DOMESTIC PREMISES: THE LIVING ROOM

(1) THE CORE FAMILY: „Bürgerliche Wohnstube“, Lehrtafel für Kinder, 1840

(2) GARDEN CITY: Schwamendingen, A. Sauter + A. Dirler, 1947-56

(3) ERSATZNEUBAU: Schwamendingen, EMI Architekten, 2014-23

(4) DEMOLITION: Abbruchstatistik, Stadt Zürich, 2015

In the early 19th century, sparked with the French Revolution some decades earlier, a bourgeois middle class emerged within the European society. The core family became the elementary unit on which the new social structures started to base upon, and new ideals of education and culture were established amongst the aspiring middle classes. As the aristocracy managed to restore their power structures after the Napoleonic Wars in 1915, the increasingly self-confident bourgeoisie was politically oppressed and forced to follow their thoughts in the privacy of their own four walls.

As a consequence of these circumstances, a whole lifestyle was set up around the new importance of the home: the living room was established as the pivotal point of the new everyday life. In combination with industrialization, productive work was expelled from the domestic, and the home itself turned into a place of retreat, privacy, leisure, discussion, culture. The devices for this new space were produced in the upcoming industries: the sofa, the sewing table, the bureau, veneer-covered chairs, house-pianos, — any kind of mass- produced furniture and objects designed to fit the private collective activities of family and friends.

The virtues and rules of this middle class lifestyle were very much incorporated into the workers housing schemes in the early 20th century. The modernists took up these concepts and managed to produce along the century an enormous quantity of housing, which all followed more or less the same principles of how a unit should be structured: A living room at the core of the apartment, where all the activities of the family take place, and two to three smaller rooms for sleeping. Productive work would as well take place outside the domestic sphere: the man leaves the housing district and goes to work at some other place, while the woman looks after the children and takes care of the house or apartment.

Through the built legacy we encounter in our cities today, the structure for such a middle class lifestyle is our constant companion. Most of our fellow human beings react similarly to what they encounter when moving into a flat: the living room will be filled up with furniture that everybody assumes to belong there. The content of this living space has in reality hardly changed since its invention 200 years ago.

Surprisingly, the outdating of floor plans is today a very common criterion for the replacement of whole housing districts. The same case in Zürich: many garden city neighborhoods have recently been demolished with the argument that the floor plan would not comply with the expectations of what a home is today. Paradoxically, and even if the opposite is suggested, the Ersatzneubauten in most cases equally following the bourgeois floor plan schemes that have been the supposed reason for its demolition — and many new flats are even less flexible than the cellular precedents of the garden city. The most obvious difference is usually of a quantitative kind: every space is bigger. The quality itself is mostly about the same: two to three bedrooms, one living room combined with a kitchen.

Very recently, the conception of home is challenged yet again. This time it is not (necessarily) political oppression that forces people back into their private sphere, but a raging virus that hinders the interactions in public and sets up our current lockdown situation. The current Corona-induced crisis reinforces a process that has been increasingly taking place in the recent decades: productive work, once pushed out of the domestic sphere through the success of the bourgeois lifestyle, is conquering the private sphere again. Covid-19 is now accelerating the conceptual transformation of our domestic spaces, the bourgeois setting is readapted to our times: The living room is now a home- office. During the lockdown, we are on one hand forced to experience the classical bourgeois domesticity, where every activity is set in the intimacy of our own four walls. On the other hand, the home-office adds to the furniture of leisure and recreation an infrastructure of production. The long-expected interweaving of the domestic sphere with productive work is now in ultimate execution. The thoughts about the expected outdating of the bourgeois floor plan could therefore maybe become obsolete — and with that may come a new judgement about the existing housing stock.