Creatures of comfort, convenience and privacy

Having read Witold Rybczynski's book, Home, during the holidays, it really struck me 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 his book, Rybczynski, who is the 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 homes has shifted from basic shelter from the elements and enemies, to our castles of comfort.

Using a series of artworks of domestic scenes - from German artist Albrecht 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 facts - such as during the 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. 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 cooking, bathing, dining and sleeping had to be invented - spurred by the invention of things such as the stove, which was the impetus for the creation of the kitchen as a separate space. 

Over the centuries, urban life changed as home lighting evolved from candles to kerosene lamps to electricity. Having light at night allowed children to read in the evening (after working all day), which in turn allowed more learning and ultimately advanced society's knowledge.

One of the most intriguing facts is how medieval parents (both rich and poor) had a very unsentimental attitude toward children, sending them away from home at age 7. 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 that 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 17thcentury Holland differed from other European cities, with the country's new Calvinist religion contributing to a sense of sobriety and restraint.

As well, Holland's small merchant economy and smaller family sizes allowed for shops at street level and homes above. We also learn the creation of the country's iconic, tall, narrow row homes was necessitated by boggy soil that required lightweight brick versus 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 were also the first to en mass love their homes, children and gardens. 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 urban living

Rybczynski discusses the feminization of the home, which began in the 17th century, as one of the most important events in the evolution toward modern households. He points out the invention and spread of electricity as a source of power in the 19th and 20th centuries 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 for clothes was the most widely used electrical appliance, making the previous 12-pound flatiron heated on a stove 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 focused on the design of their home. The home is the woman's castle.

The advent of the professional working women has dramatically changed how we live. Their second income results in more money to buy bigger houses with more comforts, conveniences and privacy. The increased family income buys separate bedrooms for everyone, along with a separate dining room, kitchen nook and family room.  This includes the master bedroom - the "homeowner's retreat" - with its spa-like bathroom, huge walk-in-closet and king-sized master bed.  You can't fit that all into the 850 square feet that was the size of an average home in the 1950s, or the average downtown condo today.

The two-income family also necessitated the need for daycare 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 pickup of children.

It became even more complicated when suburbs were designed without schools, meaning children had to be bused or driven to school. Ultimately, all this has meant public transit, as opposed to private vehicles, is 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 what happens as more women become urban planning professionals; 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 female, including group leader Whitney Smithers, who is manager of strategic initiatives, planning, development and assessment for 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 21stcentury North American cities.

The suburban house has the space for the contemporary sense of home, an ideal that includes kitchens equipped not only with a self-cleaning oven, ice-cube maker, frost-free fridge, dishwasher, coffeemaker, pasta maker, blender and grinders of all sorts, but also microwave, convection and conventional ovens.

This ideal also aims for multiple bathrooms that often include a steam shower, rain shower, soaker tub, fireplace, TV, heated towel rack and floor, two-person shower and his-and-hers sinks.  Most people also want a backyard for the family dog, along with a deck (with its outdoor living room-style furniture, outdoor kitchen or at least mega-deluxe barbecue, hot tub and fire pit).  Under this ideal, the basement is no longer a storage area with maybe a rumpus room - it is the entertainment centre for a jumbo home theatre. This is the modern family's sense of place.

Comfort, convenience and privacy are also drivers of many Calgarian'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 - although we love to complain about traffic - in reality, is the car. It often has the best chair we own, with multiple adjustments to maximize our comfort. In the winter, many of us even have heated car seats, and our vehicles have a multi-speaker stereo system and a convenient cupholder in the perfect spot. If we are commuting alone, it often is only a few minutes drive away from the kids to the boss and co-workers - and we can crank up the tunes as loud as we want.

Last word

Rybczynski reminds us that cultural mores such as comfort, convenience and privacy have a life whose evolution is measured in centuries.  This explains why human behaviour changes slowly and why we resist change.  He points out over and over that our "comfort, convenient and privacy" culture did not evolve overnight - and so, it will not be undone anytime soon.