FilmFest: Microtopia

Welcome to the yowLAB Film Festival discussion for our second film, Microtopia, directed by Jesper Wachtmeister. Our reviewer this month is yowLAB co-director Jeff Salmon. His review/synopsis is included below.


  • If you have not yet watched the film, it is available for online rental through vimeo.
  • To contribute to the discussion, please feel free to use the comment section following the review.
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  • Or tweet your comments @yow_LAB #yowLABFilmFest

We hope you enjoy the film and the discussion. Without further ado. . .




Microtopia provides an interesting look at individuals, primarily artists and architects, who have decided to downsize their life. I say this because for the people in the film it is clear that micro-living is a lifestyle decision. As each person describes their personal reasons for exploring or living a micro-lifestyle some reoccurring ideas start to emerge, the strongest of which is an escape from imposed social and economic pressures.

In this quest for freedom, most of the people featured are exploring nomadic shelters. One of the characteristics of that seems inherent to these nomadic shelters is a sense of connected isolation. This seems to be a reflection of the people, as most admit to liking people but at a distance. John Wells, for example, lives in almost total isolation however enjoys his online connection to others through is webcam and blog. This sentiment is echoed throughout the film as many of the people describe a hope for technology and a reliance on it for connectivity. If we distill this down to its essence we need two things in life: shelter and an internet connection.

This freedom is certainly attractive to the people in the film however what is does really touch on is the reality of increasing populations in urban centres with limited housing. What the film presents is a more utopian and nomadic vision of micro-shelters which is hard to relate to. In cities like New York where the cost of housing is extremely high people have adapted to micro-living more so out of necessity. It would have also been interesting to see a couple or family who are living micro.

Whether you are looking at nomadic micro-shelters or urban micro-apartments the question at the core of the film is relevant: how much do you need? How much do you need to feel connected to others? How much comfort do you need? What will it take for you to be happy? This will be different for everyone.

This is probably best articulated by Jay Shafer in the film when he is discussing his kitchen (his very very small kitchen) when he describes the design process as prioritizing function. He does not cook a lot, therefore he does not need a big kitchen, however if he did, perhaps he would consider making his entire home the kitchen. To this end Jennifer Siegal, the first person shown in the film, provides an excellent idiom about the living micro – “it is less about bigger is better and more about smaller is smarter.”


Below I have summarized a few sections to show the variety of characters and ideas presented in the film.

Jay Shafer. Graton, Northern California.

Screenshot 2014-04-17 19.32.47   Screenshot 2014-04-17 19.48.01

Jay is the second person we are introduced to in the film and if probably one of the most charming. It opens with him describing beauty as what is necessary, and when something is necessary it has vitality. Currently living in his fourth tiny house, he describes his goal to contribute as little as possible to the energy and environmental consumption common to housing yet have a great place to live. One of the most interesting topics that he touches on is conflict between building code requirements and micro-housing. The building code stipulates minimum room sizes that would be larger than he needs however by putting the house on wheels it is no longer classified as a house and doesn’t have to adhere to building code.

Richart Sowa, Artist. Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

Screenshot 2014-04-17 19.47.11  Screenshot 2014-04-17 19.37.16

Richart has set out on one of the most ambitious mirco-housing projects – he has constructed an island using shipping pallets kept afloat using with bags of plastic bottles beneath them. His goal is to make this island big enough that it can go out on the ocean, through the Panama Canal and ultimately out onto the Pacific Ocean. His interest is largely ecological as he notes there are many ways to recycle to make a wonderful home – where we take trash and turn it into something that is actually beneficial to the planet.

Stephane Malka, Architect. Paris, France.

Screenshot 2014-04-17 19.40.38  Screenshot 2014-04-17 19.38.26

Stephane is one of the few people in the film looking who addresses the urban condition with his conceptual projects. He states that with the web there is now the potential to be all together but be by yourself. He describes housing as a closet that has become sentimental because everything that you have in a house you can have elsewhere. In the city you do not need to cook because you can eat better at a restaurant. Similarly, you can bath better at a spa than you could at home.

His proposal for La Defence, Paris, creates a city within the city using already manufactured objects and attaching them to the existing architecture like a parasite. With this in mind he says that it is more about the strategy than the form – taking pre-fab units that can fit into the existing fabric and then begin to grow into a city within the city.

Ana Rewakowicz, Artist. Montreal, Canada.

Screenshot 2014-04-17 19.41.15  Screenshot 2014-04-17 19.45.05

Ana is the last person featured in the film and the one who has sought to simplify the idea of home/shelter the most. Her creation, the Sleeping Bag Dress is a form of self-sufficient wearable architecture. When it is inflated it form a cylindrical shelter which someone can sleep in.

Her experiences moving from country to country form the basis for her nomadic creation. She goes on to describe the modern nomad as someone who “doesn’t get stuck in particular structures” and with that comes a certain open mindedness. This is a fitting description for most of the people in the film as it seems that they are trying to avoid imposed structures in one way or another.

note: all images included above are screenshots captured from Microtopia

  1. This is an impressive example of an apartment in New York that can be adapted to meet different personal and social living needs:

    (Note this is still much larger than some of the shelters presented in the film but I think it is in line with the thought process)

  2. Siu Hong Yu said:

    I was watching the documentary just soon after my sister finalized the deal on her four-bedroom house. Don’t get me wrong. l’m super excited about her new home but the film does give me pause. As Ana Rewakowicz says, “Home is where you are”. How much space do we really need? I think that’s one of the most fundamental question we need to ask ourselves and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to it. In Canada, we are blessed with the vastness of space available but also cursed by it when it comes to urban planing. Growing up in Hong Kong, part of me always gets annoyed when I hear people complaining about a nine-storey building going up in their neighbourhood but I digress.

    The film is aptly titled. The utopian visions of some of the artists and architects may be a little far-out and may actually hamper *practical* discussion among general audience. Regardless of where you live and what your cultural background is, a little bit more room to breathe is usually a good thing and legitimate aspiration.

    I particularly enjoy the pattern of each segment where it always closes with a night scene and sleeping is a constant reoccurrence. After all, what’s more important than having a comfortable place to snooze? The final aerial shot before the credits roll is a powerful reminder that no matter how micro we choose to live, we are all connected and we tend to lose sight on our collective environmental impact.

  3. Sarah Gelbard said:

    As Jeff mentioned, it struck me how much of the documentary focused on rural hermit micro-living and very little on urban micro-living. Taking it further, it makes me wonder about what suburban micro-living might be.

  4. Sarah Gelbard said:

    I thought it was a good point that the way to combat the pervasive mentality that “bigger is better”, we need to promote the idea that “smaller is smarter”.

    It’s something that I think the car industry has responded to (not necessarily by choice nor wholly embraced). More and more people see an SUV as a symbol of waste and excess rather than a symbol of wealth and status. Hopefully that mentality starts to infiltrate housing.

  5. Margery Gelbard said:

    I always preferred small, cosy spaces.The ideas in the film were interesting but,I’m afraid, too small for me; though, I would definitely go camping in the tents that Drè Wapenaar had. They seemed amazing. One thing that I did gain from the film, my yearly declutter is going much smoother this year. They’re right most of us have way too much stuff.

    • Sarah Gelbard said:

      I think they’re probably too small for most people but they definitely make us think about how much do we need – not just to survive but to be happy. And sometimes less is more.

  6. Sarah Gelbard said:

    Here’s a great list of suggested videos from Juan that address the more urban side of micro-housing.


    Here you have my favorite videos from them:
    – We The Tiny House People (Documentary): Small Homes, Tiny Flats & Wee Shelters

    – Summer of (family) love: tiny home VW-roadtrip documentary

    – Tiny matchbox apartment hides closet & bathtub in drawers

    – DIY-crafted Seattle micro apartment: 8 spaces stacked in 182 sq ft

    – Lego-style apartment transforms into infinite spaces

    – Extreme transformer home in Hong Kong: Gary Chang’s 24 rooms in 1

    – 6 rooms into 1: morphing apartment packs 1100 sq ft into 420

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