Around the time that the Shard skyscraper was completed in London, in 2012, Renzo Piano told The Guardian that “one of the most important things is to have happy buildings. It’s like having a family with a lot of children.” If that’s true, then Diogene is both the golden child and the runt in Piano’s family.
Diogene is a wooden hut, designed for single-person occupancy. Its skimpy floor plan measures about eight by 10 feet across, allowing just enough room for a bed, chair, and small table. This week, Piano introduced it on Vitra’s campus in Germany, where it’s the smallest structure in the furniture company’s collection of projects by high-profile architects. (Diogene is neighbors with buildings by Herzog & de Meuron.) From the exterior, it begs for comparison to a FEMA shelter, or a particularly elegant Port-O-Potty.
However, the Diogene--named for the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who chose to live in a barrel--is far from some last-ditch emergency shelter. Piano has dreamed of a minimalist house since he was a student. When he taught at the Architectural Association in London in the 1960s, he worked with students to experiment with mini-housing. But over the course of his career, his oeuvre became defined by standout pieces: Glittering peaks of glass created for monumental commissions like the colossal Shard in London, or the new Los Angeles Motion Picture Academy. Then, ten years ago, he started constructing prototypes of what would become the first Diogene unit. In a 2009 special issue of the Italian magazine, Abitare, Piano described his vision of low-key living. The chairman of Vitra read about it, and commissioned the Diogene project.
Diogene is both self-sustaining and mobile and comes tricked out with a more complex system than its monochromatic outside would suggest. Photovoltaic solar cells, a rainwater tank, composting toilets, and an all-natural ventilation system keep the house entirely off the grid.
A glimmer of his ascetic sensibilities appeared in his 2012 addition of Le Corbusier’s Poor Clare nunnery of Ronchamp, just outside of Paris (Piano also cited Le Corbusier’s one-room Cabanon by the Mediterranean as an architectural reference). At the nunnery, the architect created modest, but bright concrete cells for the nuns’ living quarters. Now, with Diogene, the public can test out his more personal take on minimal living. While it’s certainly not for everyone, there’s a great deal of romance swirling around Diogene. Besides allusions to self-sufficient pioneers like Alexander Supertramp, Henry David Thoreau, the Boxcar children, and so on, it’s fascinating to think that over the course of 50 years, one of the most decorated living architects was dreaming of a cabin in the woods.