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Home is the answer,
But what’s the question?


Smart technologies and connected devices are breaking down the walls of the places we once regarded as the safe shelter called ‘home’. Now, they are transforming into data factories, where every activity of the inhabitants is qualified and advertised. Joseph Grima investigated this development in his Introduction to the book SQM. The Quantified Home, edited and published in 2014.

Yesterday Grima, the Creative Director of Design Academy Eindhoven, participated in a debate about the Age of Automation, featured in the academy’s Arena, together with graduate Marie Caye (and her robot SAM), designers Henrique Nascimento and Erik Vlemmix, and Sven Nyholm, assistant professor Philosophy & Ethics at TU Eindhoven.

By Joseph Grima

‘Take a flat which is one size smaller than what your parents accustomed you to.’
Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture

‘Architecture,’ Le Corbusier once wrote, ‘is one of the most urgent needs of man, for the house has always been the indispensable and first tool he has forged for himself.’1  Even in a time of diminished confidence in architecture’s ability to face up to society’s challenges, we still sit at tables, sleep in beds, rest on sofas, cook in kitchens, wash in bathrooms, just as we have done for centuries. Aren’t we still as dependent on the same essential functions of architecture that every epoch has grappled with? Has anything really changed?

This text is less about the house as a physical envelope, the mechanistic challenge of providing shelter, than it is about the extended notion of the home—that complex universe of overlapping cultural references, daily rituals, practical needs, unspoken desires and aspirations in perpetual evolution that converge in architectural space. It is about the often-overlooked realm of the interior as a space of negotiation and compromise between one’s condition and one’s aspirations; about the house as the elementary particle of society and a stage upon which, for millennia, the theatre of everyday life has unfolded, mediated by the objects and furnishings we choose to surround ourselves with.

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A chair is still a chair
Even when there's no one sitting there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home
When there’s no one there

As Dionne Warwick suggests in her 1964 hit A House Is not a Home, the domestic sphere is so much more than the sum of the functions it performs; it is a unique moment where architecture acts as a bridge between intimacy and sociality. A year later, Reyner Banham, never one to miss the opportunity for a pop culture reference, borrowed the song’s title, inverting it, as the point of departure for his satirical critique of the unfolding technological takeover of the American home, ‘The Home Is not a House.’ Banham’s provocation is to strip the dwelling of its recognizable form, replacing it with a mechanically-serviced ‘environment bubble’ that ticks all the boxes (through technological means, naturally) of each one of the home’s functional prerequisites. As such, despite its radical appearance, Reyner Banham’s and François Dallegret’s domesticity package remains the means to an end which has not changed substantially for millennia, and which coincides with pretty much every proposal of domestic architecture from Levittown to Maison Dom-ino: to provide ‘shelter from the heat, cold, rain, thieves and the inquisitive.’2

When Fritz Lang traveled to New York in October 1924, the strength of the architectural experience was enough to inspire a film that would lay the foundations for one of the enduring myths of modernity: that the urban landscape is destined to undergo dramatic change at the hands of mile-high skyscrapers or flying cars, but that the essential relationship between architecture and daily life — i.e. that the latter would largely take place in the former according to the same familiar protocols — would remain the same (a myth that lives on to this day in sci-fi spectaculars from The Fifth Element to Elysium). In part, of course, this is down to the dramatization of storytelling—dystopia should at least look good—but it also highlights how difficult it is to speculate on the more nuanced and less easily represented ways in which everyday life changes while leaving the architectural envelope untouched. It is in the space between the definitions of ‘house’ and ‘home’ – architectural typology versus elementary particle of the social sphere – that the changes that are most significant, yet most difficult to parse, take place.

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‘Remember when a house was somewhere you lived, wine was drunk because it tasted good, and art was something to be considered not appraised? Probably not,’ quips this morning’s Quartz.com homepage. ‘They are all “asset classes,” things to invest in for the reasons that you can and, perhaps one day, somebody else will pay you more for it.’3
Of the ‘asset classes’ mentioned above, houses enjoy a condition apart from the rest: whereas most people can comfortably get by without owning classic cars, works of art, or cellars full of vintage wines, everyone needs a home. As anyone who has attempted to buy (or even rent) a place to live is painfully aware of, the privilege of inhabiting an investment doesn’t come cheap. Ironically, there is an uncanny resonance between the article’s by-line and a famous passage of Vers une architecture (published almost a century earlier):

A house will no longer be this solidly-built thing which sets out to defy time and decay, and which is an expensive luxury by which wealth can be shown; it will be a tool as the motor car is becoming a tool. 4

The accuracy of Le Corbusier’s prophecy is such that it seems to almost make a mockery of the author’s earnest ideologies. In the white-hot real estate markets of late capitalist economy, houses (and indeed cars) are tools of an entirely new and singular variety. A house-tool will no longer be a solidly-built thing, since its primary function—accumulating value on the market, currently to the tune of £4,500 per week on average in London 5 —bears little or even no relation to its ability to perform as a dwelling, any more than a collectible car’s value is related to its usefulness as a means to go shopping. In both cases, their value as tools is derived from their condition of scarcity.

So great is the demand for ultra-high-end luxury properties in global hubs such as London, New York, and Hong Kong that it is not unusual for buyers to race to purchase them before they even exist. In 2013 the penthouse of 432 Park Avenue in New York, the tallest residential building in the Western hemisphere, was snapped up for $95 million—even though only ten floors had been completed at the time. In the same city, so profitable is the luxury investment market that developers can only be lured into putting up ‘affordable’ housing with the promise of support from the municipality, highlighting the widening gap between the very wealthy and the middle class in a city where the median family income has fallen eight percent since 2008. Rafael Viñoly, the building’s architect, put it this way: ‘There are only two markets, ultra luxury and subsidized housing.’6

As is almost always the case with the former, the vast majority of 432 Park Avenue’s units will only be occupied occasionally (making the term ‘luxury residence’ something of a misnomer). ‘Homes’ of this kind, especially desirable ones in global cities, represent an easily concealed parking lot for capital—a Swiss bank account hiding in plain sight, so to speak—which carries the added benefit of lightning returns: 2013 saw a thirty-percent price increase on the average Manhattan property, which analysts attribute primarily to sales in the high-end market.7  Paradoxically, the unquenchable thirst for football-pitch-sized billionaire pads is thus giving rise to a dramatic growth in all other market segments. The ongoing race to one-up previous records at the high end (latest offering: a nine-story penthouse in the Woolworth Building for $110 million) is distorting the market so significantly that those who could previously afford a one-bedroom apartment are being forced to downsize. As a consequence, residential typologies such as the kitchenless apartment, outlawed in New York City in 1929, are now making a return. In early 2012, mayor Michael Bloomberg launched the adAPT NYC competition with the aim of soliciting proposals for micro-housing from alliances of developers and architects. A pilot project comprising fifty-five units ranging in size from 250 to 370 square feet (23 to 34 m2) was erected on 27th Street in Manhattan. Yet, replicating the prototype would require the city’s zoning laws, which currently specify a 400-square-foot (37 m2) minimum for dwelling units, to be rewritten.

‘Manhattanism’ Rem Koolhaas points out in Delirious New York, ‘is the one urbanistic ideology that has fed, from its conception, on the splendors and the miseries of the urban condition.’8 It is therefore unsurprising that an abyss separates the city’s sprawling peaks of domestic grandeur from its cramped valleys of indigence; nor is it astonishing that this abyss, in line with a broader polarization of wealth in the city is growing. What is visible in Manhattan is less of an exception than the exacerbation of a trend equally present in less competitive markets. From the 1970s on, not only did both average and median size of dwellings increase, the gap between the two increased as well. While in 1980 the difference between average square meters and median square meters in the US was 13.5, by 2010 it had surged to 20.7 m2 under pressure from the powerful distorting effects of a few very large properties.9

There are many statistics that can offer insight into the accelerating divergence between income and the cost of housing over the past forty years. The origins of this polarization at all scales (supersizing at the top end of the market vs. contraction at the bottom end, shrinking in dense city centers vs. expansion in the suburbs, and so on) can be traced back to the early 1970s, and the onset of what Tyler Cowen called ‘the Great Stagnation.’ Had the salary of the median North American worker continued to grow at the rate it did between 1945 and 1970, he or she would now be making over $200,000 a year—which one can safely assume would be sufficient to provide a comfortable dwelling. No such thing happened; from the 1970s wages flattened out, and if one discounts the richest ten percent, then annual incomes have only risen by about ten percent, while the average price of homes more than doubled. Or take the increasingly precarious nature of jobs in late-capitalist economies, which offer few long-term guarantees of one’s ability to pay a mortgage. There seems to be no end to the gloom in the future outlook for the young or dispossessed: not only are those aspiring to live alone asked to settle for less space, they must settle later. More years of higher education, the burden of student debt, historically low starting salaries, stringent credit rules, and a jittery housing market have aligned to create an environment of unprecedented hostility to those wishing to buy a home.10 As for renters, they hardly fare better; surging demand fueled by those unable to purchase has left an entire generation with the choice between protracted sharing, and an ongoing struggle to contain housing costs below the ‘recommended’ thirty percent of income.11

‘God didn’t die,’ Giorgio Agamben once stated, ‘he was transformed into money’, and perhaps one could say the same of the modern home. Around the time growth trends in income and property value parted company—the former stationary, the latter ballooning—the US mortgage industry took off with the creation of Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, enterprises that buy mortgages on the secondary market to pool and sell them as a mortgage-backed security to investors on global markets. On the one hand, widespread access to credit (or rather, to debt) provides the missing bridge between stagnant incomes and vertiginous house prices; on the other, it signals the completion of a conceptual shift so fundamental that it went almost unnoticed: the financialization of the home.

If in the 1920s, Le Corbusier could convincingly describe a house as a shelter against heat, cold, rain, thieves, and the inquisitive—all demands that could be satisfied through architecture—to do so in the present context of speculation-driven markets would be to ignore its core function within the economy as an instrument of profit-making. The home is no longer a tangible product that has inherent material value; its primary value is as an immaterial entity on the global financial market capable of generating capital—split up, pooled, and sold on at the speed of light with millions of others. Through this somewhat perverse inversion between the financial and the real, homeowners themselves come to be viewed as financially exploitable. The home becomes the place of virtual encounter between everyday life and and global economic infrastructure.

The extent to which the two have become entangled was laid bare in 2008 when the markets crashed, as if to vindicate Engels’ insistence that there is no such thing as a housing crisis, only a crisis of capitalism in which housing conditions formed just ‘one of the innumerable smaller, secondary evils.12 It’s as if, at the dawn of the 21st century no clear line separates the physical space of the personal from the immaterial space of the financial: we are asked to look on at the convulsions of the housing market (rocketing up today, crashing tomorrow) with the same helplessness as the capricious spasms of the stock market. In 2013, Thomas Piketty shocked Western countries by exposing them to a pitiless snapshot of the structural inequality their economies engender. Unsurprisingly, a share of his research revolves around the question of real estate; through the parsing of epic amounts of data, he demonstrated that housing has been the main component in the growing importance of capital since 1970.13 Across all eight countries in his sample—Australia, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US—the average increase in the ratio of housing capital to income was 186%, while the average increase in the ratio of other capital to income was only 44%. Over the past forty-five years, housing has represented roughly eighty percent of the overall increase of capital in Western countries. We literally inhabit one of the primary assets of our economies.

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In an aside halfway through his 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon tells the story of Byron, a sentient light bulb who, having reached his 800th hour of service, requires to be maintained. A technician wearing seven-inch spiked heels and asbestos-lined gloves is sent out; as she unscrews him from the socket, an impulse spreads across the electric grid, and every bulb everywhere, at the speed of light, is aware of what has happened. Sentient appliances are no longer a matter of fiction; they are populating our homes, transforming them into social spaces not just for people but for objects, intent on communicating with us and among themselves. If one could once speak of a spatial equivalence between intimacy and the walls of the home (the shield against ‘the inquisitive’), these barriers are now dissolving, torn down by ‘smart’ technologies and connected devices.

Once a sanctuary from prying eyes, the home is now a geotagged broadcasting studio from where we share our most intimate moments and display our carefully-curated online identities. Smartphones and laptops transform every space into a workplace—according to an IKEA survey, 12% of employed Londoners have worked from their bathrooms. In the age of networked everything, technology is the silent observer of our daily lives, and the home the locus of a final transaction exchanging privacy for convenience. If data is the new oil, the home is the next Texas. The contemporary home is indeed a machine, not in the Jacques Tati-esque sense of an assembly of moving parts as much as a factory of data where every activity of its inhabitants is quantified and broadcast, to the tune of one gigabyte per week.14

The rise of network technology, paired with conditions of widespread economic hardship, has made possible a scenario not unlike the one described in the mid-nineteenth century by bourgeois social reformer Emil Sax, cited (and refuted) by Engels in The Housing Question. Sax suggested that extending homeownership would transform workers into capitalists, by enabling them, in difficult times, to generate income from real estate. The meteoric ascent of the short-term rental platform Airbnb has arguably just as much to do with the arrival of ‘hard times’ as with the ease with which it connects demand and supply, or with the increase in travel. ‘For those of us trying to survive in some of the most expensive cities in the world—where everyone wants to live, but fewer and fewer people can afford to,’ one author on Vice put it, ‘[Airbnb] might even be what allows us to be able to pay the rent.’15

Active in 190 countries with 300,000 listings, Airbnb is transformative primarily through its pervasiveness—the implied assumption that sooner or later every home will be on the market and available for rent. It propounds a narrative of post-domesticity, a new relationship with inhabitation that transcends the stability of the home and replaces it with the notion of ‘drifting nomadism’ practiced by its founder, the former industrial designer Brian Chesky, who claims not to have owned a home since 2010. ‘At our core,’ he stated, ‘Airbnb is not about homes. We want to make sure every trip you have is an amazing experience.’16 In many ways the Airbnb’s global domination could be described as a late-capitalist, neoliberal fulfilment of Constant Nieuwenhuys’ dream for New Babylon—a city whose denizens ‘wander through the sectors … seeking new experiences, as yet unknown ambiances […] Without the passivity of tourists.’

At the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, a group of architects devoted an autonomous pavilion to Airbnb to question the effects on the city once its constitutive element has become a financial tool. Dedicating a pavilion, normally reserved for the self-portrayal of countries on the international stage, to a corporation underlined the extent to which Airbnb constitutes a transnational urban entity of a new kind. In a moment of unprecedented economic pressure on the home, the allure of ‘free money’ in the form of monetizing one’s own domicile is a powerful one, one that can reshape both the city and our relationship with the home. As the market seeps through its walls and into the bedroom, the paradigm of the home as a space of intimacy, separate from work, is replaced with that of the home as an asset in an even deeper sense, in which no distinction exists between the private sphere and the marketplace: the ultimate realization of the neoliberal ideal of making everyone an entrepreneur of themselves. As Engels predicted in The Housing Question, ‘all wage workers can be turned into capitalists without ceasing to be wage workers.’17

Vers une architecture ends with the famous admonition,

Architecture or revolution.
Revolution can be avoided. 18

It is hard not to perceive Le Corbusier’s words as having been ignored, and not to see recent uprisings (both global, such as the rise of the Occupy movement, and local, as in the protests of young people against the cost of rents in Tel Aviv in 2012) as early indications of the fulfillment of his prediction. One thing is certain, however: there is no turning back, and the home as we once knew it no longer exists, not so much in its physical form as in the place it holds in our culture.
 

(This text was first published in 2014 as the Introduction to SQM. The Quantified Home, ed. Space Caviar (Joseph Grima, Andrea Bagnato, Tamar Shafrir), published by Lars Müller Publishers, Zürich. The research for SQM was commissioned by the Biennale Interieur, Kortrijk. ‘Home is the answer’ was republished in DAE’s Graduation catalogue 2017.)

1 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (New York: Dover, 1986), 13.
2 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 114.
3 Kabir Chibber, ‘Meet the Latest Investment You Can’t Afford,’ Quartz, August 30, 2014, qz.com/258128.
4 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 237.
5 Juliet Stott, ‘The House Price Windfall that Is Seeing Londoners Cash In and Move Out,’ The Guardian, June 7, 2014. gu.com/p/3pq53.
6 Charles V. Bagli, ‘Sky High and Going Up Fast: Luxury Towers Take New York,’ New York Times, May 19, 2013.
7 Andrew Rice, ‘Stash Pad,’ New York, June 29, 2014, nymag.com/news/features/foreignershiding-money-new-york-real-estate-2014-6.
8 Rem Koolhaas, Delerious New York. A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, ed. Monacelli Press New York, 1994, 10.
9 ‘Characteristics of New Housing,’ United States Census Bureau, 2014, census.gov/construction/chars/completed.html.
10 Jonas Fisher and Martin Gervais, ‘Why Has Home Ownership Fallen Among the Young?,’ International Economic Review 52, no.3 (2011): 883–912.
11 It is interesting to compare the present recommendation of not spending more than a third with Mrs. Beeton’s advice to Victorian Londoners: ‘The rent of a house, it has been said, should not exceed one-eighth of the whole income of its occupier.’ Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management, London 1868, 20.
12 Friedrich Engels, ‘The Housing Question,’ in Marx and Engels Collective Work,1872-3, re-issued in 1887, 318.
13 Thomas Piketty, Le capital au 21e siècle, Ed. Du Seuil, Paris, 2013. Capital in the 21st Century, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2014.
14 IKEA, ‘Life at Home: Report #1,’ 2014, lifeathome.ikea.com.
15 Alice Speri, ‘Airbnb Will Probably Get You Evicted and Priced Out of the City,’ Vice, April 24, 2014, news.vice.com/article/airbnb-will-probably-get-you-evicted-and-priced-out-of-the-city.
16 Brian Chesky at the ‘Disrupt SF’ conference, September 8, 2014.
17 Friedrich Engels, ‘The Housing Question’, part 2.
18 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 289.

Published: 23-Oct-2017 10:31
  • Design in the Age of Automation

    Joseph Grima (right) talking during the Round Table discussion 'Post-labour futures in a new age of automation' at The Arena during Graduation Show 2017. Image by Ellen Pearson

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