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Art & Design

Why architects are thinking big over small designs

Architects are downscaling their designs in a new trend for micro-housing

A major marker of success in architecture is to build high. Starchitects often garner prestige for designing skyscrapers, although there’s no guarantee that these will prove flawless or universally popular. Take Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly’s 160m-tall London project, 20 Fenchurch Street, nicknamed The Walkie-Talkie, with its unorthodox — some might say ugly — concave façade.

The Walkie Talkie

Originally, it was to be 200m high but was scaled down when concerns were voiced about its visual impact on St Paul’s Cathedral Tower of London. Of course, it has famously been accused of reflecting a beam of light hot enough to melt part of a car’s bodywork, and more recently there have been reports that winds blowing down its facade – the so-called ‘downdraught effect’, which occurs when gusts hitting a tall building are forced downwards – knocked people over.

And, for some architects, skyscrapers don’t represent the apex of success. Take the stratospherically high-profile architect Renzo Piano, also responsible for another sky-skimming London landmark, the 310m-high Shard – the EU’s tallest building. Indeed, for many years he has harboured a personal obsession with a far modest alternative, microarchitecture. In the late 1960s, while teaching at London’s Architecture Association, he joined forces with his students to build some mini-houses on nearby Bedford Square. He has since also designed boats, cars and, a few years ago, cells for the Poor Clare nuns’ convent at Ronchamp, France.

About 10 years ago, of his own volition, he began developing a minimalist house called Diogene, which was featured in a booklet about him published by Italian architecture and design magazine Abitare in 2009. But he wasn’t content with the idea being merely hypothetical: in the booklet he noted that he needed a client to realise his idea. Enter Rolf Fehlbaum, chairman of Vitra, the high-end Swiss furniture company, which also has a history of collaborating with renowned architects. He had read that issue of Abitare and approached Piano. Together, they agreed to develop. A prototype of is now installed at the Vitra Campus in Germany — the company’s grassy, outdoor grounds on which stands a collection of buildings by such architects as Buckminster Fuller, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry.


There’s more to Piano’s interest in microarchitecture than just a desire to experiment with designing on a smaller scale. After all, Diogene knowingly nods to a rich tradition of microarchitecture: according to Piano, it refers to ancient Roman architect and civil engineer Vitruvius’s notion of the primitive hut as the basic building block of architecture, Le Corbusier’s 1950s Le Cabanon (meaning small cabin in French), at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the Côte d’Azur – which, incidentally, has recently been restored and is now open to the public — the prefabricated houses of Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret and Jean Prouvé and Kisho Kurokawa's Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, erected in 1972.

Inside Cabanon by Le Corbusier

If Diogene is anything to go by, Piano associates microarchitecture with an admirably ascetic outlook, sustainability and intelligently economical design. His 2.5-m by 3m-sq experimental house is named after ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, who reputedly lived in a barrel because he deemed worldly luxuries extraneous. Diogene is also self-sufficient: it harvests rainwater in a rainwater tank and cleans and reuses the water, has natural ventilation, triple-glazing and is fitted with solar panels. The economically designed interior boasts a living room with a pull-out sofa and folding table under a window. Behind a partition are a kitchen, shower and toilet. The house’s exterior is clad with aluminium panels to protect it from bad weather.

Piano is not alone in championing microarchitecture because he equates it with sustainability and rigorously space-saving interior design. Indeed, architects all over the globe, it seems, are fascinated by the challenges posed and attractions offered by designing small yet habitable dwellings.

Swedish architects Tengbom have developed a 10m wooden house for students with real-estate company AF Bostäder and wood-processing firm Martinsons. Co-designed with students of Lund University as affordable, sustainable housing, it’s made of super-strong cross-laminated wood (chosen for being a renewable resource and for being a raw material that can be easily sourced locally, so helping to minimise transport).

The house incorporates a kitchenette with shelving, a bathroom and a mezzanine to sleep on, accessed by small wooden steps fixed to the wall. Two window shutters fold down for use as a dining table and desk. “Through this efficiently-designed layout, the rent students normally pay is reduced by 50,” says Linda Camara, one of its architects. “Its impact on the environment and carbon footprint is also significantly reduced.”

More space-saving still is Azevedo Design’s Brick House in San Francisco – a conversion of a boiler room, built in 1916, into a guesthouse, which adjoins a timber-framed, former laundry building (recently converted into a wood and metal workshop). Measuring 2.5m by 3.5m, the guesthouse somehow accommodates a living room, kitchen and ensuite bedroom. Original wooden roof beams inside now support a loft level bedroom. “The project fully takes advantage of volume as opposed to just square footage,” says studio founder Christi Azevedo, who added more space by installing a glass mezzanine. Leading to the bedroom, this is reached by a ladder onto whose lower rungs a kitchen worktop is slotted. Installing the mezzanine, says Azevedo, was “Imperative given the small size of the building.”

Meanwhile, Japanese architect Yasutaka Yoshimura has designed an ultra-romantic, 3m by 8m weekend house for a single resident in Kanagawa, Japan. Its key feature is transparency: its two huge windows afford contrasting views – of Mount Fuji to one side and the vast sea to the other. The house is raised on concrete pillars to protect it from high tides, but the space under it isn’t wasted: it’s used as a sheltered patio. From here, steps lead up into the house and its dining room and kitchen and, on a floor above, its living room and bedroom.

Diminutive perhaps but, for architects everywhere, microarchitecture has an appeal that remains undiminished.

Dominic writes for the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, Elle Decoration, Vogue, House & Garden and Harper's Bazaar, and for the websites Architonic and How to Spend It (FT). He has co-authored two books: 70s Style & Design and Celia Birtwell. His third book is Living with Mid-Century Collectibles.

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