Thursday, January 29, 2015

Domestic Labour: The Architectural Problem

By Torsdag ©

An article in the Economist newspaper dated 17 Dec 2011 titled "Domestic labour: the servant problem" prompted this blog.  It describes the similarities between early 20th century Britain and early 21 century Brazil regarding household servants. I remembered said article at a later date when I stumbled upon a featured house in Dwell magazine, located in São Paulo, Brazil.

The house, artfully situated on a hillside, is sighted to take advantage of the “staggering view of São Paulo”, says the article.  One wends his/her way from the street level upwards to private areas (bedrooms, etc) on the second floor and public living and entertaining areas on the third.  Or vice versa.


dining room

living room


master bedroom
"staggering"sao paulo view

All above photos courtesy of

This is a beautiful house by any standard.  Well bashment.  The floorplans give a better understanding of the house’s logic and programming (ie, number of rooms, types of rooms, how they relate to one another spatially, etc.)  A look at the floorplans reveals a most intriguing feature: the stairs. Two sets of stairs exist. Upon close inspection, we see that one is the main stairway and the other, the servant stairway.  The latter is totally separated by a wall and shifted slightly away from the main stairway. I looked closer and proceeded to map out the areas annexed to the servant stairs.  They are (obviously) the ‘service quarters’: bedrooms, bathrooms, eating area; laundry room and corridor to the kitchen.  This portion of the programming occupies a far corner of the overall design, carefully concealed by corners and walls. Servants are not to be seen in this house. (They aren’t even to be in lockstep with the owners when treading the stairs.)


Note that Service Quarters N is proximous to the Kitchen O, Laundry Room U, children's bedrooms G and outside.

Circulation refers to the way in which one processes through a space.  Two circulation plans exist (highlighted in orange). One for servants (dashed), one for the family.

The São Paulo circulation plan is a throwback to the earlier days (17th century) of house plans that had hidden corridors and rooms for the movement of servants.  These corridors shared walls with the rooms they served, but were unseen, and so not really a part of the house.  So too were those whose job it was to use the corridors. Corridors, at their inception, were thus secondary circulation spaces in houses (the enfilade being primary circulatory space…a topic for another blog.).  

The above floorplan is of Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England.  The principal residence of the Dukes of Marlborough and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill (a descendant of the dukes).
(Source: Wikipedia)

As time progressed, the corridor became the primary circulation space in homes and other buildings, yet this ‘modern’ house in São Paulo has relegated the servants’ stairwell to 17th century circulation status.

As a 4-year subscriber to Dwell magazine, this Brazilian house is the first I’ve read of with such programming. 

I suppose real estate listings in São Paulo are not unlike higher end real estate listings in Jamaica, wherein the presence of ‘servant’s quarters’ help define a house’s value and prestige:
The above highlighted portion says: "and two staff quarters consisting of bedroom and bathroom."

I have yet to see a house designed in America, for the average American – or even the above average American, ie, upper middle class -- with servant quarters or "H/Q": helper's quarters, as seen in the below listing: 

("Spanish Colonial" my arse....but I digress....)
The Economist article mentioned in opening points out the similarities between Britain in the 1880s and nowadays Brazil.   Same formula: bourgeoning middle class + increased education across the board = scarcity of good help. 

From the Economist:
Typical progression is that as a middle class is created and grows, it wants the same or similar trappings of the wealthy: houses, cars, clothes, education, lifestyle -- including servants.  And also, the notion that bringing a poor unfortunate thing in and giving them servant work [‘young girl from the country’] is viewed as a noble thing. They comfort themselves by believing this.  For this system to work, one needs a continuous supply of uneducated people and a dire condition of income inequality.

“The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.” - Voltaire

From the Economist:
“Mistresses* have always complained about servants: employment inevitably creates difficulties, but the relationship is trickier when the workplace is the employer’s home.  The combination of physical proximity and class difference offers a wealth of dramatic possibilities,…”
*By the way, ’Mistresses’ and ‘Mistress’ in this blog refers to the lady of the house.  Not the jump-off/matey/side-chick variety.

But check out how the Brazilian employers and their hired help see each other’s role:

Mistress: They are too dishonest
Maids: She watches my every move
Mistress: She sits on the sofa all day
Mistress: She doesn’t always turn up for work
Maids:  Mistresses too rude – especially those who used to be poor themselves and have now ‘step up inna life’

Sounds familiar?

Brazil is the largest African nation outside of the continent (Africa).  Not many people know that.  Approximately half of the slaves brought over from Africa docked in Bahia, so I once read in a history book.  Yet the only image of a black Brazilian anyone can conjure up is that of Pele.  If there was ever such a thing as an invisible mass, blacks the world over would corner that market. Africans and their descendants the globe over are always racially skewed toward the 'poor' end of the distribution.  We see that everywhere blacks are present in the ‘New World’ or the ‘West’, whichever you prefer.  Worse in South America.

So it came as no surprise to me where the servant labour force in Brazil comes from:

From a related article in the Economist: "The Psychology of Service: Why Have Servants?"
Some Brazilians only employ black maids, says dark skinned Alzira--- “because that’s who is a maid, that’s why.  Some women don’t want a maid they think could be as nice looking and well turned out as themselves, who could compete with them.”  [My emphasis.]

I suppose this also goes for competing with Massa’s bed; a circumstance that has existed for ages and one that is beyond anecdotal in Jamaica.  

From the Jamaica Observer’s All Woman: "Helper Stories: ‘She helped herself to my man’"

Lisa, 47:

We had a helper for over 10 years, however, she got sick so had to take some time off to sort out her medical issues.  So here I was again screening people to possibly find another helper as good as the one I had.  My husband usually leaves this task up to me which I don’t have a problem with as I can’t just let any woman come into my house just like that.  I found this little young Miss, a bit you younger than I would usually take on, but she was eager to prove herself.  I took her on as a live-in helper as her own home was too far away, plus sometimes I needed the extra help in the evenings, especially if we were entertaining guests.  Within a few months I realized that she and my husband were becoming a little too friendly for comfort.  I confronted him one night about it before we went to bed and he assured me that there was nothing to worry about.  Long story short, the helper nuh help herself to mi man?  Right under my nose too, that was the worst part.
(Jamaica Observer All Woman. 15 January, 2015)

Employing people you look down on may be a cheap way to feel better about yourself.  But letting them look after your home and children requires uncomfortable mental contortions. 

The Economist cites Ms Leite, a former maid turned agency director for domestics:

[Ms Leita] thinks many people look down on domestics, regarding them as “the dregs”.  She knows maids who, in social situations, lie about what they do for a living.

Agency manager (and former maid) Ms Leita goes on to say,

For me this is as dignified as any other job---I do it to support my family.  But not everyone feels like that.  It’s typically black women who do this job, and prejudice still exists. [My emphasis.]

“Older clients, particularly, expect to be able to pay low wages for a maid-of-all-work.  They are quickly disabused, either by the agency (“we delicately point out that we abolished slavery in 1888”) or by their daughters who explain that maids are no longer willing to remain standing whenever in their employers’ presence, and that if they are insulted they will leave.” – Ms Leita

Ms Leita tells of a couple with a small apartment who made up a bed for their new maid in the laundry area---next to the dog’s.  They were surprised when she walked out.” [My emphasis.]

On the Jamaican front, a helper told her employer she couldn’t come to work because (then) recent floods washed away the Yallas river crossing and there was no way to get across (she canna canna cross it) to get to work. 

nobody canna cross it!

Employer told her if she doesn’t come to work, she (employer) can’t go to work because she’d have to stay home and mind the children and if she doesn’t work, helper doesn’t get paid.  About an hour later helper called to say she paid a man to jockey-ride her across the (raging, dangerous, post-storm, river-come-down) waters of the Yallas river and that she was on her way to work.
$200 JAD jockey-ride across the river.
Norman Grindley photo

In Brazil, scarcity of the maids (and newly found empowerment) has driven up wages. Not so in Jamaica. The inarticulate majority are there for a reason.  Orchestrated; despite all this talk about education-education-education.

There is a new, continuously developing face of service in the developed world.  Yesterday’s servants are now self-employed, live in their own homes, provide more specialized services to several customers: baby sitting, light dusting, laundry, cooking, house sitting, etc.  

These changes are gradually coming to Jamaica. Dog walking, I imagine will be next, what with the current preponderance of little fluffy inbred mongrel dogs trying to pass as full bred Shih Tzus; the must-have accoutrement in the modern, well-appointed Jamaican household.  Why do we need full service staff in the wake of dry cleaning, carpet cleaning, Dyson vacuums, iRobot, dishwashers, washing machines, clothes dryers, wrinkle free linens and clothing made of modal/lyocell/ viscose/polyamide etc; of minute rice, Stoffer’s, instant coffee, microwave ovens, Swiffer, and heck, even sliced bread; why does such a large portion of the population still need hired help?  Moreso, live-in household help? 

Houses and households require maintenance, of that there is no doubt.  Lovely Mistress São Paulo and her family of six definitely need a little household help, I’ll readily admit.  Growing up in Jamaica in a family of six with two full-time working parents, I had live-in helpers.  That’s the norm.  But, being in the US for so long, I now think of live-in help as having a stranger living in the house.  Not cool.  Furthermore, much of the work housekeeping in Jamaica does is grossly redundant.  Does Harpic need to be thrown down the toilet bowl ev-er-y-day? Do tubs and washbasins need to be scoured ev-er-y-day? Do floors need Mop and Glo ev-er-y day? Do the Range Rover Evoque and the BMW X6 need to be washed by the yard man ev-er-y day? 

I’m not opposed to household work being done by service people.  I am opposed to servitude and subservience. Pre-Great Recession, I had a cleaning service come in once a fortnight to help me set my house to rights. She told me up front: no laundry/no windows/no ironing/no cooking.  I said, “Yes Ma’am.”  While she and her two-woman crew did the dusting/sweeping/mopping/vacuuming/bathroom and kitchen scouring, I ‘Mavis-ed’ the laundry: washing/folding/ironing.  I live in a large (to me) home in an upper middle class naighbourhood, but there are no servants quarters in my floorplans.  

(Point of note, this wonderful lady and her cleaning crew incidentally happen to be (not black though not white) Brazilian.  I often wondered how she felt coming into a black woman’s home to do household work as, based on Ms Leita’s experienced observations, it would be the demographic likes of me who would be doing the housecleaning and sleeping next to the dog in the laundry room back in good ole Brasil.)

If houses no longer came with servants quarters, would people adjust the way they thought about having servants and household help? Would people still think they needed 24-7 access to the helper?  Would people still think they needed two helpers, and a nanny, paid at a pittance and living in the least attractive spaces in their houses? 

I remember the design and aesthetic of the ‘helper’s quarters’ of all the houses I’ve lived in. They were the roughest areas of the home. Mean and lowly spaces.  Let’s take the bathroom: small. Barely past being ‘roughed out’. NO tile on the walls; just raw, unsealed concrete (ergo prone to mould and junjo growth).  And even if there is tile, absolutely none in the shower stall. Neither on the walls nor on the floor.  Stalls are typically unpainted concrete with an 8" bund (kerb) and a cockeyed drain.  Definitely no tub!  This adjoins a room (sleeping) that is no bigger than 10 x 10.  Bedroom and bathroom are almost always adjacent to or across from the washroom and/or kitchen.  I tried to source a picture or two of these spaces, yet nothing popped up on the radar.  Of all the photos included in real estate listings slideshows, servants quarters are missing. Who cares what they look like, right? That they exist in the home is all that matters.

The washroom and kitchen spaces are nothing glamourous either. Were it not for HGTV, the kitchen in the Jamaican home would not be experiencing pride of place.

                “Kitchens sell homes!” I'm hearing more and more Jamaicans say; including real estate agents.  

Ummm…not in Jamaica.  The kitchen is still the purview of the servant in Jamaica. Mistress could care less as she only passes through there when the helper is asleep or has gone home; or even worse, that horrid stretch of time once a year when the helper is on vacation.  My father once joked that one can always tell when helpers are on vacation: all the Mistress employers have kitchen burnmarks on their arms.  

Straight outta HGTV, that kitchens-sells-homes phrase goes for homes in America where it’s Mistress who actually does the household work, including cooking and cleaning up the kitchen. She wants her work area to be ergonomic, user-friendly, and aesthetically pleasing. That’s why dishwashing machines are standard in American kitchens. Not so in Jamaica where the helper is the dishwasher.  The highest return on investment on a renovation in an American home will be the kitchen.  Bathrooms second.  

Again from the Economist:
“Many Brazilian mansions have no hot water in the kitchen, and there are paulistanos* who time-share helicopters but do not own a dishwasher.  That will change when getting congealed fat off pans stops being someone else’s job.”
*inhabitant of the city of São Paulo

It is the rare house in Jamaica that has a dishwasher…that’s not the helper, that is.
'Dishwasher' = machine
'Dish Washer' = Servant??? ha-ha! I know it's a typo, but it does beg the question. 

You will find more houses with washing machines, but not as many as you might think. Mistress will bawl for the light bill and the water bill, but the pittance paid to the domestic help is seen as enough to cover washing dishes/clothes and drying them.  It’s comical to see, during the rainy season, many a helper running in and out to get the clothes up off the line, then stringing them up all over the place under cover to get them to dry.  In many US neighbourhoods, it’s against Home Owner Association policy to have an outdoor clothesline. Many a Mistress in Jamaica tire to tell their helpers to hang the drawers behind the sheets so the neighbours, or guests won’t see them LOL! Furthermore, Mistress will say she won’t accoutre these working spaces with machinery because the helper will “mash it up!”

Services will always be in demand and the type/nature evolve as the economy/social mores change/evolve. So too should the architecture of these spaces. These type ‘servants quarters’ programming functions reinforce negative historical practices and run contrary to how we live in the modern era.  Unfortunately, in certain societies, servants quarters are essential household and design components and markers of social status.  And one can easy well argue that for many, the purpose of having servants... to be a master.

~ Torsdag

21st century programming changes for the modern home.  In lieu of servants quarters, dog grooming stations:

no unfinished rough concrete here!

Coming soon to an upper St Andrew real estate listing.  nb: this well-appointed space is for the fluffy mongrel wannabe Shish Tzu and Maltese cross-breeds only.  Mangy mongrel mawga dog-yard dogs…unno stay outside. Girrout!!

 Jamaican mongrel dog

Post Script:

From attacehd article in NYT newspaper re 2015 Carnival titled: Battling Racism Theme of Some Rio Carnival Parades -

 "Advocates say blackface makeup during Carnival is one such display. Some people have complained this year of Carnival street parties where people use blackface, including one called "Luxury Maids" in which white men wear black makeup, Afro wigs and dress as servants."

...because 'that's who a maid is' per the aforementioned Ms Leita.

Check it out nuh:


The Economist:
Domestic labour: the servant problem.  17 Dec 2011

The psychology of service: why have servants? 17 Dec 2011

The Jamaica Observer:

1 comment:

  1. I am a Jamaican living in Sao Paulo. It is true that most houses and even apartments have a maid's quarter. Last year the government changed the law for maids that are living with a family. The maid is now considered a full time employee. As such the employee has to pay a lot of taxes and benefits.

    Most people (including me) pay someone to come and clean the apartment/house one day per week. As wages here increase, it will be harder for people to continue to have full time maids.

    BTW: Still a Jamaican....missing the stew peas!