Little Boxes

I’m a regular reader of Design Observer, which is ostensibly a design blog, but in reality has a fairly wide remit, encompassing art and architecture as well. Not only does it have well-written posts on interesting topics, but also (unlike so many blogs) a high standard of discussion in the comments section. This article from a week ago struck a chord with me, despite the fact that I have no idea about the programme they’re discussing. No, it was the initial paragraphs that got my attention, with their mention of the “Muji House”. Here’s Tom Vanderbilt’s blurb:

[The Muji house is] a two-story, open-plan unadorned box designed by Kazuhiko Namba. Like the company itself — the “no-brand” company that even logo-allergic Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition could love — it seems to celebrate “absolute flexibility,” the Japanese concept of “kenketsu” (roughly, simplicity) and “utilitarian materials and rationalised production methods”

A contextually-appropriate mention of Muji or William Gibson are pretty well guaranteed to draw me in, as I (like many, I suspect) am a big fan of the work of both. Muji’s designs seem to embody the side of the Japanese aesthetic that I admire: a simple, practical beauty, seeming to encompass both the homely and the spiritual.1

When we had building work done on our house, last summer, it was essentially for one (admittedly multi-faceted) reason: to make the kitchen bigger. The kitchen is the real centre of our home; it’s where the family congregates, both for meals, and at other times. We like to be in there; like to be together. I think the cooking and the close-knitness go together: a family that likes spending time together will invest more (emotionally and financially) in its cooking. Nations with great cooking are often nations where the family is important (just look at Italy).

What was wrong with the old kitchen? Well, to begin with, it was small. It was dingy. You had to go through it to get to the bathroom, and it had no view onto the garden. When we had the extension done, we fixed these things. Roofing over the passage that originally went from the back door to the garden allowed us, at a stroke, to increase the light coming into the room, give us a view to the garden, increase the size of the kitchen, and move the bathroom (it’s now where the kitchen was). To really understand all this you’d need a diagram, and perhaps I’ll add one later, but it’s really the principles behind these decisions that I’m interested in.

The environment we exist in, every day, is important. It shapes our lives; to live and grow in good directions, we need the right kind of environment. We accept this as true about parenting, about schooling, and any number of other things. It’s time we accepted it about architecture, the most obvious instantiation of our physical environment. Living in DIY nation, one can’t help but notice that the passion for decorating and redecorating one’s home is obviously something that has a foothold in the national psyche, that in some way defines us as a people. However, to simply accept this is to surrender to platitudes.

The next step is to take on board not only this need to adjust our environments to suit our needs, but the reason the need exists, and its corollaries. There is a claim that, as consumers, it is up to us to determine what the market provides. Currently, in Britain, the market provides housing that fails to meet basic needs: the need for light and space, the need for good design (that’s to say, not ugly). Horrible yellow bricks; ugly plastic doors and windowframes; small windows (good for protection, bad for light): these are the markers of the modern home. They are boxes to hide in, not homes to live in. New buildings are made without consideration for the future: what will they look like in ten years’ time, or twenty? What will they look like when the veneer has worn down, when white plastic is discoloured by exposure, dirtied and damaged, when they look like the monstrosities of the 1960s and 1970s do?

Buildings in the post-1945, Cold War era had an excuse: they were built with the thought at the back of the creators’ minds that it didn’t really matter what they were like as long as they housed people; after all, they’d probably just get demolished in the next war. This excuse, paltry as it is, no longer applies. The only thing that stops people creating good buildings, beautiful, functional buildings that satisfy our needs as human beings, is greed. The housing market makes billions for developers who have no interest in the things they are creating past selling them. This is wrong, this is stupid, this is ridiculous. It is time to take the control of such important things as the environments we live and work in from the hands of corporate stooges only interested in the financial bottom line. It is time to assert ourselves, to tell the market that functional, appealing, holistic design is not a luxury: it is essential.

1. A building that takes some of these concerns and design ideals on board is the Loftcube, a house in a box that lives on a roof.

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