During a recent trip to Shanghai, walking through an open site of a high rise development, I was both confronted and confounded by a client’s question regarding the ‘modern’ plan layout. The client could simply not comprehend why anyone would want their kitchen visible to the rest of the living spaces, let alone naked to the eyes of discerning guests. Why showcase the grime, grease and toil? Of course, the environment for consuming food was of critical importance, but the ghastly preparation needed to be concealed at all cost. Such was the Chinese way.
Though whispers of societal change are certainly afoot, I do sense that the open kitchen ideal still remains an enigma in much of the East. The kitchen has always embodied nourishment and prosperity in both the physical and mythical, yet it was all but considered a functional composition within the home. Aesthetics were never set on this particular agenda, it was perhaps more profound than that. History reiterates this notion across the East, where shrines were typically mounted above stoves, a nod to the polytheistic paths that gave a single deity control over the enclosed hearth of the kitchen, the soul of the home.
Indeed, many subscribe to the class system perspective where servants were, and still are, part of the social make-up of the cooking process. Yet this does not address the fact that the lower classes had their cooking zones located in their courtyards, sub-buildings and entry halls. So what has changed? As with the West, the modern kitchen of the East is a more cleansed environment, freed from the olfactory oppression of yesteryear. Refrigeration, running water and ventilation have inevitably brought the kitchen alongside the living room. There lies now but a single, dividing, illusionary wall.
Technological advances aside, we must also remember that the perception of the Western kitchen changed forever when we were reminded that cooking was both a highly creative and social act, not merely a means to an end. This revolutionary understanding was adapted to all walks of life, not only confined to the whims of the upper classes. Ultimately, the integration of the kitchen into the living room represented a massive pivotal shift. It was and is inextricably linked to the social, innate binding of a family fabric that lies outside of the ethos of workplace.
So is the expanding middle class mindset of the East now perched at this tipping point? Or has the glossy photo spread of a Western lifestyle been thrust upon all as we all grapple with globalization? Perhaps this whole narrative has nothing to do with orientation, but in actuality, a natural evolution of the kitchen and its destined relationship to the family core. Indeed, as the formality of the dining room withered away in the West many years ago, perhaps it is now time for the cloaked kitchen of the East to be celebrated and reclaim its rightful open place in the center of the home.