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Making Room for Americans

SEVERAL HOUSING TRENDS emerged during the late 20th century, each innocent, even alluring, in its own way. But when weaponized, as I argue they have been, they have wrought every city’s living hell. If not hell, then purgatory for sure, a waiting room for an indeterminate amount of time before a person can move on to a better place.

Blame Manhattan’s SoHo. Remember lofts, enormous open living spaces carved out of former industrial buildings? “Carved out” is inaccurate, in fact. The buildings were simply sliced horizontally, with each floor, all that wide open space, occupied by one household. Rooms? Who needed them? Oh yeah, most loft dwellers came to appreciate discrete, private places to sleep and excrete, often as children arrived or as all that open space began to seem downright drafty.

But a funny thing happened over time. “Loft” morphed into “loft-like,” dwelling units that bore no resemblance to real industrial lofts except that developers didn’t have to provide such expensive things as walls and smooth ceilings to conceal the heating and cooling ducts.

The next trend also stemmed from the loft: the open kitchen. What does it matter if the kitchen is visible from the living room if it’s 40 or 50 feet away? In fact, it was kinda cool, given that we were all cooking with The Silver Palate Cookbook and shopping at Dean & Deluca. Those were good status markers to have out in the open.

“Open plan” became the way to go, although as floor space began to shrink, the plan was so open you could wash your coffee cup without getting up from the sofa.

I look at modern condo offerings and wonder how the kitchen invaded, even swallowed the living and dining rooms. But it’s clear I have it backward: We have allowed the living and dining “areas” to invade the kitchen. Of course we’re not talking about the days of the cheesy “No matter where I serve my guests / They seem to like the kitchen best.” We’re talking about the marble-and-cerused-oak “center of the home.”

It’s the trophy kitchen, all luxed up. But in fact it’s proof that we, like our soil-bound ancestors (or our tenement-dwelling immigrant forebears), feel tethered to the hearth, even when that hearth is now a stainless-steel Viking “pro style” range. Dual fuel, of course.

All this shrinkage of space brings us inevitably to (shudder) the micro-unit, apartments that can be as small as 260 square feet. That’s 10 by 26, folks, and too dismal to discuss. And now that nearly 30 percent of American households are single people living alone, the shrinkage seems concomitant with the societal trend.

All of this heavy breathing of mine is triggered by an exhibit at the National Building Museum opening on November 18, 2017 and running through September 16, 2018. It’s called “Making Room: Housing for a Changing America.”

The thesis of the show is that housing hasn’t kept up with “technology, the desire for smart density and environmental sustainability.” Micro apartments and shared housing are attempts to show us space-wasting Americans how small spaces can be adapted to meet many needs.

Except for the perceived need for . . . space.

I’ll go see the exhibit when it opens. Meanwhile, you’ll find me huddled around the old pro-style range, looking out into the dining room, which is separated by a whole, albeit short, hallway from the kitchen sink.

—Nancy McKeon

“Making Room: Housing for a Changing America,” National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW, Washington DC. The exhibit opens November 18, 2017.


2 thoughts on “Making Room for Americans

  1. Nancy says:


  2. Ginny says:

    A necessary lament

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