In booming international cities, homes amid the inspiring buzz of urban life are in hot demand. As a result, global urbanization has led to soaring house prices – a consequence of the lack of innovative architectural solutions within the residential market. It’s into this discussion that MINI dropped a talking point to explore new ways of living in dense urban hotspots.

The resulting project – MINI Living, an installation on show at Milan Design Week – centred on a 30-sq-m conceptual apartment, a crucial cog in a micro-community of similar spaces. While the surrounding apartments were merely suggested in Milan, the idea was clear: rooms are able to function both individually and cooperatively, allowing inhabitants to retreat at certain times and, at others, to open their personal worlds to their neighbours. ‘We’re looking to be part of a debate about future forms of shared living,’ says architect and MINI Living project leader Oke Hauser. ‘In the city, space is increasingly scarce and finite, so we need to come up with new architectural solutions – concepts based on sharing and time-based access to space. We see a lot of potential in this situation for making urban environments more communal and reciprocal. MINI’s installation combines both sides of the equation within a compact footprint. It’s both a haven of privacy and an interface to the wider community.’

By making the boundaries between apartments flexible, MINI hopes to spark conversation about private versus communal space. But the installation’s motto – ‘do disturb’ – highlighted the brand’s position on the matter. ‘The concept has been designed specifically to encourage interaction and to provide an alternative to urban anonymity. We believe that when you share, you simply get more: more space, more amenities and, most importantly, more opportunities to create memories together. For us, these are the staples of a happy life,’ says Hauser.

MINI enlisted the architectural know-how of Japanese studio On Design and the engineering expertise of Arup for the project. While the design fair was still in full swing, Hauser – together with On Design’s Osamu Nishida and Arup’s Jan Wurm – explained MINI’s approach to the communal-living concept.

What’s the connection for MINI between mobility and living?
OKE HAUSER: MINI is an urban brand. It was born in the city, and it’s alive there today. We look at the city as an entity. Mobility is one aspect, and architecture is another. You can’t separate the two. These elements shape the city and the lives of its inhabitants. We want to understand the city holistically – to integrate all aspects of the urban condition into one ongoing research concept: MINI Living.

Our main interest is to improve the way people live within cities – to understand the main problems, to rethink housing concepts and to discover those that are relevant for the future. How can we change the way people live together, based on the MINI principles of creative use of space, small urban footprint and maximum experience?

How did the collaboration with On Design and Arup come about?
OH: Japan offers great examples of how people can live within a very small urban footprint. As a result, many collaborative living solutions come out of Japan, so we used Japanese housing as a point of departure. We then looked to On Design, which specializes in this type of work.

Arup, our other partner for the project, takes a holistic approach to engineering. The team is concerned with how to make cities better places.

How did the Japanese attitude towards living translate to this project?
OSAMU NISHIDA: The size of residences in Japan is becoming increasingly smaller. Around 30 per cent of the people live alone, and the number of two-person apartments is also relatively high. For MINI Living, we tried to include as much functionality as possible within a very compact site. You can create a new type of housing by focusing on the enrichment of a small space. Modest-sized buildings are often about trying to squeeze in as much as possible, but you always bump into the big problem: budget. Often the quality suffers. Working with MINI meant that even though the building was small, the standard was extremely high.

The underlying theme was to express a person’s individuality in some way. We chose to do this with shelves. They can be used for displaying a collection – just as they would function in a typical home – but these shelves can also open out to the shared space. It’s your choice: you can keep the area private or share it with your neighbour. You’re almost giving a signal to the other inhabitants, based on the position of the shelving. The scheme is about catering to two coexisting lifestyles, public and private.

OH: Sharing is important. After opening the shelves in your own space, you’ll most likely follow up by including the communal area. You can provide your neighbour with access to certain functions and form new typologies between spaces.

ON: We also like the correlation between the act of opening the shelves and that of opening the boot of a MINI car. It’s about connecting the inside space to the outside world.

One such ‘opening’ houses the kitchen. What were your thoughts when designing kitchen facilities for MINI Living?
OH: We wanted to articulate the synergy of functions that can be shared: those that activate the communal space. The kitchen is a private function integrated into each living unit, but it can be shared with your neighbour by rotating the kitchen module to make it part of the communal space.

How do you envision the function of light in your housing strategy?
OH: The MINI Living installation can be seen as a conceptual cut-out of a larger floor plan. In reality, of course, each unit would have access to natural light. We set out to amplify the perception of very intimate apartments juxtaposed with communal areas, and we used different types of artificial light to achieve our goal: subtle and cosy inside the private unit and bright in the communal space.

How defined was the brief?
OH: MINI came up with the content and the conceptual basis of the installation and its set-up: four units sharing one space on a conceptual floor plan.

ON: We developed the idea of shelving from there and went on to incorporate infrastructure into the system.

JAN WURM: Part of Arup’s role was to make sure that everything functioned properly. Besides being responsible for the lighting, we put together a materials catalogue that also contains some principles of construction. If the project becomes available for implementation in cities, we’d like to explore other principles as well.

How do you think MINI’s scenario will affect the way in which we live?
ON: People will be sharing with one other physically, and I think this will lend itself to more opportunities for creative cross-pollination. By seeing what others are doing, individuals might be prompted to come up with something new.

What do you hope visitors will take away from this?
OH: We would like to engage our visitors, to have them reflect on the way people are living together and to take some inspirational moments and memories with them. As a result, we hope to contribute to a brighter urban life. 

This report made its debut in Frame 111, the Jul/Aug 2016 issue dedicated to the theme of co-living. Find your copy in the Frame store.

Photos Andrew Meredith