© C. Bay Milin, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York.

A “micro-unit” as envisioned by Pierluigi Colombo in an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York (© C. Bay Milin, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

Do you know anyone who lives in New York with three roommates? How about someone who lives in a tiny studio apartment?

If so, you may be consorting with a lawbreaker. That’s right: in most of New York City, the maximum number of roommates who can share an apartment, legally, is three. And every apartment must be at least 400 square feet — which is pretty big, aka expensive, for a studio.

In the 20th century, when the poor of this city lived in cramped, dimly lit, disease-ridden tenements, our housing regulations were protective. But consider today’s stats: 33 percent of NYC’s households are single people who live alone. Fifteen percent are childless couples. Six percent are unrelated, cohabitating adults. (Remember, that’s six percent of households, which contain multiple people.) Is the three-person maximum benefiting college grads who can’t afford to live here unless they split rent five ways? How about single people who would choose a “cozy” space over bankruptcy any day?

Making Room at the Museum of the City of New York opens with this bewildering quandary: our housing regulations have become entirely unsuited to our demographics.The stats and laws, presented at the beginning of the exhibit via appealing 3-D bar graphs and pie charts, are made so clear that even the legalities of “accessory dwelling units” spark indignation in the humble NYC-residing visitor. Basement apartments and detached “granny flats” are basically not allowed? Are you serious?


Consider the lofter (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

If the antechamber functions to raise hackles, the payoff is sufficiently satisfying: enter the main room of the exhibit and you’re greeted by a swell of architectural and design possibilities that, given a little legal leeway, could address this dilemma. The best of the housing solutions go even further, reimagining the way we relate to our apartments and the people who share our space. Overall, the effect is that of eavesdropping on a brainstorming session of brilliant people with fine motor skills and a steady supply of caffeine.

First are the results of a 2011 project in which five architectural teams were asked to disregard various regulations and design new housing; they’re presented via intricate, and in some cases beautiful, models, pictorials, and wall text. My favorites don’t just maximize the number of singles and couples who can reasonably fit in each building, but recognize the isolation inherent in this lifestyle and encourage neighborly run-ins. In one, the apartments themselves are tiny, but there are a ton of shared spaces in the building, shown in captioned depictions along the wall: “A sunny rooftop laundry room serves as the building’s social mixer”; “Residents get together in particular rooms facing sunny terraces.” (There’s also a picture of the miniscule proposed bathrooms, which “fold away, saving room for living,” as well as one of a man standing in front of his toilet: “A screen affords enough privacy.”)

Once you’re ramped up by these models’ sense of possibility, you find out that last year, Mayor Bloomberg actually asked developers and architects to submit proposals for a building with units as small as 250 square feet — and the winning design is going to be built, starting next year! In fact, other states and countries are way ahead of us: a “Beyond NYC” section has photographs and descriptions of innovative housing in Japan, Canada, California, Washington, and Rhode Island.


Block Tower Partial cutaway model showing residential public space (2012) (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Of course, one could counter: what sense of possibility? Isn’t there a downside to stuffing people into smaller and smaller spaces? The question is a complex one, because it begets another: do these housing models actually address present demographic realities, or do they just enable and encourage further overcrowding in a never-ending loop? The answer isn’t clear, and may in the end simply depend on where you want to and are willing to live. But this particular exhibit makes a convincing case in favor of space saving, and from a purely design-oriented perspective, the elegance of the solutions offered is thrilling.

In the center of the room is the absolute high point of the exhibit, which you could explore first but should save for last. It’s a walk-in model of a “micro-unit,” a 325-square-foot apartment that uses space more efficiently than most of us could dream up. Folding chairs hang on wall hooks, a flat-screen television slides to the right to reveal a bar cabinet, a chair becomes a stepladder, a dining table rolls into a stowaway space under the kitchen counter, and an ottoman comes apart as a set of four stools. It is physically gorgeous, modern and spare — not everyone’s taste, but you’d be lucky to live in the micro-unit, trust me. And I’ve given away less than half of its mind-boggling space-saving innovations, so you’re still in for surprises.

The narrative of Making Room, in which a bewildering conflict resolves in imaginative solutions, is an eloquent argument in favor of adapting both our strictures and structures to our current needs. It’s about making room, both literally and psychically, for new ways of inhabiting our city.

Making Room continues through September 2 at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

Jessica Gross is a freelance writer based in New York. She has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, and The Atlantic Cities, among other places.