Homes without people

In Monday’s By Design blog, Allison Arieff challenges the focus and relevance of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) Home Delivery exhibit, making the obvious and salient point that cutting-edge technology is always interesting, but when it comes to homes, people matter.

Home Delivery has tons of cool stuff to look at, but it really does feel odd that a show about homes has so little to say about the experience of actually living in one.”

It’s a fair criticism, and I made a similar point-out in my own thoughts about the exhibit. I mused that it would have been instructive if the MOMA exhibit would have tried to make their presentation like a living history museum, such as Old Sturbridge Village, in which actors play the part of the period village inhabitants. It would have been interesting (and fun) to see people trying to live in the little neighborhood of prefab homes on display at MOMA. I think it would make life in an early American village look pretty good. They may not have had amenities back then, but they had space; and they may not have the blessing of modern structural materials to create high perches in metal, plywood and glass, but they had the blessing of being on a firm foundation, living in a dwelling built with solid, natural materials, and an intention of endurance, not with a built-in plan for a fast demise.

Since I agree with Arieff that the lives of people are what really matters in any new housing idea, I’m a little confused as to why Arieff references the Whitney Museum’s Buckminister Fuller exhibit and seems to suggest that, compared to the Home Delivery exhibit’s architects, Fuller was correctly motivated and on the right track, even though he ultimately failed. If that is truly her point of view, I disagree. Even though I found fault with the houses displayed at Home Delivery, I applaud the fact that most of them are attempts to create innovative ways in which buildings could be built, rather than an attempt to create a perfect solution for how people should live.

Fuller’s focus was on people, yes, but he wanted to engineer their lives as much as he wanted to engineer a method of building. To go with his grand alternative, disrupting vision about structure, shape and space, he also had a parallel vision to reshape the daily lives of humans. The Dymaxion House, his most ambitious home-focused project, wasn’t just an innovative building. In Fuller’s view it was THE single solution to the big post WWII housing shortage. He saw Dymaxion as the way every family should live and assumed it would be heralded by all, and would wash across the country overnight, finally making all domestic life neatly organized and efficient, while also completely transforming the architectural landscape with a pox of his round pods. He may have been a genius, but he was also completely full of himself and wrong.

There are few things as personal as one’s home. To remove the inhabitants from the process of defining and organizing the spaces in their home is unfortunate; to postulate that people should submit to a pre-canned and identical home for everyone is both arrogant and ignorant. We are living mammals and after tens of thousands of years of evolution, our need to create our own nest is only more deeply refined and crucial. It is our home that defines us, makes us and remakes us, as we in turn define it, shape it and reshape it, in the constantly unfolding drama of our lives.

Therefore, the only good homebuilding solutions are the ones that create and expand potential, giving increased opportunities for the inhabitants to have the opportunity to self-express, self-create and constantly change. Conversely, bad homes are those that lock the inhabitants into a preconceived notion about who they are and how they should live, and gives them little opportunity to do otherwise. Fortunately, most of those attempts, like the Dymaxion House, fail pretty miserably. Some that exist, like the block buildings in the Communist countries, are evidence that even architecture is capable of being a high crime against the human spirit. Others, like the urban tenement housing projects of the 60s, were imploded to cheering crowds, demonstrating that the human spirit will eventually prevail over bricks and mortar.

But architects keep trying. The house as manufactured widget is still compelling, it seems. But it won’t work. Humans are boundless creatures. The best homebuilding ideas won’t attempt to tie them down; homes will be designed and configured to let their imaginations and lives soar free.

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