Is open-plan living a trap?

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One of history’s most powerful images is a dramatic black-and-white shot of two women in big dresses and tiny pumps chatting in a transparent glass box. It’s night-time. The glass box is held between two sheer white planes high above the Hollywood hills. Its ribbed ceiling, uplit, soars out over limitless space. Out there, gridded with tiny lights and spread to the horizon, is the vast Los Angelean sprawl. That, of course, was before the hubristic smog arrived. These days, the same image shows an horizon of brown smudge.

The house is Pierre Koenig’s 1959 Stahl House, aka Case Study House #22. In 1945, six months before the end of World War II, the young editor of the California-based Arts & Architecture magazine, John Entenza, decided to release the pent-up energies of wartime in a series of emblematic house commissions for radical young architects. These houses – by Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Craig Ellwood, Koenig and others – changed the world.

The Stahl house is a classic. A listed cultural monument, it has featured in countless films, TV shows, music videos and fashion shoots. But in the history of the world, the image – taken by Julius Shulman in 1960 – is bigger. This image, and others like it with their seductive whispers of freedom and power, sold us the open plan. It heralded modern advertising.

Julius Shulman’s iconic 1960 photo of Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House in Hollywood Hills. Credit: © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

The two women inside the audacious scarp-edge build seem magically suspended in a world of eternal optimism. Beneath them, concrete floor beams hang in space. In the foreground, a small pot-plant signifies nature tamed while above, the planar roof flies out in mastery of the Earth itself.

Fast-forward 60 years. The open plan is now a sine qua non of real estate. Every developer apartment, renovated terrace, crappy McMansion and speculative office locates us within yet another space without walls. Too often, with no escape from boss supervision, kid noise, partner grump, cooking smells or the myriad frustrations we found ourselves feeling during the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves feeling not liberated but trapped.

So perhaps it’s time to wonder whether openness is really the grail? Has the open plan – and the minimalist look that goes with it – delivered on its promise? Is our attachment to objects even healthy? When is an open-plan good, and when is it a trap?

Where did the open plan come from?

The 20th century was fuelled by versions of freedom; individualism, democracy, creativity, transparency, openness. In retrospect, its failure fully to deliver resonates eerily with Kris Kristofferson’s line, immortalised by Janis Joplin in 1971, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

Open-plan living in the Stahl house in Los Angeles, photographed in 1960.

Open-plan living in the Stahl house in Los Angeles, photographed in 1960.Credit:Julius Shulman @ J. Paul Getty Trust.

The open plan was no mid-century invention. Indeed, when the Stahl house was built in 1959, it was already a half-century old. In the US, some of the early “shingle style” architects had begun to experiment with spaces that flowed into one another from the turn of the century. Greene and Greene’s legendary Gamble House in Pasadena (1909) had played with the idea of breaking open the cellular house-plan. With its glazed screens and bays gently held beneath a great maternal roof, it toyed with defining space by use – a dining table or a settee – rather than by walls. People were intrigued and enchanted, but such houses were strictly for the wealthy, whose everyday mess could be tucked securely away.

It was the mud and chaos of war that really triggered the craving for a clean, open future for everyone.

It was the mud and chaos of war that really triggered the craving for a clean, open future for everyone. The first explicit formulation of the open plan as universal principle came from Swiss architect and polemicist Le Corbusier who, in the 1920s, coined the term “le plan libre” – the free plan. Corbusier’s “Five Points of a New Architecture” manifesto, published in 1927, made the “free ground plan” one of the five essentials of modern design. The key to it was pilotis (or columns) instead of loadbearing walls.

Swiss-French architect and designer Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier.

Swiss-French architect and designer Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier.

That was the domestic world. In office design, a similar reverence for universal openness was reached by a different route. Frederick Taylor was an American engineer obsessed with the idea of efficiency. His theory was known as “scientific management” or, simply, Taylorism. It merged two new types of 19th-century workspace – the commercial office (typing pool or mail-order firm) and the factory production line – into a vast, open-plan work space that meant hundreds of workers could be overseen by one or two supervisors. Not surprisingly, this idea caught on.

Technology was the facilitator. Architecture had always been constrained by the need to put things on top of other things. Walls and columns were necessary to bear the weight; windows had to go between. Steel changed all that. Steel-reinforced concrete made immense spans and cantilevers possible. Floors soared out into space, roofs seemed to float, weightless. Openings could be anywhere, or everywhere. Corridors were obsolete. Enter, the glass box.

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illinois.

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illinois.Credit:Alamy

The glass box became the dream. Many became architectural icons – from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s ultra-elegant Farnsworth House in Illinois (1951) to Sean Godsell’s very beautiful 1997 Kew house in Melbourne, with no external walls (except glass) and no curtains. As to work, the glass-walled skyscraper – such as the 1955 ICI House in East Melbourne by Bates Smart McCutcheon or the first AMP building in Sydney, 1957-1962, by Peddle Thorp – is really just glass boxes piled into tower form.

Privacy was virtually non-existent in the typing pool of 1966.

Privacy was virtually non-existent in the typing pool of 1966.Credit:Fairfax

The ultra-efficient floorplate of the open-plan office enabled the squeezing of space standards and the intensification of supervision. We see, for instance, the phenomenon of the “typing pool”, where a hundred – or two hundred – (usually) women could be overseen by a single pair of (usually male) eyes. Privacy was virtually non-existent. The clear message was, while you are here, you are 100 per cent company property. In other words, an idea born of the yearning for freedom was rapidly deployed in pursuit of its opposite; oppression. Many workers in open-plan offices today, fighting for a private conversation or phone call, might concur.

Modern architecture – indeed, perhaps the whole of modern life – is shaped by the tension between two opposite and insatiable human cravings: for freedom, and for safety. As herd animals, we crave the freedom of the prairie but, at the first scent of danger, scurry back to the safety of the corral. Behind both yearnings – and therefore beneath the open plan – sits fear. And, ultimately, this is the freedom we crave: freedom from the fear of pain and mortality.

Modern architecture is shaped by the tension between two opposite and insatiable human cravings: for freedom, and for safety.

Architect Sean Godsell’s Kew House.

Architect Sean Godsell’s Kew House.Credit:Earl Carter

Almost all advertising exploits this fear. Modern architecture, in many ways an early product of advertising, is no exception; whetting our freedom-appetite without, ever, fulfilling it. At its best, the open plan offers a sense – perhaps an illusion – of both freedom and safety. The house in the Shulman photograph seems to offer limitless view and openness in all directions with no loss of privacy or control. There is allure here. But it’s the allure of the unachievable. And Dr Edith Farnsworth sold what may be the world’s loveliest house after complaining of never being able to hide the bins, keep mosquitoes out or conceal dirty dishes.

Has the open plan delivered on its promise?

The history of Modern architecture is twined in ironies. One is that the open plan, which began as a push for universal equality and freedom, has become yet another device to entrap the poor and enrich the wealthy. What began as a critique of orthodoxy became its tool.

In the 1920s and 1950s, the immediate postwar periods, Modernism strove to break free of historical constraints, including those of inherited wealth and class. So it lionised typologies such as schools, health centres, public and affordable housing that would benefit everyone and adopted aesthetic values – simplicity, plainness, openness – that seemed similarly aligned. Even residential towers carried this idealism. In theory, gathering ground-hugging slums into a single tower left the ground that had been vacated open for park-like gardens. There, it was said, children could play while mothers supervised from the 10th-storey kitchen window.

Not surprisingly, with such a sales blurb, the open plan quickly gained popularity.

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This socialist drive was everywhere. In Auckland, in 1949 and 1950, a bunch of architecture students calling themselves the Group Architects built two shed-like houses as habitable manifestos. Design was a socialist platform. Known simply as First House and Second House, these dwellings, with almost no internal walls, were intended to make usable, delightful, climate-appropriate shelter available for all. Architecture, polemicised the Group, “can only arise out of the daily life of Everyman, and without Everyman there can be no architecture”.

In a world bursting with optimism, the dream was irresistible. Philip Johnson’s own all-glass house set in an oak park in Connecticut (1949) was hugely influential, and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House even more so, as were the Case Study houses. In Australia, the glass-house dreaming spawned similar houses, by Harry Seidler, Robin Boyd, Bill Lucas and others.

Sydney architect Harry Seidler in his open plan apartment in 1992.

Sydney architect Harry Seidler in his open plan apartment in 1992.Credit:Andrew Taylor

But there were problems. A house without walls is one thing on the Hollywood scarp or a 10-hectare estate, and quite another on a tiny suburban block An open plan is one thing if you are across its Socialist polemic; another if you just want to be able to shut the kids’ toys away.

The glass box was an Edenic dream. Adam and Eve could be naked in paradise because they were clothed in solitude and innocence. Replicate those Edens, set them cheek by jowl, send Adams and Eves, suited and brief-cased, off to work each day to feed their growing tribes, and the picture is altogether different. In that situation, the need for privacy demanded that houses be separated by space and planting, helping to entrench the low-density, car-dependent sprawl that typified the 20th century across the world, and all of its environmental detriments.

So, what about now? Now, the open plan is ubiquitous. Virtually every habitable building from the past 20 years boasts a farmhouse kitchen, open-plan living or open workspace. And true, there are upsides to this. You can’t enter a Victorian terrace house or Federation bungalow without wanting to blow the back off it, replacing the dank huddle of laundries and outhouses with a big, bright, airy space that opens the shared life of the household to a garden or court.

You can’t enter a Victorian terrace house or Federation bungalow without wanting to blow the back off it.

At the same time, cracks are starting to show. We’re seeing, for example, the advent of the “mess kitchen”, “frying kitchen” or “butler’s pantry” – where the real work, and the real mess, is tucked away while the ultra-schmick, detail-free island kitchen is there for everyone to see.

Walsh Street House by Melbourne architect Robin Boyd.

Walsh Street House by Melbourne architect Robin Boyd.Credit:John Gollings

In the hands of developers, furthermore, openness has become too often an excuse for meanness, so that “living-dining” is barely two-thirds the size it would be as rooms, while “study” can be a tiny understair desk and “bedroom” an alcove off “living”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the way such open-plan living can become an acoustic and emotional nightmare, with noisy toddlers, television, online meetings and family hubbub competing for mastery of a single space.

Of course, there’s also the energy question. Big open spaces are energy guzzlers when it comes to heating and cooling, and significant contributors to climate catastrophe. Wise architects, therefore, make thermal comfort a priority – houses by Richard Leplastrier and Peter Stutchbury spring to mind – and will often provide shutters, sliding doors or heavy curtains as seasonal space dividers.

Is our attachment to objects unhealthy?

An unspoken subtext of the open plan is minimalism. Essential to the look is a clean, uncluttered floor plane that flows seamlessly into a garden, infinity pool or view. It’s all about the impression of limitless expanse. And, as space standards diminish, the push to “declutter” has acquired a whole new moral urgency.

Enter Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidiness queen whose folding advisories have made her a global celebrity. Kondo’s advice about keeping only those things in your life that make you smile is endearing, possibly even wise. And it’s true that, in an open plan, storage is the key to survival.

Decluttering queen Marie Kondo.

Decluttering queen Marie Kondo.

But decluttering can go too far. Tidiness is the Botox of domestic life; a desire to iron out the wrinkles, to render it perfect. I once knew a woman who told me, in all seriousness, that she had spent 50 years trying not to laugh or smile too much because it would give her wrinkles. She was old and I was young, but I felt the tragedy of it even then.

The pursuit of perfect order has the same effect on our domestic lives. I’m not immune to the charms of a big, sunny space, but I also want options. To live without mess or randomness is to live without creativity, spontaneity or genuine emotion. An abiding emotional attachment to objects for their significance or beauty is surely healthy; an exercise in embodied cognition. And to recognise their spirit-content is also to see the beauty in the fact that such objects have a life of their own. It’s not all about control. Certainly, to see objects as embodied mind should help limit our easy-come-easy-go material consumption. Importantly, it should also enhance our respect for the material environment we call nature more than a few random status-object coffee-table books artfully placed.

To live without mess or randomness is to live without creativity, spontaneity or genuine emotion.

Naturally, this is not everyone’s view – but that’s the point. Rather than losing all the objects in our lives we should strive to acquire (or keep) only things we can actually love; things that have meaning or significance, or that give us genuine joy. We should never buy a house or apartment for the glamorous photo. Rather we should recognise archi-porn for what it is; a form of propaganda.

When is an open plan good, and when does it become a trap?

In the end, it’s about fit. The dwelling, be it house, apartment or shoebox, is a garment. It needs to fit you and your co-dwellers for size but also in terms of shape, style and messaging. And very little of that figures, even for an instant, in the housing-delivery system that we have.

What has emerged from the recent flood of spec-built apartments and office blocks that, over the past decade, have deluged Australian cities, is a traduced, soulless and depressingly uniform version of the open plan. Just as the open office was embraced by early-20th century capitalists as a means to a more efficient exploitation, so this century’s developers have eagerly recast the domestic open plan as a way to cut costs and maximise profits; an approach encouraged by deregulatory neoliberal planning. It was Mies van der Rohe who coined minimalism’s famous aphorism, “less is more”. And sometimes it’s true, at least up to a point. Just as often, though, especially in the greedy hands of developers, less is simply less.

Harry Seidler’s open plan office with Harbour Bridge views, photographed in 1973.

Harry Seidler’s open plan office with Harbour Bridge views, photographed in 1973.Credit:Max Dupain

The cost-savings arise because a kitchen or study that, as a single room, would seem impossibly mean looks much more plausible enveloped within a larger space. A workspace that would seem skimpy as a cell feels OK when its boundaries are removed or blurred. Further, the fewer walls and doors you have to build, the lower the outlay. But the result, ironically, can be oppressive.

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Traditional, room-based architecture can be cold and dark. It can be confining, especially when badly designed. But it also offers complexity and intricacy. It offers options, nooks and crannies. Ironing out these wrinkles and invaginations has been one of modernism’s enduring projects. This occurred at the large scale of the city where, from mid-century on, crooked lanes and narrow alleys were deliberately erased for open malls and plazas. It occurred also in ecclesiastical architecture, where the cloisters and side-chapels of Gothic architecture were replaced by the all-inclusive, big-space open plan, where there is no longer any place to withdraw to grieve or simply to worship in solitude.

And so it is in domestic architecture, especially in the extreme version of the open plan. As Godsell says of his Kew house, “Because this building forces one to confront oneself, then if you don’t really feel good about yourself then you probably don’t like the building.” I’m a Godsell fan, but this is architecture’s hubris; that people must adapt to it, rather than vice versa.

In truth, a good open plan is one that fits you – not just some glamorous, dinner-party idea of who you are, but the truth of you and your tribe. To this end, we should be – and should be encouraged to be – far more involved in the creation and delivery of our own dwellings via co-operative or crowd-funded building projects. The idea that a house or flat is a commodity, manufactured by a profiteer to some lowest possible standard, has undermined some of our deepest values. A dwelling, open-plan or not, should engage you in a genuine give-and-take relationship. It should be an object not of status or show, but of love.

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