Speculative builders refer to houses as product, whereas homebuyers see their lives unfolding in residences surrounded with life and living. Builders have a near horizon; buyers, a long-term view. Builders have to create inventory, sell product quickly and move on to the next project; handing over the keys to a buyer is their ultimate goal. A model home – the showcase of a new development – must be inviting and inspirational. It ought to draw a “wow,” making an unsure or timid buyer fall in love at first sight and edge out the competition. A hotel-sized kitchen, beautifully lit with stainless steel appliances, will be an anchor; a spacious marble-tiled bathroom with trendy fixtures and a Jacuzzi will be an attention grabber. It’s all about first impressions.
To many of us, living rooms and dining rooms are the primary settings where family life plays out, communal places where family meals and gatherings take place. As families and family life evolves, so too does the family home. Our living spaces shape, and are shaped by, changing social, economic, cultural and environmental trends.
The months of January and February are traditionally the busy season in the home-building business, since people tend to buy houses for summer occupancy. The number of sales during these months determines the year’s overall activity. So designs are rushed, finalized, and made ready for buyers to see and purchase.
The use of space at home has also become gradually more decentralized. Do we really need, then, to retain a separate room for an occasion that may occur only once or twice a year?
After a recent conversation with a builder who suggested we eliminate the living room and dining room from a design I was working on, I reflected on the suggestion. In contemporary family life, is there still a place for living and dining rooms in family homes? New lifestyle trends have shifted traditional family schedules, and for many people today, it’s hard to find time for a formal meal in the dining room on a weeknight. Setting up the table, carrying the food there, taking time to discuss the day’s events, cleaning up, and moving to the living room for coffee and dessert while listening to music – that all seems like an evening from a long-gone era. The use of space at home has also become gradually more decentralized. Do we really need, then, to retain a separate room for an occasion that may occur only once or twice a year? Shouldn’t the new trends dictate a new priority list in how homes are used?
In his book History of Domestic Space, Peter Ward points out that the living room, which was also called a parlour, salon, sitting room, or front room, was once the place where the family met acquaintances and presented itself to the outside world. It was the home’s most public space. When North Americans made their transition from the colonist’s one-room house to a home with several rooms, the parlour was added. It could be found even in relatively small homes at the turn of the century. Unlike European homes in the Victorian era, whose parlour was clearly a formal space, on this continent, and mostly in modest residences, the living room had a touch of informality.
This was also the room in which a family would display their material accomplishments and treasured mementos. Paintings, family heirlooms, silverware, and photos were hung on walls and put in glass cases. A piano, according to Ward, was also common in middle-class homes in both Europe and North America. It was a mark of culture and a signal of wealth. Women’s musical and vocal talents were highly valued, and playing for guests was part of formal hospitality.
Another key feature in the living room was the fireplace, or hearth, which had several roles. Since it was ornate and expensive to construct, it represented wealth. It also provided warmth and served as a visual focal point, just as the television would in later years. Extended family members or visitors would gather after dinner to chat, play cards, and listen to music played on the piano.
The dining room likewise served a formal function. Its seating arrangements signified the family’s hierarchy; the two heads of table had more comfortable chairs than the ones alongside. In Victorian England and later in North America, the well-to-do could afford a cook and a butler who served meals in well-appointed rooms that boasted elaborate ceiling edges, expensive furnishings, china cabinets, and chandeliers hanging over a large table.
The transition to a less formal arrangement took place half a century ago in small post-war homes. Instead of a dining room, builders created a dining space, an area adjacent to the kitchen that was a step up from eating in the kitchen itself. Formality was reinstituted in the 1960s when the overall area of homes increased and a separate dining room started showing up in new houses destined for middle-income homebuyers. This evolution was supported by demographic trends. By the 1960s, the early baby boomers had grown up to become adolescents. Family dinners provided an important social function: creating a formal setting for family exchange, reflection on the day’s events, socialization of children and a forum for a get-together. More than a room to house the table and chairs, the dining room became a bonding place. Families would discuss, often debate (this being the sixties), important matters before Dad handed over the car keys to a teenager of driving age after dessert. In large family gatherings, guests would continue to sit long after dinner ended to talk, giggle over photos, or simply catch up with the events of each other’s lives.
The mid-1980s saw families and lifestyles transform. Households became smaller and children grew up. Some migrated to follow job opportunities. It became hard to fill up all the empty chairs around the table, and thus the dining room’s decline began. Its former glory was restored only a few times a year, its charm being revisited on holidays and special occasions.
In many homes today, the dining room has taken on new roles: kids use the large table surface to do homework; Mom or Dad sets up a computer in a corner to run a freelance business out of the home; receipts and bills litter the table at tax time. With the increase in the number and nature of tasks that a modern family has to perform, the dining room often becomes, at least temporarily, a substitute for a study.
The living room experienced a similar fate with the rise of informality. A regular weekday or weekend visit by extended family or acquaintances became a rarity. As the price of sound systems and televisions went down, they appeared in several rooms and no longer did the family need to gather in the living room for entertainment. Central heating eliminated the need for the warmth of fireplaces.
Internationally, with present and expected future growth in apartment living and the shrinkage of the average household size, small will dominate. The introduction of micro-units (less than 50 square metres or 500 square feet) in cities such as New York, London and Vancouver marked the disappearance of the dining room and the slashing of the living space. Some projects offer shared living and dining room, which residents need to reserve. In addition, coffee houses styled to look like a living room with sofas and fireplaces have become the meeting place of choice for younger apartment dwellers.
The dining room represents such a space. Whether it’s once a week or several times a year, eating there can put people into a festive mood. Wearing our Sunday best and eating comfort food off the “good” dishes in a formal setting constitute a ritual that many cherish. On special occasions and holidays, it’s the room where relatives from near and far congregate. Like the best suits we don for special occasions and jewellery we wear once or twice a year, the dining room is a special place. And even when it’s not being used, the formal setting, with the table in the middle and chairs all around, sends a clear message about the institution of family. Yet, living and dining rooms still play an important role in the lives of families. They always have been and are as much social and cultural icons as they are functional spaces. The social perception of and economic justification for a formal living or dining space is undergoing a re-evaluation. But as current lifestyle trends result in greater family seclusion, it’s important to have uniting symbols.
The living room should continue to play a similar role. After-dinner conversations in a relaxed setting, sitting on an armchair or a sofa while listening to quiet background music, is a sign of civility we seem to have lost. Both living and dining rooms can be gathering places for small or even extended families. The spaces could be transformed, perhaps, with their original purpose remaining intact: comfortable rooms that provide a transition between the world outside and within.
Avi Friedman is an architect, professor, author and social observer. The essay is an excerpt from his recently published book A View from the Porch: Rethinking Home and Community Design, Véhicule Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published on December 13, 2016