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.