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The Narrative Open Plan

Compilation of floor plans from Unagru Architecture Urbansim's projects

Imagine being invited for dinner. You knock on the front door and hear someone shouting, "It's open!" Upon entering, you see a sofa to your right, people ducking to avoid the draught. The whole ground floor is open to you. Someone is cooking while chatting with a friend; someone is watching TV; children are running around and away from the prospect of bedtime. The cheerful image resembles those fantastic dutch paintings of kitchen interiors: kitchens as large as churches, where the entire city life seemed to coagulate. This is the open plan: a space where the kitchen, dining, and sitting areas cohabitate without significant separation. Not a wall, or enough steps, a screen or a change in direction. Often, not a change in materials or detailing.

You are invited to a second dinner party the following night- a busy week. They greet you in the hall, which is a bit too narrow to have a conversation or take off your coats, so you move inside, but the entrance/corridor only leads to the stairs and several doors (twenty, thirty?). It's infested with doors. The first leads into a tidy, beautifully traditional sitting room with a TV and a fireplace. The room is quiet, and you can almost see dust particles hanging in the last rays of light. You must return to the entrance to explore the rest of the house; door number two opens into a dining room with a round table lit by a pendant. You can hear noises coming from the back of the house; the set table reveals future and past use. Finally, the sixth door takes you into the kitchen, which is too small to accept the guests and several family members. You seem to remember seeing someone in the other rooms, but you can't be sure, and there is no way to find out from the cosy corner you have conquered in the kitchen. The traditional layout was determined by construction constraints as much as social habits. The most crucial social norm was the separation of the kitchen from the rest of the house. It's a long and fascinating story of noise, risk of fire, social status, and condition of the women that brought most people today to favour the open plan. We prefer the brightness and cheeriness of being together all the time to the lonely rooms of the traditional house.

What is commonly known as broken plan, and we will call a narrative open plan is an attempt at finding the right balance between fragmented layouts and the open plan, where the openness is tempered with architectural features to provide pockets of privacy, changes in the atmosphere, sometimes the possibility of closing a door to contain noises or kitchen smells, or heat. The difference between open and narrative open plan is sometimes very subtle and often rests on the designer's intentions and attention; we have broken it down into three characteristics.

Firstly, the openness to movement: avoiding doors and corridors when possible. Avoiding the act of opening a door, the space occupied by the door swing, the gush of air, and the expectation and fear connected to closed doors remove tension and free up corners of the mind. Moving freely through the living areas without doors or pinch points allows us to be lost in thought, to scan different distances, to move, dance or gesticulate with others.

The second is narrative: we strive to design homes that require attention, time, and some effort to be known. There are always hidden corners, protruding volumes and twists that need us to move inside and discover. This is where the narrative plan speaks to our need for quiet and privacy. There should be some form of screening from the front door, and there should be areas where we feel protected and alone. Seats that envelop us, with a wall protecting our backs from the unknown and facing the rest of the space give us a sense of control. The ability to slide a door temporarily provides even more privacy for a phone call or to feel alone in a smaller room, again giving us a sense of control. Therefore, the experience of the narrative open space affords us the luxury of deciding what degree of privacy we are inclined to on any given day.

The third is to design what we call eventful spaces. Even though we have a minimalist aesthetic, we love to embed as many points of interest as possible: an interior window, a stone step, a bench cut into the bespoke furniture, round steel columns, a roof light, a light well, a slatted screen, a miniature greenhouse, a sequence of three huge steps, a change in materials, and so on.

The narrative surrounding narrative open spaces.

One of my teachers, Bernardo Secchi, used to say that the history of urbanism is continuous research on the proper distance between human beings. Like porcupines in winter, we get closer to one another until we start pricking each other, and then we step back and feel a little cold. Designing a house also has to do with finding the right distance. It is an evolving idea of social and psychological comfort. A combination of needs for privacy, risk of loneliness, and research for the right human scale. For example, morality and privacy have changed considerably in time: it was common to witness sex or nudity in the Middle Ages.

Another aspect of residential design research is intertwined with technological evolution. It took a long time before we could afford enough to build and heat private, large spaces exclusively to live in (no sleeping, no animals). Technological evolution also allowed the opening of the kitchen to the rest of the house because appliances became quieter and integrated into the joinery.

Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier's Unitê d'Habitation open kitchen
Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier's Unitê d'Habitation open kitchen

Women's role in society has changed rapidly in the last century, mostly accompanied by the opening of the residential layout and the progressive integration of the kitchen in the living areas. Women were at first almost segregated in their quarters, then mostly in the kitchen, and now finally, equal (ideally) members of society and the family. There are as many histories of the kitchen’s location in the house as social classes at any time. From a middle-class point of view (the widest social group that could afford private houses), the kitchen has moved from the separate servants’ quarters to become a room where mostly women spent a lot of their time, to slowly getting closer and more open onto the living areas, to now being the centre of most homes.

Today, working from home increasingly entails a home office as a place of privacy and quiet, while the living quarters want to be shared. Technology can also separate us more, keeping us attached to our devices instead of engaging with others.

How did we get to the open plan, and where are we headed?

The next chapters of this essay will investigate the relationship between the kitchen and the home, starting with the three most iconic architects of the early XXth century.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Willey House 1933.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Willey House 1933.


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