A conversation with Leonardo Di Chiara, Nomad architect with a Tiny House

Inside Issue 10 Leonardo Di Chiara C41 Magazine 4

Born in Pesaro in 1990, he has cultivated an innate sensitivity for artistic expression, along with a fascination for technique and mathematical accuracy since childhood. Over time, these became true passions, which he developed in artisanal and creative workshops in his hometown. After university, he moved to Berlin where he came into contact with the Tinyhouse University, an informal group of young creatives active in the fields of architecture, design, and social experimentation. It was founded in 2015 by architect Van Bo Le-Mentzel who still directs it today. He officially joined the Tinyhouse University in Berlin, actively collaborating on the conception and creation of architectural projects, urban installations, art exhibitions, and cultural events, as well as assuming the role of design assistant. Passionate about the research and study of future perspectives linked to a new way of living, he founded the second operational centre of Tinyhouse University in Italy, with the aim of raising awareness and promoting good building and urban planning practices in our country as a response to contemporary society’s increasingly urgent housing emergency.

What does a typical morning look like for you?

I hardly ever wake up to an alarm; I always wake up before it rings because I don’t have any shutters or curtains on the skylights. My home is so small that everything is closer to the exterior space compared to a traditional house, the windows look right out onto nature and what’s outside. The first thing I do is open the windows and look out to see the light, something that is harder to do in a normal house because there is probably traffic or air pollution. But here, the first thing I do is pop my head out of the window for a moment. Almost every morning. And then I always optimise my time, so for example I always put the coffee on before going to the bathroom so it’s ready when I’m done.

I study all these things, even if I don’t have anywhere to be, because I hate doing nothing. I drink my coffee with milk. Breakfast is a key moment for me, as I work out what I have or don’t have to do that day. I never hurry, instead, I carefully lay the table with a tablecloth or placemat and I just relax. And this is far more possible here, probably because I’m not surrounded by people. After breakfast, I clear the table because it’s where I work but I hardly ever wash up straight away. I put the dishes in the sink and slowly get to work.

I clean the table and fold the bed away back into a sofa. I really need an orderly space to work in, mess drives me crazy. I might have got home late the night before and left my clothes on the floor; I can’t start working until I’ve tidied up. This means my house is always tidy. Then I am ready to work. I often work at home; I design from here and I often waste time and get bored. I do this on purpose, however, because I find that those moments of boredom are the most conducive to creation. If I’m having a busy day, I usually don’t create anything, brilliant ideas come to me on the days when I don’t have much to do.

I know you sometimes have friends over for dinner here on the sofa. Can you tell me any anecdotes about a meal here?

I’ve got so many stories to tell, all sorts of things have happened. One of the nice things that really sets the mood in this house is that we often eat by candlelight when I have guests for dinner. Sometimes we only use one candle, which you couldn’t do in a larger space, but here one is enough to light the whole house, or at least enough to see by.

A friend once asked me to turn on the lights, but I convinced him to eat practically in the dark. If you open the drawer, you will find a lot of candles; they are energy-saving, of course, so it’s a functional choice too. I also like to have all the food prepared and ready on the table so that people don’t have to get up. Whenever I organise a lunch or dinner, I always make sure to pick a menu that means nobody has to get up until the end when it’s the time for coffee or a digestif.

As a child, you had a dust allergy and your parents gave you the smallest room in the house as it was the easiest to keep clean. Could you tell me a little bit about your family?

Yes, I did have the smallest room and I am sure it had an influence on what I’m doing with my life, although I initially didn’t make that connection. At one point, I started wondering why I was so obsessed with small spaces, that it couldn’t just be a coincidence. Seven years after I left home, I started thinking about my past and I realised that the thing that made the most impression on me was this first experience of my own private pace, which was this room in my parents’ apartment.

It was a large apartment, larger than average for Pesaro, and for some reason one of the two children’s rooms was very small. I have vivid memories of my sister and I arguing over who would have the bigger room. My parents solved the problem by making us move all our things from one room to the other every two or three months. I have these images in my head of us moving desks, bookshelves, and all our things. We really moved everything; it was our regular moving day.

Nobody wanted the smallest room, especially not my sister, who was older than me. When I was eight years old, I started having allergy attacks, nothing serious but it turned out that I was allergic to dust and my doctor said that it was very important for me to live in an aseptic room, with no parquet floors and no wardrobe, a very clean space with very few furnishings. So, I found myself in the small room. I think this was my first profound experience with a space; I was aware of the fact that it would be my room as long as I stayed in that house. I was only 8 years old at the time so I was convinced that it would be my room for the rest of my life.

I think that this relationship with such a small space had a big influence on my future choice to study engineering and architecture, vocations linked to construction and space. I even had my first experience as an architect in that room, measuring it sometimes when playing, studying, or having friends over. I never felt restricted in that space, on the contrary, it helped me: having proven that I could live in such a small space, when I started university, I knew I really wanted to build a small house. I started looking for a loft in Bologna, where I was at university. I wanted to rebuild my private space there, but with a kitchen and bathroom, a kind of permanent Tiny House. But this plan clashed with another passion that I developed at uni, which was my dream of travelling and having no fixed roots. Clearly, building a house in Bologna also meant settling down there so I abandoned that idea and decided to graduate as soon as possible in order to start an internship abroad.

In other interviews, you have mentioned that living in such small accommodation directly responds to two of your needs: having your own space to live in and traveling the world. What point are you at in your journey?

I have no idea [laughs]. There have been a lot of changes over the years. I thought my little home and I would have got much further away but I ended up coming back here. My journey certainly isn’t over though. On the contrary, I think this is a long curve that will eventually lead me even further away. At the moment I’m actually wondering whether my life is linked to this place or another city. I still have the same old longing to be on the move, but I now think of it all as one long journey meaning I can be far away, but also within the same city. I had never lived in the countryside before, and I actually never thought I would as I used to think it was a bit rubbish. I’ve always lived in the city centre, with everything on my doorstep, and I thought people who lived in the country were mad. But then I had a taste of it for the very first time. I was sort of pushed into it by a friend who owns a lovely place on a hill in Tuscany. He suggested that I take my house there one summer and that’s how I discovered the beauty of rural life: colours, sounds, things like having breakfast with my feet in the grass. These were all things I had never experienced before, and it was a complete shock to me. So right now, my journey is happening inside my comfort zone, in Pesaro, a few kilometres away up a hill, somewhere I would never have imagined myself living but that I had a chance to discover thanks to this house. I have discovered that living alongside nature is amazing. Having the possibility to move away and isolate oneself is a real treasure. I may have originally imagined a long-distance journey and it ended up being very short, but it can still be considered a journey of discovery.

How did Italy respond to the branch of Tinyhouse University you founded here?

In Italy, there is greater value placed on the home than in other countries because we often own a property. Few people could even imagine living on wheels; it is much harder for Italians to conceive of giving everything up and buying a Tiny House than it is for other Europeans. We’ve got more constraints here. I see owning a house as a constraint, so I think that holds us back on the one hand but, on the other, Italy is the ideal country to experience on wheels. We have a favourable climate with lots of sun and we have a lot of different landscapes. I mean, my journey is happening right next to where I was born and it’s a totally new discovery. This might be more difficult in another country because there is less to discover. In just a few kilometres, we have discovered a whole new world. However, there are also legal reasons that mean Italy isn’t ready to embrace this sort of lifestyle. Living in a mobile home essentially means being “an outlaw” because it is seen the same as sleeping in your car. I can’t have my registered address at my house, of course, I am still registered at my parents’. There is a sort of criterion for land occupation that only allows you to stay in one place for 90 days, which isn’t enough in my opinion. Moving every 90 days means packing everything up, even a short move is complicated. From previous experience, I also know that you need more than 90 days to start getting to know your neighbours and beginning to feel like you belong somewhere. I’d really like people to understand how young people nowadays want to feel more nomadic, we like moving around, living in a dynamic way. We need more flexible regulations as well as adequate spaces for the Tiny House. So I think that the biggest thing holding us back is bureaucracy, but also what I mentioned before, that it is harder to detach an Italian from their own home, both because it’s their property and because they feel deeply attached to it. There are only two or three other people living like me in Italy, and I haven’t had the chance to meet them yet. Once in Bologna, a lady asked me to design a house for her and her son and I suggested putting her son’s part of the house on wheels and she was very receptive.

I spot a clear connection between your work and the words of Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, authors of The Minimalists. What do you think of minimalism?

I haven’t actually read the book, but I saw the documentary, and it was very interesting. I got the impression that the two authors suggest minimalism almost as a cure to a state of unhappiness, the loss of a loved one, or an unsuccessful or perhaps highly successful but unsatisfying career. In my opinion this is a bit forced: minimalism doesn’t work for everyone. I don’t think a person actively chooses minimalism and it can only make you happy if you really want it. This documentary seemed to position minimalism in opposition to consumerism, through the idea of not being tied to possessions yet it almost felt like minimalism became a product itself, something you can buy to suit your style,  show who you are, or to heal oneself from a personal discontentment. I’m not convinced by this; it didn’t work that way for me personally. For me, it really is an innate lifestyle, the product of an experience. I don’t think I am a minimalist, in the sense that I have a lot of possessions, even if they are all hidden away in this house, but all the things I have are of great value to me. I would never buy something that I won’t use but it’s not a matter of space, it’s a matter of placing the right value on things. It is partly true that if you have fewer things, the things you do own take on more value, you are less of a slave to your objects, you have more time to be with others and you are able to enjoy the presence of friends or people around you but there’s a great difference between that and being minimalist. Leaving their vision of minimalism aside, can I consider myself a minimalist? I am a fanatic collector of things printed with my name. Am I a minimalist if I collect newspapers? I don’t know, but all my possessions are of great value to me. In my opinion, that makes me a minimalist.

You’ve lived in your creation for a long time. Is it difficult to maintain and remain faithful to this lifestyle amongst all the cultural distractions we are subjected to?

Not for me. I find it quite natural; I don’t have to force it at all. Others might, which is why I say that minimalism can’t be used as a cure for a problem. I often see people building their first Tiny House at the age of 45, an age where you might reflect and question many things in life. This is more common in Germany than Italy, where a Tiny House becomes a tool for a new start. I once met a lady who built her Tiny House as a means to escape from a state that she had created herself which means she ran the risk of it becoming a prison. I have always struggled with this idea of rebelling against your nature, as though you had to tear yourself away from a situation, which is my point about minimalism. The distractions of society are obviously all around me as I live like all my peers. Obviously in some situations I do feel different but by no means am I an alien.

Until now, a traditional life cycle meant building a family, buying a house, working your way up the company ranks and choosing a retirement date. Can you give me your definition of stability?

I think that the word stability is scary for our generation and that’s the concept behind my answer. Who is stable? Relationships don’t always last and the number of divorces is increasing, that’s a statistic. Love is no longer stable. Young people no longer want to buy their own home because they don’t really know where they will end up for work, therefore they have less incentive to settle down. Many of my friends, for example, haven’t settled down in one place because it made them anxious and they probably weren’t ready. When you consider yourself stable, you are less exposed to different situations and you start to think that your period of discovery is over. I think it’s pretty normal for that to create anxiety. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve chosen a job that allows me not to be stable, the fact that I have a completely unusual routine and never know whether I’ll have a job in six months or not is something that excites me because stability is something that I actually think our generation is no longer looking for. But at the same time, perhaps it is necessary for some things.

I personally don’t think that stability is necessarily positive. Why did these people go crazy at some point? Because they were living in a stable condition that didn’t satisfy them but was impossible to change. That’s why it drove them crazy. Not being stable can have negative aspects, of course, there is less security, you live in uncertainty, you question your choices more, but at the same time, it makes you more flexible, so you can always make a change if that would make you happier. You have to be smart, but you can be free. Not being stable allows you to reinvent yourself, to change little by little what it means to be happy, as that changes over time. I’m still young and it hasn’t changed much for me yet, but I am sure that everything will be different in ten years, maybe I’ll get a different job or reinvent myself.

Living in a Tiny House forever is practically possible, unless you have a problem such as reduced mobility later in life. But the question that comes to mind is whether it is possible to start a family in such a small space? I don’t think so. At some point it won’t work anymore, maybe you’ll need a second one. And family life probably needs stability in order to work although there are families that live in camper vans, so it is possible to raise a family on the move.

Are there any items that you would like to own but don’t to keep to your convictions?

I consider myself incredibly lucky, I don’t think I need many things, probably because I’m not such a materialist, but I do of course there are some things that I would like to own.

  1. A painting by De Chirico – I have looked on auction sites but the paintings that cost least cost as much as my house and I have to ask myself whether I can own a painting that is worth as much as the house it would hang in? I like art, though, it’s something I can recognise myself in. It’s something I own but it’s part of someone else so it’s like I’m borrowing it. I would like to own a painting by De Chirico, but I wouldn’t know where to hang it given the value it has for me.
  1. Chaise-longue by Le Corbusier – I had decided to purchase one as a graduation gift to myself but I started designing the Tiny House immediately after graduating so I had to put aside my desire for the chaise-longue and use the money I had saved to build a part of the house. You might notice that I built myself a sort-of chaise-longue on the roof: the roof of my house is tilted so that I can sit up there just like on a chaise-longue.
  1. Oven – I love eating well, and I don’t like ready-meals, but I don’t often feel like cooking and an oven would be a great help. Unfortunately, I don’t have space for an oven in the house.
  1. Dishwasher – I don’t like washing dishes, glasses, and cutlery but it’s the same thing as the oven, I don’t have the space.
  1. Disposable plastic plates, cutlery, and glasses – I’d love to use these for convenience, but they make me too angry. I hate plastic plates; I can’t stand them on the table. They would be so convenient, but I refuse to buy them due to ethics, sustainability, and aesthetics.
  1. Vacuum cleaners – I think I can do without a vacuum cleaner in such a small house, although I spend a lot of time cleaning. I want one but I don’t have one because I don’t think I really need it.
  1. Outdoor kitchen – I think I will probably end up getting one, I would love to cook outside. I am aware that it would be doubling up as I already have a kitchen inside the house, but the idea of cooking outside really appeals to me.
  1. Shoes – I like shoes although I always wear the same pair. I buy a lot of shoes which is a problem, but I do use them all. I get attached to shoes; I think of them as being imprinted with all my experiences.
  1. A new Mac. I frequently curse my 2009 Mac because it gives me so many problems at work. I would like a new one, but I refuse to buy one because it would make me a slave to an awfully expensive object and would limit me in many situations.
  1. Personal car – I would like one but we already have two in the family and having a car each isn’t sustainable in my opinion. I also like the idea of sharing an object. If I had to get a car, it would be a small (even though that would mean I couldn’t tow my house) black one.
  1. A Piaggio Porter – I’d like to turn it into a small mobile home, but I’ve chosen not to get one to ensure a little stability.
  1. Bathtub – I developed this passion when in Japan, where there is a culture of bathing and the act of relaxing. I often have a bath when I visit my parents which is something I hadn’t done since I was a child.
  1. An unlimited Ryanair voucher – often I’d like to go somewhere but I can’t because the plane ticket is too expensive. It’s something that has often held me back. I would love an open ticket so that I could act on my moments of madness.
  1. A plot of land for my house or a small house to use – I haven’t bought any land because I’m afraid to put down roots in one place and stop moving around with my Tiny House.

Words and photography by Luca A. Caizzi
Starring Leonardo Di Chiara

Time to read
21 min
Words by
Published on
19 November 2020
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