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A residential scholar is in the house
Geography's Paul Groth explores the many ways in which Americans inhabit their homes

| 21 August 2008


At the Thorsen House (today the Sigma Phi fraternity house), completed in 1910 and located at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and Bancroft Way, Paul Groth shows students how the “food axis” of the American house changed between 1900 and 1980 by pointing out the service stairs and service hallways, and explains how the kitchen and pantries related to the home’s elegant living room, dining room, and garden.

In last spring’s freshman seminar Geographies of the American Home, Paul Groth asked students just out of the family nest to ponder the nation’s domiciles. Groth, a professor of architecture, geography, and American studies who examines the history of built environments, aims to expand his students’ notions of home and class by exposing them to a variety of domestic dwellings.

Groth is as interested in the social meaning of home as in the architecture of individual structures. His focus, “cultural landscape studies,” includes the region in which a structure is situated along with how people use their homes to express social relations and develop cultural meaning. “Geography of home means any spatial aspect of home,” he explains — from rooms and buildings and yards to blocks and the district of the city.

“I’m very interested in social stratification and the role that housing plays in that by reinforcing and revealing class,” says Groth. “We act out our social positions individually, and home is often the place we do that.”

Groth showed his students contrasts and exceptions to the single-family suburban house, such as blue-collar rooming houses and workers’ cottages as well as downtown lofts and high-style residences in the Berkeley hills. Seeing such a range helps them understand that social stratification has long been a factor in the lives of Americans, says Groth: “Most Americans think they are middle-class, and that everyone else is middle-class as well. What they forget is that there are a lot of people with no-car garages who rely on the bus to get to work.”

To bring home the message that all suburbs are not created equal, at the outset of the seminar the students read about Lakewood, a blue-collar suburb of Los Angeles built in the 1950s, in D.J. Waldie’s 2005 memoir Holy Land. Waldie punctures the notion that all suburbs are constructed for the middle class — Lakewood’s houses were built too small for that to be true.

The author’s family was among the area’s first homeowners, and Waldie still lives in the house in which he was raised. Groth began with Waldie’s book because “it looks at home in so many ways — the water sources, the geography, the area’s farming history, and the developers who put the place together after World War II.” Before Lakewood became a 17,000-house, blue-collar development, it was simply an expanse of fields. “The last crop is a crop of houses,” notes Groth.

Home schooling

Waldie wrote his book about a time when people measured their success against that of their neighbors. However, many Americans today no longer are trying to keep up with the Joneses — they’ve set the bar much higher, ratcheting up their consumption level to keep pace with someone earning many times their income. That barometer might be a boss or even a successful TV character, says Groth.

Nowhere is our consumption more conspicuous than in the expansion of our homes. Their size nearly doubled between 1950 and 1970, and increased by half again since 1970, says Groth. In the middle of the 20th century, a three-bedroom house averaged 1,200 square feet. By 1970, the 2,000-square-foot home was the norm. Today, the typical American family of four to five people occupies a 2,500- to 3,000-square-foot home.

What accounts for the supersizing of U.S. homes? “A lot of cultural critics say the inflation of house size is about insecurity around social position,” says Groth. One way that consumers cope with anxiety about social status is by buying more and more things, he says. “For a lot of people, their identity is tied up in the kind of house they have, and so they overspend. They over-invest in their home because they think it says who they are.”

Materialism alone may not be the only reason houses have gotten bigger, says Groth. A lot of women went back to work in part to pay for a better (read: bigger) house for their families, and to enable each child to have his or her own bedroom.

Not only has the size of American houses changed: The way we live in them is different. Although many Americans view home as a retreat or a place to relax, more and more people work from home or telecommute a day or two a week. Such a change is one indication that “the line between home and work is blurring,” says Groth. To have a dedicated home office in the mid-1950s was relatively unusual, he says. In larger homes in today’s new suburban developments, though, there’s often an office for the parents and a shared workspace for the kids. “There’s more space in the home dedicated to work than there was 20 years ago,” he says.

Expansive living has its limits. In California’s Central Valley, fields are being converted to make room for housing developments. Such expansion is not sustainable, observes Groth, simply “because we won’t have any farmland left.”

Part of the problem is that “we’ve overbuilt houses for the middle class.” Typical new suburban houses, situated on substantial plots, are too large and expensive, and too far from mass transit. “The automobile suburbs as we’ve built them are unsustainable for the long term,” says Groth, “and we’ve known that for 30 years. I think we’re going to find creative ways to make the suburbs work by splitting large houses in half and making duplexes out of them.”

Groth teaches a graduate seminar in architecture titled Small Homes of the 20th Century, in which he reminds tomorrow’s designers that bigger is not always desirable. By way of example, he mentions that in the 1920s the Germans developed an architectural approach called the existence minimum, asking themselves, “How small could a house be and still be fully functioning?” Kitchens, for instance, were downsized into what Americans would call a kitchenette.

Unlike Europeans, whose homes are built to last and who pass their houses on from one generation to the next, Americans assume they’re going to move up and out, says Groth. “That’s a very different way of thinking about home. Americans have a different home culture than other parts of the world do — even other industrial economies.”