Advanced Design Studio: Aureli

Home is a Four Letter Word

Course

1114b
Design and Visualization

Offered

Spring
2016

Production, Reproduction, and the Architecture of Domestic Space in San Francisco

Introduction

This studio is about the most obvious topic in architecture: the architecture of domestic space. We depart from a simple yet crucial question: what is domestic space? And most importantly why domestic space has historically become such an important—if not crucial—reference for our way of living? Far from accepting housing as a natural way of being, we are interested in questioning its architectural nature as a historically constructed domain in which issues such as subjectivity, gender, ownership, and class play a fundamental role.

This year we’ll further radicalize this approach by focusing on the ‘house’ as a multifarious apparatus that links together form, gender, construction, ownership, and subjectivity as one systemic domain. The goal of the studio is to put forward an idea of architecture where ‘form’ has a chance of agency within the housing domain. While form in architecture is always the product of specific political forces, it is also the edge against which new forces and subjects can recognize themselves. More specifically, the studio will focus on the nature of domestic space when the latter has been put under the pressure of extreme (and artificial) regime of scarcity such in the recent dramatic housing crisis that is affecting cities such as New York or San Francisco. Following last year’s brief, we will imagine a scenario where new 100,000 houses (or more) will be built in San Francisco in the next few years. Facing such a task we’ll see the architectural project as the production of examples in the form of prototypes rather than the crafting of singular artifacts.

However, we believe that even though the issue of shortage is an important component of the answer to the current housing crisis, it cannot be reduced to a mere quantity problem. The question of housing can be properly answered only if we enter its political core—that is, the organization of reproductive labor as the fundamental and yet largely invisible support of society.

Background

The studio considers design, history, and theory as one thing, and consequently begins with a careful and rigorous analysis of the history and present condition of domestic space as a space of production.

When we talk about spaces of production, we think of the traditional workplaces of the industrial age: workshops, offices, and factories. Yet, in the last 30 years, advances in communication technologies have made the workplace ubiquitous. Day by day we witness the rise of workplaces where the dissolution of spatial and temporal boundaries produced by post-Fordist modes of production is compensated for by the increasing “domesticity” of the work environment. Even when the workplace increasingly resembles domestic space and work has become ubiquitous, we still consider domestic space as outside the realm of production. But it is precisely the intimacy of domestic space that should be considered the social and political archetype of the very idea of production.

Since the beginning of its history, the house is not only a potent symbol of the owner’s mastery over the family as its private realm. It is also the locus of the most fundamental form of production: the reproduction of life; the reproduction of labor power. In order to achieve this goal, the house had to be organized as economy. Indeed there is a profound, almost homological, relationship between house and economy, and this is explains the meaning of the word economy in its original sense of oikonomia, oikos nemein, or house management. Traditionally the goal of the house is to create the possibility of frictionless cohabitation. This is why the subject of the house becomes the family. The term family comes from the proto-italic famn-lo, which means servile. The house is thus a congregation of famuli, of servile persons whose life is dedicated to reproduction. If in the ancient oikos these persons were women and slaves, in modern times the servile subjectivity of the house survives in the many forms of domestic labor that are still needed in order to maintain the household. Unlike the medieval house where domestic space and the workplace were often combined within the same building, modern housing is conceived as a space disconnected from the world of production and completely focused on reproduction.

The shift in the logic of economy from the house to the vast domain of political economy indicates not only the origin of the economy but also how the technique of administering a large territory and its population always starts from the management of the most basic private space.

It is at this point that the modern idea of domesticity is born as radically separate from the sphere of labor and indeed celebrated as a respite from work. It is also at this point that the role of the woman in the household is crystallized as that of guardian of the intimate realm of reproduction and so-called ‘affective’ labor, the taking-care-of-others that apparently produces nothing and yet enables the economic machine to function. The rhetoric of the house as pastoral domain sealed of from the realm of production has been largely an invention of the XIX century both as a systematization of social roles, and as compensatory fantasy. The systematization of social roles was mainly a gender issue geared towards a rational—if unfair—division of tasks that assigned women the care of reproduction at large, a task that, while invisible, was quintessential to the smooth functioning of an orderly, efficient system. On the other hand the compensatory fantasy of domesticity played, and still plays, a crucial part in the construction of the industrial and post-industrial subject. The house is portrayed again as a sanctuary—not, as it had been at the beginning, from a hostile natural environment—but rather from the jungle of the modern city. It becomes, then, the place where the self is offered a chance of regeneration, rest, relax—all necessary, obviously, to ensure the continuation of good productive performance.

However, in the past few decades we are witnessing another shift; the place of ‘work’ can no longer be confined so precisely to a specific space. This has not only become true in terms of city planning—where the failure of zoning as method has been apparent for a long time—but also at the smaller scale of our individual experience. As production in the western world is less and less targeted at creating goods but rather at the generation of knowledge, social exchange and services, our work follows us wherever we go. Labor is no longer confined to the factory or the office, but is performed everywhere and in every moment, and most particularly in the house. The contemporary living condition is therefore victim of a paradox of sorts; while on the one hand our social imaginary still feeds us the myth of the domestic environment as place of rest and intimacy, on the other hand large part of our productive activity takes place precisely in the house. This paradox is intensified by the fact that while household, feminine, ‘affective’ labor is still formally not recognized as work, our service-producing, knowledge-based work is, in fact, nothing but affective labor on a large scale. The studio ask students to confront this condition of domestic space by choosing a specific condition in which the terms described above become evident, and where the reinvention of the architecture of domestic space can play a crucial role in putting forward the idea of new relationships and new forms of solidarity.

Site and Approach

San Francisco is currently suffering one of the most dramatic housing crises in the history of the United States. Since the recession, the real estate industry can no longer rely on the indebted masses. Development in the Bay Area is consequently polarized in the production of luxury homes and subsidized low-income homes. Despite the growth of the tech industry in Silicon Valley and the resurgent desire for urban living, there is a scarcity of middle-income affordable housing in San Francisco. The studio proposes to design 100,000 affordable houses for San Francisco, and challenges students to radically rethink the typological expectations of domestic space. Since the beginning of its history, housing has been the exclusive embodiment of one type of human association: the nuclear family. In this way housing has prevented other forms of association based on values such a solidarity and sharing. The studio agenda is not against the nuclear family, but sees the latter as only one possible form of association among others. For this reason an important goal of the studio is to rethink domestic space beyond its ‘natural’ form as a family home. Rather than starting from the family home, the studio will propose to start from the most basic form of living space that is the room. We propose to look at the room at face value, stripping it of the expectations and preconceptions created by the last three centuries of typological discourse. The very fact that we name rooms following the objects that they contain – kitchen, bed-room, bath-room – is a sign of the fact that in the past objects had the power to give meaning to spaces which were largely non-typological and more open to interpretation and change. Today as practicing architects we work with a preset toolbox of purpose-intended rooms which can just be shifted around and given a different position or different form while in fact still fitting in the same diagram – the nuclear family apartment. But should rooms have function at all? Should an apartment be divided in rooms? Are the standard sizes requested by law a way to protect the citizen, or a straitjacket to enforce certain behaviors? 

If we were to free the room from its constraint to fit within this toolbox, perhaps new combinations could arise—and, with them, not only new spatial diagrams, but new social ones. Such an attempt has seldom been made in the last centuries, but in XIX century America, for instance, the Beecher sisters transformed the kitchen into a large multi-purpose room at the center of the house, therefore transforming the symbolic organization of the family.

Addressing the room, and starting a project from the room, not only questions the functional subdivisions we normally take for granted. It also challenges the idea of what is public and what is private within the house itself. In the 1950s, Mies designed the Lakeshore Drive apartments as one very large room – only for the tenants to build up walls and reconstruct the ‘familiar horror’ of the bourgeois rooms full of tchotchkes and doilies criticized and mocked by the literature and films of the time. What was groundbreaking in Mies’ project was the rejection of the traditional idea of privacy. While degrees of openness and seclusion are a constant of living environments, the actual concept of privacy is a relatively recent one, and until the XVII century only monks had the ‘extravagant’ idea of using spaces to be alone—and then again these spaces of solitude were not necessarily for sleeping but, in certain cases, for prayer and study (while it was perfectly acceptable to sleep and bathe with other people).

With the best possible intentions, architects have tried to propose new horizons for the family apartment, playing with double levels; with different distribution patterns; with new models of furniture. However we have hardly ever criticized the basic articulation of living spaces into a preordered set of rooms. Taking the room as the first element of a project for living space might allow us to see the question of housing on completely different terms from the ones we normally work with. The very presence, form, position and quality of furniture and objects will be an integral part of the project of the room this year, precisely because furniture is not a neutral element but rather a powerful way to characterize (or de-characterize) the room. Ultimately, to imagine a city made of rooms for individuals or groups of people means ultimately to reject the model that sees the city as an agglomeration of nuclear families.

During the first weeks and prior to the class field trip to San Francisco, students will analyze canonical examples of domestic space (both from the United Sates and elsewhere) by putting emphasis on the relationship between spatial form and forms of life. This part of the research will be aided by seminars of on the history of domesticity and its formal and political organization. Moreover, an important task will be to identify potential sites for the new housing units. The studio assumes that any ‘empty’ space within the city fabric, even the tiniest one, may be available as a potential site for affordable housing. For this purpose, we will construct a cadastral map of sites within the city, which will serve as a reference for the development of the 100,000 houses scenario. Once these premises are established (after the field trip), each student (or groups of two students) will develop a share of these 100,000 units, first by proposing general models, then deploying them within the specific sites selected through the cadastral map.

This year, great emphasis will be put on the issue of what is an ‘affordable’ home from various points of view, including construction. Special seminars will aid students in imagining construction not as an after-thought of their project, but as a one of the driving forces of architectural invention. 

The studio is organized as a research studio, which means that parallel to the design work, students will be asked to critically reflect on their project by formulating a more specific brief, arguing the economic and social premises of each specific model. To make a project means to take a position within the discourse of architecture and the city. For this reason, the studio will encourage literacy with historical precedents not as a matter of erudition, but as a way to engage with the very meaning of our discipline and its historical significance in the face of fundamental human problems such as the need for housing. Emphasis will be placed on representation and communication of the project. The studio sees the production of drawings and images not as mere illustration, but as a specific argumentative language through which to propose ideas for architecture and the city.