Architecture Myths #8: Convenience
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the general unhealthy conditions in much ‘worker’ housing were a major concern for certain architects wishing to make life better for those people. Housing was making people sick, mainly due to the lack of ventilation and natural light. As we saw with the building featured in the post The Persistence of Beauty, the logical thing to do was to provide more windows, as well as more space between buildings – preferably as a garden. For the upper class with access to gardens and time for sport, getting too much sunlight was more of a problem until Coco Chanel solved that with her fashionably new Riviera suntan. In the same 1927, Jean Patou capitalised on the new tanning fad by launching the first suntan oil “Huile de Chaldee”,
Le Corbusier was promoting the Villa Savoye as a machine that actually provided sunlight and fresh air rather than an object that passively received them. Given that the Sun is 92,960,000 miles (149,600,000 km) away, how much more sunlight does one really get sitting on the roof as opposed to, say, sitting in the garden? Or driving to Paris with the top down? We’re clearly talking about new symbols for the healthy life here, not actual advancements.
In that same 1927 again, Richard Neutra’s Lovell (Health) House was another attempt to present access to sunlight and ventilation as upmarket signifiers – as if any were needed on the hills overlooking Hollywood even then.
The Lovell House is about 4 km south-east of the Hollywood Sign, erected 1923. Here’s the house in the 1997 movie L.A. Confidential.
Didn’t stop that bullet. Downmarket housing circa 1927 lacked terraces and gardens and windows. A hundred years ago however, prolonged exposure to sunlight, was the common treatment for tuberculosis and buildings for its treatment, known as sanitoriums, became a subject for architecture. Here’s one designed by Alvar Aalto in Paimio (60°27’54.36″, 22°44’8.00″) in the south of Finland, in 1930. Note the entire wing of sun terraces.
And the well-lit dining room.
Here’s the plan, showing how the treatment terraces face due south.
And here’s the uppermost terrace (although the roof ensures it gets no more sun than the lower ones – odd.)
The north-west facing corner is the most photographed, to the neglect of the entrance,
and generally the corner by which this building is known.
Even though those added balconies are purely ornamental.
But sun was good. Sun was all they had back then. These days, we use antibiotics to cure tuberculosis and appreciate windows for the general health-giving benefits of sunlight. These include the production of Vitamin D and associated benefits such as keeping the skin in good condition and keeping the bodyclock in sync as well as many new ones only just being discovered.
They may be rudimentary by today’s standards but, in 1926, someone was trying to get it right.
These days, we more or less have windows sorted. An energy model can be used to calculate the necessary window area to ensure a certain minimum recommended level of illumination. We’re a bit more knowledgeable in some other areas too. We prefer it when our houses don’t try to kill us by making us breathe asbestos fibres or volatile organic compounds. We’ve gotten smarter in some ways.
The 20th century saw the advent of many labour saving machines and devices. It’s easy to see how generally smaller households drove this since, suddenly, it was the woman of the house who had to do most of the work. The first electric washing machine was advertised in 1904 but, since electricity was generally not commercially available until the 1930s, washing machines remained a luxury. Hubert Cecil Booth of England has the strongest claim to inventing the motorized vacuum cleaner, in 1901.
The first reports of a mechanical dishwashing device are of an 1830 patent in the United States by Joel Houghton for a hand-powered good device. In England in 1924, William Howard Livens invented a small dishwasher suitable for domestic use.
Much thought was given and applied to the kitchen and the preparation of food. Driven by early Taylorist theories of scientific management for workflows and factory production in the early 20th century, ergonomics became a topic of research and was keenly applied to domestic situations. Here’s the kitchen from the Bauhaus’ Haus am Horn of 1926.
Things began to be stored in ‘easy reach’ for purposes of time- and labour-saving but, along with the general discrediting of all things functional, this was marketed as ‘convenience’. By the 1950’s everything was convenient. There was no more bending down to check things in the oven. This next image is of Jayne Mansfield, back in happier days when walls were walls and wall-ovens were wall-ovens. (And what on earth is it she’s cooking in there?)
The first remote intended to control a television was developed by Zenith Radio Corporation in 1950. The remote, called “Lazy Bones”, was connected to the television by a wire. The wireless remote came shortly after in 1956. No more having to get up and walk across your living room and back!
To be fair, these are lifestyle choices that our dwellings do nothing to discourage. The result though, is that how we use our dwellings is not keeping us fit. When we are no longer fit, there are items such as indoor mobility scooters (as opposed to electric wheelchairs)
to further atrophy wasted muscles. It wasn’t always like this. Here’s a staircase not uncommon in Japanese country houses until recently. It’s steep. It has no handrail.
People managed, and they managed until they were well advanced in years. This isn’t such an historical thing either. Here’s a stair from Kazuo Shinohara‘s Tanikawa House of 1974.
This next image is of a standard six-mat room in a Japanese style hotel. Notice the use of cushions instead of chairs. Sitting cross-legged on the floor without back support is also something that Japanese people never can’t do no matter what their age. The image also shows the futons that have been taken out of the oshiire (closet; lit. ‘push-in’) and laid out for the evening.
Japanese houses, inasmuch as houses can be separated from the way of living within them, keep their inhabitants fit. It’s no surprise then, that some of this Japanese sensibility has found its way into the Bioscleve House (2007) by the artist Arakawa and his wife, Madeline Gins.
In addition to the floor, which threatens to send the un-sure-footed hurtling into the sunken kitchen at the center of the house, the design features walls painted, somewhat disorientingly, in about 40 colors; multiple levels meant to induce the sensation of being in two spaces at once; windows at varying heights; oddly angled light switches and outlets; and an open flow of traffic, unhindered by interior doors or their adjunct, privacy. All of it is meant to keep the occupants on guard.
Comfort, the thinking goes, is a precursor to death; the house is meant to lead its users into a perpetually “tentative” relationship with their surroundings, and thereby keep them young. (NYTimes)
For Arakawa, reversible destiny is about more than just a state of mind. By way of example, he described the experience of elderly residents of a building in Mitaka, Japan, that the couple recently designed. Having to navigate a treacherous environment — in some cases by moving “like a snake” across the floor — has, in fact, boosted their immune systems, he claimed. “Three, four months later, they say, ‘You’re so right, I’m so healthy now!’ “
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These are big claims. I’m unsure about the primary colours and the need to reverse one’s destiny as far back as pre-school but, from my own experience, I’m inclined to believe there is a case for making our houses make us make a bit more effort to use them. Anecdote is not proof but … I recently moved to a studio apartment and the only drawer in the kitchen is the one beneath the cooker.
For the past three weeks I’ve been using this ‘inconvenient’ drawer to store all cutlery and kitchen utensils. The non-specific lower back pain that had been nagging me for the past eighteen months has gone. Fit for purpose.