La machine à habiter (the machine for living), an idea made famous by Le Corbusier 90 years ago, may have just taken on a new twist. Last week Simon Woodroffe, the entrepreneur behind Yo!Sushi and Yotel launched Yo! Home at 100% Design, and it was one of the most talked about exhibits at this year's London Design Festival. Woodroffe believes that it is a blueprint for the home of the future. But was it all just showmanship or is this really an idea that is set to transform how many of us live?
It's easy to be cynical about a project ambitiously described as 'a pioneering and intuitive living space set to revolutionise contemporary homes', but when I visited the prototype Yo! Home at 100% Design last week Woodroffe's passionate presentation of the concept drew genuine gasps of appreciative amazement from the audience.
Yo! Home is an 800 square foot apartment in which the available space can be transformed and multiplied at the flick of a switch or the glide of a wall. By utilising a series of counter weights, (the technology behind the idea is essentially borrowed from theatre set design), it incorporates an elevating bedroom, a sunken lounge, a flip up dining space, a cinema, an office and a second bedroom, along with his and hers storage space and a wine cellar.
Despite Woodroffe's claims to being the innovator of this type of flexible living space, many of the concepts it incorporates aren't actually that new. Travellers caravans, narrow boats and camper vans have long provided examples of innovative ways of making maximum use of a small space, and after modernism embraced open plan living in the post war years many architects designed buildings with movable walls to create flexible spaces. Sunken conversation pits were popular in the 1960s and pop up retractable TVs for kitchen and bedroom units are widely available.
Conversation pit in Eero Saarinen's Miller House; Bed with retractable TV; Camper van interior by Alexandre Verdier.
"Rotoliving" night environment for Sormani with "Cabriolet" bed, designed by Joe Colombo, 1969.
The moving platform in Rem Koolhaas’s Maison à Bordeaux allows the inhabitant to access a series of different levels that are stacked on top of one another. The movement of a central elevator continuously changes the architecture of the house.
So the concepts behind Yo! Home aren't new at all, but sometimes it takes an entrepreneur to engage people in a way that designers and architects often can't, to pull ideas together and make them a reality... and to then sell those ideas to the public. This is a task that requires showmanship as well as innovation, and Woodroffe is certainly an engaging presenter and a persuasive personality. There will no doubt be detractors who will maintain that the concept throws up issues of maintenance and technical reliability, but essentially this is a prototype, and it's likely that design solutions could be found to overcome many of the initial teething problems the project might encounter.
Amongst the more obvious objections is the compartmentalisation of living that Yo! Home appears to demand, turning our daily life into a series of different living modes and forcing us to ask the question 'Am I in work mode or dining mode or relaxing mode?' This jars against the multi-tasking approach to life that is the modern day reality for many of us. What's being proposed here is a revolution in the way we use domestic space, and that will require a considerable shift of attitude.
The interior won't be to everyone's taste either. It's very masculine, and does feel depressingly like a sleazy James Bond inspired gadget laden batchelor pad, but the Yo! Home that Woodroffe plans to bring to market will offer a wide range of different decor options allowing buyers to customise their own homes. You will be able to specify elements of the design from a (presumably limited) Yo! Home design catalogue and colour palette.
Even so, everything, from furniture right down to crockery, is included in the package that the Yo! Home buyers will purchase. What happens if you want to add a favourite chair later on? Where will it go? Such individual elements allow us to express our personality and creativity and enable us to create a home with real soul. Yo! Home appears to crush this potential.
And this is its core problem. It offers the living space homeowners want and need but it's devoid of soul - it offers function without emotion.
Woodroffe claims that it is about offering a simpler way of living, that it will be a home that enables people to simply get on with their lives. He is right to say that people are seeking more simplicity, but perhaps not in the way that he imagines. Simplicity in its contemporary sense is about connecting with the materials and objects in our living space in a way that is both functional and emotional. What people are perhaps actually seeking is a sense of sanctuary and tranquility, one that is rooted in purity of form and honest materials. Yo! Home, as presented in this initial prototype doesn't offer this.
For all the criticisms that will be levelled at it, and I'm sure there will be many, it is nonetheless an interesting concept, but what might be possible if a designer more concerned with our emotional experience of space were asked to reinterpret it. What would an Ilse Crawford or John Pawson designed Yo! Home look like?
The functional intelligence of its essentially masculine approach needs to be counterbalanced with a softer more emotional intelligence. This is something that requires a much more fundamental overhaul than simply throwing in a Barbie style dressing table. But if this issue can be addressed, then it becomes a really interesting concept.