The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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MAY 2011 Issue

A Micro House of One's Own

Mimi Zeiger
Micro Green: Tiny Houses in Nature
(Rizzoli, 2011)

The experience of thumbing through Micro Green took me straight back to a recent summer vacation in Copenhagen. Like other tourists, I visited Christiania, the infamous hashed-out hippie haven in Copenhagen that’s dotted with green, micro, organic, sustainable, reclaimed dwellings on its 85 acres in the heart of the city. Some of the far-out dwellings in the Danish community look remarkably like those in Mimi Zeiger’s 7 by 7 inch little book. With its dreamy turquoise-colored book jacket, Micro Green is a collection of 36 sustainable homes—a gathering of “dream pods” in natural surroundings from around the world—a perfect read for day tripping and escapism.

In Zeiger’s book, the 36 houses are arranged according to size like nesting Matryoshka dolls, from teeny to biggish. The first home is called the “Mobile Eco Second Home.” Located in the UK, it is a 43 square foot garden-shed-on-wheels, sans electricity or plumbing, harking back to the size of my first NYC studio apartment. Largest in the book is the sumptuous 1722 square foot “Villa Vals” in Switzerland. Villa Vals looks as if an architect took a giant ice-cream scooper to the ground and carved out a partially subterranean Hobbit house, complete with a ninja-like underground 72-foot concrete entry tunnel. I’d move there tomorrow, in part, because I’m a sucker for energy efficient radiant floor heating (as was Frank Lloyd Wright, who describes discovering this marvelous comfort, savored by the ancient Romans, during a 1914 dinner visit to the house of Baron Okura in Tokyo. See Wright’s extraordinary 1954 book on organic homes, The Natural House).

The other 34 micro homes cover the full spectrum of what “green” can mean. Take for example, the 133 square foot “02 Sustainability Treehouse,” with its Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic dome, or “Flake House,” a 237 square foot home with unmilled logs piled up in shed fashion and held together visually by one large plate glass window that forms a wall. Zeigler’s use of the adjective “green” also encompasses an off-grid house that’s handmade with local materials, (the 250 square foot “Backwoods Skyscaper” in Vermont) but it also includes a home that qualifies as “green” primarily because the roof allows for installation of solar panels in the future. Hhmn. Don’t know about that one.

The homes in Micro Green are a love letter to simpler homes, times and lifestyles. They’re a backlash to the recombinant 21st century, so our outdated Pleistocene brains will have a chance to catch up with the prevailing conditions of the modern world. Many of the structures featured in Micro Green don’t allow for the conveniences of the modern home—no heating or plumbing—and bring to mind Situationist Ivan Chtchegliv’s remark made in 1953 that “A mental disease has swept the planet: banalization. Everyone is hypnotized by production and conveniences—sewage system, elevator, bathroom, washing machine.” Not so in many of Micro Green’s homes. Take “Boomhut,” for example, a 56 square foot home in the Netherlands with a staircase leading to a tiny pod that holds a mattress suspended in the open-air structure stretched between two trees.

Masahiko Shimada, one of Japan’s most prominent writers and visionary thinkers, recently challenged architects to create contemporary versions of “Nirvana Mini” based on the archetypal space of the traditional Japanese tea house. Like the micro house, Nirvana Mini is intended for a garden or forest setting. Some of Japan’s most famous architects like Kenga Kumo and Norihiko Dan, and New York architect Tony Winters submitted intriguing entries in the recent Nirvana Mini design competition that rendered this small archetypal structure for example in a single sheet of paper, or a rooftop mounted hidden chamber.

This collection of houses is heavy on the romantic idea of Thoreau’s escape into the woods, Walden-style, and Zeiger cites Walden as “perhaps the best example of a tiny house.” But this version of “green” overlooks an increasingly important aspect of sustainability: population density. In a recent issue of The Economist, John Parker wrote that cities “already account for half the world’s population, a share that will rise to 70 percent by 2050.”

 Unless the occupants of these micro green homes are entirely self-sufficient and off-the-grid, these houses work better as personal utopias for the privileged minority than as solutions for an urban setting that are sustainable in the context of population density. There would just be too much energy spent transporting things to and from the secluded woods: like people, power, utilities, trash, and even construction materials to build with. After all, can everyone live in Walden?

The Micro Green homes resonate with another era—one in which people rejected the boredom of consumer society, opposed war, and organized protests to nuclear weapons. Add climate change, and certain aspects of 2011 are looking and sounding a whole lot like the ’60s. But the visionaries of the ’60s went beyond personal utopia to find some sustainable large-scale ways to go green—like the housing structure Habitat at the Montreal World Fair of 1967.

Still, personal utopia has its appeal. Micro Green’s “tiny houses,” with their eco-conscious designs, salvaged materials, and lush settings remind us that humans need a place to connect to nature and re-charge spiritually, maybe even make love, not war. Just pipe some Pink Floyd into my Villa Vals home, please.


Helen Mitsios


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

All Issues