The curse of open plan


Sometime in the last two decades it appears we became a nation of claustrophobes. Or that’s what it looks like if you check out our homes. What’s the first thing renovators do? Knock down walls to create the biggest space possible. In some open plan homes you expect tumbleweed to roll by. Open plan living isn’t just in, it’s mandatory, and I think it’s a curse.

Open plan, Prairie-style – Pleasant Home, Oak Park, by George Maher

Open plan isn’t a new idea, of course. You could argue that the great medieval halls started the craze, with their central fireplace and everyone eating and sleeping in the same big space. But it was really the beginning of the twentieth century that saw its promotion as the modern way of living. That was understandable, given that so many homes at the time were dark and dingy warrens of small rooms. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright encouraged the opening out of space as part of his Prairie style, with a flow that was seamless and luxurious. The Modernists of the 1920s used new building-frame technology to create bright, open plan spaces with huge windows and fewer walls. This was still a time of servants, and it took until the 1950s for the kitchen to be liberated. In Le Corbusier’s flats and elsewhere, the mother could now gaze lovingly out at her family as she prepared yet another meal for them. By the 1970s, it was chic to entertain your guests in the kitchen, not propped up at the breakfast bar, but actually sitting at a table for your prawn cocktail, cheese fondue and Black Forest Gateau. It reflected life’s new equality, even if it was still usually women preparing the meal.

Free flow but with doors – Le Corbusier’s own home in Paris

Blame the Americans and their perky sitcoms in which everyone, from the Brady bunch to Will & Grace, moves effortlessly from kitchen to dining table to sofa, nothing blocking those camera angles. Every speculative home builder loves open plan, because walls and doors cost money and the fewer of them the better. It’s easier to conjure up images of New York lofts than be open about what it actually is: cheap.

the standard Australia spec-home open plan space
(image: Domain.com.au)

While visitors might be impressed by your open plan space – “wow, great for parties!” – what happens when there’s just your average family in that space? Loss of money, of course, because large spaces are expensive to heat and costly to cool. And what about noise? Soaring ceilings and galleries off which bedrooms lead, funnel noise indiscriminately. Normal living isn’t quiet – the clatter of cutlery, the ear-piercing juicer, the siren call of Triple J, all will drift and amplify in the open plan space. And where do you put the furniture?  With an entrance door leading straight into a living, eating and cooking area we’re left with a glorified hallway. It’s more important to keep pathways clear than create spaces that are comfortably contained. Which means that oh-so-relaxed-looking open space is downright stressful to live in.

is this what we want to return to? (Fontenay Abbey)

But there, it seems we’ve returned to the start, to that great hall of medieval times. Which shows that fashion is cyclical and there’s nothing new under the sun. Personally, I can’t wait for a return to walls, shutting the door against the noise and curling up with a good book. And if someone else wants to make dinner then at least I won’t have to witness their resentment if I can’t see them.

Are you a doors-shut or free-flowing person?

(This article was written for ABC Radio National – read others here, or listen to the podcasts here.)

Categories: Architecture, DesignTags: , , , , , , ,

12 comments

  1. Gosh, I can really feel your passion about this subject. And what great points you make!

    Open plan always makes me feel slightly unsettled. It is absolutely what I would not want in a work environment. Everyone else chattering away would drive me mad. In the film ‘All the President’s Men’ that vast open plan office of the Washington Post always astounds me. But judging by our television news, things don’t seem to have changed much.

    As for homes, I think I feel pretty much the same. The great think about doors is that they can be opened or closed(!). I used to think I wanted to live in a converted barn, but now I’m not so sure. I love our Victorian house with all its spaces. But it’s not the easiest for parties … 😆

    • Oh yes, those busy newsrooms. I must admit that I found them rather exciting, although some of them were so huge. But living like that – no way! And isn’t the joy of a party in a roomed-space (my new technical term, ha) being that you discover different mini-parties going on in different spaces? A mirror of society, in fact…

  2. We’ve done open plan twice, the second time with extensive glass, and next time I vow to go for more actual rooms with walls. I feel far too exposed in our current house, not to mention the huge expense of covering all those windows for a modicum of privacy and solar reduction. Plus, the noise issue is a huge problem. So I agree with much of this post, even if I do still like the open-plan aesthetic! You are probably right about all those sitcoms…😁

    • That’s so interesting to hear. It really is the noise issue, isn’t it. We have an open living space with kitchen/ dining/ living/ staircase which is good when we entertain. Thankfully there’s another living room, with a door, off a hallway with another door, so peace is guaranteed in there. Noise from the other space funnels up the staircase and into every room up there… Like you, I do admire a free-flowing space (a Frank Lloyd Wright house would suit very nicely) but it has to be very carefully considered.

  3. We have a happy medium here.
    But won’t work for big parties…there again, think we have moved on from those anyway

  4. Doors. I like my doors and assigned spaces. I can close a door on clutter. I can sit in a room and not always be distracted by what is going on around me. That said, my current house had an awful kitchen. The one before had a dark dining room. In both cases we opened up the space and the problem was solved. But also in both cases, we added a low wall to the kitchen island, so we can enjoy a meal without staring at the cooking mess. Backstage space makes open spaces a more pleasant option.

    • That’s the key to open-plan, isn’t it, having the backstage space to hand. There’s been a revival of the so-called butler’s pantry over there, meaning kitchen clutter can be kept out of sight. But frankly, a kitchen with a door so that I can have my music on full blast and make a terrible mess suits me just fine!

  5. I’m currently renovating my apartment to put up a wall, to reduce the size of room openings, and to re-hang lost doors. All of which are remnants from previous attempts to ‘open up’ the apartment. I’ve noticed surprise from people when I mention my plans to make rooms smaller and more contained so you can imagine my relief in hearing your post on Blueprint for living on ABC RN. I’m happy with a generous open plan working environment, but when I go home I want to be in smaller, quieter, more contained, and more specific spaces. I look forward to retreating to a small study when I need to focus, having a dining room that is not open to the distractions of the kitchen and living room, and with winter approaching I want to step into a warm room from a cold corridor.

    A prevailing attitude is that open plan makes spaces look bigger and less cluttered, but I’m not so sure about this. Obviously an opened up room is bigger but it does so to the detriment of the overall house. The house becomes smaller as there are fewer spaces; you loose the ability to move from one defined space to another. With open plan you’re manically rattling around a featureless void.

    • Music to my ears! I agree with everything you say. I often find walking into an open space rather confusing – I don’t know where to go and what to look at. In my feng shui days I so often came across people living in open plan spaces who found them difficult to relax in – they would refer to feeling spun out by the lack of containment. Of course there are ways of slowing things down and not all open plan is awful but there’s always the question of noise that a closed door answers very well. Thanks for commenting, Robert, and I hope you enjoy your new nest.

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