This question popped into my head a few weeks ago for a couple reasons– the upcoming holidays and tradition of Santa Claus, and the current trends in multi-family housing design.
Coming into the holiday season, we always find some true believers, like my daughter, who contemplate the reality of Santa Claus. How does he know what everyone wants? How does he get to all the kids around the world in one night? A supersonic sleigh with ludicrous mode! The global concerns like these fade as Christmas Day gets closer and my daughter’s thoughts turn to more practical things like how Santa gets down the chimney. What happens if we have a fire in the fireplace? Why does he go back up the chimney when he could just walk out the door? It is so much fun being parent and tackling these questions.
Last week I read an article about a dad who had to concoct an elaborate ruse for his daughter who was getting a bike for Christmas. In the days leading up to Christmas she asked how Santa would get the bike down the chimney since she knew it wouldn’t fit. Dad put the bicycle out by the woodpile, and in the morning when they went out to get wood for the Christmas Day fire – there it was in all its shining glory. Dad told his daughter that Santa must have left it there during his rush to get to all the houses. The legend was safe for another year. But what does a parent say if you have a house without a chimney? Time for new version of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”
And then, in a twinkling, I heard in the driveway,
Absolute silence from his new electric sleigh,
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
The doorbell told my iPhone St. Nicholas was here with a sound
He was dressed all in fleece, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were not tarnished at all with ashes and soot;
Of the bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And what was that Amazon Smile on his pack?…………..
(with all due respect to Clement Clarke Moore)
Most current multi-family housing projects we are working on do not include chimneys in their programs for various reasons. This element of our domestic architectural heritage has almost disappeared from current multi-family design. The reasons are many—the idea of a hearth being replaced by the technology of a flat screen TV, shrinking residential unit sizes, and more efficient building mechanical systems and building codes. And even though there is a growing trend towards urban living today, older urban buildings like the Dakota Apartments, built in 1884 on Central Park, utilized chimney elements that convey domestic character in a large multi-unit building that remains one of the most prestigious addresses in New York.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NY-5467
In looking at our own housing work illustrated in the blog last year, much of it suburban in character, I was struck by the dominance of the chimney form, the vertical counterpoint to the horizontal compositions that made up many of the projects like Shadow Farm, Ledgebrook, Chestnut Grove, and the Village Green in Stowe. This is a powerful domestic image that communicates instantly to our psyche about heath, warmth, community, village life, and idyllic compositions. It spoke to us in a way that the new five-over-one multi-family buildings do not.
Another interesting trend in recent years is that we are hearing more and more in public meetings during permitting that a particular building does not look residential. These lay responses always make me wonder if people’s perception of a house includes only elements from a kid’s sketch of a house. These are fundamental patterns ingrained in us since childhood. We all recognize them; one of the recurring elements is the chimney, often with smoke coming out. Other elements include a gabled roof, a window and sometimes a family.
A kid’s house sketch
So how do we think the narrative of the Santa Claus story changes for those kids living in houses without chimneys? Do we give Santa access through our smart lock? Far fewer people are willing to leave their doors unlocked in today’s world. How will the kids of the next generation process the story? Will my twist on Moore’s poem integrate tradition with the truth of today?
And what will become of our domestic architecture without traditional cues? Will it be only the rich who can afford the inefficient fireplace and all it entails? Will we, as victims of technological advances and tighter houses, eventually find that our primal longing for the comforts of fire will be lost?. The backyard fire pit trend suggests that this basic desire has not faded away yet. Or will the video fire on the flat screen, with crackling soundtrack, take the place of the majestic masonry chimney that anchors our house to the land?
Some future generation of kids will be the first draw houses without chimneys and a curly cue of smoke, and I think something will be lost in both our folklore and our architecture.