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PROJECTED HOMES: AN ARCHAEOLOGY IN EIGHT PARTS. March 2016. Undertaken while a Writer-in-Residence at Recess in NYC, in parallel with Total Effekt: Living Magasine.
I. Prison House

Architecture, whether domestic or institutional, public or private, has always been in dialogue with the barely articulable recesses of the imagination. We may think of the prison today as a building type that asserts its physical existence through dissemination in mass media and aggressive rates of incarceration, but it began its modern life as a room that existed in the mind’s eye first. Newgate Prison, designed by George Dance between 1768 and 1775, deployed an architecture terriblethat hulked over the London blocks its footprint occupied. A tradition passed down from the courses taught by François Blondel, the first director of the Académie royale d’architecture (est. 1671, Paris), architecture terrible was but one type of architecture parlant or “speaking architecture.” The dark, rusticated walls and carved stone chains bedecking its entrance enabled the prison itself—not its architect, nor its wardens—to proclaim the nature of what went on inside it. In Discipline and Punish (1975), philosopher Michel Foucault identifies the end of the eighteenth century as the time when punishment disappeared from the public realm behind prison walls. The work of architects such as Giovanni Piranesi and social reformer Jeremy Bentham filled the void. Piransei’s Carcieri series of prints from the 1760s imagine the prison as a sublime and terrifying maze of floors and elevations; Jeremy Bentham’s conceptualization and design of the Panopticon (1791) rationalized the habitat of the criminal as a place of solitary confinement perpetually in the shadow of a centralized watchtower, whereby the criminal was always unaware of whether it was occupied and surveilling him and his fellow inmates. To live in this space was to be in a permanent state of internalized anxiety, never “at home.” It was the symbolic value of the dwelling as a tool for breaking down and reconstructing the citizen-subject—and as a deterrent for those outside prison walls—that was paramount in the mind of the architect and the state. Passersby never needed to actually see the rooms nor meet their sorry occupants. Their minds did the work for them, instilling in the innocent a terror that policed their actions and programmed their relationships with their built, social, and psychological surroundings.

 

II. Socialist Home

Designer and socialist William Morris (1834-1896) argued that beauty was synonymous with function (“If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”).[1] His larger project reconsidered applied design within the framework of an utopian, speculative society that could be midwifed into existence through honoring handwork and labor in design. For Morris, the microcosm of the socialist society played out within the domestic arena. He imagined a new future mediated through design in the home of the worker, crafted honestly by hands that were well paid. Although his Red House was designed (with Phillip Webb in 1859) and built and lived in, his call to arms was truly for rooms that did not yet exist and, through their eventual realization, a reprogramming of one’s perception of the surrounding environment. In his search for the common-wealth, Morris dreamed of a place where “there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked…[where] all men would be living in equality of condition…with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all.”[2] This vision was articulated not only (or even primarily) through the final products he and his cohort created—flocked and flowered block-stamped wallpapers, hand painted ceramic tiles—but through the painstaking process of their making. While the citizen-subject was placed at the center of Morris’s socialist dwelling, his Arts & Crafts Movement remained the preserve of a few rather than the reality of many. His was a study of the home ultimately unlivable for those without means to afford an imagination.

 

III. Modern Home

“What is this new feeling and where does it come from? It is a bursting forth, after an extended germination, of the architectural meaning of the era. A new era—fallow spiritual territory—with a need to build its house…Thus does architecture become a mirror of the times.”

–Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, 1923

 

IV. Dream Home

Joseph Eichler became a merchant-builder in his late forties, after over twenty years managing Nye and Nisson, a food distribution business that he had married into. The approximately 11,000 suburban family homes completed by Eichler’s company can be thought of as the West Coast counterpart to the Levittown developments on Long Island and in Pennsylvania. Eichler and Abraham Levitt were top salesmen of the postwar American Dream: suburban home, two-car garage, and customizable interior décor. It was in an Eichler home in Sunnyvale, California that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniack grew up, and in a “Likeler,” a Mackay Company copy in nearby Mountain View, in which Steve Jobs was raised—oft-cited design influences on recent history’s most notorious and beloved products for Apple. Eichler Homes were successfully marketed in well-designed publicity brochures using large, glossy collaged photographs to provide a visual narrative of modern family homes fit for the middle-classes. Catherine Munson, with a dual masters in microbiology and microchemistry, was employed for $3 per hour as the first female “salesperson” for Eichler Homes in Terra Linda, California in 1955. As she recalled, “Hostesses were to be some sweet little housewives who told the potential buyers as they walked through how groovy it was to live in an Eichler home. We were supposed to look pretty and decorative, demonstrate the swivel table, and serve chocolate milk and graham crackers to the kids.”[3] Eichler partnered with architect A. Quincy Jones to design an unrealized Case Study House in 1961 as part of the program of model homes around Los Angeles begun under the stewardship of John Entenza, editor of the West Coast journal Arts & Architecture. Historian Esther McCoy’s describes Jones’ poetic approach to integrating the buildings to their sites by sinking the concrete base slabs into “cuts” in the ground and treating them as “earth sculpture”: through landscaping rather than allowing them to be what Jones described as “the typical tract houses, bumps along the road waiting for trees to grow.”[4] As Karrie Jacobs suggests in her 2005 New York Times article on contemporary owners of Eichler homes, to a certain extent the old maxim still rings true: “what Eichler sold from 1948 until the late 1960s wasn’t architecture but happiness.”[5]

 

V. Sci-Fi Home

“Home can be anywhere, for it is a part of one’s self.”

–Zensunni saying in Dune: The Butlerian Jihad (2002)

 

VI. Anxious Home

Speculative and Critical Design (SCD) discards the traditional goals of design—solutions, products, concrete things—and instead asserts the value of open-ended questions, inquiry, and problem-making rather than problem-solving. The practice has thus often come under fire from those who assert that design must only trade in practicalities. The term SCD was first used by designers and educators Tony Dunne & Fiona Raby in the early twenty-first century and explicated in a series of now-seminal texts: Herzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience (1999), Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects (2001), and Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (2013). As they explain, “In the field of design, users and consumers are usually characterised in narrow and stereotypical ways resulting in a world of manufactured objects that reflects an impoverished view of what it means to be human.”[6] Instead, Dunne & Raby allow the worlds of anxiety, phobia, and emotion to enter design, for example in their Huggable Atomic Mushroom (2004-05). Part of the series Designs for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times, the soft toy-sized, red plush sculpture is designed to be held and caressed in order to mediate and honor real worries over the possibility of future nuclear fallout. Fiction and imagination are key ingredients in Speculative and Critical Design. Invented narratives of the not-quite-yet help draw out our latent curiosity, helps us (and designers in our service) develop empathy, and allows us to expand and enlarge our connections to the best parts of being alive. As the New York Times writer Annie Murphy Paul highlights, researchers now know that “narratives activate many other parts of our brains…suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like ‘lavender,’ ‘cinnamon’ and ‘soap,’ for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.”[7]

 

VII. Displacement

“After Iceland agreed to take just 50 Syrian refugees, more than 17,000 Icelanders signed an open letter to their welfare minister, Eygló Harðardóttir, demanding a change in policy, many offering their own houses as sanctuary. In Germany, Refugees Welcome, a grassroots organisation billed as ‘Airbnb for refugees’ was overwhelmed with offers of accommodation for the 800,000 refugees expected in the country this year. In Finland, the prime minister offered to put up a family in his country home – it’s ‘not being used much at the moment,’” said Juha Sipila. In Britain, Bob Geldof reckoned he could fit three families into his Kent home and another in his flat in London. Meanwhile, Citizens UK has been campaigning for a year to get local authorities to resettle just 50 Syrian refugees each by encouraging landlords to register their properties as potential homes at or below the local housing rate. There is not yet a central registry of households in the UK offering up their spare rooms to refugees, but it’s not too fanciful to imagine there may soon be more offers than there are asylum seekers. Despite this summer’s refugee crisis, the UK is now receiving far fewer asylum applications than it was more than a decade ago. According to the Home Office, there were 25,771 asylum applications in the year ending June 2015, compared with 84,132 in 2002, the peak year.”

–The Guardian, “Refugees welcome! Meet the British families who have opened their homes to asylum seekers,” September 7, 2015

 

VIII. Living Magasine

There are as many ways to live as there are people in the world and yet, in the daily rush to stay afloat, the designs that constitute our home lives and form the interior stage for the most banal and heartfelt of minutiae are rarely closely interrogated by us beyond brief aesthetic or sentimental consideration. We may think of craftsmanship or environmental impact, and perhaps even of cost. While modes of shelter and decoration are also as numerous, when it comes to the roof over our head or the chairs we sit on, few of us take time to reflect upon them as psychological barometers, emotional repositories, or markers of our bodies at certain moments in our life. Even fewer of us fabricate. The imaginary has always been a powerful site for design, whether exercised to facilitate utopian futures, speculative daydreams, psychodramatic nightmares, or carefully made promises. We are often told about design’s function, its utility, and this quality is often what is then used to separate it from other modes of cultural production like painting or film. And of course, all these speculations on possible future living spaces, objects, and tools are not imagined in a vacuum. The archeological exploration for meaning has a location in the historical; the conditions that govern the designer exist in the present, in a nexus that includes the political, social, cultural, and economic as well as the body and mortality, but the imagination has no fixed temporal location in a contingent and yet-to-appear future. For a discipline often dismissed as concerned primarily with function, design’s obsession with the not-quite-yet is historic and compelling, a welcome disruption. Home is where the heart is. It is also the site of the uncanny. What does it mean to imagine a living space?

 

Michelle Millar Fisher is a curator and researcher based in New York City.

http://www.michellemillarfisher.com

 

[1] “The Beauty of Life,” a lecture before the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design (February 19, 1880), later published in Hopes and Fears for Art: Five Lectures Delivered in Birmingham, London, and Nottingham, 1878 – 1881 (London: Ellis & White,1883).

[2] William Morris, “How I Became a Socialist,” first published in Justice, June 16, 1894), reprinted in William Morris: Selected Writings, edited by G. D. H. Cole (London: The Bodly Head, Ltd), 655-59 ;and Political Writings of William Morris, edited by A. L. Morton (London: Lawrence & Wishart, Ltd.),240-245.

[3] Marty Arbunich, “The Catherine Munson Story,” iEichler Networkn.d., accessed March 3, 2016, http://www.eichlernetwork.com/article/catherine-munson-story.

[4] Cory Buckner, A. Quincy Jones (London: Phaidon, 2002).

[5] Karrie Jacobs, “Saving The Tract house,” New York Times, May 15, 2005., accessed March 3, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/15/magazine/saving-the-tract-house.html?_r=0.

[6] Dunne & Raby, “Project Info,” Dunne & Raby, accessed March 3, 2016, http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/projects/71/0.

[7] Annie Murphy Paul, “Your Brain on Fiction,” New York Times, March 17, 2012, accessed March 3, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html.

 

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