Home is Where the Pathologies Are

13 Rue del Percebe, by Francisco Ibañez, a popular Spanish comic from the 1960s and 70s (translation by u/iturnedintoanewt). Image courtesy reddit)

Here we are, in the ninth month of coronavirus crisis, eagerly awaiting the birth, any day now, of a new era thanks to the marvels of modern medicine. But even with a vaccine, it probably won’t be long before another deadly mutant virus attacks us out of the depths of distant jungles invaded by our anthropocene industrial complex. So don’t hold your breath: home-working, home-studying, and rising home-unemployment are not likely to go away any time soon, if at all.

This prompts the question: what is the beat on the street right now regarding “the home in the time of coronavirus”? Are people renovating their homes in new ways? Are living rooms being turned into small corporate headquarters? Are bathrooms doubling up as teleconferencing booths? Is working in bed actually a reality now as opposed to a kinky sexual fantasy of the 1960s-70s?

I asked colleagues, and the first reply I got is from a friend I’ve written about before: Roland King, an Amsterdam-based architect specialized in renovating ordinary homes for ordinary folk (as opposed to starchitects who build extraordinary homes for the 1%):

The corona-home is increasingly a cauldron of partner and family frustrations and problems; a prison. Whereas before houses were just a place to sleep, shower, eat and get the kids off to school, the corona home now has to do a lot more. I have come across many instances where one partner works from the dining table and the other from the lounge, or from a makeshift table in the bedroom. Everybody is creative in finding a place but many complain that their jobs are not compatible with working from home. While one talks on Teams the whole day the other needs to read a lot and can’t concentrate. Kids run around the house shouting and screaming and wanting to watch Disney while parents move around trying to find a quiet place to fill in those excel sheets. You could hire a coworking space or sit at the local coffee bar, but during a lockdown this is not always an option. A lot of people are now asking for design advice to try to save their marriage or their sanity. Can we build an extension under, below, or to one side? Can we turn a balcony into an office, or double up the kids’ rooms for a spare room to work from? The typical home was never designed for this dual purpose, one being the hearth of the family and the other an up-to-date office. Many people are complaining that their domestic space doesn’t work for them now. People who are better-off have spare bedrooms but even so many want to transform garden sheds into offices. Much of what I do seems to consist of preventing people working at home from killing each other. But many have little space, no budget, and are desperate, so how can you help in these cases? Well, you can change a wardrobe in the bedroom into an office space so that the bedroom is activated and not dormant the whole day. By simply turning a bookshelf 90 degrees you can create at least a bit of a buffer from family life. Installing a glass partition between the living room and the dining room and kitchen can help. Or turning a storage space into an office nook. There are actually so many small, inexpensive changes which can help people to have their own space, and that is the key, making one’s own space within the home. I guess I’ve become a sort of house-therapist, helping people think about their behaviour and their use of space in a new way.  

Since the birth of coronavirus, then, it seems that there is a reversal of the trend to demolish walls and install load-transfer beams out of a desire for “open-concept”, “free-flow” space (and the freely flowing noise that accompanies it). Large lofts or loft-like houses with few walls and doors are seemingly not so attractive anymore. Were they ever, really? Rooms, replete with doors that close for silence and privacy, are definitely making a comeback.

Also noteworthy is how Roland has adopted the practice model of “the architect as family- or house-doctor”, even “the architect as brico-therapist“. His low-cost, low-carbon remedies may not make for the kind of flashy advertisement copy that architecture magazines increasingly publish under the guise of content, but they clearly exemplify a kind of “green” architecture with huge potential considering that ordinary homes comprise between two thirds and three quarters of the built environment.

Coincidentally, since putting out my to-date largely unheeded call, I was asked to participate in a Zoom review of a University of Manitoba junior studio course taught by my friend Eduardo Aquino in which students were tasked with designing an intervention in the very (single-family suburban) home they were confined to. What did most students choose to design? A more private, roomier personal space for themselves and their favorite past-time. Most were in the form of rather sculptural home extensions, such as a library with a reading space (Angelene), a star-gazing observatory resembling a tree-house (Ariana), and a surreal post-covid sanity-recuperation pleasure garden for hosting summertime pool parties (Kyle). One student (Raegis) designed a frontal living-room extension that incorporated a new courtyard in a project designed not just for him but for his family. There was also a basement converted into an apartment with a sunken garden (Alessa) that –although not explained as such– provocatively undermines the sacrosanctity of the “single-family” typology.

It’s great to finally see more performative and experiential aspects of housing, cities, and the way most of us really live take on greater centrality in architecture again. The word “noise” and the very notion of acoustics is not often heard in architecture, nor is mention of the wafting of smells that are not always pleasant in open-concept domestic space. Yet these are genuine architectural problems that surface when co-living and co-working are mixed into a cocktail. Hell, when was the last time you even came across the term “problem-solving” in architecture?

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