There was a time when few had a taste for tiny homes — indeed, a time when millions of us tuned in to television shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous expressly to revel in residential expanse and opulence. This is not to say that such straightforward “real estate porn” has vanished: like all twenty-first-century media, it’s just taken a variety of new forms. In its more than twenty-year run, HGTV’s House Hunters and its many spin-offs have catered to viewers who slaver over mansions, but also to those whose tastes run from houseboats and tropical islands to recreational vehicles and off-the-grid compounds. The inevitable debut of Tiny House Hunters came in 2014.
For a variety of reasons, many members of the last couple of generations have come of age without the desire — and often, not coincidentally, without the means — for a large living space. Over the past fifteen years or so, popular culture has metabolized this condition into an enthusiasm, and for some an obsession.
The die-hard tiny-home enthusiast watches Youtube channels like Never Too Small: since its launch five years ago, it has uploaded more than a hundred videos so far, each of which offers a brief guided tour of a different tiny home led by the architect who designed it. These include diminutive residences in cities the world over, from Paris and Amsterdam to Hong Kong and Tokyo to Melbourne and Sydney.
Based in Australia, Never Too Small has produced a great many episodes in that country — a country known, ironically, for its vast tracts of undeveloped land. But there, as everywhere else, space in major cities comes at a premium, and it falls to the tiny-house architect to employ and articulate that space with an absolute maximum of efficiency. (They also face the same basic challenge in the occasional rural setting, building “tiny cabins” and repurposing shipping containers.) The details may vary, but watch enough episodes in a row and you tend to notice that, located though they may be in New York, Buenos Aires, Antwerp, or Milan, these apartments have much in common aesthetically.
No matter their own cultural origins, most of these architects have evidently looked for inspiration to Japan, whose traditions of residential architecture have long developed within small plots of land. They also tend to make liberal use of light wood and white paint, which make these spaces look more expansive than they are, as well as at once modern and organic. (These choices carry a degree of retro appeal as well, harking back as they do to the design trends of the mid-sixties.) The best of Never Too Small’s videos provide a clear view of its subject’s context, whether it be a hip old urban neighborhood or a hillside in the wilderness. There are many reasons to want a tiny home, none based on wanting to stay inside it all the time.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.