Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A new building of ultra-tiny apartments in Seoul will enforce neighborliness as residents navigate shared spaces "like the ambiguous gel around a tapioca pearl."
A 120-square-foot nook is nobody's dream apartment. A new housing development in Seoul built around such tiny units might, in fact, cause some folks nightmares. Yet the Songpa Micro-Housing project could totally work for people who don't mind the prospect of living as if they were suspended in a giant vat of bubble tea.
At least, I think that's the metaphor Single Speed Design Architecture + Urbanism (SsD) was going for. The architect designed a series of living units—each of them ostensibly 120 square feet—within a series of semi-public living spaces.
"Like the ambiguous gel around a tapioca pearl," the building description reads, "this 'Tapioca Space' becomes a soft intersection between public/private and interior/exterior, creating social fabrics between neighbors."
The project just took top honors from the American Institute of Architects New York chapter's 2015 AIANY Design Awards. (SsD principals Jinhee Park and John Hong maintain offices in New York and Seoul.) The micro-housing project's eight residences "subvert the monotonous forms of most micro housing," writes Clare Jacobson in Architectural Record.
The 5,500-square-foot building is essentially a stack of offset units. The juxstaposition of the micro-housing units in the stack creates semi-shared spaces between the dwellings, which makes the units more livable—for folks who don't mind a little communal living.
"Picture Tejo Remy's Chest of Drawers for Droog, not your grandmother's credenza," writes Jacobson. Not a reference that's going to ring bells for people who don't know their contemporary furniture design, but sure, that works.
Tapioca pearls floating in bubble tea, loose drawers bundled by a rope; what makes people reach for lyrical heights to describe such a fundamentally simple concept? The idea is straightforward: In this micro-housing scheme, the design softens a real fundamental loss of privacy.
The architects designed built-in furniture in the living quarters to maximize the functional utility of every living space, with features such as fold-up Murphy beds and hide-away pull-out tables. And the cantilevered stack design of the building provides for balconies, porches, and decks for the units.
"As this is housing for emerging artists, exhibition spaces on the ground floor and basement are spatially linked to the units as a shared living room," the architects offer. "Although the zoning regulations require the building to be lifted for parking, this open ground plan is also used to pull the pedestrians in from the street and down a set of auditorium-like steps, connecting city and building residents to the exhibition spaces below."
In other words, residents should expect to share their living-room space with other building tenants. Even with the street, to some extent.
The studio living units were originally designed such that they could be combined into 240-square-foot one-bedroom apartments—absolutely palatial by comparison. But the individual 120-square-foot living units make for a better test case. It's more interesting to think about how living quarters designed close to the minimum threshold for Western comfort would go over in other places.
"A claustrophile will find comfort in the walk-in-closet-sized space, with its neat white doors and drawers," Jacobson writes, "while a claustrophobe will appreciate design strategies that open up the space."
In San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C.—American cities where affordable housing is hard to find when it's not publicly subsidized—plenty of people would still run screaming from SsD's tapioca housing. It's not for everyone. Then again, artists and others who live in far worse conditions in these cities might find this totally serviceable design solution more than comfortable.
Another way of looking at it: What better way to meet your neighbors than over some bubble tea?