Never as obvious as the periodic costume-change of exterior house styles, the form of interior spaces has been in constant evolution since the first houses appeared on this continent.
For over three centuries, the need for highly functional space has dictated how floor plans are organized, leading up to what is often referred to as the “open plan.” As the name suggests, an open-plan house flows from space to space with minimal barriers between the living areas or no barriers at all. It is a concept we are familiar with today, but one that was quite radical when it first appeared little more than a century ago.
The earliest houses from the 17th century mainly consisted of one or two multipurpose rooms, often with a central hearth. From cooking to sleeping, colonists conducted all tasks within these spaces. By the late 19th century, however, America had become industrialized and prosperous, so houses were not only larger, but more sophisticated and specialized.
Accordingly, Victorians assigned the spaces within these houses particular functions: front parlor, back parlor, kitchen, bed chambers, and so on. The increased social interaction of the day meant that public and private spaces in houses were divided up and closed off with doors and halls into what could be a veritable warren of rooms. During this same time period, a few forward-looking architects were experimenting with a new type of interior scheme that consisted of designated living areas undivided by walls—the open plan.
An Interior Breakthrough
What caused architects to rethink interior spaces and how these areas functioned within the home? There were a number of reasons why designers and the public alike began to embrace the open plan.
First, late 19th-century technological advances allowed better control over comfort in a house. With central heating from hot-air registers or steam radiators, rooms were no longer dependent on fireplaces for warmth, so space arrangements could be more flexible. By 1900 there were new construction materials creating new structural possibilities. Steel, available in the 1870s but more widely used for modern houses of the 20th century, increased builders’ ability to span open space. Concrete block made it easier to build unconventional load-bearing walls. At the same time, Victorian society was evolving toward more relaxed lifestyles. Family members, rather than servants, performed more—or all—household tasks. Social interactions were becoming less formal. Interiors needed to be more adaptable, comfortable, and usable for all members of the family.
By the turn of the 20th century, residential lots were smaller and house plans had to make more economical use of space. The open plan was the right choice for turning a tight floor plan into a well-zoned interior that adjusted to a family’s needs. For instance, a dining room was no longer used exclusively for dining. It could be a place for children to do homework or play board games—activities not conducted in a formal Victorian parlor.
Plans and Planners
Henry Hobson Richardson, the influential Shingle-style architect, is often credited with introducing the open plan. Both his Hay and Paine houses, built in 1886, feature a living room that flows into a dining room. The celebrated example of Richardson’s residential architecture, the Glessner House, is among the first instances where an open-plan interior is integrated with a garden. The L-shaped house turns its back to the street, creating an enclosed courtyard that can be seen from all of the rooms.
Other Shingle-style architects were also working toward continuous space, with the fireplace instead of a staircase as central to the scheme. In California, Arts & Crafts architects Greene & Greene were also implementing the open plan in their high-style bungalows. The ground floor of the 1908 Gamble House has a capacious open plan that is visually unified by exposed mahogany framing. The floor plan makes the most of the view of the Arroyo Seco Canyon: The living and dining spaces overlook the terrace, joining the natural materials of the interior with the natural beauty of the landscape.
Although Shingle-style architects and the Greene brothers flirted with the open plan, it was Frank Lloyd Wright who drew on their influence to make the concept an integral part of his organic theory of architecture. In his Prairie-style houses, Wright rotated rooms around a central chimney. Casement windows and sweeping porches allowed him to expand the interiors into the garden. Wright wanted to reduce the rooms in a house to the barest essentials, have those spaces be free-flowing, and unify the outdoors with the indoors.
The 1909 Robie House, with its fluid space between living and dining room and extraordinary number of windows, embodies his principles for an open plan. With Wright, the focus of the open plan shifts from merely reorganizing space to integrating the landscape with interiors. The wide rooms of the open plan go hand-in-hand with large fenestration that gives the garden greater visual impact inside the house. The novel building materials of the 20th century made the open plan even more practical.
Wright began using concrete block in the Hollyhock House and La Miniatura because block walls could be punctuated with glass or voids, further developing the concept of space. Partial walls of glass and the play of light and dark spaces open up these interiors in new and challenging ways. International-style architects continued to develop the concept of an open plan.
Richard Neutra’s Lovell Health House (1929) contains a living and dining area that opens onto a sleeping porch at one end and a library and patio on the other. The steel frame of the house eliminates the necessity for any load-bearing walls. Instead, the house is clad with metal panels and has multiple voluminous windows that make the most of the hillside view.
In the 1937 Gropius House, there is hardly a corridor anywhere in the building; one area flows into the next. Spaces have multiple purposes. For example, a study is also the accessway between the entry and the main living area. Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House is perhaps the ultimate expression of the open plan. With the exception of the chimney/bathroom column, there are no barriers inside and, because it’s clad in glass, no barriers to the house’s surroundings. The landscape is the living space’s ornamentation. Furniture is used to divide the space into a bar, dining room, living room, and bedroom. Yet even as this rarified house seeks to pull away from everything traditional, it comes full circle: The hearth is still the anchor of its open plan.
The concept of the open plan in these high-style homes trickled down into more modest houses—from bungalows and Colonial Revivals of the 1920s and ’30s to the split-levels and ranches of the 1950s and ’60s—forever influencing our idea of how the interiors of a comfortable home should function.
Lynn Elliott writes about old houses from Brooklyn, New York.Published in: Old-House Journal May/June 2002