How Small is Too Small?

The first few paragraphs of a recent New York Times article on architect Gary Chang's Hong Kong apartment read like a scene from a dystopian novel—from the Wii screen that "analyzes" Chang's movements, to the yellow-tinged light that spills through the window, simulating sunshine in the smog-choked megametropolis.

NYT2009010914414855C
NYT2009010914414855C

The newspaper story is ostensibly about how Chang has reconfigured his 344-square-foot apartment over the years, with its latest incarnation as a kind of file-cabinet for living, with sliding walls and a hydraulic Murphy bed. But the most poignant statistic is how the chronically cramped living spaces of Hong Kong contribute to elevated levels of domestic violence and even murder—proving, if not exactly empirically, that there's a minimum amount of personal space that humans need to keep from going insane.

Everyone's personal space boiling point is flexible, of course, and conditional: as a child, Chang lived in the very same apartment with his extended family (and a boarder), and never once pulled a Lizzie Borden. But as the economy slides and discussions of domestic architecture turn to modesty and sustainability, the issue of how much square footage people really need has returned. We know that most folks don't need soaring "great rooms," and few can afford to heat all that air space anyway. But no one, as far as I know, has determined the Golden Mean for personal space. My guess is that as infinitely flexible animals, humans adapt to the amount of home afforded to them. But as a former Manhattan resident, I also know that everyone has a threat-level of square footage hard-wired into them, that when exceeded exacerbates any simmering stressors. Working upwards from there, it may be possible to find a number that we can build to, making for more happy people, in more modest houses.

Image by Marcel Lam for The New York Times

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