Super Normal Surprise

architects Petra Čeferin, Tadej Glažar
project Wooden Cube, Grosuplje, Slovenia
written by Maja Vardjan

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In the summer two years ago, a snug and cosy residential area of Grosuplje saw a strange structure appear almost overnight. The wooden box, growing from the first floor of a family house and seemingly hovering above its garden, vaguely reminded passers-by of a sauna. Even today few know that the wooden walls conceal a spacious bedroom: the cube is actually an extension, but it looks different from the stereotypical low-level additions which grow chaotically on many residential houses. In fact, Slovenia has been overrun by variations of family houses based on the conventional and obsolete concept of a rigid division of housing units, which does not allow for great flexibility and can hardly adapt to changes in the structure of families and jobs. The lack of space is usually resolved through self-made extensions. The Slovenians’ passion for extensions mostly results in bad, banal one-storey buildings.


Custom-made architecture


The architects Petra Čeferin and Tadej Glažar approached the task – a family of five needing a new parental bedroom as soon as possible – in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller’s motto “more with less”. Since standardization is key to speed and economy, they chose the “Riko Hiša” prefab system for their extension. This prefab system turned out to be an excellent alternative to traditional construction: the family left their untouched home for a one-month vacation; when they returned, the house had a new bedroom, with no trace of construction works. The architects did not choose a specific prefab unit like the units of strictly mass-produced housing models, but a “tactical” prefab unit where the structure, choice of materials, details and fittings can be adapted to the specific client’s location and wishes. The shaping of such “custom-made architecture” is similar to the principles of industrial product design, as in, for example, the car industry or Swatch production, where the final product suits the wishes of individuals. Therefore, “tactical” prefabrication does not offer finished architectural solutions, but enables partially open design, style, even changes in details. This is why the extension is, despite its standardization, unique. The prefab wooden box, entirely built in the factory and hoisted by crane over the old house, rests on the former balcony and is supported by a new steel structure, using the potential of the existing building’s structure (in this case, the basement foundations). Despite its clear links with the old house, however, the addition functions as an independent whole. 


From the surprising to the “Super Normal”


The prefab box plays the role of a stranger in its environment. But it is not a parasite, it does not live at the expense of the existing building or its wider surroundings. The relationship between the new construction and its environment only seems contradictory at first glance. The new and spacious bedroom, the existing house and the pine forest overlooked by the addition, live in a harmonious symbiosis. The extension not only offers additional sleeping room, but also motivates new activities around the house. The box, raised to first-floor level, has preserved the garden intact, creating an intimate covered terrace below it; its slender and shiny metal columns have a significant role in children’s games. The quality of the extension, not offering ambitious space manoeuvres and not using cosmetics to embellish its visual aspect, lies primarily in its use. Its appearance resonates with the notion of “Super Normal”, formulated by designers Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa as the manifesto of an exhibition of industrial product design. “Super Normal” products are characterized by a special enduring quality (rarer and rarer in the world of architecture and design), not restricted to the visual aspect, but ensuring the usability of the structure. The “Super Normal” concept, although more suitable to anonymous than authorial products, can be applied in architecture too. “Super Normal” architecture can be shaped by a certain aesthetic goal, but its authors are really more interested in the relationships between architecture and its users than the visual aspect and personal expression. “Super Normal” structures are so ordinary as to be almost invisible, but also so special in their harmony that they attract attention. The extension in Grosuplje certainly stirs up similar feelings (Naoto Fukasawa claims that “Super Normal” products are explored not only by sight but also by other senses), but despite being “ordinary”, it offers one theatrical effect: a split column at its outside corner. The architects who wanted a slender supporting structure eagerly accepted the elegant engineering solution. The dancing column is the only element which slightly rocks the “Super Normal” category.