There's No Place Like
Diana Smiljkovic: Welcome everyone, and thank you for being here with us today!
I am Diana Smiljkovic and together with Jack Rusk, Rachael Tsai and Gustav Kjaer Vad Nielsen we are organizing the HOMEWORK research project which explores the re-convergence of the home and workplace. This initiative was born out of the experienced social, economic and political realities of the ongoing pandemic but wishes to address its implications within the framework of a much longer history of architectural discourse and practice.
This last Fall we designed and maintained a workspace in the Yale North Gallery which provided an additional resource to the school at a time that physical workspaces were limited, questioning the temporalities of workspaces. Currently we are opening an exhibition at the Yale School of Architecture that displays home office plan drawings that have been submitted by architects and students of architecture from around the world. The exhibition wishes to address the makeshift condition of the home and its changing narratives through a collective inquiry on its spatial organization and material experience.
As the home is, once again, becoming the locus of not only family life but also social and professional life, the pressure on the architecture of the home to perform in these many modes, at times simultaneously, is arguably challenging traditional formal divisions of space and the domestic rituals within them. With this conversation centered around a Rethinking of Domesticity we wish to discuss alternative ideas of domesticity within and beyond the enclosure of the house and its household.
I will now pass the mic to Jack who will introduce the participants.
Jack Rusk: Welcome to the conversation. This event is one of a series of events and inquiries that make up HOME WORK, a research project started in March 2020, investigating the contemporary condition of the home and its long prehistory. Today’s conversation is one of those inquiries, and we’re very thankful to the guests who have joined us. As most of you know, This discussion will be central to an upcoming issue of Paprika!, where a transcription of this conversation annotated, expanded, and commented upon by a group of students, and these nested conversations published as an issue of Paprika!, Yale Architecture’s student periodical.
The motivation for this conversation stems, in part, from a creeping feeling that the home/work binary is unworkable, and the new condition of their relationship is decidedly unhomely. In Anthony Vidler’s essay Unhomely Houses (1992), the unhomely is the haunting at the center of our domestic lives, a haunting based on experiences of disorientation and misreading that open onto the aesthetic category of the uncanny. There’s no doubt that the collapse of the conjunction of home and work has created uncanny situations, something we know because they are our present realities. Our aim here is to pull back the shroud, reveal the specters haunting them.
Toward this, we’ll hear a ten minute introduction from each guest, followed by an open discussion. At the end, we’ll do our best to fit in some questions from the audience. To stay within the bounds of our limited time, I’ll do my best to be a gentle but active moderator, and might step in at moments to note the time or to open up new avenues in the conversation. With that, I’d like to turn it over to Aristide.
Thank you very much for the invitation, I’m really happy to be here with you and even if it’s late here in Berlin and I am a bit tired, before I start, I think the best way to introduce this presentation is to speak not about one but two projects that I’ve been working on for a long time. My presentation’s title “Protocols of withdrawal” seems to refer to the specific condition of the pandemic that we are confronting today; it seems to refer to a condition of broken city norms but - on the contrary - the title is a lead towards a definition of the city’s normality.
The following fragment by Slavoj Zizek, from his book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, 2008, is meant to open the first project. The project — still ongoing — started out by my answering to this fragment; I became very excited with the intellectual condition of retreat in the specific scenography of a contemporary domestic life. My response to this position had to do with showcasing what a new type of domesticity was already meaning in 2008. Zizek was proposing a certain distance from engaging to action; he proposed this as a practical way to handle the political situation. I present here a part of this fragment from his interesting text that I started then criticizing with a series of architectural demarches. “‘Do you mean we should do nothing?” Zizek writes. “‘Just sit and wait?’ One should gather the courage to answer: ‘YES, precisely that!’ There are situations when the only truly ‘practical’ thing to do is resist the temptation to act immediately and ‘wait and see.’” But resisting the temptation to “act immediately” was already a common way of organizing one’s own life banality in the networks of 2008. Zizek argued that in the specific historical frame one would have to organize a distant position to what was trivially conceived as “real immediate action”. Zizek proposed inoperativity as a responsible political attitude at this time. By withdrawing “to a secluded place” for studying one could already start operating as a political actor. With my project called “the house for doing nothing” I tried to formulate a response to this fragment through a design project. I wanted to criticize this position with an architecture and not with a text. I wanted to comment on the text by showing what an architecture regarding this proposed withdrawal might mean — what kind of place could be designed for such a withdrawal. A series of cliches and a number of banalities were accompanying what Zizek was understanding at the moment as a provocation. The equipment of withdrawal that could already be found around the area of a bed was presenting a series of trivial objects that could be gathered around a bed. Concerning the material equipment of such a withdrawal a bed sold already at the time by the site alibaba.com is showing how the hybrid of this working bed was already part of the imaginary of the most banal normality.
In the case of Zizek who is also abundantly photographed in bed, the Personal Cabin is also meant as a Recording Studio, it is an extended bed-studio that I wanted to design to organize a critique of Zizek by the simple representation of what he was suggesting. As if it was impossible to withdraw in a decisive way in this frame, or as if we are always already withdrawn so that our position in this setting would never become political. Zizek was not questioning at all the character of contemporary inaction related to this blur of the domestic-public sphere. I wanted to emphasize that Zizek’s understanding of a critical position to study was finally asking for the most banal position of everyday life in infrastructure. To this equipment that was proposing a trivial office setting around a bed I included a camera. The camera was recording this silent operator, this hero of withdrawal while working, while speaking to himself or to the world while seated in bed. And this architectural work of criticism was built in the immaterial site of two blogs interested then in my work, the funambulist of Léopold Lambert, and dpr barcelona of Ethel Baraona Pohl; I ‘built’ a study of internet extensions for a bed in the space between two blogs on the internet. My point being that it was impossible to withdraw in a decisive, responsible, and political way when we were already meant to work within this condition anyways. If this was our normal position the idea of withdrawal and inoperativity had to be thought anew. I thought that questioning the character of inaction today could be important if we had to link this interest about inaction to the intellectual condition of the bed. But the phenomenology of withdrawal was already set as a way to normally address the domestic experience of the common. Already in 2008 we were used to meeting together in this exact condition of withdrawal that we use now and this was already part of our banality. Even if I am asked to think about the exact withdrawal that the pandemic brought us as a necessity today, I will have to also identify a long tradition of withdrawing in the history of urbanism.
There is a definition of urban normality through withdrawal pre-existing the pandemics, linked to the concept of modern urbanism and also to be addressed in the period which will follow COVID-19; I write in a short text of mine in 2015, Urban Planning for Murder, that there is a specific look to urban infrastructure that represent it as a process of easing inaction and dismantling the political. I wrote it then as a critique to another text of Alain Badiou. Modern urbanism is not only highly preoccupied with a systematic overview of malfunctions of the sewage system and the electricity network; urbanism was inaugurated to conceive the whole everyday life as a set of routines that can finally enter this same sphere of technical recovery after failures of all kinds. In this essay I was claiming that the urban reception of murder gives a good account of the meaning of infrastructure and frames well a concept of post-urban domestic withdrawal. This specific function of the infrastructure organizes the banality of life in conditions of COVID-19 but it was here already under preparation. It is because of this same principle that we were so prepared to accept this new condition we are in. Furthermore through an investigation on urban withdrawal I was missing in my research and practice, a systematic theory of infrastructure that is an invisible presupposition of what I do. An updated concept of infrastructure — including the post digital extensions of it — is becoming increasingly visible as a mechanism of a certain type of withdrawal.
If the “house for doing nothing” was related to domestic space, the interior, and seclusion or withdrawal, then the second project I wanted to refer to briefly is related to the “public sphere,” in heavy quotation marks. It is a project I undertook with the collaboration of my friend, Thanos Zartaloudis, at the Law Department in Kent University. We tried to write juridical literature to explain what the city would be if we could project law via the internet. So if the house for doing nothing gives an idea of the domestic cell of the city, in this second one we used the domestic structure — which is so privileged by the infrastructure — to invent something such as a legislation, that could be operated on the web in parallel to already existing local legislations. It would be a para-legislation that could happen through voluntary subscription in parallel to an existing state law. In this second vast project the infrastructure becomes again the central element of investigation; this time defined as the “shape of prefabricated durations” that structure systematic loops of our everyday experiences.
I tried to define with Thanos a new possible ghost-actor that could have the form of a website or an institution or a set of applications — no matter how you call it — for an idiosyncratic way of legislating in Athens. We worked in Athens, so this project was presented later in Swiss Architectural Museum as the Protocols of Athens. We created five texts, followed by a number of projects, all relating to the texts showing the possible applications of this internet legislation in the city. The script was integral to the project, playtesting the legal texts to which one could subscribe deliberately. This second project was always taking the first one for granted as a description of the normality of the extended bed to understand differently the social and common spheres taking shape in front of the ruins of the modern city.
Without spending more time on the projects, I want to introduce two concepts that are important for them both, and especially on my current work. There are more concepts constituting a short lexicon to which I often refer; I pick these two for today’s short introduction. Both terms refer to the political condition of an extended bed seen not only as a piece of furniture but as an intellectual condition; as a position in front of the infrastructure; where a concept of cockpit is combined to one of retreat; we deal with operation from afar. A bed and a cockpit is describing the theological entity from which depends whatever home and community can mean today.
The first concept has to do with an idiosyncratic witnessing from the bed; it epitomizes a necessary distance and it is guaranteeing the replaceability of the position. This viewing from a distance is inscribed in the history of reading. A reading position in bed becomes permanent. Even when reading becomes increasingly interactive it is always still referring to a distant recordable and replaceable experience. Peter Sloterdijk cites Marshall McLuhan, Goody and Havelock to name the past of a reader’s subjectivity, where the distance between the reader and the situation that the reader experiences through reading is institutionalized. They refer to a first banalization of the alphabet, with the Greek lettering, as the moment when experience enters a new era of being substituted. A situation can be experienced, understood or repeated “without”, “participation in the situation” without it ever happening (as a unique event taking place in time). An element of substitution, recording, replacement, imitation of a situation is always linked to this linguistic setting. And in this sense infrastructure, as I introduce it here, proposes a constant choice of readable material, by substituting it with a witnessing of situations or proposing a witnessing of another order. Today I bring forward the concept of witnessing to insist on the question concerning new definitions of both sides of witnessing; namely at first the status of ourselves as witnesses; and on the other side, the status of the situation we witness; in the world of this type of witnessing our identity as the identity of a witness is performed differently because what is observed is also filtered through the channels of infrastructure that only then support the existence of an exterior social sphere. The structure of this idiosyncratic witnessing creates the witness and the witnessed exterior. In a new frame we have to reexamine a classic problem of George Berkeley in a new light.
We get to a new epistemology of witnessing — how we adapt into this bed-condition the famous idea of Berkeley: that objects only exist while they are perceived. Can a tree fall over in the wood if there is nobody present to observe it? This question showcases Berkeley’s connection between witnessing and reality, however, witnessing from the bed distorts this question as a political one. It introduces a set of new complications concerning the visibility of the world we live in. The principle of reading in bed, “tearing away of meaning from the lived situations” describes the political depth of this new banality.
The second term, which I’ll introduce briefly and leave open for thought, comes together with the concept of the hypnotic. The hypnotic element has its own history, as it has accompanied humans for such a long time; it is also structuring the new domestic space in an infrastructural way. The hypnotic element is related to a control of a duration of time. I mean here the hypnotic as a specific devotion to concrete durations; not being able to leave a certain flow of proposed temporality. I am very interested in the philosophy of the hypnotic and its settings from Plato’s cave in The Republic to Avicenna’s Flying Man and to Descartes Meditations. The bed on the network has its own epistemology of the hypnotic. I would introduce this epistemology through an idea of contextless time; the time being spent out of context becomes the most important element of the everyday and I mean here this contextless factor as “my own bed context”. This hypnotic reading I am referring to includes all the forms of dealing with screens and is proposing a tearing away of meaning from the lived situations; we are meant to deal with situations cognitively, we refer primarily or exclusively to conscious representations of lived situations without mourning anymore for the loss of their originality, without caring about any type of difference between representations and situations “per se”. But the history of the West has always been related to the complications produced by a certain illusion-making that happens while life is going on. In a sense, the networked bed has to be thought of as a protagonist of a COVID-19 essay about architecture.
Thank you very much for your invitation. The title of my little presentation is “The bed in the age of COVID 19.” What you see on the screen is a grid of empty beds in a cavernous space, waiting for bodies. One architecture inside another. This is a field hospital that was set up within a few days in Madrid in March 2020 to accommodate 5500 patients in what used to be a convention hall. Buildings that were designed for temporary events or exhibitions now host an emergency medical architecture, a space for disease. I show this picture to make the point that beds, a piece of equipment which are normally hidden from public view, are suddenly seen everywhere in the time of COVID-19; from the front pages of newspapers to Zoom meetings. It is not just hospital beds, but even the beds of our colleagues or students now visible in the background of Zoom.
My hypothesis here is that beds have become the face of COVID-19. First it was the urgent call for hospital beds in the early days of the pandemic, then beds overflowing every possible space in hospitals, corridors, former waiting rooms…. any room of any size became a room for beds. The whole space of the hospital was taken over. Then beds started to make new spaces, in tents in parks, in empty lots, in convention centers such as the one in Madrid you just saw— haunting images of beds in cavernous spaces, hundreds of empty beds in a grid, each one with an oxygen tank and a domestic lamp — waiting beds. And it’s not just Madrid but also Belgrade, the Javits center in New York, Central Park, etc.. It is important here to point out too that this is an old story. The history of pandemics is fascinating because as soon as any one of them is over we tend to develop collective amnesia. Until recently nobody remembered the 1918 flu, for example. A great book on the subject was written a few years ago by John Barry. In the preface, he expresses surprise that no one has written this book before. With the pandemic, the book became an instant bestseller. And look at the similarity between the images that have been so engraved in our cerebrum recently that we have forgotten about: hundreds of beds occupying cavernous spaces during the 1918 flu.
Even beds in the street transporting the sick are like portable rooms encased in plastic bubbles, reminiscent of 1960’s science fiction architecture. This kind of bed became a common and frightening site in the streets of New York, where I live, but also in the media, with medical professionals sometimes completely wrapped in protective gear, almost like terrestrial astronauts complete with their oxygen tanks. These portable beds act as the link between the domestic bed and the hospital bed. So we are talking about a vast ecology of beds; a landscape of beds. And let’s remember that this is not the first time. Look at the uncanny similarity between these two images - this is Palermo during the cholera of 1835 and this one is from the contemporary situation. We have been here many times before but we have decided not to remember until another pandemic strikes and then we go “Oh, could this be really happening? Is this possible?”
These beds are not just in the media as the real facade of this new city but are also in themselves media platforms, tuning, broadcasting, facetiming. Bed to bed communication. Think of all of those whose last communication with their loved ones was on a cell phone, or a tablet held by a nurse. Think of all of those connecting with friends and colleagues from their beds. Those whose last goodbye was on a tablet; their beds becoming a media bed.
Also think about all of those whose beds appear in the background of meetings, socialising, working, exercising, etc. No bed is a secret anymore. What is interesting to me is that this architecture of the pervasive bed is not at all a side effect of this pandemic but is exposed by it. And once exposed it may as well mutate again. In 2012, I read in the Wall Street Journal that 80% of young professionals in New York were working from their beds. I thought to myself “what?” If 80% of young professionals are working from bed then we are already living in outdated cities with all these office towers, the city of business. What are we doing in architecture, how come we are not addressing this issue? We are working in a completely different situation than the cities in which we are living imply. The bed in fact had already become a new kind of office and the virus has only taken this to a whole new level. There is no reason to think that we will leave the bed once all of this is over, now that we have become so much better at working, Zooming, teaching, shopping and socializing with people miles away from our beds. The bed used to be the site of intimate physical contact and perhaps now it will be reversed, perhaps now we will go out into the street in search of such contact. But my main point here is that the conditions for this were already there. Millions of dispersed beds had already taken over from concentrated office buildings way before the pandemic. Networked electronic technologies have removed any limit of what can be done in bed, and for me, as a historian, in 2012, I remember thinking, how did we get here? The research project that led to “The Century of the Bed” exhibition and book in Vienna in 2014 and the multiple installations in the Serpentine Gallery, the Venice Biennale, Assisi, Berlin, etc. between 2016 and 2019 started with a return to a famous test of Walter Benjamin in which he writes precisely about the splitting of work and home in the 19th century: “Under Louis Philippe the private citizen enters the stage history—for the private person living in space becomes for the first time antithetical to the place of work. The former is constituted by the interior, the office is its complement.”
Of course industrialisation brought with it the 8-hour shift (eventually) and the radical separation between place of living and place of work, whether the office or the factory, between rest and work, night and day. Post-industrialization is collapsing again, working back into the home and further still into the bedroom and into the bed itself. The whole universe is concentrated now in a small screen with the bed floating in an infinite sea of information. To lie down is not to rest but to move. The bed is now a site of work, a site of action. Its user has no need for their legs. This advertisement for Bluebeam, Collaborate in Bed!, which I found around 2012 is symptomatic. The bed is the ultimate prosthetic and a whole new industry is now dedicated to providing contraptions to facilitate work while lying down, such as the bed that Aristide showed and that is available on Alibaba. Reading, writing, testing, recording, broadcasting, listening, talking and of course eating, drinking, sleeping, making love are activities that seem to have lately been turned into work.
This philosophy was already embedded in the figure of Hugh Hefner, who famously never left his bed, let alone his house when he moved his office to his bed in the Playboy Mansion in Chicago in 1960, turning his bed into the epicenter of a global empire and his silk pyjamas and dressing gown into a new kind of business attire. “I don’t go out of the house at all, I am a contemporary recluse” he told Tom Wolfe, who had come to interview him and of course the interview took place in bed. During the same interview Hefner guessed that the last time he had been out of the house had been three and a half months before and that perhaps in the last two years he had been out of the house only nine times. Playboy already turned the bed into a workplace. From the mid 1950’s on, the bed, a constant feature in Playboy magazine, became increasingly sophisticated and outfitted with all kinds of entertainment and communication devices as a control room. In the Playboy Mansion you could control all the lights of the house from the round bed, you could open doors, you could look at what was happening in any room…
But Hefner was not alone, the bed was the ultimate mid-20th century American office. Truman Capote, for example, was asked by the Paris Review in 1957: “what are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a typewriter?” to which he answered: “I am a completely horizontal author. I cannot even think unless I am lying down, either in bed or stretched on the couch with a cigarette and a coffee handy.” There are multiple other examples but in the interest of time I will only remind you of Yoko Ono and John Lennon who held their Bed-in for Peace in Amsterdam in the Hilton Hotel during their honeymoon in March of 1969 and invited journalists to come between 9am and 9pm. They were definitely working from bed, on a schedule, as activists protesting the Vietnam War, working for peace. Why from their beds? Because as celebrities protesting on the street would not have been possible, or effective, however in bed they managed to get enormous media attention. It was in one of these Bed In, in Montreal, where they recorded ‘Give Peace a Chance’ in June of 1969.
If according to Jonathan Crary, late capitalism is the end of sleep, colonising every minute of our lives, as he argued in 24/7, then the actions of this “voluntary recluse” are not so voluntary in the end. What Crary doesn’t talk about but I think it is significant in our times, is that the 19th century division between the city of rest and the city of work may soon become obsolete. Not only have our habits and habitats changed with the internet and social media but predictions of the end of human labor in the wake of new technologies and robotization are no longer treated as futuristic. The Soviet-American economist and Nobel Prize Vassily Leontief, said 40 years ago that “the human worker will go the way of the horse.” Nobody paid much attention but in 2016 The New York Times recovered his writing: “Horses hung around in the labor force for quite some time after they were first challenged by “modern” communications technologies like the telegraph and the railroad, hauling stuff and people around farms and cities. But when the internal combustion engine came along, horses—as a critical component of the world economy—were history. … Humans as workhorses might also be on the way out.”
Economists argue that this will lead to growing inequalities, as if we didn’t have enough inequalities! with vast amounts of people unemployed. More optimistic views argue that it would lead to large scale redistributions in the form of universal basic income, which was considered in a referendum in Switzerland a few years ago and rejected. This question has become quite contemporary in many countries, including the United States, the last place I would have imagined it could happen.
If we go to architecture we realise that the end of paid labor and its replacement with creative leisure was already envisioned in the utopian projects of the 60’s such as those of Superstudio and Archizoom, which tended to include super-equipped beds. But now that this question is upon us, it’s as if we have fallen asleep! Architects for the most part are not thinking about this question anymore. In the meantime the city has started to redesign itself, largely without us. There are companies today providing sleeping pods, like those called Metronaps, that are very similar to Archigram’s self-enclosed beds designed for offices, airports, etc. They are like a spaceship designed for naps. Ariana Huffington, who uses them in her offices, argues that “recharging rooms” will be soon as common as boardrooms.
Homes are gendered spaces, but housing calamities too emerge along intersecting frameworks of marginalization. One year into the pandemic the immense burdens of healthcare and labor have intensified. These struggles lay bare structural inequality both in the realm of the domestic and public space. For example, amongst women in the United States aged forty to fifty, alcoholism has dramatically increased in the last months because of the overlapping burdens of household labor, childcare, and the loss of social contact. Rent moratoriums provide urgent support to families struggling to make ends meet, yet those most in need have to seek informal ways to find shelter and overcrowded living arrangements. For “home” itself cannot be considered a safe space of retreat, trans teenagers, particularly trans womxn of color, have been at risk of exposure to violence at home during the pandemic, further aggravating an already alarming pattern of abuse and murder. People who live in shelters are most vulnerable as congregate settings make them particularly prone to contract COVID-19. Statistically, indigenous people become severely ill with COVID-19 at a rate five times higher than white people, and hospitalization rates among non-Hispanic black Americans and Latinx people are 4.7 times that of white people. The undue burden on womxn of color working in health care settings has also been reported by the press.
The health catastrophe of the pandemic is not only a calamity of shelter, housing, and the home—but a crisis of the relationship between domestic and public life. This crisis reveals the fraught inequities between the most intimate scale of the individual body and its relationship to the nation, the state, and the world. Yet, because vulnerabilities are so deeply felt, homes have become places of resistance, where people mobilize with the production of signs, slogans, and organizational work to fight back against racism and the bigoted structures that underpin domestic institutions. The months of the pandemic have also not stifled public discourse. Indeed, organizing, planning and theorizing about structural inequality has had an encompassing effect in cities around the United States and elsewhere.
I thus want to offer a few reflections about the relationship between home and public life from two fields of inquiry in my work; resistance studies and feminist and queer theory that take up these calls and that move between linguistics, art, and spatial production. Thinking with these scholarly fields, I want to engage why focusing on public discourse one year into the pandemic is critical, and why it is key not to conceive of home as a site for contemplation or withdrawal, but rather as a site for creative engagement. Indeed, creative production has been heightened from the home, including in an intense exchange with others. I also believe that there has been immense imagination and true political efficacy in organizing from these spaces, spaces that Jamaican American poet activist, educator, and Professor June Jordan once theorized as “living room.”
Notes from Resistance Studies and Queer Studies in Language and Art
From the couch in a living room, poet Denice Frohman records a video under the hashtag #FueraTrump in late October 2020. In another video dated November 2 with the hashtag #45lies, she sings Trump’s lies into evidence. A queer Latinx poet, the daughter of Puerto Rican and Jewish parents, Frohman is also a tireless activist. In 45 lies she illuminates, from an attic, the intrinsic tenets of resistant speech, to “UNnormalize the president’s dangerous and persistent assault on the truth before the national election,” as she writes. In the video she speaks about withholding aid for Puerto Rico and the exploitation of political institutions for personal gain. She untangles, word by word, the lies that Trump has told about Puerto Rico and turns them back on the perpetrator. “Disinformation is a key to fascism, and we, the makers and children of hip hop culture, just aint’ haven it,” Frohman further writes. The works of critique and visualizing become a practice of liberation.
Listen to #45lies @denicefrohman.
In the foundational 1947 book The Language of the Third Reich, philologist Victor Klemperer illuminated and theorized the intrinsically oppressive nature of fascist language, which knew no question marks, only commands. In her poetry, Frohman builds verse against the authoritarian use of language by utilizing translanguaging and code switching as fundamentally anti-oppressive forms of communication that invites those who can navigate similar language worlds in spaces of critique and empowerment. Following Chicana studies scholar, queer theorist and activist Gloria Anzaldúa, in-betweenness in Frohman’s poetry is the key to unsettle, visualize, and fight back. To reveal the long roots of continued settler colonial violence in Puerto Rico and to imagine alternatives that already exist, Frohman draws on literary tools, portmanteaus, and homology among them. Repetition, too, Frohman argues, can serve the work of undoing or “UNnormalizing”, to revise, refute, and incantate in resisting dominant narratives and power structures. If the efficacy of the internet as public space was ever in question, the force of the pandemic has shown that such political value can be produced from the home and go out to the domestic as nation.
Yet the last year has also made clear that political action necessitates a reclamation of the public sphere. Most powerfully, this has been articulated through the Black Lives Matter movement and its political, artistic and spatial production to protest police brutality and the racially motivated killing of and violence against Black people and people of color. While millions took to organizing in their homes, buildings, streets and entire districts have also been reclaimed in dissent in transformative ways. The efficacy of artistic and political work has moved beyond the discourse of a “right to the city” – the universal “demand…[for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life,” as Henry Lefebvre saw it. Indeed, spatial production in the BLM movement makes blatantly clear, that this “universal” call to collectively shape processes of urbanization has to be revised to be led by BIPOC groups who have been historically disenfranchised from having access to these processes in cities. Activist production from the domestic to the city, moreover, has had a double effect. It has been both openly resistant and liberatory (Image 1). It is a critique of the oppressive conditions that structure current forms of urbanization, but they are also a revision of that world that point to what is possible as forms of urban life and living in the city.
One such vision of what could become imaginable in terms of access to housing is the effort of Moms 4 Housing, a collective of Black mothers in Oakland. In 2020, Moms 4 Housing successfully organized around the ability to occupy abandoned homes for unhoused and marginally housed mothers after months of push-back from the city. Articulating housing as a human right, Moms 4 Housing seeks out vacant homes to fight back against homelessness and housing instability while maintaining basic rights of reproductive justice. Organizing from a house at 2928 Magnolia Street in West Oakland, a long term goal of Moms 4 Housing, is aligned with the land-back movement; to remove land from an entirely speculative economy and to put it, as well as the right to housing, back into the stewardship of BIPOC communities. Jordan once called such spaces living room. Living room is both a theoretical framework and an actual spatial vision for a radical sheltering interiority as a site of organizing. For Jordan, a thinker at the forefront of black feminist, queer and postcolonial theory, living room was a place for which to speak with others and also illuminate ways of being together beyond white patriarchal and binary norms. Living room was both intimate and public, but always imbued with creativity and political efficacy.
The pandemic has created the real risk that widespread unemployment will push more people into poverty in the long term, and that it will lead to a lasting housing crisis. But there are also growing calls for rent forgiveness and mortgage forbearance programs. For the first time in decades, there is a possibility to fundamentally question rent in the United States at all.
It is hard to remain hopeful some days, especially in the poorest large city in the United States, Philadelphia where hospitals and their staff have been stretched beyond any imaginable limit. Where there is still no possibility to get tested for COVID-19 with less than two symptoms. As vaccinations have become available, the suburbs that have relied on hospital staff from the urban centers have now pledged vaccines to citizens only in suburban neighborhoods. This total abandonment of the cities by the suburbs is galling. Latinx, black, and LGBTQ+ doctors continue to advocate for their constituencies to be included in priority vaccination programs, but no state has adopted these recommendations. On the other hand, churches, the Black Doctors COVID Consortium, Casa San Jose, and Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia have mobilized to open spaces to protect and vaccinate their constituents.
Jordan’s idea of “living room” is a plea for public life and discourse that emanates from the home or homely spaces that locate power in creativity and organization based on the intersections of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and kinship. It is in thinking with June Jordan, Gloria Anzaldúa, Victor Klemperer, and Denice Frohman but also with the actions of Moms 4 Housing, doctors, nurses, and activists such as the anonymous artist and poet who gave Philadelphia “Live, Laugh, Loot,” that living room is emerging from the home to the public sphere. These actions also hold, rather than universal, always, partial, and fragmentary, imaginaries of what the world could look like after the pandemic.
I’m really excited to join this panel, I appreciate and admire the contributions that preceded mine. I would like to discuss how we might see the home in the midst of the covid 19 pandemic, in terms of territorial and environmental relations. In Diana’s introduction, it was mentioned that the home is a site for new forms of life and indeed I think we see that so one of the main points I would like to suggest is architecture as we know it has readily taken on the symptoms of the pandemic; indoor air quality, the fabrication of 3d printed masks, schemes for physical separation of people, etc. However, while these measures are important and absolutely needed, they’re ultimately palliative, dealing with the symptoms. Indeed, architecture as we know, it has been much less attentive to the conditions behind the viruses’ emergence, which according to the news articles, shown here, along with much scientific research in the past decades, suggests that it actually lies in urbanization, the expansion of human infrastructure, urbanization, which generates risky contact points of settlement and industry with frontier habitats undergoing rapid change.
So one dilemma for architecture and the COVID-19 pandemic is that the symptoms of infection can be addressed at the scale that the profession and discipline typically work on, as I discussed, however, to deal with the causes of the pandemic, demands thinking and working on spatial processes that transcend any given room any given house any given building or any given site. To engage with the home in this light is to deal with contemporary environments, environmental relations, and externalites that involve non local or extra local relations, the interactions among places and actors that occur at a distance. Taking on the contemporary construct of home means in part taking on those extra local interactions. In turn, the idea of the home is complicated because it takes its place in vast territories, complex environmental realities. This is a chart by a Japanese ecologist, showing how zoonotic viruses find their home in different species and as urbanization unfolds, these interactivities increase. While interactions at a distance may seem abstract or rare they happen all the time and are quite significant, consider the carbon pollution emitted by US suburbs, greenhouses gases produced here, at least where I am, ultimately contribute to a suffocating atmosphere that impacts distant locations. At a smaller scale you can think about the interaction of two neighbors next to each other, what one neighbor does on their property ultimately spills over to affect the person next to them. The image that I am showing here shows another example which is how the habitat of the insect that transmits lyme disease to humans has expanded as parts of the US undergo global heating.
Consider also how our own domestic spaces are impacted by processes that are happening on the other side of the globe. Urbanization in Wuhan, central China believed to have caused the zoonotic spillover of SARS-CoV-2 to humans is perhaps more dominant today than any other local process. So, in a world characterized by these messy environmental relations and circulations, many places are as much non local as much as they are local. So for architecture, again, this is the dilemma because the profession and discipline has been shaped by an ideology of islands. We have been led to believe our work has boundaries. A great article by Michelle Addington titled No Building is an Island takes on this myth, supposedly architects design, discreetly; discrete buildings on discrete patches of land for discrete clients. But this way of thinking is more or less what has caused the contemporary environmental predicaments we find ourselves in, refusing to see architecture as a relational, transboundary practice, we have as architects allowed the most important environmental dynamics to escape from our purview.
One of the concepts I think’s important in this regard is what economists refer to as an externality. An externality is a consequence of some activity that impacts other parties without that consequence being accounted for in the market for that activity. Architects, like capitalism, are experts in externalizing environmental impact when we casually choose concrete, aluminum, glass, as the materials for our buildings, for example, we produce vast, sometimes unmappable, negative externalities that affect environments and many forms of life.
As Sophie was also mentioning, it’s been documented how in the US people of color are disproportionately burdened by pollution caused by white populations. Interestingly, this suggests that the activities that might advance spatial justice might also happen at a distance rather than in situ. So nevertheless, architects tend to tether their imaginary to specific patches of land, fictionalized in a world where domestic life is co-located with the immediate space where it unfolds. I think that coming to terms with these contingencies, global heating, environmental racism, COVID-19, cannot be dealt with within boundaries, within real estate, within individual buildings. If architecture as we know it has been shaped by this mentality, perhaps a more generous conception is needed, one that is able to capture and instrumentalize these realities, these environmental conditions, that move across legal boundaries, scales, building envelopes.
In short, the spatially continuous relation making earthly life that we’re a part of, this is what ecologists refer to as telecoupling, which is a form of embedding local places in global processes, also known as the neighborhood effect. So beyond simply designing more buildings that are greener, more bio secure, more off the grid, more socially distant, perhaps what architecture can also do is gain a new appreciation for the dynamics of contemporary environments. Thank you.
JR: Thank you so much Gabriel, and all our participants for those comments. Now we’d like to move into an open discussion. Perhaps an interesting place to start might be to move some of Gabriel’s comments into a conversation with things said earlier about the emphasis on situations or moments within the home, including the intellectual infrastructure of the bed, or the transformation of the living room from a place of gendered hospitality to a place of organizing against gendered and other forms of oppression. In light of Gabriel’s contribution, could you all reflect on the conditions outside the home? What is exterior to the questions of interiority raised so far?
GC: The first thing that comes to mind was Aristide’s slippages between the contextless and the contactless. There is something between this and what Sophie described in terms of autarky. I think what we’re seeing now is pushing up against the idea of autarky; responses to COVID-19 and environmental racism are showing us that self-sufficiency becomes possible in collaboration, and that contactless contact is opening important avenues.
AA: Self-sufficiency is the dream of the bed. What I was trying to say by referring to “contextless” was something that arises through the difficulty of dealing with the exterior. It is difficult to see towards this direction; what could be named an exterior in this frame and how it operates. There is a level of abstraction here, I think. The concept of the exterior seems subordinated to this perverse bed I described, it is a domesticated exterior we deal with.
Sophie speaks about the difference between people who may or may not have the capacity to operate in the frame of this infrastructure. This is, in some ways, a second level in relation to the infrastructure of the bed. This leads to a different possible question of the bed regarding the exterior — what would be the back of the bed? I mean, there is a back of the cabin we occupy that shows we are privileged to be able to speak about a domestication of the exterior. We are privileged to experience this domestication. But is this domestication something one would wish? The infrastructure of the bed is backed by a series of auxiliary structures as if belonging to a hospital; one is always getting food, goods, the mail from people working in this pragmatic exterior which is backing the abstract part of an immaterial position in the cabin. And we must consider the nonhuman dimensions of the exterior, as Gabriel pointed out. An automated auxiliary exterior set of services would be much more welcome as an abstract model guaranteeing the autonomy of our cabins. It is showing a possible difference in regard to the supporting structures of an impossible autonomous interior. In this sense automation becomes also a political question. I mean here the automation of the back of the cabin, the automation that makes a bed independent and an exterior domesticated.
SH: Thank you for that, Aristide. One thing I wanted to highlight in your presentation is the potential to read withdrawal as a site of creative intervention in waiting. One of the things that the pandemic has made so clear is the vulnerability of life, as we come to terms with the finiteness of our own being. My colleague Torsten Lange works on a history of health and medicalization along the lines of Robert Esposito and his idea of an affirmative biopolitics. And the argument there is that living as a mere maintenance of biological life isn’t living. Rather, life is in laughing, being together, and being creative.
BC: There are a lot of very interesting themes here. I’m very interested in this discussion, but it keeps coming back to what architects can do with plexiglass, how we’ll design the city of the future, where to put divisions—as if we are always in the business of offering solutions. Which of course we are, but the emphasis on the future, and the pandemic, also disguises one of the things that Covid-19 has made very clear—all the hidden aspects of invisible work or unequal access to care and empathy, especially in the United States.
So, with regard to the question of the bed, I think we are talking about a very privileged group of people — not everyone has the ability to work from a bed. This has made these problems that were always there very clear, and it shows that we have become completely immunized against them. I’m also very interested in this question of the exterior — how it is becoming somehow … exotic?
AA: Yes, it’s becoming exotic or it’s losing its sense. There are many ways to understand exteriority. At the same time, we already described a radical change to it. We are always driven to understand exteriority in a conventional way, like practically going out into the street leaving the house, leaving the working environment. But this normal understanding of the exterior has been blurred. We do not leave these places anymore. We continually create amalgamation of them. How to put the questions in regard to the exterior concerning the platforms that we use but don’t discuss. They produce ghost-like conditions where we are (AA gestures to the room behind him). It’s bizarre. We are in an exotic exterior when we are in Zoom but still I am sitting at my banal desk.
BC: The exterior has been reversed. We are in bed or in our living room, but it’s also a more public space than the space of the city. The other thing, something that Sophie mentioned—the disputation of public space in the form of protest. This has been very important, especially in places like the United States. For a long time, we were silent about a lot of things. Silent for a very long time when you think about it historically, in the face of so many outrages. So this year has brought these encounters into the streets in every city, through Black Lives Matter and other reclamations of the public sphere.
SH: While I wanted to argue that the public and the private are always entangled in the living room, we also see the historical rifts between these terms reified in the present day. When the statistics came out at the end of 2020, they showed how women have been pushed back into the home with the loss of their jobs. Over the course of the pandemic’s first ten months, women - and particularly women of color - lost more jobs than men in industries dominated by women. Women in the US have a net loss of 5.4 million jobs. Of the people who lost their jobs in December, over 90% of them were women, so we see gendered divisions of public and private refortified. These are things that we, as architectural historians, will have to reckon with, and that we will have to work to reconcile for a very long time.
BC: The pandemic has had greater effects on women for some obvious reasons, like kids and the work of the kitchen to which they are often relegated. This has affected not only women of color but also white women, suddenly unable to keep up both their kids and their jobs. Many of the advances that women have made in recent decades are going down the drain.
We don’t know what the situation will be when we come out of this, if we come out of this. I don’t think there will be in any way a return to normal, but this is even worse than normal. It’s an incredible step backwards.
AA: Beatriz, could you say more about the scenographies of the bed? You started the presentation with COVID-19 beds, but the earlier beds you showed —Hugh Hefner’s, Truman Capote’s, Yoko Ono’s— and we could add Mark Twain’s or Matisse’s are very different. There is a possible archeology of the bed related to its pre-networked phase that seems much richer than the monoculture of the interconnected bed. The presence and the hardness of the screen creates a very rigid setting. The screens don’t fit with the smoothness of the bed. Projections may be a bit better… I’m expecting something to change about the viewer’s position in a bed. I think we can expect something to change about this, and I’m curious if you have any —
BC: I totally agree that we haven’t come to terms yet and that we are living in completely outdated situations and making do. Even with Zoom we haven’t figured it out quite yet, because it was imposed on us so suddenly, and likewise with the bed. You can go to the internet and find all kinds of contraptions, or even more elaborate beds like the ones you showed that demonstrate that architects have not taken seriously what is actually happening because we have a tendency to live in the past. Architects always think that they’re thinking about the future but they are not. Sometimes the reality in front of their eyes totally escapes architects. This has been one of these cases; if it is true that so many people are living in a different way, why are we not thinking seriously in our schools and in our designs?
I agree with you that it’s very archaic and that’s why I brought forward industrialization because people before industrialization were living mostly either in farms or ateliers on top of where they were working. I’m sure that for the generation that had to split the place of work from the place of living it must have been incredibly traumatic, to have to adjust to commuting and to long hours of transit. And it took a while. It took a long time to get into this condition, and now we’re in a completely different situation. I think this should be at the forefront of what we think about.
GC: Yes, I think the question of the interior landscapes as they relate to work life and home life is critical. I mean, what your presentation, Beatriz, also revealed is the historical dimension of the pandemic and it seems like what is occurring now has actually already occurred. And so where do we see the form of action, or reconsideration that is presented to us at this stage. At least what I am interested to present as an idea is that the interior spaces where we’re working and living absolutely need reconsideration, and at the same time, if we do not want to have another pandemic in five, six, ten years, somehow the spatial reality that produces this situation to begin with is also something that architects need to deal with. That interior landscapes are not strictly the place where we have potential, that the question of urbanization, the question of landscape, environment change, degradation, it seems to me that it’s in the hinterland where a lot of the bio insecurity emerges from. So, do we leave the hinterland into its own process, which is capital nation state extraction and so on and then deal with the effects once they arrive to us in situ? Or can we also go extramurally to these processes?
BC: I was totally taken back by what you said in your presentation, Gabriel. I think you’re completely correct.
SH: Gabriel, I wanted to resonate with what Beatriz just said. I was really taken with the question of both proximity and distance, where social change really needs to happen. The histories of environmental exploitation, capitalism, and not to mention neocolonialism and whiteness, are all entangled at the sites where the change needs to happen. I was curious, hearing your presentation, if you had any sense of how mapping these supposedly distant factors translates to implementation in policy. Their visualization is stunning, and I’m wondering about their efficacy.
GC: What you all presented suggests an environmentality that architecture has not been so accustomed to dealing with. A relationality that hasn’t made its way into the categories through which we understand and practice. Of course, historians and theorists are very much attuned to this, but I would say more from a practice-oriented side.
If we just delve into an academic environment for a moment, a typical student, maybe some of the students who are joining us here and helped organize this will enter an architecture studio and be confronted with a certain site, a certain program, a certain scale, a certain client to whom they have to attune themselves and produce a design. But somehow these terms—scale, site, program—they’re all still based on the environmentality and conception of architecture as one that has this discreteness. That we can discreetly design something for this discrete thing, for discrete actors. But actually we have to go beyond this discreteness. We need, like Aristide was mentioning, new lexicons, new concepts, new terms that allow us to not only visualize those things, conceptualize, observe them in the first place, but interact with them.
JR: This has come up a couple of times in this discussion that might be worth zeroing in on. There’s been this call historically, that we can see in things like Moms 4 Housing that Sophie mentioned, around this truism that housing is a human right. But perhaps a couple of things are at issue in this current moment, one is what we’ve identified, the multivalence of the space of the home and perhaps how that’s distinguished from housing. The way that housing projects are often tied to the spatial and economic analogues, like spaces of work, all of which are being revised in this moment we’re living through. I’m curious if we see any sort of insufficiency in the call for housing as a human right. What in this new paradigm of the home, that we’re living and working within, might another call be?
SH: Along the lines of housing as human rights?
JR: Perhaps. If that inherits one history. As Beatriz has mentioned, we tend to deal with these things historically, perhaps using outdated modes. I wonder if the tenor of this political situation needs to change or could change in light of the reflections in this conversation?
BC: Housing as a human right is still very valid. I don’t know how we can talk about housing as a human right as a thing of history, it is very much present, particularly in a place like the United States where there is a high rate of homelessness. Clean air is also a human right I suppose. I’m sure Gabriel could come up with a whole list of other human rights.
AA: Getting closer to every idiosyncratic condition one finds ways to be, let’s say practical, about this statement. While there was no work in Greece at all, I had to exercise myself with this condition of an abandoned, derelict city; I think what is important to me is that what we say about the bed and the scenography of the bed are very quickly related to this lack of living space. They can become very interestingly included in housing projects, but also at the same time they can become ways to create even smaller houses for people. What Sophie is saying about a different concept of a living room may become significant. You didn’t have so much time to explain it well.
I think that maybe with the concept of bed we could also deal with different topology of housing. If this kind of extended bed replaces, let’s say, what was an apartment, the living room could become a different, shared space. But to share what? This observation could drive to a change of the logic of housing. Such strategic transformations are to be tested not for people who are in need of housing. Architecture is charged with this ethical question to find strategies to propose new structures of this type and to exercise possibilities of the sort within the privileged zones. The setting of our position in the house even before COVID-19 is asking for big changes in the way we understand functionality; an internal break of the house has to be reinterpreted. In my personal mythology, I call it the destruction of the table from the bed, I think that it’s something like a fight, or a conflict at least, between the bed and the table and the table lost.
BC: There have been typological changes recently, for example, in New York, they had to change the rules of apartment sizes to accommodate these micro-apartments that are much smaller than the law previously allowed. You enter the apartment and everything is the bed. Everything happens in the bed. They do not have a lot of social spaces for interaction, such as kitchens where people cook together. It’s interesting that the initiative has come from the developers, unlike in the 20s where the initiative came from radical architects. We haven’t been, as architects, thinking much about the way in which people are living now. Of course, the pandemic has changed everything because all of a sudden you could not be in the kitchen, the gym, the social space. These developments were already in place before COVID-19.
AA: The way that COVID-19 acts directs many intellectuals to the logic of understanding it as a very important moment in the postmodern history of humanity. But I think that it goes sometimes to organize more conventional looks to what we were preparing, let’s say for. For a kind of problematized architecture to make it more interesting. We have to deal again with this abstract condition that I sometimes describe as a diptych: a warehouse full of goods and something like a drone flying and bringing goods to your bed. That’s what remains from a city where there is no place left of and no need for interaction between humans. This diptych shows emblematically that the city tends to be replaced by this model of bed and warehouse.
BC: This is how we were living during the pandemic. In New York we were all told to assume that we were sick and to confine ourselves to our beds, and try not to go to the supermarket, try to order things online and so on. Basically, we were already confined to our apartments and to our beds. This dystopian view has already been realized more dramatically in places such as Spain and Madrid. In Spain, people were not allowed to go out, not even the kids.
In New York we could walk in the park and in empty streets. In places like Italy or Spain, nobody got out of the house for many months, particularly the kids which was really scary. If you think about it, there might be a whole generation of kids who develop problems caused by this extreme enclosure. You were only allowed to go to the supermarket and back. Sometimes the police would stop you to see the receipt as proof that you actually went there. The receipt showed the time and if it was a store that was close to you. You could not take a walk in the park. In fact, we’ve been thrown into an experiment that we would never have agreed upon had it not been the situation in which we were and still are in. This dystopian fantasy that you have described has already happened.
AA: Exactly, and maybe we can particularly delve into it to see what is functioning perfectly now. I think that this is maybe the most valuable observation. What is booming in this situation? Of course Netflix, Amazon, this was expected right? but also there are applications that are growing and one wouldn’t have thought. Yes, there is an understanding of the functionality of the whole social sphere to be represented, a new description of its operations. The extensions of what you did by saying that 80% were working from their beds. Many elements could be addressed for thought in the direction of what you say of the dystopian side.
BC: Everything was already in place. We were in this moment and pushed to actually act on it.
I’m not paranoid, but I might think that somebody meant this virus to precipitate this change. That would be the totally paranoid view. To push the whole of humanity into this form of living.
SH: I think Jack’s question raises another question about the education of the architect. I think that the imperatives are fairly clear; the basic rights to housing, a right to clean air, a right to basic income, and the list goes on. These things have been articulated and they are on the table. For me, the question is not the privileged position of the architect, but in how this profession adapts to respond to these exigencies in a meaningful way. Especially with building production as one of the largest energy-consuming activities on the planet! For students on the corporate track, these are the issues that must be confronted. The question is, how do we have discussions around this with experts from different fields? How do we build coalitions around that? And for the historians, I think it would fundamentally mean questioning some of the intrinsic notions of our discipline, such as the history of functionalism and the history of medicalization. We have to look at how these histories are entangled intersectional histories—histories of racism, of marginalization, of gender. The only thing that makes me slightly hopeful is a shift of discourse that we have seen, one that must be pushed further by young scholars.
We always say that there’s a difference between people my age and the people who are five to eight years younger because they have a more deeply ingrained activist practice which our generation wasn’t trained to have. In that, I find hope.
JR: Thank you so much for this conversation and these comments. This has been amazingly productive. I want to thank you all for the perspectives that you offer.
SH: Thank you. Sometimes things are easier to say in small forums, so I really appreciate being in this conversation. Thank you to all my co-panelists.
BC: It was great to see all of you and I enjoyed each one of your presentations and your comments so thank you, and thank you to the Paprika! people for bringing us together.
GC: Likewise, thank you so much. I’m honored to participate in this and thank you. Fascinating.
AA: Thank you, Ciao.