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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Mobility examined at Milan Design Week

Up until a few years ago the automotive world came to Salone del Mobile Milano as spectators. The week is dedicated to product and industrial design; the venue acts as a platform for discourse on design and speculative debate. It isn’t meant to be a stage for showcasing new cars.

With more and more car companies participating now, what is the right way, the correct etiquette, when it comes to exhibiting in Milan? Unveiling a car is definitely not the right approach, and designing objects that directly reference the cars also lacks imagination.

Instead, the concentration of designers, architects, artists and critics gathered here from all around the world provides the perfect space for a dialogue on urgent matters namely the state of mobility, and the role of the automobile for future generations.

This year BMW, MINI, Lexus, Mazda, Hyundai and Ford exhibited in Milan, and how they chose to be seen by the wider creative world speaks volumes.

Ford played it safe, showing a range of products based on its latest GT supercar including a boat, guitar and table football, whilst Mazda took a similar assignment to a higher level examining its underlying design philosophy through non-car objects.

BMW and MINI initiated dialogues on the future of mobility, albeit with varying results. Hyundai looked at how a financial company can connect with the art world by turning spending into a sensory experience, and Lexus opted for a fully conceptual study that took on the universe and the meaning of life.

We start our journey at Mazda. The Hiroshima marque operates under the guidance of Kodo, a design philosophy rooted in old Japan, one that expresses the values of intricate craftsmanship – playing with contrasts and what director of design Ikuo Maeda refers to as Rin (self-restrained dignity) and En (alluring sensuality). Here the marque has worked with a variety of artisans to interpret Kodo through non-car objects (see images above).

Skilled Japanese artisans contribute crafted objects using ancient methods. It is fascinating watching these two objects come to life – the sheer amount of work, the patience and the passion that almost injects life force into these static objects. The lacquerware vase appears to have trickling tears. It is a pure work of art. ‘There is something very spiritual in the way they work,’ admits the design director.

The sofa, coffee table and bicycle are concerned with creative engineering and a more European approach to problem solving. The sofa is elegant and long – so long that it took the European team lead by Kevin Rice some time to find ‘a cow big enough to provide a single sheet of leather’ he jokes. The foam needed to be milled in a way that even the Italian furniture makers responsible found challenging. Underneath, the structure is made of red wood and the natural untreated red from the wood reveals itself on occasion, subtly without show.

These one-off objects are about creative engineering – they celebrate the art of creation, the skill, the journey, the people, the process – so rooted in old Japan.

Next we visit MINI who commissioned Spanish artist and designer Jaime Hayon to examine mobility in Urban Perspectives through the Citysurfer, the company’s foldable electric kick scooter concept (see images above).

Hayon’s Citysurfers are embellished with colour and texture. He explains that coming from the world of art allowed him the mental freedom to explore mobility, in what he says is his accent. He wanted to ‘create something more inspirational in terms of graphics and colour; give the object a more fantastical look’.

And they certainly look so, especially in Hayon’s ‘urban jungle’ – a cityscape of bold colours and shapes, of streets made of thick slabs of white marble, dots to direct the flow of traffic, giant copper street lamps, oversized helmets.

BMW has also used the occasion of Milan to address driving patterns in the future, albeit in a more quite manner. Here Zurich-based designer Alfredo Häberli re-evaluates future mobility in Spheres Precision & Poetry in Motion at a highly conceptual level (see images above).

Häberli believes ‘silence, space and time’ are what will constitute luxury in the future – that luxury is beyond the material dimension. His journey begins with childhood memories, sketches and formal studies. It ends with a large-scale model, a wonderfully dinosaurian 10-meter teak sculpture that resembles the skeleton of an old ship discovered at the very bottom of the ocean.

This isn’t about finding an appropriate form – instead the designer has created an associative world that lends new meaning to the luxury of mobility.

Häberli has looked at architecture, urban planning – roads expand into the skies, they wiggle around one another with no clear direction, the journey itself becoming the focus. Cities are built on sea, in the skies – it is a world of movies such as Gattaca and Fifth Element.

Karim Habib, head of BMW design, explains the project. ‘For Alfredo mobility in the future is beyond cars, beyond aeroplanes. He has visions of how cities can be. It is more about flying, coasting, gliding,’ he says as he directs me to a white abstract vessel that is a boat, a glider, a spaceship rolled in one.

The wall displays sketches and drawings, a moodboard of Häberli’s visions for the cities of the future. Habib says, ‘the idea of flying cars has been present for so long, there is something beautiful and positive about it.’

He notes such projects will impact on BMW on an abstract level. ‘It feeds into the act of automated driving. You see for a brand that has been associated with driving, what are the challenges and equally opportunities?’

Here roads are three-dimensional, and the vessels are not about dynamic driving but enjoying the experience from A to B, and the silence makes driving more like gliding – the experience is like a sailboat.

Autonomous cars can free the driver to take to the wheel only when they want– when it is a pleasurable experience. ‘Our job as designers is to create an environment for when you’re not driving,’ says Habib before adding with a genuine smile, ‘I’m super happy to be working in a time when we can do all this.’

The Milan automotive journey ends at Lexus where we embark on an exciting sensory experience that involves design and food. The theme in A Journey of Senses is the cycle of life – rain drops, nature, and earth – delicately directed by designer Philippe Nigro‘s latticework cocoons and Japanese chef Hajime Yoneda’s experimental tasters (see images above).

The theme here is the Lexus ‘inside-out’ design philosophy whereby driver experience is placed at the centre, and we are very much lead by chef Yoneda’s vision that challenges us to enjoy rain, love nature and be grounded by returning to the beginning of life.

We consume ‘raindrops’ made out of sparkling candy, that tickle and crackle releasing a refreshing sensation as we watch the illusion of falling rain in a darkened room. We experience nature inside out, as we stumble into a space much like the inside of a giant tree trunk, pop a ball of cacao butter wrapping, the aroma of fresh, verdant greenery washing over our senses.

Our journey concludes in the beginning of life where we are enjoy a bowl of delicious ‘earth soup’ composed of the essence of vegetables, meat and fish whilst taking in the universe with its twinkling stars in the peace of darkness.

Nigro calls it a ‘playground for adults’ where contrasting material and textures, metallic mesh, soft transparent fabrics, blond untreated wood – ‘surprise the visitor’. Crucially, he notes, his modular structure will be dismantled at the end of the week and used for other purposes.

Yoneda says he has created a space that will calm the nerves, a concept that is fundamental to the car of the future. ‘Joy has to be in everything we design and experience’ and this, he says, ‘is to return to the beginning to earth.’

There is a growing concern that Milan is turning into a marketing operation with too many straightforward product launches. The main fairground at Rho certainly feels so. With designers Jasper Morrison nicknaming it ‘Salone del Marketing’, and Hella Jongerius launching her ‘Beyond the New’ manifesto attacking it for being a ‘cornucopia of pointless products and commercial hype’, it seems that all within the design community at large need to carefully examine their exhibits at Milan.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read our report in Wallpaper* Modern mobility, Salone drives a new definition of car creativity.

Read our previous Milano Salone del Mobile reports here.

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