Books June 2007

Where Mother Saw Best

Editor’s Choice: how a revolution in American domestic architecture put women in command

The house nurtures our sense of self, embodies our notions of intimate family life, and serves as our haven in a heartless world. But it’s also the site of Sisyphean labor, mostly female—cooking, minding, cleaning, imposing order on the fruits and detritus of bourgeois life, including but not limited to vast holdings of cotton-ball-festooned pre-K art projects. All of which means, of course, that it’s contested terrain—between the individual and the family, children and parents, wives and husbands.

Alice Friedman’s Women and the Making of the Modern House and Colin Davies’s Key Houses of the Twentieth Century probe aspects of the complex relationship between modernism— the dominant architectural style of the 20th century—and domesticity. Together and sometimes in spite of themselves, they illuminate the central role middle- class women played in the development of a peculiarly American strain of modernist architecture. They also help explain why a nostalgia for what the marketers have dubbed “mid-century modern” has for several years now gripped the sort of Atlantic-reading 30- and 40-something married couples who eagerly thumb the Design Within Reach catalog and exclaim over those fab prefab houses in Dwell magazine while on line at Whole Foods.

Friedman’s book, just published in paperback, is, alas, quirkier than its title implies. It analyzes six houses designed by notable architects for women who were unattached to men. Although the idiosyncratic cases Friedman has chosen may obscure more issues than they clarify, her inventive approach—she uses letters, diaries, and interviews to reveal how the houses were actually lived in—is so smart that it should long have been an obvious way to write about buildings, an endeavor that tends toward the abstract and the speculative.

And the author breaks new ground with her intricate assessment of the collaboratively designed Rietveld Schröder House (1924), perhaps the first great modernist house. With its exuberant primary colors and its intimate scale, this small, inexpensively built, light-filled, semi-detached De Stijl dwelling is the antithesis of the severe work of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus that came to define European modernism. To be sure, it’s defined by floating lines and planes, but Gerrit Rietveld, the architect, and Truus Schröder, a widow with three young children, herself an amateur architect, designed it for a most old-fashioned, bourgeois purpose: to interweave the lives of mother and children. Its open plan engendered a communal family life (a life that even then, it seems, homework threatened to fracture; they designed built-in desks so that schoolwork would be done in family surroundings), and an elaborate system of sliding, folding, and pivoting wooden partitions divided the open space into bedrooms. Rietveld, who became Schröder’s lover and eventually moved into the house after her children were grown, never got used to the discipline the partitions demanded (Schröder, in contrast, was—as Rietveld Schröder House, Ida van Zijl’s perceptive 1999 monograph, dryly notes—“extremely driven about operating the sliding walls”).

But that discipline helped make the house a feminine dwelling. The Dutch idea of domesticity arose from the dogged efforts of bourgeois women, who historically lacked servants, to impose a nurturing order on home life. The Rietveld Schröder House—in its child-centeredness and playfulness, combined with its womanly control (twice-daily sliding and pivoting!) and orderliness (for bedrooms to emerge as part of the family area, beds had to be made and clothes put in drawers)—was a thoroughly modernist but profoundly domestic female-run environment.

Schröder’s inspiration for the open-plan living space, for those somewhat wacky partitions, and for the arrangements of her house was in part a book that the domestic reformers Catharine Beecher and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe had written some 50 years before,The American Woman’s Home (recently reprinted by Rutgers University Press, it incorporates many of Beecher Stowe’s writings on the home first published in this magazine). In their efforts to give women greater control over their homes, the sisters devised an innovative house plan, famously prefiguring modernist principles, in which function determined form. Small and hence easy to maintain, the sisters’ notional middle-class house was anchored by a core of mechanical services that drew the kitchen—with a streamlined, single- surface workspace—from the back of the house to its heart. The kitchen opened onto two large, open living spaces that residents could configure in various ways with movable screens. The house was truly revolutionary, because it was designed for and centered on the person who worked there: the housewife and mother.

Friedman says that even today, professional-class mothers who work with architects to design their own houses (and what other class of woman can afford to do so?) want to place their primary work area, be it kitchen or home office, at the center, so that they can always monitor, if not necessarily engage with, their children. She calls this “the maternal eye,” and it’s a concern that, though she fails to note it, brought about probably the most significant design change in the last hundred years of American domestic architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright, at least since designing his Prairie houses, in the early part of the 20th century, had been exquisitely sensitive to the ways parents and children interact in a house and to the ways design could alter those interactions. Those houses broke down the complex network of Victorian rooms, substituting long, flowing spaces that both reflected and encouraged parents’ newly informal and more intimate relationship with their children.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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