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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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These types of industrialized urban housing have never taken hold in American cities, despite the vast deployment of mobile homes and the on-site assembly-line practices that enabled the construction of replicant suburbs like Levittown. But now the buzz is back, and a number of projects using factory technology are under way in New York City. The largest of these is Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, where construction is moving along on the world’s tallest modular building, the first of fifteen. The developer, Bruce Ratner of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center arena, estimates a 20 percent savings in construction costs over conventional methods. Will any of these be passed along to tenants, or will they merely reduce the bottom line? And how much of the reduction will result from lower-priced labor? (Although unionized, the factory workers building the modules make about 25 percent less than the typical construction worker.)

It’s clear that something must be done about housing costs, and this is the aim of both modularization and the micro-unit. In early 2012, New York City launched a competition called adaptNYC, which received thirty-three proposals for micro-housing from developer/architect teams; a pilot project designed by the winner, nArchitects, will go up on 27th Street in Manhattan. I am particularly fond of a photo that appeared in the Daily News following the announcement of the competition: Mayor Bloomberg stands with the then-commissioners of city planning (Amanda Burden) and housing preservation and development (Mathew Wambua, now in the mortgage business) in an outline of one of the tiny apartments drawn on the floor. It’s a space that could hardly accommodate the wine cellars or wardrobes of Bloomberg or Burden. In an Atlantic story on “The Health Risks of Small Apartments,” writer Jacoba Urist notes that research “has shown that crowding-related stress can increase rates of domestic violence and substance abuse.” My CUNY colleague Susan Saegart, quoted in the same article, suggests that the success of these micro-units would shake out according to the demographics of the occupants: fun—even useful—for young singles fresh off the bus and otherwise obliged to cram in with roommates, but potentially disastrous for couples, a parent with a child, or older people, on whom the cramped conditions and lack of privacy would weigh heavily, perhaps even disastrously.

These micro-units can be as small as 250 square feet—too small to actually hold a reasonable array of furnishings (the bed will have to be a Murphy)—and would require a change in the city’s zoning laws, which set a 400-square-foot minimum for dwelling units. Saegart points out another crucial consequence of the widespread construction of these units: erected in large numbers, they are likely to raise the ground rent for all apartment buildings (by increasing return per square foot), which would force those who might have otherwise been able to afford a studio or a one-bedroom place to downsize. A recent report from New York University’s Furman Center confirms this risk: in one micro-housing project in San Francisco, units will rent for almost 50 percent more per square foot than the city average for a studio apartment. According to Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, “It’s disingenuous to say it creates affordable housing—it’s just that you get significantly less space.”

This new iteration of micro-housing reverses more than a century’s effort to eliminate overcrowding and expand quality. The defenders of these initiatives may cite the pleasures of dorm life, but what underlies their arguments is the increasingly pervasive density absolutism—often masquerading as urbanity—that afflicts a large segment of the planning establishment, for whom the answer to the unforeseen consequences of development is always more development.

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Housing types invent their ideal subjects and reify their status. In her Atlantic article, Urist reminds us of the misalignment between New York City’s 1.8 million one- and two-person households (around 33 percent of us are single) and our current housing stock, which includes only 1 million studio and one-bedroom apartments. The idea that there is a class of tenants who must ever trim their spaces to their demographic status is truly invidious, a return to the calculation central to the Existenzminimum, a designated minimum spatial entitlement that government is to regulate and enforce. It’s the same argument that insists elderly people in large apartments (particularly in New York City Housing Authority or rent-regulated units) are somehow cheating the rest of us and would obviously be better off in a smaller, more “manageable” place. Again, an aspirational minimum—a chicken in every pot—is one thing; an ongoing process of defining that minimum down to correct the “misalignment between the nature of the stock and the needs of renter households” (in the words of the Furman Center) betrays a lack of both imagination and compassion. Needs are not quite so easy to quantify, and some things cannot be reduced to numbers.

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The city’s proposed micro-apartments are the size of hotel rooms (and not suites!) and are similarly geared toward transience: starter apartments for tenants who, having paid off their massive college debts, will move on to fine co-ops. Advocates argue that these micro-apartment complexes will—like hotels—offer a range of amenities (a gym, a nice lobby, perhaps a shared kitchen) that will effectively supplement the meager private living spaces and induce a sense of communal contentment, though without the authentic communalism of ownership or a shared project beyond lifestyle. This may be true for some young singles—as it is for elderly people who are ready for smaller apartments—but there is no legislation to compel these amenities, and no evidence to suggest that the real estate industry will work overtime to fill buildings with gyms and solaria when an exercise room could as easily be swapped out for another apartment or two. And the fantasy of easy mobility hardly reflects the experience of most New Yorkers and their difficulties in finding and hanging on to a decent living space, particularly those that are not rent-controlled or rent-stabilized.

There’s a likely convergence between the design of micro-units and factory-built modules, and it’s certainly possible that the type could take off if the law so permits. New York City’s first true modular apartment building—the Stack, erected in a mere nineteen days—opened recently in Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood of Inwood. It’s a nice-looking building (designed by Peter Gluck), but the apartments are a more conventional mix of unit types, none of them micro. This is a promising development that should help diminish resistance to modular construction by those who know it only through its shabbiest and most unattractive examples. Isn’t this a better idea than stuffing people into spaces that can only be inhabited by childless Zen masters and anal-retentives? Shouldn’t the city be a place where the investigation is of how to produce choice and not compulsion?

The parlous state of the environment demands that we all dramatically reduce our ecological footprint, and building has a critical role to play here: the era of the McMansion must end. We must also recognize that we’re living differently from our parents, that America’s demographics are shifting dramatically to smaller households, that there’s a mismatch between supply and demand. It’s crucial that we stop assuming the nuclear family (a shrinking minority) as our paradigm and start producing a variety of housing that fits our actual habits and needs. But even diversity has its limits: these apartments are simply too small.

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