ESCRITOS-G: “To Build your Own Home”
Published at Apartamento Magazine #5
Photography: Iwan Baan and Pablo Zuloaga
Apartamento Magazine shows peoples’ houses in a hyper-realistic manner, dealing in a raw way with all that a house and living in it supposes; how do we approach and adapt to a space until we make it ours. This process is a mixture of eventful and strategic decisions, of layers piling up along the way. It builds a place we feel is our own, where we find shelter, the answer to the instinctual need of having somewhere to feel safe.
This accumulation of decisions, full of unforeseen events and surprises, increases several times over when you build your own house. It’s a process of intellectualization of the burrow instinct where you don’t only choose where to build, but also how.
This is the case of the Madrilenian architectural practice Selgascano, lead by Lucía Cano and José Selgas. They’ve built their own house –the conversation’s protagonist- alongside their own studio in a wooded plot in La Florida, Madrid.
The house has been adapted to its environment, filling up the blank space left by existing trees and vegetation. In this way it is adapted but not hidden, we could say it cohabits alongside nature; conscious of the implications of building a place, it settles into the plot making it habitable. We think that this way of settling down, of understanding the environment in terms of coexistence, being in it more than starting a dialogue with it, is the great value of this house, and it tells us something of the way of life of its inhabitants.
This time, we want to open the conversation with a self-portrait of the photographer Jürgen Teller. One more time, we share the discussion with Ekhi Lopetegi, PhD and musician, along with José Selgas from SelgasCano.
The ideal commission for an architect could be to build his own home, giving shape to his own desires without any client obstacles, working for somebody with his own interests and objectives at heart. However, is this truly an advantage?
Building your own home is kind of an intense exercise in psychoanalysis; you will ultimately give expression to all your particular needs and desires of that specific period of time (or perhaps in the immediate future). You know that all the decisions will be your own, and as such they will be laden with all your insecurities. Experimenting with yourself and all that you are is relatively easy, the tough thing is knowing that your decisions and conclusions will crystallize in a definite period of time. You can decide to plan for an open and alterable system that responds to your changes in your life, and you can regret it later.
Jürgen Teller (Germany, 1964) has photographed himself throughout his career as a photographer, exposing himself to the camera in a sincere way-often nude-even photographing his own child as an image of himself. His photos are an accurate vision of a person in the living moment. When we have a look at our own pictures in old photo albums we can see and feel a lot of things, sometimes we cannot even recognize the person we are looking at. We can experience nostalgia, anger, embarrassment and tenderness or perhaps even all of them simultaneously.
The difference between a house and a recorded diary is that you cannot hide the building, you live in it. You constantly live in the person you were when project decisions were made. The photographer, by contrast, can constantly update his image and his world, creating a new facsimile of himself with the click of a button. This is why in self-referencing “auto-architecture” you will either assume your past condition or you will have the insatiable necessity to renew and modify the place in which you are living; the “The Quince Tree Sun” syndrome. In the film by Víctor Erice, protagonist Antonio López finds himself faced with the impossibility of capturing a quince continuously changing with the weather and season, where natural evolution is faster than technique, ultimately abandoning his painting.
Could the same thing happen when building one’s own home?
This statement “building your own home” refers to several problems, it may be said to embody the problem that defined the period of Modernity that has now ceased to exist. Perhaps the “building your own home” problem has been redefined. It may be right to question ourselves about what it has meant, to illuminate what that ideal could mean nowadays. I will set it out firstly as a generic problem and then stick to more detailed, specific matters.
If we locate this within Modernity, the ideal of building one’s own home responds to the idea of self-determination- in terms of a free individual capable of deciding about himself, the reality that surrounds him, and about his destiny. It refers to the centrality of a subject that constitutes and determines himself, and that in the same movement, determines reality or the world that will be his reality from now on. From Descartes to Kant we have attended to the philosophical constitution of this character category on the knowledge level. Subsequently, this knowledge subject will settle on a practical-historic character that will see the possibility of constituting himself as an individual by the realization of a historical project. Thus, the appearance of the different historical projects, the articulation of what is known as the different meta-narratives of Modernity, the Enlightenment project, Marxism, the artistic Avant-garde project (historical-political art articulation), and even projects of Nazism. The Second World War was the event that marked the collision of all these projects, its dramatic end, and the beginning of their decline,completed from the 70-80s onwards. In all of them the same ideal: “building one’s own home”, the proletariat individual’s “home”, the bourgeois citizen’s “home”, the German people’s “home”.
How has architecture been articulated during this period? It has answered this historical movement by building from an empty orthogonal plane, from the “tabula rasa” that will serve as the support of a reality that will be the reality of the individual who is building it, the one that has acted out this erasure and the operation of building “himself” from the initial and empty plane. As it is explained in the description for the Silicon House, “Le Corbusier said he wanted the empty La Tourette courtyard to be populated naturally with vegetation, by birds and the wind”. Our “home” will be able to accommodate the whole of nature, birds, wind or vegetation, but only inasmuch as our nature can be within the emptiness that we have opened when building; in the space we have given to nature. Suddenly, there has been a brutal inversion of the terms because we have become the support and possibility of nature, whereas until now, nature was the plane that held us, the plane that we inhabit in all its gaps, in the irregular hollows that she has granted to us. The City is the reality that exemplifies this inversion.
But the Silicon House seems to set out the problem of building a home from a kind of a retreat, from the humility of the one that builds in the spaces that have been awarded to us. If we take a look to the plan, the house dwells in the pre-existing space and builds up in relation to it, through the protection of the existing vegetation, “the wind and the birds”, to be left buried, discreet in its visibility. However the care for details, the furniture, the window wall, the separation between the interior and the exterior, simultaneously reminds us of what we understand as a ‘modern’ house. There is both rupture and continuity.
On the other side, we have the portrait of Jürgen Teller who looks impassively toward the camera, with an air of indifference. In this look something like a “who” appears, a question about who is the person we are looking at, who are we that are actually looking. In the meticulous attention to detail in the Silicon House, in that house built to the architect’s own tastes, there does not appear to be something like a question about the “who” behind the construction of the house, someone who has decided about each aspect of his house and leaves something like a trace or a footprint. And yet this trace, as in the photograph, doesn’t refer to an autonomous individual that determines his world, but to a more humble one that, just as the house appears between the gaps of its construction, like retreating when it appears. What does it mean to be an architect and what does it mean to build? Does it mean to be an author and so have authority over a work that houses nature itself? How have the architect’s aspirations changed? And how does it redefine, in light of everything that has been discussed, the problem of “building somebody’s own home”?
…well, this is kind of curious. We raised the idea of “building something for yourself” as a positive matter and we have always seen it as a neutral and totally inert matter among the work presented. In the object-scene, object-program, object-economy relation circle, we have tried to leave the “creator”, as we could call it, on the sidelines. It’s not the artist that is interesting, but the work he creates and the art this work involves. We always set this house out to be impersonal and that is why it obeys to certain factors where individual subjectivity is not involved. Because we have always thought that this kind of subjectivity is harmful. We are not interested in works clearly linked to the individual, but rather works that stand on their own – the more anonymous the better. This house came up quickly, forced by elements never linked to a particular personality, but to general needs; in the same way we conceive other projects. There is no client, but instead a program, an economy and a scene defined by that particular client.
It is because of all this that Jurgen Teller interests us more as a fashion photographer, who manipulates his images the way he wants, rather than in the lazy freedom of his self portraits. The work of Cindy Sherman, as an extreme example, in her conceptual decision to always take photographs of herself, seems to us an irreparable hindrance and thus, so limited that her job becomes only one: Cindy Sherman. We think that Jurgen Teller reaches a richness and spontaneity in his fashion photographs, despite all the preparation of the execution, that the fixed pictures of himself do not have. And that is something that scares us in any matter: the fixed decisions, the lack of spontaneity, the immobility of thoughts. We define ourselves in undefinition. That is why what we like the most among Jurgen Teller’s work are the pictures of the young models who knock on his studio door, inbetween the street and his studio, between pose and spontaneity, at any time of day.
We absolutely agree with what you say about the “work by” and also with the notion that the final result is what matters above all. Be it in architecture, art, or any discipline, you will be judged by what you produce. If Teller’s self portraits don’t emanate spontaneity, is simply because he knows exactly when he is going to shoot, as does everyone who takes a picture of themselves. There’s something about this also when you build your own house, where one chooses a strategy, a series of rules to hold on, imposed by something alien could be a way. Can we state then, that the produced object is better if you work from a distance? However, whoever the house is for, the subjectivity is unavoidable.
For us is difficult to believe that this project only obeys factors which are foreign to subjectivity, due to the fact that the one who expresses the needs and the program, and the one who filters these to create an architectural object is the same person. That distance you talked about is possible, but subjectivity is inherent to any architecture, and in this case the architect is the client with needs and a budget as well.
Let’s focus on the Silicon House. You talk about generic needs, about approaching the project from the distance, more like the manner of a surgeon who arrives, operates and then leaves as opposed to the doctor who is emotionally implicated. You also talk about the almost spontaneous sprouting of the project too. Even when some distance from a subjective engagement is possible when approaching the project, the house looks meticulous, with a lot of attention to detail, and is relatively complex when considered formally. To us this doesn’t suggest a short process.
That quick sprouting can be partially understood because the building’s placement within the site is determined by the decision to submit to nature. This decision could be attributed to humility as Ekhi mentions, but it is a strategic gesture which lets us glimpse who is behind and this in turn makes that neutrality disappear. On the other hand, you say that fixed decisions and the lack of spontaneity frightens you, but in the project process some spontaneous decisions may arise that will end up as fixed ones. How then, is spontaneity defined in architecture?
There are some interesting things here. On one hand, to build your own house can lead you to fall into the trap self-referentiality, as in the case of Cindy Sherman. That claustrophobic self-referentiality can threaten the architect who builds his own house too, and in fact is in some sense a paradigmatic feature of modern architecture. To me the question is not so much to do with the objectivity/subjectivity opposition, but with spontaneity, understood as the possibility of the unprecedented or the randomly fortuitous.
I’m not sure about if it’s possible to de-subjectivize the architecture by the simple removal of the client or user factor, replacing it with an X and developing a program from a generic-objective point of view. For example, modern architecture comes from supposedly objective assumptions: the design for an X user/client and the abandonment of the decorative whim, the expendable ornament, to dive into a construction that responds to the irrefutable functionality-universality axiom. For doing that, “the tabula rasa” is essential, to start from zero over a blank slate. Accordingly, responsibility and total control of construction falls on the architect, and the surprise factor gets dissolved within that movement. Only time with its irreversible dimension is able to bring back the singularity conferred by ageing, deterioration and its random future. It is when the house escapes from the jaws of program and of that kind of demiurge-architect. However, the modern architect who designs upon that blank page with the distance of his supposedly objective knowledge bumps into himself again and again, and this is remarkable as well. There’s not any spatial confusion for him, he controls everything and establishes the bases or framework in which house is going to be (objectively) built. In short, as if he was Cindy Sherman, he can’t come away from himself and persists claustrophobically in that “sameness”, objective and subjective at the same time.
The claim of confusion and spatial tension by postmodern architecture (Venturi) is nothing but a report of that self-referential aspect of architecture. The Situationists (and in a more banal and foolish way, Archigram) tried to push architecture against itself from inside modernism, to add chance, spontaneity and functional variability making an attempt against self-referentiality. Recently, Sou Fujimoto with his idea of “cave”, both familiar and hostile ambience, wants to introduce the “otherness” in architecture escaping from self-referential “sameness” characteristic of modern architecture. So, what is spontaneity in architecture? Presumably it has to do with the degree of uncertainty a house can contain. “We define ourselves in undefinition” is a statement that can be understood in this last context. But isn’t Silicon House seemingly an example of the opposite? What idea of objectivity and spontaneity does it reflect? What degree of uncertainty does it contain?
It would be important to define if when we talk about spontaneity we are talking about the process prior to the object, that is, decision making, or if we are talking about spontaneity in terms of judging the built object and/or the way in which it is lived. Also, to know if this dissociation is possible or not.
All right, let’s collect and sort things: on one hand: spontaneity, otherness, surprise, randomness, singularity, the unprecedented, confusion, situationism, uncertainty, doctors. On the other: the blank page, surgeons, distance, the generic, self-referencing, functionality, claustrophobia, demiurgy, tabula rasa. In principle it seems easy to choose between the two packs. And we are easy. But if we try to distribute into each pack the two terms of the duality subjectivity/objectivity, it doesn’t appear to be so clear. This means then that the subjective and objective is in fact not so important, that it is potentially something avoidable.
Let’s move on. Among all those words we picked we set aside one word that interests and takes up us a lot: irreversibility- with its two connotations: static irreversibility and dynamic irreversibility. The first one belonging to matter and the second to time, we are interested in the former due to the need to quantify, control and to reduce the irreversibility of the built matter. This seems to be obvious and more and more unavoidable. The second obeys time, specifically the part of time Ekhi mentions: the wearing and addition of layers over the work, and this fascinates and excites us. As instigators of this, and spectators of its variables. But it also obeys to the part of time that belongs to the construction phase. And this is our favourite track, it’s there where we play intensely and also where another word that still hasn’t appeared and relates with the previous one comes out: empiricism. When we complained to the contractor due to some issue related to the construction of the house he always dodged it with the same response “this is not a house, it’s an experiment!” And he was right. Copying Saul Bellow we would say that our specialty is the common details of everyday life. It is in this reality where spontaneity is born again and again, where each mistake can become the greatest success, where if inhabit it would exist. And this lack of control, that always has worried us, is something we learnt to use, to work alongside and to not to be afraid. However, we don’t know in which of these two packs this so called objective spontaneity fits, so dependednt on proximity to the construction site as it is to distance from a project.
In a few existing videos of Oteiza, you can see the sculptor constructing a volume with chalk, accumulating the pieces, dividing them, and sanding them. When it seems that he has finished, he moves away, observes the piece and blows on it to remove the remaining powder. In this moment a piece crumbles from the work and, after an initial fit of anger, he observes it again and exclaims, “this way … this way it´s much better!” His conclusion shows the experimental character of the sculptor and his work, in which the random, the dynamic and the static, are each an indispensable and necessary part.
It is a good idea to establish this separation. On the one hand are the quantifiable and the necessary which are both increasingly imposed upon architecture. On the other hand is the oxygen that supposes being spectator of the infinite variables to use it and to manipulate it in favor of the project and it´s development over time.
It is a discourse connected to the workings of Olafur Eliasson who, when speaking about the manners of representing reality, proposes that the barrier between the model and the finished object has disappeared, giving rise to the understanding that they are in fact co-producers of reality. He says specifically: “It seems necessary to insist on an alternative that recognises the fundamental connection and the interaction among space and time and we ourselves; since the models consist of two fundamental qualities, structure and time …The conception of static and clearly definable space happens to be so, untenable and undesirable”. Moreover, spontaneity is not plannable nor calculable, and this in itself is a failure. When Ekhi speaks about Sou Fujimoto’s work, and his conception of spaces of uncertainty, we might understand them in the sense that they are “planned”. Wouldn´t this predetermine something that in itself is not determinable? Wouldn´t this be the demiurge architect’s position?
The Silicon House, is actually constructed from a classic form, with a clear differentiation between day and night time spaces, separated by a transparent entry hall that acts like an indefinite transition. A distribution corridor leads to all the rooms. It is functional housing above all but we agree with you in that experimentation is given not only in terms of new typologies, but also in the investigation of new possibilities. This experimentation can be come about in the understanding and manipulation of the standard details of everyday life.
Cassavetes constructed his films based on these details of daily life. Every shot was studied and planned, but at the same moment the random and the spontaneous were essential. A laugh gave way to a frantic scene. We would never speak about a controlled lack of control, but rather about the conscience of a control and a tension that can break in any moment and become disordered. To use this lack of control in order for the result to be real, everyday life. This is the quality that still makes the cinema of Cassavetes experimental.
Here are several notions of “spontaneity” and “random” in play. On one hand there is time and structure, or time as it undermines the structure and modifies it, breaking the spatial consistency of the building. Time is understood here as “the arrow of the time” the thermodynamic that breaks the functional order of the machine, makes it tend toward disorder because absolute efficiency is impossible- there is always a loss of energy that just vanishes- that doesn´t manage to turn into “work” (in “function”), an unproductive “expense” that coincides with the disorder of the system.
In architecture, the house-machine works but only under the condition of its tendency to stop working, its functional efficiency is not absolute or it is only an ideal, and therefore with time this model becomes worn out and breaks down. Although now the idea of the house as machine tends to give a sense of disorder, it does not mean that it stops being a house. It does not make it useless, nor is it something that one should be sorry about, because this process puts the house in the position to incorporate in its interior the unheard of, the unexpected, the unconceived, that “other” thing that couldn´t be designed, that had nothing to do with the project. And that “other” thing comes to meet the house is simultaneously a loss and the possibility to reconfigure the house, the possibility that the house finds a line of variation or evolution.
That which seems to be abstract is experienced on a mundane and daily level, it is experienced every day and certainly not only from the point of view of the architect, but from the point of view of the one who inhabits the house, who is ‘there’ in a house or an apartment. Therefore, it may be worthwhile as a note to characterise the architecture itself, the house as well as the inhabiting itself. Deleuze in his reflections on writing noted that:
“Writing undoubtedly is not to impose a form (of expression) to a lived matter. The literature is praised rather towards the formless, or the unfinished, as Gombrowicz said and did. Writing is a matter of developing, always unfinished, always in process, and that exceeds any matter livable or lived. ” (G. Deleuze, Critique et Clinique, capitulo “la literature et la vie” 1993)
To impose a form upon matter is in a sense to project, to establish the form of a project, but in light of everything said in our conversation we can probably agree that architecture does not consist solely of that, but that it is also a “matter of becoming” that “tends towards the formless”.And so with inhabiting, which is not to remain in the “habitual”, but to be at the crossover with the inedit. Inhabiting is a matter of developing. How is it possible to explain if not for the vivacious and problematic character of any already inhabited house, with its disorder as well as its order, its variations and the constant misappropriation of the proper program that gave place to the project in the first place?
Time, the inhabiting as to evolve, returns to the space its problematic and vivacious character (a “step of Life” says Deleuze), it poses the space as a problem rather than a result (in the project), because it is linked to an existence (the inhabitant). The space happens to be the mark or rather the set of marks (details) of the one who inhabits it. This connects with another idea of spontaneity and random that has been considered- the question of the ‘details’.
‘Imposing a form’ is always to project ‘ roughly’, broadly speaking, it is to fix a clear idea (a ‘type’, a ‘typology’) of the proper housing by means of the combination of well defined segments. The house appears in this way as a complete thing, a totality. The question now is where does the minute attention to detail lead us to? The detail is given in another absolutely different region, it´s not a question of big blocks but of features and how many features form a face? Wittgenstein illustrated language and it´s incomplete character with the following metaphor: “how many streets make up a city?” In the same vein, how many details make up a house?
When we work at the level of detail we run the risk of getting lost in an endless and infinite activity of adding or removing details. Why? Because the detail is concerned with the partial look of the thing, it´s a question of perception, of perspective, and the list of possible looks, of sides or perspectives which is in principle infinite. Paradoxically, the quantity of details is not quantificable. And this does not only happen from the point of view of the one who looks at the house or the one who inhabits it, it happens also in the moment itself of the creation of the house. Suddenly, that demiurgo-architect runs the risk that if he gets lost in the details, he will lose also the house and his work. But is it not the danger of getting lost in the detail, losing also the house or the work also the opportunity to open it or for it to be opened to new possibilities? Isn´t this loss an inexhaustible source of innovation?
The detail is a fragment of ill-defined contours that establishes relationships with other details and fragments. Yet nevertheless, all these details together never make “a” thing. Here is again how a house finds again a principle of spontaneity and chance that undoes its own foundations to open it up to development. The structural, the quantifiable, falls apart in one indefinite series of fragments or unquantifiable details. Is the Silicon House example of this?
From everything that has been mentioned, we would like to comment on two words. Firstly, Detail: We do not understand the detail as the sum of something but instead as the concealment of something (to hide can also be synonymous of remain, although this is not so usual). The detail does not give, but also it shouldn´t take. For us the detail is obligatory: It an obligation to place insulation to control the temperature and it is obligatory to hide the insulator in order to protect it from exposure to ultraviolet rays. There is a sum of obligations and the detail is the resolution that is given to the totality of the addition rather than to each of its addends. We like the assumption that in our works, with the time we put in and in the multiple site visits we do, some people who work in them end up perfectly guessing, and before us, how the details are supposed to be realised. This means that the details could not be drawn but read in a manual: when you try to solve the stairs that are in front of the views you try to do them with the least matter as is structurally possible, so that one does not obscure the views, etc. With previous training any person would solve these details in the same way that any of us would do so. Before taking this position we confused solving a detail with something that had more to do with make-up, but it was a very impoverished option, that was rejected as it merged in addition with something unnecessary. Now we have also eliminated from the detail the concept of perfection; there is only one reason to reject a detail, that would be because it did not work, but never because it is shoddy. The variable of sloppiness is now one of the few local identifiers that are left.
Secondly, Inhabit: If to be a man means to inhabit, as Heidegger clarified for us, to be a man today must be to inhabit with the least transformation of the taken space. We insist: taken space, conquered, occupied, invaded. This house which is the focus of this chatter is no more than a roof (by orography two roofs) without major pretensions. But it is a roof that allows the full awareness of the terrain that surrounds us. Honestly this is the only thing that distinguishes it, though with its semiburied image we understand that it can be associated with a certain asceticism. To do this we build cornered in a static, minimal production, the minimum required. Passing inhabiting to be a mere contemplating. Not to be contemplated. And this cannot be confused with humility but with the search, with a discovery, with the recognition that our enjoyment was already there before our arrival, having only to apply our sense simply in taking care, guarding it. Because the “it” doesn´t belong to us.
Coincidentally when the Heidegger clarifies that ” the aptitude to allow that land and sky, divine and mortal, enter simply in the things, has been what has raised the house”, he doesn´t talk about his house, but about any house and clearly of this house, which is one that centres these opinions.
It seems like this time the conversation has not presented one particularly strong thread, but rather several different aspects have been brought up and illuminated, characteristics that are interesting. I have gotten the impression that at the end you seem to confirm a very pragmatic understanding of your house. You began explaining how you had a very objective vision of your own house, and ended talking about the functional character of the detail beyond its aesthetic value. I find it particularly interesting that in the latest comment you speak about the idea of doing without even the necessity of drawing a detail, since the detail is only what allows us to break the impasse at a certain point in time, to solve a purely circumstantial difficulty according to a procedural rule (the manual). Pragmatic and procedural idea of the detail, therefore. Finally, you understand the discretion of the house as a practical appropriation of the land, and not just simple asceticism.
Undoubtably answers pertaining to the other questions that have also been mentioned are present in the house, its autobiographical character, the question of one’s own house, the idea of spontaneity, the detail, but you do make emphasis on certain distance with which you would like to understand the house. Because in the end it is said well, that as the “it” belongs to no one, it is necessary to take care or guard over it. We could play with the words and reformulate the guiding question: it is not so much like ” constructing one’s own house by himself” like “construct himself one his own house”, being that “himself” impersonal priority in relation to personal his (or the “one” understood with his anonymous character). But this shouldn´t mean asceticism, because taking a space for living is to take, to invade, to delimit, to appropriate and at the same time it is a search, a finding. It´s about how to understand the appropriation, or rather, the relation that the appropriation maintains with the “it”, referring ultimately to the problem of the being. And this house, that roof which throws light over the ground that surrounds it is this one and no other, its essential, common characteristic to any house or to all houses that are properly a house. Because a house makes the world and surroundings appear like that where the house was already included in a certain way, and the land here is “world” and not “nature”.
Once again, perhaps through other means, Heidegger appears and establishes the premise or the last axiom of architecture: The “it” is not ours, we only take care of it. It seems that architecture today insistently tries to get rid off that “it”, that it had devoured, as if it was a luck of ethical exigency that determined it since the beginning.