open floor plans

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The Atlantic's Ian Bogost takes a long look at (or is it through?) open floor plans. First, he describes "a fresh new design" in home plans:

...a house with an open floor plan, with its kitchen, dining area, and living room all flowing into one another. But then, behind the first kitchen, lies another. A "messy" kitchen. There, the preparation for or remainders from a meal or party can be deposited for later cleanup, out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

"That this is 'necessary' at all," Bogost continues, "is a consequence of the rise of the open floor plan in the first place:"

On the next block or on HGTV, remodels blow out walls, enlarge kitchens, and couple them to the surrounding space. In new construction, enormous great rooms combine hundreds of square feet of living space into singular, cavernous voids, punctuated only by the granite or marble outcropping of a kitchen island. This amorphous, multipurpose space has become the center of domestic life.

Bogost looks back to Frank Lloyd Wright's "Prairie" style and "usonian" homes as early open-plan designs, where "Live-in help was assumed." As servants' quarters disappeared in the mid-century era, however, "Americans' ongoing rejection of domestic help made smaller, middle-class homes feasible, even as that very rejection also conscripted Americans, women in particular, to endless labor."

Already, by the 1950s, the open-plan kitchen offered a connection to living and dining spaces for the purposes of home monitoring and management. Gender roles being what they were, that tended to mean that women were "allowed" to oversee their children's and husbands' needs in the living spaces while also preparing or cleaning up from family meals.

Then (some) things began to change:

As the small, modernist middle-class home of the 1930s through 1950s gave way to larger designs of the late 1960s and onward, the great room emerged, often with a vaulted ceiling exposed to high windows or a second-floor gallery. And so, the total space and activity the open-plan homeowner had to manage from behind the kitchen increased ever further. The kitchen became like a ship's bridge, but absent the personnel to run the vessel.

Openness and continuity might have been modernist aspirations for the spirit as much as the body, but just as the open-plan office created the oppression of constant oversight in the name of collaboration, so the open-plan home merged the duties of hostess, butler, cook, and childcare provider. And despite its promise of relaxation and conversation, open-plan living has actually combined leisure with labor. When the two fuse, work wins in the end, converting recreation back into obligation. The dinner party entails its preparation and cleanup; meal-prep also involves child oversight or homework help; television-viewing takes place during dishwasher-unloading. Overall, domestic life becomes an exercise in multitasking. And so, even when it expands freedom, the open kitchen constantly reminds its users of that freedom's limits.

"The spaces in these supposed dream homes are in constant conflict," writes Bogost, "not fluid harmony."

What open-plan aficionados might really mean is that so much time and effort is spent chasing the residual labor of school, work, and home life into the evenings and weekends, that it would be lovely if some of it might overlook other family activities in the process. There is so much to do, but at least a family can all be nearby one another while trying to get it done.

"On first blush, the messy kitchen suggests that design's pendulum might yet swing back toward defined, divided spaces," Bogost states:

It's possible that the rest of the kitchen will follow suit, and perhaps the dining room later on. But more likely, messy kitchens represent yet another skirmish in the struggle between obligation and freedom in the American home. After all, the kitchen was sequestered from the living space for all the same reasons a century ago and more: To spare the family from the visual and olfactory unsightliness of food preparation and cleanup.

The messy kitchen revisits that promise, but without the staff that would relieve the homemaker of the duty, and with homemaker in decline as a full-time role, too. After the dinner is done or the party concludes, someone has to go back into the big, kitchen closet and clean up the dishes. More times than not, that will probably be a woman, who will once again be banished from the social action in the process. That's a circumstance that inspired the open-plan kitchen in the first place.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on May 17, 2018 8:02 AM.

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