It’s amazing how the kitchen is engrained in our minds as an image, and how limited the image is. As soon as you hear “kitchen”, what do you imagine? Regardless of a specific style, which can be totally diverse, the image in your mind is that of a rather strictly defined “machine”. With all the new materials, streamlined design, thousands of colours and fittings, in “western” or “developed” countries a kitchen is a kitchen, which is – as usual – a reason enough for me to wonder why that is so and whether that is good, or the image actually restrains us and prevents us from creating something better.
I begin by remembering the fact that kitchen didn’t always use to be what it is today. (Sociologists and anthropologists shouldn’t mind the fact that, since this isn’t a science paper, I’ll simplify and condense my descriptions.) The kitchen as we today simply take for granted as a part of any apartment or house was devised as a separate room for cooking, which was at the time one of the most important chores of the wife. With the expansion of cities and massive migrations of the rural population into city apartments, this notion of the kitchen was paired with design inventions such as the brilliant Frankfurt Kitchen (by Margarete Schuette-Lihotzky) and became the norm. However, the idea of the kitchen as a separate little room which serves only to perform a chore, thus uniting the cook and the cooking equipment into a sort of a machine, stems from the bourgeois way of life in which the kitchen is the servant’s domain – a separate, invisible part of the house, not mixed with the host’s living space, yet periodically yielding served meals. The kitchens that proliferated in city apartments after the Second World War were replicas of that image, the only difference being that the families living there couldn’t even think of affording cooks and maids, so the kitchen got standardised, shrunk, more strongly integrated into the apartment space, and dedicated to the mistress (or comradess, depending on the location). I don’t know whether that would’ve been seen as an advance in class equality or a new way of preserving the woman’s social role, but the architect Dinko Kovačić would say that this separated the wife, with all her sensuality, from her family and her husband along with the kitchen smells, and that the smell eradication simply wasn’t worth it.
Nevertheless, the new city kitchen was soon spread into the countryside, so we now have the same situation in most apartments and houses, wherever we might be. However, in the most remote of villages, we can still find the old houses with two rooms: bedroom and kitchen. The kitchen is, in this case, the space for the entire daily life in the interior, so it unites the living room, the dining room and the kitchen. My experience and the tone with which this “kitchen” is described by others who experienced it lead unambiguously to the conclusion that it contains a special kind of warmth, liveliness and vividness. Probably this is due to socialising, the gathering around the common meal, the common effort of preparing one, the single table and single space that embody the centre of the entire communication within the community. I would even go as far as suggesting that the collective memory still contains an affinity for communication around the prehistoric fireplace, and that the contemporary human needs something of the kind in her/his living space. Indeed, I think that this need is a source of social creativity and that architecture should support it.
This shift has been felt in the kitchen design in the past thirty years: First, the so-called eat-in kitchen grew into quite a big, but still separate room, and then the kitchen was integrated into the greater living room. However – and now we’re back at the beginning – the kitchen is in most cases still the same recognisable machine: floor cabinets, a unified worktop with the integrated stove and sink, wall cabinets. Even when one goes for high counters, bars, islands…, even when the styling is juicy and sexy, the kitchen is still largely perceived and designed as an “object” inserted into space, rather than a space (of communication) in its own right. The kitchen is still wall-length plus the number and disposition of required elements, plus colour and pretty handles or, if one has more money, hydraulic fittings and kerrock. But there is really no need for that any more. Why don’t we kick the old image out and look at what we really want the kitchen to be made of.
If we want it to be made of table-centred communication, then we need a well-designed space (in terms of proportions, shape, light, materials, view, position in the larger whole…) with a large enough and well-placed table that is also long-lasting, durable and can be used for dining, common onion and garlic dicing, playing cards, house-board meetings and, if it’s mobile and/or collapsible, for the summer breakfast on the terrace. One table! Instead of a worktop, nightcap bar, breakfast counter and dining table, one table for communion. I believe that this simplification doesn’t mean impoverishment, but rather an enrichment of life, especially because each such table in an old village house, from Zaprešić to Japan, has its own “genius tabulae”, a spirit acquired by long-term use and perception. In addition to the table, in the same space we need a source of water (for example, a basin and a tap – I’m deliberately avoiding calling them “sink” lest I evoke the usual image of a sink), a source of heat (e.g. a stove) and a storage (e.g. a built-in cupboard) for pots, utensils, some cooled food and spices, along with anything else, as it is no longer the usual top or bottom counters, but rather one of the elegant ways of handling the plethora of objects that are present in our everyday life.
The visions of the table, the storage and the sources of water and heat can continue to be as diverse as possible, even at this very moment in my thoughts. But the point is that these are elements of kitchen as SPACE, not an object; i.e. elements of kitchen as COMMUNICATION, not stylised utilitarianism. When things are put like that, the mental image is free at last, while the kitchen lost its last link with the notion of a servant, and the apartment came a step closer to being a home. Styling? Don’t worry: It can still be sexy.