Which do you prefer, separate or connected rooms in a house?  Or some combination of the two?  This is a question we can ask today, after a century of much change.

Historically, a couple basic kinds of early American  architecture were the northern “four square” plan – a two-story box with central fireplace and staircase, and one room in each corner, and the southern “shotgun” house, which featured several rooms placed end-to-end in a long, narrow plan, making cross-ventilation effective at cooling.  Both plans were efficient in that they didn’t need extra space for hallways, but still provided separate rooms for different activities.

Larger houses added rooms.  Some specialty rooms like ballrooms may have been generously proportioned, but each room in the house had a separate function and was walled off from the others.  A couple of reasons for this concerned building technology: intermittent walls were needed to support the building structure, and heating larger spaces could be very expensive (which is still issue today).  Sociologically, larger houses for the most part contained many people: a family, guests, and servants.  It would be improper for the servant’s work in the kitchens to be seen by the family and guests in the dining room, sitting room, or parlor – so each room was well-concealed from the others.

Frank Lloyd Wright is recognized as a pioneer in the introduction of “open plans”.  Though his floor plans from the early 1900’s may seem fairly traditional in that there is still clearly a differentiation from one room to the next, the fact that there was visibility between rooms and more to the outside was revolutionary.  This idea was taken extremes in residences such as Philip Johnson’s “Glass House” of 1949 which connected its unbroken floor plan to the great outdoors through walls of glass.

The benefits of an open floor plan are flexibility of use and decoration, the feel of more space, and the ability for natural light to easily stream in. According to Tina Gleisner of The Association of Women Home Owners, “Open floor plans seem to be what everyone wants today if you’re watching the home shows on HGTV.”

However, there are downsides.  As mentioned before, heating large areas can be more expensive, and temperature is more difficult to regulate.  There is less wall space for display, furniture and storage.  Some people are flummoxed by the lack of direction in open plans, and their arrangement of furnishings end up making the space feel unbalanced, jumbled or too spare.  Though the appearance of a completely open plan may be striking, the starkness and lack of refuge for a person or their possessions can be daunting.

The need for balance between openness and closure is well described in “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander (1977).  On the side of the need for some openness:

“No social group- whether a family, a work group, or a school group- can survive without constant informal contact among its members.” (pg 618) – and so common areas are needed in the house.

“The isolated kitchen, separate from the family and considered an efficient but unpleasant factory for food is a hangover from the days of servants; and from the more recent days when women willingly took over the servants’ role.” (pg 661) – so the kitchen should be connected to a family area and an eating area because “Without communal eating, no human group can hold together.” (pg 697)

On the other hand, a house should provide some solitude, because:

“No one can be close to others, without also having frequent opportunities to be alone.” (pg 669) Alexander goes on to quote sociologists Foote & Cottrell: “Up to a certain point, intimate interaction with others increases the capacity to emphasize with them.  But when others are too constantly present, the organism appears to develop a protective resistance to responding to them… Families who provide time and space for privacy, and who teach children the utility of and satisfaction of withdrawing for private reveries will show higher average empathic capacity than those who do not.”

In various sections of the book, Alexander advocates for an “intimacy gradient” through the house, the most private areas of which are the  “children’s realm,” “couple’s realm” and a “teenager’s cottage,” connected to the home’s common areas.  He even reflects on how a “secret place” can benefit the inhabitants of a house by embodying or literally holding their intimate secrets.

His thoughts on balance are fairly well summed up on his recommendation that 50% of the wall space between rooms be opened up with interior windows and doors:

“Rooms which are too closed prevent the natural flow of social occasions, and the natural process of transition from one social moment to another.  And rooms which are too open will not support the differentiation of events which social life requires.” (pg 893)

Or, in the terms of Frank Lloyd Wright, a house needs both “nesting” and “perching”; places of concealment from which there are views of grandness and opportunity.