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Tomorrow's Homes, Today: How Should Domestic Space Be Rethought for the 21st Century?

A number of exhibitions in London explore how contemporary technologies and lifestyles are changing the architecture of the home

At the 1956 edition of the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, first devised by the newspaper in 1908 as a way to increase advertising revenue, Alison and Peter Smithson presented the House of the Future. Theirs was a speculation on the future whose four walls were centred around a courtyard garden that provided natural light in place of exterior-facing windows. Inside, real and imagined gadgets presented a vision of domestic life to come, with a ‘Tellaloud’ speaker-phone, body-driers in place of towels and a ‘short-wave transmitter with push buttons’ to control a ‘radio-phonograph-colour TV set’. Although built with plaster-covered plywood, the walls of the house were designed to emulate the material of the future: plastic. Bold and bewildering, the never-built House of the Future was an optimistic manifesto for the lives of generations to come – it even came with its own font.

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Alison and Peter Smithson, the sitting room in the House of the Future, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, London, 1956. Courtesy: John McCann / RIBA Collections

Alison and Peter Smithson, the sitting room in the House of the Future, Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, London, 1956. Courtesy: John McCann / RIBA Collections

62 years later, at the 2018 edition of the exhibition (now called the Ideal Home Show), The Innovation Home was presented in partnership with British Gas. Supposedly a ‘typical Victorian city home re-imagined for contemporary living’, it’s a mongrel of clip-on brick and pitched roof with a huge white cantilevered extension – an astonishingly haphazard attempt to fuse streetscape nostalgia with capital-M Modernism.

‘I think the big difference between the 1950s and ’60s and now is that then they imagined the future would look like the future,’ says, Justin McGuirk, chief curator at London’s Design Museum and co-curator, with Eszter Steierhoffer, of its forthcoming ‘Home Futures’ exhibition, which opens in November. ‘Our present looks more like the 1950s than anything. We’ve all got Eames furniture or Scandinavian modernism.’ ‘Home Futures’ will be the latest in a loose series of architecture exhibitions from the last few years that attempt to display and provoke radical thinking on the contemporary home which, if the Ideal Home Show is any barometer, is vitally necessary from an aesthetic, as well as a social and economic perspective.

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Ugo La Pieta, La casa telematica (The Telematic House), 1985. Courtesy: Archivio Ugo La Pietra, Milan

Ugo La Pieta, La casa telematica (The Telematic House), 1985. Courtesy: Archivio Ugo La Pietra, Milan

‘Home Economics’, the somewhat underrated British entry to the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, used 1:1 models to present five visions for domestic life in the 21st century, which have become increasingly relevant in the two years since. Projects included metaphoric provocations, such as åyr’s inflatable bubbles that held visitors in a physical manifestation of the digital cocoon, separate from their surroundings. More substantial in practice, a collaboration between Naked House, a non-profit developer, and architect Julia King presented a prototype for stripped-back homes revolving around a new mortgage product, the first of which is due to begin construction in Enfield in 2019. For Shumi Bose, co-curator of the exhibition with Jack Self and Finn Williams, this model ‘felt like the most future facing […] because the design was in the mortgage product. It didn’t matter what the shell looked like, the point was that you couldn’t add value to it by making physical changes.’

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Åyr, Home Economics (A Home for Days), 2016, installation view. Courtesy: British Council; photograph: Cristiano Corte

Åyr, Home Economics (A Home for Days), 2016, installation view, Venice Biennale of Architecture, British Pavillion. Courtesy: British Council; photograph: Cristiano Corte

Although the first Naked Houses are set to come in the form of an austere, slate-grey design by OMMX architects, ‘Home Economics’ explored the future of domesticity in terms socio-economic systems, as much as spatial ones. Months, by London-based architects and educators Dogma, for instance, was a reinterpretation of the traditional boarding house that would provide short term residencies for transient millennials. The project proposed a new form of rent that would cover domestic services such as professional cleaners as well as the basic use of space. It was intended to provide a radical rethinking of domestic labour (and its gendered norms) and a space of resistance amidst the housing crisis.

Dogma’s ostensibly radical model is remarkably similar to that of The Collective, the commercial developer whose 546-room ‘co-living’ facility was completed in west London in 2016. At The Collective, residents pay an all-inclusive bill that covers a private apartment (with bills, council tax, wifi, linen changes and cleaning) along with access to a gym, spa, communal spaces and events such as yoga and film screenings. The Collective’s domesticity comes with a marked entrepreneurial bent: The Collective Global Accelerator, a four-week programme for social entrepreneurs, was recently hosted at the property. (According to its website: ‘We believe that businesses play a pivotal role in solving the world’s biggest problems. By aligning interests, capitalism can be used as a force for good.”) The Collective were listed as advisors on ‘Home Economics’.

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The Collective, 2018. Courtesy: © The Collective Old Oak

The Collective, 2018. Courtesy: © The Collective Old Oak

The Collective provides domesticity as a service. ‘In the same way that with Spotify you don’t buy records anymore, The Collective don’t want you to own a house anymore,’ explains Mariana Pestana, co-curator, with Rory Hyde, of the multidisciplinary exhibition ‘The Future Starts Here’, which runs until 4 November at the Victoria & Albert Museum. ‘Their vision – and they’ve bought sites in other cities – is that you subscribe to this vision of the future. It’s app mentality.’

‘The Future Starts Here’ presents a densely researched and far-reaching collection of objects that points to the future in myriad directions. Approaching the topic at different scales, the show explores the home through smart objects such as SNOO, a smart crib that automatically rocks babies to sleep, and Jibo, a more sociable version of Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa that develops a personality while assisting with day-to-day tasks.

‘What I find really radical about these objects today is this illusion of care,’ says Pestana. ‘They learn my perfect temperature, my favourite takeaway food, my face, what my friends looks like, what my voice sounds like. They give me this illusion that I’m taken care of.’

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'The Future Starts Here', 2018, installation view. Courtesy: © The Victoria and Albert Museum

'The Future Starts Here', 2018, installation view, Victoria and Albert Museum. Courtesy: © Victoria and Albert Museum

‘Home is where the wi-fi is,’ as proposed by åyr in ‘Home Economics’, sounds fairly cliché two years on, but considered here in relation to Pestana’s ideas on care it holds fascinating implications for what domesticity might mean in the contemporary context. The domestic unit has long signified the private interior, physically separated from the public exterior. Crucially, this has its emotional equivalents. The home is understood as a place to be recognized, held, familiar: a spatial manifestation of the private self.

Yet, in a social context where the home/work divide is collapsed – exemplified most clearly by The Collective – the private and emotional dimensions of the domestic are being gradually absorbed by digital infrastructures. Familiarity is provided by passwords and system preferences; comfort through playlists and smart lighting; care from personalised greetings on robots. Simply put, home is where the smart is.

For Ana Puigjaner of Barcelona-based MAIO architects, there is an emerging spatial consequence to this that blurs the commonplace idea of the private home as a unit separate from the city beyond. Puigjaner explores these ideas with her Invisible Landscapes (2018) installation, which sees a modern domestic space, complete with bed, bathroom and kitchen, placed somewhat awkwardly in the recently refurbished surroundings of the Royal Academy of Arts (RA). A recorded voiceover, mimicking Alexa or an equivalent virtual assistant, comments on London’s proclivity for apps and platforms that break open the home into a resource shared by more than its inhabitants. For example, Vrumi allows individuals to rent out desk space in private homes, while Airpnp helped users locate nearby facilities for bathroom emergencies (unfortunately it’s no longer running).

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MAIO for the Architecture Studio, 'Invisible Landscapes: Home (Act I)', installation view. Courtesy: the Royal Academy and © Ana Cuba

MAIO for the Architecture Studio, 'Invisible Landscapes: Home (Act I)', installation view, Royal Academy of Arts. Courtesy: Royal Academy of Arts and © Ana Cuba

To illustrate this elastic boundary between the private interior and public exterior, MAIO’s bathroom sits outside on the RA balcony while the kitchen spills into the foyer outside the Architecture Studio, a new permanent space for the RA’s architecture programme. The disjunction between MAIO’s domesticity and the RA’s architecture is, however, a more effective spatial device, which serves to emphasize Puigjaner’s ideas around new architectures of domesticity.

‘When the Smithsons designed the House of the Future, they actually used new materials, new forms. Nowadays it’s not about designing new forms, it’s about how we establish new orders and new uses with pre-existing residential architecture.’

What does this mean for architecture? Have we said goodbye to radical visions of wacky living environments built with impossible engineering and new materials? As ever with architecture, the answer is wholly dependent on economic context. The models of ‘Home Economics’ or MAIO are relatively radical proposals in which the architect is designing new orders and new uses. More ambitious built projects, however, are at the mercy of the whims of the market.

As McGuirk argues, ‘One of the subtexts of “Home Futures”, is that there are no new visions of how we should live other than the smart home or smaller spaces, both of which are driven by the marketplace. Space is expensive, therefore we’ll make micro homes, and technology is ubiquitous, therefore we’ll make a smart home.’

Bose is similarly pessimistic, ‘It’s not true to say that imagination isn’t possible, it’s just that financial mechanisms are skewed towards risk averse strategies, which inevitably means innovation doesn’t get the space that it deserves.’

Today’s ‘House of the Future’ seems as uncertain as the housing systems underpinning it, meaning we may yet find ourselves living in something as unappealing – on all levels – as the British Gas Innovation Home.

‘Invisible Landscapes’ runs at the Royal Academy until 4 March 2019; ‘The Future Starts Here’ runs at the V&A until 4 November; ‘Home Futures’ at the Design Museum runs from 7 November 2018 – 24 March 2019. 

Main image: 'The Future Starts Here', 2018, installation view, Victoria and Albert Museum. Courtesy: © Victoria and Albert Museum

George Kafka is a writer and editor living in London. He writes regularly for architecture and design publications including Metropolis, The Architectural Review, Blueprint and Disegno

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