Q&A: Mimi Zeiger on design, density and her new book ‘Tiny Houses in the City’
Architecture critic and author Mimi Zeiger grew up in Berkeley with a Bronx-raised mother who she says had no patience for driving her anywhere.
So it’s no surprise that her latest book, “Tiny Houses in the City,” (Rizzoli, $29.95) focuses on creative pint-sized homes that are wedged into densely populated urban neighborhoods.
She begins the book with a 71-square-foot blue bike skyscraper in Hanoi designed by Swiss architecture firm Bureau A and ends with the 1,580-square-foot Buzz Court development in Silver Lake by Heyday Partnership. In between, she shares more than 30 homes in a variety of unconventional configurations.
“The book covers so many different types of housing,” she says “From David Baker’s Richardson Apartments in San Francisco to the Billboard House in Mexico City where a roof becomes a space for a house. It tells you something -- that housing can be anywhere.”
We recently spoke with Zeiger about the book, what she likes about her own neighborhood, and the Los Angeles conundrum of smart density versus dumb density.
How did the book come about?
I wrote the first book in the series, “Tiny Houses,” during the mortgage crisis. It was a moment where we were assessing how much stuff we really need and the sprawl to the suburbs. The second book “Micro Green: Tiny Houses in Nature,” was a response to the recession and a Walden-esque way of life. It was about being resourceful and eco-minded. This book is timely because people are returning to live in the city – look at the resurgence in downtown Los Angeles.
The homes seem to emphasize a connection to a tight-knit urban fabric.
On a personal level, I’m really interested in living in a walkable neighborhood. For me, the best part of my day is when I go for a walk and get a cup of coffee a few blocks away. I’m engaged in my neighborhood. That half-mile becomes my backyard. But if we look at other demographics in regards to aging in place – what if you’re an older person who is living in the suburbs and you can’t drive anymore – bringing people to the city can support them. Walkability and the relationship to transit is really important. Density can be beautiful if we manage what is happening on a street level.
How important is design in housing?
It’s not enough to just give someone a shelter. A home really needs a certain amount of consideration as to how you live in it. As we look at housing as a solution for helping the homeless and middle class -- especially in L.A. -- we have an opportunity to expand the vocabulary. We’ve never been tied down with what housing looks like in Los Angeles. We can have super interesting approaches to density here.
What about the boxy McMansions that are taking over several L.A. neighborhoods?
Some independent developers will tell you that it is easier economically to do those big pro forma boxes. We need to question what these things are. Sometimes it means fighting it, or offering new options. I know that in San Francisco they are changing laws to allow accessory dwelling units. Not all new construction is bad.
You highlight Blackbirds in Echo Park and Buzz Court in Silver Lake as thoughtful density-driven developments.
They are by no means tiny homes. They are modest. But I wanted to stress that we need new solutions in how we live next to each other. Those two developments are good examples of small lot developments. They are much better than the maximized lots that aren’t well thought out. They use the public spaces in smart ways. It raises the bar in what small lots can be. They don’t have to be cookie-cutter things that intrude on a neighborhood. They have green areas and communal areas. And if we look back at L.A.’s courtyard housing, there is a history there.
Is there a collective thread that runs through these homes?
The things that I’m looking for are less about efficiency, and more about finding spaces that people would like to be in. That means good light and air. I like homes that take advantage of open air space or a garden. The interiors may be bare bones inside, but you may have access to a window and see something different every time you move across a space. So many people in the tiny house movement are looking for practical ways to live. I just want people to think about it.