Francesca opens the door and takes a look into the future: “small but smart”, says the architecture student as she enters the 7.3 square meter room where she will be living and sleeping for the next few years. “It would be nice if there were a few more shelves. I clearly have too much make-up”. Francesca is one of twelve young residents of the avant-garde housing project Cubity, which was launched at the end of 2016 in Frankfurt Niederrad. Developed by TU Darmstadt, the “living cube” has small rooms for sleeping and working, an open kitchen, a gallery with sofas and a central “market place”. This is a village within a building, where students have access to private spaces but also a large area where they can share experiences, opinions and cultures. In the evening, warm light floods through the opaque plastic facade of the building, giving Cubity the air of the nucleus of a new era.
Cubity is just one example of the many prototypes, projects and start-ups that are currently attempting to reinvent our living spaces. The urban home of the future must provide answers to entirely new questions: How can we ensure that housing in the inner city remains affordable? What does a climate-neutral apartment look like? Where do we really feel at home? Only one thing is certain: things cannot and will not continue as they are.
The most common forms of homes – two- to four-room apartments in the city and single-family homes in the suburbs – were built for small families. However, the trend towards patchwork families and demographic change means that people’s requirements in terms of their living space are now constantly changing throughout their lives. These days, forty percent of households in Germany are one-person households. At the same time, residential consumption per capita is rising. In 1950, an adult in Germany had 15 square meters of living space available; in 1998 it was 39 and in 2013 it had already reached 45. We are faced with a shortage of space, energy and capital.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts that by 2050, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in large cities. And another international four-letter organization, the furniture giant IKEA, also reports in its new catalog: “As many migrate to cities, smaller spaces have become the new dream home” – and it has also introduced the pull-out table “Ingatorp”, because “many people like to eat alone”. We are seeing so-called micro-apartment complexes, such as Carmel Place in New York City or The Collective Old Oak in London, opening up in more and more cities.
The city dwellers of the future will have to limit themselves. But this does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. “Today, a German person owns an average of ten thousand things,” says the designer Konstantin Gricic, “but you only really need a few items with which you share a common history to create a home and feel secure.” This applies in particular to the so-called sharing culture, of course, in which ownership takes a back seat to special experiences and room for maneuver. At the same time, new technologies help people connect to specific communities or magically shift the limits of what is possible.
“If you lack resources, you have to be efficient”, says Hasier Larrea, former director of the Architectural Robotics Laboratory at Boston MIT. “Old solutions don’t solve new problems. We need to rethink the way we design and relate to our spaces.” Larrea grumbles about space killers such as sofas, desks and beds, that permanently require a large area and are only needed for a fraction of the day. He has an idea of “furniture with superpowers”. In 2017, this prompted him to found Ori Systems, a company that collaborates with designer Yves Béhar to offer modular, convertible furniture systems “that understand how you feel and respond to that”. Their first product is a kind of shelf block that converts into a bed, an office or a couch at the touch of a button or the point of a finger.
The home of the future has countless sensors and adapts itself to the needs of its inhabitants – the kitchen counter becomes a scale; a bed becomes a desk. According to Larrea, “transformable spaces” can triple your living space. What is important in this regard is that the experience should be “effortless and magical”.
A similar optimism can be found in a number of start-ups that “want to meet the growing demand for affordable and flexible housing in inner cities by addressing the community ethos that brought about the sharing economy in the first place”, as reported by the US business magazine Fast Company. These include companies such as Pure House, Krash and Common. We.Work, a company that operates co-working spaces all over the world, has raised 355 million dollars in venture capital to found its subsidiary, We.Live, which already has branches in New York and Washington. Their motto is “Love your life”.
Another example is Roam, which runs luxurious co-living and co-working projects in Ubud, Bali, Madrid, Miami, San Francisco, Tokyo and, of course, London. Its target group is young travelers, who spend a few weeks or months living abroad and meeting like-minded people from the moment they arrive at Roam.
The Pure House lofts and apartments in the New York district of Williamsburg are not characterized by avant-garde architecture – small rooms, a common area, modern art on the walls. Instead, it is the personality of the inhabitants that takes center stage. Pure House is a place for “creators” to live, says founder Ryan Fix. “Directors, artists, start-up founders. We relieve them of the burden of everyday life so that they can concentrate on their projects and live their passion.” One room in the co-living project costs about 2,000 dollars a month – a good price for the center of New York City. The apartments are furnished; the management company provides a weekly cleaning service and delivers food parcels as an optional extra that can be booked with a few clicks.Fix organizes yoga lessons and shared dinner parties, while social contacts are marketed as added value. Ryan Fix says: “In normal apartments, the elevator is the only place where you meet other people.”
The New York State Assembly criticized companies like We.Live and Pure House with harsh words: “It’s about a few people making a lot of money masquerading as a shared economy.” But how else should modern apartments blocks be designed so that they are not just solitary cells or wellness clubs for the global elite, but a space that you can claim and shape for yourself?
“You have to build cost-effectively, otherwise the resident community becomes too homogeneous, the potential for integration is not tapped and you’ve inadvertently built yet another luxury apartment with a communal sauna,” says the Berlin architect Jesko Fezer. He and his family live in the innovative apartment building R50, which he designed himself. This building includes wraparound balconies that are freely accessible and increase internal mobility in the building – this makes it easier to meet by chance and visit each other. The ground floor and first floor have a large shared space for tutoring, where many children go for piano lessons. And non-decision is one of the most important instruments – “leaving areas free for the inhabitants to fill these themselves.”
However, it’s not only homes that will change, but also city districts and neighborhoods. Tokyo is a laboratory for applied urban research. With 2,642 people per square kilometer, this metropolis is one of the most densely populated places on earth. Architects like Ryue Nishizawa and Riken Yamamoto have long been experimenting with collective housing schemes. “Standardization of dwellings led to a standardization of the families that lived in them,” writes Yamamoto in his manifesto. In his “Local Area Model” (LAM), the city will no longer be divided into public areas of consumption, work and living, between which people shuttle back and forth at considerable energy expenditure. Yamamoto’s residential buildings are more like micro-villages where small families, singles, commuters and retirees live and support each other in their different needs. In the LAM there are offices, daycare centers, canteens, common rooms, shops and green areas. Each unit contains all the complexity of a city.
In the 20th century there was a saying: “My home is my castle.” Our homes were fortresses against the outside world, but also rigid and cumbersome, and sometimes even a dead weight. MIT researcher Larrea says soberly: “Urban spaces are too expensive to be static and unresponsive.” We will need to change ourselves and our homes – and soon. “This is not sci-fi,” Larrea says, “this is now.”
Text: Tobias Moorstedt
Photo at top: ©Riken Yamamoto