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Newsmaker: Donald Albrecht

Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers will open at the Museum of the City of New York on January 23. RECORD spoke with the show's co-curator.

By Laura Raskin
January 18, 2013
Image courtesy The Durst Organization and Dattner Architects
Dattner Architects' proposal for New York City's adAPT competition is a micro-unit-only building with 60 apartments. The units are typically 300 square feet. The building would be an "80/20" project, where at least 20 percent of the units are set aside for households with incomes at 50 percent or less of the local median income. 

Micro-apartments are having a moment, and not just as conceptual exercises. In Boston, San Francisco, and other metropolises these tiny units—around 300 square feet—are becoming a reality. A new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York explores the changing demographic, social, and economic factors that could make micro-living viable and desirable in New York City. Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers runs through September 15. The exhibition includes micro-unit schemes, a full-size model unit, and proposals from New York City’s adAPT competition, which called on developer-architect teams to design a building of micro-units. Mayor Michael Bloomberg will waive zoning regulations at an East 27th Street site so the winning design can be built there. RECORD spoke with Donald Albrecht, the museum’s curator of architecture and design, who organized the show with curatorial fellow Andrea Renner.

Why did the museum decide to mount this exhibition?

In 2011, Citizens Housing & Planning Council [CHPC] of New York did a design charrette with the Architectural League of New York. They went to five teams and asked them to come up with new schemes for housing in New York City based on the knowledge that the population was going to grow by 1 million by 2030 and that almost half of the city is single. CHPC asked if we would want to work on an exhibition. We also look at projects from other cities across the U.S., Asia, and Canada. There are really beautiful new models and films of the projects that reflect the architects’ further thinking about the idea. The most fantastic part is that there is a full-scale, 325-square-foot micro-unit in the museum [built and designed by Clei, Resource Furniture, and Amie Gross Architects]. We’re trying to show that you can live comfortably in a smaller space.

Image courtesy Museum of the City of New York
The Penguin House, designed by Atelier Tekuto, has 899 square feet of floor space.
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Some of the criticism of micro-units is that they’re not very affordable for the type of person they’re meant to attract—young, single, underpaid. Does the exhibition address any of the criticisms of the trend?

We don’t deal with cost at all. I came to feel that the show is complicated enough. It’s not a beauty show. There’s already a layer of information that has to be gotten across. Let people come to their own conclusions. We are doing a series of public programs where those issues will be aired. It will be interesting to see how the public and the media respond.

Another criticism of micro-units is that they would require cities to relax building codes.

Are we going to go back to building SROs? Architects argue no. But that is one of the specters. The architects show that yes, it’s a small unit, but there are things that ameliorate that. Peter Gluck [whose micro-unit design is featured in the show] points out that in the old days, with thick walls and small windows, you didn’t get a lot of light. Now, with larger glass panes and thinner walls, you can get more light into small spaces. Technology has changed.

What was challenging about organizing this exhibition? It’s very different from, say, the Eero Saarinen exhibition you curated at the museum in 2009.

It was challenging to understand the story. In a way, I served as a journalist translating the ideas for our general audience. The exhibition fleshes out a problem that needs to be addressed: legal living for young people coming to the city; getting people off of the Craigslist culture; stopping people from putting up sheets and walls to make new rooms that are illegal. There’s an “aha” moment we’re trying to show here. It’s so difficult to do an architecture show when the “thing” isn’t in the gallery. But here they will see a unit. People may walk in and say, “I could never live in a micro-unit.” We try to let the public flesh out the ideas.

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