It’s easy to pass over a design book featuring cats. The furry felines are a trope for today’s “creative” lifestyle, and the cat stickers that come with each copy of HABIT©AT suggest a book review in which I simply purr, “Awww, so cute.” But unlike the endless stream of online cat videos, you should watch—or in this case, read—all 140 pages of this newly launched perfect-bound paperback. Cats are the medium for Atelier HOKO, a Singapore design studio founded by Alvin Ho and Clara Koh, to explore the idea of what makes a habitat.
For some reason, cats and dogs have now become popular architecture clients: Japanese designer Kenya Hara commissioned famous architects to create “Architecture for Dogs” in 2012, and for some years now the Architects for Animals (yes, there’s one!) has held an annual event to design “imaginative” outdoor cat shelters for winter. Unlike many such projects in which humans teach pets how to live with us, HABIT©AT suggests what we can learn from the way cats live.
The book is an ethnographic study of how four stray cats in Singapore (Sister, Hua Mao, Friend, and Goma) inhabit a “void deck,” a semi-enclosed space found at the ground level of most of the city’s public housing blocks, created by elevating the apartments on pilotis. While originally designed as an open community space for residents of public housing, where about 80 percent of Singapore’s population live, void decks have also been reimagined as homes by stray cats. Atelier HOKO analyzes this phenomenon in a methodological and meticulous fashion, presenting page after page of perspective diagrams overlaid with photographs, sketches, and captions to show how the cats view the architecture of the void deck. Though this technical presentation format can get a little repetitive, the findings of how the cats perceive the environment and adapt to it are pretty surprising.
In their eyes, the L-shaped pillars that hold up apartment blocks become enclosed spaces safe from the elements and good for napping, and the concrete and ribbed tiles of a drain turn out to be perfect surfaces for scratching their bellies. And while human residents avoid the shadowed spots formed by the void deck’s fluorescent lighting at night, these darker areas are where the cats can rest safely.
HABIT©AT concludes with five hand-drawn cat housing proposals that playfully break out of the presentation mode and speculate upon Atelier HOKO’s observations. Inspired by how the cats sleep under a tree that was protected by a bed of leaves and twigs as an alarm against intruders, the duo designed a home surrounded by grains, beads, brittle pods, and hollow shells as an auditory fence. By encouraging readers to experience the world beyond sight, HABIT©AT uses a similar approach in Atelier HOKO’s other Science of the Secondary publications, in which they deconstruct the design of everyday things like an apple and a cup through a multitude of lenses and senses.
In HABIT©AT, the duo take it to another dimension by stepping out of our vision and into the unlikely eyes of cats. With all the talk about human-centered design nowadays, it’s refreshing to see how an outsider experiences the world we’ve designed entirely for ourselves.