Petite Architecture

Petite Architecture is conceived at the level of detail and small-scale furniture design, but its implications and reach are ultimately urban in scale. Petite Architecture blurs the frontiers between building (immeuble) and furniture (meuble) and questions the autonomous implications of monumentality and technology in architectural innovation.

Chairs have always been the pioneers of change […].1

— Alison and Peter Smithson

From the mid-1970s, the design of the chair marked experimental trends that influenced the architectural renovation that took place in Japan in the late eighties – in a very similar way to what had happened half a century earlier in Europe and in particular in France, when the new prototypes of chairs developed in the late twenties substantially influenced the architectural experimentation of the late 1930s.

Perriand and Sejima took advantage of the opportunity their bosses offered them to rethink the domestic space and turned it into a way to revolutionize the discipline by designing from the inside out: from the chair to the city. Thus, they developed a new architectural paradigm that I call Petite Architecture (建築 プチ): habitable furniture designed from the inside and with the experimental capacity to propose an urban transformation. Petite is the movable architecture that begins with the body; its precision goes beyond its dimension and includes economic expenditure, energy, and ecological footprint.

Saint Jerome in his studio (1456-1460), Antonello da Messina. Origins of Petite Architecture
Saint Jerome in his studio (1456-1460), Antonello da Messina

Petite Architecture remains within specific limits of dimension, time, energy, material consumption, and environmental impact. It questions monumentality, offers a viable alternative to the concept of Bigness (1994)2, and proposes an urban transformation beginning at a bodily scale. “Architecture as a monument is being reduced to a vestige.”3 It is a temporary and light architecture that claims “the movable” against “the immovable”, because “the man is small, that is why small is beautiful”.4

The concept was inspired by Antonello da Messina’s famous painting, St. Jerome in His Studio (1456-1460)5, where a movable space introduced the human scale into a monumental space “open to wild nature”. It was a habitable piece of furniture or a piece of furniture that created a living space, the germ of the concept of Petite Architecture.

In Petite, dimensional precision and spatial ingenuity open the debate between space and form in architecture. Its multifunctional and adaptable capacity, with no place to store, suggests a nomadic existence. It brings the human habitat into a dynamic era of the moving body that Paul Virilio called “habitable circulation,” in response to the philosophy of new age nomads. Petite is an architecture that begins with the body and explores the technical and formal potential of new materials imported from other industries.

Petite shows the infinite architectural possibilities using freely the concept of change of scale. It comprises not only a subtle revolution, which occurs from small to large, but also implies an inside-out design, which questions the concept of Bigness as the only catalyst for urban synergies, beyond the city as a project. In fact, the reason why “Tokyo became the optimal urban laboratory and by definition, experimental”6 lies in the Petite scale. In the last instance, its qualities show features of contemporary Japanese domestic architecture, which is transnational.

It faces the dismantling and disappearance of the architecture, predicted by Rem Koolhaas, thanks to its precise dimensions. Petite is the reflection of the crisis of monumentality – everything is furniture – because the small is possible, and from the small, we draw conclusions for the big.


1 Alison Smithson and Peter Smithson, Changing the Art of Inhabitation (London: Artemis, 1994), 72.
2 Rem Koolhaas, “Bigness (or the Problem of Large)”, S, M, L, XL, Rem Koolhaas, Bruce Mau and Hans Werlemann (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1998), 495-516.
3 Ito, “A curtain of the XXI century. Theory of Fluid Architecture”, 71.
4 “I have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological development, a direction that will take him back to the real needs of man, and that also means: to the real size of man. Man is small and therefore small is beautiful. To go for gigantism is to go for self-destruction.” This is Schumacher’s main argument in his famous book Small is Beautiful. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful. A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, 117.
5 Alison Smithson wrote an article “Saint Jerome: The Desert… The Study” published in Teak in 1991, who described it as “arguably the most famous, meticulous and mysteriously formed studio” in Alison Smithson, Alison & Peter Smithson: From the House of the Future to a House for Today, ed. by Dirk van den Heuvel and Max Risselada (Rotterdam: 010 Uitgeverij, 2004): 225-230. In Nieves Fernández Villalobos, Domestic Utopias: The House of the Future by Alison and Peter Smithson (Barcelona: Fundación Caja de Arquitectos, 2012): 165.
6 Eleni Gigantes, “Lifestyle Superpower: Urban Japan as Laboratory of the Limits of Reality”, Telescope (winter, 1993): 165.

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