Maximum Life in Minimum Space

Macau | July 2009
Macau | July 2009

How much space does the average man, woman or family needs in order to live comfortably? And how to define the average man, woman or family? Do we measure him, her and them in economical and financial terms or in terms of personality and their relationship with other people, with their surrounding spiritual and cultural space? Is it more important to have a thousand friends online than being able to receive all of them in your house?

To me the most important question to answer when talking about “Spatial Growth”, is how to define man, woman and family. For decades the question about “Spatial Growth” has been debated in architectural and urban circles and been answered through several design approaches; some believe the size of the living environment is important, others the accessibility to a highly diverse urban environment, others the relationship with nature, others see it as a pure market-driven topic with no relation to architectural design. It is also a question that addresses the essence of design in high-density urban environments; how to define the average man and/or how to define the average family? Therefore it is important to look at the social structure of a given place, understand how it is developing, which direction it is taking and as architect and urban planner to find a local solution to the problem. In that way we need to change our desire, especially in architectural design, to copy floorplans, apartment lay-outs and organizations from one design culture to another.

So besides looking at the size of minimum space from a mathematical point of view – focusing on functionality, air circulation, organization – one also needs to look at it from a density perspective; the potentiality of an 80 square meter apartment is different when that apartment is located in a monoprogrammatic suburb than when designed for the city center. In the first case the apartment becomes the center of your life and seemingly has to accommodate everything, while in the second case, the apartment becomes a part of a wider network of urban life.

Hong Kong | July 2009
Hong Kong | July 2009

Guangzhou | November 2009
Guangzhou | November 2009

In the end of the 1920s several European architects thought about the question of the Existenzminimum; they designed and proposed minimal and standardized apartments for the working class. The objective was to design housing for the poorest segments of society. The requirements were set out by the German architect Walter Gropius, who noted that this “is the question of the basic minimum of space, air, light, and heat which is necessary to man,” who “from a biological standpoint needs improved conditions of ventilation and lighting and only a small quantity of living space, especially if this is organized in a technically correct manner.” The Existenzminimum plan, contained in a proposal to CIAM in 1929, indicates a highly efficient apartment module located on two floors (with an internal stair). Such a unit type lends itself to multiplication in both dimensions, thereby permitting the standardization that would lower costs. More than the philosophy behind the Existenzminimum it was the aspect of standardization that influenced the development and organization of housing blocks and towers since that time.

The house for the “Existenzminimum” became the universal receptacle for a series of universal mass consumer goods: living room, dining set, (Frankfurt-) kitchen, bathroom, washing machine, and later the refrigerator, television and automobile. It is the combination of a minimal floorplan with the potentiality to acquire consumer goods that would move the working class up the social ladder and make them, ideally, part of the middle class. In that way we have to understand that the quest for the minimum requirement of living space has been more important than the improvement of man’s existence in relatively small and efficient urban environments. Of course, on an individual level, one’s quality of life is being augmented by new products (today computers, mobile phone and energy-saving appliances), but in essence the question of the quality of minimal living space is related to what we plug into that space, not necessarily to how it is designed, how it relates to its surrounding environment.

Beijing | April 2010
Beijing | April 2010

Beijing | August 2009
Beijing | August 2009

And it is that struggle for the minimum living space that in a strange way has led to the creation of minimal urban spaces. In that way a lot of the large-scale urban, and suburban, housing developments have made a crucial mistake; most of the minimal living spaces – based on economical and financial parameters, not on living standards – have been designed in environments that also offer minimal quality of urban and outdoor spaces. The relation between the indoors and outdoors living spaces has been disconnected, unbalanced and under investigated in our contemporary times.

In order to deal with the problem we need to rethink the relation between size of living space and density of urban space. In the 1960s the Delos Three (a cross-disciplinary think-thank including such people as C.A. Doxiadis, R. Buckminster Fuller, S. Giedion and Arnold Toynbee) published in a book called “Human Identity in the Urban Environment” a text called “Living at High Densities”. They say the following about the notion of density:

Density relates to interference. (…) Densities can be negative and give rise to unpleasant interferences, but they can also be very positive and give rise to social cohesion, security, etc. Densities can define social contacts, and proper densities have contributed to the creation of civilization. Without sufficient density, people cannot come in contact with one another. It is only when it becomes too high that there is trouble.

Shenzhen | November 2009
Shenzhen | November 2009

When we talk about space, we have to understand what kind of space we are talking about; is it mathematical space, physiological space or cultural space? The quest for maximum life in minimal space is nothing less than the quest how to define contemporary urban culture and its complex social structures. Contrary to what a lot of architects might think today, there are no universal standards that can be used in judging density. As such we have to be culturally sensitive when talking about living space; although we tend to believe that through new modes of communication and mobility people are closer to each other, that universally life styles become more similar, this does not mean that cultural differences will suddenly disappear. The creation of space prime’s objective should be the creation of social contacts; that is when a better city can lead to a better life. In “Living at High Densities”, the Delos Three explain this situation in the 1960s as following:

In considering density and crowding, it is important to remember that there is a vital relationship between indoor and outdoor space. If there is high density (as defined by the culture) in public space, there must be relief in the space in the home, or else in the readily available space beyond the city. Therefore, we must think in terms of the spatial experiences during total periods: a twenty-four-hour day, a week, a year, and possibly a lifetime. The great danger is that economic considerations and special interests will destroy the necessary balance between public and private spaces – as they are now doing in the United States.

To conclude, when we talk about “Spatial Growth” and how to live in high quality in one small place we don’t need to see it necessarily as a creative-mathematical challenge, but as a problem that takes into consideration the requirement that determine life; social contacts, economy, outdoor space, mobility, accessibility, diversity and density. We can’t talk about the inside without talking about the outside.

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“Maximum Life in Minimum Space” by Bert de Muynck | MovingCities
Published in Interior Design China, July, 2010

(More Writings on China)

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