The development of Diogene

In an interview with Renzo Piano, the architect explains that the ideal of minimalist housing is something which he has been considering since his student days. It is a kind of obsession, but a good one. A living space of two by two by two metres – just enough space for a bed, a chair and a small table – is a dream many architecture students share. Back then, he was unable to realise the idea. At the end of the 1960s, however, when Piano was teaching at the Architectural Association in London, he joined forces with his students to build mini houses on Bedford Square. The architect has also designed boats, cars and, a few years ago, cells for the nuns of the Poor Clare nunnery of Ronchamp. There too, it was about minimising the spatial environment of these people, not for reasons of economic efficiency, but for self-moderation. The minimalist house is an idea that continues to fascinate Piano, particularly in an era in which his office is dealing with big projects, for instance what was Europe’s tallest high-rise at the time of its completion in 2012 – “The Shard” in London.

About ten years ago, of his own volition and without a specific client, Renzo Piano began developing a minimalist house. Various prototypes were developed in Genoa – from plywood, concrete and, finally, from wood. The final version of the project which Piano dubbed “Diogene” was published in autumn 2009 in the monograph booklet “Being Renzo Piano” by the Italian magazine “Abitare”: a wooden saddle-roofed house with a 2.4 x 2.4-metre surface area, a ridge height of 2.3 metres and a weight of 1.2 tonnes. Piano presented his vision to the public in the magazine, but noted in a comment that he needed a client in order to continue developing “Diogene”. The Italian architect found his partner in Rolf Fehlbaum, chairman of the Vitra AG. Fehlbaum had read the issue of “Abitare” and immediately felt attracted to Renzo Piano’s ideas, as Vitra does not regard itself as a manufacturer of individual design objects, but defines furniture as an essential part of the human environment. If we look back at the history of furniture design, it was always about requalifying people’s living space; the living landscapes of the 1960s and 1970s are just one case in point.

At the end of June 2010, there was a meeting between Renzo Piano and Rolf Fehlbaum, who at that time were still members of the Pritzker Prize jury. During this meeting, they agreed to continue the “Diogene” project together. After three years of development work, a new “Diogene” prototype is being presented at the Vitra Campus on the lawn opposite the VitraHaus on the occasion of the Art Basel 2013. It is not a finished project, but an experimental arrangement enabling Vitra to test the potential of the minimalist house. Vitra is thus breaking new ground: While usually only products which are ready for series production are presented to the public, it was decided to let the public take part in the testing of “Diogene” due to the complexity of Renzo Piano’s project. The further development of the project and whether it will go into series production will be decided on at a later date.

The idea of the minimalist house

The simple, archaic house situated in nature, which – based on the antique concepts of theoretical architect Vitruv – marks the beginning of technology and architecture, aroused renewed interest at the end of the 18th century, as is particularly evident from the copperplate engraving of the original Vitruv hut, which was included in the 1755 2nd edition of Marc-Antoine Laugier’s “Essai sur l’Architecture”. Since then, the idea of the minimalist house has repeatedly fascinated architects. Sometimes the focus was placed on the formal aspects, and sometimes on social considerations, such as the “subsistence level apartment”, which was a topic of discussion in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1960s, which were defined by structuralism, the minimalist cells were combined into clusters. In the recent past, the discussion revolved around mobile living structures for use in natural catastrophes or in war-torn areas of the world.

Diogene is not an emergency accommodation, but a voluntary place of retreat. It is supposed to function in various climate conditions, independent of the existing infrastructure, i.e. as a self-sufficient system. The required water is collected by the house itself, cleaned and reused. The house supplies its own power and the necessary platform is minimised. We live in an age in which the demand for sustainability forces us to minimise our ecological footprint. This postulate is paired with the desire to concentrate and reduce the direct living environment to the truly essential things. Diogene might remind one of Henry D. Thoreau, who wrote the following in his book “Walden/Life in the Woods” in 1854: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” It is no coincidence that Piano also regards his project as “quite romantic” and emphasises the aspect of “spiritual silence” which it conveys: “Diogene provides you with what you really need and no more.”

As architectural references, Renzo Piano lists the “Cabanon”, which Le Corbusier constructed at the beginning of the 1950s in Cap-Martin in the Côte d’Azur, the prefabricated house structures of Charlotte Perriand, and the Nakagin Capsule Tower, which Kisho Kurokawa erected in Tokyo in 1972. The late 1960s and early 1970s in London were very formative years for Piano: In the interview, he mentions one particularly important influence during this era as being Cedric Price with his “Fun Palace” and the hippie movement.

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9 photos and 2 drawings

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