Opinion - Small Buildings
‘Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful’, economist Ernst Schumacher wrote in 1973. It took me years to realise that I’m attracted to working at a small scale. My favourite buildings – Corb’s Ronchamp, Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion, Koenig’s Stahl house, and many modest medieval houses – are all small. When you design at a small scale you deal with intimate human experiences. The human
senses have a certain range, and the smaller the space the more immediate their response.
‘Small’ allows you to have a very direct relationship with the end user. Having a small group of focused collaborators allows you to bring a creative coherence to projects. Building small allows you to turn round projects quickly and develop ideas through a rapid succession of completed schemes. I
think that you have to immerse yourself in the building process before you can really develop as an architect. The expectation that young architects should come out of the education system with a fully formed architectural approach is nonsense to me.
I’ve always been fascinated by how some architects are much better at certain scales of work. I think Koolhaas is great at ‘big’, but much worse at ‘small’. Botta was great at small, but I’m not convinced of his larger work. Very few architects can work well at all scales, which is possibly the defining quality of the real ‘masters’. Some architects who enjoy the process of making things can become overly obsessed with the minutiae of detail, sometimes to the detriment of the quality of the overall space. Finding the right balance to get the architectural form, space and detail appropriate to the scale is essential.
The ultimate small project is the home. The design of our homes is the most important contribution architects can make to our wellbeing as individuals and as a society. A new house should enrich the life of its inhabitant and encourage his or her individuality. The best cities tend to be those made up
of conglomerations of many small projects set within only a loose organisational framework. Schumacher also said that for a truly sustainable economy, it is essential that we upgrade our existing housing stock. This is a big problem that I believe can only be solved by many small projects. The vast amount of our work is about reworking old buildings to give them new life, and it is often the small and simple moves that have the greatest effect.
The design of individual houses has, for a long time, been an rich source of innovation. Essential to this is the private client with the desire to commission interesting work. We have recently been amending our agreements with clients to create a more deliberate ‘budget for experiment’.
Maybe building small is just a natural part of most young practices’ development; starting small partly through necessity. But our practice has turned away larger work that we didn’t feel fit with our working methods. However, I’m sure the pressure to work on ever bigger projects will challenge our enjoyment of the small.