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The House of the Future
Combining new technologies with architects' dreams from
WWII to the present
by Marie-Paule Macdonald
The Ideal House
Rick Moody introduced his novella The Ice Storm, set in 1973, with an inventory of what contemporary technologies, concepts, and sundry realities of 1994 the suburban house of 1973 lacked:
No answering machines. And no call waiting. No caller I.D. No compact disc recorders or laser discs or holography or cable television or MTV. No multiplex cinemas or word processors or laser printers or modems. No virtual reality. No grand unified theory or Frequent Flyer mileage or fuel injection systems or turbo or premenstrual syndrome or rehabilitation centres or adult children of alcoholics. No codependency. No punk rock, or post punk, or hardcore, or grunge. No hip-hop. No Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or Human Immunodeficiency Virus or mysterious AIDS-like illnesses. No computer viruses. No cloning or genetic engineering or biospheres or full-colour photocopying...No perestroika. No Tiananmen Square.1
Director Ang Lee expertly visualized the film version of The Ice Storm in 1997. Set on location in New Canaan, Connecticut, he presented an affluent suburban ideal: diverse individual modern homes set in a winter forest. Despite the twenty year interval, it seems natural to picture the contemporary laptop and high-speed wireless Internet connection, cell phone, home dvd, palm pilot, multi-channel cable and digital projector fitting smoothly into the informal environments of these modern homes.
The ideal of the individual house set in the country, preferably surrounded by an exquisite natural forested landscape, has evolved and expanded since its prototype - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House - was completed in the environs of Chicago in 1950.2 The Farnsworth, a glass box on a steel chassis with a pre-cast concrete floor, was set over a flood plain adjacent to the Fox River. Invisible from the road, with no opaque walls, the house was screened by its fifty-eight acres of surrounding forest. The architect conceived of its interior as axiomatic "universal space": an open plan interconnected living and sleeping areas. The structure used clear spans, columns placed at the edge of the frame. The white painted steel and clear glass pavilion remains impeccably modern, a built object on the threshold between visible and invisible.
The glass and steel house as an environment appears eternally modern, while what goes on inside is in ever-more unstable flux. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has perceived a radical transformation in the virtual domestic preoccupations of contemporary life:
I place strong emphasis on what is usually referred to as the virtualisation
or digitalisation of our environment. We know that 60 percent of the people
on this Earth have not even made a phone call in their life. But still, 30 percent
of us live in a digitalised universe that is artificially constructed, manipulated,
and no longer some natural or traditional one. At all levels of our life we
seem to live more and more with the thing deprived of its substance. You get
beer without alcohol, meat without fat, coffee without caffeine...and even virtual
sex without sex. Virtual reality to me is the climax of this process: you now
get reality without reality...or a totally regulated reality...One should not,
for example, underestimate the inter-subjective social impact of cyberspace.
What we are witnessing today is a radical redefinition of what it means to be
a human being.3
The ideal suburban house prototype has been redesigned and reiterated over the course of the last half of the century. Its status as a commodity has crystallized. Martin Heidegger's essential text of 1951, Building Dwelling Thinking, discussed dwelling as "rootedness" or connection with the land. The Farnsworth House is often described as floating, a glass box hovering disconnected from the land. It had no basement; its roof was shorn level, the flat plane of anonymous building. Seen from inside, the landscape transformed into a pictorial visual wrapping, in opposition to the visceral phenomenon associated with dwelling.
Landscape architect and writer J.B. Jackson favoured the American phenomenon that he called the movable house. For Jackson, dwelling related to habit. The unpretentious, disposable, cheap, boxy American house represented freedom and egalitarianism. "How long do we have to stay in a place for it to become a dwelling?" he asked. "I would say we stay long enough for our presence to become customary. A place becomes a dwelling when it is part of our customary behaviour... it becomes an element in a customary or habitual way of life."4 But what happens when a society's habits evolve more rapidly than the ideal home?
In the decades after the Second World War, the idyllic, affordable steel and glass home was an idea in the air, and a preferred fantasy for architects. It was taken up in the context of California, where the earthquake zone provided some justification for the flexible strength of the steel frame. For example, taking up the theme of the simple, Miesian one storey house in 1951, Craig Ellwood's Salzman House (case study house #16) in Bel Air used slim two-inch steel tubes, the kind of steel originally used for scaffolding. Its street façade was a simple series of translucent glass panels screening the building from the street. Rather than a transparent object, the translucent panels created a blank, anonymous plane.
Later, the floating quality of the Farnsworth ideal led to steel bridge houses: the Chamora House of 1962, and the Weekend House project of 1964. The latter was a massive steel Pratt truss, bridging a canyon. A version of this house was built by architecture students on the campus of the College of Architecture at the California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. Curiously, in the same year on the Pacific Coast, the Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, then working with Geoffrey Massey, designed a celebrated house as a glazed bridge in heavy timber for a rugged West Vancouver site. While its simplicity and openness related to the work of Mies van der Rohe and Ellwood, the Smith Residence, set in an idyllic wood, used timber and glass to integrate into the rainforest.5 Again following Mies van der Rohe and Ellwood, the house featured a living space as a raised bridge set onto exposed rock faces, but introduced a new limited monochrome palette of natural heavy timber and transparent glass.
The Smith Residence introduced an idea of environmental sensitivity: the design was integrated with the character of the rainforest. It responded to the specificity of the place of construction. In this sense it corresponded to a key point in Heidegger's essay on dwelling: "Accordingly, spaces receive their essential being from locations and not from 'space'".6 Its glass walls, single pane, were not yet very environmentally sensitive in the technological sense, but the design prefigured a tendency that would characterize the architectural dreams of the nineties: the ecological house.
The Dream House
While the glass ranch house mutated and proliferated, radical architects of the sixties proposed dwelling structures that were more like astronauts' space suits than rustic homes. Michael Webb's unrealized projects, the Cushicle of 1966 and the Suitaloon of 1968, proposed inflatable, transformable, wearable architecture, to be fabricated in plastic materials that were yet to be invented. These ideas, especially of inflatable structures, connected to fantasies of instant architecture, compatible with the social and political protest movements of the time. Ultimately they applied best to camping, vacationing, and temporary dwelling, as they ignored the issues related to storing items of seasonal use that are so pertinent to dwelling. Webb's visionary drawings found a correspondence in items such as the Moss dome tent, patented by Charles William (Bill) Moss as the "pop tent" in 1955. High-end versions were manufactured to perfection by Moss Inc. up to the 1990s.7 The ultra-efficient dome tent allowed users to live lightly off the land, even if it was only during a vacation.
By the 1970s the ideal of suburban living had become a norm. Suburban developments consumed forests, replacing them with malls and golf courses. The oil crisis of the early seventies called into question the habits of consuming. The ever more pervasive "normality" of the suburban ranch house was subject to scrutiny in artist Dan Graham's 1979 project Alteration to a suburban house. Graham proposed replacing the "picture window" of a standard suburban house with a wall of glass, further adding a mirror along the length of the centre of the house, exposing the public areas of the home to view towards the street. Then-new building materials - large uninterrupted sheets of transparent glass and glass mirror, previously only available in small sheets - would provide an index of the psychological life of home. Jeff Wall called it a "Kammerspiel" - the German, intimate theatre - referring to psychological drama concerned with moral and social issues that could unfold in the transformed "house as stage".8
The debate questioning the morality of the ever-popular energy guzzling individual car and house has raged on into the 21st century. Government programs to make the house and its furnace more energy efficient were inaugurated. Canadian architecture and building achieved some of the highest standards in energy efficiency; prototypes such as architect Martin Leifhebber's "off grid" urban house in Toronto (which uses solar panels to capture energy and absorbs and stores its own water) demonstrated some possibilities. Yet Canadians have remained among the planet's highest energy consumers and most intense users of advanced technologies.
The House of the Future
Japanese architect Shigeru Ban's recycled cardboard Paper Tube Houses were built for relief housing after the Kobe earthquake of 1995. Ban had experimented with paper tubes after he noticed the discarded paper tubes left over after textiles were delivered. He consulted with scientists to develop waterproofing and stiffening for the paper, and offered his services to provide "instant housing" at the time of the earthquake. Working with the United Nations and a number of relief organizations, Ban has also shipped paper tube houses to Turkey and Rwanda.
During the 1990s, Ban created a series of innovative houses expressing contemporary desires regarding the form of the home. He referred to the Farnsworth as a key influence, remarking that, "It is a revolutionary work which achieves total continuity between inside and outside thanks to its entirely glazed façade."9 His Naked House of 2000 was built of transparent, double-walled rigid plastic sheets similar to Lexan (an engineering thermoplastic). Inside an open volume, the rooms were conceived as "chambers": boxes on wheels that could be rolled freely to any position within the space of the house. Ban continues to be sensitive to inexpensive, innovative, and recycled materials. He designed a recent exhibition sculpture for the Shanghai Biennale, titled Plastic Bottle Structure 01, 2002, using reused transparent plastic bottles as a framework.
During the "tech boom", the dream house of the 1990s was a marketing tool for contemporary technological products. North American society turned into a digital society of intellectual workers using sophisticated software as an interface between productivity and getting production to market. The dream of the fully computerized house expressed the desirable feeling of control over space and time, of omniscience achievable with omnipresent computing.
The House_n project, a multi-year research project initiated in 1999 by the Architecture Department and the MediaLab at MIT (jointly dubbed the "MIT Home of the Future Consortium"), proclaimed that: "The problem of our epoch is the problem of the electronically mediated house."10 As the personal computer took its position as the essential appliance of the individual house, researchers sought to extend, expand, and multiply the effect of mediation of individual daily life by means of the "digital dream house".
Research labs at MIT envisioned "ubiquitous" or "pervasive computing". They predicted and proposed arrays of devices, all equipped with integrated personal computers with invisible or incorporated interfaces. As a corollary, MIT assembled artificial "house" environments as labs to test how the multitude of new computer products could meld with the environment of the home, create energy-producing rather than energy-consuming devices, participate in privatized medical services, monitor elderly residents, and seamlessly mesh with socio-economic daily life. The house was its own marketing tool, containing invisible devices to record data on consumption. Full of Yankee-doodle ingenuity, the research project was an articulately placeless place. Ultimately, since it was a lab, no one lived there. It could be seen as another contemporary item deprived of its substance, to be added to Zizek's list: like "organs without a body", it was a house without the house.
Large transparent screens and multiple glass walls were a common theme: intelligent surfaces onto which even more information and advertising flickered. The idea of the wall-sized screen is not new. Recent "tele-work" proposals call for glass walled homes that can be transformed into data screens. A standard science fiction feature, the wall-screen played a tyrannical role in the film version of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, directed by François Truffaut. In the narrative, a dominating, brainwashing wall-sized screen in every individual suburban home coordinated all social life. The home mega screen is now just another appliance: digital projectors can transform any surface, indoor or outdoor, into a projection surface.
In his 1920 novel We, Soviet science fiction author Eugene Zamiatin wrote about a future, totalitarian society where citizens live in glass boxes, their day fully scheduled by the state. In 2004, for some citizens, the fusion of ubiquitous computing and glass walled homes still threatens. Kathleen M. Sullivan, Dean of the Stanford Law School, has worried that, "We would surely object if the government required us to live in glass houses, carry all of our personal belongings in clear plastic bags, send our mail in glassine envelopes, and leave our houses and drawers unlocked - even if such measures made law enforcement easier."11 Even today, glass can be made to morph from clear to semi-opaque: technological glass innovations include a material that can transform transparent or "vision" glass into a milky, semi-opaque glass through the use of electric current.
Fantasies of the future home have also been fueled by recent visions of nanotechnological
breakthroughs. An Australian school, the University of Technology Sydney, has
put together a project called Nanohouse [http://www.nano.uts.edu.au/nanohouse.html]
as a vehicle to promote a positive discourse on the possibilities of nanotech,
including non-adhering surfaces, hybrid photovoltaic cells, innovative textiles,
and so on. The Nanohouse, a kind of "show home" project, uses the familiar
vehicle of the home to accustom the public to an unfamiliar new technology.
Some writers make breathtaking claims for the nano-future. For example, in his non-fiction writings, science fiction novelist Wil McCarthy imagines scenarios involving ubiquitous "programmable matter": "The flick of a switch; a wall becomes a window becomes a hologram generator. Any chair becomes a hypercomputer, any rooftop a power or waste treatment plant."12 Yet a skeptical Slavoj Zizek asks, "Apropos of a fantasmatic scene, the question to be asked is thus always: for which gaze is it staged? Which narrative is it destined to support?"13 In the case of McCarthy, it is narratives about the possible catastrophic consequences of nanotech that must be countered: a scenario referred to by some as the "Grey Goo" problem, exemplified by Robert A. Freitas Jr., who has warned that "the primary ecophagic concern is that runaway nanorobotic replicators or 'replibots' will convert the entire surface biosphere (the ecology of all living things on the surface of the Earth) into alternative or artificial materials of some type - especially, materials like themselves, e.g., more self-replicating nanorobots."14
Other futurists predict that nanotechnological production will make all consumer products virtually free, so that finally only land itself will be of any value. This meshes with English architect Cedric Price's list of the roles and attitudes of the dwelling: "The house is an imprecise tool for habitation, and its usefulness has always been related to its capacity to change, to be exchanged or to expire." Price adds, "A good building produces the desire for even more from the good client and, in so doing, eventually renders itself redundant."15
Architect Marie-Paule Macdonald teaches in Montréal, and at the University of Waterloo's School of Architecture Her book, rockspaces, was published by Toronto's Art Metropole in 2000.
1. Rick Moody, The Ice Storm, New York: Warner Books, 1994.
2. The Farnsworth House, designed and completed by Mies van der Rohe from 1946 to 1951, is considered a seminal example of International Style architecture as it was introduced to the United States. Located in Plano, Illinois, the house was commissioned to be a weekend retreat for a single woman, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. The effect of this house's fully transparent facade is to blur the usual boundaries defining domesticity: distinctions between public and private, outside and inside, often disappear. For more information, see: www.columbia.edu/cu/gsapp/BT/GATEWAY/FARNSWTH/gen
3. Sabine Reul and Thomas Deichmann, The One Measure of True Love is: You Can Insult the Other, an interview with Slavoj Zizek, in: www.spiked-online.com, November 15, 2001. See: www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000002D2C4.htm
4. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, The Movable Dwelling and how it came to
America, in: Landscape in Sight: Looking at America New Haven: Yale University
5. See: www.arthurerickson.com/txt_smit.html
6. Martin Heidegger, Building, Dwelling, Thinking (1951), in: Basic Writings, Second Edition, David Farrell Krell (ed.), New York: Harper and Row 1977.
7. See: http://web.cba.neu.edu/~ewertheim/teams/moss.htm
8. Jeff Wall, Dan Graham's 'Kammerspiel',
Toronto: Art Metropole, 1992.
9. This is a translation of Ban's comments made in French, "C'ést une oeuvre révolutionnaire qui parvenait à une continuité complète entre l'intérieur et l'extérieur grâce à une façade entièrement vitrée." Quoted from: www.archilab.org/public/1999/artistes/shig01fr.htm
10. See: http://architecture.mit.edu/house_n/
11. Kathleen M. Sullivan, Under a Watchful Eye: Incursions on Personal
Privacy, in: The War on our Freedoms: Civil Liberties in an Age
of Terrorism, Richard C. Leone and Greg Anrig Jr. (eds.)
New York: Public Affairs, 2003.
12. Wil McCarthy, Hacking Matter: Levitating Chairs, Quantum Mirages, and the Infinite Weirdness of Programmable Atoms, Basic Books, 2003. See also: www.nickbostrom.com/2050/world.html
13. Slavoj Zizek, The Zizek Reader (Blackwell Readers series), edited by Elizabeth Wright and Edmund Wright, Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
14. Robert A. Frietas Jr., The Gray Goo Problem, published by KurzweilAI.net, March 20, 2001. See: www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0142.html Excerpted from: Robert A. Frietas Jr., Some Limits to Global Ecophagy by Biovorous Nanoreplicators, with Public Policy Recommendations, published by www.foresight.org, April 2001. Full text at: www.foresight.org/NanoRev/Ecophagy.html
15. Cedric Price, Houses and Homes, in: AA Files, No.19, 1987.