House Rule 4 – Pursue a One-Room Ideal
A cutaway drawing of the Temple of Diana Propylaea at Eleusis illustrates Auguste Choisy’s 1899 Histoire de L’Architecture. From tepees to temples to iconic mid-century glass houses, one-room buildings derive a primitive power from their simple integration of interior and exterior.
Frank Gehry’s Winton Guest House of 1983-86 is a maximalist response to the call of the one-room building, with each of its several rooms a building unto itself. Gehry said of his work from the period, ”I thought that by minimizing the issue of function, by creating one-room buildings, we could resolve the most difficult problems in architecture. Think of the power of one-room buildings and the fact that historically, the best buildings ever built are one-room buildings.” Gehry’s approach exceeds the budget of the typical American family, but his appreciation of one-room power is universally applicable. For those who would tap into it, there are minimalist prototypes that suggest how to put multiple functions into what feels like a one-room house.
The plan of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House of 1945-51 is shown above that of Philip Johnson’s Glass House of 1945-49. Johnson said: “The idea of a glass house comes from Mies van der Rohe. Mies had mentioned to me as early as 1945 how easy it would be to to build a house entirely of large sheets of glass. . . . I pointed out to him that it was impossible because you had to have rooms, and that meant solid walls up against the glass, which ruined the whole point; Mies said, ‘I think it can be done’.” Mies’s solution was to eliminate partitions and create a one-room house. In doing so, he didn’t just find a way to make a pristine enclosure, but satisfied an inherited human impulse. Arthur Drexler referred to this when he wrote that “Mies’ most original buildings are one-story structures, and the greatest of these consist of one room. In this sense Mies has designed nothing but temples, which is to say that he has revealed the irrational mainspring of our technological culture.” It’s no wonder that when Philip Johnson followed Mies’s lead, he found the requisite unpartitioned interior “less a defect than a boon,” according to his biographer, Franz Schulze. Both houses in fact have more than one room, but disguise service spaces as freestanding objects. The success of this strategy proves that there are effective ways to give a house of multiple spaces the sense of one room.
A floor plan of Comlongon Castle, a 15th century Scottish tower house, shows subsidiary rooms and a stair contained within the thick walls of a single central room. The main room is so dominant, clearly defined and undisturbed by its surrounding support spaces that the castle retains the sense of a one room building. Louis I. Kahn saw in it a way to provide services without compromising the integrity of primary spaces. He wrote: “The Scottish Castle. Thick, thick walls. Little openings to the enemy. Splayed inwardly to the occupant. A place to read, a place to sew. . . . Places for the bed, for the stair. . . . Sunlight. Fairy tale.” This inspiration is most literally applied in the thickened wall that contains services in his Esherick House, illustrated in Rule 3.
An early version floor plan of Kahn’s 1957-61 Richards Medical Center at the University of Pennsylvania shows three square laboratory spaces clustered around a central service core. Like the central room at Comlongon Castle, each laboratory is a pure shape surrounded by support functions - stair, ventilation shaft and columns - clearly illustrating Kahn’s idea of an architecture of served and servant spaces. As at the castle, these would be stacked into towers.
A sketch of Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1959 “Retirement House” project for Alison’s parents owes a clear debt to the Richards Medical Research building by Kahn. Here the surrounding “servant” appendages are bathroom, kitchen and storage and the central “served” space is a one-room house.
A more developed plan of the Smithson’s Retirement House turns the earlier version inside out, bringing Kahn’s servant spaces indoors as multiple offspring of the Farnsworth House core. These are held away from the exterior walls, even though a glass perimeter isn’t at issue here. The inviolate perimeter does, however, create much the same one-room effect as the Farnsworth House, with a simple shell enclosing a single flowing space. A sense of freedom and endlessness is produced by the absence of dead ends or space-trapping corners; even the necessary inside angles of the outer box are each glazed on one side, suggesting continuation of interior space to the exterior, and flooding what would otherwise be dark corners with light. The loose arrangement of the service cores creates separate areas for different functions which flow into each other, rather than the usual bento box of contained rooms.
Benthem Crouwel’s Benthem House is a high-tech, lightweight update on the one-room house. Its services occupy a thickened wall in the manner of Kahn. The strip