THE surest sign of spring in many cities can be found not in backyards - the arrival of the first robin, the appearance of the first tulip - but in armories and trade centers: at the home show. Here, in cavernous, un-homelike settings, the nesting instinct runs strong. As visitors wander through acres of displays - featuring everything from state-of-the-art kitchens and sleek hot tubs to closet-organizer systems and landscaped patios - they dream of turning their own home-sweet-home, however humble, into a place of greater beauty, efficiency, and convenience.
Those dreams may be more elusive this year as home shows, garden shows, and decorator showhouses open their doors in a season of economic uncertainty and flat real-estate markets. The dreams also come just as some architects are rethinking the prevailing bigger-is-better approach to that quintessential American goal, a home of one's own.
One of those revisionists, Witold Rybczynski, a professor of architecture at McGill University in Montreal, argues that Americans can no longer take for granted the unlimited land, cheap transportation, and plentiful energy that made possible the large single-family suburban home. As families shrink and as transportation and heating costs rise, he says, developers should consider a return to the row house - that compact, urbane, neighborly form of housing popular in Victorian London and Paris, and in th e brownstones of New York and Boston.
In May 1990 Professor Rybczynski and his colleagues built a 14-foot-wide demonstration house on the McGill campus. Dubbed the Grow House, the model contained 1,000 square feet and included unpartitioned space to make it adaptable to different households. At $60,000, including land, it was half the price of an average single-family house in Montreal at the time.
Writing in The Atlantic, Rybczynski recalls that as people approached the house many would comment, ``Isn't it tiny!'' Once inside, they would offer a different reaction, saying, ``It's much bigger than I thought; it doesn't feel small at all.'' Among visitors who completed a questionnaire - a group weighted toward younger people with modest incomes - three-quarters said they would be willing to live in a house smaller than 1,000 square feet.
The single-family house has come a long way since William Leavitt bulldozed Long Island potato fields into the post-World War II development bearing his name, Levittown. Although these two-bedroom houses were tiny - 750 square feet - they made ownership possible for thousands of returning GIs.
Since then, the average single-family house has nearly tripled in size, reaching about 2,000 square feet by 1989. Thousands of houses contain 3,000 or even 4,000 square feet.
``More closets! More storage! More space!'' The homeowner's battle cry can be heard across the land as Americans seek domestic warehouses to accommodate the fruits of a consumer culture - among them appliances, electronics, and exercise equipment. Last year, when editors of Family Circle asked readers to spell out their housing needs for a ``Busy Woman's Dream House'' - a 3,000-square-foot ranch - the top priority was ``loads of storage.''
Yet Rybczynski contends that homeowners - many of them working women or single parents - pay a heavy price in terms of the time and money required to clean and maintain all this space. How much more sensible, he suggests, to choose well-designed housing that consumes less time and energy but still provides comfort and convenience.
Living smaller, like driving smaller, is already finding its enthusiastic converts, among them empty-nesters and retirees happy to trade the roominess of a house for the coziness, economy, and convenience of a condo. As they pare down a lifetime of accumulated possessions, they may be setting an example for a younger generation.
There is an obvious pleasure in owning things. But there is a subtler, deeper pleasure in owning fewer things - in bringing a trim shape to your life. It is spring cleaning time again, and this spring - who knows? - house cleaners with an eye to the future may be prepared to do something really radical: throw out part of the house.