ESCRITOS-G: “Boundaries and Ethics of Dwelling”
Published at Apartamento Magazine #2
Apartamento Magazine speaks about the appropriation of the space by the inhabitant, about the reflection of his/her personality at home. In short, about dwelling and its consequences. In this issue we deal with the fact of dwelling from the whole architectural process; From the project at its drawing board stages, until it is inhabited, passing through it’s construction. The Wall House by FAR Frohn & Rojas is really suitable to discuss this topic. It is a magnificient suburban residence in Santiago de Chile. As they say in their website, “opposed to the general notion that our living environments can be properly described and designed “on plan”, this project is a design investigation into how the qualitative aspects of the wall, as a complex membrane, structure our social interactions and climatic relationships to enable specific ecologies to develop. The project breaks down the “traditional” walls of a house into a series of four delaminated layers in between which the different spaces of the house slip.
FAR (Marc Frohn & Mario Rojas Toledo) are a Cologne, Los Angeles and Santiago de Chile based networked architectural practice. This time is Marc Frohn who joins our via mail discussion along with Ekhi Lopetegi, philosopher and musician.
We present the topic of debate with an extract from a Martin Heiddeger text, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”.
We have considered wall house to be very appropriate to talk about the ethics of dwelling, because as far as we are concerned this house speaks clearly of it and it is open to be analyzed over and above its formal or merely tendentious aspects. So, the way we see this house is as an example of unity in architecture practice, resolving structure, shape and habitable areas in its construction. That is, we are not talking about a house made by the addition of independent units which are assembled together to give shape to the dwelling, but a habitable framework, and it shows it with no shame at all. There’s no limit in-between but every piece can be understood at once. The architectural elements are corrupted turning the structure into a divider filter or shelves, and at the same time every component is bare with its raw materials talking about this ethics. If people have to learn how to dwell (speaking in a Heideggeresque sense), constructing is in itself dwelling, therefore the way we build is the way we dwell, is the way we are men. Can a house have a didactic function? Can a house help mankind to be men? Can it link us to the earth?
I have a rather hard time imagining architecture as a didactic device. If – for example – the Wall House was such, it would – according to Merriam Webster – be “intended and designed to teach”. Thus the prime objective of the house would be to convey ONE agenda of inhabitation that could more or less unmistakably be read by the occupant. Instead I personally find your short description of the Wall House as a “habitable framework” very productive to touch upon some of the key aspects of the project beyond the obvious formal aspects. By definition a framework leaves room to be filled out and I think that exactly this is one of the challenging aspects of the project as to me it marks – both in the process of designing and building as well as in its occupation – an exploration into the environments of living: It allows to renegotiate boundaries both amongst the occupants and in relationship to the surrounding. It is in this sense unconventional in the truest sense of the word: By unconventional I don’t mean “having a surprising form”, but instead excluding some of our dearest assumptions of suburban living (that’s what the house is) of privacy, personal space and relationship to the environment.
My approach to the problem may seem theoretical but I don’t intend to displace the conversation to non-architectural grounds. The way I see it, the core problem here is the relationship between the ‘habitable framework’ and the ‘surrounding’ or ‘enviroment’. The concept of ‘relationship’ itself (between framework and enviroment) seems to be the main issue in a way I shall explain. Let me explain this.
When Heidegger reminds us that we have to learn how to dwell , he’s never inviting us to search for a certain content we should assimilate the same way we comprehend a mathematical theorem. On the contrary, he’s inviting us to deal with things in a proper way. Basically, dealing with things is being related to things in such and such a way; so we can either relate to things properly or unproperly. Being related to things in a proper way already means dealing with things according with the essence of dwelling. What kind of dealing with things is that of dwelling?
Far from the activity of occupying a certain space dwelling unfolds as cultivating and erecting buildings. Cultivating is taking care of things the way they essentially are, letting them be what they truly are; that is to say, we don’t ask or pretend things to be the way we want them to be, rather we only take care of their growing keeping it save from any danger so that the growing can take place according with its true essence.
On the other hand, building is arranging spaces in the way of producing locations for men and women, and all this according with the essence of dwelling. Those locations make the proper relationship to The Fourfold take place: we take earth as earth; we take sky as sky; we take death as death; we take divinities as divinities. That is, we take them the way they already are, we take them in a way we let them be what they are.
Heidegger’s exotic argot should not hide the main problem concerning dwelling. For the problem is ecopolitcal. From Heidegger’s perspective, we could state that a culture anxiously searching for a way to avoid maturity through multiple make up strategies is not taking death as death. Builiding up a ‘beach’ where no beach has ever been naturally produced could easily be taken as forcing earth to be a certain way rather than taking earth as it actually is. And still, dwelling is not be taken as being according with ‘nature’ in a superficial way. MF wrote that the Wall-house “allows to renegotiate boundaries both amongst the occupants and in relationship to the surrounding”. We could therefore ask wether there’s a concious ethico-political approach to architecture in the Wall-house; and if yes, what’s the role of the ‘bioclimatical’ or the ‘ecopolitical’ in the architectural practices today.
Talking about “renegotiation of boundaries” you both mentioned we might say that any house, as dwelling unit, has at least two general levels of limit:
1 The boundary among inner house and the outside
2 The inner boundaries between spaces
In the wall house, and in any suburban/garden house the outer limit gives more chance to think about than in an urban house. We consider that your choice, when approaching the matter, it’s been to blur the edge. The same reading is valid for the (almost non-existent) limits between interior spaces.
When crossing the house from its rigid core up to the surrounding area, we observe that as the spaces have a minor requirement of intimacy the house becomes more permeable up to getting blurred to open to the garden. In order to do it, aside from the materials hardness gradient, the geometry of the layers becomes more complex in a scheme that we could qualify as radial; ((((concrete cave) stacked shelving) milky shell) soft skin). The resulting interstices are themselves a classic in-and-out space of modern architecture. However, the interstices speak to us of an ethics in the place positioning, as much from the functional point of view as from the formal one, and from the ecopolitical approach that Ekhi mentioned.
We notice that the aim or will of the wall house is not to indoctrinate –in the sense of dictate- how to live, but it is unavoidably a device that moderately determinates how to dwell as it configures a scenario. It is the soft thing, the smoothness of the boundaries which speaks to us of a new ethics of how to dwell, in which the negotiation between individuals or inhabitants supposes a greater shock of the one that exists in traditional houses made by cell addition.
Absolutely (Ekhi), there is an ethico political approach in architecture of the Wall House as it integrates the environment to become an inseparable part of its inhabitation. Obviously certain aspects of that approach are neither new nor unique to that project.
An important shift in the understanding of buildings in relationship to the environment has taken place over the last 20 or so years: Up until then architectural technology was used to achieve a complete separation of inside and outside. The air conditioning unit (actually called “weather maker” by its inventor Carrier) brought with it an isolationist and homogenizing attitude within architecture that lost any regional specificity and orientation as climate became a technically generated commodity. Since the early 80s this machine-like understanding of architecture has bit by bit been replaced by an understanding of architecture as an organism that mediates between the interior condition and the outside environment. Through that a certain understanding of “climate concept” developed for buildings. But what is important to me in the context of the Wall House is that this project relates to the environment in a way that goes beyond what is generally considered a “climate concept”. It formulates a multitude of possible connections that can be drawn between climate, environment, technology/material and inhabitation: Climate or Energy becomes a resource in the architectural vocabulary, a building material of sorts as spatial differentiation is achieved through the careful play with it. What that implies as a result is that the architect gives up his or her position of full control in the process of establishing architectural space as the elements that define it on a daily basis are out of his or her reach: In the Wall House one inhabits climate zones more than spaces in the traditional sense. What the different material layers of the house do then is what I described before as a process of negotiation: the amount of light, heat, the depth of the view inside or out as well as the use of these spaces by the clients, all of those are within the range of this negotiation.
I find it important, that the eco political dimension of architecture does not just lead to an “accelerating arms race” in the material and technological battle for rising energy efficiency. As important as this is, it is too one dimensional. Sometimes it seems as if little thought is put into the question of how a new awareness of climate shapes our ways of relating to or inhabiting environment. To me the Wall House seeks to exactly do that: find possible relationships that go beyond a technological “solution” to the “problem” with our climate.
We do believe that the abuse of air conditioning which Marc was speaking about is already overcome. It exemplifies the context of a badly understood bioclimatic policy or energy efficiency. It is clear that we are at a point where it is possible to obtain a totally efficient architecture without being subordinated to ultracomplex technological systems, popular psychosis or business of the climate change. We can face a project attending to all inputs obtaining an efficient final score, that’s why it seems more interesting to emphasize the limits. Some time ago Ekhi told us he considered that nowadays architecture is the architecture of limits.
This is exactly what we are interested in when we focus on the Wall House project. On the one hand, one of the principles of the house is considering the hedges that surround to the plot as the first layer (limit) of the project. In this case, in spite of the covers of the house are getting blurred and becoming lighter radially from interior to exterior, the diamond-like formal aspect of the housing is so powerful and fits so well to what it is (to its construction), we understand that ultimately it turns out to be an object that is closed on itself, without taking in consideration the immediate surrounding. On the other hand, once first membrane is crossed we enter the game of the habitable framework we were speaking about.
At the Perception Restrained MOMA exhibition by Herzog and DeMeuron, Herzog said that the imaginaryof what a house is has an incorruptible strength for them, where a room is a room, a kitchen a kitchen, and a sitting room a sitting room. Just like that, what could be different between the nowadays images and the ones from a Hammershoi picture would be limits. The bridge wich Heidegger talks about is not a static element as far as we are concern, but an element of connection. It actually works as an opening, as a flow. The Wall House works just the same way in its interior. The other day a friend asked for our opinion about how to reform his flat in the city centre, in Barcelona. We opened up his mind about what a partition means, and that it doesn’t have to be a boundary by itself. It is not about emptying or using transparent materials, but it is about configuring autonomous not clearly-defined spaces yet still a sitting room, a bedroom or a kitchen, as Herzog referred to them.
That’ s why we are interested in knowing what were you Ekhi saying in that conversation where you talked about today’s architecture as the architecture of boundaries and how you see the Wall House in that context. Also we would like to know your opinion, Marc.
So far, two discussion topics can be distinguished from our mailing: one concerning architectural or aesthetical problems inner to the discipline itself (the in/out problem); another one linked to the problem we called eco-political that frames the architecture in a wider context. Obviously, both cross over and we can only make such a distinction as far as it is useful to our discussion purposes.
Let’s face the first topic. It can be stated that the in/out problem has crossed architectural practices all the way from modernism to contemporary architecture. Although limiting is never to be taken as its only feature, architecture is necessarily based on establishing certain limits out of which ‘places’ emerge. Taken this way architecture could be understood as the art of shaping places through coordinating certain limits and working on their co-relationships. Nevertheless the practice of co-relating limits seems to be over-determined by a binary relationship between the inside and the outside, dwelling unit and environment, in and out. Although this is not always to be taken as ‘a problem to be solved’, it seems like architecture has always been concerned with the purpose of overcoming this dialectical opposition. So, it can be said that the Wall house seems to follow the path modernists walked. Some remarks can be done on this, though. The way modernists dealt with the in/out problem can be exemplified with early works such as the Bauhaus building in Dessau (of course, I’m aware of the simplification here): the reconciliation between the inside and the outside is mainly achieved with the curtain wall. A visual relationship between the inside and the outside is established. However, a transparent wall is still a wall containing certain isolated indoor environmental conditions. I therefore agree with MF when he suggests that there’s an isolationist attitude in the machine-image based architecture. No categories as permeability or softness can be applied to the traditional curtain walled architecture. Climate or Energy based architecture’s starting point is completely different. It’s not about transparency but energetical permeability between layers. The radial geometry of the Wall house is based on degree differences between a ‘hard’ core and a ‘soft’ surface. Obviously these categories are relative for ‘soft’ always stands for ‘softer than’ the way ‘hard’ does, and this conceptual remark is not a simple trick. Actually, it’s an essential feature of the rather energetical than visual reconciliation of the inside and the outside searched or negotiated in the Wall house.
One last remark concerning the second topic. I find absolutely necessary being aware “that the ecopolitical dimension of architecture does not just lead to an ‘accelerating arms race’ in the material and technological battle for rising energy efficiency” as MF writes. For if we meditate enough on the main issue concerning the ecopolitical approach to architecture we’ll notice that it’s not about solving bioclimatical problems within a bioclimaticaly blind framework, but about founding the architectural practice itself on a bioclimatically aware framework. That is, changing the whole paradigm depending on wich our approach to architecture is defined. Indeed, this is what Heidegger’s text is about: the proper way of dwelling is that in wich our approach to things is proper too. As I already wrote, that would mean dealing with things according with their essence.
I think that it is quite productive to bring the discussion back to the issue of boundary as it will actually help us to tie the two strains of the discussion that E characterized together once more: I want to step back for a moment to see how we characterize boundary as I think it will help us relating the two trajectories. To some degree it builds on an issue that A-G brought up, when referring to the “flow” and “opening” of the Wall House. I think that in the context of both describing this house, but also in seeing architecture in general in relationship to a larger eco-political context it becomes crucial to overcome the notion of boundary as object, as fixt element of separation. Instead I would follow Michelle Addington in her argument that “perceptual environments – those that determine what we feel, hear and see – are all thermodynamic in that they are fundamentally about the motion of energy”. Thus their boundaries, too, should be thought of in that vain, as they don’t interest me as static elements of separation, but more as behaviours and interaction. Thus the boundary becomes a zone of exchange between two environments. From here I think it is a small step only to get to A-G’s point of the “element of connection”. At the same time it constitutes for me one of the aspects of a “bioclimatically aware framework” (EL).
When we first started the discussion I wasn’t really aware of how the boundary concept has changed once the bioclimatical issues interfere the formal and geometrical problems. When we talk about the bioclimatical we already talk about the energetical and therefore about the thesmodynamical. The sentence quoted by Marc explains it clearly. The environment is not only a geometrical complex of formal volumes; it deals now with formally ambiguous substances such as heat, noise, light and on. Is not that we found new substances to care about determining architectural results; it’s more than even old and classical variables such as light or heat will be treaten in a different way once we adopt a ‘bioclimatically aware’ perspective. This perspective is one in which architectural substances or matters affect each other; they’re not contained in formal geometries but rather they already correlate in a diffuse way. Thus, from an energetical framework the ‘boundary’ is just the zone in which the substances meet, interact and affect each other (“zone of exchange”); the ‘boundary’ between a built unit and its environment will thus be a co-affective one too. The difference between the inside and the outside will therefore be a degree difference. The new space is built upon a general principle of affection derived from the energetical or thermodynamical viewpoint.
We like the idea of house’s fragility, the sensuality of the boundaries that goes beyond the material. A house that on the one hand exposes itself unsteadily, but on the other hand combines welcoming, warm and human inner spaces. As we said before, the house works radially, and it is true that it radiates in a temperature slope. This approach to understanding the boundary is nice and contemporary, owing to the fact that the temperature is (as in Joseph Beuys’ work) in a certain way what makes you feel you are at home, and the temperature is as a result of the geometry, construction and architecture. This way to understanding the limit, is the way the house is.