The Place We Live Now
A curator, an architect, and a sociologist look homeward at the dawn of a new century and a new economy
Cindy Coleman -- Interior Design, 6/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
While part of everyday vocabulary, the word home embodies a rather ambiguous concept. It can indicate a dwelling, a shelter or haven, a hearth, a land of origin, or a particular person's place of belonging. And even those meanings are mutable. According to Terence Riley, chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and author of The Un-Private House, our idea of home is relatively new. "The Puritan's perception of home was of a little church within the larger church and an incubator for raising children," says Riley. "Home as we know it today is a 19th-century invention set out to perform as a microcosm of society."
In the early the 1920s, Le Corbusier's ideas about architecture meeting the demands of the industrial era led him to develop a purist theory of building, and his Towards a New Architecture famously described the house as a "machine for living in." From '45 to '66, Arts & Architecture magazine's Case Study House program was instrumental in creating the California lifestyle.
Most denizens of the 20th century, however, made more mainstream assumptions about the physical attributes that made a home a home. Homes were one-function-fits-all, and inhabitants adapted their behavior to their physical space. People lived in living rooms and dined in dining rooms. In addition, thoughts of home typically embraced security, privacy, and the ability to raise a family.
These issues are still crucial to the ways that 21st-century homes respond to the diversity of our lives, both physically and emotionally. We're concerned about working effectively at home, receiving and transmitting data—and how this differs from a time when radio, telephone, and television were the main intrusions from the external world, all relatively easy to control and turn off. Now the public doesn't necessarily have to take the form of a live body to enter family space. "The home has become a transparent and permeable medium for images, sounds, text, and data. The ascendancy of digital technologies has had an important effect on space and is truly becoming a catalyst for design innovation and experimentation," says Riley. For example, Gisue Hariri and Mojgan Hariri's Digital/House prototype consists of factory-made rooms that "plug in" to a structural core whose surfaces are "smart skins," capable of receiving and transmitting information. The architects are not simply enhancing a traditional house digitally, but rather redefining the concept of home.
In a concurrent development, issues of privacy have changed. "Boundaries appear to be slightly looser today. There is a greater sense of permissiveness about interaction," says Riley. He observes, though, that families who live in wide-open spaces frequently reserve specific areas as refuges: a garden, a bedroom suite, bathrooms equipped with soaking tubs.
There's also the cycle of filling a house with children, then watching them leave—despite the fact that 21st-century families don't necessarily look like the families we grew up in. There may be two Dads, two Moms, or one Grandmother. A single mother, a single father, or even a sibling can be at the helm. Some homes are for people who live alone or for elderly people who perhaps shouldn't live alone. Scandinavian parents of grown children often withdraw to a separate part of the house, ceding most of the space to the next generation. This way, they can help to raise the grandchildren while remaining within easy reach of support themselves.
Naomi Pollock, an architect who writes about design in Japan, recently contributed to the Chicago Tribune's series Finding Sanctuary, which examines how families around the globe create refuges. According to Pollock, the Japanese are expert at fulfilling their desire for a home secluded from the world at large. "Because of the expensive, limited amount of land available, homes in Japan tend to be well edited to accommodate the family's most basic needs, and those needs are more inwardly focused," observes Pollock. Courtyards, enclosed gardens, and windows placed out of the public's direct line of vision allow inhabitants to feel protected without isolating them from nature and their surroundings.
According to sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng, author of Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries Through Everyday Life, "Our lives are more fragmented than in the past, and there are times when public and private activities are not compatible. That is the root of the struggle. It's about establishing dynamic boundaries, so that the interior of the home can directly respond to the activities and needs of an individual family." In other words, the ideal home is ideal only when it is both elastic and custom-fit.