Alice Constance Austin Designed Houses Without Kitchens in 1917

An underground electric railway delivered food from central kitchens to each house.

Houses with underground railway
Houses with underground railway.

 Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

In many posts about kitchen design, I have tried to answer the question: Why do kitchens look the way they do? I noted that it is more than just about cooking.

"Kitchen design, like every other kind of design, is not just about how things look; it is political. It is social. In kitchen design, it is all about the role of women in society. You can't look at kitchen design without looking at sexual politics."

Readers were not impressed, with my favorite comment being "I have never before read such a load of smelly hogwash. Jesus, you can make a sexual politics issue out of the color of air. Go get drunk and get laid, you need to relax."

That commenter should read Meg Conley's wonderful article "By Design," where she describes how "White communists, socialists, feminists, and capitalists tried to engineer society using kitchen design."

The article covers the brilliant women we have discussed on Treehugger, including Christine Frederick, who wanted to make life easier and more efficient for women to run the kitchen, the way Frederick Winslow Taylor made it easier for men to shovel coal. Then there was Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and the Frankfurt kitchen, designed to get women out of the kitchen quickly and efficiently so that they could do more worthwhile things. The point was always to make cooking less work for women. I have noted that the ultimate goal is to make it disappear as the sewing room did, writing in "Is the end of the kitchen nigh?"

"Let’s get real; half of North America can’t even be bothered to make a cup of coffee, preferring to outsource it to their Keurig. The home delivery industry is booming. According to UBS, most of our food will be prepared in large robotic kitchens and delivered by drones and droids. So why would anyone need a kitchen at home, any more than they need a sewing machine?"
Alice Constance Austin with her design for Llano Del Rio

 Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Conley introduces us to another designer who I had never heard of before: Alice Constance Austin, an architect who designed a socialist commune without kitchens in the homes. Who needs Uber or DoorDash or drones when you have underground tunnels with automated railways? Conley points to an article in Pioneering Women of American Architecture by Dolores Hayden of Yale University with greater detail on Austin, who lived from 1862 to 1955.

Radial socialist city

Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Between 1915 and 1917 she designed "an ideal socialist city."

"Drawing on the communitarian socialist tradition in the United States, the Garden City movement in England, and the feminist consciousness of her time, she proposed a city of kitchenless houses. She believed that dwellings without kitchens would free women from the drudgery of unpaid domestic work and that the substantial economies achieved in residential construction of this kind would permit the development of extensive public facilities, including community kitchens and kindergartens."
courtyard house
Courtyard House.

 Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

This city, Llano del Rio, was to be built near Los Angeles; Austin criticized the “suburban residence street where a Moorish palace elbows a pseudo-French castle, which frowns upon a Swiss chalet,” so she proposed simple courtyard houses with the bedrooms on one side, the living space on the other, and with no hint of a kitchen.

"Austin’s designs emphasized economy of labor, materials, and space. She criticized the waste of time, strength, and money, which traditional houses with kitchens required, and the “hatefully monotonous” drudgery of preparing 1,095 meals a year and cleaning up after each one. In her plans, hot meals in special containers would arrive from the central kitchens to be eaten on the dining patio; dirty dishes would then be returned to the central kitchens. In the other areas of the house, she provided built-in furniture and rollaway beds to eliminate dusting and sweeping in difficult spots, heated tile floors to replace dusty carpets, and windows with decorated frames to do away with what she called that “household scourge,” the curtain."
Axonomentric of house

 Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

The kitchenless house was connected to a central kitchen through an underground rail network which brought food and laundry to underground connection points or hubs, where they would be transferred to small electric cars that were dispatched to the basement of each house. All the services, like gas, electricity, and telephone, were distributed through these tunnels as well.

She was off by a hundred years with some of her ideas, predating Amazon with her plans for home delivery of goods and products through these tunnels. "She believed that eliminating all business traffic from the center would produce a more restful city. Residents could access the center on foot. Public delivery systems could handle all their needs, and goods coming to the city could arrive by air at a centrally located air-freight landing pad."

The idea that cooking and doing laundry are drudgery and that unpaid work by housewives should disappear did not go away; many socialist utopian projects in Russia and later in kibbutzim in Israel tried it. Today, many people have outsourced their cooking to the prepared food bought in supermarkets and delivery services to the point where I have noted that "for most people, the kitchen is a reheating station and a waste management station for all the take-out containers. Occasionally it becomes an entertainment station for the cooking as hobby types." That's why I have written that the future of the kitchen may be no kitchen at all.

Alice Constance Austin never got to build her socialist city full of houses without kitchens, but there is much to learn from her plans and concepts. There is much to learn from Conley too and her great site Home Culture.