Mini Living – Built by All

Milan

23 April 2018

Mini Living, a research wing of the car brand Mini, has set itself a timely challenge: how can societies maintain, or advance, living standards given the small spaces in which urban populations are increasingly confined? For Mini Living, the answer seems to lie in how well residents identify with their homes and the corresponding sense of wellbeing that this may nurture. To explore this concept, Mini teamed up with London-based architecture firm Studiomama to develop a series of modular living units that can be customised to meet the personal needs of their residents, presented during last week’s Salone del Mobile in Milan.

Shown in an old factory building in Milan’s Zona Tortona, Mini Living’s Built by All installation consists of four living modules, each covering a surface area of about 15-20sqm. Catering to Mini’s affluent target demographic, the four units are decorated to reflect their imaginary residents: a scientific illustrator is said to live in the yellow space, and her module includes a greenhouse and inspirational images of plants. Residing in the blue space is a DJ with an insulated recording studio installed under his loft bed. The pink module houses a fashion designer and her sewing machine and samples, while the green unit is home to a curator of arts and crafts who has decorated his space with ceramic vessels.

Shared by all four imaginary residents is a communal kitchen and a “hang out space”: a modern-day amphitheatre for talks, films and entertaining guests. Elsewhere, the residents have use of a gym that features pastel coloured equipment. The idea is that the residents would share those spaces which they are only likely to use a few times a day – such as an amphitheatre – which would in theory lower the cost of inner-city living, and offer an opportunity for community-building and socialising. It is not a new idea, but is nonetheless a common sense response to reducing costs and encouraging community engagement.

Nina Tolstrup of Studiomama, and Mini Leaving’s creative lead Oke Hauser. IMAGE courtesy of Mini.

“In a lot of big cities you will find these big empty spaces, like abandoned warehouses and shopping centres, and it often takes ages for developers to get planning permission, and so they can lay empty for years,” says Nina Tolstrup of Studiomama. “We’re thinking that maybe this could be an opportunity for someone to take out a two- or three-year lease and do something like this project.” The resulting concept is a flexible and light structure that can be flat-packed and moved on to the next available space once the building that houses it is no longer available.

This idea of nimbleness is not only applicable to entrepreneurial opportunists, but also the growing group of global “professional nomads”. Oke Hauser, Mini Leaving’s creative lead, has lived in eight countries in the past twelve years, and explains that one of the biggest challenges of this lifestyle is a feeling of anonymity and disconnect. Hauser explains that a focus for Mini Living is to figure out what elements that are important to people in their homes in order to offer a sense of belonging. These ideas will play out more fully in April 2019, when Mini Living plans to open its first commercial project: a residential complex in Shanghai that will combine apartments, co-workspaces, hospitality, outdoor space and services such as car sharing. Construction started last week and apartments will be available for rental online, starting from one month’s tenancy. (The starting rent has not been made official yet, but given that Mini markets it as located in an “up-and-coming area of the well-developed Jing’An district in [Shanghai’s] centre”, it seems unlikely that it will be affordable to all.)

“I believe that it makes a difference if you move from London to Shanghai and you don’t know where to stay,” says Hauser. “You can either book a hotel, or someone else's apartment, or you can book a space at Mini Living and you are then able to configure it a little bit to your personal needs. You can do this on an app beforehand, and so when you go there the idea is that you already feel a little bit like ‘this is my space’. [Built by All] is a visionary idea, but [the Mini Living complex in] Shanghai will be an operating location”.

The pink living module, housing a fashion designer, with the communal kitchen in the foreground. IMAGE courtesy of Mini.

Mini clearly intends both its Built by All concept and the Mini Living complex in Shanghai to serve a privileged set of young urbanites, but Hauser argues that “[This type of co-living] is a matter of mind set, not so much a specific age group. There’s a lot of similarities also between the lives of young people and elderly people.”

Both Hauser and Tolstrup stresses that the Milan installation is not to be viewed as a finished product, but as as a catalyst for conversation around how we can optimise the use of empty urban spaces in order to meet the demands of a growing population given a corresponding rise in the property prices. This is an important conversation, but when exemplified by pastel colours and rounded structures designed to match the fictitious personalities and needs of a collection of comparatively successful, young, urban, creative professionals, might the urgency of the topic be somewhat mitigated?

Studiomama and Mini’s Built by All is a commercial installation that has to balance a need for serious design content with the imperative that its message remain open to the general audience likely to visit during the Salone. Built by All is undoubtedly Instagrammable and accessible, but this will need to be followed up with rigorous research if its basic concept is to provide a real solution to a real problem. All eyes will likely be on the Mini Living complex in Shanghai when it opens next April – can a solution to the needs of a heavily fictionalised subset of privileged society successfully provide a more general response to urban housing crises?