Every month or so, when boredom strikes, I fantasize about tearing down the wall between the living room and the kitchen in my apartment. Knowing absolutely nothing about structural engineering but having watched many hours of HGTV, I am convinced that the wall is non-load bearing. Currently, the kitchen side holds a pot rack, which is useful—but not as much as an enormous cased opening mirroring the graceful arch that leads from the dining room to the kitchen. Abundant light would flood into the kitchen and then on into the dining room; we wouldn’t need the overhead light, a rickety chandelier vintage to my apartment, which flickers every time the upstairs neighbors do their HIIT routine. The space would feel open and I would be able to breathe.
But I don’t own my apartment, so this fantasy is just that, one fed by the numerous HGTV programs that show knocking out a wall as a deeply satisfying necessity to a happy home renovation. That wall is all that’s standing between the homeowner and the viewer and a bright, cheerful, gracious life full of gatherings and a harmonious family life. With all those open-concept floor plans, HGTV is selling more than an aesthetic; it’s selling control: not simply homeownership, but the alluring power to do whatever you want in that home, even if what you want is sheer sheetrock-wrecking destruction that’s key to a better, freer state.
HGTV’s offerings exalt in the art of destruction and the freedom to demolish at will. While the channel launched in the mid 1990s with smaller-scale shows focused on crafty, thrifty projects, it rocketed to success in the last few years by focusing specifically on dramatic home renovations, dramatically structured on the big reveal. Shows like Property Brothers and Fixer Upper, two of the cable channel’s stalwarts, approach the act of demolition with a glee that is almost obscene. The easiest and often cheapest way to change the interior of a house dramatically is by knocking down a wall, creating the precious sightlines that many homeowners apparently yearn for. Kitchens and living rooms should be as one, the theory goes, separated only by hulking slabs of marble, quartz, or concrete, plunked atop custom lower cabinets and storage solutions. Walking through a dated dump, the first thing to go is a wall; as Joanna Gaines describes the light that will soon flood through the common space of a 1970s ranch house in Waco, a computer rendering dissolves walls into the floor and what was once a home with separate rooms and privacy becomes a roller rink littered with farmhouse tables and antiqued sideboards.
Both on TV and in real life, a sweeping open floor plan creates a showroom. Big spaces need big furniture to fill them—lush sectional sofas, huge TVs, and enormous curio cabinets proliferate in these empty spaces as functional objects but also as trophies of wealth and abundance. And, too, while walls and doors easily hide mess and disorder, a large open space means that the space has to be clean at all times. The luxury implicit in these vast, cavernous homes is that someone has enough money to support their maintenance, whether a stay-at-home mom or hired help from outside. This labor is so out of sight it doesn’t even need to be hidden by a wall; instead HGTV focuses on the joyful work of breaking through them.
Open living did not originate with HGTV, of course. The man credited with creating open concept living is Henry Hobson Richardson, who, according to Old House Journal, built two homes in 1886 that flouted Victorian-era architectural conventions by allowing for the dining room and the living room to flow as one. Modern conveniences, like steam heat from radiators, meant that interiors no longer needed to rotate around the hearth, which allowed for flexibility in the configuration of rooms and common spaces.
Writing for Citylab in 2018, Kate Wagner noted that open plan living has always been a marker of class. The Arts & Crafts bungalows that eliminated the wall between the living room and the dining room were built specifically for clients that could afford to have a custom home; for the middle-class, interiors remained closed off, with separate rooms both for privacy and to create the illusion of space, as counter-intuitive as that may sound. Frank Lloyd Wright pushed open plan living to its extremes, creating spaces for his clients nestled in nature with big windows that served to bring nature indoors. But the move towards single-story, open-plan ranch-style homes in the ’50s and ’60s thrust the open concept agenda to the forefront—and further into the mass market—where it has remained ever since.
The final frontier in open plan living was the kitchen—now the shining centerpiece of a home built for both entertainment and surveillance. Wagner noted that the kitchen was the last part of the home to succumb to the scourge of open concept because for so long, the messy domestic work that happened there was meant to be hidden away. But now, any show on HGTV touts a “chef’s kitchen” as a major selling point. Envy-inducing shots of marble kitchen islands that seat six and a Viking gas range complete with a pot-filler have been a part of home renovation TV since Extreme Home Makeover, because homes are still designed for a family with one breadwinner, a stay-at-home partner and two and a half kids underfoot. Centering the kitchen in the design assumes that the person in charge of the household will spend most of their time in the kitchen, keeping a close eye on a boiling pot of pasta and their children at the same time. Writing for the Atlantic in 2018, Ian Bogost notes that this design characteristic dates back to the 1920s, because of the assumption that mothers would spend most of their time in the kitchen and would need to see where their children were at all times.
But while open-concept living as an architectural style goes back more than a century, the open floor plan as a lifestyle fetish of the contemporary moment, is intimately bound up with the popularity of HGTV. Redoing a house by knocking down a wall is an efficient way to make a space look dramatically different, but also, apparently those orgiastic montages of men in work boots kicking through old sheetrock just really appeal to men. In a 2019 interview, Ronda Kaysen, a journalist at the New York Times, told NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro that shows like Property Brothers and Fixer Upper push open-concept living so hard because the demolition porn required to achieve that dream brings men to the network and keeps them hooked. “I spoke with HGTV executives, and the reason that they are so big on open concept is because it gets the male viewers,” she said. “Dudes will only watch HGTV if there’s sledgehammers.”
But the thrill of demolition isn’t purely that it makes good TV—it’s also the fantasy of being physically alter one’s surroundings without repercussions. Many arguments in favor of homeownership stress the nest egg, the property value, and the investment—all valid reasons, but extremely practical. But being the person with their name on the deed confers the pure, blunt power to knock down a wall when you don’t want that wall to be there in the first place.
HGTV’s audience isn’t just homeowners with the money to act on renovation fantasies, though. Many of the people who watch the network’s offerings rent or are otherwise unable to act on these impulses. Living vicariously through someone else’s decisions is basically the point of HGTV. A House Hunters marathon on a lazy Sunday can tempt even the sanest viewer to scream at a couple waffling over whether the wall-to-wall carpet is a dealbreaker. Much like online window shopping, the fantasy of what I’d do to a 1970s ranch with a strangely-placed atrium is probably more satisfying than the act itself. Home renovations are messy, complicated, and expensive affairs, and that reality is never really acknowledged on HGTV, where tearing up a corner of the carpet to reveal white oak flooring usually works out in the homeowners’ favor and if it doesn’t, new floors are installed in a blink of an eye. Doing the same task at home, out of curiosity or a grim determination to renovate, is less satisfying, especially if the surprise is not beautiful floors but plywood and rot. Large, destructive renovations require forethought, but watching someone else do it on television requires none at all.
This particular fantasy of control, however, ultimately delivers the homeowner into a space that affords less. Walls allow for privacy, which also allows for autonomy at home. The satisfaction of slamming a door after a fight disappears when the fight happens in the kitchen and the kids can see and hear everything from their perch in front of the TV in the living room. If the feature wall of that living room is a wall of French doors, well, maybe the neighbors can, too. A wide-open living space makes for a beautiful photograph, but privacy is everything.