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The Good Eye: A (Tiny) Room of One's Own

You call that a small house? This is a small house!

By Amy Gentry, Fri., April 11, 2014

Move-in ready fairy bungalow in Zilker; stump foundation, moss-insulated walls, hardwoods throughout
Move-in ready fairy bungalow in Zilker; stump foundation, moss-insulated walls, hardwoods throughout
Photo by Amy Gentry

As square footage in Austin becomes ever more dear and City Council limits the number of roommates per dwelling, one can hardly be blamed for investigating the possibilities of miniature real estate.

The small house movement offers one solution. Pint-sized, energy-efficient living spaces of 100-400 square feet have been attracting oohs and aahs and "OMG adorbs!!" on Pinterest for some time now. I'm a tall drink of water myself, and have never had a hankering to live in a cupboard. To understand who loves tiny houses and why, I scrolled through the comments section of the Hairpin, a website that frequently discusses tiny houses, and found the typical sentiment expressed beautifully by user "Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal": "Sometimes I pretend my cubicle is a tiny house to feel less shitty about my shitty life."

If that sounds familiar, you're in luck: Tumbleweeds Tiny House Company, one of the early leaders of the trend, is coming to Austin on April 12-13 to lead a two-day workshop on erecting your very own minuscule mansion. Of course, the workshops run around $400; the houses themselves start around $50,000 ready-made and can cost up to $80,000 to DIY; and there's always that chance that someday you may want a place to put your baby that isn't the kitchen sink. But these are problems for tomorrow. Today, we dream of teensiness.

If you're going small, though, why not go all the way? It doesn't get much teensier than a house built in the hollow of a tree stump, and the Zilker Faerie Homes & Gardens Tour is free with $2 admission to Zilker Botanical Garden. This is the second year Zilker has invited Austin's top architects of the twee to design and build miniature residences along the garden trail. Worth noting: Fairy architecture, like midcentury modern, mixes indoor and outdoor spaces using site-specific, environmentally responsible materials like acorn caps, oak twigs, and living vines. Moreover, this year's offerings aren't limited to single-family dwellings; they feature condos, rentable commercial space, and something that looks like a fairy version of a planned community. Zoning can't be far behind.

The wealthiest 1% of fairies, of course, live in Chicago, in Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle in the Museum of Science and Industry. This gigantic temple of tininess, this paean to the puny, built by a silent-era film star with the help of Hollywood set designers, features mother-of-pearl floors, jade bathtubs, an entire library of real printed books, and a sliver of the true cross – no foolin' – in a miniature reliquary blessed by the pope. These fairies are serious collectors, too, straight out of a Henry James novel, with more antiques than the Fredericksburg Trade Days. Once you've seen the castle, you might think to yourself, 'What kind of a fairy lives on a pile of dirt and moss when she could be reclining on a tiny platinum chaise lounge under a tiny diamond chandelier?' My guess is that a lot of fairies come to Austin for college and just don't want to leave.

The appeal of the miniature is built into our brains. Recent research suggests that spatial relationships govern the way we understand time and human relationships; apparently, when we think of something happening in the "near" future, or imagine a person we are "close" to, the same part of the brain lights up as when we think about physical space. Space is how we understand our world; it's what holds us. We will never be held in time, which just keeps flowing onward with or without us. But space – we craft it to suit our bodies, we scale it to fit our lives, and we can even play God with it, designing in miniature the towering skyscrapers and sprawling villas we could never realize in life.

All this preciousness has a dark side, however – the danger of feeling reduced, Ibsen-like, to a doll in someone else's house. That's why I prefer uninhabited miniatures, like the Zilker fairy houses. My favorite features a shaded rooftop deck with a little writing desk on it. Isn't that the dream? That a miniature gives you boundless space, somehow, or maybe it's time – that in a tiny space, time expands, and a moment of sitting at a writing desk looking out over a miniature pumpkin patch can last forever.


Zilker Faerie Homes & Gardens will be up through May 26, and Fredericksburg Trade Days begin April 18 and run Fridays-Sundays, the weekends of the third Saturday of the month.


For more images from the Zilker Faerie Homes & Gardens Tour, see photo gallery.

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