As you could see toward the end of last week’s blog post, the idea of class played a big part in where you lived. Obviously, this is a concept that has always been – even when people were fighting over trees and caves, the stronger or smarter would have prevailed. But as the level of talent surrounding architecture rose, the distinction of class became more and more apparent.
Class was the difference between living in a townhouse or a hovel. A villa or a hut. But even as the gulf between social tiers widened, the living conditions of everyone rose collectively. As it, in general, became easier to make houses, it also became cheaper, which allowed more and more people to jump on the bandwagon. So to speak.
During the medieval era of architecture, timber framing became a thing. And, by thing, I mean it had been around almost since forever, but was finally coupled with a level of skill that made it easy to produce. Early houses during this period were basically just big communal rooms and a few side rooms. Even the manor houses of the more affluent weren’t very intricate. Cross the class gap, however, and you were up against castles and whatnot.
Swiss homes in particular had a very interesting design. Two story, cabin-like homes, home owners housed the animals on the lower level and lived in the upper. It seems pretty rustic by our standards today, but at the time, they had separate rooms for cooking, dining and enjoying each other’s company, which was a pretty big deal. These Swiss homes universally used the timber design, but also used brick and stone for the lower levels.
Fast forward a few (hundred) years and you’re smack dab in the middle of the Romanesque period, and while this moment in architectural history is most known for the construction of castles and abbeys, it also was a time of improvement of inner-city living. The tower house and town house entered the scene, both under heavy constraints of space due to the packed nature of walled cities of that time.
Tower cities rose like, well, like towers, often only having a single, small room for each floor. Town houses, in contrast, allowed the fairly rich a place to stay close to all the action in the city. Unlike the sprawling domus of Rome, town houses looked like proper houses. Two story, stone or half-timber, etc. Despite being primarily for the well-to-do, they were a statement for what would come.
What followed over the next handful of (again, hundreds) years, were a collection of “Revival” styles. It’s like how 80s clothes are becoming popular again, except for houses. As architectural techniques began to solidify, older styles were revisited and given a new treatment. Classical and gothic elements were introduced into domestic homes, homes that were steadily becoming affordable to the very people who had to fight for a thatch-roofed hovel in previous eras. These styles have been highlighted in previous articles, so I won’t bother going into them.
A standout style, however, was found in Japan, during a little period of change. Much like the European countries, Japanese homes were becoming more and more decadent. I wouldn’t put it as equal to the Victorian-era houses, but for the Japanese, it was becoming a serious problem. When the Zen masters introduced the Tea Ceremony, the resultant Tea Houses changed residential styles to a more modest, simple design. The interesting part of Japanese housing is the changeable nature. Walls were made of sliding panels, which could be changed with ease. So rooms could be joined for entertaining a large number of guests, or closed for privacy. Nevermind the fact that they had to practically set themselves on fire to stay warm in the winter, you can’t really put a price on that kind of convenience.
Then the Americas happened and ugly little colonial buildings became the norm for awhile. Without the infrastructure of an established country like England, the American colonies just weren’t capable of producing bigger, more intricate houses. But within a short time, they would catch up and even invent a few styles of their own, as evidenced in the Frank Lloyd Wright post.
Housing has come a long way from trees, caves and tents. A lot of styles have come and gone, but the concepts of style, protection and comfort have been around since the beginning. We’ve taken a brief look at where we came from. Stay tuned next week and we’ll discuss where we’re going.