Microliving with Douglas Wan and His Chashitsu-Inspired Apartment
It’s not always easy to grab a moment of peace when you live within the city’s daily hustle and bustle, and when you live inside a cramped apartment space, it’s something that becomes a lot more challenging by the day. For Melbourne-based architect Douglas Wan, it was a challenge he met wholeheartedly, mainly because he considers himself a believer of the monastic lifestyle. So when Bryce Langston’s Living Big in a Tiny House series dropped by for a visit, it wasn’t completely surprising to hear that the Japanese tea house – or chashitsu – was a major influence that helped re-shape this tiny space.
To understand where Douglas Wan was coming from with his apartment’s design, it’s important to first understand the architecture of the Japanese tea house. While he doesn’t express as much in so many words, the influence is already made clear in the way his apartment is laid out and designed. And perhaps, in a nod that’s more than a little obvious, Douglas’ apartment is clean, simple, and minimalist in design – much like the uncluttered Japanese tea house.
What was first a housing project for nurses in the 1950’s has now become a quaint reflection of modern times and Douglas’ re-interpretations of them. In his own take on this tiny Melbourne space, Douglas Wan shows how he was able to use all 301 square feet of it to his advantage.
When Douglas Wan first leads the crew indoors, he begins by describing the root philosophy that first gave light to his imagination: “I think it was quite a primal instinct to have a cave as you come in and then open up toward the light in the next room. So coming into the kitchen and seeing a glimpse of the light beyond is quite something.” As the apartment used to be tiny and confining, letting the light in to give the illusion of space was a detail Douglas sought to prioritize. With his living space located in the heart of the busy Melbourne district, he found it was still possible to grab enough snippets of peace, and use those to give some life to his apartment.
Once he had freed up the space he needed, Douglas Wan was now free to divide his apartment into neat zones, with clear distinctions and contrasts between each other. By doing so, he was able to redefine his priorities and strike some new ground with them. It was a fact that was proven when he explained how he took some space away from the formerly-lavish bathroom, so that he could give way to his kitchen. The result: a more utilitarian version of the bathroom and a simple, yet dynamic, kitchen that allowed for multiple functions within the same space.
By doing this, he ensured his zones were clearly marked and identified – the separation between the bathroom and the kitchen, for example – before moving on to reinvent another key portion of his space: the kitchen. The kitchen itself is also a space-defying marvel on its own, marked by its vertical arrangement, creative two-way cabinets, and its maximization of depth. In Douglas Wan’s kitchen, it becomes possible to cook, clean, and even eat within the same space.
All in all, it can be considered a modern treatment of the traditional Japanese tea house. In the chashitsu, strict divisions were observed, where customers would stay in their clear zone, while their tea was being prepared in yet another room. While Douglas Wan also respects the boundaries and separations that came with the structure, he also knew how to creatively re-use his space so that he could get the most out of it. Even then, it’s clear how every room, like ones that would not look out of place in a Japanese tea house, serves a specific function and purpose – even if Douglas may blur the lines a little.
Definitions in Connections
A key element of the Japanese tea house also lies in the smooth connections that tie all the rooms together. While the zones remain separate from each other to promote utility, visitors would still be able to feel a fluid energy tying everything together. It was as if the vibe were implying that everyone inside, regardless of rank or age, were connected to each other in some way. In fact, one might even go so far as to describe the experience as a spiritual one – something that was immediately noticed the minute one stepped foot within the chashitsu.
Where patrons were greeted by a low entrance at a chashitsu – intentionally structured, so that guests would have to bow their heads in a show of equality before entering – guests at Douglas Wan’s apartment would first see a low alcove, with a provision for them to leave their shoes before entering. Afterwards, they would then ascend into the light that was let in on purpose, so as to lend some contrast, life, and ultimately, relief to those inside.
From here, it becomes clear how Douglas Wan designed his space in such a way that would allow the rooms to flow into each other. By using light from the outside and by using very little walls to separate his zones, he was able to re-define what little space he had so he could use it to his full advantage.
By designing his zones in this particular manner, Douglas Wan was also able to create subtle pathways that would lead his guests to his expansive workspace – a space so free, that it also serves as his living room, bedroom, and dining room all at once. It’s also notable that, like the traditional chasitsu set-up, Douglas’ apartment is devoid of furniture. To use furniture would cause unnecessary clutter, and for someone conserving as much space as possible, using multi-functional pieces took great priority. The lack of furniture is no problem for Douglas, however, as he says: “I find, usually, that people are like water. People are more adaptable than objects.”
Going minimalist isn’t just a stylistic choice, it’s a commitment. With the Japanese philosophy of kanso, minimalist living is less about your room and more about a way of life.
Escape and Find your Place in the World
When guests would enter the chashitsu, it was essential that they felt both removed from and grounded to the real world at the same time. More than anything, the Japanese tea house served as a temporary escape from reality for its patrons. With guests being assured of their equality indoors, the chashitsu was indeed, a safe space for all those who entered. In this atmosphere, it became possible to take in the tea one was drinking fully and completely, while also allowing for a total absorption of the experience the chashitsu promoted.
It was this key philosophy of the Japanese tea house Douglas Wan adopted to apply to his own living space. Given his artistic profession and his self-confessed monastic sensibilities, such a set-up would prove to be the ideal model for Douglas. Inside, the apartment offered a peaceful and tranquil space that was separate from reality. But at the same time, the real world wasn’t completely lost on Douglas, either.
“It’s thinking about the apartment as a sort of living space, or a consequence of the living, where you have a community. You have a society of people who need to share resources and spaces with each other. So treating the city as an extension of your living room comes naturally from that,” he explains. “I grew up in the suburbs, and I always wanted to be close to where the action is, but not so close that I’m affected by it on a daily basis. So, I wanted to be in the thick of it, but be able to live… sort of a monastic life at the same time. So, it’s a strange contradiction, but that’s really what I’m after.” It’s this strange contrast of being separate, yet together, that gives his apartment this nice sense of balance and form.
Like the Japanese tea houses and chashitsus of old, Douglas Wan’s self-designed apartment goes a long way in providing a grounded sense of comfort and relaxation. It’s its own little corner of peace tucked away in the midst of the busy city, but while it’s strong enough to stand on its own, it’s a space that never really forgets its place in the world, as well as the importance of connections, both inside and outside.
“I didn’t have to sacrifice anything to live here,” Douglas concludes. “It’s kind of been a luxury, in a lot of ways.”
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