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Saturday, November 3, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.
Thin house, inspired by writer, may be home to many stories
By STEVEN KURUTZ
The New York Times
Three years ago, Jakub Szczesny, a Polish architect, was walking through the old Jewish ghetto in Warsaw when he came upon what he described as an “appealing cushion of air” between a prewar apartment building and an 11-story postwar co-op.
Szczesny, who belongs to a collective called Centrala, which is devoted to experimental architecture, got the far-fetched idea of building a house in the incredibly thin gap between them. “I fell in love with a space between two buildings from different periods,” he said. “I decided to make a link.”
Szczesny, 39, began to imagine an ideal resident for the home, and settled on Etgar Keret, an Israeli writer whose reputation for collections of very short stories, like his most recent “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door,” marked him as someone accustomed to working within tight parameters, and whose Jewish heritage and Polish roots offered a moving connection to Warsaw. (As a child during World War II, the author’s mother smuggled food past Nazi checkpoints just steps from where Szczesny hoped to build.)
When Keret, 45, received a call from the architect, he was initially puzzled. “This guy with a very heavy Polish accent said he wanted to make a house in proportion to my stories,” he said. “It sounded like a prank.” But Szczesny flew to Tel Aviv, where the author lives, and proved himself sincere. And Keret liked the idea that his family would reclaim a home of sorts in Warsaw.
After more than a year of bureaucratic tangles and engineering challenges, and with the crucial aid of a crane shipped in from Germany, Keret House opened its doors — or door. At just 4 feet across at its widest, and a mere 28 inches at its narrowest point, it may be the world’s thinnest home.
“It was a fantastic set of impossibilities,” Szczesny said of the planning and construction. “We had heart attacks, one after another.”
The palpitations began when Szczesny had to determine who owned that appealing void between the buildings. Wola, the district that contains the Keret House, controlled the space, and local officials helped the architect navigate the permit process. But then, city heating pipes discovered under the site caused months of delays and necessitated a redesign.
The final design makes use of a light steel frame built out of small modules that screw together. Local steel companies, busy putting up shopping malls, had no interest in the small, complex job, Szczesny said. He ran into more trouble finding machinery that could work in such narrow confines. Finally, he found a company willing to build the frame and a German crane to slide it into place.
What is Keret House like inside? Raucous parties are unlikely to happen there.
The kitchenette is 3 feet wide, with a miniature sink and a sliding door that conceals one of those cramped airplane bathrooms. The second floor, reached by a ladder, holds a bed whose dimensions do not encourage overnight guests.
The downstairs living area is the skinniest spot in the house, 35 inches wide. But a claustrophobe can take comfort that it also has the highest ceilings and “gets plenty of eastern light,” from one of two windows, Szczesny said. The architect used semitransparent plastic for the roof, rather than concrete, to bring in additional light and create a sense of space.
Keret, who flew to Warsaw for the opening, thinks of the house as the domestic equivalent of one of his stories: small but complete. “It’s something that is very, very compact,” he said. “But it has in it all the stuff that a house needs.”
The author said that he plans to stay in the house, at least overnight. “It seems fitting to try to create in it,” he added. “The house will be a portal to all kinds of artistic initiatives.”
By Polish law, Keret House is too small to be a residence. It has been classified as an art installation, to be owned and administered by the Polish Modern Art Foundation. Szczesny and Keret plan to select artists for residencies of five to seven days.
Now that Keret House is complete, Szczesny said with relief, “I’m going to get drunk for the first time in my life.”
The home’s namesake took a more sober view. Shortly before his grandfather’s death during the war, Keret said, he told his mother, “You must stay alive so our name will survive.” She left Poland for France and then Israel, where she still lives, and has never been back.
“For me, it’s a kind of metaphor for my family reclaiming a place in Poland,” Keret said. “In this place where they killed our family, there will now be a house called the Keret House.”
Like the house itself, he added, “We are like somebody who pushed their way in.”
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