Architect Anna Puigjaner imagines a future in which housing is suited to the needs of its inhabitants. Sometimes that happens to mean not having a kitchen. Her project “Kitchenless” has received the Wheelwright Prize from Harvard University, along with an endowment of $100,000 for research on existing models of communal residences worldwide.
Puigjaner and the other members of the Maio firm work alongside professionals from other disciplines in a beautiful spot in the Gracia district in Barcelona, which functions more as a co-working space than a conventional architectural office. The Maio team opted for this place in 2011, during the crisis, so in order to hold on to it they decided to open the space to other workers. In 2016 they could afford to be alone, but there isn’t any compelling reason for them to do it. This could be a summary of their philosophy and is surely one of the reasons why Puigjaner received the Wheelwright Prize, a unique prize among architecture awards as it doesn’t focus on a specific work or research but the relationship between the two, in direction and ideas.
She does the interview from her office and talks about the changes that lie ahead for the future of housing:
Would you live in a house without a kitchen?
I live in a house without a kitchenright now. Let me explain, I started with this idea of "no kitchen" because it was the most provocative, I realized that when we talk about housing there was no problem if you eliminated the living room or bedroom, but if you touched the kitchen it generated a very curious adverse reaction. Kitchens were instilled with certain ideological values during the twentieth century linked to the role of women, politics, and the construct of the ideal family.
The part that interests me the most involves a large change in mentality. It’s about looking at a house not for it’s square footage but for it’s uses. In short, this idea of eliminating the kitchen was quite good because it simplified everything while being very provocative. Homes that do not have a room designated as the kitchen have a kitchenette. Here's the catch, my kitchen is only 1.20 meters ( 4 ft.) long.
So, you don’t have a kitchen but you have a space to cook?
I have appliances I can use for cooking. The compact kitchen or famous breakfast bar that emerged in America in the late nineteenth century were always accompanied by a communal kitchen. They were kitchens where you would only cook occasionally.
When you talk about a communal kitchen, are you referring to buildings where several homes were accessing a shared space?
There are many types.The residences I studied from late nineteenth century New York had no kitchen or kitchenette but always had a common kitchen with a cook. During the twentieth century this model was politicized because the Russians began to copy it as a system of social housing and loaded it with political meaning. Suddenly a collective kitchen was associated with communism. Now, when I say communal kitchen people imagine a shared kitchen space but at that time it was more like a domestic service with a cook.
In a similar vein, multi-family housing also had built-in childcare, housekeeping or other facilities for daily life. In addition to this you had your kitchenette in case you wanted to cook for pleasure. When it became politicized, that system was immediately swapped out for housing as we know it today.
So the “kitchenless” system you're talking about is always linked to domestic services?
Yes, for me services are the most important, not whether you have a kitchen or not . It is about outsourcing domestic work, with jobs where people receive compensation.
How would you define domestic comfort?
Domestic comfort is built and designed. When we contemplate the question "what do I like?", in a design that someone has thought of, we have to grow accustomed to it. It is a slow process, it takes time, but social trends in domestic comfort happen when a group of people or a particular school influence society in some way until they establish an idea of whether something is comfortable, expensive, or cheap. Our criteria are variables. What we consider comfortable today is different from what was comfortable at other points in time. It was neither better nor worse, just different.
For example, in the nineteenth century it was considered unhygienic to have a kitchen inside the house, something that makes some sense if you think about how dirty kitchen trash can be. At that time there was also an interest in controlling the quality of the food and the best way to do that was leave it up to a professional. People thought that a cook would have better control over the quality and where the food came from. Now there is a resurgence of this idea, an interest in knowing the origin of our food, whether any pesticides were used, etc. There are countries, like Australia and Canada for example, which have seen a resurgence of communal kitchens since the late 90s.
In Canada three women started out with the intention of reducing domestic costs and that partnership of three families has grown and now there are 1,500 varying models of communal kitchens you can join by paying a fee: in some the members themselves do the cooking; in others, a professional. It's like a consumer co-op, with the only difference being that you’re buying cooked food. This phenomenon is happening in Australia as well. In both cases the factor of socialization and community is important, people enjoy coming together.
So far we've talked about two very different models: a housing concept where the cooking is done by a professional chef, and another where it’s done by the families themselves. Which one is your research aimed at?
My doctoral thesis, based in New York, was basically about outsourcing domestic tasks. I was particularly interested in an absolutely capitalist system that moved away from communism but also had communal kitchens. Managing a space like that was very different and it also came about for purely economic reasons, as it was more profitable and it was to the benefit of property owners to offer group domestic services.
Now my interest is to show that this model has a contemporary relevance and could be a great help to people throughout the world. That’s what I'll be doing for the next two years thanks to Harvard, defending the idea that there are many advantages to this type of housing and that they can be adapted.
There are many individuals or families that would never share a kitchen with their neighbors, the idea itself would be shocking...
Remember when we talk about the idea of a conventional family we are only talking about a small percentage of people when compared to other social types. The percentages of families that consist of a couple in their first marriage who have children represent 46% of the US population. Patterns change. Sometimes people who were reluctant at first are more open when they are looking at it out of necessity.
We’re beginning to see different families who do not want to go deal with conventional nursing homes come together and build homes adapted to the needs of the elderly people in their lives. Even here in Spain, there are examples in Basque Country and Valencia. Social needs are changing at a brutal speed. The key aspect of these models is that there are a lot of options and possibilities. You can have a kitchen but if you can’t cook then the residence will fix that for you. The mindset is not one of forcing people but that of giving more options.
Here is where the role of women in society has come into play a little. I imagine that houses were designed for women to do all the housework.
When I talk about this, I'm referring to the United States. What’s happening here in Spain isn’t my area and I've never studied it, but in the United States’ case it is very clear that after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 there was a political push for women, who were part of the workforce during the war, return to the home and that the home itself become a productive place.
It was important to increase domestic consumption and that’s when we start to see the design and marketing of appliances as well as the idea of the individual consumer and no longer communal spaces because it’s more profitable to sell 20 washing machines than one. This is also when laws changed, and incentives were given for the construction of single-family homes.
While domestic services were the norm in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century it was normal to be paying several people to work in your home, after the war these services became more expensive and people started to do them collectively. Later, with Fordism and Taylorism, compact kitchens, which had previously been dependent on communal kitchens, started being sold in ads and popular consumer magazines as kitchens that do it all.
Suddenly, you no longer have a person in charge of the kitchen but you have a machine that will do it all. Those ads were a big lie, with their own Fordist jargon, they were selling the idea that appliances were taking over the act of cooking and thanks to them you could do everything faster. The big difference is that in Fordism, you broke away from using professionals in the kitchen and the woman took on all those responsibilities. Women lost many privileges in just a few years.
Now we’ve gotten rid of domestic services, we have amazing kitchens, but we’re dedicating exactly the same amount of time to household tasks as 100 years ago, rather than understanding that housework should be done by paid professionals. We all believe we know how to clean very well but any ordinary professional could do a much better job than we can.
I think that this part could seem pretty controversial, for example here (in Spain), in the middle of a crisis to think of hiring people to do household tasks...
This is where we get to talking about social norms and the fact that we consider these to be second-rate jobs. Why is working on a car assembly line more valued than cleaning a home? We have a problem. We are not talking about exploiting anyone, just normalizing these jobs.
Yes, but there’s also a financial element that could be difficult...
Now we’re talking about housing, in the 19th century it was cheaper because it came included in the rent. I would cost you the same to rent an apartment with domestic services included as it would to have an apartment that came with a kitchen and appliances. Why? Because you could build more units on the same piece of land if you had collective domestic services. The developers could build more homes and be more competitive. It was mostly a choice of what you wanted to have. These days it is more expensive because the current legal and tax systems aren’t structured well.
All of that brings me to ask, What do developers think of your idea?
One of the philosophies of the nineteenth century was that you rented services, you could have three rooms but then if you needed another room later because you had a child or whatever your reason was you could just add on because the buildings were adaptable. I’m talking about the kitchen because it’s the most interesting, but there are many other benefits to this model.
It is difficult at the moment, but for now we are working for a private developer who wanted to build a residential building that could be adapted on demand. What this developer wants is to rent these flats and asked us to make a building where you could adapt units on demand with just a few changes. Now we know that the 60-square-meter (645 ft2) units are the most popular, but if in a few years there is another kind of demand, they have got to be able to adapt.
This developer has found that demand changes very quickly and wants to be prepared for this: at the moment the units are 60 m2 , but in the future, he could have some flats be 120 and others 30. The internet is allowing for more flexibility with housing with things like renting individual rooms, but of course if the room isn’t well designed it is a nuisance. In the nineteenth century houses were designed to be much more flexible than they are now.
I imagine that these losses didn't go unnoticed by property developers.
They are political, economical. After the crash of ‘29, they wanted to encourage domestic consumption.
Although you say that in Spain we’re decades away from the United States, what can you point out here? Anything in particular?
Here everything is very recent. We had several decades of Francisco Franco encouraging private property, there was a slogan that went "Let's change this from a country of blue-collared workers to a country of landowners". All of a sudden in the 60s being a home-owner became an ideal .The public housing that went on the market in the 90’s and early 2000’s was an outrage.
There is a culture of ownership and individuality related to housing, but gradually we realize that renting is positive. It implies a much less permanent relationship with your house, that your house does not have to be your house for life and it also allows for more respect for other people in certain ways. Taking care of things even if they aren’t yours. “Sharing” culture is growing and thanks to new technologies and the fact that we are spreading out more and more around the world makes it easier to be less afraid of others, or to let go of our things.
It is a drastic change. Even I find it difficult sometimes.