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Housing, density and design.

It was a myth exploded fifty years ago that high-rise housing equalled high density. Unless apartment blocks are crammed next to each other, the sites they occupy can generally be developed in many different ways producing the same number of dwellings without the skyline impact. To take a London example, the densest borough in terms of people per hectare is Kensington and Chelsea. The borough has very few tall buildings, but large amounts of green open space, a model of urbane and urban living, with a building stock that is old enough to suggest it might be a model for a certain sort of sustainability. Curiously, facts about density seem unappetising to some politicians, who regard buildings that reach for the sky as inherently desirable, symbols of modernity and urban virility; little distinction is made between office buildings and residential towers.

The office building and the apartment block are very different creatures, however. The office building is essentially a collective type, related to groups, activity and time frames. The apartment block is about the private individual, with time a much more pervasive element in its occupation. The office interior is rarely the result of personal choice; the apartment almost invariably is. What the building types have in common is views, but even then the way they relate to the occupant is very different. The office employee has little choice about either the view or the building. The apartment dweller almost certainly has both. In the office, high-rise or not, there is little sense of personal space beyond the workstation, whereas the dwelling is entirely about individual identity.

The Japanese houses featured in this month's issue raise interesting questions about our attitudes to space, to density, and to the way we think about living. The house remains that most fascinating of architectural spaces, where the universal rituals of eating, drinking, sleeping and so on are played out against backdrops which are simultaneously similar and different. These houses are bespoke, the product of gifted designers, and are therefore examples of the house rather than 'housing'; yet they also act as reminders that the way in which space is occupied and furnished can make particular the repetition inevitably found in volume housing design. And being Japanese, these dwellings are of relatively limited size, though we should note that Western ideas about what constitute acceptable space standards for dwellings appear to be shrinking, while the price paid for housing land increases. These things are not unrelated.

So far the assumption here seems to be that designing smaller spaces is more about the world of product design, of cars, caravans and boats, than about spatial quality. The Japanese lesson is that small can, and should, be beautiful.
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Author:Finch, Paul
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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