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Little Boxes | The Nation

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Little Boxes

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(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

I recently attended a meeting in New York City filled with urbanists discussing the question of affordable housing, when a developer proposed that what the city needed was a revival of the SRO (single-room occupancy) building, a type that originated as the boarding house but ceased to be legal for construction in 1954. His thought was that these would not be the flophouses of old but more like post-college dorms, right down to the group bathrooms—places of towel-snapping and bonhomie in which conviviality would substitute for space. This new class of very small apartments—“micro-housing,” as it’s come to be called—has been much discussed of late; indeed, the Bloomberg administration promoted such units as an important piece of the solution to our housing dilemma.

Micro-housing has a long history and embodies a range of ideals and ambitions crucial to both the social and architectural practices of modernism: workers’ housing, mass construction, prefabrication, egalitarianism, and more capacious ethical and artistic ideas about minimalism. The theory of “housing” is a relatively new one, emerging during the Industrial Revolution with the creation of a class that needed to be housed: the proletariat. In capital’s unregulated heyday, workers’ accommodations took the form of New York City tenements, Berlin Mietkasernen and the English endlessness of tiny room-over-room row houses. As a movement to reform the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions of these places arose in the mid-nineteenth century, it created a discourse that was simultaneously beneficent and disciplinary.

One outcome was the Existenzminimum, the “minimum-living” unit. This concept grew in response to a provision in the 1919 Weimar Constitution calling for “a healthy dwelling” for all citizens, as architects with a sense of experiment and social solidarity took heed. Walter Gropius, with typical noblesse, framed the question as one of “the basic minimum of space, air, light, and heat necessary to a man” who “from a biological standpoint needs improved conditions of ventilation and lighting and only a small quantity of living space, especially if this is organized in a technically correct manner.” This reductive impetus, informed by modernism’s stripped simplicity, produced a variety of housing experiments and projects built in the white-walled, asymptotic aesthetic of the “new objectivity.”

The search for minima also drew on modernism’s enthusiasm for technological elegance as well as its uncritical embrace of Taylorist “scientific” management, a double rationalization with efficiency as its touchstone. What better than a ship-shaped kitchen, precisely designed to put every appliance and cabinet within reach? This sense of technological enablement stands at the headwaters of both spatial and technical economy and consumer extravagance. The legendary kitchen designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky for Ernst May’s New Frankfurt social housing project in 1926 (perhaps no coincidence that one of the few important women modernists wound up doing the kitchen) is the predecessor of the bloated “labor-saving” kitchens of our own suburban ’50s: life is so much easier for the housewife!

But these two types are supported by completely opposite distributive ethics: there is a big difference between arriving at a minimum on the rise from deprivation and being circumscribed by it as a way of bounding personal entitlement. Much as American housing projects have looked to express, in their austerity, the limits beyond which the poor should not aspire, so the idea of a minimum existence oscillates between penitence and affirming, Shakeresque simplicity.

As they developed theories about the “minimum dwelling,” architects became increasingly interested in what Konrad Wachsmann—a German pioneer of architectural mass production—called “the dream of the factory-made house.” Modernist architecture, especially its interwar mainstream, was enamored with the possibility of constructing buildings with the same logic and efficiency that were rolling millions of cars off the assembly lines: in short, Fordist architecture, though there were some who saw this prospect through the lens of the people’s ownership of the means of production rather than capitalist optimization. But despite this yearning, most modernist architecture depended (and continues to depend) on traditional artisanship for its construction, a clear contradiction between aspiration and reality. Those crisp white buildings were achieved with a layer of stucco hand-applied over frames of poured concrete and infilled with brick laid in the traditional manner. Technology tended to arrive in systems—electricity, central heating, elevators, mechanical ventilation—rather than in structures.

The desire to bring buildings under the discipline of the factory has taken three main directions. The first is the complete box, whether built as a single house (think mobile homes) or as a stackable element like Legos (think Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ‘67), sometimes factory-finished down to the furniture. The second and far more pervasive is a system of partial structural prefabrication. Anyone who has visited the former Soviet Union will have seen the ubiquitousness of dreary-looking “panel” buildings—enormous houses of concrete cards, rapidly erected on site. Finally, there is the prefabrication of specific complex components—mainly bathrooms or kitchens—that can be quickly inserted, sometimes as a way of avoiding the use of unionized labor.

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