The Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto is a master of “ambiguity.” He challenges our simplified version of dualism – two elements that oppose each other, such as natural vs. artificial, nature vs. architecture, inside vs. outside, physical vs. cognitive, or rational vs. irrational.  He shows us how these seemingly contradicting concepts are not really contradicting, and could be blended, for example in architecture, when boundaries are carefully blurred.

With Rental Space Tower, he blurs the boundaries between ownership and rental, which blurs the boundaries between permanent and temporary.  And new opportunities emerge.

As the name “Rental Space Tower” suggests, it assumes that residents of the Tower will rent a room in the Tower.  The purpose of this project is to re-imagine a life in a densely populated urban area like Tokyo, where renting rooms is a lot more realistic and common than owning property.  It’s critical for companies like Daito Construction Trust, who develop a lot of rental multi-dwelling units in urban areas and for the public at large, to draw a blueprint of collective living in the increasingly crowded environment.

And, as it turns out, re-imagining “rental” actually opens up a whole new set of opportunities, because it ultimately helps re-definine the values associated with “space.”

The term “rental” means inherently temporary.  In exchange for substantially less upfront investment, compared to ownership, you are allowed to access assets in a much restricted way – that’s how rental works, in a conventional way.  Because of these restrictions, rental is regarded as an inferior alternative to ownership.  Due to these restrictions, people use rental assets as a temporary solution, rather than a quasi-permanent one.  Most people choose to live in a rental apartment to save money to eventually buy a house.

But is rental really inferior to ownership? Asks Fujimoto.

Being temporary means that the floor plan doesn’t necessarily have to be defined as a final answer.  You could add more flexibility and ambiguity that could blur various boundaries that would normally block the free flow of people, ideas, value and excitement. Being temporary means that space could be divided and re-divided at any time, based on peoples’ temporary demands, to maximize its value. Being temporary also means that you could be experimental and aggressive to try what might work best, by adjusting to the ever-changing situation. Rather than static, the temporary situation is dynamic.

And if these advantages are added to the rental multi-dwelling units (MDUs), collective living could be very different from what we have now.

Current MDUs are designed to maximize personal space, by shielding cell-like areas with the use of walls.  But since the total area is limited to begin with, common spaces are often sacrificed to secure private areas owned by each resident, as much as possible.  Such incremental addition of personal space would be very small, if living in an urban area, most notably in a mega city.  It would be something like an increase of 20 sq ft from the 280 sq ft, versus the total 280 sq ft.

When you only own 280 sqft of room space, the situation of common spaces become even worse.  They are usually just narrow, dimly lit hallways or stairs. Or rows of small mailboxes, parking lots and dumpsters. They are far from where you want to spend your time for enjoyment.  As a result, lock yourself up in your room and don’t come out, unless you are going out somewhere.

If you remember economics 101, in order for any asset to have value, some form of “trade” needs to occur.  In order for trade to occur, there needs to be human interaction, communication or exchanges.  But with modern MDUs, not only no interaction can occur within each individuals’ space,  there’s no interaction expected in common areas either.  Common areas are not designed to deliver value, more than serving as sad hallways.  The overall potential generated from the space is very limited.

This is the reason why Fujimoto tries to minimize private space in order to maximize common areas.  By removing boundaries and walls that block the flow of people, communication and excitement, his ambitious Tower tries to maximize the value of space dynamically, and that can change its shape from time to time.

Rental Space Tower is comprised of asymmetric blocks (left).  They come in different heights and sizes, connected by slopes, stairs and staircases.  Just like many of Fujimoto’s works, it is like a forest made of small, physically apprehandable units. Forests are one of the richest representations of nature, and are comprised of countless numbers of living organisms and elements. Since each element keeps changing, forests as a whole keep changing.  Nothing remains the same. Forests are temporary and dynamic.  Fujimoto often lets this dynamism emerge in his architecture. He imagines that the towers can be connected to each other to make a much larger complex, just like a forest.  You could almost imagine one organic ecosystem in which diverse activities occur in different parts, loosely cross-pollinating and influencing each other.

Inside the forest are embedded private rooms, here and there (right).  It’s interesting that it almost feels like a hidden, area even though the Tower itself is so “open.”  Fujimoto mentioned that he made sure that privacy would be secured, so that each resident could decide to what extent he/she wanted to “open up” to the rest of the forest.  The magic is in how Fujimoto controls the level and size of each floor, as he has demonstrated with House NA.  (Stunning House NA uses glass, almost exclusively, as walls, but is still able to maintain privacy.  He achieved this by connecting small sized floors with slightly different levels.) Residents may be hanging their laundry outside, blurring the boundaries between private and public.  (Note: hanging laundry is not socially accepted in many parts of the world, but it’s okay in Japan.)

There are pre-defined areas such as guest rooms (left) and libraries (right).  But if you want to maximize the benefits of being temporary,  you can add some flexibility.  Guest rooms can be rented through Airbnb, if no one has reserved it.  Residents, or even a group of outside people, could decide what to maintain in the library, to stimulate their cultural curiosity or co-learning.

There are also many undefined areas throughout the Tower, which could be used by residents, leased, or rented to outside people.  He says he wants to challenge our perception that space has more value when it’s bigger.  Just like lockers installed in a club, small space can be valuable when the timing and location are right.  And he pursues the potential of smallness not only for savings or efficiency gain.  He strongly believes in the power of “smallness,” which is tied to the fact that our body is small and fragile.  He observes that in nature, even something as big as a forest, is made of small units, such as leaves, bugs or weeds. And it’s this smallness, he maintains, that makes us feel comfortable and protected, rather than overwhelmed and intimidated, even when surrounded by a large forest.  But since modern architecture tends to celebrate larger sizes, he intentionally focuses on small units to offer opportunities for us to re-discover the abundance of smallness.

He says, half-jokingly: “Isn’t it kind of exciting to have whole bunch of small knick-knacks? Because you’ll never know what you are going to find. I think I just love things like kids’ ramshackle dens or secret bases.”  That leads to his love of nature/forests, which are made of small (often microscopic) things you don’t fully understand, that bring you wonder and surprise.

When things are temporary, it’s up to people who are involved to keep it exciting.  And smallness helps, because any work becomes easier for all of us.  One person won’t be able to move a concrete slab, but he/she could build something with bricks, which come in nice hand-held sizes.  Just like critters actively moving in a forest, we can use our own capacity and creativity to work with the environment, when units are smaller.