I once survived for 18 months in a 107-square-foot garret in St. Germain des Prés. My Parisian memories are not of a claustrophobic room, but rather of a private refuge made livable by a city with great street life and public design. From cafés to cathedrals, parks to piscines municipales, the spaces outside my room were as much a part of my life as the space within.
Now, as Canadian cities are undergoing their own downsizing of residential space – think "micro lofts" of 226 square feet – forward-thinking designers are bringing the inside out in surprising new ways.
As the public realm becomes increasingly important for those of us living in tiny condos, there is an intriguing extension of the residential aesthetic at play. And the new domestic reality is not unlike the 18th century Parisian experience I lived in my chambre de bonne ("maid's room"), now rebranded by French real-estate agents as in-demand studettes. Vancouver's Jon Stovell, whose Reliance Properties has spearheaded small-is-beautiful developments such as the historic Burns Block apartments (which range from 226 to 291 square feet) notes that "the young people who live in the units use the city as their dining and living areas."
As residential architecture takes on more commercial aspects – like curtain glazing and industrial strength doors – so does public architecture tap into a residential vibe.
Consider Bing Thom's 2011 Surrey library. A fast-growing city of half a million, Surrey is fighting to break out of its low-density suburban norm via a slew of public projects complemented by high-density residential developments. While Thom has called the library a new kind of "cathedral," on a less esoteric level, it's also the new living room. Architecturally, it is all about interior spaces, and with furniture/art installations by artist Liz Magor, patrons can literally lounge away an afternoon, reading books and gazing out the library's huge windows to the new civic plaza under construction. While the library offers the soaring ceilings and open spaces that so many condo dwellers lack, it also offers some of the comforts of home. In addition to the Magor installations, there is a fireplace, bean bag chaise lounges, bouncy mesh chairs and whimsically designed ottomans, as well as a café and free computer terminals.
Blurring the line between indoor and outdoor, the 2012 project Pop Rocks (a collaboration between AFJD Studio and Matthew Soules Architecture) transformed an entire block of Vancouver's Robson Street into a kind of urban living room, with bean-bag-style seats and patio umbrellas. With a mandate from the city to create a social space, the designers employed a local sail maker to create 15 oblong-shaped lounging mounds made of Teflon-coated fibreglass and filled with surprisingly comfortable recycled polystyrene. The results were transformative.
I recall an evening lounging there with a friend, after visiting the adjacent Vancouver Art Gallery, with a Persian kebab sandwich from a food truck in one hand. Next to us a newly arrived family from Cairo enjoyed the experience as their young children climbed on the installations, happy for a place to play. For a fleeting moment, I felt like I was living the urban ideal.
Pop Rocks is far from an isolated experiment. Rotterdam-based Eddy Kaijser's "urban living room" is a pop-up installation designed for urban spaces, parks and exhibition sites. Comprised of sculptural furniture pieces painted blue, it lends an intimate and hospitable scale to the public realm. A collaboration with Powerboat theatre collective, who organize "happenings" at the pop-up sites, this "flexible intervention" is designed to encourage more intimate socializing in public.
"This trend is partly a generational thing," says 38-year-old Matthew Blackett, editor/publisher of Spacing, a magazine about Canadian urbanism. "Kids who grew up in the seventies and eighties are now in a position to influence the public realm." Hence the nostalgic references to the likes of beanbag chairs. But also, due to affordability issues that do not allow them the luxury of large living spaces, there is a greater need for intelligently designed public space.
Blackett also notes a trend toward public art and installations that are more interactive. He relates that the installation of 41 pianos around Toronto last summer by Pan Am Games organizers led to groups of strangers gathered into spontaneous musical communities – "in a city known for its standoffishness" – and often fed back into the digital culture via YouTube. He remembers being pleasantly surprised when, "walking home from work through Trinity Bellwoods Park, I stumbled upon a crowd of 10 people standing around the piano belting out Billy Joel's Piano Man – just for the fun of it."
Meanwhile in Winnipeg, surely one of the coldest places in Canada to experience public space, an annual competition asks architects to create their own interpretations of the "warming hut." Located at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, where every winter several kilometres of skating trails are groomed, the huts are simply defined as "a space to find refuge and shelter while you're skating."
Winning entries this year include the Hygge House – designed as a kind of theatrical set piece. The brainchild of Winnipeg-based Plain Projects, Urbanink and Pike Projects, it literally breaks down the fourth wall. With one side open toward the river, skaters can see people inside enjoying the wood stove, warm blankets and inviting furniture.
While Hygge is all about opening up to the public realm, Woolhaus – made entirely of felt – explores the interior experience of shelter. So far kids have played hide and seek, disappearing into the fabric folds; a few passers-by have even settled in for afternoon naps in the felt structure.
While all these designs encourage greater interaction in the public realm, the human element remains key.
As its creators put it, "Hygge House is only truly achieved when people come together." Only then does it "becomes a place for warmth and togetherness."