Skyscrapers in Dubai, Zaha Hadid-designed stadiums, and Damien Hirst’s private accommodations are impressive for their sheer size, but bigger isn’t always better. Besides, behemoth buildings are rarely the most feasible architectural options. Nanotecture: Tiny Built Things, a new book by architect Rebecca Roke and published by Phaidon, celebrates the quieter structural designs that consume far less real estate than those that embrace gigantism.
Though mini in size itself, the publication delivers a trove of information, cataloguing 300 examples of small-scale works from around the world that reveal the complexities, often surprising, that are hidden in compact spaces. Each is accompanied by a summary description as well as a color key that corresponds to one or more of the 66 construction materials collectively represented in Roke’s selections. Brick, timber, plywood, and other materials you may expect are common design choices, but so are less obvious ones such as velcro, bio-plastic, paper, corn cobs, and other recycled or found objects. As Roke notes, many architects who steer away from grand buildings are more often able to integrate such unconventional material, many of them environmentally friendly, into their designs.
“Often, smaller scaled works of architecture, design, and art are occupied more intimately and so greater attention is focused on how materials are used in such spaces,” she writes in her introduction. Built near Martigues in France, for instance, is OH!SOM Architects‘ “The Vigil,” a watchtower that stands on a single steel rod supporting a timber frame; its one-legged stance minimizes disturbance to the forested site’s ecology.
The prefix “nano” implies a focus on the miniature, but Roke’s approach is actually much broader than her title may suggest. Nanotecture is divided into five chapters: Micro, Mini, Midi, Macro, and Maxi, with the “smallness” of the space defined by the size of the building in relation to its residents or visitors. Among the biggest, physically, are a number of large-scale art projects and installations designed for occasions such as design weeks or biennials, including Rem Koolhaas’s 2006 Serpentine Pavilion and Rob Sweere’s inflated “Silent City” at 2014’s Art Rotterdam. But on the opposite end of the spectrum are extremely tight spaces, from the “Bicycle Sauna” designed by H3T Architects — which squeezes six relaxation-seekers into a transportable, heated pod — or “Birdhouse Rooftile” by Klaas Kuiken, which adapts a single terra-cotta roof tile into a conspicuous avian refuge.
Naturally, there’s a novelty attached to the constricted nature of some of these spaces, and Nanotecture features a number of pet domiciles, creative residences, and holiday homes that offer solitude and serenity for those who may afford to seek such one-of-a-kind lodging. Many of these are sited in the wilderness, integrated with nature as “adult treehouses,” or, like Bureau A‘s cabin in a field in Switzerland, hidden inside a rock; others stand as bizarre, often minimal houses that contrast starkly with their surrounding forests or seascapes.
The most compelling designs, though, are the ones that really consider the functional advantages of small spaces, such as those that are able to move to different locations and may be constructed as efficiently as possible. Taking the cake for most bizarre is Danish art collective N55‘s “Walking House,” a polygonal residence with six appendages that is also eco-friendly, boasting a composting toilet as well as a windmill and solar panels that harvest the energy to move the structure.
Other projects are driven more by necessity, namely the ones that provide shelter to those without that basic resource. “Instant Housing” by Winfried Baumann places a tight, retractable steel box equipped with emergency supplies on bicycle wheels to provide a safe home for nomads, the homeless, or victims of disasters. The Abod Shelter by BSB Design is a colorful and attractive prefab house for more than one, offering lightweight but structurally stable components to allow for easy transport and assemblage. More complex but serving a similar purpose is Carter Williamson Architects‘ GRID, which emerged in the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated Banda Aceh in 2004. Providing shelter for up to 10 people, it features rainwater tanks, a solar hot-water system, and support columns that residents may adjust to accommodate uneven terrain. The entire house is pre-fabricated and flat-packed and can be put together in just four hours. Efforts such as these emergency refuges exemplify that smallness does not equate with simplicity; rather, these structures can confront even greater design challenges than gargantuan buildings. They are also, at times, far more necessary to build.