It’s not often you experience an item in a gallery or museum through the soles of your feet, in fact most artists would probably rather you kept that bit of your anatomy well away from their creations. Right now though shoeless is the rule for anyone wanting to get inside the Beetle’s House or Studio Mumbai’s sliver of ‘in-between architecture’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Both structures are part of 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces, a project dreamt up by the V&A and the Architecture Foundation.

The Beetle’s House, designed by Japanese architect Teronobu Fujimori, is actually a tea house on stilts with an exterior of burnt, blackened wood that does look rather like a beetle’s carapace. To go inside the tea house you must take off your shoes – there’s a neat little stool to sit on while removing your shoes which is an integral part of the structure – and climb a short ladder. Sitting inside, feeling the slightly grainy floor underfoot and the bottom-friendly dip in the bench that lines two of the walls you’re struck by what clever tricks of perspective the tea house plays. Viewed from below it seems firmly anchored to the ground and not very high – camel’s hump rather than bird’s eye elevation. Yet a few steps up and through a trap door take you into a different dimension, a floating space suspended in the V&A’s medieval and renaissance galleries. A glance out of the tea house’s window gives the impression that you’ve climbed halfway up the Morlaix staircase, a towering carved wood construction from sixteenth century Brittany that stands just a stone’s throw away.

All the architects involved in 1:1 were asked to design buildings “informed by ideas about retreat and refuge”. Nineteen designs were submitted and seven were then selected and actually built at various locations throughout the V&A.

Fujimori’s tea/tree house is a cocoon, a perfect expression of that place everyone carries in their mind where it’s possible to watch the world and have the luxury of choosing just to think about it rather than react to it. In contrast to this rather abstract, dream-like concept of refuge Studio Mumbai’s reconstruction of a fragment of Mumbai’s “unauthorised architecture” is about refuge as an essential, practical need for shelter.

Built as a cast of what was an inhabited passageway between two industrial buildings this fudge coloured strip of small rooms, window niches and covered and open corridors is not much wider than the defensive walls of a medieval fortress. It’s the sort of space fairly well off people in a city like London would imagine being inhabited by birds and plants and fast food litter rather than people.

The ingenuity needed to make a home in what many people would see as a void, dead space, is evident in all the buildings in this exhibition, if in very different formats. Fujimori burns wood to toughen and preserve it, Helen and Hard Architects from Norway split willow to make a kind of wood tagliatelle which loops across the top of Ratatosk, a den made of ash trees rooted literally in Old Norse mythology. Sou Fujimoto used plexiglass to make his Inside/Outside Tree (see above) which is really more three dimensional snowflake than building.

It’s also interesting to see how five out of the seven 1:1 constructions make a feature of stairs and passageways, those communal, interlinking architectural elements which often get overlooked. As well as the Mumbai corridor house and the tea house’s short flight of steps into another world there is a library arranged around a staircase (Rintala Eggertson Architects), a series of ‘performance booths’ linked by a spiral stairway (Vazio S/A) and a woodshed by Rural Studio which is like a long veranda illuminated by a tree of lights.

This emphasis on shared, semi-public spaces might seem to contradict the idea of refuge as a secure, peaceful place but it does show how transitory it is, whether as a dream or reality. Our vision of refuge changes according to circumstance – Ratatosk is a woodland fairy tale, a dream of rural retreat for comfortable city dwellers, whilst the Mumbai house represents the struggle and ingenuity of millions of people who migrate to big cities in search of a better life. Apparently the Mumbai house has already been demolished as part of some urban development plan, leaving behind only its cast in another city halfway round the world. Refuge is always of the moment as well as the place.

Architects Build Small Spaces runs until 30 August 2010 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7

Image: Inside/Outside Tree Sou Fujimoto Architects © Victoria & Albert Museum, London