Blurb: The adaptability of small spaces in a large-scale project is discussed with regard to the varying degrees of how this may occur. Complexity in design and construction concludes as scaled degrees of order where one is able to support various social scenarios through space customization, negotiable boundaries and total self automation.


Order alone is coarse and becomes sterile through its own rigidity. The dynamics of flexibility is rebellious, un-harnessed chaos. Yet where the discipline and playfulness meet, architecture exists.

Oddly enough, order and flexibility are sometimes able to concord in the most unexpected of manners. For example, despite the cellular sequestration present, the unified structure and the plenitude of space within Victorian middle class housing, meant that the rooms became interchangeable. (Eldonk, Fassbiner, 1990). Malofiy (1998) explains that an ideal example of how the two can work together is the design of student accommodation. Although students occupy such a building for a short period of time, they will nevertheless wish to be able to adapt their personal space and make it their own. They might wish to socialise in their homes with other students, or retreat to a private area. Order is then fitted into the structural system, providing organisation and clarity.

The following writeup will consider a single structure which acts as a vibrant urban setting to its constituents. Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille had similar principles, since the architect wished to provide intensely private units within an active communal setting. However, the highly-ordered structure focuses on achieving dialectic between community and privacy, instead of individualisation. The fact that each interior corridor, or "street" had its own colour of delivery-boxes, was the only way which rendered the floors recognisable.

Degree of distribution 1. Simple Systems – Supports

How can we design large projects without necessarily imposing uniformity and rigidity where variety and adaptability over time are desirable? How can the big project nevertheless do justice to the small scale?
(N. J. Habraken, 1987)


In December 1965, the Dutch Architects Association set out to tackle common mass housing issues. To this end, they designed adaptable dwellings composed of a system of ‘supports’ which were distinct from their ‘detachable units.’ The latter counterpart was introduced to encourage user participation. Such a theory of supports and units distinguishes itself, as a concept, from that describing the relationship between a mere structural framework and its infill components. While the latter provides a purely technical distinction, the former discusses where the level of control of a governing housing organisation, or ‘the community’ ends and the control of the individual begins.

“A support involves those decisions over which the community has control. The detachable unit is that area over which the individual decides.”
(Pg. 21)


- Notes on ‘Latent Creative Instincts’

The detachable unit was intended to provide potential for varying the floor plan from time to time, thus allowing general adaptability and variety which would inevitably give final users the maximum choice. The support should be capable of supporting a number of chosen dwellings, without being overly neutral. In Variations (1974), Habraken notes that supports should remain an architectural product and encourage specific kinds of recognizable spaces, since this will eventually inspire more layout possibilities. Otherwise, without the introduction of a second architect - a situation with can generally be ruled out if construction is truly being undertaken by a low-income family, a client might shy away from producing a space which is his own, and rely on floor plans which have been tried and tested i.e. that of neighbours.

Nevertheless, the architect abandons the design of full-blown layouts using one predetermined type and instead instigates possibilities, or guidelines, which the user adapts to arrive at new ones.

Design becomes laying out the rules of a participatory game. The design of one successful genotype will allow a diversity of phenotypes to be created, which will eventually extend the design process further.

(sub)The SAR Variations design method (sub)(sub)Evaluation of layout alternatives

The evaluation of layout alternatives is done by means of a chart showing how individual spaces will be assigned. Alternatives can be devised by the individual user.

Space is then distinguished into three groups, namely
Special purpose space
General space
Service space

Specific spaces within a plan are identified or ‘zoned’ into alpha, beta and so on and each zone is linked to the whole by using margins. An alpha zone is an internal area, intended for private use and adjacent to an external wall. A beta zone is an internal area, intended for private use and not adjacent to an external wall. The margin is the area between two zones.

- The reconciliation of supports and detachable units

Thus, the overall scheme acquires a pattern, which may be detached from the final individual layout of units. Through this method, one may use the assumption that design is being carried out by two people at the same time, namely the architect responsible for the overall design (Designer of the Support) and the user, who will adapt the floor plan to his/her own family’s lifestyle (Designer of the Detachable Unit).

How can the two designs be reconciled, without resorting to a sequential system? To solve the problem above, Habraken suggests seeking an early compromise by setting out what freedom the first participant will leave to the second. Participants such as the client, the government and the end user are all involved since the result will make reference to their expectations. At the same time, the building must rely on the technical expertise provided by mechanical, electrical, sanitary, heating, ventilation and structural engineers. This is achieved through the use of a governing set of rules, such as standardisation, borne in mind during the design of both the supports and the detachable units.

2. Including Duality in the Individual Units – Fukuoka Housing, Steven Holl

In a previous writeup, we discussed how individual units succeeded in adapting to the individual, change daily, or anticipate future change. Some drew inspiration from residential Japanese architecture, which allow daily transitions between openness and family spaces during the day, as well as seclusion and privacy at night.

Japanese duality has been reinterpreted in the Fukuoka housing scheme by Steven Holl as ‘hinged space’. Here, four north facing voids, which the author terms ‘active’, are interlocked with peaceful south-facing voids intended to develop sanctity in domestic space. In order to maintain emptiness, the latter are flooded with water, which in turn reflects and flickers. Holl drew his inspiration from traditional fusuma since duality is achieved by hinging, allowing living area to be expanded during the day, yet reclaimed as bedrooms when night falls.


Episodic hinging reflects change in family over time; rooms can be added or subtracted accommodating grown-up children leaving or elderly parents moving in. A sense of passage is heightened by three types of access, by allowing apartments to have exterior front doors, and by interlocking apartments like a complex Chinese box.
(Holl, 1991)


3. Beyond ‘All or Nothing’: Taking Self-Organisation Further

Besides day/night, on/off duality the governing system in Fukuoka s not wholly simple, since transcending party line boundaries is within its scope. Such considerations are not included in the Variations method. In the case of Unité d’Habitation, RAM-TV would term the condition each unit is in to be ‘self-referential closure.’

‘It is either / or: you either love me or you do not love me. The relationship is exclusive, and it is all or nothing, reconstituting the world in a particularly radical, unforgiving manner.” (Hight, 2006, pg 21)


Like Habraken and Holl, RAM-TV discards the nuclear family as an assumption and approaches the problem by discussing and combining two opposing design perspectives – the territorializing of space versus ergonomic concerns. This return to roots seeks to allow the autopoiesis, that is, ‘self-organisation’, of a residential community. The key components of the strategy are the rethinking of the role of social goals play within design, what constitutes ‘life’ in a project , reorganizes the role of the architect, includes a socioeconomic dimension and animates possible scenarios by using advanced 4D modelling software (Schumacher, 2006).

Common arguments:

Conclusion 1 – Distribution of power

Christopher Alexander (1963) suggests that it is thus necessary to decentralize or better distribute the supervisory powers of the whole design process. He questions 1. What does the level of competence of the project superintendent have to be? 2. What is the scope of the architect? 3. Who plans out and controls common space between the houses? 4. Who establishes the final plans of the houses? 5. Alexander also ponders on whether construction entails implementing standard components or rather a creative implementation of the standard processes? The answers to each one of these questions constitute guiding principles which should be respected by the new system of production of the habitat than they institute. Periàñez (1993).


I can give you an example of what I mean. I was laying out a series of apartments in Nagoya and I had a Japanese assistant, a very intelligent young woman, who trained as an architect and had studied with me. We would have the families lay out their apartments and she would re-draw them for technical reasons. She knew very well what I was after, and even as good as she was, she was continually of the opinion that she would somehow help the families by cleaning up what they had done.
In one example, I looked at the drawing the family had made, and compared it to her more technical drawing. I noticed that she had moved the sink a couple of feet from where the family had placed it. I asked her why and she said, “I’m quite sure they didn’t intend it to be here, it looks awkward, so I moved it a little.” But I sensed some intent in the original drawing, and I asked the lady why she had put the sink where she had. She explained something very complex and subtle about coming in the door, washing, purifying yourself, as you come home and then relaxing. She had thought exactly where to put the sink and moving it two feet completely vitiated her design.
My assistant had moved it with the best intentions. Yet, the mismatch between the professional grasp of the situation and the so-called layman’s grasp was like night and day. I’m not quite sure how we ever got to the almost obscene state where a professional believes that just by virtue of being a professional, they know more about someone’s needs, feelings, and wishes than the person himself.
(Alexander, C., n.d., Interview by Creelman, D.)


Conclusion 2 - Negotiating with Neighbours

Perhaps, where the fusuma ends, Rent-A-Wall by Mike Webb from Archigram begins (see Cook, 1972). An organic creation-method suggests that users may be able to sell of parts of their home to neighbours, as the need may arise. In addition, standardisation, as in the SAR method, in the size of components, not, in the unit per se will enable a variety of components to be resalable.

Conclusion 3 - Successful Genotypes

The treatment of high-rise buildings as a vertical reinterpretation of urban sprawl has been illustrated by CHORA, whose vision encourages, and veritably breeds on the coexistence of co-habiting communities and centres. CHORA also proposes a series of sample prototypes, whose development will eventually become ‘a taxonomy of prototypes’. (Bunschotem, 2002 pp. 117)

These prototypes, or as Hertzberger calls them, ‘archetypes’ should sublimely suggest the organisation of space, thus permitting individual interpretations of the set pattern. As is illustrated by Diagon House, with a minimum amount of adjustments, these houses can be used in several ways. Simultaneously, adherence to an underlying structure, or language is clearly shown.

With regards to complex self-organisation systems, Hertzberger (Eldonk, Fassbinder, 1990) has wisely noted that the fascination with adaptable accommodation is because it presupposes itself. The result of his integration is as follows - the fact that changeability is a permanent, and hence, a static situation, emerges as a form which, without itself changing, can suit any purpose.



Alexander, C. (n.d.) Interview by Creelman, D. from Retrieved March 13 2006 from

Bosma, K. (2000). Housing for the millions: John Habraken and the SAR (1960-2000). Rotterdam: NAI Publishers.

Cook, P. (1972). The Archigram Book. London: Studio Vista.

Eldonk, J. & Fassbinder, H. (1990). Flexible fixation: the paradox of Dutch housing architecture = de paradox van de Nederlandse woningbouw. Eindhoven University of Technology.

Habraken N.J., Boekholt et al. (1974). Variations: the systematic design of supports. Cambridge: MIT Press c.1976

Habraken, N. J. (1987) Control of Complexity, Retrieved March 28 2006 from

Hight, Christopher (2006). AADRL design studio brief. In R. Sedlak, Negotiate my boundary! Mass-customisation and responsive environments (pp. 21) Basel: Birkhauser

Holl, S. (1991). Fukuoka Housing. Retrieved November 5, 2005 from

Periàñez, Manuel (1993). L’habitat évolutif: du mythe aux réalités... Retrieved November 27, 2005 from

RAM-tv (2005) Negotiate my Boundary! Retrieved October 11, 2005 from and


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