Essential Tools of Living
The kitchen and bathroom: presence and absence of domestic space
You could build a history of living, changes in lifestyles and forms of family relationships through an account of the evolution of places in the home that are indispensable for carrying out everyday activities; in other words, with the taste and fashions that have defined and influenced bathrooms and kitchens, ever since these have appeared as essential technical contexts in the home. An unbroken, but extremely diverse path of development and technical adjustments, discoveries and innovations, rites and household myths which, on the one hand, goes from the furnace – a synonym of the same principles that infuse the private dwelling – to modern kitchens which, as obedient butlers, without human features, remote-controlled or even completely autonomously, perform the primary need of the preparation of food necessary for man’s survival; and which, on the other hand, proceeds from immodest places in which to fulfill certain primary physical needs – at the origins, completely outside the house with the aim of emphasising the distance from the most civil public places – to contemporary and sophisticated areas reserved for hygiene and well-being, relaxation and the attention given to one’s physical and aesthetic form.
The history of home interiors during the years after World War II until today, if interpreted through the changes that these spaces underwent, tells of political and social transformation, the evolution of the role of women within the family, the figure of the father-breadwinner, the self-determination of children in education, the forms of representation of the economic status and the relationships inside and outside parental nuclei. Not only that, these places, although among the closest to the human form, to its gestures, influenced by ergonomics and dimensional dictates, are those where more space has been given to technological development, the evolution of technology applied to daily life, where home automation was first established, where the appearance of simple tools and utensils changed habits and skills, where changes in the shapes of objects and spaces succeeded in representing new social structures, systems of links, affermations of principles and of people’s ideas. Bathrooms and kitchens, from the 1950s onwards, have constituted systems and technology essential to affirm the level of well-being and the need for health, fundamental to move towards social development, to introduce behavioural and hygiene standards and to materialise an idea of progress, capable of redeeming the dark years of wars, of nullifying economic differences, as well as the natural distance between the city and countryside, between the centre and suburbia, mythical and cultural distance rather than physical and geographical. As early as the 1960s, and then in the 1970s, in the wake of imported behavioural models, sometimes only imagined or known through advertising, movies, TV shows and glossy magazines, kitchens in particular, but also the places reserved for staff hygiene, take on a form ideal for accommodating ties and evolving relationships, roles and hierarchies in the process of change.
If postwar cuisine in Italy is that of the film “An American in Rome“ by Steno, where Alberto Sordi engages the famous dialogue with his plate of “macaroni“, that of the following years, open onto the living-dining room, sometimes with a breakfast bar to divide the kitchen area from the eating area, wants to imitate, behind in relation to the original models, those where family dramas unfold, involving the Bradfords (stars of the TV show of the same name) or the Cunninghams (in the famous TV series Happy Days), which becomes an example to which a society that intends to break the roles and habits imposed by consolidated social types, look carefully with a view to materialising their own aspirations. The opening and the linking of certain rooms of the house, the cancellation of places of tradition considered now past, the different proportions of the former, become the physical image of the revolution of customs, of the cultural effect of ideologies and of innovative artistic and literary phenomena.
Alongside the emergence of models deriving from North American and North European culture, with regard to the bathroom, lead to a more precise distinction between the dedicated space and its users. There is no longer only one bathroom for every need, but there are bathrooms for guests, service ones for staff or for laundering, one for children, often located between the parents’ and children’s bedrooms, and finally that of the parents, exclusive, and therefore for private use with direct access from the master bedroom. The taste, style, finish and the very amenities vary on the basis of considerations that tend to adapt the context to the expectations of the type of user, to his way of living the concept of intimacy and of well-being, of reception. It is therefore evident that the revolutionary mobile “mini-kitchen“ by Joe Colombo in 1963 represents a clear desire to distinguish the technical and practical side of actions that take place in the domestic space, ie in places where such actions need to be developed.
Colombo’s project of functional blocks, like the successive ones of Sottsass in 1972, intend to break the close relationship between the cooking area and furnishings, and the facilities and installations essential for such an operation. The “macro-objects“, strongly proposed in those years, intend to promote the idea that a “room“ in which to cook is not essential, but the necessary tools to do so are, and can be placed, depending on the habits, the culture and traditions, in different places of the house, taking into account the opportunities, the amount of space, and the number of family members. This progressive approach, corresponding to a desired change in the prevalent lifestyle, in line with principles that renew a tradition perceived as too cumbersome and which tend to slow down the evolution of taste, trends, and relationships between individuals, does not find immediate feedback, even if it still triggers a process that calls into question the concept of a mono-functional space, especially the coincidence between specific locations of the home environment and consolidated furnishing systems.
It is the very furnishings, understood in their compositions established by tradition, that undergo a crisis and which, rather than setting up places in which to carry out repetitive rites, begin to assert themselves as prompters of actions and of functions to be performed, that is, as attractors able to inspire use and satisfy needs. The “macro object“, in fact, is not only a multifunctional object, on a greater scale than a simple piece of furniture, but is also an element able to build, define and determine the meaning of the surrounding space. Using as a starting point these considerations, from the crisis of the furnishing element and the domineering advent of iconic design pieces, even the more purely technological places in the house start to lose their unity, unhinging the concept of a uniform and inseparable system, acting as autonomous elements, often separated, with a powerfully expressive character, invading different contexts in order to suggest behavioural ways and relational opportunities otherwise unthinkable.
The kitchen proposes its major appliances on view, in various locations in the house, as attracting poles which encourage conviviality, a shared pleasure of what would otherwise be a mere inevitable commitment of family life; so the bathroom separates the traditional components distinguishing the privacy of various actions related to well-being, looking after one’s image, in pursuit of time to devote to physical rest that becomes meditative. The bathroom and kitchen are broken down, they lose the idea of expressionless technological tools and enhance the function of each single part, proposed as protagonist in specific spaces, capable of characterising places and inspiring actions that were previously not considered essential to the construction of one’s daily life, but only carried out insofar as “basic needs.“
Indications that in actual fact had already been clearly set out by Le Corbusier, with the layout of the master bathroom of Ville Savoye (1928/31), but which need almost forty years to find an effective welcome in the shared and widespread idea of domestic space. Architecture, reinterpreting the value of the behaviour and perceptions derived from its use, underlines the spatial content, meanings and not only practical and functional values. From this coincidence between meaning and expression, it reaches, in some enlightened examples, a perfect adherence to the rules of conducting life required by society.
The 1980s and early ‘90s are, in architecture, the years of the post-modern movement which, in interior design, lead to a return – rather than to reinterpreted styles – to spatial organisations, to typological systems, which look to tradition, to an idea of the kitchen as the core of the closest relationships, expression and form of an overall lifestyle that would rather reveal its local roots; in short, to that model perfectly represented by the various advertising campaigns of Mulino Bianco, which from 1982 until 1997, correspond to the “happy family“, a spatial image linked to established social structures, to large, spacious rooms in which to gather and spend together the rhythms of the day, contemporary, albeit with clear references to past traditions. In the face of such conditioning, reflected in the practical effect of a return to traditional kitchen and bathroom settings, created in increasingly larger contexts, between the late 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium, we witness the gradual return to shrinking domestic spaces, essential and often transient domestic rooms. The culture of nomadism and the new social models (singles, separated families, unstable employment) steer architectural research towards a miniaturisation of space which naturally requires a fresh reflection on purely functional places.
A general simplification and reduced floor space requires the necessary resort to complete flexibility of contexts, to a simplicity of equipment and consequently, a scarcity of certain components, resulting in the elimination of corresponding spaces. Minimal living means that kitchens and bathrooms have to be reconsidered in the light of a harmonious management of spaces, once considered cramped, and which are now located in crevices, niches, cupboards and recesses which, however, once opened and put into relationship with the rest of the house, take on the appropriate dimensions for performing the delegated functions. Sliding panels, sliding doors, folding beds and movable sofas make way for the sudden appearance of hobs or sinks, appliances, and bathroom fixtures. Above all, the space is no longer closed, there are no appointed places, each surface is able to easily satisfy different functions, depending on the configurations emplaced, thanks to the innovative positioning, or to the movement, of furnishings, no longer static or predictable.
The house is no longer an aggregation of single-purpose “rooms”, but, owing also to the needs of a minimal space, becomes a flexible scene in which to carry out daily events, through the introduction, or even the availability of simple, essential equipment, of areas and contexts strongly related to each other, of multi-functional and multi-purpose objects, designed around people, to the size of their bodies, movements, comfortable, useful spaces, evocative places responsive to their aspirations. The very idea of cohousing, affirmed in recent years, in imagining new forms of sociability, undermines the sanctity and the dismissal of various functional places; it leads to the sharing, also outside private homes, of some of the main technical areas, so as to raise the level of performance and reduce operating costs and, above all, triggering relational processes originating from a concept of a flexible and tolerant community. Such a brief chronological examination actually intends to emphasise a principle that finds its basis in contemporary life. In other words, if the terms “bathroom and kitchen“ commonly indicate both objects and spaces, where one is often contained in the other, nowadays, the direct correspondence is no longer guaranteed and, for example, a kitchen – understood as a piece of furnishing equipped with cooking utensils – can also be placed in the living room or in the hallway, and similarly, the kitchen – as a space in which to cook – is no longer a defined “room“, but may coincide with a portion, a sub-area of a room which, at other times of the day, is intended to fulfill different needs.
This suggests that these functions, which normally correspond to both a defined context and a system of equipment able to meet the required needs, nowadays no longer construct a direct, indispensable relationship between space-objects-actions, in other words, between place, furniture and tools, behaviour and feelings deriving from ever-changing needs, and therefore should be reconsidered according to the requests expressed by users.
The contemporary domestic scene presents, in respect of such functional organisms, two parallel, sometimes coincident attitudes: that of the presence of recognisable elements and that of the absence of what is commonly “on view“. Absence and presence as regards a custom that is morphological and compositional, organisational and functional, technical and performing, where the individual elements designed to satisfy needs now appear as technological icons with an innovative design, at times arranged in unusual places, with roles that go beyond their own function; in other words, which are concealed and integrated with other structures, thanks to the flexibility of the components and multi-functionality of the rooms and, almost without their own space, enter into relationship with other elements and with people only when their active presence is required.
Today, the productive market of technical and furnishing components for bathrooms and kitchens works increasingly in pursuit of a style, or of all possible styles, of an eye-catching design, a technological innovation, an integration with digital home automation. With this in mind, architecture, ie the discipline that must envisage the space in which to carry out daily life, can and must take responsibility for giving shape and rules to behaviour and interpersonal relationships. If architecture were to withdraw from this critical, at the same time, proactive role, the mere design of objects, the advanced innovations of tools, would certainly not be enough to affect people’s lives, but only to satisfy their basic needs in an increasingly sophisticated way, sometimes even anticipating their desires.
For this reason it is essential to carefully observe the new social models, forms of living together, the history and cultures that make up the complex scenario of the community, economic and acquisitive power, the quantity and quality of leisure time, cultural phenomena and the methods of communication, in order to find, in the anthropological and sociological aspect of dwelling, indications for a correct project of the places.
The lack, or even carelessness towards an attentive thought on the principles of living has led, in recent years, to a building scenario sometimes devoid of any critical evaluation on practical needs, and incapable of offering an aesthetically convincing image of our time, of our culture. The architect, understood not as a simple professional but as an interpreter and creator of content which regulates relations between individuals, attentive to industrial production and the design culture, that have succeeded in using the innovations of technology, must also give the building process, through the architectural project, the intensity necessary to define and adapt the most suitable habitat to meet the aspirations and needs of future society.