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Making Room

National Building Museum, Washington, DC
Through September 16, 2018

An interactive survey at the Making Room exhibit asks, “Who lives with you?”
Photo: Yassine el Mansouri; courtesy National Building Museum

For Sarah Watson, deputy director of New York’s Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPC) and a curator for the National Building Museum’s Making Room exhibition, household is a loaded word. “You think you know what it means,” she says, “then you start to probe and realize it means so many different things to different people.”

The curatorial team behind Making Room aims to diversify notions of what a household might be through this exhibition, starting with a look at the data of who lives in what kinds of housing. According to CHPC, the idea of the prevalent nuclear family is an outdated one that, despite demographic shifts, continues to pervade housing stock. The largest demographic is singles living alone, who account for 28 percent of households; the nuclear family comes in at just 20 percent, yet the bulk of housing stock — 80 percent — caters to this group, with multiple bedroom units.

The exhibition centers on the Open House, a 1,000-square-foot demonstration home that will change configurations over the exhibition run to showcase three diverse modes of living. The Open House’s first iteration is geared toward a couple living with two adult roommates; the second envisions a three-generation family of child, mother, and grandmother living in the same space; the last imagines a pair of empty nesters capitalizing on their abundance of space by renting out their excess. In each scenario, spaces expand to become more public, or contract to become more private, by virtue of movable (but sound- and fire-proof) walls and reconfigurable furniture designed by the Italian firm Clei. Watson calls the Open House a “three-dimensional, real manifestation of what could be if housing design is allowed to rise up and meet the needs of 21st-century households.”

As Boston moves toward its goal of 53,000 new units of housing by 2030, the city would be wise to apply reconfiguration lessons from this exhibition to its own housing stock. The Making Room exhibition effectively shows that the best way to create new homes may be to reimagine houses that are already there.

Wall murals give voices to contemporary housing concerns
Photo: Yassine el Mansouri; courtesy National Building Museum