Renters are seeing shrinking unit sizes nationwide. As developers seek higher density and higher revenue per square foot to offset rising land value and construction costs, more and more small-scale units are being developed. Like any building-typology, small space units as a result of both the financial constraints of the time and the dominant societal, political and architectural views from the early 20th century to today. This survey of small-space living underscores an understanding of the social dynamics of the built environment: how public policy has both encouraged and impeded certain typologies, how the single-room unit has been revived in the form of the micro-unit, how such a development can exclude the most vulnerable communities, and how rhetoric of “substandard” and “slum” fueled the destruction of hundreds of thousands of units.
The minimum dwelling unit offers a rich prism through which to parse shifting representations and ideologies of place and family life in American cities, and the urban crisis of an ongoing housing shortage because its materiality is always bound up with an intricate assemblage of meanings. Whether they are lauded or decried small units have been a long-standing part of American housing options. Culturally constructed realities of the domestic realm invoke complicated and complex ideas about privacy, work, gender, identity, family, subject formation, class, and cultural representations. This thesis is designed as a critical history of selected small space living unit focusing on changes in ideology and rhetoric surrounding small space living as it evolved from a constricting housing typology for the desperate to a privileged choice for urban dwellers as is seen with the micro-unit. Specific case studies of the architectural and spatial artifacts/typologies, discourse surrounding those debates, and the economic and social conditions that gave rise to these housing formats ground this work. By problematizing typologies, formats, and conventions this thesis seeks to elucidate ideologies of social inequality and racial discrimination that is embedded in the built environment, particularly within the domestic realm.