When I was young I was tiny. A visit to the doctor aged 12 did nothing for my confidence when he predicted I’d grow to be in the smallest one per cent of the male population. His words were nonsense but I didn’t reach the sanctity of 175cms until I was 20.
This late development and the fact that I grew up on a small, cold island off the northwest coast of Scotland, is what I attribute to my love of small rooms. Small meant warm. I felt a little more in proportion, less likely to be ignored or trodden on than in the giant, echoey, cold halls of school.
Time once was when rooms in houses were divided into small spaces – each with a prescribed function. It sounds ridiculous. You cooked in the kitchen, ate dinner in the dining room, lived in the living room and so on. The rise of open-plan living after the war was “modern” and progressive, thanks to the dictum of Le Corbusier. It was healthy to let air circulate. And partition walls went the way of the dodo – the enemy of the architect, the preserve of the uncultured. Open-plan living was aspirational.
In the 1980s you were nobody if you couldn’t cook, entertain, run a bath and lie in bed all in the same room. A cavernous converted warehouse apartment with exposed brick was the stuff of dreams – endless, uninterrupted space to live and party in.
In the small pockets of the world where aspirational anxiety and bad developers are yet to sow their seeds, houses are still built with function and common sense as driving concerns. Rooms are still divided and residents have no problem separating the areas where they cook from those where they eat, let alone where they wash from where they sleep. The myth that small spaces are claustrophobic should be dispelled.
While on the island of Fogo off the Newfoundland coast (see the May issue of Monocle, page 219) the islanders opened the doors of their cartoon-like wooden houses to reveal small, cosy rooms in abundance. It took a while to get used to the scale; these fishermen are not small themselves. They bend down to get through doorways and barely need to raise an arm to touch the ceiling. Changing light bulbs is very easy. But it all makes perfect sense – they retain heat in the harsh winter and in the warm summers, doors and windows open to let air circulate. Though they seemed tiny from the outside, the warren-like arrangement of rooms belied the number of people they could comfortably accommodate and not once did it feel hugger-mugger to the point of claustrophobia.
We’re constantly reminded that more of us are living alone in singledom than ever before. Could it be that the lofty open-plan living we’re so accustomed to, where couples live in the same single space, is in fact stifling us to distraction and divorce?
“Needing space” in a relationship is a little misleading – it should be reworded to “needing spaces”. Small spaces aren’t just comforting for small people, I now realise. They are comforting full-stop.
Hugo Macdonald is design editor for Monocle.