Compact living units have become the norm in most big cities across the globe. High density and the value of land in urban areas has made it mandatory for most developments to take full advantage of the buildable area. The result is homes that are increasingly smaller. Hong Kong is probably the most extreme case – with roughly three-quarters of the land preserved, the portion left for housing accommodates more than 7 million people in one of the densest urban environments on Earth.
We recently had the opportunity to talk with architect Gary Chang, founder of the Hong Kong-based Edge Design Institute, about his vision of compact living, small-scale architecture, flexibility, and the future of our cities.
ArchDaily (Romullo Baratto): You and your practice, Edge Design Institute, have a long history of exploring small scale projects. Can you tell us more about this interest?
Gary Chang: As a native of the city of Hong Kong, I have always been fascinated by hyper-dense and hyper-intense cities. In Hong Kong, we reflect on the hyper-efficiency and the diversity of urban living despite its intrinsic challenges. I have been exploring this subject since opening the Edge Design Institute more than 26 years ago, and we are in search of new urban dynamics: that of Change, Choice, Co-existence and Connectivity.
One milestone project we did in the beginning of the new millennium is the Suitcase House project in the Commune by the Badaling Great Wall in a suburb of Beijing. We came up with a totally different system of transformation by creating 50-floor panels that could open and close, with resulting endless permutations that one could have in this 250 sqm house.
On the other hand, we also tested these ideas in other categories of design, most relevantly in the Kung-Fu Teaset, as part of the Coffee and Tea Towers Metaproject by Alessi, in 2003. It was tested as a limited edition project for auction also in collaboration with Alessi, called “Treasure Box for Urban Nomads”, where we squeezed five functions into an A5 compact box! Over time, we naturally developed our research and focus on compact living, which all began with non-stop research and implementation of my own home which I have been residing in since the ’70s.
AD: The design of your own house, recently featured on Apple Tv’s Home, continues to be a milestone in terms of a small scale habitat. What led you to design it as a “domestic transformer”?
GC: I have been living in this compact apartment for more than 40 years, and I have gradually developed a ritual in transforming my own home once every several years as continuous research into a better living, despite being relatively a small apartment of roughly 4 by 8 meters.
Over the years, I have been more focused into the notion of time rather than the physical space itself, and in this latest model M-2007 (calling it the Domestic Transformer, the year the first episode of the movie of Transformer was launched), I simply explore a time-based system of living in this apartment; instead of me moving from one room to another in the traditional sense, the apartment transforms for me for different functions. I basically utilize the entire home all the time, a great departure from the conventional definition of a home such as the system in Japan in nLDK (n denotes the number of bedrooms, L for Living Room, D for Dining Room and K for Kitchen).
AD: This specific project required a lot of research in terms of materials and mechanical apparatuses. How was the process of researching? Where did you find inspiration and information for it?
GC: Indeed I spent 6 months (a long process by Hong Kong standards) researching and developing the concept of the Domestic Transformer and took another 6 months to construct it with the contractor. Actually, one could say, I spent even much more time in knowing about the space (since living there since the 1970s) and about myself and what I need, they are more or less the point of departure of the inspiration and methodology of the research.
My brief is pretty simple to begin with, when I need something, they appear; when I don’t, they disappear. With each domestic function defined mainly by its vertical enclosure (i.e. a wall which is conventionally fixed), I came up with a system of moving walls that enabled me to transform the space easily, playing hide-and-seek with the various programs. I do not believe a home is defined by the various rooms one has, it is more about the various activities you perform, from brushing your teeth to watching a movie, from taking a bath to reading near the window.
Past memories influenced me a lot and gives me lots of inspiration, like remembering how in the golden days most people didn’t turn on the light during daytime by staying close to the window under the natural light, and as a result, family members were closer to each other there.
AD: Flexibility seems to be a fundamental aspect of your projects, almost like small scale could only be approachable with highly flexible designs. Could you talk about the relationship between them?
GC: Flexibility definitely can work miracles in a tight space, enabling one to do more things, and in more spacious areas by creating flexible systems of elements defining a compact space. On the other hand, I observe that flexibility applies not just in a compact home; we have developed this notion of flexible use of space in much larger projects, even for residences of 4000sqm.
We found out that the flexible use of space is getting more common and even “natural”, a device perfected to cope with uncertainty and the unforeseen future so dominating these days. Perhaps being flexible is our “New Way of Life”. One good example for flexibility of a larger home is a 100sqm bachelor apartment we completed here in Hong Kong. It includes a series of sliding walls that transform the home into various scenarios, and in another project we did in Guangzhou, a city in Southern China within one hour by high-speed train from Hong Kong, we created a rotating wall that enables various combinations for the living room, dining room and study room.
AD: Coming from the highly-dense urban context of Hong Kong, do you think your interest and awareness of the importance of dealing with compact spaces is somewhat natural for you?
GC: Totally! We are not just living in a hyper-dense environment, but also a hyper-intense situation where activities collide with one another, where we are able to do many things each day and that our lives are conditioned not just by the physical dimensions, but even more importantly, by the notion of time. Strangely enough, people in Hong Kong have gradually become pretty impatient, especially about time; we seldom go to places more than 30 minutes away, and we would like to do several things at once. We must, however, stress that it works only in a hyper-efficient city with transportation infrastructures.
Talking about being compact on the other hand, my 32sqm home is getting “too big” for local people. Hong Kong has gradually developing into what we call a “Nano-home” comprising a usable area not more than 18sqm! In the recent past, we have developed one such Nano-apartment in Hong Kong as commissioned by one of the largest developers to do a research into the best proportions of the apartment with the required ultra-compact area of approx 16sqm with “all-you-need” in a home, even including a (compact) wine-cellar.
AD: The global pandemic made some people rethink their lives in the city and even reconsider the possibility of living in the countryside. As we enter the third decade of the millennium, do you believe compact, small living spaces and dense cities will play the same role in our future?
GC: I believe the vast majority of the population will still be living in urban cities, a move that would be quite impossible to reverse, the pandemic will only slow down the process a bit, I believe. Back in Hong Kong, from the SARS in 2003 to the present Covid-19, there is a growing interest of citizens to explore the countryside of the city. Luckily, over 70 percent of the territory in Hong Kong is designated as country parks, and it seems accidentally, Hong Kong has maintained quite a sustainable balance between hyper-urbanized areas while keeping the majority of the city in its natural condition with an abundance of greens and large stretches of water. Here we are never too far from nature despite being super dense.
AD: What are some upcoming projects you and the Edge Design Institute are working on?
GC: Our next mission is to “export” our ideas in compact space design and our new dynamics to other places; we observe that we share the common phenomenon that as long as you are living in cities, your home will become smaller, and you will need Change, Choice, Co-existence and Connectivity as your new “survival kit”.
We have already worked on a project in Stockholm called Tellus Tower where the majority of the 78-story residential tower is compact units, exactly the same in area and configuration of my home (and perhaps why we were invited to work on the project), and most recently, on a housing project in Bangalore for medium-income families. Way back in 2006, we designed a weekend house in the suburb of Moscow – we called it The Domestic Express, by creating a series of furniture that could move inside and outside the house by a rather complicated system of railway-like tracks. Unfortunately, the house was never built, though the client liked the design, and it has informed our thinking on compact and flexible living.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Human Scale. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics here. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.