Architecturally, a discussion pit contains built-in sitting in an area of the floor that has been sunken. It conjures up various communal meeting places throughout the history of home design, from the ancient Chinese kang to the Spanish estrado. The Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, is home to one of the oldest and most well-known discussion pits in history.
How did they start?
Small eating tables with couches on three sides were known as "tricliniums" in ancient Rome, where people could eat and converse in peace. It was common practice in medieval Europe to build seats around hearths so that guests could sit and talk comfortably. There is some indication that the discussion pit, also known as sunken seats, existed in the 1960s and 1970s before its apparent emergence in popular culture.
During the medieval Convivencia era, the Spanish Estrado, an elevated dais draped in carpets and cushions, was inspired by the Muslim presence. The ancient Chinese kang and the Spanish estrado come to mind as possible inspirations for this design.
The Arts and Crafts movement picked up this tradition with "inglenooks": fireplace nooks a la 19th century home. These pieces of furniture and centralized room layouts could accommodate large groups, offering spatial efficiency and conviviality.
The First Conversation Pit
The sunken discussion pit is one of the most famous living room designs of the 20th century. Bruce Goff, a Tulsa, Oklahoma architect, was the first to build a house with a sunken sitting area in 1927. Modernist designers such as Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard started designing subterranean rooms and discussion pits for residential and commercial buildings in the 1950s and 1960s. For his Columbus, Indiana, mansion, J. Irwin Miller hired three architects in 1952. Saarinen's and Rudolph created textiles for this subterranean living room at the Miller House.
The living room in this house is one of the first examples of a sunken living room. Girard's job as an architect and textile designer was to make the open, breezy room seem like a home. Since Girard had been a personal friend of the Millers' by the time the house and landscape were completed in 1957, his influence on the Millers' attitude to living has been profound.
Why did they go out of style?
After decades of dominance, the discussion pit has gone out of favour for many reasons. According to this brief 1963 TIME magazine article, the practice of placing visitors at various heights generated many problems. Skirt and dress wearers face a slew of perilous situations, including the possibility of errant bits of food falling on you from above.
It was even more concerning that there were safety concerns. Conversation pits posed a serious safety concern for anybody who stumbled into one late at night or after a few too many beers. They were also a source of problems for homeowners with young children or pets. A typical response was to fill up sunken living rooms to avert future accidents and lawsuits.