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A house, I know, is but a temporary abode, but how delightful it is to find one that has harmonious proportions and a pleasant atmosphere…A house, though it may not be in the current fashion or elaborately decorated will appeal to us by its unassuming beauty—a grove of trees with an indefinably ancient look; a garden where plants, growing of their own accord, have a special charm…and a few personal effects left carelessly lying about [give] the place an air of having been lived in. A house which multitudes of workmen have polished with every care, where strange and rare Chinese and Japanese furnishings are displayed, and even the grasses and trees of the garden have been trained unnaturally, is ugly to look at and most depressing. How could anyone live for long in such a place? The most casual glance will suggest how likely such a house is to turn in a moment to smoke. Yoshida Kenko, 1282-1350, ESSAYS in Idleness (1330-32)

Today the musings of this medieval monk on the virtues of the minimal dwelling in harmony with the natural environment are surprisingly relevant. His praise of unassuming beauty over elaborate and strange excesses seems to be a direct critique of nouveaux riches. So many of the “super-sized” McMansions, akin to the elaborate houses scorned by Yoshida, have come to be foreclosed properties with the burst of the real estate bubble. Gone is the fashion for the massive SUV Hummer that officially ceased production in May 2010. The economic collapse indeed begs the question: Does bigger really means better? Can one really consume a Starbucks 31-ounce Trenta iced coffee or tea, which is about twice the capacity of an adult bladder? Beyond complex formulas for LEED architectural designs, can basic patterns of living promote sustainable living environments?

Fundamental questions arise about how the size of a dwelling corresponds to human beings. For centuries, the primitive hut has been the ideal of many cultures—from Marc-Antoine Laugier’s four column structure supporting an entablature to Henry Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond to thirteenth century Buddhist abbot Kamo no Chomei’s “ten-foot square hut” (Hojoki). In his “An Account of my Hut,” Kamo no Chomei acknowledged that such a hut “is very small, but it holds a bed where I may lie at night and a seat for me in the day; it lacks nothing as a place for me to dwell. The hermit crab chooses to live in little shells because it well knows the size of its body…” Indeed, if the hermit crab were to super-size its shell, it could no longer move. The abbot also looked to the bird’s nest and the cocoon spun by an aged silkworm as habitats appropriately sized to the inhabitants. Of course the modern dweller has more belongings than a bird or silkworm, but how much “stuff” is necessary to maintain “the good life”?

In “What We Mean by ‘A Home’,” Architect Kiyoshi Seike likened the home to a suitcase. He argued, “When we take a trip we must carefully consider the clothing we put inside the limited confines of our suitcase. The aim of the trip itself, whether it be a business trip or a sightseeing trip, determines what we include. The same is true of our houses, the clothing, as it were, of the journey of human life…”

Many people, nonetheless, worry about feeling claustrophobic in such minimal dwellings. Indeed, there is a fine line between being cozy or constricted, which is subjective to individuals, cultures and contexts. For Kamo no Chomei, the hut in the country was brought to life by natural phenomena—including the sounds of a cuckoo the in summer and evening insects in the autumn. For the urban dweller, the minimal dwelling can be seen as relieved by expanding into the living room of the city—whether it is in a café, library or museum. The tiny refrigerator encourages daily shopping to keep items fresh, and the minimal kitchen can be counterpoised by the culinary delights of the city.

In a modern economy driven by consumption, maintaining the ideal of the minimal dwelling is a constant challenge. Nonetheless, this can mean striving for basic ideals of quality over quantity rather than bigger is better. The minimal dwelling, which could be seen as a fundamental resistance unit, modulates human lives within both the natural and urban environment. Perceptions and forms of living environments change over time. Yet they all beg almost primal questions of sustaining living within the cycles of the day, seasons and years whereby a “ten-foot square hut” may indeed more intensely engage human habitation in the present, as well as in the past and future.

Ken Tadashi Oshima is Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Washington, Seattle. Ken’s publications include International Architecture in Interwar Japan (University of Washington Press, 2009) and Arata Isozaki (Phaidon, 2009).

(This article originally appeared in ARCADE, 29.3, The Good Life Reconsidered , found here).

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