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Endangered spaces

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WE all know that the history of architecture reflects changing attitudes, values, and life styles. Nowhere is this more immediately apparent than in the design of houses. For example, as the function of a room changes over time, so does its importance, to the extent that it may become dominant, like the eat-in kitchen, or disappear completely in deference to rooms that have greater priority. Recently, the playwright A. R. Gurney documented the demise of the dining room in his pungent and often poignant social comedy by that title, and journalist and novelist Nora Ephron chronicled in a satiric essay the moribund status of the living room.

Like period rooms in a museum, today's living rooms and dining rooms seem cordoned off by an invisible rope that reminds members of the household to keep out and not touch. Their only function, insofar as these rooms continue to exist at all, is to accommodate occasional guests and provide a show-case for the family's ``best'' furniture, frangibles, and collectibles. Having fallen into desuetude, many of these rooms project an effete and slightly ridiculous atmosphere. We honor them -- like a waning aristocracy -- for their past glory but no longer know quite what to do with them.

Their decline is largely attributable to the increasing hegemony of the family room, which epitomizes the informal, democratic life style of the American family. Easily the most popular room in the house and the one most populated by parents, children, and even pets, the family room ideally abuts the kitchen, and together they form the domestic epicenter of the household. They contain all the appliances and technology deemed necessary for the maintenance and entertainment of human and animal life in the 20th century -- from the refrigerator to the VCR. They also serve a practical purpose for today's busy two-career family by isolating activity in one end of the house and thereby confining the chaos.


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