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White Box | House


White Box originated in 1927 as "clean envelope" in a German housing exposition calling for a bare white architecture.


As a dominant spatial component of houses, White Box affects the way residents understand the space they inhabit. The lack of decoration found in White Box is perceived as an ordered space, as well as its whiteness as a luminous enlarged space, and its sameness as a homogenous space or a “one-whole” instead of a composition of floor, ceiling, and walls. As seen, White Box makes the habitant perceive the space differently from reality. According to Jolande Jacobi the archetype is “a profound riddle surpassing our rational comprehension” and according to Ralph Lauren “white in design owns its own world”.1 Moreover, as White Box is experienced, it begins loosing its geometric characteristics until converting itself into a non-ultra space. Clare Cooper reflects, “As space becomes known and experienced, it becomes part of” the person’s “world . . . It is no longer an inert box; it has . . . become a symbol of the self . . . As Bachelor has written, ‘geometry is transcended.’”2

There has been a self-negation of the room to highlight the qualities of the human-self. In White By Design, Bo Niles explains that when he talked with people who inhabited white rooms, “they spoke first and most intensely of trying to achieve individuality . . . They found they could best effect this by dissolving a room of color . . . But the end result was always a white room, expressive of its owner’s unique personality and evocative of mood or attitude rather than of a decorating style.”3

Besides Niles’ observations, entirely white spaces are not always understood as human friendly as they do not allow for personalization. When referring to gallery spaces, Leah Scolere described White Box as “‘conceived solely for the undisturbed presentation of art,’ and untainted by the intrusion of human beings.”Historically, white spaces have received different interpretations according to setting and time. Some of these variants are depicted through out the history of residential White Boxes.

As a precedent of White Box, white spaces in traditional architecture exist. The whiteness of Mediterranean architecture is due to the availability of lime to produce stucco; material that covers entire houses in the Greek Islands, in Sidibou-Zid in Tunisia, and in Andalucía in Spain.5 Similarly occurs in America with wooden architecture, where colonial homes, Cape Cods, and farm houses are painted entirely in white.6 In 1927 with Weissenhofsiedlung, a housing exhibition of Deutsche Werkbund, white was removed from the pitch roof and identified only with the flat roof; an imposed restriction for all exhibited houses that led to the origin of White Box. According to Mark Wigley in White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, white was not about cleaning architecture but returning to the existing architecture previous to the elaborate ornamentation of the 19th century.7 Thereby White Box was a nude spatial composition that undressed from all applied surfaces spoke about the bareness that was left, that is volume and form. In spite of its success to denote volume in early modernism, in mid 20th century the apprehension towards White Box began as people found it difficult to inhabit. Referring to this, Wigley states that the white wall "produces a kind of claustrophobic space because the inhabitant is disoriented within it. Not knowing where you are, and therefore how to get out, becomes the most secure closure of all. The white wall prevents a stable sense of location, a sense of space. It dissolves the forms it is meant to present . . . While everything is visible in the modern building, vision itself is no longer able to operate.”8

What first was seen as a benefit, the sincere expression of volume, then is seen as harm, the inability to distinguish it. As a criticism, in 1946 Fernand Léger referred to white walls as a “dead-end,” in 1950 as a “waiting room,” and in 1952 as being “perfect for a painter”.9 Most certainly, as a painter, Le Corbusier, one of the biggest promoters of white architecture, inserted color accents into his all white architecture, as well as other modernist architects, including Richard Meier.  According to Meier, white instead of an effacement of color, includes “every color of the rainbow . . . [and] is in fact the color which intensifies the perception of all of the other hues that exist in natural light and in nature.”10

In the 1960s minimalism, white became a medium with which to evoke simplicity through the elimination of ornamentation (joints, mechanical and electrical elements, reveals, moldings) that allowed the production of “plaster boxes” as “clean envelopes”.11 “The avowed aim was to focus on what is most variable in our environments: that is, on portable changeable objects, such as painting, artworks, plants (often reduced to a single plant), and (ostensibly) people.”12 The idea of introducing variation into the starkness of the white environment was further intensified in the 1980 decade by bringing the natural environment into the house interior. Pompous plants, glass and glass brick walls created a cozier environment within White Box.

Contemporary White Boxes challenge perceptions forcing humans to cautiously respond to their surroundings; the sameness of materiality of floor, walls, and ceiling camouflage spatial divisions blurring and softening edges. Furthermore, blob forms dominate the space creating spatial dynamism. These complex shapes are possible through new advances in computer design software as used in the 2001 Torus House designed by Preston Scott Cohen. In it a “toroidal” form twists and extends through out the ceiling and floor and into the walls.13 According to Courtney Smith and Annette Ferrara in Xtreme Interiors, “the walls, floors, and ceilings no longer meet in tidy ninety-degree angles but fuse together in fluid and ambiguous ways . . . confusing our expectations of up and down, interior and exterior, inside and outside.”14

end notes

  1. 1) Clare Cooper, “The House as Symbol of the Self,” Design for Human Behavior: Architecture and the Behavioral Sciences, ed. Jon Lang, Charles Burnette, Walter Moleski, David Vachon (Pennsylvania: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, Inc., 1974), 131; Bo Niles, White by Design (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1984), 7.
  2. 2) Cooper, “The House as Symbol of the Self,” 138.
  3. 3) Bo Niles, White by Design, 9.
  4. 4) Leah Scolere, “Theory Studies: Contemporary Retail Design” (MA Thesis, Cornell University, 2004), 28-29.
  5. 5) Bo Niles, White by Design, 47.
  6. 6) Bo Niles, White by Design, 47.
  7. 7) Mark Wigley, White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 7.
  8. 8) Wigley, White Walls, 231.
  9. 9) Wigley, White Walls, 7.
  10. 10) Richard Meier, Richard Meier Architect (New York: Rizzoli, 1984), 8.
  11. 11) C. Ray Smith, Interior Design in 20th-Century America: A History (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1987), 265.
  12. 12) Smith, Interior Design in 20th-Century America, 265.
  13. 13) Courtenay Smith and Annette Ferrara, Xtreme Interiors (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2003), 80.
  14. 14) Smith and Ferrara, Xtreme Interiors, 80.
  15. 15) Evidence for the use and the chronological sequence of White Box as a house archetype was developed from the following sources: 1980 Private House [1987] Juan Montoya; Westchester County, NY in Monica Geran, "Clean Sweep," Interior Design 58, no. 8 (June 1987): 257; PhotoCrd: Jaime Ardiles-Arce; Bjornson House and Studio [1987] Arata Isozaki and Associates, Architects; Venice, CA in CKG, "Her Life for Art," Architectural Record, Record Houses for 1987 (Apr. 1987): 144; PhotoCrd: Timothy Hursley / 1990 Sidney Kimmel Beach House [1993] Juan Montoya Design; Town Unknown, NJ in Monica Geran, "Juan Montoya," Interior Design 64, no. 11 (Nov. 1993): 134; PhotoCrd: Wolfgang Hoyt; Drager House [1995] Franklin D. Israel Design Associates; Oakland, CA in Betsky Aaron, "Act Two," Architectural Record 66, no. 4, Record Houses 1995 (Apr. 1995): 86, 87; PhotoCrd: Grant Mudford; Colonial Revival Cottage [1997] Terese Carpenter of Nile Inc.; Renovation, Cottage [1904] Hobe Sound, FL in Edie Cohen, "A Passage to Florida," Interior Design 68, no. 9 (July 1997): 93; PhotoCrd: John M. Hall / 2000 Naked House, Case Study House 10 [2001] Shigeru Ban Architects; north of Tokyo, Japan in Naomi Pollack, "Amid Rice Paddies, Shigeru Ban Creates Naked House," Architectural Record 72, no. 4, Record Houses 2001 (Apr. 2001): 152; PhotoCrd: Skinkenchiku-sha; Taghkanic House [2003] Thomas Phifer and Partners and Muriel Brandolini, Interior Designer; Hudson Valley, NY in Suzanne Stephens, "Thomas Phifer Creates a Dematerialized Pavilion," Architectural Record 74, no. 4, Record Houses 2003 (Apr. 2003): 147; PhotoCrd: Scott Frances; Town House [2006] Peter Pennoyer Architects; Victoria Hagan Interiors; New York City in "Merit Award," Interior Design 77, no. 15 (Dec. 2006): 94; PhotoCrd: Eric Laignel; Bedroom, Party Barn and Guest House [2006] Shipley Architects; Hico, TX in Ingrid Spencer, "Shipley Architects' Party Barn and Guesthouse," Architectural Record 77, no. 9 (July 2006): 184; PhotoCrd: Charles D. Smith; Casa Tolo [2006) Álvaro Leite Siza Vieira; Lugar das Carvalhinhas, Portugal in Clifford A. Pearson, "Casa Tolo," Architectural Record 77, no. 4, Record Houses 2006 (Apr. 2006): 134; PhotoCrd: FG+SG/Fernando Guerra; Hill House [2006] Mark Lee, Sharon Johnston, Jeff Adams, Mark Rea Baker, Johnston Marklee and Associates; Pacific Palisades, CA in Michael Webb, "Houses on Hills," Architectural Record, no. 1 (Jan. 2006): 166, 168; PhotoCrd: Eric Staudemaier.

bibliographic citations

1) The Interior Archetypes Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University, (accessed month & date, year).

2) Mendez, Marta. “Theory Studies: Archetypical Practices of Contemporary House Design.” M.A. Thesis, Cornell University, 2008, 129-140.