Can narrative expressions in mass media help us understand contemporary social behaviour in domestic spaces? Gustavo Maldonado, a student in my Architectural Phenomena module at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL (2019-20) raised this question for his final essay in the module. He began by explaining that from ancient stone drawings to current TV-shows, humans have used narrative to represent fundamental social relationships. Gustavo’s starting point was the seminal essay of architectural critic Robin Evans ‘Figures, Doors and Passages’ (1978), who argued that house plans and narrative expressions in paintings and literature can provide substantial evidence regarding what type of inhabited space society considers as ‘ordinary’.
However, as Gustavo observed, painting is no longer the most common narrative expression of ordinary ways of living. Since mass media shows began streaming popular culture to a great range of audiences far in space and time, they critically changed the definition of art and culture. By 2017, TV shows had reached more than one and half billion households worldwide (Digital TV Research, 2018). A range of sit-coms such as Friends, Will and Grace, Fraser, Sex and the City have projected and shaped ideas about contemporary modes of living through the representation of domestic settings. What an analysis of the floor plans of the spatial settings of these shows can reveal about values and norms of behaviour? In order to answer this question Gustavo explored the home floor plan of The Simpsons, one of the most popular animated sit-coms created by Matt Groening and the Fox Broadcasting company. The show was released in 1989 and is the longest-running series in American TV with more than 600 episodes. The Simpsons’ house has appeared in every single episode and is integral part of the ways in which the sit-com satirises American life, culture and society.
What do the house and the family interactions inside it reveal about the life-style of the average American family in its domestic setting?
The Spanish artist Iñaki Lizarralde has produced the floor plan illustrations of the Simpson’ house (including those of the domestic settings in other sit-coms), which Gustavo used in his analysis. The plans show that the house has two storeys with the communal spaces and the garage located on the ground floor, and the bedrooms and private rooms situated on the upper level.
Evans explains that by the 20th century the principles that led the day-to-day production of contemporary housing had changed drastically from the matrix of interconnected rooms observed in the Italian villas of the 16th century. For Gustavo, Evans’ analysis is illuminating but a simple observation of the floor plan has its obvious limitations. By representing spatial arrangements of buildings, from modern, anthropological, archaeological and historical sources, by the means of graphs, Bill Hillier, Julienne Hanson and their colleagues at UCL have been studying the spatial configuration of homes and different building types over 40 years. For the researchers, systematic patterns across a wide sample of houses rooted in a similar context, such as vernacular farmhouses in Normandy, can reveal how culture enters spatial configuration reproducing itself through spatial relationships. Gustavo drew the graphs of 742 Evergreen Terrace showing in this way that the house encapsulates some of the standard ideals and relationships in mass produced domestic spaces as they evolved in the last 100 years. The Simpsons’ house has two entrances, the main entrance leading to the entrance lobby (hall), and one through the garage, allowing access to the kitchen without going through the hall. The garage holds a key position at the front of the house, facilitating not only access to the interior, but also the American Dream, the suburban family home that changed the entire American landscape and the social structure of cities, thus making this dream possible.
All communal spaces have more than one door, a feature that contradicts Evans’ observation that rooms in the 20th century house of ‘functional living’ had but one door. This feature results in a ring of circulation, linking the hall, the living room, the TV-room, the kitchen, and the dining room together. This circuitous pattern of connections shows that the areas of everyday life blend with each other and with the places where the family receives its guests. Smells from the kitchen and sounds from the TV room are not isolated or controlled but part of the same permeable space accessible to all. This is confirmed by the visual integration analysis. Representing graph relations of visual inter-connectivity of each location to all other locations in the plan through colours, this analysis shows that the main living room, where visitors are usually entertained, is the most integrated space in the house.
But it is important to remember that The Simpsons is a fictional family living in a fictional home in a sit-com. A key observation Gustavo made concerns the TV and the TV room in the house. While life flows in between all communal rooms, it is the TV-living room that mostly appears in all episodes as the epicentre of family life. The analysis shows that the TV-living room with the famous red sofa facing it is indeed the most visually connected room and the second most integrated room in the house. Considering that the same TV is sometimes shown in the front living room, it turns out that the TV space and the television set are central not only in terms of how Simpsons’ life is broadcasted in the series, but also in relation to how the rooms are joined, and the house is configured.
So watching The Simpsons we watch the family watching TV. As the camera pans from room to room and family activities take stage, we may begin to notice that we are also sitting in our sofas with our family, kids, pets, visitors or friends watching the Simpsons family absorbed by their own TV. We are thus, implicated in the social relations between the spaces, the objects, the institutions, the narratives, the people in the show and an ever expanding network of broadcasted spatial and social relations embedded in what the Simpsons are watching. Social institutions – the family – and built forms – houses and buildings in general – are produced and reproduced through occupation and use at home, at work and other places in the city, as well as through contemporary spectacles in physical or broadcasted space. Perhaps we should all check what the position of the sofa and the TV set in our houses say about our own preferences, family, life-style and place in contemporary culture.
As the pandemic has nailed us at home in front of our computers, we should also ask what place does work have in our life at home, what our workstation, work space and the space others see behind us on the screen reveal about our newly formed, hybrid, half domestic half professional identities.
Gustavo’s interest in mediated space is currently extended in his MSc thesis, where he is researching how public spaces in London’s Knowledge Quarter feature in social media platforms such as Instagram.
Gustavo’s contact and work links:
Featured image credits: http://Simpsons in couch https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en
Aliste Lizarralde, I., 2013. The Simpsons house floor plans. [Art]. https://inakialistelizarralde.tumblr.com/post/42420581819/these-are-the-floorplans-of-the-simpson
Digital TV Research, 2018. Number of TV households worldwide from 2010 to 2023 (in billions), Statista: Statista Inc.
Evans, R., 1978. Figures, Doors and Passages. In: Translations from Drawings to Building and Other Essays. London: Architectural Association Publications, pp. 55-91.
Hillier, B., 2007. Space is the Machine. London: Space Syntax e-edition.
Hillier, B., Hanson, J., 1984, The Social Logic of Space, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Hillier, B., Hanson, J. & Graham, H., 1987. Ideas are in things: an application of the space syntax method to discovering house genotypes. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, Volume 14, pp. 363-385.
Martín, A., 2017. Homer Simpson. [Art] (20th Century Fox).
Pixabay, n.d. Emotion blank thought dialog. [Art].
Scanian, S. & Feinberg, S., 2000. The Cartoon Society: Using “The Simpsons” to Teach and Learn Sociology. Teaching Sociology, Volume 28, pp. 127-139.