“Home is where one starts from”, wrote T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets (1943), and from there, “the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated”.1
The project of the home is existential. Long before homo sapiens explored caves for safety, warmth and hoarding, other ancient earth dwellers had already learnt to hide in crevices of seabed, to anchor woven straw and twigs onto structurally sound tree branches. Our skill to identify a place to live, to build and maintain a nurturing home, is foundational to our survival as a species. Fast forwarding to the anthropocenic present, our ability to amass extraordinary amounts of resources to construct these homes, and in so doing alter the deep geological and biological processes of our primordial home planet is, within the stretch of our observable reality, unprecedented, unmatched and running unchecked.
The evolution of the home from the primitive hut to the 500-billion-dollar US construction industry is complex and nonlinear. The transformation itself of home to house seems to be worth paying attention to. Until not so long ago, the architecture of the home differed significantly from culture to culture. These differences were reflected in the very language used to refer to the place. Italians lived in the casa, a structure that holds together; French in the maison, a place to remain; Slavs in the dom, a consciously built construction; and Chinese in the wu, a roof over the head. Each version represented a unique idea of what was to take place in the home and how its inhabitants related to each other. Today, most of us in the so-called “developed” world either live in a house or in its condensed version, an apartment. Etymologically, the word “house” is derived from the Old English hus, a place that protected people or things, such as grain or livestock, from the elements. People hardly lived in the hus. In the 17th century, however, Dutch merchants moved into the huis and elevated it to a status symbol, amassing impressive wealth and commodities to be stored in their domestic space. The huis became a site for displays of taste and refinement, with its early role as a shelter for possessions remaining intact.In a typical Dutch huis, a compact and often steep staircase acts as the spine of a multistory building. On each floor, bedrooms, kitchen, dining room and bathrooms are self-contained and can be closed off completely from adjacent spaces with doors. As a means of storing property, the architecture of the huis treated its inhabitants as inanimate objects to be sorted and stored away in discrete compartments. It was not its prerogative to participate in the messiness and uncertainty inherent to the everyday. With a rise in productivity during the Industrial Revolution, and growing demands on work and life, the relative passivity inside the
modern-day huis – house – provided repose and ease. We found ourselves at home in the house.
The house’s passive nature and its primal function as storage also aligned with the double “wheels” of capitalism: mass production and mass consumption. Thus, the form thrived. We became increasingly reliant on objects produced, desired and accumulated inside the house to define a large part of our identity. The 2008 financial crisis, however, exposed the solidity of the house as an illusion. As houses became derivatives to be traded in modern-day “bucket shops”, millions of homeowners were expelled from their cozily padded containers overnight, leaving our sense of home exposed and besieged.
Inside the seemingly indifferent walls of the house, however, human relationships continued to transform and complexify. Destabilized by unprecedented mobility and infiltrated by new technologies, domestic life today is full of contradictions, ambiguities and obsolescence. In metropolises like New York City, people dwelling alone outnumber those living within some kind of family structure. In an attempt to fill that void, tech giants like Amazon, Google and Apple compete fiercely to install themselves as intimate and indispensable partners within our homes. Behind the apparent dependability of new technologies, however, hides the insidious risk of allowing one’s agency to be steadily eroded, veneered with prefabricated substitutions. We see domesticity packaged, branded, marketed and sold in an almost pornographic manner. Commercial enterprises like Airbnb put our most intimate spaces on display, peddling inhabitable Pinterest boards crafted for the social media generation. All-service urban-lifestyle apartments like WeLive offer shared kitchens, cafés that double as lobbies, and on-site pet day care in an imitation of the communal, hawking the live-in amenity as a mercurochrome cure for loneliness.
Many of the problems with our perception of the home today can be traced back to its transformation into the huis – in its role as storage, a repository, of things to be traded. This highly static conception of the home has little to offer regarding how we should relate with one another, or with the environment around us. While it encourages personal expression through possessions, it does not do so through behavior – and it certainly does not encourage us to live more uniquely, more collectively or more elastically. We have become estranged from the more nuanced notions of home. How do we break free of the house in order to reclaim the home? This is a question we have been examining for some time at SO – IL. Through our involvement in the Home Futures exhibition at the Design Museum in London 2019 curated by Eszter Steierhoffer and Justin McGuirk, we began to see more concretely how recent historical precedent might help us arrive at a different conception for the future of the home.
“How are we to proceed in order to effect a necessary rehabilitation of the mystified consciousness? […] by starting with the portrait of the most prosaic of men in his everyday life”.
Henri Lefebvre, Norbert Guterman, La conscience mystifiée (1931)
Post-war Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara “believe[ed] that it will further become possible for the homes we create to offer a total view of what it is to be human”. The weekend home that he designed for the poet Shuntarō Tanikawa in 1974 became a critical point in Japanese architecture, shifting its focus toward its own history and tradition. Next to a “winter house” – which was designed like a pioneer cabin, compact and efficient – Shinohara made a “summer house” with an inclined earthen floor which he deemed “the naked space”.2 In this superfluously large and “useless”space there lived only a sculpture of a rooster, a ladder to nowhere, a single bench and an expressive wooden structure supporting the roof. One might think that the “naked” quality, as described by the architect, was deployed for ascetic effect. Quite the opposite; by avoiding the functional and logical aspects of the modern house, Shinohara directed our gaze toward the surrounding forest through the carefully placed windows, the sensorial effects of “true” materials (wood and soil) and the body’s scale in relation to the space. Through this highly curated setting, Shinohara believed it was possible to recover the interconnectedness that traditional Japanese houses had once enjoyed with the environment. He did this work with the hope of restoring the Japanese soul, which he felt had been lost in the process of post-war reconstruction.
While Shinohara tried to reclaim a lost sense of home in nature, other designers sought for a more intimate sensory relationship. Aleksandra Kasuba, a Lithuanian-American artist, built a “Live-in
Environment” inside her brownstone apartment in New York City. Created between 1971 and 1972, the work intended to “abolish the 90-degree angle and introduce a variety of spatial experiences without imitating nature”.3 Translucent, elastic nylon, a fabric used primarily for military parachutes, was stretched between the ceiling and the floor in fluid lines, resulting in sensuous curves and soft tensions. The artist redrew the generic, rectangular plan of the brownstone with sculptured daylight, layers of translucency and infinite depth of space. Rather than use ordinary furniture to assign functions to spaces, Kasuba deployed crochet, mohair, mirror, sound and scent to articulate the variety of experiences available in each room. In designing around her own sensorial needs, Kasuba somehow succeeded in making entirely new spatial qualities seem familiar.
Like Kasuba, the Italian designer Ugo La Pietra asked existential questions about how and where we might live. From the 1960s onwards, his militant, anti-design project “Abitare è essere ovunque a casa propria” (to live is to be everywhere in your own home) illustrated the possibility of appropriating the public realm as domestic space through a collection of makeshift furniture and spontaneous occupation. La Pietra shaved himself in storefront mirrors, hacked an abandoned plastic street barrier into a sofa and slept in the middle of the street using a portable “easel” bed. In these ad hoc situations, the home no longer exists within four walls; rather, it can be constructed as a dynamic domestic practice devised between the city and the individual. In resuscitating this relationship and insisting on exchange and negotiation between these two entities, the isolated individual can once again become aware of their intrinsic desire for connection with others, experimenting with how to establish that connection. These do-it-yourself, handcrafted objects and instructions broke down the notion that architecture is limited to static and material entities, expanding its context to include the temporal and the ritualistic.
In the information age, however, the relationship between ourselves and our environment is much more complex. It can no longer be understood as the simple binary between the individual and the collective. Instead, these two entities constantly reverberate and interfere with each other. Toyo Ito’s Pao I (1985) was a proposal for a home for a “Tokyo Nomad Girl” – played by the young Kazuo Sejima in the photographs – a cosmopolitan young woman who is single and financially self-sufficient. The transparent, dome-like structure offered her no protection from the sensory overload of Tokyo’s neon lights and electronic screens – it was a “naked” form of living. The Nomad Girl’s material possessions are minimal but of symbolic significance. Her space contained a clothing rack, a make-up stand and a mirror. By performing the simple ritual of putting on her make-up in front of the mirror, she sees in the reflection both herself and the city outside. She can see and be seen, as she becomes what electronic advertisements want her to be. In the Pao, named for a tent used by Mongolian nomads who depend upon their environment to survive, the Tokyo Nomad Girl fully surrenders herself as part of the design of a new technological world.
“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos”.
Mary Shelley, introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein
Our current decade began with a global pandemic and marks the highest recording of average global surface temperature in our current anthropocenic period. Navigating the myriad humanitarian crises arising from these conditions has presented our species with an unprecedented set of challenges. What can this teach us where our homes are concerned?
Today, the $500 billion residential construction industry makes up roughly 35% of the $1.36 trillion overall construction market in the U.S. Due to climate change, homes are increasingly exposed to flooding, wildfires and storms. In 2020, extreme weather resulted in close to $100 billion in insured losses and an additional $100 billion in government aid. In one year alone, 40% of the value of new residential construction was lost to climate disasters. Like the seabed crevices and treetop nests of our fellow earth dwellers, our homes have become increasingly perishable. It is against the backdrop of these challenges that our office has embarked upon a series of prototype projects that explore housing and living solutions as active ecosystems for improving urban life, transforming the static via flexibility and functionality.
Our design for the MINI Living “Breathe” house is a vertical,
space-saving, translucent pavilion wrapped in a light, air-filtering PVC-coated net. Developed in Japan, the fabric envelope decomposes several agents and dirt in the sun, cleaning itself as well as the air around it. Our ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) project “Pebble House” (THE PLAN 132), developed for the city of Los Angeles, explores readily deployable prefabrication techniques. The result is a more accessible and affordable iteration of this typology, meeting the needs of rapid residential densification across the U.S.
An ongoing research and development project, GreenCore considers both the preservation of an existing residential fabric and resuscitation of the embodied energy in aging structures through an energetic and rapidly deployable building core. The prototype is sited amongst the 18 balloon-frame shingle and brick-clad binuclear Neo-Georgian houses on Governors Island’s Nolan Park in New York City. Since the Coast Guards’ retreat from the island in the 1990s, these houses have sat unoccupied and dilapidated, without running water or functioning indoor climate control. The GreenCore provides new models of water, climatization, power services and accessibility for these historic homes. Using a consortium of existing technologies including rainwater harvesting, greywater filtration, biodigesters, geothermal heating and cooling, solar power and greenwall systems, the prefabricated core is conceived to be easily installed and “chained” together within multiple residences, turning suburban neighborhoods, historic neighborhoods and neighborhoods in areas of environmental vulnerability into self-sustaining enclaves of power. Aiming to be constructed by 2023, the full-scale pilot project will reside on Governors Island where it can be studied, redesigned and improved upon. In the short term, it serves to suggest alternative methods of powering and operating Governors Island, unreliant upon connections to a mainframe grid. In the long term, the evolution of the design could be adapted to a number of relevant case study areas in the region and beyond, offering an alternative to large, centralized power plants and flipping the NIMBY into a YIMBY strategy.
Projects like Breathe and GreenCore attempt to release the home from its current mode of consumption and dependence, creating a site of regeneration through new technologies. This critical transformation can manifest with modest cost, offering resiliency and agency while reducing our collective environmental footprint. Furthermore, the technological and economical realities of our world are anything but uniform, requiring us to understand the deep social and material context of each project in order to nudge it towards a more ecological and equitable future. We sought to understand and balance such particularities in the Las Américas housing project in León, Mexico (THE PLAN 131). Each year,
45 million international travelers visit Mexico, more than a third of the country’s own population. Beautifully dressed yoga-bodied spirits enter the warm waters of the Mayan Riviera; cotton-clad dreamy-eyed seekers walk upon the rich pre-Columbian soils of the Central Valley. There is no shortage of idealists who find the tree-lined boulevards, grand parks, vibrant murals and civic architecture of Mexico City an oasis of modern accomplishment.
Up until the last quarter of the 20th century, post-revolutionary Mexico under PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) administered robust state institutions such as the IMSS (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social) and ISSSTE (Instituto de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales de los Trabajadores del Estado). These provided reliable modern social services, from healthcare and pensions, to recreational and cultural facilities, to worker’s housing. These programs were the global envy of socialists idealists living in other more capitalist countries. Closely orchestrated cooperation between these institutions played an indispensable role in the country’s steady and prosperous transition from agrarianism to urbanization.
Although riddled with criticism of corruption and control, these programs imbued the country’s collective consciousness with genuine care for the welfare of all, indelibly inscribed and duly promoted in exemplary projects like the Unidad Independencia. Completed in 1960 and administered by IMSS, architects Alejandro Prieto Posada and José María Gutiérrez Trujillo fused Le Corbusier’s Radiant City with Aztec-inspired large-scale sculptures and murals in this large complex, housing a population close to 10,000 inhabitants in over 2,200 apartments.4 The entire complex comprised only 23% built area, about 10% streets and parking lots, with the remainder covered by lush green gardens, possibly owing to the history of the land preceding the complex’s development. Before becoming the Unidad, it was the Hacienda El Batán, a ranch and garden belonging to Tatsugoro Matsumoto. Settling in Mexico in 1896 from Japan, Matsumoto designed the gardens surrounding Castillo de Chapultepec, and introduced the purple-blooming jacaranda trees to Mexico. During the US-Japanese war, the Hacienda sheltered thousands of dislocated Japanese immigrants from the United States.
During John F. Kennedy’s third state visit to Latin America in 1962, Unidad Independencia was one of his official stops. “Amigos”, Kennedy declared in brief remarks at the site, “(...) I have seen in many places housing which has been developed under governmental influences, but I have never seen any [such projects] which have fountains and statues and grass and trees, which are as important to the concept of the home as the roof itself”. 5
Social housing has remained a perennial fixture in architectural discourse since Modernism. Noted for its faithful reflection of social fabrics and agency to critique the status quo, it maintains the capacity to stimulate, experiment and imagine a new narrative for the everyday. However, it has also been contrived by Modernist discourse, often seen as a singular project rather than continual revision of a site with a highly specific physical and social inheritance from within a long history of human intervention. Matsumoto’s gardens and Kennedy’s praise are as much contributing factors to Unidad Independencia’s success as are considerations of density and architectural innovation.
In Mexico, there is a wealth of precedent to draw from when considering strategies and tactics of revision and modification. Variegated prototypes from the 1930s, communal utopias envisioned between the 1940s and 1960s, and more grounded self-build housing developments in the 1970s provide an abundance of context. To varying degrees of success, these projects generally aligned governmental effectiveness with reciprocal resident support through maintenance and care. This spirit dwindled in the recurrent crises of the 1970s and 1980s with the consequent deregulation and privatization of housing development, further exacerbated by the rapid urbanization following NAFTA in 1994.6 Today, with a population surpassing 120 million, unchecked urban sprawl and scarce cooperation between federal institutions and decision makers at the local level, well-planned, socially and ecologically considered housing and urban development seem unattainable.
When IMUVI (Instituto Municipal de Vivienda de León) approached us to design a medium-density housing prototype close to the city center of León, we reminded ourselves to come to the project as gardeners. We knew that understanding the site’s particular climatic conditions and soil inheritance would invariably determine the success of the project. The city of León, with a population of 1.8 million people, is among the fastest-growing urban areas in Mexico, stimulated by a burgeoning automotive industry that relocated from the U.S. and Japan beginning in the early 2000s. IMUVI, the municipal version of IMSS and counterpart of the federal worker’s housing organization Infonavit (which has aided the liberalization of social housing in Mexico), is in alignment with the city in working to reverse the sprawl unleashed by the private market. Carefully screened prospective residents work in the informal economy and do not qualify for conventional mortgages, many making less than 7,000 USD a year. The challenge was to develop a prototype that could compete within the current extremely lean economic model of about 35,000 USD per unit. The ambition was to defy a common reluctance held toward medium-density apartment buildings and achieve an architecture that brought dignity back to social housing. As architects, we asked ourselves in what way we could amend the soil within this context.
The first technical challenge was to determine density, which is more complex than simply packing in as many inhabitants or units per square meter as possible. It required careful consideration of topics like transportation, open space, social services, commercial amenities, and unit-mix.7 Las Américas caters to families with children, given its proximity to existing social infrastructure and job opportunities. As such, we considered bigger units with two to three bedrooms and generous shared outdoor space. From a series of massing studies, we settled on 56 units. This was a significantly increased density compared to the surrounding area, but one that still retained its own open space so as not to overload the neighborhood with excessive new demand. Transportation to daycare, school, and clinics was not immediately available, so the project needed to ensure adequate parking in the development.
Labor and economics of construction were also important factors to consider in their connection to scale. While one- and two-story buildings are easily built by unskilled laborers, medium- to
large-scale buildings require more design, engineering and construction expertise. Initially, the façade of Las Américas was designed to be made of a series of prefabricated concrete panels to take advantage of the scale of the economy. The panels would rotate at various angles to create a more dynamic and non-repetitive elevation as well as differentiated views from the windows. After learning more about the labor available locally, however, we revised the design to be made of bespoke concrete blocks that stack together by hand without special skills. As such, in the DNA of the design, we minimized the necessity for special tradesmen and engineers from outside of the community, approaching the multi-story building almost as stacked single-story homes made of simple materials. In this way, the money spent to construct housing for future residents could also translate to income for existing residents, nurturing a circular economy in the development.
While the mid-rise building relied upon stairs as primary vertical circulation, imposing a height limitation, it was also crucial to look closely at the building’s relationship to the physical fabric of the site. Observing that the area was generally low-slung, and anticipating Las Américas to assume an institutional presence by default, we sited the massing at the perimeters of the block and enclosed two semi-protected open spaces in the center. This enabled the built form to hold the street edge firmly, engaging the low-slung urban fabric with a strong presence. By “swallowing” the voids in the middle, this massing strategy also allowed for the units to access abundant light and air on both sides. Equally imperative was that the building neither feel repetitive or overly rational despite its economical construction, nor that it fall short on quality. Instead of a uniform height, the massing stepped from four-stories to six-stories in a Möbius loop, with its curvilinear seams clearly marking entries into the courtyards. This sculptured move was easily achievable without added cost because of the block construction of each floor, which also provided each unit with unique fenestrations and views, and the building with an expression of handmade quality.
Although the specific combination of the site context, labor conditions, and user groups informed the design outcome of Las Américas, and might not be applicable to all projects, these conditions are nonetheless not entirely unique. The strategies deployed to strive for higher density by providing additional open space and access to infrastructure, to find the optimal relationship between common and private space, and to achieve a unit layout that maximizes the quality of light and air, can be considered prototypical. In the end, the biggest achievement in the development of Las Américas was proving that even with the limitations of a site’s economic and labor realities, it is possible to construct quality social housing that takes advantage of the existing infrastructure of a city, increases its land use, is competitive in the market and contributes positively to a neighborhood’s architectural and social fabric.
Instead of Aztec-inspired stone sculptures and murals, the custom-made concrete blocks of Las Américas register the bright Mexican sun and add a sense of communal making at a hand-made scale. Instead of continuing the garden tradition on lush land, the infill condition is leveraged to further activate the vibrant life of the existing fabric and anchor it with a new solidity. The quotidian life of its residents unfolds with joy and dignity through the recurrence of arriving home from a long day of work via protected common space, exchanging greetings and useful information with neighbors, seeing children play with each other in the courtyards and finally opening the many windows in each apartment to let fresh air through on a hot summer day without compromising privacy.
The monumental task of transforming broken social housing systems and unchecked urban sprawl worldwide requires sustained, perennial effort akin to that of a constant gardener. Although this work may not be as glamorous as designing a museum or as profitable as developing a luxury resort, the nurturing of the most ordinary aspects of daily life is a paramount responsibility of our profession and one that will have a lasting impact on the footprint we leave on the planet. Through simple acts of amending, caring and solidifying, the collective consciousness of a social landscape can emerge from the impoverished ground of our thoroughly liberalized, market-driven and post-globalized world.8
“In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. ‘The wind’, said the woman. ‘Hunters’, said the man. ‘The rain’, said the woman. ‘The army’, said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged”.
Lydia Davis, “In a House Besieged” (1986)
In many corners of the world, off the tracks of the globe trotters, affluent NIMBYers and happy day traders, homes are crumbling and under siege – a reality that 2020 has made undeniable. Beyond governmental policies and macroeconomics, there is something deeper in the spatial and material rituals within a house’s walls that architects can examine critically. From there, in the minute details of the everyday, we can work towards a new home – one that is radically different from the house we know today.
1. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Boston: Harcourt, 1943).
2. Kazuo Shinohara, “Jutaku wa geijutsu de aru” (A house is a work of art), Shinkenchiku, vol. 37, no. 1 (Tokyo: January 1962), 77.
3. Aleksandra Kasuba, “Tensile Fabric Structures”, https://www.kasubaworks.com/live-in-environment.html.
4. By comparison, the Robin Hood Gardens in London, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, and completed in 1972, housed 213 units covering 1.5 ha, twice the density of Unidad Independencia. The Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis, which consisted of 2,870 apartments in 33 eleven-story apartment buildings, was built on a 23-ha site with a density similar to that of Robin Hood Gardens. In contrast to the lush site of Unidad Independencia, both Robin Hood Gardens and Pruitt-Igoe were developed on previous “slum” sites, and Robin Hood Gardens in particular was up against a considerably more hostile environment in its design considerations. When Peter Smithson spoke about the formal decisions taken at Robin Hood Gardens, he did not speak of the typology of “the streets in the sky” in abstraction. Rather, he pointed at the precise height and angle of the perimeter wall that reflected the unpleasant sound of the motorway back to the road and the gentle slope of the landscape that discouraged noisy soccer playing in the center in order to provide a “stress-free zone”. Alison Smithson held the ceramic shards found in the nearby dockyard in her hands, contemplating the passing of the ships akin to the inevitable passing of time, and argued for the architects’ duty to produce strong architecture that can survive the adversity of the existing condition and outlast its current user, in order to build up “comparable body of quality” over time.
5. JFKWHA-111-001. Remarks at the Unidad Independencia Housing Project, Mexico City, 30 June 1962. WH-111-001, White House Audio Collection, JFK Library.
6. The ecological and social degradation seen through the lens of social housing is not a Darwinian evolutionary phenomenon to be merely passively observed. Instead, it is diagnosable to the specific policies and mechanisms that caused it to sprout and spread. From 2014 to 2016, a research project called “Rethinking Social Housing in Mexico,” led by Professor Ann Forsyth and Diane Davis, was carried out at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and sponsored by Infonavit, the largest housing loan lender in the country. The report identified the Mexican circumstances under which the neoliberal paradigm unfolded. “This shift away from state production of housing toward public financing of private development for social housing (...) in Mexico mirrored the processes of decentralization experienced during the 1990s [resulting in] significantly greater governing decision-making power to municipalities at the local level. The reality of decentralized decision-making power is one that has had a significant impact on urban development across Mexico. It is no coincidence that as social housing production was relegated to publicly financed private development, and as decision-making around urbanization plans and land use approvals fell formally to local policymakers rather than state or federal oversight, urbanization in Mexico’s metropolitan areas grew exponentially, often in the form of sprawling, low-density social housing development”.
7. In New York City, we experimented with the limits of “micro-housing” – an idea put forth by the city. Considering that many potential occupants will be single, healthcare workers who work long hours in hospitals near the project site, we pushed the boundaries of how small a legal dwelling unit could be beyond the current code minimum while still maintaining accessibility, light, quality and affordability. Together with a for-profit developer, we determined that the unit cost was allowed to come in slightly higher than comparable developments, but the density achieved was also to be higher than similar building types.
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