Sitting around in a circle and chatting has been a staple of human culture for millennia. Multiple cultures have historically incorporated designated spaces for gathering and discussion into their architecture, from China, where the kang was a raised heated platform meant for communal activities and sleeping, to the Spanish concept of the estrado, or dais.
The conversation pit, which gained popularity in the 1900s, is the modern interpretation of this. The trend gained a great deal of popularity in the past, before declining. In recent times, however, the idea is once again gaining popularity, for good reason.
Conversation pits are depressed sections of a room that is intended to create a more private setting due to the change in level, without the use of obstructions like walls. Tables and soft furnishings would often be built into this space to allow for more intimate gathering and comfort.
The concept was originally intended as a feature of living rooms in homes, but has also been incorporated into other architectural typologies at varying scales, such as Saarinen’s conversation pit at the TWA Flight Centre. These spaces allow for a sense of informality in otherwise large spaces.
How It Started
In 1952, J. Irwin Miller commissioned architect Eero Saarinen to design the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana. Saarinen worked with Alexander Girard to design a conversation pit that would function as the focal point of the house. The conversation pit had a short staircase that led down into a recessed floor with a continuous sofa outlining the space.
Richly patterned textiles that were designed specifically for the project allowed for an eye-catching effect. The house acted as a catalyst for the spread of the trend, and until around the 1970s, conversation pits for more intimate conversations became a staple of living room design. The Miller House is still a timeless inspiration today.
As the living room slowly moved from a space designed for gathering and conversation into a more formal, media-friendly space with the increasing popularity of the television, the appeal of a lower area designed for face-to-face communication began to decline. The ever-present issues with having level changes in a space, such as the risk of tripping, also helped facilitate this decline.
The changing times also meant that during large gatherings that were becoming the norm, the conversation pit began to become a hindrance. People within the pit had to deal with decreased views, and people above the pit had to worry about falling in. Many homeowners, therefore, opted to cover and level their living rooms to remove the conversation pit, and it eventually became an outdated concept.
The Pits of Reinvention
The conversation pit underwent many different makeovers over time, as its original purpose began to become obsolete. The pit was originally viewed as a symbol of sophistication and “coolness”, which was reinforced by media exposure, which showcased many conversation pits in relation to the rich, thereby linking the two.
As the trend began to decline, however, the pit increasingly became more informal and whimsical in an attempt to reinvent the concept. This progression was in line with the change in the concept of family, and how spaces were used in houses. Living rooms moved from more intimate spaces to the most public areas of a house.
While the original was intended to separate a section of the entire room to another more communal level, many chose to instead sink their entire living room area. This allowed for a larger area of space at a uniform level, allowed for more versatility of the space, and mitigated the risk of tripping. However, it also meant that the more intimate nature of the space was lost.
In some cases, the conversation pit was reinvented into more informal areas of public spaces, such as in the aforementioned TWA Flight Centre. This was, however, later covered up as the idea of different levels became outdated. It has since been restored, as the trend has started to once again gain popularity.
How It’s Going
Interestingly, the trend of conversation pits is now making a comeback, possibly due to the same reason it declined. Conversation pits originally faded to give way to the television-friendly layout of the living room that rose to prominence. As technology has progressed to allow for greater versatility in how televisions can work, living room layouts are now once again being reimagined into spaces for small, intimate gatherings for family and close friends.
These new preferences, mixed with the modern trend of open spaces with minimal walls, created the perfect environment for the rise of the conversation pit once again.
Today, the conversation pit is being increasingly used, and not just as a recess in the living room. With the advent of modular furniture, an equivalent to the conversation pit can be created with furniture without requiring a pre-created level change. Architects are also further exploring the change in spaces caused by changes in levels, aided by varied material and color palettes to add a more modern spin on the idea.
Is the Trend Worth It?
Yes. For now, anyway.
As collaboration and communication become increasingly significant, and face-to-face communication becomes more precious, the conversation pit and its variants provide spaces to relax and rewind, both individually and as with the people you love. After all, the idea of diving into a soft, cushion-covered space seems fun.
Perhaps as times and priorities change the concept will once again fade away, but for now, the concept is celebrated as a fresh idea in design.