The House of the Future: Mediating Open Enclosures

The House of the Future: Mediating Open Enclosures

Sarah Thorne, Carleton University:

Peer-reviewed by: Jon Bath, University of Saskatchewan; Christine McWebb, University of Waterloo.

Abstract / Résumé

Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis and digital media studies, this paper explores the radical disconnect between the home as an object of desire and the house as the space in which the fantasy of home is staged. This paper examines how both digital and physical spaces inform one another and transform the interior and exterior boundaries of the house.

S’appuyant sur les études de psycho-analyse de Lacan et de médias numériques, cet essai explore le conflit radical entre le chez-soi comme objet de désir et la maison comme l’espace dans lequel le chez-soi de rêve est aménagé. Cet essai examine comment les espaces à la fois numériques et physiques s’informent mutuellement et transforment les limites intérieures et extérieures de la maison.


Technology, home, house, psychoanalysis, architecture, digital media


The terms house and home are nearly always interchangeable. Yet there exists a hostility underpinning the relationship between the two that emerges when one attempts to manifest the house as a home. Home is both the place to which one returns each day, and simultaneously a fantasmatic space infused with the past and often projected into the future. In reality, however, these two dimensions (the physical and the fantasmatic) never intersect: the house that one calls home is only ever a distant approximation of its fantasmatic counterpart. If the home is a purely fantasmatic object of our desire, then the house is that physical space on which this fantasy is staged, and through which we attempt to realise our desire for home by manipulating its aesthetic and interior configuration. We are incessant in our attempts to traverse this gap by renovating, accessorising, and reorganising our space in an effort to make manifest the impossible home of our desire. Yet, such efforts are incapable of producing the sense of homeliness that one imagines, as there always persists a remainder, some thing, which brings to the fore this gap. It is precisely for this reason that architecture, literature, and philosophy have ceaselessly explored the notion of home: its walls analysed, torn down, and rebuilt again and again. In our work, and at the end of the day, we are forever returning to the home; and yet, in a certain way, we never arrive.

In rethinking the ties between happiness and civilisation, Freud proposes in Civilization and Its Discontents that "the dwelling-house was a substitute for the mother's womb, the first lodging, for which in all likelihood man still longs, and in which he was safe and felt at ease" (1989, 737). Beginning with Freud's assertion here allows for a more dynamic and somewhat polemic perspective of the home, for what Freud suggests here is truly quite radical. Opposing the conventional view of the house as foremost a shelter that protects one "against the violence of the forces of nature" (Freud 1989, 737), he argues that the origin of the house is a consequence of loss. The separation from this originary home, the womb, not only signifies one's irrevocable exile from home, but it is around this very loss that the house itself is structured.

The house begins with an absence, a hole around which it quickly takes shape, containing and concealing the impossible home at its centre. It is this very impossibility that sets desire into motion: the home is Lacan's objet a, the object always just out of reach that excites our desire. As such, it guarantees that the house is much more than a mere utility or barrier against the extremities of the outside; it necessitates that architecture be aesthetic as well as utilitarian.

In order to better illustrate the relationship of the home to the house, consider Lacan's example of courtly love. In the tradition of courtly love, a woman is taken by a lover as the object of a kind of flattery and devotion that, rather than highlighting her personal attributes, makes it appear that all courters are "praising the same person" (1988, 26). Yet, if a woman is not pursued for her unique characteristics, one must ask, as Lacan does: "what was the exact role played by creatures of flesh and blood who were indeed involved in the matter?" (1988, 126). The response can only be that in this fantasy, not only are women reduced to an object defined by men, but more radically, "woman," as such, "does not exist" (1998, 7). What is intended in this statement is that, as an object of patriarchal fantasy, there is no signifier to represent "Woman" (Fink 1995, 115). In other words, the lady of courtly love does not exist beyond her symbolical representation: the praise of her courters is not directed at a "Woman."

We are confronted with an analogous problem when we try to manifest the house as a home: the house represents our attempt to both make manifest our desire for home and to mask the fact that the home does not exist. One's incessant reorganisation and renovation of the house not only serves to make the house more "homely," but also simultaneously conceals the fact that achieving such an aim is impossible by leaving open the possibility that one would be able to obtain the ideal home if only some constraint or obstacle were removed; for instance, perhaps if this chair were relocated to another corner, or the walls painted a different colour, then one would feel a little more at home in one's house. This counterintuitive maneuver is necessary for the reason that desire itself must never be fully satisfied. Attaining the desired object entails the destruction of that desire. To truly realise one's desire to return home (i.e., the desire to return to the womb) would in fact be quite horrifying: one need only to consider the connotations of the colloquialism "be careful what you wish for" to reveal the abject quality of one's desire. Not only would an actual manifestation of this desire produce horror, but even an analogous experience of the safety and security provided by the womb would produce its own kind of smothering and claustrophobic horror. As an example, one might imagine the feeling of cabin fever that is produced when contained in a single space for much too long.

Despite our confrontations with the problematic nature of our desire, we are able to persist in the pursuit of this fantasy because we are able to endlessly manipulate our environment to sustain its possibility. Nevertheless, the mask that we apply to conceal the impossibility of home is always insufficient. Consider, for instance, the aesthetic of the Victorian-era homes that emphasised tradition and history through ornate decoration. By contemporary standards, these cluttered and congested houses have become emblematic of the haunted house.

In response to the Victorian aesthetic, Modernist architects intended to liberate the house and its occupants from the burden of the past through a new aesthetic that was both stark and, most importantly, utilitarian. For Le Corbusier, the house is a machine for living in:

If we eliminate from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the house, and look at the question from a critical and objective point of view, we shall arrive at the "House-Machine," the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful. (1986, 6-7)

However, Le Corbusier's Les Quartiers Modern Fruges, constructed on the outskirts of Bordeaux in 1925, was detested by its occupants. The houses built as a part of this project were intended to solve the problem of producing low-cost housing by creating affordable living spaces that could be mass produced. Le Corbusier, however, had fully anticipated that the workers would not receive his architectural style with enthusiasm; as he wrote: "[l]et us have no illusions. The workers... will be horrified by our houses. They will call them boxes" (qtd. in Teige 2002, 68). Yet, the reaction of the workers was not simply critical, but also constructive. As Lefebvre describes:

Instead of installing themselves in their plastic containers, instead of adapting to them and living in them "passively," they decided that as far as possible they were going to live "actively." In doing so they showed what living in a house really is: an activity... What did they add? Their needs. They created distinctions... They built a differentiated social cluster. (qtd. in Milgram 2008, 275)

The workers did not begrudgingly accept the houses they had been given, but instead radically transformed the structures into more homely houses. In his design, Le Corbusier thought only of the House-Machine and its needs for efficiency, perhaps hoping that its occupants would concede to his vision.

Such attempts to produce a more "homely" home have failed because these efforts only address the symptoms of a much more deeply rooted issue. Recent trends in architecture and technology, however, are radically altering our relation to the house. Digital media technologies have introduced new virtual spaces that defy our traditional understanding of the boundary between interior and exterior spaces. In Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, Beatriz Colomina proposes that "[t]he house is now a media centre, a reality that will forever transform our understanding of both public and private" (1996, 210). As new digital media technologies increasingly saturate the home, the necessity of analysing the impact of these technologies becomes all the more urgent. Earlier media, such as television and radio, naturalised the permeation of the outside (the public) into the home, which prompted concerns about the possible negative effects of extended exposure to these media. Although these concerns still resonate today, more recent digital media technologies have transformed the presence of media in the home into a two-way process. Whereas older media generally offered a one-way transmission of programmed broadcasts to their audience, new digital media have since revolutionised this linear transmission into a dynamic, two-way exchange between users. Consequently, the concern is not only that there is too much "outside" on the inside, but now the inside has begun to seep into the outside, and as a result, the walls of the house have become more porous.

The desire to integrate technologies into the house to create a fully automated home has been a fundamental fantasy of Western society since the postwar era. The "House of the Future" remains a recurring motif in popular culture: featured in works of science fiction, and even theme park attractions, such as Disney's Tomorrowland. A typical example of this house can be seen in the short film and advertisement "Leave it to ROLL-OH" produced by Handy (Jam) Organization in 1940. The film describes all of the "thinking machines" to be found around the modern house: the kettle and toaster that are programmed to prepare food to perfection, and the "Fido-Feeder," a food dish with a timer to ensure that the family dog is fed on time. Here, the housewife enjoys more free time thanks to her new robot (commanded by a switchboard control panel) that carries out various tasks around the house, such as "wash dishes,""get hat,""fix furnace," and when all is done, she can tell it to "scram!" The robot even comes equipped with vacuum feet and can-opener hands. With the aid of each of these service robots, one imagines that one would be liberated from the burdensome and mundane tasks of modern living and free to better enjoy one's life. Although we may not yet have our own "ROLL-OH" robot, there have been many significant developments aimed at improving our daily lives—though one often still groans at the thought of unloading the dishwasher, or the mounds of laundry looming in the hamper.

Digital technologies continue to indulge and reimagine the fantasy of home in a variety of ways. The discourse used to navigate devices and virtual worlds often circles around the notion of home. Internet browsers have home pages, cell phones and tablets have home buttons, and many videogames provide users with their own virtual home, used to orient the player in the game. Games such as The Sims (2000), Animal Crossing (2001), Minecraft (2011), and numerous others, enable or require users to construct and maintain a house as part of gameplay. The Sims, in particular, offers users endless possibilities for constructing and furnishing their own virtual house. As Juul writes in "Without a Goal: On Open and Expressive Games," in The Sims, players buy "not the optimal chair, but a beautiful chair" (2008, 192). Through expansions, DLC, mods, cheat codes, user-generated content, and add-ons, users are limited only by their imagination and willingness to seek out or create custom designs and artefacts for their house.

Yet, these digital technologies do more than re-stage our fantasies in a space beyond the financial and spatial limits of the real world. New devices and apps are constantly developed that aim to make our physical houses smarter (i.e. digital); for instance, services like Rogers' "Smart Home Monitoring," or smartphone apps that enable users to control lighting, temperature, and other appliances (Rogers n.d.). Microsoft Research (n.d.) is currently developing an operating system for the house (HomeOS) that will network devices and appliances in an effort to automate domestic activities and regulate similar features to those listed above. Yet, the release of this project to consumers is hindered by issues of interoperability between software, devices, and appliances.

In part, the pursuit of these science fiction fantasies is appealing because they allow us to project our desires into the future where we can believe that we will eventually meet up with them, rather than having to accept that fulfilling our desire is impossible. Yet, as these technologies increasingly become a part of one's everyday life, many have become sceptical about whether these devices will live up to the promises of the fantasy. As Freud remarks in Civilization and Its Discontents, "[i]t seems certain that we do not feel comfortable in our present-day civilization, but it is very difficult to form an opinion whether and in what degree men of an earlier age felt happier" (1989, 736). This sentiment is often shared when one considers the achievements of modern technology. In spite of the nostalgia that one may have for the past, or anticipation for the future, it is impossible to determine whether an earlier (or future) era would be preferable to the present. Perhaps what one can extract from such a reflection is that there always persists a certain level of discomfort in our relationship to technology.

Although new digital technologies do not overcome this discomfort, they have changed how we interact and engage with the world. Users are now able to access a wealth of information that was heretofore unimaginable. Developments in these new technologies are quickly changing our perspective of the world in a way comparable only to viewing those first images available of the Earth. In an article about the photo "Earthrise" (1968; see Connor 2009), Steve Conner writes that:

Sir Fred Hoyle, the great British cosmologist, rightly predicted in 1948 that the first images of Earth from space would change forever our view of our own planet. "Earthrise" encapsulated the fragility of a place that seems so immense to the people who live there, but so tiny when viewed from the relatively short distance of its natural satellite. (2009)

The first images of the Earth highlighted not only the uniqueness of our planet, but also its isolation and our reliance on its resources, which consequently inspired a newfound concern for the welfare of the environment. If seeing the Earth for the first time made us realise how seemingly insignificant we are in the grand scale of our galaxy, new technological developments that provide an even more scrutinising perspective of our world will no doubt have significant consequences of their own. Consider, for example, the relatively recent digital imaging technology provided by Google's satellite and street view, which allows users to quickly and easily navigate the whole of the globe in great detail. When using such visualisation tools, one is struck by the compactness and vulnerability of all that is in view.

Exploring the experience of these digital renderings of the Earth, digital artist Jenny Odell writes that "[t]he view from a satellite is not a human one, nor is it one we were ever really meant to see. But it is precisely from this inhuman point of view that we are able to read our own humanity, in all of its tiny, reliable and repetitive marks upon the face of the earth" (Odell 2009-2011a). Odell's artwork incorporates images taken from Google maps, as well as its satellite and street view, into her digital artwork. In Satellite Collections, Odell's work features collages consisting of pixelated images of artefacts that she has collected and cut out from Google's satellite view, each work themed according to a specific object, such as nuclear cooling towers, airplanes, waterslide configurations, and empty parking lots. What is most impressive about her work is that by gathering these ordinary objects of the landscape together, one begins to realise the invasiveness of this technology. That one can survey cities with such detail that one can seek out every basketball court in Manhattan is a little unsettling, and demonstrates the power of this inhuman perspective to blur what were once the boundaries between public and private, inside and out; for example, the fences that once obscured the contents of a property are now subverted by this top-down perspective.

Yet, the stream of information available online not only brings the world into one's house, but also enables one to enter into and interact with these spaces in a way that was once only possible through physical travel. In another project titled Travel by Approximation: a Virtual Road Trip (2009-2010b), Odell tests the potential for Google's street view to function as a means for exploring the world as a virtual space: to experience the outside from the inside. In its print version, Travel by Approximation is a travel journal that depicts an account of a fifty-five day road trip across America to places Odell had never been. Using countless online resources, Odell creates a travel narrative, scrapbook, and video log of her (virtual) adventure, including hundreds of photoshopped images of her visiting famous destinations, such as the Grand Canyon. Furthermore, Odell planned her virtual vacation according to the parameters of any real road trip—ensuring that the distance travelled and the hours driven for each day were restricted to a realistic and practical timeframe. Describing her experience, Odell states that "the feelings of discovery, novelty, fear, and exhilaration that I encountered along the way were as real as any I have ever had. At the end of a virtual experience of real places, I am left with real memories of virtual experiences" (Odell 2010).

What Odell's project best highlights is not that a virtual adventure is comparable to an experience of a physical space, but that it is nevertheless a kind of valid and memorable experience of its own. As cities become more congested and available space begins to shrink, these technologies provide a nearly limitless playground for connecting with family and friends, and exploring new spaces and places. The creation of virtual spaces is no doubt one of the most significant contributions to the transformation of the house into a media centre. The internet is an open window that extends the interior of the house beyond and in defiance of its physical exterior. However, it is uncertain if these virtual worlds can serve as proper compensation for the encroachment of the city on one's physical space. If there is any evidence to support the possibility of virtual space supplementing our need for physical space, it is in the re-emergence of the "small house movement," which coincided with increased access to the internet. This interest in developing smaller houses is an indication that our perception of the house and its function is shifting.

The small house movement is inspired by the work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. His work served as a cost-effective means of producing houses in the war and postwar era. For Wright, the house was first and foremost "a livable interior space" (qtd. in Lind 1994, 13) that, despite its small size, "gave their owners sense of dignity and pride in their surroundings" (Lind 1994, 13). Wright's project, however, would ultimately fail and large suburban houses would come to dominate the landscape instead of Wright's own designs, which were characterised by their economic size, incorporation of organic materials, and creation of open living spaces (Lind 1994, 15). The small house movement saw resurgence in the late nineties as a response to renewed economic and environmental concerns, and has maintained steady interest since (in addition to the small house movement, other analogous theories of architecture emerged in the nineties that emphasised the creation of more flexible and adaptable buildings; see Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built [1995]). The small house movement emphasises using space qualitatively rather than quantitatively, to create efficient and economical spaces, unlike the oversized suburban houses that are designed not with the intention of being homely, but to impress and display social status. Examples of the implementation of this model can be found all over the world, as shown in Kirsten Dirksen's documentary We the Tiny House People (2012).

The architectural design of small houses reflects a clear understanding and consideration of not only the physical, but also psychological need for space. Because every inch of these small houses is significant, the design process is highly innovative and technical. Take for example the recently completed "House in Takadanobaba" by Florian Busch Architects (2011). This particular house was designed to fit in a confined space between two buildings, leaving a width of only 4.7 metres for its construction. In order to make the house appear more spacious, the building was modeled after the folding of a piece of paper, and used curtains to partition space to create privacy as needed. In describing this project, the architects state that the house is designed based on an "architecture of the exterior that claims the space around it by extending beyond its limits... The House in Takadanobaba is a departure from understanding housing as enclosing: the urban exterior continues in an open fold of fluidly interconnected spaces for living in the interior of the exterior" (Florian Busch Architects 2011). The discourse used by the architects to explain their design reveals a very similar logic of the blurring of the boundaries between inside and outside that has been discussed thus far in relation to technologies in the house.

When confronted with a diminishing physical space, one must reconsider conventional ways of thinking about space and re-evaluate how that space is used. The small house movement has contributed numerous innovations to the design of interior and exterior spaces. Unlike the earlier architectural approaches that emphasised aesthetics, the architects of the small house movement aim to construct a house that works with spatial limitations and is tailored to and anticipates the needs of its occupants. Its design does not simply regulate the mediation of the interior and exterior, but it redefines and plays with these very boundaries; in doing so, it fundamentally alters our understanding of the house as an enclosure and barrier against the outside. This is not to suggest that small houses necessarily elude uncanniness altogether, but that these small houses avoid the usual pitfalls of being too self-contained (Victorian), or too dehumanising (Modernist), by reframing the problem of the house and home as one of boundaries and not aesthetics. Aesthetic approaches miss the point: the gap between house and home can never be fully masked—each deception will necessarily fail—the repressed will always return. Instead, one must consider the very boundaries that constitute the relationship between inside and outside, public and private. By resisting the envious desire for oversized houses, and instead limiting space to realistic necessity, the architects of small houses must necessarily appeal to the occupants of the house in order to form a space that is truly functional, thereby personalising each house. In the end, rather than having a house that signifies affluence, one is left with a house that, first and foremost, is intended to be lived-in.

The construction of a house as a space that defies its exterior boundaries—that is no longer viewed an enclosure—is unmistakably analogous to Colomina's vision of the house as a media centre. Both the technologisation of the house and the small house movement share the same vision of a house as a space with pliable and porous boundaries. What remains uncertain, however, is whether the depletion of physical space is connected to the emergence of an expanding virtual world, and if is it desirable, or even possible, for the virtual to supplement and compensate for the limitations placed of our physical space. As Jenny Odell's projects demonstrate, new digital technologies challenge how we perceive and interact with the world through inhuman and prosthetic perspectives. By purposefully blurring the distinction between the interior and exterior spaces, the small house movement acknowledges the always already illusory nature of these boundaries and suggests a new vision for what it means to be at home in the house of the future.

Following from this analysis, one can imagine that the House of the Future will be a house that is not only increasingly networked with our devices, but itself participatory in a larger digital network. Thinking of the house in this way necessitates an acknowledgement of gap that exists between house and home. If the house itself is no longer constructed as a simple, physical enclosure, it makes sense that home must be equally difficult to pin down, and therefore the two are less likely to be conflated. Continuing with the Freudo-Lacanian analysis of home with which this paper started, this transition from aesthetic approaches to the unhomely, to addressing the play between the boundaries of inside and outside, signifies a break from our fixation on the Imaginary. One might compare this imaginary relation to Lacan's mirror stage, which illustrates the formation of a child's ego through his encounter with his reflection (as mediated by the mirror and assertions made by the parents). This formation of subject, however, always entails a gap between the subject that one believes oneself to be, and how one is perceived by others; like house and home, these two facets cannot be reconciled. The subject, like the house, becomes the site of empty representations, none of which ever completely capture the subject. It is perhaps because of this very parallel between the home and subject that we are so passionate about our houses—the house, insofar as we construct it, is meant to reflect ourselves in a certain way.

Yet, this transition away from aesthetic approaches may be indicative that we have taken a step forward in the analytic process of resolving this neurotic relation to the house by recognising the house as but a mask concealing a gap. This is not to say that we will accept the impossibility of the fantasy and become indifferent to the aesthetics of the house, but that a new relation to the house (to desire) must be formed as a result of the digital intervention. In her paper "'Babe' and the End of Analysis," a reading of Chris Noonan's film Babe, Anna Shane condenses Lacan's account of the end of analysis:

Lacan says very interesting, but seemingly mysterious things about the end of analysis. He tells us that at the end of analysis, you must cross your fantasm. He says that at the end of analysis the subject is left with depression and anxiety, because there has been a fall of the ideal image that no longer serves the subject. The subject finds him or herself between two deaths. The subject is then left to redistribute his or her drives. At the end of analysis, there is a need to become reinvested in the world. (1997)

When confronted with the realisation that the object of one's desire does not exist, one can respond by accepting this destiny or fleeing from this knowledge and reconstituting one's desire in a new image and repeat the trauma (as the Modernist architects had done in response to Victorian aesthetics).

Instead of concealing the gap at the heart of the house, by acknowledging this gap and exploring its blurred boundaries, the house can be reconstituted as a metaphor for home. Appropriating Shane's work on the movie Babe, the house is free to "be whatever [it] likes, as long as [it] knows [it] isn't" (1997). Anthony Vidler arrives at a similar analysis in his text The Architectural Uncanny:

No longer are we fooled by the promise of the house as a bubble-container that frees its human contents from the vicissitudes of external environment: neither the Dymaxion dome nor the spacesuit reflects the infinite permeability assumed by the contemporary skin, or the interchangeability of body part and technical replacement, or the spatio-mental reconstruction implied by the cyberspace. This complex and impure system of existence, indeed, offers neither the luminous promise of technological utopia nor the dark hell of its opposite. (1992, 148)

The house, as a metaphor, entails the knowledge that it is not home, and as such, its aesthetics no longer structure our relationship to the house. This point could only have been reached by exploring the transformative effects of digital technologies in the house. The ability to play with the boundaries of real and virtual space made it possible for the re-emergence of the small house movement. Perhaps we are more amendable to the notion of living in a small space because, in a certain way, it is not so small after all.

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