by Jincy IypeDec 27, 2022
Is the size of a space a marker of one's experience within it? Does more space call for more creativity? While the adage ‘less is more’ upholds the goodness of doing with bare essentials, it is often seen in architecture that the ‘less’ connects to objects and spatial entities instead of the size of the space. Only in recent years, when urban households are beginning to shrink as a result of the accelerating densification of cities, architects worldwide are experimenting with small spaces. An exhibition running at the Roca London Gallery as part of the ongoing London Design Festival presents a range of ideas that rethink the urban box. Conceived by Clare Farrow, a London-based interdisciplinary curator, Small Spaces in the City: Rethinking inside the Box brings together works of diverse professionals, from London to Tokyo, that nod to a positive future for compact living. STIR speaks with Farrow to discuss more about the showcase.
(The following are edited excerpts from the conversation)
Zohra Khan: There is a common perception that big is bold and beautiful and that more space calls for more inventiveness. How does this exhibition’s narrative defy this analogy?
Clare Farrow: First of all, I should say that I am not suggesting that everyone should live in a small space in the city, or that it is a solution that fits all. Of course, space is something beautiful, and good for health and wellbeing, but it is not a luxury that is open to many people in a high-density urban environment, and this is increasingly the case now, with the rising costs of living, rentals, and mortgages. Many people, especially young but older too, are being forced out of the city because of these financial pressures, or else they are finding themselves living and working in tiny spaces, under 35 sqm or sometimes as little as 25 sqm. With chronic housing shortages too, we have reached a crisis point in the city, and the possibility of London losing its youth, creativity, diversity, and identity is very real.
So, this is an exhibition that is very much of its time, born out of crisis and concern. But interestingly, when you look at history too, a period of intense crisis can often be the trigger for extraordinary inventiveness and creativity among designers and thinkers, and the more restrictive the boundaries, the greater the inventive spirit. Many architects for example enjoy working within strict limitations—it is a challenge that encourages a rethinking of the box, as our subtitle says, and forces designers to dig deeper and test out new theories. The luxury of a large space means that ingenuity is not needed to the same degree; it is too easy! Whereas a tiny home demands precision down to the last millimetre, systems, and mechanisms to work well in a functional sense, but also imagination and playfulness to transform it into a pleasurable experience. It is this combination on a very small scale that is really fascinating when you look at the designs and ideas we are presenting in the exhibition.
Out of this crisis and necessity, designers are also discovering that small space, if it is well designed and sensitive to different, changing needs, can also be a very positive sustainable choice, that looks at the city as an extension of the home, redressing the balance between privacy and community, people and nature. In this sense again, it is an instigator of inventiveness and something exciting too.
This is an exhibition that is very much of its time, born out of crisis and concern. – Clare Farrow
Zohra: What was the starting point of your curation for Small Spaces in the City?
Clare: I began with an interest in small spaces as a site for design metamorphosis. I was particularly thinking about multifunctional and transforming furniture at the beginning; the idea that a single space or object can become many things, at different times. I was also struck by the fact that small spaces are trending on social media (such as Colin Chee’s hugely popular Never Too Small YouTube series), but followers are not only those who live in tiny city apartments. There seemed to be a point at which the necessity of small spaces had turned into a fascination and desire, and the recognition that a compact home can be a different, more affordable, and sustainable way of living and working, with a few curated objects, a simple palette of natural and translucent materials, and ingenious storage solutions. There is a great curiosity in this changing vision of a home, in the expanded freedom of the digital nomad too. I wanted to explore the idea of the city as being an extension of the home, and this is a phrase that appears in many of the interviews I did as part of my exhibition research. Extracts from these interviews are featured in the exhibition. I wanted to get many voices and ideas involved, from many cities, and I saw the Japanese influence as key too. There is a fascinating Tokyo Model section, that even includes a Licca-chan doll’s house analysis (the Japanese equivalent to Barbie!) Above all, there is a wonderful glass-half-full attitude in the interviews; and a determination to make small spaces work.
The exhibition narrative developed through these interviews, and I recognised that an important emphasis should be placed on the health and well-being of small spaces, at a time when so many people are struggling, and this focus has led to an exciting live experiment in the exhibition!
Zohra: Could you take us through some of the key works displayed as part of the exhibition?
Clare: It is an exhibition that is very rich in content, so I have arranged the works in city sections, beginning with Hong Kong and the work of architect Gary Chang, who has remained in his childhood home and used his small apartment like a stage for reinvention and transformation: 24 rooms in a single space! London is represented by Proctor & Shaw and by Birmingham-based architects Intervention Architecture, who were commissioned by Royal Ballet dancer William Bracewell to design his Barbican Dancer’s Studio. This interview led to a very exciting experiment conducted with filmmaker Candida Richardson, who filmed Bracewell in his tiny dressing room in the Royal Opera House, where he spends much of his life. This film has allowed us to explore the effects of confinement on movement and emotion, and the interaction of the body with the objects, corners, and materials of a small space, but also the freedom of expression that is still possible within a limited space, and the impact of this on wellbeing.
Another very exciting experiment in the exhibition is by Richard Beckett, Assistant Professor at The Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) who has collaborated with Uute Scientific in Finland and immunologist Matthew Reeves of UCL to investigate the health benefits of bringing forest floor extract into the home and workplace, as a form of probiotic microbial design. It’s a living experiment in the exhibition, and the results will be available in 2024.
Other architects participating are Satoko Shinohara (shared housing in Tokyo), Takeshi Hosaka (Love2 House, Tokyo), White Arkitekter in Stockholm (student living), nArchitects in New York, JCPCDR Architecture in Paris (The Flying Table), Paola Bagna in Berlin (micro apartments), and Studio Noju in Seville (experiments with colour). I am really excited about a new film by Toshiki Hirano of the Kuma Lab at The University of Tokyo, who has interviewed Shinohara in her shared housing projects in Tokyo, and also about featuring new research by Professor Phil Hubbard at King’s College London.
Berlin architect Paola Bagna has designed a specially commissioned reading-seating unit for the exhibition, called Collective Curve; and other furniture designers include Nendo, Jongha Choi, Eneris Collective, Robert van Embricqs and Studio Edwards.
As I am an interdisciplinary curator, there is artwork in the exhibition too, including the miniature and tiny ceramics of Yuta Segawa, and four beautiful small collages by Dutch artist Elly Dijkshoorn.
Zohra: How has a visitor’s experience conceived? Have you anticipated takeaways/learnings for them?
Clare: The scenography for the exhibition, designed by Jean-Christophe Petillault of JCPCDR Architecture in Paris, with exhibition designer Tom Robinson and cabinet maker Thibault Pitois (L'Atelier Pan), is a sensory experience in itself: comprising a sequence of timber units sponsored by Oberflex, which are based on small space archetypes from different countries, including the Japanese tea house for the Tokyo section. So for each section, the visitor is invited to step into a small space, to experience materials, films, photography, interview extracts, and furniture pieces. The Collective Curve reading-seating unit is also a multifunctional piece that visitors can spend time with; and they can also sit at Richard Beckett’s desk, to breathe in the probiotic, microbial space, and learn about his research. I hope they will come away inspired to reinvent their own small spaces, and perhaps think again about the concept of home for the future of the city.
Zohra: What would you say is NEXT for the urban box?
Clare: Another recurrent thread in the exhibition is the importance of ceiling height in small spaces, which enables vertical stacking and experimenting with different functions at different levels within the same compact interior. This features in Paola Bagna’s wonderful micro apartments in Berlin and in Proctor & Shaw’s Shoji Apartment and Minimax Tower proposal. They are talking to developers about how important it is to build with ceiling height and this seems very important to carry forward. Also, the use of wood is important, which remains controversial in the UK. We tend to think that it is just the floor plan dimensions that count in a small studio flat, but it is actually the overall volume that matters, the amount of sunlight and views from the windows, the use of natural materials and lightness that keeps a small space open and comfortable. And perhaps above all the storage which is so important to then allow a balance of free space, for movement, expression, and wellbeing, as William Bracewell’s film shows. The small urban box is certainly one of the realities and solutions for the future, not for everyone but certainly a way to remain living and working in the city. But it is so important that this inevitability is accompanied by a very careful focus and accountability in terms of health and wellbeing in small interiors, and ensuring that small homes are sustainable ones, with connectivity to people and nature.
Zohra: What is NEXT for you?
Clare: I am continuing to work with Japanese architect and humanitarian Shigeru Ban on the nomadic installation Paper Sanctuary (first shown in London for the Biennale in June and now on in Japan). I am also working on a new exhibition project for 2024, working with recycled glass as a sustainable, experimental, and very exciting material.
Small Spaces in the City: Rethinking inside the Box is on view at the Roca London Gallery till January 27, 2023.
London Design Festival is back! In its 21st edition, the faceted fair adorns London with installations, exhibitions, and talks from major design districts including Shoreditch Design Triangle, Greenwich Peninsula, Brompton, Design London, Clerkenwell Design Trail, Mayfair, Bankside, King's Cross, and more. Click here to explore STIR’s highlights from the London Design Festival 2023.