|Drying rooms. Window seats. Fire escapes. Talking with a former sixth form boarding college pupil about favourite memories of communal life, certain brief amorous moments snatched among towels in the drying room stood out. Close second were periods of reflection in library window seats. Then, intimate conversations at the foot of internal fire stairs. Such nook-like spaces permitted fragments of personal existence away from the prescribed or sanctioned routines of dormitory life. In proposing new residential accommodation for this college, we worked to design in similar places, where resident young adults might have space as developing individuals. Together, yet apart.
Architecturally, nooks have a bad name. Commonly defined as narrow recesses or secluded places, they are associated with domestic buildings, most recently the faux ye-olde aesthetic of neo-vernacular housing. Their reputation – wasted space that restricts how people use an environment - is partly a legacy of modernism’s puritanical drive to create the machine à habiter. Yet, we suggest, nooks may actually serve as the Set-Aside space of the domestic. Clearly defined recesses of no prescribed purpose, rather than left-over or in-between space, they contrast with and heighten the qualities of adjacent areas. Subsidising the homely.
Nooks come in a variety of styles and intentions. The neo-vernacular ‘pre-conversions’ of developer Countryside Properties - nooks, crannies and landings-to-nowhere - suggest a home’s imagined story through time (see image 1). Beyond the chintz, Venturi’s quest for complexity and contradiction lead him to incorporate similar spatial devices (image 2), whilst Aalto (image 3) and Loos (image 4) contribute their own suggestive spaces.
AOC are interested in the role of nooks in empowering people to take possession of space. Our research suggests that they do this in two ways. Practically, nooks provide room to accommodate and store both self and possessions. Psychologically and corporeally, nooks imply spatial prehistory – as in the eaten away fireplace of Aalto’s Villa Mairea – and thus a narrative flow to the environment, such as that essential to our own identity. Even in the retro-stylings of Countryside, nooks are more important in their evocation of Passing Time than their imitation of Past Times.
We’re currently exploring the potential of the traditionally domestic nook in the design of public buildings. Defining public space, and what society wants from it, has never been an easy task. Nevertheless, if we understand public buildings as those social and collective institutions in which we live together, and work out how to live together, then a fundamental concern must be the creation of spaces where as many people as possible feel comfortable, engaged, even ‘at home’. Particularly as the definition between private and public space becomes increasingly blurred.
Nooks open up possibilities of being able to be both together with others, and apart from them, in public. They thus nurture a relationship of reciprocity, of being both within and without: one may distance oneself, establish one’s place, and reflect or observe as an individual, while also being one of the crowd. To appropriate the words of civil society theorist Benjamin Barber, the nook ‘accommodates the mutuality of “you and me”’, the cornerstone of meaningful engagement.
A key difference between public and domestic is that in a public building individual inhabitation is temporary, or at least of shorter duration. Nevertheless, people take pleasure in temporary territorialisation of shared space, from the arrangement of their bodies, to the placement of possessions. As narrative gro-bags, nooks suggest both an ongoing story into which we can slot, and space for our own personal narrative to unfold, useful in the shared space of a fluid and fragmented community. Suggestive, as opposed to prescriptive, they offer an environment open to De Certeau-ian micropractices: everyday individual acts that challenge dominant modes of interaction. A firm and safe footing from which to emerge and engage in dialogue with others. With difference.
In our experience, the most effective public buildings are not the open expanses of assembly halls or ‘transparent’ glass atriums, but those offering a multiplicity of entrances, exits, routes and places, shared by many, yet adaptable to diverse needs and desires. We experimented with this idea in our recent proposal for the Architecture Foundation’s new London home. In conceiving a public building for architecture the size of a large house, we devised a spatially intricate and intimate ‘palace’ route as one possible path through the building. A series of stairs, landings and nooks offer public engagement on a domestic scale in A richer, more fixed interior than that of the main galleries, echoing that of an older institution, generates a suggestive framework for unofficial, off-the-beaten-track, emergent activity. Like the Soane museum. Spaces for informal encounter. For reflection. For observation.
In a move towards an architecture of generosity and reciprocity, we see the nook as an element to be reconsidered and explored. Nooks offer possibilities of spatial intricacy alongside opportunities for meaningful engagement with both our environment and other people. Although perhaps not to the level practised in boarding college drying rooms…