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Architecture Myths #33: Served and Servant Spaces

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The notion of served spaces and servant spaces has been around for a while in architecture and we accept this apparent opposition as a conceptual certainty. After all, what could make more sense than mapping an archaic but entrenched social classification onto buildings? The nomenclature is easy to understand as it mirrors that of masters and servants where the superiority of the masters is accepted while the only reason the servants exist is to serve them. But is a kitchen, for example, really less important than a dining room, a bathroom any less important than a bedroom?

Back in the day, it wasn’t a question of served and servant spaces but of entire separate wings for servants. Here’s a plan of Bear Wood, built 1865-1874. All the ground floor rooms around the kitchen court and up to the servants’ stairs (policed by the butler) are the servants’ realm.

It’s said that Harlaxton Manor (1837) had walls with corridors inside so servants could move about without being seen. I’d like to see proper plans for how this worked but, given the general level of excess, I’m inclined to believe it.

In order for it not to be seen by arriving guests, the servants’ wing was often at the rear of the house or off to one side. Sometimes it was also at an angle to show it wasn’t a part of the formal organization of the “house proper”.

In this example of a London townhouse circa 1880, the entire layout is conceived so that served and servants never meet. Servants enter the basement from separate stairs at ground level, passing by the rooms of the footman, housekeeper and butler. The kitchen is separated from the main house (and the dining room!) by a courtyard. Food is carried up the basement stairs and into the dining room through a door for that purpose. Servants carrying food and plates might cross those of a served going to the study. Served access to the first floor boudoir might cross that of servants coming from the servants’ stair to clean and tidy the drawing room but generally, the served use the main stairs and the servants use the servants’ stairs, as you can see from the section below.

The kitchen is well-lit and ventilated but a whole floor and half a house away from the dining room. But for such a large house, there aren’t that many places to be when not asleep. The choices are the morning room, dining room and drawing room when one is feeling social, or withdraw to either the study or boudoir when not.

Servants and the servants’ stairs replicated the functions of pipes and shafts, carrying food, water, laundry and chamberpots up and down. With all manner of pipes and shafts adorning its exterior, Rogers and Piano’s 1977 Centre Pompidou was therefore especially shocking to British people.

Foster + Partners 1978 Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts made up for it by continuing the tradition of concealing servant spaces.

The Albert Houses above, were single-family terrace (row) houses but Albert Hall Mansions by Sir Norman Shaw, no less, were mansions (i.e. flats). This is what they looked like, and still do.

The following paired layouts are repeated three times across the site. Again the basement is the servants’ realm with kitchens at the rear serving the apartments above, and other rooms designated as spare rooms, presumably for additional staff on call. Street access for owners is via the vestibule linked to the central stair and light well, while servants use the adjacent entrance and rear stairs.

Here’s what happens higher up. What in Great Britain would normally be called the first floor is here called a “mezzanine” as it contains only secondary bedrooms. In the photo above, you can see how its windows are smaller to add more weight to the lower levels. In that same photo you can see the upper two levels of the corner apartment shaded green in these drawings. The apartment shaded yellow has a balcony to the dining room. The lower half levels of each apartment are the servants’ spaces again separated from the served spaces by one level and the length of the apartment but still linked by servants’ stairs.

It’s not exactly bringing this conversation into the present, but a similar separation of spaces (and the people occupying them) is present in the two LeCorb villas. Once sunlight is rebranded as something desirable, the servants get less of it at ground level beneath the occupants’ living areas. The piano nobile was hardly a revolutionary idea even if the means of getting it up there was. Or so it seemed.

There are ground floor doors to the chauffeur’s apartment, the laundry room and a side door near the kitchen stair for deliveries. The occupants and their visitors use the front door only, apart from the son who can also use a door to access is car in the garage. The servants realm is visible to visitors, but only fleetingly so. The famous washbasin in the hallway is for the servants to wash their hands before handling the guests’ coats and hats. It was originally positioned as shown in the drawing above but for some reason was relocated to the other side of the column as part of renovations the began in 1965.
Here, the servants’ spaces are more separated, accessed dcirefty from the garage, with the housemaid’s door connecting to the hallway to receive visitors. The stairs to the right are the stairs leading to the living areas, while the lowest level of the stair on the left is for servants to serve food and to clean and tidy the upper levels. Owners use only these upper levels. A portion of the served and servant spaces are therefore shared, but it is by no means egalitarian.
On the front facade, it is very clear which door is for the servants and which is for the served. One steps down two steps to access the servants’ door only to step two steps once inside.

Louis Kahn is reponsible for keeping the notion of servant and served spaces alive even when houses no longer had live-in servants. This is his 1961 Escherick House. Front and garden access, and the galleried stairs all count as a servant spaces. Kitchen and laundry are spaces formerly occupied by servants and, if we go not too much further back in time, I suppose the dressing room would also have had servants on hand to assist.

I won’t bore you with examples but Louis Kahn made served and servant spaces something of a thing. This is his 1960 Richards Medical Research Laboratories building. You get the idea. Stairs and air shafts are given special treatment on the exterior but elevators need to be central and apparently, so do the spaces for the animals for the medical research. All this is done to achieve maximum unobstructed space for the laboratories (after access to the elevators and stairs has been taken into account).

The 2010 The Index in Dubai is another preposterous building by Foster+Partners. The central bank of four elevators “service” the apartment levels above. Even structure is relegated to the status of servant space, except its 10 m long x 2 m wide columns are very solid. The whole point of doing this is to enable those unobstructed 30 m x 30 m office floors that force tenants to pay for their own corridors to access the essential servant spaces. With this building, it’s all about non-marketable space vs. marketable space.

It’s no surprise Kahn arrived at his notion of served and servant spaces from his study of Scottish castles that had entire rooms inside their amply thick walls (even if this can’t not have compromised their integrity). This next image comes from an excellent article on walls as rooms, here on socks studio.

What then, is Oswald Ungers’ excuse for his division of spaces into served and servant spaces in his 1991 House Without Qualities?

I confess to liking its consistency but I would like it more if its two end walls were the same thickness as the rest. I guess there weren’t enough servant spaces to go around, even with the inclusion of what looks like a one-person elevator and numerous storerooms. I do like Ungers’ solution for the kitchen though. It can’t not be a servant space but there’s not enough space for it. I’d have put it on a thickened outside wall and solved an exhaust problem at the same time.

Following the same logic, an inglenook and fireplace would occupy the similar space at the other end of the house. Sources of heat are symmetrical and kitchen exhaust and fireplace flue can be solved symmetrically. After some searching, I finally found an upper floor plan. As I suspected, there’s a redundant gallery to maintain symmetry but symmetry had already been compromised by having only one stair.

Even in this rather astonishing house a second stair never seems to have been part of the plan. Symmetry is reserved for served spaces, unless they’re visible like the galleried corridors.

Anyway, upstairs, the thickened walls would provide closet space and/or, if one must, flatscreens facing the beds. The three storey-void of the stairwell would be mirrored by another three-storey void where the kitchen formerly was, serving more daylight to the basement swimming pool.

These servant spaces are now becoming quite the feature. The next thing would be to make them visible on the outside of a building. This was first proposed by Yves Lion with his 1987 Domus Domain project that makes perfect sense in terms of servicing, illumination and ventilation. It never gained traction.

And yes, I’m going to mention Riken Yamamoto’s 2002 Ban Building in Niigata once again.

The plan below is of Room 3 in the typical floor plan. Kitchen, w/c and bathroom are still serving the main living space only now they’re also serving it with light and air. If you like, you can continue to think of them as occupying very deep window reveals.

Notice how he same distinction of served and servant spaces doesn’t make sense as a concept now the hierarchy is reversed? This shows we still think some functions more equal than others.

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[Big thanks to Evan for the idea for this post. GM]


  • Maybe a more useful point is that the servant spaces themselves need services – for example, shelter from the weather, security from external trouble, and access for maintenance – and so do the people who work in them, even if they’re not servants in the traditional sense of the word.

    The Pompidou both leaves the building services in the wind, and requires that you get at them…well I don’t know how you get at them, but if they were inside you could stand on the floor, out of the weather, and open an access hatch to get at them, having brought your tools up in the lift. There are some bits of it where you can open a door onto a catwalk if you have the right key, but you’re still going to work in blinding heat, freezing cold, or pissing rain depending on season, and if the Key Guy isn’t around you’re not going to get the job done.

    (PS I was first taken to it as a 9 year old kid and, despite being British, I thought it was AWESOME. Maybe the shocked people had servants?)

  • “Stairs and air shafts are given special treatment on the exterior but elevators need to be central and apparently, so do the spaces for the animals for the medical research. All this is done to achieve maximum unobstructed space for the laboratories.”

    What? You mean to say that the reason the building exists at all was given more attention and space than the stairwell? You don’t say!

    Kahn’;s client thought the room where they served and ate the food was more important than where they cooked the food? Fascists!

    I admire the hell out of your blog, but you’ve lost me with this one.

    • Thanks for writing, David and making me think more about what I meant. It’s always good to have fire escape stairs at the extremities of a building, and to have elevators more central (along with maybe another set of stairs for people who wish to take them) and this is exactly what there is. And having maximum unobstructed space for laboratories is also good. Put the two together and as many of the servant spaces as possible get pushed to the outside where they can also be deployed as an incidental aesthetic effect. I’ve always preferred Kahn’s Richards Medical Laboratories to Paul Rudolph’s Yale Architecture and Design Building of two years prior. In Rudolph’s building, the vertical elements are a structural system that sometimes encloses servant spaces, sometimes not. What I prefer matters little, but I’ve always found Kahn’s building far more clear and satisfying.

      • I apologize for my tone – I think I misread your original post. If you take offense to the language of servant/master spaces, then, yes, I don’t think we need classist language in architecture. However, important as staircases are, we spend relatively little time in them. As for kitchens, I think the trend in the mid-century was for minimizing them as efficient work spaces. Entertaining was done in the dining and living rooms. The trend over the last 30 years has been toward the preparation of meal itself being guest-oriented, and maybe that’s a good thing. Or not.

      • Hi David. Just today I was looking at a photo of the Stahl House – the shot across the pool and through the open kitchen. In the UAE, the larger, traditional houses will have a separate kitchen for grilling and roasting separated from the house by a courtyard. All the grilling and roading will invariably be done by a maid though. Here in China the kitchen almost always has sliding glass doors to separate it from the rest of the apartment but this is more to stop the aroma of food spreading until it is meant to. It’s not my habit to close these doors while cooking, and so my air purifier goes into overdrive at the slightest hint of frying, stir-frying or toasting. Cooking and laboratories are best kept well apart.

  • Kahn’s Trenton Bath House is often mentioned in this regard. Certainly nothing to do with class differences in that project.