programmatic determinism

I’m afraid this is a bit long but it takes me some warming up first:

The relative position of one room or space with regards to others can often establish a kind of meaning for a project.  For single-family houses, the growth and centralization of the kitchen as a part of the house has been steadily increasing for the last four decades is probably associated with the increasing number of families with two working parents or single-parent households.  If a home office holds a large and central position in a house, the nature of that work, and the sense of privacy for that work, is framed by its relatively public and dominant location.

kitchen as central point of control and organization

Whenever we start a project, the first steps involve talking with the client and trying to understand not just their functional needs and wants, but most especially the nature of the use of these spaces and the potential relationships between spaces.  Simple designations of public or private become greatly enriched by nuances of size and position, hierarchy and proportion.

All of that said, allowing the form of a building to be largely determined by its function is a fairly recent, 100 years or so, (brief in architectural history) design strategy for architects.  So while this forum does not lend itself to a more lengthy historical analysis of this problem, it can talk about some brief guideposts along the way.  In re-reading Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture, there is a long and exhaustive discussion on function and use for buildings.  However, that is often secondary to two other principles:  first, the proper seasonal exposures of rooms and second, the importance of privacy with regard to an owner’s social status. The functionalism that is espoused by Vitruvius is based not so much on the internal workings of the rooms, but the proximity of each room to each other and each room’s need for light and warmth.  As this is seasonal, there is a likely and “natural” assumption that the functions of a house may move into different rooms throughout the year.  Having not then determined the form of the house because of the necessity for seasonal shifting, the house is free to assume a form more related to “beneficial light and air” and providential geometry.

Villa Rotunda, plan, Palladio

So, this is a rather long-winded way of getting at a huge contradiction in being a modernist trained architect – we are trained to optimize the function and use of the room to an extreme and absurd degree, from legislating where the owner’s bed must be to determining exactly what the homeowner will look at when they awake.  However, in my own life with various houses and apartments, I have regularly and often moved not only the furniture around rooms, but changed the use of the rooms as well.  Bedrooms have become studios, living rooms have become dining rooms, in one case a dining room became a rather public bedroom.  This might be a cheap and easy way of adapting a given, existing condition to my needs and wants, but I suspect it has more to do with a desire for change, both seasonally and for merely experimental whims.  As a good friend of mine reminds me (as he has been engaged to help many times), my wife and I, and now our daughters, have always found a reason to move, averaging a new residence every 2 years of so, and sometimes moving as little as to the neighboring house.

How to reconcile both a desire for specificity and a need for change?  Well, I guess I will continue to look to Vitruvius and design spaces with great light, beautiful proportions and intriguing relationships to other rooms, but maybe not with so much specificity as to the micro-functionality of the rooms themselves.  I don’t think this lessening of functionality’s dominant position means we throw the baby out with the bathwater and let a purely formalist approach to design substitute itself.  Rather it is a recognition of change, and even fallibility, as an intrinsic part not only of the design process, but the lives of people.  A perfectly functionally-designed kitchen will not help you make better food over a kitchen, slightly awkward, but with warming morning sun streaming in and a view to the garden.  A London rowhouse, with fairly generic rooms of varying sizes, can change from the main floor of a grand house, to a professional office and back to small apartment, because the relationships of the rooms have a clear hierarchy of sizes and proportions.

The Dakota, converted from large residence to smaller apartments

Rooms, like ourselves, are not defined by their use, but by their relationships.

public and private, function and meaning

One of the ways that I approach projects is to try to find meaningful relationships between the different pieces of an architectural program.  This kind of scheme can yield very interesting and sometimes surprising results, but for a single family house, can often be very limiting as well.

For a house there is almost always a simple division between public spaces and private spaces that can be established. Conventionally the bedrooms and bathroom and sometimes office are more or less private and kitchen, living room and dining room are more or less public.  For each client, there will be a different attitude toward the relative public/private aspects of these spaces with some clients drawing little, or no distinction between these categories.  These relationships are also of course influenced by fashion, family structure and the shifting relationship of parents to children, and family to society.  In his Ten Books on Architecture, Alberti spoke of these same relationships and the nature of the public/private distinction.

Of course what begins to make a project particularly interesting is when the client’s notion of this public/private relationship is altered in some way.  I have had clients that consider the family room very private, a sanctuary for only the immediate family.  Other clients consider this a party room for all comers. (After Frank Lloyd Wright’s very public marital scandals, it is probably no coincidence the entries to his houses become increasingly hidden and private).

For as much as different forms of media have possibly broken down and subverted a sense of privateness within a home, the distribution of relationships between rooms still remains a fundamental architectural problem.  That wireless communication has become so dominant only increases the tension of public/private as media devices and computers are no longer confined to a single office or study space.

Increasingly the spaces we design are in private/public flux.  There are many larger rooms that have smaller niches and little window seats where a child can be doing homework online while other siblings are watching a DVD and parents are emailing the office. What is striking is how similar this kind of room reminds me of  the Victorian era parlor where an open rooms contained a piano in one corner, a window seat for reading and a small setee for conversation, all simultaneously occupied.  The mid-century house with a single room dedicated to table or a television seems to be fading in favor of the room whose space is not dedicated to single function.

a window seat/bench as a part of the larger room

The above photo is from a large renovation and addition we did a few years ago and is a bench over storage drawers, project outward to the view of the mountains.

Like sitting in a coffee shop and reading the paper, the house is increasingly becoming a place to be in private while in public.  I almost always try to find opportunities within the structure of  the house and family to find smaller, more intimate spaces that are still open to the larger room.  The best place to study these relationships may be not a house at all, but the design of restaurant booths and banquettes.

Arugula Restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, designed by M. Gerwing Architects with a long, open banquette in the main dining area on the right and smaller, more intimate booth seating closer to the bar on the left.  You might be able to see that the booth tables and booths are also up one step from the rest of the restaurant, making a bit more compression and giving a better view over the other diners.  The booths here project inward from a smaller, more protected edge.

Italy, 1988


During my time at the College of Architecture at the University of Kentucky, I spent a semester abroad living and studying in Venice, Italy. I stayed on after that semester, traveling and occasionally working for Leonardo Ricci in Venice and Florence.

In one of my forays into the regions around Venice, I undertook an extensive study of Palladio’s villas. Without doubt the single most influential body of work by any architect, in any region, in any period of history. There is scarcely a house project I undertake without some reference back to, or reflection of, these works.

This is a photo of the Villa Malcontenta, taken on a damp and chilly March morning.

Photo by Mark Gerwing, 1988.