Importance of Comfort, Convenience & Privacy in Urban Living

Rybczynski:  Comfort, Convenience and Privacy

Having read Witold Rybczynski’s book, “Home” over the holidays, it really struck home how mankind’s quest for “comfort, convenience and privacy” has been the driver of change in urban living and home design for the past 500 years. 

In “Home,” Rybczynski, Emeritus Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, looks at how home life has evolved from the Middle Ages to the late 20th century.  He traces how the design of our home has shifted from basic shelter from the elements and enemies to our castles. Using a series of artworks of domestic scenes from Durer’s “St. Jerome in His Study (1514)” to a Victorian bathroom illustration from 1885, Rybczynski traces how homes have progressively become more comfortable, convenient and private.

The book is full of interesting factoids such as how, in 16th century households, of 25 people in one or two room homes was not unusual.  Nobody had their own room and even bathing was communal.  And, how urban life changed as our home lighting evolved from candles to kerosene lamps to electricity. And how, having light at night allowed children to read in the evening (after working all day), which in turn allowed more learning and ultimately advancing society’s knowledge base.

Even in early 17th century Paris, having a room dedicated exclusively to a single use was seen as strange.  The idea of separate rooms for bathing, dining and sleeping had to be invented.  For example, the invention of the stove was the impetus for the creation of the kitchen.

One of the most intriguing factoids is how medieval parents’ (both rich and poor) had a very “unsentimental” attitude toward children sending them away from home at the age of seven.  If poor, they went to work; if bourgeois, they went to apprentice with an artisan.  In today’s child-centric world, it is hard to imagine the concept of watching one’s children grow up at home into their 20s is a relatively new phenomenon.

In the chapter on Domesticity, Rybczynski looks at the evolution of intimacy, privacy and urban living in Paris, London, Oslo and Amsterdam.  It was interesting to learn how urban living in the 17th century Holland differed from other European cities, with their Calvinist religion contributing to a sense of sobriety and restraint. As well, their small merchant economy and smaller family sizes allowed for shops at street level and the homes above. We also learn the creation of Dutch’s iconic, tall narrow row homes was necessitated by boggy soil that required lightweight brick vs. stone (used elsewhere in Europe) and shared common walls for support. 

It was in Holland at this time too that mothers began to raise their own children, sending them to schools and keeping them at home until married. Rybczynski suggests the Dutch we also the first to on mass love their home, children and garden.  For the Dutch, the garden was a private space at the back of the house, unlike the rather more public courtyard style favoured in Paris and Oslo.

Feminization of the urban living

Rybczynski discusses the feminization of the home beginning in the 17th century as one of the most important events in the evolution the home. He points out the invention of electricity was a game changer for women.  Not only did it provide better lighting, but it came with electric irons, vacuums, toasters, coffee pots, stoves and washers – all of which were more convenient to use and made life more comfortable, especially for women. By 1927, the electric iron was the most widely used electrical appliance, making the 12 lb. flat-iron redundant.

Rybczynski traces how the “rise of the female influence” has resulted in the suburbanization of urban living with its large, single-family houses. It is the women who most often decide what community and what house a family will live in. Like no time in human history, women today are obsessed with the design of their home.  The home is the woman’s castle!

The advent of the professional working woman has dramatically changed how we live.  The second income results in more money to buy the bigger house with more comforts, conveniences and privacy.  The increased family income buys separate bedrooms for everyone, a separate dining room, kitchen nook, family room and the “home owner’s retreat” with its spa-like bathroom, huge walk-in-closet and king-size master bed. You can’t fit that all into the 850 sq. ft. – the size of an average home in the 1950s or the average downtown condo today! 

The two-income family also necessitated the need for day care (for most families), which dictated the need for two cars, dramatically changing the family commute.  Not only did it mean two cars commuting to work, it created a more complicated commute involving drop-off and pick-up of children.  It became even more complicated when suburbs were designed without schools so children had to be bused or driven to school.  Ultimately, it meant transit was not a comfortable or convenient option for most families in Calgary.

The increasing influence of women in modern decision-making appears to have  changed urban living and design forever.  It will be interesting to see happens as more women become urban planning professions (it is one of the last professions still dominated by males).  The City of Calgary currently has a “Transformation Planning Working Group” looking at how to change our current planning culture.  It is interesting to note the majority of members of the working group are females including its leader Whitney Smithers, Manager of Strategic Initiatives, Planning, Development & Assessment, with the City of Calgary.   

Modern family’s sense of place

For most people, the suburban home provides the most comfort, convenience and privacy for the least dollar in 21st century North American cities.  The suburban house has the space for the contemporary ideal sense of home which includes kitchens equipped not only with a self-cleaning oven, ice-cube maker, frost free fridge, dish washer, coffee-maker, pasta maker, blender and grinders of all sorts, but micro-wave, convection and conventional ovens.  It allows for multiple bathrooms that often include a steam shower, rain shower, soaker tub, fireplace, television, heated towel rack and floor, two-person shower and his and hers sinks. And, a backyard for the dog and deck (with its outdoor living room furniture, outdoor kithen or at least mega deluxe BBQ, hot tub and fire pit). The basement is no longer a storage area with maybe a rumpus room; it is the entertainment center a jumbo home theatre.  This is the modern family’s sense of place!

Comfort, convenience and privacy are also drivers of the public’s general disdain of public transit.  Who wants to sit or stand next to a stranger or wait for a bus or train (especially in the cold or at night) when you could be in the comfort of your own car, where you wield control over temperature, music, route and stops along the way?

The epitome in privacy, comfort and convenience – thought we love to complain about traffic - in reality, is the car. It has the best chair we own with multiple adjustments to maximize our comfort.   In the winter, many of us have heated seats for added comfort.  The car has a multi-speaker stereo system and a convenient cup holder in the perfect spot.  If we are commuting alone, it means a few minutes away from the kids, boss, co-workers and technology. And we can crank up the tunes as loud as we want.

Last Word

Rybczynski reminds us that cultural mores like comfort, convenience and privacy have a life that is measured in centuries. This explains why human behavior changes slowly and why we resist change. He points out over and over again, that our “comfort, convenient and privacy” culture did not evolve over night and so, it will not be undone anytime soon.