Oh Bungalow, Born by the Bay of Bengal, You Conquered an Empire—and Then the World—Redefining Success Every Step of the Way!

Text by David Howes

The Seaside, England, 20 July 1969

Grey skies again today. I suppose one can’t expect too much in the way of fine weather at an English seaside resort in July. No one’s outside anyway, they’re all gathered around the television in the lounge, watching the Americans land on the moon. I’d rather sit in my room and watch the sea, watch the waves, always moving restlessly.

I was talking with Mrs. Rawlins in the lounge yesterday and she mentioned that she liked the name of our hotel, “The Bungalow Hotel.” “It’s so comfortable sounding,” she said. “It gives you a feeling of being at home and away on vacation at the same time.” It would give me a feeling of being at home too if it were anything like the bungalow in India I grew up in.

This place is just a three-storey building with William Morris wallpaper and 1930s furniture. The bungalow I grew up in in Lahore was a large, flat-roofed house with a wide veranda all around, set inside a walled compound filled with tropical plants. That was a real bungalow.

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Of course, the original bungalows, I suppose, were the ones built by the native Indians for themselves before the English came. Those were thatched huts with an overhanging roof. That kind of house was called a bangala, meaning that it came from Bengal. The kind of bungalow my family lived in might have been based on native forms of architecture, but it was definitely a colonial creation: an Indian dwelling suitable for Englishmen.

Our bungalow was not a hut, but it was simple; one-storey with rooms for entertaining and rooms for sleeping. The surrounding compound provided space for a garden and for servants’ quarters but most importantly it allowed the house to be well-ventilated. In such a hot climate we were grateful for whatever breeze came our way. That’s why the house didn’t have hallways, to keep the air flowing from room to room. On particularly hot days the servants would be kept busy splashing water on the window and door screens to cool the air as it blew in. The screens were made from bamboo, which made the air passing through fragrant. When I think of our bungalow I remember that smell.

I spent much of my time playing on the veranda, watched over by my Ayah, as Indian nannies were called. I remember there was a snake that lived under that veranda and sometimes it would stretch out its shiny head and watch me, not do anything, just watch. My Ayah was scared that snake would bite me but I knew it wouldn’t, we lived on peaceful terms with each other. The shade provided by the veranda helped cool the air around the house and make it more bearable inside, but I always preferred to be outside anyway.

Inside the house was a piano, brought from England by my mother, which I was expected to play for half an hour every day. I think my mother thought of piano practice as a way to keep me from becoming too “native.” We lived surrounded by Indian servants, servants to clean, to cook, to garden, to fetch and carry… It didn’t bother me but I think it worried my parents. The number of servants combined with the open design of the bungalow didn’t really allow for much personal privacy. The heat seemed to bring us even closer together, all stewing, as it were, in the same hot, moist air. Whenever my parents met with their friends there would be talk about native revolts and uprisings. The feeling was that what happened outside in the city might happen inside in the bungalow. Each bungalow was imagined to be like a miniature empire, teeming with useful but potentially rebellious natives. Each bungalow had to be firmly ruled by its English master. How Father took that mission to heart!

Aside from the piano, the rest of our furniture consisted of Indian copies of copies of European originals. My mother held them in contempt for their “inferior workmanship,” but I liked their slightly crooked lines and unpolished finish. All the furniture in my grandmother’s house back in England seemed too smooth and shiny and slippery by contrast. Nothing to hold on to. As a special sign of high status we had a porcelain bathtub, imported from England as a gift from my father to my mother. Of course, it still had to be filled by servants carrying heated water in old kerosene tins brought all the way from the kitchen out back. The kitchen was separate from the house. It was located near the servants’ quarters, so that the bungalow wouldn’t be affected by the heat and odours of cooking.

My bedroom was at the back of the house. The walls were thin and I would lie in bed at night, feeling the breeze blowing in through the mosquito curtains and hearing my parents talking. My mother would come in wearing a floating, lacy dress and kiss me goodnight before going out to a party. Then I would fall asleep to the sound of the jackals calling somewhere outside the compound.

Though I thought of the bungalow as our property it was, in fact, rented. Almost all the homes occupied by the English were rented since people always expected to be moving on after a few years. Our bungalow was actually owned by a wealthy Indian businessman. It, like all the other bungalows in the city, had been built by local Indians using the same materials, brick and wood and clay tiles and lime plaster, and based on the same design. There seemed to be no point in catering to personal tastes when people came and went so frequently.

Mind you, there were bungalows and there were bungalows. Ours was a substantial house because Father was a senior administrator. A low-ranking official, however, might only have a little four-roomed bungalow with odds and ends for furnishings and walls that were whitewashed instead of painted. Though such distinctions mattered, they didn’t seem to matter quite as much in India as they would have in England. If you were short on cutlery for a party, for example, one of your guests might have a servant bring along an extra supply. No one really seemed to mind such things. I think there was a feeling among the English that they were all making do together in this foreign wilderness in which they happened to find themselves.

When I left India to go to school in England I thought I’d left bungalows behind forever. I knew they’d built bungalows for Europeans in Africa. “The Indian bungalow is the one perfect house for all tropical countries,” some supposed expert said. So up went the bungalows in the Gold Coast and in Nigeria and in Kenya. My brother Tom, who was a District Commissioner in Kenya, had a very handsome bungalow there, judging from the photos he sent us. It rested on pillars, which raised it a good eight feet off the ground to protect against the “exhalations of the earth” that were supposed to cause malarial fever. The way it was situated in that European enclave on the hill outside of town meant that it commanded a magnificent view, but Tom said it was for “hygienic” reasons, the supposed dangers of contagion from mixing with the native Africans in their village compounds, that he built there. He called his house “detached.”

Well, bungalows in Africa are one thing but I couldn’t see why anyone would want one in England, which must be one of the least tropical places in the world. The typical English home for me was my grandmother’s Victorian villa. It was very upright: three storeys plus an attic, ten foot ceilings, two sets of stairs (one for the servants). And it had so many divisions: the front hallway, the sitting room, the study, the basement, the upstairs hallways, the master bedroom, the girl’s bedroom, the boy’s bedroom, the nursery. Every room had its own fireplace, so there were lots of chimneys jutting out of the roof. And there was the gingerbread, so intricate, so much work to carve, so distinctive!

After the Great War, however, bungalows, or what were called bungalows, started springing up all over England. They had nothing to do with being good housing for a tropical climate. They were thought of as modern and economical. A bungalow was really just a small, square, one-storey house, like a child’s building block. You didn’t need any servants if you lived in a house like that. And, as I recall, servants were getting harder and harder to find before the War, never mind after. I suppose for many people, people like Mrs. Rawlins, who grew up in one of those boxy post-war bungalows, a bungalow does mean home. An English home at that, though not much of one. In India a bungalow was an important residence, it meant something to live in a bungalow there. It still does I understand. Here it just seems to mean cheap housing.

Though, now that I think about it, I realize there’s more to it than that. One of the reasons for the spread of bungalows in England was that they were seen as more natural, more informal and more open to the outdoors than traditional English housing, such as villas and townhouses. Just as life in India could feel more informal and more natural than life back home. I suppose people wanted some of that in England. That’s why bungalows became so popular as vacation homes. It was supposed to be the free and easy life. But when they migrated from the edges of the sea to the edges of the city, and were all massed together on street after street, all identical and with hardly any space in between, the sense of freedom became a sense of entrapment.

Where the bungalow is really popular now is in the United States. Somehow it came to stand for everything people there wanted: freedom, closeness to nature, efficiency, modern progress and, of course, low cost. My daughter Nora tells me there’s even a place in California called “Bungalow Heaven.”

Nora should know because her second husband builds bungalows—whole communities of them—in California. In fact, that’s how Nora met Bill: “Bungalow Bill,” I call him, like that song they play on the radio. He was building a house for Nora and her first husband Ted, and their two teenage girls. Then when Ted left Nora to go to India to meditate with the Maharishi like the Beatles, Nora was left with the girls, the bungalow and its builder. I went to their wedding last year, and stayed with them in their new house. It has one and a half storeys, overhanging eaves, and shrubs planted along the front. No servants’ quarters, but a big garage for their automobile. Lower ceilings than I was used to, and not much to look at inside. I couldn’t get over the kitchen, though, with all its cabinets and gadgets— including a machine for washing dishes! The family even eats right in the kitchen. The rest of the time they’re in what they call the “living room” watching television.

While I was staying with Nora and her family, I had quite a few conversations with Bill about his bungalows—and the girls joined in too, particularly Nora’s eldest, Melanie, who is reading Sociology at Berkeley and has her own ideas about how people ought to live.

Bill thinks he knows what a real bungalow is: “It’s an All-American house, originally from California.” When I protested that the bungalow originated in India he said that might well be, but it was “perfected” in California, and that’s the model that spread from West to East across the U.S., to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even the U.K. back in the 1920s. “The bungalow embodied the Californian Dream, and it is the epitome of convenience and efficiency.”

This “Californian Dream,” he explained, had to do with a youthful, informal, outdoorsy lifestyle. The first “California bungalows” were summer houses. Their wilderness situation and their low silhouette contrasted with the uprightness of the Victorian villa, while the open interior of the bungalow did away with all the divisions of the Victorian house, and the stuffy social conventions that went with them, making for a “cosier” family life, or so Bill claimed: “Just look at the low roofline of a bungalow, how it radiates cosiness; think how it blends in with nature, instead of trying to dominate the countryside like some castle on top of a hill.”

How I bristled at that last swipe, directed at some imaginary Englishman (whose “home is his castle,” as the saying goes). But I had to forgive Bill all his not so subtle swipes at the British, for I could tell that he was actually reacting against his own Puritanical heritage. One visit to swinging London would cure him of the idea that the British remain locked in the Victorian era.

It was at this point in our conversation that Melanie intervened to point out that the rows upon rows of bungalows in the suburbs around Los Angeles do not blend in with nature, they obliterate it; that suburban sprawl has resulted in suburbanites having to spend more and more hours on the freeway commuting, which is anything but convenient, not to mention polluting; and, that people may once have found the California climate refreshing and wanted to be outdoors, but now they just sit in front of their air conditioners watching television, completely cut off from the natural world. “Air conditioners are not cool,” she said, as if she wished they didn’t have one. I don’t think we would have refused them back in the old days in India.

And, Melanie continued, the isolation from nature is matched by the social isolation of the nuclear family secluded within the “privacy” of its own home. Contrary to what all the women’s magazines say, home life for the housewife is not “relaxed, informal, and efficient”; rather, Melanie averred, it is filled with repetition, boredom and despair—an endless round of cooking, changing diapers, looking after “little ones” and trying to please one’s husband. You could tell Melanie would have none of this. That’s what comes of doing away with servants, I thought: my mother would never have deigned to do such work.

But the worst thing, according to Melanie, was the conformity, the way everyone aspired after the same possessions, the same “markers” of middle class social status. Americans had become far too “other directed” in the words of one of her profs, and the sameness was stultifying, as in the words of that 1962 song Pete Seeger sang, “Little Boxes.”

Little boxes on the hillside Little boxes made of ticky tacky Little boxes on the hillside Little boxes all the same

“But they’re not all the same!” Bill exploded. “I sit down with every one of my clients the same way I sat down with your mother.” Melanie rolled her eyes. Bill carried on: “We go over the plans, particularly those for the kitchen, and make adjustments, within limits, of course. Every bungalow I build is unique in some way, even if the walls and everything are prefabricated and the appliances all mass-produced. But that’s progress! And that’s the beauty of it: the bungalow almost builds itself it can be assembled so quickly—a matter of weeks —and, with all the labour-saving devices available nowadays, what more could a housewife want?”

I was swayed by Bill’s argument about the technological efficiency of the modern kitchen, until Melanie shot back: “How about a different division of labour? And, how about a life?” What Melanie had in mind was Dads shouldering some of the load, and Moms having their own jobs outside the home. She also pointed out that all the so-called labour-saving devices weren’t much good if they didn’t allow women to leave the house.

Bill sputtered on about how the bungalow encourages individuality because its style is so flexible, and how it supports democracy too, because everyone is on the same level! This provoked Cathy, Nora’s youngest, to bring up her plight as a teenager. Her room was only big enough to study and to sleep in. There was no space in the house for her to have her friends in (by which she meant no space where she was not under the watchful eye of her mother). There was no place in the endless winding streets of Downsview (the name of their subdivision) for young people to get together outside either. “But what about all the playgrounds?” her stepfather responded. Now it was Cathy’s turn to roll her eyes. (There seemed to be a lot of that going on in this household.) Obviously, Downsview had been planned for families with very young children and this had resulted in most young people feeling left out.

“The bungalow is clearly totally ‘dysfunctional,’ and so is Downsview,” Melanie opined. Bill gasped. Perhaps he didn’t know what “dysfunctional” meant. I don’t think I do either, but it certainly does sound bad.

“There is a solution, though,” Melanie proclaimed brightly. “This is America and we should do like our fellow Americans–Latin Americans, that is. Ever notice how from Mexico to the southernmost tip of Argentina, all the towns are laid out around a central plaza? The plaza is a place where everybody congregates, even teenagers. And the houses are laid out the same way. They are patio houses, which are like bungalows in that they are usually low, one-storey buildings, but the reverse of bungalows in the way they bring the outdoors indoors by having a patio at the centre, while distributing the rooms around the outer wall. The way the rooms all open onto the patio makes the house cosy, while the garden at the centre makes the house cool and, best of all, you are never cut off from the sky because there is no roof over the patio. You’re not cut off from other family either. The patio house easily accommodates extended families, since it is like a commune to begin with.”

I saw what Melanie was saying, but I couldn’t help feeling that had it not been for the disappearance of the veranda the bungalow could have remained a far more “functional” dwelling (to use Melanie’s language).

On another occasion I took this matter up with Bill. I said that I didn’t think the houses he built could really be called bungalows because, while they were simple, single-storey, single-family dwellings with extended eaves and open interiors, they lacked a veranda. He quoted me a line from some builder’s book he had on hand: “Although the bungalow has a number of distinguishing characteristics, none of them is so important as to be indispensable.” The veranda was one of these, he said, or rather, in the U.S.A. it had been replaced by the porch. Before World War II, I learned, most houses had a front porch and a broad stretch of front lawn. The porch was a place for entertaining and for talking to neighbours as they strolled by on a summer evening. After World War II, most people wanted their porch to be at the back of the house, overlooking a garden, and the front porch was replaced by a garage to house the indispensable automobile. The increased traffic and the decline of the evening stroll were further reasons for doing away with verandas or porches, though Bill had found that many of his clients still wanted to put in a bay window. That permitted them to watch without having to hear or smell their neighbours.

In any event, Bill said, the new buzzword among builders is “ranch house.” A ranch house is really the same as a bungalow, he confided. But people think ranch house sounds more distinguished, so I build them a bungalow and tell them it’s a ranch house.

One time when Bill (diehard salesman that he is) was going on about how perfect the bungalow is as a “starter home” for newlyweds eager to “move up” from an apartment in the city to a (cheap) house in the suburbs, where they can raise their children in “wholesome surroundings,” I pointed out that it made a good “finisher home” too. Seniors appreciate bungalows because there are no stairs and everything is in reach. It was the first time anything I said gave Bill pause. “Now why didn’t I think of that,” he said, and instantly began sketching a vision of a new subdivision called “Pleasant View” full of “specialty bungalows for old folks.” It had to be a new subdivision, he thought, because you don’t want to mix old people with young families, and it would probably have to be in some other state, like Florida, because of California’s youthful image, but what a great idea! Personally, I found the name sounded too much like a cemetery, and I think the generations should be integrated, not segregated, so I was not impressed.

Sitting here in “The Bungalow Hotel,” I have to wonder: Is the bungalow intrinsically flawed, the way Melanie seemed to think? That question begs the question of what a bungalow is, exactly. Colonial residence or single family dwelling? Vacation house or suburban house? Starter home or finisher home? If it is all these things and more, then perhaps it is the ultimate multipurpose dwelling, good for everyone, everywhere. And if that’s the case, it must be because it was a hybrid to begin with, a mixture of England and India.

I hear a lot of noise coming from the lounge downstairs. The Americans must have landed on the moon. They’ll soon be wanting bungalows there too, I suppose. Well, I’d better go and have a look. I like to move with the times.

This story originally appeared in our 2010 publication Journeys: How travelling fruit, ideas and buildings rearrange our environment.


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