Two Wall Street Journal articles from this week are a painful reminder of much of what’s wrong with home design and “architecture” in general. Have you seen?
Based on my field research here in Calif these last few years, combined with the previous decade-plus spent interviewing designers and builders and homeowners and investigating the neighborhoods of the US and Europe while researching for my other books on residential and while scouting houses for AD as its architecture editor, I can say with confidence that neither of these points of view, each exclusionary in its outlook, is in touch with what’s happening out there.
First of all, sweeping generalizations about how people will live “in the future” can make for entertaining reading, but they can’t represent more than a microscopic fragment of the population and its actual day-to-day activities, present or future. Such subjective viewpoints cannot possibly capture the present or predict the coming zeitgeist of the deeply unbalanced housing situation, the multifarious housing industry itself, and the historically change-resistant dwelling habits in this nation of 317 million. Essentially, such articles are valueless. Which is troubling because in the mainstream media there are increasingly few slots to discuss the real issues of how we shelter ourselves, both known and anticipated.
Sarah Susanka’s point of view is classic East Coast-suburb elitist. In her relatively lengthy article, which you might be able to access in full here, in her casual talk of $70,000 Tesla cars and $500 Dyson vacuum cleaners—as if both were widely attainable and thus culturally ubiquitous—the architect and author doesn’t identify the demographics of the community about which she’s being paid by the WSJ to speak representatively, although in her very first sentence she does say “most of us,” so we are led to believe she is speaking for “the masses,” or at least the majority opinion of WSJ readers. (The WSJ is supposed to be a news-reporting entity, not a club.) But does “most of us” include members of, say, the Black or Hispanic populations? Are we to believe that this is how they, too, are going to live in the future? In speculating on a subject such as the “house of the future,” one ought to be a little more specific about the expected inhabitants’ demographics. Whose “house of the future” are we reading about? When it comes to home building and houses in general, one “size” doesn’t fit all. It never has and it’s safe to say it never will, even in “the house of the future.”
I have to mention the ethnic-diversity point because, in making my latest book, in thoroughly exploring the history of “green” residential architecture in Calif, I haven’t been able to find, or have even heard about, a single Black or Latino owner or in-progress client of an architect-designed “green” home. That’s a deeply disturbing statistic. Not a single one. Ethnic diversity—wow; I won’t bother to go into how generally invisible Blacks and Latinos are in the pages of architecture books or in the shelter magazines, such as in Dwell and Architectural Digest and Elle Decor.
And for Susanka to suggest that the practice of site-built construction is on its way toward obsolescence and that, in its place, those of us who can afford a new house will get (much less even welcome) factory-made assembly-line architecture is quite the reach, a gross oversimplification of a gigantic and endlessly complex industry and a very personal subject for human beings. And her comment that the house will be “a place for assessing the world around us.” She’s getting paid to offer this “wisdom?” With wireless Internet and 42″-wide TVs present even in low-income housing situations, has there been a time recently, or even since the days of Walter Cronkite, when the home wasn’t the principal perch from which we observed and evaluated the world around us? For those of us out of school, where else would such activity happen? At work?
All this talk about the house of the future… So what are we going to do with all the existing houses, the houses of the past, the defuncts conceived according to “antiquated” practices?
Meanwhile, in the other article, there’s Tony Fadell’s prediction of a new green nomadic housing phenomenon, one in which gasoline and jet-fuel prices and the attendant environmental effects miraculously have no bearing worth mentioning and where accessibility design practices and eco-focused tech that’s been available since the 70s finally conquers resistance to cost and sees widespread popular adoption. His is a far-removed first-class-seats-only viewpoint, one that could only stem from an experience marked by considerable privilege—well, that of a millionaire (or is it billionaire?), right?
Let me go out on a limb, as these writers so boldly have, and say that now and in at least what I consider to be the foreseeable future, here in the “mainstream,” the rest of us working folks, especially ones with families, will continue to reside close to where the work is, and in the preexisting housing (some of it quite attractive and spatially suitable and intelligent even) that fits our income brackets.
Sorry, Tony, not everyone has Google money and can afford—or would want—to live like an itinerant Trustafarian.
This house-of-the-future talk is not “news,” but rather yet another unwanted dose of the same stale old concoction. It’s a heavy stone that hasn’t come upon a wall substantial enough to stop its roll.
In effect, the house of the future is part of the classic “Architecture for everyone” fairytale. It’s for you too, really it is…so long as you’re rich enough.