City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Common Ground Community’s and the Architectural League of New York’s social housing design competition ended this week.

"Competitors were asked to design a prototypical individualized dwelling unit and the layout of 19 such units on a typical floor of The Andrews – Common Ground’s lodging house on the Bowery – which will shortly be renovated to house the First Step Housing Program. First Step will offer private, safe, clean and affordable short-term accommodations to individuals who are transitioning to housing, facing homelessness, or who have rejected or failed in other programs.”

Two interesting things here, initially the idea of ‘capsule living’. The idea behind The Andrews is to "combine elements of the Bowery’s dying flophouse tradition — $7 a night, no lease, no questions — with smart management, on-site social services, and space-efficient modular design" (from a Metropolis article, quoted at Social Design Notes.) Echoes here of the magnificent Isokon building (home to Agatha Christie, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer et al), the recent microflat idea by Piercy Connor architects [bad Flash req. for both], or Japanese urban environments. Here of course, the idea is necessitated by the focusing on homelessness, rather than a choice of home for gilded members of the European avant-garde or key workers. However I’ve long been fond of this idea for more urban accommodation in general, as a far more democratic use of city space – those with a choice (myself included) tend to occupy far more space than we arguably need, which seems morally suspect in cities which are both overcrowded and rife with homelessness.

Cities need these spaces partly because ‘cubicle hotels’, which used to prevent much homelessness, are now a thing of the past thanks to property development and health & safety regulations. So the design challenge is beyond simply defining efficient use of space.

"You don’t want it to be a doll house, but you don’t want it to be a cell either.’ A lot of these folks have been in psychiatric hospitals or in jail, and they don’t want an environment that reminds them of that. Things as subtle as being able to move the furniture around — not having it nailed down — being able to get control of a degree of privacy in the space, having a window that opens and closes onto a central corridor seemed to take something that could have been viewed as institutional and make it cozy … Frankly, design makes a significant difference in terms of the atmosphere of calm and respect that you establish. People respond behaviorwise to being in that kind of environment. Keeping maintenance costs reduced is also a consideration. We need spaces that can be cleaned easily, panels that can be removed and replaced without having to trash the whole unit.” [Rosanne Haggerty, in Metropolis article, quoted at Social Design Notes]

Which leads neatly on to the second interesting aspect. One of the five winning entries in the competition is called "The Ordering of Things”, by Katherine Chang and Aaron Gabriel:

"The project draws from the pleasure of the everyday ritual of ordering things. Putting away your laundry, organising your books, arranging your records. These everyday activities foster pleasure by allowing the ritualistic completion of an obtainable task, and more importantly offering us the means to structure our environment. The existing first step units offer a place for the body, but no place for the objects the body needs to relate itself to the environment. These objects are often the primary possessions of the inhabitants, relating them to memories, ideas and times."

Detail from The Ordering Of Things

I like this personal ordering of everyday life. It resonates both with the idea of an ‘everyday information architecture’ and of adaptive design’s notion of design living everywhere to some degree – of Rachel Strickland’s work: "Everybody is a designer in everyday life. Yet we share no common vocabulary for describing everyday design practice … design is not limited to the province of specialists who have formal training … rather, design behaviour is a fundamental element of our species’ adaption." (as quoted by Tom Moran.)

These ideas should probably be pertinent throughout most design, yet they must surely be fundamental in a project such as this, delivering a sense of self-worth and self-control back into damaged lives.
[via Social Design Notes]


One response to “Capsule living and everyday IA”

  1. rodcorp Avatar

    Related perhaps?: ‘City life from a four-and-a-half mat perspective’ in Suzuki’s Do Android Crows Fly Over the Skies of an Electronic Tokyo? (Architectural Association, 2001).

    The yojohan is a constant element of Japanese tradition (recorded in the 13thC, a pre-tatami era) – the minimum space required for people to live in, its scale is also optimal for a variety of daily activities. The tea ceremony, the living room, family living, ‘special boarding houses’, ‘rendezvous spots’, one-room mansions…


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