Immersive Housing Catalog
I. An Immersive Technology
Thérèse meets me on the sidewalk at a bend in the road inside of Cité des Étoiles. She is delighted to find me after my long walk from the train station on the other side of the town of Givors, France. She leads me up a stair to the darkened concrete corridors of the labyrinthine structure. At every turn, she activates a light switch to illuminate our path for a short distance, and each time the lights flicker off behind us, controlled by a timer. Finally, we reach the apartment where I will be staying for the next few days. It is the fall of 2017. I am on a journey through Europe and Asia to visit a series of emblematic responses to one of architecture's most central preoccupations: the question of urban housing. By exploring these unique constructions, by bearing witness to how they have aged, and by documenting their idiosyncrasies and how these affect the daily lives of their inhabitants, I hope to gauge the capacity of domestic architecture to generate different forms of collectivity. Each project offers a snapshot of a particular vision of communal living, a chance to understand what sets each example apart, and to translate this analysis into experiences that can be communicated to a wider audience. I am not alone. I am accompanied on my travels by an Insta360Pro spherical camera, a relatively novel tool that I hope to use to explore a new form of representation: immersive visual environments that offer a window into my first person experiences inside housing units and the communal spaces that mediate them.
The nature of architecture is intimately related to the graphic tools employed in its representation. For generations, the field has oscillated between utilizing orthogonal, perspectival, and isometric projections of space as the basis of architectural production. The importance of these systems of representation has often been reduced to their use as calling cards, indexes of various architectural ideologies operating in response to the social, political, and economic realities of their respective eras. But they also locate the object (that is, architecture) in a specific spatial and experiential relation to its subjects. The spherical camera captures space as an equirectangular projection—known as a plate carrée—or a 360° image. It expands the lens of perception to entirely represent the way a body is enveloped by architecture. For example, reading this, you are most likely in a room. Imagine you are the center of the room. You are putting on a helmet shaped like a perfect sphere. Now, imagine that every detail of the space around you, even behind you, is projected onto the surface of the sphere. This projection reduces the spatial nuances of the room to UV coordinates—not unlike the latitudinal and longitudinal lines we use to trace the planet itself. Take off your helmet, and imagine now that you can map the spherical image onto the inside of a cylinder so it can be unrolled and then rendered onto a flat piece of paper. When flattening a spherical image, the accuracy of visual information—pixels, in this case—is retained at the equator of the two-dimensional image, but exponentially distorted towards the top and bottom of the image. What looks like a series of warped perspectival lines is, in fact, a new grid that combines six perspectives. This process allows for the reproduction of the entire room in a single drawing. Rather than a series of framed vignettes, sequential equirectangular views comprising the experience of the room become both virtually infinite and functionally indistinguishable, each flowing into the next.
I anxiously anticipated the thrill of an apartment full of triangular rooms, wondering what kind of furniture would be required. Upon entering Cité, I found the apartment well-lit, open, and airy. My eyes go straight to the acute angle at the front of the open living-kitchen, where a normally-proportioned television stand sits, behind it a smaller potted plant, and behind that an even smaller floor lamp. Now in her fifties, Thérèse has lived here since 1979, and proudly owns a few books on the project, which she lends to me. From these books, I learn that the project originated as an effort towards urban renewal. In 1974, the architect Jean Renaudie was tasked with a seeming contradiction: to unify the town while simultaneously providing unique housing for 1,300 inhabitants. Though the building sits at the edge of town, it has become a community hub, with shops, schools, theaters, and other activities and amenities on the ground level. Next to a lush hillside, the complex seems to simultaneously envelop it and be embedded within it, creeping up and around and into the slope. Against the glare of the grand ensembles of the 1960s—large blocks of modernist housing constructed outside the Boulevard Périphérique in Paris—Renaudie cultivated a practice in which the composition of geometric systems played a central role, drawing the attention of urban developers. However, what interests me is the degree to which his work focused on how humans relate to, react to, and behave within different domestic environments. Somehow this approach tempered both political and economic frictions, building a unique identity for each resident while also cultivating one for residents as a group. His work underscored the oft-maligned importance of architectural novelty to the success of collective urban environments.
I walk a winding path upwards with my camera tucked behind my back, through hallways, up elevators, then outdoor corridors, followed by what seems like a series of private gardens, until, to my surprise, I find myself at the foot of a small path that links the building to the hill, leading to a ruin. The remnants of an old castle sit atop the highest point of the natural landscape. I position the camera precariously on an old stone wall while it captures a view of the edge of the building below and its relationship with the terrain, the concrete walls blending into and eventually disappearing into the brush. In the photo, the stone ruin protrudes at a perpendicular angle to the hill, while the Cité camouflages itself, its sharp geometry appearing more like a biological event from this distance.
Later, I set up the camera to capture the afternoon interior light. Several terraces protrude from the rooms. Off the kitchen, stone pavers with moss growing between them sit in dappled light underneath a quaint set of green folding chairs. A thick blue glass ashtray is atop the deep concrete railing. Another terrace accessed from the living room is sun-drenched and clad edge-to-edge with Astroturf. It is the mirror image of the triangular living room from which it is accessed. And still another terrace, accessed from the bedroom, again covered with Astroturf, surprisingly intersects with a common circular stairwell. I look through its small, faceted glass panes onto the rendered white stairs within. Empty. Thérèse mentioned to me that her family used to maintain all three terraces, but when the work became too cumbersome, they focused their energy on the one they used the most.
Considering the large financial investment by the city in hopes of growth, Cité des Étoiles represents housing that has maintained density in Givors through its socially resilient nature. When constructed, 25% of the available units of the project were dedicated to immigrant housing. If I had to guess from my visit, when completed in 1981, this policy may have served as an early foothold for an immigrant community that today constitutes a large segment of the population of this quiet suburb. Cité des Étoiles has adapted fantastically to changing circumstances; multi-generational family units constitute much of its inhabitation today. Perhaps because of the generous unit size and the provision of ample outdoor space, families seem to stay and have room to grow. Some terraces are enclosed with wood frames or brick infill, while others are devoted to multi-line laundry drying, children’s playrooms, or storage. This is not to say that it is utopia—among the groups largely underrepresented outdoors were women, of whom I saw only a few while walking. But contrary to the reputation that mass housing carries in some societies, this expansive, uniquely-complex building is neither dangerous nor sterile, but rather quite verdant and lively.
As the sun sets, I bring my camera to the northern side of the project, up a tiny stepped pathway snaking in between the residences past the multimedia center. Through the geometric petals of the massive building, only small parts of the rest of the complex are visible at any one time, making these few units at the edge incredibly private. Here the terraces become the front entry, with small swinging gates level with the hillside. Back on the street, in front of shops under the arcaded edge, columns come down to the ground beneath the tips of a zig-zagging floor plate. Through another, wider opening in the massing, I find inner plazas, flanked by a shuttered library, shops, and offices. This space, the geometric result of being in between the two hills of Cité, flows around and underneath the arrays of angular balconies on either side. It continues back, linked by passageways that oscillate rather unpredictably in proportion, only to meet periodically in perfect concrete symmetry. Such spaces are neither public nor private. This space feels somehow intimate, akin to an extension of the domestic interior. Although it is not specifically owned by anyone, this area is clearly maintained by a dedicated few, well swept. The spilling out of life seems rare and intimate, and therefore represents a precious joining of scale and users. When people feel a sense of ownership through unspoken social contracts, shared space is truly useful; it is preserved as if it was their own living room.
The camera allows for the portrayal of how domestic spaces and social contracts extend all the way to the street, blurring the angular intermediary spaces — the courtyards, pathways, staircases, and community centers — into a readily assembled continuum. Spherical cameras have the ability to blend physical qualities in such a way as to imply a fluidity between spaces that may have been designed to contrast with one another or to register as fragmentary. In so doing, the lens synthesizes a social economy and renders optically legible the continuity between the different urban topics that Cité des Étoiles addresses. These spaces may look invitingly public from the street, but the camera seamlessly interlaces each threshold as a complex sequence of relationships that, as one arrives, evokes the feeling and intimacy of home.
II. Towards a Methodology
My understanding of the technology evolves as my travels continue. As my catalogue of images expands, I increasingly find myself thinking through the lens of the camera about how best to capture the qualities that first raised my interest in the housing projects I initially selected: the Bouça SAAL Housing Complex by Alvaro Siza (1973-1977) or the Sven Markelius Collective Apartments in Stockholm (1935), to name a couple. The early results of my research helped me to work with these images in ways I could not have anticipated. After that, I concentrated on two projects built in Spain by Ricardo Bofill: La Muralla Roja (1973) in Calpe and Walden 7 (1975) in Barcelona. Calpe is a town without much public transportation. It is a quiet vacation spot on a rocky outcropping on Spain’s Southern coast, where large housing complexes dot the landscape. Along the way, I spot some of Bofill’s other projects that represent the masterplan he started developing in 1962, collectively known as La Manzanera. The area includes a seaside pool pavilion made of stone, a bar, restaurants, sports facilities, and the housing projects known as Xanadú, the Villas at La Manzanera, and El Anfiteatro. The road takes me to the bottom of the dark red stucco building. Beyond the gate is a van with camera equipment and a tent for a crew, giving me the sense that this building is perhaps more frequently occupied by photographers than by residents. Its geometry—cubic, labyrinthine, and vibrantly colorful—offers a striking counterpoint to the surrounding rocky landscape and the ocean beyond. Different pastel tones of pink and blue saturate the countless courtyards, terraces, and other architectural elements one encounters. Walking towards my apartment, I pass across numerous thresholds and climb more than a few staircases, my pupils, and the camera lens, constantly adjusting between the shadowy alcoves and the sun-drenched courtyards.
After experiencing such vividly colorful outdoor spaces, the neutral whites and cream-colored tile floors of the interior are shocking. There is a living room one step down from the entryway, and a central picture window framing the ocean to the south. Standing in the living room, the apartment feels symmetrical, connected to the four cardinal points by balconies, color, and natural light. The east wing is the master bedroom and connects to a balcony inside a bright pale-pink courtyard. The west wing weaves the kitchen, bathroom, and second bedroom together, where a shared balcony overlooks a rusty red-walled garden. The living-room balcony is darker red, situated between two massive U-shaped columns and the little benches built into them. The bright light outside, mixed with the all-encompassing color, makes it impossible to perceive the dimly-lit interior at the same time as the exterior.
I walk out the front door toward the roofscape. At the top of the blue zig-zagging stairs, the overwhelming color of the courtyard splinters into a spectrum of other cool tones, dancing across the various surfaces and structures protruding toward the sky. One punched window perfectly frames the eastern view of Xanadú and its geometric counterpart, the famous Rock of Ifac. Walking up and down small stretches of stairs, bridges, and turning corners with the camera, the building feels like it is based on a grid that should be easily comprehended, but I cannot find a point at which to perceive the whole. The building is a woven labyrinth of structural elements that cross in and out of view, confusing the order on which its foundation is most likely based. Although the vacation season has passed, some laundry and beach towels remain visible. Tall walls around the edge of the building give room for this type of kitchen or living extension out onto the gray concrete, along with other objects like potted plants and white plastic furniture, all set against the intense hues of the painted surfaces. It is strange, how we all occupy this maze together. Bofill famously explored this weaving of collective space through axonometry in the development of his project called City in the Space (1970), which resulted in a number of housing projects, my next destination being perhaps the most famous.
Walden 7 is a massive, undulating terracotta-colored housing complex, and by far the tallest building in the suburb of Sant Just Desvern, just outside of Barcelona. Here, many of the compositional and collective strategies previously tested in La Muralla Roja are deployed. From a sunbaked plaza at the base of the building, I proceed through the complex’s eastern entrance, an inwardly terraced portal, grand in height. Because of the terracing inward, the wooden doors are mostly in shadow: an optical threshold preparing one’s eyes for the structure’s cavernous ground floor. The elevator core is close to the entrance, well-lit, painted in red. I pause momentarily for my eyes to adjust, and gradually perceive patches of light beyond the core, where faded blue tiles and leaves of plants are visible in a courtyard open to the sky. I hear the trickle of water. The atmosphere is cool and quiet. My eyes adjust further, and a ping-pong table emerges along with little glass windows and doors around the farthest edge of the dark space, revealing the unique colors coming from the back entrances of the small shops encircling the base.
To access my apartment, I cross a narrow bridge suspended over a vast open space, shaped in elevation like some sort of airy pixelated diamond. [Fig.11] On one side of the diamond void, there is an eight-story serrated opening in the building facing east, framed by a yellow-painted border. Urban windows, Bofill calls them. The bridge crosses above the waist of the diamond, and once I am standing at its center, I realize there is a mirror space behind me, facing west. In fact, upon closer inspection, I realize I am standing in one of the eight diamonds. Where these two voids meet, many bridges cross, all singular, non-branching and orthogonal, but not in a uniform rhythm: they also step in and out. These narrow platforms remind me of the work of Lina Bo Bardi, where social connections are constructed through unique explorative visibility and the maximizing of sightlines up, down, and across space. On the other side, the path I resume following cantilevers over an inward gallery below, while continuing to zigzag in plan.
The transition to the apartments is almost cinematic. Once inside the unit, the living room has white walls and white doors, and is three landings down. I imagine that each of the landings once had a dedicated function—perhaps a sofa on one, a desk on another—but now they are essentially oversized steps. Carrying my equipment, I barely fit up the winding stairs. An en-suite set of spaces forms the entirety of the second level. I put my bags down and extend the legs of the tripod, plug in my external drive, and turn on the camera. Controlling it from my phone, I begin to look around as it does. The space is generous and open, all the more so because the bathroom zone, with the exception of the toilet, is open to the rest of the space, each functional object demarcated only by shifts in elevation rather than with doors.
I realize that this unit has four balconies in total: the half-pill shaped patio outside the front door that shares space with the common path; the living room’s small door-size opening; the shadowy alcove projecting from my room above; and one entered through the master bedroom, looking out over the city. Although these balconies are small in scale, they have a big impact on the apartment. Through them, it feels like domesticity subverts a solid boundary. Life extends into space, looks into the courtyard and reaches out toward the city. All units look inward and outward. Inward, the interior diamond circulates gentle air and gives views of other balconies. The exterior is mostly flat and opaque, creating a private urban observatory. One resident describes Walden 7 as her “little city in the sky.” As in La Muralla Roja, the top and bottom are crucial landscapes in the life of the complex. Above, Walden 7 has two large elevated pools surrounded by an open observation deck. My camera documents the multiple transitions from ground to roof, articulating the different terracing programs and views in the complex. But there are things that are more difficult to portray, most importantly the sense of community that triggered the design and still permeates the atmosphere of the complex which has perhaps even been strengthened as the materials age.
Optimization is one of modernity’s chief preoccupations, especially in Western housing where design and construction are increasingly rationalized and standardized, leading to what critics of modern architecture have often decried as a stifling sameness. At Walden 7, we instead see architectural geometries left over from the staggered aggregation of units that generously introduces accidents into the sequence of life, notably large unprogrammed areas, the many bridges, and serrated circuitous paths. Walden 7 hosts spaces of encounter amply and in unforgettable fashion. Here, the modern domestic space-object appears porous, operating as a physical space of mediation between the collective, the individual, and the city (in that order). Privacy hovers between groups of people, inside and out, and level by level, and is gradually engaged through layers of materials and an exaggerated geometric performance.
III. The Potential of New Geometries
My search took me beyond the boundaries of European modernism, beyond similar operations of analysis and reproduction in Thalmatt I by Atelier 5, Kubuswoningen by Piet Blom, and buildings for short-term habitation like Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium. Since the twelfth century, communities in China’s Fujian province have erected defensive circular structures known as tulous, which were designed to protect the population and their rural economies, and have become synonymous with the collective agrarian ethos at the core of the region’s historical economy. Tulous traditionally provide a home to people with one family name, inclusive of all descendants and familial units, under a single roof. They are built to evolve, made of rammed earth or mud, wood, and bamboo. Stepping through the earthen archway of one tulou—tu meaning earth and lou meaning floors—the courtyard is surrounded by vertically-separated three-level apartments. Typically, the first level includes a small kitchen and sitting area, with bedrooms on the second level. The third level is dedicated to storing materials for repairing and rebuilding the structure.
In the famous Tianluokeng Tulou cluster, the series of buildings is bustling with people as I walk inside. Almost every apartment here has a different little shop added to the ground floor, often seeming to spill out from the kitchen. Since the buildings were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all of the existing families had the opportunity to remain here and sell wares to tourists, replacing their formerly agricultural economy with a commercial one that relies on mass-produced and handmade jewelry, key chains, statues, and bags. Other tulous in the area without the UNESCO designation have been converted into museums. Others are still used as housing, but their populations are dwindling. This sign of globalism’s creeping influence is one that I hardly expected to encounter in this remote locale.
The neighboring Qingxing Tulou is such an example. It is a single circular building whose inhabitants have attempted to carry on an old way of life, as the building slowly deteriorates with fewer people to maintain it. I set my camera at the center of the courtyard to film the morning light. In stark contrast to Tianluokeng, the courtyard is sparsely populated. An old woman steps out of her apartment, where she still cares for a disabled son. Two older men are walking to join him to sit in the sun. They wear worn fabric caps, and acknowledge me with small smiles as they shuffle around the paved perimeter. Loose stone pavers create a slight mound at the center, where there is a well. Grass grows up through the pavers and is picked away by the freely-roaming chickens. Along the perimeter, three kitchen sinks connect the paved edge to the grassy courtyard. I realize that not so long ago, kitchens must have been shared among multiple apartments. Preparation of meals for the fifteen households would have been a shared task entrusted to just a few of the inhabitants, and performed outdoors under the collective, circular opening. In one corner, a modest shrine in vivid red stands out against the raw, aging wooden beams.
Although originally a rural typology, the novel domestic spaces found at Qingxing, along with its former density and shared forms of production, hint at new ideas of urban shared ownership and a dispersal of domestic actions amongst a group. The logic of organizing people as nuclear families in completely self-contained “units” is an approach that almost invariably deprives living environments of notable spatial qualities in the seemingly calcified structure of western housing, and yet here in Fujian there is a difference between ownership and experience. A clear vertical boundary defines a sense of ownership, yet people do not generally circulate solely within those boundaries. The building is experienced horizontally, where a ring of bedrooms on the second floor connect to open galleries that link horizontally to only a few shared stairs that lead to the ground floor ring of living space. There is also potential for intermittent appropriation of common programs in this typology. The ground floor evolves as the collective evolves, as seen in Tianluokeng, responding to an amplified exposure. I cannot help but think that if our ability to form nuanced, lasting relationships often hinges on our ability to interact in a variety of social contexts, then the likelihood of a vibrant sense of connectivity must become far more likely when our everyday movements take us across a more diverse array of collective environments. Contemporary culture finds us increasingly isolated from one another, moving from a domestic sphere which has become all the more hermetic in light of our reliance on online interaction, and the municipal street, where we are all too frequently alone, together. This moment demands the possibility and the cultivation of degrees of interaction between the bedroom and the street.
Having immersed myself in the spaces, textures, and challenges that occur within and around various collective forms of housing, I feel compelled to challenge assumptions about the relation between the family unit and prevailing notions of privacy. My aim in using the technique of equirectangular projection —documenting domesticity in a way that I have increasingly come to think of as from the inside out— has been twofold. On one hand, I hope to render my own explorations as immersive experiences that can be replicated for a wider audience. Housing remains one of the crucial challenges facing the architectural profession today, and I believe offering a vivid glimpse of how things could be might have the effect of pushing the question of housing into a wider public conversation. This technology offers an opportunity to be transported, so to speak, into these spaces, an experience that I believe may loosen our continued grip on antiquated ideas about what should be privatized and what could be shared. The immersive housing catalog is not a technological discovery in itself, but rather a thesis on the mobile power of this representational technique: to quickly generate empathy through the recognition of commonalities, spurred by the exploration of a displaced moment in space, time, and architecture.
On the other hand, a more distant, and perhaps more ambitious aim of this survey is to examine the possibility that this form of projection might also offer a new means to conceive of space. Because we can only actively see so much at once, our ability to maneuver through the world necessitates that our eyes work in tandem with memory. Almost instinctively, we must assume a certain truth about the spaces that are just out of view, or hidden behind us. Our minds, then, are continuously stitching together multiple viewpoints, in real time, in order to create a comprehensive image of the present. Because equirectangular projection so directly addresses this constant synthesis of time and space—since it so lucidly illustrates the ways in which space envelops a person, describing in holistic detail the processes and interconnections on the ground—it may hint at the possibility of finding alternative ways of conceiving of, and in turn, inhabiting, architecture. The unseen ways in which architectural spaces are utilized every day, how they are cared for and repurposed across the span of years, and the social, economic, and political interactions that play out between inhabitants are as consequential, after all, as the more easily drawn formal attributes of these spaces. But, because these less tangible aspects are more difficult to predict and give dimension to, architects are less equipped to engage with these unseen outcomes. But what if the ways in which spaces evolve, the ways in which they are deprogrammed and reprogrammed by users, could be more clearly anticipated? Wouldn’t the recognition of such outcomes necessarily become the critical aspect of a dialogue informing the architect’s formal, geometric, and organizational impulses? What if this dialogue could take place from the outset of the design process, through the very act of drawing?
Designing architecture has furthered the exploration of many types of architectural projection, from parallel projection—a so-called “god’s eye view”—to perspective, with the intention of simulating human vision. Because equirectangular projection unrolls spaces into two-dimensional images with measurable coordinates, regardless of their complexity, it offers both the recognizably experiential qualities of perspective and the power of axonometry to convey far more information than the human eye could ever intuit. Like axonometry, it accomplishes this feat in a way that is mathematically measurable, and therefore could (in time) become as intuitively deployed as any other form of projection that we now take for granted. It could become second nature, a tool that any student of architecture could use to work through an idea in a sketchbook. The more far-reaching implication of this technology, therefore, is the possibility that it may offer new ways for architects to manage, design, and imagine spaces: spaces that more convincingly integrate the experiences of those who will later inhabit them, and perhaps more decisively acknowledge how our interactions are influenced by our environments. In time, the use of equirectangular projection may produce geometries we can’t yet envision. But for now—for me at least—the urgency of reframing the conversation around housing makes it an ideal laboratory for asking such questions.