‘PEOPLE have birthday parties here,” my mother-in-law mentioned when we visited her at Arlington Town Hall. “People don’t have the space anymore.” My husband and I looked out into the expanse of the auditorium where these parties can take place. I pictured balloons rising past the gilt of the room’s proscenium arch, ponies trotting by on shiny linoleum. OK, perhaps no one, not even someone with a lot of square footage, would have birthday ponies traipsing through their homes, but my mother-in-law had a point: How we use space has changed. How we think of space is evolving.
This is one of the driving forces behind micro-apartments — teeny living spaces designed to limit the amount of space a home requires to feel like home. The concept is getting attention from urban planners and developers around the world. Boston’s own micro-apartments, possibly 450 square feet each, are set to go up in the fast-growing Seaport District in the near future. They promise to solve many dilemmas at once by creating relatively affordable Boston housing while drawing young professionals to live in the city, filling now empty real estate, which in turn will create more opportunities for commerce.
Micro-apartments are also part of a recession-era trend toward trading in McMansions for studio spaces and downsizing how we live. Yet the level of ingenuity small spaces require has fascinated me for ages. I trace this back to when my parents would fantasize about vacationing in RVs. Beds that are also benches? Neat! A bathroom as narrow as a linen closet? Sign me up! While our own home was not a sprawling colonial, I grew up in a time and area where space — a formal dining room, a garage, a basement — was expected. So an RV was exciting. A love of small living can even bind people together; a shared delight at the idea of Murphy beds is one of the common interests that contributed to my husband being “the one.”
The question of how much space we need has taken on new urgency as our large homes face foreclosure or emergency refinancing. People are improvising: In one case I recently came across, an engaged couple shared a minuscule studio, using loft space for sleeping and tripling their living room as den, office, and dining area. There was also a fellow living in some 78 square feet that he had arranged with the kind of simplicity that RV fans would have to admire.
Taking the idea to a poignant extreme, Berlin-based architect Van Bo Le-Mentzel has introduced his “One-Sqm-House,” which is being exhibited as part of the BMW Guggenheim Lab. A refugee from Laos, Le-Mentzel became preoccupied with the concept of home. His house — which, as its name suggests, occupies only a square meter — is a wood frame on caster-like wheels. An average-sized person can fit inside it easily and view his or her surroundings through wire mesh. Because it rolls it is portable. Home is always with you, always within reach.
Yet in this efficiency of space, we also lose something: What struck me about all of these homes is their lack of clutter — and their lack of pictures. There is nary a photograph of those who came before or of those who inhabit these individuals’ lives now.
In Boston, micro-apartments are being championed as places for individuals to rest their heads and store their chargers in between nights out at eateries and chat sessions in coffee shops. It’s this resting idea that’s got me hung up. For years I’ve written on the couch under a blanket. But many people need physical space to think, and if the places to rest and reset our minds are given less space in our homes, how might that shape our intellectual and creative selves?
One developer points out that moving people into common spaces is the idea behind this type of living: to spend less time lounging in our homes — surfing the Internet amid all our possessions — and more time elsewhere. But we have an ambiguous relationship with elsewhere: Many of us do not go elsewhere without ear buds.
Maybe this is an opportunity to look toward how other cultures use space. Other densely populated cities have lived this way and prospered. What lessons are there to learn as we celebrate a shift away from dining rooms and finished basements?