A fringe experiment of American architectural modernism—has become ubiquitous but it promises a liberation from housework that remains a fantasy
Openness and continuity might have been modernist aspirations for the spirit as much as the body, but just as the open-plan office created the oppression of constant oversight in the name of collaboration, so the open-plan home merged the duties of hostess, butler, cook, and childcare provider. And despite its promise of relaxation and conversation, open-plan living has actually combined leisure with labor. When the two fuse, work wins in the end, converting recreation back into obligation. The dinner party entails its preparation and cleanup; meal-prep also involves child oversight or homework help; television-viewing takes place during dishwasher-unloading. Overall, domestic life becomes an exercise in multitasking. And so, even when it expands freedom, the open kitchen constantly reminds its users of that freedom’s limits. Today, the “prairie town” is just the suburbs. Mid-century modernism is alive as a style trend, but not necessarily an affordable one like it was in its salad days. American homes have gotten much bigger in the last century, and the open-plan design has consistently increased in popularity and ubiquity during that period, too. Along the way, the two-faced nature of the design, especially for those at work in the kitchen, has become so widely accepted that it has essentially devolved into domestic ideology.
In retrospect, there was never a clear path from those early modernist visions of the 1930s—or even from the generic, 1970s great room—to a society of equity and mobility. At best, egalitarianism was confined to those who led comfortable middle- to upper-middle class lives already. Wright’s unrealized vision for an urban plan, which he called Broadacre City, amounted to a master-planned suburb, connected by the automobile, where television and other personal entertainment obviated most social needs anyway. Status and economic comfort, it seems, were prerequisites for living in the homes of the utopian future.
That assumption persists in today’s open-plan homes, even as the design has evolved. Most have shed both the ornamentation of Prairie style and the minimalism of modernism. Inside remodeled vernacular homes and ranches, and built into the designs of new subdivisions and urban infill, the open-plan strives for the largest void possible, with the kitchen and living space coming along for the ride.
But despite modernism’s aspirations, these homes still struggle with the relationship between formal and casual living. Consider a common designfor infill construction in Atlanta, where I live: a swelled version of the foursquare home, large enough to contain 4,000 square feet or more. This design often features a formal dining room to the left or right of the entryway, sometimes with an office opposite. The formal living room has been abandoned, relegated to the informal great room in the rear, which flows together with a large kitchen and eat-in space.
Everything becomes confused.
And yet, people still want open-plan living. According to Alofsin, who has written a book for consumers about suburban homes, homebuyers prefer to eliminate formal parlors or dining rooms in favor of even more open space. And all the designers, builders, and real-estate agents I asked said that their clients are still looking for open plans, whether for renovations, purchases, or new construction. Anja Weninger-Ramirez, a partner at Studio d+c, a home design/build firm in Decatur, Georgia, told me that people regularly report that new open spaces that make the social core of the house “change their lives.” Integrating meal prep, parties, and so forth with the living area appeals to people because “that’s where family life happens,” she says.