In pictures: Big ideas for small spaces

Scaling down doesn’t have to mean cramped or uncomfortable, as some of the world’s leading architects demonstrate in imaginative and clever designs

Hut on Sleds on Whangapoua Beach, New Zealand by Crosson Clarke Carnachan

Hut on Sleds on Whangapoua Beach, New Zealand by Crosson Clarke Carnachan


A year can be a long time in publishing. In his introduction to Small Architecture Now, published this summer by Taschen, author Philip Jodido asks “what happens when economies falter and construction grinds nearly to a halt?”

His answer is that architectural innovation doesn’t stop, it just finds smaller, less expensive ways to express itself. That may be true, but small architecture remains in the news as property prices rise.

Even if the world’s leading architects are lured back to larger, sexier projects, those wanting or needing to live in the world’s capital cities, who don’t happen to fall into the property catchment areas of the global super rich, still need smaller solutions.

Earlier this summer, a tiny studio flat (read: one room) in London, made the headlines as, although it had been snapped up in just 16 hours at a rent of £737 per month, Islington Borough Council imposed an order to prevent the transaction, saying it was too small to live in.

In Islington the property consisted of a room with a corner kitchen, and a bed so positioned that you could make tea and do the washing up without leaving the warmth and comfort of your bed.

While this might be a student’s idea of heaven, small doesn’t have to be squalid or ridiculously cramped. The best architects are expert problem solvers, so what happens when their skills are applied to the challenge of scaling down, and can art help?

Artists and architecture

Art and architecture have an interesting relationship, sometimes fraught, sometimes flirtatious, and Jodido brings artists into the mix in the book too. American artist Frank Stella once said that architects were “guys in suits who can’t paint”, while his fellow artist, Claes Oldenburg, was of the opinion that “the difference between art and architecture is that architecture has windows and toilets”. Jodido cites projects by Olafur Eliasson and Christine Iglesias to illustrate his thesis that art’s focus on the “useless” can have a profoundly positive impact on how we live.

Gallery: Click on the book cover to launch

Eliasson’s Color Activity House at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanzawa, Japan; and Iglesias’ Vegetation Room Inhotim at the Inhotim Contemporary Art Institute, Brazil, both demonstrate how colour, light and reflection can change how you think and feel about yourself, and about the place you’re in – a crucial message at any scale.

Of course small architecture is nothing new. Japanese tea houses have long championed the small is beautiful message. In Amsterdam, the atmospheric city streets are populated by vertical narrow strips of houses; and anyone with experience of apartment-hunting at the lower end of the scale in New York will be familiar with baths in kitchens that double up as tables – an innovation that was also seen in Ireland in Dublin’s Pearse House Flats, built in the 1930s.


The stone cottage

The Irish vernacular stone cottage is tiny by today’s standards, dwarfed by enormous replacements that rather mock their origins; while the Dublin Artisan Dwelling cottages, built at the turn of the last century to tackle TB levels in the tenements, housed, according to the 1911 Census, families of eight or more, in just over 25sq m (270sq ft). For a wry look at what modernity brought in terms of lifestyle, take a look at W Heath Robinson’s brilliant series of 1930s Flat Life cartoons, as a response to increasingly cramped urban conditions. These include a board that lowers from the ceiling to create an instant dining table, attic extensions that allow you to hang on to the snooker table, and a bed from which you can run your bath and make breakfast, without having to move.

If you’re planning a trip to Venice any time in the next few months, the 14th Architectural Biennale, which recently opened, runs until November 23rd ( See small-scale architectural solutions to problems of all sizes, including the Irish pavilion, curated by Gary A Boyd and John McLaughlin. Or else take a look at the Taschen book, and be inspired by the old adage that size doesn’t matter, it’s all in how you use it.


THE PILLAR HOUSE It looks like an IKEA advert made flesh, but the Pillar House by Suzuko Yamada was a winner in the House for Living competition held by the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in 2011. In the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake that year, the architect had noticed the central pillars of the traditional buildings, still standing amid the destruction. Here, layers create different but overlapping living spaces in which, the architect says, “the ultimate result is a house with distinct rooms and tucked-away corners but without the encumbering and impersonal barriers of walls …I hope to give the house of tomorrow a sense of unpredictability for a family to enjoy, as well as a clear sense of transparency to bring them closer together.” I think I’d like more privacy.

HOUSE 77 Half-floors make sense of the narrow site at José Cadilhe’s House 77 in Póvoade Varzim in Portugal. Aluminium shutters concertina open on the street side to make sure the architect gets his requisite bold public statement, despite the small scale of the space. Inside a mix of glass and opaque dividers allow light right through the long thin building.

HUT ON SLEDS At less than 40sq m (430sq ft), Crosson Clarke Carnachan’s Hut on Sleds at Whangapoua Beach, New Zealand proves that small is not only beautiful, but rather brilliant too. Built in a coastal erosion area, the whole house can be dragged back from the beach, bringing a new sense to the idea of a “mobile home”. There are two sleeping areas and a triple-decker bunk for the kids. The upper rooms stack, and slide, making it more of a fun holiday home than something to build your life around – unless you’re a hugely adventurous family, of course.

ARK BOOKTOWER Architects can also make existing spaces work better. Norwegian architects, Rintala Eggertsson’s Ark Booktower was a 2010 temporary installation at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, designed to make an intimate space for reading and thinking, tucked into the curve of one of the museum’s monumental stairways. Although the scale is way beyond the domestic, there are some good ideas for storage and creating small spots to get away from it all and read.

RIVERSIDE HOUSE Perhaps it’s not surprising that so many of Philip Jodido’s examples of small architecture in the Taschen book come from Japan. The country has pioneered living in tiny spaces. Kota Mizuishi’s Riverside House Suginami in Tokyo is on a sliver of a site, and its top-heavy look was created to make sure there’s space to park a car. You get a relatively large main bedroom, a second bedroom and balcony space, as well as a kitchen/dining area and livingroom. All making the most of its quirky 29sq m (312sq ft) footprint.

YINGST SAUNA In Michigan, David Samela’s Yingst Sauna at Traverse City is a bit of a cheat as it’s part of the larger Yingst Retreat, nestled in a 16-acre forest near a lake. The house is either deceptively small or deceptively spacious – depending on how you want to look at it, as it concertinas back from a relatively tiny, spare white façade. The sauna building is a copy-in-miniature of the main house, and it’s really delicious.

DELTA SHELTER In the US, Olson Kundig’s Delta Shelter in Washington State is a 93sq m (1,000sq ft) house, rising out of an 18.5sq m (200sq ft footprint). Built on a floodplain, it rises above the land and the architect says it is virtually indestructible, on account of its steel-clad exterior and the shutters which can be wound across, closing the façades. You get two bedrooms and a large top-floor space for living/dining and cooking, plus some truly wonderful views, again proving that the best small spaces aren’t simply scaled-down large ones, but buildings that seem to almost think for themselves about how to handle life in miniature.

Small Architecture Now! is published by Taschen, €39.99,