The hall was once all there was. The hall-house of medieval England was a roof, open to the rafters, over a single barn of a space. It was a place for eating and sleeping, for receiving guests, for cooking, for relaxing and for celebrating.
So how did the hall become reduced to the meagre, dingy, windowless corridor of emasculated modern apartments and housing?
The medieval hall, despite being a single space, had its own internal hierarchy. A microcosmic version of the nave of a church, a big hall featured a raised dais (the equivalent of a sanctuary) rather like a stage, on which the master and his family would dine and possibly even sleep.
Colleges at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, with their “high tables” (a table for the use of fellows and their guests, normally on a raised platform and at the end of the dining hall) retain the memory of this arrangement, as does the idea of a “top table” at a wedding or reception.
The hall gradually atrophied in importance as the “great chamber”, a (slightly) more private bedroom, grew. But it remained the symbol of the householder’s status, the principal public room. As dwellings morphed first into mansions and then into urban houses, the staircase appeared, growing from the floor of the hall like a tree supporting the upper floors.
The arrival of the staircase radically altered the nature of the hall. It became a circulation space, the room of introduction and transition. Intriguingly, the etymology of “hall” (“heall” or “covered place” in old English) is the same as “hell”. The hall, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, is other people.
It is in essence a social space – the internal, domestic equivalent of the town square. The coats, boots and umbrellas and stone or marble floors were a reminder of its nature as a boundary between inside and out. Only a generation ago, a hall table would have been crowned with a telephone, more evidence of its border condition between the worlds of the public and the private.
In the terraced house or the apartment, the hall retains the memory of its former grandeur; there may be a dappling of light from a stained-glass porch window or perhaps from a fanlight above the door. A mirror often adorns the wall, the last vestige of the decoration, which once announced and reflected the act of entrance, while the newel on the balustrade, crowned by a wooden globe, stands like a memory of a footman.
The hall generated its own species of curious furniture: the half-tables and consoles squashed against the wall, the hall stands, benches and trunks that are often placed more to populate this under-used space than to be used. Each contributes to the idea of the hall as a place intended to project character, its own use never explicitly defined.
Apartment buildings contain a more complex layering of symbol and use as the boundaries between public, residents only and explicitly private build up. The New York condominium tower offers an intriguing series of transitions from street to home: the carpet, the canopy, the doorman, a plush lobby visible through glass but not accessible from the street, the elevator, the lobby and only then the hall.
It is a complex choreography of transition, echoed in the London mansion block or the Parisian equivalent. The communal hall, like its relative the lobby, is a functionally useless place, built to impress. Adorned with marble surfaces, sconces and flowers, it bears the anonymous, under-used luxury of a hotel. Yet it also creates that critical first impression, a moment of architectural theatre, setting the scene.
Hermann Muthesius, a German writer whose 1905 book The English House held up British domestic architecture as the finest in the world, noted that the hall represented “one of the most attractive assets of the English house”.
If Muthesius viewed the warmth and memory of the hall as a place of humanity and domestic embrace, the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi painted its opposite in the same year – the cool, existential crisis of emptiness exemplified in “Open Doors”. Here, the hall appears as a place of cold neutrality, empty of people and furniture, eerie, haunting, presaging an age of angst and social isolation.
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