Matrix: A Feminist Critique of Home Design

Matrix’s Making Space covers home design most extensively, and unsuprisingly I suppose (see the first post here on who Matrix was and what they were all about). How many continue to believe that a woman’s place is in the home? And yet homes have never really been designed for women, especially not now with the many new responsibilities and work patterns alongside those of care that so many women have had to take on.

There is some brilliant history to be found here, as well as historic design. That is, historic given the time it was designed and built, but we continue to live in so many of these homes. So not quite so historic after all. This all makes me want to go back to people writing architectural histories like Swenarton and Burnett, to think about what they might have missed.

5 House Design and Women’s Roles

Chapter 5 delves more some actual plans from key reformers and reports, they are brilliant and illustrate so clearly the lack of consideration for women and the assumptions of life trajectories built into the fabric of our homes.

The most striking theme of the plans is the privatization of family life. Accommodation for each household became self-contained as a family unit. While very little privacy is provided for individuals within the family, families as a whole were increasingly expected to be private from each other. The dominant household form–almost the only one that has been designed for–is that of the nuclear family. (55)

They describe the changing ways people inhabited buildings and isolated functions within the home just as planning was pushing the isolation and segregation of functions within the wider city itself.

Modern houses are divided into rooms with specific functions and are generally intended to accommodate only one family; these are both fairly recent innovations. Houses built for working people in the era prior to industrial capitalism were simple structures, which accommodated both activities relating to survival such as eating, sleeping, cooking and so on, as well as tasks associated with family and trading. People who were not related to one another lived together as one household. (59)

The privacy increasingly demanded for families, for examples, is shown as recent and emerging. They give the example of weavers cottages, or back to back rows of one room conected by a spiral staircase. To get to workshop on top you passed through each room in turn, walking past family life as you did so.

There are more examples of outside views from philanthropists and architects of the working classes, ranging from patronising environmental determinism to strong views on limiting what working class famlies deserved. This is rather an astonising quote from Lord Shaftesbury on the impact of his model dwellings:

The people who were formerly savage and ferocious, because they supposed themselves despised and abandoned, are now perfectly quiet and docile . . . Lady Shaftesbury has walked alone, with no attendant but a little child, through streets in London where, years ago, a well-dressed man could not have passed safely without an escort of the police. (61)

Robert Kerr, who also designed model dwellings for the ‘labouring classes’, felt that:

The most rigid economy of arrangement, consistent with accommodation sufficiently spacious to be convenient and healthy, and the utmost attention to cheapness of construction, consistent with durability and comfort, are essential elements of a really good and suitable plan.’

As Making Space continues on model dwelling design:

The improvement to the morals and characters of the inhabitants would take place through a particular sort of planning based on segregation and privacy. The working classes were to be organized into ‘proper’ family units:

Design was always about both moral and physical improvement. A direct quote from an architect here:

Balconies were for the preservation of domestic privacy and independence of each distinct family and the disconnection of their apartments so as to effectively prevent the communication of contagious diseases. (63)

Making Space p 62

Especially the contagious disease of REVOLUTION. Mwahaha though of course they were very concerned about cholera and TB and had every right to be. The rise of public health was somehow so good and so bad all at the same time. Foucault can probably help explain that better.

Alongside design, these model dwellings were also bound by rules created to…there needs to be a verb something like bourgeosify workers and make them more respectable. These included the barring of lodgers, whether extended family members or strangers, as well as the prohibition of paid work being undertaken from the home. Both had been key sources of income for working class families, both were taken up as prohibitions by councils to govern their own housing.

This goes on to a brilliant short review of the different plans and types of housing. Looking at the typical terrace housing designs by speculative builders, we could see why families might refuse the restrictions of philanthropic provision, demanding both the parlour they felt they deserved and the back bedroom for the lodger that helped them get by.

Making Space p 68

to Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin and design based on the Garden City movement:

Making Space, p 70

To post-war council housing:

Making Space, p75

In all of them the kitchen is always small and pushed to the back, even though many working class families ate their meals there.

The Parker-Morris Report again admitted to this demand and commented on earlier plans which saw eating in the kitchen as a working-class habit, and deliberately tried to prevent it by not allowing enough space:

Even in a kitchen which is not planned for the family to eat in, and which is primarily planned as a working centre, there should be somewhere two or three people can sit down and eat; because we are convinced that, whether or not there is room, that is what they will do. We have heard it said on more than one occasion that the kitchen should be planned so that it is impossible to take meals in it, with a view to raising the social and living standards of the occupiers. We believe that this is an unsuitable motive on which to choose a plan; and even if it were not it would be necessary now. after ten or fifteen years of trying it out. to recognise that it is misconceived.8 (76)

I feel like today this kind of judgment is laughable, though I know I am hardly one to judge what is high class. The Parker-Morris report (Homes for Today and Tomorrow (1961)) is still a little grudging about offering more kitchen space and the ongoing demand for a parlour, seen as a luxury and unneccessary partition/waste of space. But finally there seemed to be a growing recognition that a wider variety of homes was needed.

Homes for Today and Tomorrow … noted trends such as the greater demand by single people for separate homes rather than living with their families or as lodgers, and the need for housing to provide more than a minimal ‘roof over the head’- to cater for a collection of individuals with aspirations and with differing and some (76) times conflicting interests. (The report remarked, somewhat optimistically as it turned out, that husbands were sharing domestic work in an increasingly egalitarian fashion!)

It recommended more space and heat in all the rooms, including bedrooms, ‘to allow individuals to follow more fully their own lives within the family house structure‘ (78).

Yet government design guides continued to focus on the nuclear family as the model. They also abolished its space standards in 1981. We are still mourning the loss of minimum space standards. Yet the house plans were still problematic. As the authors summarise:

Many of the house plans we have used here are explicit models of how houses ought to be, and the way people should live. Even in cases where women’s voices have been heard, priorities about what is built into the house and what is left out have been predominantly chosen by men. Thus, a strong demand from working-class women at the turn of the century for a parlour was given a low priority. Demands for space to eat comfortably in the kitchen have been reiterated in design manuals such as Parker-Morris, but again and again, the actual houses have had tiny kitchens. In the final decision-making, women’s real needs, desires and aspirations are not taken as seriously as male-dominated ideas about the ‘appropriate’ house for the family. (80)

6 Housing the Family

Housing the Family is a quite extraordinary report that follows the Parker-Morris report. It simultaneously sought to understand and design for the care roles of women without ever questionning that such should always be the role of women. As the authors write (in a beautiful example of how to design better research questions):

this research is based on particular questions, and the choice of questions determines the answers — and produces a window by the kitchen sink. The researchers asked: ‘How can life with your hands in the sink be a little more pleasant?’, not: ‘Why do women spend so much time at the kitchen sink?’. Housing the Family contains a whole checklist of such questions: ‘Is there a convenient place indoors where small children can play within sight of the kitchen working area?’ ‘Does the kitchen have some view of the outside world, callers, passers-by, etc?’

What is the end result?

Women’s experience of living in houses is incorporated into housing design by a sort of remote control process. The dynamics of everyday life for women are profoundly misunderstood because questions such as these emerge from the stereotype view of nuclear family life so vividly portrayed in Housing the Family.

So despite the critique that can be made of it, the 1961 Parker-Morris report turned out to be more generous both in terms of space standards, but also in other ways, signaling a better way forward

[It] set out to describe the way people live and to make recommendations for the design of housing.2 It proposed a new way of setting housing standards by outlining design problems rather than providing ‘standard’ plans, as earlier housing manuals had, and was intended to free architects from stereotyped planning prevalent in the 1950s. In this way, it was also more liberal in outlook than many of the subsequent design guides such as Housing the Family and Space in the Home, which offered one, particular, conventional interpretation of how the design problem might be solved. (81)

Oh my days the relentlessness of gender roles in these later reports:

p 83

As you may have spotted:

This design guide definition of the family excludes many people — single parent families, communal households, old people — and refers only to the ‘nuclear family’ which is not a reality for most people anyway. Within that very limited definition, roles are described in a very conventional way, for example, there are no signs that men cook, children clean or that women repair houses.

We also begin to see a shift in language and approach familiar from other areas of life like economics — its removal ever further in the realms of experts. Dolores Hayden also charts this course and the different reasons it was taken up by reformers.

Spaces and activities are described so as to seem scientific, and therefore objective. Charts and graphs indicate the ‘optimum’ work- top height, and ‘activity sequences’ represent the ‘meal preparation process’. Spaces are divided into ‘zones’ with specific functions: the kitchen includes ‘zones’ for preparation/wash-up, mixing, cooking, serving, eating: each described separately and as a sequence in great detail, with illustrations even of the fitments by which tea towels can be hung. (84)

And how is the kitchen zone imagined by these experts? As a great lover of kitchens, I find this heartbreakig.

The kitchen is categorized as a space which does not need to change as the family develops. Preparing food is not a sociable activity in which everyone can participate, and the kitchen is designed to be used by one person- the wife and mother. The work-tops resemble laboratory benches; she is assisted only by a range of consumer durables such as the cooker, washing machine, spin drier, tumble drier, and dish-washer.

Design guides describe the kitchen as the ‘work centre’ of the house–once the realm of the domestic servants in the more affluent Victorian houses, it is now assumed to be the realm of the house- wife. The guides recommend that the kitchen be a separate room, designed to make cooking and serving food as efficient and convenient as possible, without the rest of the family and especially visitors being able to see, hear or smell them. (87)

And finally, many of these guides help create siloes of design, architecture and planning. As the authors write:

Design guides are only a part of a way of thinking that divides the business of living into hermetic compartments. Housing the Family, for instance, does not deal with the relationship of the home to the immediate locality for the necessary support services: shops, schools, health centres. These are deemed to be the province of other design guides. (87)

Not just isolated from the neighbourhoods they live in, and a wider network of towns and cities and amenities like green space, this kind of housing design also isolates people from each other.

There is no mention of the importance of social relationships and communal activities for women and children. Baking, washing, bathing, which were once communal activities, have been privatized within the child-centred nuclear family. (87-88)

This is everything that is wrong with our current systems, everything that drives sprawl, pollution, isolation, competition rather than cooperation, patriarchy…everything we have to undo. The next post looks a little more at the critique of how architects and planners have managed the interstitial spaces between homes, particularly on estates, and then we begin dreaming of what we might build instead.

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