What happens when tables are not merely suited for sitting at? In this article published on the last issue on NESS – What’s an object? – Penelope Dean explores how functional excesses suggest the end of the object. We reproduce only a portion of the article here, please get a printed copy of NESS to read the full story.
There is no more ubiquitous piece of furniture in architectural culture than the table. Practically, tables perform as objects of convenience. Conventionally, they serve to establish scale for the plan and represent the function of a space: coffee table, dining table, drafting table, occasional table, offering table, operating table, side table, work table. Historically, they have inspired integrated-tables (floors and walls that absorb tables), macro-tables (buildings that look like tables), and micro-architectures (tables that look like buildings).1 Occasionally, they disappear as one thing, and reappear as something else.
I can think of eight tables in three recent projects that exceed themselves in this last way: Hideyuki Nakayama’s 004 House (2006), Junya Ishigami’s Tables for a Restaurant (2008), and Go Hasegawa’s Sakuradai House (2006). Each table exhibits the characteristics of neutrality and minimal form. Each exaggerates a flat rectangular surface, adding a degree of excess or redundancy. And each goes beyond mere utilization and materialization to assert a super-cultural surprise. All at once, each becomes a thing that seems to name the table, just as it names something else.
The long table in Hideyuki Nakayama’s 004 House in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan, offers an excellent opening into the question, because it hosts un-table-like functions. The table is expediently constructed from two identical tables (with flat tops and rectilinear legs, the most generic of table constructions4) crudely bolted to each other and into the floor. Centered like a fashion runway on the first floor, or an enlarged diving board, the table proportionally duplicates the tiny house’s plan. It is less something that occupies the house than something the house is built around. It is almost as though the table wears the house while it also constructs it.
The tabletop organizes domestic inhabitation along two axes. Table one (west) works horizontally, serving as a normative dining and work table—one eats and works at the table. Drawings and film show it sprinkled with domestic objects—tableware, potted plants, laptops, lamps, vases, and place mats—and surrounded by four chairs at one end. Encircled with circulation space, it obliges sedentary activity. Table two (east) activates vertically, producing an unlikely bridge between a second-floor bedroom and a sunken study—here one resides either above or below the table. Like scaffolding on a construction site, it spans a large hole that extends beyond its southern edge. There is another opening above it. Also encircled with circulation space, though this time in section, the table becomes circulation as it stages a vertical movement through the double-height void. It is an expedient device for transportation impossible to sit at.
The “under the table” space that typically belongs between two parallel planes—the floor and table underside—is here transferred into the study below, as the expected floor drops out into the void increasing the rooms floor to ceiling height so that adults can now play under the table. Without a floor to accommodate placement of chairs, the table loses its primary reason for existence. Through subtraction and displacement, the table is stripped of its table-ness. As one traditional table function (sitting at) is replaced by others (climbing on, standing on, hiding under), table talk fades into table walk.
Once liberated from its table-ness, the tabletop can perform other functions. In addition to providing a ceiling to the sunken study, it visually screens the second-floor bedroom from the study. It acts as a landing in an exploded stair sequence that progresses from a concrete ledge in the study to cedar board stair object, urethane resin painted floor, more cedar board steps, the tabletop, wooden ladder, to the rattan lined second floor. It collaborates with a double-height void to yield continuous space around, over, and under. In all these ways, the tabletop is liberated from object to architecture.
Junya Ishigami’s Tables for a Restaurant advances another flatly fictional possibility. Inside a 50 m2 room, five differently sized tables are arranged in two rows with circulation space between them. Their surfaces horizontally divide the interior into five private dining areas—five “tables for two”—in lieu of vertical walls, yielding an alignment that is both confined and open. An imaginary rectangle, offset from the restaurant’s interior walls, determines and limits the arrangement. Tables are held in place by the circulation that surrounds them; they absorb leftover space to expand horizontally. Tabletops act, as Ishigami puts it, as “gentle separators of the space” and “a space in its own right.”6
The tables, which are too large for the program despite relatively small dimensions (from 2 x 2 m to 2 x 0.6 m), operate as a set. Relationships between seats, sightlines, and plants unify the five into a single, yet abstruse, composition. Pairs of seats huddle at table extremities—at a corner, side-by-side along an edge, directly opposite one another—to allow intimate propinquity. Potted plants, positioned on surplus surface areas, provide garden-like scenery that envelops diners. Seating positions alternate in plan to provide physical distance between pairs of diners throughout the room, and eye-level foliage obscures one table from another while serving as petite shakkei (borrowed scenery) for other tables. Each table plays a role in a system entirely established by dependent interactions. Each offers proximity and distance.
Photographs show the surreal visual effects of this coordinated effort on the interior: what is usually on the ground—potted plants—now float on a line. The table’s wafer-thin profile allows for this optical illusion. Like Ishigami’s earlier Table (2006)—a 9.5 x 2.6 x 1.1 m table unrolled from a single 3 mm thick aluminum sheet—the tables achieve their paper-like-quality through an excision of material thickness and detail. And like Table, each presents a scaleless image: tabletops—here 4.5 mm thick steel sheets finished with a 0.3 mm thick wood veneer—seamlessly fold down at ninety degrees into legs. In profile, the tables become drawings: thin black lines from one side; beige infills sans outline from the other. The overall effect diminishes the tables in perspectival depth: five tables become one; five become a single line.
Each table has something inherently superfluous about it—a mannerist strain, as Robert Venturi would call it—which allows for contradiction, paradox, and ambiguity, and which makes its effects inherently