Tuesday, August 26

Family life in small spaces

Michelle Obama briefly mentioned last night at the Democratic convention that she grew up with her parents and a brother all sharing a one-bedroom apartment on the south side of Chicago. She warmly remembered the time they spent as a family, with a working father and mother who was able to stay home with her children.

Most middle-class Americans would now look back at living arrangements like these with something like pity. We've convinced ourselves that each member of the family needs their own bedroom, that there ought to be space enough in a house for each person to be off on their own, whether its watching television, cooking dinner, taking a nap, lifting weights. We feel that we owe it to our children to have a privatized patch of grass for them to play on. Since we have, as a culture, internalized these requirements as the default "home," we have been required to make the necessary sacrifices to "provide for the family." This means that we have to live far away from cities where the land is cheap and commute every day. And perhaps we would scold Michelle Obama's mother for not working herself so the family could have more space.

But where did these laws come from? Is a spacious house really necessary for a family? Or, better yet, is it even healthy? Architect Sarah Susanka wrote a book a few years ago, Not so Big House, that managed to not only become a bestseller but launch a veritable movement. Her idea is pretty simple. Houses ought to be constructed at a human scale. Children implicitly understand that small spaces just feel to fit them better, but adults are often taken by notions of status and forget what they really need. Social psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated how constricted spaces are much more conducive to social interaction than large ones, where the collective human energy is lost. This, of course, also happens to be the most effective way to minimize a carbon footprint. (Consider for a moment the concept of an "eco-mansions"). It's also the only way to fit into urban ecologies, which require densities to be high enough to sustain their vibrancy and feasibility.

So when did we start assuming that we should live in as big a space as we could afford? Why do we feel we owe it to children, who don't really want that much space anyway? These burdensome social requirements have certainly not always been in effect.

1 comment:

Dave said...

Yea it seems the concept of the McMansion is so husband and wife don't have to ever speak to each other. As they each get their own rooms to exist within.