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The pandemic, the open plan and the end of privacy

Published: SMH May 2, 2020

Missy the black Burmese is an intrepid mouser. That’s her inner Artemis, the huntress. But she’s an equally determined sub-doona foot-snuggler. A lifetime house cat, she’s an early adopter of the COVID lifestyle, always eager to sneak out but still more delighted, after a few metres and fewer minutes, to return. Last week, however, she had a bad experience with two over-affectionate border collies. Now she approaches the threshold in full flight-or-fight. Tail fluffed and low growl at the ready, the would-be huntress vacillates, torn between the yearning for adventure and the desire to stay safe.

Humans, too, are constantly torn between stimulus and sanctuary. Over recent weeks this tension has become sharply apparent. It shapes just about every interaction inside the pandemic hive-mind, from the domestic to the geo-political.

At macro-scale, more timid nations tut-tut at Sweden’s decision to let the virus “burn through” while, at person level, someone heading out for a haircut in the hood risks as much from peer censure as from threatening clouds of corona-shaped virions.

This tension is a core human trait. Every building, city and nation embodies it. Our desire to define and reinforce boundaries is real and deep. So, too, is our need persistently to breach those boundaries – for trade and tourism, business and pleasure, adventure, connection and sustenance.

Our bodies themselves, and our minds, similarly require both boundary and breach. We need definition yet must also constantly blur that definition with throughput; the in-and-out of eating and excreting, learning and teaching, connecting.

Naturally, then, the architecture that clothes and choreographs our lives manifests this same tension, most interestingly in the push-pull between cellular and open planning.

The open plan – which in photos looks so clean-lined, lofty and so fabulously, well, open – has quite likely made your life hell over the pandemic period.

Le Corbusier called it le plan libre. The free plan. But many people struggling to work from home in living spaces they share with relentless toddlers, grumpy in-laws, surly adolescents or barely tolerable housemates are discovering what workers in open-plan offices have known for some time. There’s a point at which freedom becomes coercion. As Sartre famously said, “hell is other people”. Whatever happened, you might wistfully think, to the idea of the room?

It’s reasonable to assume that the caves and huts of our antediluvian ancestors began as single communal cells. Gradually, as wealth allowed, new cells were added, bringing privacy to certain activities and individuals. The private room, thus, became a status symbol and shared living a sign of poverty.

So the early 20th century’s open plan “invention”, although passionately and avowedly “modern”, also embodied a form of primitivism. It was like Paleo for architecture, appealing to the intuition that ancientness embodies a kind of truth, a cleanliness.

The open plan, as it first appeared in the early prairie houses of Frank Lloyd Wright and in Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture, expressed a pre-WWI desire to lose the blood-soaked clutter of history – what Henry Ford would later famously call “bunk”. But it also sought an Ur-plan whose very ancientness would create a better, nobler future.

The idea had huge force, converging aesthetics, politics and practicality. The new aesthetic drew on pre-WWI cubist painting, especially on Picasso and Braque’s interest in multiple simultaneous viewpoints. At a practical level it maximised space and affordability. And in social terms, the open plan was understood to imply an egalitarian togetherness.

Of course, there’s a kink in this logic, as many of us are now discovering. The open plan allows togetherness, yes, but all too often forces it upon us.

Although pioneered 50 years earlier, the open-plan home did not become genuinely popular until the 1960s and 70s, by which time many people – women and men – were heading out each day to work.

In the 50s, when bold new open-plan houses were widely published in women’s magazines, the polemic was all “mothers! now you can watch your children play while you peel the potatoes!” It sounded like a call to liberation. But recent weeks have shown many mothers just what a lie that was. It’s one thing to spend evenings and weekends with the household. Quite another when it’s all day, every day.

Now, the open plan, with its kitchen, living and dining melded into a single space, is so universal as to be presumed. Farmhouse kitchen? Is there any other sort?

Architects love it because what used to be called “interpenetrating space” makes for sexier photos and is more likely to elicit media attention. Developers love it because it yields more for less. When you just have to write the word “dining” on a plan no one can tell you it’s too small. So you can squeeze more uses into less space, more “bedrooms” with only borrowed light, more “studies” stuffed under the stairs, and so on.

But the market has also bought into the open plan, big time. This is partly because of the look of those open sunny spaces – especially through a wide-angle lens. And partly because of the very impossibility of achieving that look. The open plan is unforgiving of real life. It deals badly with kids, mess, toys, clutter and crap. And that is why we love it. One thing humans can be guaranteed to want is the impossible.

And failing that, the impossible look will do. So intense is this desire that some houses now have a second “messy” kitchen where the real work happens behind scenes.

Now that we have been forced actually to live in our homes, though, things look a little different. The open plan promises freedom but it can feel very like constraint. Maybe it’s time, then, for a little more balance. A little more enclosure, more privacy, more space for withdrawal, melancholy and refuge.

Much has been said about reappreciating the public realm, but perhaps we also need to reinvest in privacy. We all want to get out and kill that mouse, but we all have our inner Missy.

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