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Annmarie Adams on Rooms with a View

17 December, 2020

This annotation is an extract from: Annmarie Adams (1991) article ‘Rooms with a View: Domestic Architecture and Anglo-American’ that reviews Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Architectural Feminism and Living Space in Fact and Fiction, Design Book Review, No.20 1991, 61-62

Extract from: pages 12–24

The canon of modern architectural history includes many utopian projects. Designed by well-known architects and often rendered in provocative drawings, these visionary schemes were never constructed. The historic significance of projects like Mies van der Rohe’s glass skyscraper or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City rests in their influence, following publication, on subsequent buildings and cities. Their place in the story of modernism is, oddly enough, more secure than many buildings that were actually constructed and inhabited.

The environments imagined and described by modern novelists were no less real than these utopian projects drawn by modern architects; cities, buildings, and rooms were ‘designed’ in literature, as in real life, to contain and support particular social structures. Albeit in words, such architecture was often ‘constructed’ of real materials, on actual sites, in easily imaginable forms. Like the utopian projects by architects, the places ‘rendered’ by novelists could be both a penetrating critique of contemporary living conditions as well as a powerful vision of how life could be. Historians have long dismissed the ‘setting’ of literature as a source in architectural and urban history because, as fiction, it bears a seemingly dangerous relationship to reality. Why is a house described by Jane Austen or a city seen through the eyes of Charles Dickens a less valuable perception of contemporary domestic and urban space than one drawn by Mies van der Rohe or Frank Lloyd Wright? Where is the land of make believe on the map of architectural history and how should it best be explored?

Building Domestic Liberty by Polly Wynn Allen and Living Space in Fact and Fiction by Philippa Tristram are two attempts to address these extremely difficult questions. Both books are critical studies of fictional environments and both authors firmly believe that such architecture has a useful and illuminating relationship to everyday life. Building Domestic Liberty, an introduction to the life and work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is a study of this important American feminist’s visionary environments in the context of her ideas for the radical reform of domestic labor and economics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Allen remarks, Gilman had an ‘architectural imagination’, and many of her ideas involved the restructuring of urban form to accommodate economic change. Living Space in Fact and Fiction is a broader study of domestic architecture in eighteenth and nineteenth century British novels. Its author sees the fiction writer as a perceptive observer of changing social values, rather than as a mediator of politics and physical form. The power of domestic space to shape people’s lives, even in the imaginary realm of fiction, is a view shared by both authors…

The novel as a source for architectural historians may seem Utopian, but it offers a valuable avenue for understanding contemporary society’s perceptions of architectural and social reality. Both Building Domestic Liberty and Living Space in Fact and Fiction have opened to architectural historians the formerly impassable border to the land of make believe.

Annmarie Adams on Rooms with a View

This annotation is an extract from: Annmarie Adams (1991) article ‘Rooms with a View: Domestic Architecture and Anglo-American’ that reviews Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Architectural Feminism and Living Space in Fact and Fiction, Design Book Review, No.20 1991, 61-62