March 19, 2018
This Spanish Architect Wants to Revolutionize the Home—by Getting Rid of Kitchens
Few spaces of the home are as coveted as the kitchen. But Anna Puigjaner is showing the way out of these wasteful private cooking boxes toward more efficient “shared” alternatives.
“First of all,” says Anna Puigjaner, to clear the air, “I love to cook.” Not a particularly startling admission, but Puigjaner, a young architect and researcher living in Barcelona, has just been enumerating the virtues of kitchenless homes. Her pitch for communal cooking spaces is framed by a recitation of social ills. Americans waste 30 percent, or the equivalent of $48 billion, of consumable food annually. We spend a good chunk of our waking lives cleaning our homes, and kitchens take up a lot of that time. Meanwhile, the growing elderly population has few socialization outlets, and the young, employed or not, suffer from alienation. Centralizing food preparation within residential buildings is a sensible way, she thinks, to begin to address these problems.
Puigjaner is aware how contentious her proposition sounds: “The kitchen is the most provocative part of the house. It has been used as a political tool for a long time, to the point that nowadays we can’t accept living without a kitchen.”
Even so, the notion of a kitchenless (middle-class) home is nearly as old in America as industrialization itself. From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, feminists, often with the help of architects, envisioned houses and apartments lacking all the equipment necessary for food preparation—counter space, sinks, larders—and compensating for it with centralized cooking and housekeeping facilities. These were to be staffed by professionals, thereby freeing many women from unending, uninteresting housework. “It was actually normal to hire a professional cook to cook for you, because they thought that a professional cook would know how to better source and prepare nutritious ingredients,” explains Puigjaner, referencing to Dolores Hayden’s classic 1981 study, The Grand Domestic Revolution. “You see how our mentality has completely changed!”
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In the past year and a half, Puigjaner has visited nearly a dozen collective or shared kitchens that, if not entirely living up to the thoroughgoing radical spirit of erstwhile visionary feminists, nonetheless demonstrate the enduring value of the concept. With funding from the Harvard GSD Wheelwright Prize, she has followed a “heterogeneous but not random” itinerary that began in Senegal, moved through Southeast Asia into China and Japan, then skipped over to Scandinavia and, finally, Latin America. At each stop, Puigjaner has encountered practical, everyday-genius examples of sharing cooking duties among communities large and small. Some are humble, confined to a building or cluster of residences, while others, such as the comedores populares in Peru, are large employers, solidarity networks, and influential political entities. The Peruvian comedores employ 100,000 women, who together are responsible for the daily nourishment of half a million people. These, and similar networks in Mexico City and Quebec, are not soup kitchens. Meals are not free, but they are remarkably affordable. (Government subsidies, in many cases, keep prices down.) Moreover, these dining places benefit people across classes: In Latin America, Puigjaner found workers taking in plates of beans and rice, while in Tokyo, she examined kitchens serving dinners to middle-class children.
Architecturally, these kitchens may take on ad hoc arrangements or assume the sparkling, sterile form of industrial cookshops; they can be integrated into existing or new buildings or even reside outside of them entirely. Regardless, for Puigjaner, they extend the limits of the domestic sphere, rendering it “diffuse.” MAIO, the small but well-regarded Barcelona architectural office she cofounded, has recently completed a 22-unit apartment building in the city, designed to be both “generic” (that is, a discreet armature for living) and “diffuse” (whereby “program” is unmoored from the floor plan). Rooms—including the kitchen, Puigjaner says—are more or less interchangeable. Any semblance of spatial hierarchy (“the master bedroom”) has been snuffed out, yielding a productive ambiguity alluded to in the project’s name, 110 Rooms. Everything but manorial aspirations can be accommodated.
Here, architecture recedes into the background, yet this background, too, is carefully designed. “Housing models are often loaded with several clichés,” says Guillermo Lopez, Puigjaner’s colleague and MAIO cofounder, referring to the rigid, prescriptive layout of our houses and apartments. These spatial cues conform domestic life to social prescriptions established long ago and now outdated, Lopez says. He underscores that with 110 Rooms the program of each titular room “was not predetermined by the architecture but rather by the users.” The main design intervention hinged on an attentive parsing of Spanish building law. As Puigjaner tells it, the size of a room is determined by the width of a door, so having a wider door allowed for a much larger room, which, in turn, multiplied the activities that could transpire within it. By anonymizing the components of a floor plan, “you can change how you use the space quite easily,” she says.
Lifestyle choice then enters into the architectural equation—what Puigjaner, recalling the experiments of “family hotels” in turn-of-the-century Manhattan, describes as “living à la carte.” Puigjaner wrote her doctoral dissertation on the family hotel typology, a “hybrid that combined the European apartment with the American hotel.” It thrived for a period of 40 years or so, up until the 1929 economic crash. For decades, developers had successfully exploited a loophole in the legal definition distinguishing permanent homes from hotels, which didn’t require food preparation areas to be housed within dwelling units. Cutting out kitchens increased the number and variety of apartments. As Puigjaner has written elsewhere, the “incomplete domestic program of each apartment” proved felicitous: The result “led to a greater interdependency between the house and the community, creating stronger social and urban bonds between the domestic and public spheres—without the kitchen, relations between the inhabitants were encouraged.”
Apartment complexes such as the Belleclaire and the Ansonia, both built in the Upper West Side in the early 20th century, offered their middle-class residents a suite of options that could be tacked onto the weekly rent. Meals would be taken in large dining halls, while in-house launders, vacuum brigades, and nurseries handled the maintenance of domestic life. At the time, feminists and reformers were split on the family hotel—a misnomer, since the typology could (and did) readily support the lifestyles of singles. Some admired its way of marrying good business with social progressivism (wives, unburdened of housework, could enter the labor force), while others thought it didn’t go far enough in breaking down gender and class divisions. An underclass of working women, “professionals” or otherwise, was needed to keep things running smoothly.
Puigjaner views the kitchenless typology with sympathy for all it was able to achieve in its relatively brief existence. Economic hardship, lobbying by the hotel industry, and the demonization of seemingly Soviet-style “collective” domestic arrangements killed off these developments. Postwar government subsidies for house building (which continue, against all sense, to this day) helped ignite a market for home appliances promising more leisure time for women.
And yet, we continue to toil away in our homes. Puigjaner frequently points to the failure of consumer society and its fallacious claims to erode domestic housework: “Despite our high-tech cooking and cleaning machines, we still spend the same amount of time at home working to keep our houses in good condition. And we produce more and more waste to do it.”
Moderate hope, she suggests, can be found in shifting conceptions of ownership. An entire economy has sprung up to service millennials’ propensity to share, or rent out, all kinds of commodities, including cars and apartments. Puigjaner’s project is open to these business models, taking into account both their obvious popularity and their inadequacies—the hype-driven, euphemism-prone sharing culture and the unresolved contradictions of the housing market. She is intrigued by WeLive, the recently launched (but already struggling) residential offshoot of WeWork. And in China, she visited the offices of You+, a flourishing platform that houses more than 10,000 tenants living in tiny, kitchenless units. Collective kitchens and the necessary infrastructure to support them are something of a tradition in China, but You+ applies a start-up shine to an old concept. “They explain themselves as a ‘co-family,’” Puigjaner plainly notes.
She concedes how difficult it is to change cultural norms. So rather than completely doing away with kitchens, she suggests a happy medium: Shared kitchens could handle the bulk of meals, while kitchenettes in individual apartments could give residents a personal, creative outlet. But the chance to opt in, she says, is essential. “It should not have to be one or the other. The most important thing is to be free to choose.”
Anna Puigjaner is one of Metropolis’s 2018 Game Changers—read about the others here.