'Home should not be a show piece,' says renowned architect

What makes a home? It's a question the renowned Montreal architect Avi Friedman has pondered his whole life. He draws on memories of his humble childhood home and a recent trip to Poland to talk about spaces that crush - and spaces that lift up - the human spirit.
What's wrong with this picture? Architect Avi Friedman wants to know: Where are the weekend papers? Where are the slippers on the floor? Where are the dirty dishes in the kitchen? (Sherwood Real Estate )

What makes a good home? It's a question the renowned Montreal architect Avi Friedman has pondered his whole life.

Avi Friedman's parents had to build a home in a new country after the second world war. Growing up in that humble home shaped Avi's career. Friedman went on to become a professor of architecture at McGill University. He dedicated his career to affordable housing. The design magazine Wallpaper once named him as one of the ten people who will "most influence the way we live"... along with the guy who founded Ikea.

So what makes a home? Here's a hint: you won't find it in a glossy magazine. Friedman says "When I see those very lavish magazines, when I flip through the pages when I'm in airports... I ask where are the weekend papers? Where are the slippers on the floor? Where are the dirty dishes in the kitchen? Home should not be a show piece. Home must be a comfortable place for you and your family to live in and enjoy."

Avi Friedman designs homes and neighbourhoods that bring people together. His most recent book A View from the Porch: Rethinking Home and Community Design is a collection of essays that reflects on the ways that design can encourage connection and disconnection with spaces and with each other.

This past summer, Avi made a trip he'd been putting off his entire life: he travelled to Poland and visited the concentration camp where his parents were sent during World War Two. He walked through that space both as the son of survivors and as an architect.

In this interview, he brings together all his experiences to talk about spaces that crush - and spaces that lift up - the human spirit.

BOOK EXCERPT: "A View from the Porch: Rethinking Home and Community Design" by Avi Friedman

To Keep or Not to Keep the Living and Dining Rooms?

Speculative builders refer to homes as product. Whereas homebuyers see their lives unfolding in residences, builders have a nearer horizon. They have to sell and build quickly and move on to the next project; handing over the keys to a buyer is their ultimate goal. A model home—the showcase of a new development, like a new model in a car dealership—must therefore look good. It ought to draw a "wow," make an unsure buyer fall in love at first sight, edge out the competition across the street. A hotel-sized kitchen, beautifully lit with stainless-steel appliances, will be an anchor; a spacious marble-tiled bathroom with trendy fixtures and a Jacuzzi will be an attention grabber. It's all a question of first impressions.

Despite my experience working with builders, I'm often uneasy when I have to present my design to one. I know their critique will be harsh and thorough. The success or failure of their investment, I feel, rests on the shoulders of my design. Throughout our discussion, the ultimate user of the design, the homeowner, is faceless and is referred to as a client.

I parked my car near a newly constructed house in a barren development and stepped into a very cold January afternoon. It was a Friday, and I could tell that the builder's office receptionist was eager to end the week. The months of January and February are traditionally the busy season in the home-building business, since people tend to buy houses for summer occupancy. The number of sales during these months determines the year's overall activity. So designs are rushed, finalized, and made ready for buyers to see and purchase.

From inside the builder's private office I could hear one end of a heated telephone conversation. I headed to an empty seat in the anteroom and waited. It sounded as if Jack, the builder, was in the midst of an argument with his banker about interest he was being charged on a line of credit. He wasn't likely to be in a good mood when he saw me.

The call finally ended. Jack stepped out to instruct his secretary, noticed me, and asked me to come in. He was an experienced builder who built primarily for the move-up market—those who had sold their first small house and were buying a bigger one. He referred to his homes as Buicks: large, comfortable, yet not too expensive. This time, though, he was about to start a housing development made up of entry-level homes that would appeal to young couples with a modest income. I'd been recognized for my design of affordable housing expertise which Jack wanted me to apply to this project.

After a brief greeting, Jack cleared his wide desk as he pointed to my roll of drawings and said, "Let's see what you have for me today." I unrolled the plans, placed a heavy item on each end, and began to describe the layout of the two-story-plus-basement townhouse. I animated my description by walking him through the unbuilt home as if he were a visitor. He listened to my explanation, cutting me off at times when he thought I'd taken too long. It felt as if his mind was still in conversation with his banker.

"What's the unit's overall area?" he asked. I told him. He pulled a smartphone from his pocket and punched in some numbers. "Too expensive," he said. "I'll have trouble selling such a product in this site." That took the wind out of my sails—I'd been hoping to get his approval so that I could prepare the construction documents. Now I might have to begin my design all over again.

"What can we take out to make the home smaller?" he asked. There was silence. Sitting there, mulling over the plans, we pondered which functions we could do without. "I can shrink the kitchen and the main bathroom a bit," I proposed. "You must be kidding. Kitchens and bathrooms are my real-estate agents," he said. "I can reduce the parents' bedroom area," I offered. "The parents are paying for this home. Don't start with them," Jack responded quickly. "Maybe you can shrink the living room and knock off the dining room," he suggested after a moment of silence. "In our home," he continued, "hardly anyone ever sits in the living room, and the dining room is never used." "What about holidays and family gatherings?" I asked. "What's the point of keeping valuable space for events that take place only once or twice a year?" Jack said, dismissing my argument. He glanced at his watch and suggested that I reconsider my design and that we meet the following week.

On the drive back to my office I reflected on Jack's comments about the living and dining rooms and his suggestion to do without them. Are these rooms really needed? New lifestyle trends have shifted traditional family schedules, and for many people today it's hard to find time for a formal meal in the dining room on a week night. Setting the table, carrying the food there, taking time to discuss the day's events, cleaning up, and moving to the living room for coffee and dessert while listening to music—that all seems like an evening from a long-gone era. The use of space at home has also become gradually more decentralized. Do we really need, then, to retain a separate room for an occasion that may occur only once or twice a year? Shouldn't the new trends dictate a new priority list in how homes are used?

In his book History of Domestic Space, Peter Ward points out that the living room, which was also called a parlor, salon, sitting room, or front room, was once the place where the family met acquaintances and presented itself to the outside world. It was the home's most public space. When North Americans made their transition from the colonists' one-room house to a home with several rooms, the parlor was added. It could be found even in relatively small homes at the turn of the last century. Unlike European homes in the Victorian era, whose parlors were clearly formal spaces, on this continent, and mostly in modest residences, the living room had a touch of informality.

This was also the room in which a family would display their material accomplishments and treasured mementos. Paintings, family heirlooms, silverware, and photos were hung on walls and put in glass cases. A piano, according to Peter Ward, was also common in middle-class homes in both Europe and North America. It was a mark of culture and a signal of wealth. Women's musical and vocal talents were highly valued, and playing for guests was part of formal hospitality.

Another key feature in the living room was the fireplace, or hearth, which had several roles. Since it was ornate and expensive to construct, it represented wealth. It also provided warmth and served as a visual focal point, just as the television would in later years. Extended family members or visitors would gather after dinner to chat, play cards, and listen to music played on the piano.

The dining room likewise served a formal function. Its seating arrangements signified the family's hierarchy; the two heads of table had more comfortable chairs than the ones alongside. In Victorian England and later in North America, the well-to-do could afford a cook and a butler who served meals in well-appointed rooms that boasted elaborate ceiling edges, expensive furnishings, china cabinets, and chandeliers hanging over a large table.

The transition to a less formal arrangement took place half a century ago in small postwar homes. Instead of a dining room builders created a dining space, an area adjacent to the kitchen that was a step up from eating in the kitchen itself. Formality was reinstituted in the 1960s when the overall area of homes increased and a separate dining room started showing up in new houses destined for middle-income homebuyers. This evolution was supported by demographic trends. By the 1960s the early baby boomers had grown up to become adolescents. Family dinners provided an important social function, creating a formal setting for family exchange, reflection on the day's events, and a forum for a get-together. More than a room to house the table and chairs, the dining room became a bonding place. Families would discuss, often debate (this being the '60s), important matters before Dad handed over the car keys to a teenager of driving age after dessert. In large family gatherings, guests would continue to sit long after dinner ended to talk, giggle over photos, or simply catch up with the events of each other's lives.

The mid-1980s saw families and lifestyles transform. Households became smaller and children grew up. Some migrated to follow job opportunities. It became hard to fill up all the empty chairs around the table, and thus the dining room's decline began once again. Its former glory was restored only a few times a year, its charm being revisited on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other special occasions.

In many homes today the dining room has taken on new roles: kids use the large table surface to do homework; Mom or Dad sets up a computer in a corner to run a freelance business out of home; receipts and bills litter the table at tax time. With the increase in the number and nature of tasks that a modern family has to perform, the dining room often becomes, at least temporarily, a substitute for a study.

The living room experienced a similar fate with the rise of informality. A regular weekday or weekend visit by extended family or acquaintances became a rarity. As the price of sound systems and televisions went down they appeared in several rooms, and no longer did the family need to gather in the living room for entertainment. Central heating eliminated the need for the warmth of fireplaces, and lighting them became time consuming when early wake-ups for work were scheduled for the next day.

Internationally, with current and expected future growth in apartment living and the shrinkage of the average household size, small will dominate. The introduction of micro-units (less than 50 square meters [500 square feet]) in cities like New York, London and Vancouver marked the disappearance of the dining room and the slashing of the living space. Some projects offer shared living and dining room, which residents need to reserve. In addition, coffee houses styled to look like a living room with sofas and fireplaces have become the meeting place of choice for younger apartment dwellers.

Yet, living and dining rooms still play an important role in the lives of residents. They always have been and are as much social and cultural icons as they are functional spaces. As my

Conversation with Jack the builder demonstrated, the social perception of and economic justification for a formal living or dining space is undergoing a re-evaluation. But as current lifestyle trends result in greater family seclusion, it's important to have uniting symbols.

The dining room represents such a space. Whether it's once a week or several times a year, eating there can put people into a festive mood. Wearing our Sunday best and eating comfort food off the "good" dishes in a formal setting constitute a ritual we should not abandon. On special occasions and holidays it's the room where relatives from near and far congregate. Like the best suits we don for special occasions and jewelry we wear once or twice a year, the dining room is a space to keep. And even when it's not being used, the formal setting, with the table in the middle and chairs all around, sends a clear message about the institution of family.

The living room should continue to play a similar role. After-dinner conversations in a relaxed setting, sitting in an armchair or on a sofa while listening to quiet background music, is a sign of civility we seem to have lost. Both living and dining rooms can be gathering places for small or even extended families. The spaces could be transformed, perhaps, but their original purpose should remain intact: comfortable rooms that provide a transition between the world outside and within.

Back at the office, I unrolled my drawings again and thought about what Jack had said. I saw his point: too large a home would be too expensive and wouldn't sell. So I decided to shrink all the space equally but keep, albeit transformed, the living and dining rooms. Luckily, he saw my point.

Copyright © 2015 by Avi Friedman. Reprinted with permission of Véhicule Press. All rights reserved.