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Review> Considering Smallness
Ian Volner explores micro-apartments' big promise of living small at the Museum of the City of New York.
LaunchPad apartment by Amie Gross Architects.
John Halpern

Making Room:
New Models for Housing for New Yorkers

Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
Through September 15

Few New Yorkers, and fewer still young ones, would agree that oversized apartments are among the prime bugbears of city living. For thousands, perhaps millions, a single room in a tiny share is all they can hope to call home, and persons with spacious one-bedrooms all to their lonesomes tend to be the envy of their friends.

Ironically, this condition is partially the legacy of 20th-century urban reformers, who agitated for decades to introduce measures like mandatory minimums on apartment size and mandatory maximums on occupancy. When one considers the massive overcrowding so prevalent in Gotham even as late as the 1950s (think of the old “hot beds” of Harlem, where day laborers slept by night and nightshift workers by day), the efforts of those crusading do-gooders seem reasonable enough. But today things have changed. In too many neighborhoods, the smallest allowable apartments—400 square feet in some sections—have become astronomically expensive. Rather than pony up for an apartment of their own, renters simply pack in the roommates, regularly flouting the rarely enforced occupancy guidelines.

The LaunchPad apartment showcases convertible furniture, where a bedroom (right) can become a dining room  or living room (left).
John Halpern

But what if people on a budget could find budget-sized apartments to match? That’s the premise of the new show at the Museum of the City of New York, Making Room: New Models for Housing for New Yorkers. On view  through September 15, the exhibition imagines junking a few longstanding regulatory bars to help create modestly-sized, more flexible residences that reflect the way urbanites live now.

The germ of the show is a “Design Challenge” sponsored by the non-profit Citizens Housing & Planning Council and the Architectural League of New York. Five teams of architects were tasked with developing proposals that could meet existing standards on things like fire safety and building height, but that would toss out the rulebook on square footage, apartments per building, and a number of other age-old shibboleths of the housing code. The schemes (six in all, confusingly, since one group presents two) appear in renderings and models, and they’re complemented at the rear of the space by photos and wall text about mini-apartments that have sprung up in other cities around the world, from San Francisco to Tokyo to Montreal.

An array of bungalow additions in Queens by Gans Studio.
Courtesy Gans Studio

Also included in the show—and perhaps its most appealing feature—is the LaunchPad, a demonstration apartment created by Italian interior designer Pierluigi Colombo of firm Clei in collaboration with New York-based Amie Gross Architects. At 325 square feet, the L-shaped room occupying the center of the gallery is tricked out with a suite of clever items from Resource Furniture that turn it into an inhabitable Swiss Army knife. Almost everything folds out of something to become something else, from the shelf that turns into a bed to the chair that turns into a step ladder. The space is as homey as it is ingenious, though it is by no means clear what it would cost to actually furnish it as displayed.

Of the concepts presented in the “Design Challenge” section, the real standout is “Block/Tower,” the contribution from architects Stan Allen and Rafi Segal. The proposal is less distinguished for what it does than what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t entail much new construction, but rather the adaptive reuse of existing commercial office towers—with which the city has long been glutted—retooled as residential high-rises. Where cubicles once reigned, the architects imagine a rich array of recreational and mixed live-work spaces. Best of all, perhaps, the architects would do away with the wasted space at the base of so many commercial skyscrapers, filling them in with what they term “Urban Cabins,” clusters of small apartments laid out around innovative common spaces.

The Scaletta Apartments in Tokyo by Milligram Studio.
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Making Room does suffer a bit from its own smallness, and the other proposals sometimes seem a bit cramped conceptually and less than fleshed-out visually. (Likewise there be seem to be a couple of obvious curatorial oversights—a video on a Japanese project plays on a loop under a piece of wall text reading “Hong Kong.”) The intrinsic difficulty of thinking big about getting small is amply demonstrated in a project that receives a brief treatment in the show: adAPT NYC, a new project being constructed at the behest of Mayor Bloomberg on Manhattan’s East Side that actually realizes the premise of Making Room, with apartments ranging from 250-350 square feet. As evident in the renderings, the residences will be adequate but fairly uninspired, lacking as they will the gee-whiz fixtures seen in the LaunchPad.

Whatever the disappoints of the design, however, they may matter little in the end to the lucky residents who will finally be getting an apartment of their own, however small it may be.

Ian Volner

Ian Volner is a New York-based writer and Critic.


Backyard cottage in Seattle by Backyard Box.
John Keatley