Saturday, March 31, 2007

Domesticating Fear

They say a man’s home is his castle, although it might better be argued that with the technological infiltration of domestic activities aimed specifically at women in the fifties and sixties, that a woman’s home is her castle. Gender roles aside, Beatriz Colomina in her essay titled “The Underground Home” examines a concrete moment at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, where as a response to fear and as we will examine later the “outside”, the internalized and militarized home was at its most extreme.

Colomina takes us in for a closer look at “The Underground Home” a self explanatory product available for commercial sale all the way up through the 1980’s and on proud display as a model of the future at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing New York. In her examination she brings to light two important things which I would like to discuss further. The first is the infiltration of technology and war into the home and the ability to convert militarized invention into domesticated necessity. The second is a theme found commonly in reference to security and that is interiority versus exteriority.

In the 1960’s during the cold war, with the looming fear of near instant nuclear annihilation resulting in the popularity of digging your own bunker in the backyard, the Underground Home made its debut. It was a house that was defined by the nuclear age. Designed to both protect from the nuclear threat but also to use the latest in nuclear powered technology it was an interesting paradox. It represented the integration of war into the home and was a laboratory for technology. For example, due to the inability to have windows in the home inhabitants were able to “dial-a-view” and select from an array of pleasing scenes and it had its own internalized HVAC system completely eliminating the effects of exterior weather as if it were on par with nuclear fallout. Colomina explains that over time the battlefield for which the house was designed for changed to match the social context. In the 60’s it was nuclear fallout, in the 70’s it was energy efficiency against the oil crisis and in the 80’s it was ecological concerns. In doing this it engaged the house in combat. The home was an apparatus in the war. This was demonstrated in the powerful images by Martha Mosler in 1967 and again in 2004 for her piece titles “Bringing the War Home
. She accurately notes that “the increasing dematerialization of the house and the displacement of its traditional functions by new technologies of information is exactly matched by an increasing rematerialization at its borders and the emergence of ever more enclosing security systems” p126.

The heavy importance of the home in day to day life is one of the major factors in why technology was so heavily concentrated there. It’s where we spent all our time, it’s where we raised our families and it’s where we returned to at the end of every day. I wonder now though with the increasing tendency to spend less time at home and the resulting reduction in significance and meaning as “home” if this is necessarily true anymore. More and more it seems our homes are just a place where we keep our “stuff”. Now I realize that this might not be universally true or even the case the majority of the time but it is changing and it begs the question, is the home where we should be concentrating our efforts to secure and fortify? Is there a new location or a new scale where we retreat to for safety and shelter? Is it now the personal space that travels with us?

You would assume that when your house exists entirely underground, you might as well forget about having a yard or any exterior space at all. Well this wasn’t the case for the Underground Home. Colomina points out a rather interesting and important feature of the house, it had an outdoor patio. This Inside/Outside space confuses the indoor and outdoor but at the same time solidifies the importance of the interior. If when you’re “outside” your underground house but underground and therefore still inside, it highlights an extreme example of the interiorization of the home. It’s this turn inwards, the tendency to shut out the exterior or to tame it through captivity within the interior or as Colomina describes it “domesticating fear by controlling the image of the exterior and replacing it with an idealized image.” Pg124 So there are two ways which we protect ourselves in our homes, through excluding the exterior or taming it and by replacing it with our own image.

Neither of these options sound particularly healthy. They both seem to be symptoms of an attitude which encourages the lack of information and flexibility. It’s the home as a bunker, an immovable, un-responding object. Perhaps there are two ways this can go. If there is indeed an increasing tendency for technology now to focus more attention to the personal scale, then we might do best to forget about the home, or treat it for what it has become, a vault, and continue to develop our own personal security. If we still want to give architecture another stab at it, we must develop our security away from the home at the scale of the city or building. The other possibility is that we stay at home and use this history of technological concentration and get hip real quick. Protection in this day and age no longer necessarily means the thickest skin it’s about the most information. The home can be a place of comfort and information. We see this to some extent already, bringing the world into the home through internet communication and digital satellite cable with 700 channels. If the Underground Home functioned by surrounding the exterior with the interior then I say the new home must do the exact opposite. It’s now about bringing the interior to the exterior. The world is your backyard now and you know everything that happens in it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


Something worth looking at:

Archis Magazine’s RSVP Events;

Part critic, theorist and activist, the RSVP events coordinated by Dutch architecture magazine Archis are an interesting study in the temporary. The program is conceived as a catalyst for architectural ideas and their implementation.

Beginning in 2004, through their website ( ) a place and a time are proposed and the rest is left up to everyone else to “rsvp”. The resulting events are determined by the character of the place and the number of responses. Described as tactical interventions they have completed ten events so far with requests for four more on the boards at the time of this writing.

Events of note as related to this study:
“Paranoia” – Amman/Ramallah – March 2005
“Unbuilt” – Beirut – Spring 2006
“Safety” – Kabul – Summer 2007
“Shelter” – Taichung – Spring 2008

Sunday, March 25, 2007

War and Cinema

Paul Virilio, a great theorist of war, in his book “War and Cinema” focuses on the image and its dramatic role in the course of conflict. His insight into the value and potential of the image for its ability to effect perception and also act as a weapon are alarming. An aspect of his theory I find interesting is the assertion of the importance of the image over the object. Through developing military technology the “eye’s function has become the weapon”, and guns have been replaced by images. Inherent in this argument is the element of distance. Virilio speaks to this distance both physically and perceptually. The targets are now hundreds if not thousands of miles away from where they are spotted on a video screen and button is pressed and perceptually they are equally distant.

This leads me to wonder about architecture’s specific part in conflict and the first thought that comes to mind is that of a target. It seems the built form’s role in all conflicts is a target, whether because of its programmatic importance or because of its function simply as fortification. How does one remove architecture from the firing line?

Perhaps this is an argument for a new type of camouflage. Visibility exists in different forms. There’s visibility to the naked human eye, and there’s visibility as Virilio is referring to through the electronic eye whether as a video image, infrared, radar, etc… If according to Virilio the new mode of conflict exists solely through this new electronic visualization, it might be easier to make the built world around us invisible and remove it from harms way; to create an “aesthetic of disappearance”.

If you think about it the technology already exists to “hide” machinery of war and even the built form through stealth, electronic jamming and good old fashioned camouflage. Why couldn’t these principals be applied to non-military buildings? How hard could it be to fool someone at a distance?

The problem is that contrary to Virilio its not the distance that really matters anymore. What Virilio describes is “conventional warfare”. Conflict defined through its technology and as a result distance. What we are seeing more and more of today is the use of non-conventional guerilla warfare which has proven remarkably effective at handicapping larger, better equipped opposition using conventional techniques. This poses big problems for our “aesthetics of disappearance”. This isn’t to say that I think its impossible to achieve. We must now however consider more than ever, both the distant electronic and the immediate real image of our work.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Building Code -> Security Code?

A question in relation to the post on Trüby’s essay on 5 Codes which wasn’t mentioned in the previous post; one thing which I didn’t address in Trüby’s essay was the other type of codes (along with design codes) which are building codes. He makes reference to building codes while discussing the role of the corridor and the way which throughout history there has been a move from the importance of design codes to building codes.

The question I’d like to pose is that much like the creation of the building code after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, is there not the opportunity to create something positive from the 9/11 disaster in the form of something similar? It seems that the architectural response to the event if systematized in any way has been in reaction rather than in prevention.

The next question is, is a Security Code even possible? I wonder about the following sticking point; mostly that security from attack is primarily a secretive thing. How do you create a standardized code for security without then completely invalidating it? Maybe you can’t. Perhaps you can create an outline for which we all create our own personal security codes.

Severe, High, Elevated, Guarded or Low?

Alright, we’re back after a little hiatus. My apologies for those who were following along (and I know that there’s a lot of you), we’re now back in the country and back into the normal schedule. So let’s get back to business.

Over the break I took a look through an interesting book called “5 Codes; Architecture, Paranoia and Risk in Times of Terror” which as you can imagine holds some relevance to this topic of study. In particular I’d like to discuss Stephan Trüby’s essay similarly titled “5 Codes, On Architecture Paranoia and Risk”.

The book title makes reference to the Department of Homeland Security’s 5 stage warning system (Severe, High, Elevated, Guarded & Low) which we are all aware of its vagary and general unspecified paranoia. Trüby’s essay calls into conversation other perhaps more important codes to architecture. Before jumping straight into the codes and systems by which architecture has been manipulated for the past 5 centuries Trüby outlines what an architecture system should be and that in this case there is no straight definition. His point is that for a system to exist it must function in a binary form, as architecture versus the world outside it. This concept of inside and outside becomes prevalent in the rest of his discussion. His claim is that “It has become more difficult than ever to define a difference between architecture and what could be the world around it”pg16. I think by this he is referring to architects in contemporary practice and their multiple roles that they are now assuming on a much more frequent basis (ie. as sociologists, anthropologists, filmmakers, publishers, politicians, economists, etc…). Although Trüby might not be referring to architecture as built form specifically, my first reaction to this was that with the increasing explicit deployment of security measures in architecture today the line between architecture and the outside world is being clarified and intensified. My other reaction to this is that I don’t think its necessarily true that architecture should only be defined as a binary concept between inside and out, more on this later on.

Back to this importance of inside and outside; Trüby also touches on something that I find fascinating. He examines in classical and medieval times how a society familiar to constant danger (from war, nature, the gods, etc…) blended architecturally the culture of war into their society and therefore its architecture. He mentions the concept of Prepon as the Greeks refered to it or Decorum as known by the Romans. Decorum is a code of design. According to Decorum culture and the military are two sides of the same coin. Culture represents the internal behaviour of the population and strategy represents the external. Trüby explains that in these societies, through Decorum, the architecture was one of welcome to its returning generals and a symbol communicating the success of war. I wonder in our day and age if we need to revive a type of Decorum? Not in the same sense as it was used in classical times but something adopted to fit with out current situation (that is not to invoke images of conquest or glorify war). I think that our current built responses to war demonstrate our failures rather than our success (think about it, what do armored post offices and solid slabs of concrete in front of your apartment building tell you about our efforts against terror?).

Trüby also discusses the difference between danger and risk and society’s evolution from being based on the former to the latter. He explains that danger is an externalized concept of fear in that “danger occurs if any damage that may occur originates externally and can be attributed to the world around us.” where as “…risk exists if damage is caused internally and is attributed to the system”p24. This in combination with reference to the corridor which he also analyzes (and we’ll leave for another post perhaps) he outlines the fundamental difference in attitude towards inside versus outside and the change in location of fear. He describes pre-modern times as viewing the exterior as insecure and a place of danger, as a result it was a society of entering, returning to the interior, to safety. In contrast, modern society was one where civilization had pacified the external and the new danger was from within. This society was one of escape (as codified by building codes). Trüby poses the question then, “what rule settings the pervasiveness of war will lead to, which can identify neither interior or the exterior as security space?”p32.

Trüby suggests perhaps that through some kind of gadget that we might create “pervasive protected space” which exists somewhere in between the interior and exterior. I question his use of the term gadget. He purposely refrains from suggesting that “architecture” will be able to create this intermediary space and that a “gadget” will be necessary, presumably because of his earlier assertion that architecture as a system must exist as a binary between itself and the outside world. I hope that we don’t give up so easily on the possibility that architecture can create a mid-space as the next frontier. I think of examples that already begin to legitimately physically blur boundaries (Diller+Scofidio’s Blur building an obvious example). I imagine two possibilities. The first is that architecture through technology and a change in scale to the personal level could allow for the creation of a space outside the inside yet still as an interior condition and one of safety. Secondly and personally my favorite of the two, is based upon the notion that because of architecture’s role as something that “withstands” (whether gravity, wind, people, sun, politics, etc…) it is perceived as slow, rigid, defensive and too easily exposed. In response to this I think maybe we should consider architecture’s role as that of aggressor, one where architecture takes an active role in life and safety. I know it sounds a little sci-fi but as Trüby already pointed out, the role of the architect has already been blurred, maybe we should make it a little twisted as well.