Small flats with great views

I like watching people on the street. Some of the people outside look down on the pavement, some look around with pleasure and fascination – the result of their daily feelings and needs. While observing them, I try to imagine the size of their flats. The more time you have spent in a small room the more you get used to narrow spaces and low ceilings. You feel safe inside, but when you go out into the open space it can pose a real challenge.

Standing at a tram-stop I observe a housing estate called: at Osiedle za Zelazna Brama, “behind the iron gate”, built in the late ’60s. It consists of 18 buildings with some hundred flats each. An incredible amount of microscopic rooms are stored on top of each other on 15 floors. They are a distant reminiscence of Le Corbusier’s “machine for living” ­ the Habitat ­ although, instead of one free-standing building in greenery, we have 18 blocks crowded into the middle of the city.

These houses, around streets like Sliska or Swietokrzyska, are the best known product of early communist times in Poland. It is easy to guess the size of every one of the 600 flats that fit inside one building: at the time of Gomulka, “M2s” (two room flats) could not be bigger than 30 m_ ­ with a blind kitchen and a narrow room in which it was possible to put a bed only in one position. This was normal. I used to visit my friend who lived there. He had number 1433 on his door, which means 14th floor and flat number 33. I used to visit him while his parents had their guests in the bigger room. We heard each other through the wall, so every one knew what the others thought.

Once I had a friend, who was afraid of open spaces. He had very strong feelings of being lost in the city. Warsaw is the city of emptiness, so he spent one whole year inside his room. Finally, in a mental hospital, he was told he has Paranoja Psychomaniakalna, a disease that has become quite popular. Now a face with hypnotising, paranoid eyes can be found on posters and CD covers. It has become something of a fashion.
I remember times when everyone was invited to the house for birthdays or special occasions. For a few hours, a single room of 22 m_ became a dance floor, a small cinema (with the TV standing on a big shelf), a concert hall and a gallery (with the occupant’s pictures and photos on the wall). The micro-size kitchen was the scenery for never-ending discussions ­ it did not matter that only two people were able to sit at the table at the same time.

It’s not easy to convince someone of the advantages of small flats. One of the architecture teachers at my faculty has given me a sense for space: recently she told me that every day when she drives her car home, she thinks about the size of the garage. Exactly 48.5 m_. It is the same amount of ‘m_’ she lived in for a few years with her husband and two children. At that time, it used to be her dream flat, everything they needed was there. Now, living in a 200 m_ villa, she feels a lack of contact between them, and they complain about the wasted space.

Being in Berlin now, I’ve noticed something similar. Big voids, especially in the “New Berlin” (Potsdamer Platz, Kanzleramt, the new government buildings etc.), create a monumental atmosphere, but at the same time destroy the possibility of communication between people. No one goes to Potsdamer Platz in the evening. The Berliners all sit in Prenzlauer Berg, in Friedrichshain or in Mitte. People still like small spaces, an affinity that seems to survive the fashion of large-scale-monumental-void architecture.

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