Re-drawing the Community. House building as Collective Individuality

Introduction


Through a set of strategies for residential space, the Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima proposed an idea of living in a community that was in opposition to the traditional scheme of western residency ideals in the apartment block in Gifu. This scheme reflects one trend of contemporary society in recent years that is moving towards a growing individualism. 
In recent years, this building has become a paradigm of collective housing because it shows a residential block as an aggregation of different housing pieces, reducing the parts of the house to a standard module, which are then linked by an in-between space. Its uniqueness comes from the Japanese cultural influence in its understanding of space.

Essentially, the shared space of the residential building (entrance hall, stairs, corridors, etc.), that is, that space that mediates between the public street and the private atmosphere of the dwellings reinforces the collective spirit as a neighbourhood plaza would do for its citizens.

Many authors of the field of urbanism agree that one of the fundamental factors for a public space is diversity. Of all the parameters that define a public space and favor diversity, there are three that are considered fundamental for a collective space to work. According to the Danish architect Jan Gehl (1971), the aim is to concentrate events and people (density), during a sufficient use interval (time), and in a space of quality (perception).

The observation of these concepts in the Japanese building, based on design decisions-density as activity congestion (Koolhass, 1978), time as a qualified route (Eliasson, 2007), and perception as an interior atmosphere (van Eyck, 1965) – presuppose a theoretical starting point for the concept of contemporary collective space. This is because its application in the housing building generates a set of singularities that qualify this space, which contrasts with the majority of the residential buildings of the West.

Density and Vecinal Concentration

Circulations are developed not only as part of the approach to the building but also for the domestic areas, configuring different itineraries that favour the concentration or dispersion of people.

The lack of hierarchy in the routes is most remarkable due to the implications that it has for promoting the meetings between people. These access circulations are distributed in six exterior staircases – so as not to reduce the surface of the houses – that run through all the levels of the building. Each staircase has a landing for all levels of the building, allowing users to use two entrances for the gallery. In this way, the houses are distributed equally in six diagonals and nine horizontal circulations (corresponding to the levels of the building). Apart from this, only two elevators are available inside the block. While pedestrian access to the building is oriented to the free space of the yard, the houses are not. This reduces the chances of personal encounters.

The 96 different proposed types of housing attempt to adapt to the different profiles of society. But the reality is that the most abundant profile is the young family couple. The homogeneity in this type of user entails a routine of very similar use and a smaller activity in the collective space. This reduces spatial vigilance, which is a determining factor in the functioning of a public space (Newman, 1996) and the possibilities of positive reinforcement for personal encounters amongst residents.


Access to these apartments is possible through three places, which allows several ways of using the house. This fact means that the distance between doors is very heterogeneous. Sometimes an apartment has two different levels. The availability of several entrances to the house and the distancing between these access points facilitates the dispersion and loss of contact between neighbours.

Time and the Qualified Street


A more detailed approach to the dimensions of collective itineraries illustrates the potential of horizontal communication elements as managers of pedestrian flows (i.e. the relationship between distance travelled and time spent). This observation also reveals qualitative aspects for and against possibilities of a social encounter.

The access gallery possesses more height than width (2.42m x 1.31m). In addition, the doors of the apartments are open to that space, which further reduces the usable width of the gallery. Assuming that when a person walks they separate 30cm of the wall on each side, this results in a useful width of 0.70m, which is below a recognizable social distance (Hall, 1966). Those distances are too intimate for a collective space. The fact that this space is higher than it is wide, suggests that people will seem more distant, which compensates for the shortage of width.

Throughout the block, there are no scattered collective spaces that allow for a break or rest, except in the terraces of accesses to homes that are semi-private. The ground floor of the building is completely open, defining a fluid collective space similar to the pilotis space proposed by Le Corbusier in the access floor of the Unité d´Habitation of Marseille.

Although the houses are practically hermetic towards the corridor, as the openings they have are very small, the lack of light in the gallery is not a problem due to its semi-open condition. In addition, the semi private terrace module allows for information collection from the south side of the plot. This mitigates the high length of the pedestrian route in the residential levels because heights in excess of 15m bring with them a risk that space will be perceived as monotonous and lifeless (Alexander, 1977).

The Perception and the Atomized Atmosphere

The collective spaces of circulation are shown as a border which makes it easier for users to make the psychological jump from the city to the domestic environment. The observation of these sensory aspects in a collective space allows us to discover if this space has been designed with a sufficient degree of detail as if it were an interior space (Hertzberger, 1991).

One of the most effective elements in collective domestic spaces from a social point of view is to have a transition area between the common access space and the private space of the home. In Sejima’s building, the degree of opening of the houses towards the corridor is almost nil, and although this favour privacy, it repels the user and generates an anonymous atmosphere. Only by understanding the access terraces of the houses as part of the route of the gallery will the collective atmosphere be improved with the incorporation of lighting and views from the south.

Having the sensation of living in a safe environment is another factor that favors the creation of an adequate social atmosphere. Within this section, it can be noted that the proximity of the parking area to the building and its development at the same street level provide greater security. However, the fact that the houses turn their backs on the central patio and that its great dimension hinders visual control also hinders security. The other aspect of security concerns the protection of inclement weather. Due to its semi external disposition, the common spaces like the ground floor and the gallery can suffer from unpleasant weather conditions (wind, lateral rain, etc.), but at the same time allow people the option to remain outside with some protection.

These collective spaces do not have many features that are attractive. Standard and functional construction details are used according to the proposed spaces. The materials used and their colors tend to build a cold atmosphere, which is reinforced by the use of gray and white. If the distancing caused by the building’s development in height can be interpreted as a transition towards privacy, this can also weaken a sense of belonging, since this implies a decrease of the visual and acoustic stimuli which come from the context (Alison and Peter Smithson, 1953). The model of a modern city consisting of high residential blocks is recovered in this way, which together with the road traffic relegates the human and binding role of public space to second place.

Taking into account the cultural factor can soften the consideration of these spatial situations as something negative. In general, the best places to enjoy the surroundings can be found in the mentioned terraces of the apartments and, on a larger scale, in the landscape actions of Marta Schwartz, located in the large central patio of the four buildings.

Dispersion and Homogeneity: Final Considerations

The building designed by Kasuyo Sejima in Gifu, understood as part of a set of four buildings that delimit the plot, proposes another dimension of collectivity by generating the collective domestic space from the combination of the same spatial module that generates different types of housing. The analysis of the spaces that make up the collective space – through the concept of density, time and perception – shows strengths and weaknesses that may improve the sense of shared space in order to create an adequate environment for social interaction.

This network of routes without hierarchy (galleries and stairs) gives a regular order to a housing puzzle without relation to the context. This network runs homogeneously throughout the building, fulfilling only one accessible function. The collective space is divided. On the one hand, the stairs lead towards the garden and on the other, towards the interior. Its atomization is such that, if in the collective spaces the galleries connect different apartment units, something similar happens inside the house, since an interior gallery connects the different modules of the house. A relation of homothety (geometric relation of similarity) occurs within private limits, as if the gallery had been included in the interior, but on a smaller scale.

The position of the gallery along the block is clearly outside. The exteriority of this route attempts to integrate the stimuli coming from the exterior free space towards the building: to perceive external information or to have visual control due to safety reasons. In the shared space of the building, this is enhanced by the extension of the horizontal floor plan, while in the house it is achieved through the interior gallery that connects the rooms. In this way, it behaves like an exterior space in a domestic interior. The inclusion of the elevators inside the block of flats and the exteriorization of the stairs so as not to consume habitable surface confers greater prominence to the pedestrian routes, but, their length and the dispersion they generate, offers a monotonous space with little action.

Although this Japanese housing block has a high diversity of housing types due to its atomized nature, the family profile that occupies them is very similar. Due to the linear configuration of the apartments, the access points are very distant, and, in addition, sometimes they have different access points on different levels. This, and the fact of not having other uses than the domestic, originates a homogeneous use of space. The collective dimension is reduced to the merely functional, highlighting the individual unit.

Among the different spaces located in the building, the access terrace to the house represents the space of greatest interest. In spite of being accessible from the gallery, it is occupied by the residents of the house. However, as it is laterally displaced, in case of any activity, this would not be visible from the gallery, so the positive reinforcement of this activity would be lost. The best way to enhance the richness of the common space would be the orientation of the dwelling towards the gallery, just as Ralph Erskine did in the housing project in Byker (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1968-1981).

In 1962, Aldo van Eyck questioned the difficult task that architecture has in offering a space form to a society without form. Currently, many of the housing buildings developed are typological models nearly completed but unrelated to the current social reality. This set of routes illustrates, on one hand, the fragmentation that Jean-Franzois Lyotard announced in his philosophy at the end of the seventies and, on the other, the growing tendency to the individualism of contemporary society.

There is no doubting the architectural contributions that this housing project offers when redefining the idea of “living together.” His modern architectural vision without historical influences shows a changing present and reflects the current fragmentation of society (Bauman, 2007). However, although it contains streets in the sky and a certain collective atmosphere, an analysis of the used architectural mechanisms shows that it does not really favor contact between people and, therefore, the feeling of collectivity that can be observed in European buildings with a more classic typology, such as the Nemausus dwellings (1987) by the French architect Jean Nouvel. Maybe this Japanese building is a new collective structure … or is it anti-collective?

References


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Hertzberger, H., 2009. Lessons for Students in Architecture. 6th ed. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers. [1991]
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Newman, O.,1996. Creating defensible space. Washington: U.S. Dep. Housing and Urban Development. [1972]
Van Eyck, A., 2008. “The In-between Realm”. In: Strauben, F.; Ligtelijn, V,. 2008. The Child, the City and the Artist. Amsterdam: SUN Publishers. [1962], p. 571.

Fermín Delgado Perera

Doctor Architect in Theory and Practice of the architectural project and Master in Collective Housing by the Polytechnic University of Madrid. Professor of architectural projects and graphic expression at the European University of the Canary Islands.

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