The balance between size, scale, and proportion are typical parameters used to differentiate between good and undesirable qualities in architectural design. Particularly in residential and public space design, scale plays an important role in creating a range of experiences in architecture –large spaces can bring feelings of both freedom and awe but can also make its users feel distanced and isolated. While small spaces might induce feelings of sadness and oppression, at the right amounts they can also create womb-like qualities that can make people feel safe and protected.
The history and evolution of human habitations is a story of human ingenuity and their instinct to gravitate towards safety and survival. From cave homes and lean-to dwellings, people have always carved out spaces that help them feel safe and protected from the natural elements. Social creatures as they are, people then formed communities and urban spaces to enhance their chances of survival. This diverse mix of communities and cultures is what continues to shape the modern cities of today. Nowadays, as cities are faced with dwindling resources and a ballooning population, solutions such as micro-architecture and high-rise dwellings seem to be appropriate solutions to help accommodate their growing needs.
Small in scale, big in impact
Defining scale in architecture equates to how much volume an object occupies relative to human proportions and aesthetics. Thus, microarchitecture can also be a definition given to small architectural components -door knobs, hinges, and furniture, details that are often overlooked but are as important as the overall product nonetheless. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man is one of the earliest examples of works that paid attention to the proportions of the human body relative to space and working dimensions. It is a crucial mathematical idea that has greatly influenced how architects approach to design today.
His concept of human proportions carried a lasting impact that would be later translated into the works of Le Corbusier as seen in his formulation of the Modulor. The Modulor is a primary module that follows his philosophy of having a “home as a machine for living”, where materials are prefabricated to specific dimensions to create spaces that can help make human activities efficient. Before Le Corbusier, the prefabricated trend started with the realization of The Crystal Palace (1851) -a post-industrialization era glass and iron structure delivered on-site and assembled in six months. With today’s growing interest in microarchitecture, concepts of challenging efficiency, human comfort, and the way how people can live are crucial in addressing the issues that the world faces today.
Preludes to micro architecture
While pre-fabrication has a big impact on micro-architecture, it was not until the post-world war era that its potential was fully realized. Focused on the culture of non-violence and a natural way of living, the hippie era is largely represented by “flower power”, and “make peace not war” slogans and its ubiquitous van-life culture. A life on the road, with utilities and basic amenities in tow, can be considered a precursor to portable architecture and a precursor to micro-living. Coinciding with the international hippie movement of the 1950s and 1970s, the Metabolist movement in Japan also gave birth to the manifesto of organic and constantly growing cities.
Led by Kisho Kurokawa, the Metabolist movement have clear visions of reinventing a city that is portable and detachable, bearing organic qualities often found in nature. From his work in the now demolished Nagakin Capsule Tower in Tokyo to his invention of double-stacked capsule hotels in Osaka, Kurokawa challenged the conceived notions on the limits of human habitations giving opportunities to concepts of microarchitecture, pre-fabricated materials, and design for disassembly to flourish. Used to be only prevalent in Japan, pod hotels and capsule hotels are now becoming acceptable options for travelers around the world due to their convenience and affordability.
Modern caves and popular culture
With a straightforward and no-frills approach in design and planning, both capsule hotels and microarchitecture aspire to balance efficiency and comfort -a good starting point in green design and architecture. Although a smaller footprint does not necessarily equate to a sustainable project, every small change like a reduction in material wastage and utilization of natural resources can help contribute to achieving a circular and sustainable design in the future. Efficiently planned spaces would also mean that resources such as water, heating, and environmental degradation are controlled. Hence, the ultimate goal of microarchitecture is to pay attention to things that matter and create a lasting environmental impact without sacrificing modern conveniences. Compared to early human dwellings which are often utilitarian and protective, the homes of today are also focused on achieving efficiency, sustainability, and a circular economy. The rising need to help and curb the effects of climate change has seen the need for microarchitecture. Portable architecture and design for disassembly are also gaining interest as the world shifts to more environmentally conscious design decisions.
From the Jetsons to Star Trek, people have always been fascinated with the prospect of a convenient and high-tech future. Literature and films have always shown the future of humanity as both a progressive society and sometimes a dystopic one in hopes of capturing what the future will be like. Space cabins, consoles, and artificial intelligence might be something out of a Westworld or Black Mirror episode but at the speed of the growing human population and environmental degradation, visions of dystopic literature and films are becoming closer to reality. Despite human aspirations of developing a high-tech and complex future, the answer to global problems might be simpler. Going back to basics and having few yet efficient things might be the key to unlocking a self-sufficient future. Just like how caves and lean-to dwellings have always been used back then, microarchitecture has always been about living with less only now with the use of durable materials and the inclusion of modern amenities.