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Public house: the city folds into the space of the home

Heath robinson sports without broad acres architectural review

As billions of people are confined to their homes, the public realm has collapsed and the domestic sphere is expanding into the city in its place

Exceptional situations have historically highlighted the weakest points of our civilisation. If they lasted long enough, they opened up new improvised ways of life that later served as an impetus for future developments. Covid-19 heralded the most recent of these exceptional situations, the first pandemic in the globalised world – a world that was known to be fragile, but was not thought to be quite as weak as the coronavirus has proved it to be. Governments responded by implementing purely defensive measures, promoting the quarantine of the population, a defence system taken directly from the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century, exposing how more effective solutions have not been developed over the centuries. This lack of preparation sheds brutal light on political inefficiency around the world, but it has also led to a rediscovery of the home as a central place in people’s lives, a crucial structure from which to weather the crisis.

Piranesi campo marzio architectural review

Piranesi campo marzio architectural review

Piranesi’s Campo Marzio dell’Antica Rome of 1762 shows the city as a continuous interior, without distinguishing between public and private space

Until recent events, the home had undergone a process of expansion beyond its own physical boundaries, a process mainly started by the feminist revolution of the 1960s, which saw women fight against the domestic bond, giving way to a slow but inexorable transformation of the house itself and its role in the city. The gender revolution introduced women into productive dynamics. They freed themselves from domestic confinement, and were gradually included in traditional productive urban environments. Since there wasn’t a designated person to take care of all domestic necessities, the home became self-referential and independent. As the home gradually emptied itself, domesticity began to expand into the city.

‘This crisis has shed a light on issues that might have been ignored previously, giving them new urgency’

This process was further strengthened by the recent digital revolution which, according to Manuel Castells, stimulated the emergence of new lifestyles based on speed of action, growing individuality and the expansion of public relations. Pace has replaced ubiquity, changing the way everyday life is measured: from hours and days to seconds and nanoseconds, as is evident from the economic fluctuations of the financial market. Communication flows have accelerated and our complete availability is required in every aspect of life. This new informational layer overlaps the material one, augments its capacity, and renders the temporal variable predominant over the spatial one. If it is possible to access numerous and different realities without physically moving, by dint of a device capable of enabling the digital layer, such as a smartphone or a computer, the public environment becomes omnipresent. Events, news, initiatives, places and activities from all over the world are now ever-present in daily life, with unprecedented capillarity and accessibility. This saturation of information and its ease of access also hides a generalised control of information flows by a few companies, causing specific data targeting. The external, public sphere is merging with the personal, private one, occupying the same space and the same time.

Paolo ventura architectural review

Paolo ventura architectural review

Source: Paolo Ventura courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery

As in the present pandemic, a world of exteriors has given way to a world of interiors. Working from home accentuates the hyperconnectedness of our lives. It is now so much more difficult to switch off

Consequently, traditional dualities such as man/woman, work/leisure, house/office, domestic/urban, inside/outside, disappear as the house further expands into the city and augments on the web. While the house becomes progressively public, the city becomes increasingly domesticated. Aspects, patterns and behaviours from the domestic sphere are expressed in bars, offices, museums, cultural centres, squares, stations and airports. The idea of a traditional house as a refuge from external anxieties, which dates back to the 18th century, weakens as the population gets closer and closer to the ‘nomadic’ idea of Deleuze and Guattari, in constant movement and without a specific condition of belonging. The house loses its exclusively private character to be completely opened to the public sphere. From being a closed microworld, the house is a node in an infinite series of global relationships in a hyperconnected, public, accessible, and visible world. A world of exteriors.

The pandemic abolished public space in an instant, promptly labelling it as dangerous and harmful to health. Parks and squares were fenced off to avoid gatherings of people, all spaces with commercial activities closed, as well as recreational ones, while streets are now quickly crossed, avoiding human contact at all costs. The only form of public activity to remain unchanged is that of home deliveries: Glovo, Deliveroo, Amazon, are the new citizenship. Covid-19 has seen health prioritised, sidelining the old queen, the economy. The mantras of ‘just do it’, of ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’, have been replaced by that of #stayathome. Our world of exteriors is transformed into a world of continuous interiors, as expressed in Piranesi’s Campo Marzio where the city is drawn as a sequence of buildings, without streets, without squares, without facades. A world without public space identifies once more with the absolute domesticity of Emanuel de Witte’s paintings, where the house is the proud protagonist with no public life at all, instead of the absolute publicness of the contemporary stencils of Banksy, who uses urban space as a political terrain to focus attention on public conflicts.

Emanuel de witte architectural review

Emanuel de witte architectural review

Source: Emanuel de Witte

The house has for centuries been a sanctum from public space, epitomised by the paintings of Emanuel de Witte

Zoom architectural review

Zoom architectural review

As towns and cities around the world are on lockdown, social and professional activities are increasingly encroaching on our homes

The idea of an empty public space seemed unimaginable in 21st-century societies. In recent years, most of the houses in metropolitan centres have been converted, split and adapted, leveraging more and more the public sphere. According to European Commission statistics, around 35 per cent of urban housing in Europe is small houses, with poorly equipped kitchens, little living and storage space, and many with little natural lighting, without cross ventilation, or even external views – a number that is constantly on the rise. However, because the configuration of these homes relies on their expansion into the urban sphere, they prove inadequate when public space becomes inaccessible. In the face of the current crisis, their limitations are painfully exposed.

‘The house of the pandemic is rediscovered as a total centre of human life’

Today, nostalgia invades our little homes, recalling life before quarantine and producing new forms of socialisation, solidarity and care that seek to find comfort in the atomised fractions of public space that we hold onto. Balconies and roofs are reimagined as new alternatives to the urban piazza, becoming sites where it is possible to communicate, make new friends, flirt, sing, dance, exercise, all from a ‘safe distance’. People try every way to find a new public dimension, sometimes by literally opening the houses to the outside, transforming the architectural elements of the windows, porches, thresholds, roofs and balconies into new collective devices. A human being is a collective being, as reported in many of Heath Robinson’s illustrations from the 1930s where he emphasises the different possible urban relationships in modern buildings.

Despite our best efforts, communities come together more powerfully in the virtual world. While the material public space has almost disappeared, there is an unprecedented emergence of the digital public space: the only way to ‘get out’ of the house. Omnipresent digital devices are no longer limited in sharing subjective experience with the material world, now they almost completely replace the spatial and social needs that were previously developed in the city as well; they represent the main way to create a new complex public reality, which can somehow extend the limits of the mandatory quarantined domestic environment beyond its physical limits. They generate new sorts of collective but also domestic behaviours.

Rear window alfred hitchcock architectural review

Rear window alfred hitchcock architectural review

Source: Neighbours’ activities become the focus of attention of the wheelchair-bound protagonist of Hitchcock’s Read Window

As the urban environment expands in the domestic sphere through digital networks, it causes a revolution in the perception of the home itself. Private and intimate environments are put into direct communication. Video chats project our homes into the homes of our loved ones, but also those of our employers, and even those of strangers. Kevin Ashton’s ‘internet of things’ could be paradoxically turned into an ‘internet of houses’. As we try to maintain and nurture human relationships, the aesthetics of the home are superimposed onto those of the city, potentially generating a new perception of the urban environment. There is no longer a bar to go for coffee, but there are millions of kitchens; there is no longer a square in which to meet, there are millions of living rooms. Collective film streams try to compensate for cinema closures while gym classes have never been this full, with hundreds of people following live workouts. New digital championships arise, bringing together professionals, amateurs and e-gamers. From sports and entertainment to exhibition openings, almost every traditional collective activity may today be found in its digital alter ego, sacrificing at the same time physical contact, closeness and the idea of space as a three-dimensional articulation of lives. 

Arnar Ásgeirsson architectural review

Arnar Ásgeirsson architectural review

In a very different dissection of voyeurism, the house of the pandemic has become the centre of human life, as revealed in a section of the apartment building by Arnar Ásgeirsson

Above all, the rise of remote working is perhaps the most obvious and necessary of these digital activities. Maurizio Lazzarato’s immaterial labour has finally succumbed to smart working, revealing that it is an affordable alternative for many. Despite its advantages, this shift also exacerbates class divisions and socio-economic inequalities. Only activities related to immaterial labour can be delocalised; the fact that this kind of work could also be done in homes means that it is incorporated in the general idea of ‘domestic unproductivity’, and therefore can often be devalued, resulting in reduced wages and levels of assistance. Working from home could lead to the further dissolution of the idea of leisure, entering an alienating 24/7 work dynamic.

At the same time, working from home could seriously undermine the habit of going to the office, causing a complete rethink of both houses and cities. In fact, houses will probably have to be designed, built and regulated from now on with the possibility of teleworking in mind, incorporating spaces and places where it is possible to configure work devices and where they can be used in peace and with efficiency. The house, for the first time in its history, can be defined as productive in the capitalist sense of the term, moving away from its historically reproductive role as exposed by the feminist movement. If houses are structured to spatially accommodate immaterial production, the need for offices in cities may falter. The entire urban structure born during industrialisation may have to undergo a heavy restructuring, finding ways to fill new urban voids.

Rooftop dining jeremy cohen architectural review

Rooftop dining jeremy cohen architectural review

Source: Jeremy Cohen

Private outdoor spaces try to replace the urban piazza during the pandemic. Documenting activities on New York’s rooftops, photographer Jeremy Cohen sent his phone number to a neighbour by drone and had a long-distance dinner date with her

When activities of this expanded domesticity return to the house altogether with new uses, they will demand a new flexibility, perfectibility and adaptability. The house of the pandemic is rediscovered as a total centre of human life. It recalls the model of that suburban house of the last century, with some key differences: the house of the pandemic does not have the suburban home’s generous size, or the recluse figure, the woman, to take care of domestic chores. It is a house that no longer has the structure and spaces to become completely autonomous, nor even that is able to abandon itself to the urban environment. It is a model that was not ready either for this crisis or for other recent ones – it is a model that needs to be questioned. 

Between the scale of the minimum cell of the house and the total cell of the city, Covid-19 highlights the importance and necessity of the community at a medium scale, especially for that huge part of the metropolitan European population (about 60 per cent according to Eurostat) which no longer reflects the idea of a traditional family unit: people who live alone or in pairs, the elderly, students and young workers among them. For this part of the population it is necessary to define a house as a sum of collective spaces and times starting from a small but central housing nucleus. Places facing outwards, preferably with balconies, with accessible and equipped roofs, with access to collective services, digital devices to enter the virtual world, enough space for internal activities. Places that allow greater vitality in moments of crisis, but which at the same time allow greater resilience, protection and caring of the population by the population itself, avoiding the shadow of social isolation.

Heath robinson sports without broad acres architectural review

Heath robinson sports without broad acres architectural review

Source: The Heath Robinson Museum

William Heath Robinson illustrated KRG Browne’s How to Live in a Flat, poking fun at the cramped architecture of the 1930s

Houses will struggle to grow significantly in size again: it does not make sense to go back to an unsustainable and inequitable past, but neither must they blindly enter into a future where inequalities change only in form. While we shouldn’t be designing homes and cities solely for periods of quarantine, this crisis has shed a light on issues that might have been ignored previously, giving them new urgency. The idea of community and the need to share and care have risen in priority. If our cities and our homes are not suitable for these needs in exceptional circumstances, it means they are not strong enough, not resilient enough, not good enough for the more ‘normal’ times we will slowly be getting back to.

This piece is featured in the AR June 2020 issue on Inside – click here to buy your copy today