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How Small-Space Design Is Reinventing the Concept of Housing

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Urban Cabin

The Urban Cabin from MINI LIVING shows how we might live in the future.

City living is thrilling, but it’s becoming increasingly claustrophobic. According to the UN, by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population will be corralled into urban areas, up from 54 percent now. Finding homes for all of us, while preserving the character of cities and neighborhoods, is a vexing problem for architects and designers, one that demands creative solutions tailored for this century. And it will likely require a change in how urban dwellers use resources, share spaces, and understand privacy. 

This is the goal of MINI LIVING, an ongoing initiative to create design solutions for urban housing problems and enhance the underlying culture of city residents. “For us,” says Oke Hauser, the team’s Creative Lead, “the future of urban living will be based on a small personal footprint embedded in shared spaces to create an engaged community.”

The team debuted in April 2016 at Milan Design Week with “Do Disturb,” a collaboration with Yokohama-based architects ON Design. The 30-square-meter apartment featured walls that rotated, speakeasy-style, to transform private spaces into shared ones. So while bathrooms and bedrooms remained private, other spaces, like the kitchen and living room, could be opened up and shared with other tenants. 

“We wanted to reinvent the whole concept of housing,” says Corinna Natter, Experience Designer at MINI LIVING. “We have to learn to be good neighbors again—to rethink our way of living, and get all the advantages out of sharing.” So instead of each apartment having its own kitchen, several tenants can share one. And perhaps that guest room, which is used only a few weeks a year, can be booked by a neighbor when their family comes to town. By pooling resources, each tenant devotes less space to the essentials, while still retaining access. By sharing one ends up with more. 

While “Do Disturb” focused on sharing as a means of maximizing value, MINI’s “Forests” project sought to create value by giving unused public spaces—what they call “urban voids”—a new purpose. “There is still so much potential to be explored in the urban fabric,” says Hauser. “We just need to find new and creative ways to activate it.” With architect Asif Khan, they designed three transparent, light-filled pavilions to be placed on slivers of land in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood for the 2016 London Design Festival. Each installation was appointed with simple furniture and plants, and dedicated to one of three tasks: relaxing, creating, or connecting. The goal was to provide a “third place”: a noncommercial spot that’s neither home nor work, which encourages citizens to pause and enjoy an area they’d normally race through.

“We want to create areas where people can really meet,” says Natter. “Because people often feel very lonely in cities…you can see that in all the apps that are popping up for meeting people in every kind of way. We are looking for the analog app.”

While their previous projects were dedicated to changing how people conceive of and utilize space, MINI’s contribution to this year’s Milan Design Week presented a more technical vision of sustainable living. Designed with Brooklyn-based architects SO-IL, “Breathe” was a three-level structure covered in a porous, semi-transparent mesh that filtered air. A spiral staircase connected the levels, and led to a rooftop garden that had a system for capturing and purifying rainwater. Like “Forests” before it, “Breathe” was installed in a narrow gap between buildings. “It’s our version of a more conscious way to live in harmony with your natural surroundings,” says Hauser. “Each project adds a new layer contributing to our holistic vision of a brighter urban life.” 

If “Breathe” was a technical and aesthetic exercise in sustainability, MINI’s latest project, the Urban Cabin, strives to capture something less tangible. “Everything began when we read this essay by Kyle Chayka called ‘Welcome to AirSpace,’” says Natter. “It said that if you look at the most-booked Airbnb spaces, they look the same all over the world. We really liked the article, because it's what we think. We said that with this project we really want people to experience again what is unique in a city. Why do they love them? What are their cultures and traditions? What makes them feel like home?”

The Urban Cabin project is a series of 15-square-meter micro-houses that capture the quirks and charms of the cities in which they are displayed. In each city, local architects are enlisted to design the cabin’s kitchen and “experience room,” through which they can address a particular urban challenge. 

The first version, displayed at this year’s London Design Festival, featured a mirrored exterior cloaked in a copper mesh, giving it a quintessentially Victorian vibe. London-based architect Sam Jacob contributed a kitchen with a table that unfolded and extended outside of the cabin, a nod to London’s open-air food markets. He also outfitted the home with a walk-in library, an allusion to the literary city where, Jacob notes, libraries are struggling to stay open. 

The second version of the Urban Cabin is an ode to New York. Currently on display at A/D/O in Greenpoint Brooklyn, the cabin features an expandable design, thanks to one wall that can be rolled open. The exterior is made of iridescent panels that shimmer and change colors as one walks past, reflecting the experience of a pedestrian in New York. A lounge area offers a relaxing hammock hanging alongside shelves of plants. In a playful touch, books are suspended from the ceiling, attached to pulleys and counterweights. Local architecture firm Bureau V contributed a galley-style kitchen with a rounded, metallic ceiling that references classic New York diners. For the experience room, they chose to address immigration by creating a reading nook that, like the immigrant experience, has sharp, protective spikes on the outside, but is cozy and welcoming on the inside.

One section of the exterior features a series of holes in which guests can leave their thoughts on little pieces of paper. What did they like? What do they value in a home? What do they anticipate in future housing? The London cabin had a similar feature: blank bookmarks, distributed at a book swap, on which people could write whatever they pleased. “A lot of visitors have children,” says Natter, “and they were asking if the concept grows when the family grows—things like this. Of course, we are very interested in the opinions of designers and architects. But it makes it even better to have opinions from people who are not from the field, because housing is a topic for everyone. Everyone is interested in how living will change in the future.”

The knowledge gleaned from these conversations, and from the workshops and talks that complemented each exhibit, will be channeled into future versions of the Urban Cabin. MINI hopes to design four more in 2018, for cities yet to be announced. They aim to make each of them habitable, with a bathroom and bed—a place where people could actually live. 

Though urban space will only become more limited in the future, there’s certainly more that can be done—by designers and architects, but also by us citizens—to make city life more pleasant and sustainable.

Photographs by Charlie Rubin.