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Tiny Houses

By Mimi Zeiger. New York: Rizzoli, 2009, 240 pages, $29.95.

Reviewed by David Sokol

Tiny Houses immediately calls to mind another Tiny Houses, the 1987 pattern book in which Lester Walker interlaces 41 quirky spaces and personal observations. Inside, the architect-author devotes a chapter to the project that underpins both his and Zeiger’s more recent effort: Henry David Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond, the self-constructed building whose relationship with nature—ensconced by trees and invaded by wind and small creatures, yet located on the edge of town—still captures a certain American ideal about dwellings and engaging the landscape.

Tiny Houses
Image courtesy Rizzoli International Publications
Tiny Houses
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The latest Tiny Houses makes an obligatory reference to that 1845 touchstone in its description of Walden, a 73.5-square-foot freestanding volume by German product designer Nils Holger Moormann that reinterprets Thoreau’s drafty and mouse-nibbled walls. But for a small ladder-accessible slot meant for sleeping, this tool shed does not shelter humans.

Zeiger’s 35 other selections are less outrageous proposals for small-scale living. They range from economical urban compositions—such as a translucent plastic-clad lancet sporting attenuated, funhouse proportions in Tokyo and Parasite Las Palmas, a lime-green rooftop addition in Rotterdam—to essays in rural isolation like Delta Shelter, a well-known Tom Kundig house raised on stilts in Washington’s Methow River valley, to prefabricated residences and concepts. (All are described in efficient summaries that will appeal to daydreaming consumers, but which may disappoint fans of loud paper, the saucy and sharp-eyed blog that Zeiger founded as a zine in 1997.)

It would be wrong to draw too many similarities between Tiny Houses and the precedent set by Walker. The designs on display here are architectural accomplishments that encourage readers to reach for their wallets rather than tool belts. But in surveying them,  Zeiger updates Thoreau’s legacy for a post-industrial, post-handy present. Besides exploiting sunlight, views, or outdoor space to achieve a sense of expansiveness, these structures’ very modesty represents a less wasteful, more respectful relationship with the planet. And although some examples are not overtly green, homes that are both Lilliputian and earnestly sustainable, such as Steven Holl’s photovoltaic-clad, rainwater-collecting Turbulence House in Abiquiu, New Mexico, transport Thoreau’s ecological standard into the 21st century.

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