Living Little in Paris

For all its august grandeur, Paris is remarkably petite. At 105 square kilometers, Europe's smallest capital is 16 times less roomy than London. The City of Light isn't even the biggest city in France--it ranks 113th, outdone by sleepy hamlets like Aragnouet and Guémené-Penfao. With a housing shortage feeding runaway real-estate prices, and a tenacious bureaucracy that just renewed a 1977 ban on buildings taller than 37 meters, living in Paris proper increasingly means living little. And that's making big winners of the ingenious entrepreneurs who are helping squeeze Parisians into their homes.

Every quartier in the capital has seen apartment prices double over eight consecutive boom years, with some districts recording 150 percent jumps. As prices rise, spaces shrink: 54 percent of Parisian apartments are smaller than 42 square meters. In 2005, the average family with two kids buying their first apartment in Paris could afford only 32.7 square meters, down a half meter in just one year. Over time, that adds up. Despite the ban on tall buildings, Paris is one of the most densely settled cities in the developed world, with nearly 25,000 residents per square kilometer, and up to 41,000 in packed arrondissements like the 11th, which includes the Place de la Bastille. That's about the same density as the infamously crowded warrens of Hong Kong's Kowloon district.

A closet economy of architects, designers and even appliance makers devoted to making small spaces feel bigger has thus sprung up. With the average Parisian square meter now going for nearly €6,000, bringing in a clever architect to snatch back a plot of parquet can make economic sense. "Basically, there is always one room missing," says Philippe Demougeot, one such architect. "Now people are ready to get rid of any unnecessary areas--the foyer, a hallway, they'll open up a kitchen--to gain space. It's a bit like a game of Rubik's Cube." As host of a house-call segment on the popular French TV show "Question Maison," Demougeot gets 3,000 letters a week from viewers asking him to fix their own small spaces.

Do-it-yourself magazines devote cover stories to small-space tips--for apartments as small as 18 square meters. Common tricks of the trade include walling in appliances with sleek placard doors. For top-floor apartments, breaking into unused attics can create space to raise ceilings, which tend to be quite high in Paris anyway. One of the big obstacles: strict regulations governing even small exterior changes to buildings in this "museum city" means it can be tough to get approval for things like skylights.

Another way to capitalize on those lofty ceilings is the mezzanine--an elevated platform that can add storage or sleeping space. On Tony Rue du Bac, the furniture store Espace Loggia (founded by Brigitte Bardot's sister, Mijanou, in 1978) showcases its high-end mezzanine beds. "It's like having a little duplex," says CEO Philippe Malignac. "We say it's like buying an extra room without having to move out." Indeed, moving out is not a popular option, despite much cheaper space beyond the ring road. "A Parisian has no desire to become a banlieusard ," says Malignac with a playful sneer, mimicking the way city dwellers refer to suburbanites.

Espace Loggia claims to have pioneered the mezzanine in France, and has seen sales double over the past five years--just as the price of a square meter has doubled. The company's latest creation is an "electric mobile bed" that mimics a ceiling during the day and descends to just above the furniture for use as a bed at night. At €5,500, including installation, the mobile bed still costs less than a square meter of property. And if the mezzanine feels too much like a treehouse, La Maison du Convertible has expanded its selection of clever high-end armoire beds, which pull down from walls, flip out from behind built-in desks or are even hidden behind track-rolling bookshelves.

Self-storage centers, new to France, are also booming. U.S. self-storage giant Shurgard arrived in 1997, just before real estate took off, and now boasts 23 centers in greater Paris. Meanwhile, Parisian home stores are full of clues to how Parisians cope--with mini-appliances. Bosch's popular microwave-size countertop dishwasher is only 45 centimeters tall. And Paris-area appliance maker Rosières offers Le Triple, a combination stove-oven-dishwasher, "all the comfort of a big kitchen for a small space." But skeptics say one can miniaturize only so far. "You can install a small sink, but dishes will always be the same size," says Demougeot. "You can have a smaller closet, but you aren't going to buy jackets with narrower shoulders." That would be even more un-Parisian than a move to the burbs.

Join the Discussion