How We Live Now
The apartment in which I grew up, which encompassed a full floor in a venerable Park Avenue co-op, had three master bathrooms. Each of them opened into two bedrooms, but none had outside access. For most of my childhood there were seven of us living there: four kids, two parents, and a nanny. I shared a bathroom with whomever: now one brother, now another, now my stepfather, now the dinner guests who came tromping through my bedroom to use the facilities since there was no powder room. My mother shared with my father, then the nanny. No one had his or her own bathroom, and no one considered that a form of child abuse! What we did have was a grand foyer, four or five big bedrooms, a service hall capacious enough for basketball, and enormous entertaining rooms with elaborate moldings and 12’ ceilings.
As I go from new condo to new condo in my work, I am struck over and over by how space allocation has changed during the past 50 years. Today’s condo may or may not have a grand foyer, but it certainly has at least as many bathrooms as bedrooms and usually several more. The master bathroom is reliably enormous, as are the master bedroom closets, frequently at the expense of the secondary bedrooms, which often seem to me to be no bigger than the master bath! Apparently kids or guests don’t need a whole lot of space as long as Mom and Dad can bathe or shower surrounded by a luxurious expanse of marble with some fancy Italian name. But the kids do each get a bath of their own, replete with fixtures bearing fancy German names. And the kitchens – although one still sees plenty of galley or open kitchens (I am not a particular fan of either, but I like rooms) they too always carry the top brand names. What new condo does not have a SubZero fridge, a Viking range, and lacquered cabinets which seem to magically open on invisible hinges when you so much as look at them? Sometimes it seems as if the brand name fixtures and finishes matter more than the apartment itself.
The popularity of Robert A.M. Stern (who seems to be today’s go-to architect for new apartments) reflects his deep understanding of aspirational floor plans. Most of his work respects the conventions of the great pre-war apartments while updating them for modern urban life. He understands that an all-glass façade simply means no privacy for an urban dweller. He understands that the foyer is not, in fact, wasted space but an entry that sets the tone for the entire apartment. He, like me, prefers rooms to wide open spaces. He essentially designs traditional apartments with modern amenities. His bathrooms are big, but they don’t exceed the size of the secondary bedrooms. Many have libraries or TV rooms or family rooms. His bigger units have dining rooms – and as it turns out, they are NOT obsolete, no matter what you may have heard. Buyers love having dining rooms for the holidays and tend to use them as multi-purpose spaces with offices or TV rooms the rest of the time. These apartments tend to merge the best of new and old design.
Over the course of my career I have watched the evolution of space deployment in the New York apartment market. The pre-wars, with their grand entertaining spaces and small bathrooms and often cramped kitchens, and which, to my mother’s generation of old New Yorkers, were the only sort of apartment to inhabit. The more “efficient” apartments of the 60’s and 70’s with their lack of foyers, their galley kitchens and low ceilings. The loft years – industrial, with the fewer partitions the better. And now, in recent decades, the gradual return to the high ceilings and spacious layouts of 90 years earlier, increasingly complete with every technological convenience and marble, marble, marble. Each decade brings its own rejection of and embrace of ideas from the past. And we never know what is around the corner.