size, space, home

Bee's picture
Mon, 12/05/2011 - 03:09 -- Bee

Some burlesque performers from Seattle are booked to play a venue in my London neighbourhood for few months this winter and a friend asked for tips on where they should stay.

My first instinct was to answer "give up all hope," but that isn't very friendly.

The truth is that England in general, and London in particular, features the smallest and proportionately most expensive personal living spaces of any city in Europe. This means that affordable housing is scarce, sublets are either nonexistent or marked up, and nobody has room to let acquaintances crash.

600 square foot apartments are advertised as "generously sized." Rooms an American would consider small for storage space are listed as large doubles. This is true regardless of income: if you watch home design shows, bedrooms are given short shrift. Even in million dollar mansions, the rooms intended for children are never larger than 8 x 6, and that would be considered a "good" size. The occasional master bedroom might stretch to 12 x 12, but it would be expected to do double duty for other household purposes. The notion of space is simply different here.

My friend Ayun started her writing career with the East Village Inky, a zine describing life in small spaces in New York City. The first time I visited her, I marvelled at the compact nature of her apartment. Back then I paid a pittance to occupy a 2,100 square foot house in Portland perceived by myself and all of my friends as a modestly sized bungalow - possibly not quite large enough to suit a family of four.

Now I live in a place that is smaller than Ayun's flat, and twice as expensive - and it feels enormous, because by London standards, it is. Local friends come to visit and marvel not at how little I possess, but rather, by how much. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and an open plan living/kitchen room: what abundance! The fact that it is all crammed into a little over 900 square feet is immaterial, because here, it is the number of rooms that matter, not how big they are.

Life in the middle of a city is a cacophony of sound and pressure, a jostling and overwhelming experience. To have a space of your own to withdraw to, a door to close against the madness, is the ultimate luxury.

But what about the children, shouldn't they have more space? I would argue no. Babies don't need their own rooms at all; toddlers just need a toy box. Middling kids should have a retreat. Teenagers require privacy. Families should have a place to cook, eat, and talk together. None of those mandates translate to specific architectural requirements.

At various times in my life as a parent I have had no more than a single bed in a borrowed room. I've lived on a boat, in a hunting shack, owned a bungalow, rented a three story Victorian terrace house. I've slogged through corporate apartments, hotel rooms, all manner of temporary and irritating accommodation, dragging my children along with me. Now we have landed in a modern efficiency apartment in the middle of a historic city. Some of the places we've lived have been better than others, and I certainly have strong opinions about style and design.

But the fundamental, true fact is that my children thrived or suffered because of the actions of the people they knew, not because of the pitch of the roof over their heads.

Now when I look at housing costs in places like Portland and Seattle I am amazed at how little people pay, but also, that they feel they need such huge properties. I still own the 2,100 square foot bungalow, and rent it to friends. During a recent visit several people commented on the quirky nature of the house, on how it might perhaps not be large enough for more than two people.

Throughout the fifteen years I've owned it, and the ten years since I moved away, I have thought of that house as home. Looking at it again, and listening to my friends talk about space as some kind of essential birthright, I just thought about London. I thought about my tiny little apartment surrounded by miles and miles of tiny little apartments. In my mind, I started to call London home.

Home is where we live. Not the buildings we live in.


mamanopajamas's picture

YEAH!!!! more & more reasons I love you

exactly -- I wish you had written that for the "Home" issue of the Zine

 "Do not speak--unless it improves on silence." ~ buddhist saying (wow - my email on file was so old - it was from the old hipmama email!)

Susan's picture
Submitted by Susan on

It's weird having upgraded to a bigger house -- we lucked into something comparatively huge. The important thing was to get the now 13 year old her own space. One of the nice things about this space is that we spend time in pretty much all the spaces here. In our last house, we mostly spent time in about 800 sq feet of the 1200ish we had. And we have a positively decadent yard space.

It's a house from the 60's, and the construction didn't really allow for doing the fancy 'add a master bath' or anything, and it's not a huge master bedroom, but hey -- how big does a room have to be that one spends 95% of their time sleeping in, anyway? The big thing we have now that is massive bonus is we have a guest room. That is also ridonk decadent. We keep the cats out so Paul's folks can stay here.

We moved out of a 600 sq. foot apartment to a tiny 800 sq. foot house to 1200... The house we're now in is nearly 4 times the size of that first apartment, and could easily and comfortably fit another three people... If Paul weren't all Virginia Woolf about his writing space... So maybe just another two. I keep saying decadent, but I can't think of another more appropriate word for it.

Home is where I sleep. Place connections are strong, and I have areas that I consider homes, but not so much buildings, although I grow affectionate of them as well, some residual animism I've never really been able to shake, maybe. Home is a funny, fuzzy thing...

"Do not forget. Remember and warn." -- Plaque fixed to the hollow shell of Sarajevo's National Library

Bee's picture
Submitted by Bee on

The Victorian terrace house I lived in for awhile was three stories of absolutely nightmarish nonsense. Every single room was awkward and dark, and I spent all of my time walking dirty laundry down the stairs and clean laundry up the stairs. The bath, laundry, and kitchen were tacked on after the place was built, inefficient, and constantly breaking. The kitchen was the worst, because it was hidden away and had no place to sit or room for chairs. I was either alone, or the kids sat on the floor to hang out with me. It really was the worst house I had ever in my life even visited, and I had to live there for years.

Your old house had comparatively less in square footage, but vastly more in sense and aesthetics. I love your old house! It was so compact, but also had the magical trick of seeming much bigger than it was. Filled with light. I bet your new house does the same. Such huge windows! Such high ceilings! The midcentury modern (especially those in the NW) houses are full of tricks to maximise not just space but the appearance of it. When I saw the photographs it gave me a twinge.... I often wonder if I should have moved back, and the housing is the main temptation.

Though my Seattle house was very small, and it actually knew it. Do you remember? It was a 1910 one bedroom expanded haphazardly in the 1930's. Cute, but tiny. The woman who bought it knocked off the back wall and built several new rooms. And she lives there alone....

Susan's picture
Submitted by Susan on

Yep -- new house is like what our old house would be if it grew up. It does have a whole bunch of similar tricks and yes, as a result feels ginormous!

Your Seattle house was adorable. I really liked it the few times I ambled through. It seemed very livable to me.

"Do not forget. Remember and warn." -- Plaque fixed to the hollow shell of Sarajevo's National Library