In October, the light in Norway is cold and diffused by rain. It's "our worst month," says John Roger Holte, a Norwegian artist and builder. The weather may be dismal here, but the Boxhome, which Holte helped build, gleams with optimism and modernity.
At first glance the Boxhome does indeed look like a small box, its walls a shiny gray metal crisscrossed with insulating glass. Scarcely wider than the length of a person, it is striking and oddly beautiful.
It is practical, too. The walls are many-layered: A timber frame houses glass wool insulation clad with particleboard; then there is a special weather-coat layer, an insulating space allowing air to circulate in two directions; and, finally, metal cladding. The Boxhome’s interior is lined with a cheap, darkly stained cypress wood of a kind more often used to make crates and pallets. The marks of the plane are clearly visible, an effect that gives the impression of discrete bricks as the light from the window picks out each individual plank. The wood is rough and warm to the touch, its living origins obvious, but its black stain causes the wood to retreat from view. This makes the small space seem “less defined,” says lead architect Sami Rintala. The light color and fine finish of the birch, aspen, red oak, and other woods used for the built-in furniture stand out in contrast. The darkness of these boundaries, together with the skillful arrangement of floors at different levels, allows long views to various windows and gives an unexpected sense of space.
“We had 20 people in here during our opening party,” says Dagur Eggertsson, who worked with Rintala on the project, “and it didn’t feel crowded.”
“It’s a bit like a TARDIS,” I say—but none of them have heard of Dr. Who. I explain the TARDIS is a tiny telephone box that opens into a series of rooms, and they nod happily. “Yes, that’s good,” Rintala agrees, and we look around the Boxhome’s spaces. Everywhere you sit you’re aware of space elsewhere. “You can see the stars from your bed,” Rintala adds.
Behind the Boxhome there is an anti-consumerist philosophy. Like a nun or a hermit, the Boxhome resident would not be able to accumulate many possessions. Although the designers have planned for some storage space in the finished house, that space, as in the prototype, would be limited. Boxhome residents must also be active: In order to relax in the sitting room, a resident would have to climb a ladder and then, to reach the bedroom, step across a gap between floors. This would improve not only physical fitness but mental fitness; according to Rintala, it has been shown that an improvement in motor skills brings with it an increase in creativity. Building your own house keeps you fit, he points out. Altogether, it took three men about four weeks to build the house, and they estimate it would take a single person the length of a summer to assemble a Boxhome of their own. Rintala says that he’s more fit now than he has been for years, and there was no need for a treadmill or for weights—building a house, he says, is an all-body workout.
When I suggest that they produce an Ikea-like kit, Holte nods in agreement—but Eggertsson gently reprimands him for undervaluing his own craftsman-ship: Holte did most of the construction work.
Just a generation ago, Nordic men were all expect-ed to build their own house, and Rintala wants to return to that practice. Recently, however, especially in his native Finland, there has been an exodus from the countryside, with people moving to poorly built urban constructions, and the tradition has largely been lost.
Rintala is interested in incorporating traditions from other cultures, too. The galley of the Boxhome is a fully integrated kitchen and dining room, and the resident would eat and entertain in the Japanese style on a platform at a low table; the two hot plates and sink in the surface of the table are nods to the Korean way of eating. (Guests are given the raw materials which they cook themselves.) It is sociable and guarantees that the food is hot and prepared exactly to each person’s requirements.
Although the Boxhome was designed for single occupancy, it can easily accommodate guests. The platform in the seating area becomes a twin bed, and the bathroom can be made more private by strategically hanging curtains from the central beams. As the four of us sit in the living quarters, it feels curiously tranquil and comforting, the darkness of the roughly hewn wood walls taking on the characteristics of a cave. Windows and lamps illuminate the irregularities, and the perfume of the wood—the resinous smell of pine forests—permeates every corner of the space. Perhaps because smells are so evocative, it all feels part of the natural world.
“Maybe this is how we are meant to be,” Rintala says, when I tell him how I feel, “with few possessions and a small space around us.” The idea of different rooms for different aspects of our lives is, after all, a recent one. In Rintala’s view it comes from trying to emulate the lord of the manor, and it is unnecessary—and bad for the environment as well. A smaller home can be built and maintained with fewer resources. Indeed, Eggertsson adds, if the Boxhome is oriented so that its main window faces south, then the structure can absorb and retain enough heat so as not to need any other form of winter climate control. Alternatively, installing a stove with an iron chimney between the bathroom and the kitchen would heat the whole structure.
At the moment, though, the Boxhome is just a prototype. It is without heating, plumbing, or electricity. Even so, the builders are in negotiations to sell it, deliberately without profit, for around $65,000 to an artist in Sweden. In the meantime, it has been on display in the yard of the Galleri ROM in central Oslo, where there is all the usual noise and bustle of a capital city—but, once the door of the Boxhome is closed, this is muffled to a murmur. High windows ensure that no one can see in, and the world outside retreats. Rintala says there has been interest in the Boxhome from all over the world and that its appeal seems to be universal. Maybe we all need something like a Boxhome from time to time—a quiet sanc-tuary, a small space for our minds to fill.