June 30, 2020
I live in one of the Boston area’s most iconic styles of housing: the multi-family, triple-decker home. Our house was built in 1910, and much about the original floor plan has remained intact. Modern real estate developers salivate over the bones of homes like ours, which architectural historian and native Bostonian Arthur Krim described in 1977 as “neither tenement nor mansion, but rather good solid housing.” Back then, these homes were affordable housing, designed for Boston’s emerging middle class streetcar suburbs. Krim called it “a democratic architecture… built to give the average family the benefits of the suburbs while living close to city jobs.”
But while the original structure and inherent accessibility of three-deckers is what gives them high-value status in today’s urban market, developers grit their teeth at the original layout of their interior space.
The door count in our 900 square foot apartment is fifteen. Guests visiting our house for the first time are usually confused when they enter the front door, only to be greeted with three more doors leading to the basement, kitchen, and living rooms respectively. In the kitchen alone, there are five doors—all of differing heights—three of which are crowded unevenly on one wall. In an HGTV show about flipping homes, we are the before image.
For decades, as a society, we’ve been moving away from meticulously carved up spaces like the one I live in and gravitating instead towards the “open floor concept.” The origins of this trend, visible everywhere from millennial office spaces to mass-produced mcmansions, can be attributed to the architectural philosophy of Frank Lloyd Wright. Opening and freeing up space was a way of mimicking “organic simplicity” found in nature, which Wright felt was the future of architecture.
Prior to that point, domestic space (at least in the anglo-saxon tradition that informed American housing) had followed a specific kind of trajectory. It was designed for families that spent most of their time at home, provided nearly entirely for themselves, and had far less technology. There was a need to segregate spaces in the home with clear boundaries because distinct tasks were being performed in them: the parlor where large, middle-class families spent time or hosted guests, the dining room where they ate, the kitchen where they (or the servants) prepared food and washed dishes.
Wright found this utilitarian approach to space stifling. “Dwellings of that period were ‘cut up,’ advisedly and completely, with the grim determination that should go with any cutting process,” he wrote in a lecture in 1933. “The ‘interiors’ consisted of boxes beside or inside other boxes, called rooms. All boxes inside a complicated boxing. Each domestic ‘function’ was properly box to box. I could see little sense in this inhibition, this cellular sequestration that implied ancestors familiar with the cells of penal institutions, except for the privacy of bedrooms on the upper floor.”
Wright’s ideas revolutionized domestic space in America in some ways for the better. But they also had some unintended consequences.
Two months ago, like countless Americans, we lost important third places nearly overnight: offices, restaurants, bars, theaters, performance venues, museums, libraries, parks and playgrounds closed indefinitely. On top of that, we acquired a guest. Before New York City went into total lockdown and before anybody knew how bad it would get, my husband’s sister booked an overnight train to Cambridge, expecting to stay only for two weeks (but which, before we knew it, had become two months).
Walls, once unwelcoming and oppressive, were what permitted us to comfortably accommodate this drastic return to domestic life. French doors cordon off the living room into its own mini apartment, making it quite painless to house an impromptu third roommate in a small, one bedroom apartment, while still maintaining a sense of privacy. The once-despised wall between the kitchen and dining area has earned our respect, as those preparing dinner can, with the door closed, get an early start without interrupting those still ‘at work’ in the next room.
In opening up domestic space, Wright hoped to liberate inhabitants from restrictive social and physical boundaries. He also hoped to discourage the clutter and materialism he felt characterized homes with “over-complicated” floor plans, and buoy a sense of connection to the natural world. Paradoxically, his ideas came at a time in which Americans would sever their ties to nature and its processes.
In less than a century, homes that were once productive and self-reliant became oriented nearly entirely around consumption. There isn’t a single reason for this shift, which is tied up with social issues like the womens’ rights movement. (Tackling the grueling tasks of keeping the household running was a burden unfairly and thanklessly prescribed onto women.) Intentional or not, the open floor concept accompanied, and perhaps mirrored, this economic and social transformation. What good is a wall between the kitchen and the dining room for a society that hardly ever cooks for itself anymore?
Spending more time at home, cooking all of our own meals, and providing our own entertainment helped my family see how designating functional spaces in a home facilitates a household that is more, well, functional. I wonder if there’s not something we can learn from this time spent at home. Wright’s open concept experiment has run its course—with consequences both good and bad. After a century of tearing down walls, maybe leaving a few up isn’t such a bad idea.