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Soft cell: the minimum dwelling

Promising a life free of the burden of domestic space, Hannes Meyer’s Co-op Interieur occupies a unique position in the history of the room

Hannes Meyer’s ‘Co-op Interieur’ is a photograph of a room staged by Meyer himself, using found furniture and objects: several foldaway elements – a bed, a table topped by a gramophone, two chairs, one hanging on the wall, and a shelf unit holding jars containing unknown content. A cropped version of this photograph was used by Meyer to illustrate his article ‘Die Neue Welt’ (The New World) published in the magazine Das Werk in 1926. Just one year before, the German critic Adolf Behne had used the photograph as an illustration in an article he wrote for the Berlin monthly Uhu. In his article, Behne wrote that the room was ‘extreme’ and that it would not be to everyone’s taste. 

Meyer 001 300dpi

Meyer 001 300dpi

Sparsely furnished interior composed by Hannes Meyer – illustrated in Die Neue Welt and captioned ‘Die Wohnung’ (the apartment) in 1926. Image courtesy of Galerie Berinson, Berlin 

Yet for Meyer, the design of Co-op Interieur was not a matter of taste, but of economy. It is important to know that Meyer produced Co-op Interieur in a crucial period of his life in which he was gradually moving from his involvement in the Swiss co-operative movement for whom he had designed Siedlung Freidorf in Basel (1919-21), towards a more explicit Marxist position. Indeed, as the name of the room, Co-op Interieur refers to a series of projects, artworks, exhibitions and theatre plays that Meyer conceived between 1923 and 1926 as educational propaganda for the co-operative movement. The ostensible theatricality of Co-op Interieur seems to be an extension of the scenography that Meyer designed for his Theater Co-op staged at the first international co-operative exhibition in Ghent in 1926. With his Theater Co-op, Meyer staged a series of short vignettes concerning domestic life and the advantages of co-operation against middle-class individualism. As in Bertolt Brecht’s theatre, Meyer wanted the audience not to stare romantically at the idyll of co-operativism, but to assess this way of life and take a position. Indeed the article ‘The New World’, for which Co-op Interieur was the main illustration, can perhaps be seen as Meyer’s denial of art and architecture as an idealisation of the world.

In this article, which reads as an accelerationist manifesto, Meyer describes the experience of the modern world driven by incessant technological development, intensity of social relations and increasing uniformity of human habits. As Meyer writes: ‘The standardization of mental fare is illustrated by the crowds going to see Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks and Jackie Coogan (…) Trade unions, co-operatives, LTD., Inc, cartel, trust, and the League of Nations are the forms in which today’s social conglomerations find expression; the radio and the rotary press are their media of communication. Co-operation rules the world. The community rules the individual’.

 

For Meyer, the source of these experiences was the dominance of modes of production in which co-operation – social exchange – requires the standardisation not just of objects and tools, but of life itself. A fundamental aspect of this emerging subjectivity was for Meyer the increasing uprootedness and nomadism of metropolitan living, where workers were roaming from place to place, from city to city, from nation to nation. It is interesting to note that Meyer himself was living such a life, since in those years he was constantly travelling through different European countries such as Belgium, France and Germany, often living in hotel rooms. 

170902 hannesmeyer floorplan

170902 hannesmeyer floorplan

Plan of Meyer’s Co-op Interieur

Co-op Interieur is thus the embodiment of an uprooted way of life and as such it remains a hauntingly enigmatic image. It is not clear if Meyer’s mise-en-scène is the promise of a better life, or the merciless description of an increasingly atomised and precarious existence. Even if still dominated by capital, Meyer argued in his article, standardisation and uniformity of forms of life is evidence that ‘cooperation rules the world’. Besides these explicit claims, Meyer’s Co-op Interieur can also be understood as a critique of domestic space. Rather than illustrating his manifesto with the design of a new city, Meyer addresses the most intimate, yet most common space of the modern metropolis: the private room. 

Unlike other architects such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Hilberseimer, who always presented their domestic interiors as part housing typologies, Meyer proposed the Co-op Interieur as a universal space for a generic worker. Moreover, the name of the room makes it clear that it is part of a co-operative in which, presumably, other domestic functions such as cleaning, childcare and cooking are no longer assigned to the family but instead are professionalised and undertaken by a communal organisation. 

‘We can imagine Co-op Interieur dialectically, as both the rendering of our increasing precarious domestic life and as the harbinger of space for anyone like a universal basic right’

Co-op Interieur is thus not just a representation of the precarious existence of the contemporary mass worker, but also the promise of a life liberated by the burden of domestic space. To understand the importance of Meyer’s project, it is important to situate this room within the wider frame of the history of the private room as the main core of the history of domestic space itself.  

Rooms have never been autonomous spaces, but are the result of the internal subdivision of houses. An important aspect of prehistoric forms of dwelling is the passage from circular to rectangular floor plans. Moving from semi-sedentary to sedentary forms of life, houses became not just spaces for inhabitation, but also places of accumulation and household management. 

170919 hannes mayer coop zimmer cmyk

170919 hannes mayer coop zimmer cmyk

Perpsective of Meyer’s Co-op Interieur, from The Room of One’s Own: The Architecture of the (Private) Room, by Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino Tattara, Dogma (2017)  

Consequently, the house is subdivided into different spaces, some more public than others. It is possible to argue that the architecture of a house as a multi-room complex makes the asymmetric relationships in the household obvious. These imply the dominant position of the homeowner. For example, the architecture of the Roman domus, with its processional sequence of rooms from atrium to tablinum to triclinium, was meant to celebrate the patriarchal role of the homeowner as dominus of the house.  

With the rise of capital and wage labour, the ‘private’ space of the house became not just the symbol of homeownership, but also the ‘secret abode’ of social reproduction. Only those who worked outside the house (mostly male) were remunerated and thus considered ‘workers’. Those who worked at home (mostly female) were not considered workers, their work at home being regarded as a ‘labour of love’, and so not remunerated.

The stark distinction between public and private space that arose in the modern capitalist city was meant to render the work of reproduction a family’s private affair. Yet, starting from the Renaissance, it was precisely the architecture of the house and its spatial organisation that became a pressing concern for architects. Writers and theorists such as Leon Battista Alberti and Sebastiano Serlio gave unprecedented attention to the house as a place whose architecture was defined by the social organisation of the family.  

This understanding of the family was reflected in the organisation of the house as a sequence of rooms, from those more accessible to both family members and guests, to those more secluded, dedicated to the ‘privacy’ of the house owner. The wealthy house organised through the room enfilade became a gradient of social prestige, through which the status of guests was measured: the more important the guest, the more he or she would be admitted by the homeowner to his more private rooms.

Rooms plans

Rooms plans

Variants on room plans extracted from The Room of One’s Own: The Architecture of the (Private) Room, Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino Tattara, Dogma (2017) 

Yet with the rise of housing as a mass phenomenon, the private room is no longer a symbol of prestige but an instrument of control. Social housing is born out of capitalists’ and the state’s desire to control the social reproduction of the working class. Since the 19th century, the ideal house for the lower classes was supposed to clearly individuate each member of the nuclear family. This is evident in the floor plan of houses for the labouring classes proposed by the architect and reformer Henry Roberts. In his influential ‘model for a house for four families’ (1850), Roberts subtly organised the subdivision of the house into specialised rooms such as living room, scullery, master bedroom and children’s bedroom. The more private rooms such as the bedrooms were accessible only through one door, so they could be easily sealed off from the rest of the house, just like the family house was accessible from one entrance and was strictly separated from the other family houses. In this way, privacy was granted to the lower classes with the purpose of preventing extra-family relationships among the householders and instigating in them the petit-bourgeois pride of possession.

A disruptive force in the history of domesticity was the rise of ‘minimum dwelling’, a form of housing that goes beyond the family. Following Karel Teige’s famous diagram of this typology, we can understand minimum dwelling as a form of domestic space organised around two poles: the individual cell and collective facilities. Even though – as Teige argued – the diffusion of minimum dwelling coincides with the rise of the labouring classes, it is possible to argue that a more extended genealogy of this typology brings us back to the rise of the early monastic communities. 

With their urge to find solitude, early hermetic monks found their home in the cell.  The etymology of the word ‘cell’ derives from the Latin word cella, which means small room or store room. At the beginning of its history, monasticism can be understood as an attempt to balance solitude and common life in a way that these two conditions were not in conflict.

In his book How to Live Together, Roland Barthes used the monastic community as a model for an ideal life in common. The early monks who decided to live together would occupy single huts loosely aggregated around a central space, often the church. As Barthes remarked, this condition allowed the monks to live together but apart, with each being able to preserve, as he put it, their own  ‘idiorrhythmy’ (from the Greek idios, particular, and rhythmos, rhythm, rule). In this condition they would be both isolated from and in contact with one another in idiorrhythmic clusters. Within the clusters, living together did not wholly deny the possibility of being alone. 

Alvaro arancibia the minimum dwelling karel teige 48 1024x863 inv

Alvaro arancibia the minimum dwelling karel teige 48 1024x863 inv

Diagram of Karel Teige’s Minimum Dwelling as a form of domestic space, individual and collectivised

Barthes was fascinated by this way of living, and noted that precisely this form of monasticism was the seedbed for what would later become a fundamental typology of the modern world: the single cell or single room occupancy. One of the early manifestations of single room occupancy beyond monastic life was the 19th-century reformed prison. As noted by Robin Evans in his important study on incarceration in The Fabrication of Virtue, at the end of the 18th  century there was a desire among the elite to improve incarceration by providing each inmate with their own cell. The best illustration of this form of single room occupancy is Jeremy Bentham’s model for the Panopticon (1843). Beside maximising the control of the prisoners and reducing the number of prison guards, Bentham’s Panopticon aimed to improve the ‘virtue’ of inmates by making them solitary individuals, alone in front of their duties and responsibilities, yet easily controllable by the prison manager. This logic of the cellular room was also at work in the early forms of minimum dwelling for labouring classes such as the Hatton Garden Lodging Houses (1851) designed by Henry Roberts. Here the worker – either male or female – was rendered a solitary individual by his/her own cell, just as the wage system presupposes the worker as generic individual ‘freed’ from any social bond such as family, kinship or guild. Moreover, the logic of a corridor serving cubicles helps not just efficiency of distribution, but also the control of room inhabitants by the manager. 

With the rise of metropolitan living in the 19th century, single rooms in the form of boarding houses became a more and more diffuse way of living. In spite of its commercial purpose, this form of living emancipated both male and female dwellers from the burden of domestic life, while it professionalised domestic labour, as the landlord (often a woman) also provided all domestic services. Frequently equipped with restaurants, lobbies and other facilities, residential hotels, such as those built in New York and San Francisco, provided a form of collective living that inevitably questioned the house as the natural locus of family relationships. It was for this reason that hotel living was often criticised as being immoral and it was virtually extinguished by the 1970s, just when homeownership was forcefully supported by neoliberal housing policies. Because of its disruptive role against traditional family living, the tradition of boarding houses and residential hotels was a crucial precedent for Soviet architects’ attempts to radically reform the architecture of housing towards egalitarian and communal living. 

‘The Co-op Interieur is not a home, but a single generic cell that belongs to the entirety of the metropolis’

In today’s housing crisis, driven by the extreme commodification of houses and land, the minimum dwelling is returning in cities such as New York, London and San Francisco. Yet this new form of minimum dwelling, often called ‘microflat’, is an extreme reduction of the traditional bourgeois flat, lacking both the affordability and the collective ethos of their historical precedent. 

Who best understood the potential of minimum dwelling as a form of living against traditional forms of domesticity was the forementioned poet and critic Karel Teige, who in 1932 published a book in support of a way of living in which the reduction of individual living space was complemented by the collectivisation of domestic services and labour, such as ooking, housekeeping, bathing, dining. For Teige, organising living in the form of minimum dwelling had the potential to overcome both the ideology of bourgeois living, and the rising modern plea for a ‘subsistence minimum’. 

Certosa del galluzzo   monk's cella vii

Certosa del galluzzo monk’s cella vii

A monk’s cell at Certosa del Galluzzo monastery in Florence consists of a bedroom and prayer room, furnished with bare essentials. Image courtesy of I, Cyberuly

Perhaps Walter Benjamin was the thinker who more than anybody else focused on the bourgeois domestic interior as the paradigmatic form of capitalist society. While Marx described the evolution of private property as a political and economic historical process written, ‘in letters of blood and fire’, Benjamin saw private property evolving more subtly, but no less harmfully, in the ideology of bourgeois decorum. Benjamin saw the 19th-century interior as a sort of purpose for dwelling, when the latter had become emptied and abstracted by life in the industrial metropolis. As he noted in his famous essay, ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, since the days of the Citizen-King Louis-Philippe, the bourgeoisie had desperately sought compensation for the inconsequential nature of private life in the big city, by indulging in interior design of the private apartment. In this way, domestic space for the dweller becomes the illusion of personality against the anonymity of the city. 

It is precisely against this form of dwelling that Benjamin imagined a way of living that would be ‘traceless’ and so would liberate the city dweller, not only economically and politically, but above all anthropologically, from the trap of domesticity. In one of his most subtle and radical ‘Denkbilder’, or thought images, written in 1931 (a year in which his life was becoming increasingly precarious), Benjamin invoked the possibility of a ‘destructive character’: ‘The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.’ 

‘Co-op Interieur is not just a representation of the precarious existence of the contemporary mass worker, but also the promise of a life liberated by the burden of domestic space’

Indeed, for Hannes Meyer, the Co-op Interieur is not a home, but a single generic cell that belongs to the entirety of the metropolis. In this space, all the attributes that had contributed to the individualisation of the modern labouring subject – male, female, adult, child, wife, husband, parents and siblings, master and servants – are gone. So Meyer’s Co-op Interieur is against the existence minimum promoted by the CIAM architects, who were trying to reduce the family apartment to the minimum. As the fragile enclosure of the room conveys, the principle of the single dweller implies that she or he is always open to new forms of collective association that may well exceed the juridical framework into which human association has always been inscribed by law. In the mise-en-scène of Meyer’s room, it is not clear what the position of the room is in the building of which it is part. 

As we have seen, the most radical aspect of the Co-op Interieur is the anonymity and sparseness of furnishing, which doesn’t hide its industrial nature. This industrial anonymity, whose commodity status is evident, seems to kill off the property value of these objects and release them again for use. In Meyer’s design, the objects (but also the architecture) are neither right nor wrong, neither public nor private, but simply instruments, perhaps crude, but for this reason limited to actus utendi. While ownership excludes collective use and so demands spaces to be customised according to the presumed identity of the owner or the inhabitant to whom the space is rented, an architecture of use is devoid of identity, just like a monk’s cell or an anonymous but comfortable lodging.

Perhaps with Co-op Interieur, Meyer wanted to design a contemporary version of a monk’s room, in which the lack of property is the inhabitant’s realisation of the possibility of happiness. His room shows what could be the architecture of use against the architecture of property. While the latter must always reflect the identity and status of its owner, Meyer’s room is radically generic and anonymous; but precisely for this reason it promises its inhabitant the possibility of a life liberated from the anguish and the burden of society’s enduring obligation to the sense of ownership. For this reason we can imagine Co-op Interieur dialectically, as both the rendering of our increasing precarious domestic life and as the harbinger of space for anyone like a universal basic right.

This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to pick up your copy today