto’s 2002 Ban Building in Niigata, Japan is a good built example. The photograph below shows Room 3.

The thinking went that living rooms and bedrooms may be the rooms used for the longest periods of time but bedrooms are used mostly in darkness while, in living rooms, people tend to focus on some specific form of relaxation or task that, if it involves a screen, may as well take place in a windowless or curtained room. What we do in bathrooms hasn’t changed much but living rooms are no longer about inviting people over for afternoon tea in the “front room” and kitchens are no longer about one person spending hours at a time preparing dinner. Even though the amount of time people spend in bathrooms and kitchens each instance might not be long, these spaces are used a greater number of times in the course of a waking day. i.e they are more active. [When I wrote that sentence, I’d been awake for about thirty minutes. It was still dark and I’d already been into the bathroom three times and the kitchen four. The kitchen light remained on but I turned the bathroom light on and off each time.] From the outside and especially at night, the switching of lights on and off as occupants move around a building makes its facade more “active”. The “band” part of active band comes from the active zone being on all four sides of a residential tower.

We don’t talk about active bands in office towers although, if ever you’ve watched one at night, you can see who’s working late and also see lights being turned on and off as cleaners move around the building.

I’m reluctant to criticize Riken Yamamoto’s Ban building but, while its kitchens and bathrooms are relatively “open” to the street, the entire apartment is as closed to the corridor as, say, those in Lake Point Tower. The access corridor is regarded as a utility – a horizontal shaft for shifting people. Another quibble with active band buildings is that their inner life only shows as arbitrary flickerings across their facades – it is a representation of activity and the people inside remain anonymous to those outside, especially if the building is tall and in a built-up situation. On the inside, a view and the accompanying daylight and ventilation are as welcome as ever in kitchens and bathrooms but once again there’s no connection with the street and any people in it. It’s easy to see why persons in high-rise residential towers feel removed.

I remember being surprised when Kiyonori Kikutake placed the kitchens and bathrooms closest to the open access walkways in his 1974 Pasadena Heights project. I also remember somebody writing at the time – probably in Japan Architect magazine – that Kikutake might have made this decision because kitchens and bathrooms can have a slightly lower ceiling and so allow for the increased thickness of the walkway above them. Nobody was accusing Kikutake of being disingenuous, but the view through that frameless corner window and across the walkway to the view beyond belongs to the entire living room. It is a very well placed kitchen window.

These are the only two buildings I could think of with kitchens and bathrooms on the outer wall, but only the Kikutake one has kitchens and bathrooms on the access side. I searched Floor Plan Manual Housing for other examples of apartment kitchens facing outwards and towards the access. I didn’t find any more but I did find several interesting projects, most of which were either in Amsterdam or Zürich.

ISBN: 978-3-0346-1040-7

The first was the 1993 Bungestrasse by Alder [p82-83]. It’s not a tall building but the plan is divided into daytime areas on the south side and night-time areas on the north along with one room that could be either or both. The bathroom has a south-facing window and also balcony, possibly for laundry drying. It’s an active frontage but has nothing to do with access.

The 1995 Sihlhölzlistrasse by Spühler has its entry via an outdoor area the living room opens onto. It’s a walled garden rather than defensible space. Arrangements like this are only possible for two apartments per core unless there is a donut-or H-shaped corridor around the elevators and access stairs.

The 1995 Friedrichswtraße by OMA has apartment layouts that can’t be made any more efficient. Kitchen and bathroom windows open onto the open access corridor that is a means of access and nothing else. It’s also very much the rear of the building, and its windows are openings in a hard boundary between inside and outside. The type is generally known as balcony access or deck access. It’s not an arrangement that gets photographed.

Alder made the same decisions with their 1992 Vogelbach project.

Since we’re doing history, here’s Hannes Meyer’s 1929-30 Dessau-Törten Housing Estate.

The 2007 Rondo [Zurich, 2007] by Graber Pulver was much publicized for its Instagrammable atrium. While it isn’t overlooked by any windows, the open kitchens around which the apartments have been planned, are adjacent to the entrance hallway and large panels of frosted glass. Persons in these kitchens appear as shadowy blurs to persons passing by and probably vice-versa. This was a conscious decision of the architects. One photograph showed a backlit figure through the glass but you might have to go back to original sources to find it.

Less shy are the 2001 KNSM- and Java-Eiland buildings in Amsterdam by Diener & Diener. There are three access and entrance situations. With the apartment at 3 o’clock in the image on the right below, the bathroom and kitchen windows front the open corridor but the arrangement of kitchen counters suggests the kitchen window is full-height, as it also does with the middle apartment. All apartments have entrances opening into hallways off of which open bathrooms.

Two more. If the example above was less shy, then the Bülachlof [Zurich, 2004] by Langenegger is exhibitionist by comparison. Daytime living areas have full-height glazing to the access walkway while, deeper inside, small lobbies link bedrooms and bathrooms. For some reason I’m not comfortable with, knowing that it’s student housing makes it seem less shocking.

Lastly, there is 8 Octavia [San Francisco, 2014] by Stanley Saitowitz Natoma. This layout splits people in the building into two groups. The first group is persons prowling the corridors onto which only doors open, and the second group is persons who can share light-wells from safely inside their apartments. The individual units are modular and bedroom windows of different apartments face each other both horizontally and diagonally up and down across a 4-5 meter wide void. These bedroom window relationships aren’t great but at least windows are separated by voids. The reason for all this is to have two habitable rooms with the exterior frontage of one, four for two, or six for three. I feel better about the bedroom window relationships in my Sky Rectangle proposal of a few weeks back.

I’m coming around to the idea of the kitchen being the primary space from which the street or lobby is observed – or surveilled, depending on your mindset. From a living room, even a picturesque view becomes part of the scenery until appreciated vicariously via visitors and guests seeing it for the first time. High-rise residential buildings are conventionally configured with habitable rooms on the periphery where they can have most daylight and natural ventilation (and security) because of the multi-storey airspace outside their windows and if there’s also some desirable view across this multi-storey airspace then so much the better. Maximizing the amount of this high-value habitable room space pushes non-habitable rooms to the inside which is also where the non-sellable space of the access core and corridor are.

In low-cost buildings this results in kitchen and bathroom windows opening onto an access corridor. In high-rise towers, the usual result is artificially illuminated and ventilated corridors having only front doors opening onto them. The atrium access projects of Graber Pulver and Diener & Diener both propose the kitchen as the space most suited to observing the access and being observed from it. Their only problem is that their atriums are in the centre and not distributed around the edges as light-wells (mini-atriums?) putting some space between windows and access.

There are many historic examples of shared light-wells bringing daylight and natural ventilation to kitchens and bathrooms, internal corridors and access lobbies. Here’s two, both by the same architect.

The Stanley Saitowitz Natoma project introduces the shared light-well as an architectural device for getting daylight and natural ventilation to habitable rooms in the here and now.

Here’s a project from a year earlier. It’s the Avenue Building [2013, Winnipeg] by 5468796 Architecture, and featured in Architectural Record (from where this plan comes). It’s a conversion of a former office building and, as in any conversion, compromises had to be made.
  1. Corridors are long, windowless, and also circuitous. Getting from the elevators to the apartment in the north-west corner involves seven changes of direction.
  2. The void on the left is bridged on every level to provide an alternative means of fire escape. These bridges are shown with solid walls that make the void into two separate voids (shown incorrectly).
  3. The more serious compromise comes from the building’s former use as offices. Old office buildings often had deep plans with light-wells because, even if they weren’t open plan, they could still have internal corridors with individual offices on both sides. It doesn’t really work like that with apartments. A typical upper floor in this conversion has 17 apartments but only 13 have the number “8” to show they are apartments. The four un-numbered ones are lit and ventilated solely via lightwells – although the one on the upper right looks like it has a “historic” – and probably illegal – window along the site boundary.
  4. The bridge extension to the fire escape is as far as it can practically be from the two apartments facing it. If the bridge had crossed the void in a single line, it would have reduced the size of the right side by about the third. If the budget had run to fireproof glass for the bridge walls, then the two un-numbered apartments on the west side might have been able to view some corridor activity (from their bathrooms).
  5. However, nothing can be done about the width of the void and so the bedroom windows of those two apartments face each other across voids approx. 4-5 meters wide for the left void and 6-7 metres wide for the one on the right.
  6. The two apartments in the south-west corner both have bedrooms without windows, even though the left-most one has the opportunity for a window to the light well. It’d be perverse to have a light well with no windows onto it so I’m guessing that those in the light-well on the left side of the party wall have been blocked up – $$). Because of the need to access that apartment, the bedroom of the one adjacent has no chance of a window. In the three apartments the opposite side of the light-well, the bedrooms aren’t even rooms.

The western world now has this century’s first view-less apartments and the boundary of what’s acceptable has been pushed and lowered. I was too slow to imagine multi-storey housing illuminated and ventilated by light-wells and windows though which people can see people going to and fro. By contrast, the building in the example above has windowless corridors, windowless rooms, rooms that aren’t even rooms, and windows where the only view is of neighbors’ windows maybe 24′ (7m) across a light-well. This typical upper floor is good example of everything I’m trying to propose an alternative to. I appreciate the skill that’s gone into making this layout the way it is. It’s actually a good, albeit ruthless, working through of the problem. The real evil is the framing of the problem that leads to solutions like this.

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