Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Joanna Best

Published on April 12, 2013

  • Museum: Museum of the City of New York

  • Visit Date: March, 2013

  • Description:

    Like many of my twenty and thirty-something colleagues living in New York City, I live in an apartment I found on Craig’s List with two similarly aged individuals. None of us have much money to spend on rent or furniture and all of us have too many possessions to comfortably fit in the space we have. I am well aware there are hundreds of New Yorkers living in a similar situation to my own. What I do find surprising is that this lifestyle is now the subject of the Museum of the City of New York’s latest exhibition Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers.

    I have to admit, I did not know much about this particular show prior to visiting. A co-worker mentioned it in a conversation about interior design trends occurring in New York City. So, when I entered the museum, I thought I would find a bunch of apartment furnishings. Although I was not entirely misguided in my expectations, Making Room turned out to be a very different show. It examines the disparity between the amount of living space and the growing number of New York City residents. More specifically, it presents architectural and design solutions to the increasing lack of livable space.

    The problem of people versus space in New York City is something I have been aware of simply by living in this city. Flocks of people are everywhere! Yet pushing my way through crowds was the extent of my understanding. As if in anticipation, the introductory gallery space of Making Room, or entry foyer as I like to think of it, provides the necessary information to understand this space problem. Through video, text, images and graphs, the initial gallery cleanly lays out the challenge young individuals face moving to New York City.

    I found the presentation of information in this intro gallery to be an example of effective universal design. There were many different avenues from which to access the material. For example, the statistics on various types of individuals moving to New York City is illustrated as pieces of text printed on a series of blocks projecting out from a wall. The depth of the blocks directly relates to its particular statistic. The overall effect is a visual interpretation of percentages and number values.

    The other element of the introductory space I found successful was the use of visual literacy. One of the key dilemmas the exhibition discusses is the violation of safety codes, mainly the person to square footage ratio. This human to space relationship is presented in numbers, but each pairing has an accompanying image that uses black for the people and magenta for the space. I found these illustrations to be particularly effective because they repeated throughout the rest of the exhibition. The initial gallery then served to familiarize its audience with the vocabulary used throughout the show.

    Once inside the main exhibition space, the content is divided into multiple sections by subject matter. The trajectory of one’s experience is not dictated by the layout of the materials, allowing for movement between the different sections. However, there is one large, somewhat blocked off, piece of the show entitled the Micro Unit that is difficult to avoid. (I will get to that a bit later.) My personal path began with the more data based content. There were graphs, color blocked maps of New York City, and an interactive computer program showing the percentage of single individuals living in the United States by county.

    Yet what made me stop and think for the first time exploring this exhibition what a freeze frame image of a Craig’s List apartment listing. This item exemplifies how most low-income New Yorkers find their current apartments as well as illustrates how unsafe many of these dwellings are. Craig’s List does not have a secure monitoring system; so many postings violate state health codes, among other things. It was standing in front of this particular component that I realized Making Room was targeting me! It was about how I live my current life and how the exhibited architecture and design firms believe I should live my life. These models, plans and sketches are thus not simply fun examples of what living in New York City will be like in the distant future. They present a way of living in the here and now. All of a sudden, the proposals on display were about my personal future.

    It was with this realization that I entered the Micro Unit. The Micro Unit is a to-scale replica of one possible apartment design. I witnessed the various elements of the space as a guide showed delighted spectators all of the hidden compartments and multi-purpose furniture. There were many cries of delight and surprise, some of which came from me, but at the heart of the experience was the question, could I actually live here? Would I be happy in an apartment like this or go stir crazy because there is so little room?

    As I wandered through the rest of the exhibition, looking at the different apartment and apartment building models and sketches, I kept asking myself this same question. Could I live here? The exhibition did a wonderful job of presenting housing designs from across the world, with a particular emphasis on Japanese domestic design. Yet my connection as a potential tenant of these proposed living spaces was unavoidable and made me think about the feasibility of these designs.

    For me, what made this exhibition successful was its role as facilitator instead of dictator. It did not try to say whether these living proposals are good or bad ideas. Instead, it leaves the decision up to the audience. After all, it is the audience, mostly comprised of twenty and thirty-something New Yorkers, who inevitable will make the decision to live or not live in this type of housing.

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