Only cities which can make such residents happy can truly say they have arrived
SHOEHORN yourself into a shoebox apartment?
There is wide-eyed curiosity and some narrow-minded incredulity at the ballooning number of people doing that.
Sales of tiny apartments – nicknamed ‘shoebox’ for their size – have increased more than six times, from 300 units in 2008 to 1,900 last year. They represented 6 per cent of new private home sales in 2008, doubling to 12 per cent last year.
National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan wrote on his blog in June warning that while he did not want to second-guess the market, buyers of tiny apartments should go in with their eyes open. Some market observers warn that the penchant for small living is just a fad, and suggest that small equals unrentable and unliveable.
Naysayers will tell you that living in a tiny apartment is a step backwards in the housing continuum. You do not go from a pondok to an HDB three-room flat to an executive condominium, only to retreat to a 400 sq ft shoebox.
I beg to differ. The way I see it, the popularity of small apartment living is an index of a city’s sophistication. Only cities which can make shoebox dwellers happy can truly say they have arrived.
You see, McMansions sprouting from the soil may spell prosperity, for the house owners and the neighbourhood. But mansions are about people building the bells and whistles (and bathrooms and pools) for themselves. They are buffered by their employees, driveways and groomed hedges from their country, evolved or not. The next-door neighbour could be an unhygienic hyena of a man – but he is producing dirt and noise hundreds of metres away.
Not so for a shoeboxer. Your country or city as a whole needs to be civilised before you can feel like a million bucks in 500 sq ft.
You have to have enough potential shoebox buyers who have evolved beyond the anxious and unsubtle race to accumulate and display ever more square footage and material goodies.
You have to have shoeboxers whose appreciation for design has evolved beyond demanding just sheer, voluminous space – attractive though that will always be – and embrace clever design.
You have to have public spaces that are beautiful, stimulating and yet safe enough for shoeboxers to relax in as shared extensions of their homes.
Little apartments can have the adventurous effect of pushing shoeboxers out the door.
I moved to a 431 sq ft home from a place that was more than twice as big, and while I like cooing in my bird’s nest, I also make emotional claims on parts of the neighbourhood as my home – the many eateries as my kitchen-fridge-dining room, the inviting parks as my garden and the cafes as my sofa-living room.
And sometimes, the lively neighbourhood claims my home as its own, when friends en route to the eateries nearby make a pit stop at my shoebox.
Eight of us once took ourselves on a food tour of the neighbourhood; we began with popiah at a hawker centre, moved on to garlic crayfish at a kopitiam in an industrial estate, then loaded on carbs in the form of beef hor fun with black bean sauce at another kopitiam at the foot of an HDB block.
The evening ended and the night began with all eight (8-1/2 if you count the engorged tummies) fitting themselves into one-third of my place for champagne and wicked laughter into the wee hours.
The ceiling may be relatively high, but I did not need to have my guests arranged in a vertical fashion. Thanks to interesting interior and product design as well as a tweak in my mindset, they were all parked on proper seating: A sofa that doubles as a bed, an ottoman that folds out into a bench (and can fold out into a bed if the bubbly overwhelms), a ghostly see-through chair that takes up little visual space and a black chair that disappears against a background of black cabinets.
When I started living here, I rearranged more than furniture. I rearranged my preconceptions of what I really need in a home and what goes into which room. Must a bedroom be literally a room with a bed? To go further, must a bedroom remain as a bedroom? Why must a room’s function and furniture be dictated by a property developer or architect’s vision? A room can shift its space and shape and be whatever you need it to be for the moment.
I dropped the notion of ‘bedroom’ and even ‘bed’. I regained space the volume of a queen-sized bed, which held my visitors that champagne night, and will become something else some other day.
Pillows and a blanket taken out of a cabinet make a bed wherever I snooze – just like the Japanese bring out futons at night to spread on tatami mats and turn rooms into bedrooms.
Lean on evolved mindsets, designs and public spaces, and you can have champagne dreams and tobiko wishes even in a small apartment.
However, you also need neighbours who have evolved beyond being unhygienic hyenas.
When I visited Japan, I deeply appreciated the country’s standard of courtesy, even in packed conditions. You could be cheek by jowl with your fellow commuters or pedestrians, but you did not feel crowded; the polite words and apologies, the sense of spatial awareness and the valiant attempts to inch away to avoid bumping into you softened the stress.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a call to turn Singapore into a nation of shoeboxers. I still dream of a home of airy art gallery proportions for myself.
But being able to live well together on less is cause for celebration, not regret. Just as we can feel pleased that we can live together fairly amiably in the shoebox of a nation called Singapore.
Are we fully there yet? No way. But we are on the way. Enough for me to feel at least half a million bucks in less than 500 sq ft.
Doing well living large in a shoebox apartment — ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL
Source: 27th Sept 2011