Utopian visions: SO-IL’s MINI Living at Salone del Mobile

In 2011, the Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto built a house in central Tokyo designed to break with the traditional codes of living. His House NA challenges ideas of comfort and of privacy – the lightweight living hubs stack one on top of another to be inhabited privately or collectively, and are exposed to the busy surrounding city.

House NA is meant to be provocative, a visual argument for exploring new forms of architecture that respond to a new way of urban living. MINI Living – Breathe reminds me of Fujimoto’s project for it is also exploring living away from the traditional single-family house unit for an imaginative and unexpected dialogue.

Exhibited as part of Milan’s coveted Salone del Mobile and Fuorisalone, Breathe is the third architectural installation in the MINI Living ideas-sharing initiative launched last year. Along with its parent company BMW Group, MINI has been active in investigating the role of the car going forward – questioning its position as a vehicle, looking at how it can respond to our changing lives, going as far as to question private ownership.

MINI Living is taking these ideas further by working with architects to study new utopian solutions. The first of the proposals Do Disturb, shown here in Milan last year, touched on the idea of shared and collaborative living spaces in urban areas. Then Asif Khan’s Forests at the London Design Festival in September offered additional city hubs with communal access. Breathe wants the physical building to connect its inhabitants to their natural surroundings and the environment. And it feels like the most complete study so far.

Here MINI worked closely with New York architecture practice SO-IL to imagine a structure that amplifies the awareness of our physical surroundings and the environment, explains its principal Ilias Papageorgiou as we wonder around the mesh structure that seems to organically work its way through the busy buildings of via Tortona extending high up into the sky.

The mesh skin is semi-transparent, flexible, and self-cleaning; it also filters the air and floods the building with natural light. The inhabitants of Breathe are at once connected to natural resources – to sunlight through the mesh, to water that gets collected on the roof, and to air that is purified by the façade. The building structure is prefabricated and, following the Milan debut, will be dismantled and re-imagined in another city.

Breathe is concerned with the building giving back to life, working on the idea of a home as an active ecosystem that makes a positive contribution to its environment. Papageorgiou says: ‘Our lives are changing; our living is changing. Traditional boundaries between living and work are becoming more blurred and our lives are much more mobile and precarious. So, maybe we don’t need more space but different types of spaces – more shared spaces.’

Breathe dismisses the traditional organisation of the residential house for a vertical stack. The communal lounge and dining areas are positioned on the ground level, a level up houses the sleeping and bathing area replete with a charming open-air shower surrounded by wild plant life, whilst at the top we are greeted by an exotic garden with extensive views over Milan and a chance to peak through some of the roof terrace apartments.

This is a building with no formal narrative as such. Through the manipulation of air, light and water a series of atmospheres, spaces and experiences form organically to be treated for collective experiences or intimate and private activities.

‘We see this as an opportunity to reflect on such pressing issues as the sustainable future of our cities and this idea of conscious living,’ says Papageorgiou. He notes that his practice takes a more holistic approach with all its projects, adding, ‘we feel there are no quick fixes or magic solutions. For us it is more about changing attitudes and the process.’

Breathe feels alive as it changes its mood with every movement of light, constantly evolving, almost teasing with its play on privacy, another reminder of the Japanese house and the use of semi-transparent dividing walls that allow a little exposure but retain a sense of delicate, subtle privacy.

Papageorgiou seems delighted by the comparison. ‘The core of our work involves exploring different relationships between space, the ideas of open and closed, through layering of fabrics, light and shadow to create various experiences from intimate to private to collective.’

Breathe is light, informal and transient. Oke Hauser, architect and creative lead on the MINI Living project, tells me the idea is to break away from the rigidity of architecture that is perhaps too logical, static and ‘glued together,’ he offers. ‘We hope to trigger ideas on what architecture can become, look at new ways of building and how a house can perform in this way – always with a focus on the people who live inside the building. Architecture can be stuck on old ideas and we think we need to come up with new creative solutions.’

Nargess Banks

Read our previous reports from Milan design week

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