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The View from the Kitchen

  • 3 bedroom dwelling plan, the Ledbury Estate, Karakusevic Carson Architects
  • View from the kitchen looking through to the living space, family townhouse, the Bacton Estate, Karakusevic Carson Architects
  • A suggested ground floor house plan in the Tudor Walters Report, 1919
  • The Frankfurt Kitchen, a design first conceived by architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926
  • Annotated plan of The Frankfurt Kitchen
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The maxim goes that the kitchen is the heart of the home, an essential space around which life revolves and people get together. But over the past twenty years for many new urban dwellings in dense blocks or at height, the kitchen has been literally side-lined – pushed to the edge or darker depths of the domestic plan and treated as a perfunctory set of white goods to be tolerated rather than a space with its own distinct activities or possibilities. Through our recent housing projects we are applying evidence to reinvent the amenity of the kitchen and in that process reinvigorate the comfort of urban living.

For most English urban homes before the 1850s, the kitchen was historically wherever the fire was. For the working classes, without servants or space, the fire in the main room of a small house was the stove and a needs-based multi-purpose living space. In the mid-19th century, the industrial-scale roll-out of terraced homes introduced a basic scullery space at the back of the home, close to the yard and out of sight in a simple layout that echoed 18th century middle class homes. The scullery was a food preparation space, but also a working space for washing, laundry and everything else not covered by sleeping or ‘best’.

In 1919, standards established by the Tudor Walter’s report for a new generation of suburban cottage council homes stated that the living room may be used for cooking with the scullery, but that the latter should not be used for ‘living.’ – and by this we may read dining or washing. Of the same space the manual stated the need for a separate ‘larder’ – a cupboard for cool store of food, and that the sink should be by a window and that it should ‘preferably overlook the garden’. That the report should be explicit about a view may seem trivial, but it reveals a lot about housing reform and the historic gendering of space.

In creating homes with gardens, cottage estates banished the dark world of the Victorian yard. At a time before many appliances had appeared in the home, it meant that the housewife may be afforded the amenity of a view of green, fresh air and light while they worked, but also ensured surveillance so that they could keep an eye on children playing in the garden and thus multi-task in their capacity as home-makers.

Writing in the 1930s, architect Frederick Gibberd in ‘The Modern Flat’ put forward new guidance that reflected a shift towards new compact urban homes. In these lateral types, cooking had to get out of the living room, sculleries disappeared altogether and in their place came efficiently planned fitted-kitchens. Making its first appearance in 1926, the fitted-kitchen was the concept of Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and was first known as the ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ after its location in a wave of new modern social housing estates in the German city. Conceived as a labour saving means to free women at home, it’s impact on domestic architecture around the world has been immense, anticipating new appliances for cooking, heating water and washing laundry in one space – a British preference that to this day alarms many from Europe and America where it is more typically found in bathrooms or utility spaces.

Elsewhere, Gibberd’s 1930 publication advises that kitchen sinks be by a window to afford better light and recommends northerly aspects to avoid direct sunlight and the possibility of the space becoming ‘unbearably stuffy.’ He also picks up the theme of views with regards to the placement of balconies, then a new consideration, and says that ‘low rental’ flats may be arranged off the kitchen so that ‘children in prams may rest there in the open air and at the same time be watched by their mothers.’ To this we may add observation of wet laundry, the other expected function of these adjacent outdoor spaces.

In the 1940s, Erno Goldfinger worked with the Army Bureau of Current Affairs to promote the logic of hygienic fitted kitchens, producing instructive poster campaigns to inform domestic expectations and norms of an entire postwar generation. In 1961, standards for council homes published in ‘Homes for Today and Tomorrow’ known as Parker Morris used qualitative research to advocate that kitchens be larger because, despite previous generation’s efforts to push it elsewhere, people still ate some meals in there. It also promoted ‘cheerfulness’ and that those working at a sink ‘should be able to see out of the window’ and once more that the ‘relation to the kitchen to the place outside where children are likely to play should be considered’ It also cites an openable window as a means to avoid condensation and suggests mechanical ventilation where not possible. It is perhaps upon this final theme that urban kitchens have evolved most in the past 30 years.

Mechanical Ventilation and Heat Recovery (MVHR) and with it extraction systems and task lighting has had a huge impact on the layout of urban homes. Coupled with lifestyle shift towards open-plan living and a developer-led squeeze on space, MVHR has made possible the conscious and unconscious merging of kitchen and living room. In 2010, the London Housing Guide’s spatial guidance factored-in desired mergers of kitchen/dining and living by explicitly offering minimum floor area metrics for them together, but cautioning against it when there are 3 or more bedrooms and also insisting on supporting utility space and storage.

There are benefits to open-plan living and there is at present a market preference for it, but simply appropriating a wall of a space for all the functions of a kitchen clearly leads to compromises. There are a few essential truths observed by earlier generations that we would do well to remember; when you cook it creates moisture and smells; When you wash clothes and dishes it creates noise; If you cannot conceal the mess and waste of food preparation you will have to look at it or smell it as you try and relax nearby. If the kitchen has no window you cannot ventilate the space by any other means and there is little joy in facing blank walls or lingering in dark or artificially lit spaces. In an age of climate emergency and a cost of living crisis we may add to this that by relying solely on mechanical ventilation we may be perpetuating domestic energy dependence and building in additional tools.

As a studio we have found from our own resident feedback and Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) research that for families or indeed anyone with aspirations of hosting, complete open-plan arrangements offer limited flexibility. In 2020, our long-standing proposals for Colville Street, part of the second phase of the Colville Estate Masterplan for Hackney Council, we revisited following direct feedback from residents about their preferences. The outcome were new dwelling layouts with a range of partitions that allow people to divide, conceal, shield and buffer noisy or unpleasant-smelling working areas from living spaces and dedicate more space to the function of the kitchen. Elsewhere we have developed plans with discreet, but intentional demarcations and spatial offsets that enable it to become ‘a second social space.’

At our local authority housing project the Bacton Estate in Camden, the kitchen is located at the heart of the plan becoming the link and separation between dining and relaxing. With a view in both directions, the kitchen may be as social or as private as required and the long dual-aspect plan of the dwelling encourages cross ventilation through the entire home.

At the Ledbury Estate in Southwark, the kitchen in the replacement council homes has been made bigger to incorporate dining and brought to the outside-edge of the dwelling. From here future residents will be able to open a window, vent smells, talk to friends or look out on their plants on the balcony and stand at their sink washing the dishes, when they have to, while taking in one of the best views of south-east London there is.

Few manuals in the 21st century use the word ‘cheerfulness’. The concept is not mandated in any guidance and if it was few would think of associating it with a practical space like the kitchen, but it is an attribute of comfort and we take the view that this is worth restoring to ensure future homes not only have heart, but soul as well.