Working through the design of a small space raises a host of issues related to the philosophy and limits of design. Below is an attempt to sketch answers to questions I posed to myself at the outset of this project.
Does design form us? In the Poetics of Space, Bachelard writes that ‘the house remodels man’. In decorating, designing or building a space, it seems there is an implicit faith that an ordered environment might help us create an more ordered, if not moral, life. At the neighborhood level, a few pages of Jane Jacobs confirms how neighborhood design profoundly influences our sense of community and security. In my own neighborhood, it is easily observable that row house neighbors with front porches tend to communicate with their neighbors far more than the porchless row homes across the street. And at a personal level, an ordered environment helps many to attain a clarity of mind and sense of agency. Yet one does not have to linger long on some obvious failures of this logic. Life in a Dwell spread will likely do nothing to relieve existential anxiety or the relationship with our lover. Life in the White House did apparently little for Mr. Bush. The finest of buildings, big or small, may do nothing greater for us than some warm soup, as much as we may like to believe otherwise when conversing with our architects, or selecting a dining set.
Does design represent us? There is a reverse narrative we also hear: beautiful space represents a natural expression of an ordered mind and goodness, just as disorganization is at times correlated directly with personal crisis– as every hoarder story and portrait of American poverty quietly reinforces. Architecture and design certainly represents our wealth and tastes. But on an individual level, correlation is not causation, and there is often no relationship between the two, as many a brilliant intellectual thrives in disorder or sprawling office parks. So why does the notion persist that folded clothes and beautiful spaces are somehow the outward manifestation of a peaceful, ordered psyche? Perhaps because we so desperately wish it were so. Really many of us are a regular mess, but our clean sight lines and stainless steel appliances imply (plea?) otherwise. Thus the careful design of space may just as likely be a physical representation of deeper insecurity, an attempt to control the ordering of space when we feel weak to control anything else, even if we are a Hearst or a Frick.
Should we detach from design? The idea that design represents or forms us may have a darker undertow. It is an admission that the external environment influences one’s own sense of well being– allows stacks of paper, strewn clothes and dirt to readily distract from greater focus. So the unclean cup can suddenly become another diversion demanding address, like a text message or iPhone app, ready for the monkey mind to seize, at the expense of sustained attention. So stained walls and suburban banality become a source of regular anguish.
The Stoic and Bhuddist counsel: do not let contentment rest on an ideal or unkept space, a perfect (tiny) house or a soiled couch. Do not entertain the notion that the finest of spaces can elevate. And do not spend energy attempting to order spaces that time is forever sending into chaos. Yet it seems detachment is most frequently invoked when places and people are particularly unwelcome and dour. It is perhaps, as de Botton writes, a “detachment that stem(s) not so much from an insensitivity to beauty as from a desire to deflect the sadness we would face if we left ourselves open to all of beauty’s many absences”. So if it can be attained, a prescription of detachment may leave us stable but possibly separated from tremendous beauty, and perhaps less resolved to improve the world around us. I sense this powerful tool is best left uniquely to situations that cannot be changed through our actions, and have a corresponding capacity to depress us.
Aspirational spaces. In light of the ruminations above, it seems design and architecture are perhaps best viewed as aspirational activity that plays a supporting role to the kind of life we would like to have, provides a representation of happiness, and supports the values we most desire to reinforce as we rise from bed each day. We are generally weak to that which surrounds us, and so while a space cannot fully ‘remodel’ us or a community, it can provide daily reinforcement of our conception of the good life.
What then, does this imply for the house, particularly the small one? Apart from providing basic shelter and comforts, what are the values the structure shall attempt to convey and to buttress? If on a blustery day the small house walls could quiver, this is what I hope it might say:
- beauty is a perfect form of order, fused to complexity. The clean lines of modernism represent to me all order, and suggest a corresponding sterility of existence. And the modernist impulse that science and practicality may entirely dictate the form of a structure does not seem to ring true– within the placement of clean lines and open space lies considerable discretion, and an underlying notion that space might order life. And what kind of life? I find much of what Corbusier designed akin to the lithe legs and perfect skin of a model with little to say- a lovely fling, but rather difficult to engage through years of dinners. Complexity needed. Yet by contrast, a rococco interior implies a stultifying complexity and affectation that covers the essence of the structure and (by implication) perhaps that of life itself. The balance of order and complexity is a delicate one I find in rows of ordered books and clear jars of food, the varied grain in parallel tracks of old wood flooring, and in neatly spaced District row houses, each residence conforming to strict height and width requirements yet each a subtle, unique variation of the next. In each case, beauty is independent of scale, and perhaps smaller scale allows ever greater attention to crafted quality.
- a contented life is independent from the scale of dwelling. From Vetruvius’ primitive hut to Thoreau’s cabin to the modern tiny homes, each small structure sounds a similar refrain: human material and space needs are basic. We all understand the richness of life is often as simple as fresh pasta and meaningful relationships, independent of house size. And much of the richness of life is found outside of the home, in the woods, in gardens, in cafes and theaters, visiting friends and traveling. Moreover, the small house quietly argues that larger dwellings have not made us any more content. In their fine 2005 article Small is Beautiful U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment, Alex Wilson and Jessica Boehland note as house sizes have increased from 1100 ft2 to 2340 ft2 from 1950-2002, average occupancy fell from 3.67 family members to 2.6. Thus “in 1950 houses were built with about 290 square feet (27 m2) per family member, whereas in 2003 houses provided 893 square feet (83 m2) per family member — a factor of 3 increase”. (Note that an individual living in the 210 square foot mini-1 represents a 28% deviation from 1950’s norms- hardly a radical move, at least 60 years ago). Moreover, if the social scientists studying subjective well being are to be believed, larger home sizes over the past 60 years have not not been attended by any reported increases in contentment. It may be because we now have 3x as much cleaning, maintenance, and decorating to do (and even if one does not do these tasks oneself, time and energy is spent finding, scheduling, supervising and paying for those doing the work). Or perhaps it is because we simply adapt to circumstances. Recent psychology studies of paraplegic accident victims and lottery winners strongly suggest that humans adapt rapidly to positive and negative changes in their world, and readily return to their baseline levels of happiness. The so called ‘adaptation principle’ gives some additional insight as to why increasing house sizes have had no bearing on self reported well-being, and why scaling down is rarely as difficult as we may perceive it to be. The latest findings in psychology point to a strong influence of genetic makeup on self reported well-being, and a corresponding weak relationship of environmental and demographic factors. (see Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis).
- the world is on fire, but we might still live well without adding much kindling. All else being equal, the modern trend toward larger houses and fewer people per house leads to a dramatic decrease in energy efficiency per occupant. While the average U.S. household now uses around 958 KwH of electricity a month (or 368 KwH per person at current average household size), the structure will quietly demonstrate that an individual may live just as well on an average of 100 KwH/month, with a corresponding decrease in building materials. Thus the small structure will aspire to show convenient living with little energy use.
- life is best shared. The house is intentionally sited next to 3 similar structures on a shared plot of land with a community garden, and situated in a dense, walkable urban neighborhood. The ordered row of small homes will mirror the rows of District row homes behind them. As such, the house location reflects the value that community matters, and perhaps is as compelling an option as any suburban or rural location. Interpersonally, it is easy to assume tiny house conveys a message that cohabitation or family life is undervalued. Yet nothing in the size of the structure impedes one from sharing a bed, a meal or a story with our significant other or family. The structure in fact acknowledges what so many roommates, siblings, and lovers discover after a few weeks of life together: a need for personal time and space. As such, a second detached structure (or a slightly larger, foundation built structure, could we legally build one) may provide such space apart, as so many have found by with a backyard office or garage workshop.
©2012 Brian Levy