Living in a cube

Living in a cube

 CUBISM The multi-use cube at Liu Ming's loft apartment and teaching space in Oakland,  California. (Joe Fletcher/The New York Times)That wouldn’t work these days, as Liu’s meditation area is on top of an eight-foot cube in his loft. Were he to stand up, Liu would hit his head on the ceiling.

To move about the meditation area, which also serves as a tearoom, Liu has to slouch or crawl. That’s fine with him: In a traditional Japanese tearoom, the ceilings are so low you have to crawl in, he says; you were meant to feel humble. Also, says Liu, who routinely goes into teaching mode, the doors of a Japanese tearoom were designed to be small, to prevent samurai warriors from entering with their swords, or at least to prevent them from drawing their swords.

Seeking coziness

When he visits friends who live in large apartments, he says, or “I get back pain, I think, ‘Why do you have such low ceilings?”’ But roomier spaces have one drawback, he continues: “There is no cozy.”Since when is “cozy” a Feng Shui concept? “In Feng Shui, we talk about the harmony in the place that you live in,” Liu says. “The cube evolved out of wanting cozy with the option of keeping a big, open space at the same time. And we added wheels for Feng Shui purposes. Now that it is portable, I can spin it on an axis, I can point my head and point my desk in different compass directions for different projects. If I am writing something and feel blocked, I can get up and move the room.”
Liu and his architect, Toshi Kasai, have come to regard the cube as a living thing and, indeed, it has an umbilical cord: a broad, red cable connecting it to an electrical source. “The extension is the cube’s lifeline,” Kasai says. “We wanted that cable to look like a little tail. We wanted to make sure the cube looked alive, charged by something.”

Organising living space

Liu first became interested in the idea of using a cube to organise his living space a number of years ago, when he saw an article about a couple in Europe who had bought a barn because they needed space for a workshop, but who wanted a separate area for themselves and their children.“They’d built a plywood cube,” he said. “There were touch doors you could open up, and a kitchen and a staircase that went to a second level, where the kids had their space. I thought it was brilliant, and it was so flexible, I tore it out and stuck it in a notebook.”

Liu moved into his apartment, an 1,100-square-foot loft in a former factory. Since the loft is used for living and teaching, he put up a shoji screen to separate his bedroom and private meditation space from his teaching area. But visitors, he says, were always poking their heads in, and he wanted something that would give him more privacy.
Liu hired Kasai, who owns SPACEFLAVOR, an architecture and design firm “We loved the concept of the cube. How often does an architect get to design something so outrageous?” Lighting was important in the little cube. Kasai and Liu wanted a design that would allow light to shine through, so that the cube would not appear too opaque or solid.

In addition to the roller shades, a small shoji screen was added in the wall between the sleeping area and the office.

There are electrical outlets for lamps in the sleeping compartment, an overhead light in the study area, and outlets for plugging in an electric teakettle in the meditation space and tearoom on top of the cube. When Liu ascends the staircase, he can stash his shoes in a hidden compartment in the stairs.

One aspect of the design that the pair consider particularly important is its portability. When it is broken down, no part of the cube is wider than three feet, so it can fit through a standard door.

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