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The Problem of the House: Past, Present and Future

Space Caviar’s latest research project aims to launch a new discussion around the past, present and future of the home

It would be something of an understatement to say that the last seven years have been decidedly odd. Typified by alternating cycles of contradictory processes, it is hard to know if there is even a method in this madness: half a decade of record inflation coupled with the worst wage growth in half a century; oil prices continue to tumble, yet the cost of living is still rising (energy companies pocketing the windfall, which one must suspect is not an isolated practice); the high street and the middle class are in terminal decline, the zero-hour and one-click are taking over. Most strangely, a crash triggered by housing has resulted in an unprecedented property boom. We are once again at the top of the market, with all its attendant instability and fragility.

The only term to define this period is crisis, but not any kind we have known before: this is not a momentary panic. This is perpetual crisis, as a way of life. Anticipated by avant-garde theorists of various camps for at least two decades, it has taken the architectural world a surprisingly long time to arrive at the conclusion crisis is not a state of exception, but the new norm. In this context, SQM is among very few architecture books to understand we are not experiencing an extremely bad recession. In fact, we are not in recession at all: we are in the midst of a fundamental restructuring of all social, political and economic conditions of contemporary life − not least the domestic.

For what is a collection of qualitative essays and ‘flash fictions’, interspersed by just half a dozen infographics, the subtitle ‘quantified home’ seems something of a misnomer. This is not the Neufert’s Metric Handbook of statistical domesticity I had expected. The promise of quantified data is of course integral to contemporary interpretations of ‘the evolving identity of the home, from utopian experimentation to factory of data’. This is because metrics are the basis for capitalist exchange; without them profit cannot be calculated and the closed system of value-measurement cannot function.

Nonetheless, SQM is a gestalt work, in the sense that the value of the project as a whole is greater than the significance of each part. Taken individually, the essays are well written (there is an all-star authorial cast) and the data is apposite. But those with a real interest in this subject will be unlikely to unearth any profound revelations. Conversely, for readers with little background in economics, politics or labour theory, this book is an excellent introduction to the spatial history of domestic power relations: the texts are approachable and enjoyable; the graphic design is Swiss, Italian and refined. Taken as a gesamtkunstwerk − or even as a statement of intent for the Space Caviar research group − SQM is a potent sign and an important resource for understanding the role of the home in the ongoing process of global wealth polarisation.

kitchenstories

Tomas Norström in Kitchen Stories, in which fictional efficiency researchers painstakingly observe the movements of homeowners around their kitchens

In the introduction, Space Caviar editor Joseph Grima describes the book’s aim as being ‘to state the problem of the house − past, present and future’. This it does, in three correspondingly chronological sections: ‘radical domesticities’, ‘from dream to bust’ and ‘the dematerialised home’.

The first two parts are the most conventional in content, and the clearest in their editorial ambitions: the consequence of perpetual crisis is a collapsing of all history into an eternal present (and not in a Zen way). This explains why it is so hard to imagine alternatives to our current situation, or truly believe in the possibility of change. Through a number of poignant histories, SQM attempts to create a space for rupture and the invention (or reinvention) of familiar domestic typologies. Hilde Heynen reminds us that the kitchen as we know it today was only invented in 1926, by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky as an ultra-functional and Taylorist machine for domestic labour. Here rational arrangement and ergonomic dimensions attempted to free the housewife from her chores through time efficiency (although Heynen neatly deconstructs the ramifications of this experiment). Similarly, Andreas Ruby’s description of how one Berlin family’s novel reconfiguration of the bathroom at the centre of their apartment has far-reaching consequences for their daily forms of life.

Against these typological examples at the scale of the dwelling are larger experiments: Justin McGuirk captures perfectly the ideological ambivalence of Robin Hood Gardens’ socialist dream, while Jonathan Olivares revivifies the democratic drive of postwar mass-production in the Californian Case Study Houses. Sam Jacob, with inimitable fluidity and wit, describes the capital flows underpinning the craze for luxury basement extensions in his essay ‘London is Liquid’. And then around these come more abstract, cultural case studies − reflections on the media representation of bin Laden’s compound or what it’s like to live in the artificial paradise of suburban Dubai (which reminded me powerfully of JG Ballard’s Super-Cannes corporate enclaves). Like a red thread, questions of ownership, the financialisation of the home, and property and power relations run through all the texts.

The third part, concerned with the future, is both more ambitious and more problematic. Since SQM is a research document, not a design proposal, it necessarily struggles with the difficulties of researching the future … As a result it seems at times arcane or amorphous: Keller Easterling explores game theory in interior design, but without any concreteness, while Bruce Sterling proffers his typically exciting futurist vagaries. There is much talk (by all in this section) of Airbnb, Instagram, Amazon and Pinterest. Refreshingly, SQM avoids the myth that the sharing-economy means personal liberation, and underlines the fact that profit extracted from a spare room is only funnelled to corporations. Yet these familiar zeitgeist touchstones do not get to the heart of the truly paradigmatic concerns: super-surveillance, big data, the rise of ‘smart cities’, non-hierarchical networks or new informatic and econometric exchange models. No one mentions Bitcoin or self-driving cars, which might sound a strange criticism, but most of these speculations are driven by ideas of technological progress, and as such do not escape from the humanist fallacy that justice and morality are also cumulatively linear. The elephant in the room is the fact the future already exists and cannot be changed, written on the balance sheets of a global corporate elite. A true research of the future of domesticity must start from the premise of several inevitable generations of despots, desperation and debt.

SQM: The Quantified Home

Author: Space Caviar

Publisher: Lars Müller

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