How We Became Self-Centered, as Traced in Our Houses

Transcribed below. The typewriter is a 1963 Tower Citation 88.

The Desocialization of Domestic Architecture

We could, if we were so inclined, analyze the history of domestic architecture in the United States as a gradual process of desocialization.

If there are any graduate students in the audience, here is a thesis topic for you.

By “desocialization” we mean that the social aspect of life was emphasized less and less, until it practically disappeared.

What is our evidence for this assertion? Let us visit some typical houses of various eras and see how we are welcomed.

First, we step into a middle-class residence from about 1900. Immediately we find ourselves in the largest room in the house: the entry hall, or foyer, or whatever you like to call it. For a family that assumes a social life with varying degrees of intimacy, this is a useful space, even an essential space. You can receive Mormon missionaries there and get them out of the cold; you can even let them have a seat on the settle with them while you argue theology and history with them. But they need not see any aspect of your personal life, because the entry hall is specifically a public room,

For invited guests who are going to stay for a little while and chat, you can pull open the sliding pocket door to the parlor and let them have a more comfortable seat for an hour or so.

If they’re staying for dinner, you can fling open the pocket doors between the parlor and the dining room and bring them in to the table.

All these social interactions can be accomplished without dropping the guests into the private lives of the family. Guests do not find themselves uncomfortably out of place, and family members do not have to rearrange their lives every time someone comes over for a visit.

Now let us jump ahead to a house from about 1925—again, a typical middle-class residence. We find that the entry is much smaller. We might almost call it vestigial. If it is a separate room, it is a tiny one, more of a vestibule than a foyer. More likely it is a semi-separate room, distinguished architecturally from the “living room” that has taken the place of the parlor in the earlier house, but open to it, without the luxury of pocket doors to confine temporary visitors to the most public part of the house. The living room has taken over most of the front of the ground floor, and it is clearly meant more for the use of the family than for the accommodation of guests. The guest who shows up unexpectedly will find the Philco radio blaring and will have to move a pile of magazines to sit down.

Another leap forward, and we are in the postwar world of suburban tract housing. A guest who shows up at the door is immediately dumped into the life of the family. The front door opens directly into the living room, where Arthur Godfrey has taken up nearly permanent residence on the DuMont television set.

In the earliest of our three houses, everything was arranged to take into account the varying degrees of social relations with the rest of the human species. It was implicitly understood that visitors of various sorts would show up, and they would be given varying degrees of access to the life of the family, and the house was arranged to make those varying degrees of access possible.

In the postwar house, on the other hand, the implicit assumption is that the house is for the family, and that the family’s social con- nections to the world outside are unimportant or nonexistent.

Experience taught many families that the new style of domestic architecture was inadequate for a social existence, and the “living room” where nobody lived, where the furniture was covered in plastic to keep it nice and chil- dren were warned to keep off, was a standing joke in the postwar suburban era. But these rebellions against the dominant trend in domestic architecture only serve to point out what that dominant trend was. The “living room” had to be kept tidy for visitors because there was no public room set aside for receiving them.

Now, in the twenty-first century, our lodges and private clubs are gone, and our churches are closing one after another, and sociologists try to come up with hypotheses to account for the shift in our social habits. But the shift has been in preparation for a long time. Anyone who followed the history of domestic architecture in the twentieth century ought to have expected it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What Is This Place?

There is a certain amusing dissonance about a site on the Web whose theme is writing by making marks on paper. But that is not the only dissonance you will find here. We’ll have long digressions on random subjects, instructional articles about writing instruments, and even poetry—but everything will be written out on paper, and only then published to the electronic world at large.