In chapter XXIV of her 1841 book “A Treatise on Domestic Economy: For the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and At School” author and educator Catharine E. Beecher (1800 – 1878) describes how the site for domestic labor, the home, needs to have a functional, efficient, and desirable organization. Beecher presents a series of designs ranging from small, cheaply built Cottage homes to larger Gothic Revival farmhouses organized around the “economy of labor.” Beecher’s book was one of the first in the U.S. to view architecture from the perspective of a female, emphasizing the need for major domestic reform in light of the growing number of households without servants. She writes, “There is no point of domestic economy which more seriously involves the health and daily comfort of American women, than the proper construction of houses.”
Although the presented Cottage plan has an obvious visual and spatial link to Classical architecture (its frontal symmetry, muted portico and flanking rooms), Beecher’s spatial prescription proposes an entirely different social model. In her organization, the kitchen serves as the primary module of design; the proportion and grid of the house is built around the kitchen’s size and location on the floor plan’s central axis. The small Cottage Home was intended for a single family of six and does not include rooms for live-in servants—a gesture that predates the Civil War by nearly twenty years and perhaps alludes to her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s well documented abolitionist activity. Throughout Beecher’s architectural proposals there is the expectation that tenants would be doing their own household labor, an idea implicit in all of her domestic designs.
Levittown, NY is often considered the blueprint for American post-war suburbs. In 1947, Levitt & Sons, Inc. began constructing a community using only one model home; the “Cape Cod.” By 1951, 17,441 “Cape Cod” homes were reproduced. Although it is cosmetically similar to Beecher’s Cottage, the interior logic and design philosophy of the “Cape Cod” is vastly different to that of Beecher’s design. They both adhere to a strict social order but Beecher positions domestic labor at the crux of her argument, using organizational strategies to address its importance where Levitt uses technology (appliances etc.) and places the kitchen in the front corner facing the street at half the size of the living room. Tract home communities like Levittown, NY omitted Beecher’s stance and ethos toward spatialized gender equality but had her work entered into the mass produced housing milieu we would see a very different set of social ideologies implicit in the design of insulated, suburban communities.
Has the original concept and social organization of suburban tract housing been distorted through generations of mass production and sweeping replication or has it somehow withstood an incessant process of copying? Although tract housing is an analog process of serial reproduction, it has remained a bizarrely stable means of replication. The social diagram inherent in the post-war housing boom (1945 – 1960)—an influx in the endless production of single family homes with distinct zones for uses like eating, sleeping, gathering, along with the birth insulated communities—essentially shaped a condition in which a particular lifestyle is cloned. The lifestyle recreated with the stud framing of each home is one in which a small nuclear family, with its traditional hierarchies intact, is promised a stable, clean, and proprietary life absent of threatening difference.
Folded Suburban Prerequisite takes Beecher’s smallest Cottage published in “A Treatise on Domestic Economy…” as the basis to explore the consequences of a different form of spatial organization by strategically nesting an obviously oversized quantity into another. With the centrally designed kitchen first placed in the belly of the gallery, the remainder of the house is folded into the space resulting in a confusion of use; the parlor, closets, dining room, and bedrooms hang from the ceiling, colliding into each other and into the kitchen thus creating a layered lattice of stud walls. The exposed stud frame as a means of articulating a spatial organization is used as a conceptual argument as well as a reference to historic projects of structural mapping and deconstruction (e.g. Michael Asher’s 2008 exhibition in Santa Monica, Frank Gehry’s 1975 Gemini G.E.L., the shearing and collisions of Peter Eisenman’s House Series begun in the late 1960’s). Instead of using stud walls to trace an absence in the existing site, this project imposes a mythical presence of a secondary site, Beecher’s Cottage Home. The expanse of the Cottage Home exceeds the boundary of the gallery and each confrontation with the limits forces a decision to fold inward. Thus, the site-specific installation makes immediate the basic origin of the house while simultaneously creating an impossible space to inhabit which points to different social and phenomenological affects than those we are used to.