Houses Within Houses

Kelly Chan Kelly Chan

Earlier this week, we discovered the concept of Schrebergartenglück, the joy derived from spending time in a small garden plot amidst many other small garden plots that was bestowed its own word in the German language. The Hütten Palast hotel in Berlin sought to parody this distinctly German source of gratification by converting a vacant vacuum-cleaner factory into a microcosmic city of caravans and huts, each with their own loosely defined plots demarcated by indoor plants and ‘outdoor’ seating.

The unusual arrangement reminded us of a particular project in Brooklyn: a loft designed by the architectural duo Deborah Grossberg Katz and Terri Chiao that would surely make any romantic German proud. It turns out that the beloved Cabin in a Loft in Brooklyn is now available to rent on Airbnb, ready to spread Schrebergartenglück through industrial Bushwick. Moreover, architect Terri Chiao, who in fact lives in a ‘cabin,’ has been using Airbnb as a platform to generate funds to further her visions. Read on.

A Cabin in a Loft in Brooklyn was conceived of as a series of houses within houses (hence the nested syntax of the project’s name). Located in a former textile factory building in Bushwick, the ‘cabins’ occupy an expansive space blessed with exposed brick and large windows but devoid of floor-to-ceiling dividers. Rather than construct conventional walls, KatzChiao imagined a sheltered neighborhood of wooden cabins. By housing sleeping areas inside two windowed, pitched-roof structures, one of which is elevated above ground like a tree house, the duo introduced a gradient of interior and exterior space within the loft that both at once establishes a warm sense of community and gives a complementing assurance of having your own space. Chiao herself has been a guinea pig of her own experiment, listing the loft in Airbnb and sharing her living space with various travelers and subletters.

Though the Bushwick cabins, like Berlin’s Hütten Palast, are positioned as places of leisure, more or less, the design is deserving of more serious consideration from architects and urbanists alike. As Chiao explained to us: “As much as the Cabin is allowing me to fund my own work and create my own space that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford on my own, it is also a suggestion for an alternate model of domestic inhabitation, one built on spatial economy, sharing, and self-action.  The environment itself is also a vision for creating nimble space that bends, grows, and embraces changes in the lives of the inhabitants.” Thus Chiao is crafting and inhabiting an alternative housing model that she believes functions as “a living system.”

At a conference entitled Making Room organized by the Citizens Housing & Planning Council and the Architectural League of New York last year in November, five design teams (one of which included Chiao) set out to envision new housing types and regulatory reforms for a city struggling to provide adequate housing for its diverse and growing population. Nearly every proposal suggested a rethinking of the ways we share space and resources in the city, many even calling for the same flexible, amorphous architectural form of “houses within houses” seen in Berlin’s Hütten Palast and KatzChiao’s cabin project. As utopian as these two projects appear, both in their concept and their aesthetic, some would argue that at their core lies a potential pragmatic solution to a housing crisis that is only growing larger in big cities like New York.

[All photos © Shawn Connell]

Read our previous post about A Cabin in a Loft in Brooklyn here!